Marianne_shrillGhia pushed Marianne behind her and took a step forward. In her eyes, a smoldering fire crackled and spit.

I took step back and held up a hand.

“Now, wait a minute,” I started.

Ghia launched herself at me and threw a sharp elbow at my temple. She was quick. I turned my head and heard the whisper of her sleeve within a centimeter of my ear. She leaned back on her heel and cocked her arm again. I brought up the butt of the rifle and shoved it forward. Her forehead bounced off the end of the stock with a crack. Ghia stumbled backward, covering her face with both hands.

Guay mi Mai!” she shouted into her hands. A trickle of blood seeped between her fingers.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked, backing away a few steps further. I wanted distance between the two of us – as much as I could get.

Marianne rushed to her side. “Aunt G, are you okay?”

Ghia mumbled something in Spanish and dropped her hands. Blood ran from a gash above her left eyebrow. Without taking her eyes off me, she shoved Marianne behind her again.

“Ghia, calm down,” I said. “We’re all on the same side here.” I lowered the rifle and put up my free hand again.

Ghia’s hands curled into tight fists. “Liar!”

“At least I thought we were,” I added.

“Auntie, please,” Marianne pleaded from behind her. Ghia ignored her. The quality of natural intensity in this woman was hard to believe.

“What were you doing with my girl?” Ghia spat, slowly advancing toward me again.

I kept my hand out between us and spoke in a calm tone. “It was a chance encounter. That’s all.”

“Bullshit!” she shouted.

The blood from Ghia’s wound had run the length of her face and curled around the edge of her mouth. It gave her an even more menacing appearance.

I raised my voice. “I was on a mission to take out an LMO security post when Marianne appeared out of nowhere. Things got out of hand and she kind of saved my ass.”

Ghia raised an eyebrow. Marianne peered out from behind her aunt and gave me a skeptical look. I rolled it over in my mind.

“Uh, okay, she totally saved my ass,” I confessed.

Marianne nodded, satisfied. Ghia’s expression didn’t change.

“Of course she saved your sorry ass,” she growled. “At only eleven years old, Marianne is one of the finest soldiers in the Fifth Ring.”

Soldiers? I wondered what that could possibly mean.

“But you – ” She paused to wipe her mouth. Blood came away on her fingers. “You are just damned lucky.” She moved forward and raised her clenched fists.

“Auntie, please,” Marianne said, tugging on her jacket. “Don’t do this. We need him.”

Ghia pushed one hand back and shoved the girl away.

Marianne protested loudly. “He may be the one we’re waiting for!”

“This piece of crap is not our savior, Marianne” Ghia shouted back.

“Don’t hurt him!” Marianne screamed.

“Keep quiet,” Ghia spat back.

Marianne scowled. Instinctively, I readied my stance.

“We’ve wasted enough time on this pendejo,” Ghia growled, as she charged me again, her fingers high in the air and curled into claws. I tried to sidestep, but Ghia stepped into the space next to me, changed her attack, and drove a knee into my gut. The breath burst out of me and I began to double over. Ghia threw a palm strike to my chest, sending me back upward. The rifle was caught between us and Ghia stripped it from my hand with a quick swipe.

In the background, Marianne began shouting, howling.

Her elbow came at me again. I shrugged a shoulder forward and took the brunt of the impact there. Caught up in a tangle, I pounded the side of her ribcage with the edge of my hand and followed up with a hammer blow to her wounded eyebrow. Ghia didn’t flinch this time. I felt her sharp finger tips gouge into my side with punishing force. Something in my gut went numb and I backed against the door behind me.

Ghia was relentless. She growled and cursed as she tangled up my every move and continued to strike out at my every weakness. Marianne continued screeching like an animal and shouting at the both of us.

My head began to hurt.

Ghia ignored Marianne’s cries and focused on working me over. A fist to my chest. An elbow to my collarbone. A knee to my side. I pushed back against the wall and covered up. She was a street fighter with a lifetime of experience. I was out of my depth here and could do little more than protect my vital points.

Marianne was shrieking louder. It was difficult to concentrate. Ghia tried to bring a fist up under my chin. With both arms up, protecting my face, I gave a quick shove back. Ghia came at me again.

My ears rang.

Ghia glared at me and stepped in again for a new round of blows. She had madness in her eyes – and blood running from her ears.

The world grew painfully loud and dizzying.

Ghia drew back an arm, tight against her chest but didn’t follow through. Her eyes glazed over and she winced in pain. One of my ankles went weak. I focused on Ghia, putting a hand out to steady us both.

I tried to speak but nothing came out. All I could hear was Marianne. At the end of the hall, the young girl was doubled over in a fit of rage, her mouth open, shrieking. It was an ear-splitting wail. But the noise in my head was twenty-times more intense. Ghia was stopped dead in her tracks. My skull pounded and my arms grew heavy and dropped to my side. Ghia’s knee gave out and she fell against the wall and slid to the floor.

I pressed myself against the wall behind me and tried to stay on my feet. I couldn’t think straight. The noise. It was inhuman – far too loud for any normal scream, even from an eleven year-old girl. But now I only heard the noise in my head. And my head was about to explode.

I hit the floor and flopped around in an uncontrollable seizure. I tried to raise a hand toward Marianne but she had grown hazy and dim. Her mouth hung open; her eyes shut tight, her face twisted up in anger.

As I rolled on the ground, weak and writhing in agony, I saw Ghia limp and twitching. Marianne’s scream was a shrill knife edge in my skull. Daggers twisted and turned. It was searing heat and freezing cold at the same time. THE NOISE!

In my head, the pounding was horrible. I squinted against the noise and the pain. I tried to cover my ears but the sound was inside my head.

I wanted it to end. But Marianne wouldn’t stop. She was frozen in place, locked in, unleashing it all.

I saw bright flashes before my eyes. I thought I smelled something electric in the air. The hallway tilted to one side and my stomach turned. I couldn’t make use of my hands anymore. My head rolled to one side and I looked up at the young girl assaulting us both. She stared blankly back at me. Her lips were bluish-white. Her every muscle was tense. Her face was ashen. Her dark hair hung in tangles over her shoulders. And blood ran red over her pale cheeks from the corners of her… huge, black, unblinking eyes.

I couldn’t move or think. I gave in. The noise in my head grew sharp in intensity and everything suddenly turned perfectly dark… and silent.

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