Inspector Tuma-Sukai gets his hand up just as the garotte tightens viciously around his throat. It cuts into the heel of his palm, cuts to the bone, but he prevents the same from happening to the arteries and windpipe of his throat. The strength being applied is incredible, certainly more than any mortal could exert. As blood gushes from his palm, Sky’s limited field of vision takes in little more than the body he had been bending over to examine, that of a member of a very minor local gang, a guy named Maul. Large and intimidating, Maul had been in Three Rats Station many a time before, along with his brother Bull, for questioning. And now he is half-decapitated, a wire with bone grips still embedded in his throat.
A large body that is probably Bull’s lies nearby, and a third body, smaller, head completely missing, is near the end of the little courtyard. All three bodies are surrounded by pools of blood. A fourth, smaller pool shines black in the moonlight, with sticky footsteps leading out of the alley.
All this Sky took in before the weight suddenly landed on his back. He hears a shriek off to one side, but can’t get his head around to check on Sgt. Alma. Still, it was not her voice crying out in pain. From the other side, a bright golden flash dazzles his vision and the weight disappears from his back.
The pressure released from his hand and throat, Sky flings the garotte aside while drawing his sword with his uninjured right hand. He turns toward Sgt. Gwydion, who is recovering from making a cutting motion with his own sword, Gwydion’s magic having turned that motion into a golden arc of razor-sharp force that took down Sky’s attacker. Sky spots another attacker, wearing loose black clothing, appearing out of nowhere right behind the god of magic.
“Dion, down!” Sky shouts, drawing his heavy shortsword back. Gwydion ducks and the strangler barely misses his mark. Sky throws. A sword is not meant to be thrown, but it is not so very different from throwing an axe, and it is only a short distance. Sky sees Dion’s eyes grow wide as the sword goes through two complete revolutions, passing over his head, before thudding into the attacker’s chest, sinking hilt-deep.
The attacker looks shocked, steps back, and collapses.
And now I’m unarmed, thinks Sky. Real smart. Well, not quite. As he turns toward a groan – the attacker Dion had knocked off him – Sky pulls a double-edged dagger out of his boot, one with a brass-knuckle hilt and a nasty little obtuse skull-crusher spike for a pommel. But a slender figure, silhouetted in the moonlight, is suddenly there, moving effortlessly, almost lazily, but so fast that Sky barely has time to recognize her as Alma before she kicks the groaning man in the teeth hard enough to flip him onto his back. Behind her, another black-clad form lies unmoving.
Sky straightens and looks around. Another silhouette stands at the end of the alley that opens onto the thoroughfare, holding a stick in one hand. And something in his other hand, bringing it to his mouth.
“STOP!” Sky commands, putting his mana into it, the divine order echoing from the bricks. The figure laughs, sending a chill through Sky.
He knows that laugh.
Oh… No. It can’t be.
The small man – for small he is – walks into the alley, using a cane, a beam of moonlight catching his face and shining off his bald head. His countenance is cheerful, heavily lined and grey-bearded, with crumbs from the pastry he is munching caught in that long, wispy beard.
“Throwing away your main weapon, Tuma-Sukai. Tsk, tsk, tsk.” He glances at Sky’s wounded hand and shakes his head. “What a poor teacher you are showing me to be. To let one of the thugee get his wire around your throat. You must have been half asleep.”
Sky’s shoulders slump. Great…
“And Gwydion,” the old man continues, shaking his finger. “You have missed many lessons. That one would have succeeded but for your Inspector’s warning.”
Dion bows, causing Alma, who has been nonplussed since the old man’s appearance, to drop her jaw for a moment in astonishment. “I am fortunate to have such companions in battle, Master Pak,” Dion says formally. “But I did detect the surge of mana when the attacker teleported in.”
“Your reaction was still too slow,” the man replies dismissively, stuffing the last bite of pastry into his mouth and crumpling the piece of wax paper bearing the logo of Kyri’s Copper Pot and thrusting it into his pocket. “Much energy wasted in your strike. And this one,” he says, mouth full, turning to appraise Alma. He pauses to swallow, and looks the goddess up and down. “Not bad, not bad. You trained under Fencer.”
Alma shuts her mouth, eyebrows raised. “I did. But how would you know that, sir?”
Before anyone can answer, a surge of power felt by all causes them to turn and look up, the three Guardia Dei resuming combat-ready stances. Not far above them, out of a circular portal made of deep indigo light, steps a goddess of hideous mein, her skin blue-black, her mouth yellow-fanged, eyes and long tongue crimson. She holds in one hand a bleeding, severed head, in another a garotte matching those used by the attackers. And in another hand she holds a sword, and in her fourth, a club. She floats down to stand among them, bare-chested, wearing a skirt of golden fabric and a necklace of human skulls that sing her name: Kamalashaa, the Strangler, She of Fearful Aspect.
“Who assaults my worshippers?” she demands, her aura of charnel smells and the choking sounds of the dying flaring out in a fury that would cause any mortal to grovel in terror.
“Guardia Dei,” Sky replies confidently, his own aura, of sea-winds and the roar of storm-tossed waves rising up to match hers. Alone, he would stand little chance against this goddess. She is not anywhere near as powerful as her more famous ancestress, a truly ancient and more balanced goddess of destruction and rebirth worshipped at least occasionally by tens of millions of mortals in the Urbis Caelestis and by billions on other worlds. But this far more limited goddess, worshipped only by murderers and those begging protection from said murderers, is still quite capable of sending Sky or any of his companions to a premature grave.
But she cannot take on the entire Guardia. It would be madness, and she is not mad.
The Guardia Dei exists as an organization to counter gods like her, those who would prey upon mortals and weaker deities, who would ignore all rules in order to secure more worshippers through fear and more souls through sacrifices, who would follow their divine spheres to their logical, nihilistic ends. Mortals worship their fears and darkest desires as well as their more noble dreams, and from this worship gods are shaped. Kamalashaa would like nothing more than to give in to that worship and strangle the entire world, though it meant her own destruction. She is, unlike her ancestress, unbalanced and in need of other gods to keep her in check.
“Your cultists have committed murder,” Sky growls at her. “Using magic provided by their worship of you.”
She crosses two of her arms and looks away. “I grant my priests powers, of course. That does not mean I know what they are doing with those powers. I cannot be expected to keep track of all my worshippers.”
“And you also don’t know that your worship demands human sacrifice in the weeks before the Year’s End,” Alma notes in sweet, almost innocent tones. “To increase your soul counts for the Spinning Wheel ceremony.”
Kamalashaa languidly turns her head to regard the Sergeant balefully. “Alma. I heard you’d gone downslope. Skidded to a stop just before reaching the Ocean, I see.” She sniffs. “The priests are supposed to read off the holy scripture, which contains those bloody rules the Senate made me add, about only taking the souls of condemned criminals. As if there’s any sport in that,” she ends with a grumble.
“Luckily for you, your priests can barely sign their names, let alone read your holy scriptures,” Alma replies unphased by the comment on her exile to Three Rats. “Either way, you know the rules, my cousin. These souls do not belong to you.”
The aura dies around the dark goddess, her tusked mouth pursed in annoyance. She prods Maul’s body with her toe. “Hmph. This one has killed two people. Probably has a load of other sins on his soul. Surely would’ve been condemned any time now.” She glances at the forms of her fallen worshippers. “Well that one is dead,” she says, pointing at the one that had tried to attack Dion. “The other two are still alive. I could probably make a case that they were within the rules, taking these amateurs down, but how about I just take their souls and save the Guardia the trouble?”
Sky frowns. “They will stand trial.”
“As for the ones already dead, their souls will stand interrogation and then be released,” Alma adds. “This is my territory.”
Kamalashaa narrows her blood-red eyes at Alma and points again at the dead cultist. “That soul is mine! He promised it to me in return for power.”
Alma takes a couple of steps closer to the goddess, head held high, grinning like a predator moving in on her prey. “Are you admitting to inciting a mortal to surrender his soul to you so he can commit murder in your name?”
The goddess of strangulation grinds her fangs, ignoring all the others present to focus on Alma. “He. Made. A promise…”
Sky, looking trapped between the two death goddesses and a disagreement that considerably predates this violent evening, speaks forcibly to keep his nervousness from his voice. “Kamalashaa, if you wish to file a claim, you may of course do so. But for now, you are interfering with Guardia business.”
“You know our laws, cousin,” Alma reiterates. “The souls of this ward are mine to care for and collect. Your territory is much farther upslope and none of our elders will tell you your claims are justified.”
“This will not be the last you hear of this, little Alma. I will bring this up at the Gathering.” With that, the four-armed goddess rises into the air again, entering her dark portal and vanishing.
“Go polish a skull…” Alma mutters.
Dion tilts his head, watching until the portal winks out of existence, then looks at Alma. “You have the most interesting family members.”
“Would you like a few of them?” Alma jests. “That one used to wait until I was sitting at the table to reach under it and pull me out of my chair by the ankles. It is a good thing she was finally put in her place when she missed her mark and pulled my mother’s ankle instead. She became our dining room chandelier for a week, suspended from mother’s vines. We shouldn’t have let her down…”
“I think I will pass, thank you,” Dion replies, chuckling. “For as entertaining as it sounds, I do enjoy my status as an only child.”
Sky, silently thankful he has never had any blood relatives at all, kneels to shackle the quietly moaning cultist that Alma had kicked earlier. He notices Pak is still present, and says, “Oh, Master Pak, I see you’ve already met Sgt. Gwydion. This is Sgt. Alma, Bringer of Life, Keeper of Souls. Alma, this is Grand Master Pak. He was, um, kind enough to instruct me in close combat at the Academy.”
“I see,” Alma says, nodding to the smiling elder.
“Much kindness was required,” Pak says, bowing slightly to her. “So rigid. Always eschewing subtlety for direct, brutal attack.”
“Yes, sir,” Sky says hopelessly.
“Master Pak has been living here in Three Rats,” Dion mentions. “I have been training under him.”
“Or not training,” Pak admonishes. “Avoiding lessons.”
“Master Pak, I was under house arrest for weeks in the First Ring,” Dion argues weakly. “I sent a letter…”
Alma adds her voice to Dion’s defense, with a sheepish expression on her beautiful face. “I am afraid that was my fault. And really, there has been no time since our return to do anything but ensure the safety of this ward.”
“Defense of this ward is what I am worried about,” Pak replies cheerfully, turning to go. “It seems I now have three Dei students instead of just one. Ah, and here I thought I would have a quiet retirement. Dion can tell you how to find my home. I will see each of you soon.”
The three gods remain silent until Pak leaves, and then Alma comments in mildly amused tones, “How did I just become a student again? He looks like a walking cliché.”
Dion looks at her in surprise. “You’ve never heard of Master Pak?”
“I have never been taught by anyone who refers to themselves as Master…” she replies. “As he mentioned, the Fencer was my primary combat teacher.”
“Oh he doesn’t refer to himself as Master. Just…most people call him that.” Sky finishes seeing to the other wounded, thoroughly unconscious cultist. “Fencer, eh? She is good.”
Alma smiles at him. “You know her?”
He nods. “She was on one of her periods of instructing at the Academy when I was there too. She and Pak both. First week, she called on me to duel with her in front of the incoming class.” He grimaces at the memory. “She didn’t see fit to teach me personally during the rest of my time there. ‘You use a sword like you’re chopping wood’.” His voice is a passable imitation of the Fencer’s dry tone. “But I’ve seen her on other occasions, at the Commander’s office.”
Dion chuckles, while Alma smiles sympathetically and says, “If it’s any consolation, you two would not have got along. After decades training under her, I know just how ruthless she can be. And not just with her words.” She glances in the direction Pak went, as if to say, Like our friend there.
Sky shrugs at her glance. “I learned a lot from Pak. But he is very difficult to satisfy. And yes…he is a bit of a walking stereotype. But that’s just an act. There is a great deal more to him beyond the surface appearance.”
Dion looks thoughtful. “You know, all three of us learning from the same Grand Master… It would help in coordinating our combat styles. And I have learned much of value in the short time he has been teaching me.” He looks at Alma. “He is a bit eccentric. But I hope you’ll join us.”
Alma looks at both of them, looking at her expectantly. She hangs her head and sighs. “Very well, I trust your judgment. There is always room for improvement. I have survived the Fencer; I will surely survive him. Now show me that hand, Sky. Ugh, you’re still bleeding…”
Pak walks slowly, like the old man he appears to be. He makes certain his back is a little bent, his knees a little shaky. He puts some weight on the cane. He has done this for longer than Gwydion, Tuma-Sukai, and Alma put together have been alive. Much longer.
Though he is making himself look a little weaker than he normally does. Usually he has his back straight, shoulders relaxed, joints moving smoothly and easily. A careful observer will realize that this is an old man in the peak of spiritual balance. It is an advertisement that attracts students who might possibly be worth teaching.
Will those three be? They had better be, he thinks with a grin. And one other?
A whisper of movement behind, which he ignores. Then a blade at his throat. Ah, there she is. Not bad for one bleeding so much. He freezes.
“Your money. Give it to me!” The kunoichi’s voice is powerful with the strength of desperation, of last reserves of energy being wildly expended before collapse.
Pak straightens almost unnoticeably, resuming his normal, comfortable stance, and says in a voice touched by amusement, “Oh dear, I am such a poor defenseless old man. Please do not hurt me.”
“I will not hurt you if you don’t try anything stupid–”
Suddenly his assailant is face-up on the filthy pavement, looking at the stars. Her hand is empty of the blade. Pak, stepping back, holds it casually, smiling.
The kunoichi rolls back away from him, ending up on her feet, and another blade is in her hand by the time she is standing. But she has to catch her balance. Where she was lying a moment before, the street is smeared with blood still trickling from a knife wound in her back.
“You’re going to make me kill you, old man?”
Pak looks at the knife he is holding. “You might need two of these,” he says, and as the final word leaves his mouth the blade is spinning toward her. She catches it, barely, slowed by blood loss. Much slower and she would have had another stab wound to deal with. Before she can shift her attention from the knife back to the man, Pak is striking with his cane, hitting each wrist painfully enough to stun her nerves and make her drop the knives, but not hard enough to crack bone.
Then he hooks the back of her neck with the curved handle of his cane and yanks her forward and down, taking a quick look at the blood soaking her back, then releasing her and stepping back. “You have already been in one fight today. Why start another? Do you feel the need for exercise?”
She staggers as she straightens, her eyes wild. “I told you! I need the money! Give it to me!”
Pak moves laterally, slowly, forcing her to adjust her stance. When she takes a step to do so, she oversteps, off-balance for a moment. “I can relieve you of all worries about money in but a moment,” Pak says, “if you choose to continue attacking. The dead have no needs, and peaceful days.”
Almost screaming in frustration, she cries, “What is stopping you?”
“Death is unfortunately final. There are other choices. For example, you could choose to learn. There might even be a bowl of soup to go along with that.”
Twisting again to keep him in sight, the kunoichi’s voice shakes as she says, “I prefer death. Everyone says she’s nice.”
Pak sighs. “The way you are going, you have no need of my help with meeting her. In fact, she is nearby.”
He turns his back on her and begins to walk away, but pauses when he hears a soft thud. Looking back, he sees she has collapsed. He waits a moment, then turns and goes back to her. He looks down, noting the flow of blood from her wound, knowing it will soon cease.
“Will you be worth this trouble, lost child?” he mutters. He looks around, and seeing no watchers he crouches and lays a hand on the wound. Closing his eyes and concentrating, a golden aura glows from his hand, and around his head, a golden mandala in the form of an opening lotus, revealing images of saints and demons. The light spreads to envelope both their bodies, then fades away, leaving the street empty but for windblown dust.