“That looked like a problem,” I hear my own voice as if someone else were speaking. “That’s a big problem. Right?”
Jenny’s pressed her back to the wall, her hands splayed against the wood panel and her blizzard eyes wide and shaking. Her lips are parted, her face almost as pale as the demon’s was. Drydus stops beside Jenny, where the panel in the wall stands open to a hall leading into outer rooms.
“Verdammt.” His voice is a dog’s whimper, injecting that one word with a tumult of failure, frustration and despair.
The small girl he had carried on his shoulders is moving her mouth, but no sound comes out. The others wear faces like the grim masks made to frighten spirits, with mouths turned down and eyes wide and staring. At their center, Maya rises from her throne.
“Children,” intones the frail spirit in a voice like a funeral bell. “Turn to me.”
Sylvia appears before the alter. The wounded four around it uncoil to turn accusing eyes on her. I double take, but it’s really her. She moves like a ghost.
“Jenny, take the back way.” Sylvia’s eyes stay on Maya, and her tone carries little conviction. “Go with Drydus. Get far away.”
“Screw,” declares Jenny in a hoarse croak. “Somebody give me a gun.”
As she speaks, a male voice outside the great blasted front of the temple shouts in thai: ‘Advance!’ and more than a hundred voices sound a battle cry.
Before any of us can move the Laughing Girl raises one hand as if in benediction and all time stops.
Dust hangs in air lit by the boiling inferno from the pit which doesn’t move but stands like a huge and luminous tree with branches spreading through the bones of the roof. A ceiling tile waits in midair, trailing dust, a meter from the wood floor.
“These moments are borrowed against our ultimate end,” intones the Laughing Girl, laughing no more. Though I don’t know her language, I understand her meaning precisely. “Use them wisely. I have failed. I have failed you. I have failed dharma. I have lost my way. Now the worst of fears is realized and my long duty lapsed. A Prisoner has the stone and will soon make of it a door. I must recover it or destroy it. I fear I have not the strength for either, but it is my dharma and I must try. Who will aid me?”
A few steps down the stairs, the Bronze Woman, Pensri, straightens from her crawl and Gold Silk, whose name I still don’t know, uncurls from her arms. The younger woman looks down at the dozen shrapnel wounds darkening her chest and says: “I will be dead soon.”
Pensri touches the blood coming from her own ears: “The gun deafened me and dust blinds my eyes. My hair burns. I am otherwise unharmed.”
One by one the four survivors by the throne sound off:
“Two bullet wounds, leg and shoulder. Heroine withdrawn shakes.”
“Headshot. I feel fine but I’m having trouble with words and perspective.”
“Spear to the thigh. Can’t feel my foot.”
“Shot twice, stomach and left arm. Bone’s broken”
Drydus adds: “My legs aren’t quite right, but I can walk and carry.”
It’s bizarre to hear him without his accent, but I get the distinct impression I’m hearing their meaning, not their words. When they move, they leave the intense afterimage of their original position.
Jenny’s frozen in time with her eyes closed against the billowing dust. Tellerhorn’s gargoyle frown doesn’t move. Brass, who somehow made it to the throne door, might be a wax statue.
“I have no major injuries.” I report, “What should we do?”
Sylvia hasn’t spoken. She lifts her eyes from consideration of the floor to turn to Jenny. She folds her sister’s golden crown in her arms. She kisses the scarred forehead, the freckled cheek. Her gesture is meant for no other, but I understand her. If it were words, it might be: “Goodbye.”
Then Sylvia lets Jenny go and turns to her once-master and recent enemy. She’s covered in mud and blood, but it doesn’t look like any of it is hers. Which is amazing, all things considered. She inclines her head and her eyes close. Her shoulders sink. Her hands open. “I will carry you. Take from me what you need. Take it all.”
Maya acknowledges her gesture with a burning stare. “You tried to leave me. To set aside this burden. That you are least wounded does not make you best choice.”
“Let me set it right.” Sylvia’s downcast eyes hurt to look upon.
Maya replies: “Pensri can carry me. A better warrior than you. She never questioned her duty.”
“Then she does not know its meaning.” Sylvia lifts her blue gaze to plunge deep into Maya’s peacock eyes. That thing which remained of her when all else was broken answers the spirit’s question. It’s strange to know Sylvia’s mind so clearly. Conveyance comes in the shift of her fingers, the subtle shade of expression in posture and aura hue. If it were words, it might be: “I who have left your path before, will help you find it again in the dark.”
The laughing girl’s pale arm rises like the line of a kite from the earth. “Come then. Where there is duty there is hope.”
Sylva meets her palm to palm.
The Spirit speaks quickly: “You others, your duty is to live. Get to the other temple. They must be warned that we have fallen. When we are gone, the long ways I’ve made will stay open at least until the setting of the moon. Then strange will be the way.”
“What of me? How can I help?” I ask.
Sylvia’s blue eyes turn on me, like looking into a deep pool of clear water.
Maya smiles a hunting cat’s smile. “Do what you will.”
Then the endless moment ends and all action returns in a booming rush.
Sylvia lifts the Laughing Girl on her back, who clings there like a monkey as the littlest girl tosses her pistol at Jenny who catches it with surprise written large across her features as the three other survivors reach for Drydus with ready hands as he bends to let them climb onto his back as Pensri races past me up the stairs, carrying Gold Silk blindly but with sure steps as Tellerhorn shouts: “Run!” and Brass turns his back to us to move out the door behind the throne as a hundred rifles outside fire and a hundred bullets pepper the falling bricks like rain.
If they made some kind of plan in that moment outside time I sure don’t know what it is.
I duck and cover as bullets ricochet around the dust and flame clouded room. When I look again Drydus is carrying four of the wounded ones out the door behind the throne, Pensri follows him, Jenny crouches there checking the pistol in her hands, Tellerhorn shouts at me, waving for me to follow him as he makes feet toward that dark portal and Sylvia, carrying the Laughing Girl, clears my head at a leap to land amid the remains of the lotus room.
She pauses where Agafya died to scoop up his war horn out of the pile of refuse. Then her flying steps carry her up the pile of rubble toward the temple’s front wall and out of sight into smoke and dust.
“Wait!” I shout after her and start to run.
“Mark!” It’s Jenny, running along the outer level to catch up with me. A still dying man with blood pouring from his mouth clutches at her dress and she almost falls, but she tears free and dodges back as one of the carved screens, fully ablaze, falls loose and onto her. The wood and fire crash over her like a wave. Her desperate scream sounds like tearing cloth.
She must have been knocked down because I lose her in the fire. I’m at the base of the pile of rubble Sylvia scaled and it scrapes my bare feet as I stub my toes in the ascent. The gap in the outer wall opens before me, but I turn back to race toward where Jenny fell. Something small and tin-can shaped bounces past me, spouting white smoke.
My eyes burn. Fire rises in a wall. The heat sears my feet. After the agonies of the day, I should be able to handle it, but if I go any further my clothes will burn. The can of smoke -a smoke grenade- floods the air around me even as the fire spreads far too quickly. Through that pillar of grey Jenny leaps like an angel of hell, her sack-cloth dress aflame. She hits the ground next to me and doesn’t slow. Her running feet sweeping her toward the blasted hole in the wall like a gust of wind. I follow.
“You’re on fire!” I shout after her, but she’s faster than me. The hole emerges from the smoke, a gap outlined by crumbling brick. She races through, heedless of the handful of riflemen crouching in that egress. As I follow I have enough of a moment to witness their startled faces before I’m past them and slam into Jenny, knocking her off the brink of the second story opening and over the ladder they’d used to ascend.
The flaming cloth of her dress flaps around us. I smell smoke as we tumble into pouring rain. The street outside is a wall of falling water and for a moment it feels like freedom.
Then wet mud hits us like a giant’s fist. Jenny lands on top. Her head smacks my sternum and all the wind leaves me. It wasn’t that far of a fall, but the stormy sky spins. Jenny writhes like a snake and rolls off me. I blink, trying to clear the smoke from my eyes and my head at the same time. My lungs grate. I force them to fill.
Men shout all around us.
I roll over and press my hands to the mud to lift my head. Rain anoints my face like a shower. Jenny’s next to me, rolling in the mud to douse the stubborn fire in her clothing. Machines rumble. A circle of rifles surrounds us. The men holding the weapons were set to climb the ladder, but now they backpedal and turn their guns toward us.
Light like a search-lamp from the sky sweeps through the falling water, passing over two of them. In that white, their life boils away and they fall to their knees, faceless and momentarily shuddering.
Jenny springs like a deer for the gap the light made in the line of guns. I follow. We haven’t made it three steps when marks of the riflemen’s aggression reach for us. I throw myself into Jenny as the guns thunder and bullets buzz. We scramble, half crawling and half running to the cover of a dead car. My jacket clings to mud-soaked ankles as she pulls me behind the engine block.
Dust and thunder settle around us and water pours from the sky. Jenny, swearing and spitting, shimmies out of her smoking dress and throws it down.
For a moment I wonder if she’s gone mad, but though the dress lands in a puddle it continues to burn in rainbow colors, making the water crack and hiss.
“Tanks!” she shouts, as she chambers a bullet in her pistol. “The army! I told you!”
“Watch their aggression! You can’t dodge the bullets but you can dodge where they aim-” Out of the deluge something huge and dark rumbles like a charging rhino. Jenny’s arms pull me sideways and the thing slams into the dead vehicle we came over, crushing it like a dry gourd. Grinding treads spray mud and water with a sound half clockwork and half thunder. We scramble away from that mechanical behemoth but another looms from the torrent like a whale emerging from the sea, blocking our advance. The second grinds to a halt in the muddy river that is the road. Jenny rises to a crouch beside the huge cogs of its treads with her white eyes wide and searching.
The muzzle flash of the tank gun makes her pale skin shine behind the black of mud and I think for an instant the red of her bra and knickers is blood. The gun fired up, away from us. My ears are tin pots rung with a hammer.
Where are the other soldiers? There should be men around the tanks.
The halted machine behind Jenny fires its cannon again, not into the building, but into the sky. The boom of the shell exploding somewhere above in the dark hits my chest like a fist.
Jenny and I both look up to seek what it’s shooting at.
A light shines up there, behind boiling cloud and falling rain. It darts and dances, spilling its radiance into the streets below in gouts of gleaming power that split the clouds like sunlight. One beam of that power sweeps across the street a dozen yards from us. Through the curtain of rain, we see it sear the life from a line of green-clad army men crouched by the factory wall. The light passes, leaving behind a row of empty corpses threaded with those veins of empty.
Then the light fades up into clouds. It linger there like the threat of lightning.
Jenny looks to me, then to the sky, then back to me. She says, with a note of awe: “The things I do for my sister.”