Ch6.72 Trust

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.”


Ch6.71 Trust

“Now how do you know this person you’re taking me to?”

The walk from Rio Novo had been a mostly silent one so far. A blessing and a blight, from Dion’s point of view. On the one hand, it allowed him silence and time to think over the information gathered in Somrak’s short briefing, that morning. Not a lot of information and nothing very uplifting, unfortunately, but every bit would help.

On the other hand, it gave him opportunity to recall his conversation with the fire god from last night, Somrak’s warning against the very real possibility of either Dion or Alma not returning alive from the rescue mission, Dion’s own promise to speak to the death goddess and make amends. He had nearly done so that same night, when he met her in the breezeway, returning from her meeting with Saira, Geryon walking by her side. When she touched his hand and looked at him with sorrowful eyes and quietly told him of this arrangement to meet one of Saira’s contacts in no more than half a dozen words. If only Constable Longshot had not suddenly erupted from the station with a couple of papers that Dion had forgotten to sign…

And then she had signalled him to go take care of his duty and he had followed Longshot back into the station, leaving Alma to return to her sanctum and most likely obsess a little more over her family’s records of the Necromancer Wars. She had not slept in days, he could tell, and neither had he with any level of rest. But even though he had known her to be awake, or at least strongly suspected so, his courage had drained and the god had been left gazing at the office ceiling for most of his shift, trying to imagine a world in which her lovely eyes would never rest their gaze on him again. Impossible torture.

And so it was that, after meeting with Saira and silently following her towards the neighboring ward of Little Falls, he was now trying to break the heavy quietness between them with what would hopefully be a productive line of questioning.

Not that Saira was ever one to make things easy. “You don’t really wanna know how I know her, trust me.”

“Very well,” Dion says dryly. “As long she can give us a lead.”

Saira looks a little uneasy at this. “Yeah…’bout that…” She pauses as if she is trying to avoid the issue but after a glance at his unamused expression, she seems to make up her mind. “Getting her to give anything tends to get a bit tricky around the edges. Her business isn’t a very safe one. And you better not let her make you for a cop or we’re both dead in the water.”

“I see,” Dion replies, remembering why it is that he has never found Saira particularly enticing. Namely her tendency to make little of his abilities at anything. “Don’t worry about my cover. I will make sure she does not realize who or what I am.”

Again, she shows her distrust of him, eyeing him up and down as if he has just blatantly lied to her face. “Yeah… don’t take this wrong but you’re not exactly my first choice when it comes to this sorta thing. Too bad Ponytail is too busy elsewhere.” She shrugs. “Oh well..”

Dion’s jaw clenches at the comparison with Somrak but he refuses to humor her disdain. “We have a job to do.”

Saira’s chuckle at his reaction only makes it worse. “It’s true, then. There is trouble in paradise…” She pats his shoulder. “Don’t worry, love, where we’re going, you’ll get a perfect chance to use that smooth talk of yours to score a real hot chick. Might help your mood, to taste some variety.”

Dion cannot help but stiffen at her patronizing touch, anger rising, mostly at himself, for allowing her games to disturb him. He breathes deeply, locking eyes with her in a warning glare.

She seems to understand his wordless message, her expression darkening just about as much as his. Her tone is serious and quiet when she tells him, “I’m not kidding. She doesn’t trust easily and I… well, let’s just say we’ve been on better terms than we are now. You charmin’ her into talking may be the only way to get anything out of her about this Pete fella.”

Dion nods slowly at her words. So this is why he is coming along on this meeting. Very well, if charm is needed, a charmer he will be. The shift in thought is not at all difficult. There is a touch of anger in charm, a touch of possession, of superiority, power. Control. The absolute belief that one is at one’s best, regardless of the environment, one’s company. It is confidence in skill, in step, in speech. A hunter’s trust in the accuracy of his shot, the sharpness of his eye. He has been shaped in a land of great and arrogant beasts, of ruthless elements, where only the mighty and the bold dare survive and prevail. And once one has learned to match the great hunters, the whole of the world becomes prey.

He relaxes into himself and allows that confidence to pour over his shoulders, over his steps, to overflow and roll away from him. He is keeping his divinity well-hidden, his godly aura to a minimum, but what this is takes no magic, no power other than that of the mind over itself. He smiles at Saira, a lion – no, something bigger, much greater and older than any lion – baring his gleaming-white teeth at a housecat.

“I will be on my best behavior,” he states quietly, watching not without a certain glee as her pupils dilate, her hand reflexively and unconsciously opens and touches her hip, a fingernail grazing the exposed skin just above her belt.

Easy. So easy… If only he were willing.

It takes her just a fraction too long to return to herself, to grin mischievously and pat his cheek probably a little more playfully than intended. “That’s a good boy.”

No…it’s not.

They arrive at their destination shortly after. An apothecary shop, from the look of it. Various dried plants, looking old and stale from the crumbliness of their leaves, the wan color of their molding stems, hang from pieces of waxed string tied to a pair of hooks on each side of the low door. He signals Saira to enter first with an arching motion of his hand and wrist that seems to amuse (but please) her. A pair of steps lead inside, from the higher level of the street into a lowered room, dark and heavy with dust. It is a good thing that, like Three Rats, this area is neither prone to great bouts of rain nor flooding or the store would be better off selling rafters and decorative fish. He has but a moment to take in the various shelves, crowded with ceramic and glass pots, some opaque, some transparent, all advertising the names of the exotic remedies they carry inside.

Well, supposedly carry. Even without drawing on his magical senses, Dion can already feel the distinctive prickling to his nose and skin of things that no common apothecary should trade in. For no remedy for gods or mortals should resonate with the foul, poisonous essence of Hell.

A curtain of bamboo beads strung together with cheap twine rustles as it is moved aside to allow passage for who he supposes must be the shop owner. “Hello! And whót cán Ah – oh…it is you.”

The last few words are clearly directed at Saira and accompanied by a disdainful grimace instead of the smile that had adorned the apothecary’s face just seconds ago. An attractive woman, in a very specific definition of the word. Skin just a shade or two of brown deeper than the usual dark olive of most of the Three Rats population, exposed over the arms, neck, legs and belly. Her clothing made of cheap, rough cotton colored in dull reds, blacks and yellows, probably hand-dyed with natural pigments, reveals more than conceals a well-curved feminine form, wide hips and a slightly bulging abdomen with contours that seem to flow perfectly with the asymmetric cut of the dress: a top made to barely hide full breasts linked to a short skirt that ends mid-thigh by a large golden ring. Arms covered in wide bangles, ankles encircled by chain after chain of thick golden metal. Hair tied in a thick ponytail, hanging in coal-black dreadlocks. Beautiful, all of it, even if a little exaggerated for his tastes.

But what truly throws Dion off the mark are the scars. Row upon row of scarification marks all over her arms, her belly, her neck. Some short and straight, some long and jagged, some little more than raised bumps, a good many of them discolored and contrasting sharply with her skin’s natural tone. All of them clearly intentional, arranged in patterns, in symbols and images. She walks with a confidence that speaks of pride in her appearance. Dion asks himself why she would treat her own body so violently, going as far as piercing some of her scars with metal studs and rings, and trimming the tips of her ears to make them jagged.

He makes certain to hold his expression blank and pleasant in the face of this strange character.

“Gee…thanks for the warm welcome,” Saira complains by his side. “Is that how you greet every patient in need of treatment?”

“Di kind of illness you ha’, no poxión cán treet,” the apothecary replies, her thick accent forcing her to speak with a slow, irregular cadence. “Dei ha’ not cóme ahp with anyting yet fér rottan solles.”

Dion takes this time to consider the woman’s appearance. He has seen it before somewhere – ah, yes… in an old book about great yet sadly crazed mages and alchemists. He remembers a reference to one named Nomichor, famed for his dalliances into the dark arts of alchemical transmutation and fusion of demon bodies into animals and plants in order to study their physical properties. And famous as well for his habit and deep belief in the value of exposing himself to a varied assortment of his creations’ secretions by cutting his own skin and rubbing whatever foul drool or excrement he was studying onto his exposed flesh in the hopes of learning its virtues or, most of the time, dangers. He had died after one such experiment but not before losing a couple of limbs and a few other body parts to what he called ‘science’.

This woman, however, must be one of his followers, perhaps a descendant of one of his disciples. It surely explains the Hellish scents coming from jars labelled with names as innocent as ‘dried heather’. She jerks her chin at Dion, glancing at him with carefully appraising eyes. “A nu toy? You ne’er strock me fér a ‘gud and neet’ kind éf girl.”

Saira snorts at this, smoothly taking a step away from him. “Naah, you can have’im if you like. I just brought’im along to give you some money to earn.” She shrugs nonchalantly. “Unless you’re too mad at me to take an offer like that.”

Something in their tone and interaction speaks to Dion of latent resentment laced with physical attraction. As if these two women had once shared a bed and lived to regret it. He puts the thought aside, entertaining as it may be. More important issues are on the table.

“I am a client, Doctor,” he says with a smile, offering his hand palm up that she may take it. “Hers, briefly, and hopefully yours as well.”

The woman looks at him sideways, not taking his hand yet. “And wót it is dat you ah’ looking to ’eal? You look too gud to need mah sérvices. And noh bád enaf to need hérs.”

“Hey!” Saira protests.

The apothecary gives her no more than a smile in return before once again turning her attention to Dion, this time resting the tips of her fingers on the tips of his. “She tells you mah name. Wót is yors?”

He raises his hand to bring her fingers within the reach of his lips, kissing her scarred, rough skin in a slow, galant greeting, smiling at her and maintaining his gaze locked on her murky black eyes as he does so, ignoring for the moment the bitter taste of cussi and sumkir (either of which would easily see her imprisoned for dealing in demonic substances) infused deeply into her skin. Saira had not, in fact, told him this woman’s name but he nonetheless allows her the illusion of being the smartest person in the room. The assumption matters little to him but seems to please her immensely. And he wants her to be pleased with him.

“My name?” he asks as if this were anything but important. “You can call me Merillion.”

She smirks, nearly purring her response. “Ef corse, Ah can. And wót is it you need, Merillión?”

Her hand strokes his as she removes her fingers from his hold. Dion casually drops his hand and chuckles at her suspicion of him, letting his derisive laughter rumble a little deeper in his throat. “I am merely in need of information, and then I will leave you. For now. Who knows if we cannot do business again in the future? I have certain ingredients I need for my studies, and one of my providers, Lucky Pete–” he says the name with just the tiniest hint of distaste expected of him “–has disappeared on me.”

The woman takes a step closer to him, her head held slightly back as if she means to sniff the truth out of him. “Mebbe dis próvider ef yors senses sóme-ting abót you? Sóme-ting bad…” Her full lips move nearer his face. “For ’is healt?”

Dion looks at her coyly, though he makes no motion to pull back. She is standing just a hand’s breadth away from him, her body leaning at the hip, back arching ever so slightly so that she may maintain eye contact. She means to invade his space and he has no intention but to invite her in. “I wouldn’t know what is going on in his mind,” he says, speaking against her lips. “But I suspect his missing our meeting has more to do with the disruption to a certain recent market than anything he might think about me. I will be very grateful for any help.”

Her hands smoothen the lapels on his shirt as she notes in soft, quiet tones that are as amused as the grin on her face. “You dress like préih, Merillión. But Ah sense darknéss in yor solle. Pain in yor hart. And powah’ beyond a mortól mahn.”

“You have sharp eyes, Doctor,” he whispers, leaning his head slightly closer, letting his gaze fall just a little lower on her face. “Beautiful, sharp eyes.”

“Oh, you wou’ be amézed at wót dei cán see,” she purrs, her cheek brushing against his lips as she turns and walks away from him. “You know you kéme in he-ar wi’ a dead wumón?”

“Is that what they’re sayin’?” Saira asks with a touch of amusement.

“All I know is that she that has introduced me to you, and for that alone she has earned my gratitude,” Dion retorts dismissively, removing the lid of a porcelain jar sitting on a little pedestal and grimacing at the acrid stench of something being kept in very old embalming fluid. “And her substantial fee.”

Do people really believe a basilisk’s claw will heal broken bones overnight? he wonders.

The woman snorts at his ill-fated curiosity. “Well, word on di streets is Saira die helpin’ di Guardia fight a deemón and dei ték ’er body fer buryin’. Now she is he-ar, alive though I cán see di marks on her. Wót do you méke of dat, Merillion?”

“I am not a traitor!” Saira bellows suddenly and it takes Dion every morsel of self-control in his body not to turn to look at her. “I was trying to keep a bunch o’ kids from being sold to kibble!”

The god makes a show of exhaling deeply, feigning slight irritation. Saira’s tone is alarmingly outraged and hurt and he fears the woman may be stressing herself into one of her convulsive fits but he cannot afford to break character. “People talk and talk.” He raises a hand, gesturing vaguely in further dismissal. “Clearly not everything about her is as rumors say. But this is not my concern.”

“Not onless you ah’ Guardia too,” the apothecary counters, turning her smiling, highly entertained gaze from Saira’s enraged expression to Dion’s vacant profile. She studies him intensely while lifting the lid of a glass counter that doubles as a display case and removing from it an inconspicuous bottle from a throng of similar-looking bottles apparently containing colorful powders and mysterious liquids.

Dion laughs lightly at the accusation, turning to face her more directly. “Oh, is that your concern? My dear Doctor, I am a practitioner. Such so-called forces of authority are more a hindrance to my research than a benefit to anyone’s protection.”

She opens the bottle. “And wót is yor research, practitioner?”

Dion watches as she removes a carved-bone needle from a small jar of such items and dips its tip into whatever is being held in the thumb-sized container. He can see Saira’s expression of unease at the sight of it through the corner of his eye.

Still, he must continue. “My research? I am interested in expansion of the powers of the mind.” He sniffs at the scent that is just now reaching his nostrils as the apothecary moves closer to him. Demon ichor. Purified but spiked with something he cannot quite identify. He curses internally. “Interesting choice, that. Not really what I’m in the market for.”

“No, you don’ look like a killeh, like Saira,” the woman says with a snort that makes her bangles jingle in a bone-jittering choir. “Bót mébbe you woul’ lák to put mah mind at peace? Shó me you ah’ troo and mortól. Share yor pain wi’ Karm. Dén I might discóss di lost and found wi’ you.” She holds the needle sharp-end-up for his inspection. “A prick éf dis brings pain to mortóls but if you ah’ a god…it will hurt méch moh.” She leans closer to whisper in his ear. “Ah ha’ left moh den one god at di Barón’s doorstep wi’ dis special brew.”

He can fill her plump lips curl into an evil grin against his earlobe and cheek. A sadist’s grin, looking to watch him squirm and cower, basking in whatever fear and pain she may anticipate. But two can play that game.

“I come here to offer you business and you want to poison me?” he whispers back, fingers wrapping around her hand and tightening around it in an iron grip.

She chuckles and pulls away, smiling at first but then looking quite put off when, with a beatific smile of his own, he tightens his grip further, holding her hand in place. Still, it takes her only a fraction of a moment to relax and find sensual pleasure in their little game of tug-of-war. “Éf you are troo, you ha’ noting to feér but a littel pain. We all ha’ a price. Péi mahne or leeve.”

“Karm, come on,” Saira pleads. “My arm hurt horrors when you did that to me. Went numb for three days after that.”

Demon ichor, specialty brew. Most likely something of the sort he has seen Saira use to hunt and kill divine members of the Dukaine organization. One of very few things that is safer to mortals than to gods. That could easily kill a god, even in small amounts, if directed straight into vital organs with a plentiful blood supply, poisoning the organism and destroying the superhuman healing properties that are a prerogative of all but the weakest divine bodies. Though the amount of it lacing Karm’s needle is exceedingly small, it is still potent in its purity and, at the very least, extremely painful to experience.

But this is for Sky, for the hope of finding out where he is being held so that they can extract him and end the reign of terror of this necromancer who wishes nothing but to bring them pain and death. Who wishes nothing but to hunt down those who Dion cares about and remove them from his world. This is his part to play in the making sure that the enemy does not succeed. His moment to sacrifice. He dares not think that this might be in vain, that Karm will know or say nothing in the end.

So he plays along, releasing Karm’s hand and unbuttoning the cuff of his shirt so that he can easily roll up his sleeve. If he can have a choice of injection places, he may as well keep that foul needle away from any major blood vessels. Once he is done, he presents her his left forearm, an expression of annoyance on his face that he hopes hides well his inner concerns.

He draws upon his training, as a wizard and a martial artist, to strengthen himself against the agony he can only imagine will follow. His will is iron. It must be to do the things he does. And he will resist the urge to scream, to cringe, to collapse, to give her any of the sadistic pleasure she hopes to extract from him with this little game of hers. He will. He will. No pain or poison can match the agony his heart is in already, anyway.

Or so he tells himself.

Karm smiles through a mouth full of teeth carefully filed to sharp points and wraps her fingers around his forearm, pricking him. “Nice bréce-let, bai di wé. Prétti.” She strokes the bracelet that Alma has made for him and that he has not taken off since that gift-giving day with her poisonous, scarred fingers and Dion locks his jaw, barely resisting breaking every single one of them for daring soil his love’s gift with her tarnishing touch. “Méde wi’ lóve, wasit?”

The pain hits like a hammer. Her words are lost to his ears. The tiny drop of poison enters his skin like burning lava, corrosive acid eating away at his flesh, melting through tissue, through vessel walls, a drop stretching into a flood as it enters his bloodstream and spreads, spreads slowly like thick oil clogging his veins, seeping into muscle, into bone, stealing the life-giving air from his blood cells, suffocating everything in its passage. The acid of his arm’s desperate attempt to function in the absence of oxygen hurts him as much as the poison itself. It is…astonishing. His fist clenches – he cannot help it. The muscles of his forearm bunch and strain. And then it is spreading throughout his body, almost leisurely, breaking down the practiced, honed defenses against toxins that years of training have loyally kept in place as if they were nothing but paper against a flame. A terrible, consuming flame. He feels his temperature rise, sweat breaking out on his face. Involuntary reactions that he cannot control. But he can still control his breathing, and he keeps it smooth, as smooth as possible. The urge to scream is almost impossible to suppress, but he does through sheer force of will.

His one concession to pain is to close his eyes. The agonizing sensation is spreading quickly and he must focus. Something, something to take his mind off the agony, off the terrible feeling that he is dying in excruciating pain, off the rumbling within him of a force he has only barely felt in years but which moves now with irritation, like something being poked into vigilance after a sleep of ages. Something big and angry and confused, disgusted at the poison that spreads through its lair and threatens to destroy it. He is afraid, has always been afraid of this strange presence that rarely surfaces but takes over his senses whenever it does. A primitive, brutal rage he has used more than once to his survival in the Dragon Lands but knows not how to reach or tame. He would easily level this shop, half of the ward with it, he knows. But he cannot. He cannot let it out. Not now. Not now. The pain cannot blind him to his purpose or he will destroy what is their only lead to Sky’s location.

And then it will be his fault and the lovely hands that have weaved the bracelet that encircles his wrist will never again touch him with kindness. With love. It hurts to think about them, to think about her knowing that he is yet to repair the chasm he has opened between him and his beloved but still it is to her that he runs, to his memory of her, to escape the pain. To her smile, her touch, to stolen kisses in quiet times, to that last night in their office, her sleeping form lying in his arms, breathing peacefully against him in that slow, ever so slow way of hers that even in vigilance and effort clashes so strongly against his rushing heart, his quick breath. To her cool touch, her sluggish pulse that never fails to calm him down and infuse him with peace even as her lips excite his lust with their kiss. He runs to her in thought, mind trying to remind his body of the running of her fingers through his hair, of the gentleness of her hold, of the cleansing sensation of her healing powers spreading through him in search of wounds, enticing his cells to release whatever substances she knows of to drown pain with pleasure. He can almost feel it now, so vivid the agony makes his desperate memory.

He holds on to it so that his knees will not buckle, his eyes not fill with tears. He can fill Karm watching him, at the edge of his senses, her stare one of strange glee, almost as if she is feeding off his pain. He does not care. His mind is filled with a single thought: survival. Survival with a purpose. To make things right, to rebuild his little piece of paradise. He has to live. For her. To be with her again. To let her heal his wounds with her presence if not with her magic.

He feels a hand on his back. “You’re sick, Karm.”

Saira’s voice. He opens his eyes, feeling his physical pain under a flimsy control, not trusting himself to speak.

Karm shrugs. “You did sé Ah coul’ ha’ him.” She moves closer to Dion and her hands rest on his arms as she leans to touch her lips to his jaw, tasting his sweat-ridden skin. “Oh you ah’ so tense. Ah lóve et.”

She glances at Saira, then speaks, her mouth ever so close to Dion’s. “Wi’ you grón fer mi?”

With great effort, Dion wills himself to smile. “I’m not much for groaning.”

His eyes spell murder, he knows. He cannot help it. Within him, lashing in pain and confusion, his raging core roars and growls. I will crush you, you petty, meaningless little creature. And I will love every second of it.

For now, however, he has more important things to do. “You asked for a heavy price, Doctor. I paid it. Now it’s your turn to give me what I want.”

Karm looks into his eyes, then pouts in a way she probably thinks is adorable but that looks nothing but ridiculous for her personality. “Fahn… Ah guess we plé sóm odér tahme.” She suddenly steps away from him, her voice now serious and impatient. “Pete did noh shó ahp becóse he get bostéd fer breaking into a stór. Noh lák Pete at awlle.”

Dion sighs to conceal a sudden sharp burst of pain to his chest that almost steals his breath. He shakes his head as he regains control. “Well that explains things. Which ward is he in? At least I’ll know where he is.”

“Dei send awlle prisonérs to Ablani from he-ar,” Karm replies, leaning against her small counter of poisons. “Whót ah’ you lookin’ fer, Merrilión? Mébbe dére ah’ alternatifs to Pete.”

“I doubt you deal in infera aura,” Dion notes, rolling down his sleeve and touching his bracelet for what little comfort that brings him.

Karm blanches slightly at the mention of the infernal mineral, much to the god’s petty pleasure. “Ah… noh, sorre.” She turns toward the bamboo-bead curtain and the door beyond, announcing the end of their appointment. “Ha’ a nice dé, Mellirión. Cohm bék anytime.”

“Hey, don’t I get to shop?” Saira asks, looking peeved but, Dion notes from her quick, worried glance at him, not terrible so.

“Not todé,” Karm replies, not looking at her. Instead, she grins at Dion. “Mah dé is méde.”

“Glad to have given you such pleasure,” he says to her. “May the remainder of your day be as pleasant.”

“Whót a gentle mahn,” she jests, disappearing behind the curtains. “Be carefool, Merillión. Whót you seek……óders coul’ see you as competitión.”

“Be seein’ you, Karm,” Saira calls to her.

“Saira,” the apothecary’s voice rings from a distance. “You sté alive, now.”

And so they leave the shop, quickly, silently. They manage to pass a couple of alleys before Dion ducks into the shade of a taller building, staggering slightly from the violent bouts of pain stabbing at his gut. He puts a hand to the wall, breathing heavily from the effort of staying conscious.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Saira whispers at his side. “She doesn’t do that often on a first meet. How’re you doin’?”

In her defense, she sounds truly concerned. But he cannot bring himself to care. His torso is ablaze with agony, the hand he is using for support is shaking beyond his control. His stomach clenches, his abdomen contracting in a heave, a series of heaves. His breakfast, what little of it he had had the humor to eat gushes into his throat, acid of another kind making his esophagus burn and polluting his mouth on its way to the cobblestone street. He shudders as a new wave of contractions seemingly tries to rip the inner lining of his now empty stomach. No…no…no… He cannot fall now. He has to endure, to make it back to Three Rats. His powers flare to life, trying to inactivate the poison, though he has no experience of such things, no real knowledge of how to deal with something as destructive as demon ichor. All he has is anger.

“She doesn’t… do that often?” he heaves. “If you… had warned me…” He takes a deep breath, struggling for control. “I could have prepared…”

Saira ignores his growling tones and puts her hands to his sides to support him. “Shh… Don’t talk. Breathe. Don’t hold it in. That was damn brave of you but let it flow now. It’s bad but you’ll get better faster if you don’t fight it.”

He turns and leans his back against the crumbling mortar covering the building’s brick wall. He rolls back his sleeve to look at his progressively numbing arm and see the skin turning black around the area the needle touched. Quickly turning black. And spreading.

Good thing she didn’t see that… he thinks.

“Can the others help?” Saira asks, obviously disturbed by his reaction to the poison.

“I don’t know,” Dion confesses. “Gods are very sensitive to demon ichor. And not very good at inactivating it.”

But I have to be, he thinks. I have to be. Whatever it takes, I have to get home. I have to…

He holds his breath against nausea. …to make it right. To see her again. To tell her…I’m sorry. I should have trusted her. I should have.

He forces himself to stand up straight again, and looks intently at Saira. “Whatever happens to me, you will take me back to the station.”

To tell her how much I need her, how much I love her. Hold her again.

And though it is not the best-phrased of his requests, Saira seems to catch the urgency in his voice. She nods. “Let’s get you home.”

Just one more time.

Ch6.70 Trust

Once you’ve fried every cockroach in your room, the stench gets to be a little…what did Sky like to call it? Malodorous, yeah, that’s it. Good word, the kind you can roll around in your mouth. Malodorous. The Singing Cockroach should consider using it in advertising.

The Singing Cockroach: Three Rats’ Most Malodorous Establishment!
You Won’t Believe the Miasmic Qualities of Our Communal Toilets!
Try Our Bedsheets! Free Fungal Infection with Every Lice Infestation!

Anyway, after Alma’s visit, sleep is out of the question, so once the bug-zapping is done – they pop when you raise their internal temperature high enough, you should really try it if you’re a fire god – it’s time to go for a walk. Visit Sky’s fake apartment. Not that it’s likely to turn up anything, but maybe there’ll be some clue that Alma and Dion missed in their state of shock after the collapse of Sky’s sanctum. And there could be somebody watching the place. Now wouldn’t that be a lucky catch? A Whisper gang soldier to interrogate – wouldn’t that put a smile on Alma’s face?

That of course requires a different approach from the usual. Chowringhee Road is even more insular than most of Three Rats. The road is only one twisting throughway among a mess of alleys, streets, lanes, trails, and accidental spaces between buildings that are paths only by default, that from above must look like a dropped bowl of noodles. And everyone in that compact neighborhood knows everyone else, and will take careful note of any newcomer. This could be useful for identifying Sky’s captors, except for the fact that Sky is the only cop who has gained any trust from the people in this particular stomping ground, and they will know that telling on the Whisper is a death sentence, a notably bad one as well.

So it’s time not to be noticed. The old on-duty uniform is made for that. Black with red trim, it can change color any time, useful for when you have a boss who wants the red trim to be blue trim so you’re obviously Guardia, as Alma did a couple weeks ago, but also useful for disguises, and for camouflage. The neck-scarf is useful as well. Pull it up over the lower half of your face, and it changes, becoming a translucent blur, casting a spell of ‘nothing to see here’ on the face of the user. People’s eyes just slide right off, and they wouldn’t remember the face with the help of the best hypnotist in the City of Gods.

Helpful to be able to see heat sources at night, as well, since there’s barely a functional streetlamp in the whole neighborhood, other than along its eponymous main road. Sky had said he’d worked hard to get the lamps repaired and to convince the locals not to break them. Times were changing. Will they continue if Sky’s gone?

So it’s in through the shadows, moving quiet, taking time to get there without attracting any notice. What would normally take twenty minutes takes almost an hour, but that’s what it takes to get close enough to see the apartment while not close enough to reveal yourself to anyone who might be watching.

And what do we have here but a light in said apartment? Someone else is nosing around. It’s a steady golden glow, not the wavering dim light of the gas lamp that the place is equipped with. Just one warm, glowing shape, expected size, two legs, no tail, someone with average human body temperature. Even the light source is giving off no heat. Unless the person in there is the light source. No, it’s not moving with him. Or her.

Who else is watching?

Keeping an eye on the window to make sure the light doesn’t go out, a careful search of the places a watcher could be hiding doesn’t take too long. Sensing heat sources doesn’t seem too remarkable when you’ve been able to do it all your life, but it sure is useful. And the warm bodies around here are asleep or engaged in their own pursuits. One or two call for a closer look, but after half an hour, it seems like the area is clean. Time to get closer.

The steps are easy. Sky never fixed them. Fates, if anything he made them worse. Squeaks and creaks to warn of an approach, and that broken one that looks nice and solid but tries to bite into your shoe if you’re not careful. But go up the right way and it’s mouse-quiet.

Makes it a good ambush point. Could wait until the target is away from here, in a dark alley, or even just follow him all the way home. But what if he gives me the slip? Better to take him down now, quick and quiet. And here, at the door, on this landing is good. Target’ll have made squeaks and creaks on the way up, most likely. Will expect to hear them if someone else comes up. That, and his eyes won’t have adjusted to the night. Might be the best moment to catch his guard down.

The light is moving, brightening under the door, lengthening in an arc across the landing. Press back against the wall next to the door, on the hinged side. Leathers changing color very slightly to blend into the shadows almost perfectly. Scarf saying “I’m not here.”

The light extinguishes. The knob turns and the door opens, blocking my normal vision, but I can see his heat through the thin door. Male shape, pausing, looking out into the night. The door closes behind him and just as my arm is closing around his throat I realize who it is.

But he doesn’t realize who I am. A lot of people might freeze, somebody gets them in a chokehold, but not Dion. No thought, just training, and fast, the hips shift, his right foot swinging in a little arc to get behind my left leg, getting those hips behind mine, chest against my side and his head lower, pulling me forward, him with the better balance now, left arm slamming against my chest.

It’s a thing of beauty and since I’m not exactly trying to stop him, he carries it off perfectly, but as I don’t want to get smashed against the door, I release and go down, laughing, falling to the old planks, meaning to do a neat little side-reverse roll and pop back up. Except he spins and snaps out a forward kick to my chest while I’m still falling. If this were a real fight I’d have blocked it – yeah, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – but with this being a simple misunderstanding, I’m not really on my game. It’s fast but he’s not really set, so not much pain through the leather but it sure does add energy to the roll, sending me back a body-length further than I’d intended. Instead of popping up, I crash against the cheap, rotten railing, hear it crack, and have time to think, Crap…

The railing slows things down though, and just as I’m going through and my body’s starting to react to an impending one-story fall – not too bad, if you can get your legs under you and there’s no broken glass or crocodiles waiting – the jacket jerks against my chest and everything stops. I’m hanging over the edge and Dion’s holding onto my jacket, looking down at me with a scowl that would freeze a penguin.

The pieces of railing that broke free clatter below. He could just let me go, and I’d be down there with them in about one second. Wouldn’t blame him. But I give him the patented Somrak grin, the one that charms the ladies and scares the little kids. Oh! The scarf!

“Nice move, Dion!” All cheerful, as I yank down the scarf with one hand and grab his forearm with the other.

“Somrak?” The frown turns to surprise, and he takes a long step back to leverage me up. Nice of him. Releases me, tugging at his cuffs to smooth his sleeves and turning his face away a little. “Well, that is one way to greet people…”

“I was coming by to do the same as you, look for clues. Saw the light and thought you might turn out to be a useful lead. Find anything here?”

Dion shakes his head, and gestures, annoyed, back at the apartment door. “I am afraid nothing we can use. I was merely puzzling over how they did it, breaking into a god’s sanctum.”

“Huh.” Scanning around to see if our tussle attracted any attention. “I know someone who knows how to do it. But I can’t contact her for this. We might want to be able to break through when the time comes to go in after Sky.”

Dion shakes his head. “We would need to find demon blood, ferrous sulfate, and infera aura, then. Plus half a dozen minor, more-easily found ingredients.”

“Demon blood could be available on-site, depending on the opposition. Dion…what the hell are you thinking?”

Yeah, that’s right. Hit him with the old ‘change the subject without warning’ approach. Dion turns back, nonplussed. “Personally, I’m thinking they need a better bonding agent to help focus the spell. But perhaps that’s…not what you mean?”

Sigh. Time to go where angels fear to tread. “I mean you and Alma. She told me you’d had a fight. But it was obvious something is wrong.”

Oh there we go. Face turning red, eyes all hooded and dangerous. Really great effect in the moonlight. “With all due respect, Somrak, I don’t think this is a matter for the two of us to discuss.”

“Fine, no discussion. I’ll talk, you listen.” Take a breath. “Look, I was stupid. But I get it now and she loves you so I’m asking again, what the hell are you thinking? She doesn’t need two idiots around.”

Glowering. Yes, that is definitely Dion’s glowering look. Too bad I don’t have a camera. “Because of your actions, I made a mistake.” Ice-cold voice. This could turn into a fight. Lovely. “You made it clear, Somrak, quite clear what your intentions were. The friendliness, the compliments, the little act at the market. Every time she denied it until I found out about your…slip up. So I judged her based on that.” Disgust, but for himself more than anyone else, from the way he looks down and away. “Frankly, I would have thought you would be taking a wonderful opportunity to show her how much better a match you can be to her.”

Shrug. “Yeah, I’m a little surprised at myself that I’m not. But here’s the thing. She needs someone to support her and I can’t. You know why? Because even if I’m honestly just being a good friend, in the back of her mind she’s going to be wondering exactly what you expected: that I’m just doing it to win her over. And that’ll taint everything. So it’s up to you, Prettyboy.”

And Dion turns away again, takes the first step down those stairs. Come on, man… “She hates me at the moment. With good reason.”

This is getting ridiculous. I should just say fine, and go after her myself. Maybe I would if I didn’t think I’d be dead in a day or two. Maybe not. One more try. “I am the least likely person to be giving good relationship advice, but you don’t want to be going into this thing with a gulf between the two of you. Dion… Look, I don’t know the details, and I don’t want to. But she needs you.”

He stops. Not looking back, he says, voice harsh, “She is not the only one in pain, Somrak. If it were that easy… I just…don’t want to argue with her again. Don’t want to have her walk away.”

“So you let it lie for now, and then we go in to get Sky, and maybe she doesn’t make it out?” Harsh. Well, he needs harsh. “Or you don’t make it out? You really want to risk having that extra guilt on top of everything else? Guilt for whoever survives?”

Three cheers for guilt. Yeah, I know, they only think they’re going in to rescue Sky. Not like I haven’t lied to a friend before, but I don’t really want to compound the lies like this. The more lies, the more likely the truth will come out.

Still, it got Dion to look back. The thought of losing Alma turns him as pale as she is. “That’s…certainly not what I meant.”

“World doesn’t care what you meant. Intentions don’t mean a thing without action.” Who am I talking to, him or myself? Arms crossed, leaning back against the wall, I try to drive it home, but gently. “I know you’re hurting. But somebody has to make the first move.”

Dion stays silent long enough that I start to feel a little sleepy, but then he nods in defeat. “Tomorrow.”

Good enough. Strange how much I like the guy. Pampered, ridiculously handsome, politically connected, infamous for all the dalliances he’s had with the most sought-after goddesses across the First Ring, and yet I like him. “I’ll be coming by. Got some info to share with the both of you. But…maybe now I can sleep.” I push away from the wall and poke at the railing, which makes a big length of it start to creak away slowly from the landing. Oops. I grab it to prevent the sound it would make on falling. “Hey, what’s up with you and her and the Singing Cockroach, anyway?”

He chuckles, though there’s no smile to accompany the humor. “Our first day here, she asked if I had a place to stay and suggested the Singing Cockroach. We had just met. I followed her suggestion and got into a fight. Turns out the owner is not fond of Guardia.” He gives me a look that seems grudgingly grateful. “I need to return to the station. It’s my shift.”

I give him a nod and let him go, listening for the creaks on the stairs. Not many – he’s a fast learner. I just stand in the dark for a few minutes. So many lies, piling deeper and deeper. Soon it won’t matter anymore, but… Well, when you’re dead, you don’t have to worry whether they forgive you.

Ch6.69 Trust

Itty bitty bunny dropping from the sky
Running in the moonlight, talons passing by
Hide inside your burrow, warm under the snow
Making lots of bunnies for when the flowers grow…

Preying eyes watch from behind a massive stone garuda, complete with menacing beak and flaming eyes, standing three tiers high in the abandoned alleyway temple and a bit to the far corner of the alley where a hooded figure in tight-fitting clothing is speaking to another hooded figure – currently sans hood – in a beautifully tailored cape that barely stands out less than the white-haired head currently topping it. But that is all right. They are alone, for the moment.

Well, not entirely alone.

As the conversation reaches its end and Three Rats’ very own goddess of death turns to leave, a shadow detaches itself from the darkness of the elaborate building and stalks, quiet and slender, out of hiding. The woman in tight leather has walked past it already, swift, bound for the rooftops. Furred paws tread soundlessly despite the weight they carry, climbing up, up over the building, toward the nightly sky. And then it is leaping, its form gliding smoothly through the air, wings cutting through the breeze like blades cutting through silk. Watching.

Down below.

The nimble body moving swiftly, alleyway to corner to shady street, hooded head hiding long locks of silken white hair and pale flesh. Like a winter hare.

Itty bitty bunny, huntsman cocked his bow

Bunny was so pretty, huntsman let it go…

He should not be doing this, should not interfere. But that has never stopped him before.

“You truly should mind your words, Lady Alma” he says as he lands just behind her with barely a tap of his paw pads against the macadame street. “They can sound so different from what they mean.”

She turns around calmly, seemingly unimpressed by the full bulk of his leonine body. “What’s this, Geryon? Since when do you spy on my conversations?”

“Spy?” Geryon asks, not without a certain level of resentment at the accusation. He folds his wings and sits on his haunches to preen a rebellious feather. “Nasty habit. One never knows what unhealthy things one might uncover. No, I was merely asked to make sure you do not collapse or get dragged away into the darkness on your way back to the station and I couldn’t help but overhear your little…exchange.”

Those lovely hypnotic eyes widen and soften just a little before they narrow at the veiled meaning of his words. “Gwydion asked you to follow me. For my sake.”

Geryon merely shrugs. “He may be an idiot but he is an idiot in love, after all.” Which is just another blow to the intelligence of that foolish god. “Congratulations, lady. You have managed to leave him jealous, something I personally never thought I’d see. But then, I never thought I’d see him in a stable relationship with anyone other than himself.”

A good many things set mortals and divines apart other than longevity, faster healing and the occasional ability that no mortal should possess, not even mages. Gods stand out even when they don’t mean to stand out and mortals, no matter how used to godly convivium, cannot help but react with anything from awe to repulse to their presence. It is not just the looks – mortals on the Insula will look like pretty much anything, depending on their ward of origin – but also the way they stand, the way the world stands around them. How the air turns cooler or warmer, the sun shines brighter or fades a little. Simple things. Tiny things. Things the gods do not notice, things they cannot control. Things that mortals barely understand themselves, that they detect with a more primitive, less conscious part of their brains. Mortals are prey-folk to gods. And prey knows when a hunter approaches.

Prey can also tell when a hunter is weak. Again, it is the little things. Like the way light fades a little from luminescent eyes and the shadows draw nearer to draw a pale face in starker contrast. Sadness that reality is bending ever so slightly to convey.

“It seems it was not stable enough if he could not trust me enough to love him above any other god,” Alma says quietly.

“Have I mentioned he is an idiot?” Geryon replies, not without a hint of softness in his voice.

“Does he happen to agree with you?” she retorts dryly.

Geryon locks eyes with her, the softness that was in them just a moment ago gone at her misplaced anger. “Must I quote him word for word?” he says humorlessly. He knows she can see his face better than he can see hers. Damn his eagle eyes not made for this gloom. “My dearest lady, this is Dion. If you want perfection, a trained monkey would probably be a better pick.”

And probably write you some lovely poetry if enough bananas are involved.

“But he does love you, for all his sins,” the gryphon adds, shaking his head in empathetic frustration. An image of Dion sitting distraught, his back against the door, eyes darkened with misery and self-loathing flashes before his eyes. The last time Geryon had seen the god curled up like a wounded beast, human eyes had gazed upon his friend. And even then, Dion had not looked even marginally as defeated as he has for the past three days. “Would he have done anything remotely as stupid as what he did if he did not love you? I have never seen him as heartbroken as he is right now.” He raises a conciliatory paw. “Granted, he deserves to be.”

Alma tilts her head, looking at him quizzically. “I did not expect you to side with me on this.”

“That makes two of us,” Geryon mutters.

He truly had not expected it, truth be told. The idea of his friend being romantically involved with a death goddess with a tendency for getting in trouble with the powers that be had not exactly set well with Geryon in the beginning and he is still honestly not sure how he personally feels about Alma. Maybe because they have never quite shared more than a few cordial sentences at any given time – and perhaps the way Geryon has so far steered clear from the goddess’ attention in order to avoid the less-than-comfortable subject of her two oldest daughters currently being his lovers – he has so far failed to either dislike or esteem Alma’s personality. But the fact is that Dion had somehow fallen helplessly in love with her – to the point where he had wavered the possibility of returning to his life in the First Ring to stay with her and her brood in this Hell-hole – and that the god’s relationship with Alma had so far resulted in a happier, calmer, more centered version of Dion. Geryon often teased his friend for having become a puppy to the lovely-looking, more-than-potentially dangerous goddess but the truth was that he could not help but be somewhat grateful for the anchoring pillar that Dion’s romance with Alma had become.

Something he would, of course, readily deny under oath if anyone were ever to ask.

So when he saw what Dion had done to sabotage himself in fear of failing any other way, he had immediately sided with Alma. It had been enough for Geryon to know what would happen next, on seeing that invitation for a New Year’s ride in a lunar barge with some goddess, after hearing Cherry’s sobbed retelling of what had happened after Tulip had innocently told Dion about the kiss between Alma and Mister I-Cut-Myself-Shaving. And he is truly shamed and regretful that he did not foresee that Dion would go immediately to Alma’s room after returning from his escapade. That is what one gets for assuming a friend is intelligent enough to shower before talking to his girlfriend, after spending all night with some random goddess.

And maybe that is why he is currently sticking his big beak where it doesn’t belong. “Though your whole kind makes my feathers stand on end, I will admit that – strictly in the quality of Gwydion’s closest friend and personal conscience and in no way romantically interested on him now or ever – you make him happy. Truly happy.” He sighs in sheer desperation to get his point across. “His face lights up when he sees you. How could you two ever think no one would notice you’re together?”

The shadows around them grow a deeper shade of dark once again. Alma looks away from him, sadness returned to her voice, thick and heavy. “We are not together now.”

“Oh, fairy gold!” Geryon hisses pouncing toward her, making her step back reflexively and stare at him wide-eyed. “Give him half a chance and he will be dragging his pathetic little rear at your feet to beg forgiveness. And he has only to whimper a little before you break and take him back.”

You know you want to break. Just break already.

Much to his surprise, she snorts. “You have an interesting vision of your closest friend.”

“I know who he’s been for the last few years, lady,” Geryon replies, trying to remain unphased by her uncooperativeness. “And I don’t think he likes that person all that much anymore. But old habits die hard.”

He cannot help but lower his eyes and sigh at that thought. He too is prey to old habits, old fears, and he dreads Dion’s failure just about as much as he fears his own. A hand lightly touches his head, stroking the short feathers on his forehead. He looks up at the soft, eerie glow of Alma’s eyes. “I suppose they do,” she says. “You are a good friend, Geryon. He is blessed to have you.”

“Would you mind telling him that every now and again?” he mutters. “He would probably turn me into something nasty if he knew of this conversation but it pains me to watch him wallowing in self-loathing.”

“I am not exactly throwing parties myself,” Alma replies, lowering herself to a crouching position. He can see her face more clearly now, the track of a wandering tear shining with a wet hue on her left cheek. She absently strokes his cheeks, looking somewhere beyond him, through him. “I don’t enjoy this pain. This…emptiness.”

He has to resist a sudden, irrational urge to lie down and raise his leg for a belly rub. Mind of the topic, furball! “Which begs the question: If you are miserable and he is miserable and patching things up would leave you both happy again, what exactly are you waiting for?”

The petting stops. Alma rises to her feet, hand wiping her face. “Maybe we’re both just terrible at this dating thing,” she says, not without a hint of humor.

You think?!

“Wisest thing I’ve heard out of any you on this whole matter, my lady,” he notes, turning and waiting for her to adjust her gait to his so that the two walk side by side.

“I would not take it to heart if you called me by my name, Geryon,” she says, looking down at him. “After all, I’m pretty sure you have just gotten away with calling me a fool a couple of times during this conversation.”

Geryon looks up at her with his very best look of feigned shock. “Who? Me? Calling you a fool? Never!”

Ch6.68 Trust

Steel claws dig into Sky’s jaw to raise his unresisting head, bringing him partially out of a state that cannot be called sleep, more of a fitful unconsciousness. He opens one eye reluctantly. The other is already open, unable to close but blind, the lid partially torn away, the orb split by the whip formed from the spine of a tortured, mad death goddess.

His one good eye takes a moment to focus on Nua, grinning at him with that young pale face, in structure and complexion nothing like the Nua he had known, in expression unmistakable, instantly recognizable. “Good morning, Azzie! Ready for our next session? I have a treat in store for you. I spent all night preparing this, just for you.”

He summons as much dignity as he can. “So far…you have bored me with your amateur attempts. Why don’t you…summon up some experts from Hell?” The truth is, though he has with supreme effort resumed his human form, he can feel it slipping away from him like a watermelon seed squeezed between two juice-slicked fingertips. And with it, he feels his hope trying to go. He knows they want to reduce him to a bestial status, that for some reason they cannot bind him, despite knowing his true name, and by itself that is reason enough to resist. But he knows that rescue is highly unlikely, and if such an attempt is made…the thought of even one of those he loves being killed or tortured makes him want to find a way to kill himself right now – except of course that they would not know, and would come after him anyway, only to find a corpse. He simply hopes that they will never find this place, wherever it is.

They will miss him, mourn him. But they will live. They will comfort one another. They will find a way to take down the Whisper safely, too late to rescue him, surely, but then they’ll know his fate. They’ll be able to move on. That is what he holds onto, this narrative. As the bone-deep whiplashes leave fissures in his flesh and even his soul, threatening to drown all that he has gained since escaping Hell – friendships, love, family, duty, pride, loss – drown it in roaring and agony, he holds onto that, that those he loves will come through this safely.

And then the whip slashes across Sky’s chest, prompting a scream of pain that he cannot stop, but forces into something distantly related to laughter. Fresh blood gushes from the wound, spattering the floor to thicken the caked, dried layers at his feet.

Nua moves closer to him, her lower lip thrust out, pouting like a spoiled child. “Now, that wasn’t a nice thing to say. Not when I’ve brought some visitors here to see you.” She gestures to the door behind Sky. He hears wheels on the stone-flagged floor, and sees a gurney come into his limited field of vision. It looks as if it was rescued from a rubbish heap, the metal frame rusted, the wheels squeaking, one of them jittering like an old man’s trembling hands. The thin mattress atop the frame is stained with old blood, and strapped down on it is a man, struggling, barefoot, wearing torn, bloody trousers. The man’s wrists are locked down with shackles engraved with magical glyphs. Sky cannot see his face at first – his blind eye is on that side. But as the Whisper tough pushing it parks it in front of Sky, he sees a familiar face staring at him, hazel eyes pleading above a ball-gag.


Sky roars and strains against the chains, his skin darkening rapidly with tattoos. “NOOOOOO! LET HIM GO! LET THEM GO!”

“But they’ve come all this way! They were all so cute, too, barging in to save you.” Nua laughs at the two gods trying to break free of their bonds. She slides the vertebral form of the whip through her fingers. “Now, one thing I realized is, you’re right. I’ve been on the painful end of the whip for these past two centuries, but I’m still not good enough to torture someone who was born in Hell. But! It occurs to me that none of your precious little friends has ever known the pleasures of endless Hellish torture.” Her hand grazes Dion’s leg, who struggles harder, mumbling through the gag.

Barely resisting the urge to shift into his devil form, Sky begs, abject. “What do you want from me? This – this accomplishes nothing. Nua, why do this? Please, please don’t…”

“Dearest Azzageddi, you still haven’t realized, have you? All I want from you is,” Nua pauses for a breath, “your pain.” She raises the whip and strikes Dion across the torso, diagonally from left shoulder to right hip. Blood spatters Nua’s face and chest. He screams incoherently, arching his body as much as he can within the tight straps.

Sky lunges against the chains, his body transforming faster than ever before, the shackles grinding and cracking his wristbones as they adjust too slowly. His roar causes the stones in the walls to rattle, dust to fall from the ceiling. “I WILL DEVOUR YOU ALIVE! I WILL TEARRRRR YOU TO PIECES AS YOU BEG FOR MERRRRRRCY!

Nua strikes Dion again, across the thighs, opening up deep wounds there as well. “Oh, yes! Yes! Roar, Azzageddi! Your roars are music to my ears!” Transferring the whip handle to her left hand, she slips a long, slender knife, one made for the kitchen rather than fighting, free from her sleeve and plunges it into Dion’s shoulder, right into the joint, twisting it to make him scream, his eyes locked on Sky, seeing his friend, his commanding officer, become an enemy of the gods.

Sky’s roars become worse than incoherent, cursing in Malbolge, one of the languages of Hell, curses that could age or sicken a normal mortal.

Nua draws back the blade and makes a show of licking the blood from it. “Now now, if you are going to be rude, my little devil, I might have to hurt our guest a bit more. I might have to pour some demon ichor into his wounds.” She reaches into a pocket and removes a vial. “We both know what that does to gods, don’t we?”

Pleeeeease…” His abyssal voice rings strangely pitiful in begging. “Please, no. I will swear loyalty to you. Just let them go.

Nua gives him a smiles of pleasure, but waggles her finger in admonishment. “Ah ah ah! Slaves do not get to cut deals. You will serve me. But I will do whatever I wish.”

Sky raises his massive head and howls his frustration. Shoulders heaving as he sobs for air, he looks at the shivering god on the gurney, and says quietly, “Dion…Dion I am sorry. I’m sorry.

Sky knows there is nothing he can do. Begging will only give Nua pleasure and drive her to greater acts of horror. And his apologies mean nothing. This is all his fault.

Dion’s eyes widen, then close tightly as Nua unscrews the cap on the vial. He struggles harder, but the straps hold him almost motionless. Nua carefully pours about a third of the contents into the wound in Dion’s shoulder. The stench of concentrated, refined demon ichor fills the room. Sky groans, slumping in the chains as Gwydion struggles and seizes, the pain too great even to allow him to scream through the gag. His skin blackens around the wound, and then in blotches further from it, rotting him from the inside out. The enchanted shackles prevent him from using his magic to heal himself, though with that much poison, it wouldn’t make any real difference anyway.

Nua watches in rapt fascination. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this in action.” She holds the smoke-glass bottle up to check it. “Need to make sure I save some for the others.”

Gwydion gives one last, gag-muffled scream, all his muscles locking, and then he collapses. Dead.

Limp in the chains, Sky sobs. Dion was his friend. They had fought alongside each other, aided each other, gone from a shared, suspicious aversion between the no-Ring outsider and the pampered First-Ring elite to a shared respect for each other’s differing but overlapping senses of justice and honor. Sky had been unsure at first about the growing romance between Alma and Dion, but he had become happy for them both as it had flowered, and sad when they had fought so recently.

And now dead. So pointlessly, so traumatically. Sky wants to whisper prayers for Dion’s soul, but fears Nua might detect that. In her madness, perhaps she will allow the god’s soul to escape. If a soul can escape from this room.

Nua looks at the corpse as if just now realizing it’s dead. “Oops! I got a bit carried away with this one, didn’t I? I hardly made it last!” She smiles at Sky, almost normally, making the blood drops on her face all the more disturbing. “Don’t worry. I won’t be half as rash with the other ones.”

She goes to the door and yells into the hallway, “Bring in the next one! And take this filth out of here.”

A shaken gangster rushes in and wheels away the stretcher while another wheels in a gagged Saira, fighting like a trapped fox against the straps, desperately using every mote of energy she has, clearly not caring if she snaps a bone in her struggles.

Sky cannot stop himself from roaring again.


“Now wasn’t that fun? This one lasted much longer than the other one, didn’t she?”

Nua wipes a curved flensing knife on her blood-soaked skirt, and tosses a liver onto Saira’s mutilated, still corpse. The low-ranking gang-member who comes in to wheel her out just stares for a moment, shocked into immobility, but takes the push-handle, tacky with half-dried blood, and pulls the gurney from the room.

“Shall we proceed to dessert?” Nua asks with a grin. “You’ll like this one, for sure. You liked her enough to take her into your lair. How was she, darling? Was she as good as I was? Did she like it when you did that little thing with your thumb? Surely you haven’t stopped doing that.”

Sky has been silent a long time, forcing himself to watch the slow death of Saira, but hanging from the chains as if in a coma otherwise, trying to will himself to die. At Nua’s words, he closes his eyes and says softly, “If you kill her, you’ll have nothing to use against me. And you know I will kill you at the first opportunity. If you keep her alive, I will serve you.

Gently, Nua replies, “Oh Azzie… Always so limited. Of course I will have something against you. With her dead, who is to stop me from snatching her precious Bunnies and turning their slender bones into flutes and rattles for demon-spawn? Why, my servants are on their way now to fetch the little critters.”

He sags, defeated. “Please, Nua…please…

Nua moves closer to him and strokes his muzzle. “You should have thought about that when you killed me.”

He lunges for her, arms stretches as far as they can, trying to catch her arm in his wolflike teeth. He almost succeeds. If this had been near the beginning of his capture, he surely would have, but he has been slowed by the torture. His teeth snap together on empty air. Nua dances back with a scream that turns into nervous laughter when she finds she has not had her arm torn off. She covers up her burst of fear by pirouetting to the door and calling harshly, “Bring her in!”

A servant wheels in the white-haired goddess, dressed in Guardia Dei indigo, pale and slender, gagged and bound like the others. Her eyes are closed and, though she does not scream, her frame shakes slightly. Tears wet the corner of her eyes.

Nua strokes Alma’s face, making the goddess flinch. “She is such a pretty little thing, isn’t she? I wanted to ride her body and use her to get to the very heart of the Death Clan. Use her body to blow her family to bits.” She moves her face closer to Alma’s, her bloodied dagger grazing her victim’s neck. “Don’t we look like we would match?”

Sky whispers, as quietly as he can in his abyssal voice. “Alma…Alma, I cannot stop this. I am so sorry…” He feels utterly helpless, useless, nothing but a monster that has brought all he loves to a slow death. How took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies. Because of him, they will all suffer slow, brutal deaths, all but Mayumi. Safe at the Academy, she will survive, shattered and haunted by the merciless murders of her family.

Trailing her dagger along Alma’s body, tracing the shape of her form, a hungry look on her face, Nua says, “Yes, you can apologize. I’ll make sure she lasts long enough to hear everything you have to say.” She scratches Alma’s calf, drawing a thin line of crimson, and then moves it up under Alma’s skirt. Alma gasps in through her nose, shakes her head no, as Nua teases the razor-sharp blade along the goddess’ inner thighs. Sky clenches his taloned, pinioned hands.

The necromancer leans down to whisper loudly into Alma’s ear, “I had him first, Death Clan whore.” She stabs between the goddess’ legs.

Alma’s azure eyes snap open and her back arches in pain, a scream issuing from her throat and bubbling around the ball-gag. She closes her eyes and screams again as Nua twists the dagger, then pulls it back and stabs again.

Sky screams with her through his tight-clenched teeth. The goddess turns her head to look at Sky for the first time, her blue eyes imploring him, too terrified by the vicious thrusts that she is merely confused, not frightened by this devil in chains.

Breathing heavily, as if inflamed by lust, Nua pulls the gore-covered blade out from under Alma’s blood-soaked skirt, pointing the knife at the goddess’ belly. “She can heal, can’t she?” Her voice is crazed, on the verge of breaking into laughter. “I’ll just slice her open like a peach!”

She plunges the knife into Alma’s stomach. Goddess of life and death both, her powers kept inactive by the shackles, she struggles, mad with pain, her head turning, eyes returning, pleading and terrified to Sky. Looking to a devil to save her from a mortal. Her blue eyes…deep as the sea.

Blue, Sky realizes. They got her eyes right. Perfect. Except they haven’t seen her since before she became the Spinner. The didn’t know that her eyes have changed.

And that is when he knows: This is all a sham. These people are not Gwydion, Saira, and Alma. They are strangers, transformed by magic into perfect copies. That is why they are gagged, so they cannot scream out their confusion coherently and thereby reveal that they are not who they appear to be.

But the torture, the death, is all real. These are almost certainly mortal innocents, perhaps people without homes, taken off the street and suffering simply to destroy Sky’s resistance. The devil’s heart breaks again. His friends are safe, for now. But these people, who have nothing to do with him, are caught up in this and dying senselessly, with no idea why.

All this burns through his mind in a moment. He knows he cannot let Nua know that he has caught on. He keeps his eyes locked on the suffering woman’s, trying to help her focus on him, on anything other than the pain. He wonders what she sees, this terrifying monster that has been begging for her life. He silently promises her that if he somehow escapes, he will find out who she was and tell her family, if she has one, that she did not run away from them, did not abandon them. That it was not her fault that she disappeared from their lives. He can only hope she can detect the real sympathy he has for her, so that she knows she is not dying alone. He has nothing else to give.

It does not end quickly. Nua makes it last, but eventually she is bored by Sky’s lack of responsiveness. She blinds the woman with demon ichor, thrilling to the woman’s struggles, even though so much of her blood is already gone from her body. And then it is over and Nua orders her gone.

Nua looks down at her black dress, shiny and clinging to her body, heavy with blood, the floor foul and incarnadine. “Well, I guess that’s the end of this session. Wasn’t that entertaining?” She smiles like a child who has just received a big bag of candy. Sky lowers his head, silent.

Nua walks closer to him. “Are you mine yet, Azzie? Have you realized yet that your only choice is to serve me?”

He takes some time to become aware of her, to process what she said. He looks at her in fear and slowly nods.

Trying to bite her before was unwise. If he kills her, Margrave will still have him in chains.

So when Nua touches his face, grinning, he does not try anything. It takes great effort, but he feigns complete passivity. “Now, where is the Azzageddi that I remember? The one I gave a body to? Show him to me.”

His first human form. The frightened young man that, at Nua’s orders two centuries ago, he killed and ate in order to steal his shape. Sky reaches deep, searching for that form of one who had rejected her. He has not worn it in in all those years since he killed Nua, not since acquired his usual one, that of an island demigod, in personal combat. They are the only two shapes he has ever stolen. It is not an ability that he is proud of, and since the cost is the murder and cannibalization of a victim, he does not wish to steal any others. But that first one is still there, deep in his memory. He struggles to change, the unfamiliar form and the powerful need to be a devil fighting him. Being human is too painful, vulnerable.

But finally he succeeds. Bloody, thin, and pale, he hangs in the chains.

Nua strokes his face, her fingers leaving cold lines of blood across his cheek. “That’s more like it.” She leans in and runs her tongue over his lips before she kisses him.

He kisses her back, hesitantly. Tears begin to spill from his human eyes. As a devil, he cannot weep.

She breaks away, speaking softly, “Show me your tongue.” She holds up the same knife she used on Alma.

He allows his fear to show. “P-please…” His voice is higher, weaker than in his usual human-seeming form.

Her voice is velvet-smooth, “You were a bad boy, Azzie. Mother will have to teach you manners. Now…obey.”

He opens his mouth and puts out his tongue. It is not at all difficult to look at her, silently begging for mercy.

In one smooth movement, she pinches his tongue with two fingers and slices it off, tossing it away like unwanted meat. Blood gushes into his mouth, and his mouth closes, his lips grazing her fingers, tasting his own blood and that of three strangers.

Ch6.67 Trust

Darkness falls across the ward – all right, things are getting to be repetitive. It’s dark. It’s freaking dark. It’s always freaking dark. Clear? Clear. Good.

Truth be told, it isn’t always dark everywhere in Three Rats but when someone tends to lurk in the shadier areas and move preferentially in nighttime, darkness is sort of a given. Heck, darkness is a blessing. Last thing anyone trying to go unnoticed wants a big, great shining light following him or her or jyr around. Nothing a few cobblestones and crossbow bolts to the occasional street lamp won’t fix, though!

Anyway, the darkness does not bother Saira as she moves swiftly and soundlessly toward the meeting place she set up herself. She really has no desire to rush or even attend the meeting but the vague message in Alma’s handwriting, stuffed in the old crack in the wall of the abandoned school has her curious enough to meet the death goddess. She anticipates a huge part of the conversation to revolve around her sudden departure from Alma’s room and her care on the night of the gift-giving party, but she is prepared to counter that word for word. She is even half surprised it took any of the Dei in Three Rats this long to contact her. Well, not Dion. She would never expect Dion to contact her. Somehow her athletic, well-toned frame has failed to grab the attention of the magic god with a foolproof libido. Oh well, she doesn’t really like him, anyway.

Saira arrives at the place where an old circular plaza somehow got rammed by a huge stone building with tall spires and an insane amount of tiers of carved statues of people with too many arms, the wrong sort of legs and tongues too long for comfort, cutting three of the plaza’s exits and seriously narrowing the only remaining one. Flecks of paint keep falling off the once garish walls of the pyramid-like building, littering the ground below. Saira watches Alma from behind the massive sculpted head of a mean-looking snake with way too many teeth, wondering just how much the goddess realizes what she is doing to her expensive boots. Shouldn’t gods glide on air or something? Must be a bonus feature.

“This better not be a call for a scolding,” Saira calls out from her hiding place on the second tier of statues once the goddess gets close enough. “I have better things to do.”

She watches Alma look exactly to where she is hiding – wait…she was already looking in that direction, wasn’t she? She didn’t even turn her head looking for where the sound was coming from. Cringe.

“Why would I be scolding you?” Alma asks, looking toward Saira as if she could see through stone.

Thing is…she can, Saira reminds herself as she comes out of hiding and drops onto the floor, raising a small cloud of what must be really colorful dust. Mean night-vision, too.

“Come on, get on with it,” she coaxes the goddess. “Get it over with.”

“Get what over with?” Alma insists.

“Really?” Saira asks blankly. She waits for a full minute of silence but Alma just looks at her with a witless expression. Are those crickets chirping in the distance? Aaarrghh!!! “Come on! I can just hear it!”

She tilts her head to the right and makes a mock, too-high-pitched imitation of Alma’s voice. “‘Why would you leave without saying anything? Did we treat you wrong in any way?’” Tilting her head to the left, she adds in her own voice. “‘No, you didn’t.’” Head to the right. “‘Then why?’” To the left. “‘I needed to be on my own, out here where I belong.’”

Much to her surprise, Alma merely watches impassively as she goes on with the one-sided dialog, mimicking the goddess’ voice, words pouring out faster and faster. “‘You don’t belong in the streets. No one belongs in the streets. We wanted you to become a part of our family and you were enjoying it, weren’t you?’ ‘Uhh…Kinda.’ ‘Then why leave? All the Bunnies were distraught at finding you gone. Especially Cherry. You know how much Cherry likes you.’ ‘Well, it was your fault for bringing me to that station in the first place. I was perfectly happy dying from being stabbed in the gut by some demon, thank you very much!’”

She catches herself raising her voice to a near-shout on the last line and stops herself from going on with the scolding session. She feels scolded enough already, anyway.

Alma holds her silence for a little while longer as Saira regains her breath, watching the woman with a pair of eyes that keep glowing in a really eerie way – not the usual flare of her using her hocus-pocus-mambo-jambo scary death goddess thing but something different. Effortless, like the goddess doesn’t even realize she is doing it. Nothing Saira has ever seen her do unless strictly necessary and for as short a period as possible. Huh…weird. But kinda pretty too if you can get past the fact that, in the darkness of the alley, Alma’s head looks like it’s just hanging there and not really attached to anything else.

“You have…really put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?” the goddess asks slowly.

Well, that was anti-climatic. Oh, well…

Saira shrugs. No point in forcing the issue. “Heh, I had the time. This ward is getting to be a bit boring with you goody do-gooders going around putting criminals in jail. Messing with my livelihood. So, what took you three days to call me?”

Much to her surprise, Alma actually looks embarrassed at the question. “I have… been busy,” the goddess replies, looking away.

It takes Saira a moment to decypher the sudden shyness. And once realization dawns, her jaw drops in surprise. “Oh…holy…crap. You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you?”

Alma sighs, looking annoyed. “Contrary to popular believe, Saira, my life does not revolve around you.”

Oh, but she can’t fool Saira now! And she is not denying it either. Oh man, brilliant! Just brilliant! Saira bursts out in laughter. “Oh, this is hilarious! Everyone’s favorite mommy-cop managed to miss a whole person being gone for three days!”

Alma looks down at her laughter, glow-in-the-dark eyes dimming a bit in result. Saira wonders for a moment if she should feel bad for making the goddess feel self-conscious but she is currently too busy wishing she had enough light to see if she has managed to make Alma blush in shame to do the right thing. Oh, it’d just be perfect if Alma were blushing. Blushing over not noticing a mortal gone – gotta be something new to a death god.

“I am not proud of it, trust me,” Alma replies in a low voice before looking back up again. “Have you been feeling well, at least?”

Man, she really does look like she feels bad about it. Maybe Saira should go and give her a hug. Hmm…naah!

“Oh, I feel great,” Saira says, stretching as if she could encircle the world with her arms. “Wild and free again.” She grins. “And a lot more entertained now.”

“I’m glad I could brighten your day,” Alma retorts. “I do come with bad news, however.”

“Wait, wait, wait… You’re seriously not gonna scold me?” Saira asks, incredulously.

Alma shakes her head. “Alas, I think I’ve lost the moral high ground for that.”

Awww man! Three days of practicing for nothing!

“You just ruined a perfectly good speech,” Saira mutters. “So what’s up? What’s keepin’ you busy?”

“Sky has been kidnapped by the necromancer,” Alma replies deadpan, not even taking the time to beat around the bush a bit first.

Saira flashes back to an undead rat leaping teeth-first toward the death goddess not long ago. While Sky was asleep in his apartment. Yeah, he was asleep back then. So why’d he get taken instead? Did she skip a chapter or something? “I thought the necromancer wanted you.”

Alma nods, sighing almost inaudibly. “So did I. But instead they broke into Sky’s home and took him. There were demons involved.”

“Bad guys, huh? Always changing their minds,” Saira notes conversationally. “And let me guess, you want my help. You people are gonna ruin my street cred with your constant cries for help.”

“All I need is to know where I might find a salesman called Lucky Pete,” Alma says, clearly not in the mood for small talk about unimportant things like people’s careers in criminality. “Deals in infera aura. Have you heard of him?”

Saira shrugs. “Stuff like that isn’t usually what I’d go for. I’m guessing he doesn’t have a shop?”

“He has a stall at the demon market,” Alma explains. “We identified him as a possible lead when we went undercover. We think the necromancer buys her spell components from him.”

“And you’re thinking he might do house calls,” Saira half-whispers, thinking over the whole situation. She doesn’t particularly like the idea of exposing her sources to blueshirts, especially because a lot of her sources could tell a blueshirt from a civilian just by the way they walk into a room. But she has to admit that the thought of this necromancer being connected with that Whisper gang which, from what she’s heard, is yet another shard broken off the ex-Dukaines, with an unhealthy habit of employing demon summoners and diabolists (one of which might just be the very same guy she’s been hunting for years now), is enough to leave her a teensy bit…tense. She’s killed enough gods and demigods to fill a trophy room with stuffed heads (very ugly ones in some cases) but her last (and admittedly only) experience with demons has left her banged up enough to seriously consider doing that again in a hurry. At least not alone. She doesn’t have anything in her arsenal that can kill a demon. But she would love to add a certain diabolists’ head to her collection. Time to make a little investment. “All right, I gotta admit I like the big guy enough to help out. But for my next trick, I’ll need someone to come along with me. Not the kind of source I can just shoot into submission.”

Alma nods at this. “I will go with you. When–”

Saira cuts her off with a raised hand. “I’m sure you’d love to but uh…you’re kinda well-known around the block, if you get my meaning.” She looks the distinctively-transcendental goddess up and down to strengthen her point. “I need someone that can pass for mortal under close scrutiny. Maybe your boyfriend wouldn’t mind a walk with me?”

“I’ll let him know,” the goddess replies dryly, without a hint of humor at Saira’s use of the word boyfriend. “When?”

Huh…tough crowd tonight.

“Tomorrow morning,” Saira tells her. “At the Rio Novo bridge. Tell him to get ready to put on the charm. My source likes a little flirting going on and she’s all about the boys these days. Unless you’ve decided to finally put a leash on your little puppy.”

Again, that humorless tone. “Do as you must. He is his own dog.”

Sad. She doesn’t look annoyed or angry, she actually looks sad. Must be trouble in paradise. Saira wonders what must have happened there but Alma is already turning to leave, saying, “If you need anything else, Somrak is staying at the Singing Cockroach. First floor, third window from the left.”

“Any reason he isn’t at the station?” Saira asks. As in, is that why the fallout with Loverboy? she adds mentally.

He’d be stupid enough to do it, wouldn’t he? Of course he would be…

Alma stops in her tracks and turns back to face Saira again. “The necromancer threatened to kill Sky if I call for help,” she says with a meaningful look at the woman that is pretty much a whole conversation on its own.

“Oh, I see.” Well, so much for that theory. “Hey, what’s with the spooky eyes?

Alma sighs again and shakes her head. “Something that has been keeping me busy. Thank you, Saira. And please forgive my oversight. Anyway I can make it better?”

“Yeah, your cat followed me out,” Saira complains.

Alma’s chuckle at that feels strangely relieving. “And you want cat food?”

Cat food?! The heck!

“No, I want you to take her back!” Saira exclaims in annoyance. “I’ve been trying to get her to go back home for days.”

“It seems to me that she is home,” Alma notes before turning back and walking away, with a “Goodnight, little one.”

Saira watches her go in dismay, mumbling into the darkness. “But…but – Ah, crap…”

Stupid gods…

Ch6.66 Trust

One of the best tools in the kit of an off-blue is a simple little spell that sends vermin scurrying away, allowing a restful sleep in some of the nastiest armpits of the Insula, and before beginning his second night of sleep at the Singing Cockroach, Somrak, in lightweight cotton trousers and a simple close-fitting sleeveless singlet, has just finished casting it to make the bedbugs think there is a big, juicy, blood-filled mammal in the next room, when he hears a knock on the door.

He picks up a long, straight black-enameled dagger and rises, gliding quietly across the room, then opens the door while standing in a good position to evade a strike and also to strike in return. He relaxes when he sees it is Alma, wearing a hooded cloak, her distinctive white hair concealed and her divine aura suppressed as much as she can manage. She would still be a very noticeable figure to the variegated assemblage of lowlifes downstairs, but perhaps she will not be recognized as Sergeant Alma of the Guardia Dei.

Somrak feels his mouth go dry. He hasn’t seen her since last evening, and did not expect her to come for a visit. He’d planned to go by the station tomorrow morning to compare notes, knowing she is to meet Saira tonight. To have Alma so close, so unexpectedly, is a tortuous pleasure, but knowing he’ll likely have to tell her lies to keep her in the dark about Sky, and about what he really plans to do, is simply torture. He stands back to let her in, and closes the door. He holds up a finger, then sets up a small white candle the length and thickness of his smallest finger on an ashtray and lights it from his fingertip. It burns with a yellow flame.

“If that flame turns green, someone is trying to eavesdrop magically,” he says. He sits on edge of the bed, near the wall, giving her enough space to sit as there is no chair in the dingy, cramped room. “Visited a friend today. Got some more background on our gang. Probable identification of two more members.”

Alma lowers the hood from her head and looks around the room, taking in the torn and filthy wallpaper, the slightly lopsided bed with its brand-new sheets that Somrak bought in a market earlier in the day, the window so dirty that it only lets in a little distorted light from the sickly streetlamp outside. Then she looks at Somrak, her expression a touch reproachful. “Good evening to you too, sir.”

Somrak grimaces. “Sorry… Welcome to the abode. The cockroaches really do sing, you know. It’s not much, but it comes highly recommended.” Those mother-of-pearl eyes on him seem to look past his flesh, straight to his heart.

Alma gives an almost-silent snort at this. “I’m sure Gwydion would disagree. He has a bit of a story with the place. How was your day?” She sits, carefully, on the bed, which creaks a warning.

“I quietly visited a colleague on the post-Dukaine task force. We have a better idea of who’s in the gang. Figured I’d drop by and fill you and Dion in tomorrow.” From the side table, which looks as if an angry glance could cause it to collapse, he picks up a bottle of whisky that has no stopper and a none-too-clean shotglass upside down on the neck. “Want some? It’s a crime to call it whisky, but I ordered it from downstairs just for appearances. Works pretty good as a pesticide though.”

Alma puts a hand up, palm forward, and shakes her head. “Thank you but no. I will be meeting our common friend once I leave here. Just thought I would stop by and check how you were doing before going there.” She looks down at her hands, now clasped in her lap. “Gwydion told me…about the devil’s blood.”

Somrak sighs internally. “Yeah, that. Well, we can’t know they’ll still have it around when we go in. Devils don’t exactly serve guard duty. Their services are very expensive in terms of souls and contracts. Likely, it’s back where it belongs. Still, we’ll take precautions.”

He stops himself before he crosses the line from ‘too talkative’ to ‘babbling’. At least he hopes he stopped himself in time. He’s usually better at lying than this. But then he’s usually not lying to Alma. He can’t tell her that she doesn’t need to worry about the devil. First, because the devil is her best friend, Sky, the guy they’re going to rescue. Second, because they are not going to rescue Sky. Somrak is planning to let Alma and Dion investigate, then take what they learn and go in by himself, because he knows that this is–

“A suicide mission,” Alma mutters. Took the words right out of my head, Somrak thinks. Louder, she says, “This is shaping up to be a suicide mission. I can hardly imagine that they would not make use of such an asset once we go in.” She takes a deep breath. “And that’s if we can find them in the first place.” She looks truly disheartened.

Somrak is quiet for a minute, then mustering all his false confidence, assures her, “It’ll be a tough one, that’s for sure. But working together, we stand a chance. Three gods, one to deal with the sorcerer, one to deal with the necro, and one more of a generalist, but with plenty of experience dealing with both. They’ve picked a fight with the wrong crowd.” He lays a hand on top of both of hers.

Alma raises an eyebrow, her voice soft, non-accusatory in tone if not in words. “What is wrong with you, Somrak? Your hand is cold and so is your voice. You say those things but they are just something to say. This is Sky.”

Somrak releases her hands. “Yeah. It’s Sky.” He lets some of his worry creep into his voice. “And I know if I think about that too much, I’m not going to be able to do what I need to do. I’m going to be distracted.” Like I am right now. More firmly, he continues, “So my head is in that space it always is during a mission. Where it should be. For him, and for us as well.” He sighs. “Speaking of distractions… I… Never mind – it’s none of my business.”

That active eyebrow of Alma’s rises again. “What exactly isn’t your business?”

He is uncomfortable, but it could be important. “When you and Dion and I were together in the office, you two could barely look at each other. I know I was blind to all that on my first visit here, but in retrospect it’s a big change from how you were around each other before.” He waves his hand dismissively. “If you want me to shut up, just say so.”

Alma sighs, her alabaster tresses shaking along with her head, as if she wants to deny it ever happened. “We had an argument. Words were spoken that take time to lose their sting. Especially in the absence of an apology.”

His tone grim, Somrak says, “Let me guess who needs to apologize.” And which rich little prettyboy could do with a smacking.

“It’s not an argument unless both parties participate.” Alma looks away, at the wall in front of her, staring absently at an orange-and-black cockroach as long as her palm. “He found out about the kiss. And then I was rather late returning from Father’s estate.” She gestures vaguely toward her eyes. “Anyway, misunderstandings.”

“Misunderstandings?” Somrak tries but does not entirely succeed in keeping the anger out of his voice. It might take two, but Dion is the one who misunderstood, I’m sure. Then he checks himself. He knows he is biased in this case. And she does not seem to want any further outbursts. “I’m sorry, Alma. I never should have–”

She cuts him off with a shake of her head. “No, it is becoming clear that this argument was coming, one way or another. You were merely a catalyst.”

They are both silent for a long moment. He wants to ask, Can it be salvaged? But he dreads either a positive or a negative answer. To learn that those two are sundered fully would give him an opening, he is ashamed to acknowledge. But Somrak has no future prospects, no future at all, he is sure. Hope would only make him waver in his resolve. And he truly wants them to be happy.

Finally, shaking his head in annoyance at his treacherous thoughts, Somrak forces that aside and asks the question he has been wanting to ask, but that other things have constantly preempted. Pointing with two fingers to his own eyes, he asks, “So what’s up with the eyes?”

She looks down with a faint smile. “Oh…I seem to have acquired a new sphere.”

Somrak blinks in surprise. “A new… A new sphere? I assume you’re not a goddess of finding lost things now, or you’d have figured out where Sky is already.”

Alma shakes her head at the lame attempt at humor, but her smile increases minimally. “Nothing so immediately useful. Apparently, I am a Spinner, providing balance between Life and Death, sending souls to the Wheel and reincarnation. But it could not have come at a worse time. If this sphere is to bring balance to my powers, then that is something which will only come after much training. For the moment, it is mainly a distraction, though it is not as draining as it was at first.” She exhales deeply and stands slowly. “I should go. It is time. I hope you have a restful night.”

He stands with her, wishing he could drop this wall, tell her everything. Keep her here no matter the cost. But he does not. There are more important things, he insists to himself. “Be careful. This gang could be planning an ambush.”

She offers him a small smile. “I’ll be all right. Good night, Somrak.”

Words. Words are the problem. There just aren’t any that won’t make things worse. As she begins to turn, he reaches out, touches her arm. He barely stops himself from grabbing it. She turns back toward him, her eyes asking a silent question. He softly puts his arms around her, and feels his body relax as she puts her hands on his back and holds him tightly. His hands on her, his body, radiates the warmth that it did not before, a comforting heat, soothing, not passionate but speaking of the love he has for her.

He does not know how long they hold each other, but as he begins to become conscious of the passage of time, he releases her, looking into her strange eyes, stroking her smooth cheek. She reaches up and touches his hand, that small, sad smile for him, for the things they share and cannot share. Then, silent, she turns, pulling up her hood again as she opens the door and departs.

Somrak watches her go, watches the door close. He sits heavily on the bed, forearms on his knees, emotions in turmoil, detachment lost, silently cursing over and over like a mantra meant to bring his thoughts back under control.