Two hundred rifles with fixed bayonets sparkling in the sudden bloom of lamplight scatter into the camp-yard. Two hundred voices yell wild defiance against whatever enemy comes.
They are not disappointed.
Invisible to them, Sylvia sways like a viper. The set of her feet makes signs in the power whirling about her, signs that ripple the air and leech all color, it seems to me, into the spectrums of grey. I focus my eyes on the physical world and my mind on the pains in my palms and ankles, the bug bite itch and the smell of gunpowder. The light show fades, but Agafya and his lieutenants remain, in the flesh, in the open, where all of the soldiers see, and turn their rifles.
A distant boom rattles the night sky over the popcorn chatter of rifle-fire.
The huge man hefts his sword and grins. The lady beside him shrugs a submachine gun into her hands from the strap over her shoulder. The Dog-man looses his hounds.
The hundred rifles scatter fire in an undisciplined shit-storm but their targets vanish like smoke. I squint and struggle to follow their movements, but in the clouds of aggression billowing over the camp all I glimpse are whispers of bare feet charging the rifle-men, unimpressed by the bullets that tear through the air to eat chunks of stone around and under them.
Two more booms startle birds from the trees, and finally the sky sings three high, whistling notes, dropping through octaves in chorus.
“Mortars!” shouts Tellerhorn in surprise.
I grab his shirt and drag him to the paving stones an instant before explosions pop the three big tents like party balloons. My clothes whip in the wind from the blast and a thousand hands slap pointy fingernails against my body. A thick cloud of dust, dirt, and shattered stone rolls over us like an ocean wave.
“Hell and hellfire,” swears the doctor, barely audible over the high whine of my tortured ears and the bellow and clash of arms.
Rifle fire cuts in from the night, sudden and from every direction. The muzzle flashes outnumber the fire-flies, and their bullets skip off the stones of the court in an invisible, lethal hail. Groups of British soldiers spreading and searching as Agafya and his lieutenants ghost among them are scythed down by that sudden fire. Bits of stone and metal sting at my exposed back, and dirt and smoke choke the air.
The mortars were incendiary, the tents burn with a hellish fury. No-one is shooting back.
It’s only been a couple of seconds.
Looking away from the fire, I see the river as a black wall. Somewhere on its face, at a distance indeterminable in the dark, three spikes of white fire flash up and vanish, propelling three more mortars into the sky. There’s a boat on the water.
Tellerhorn pushes me off him.
I look for a way out. Guns on every side spit their lead and red hatred, focusing on the soldiers who scatter with their guns waving in the air and war cries still hot on their lips. All traces of discipline were shattered by the power in the horn’s call.
A pair of sightless eyes stare at me from a face with a dozen healed scars and one red hole. Behind those eyes, something white and empty blooms amid the fading greens of his life. I’m sliding back from him as his life flows out and his memory fades to nothing. Why am I sliding?
The doctor drags me. I roll over to crawl with him. A stack of crates near an overturned rowboat a few dozen yards from the river offers temporary shelter.
Screams, running feet and the thunder of guns rattle the very air, but no-one shoots our way. I blink and gander, feeling stupidly exposed and strangely invulnerable. Tellerhorn stares past the crate edge and through the rushing of many bodies to the artifact tent.
I see no way out but to try to swim past the boat and hope the dark armors us. That or surrender.
I could surrender.
Three more mortars strike. When the fire and thunder cease, I open my eyes to see the artifact tent in flames, along with all the plant-life near it. Of the tent which housed the prophet Daniel Thames, nothing remains but twisted rags and fire.
Yet somewhere in the smoke, the bagpiper still plays undeterred.
Riflemen from outside the camp perimeter rush down the bowl to bring machetes and bayonets to bear against the commandos still crouching at the camp’s edge. Smoke and aggression flow so thick it’s hard to see the action.
Agafya comes like a charging bull through the haze and into a band of soldiers crouched by Captain Brass’s tent, now aflame. The huge blade scythes this way and that, powerful strokes that cut through a raised rifle like it was a flower stalk. The soldiers back away in an expanding circle and turn their guns to him but he’s gone, vanished into the smoke, leaving behind three headless corpses.
“Doctor, the river!” I shout, but he crawls away.
“Go!” he replies. “I have to get some things.”
“What?! Are you nuts?”
Tellerhorn pauses still a few yards from me to look back. Blood trickles from a nick in his forehead, and dirt and dust coat his face like he’s been in a coal mine. He looks like he wants to say something, but isn’t sure what.
“Run along!” he shouts. “I’ll be right behind you.”
He gives a cheery little wave and then shimmies away behind an outcropping of stone, toward the towering inferno that was the artifact tent.
This is madness. Fighters in a fighting pit I can handle. Crazy visions might be crazy but at least they’re a little like dreaming. This is war, and I am utterly unprepared. My hammering heart wants me to move, but my singing nerves want me to stay in the dubious shelter of the crate’s shadow. A vague memory of my father surfaces:
“In battle you run,” he said, as if he knew what he was talking about. “You run until you die.” He was probably lying. I have no idea if he’d ever seen a war.
But I move, crawling as fast as I can.
Gunfire is everywhere but I make it to the base of a bush with huge, heart-shaped leaves. Despite the sheltering shadows an angry buzzing cuts a branch from above my head. Shimmying onward, around the bush’s base, I see an open space a dozen yards long and the nine fingered sergeant behind an overturned row-boat. He’s sheltering his face as shots from some kind of machine gun tear up the boat in a cloud of splinters.
Beyond the boat and off to my right, Captain Brass and a dozen soldiers crouch behind a fallen pillar, pinned down by tracer-fire like falling hail.
I should leave. I could crawl away. I’m not on their side really. I certainly can’t charge the machine-gun, even though the line of its aggression points out its position with perfect clarity. That same line tells me it has a clear field of view over any angle that might lead to it except…
The Sergeant catches my eye and shakes his head. He’s an instant’s width from death. I gesture an angle, and then another angle, and then point to him. I can’t tell if he understood, but he nods.
A pillar lays on its side in the courtyard, between me and the river. I give the sergeant a salute and make break for it, standing tall and visible as I run. The gunfire turns off the boat to chase me.
In that break in the fire the sergeant sprints off directly along the angle I gave him, straight into the cover of the brush beneath the gunners, leaving behind a cackle of laughter.
The bullets catch up as I come behind the column. Chunks of grit spray my arms and the cacophony of impacts rattles my mind like a pea in a pod. I cover my face as splinters of lead and stone sting me like bees.
Two short bursts of pistol fire end the barrage.
“Eat shit you limp-rod lilies!” The sergeant’s shout beckons me to look. He’s taken the gun position and turns the gun around to open fire again, this time pointed away, toward whoever had the Captain pinned down. I can’t see through the smoke and fire, but he might give the Captain a chance.
“You’re welcome, Captain.” I mutter, as I squeeze a penny-shaped chunk of stone out of my forearm. “Mark Simmons professional adventurer. I’ll just slide my bill under your tent-flap.”
Sylvia pauses by the rags of Brass’s tent and looks right at me. The smoke and fire make her seem a mirage, but her eyes shine as if by their own light. She holds a pistol in one hand and a severed head in the other, trailing most of its spine like it was torn off by blunt force. As she studies me across the steaming stone, the red stripe of a rifleman’s aggression slides onto her from somewhere deep in the smoke. She coolly sidesteps the sniper shot carried by that aggression and fires back along its line. That her bullet hit its mark is confirmed by the flash of wound-colors in my second sight and a cry of pain. Then she turns toward the sergeant and raises that severed head. Dark transparent maggots swarm from the skull’s eyes and mouth in a squirming river through the air, cutting a festering black scar in the night of red fire and red aggression.
The screams of the sergeant and others caught in that torrent sound like hell’s laugh.
Sylvia drops her grizzly weapon, glances at me again, and then darts into the officer’s tent as if the roaring flames did not concern her.
I want to throw up but my guts are too light, too buzzing. A few bullets come my way. I can’t tell if they’re aiming at me or missing someone else.
I crawl to the end of my protective column. There’s nothing between me and the water but open space and no shield but shadow. Its twenty yards. Too far to sprint so I lay flat and shuffle on, trusting smoke and darkness. The stone bruises my knees and elbows. My breath fights for depth against the panic of angry bullets buzzing near, the raucous echoes of gunfire, and the pained, fearful, and shattered screaming of defeated men from every side but forward.
Ten yards. Eight. The bagpipe drones like a dirge.
Pale arms emerge from the water and slender fingers grip the cobblestones of the pier. They’re followed by a body, drab skin stained black by a waterfall of dark hair, wet from the river. Hunched shoulders ripple with muscle under a golden tunic of silk so wet and clinging I think for an instant it’s skin. She crouches, coiled, at the water’s edge as her black eyes scan the camp. I don’t know this face, round and narrow eyed. She must be one of Sylvia’s friends; one of the girls from Bitter Flower. I might have seen her there, but I can’t be sure. Her gaze settles on me and the white teeth in her grimace glint from the firelight. A knife comes to her hand from some sheath behind her back and she flows toward me like a jaguar toward a lonely fawn.
I rise to a crouch. As I focus on her, the whirling azure and red in her aura peel back as if blown by the wind of my gaze, revealing those ugly flaws which I know I can strike to break her bones or body.
Yesterday I would have taken the challenge in her face and tested my fists against her knife. But behind the sounds of the battle I hear my mother’s cry. That is not the way.
I don’t want to kill this woman.
She’s four meters from me now, half crawling. She stops, her stance wide and low, with her right hand on the ground as if resisting a strong wind. Scars beneath her black eyes wrinkle as she bares her teeth at me, then she raises her palm and stamps her feet in a rhythm. At each blow power rises like smoke from the stones – power in the shades of old memory, fighting, fire, and running feet. A sweep of her hand lifts those ghosts in a haze between us – a transparent wall like a mottled window into a confusion of past times. It blocks my sight of her inner body, of her memory, aura, and weaknesses, but she doesn’t attack. Her eyes dart from Maya’s mark on my chest to the war behind me.
“Let me pass,” I say. “I am no enemy.”
The cacophony of battle aches in my ears, but somehow I hear her whispered words as clear as a bell, and though I don’t recognize the language, I understand: ‘Neither are you a friend.’
Fear chews at my belly. The metal hailstorm has passed and the shooting is methodic, regular, and sounds to be mostly inside the camp. Someone still fires back, and the bagpipes haven’t stopped.
“Sylvia saved my life,” I try, to see what she’ll do. “Sylvia Rubicon. Wren.”
Her dance stutters. The taut muscles of her calves and left arm against the ground vibrate like high tension cables. The shifting firelight and flicker of muzzle flashes make the spilled ink that is her hair glint.
Another woman, this one dressed in a hard leather cuirass, rises from the water. As she creeps across the stone to pause at Gold Silk’s shoulder, she unlimbers a long, hooked sword from her back.
The first out of the water sweeps her hand and the fog between us collapses into the stone like rain. She closes her eyes and then opens them, exactly like a cat, then waits for me to respond. A gesture of trust? Trusting that I won’t attack when her eyes are closed? I close my eyes. Someone screams in the camp, the battle cry of one who is about to die. Rifles crackle like firefly sparks. Somewhere outside the camp, and getting further away, a small group looses controlled bursts from automatic weapons; their concise salvos stand out among the ragtag of tempo-less shooting. Maybe it’s Brass.
The girl before me has a knife and the other a sword. The movement to open my throat would be as casual to them as nudging a cup off of the dinner table.
When I open my eyes, the two ladies have been joined by a boy. He’s taller, attired in silk sleeves and a bronze breastplate that reflects firelight. All three wear the memory of white lotus flowers in their hair, and the newcomer has also a peacock feather.
Gold-Silk gestures to the others, and those two dart past, running like a prairie fire toward the tents and fighting. The first, her knife still bare, dampens my shoulder with her empty palm. In her aura, the memory of a cobra coils around her arm and lifts its head to flick a forked tongue at me.
‘Tonight we hunt,’ the girl says. ‘Stay off the road until dawn.’
Then she’s past me toward battle, fast as a snake striking.
Breath fills my lungs. My heart tries to hammer itself a new weapon on a forge that’s fired by my churning gut.
I’ve got to thank Nai for humbling me; if I’d tried my fists against them, I’d be dead.
There have been no more tongues of light from the mortars, so I don’t know where the boat is on that black wall of water, but it must be close.
The stone pier drops about six inches into pitch black. I slip one leg over the side and relief rises in my body as if the leg had a hole and the chill water were rushing in and filling me up, cooling the fires in my stomach. I try to test the bottom, but I find only the stone side of the pier and an unknown depth below it, bitter cold below the top six inches.
I lower myself into that chill shelter and then pause, looking back over the lip of stone.
Slaughtered bodies litter the campground and Agafya’s men stalk through the firelight, shooting into tents and the bodies of survivors, but the ongoing flash and pop of weapons around the outside of the camp doesn’t seem to all point inward. The camp belongs to the attackers, but the fighting continues among the trees.
The slap of an oar against water warns of an approaching boat. I let go of the edge and sink below the surface, pressing my feet against the stone wall to push away into the black waters of the Cho Phraya.
The bagpiper plays on. Underwater, his sound turns strange.