Lethe

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Chapter 24

Chapter 24: The Healing

The lights are coming over the hill, but I’m too scared to move. The snake is right there in front of me, coiled in the clay. I stand on the stump. It wobbles and I scrape my head against the eaves before I can steady myself with a fistful of thatch.

If I had the ax I left inside I could throw it and still have another weapon. The door’s only a few steps away, but I can’t step down because of the damned snake. No creature in the known universe disturbs me more. My worst nightmares feature them by the hundreds.

The thick brush on the hillside has consumed most of the approaching glow but I can still track its progress by the faint wash of light beneath the canopy. From what I can tell, there is only one torch. But that could mean a single Collector or a single torch bearer leading a band of them.

If a solo Collector confronts me, I’m confident now that I can at least pretend to make a stand, as long as there are no projectile weapons involved. If he or she speaks English I will taking a shot at reasoning with them. I can explain to them that Sabonis still has his Shade and no, they can’t have it yet, reminding them of course, in case they didn’t already know, that I am the special interest of a Primentor named Victoria Paxson and not to be harmed.

If arrows start to fly, it’s hard for me to see how I wouldn’t hop off the stump and make a dash for the hills, snake or no snake.

The glow brightens and descends. By now they should have reached the path leading up from the spring. I hear no footsteps yet, and when the glow seeps through the scrub and into the clearing, I see why.

It’s Bianca. The torch was actually her body, aglow.

I stare like a doe frozen in headlights. I relax my grip on the spear. The strictures gripping my lungs let loose.

“I’m so relieved it’s you,” I say. “You have no idea.”

Bianca doesn’t say a thing. Her expression is flat and sober as she strides and glides across the compound.

“Careful, there’s a … a snake!” A hunk of thatch rips free in my hand and I almost wobble off the stump.

Bianca glances down and flips her fingers at the creature in a brushing off motion.

“Shoo! Shoo!”

The snake strikes at her, but skips off her impervious calf. She nudges it with her bare foot. It slithers off, back into the scrub.

She smiles sadly at me, and studies me with those big eyes. The night lends nuance to her inner light, conferring more contrast and definition to her pearly features and accentuating her facial contours. I am stunned by how much more human she seems in the dark.

“I presume you’re not fond of vipers.”

“Nope,” I say, descending off the stump.

“I don’t mind them. When I was little, before we moved to London and we lived in the country, I kept a salamander as a pet.”

“I don’t mind salamanders,” I say. “At least they have legs. But snakes…?”

Bianca gives me the gravest look. “How is he?”

“Not good and getting worse from the sounds of it.”

“He’s inside?”

I nod.

She strides into the hut and around the partition. I follow after her, drawn to her glow like a moth.

Sabonis lies half on, half off his bed. His mouth hangs slack with drool on his chin. A gurgling emanates from deep in his throat.

“He’s damaged,” Bianca says, feathering her fingers over the broken arrow shaft. She pinches the wick of a candle. It flares into life. She notices my amazement.

“Oh, it’s nothing, just the excite of some electrons.”

She peers into his throat, the glow of her face illuminating his tonsils.

“Did he drown as well?” says Bianca.

“Not sure,” I say. “I mean, we were both in the water, but—”

“What about his Shade?” she says. “How loose did it get?”

“Loose?”

“Any limbs become detached or misaligned?”

“Misaligned? His whole damn Shade was out, walking around, talking to me.”

“Oh dear,” says Bianca. “That’s not good.” She tilts her head skyward and her chest heaves with a sigh. “Oh Marco, what have you done to yourself this time?”

“Done? This wasn’t his fault.”

“No?”

“It was those … Collectors.”

“Fa-ci-li-ta-tors,” says Bianca, enunciating carefully. “And whose fault is it they came after him?”

“Um … mine?”

My answer, not what she was expecting, makes her pause.

“True enough. In part. But such risks are intrinsic to Marco’s existence, given who he is and what he does. To them he is one of the Unfettered Ones. Your descending with him certainly didn’t help his reputation.”

Bianca stoops over Sabonis’ chest and studies the arrow shaft. Deftly, she grips the shaft with one hand and plunges her other hand deep into his shoulder. With a twist and a tug the arrowhead releases and she dashes it to the floor. A tap of her finger cauterizes the wound and stems any residual bleeding.

Bianca caresses Sabonis’ face, and lifts each eyelid gently. “His Shade is present,” she says. “But barely connecting.”

My eyes linger on Bianca’s body in a way they hadn’t before. I have gotten over the strangeness of her form, and can now appreciate her femininity: nipples like etched glass, a pubic delta clothed in fine glass wool. Her curves are sleek and subtle, her breasts pert and perfect. I felt an oddly familiar stirring in my groin, although the tension has shifted to unfamiliar places.

My reaction embarrasses me. I move away, retreating behind the partition to compose myself. I have discovered yet another surprising and disturbing tidbit about Lethe and its conservation of bodily functions. Sexuality persists.

I peer back around the partition. Bianca has climbed on the mattress and is straddling Sabonis between her legs. After a frisson of voyeuristic shock, I see that her act is not sexual. Her fingers penetrate his skin, kneading and knitting his Shade back together with the flesh, working along the length of his arm, into his chest and down the other arm. Her body has lost its glow and taken on a muddier complexion, as if she has passed some of her light to him. She is healing him, restoring his spirit to his body.

She notices me watching and locks onto my gaze.

“Never mention to anyone that you saw me do this. Understand? It is not allowed.”

“Who would I tell? I mean, of course. No. I won’t say a word.”

I withdraw behind the partition and settle into the chair by the post. The ax and machete are still there. I left the spear outside, but with Bianca here, weapons are moot. I fear no evil in her presence. I hope my confidence in her is warranted.

I listen to Bianca coo to Sabonis like a lover. I can make out no words, but I know pillow talk when I hear it. An unexpected envy overcomes me. I’m not jealous of Bianca or Sabonis, but of what they have with each other. Bianca: someone to worry about. Sabonis: someone to look out and care for him. I have that too with Gina. Had. But Bianca and Sabonis have it in the here and now, not isolated across time and spectral planes.

I don’t know how many days it has been since I felt Gina’s embrace. We have been apart before, but now we have the threat of eternity separating us. Both of us have nothing but memories to sustain us. This realization, delayed by latent denial, just destroys me.

I conjure her image across the sofa from me the night before I died. Her laughing eyes with the youthful crinkles in their corners. A delicate doll’s chin. Those silly bangs. And the sparse freckles across her cheekbones and bridge of her nose.

I wonder how long it will take for this image to fade, for Gina to become but an abstract entity, an idea without a face. To lose the memory of how she looked will be like dying another death.

It hits me like a truck. I understand now all that I have lost. I slump off the chair and onto the floor in a weeping, blubbering mess.

“Daniel? Is everything alright over there?”

I can’t answer. I am shaking too much.

“Daniel!”

“I’m … okay,” I manage to squeeze out, as my teardrops make mini mud puddles on the dirt floor.
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