Where the Body Does Not Lie

[Silver Honorable Mention in Writers of the Future 37 Q4]

Another child maimed by his mother. Sindrap chewed her lip as she lay a stiff splint beside the fracture and wrapped the left arm, just above the wrist, with a roll of gel-smeared wax tissue. Firm but pliable, the tissue came nearly fresh from the last foraging above ground. Already that supply, packed tight in mud-lined crates at the back of the cave, was practically gone. At this rate, they’d strip the forests bare before the world died.

The boy was woozy with drug and blowing bubbles of snot through his nose. Splint and bandage encased his other arm as well. Likely those fingers would never handle a tool or clasp the hand of a friend. He’d been crying, a steady stream, without making much sound.

So many like him were maimed, broken as the world. A group of these waited in the next chamber, some of them howling as they awaited treatment. Sindrap mourned for them because she knew. All her life she’d endured pain of all kinds, with the one small consolation that her experience with pain sharpened her vision of it.

The assistant brought another boy, this one bleeding from a severe gut wound. Sindrap winked the boy—her second eyelids flashing to grant her a view of intangible painforms. The pain engulfed him in the form of a rippling, succulent blossom. In every fold of the ethereal vision, she saw the truth. The wound was thoroughly septic.

“Upper room,” she said, keeping her tone light. The child would know the meaning of a murmur or somber words, and she could at least offer him the mercy of ignorance. The upper room belonged to the ones who couldn’t be saved, in this time of shortage. Medicines must be reserved for the survivors.

Deeper within the cave system, in guarded rooms, the proven cases of plague languished. Sindrap had sent many parents there after verifying plague-induced attacks: the trauma clung bright and terrible to both a child victim and the parent who inflicted harm. Too often, however, the parents themselves carried no guilt in their stomachs.

“Give him a strip of painsleeper,” Sindrap added. That was one of few things they had in some abundance.

As her assistant took the boy away, a man stepped up. “Sindrap?”

“Yes—oh, kinsman Hinaj! Is the leadership already here?”

“No, I came ahead with a smaller group to help guide preparations for the main party’s arrival. I’ve been grouped with plague investigation at this encampment, and we’d like your counsel for a possible case.”

“I am busy with the children just now…”

“I’ll keep it short.”

She nodded, wary. Her right to determine how and when she worked was hardly respected. It was one thing that chafed her since joining the Tribeless and learning a new way of life. They offered security and stability, but they resented visioners as much as they needed them. Among her first tribe, Sindrap had been honored for visioning painforms. Here, she was equal in name but not in practice.

Hinaj explained, “We’ve taken a confessed murderer. Until the recent blood, she was a peaceful servant to everyone. The victim was a man known to be her friend. Over the past year they often had private meetings with each other to discuss worship traditions. Each was devoted to a different omji-theory, trying to persuade the other to change beliefs. Two days ago they left camp together, and she reentered camp alone from another direction. Afterward she was found with teeth and a severed nose, taken from the victim—that’s how we first knew what she’d done. With the evidence in hand, we had no trouble obtaining her confession.”

“Disputes of faith can kill,” Sindrap said.

“They can. We suspect disagreement was a factor, but plague too is our suspicion.”

“Did you match the evidence to his body?”

Hinaj’s gaze seemed to measure Sindrap. He said, “We have her word.”

“If he’s missing a nose and teeth, that would seem to match him. But you’ll want to know if there is any deception. Say she’s gathered multiple noses and sets of teeth. Matching the tools used to make the wounds is just as important.”

“That’s good counsel. I’m surprised you haven’t spoken of visioning yet.”

“I know visioning is one method among many, and no more foolproof than the others.”

“Yes…so practical. I remember that from when you’ve treated my injuries.”

He seemed more grateful than some. But Sindrap sensed another message behind his words. “Am I the first visioner you consulted?” she asked.


“Have any of them seen the victim?”

“Just one has, but I think now you’ll be the second.”

She frowned and glanced at her assistant, who had reappeared during the conversation with Hinaj. “When do you need my attention?”

“This moment. You’ll be relieved here, and come with me.”

Sindrap dismissed her annoyance that he’d not bothered to say as much at first. She thought she might have passed an implicit interview. Because of Tribeless politics, it was not “practical” to rely too much on visioning. No matter that a visioner could see an act of pain attached to victim, perpetrator, and site of infliction. That ability came from certain hated ancestry: otherworlders, who were conquerors and oppressors from the earliest contact. The Tribeless had in fact fallen together to oppose any semblance of otherworlder evil.

Hinaj led her from the hospitat caves to the defensive perimeter. He spoke briefly with the guards there. One of them fell into step behind Sindrap and Hinaj, slingfire rifle in arms. Such weapons were scarce enough to make good deterrents. Like visioners, slingfires were a valuable import from otherworld that the Tribeless kept in supply despite the unsavory association. Sindrap didn’t know whether to call it hypocrisy or desperation, or if the distinction mattered.

They followed the shores of the small underground lake which bordered on the encampment. The Tribeless here had named this lake Madrakut, meaning hidden. Previous people might have known it by another name, but they’d long since abandoned these caves. Hundreds of lakes sprawled through this vast cave system. Most were interconnected like the tissue of an open heart or brain, riddled with pockets, tubes, and sudden twists. Many small caves had been carved or modified by kindreds who once lived in them. Perhaps in a time before more-malleable shar hardened into stone.

At one side of this enormous underspace, a gaping hole revealed sunlight. That light had been engineered to spread deeper into the caves by polishing surfaces until they gleamed and by carving shallow canals through dry passages.

As they followed the coastline, Sindrap peeked at Hinaj’s pain. The rigors of his recent journey hung over his joints, limbs, and neck. He also carried some faded emotional scars from his past, manifest as prickling antlers at his brow and his gut, but no special resentment for her. Only the typical disgust.

On their way, they passed an overgrown doorway fashioned from interlocking bones. There were a few such mysterious chambers in vicinity of camp. Seeing how Hinaj eyed it, Sindrap wondered what he’d heard since arriving at the encampment. From cursory guesswork—with time and resources limited—the Tribeless believed the chambers were significant to some community centuries ago. The bones hummed with a hidden energy, peaceful, soothing. Indeed, they carried no pain, which was rare; bones had deep memory. Sentries and fishers still used the caves now and again. Children had sometimes explored them, until the night someone entered and disappeared by morning. Then rumor transformed the chambers into lairs of monsters.

After Hinaj had led them through two crossings in a southwesterly direction, Sindrap asked, “Did the killer take you to the infliction site?”

He glanced back at her. “I didn’t tell you where we were going.”

“I only assumed. But my question is relevant to the case.”

“Yes, I am taking you there now. Two Slingers were sparring across the lake. One of them noticed two people enter a cliff cavity above the water and later saw just one of them leaving, at a time that fits the story.”

“That Slinger was not watching closely then?”

“Not so closely, no. More might have happened that she didn’t see.”

“And there are no other witnesses?”

“None except the murderer. She’s under guard at the site now for questioning, and for your inspection. We don’t have the body yet.”

“Ah. You’re looking for it?”

“You will be. Find the body, and do as you’ve suggested. Match the severed nose and so forth, and also look at his pain. You’ll work with the tracker Tulume.”

“Tulume? She’ll hardly need me,” Sindrap remarked. Sindrap had been involved in tracking crimes before, and plague cases more recently, but the request for her expertise varied. Sometimes they wanted her visioning, other times her medical knowledge. Yet she was relieved to be paired with Tulume; that woman respected visioners even as she was respected by all the Tribeless who knew her.

“You think your time is wasted?” Hinaj said.

“That’s not my meaning. Tulume is very capable, but I understand the reason for bringing multiple witnesses to these cases: the more experience we can spread among ourselves, the smarter we can become as prey. Sometimes we shape the facts to fit the fear, but these are pretty…lurid.” She wondered if Hinaj himself might be infected. Coming lately from outside the encampment, he was an unknown vector. Yet the infected usually preferred to act alone rather than seek help. This case had all the right details: a decent person suddenly turned killer, the killing was brutal, accomplished at a distance from the encampment, and of course…there were plague victims all around to have infected her.

In weary horror, Sindrap thought of plague-infected parents drugging or pinning down their children to mutilate them in a deranged act of salvation. Once infected, a person became convinced they alone were healthy, that they alone could cure the people around them by drastic action: amputation, torture. They’d often stop sleeping or eating. In time they would turn frantic, and run raving until they collapsed and died. The plague rarely deviated much from that pattern. And there was no reliable treatment. Nor did they understand its mode of transmission yet; it seemed to crop up at random.

“Does this predator scare you?” said Hinaj.

“I’ve known extensive pain in my life,” she began. “It’s essential to our existence, a mentor for all of us until death comes to silence it. I don’t delight in pain, but I respect it. This plague is, like pain, a powerful message to us. We just have to decipher it in time.”

“You’re not scared enough,” he answered. “Crossing the world lately as we have, we saw how the plague ruined tribes and cities in mere days. The visioners there could hardly speak of what they saw in those places. Even the rest of us sensed the pain crowding over every surface, into every crack. One of them called it the masterwork of a wild performancer.”


“There’s no hope of stopping the plague, unless we could find all the uninfected and seal ourselves into a cave. Even then, who knows? Besides, we have so much to do in the world as long as it lasts.”

“Of course.” Every person spared unnecessary pain was a victory to Sindrap, even as their world died. She had learned pain to minute degree, and she understood that not all was instructive. Some pain strengthened and transformed a person. Some pain just hurt.

Now in shadow, they walked along a tilted shelf of rock low over the water, its footing treacherous. The wall rose sheer on their right. Light played over the dark water of the lake as sinuous lines of arcfire spiraled and slashed across the high cavern ceiling. Arcfire was bright, but inconsistent, and spent most of its life moving out of sight inside the shar.

Shar, the substance that made the world, came in many forms. Every texture of soil, clay, and rock was a phase of shar. Stone would soften as arcfire pulsed through it, a process of generations. And without arcfire to loosen its structure, soft stone or soil would grow hard and dense again on the same time scale. Water and wind might erode, but neither affected the composition of shar.

Within an hour they met Tulume scouting along the coastline path. It had grown wider, and thick with salt moss, as it meandered up the wall of the great cavern.

“What have you found?” Hinaj said as they approached.

Tulume spoke from the ground, where she knelt studying the moss. “Tracks confirm what we knew: two in, one out.” Her eyes were bloodshot, perhaps overtaxed by the scrutiny.

“Good. Anything else?”

“They walk with assurance to the cavity, wearing shoes. She’s unsteady coming out, no shoes.”

“Carrying away the body?”

“Not likely from the tracks. Hard to believe she could carry him alone; he was her size. Also, there’s shar residue on her outgoing feet.” Tulume held up a pinch of dried clay-like shar. “Yet no mud at the cavity, or anywhere near. Too high for the lake to reach, and no rain reported by those Slingers. Did they carry in the mud from somewhere else?”

“Is the shar soft enough for rain to seep through?” Hinaj said.

“The great caverns make their own weather,” Sindrap pointed out. “Where is the cavity?”

“Not far ahead. Meet us there when you’re finished,” Hinaj told Tulume.

The moss proved too slippery. After the cavity came into view, Sindrap’s foot wrenched sideways, nearly throwing her to the ground. Hinaj grabbed her arm.

“I’m alright,” she grunted. “It was minor.” Her ankle twinged in an ugly rhythm, but gentle probes with her fingers gave her no cause for concern. It might swell. She’d have to walk lightly for a couple days. Unfortunately, she couldn’t look at her pain to diagnose, except when it was reflected in another visioner’s eyes.

Hinaj helped her, as much as she would allow, to walk the last brief stretch. Just outside the cavity, Sindrap shuffled to the cliff edge. Nearly straight beneath them, the lake brooded. It appeared deep at this point. “You’ve sent in divers?”

“Yes, that was one reason for the delay in fetching you. They’re exploring the base of this cliff even now, but they’ve found no body yet.”

“Have they looked for shoes?”

“They’re looking for anything unexpected. Nearly all we’ve got is a brush.”

Sindrap noticed several thick rivets bolted into the rock around the cavity opening and asked about them.

Hinaj said, “As we can tell, the natural cavity was modified inside and out by some previous tribe. We haven’t figured the purpose.”

Moving inside, Sindrap gauged its rough rectangular shape and moderate size. The opening was situated near the right wall, so the space opened more to her left as she faced in. The rippling texture of the walls seemed an artificial lake surface wrapped to the inside of the room.

Glowtubes lit the interior, and a small roll of canvas was laid out with several objects near the back wall. There was the brush, some torn scraps of cloth, piles of broken bones and glass, and a bowl holding a wrinkled brown fruit and a handful of white pebbles. Near the left wall, three women were sitting together on the floor. One was young, her face sprayed with dark freckles. One was well armed, a guard. The last, beginning to wrinkle and gray with age, was missing hair on her left side in patches. Sindrap knew her as a visioner who often worked at the hospitat.

“Dben, you’re here too?” Sindrap said, surprised.

“So I am,” the older woman said.

“What…” The blood left Sindrap’s face as she saw how Dben’s hands were bound, and her feet yoked loosely at the ankles. The murderer had already been brought to the site of the deed. “It was you?”

“I caused his death,” Dben said. Her voice was mild, her face placid.

Sindrap fumbled for understanding. The plague was the simplest answer—and just imagining its presence disturbed her—but even then specific motives varied. “Why?”

“The act must answer.”
“That’s all we’ve gotten from her,” Hinaj said. “Blasted creature won’t tell us why, or what happened.”

“You didn’t mention her background,” Sindrap said.

“We thought your head would be clearer if you didn’t know until the case was already laid out for you. Also, that you wouldn’t object to helping us.”

“Shouldn’t I object now? There was no need to hide it from me.”

Hinaj smiled. “I’m sorry. You know Dben well?”

“Somewhat. We work together.”

“How would you describe her?”

“She has steady hands for delicate surgeries and illustration. Her diagrams of anatomy and painforms have been very instructive to many physicians in training. She has some enthusiasm for learning other theories of worship. Her head is always brimming with new ideas that transform a place for the better. She’s quick to forgive. Astute, thoughtful. She loves animals and keeps several. ”

“Loved animals too much, maybe,” said the freckled young woman. “We just learned she has been torturing them too.”

“Oh really?” Hinaj said, peering at her. “We should see those victims.”

“More plague behavior,” Tulume said at Sindrap’s shoulder.

Sindrap jumped, bringing new distress to her ankle. She remembered this way Tulume had of making sudden appearances. “It might be,” Sindrap conceded. “Though an important question is whether she’s been raving about having cured the man?”

“I’m not infected,” Dben said firmly.

“Then why kill this way?” the young woman said, slashing a hand toward the floor canvas. At second glance, Sindrap noticed the white pebbles’ cuboid shape and grooves. Teeth. And that fruit was no fruit.

Dben gave no answer but a smile. Her utter composure, normally a pleasant feature of her character, now chilled Sindrap.

“Stubborn,” said the young woman. “She tells us outright she killed a man, then nothing.”

“We’ll have to interrogate,” Hinaj said.

Dben only blinked, but Sindrap’s stomach twisted. Visioners shared something deeper than other people, no matter the tribe or background. She wouldn’t allow them to humiliate Dben, as they no doubt intended. “We have other means to learn the truth,” Sindrap said. “Tulume and I are here to investigate, aren’t we?”

“That was the intent,” Hinaj said.

“She should squirm for her cruelty!” snapped the woman.

“Either the plague will punish her, or she’ll answer to our laws.” Hinaj nodded at Tulume. “We’ll give them both the day?”

“Well,” the woman agreed.

Tulume had already begun scouring the walls with a glowtube in hand. She moved with an air of quiet intensity, more than usual.

“I’ll stand watch outside,” Hinaj offered. “You two, with me. Let’s have those dead animals recovered from camp.”

Only the freckled woman remained in the chamber with Sindrap and Tulume.

Sindrap didn’t enjoy feeling bullied into this investigation, but she was glad to be chosen at all when a visioner had turned killer. She hoped that Dben was plague-stricken. Visioners didn’t need outright murder complicating an already tense relationship with the Tribeless. Hinaj would likely be waiting for Sindrap to twist facts to a favorable reading—to catch her in a lie. Hence Tulume, loyal and neutral. Sindrap hoped to expose the truth, but she wasn’t sure what she’d choose if her loyalties crossed.

“I’m going to wink you, Dben,” Sindrap announced. Her insights would be limited without the body for comparison. That was the purpose in bringing inflicters and victims to the site of the crime, whenever possible, so that a visioner could study the pain of all three in proximity.

Sindrap sat with care, and some trepidation. Not knowing how the plague spread, she could only hope to avoid contracting it. The young woman grimaced and hurried to the cavity opening but didn’t exit.

Through purpled vision-eyes, Sindrap saw the layers of past pain, physical and emotional, suffusing Dben’s body. There was a lifetime of wounds now healed, including the recent tattoo at her left shoulder. In painform, it was a weblike projection. Sindrap had never seen it with her natural eyes, but she knew Dben had etched the omji symbol herself.

On the emotional register, there was grief, and heartache, rejection, many things that Sindrap understood well from her own history. Nothing alarming, though any critical mass of suffering might become cause to kill.

Recent and ongoing pain glowed, in contrast with the rest. Some remorse pressed Dben, though not as Sindrap expected. There was no great load like a pool of iron sunk into the woman’s belly, but only dribbles. Dben had always seemed kind and sympathetic as anyone. That may have been a constant performance, or she might have considered the killing good and necessary. Perhaps most likely, some change like plague had left her without scruples. The latter notion was both encouraging and worrisome. Yet as counter-evidence, Sindrap did not notice the denied craving for sleep or food, nor the frenzy of mind that was all typical of advanced infections.

The real difficulty for the present killing was the lack of her victim’s pain. It would have attached to Dben’s hands or face as he witnessed her hurting him, if indeed she had.

“His pain did not attach to her,” Sindrap said.

“Liar!” cried the freckled young woman.

“No,” Dben retorted, “it’s true.”

“What’s this about?” said Hinaj at the door.

“They’re working together!” said the woman.

“Please, explain,” Hinaj said.

“She inspects the murderer for just a few moments and decides that there was no murder.”

Sindrap shook her head. “That’s not what I said.”

“Otherscum, why should we believe you?”

“All information is valuable,” Tulume said. “Is there more, Sindrap?”

“Dben doesn’t have the mark of the victim’s pain…” Sindrap held up a hand to forestall questions. “Which doesn’t establish guilt or innocence. When the victim identifies the source of pain, a mark of that pain passes onto the inflicter. That’s a guaranteed principle—when the victim is able to identify the source. As a visioner, Dben would know this and might find a way to avoid the mark of his pain by misdirecting his attention. We only know that the nose and teeth are missing. He might have been dead already by the time she extracted both.”

“If that’s all true, your visioning is useless,” said the freckled woman with a sneer.

“All information is valuable,” Tulume repeated. “This is also relevant to us. It narrows the stories we can tell about the event.”

“I haven’t finished winking her,” Sindrap said. Goaded by her throbbing ankle, she found herself wishing to throw this hateful woman into the lake. Sindrap trembled to feel that, in the midst of so much death. She worried the more as she noticed a similar sentiment radiating from underneath Dben’s poise.

Sindrap turned a pointed look on the young woman and said, “You should go.”

“Oh yes? I suppose our visioner thinks she’s in charge here?”

“Dben will keep mute in your presence,” Sindrap said. “There’s much better hope of her talking if you leave.”

“That’s true,” Dben declared.

Hinaj turned to the young woman and offered, “Maybe you’d like to join me in the watch?”

The woman narrowed her eyes at Sindrap, but she nodded and sauntered out of sight through the doorway. A look passed between Tulume and Hinaj before he followed the freckled woman out.

Tulume resumed her inspection of the space. Sindrap briefly winked Tulume’s pain. A dim halo surrounded the tracker, marred by a few distinct emotional pains—but none that were physical. Less sensitive visioners might see nothing at all. Tulume had shrugged when first asked about this. For reasons unknown, she’d felt no bodily pain since she was a child.

A sweep of the room also revealed nothing to Sindrap. Her pain-vision could reach past opaque surfaces, but only to a small depth. Enough to penetrate the average person’s skin and organs, missing only a small area in the trunk of the body, where it was thickest.

“What was your relationship to the man you killed?” Sindrap asked.

Dben sighed. “He came to me confessing to be a self-seeker, and at first I thought to convert him to the hidden omji.”

“I was told something about a debate. I’ve heard you talk of several ways of worship, but never this self-seeking. What is it?”

“Self-seekers believe that they split when they were born into the world. Some in half, others in smaller pieces. The fragments are given their lifetimes to seek out the other parts of themself. He was convinced that I was his other half.”

“Love then?”

“It is a kind of love, but not as you think. I was amused when first he approached. His ideology had a refreshing intimacy and practicality that I sorely needed at the time. Even after I understood the worth of it, I felt no sexual interest in him.”

“You soon resolved the debate.”

“No, we discussed the matter for months. He’d asked for total privacy, so I rarely spoke of the thing except in vague terms. There were sharp disagreements. Each one of us defended ourself with passion, and we almost decided to break off all discussion. But he left me with doubts about my path. The doom of our times differs in some particulars from the promise of the hidden omji, and that has shaken my belief. I marked his thinking too. Then when he was nearly desperate enough to kill himself, he explained to me the union ceremony.”

“It sounds very much like love or kinship to me,” Sindrap said. What she did not say, these behaviors were obsessive, fanatical. Little wonder death had sprouted from that soil. She noticed Tulume had slowed her investigation and perked her ears to the interview as well.

“It is deeper than love or kinship,” Dben insisted. “The ceremony involves sacrifice, and I knew it must be consummate. His notion of omji was limited to the individual, but worship must transcend the one. We live in a compression of ages. Our time is burning, and it calls for soul offerings.”

“Offerings meaning pain and death?”

“My offering. For he is me and I am him. We completed the union…and he died in the process, to answer the call of the omji.” A tear slipped from Dben’s shining eyes.

“Where is he now, Dben?” Sindrap asked with all the tenderness she could muster.

“Find him…find me.”

“I want to help you. You and I have our own bond, don’t we?”

“It’s not enough to be visioner. He was not one. He had to suffer to see the strokes of beauty.”

“The beauty of what follows death?”

“Beauty from death, in it, through it. It was my masterwork. It must serve.”

“It will, if you can explain further. If you think him the half of yourself, would it not be suicide to kill him?”

“No,” Dben said, snorting out a laugh. “You don’t know me.”

“I’m starting to think not.” Troubled, Sindrap now returned her attention to Dben’s pain. The most immediate painform, sticky desire, erupted from Dben’s chest in two directions, toward the rear of the chamber, and toward its opening behind Sindrap. Some prickling nervousness also clung to the underside of the older woman’s skin. Fresh grief flowered at the base of her throat. Despite her minimal guilt, she did seem to care about the dead man, or something connected with his death.

To ordinary eyes, Dben masked her feelings well. But that wasn’t new; she had always been a master of countenance. Sindrap moved around Dben for new angles. The woman’s rump ached since a short hour ago. The wrist and ankle bindings produced steam from chafing, less than one day old. Dben had a slight headache which was petering out since yesterday. Her scalp steamed where the hair had been lost—that was fresh, a day or two ago. Why did the hair loss date to the same time as the killing?

Sindrap studied the pattern of hair loss. It obviously wasn’t natural. A burn? On close inspection, she saw a gentle pain gradient, front to back, splotchy but ordered. Systematic. Through the steam of pain, almost to the pore, Sindrap could observe that the hairs had been wrenched out by the roots. Some scattered wisps remained.

“We have a brush…any hair on it?” Sindrap said.

“I’ve collected a few strays, gray and dark,” Tulume said. “Hers and the victim’s, I expect. The brush carries both types. Suggests she wanted to hide something. We’ve seen the plague tear hair out before. What if both of them were plagued, and she bested him?”

It might well be significant. The strange thing was, Sindrap saw no clear sign of struggle in the methodical pain. Either Dben had pulled out her hair, or allowed the victim to do it—why? Part of their ritual?

“You see how the hair was pulled out by hand, front to back?” Tulume said.

Sindrap turned on her in mild surprise. “You can see how it proceeded?”

Tulume shrugged. “A guess from simple observation. I’m no visioner.”

“What else have you observed?” Sindrap asked.

“On her? Little enough. She wields each hand as well as the other, as you might know. She seems content in her situation now, like one who believes her work is good. Above all, I do suspect plague.”

Sindrap controlled her pleasure at hearing that conviction from Tulume, the neutral party. Though Sindrap feared it was true murder, with origins long before the plague’s recent appearance. The esoteric aura of this killing suited Dben’s idiosyncratic approach to worship. Also, the absence of plague-related painforms—exhaustion, starvation, madness—bothered Sindrap. It wasn’t proof, even to her. But it was very suggestive.

She looked around at the floor and walls. “It’s strange that we see no bloodstains in here. His nose and mouth should have bled profusely, and no clotting drug I know could totally prevent that. The likely remedy would have been thick bandages, sponge, or cloth. She’d have to dispose of that somewhere. Nothing bloody sank in the lake?”

“A few flecks on the brush, but otherwise no evidence of that so far.”

“Are we sure this is the place he died? Or if so, was he killed first, mutilated elsewhere?”

“Possible. I’ve been searching for any trace of blood. There is none here, nor outside on the moss. Searches of her livingspace found nothing.”

Sindrap eased away from Dben, onto unsteady feet, and felt as if she could breath again. She turned to the objects near the back wall. “What else was dredged?”

“Shells and glass, carved stone, several pieces of old bone tools. Only a few things seem relevant. This, for one.” Tulume picked out a thick piece of glass and handed it over.

Sindrap studied the squared corners. It had clearly been a vial once. Maybe one taken from the hospitat, though their glassware was too eclectic to be sure. She sniffed it, but only the scent of eel and lakewater met her nostrils. “We’ve no way to test the substance without a chemist, and none of those near us now. Maybe none alive. They were always rare.”

“I smelled a kind of distillation on it,” Tulume said. “A drug, I think.”

“What was the flavor?”

“Sweetish, sharp, vaguely metallic.”

Sindrap nodded. “I can’t narrow it down for sure, but there are some toxins that would smell that way. One that fools the senses, another that induces spasm. Either could explain why he didn’t mark her as she hurt him.”

“Plague, then.”

“I…don’t follow you.”

“She wanted free reign to hurt him without carrying the evidence, because she plans to hurt others.”

“If that’s true, it doesn’t have to mean plague.”

“No… My instinct outpaced my reason.” Tulume rubbed her eyes, crouched to pick up a piece of shredded cloth. “This could also be notable.”

The cloth was plain and strong, not decaying from a long immersion in water. It looked like the seam where the sleeve met a robe, but most of the robe had been torn away. The sleeve was riddled with extra strips of cloth sewn in like patches, except it was clear that the original cloth had been intact when the patches were added. So they weren’t used for repair. Nor did the pattern fit any style of clothing Sindrap knew.

The stitch was regular, made with a sure hand. After some thought, Sindrap wondered if each patch had been an enclosed pocket. All were oblong, one of them slightly curved. She turned it over in her hands until she saw the strain where one end of a hard object had bulged against the weft and warp. Further likelihood of the pocket idea. The only materials at hand that fit the shape and size were bones. Why would someone—say Dben—sew bones into a robe? And then slash the robe to pieces afterward, taking care to empty each pocket. It must have been useful to someone for a time, and then threatening or incriminating to someone.

Sindrap shared her thoughts with Tulume, but between them they developed no good theory except that it too could be somehow relevant to the ritual element of the killing. Tulume suggested that tools, knives, or sticks of some kind might have fit in the pockets.

Finally Sindrap turned her attention to the bowl and its morbid contents. She first studied the teeth by glowlight. They were faintly yellowed, crusted over and worn down from a harsh diet, but clean of gore. There was a full set, minus five. Some had been broken off, while others carried their roots intact.

“These teeth were found exactly as they are?”

“Yes. In that same bowl too.”

The edge of the nose was cut by a razor-sharp edge, likely some sort of scalpel. That fit Dben’s background. Yet rather than a straight, clean slice, the blade had cut through raggedly.

To Sindrap’s winking vision, the nose and teeth displayed the barest shadow of blister- and thorn-like forms. Few visioners would have the finesse of perception to see even that shadow on such tiny and dismembered pieces of a person. The presence of this pain meant the victim had been alive when mutilated. Sindrap relayed this to Tulume and explained, “It suggests the pain itself was at least as important as the trophies.”

“Why keep the trophies at all?” Tulume mused.

“They might be tokens gathered from that ceremony.” Hobbling back to Dben, Sindrap knelt and winked her pain again for fresh insights. “You’ve heard us talking, Dben. Would you like to inform our speculation?”

“You haven’t seen.” Dben’s eyes flashed violet as she thrust her head forward. Sindrap encountered the sudden vision of herself in the mirror of Dben’s gaze. 

“See,” Dben hissed, “see your pain.”

“That’s enough!” Tulume barked.

Sindrap could have stopped winking—she wished to avert her eyes—but she searched for the key to Dben’s madness in herself. In the reflection, Sindrap blazed with a dazzling variety of painforms, layered in and swirling over. Rejection spread over her face in delicate cracks that ran deep. Thorns from old mistakes wreathed her eyes and scalp. Spirals frothed through her neck and across her collarbone. Flames and smoke billowed inside her chest. Blotting one shoulder was a heavy material like carapace, gouged through. Dense ingots of regret filled her digestive area. There were so many forms, so very many. All refining Sindrap’s visioning sensitivity.

Where Tulume was an eerie silence, Sindrap was a jungle of anguish.

Tulume cuffed Dben on the side of the head, and Sindrap’s reflexive view fell away with her.

“You’re radiant with it,” Dben said from where she’d sprawled. “You would make a supreme offering, if you can find yourself.”

Sindrap opened her mouth in response, but then Dben’s face twisted in a snarl as she lunged. Sindrap’s words became a gasp as pain flared at the base of her neck. People shouting. A loud burst. Then a blow fell against her head, bringing darkness.

— — —

Sindrap was surrounded by unexpected softness. At first she assumed it was her bedroll, and the muttering and movement nearby came from one of the others preparing for another exhausting day at the hospitat. The heavy odors of sweat and rot reached her nose. She opened her eyes to find Tulume probing the wall, and remembered something of her situation.

The bedroll clung to her as she tried to move. But as she craned her neck to see down the length of her body, there was no blanket nor roll. Only some kind of clay sticking to her. Were they in the same chamber? Her ankle twinged, making her teeth grit. “Tulume,” Sindrap said.

The other woman spun on her.

“Help.” Sindrap struggled to free her arms from the suction of this stuff on the floor. Tulume took Sindrap’s shoulders and helped hoist her into a sitting position. Sindrap’s ankle sank deeper into the shar. “My foot is stuck,” she said, fighting a sense of alarm. “What happened?”

“Dben attacked you and left you unconscious,” Tulume said, eyes wide. “Then she tried to run out. She did something here to this chamber, left us trapped. The shar melted so fast, like I’ve never seen before.”

“She’s gone? I don’t understand.” Sindrap searched for the mouth of the cavity, but there was none. Instead she saw a wrinkled, fleshy leg off where the opening might have been. It seemed like Dben’s, but Sindrap didn’t have adequate vantage from her position to see more.

The whole space was in upheaval.

The floor was a wild, rolling contour, sloping up toward Dben’s unmoving leg in the high corner. It was continuous, unbroken, like the room had reshaped itself. Where Sindrap propped herself against Tulume, the space was nearly flat, though a wide stalactite drooped toward Sindrap as if the ceiling would spear her at any moment. Across from Dben, near where the wall curved into ceiling—a tortured face was embedded in the stone. Its bloodless lips warped in a scream. It was toothless, noseless, with eyes turned to jelly.

“We found her victim,” Tulume said quietly. “I’ve compared the evidence; that’s him.”

Beneath the face, a knee protruded from stone in one place, swollen fingers in another. From these clues, Sindrap could sketch out a picture of the whole body’s contorted form, most of it hidden within the rock. The corpse seemed to float upright in the stone as if it were water.

Seeing him, Sindrap knew. The shar was unstable here. The chamber was gnawing on her ankle just as it had swallowed that man. Yet ordinary instability didn’t account for this. The shifts were too rapid to be natural. Everyone knew from a young age how to judge the stability of shar—when it was solid stone, it wouldn’t suddenly melt at your feet.

She reached toward her ankle and felt the substance that had closed around it. It seemed like solid stone to her fingers, and yet her foot sank as if through more viscous shar. The stone swelled over her foot in a protuberance that seemed to grow every time she looked away. That, too, was unexpected.

“What is this place?” she breathed.

Tulume said nothing, but moved to the canvas where the evidence lay. By chance, the stone beneath the canvas had hardly buckled, and the objects remained in their places. Tulume returned with several bone fragments, which Sindrap recognized as animal, and very old: partial ribs, half a femur. Taking them in her hands, Sindrap noted hooks, pegs, and holes carved into and from them, as well as abstract reliefs. A winking glimpse offered further insight—besides very recent breaks, these bones were conspicuously devoid of pain. She’d never inspected the old ritual chambers near camp, but felt sure these were bones meant to fit into a larger construction like those doorways.

Doorways into hungry cavities that apparently, literally, swallowed people.

“These bones came from the lake?” Sindrap said.

Tulume nodded. “I’m sure they’d find many more like this in the general area.” 

There had been those rivets at the mouth of the cavity. Someone, probably Dben, must have torn down the identifying bone doorway on this cavity. And then perhaps lured her victim in, trusting somehow that the shar would entrap her companion yet spare her. How could she be sure? Sindrap knew Dben to be meticulous, and the facts of this killing further supported that. Dben must have been sure of the outcome in her plans. So they were close to understanding how she killed, if not why. But there was a more immediate problem.

“We’ll suffocate here,” Sindrap said.

“You can already taste the dullness of the air,” Tulume agreed. “We’ve been sealed off. The shar swelled around us like a wave while Dben attacked, but it’s all stone now. She must have learned the key to controlling it.”

“Oh, that’s absurd—”

“I can only tell you what I saw. The correlation is clear. We have old stories about this, don’t we?”

“It is…a possibility…that she learned some secret of these chambers. The shar is eating me alive. I feel it. She might more likely have discovered the timing of a natural cycle and used it to her advantage, without direct control. Would she explain?”

“She’ll tell us nothing,” Tulume spat. “The shar’s got her too.”

“She’s dead?”

“I doubt she can breathe in it.”

Understanding, Sindrap held back a shudder. “Let’s try pulling. Gently please, I have that sprain.”

Tulume took Sindrap’s leg and together they pulled and twisted. Sindrap felt that the shar was stiffer near her toes, but it was viscous and sticky around her ankle, more so toward the inside of her foot. Every moment of exertion expended more of the finite air supply. As her foot wriggled, it began to open a slight gap. Sindrap tried to use one of the bones, which had broken in a chisel shape, to pry out her foot. The shar seemed to stiffen when she applied pressure using the flat of the bone. Before long, sweating from effort, she gave up on using the bone and simply heaved while rolling her foot inside the shar.

Finally the leg came loose with a pop. They tumbled backward together, breathing heavily. “Thank you,” Sindrap gasped. Afraid the shar would reclaim her, she staggered to her feet and shied from the hole her foot had left.

Tulume said, “I thought you should have a better look at him before we try to escape. There may not be another chance to relocate him.”

“You keep searching. I’ll be brief about it.” Sindrap tucked the bone into her sash.

Sindrap moved down along the general tilt of the floor, toward the figure embedded in the rear wall. She gathered a few more of the carved bones. While doing so, she noticed a shoe, just as Tulume had been looking for. It was half-sunk in the shar and the straps were hacked open. If it belonged to Dben, then she had only just escaped herself, the first time.

More bones, scraps of cloth, metals, and other fine objects were scattered around the body. Some were stuck in the stone; others had fallen to the floor. The quality and quantity reminded her of Dben’s words about offering. Perhaps the people who built, or augmented, this cavity had fed it with people. If so, it seemed strange for Dben to revive that tradition because of infection. Rather, Sindrap was ever more inclined to accept murder of the kind that long predated the emergence of this plague.

Drawing closer to the corpse, she saw the beginnings of bloat, though it was not far advanced for a killing some days old. His hair had been uprooted like Dben’s. Sindrap’s ordinary vision revealed nothing else unusual about this corpse. She winked, and the view stunned her.

A brilliant mask overlaid the grisly face.

At the hairline, a crinkled frontal halo blossomed. It continued as far as she could see over the crown of the man’s head. In the pores of his scalp, she could see a layer of irritation like dark velvet contrasting the halo. 

The nose hadn’t been hacked off in unmeasured savagery. There was a rhythm to it. Each of the blistering painforms on the nasal cavity was pierced with delicate glasslike spines. Where the cartilage had broken, twin jets of flame curled out over the brow. Each eye blazed, a molten core of agony. Jagged crystalline forms ranged outward from his lips like ethereal teeth flaring out to replace the actual teeth as those were torn out.

The face was a mask-mosaic. Pressure in the veins had traced a subtle web of pain beneath the skin. He’d barely have noticed this with blood rushing through his open wounds. Traceries like this were always visible at a certain phase of decomposition, yet she rarely saw a painform that preserved the effect. Normally pain was abstract, at most barely approximating the human figure. Here she could see the painform sculpted into a recognizable face.

In short, his pain had been exquisite. Sindrap wasn’t stunned so much by the degree of pain as its intricacy. Dben could have inflicted more cruel agonies if her aim was a simple sum of torture. Rather, she’d created a genuine masterwork, mesmerizing in every detail. Sindrap could see the intentionality in every gesture.

Plague always seemed to rupture a person, make them ever more frantic to create harm. Yet this act was too consistent with Dben’s character. It would have taken enormous effort and preparation. Thinking back, there were signs that predated the plague, leading up to this incident. Years of surgical work and artistry. Some time ago Dben had started meeting with tattooists and scarrists, to learn their techniques. Their work was excruciating in just this way, a sculpting of skin and muscle.

This man’s trauma was death and creation, all in the same act, and all explicable in terms of Dben’s lifelong identity. Sindrap had never seen anything like it. And despite her moral objections, she was entranced.

“Well?” Tulume said at Sindrap’s shoulder.

“It’s extraordinary. Unparalleled. I don’t know how she managed this.” Sindrap described what she saw, then let the vision go with reluctance and started up the rolling slope toward Dben. They couldn’t afford any further delay. Maybe the way the shar had swallowed Dben would offer some clue to their escape.

Attached to that leg Sindrap noticed before, the other body was Dben’s, but its lower half was bruised and twisted at the joints. The upper half was almost all buried in the wall of stone that had rushed upon her. She must be dead indeed.

“She’s broken,” Sindrap said, aghast. “Did the shar wreck her?”

“She was sick, Sindrap.”

“You’ve finished—” Sindrap turned and froze.

Tulume leveled a pistol at Sindrap, its tube glinting in the glowlight. She must have kept it hidden about her the whole time. “You’re sick too,” Tulume said.

Sindrap’s mind lurched toward understanding, compiling the quirks, context, and moments surrounding this moment, calculating where Tulume stood relative to her and whether it was possible to dissuade Tulume from shooting. The clues were obvious now. All through this investigation, Tulume had fixated on plague, contrary to her methodical nature. She’d been fighting exhaustion from sleeplessness. She had brutalized Dben.

“You think I’m infected,” Sindrap said. She hardly expected to reason with someone in the thrall of plague, but she might give herself time to strategize if Tulume talked. Behind Sindrap, beyond Dben and the blockage, lay the exit. But how to get through the shar?

“I know you are,” Tulume affirmed. “You’ll deny it, of course.”

“That is the grotesque irony of this disease.”

“I have to destroy it, Sindrap. I’m already sorry for the suffering I will bring you.”

“Did you…plan this? Did you kill him?” Sindrap gestured at the body suspended in the wall.

“No, but I am glad he died. I only lament that she was so much more effective than him. Both were sick. Each recognized the other’s symptoms, and each arranged to cure the other under the guise of a ritual. Don’t you see the gaps in her story? She claims they debated theories of omji until their beliefs merged and they decided to sacrifice themselves. Imagine instead, they fought against the same mind disease, each trading denial for accusation. One of them, little matter which one, reached the moment of action sooner. When she offered the ceremony, he also thought to seize his opportunity but failed, since only she knew the secret of the chamber. Or have you another theory?”

Sindrap felt the weight of that question. She chose to walk the narrow line between truth and fiction. “Dben and her victim’s choices do appear plague-related. Are we not now confronting the same paradox as them? I’m just as sure of my current health as you are of yours.” Sindrap pretended certainty for the sake of argument—lately she lived in constant doubt of her self-assessment. It was a paltry defense for a plague of mind. But she had nothing better.

Tulume said, “Don’t imagine that I’d be willing to reenact their ritual.”

“No, that’s not where I was leading. I know my health is compromised, Tulume.” It was a dangerous bluff, playing into Tulume’s conviction even while defying typical plague behavior. “All this time you’ve left me languishing when you might have cured me sooner. Why?”

“I, too, am seizing an opportunity. This way they never know. Otherwise they’d say I was the sick one, and they’ll turn against me in fear.” Tulume shook her head. “I have to be free. The plague is rampant, and I know how to stop it.”

Sindrap was appalled that her false confession didn’t trouble Tulume at all. The woman had lost all reasoning power. “We’re doing everything we can to save people,” Sindrap said.
“It’s not enough. It takes courage to believe in hurting people for their sake—physicians must know that. I questioned the solution for a long time, too long. I thought I must be contaminated myself until I felt the omji speaking to me.”

“What do they say?”

“They taught me the meaning of pain.”

“What is it?”

“Don’t you know? I’m no visioner, but it’s a question that’s concerned me most of my life. You remember my condition?”

“I could never forget.”

Tulume laughed. “Yes, I must seem empty. Alien. But now I’m learning what I always wanted. Pain is the waste that leaks from our bodies as they struggle to live. The plague thrives on pain until that is released. Why don’t I feel pain? Because I’m immune to it, and so I’m immune to the plague.”

“How long have you known this?” Sindrap said.

“I accepted it some days ago.”

“Tulume,” Sindrap said, hoping that the tremors in her voice would convey the right impression, “you’re vital to the tribe. You must get out of this place. Don’t you realize why the shar rushed around Dben just now? Or how, two days ago, it immobilized her victim but left her free to tear out his teeth?”

“You solved the puzzle.” Tulume became eager. “How do I escape?”

“The strange shar melts and rushes toward emergent pain. Think about the moment Dben attacked me and you retaliated. That’s when the shar responded, piling onto her and blocking the exit. It was sucking on my sprain earlier. Somehow there must be a complement, some way to counteract or repel the shar. Tulume, I want to be cured, but it’s all vain if you hurt me now. You’ll only thicken the trap around yourself. Together we can help you escape.”

Sindrap didn’t give away her other intuition. She thought she knew something of how to repel the shar. Somehow the people who once used these chambers must have kept them from filling in at every appearance of pain. What was the obvious augmentation? The bone doorways. She had wondered about the perfect painless quality of the bones. Earlier the shar had hardened from its contact with bone. When the shar surged up, it left the canvas untouched because bones lay there. The bones were the key. Carved to exude some kind of anti-pain, they were arranged into a doorway to maintain the chamber openings.

When Dben tore out the doorway, she damaged the integrity of the exit. Yet she’d sewn the bones into that odd robe, making her a living doorway. That was her certainty. It repelled the weird shar from swallowing her as she created her masterwork, and it might have also restrained the shar from consuming the man’s face as she continued to pull his teeth one by one. Each a stroke of beauty, in Dben’s words.

Then to destroy evidence of her advantage, Dben shredded the robe and broke the bones. Sindrap imagined the bones lost some, if not all, of their potency when broken. She had no way to verify the theory before it decided her life or death.

“Yes…” Tulume said. “Together. I can’t leave here without sacrifice. Forgive the crudeness of it. You’ll have to stand at the back near her victim. I will shoot you, and the path will clear for me as the shar swallows you.”

“Is that the best way?” Sindrap asked.

There was still a slight hope for her. She had moments to act. She’d seen the weariness etched into Tulume’s face, how the pistol shook in her hands. Per the plague symptoms, Tulume was suffering hunger and sleep deprivation. The trembling might throw her aim.

Tulume said, “It’s the best we have while—”.

Sindrap threw herself to the ground near Dben, stabbing the shard of bone into her forearm as Tulume fired the pistol, a tremendous crash of noise in the enclosed space. Heat slashed across Sindrap’s leg. Tulume was charging forward, yelling. Then light vanished as the shar closed narrowly around Sindrap, and her harsh breathing replaced Tulume’s angry shouts. 

As her bone blade slid free and she fumbled it, the damage registered in her arm. Sindrap flailed, but the shar’s grip was still tentative. Her fingers brushed the corpse of Dben before closing around the bone again. She grasped a shallow, semi-solid ledge above Dben and heaved herself up. Splayed there, she touched the wound just above her knee and found blood. Still, it seemed shallow, a graze. So she would die of suffocation here: sealed off in a bubble of shar, her escape on side, Tulume on the other.

In total darkness, she could only imagine the shar frothing at her, shrinking on all sides. Would the bones at her waist stave off its hunger? The space was already cramped, and she slipped against each surface like mud. Yet by the omji, she was still alive. She tore off her sleeve and used it as a binding for the wound on her arm. It staunched the blood, if not the pain.

Then, with her other arm, she dug into the softened material. The sprawl of Dben’s body, visible by its painforms, was Sindrap’s only guide toward the free air where she sorely hoped Hinaj and the others were waiting. For a time hand-digging was effective enough, so long as she was careful to keep her wounds free of the thirsty shar. She hollowed out some space, which reformed at her back, but she was moving forward. Toward the outside, she hoped. As her pain ebbed, the shar began to harden until it was mostly stone again.

Now she pushed the bone she held into the firm rock. The bone sliced through it with relative ease. Amazed, Sindrap tried to pry the loose piece out with her other hand. It didn’t give. It was solid as rock to her fingers. She cut another piece, and another. There was little resistance, and the bone edge didn’t seem to dull.

It seemed that even broken, this tool would save her.

She began to feel woozy from the lack of air. With her consciousness collapsing, she grew weaker and more frantic.

Then she broke through. The rush of outside air came through the rupture, and she started to hack with new vigor. There were cries of alarm. Her head began to clear, and the face of Hinaj appeared.

At last there was a hole large enough to crawl through, and she dragged herself out with the help of Hinaj and one of the guards. Her bone tool dropped from her fingers.

“You cut through stone,” he said in awe. “With this?” He picked up the bone.

“Where is the murderer? Tulume?” said the freckled woman. She looked at Sindrap with new revulsion, even fear. No doubt she believed that Sindrap had escaped by virtue of some unsavory visioning power. It wasn’t entirely the wrong idea, but Sindrap didn’t need suspicion hanging over her.

Especially when anyone, anyone, could be infected. Could become an enemy at any time.

“The shar has them,” Sindrap sighed. In answer to Hinaj, she waved at the jagged hole she’d carved. “I don’t fully understand it. Try for yourself.”

Hinaj chipped at the rock. “What happened inside? We didn’t hear or feel a cave-in. There’s no rubble.”

“This cavity is like the chambers near the encampment, where another woman disappeared some few months ago. Notice the carved shape and design of that bone.”

“What of your investigation?” the woman demanded.

While Sindrap didn’t understand every nuance, she was convinced that Dben’s choices were authentic, unprovoked by plague. Dben killed with great care and full faith. She hoped her sacrifice would somehow spare herself, and maybe the world, from its current suffering. A futile gesture.

Sindrap had reached her conclusion. She’d found the body, as asked. But she had no clear evidence except what she learned through visioning, a source of endless controversy. The only other witnesses were dead. Rumors would fly. Today’s events would link visioners with the much-feared ancient chambers. That was inevitable, but…Sindrap might tell an alternate story to at least soften the impact of Dben’s actions. Everyone expected plague; let them.

She spoke the truth: “Plague was here.”