The chains around my wrists are marred and I break them with a shrug. The backlash swims up my arms in waves of regret begging me to despair, but I stand.
The fighting is all around. Less than five yards to my right, Papkao, with her bangles ablaze like the rings of many moons thrusts the blade of a two-meter-long spear through a yellow-toothed man. He sits to curl up around the wound in his chest, futilely trying to hold his lifeblood in with stained fingers. Papkao looks past him to me, momentarily uncertain if I am friend or foe, then she nods recognition and flashes a grin. Her aura smokes like a prairie fire but a white lotus seems to be slowly cooking in that heat.
I lift the golden bowl and turn my back on her, walking instead to the throne and Jenny’s corpse.
Tellerhorn crouches behind the carved alter, a saber raised and ready in his hand, but his eyes dart wildly.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says. “Which side are you on?”
I crouch by Jenny’s side. Her jaw clenches tight, but the matchbook I left there makes a funnel. As the heros trickles past her lips, I grab her ankles and drag her behind the throne. Tellerhorn shifts out of the way. I can see the drops of conjoined white and blue even through her skin as they worm and pinwheel like fireworks through her, curling into cells, pulsing down the dead channels which were once her veins and detonating in sprays of moving death and colored anima.
Papkao inches along the carved outer wall with her spear tip pointed at us.
“You free lady?” She tries in her limited English. “Lady free?”
‘Yes,’ I reply in Thai, over the clamor of rifle fire. I give her a thumbs up.
A fierce grin spreads across her face. Her gaze turns to the lotus room where Agafya fights. A red mist of pulsing aggression has risen around him, and the light of the gem struggles to penetrate it. In that mist move the swift bodies of warriors, circling him, lashing out with blades aimed at his back or legs. But he dances like a man a quarter his size, too swift to be easily caught. Even as I watch, one of the running fighters is hit by his fist and sent tumbling away through couches and pillows and into the wall.
Papkao the bangled spear maiden raises her arms to the sky and cries in Thai and a clear voice: ‘Hear me! The temple lives! No more of fear or the chains binding! For Maya! The Laughing Saint will laugh again!’
A light comes over her, a great beauty as if the heavens had opened through the tile roof, and many voices echo her call.
In that moment a chorus of gunshots rings out from behind her as a group of drug men volleys into the lotus room, raining lead into the flank of those who hunt Agafya. Papkao spins and races toward them, raising her spear and voice in a wordless yell of challenge. The gunmen turn their rifles on her. Bullets buzz and crack, spitting chunks of wood from the altar around me and stinging my face with splinters. She must have been shot – blood paints the air behind her – but the burning aura shows no injury and she leaps forward with her spear weaving like a tongue of that fire. The riflemen spread back, dismayed by the fierceness of her attack and for the moment the throne is safe behind the wall her spear makes.
I meet Tellerhorn’s gaze through the crack in his glasses. “Stay safe, Doctor. I’ve got to get that diamond away from Agafya or we will lose this fight.”
The small man’s eyes are as wild as his wispy hair, but his hand and his sword stay steady. He stands. Behind him Papkao’s weapon bats back and forth, knocking away bayonets that thrust and swipe at her. Other lotus wearers break away from the fight around Agafya to join her. She and they make a V, with the knot of riflemen between them.
“Stay safe?” says Tellerhorn, indignant. “No chance of that I’m afraid. I’m with you.”
The fighting fury pumping in my heart stirs a laugh from me as I turn toward the stairs. The room bathes in aggression, but an eddy of it warns of two men coming from the left, moving to strike at Papkao’s back. I stop before them and their eyes turn to me. One has a machete in his raised fist, a homespun shirt stained with blood and a golden medallion hanging from his neck. The other has a rifle with affixed bayonet and a small targe shield on his left arm. He thrusts the rifle at me like a spear – a rapid jab. The other circles to my right, looking to either slip past me or cut at my flank.
But though my sight is no longer tangled with the stains of weakness, they are still present. I slip the spear thrust and tag the rifle barrel with a left hook as it retreats. It shears in half. He steps back, registering surprise in a flood of color up his spine, but I don’t wait. My kick shatters his shield like a glass dinner plate and sharp metal spreads across the floor. The sting of cuts on my foot is another cricket in the evening chorus.
A machete swung from my right cuts at me and I duck, but it glances off my scalp above the ear and tears the skin. Then Tellerhorn’s there. His saber whips in a narrow oval and the machete flies from the hand that holds it in a spray of blood and fingers.
The rifleman thrusts the butt of his rifle at me, but I slip past the blow and my kick shatters his shin-bone as if it were made of dry balsa-wood.
The macheteless fighter backs away, cradling his bleeding hand, straight into the arms of the girl in golden silk. Her fingers close on his throat and in a pulse of patterned blue the cobra in her aura strikes, leaving behind two puckered holes. He blinks and his knees buckle. His face purples and swells as he begins to shake. The gold silk girl lets him fall with black malice in her eyes as she seeks another target, and I walk past her down the stairs and into the lotus room.
The room is choked in a fog of curling color. Through those clouds, bolts of light tear like sunbeams in a storm, and among them, Agafya and Sylvia are dancing.
Though the clash of arm on arm rings from the outer room, and though my scalp trickles blood that oozes through my hair, I am yet moved to pause and watch. The lotus room is strangely silent save for the measured cadence of their breathing.
Their feet bound this way and that around the ruins of the once fine room as they, sprinting, exchange feign and counter-feign painted in whorls of red aggression. Agafya’s fist is a beacon of white and his body a storm of reds which flicker out toward Sylvia from one side even as the diamond’s light reaches for her from the other. But she reads both and springs back, weaving, drawing Agafya forward while one of the priests or priestesses rushes at his back. Even as they start forward the diamond flashes their way. They fall, or retreat, and everyone dances on.
Sylvia and the temple fighters work together like many hands of the same body. They lunge and dodge, always trying to get at Agafya’s back, but never willing to risk his front.
Agafya reads the currents and eddies of their intentions painted on the air and his running feet untie each attempted knot before it tightens. Always chasing, never catching, he keeps somehow cornering one where they can’t flee only to see the dart of another’s aggression reaching for his back, and then dancing away as he turns to face it.
Many times, help does not come fast enough, and another temple warrior lays dead before Agafya retreats.
“This is beyond me,” says the doctor at my shoulder. “My men could resist the madness caused by the heros by remembering home, maybe that will help you here. I’ll look for another way to help.”
I never had a home, and this fight may be beyond me too. Sylvia is slower than Agafya, swaying her arms in a whole body dance as she runs. The curling fog of the temple’s anima moves at her gesture, thickening in flows around her and her allies, protecting them from the diamond’s light even as they run.
I see none of the white power of the Kalagni in her or the other warriors, only the temple’s rainbow power, vibrant and potent. Agafya, on the other hand, is a pillar of intertwined white and anima, a whirling storm of life and death. It is a wonder, this dance, pushing and pulling like yin and yang. They read each-others movements ten steps in advance, guided by foreknowledge of aggression. They almost seem evenly matched, but Sylvia’s body strains against the slow build of fatigue, of struggling breath and burning muscle, and more and more bodies litter the lotus room floor.
In the war of light and color in the air, the diamond’s power burns ever brighter so as each second passes we move further from victory.
Then, I have an idea.
I pat my pockets. Empty. I wiggle my toes. Bare. I crack my neck. It pops.
A pillow lays next to my foot, half torn and bleeding fuzz. I pick it up.
The deadly flirtation continues. They circle and Agafya sprints past the pit’s edge. For a moment, his hairy back is to me. I toss the pillow.
No aggression signals the pillow’s flight; it’s a pillow. He doesn’t see it coming. It sails the dozen yards between us and bounces off his shoulder, doing no damage at all.
Surprise at the unexpected contact explodes in his aura like a hand-grenade.
He spins midstride, looking for the source of the touch. Wild eyes fall on me. Even as he turns the light of the gem sweeps my way, searing through the mist.
I have enough time to smile and wave before Drydus hits him like a train.
The German’s sprinting slam carries him right through Agafya, pin-wheeling the Russian’s legs into the air. Agafya’s head whips toward the ground like a bearded comet and strikes with a resounding crack. His broken arm flops sideways.
But he never stops reacting.
Even as the German turns back toward him, Agafya’s rolling over his shoulder and coming to his knees.
Sylvia’s arms lock around the fist holding the diamond, twisting his wrist and fingers. The German, rebounding off his turn, throws his weight into a long right hook which smashes Agafya’s face to the side. Then the champion’s hands blur like engine pistons and Agafya’s head rattles and twists away. His broken arm dangles, jerking from the impacts.
But the diamond shines, clawing at the anima in Sylvia’s body. The light blasts her aura like a strong wind on coals and though rage and anger burn bright in her, they boil swiftly away. She releases her grip and stumbles back, holding up her hands as if to shield her eyes.
The hairy one’s freed fist hooks like a bull with the diamond its horn. Drydus is caught, lifted from his feet and thrown a pace back. He lands nearly doubled over and his hands slap the wood floor. The Russian is on him, the diamond a shining knuckle in his meteor fist.
The blow sounds like a shotgun. Drydus falls. Red fans from his temple.
The bubble of blue which is the diamond’s skin has thinned, and moment by moment the light grows stronger.
The triumphant giant turns toward Sylvia and the diamond’s light falls full upon her.