Ash and bhetel nut camouflage the Dog-man’s naked body in waiving lines such that were he not moving I would have overlooked him, though he’s only a few yards away. His long hair is matted, and chunks have been torn out. His eyes are a gaping ruin of seeping milky puss and scabbed flesh.
‘Suwarikaa,’ I say the greeting in Thai.
He doesn’t answer, but tilts his head to the side as he continues a circling walk that forces me to keep turning.
His aura churns with mouths. Fur and teeth overlap each-other in a writhing mass that extends past his fingertips and teeth and inside every part of him. Yellowed, crazed eyes glare from many places behind the dark of his skin. Through that matted tangle flow those lines of empty white that Danial Themes and Agafya had. They pool in the sockets of his skull.
“Uh, English?” I ask.
He answers with a loud bark and feints toward me, teeth bared. His breath reeks of rotten meat.
‘So Thai then.’ I say. ‘I wait for Agafya. Will you speak for him?’
His face twitches. His hands curl and then uncurl. His growl has enough wolf in it to make my heart take off at a sprint. But I don’t move. Instead, I try to keep the fear-wobble out of my voice even as he doubles back toward Jenny. This is one of the two that Drydus feared, who he hoped to kill by treachery. I have to say something to keep the peace until help comes, but I’m not sure what.
I frantically search my limited Thai vocabulary. His bare feet whisper across a polished floor while the mouths in his aura grin, snap, and snarl silently.
‘Your offering cools,” he growls, his voice a splintered and ugly thing, as though he had spent the last few hours screaming, and each word is trying to hide a laugh. “Will you clean it, or let it rot?’
‘Thin.’ he pauses over Jenny. ‘Not much meat. But young. Maybe Agafya eats, maybe not. If it makes him sick, you die.’
The words fall into the temple like stones down a well.
Jenny’s body lays at the feet of the throne, where you’d put something if you brought it as a gift. Bile jumps up my throat but I swallow it.
“No.” I settle my aching legs to a fighting stance. “No that’s not what’s going to happen.”
The muscles of my back pain me as I flex them. My skin feels stretched.
“No?” He barks.
“Cannibalism? Don’t that just beat it all.” I can’t help myself. “Just for, what, another deposit in your already overflowing Rockefeller bank of weird? You cannot be serious.”
The dog man barks again, louder, more angry. The many yellowed eyes in his aura shift, and there seem to be more teeth. He’s stopped with his back to the stairs that lead down to the lotus room. The stained sand of the pit is a brighter spot behind and below him, outlining his darker silhouette.
“I was gonna talk to ya, but then you go and say a thing like that.” I pause. “See, its people like you ruin a perfectly good party.”
His back arches and his head rocks back. A howl bursts from him, lung-blastingly loud and foaming with malice. With that sound still on his lips, his right fist makes an arch – a fast deadly swing at my jaw.
He’s quick, and the aggression in him gives me no warning, but I could fight well enough before I could ever see such things. I slip the punch and counter with a jab. My knuckles tag his cheek. He steps sideways, teeth bared, arms up and his empty eye sockets pointed straight at me. His body weaves and he throws two quick strikes to my face and kidney. I lean away from the first and catch the second on my elbow, following him back with a long right uppercut which his sidestep evades.
His hooks come from left and right, his knees and feet from below. His laughter and that horrible black aura fill my world, and I retreat, catching blows on my elbows, forearms and ribs. I fear to close for a grapple, takedown or clinch. I don’t want to know what will happen if he holds me close enough that his aura might bite.
A sense of someone moving behind me makes me turn to angle my retreat until wooden paneling strikes my back. I slide along it, ducking, evading, parrying. With such an aggressive attack, he’ll wear himself out.
For a moment I ride a sense of elation: This is an opponent Nai and Drydus both feared to face, and I’m doing it! I roll with his blows as I retreat down the long circle of the outer room until-
A punch knocks my guarding fist into my temple, rattling me. A knee drills into my ribs. I lash out with a shoving kick to keep him away, but he drops his elbow into my knee as I raise it and pain bursts there. The leg tingles but takes my weight as I spring sideways to get out of reach.
One of the room’s thick pillars stops my slid along the wall. I’m cornered, and his attack hasn’t slowed. Strong punches hook in around my guard or under it. I twist this way and that. Ribs begin to ache.
The empty in his eyes tells me that he’s had the Heros, and he’s at least as mad as Daniel Themes. He can see my aura as I see his. He won’t be fooled by feints, or fail to defend simple attacks. If I were Garland, I could meet his aggression with cool tactics, dancing out of his reach and waiting for him to tire, countering his strong punches and hitting him hard when he’s weak. Or if I could move as Garland does, automatically – without anger or thoughtful intention, then my aura would have nothing to tell him and his blind eyes wouldn’t see me coming. But I’m not Garland. I’m Summanus, and I’ve always fought with unbridled violence.
I know no other way.
A yell tears my throat and goes out to meet his cackling laugh in the room’s void. My fists follow. His knuckles hit my cheek. Mine hit his. We both stagger. He recovers swifter, a giggle ragged on his heavy breath provides the soundtrack to his lunge at me with an overhead right. I throw my forehead at his fist and meet it at the weak part of the swing. Dark light explodes before my eyes and his fingers pop like fireworks. I sway and throw the momentum of it into a long hook, blinded by the dark in my eyes.
My hook misses, but the following straight connects with a rib. The black of his aura swirls around the impact, and then in the shades of it I can finally see the weaknesses, those mars aren’t colored, but cracks of deeper black through his tortured body.
He steps back and cradles his rib with broken fingers. My head pounds with pain. His face turns toward me and his laugh splits into a growl, as though two voices use the same throat. The black swirls around his fasts, condensing into a heavy vortex full of biting mouths.
I spring at him, strikes as fast as I can make them so he has as little time as possible to defend, but he weaves his body and blocks with elbow and knee. His counter rakes my shoulder and his fingers catch the flesh in a shearing jerk. He has ahold of me!
I hammer blows into his ribs and face but his second hand closes on my belly like a toothed vice and I’m lifted from my feet. Pain blooms in both points of contact. He spins. I swing at his face as the world whirls and the dark boils but I can’t hit him.
Then I’m airborn. An instant later I smash into a carved screen that gives way against my back. I’m tumbling down the side of the lotus room in a shower of splinters. The screen crashes against pillows and couches to slide to a halt at the pit’s edge and I roll over my shoulder, kicking away a pillow to rise as quickly as I can to my feet. My shoulder and stomach burn where the mouths took away chunks of skin.
His laugh gives him away, though without it I might have lost his camouflaged body. He springs from the top of the waterfall stairs, throwing his whole body at me like a pouncing cat. Has he forgotten I can see him coming? What does he know that I don’t? I sidestep his hurling body and hold my arms up in guard, twisting to watch him sail by and land in the pit with an awkward tumble and splash of sand.
He rises slowly, one hand on his knee, and shakes his head. I walk, silent as I can, around the side of the pit.
There are movements and whispers from the dark of the upper level, as though many people enter the room along its outer edge.
I stop at the bottom of the stairs and crouch, my eyes wide, searching for weaknesses and listening for what these new-comers are up to.
My opponent turns his head my way and as his sightless eyes align with me, his grin widens.
“Come,” he says, waving one hand at me to join him in the pit.
“In a bit,” I reply, and swing my fist down to smash the lock on the gate at the pit’s edge.
A moment passes in silence. My opponent tilts his head, his grin fixed. Then he takes a step toward me.
A nose nudges the gate open and sniffs the air. My opponent crouches and growls. The beast behind the nose growls back, and then surges out of the gate in a blur of malicious dog.
It’s a big one. Golden fur, jowls like a bull-dog but a body like a bear, lean, starved muscle ripples under a patchwork of whip scars. His snarl has that vicious animal ugly which speaks to the old monkey in all of us, saying: ‘You are meat.’
My opponent crouches low and lashes out as the dog hurdles at him. The hard-cutting punch snaps the hound’s muzzle to the side. In the same sawing movement, the painted man plants a shoulder under the hound’s muzzle and lifts its fore-feet into the air. It snarls and gnashes its teeth but can’t bite the bare shoulder against its throat or get purchase with flailing nails. The wild man bites the nape of the hound’s neck. With a mighty twist, he swings its hind legs across the sand. Its growl turns to a bark of frustration. Then the madman grabs the dog by the groin and the nape of its neck and swings it face first into the pit’s wooden wall.
I walk carefully, as quiet as I can.
The dog whimpers and shudders, rights itself but only to crawl away from him with its belly to the ground. His laughter mocks it. His painted chest is a pumping engine as he looks up at the ring of faces around the outer level, and raises a fist.
“Good fight,” I tell him, from just behind.
He spins around, swinging. I could have killed him when his back was turned. Didn’t seem quite right. His punch is wild, predictable. I catch him across the chin, though I miss the weakness waiting there by a quarter inch. His head snaps back. His knee comes up almost automatically as he staggers, driving into my groin hard enough to lift me to my toes. The pain is a red hook. It doesn’t stop me guiding a blow to his sternum with all the care I need.
His ribs explode as if hit by a jackhammer.
He squelches as his meat hits the sand of the pit, and a long wheeze whispers from his tortured lungs. It takes me a moment to notice that a similar wheeze, though higher pitch, is escaping my own throat. I gingerly touch my groin, and look around. Everything seems intact. The dog watches me, its nostrils flaring.
I climb from the pit as quick as I’m able, and the dog inches out of the shadows. Its eyes linger on me, but it glances at the fallen man.
A rustle from the balcony draws my attention. There are a half a hundred people there, moving in a group around the edge toward the stairs. I watch for a moment before they cross the gap where I knocked the wooden screen out. In that gap, the lamp-light reaches them and I can see clearly. They’re mostly nude, though some have the rags of soldier’s garb – torn cottons or officer’s uniforms. They walk slowly, in a mass, each with its hands pressed to the body of whichever is nearest. But even in the dark, their faces are black pits of empty, featureless, swallowing, darker then the shadows around them, and seething with that white nothing which isn’t light or dark.
That same pale nothing moves in ribbons in their veins where life or memory should be. Death moves in them. Death can’t move. Death just is. They shouldn’t be moving. Jenny can’t move. My mother can’t move. Death can’t move.
But it is.
There’s a snarl, a rush, and a meaty snap as the hound goes for the fallen man’s throat. The beast worries and tears, my stomach turns in loops, and a ripple of black mouths washes out of the pit to lap against the hollow’s ankles.
At that touch they become a river of moving bodies, pouring toward me.