The cockroach is singing. Singing its little thirteen-chambered heart out, squeezing air out of its abdominal spiracles, creating a high-pitched symphony that sounds like several tiny, tiny balloons whistling as they deflate through tiny tiny holes. There is actually a harmony to it, as it tries to attract a mate. Or whatever it’s doing. Maybe it just likes to sing.
Somrak knows that if he brings the insect’s insides to a boil, the whistling will become louder, higher-pitched, sounding panicked and desperate before the roach explodes. This one is safe. First, because he stopped killing them, deciding they weren’t as annoying as he’d thought at first. Their orange-and-black color scheme is rather handsome once you get used to it, a bit like a gigantic, stretched-out ladybird beetle. Then there’s the irksome sense of pity he feels for them. Pity for vermin. But there it is. That distressed whistle, like a scream for help, did him in. Now he can’t bring himself to kill them.
Finally, there’s the fact that the cockroach is right overhead, clinging to the ceiling, and if he pops it, it’ll rain flaming insect guts down on him.
You win, bug. You win. He toasts it with the shotglass of rotgut whisky he’s been balancing on his chest. He almost forgets himself, bringing the glass to his lips before he shudders and puts it back atop the thin cotton shirt stretched tight over his pectoral muscles. He tasted the abomination the Singing Cockroach calls its whisky when he first arrived here. A tiny sip was enough. Somrak knows what good whisky tastes like. He’s had plenty of it over the decades, quite a bit given or recommended to him by Sky. This stuff tastes like cockroaches are a principal ingredient. He just likes having the glass on his chest, even if it is time for breakfast.
Thinking of Sky sets Somrak’s mind down a path he’s been trying to avoid. He wishes he had brought a book, a dream projector, something. Anything to keep him from thinking about what horrors Sky is going through right now. So he starts thinking of Alma. The goddess he cannot have, that he’s lying to, preparing to betray her trust as soon as he knows where to find Sky. The object of his most tender affections, who loves another – and Somrak can’t even bring himself to hate his rival, because Somrak knows he’s a screwup, an oath-breaker. After more than a century of service to the Commander, of being Mister Reliable, the sharpest tool in the box, Somrak has been falling apart. And he knows he’ll bring nothing but misery to Alma because that’s how it’s gone every time before.
Oh thank you, brain! Vast improvement!
Deciding that it’s a choice between drinking the whisky and going out to find something to read, Somrak chooses reading material. Surely this ward has something decent to read, somewhere. Poetry might be too much to ask for, but then, pockets of squalor and hardship like this often breed the best poets. It’s just that nobody outside these wards ever hears of their genius. Fates, he can even hear, through the open window, a plaintive voice outside a shop down the street. He only knows greetings and farewells and such in the local language, from his brief time working here, but the message is universal: the singer loves someone, but he can’t have her.
Yeah, sure. That’s just because it’s all you can think about. Probably find out he’s singing about his mother’s cooking.
Before he can sit up and don his jacket and enchanted anonymizing scarf, an arrow hisses through the window and ends the cockroach’s song with a thunk, an arthropodic squeak, and a barely audible quivering thrum, that stops just as half the cockroach falls into Somrak’s vile whisky with a plop.
The fire god stays lying in bed for a moment, looking up at the arrow – a crossbow bolt, actually, he notes – and observing the angle with which it meets the ceiling. It must have been fired from the street, not from a building across the street, and therefore whoever fired it can’t see him. Standing up could change that.
He notes the fletching. Ah. Familiar – a pattern in the stabilizing feathers that has been recovered from the bodies of many a Dukaine and former-Dukaine gangster. Distinctive and left behind as a calling card. “Saira was here. I’m not dead yet, bastards. But you are.” He sets the glass of whisky-with-cockroach-guts-garnish on the rickety side table and cautiously approaches the window, looking out.
Nothing at first, just the sounds of the same singer starting another desolate song down the street, but with his heat sight, Somrak picks up the glowing form of a woman in the shadows, raising a crossbow again. He signals to her that she’s been seen, and she lowers the weapon, holding it in her right hand while beckoning him down with her left.
Well, this sounds better than lying here, thinking. He withdraws from the window, slips his jacket on, quickly straps on two blades aside from the others already part of the jacket or sheathed in his boots, or hidden away in extradimensional pockets, and then shoving the scarf into a side pocket, he jumps out the window, turning in mid-jump to catch the windowsill for just a moment to slow his descent, then letting himself drop the rest of the way, landing silently, feet together, knees flexed, arms out to his sides for balance. Ta-da! He turns and crosses the street to Saira, a question on his face.
He hasn’t seen the mortal, god-killing assassin since the Year’s End party, and he barely saw her there. He knew that today, Dion and Saira were going to talk to one of Saira’s suppliers. She looks grim. “Follow me. We have a problem.” Even before she finishes speaking, she’s turned and moved deeper into the alley. Somrak follows, senses straining, not liking how this is going. But he seems a warm shape in the morning shadows, not just warm but feverish, slumped against a wall.
“I wasn’t expecting this to happen,” Saira says, “but my informant was feeling greedy today. She left your friend in pretty bad shape.”
Somrak kneels next to Dion. He can see a flare of heat on the god’s left arm. “She attacked him?”
“Poisoned him,” Saira confirms. “Demon ichor. Her best stuff too. Just a drop but…I’ve never seen anyone react like that to it and stay alive. He’s too heavy for me to drag him the rest of the way back to the station.”
“You don’t look too good, buddy,” Somrak says to Dion, laying his left hand on the god’s chest, the other alongside his face, drawing away some of the fever-heat. “Can you walk?”
Rousing but slurring his words, Dion murmurs, “Yes…I…”
“You’ll need to steady him,” Saira says. “His legs started giving out halfway.”
Dion tries push himself up from the alley floor, but it’s clear he hasn’t the strength to stand. Thinking hard, Somrak asks him, “Can you make a portal?”
“I’m afraid…I’ve been using my mana to…inactivate the poison.” Dion sounds like he’s barely able to breathe.
Somrak replies, “Figured. You keep doing that. I’m going to get you to the station. Just relax now, and hold onto me with your good arm.” He shifts position, turning so his back is to Dion, squatting down between Dion’s legs and hooking his arms under the god of magic’s knees.
This brings Dion to life. He struggles, spluttering, “What are–?! You are not carrying me on your back as if I were a drunken prisoner!”
Somrak sounds scornful. “Stop being a baby. You’re seriously ill and you need to devote all your resources to staying alive. And I need to get you to Alma as fast as possible. Now hold on.”
Dion stiffens, then gives up. Though clearly not happy with the situation, he tosses a limp left arm over Somrak’s shoulder, and brings his good right arm around to grip his bearer’s jacket.
“Here we go,” Somrak says. He leans forward, getting the weight over his hips, then stands in a fluid motion, grunting with the effort of carrying a muscular, broad-shouldered god who outweighs him by a good amount. He breathes out. “Damn, man, how many donuts do you eat a day?”
Saira is watching this with a smirk. “The guy you’re looking for got himself locked up in Ablani. Caught breaking into a store.”
“Breaking into a store?” Somrak shakes his head.
“This is so undignified,” Dion grumbles.
On the back of his neck, Somrak can feel the sweat from his passenger’s face falling like the first drops of a summer rainstorm. “Yeah yeah, suck it up, big guy. You think it’s bad for you? Saira, can you pace us? Just in case some idiot tries something? Gangs around here… Could slow us down.”
“I’ll keep a lookout,” she says, pointing up at the rooftops. Then she narrows her eyes at Somrak. “You will let me into this. I’d hate to catch you breaking a promise.”
“Hey, a promise is a promise. I never break promises!” Somrak lies. “Right, here we go. I’ll take the most direct route back.”
“Sure. This will be fun to watch.” Saira goes out of sight, but Somrak hears her climbing up a waterpipe.
He starts jogging. Somrak is a god, but he’s not superhuman in strength. Even so, his compact, rock-hard muscle lets him support Dion and he makes good time. Just one foot in front of the other. Stay in the path. Ignore the people staring, the shouts and whistles, the jokes. Just one step, and another, and another. Keep going, Somrak. Dion’s grip is slackening, especially his injured arm, which is just hanging. Dion’s right hand holds tight to Somrak’s jacket, but even that is growing weaker. Somrak leans further forward to keep the god on his back.
Wait, did I make a wrong turn? No, no still on the right street. Have to turn at the fountain. Right, not much further. Only…a Hell of a lot more blocks.
If anybody tries to approach them, Somrak doesn’t notice. Maybe they got warning shots from Saira’s crossbow. Maybe they weren’t warning shots. For all he knows, Saira is leaving a trail of bodies in Somrak and Dion’s wake. The thought makes the fire god laugh.
Unfortunately, the repetitive heavy trudging does not shut down Somrak’s incessant thinking after all. All he has to do is keep Dion balanced on his back, run as fast as he can, and not get lost. So he has time to think about how Dion risked his life to find Sky. How Dion might even die tonight, if Somrak isn’t fast enough. About how determined Alma is to find Sky too, how they are both at least as determined as Somrak is.
And what Saira said. Her demand to be let into this. Yes, you promised her. Sky is being held by the Whisper, and as far as Somrak can tell, the head of the Whisper is the Lieutenant, the one she calls the Left Hand of the Devil. The one who ordered the murder of her gang, her family. He promised her and at the time, he believed she should be in on it.
For a moment his thoughts return to the job at hand as Dion slips slightly to the left. Somrak hops, shifting midair, landing hard – Knees! Ow – to slide Dion back into position.
“Come on, man,” Somrak grumbles. “You gotta hold on!”
He realizes Dion heard him when the one-handed grip on his jacket tightens, and the god mumbles in his ear, “Somrak? Dammit, I’ll tell her already…”
Somrak laughs weakly. “Yeah, sure, tell her, you big dope. Just hold on, Dion.
Trudge trudge trudge… So if Somrak has the right to risk his life, how can he take away that right from these others? All right, fine, Saira is a mortal, set her aside for now. But Dion? Alma? They’re already putting their lives on the line. Dion’s dying on Somrak’s back right now. Alma was nearly killed by shattered souls left behind by the necromancer’s bomb not so long ago. One of her corporals and his whole family has been murdered.
Somrak grimaces and powers forward. Who the Hell am I to say they can’t try? And let’s face it, going in alone might be all brave and self-sacrificing, but is it going to get Sky out? Not a chance. Time to reevaluate the plan. Maybe breaking promises isn’t the way to go after all.
Thighs burning, shoulders in agony, lower back shooting daggers of pain right up his spine, Somrak lets his mind run wild with this debate as a way of just ignoring the torment and continuing ahead. So what, then, are you going to turn Tulip and the others into orphans? Hell, you might’ve already got Dion killed. Is he even still alive back there? And what about Saira? Going to take a mortal along? She’ll be dead before she ever gets near the Lieutenant.
A hand grabs his bicep, but he keeps going a half-dozen steps, dragging his assailant along, before he comes back to the real world. He staggers, but Saira, with considerable effort, steadies him.
“Bad idea,” she says. Somrak looks at her in confusion, on the verge of collapse, but follows her pointing finger to see he was about to charge straight into Three Rats Station, where everyone would have seen an unmasked Somrak carrying their Sergeant Gwydion on his back. Bad idea indeed. “Get to the breezeway. Our death goddess has a portal there. Leads straight to her room.”
Somrak doesn’t even nod, just turns and trudges heavily to the breezeway. Saira runs ahead, around the station to the side where there’s a bathroom window that’s usually open. Every pain Somrak has been ignoring comes back full force as he plods forward. He’s not sure Dion is even breathing, but he can feel the god’s fever still raging. He stops in the breezeway just as the door from the station opens and Alma rushes out, her eyes wide with near-panic.
“Oh Ancients…Gwydion.” Her voice is a whisper as she frantically caresses Dion’s face, giving no indication that she has even noticed Somrak’s existence. After a moment, though, she glances at Somrak. “Hold on, I’ll just check to see that no one is in there.” By “in there,” he realizes she must mean her sanctum. Yes, having the place half-filled with Bunnies might be a bit awkward. Alma, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and concentrates, making a small circular gesture with her hands. A sparkling curtain of light springs up from the dirt around her feet, rising in multicolored rays to obscure her from his sight, until she disappears.
“Well looks like this is where I say boa noite,” Saira says. Somrak slowly turns his head to look toward her voice. She is standing at the corner of the building, shoulder resting against the wall, apparently having exited it the way she entered. She juts her chin toward Somrak’s burden. “Think he’s gonna make it?”
Somrak tries to shrug but doesn’t have the strength. “It’s all up to Alma,” he says. “Thank you…for getting him to me.”
Saira smirks. “Just don’t you forget to call on me when it’s time to go.” She turns on the ball of one foot, and she’s gone into the night.
Just as Saira leaves, the dazzling light rises from the ground again, and an arm reaches through it, grabbing Somrak’s wrist and pulling him into it. “Come, this way,” Alma says. He treads through the curtain of light and finds himself in her sanctum, which to him will always be remembered as a place of healing. He himself had been poisoned by demonic ichor not so long ago, something different from this but virulent as well. He stands still, waiting for the portal to fully dissipate, and for Alma to order him to do whatever needs doing. His mind is in no condition to make decisions, especially when the healer knows for better than he what to do.
Alma rushes to pull away the blankets on her bed. “Lay him there.” She moves out of Somrak’s vision as he moves like an automaton to the bed, returning with the same basin she used when she healed Somrak, filling it with water from the fountain.
Somrak slowly turns, then bending his knees, he straightens his back, allowing Dion to slip off and fall onto the bed. Gwydion bounces once, then Somrak carefully releases the god’s legs and stands fully, slowly, noticing pulled muscles he’ll have to heal soon. As he tries to straighten his legs again, his fatigued muscles give out, and he falls to his knees, catching himself from complete collapse by putting his hands out. A blue flash catches his sight and he sees Starfax, Alma’s phoenix, landing on the headboard to look down at Dion.
“Is’e okay?” Somrak slurs.
Alma, leaning over the supine body on the bed, says, “He is weak but still breathing.” She glances at Somrak, then looks at him again, longer. She finds a cup on the bedside table, dips it into the basin to fill it with water, and hands it to Somrak. “Here. It’ll make you feel better. You can rest in the alcove afterwards.” She sits on the edge of the bed and begins to open Dion’s shirt.
Somrak drinks very slowly, feeling the water filling his belly, traces of Alma’s mana in it diffusing through his stomach wall and into his body. He groans in pleasure and laboriously stands. “Jus’ tell me if I can do somethin’.”
She is struggling to get Dion’s jacket off. “You can help me remove his shirt and shoes.” Getting the jacket off his swollen left arm is difficult, but she manages it, and begins to unbutton his shirt. “Oh no…”
Somrak looks over her shoulder. The skin on Dion’s chest is darkening in tendrils and lines, looking disturbingly similar to the tattoos that appear on Sky’s face when he becomes angry. Somrak imagines he can almost see them growing before his eyes. Alma’s fingers trace the lines, which seem to be crawling across Dion’s chest from his left shoulder. She becomes rushed, desperate at trying to undo the buttons of his shirt.
Hardly thinking, Somrak pulls a short back-curved blade from one of the pockets of his jacket. The sharp edge is on the inside of the curve, used for cutting ropes or cloth, and he deftly slices Dion’s shirt from the neck down the left sleeve, exposing the arm to Alma’s ministrations. Where it is not mottled by thick, pulsating black lines, the arm is an angry red. Somrak pulls the shirt from under Dion’s back and off the uninjured right arm, tossing it aside, and sheathes the knife.
The point of entry is obvious, at the crease of the elbow, and Alma soaks a cloth in the basin and applies it. She gestures vaguely to the wardrobe on her right. “Left drawer, there is a box with mana orbs.”
Somrak is moving toward the wardrobe before she finishes talking, focusing in on the left drawer, slow but sure. He opens it and brings the whole box to Alma, setting it on the bed next to Dion so she can use as many as she needs. He stays standing, not trusting that he can get up again if he sits.
She opens the box and takes one of the orbs from it, barely looking at it, eyes fixed on Dion. The mana inside, in liquid form, sloshes gently, thick and viscid, as she puts it under his right hand and puts her hand over his fingers, closing them over it. Her snowy hair seems to stand on end, then moves as with a breeze as the room fills with the scents of spring and whispers of birdsong. Alma’s right hand is on the wet cloth over Dion’s left arm and her energy begins to flow through it, spreading through the black markings like oil trickling through water, slow but steady. From her left hand, the mana in the orb starts infusing into Dion’s body, easily spreading through the non-contaminated areas to create a blockade against the poison, trapping it against Alma’s healing magic. Somrak can follow it, seeing the fever dropping as the mana moves, sensing the mana itself as most gods can. It feels like an eternity for Alma’s magic to do its job. Somrak stays on vigil the entire time. Unable to help, still feeling vague but frustrated, hoping for orders to do something, he mutters under his breath, “Come on, Prettyboy…”
It is clear to see that Alma is devoting all her concentration, every measure of mana to healing Gwydion. The lines retreat, become thinner, slowly, very slowly disappearing from his skin, leaving behind only a coppery-red glow where they once were. Finally, there’s no blackness left in Dion, except a small mark of it around the original wound. Alma slumps and nearly collapses onto Dion when her magic leaves him. Dion’s body jerks suddenly, his back arches, and he gasps, eyes open. His head tilts to the side, his mouth moving in shuddered, slurred movements. Then his eyes close again, but he seems more at rest.
“Done…” she breathes.
Somrak turns carefully and slowly sits on the edge of the bed. He lifts a mana orb from the box and holds it out to her. “He gonna be all right?”
Alma nods, not looking at him, stroking the sweat-plastered locks of hair away from Dion’s face. “I hope so. Oh my dear…what kind of a price is this for mere information?”
“Information!” Somrak coughs a brief laugh. “Right… Lucky Pete got picked up breaking into a store. He’s being held in, uh, Ablani. Ablani Prison.”
Gwydion groans, his voice nearly inaudible, “Sommm… leave me alone… I’ll tell her…tell her I’m sorry…”
“Gwydion!” Alma takes his hand and squeezes it, obviously relieved, her other hand still cupping his cheek. “Gods, I was afraid I had failed. Can you hear me? You are in my room, dear. Saira and Somrak brought you here. You were poisoned. I think I managed to get most of it out of you.”
“I know, I know, I know…been so stupid. Stuuuuuuupid!” Dion mumbles. “Just shut up, Geryon! She’s the most important thing in the world to me – I’ll tell her! Just need some sleep…” And then he seems to slip back fully into unconsciousness.
Alma smiles, relief spreading over her face and her entire body. Softly, affectionately she says, “Sleep now, my love. She can wait.” She turns her head toward the box of mana orbs and seems almost startled to see Somrak sitting next to her, an orb in his hand. He raises it a little in offering, and she takes it, placing it on Dion’s chest, allowing its contents to seep through the solid glass and into the god’s spirit.
Somrak slowly stands, smiling. “Don’t forget to take one of those for yourself. I’ll head to Ablani and talk to Pete.”
Alma stands. “I’m coming with you.” She still looks like she has been through a battle, but her voice is strong again.
Somrak glances at the bed. “Dion stable?”
“He’ll be well,” she says. “And he’ll sleep for hours. Starfax will watch over him.”
Somrak nods. Letting her come now. Are you going to let her come when it really counts? “All right, then. I’m ready to go when you are.”