Ch6.81 Trust

It was tempting to stay at the bar, to accept Cherry and Merri’s invitation to sleep in the room upstairs that he’d used during his week-long stint as a regular cop here in Three Rats, but Somrak had, in his haste to bring a delirious, poisoned Gwydion to Alma, left his satchel behind.

Resembling a simple leather shoulder bag, it contains his spare clothes, a fair amount of cash, and a number of pieces of equipment that he will need for the morrow’s mission. Despite having left it in a room at the Singing Cockroach, a top competitor for Worst Dive in the Fourth Ring, he didn’t have any great fear of its being stolen. The bag is enchanted in numerous ways, much larger on the inside (he had once climbed into it so that Sky could smuggle him into the headquarters of a pixie-trafficking ring – a bit cramped and quickly stuffy, but survivable for the needed twenty minutes, and as a bonus he’d found a sock he’d lost years before) and with security-minded spells to prevent anyone but him opening it. If it were stolen, he could find it without much trouble as he could remotely activate a tracking spell. But that would waste time that he doesn’t have to spare.

So after Alma and Dion had left the planning to try to rest and – he presumed but did not wish to think on – comfort each other before the morning’s danger, Somrak had bid an affectionate goodnight to the Bunnies, resisted their renewed entreaties to stay, and slipped into the dark streets of Three Rats, his identity-concealing scarf over his face. He’d taken a winding, chaotic route, randomly choosing turns to make sure he was not being followed, before returning to the tavern infested with vermin large and small that he is calling home for one final night.

On the way, on impulse, he ducks into a shop and emerges with a half-pint bottle of decent whisky. Not great, but the best the place has. It occurs to him that it might be a millennium of torture in Hell before he gets another drink. Too bad he hadn’t thought to get some from the bar. Merri and Cherry have the good stuff. Ah, regrets.

He notices the Cockroach’s pale, flabby proprietor, red hair gone grey, cheeks and nose blooming with gin blossoms, giving Somrak the eye as he enters. The bar is nearly empty, as it usually has been during Somrak’s stay. Has it always been this way, or did the Bunnies’ Burrow steal the customers away? Or is it that the sort of extra-rough trade who drink here have begun to move out of Three Rats for greener pastures?

Not that it matters. Somrak has heavier issues on his mind.

At his door on the upper floor, he pauses. There’s someone in the room – he can see the heat through the thin wall. Somrak concentrates, sharpening his senses, and sees a human shape, a pattern of varying heat across the body. She – the height, the body outline, the concentrations of heat and the pattern of clothing tell him who it is – is standing, facing the door. No surprise, as he hadn’t been quiet coming up the stairs. He unlocks the door, casually, but ready to duck.

The sight of a thrown knife tumbling through the air at one’s face is unforgettable, but this is far from the first time Somrak has had a knife – or for that matter spear, axe, boulder, chair, beer glass, squirrel (flaming), cat (mutant), or devil (three times) – thrown at him. He doesn’t flinch, as it’s not aimed at his face, but slightly to the left. It makes one and a half revolutions from where it leaves Saira’s hand to where it embeds itself in the doorframe with a thump of impact and a three-toned wheezing squeak. Somrak looks at the knife, light and sharp of point, and at the large cockroach’s remains, the upper half of the insect still struggling, the lower half falling to the floor to twitch.

Then he grins at Saira as if this is the most normal thing in the world, and calls out, “Honey, I’m home!”

Chuckling at the grimace this prompts from Saira, he closes the door behind him and pulls the knife free, and tosses it back to Saira, nice and easy. “I’ll let you clean that off. What have you got against these cockroaches, anyway? That’s two.”

Saira leans back against the wall, next to the window, pulling out a rag and swiping the blade clean before returning it to a wrist-sheath. “And you just started counting.” She glances at the opposite wall, and Somrak sees marks left by the knife here and there, with dead roaches below, or in some cases still clinging to, those holes.

“No wonder Felix was giving me the eye downstairs,” Somrak says. “Probably thought it was me playing target practice up here.”

Saira shrugs. “Felix likes to sneak in and take what’s not his.”

“Aww, that’s sweet! You were thinking about me.” Somrak unbuckles his jacket but leaves it on, picking up his satchel and taking a seat on the edge of the bed.

“No surprise that he didn’t warn you there was somebody in your room,” Saira says. “If there’s a fight, he can always loot the bodies and sell them for pig feed.”

Somrak sticks his tongue out. “Those Bunnies have the right idea, being vegetarians. How long have you been waiting?”

She crosses her arms and turns to look out the window. “Long enough. Got acquainted with the roaches and all. How’s Prince Charming?”

Somrak as he pulls a small cube out of the bag, sized to fit on a palm and crafted of perfectly fitted-together triangles of various kinds of wood. He places it on the bedside table and presses the side of the box. A lid pops open. A crystalline bird rises from the top and hovers, spinning slowly in air, and a soft chiming tune begins to play, mournful yet sweet. “Feisty. Surprisingly so. Good thing you brought him here though. It was touch-and-go, but Alma healed him.”

Saira looks back over her shoulder at the sound of the music, and for a moment, Somrak catches the look of concern she feels about Gwydion. She knits her brow at the incongruous music box, but instead of asking about it, she says, “I thought he was dead, with that reaction. I didn’t get anything as bad as that when she did it to me. I mean, yeah, I use it to kill gods but I don’t poke’em with pins.”

“You just poke them with arrows.” Knowing she won’t ask, he tilts his head toward the music box and explains, “If the music becomes harsh and jangling, it means someone is trying to listen in from afar.”

Saira looks back out the window. “You ain’t paranoid if they really are summoning demons to to track you down and rip your guts out.”

“Anyway, there’s different kinds of demon-ichor poison. Sounds like what Dion got hit with is particularly nasty. Mind if I pay your supplier a visit when this is all over?”

Saira turns back to glare at him. “Yes, I do. Prettyboy’s already read me that sermon but I know he’s too by-the-book to break jurisdiction like that. You, on the other hand,” she jabs a finger at him, “can’t be trusted to follow the rules. Even though you’ve gone all soft and gooey inside.”

Somrak grins, lopsided, his scar pulling tight. “Oh I’m soft, am I? Well, you would know.”

Saira takes two steps toward him, which in the small room is enough to nearly be standing on his feet. “Mud bath left you cranky, did it? You actually hoping for a knife in the throat?”

Somrak shakes his head. “Me, cranky? No. Just funny, you calling me soft. After you brought me Dion like that, when you could’ve just dumped him. And the way you helped Sky and those kids before. Almost got yourself killed then. I seem to remember seeing you making decorations in the bar.”

Her voice dangerously low and smooth, Saira counters, “You mean when you were running around spreading glitter all over a certain white-haired gal? How’d that go, exactly? Did you get to confess your undying love to her?”

Somrak looks up at her, grin faded to a gentle smile. “Did I say you were wrong?” He shakes his head. “But don’t pretend you haven’t gone soft for these guys, too.” He keeps his eyes on hers until she crosses her arms again and pretends to be interested in the music box, which continues to play the same tune again and again as the little bird revolves. “So, you saw the punch-up with Dion.”

“I did,” she replies, sounding derisive. “I mean, I saw him fight you. You didn’t do much of anything there. Oh, and I heard some neat stuff too. Care to explain?” She looks back at him, her glare accusing.

Somrak lies back on the bed, crossways, legs still hanging off the side, feet on the floor. His open jacket leaves his belly protected only by a thin cotton undershirt, and he knows Saira is likely eyeing it with thoughts of where to best plunge a dagger to produce the most desirable effects. “Must be because I’m just so darned soft. Gonna start taking sugar with my coffee. Maybe wear footy pajamas to bed.” He laces his fingers behind his head, making himself even more vulnerable before her – incidentally telling her that he’s unafraid of anything she might do. In others, that might be foolishness. In his case, she knows that he is calling her bluff, telling her that all her aggressive posturing doesn’t play with him. “Well, ‘neat stuff’? I was choking on mud at the time, so I’m not entirely sure which ‘neat stuff’ you mean.”

Saira leans over him, one hand on the bed on each side of him. He looks up at her face over his, her eyes narrowed. He raises his eyebrows, wondering what she’s going to do, when she answers his curiosity by putting a knee on his belly, and then the other, letting almost her whole weight press against his guts as she kneels on his stomach. Oof!

Apparently the provocation of an upturned belly was too much to resist. He refuses to react, however, keeping his hands behind his head, tensing his abdominal muscles to support her. She puts her hands on his chest and grins coldly at him. “Start with the bit about the devil and why Babyface was so angry and you can go to the lies from there.”

“The leader of the Whisper, that you call the Devil’s Left Hand, is named Margrave.” He says it simply, keeping the strain of supporting her out of his voice, then pauses briefly to let it sink in, watching her expression change, all traces of amusement fading. “He’s got a devil with him. There were some…state secrets involved, and I couldn’t tell Alma and Dion right away. He got mad that I held that information back. Nature of the job. I have to keep secrets sometimes.” He pauses again, thinking she’s going to say something, but she remains silent, studying him. He releases the hands from behind his head and puts them on the bed to steady himself. “We know where Sky’s being held. At least we think we do. We’re going in in the morning. Dion and Alma wanted to go now, but they need rest and healing.”

After a long pause, she asks only “Where?” The single word is charge with an icy rage. She seems to have forgotten she’s awkwardly balanced on him. She seems to have forgotten everything else in the world.

Somrak looks up at her, resigned, and lays his hands on her leather-clad waist, gently nudging her aside. Not letting her gaze break free of his for an instant, she complies, sliding off him and sitting on the bed, legs half folded under her. If not for the expression on her face, it would be a fetching pose. He sits up and half-turns to face her. Trying without any hope to talk some sense into her, he asks quietly, “Did you not hear the part about the devil? And plenty of demons, too. Undead servants. Insane necromancer that’s back from the dead after two centuries. Chances are high that one or more of us gods aren’t coming back from this. Chances are certain no mortal will last long.”

Saira’s voice strains to form coherent words without breaking into a scream. “Where is that sick son of a bitch?”

Som looks at her, his expression turning to sorrow, his shoulders slumping a little in defeat. “Little Falls. On Pierre à Aiguiser Lane, overlooking the river. Burnt-out shell of a house, two stories, just a couple of walls still standing…”

He trails off as Saira goes pale at the description, though her expression, if anything, becomes even more deadly. Her voice is faint, barely a whisper, but it rises almost to a shout by the end. “I’m gonna impale his skull to those walls and set fire to whatever’s left of him. That was our house. That’s where his people murdered my gang.”

Somrak’s eyes widen in surprise, then he feels his own anger blossoming within. “Location of violent death. Harvesting the twisted mana from that to save on power.” He curses in a language known to few aside from fire gods, with a sound like a knot of pitch popping in a bonfire, and looks back up at Saira. “Right, let’s go over it. Vantage points, lines of approach, all that. You know the place, and we can use all the advantage we can get.”

Saira puts a hand forward. “Whoa, buddy, not so fast. How can I be sure you’re not just gonna run off with the info and leave me behind anyway?”

He decides not to tell her that that had been his plan with Alma and Dion. Instead, he lays it out. “You’re insane to be going in with us. It’s suicide. But I promised you before that you’d get your shot. Let me just ask you one more time so I can tell Alma I tried to stop you: Are you sure you want to do this? You can walk away, Saira. You can live.”

She does not look away. “I told you before, Softie. I died way before you met me.”

Looking back into her eyes, Somrak feels it: Defiance, determination – but more than that, a complete lack of regard for her own life, and the freedom that that brings. He can only admire it, and recognize it as well, for he is the same. Again, though, he feels sorrow at the loss. She may not value her own life, but he wishes they could have served together. Perhaps after her enemy is dead, she’ll turn to the Commander. Certain situations call for mortal Popula agents in the off-blues. Though her chances of survival are practically zero, he’s seem more unlikely things come to pass. “All right then. We leave for the station at dawn, meet up with Alma and Dion, and proceed to Little Falls. Now let’s get your intel.”


The half-pint flask of whisky – not the rotgut that Somrak keeps in the room just for the look of things, but the whisky he bought on the way over – is down to a half-half pint, the bottle, corked, lying on the bed next to Somrak, the shot glass that had been resting upside down on the mouth of the bottle of rotgut on the bedside table, next to the music box. Sitting side-by-side on the bed, the fire god and the assassin, mortal by nature and mortal to her enemies, have creased sheets of paper scattered all over the bed and their own laps, with drawings and notes covering them. Dawn is only three hours away by this time.

“Told you, you don’t have an angle from there,” Saira insists. “Unless you’re planning on a frontal assault, that’s a stupid place to hide.” She shoots a glare at the music box. “Porra, I know this thing is for safety, but doesn’t it know any other songs?”

“Sorry,” Somrak replies with a yawn. “I barely even notice it anymore.” He leans forward and touches the spinning bird, which bounces slightly and changes color, from a pale blue to a soft green, and the tune changes to something almost like a lullaby. “Well, maybe we’ve got it all pinned down. We should get some sleep – it’s only a few hours to dawn.”

Saira yawns, as if she’s caught it from Somrak, and her eyes look suddenly droopy. She shakes her head hard, the locks of her light-brown hair flying as she tries to bring herself back to full alertness. “Sure, I’ll let you get your beauty sleep. You need all you can get, anyway.” She tries to stand, but only makes it halfway before she sits back on the bed. “Ugh… I did not drink that much.”

“Hey, whoa…” Somrak steadies her with a hand on her shoulder, keeping his voice soft and soothing. “What, are you planning on jumping out windows like that? Sleep here. I’ll take the floor. More comfortable than a lot of places I’ve slept. Besides, I don’t want to have to come find your hideout if you don’t show up on time.” He begins collecting the papers from the bed.

She flaps her hand lazily at him, waving him off. “I’ll be fine. Just need some fresh…” Her eyelids fall shut and she slips into unconsciousness.

Somrak catches her so that her head won’t hit the wall, and gently lowers her to the bed, turning her so her head rests on the pillow. As he stands, the sleepy look on his face disappears without leaving a trace behind. He lifts her legs and puts them on the bed, letting her lie on her side. He briefly considers removing her boots, but decides that could be going a bit far.

The box’s blue song does nothing magical, but the green song induces a deep sleep in mortals, though it has no effect on gods. He will leave it playing through the morning, so that Saira will slumber through the attempt to rescue Sky. He knows she’ll never forgive him, but there is betrayal and there is betrayal. Does he betray her by leading her to certain death, or by taking away her chance at Margrave? He chooses the latter.

The decision rankles. It is a broken promise, and furthermore he has already chosen to take Gwydion and Alma with him into danger, their dedication to Sky and desire to take down the necromancer being the justification. So why not Saira? But they have a chance of success; she does not. Bringing her would be murder. Even then, he almost decided to do so. What right does he have to stop her? She is right. She is a bolt shot from a crossbow, and this is the trajectory of her life.

But she can make another life. Let her join the off-blues. Better yet, let her sell fruit, or become a tour guide, or a zookeeper, or anything but what she is. Let her have a shot at something besides death. Is it arrogant for him to make that choice for her? Hugely. But he is a god, and she is a mortal, and in the end, pretending that they are on an equal footing is not justice to either of them.

He carefully adjusts the position of her head so she won’t wake up with a stiff neck, then tenderly touches her hair, brushing it away from her eyes. He whispers, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m a big softy. Sorry, kid.”

He sits down on the bed next to her legs and reopens the folded sheet with the map on it, lines drawn and redrawn. Laying it on his lap, he retrieves the half-empty flask and takes a swig from it, taking what pleasure he can from the burn of the whisky.


Ch6.80 Trust

“He really walloped you a couple times,” Cherry says, half-sympathetic, half-amused as she stands behind Somrak’s chair, running her fingers through his just-rewashed hair with one hand to comb it into some semblance of order, and holding a wet towel wrapped around ice against his cheek and the side of his mouth with the other. “I could totally do you up in braids,” she adds as an aside. “Whaddya think? Like, a half-dozen thin ones startin’ from the front here? Or just one braided ponytail down the back?”

Somrak’s leather-clad shoulders shake in silent laughter. “Can I have ribbons with that?”

“Oh, ye better not let Tulip hear ye say that!” Merri admonishes him as she sets a pint of ale on the table before him. “She’ll turn ye into a special project – ye’ll end up with more ribbons than hair.” She looks around as she sits across from him. “Speakin’ of whom, where’d she go? Ah well…” She turns abruptly to fix Somrak with an inquisitorial gaze, setting elbows on the table, chin on her clasped fists, her fiery curls bouncing and bright green eyes sparkling. “Now then! What was all that about?”

“Oh boy,” Somrak mutters, taking up his beer and raising it to her. “Cheers.” He starts to drink it slowly but without stopping.

Merri rolls her eyes and tilts her head. “Now come on! Mum said ye should explain it us!” When he holds up a finger to indicate Still drinking! she groans and pretends to collapse onto the tabletop.

Cherry insistently squeezes his shoulder, her grip surprisingly strong. “Hey, come on… I don’t like all this secret stuff,” she pleads, sounding just this side of desperate.

Somrak raises the bottom of the glass higher and finishes quickly, then reaches up and takes her hand in his, turning his face to look up at her dark face framed in a halo of ebony curls, her beauty marred by her sincere worry. He sighs and sets down his beer.

“Come on, sit down.” He pats the seat of the chair next to him, and she pulls it out and takes a seat. “I’ll tell you no lies, but I can’t tell you much truth. I’m sorry. This is a case where even most cops can’t be told much.”

Merri leans forward and whispers, “Is it Sky? Has somethin’ happened to him? Only Sage said he was missin’ an’ Mum an’ Dion went out lookin’ for him an’ ever since they’ve been terribly worried an’ closed-mouth.” As she speaks, all pretense of joking disappears and she reaches to put her pale hand atop Cherry’s, which is still holding Somrak’s tightly.

Somrak puts his free hand on both of theirs and takes a breath. “As I told you before, my bosses don’t know I’m here. But there’s others who mustn’t learn I’m here as well. The people who murdered your Corporal Stathos. Sky is with them, and we’re going to bring him home.” As he speaks, he looks from one the the other, his face darkly serious.

Cherry’s eyes shine with forming tears. “Is he hurt?” she whispers.

Somrak shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. But you know he’s strong. And Alma will heal him.”

Cherry and Merri seem to study him, Merri’s nose and cheeks turning pink as she seems to be holding back tears as well. But she takes a deep, shaky breath and, her voice determinedly calm, asks, “Is there anything that we can do? Anything at all?”

“You can keep quiet about it. And you can keep all the Bunnies here, home,” he says, doing his best to project a confidence he doesn’t feel. “It’s very important for us to know you’re safe.”

“We’ll do that,” says Cherry. “But what about Dion? He was actin’ like a crazy guy out there. Yellin’ about lies?”

“Dion…” Somrak sighs. “Dion was poisoned, while trying to find Sky. And…I held back some information a little longer than I should have. That made him very angry, and I don’t blame him for punching me. But I am annoyed about losing that cigar.”

Cherry smacks his shoulder. “Don’t joke. Is Dion gonna be okay?”

A bright, loud voice, high-pitched and childish, pierces the tense, gloomy conversation. “He says he’s fine.” Tulip bounces over from the stairs that lead down to Alma’s sanctum, and plops herself onto Somrak’s lap. “Seems fine. Just taking a bath with Mom.”

“Oh, ye wee scamp!” Merri scolds her, smiling brightly and blinking away her tears. “Sneakin’ around. Tell us all how they are!”

Tulip shrugs. “I didn’t get to hear much before Mom caught me! She’s like, scary good at catching me now. But they were talking fine ‘bout souls and stuff. And they were hugging so I guess they’re fine. I asked if Dion is feeling better and he said he’s feeling great.” She puts her arms around Somrak’s neck. “Mom says to tell you they’ll come upstairs in a bit. So is that why you didn’t punch back? ‘Cause it was your fault Dion got hurt?”

“That’s part of it,” Somrak says, looking into her blue eyes, marveling again at how much she resembles Alma when she was much younger, when Somrak met her the first time. And he does his best to put out of his mind her blithe report of Alma and Dion bathing together and ‘hugging,’ which his idiotic brain tries to turn into something more. “But also…he’s my friend, even if he’s not so sure about that right now. I don’t want to hurt my friends.” Ah, but you’re so good at it, he cannot help but tell himself. Will you be coming back to this place carrying a body? Will it be their beloved Sky? Or Dion? Or worst of all, their mother? How will you live with that? Or will the four of you just disappear and never be heard from again?

“Speak o’ the divvil!” Merri says. “There they are.” Following her gaze, Somrak sees Alma and Dion coming up the stairs, holding hands. Dion is freshly washed and clothed, dressed casually in a simple silk shirt and close-fitting trousers, and Alma looks as if she has had a bath as well, having changed into another sari. She gives Somrak a wary smile, which he returns with as good a facsimile of his devil-may-care, scar-twisted smirk as he can manage, and smiles even more broadly at Dion.

For his part, Dion keeps his expression reserved toward Somrak for the moment, but his face softens as he looks at Cherry. Her black-furred ears are laid back, denting her afro, and Somrak can see that she’s looking at Dion with concern and sorrow.

Alma looks at the gathering and makes a stab at breaking the ice. “Well, this is certainly a happy reception…”

Merri stands. “Oh come in and sit down! Time to mend fences over somethin’ nice to drink.” She moves toward the bar to fetch beverages, while Cherry follows her more slowly. Meanwhile, Tulip slips off Somrak’s lap to dash to Dion for a hug, then she runs off toward the stairs leading to the upper floors. Somrak hears her greet Geryon.

Dion looks at Alma and signals her to sit, while he holds out a hand a hand to stop Cherry. He looks at her uncertainly. After a moment of the two of them looking at each other in silence, Cherry asks him, “What can I get you?”

He tentatively extends an arm and puts it around her shoulders, drawing her close. She seems surprised for a moment, and then with a little whimper she hugs him tightly around the waist. He wraps his other arm around her, bending his head to whisper something to her. Somrak hears, “…should have listened…” and “…sorry…”

Cherry clenches one of her hands into a fist and gives Dion a light, painless punch on the back. Her cheek pressed against his chest, she almost sobs, “You’re darned tootin’ you should’ve.” She leans back slightly and looks up at him, her eyes bright, her face worried, her voice tiny. “Are you ok?”

Dion nods. “I am now.” He looks at Geryon, who, just arriving, glances sideways at him, as if he can’t be bothered with all this emotion.

Cherry give Dion a big, bright smile and pats his chest, then looks at Alma and Geryon. “So what’s everybody drinkin’?”

“Considering my healer would probably disapprove of alcohol right now,” Gwydion says, “what do you have that is mild on an empty stomach?”

Cherry considers. “How about some nice warm milk? Or tea?”

“Tea sounds good. Thank you.” Dion moves to sit down.

“You got it, hon,” Cherry replies, then quickly takes the others’ orders before joining Merri at the bar.

Dion sits with Somrak and Alma, while Geryon steps up onto the nearby sofa, his eagle gaze on the three gods. Dion nods to Somrak. “I see you are almost fully healed.”

Alma, her voice half-amused, half-scolding, says, “I think he’s just dragging it out to keep Cherry and Rosemary treating him like a war hero.” She brushes her fingertips along his face, scents of spring filling the air, and the bruising on Somrak’s face disappears, along with the cut on his lip.

Somrak touches his cheek after Alma’s fleeting touch leaves it warm and whole. “That bruise was getting me a lot of attention. What am I going to do now?” Looking a little more serious, he leans forward, elbows on the table, and asks Dion, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I have been through something I don’t ever want to experience again.” Dion exhales. “I’ll live. But I don’t recommend trying it.”

Merri brings Somrak another ale, while Cherry brings a steaming cup of tea for Dion and of coffee for Alma. Cherry asks, “You guys gonna be okay with each other now, or we gotta set up round two?”

“Oh yes,” Geryon pipes up with his smooth, every-sarcastic voice. “Give us some time to advertise and sell tickets. We’ll make a fortune out of it.”

“Ooo yes!” Merri coos, taking away Somrak’s empty glass. “That was quite the display you two put on. Seems a shame not to let everyone see.”

“Come on, Mer,” Cherry says, “let’s let ‘em talk. We got Bunnies to round up anyway.”

“Indeed, we do,” Merri says, pausing and suddenly giving Alma a kiss on the cheek. The surprised goddess turns to look and sees the fear showing through past the Bunny’s usually cheerful demeanor, but the redhead follows Cherry before Alma can react.

Looking at Somrak, Alma asks, “Just what did you tell them?”

Somrak waits until the two have gone upstairs, calling out for Chime, Tulip, Kori, and Sage, the asks, “They can still hear overhear us, can’t they?”

“Very much so, yes,” Geryon replies. “Their ears are as sharp as my eyes. But…” He closes his eyes, muttering, and stretches his forepaws out before him, flexing them so the toes spread out and the claws extend. Around then the air seems almost to solidify, light bending distorted through a not-quite-perfectly transparent shell around them, and all sound from beyond it deadens. “Not anymore,” he finishes.

Alma nods at him. “Thank you, Geryon.”

“Yes,” says Dion, his voice dry, “thank you for assuming you should be included.”

Geryon fluffs the feathers on his head. “Oh, like you can afford not to include me at this point. I am, after all, your walking conscience.”

“That explains a lot,” Dion mutters.

Somrak listening to the exchange, weighing the ramifications. “It’s up to you two. But Geryon, if you’re included, some of what you learn could get you in trouble. We’re talking state secrets here.”

The gryphon rolls his eyes. “Please, unless I’m to be turned into anything in the class of sardine or below, I really couldn’t care less. And unless you forget, the first time we met, these two had just sent an Archon to the angels, so to speak.”

“And you’d just stood between that Archon and some Bunnies,” Somrak reminds him. He looks at Alma and Dion. “I’m all right with it if you are.”

The lovers look at each other, then Alma says to Somrak, “We have news.”

“Yes, about Sky and his captor.” Catching Geryon’s expression, Dion quickly explains, “The truth is, Sky was captured a few days ago by the necromancer we have been tracking. He is alive and still on the Insula. Well, in a pocket universe. He is being tortured but holding on with the help of a friend of Alma’s.” He glances at her as if checking that the word ‘friend,’ which Somrak notes he fractionally paused before using, is correct.

His eyes round, Geryon says, “Well, no wonder you have all been so strange, lately.”

Somrak leans forward. “How do you know all this, Dion?”

Alma replies instead. “Arion… Void Rider. Former Archon, god of…Reality, really. The father of my children. He can travel in the Dreamworld.”

“And he walked into my dream,” Dion says, “when I was fighting off the poison.”

Somrak drops his eyes, thinking it over. “If he’s still being tortured, that confirms the idea that this is being done to lure Alma into a rescue attempt.”

Dion nods. “Perhaps, yes. Sky sent us a message, saying it was a trap, yes. And that his captor’s name is Nua. To look for her in the records of the Necromancer War, about two hundred years ago.”

Somrak looks up at the mention of two centuries. Coincidence?

Alma pulls her Death Clan logbook from, apparently, nowhere, and opens it. “Let us see what we can find.” She looks at intently, clearly reading, but to Somrak’s surreptitious glance the pages look blank, except perhaps for the barest blur of lines of writing, indicative of a spell to protect the information from unapproved eyes. “Ah, here she is. I knew the name seemed familiar. Nua was a famous necromancer. She was actually credited with starting the war in the first place. Not the sharpest blade in the armory but vicious, relentless. She stole the original formula for the Soul Bombs and shared it with other necromancers, sowing great chaos. She used them to kill rival necromancers and in the tumult over…” She pauses a moment. “Over forty death gods perished.” She shudders and Dion places a hand on her arm. Somrak had not been in Three Rats when the Whisper assassinated one of its own arrested members to prevent him from revealing their secret to the Guardia, an event which killed Corporal Stathos and another prisoner, shredding their souls and nearly killing Alma as well, as those damaged, maddened souls attacked her.

But he had read the report with a horrified anger. Though he had long ago abandoned his own clan, he still carried with him the indelible mark of the attitudes they tried to inculcate in him: to regard the undead, and by extension necromancers, as abominations, cancers in the body of the universe that had to be purified with flame. He had, indeed, been raised to be a sort of warrior-priest, a god in the service of greater gods, a weapon to be wielded against such monstrosity. It does not escape his sense of irony that he has ended up doing exactly that in the Commander’s service, minus the hypocritical dogma and familial abuse that prompted him to leave home.

Somrak says, “She considers the Death Clan her enemy, then. But how has she survived two centuries only to surface now in Three Rats?”

Alma keeps reading. “Well, she didn’t. She was killed, two centuries ago. The investigators found her posed as if she were sleeping. A merciful kill, it seemed, quick and painless. Her soul was gone, doubtlessly claimed by Hell. My aunt was in charge of the investigation, along with two unnamed specialists in demons and Hell. One of them claimed a devil had been at the scene, summoned by Nua herself.” Somrak sits up straight, the blood draining from his face but at the same time thinking, Of course. “Only a piece of the contract was found. Half a name. ‘Azza–’.” Alma looks alarmed as she breaks off.

Somrak and Alma share a shocked look as they both understand. Then Somrak looks at Dion, then at Geryon. To the gryphon, he says, “You’d better be sure you’re in all the way, or walk away now.”

Grimly, Geryon says, “For some reason, I fear my mind has already reached the conclusion you are about to confirm. Allow me.” He turns to Dion and demands, “Are you insane? In what Hellish reality does this sound like a good idea?”

“I know,” Dion sighs. “It doesn’t. Probably because it isn’t. But whether or not I should turn my back on someone who has been nothing less than a friend, I still can’t afford to leave this Nua character running loose. You’ve seen what she did just to send a message.”

Somrak says darkly, “This isn’t just about Alma then. She’s getting back at Sky. And if we’re captured, she’ll use us to torture him further.”

Dion asks, “Can we be sure it was Sky who killed her before?”

Alma and Somrak nod together. Alma says, “When he took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies, Sky confessed to me that his real name was Azzageddi and made me promise I would keep it to myself. I didn’t make much of it, at the time. I had too many problems to focus on it and it’s not unheard of, anyway, gods using false names to stay free from certain contracts. But the name fits, doesn’t it?

“He was taking a real risk sharing that,” Somrak says, shaking his head. “If you’d ever studied demonology, you’d have been suspicious at the sound of it. He put himself completely into your hands.”

Her voice slow, Alma says, “The truth is, the Vow he took more or less ensures he cannot hurt me, no matter what is done to him. But you two…” She looks at Gwydion and Somrak.

“Sky will resist,” Somrak insists. “He’s being tortured by a necromancer who played at being amateur devil-summoner and got herself killed, and another sorcerer, Nekh’s lieutenant, who is still mortal for all his ability. Sky’s been through worse. Still…” He says to Dion, “It’s good that you know his true name. It’ll help if some binding needs to be broken.”

Dion nods as he absorbs this, then asks Alma, “You said you found out where he’s being held?”

“Lucky Pete gave us a location,” she replies. “We will have to find the entrance to the pocket ourselves, but it is our best bet so far.”

“This is of course provided they haven’t moved the entrance,” Somrak cautions, hating to be the killjoy. “But I think they want us to find them. Or at least they want Alma. Anybody else is a bonus. They just don’t want to make it too obvious that they’re letting us find them. If they made it too hard, they know we’d have to contact the Commander.”

Geryon asks the obvious question, “And just why exactly aren’t we contacting the Commander?”

Somrak hesitates only a moment. After all, the gryphon already knows the Sky is a devil, that his true name is Azzageddi – it’s pointless to hold anything back now. “Sky knows a lot of secrets. And being born one of the Enemy, if it ever got out that the Guardia has been employing him for decades, with the approval of the Council, they would send in the Sikari and just kill everyone involved, Sky included.”

“Lovely,” Geryon mutters. “So you are planning on invading the enemy’s lair with an army of…” He looks around the table, “three?”

“Three,” Somrak confirms. “No mortals coming along. No offense.”

Geryon laughs as if Somrak had just told the most delicious joke. “Oh, you certainly didn’t expect me to volunteer, did you?”

Somrak’s mouth twitches at the corner. “Well after the way you threw yourself at that Archon…”

“Oh, I learned my lesson there, I assure you,” Geryon says, pointing with one paw at Somrak’s chest as if he’d be poking it if the sofa were only a little closer. Then he pauses and asks, “So who should I notify, when you three disappear without a trace into the deepest, darkest pits of Hell?”

Dion sighs, “Geryon…”

The gryphon stands up on all fours, glaring at Gwydion. “Oh, shut up! This is insane, and you know it! Heroic deeds, blazing glory – who will pick up the pieces you are leaving behind to go save your friend?” He shifts his gaze to Alma. “Who will comfort and protect your Bunnies? Or tell your families what happened? Hmm?”

Alma and Gwydion find themselves unable to reply, or even to meet the fierce eagle gaze.

The magical dome around them is temporarily superfluous, as all within fall silent. After several pregnant seconds pass, Somrak gravely says, “I would not blame anyone in the slightest for staying here. My intention was to go in alone, anyway. But after all you did…” He nods at Dion’s arm, where the poison was injected by Saira’s informant. “I realized I couldn’t just ditch the two of you without giving you a chance. That’s when I accepted I’d have to tell you what Sky is. But Geryon is right. You have people here who need you.”

Alma’s voice is low but clear and firm. “How would I tell my children that I let their Uncle Sky die? Or tell my clan that I let Nua run loose? No, I cannot back away.”

“My family is either dead or here,” Gwydion says. “And part of that family is being tortured in some pocket universe, somewhere. I’m in.” He looks to Geryon. “All I ask of you, my friend, is that if something happens, you get the Bunnies into my room, erase the door, and open a new one somewhere else, somewhere safe. And then… I can’t ask for anything beyond that.”

Alma stands and walks to Geryon, crouching so that her eyes are on a level with his. She looks into his eyes, imploring. “If you get them to my mother, I’m sure she’ll care for them. Please, Geryon. Even if you don’t understand, pretend you do and keep my children safe. I beg you.”

Geryon pulls his head back, blinking, his beak slightly open, looking stunned. He shakes his head, ruffling his feathers. “Oh, quit the dramatics, my lady. Of course I will look after them.” He sounds quite affected by her plea, and by the responsibility thrust on him.

The goddess puts her arms around his neck and presses her cheek to his. “Thank you.”

Dion chuckles at his friend’s stammered inability to reply to that, and Somrak imagines he can almost see the gryphon blushing through his feathers. What Geryon said about family continues to spin in Somrak’s mind, for he has been thinking along the same lines of late. What family has he had, since he fled that of his birth? He fell in with a gang as bad or perhaps even worse than the Whisper, and then was rescued by the Commander, and given the chance to redeem himself. Since then, the off-blues, the unnamed ‘special missions’ department within the Guardia, has been his family, but it’s been a highly dysfunctional one. Only a few days ago, one whom he had trusted with his life had turned out to be an agent of Hell, a spy, and he had had to kill her. And for decades the colleague he was closest to, Sky, was also the person he was supposed to kill at any sign of unreliability.

Dion is right. This is family, here. It is Dion’s and Alma’s and Geryon’s and the Bunnies’. And it is Sky’s. But is it Somrak’s. Can it really be? Surely it’s too early to tell, whatever they might say. But Somrak knows one thing. He wants it. Badly.

Out loud, he says, to Alma and Dion, “The truth is, I wouldn’t have a chance without your help. Sky wouldn’t have a chance. But if I thought we still didn’t have a chance together, I wouldn’t bring you into it. We do have a shot at getting him out. But just in case, I’ll prepare a message for the Commander. If we don’t return after a full day, Geryon, or if you’re attacked here, simply burn the message. He’ll receive it.”

Geryon, a wizard familiar with such things, nods grimly.

“Oh, and you’ll be better off pretending you have no idea who or what this Azzageddi is, or that Tuma-Sukai is anything other than a big lovable lug,” Somrak adds. He nods to Dion and Alma. “That goes for the two of you as well.”

Dion says, “Arion said Sky is close to giving out, so we should move as quickly as possible.”

“Yes,” Alma agrees. “The more we delay, the more he’ll suffer. We should fetch our equipment.” She stands, as does Gwydion.

But Somrak holds up a hand. “Wait. Dion, you are still recovering from being poisoned. And you,” he continues, looking at Alma, “have barely slept in days, and you’re still suffering from a mana hangover after healing him. And somebody punched me in the mouth, I think. If we go in with anything less than our best condition, we are putting the mission at risk.”

Alma looks at Dion, who looks uncertainly back at her. “But…Sky…” she murmurs.

Geryon sighs and hops off the sofa to stand between them. “As much as it pains me to say it, Scarface does have a point. Both of you are too weak to be of any use at the moment. And if this necromancer is truly trying to lure you in, she will be in no hurry to kill Sky.”

The two look at one another again, and Gwydion finally sags his shoulders and admits, “I suppose you’re right.”

“Rest,” insists Somrak. “After you’ve had a good meal. But before that, let’s go over the information again I got day before yesterday. With what we know now, it might shed some more light on the other gang members. Geryon, could you drop the silence shield so we can order something to eat?”

Ch6.79 Trust

“He lied to us,” Gwydion protests, rubbing the soap over his left arm with the hint of violence and frustration that his angry words carry with them. “He’s lucky I am not fit enough to give him a proper beating.”

He has his back turned to Alma as he stands on the ledge that runs along the inner wall of her pool. The lukewarm water reaches as high as his biceps, the rest of his well-sculpted body, motive of many an adolescent dream and female sigh, immersed in what should be a pleasant, relaxing bath to rid him from the mud covering his body but is currently failing to be either of the former two. The magic god is still reeling from the news about Sky’s true nature and Somrak’s deception to make use of their skills and extract information from them. Well, at least the mud is mostly gone, after having for a few moments polluted the waters of Alma’s pool. Thankfully, the constant drainage and input of new water from the fountain have easily resolved that issue.

Alma, kneeling at the edge of the pool, her fingers massaging the more stubborn remains of the slimy mixture of dirt and water off his scalp as she washes his silky, black hair for the second time, exhales deeply, mentally cursing her head for still aching, Somrak for being a fool, Sky for having been taken, the necromancer for having taken Sky, the whole male gender for thinking with everything but their heads, and the world in general for constantly making her life difficult. She tries to bring Gwydion to calm down for about the tenth time since bringing him back to her room. He is still weak, after all, and she is worried about his condition.

“I know he lied and I am angry at him as well. But there will be a better time to settle this, when we can reduce him to minced meat. Besides…” She fills a small bowl with water and, covering his forehead with one hand, rinses his hair with the other. “He does have a point. It is not the type of secret one reveals in a light heart. Imagine holding onto a secret like that, a person’s life depending on your good judgment.”

Much to her relief, Gwydion stops abusing the soap against his own skin and lowers his arms, breathing deeply before replying in a soft mutter, “He still used us.”

He leans his head forward a little as her fingers run through the short hairs at the back of his neck and she rubs the base of his skull with her thumbs, slowly and expertly, coaxing a purring moan of pleasure from his lips. She takes the soap from his hand and uses it to lather his shoulders, his now mostly mud-free chest, grinning with satisfaction when he leans his head back against her knees, eyes closed and mouth smiling softly at the rhythmic, massaging movements of her hand over his skin, erasing the external traces of his ichor-induced illness.

“That’s it,” she whispers, her chin resting on the top of his head, the fingers of her left hand resting gently against his throat, hair falling freely to frame the limits of his face and graze the skin of his arms. “Relax now. Doesn’t that feel better than being angry? Though I cannot say if it feels better than frolicking in the mud with a fire god.”

Gwydion chuckles, his upper body jostling gently in the water. “Well, I can and I must say this feels a lot more pleasant.”

He tilts his head back a little further, his eyes looking into hers, and Alma can almost swear they look just a little paler now than they did before he was poisoned. He raises an arm to stroke a lock of her hair, his expression darkening with sadness for a moment. “It feels like something I don’t deserve.”

His voice is quiet but heavy with sorrow and regret. It brings back the sting of their argument, of the pain that opened the rift between them that has tormented the last three days of Alma’s life. She is tired of being sad, of being angry, of being bruised and disappointed. One of her closest friends has been kidnapped, which probably would not have happened had he not lied to her, while another of her friends has lied to her in an attempt to save him, and now the fear of losing both pains her. Still, she has been lied to before and betrayed before and feared for her life before. She could have numbed herself to emotion and fear and gone through this whole crisis fueled almost exclusively by anger.

But to be without Gwydion, her lover. More than her lover, her partner, her equal, the person into whom she has learned to trust her safety, her wellbeing, her happiness, her heart… To be without the piece of her that he has become, that is a pain she finds impossible to ignore. For all her anger, all her hurt, she cannot avoid caring for him, thinking of him, feeling his physical and emotional distance as a sharp, burning anguish. And to see him poisoned, feverish, fighting for his life and yet desperate, desperate to tell her how much she means to him. The words that broke through her pride and pain. How can she go another moment without him by her side?

She reaches for his hand and brings it to her cheek, tilting her head against his fingers, which cup her face and warm her skin with their touch. Her eyes lock on his, losing focus of his material body, gazing into the vibrant, bright network of light that is his soul, as naked before her gaze as his skin is. If using her soul-sight to scry the world for the souls of dead and living was a work of effort before, now it is looking at the material plane that she finds difficult and even strenuous at times. And with her headache still bothering her, though easier to tolerate since Somrak’s nerve-pressure healing (which she has tried and rather depressingly failed to duplicate) and quickly becoming less of a problem now that she is back in her peaceful sanctum, with its finely tuned energies and Starfax’s healing presence, strain is the last thing she needs. Her eyes see a mishmash of energy and matter, an entrancing, fascinating, confusing puzzle of superimposed images that she has been learning to interpret and make the best of.

And oh, how beautiful he looks, traced in snaking, coiling, racing paths of light, continuously contorting and expanding like an explosion of energy trapped in its material vessel, collapsing and erupting again and again, powerful, impatient, begging to be released. Each of the eight layers of his godly soul is a living picture of his essence.

She feels his fingertips stroking her cheek and slowly forces her eyes to see into the material plane again. His eyes gaze lovingly into hers, that gaze that always betrays his affection, that never fails to make her heart skip a beat. She smiles at him, stroking his raised arm, watching his lips curl happily at the sight of her smile.

She holds his arm gently, by the wrist, and pulls it away from her face to stroke the inner contours of his elbow. She can’t help but grimace at the sight of the blackened, spidery mark left around the point of entry of the demonic poison, well-defined but tortuous, almost like a sigil of some sort.

“It seems I didn’t manage to erase all traces of the poison,” she notes.

Gwydion turns his head to look at the mark but simply shrugs at its presence. “If that is my only scar, I will be luckier than most.”

Alma nods, her right hand reaching behind him to stroke his right ear and make sure no mud is left there. “That you will. Demon ichor is so dangerous to our kind, even more than to humans. And with the reaction you had to it, I was truly fearing for your life.”

“It was strange,” Gwydion looks absently into the distance, opening and closing his hand as if to test it. “And it hurt. As if acid was flowing through my veins and breaking through all my defenses. And…something in me…it was like something was waking up. Something big and angry and dangerous. And I was frightened to be so helpless against it. I was…I was burning up.” He looks at her. “But then I felt you inside me. Your healing. Washed over me, put out the flames. And it was like you could go anywhere and see everything – the poison opened all the doors. And then you put it to sleep, that thing inside me. Did you feel that? Did it hurt you?”

She smiles sadly at his musings, wondering if he is still suffering from some mild fever. “My power does not allow me to know any secrets of yours beyond the makings of your body and soul, dear. Your mind, your heart, your fears and desires are your own. And I can sense power in you, I see the impatience and unruliness of your soul. But I can’t yet tell if it has shifted.” She shakes her head. “You were so weak. You are still weak.”

“But I feel different, better now,” he insists. “I feel like I’ve grown – no, that’s not the word. I spread out…into myself. It’s like a part of me was empty and now I’m whole for the first time.” His voice is full of wonder. “Something is happening to me. I’m not certain what. But all these encounters with demons are awaking something new inside me.”

“A sphere, maybe?” Alma suggests, considering his words. “In my family’s records there are mentions of gods with such abilities. Could it be you just took longer finding your sphere? If it has something to do with demons, it would make sense for it to have lain dormant this long.”

“It could be, yes,” Gwydion agrees with a nod. “But I am not sure yet whether having a new sphere awaken now will be help or hindrance in our mission. Not that we have a choice but to forge ahead.”

Alma nods, looking down at the intricate, filigree web of light that lines the contours of each of the thousands of blades of grass that cover the floor of her room. “Yes, I know the feeling,” she breathes.

After all, isn’t she still learning to live with this new sphere of hers and worrying about what it might bring? His hand covers hers and she looks up to see him now facing her, looking at her in concern. She smiles, leaning down to kiss his forehead. Her hand repositions to hold his and the tips of her fingers brush against the metal clasp of his bracelet. She looks down at his arm to see it, realizing for the first time that she has not seen him without it since the very day she summoned it to existence, around his wrist. “You are still wearing this.”

“It never occurred to me to take it off,” he says. “It’s the dearest gift I have received in decades. It reminded me of you when the pain was at its worst. And that helped.”

He says it plainly, softly, almost shyly, without a hint of charm or flirtation. Gwydion without his masks, without his ruses. Just him, looking at her as if struggling for what to do or say next. She rests her forehead against his, cupping his face in her hands, breathing in his breath, the simple scent of him. How she loves to see this side of him, the insecure him, the vulnerable him, hidden to all but her. Like a shared secret. She kisses the tip of his nose, gazing into his eyes and smiling at him. He smiles in return but looks confused when she rises and walks away from him.

“What – Alma?” he calls after her.

“Just a moment,” she replies, moving toward the little table where she keeps her hairbrush and scent bottles. She has very much stopped wearing most of them since moving here with the Bunnies – with the exception of the one Gwydion gave her – but she does not have the heart to throw them away. On the table, there is also a black lacquer box finely decorated with a motif of phoenixes in flight, its smooth surface handpainted with the beautiful old letters of Low Ancient Urbian of the Fifteenth Dynasty and High Archaic Insul, spells of warding woven into a famous story about a girl with a magical box given to her by the gods. Alma’s jewelry box. She starts rummaging inside it. “I have it here somewhere…”

Like many magical storage items, the box is bigger on the inside than on the outside and Alma is soon cursing under her breath that she cannot find what she is looking for. It is much to her surprise that she feels cold arms wrapping around her from behind, slowly, almost hesitantly. And wet, as wet as her back is suddenly feeling. She stiffens only for a fraction of a second before relaxing and leaning back against Gwydion, smiling as his embrace tightens around her, feeling a familiar, blissful thump in her chest at this sorely missed caress. Her search forgotten for the moment, she puts an arm over one of his, her hand over his fingers.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers, nuzzling her hair.

“I’m just looking for something to show you,” she explains, tilting her head invitingly. “You should be enjoying your bath.”

“I felt lonely all of a sudden.” He kisses her neck, then her shoulder, slowly, lips lingering on her skin. She closes her eyes in pleasure. “You could keep me company since you’re already wet. There’s bound to be some mud on you.”

The comment makes her chuckle. “And whose fault is that?” She turns in his arms, draping hers around his neck. “You have no shame.”

His face darkens with sorrow at her words. “I do. And I am ashamed. Terribly ashamed.” He holds her tightly, fiercely as if she might change her mind and leave him at any moment. His body shakes against hers and his voice carries an edge of anguish and tears as he says into her ear, cheek pressed against hers, “I was such a fool, darling. I thought… I thought I could never keep you happy, that at some point I would make a mistake or stop being interesting and that you would find someone else who could be more what you wanted and make you happy. And when I saw him, the way you two connected, I thought that had already happened. I ended up pushing you away, convincing myself I was right.”

She holds him tightly in return, stroking his hair comfortingly. All she wants is to forget their fight, now, let go of that grief. Be happy again with him. “You should really stop thinking so poorly of yourself, my love.” She pulls away just enough to look into his eyes with a sad smile, her hands tapping his chest in light scolding. “And get it into your head that you are what I want. Even when you are not making me happy…”

He returns her smile, stroking her cheek, shaking his head. “I thought that if I went back to my old routine, I’d be safe from the pain. To think I almost…” He sighs – just a sharp, sudden exhalation – and rests his forehead against hers. “‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t sound like quite enough.”

“No…” Alma concedes. “But it’s a start.”

She pulls away and leans in to touch her lips to his. Softly at first, as if this were the very first, the original, fearful and timid kiss, the opening line to romance between two people. The kiss they had never had. And he is for a moment that tremulous lover, hesitant and unsure of himself. But his lips know hers and they have been yearning for her, she can tell, tasting, caressing, opening in invitation, hungry now, parched and lonely, in need of her comfort, burning and delighting in the coolness of her kiss.

“Alma…” he breathes into her parted lips, fingers rushing through her hair, cupping her head, pulling her closer.

Her reply is drowned in a whimper, smothered by the next kiss. And oh, it is a wonderful, breathtaking kiss. His mouth moves with tender intensity, restless and thrilling, brilliant and fervent, in perfect synchrony with her own. Passionate, devoted, sincere and unreserved, the whole of him surrendered in each kiss. She pulls him to her and herself against him, surrendering too and forgetting. Forgetting about arguments and departed children and kidnappings and demons and necromancers, about space, about time. She loses track of everything. Minutes or hours, anything short of forever is too little time to stay like this, holding him and held by him, sating their shared need. But forever is too long a time, even to a god.

They break away, struggling for breath. She feels lightheaded, her mind in a merry haze, her back complaining mildly of the pressure with which his clenched hands are pressing against her, slightly pinching her flesh. She ignores it, nuzzling his cheek, feeling the fast, thumping reverberations of his heartbeat slowly quietening against her body, her own chest returning to its infrequent, cadent rises and falls. Bliss.

She strokes his back, grimacing at how cold his now mostly dry skin feels to her touch. “Ugh… All right, you are freezing cold.” She pulls away from him and taps his chest in a light scolding. “Back into the water you go. I’ll join you in a moment.”

He holds on to her a bit longer, looking as if he will refuse to abide. But he obeys, kissing her cheek before walking away, toward the pool. Alma turns once more to her search into the jewelry box, stealing a lustful glance at his naked form as he climbs down the steps near the alcove that lead him into the water.

Finally, she finds what she was looking for. She holds her prize up in triumph, smiling to have found it. A bracelet made of intertwined strands of strong but flexible plants, bending like reeds on a riverbank but curling tendrils around each other in a chaotic weaving of a living, cured fabric, stained in deep browns and midnight blacks. And intricately braided into it, the elegant, flowing form of a bird in flight, the phoenix that is her Clan symbol trapped in the reeds and vines, the long feathers of its tail decorated in tiny sapphire-blue jewels. It looks just as beautiful as she remembered it.

“Here it is!” she exclaims, moving to the edge of the pool, where Gwydion is waiting for her. “My mother made this one for me decades ago.”

She hands him the bracelet and then starts undoing the buttons of her blouse, the clasp which holds it around her neck. Her muddy shoes have long been discarded and set aside for cleaning and her skirt is soon falling to the floor and being picked up and placed in a basket for later washing. Through the corner of her eye, she catches him enjoying the show of her undressing as he twirls the bracelet in his fingers, glancing at the piece of jewelry but sparing most of his attention to her progressively more exposed skin.

“It certainly held nicely through the years for something organic,” he notes.

“Well, if I did it correctly, yours will too,” Alma replies, now entering the water.

He puts an arm around her as soon as she is within reach, pulling her closer until they stand embraced again, her bare chest against his, her toes resting on the ledge between his feet. His eyes look into hers as his hands stroke her shoulders, travel down the shallow groove over her spine.

“The last time we were like this, we had quite an audience,” he says quietly, conversationally as her hands stroke his chest.

It takes her a moment to realize what he is talking about and she chuckles at the memory of her sunny day as an otter goddess. “Well, you weren’t naked then…”

That earns her a laugh, light and warm. Music to her ears. “I was very close to it!” He quiets, stroking her cheek. “And all I could think of was how badly I wanted to kiss you.”

Which he does. And though it is not half as desperate and consuming as the one from before, it is a comfortable, loving kiss, filled with quiet longing. It is a testament to his weakened state that having her pressed against him does not elicit more than mild arousal.

“I should have kissed you,” he whispers once it is over.

Alma smiles at the thought. “I wish you had. But then, everyone would have known about us. I thought this was supposed to be a secret.”

Gwydion shakes his head, one hand idly playing with a lock of her hair. “We made it a secret so we could end it at any time. When it wasn’t anything serious. But that has changed, hasn’t it?” He looks questioningly into her eyes and she nods her reply. He smiles. “It’s been serious for so long. I can’t bear the thought of losing you, I could barely go three days without you. I’m yours. I don’t care who knows.”

A soft kiss and Alma whispers to him, grinning, “No more secrets.”

His face lights up with a smile. “Good.”

She gasps as, with a quick movement of his hands on her hips, he suddenly pushes her off the ledge and spins her in his hold until she is facing away from him, her back pressed against his front, her feet no longer propped on the stone. She laughs at the antics, holding on to one of his arms.

“And what was that for?” she asks.

His wet hand brushes her hair away from her neck, making her shiver at the humid touch. She can hear the smile in his voice as he breathes in her ear, “Time for your bath.”

And then the soap is in his hand and he is lathering up her left arm, gently but thoroughly, the pressure of his upper arms against her shoulders keeping her afloat and held close against him. Once he is satisfied with the cleanliness of her arm, he nudges her to lower it into the water and bring it back out, before moving on to lathering her right arm.

“Will you tell me what happened to you, the day you went to meet your family?” He asks quietly as he strokes her forearm with the soap. “Your eyes, the weakness… I’ve been worried. Geryon could only tell me so much.”

She looks at the fountain on the wall before her, the stone sculpture of a girl from whose hands the water that feeds the pool springs in hushed, tranquil rivulets. Above the hands, a blue-ish orb hovers peacefully, shining with a soft, watery light that reflects against the pale creams and greenish-yellows of the sand and seaweed that decorate its interior. Every now and again, bright, iridescent bursts of color shine from its interior as a school of tiny fish swims within. In her green enclosure, Starfax quietly watches them from amongst the leaves.

“It’s… A bit of a complicated story,” she says, unsure of how to explain it all. “I – The reason no one dies or is born on that particular day is because all death gods and life gods must gather once a year for the Spinning Wheel ceremony. When a soul is harvested, it is not destroyed nor is it reincarnated right away. It lingers in the spectral plane, just slowly decomposing, in a sense. It starts losing its previous identity and reshaping itself into a new soul but that takes quite a long time. We would soon run out of people on the Insula if we merely waited for that to happen. So every year, the Wheel of Souls is spun, accelerating that process, cleansing and reorganizing all the souls collected during that year all at once.”

His hand travels over her belly, rubbing the sensitive skin with soap. She closes her eyes and falls silent for a moment, enjoying the cleansing caress before continuing with her tale. “The Wheel is spun around a divine, living axis. Ever since I can remember, our Spinner, as we call her, has been a Life goddess named Sharia. She is our only Spinner. She is rather old now, too weak to spin the Wheel at first try. The Clan had lately been fearing we’d lose her before finding a suitable replacement. But somehow she knew that I could spin the Wheel too. And that is what happened to me. That new sphere became active and I spun the Wheel. It led to some…” She gestures vaguely at her eyes. “…changes. I don’t really remember any of it clearly but by the end of the ceremony, I was knocked unconscious. Father wanted me to stay at his house and rest but I was worried about Mayumi and…I didn’t want to miss our date. So I asked Melinor to help me pick up Mayumi and he brought us both back here. I don’t remember anything after leaving Father’s estate but I think we arrived home well into the night.”

He does not say anything at that, though a slight stiffening of his body against hers suggests the awakening of a painful memory. She feels him returning the soap to a little dish she had left at the edge of the pool and then hold her closely, in silence. The water is warm against her skin, soothingly warm, and her muscles feel relaxed, comfortable. Even her headache feels like a distant thing. She tilts her head back and to the side, letting it rest against him, her eyes closed to enjoy the moment. Time goes by.

She feels herself surface from a shallow slumber at the feeling of her left arm being gently raised out of the water and held above it, her elbow flexed so her hand hovers before her eyes. He holds the bracelet her mother made for her against her wrist and she closes the clasp with ritualistic care, smiling at the image of their wrists held together side by side, the greens and browns and golds and red of his bracelet matching the brown and black, silver and blue of hers as perfectly as if they had been made at the same time and by the same hands to bind them together. His fingers intertwine with hers and he brings his arm down, dragging hers along to wrap around her waist. Her other hand covers his arm, gently stroking it underwater.

“I know it is a sensitive matter but…whatever happened with this death god and Sky and the love spell. Do you need help?”

He sounds hesitant, as if he cannot bring himself to ask what he truly wants to know. But the concern in his voice is evident.

“No,” Alma shakes her head. She turns to look straight at him, her body once again facing his. “Sky managed to detect and break the spell before it went too far.” She looks away. “I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if–”

She cannot say it. The thought of making love to Sky is too alien to her to even form in her head. It would be like sleeping with one of her brothers.

“Once this is done, we’ll put that bastard out of business,” Gwydion says, matter-of-factly.

She looks back at him, saddening at the memory of some of their previous conversations. “Listen, before – I was angry at the whole thing. I know why and how you use those spells. I never meant to accuse you–”

He touches a finger to her lips. “Shh. It was justified. Besides, it is a good reminder of the dangers of such things. I’m just glad you’re not hurt.” His finger moves to stroke her cheek as he looks into her eyes. “Now, how about these? You were complaining you couldn’t see properly before. What’s wrong?”

Alma breathes deeply before explaining. “These eyes… I can’t stop soul-scrying, for some reason. Thankfully, my soul-sight carries no aftereffects now but it’s difficult focusing on seeing the material body of things. Like, I can see your soul very easily but I have to concentrate to look into your eyes and actually see them. And I see souls everywhere, all the time. Suddenly, everything has a soul. It’s all very distracting.” She sighs in frustration. “They are beautiful things, souls, but it’s confusing, constantly seeing every little one of them superimposed with bodies and even through walls, not being able to focus on just the material plane. Just seeing the food on my plate was difficult at first. Had to learn to see again, in a sense. I’m still learning. It all feels very strange and…” She lowers her gaze, feeling shy and silly to admit it. “I feel a little freakish with these changes. But at least I’m getting better at interpreting what I see now.”

He holds her closer, softly nuzzling her cheek. “You still feel the same to me. Just even more beautiful, if that can be possible.”

She smiles and closes her eyes as he kisses the crease of each of her eyelids, snuggling against him in bliss. When she opens her eyes again, a minute movement of light, just a slightly different, yet familiar color of spectral essence moving among the vibrant lines of the hanging stems and flowers of her living door-screen, catches her attention. She grins, making an educated guess of who it might be.

“Speaking of what I see…What is it, Tulip?” she calls out toward the door.

A tiny Eeep! coming from that general direction lets her know that she was right. Soon, Tulip is emerging from behind the screen. “Uhm… Is Dion feeling better, Mom?”

“I think so,” Alma relies, making a show of looking at the god. “Is he?”

Gwydion chuckles, turning his head to look at the Bunny through the edges of his vision. “Dion is in paradise, little flower.”

That seems to satisfy Tulip, who smiles and relaxes visibly. She moves closer to them. “Uncle Som says he’s not coming down here to get punched again.”

That has them both laughing. Gods, it feels good to laugh…

“Well, Uncle Somrak can wait a while,” Alma tells her. “We will meet him upstairs.”

Ch6.78 Trust

Back in the breezeway between the Burrow and Three Rats Station, Somrak lights a cigarillo off the tip of his finger and savors that first long drag of aromatic vapor, pulling the hot smoke into his mouth, down his throat and deep into his lungs. As he exhales, the familiar pleasant buzz hits. He closes his eyes and leans back against the outside wall of the Bunnies’ bar, smiling slightly, feeling the rough wood on his bare back.

After returning from the business with Lucky Pete, Somrak had become acutely aware of how rank with sweat he’d become that morning, when Saira had tasked him with carrying a comatose and dying Dion halfway across Three Rats. While he knows several utilitarian spells for healing minor wounds, repelling vermin, blocking eavesdropping magic, opening locks, and so on, one thing he has never mastered is magic for sprucing up himself and his clothing in the field. Fortunately Alma was not overly put off by a little body odor earned in the service of saving her sweetheart’s life, which was good because, after telling her Sky’s secret and admitting that he’d been leading her on, planning to take Pete’s information and suicidally go it alone, Somrak had really needed a hug.

He chuckles at the thought. Somrak needed a hug. Sky would get a kick out of that. He takes another drag on the thin cigar, not one of the rare Angelino Golds that Sky had given to him only a few days before. He hasn’t even smoked any since the one he’d had outside the party just a few days ago. Has it been a week? And I was standing right here, this very spot, when Alma came out. The memory of that night has been much in his thoughts ever since.

He sighs, trying to think of something else. His hair, unbound, is clinging to his shoulders and upper back in damp locks, and he is wearing a pair of Popula-blue trousers that Rosemary found in storage while Cherry took his shirt and underclothes away to wash. She had offered to wipe down his leather jacket and pants, but those, fortunately, were enchanted to clean themselves slowly, so he had told her they only needed to be hung up for a little while. Funny how Merri hadn’t been able to find him a shirt when he knew, from staying here before, that that storage room had plenty of shirts. He chuckles again. Silly Bunny.

It’s good to see them again. He’s cautioned them all not to mention he’s here, telling them the partial truth that he’s in trouble with his bosses and he’s not supposed to be coming around. Cherry had looked suspiciously at him, leading him to guess she was thinking he’d somehow heard that Alma and Dion had had a fight. She had also seemed quite sad, though despite that and whatever suspicions she might be harboring, she’d welcomed him and told him they’d have his room ready. Again, he’d told her no need. Conversely, Tulip curling up on his lap was exactly what he needed – just holding a sweet kid like that while she chattered away, asking him about the complex tattoo across the left side of his chest, he could feel the tension leaving. He’ll go back in again soon and ask Cherry what’s wrong. They’re all worried, sensing things aren’t right. It won’t be long before it’s impossible to keep Sky’s absence a secret. Probably already too late.

And then, with a golden flare, an oval portal opens up not ten steps away from him. It’s not Alma’s, Somrak knows that immediately. The goddess uses a different school of magic. This is more the standard sort of portal, popular with wizards of the Academy of Magic and therefore in common usage across the Insula. Somrak tenses – it could be anybody. It could be an attack.

He is relieved when out of the portal steps Gwydion, just as shirtless as Somrak is, his hair similarly damp, but his face pale and his expression wild and pugnacious. He looks this way and that, his gaze locking on Somrak, his jaw clenching and shoulders flexing.

Somrak almost drops his cigarillo. “Dion! Are you–”

Dion moves unsteadily but quickly toward Somrak, but his toe catches on a rock in the bare dirt of the patch of breezeway between the portal and his target. Somrak, who puts his arms out to catch Dion even as he is thinking Is he attacking me? suddenly finds himself staggering backward, not sure what just happened but seeing the familiar flash of light triggered by his occipital lobe making contact with the inside of his skull.

It takes a moment for his head to clear enough for him to realize he’s been punched in the jaw. Though if he hadn’t known it was Dion’s rock-hard fist backed by a powerfully muscled body and countless hours of training in the martial arts, Somrak would have guessed he’d been kicked by a mule.

But stunned as Somrak is, he has been fighting longer than Dion has been alive, and most of it has been outside the training hall. Even as he admonishes himself for his carelessness, his arms are up and blocking Dion’s rapid follow-up blows without any conscious thought, slowly giving ground to give himself time to recover. When his back brushes the wall, he sideslips unconsciously, letting Dion punch the wall hard enough to chip paint off with a boom that echoes through the bar, making the nearby door rattle in its frame. Ending up beside and slightly behind Dion, Somrak grabs his opponent’s wrist, whips it behind Dion’s back, and pushes the god into the wall hard just hard enough to hopefully knocks some sense into him. Somrak elects not to hold into the wrist and twist it into a painful pin, however, instead releasing and dancing back, trying to leave behind that message of what he could have done.

“You sure got up on the wrong side of bed,” Somrak quips, bouncing lightly on the balls of his bare feet, half-closed hands up and ready. He rolls his shoulders, the muscles of his back flaring out like a cobra’s hood.

“Don’t you dare make fun of this!” Dion roars, charging again, whipping punches at Somrak that the smirking, ponytailed god barely manages to parry, blows backed by an unreasoning rage. “You bastard! You lied to us! Used us! For what?”

Dion might have considerably more muscle mass, but Somrak’s body is like a steel spring, compact, light, and despite the amazing speed of Dion’s blows, Somrak is considerably faster. He is tempted, so tempted, to go for it, just put it to the test, fight it out with Dion and see who comes out on top. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Alma – well, not much. Somrak just likes to fight. In their time as off-blue partners, Somrak and Sky had gone one-on-one a half-dozen times. Heck, those fights had brought them closer. Besides, everything goes all black-and-white once the violence starts. There’s no need for moral equivocation or consideration of multiple viewpoints. When some guy is trying to beat you to a pulp, the only thing you need to worry about is doing unto him before he does unto you.

Except…not this time. Dion is flagging. Wherever he got all that energy to cast a portal, come charging through, and start doing his best to turn Somrak’s face into tenderized steak, Dion is running out of that energy fast. He’s already slowing and stumbling. Somrak knows that all he has to do is keep blocking attacks for maybe half a minute longer and Dion will fall flat on his face. No fun beating a guy who can’t possibly win.

And on top of that, what will Alma think if he beats up her guy? And right after she’s healed him, too?

So he stays on defense and replied to Dion’s demand for explanation. “For what? For Sky! For you!” He blocks two more blows, constantly moving off the line-of-attack, forcing Dion to keep shifting his aim and moving his feet.

“You think we’d leave him there?” Dion cries. “Or leave that necromancer loose to attack us again?” One of Dion’s blows almost lands, but it is so weak that Somrak easily wards it off with a sweep of his forearm. Dion shakes his head. “I must have been mentally ill to trust you!” The god drops his fists, head down, breathing heavily and apparently doing all he can just to stay standing.

Somrak stops, lowering his guard halfway. “Dion. I was going to go in alone. I didn’t want to put you and Alma at risk. I… Yes I used you. I needed help with the investigation. But I was planning to ditch you. It just seemed too dangerous.”

Somrak’s conciliatory words seem to rekindle Dion’s fury. His eyes glow with golden light and an aura flares around his head and shoulders, different now, brighter than before, and within it…dragons? “Dangerous? You kept us in the dark! I told you about the devil and you lied to my face! You put us at risk – you!

Somrak feels the ground beneath his feet soften. He tries to spring away but finds himself trapped in sticky, viscous mud that defies gravity, already climbing halfway up his calves to immobilize him. Somrak realizes Dion maneuvered him to stand where there was no grass to make the spell work easier. “Tricky son of a–” Somrak mutters just before Dion’s right fist crashes into his cheek, knocking him off-balance so that his shoulders and the back of his head slam against the wall. The unexpected reversal is so sudden that Somrak’s divine sphere flares to life, his aura a fiery mandala through which a flaming tiger leaps, and when Somrak slaps the wall to push himself back on-balance, he leaves a hand-shaped scorch hot enough to burn through the pain and into the wood.

“Look at me!” Dion roars, throwing another punch that Somrak evades only by bending at the knees and hurling himself below the strike, slipping in the widening patch of mud, a flailing hand grabbing Dion’s pants-leg. Somrak twists as he falls, landing on his back with a splash of muck, only to have his breath knocked out when Dion lands on top of him.

The spell, meant only to momentarily immobilize Somrak, seems to have gone out of control, creating a small pool of now-soupy sludge. The two shirtless gods wrestle, their rugged, sinewy bodies slick with mud. Somrak grabs Dion’s shoulders and manages to roll over on top, but his hand slips. With no shirt, a muddy Dion is almost impossible to hold onto for long, and Dion’s extra mass gives him the advantage in a ground fight. Soon he’s back on top, Somrak beneath trying to wrap his legs around Dion’s waist, arms spread wide with his hands gripping Dion’s wrists just to keep the other god from pounding him. “Come on, Prettyboy,” Somrak grunts. “Lemme buy you a drink and let’s talk this over.”

There is a click and a flash. For a moment Somrak thinks he’s been punched in the head a third time, but all fists are accounted for. He grinds the back of his head deeper into the mud and looks back to see Cherry, upside down from his perspective, grinning, holding a camera and using her thumb to advance the film. She raises it again to her eye and says, “Cheese!” before the camera flashes again.

Somrak begins laughing at the absurdity of it all. Merri is standing next to Cherry, staring at the two wrestling, mud-slick gods, her milky, freckled complexion flushed pink, her emerald eyes wide, pupils dilated, looking like a longtime dream of hers has just been fulfilled. Next to her, Tulip and Chime, still young teenagers, are laughing their heads off, holding onto each other to keep from falling down. And next to them…

Alma is standing with her arms crossed, not looking happy at all.

Somrak stops laughing and had to fight an urge to leap to his feet and salute. Dion, on top of him, growls, “What are you laughing at, you lying sack of…” He trails off as Somrak points, uses one index finger from a gripping hand to point at their audience. Dion freezes, staring at Alma.

Somrak spits to the side, trying to get some mud out of his mouth. “So, uh, I dropped my keys and Dion here was trying to help me find them…”

This is met with stony silence from Alma, who simply continues to glare at Dion.

Cherry looks up at Alma, hesitates a moment, then asks, “You know all them old stories about giant gods wrestlin’ and makin’ mountain ranges and canyons and stuff by accident? Is this the truth behind the myths?”

The corner of Alma’s mouth twitches slightly. “I believe in some of those stories, ‘wrestling’ is a euphemism for something more amorous.”

“Oh goodness, I hope so,” Merri breathes as she puts her hand to her cheek, still looking dreamily at the two gods.

Somrak’s laughter echoes off the walls, and he allows his arms and legs to drop limp into the mire. He’s pretty sure Dion isn’t going to punch him now, and too amused and tired to care if he does.

And Dion does sit back and then rise from his knees, hardly a patch of skin free of the gleaming mud. He flicks some from his fingers and tries to wipe mud from his face, only succeeding in spreading it further. “Just…needed to set something straight.”

“With your fists?” Alma demands. “And what happened to your pants?” There is a gaping, black-edged rent in one leg of Dion’s trousers. Alma takes Dion’s hand and helps him step free of the mud pit, then holds a hand over his thigh. “As I thought, a minor burn. Just what you need, more wounds.” She touches Dion’s leg to heal him.

Getting into a sitting position requires some effort on Somrak’s part. “Oh…sorry. Things got a little hot.”

“I’ll say!” Merri jokes, while Tulip points at the hand-shaped scorch on the wall. “Look! That’s so cool!”

Cherry gasps. “Hey! You coulda set the bar on fire! And what are we gonna do about all this mud? Is it gonna change back?”

“You two will be the death of me,” Alma mutters.

Somrak touches the side of his mouth, checks his fingers, and grins at the sight of blood. He struggles to his feet Then he works on getting out of the mud, trying to smile reassuringly at the Bunnies. Meanwhile, Gwydion says quietly to Alma, “Sorry. I’ll surrender to your care.”

“Oh, now you say that?” Alma snaps at him. “Do you realize how difficult it was to heal you? Is it that amusing to leave me sick with worry?”

Dion looks positively miserable at this. “No. Not amusing at all.” He sways slightly, appearing to suddenly suffer a bout of dizziness.

Somrak moves quickly to catch him, steadying him with hands on Dion’s elbow and shoulder. “Whoa, there.” As Dion looks at Somrak in surprise, the latter asks Alma, “Where do you want him?”

Alma takes Dion’s arm and leads him two steps to the right. “Right here. I’ll see him to a warm bath. You can have the marvelous treat of explaining all this to your audience.” Her expression softens. “Come see me when you’re done and I’ll take care of your bruises.”

Somrak smirks as Alma raises the colorful curtain of magical energies that is the portal to her room, but his smile fades as she and Dion disappear and he has to think fast about what he can tell the Bunnies.

“So…looks like I need another shower.”

“Oh, ye’re not trackin’ mud all over our nice clean floors,” Merri scolds him. “Chime, Tulip! We need buckets of water.” The two younger Bunnies dash into the bar.

Somrak’s shoulders slump. “Seriously?”

Cherry points at the fallen half-smoked cigar. “And we ain’t pickin’ that up. You know how bad that smells?” She grins. “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll get you rinsed, then you can take another shower and by then your clothes’ll be ready. And we are just itchin’ to hear how you’re gonna explain all about them lies Dion was yellin’ about. Not that it’s any of our business…”

Somrak sighs as Tulip comes running out the door and gleefully hurls a bucketful of cold water on him.

Ch6.77 Trust

Pain. Seering, all-consuming pain. Spreading through his body, tracing every single blood vessel in acid and fire, destroying him from the inside, making his body turn against itself. He tries to detach his mind from it, to find a better place for his thoughts so that he can survive it. But it is stronger than his will. He cannot remember anything good to hold on to. Not even anything bad. His past, his name, gone. All gone.

Fates, the agony!

He can’t even remember his shape. Scales…were there scales? Talons? The long, spiked tail thrashing in the ether, is that his? The roar in his chest.

Let me out…

No…No! He cannot. Never! It must never come out. It is foul, tainted. It is violent and untamed. He cannot let it out or it will consume him. He has never seen it but he knows, he knows… He knows its heart. His own heart. The blackness slumbering in his core, spiteful and ill-tempered, flailing in fitful sleep whenever something dares hurt him. He has kept it asleep for so long. Imprisoned for a lifetime. He must…he must… Gods, please! Please! No more pain! Death! Please, death instead!…Death instead… The Void…

Let Me Out!




He is ready to give in. Anything, anything that will drown the pain, the ever-rising heat that might send him into combustion at any moment. Anything that will stop this rotting of his body, of his soul into a shapeless mass of unhallowed pus. He feels it already, life escaping from him like a great torrent gushing downhill after the rain. No use…no use in fighting. The sickness is already eating through the last of his walls. Soon, the monster inside him will be free, whether he wants it or not. It roars for freedom already. It roars for survival. He cannot fight it any longer. Let the gates crumble. Let the chains break.


He feels it spreading its wings, powerful neck bending backwards, stretched to its full length for the first time in over a century. Claws gripping at his heart, claiming hold of what is left of him, siphoning his lifeforce, his power as if drinking from a wild spring. Anger at how little is left to drink.


I am dying.

Weakling! We are not weak! Fight for our life!

He is so tired… So tired.

I can’t–


I would rather die…

And then it comes. Slow at first, just a tingle against his senses. And then stronger, furious, rushing in the wake of the poison, crashing in a howling wave. Unstoppable. Endless. It washes over him, a blanket of cleansing, liquid will. Desperate. Powerful. Breathtaking. He gasps as its touch flares the pain again, as it wars with the poison, now winning, now losing, unrelenting. Unrelenting.

Mine, it seems to say.




The thing inside him slithers away from its nest of ages, out of his sight. He lets it. Whether it will kill him or fight for him, he cannot control it any longer. All he can do is fight for breath as the battle raging inside him escalates at the arrival of the newly released force. To watch as it traps the foul poison between two clashing powers. As the tide turns. As the pain subsides.

A feeling of freshness and quiet spreads through his conscience. A memory of lilac, of willow branches bathing their leaves in old, winding rivers. A cool touch, soft and loving. A whispered lullaby brushing against his senses. Lulling the beast inside him, calling it back to its nest. To sleep for now. To rest. Free. Finally free.

He tries to remember whose will this is that fought for him, that watches over him now. Whose touch. Whose gentle, welcome, so welcome presence. The name evades him. The name means nothing. He knows and lies open to her. Unguarded. Unresisting. Unafraid.

This is her home. All of it is hers to know. He missed her so much. In its nest of centuries, the beast dozes, bathed in her scent, her shimmering shadows. Safe.


And then she is gone. No, not gone. Not completely. A part of her has stayed behind, somehow. But her presence is fainter now and he misses her already. He would go after her if he did not feel so tired. So drained. Maybe if he rests just for a moment, she will be back by the time he wakes. The sense of coolness that remains, the peace of this place makes it easy to sleep. He breathes in the liquid, blue-ish twilight in which he floats, weightless, undisturbed for the gods know how long. Resting.

A tickling sensation to his nose rouses him back from slumber. Something brushing against his skin, light and silky. He opens his eyes into darkness. Nighttime already? How long has he been asleep? Again, brushing against his cheek. He turns, wide-eyed. His mouth opens. Wow… So pretty… Long blue feathers floating in the breeze. He reaches to catch one but it flies away from his short arms, his tiny hands. It is so beautiful… Like a piece of the sky, teasing him to follow. He runs after it, tries to catch it again but it is flying faster now and his legs are too short. Flying faster, attached to a bird at least as tall as he is. Blue. All of it blue. Different shades, metallic glimmers. Gliding in the darkness, bright against the stark-black shadows. Slowly. As if it wants him to follow.

He stumbles, not used to these short legs. Weren’t his legs much longer? But still, he runs after the beautiful bird. It looks…so familiar, somehow. Like he should know it but he doesn’t remember ever seeing it in the garden. Mommy would have told him its the name. She would have called it over so he could pet it. He follows it into the grassy confines of the garden, tripping in the green blades of the rich lawn but just managing to stay upright, watching with awe as the waters of the many basins and little ponds filled with small fish and aquatic plants reflect the deep, vibrant blues of the bird’s belly as it flies over them.

It turns in flight and lands on the back of a cast-iron chair, facing him, one ambarine eye, bright as if lit by an internal fire, focused on him. He walks slowly toward it, fearing it might fly away.

“Hi,” he says in soft tones.

“Dion?” a woman’s voice calls. His mommy’s voice. “What are you doing?”

He looks back at the the beautiful lady sitting on the grass, just a few steps away from him. Her coppery-red hair shines in morning light, the watery reflections from a pond nearly making her freckles look as if they are dancing over her pale skin. She is smiling, enjoying his antics.

“Look, Mommy!” Dion replies, pointing a slightly chubby childish finger at the perched, watchful bird. “Ish a buddy.”

“Yes, it is,” Mommy replies, her hazel eyes never straying from his. “Her name is Starfax, remember? Can you remember, Dion?”

Dion shakes his head. “No, Mommy. Ish Stahfac my fwiend? Can I pet he’?”

“Why don’t you ask her?” Mommy says, gesturing at the bird. “But after that, you have to remember, all right? Can you do that for me?”

“Yesh, Mommy,” Dion tells her, confused. He does not know what she wants him to remember but he will try to anyway. He would do anything for Mommy. He turns to the bird. “Hi, Stahfac. Ah you my fwiend?”

The bird looks at him from up on her perch and lowers her head before daintily jumping down to perch on the chair arm, within reach of Dion’s short frame. He walks closer to her, one arm stretched, hand open toward the Starfax.

“Can I pet you, Stahfac?” Dion asks, taking another slow step.

His fingers are very close to her now. He wonders if she will take flight and leave before he can touch her. But she lowers her head and brushes the side of her face against his fingertips, standing still as he strokes her long neck in an open-handed, slightly clumsy stroke.

“Pwetty…” he breathes, fascinated with her colors, her softness. She is so friendly…

And suddenly, she disintegrates. Breaks into hundreds of tiny pieces. Long shapes, with thin bodies. With delicate wings. Flying! Flying in a frenzy, in all directions. He counts them with his fingers but there are so many! Must be…lots of them! Lots more than ten! So many colors…

He snaps his hands forward, thrilling at the soft, tickling brushing of insect wings beating frantically against his palms. Careful now. Very careful. He does not want to squish it but he wants to see if he caught one. He peeks through his fingers. Relaxes his hands just a little… He got one! He did! It’s there! Finally, finally he caught one! So pretty too! Blue, with big, yellowish eyes.

“Mommy! Mommy, look!” he calls out in glee. “I got a dagonfly!”

A shriek. “DION!”

He turns to where his mommy was sitting just a moment ago to see her standing, her face covered in blood, her body drenched in a black oil of some sort. She is hurt and something is dragging her. Something like a big dark cloud with tentacles that wrap around her legs and pull at her. Daddy is being dragged too. His head is looking very red and slimy. His body is already half in the cloud. Arms, many and clawed are coming out of the cloud to grab his motionless body.

“Daddy?” Dion asks, frozen in place, tears of terror streaming down his cheeks. “Mommy, whash wong with Daddy?”

“Dion, run!” Mommy screams. “Run, baby! Hide! No – mmmh!”

A thing like a blob of slime slaps over her mouth and pulls her further into the dark. He kicks, her body shining with a strong light for a moment before it goes off.

“MOMMY, NO!!” Dion shrieks, running toward where his mommy is just disappearing from sight, his hands letting go of the dragonfly.

He is so scared. So scared. What is happening? Why did Daddy look so hurt? Where are they taking his parents? Who is taking his parents away from him? He wants to go too! He wants to go! No one takes his family away! No one! He jumps into the cloud, into the clawed arms and squishy tentacles that shoot out of it to grab him.


He is in the dark. It’s darker than dark. And they are many, so many. Coming from all directions. Flailing at him, slapping him, grabbing him. But he is not small anymore. No, no. He is big now. Really big. As strong as they are. Stronger than they are. And the dark isn’t dark anymore because he is shining with a golden light. Bright like Mommy’s. Golden like Daddy’s. Glorious. Holy. He can see the shadows now. The things in them. They have too many arms, too many legs. Too many mouths. Some don’t have mouths. Some are like huge worms with shells like crabs. Some are just bendy, shapeless lines like leafless trees. All of them are shadows against his light. They try to hide from him but he can see them all. He roars, bellows, calling his parents.

He runs at the monsters. He is big. He can fight them now. A strike of his hand rips an arm from its socket. A lash from his knee fractures a skull. He bites a tentacle off its owner, scorches the inside of a mouth to a crisp when it dares close around his wrist. His touch is poison, fire to them. His strike is light, blinding them, making them shriek. He is the beast of their nightmares, the monster whose name they dare not speak. He will destroy them all.

But there are too many of them. Too many. Even if he is big, if the thing inside him runs loose and basks in the killing of their kind, their numbers make them bold. They attack when the should run in fear. They seek to overpower him. Still he fights.

He fights.

A shadow at the corner of his vision. Not a shadow. A fault in the light. Like someone took a pair of scissors and cut a shape into the light he casts around himself. A shape of nothingness. Of Void. Four legs, a powerful neck, a great, muscular body. Billowing manes and tail, white and black. Dion watches as the demons that were attacking him switch targets and attack the newcomer, roaring and shrieking their challenge at the apparently easier target.

But they are wrong. As soon as they touch the massive stallion, they disintegrate, seemingly vanishing into the nothingness that is its body. It makes no notice of them, walking calmly, silently in Dion’s direction. And as they realize the power of the new arrival, the lowering of their odds of victory, the demons start to cringe away, hiding at the edges of Dion’s vision.

What are you doing, Gwydion? the stallion asks.

And who are you, that you know my name?

It looks straight at him but how can that be? Dion is so much larger than it in this form? As big as the light he spreads around him.

I am Arion, Void Rider, the horse says, unimpressed with his power. And I am here for you. Why haven’t you banished these pitiful creatures yet?


He remembers now. Who he is. His size. His shape. He feels himself shrink–no, pull back. Back into his skin. The light follows him to lie in a wide circle around his feet. Around his knees. Around his hands. He kneels, panting, exhausted, covered in blood and demon flesh, a summoning circle of cleansing glyphs surrounded in shadows by a halo of ghastly sigils, like a living key to the gateways of purification and damnation. A holder of the keys to Hell.

No… It can’t be.

He looks up at Arion with mild affront and breathes in deeply before finding his own voice. “Pitiful creatures? I was fighting with all my strength.”

It sounds rougher than usual to his ears, as if he has been shouting at the top of his lungs for hours, but Arion seems unconcerned. The great horse steps closer to him, his long, massive head lowering to touch its muzzle to Dion’s shoulder and nudge the god’s face with a very soft, very whiskery lip.

A lip that does not move when Arion gently scolds him, They are things of dreams, Gwydion. Their strength is what you give them. He backs away, leaving Dion’s cheek feeling cold at the absence of Arion’s warm breath against his skin. Breathe deeply and focus. You have the means to banish them all at your will. You have always known how to do it.

Things of dreams. So this is…a dream? A dream. His dream. Made from memory. From knowledge he keeps deep within him. Like the thing hiding at his core. A part of him. Of his essence. Locked in shackles through all these years. Sitting there his whole life.

Where would I go? We are one.

Does he truly have the knowledge, the power to banish demons beyond textbook spells? More than just memory? More than just talent with magic? A…sphere?

Call on me. Your power, give it to me. I will show you.

He nods, focusing his senses. His whole life, he has used his mana by channeling it through the complex, filtered pathways written by mortals, whose weaker bodies cannot store mana nor bear the passage of too much of it in one sitting. Mortals channel mana, using their own lifeforce to open the pathways through which the magic of the world flows through them, acquiring the shape they mean it to have. But a god…A god is a being of magic. Mana is part of a god’s lifeforce, one of many parts. A god’s body produces mana, absorbs it, releases it without harm to himself in its purest form, unbidden, barely changed. Raw mana that would kill a mortal if it ever entered mortal flesh in this state. Dion had dreamed many times of using it but somehow had always failed to do so, to bend his power to his wishes like all gods seem to do. Without his spells, Dion’s mana lay dormant at his core, beyond his reach.

And it seems to him now that the reason for that is the same wall which kept his fears at bay, this great and powerful beast within that he cannot control, that he has sought to keep confined in the cage of his will. But it is free now. They are both free.

An aura of gold appears around him as the summoning circle at his feet shrinks, tightens around him in motes of light. In motes of darkness. A scent of salt sizzling against hot iron fills his senses, the smell of white cedar rises to his nostrils. And now he can see it more clearly, what made him feel so big before. His aura, an aura of light stretches around him, covering his skin with scaly designs surrounding him with a beastly profile, massive jaws gaping atop a powerful neck, skull-smashing tail curled around his legs. Like the dragons of his youth. Clearer, more detailed than ever before.

From their hiding place, the demons bellow in pain and fear. They flail in agony as Dion’s magic focuses on them and sears through them, cutting and burning, blasting them into blackened, infernal sludge. Banished. No, not banished. Destroyed. Gone, forever. And then it is done and his aura blinks out. He feels tired. So tired now. But he is still sleeping, still dreaming. And now his violent core lies sated, its job done for now.

“What is happening?” Dion asks, once again struggling for breath.

You will soon find out, Arion replies as the god of magic rises to his feet. For now, all you need to know is that this is your nature and that you must not fear it any longer. It is what you were born to be.

And then, the horse-god throws his head back with a trilled neigh and his form wavers, distorts into blackness – no, emptiness – and reforms again, into a more human-like shape, kind features and plaited hair clashing with those empty, slanted, light-consuming eyes. Though he stands relaxed and smiling beatifically, everything about Arion speaks of many years lived. Many, many more than Dion. Power, raw and virile, emanates from every line, every curve of his profile. An image that could lead the legions of the world marching straight into Hell and out the other side. Or steal a young goddess’ heart and leave her with seven children to care for that the world has done everything to destroy…

Dion cannot help but feel small again, inferior to the former Archon in every way even standing before this apparently innocuous form of Arion, Void Rider. Still, he does his best to suppress the thought before his mind starts wondering how he could ever compete with this god for his beloved’s affection. “Have you come here just to show me my true ability?”

Arion’s smile is slightly unnerving. Mostly because his lips do not move when he speaks. No. I was looking for you and merely happened to stumble on your curious dream. May we speak?

Telepathy. Probably a must-have feature when one is a horse most of the time.

“Of course,” Dion replies with a nod.

The garden reappears around them, green and unsoiled, bereft of any other presence, real or imagined. The cast-iron table and chairs sit just to their right. Arion motions toward them.

I have a message, the former Archon says, taking a seat. From your friend, Tuma-Sukai. He is not well.

“He has been taken from us.” Dion sits, his heart racing at the possibility of news from Sky. “We have been looking for him but with no luck so far. How did you find him?”

Arion tilts his head, seemingly amused at Dion’s question. In a dream. I would not have invaded your mind but I am having difficulty in finding Alma’s. Her thoughts are no longer with me. His eyes lock their gaze on Dion, a strange smirk pulling at the corner of Arion’s lip like a schoolmaster looking at an until now honest student he knows has cheated on a test. They have not been with me for some time now.

A flutter against Dion’s cheek, sudden weight against his right shoulder. He does not flinch, instead turning his head slightly, half-expecting to see the goddess materialized behind him at the mere mention of her name. But it is Starfax’s shape, Alma’s pet phoenix, that he finds perching on his shoulder, preening her feathers in relaxed decorum. The beautiful bird from before…How did he not recognize her? He raises his hand to touch her neck and she tilts her head, welcoming the caress, this time thankfully remaining in one piece. He had never been this close to her before, especially not without Alma nearby. Even now, he feels the goddess’ presence in the phoenix, as if the two shared a single soul.

And it is on his shoulder that Starfax perches. His, not Arion’s. He takes petty pleasure in that dawning realization. But more important issues are on the table. Sky’s message, what will it be? That is urgent. It starts to dawn on him that Arion, like many of the older gods, has a rather faint, distorted notion of urgency. And of priority, for that matter.

“I doubt Alma will willingly sleep before we find Tuma-Sukai,” Dion states as Starfax idly cleans her diamond beak against his thumbnail. “And if I hadn’t been poisoned… Do you know where he is?”

He is not on the Insula but somewhere connected to it, Arion says. An independent reality or pocket universe, as people are wont to call such places. Unfortunately, I cannot place him precisely. And if you are looking for him, know that he is being tortured but holds still some sense of sanity.

Amazing…Arion does not look bothered in the least by the notion of a god being tortured in captivity. Like it is all just an unfortunate by-product of Fate. Dion’s gut, however, twists at this. Torture… Gods, what are they doing to his friend?

“If you cannot determine where, do you know anything about those who are holding him?” he asks.

Arion nods. Your friend tells me that his captors names are Nua and Margrave. And to look for Nua in the records of the Necromancer’s war, two hundred years ago.

“Alma has those records,” Dion says, half to himself. “Do you know why they are doing this?”

Arion shakes his head. It will be Tuma-Sukai’s story to tell, I am afraid. I cannot enter the minds of the vigilant to know such things. His brow furrows slightly, his first sign of concern. However… he seems to believe this to be a trap of some sort. To capture any possible rescuers.

Most likely worried about Alma, Dion thinks. He sighs. “That confirms our assumption, I’m afraid.”

Still, you plan on intervening, Arion notes, studying his face.

Dion nods, watching a small, somewhat saddened smile flower on Arion’s lips. “It will not stop us. But the more we know going in, the better. Is there anything else he told you, even inadvertently, unconsciously?”

Wings flap, weight lifts from his shoulder. Dion turns his head to find Starfax gone, flown away.

Our time is at its end, Arion announces.

Dion’s eyes widen. “But–”

Be good to her, Gwydion, Arion says, the garden-dream already collapsing around the two of them. I hope for your happiness together.


“Arion, wait!” Dion calls.

But it is too late. He is bathed in blueish twilight again. Alone.

A feeling of coolness and wetness spreads over his face and he closes his eyes as the fresh sensation travels over his skin, across his lips, his cheeks, until it rests on his face. It is soothing, reviving. Awakening.

He opens his eyes to full consciousness and to the heartwarming image of Alma sitting by his side. Her hand on his bare chest, the swirling light of her pearlescent eyes resting on him with softness and concern, her pupils now a little wider at the sight of him awake.

“Al–” he tries to speak but his tongue feels like sandpaper and his throat feels like it has harbored a sandstorm.

She strokes his cheek, leaning a little closer to his face. “Shhh, I’m here.”

She speaks in a low voice, a small, tired smile curling her lips. Her right hand reaches for a neatly-folded handkerchief resting on her bedside table and picks it up, dipping it in a glass of clear water that shines faintly with a blueish glimmer that makes the wheels of his mind turn sluggishly around their axles. A dream…there was a dream. Of liquid twilight.

Alma touches the wet handkerchief to his lips and he parts them slightly to let the refreshing liquid trickle in slow droplets into his parched mouth. Within seconds, he feels life return to it.

“Alma…” he tries again, his voice still rough but better now.

“You gave me quite a fright, you know?” she tells him, putting the handkerchief down on the rim of the glass and removing the wet cloth from his forehead to soak it in a basin.

Dion looks at her in a daze. He remembers…remembers arguing with her, being away from her, heartbroken at the distance between them. Pain in her eyes at the sight of him, grief at his presence. Her hand touching his, her face begging him to end this torment, to mend the seams of their love affair. And now here she is, a shadow of that pain still in her gaze but a gentle smile on her lips, gladness and relief that he is awake. Has he somehow forgotten that eagerly awaited reunion? Did she just somehow forgive him as he slept his fever away? But why? Why would she? Did he talk to her, tell her all the things he needed to say, needs to say? Over and over.

Did he…did he somehow find the right words but forgot he spoke them? No, no. He thought them, maybe, again and again. Promised himself he would say them. And he still needs to say, “Alma, I was so wrong.” He reaches for her hand where it rests on his chest, encircling her wrist in a weak grip. “I wish I could take back everything. Please…”

She has released the cloth at his first words, her smile faltering for a moment, but her eyes turn to his and lock there, affection in them, vivid and palpable. “Remember that I told you that sometimes you say the sweetest things when you are not paying attention to what you say?”

Dion’s eyes widen and he feels his stomach clench at the possibility of having said something he shouldn’t in his poison-induced fevered state. He nods and swallows his unease. “What did I say?”

Alma smiles at his reaction. “I will let you know, someday. When we have time. For now…” She exhales deeply and slowly shakes her head. “I am tired of this fight.”

She has forgiven him! Has she forgiven him? Oh please, please, gods of love and fate, have mercy and let it be so. “Does this mean what I hope it means?” he asks, craving and dreading the answer.

Alma brushes a lock of his hair away from his forehead in answer, leaning down until her nose nearly touches his. “That depends on what you hope for.”

And then her lips are touching his, sealing the unspoken truce and end of their fight, flooding the chasm that for too long has kept them apart with their taste, their love. He drinks from those flood waters with the thirst of barren days, returning her kiss with all the passion and longing his sickly condition allows him. Relief. Such overwhelming relief.

Ours again…

An impulse has him wrapping an arm around her torso, twisting his body until he rolls on his right side, the whole of her body pulled onto the bed with a little gasp of surprise, her legs lying over and across his. The movement makes him dizzy. He nearly collapses, half of his body lying over hers, arm still around her, pinning her in place under him. Not to leave. Never to leave. Never to let go.

It takes him a few breaths, his nose taking in the scent of her skin in blissful inhalations, to ward off the nausea of the sudden movement. He feels the healing touch of a small kiss of hers to the side of his head infuse him with lightness, sending away the vertigo.

Another deep inhalation and he masters himself enough to raise the weight of his body on an elbow and look at her, one hand cupping her cheek. To speak again, voice just above a breath. “Gods, I miss you…”

She smiles as his lips travel the distance keeping them from hers. “I miss you too.”

And though his mouth tastes like something foul to his own tongue, he kisses her again, slowly, passion dampened by the weakness of his body, delighting in the way she kisses him back without reservation, her fingers running through his sweat-drenched hair. His beautiful, caring lover returned to his arms.




They break away after a short eternity of breathless contact. Alma’s legs have somehow moved without Dion noticing and she lies fully on the bed now, her body snuggled closely against his, one hand stroking his side. Smiling, yes, but with sadness in her lovely features. He pulls away just enough to rest his head on the pillow by her side, holding her closely.

“There is something wrong, isn’t there?” he asks, icy dread spreading down his spine at the possibility that this might not be, after all, the end to their fight.

She snuggles a little closer to him. “There’s something I have to tell you. About Sky.”

Sky… Of course! The dream! There was a dream! Quick now, before it is gone. “Yes!” he exclaims excitedly. “There’s something I need to tell you too! About Sky.”

Alma pulls away a little in surprise, looking at him, confused. “You learned something more than Pete’s location from the poisoner?”

Dion shakes his head, fighting a silly, inappropriate urge to laugh. “No, not the poisoner. I–” He catches himself sounding like a lunatic and pauses to level his tone. “This may sound strange – I had a dream just now. There was a horse. A great black stallion who strolled into it to speak to me.”

Alma’s face is a mask of astonishment and unease. “Arion? In your dream?”

He cannot help but chuckle at her expression. Doe she fear they spent a dream comparing notes about her, he wonders. Or fighting for her hand? “He had a message and since someone hasn’t been sleeping…” he explains, stroking her hair. His face darkens at the considerably more serious content of the message. “Sky is alive. In a pocket universe, somewhere. Held by someone called Nua, from the Necromancer War, two hundred years ago. She is torturing him. And there was another…Margrave. Arion is trying to help Sky, I think.”

The memory of Arion’s last words to him makes him smile again. “He asked me…to be good to you. And be happy with you.”

Alma’s expression changes, flashing through different expressions like water rippling under a stronger breeze. Horror to discomfort to happiness to sadness. She lowers her eyes for a moment. “Oh Gwydion, this is so much more complicated than we thought…”

“Well, meeting old flames can be like that…” Dion notes.

Alma looks at him, her jaw dropping slightly though no sound comes out of her throat. She closes her mouth again and sighs before speaking. “That is not what I mean… Gwydion, there…there’s something you need to know.”

Dion’s silly grin disappears from his face at the seriousness of her tone. “What is it?”

“While you were sleeping, after I healed you, we went to the prison and interrogated Pete,” she explains. “Somrak and I. I left Starfax watching over you–” she gestures to the fountain, where Starfax is perched, watching them, her feathers glowing faintly with her healing magic “–to make sure you rested and to restore you a little quicker. We may have found out where Sky is being kept.”

She swallows, her brows furrowing as if she is having to force herself to say the next words. “But… on our way back, Somrak told me a secret. About Sky. He’s…” She sighs. “He’s not a god, Gwydion. He’s…he’s a devil.”

Dion looks at her in confusion. He blinks once, twice, wondering if he is still asleep. “Come again? Who is a devil, Sky or Somrak?”

“Sky,” Alma replies, speaking quickly as if the words burn her tongue. “Sky is a devil, escaped from Hell and rebelled. Enslaved by the Commander, in a sense.”

Dion stares at her, eyes wide, his mind incapable of processing the thought. “A..a devil? How can that be?”

Devils are….are… They are worse than demons! Sworn enemies to all godkind! How could one live so easily among gods and mortals? Become their friend, their beloved leader? How could a devil mourn the loss of a subordinate, weep for a pair of dead children? Be his friend? Alma’s friend? The trusted protector of all the Bunnies?

Alma shakes her head. “I don’t know either. Everything I ever learned tells me that it is not possible, that I should have been able to detect him with my scrying. But… I didn’t. He is like us in every way. His soul is a little odd but I’ve seen worse from other gods. I just…”

She trails off, looking miserable. “Is Somrak sure of what he is saying?” Dion asks, feeling confusion veering into anger.

I told him about the devil, he thinks.

Alma nods. “He has always known. They were partners for a very long time.” She looks at him, eyes filled with anguish. “But Gwydion, it’s still Sky. Our Sky.”

Anger begins to boil, filling him with a burning heat, making him clench his teeth. He does not know what angers him more, the truth about Sky or the notion that Somrak lied to him. Lied as if it meant nothing, as if it would not make any difference if Dion trusted him or not. He stood there, handed him a figurine covered in a devil’s blood, Sky’s own blood most likely and lied about who it belonged to. About what it meant.

“Somrak – That miserable rat…” he growls. “He lied to me. Lied to my face! I trusted him and – I’m going–”

He lets go of Alma and turns, struggling to sit up, intent on finding the lying bastard and pounding him to the worthless slime that he is made of.

“Gwydion, no!” Alma launches herself to grab him and keep him down. “You’re still weak. Please!”

“How can I rest?!” he cries, struggling against her hold. “He lied to me, to us both! I’ll kill him!”

Kill him!

He is too quick and she is in a bad position to pin him down, her body still mostly lying on the bed, no time to kneel and grab a better hold of him. He manages to sit and drag his legs over the edge of the bed in spite of her attempts to keep him down but a sudden lightheadedness and a new wave of vertigo make him pause. He puts his hand to his temple, groaning.

“See?” she scolds him, her hands on his shoulders. “You need to rest. The poison seems to be mostly gone but your body has just gone through a huge strain. Lie down. Please.”

He obeys, defeated by his body’s own evidence. His jaw is still clenched, his mind still spinning angry around a single thought: find Somrak and make him spit every single lying tooth in his rotten mouth. But he lies down.

“He lied,” Dion mutters.

“I know,” Alma replies, kneeling beside him and reaching across to grab the cloth from the basin, wring it and then use it to clean his face and chest. “But your health matters a lot more to me than that.”

“I am fine now,” he says dryly, a part of him hating the tone with which he is speaking to her.

A small part of him, currently being drowned in his simmering fury.

“No, you are not,” Alma insists. “You are weak and you are filthy. You’ve been sweating that poison out.”

“I feel like I’ve been dipped in something rotten,” Dion grudgingly admits. “My mouth tastes of lint and Cherry’s dish-rag.”

“Well, rest a little and then I will help you into the pool,” she offers, her tone one he has heard her use on the younger Bunnies when they are being stubborn and misbehaving. “You can have a nice long soak there while you bathe.”

“Will there be company?” he asks, grudgingly admitting that this sounds like a very pleasant alternative to beating the daylights out of Somrak.

Alma laughs. Just a short, quiet burst of laughter. But it sounds to him as if her need for it was something dire. “Only if you behave and stay put while I fetch you clean clothes and your grooming kit. Your shirt had to be cut away, I’m afraid.”

“My shirt?” he asks, wondering why she would commit such a crime against good fashion. “Why would you cut my shirt?”

“I was trying to get it off but Somrak decided ripping it to shreds was faster,” she replies, rolling to reach the edge of the bed opposite to him. She rises to her feet. “He is rather quick with that blade.”


As if reading his thoughts, she gives him a warning glare. “Remember, stay put. Or I will make sure you do so the hard way.”

She turns to leave and Dion watches her go, sheepishly staying in bed even after she disappears behind the privacy screen that blocks his view of the door. A good thing too, because she suddenly pokes her head through the hanging stalks of wysteria and looks at him, ready to scold him if he were to have moved. Finally, reluctantly, she leaves, the door closing behind her with a soft click of the latch. He waits for three full breaths, sits up and pulls the covers off of him, rises – too quickly. He falls back into a sitting position, waiting for the wooziness to go away. A second try, slower this time and he manages to stand.

With well practiced movements, he casts a portal spell to the breezeway.

He lied. He will pay.

He will pay.

The portal flares and he vanishes.

Forgive me, darling, but he has to pay.

Ch6.76 Trust

“Azzie… Wake up. Wake up, Azzageddi…”

His name. His hated true name. Only those who seek to bind him to their will use it. It is the name of slavery for him, for the true name of devil or demon is the command word of control, the password to the soul. Even when Alma used it – when he told it to her, without telling her why he had a secret name – it was so that he could make the Adamantine Vow, when he promised to protect the Bunnies no matter the cost to him. Although he took that vow of his own free will, in order to convince Alma to trust him, he was still, in effect, indirectly binding himself into her service.

Tuma-Sukai is the name he stole, along with his second human form, that of a tall, dark demigod, cruel and ripe for overthrow by his own people, led in uprising by Sky, in that island valley on Earth long ago. Sukai is shortened to Sky by his friends. Azzageddi is a name he would like to forget entirely.

He feels razor claws stroking lightly along his face, not quite cutting his skin. He flinches away, opening his one eye to pain, to cold, to the atmosphere of undeath and unclean death, the aura of a sanctum tuned to necrotic energies, nested within a larger one attuned to Hell. He looks up into the mad face of Nua, and memories of the island, of Arion, fade completely from his surface thoughts, to be locked away tight. With them goes all but the faintest echo of hope.

“Are you feeling better, Azzie? Is it hurting too bad?”

He shivers, his eye wide like a child that knows that soft words and a gentle touch are a precursor for reasonless punishment.

Nua runs her ring-clawed fingers along his jaw, contemplating him like an unfinished work of art. He must keep his head up or suffer lacerations. “You know, I was very mad at you for what you did so long ago, and after I was so generous to you, too. Breaking my neck like that… But I have to admit, I missed you.” She runs her metal claws down his throat, then grips him firmly, not quite choking him, the claws pressing against his skin right on the verge of puncturing it. She leans closer and gently, slowly kisses him, coaxing his lips to part, forcing her tongue into his mouth until she teases the stump encrusted with thick, half-congealed scabs that is all she has left him of his tongue.

A muffled whimpering escapes from his mouth into hers as he kisses her back. He fights the urge to scream, to roar. He raises his hands, and discovers to his shock that he is no longer chained. the chains are off. His hands are free.

He could do it now. He could change, swiftly, and kill her in his devil form.

But no. Surely she is ready for that. She must be. This is a test, to see if she has truly broken him. And even if he did succeed, there is the chain around his neck. And there is Margrave. The time is not yet ripe. He pushes all thought of rebellion deep, deep, locking it away. He is shattered. He is crushed. He is a broken beast, a slave, and that is what he will be until the right moment comes.

He touches her hair, then flinches away for fear she might punish him for daring to do so. One of her claws cuts into his neck at his movement. But Nua breaks away from the kiss, her lips twisted in a cruel smirk, victorious, stained crimson and flecked with black curds of blood. She breathes into his mouth, “Do you want to make me happy, Azzie?”

Sky nods, afraid to do anything else.

She pulls taut the chain around his neck so that the links dig in just enough to make breathing uncomfortable. “Are you going to behave?”

He nods, desperately.

Nua smiles her sick little smile, full of cruelty and insanity. “Come with me. There’s a good friend I want you to meet. Her name is Trocia.”

She leads him out of the room.

Ch6.75 Trust

It is a luxurious apartment. Or at least it would be if it hadn’t been abandoned for decades. A sample apartment in a building that was never finished due to a strange and sudden exposure of the owner’s criminal political activities, it is equipped with all of the best and most modern amenities…from twenty years ago. Here and there, signs point the visitor toward a bathroom that could have housed a family of three and their dog or a kitchen that could serve to feed a whole Guardia station. All things which would seem impossible if one were to look at the narrow honeycomb-like building from the outside, most of its scaffolding exposed to the elements. But this is a high-magic ward, even more so than Three Rats, and thus such physical impossibilities are but a pencil mark on the blueprints, a half-forgotten detail reserved for a training experience for first-year interns at the architect’s firm in charge of the project. Ah, the charm of money-crazed exuberance… This would have been a home for high-ranking mortals or even adolescent godling brats craving their first experience of life beyond the gates of their influential parents’ estates. A ‘humbling experience’, if the words humbling and platinum plated faucets could fit in the same sentence. Such things as water, power and heating still work, even after the long years of little to no use. Alma guides Somrak and the charming Not-Quite-So-Lucky Pete to a living room featuring a wall-length aquarium where holograms of fishes still swim, ageless and careless.

It had been one of the last cases she had worked in her very first station, along with Pavia, her roommate at the Academy. The bright minds of the Guardia have a tendency to post roommates together as soon as they leave the Academy, counting on the bond created during the grueling six months of Guardia instruction to generate close-knit teams of two in which each of the members is somehow expected to keep the other in check while being bound by loyalty to do everything possible to remain in whatever station they have been assigned to. Of course, this only works if at least one of the heads in that bicephalic unit is even remotely interested in being good and obedient, which had not exactly happened in Alma’s and Pavia’s case. In fact, it had not exactly happened for most of Alma’s classmates. That whole class had been exceptionally rife with students who had been, in some way or another, forced to volunteer for the Guardia, mostly younger members of Inner-Ring families whose parents were getting a little fed up with their children’s constant scandals and pointless lives. The Guardia Academy was supposed to have been for them the equivalent to one of those militarized schools that were now becoming so popular among Third Ring people. Unfortunately for the Guardia, though that year’s class of high-bred students was incredibly bright (and would later prove to be an asset for the institution) it was also prone to using such brightness for mischievousness, organizing and carrying out pranks epic enough to have been passed on from generation to generation of Guardia recruits. And most disturbing of all for their instructors, neither the perpetrators nor the organizers behind the pranks had ever been caught or proven guilty. The teachers wanted close-knit teams, they had found them. And they had cursed that day for the last twenty-four years.

Of course, not all good things last forever. After being separated into teams of two and dispersed throughout various Rings and wards, the newly-graduated Probationary Constables had been thrown to the proverbial lions and expected to use their brilliant minds for good, for once, or at least for the purpose of keeping themselves on the right side of the jail door. This had kept them busy and, for the most part, they had lost contact with most other classmates. Alma had managed to last about four years – the longest she had ever stayed at any posting – in that first station, alongside her dear companion Pavia. And it had been because of Pavia that she had managed to last that long, really. The wolf-woman was a loyal partner, always ready to help or run interference with the higher-ups so that Alma could employ whatever tactics were necessary to get to the truth in what were mostly white-collar crimes involving people with enough money to buy the whole station in order to avoid being sent to prison. Such was the case of the owner of the construction firm in charge of this building. Alma had never doubted that it had been because of him that her Inspector had finally lost his temper and sent her away on the basis of a small library of minor charges for disobedience and reckless behavior.

She snorts quietly now, to know that the bastard behind the first of a veritable avalanche of short-lasting postings throughout the Second and Third Ring’s assortment of Guardia stations was still the owner of the apartment she is now about to use for what could just be the last of her missions as Guardia Dei. Not a particularly amusing consideration, in afterthought, but the grimness of the hour and the mana headache currently hammering a trollish serenade against the inside of her skull have not been allowing for much in the way of positive thoughts. Her one concern now is to get rid of the burden of her intractable prisoner and return as quickly as possible to Three Rats and her own sanctum, where Gwydion lies still battling the remnants of whatever effects the demon ichor might have left behind and that Alma might have missed in the raging battle to inactivate the poison.

“You can stay here,” she says to Pete. “This is a sample pocket universe. Our friends should have a hard time finding you for as long as you remain in here and an even worse time getting through the door once it is locked from inside.”

“We already know that they can break into pocket universes but they rely on demons to do that,” Somrak adds. “They would have a tough time pulling that kind of thing in a rich, high-security neighborhood like this.”

Lucky Pete carelessly flops onto the sofa, a fine leather piece of furniture, unblemished by even the smallest speck of dust after two decades of sitting in its abandoned home. “Fine…this place got anything to eat? Drink?”

“I’m sorry, are we failing in our roles as hosts of this little party, Mister Pete?” Alma sneers. “Should I order something?”

“Yeah, how about–?”

“No ordering,” Somrak states clearly, deadpan. “No contact outside until the job is done.” He turns to Alma. “How long until your friend arrives?”

“Not much longer, I hope,” Alma replies. “She should be here–”

A knock at the door makes them all turn to look in their direction. Alma can sense Somrak’s tensing frame by her side, the reflexive reaching for a blade in preparation for what might be an attack. On the sofa, Lucky Pete is staring at the door in the same way a hamster might look at a hallway after hearing an unexpected meow.

But attackers seldom knock. And they certainly don’t call out, “I know you’re in there, Alma. I followed your scent the whole way up here.”

Alma feels herself relax at the playful voice coming from the other side of the door. She rushes to open the door, pausing just a moment to wince as the sudden movement makes her headache flare a little stronger. Outside, Pavia awaits, a couple of paper bags in her hands printed with a logo of a couple of sparrows wearing bibs. Sparing Diners, their favorite take-out restaurant back in the day.

Pavia’s expression darkens with concern as she looks at Alma’s face but at a significant look from the goddess, she keeps her tone deceptively light-hearted as she says, “Sorry I’m late. Got food…” She shakes the bags a little as she walks in, as usual letting her nose take in the place before she bothers using her eyes. “Oooh…you having a bonfire or something?”

No questions. Loyalty without question. The pride of the wolf-people. Probably one of the very few ways in which Pavia’s personality has not let her Clan down. Obedience to authority…now, that has always been a trickier subject.

Somrak nods at the new arrival, a flicker of evaluation crossing his gaze. Lucky Pete, on the other hand, remains his lovely self. “Food! Finally, somebody with brains.”

Pavia chuckles at him, though she makes no motion to hand him the bags. “I take it you’re not Guardia.” She turns her gaze to Somrak. “Now you–” she holds up a finger “–just a minute.”

To Alma, she asks. “You gonna tell me what he is or should I just take a whiff and figure it out on my own?”

Somrak looks surprised at the suggestion for a fraction of a second before his perennial grin returns. He nods at Alma, who is chuckling herself. “Pavia, this is Somrak. Guardia, like us. Somrak, this is Sergeant Pavia of the Guardia Dei, the best nose on the Insula. If you ever need to run from her, then you are in really big trouble.”

Pavia puts the bags down and holds out a friendly hand for Somrak to shake. “Pleasure to meet–” She interrupts herself and releases the god’s hand to slap Lucky Pete’s with lightning speed. She looks a scolding at him. “Did I say you could touch that?”

It is not until Pete obediently shakes his head and leans back in the sofa, rubbing his stung fingers and grumbling quietly that Pavia takes and shakes Somrak’s hand again. “Where was I? Ah yes, pleasure to meet you. Love your scent, by the way. Brings back good memories.”

Somrak smiles at the comment, shaking her hand. “Thank you. It’s very much a pleasure meeting you. I really appreciate this.” His expression turns grim as he holds her hand in place and looks at her intently. “It’s unlikely anything will happen, but things could get dangerous. And this is not an official operation.”

Pavia remains unmoved, instead snorting and waving dismissively. “If I had a stater for every time I heard that.”

You would probably have one stater, Alma thinks. Always so good at seeing when others are scared or hurt… And even better at pretending you are not.

“Besides, got nothing better to do,” Pavia goes on. “People in my ward are keen on killing us with boredom.” She looks uncertain for a moment. “But uhm…while we’re at it, what exactly is this anyway?”

“Lucky Pete here has information that he’s been good enough to share with us,” Somrak explains. “There is a very small chance that a gang of wizards will come looking for him. But if things go right, we’ll have taken that gang out before dawn.”

“And if things go wrong?” Pavia asks with a minute glance at Alma, the subtle nervous flick of the wolf-woman’s tail and a raising of the hairs on her forearms the only indications of her concern.

Alma tries to smile reassuringly, knowing fully well that the gesture will be lost on Pavia.

“If they do come here, run. Fast and far. As for us, I will set up a delayed message,” Somrak replies. “If I don’t report back, my people will come collect him. You just tell them you were operating under my and Sergeant Alma’s orders. I’m very sorry if this causes trouble for you.”

He looks truly pained by this and Pavia pats his shoulder companionably as if she had known him for years. “Aawww! You are so nice! I like you.” She turns to Alma. “You always get the nicest stations. First the good-looking rich boy, now a good-looking–” she spares Somrak an evaluating look “–clearly not rich guy.” Pavia looks at Alma with suspicion in her eyes. “What happened to the other one? Is he the one in trouble?”

Alma shakes her head. “No, Pavia. It’s my Inspector at Three Rats station. A good friend. We believe he was taken as part of a vendetta from one of the leftover shards of the Dukaines.”

It is not exactly a lie but it is not the truth either. She senses Pavia’s increasing discomfort just by the way the demigoddess’ posture shifts ever-so-slightly.

“And he was my partner,” Somrak adds. “So…this is personal. If you decide to turn around and walk out, I won’t hold it against you.”

“Hey! You ain’t leavin’ me alone,” Pete protests suddenly. “Or fine, leave me alone. I’ll be happy to find my own hiding place.”

Pavia looks at the man, tilting her head and smiling, her pinkish lips parting to showcase two rows of very white, very sharp teeth. “Wouldn’t you like that?” she asks, throwing a bag of food. “Have something to eat. It’ll keep you quiet for a bit.”

Once Pete starts digging through the contents of the bag like a famished rat, Pavia turns her attention to Somrak, her voice now dry, humorless. “I know about personal. And about partners.” She shrugs. “Anyway, Alma knows I can’t really say no to her.”

“Thank you,” Somrak replies with quiet feeling before turning to Alma. “We’d better be going then. We need to move fast.”

Alma nods to him, then nudges Pavia to follow her into the little hallway that leads into the bedrooms just so that they can be out of earshot of the others. “I am so sorry for the other day, Pavia. And for this now as well.”

Pavia raises a hand to cup her face, a thumb stroking the skin just beside Alma’s left eye. “What happened to you in that place? They sent me away without an explanation. Just said one of your brothers would take you home.”

Alma sighs. “It feels like I have been telling this same story over and over for the past two days.” She focuses her eyes on Pavia, smiling sadly. “I have a new sphere. That is why I look different.”

“Is it causing you pain?” Pavia asks. “You feel like you’re in pain.”

“A mana headache,” Alma explains. “That other Sergeant you mentioned was poisoned and it took me a great deal of energy to heal him. I left him sleeping back in Three Rats to come here and interrogate the charming gentleman I am leaving you with.”

“Oh…” Pavia looks distant for a moment, her hand moving to the back of Alma’s neck, to stroke it where the skull meets the spine. “Then you should go and make sure the hunk is all well and better.” She grins naughtily. “A few kisses might help.”

Alma winces, as much out of the physical pain of her headache as of emotional grief. “I am afraid we haven’t been much for kisses lately.”

“Well, you need some, he needs some,” Pavia notes simply. “All a matter of who starts kissing first, from where I stand. Tell him there’s always softer lips than his to choose from.”

She chuckles and so does Alma. “Thank you,” the goddess says, embracing her friend. “I’m so sorry for dragging you into this.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Pavia replies against Alma. She tightens the hug for a moment. “Be careful, Alma. I just got back in touch with you. Don’t make me mourn you so soon.”

Alma nods and pulls away, stroking one of Pavia’s soft, furry ears before kissing the wolf-woman’s forehead. She raises her voice to make sure Lucky Pete can hear her. “If he gets to be too annoying, just shove him in the bathtub and lock the door.”

“Does the water run?” she hears Pete ask. “I could do with a bath.”

Pavia makes a show of rolling her eyes, grinning at Alma before the two head back to the living room where Somrak and Pete await. “No kidding. What tipped you off?” To the Dei, she says with a friendly wave of her hand. “Go on, you two. And nice to meet you, Mister Guardia with no rank.”

The corner of Somrak’s lip twitches with the little jab. “I’m a sergeant, when I have to be. But to you, Somrak is fine. And if you need a similar favor–” his hand flames with his power, producing a namecard that he hands to Pavia “–write a message on this and burn it. In a zone with a decent magic level, of course.”

Pavia looks at the white piece of thick paper with a lupine smile. “Thanks. Just do me a favor and ignore any messages that sound like they were written in crayons.” She touches two fingers to her forehead in mock salute by way of goodbye. “Now… shoo!”


The arch looks like natural, eroded red stone with layered striations, asymmetrical and freestanding, taller that a tall man but not by much, appearing to have been worn into this shape by the passage of water over countless millennia. Is any geographical feature on the Insula natural? This world of gods is no spherical planet in the grip of gravity, circling a vast ball of gas that glows with the fury of fusing elements. The Insula is a detached volcano, the size of a large asteroid or a small moon, covered almost entirely in city and, for the wealthy, suburb – and for the very wealthiest who live in the First Ring, the lands surrounded the caldera at the mountain’s peak, estates surrounded by parklands.

Was it once a real volcano, formed on a real world? It seems far too large for that, but explorers of the infinitude of worlds that connect to it can only say that there is no end of possibilities, so it could be so. Or was it formed ex nihilo from the Void? The most ancient gods, it is said, were vastly more powerful than those of today, and others claim in clandestine whispers with many a glance over the shoulder that the home of the Urbis Caelestis was not even created by the gods, but by their ancient enemies, the devils. Some ancient scholars suggest that dragons may have made it, while others say that it was merely discovered, floating in the Void, uninhabited and ready to colonize. And still others, wild-haired and spastically gesticulating, insist that something (emphasis theirs) once inhabited the Insula before gods and devils and mortals arrived, something long since murdered, or perhaps driven away, something that now waits in the Void for the right time to return and enact a long-deferred vengeance.

But this stone arch at the top of an arid ridge does seem strangely unartistic. The whole area, a remote swath of dryland, is empty, unoccupied. What has kept it from settlement? Does a powerful god of the wastes rule over it, keeping it a pristine wilderness, allowing none to build there, but allowing entry to all who wish to visit? Or is it a bevy of spirits, weaker individually but strong in union, who preserve this land from the developers who seek to fulfill the demands of a population so desperate for homes that even mortals – only the obscenely affluent, to be sure – are investing in pocket universes? Whoever it is, this land’s protector stays hidden, silent, content to observe. Only the most temporary dwellings are allowed to remain standing, and even those for no more than a few days. Adventurers who push their luck find themselves awaking to the wind on their faces, the rising sun in their eyes, whatever tent or rapidly constructed home they fell asleep in simply vanished at some point in the night.

And thus did little-known Redstone Ward become a favorite place for a certain offblue god of fire, to find solitude and peace.

The arch, perhaps natural, perhaps constructed of magical materials and the spells of powerful gods and wizards as other portal arches are, flares, and within it two deities appear, the dark, slender fire god and his pale, comely companion. The latter, more at home in the long shadows of eventide, squints in the strong afternoon sunlight to look across the landscape of dusty-pink and sand-brown, faded-plum and reddish-grey, with patches of hardy green life here and there, spiny but succulent.

“Well, this is definitely not Three Rats,” Alma says after a moment. “Somrak, where are we? And why are we here?”

Somrak walks a few steps away, turns, looks at her, his apprehension obvious on his handsome, angular face, marred only be the long scar across it. “Come with me. Hardly anyone comes here, but someone could come through. I need to tell you something before we go back to Three Rats.”

Alma narrows her eyes further. “You are making me worried.” Still, she follows him up the ridge a little way. “Somrak, I need to go back as soon as possible and make sure Gwydion’s condition has not taken a turn for the worse.”

Somrak stops, looking away from her. He knows what he needs to say. Getting the words past his lips is the problem. He takes a deep breath, and turns to look at her. She is standing with her arms crossed, head tilted, impatient but ready to listen. One eye squints slightly more than the other, the only external sign of the mana hangover she is suffering from overusing her divine power when she healed Gwydion a few hours ago. This is certainly not the ideal time to tell her the truth, but it is the only time.

“There’s something I’ve been keeping from you,” he begins, his voice grim.

Alma stiffens, her voice tense. “Oh, for the love of sanity, Somrak! What is it now? What else on the long list of things going wrong with this whole operation?” She raises her hands, fingers spread, in a gesture of exasperation, almost as if she is preparing to strangle him. “Out with it!”

Somrak holds her gaze and she falls silent again. “What I’m about to tell you is a secret known only to the Commander and a few others. Not even all the Archons know it. By telling you, I’m breaking some serious laws. But you need to know. You and Dion. Before you go any further with this.”

He pauses for a breath, but the gravity in his expression forestalls another outburst from the goddess. He swipes a hand over his hair, along the streak of silver amid the midnight black. “Just… Look, Sky is your friend. And all those things that make him your friend, they’re real.” Seeing her uncomprehending expression, he mutters a curse, then resumes his halting explanation, saying, “I know this sounds stupid… But it took me a lot longer to accept that he is a good, caring person. Because I already knew…what he is. But that’s not all of what he is. And I just want you to remember that it changes nothing about what you care about in him.”

He pauses, expecting a well-deserved tongue lashing for speaking what, to her, must sound like nonsense. But his sincere desperation for her understanding comes through. She breathes deeply and nods for him to continue.

The moment can no longer be put off. This is something, he suddenly realizes, that he has never told anyone. In the four decades since he became one of the handful of gods to know this truth, he has never discussed it with anyone who did not already know it.

“Sky was not created as a god. He…maybe he’s a god now, I don’t know. But he was forged by the opposition. He was made as a weapon, to use against us. He was sent here…by Hell.”

Alma goes as still as a statue. She stares at Somrak, her expression becoming blank, then by slow degrees incredulous.

“He’s a devil.” The words taste foul. Sky, he knows, holds nothing but adoration for this goddess. The thought of destroying the friendship they have shocks Somrak with the pain it brings. Ever since he heard that Sky had been taken, he has been digesting a realization that he unconsciously came to years ago: Sky is his friend. Perhaps his only real friend.

“He is designed to pass as a god,” Somrak continues in the face of her silence. “To do that, they messed up. They needed him to care. Compassion, empathy, whatever – they don’t have it, and they can’t pass without it. He has it. And so they lost control of him.”

Alma looks at him as if at a stranger, her arms slowly uncrossing, a look of illness coming over her as she absorbs the horrific implications. “No,” she says quietly. “I don’t believe you.” She turns and begins stalking back toward the portal.

“Alma, when I was put in charge of him, I didn’t trust him.” He follows her. “Of course. I was told to take him out at the first sign of trouble. Hard to be friends when you’re the designated executioner. It took me a long time to see that he’s worthy of trust.” He catches up with her, getting between her and the portal. “It’s true. He is from Hell. But he’s ours. He’s our Sky. And he needs us.”

She stops rather than knock him aside, but does not look at him, staring instead at nothing for several seconds stretched to agonizing length by Somrak’s trepidation. Finally, she hisses in cold fury, “I don’t know which one of you I should be angrier at. You, Sky or the Commander.”

Somrak shakes his head. “Don’t blame Sky. He had no choice in all this.”

Alma pins him with her gaze. “What do you mean? It’s his secret, isn’t it? All this time…”

“Do you know what would happen if it got out that the head of the Guardia has a personal attack devil?” Somrak asks. “The Commander goes down, the Council gets scrutinized, the whole off-blue division…and a lot more besides. All trashed. And Sky? He can’t even be banished back to Hell. He knows too much. We can’t just kill him, because he has a soul, and something needs to be done with that. It has to be obliterated. Wiped from existence, so that Hell can’t get hold of it.” As her expression crumples at the thought of Sky’s very soul destroyed, he continues, his voice gentler. “I know Sky must have ached to tell you. But four decades of conditioning are hard to overcome. Forty years of knowing it could all end as a result of one slip up. It’s a lot easier for me to tell you. It just means the end of my career. Maybe some time in prison. I can live with that. For Sky, it meant risking everything.”

Alma closes her eyes, just breathing for a moment. Her hand rises absently to rub her temple. “And if we tell the Commander that Sky was taken?”

Somrak’s voice is flat and final. “He’s under explicit orders to do whatever it takes to prevent Sky from being taken to Hell. He’s supposed to send in the Sikari, no questions asked, no creative attempts at rescue. And they will kill everybody.” He takes a breath. “Maybe he would surprise me. He’s done it before, and I think he genuinely likes Sky. But telling him is a huge risk.”

She presses the heel of her palms to her eyes. “I swear, Somrak, after all of this is done and gone, I… I don’t even know what I will do to the lot of you.” She drops her hands and rebukes him. “And what were you going to do, wait until we were in the Whisper’s sanctum to tell me? Did you think I would not go after him? Do you have any idea what he has done for me already? Hell is merely a pitstop in how far I would go for him!”

Somrak looks at her in silence for a moment that draws out until comprehension dawns on her face. “You… You weren’t going to tell us at all?!” she cries.

“I wasn’t going to bring you along,” he says, his voice controlled. “I told myself it was too dangerous. I didn’t want to get you and Dion killed.”

From the look on her face, Somrak steels himself to be slapped, punched, kicked. Something. But trembling with a wrath that darkens the burning sun where they stand, she masters her anger. Again touching her temple, she mutters, “And now I will have to tell Gwydion about this.”

Somrak breathes a sigh of relief. Having been on the receiving end of countless ferocious reprimands, he knows the worst is over. “Yeah. Well…I’ll tell him if you want.”

“You…will do nothing of the sort. You’ve done enough.” Her eyes are shut against the returning afternoon glare. A hint of nausea returns to her expression.

“Headache?” Somrak asks. At her nod, he carefully takes her left hand, drawing it away from her temple, cupping her elbow. “Let me show you a trick an old friend taught me.”

She looks at him with suspicion as he massages her hand and forearm, pressing firmly but not uncomfortably with his thumb in the center of her palm, then the muscle below the thumb, then the inside of the elbow, each time warming the nerves with his divine power. After a moment, she blinks in surprise.

“Better?” he asks.

“How did you do that?” she almost demands. “Everyone knows you can’t use healing magic to end a mana headache.”

Somrak’s smile is pulled out of true by the scar on his face. “The only magic is the deep heating, and that just makes it a bit more effective. It’s pressure on the nerves. You can do it yourself when the headache comes back, which it will after fifteen minutes or so. But you’ll get a little relief this way.” Still holding her hand and arm, his voice heavy with sadness, he says, “Alma, I know you wouldn’t abandon Sky. That’s not why I hesitated. It’s not my secret in the end. It’s his.”

Alma sighs, shoulders sinking. “It doesn’t matter when or how or even that you told me, Somrak. It is not that that makes me angry. Hell, I can’t even be angry at Sky because the gods know I’ve done the same. What makes me angry is… this!” She fling her free hand at nothing and everything. “The whole blasted thing, from beginning to end! It leaves me angry just to be in this situation and I can’t think of anything I could be that is any better than angry at this point.” But she turns her hand in his and holds it tightly, as if she wants to crush it, but also hold on for dear life.

“Then be angry,” he says, returning her fierce grip. “It’s a rotten situation for everyone. However this ends up, the people who have taken Sky are going to feel that anger.”

Alma looks at him, anger turning to a vexed affection. She moves closer, releasing his hand and putting her arms around him, her hands gripping his back, her chin on his shoulder. He holds her as well, gratefully.

“You idiot,” she murmurs, her breath tickling his neck. “You would have got yourself killed, going in alone. You had no right to use us like that.”

“I know,” he says. The smell of her skin, her hair, like the faint scent of night-blooming flowers, nearly makes him swoon.

“What made you change your mind?” she asks.

He chuckles. “Dion. Carrying him when he was poisoned.” She holds him more tightly as he speaks. “I just kept thinking, how can I ditch the two of you after all this?” He pulls back to look her in the eye. “I know you love Sky. He’s your family.”

She nods. “He is. Whatever he is, he’s that.”

“And that made me realize, he’s my family, too.” He smiles again, tremulous.

It has been nearly his entire lifetime since Somrak has had so much to lose. He has lived a life that, in his own twisted way, has been in line with the strict philosophical precepts of his youth, the central one of which is that all misery is engendered by attachment. He was raised to be a priest of sorts, a bringer of wrath and fire upon the unclean, a smiter of demons and undead and all who would inflict them on the gods and mortals of the Insula. He ran from that, but has he not been that ever since, in the Commander’s service? And has he not avoided attachment despite having rejected the precepts of his pantheon?

Vulnerability is pain. The anticipation of loss creates anxiety. But here he is, his heart’s desire in his arms. Not just the goddess he has fallen in love with. She is his friend. Sky is not, after all, the only friend he has in the infinitude of worlds. There is Alma, and there is Gwydion. And through them are more, a family, something he’s never really had, even when he had one. He has never in all his years known the sort of acceptance and love that he’s known in Three Rats.

Alma, studying his face, smiles and pats his chest. “Let’s get this over with.”