The familiar twitch to his senses of a magical door opening wakes him to reality. He must have fallen asleep on his back but he barely remembers entering his room, let alone reaching his bed. He feels pressure on the bed sheets to his right, the weight of a head laid on his right arm, the warmth of a hand placed on his bare chest. But, whose head? Whose hand? And why is his shirt gone?
From the texture of his bed companion’s hair, he knows it is not Alma. Dion’s eyes dart to his right to see Cherry curled up against him, sleeping soundly. His heart begins to race. Did he? Did they?
Relief comes two seconds later, when memory returns. Well, memory and the realization that Cherry is fully dressed and lying over the sheets and not under under them with Dion. And even though his shirt is gone, his trousers are still on. Ah, yes… She had tried, jesting, to convince him to take them off to check for wounds. He must have fallen asleep, and she, asked to watch over him, joined him in innocent slumber.
And now Merri is happily walking in like a preppy camp counselor waking up her Flower Scouts for a day of basket weaving. “Rise an’ shine, loves!”
Before Dion can answer, she flops onto the bed and lands on his chest, using her hands to slow her fall until she is lying diagonally across him, her feet to his left, her head to his right.
“Poor Somrak was quite badly hurt–” Merri says, chattering as if she started talking long before she entered the room. She kisses Cherry, who is just waking up. “Oh Cherry, ye would’ve been off yer feed for a week if ye’d seen the state o’ his lovely chest – so Alma had to use all her energy healin’ ‘im, and she’s takin’ a moment t’recover.”
“Did she manage to heal him?” Dion asks, concerned.
“Oh aye – she even grew ‘is pretty wee nipple back!” Merri exclaims as if this were the most fascinating thing ever. Cherry’s cringe and her mildly disgusted expression tells him she doesn’t quite agree with her twin. “But he’s quite fashed as well, an’ Alma asked me an’ Cherry to help him to ‘is room while she–” Her ears perk up suddenly and she twists to look at the door. “Oh yes, an’ speak o’ the death goddess, here she is!”
By the door, Alma stands looking at him and the Bunnies, still in her leather outfit, her face showing her exhaustion but at the same time seeming to glow with a special warmth. She smiles and Dion smiles lazily back at her, feeling a strange relief that she is here and no longer away from his sight, in the company of the fire god who seems to like her so much that he stood up for her against a Guardia subcommander and took corrosive demon blood to the chest to save her.
By his side, Cherry yawns. “Well sounds like we got us some work to do.” She gives Dion a kiss on the cheek and looks at Alma, smiling. “This one’s all right, just tired. Now don’t you two strain yourselves, hear?”
Taking Merri’s hand, Cherry pulls her lover toward her, making the red-haired Bunny slide over Dion’s chest. The two hop off his bed, running toward the door, and Alma touches their heads as they go past, smiling at them. She waits for the door to close behind them and then, looking at the god with an ‘alone at last’ kind of look on her face, produces a mana storage orb from…somewhere in the recesses of the back of her figure-hugging trousers.
“I think we can both use this,” she says, walking toward the bed and removing her high heel boots.
“You look exhausted,” Dion notes in soft tones.
Alma nods, kneeling on the bed. “I am completely drained.” She bends down to softly kiss his forehead. His lips curl in pleasure as he looks up at her looking down at him. “You look so comfortable.”
Dion taps the sheet by his left. “Then why not join me? Merri was telling me the healing was a bit tricky.”
Alma nods, rising and then sliding under the sheets to lie alongside him, her front against his side, her left arm draped over his torso. “The corrosion had spread farther than he’d realized. Shutting off pain receptors…” She shakes her head in disapproval. “But he is all right now. Just needs rest.”
She slides a leg over his thigh, then raises an eyebrow and lifts the sheet that covers his legs with one finger. “Cherry only got your shirt off? She is losing her touch…”
Dion chuckles, putting an arm around her to pull her closer and kiss her head. “She did try to find a good excuse to check my legs but…I told her you could check them all you wanted later on.” A whiff of her scent makes his nose twitch. “You smell like sweat and demon blood.”
And thankfully, nothing else, his backstabbing thoughts add.
“I haven’t bathed yet,” Alma explains absentmindedly.
She places the mana orb on his chest and rolls it, using the flat of her palm, slowly across the landscape of his torso. The gentle rolling of the cool, magically forged glass makes his skin shiver under the soft massage but she watches the liquid mana inside sloshing slowly and seems oblivious to how arousing it is to him, the feeling of her body so closely pressed against his, her leg wrapped around his left thigh, the sole of her foot resting against his calf, her scent and the soft brushing of her hair against his arm, all paired with the rolling orb that travels up his chest and down his belly, to his navel and a little beyond it, to the rim of his trousers. In the long silence between them, he breathes in and exhales deeply, eyes closed, enjoying her touch and wondering yet again how risky it would be to succumb to temptation. When she rises slightly and leans over to kiss his chest, he can barely keep from rolling on top of her and forgetting the threats of the Council.
“Did you know a fire god’s body temperature rises according to their state of mind?” Alma asks all of a sudden, her lips still brushing softly against his chest.
Dion’s eyes shoot open in confused surprise, cold water suddenly poured on his desire. It takes him a moment to realize the innocence of the remark before he chuckles at the completely unexpected question. “I…have had the privilege of the experience.”
The abrupt jerking of his body with the chuckling makes Alma lose hold of the orb. She drops it and it rolls down Dion’s left side, over the pearl-white satin sheets. Only the god’s reflexes prevent it from falling off the bed. Alma looks at the orb with empty eyes, as if taking a long time to realize what happened.
“Oh…oops,” she says with a giggle.
Giggling…the god thinks, his jealousy forgotten for the moment, chased away by tenderness. Alma giggling…How odd. And how absolutely adorable.
Dion smiles and touches the retrieved orb to the bridge of Alma’s nose. “You clearly need this before you cause a disaster with your giddiness.”
Alma giggles again. “I am just a little imbalanced, that’s all.”
“Just a little,” Dion jests, receiving a tongue stuck out at him from the goddess in response.
Where does this playful goddess hide when the solemn one appears? he wonders, kissing her forehead with tenderness. How I would love to see her more often.
“Here we go,” he says and, with the softest of touches, releases the mana.
It flows, like golden sand blown in a gentle wind, from the orb to the gods, infusing and washing over them, filling them with a mixture of pleasure and relief. Even though he can feel a mana headache already threatening to develop, Dion makes sure to tilt the mana flow more toward Alma than toward himself in such a way that she doesn’t notice how he is favoring her. In spite of her apparent good humor and overall state of relaxation, the god is concerned. Her divine aura feels weak, just as weak as it would be if she were trying to pass for a mortal, and whatever is left of it seems to be leaning toward just one of her spheres. Who knows what that could do to such a dichotomic goddess?
Light-headed, sedated, they lie silent for a long moment, basking in the feeling of replenishing. Time falls away as Dion loses count of his inhalations, and even consciousness of his breathing. By his side, Alma seems to sleep, hugging his torso, cheek resting against his chest. Her soft breaths brush Dion’s skin like a gentle background noise.
“Hmm…” Alma rouses after a while, stretching languidly. “Well, time to take care of you. See if Cherry missed any wounds.”
Dion exhales deeply and sets the now empty mana orb aside before it becomes a victim of their distraction. He then turns on his side, to lie face to face with the death goddess, who looks at him through half-shut eyes and lazily smiling lips. “Only if afterwards I can check you for wounds as well. There is not a lot that outfit can hide but…you did fall. There may be a bruise or two hidden under that leather.” He strokes the back of her thigh all the way up to her leather-clad rump. A gentle squeeze of her firm rear makes her jolt slightly, then look at him with a mockingly scolding grin. “And it is almost a sin to remove it, the way it looks on you. I had no idea you owned something like that.”
“I don’t!” Alma exclaims amidst laughs. “I went to Saira for disguise advice and next thing I know Sage is pulling these things out of a closet!” She looks down at her outfit. “I know they were originally made for Saira but…I’m keeping them.”
“Oh, if you didn’t, I would,” Dion agrees with amusement. “You can even keep them here if you like.” He resumes silence for a moment, stroking her side as he gazes into the deep blue of the goddess’ eyes and remembers the night’s events. “You were…incredible out there. The market, the fight… Almost as if you’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Alma’s lightheartedness seems to drop a little with her reply. “In some ways, I’ve been prepared for it. Fencer…and just some of the wards I have been stationed in.” She smiles again at some passing thought. “What do you think? Would I make a good ‘off-blue’ agent?”
“I have no doubts you’d succeed there,” Dion mutters grimly. “You seemed like you were having fun, playing mercenary with Somrak.”
“Oh, I had a ‘blast’, as Cherry says!” Alma exclaims with a chuckle. But then, she quiets down again, simply stroking his cheek, looking at his face with tenderness in her gaze. “You were quite fantastic yourself, surviving my aunt and then casting that spell. I had never sensed such power coming from you.”
Dion smiles as much at the words as at the warmth in her eyes. “It was…strange. Like I instinctively knew what to do, where to go, what kind of demon it was… It was not in any of those books I borrowed from you and from Sky. I just…knew.”
“Maybe you do have a sphere you don’t know about?” the goddess suggests, almost conversationally before draping an arm over his shoulder and around his neck, and pressing her forehead against his. “Either way, you were incredible and you saved the night.”
“I didn’t save you,” Dion counters bitterly. “Didn’t stand up for you against that thug or against Fencer. Although…I know you don’t need someone to protect you against those things.”
Her fingers climb the back of his neck and dive into his hair. Her lips brush against his. “No…I don’t.”
He waits for her to kiss him. No need to rush. In this space between them, there is no control, no dominance, he does not have to initiate every caress. Tenderness and desire flow of their own accord in both directions. So easily. So naturally…
He had to learn it. To accept the peace of something meant to last longer than a few minutes, to allow himself this prolonged care for another. He is still learning.
Her kiss makes him hold her tighter, closer to him. Even tired, he cannot help but crave this moment more of contact, of feeling her taste in his mouth, of losing track of how many times their lips have parted and reunited, of sensing her body tilting invitingly and of rolling to lean over her, weight propped on one elbow, one hand free to roam her body over the leather that is quickly becoming more of a nuisance than a stimulant.
For a moment, she seems to have forgotten all about risks and limitations. And Dion cannot really be bothered to remind her. He can barely be bothered to remember, himself. With a hand slipped under her, he rolls onto his back and pulls her on top of him. That bustier has to go. His fingers probe her back for its bindings but she reaches for his hands and grabs them, brings them to the bed by his head, taunts him with soft kisses, looks at him through glazed eyes and grins before moving lower to cover his neck and collarbone in kisses.
Oh gods, how can anyone be expected to resist this? How can he be expected to stop her? Her hands are already making way to his trousers. Hungry… Reckless…
Drunk… he realizes. She is acting like she is drunk.
And she would never forgive him for letting her go through with this. Mustering every last shred of self control, he wraps his arms around her, holds her tightly to him until she calms down. She tries to resist at first, tempt him into letting go of her, but eventually stops and lies quietly on top of him, breathing cool air against his neck.
“This is…” she mutters eventually, burying her face against him. “I just want to be with you.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I want to be with you just as much,” he replies, his voice husky. “But I don’t want our first night to be our last night.”
Alma nods gently. “Just for the record…” she says after a pregnant pause. “The market was fun. But this…this is where I want to be. With you.”
Dion smiles and strokes her hair, wondering how long her giddiness will last. “Then let us draw you a bath and get you out of that outfit. Bring our Alma back.”
Alma lifts her head, raises herself a little to look into his eyes. “Do you like our Alma?”
Dion nods. “And I would very much like to keep her.”
This earns him a tender kiss. “She likes you very much too,” Alma whispers in a shy, almost childlike voice.
The simple, softly spoken words pour into him like a shower of bliss. He strokes her blushed cheek, pulls her to him to kiss her forehead and thanks whatever greater gods may listen for the gift of this moment.
In the filthy, shadow-strewn alley three blocks from the now-vanished demon market, Lucky Pete becomes perfectly still as the greeting freezes his spine. After a moment, he turns from checking his pack, making sure he hasn’t left anything important behind in the ephemeral courtyard, cursing himself for stopping to do something so pointless. An escaped demon! How could the Guardia not crack down, especially the hard-case Dei that had arrived recently. No demon markets would be held in Three Rats again for years. Anything left behind was effectively gone for good.
And if he hadn’t paused, he could have escaped the ward, even the Fourth Ring entirely, before hearing that voice. A woman’s voice, low and catty, a sharp edge of violence and madness hidden beneath amusement.
Just my gods-damned luck.
He straightens and turns. It’s her, all right, standing at the entrance of the short dead-end alley he’d ducked into to check on his stock. The Necromancer. That’s the only name he knows her by, and he doesn’t want to know her real name. If he knew that, she’d kill him without thinking.
He only hopes she doesn’t realize how familiar he is with her crew, the Whisper. He’s worked with their leader for years. Even a top-tier summoner like Margrave can only maintain so many infernal pacts, so he uses specialists like Pete, who holds an exclusive pact with a devil in charge of an army of demons and damned souls that dig for exotic minerals in the harrowing mines of Hell. Pete has had a mercantile relationship with Margrave since the master summoner was an up-and-coming minor boss in the now-shattered Dukaine organization. This long acquaintance means that Pete knows more about Margrave’s new gang that this Necromancer newcomer might realize.
She has two toughs with her: on her left a human woman with some kind of warpaint on her face, lines of white on her reddish-brown skin; on her left a half-troll, grey-skinned and looming, making everyone else in the alley look like a child by comparison. The nostrils of his veiny, eggplant-shaped nose flare as he sniffs Pete’s fear, and his grin displays yellowed tusks.
The troll stays behind to block any exit from the alley as the Necromancer and her female companion approach Pete. The Necromancer has on her usual black, body-hugging dress, festooned with silver bangles and chains. Much of her jewelry is silver-plated bird skulls with gems in place of eyes. Her left hand bears silver fingertip rings with claws that extend over her nails. Her skin is white as paper, hair black and flowing, lips painted a bright bloody red. She smiles as if about to bite.
“Seems like there was a bit of a commotion at the market,” she says. The amusement in her voice is nerve-wracking, but it is a comfort as well. When it’s there, conversations don’t turn into screams and pleading. Usually.
Pete licks his lips and clears his throat. “Some idiot didn’t secure his wares properly, and that let an even bigger idiot free a demon. We all had to run, the ones that survived. Guardia’ll be swarmin’ the place. We should all get outta here.”
The Necromancer cocks her head at Pete’s pack. “You have my order?”
“Yeah, sure! I got it! You got my money?” Pete begins to recover his usual rude bravado.
She smiles at him again, and inside he quails. He’s never suffered at her hands, but he’s heard stories. She throws money around like rose petals, but likes pain even better. Other people’s pain, naturally. He digs in his pack and brings out a battered metal box and unlocks it. “Here.”
She reaches out to take it from him, but stops when he says, “You know, somebody was lookin’ to buy it. But they said they needed more.” He curses himself. Why’d I have to say that? Now she’ll ask questions!
She withdraws her hand, and asks with no trace of amusement, “Who?”
“Uh, uh, a crazy old broad and a rich dumbass wannabe. Wanted it for psychic boostin’.”
“Did you show them this? Did they touch it?” The Necromancer’s voice is dangerously flat.
“Y-yeah but, just as a sample, y’know!” Images of knives cutting into flesh start to fill Pete’s mind, flashbacks of a time years ago when he’d made a powerful criminal angry. His missing eye itches at the memory.
The woman looks closer at the box, and using one of the elaborately etched claws on her left hand, flips up the catch. Pete swallows as she lifts the lid, and whispers a little incantation. Pete is himself a wizard, and recognizes it as a spell of revealing, but an old one, one that had gone out of fashion before he was born. Her eyes flare black, and she chuckles as a quivering little tracker spell becomes visible.
Pete curses, but his anger quickly turns to terror. “I didn’t know! I swear I didn’t know!”
The Necromancer raises her gaze to meet Pete’s eyes. Her own eyes are still the dull black of a shark’s. She studies him, grinning, and then the smile begins to fade. Pete feels his knees tremble, and it requires all his effort to keep from falling to the ground.
Then her eyes return to their usual grey and she grins. “I believe you, Lucky Pete.” He closes his eyes in relief. Then his eyes snap back open at her next words, deadly and cold. “But you did put me in danger. You should have detected this.”
“I-I-I was gonna! I was gonna do the usual scanning I always do! But that unbound demon – I had to get outta there!”
A smile curls her scarlet lips again. “Good thing you’re such a valuable resource, Peter. Giving me this for free should square things with us.”
Pete almost chokes, but he manages not to shout objections at her. “Sure…fine. It’s all yours. You want me to dispel the tracker?”
“Oh no,” she purrs, looking around. “I know just what to do with – why hello!” She bends down swiftly and snatches a fat rat from behind an old broken bucket. It squeals and writhes, trying to bite her. She smiles at it, holding it up to inspect it, its naked tail whipping in a circle.
Pete makes a disgusted noise. “This place ain’t got any shortage of those. Shoulda called it Three Million Rats.” Then he grimaces as she presses the claw on her left thumb into the rat’s throat. It struggles in a frenzy as she sinks the claw in deep, blood spurting onto its fur and her hand. Death does not come swiftly, but its struggles slow, then end. The Necromancer whispers another spell, one that tumbles from her lips smoothly, something in a language Pete has never heard before, that makes his belly feel cold.
The rat’s body changes. It ages. Fur falls out, flesh corrupts, as if it had been dead for days. The smell is appalling. But worst of all, it moves. Pete feels the blood drain from his face. The rat flinches, its eyes open, and it looks around. It does not struggle.
The Necromancer reaches into the box Pete continues to hold out to her, and she plucks out the trembling tracking spell. Its little arachnoid limbs twitch, but latch on to the belly of the rat as she puts it there. She sets the rat and its under-carriage passenger on the ground, says, “Seek,” and watches it lope away.
“Pete,” she says, sounding as if she’s having a wonderful day, “you go on your way. I’ll contact you when I need more. Until then, stay far away from here.” She has not looked at him since she caught the rat, and she simply turns and walks out of the alley as if she’s forgotten him. The woman warrior follows with but a glance at Pete, and the troll, with a sneer, turns as well after stepping aside to let the two women leave.
After they are gone, Pete sinks to his knees, breathing hard, then swiftly grabs his pack, closes it, and rushes away into the night.