Jenny raises her pistol as if to fire at the darting light high above, but her hand pauses. Uncertainty stills her. She glances at me.
The first war machine grinds into motion in a spray of mud. It moves away from us and its gun swivels, blindly searching the sky. The rumble of a dozen other tanks sounds in the earth and all around us, a bass underscore to the tintinnabulation of my tortured ears.
Jenny turns to me with eyes that shine white in some hidden light.
“Screw!” She whispers and I read her lips. Her body is a deer ready to spring. “Listen! General Khonom will be nearby! He’s the kind to lead from the front. Maybe he’ll listen to me?”
The gun of the tank above her turns our way and red aggression washes from an eye below that barrel, but even as I tense to throw myself at Jenny again, to dodge whatever aggression comes, a running figure leaps up the back of the tank like it were stairs and comes to the open eye below its muzzle with some kind of automatic weapon. It’s Sylvia, still carrying the laughing girl on her back, but now holding a sub-machine gun in both hands. She fires into the tank’s window and Jenny throws me sideways as the big gun spits fire over our heads.
Water and mud geyser. Ears ring. I may well have been shot, but I’ve gone numb. I have to trust my body will stop working when it’s too badly hurt.
Jenny crouches next to me, looking up at something and clutching her pistol in her right hand. It’s her pistol. Not a memory of the custom carved colt woodsman I left lying on the pavement in Chicago, but the thing itself. Did Drydus have it? How did she get it back? When did she get it back? The coincidence breathes a gust of delight over my fogged senses.
“Move,” she says, shaking me without looking at me. “Move!”
Sylvia drops the submachine gun and turns to look down at us. The tank stands still and quiet beneath her feet. Clinging to her back like a child, the Laughing Girl stares at us with eyes that reflect the lightning. She passes Agafya’s trumpet into Sylvia’s hands.
“The monkey shrine,” Sylvia pauses in the act of lifting the horn, and a wild red power curls in her lungs to drift like smoke from her lips with each word. “By the market. Run.”
“Sylvia?” Jenny throws out one hand. “I know the General! He might listen to me!”
Sylvia pauses. Maya whispers in her ear. A tank fires a flare into the sky that lights a second sun.
She says: “Run.”
“Cover your ears!” I shout to Jenny, not sure it will help. As pressed palms mute the battle, the horn sounds around us.
It’s like running from an ocean wave. The horn’s scream rolls past us, lifts us, and thrusts us onward. Red as blood, red as anger, red as strife. The effect on the soldiers of the thai army is less pleasant. At the mouth of the road leading into the market, right where Jenny died, a tank stands as a barricade. Around it, a half a hundred soldiers fall in shuddering heaps, clutching at their ears and screaming.
Pity moves in me. The poor bastards had no idea what they were getting into. They’re caught between a firestorm and an ocean.
Then the sound ends and all their writhing agony turns to violence.
“The shrine!” Jenny’s voice is terse, tight, and very loud, “the shrine! Look!”
A pillar of light sweeps the intersection ahead of us. In that river of power, a hundred red-blazing figures among the market stalls are burned empty in an instant. But at the market’s edge the light splits against the shrine wall in a rainbow blaze like that wall were a keel cutting the river of power.
“Come on!” It’s not a plea, it’s a command, and I obey.
Many men stand between us and where we need to be; men carved hollow by the light and men warped to fury by the horn. They are all wild.
Jenny moves me and I move her, moment to moment, meter by meter, cover to cover, step by step up the road of mud and bodies.
We live on the edge of one mistake, in the space between bullets and bayonets. She amazes me – how quickly she’s learned to see the lines of incoming attacks, how courageously she leads forward into hell, how she never misses a shot, or takes a shot she can’t make.
And it is not enough. They are too many.
At the market’s edge she turns to me, eyes wide. It is a sea of violence. There is no angle to advance not barred by struggling bodies. Beyond them the monkey shrine shines like a waterfall and somehow Sylvia has come there already – she stands beyond the gate, looking up into the sky with Maya’s eyes burning bright at her shoulder.
Jenny sets her jaw. She means to force her way through.
“Wait!” I catch her sleeve. I close my eyes and gather my will. “Follow me.”
Jenny steps to my rear.
The world is broken glass. The colors peel back and the cracks spread. I pour my will into the mars, into the breaking, the ending of things, and the time fire rises.
I seek, see, and rend.
All light and color fades from the world as blow after blow carves us a path through body upon body.
They turn upon me. Fists and weapons swing and thrust. Guns bark. The fists and weapons shatter. The bullets break.
Unheeding, enemies fall on me like wind.
I need not fight, and they do not fear. Their grasping hands, their beating hearts, their lungs and bones, crash against kalagni and perish.
And I advance.
Each step pushes more against the weight of the world. The eyes of the city windows watch with black loathing. Condemnation stills me. The earth groans beneath hissing feet. The monkey gods of the shrine spit on me. The sky presses my shoulders with the weight of rain.
My knees buckle and I fall. Mud cracks beneath my hands, dries and smokes. Someone shatters his fist on my skull. Blood drops turn to dust against my eyes.
“Mark! Get up!” It’s Jenny’s scream, taut with frustration. She will die here.
I rise again. It’s a dozen steps to the gate – but beyond its iron bars the monkey gods blaze with hatred for me, for this power, for what I’ve done.
Their outstretched palms command me: no farther.
Black weight presses my head to mud.
A white body falls on me like a spit of sea foam, and I have to answer the death in its veins with the death in my hands, but I do not move. The empty in its face calls me to a depthless sleep.
Jenny shouts: “Move!”
A growl rushes close and a hound catches the hollow’s face with a snapping bite – a hound composed of matted fur and scars. Canine jaws tear the hollow away. Jenny’s gun speaks and the empty thing vaporizes in a flash of white.
She can see the mars.
She’s almost weeping and her gun shakes in her hand, but her other pulls me by the throat. The dog circles, barking and biting.
Mud moves beneath me – the warped glass world, wet with rain, answers her demand to move.
Jenny’s gun flashes left and right.
A great space seems open around me, endless, bright, waiting for me to fall up into it.
Jenny is a half-dozen yards away, struggling to swing the iron gate of the shrine closed. We’re inside. How did we get inside? The hound bounces off her knee as it rushes inside and knocks her foot from under her. She slips and falls, sliding in the mud, but with a grunt and twist of her hips manages to throw her weight behind the sliding gate. It slams shut. Then she, with a breath that’s half a sob, lunges from where she’s fallen, catches the long handle of the iron latch and throws it down. Hollow faces grasp for her at the gate.
She’s out of their reach, crouching in the mud, safe behind the door, and panting for breath.
“Sylvia!” Jenny screams. “Sylvia! We’re here!”
The effort of the shout folds her forward over her knees. Dark mud marbles her skin.
Monkeys scream all around us, running and leaping like the crash of storm waves.
“Mark!” She scrambles to crouch next to me. Tears drip from her white eyes, “they’re all dead! Why are they all dead? Did I die? Is this hell? Am I in hell? What’s happening?”
She lets the gun sink into the mud under her hands, and as I look into her face, I see only things to break.
I want to answer her, but it comes out as a string of pleading syllables – pleading for meaning, pleading for something permanent. I have to give in, to swing away into a white world where decay has won and pain is not.
“Please,” Jenny leans over me. Her gun sits in the mud by her knee. She reaches for, but doesn’t touch, me, like I’m something precious made of lace and on fire. “Please. Please.”
Behind her, Sylvia emerges from the rippling power of the shrine like she’s coming up out of water.
The rainbows of the laughing girl’s aura capture me, hold me here, even as the mars paint her with cracks.
Sylvia sinks to a crouch. Maya’s lips grip her neck and blood drips from between them. Agafya’s horn hangs from its strap at her side. The monkeys along the wall top all fall silent and the temple’s pack of feral dogs cease barking to turn their luminous eyes on her.
“What? Sylvia what’s happened?” Jenny gets her feet under her but stays crouching between me and her sister. Her hand fumbles in the mud for the dropped gun.
“Come and dance with me,” Says Sylvia in a harmony with Maya. “We will end this.”