Felix, the owner of the Singing Cockroach, tries the door handle to the room occupied by the mysterious guy with no name. The guy whose face Felix can’t even remember. The guy whose room Felix has been working up the nerve to rob for days.
Well today is the day. Sure, it’s dangerous, but a guy like that has got to have something worth stealing equal to the risk in stealing it. Money, enchanted objects, information – there’s got to be something. And if he gets caught, Felix will do like he always does and accuse the mark of acting suspicious, justifying a room inspection. Just coming to the Cockroach counts as suspicious behavior. All right, he has a couple of scars from people he’s stolen from, but no pain, no gain.
The door handle doesn’t budge. Not rattling like it would if it were locked, but absolutely immobilized, as if the entire handle and lock assembly had been filled with concrete.
Felix grins, his loose rosaceate skin wrinkling in fine, irregular folds. A wizard lock can’t stop him. He pulls a jade-and-brass wheel from his pocket, crisscrossed with a half-dozen wires of silver, and sets it against the lock. One of the wires snaps with a tiny ping and falls away. At the same moment, the entire lock assembly crumbles to dust, and the door opens quietly.
Magic doesn’t come cheap, and that had been a very costly choice, but surely someone who would use a wizard lock would have something worth many times as much. Felix steps inside and for the first time notices music playing softly. Glancing around for the source, he sees a soft green glow from beside the bed.
The heavyset tavernkeep walks toward the bed. There is a shape on it. Even in the dim morning light, he can make out a woman’s curves. Yes, though clad all in leather, this is not his guest at all. She is paler, a little shorter. A sharp intake of breath through his nose accompanies his recognition. Saira! He has heard rumors that she might still be alive, and other rumors that she might be working with the Guardia. Well here she is, death on two legs, though at the moment death is lying on her side, one leg straight, the other bent at the knee.
Felix tries to remember why he is here. He shakes his head, looks at the tiny music box. A bird spins slow, floating in the green light. He reaches for it, but his hand feels heavy. The world sways, then he is floating, floating.
The crash of Felix’s body kicks up tiny geysers of dust from the cracks between the shuddering floorboards. Felix does not notice. He is pleasantly unconscious. But the effect of the impact travels through the loose-boarded floor and causes the rickety bedside table to jump into the air. When it lands a moment later, the music box’s tiny top drops down and the music ceases.
The room is silent for long minutes, until Felix’s snores begin to rip through the air, snores that sound like an alligator being strangled by a very determined baboon. On the bed, Saira becomes even more still, her breath ceasing as her eyes open. It takes her a moment to recognize the appalling sound as a snore, and she quietly pushes herself up to get a better look.
On the floor is the unmistakable, apnea-cursed body of Felix, unnaturally asleep. Beside her is a distinct lack of Somrak. She looks around and sees that everything of Somrak’s is missing, aside from the music box and a slip of paper beneath it. Eyes narrowing, she pulls the paper from under the box, going to the window to open the curtain and let in the morning light.
She reads. After a moment, the paper crumples in her fist.
The furious hiss of her voice cannot compete with the snores, so even she cannot hear herself curse, “Cabrão…”
“That was too easy.” The crumbling remains of a wall, the broken ends of timbers burnt black and mold growing in the shaded crannies, serves as a convenient spot for Somrak to dump the body of a Whisper gangster so as to conceal it from the street. He wipes a dagger on the man’s jacket and sheathes it.
A scuff of boots on debris. He looks up to see Alma approaching. Her jaw is set, her left hand holding the grip of her sword white-knuckled, as if trying to push it further down into the scabbard. As if she knows that once she draws it, she will start to kill, and kill.
It is the nature of the mission, Somrak knows. He has seen in her a kindred spirit, someone for whom taking life is no sin if it is necessary. A warrior. He dealt with that tendency in himself by joining the off-blues, taking on a role where he could act with relative freedom and a lack of guilt. Alma took another path, sealing off that possibility as well as she could, becoming the ordinary sort of Guardia. She would make a damned good off-blue. Too good.
Alma looks down at the floor, studying it, her pearlescent eyes glowing with swirling colors. “It will get complicated soon enough. Eight mortals in the basement.” She frowns. “Plus two who look moribund.”
“Moribund?” Somrak asks. “You mean these souls floating around?” He gestures vaguely toward the abused, drained ghosts, invisible but tugging at the edge of his awareness. The poor things are barely holding on, like tatters of cobwebs, desperate for attention, for emotions to feed off of.
Alma gives her head a slight shake, a lock of white hair falling across her face. “Not quite. They look bound to a body but the link is rather delicate. Almost as if they were dying. I won’t know for sure until I see them.”
Gwydion joins them, having dispatched the other guard. Somrak can see by the gangster’s body heat that she is still alive, though presumably deeply unconscious. No surprise there. Prettyboy may have sworn to do whatever it takes, but he’s still not going to kill if he can avoid it, Somrak thinks. There is no criticism in his thought. Dion is who he is. And Alma is who she chooses to be. He has no wish to change them. He only wishes he could have left them behind, spared them whatever is ahead. Surely they will all have blood on their hands very soon.
“Either way,” Dion says, looking around, “the portal is located in the basement. I assume that trapdoor will have something to do with getting there.” His brow furrows as his eyes glint golden for a moment.
“What is it?” Alma asks.
“There is no spell sealing the entrance from the outside. No wards of any kind.” Dion’s voice is grim.
“Eight mortal guards just sitting around, waiting, all the time?” Somrak looks skeptical. “Well, can’t sneak in. We go in and hit them as hard as we can. Dion, focus on getting through the portal. Alma and I will handle the guards.” He realizes he’s sounding like he’s in charge. It’s a position he’s used to on missions like this, giving orders to Dei and Popula alike that he may never have met until mere days or even minutes beforehand. But even with long years of seniority over these fellow sergeants, they are companions, not subordinates. “Sound good?” he adds, to soften it.
“I will try to be quick.” Giving no sign of having taken offense, Dion walks over to the trap door and touches it. “I can sense a spell on the inside. It will attempt to seal us in once we enter.”
Alma folds her arms for a moment. As she unfolds them, each hand holds a throwing knife. “We knew it would be a trap.” She looks at Dion, then at Somrak, locking her gaze with them each for a moment. Somrak sees the determination in her eyes. “Here we go.”
Dion gestures and the lock clicks open without a touch. He holds the handle and looks at them. With a barely audible hiss of metal against leather, Somrak draws his two main blades: straight, narrow shortswords, sharp as surgical instruments, slender enough to slip through the slightest gaps in armor, each only a little longer than his forearms. He nods, and Dion swiftly opens the trapdoor. Somrak moves quickly, descending into the darkness, four steps, five, then turning and stepping out into empty space. The stairs have no bannister, and he drops a body-length to the floor below, absorbing the impact of the fall into his flexed legs, then rising, swords at the ready.
In the murky darkness, the fire god can see eight living bodies by their heat. Yet they are chilled, not far from death, starving. They stare back toward him in shock, and he hears them scrambling to their feet, not ready for battle, but in fear and perhaps hope of rescue.
These are not guards.
A creak of Alma’s gait upon the stairs. In the basement, before Somrak’s eyes, something darker than the darkest of shadows shifts, enveloping the prisoners, who scream in terror. A very brief scream, fading, followed by the multiple thud of bodies crumpling to the floor.
Only the dead sound like that.
A hissing laugh fills the air. The trapdoor slams shut, and something in their surroundings changes, inducing a slight nausea, a weakness. It is exactly what it feels like when going from a higher-mana ward to one with significantly lower, where the flow of magic becomes curdled and obstructed.
Alma lands just behind Somrak, swearing in the ancient language of the Death clan. Her voice low, she whispers, “I was wrong. Those aren’t moribund creatures. Their souls just flared to life.”
Gwydion lands next to them as well. “A suppression field.”
“Yep,” mutters Somrak. “Trap.” With far greater effort than usual, he awakens his sphere, flame flickering on from his fists to his forearms, then running up his blades. The inky living shadows flinch back, revealing the prisoners, who are beginning to stand. He feels no thrill of hope. Whatever stole their life force also sucked enough warmth from their bodies to cool them to well below ambient temperature. And even that is almost frigid, far colder than it should be. These shambling corpses should be nearly frozen solid. But they straighten, hollow-cheeked, hollow-eyed, and begin to stumble towards the trio of gods.
Somrak’s fire gutters, and he allows it to die almost away. The heat, he knows, is feeding these living shadows. They seem to fear the light, however. A pseudopod of darkness lashes at him, tentative like a cat trying to bat at an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous object. Just before it touches his arm, Somrak’s flame flares hot and bright again, and with a whine that sounds like a buzzsaw grinding against granite, it flinches back again.
But from the opposite side of the room, multiple shadow limbs strike at Alma and Gwydion. Apparently able to see them with ease, Alma draws her sword and parries them with blinding speed. Dion’s gold-lit blade is also out and defending against the approaching undead.
“Dion, find the portal and get it open!” Somrak orders. “Can you see the creatures, Alma?” He feels himself beginning to strain to keep his fire burning. A zombie, a dark, emaciated former beggar with matted hair and ragged clothes, reaches toward him, and Somrak transfixes its chest with one sword. Whispering “Rest now” in the Tongue of Fire, he sends a flare of cleansing, holy flame through its body, turning it almost instantly to ash. It stops, then collapses without a sound, a large puff of hot cinders rising above it momentarily.
A throwing dagger flies by his ear, its edges glowing a pale green. Sparing a glance back along its path, Somrak smirks to see that Alma was not even looking when she threw it with her still-extended off-hand, while she attempts to fight her way past the flailing tentacles of shadow toward their originating body. The shadow-creature on Somrak’s side of the room howls, reshaping and trying to pull back, seeming to struggle under Alma’s dagger-forged hold. Suddenly the dagger pulls free, however, bouncing across the floor to land at Somrak’s feet. The creature growls as it moves back on the attack.
“I’d love to help but the shadows are too thick around its core!” she calls to Somrak. “With this suppression…I can’t see where to strike!”
“No need to help,” Somraks mutters. “Doing fine. Just focus on–” He breaks off as a tentacle lashes against his left wrist, draining it of heat. Icy numbness nearly causes him to drop the sword in that hand. He whispers a curse.
And then Gwydion is by Somrak’s side, slashing his gold-glowing blade, the immaterial edge flinging away from his stroke and flying, surgically sharp, through the air and shadow, cutting deep and calling forth a hiss of anger and pain. The thing of shade seems to shift its attention to the god of magic.
“This is all very touching,” Somrak barks as he reduces another walking corpse to ash, “but Dion, get to the portal! I’m the one supposed to be keeping them off you, not the other way round!” He spins, slashing another tentacle that nearly gets past Dion’s parry. Two more tentacles; two more fiery cuts, followed by the laying to rest of a third confused, shambling corpse.
The opening is enough for Dion, who looks about, his eyes glowing in the darkness. He zeroes in on the portal and sprints for the other end of the room, bisecting a zombie on the way, shoulder to opposite hip, and coming to a halt at the wall. He runs his hands over it, whispering in some wizard-language.
Alma, meanwhile, is blocking multiple blows as shadow tentacles surround her. Somrak shouts a warning just before she is completely engulfed. He can do nothing to aid her – he is barely managing to keep his shadow-creature from doing the same to him. Alma disappears within for a moment, but then, with a scream, the creature spits her free, her eyes flaring white in the darkness. Alma is free, but wheezing. The suppression of her powers is forcing her to use too much mana to activate them, just as it is for Somrak, and presumably for Dion. It is all Alma can do to evade an attempt by a zombie to tackle her in a deadly hug. She hisses in frustration as she lops its head off, but the body keeps attacking her.
The drain of mana is bringing what should have been a brief, simple battle to a desperate stage. As the creature he is fighting attempts to pounce, Somrak flares, his entire body erupting in flames, burning his opponent, eliciting a scream and retreat back into the darker corner of the room. But Somrak staggers at the sudden use of so much mana. His fire gutters out entirely for a moment, and he automatically uses his blades against two undead that try to grapple him, taking off one arm at the elbow, slashing another across the torso ineffectively. That one manages to grip the god’s right arm as he tries to slip past it. The shadow moves forward again, eager to wrap itself around the god, to suck all of his delicious heat away, now that the bright light of his fire is gone.
There is a wet sound of sudden penetration, and with his thermal vision Somrak sees a crossbow bolt, cool and dark, transfixing the skull of the zombie holding his arm, trying to bite him. The god catches the hiss of a fuse and turns his head away just in time for the undead’s skull to explode in a dull thunk, but the shower of dead flesh goes mostly through the back if its skull, away from Somrak, and strangely through its left ear.
A clink of something metal bouncing across the floor, like a tin can full of something quite dense. Somrak mutters a curse just before he hears the familiar, expected voice shouting “Cover your eyes!”
A bright flash erupts in the room, blinding bright as a burst of sunlight. The blast assaults the ears, and even tightly shut eyes are dazzled by the burning, actinic flare redly penetrating the eyelids. In the aftermath of the explosion, the shadows shriek in agony.
Somrak opens his eyes, and amid the blobs of afterimage that nearly blind him, he sees it, a patch of darkness that writhes and keens. He dives after it, knocking aside a zombie, and plunges his sword into its immaterial but somehow resisting mass, summoning his reserves of mana to focus his flame through the weapon. The creature, demon or elemental of shadow or some unfamiliar form of undead, screams long and plaintively, its voice rising in pitch as it shrivels away entirely.
Dizzy, he turns to face other opponents, only to see the few remaining zombies become immobile and fall, unbalanced in mid-step, to the floor. Another shriek indicates that Alma has just finished off the other shadow. She looks at Somrak, tired but otherwise unscathed, and they both share a weak smile.
But the smile fades as easily as it came, as they turn to the sound of a shape in black leather dropping lightly from the stairs to land in a crouch, then straighten with feline grace. “Well, well. Looks like the gods can’t hold their own in a dirty fight after all.” Saira pushes her hood back and looks first at Alma, then Gwydion. Finally she lets her contemptuous gaze fall on Somrak. Her expression shifts from contempt to outright hatred.
As she walks toward him, Somrak sheathes his swords. Her body language tells him she’s planning to attack, to throw a punch. He prefers to get it over with, let her take out her anger on him, save her face by letting bash his. He can heal himself.
So when an utterly un-telegraphed snap-kick catches him in the groin, he is unready to block it or to ignore the flash of agony and the swift nausea that comes with it. He curls his spine, teeth gritted, but the more vulnerable areas of his body are well protected with his light, flexible armor, so some of the impact is absorbed and he is able to straighten back up after a second. Still, he gives her the satisfaction of seeing him in pain. He sees Alma looking at him with a cringe of not-exactly accurate sympathy.
Slowly, deliberately, Saira grinds out, “You earned that. You lying, oathbreaking son of a bitch.”
Somrak keeps his face as impassive as he can, jaw muscles working to prevent any sounds of pain. Saira turns to look at the other two gods. “Now are any of you other high-and-mighty stuck-up gods going to tell me I can’t be here? Because I am sick of this crap! I have earned. My. Place! And if you think–”
Saira stops suddenly, silenced by something Somrak cannot quite see, though he can feel it for sure. The sudden chill deep in the skeleton, rattling the teeth of anyone sensitive enough to sense it. Ghosts.
Saira turns slowly to look at it, and Somrak is sure she doesn’t even know exactly how she instinctively knows where to look. But there it is. In the dim light, a silvery light glimmers, goes out, and returns. Then another, and another, slashes of light, here and gone, combining to appear in the vague shape of a person, though details like gender cannot be made out.
Somrak can see Saira’s extremities cool and her core body temperature rise as she reacts in shock to the vision before her.
And there are more, at least three more of them, though it is hard to be sure, all gathering around her. Around Saira. Ghosts, the most pitiful of the undead. Zombies are more horrifying, but their souls and minds are gone. Some of the more powerful kinds retain their souls within their bodies, but in many cases that is only because they have embraced undeath, chosen a horrid existence over fear of moving beyond. Ghosts, though, are trapped by their trauma. They do not stay out of greed for more life, but because their deaths are so unjust that they cling to this world, confused, raging for vengeance or longing to protect someone.
Thinking without a brain is no mean feat, and few can manage it. Somrak tenses, ready to protect Saira if the ghosts attack. They could have some half-baked idea that she is to blame for their deaths. Fortunately, the more they manifest, the closer they come to solidity, which they must do to be seen, the easier it will be for him to cleanse them with holy flame.
Saira steps toward the closest ghost, the first to appear and apparently one she recognises, even though still very little is clear about the vaguely female facial features. “Emília? Oh no, no no no.” She raises a hand in distress, trying to touch the barely visible figure. “Emília, why? Why didn’t you leave?” She suddenly spins to glare at Alma. “Why are they here? Why haven’t they gone to their rest?” she demands.
Alma’s voice is soft. “At first I blamed the local death goddess for carelessness in not sending them on to the Wheel.” She approaches the ghost and touches it, letting a trickle of her mana flow into it. It gains solidity, and becomes almost the perfect image of a young woman, a child really, a teenager with her hair shaved on one side. “But that is not what happened, is it, little soul?”
The ghost blinks her eyes as if awakening, looking around as if truly seeing her surroundings for the first time in years. She breathes, actually drawing air into her temporarily real, though still translucent body. She looks at Saira, and her features, at first showing an immense relief, turn almost immediately to sorrow. She turns her gaze to Alma and it is obvious that some level of communication is happening between her and the goddess.
“I will relay her words to you, Saira,” Alma says, eyes still on the teenage ghost. “She is glad to see you. She says ‘We held each other when the house burned, and Breno said at least Saira got away. He screamed your name as we burned’.”
The ghost moves forward, floating more than stepping, and cups Saira’s cheek with her hand. The assassin shudders at the freezing touch, but she does not pull away.
“‘And then he came’,” Alma goes on translating. “‘He put us to sleep, but bound us here. We slept for so long. And then he awakened us’.”
“A Mão Esquerda do Diabo,” Saira hisses in pain and hatred.
Alma’s countenance darkens. “How many others has he done this to, I wonder. Making their souls quiescent so that death gods will not notice them, ready to be called upon again to power spells or act as guardians.”
“Their mere presence would frighten away locals,” Dion says quietly.
“And the local death goddess is missing,” Alma says.
Saira ignores the gods. “Emília, rest now. All of you must rest now.”
The ghost smiles again. Saira brings her hand to the ghost’s, where it rests on her face. “I will find him. And he will pay. But you should go now.” She turns her gaze to Alma and nods to her.
The goddess evokes her power. For a moment, the shadows stretch again in response to Alma’s power but they are different from before. They are soft, velvety, infused with lavender and cinnamon, like the embalming oils some cultures use on the corpses of their dead. And they are welcoming, in a sense, like nothing else will disturb them, like there’s no punishment, no prize…just sleep. An eternal, bodiless sleep of the soul. The ghosts flare to almost solidity for a moment, each of them smiling and waving a last goodbye at Saira. Each of them hovering around her one last time, all kids, all of them. Her kids, in a sense. Her family, leaving her again and for good and this time toward a better place. Not afraid, this time. The ghost of the one Saira called Emília leans forward to kiss Saira’s forehead, then pulls away to join the others. They look at her, smiling their goodbyes. Then they wave and they fade to spectres and wink out, like a slow yawn of the universe.
Finally, Saira is left standing, eyes closed, her right hand resting on her own cheek, where the ghost’s hand was resting before. She stays there for a few seconds, then lets her hand fall and takes a deep breath, her eyes half shut. For a moment, Somrak sees peace in them, peace and loss, but then she catches him looking and the familiar glare of anger returns.
“Is that portal open yet?” she snaps at Gwydion.
“It is,” the god replies, indicating a man-high oval of almost-black green that swirls like pond-scum caught in a lazy vortex.
“Then let’s go,” she growls.
As she starts toward the portal, however, Somrak holds out a hand. “Allow me,” he says. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, but it’s probably alerted.”
Behind him, just before he passes through, he hears the mortal’s exasperated mutter of “Fine…”