Siege, Part One

From the Story Arc: The Touch of the Orchid Phoenix (mature readers only)

Previous Story in the Arc: Flight, part two by People's Blade (Sunday, October 31, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: Siege, Part Two by People's Blade (Sunday, October 31, 2004)

(posted Sunday, October 31, 2004)

People’s Blade adopted a kneeling position. “Listen carefully, tongzhi. You must obey me without hesitation. I will protect you all, but our goal is to protect Lan Feng. Do not doubt,” she said slowly, “that I will sacrifice all of us for her sake. As soldiers, this is your duty. Understood?”

They nodded, some nervously.

“Hao. Now, Cyriss. Where is your rifle?”

Cyriss licked his lips. “Ah, that would be, er, at home, sir…ma’am. General.”

“Aiyah. Then Hoax’s mind blast is our only ranged weapon. Therefore, we must draw them into close quarters. Thus they lose the advantage of numbers.

“They will first scout out the building. We will retreat to the third floor. Te, you will make a sortie first to the kitchen on the first floor. Acquire all the salt that you can find.”

“Salt?” Grandmaster Te asked. “I don’t understand, Laoshi.”

She waved him to silence. “The third floor contains the dormitories, with the greatest number of small rooms. Also the most furniture to block windows with.” She pointed at Tengri and Hoax. “You two cover windows with anything: beds, tables, dressers. We cannot allow stray arrows to be a threat. Go now.”

Tengri snapped a smart salute. “Da, Commissar! I am not failing you!”

Cass met Kostyak’s eyes, then turned and ran after the girl.

“Te, get the salt now. Bring coffee mugs as well.”

Te bowed and left.

“I don’t follow you, General,” Kostyak said. “We need coffee?”

She shook her head. “Let me finish. Cyriss, come here.”

Cyriss crawled over to her, keeping his head out of arrowshot. “Aiy, General.”

“I hope you have been practicing your lessons well. I give you the most important task.”

“Aiy, General! I won’t blow it!”

Fei Li gestured to Qing. “Qing is Lan Feng reborn. Lan Feng is my most treasured wife, she who made my life complete. I have longed to be reunited with her in Heaven for over two millennia.”

Realizing that it was Shen Xue who spoke to him, Cyriss’ cavalier manner vanished. He nodded in understanding.

“I will not let her fall into the hands of treacherous bandits. You are to guard her, in exclusion of all else. If the Tsoo slay Tengri in front of you, you make no move. You answer no cry for help. Your life belongs to her. If you are near death, you are to give her the chance to take her own life first.” Qing gasped. “Xuesheng, do you understand?”

“Aiy… I swear I won’t fail you, General.” He held up his sword and bowed.

“No false heroics, Cyriss. You are the breastplate in the armor that protects my wife. If I find you in Heaven without her, you will not remain there long.”

“Ah, okay.”

Qing shook her head. “Fei Li, this is crazy. I can’t let these people die for me. It’s not right!”

People’s Blade narrowed her eyes. “Lan Feng.”

Qing stiffened.

“Lan Feng. Lai de.” Come forward.

Qing spoke in melodious Chinese. “I am here, airen.”

People’s Blade took her hands. “It seems I must protect our home with few troops. They lack discipline and weapons. Our chances are slim at best.” She stroked Qing’s cheek. Kostyak and Cyriss looked away, embarrassed to be present at so intimate a meeting between the ghostly couple.

“Know that your memory has comforted me over the centuries, my Orchid.”

“And yours, my General. To have you again for one night was more than I ever hoped for. I can die in peace.”

“If I do my job, we can live in peace. Little Fei Li will surprise you. She is like the son you never bore me.”

Qing chuckled. “Perhaps we should not mix our metaphors too much, darling. Our situation is strange enough as it is.”

People’s Blade kissed her. Qing held her close, running fingers dark with dried blood through her hair. Cyriss peeked for a moment, and then turned away, blushing.

“I will see you again, here or at the side of the Jade Emperor in Heaven,” People’s Blade swore.

“My General, it will be here.” She stood and indicated Cyriss with a regal gesture. “You. Come with me, we will find our fortress.”

Kostyak remained. “Okay, Shen Shuai, now what?”

“You are to stay at my side, Kostyak. Your mystic influences allow Fei Li to fight with great prowess. She is the only one who can stay the enemy’s hand.” She closed her eyes. “First, we must heal her body. Focus your efforts on this goal. I shall employ a technique I have never taught her.”

Both closed their eyes, harnessing different energies for the same goal. Fei Li’s wounds ceased bleeding. The skin began to regrow over the cuts.

Grandmaster Te found them in this meditative state, minutes later. He did not interrupt them, but rather checked the state of the Tsoo army outside. The horde had grown, he guessed, and still no sign of allies. His well-trained mind could even sense a blur in the air: the cloaking spell. The originators of that spell were nowhere in evidence.

“Hao.” People’s Blade spoke behind him. “I will need to stretch, but this will do for the moment. Xie xie, Kostyak.”

“No problem, General.”

People’s Blade stood. Te detected stiffness in her limbs, but they had run out of time for preparation. He held up a grocery bag.

“Salt and mugs,” he said. “What shall I do with them?”

She walked to the window to assess the enemies ranged against her. As she scanned the street, she spoke. “Fill each mug with salt, and give them to your comrades. Retain two for yourself. When the sorcerers appear in our compound, do not attack. Rather, throw the salt into their eyes. It will prevent them from casting spells or teleporting away long enough for you to incapacitate them.” She turned to meet his eyes. “You are in charge of this, Te xuesheng. Those sorcerers will try to determine our numbers. We cannot allow this, or the Tsoo will overwhelm us.”

Te smiled, bowing to her. “Such wisdom! Shen Shuai is clearly a great scholar of tactics.”

People’s Blade rolled her eyes. Te winked at her and set off down the hall.

“Scholars,” she muttered. “Lai de, Kostyak. We’re going to the roof.”

The cloaking spell did not prevent the wind from tossing her matted hair, three stories up. There were at least five hundred Tsoo mobbing the streets around the Red Brigade building. She saw shirtless Green Ink Men and Yellow Ink Men, flexing their muscles under their ritualistic tattoos; Tiger, Eagle and Lion Enforcers, faces covered by masks, oiling their bowstrings; coolie-topped Sorcerers, preparing their spells; hovering Ancestor Ghosts, rotted faces hidden by burial masks, but bearing the demonic armor acquired in Hell; and the various lieutenants, Fire Daggers, Death Moons, and other intimidating titles. People’s Blade had fought them all, knew their moves and strategies, tactics and weaknesses. Never in such numbers, though.

Why did they not attack? So many Tsoo could defeat the entire Red Brigade and CCCP, or at least make a good attempt. Their lack of urgency suggested that Zuo Kan was making use of this siege as a grandstanding gesture, possibly to increase his influence within the Tsoo organization. Why be efficient when you can be spectacular? It was typical of politicians, she thought, always trying to jockey for position.

In Zuo Kan’s case, his goal was a personal one. He had to make a grand gesture, something symbolic of the Tsoo’s power, to justify expending manpower on this project. In fact, she mused, he is out on a limb. Without the corpse of the hated People’s Blade, he will lose face in the organization. Too much face to retain power.

“We’re really exposed here, General…What good does this do us?”

She chuckled. “Every siege begins with a parlay, Kostyak. Zuo Kan has to put on a show for his masters, to justify the pursuit of his own agenda. While we speak, he will send in his scouts, for whom we are ready.”

“Should I go downstairs?”

“Dui, go ahead. But bring me the first sorcerer you defeat.” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

Be brave, Fei Li. If we keep our wits about us, we will win the day, Shen Xue reassured Fei Li. The two shared control of her body now. Fei Li was too spent from the almost-deadly flight to focus on abstract matters. Shen Xue usually refrained from taking over, given the mental strain it put on Fei Li, but this time it she welcomed the relief. Prepare yourself for the battle, my student. You cannot rest just yet. It is your body, and you must guide it through combat.

The warriors parted to make way for a middle-aged man in white robes. He carried a staff mounted with an intricate headpiece. When he held it aloft, the warriors fell silent. Without traffic, the streets were quieter than they had ever been.

“Blade Shuai, ni hao!” He shouted. His voice echoed off the buildings.

“Zuo Kan! Do you come do clean my yard?” She pointed to the yard where she had put Grandmaster Te through his exertions. “My bricks still wait for a bricklayer!”

Evidently Zuo Kan lacked a sense of humor. “You will regret mocking me, little girl! We come to destroy you and your Communist friends. The girl Kuo Qing will come back to work.”

“You are most welcome!” She waved her arm across the army. “This will be excellent practice for my students!”

Grandmaster Te prowled the corridors of the third floor. Through intense meditation under the guidance of People’s Blade, he had learned to become as one with the world around him. Recalling the lesson of the leaves, where he was forbidden to let them touch the ground as they fell, he focused on the movement of the air through the hallway. It flowed as an invisible river, but the canny observer could detect ripples.

There! A slight disturbance, as if a rock was thrown into the current. Doubtless it was a sorcerer teleporting into the building, displacing a mass of air as he did so.

He had fought sorcerers before. They could appear and disappear at the blink of an eye. It took perseverance and luck to defeat one, and usually he had help. This time, he thought, I have table salt. How wonderful and strange the world!

Grandmaster Te stood still by the corner. Quiet shuffling reached his ears: the sorcerer, creeping along the corridor. He prepared himself, visualizing his actions.

The edge of the sorcerer’s hat peeked around the corner. Te swiftly dashed the salt into the man’s eyes. He was rewarded with angry curses as the sorcerer tried to rub the stinging salt out of tender eyes.

“Renounce violence,” Te suggested, smashing a foot into the man’s throat. He staggered. The other foot broke ribs and sent the sorcerer tumbling to the floor.

Despite her protestations, Te mused, jogging down the corridor, People’s Blade would make quite a Shaolin monk.

“I’m willing to strike a bargain with you,” Zuo Kan called up to the rooftop. “Surrender yourself and Kuo Qing, and your Red Brigade goes unharmed.” He held up his hands. “It’s a generous offer, and it will be hard to convince these warriors to go home, but I am a man of peace.”

“You have no idea who you face.” People’s Blade drew her sword. “I am not a weak-minded American hero like Statesman. I have no intentions of rehabilitating you in a Paragon City prison.”

Behind her, Kostyak dragged the unconscious form of the first sorcerer defeated by Grandmaster Te. “It’s one of Te’s. I think he’s getting the hang of this.”

“Give him to me,” she said in a low voice.

“Stop boasting, little girl!” Zuo Kan said. The Tsoo all laughed with him: an army of mockery.

“Let me enlighten your great leader, soldiers of the Tsoo! He does not throw your might against a helpless young woman and her friends. Instead, he has dared to ignite the wrath of the General Shen Xue, lord of the Bloody Moon Armies!”

The Tsoo muttered amongst themselves. Shen Xue’s name was a thing of legend.

“Nonsense!” Zuo Kan laughed at her again. “That is nothing but propaganda from Beijing! You are no reincarnation of that great hero.”

For lack of hair to grip, she held the sorcerer up by his neck. “Correct, old fool! I am Shen Xue himself. But I can see only one way to prove it to you.”

In a rapid motion, she cut the sorcerer’s throat, angling him so that his blood sprayed out, down the side of the building. Kostyak gaped at her.

“By killing every one of your little army, Zuo Kan. When you sit on a mound of their bodies, then you will begin your education!” She threw the sorcerer’s still twitching body over the edge. The warriors jumped out of the way of the falling corpse.

“This is the fate that awaits each of you, thanks to the vanity of your leader.” A contemptuous flick of the wrist propelled drops of blood off her blade. She sheathed it with an elaborate gesture.

“I await you all inside.”

She turned her back on the army and walked away from the edge.

“Jesus, General!” Kostyak said. “What the hell was that?” He followed her to the stairwell.

“Demoralization. I have sowed the seeds of doubt in their minds. Now he has to spend some of his energy encouraging his troops.”

“Damn glad I’m not your enemy.”

People’s Blade chuckled.

The room Cyriss selected to conceal he and Qing had served as a game room. A ping-pong table, purchased by People’s Blade for the Red Brigade, had gone largely unused; dust covered it in an even layer. He tilted it up against the door, making Qing sneeze.

“Are you sure this is the best place?” she said between sneezes. Two chairs and a ratty couch kept the ping-pong table company. A few shelves on the walls held books and magazines in English, Chinese and Russian, and a cheap boombox.

“No, but then I’ve never been in a siege either.” He pushed one of the chairs over to prop up the ping-pong table. “Have you?” he asked in a sarcastic tone.

“Of a sorts, yes. Or at least Lan Feng was, when they killed her.”

“Damn, I’m sorry, ignore me. This thing spooks me.”

Qing dropped into the remaining chair. “You? I’d never been in a fight in my life, and today I killed someone. I think I’m in shock.”

Unsatisfied by his fortifications, Cyriss dragged the couch up against the ping-pong table. “Hey, that’s tough. First time for me was hard too. But you have to protect yourself.”

“I did it to save Fei Li. They won’t hurt me.”

“Oh.” He sat on the couch, tilting his head to listen. It was quiet in the compound.

“Nothing’s happening yet,” Qing said.

“It’s happening, trust me. Those sorcerers can teleport in without you knowing. The General’s salt idea was great, though.” He paused. “You got some salt, right?”

“Nope. You?”

He stood. “Crap! I was in too much of a hurry. Figures. Should we get some?”

She shook her head. “I’m not going back out there.”

“Aiy…well, hopefully we’re safe here.” He sat back down. “Um. Can I ask you a question?”

She nodded, adjusting her torn shirt.

“You said you’re the General’s wife, right?”

Qing squirmed in the chair. “Sorta, yeah. It’s strange.”

“I bet.”

“No, really, don’t look at me like that. Lan Feng, his second wife, inhabited my body. I have her memories, I can sense her inside me. I share her feelings.”

Cyriss got out his sword and unsheathed it. He didn’t meet her eyes.

“So yes, in that sense, I am Shen Xue’s wife.” She narrowed her eyes. “That’s what you wanted to know, right?”

“Aiy. So you and Fei Li are friends?”

She smirked. “A little more than that, soldier boy. Use your imagination.”

Cyriss blushed beet red.

“Maybe we should discuss this later,” she said. “We don’t want to give away our hiding place.”

They both nodded. Qing watched the ceiling, trying to listen to the sounds outside the door. Cyriss stared at her. They waited.

A small click sounded past the door. Cyriss put a finger to his lips. Qing’s eyes went wide. There was no reason for the Red Brigadeers to move so silently, unless sorcerers were nearby.

The door handle turned. Cyriss took a defensive position, sword at the ready. Qing backed up against the far wall. She found a dictionary and held it like a club.

The door opened a crack. Dark tendrils of smoke licked around the door jamb, feeling past the ping-pong table’s white taped lines, creeping into the room towards Cyriss. He gritted his teeth.

The tendrils vanished.

“Whew! That was close,” he said, turning to Qing. “Don’t worry, we’re safe now.”

Qing’s eyes were wide with alarm. “Cyriss…behind you…”

The sorcerer had teleported in silently. He reached for Cyriss’ throat. Cyriss spun with a shout, swinging his sword wildly. It bit deep into the sorcerer’s arm.

The sorcerer cursed him and gestured with his good hand. He disappeared, leaving a spot of black soot.

“Damn, closer still.” Cyriss wiggled the blade to remove the blood. “Not bad though.”

“You idiot!” Qing said. “You let him go!”

Cyriss spread his hands. “He teleported, what could I do?”

“Where do you think he’s going? To the hospital?” She threw down the dictionary. “He’s going to report our location.”

“Then we won’t be here when they come back.” He yanked the couch out of the way, shoved the chair aside, and tipped the table over.

The door pulsed with ebony negative energy, as if it had become overgrown with oily ivy. Cyriss tugged the knob with no effect. Kicks and slashes from the sword didn’t even dent the chipboard wood.

They looked at each other, comprehension dawning.

Down the hall, a battle raged.

Four sorcerers had found Hoax and Tengri upending desks in Kostyak’s office. Before the women could react, they cast spells of wind manipulation, turning the small room into a wind tunnel. Maps, pictures and policy statements became whirling debris, obscuring everyone’s vision.

Hoax couldn’t help it: five hundred forty six pieces of paper. Her psychic senses first took stock of the entire room’s contents, then zeroed in on the minds occupying it. Four Tsoo, dripping with malice, emanating their magics; Tengri, her young, unformed mind fighting back terror. She braced herself against the desk and reached out for one of the Tsoo’s minds.

His defenses were strong, built up by years of magic studies. It was like trying to grip a wet bar of soap. He must know I’m doing this, she thought, and he’s making himself supple. Fine. There are other ways to roll the dice.

Hoax envisioned a net, teeming with vicious hooks. She cast it at his mind, felt it snag. She wrenched it back, tightened. Over the din of the miniature storm, she heard him scream. The winds lessened noticeably.

“Tengri! I need more time!” she shouted. “You have to distract them.”

“Da! I am being ready, comrade! With…with Soviet fighting skills, I strike!”

She’s terrified, Hoax realized. She’s psyching herself up.

Tengri went down on all fours and slid across the floor. Winds tore at her hair, dislodging her pigtails and blowing hair in her face. She reached the closest sorcerer, grabbed his ankle, and used it to anchor a back kick to his face. He stumbled back, and the winds died down a bit more.

“Finish him,” Hoax cried, unsure if Tengri could hear, but the girl needed no encouragement when she saw an opening. Shouting a cry in Russian, she pummeled the man’s face. Blood spurted from his mouth and nose and caught in the wind. He crumbled.

The winds stopped suddenly. The sorcerers took a step back, waving their hands in intricate patterns. Ebony tendrils of energy grew in the air in front of them.

I can’t reach their minds when they’re casting like that, Hoax realized. There’s not enough time…but I can help the girl. She directed her psychic attention at the men’s hearts, pulling lifeforce out of them and redirecting it to the Russian girl. Tengri’s eyes went wide as her physical strength tripled.

“For worker and collective!” She launched a kick against the nearest sorcerer, smashing a foot through his growing mass of negative energy. Hoax wanted to stop her with a shout, but the negative energy exploded around her and the sorcerer. The force of the explosion and impact of her foot snapped the man’s head back; he fell. Tendrils of energy rippled over her legs as she took her stance, wild-eyed and feral.

Hoax pushed her mind past the sorcerer’s defenses, forcing him to rebuild his mental wall. While he was distracted, Tengri punched him in his ribcage and kneecap. The snap of bones was audible in the room.

“Horosho! We are victorious! They cannot defeat us if they fight so weakly.”

“Tengri,” Hoax said, “there are five hundred left. We’re not even getting started.”

Tengri covered her mouth. “Oh. Ah, then should we being pushing desk against window?”

“Da,” Hoax agreed grimly.

“Jammed completely,” Kostyak said, twisting the dials of his comm unit. “Phone lines cut, internet’s out…we got nothing.”

“Come with me,” People’s Blade said. “We haven’t barricaded the stairs yet.”

Kostyak frowned. “I don’t think we can. Do we have enough furniture for that?”

She shook her head. “We won’t. It’s my choke point. The Tsoo have flooded the floors below. Their scouts are inside, and Te is grappling with them. The next sortie will take place on those stairs.”

The two Commissars trotted down the hall. Around the corner they heard the sounds of fighting. They broke into a run.

Grandmaster Te had two sorcerers facing him. One frantically rubbed his eyes, while the other’s hand gripped inky black ropes binding Te’s legs. The monk struggled to keep his balance.

People’s Blade leapt into the air, twisting to run across the ceiling. She swept downward, severing the tendrils as she landed behind the sorcerer. Te broke them easily. He caught his balance, saw Kostyak charging the sorcerer, and did the same. The two tackled him, knocking off his coolie hat. Thrown off guard, he was pummeled into unconsciousness.

They stood, saw People’s Blade wiping her sword on her target’s pants. Blood seeped from a chest wound.

“Shuai!” Te exclaimed. “I am grateful for the aid, but must you kill these men?”

“Dui.” She turned away from him, frowning.

“Please, I mean no disrespect, but the Eightfold Path teaches us to respect life, even when it is perverted –“

“I want no lectures from you, monk! You forget, I am no Shaolin. I am Shen Xue, your General. If you dislike my methods, please accompany us to the stairs and ask the Tsoo to let you leave.”

The venom in her voice took him aback. He was about to speak when Kostyak silenced him with a shake of his head.

“Are you finished? We must protect our one weakness. The stairwell is open to them. We have less than a minute.”

“As you command, General.” Te’s brow furrowed with anger.

They ran through the hallway to the stairwell. People’s Blade’s prediction was correct. They could hear the footsteps of Enforcers and Green Ink Men storming up the flight just below them.

“It sounds like dozens!” Te said. “Do we stand a chance?”

“Remember what I taught you, and strike without fear or remorse. Let the Jade Emperor judge them, not your silly philosophy.” She turned to Kostyak. “Give us every advantage you can. First, our agility, then our strength. Then drain them of energy as they reach the landing there.”

Kostyak nodded, his jaw working silently as he reached into the fourth dimension to alter probabilities.

“Now we fight for the time to enjoy our meditations, monk. Are you ready?”

“Ready, Shuai.” Te assumed a Lotus stance. People’s Blade pointed the tip of Jade Emperor’s Whisper down the stairwell.

The first dozen Tsoo boiled up the stairwell, bloody red in their robes. Their eyes shone with hatred and contempt. Curved, barbed daggers flashed in their hands. A shout went up when they saw their quarry: the Blade of the People.

The Red Brigade headquarters was a shoddy old building, meant for accountants and divorce law firms, not a fortress against invaders. However, one feature that People’s Blade had noted was the narrowness of the stairwells. Only two people could walk side by side on the stairs without tangling their arms. A perfect bottleneck, she noted as they moved in. Now that knowledge found use.

“Wait for them,” she said. Te tensed. “Wait…almost…now!”

They both kicked out at the Tsoo. Daggers swung, feet lashed out, and the first two Tsoo fell back against their comrades. They were pushed back on their feet by the swarm behind them.

“No quarter!” People’s Blade gutted the first, and cut off the jaw of Te’s. He backed up, startled. “Forward, Te! No squeamishness now. You protect the lives of innocents!”

“Just so,” he said, and smashed a foot into the head of the next Tsoo.

The two fought without speaking, saving every breath to power their attacks. Behind them, Kostyak seemed almost uninvolved, watching them and making small movements with his fingers. Yet around him probabilities altered, strength seeped out of the Tsoo and into People’s Blade and Te.

Thirty men fell before them in the span of ten minutes.

Their bodies clogged the stairs. The Tsoo began to pull the fallen out of the way so that others could get through to fight. They slipped on the blood of their comrades.

Hoax ran up to Kostyak. “We have Yellow Ink Men breaking in the windows. They’re crawling up the wall from the floor below. Kos, I think they’re planning something. There should be more of them.”

“Damn it. They’re after Cyriss and the girl. Which room are they in?”

Hoax shook her head. “I haven’t been here enough to know. Somewhere without windows, I think. He didn’t tell us.”

A Tsoo screamed as his life ended. Hoax winced. “Holy shit, Kos, this is a bloodbath.”

“You and Tengri find Cyriss and back him up. We’re going to hold out here as long as we can. Go!”

Hoax bit her lip. “Kos…”

He kissed her quickly. “I’ll be okay, baby. Cyriss needs you right now, okay?”

She nodded and ran down the hall.

“Kostyak!” People’s Blade yelled at him. “Te is wounded. I need you here!”

Te staggered back from the press, a dagger wound in his side. He voiced weak protests, but People’s Blade had gone into defensive mode to protect his retreat. Kostyak cracked his knuckles.

Hoax ran through the corridors, trying not to think about her final look at Kostyak, charging into a column of twenty-six Tsoo with nothing but his fists. A hole formed in the pit of her stomach. If she lost him, she could not stand it. That is, she corrected herself, if she survived the day. In all her days with the Strangers, she’d never faced so many enemies at once.

Don’t die on me, she thought.

Racing back to Tengri’s position, she rounded a corner (so many damn corners in this building, she thought) smack into a pack of Tsoo enforcers. The shattered window and broken table down the hall was their point of entry. Before she launched a mental attack against one, she noticed: one was pointing down the hall, and saying something in Chinese. She thought she heard the name Qing.

They found her, she thought.

At once she shot a mental bolt into the brain of the Tsoo giving directions. He gripped his head, falling to the floor. The others turned on her, bearing their weapons. One snarled in Chinese.

Hoax braced herself. If they all came at her at once, she couldn’t stop them. But she wouldn’t go down alone.

Kostyak, baby, I’m so sorry, she thought.

Tengri was accustomed to fighting a mob of opponents, but not for so long. Her knuckles were broken, her arms weighted with lead. She found herself fighting more and more defensively as the Tsoo’s numbers only grew. By her guess, she’d knocked out at least twenty Tsoo, but they kept coming at her in the small room she’d retreated into.

They’re wearing me down, she realized. These svinyas are using their numbers against us. They have no fear.

And she was beginning to feel fear licking up her spine.

Where is Hoax? She wondered as she dodged another dagger attack. She said she could bring help. She will come too late for me. Anger flared in her: anger at Hoax’s bad plan, at the Tsoo who threatened her life.

She channeled the anger into a pair of vicious throat punches. The Tsoo, towering a foot over her, fell with surprised looks behind their masks.

Just a minute, she thought, if I could rest for one minute, I am getting breath back.

But four more Tsoo pushed into the room, fresh and tasting blood.

“Here we are, little girl,” one snarled.

Gritting her teeth, Tengri prepared to defend herself with weary limbs.

“Fei Li cut through the floor,” Qing said. “Can you do that?”

Cyriss shook his head. “Not without a chainsaw, lady.” The Tsoo still had not come, but they could not leave the room. The negative energy still coruscated across the door. “Damn it. I hear them fighting. This is killing me.”

“What about the wall?”

“I told you…” He turned to face her, irritated. Then he realized something. “Wait. Iron Soviet always complained about how thin the walls were here, how he could hear everything going on when he was trying to sleep.” He felt at the wall behind her, and knocked on it. “This one sounds pretty hollow. Maybe we can break through.”

“Then start! We don’t have time. Wait,” she said, grabbing the chair. “Can you cut this leg off?”

“Aiy!” He chopped at the chair leg with fervor, thankful to have something to do. Two chops freed it.

“Okay, big man, do the same to that wall.”

“Aiy, General’s wife!” With a ferocity that Qing hoped he also used in combat he stabbed the wall over and over. When he moved to a different section, she rammed the metal end of the chair leg into the wall, trying to dig out drywall by wedging the leg in.

The room filled with dust as they tried to dig out of their fortress turned cage.