The smothering darkness drew back to reveal the Black Lotus sitting by his side, still naked except for the soulwatchers wrapped around her head. Her wild, knotted jumble of hair stuck out from the leather bindings every which way.
“Forty-seven seconds,” she said. “Counting the time it took for you to reignite,” she tapped the lenses. “Fifty-four seconds until you breathed, and opened your eyes again.”
“Aag,” Çrom said, raising shaking hands to his eyes.
“You were telling the truth,” Lotus congratulated him.
“Give me a second,” he pleaded, and lay back, closed his eyes, and shivered. It was so loud. How could silence be so loud? He opened his eyes quickly and looked at Lotus suspiciously. She raised her empty hands, looking as innocent as a filthy killer for hire wearing a pair of antique mystic goggles could look. This was not particularly innocent.
“I will not kill you again until the final time,” she said. “I have learned everything I can from this experiment.”
“So glad,” he said weakly. Had he thought he would be willing to let her do that to him? What sort of an idiot had he been? “What did you stick in my eyes?”
Lotus reached down – slowly, but the movement was still enough to make Çrom flinch – and picked up a pair of dull silvery spikes from the trash on the floor.
“Imperium,” she said. “Shaped by … well, there are a lot of stories and only the most laughable chain of provenance. But since only powerful Gods can even scratch Imperium, it’s safe to assume one of Them made these.”
Çrom whistled through dry lips. “That’s a lot of Imperium,” he said, admiring the pair of hand-length, finger-breadth spikes in spite of the creeping horror still filling him. “Darking Mags’s Coffin?”
Lotus lowered the spikes, turned her head and unwound the goggles, before giving him a stare that was only slightly marred by the amusing red marks left behind by straps and lenses. “How did you know that?” she demanded.
“There’s not much Imperium on the market,” Çrom replied, “and not much in handy weapon form. I’ve never been stabbed by a nail from Darking Mags’s Coffin, but I know they were meant to be about that size and shape, and there were … a hundred of them?”
“The story claimed there were ten by ten,” Lotus nodded, and rolled the soulwatchers back into their pouch. “Only thirty-seven have ever been accounted for. The rest are presumably somewhere down in the Castle.”
“Do these make thirty-nine?” Çrom gestured.
Lotus shook her head. “They are two of the thirty-seven,” she said. “They were part of my payment for a previous commission.”
“No wonder you were unimpressed by my princely offer of whatever I happened to have in my pockets when you killed me,” Çrom smiled. “I can’t offer Imperium. Although I should feel honoured to have been killed by such a valuable relic.”
“You have not been killed using Imperium before?”
“Oh, several times,” Çrom said, “along with each of the other so-called Inviolate Metals. Except my inner pedant always makes me add that none of them are technically metals and only a couple of them are even metallic…” he sat up and rubbed his face, trying not to let the darkness show. He forced a smile. “Never been stabbed with these, though,” he concluded. “It was … a little prolonged for my tastes.”
Lotus looked momentarily unhappy. “I held them in your eyes,” she said, her expression returning to its usual calm but intense inquisitiveness. “I was curious to see if your body would heal and push them free, or if the Imperium itself would dissolve, or if you would simply re-form slightly to one side…” she shifted a little uncomfortably. “It was only a matter of seconds. I am sorry.”
“I was actually wondering if you … dismounted before finishing me off,” Çrom said lightly. “Real good way to get sick, right there.”
“I dismounted,” Lotus smiled slightly. “You do not remember?”
“I was pretty numb,” he reminded her, “from the rape drug you surprised me with,” this time she definitely flinched, so he continued, “I’m teasing. For the record, I was perfectly fine with what you did. I could have told you that impaling doesn’t keep me dead any longer than anything else, though – if you’d asked.”
“You have tried?”
“Not by choice, but sure,” Çrom replied. “I usually just sort of wake up next to whatever impaled me. Once,” he reminisced, “I was crushed between two blocks of fusion glass three hundred metres on a side. Long story,” he added when Lotus looked curious, “suffice it to say you’re nowhere near the most creative murderer I’ve contracted, although sex more than makes up for any shortcomings in the props budget.”
“What happened?” Lotus asked.
“I came back to life,” Çrom answered. “What do you think happened?”
She rolled her eyes. “In between the blocks of glass, or outside them?”
“Up in the lifting mechanism,” Çrom said. “Almost got killed again right there. Some pretty big hydraulics needed to lift twenty-seven million cubic metres of fusion glass. So what happened with the spikes?”
“Nothing,” Lotus said, evidently dissatisfied. “I was kneeling with them held firmly in place, you bled and spasmed, and then I had the spikes in my hands and you were intact again.”
“Anticlimactic, isn’t it?”
“The goggles achieved nothing.”
“They rarely do,” Çrom said philosophically.
“You never really answered me,” Lotus said, “about whether or not you are fertile. You said you do not really pay much attention, since to know of your progeny would be to invite pain on yourself…”
“But I’ve had children,” Çrom said quietly. “Of course I have. And I’ve watched them – some of them – for as long as I could bear.”
“But they all died,” Lotus said calmly. Çrom nodded. “When?”
“A couple of hundred years after being born,” Çrom said roughly. “Just like everyone else. My curse, my brand of immortality, isn’t inheritable or sexually transmissible. Don’t ask me if it would be kinder or crueller if it was. I’m still trying to think around two Imperium-spike-sized holes in my head that don’t actually exist but my mind is trying to tell me do. What’s your point?”
“I was just wondering,” Lotus said. “If your dismembered body-parts vanish and reconstitute into you, and the hair and skin and other things you shed throughout your lifetime-”
“Are you wondering if my sperm relocates back into my testicles when I die?” Çrom asked wearily. Lotus shrugged. “Look, I can tell you that kids I’ve had don’t cease to ever have existed when I undie. The clones made from my genetic material didn’t vanish. I guess stuff like that is replenished by my body and so it gets to continue being part of the bioplane of wherever I shed it. They say every cell in our bodies is replaced over a pretty short period, so I’d expect the dread Ghååluss to have thought that through. My separated genetic material doesn’t take on any actual Çrom-Skelliglyph-like properties, though – with the possible exception of messy hair,” he eyed Lotus. “Our kids might be in trouble in that respect.”
“You need not concern yourself,” Lotus said. “I no longer have it in me to breed. Physiologically,” she added, delicately. “The Ice Wall’s Department of Immigration and Pest Control does not have the most proactive stance on preventing the spread of the human species that I have encountered.”
“I’m sorry,” Çrom said awkwardly, after a long pause.
The Black Lotus tilted her head. “Oh? Why?”
Çrom shrugged. “It felt like something I should say,” he said.
She leaned forward. “But the lovespike wore off,” she said, her tone changing abruptly.
“Yeah,” Çrom said, “anything in my system stays behind with my old body – you know, conceptually speaking. Certainly if it was a poison or whatever killed me. Don’t know if this applies.”
“So where is the lovespike residue now?”
“Beats me,” Çrom said, and shifted his legs experimentally. “It’s not smeared on my kungus anymore. I’d guess it’s either rubbed off onto the floor, or its molecules are floating around harmlessly in the air.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Çrom said, then acknowledged the weak line with an apologetic look. “If I die drunk, I wake up sober,” he said. “But I could very well have a hangover for all I notice at the time. I may still not be making it clear to you how-”
“-awful dying and then undying is,” Lotus said. “Yes.”
Çrom moved his fingers experimentally, then tilted his head back and forth. The darkness rolled queasily with him, and he smiled again to dispel it. At least outwardly. “I do usually wind up with a bit of lingering numbness or some aches and pains,” he said, “but mostly-”
“So … you are no longer spent?” Lotus asked, her eyes flicking downwards.
Çrom shuffled backwards a few theatrical centimetres. “If I answer that, are you going to make killing me a regular part of our … frolicking?”
Lotus laughed at what must have been an amusingly prim expression on his face. “I said I would not kill you again,” she replied, “and the sex was not quite good enough to make me break my word.”
She grinned, and advanced on him.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while walking to the bus.