The latch of the door to Alma’s thin metal office locker complains with its usual rusty whine as it infallibly sticks and refuses to let her open it to deposit the Guardia-blue uniform dress she had arrived in. She has since changed outfits. Apparently she had been keeping the one she is now wearing in that locker, away from prying eyes and well-intended hands. A full body suit, black as the vastness of the Void, hiding her pale skin from her feet all the way up to her neck. As usual, it includes no armored jacket, but to the trained eye the light, fine fabric it is made of reveals the strength of its fibers, the science and art of its weaving that makes it resistant to most blades unless they are somehow enhanced with magic spells. Critical areas, like the chest, the collar, wrists, armpits and inner thighs are reinforced with leather embroidered with onyx thread to ensure their protection. Leather flat-heel boots rise high, to her knees, doubtlessly impregnable at the shins and calves, from the complex stitching camouflaged almost completely against the jet background.
It is strange to see her in her family’s colors, her ghostly pallor and white hair so strikingly intensified by the all-consuming darkness of her clothing that leaves her hands and head looking almost like cut-outs against the solidity of reality, glowing with a light of their own. Her softly glimmering eyes, more difficult to read since changing from their former gorgeous blue, seem to look vacantly at nothing as she extracts a roll of canvas from the finally cooperating locker and unfurls it on the table. Blades. Throwing daggers, stilettos, flat and thin as paper or cylindrical and sharp like icepicks. She selects and pockets them, one by one, making them disappear in the many folds and nooks artfully crafted into her outfit for that purpose. No emotion in her expression, no hesitation in her choices. Nothing more than a strange resignation and calm to her frame. Only the air is tense, charged with the familiar energy of dread and anticipation.
Dion watches through the corner of his eye as she straps the curved dragontooth blades that Somrak gave her, and that she has been since made a permanent feature of her standard weaponry, to her belt, at the small of her back. He feels no jealousy to see her wearing them. He knows he himself would never present her with a weapon but if they end up saving her life in a moment of need, they will have been a gift well-given. From someone who cares to keep her in this world.
The small knife that was Dion’s Year’s End present from Sky lies on the desktop by his badge, waiting to be pocketed. The sgian-dubh, the knife a devil gave him, twice a gift for having been once offered to Sky by someone who likewise cared about a loved-one’s safety. His friend’s gift.
What a strange life it is…
He dons his immaculate reinforced jacket, much lighter and more flexible (and truth-be-told, more fashionable) than standard-issue, custom-made and enhanced with spells of protection. His weapons are fewer than Alma’s, but carefully enhanced, so that even if his spells fail him, even if his mana is completely depleted, the keenness of his blade will be undulled. He pockets items into which he has bound spells, already charged and ready to release, tiny scrolls of parchment, wafers of thin stone, and others that will give him additional magical support, along with the spell components he will need to break through any portals, the recipe a concoction of his own, free of any Hellish ingredients that might jeopardize their way out. And of course, the all-important mana orbs, several of them, compressed into their smallest form to fit into his belt pack.
The sliding of a wooden drawer. Alma solemnly places her badge in a desk drawer and locks it with a spell. Dion does the same. As she makes sure her tightly braided hair will not become undone, he picks up the knife and hides it in the waistband of his pants, snug inside a newly-stitched loop of fabric on his right side.
The morning had found them once again entwined, sharing that one last moment, that one last kiss, tasting each other’s skin, each other’s love in the desperate, uncertain vulnerability of people about to die. Their rhythms closer together this time, senses immersed in joyful intoxication, they had delayed dawn as their essences happily engaged each other, warring, dancing, mating in their sweet release of the corporeal shells of flesh and blood bodies. He had followed her without fear into the eye of the vortex she calls the Wheel this turn and she had held him there, her welcoming essence wrapped around the untamed tempest of his core, time seemingly frozen around them just for a single, glorious instant of unfathomable peace.
And again he had felt the momentary possibility of a life to be but she had gently driven it away, back to wherever souls wait for a vessel. No new Bunny awaited them upon their return to harsh reality.
Which he is relieved for. If one of them does not return – no, no. Not at all the best thought to entertain at a time like this, when his beloved is just unsheathing her brand-new sword, beautifully made and perfectly balanced for her, to check one more time the keenness of a blade magically forged to always be at its sharpest. To once again read the inscription she already knows by heart as if the sight of the blade, the silky, muffled sound of it slithering out of its scabbard is somehow reassuring. Little signs that she is, beneath the solemn mask of her lovely face and the graceful movements of her slender limbs, just as nervous and fearful as he.
She sheathes the sword again and fastens the simple sword belt adorned with a pattern of swallows in flight around her waist. A deep breath as she squares her shoulders against what is to come and she turns her bright, luminescent eyes to him, her lips curled in a tired, sympathetic smile.
“Ready,” she breathes.
Dion looks back at her and nods, trying to see the lines of the fearsome warrior he has seen bloom in her at times of need set against her pale, delicate features. Amazing how the same face can go from pleasant to eerie, the same body harbor a soul capable of being cold and caring, peaceful and passionate. Terrifying and kind. Life and Death as they dwell in all creatures, materialized and amplified in her, twirling around the nexus of her third sphere: the Wheel. He wonders for a breath’s length what that may do to her personality in the future.
Though for that, they do need a future…
He pockets the last of his portable spell-items and rounds his desk to meet her in the little space by their sofa that marks the unofficial center of the office. A moment of silence as their gazes lock in almost telepathic communication and her arms softly wrap around him, his own enveloping her in their embrace, tightening until their heartbeats reverberate quietly against each other.
One more kiss, perhaps the final one. Hopefully not so. He looks at her as they break away, afraid for her and proud of her, of her strength, her determination, of the steely resolve dethroning the fear in her eyes. Glad to take this memory of her with him into the unknown, to hold the taste of her on his lips as he whispers, to himself as much as her, “Ready.”
She smiles softly and he delights in the cool touch of her hand cupping his cheek, returning the caress by running his fingers through her braided hair, inadvertently releasing a thin lock of silver-white strands that fall over her left eye. With an apologetic grin, he combs the offending lock away from her forehead and over her ear, grazing the almost translucent cartilage onto which the fine silver chain of her Clan earring is permanently attached. His fingertips follow it down to the delicate lily, touch the long, thin rod onto which six tiny experimental self-regenerating mana orbs are held like little proto-universes just waiting to explode into completely new realities.
He holds her gaze, happily hypnotized by the ever-shifting iridescence of its colors while the sensation of midnight-black fabric against his palm replaces the usual freshness of her alabaster neck. An unwelcome reminder of what they were getting ready for.
He touches his forehead to hers when her arms surround his shoulders, her voice mustering words of reassurance. “It will be all right.”
He nods. “We will see to it. Now, if only a certain fire god keeps his promise…”
“My ears are burning,” Somrak’s voice rings quiet from the office door.
Dion looks at him, draped in a ragged outer robe that only lets through a peek at his usual tightfitting but strangely comfortable-looking leathers, doubtlessly as loaded with as many weapons as he has seen Alma conceal in her outfit though only a handful can be readily seen on careful inspection. His thin, ever-present satchel hangs cross-strap from his shoulder. He may have just arrived or been here for nearly as long as Dion has held Alma in his arms for all the magic god knows. One thing he has to hand to Somrak: whenever he is not seeding destruction and demolition, the fire god can be just as sneaky as a mouse in fuzzy socks.
“We all ready?” Somrak asks, looking grimly at the embraced couple. He is studying their faces, Dion notices, possibly looking for any signs of doubt.
He finds none. “We’re ready,” Alma tells him, slowly removing her arms from their perch on Dion’s shoulders.
The god releases her, not without a little regret at having to do so. He catches the goddess’ eye, exchanging with her a glance that words might translate into here we go.
Somrak nods, pauses, his eyes closing for a moment as he breathes deeply. When he opens them again, the grimness is gone, replaced by a cold, calculated calm. He seems moved by their determination for just a fraction of an instant, smiling even before he returns to the business at hand. “Let’s go.”
“Gwydion?” Alma prompts the god.
Dion nods, knowing what comes next. “I can take us as far as the border. I don’t know Little Falls well enough to open a portal there with any degree of safety.”
“Even so, it’ll help us avoid being spotted,” Somrak says. “Best to go the rest of the way on foot, anyway.”
True. Dion raises a hand, murmuring a couple of words, no more than a simple aid to focus his mind around the spell to create a portal. He holds his surroundings in his mind, calls to memory the location a little side-street he has walked many times and studied closely for future reference during his patrols, remembering the path to it, the distance, shortening it through the sheer power of his will. There becoming here, both places bound at the interface of his conscience.
His eyes flare golden as reality bends to oblige him in a single golden circle of light drawn in the air in the middle of the room. Alma draws a knife from a fold of her sleeve, holding it with the blade against the inner surface of her wrist for concealment.
“I’ll just need a second,” she announces as she steps into the portal. No question in her tone, no hint at expecting or desiring their approval of her initiative. She just steps forward and is gone.
Somrak spares Dion a glance he cannot quite put a meaning to, then follows her through after a couple of heartbeats. Finally, Dion follows as well, sealing the portal behind him, leaving the office as empty and still as if they had never been in it.
Grey-brown and plump from the rich pickings in this alley behind a bakery, a rat freezes, its ears perking up as something in the air changes. It is almost as if lightning is about to strike. A swirling circle forms against one graffiti-adorned wall, a circle of glowing gold, that widens rapidly, filling the entire alley with a charge of energy that has the rat’s fur standing on end. It watches uncomprehendingly as the portal stabilizes, and then ripples as a human steps out. No, not a human – it is death itself. And death is staring at him. The rat turns so quickly its tail whiplashes against a post, and it scurries away, squeezing through a crack beneath the bakery’s back door, to go in search of old bread to gnaw upon.
Somrak steps into the alleyway on the border between Three Rats and Little Falls, seeing Alma looking at something with a mild expression of amusement before she starts scanning the alley. He steps out of the way just as Gwydion joins them, canceling the portal behind him.
“All clear,” Alma says. “More or less. We should be safe.”
“More or less?” Dion asks.
“The rats are plentiful. But all alive.” She looks to Somrak, a question in her strange, mysterious eyes.
He holds her face in his sight for just a moment, trying to memorize the line of her jaw, the tilt of her mouth. If all this goes wrong, any or all of them could all be facing oblivion, or worse. If he’s going to endure unremitting torture in Hell for eternity, such memories may provide the tiniest sliver of comfort, for a short time, before the greatest torturers in Reality can corrupt even those memories into devices of torture.
Without a word, he indicates their direction with a jerk of his head, the proceeds out of the alley, taking back ways where possible, avoiding main roads, but when those roads are the only practical choice, taking them casually and walking swiftly, purposefully. It wouldn’t do to catch the attention of the local Guardia, for the three gods are out of their jurisdiction. Showing up without warning, heavily armed and in force, no orders, could result in detainment by the locals, uncomfortable questioning, and delays that they can no longer afford.
The alleys, fortunately, are straighter and far more fathomable than those of Three Rats. Little Falls is not made up of two wards somehow mashed together during their journey from their homeworld to the Insula. Like driftwood, Little Falls ended up on the shores of the Insula long ago. It too arrived from another world, one with a great variety of smells and colors, it seems: mouth-watering cooking and open sewage ditches, rainbow-bright murals and splashes of dried blood. It is a ward very much like Three Rats, but with its own character, its own food, its own music, its own local dialect of Urbia and its own language entirely. But the most immediate difference the hurried gods notice is how very easily navigated its streets are, compared to Three Rats.
Soon they arrive at an abandoned garden surrounded by a low concrete wall. Somrak hops it easily, crossing the patch of dried sticks that were once vines of tomatoes and stalks of eggplants to crouch at the opposite wall. Down the block, past old, dilapidated houses that were once small mansions, is the shell of a house that is clearly abandoned, its roof fallen in, one wall almost entirely gone, another barely standing. Somrak leans back against the wall and takes out several sheets of paper folded together. Straightening them and showing them to the other two Dei, now crouched beside him, he indicates the sketches of the area, and the map of the burnt-out house.
“The only thing left is the basement, really, though there may be one or two rooms intact on the ground floor. The portal Pete told us of, if it’s still there, is in the basement. Dion, can you detect it from this far away?”
Gwydion’s eyes flare gold, and he nods in the affirmative. “I can sense something, but weak, perhaps masked. From this far, I can’t pinpoint it.”
Alma seems distracted, staring at something on the wall – or rather, through it. She closes her eyes hard and shakes her head, then turns to look at the fire god. “Somrak, how do you know this place so well?”
He knew this moment would come. He ignores his sinking heart and plows ahead with the explanation. “My source was waiting for me in my room last night. Saira wanted to make sure we didn’t leave her behind.”
Alma’s brow furrows. “I take it from her absence that you decided to do the sensible thing.”
Somrak gives a single, quick nod. “Though it was a near thing. She makes a good case. This is the building where her gang – her family – were murdered on the orders of the one she calls the Devil’s Right Hand, who is very likely in that pocket universe we seek to enter. She deserves her shot at taking him out. And not so long ago, I promised her I’d give her that shot. But in the end, I cast a sleep spell on her. I knew I had to get her guard down, or she’d be out the window after sticking a knife in my chest if I tried anything. So I had to act like of course we were bringing her along. I had to plan things out with her.” He shakes his head, angry at himself. “She should sleep until noon. Plenty of time. We’ll be done here, one way or another.”
Gwydion frowns. “You did account for the sudden differential in coming to this ward via portal, didn’t you? Unless the spell is fully independent, such a transition could have weakened or even broken it.”
The right corner of Somrak’s mouth goes up, pulling the scar on his face tight. “It’s an enchanted music box. I’ve used it plenty of times, and yes, it’s fully independent of me. Timing’s not exact, but it’s pretty consistent. If someone disturbs her, she can still wake up. I couldn’t leave her helpless in the Roach. But I cast a lock on the door.”
“You did the right thing,” Alma says, squinting toward the burnt-out house again. “And that is definitely the correct building.”
“They have sentries, then?” Dion asks. “How many?”
“Just two that I can see. I’m not sure how my soul-scrying will respond to demons, anymore.” Alma squints. “But there are also the souls of mortals floating about.”
Somrak grunts. “The place is haunted?”
Alma nods, grim. “That’s a simple enough way to think of it. Crude but it’ll do. You had better pray Saira doesn’t awake in time to come here. Or she will very literally join her friends.”
Somrak forces himself not to roll his eyes at her tone. Having been raised to be a holy zealot in the fight against the undead, Somrak knows more about them than Alma realizes. He is sure that, like virtually every member of the Death Clan, she hates to see a soul left to suffer after its body has died. He’d been taught that simple ghosts were objects of pity, but not within his intended purview – his people would have called upon the Death Clan to handle them, reserving their holy fire for the more malevolent undead, such as zombies and vampires.
Still, even ghosts can be dangerous, particularly to those they have reason to take vengeance on. And ghosts are generally insane, though whether they became insane before death, or their thinking became deranged because no death god had harvested them, all depends on the ghost. Dying while raging against the injustice of it is the most common way of becoming a ghost, and then existing as a disembodied soul doesn’t really allow for much in the rational-thought department. No brains, no logic. So a ghost might target a loved one as easily as an enemy, blaming the loved one for surviving. And the guilt of a survivor can draw ghosts like a baby’s breath draws malarial mosquitoes.
“The ghosts may have been enslaved as sentries by the necromancer,” Somrak says. “Can you send them on quietly?”
Alma considers this, looks at the building again. “I think she is draining them for energy to use in her magic. Human souls are not stable enough to provide so much energy for a long time. They are decaying. Fast. I doubt they will be alert enough to raise the alarm.” Her voice is full of disgust at the mistreatment of these souls.
“Will it destroy them?” Dion asks. “So that they cannot reincarnate?”
Alma shakes her head. “No. Just transition them faster, so to speak. Destroying a single soul would require tremendous power. Which Nua doesn’t have if the accounts are to be trusted.”
“Then we can ignore them until we’ve secured the portal,” Somrak says. “Now, let’s pinpoint those sentries.”