The midmorning streets are populated by mortals going about their business, opening those shops that are not already opened, carts pulled by donkeys or more often men, delivering goods which the sharper housewives and restaurateurs are picking over before the vegetables, fish, or fruits can even be unloaded.
Behind her, Sky can see how every line of Alma’s body speaks of fury as she walks swiftly toward Little Falls Ward, and he finds himself in the unusual position of having to lengthen his stride to keep up with her.
“Alma…Alma, please slow down!”
She ignores him, if anything speeding up. “Where is he? Just tell me where I have to go.”
Pulling up beside her, he says, “They said he has set up a temple in an old house. Maybe murdered the owner. Alma, you’re straining yourself. Melinor–”
She cuts him off without pausing. “I am fine. I’ll deal with Melinor if he comes back asking questions. And I’ll tell him I don’t need a babysitter.”
Sky falls silent at that for a good many steps. He notes the glances, even outright stares they are attracting. Two Guardia Dei, two gods, proceeding through the streets as if marching on the way to war. Finally, pitching his voice as soft as he can while moving so fast, he speaks. “What Dion said…he regrets it. I could see the misery on his face.”
“Still didn’t stop him, did it?” she snaps. “It didn’t make him trust me any more for it. He accused me of…of… He thought I had lied to him to go be with Somrak instead! That I want a harem? If there is one thing I never understood about my father’s wives it’s how they all accept living in one!”
Shaking his head, Sky says, “He deserves whatever punishment you care to inflict on him. But don’t harm yourself in your anger, no matter how justified it is.”
Alma stops dead in her tracks, but does not turn to face him. Her shoulders are bunched, back slightly bent forward. Her voice is almost quivering with control. “Don’t tell me to stop being angry, Sky. I need to be angry because when I stop being angry I don’t know what I’ll be. And then I’ll definitely be useless. He – I can’t even believe this is happening! Why would he go and do this?”
“I don’t understand it, either.” Sky’s frustration with Gwydion’s foolishness makes him sound tired. “But I’ve seen people do it many times. Come on, you can be angry, just…” He moves into her field of vision and holds his hands out imploringly. “You’re adjusting to a new sphere! Let’s go sit down. This rogue god will wait a day or two.”
Alma raises her eyes to his, her jaw set. “Not if he’s responsible for what happened to my cousin Nasheena. We can’t find her anywhere. Father would kill me if I left a misbehaving clan member on the loose. Come on. At least being angry at him will be useful.”
Sky looks at her, on the edge of ordering her to stand down, wondering if she’d even obey. They have become more friends than Inspector in command and subordinate Sergeant, and as much as he treasures that friendship, this is one of those times that it can be a problem. But her words deter him. This is a member – a distant member but still a member – of her clan that is missing. And this could very well be connected to the necromancer who murdered Stathos and his family. Sky mutters, “I hope I’m not making a terrible mistake by agreeing. Fine. But keep that anger cold. And if I decide we need to retreat, no argument, Sergeant.”
Alma nods grimly, and they resume their trek. Soon enough they hit the edge of Three Rats. Though there are no “Welcome to Little Falls” signs, the change is obvious. Three Rats’ architectural style, a mishmash of two cultures from a world on which Sky used to live, those of Brazil and India, has leaked over the border into Little Falls, but Little Falls’ own style, which has leaked back into Three Rats as well, was never so terribly different as far as the design of ordinary buildings goes: low with plenty of windows, laid out for decent airflow, demonstrating their shared origins in warm, humid lands.
The vibrant façades, too, are different but in ways too subtle for outsiders to notice easily. Brilliant colors bring the avenues alive, with paintings of teenagers kicking a football, mermaids playing in the waves, angelic spirits extending their blessings to starving children, appeals for peace in these violent times. On the Three Rats side, however, the gods are more often sporting strongly colored skin of blue or red or midnight black, with multiple arms and faces, whereas on the Little Falls side, the gods are shown more as hiding their divinity behind the exterior of an average-seeming resident of Little Falls, who on average have skin of an even deeper shade of brown than most of the people of Three Rats.
It is the streets, though, that show the most obvious change. The Insula grows slowly by attracting parts of other worlds to it in a way that confuses the wisest minds at the Academy of Magic. Three Rats was made of two such pieces that merged on their way to this world, and as a result its streets are an insane tangle. Little Falls is laid out in a pattern that isn’t exactly the result of meticulous urban planning, but at least it makes sense, and one has to work much harder to get lost. Straight streets that meet at right angles? It is obvious that one has left Three Rats.
Also obvious, to the gods at least, is the subtle change in the flow of mana, that force which permeates all of the Insula Caelestis, without which a titanic mountain floating in a bubble of Reality amid a sea of Chaos could not exist at all. There is nowhere on the Insula that is bereft of mana, but there are places where its flow is impeded, or where it flows in unusual ways.
Here in Little Falls, it flows slightly more sluggishly than in Three Rats. Not enough to make being a god in Little Falls any harder. Maintaining one’s immortality, healing oneself – these are things any god can do, even on another world where magic is entirely absent. But affecting things outside oneself requires more effort in a low-magic ward. Little Falls and Three Rats both fall into the middle range, however, and the difference between the two, while noticeable to a god, does not have much practical effect.
It is not long before they are at the entrance to a cul-de-sac at the end of which looms – for ‘loom’ is the only word for it – an old, apparently abandoned home that is barely large enough to be considered a mansion. It is that house that seems to be required in certain neighborhoods, the house that goes unoccupied for some reason or another, and which all the children and no small portion of the adults agree must be haunted. And this being the Insula, it may very well be haunted. Not all Death gods are as fastidious as Alma, collecting the souls under their care immediately upon death. And Little Falls is known for its ghosts, many of whom are resistant to moving on.
A naked soul, shorn of its flesh, is a self-contained bundle of mana, and though it will slowly lose its power, the belief of the living can feed it, just as prayers feed gods. The ghost merely needs attention, and thus any ghost that desires to remain in this world, free of the Wheel and rebirth, must make its presence known. Prayer is unnecessary – only a fool prays to a ghost. But emotions will do nicely. And the easiest emotion for a ghost to provoke is fear.
This mansion is clearly doing its best to provoke some fear.
The gardens surrounding it are overgrown, with Spanish moss hanging down like looped nooses. The windows are broken in a way that suggests eyes and teeth. The door hangs open invitingly to any child who might be dared to dash inside and steal some tiny prize from off a table or desktop. The ghost or ghosts of this house might simply terrorize that child before allowing escape, as that would all the better spread fear, but some ghosts are not so restrained, feasting on terror, growing more powerful from it, to the point that they can affect the world, to slash and smash and strangle.
Sky has little fear of ghosts, however. It is a very rare ghost that can do any harm to a god. But if the information is right, there is a god in there, one who might know what has befallen Alma’s cousin, perhaps even know something about the necromancer. The thought that they have not stopped in at Little Falls Guardia Station to see the local inspector and gain permission for an arrest only gives him brief pause. His previous career as an ‘off-blue’, an off-the-books agent of the Commander tasked with the dirtiest grey-zone jobs, has made him rather cavalier about protocol, and though he tried, truly tried to be a proper station commander when he was sent to Three Rats, it wasn’t so long before desperate events had him breaking rules right and left simply to keep his ward from being drowned beneath a flood of violence. Breaking another now does not bother him overmuch.
And besides, Little Falls Station has a definite whiff of corruption about it. During the reign of the Dukaines, its inspector was clearly bowing to the powerful gang. Sky had been unable to do anything about that then, and he is unsure whether the Shards, the warring remains of the Dukaines, still control the Guardia here. Best to ask for forgiveness later than permission now.
“This is the place,” he says, needlessly.
“He is in there,” Alma replies. “I can sense the power coming from inside. Bodiless souls…and others.”
“Do you want to call for Clan backup?”
Alma looks at him darkly. “Do you want them to come and take me back to the Second Ring, where they can bind me to a bed?” She shakes her head. “No. I’d rather check for myself first. I don’t recognize his soul. We won’t attack unless we have to.”
“And I can barely detect his resonance at all here.” Sky sighs. “But there must be a lot of it for me to feel it from outside. Right. I go first. If he hits me, you can provide the counterpunch.”
Alma looks worried. “He’s a death god, Sky. I–”
“And if you are taken out, I may well be helpless against him. You know how to handle death gods. I’ve only gone up against one. Other than you.” He smiles.
“You and I have never actually fought,” she grumbles back at him.
“We’ve come close, though.”
Alma looks as though she’s about to argue about who goes in first, but then folds. “Fine… But I will be right on your heel should something happen.”
Together they approach the house, entering the garden and taking note of the sinister, body-length mounds of dirt on which mushrooms grow in profusion. Though it is still morning on a partly cloudy day, it feels like night is about to fall. Sky walks to the front door. He glances at Alma. “Does he know we’re here?”
“Almost certainly,” she says. “Unless he’s not at all cautious.”
With a sour look, Sky pushes the door, which barely hangs on a single hinge, open, and walks in, senses both mortal and divine sharp. The floor creaks, just like a good haunted house should, as they walk into the foyer. A broken crystal, from the fallen chandelier that occupies the center of the room, crunches under Sky’s boot. He walks around it, its lopsided stance clashing with the opposite tilt of the sagging catwalk above, inaccessible as the curved staircase has collapsed halfway up. The room grows darker as the door slowly swings shut behind them. Sky looks back to see Alma behind him, nowhere near the door. She rolls her eyes at the house’s theatrics.
Proceeding further into the house, Sky passes through a doorway into a parlor, its once-gayly colored wallpaper now moldy and peeling. In the center of the room is a round table with eight evenly-spaced chairs. Each is occupied by a corpse, all holding hands, dessicated and well on the way to mummification in the recent hot, dry days, their heads leaning back or lolling to the side, mouths slack as if screaming. Before one of them is a ball of crystal, blackened as if filled with soot.
“Tap, tap, tap. I hear a rat sneaking under the floorboards. Come to visit the Baron, have you?”
The voice comes from all around, as if from the wallpaper. It is deep and rich, unctuous, sardonic, with a musically lilting Little Falls accent.
Sky stops, tense, and whispers, “Oh no…”
Behind him, Alma asks, “What is it? I don’t recognize the voice.”
“I have gone up against one death god before,” Sky murmurs, “but not here on the Insula.”
Alma steps to stand beside Sky, any pretense of stealth gone now that they have clearly been noticed. “Are you suggesting this is an outsider, then?”
“Oh, how rude of you to refer to me like that,” the voice admonishes. “Why, that’s no way to treat family. Or even a dear friend. Is it, Tommo?”
Sky calls out, his voice harsh, “What happened, Sam? The real Baron Samedi figure out you were poaching his worshippers and you had to run and hide here? It was a good con while it lasted, eh?”
Out of a doorway across the room, a tall, slender god strolls into view, nonchalantly inspecting his nails. He wears a swallowtail jacket and a pair of ragged pants from a tuxedo, with no shirt, the nearly black skin of his emaciated chest and belly painted with white rib bones, his grinning face painted with a skull. His shaven head is topped by a slightly crushed top hat, and his feet are shod in a pair of beautifully elaborate cowboy boots, works of art by a master cordwainer. As he moves through shadows and light, his body shifts and the painted bones become real, the real flesh becoming a smoky illusion, and then it shifts back again.
“What can I say? Some people just don’t know how to share. And what are you doing here? So well accompanied, if I may add.” His grin broadens at Alma as she looks him up and down, her brow rising in displeasure.
“Release them,” Alma demands. Her voice is colder than any grave. “You should not be harvesting here nor should you keep souls to yourself. Give them back.”
“They should not have been playing with those trinkets…summoning me by my name,” The god replies. He spreads his hands. “And I cannot give them back. You see, I felt…peckish after being pulled into this place.” He walks closer to Alma. “And who is this daring young lady, Tommo?” He strokes her hair aside and makes a show of smelling her neck while looking at Sky. “Ah… A death goddess if ever I smelled one.”
The fresh, dangerous smell of a storm-tossed ocean fills the sepulchral air. Sky’s eyes turn a grey-blue color as black tattoos spread across his face, and he snarls, “Do not touch her, you traitor.”
Alma, conversely, remains still, apparently relaxed, extremely calm and not looking at Sky. “Inspector, there is no need for that. We would not want to hurt family.” She smiles at Sam, a pleasant, innocent little smile. And not a heartbeat later, her eyes are flaring with lethal power, a shockwave of spectral energy that slams the cadaverous god against the far wall, knocking aside the table and scattering the empty bodies. “Unless we have to.”
Sam, as Sky calls him, does not seem the least surprised by the attack. If anything, he looks immensely pleased as he slides down the wall to a sitting position on the floor, unhurt and grinning. “Ah… one of Azreh’s own blood, I see.” He stands, dusting himself off. “Tell me, has he finally succeeded in becoming the head of the Clan?”
“He has been so for centuries,” Alma replies as Sky moves into a more advantageous position, one hand on the hilt of his sword. “But our laws have not changed for even longer and they give me the right to punish you in our cousin’s name. You are trespassing on her territory.”
Sam looks taken aback by this. “Trespassing? And where is this cousin of ours, pray tell?” He grins. “I would love to have her over for dinner.”
“I could ask you the same question,” Alma counters calm as death. “Since she has recently gone missing. You wouldn’t happen to have…misplaced her. Would you?”
“How would I? I have never even met the poor thing.” Sam insists, batting his eyelids, grin growing into a mischievous smile. “Oh, but you sound just like our dear leader. Of course, I haven’t seen him in centuries. I was busy elsewhere. With Tommo, in fact.” He flashes his brilliant white smile at Sky. “Those were some pretty good days, weren’t they?”
“Very fine days, Sam,” Sky says, “until you betrayed your friends.”
Sam touches his bare chest with long, splayed fingers. “Betray? Me? I’m appalled that you would think so ill of my humble self.” Suddenly, with no transition, he is back across the room and mere inches from Alma. “Do not listen to him.” He takes her hand and kisses it. “I am the Baron, but you may call me Sam, your loyal cousin many times removed. Too many times, if this is what death is looking like these days.”
Alma does not look impressed. “Sam?”
“You don’t like it? Feel free to call me whatever you like.” He releases her hand and, without any sense of movement, he is behind Sky, his hands on Sky’s shoulders. “For instance, my friend here likes to call me ‘traitor’.” He stretches slightly and kisses Sky’s cheek.
Without moving, Sky asks, “What else do you call someone who switches sides four times in a slave uprising, in order to create the maximum number of deaths?”
“Goal oriented?” The Baron releases Sky and walks around the flipped table. “Our dear Alma – oh, excuse me, Sergeant Alma will know that a death god’s power depends on how many souls he can collect. And I do like my three meals a day.”
“You will not be getting them here,” Alma tells him with certainty.
The Baron sniffs, continuing to circle around, passing by Alma. “Pity. And here I thought we could become good friends, you and I. But I’ll tell you what: If you help me, I will just…return to where I came from and leave you alone for a few more centuries. All I need are some souls.” He moves behind Alma to throw an arm around Sky’s shoulders.
Alma smiles that pleasant, dangerous smile again. “No.”
There is a snapping sound, and Sam looks to see a Guardia shackle around his wrist. “Tsk tsk. I suppose this means I will be finding my own way out.”
Sky twists to try to slap the other shackle onto Sam’s free wrist, but the Baron slips under his arm, giving him a slight shove that sends him stumbling into Alma. A wave of divine power fills the air, a sound of drums and chanting, a smell of rum and blood.
“Nah nah nah nah nah naaaah! Such a bad boy, Tommo. That is no way to treat the host in his own house. Now I will have to punish you for that.” The voice echoes and fades, and Sky finds himself lying on top of Alma, on the street, in a familiar-feeling cul-de-sac, not quite sure what they are doing there.