I fell back, scampering toward the cargo van, thinking I could get it between me and the rider as cover. Carrefour loped forward, lashing at me as I ducked. The windshield shattered. Safety glass pattered down on me like hail. I spun around, my arms out like I was on a highwire and keeping my balance. One blow, and Carrefour had destroyed the windshield and peeled back a swath of metal from the van's hood. A second swing rocked the van with a low boom. Carrefour lurched around the corner of the van to face me.
Not every trace of Karen had vanished. I could see the echo of her impish smile, something familiar in the angle of the thing's shoulders and the way it moved its arms. Traces of the woman still remained in the beast, and if anything that made it worse. Carrefour blinked bloody eyes and shrieked. I saw the blow coming, and I stepped under it. I sank my fist into the mottled flesh where its solar plexus would have been if it were human, and I heard its breath hiss out, felt the heat of its body pressing against mine. The energy of its qi, the raw will of its consciousness, writhed against me and I felt a heat blooming in my own belly, rising to press back. I shouted, and it growled, set its feet into the soft ground, and pushed. I tried to shift away, but it got a shoulder against my chest and leaned in. Its weight pressed the air out of my lungs, the door of the van behind me bent in an inch and then another. My broken ribs flared with a pain that put stars in my peripheral vision. I couldn't breathe, couldn't lever myself out. I got an arm free to box its ears, but the blow was weak, ineffective, doomed.
I started to pass out.
Something bright hissed above my head, and Carrefour screamed. The sound seemed distant. The weight lifted and I slumped to the ground. I watched the rider's wide legs stagger backward, my mind urging my body to function, to rise, to run. Mfume's voice was calling out, passionate and angry, in a language I didn't know. I rose to my knees, sank back, then forced myself up again.
Mfume's chain had buried itself deep in the flesh of Carrefour's back, and Mfume stood in the space between house and shed, straining with his one good arm to pull the thing back. Dark blood seeped down the rider's side and it swung its arm wide, its claws raking the metal of the chain but not quite able to grasp it.
Carrefour opened its mouth.
"Joseph!" it howled, its voice deep and masculine and terrible. "Joseph, my love! Stop this. We are so near, so near-"
"There is no we!" Mfume yelled. "I am my own, and you will release her. Release the woman and go!"
It was a nice thought, but I was pretty sure negotiation wasn't going to work. I gathered myself as Carrefour twisted around to face Mfume. It was as good a chance as any. I ran forward, kicking at its knee. It was like slamming my foot into a rock, but Carrefour stumbled. Mfume shifted to the side, the chain pulling at a slightly different angle. I sidestepped and hammered my foot down on the rider's heel. Carrefour screamed, and it sounded like real pain this time.
For a few seconds, I thought we might win.
Carrefour whipped around, the silver hook in its flesh making a terrible wet sound as it tore free. I saw Mfume stagger and something hit me, lifted me. For an eternal, breathless moment, I was in the air, my arms and legs flailing for anything to grab onto, to find purchase. The ground rose up and hit me like a truck.
Mfume was screaming. I rolled to my side. I didn't think I could stand up, but I could pull myself. If I could crawl into the dark behind the shed, maybe it would ignore me. Maybe it would forget me, give me time to recover. Carrefour bellowed, and I felt the ground beneath me tremble. I dug my fingers into the wet ground and pulled. The grass was cool against my palms.
We couldn't beat it. Not the two of us now, not the whole damned mob of us before. And it had no hesitation in killing us. It was practiced. We were dead.
Sabine's voice came to me like a song being sung in a different room. The words were the same, Legba louvri le p¨®t, but there was a depth to them, a seriousness. Worse, a pain. I shifted myself toward the small prison house, the light, the sound of her desperate voice.
Sabine sat on the floor, chains slack on her wrists and neck. Her back was hunched, her face running with sweat as she strained internally. I couldn't help thinking of childbirth. Her eyes were the clear, shining black of river stones. She had too many teeth.
"Louvri mwen, Legba," she said. "Louvri le p¨®t."
I pulled myself toward her. Something loud happened outside, sudden and terrible as a cannon. I ignored it. I crawled closer to the girl. The air around her shifted and swirled like water stirred by a thousand writhing tadpoles. I closed my eyes and gathered my qi. I pictured the energy rising through my spine, out my arm, and arcing between my fingertips with a golden light. I held out my hand, and I felt Sabine touch me.
Her flesh was burning hot and sweat-slick. Her fingers clenched mine until my knuckles ached, and I felt something within her pulling at me like a riptide. I wanted to fight it, to pull myself back into myself, but instinct said that withholding now was surrendering to Carrefour. I pressed what little of myself I could focus out, into the girl, feeding the rider within her.
And then she let me go. I rolled onto my back, staring toward the ceiling as in the corner of my vision, Sabine Glapion opened her mouth wide, and then wider. Her jawbone cracked, and the serpent flowed out of her. Sabine's clothing and skin fell to the floor in discarded coils.
The scales shone silver in the bright halogen glow, and the needle-teeth were white as ivory. It wasn't the Legba that had come from Amelie Glapion. This snake was thinner, faster, and brighter. Something about it reminded me of the awkwardness of adolescence, though its motion was perfectly graceful. It turned to me, and I knew that if it lunged for my neck, I wouldn't be able to protect myself. The broad head turned to the darkness and the mist. A black tongue flickered.
"Carrefour!" Legba called, its voice a clatter and a hiss. "You have trespassed!"
The serpent swam through the air like an eel in a drowned city. I forced myself up to sitting and did my best to follow.
Carrefour stood in the pathway between shed and house holding Mfume by his neck in one thick, monstrous hand. The others-Aubrey and Ex, the cultists of Amelie Glapion's congregation-stood still as statues as Carrefour let his once and present victim slide to the ground. I wanted to move forward, to help, but I barely had the strength to keep my eyes open. I wondered almost idly how much granting my will to help Legba's birth had cost me.
"Legba," Carrefour said. "Petit Legba. You are born in time to die. The shortest life. Come to me, Legba the brief."
I propped myself against the doorframe. I couldn't stand. I couldn't fight. Carrefour strode across the night-dark, fog-shrouded space, and I didn't doubt for a second that this new Legba was just as screwed as I was.
The serpent spoke.
"Louvri," it said, and I knew what it meant. Open.
I caught my breath. Behind Carrefour, Aubrey lifted his head. The motion was slow, like something happening underwater. Aubrey turned. His face looked wrong; thinner, sharper. He stepped forward, and his shirt and pants hung loose on his body. He was skeletal, and when he spoke, it wasn't with his own voice. It was Marinette's.
"There is no place for you here, brother."
Carrefour spun. Aubrey took two steps forward, and the transformation was complete. The burned flesh, the skeletal thinness, the vicious eyes. But there was something of Aubrey in it too. Marinette's gaze flickered to me and turned back to Carrefour, more angry than before. Man and rider weren't in conflict this time. They had both come to kick some ass, and I found I had the energy left in me for a grin. In the dark air above me, Legba shifted its silver coils, a thousand colors dancing on its scales like a sheen of oil on water.
"Marinette," Carrefour said, its hands out before it, the knifelike claws now pleading. "Please, my love, do not stand with them against me. We are Petro, you and I."
"Your love?" Marinette said. The contempt in its voice would have peeled paint. "Radha, Petro, Ghede. What does tribe matter here? I am loa. What are you?"
"I will not be stopped," Carrefour said, but it wasn't a threat. If anything, the rider's landslide of a voice sounded sorrowful.
"You will," Marinette said, and Carrefour leaped at her. With a cry like joy, Marinette met its charge, and the impact made the ground shudder. Marinette was thin, but solid as stone. Carrefour didn't treat her gently. It swung its knives, kicked, bit. Marinette blocked the blows with her forearms-with Aubrey's forearms-and Carrefour's claws skittered off them, shredding the sleeves of Aubrey's shirt, but doing no other damage that I could see. On the other hand, I couldn't see that Marinette was doing more than holding Carrefour at bay. It was like watching lions fight. Huge beasts, filled with almost unimaginable violence, inhuman and strong and awful.
A movement caught my eye. One of the cultists- Omar, I thought-bent his arm, pressed his hand against the ground, rose up. Then a woman on the other side of me. And another. Changes were taking them as well as they stood witness to the battle. I saw Aunt Sherrie, but she had also become a horribly scarred woman with a baby in one arm and a wicked knife in the other. One of the men whose name I hadn't known had a wide, jolly face, a tuxedo, and a clay pipe that he was smoking with the bowl turned down. Ex moved, crossed his arms, frowned. His skin was whiter than snow and glittered in light I couldn't see. A fleur-de-lis was on his skin like a tattoo made from light.
As the transformations came, something in me grew very still, like a mouse trying not to be noticed by a gathering of cats. I had felt riders pressing at the fabric of the world, had felt them trying to force their way into my own flesh. I had never felt the raw power that stood around me.
And slowly, Carrefour became aware of it too. Its battle with Marinette became sloppier, more distracted. Marinette pressed its advantage, but it seemed to me it was more proving a point than trying to win. Carrefour broke off, backing away from the thing in Aubrey's flesh. The man with the upside-down pipe shook his head in disgust.
"My brothers!" Carrefour said. "My brothers, I have returned. Rise up! Rise up with me!"
None of the loa moved. The expression on the thing's face had gone from glee and killing rage to a mixture of sadness and fear, and I understood what I was seeing.
Carrefour had been sent out, away from its people, away from its family. It had been lost and alone in just the way it had isolated the men and women it rode. And here were its family, its friends, its community arrived together to cast it out again. I almost felt sorry for it.
But not quite.
"You broke faith. You took the part of the Graveyard Child against us," a woman's voice rolled in from my left. "And we cast you away. Now you return as our enemy once more."
"No," Carrefour cried. "No, I have come home."
"You have killed Legba's queen and sought the slaughter of the spirit itself," the woman's voice went on. "We condemn you, Carrefour. You have no place among us."
"Gran Maître!" Carrefour cried, but the words that followed were lost. The roar wasn't sound or vibration, it wasn't the rush of a waterfall or of flame. The unleashed will of the riders filled the crossroads, a maelstrom that tore like winds and pounded like a ship broken free of its mooring slamming itself against the dock. For a moment, I was lifted up on it, carried out of myself by just the backsplash from it. Magic spilled though the cracks between seconds, lit the individual atoms, screamed joy and vengeance and something more primal than either.
And then, from the center of the storm, silence. Or no, not silence, because I could hear the distant chirping of crickets. The battle between the loa might still be going on, but it had moved out of the crossroads, out of the world. Out of the thin sphere of human influence.
"Holy shit," someone said from the darkness. The blasphemy had more sense of real awe than anything I'd ever heard in a church. "Oh holy shit."
And then another voice cut through the darkness, high and thin as a violin bowing a single, plaintive note.
"Where am I?" Karen Black said. "Where am I?"
She was standing naked in the fog, her pale hair plastered to her head and neck. Her ice-blue eyes were wide and frightened. Blood was running freely from her shoulder where Mfume's hooked chain had ripped the flesh, and from a dozen other shallow cuts. The red tendrils of it made me think of a dragonfly's wing.
"Karen," I said, levering myself up to squatting. My head swam. Sabine Glapion appeared at my side, free of her chains, and helped me stand. I felt eighteen kinds of damaged, but seeing Karen look at me, seeing her recognize me, seeing her remember was the worst thing that had happened all night.
"No," she said, as if asking me for something. Begging.
I let Sabine walk me forward two exquisitely painful steps. Karen shook her head slowly, the blood draining from her already pale face.
"I'm sorry," I said.
Ex was behind her, a jacket open in his hands ready to cover her nakedness. Karen jumped away from him like she'd been stung. Ex tried to smile in reassurance, but it didn't reach his eyes. He didn't understand yet that the Karen he'd known was gone, but he suspected. I raised my hand, prepared to wave him back. Karen's voice stopped me.
"I know you," she said.
"Yes," Ex said, holding out the jacket.
"We were lovers."
Ex took a deep breath, maybe at the past tense she used, maybe at something else.
"Yes," he said. "We were."
"Kill me," she said.
I winced. Ex tried again to give her the jacket and she wrenched it out of his hands and threw it into the darkness.
"Kill me," she said, her voice stronger. "Kill me. You have to kill me!"
"It's okay," Ex said. "It's over. It's going to be all right."
Karen was plucking unconsciously at her arms, trying to pull the skin off without knowing what she meant by it or why. Her eyes were distant, lost in years of memory that she was seeing with only her own mind for the very first time. Her eyes squeezed closed and she let out a keening wail. Ex looked to me and back at her, as helpless as I was.
"Karen," Mfume said. "Stop this."
He limped out from the fog. One arm still hung limp and dead at his side. He was covered in his own blood. I didn't see any pain in his face, only a hard, insistent compassion. Karen tilted her head, disbelieving.
"You?" she said.
"Me," he said gravely. "Also me. Everything Carrefour did to you, it also did to me. I know what is happening to you now, what it means to be free of it. It is the gift you once gave me."
Aubrey came to my side, helping Sabine support me. I was getting a little light-headed.
"You don't know," Karen said. "You can't. I laughed. I killed them, and while they died, I laughed. They were my parents."
"You were forced to laugh," Mfume said as he slowly, painfully pulled off his own overcoat. "It wasn't your true feeling. It wasn't real. This. Now. These feelings are real."
"I killed them. Oh God, and I killed Michael."
"You did," Mfume said, kneeling beside her and draping the dark, bloody coat over her bare shoulders. "Only it wasn't you. It was the demon that had taken your body and your will. You have done none of this."
"Kill me," Karen said. "Please kill me. You don't understand. If you don't, I'll want it. I'll want it back."
"You will. And then, later, you won't. I have been through all of this, and I can guide you through it too. Stay with me," Mfume said. "If you cannot find peace, I will kill you myself."
The tears streaming down her cheeks looked like gratitude.
"Promise me," she said.
"I promise you," Mfume said.
Karen reached up to him, and he leaned carefully forward, putting his arm around her, cradling her. Her arms lifted up around him, white against the black of his skin and the deep, uncompromising red of his blood-soaked shirt. The rest of us stood silently around them as Karen Black sobbed.