And now for the punchline…
### Part Four ###
The sergeant had admitted to being a member of a tribe that had worshipped at this site in antiquity. Had they sought to placate this alien god with sacrifices? If so, had he brought us here to feed the beast, this alabaster being smiling down at us?
“Those are serious charges,” Minh said as he stepped between me and Thanh. “You better have evidence to back up these wild allegations, Corporal. Otherwise, you’ll face a court-martial.”
Taking several breaths to center myself, I steadied my voice before responding. Lien urged me to tell him everything, but relying on the word of a dead woman would make me look unhinged. Of course, I was relying on the word of one, so there might have been some truth to that characterization.
“His hat is foreign. It depicts an American sports team, I think.”
“Alabama to be exact,” Thanh admitted. He took a drag off his cigarette and then blew out a cloud of blue smoke before elaborating. “A missionary who came to my village gave it to me. He wanted me to have something to remember him by, since he taught me so much. I kept it because I like elephants.”
“Perfectly reasonable explanation,” Minh concluded. He explained, “American sports grew in popularity among the populace after their units were stationed here during the Second World War. Our radio stations rebroadcast games and matches to keep up morale. Part of my training as a political officer involves countering this type of propaganda, but I don’t normally arrest a man for his taste in sports. I’m a communist, not a fascist.”
I couldn’t argue with anything the lieutenant said. He proved an effective lawyer for the defendant. And Thanh’s story sounded plausible enough. Perhaps I was wrong after all. Maybe I was unhinged, unable to accept the awful reality that Quan had killed Hien and fled.
Tears blurred my vision as I looked from Minh to Thanh and finally to Lien. My breath caught in my throat. She looked like she had in the last moments of her life. Chunks of shrapnel had punched bloody holes in both legs and her abdomen, but it was the knife in her chest had killed her. No, not that knife, I thought. I’d stabbed Lien with my combat knife, the one still on my belt, but she had the golden kila with the fist-sized ruby pommel buried between her breasts.
“He can lie about the hat but not the dagger,” I cried. “I bet he has it!”
As the officer turned toward the sergeant, Thanh blew a cloud of smoke in Minh’s face. The lieutenant coughed once and then twice before his breath caught in his throat. I’d missed the gunshot initially, but its sharp report echoed off the cavern walls.
Minh tried to cover the wound in his throat but blood spurted everywhere. The second shot hit him in the temple. He landed face down in the clamshell-shaped pool. His blood mixed with its contents, leaving the water looking as rusty as it tasted.
Chuckling, the sergeant leveled the tiny pistol at me. His Tokarev didn’t look intimidating but proved quite lethal. We were too close to each other to reach my submachine gun. I’d be dead before I took a step toward it.
“You’re quite the troublemaker, Ba,” Thanh said. “I was sure you’d buy my story and follow me on another fool’s errand to find a way out. Then I’d dispose of you as easily as I pushed Quan over the edge and cut Hien from ear to ear.
“If I could revive Ganesha’s dark twin in the process, so be it. With the kila removed from its chest, Chaugnar Faugn’s bloodlust will return, awakening it from its dormant state. Once more, it will feed on the living instead of relying on the magic of the blood-ruby in this dagger for sustenance.
“It has slept too long. Mankind has grown arrogant and irreverent; Great Old Ones, like the one seated here, will restore the cosmic order. They will destroy the ability of humans to inflict cruelty and carry conflict to the four corners of the world. That is the provenance of the Great Old Ones, of beings like Chaugnar Faugn, not mostly hairless killer apes.”
Lien stood behind the scout sergeant. She wept tears of blood, but a smile touched her lips. She said, “Who is he to presume to tell me what I am to do with my life? He is neither follower nor supplicant, only a petty tyrant born of pain and betrayal. Whatever his original intentions were, like mankind, he has gone too far.”
Acting as her medium, I repeated her questions to Thanh directly, “What gives you the right to dictate the actions of a Great Old One, a being that predates human existence? What makes you arrogant enough to assume you’re special or chosen? You’re nothing but a mouthy feast for a mighty beast.”
Thanh took a step closer and jammed the barrel of the Tokarev under my chin. I expected to meet Lien in the afterlife, but he did not fire. Instead, he tapped the logo on the cap with his free hand. “This,” he said, “this is how I know. I am special. I am chosen. When the Americans came to my village for recruits, I went with them. I trained under a Green Beret, a straight-shooting, slow-talking good-ole-boy from Alabama.
“While I was in the jungle completing my training, Viet Cong, like you, came and killed everyone, even the children, because we cooperated with the Americans. Had I stayed behind, I’d have been killed along with my parents, my wife, and our little boy. Instead, a man bearing this elephant had come halfway around the world to train me to defeat those who would slaughter my people.
“After my village burned, I infiltrated the VC forces here and fed information to ARVN and the Americans. If it hadn’t been for me, you and your stupid whore would have played deejay, but I made sure most of the tapes were seized and your contacts at the radio station arrested before Tet. You walked right into my trap.”
Confronted by the man who’d taken Lien from me, my screams filled the cavern as my emotions boiled to the surface. I slammed a forearm into his wrist to force the pistol away. Its report deafened me, muting my screams and disorienting me. I clung to his shirt for balance, but he swept my leg out from under me.
We fell in a heap onto the back of the dead officer. His pistol disappeared into the basin of bloody water. My enemy disarmed, I reached for my knife. As the blade cleared its sheath, he bashed his forehead into my nose. While I blinked fresh tears from my eyes, the mad sergeant pulled the kila from his satchel. He raised its golden blade high, but I came in low. I stabbed him in the stomach and lungs as I sought his heart. Thanh slashed downward but missed me by more than a meter.
The distance between us tripled before I realized what was happening. When I came to comprehend what unfolded before my eyes, my sanity sank as my screams rose to a crescendo. One of Chaugnar Faugn’s tentacles had risen from the pool and wound itself around the sergeant’s torso. As I watched, the other snaked around his legs and squeezed until his bones snapped. The end of the entity’s trunk unfurled like a lotus in bloom. Row upon row of teeth lined the rim of the flowery appendage. It stretched wide like the jaws of a serpent, enveloped Thanh’s head, and shut with enough force to decapitate him.
Instead of going limp, the doomed sergeant’s body thrashed wildly. The kila dropped from his hand, bounced off the lip of the basin, and clattered to a halt at my feet. But I couldn’t tear my eyes from the horrific scene before them. The Great Old One raised the sergeant’s body above its head. With a sharp snap of its appendages, Chaugnar Faugn pulled Thanh apart before my very eyes. Blood and gore crashed like a crimson tide onto the deity’s bloated body.
“Now, Ba, it’s now or never!” Lien called. “Before I lose control, take the knife and free me from a life of bloodshed and suffering.”
Though I could no longer see her, the words she’d said in the sewers beneath Qui Nhon City rang clearer than ever. I hefted the kila and approached the deity as it bathed in the traitorous sergeant’s blood. Caught in its sanguine orgy, it did not note my presence until I stepped into the pool.
The toothy maw at the end of its trunk rushed toward my face, but it spurred me forward rather than backward. I stepped onto the dais, lunged forward, and jammed the dagger deep into the Great Old One’s bosom.
Energy rushed through my body with the force of a lightning bolt. Warmth flooded my groin as the electricity made me piss my pants. I staggered away and fell beside the basin. My body contorted and shook until I lost consciousness.
I’m not sure how long I laid there covered in blood and urine. The sun had yet to set, but the cavern grew dimmer by the moment. Once sense and sensation returned to me, I dragged myself upright.
As I struggled to regain my balance, I kept a watchful eye on the Great Old One, but it had returned to its former statuesque state. Not a drop of blood marred its richly decorated exterior.
“I wish things could have turned out differently,” Lien said. Turning toward her, I saw that she had resumed her earlier, less ghastly appearance but an eternity of sadness lingered at the corners of her smile.
“Me too. I’ll never forget you.” It was cliché, but I meant it.
“Nor I you. You have done horrible things in this war, but you are a good man. Keep that in mind on your journey, for there is only one kind of way out of here now. I don’t know if you’ll survive it. You’ve been through so much already.”
We stood less than a hand’s span apart. Her ethereal glow warmed my heart but not my body. I wanted to be with her forever. “I don’t have to go.”
“Yes, you do. Unless you want to wait here with me in the dark until gnawing hunger kills you. For some of us, that takes an eternity. For you, it’ll just feel like one.”
“Tell me then,” I pleaded. “How do I get out of here?”
“Come to me, lover, and I will show you.”
Lien spread her arms and welcomed me into her embrace. Stepping forward, I plunged through the specter of my dead lover and toppled over the edge. As I tumbled into the dark heart of the abyss, I wondered if I would see her on the other side.
This story was written by Jeremy Hicks. It is his original content and cannot be used anywhere else without his expressed written consent. However, this blog may be shared, reblogged, etc. on social media for the purposes of promoting the author, his blog, and his other creative works.
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