43. Fear

I rush him in a wild, desperate charge. My breath is a blasting trumpet playing the tune of I’m about to die.

Agafya sees my wave of unfocused aggression and turns his black eyes on me.

Fear.

His eyes hold nothing but fear – a raw animal terror like a dog in a cage.

He raises the diamond and I juke left. He dodges easily. I’m no out-fighter, I can’t feint him. He flashes a kick to keep me back.

The light from the gem pushes against a fog around me like a reaching hand.

Maya’s arm reaches over my shoulder as if she were riding on my back. The smoke of anima glows tight and bright like a peacock feather shield, but those feathers wither and burn in the diamond’s heat.

Agafya steps once toward me, and pushes the stone close. I try to dodge sideways but there is no escape.

Pale arms close around Agafya’s neck in a perfect choke hold, and Sylvia sinks her teeth into his shoulder.

He roars, a lion’s bellow that kicks up dust from the floor and the light turns on her. But I’m on him, reaching for his marred body with swinging fists.

He dances back, evading my blows with ease even with Sylvia’s weight on him. I could never have beaten this man. Not after a dozen years of training, not even if he didn’t have the diamond or the monstrous, inhuman strength. He moves like a featherweight out-fighter and hits like an actual cannon. I keep the blows coming with no worry for strength or effect. It’s almost casual, like I’m shadow boxing. I’ll never hit him with any strength, he’s too good. But I don’t have to – he fears my hands. All I have to do is keep him retreating while Sylvia cuts off his breath.

But he knows that too. He counters with the diamond-hand – a fast jab. With his strength I can’t let him even clip me. But as I dodge back I misjudge the length of his arm and the end of the blow touches my fist, driving my thumb into my mouth and making black stars explode before my eyes.

In the instant my world is still rocking, his long leg sweeps toward me in a shove. Instinctively I raise my knee to block, but with his strength, it’s a futile gesture. A mar on the ball of his foot shines white. I put my knee there.

I’m airborne in a spray of skin and muscle. The pit passes me as my breath explodes from my lips. My heels hit something soft and the world turns to a tumbling mess of cloth and hard wood.

The Temple of Maya spins around me. The bronze bowl hanging from the ceiling has a dozen wicks around its rim, and the whole thing is swaying. How long have I been staring at it?

There are cracks through my whole body, as if the skin and muscle were split, but I can’t see those cracks with my eyes or feel them with my hands. Ah yes. Kalagni. Anima. Get on with it, Summanus. Death is no end.

I throw off the pillows covering me and roll to my knees, but have to steady myself against the still tilting world and the crackling agony in my muscles. He knocked me back a dozen yards, though how much of that I rolled I don’t know. I’m bruised, split, aching and broken, but somehow, whole. I have the correct number of limbs and fingers.

Agafya on his knees is still a tower of fat, hair and muscle. Blood pools around the ruins of the foot he kicked me with. Sylvia’s ankles are locked around his waist, her arms around his throat, and her teeth in the flesh of his shoulder. Her face is a worming mess of white and color. He pounds the diamond against her skull with strokes made awkward by the angle, but each blow and flash of light make her anima and her hold a little less.

In the other direction, there are bodies all up the stairs. Papkao lays in a pool of blood, hers and others. By her side crouches the girl in gold silk, her face painted a scarlet war mask and her silken clothes matted and dark.

A gunshot tears through the heavy air and a bullet slaps into Agafya’s gut. His legs twitch and both his bulging eyes and mine look around for the shooter.

Brass has propped himself against the pit wall to my left, beside the corpse of the warrior whose revolver he’s taken. His rumpled shirt is spotted with blood and his face half-covered with cloying sand. He frowns and shakes his gun. Sand pours from the barrel and chambers.

Agafya raises the shining gem, his eyes full of fury, and Brass’s gun clicks and grinds.

A second pistol shot rips over my head to hit the diamond in a shower of sparks. A second shooter? The gem springs from the Russian’s hand like a falling star. It bounces once and rolls away toward the stairs.

Agafya heaves himself to his knees, lifting Sylvia who still clings to his back. With a desperate surge he throws himself after the gem.

But so do I.

As I dive for the stone Brass’s gun bangs but the bullet goes wide. Agafya’s hand catches my coat, arresting my momentum. His choked roar is a waterfall bearing down about me. His hand pinches my skin, threatening to fold me and my coat like crumpling paper. But my fingers wrap around the smooth, cool surface of the gem. I close my eyes, pull the diamond against my belly and curl around it.

The wrenching hand grabs at my wrists as Agafya’s shadow falls over me. His hand, stronger than both of mine together, pries my fingers from the stone with irresistible power. One blow from that hand and I’ll be dead.

Sylvia’s foot flashes between us, striking Agafya’s good arm at the elbow.

It folds the wrong way with a pop. His fingers lose their strength.

Agafya falls to his side as the broken arm bows under him. His face lands inches from mine. Next to his ear, Sylvia’s lips drip with his blood but her face is blank, detached, and calmly satisfied as she recoils the kicking leg around his body and tightens her choke hold on his throat. Her toes wiggle into the bullet wound on his belly.

His eyes bulge, his face purples. He tries to gasp out a word past her perfect choke-hold, but it comes as a croak.

There’s sadness in Sylvia’s eyes. Hatred also, but though the ghost of regret touches her features, she still pushes her elbows together and her toes deeper. The veins in Agafya’s face expand like balloons. He grasps for her ankle with a broken arm, tries to pull her foot out of his guts, but his fingers are weak. The colors of the aura behind his eyes are all yellow, all fear, pulsing in final, frustrated need. His legs kick for purchase in a slow and desperate stretch.

From a hand’s with away, I watch certainty enter his eyes; it’s over now. His only hope is mercy, but in her face I see none.

The fear fades. He seems to relax. I had not noticed the grey among his dark beard and mane, or the worry wrinkles beside his eyes. I had not seen the deep smile lines, hidden in his beard. He mouths a word, meant for me, but I don’t understand.

I stand, dizzy and with a stomach full of worms.

The Gold Silk girl approaches me, reaching for the diamond.

‘Let me?’ she says. ‘It must be hidden.’

The cold weight of the thing rests in my cupped hands. It feels egg-shell thin, and the white curls out if it like steam. Where it touches my hand the mars burn white and I can feel that emptiness moving and growing as an increase of despair.

The girl has a flower in her hair and behind her eyes I see the laughing girl’s smile.

“Right,” I say. ‘Alright.’

I let her take it and she sheds her shirt to wrap the diamond in it. The bloodstained silk seems to carry blue sigils deep inside it. It catches the pooling steam of white, but a little light shines through like the sun behind clouds. As I stare, I get the sense its staring back.

I look away but Sylvia slowly squeezing the Russian’s life from him like the last juice from an orange is not a memory I will cherish. His feet shake. His broken arms are like beached fish.

My legs carry me as if I were floating in a river. A long-haired man in a loincloth has no face where the white moves in him so I kick the mar in his head before he can rise. Tellerhorn is helping Brass to stand and both watch me through flat eyes. The waterfall stairs run with blood. The girl carrying gold silk makes it halfway up before she sits down to rest, nursing bleeding cuts on both forearms and thighs. A puncture wound in her lower back oozes something dark. My restless legs carry me past her.

There aren’t many left.

The black and white woman stalks the outer level, hunting the last of Agafya’s men. Her armored footfalls clatter behind the wrecked screens in a brief chase. A man’s yell of surrender ends in a wet rattle. Others flee for other hiding places, and that bronze-woman follows them.

The girl with the feather in her hair who came with Gold Silk out of the Cho Phraya in Ayutthaya lies at the stairs top among a sprawl of other bodies. Many of them whimper, but none move. Her eyes stare as her chest shakes with tiny gasps.

I can’t help her. But I can help someone else.

“Hang in there everybody,” I say. “I think we won.”

“Did we?” Replies Tellerhorn. He crouches by Drydus’s side and as he speaks he rolls the big German onto his back to examine his temple. Brass lays with his back to a lotus bench nearby, watching Gold Silk with a flat expression.

“Will he live?” I ask, as I check Papkao’s pulse. Nothing. She’s been shot more times than I care to count.

“I think he’s nearly conscious,” Tellerhorn answers, surprised. “Smelling salts ought to do the trick.” He glances at Brass. “Make yourself useful would you? We have pillows and we need bandages. Tear up a few of the ugly ones?”

The officer taps the revolver against his thigh. His eyes narrow, then close. He reaches for the closest pillow, and begins tearing it into strips.

There are too many injured on the stairs. I pick the closest and kneel by her side – the red silk of her robe dimples into multiple bullet and bayonet wounds. She tries to catch my wrist as I check her pulse. The memories of snakes curl in her hair and coil around her wounds, but fade before my eyes into crackling white fire.

I manage a prayer as exhaustion closes in around me. “Maya, your children need your healing touch.”

“I am,” her whisper verges on nothing, and comes from nowhere, “I do. It fights me.”

My patient jerks, spasms, and then lays still. The white enters her. Her faces hollows. Beside her, the wounds of another shine brighter with rainbow power and grow closed before my eyes. The kalagni has taken one, the anima heals another. I kill the faceless one.

My legs sink me to sit on the stairs. There’s nothing left for me to do. Too many bodies. Too many dead.

“What fights you?” I can barely hear my own whisper. “We won.”

But the gasps of a slowly healing girl whisper in Maya’s voice: “Not yet. Not yet.”

Trickles of memory worm through the wood. The Temple’s colors bleach and bleed like dyes in water, diffusing into the streamers of white which trickle out of the many corpses. Those tendrils reach and wander like fingers in the dark, seeking something.

Death is everywhere except the alter throne – an island of rainbow in the fires of white. Beside that throne, resting her head against it with her eyes squeezed shut and a smoking pistol in her hand, sits Jenny.

“Screw.” Her word is a pained whisper but penetrates my ears like a shift bell ringing. “Hell of a party.”

One Reply to “43. Fear”

  1. Laura Moos says:

    Jenny!! Get that girl a crash course in heros stat. Also, might want to get her in front of Sylvia soonish. Might help. Maybe make sure Agafya’s solidly dead and not full of the white, first.

    But we got Jenny back, and that is so good. I am very relieved he pulled it off.

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