Ch6.94 Trust

“Now give me a good reason to let you live–”

“…Alma?” At the sound of Lyria’s plaintive voice, the goddess known as the Fencer breaks off from glowering at Somrak to look toward her niece, cradled in Lyria’s arms. Fencer’s eyes widen after a moment, and she curses.

Sky, the newly broken wing from Melinor just one more in a long list of injuries, pulls himself with great effort back from the brink of attacking Alma’s brother. His instincts in this form are so much harder to control, and only moments before, Sky had been about to launch himself at a greater devil, selling his life to buy Somrak a moment longer to get Alma and Gwydion out of Margrave’s pocket universe. The rage of battle is not easily dismissed, nor is the comforting feeling of having given up on survival entirely.

The very presence of the powerful god of death-in-battle is a challenge to Sky’s Hell-shaped instincts, which see all gods as the enemy, screaming at him all the more strongly with his brain and entire body shaped as they are now. Melinor also stands between Sky and his friends. How sweet it would be to fight him, to die – as Sky knows he would – tearing the god apart. All this pain, this misery, finally ended. Just give in and be the devil they expect.

But it is the voices of the two goddesses, echoing in this dark, unfamiliar chamber, that bring him back. Lyria is frightened for Alma. And so, in her harsher fashion, is Fencer. Their fear carves out a space for Sky to have rational thought, to realize that all is not lost. If there is fear, there is hope. Alma’s soul is not going to Hell. Neither is Gwydion’s, nor Somrak’s, nor his own. Even Saira…

He looks at the fallen mortal, where she lies on the floor beside Somrak. Sky does not have the death gods’ ability to be certain, but her wounds are not survivable. Too much poison, too much trauma, too much blood lost. Too much time passed. They were unable to escape quickly enough.

Sky failed to act quickly enough.

He lowers his widespread arms, relaxes his flexed talons. The unbroken wing folds against his back, and Sky lowers his head in submission to Melinor. He cannot speak intelligibly with only the stump of a tongue in his mouth. But his body language is enough for Melinor’s battle aura to fade and for the god to turn his attention to his sister, Alma.

The God of Death in Battle joins Fencer and Lyria. The vibrant life goddess still holds her daughter, petting Alma’s head and whispering to her, while Fencer, thin and hard-muscled, examines her unconscious niece with a red-glowing eye.

Melinor does the same. “Something is wrong. I sense two souls in her body,” he says after a moment.

Fencer glares at Sky, clearly blaming him. But she turns the same look upon Somrak, who has found an old, filthy cloth in the basement they are in, dragging it out from under a collapsed corpse, some dessicated unfortunate that is, for whatever reason, here in this dark place. “What happened in there?” Fencer demands.

Somrak pauses in his preparation to cover Saira’s cooling body, looking at Alma, his expression helpless and hopeless. “If there are two souls in her… Then the necromancer is in there with Alma.”

Fencer stares at him as if she is planning just how to gut him, but instead of saying anything more, she just turns back to Melinor. “We need somewhere we can stuff a devil in.”

Lyria looks up. Her beautiful face is distraught, but her strength shows through. “I know where to go,” she insists. She reaches up toward Melinor, and the tall god kneels to allow her to touch the side of his head. A slight glow of green at the touch, and the death god nods.

“The others will need to be close,” Melinor says.

Fencer barks at Somrak, “Get over here, you and your devil friend both. Bring the prisoner, too.”

It is only then that Sky, who had been focusing so much on the gods in the room, notices a form trying to hide in the shadows. Just for a moment, his one good eye locks with hers.

Trocia. His relief at her survival is mixed with dread at that face, the face of Nua for the past days of his torture. And a deeper dread, a physical wretchedness even, at what Nua forced him to do to her. Her face is not animated with Nua’s sadistic humor. She is looking at him in terror.

He quickly looks away. He wants to tell her how good it is to see her alive and free of Nua, and to apologize. But even if he had a tongue, what apology would suffice? Every moment of his presence must be a continuation of her torture. He clenches his fists, digging his claws into his palms, piercing his skin. He shudders with memory of what he did, and what her body was forced to do to him while she watched, helpless. The door out of this basement is right there, open, at the top of the stairs. He could flee. He is foul. They would all be better off if he disappeared from their lives.

“Sky.” Somrak’s voice cuts through his panicking train of thought. He is holding Saira’s body, now wrapped in cloth. Trocia is behind him, still trying to hide, looking at nothing but definitely not at Sky. “Come on. You have to touch Melinor to be transported with him. Would you pick up Dion?”

Sky takes one last look at the open exit. It is night out there. The shadows beckon. But he turns and carefully lifts Gwydion, who remains unconscious. He moves closer to Melinor and apologetically touches the god’s leg with his tail.

Somrak touches Melinor with his arm, while all the others put a hand on him or use some other way of making contact. The death god looks down at Alma and simply transports them all as if were just a second thought.

They arrive in a chamber designed to welcome guests: It is spacious and comfortable, with chairs and a lounge to sit upon. There is a heavy door, however, sealing this windowless chamber off.

“Hmpf. A cell?” the Fencer snorts. “ And who is the jailor?”

Still holding Alma, Lyria replies, “The Oracle is careful of her privacy.” She looks down at her daughter. “Someone will be along in a moment.” It seems almost as if she is talking to Alma more than to the others.

Melinor kneels again, gently taking Alma into his own arms and lifting her from Lyria. The life goddess’ trust of him is evident in how she allows this, though she looks on the verge of protest. Fencer speaks up as she attends to Alma as well, in a voice not harsh but not especially soft either. “Go take care of the fools. Melinor and I have work to do and we all know you can’t help here.”

Lyria hesitates, then leaves Alma to them, going over to Sky. “Oh, little demon…” she begins.

“Such strange guests that do not announce themselves.” The door has opened without anyone noticing, and Nevieve, the Oracle, has entered the chamber. She stands tall, clad in a simple dress and sari, her dark skin iridescent where the light catches the very fine scales at the edges, her eyes white and strange.

Lyria turns from Sky, who has almost fallen into a trance at her approach, at the way she has, unlike Fencer, who looked on him with suspicion, or unlike Melinor, who saw him as an opponent in battle, come to him with only concern and pity, looking right past his outer form and seeing the same Sky she has always known. Sky does not know if he can ever express how much that means to him, here and now.

“Forgive us, Nevieve,” she says. “As you can see, our minds are in a tumult.”

Looking at Sky with her strange white eyes, the Oracle says, “So the inevitable has taken place. And the devil cradles his slayer in his arms.”

Sky looks down at Gwydion. Yes, his slayer. Hammer of Devils. Gwydion’s newfound power. Sky remembers the blow Gwydion gave him in Margrave’s lair. The pain is still there, among all the other pains.

Lyria turns back to him. She looks up into Sky’s face and strokes his muzzle. Or she tries. He cannot help but flinch away. He does not want to, but he is so convinced of his loathsomeness that he cannot bear to be touched by one so beautiful. “Oh, little one, what have they done to you?” she says softly. “So many wounds, some of them perhaps beyond my reach. Let me heal Gwydion first, and then I shall attend to you.”

She gets him to lay down Gwydion’s unconscious body onto the floor of the chamber, and then, surrounding the younger god’s body in a nimbus of verdant light, she heals Dion’s torn torso and all the other physical wounds he has sustained. After a moment, she sighs and looks up at Sky. “These whip-lashes cut so deeply, beyond the flesh and into the spirit. They will heal far more slowly.” She rises and once again touches Sky’s face. When he tries to pull away, she whispers, “Shhhh… When have I ever given you reason to fear my touch, little one? You are at a loss for words? Ah, I see.” He feels her probing magic, warm and energizing, within his mouth.

Meanwhile, Nevieve is crouching beside Gwydion. She touches his forehead, and her eyes flare white. “Hmm… How interesting.” Her hand glows white as she transfers mana and life force into Dion, at the same time wiping his body clean of all the blood and filth of that Hellish torture chamber, and replacing his ragged Guardia trousers with lightweight white-linen pants, leaving him bare-chested and barefoot, but looking now like one of her supplicants. “That should do.” Sky, with his one eye, glances to Somrak who, he sees now, has been given much the same treatment, healed, cleaned up, and given a change into simple white clothes. Sky can see that Somrak’s elaborate tattoo of tiger and phoenix is now ruined, however, for though the flesh is healed from the whip’s lash, the damage to the ink is not, leaving it mottled and blurred. He is sitting on the floor, back against the wall, looking at nothing. Beyond him, Trocia is stealing a frightened look at Sky, but she quickly looks away.

Nevieve looks toward Alma. “That seems like a much more dangerous fight.”

His voice low, Melinor urges, “Come on. Let go of her.”

“She’s trying to hold on,” Fencer growls, annoyed.

“Can you help them?” Lyria says to Nevieve. She is still performing an extensive preliminary examination of Sky – his injuries and physiology are complex, too complex, he imagines, for her to simply launch into healing him.

“I can only give her strength and heal her body,” Nevieve says. “Her soul is up to her to save. Still, it might be best to keep her body weak lest the soul who wins be the wrong one.”

Lyria insists with shaky conviction, “Alma will win. But any help we can give her–”

Suddenly Alma gasps. Sky strains to see. “I have her!” Fencer shouts to Melinor. “Don’t let the other escape.”

Sky feels a hand grip his. He looks down and sees that Lyria is holding his taloned hand tightly. Sky carefully closes his hand around hers, feeling a sharp pain lance through his heart at her action. To seek comfort from him!

The trusting touch takes him back to a grandchild of his, daughter of his adopted son, long, long ago and on another world, how small her hand in his as they walked together through the snow.

Events here and now shake him free from useless memories. In Fencer’s hand, a little blurry body of light appears, faint at first then materializing further and further until it looks like a small, sparkling pebble. Alma’s body glows faintly and Melinor puts a hand over her chest. “No,” he says. “Stay inside yourself.”

Nevieve smiles. “Ah, it seems that now it is my turn.” She walks over to Alma to start healing her body. At her glance, Melinor bows and steps away, standing guard. Fencer rises and walks away, toward Somrak.

Sky hears her begin to speak to Somrak in a low voice that might as well be shouting for its vehemence, but all thought of that fades as Lyria’s healing power begins to spread through his body, taking hold finally. The stump of his tongue, the gaping socket of his missing eye, and so many slashes from the whip, self-healed but not fully, for he had to conserve his mana, just enough to allow function. The broken wing, the deep stab in his hand from Alma’s dragon-tooth dagger. The crushing blow from Gwydion that broke ribs and bruised organs. All of it begins to heal, making him hiss and whimper, clamping his muzzle shut to keep from screaming and roaring. It hurts as much as taking all those wounds again at once, but at the same time it feels so good that he cannot keep his feet, falling to his knees.

If he were in his human form, he would be weeping. As it is, tears are not something he can summon in this shape.

Lyria has healed him before, but he was not a tenth as injured as now. He falls forward onto his hands, then curls in on himself, the formerly broken wing cupping itself around Lyria and pulling her even closer. He breathes harshly, but all thought flees as he nearly falls unconscious, blessed darkness rising in an attempt to claim him.

He is drowning. But when he became a god, he was a god of the sea. He cannot drown. No matter how far he is pulled down into the crushing depths, he will always swim to safety. He holds Lyria to him as his body shakes with tearless sobs.

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Ch6.93 Trust

“No, no, no, come on, hold on, hold on!

The blood is pumping from Saira. Somrak tries to heal one wound, but healing does not come naturally to him. He is a god of fire, and fire destroys. Unable to draw upon his sphere for healing, he makes do with the same sort of magic that mortal wizards learn. And the abyssal poison in Saira’s wounds defeats such pitiful effort. He cannot even slow the bleeding.

Multiple punctures, deep and ragged, make him want to scream just from looking at what Margrave’s bound demons have done to her. And there is nothing he can do. He sees her eyes barely open, unfocused, but flicking toward him. Instead of screaming, he whispers, “Saira, please, stay with me… Alma’s gonna wake up, she’s going to be all right, she’s going to heal you.”

Saira’s body convulses in what is probably intended to be a laugh. “Quit it, Ponytail… I said…I wouldn’t–” She coughs up a gout of blood that runs down her chin, blood that stinks of demonic venom. “Wouldn’t survive. Stupid gods… Look after them.”

Som holds her tighter and whispers to her, “You got him. You got him. The Devil’s Right Hand. You got him.”

Somrak sets her down, then leans over Dion, grabbing his forearm and pulling him closer. “Come on, Prettyboy! Wake up! We need magic. You can put her in stasis or something, right?” He smacks Dion’s cheeks, but the god, his mana spent, remains unconscious. Somrak raises a hand to give him a good slap.

A huge hoof plants itself near Somrak’s knee, spreading out slightly to bear Sky’s massive weight, and a big taloned hand grasps Somrak’s arm. The devil squats, balancing easily with his tail and outspread wings. He looks at Saira. His face seems sad, pained – really, there’s no telling. That hairless canine muzzle is ripped from the whipping he has received, one eye put out. And it’s not as if Somrak has seen this face of Sky’s more than a handful of times in forty years. Sky has no desire to show it.

The room groans. The walls begin to bleed some kind of sap. Sky releases Somrak, who takes hold of Saira’s limp body and, with effort, stands. He is wounded himself. The whiplashes are nothing to scoff at. The damage to flesh is survivable for a god – at the worst, the wounds across his chest are only bone-deep. But the pain to his soul goes on and on, weakening him. He looks at Margrave – dead, his head wrenched backwards, the black-bone whip wrapped around his neck, buried in his throat. At Alma – unconscious, whatever is happening there unknown to the outside world. At Dion – unconscious as well.

And the woman that Alma was put into for a time, the girl really, is gone. In all the confusion of unbound demons, she disappeared. Slipped out. Glancing at the pile of weapons, spilled from a cart, Somrak notes that Saira’s crossbow is missing. Clever girl. Grabbed the best weapon.

Though how she got out… The door is hanging open, but beyond it is puckered flesh, pulsating. It looks for all the world like a tight-shut sphincter.

“The sword,” Somrak says to Sky. “Might need it. If Nua managed to bind Alma’s soul to it even a little…” He hopes Sky can understand.

The devil looks, spots the fine weapon, and hands it over to Somrak, who hooks two fingers around the guard to hold it while still carrying Saira. Then Sky looks at the blocked door. He flexes his claws, as if intending to rip his way through, but then he looks down at Margrave. The summoner is a corpse, or nearly so, and Sky brings one leg back and kicks him at the doorway, sliding his body across the floor.

The sphincter opens. To Somrak’s relief, nothing comes out. It simply reveals a passageway that looks distinctly intestinal.

There is a dull boom in the distance, behind the wall opposite the passage. Then another, closer. Somrak feels chilled. It sounds like the steps of a giant, walking. Another boom, closer.

We are come, to claim our soul…

It is a moan of doom, triumphant and dolorous, issuing from the world itself, this tiny pocket universe. Sky grunts at Somrak. He seizes Margrave’s body and tosses it onto his back, pinning it there by folding his wings up tight. Then he lifts Alma and Dion with great care.

“Come on!” Somrak urges him. “Let’s go!” Sky grunts at Somrak again, jerking his horned head at the corridor. Somrak looks to make sure the two unconscious gods are being held securely, then he rushes into the pulsating passage.

It is not open very far ahead, only a few strides, but as Sky follows from behind, bearing Margrave’s corpse, the passage keeps opening before them. And those world-shaking footsteps keep following from behind.

Sky is a devil, Somrak knows. And what is coming is, in all likelihood, a devil as well. It certainly feels more powerful than any demon, of another category entirely, as of a god compared to a mortal. And more powerful than Sky. Vastly so. A rot emanates from that direction, racing along the corridor, putrefying as fast as they can run. Faster. Somrak pushes harder. Saira… For a moment Somrak allows the thought to exist, that she is already dead, that it’s too late. He thrusts that away. Too late or not, she’s not remaining behind here. Hell itself is devouring this miniature world. Hell is claiming it as territory. Alive or dead, her soul may still be attached to her body. He’s not sure how that works, but he knows that no death goddess has sent it on its way. He will not let her be stuck here in any form.

And there it is: the portal. Well, the blank wall that held the portal. At the moment, it holds nothing. Somrak nearly crashes into it. He shifts Saira and slaps a hand against it, giving the wall a jolt of mana and sending the mental command for it to open.

Nothing.

Somrak realizes how terrified he is. He is never frightened in battle. Never! It is only in repose, after or before, or captured or otherwise unable to fight, that he feels fear. Battle? He’s too busy fighting to be afraid. And usually too busy laughing.

But not now. Now he is afraid that Sky and Dion and Saira and…Alma, afraid that they will all end up in Hell. That he’s led them to this. And he must admit that he is nearly paralyzed with fear at the thought of himself in Hell. Eternity of endless torture, ever-renewed, never numbed to it, always and ever screaming for mercy, in utter abjection. No dignity, no hope, no love. With every thought he feels more beaten down. Is this the approaching devil infecting his mind with despair? Or is he simply falling prey to his own cowardice at last?

With a thud, Margrave’s body falls to the floor. Sky has laid down Alma and Dion, carefully, and roughly dumped Margrave. He jerks his head at the corpse, then holds out a hand toward the door. It takes Somrak a moment of wondering why Sky isn’t speaking to catch his meaning. Somrak lays down Saira, grabs Margrave’s hand, and places it against the portal wall. He channels mana through it.

And nothing happens. The portal makes not the slightest hint of appearing.

Somrak feels his guts clench. He does what he has been avoiding: he turns to look behind them. He nearly vomits at the sight. The entire pocket universe, Margrave’s little sanctum, has been flayed open. It looks like exploded strips of flesh, gangrenous and full of tumors, undulating in some cosmic wind. The only spot of stability is where they stand now. The rest is claimed by Hell.

And beyond it? Only a vague shape in the darkness, something squatting, waiting to spring, something larger than any living creature Somrak has ever seen. That he cannot see it clearly is a mercy, the final mercy. For he knows that when it does show itself, all is over. All happiness, that is, all joy.

Once again, kneeling, he tries to wake Dion, shaking him in desperation. Still nothing, the Sergeant knocked cold by his earlier efforts. Not even a flicker of an eyelid.

Somrak stands and readies Alma’s sword. He will strike at it. He tells himself this, though he is not sure he believes it. But he cannot look at it. Instead he looks down, at Alma’s face. He will take that with him, into Hell. He will cling to that memory for as long as he can.

Beside him, Sky roars defiance. He spreads arms and wings wide. In one hand he holds the vertebral whip, the soul-shredding godbound weapon that was used to torture him and Somrak and Dion. He recognizes the feel of it, that of a god’s soul torn from its body and forced to commit evils. Unending pain, a miniature of Hell, driving the soul insane quickly.

In the other hand, Sky holds Margrave’s limp, broken, ragdoll body by one leg. He draws his arm back and hurls it at the devil, sending it spinning, cartwheeling at its master. Sky’s roar this time is of rage, hate, and unending refusal to submit. Somrak takes heart. At least he and Sky, partners for so long, are together at the end. But the guilt at having brought the others to this nearly consumes the fire god.

This is worse than death. All of them will find their souls in Hell. All of them will suffer, forever. But perhaps their souls can escape to the Wheel if their bodies die now. Somrak holds the sword, pointed toward Alma’s breast. Freed of her flesh, can Alma lead Dion’s and Saira’s souls to safety? Can he kill her, then Dion, in time?

And then two large, hard hands grab him from behind by the shoulders and pull him through the portal. Somrak flies through the air and lands on the floor of the basement in Little Falls, the sword clanging away into darkness, the world blessedly normal, the Insula, home, a place where gods belong. The air is knocked out of him, but tears of relief spring to his eyes.

As he pushes himself up onto his elbows, he sees other figures in the dark room. “Give her to me!” cries a voice more suited to songs of life and love than to fear, and yes, he did recognize it, for there is Lyria, Alma’s mother, cradling her daughter. Then the hulking shape that must have pulled Somrak through is now tossing Gwydion toward Fencer, who quickly sets him down.

And now the big one – ah, it must be Melinor, a god Somrak has heard about and has even seen striding a battlefield more than once, harvesting those slain in combat – Melinor is struggling, pulling a shape too big to fit easily through the human-sized portal. And yet, with a crack of bone, the god manages, hurling Sky behind him with a twist of his hips, forcing Somrak to roll out of the way to avoid being crushed. Sky falls heavily against a wall, one wing limp, and the devil starts to his feet, snarling at Alma’s brother.

“You two can solve your differences later!” Fencer snaps. “All right, girl, seal that portal!”

Somrak sees Trocia then, the formerly unconscious vessel for Alma’s soul, doing her best to stay unnoticed as long as possible. Pale, traumatized, she moves to obey.

“Wait!” Somrak cries. He springs to his feet and dashes for the portal, pushing past the girl. Fencer’s objection is cut off as he pushes his head and one arm through. His hand grasps Saira’s ankle, and he looks –

Oh, he shouldn’t have looked.

That face. That… He has seen Sky in his devil form. He has fought numerous demons. Undead. Other horrors, too many to count. He has seen the worst that anyone with sufficient lust for power and too little empathy can do to fellow creatures, things he feels ashamed even to know about.

All that is nothing compared to this, the face of a true Prince of Hell.

It is the end of all hope. It is the death of the heart.

And then he is pulled back through. And with him, hand locked on her ankle, comes Saira.

“NOW!” cries Fencer. Somrak could swear she has fear in her voice.

She should.

Trocia places her palms on the portal. It bulges. Something is pushing from the other side. But then it is gone. It disappears. But could it be reactivated from the other side?

Sky snarls again, leaning forward, muscles bunching. Is he preparing to launch himself at Melinor, or at the surface through which the more powerful devil can come? Somrak slaps Sky’s shoulder, trying to bring him to his senses.

Melinor ignores Sky. He brushes the girl aside and places his fingertips on the wall. It turns to dust in a great circle, dust that slides to the floor in a soft avalanche. With the destruction of the surface it was created on, the portal is forever gone.

Somrak pulls Saira to him. He tries to drive away memory of that face, and indeed it fades like a nightmare. Though it will return, he knows, in the dark, in sleep. He will not escape it so easily.

But for now he touches Saira’s slack face. Her skin is cold. He knows death.

A boot beside his face. He looks up. Fencer, glaring down at him.

“Now give me a good reason to let you live,” she growls.

Ch6.92 Trust

“Did you see that look she gave me? With that red eye?” Cherry glowers at Merri, squinting one eye and growling, “‘Don’t you raise your voice at me…’”

Despite all that has happened lately – learning that their mother Alma is in danger along with Sky and Gwydion, an attack by demons that the Bunnies fortunately weathered in Gwydion’s room under Geryon’s watchful eagle eye, and the sudden transformation of their bar into a botanical garden which she is still trying to decide whether or not she likes – Merri laughs at Cherry’s terrible but still recognizable imitation of the Fencer, their great-aunt. “Well you were interruptin’ her, darlin’.”

Cherry hugs herself and shivers. “Brrr. Scary!”

“Scarier than Melinor?” Kori asks, pushing a large leaf with big holes in it like a slice of living green Cheddar out of the way. “He’s cool…”

“Way scarier!” Cherry insists.

“Och, Melinor’s not scary at’all!” Merri agrees.

Geryon pads over to the sofa and hops up onto it, rustling his wings. He glances at Merri and sniffs. Well he doesn’t sniff, exactly. With that lovely yellow beak his nose-holes are too wee to really be useful for sniffing. But he looks like he sniffs, you know. “That is only because he did not threaten you, my dear,” he says loftily to cover up his wounded pride.

Merri ducks under a fern and, wishing for a pith helmet, plops down on the edge of the sofa. She drapes herself alongside Geryon, marveling as she always does at his soft fur and feathers, and nuzzles his neck. “Oh darlin’… I’ll admit, that would’ve left me a puddle o’ quiverin’ puddin’ on the floor, if he’d done it t’me. Ye handled it very well, love.”

“Well,” the gryphon murmurs, moving his head to rub against her cheek. “I was entrusted with your safety, after all. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. They are all dreadfully frightening, the lot of them. Gods of death…” He shudders. “I told Dion, time and again, it is a bad idea to get involved with that sort.”

Merri kisses him on his big, sharp, curved beak, and says gently, “Dear, that is our mother ye’re talkin’ about.”

Geryon casts his eyes down. “I uhm… I guess I can open an exception for her. But you will have to admit, she can be just as dreadful when she wants to be.”

“Oh yeah,” Cherry says, sitting down on the other side of him and stroking the top of his head. “Ain’t no doubt, she can do scary with the best of ‘em.”

There follows one of those odd moments who everyone falls silent at once for no particular reason, and the room becomes very still, and Merri looks about the room, their home, their bar, the building that dear Sky has rented to them on behalf of the Guardia, which owns the building. The wee ones, Kori and Chime and Tulip, are back to their old selves already, chasing each other around and exclaiming over discoveries. Sage is inspecting the changes to the place along with his human girlfriend Aliyah, dear sweet constable Aliyah, so brawny and tall, towering over the lovely male Bunny, the two of them marveling at the flowers and greenery, orchids and begonias and hibiscus and others Merri doesn’t even recognize, she’ll have to look them up, Mamma probably has a book that’ll say, and goodness, she wonders, are we going to have bees and hummingbirds in here, why that would be nice, perhaps, though the bees sound a bit scary. Merri starts to decide that she quite likes what Grandmamma, the stunningly beautiful Lyria, has done with the place, not only the plants but the nice, solid new furniture, tables and chairs all of dark heavy wood, and she wonders how much it was all damaged by the demons that invaded. Probably smashed to flinders, she thinks.

At the thought of demons, Merri’s mind flits back to that horrid night when they had to escape Three Rats, to get to the portal in the neighboring ward of Little Falls and face so many dreadful criminals who wanted nothing so much as to murder Bunnies, and those demigods and monsters and summoned hounds from Hell itself were sent against them, and even after they escaped to supposedly the safest building on the whole of the Insula they were ambushed by assassins and one of them lashed a nasty spiked chain at her and it wrapped around her leg and pulled her, pulled her away screaming from the arms of Cherry, her dearest, the other half of her heart…

Without a thought of doing so, Merri stiffens and grabs Cherry’s hand where it rests on top of Geryon’s head, making the gryphon twitch. He looks between the two of them, as Cherry looks over Geryon at Merri, her eyes wide. “What is it, baby?” Cherry asks, and it comforts Merri to see her darling’s face so concerned, but hurts her as well, knowing that Cherry is so easily worried and unsettled by all that’s been happening, perhaps more so than any other Bunny. Merri knows that Cherry is already on edge, what with all that’s happened, and who wouldn’t be, one could well ask, poor sweet Cherish, and Merri wants nothing more than to take her beloved in her arms and comfort her, which is a bit funny considering how just a moment ago it was Merri herself who was feeling so disturbed, but then there’s nothing like someone needing your help to steady you, is there?

Before Merri can actually say anything, Aliyah speaks up, having come up to them along with Sage. “Um, did they say someone else was comin’?” the cop asks.

Geryon breathes in deeply, the side of his chest pressing pleasantly against Merri, and releases his breath in a sigh of someone who has been put upon for a thousand years. “Yes… two more of them. I wonder what sneering haunt will greet us next…”

As if summoned by the words, two figures fade into sight, in the middle of the room where the foliage only hangs a little way from the ceiling in trailing vines of wisteria. One is draped in a dark-grey cloak that, from its outline, indicates that it covers a human-shaped male body, but that body as far as Merri can see is made entirely of shadows, darkness upon darkness, hooded and hovering just a finger’s length above the floor. The other looks just like his companion, except that his cloak is a bright sunny yellow with gold trim where the other’s cloak has silver embroidery, body made of light where his counterpart’s is made of darkness, shining and warm, not at all painful to look upon but much resembling how Merri has always imagined an angel would. They both turn this way and that, looking somewhat confused as to why they are here.

It is a heart-stopping moment for all, as there is no telling if these are friends or foes, only their grandmother’s assurance of the imminent arrival of guardians tipping the Bunnies, cop, and gryphon all slightly into the ‘maybe they’re friendly’ camp. Or at least Merri is tipped there, and she stands, because manners are manners and if these are demons of some sort – but really how could they be? they don’t look threatening at all, for all their strangeness and the feeling of power and ancient wisdom coming from them – well if they’re demons then the only way the younger Bunnies will escape is if there’s a distraction, so Merri stands and, looking at Cherry whose hand she still holds, nods and smiles to see Cherry, oh dear bright brilliant star that she is, nods as well despite her fears, and still holding hands they approach the two visitors.

Her voice only showing the slightest tremor of nervousness, Cherry calls out cheerfully, “Hey there! Welcome to the Burrow! Now with extra foliage. Heh. Y’all want somethin’ to drink, or eat?”

Not one to be outdone, and besides the two of them have always loved to put on a show of being a practiced pair, showmanship being such a part of the business that May so charmingly calls ‘the water trade,’ though Merri can’t quite remember if May ever explained why, Merri chirps, “I’m Rosemary, but everyone calls me Merri. This is Cherry. And…well, we can do the introductions as we go along, there bein’ so many of us. Please, sit down, ye’ve come such a long way after all.”

The figure fully made of shadows turns to focus on the Bunnies. This close and from her angle, for it seems like there’s hardly anyone who’s not taller than she, and what a bother that is sometimes, even Sage and Cherry and especially May are all taller not to mention all the humans and gods, Merri can see his face under his hood more clearly, yes, shadow on shadow and a glint of silver to one of the sides, to form a face none-too-solid but handsome, indeed it is, though doesn’t Cherry like to joke that to Merri every face is handsome or lovely, and oh yes it’s so isn’t it, and why shouldn’t it be for isn’t there beauty in everyone? Well maybe not everyone. Not that horrid Nekh who tried to have them killed and nearly killed Geryon and oh my the shadowy fellow is suddenly raising an arm and speaking of Geryon here he is again, jumping in front of Merri and Cherry, swollen up to full fighting size, a great eagle-headed-and-winged lion, feathers and fur puffed to make him even bigger, oh how glorious he is and he doesn’t even know it, does he? Poor dear Geryon, so brave in an emergency and so uncertain of himself in repose.

“Ladies, run!” he roars, and it’s best just to ignore the crack in his voice that makes him squeak at the very end because goodness knows bravery without fear is just foolishness, ain’t it?

Even though she feels no fear of the shadowy god, for god and even family she trusts he must be, Merri is about to scarper with Cherry because Geryon is their guardian, after all, and it would be embarrassing to him if they didn’t obey, men’s egos being so fragile, don’t you know, it’s just one of those things best not to mention most of the time.

Without pausing at the sight of a powerful and dangerous gryphon threatening him, the shadow-man removes his hood, revealing more clearly his wavering and never-quite-defined head, the darkness fading out in wisps to indicate hair, that silvery glint revealed to be, after all, a lovely earring very similar to Mother’s but a little different here and there, the primary impression of his unusual face being, from its smile, friendliness. And from that smile comes a voice, “Oh don’t run on our account. We were called to guard everyone here, after all.”

Well doesn’t Geryon look abashed at that. Merri puts her hand on his back to comfort him, and of course there’s Cherry doing it as well, for who couldn’t love him? “It ain’t no surprise we’re a little nervous,” Cherry says. “We just got attacked by a buncha demons. Dunno if Lyria told you that.”

Looking quizzically at Cherry, he says, in a voice not all all shadowy and dark and echoey like you might expect, but kind and convivial, “She did fail to mention it.”

And now the other one, the angelic fellow, all light where his companion is shadow, points, and Merri follows his glowing finger and sees he’s pointing at Tulip, who has a familiar ‘What did I do?’ look on her face. The dark one focuses on her intently, and says, “Yes, you’re right… Looks just like her.” It takes half a tick for Merri to clue in that he must be responding to a comment from the bright guy, something that even Bunny ears couldn’t catch. Shadows (as she is beginning to think of him seeing as he hasn’t offered up a name yet) looks around at all the Bunnies and chuckles a little. “Oh I see! You are Alma’s mini-clan, aren’t you?”

“Mini-clan?” Merri is astonished at the thought, but then smiles brightly and laughs. “Oh, I like that! We’re the Clan o’ the Bunny! We need our own plaid!”

Shadows laughs as well, delighted, and takes a step toward Merri, reaching out and touching her ears and running his fingers through her hair. His touch is surprisingly solid, cool, cooler than their mother’s touch but not cold or unpleasant at all. “This is brilliant! The transition of fur and hair, the ears… So absolutely perfect. And you are all different. Do you all have different personalities, as well? Different abilities, maybe?”

Merri resists the urge to take a step back. He’s so eager and innocent in his way that even though it’s quite off-putting to be talked about and handled that way, she can’t blame him. But best to put a stop to that kind of thing right off, and Cherry, after sharing a look with Sage, takes the lead, bless her. “Hon,” Cherry says, her drawl firm and friendly-but-you-better-respect as she would put it, “how about we just get to know each other the usual way? So, you know our names…”

His shadowy features roil in momentary confusion, but then he smiles. “Oh, how rude of me… That is Luminus and I am Imset. We’re your uncles!”

Luminus removes his hood as well. Except for being drawn in soft light, his features are identical to Imset’s, right down to the earring. He smiles and raises a hand in greeting.

Cherry’s grin blossoms, broad and free and so pretty with her full dark lips and bright teeth and her lovely light-brown skin. “Now that’s more like it! Wow, uncles! Family keeps gettin’ bigger!” Merri remembers how Cherry wept in her arms one night, over how their father, Arion, had still only visited a few of them, how most of their mother’s family hadn’t acknowledged them, so she knows how important Imset’s words are to her, even though Cherry normally doesn’t say so aloud.

Sage steps forward, releasing Aliyah’s hand. “I am Sage. These are Kori, Chime, and Tulip. And Aliyah and Geryon, our protectors and dear friends.” Aliyah puts her hands on his shoulders and gives him a squeeze.

“I must say,” Imset says, “I had never met a talking gryphon before now.”

Geryon is still settling his feathers down, trying to look as if he didn’t unnecessarily leap to their defense. “Yes, I’m a rare beastie. So you are lady Alma’s brothers?”

“Oh yes. The oldest ones she has,” Imset says. “Little Almy is our baby sister. I take it she’s not around, or we wouldn’t have been called.” He looks closer at Tulip. “You look just like she did when she was that tall.”

Luminus moves closer to Tulip, and leaning down he smiles and pets her head. Tulip looks up at him, dazed and fascinated, her jaw half-dropped, and Merri bursts out laughing at the sight of Tulip – Tulip! – rendered speechless.

“So what are y’all the gods of?” Cherry asks. “Some kinda death, right?”

Imset chuckles. “Something like it. We are the light and the darkness at the end of life.” He leans closer to Cherry. “Do you have a heightened sense of smell as well?”

Cherry leans closer to him, still grinning, her snub nose almost touching his longer, sharper one. “We got a normal sense of smell, but humans got a terrible one, so I guess you could call ours pretty sharp. We ain’t exactly bloodhounds, but we kick butt at wine tastin’.”

Imset looks down Cherry’s body, shaking his head in pleased amazement. “And those legs and feet… Amazing how she managed to make it all work… And I just cannot get over that witty tongue of yours! Father is insane for thinking Almy disgraced herself with you! So much better than Uncle Techu’s Anubi…”

At this revelation, Merri gasps dramatically. “Are ye sayin’…we’re related t’the Anubi-bai, er, bi?”

“WHEEE!” They all look over to see Luminus tossing Tulip in the air. Though the youngest Bunny is a slight-built wee thing, she is thirteen years old and tossing her about like a toddler takes a lot of strength, but fortunately she’s not being bounced off the ceiling yet. Merri notes that Sage is keeping a worried eye on those two.

Imset chuckles again at the silliness. “Oh yes. Our mother’s first husband created the Anubi. That was before he was put on trial by the Council and sent away. Mother joined Father’s harem after that. Well…it was not a harem yet, back then. Why do you think people find you so repulsive?” He says this casually, distractedly while stroking Cherry’s ear between two fingers, clearly not subscribing to general opinion. Still, it’s no pleasure to her yourself being described as repulsive.

Sage, seemingly satisfied that Tulip is having a blast, says, “We knew that our creation was a violation of the law. But according to our mother, we were not in any way designed. We simply came into being. We are as accidental, in a sense, as most mortals. Perhaps that is the difference?”

“Perhaps.” Imset looks as if he realizes he was becoming lost in the sensation of stroking the soft fur of Cherry’s ear, and smiles at her apologetically. “So…anything we can do to soothe your minds after that rendezvous with demons?”

“Well I think a nice cuppa tea is in order,” Merri says. “Also, we need t’explore our redecorated bar!”

“We’re just guessin’,” Cherry says, “but this must be Lyria’s way of cleanin’ up. Man, look at these tables! They’re so much nicer than before.”

“Yes, this has Lyria all over it,” Imset says. “Speaking of which… Where is she? She sent for us but she didn’t say much in her message.”

At this point, all three of the younger Bunnies are gathered around Luminus, who is conjuring up beautiful wavering multicolored lights, like an aurora, fascinating them. He hasn’t said a word yet but they don’t seem to mind. Merri watches with half a mind, until Sage’s serious voice brings her back to reality. “She and the Fencer and Melinor have gone to find Mother, and some other gods whom you may not know. It’s all rather worrying.”

Imset looks concerned. “Is my sister in danger? Who are these gods?”

“They are all Guardia Dei,” Sage explains. “One of them is a sergeant like Mother, named Gwydion. Oh, Somrak is a sergeant as well, but he’s not from this station. And then there is this station’s inspector, Sky, or rather Tuma-Sukai, as he is properly called. They seem to have gone up against the necromancer who bombed our station and killed some of our people awhile back.”

Merri feels her stomach clench and being reminded of the simply awful situation. “And Dion an’ Sky an’ Somrak, too, they’re all family to us an’ we’re worried sick.”

“Huh…” Imset’s insubstantial-looking hand strokes his jawline. “I remember hearing about that bomb. Hadn’t had one go off since Lum and I were youngsters. Gwydion… is he from the First Ring?”

“He is! Very posh an’aw,” Merri says. “But he’s begun to fit in well here. Place has grown on him!”

“Sommy’s a bundle of trouble, but we love him anyway,” Cherry adds. “Got a ponytail and a scar like this.” She draws a line across her face with her finger.

“Is this Gwydion the one who was caught seducing his way through the whole First Ring?” Imset asks, sending Merri and Cherry into a fit of giggling while Aliyah guffaws.

Geryon, on the other paw, sighs. “Yes. If you want his skin for losing a girlfriend, you will have to stand in line.”

“Oh no,” Imset laughs, “I find it all very amusing. Unless, of course, he is harboring bad intentions toward my little sister. Then I might have to harm him.”

Though it’s said in a friendly tone that seems to be Imset’s default, the statement puts a stop to the laughter. Merri and Cherry look at each other, and the latter says, “Well, uh, y’know…how about that drink? And weren’t you gettin’ tea, baby? Y’know,” Cherry says, back to addressing the twins, “she makes the best tea, even if it ain’t iced sweet tea.”

“But sometimes Cherry dear makes a pitcher o’ that iced abomination,” Merri responds, shaking her head with an amused sigh and heading for the kitchen.

“Hey, it’s good on a hot day!”

After she starts the fire and puts the kettle on, Merri leans against the doorframe and watches. Imset looks amused at the banter as Luminus sits by him and places a companionable hand on his shoulder. “So… you two are the oldest of the lot?” he says to Cherry.

“That’s right,” Cherry says. “Got no idea which of us appeared first, or if we both showed up at the same moment. We used to argue about it, but agreed it must’ve been simultaneous. Funny, we ain’t never asked Mom about that.”

Merri calls, “I was first an’ ye know it!” She laughs at Cherry’s dramatic eye-roll, and turns to the kettle, which is starting to hiss with the first signs of boiling.

“Oh, so you are twins! We are twins as well. Lum here was born just three days before me.”

Aliyah, who has been mostly silent around these older, more powerful and terribly strange but friendly gods, cries, “Ouch! That…is a long labor!”

“Oh, Mother wasn’t that put out by it. She had plenty to keep her entertained while she waited,” Imset explains.

Cherry laughs. “What, jugglers? Puppet shows? Poodles jumping through flaming hoops?”

Imset and Luminus look utterly confused, then look at each other and laugh, Luminus silently, Imset loudly enough for both. “Oh, she’s brilliant!” he says. “I don’t remember what she did, I hadn’t been born yet!

As Merri returns to the gathering, carrying a tray bearing the teapot filled with hot water, the tea steeping within, and a little cow-shaped pitcher of milk, a glass jar of sugar, and some biscuits on a plate, she sees that Luminus has decided to entertain them with another light show.

Ah, it must have been the young’ns who asked him because they are all sitting around the soft flare of a god, watching wide-eyed as little dots of light start crawling out from among the leaves of all the greenery that Grandmama left behind in the bar, crawling and rolling down the leaves like shimmering drops of dew in the morning light and falling and hovering, all different colors but so soft. Like fireflies in the summer. And it is like they’re growing now, just a little, and the bigger ones are blooming, all so slow, so quiet, stretching lazily in fine tendrils like slow, tiny, lazy explosions of silent fireworks, all over the bar, right in the air, where Kori and Chime can reach out and grab them and hold them in both hands, peeking into the little dark chamber created by their fingers and marveling at the way the ever-so-gentle lights are starting to change colors.

The sight of the rising, dancing lights evokes half-memories of the dream life she and Cherry shared while they slept together in magical stasis, sitting on the roof of their bar and watching a Year’s End festival display of pyrotechnics over a river. She used to know the names of the different kinds of explosions, peonies and chrysanthemums, rings and spiders and horsetails, marveling at the way the lit up the sky and reflected in the water, sipping champagne with Cherry. Oh what an exquisite time.

Ch6.91 Trust

Sky watches, unable to act. He roared when Somrak tried to choke Alma. No, not Alma. Alma’s body. He roared then, and again when Somrak was whipped.

But more than that he cannot compel himself to do. He is Nua’s. He has given himself over to her. She has broken and bound him.

Hasn’t she?

His talons scrape against the concrete floor, dust erupting. Margrave is here, clapping. The Lieutenant. Nekh’s right hand. Such a small man. Margrave and Nua, in the same room. If he could act, Sky could kill them both. He is not even chained.

But Nua is in Alma’s body. And Nua’s body – no, Nua has no body. Trocia’s body is lying on the gurney. And is Alma in there? He cannot kill her, in case Alma is in there.

He cannot kill Trocia anyway. Because he cannot do anything without Nua’s say? No… Because he has hurt Trocia. Nua has hurt her, so much. And because Nua made him, he has hurt her. She forced him – Nua forced him…

The shame makes him fight the urge to vomit. Even in this form, with its devil’s brain and body, what he did to poor Trocia makes him want to die.

Nua allowed Trocia to regain control of her body, just for a moment. While Sky was thrusting away, holding her down as Nua had commanded him, Nua let Trocia speak, beg, scream. She struggled. She wept.

And she told Sky that she forgave him.

He broke then. He shattered. He forgot any possibility but submission to Nua’s rule. Because anything else was just too painful to accept.

And so now, Sky does not move. He does not act.

Nua uses Alma’s face to grin. She produces two curved daggers, made of an enamelled, organic material. Sky recognizes them. The gift from Somrak to Alma, for Year’s End. “I found these fun little toys too,” she says to Margrave, her master. “The males could go in them, since they want to stay with their little friend so much.” She turns her beautiful face, marred by the twisted, insane evil that hides within the perfect divine flesh, and looks at Gwydion and Somrak, looking their hanging, bleeding bodies up and down as if appraising meat. “Make a nice matching set.”

Margrave takes one of the daggers, considering. “Dragon’s tooth. These would make deadly weapons, with these gods’ souls in them.” He looks at the captives. “What do you think, Sergeants? An eternity as a weapon, slaying gods, or an eternity in Hell? Which is more appealing?”

Croaking, weak, Somrak sneers. “Come one step closer and let me show you what I think, Tragas scum…”

Nua lashes out with the vertebral whip, all that remains of Little Falls’ resident Death Goddess. It rips across Somrak’s bare chest again, opening a new, ragged wound, making a lopsided bloody X across his torso. Having endured that whip and its soul-scoring damage himself, Sky cringes in on himself, reliving that pain through Somrak’s agonized howl. “That was not very polite of you,” Nua purrs. “But that sharp tongue will surely give a good edge to any blade.”

She spins on her toe and sways over to the gurney. Sky is dismayed at how quickly she has taken to Alma’s body. Many species of possessor-demons exist in the legions of Hell, and most of them cannot so quickly master a new body. Somehow Nua has gone from Trocia’s awkward mortal form to Alma’s taller divine one without missing a beat. No stumbling, no hesitation. She seems ready to stay in there for an eternity.

He remembers, when the others fell unconscious, before Gwydion and Somrak were disarmed, all their clothing but their pants stripped off, chained by the wrists and raised off the floor, how Alma struggled, screamed, as she was attacked by something he could not see. But Nua, in Trocia’s body then, gloated at how the shredded, violated souls were weakening Alma. She had had her assistants chain Trocia’s body down, and Alma’s as well, and then effected the soul transfer. All while Sky was frozen, helpless.

This all could, after all, have been another trick.

They stripped Saira, too, divesting her of her many blades and nearly all her clothes, leaving her in nothing but her leather pants and a pair of handcuffs. Mortal that she is, they didn’t bother to hang her up, just leaving her behind the others.

Nua picks up Alma’s sword, sighting along the length of the blade, and rests the tip on Trocia’s chest. “Shall I start?”

Margrave sighs in impatience. “You know that your mind must be calm for this.”

Nua grins, that seductive but utterly mad grin that blossoms on her face so easily, that makes Alma look hateful and diseased. “What do you suggest to calm me…master?”

The absurd sexual charge in her voice prompts only a withering glare. “Why don’t you try taking a deep breath and counting down from ten?” Margrave’s contempt would whip her bloody if it could take physical form.

Coughing laughter that ends on a gurgle and expectoration of thick blood. “You two make such a great couple!” Somrak’s teeth are crimson and ivory as he smiles at them like a predator ready to bite at its first chance.

Nua sets down the sword beside Trocia’s body. She turns, tossing her pure-white hair, and takes a few steps to Somrak, careful not to approach close enough that he can attack her again. Her tone is frighteningly sweet, all the more disturbing for being Alma’s voice. “You know, hurting you would be sure to calm me down but…if I damage your soul too much it’ll become useless.” She smiles. “Tell you what, I’ll hit your friend instead, this time.” Somrak’s wordless shout is drowned out by Gwydion’s scream as a mere flick of Nua’s wrist sends the sinuous living whip cutting through Dion’s flesh, opening a wound along his side and tearing again at his soul. The whip seems to take pleasure in its enslavement, full of mad hatred.

“And I will lash him again, any time you open that dirty little mouth to speak,” Nua adds before she turns away.

Somrak glares at her, his compact muscles straining against the chains, so obviously wanting to burn her, but keeping his jaw clenched shut.

As she takes position next to Trocia’s body again, Nua smiles, deranged, at Margrave. “I’m calm now.”

The sleeping body stirs. Trocia’s mouth opens and struggles to make a sound, like someone who has endured a stroke and is relearning to use her body. “Sssss… Sssssss…”

Margrave paces around the gurney, his hands clasped behind him, holding his silver-headed cane horizontally. His clothes are so consummate, so carefully chosen to create the perfect ensemble. The tailored wool suit, charcoal grey, the wine-colored silk tie, trinity-knotted, the soft-cotton white shirt. He rounds the table, not far from Gwydion and Somrak. “Yes, we’ll have things all set to right soon enough. That’ll show you not to open boxes from demons, silly girl,” he murmurs to Trocia.

Nua lifts the sword again and begins to whisper in a language that will leave her throat raw for days. It is one of the numerous languages of Hell, one of those that has never been used for conversation. It is purely a language of spellcasting, one that taps right into the underlying grammar of Creation itself, but one of an earlier Reality, with a vocabulary more alien and evil.

The edges of the sword begin to glow with a black light. A similar light begins to flicker along the edges of Trocia’s body, stabbing into it, reaching deep, hooking and drawing out a soul. Trocia stirs, arching her back, writhing against the chains that bind her. But the voice that issues from her mouth has a familiar timbre.

“Sssssskyyy! Hhhhelllp!!” It is weak, but Sky can hear Alma in it, despite the mortal’s throat and mouth. Then she screams, almost roars.

And then a great many things happen at once.

Margrave lurches upright, leaning back, his face twisted into extreme annoyance, silently asking, ‘What now?’ as he releases his cane and claws at his throat. Sky sees what has appeared around it: a short length of chain, attached to the handcuffs around Saira’s wrists. She is behind him, her hair wild, a knee dug into his back. Sky can see half of her face, and the fury written there could frighten a god.

“I finally have you, you son of a bitch! You’re DEAD!” Saira’s voice rings off the stone walls.

Margrave’s perfectly tailored suit begins to shiver, awaken, and transform. The necktie expands, becoming scaly and clawed, pushing under the chains to serve as a cushion. His jacket flies open like a pair of stunted wings, then curves, sprouting long, back-curved spikes, impaling Saira’s vulnerable body in several places. His pants slither off his legs, turning into two centipedes, their sharp-tipped legs latching onto Saira’s leather-clad ones, their mandibles biting deep.

Saira screams her pain but in her determination and hatred she does not let go of Margrave as the demons attack her, merely shifting the chain to get it past his reptilian protector and get it around his bare throat again.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The pain is immense, indescribable, expanding, contracting. Consuming. There is a whole universe of it. Alma’s whole universe is made of pain. Arms of darkness reach into her and pull her into…something. Something that is not her. A lifeless body, cold and motionless. Restraining. A prison of senselessness. She tried. She tried to call for help. But it is too late.

She can feel it as the invisible force sucks her out of Trocia’s unresisting form and drags her, stretching her soul almost to the point of breaking, into her new prison.

Her own sword.

Discorporate, without a solid hold on Trocia’s body as it is not her own, Alma tries to fight it, resisting in any way she can, clutching at what little she can grab of Trocia’s flesh in the most desperate of attempts to avoid this binding. And the more she resists, the more she is stretched to infinity, the more her soul is frayed, strands of it torn and flailing free. She wants to scream. Tries to scream. But she cannot. She calls on her powers but for the strength they give, she needs to remain whole. And she tries to escape to the Wheel but the pain is maddening. The gateway remains closed to her. She calls, whimpers, begs in thought to the Shan’doír, asking their help. Their protection.

But no one comes.

The binding strengthens. Her hold falters. No! No! No!

Images of her family, of her children, of her friends, of Gwydion fill her conscience. The soul is shaped by memories. Of one’s body, of one’s life, of one’s emotions. And there is pain…so much grief in hers. So much regret. And there was so much hope…

Loss. Failure. She will fail them all. The Bunnies for never again returning to them. Her friends for becoming an instrument of their doom. Sky…for not saving him. Sky… Tortured into submission, forced to rape a young girl, to abandon all hope, even his godly shape.

I am so sorry, Sky

As her powers waver, as the maddening agony swarms and overwhelms her, she finally screams, a single memory filling her like the demented spark of salvation. The Vow…

The Vow…

She lets go, drawing what is left of her powers around her, projecting them like an explosion. All of her thinking that one thought, calling that one call.

Sky! Azzageddi! Remember your vow….

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Is it a trick? Is it Nua, trying to get Sky to reveal himself as a traitor? Sky bunches his shoulders. Trocia, with Alma inside. Somrak and Gwydion, bloodied but struggling uselessly now to get free of their chains. Margrave is being strangled, but Saira is hurt, hurt so badly – I must…I must ACT! he rages within his own mind, jaws clenched.

As Saira screams in pain and rage, Nua proceeds with the magic, grinning in glee. She seems all too happy to let the assassin kill Margrave if she is able. Trocia’s back arches as her body starts to glow, the chains pressing into her flesh, the sheer power of Alma’s divine soul making it visible even to Sky, with his lack of specialized senses. Suddenly Trocia’s body collapses and a ball of light hovers in the air, sprouting tendrils that move toward the sword as if they were being sucked into it. But the tendrils stop halfway there, dangerously close but somehow seeming to resist the call of the metal. The air feels electrified, alive with soundless screams. The mind more than the ears registers unspeakable pain and the strained words,

Sky! Azzageddi! Remember your vow…

The words penetrate past Sky’s paralyzed surface, down into the hidden recesses where he has kept a secret even from himself: that he is not bound, not entirely broken. He has endured so much, thought his friends tortured to death, been forced to commit unspeakable acts, been blinded in one eye, had his tongue cut out, had his bones broken and his very soul whipped again and again, but all along he has kept one tiny spark of rebellion ready for the right moment. Hidden behind a stone, inside a dream, so deep even he could not see it.

The pieces are in place. He is free to move. Margrave and Nua are both here, unmindful of him. The time is here, right now.

There is a crash that shakes the entire chamber as Sky’s shoulders slam into the ceiling as he rises. His wings spread to cover half the room, shadow within them. His arms are spread wide, talons ready to grasp, his tail lashing, upsetting a cart of restraints and torture instruments and the stripped-away clothes and equipment of the captives. There are a surprising number of knives and swords there.

He roars.

The roars before were shocking, stunning, sudden attempts to stop Somrak from killing Alma’s body, or to try to stop the torture. This is something else entirely. The bones and organs of everyone in the room vibrate with this basso-profundo bellow. The stones of the walls and ceiling release dust and mortar, and begin to shake free, falling here and there. It goes on and on, making everyone cringe, panicking the demons that swarm around Saira and Margrave, making Nua drop the sword.

Then it becomes even louder, and deeper. Nearly beyond endurance. And that is when every link of every chain in the room pops, shattering. Tuma-Sukai, Breaker of Chains, lives up to his name. Even the enchanted, sphere-suppressing chains holding Somrak and Dion cannot withstand him. Even the metaphorical chains that bind the demons into Margrave’s service cannot survive.

And the half-forged binding that would have turned Alma into a living sword is swept away like a cobweb before a gale. Alma’s soul, unnaturally outside of any body, flies instantly to its natural home, and her body staggers as the alien presence within loses control, for Nua’s bonding of Alma’s body has been broken as well.

All happening at once…

Somrak falls to the floor as the chains give way, but having seen Sky do this before he recovers quickly and is launching himself at Margrave, only to smack right into a screaming unbound demon, all thrashing arachnoid limbs and spikes and leathery wings. It shrieks and attacks him, but Somrak grapples, and white flames hot enough to melt steel are bursting out from deep within it. In moments, its body is nothing but ash, and whatever soul it has is on its way back to Hell.

The demons are scattering, released from their slavery. One of the centipedes folds in on itself and disappears, while the other continues attacking Saira, biting her thigh and injecting venom as she screams and pounds at it with her fist.

The chains binding her wrists now broken, Saira rips the centipede demon from her rapidly swelling leg and hurls it away. She seizes the closest thing at hand, the fallen bone-whip, twisting it around Margrave’s throat and using it as a strangling cord, pressing her last chance at revenge. Margrave’s face turns purple, a wheezing gurgle issuing from his wide-open mouth, and a soft but terrible buckling sound as his trachea collapses.

Saira, of course, knows the feel of a throat going. She releases him, falling back into Somrak’s arms, as Margrave falls forward onto one palm, still trying to pull the whip free with the other, his eyes bugging out, a look of astonishment on his purple-black face.

Beside Somrak and Saira, Dion has fallen to the floor in a heap. He shakes his head to clear it, ears ringing and stunned by Sky’s roar. He focuses on Nua, on Alma, staggering. Alma’s soul, drawn toward the sword, snaps back into her true body as if pulled by a stretched length of rubber.

A golden aura filled with serpentine, draconic forms, begins to take shape around Dion’s head.

All this Sky witnesses as his roar falls silent. He has time to think, What is this? And then to answer himself: Hammer of Devils!

Gwydion launches himself against Nua in Alma’s body, tackling her against the makeshift altar where Trocia’s body lies and making her cry out in surprise and pain. The necromancer turns just in time to bury her nails deep in the muscle of his neck.

Sky moves, easily reaching across Trocia’s still body to grasp Nua’s forearm with a huge clawed hand, pulling her off Dion roughly, making her rip five tracks of flesh off Dion’s neck. Sky pushes in between them, his long wolfish face near hers, growling.

To Dion it must seem as if Sky intends to bite her head off. To Dion, he must seem to be nothing but a devil, the greatest of enemies. For Dion, Sky can sense, is indeed the Hammer of Devils. How this can be, what kind of change must have been wrought, Sky cannot imagine now. All he knows is that the golden light in Dion’s eyes, blindingly bright, holds only hatred for Sky’s horrid countenance: a long lupine muzzle full of fangs, one eye blinded and scarred, heavy ram-like horns, skin the red-black of congealed blood, the color derived from constantly moving scripts of blasphemy.

For Dion, his friend, instinct takes over, exiling logic to the darkness of endless war. Every pulse of energy in Dion’s body surges in outrage and natural hatred for the devil in front of him, demanding it be exterminated, not just sent back to Hell. Amid the golden glow, blackness pours from his pupils and up through the furrows of green and brown pigment in the irises, to draw curly, spiky sigils with edges made sharper from the light around them. Sky is captivated, for he can read them. They are the language that was once shared by both Heaven and Hell. They are beyond holy, beyond profane. He feels a momentary urge to fall to his knees in willing, joyful submission.

The power rising within Gwydion, pouring through the gateways opening deep in his divine sphere, are so similar to Sky’s own powers of Hellish origin that he recognizes the approach of his own potential demise. Dion pulls his arm back, wrapped and shielded in light that courses with patterns of scaly, vicious, implacable, sinuous dragons. Gwydion opens his mouth and challenges Sky with a roar of his own.

And he strikes the devil, making Sky hunch with pain. Sky keens like a wounded orca, dropping Nua, or perhaps Alma, and staggers back one step, his hoof stomping the ground hard enough to make the gurney bounce, so that Trocia’s body falls to the floor.

But Sky recovers, surprisingly agile, raising a claw which must, to Dion, be aimed at the god’s head – instead snatching the remaining centipede demon out of the air as it leaps from where Saira threw it, ready to latch onto and bite and tear and envenom anything in its path.

Sky brings the writhing creature to his mouth, fixing Dion’s golden-glowing eyes with his own single blue-green one, and bites down, tearing the arthropod’s head off with his teeth. Sky feels the sting of its venom wash over his mouth, burning the stump of his tongue, but he ignores that. He stares into Gwydion’s eyes as gore drips from his muzzle.

The shock on Gwydion’s face seems to revive reason. He stares at Sky for two, three breaths, then a cry makes him turn to his right, where Alma-or-Nua is flailing and staggering, one of the dragon-tooth daggers in her hand, stabbing herself in her own thigh.

It is not the first wound. She must have been stabbing herself while the two of them – once, in a sense, rivals for her affection, though each desiring a different kind of affection from her – were facing off. Sky interposes his huge hand between the weapon and her vulnerable body. The dagger stabs deep, chipping a metacarpal bone, making him grunt. He twists his hand, pulling the blade from her grasp, then lets her fall into Gwydion’s arms. Sky leaves the dagger impaled in him as he looks around for other enemies.

And he has no trouble finding them. Clawing their way out of the walls and floor and ceiling, demons are arriving by the dozen. Some are multijointed and chitinous, some are furred and covered in seeping wounds. Some are partly mechanical; some are partly immaterial. All are foul, of an attunement opposed to anything natural to the Insula.

Sky looks at Margrave. The sorcerer, asphyxiating from his collapsed throat, is tracing sigils in his own blood on the floor. He is summoning demons randomly, unbound, as dangerous to himself as to anyone else in the room. He is drawing upon his own ebbing life energy to do so. Caring nothing for his own safety, he only hopes to bring down his killers with him.

Sky raises a fist and brings it down on Margrave’s back in a hammerblow. Ribs crack, and with them Margrave’s spine. The summoner collapses entirely and becomes still. Then Sky turns to fight.

And he sees a projectile made of pure mana shoot out from Gwydion’s hand to hit a demon that is leaping for him and Alma, burning a hole in it. It falls back and strives but fails to get up, contorting as the hole in its belly grows larger and larger until the demon shrieks one last time before it is completely consumed. Dion stares at his hand in amazement, as if wondering how he did that, the turns toward the other demons in the room. The berserker rage that he nearly unleashed on Sky, Dion now allows it to flow free upon the other demons, magic moving through him unbidden.

All around the room, the demons shriek in pain and panic, staggering and clutching at their heads, their chests, at whatever hides their core, buckling and falling to the floor. They scream until the world seems like it will break from the sheer intensity of it. And suddenly, they explode, from the inside out, disintegrating as their flesh is shot across the room.

Even Sky feels it. He is surprised, though, by how little he feels it. The demons are torn apart, but within his guts is a force trying to do the same to him, a force easily resisted though intensely uncomfortable.

The world goes quiet. Dion breathes in the silence and then his knees buckle. As he drops Alma, as he falls to the floor, a broad, taloned hand catches them and lowers them gently.

Ch6.90 Trust

The stench of them is getting closer. Demons, a group of them. Four at least. Lyria can feel them treading on the bare soil of the breezeway, corrupting it with their poisonous touch and with the slithering of their bodies, rotting seeds, killing roots. Defiling nature.

She curses under her breath. What kind of irresponsible fools would leave their home so vulnerable to an attack? And then again, this was never meant to be a home, was it? This was always just a prison, a quarantine unit. A grave to dangerous mistakes expected to die out in a few decades.

She shakes her head, throwing such thoughts back into the dark and grim abyss from whence they came. No time to entertain them now. A quiet thought, barely a conscious decision, and the floor by her foot sprouts a green stem, leaves, a large purple flower. A couple of tiny pixies stand in its eye and stretch their limbs, yawning lazily before taking to the air.

“Go,” Lyria tells them as she provides them with specific orders in a telepathic message. “Tell them to hurry.”

The little messengers nod and fly swiftly away, at full speed against the wall and past it. Her message will reach its intended targets very quickly, Lyria knows. It is all a matter of how long it will take them to come to her aid. She takes a couple of steps toward the kitchen, just to check that the gryphon has already sealed the portal into Gwydion’s room behind him. They should be safe in there, he and the Bunnies and that tall mortal girl.

Lyria takes a step back, turns to the door that leads into the breezeway. It would not do to give the enemy an indication of where her grandchildren are hiding. Her eyes flare with their vibrant, leafy green, her flaxen hair glimmers with the gold of ripe wheat in the summer sun. She glows with divinity just as the lights begin to dim around her, as the door is ripped off its hinges and crushed by a tentacled, saw-toothed mouth. A crawling shape enters and climbs the wall all the way to the ceiling, a mass of writhing arms, each of which is covered in blistering, festering wounds and gaping mouths from which issue a chorus of screams. Another demon, just a shapeless, writhing mass, slides over the floor, its stench so foul that Lyria has to activate a cleansing spell to keep herself from asphyxiating while she feels the floorboards rot under her feet.

The fourth is almost humanoid, tall, very tall, muscular, horned and winged. Tattered wings, stark black like the rest of its skin. No eyes, no mouth. Around him, darkness spreads, black chains hover with links as sharp as blades.

Lyria sighs for a moment at how simple and uncreative the fears of mortals can be. “Poor little demons. Born to suffer, to hate and slavery. You deserve the pity of the world.”

“Slaves deserve DEATH!” one of the demons roars in one of the lower tongues of Hell as all of them jump to attack with teeth, tentacles, talons and pseudopods. All of them as one, a rabid mass of Hellish nightmares pouncing on the life goddess.

She stands her ground, her powers unleashed to their full glory, their full horrifying magnificence. The air vibrates with the energy of Life, the room filling with the pulsating light of existence, with the rustling of leaves, the drumming of heartbeats, the whooshing sound of sap flowing in green stems. At a gesture of her hand, the boards and tables and chairs sprout thorn-laden vines that intercept and entangle the demons, tearing and constricting, deadly.

The demons roar, bound and stung. And she tilts her head in command. Venoms that harm even demons ooze from the tips of the thorns, into demon flesh.

“This is our world, little demon,” she whispers as the floorboards rise and twist into spiked mouths that bite and swallow two of the demons. “Long ago, we defeated you and locked you away in your Hell. Do you really think you can challenge us here?”

There are others, though, just arriving. She will need help soon enough. The demons wail and roar in pain as even the newcomers fall into her traps but pain is a constant to the lowly dwellers of Hell. They fight to move through the vines even as their flesh is ripped apart by them, chuckling when their corrosive blood eats through the plants, when their rotting miasma withers the verdant chains.

A demon breaks free before the rest and jumps at Lyria, dreadful maw open, teeth whirring around its jaws like a chainsaw, tentacles shooting to wrap around the goddess’ body.

“Diiiiieeeeeeee!” it bellows with poisonous breath, a sickly yellowish tongue whipping out, trying to grab hold of her neck.

Lyria raises an arm to catch the mucus-covered strip, which wraps around her limb instead of her neck, tightening its hold with bone-breaking strength. With a flash of divine power, her skin rises and thickens, her slender muscles bulge. Scales and spikes, tough and sharp, cover her arm, piercing through the surprised demon’s tongue, capturing it in place while the goddess’ free hand grows long, razor-edged claws that she uses to rip through the tentacles. Teeth manage to bite her, penetrating all the way down to her bones, but soon the demon is reduced to nothing but an angry mouth.

Other demons close in, tearing themselves out of the thorny vines, leaving assorted limbs behind inside her carnivorous plants’ mouths in sacrifice for their ultimate goal. Where are they?

Where are they?

A blur of movement to her right and a demon falls face first at Lyria’s feet, its armored skull bashed in from behind. A second demon is already being pulled back, flailing and wailing in confusion and fear. By her left, a blade pushes through the throat of the horned and winged shadow creature. The blade disappears and the demon staggers back, its wings, shredded and broken from the vines folding around its face in protection only to have the metal sword tip thrust through its chest with sudden force. An eerie light erupts in the blade, courses through the contorting, shrieking form of the mouthless creature as it seems to burn from the inside out. A bright flash and it crumbles in ashes, revealing the grimacing, disapproving features of Varah behind it.

“I was starting to wonder if you had heard my call,” Lyria says in casual welcome as she destroys the last portions of demon still clinging to her arm.

“I would have heard faster if you had mentioned demons,” Varah replies, a dagger flying off her left hand to pin the many-armed demon to the ceiling like a skewer through a kebab. It screeches in agony but almost immediately begins to pull at the blade, trying to free itself. “What is this? Where are the Dei?”

Left with no demons directly attacking her, Lyria once again stretches her powers through the ground and the walls, strengthening her vines, brewing new poisons in their stems, in their thorns. “They are apparently off on some hare-brained scheme–” she catches herself, just as a demon is bashed against the wall, making the building shake with ominous force. “Oh I should not say that. They have gone to rescue one of them.”

Varah frowns as she cuts a smaller demon in half. “Demons…Which one?”

“Tuma-Sukai,” Lyria replies darkly. “And obviously Hell has something to do with this.”

“The necromancer…” Varah nearly spits the word. “This has to be connected to it. I will kill your insubordinate child for not calling me!” She cuts a fiery demon’s head off in a clean blow so great is her rage.

“So you did not know then,” Lyria breathes, clenching her hand in a command that makes her vines tighten around two moribund creatures until their bodies collapse with a wet, sucking noise, crushed by the constricting stems. “And yet your Commander’s pet Somrak is with them…”

“I ordered that idiot specifically to stay away from this ward!” Varah bellows, stabbing a fallen demon through the eye, her sword glowing its spectral green as the poor creature’s soul is violently ripped from its dying body. “Your daughter keeps ruining all our good agents.” She pauses, her frown becoming a definitely not very flattering grimace. “He must have told them. Damn the fool… Too smart for his own good.”

A blood-curdling laugh from the ceiling catches their attention as the demon previously pinned there finishes gnawing a hole around Varah’s dagger and frees itself, dropping with its many arms stretched and bleeding over the goddesses. The vile thing disappears suddenly in midair, its shape a blur of moving color knocked off the path to Lyria’s head with a thundering blow. Lyria lowers her armored arm, injured from her previous attacker’s teeth but quickly healing, to see Melinor standing to the left of Varah, his hand almost casually gripping and crushing the demon’s core as if it were just a piece of rotten fruit before letting it fall on the floor. She breathes out in relief and gladness to see the tall, powerful god there.

“We need to find them,” Melinor says simply.

“Yes, little one,” Lyria says, scanning the area to make sure there are no more demons surprising them. “We must. That seems to be the last of them. Fortunately they were too preoccupied with us to attack the Popula.”

She ignores her divine senses for a moment and looks around the bar with the simpler, so sadly plain and incomplete senses of mortals. “Oh look at this mess! We can’t let the Bunnies return to this horror.” She sighs, shaking her head at the chaos. “Oh well… I was planning to do something like this anyway, as a gift.”

With a simple wave of her once again humanoid-looking hand, the vines begin to recede back to the ground, dragging away the demon corpses into the hotter, cleansing layers of the Insula’s core. With an echo of birdsong and a murmur of deer calls, the corrupted air is cleansed and filled with a flowery scent. The walls, floor, and furniture reform into a lovely, dark-wood paneled interior, matching and alive. Softly glowing petals of nocturnal flowers stretch from the walls, revealing colorful stamens that illuminate the room with a gentle light much more pleasant than any lamp or torch. Firefly-blossoms bloom in the ceiling. Foliage grows in the corners of the room, coated with softly insect-repelling substances.

“Huh…Pretty,” Varah harrumphs in that way of hers that makes such a positive word sound like honest criticism. She sheathes her sword, blade enchanted to be self-cleaning. “So, who can we shake for answers? Do the furry little hoppers know anything useful?”

Lyria dispenses her a displeased glance at the blunt description of the goddess’ grandchildren before answering. “No, but I know who does.” She moves toward the kitchen, to the pantry door through which she saw Bunnies and gryphon disappear and knocks on the doorframe. “Geryon, dear? It is safe now.”

The portal activates and Geryon hesitantly peeks out, looking at Lyria for reassurance. After a smile and a nod, he looks back into the portal, calling in “Yes, they’re gone,” before coming out himself.

The rambunctious curly redhead Rosemary is the first one of the Bunnies to leave the sanctum, carrying a metal stand for a censer as if it were a weapon, and soon sweet, loving Cherry follows her, armed with a little mother-of-pearl inlaid stool. They walk carefully through the kitchen and into the bar area, makeshift weapons raised as if expecting attackers to spring up from the floorboards. They stop suddenly, arms lowering and nearly dropping their cargo, eyes wide in awe. Mumbled whispers of “What the…” and “Oh my…” escape from their parted lips.

Their eyes drift toward Varah and Melinor and the mumbling stops. Their frames tense at the sight of the gods.

The human woman rushes out of the sanctum next, sword drawn and hissing at the girls, “Hey, I told you two to wait a second!”

As the other Bunnies emerge, some fearfully others rushing out, Lyria returns to the bar’s seating area, where Geryon is looking like a goose staring down a pair of foxes. “Dear, brave Geryon,” she says. “Thank you for protecting my family.”

Geryon tilts his head, in a raptorine show of suspicion. “You will forgive me, lady, if I don’t roll over and show my belly.”

“Finally, someone with a hint of intelligence in him,” Varah mutters with an amused snort.

Sigh. This is why giving mortals such leeway to think for themselves can be so dangerous… They just don’t understand divine urgency.

Lyria smiles slightly. “My apologies for before. But there were demons closing in and I truly needed to know. And Geryon, I need to know more. Where has my daughter gone?”

“I don’t know,” Geryon replies dryly, head swinging haughtily to the side. “They did not care to name addresses.”

“What did they care to name?” Varah growls.

Geryon hesitates, a bold move with such an imposing goddess as Varah. But whatever boldness is in him disappears as Melinor moves closer to him, radiating his aura of violence recently fueled by the fight, the left side of his face turned closer to the gryphon. “Speak.”

The single word, spoken in Melinor’s low-pitched and rough voice that would be so fetching if it weren’t being made to sound like a world of terrible threats, makes Geryon flinch back and cower. Still, the gryphon manages to keep his own voice from trembling too noticeably as he blurts out as quickly as his rigid beak will let him, “They are going after the necromancer. I told them they were insane, to go just the three of them and only a day after Dion was poisoned too. That alone was a close call. But they wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t listen too poor, wise Geryon telling them not to go after her. Nua. The necromancer’s name is Nua. I’m just here to protect the Bunnies because someone has to, right?”

Varah’s eyes widen and burn with rage, her one crimson eye looking like a beacon shining from the furnaces of Hell. “Nua…” she hisses. “If your friends are still alive, I will skin them for their folly!“

Lyria looks askance at the repeated threat against her child but she is not too far from admitting that Varah is justified in her anger. “I know my daughter. They would not have gone in without some form contingency plan. A message perhaps?”

She looks to Geryon for an answer, who in turn glances meaningfully at Fencer, the feathers on his head and neck rising subtly in nervousness. “The contingency plan involves the Sikari.”

The colors run out of Lyria’s face at the sound of that awful word, as bloodcurdling as “devil.” She looks at Varah in shock.

“They made it a law,” Varah mutters, exhaling deeply. “Remember, I was against the whole bloody plan from the beginning.”

“We are not following any cursed law that brings the Sikari in while Alma is still in there!” Lyria cries out.

She looks at the gryphon, her thoughts effortlessly flowing into his mind like a fresh stream flowing through the bed of an ancient, dried river. The other gods will be able to hear her, she knows, but it is only the Bunnies’ innocent dispositions that she cares to protect at this point. These demons that attacked us are proof that their plan was not fully well-informed. It may already have gone awry. Please, we need to go help them now. Before someone else notices what is going on and sends the Sikari whether we like it or not.

Geryon looks at her for a long silent moment and she can easily sense the speed of his thoughts, the moment of his decision. He sighs and nods, raising a taloned paw in which a small roll of paper materializes at a command word. “They trusted me with this. I did not read it but I assume it says all you need to know.”

Melinor takes the message, not brusquely or unkindly even if Geryon does flinch reflexively at the movements of the god, and reads its contents. “Little Falls. Neighboring ward.”

“When did they leave?” Varah asks.

“They left early this morning, I think, not long after dawn,” Sage volunteers. “Mother and Gwydion were in their office, and soon after, they were gone. Somrak’s scent was in the air.”

Varah grimaces. “We may be too late already.”

“We would sense it if she were dead,” Melinor notes, much to Lyria’s dismay. If there is one thing she would like to avoid is any talk of deceased parents around the children.

“Nua is the type that likes to play with her food,” Varah grumbles, apparently committed to making matters worse.

“What are y’all talkin’ about, dead?” Cherry nearly shrieks, eyes wide and lip trembling in fright.

Lyria strokes Cherry’s ears, a gesture she has noticed is somehow reassuring to Bunnies. “My dear, fear not. We will make sure no harm comes to your mother and her friends. But we must go now. Geryon will continue to be your guardian, and you must do as he says. All right?”

Cherry looks up at the goddess and nods, impulsively hugging Lyria in her anxiety. Lyria holds her for a short instant and strokes her hair, whispering soothing words before pulling away and putting her hands on Cherry’s cheeks to share a little meaningful look that wanders to all the other Bunnies and says, You must keep them all together and calm.

But more demons could already be on their way, for all she knows…

“We cannot just leave them here with no divine protection,” Lyria says to Varah. “I am half tempted to transport them all to my chambers…and go fetch Mayumi as well.”

That earns her a snort from Varah. “I would love to see my brother’s face when he walks in and finds them hopping around. Anyway, the one at the Academy is safer than all of these. And if we start moving these ones around, we will soon be answering uncomfortable questions before the Council.”

“I will stay behind and stand guard,” Melinor offers, standing as he often does at the side of such discussions only to intervene when things seem to start to derail.

The offer touches Lyria’s heart, knowing as she does that Melinor is often uncomfortable around children and would be even more so if he were to stay here, with people who require so much physical interaction and emotion, instead of doing whatever he can to save his beloved and only sister. “I will feel better with your strong arm beside us, little one. I think it is time these sweet creatures met more of their family.” Again she summons the messenger petal pixies, sending them on their way with a telepathic command and smiling softly at the fascinated look on her grandchildren’s faces at the sight of this simple magic. To all of them she announces, “Two gods will soon arrive. They will help keep all of you safe.”

“How will we recognize them?” Geryon asks.

“You will know,” Melinor states simply.

Geryon looks at the god, wings hanging a little low as if slumping in resignation. “Lovely…” he mutters before turning pleading eyes to Lyria, “Lady… I know they are all insane and in more trouble than I care to imagine but… Please be kind. Their choice was an impossible one.”

Lyria touches his cheek feathers affectionately. “Your loyalty is touching, dear child. First we will make sure they are safe and home and then…we will see what must be done.” She looks over the Bunnies one last time and smiles with a confidence she is far from feeling. She then moves closer to Melinor, saying, “Let us be on our way.”

Varah nods grimly, touching the young god’s shoulder. “Take us there.”

Ch6.89 Trust

“Shut up,” Dion mumbles as his eyes open slowly, heavy with the weight of his exhaustion. Of his grief. Of his regret and loneliness.

He looks down, expecting to find dark floor covered in blood, covered in muck. Expecting the empty half-light of Hell. The corpses of his beloved family around him, in his arms. But he finds none of that. The floor here is grey. Just plain, stone grey. The light is the flickering yellow of torches. No corpses to hold. No hands to hold them with.

No free hands, that is.

He tries to move his arms and legs only to find himself immobile, to hear the rattle of the chains that hold him, hanging by the wrists, feet hovering a hand’s breadth above the floor.

Oh Fates…what now?

He does not raises his head. He is so tired. And what reason would he have to expect anything? To fear anything? His reasons to live are gone, slaughtered because of his obsessive search for his past, for his parents. A need he did not even know he had until the mere knowledge of a couple of names awakened it. Until the gift of such measly things offered a path and a hope to his origins. To his search of himself. A gift from his lover’s lips…

From the one who brought to him the family that accepted him and loved him when he believed family was not something he desired or deserved. Loving friends, supporting and kind. Ready to dive with him into Hell to save people they knew nothing about. That he knows nothing about.

And now they are gone…all gone. And he is nothing again.

Weakling! We are not made for weakness

That voice again, inside him. The one of his sphere. He wonders for a moment if all gods hear something similar coming from their core.

Shut up. I am tired. My friends are gone.

Lies! Lies! Listen! See!

With great effort, he obeys. His head feels too heavy to raise but he listens. The dripping of water somewhere behind him. Soft steps on the floor, back and forth. Something dragging on the stone. A dry, solid sound. The rumbling, fitful aspiration of difficult breathing. Of a large something’s difficult breathing. A feeling of coolness to his chest and arms, and of dampness to his feet. His jacket and shirt are gone and so are his boots. The familiar weight of his sword gone from his left hip.

We are trapped inside

Inside what?

 

Ourselves

Yes. True. He feels his mana’s flow limited to his own body, trapped there. The chains holding him were made for gods. Enchanted. In this state, he is no more powerful than a mortal. He sighs. Just a short, deep exhalation, all he has the strength to make. A prisoner of Hell. How fitting.

He deserves it for his sins.

No! Listen!

The steps have paused. They start again, now walking his way. He raises his head slowly, though his interest in what comes next is very little.

And his eyes widen at the sight. His chest swells with relief. With sheer joy. A nightmare. It must have been. All a nightmare. Or this is the dream. For here is Alma, alive and well, walking toward him, smiling softly. Seeing her returns his hope, stirs his memories. No, they weren’t in Hell. They did not go out looking for Dion’s parents. And they did not bring the Bunnies with them. No, they brought Saira and Somrak. And they were looking for Sky.

He turns his head to see the mortal lying unconscious on the floor beside him, her hands bound behind her back. Somrak is kneeling on the floor a couple of steps away, wrists shackled with mana-suppressing chains, held high above his head, which hangs low. Breathing. Probably unconscious as well.

“Sweetheart!” Alma calls to him as she stands now before him, at arm’s reach. “Did the demons hurt you?”

“Alma… Oh Alma, I’m so relieved,” he breathes before the thought strikes him that she cannot possibly know about his dream. “I thought–”

STOP!

What? No! She’s alive! She’s alive…

Not ours

What…?

Not ours. Not the same. Look. Listen

He looks at Alma, feeling his heart sink even as his mind struggles to make sense of what he sees. This is Alma. It is. But… It’s not. The soft smile curling her lips is mocking, not loving. Not relieved at the sight of him awake. Her eyes are full of the sharp wit he is used to but the light of their swirling colors is somehow duller than normal. In fact, the colors don’t swirl at all. They are mere blotches.

“Alma…?” he asks, wondering what exactly is going on. “What happened? Why are we chained?”

And why are you free?

Now standing very close to him, so close that he can feel her scent in his nostrils, she caresses his chest, curling against him. “We were attacked. They locked us in here with that…thing.” She nearly spits the last word as she turns a little and points to a far corner. “You were all knocked out and I… He watches us. We can’t leave for as long as he watches.”

Her voice is childlike, so pleading. He feels the urge to hold her even as he thinks how strange it sounds, how alien it sounds coming from Alma’s lips. And her scent…it feels stale, lacking the gentle vibrancy of her life. Could it be? Are his senses telling him she is not real? Or is he just imagining these things?

He looks at the hand with which she points to the corner, to see her holding a…whip? One made of black-leather-covered vertebrae. In the corner – his eyes open more fully as he sees a devil, crouched but huge, watching him with its glowing blue-green eyes. It is partially cloaked in darkness, but what he can see is horrifying, a sight that triggers again the memories of his parents being dragged away from him.

Enemy! Scum!

He wants nothing more than to attack the creature, destroy it, send it back to Hell, but the chains holding him prevent his powers from activating, prevent his body from any useful movement even as his muscles tense and instinctively try to lunge at the thing.

And then something in it, something in its resigned crouch, in the way the eerie light of its eyes dims at the sight of him, rings familiar. Very familiar.

Sky.

“Sky,” Dion breathes, swallowing the innate hatred and disgust he feels to even see in the creature the soul of his friend. “Isn’t that Sky?”

“They made a soul bomb go off before we came in,” Alma goes on, completely oblivious to his question. “So many souls screaming for help. It was painful.”

She wraps her arms around him, lays her head against his chest, stroking his skin with her cheek. “I screamed but you didn’t help me. No one helped me. It felt like it would last forever. Like I was going to die. I was so alone…”

She straightens a little, looks up at his face, their similar heights offset by the fact that he is hanging from the ceiling. With a sudden movement, like a snake’s head thrusting forward for a kill, she kisses him. And though he kisses her back, hoping against his instincts that she is merely confused by the attack or damaged somehow by the shattered souls she mentioned, his dread only rises, heavy and cold in his stomach. For kissing her is like kissing a stranger, the movements of their lips completely out of their familiar, pleasant rhythm, her tongue that should move like silk in a breeze thrust into his mouth like a battle ram.

Not ours

No…not ours.

But then, where is she? His whole body stiffens at the dawning realization his findings imply. The images from before might have been a nightmare but this is no better. He is bound and so are the others. And Alma…

Her beautiful face looks at him with an evil grin, her body pulled away from the intimate touch at the notice of his tense frame. That lovely face, distorted by the taint of the dark soul behind it. Nua. “Have you found out, yet? Or should I kiss you again, sweetheart?”

Dion’s own face contorts in rage. “Whoever you are, whatever you are, get out of her!”

He lunges forward but the force of the movement is lost without a floor under his feet to use for support. To gather momentum. He merely dangles forward and back, struggling against his chains. Making them rattle.

Nua snorts at him. “Why? Would you rather watch her body collapse like the empty shell it is?” She touches Alma’s chest with Alma’s hand, looking down at her black-clad bosom and turning this way and that as if trying on a new outfit. “She’s not in here anymore. I snatched this delightful piece of flesh while she was screaming in pain and going mad at being attacked by a half dozen shredded souls. Not even a sample of what I went through in Hell but it’s a start.”

“Where is she?” he demands, straining against the chains. “WHERE IS SHE?! What did you do with her?!”

GIVE HER BACK!

“Oh, she’s somewhere safe, for now. I’ll have so much fun with this body! I’ll make it my new plaything.” Nua sounds like a child given a new pet. She runs Alma’s hands all over her body, never releasing the whip, rubbing the blackened thing against her skin with erotic intent. Dion has to force himself not to look away. “Show it pleasure and pain and corrupt it until it can’t hold me anymore. And the best thing is, I can ride it right into the heart of her hateful, despicable little clan and destroy them from the inside.” She glances toward the corner where Sky’s devilish, silent form crouches. “Maybe I’ll give it to my pet to play with for a night. I know he likes her…” She moves closer to Dion again, cupping his cheek in Alma’s palm. “But you like her more, don’t you?”

Dion cannot help but glance past her at Sky, his gut tied in a knot with the horror Nua is suggesting. He remembers the conversation he had with Alma, his Alma, in the pool of her sanctum about the love spell that nearly… She had been so uncomfortable with the mere prospect of laying with Sky. He swallows though his throat feels dry with terror and cringes away from Nua’s words, seeing Sky cringe as well in his corner. Yes, he is sure now that it’s Sky.

“Do you tell her you love her when she slips into your bed at night?” Nua goes on, her voice smooth and poisonous. “Her and all her precious little Bunnies? Do you lie to her as she squirms under you? Tell her she is the love of your life as you thrust into her?”

“I don’t lie to her,” Dion growls. “I never lied to her. I never told her–”

I love her.

His voice trails off, his eyes widening as he suddenly becomes aware of that one truth. In all this time, through the good and the bad, the fear of losing her, the joy of holding her, he has never spoken those words to Alma. Never. For so many reasons… It was her, always her to speak of love. To call him her love. And he never told her – not in those words at least – of his love. Of how his heart breaks now at the thought of her gone.

“Of course you lie,” Nua replies sweetly. “All men lie to get what they want. And we both know what they really want.”

“Listen to me,” he says, desperate for even the smallest shred of hope that Alma is still somewhere she can be reached. “Your plan will never work. They’ll detect you in a second. The Death Clan will have you out of her body and what they will do to you… Your best bet is get back in your own body and run.”

Nua waves him off. “Oh, I know they could detect my soul. And that’s why I’m bringing hers along. In this.” She turns back and walks to a far corner of the room, opposite to where Sky is crouching. The squeaking of rickety wheels against the stone floor announces the approach of an old metal gurney being pushed to the center of the room by the necromancer in Alma’s body. On the gurney, a young girl lies unconscious, bound in chains just like Dion’s, her black hair splayed, and close-fitting, skin-revealing black clothing in a mess. He vaguely remembers seeing her in the room just before he collapsed into the nightmare. And on top of the girl, a sword in its sheath. Nua picks it up and brings it closer to Dion, drawing it in a mad pleasure at the soft sound it makes as it leaves the scabbard, at the way the light of the torches reflects off the silver blade engraved with simple words in the language of Death.

On the way

Alma’s sword.

“It’s a beautiful little thing, isn’t it?” Nua asks, her voice more revolting for being Alma’s. “Such a pretty vessel for your girlfriend’s soul. Oh, she will go mad from the pain of being bound to an object but she won’t have to endure it too long until I get all my soul bombs placed and armed. Unless…” She grins and grabs the sword around the sharp blade, barely reacting as it cuts into the skin, a shy trickle of blood sliding slowly down the blade. “I grow attached to her. She seems easy to grow attached to, wouldn’t you say?”

Kill it! KILL IT!

A soul bound to an item– No, no, the simple process of attempting it requires pain beyond description. Not a single account of successful binding exists where the soul was anywhere near recoverable after reversing the process. And god’s souls are so much more powerful than mortal souls, so much more rebellious against such things. How could a god be trapped in something so lifeless as a simple weapon? But if Alma is bound she’d be no better than the God Striker, maddened by pain and anger. To hold her in his hands but never again in his arms…

KILL IT! We want her back!

I can’t kill it! I can barely move.

And even if he could attack, that is Alma’s body and she is bound to be somewhere in it, still. Locked away. Trapped, maybe. Or dormant, stuck in a dream like he was. He can’t destroy her vessel.

We want her back

We do.

So very much. “You can’t bind gods’ souls to objects,” he tells Nua, though the conviction in his voice falters even to his own ears. “Only demons’ souls, or elementals–”

Nua simply snorts. How he hates that snort. “What makes you think you’re so special, god-boy? Allow me to demonstrate.” She raises the whip she is holding, making it sway with a movement of her wrist. “This one was a death goddess too. If I whip you with it, I can guarantee it’ll leave a mark.”

If he could only wake her up, get her to manifest somehow and take control of this body. If only…

“She will never allow you to harm me or any of her loved ones,” Dion says. “You may have caught her off-guard with the bomb but that is her body and she is much more powerful than you can ever be! So whip me! Go ahead! She’ll stop you before you even raise your arm!”

She harrumphs, lips curling in a sneer. “Do you really think she could stand in my way after all I learned in Hell for two hundred years of torture and hopelessness? With all I knew even before she was born? A weakling half-something goddess who can’t even deal with a tiny soul bomb and eight blown-up humans?”

“You know nothing of her strength!” he roars. “You know nothing of her!”

KILL IT!

Nua smiles, twirling the whip with a movement of her wrist. “I know one thing about her. I told you,” she raises her arm, “she’s not in here anymore!

The whip comes down and lashes at Dion, striking him across the chest, making him shriek with a pain unlike any he has ever felt before. The leather-covered bones bite deep into his bare skin, into the muscle, but that is nothing. The soul trapped in the weapon goes straight for his soul. He feels it tear at his essence, split through the first layers of his being, making him forget for a moment who or even what he is. Light fades from his eyes for an instant, sounds become dull and faraway. All there is is pain. Sharp, complete, all-consuming pain.

And in the aftertaste of it, in the wake of the roars and recoiling of his sphere, heartbreaking grief. There is only pleasure in Nua’s eyes, only wild glee at his suffering. No confusion, no shaking of her whip hand to indicate an inner struggle. And no sign of Alma. Where is she? Where is Nua keeping her if she truly plans on binding his beloved to her own sword?

Nua laughs.

As his divine body immediately starts to heal the physical wounds, for no shackles entirely suppress such a basic function of godhood, Dion is stunned by pain and despair.

Suddenly, there is a rattling of chains. Unnoticed by Nua in her sadistic mirth, Somrak yanks himself up using his chains for support, and lashes out with one of his legs. In her distraction and eagerness to have the best angle to strike Dion, she moved too close to the fire god and Somrak’s leg swiftly catches her across the neck, the other catching her behind, trapping her in a scissorhold. Choking her.

Dion watches, numb, as Somrak tightens his grip, face contorted in grim determination, stealing the air from Nua’s lungs as he growls out. “Tragas!”

The word means nothing to Dion and he doesn’t even call out to Somrak as Nua flails, trying to fight him, nails digging at the fire god’s thighs. And then she stops fighting altogether, the horrible smile returns to her lips.

And she laughs again, wheezing amidst laughter and poisonous words, “Oh yes! Yes! Hurt this body! Hurt it until she has nothing to return to! Destroy your friend.”

From his corner, Sky roars, a loud, earth-shaking cry. It stuns Somrak just long enough to allow Nua to slip free of his hold. And she spares no time to regain her breath before whipping him with vicious force, grinning as she clutches at her neck. “Pathetic… All of you… So weak…”

Somrak’s cry of pain has not even died in his throat before she whips him again. A twist of her arm and the whip is cutting Dion’s side and belly, making him scream though he tries not to. He hates her and fears her, her and that whip which seems to be animated by an anger all of its own, screaming its hatred at him as it cuts into his soul.

And in his corner, Sky roars again, helplessly, pointlessly, achieving no more than a bone-shaking, ear-ringing strike at Dion’s eardrums. A roar followed by a soft, dry, lazy clapping. Applause, slow and ironic.

“Oh yes, pathetic indeed. Pathetic all round.”

Dion looks toward the source of the sound. A short, thin man, with very short hair and a beard, has walked into the room. Or maybe he has been here all along, hiding unnoticed in a dark corner. His dark grey suit and black cane would allow for it. And the way he speaks, Dion knows it must be Margrave.

“Nua, these souls are meant to be sold to Hell, and here you are, damaging them.” The man tuts at the necromancer possessing Alma’s body.

The look she gives him is a promise that she will tear him apart at the first opportunity, her maniacal smile an indication of how much she would truly enjoy it. “They can have whatever is left after I’m done with them.” She moves toward him, leaning to place a hand on his shoulder and speak into his ear, obviously pleased with finding herself taller than him. “Do you come to gloat about the good job you left for me to do? Or do you want one of them to yourself?”

Margrave does not even look at her as he sighs. “Slave, remember – they are all mine. I only allow you to have them as much as I wish, and I will take them away the moment it pleases me.” He reaches to touch the forehead of the girl lying on the gurney. “Let us get this Death Clan goddess’ soul out of my niece and into that sword.”

Ch6.88 Trust

Anguish. Suffocating anguish. Screams of shredded souls deafening her ears, running down her throat. Invisible claws tearing at her, desperately, hungrily.

Pain.

Endless pain. Senseless, hopeless. All-consuming. And she is naked before it, so vulnerable to it. No flesh to hold her, to sacrifice to these panicked, howling wrecks of what used to be people. They go for her soul. And she cannot hide from them. No…

No! This same pain again. This agony! Just like before, like that other time in the cells. But greater now. Stronger now. There are more of them. Or of what is left of them. They are so broken…nothing left that she can use to repair them. Nothing but her core.

And that is what they seek.

“Please, please…” she whimpers though she finds no lips to whimper with. “I can’t save your souls… You can’t take mine.”

A voice. Quiet. Kind. “Enough, now… Let her go.”

Why should they listen? The words sound like a gentle request. No order. No threat. Why should the wailing stop? The digging of corrosive talons pause? Why should they obey?

But they do. The shredded souls quiet down, their screaming trailing off with a questioning tone. She can feel them backing away, slowly. Hesitantly. And hover around her. Awaiting their chance.

Relief. Such welcome relief. Such wonderful silence. Magnificent emptiness of emotion. Of pain.

A stray thought finds its way to her conscience, poking at it softly like a parent gently awakening a slumbering child. “Who is there?” she asks. “How did you do that?”

“Even the most desperate soul listens if spoken to in the right tone,” the voice replies with a soft, beatific smile. Alma cannot see its source but she has learned long ago that voices can smile and cry and laugh and rage. And this one sounds so peaceful… so ancient. “And all of them can be saved, no matter how torn they are.”

A light begins to glow gently in the dim twilight that her eyes are becoming used to seeing. Her scrying eyes, so recently transformed into the standard of her vision. She looks around as the soft glimmer of her surroundings gains rhyme and reason. Up, down, left, right…directions are meaningless here. Is she standing up? Or lying down? It does not matter. For either a body is required and hers is far behind. Bodies cannot enter the ultimate sanctum, the very threshold of existence.

“The Wheel…” she breathes, amusing herself with the way concepts like breath remain attached to her even here. Matter shaping mind. “We are in the Wheel. It is you who I’ve felt watching me before.”

“Not just I,” the voice says. Male? Female? Who could possibly tell? “But yes, we have watched you come and go. It has been a long time since one of us has visited from the material realms. And we wondered if you would notice us.”

“One of you?” How many are there?, she wonders. “Do you mean Spinners? Gods of the Wheel?”

“Gods?” The voice sounds positively confused. “What are gods?”

The simple question hits her with unexpected weight. For so many reasons. How to explain the concept of a god to a being dwelling at the edge of all beings. There are no fears here. No desires. Nothing in the way of the matter that brings most gods to life. A challenge not much different from explaining the sound of birdsong to a deaf person. But if these beings have no concept of a god…what are they? And why are they here?

She decides to use the one example she reasons they will understand: souls. “Gods are beings with complex souls like my own. In basic shape. Eight layers around a stable core. No frail parts to be eaten away by time.”

“Ah… We never called ourselves gods. Still, many have lived and died since we have been here.” The voice sounds almost amused though its tone carries an empty contemplation suggestive of many centuries passed in this place.

“Who are you, then?” Alma asks, feeling her own thoughts drift away from emotion, sharing in the peace of her strange companion.

“We are Shan’doír,” is the answer. “Like you. Shape to core to purpose. Serving the heart of the Wheel.”

Shan’doír… There is a name she has never heard before. “Is this where all the people who serve the Wheel go when they ascend, then?”

“All souls come through here sooner or later. But none like ours since the great war.” A pause in speech. Was that sadness in those words? “And these souls are waiting for you to save them.”

Around her, the lingering, watchful residues of shattered souls begin to move again, encircling her, not screaming anymore but pouring threateningly like acid eating its way through a tabletop. She panics again, feeling them closer and closer. “I…I don’t know how. I have done it before but those souls were not quite as shattered as this.”

“You are the heart of the Wheel, the cleansing filter through which all souls are undone and rebuilt,” the voice says calmly. “Open yourself to them and let them through. Your core is with the Wheel. It cannot be destroyed by the simple touch of a soul. Now do not fight that touch, or all you will achieve is pain.”

Alma hesitates but the voice sounds so serene, so certain. And she has nowhere to go, no way to escape these approaching specters. There are moments of epiphany in life, people say. Moments when the stars align or the sun shines through the clouds in inspiring ways just as a word is spoken, just as a thought strikes a nerve. The answers will come, people say, when we are ready to listen.

This is not the time for epiphanies, it seems. As Alma forces herself to relax, fearfully opening herself to the shattered souls, no enlightenment comes to her. No spell, no mental pathway to shift her mana into a new shape. At the first touch, she flinches in pain before reclaiming control and relaxing again. One by one, the souls trickle into her and she feels them homing in on her core, advancing hungrily. She feels them reach for it, grab it, penetrate it without pause, curl within it like a caterpillar in a silk cocoon…and leave. Simply leave instead of claiming her essence to themselves. Leave… Emerge like butterflies spreading wings to the sun, changed, whole. Two brand new souls made of the vestiges of eight, singing in glee at their rebirth as they fade into the matrix of the spectral realm. Through the heart of the Wheel.

Alma herself.

If she had lungs to breathe with, the goddess would be breathing out deeply in relief. ““Thank you,” she says. “This sphere–” She catches herself, thinking that if these entities don’t know about gods, they will probably have no concept of spheres either. “This ability of mine has only recently awakened and I don’t quite know how to control it yet.”

“You will learn,” the Shan’doír voice assures her. “We have much to teach you. But now is not the time for that. You should not stay here too long while you are still learning. And the material realms must await your return.”

And suddenly, the memory hits her. Of the eerie corridor and the necromancer’s lair. Of being attacked. “Fates… Sky…the others! The demons! Yes, I have to return!” She looks around but there is nothing to see. No path she can discern. “But how?”

“Relax, listen to the Wheel,” the voice instructs her. “The paths in and out of it can be felt, not seen. There will be a difference. And there your gateway will be.”

“Will you be here, should I find my way back?” she asks.

“Of course, little soul. There is nowhere else for us to be.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The moons glow bright on the rooftops tonight, not another soul to be seen. A kingdom of desolation and it looks like she’s the queen. The heat is haunting like the growing fear inside. Couldn’t make it there, heavens know she tried.

Rush! Rush, Saira!

The air feels dead and wrong. A faint scent of smoke wafts in the breeze.

She rushes.

The scent is stronger now, the air thicker. Smoke and fire.

Fire!

Fire.

Not fire again. Not this same nightmare again. She runs into the growing smoke, sees the old abandoned building aflame.

And stops. Watching. How many times has it burnt down now? Twenty? Two hundred? A thousand times? Every night in her dreams. Most nights, at least. She never makes it on time. She never has.

Because she didn’t make it the first time. The one time it really mattered.

“Why?” she hears her friends voices rise in the air in tandem with the crackling flames.

 Why?

 Why?

 Why?

The echoes surround her, screaming. Accusing. And she sits.

Watching.

Her feet dangle over the edge of a rooftop just opposite the building’s. She cries from the smoke, from the suffering of years. How many times has she made that jump to the balcony so that she could look inside and watch her friends, her adopted family die all over again?

“Saira!” the voices beckon.

Saira!

 Saira?

 Why?

And just like clockwork, the shadows appear. Dark figures blurred by the smoke, moving on the rooftops not far away from her. She could chase them. She could catch them.

Maybe. Maybe. She never has. Not in her dreams. It took her years to catch them in the real world. And she hasn’t caught them all. Not yet. There is one missing. One still out there.

She swings her legs back onto the rooftop, stands up. Her crossbow is strapped across her back and she reaches for it, arms it with a fresh bolt.

And walks away.

“Why, Saira?” the voices ask.

 Why?

 Why?

 Why?

She doesn’t answer. They aren’t real. They never were. Her friends are at peace and she is on her way to join them, she knows. But first, she has to find him. The one who keeps getting away.

She has one more target to kill.

And another family to save.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Darkness again. Then a whimper. Long, drawn out. Weak. The low cry of someone who has been sobbing for far too long. Alma opens her eyes, wondering if it is her who is whimpering. No, not her eyes. She has no eyes here. She feels the living shell wrapped around her. A heart beating. Lungs breathing. A fully functioning unit.

That is not hers. She cannot command it to open eyes or sample scents. Or move. She feels imprisoned, though not completely uncomfortable. Not completely bound. There is such a frail connection between her soul and this flesh. But what is this flesh? Whose flesh is it? And are they here with her?

She stretches her senses through it in scouting spectral tendrils, but their path is barred, their efforts restricted by an invisible barrier. Within her reach there is mostly darkness, mostly cold. Everything so undefined. So empty. Echoing like a dome. Surrounding her. And though she hovers about, she cannot touch anything, extend her will to a single muscle, a single organ. Such a strange thing.

“Where am I?” she wonders.

The sobbing stops. “No, no, no, no, nooooo, who are you?” a frightened voice asks, its tones stretched with the strain of terror. “Please, don’t hurt me. Please, please, please…”

Alma searches the voidness in vain, hovering in every direction. Seeing nothing. “Unless you are a necromancer, you have nothing to fear,” she assures the trembling, almost childlike voice. “Who are you? I can’t see you from here.”

“Y-you…you’re the one she tortured to death,” the stuttering voice whimpers.

Tortured? To death? When? By whom? “It hurt to deal with those souls but I am quite certain that I am not dead,” the goddess replies. “My name is Alma. What is yours?”

The voice speaks again, small and hesitant at first but then pouring out in a rush of terror, like a flood escaping a broken dam. “I’m Trocia. She didn’t torture you. She took a woman off the street, and changed her to look like you. The woman had a little boy… And then she tortured the woman to death in front of Azzageddi.”

Pain. Anguish. They fill Alma’s surroundings, so palpable that the goddess can almost put a taste to them. She tries to reach Trocia, to empathize with her and reassure her but to no avail. The girl – she sounds to Alma like a young girl just in the brink of physical maturity – hides still from Alma’s reach.

“Monster,” the goddess growls. “I will see her rot in torment for eternity.”

The image of a face, pale, hollow-eyed and timid appears at the edge of Alma’s awareness. Dark hair, young features still round with the residues of childhood marred by grief. Trocia’s image of herself. “She wants to hurt you,” the girl says, a colder, bitter edge now sharpening her tone. “She wants to hurt everyone. But she really wants to hurt you. And Azzageddi. And Margrave.”

“Do you know why?” Alma asks.

And does it even matter? When has reason been important to the mad, the deranged, the immoral and amoral?

“She…sometimes she screams about the people who hurt her,” Trocia replies, her figure now clearer to Alma’s vision. Contracted, flimsy. Almost as if trying to hide within herself. “The Death Clan. Azzageddi k-killed her. Sent her to Hell. She…she sometimes forgets I’m here.” A pause. “Those are the best times.”

“Where is here, exactly?” Alma asks softly, hating Nua for what she has done to this distraught soul and wishing she could somehow spare Trocia all this pain. “And why isn’t she with us?”

For a moment, Trocia’s soul is revealed to her completely, its shape and its bonds to the living body around them both becoming clear. “This is me. My body! She left, oh she left, I thought…and then she put you in here.” The girl fades into the darkness again, just her voice left, quiet and morose. “Now…now she won’t need me anymore.”

“You mean she…” Alma feels as chill – no, not a chill. A surge of energy and dread – rush through her entire spectral being. If this is Trocia’s body and Nua is no longer in it–

Terrifying realization dawns. The soul bomb, the escape into the Wheel. Nua must have used those things to rob Alma of her own body. To take it for herself? But what can Nua do in a divine body? Alma’s power lies in her soul!

But…a divine body is ageless. It heals quickly. And it looks exactly like Alma.

The goddess struggles desperately against her bindings, horrible imagination filling her thoughts with images of her loved ones being attacked by her own body, hesitating to attack it and dying as a result of it.

No, no. They would fight her. They would kill her if they had to! They would do it if it meant saving themselves and all the others.

Wouldn’t they?

“Demons, I can’t move!” she cries as the wall built around her holds in spite of her efforts. “I can’t touch this body! I can’t control it! I need to see! I need to know what she is doing with my body!”

“No please I don’t want to open my eyes!” Trocia begs. “I don’t want to see what she’s doing to them! She makes me watch! She made me hold still while she made Azzageddi…”

The words make Alma stop struggling. Her rage simmers, cold in her voice as she demands, “While she made him what?”

“She made him…” Trocia’s voice chokes with a sob, a whimper. Pain and disgust and shame and helplessness fill Alma’s world. “Made him have sex with my body. And then she let me take control again. She told him she’d hurt me if he stopped.”

How to react to that? What to feel first? What to say? What to think? Alma is reduced to silence and stillness for a long, heartbroken moment. And she feels all of the sorrow in the world for this girl.

And she feels it for Sky.

“Oh little soul…” she whispers in dismay. “Please, help me defeat that monster. Let me at least see what she is doing to the people I love so that I can help them. Please…”

Trocia’s crying becomes a distant whimper and Alma fears for awhile that the girl has decided to leave the goddess here to rot in oblivion. But then, physical senses return. Sight and hearing and touch. Cold metal beneath her back and wrapped around her wrists and ankles. Voices. A ceiling. Weak, barely allowed sensations. Barely tolerated awareness.

Terrible things going on out there.