My voice breaks, falters, and then dies, and I discover I have spent it wailing into the bottomless face of annihilation.
My torment isn’t a physical, not that of torn flesh or ache. It’s deeper than those things, like a broken heart. If pain is a body saying something’s wrong, then this wrong defiles my nature beyond corporeal death. Every part of me cries out in ceaseless, turning, helpless panic, reaching for what can no longer be grasped.
People enter the room. They’re fungible – hollow clay shapes crumble beneath my begging hands to be replaced, and again. I beseech them to stay. I welcome their touch, but those hands that grip me come apart, dissolve, disperse, and die.
The white moves in me as a living thing apart from myself, an ancient thing, hated, awful, and growing stronger with every crack and mar realized. Light whirls in gusts behind the empty faces and down the reaching hands, it crawls in the stone of the walls, and rushes in me like a river.
When no bodies remain to break I writhe and ache, rasp impotence into the echoing chamber, and throw my bare knuckles against a floor that gives way in showers of splintered stone.
Sitting on my heels and sobbing doesn’t ease the pain. Though there’s a catharsis in the shaking of my body and the tears from my eyes, it’s too little.
It never relents, so I do. I give up. All will leaves me. When the floor holds me, it is because I have lost the will to break it.
Human shaped memories come around me, tangled snarls begging to be rent but shining in other colors also – shells full of seething, overlapping scenes. Humans. Not hollow. They approach cautiously to stand in a circle, exchanging words that paint ripples of light between them.
The Heros. The golden bowl matters. I look for it, but amid the worming cracks I can barely distinguish my own body from the corpses and cut stone.
Someone speaks a word and a ripple of power.
Merciful dark descends.
Cold against my wrists. I’m hanging from manacles. Carved wood, fraught with the snarl of weakness spreads a floor beneath my knees. I smell opium, sweet and musky. My body aches under the howl of ongoing agony in my eyes and heart. Why won’t it stop?
I raise a weary neck and try to see. The curved walls of Bitter Flower’s upper level stretch away to my right and left, defined by the snarling language of their eventual death. Those same lines describe Maya’s altar-throne to my left, and the stick figure corpse that once was Jenny stretched at its feet, hollow now and still.
It’s all flaws, curling around themselves. Marred wall, flesh and stone, wind and life, it’s all crouched waiting for time to take its course. There is no end to suffering. I wonder if I could strike my own temple and shred my bone and life apart, but when I turn my tearing eyes past the veils of death I see only other flawed folds, peopled by ghosts who are no stronger, but await only another kind of demise.
Men move about in the room. Long haired warriors in a ragtag of torn clothes mutter and shuffle. Rifles lean along the wall near me, most with bayonets affixed. Near them some men sit, loading clips or oiling parts.
Two crouch by Jenny’s body. Their hushed words sound meaningless to me. Near the pit others wait, looking into it and speaking quietly.
One who sits by the throne has thick glasses, barely distinguishable from his face amid the crawl of cracks. Across his knees rests a curved sword. His attention is on me, but I cannot make out the features of a face.
“Sorry,” whispers the bracken shape. The accent on its words is so thickly English, it must be Tellerhorn. There cannot be two such voices in Thailand. “Are you alright?”
I see no reason to answer. He’s betrayed his people, aided Agafya, I shouldn’t have trusted him.
“Mark,” he tries again. “Are you alright?”
Through the pain, I answer: “You taught them to make heros.”
He blinks. “Yes,” he says. “Why is that an accusation? I mean to help you.”
Cracks crawl beneath his skin. A thousand places to strike that would tear him apart like a cobweb. The saber would be useless against me – there’s no place he could hit me that I wouldn’t shatter it.
“Did you teach them to bind the Laughing Girl?”
His death curls in his face.
“I’m not sure what you mean, and I don’t like your tone. What’s gotten into you?”
“The trap they built her, mirrors and chains, was it your idea?” I ask again, forcing the words past too-heavy lips.
His posture shifts, his hand closes on the hilt of the sword in his lap.
“A mirror above and a mirror below, iron to hold, and a peacock feather as bait,” he says. “Did they use the paper charm as well? Yes, I told them. What did they do with it? What have I done?”
“You didn’t see her suffering, Doctor. I hope they made you hurt before you gave them what they wanted. I hope that pain is a comfort to you, when you learn what they did.”
He shifts his grip on the weapon. “Gracious God, they tied up some girl didn’t they. Someone who claimed to be possessed. Was that who was crying? I wanted to help…”
“Pray she forgives you,” I tell him. “If she doesn’t, pray she kills you. If she doesn’t, I will.”
I turn away from him. He tries to talk to me more, but his words are meaningless drivel, safely ignored.
I’m waiting. In the truth I see around me, life is weakness and death is all consuming. I am a broken bag of pain and regret, wrapped around nothing. Giving Maya my memory has freed me to see clearly. The truth is, there’s nothing to trust.
A warm presence presses against my back, the first sensation beside the pain. In my ear, the Laughing Girl singsongs: “They return, oh Sumanus. Agafya has caught the lamed man and they bring the prison with him. Make ready.”
I ask: “If I do as you want, will you end me? Will you give me release from this?”
She answers: “Release is not in me.”
In my twisted second sight, crawling with murder, I see no sign of her, and the touch of her body against my back fades swiftly. I’m alone.
As I have always been.
Then Sylvia returns to Bitter Flower over the cracked and broken door, with Agafya close behind.