Mayumi blinks, her eyes half-blinded by floating patches of light, her ears filled with nothing but a high-pitched keen. The light fades. She sees the stars above, feels the street under her body. Her stunned mind starts to work again. Her ears begin to register the sounds around her, but muffled as though they were stuffed with cotton. The ringing fades a little.
She sits up. She sees a boot, sticking out into the street from the door. Unmoving. Wisps of smoke lazily drift laterally from the door and climb into the sky.
She scrambles to her feet, and almost falls again. The world spins slowly. She stumbles to the doorway.
A huddled mass, black leather jacket blasted to shreds, smoldering, chainmail undercoat revealed, also torn but mostly intact. Sky is face-down on the floor, on top of something. The hair on the back of his head is smoldering. The scent of burning hair makes her nose sting, her eyes water.
Beyond, in the middle of the room, a man in a dark suit is howling in fear and pain. The child he is trying to hold onto wriggles free and dashes into the shadows. An ornate knife covered in blood is on the floor. The man clutches his bleeding hand and falls to his knees.
“My thumb! Shot off my thumb!” he groans.
There is a creaking sound. In the center of a painted circle of magical symbols, the floor bulges. The man looks horrified, then gropes for the knife, blood pumping from his wounded hand. “Come back here you little bastard! It needs to eat your heart for the binding spell!” But the child is hiding somewhere.
The floor rises within the circle, like a bubble in a pit of hot tar. Mayumi ignores the sick fear in her stomach, taking hold of Sky’s leg and pulling, trying to get him out of the building. A moan – a woman’s moan, then mumbling groggy words from beneath Sky. “The Hell…? Get off me, you big lug. This is only our first date.”
The woman shoves Sky up as Mayumi pulls him back. Saira, hood fallen away, brown hair revealed, twists and sees Mayumi. Her light-brown eyes widen in surprise. “Raios…what’re you doin’ here?” she mutters.
Then Mayumi catches movement at the edge of her sight. She looks up, gasps. Saira twists back, curses, struggles, as an enormous purple-furred baboon charges them on all fours, enormous fangs bared, a roar ripping from its throat. The archer is still half-trapped under Sky. She stretches her entire body, straining toward her crossbow, lying on the floor, just out of reach.
The beast leaps. Mayumi releases Sky’s leg and falls back into the street, landing painfully on her tail. She is unarmed, and whether that creature is a god or a mere monster of some sort, she knows she doesn’t stand a chance, no matter how well her father taught her jūjutsu.
There is a sudden movement, then impact. The primate’s fangs, instead of finding the woman’s face, sink into Tuma-Sukai’s raised left forearm. His right hand comes up and grips the baboon’s skull, holding it there so it cannot release. His thumb presses against its eye.
He gathers his legs beneath him and stands, lifting the huge, thrashing monkey. Saira wriggles forward and grabs her crossbow.
The baboon’s howls are muffled by its mouthful of leather-covered arm. It claws at Sky, who hugs it to him, thumb sinking into its eye socket. But it almost seems as if he’s ignoring the creature, instead intently staring at the rising bubble in the warehouse floor. He speaks a word, some sort of curse in a language Mayumi knows is not human – no human could make such a sound. No human would want to. It makes her stomach clench even though she has no idea what it means.
“Send it away!” Sky’s voice rings with divine authority, causing the suited man to drop the blood-slick knife and put his hands over his ears.
“I can’t! I can’t do the gestures right without a thumb!” The man looks at the bubble, which is now a perfect hemisphere, the wood made flexible somehow, plastic, shivering as if it is about to burst. The man moans “No no no no no nooooooo!” and scoots away, trying to stand and falling splayed, hitting his chin.
Saira, now on her feet and reloading her crossbow with an efficient movement made automatic through endless practice, grumbles to Sky, “I meant to put my bolt in his throat, but somebody tackled me.”
Mayumi watches in horror as the baboon claws at Sky, talons rending at the remains of his jacket, scoring his face. She can barely see the side of his face, bleeding, almost entirely black with inky rage, his eyes glowing an abyssal blue-green. He doesn’t even know she is here.
Saira shouts, fires her bow, and Mayumi hears another baboon scream, and Saira lowers her crossbow in her left hand while smoothly drawing a simple, utilitarian sword with her right. Then another hairy attacker slams into the archer and they move away from the doorframe and out of Mayumi’s sight.
And then the bubble pops.
Sky holds the baboon fastened to his arm up like a shield, so that the shrapnel of suddenly-solid wooden splinters does not blind him. One sliver of wood slashes through the air right past the Bunny’s head, making her flinch. And within the warehouse, in the spot where the floor had distorted, there is a presence: a writhing mass of multijointed, chitinic limbs projecting out of oily smoke, accompanied by the sound of a thousand cats being roasted alive.
Mayumi takes no more than a glance at it before she is running for her life.
Sky stares at the demon. Its central body is hidden behind vaporous shadows, but its crab-like legs are revealed. There are seventeen of them, of varying lengths. It orients itself and screams again.
Sky feels his right fist suddenly close fully around bone fragments and pulp. He realizes he’s squeezed his attacker’s skull to the breaking point. Not taking his eyes off the denizen of Hell, he pulls the now-limp baboon off his arm, his lip pulling back as its fangs, deeply embedded in his left forearm, tug at his flesh and the reinforced leather sleeve of his jacket.
His ears still ringing from the demon’s cry, he hears more screams, those of children. He drops the dead weight of the grey-furred, slightly humanoid-looking baboon and draws his sword, murmuring an invocation and wiping it against his injured arm. The blood, along with the words, cause the blade to glow like the bioluminescent lure of some needle-toothed monster of the deep ocean. The demon shifts and leans toward him slightly, as if sniffing.
“What is that?”
He barely glances at Saira. Blood is splashed across her leathers and the left side of her face. Her cloak is gone, and she is holding a sword in her right hand, a stiletto in her left. Sky can smell traces of demonblood ichor remaining on the small, narrow blade.
“A Walker Between,” he answers. “Minor but very dangerous. Bound, it will open doorways, carry you to faraway places instantly.”
She is silent for a moment, eyes fixed on the demon. At her feet, the pale form of a white-furred baboon god – demigod, definitely demigod, like Saira suspected – lies in the last weak convulsions of death, fur streaked, smeared and wet with the creature’s own blood. His throat is punctured, through and through, both carotids probably severed by Saira’s stiletto. A demigod might recover from that but not with demon ichor to block his divine healing from the inside. From the swiftness and potency of the ichor, Saira likes to splurge on her armory.
“This one ain’t bound, is it?” she asks.
The assassin’s chest retracts in a slow, controlled exhalation. “So what’s it do then?”
Sky’s voice is grim. “Inject everyone it can with paralyzing venom and fill them with eggs.”
“Oh, the usual, then,” Saira replies, her attempt to sound laconic ruined by the very slight quaver in her voice. “Can it get outta that circle?”
“It’s poorly drawn, not made with the best materials. Won’t last long. Maybe long enough.” He scans the warehouse with his eyes. “Any more monkeys around?”
“Should be one more. Black-furred bastard. He’s the sneaky one.” Saira sheathes her stiletto carefully and kneels to retrieve her crossbow with her off hand, keeping her sword ready. “And where’s their mom?”
“Just keep them off me,” Sky says. “This will take time. And concentration.” He holds up the sword, as if saluting the demon, then begins to speak in a language he has used only rarely in two centuries.
The demon screams again, clattering the shattered floor with its claw-limbs. Through the cacophonous blending and breaking of voices from its many hidden mouths, Sky picks up the gist of its message. There are no individual words, and no way of translating it into any human language, but if it were possible to do so, it would be something like, Enemy of Hell, your pain will be endless. My young will savor your flesh slowly, Slave. It strains against the circle, and Sky can feel its shoddy prison cracking.
As Sky chants, he detects a note of confusion from it. Perhaps it is wondering how he speaks one of the aristocratic languages of Hell so fluently. If he had the demon’s blood on his blade, this would be much faster. But his own blood will have to do.
Then he hears an old woman’s voice shriek above the noise. “You avenge your brothers! G’wan, get ’em! Don’t you wanna join the Great Tyrant?”
Then, from the opposite side of the demon, the third baboon brother leaps, intending to go right over the fiend and engage Sky and Saira. Sky continues casting the ritual of banishment, but can already see what will happen. The demon tilts and, like a flash, stabs a leg above it, into the simian demigod, transfixing him through the belly. It then slams him down hard onto the magic circle, using the thrashing, shrieking baboon like a mop to wipe away the rune-filled border of its prison. The half-divine blood dissolves the paint quite effectively, and then, tossing aside the baboon, the demon rushes free.
The suited sorcerer screams “Noooooo!” and curls up into a ball, but the demon, which would normally gladly attack its summoner, ignores him in favor of one who could actually banish it. It goes straight for Sky.
He shifts to a defensive stance, intending to stab deeply, but Saira steps in front of him. He breaks off the chant to shout “NO!” She is trying to allow him to finish the spell, but no mortal stands a chance against this infernal creature. Even as he admires her bravery, he tries to slam her out of the way with his free arm. But the damage inflicted by the baboon demigod has left it limp, radius and ulna both broken. They are healing fast, but his arm is still useless for the moment.
Saira thrusts through the shadows into the center mass of the demon. It flinches back – she has caused it pain. But then Sky hears, through its scream, laughter.
“Saira!” The mortal woman sways, then slumps. Sky steps forward to catch her, wrapping his sword arm around her, still holding his weapon.
The leathers over her belly are shredded, and out of a deep wound oozes blood mixed with a sickly green venom. She leans back against him, face drawn tight in pain. She gasps, “What’d you stop chantin’ for? Lemme go and – arrrrrrrgh!” Her back arches as she screams, the venom spreading through her bloodstream, crossing the barriers of her brain, firing synapses that make the muscles on her limbs and back lock hard in an excruciating spasm, cruelly sparing her diaphragm and heart, denying her the relief of death so that her flesh doesn’t spoil and the demons eggs have time to hatch.
He slides her gently to the floor. She is right. There is nothing he can do for her, here and now.
Care about that one, Slave? Fool. She will feed many. Not as many as you.
Sky stands over her. Despair attempts to seize him. Saira has long walked the path of death. To fall in battle has always been in the cards for her. But this unclean non-death is not what she deserves. And Sage, and all those children – they would all share her fate.
Just then he remembers, before the explosion, Mayumi’s voice. Is she here? he wonders. Oh please no, let it not be so.
He realizes there is only one chance.
He lowers his sword, and begins to loosen his iron grip on his own form. He begins to feel the first tinglings of the transformation. Before changing for the Oracle weeks ago, he had not assumed his original form for many years. Now twice in such a short space – will he be able to regain his human-seeming divine mask at all? There is no choice but to risk it.
Then shadows of another sort being to writhe along the walls. A chorus of dead souls begins to sing a dirge. Ghostly hands and arms shoot up from the floors, skeletal heads emerge from the wall. Somehow, they do not frighten, but rather fill Sky with a mad joy. Death, after all, is so much cleaner, more natural, more mortal, than that which he is facing.
He welcomes the arrival of this deathsong and its singers with a laugh that makes the demon cringe. That dolorous song, familiar from being directed at him in the past, now heralds a much welcomed return. The shadows curl around him, stroking his skin in a soft caress, breathing new life into his hope. Grinning madly, he reasserts his grip on his form along with his grip on his sword.
He is not alone.