Ch6.99 Trust

“Okay y’all, cookies are ready!”

The plate is heavy in Cherry’s hands, but the cookies – chocolate chip, almond, and peanut butter – smell heavenly. Serving baked goods out to everyone lends Cherry some slight distraction from the worries that plague her mind.

There has been no news. Not since hours ago when Grandmamma Lyria left them in the care of the Twins, Uncle Imset and Uncle Lum. All they know is that their mother, Alma, along with Dion, is out on a mission to rescue Sky. And that their enemies can send squads of demons. And that those demons were supposed to kill or capture the Bunnies, and they would’ve done it, too, if Grandmamma hadn’t shown up. They would’ve killed us all, she thinks. They would’ve done worse than that…

She stops where she is and shuts her eyes tight. Stop it! You’re gonna break down and scare the younger ones! Just…stop thinking about it.

She takes a breath and opens her eyes and, to her dismay, Chime is looking right at her. It doesn’t look like anyone else saw her freeze up, but sweet little Chime, with those long dirty-blonde bangs hanging half over his eyes, is staring at her. It can be hard to tell what Chime is feeling when he’s not playing music. He wakes up when playing with Kori, too – his big brother is a hero to him, even though Kori wins pretty much every race, every wrestling match, every whatever. But a lot of the time, Chime is sort of dreaming, “seeing music everywhere” he told her once. She’d been reading a novel on the bed in her and Merri’s room, and he’d just come in and lay down next to her. She’d put an arm around him, not even really thinking about it, and asked him what was on his mind. When he told her, she’d asked, “Don’t you mean hearin’ music everywhere, sweetie?” He’d shaken his head on her shoulder. “Seeing.” Then he’d fallen asleep.

But Cherry knows him well enough to know that he’s pretty scared too, and the sight of her just freezing like that is not helping, no way. So she puts a fragile smile on her face and makes sure everyone gets cookies. All the Bunnies, except of course May who is away, take at least one – Kori takes three, though rejecting the peanut butter as “gross,” and Merri insists on calling them “biscuits,” which is just silly – and Geryon, who loves chocolate chip, and the Twins, instant uncles, just add Bunnies. Aliyah has gone back to the station next door for a little while, even though she’s not technically on duty. They just got hit by demons, after all. Must be some form for reporting that.

Just as Imset is taking his cookie, he and his brother both look past everyone else. Cherry feels the fur on the back of her neck stand on end, and she turns, almost sagging in relief to see it’s Lyria, next to the huge, foreboding figure of Melinor. Melinor might be kind of scary, but he’s scary to other people, not to the Bunnies. He might not think of them as family, but they are Alma’s, and that’s good enough for him. At least that’s how it seems.

But in Melinor’s arms is a shrouded form, a human form, wrapped tight in a white sheet that covers it completely. The world seems to contract, going dark at the edges of her vision, and sound becomes muffled. There’s a part of her mind that just observes this, surprised that she hasn’t dropped the plate with the remaining cookies, but somehow she automatically sets it down on the table beside her. She watches as Sage and Merri approach Melinor, looking at that white-shrouded shape, and they turn to look at her as they catch the scent and realize who it is. Cherry is too far away for the smell to hit her yet, but they turn and look at her, right at Cherry, and she knows, from that.

It’s not Sky, of course. He’s about the same size as Melinor, which would make carrying the body a lot more awkward. And it’s not Mama. If it were, Lyria and Mel would both be shattered, and Merri and Sage too. Dion is bigger, more muscular than that shape, and Somrak, well, they wouldn’t be singling out Cherry to look at with concern and sorrow, now would they?

So she knows. She shakes her head, trying to refuse it, but she knows. She takes a step forward, then another. Then she passes into the scent as it wafts outward. Even though the body has been cleaned up, the smell of death is there along with some foul poison, but there it is. Saira. That’s definitely Saira.

Scent triggers memory so easily, and bam, it hits Cherry hard: massaging Saira’s back, the muscles twitching after an attack. In the bath together, Saira looking at her, smiling, all comfortable and happy, saying “I like you, Fluffy Ears.”

Cherry starts to tremble, and as Merri wraps her arms around her, Cherry sags and moans into her embrace. She just lets Merri take over. That little part of her mind that’s observing all this says, Yeah, that’s heartbreak, all right.

The following few minutes are just a blur to her. Sage asking after Mama, and the others. “They are safe,” Lyria says immediately. “Alive. But little ones, I need you to listen and understand. They cannot return tonight.”

“What happened to Mom? And Dion and Sky? Uncle Som? Why’s Saira…?” Tulip’s voice trails off, shaken by tears. “What’s going on? Where’s our Mom?” Kori demands. Imset talking with Melinor in a strange language, their voices low but heavy. Merri’s loving voice whispering to her, telling her it’ll be all right.

But it won’t.

Yeah, but what are you gonna do, huh? There’s that voice again, Cherry’s own. Gonna just be a sack of potatoes in Merri’s arms? There’s Tulip cryin’. They’re scared. Pull it together!

Cherry grips Merri’s shoulder and literally pulls herself upright, standing up on her own two feet. She takes a long glance into Merri’s eyes, marveling at that deep, amazing green, then lets her go and turns to see to the kids. She still feels as if the floor has disappeared, as if she’s falling through the air, but she can’t ignore the younger ones. Tulip is already in Lyria’s arms, but Kori is standing, fists clenched, looking frightened and furious at once. She puts her arms around him, gently, and though he’s stiff and resistant at first, he can tell how much she’s hurting, and he lets go of his anger and holds her, affected as much by her pain as by his own need for comfort.

Past Kori’s shoulder, she sees Chime still sitting on the sofa, all alone. Cherry holds out and arm to him, and he comes, pale and scared, and just grabs onto both her and Kori, holding them tightly.

All she can offer for the moment is physical contact. The words just won’t come.

But Merri is telling them, “She’ll be home soon.” Then to Lyria, she asks, “Won’t she?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Lyria says after a moment. “She asked me to tell you she will be back by tomorrow and not to leave your side until then.”

“How bad is it?” Geryon asks. Cherry lifts her head from her embrace of the two younger boys and sees that he is near Melinor, who is laying Saira’s body on the bar with Merri’s help, the only place other than the floor or the sofa that is long enough to lay her out.

Lyria exhales deeply. “Not as bad as it could be but…” She looks back at the Bunnies, “Children, your mother and her friends went against a necromancer and a dangerous demon summoner to rescue Tuma-Sukai. They have defeated the criminals and found Sky but they have all been injured. Deeply.” She raises a hand at their alarmed expressions. “None of them is at risk and their bodies have been healed. But there are deeper wounds. And those will take a long time to heal. They will require your patience and understanding.”

“We’ll be strong for them,” Merri says. “But…can we not go see them? Or…” She trails off.

“They need peace, little ones. Time to regain some of their strength,” Lyria explains. She touches Merri’s head. “And you must know… Tuma-Sukai cannot return tomorrow. His wounds require the most care and he will need to stay confined to his healer’s home for a long while. Most likely without visitors.” Her voice is gentle but pained.

Cherry clenches her jaw shut, shuts her eyes tight, and holds onto Kori, grateful for his strong arms. She just knows if she were to start asking the questions she wants to ask, What do you mean, we can’t see him? He needs us! What the Hell is goin’ on?! she will end up screaming. So she just stays silent.

“Can they heal, Lady?” Geryon asks quietly.

Lyria nods. “I believe so. Though… I have no way of knowing how long that will take. Their bodies are healed. The rest…”

“And how much trouble are they in?” the gryphon insists. Trouble? Cherry thinks. Oh no…no no no, not again…

Lyria sighs. “That remains to be seen. But I will see to it that not too much comes to pass.”

Imset moves closer to Lyria, whispering to her in that other language. They exchange a swift but somewhat heated argument, then Lyria nods in defeat. Imset kneels by Cherry. “She is alive, all right? I can sense her soul. We’ll drop by and see her before we return home. Don’t worry about anything.” He smiles reassuringly.

Cherry lets go of Kori and puts her hands on Imset’s shoulders. They’ve just met these new uncles, one silent, one talkative. She looks him in his strange, shadowy face and feels an almost overwhelming gratitude at his acceptance of her, of all of Alma’s children “Thank you…” she whispers. “Tell her…tell her we all love her, and, and all of ‘em, and…”

Then words fail her, and she puts her arms around Imset’s neck and holds on tight. All of it, blows coming one after another – almost losing their mother, and Dion, and Sky, and now Saira’s death, which she just cannot bear to think about – combined with all of these Death Clan gods here, most of them showing so much kindness when they’re in the middle of their own crisis, and even Melinor taking this time to be here, this is really something, no matter how much he might seem not to care, all of this is just clashing in pain and healing that she can’t speak.

Imset holds her and strokes her hair. Merri soon comes and gently pulls her away, kissing Imset’s cheek and murmuring her thanks, telling the Twins to go with grace and to return soon. Imset replies quietly, then rises and, with a look at Luminus, both gods vanish.

As Cherry walks to the bar, she hears Melinor ask, “Do you require me to stay?”

“No, little one,” Lyria says. “All the enemies are defeated. I don’t expect any counterattacks tonight. Go. Tell your father I will be busy awhile.”

Cherry feels Melinor vanish. There’s no need for special senses for that. The god of violent death radiates an aura of dread that is hard to ignore sometimes. But though that aura is gone, dread remains, brought in other ways. Cherry touches the sheet where it covers Saira’s face, and carefully pulls it back.

So pale. So still. All life gone. That life that Mama nurtured and healed, that Cherry helped in her own way, lesser but more constant, fled forever. Cherry touches the cool cheek. Saira was so beautiful, so deadly. Frightening, really, but full of life at the same time.

And now there is nothing but a corpse.

“Oh baby,” Cherry whispers, running her finger along the soft, short hair of Saira’s eyebrow.

Behind her, Cherry hears Lyria whispering to the younger Bunnies, “It will be all right. I am here to take care of you.” The door of the bar opens, and footsteps approach. A gasp. Aliyah is on one side of Cherry, staring at Saira’s face, and Cala is on the other, silent and somber. Aliyah puts her hands to her face and sobs.

Cherry steps back. She knows a little of the history there. Aliyah and Cala were childhood friends with Saira, a friendship ruptured and only repaired recently and partially. Cala reaches a hand out to rub Aliyah’s back.

In stepping back, Cherry nearly steps on Sage, who holds her hand, looking at her, his beautiful dark features so empathetic. But at the sound of Tulip’s plaintive voice, they turn.

“Mom can come home!” Tulip insists. “We’ll let her sleep. We’ll just hug her and let her sleep. You can go get her.”

“You can hug her tomorrow, little Tulip,” Lyria insists. “She will need all of your hugs tomorrow. But she is probably already asleep and I cannot go disturb her now.”

“Let us hope she is asleep,” Sage says, stroking Tulip’s white hair. “We will welcome her home soon enough.”

Cherry asks, her voice low, “Grandmama, what about… Is Saira…her…soul? Is it okay?”

“She is at peace,” Lyria explains, her eyes on Cherry’s, compassionate. “Her soul has been released by Varah, the goddess you met earlier. It will return to the Wheel.”

“So she’ll be reborn.” Cherry nods to herself. “What…what now?” Cherry asks. “Do we…bury her?”

“Is that her custom? I am not sure about burial rites…” Lyria seems genuinely unsure what to do. “I could join her body with the Insula, of course. Return it to the great cycle of things so it can feed new life.”

The tall Guardia cop Aliyah, her face wet but recovered, approaches and puts her hands on Sage’s shoulders. She clears her throat. “Saira didn’t have religious feelings one way or the other. Just always said her body would be worm food soon enough. I guess…makin’ that comes true, in a nice way, that’d be somethin’ she could get behind.” Cala, coming to stand beside her friend and colleague, nods.

“Well, maybe we can consider a little patch of garden? A tree to remember her by?” Lyria suggests.

Cherry considers this. “Out back? There’s that tree in the corner, sickly little thing. Maybe she can give it some strength if she was under that.” She smiles, just a little. “I know it ain’t her no more but it’d be like havin’ her nearby.”

Lyria nods. “I will let you say your goodbyes tonight, and tomorrow morning, as early as possible, we will take care of that. All right? The little ones should get to bed for now.”

It takes some time, but soon everyone has gone away. Lyria and the others are in Alma’s sanctum, preparing for bed, all planning to sleep together in safety and warmth. Aliyah and Cala have both said quiet prayers over the body to their faraway god, and after a little while Cala returns to work while Aliyah, off-shift, returns to her family.

In the quiet of the bar, most of the lights extinguished, Cherry once more goes to Saira’s body. She smooths the hair back from the corpse’s forehead, and stares at that settled expression. Is that the slightest hint of a smile on Saira’s face? Did she finally achieve what she wanted?

“You never knew peace in your life, baby,” Cherry whispers to her. “Wish you coulda found it with us. I will never, ever forget you.” She leans over and presses her lips to the cool skin of Saira’s forehead.

Then straightening, she carefully rearranges the sheet to cover Saira’s face, and turns to descend the stairs, toward her family, and life, and love.

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Ch6.98 Trust

School, for godlings, is a strange, strange thing.

You can’t really predict their powers. Sure, there are clans, and they breed for bloodlines that have an affinity for related divine spheres to awake within them, but even in the Wind Clan there’s always a chance of a kid turning out to be the God of Sunflower Seeds or something. Then what do you do? But even within the constraints of a clan’s tendency, there’s a lot of room for surprises. Just look at the Death Clan and all their different kinds of death. Probably have a god of Death by Poking Forks into Toasters. Just think of how that first manifests itself. Could happen any time between ten seconds after birth and half a century or more. Some five-year-old kid jamming forks into everything he can find, including the nanny’s ankle, somehow instinctively knowing it’s supposed to go into a toaster – only the Death Clan estate is in a low-tech ward and they don’t have any electricity.

The Commander, highest ranking officer of the Guardia, drums his fingers on the armrest of his chair as these idle thoughts drift through his head. A number of parent-gods have stood up and gone to get refreshments while they wait for the show to restart. The hammering and sawing is pretty loud, he has to admit.

School. He looks around and sighs. How long has he been coming to these events? And there’s always some kid with no control over his powers who screws it up. Never his girl, you can bet on that, but then she’s had a lot of practice. Screwing up with her powers is not the problem there. Refusing to grow any older and graduate out of elementary school, on the other hand…

He checks the door again and sees a slender, muscular goddess with short red hair. He doesn’t like the look on her face. “For once it’s not me who’s late. What’s going on? You look like you just ate a lemon thinking it was an orange.”

Subcommander Varah, better known as the Fencer, sits. She props an elbow on the chair arm, looking forward, annoyed. “I’m fine. What happened to the stage? Looks like a bomb went off.”

“Things had just got started when that Strength Clan kid threw a tantrum,” the Commander explains.

Varah grimaces. “Hate that kid. Keeps trying to bully Yllaina. Somebody ought to clap him in Dei manacles until he can control his damned sphere. I’d show him a few manners myself if it weren’t against the law.”

“He’s an idiot, for sure, but at least it was entertaining. Dwarves should be done rebuilding the stage in about twenty minutes.” He looks at her again. She’s still staring at the demolished stage as if willing the dwarves to hurry up. “Right, let’s go talk.”

Fencer looks at him sideways. “About what?”

The Commander raises his chin, grinning humorlessly. “Oh, guessing games, is it? Maybe it’s about Somrak disappearing, and stirring up trouble in Three Rats? Significant demon incursion there? Death Clan members poking their nose in? Am I getting warm?”

She narrows her eyes and looks away. He knows that he loves showing off how well he’s keeping track of everything, a bit too much. “If you know everything already, what’s the use of talking to me?” she growls.

“Obviously I don’t know everything yet,” he says, mollifying her. “But if a gang of demons breaks through in a ward I keep an eye on, you know I’m going to check around. So what’s going on?”

Varah exhales deeply. “Fine, let’s go outside.” She gets to her feet and vanishes.

A moment later he appears next to her outside the school. He’s already pulling a cigar from his breast pocket. He uses a little pocket cigar cutter to guillotine off the tip, thinking as he always does of how perfect the little device is for removing fingers, and lights up. All the while his eyes are on her as she speaks.

And she does, leaning against the back wall of the school, eyes on the horizon, arms crossed over her chest. “It happened. They all know the truth now. Well, a part of the truth, at least.”

“Just so I don’t go off half-cocked, yelling about the wrong thing, which truth are we talking about here?” He takes his first puff, savoring the hot espresso-mixed-with-almond flavor that fills his mouth.

“The necromancer I was looking for in Three Rats was the same that got away from me two centuries ago.” She looks at him. “Guess who killed her then. Who she came back for.”

He wrinkles his brow, then closes his eyes. He is instantly in touch with the acres of Guardia records, files through which he can search from afar whenever he needs to. It is an extension of his memory, in essence. He zooms in on one cabinet, one drawer, one file. He doesn’t need to take it out. He can read the pages just as they are, in the dark and pressed tightly together.

Azza–

The word he curses under his breath would strike a mortal blind if one were nearby to overhear. “How in Hell did we miss that?”

“We only had half a name.” She sounds bitter. It had been her case. “Anyway, we missed it. She kidnapped him. And my lovely little niece decides she is a grown-up now and doesn’t need guidance anymore so she calls in your other little pet, gets Math’s nephew to help and some mortal or other. They went into the necromancer’s lair without backup. You should have seen them on the way out.” She looks away, but the Commander can see that she is trying to hide the concern she feels for her niece, Alma.

He’s never been the comforting type, but he spares her a glance of compassion. “Coincidence piled on coincidence. Too much to be possible. Somebody is manipulating events. Somebody aside from us, and Math, and the others we already know of. The Oracle? Another oracle?”

Fencer nods in agreement with his frustration. “The mortal is dead. Tuma-Sukai is stuck in his original form, soul too tortured to manage to change back. I don’t know if he’s salvageable. Gwydion and Somrak took a beating as well. God-bound weapon, made out of a minor goddess from my clan. Alma… It was a close one for her. We could barely keep her in her body.” She sighs. “And now they all know.”

“Bound weapons…” The Commander’s voice is heavy. “That confirms our suspicions – the Tragas are back. And of course it’d be Somrak in the middle of that. Didn’t think he was a piece in the game, but someone does. The mortal – it was that assassin?”

Fencer nods. “We have a problem in Somrak. His loyalties are not with your off-blues anymore and he doesn’t trust either of us. He thought we would have brought the Sikari in.”

He mutters, “He was supposed to think that, because it’s what we’re supposed to do. He knew even if he brought us in and we didn’t call in the Sickos, we’d be putting our positions at risk. But yeah…Somrak no longer trusting me – he’s going to be falling to pieces.”

“On the slightly less grim end of the spectrum, our suspicions are confirmed. Gwydion did inherit his parents’ talents. Somehow he managed to keep his sphere dormant for this long.”

“Finally. And he still rescued Sky instead of killing him?” The Commander chuckles. “Always knew that kid had more to him than Math thought.”

Fencer grimaces. “He’s still weak,” she insists. “And he’ll make my niece weak with him. Those two are together now.”

“Still?” The Commander is surprised. “I figured that’d last a week, tops.”

She shakes her head. “Solid. Forged in battlefire. Not going anywhere anytime soon.”

“Reminds me of someone.” He gives Varah that tight grin that makes babies cry two blocks away. “Right, so Alma’s weak from the necromancer and her new sphere and a hundred other things, Gwydion’s weak from his new sphere and being a lovesick puppy, Tuma-Sukai’s been tortured, Somrak’s falling apart – these guys need a vacation. Only we can’t give them one. But we can keep an eye on the place and quietly intervene. Otherwise, a lot of our plans go in the toilet. The few that haven’t already.”

“Math will want our hides.” Fencer’s voice is grim. “He’ll want Tuma-Sukai eliminated for good. And Lyria was talking about pulling Alma out of there. I have to admit I wouldn’t mind that at all but it seems I have ‘lost all claims’ to a certain insubordinate child’s future.” She sounds sarcastic but the Commander can tell, from long and intimate association, that she’s actually hurt by her niece’s words. “Alma doesn’t want to leave but I have never known Lyria to give up easily. And anyway, we cannot let them go out of this unpunished. Not officially, at least.”

He casually turns to lean against the wall next to her and puts an arm around her waist, like it’s got nothing to do with her feeling bad. “Lyria has her plans. I wouldn’t be surprised if making a show of pulling Alma out wasn’t just a move. But yeah, we need to make a show of punishing them. In some cases, not a show. If we don’t, it’ll cost us.”

To his surprise she allows him to keep his arm around her. “She’s gonna fight for them. All of them. You know that. And…I will have to tell my brother everything. I cannot go against him, as you very well know.”

A short barked laugh. “Except for all the times you have, secretly. Yeah, I know.”

Varah shrugs. “This thing should be restarting about now.”

“Too bad we can’t stay here until our kid sings,” he mutters. “That’s the only bit I care about.”

“Yeah, well…I hope you brought wax for your ears because some of these kids sing like harpies.” Varah detaches herself from the wall, turns and without warning grabs his chin in one hand and kisses him with the full force of her frustration.

The Commander knows better than to pass up a moment like this. He drops his cigar and holds onto her, one hand on the back of her head, the other on the small of her back. Her muscles, so hard and compact, shift under his calloused hands, and her body presses against his, pinning him to the wall. When the kiss ends, he is breathing a little faster, a little harder. He can feel her heart, too, pounding against his chest. He doesn’t say anything. He’s learned better than that. It took being married to her, getting divorced from her, and having a child together after that was all over, but he has learned.

She rests her forehead against his for a moment, eyes closed, then pulls away. “Let’s go, then.”

His voice is a little rougher than usual, after that kiss. “Yeah. I think I can even sit through that Storm Clan kid’s singing now.”

The Fencer snorts and vanishes.

Ch6.97 Trust

In a shadowy chamber, water running down one wall, phosphorescent lichen and albino geckos on the rough stone, Somrak sits, his back to a table. Table – well, formerly a thick stalagmite that had broken off and was then cut and smoothed to a useful surface. The bench on which Somrak sits is a natural ridge of stone as well, shaped dexterously into a comfortable seat. Somrak does not make use of its legroom between the table and itself, instead stretching his legs away from the table, resting his back against the edge of it, his arms crossed over his bare chest, staring at nothing. Thinking, over and over, of what he could have done differently.

The mission had been a success. Technically. They got Sky out alive. None of the gods had died. But Saira… Saira died. For a moment he rages at her, in his mind. You weren’t even on our mission, were you? You were on your personal vendetta. I told you! Alma told you! Fates, I knocked you unconscious to keep you from meeting your death! Still you came…

None of this shows on his face. It remains impassive, as calm as the drops of water, as the slow breathing of a huge, dangerous beast in the deeper shadows further into the chamber.

But you kept your target immobilized, Somrak tells the dead woman he holds in his mind. He had to devote every trick he had to trying to survive, and still he failed at that. You did it, girl. You got him. You killed him. You laid your ghosts to rest, and yourself as well.

And in response, he hears her voice – no ghost, unless a desire to speak again just one more time can be called a ghost. Still as dumb as ever, Ponytail. Thinkin’ you have me figured out. Gods, but you gods are stupid.

He twists and brings his legs around, facing the table. On it, laid out like the main guest at a wake, is a body. The filthy cloth he had wrapped her in has been replaced by a clean white winding-cloth of soft cotton, the same material as these white trousers he is wearing, a magical gift from the Oracle. Much of the damage to the body has been repaired, as well. At least, with the face visible, Somrak can see no sign of trauma on Saira’s calm, cool mien.

He brushes a lock of her brown hair with his fingertips. “You got him,” he whispers.

Beyond him, where no lichen illuminates, a pair of eyes, glowing blue-green, open. They look at Somrak and Saira, then the head bearing them turns, ponderous, to the doorway. The illumination behind Somrak increases, throwing a shadow across Saira’s face. He turns to see Lyria at the doorway, a soft verdant light surrounding her, the aura of her Life sphere highlighting her maternal beauty. Behind her is a dark, hulking shape – Melinor, Alma’s brother. And passing her to enter the chamber is Alma herself, followed closely by Gwydion, bare-chested and white-breeched like Somrak.

Alma goes directly to Somrak, her eyes on his face. He can see the pain and anguish from the ordeal she has been through. Forcibly possessed by a twisted, evil soul. Trapped in a desperate fight for control of her own body. Made to witness Gwydion’s torture at the hands that same body. And Somrak’s own torture as well, let’s not forget that. And what else? What else did Nua put Alma through in there? He is certain it was far worse that the scourging Somrak himself suffered.

But before she speaks to him, her eyes – those strangely beautiful pearlescent eyes – move to Saira. She puts a hand on the corpse’s forehead for a moment, a stoic sorrow passing across Alma’s face. It lasts but a moment. Alma is a goddess of the House of Death. Cold lifeless bodies are not the focus of her sorrow. Or so Somrak assumes.

Then she lays that same hand on his cheek, turning his face up to hers. “Somrak?” Her voice is a plea for reassurance that he has come out of that little slice of Hell, not left himself behind somehow.

He looks into her eyes. Her touch is not as cool as it normally is. He suspects it is because his own fire is nothing but ashes, his body no warmer than a mortal’s. He opens his mouth, and out of it comes a voice barely above a whisper, but on the verge of becoming a wail. “I am sorry… Alma, I am so sorry…”

She puts her arms around his neck, pulling his head to her shoulder as she sits on the bench next to him. “Shh,” she whispers in his ear. “We all knew. And we’re safe now.”

After a brief hesitation, he holds her tightly, his hands on her lower back and shoulder blade. “I thought we were all lost. I almost–” He cuts himself off. He can’t. He just can’t tell her that at the moment before they were rescued, he was on the verge of killing her unconscious body in the hope that at least her soul might escape being pulled into Hell. Instead he asks, “Saira? Her soul?”

“Varah saw to it,” Melinor replies from the doorway, his voice low. “Personally.”

Over Alma’s shoulder, Somrak looks at him through locks of the goddess’ snowy white hair. He nods at Melinor. “Thank you.”

From the shadows comes a rumble of agreement, a sound like misshapen lava stones grinding in the stygian trenches of the ocean. “You pulled us from Hell, Melinor,” Sky says, pitching his voice as close to human as he can. “You saved us.” The glowing blue-green eyes blink.

“It was necessary,” Melinor says simply. He seems unused to being regarded with such gratitude.

Alma looks at Melinor, the edges of her mouth twitching into a tentative smile. She speaks as if just for Somrak, “Melinor has always been my protector. I learned much of my strength from him.” Then she rises, swaying as she tries to stand, hand reaching for the edge of the table.

Somrak puts a hand on her elbow and shifts to catch her, but Gwydion is at her side, his hand on her waist and the other clasping hers. “You should sit,” he says. His voice is gentle, but also strained from pain.

Somrak surprises himself with the flare of jealousy he feels. And in his memory he hears Saira’s derisive laughter. Still? he castigates himself. After you and Dion have saved each other’s lives, after all both he and she have been through with you, you’re still envious? You all nearly died, you were tortured together, you saw the face of a Prince of Hell, and still the teenage boy in you cannot resist crashing into the middle of everything. He lets go of Alma’s arm and sinks back onto the bench.

Seeming not to have noticed Somrak’s assistance, Alma looks at Gwydion with empathy and sadness and reaches to stroke his cheek, as she did Somrak’s but with, perhaps, more tenderness. Or maybe that is Somrak’s imagination. “I just wanted to see Sky before I do so.” She looks toward the darkness.

The glowing eyes dip, and the darkness intensifies, becoming palpable. “Stop trying to hide,” Somrak mutters in Sky’s direction. “She’s already seen your ugly mug. Fates know it’s looking better now that it was then.”

Sky narrows his eyes as Somrak. Then, slowly, the darkness fades to become merely the natural dim light of the cavern chamber. Sky’s true form, hulking and winged, becomes more and more visible, though its red-black coloration still fades into the shadows where he huddles. The diabolic aura of fear suppressed, he is merely ugly, dangerous in appearance, but not radiating a terror-inducing cloak of gloom.

He raises his vulpine head slightly as Alma approaches, the heavy horns that sweep back from his skull looking as if he is straining to against them to meet her gaze. His blinded eye is healed, scars removed from his face.

For a long moment, the two simply look at each other. Dion stands less than an arm’s length behind Alma, looking ready to snatch her away if Sky makes any sudden moves. Somrak aches for them. He has an inkling of how attached Sky is to the goddess, and how much she has come to trust and rely upon Sky.

Then Alma hesitantly reaches to touch Sky’s muzzle, stopping a few inches from it. Waiting. Hoping.

But Sky does not move toward her, instead pulling back slightly, cringing away. “I was going…to tell you,” he croaks softly. His voice is deeper, rumbling, but it is recognizably Sky’s. Somrak, who has heard the devil’s voice before when Sky was in this form, realizes that it lacks the disturbing abyssal, grinding quality that it normally carries. “You fell asleep. I was ready. And then you had to leave and I…I decided to wait. Alma…” He closes his eyes and turns his head away, ashamed. “If I had only told you then…

In a whisper that Somrak barely catches, Alma says, “I know what she did to you. She showed me.”

He looks back at her, eyes wide. He does not speak, but pulls into himself, moving his wings to cover his head.

And after a moment, she sighs and drops her hand, her head hanging. “I am too tired,” she says, her voice louder but softened by sorrow and exhaustion, “in too much pain to be angry, Sky. I have risked too much to turn my back now. We will…find a way somehow.” There is no coldness or resentment in her words. She turns.

Somrak cannot stop himself from shouting at Sky, “Stop being such an idiot! She knows what you are! Dion knows!” He stomps to Sky’s side, not sure if he is going to strike the devil or not. “We have been through all that, together! Saira died! And now we’re all here! We’re alive! You are alive! And you are not hiding away anymore! I won’t have it!”

“Somrak…” Alma’s voice is quiet and soft but it cuts through the echoes of his shouts like a knife. “Please, be kind.”

Somrak falls silent, feeling embarrassed and sick to his stomach. Dion speaks up in the moment of silence. “Sky? Can you…change back?”

A leathery rustle of wings precedes Sky’s bestial face once again revealing itself. He shakes his ponderous head. “I cannot.” His voice is a whisper, and tracks of moisture lend the skin below his eyes, trailing down the sides of his muzzle, glisten in the dim light.

Somrak feels even more ill at this news. He turns away from Sky, clenching his teeth, then leans against the wall. Long tasked with the job of being Sky’s keeper and, potentially, executioner, he knows what orders may come from up high if Sky can no longer assume a divine form. Somrak takes a moment to find his voice without shouting. “You’ll have to,” he says. “It’s good that we all know, but you can’t go out of here until you can change.”

Then he hears a soft, wondering comment from Dion. “I thought…devils could not weep. That’s what all the accounts say.”

Somrak and Alma both turn back to see Sky looking shocked. He raises a taloned hand to touch the tears on his face. “I…cannot,” he whispers. “There are those who can, but…in this form, I cannot.”

“Well you’re doing it now,” Somrak says. “Maybe you just never had reason to?”

Sky shakes his head. “I would have given much to have been able to weep in that torture chamber. How…how can I be doing it now?

Alma steps toward him, both hands out, and cups his face. Her pale hands are so small where the palms curve against the massive jaw muscles. Her thumbs slide gently across the tracks of tears. Her lips curved in a wavering smile, she says, “Perhaps you can change forms after all. When I look at you, my friend, it’s not a devil’s soul I see. And though I am not sure what it is, I know it is no hellish thing. Have you pretended to be a god so long that you have become one? Or are you something in between?”

Though he would tower over her at his full height, he must look up at her from his crouched position. “I didn’t want to…to do what she made me…

“Shh.” Alma strokes his muzzle. “I know. I know you never would. Now rest. You must heal.”

“Luckily, we are in no hurry to cast him out,” Nevieve says from the door, standing next to Lyria. “You can stay here, Tuma-Sukai, for as long as you take to recover.”

“And you should all stay here tonight,” Lyria says, beside her. Her voice is subdued, but she sounds confident in her opinion. “Your physical wounds are healed. But you all have deeper wounds. Tonight, at least, you need peace. And each other.”

“No…Mother,” Alma argues, who has released Sky and moved again closer to Dion. “The Bunnies will already be worried sick. They’ll be frightened after being attacked by demons like you said. And they’ll have to know about Saira and mourn her. And we’ll have to tell them…something about Sky and…” As she speaks, she sounds more and more overwhelmed by the weight of it all.

Lyria looks sad, but her green eyes carry a hint of amusement. “You make my case for me, little one. It is all too much for now. Was this Saira important to them?”

“She was,” Alma says. “To Cherry, particularly, but to all of them in some way. They nursed her back to health once…” She glances at the body. “They will be crushed to see her dead.”

“Then let me take Saira’s body to them so that they may mourn her,” Lyria says, walking closer and laying a hand on the corpse, “and I shall tell them as much as they need to know for now. They can get past the initial shock with me and begin their mourning. When you return, they will be ready to give and take comfort without burdening you with excessive emotion. Please, my dear one, let me do this for you.”

Alma looks uncertain, and she touches Dion’s hand for comfort. He takes it, and Somrak, watching them, rests a hand on one of Sky’s horns.

Dion looks from Alma to Lyria and back again. “If we are welcome to stay…” He looks at Sky, still partially huddled, and at Somrak. Their eyes lock for a moment, and Somrak nods to Dion, lending his vote to the ‘stay’ camp. “It might be well for those of us who understand what we have been through to stay here for a little longer.”

Nevieve favors them with her detached, ancient smile. “Doria is preparing your rooms as we speak. All close by. Sky will need some time for private rest soon enough, I imagine. And so will you three.”

Alma looks at her, at Dion, at Lyria, then looks down and nods in defeat. “Very well. Thank you, Oracle. Thank you, Mother.”

Lyria puts both her hands on Alma’s upper arms. “I will do what I can to comfort them.” She looks at her daughter with sad contrition, then slowly, giving Alma the chance to push her away, embraces her in relief. Lyria looks around at the others. “Do not despair. But do not imagine that your healing will be swift. Lean on each other. As Gwydion says, only you understand what you have been through.”

She releases Alma, then goes to Sky. “Oh, little soul.” Lyria caresses his face. “You have yet a great part to play in the lives of those you love. Do not think for a moment that this is the end of all that. Have I ever shrunk from you?” She strokes the wetness on his face in wonder. “A crying devil. To think I should have seen this.” Then she looks at Somrak and pats his chest affectionately. She turns to leave, signaling a request for Melinor to pick up Saira’s body.

“Tell my children…” Alma says, “that we’ll be back tomorrow. Please.”

Lyria pauses to say, “I will. And I will not leave them until your return. They will be safe under my watch.” She leaves, Melinor following her.

Alma embraces Dion, holding him tightly, hiding her face against his shoulder. She shivers with silent sobs. He holds her, whispering, “We are safe now. We are all safe.”

Somrak, his chest still tingling from Lyria’s touch, listens to Dion’s comforting words. He hopes Alma believes them. He hopes Dion does as well. But as he looks at Sky, trapped in a form that would get him killed the moment he shows himself in public, a form that could cause a scandal to bring down the Council itself, he knows they are anything but safe.

Still, no point in mentioning that now.

Ch6.96 Trust

Warmth over the skin. Freshness below. The scent of grass on her nostrils, of earth still drying from the wetness of morning dew. And a distant sound of flowing, splashing water.

Alma opens her eyes to a bed of green grass stretching over a hill lined with trees that slopes down toward a bank of pebbles and a natural pool. A blue sky spreads above her, lit by the still not too warm sun of a lazy day of late Spring. She blinks and sits up, recognizing hill and pool in that detached, hazy way of a reality the mind is prepared to accept in spite of its inconsistencies. The grass is green, the trees are tall and rich with foliage, the water blue and crystalline. And she sees all this without effort, without the ever-competing fore-image of the sparkling souls of each and every being, of plants and animals big and small that has become her regular sight for the past few days. The waterfall which should feed into the pool is nowhere to be found; the ledge from which her children have taken turns jumping into the water is gone.

And in the water, four furry creatures swim. Otters, three brown and one white, frolic happily, swimming, grooming themselves and each other, diving and surfacing with crabs and small fish in their mouths. Two of them float gently, belly up, holding each other by the front paws so as to not float away. Alma watches the scene, feeling her heart warm to it, incapable of smiling but touched, deeply touched and holding onto the sweetness and peace that so starkly contrasts with what she knows is her reality in the Wakenworld. For she has visited this reality enough times to know that this is a dream and that it will collapse if she allows her conscious mind to refuse it.

Of all the things I miss about life on the Insula, a day like this is very near the top of the list, she hears the calm voice in her head.

She turns her head to find him sitting by her side, in his humanoid form, his legs bent at the knees and elbows resting on his thighs, hands hidden between his legs in a position that reminds her of a sitting foal. She is not in the least surprised to recall that he was not there just a few seconds ago. Arion…

The god of reality and keeper of dreams nods, his eyes still looking at the pool. You were drifting in slumber, mind wide open to anything that might take an interest in it. I had no difficulty finding you. And bringing you here.

It has been awhile since we met in dreams, she notes. Her mind feels vacant, numb. But at the edge of her awareness, she can sense it. The pain that bides in waiting for her to acknowledge it.

Oblivious to it, Arion smiles softly. I am not surprised. Your heart has turned its affections elsewhere and thus your mind followed. He looks at her with mild amusement, perhaps catching the change in her expression, the way she hesitates in discussing such issues now that her world is so full of other, more pressing worries. Oh, please… Why that guilt? My time in the Insula may very well have been and gone, Alma. To expect you to remain alone and, worse, lonely in an attempt to be faithful to our love would be rather selfish of me, don’t you think? In time, you might even grow to resent me for expecting such sacrifice of you while I spend my eternity anything but alone. He shakes his head in dismissal and looks at the happily swimming otters again. If I could somehow trade places with young Gwydion, enjoy his good fortune for holding you in his arms and spending his days in your company, you would not find me hesitating. But as it is, my love for you can live only in my wishes that you will find happiness. Even if it is not by my side.

Alma is quiet for a moment, feeling the sadness of her memories of years waiting for his return to the Insula, alone and with the Bunnies hidden away in their stasis bubbles, return to her mind. She had come to let go of it, lately, slowly finding relief in a present shared with a lover whose mind and her heart she feels closer to her own. But bitter as it may be, she knows Arion deserves the dignity and consideration of having this discussion with her, to her speak of what has happened, of what her heart dictates for her future. Even if it is merely to say goodbye.

 

This easiness with which you let go of something you want has always baffled me, she says, leaning against him, feeling tired even though she knows that at least a part of her is currently sleeping. Fate knows I am not capable of it. And how strange is it to hear you speaking of my choices in romantic partners.

Arion puts an arm around her, holding her close to him in that caring, protective way of his that has always felt so soothing to her. I know… But who else knows your heart this well, my dear? He leans and presses his lips to her head, stretching the kiss as he speaks with the easiness of one who does not require a mouth to converse. I assure you that there is nothing easy about it.

A touch of his hand to the line of her jaw and she looks up at him, into those black eyes and their silvery lines that seem to hold the whole of the infinite Void. I love you, he says. As I have always loved you. Today or in a thousand years, this will not change. And though there is pain in letting go now, I would rather let my love be generous and live on in whatever form we find for it. His lips curl in a smile. Besides, I like young Gwydion. He has a long and difficult path ahead of him but he will rise to it. As will you by his side – Alma?

She throws her arms around him, her tears rolling freely, released by his words, by the feeling of finality that is this ending of their romance, a love which had been dwindling, fading into time and distance but that nonetheless was there, like an umbilical cord attached to her past, to her growth. The sadness in saying goodbye to it, for as much as this is not a goodbye to Arion and the affection he holds for her, is enough to break the dams of the dream, to awake the slumbering pain of her conscience, of her knowledge of the Wakenworld, of her present, of Nua and her torture. Of Gwydion and the way his soul looked ripped to shreds as if attacked by the claws of some vicious spectral beast. Pain over pain over pain, wave over wave of it mounts and crashes against Alma’s mind, stealing her breath, threatening her sanity. She holds Arion as if he could save her from falling into madness with his touch alone.

Alma, what happened? he asks, concerned, his arms folding to wrap around her. None of this can be making you suffer so. We both felt it coming. Speak to me. Why is your mind in such poor condition?

We went after Sky, Alma replies before she remembers that Arion may not recall one dream in millions. After my friend that you found being tortured and told Gwydion about. And it–

She hides her face against him, the fact that he can read her mind the only thing making their conversation possible through her convulsive sobbing. They did terrible things. To all of us.

He holds her, quietly, letting her cry freely until the strong and reliable affection of his embrace wins over her momentary burst of anguish and grief. Eventually, he says. You are safe here. Do you need help in the Waken World?

Alma shakes her head against his chest. No… We made it out though I don’t know how. She feels her throat well up with the excess water that her eyes are draining into her nose. She…she gave them terrible dreams. Stole my body. Tried to bind my soul to my sword.

The dreams must have been the disturbance I sensed, Arion notes absentmindedly. But by the time I reached it, it was gone. He strokes her hair reassuringly when a whimper escapes her lips. Now, now… It is over. It is all over. And you are safe.

She straightens to look at him, feeling her eyes burning and swollen from the tears. Can you…can you sense them? Any of them?

The question makes Arion look up, at the sky, his ears twitching slightly as if he is listening to the sounds of every dream being dreamt. Gwydion sleeps. The others are beyond my reach.

Please, spare him from nightmares, she pleads.

The humble, heartfelt request has Arion looking down at her again, a small and sad smile on his face. He sleeps in a blissful void of thought. No dreams good or bad will disturb him. The Void Rider kisses Alma’s forehead, gently, lovingly. And no nightmares will disturb you. I will keep watch over your mind and theirs. And whenever they are open to my influence, you will dream of nothing but peaceful days like this. Though I cannot promise that this will be the case every night.

The goddess closes her eyes at his kiss. Thank you, nonetheless. That you would take care of them… It means the world to me. She shakes her head, breathing a sigh. I don’t know… how we will heal from this.

I knew when I met you, Arion tells her, his cheek grazing the ridge of her brow, that within the subdued young lady hid an untameable strength. I gave my heart to it. And still, my love, it amazes me how very nearly indestructible you are. She feels his cheek rise with the gentle curling of his sips. You will heal. There will be pain and anger and fear. But you will rise again. And you will be just as strong as they need you to be.

It hurts so badly, Arion. All of it, she confesses, too tired and overwhelmed to be ashamed at her weakness. In this place within their embrace, there has never been space for such fears.

Then stay here for now. He strokes her hair, holding her, and for the moment she is grateful that he is simply everything she needs him to be. Cry as much as you want. Rest as much as you like. And I will hold you until you are strong enough to return to them.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Time goes by. She does not know how long. All she knows is that the dream with Arion slowly fades away into the darkness before wakening, the memory of tears still searing her throat (and screams…she remembers screams) as she feels the touch of an arm around her, a familiar, soothing scent teasing her nose. Voices speaking.

“…no good reason for her to continue this…this folly! She has nearly been killed multiple times, nearly lost her soul, nearly condemned to Hell! And all because her children were not accepted. Well they are accepted now! Or they will be – I will see to that. It is time for her to come home and take her rightful place within the Clan!”

Lyria’s voice. Her mother’s voice. Alma catches the concern, the distress in the older goddess’ tone and grimaces at it as she tries to remember how to command her eyes to open.

“She must leave Three Rats, yes,” Varah’s rough voice, this time. Anger with a strange hint of fear in her words, alien to the fearsome goddess Alma has come to know. “But not to go back to your lady-in-waiting little games. She was raised to be a warrior for the Clan and that is what she will keep being. And she will remain Guardia.”

Ah… Of course, eyelids fold up. She opens her eyes to see Gwydion, or better said, his soul. His beautiful, vibrant soul, damaged and ravaged by Nua’s efforts. She instinctively reaches to cup his cheek with her hand and cringes internally at the lazy way her arm responds to her command, muscles contracting at their own leisure, making her movements slow and clumsy. Still, she manages to touch Gwydion’s face without slapping him and he turns his head just enough to brush his lips against her wrist, breathing a little sigh against her skin.

“Why?” Lyria cries, her voice pitched higher this time. “You have led her down this path of danger and misery and bloodshed, when she is a mother, a healer. And now she is our Spinner. We need her safe or the Wheel will have no living soul to connect us to it!”

Gwydion is lying full length beside Alma, his arm draped over her side, holding her to him. He pulls away a little, his head turning downward, in the direction of his feet. In the direction of the voices, Alma realizes. She rolls slightly and looks toward them as well.

Fencer’s soul is as crimson as her hair, as her eyes, swirling and bubbling like blood flowing from an open wound or coating a slashed windpipe. Her growling tone, tainted as it is with nervousness, is still filled with the determination and steadfastness that is the hallmark of the warrior goddess. “Just because your Clan’s weaklings cannot handle more than that one task it does not mean all Spinners must act that way. It takes strength and certainty and we all know the cost of acquiring such things. She’s stronger now than ever before. We just have to dial it back, return her to safer environments.”

“That at least we can agree on,” Lyria concedes. “But I resent your insinuation regarding my clan. The last I checked, my Clan is the same as yours, dear sister!”

Bickering… Endless bickering while they discuss Alma’s future for her. As if she weren’t capable of making her own decisions. As if she weren’t even in the room. More of the same. More of the usual. Their plans drawn over her life, over her pain. Blind to her will. To her suffering. What is it to them, but an excuse to do as they please, an argument to throw over the table and justify their choices?

More of the same…

“Enough…” Alma croaks, cursing herself for how weak and inaudible her voice sounds to her.

“Were your clan the same as mine, your child would not have grown amidst fevers and illness,” Fencer goes on, mindless of her niece’s words. “Had she been a full death goddess, she never would have faced the Council’s wrath in the first place!”

Again…try again. With all you have now.

“ENOUGH!”

It is not by far the strong, confident bellow she would have liked it to be. Her cry comes out like a harsh, half-drawn out screech. But it does the job of capturing their attention. Alma struggles to rise to her feet but her legs are not yet fully responsive, and even her arms have difficulty bearing her weight. It takes the support of Gwydion’s strong arms to get her to a sort of uncomfortable sitting position. It will have to do.

“How dare you?” she hisses at the two older goddesses. “How dare you see our pain and act like it is yours? Do you have any idea what we have been through?! How can you entertain yourselves blaming each other and planning my future like that?!”

The goddesses stand still, looking – or Alma hopes they are looking, curse these changed eyes that make it so difficult for her to see into the material planes – at her.

Lyria is the first to speak, her voice still high-pitched with bewilderment. “Alma, I just want what’s best for you–”

“Because you wanted the best for me,” Alma interrupts her, feeling the lines of her face contort into a growl, “I was practically a prisoner in my own house for over a century! A century of being called weak and worthless.” She glares at Varah, remembering a long-gone fencing lesson and being accused of being on track to becoming a burden to her family. “How many of my brothers and cousins still bother to even acknowledge my existence? How many of them have placed bets over how long it would take me to die?”

But it is Lyria, not Fencer, who speaks. Stutters. “I never… You were…”

The words die in the throat of the goddess of life, sentence interrupted before it reaches its all-too-predictable finale.

“Weak?” Alma bitterly completes it for her. “Yes, I was. The only place I could hope to be strong in that house was in Varah’s practice room.” She gestures toward the Fencer’s red soul. “And still, I wasn’t. I was always too slow, too crude, too…everything! Nothing I did was ever enough, for any of you! Not you, not to my father, not to anyone!”

Her fist hits the mat beside her, not with any of the force she would have liked to infuse into the gesture but still with a certain level of assertiveness. She looks down and spreads her fingers, breathing in deeply, the texture of the woven material taking over her sense of touch as tears of frustration and a century of self-loathing well up in her eyes. “And I accepted it all because that was all I knew. I believed every word, every last cruel comment for the truth.” She raises her eyes to her mother and aunt. “But then Arion happened and it all went wrong for you, didn’t it? Even he sought to guide me in his one way. But at least he was kind!”

“Kindness is an invitation to slack off,” Fencer grunts.

“Kindness also validates a person’s path!” Alma nearly spits out. “It softens a hard life. I did not learn that until my children were released. That being kind can be more important than being right. I tried to treat them the way you treated me! But which of you even tried to guide me the day I went to you for advice with Rosemary and Cherry in my arms?”

“I did try to help you!” Lyria argues.

“You sent me straight to Nekh,” Alma hisses, cold and final, lip curled in a sneer.

Silence falls in the room. Only the soft hummings of breath vibrate the air, Alma’s breathing feeling too harsh and loud to her own ears. She lets it stretch, lets the awkwardness and guilt grow and spread their roots in this absence of arguments, of excuses. Allowing her elders’ imagination fill in the blanks and spin accusations in their minds far more damning than anything she could possibly find the heart to say.

And when she can no longer bear the weight of this pregnant pause, she speaks again. “You lost your claim to my future that day. You don’t get to decide whether I stay or return with you. I made my choices. Calling Somrak, staying quiet, going in, in spite of the danger, they were my choices. We all chose. Any of us could have refused to go in, refused to go against orders. We’ve been through Hell in there. There isn’t much more the Council could throw at us that would even make a dent now.”

“But Alma, this place, it’s a life of constant danger,” Lyria somehow finds the nerve to insist. “Your children were attacked by demons! We fought them off, but we’d never even have known if I hadn’t come by for a surprise visit. Please…come home.” Her voice breaks, fighting for control. “Bring them home.”

At Lyria’s words, Alma freezes, her eyes wide, spine frozen in a solid block with fear and fury. And even though Lyria immediately assures her that the Bunnies are alive and unharmed, Alma cannot make herself move or speak. Numbly she feels Gwydion’s arm wrap around her back, pull her unresisting to lean against him.

“They are safe,” he whispers in her ear. “We prepared for such an event, remember? Geryon was there.” He strokes her head, soothingly, holding her close to him. “I’m free to go as I please. I won’t leave your side if you want to go with your mother. I just want you to be safe.”

She takes solace in his touch, feeling her body relax into his embrace, her mind running at full speed even though she feels exhausted. Defeated. “I am so tired… I’ve been running for over twenty years with those Bunnies. I thought…I had made a home for them here. That this was home for them. For us.”

She feels him nod against her head. “It certainly feels that way, most of the time.”

“And besides, the Council wants me down here,” Alma adds.

“We can change that,” Lyria says pleadingly, barging in on their whispered conversation to push her point. “Surely we can.”

“Stop pushing. She’s made her choice,” Varah grunts almost immediately. “I have to go report this in. I’ll release the mortal’s soul before you kill yourself trying to do it in the condition you’re in.”

“The mortal?” Alma asks, confused. “Do you mean…?”

“Saira,” Gwydion explains. “The last I saw her, Margrave’s demons were attacking her viciously. It seems the wounds were too much for her to handle. We have her body. And her soul.”

Saira…

Alma closes her eyes, lowers her head. She knew. She knew that the chances of Saira making it out of that Hell alive were nearly non-existent. She accepted that, the moment the woman insisted on accompanying them. And yet, a part of her had hoped, a part of her blames herself for not being there to heal the woman – the young woman with a whole life ahead of her – and save her from the jaws of the death she had long sought.

From the call of the very Wheel that Alma serves.

A soft thud and a sudden feeling of contact and pressure against her legs snaps Alma out of her grim thoughts, making her reach for the vale formed by the adjoining of her legs, stretched full length in front of her. She grabs what feels like a small, round stone that she is surprised to see glowing faintly and fitfully against the background of her own soul.

“Your catch,” Varah says by way of explanation. “Good job, Sergeant.”

And then the goddess is gone, the echoes of her words, spoken as if they were nothing important, ringing in Alma’s ears. Her jaw drops in disbelief.

“Did she really say…?” she asks to no one in particular.

Good job… She had never heard Fencer say those words before. To anyone! And oh, how she had longed for those words, she realizes… From so many people. But from Fencer, her mentor and role model for so long in all things concerning strength and courage, more than most.

“She did,” Melinor says beside her, making her look to her left.

She is not surprised to find him there. A part of her knew he was here in the room, by her side the whole time. His soul flares before her eyes and, though she cannot see his expression, she can almost feel the radiance of his pride. Of his empathy. She wonders if this is how he has expressed himself all along, emotions confined to his soul, revealed now by her newfound ease at soulscrying. Though her lips refuse to curl in a smile, Alma nods and stretches an arm toward him, her hand closed tightly around what she now realizes is a soulstone, a prison for Nua’s demented soul as it awaits trial, her aunt’s present of a bargaining chip.

She feels Gwydion’s embrace loosen, allowing her to tilt toward her brother, who takes the initiative of embracing her, for once in so many years. “I will have to leave soon, but I am here until you no longer need me.”

“Thank you for all you did,” Gwydion says, voice filled with heartfelt sincerity.

“She is my sister,” Melinor replies to him. His embrace tightens a little around Alma, his deep voice sculpting the words into something of a justification, a blessing and a warning, all put together.

On any other occasion, Alma would chuckle at the rare demonstration of brotherly protectiveness. As it is, she simply leans back toward Gwydion when Melinor releases her and gently pushes his sister toward the arms of the god of magic, who holds her just as closely.

“I want to see the others,” she says after a moment.

“Of course,” Gwydion replies. “Let us just figure out how to get you on your feet.”

Ch6.95 Trust

It was excruciating. Excruciating to separate herself from the sword threatening to engulf her, to imprison her. To fight the pull, to move in the opposite direction. Away and away. Back into a body. A living body. Into herself.

But she welcomed the pain, embraced it, traveled on it. Anything, everything was less painful than the agony of being bound. And Nua’s momentary distraction was all that Alma needed to re-enter her body, to grab hold of flesh that is hers, of muscles, nerves, bones and organs that are hers by nature and origin. And though Nua fights viciously, Alma is winning.

“Death Clan bitch, do you really think you can throw me out?” Nua taunts her. “There’s no pain you can inflict on me that I haven’t felt a hundred-fold already! Even if you win over control of this body, I’ll stay here forever! I’ll be in you forever.”

“Necromancer filth,” Alma retorts, throwing her life force against Nua’s. “This is my body! Mine! You have no roots to spread here!”

Nua’s laughter is a vibration of energy against the goddess’ soul. “Really? It wasn’t that hard stealing this body from you in the first place. And learning to control it. I wear it so much better than you. Weakling.”

“We’ll see who is weak. I will not let you use this body to hurt my family!” Alma promises.

“Can I use it to hurt you?”

Suddenly, sharp pain fills Alma’s senses. Physical pain. Nua has managed to gain control of one of her arms. Pain and wetness. Blood. It is the stabbing of a blade to her own flank that Alma feels.

Nua takes the chance to wrap tendrils of spectral energy around Alma’s soul, pushing the goddess deeper into herself. “You have no idea of what I can do. But let me show you what I’ve done already to your precious family.”

The images move so quickly across Alma, thrown as they are directly from one soul to another. A devil, summoned from Hell, bound by Nua herself. Sky… And a terrified mortal, begging for his life even as the devil kills him at Nua’s command. Even as the devil eats him and then takes his shape.

“That was his first body,” Nua purrs against Alma’s awareness. “The one I gave him.”

And the memories continue, of Sky, Alma’s Sky as she knows him, bound in chains and bleeding, lunging in anger, transforming back into a devil and roaring threats. Begging… Sobbing…Weeping. As he is forced to watch Gwydion’s horrible death, as Nua thrusts a dagger under Alma’s own skirt. Except…none of these images could be true. Are they lies? Predictions?

“I found some mortals willing to play along,” Nua explains. “I just had to give them a little makeover and he fell for it like a day-old chick.”

“MONSTER!” Alma bellows, discharging her powers in a wave around her core that makes Nua hiss and recoil in pain.

And still, the necromancer laughs. “I cut his tongue out, too! For saying ugly things to me when he saw you lying on that gurney.”

More images, memories of Sky – not the form, the face she knows as Sky’s but the very certain knowledge that it is him – on top of someone, a notion of being pinned down by him. Of feeling him move inside her, endlessly, with the mechanical rhythm of an automaton, his eyes tightly shut, grief and disgust on his face. And a voice pleading to him, begging him to stop. Trocia…

Alma tries to look away but she cannot. The memory fills her whole.

“Is that what you came to save?” Nua teases her. “He is mine!”

Nua launches herself at Alma, with the recklessness of the insane. Anger and power drive her but her soul has only a fraction of the energy of Alma’s. The goddess holds her ground and drives Nua back, striking immediately to counterattack.

And the memory hits her. Gwydion destroying a pair of demons that stand before him and his parents, his face a mask of anger and joy. And grief. And disappointment. His mother calling his name, crying, and screaming. Mad.

Somrak atop a stone fortification, alone, watching an army move toward him, with Alma – no… Nua in Alma’s body heading the attack in a chariot driven by Gwydion and pulled by Sky in devil form. Helplessness and hopelessness.

The images break her focus. Her attack loses strength.

“Do you like the nightmares I made for them?” Nua asks. “What about the real thing?”

Nua strikes again, stabbing again at Alma’s body. Making her scream with the pain.

And forcing her to relive Nua’s memories of holding Gwydion’s chained body, of kissing his lips. Of mocking him as he roars in anger, struggling against his bindings, demanding to know where Alma is. Of whipping him with a whip made of Nasheena’s vertebrae and infused with her very soul. Of whipping Somrak. And Sky.

Images of Alma’s cousin screaming and begging surface in the throng of demented memorabilia.

I WILL ERASE YOU!” Alma roars in hatred. “HELL IS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT I WILL DO TO YOU!

She forgets all reason, wavers all sense. All of her, all of her power, of her essence, of her rage, of her love, life, death and everything in between. All that she is, she throws at Nua, tearing at the mortal’s soul mercilessly, exploding against its core, damaging it without the slightest hesitation.

She wants it gone.

Even as she sees Somrak falling from the top of the castle wall, his limp body a ball of fire. Even as she sees Gwydion kneeling in a circle of dead Bunnies half eaten by demons, holding her body and sobbing in grief. Even as she sees Stathos’ daughters held by Whisper thugs, crying and screaming as their throats are slit before their kneeling, bound father, their blood gushing to stain Luís’ tear-drenched face.

She attacks Nua, holding on to the necromancer, reveling at her screams of pain and confusion now at this sudden defeat. Yes… Nua is hurting. This is how it should be.

But then… something happens. Forces intervene, familiar but unexpected. Grabbing Alma, grabbing Nua. Pulling them apart. Alma resists. She isn’t done yet with Nua. She is nowhere near done.

But she is tired. And Nua is taken away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Darkness. Such quiet, unyielding darkness. A welcome change from the screaming, the bursting of energy, the pure rage coursing through his body. Gateways opening into horrible, unhallowed places. A million howling souls crashing against him and bellowing at him in terror and hatred. Him, the gatekeeper.

The enemy at the gate.

Light pours into his place of rest, cleansing, healing. A mildly welcomed light. But not the one he yearns for. He refuses to let it wake him, shuts his eyes tighter against it. His body feels more relaxed at its touch, less torn. But his spirit suffers still. He does not want to follow this greenish light that courses through him without regard for his privacy, without care for his boundaries. It violates his pain, healing with the force of a great tidal wave crashing over him. He turns away from it and dreams of the blue twilight that has once enveloped him in a nurturing haze.

But though the light eventually leaves him alone, another comes to disturb him. Liquid and wavering, softer and deeper. Almost the one he is waiting for but no…the scent is not right. Seaweed and low tides, not the lilac and willow of his desires. It speaks to him.

Wake up, Gwydion. You are needed.

He does not want to wake up. The last time he woke up, nothing good happened. He frowns at the memories that try to creep into his conscience.

She needs you, Gwydion. They all do. Wake up.

Within him, his essence rouses, looks up. It calls out.

Mate?

But the light is gone. He is alone again in the darkness. And though he wants nothing more than to hide in it for the rest of time, he feels his mind surface, his eyelids open.

And the world pours in.

Voices. Sobs. The watery light hurts his eyes at first, makes Dion groan. But soon the blurs resolve into images. The muscles of his arms and legs begin to respond. He rolls onto his side, looking around to recognize the familiar setting of the Oracle’s grotto. One of its myriad chambers, that he had never seen before. Chairs. He is lying on the floor. On the side he can see for now, he finds Somrak, sitting on the floor, looking up at the glowering, looming figure of Fencer.

Fencer…why is she even here? And how did they get here in the first place? The last he remembers, they were–

He shuts his eyes and shakes his head violently to dislodge the image before it forms. And when he is sure that he has succeeded in defeating his memories, he opens them again. By Somrak, a dirty sheet covers a lying body. Dion tenses, dread climbing over his spine at who this might be. He can only see a basic outline and the feet poking out. Narrow, feminine feet.

He struggles to sit up and the movement captures Somrak’s and Fencer’s attention. With a sorrowful look at Dion, the fire god glances down at the corpse by his side and lifts a corner of the sheet to reveal light brown hair, a young but hardened female face.

Saira.

Relief washes over Dion before regret finds its way in. He remembers her hanging off Margrave’s neck, being attacked by demons left and right, and feels sorry that she has paid for their escape with her life.

He notices Somrak jerking his head toward another corner of the room, urging Dion to look in that direction. And there he sees her, Alma, lying on the floor, in her family’s black clothing, gashes on her thigh and flank. Her brother, Dion recognizes him from before, and Nevieve are tending to her. Alma’s wounds are slowly disappearing as Nevieve works her magic on the goddess.

Mate!

And at the edge of his sight, he notices the elephant in the room for the first time. Or better said, the devil. Right there, by his side, but curled up and surrounded by that same light Dion experienced before, a light he now sees belongs to Lyria. So much of it that it had numbed Dion’s senses to the devil’s proximity. He instinctively tries to rise to his feet and leap against the devil only to feel a hand push him back down. “Status, Sergeant.”

Fencer’s hand. Fencer’s voice. Dion looks at her with all the hatred and violence he was about to discharge at the devil. He nearly attacks her instead of him, stopping only at the burst of pure, old and piercing power that she projects against him in a warning. Her eyes narrow, her one seeing, crimson eye glaring a challenge at him.

It forces Dion to stop and think, his mind to make sense of all he is seeing. His brain to remember that the devil he was about to attack is in fact Sky. Sky, his commanding officer. Sky, his friend.

Dion lowers his eyes, ashamed at what his instincts yell at him to feel and do. “We accomplished the mission, it seems,” he answers quietly, looking toward Alma. “Though I’m not quite clear on the details.”

“She’s going to be all right, Dion,” Somrak says from where he sits. “She’s fighting but she’s going to win.”

“At least we managed to get that…thing out of her.” Fencer’s disgust is palpable and there is no doubt of who she is referring to as a thing.

The necromancer. Nua. Dion breathes deeply in still not completely certain relief, hoping for it to be true. He looks back to the reclining goddess, her white-haired head on Nevieve’s lap. The last time he saw Alma, there was a war raging in her body for control of her flesh. She was trying to hurt herself…or someone in her was trying to hurt her, perhaps Nua, perhaps Alma herself. How could he tell? He had attacked her. Not her, Alma, but her, Nua. He just wanted the necromancer’s soul out of his beloved’s body, to rip it out with his bare hands as if that was even possible. He wasn’t thinking then. All there was was rage and hatred.

And fear.

“It is done,” Nevieve announces. “Now we wait.”

The wounds, the ripped and plastered black clothes made shiny by blood are gone. In a single, seemingly effortless twist of her magic, the Oracle has not only healed Alma’s body but cleaned it and replaced her fighting, Death Clan outfit with a simple, flowing turquoise-blue dress. No shoes. A worshipper’s humble vest.

Dion glances down to find his own clothes changed, his uniform trousers replaced by simple pure-white linen ones, tied at the waist with a cord. He is barefoot as well and, as far he can tell, clean and healed. For a moment he is surprised to find himself shirtless, armored jacket gone along with his sword. Then memory kicks in and he remembers again: Nua. She had removed his protective clothing, probably so that nothing would dull the bite of her whip. He shudders at the memory, feeling the pain of the wounds inflicted on his soul sharpen, defeating his natural defenses.

And it is not just his soul that is in pain. His body is healed but his mind, his emotions…he feels them raw, stripped of their fortifications like a tree stripped of its bark. The soft, vulnerable pulp exposed. Inside him, his core whimpers and begs for him to do something about the pain, about the helplessness and despair. About the missing half of him that currently lies on the floor of the grotto, motionless, flanked by the Oracle and by her brother. Melinor.

Dion rises to his feet, unsteady and stumbling, his body accusing a too-swift and draining healing, along with the exhaustion of the day’s harshness and probably the leftovers of having been poisoned just a couple of days ago. Or maybe just one day. Maybe a week. He cannot be certain of how long they were in the pocket universe or even how long he has been knocked senseless. Truly, he doesn’t care.

As Nevieve raises her head and looks at him with a beatific smile, he reaches Alma’s supine body. Carefully, the Oracle lays the goddess’ head back down on the floor and rises herself, her supporting hand reaching to touch Dion’s back as he kneels by Alma, on the side opposite to Melinor’s. He does not dispense any words to either of the gods. He cannot find anything to say. His eyes focus on the peaceful, pale-skinned face that looks to all the world to be sleeping in eternal slumber and his mind locks on the moment when the whip cut through his chest and his hope for the very first time.

A croaking voice, low and echoing fills his ears. “Thannnk you,” It says. “Thaaaaaank youuu…

The tone of it is enough to raise the hairs on the back of Dion’s neck, to make him turn to look at its source with almost enough speed to snap his spine. Though it speaks with sorrow and misery in its voice, though the memory of its lupine maw dripping with demon blood to save Dion’s own life reminds the god of who this devil is, he cannot help but glare at the… devil in the room, the Hellish beast spreading its corruption around it, teasing Dion’s sphere awake. Anything is better to feel than the shattering pain ravaging through him at the moment. And rage will do just fine.

And suddenly, Sky isn’t there anymore. Somrak isn’t there. Saira’s cooling body is gone. The room itself has changed. The older gods, all gone. A different chamber, altogether, smaller than the other one, glowing softly with a liquid light that projects its dancing glow on the walls and ceiling and reminds him of soft moments of bliss spent in a lush, green sanctum. Dion finds himself alone, kneeling in a depression of the stoney floor of the grotto that the years of erosion have filled with fine sand and someone’s careful consideration has covered with a woven banana leaf mat to make for a soft, dry bed, Alma lying by him.

He looks down at her, forgetting anger, forgetting threat. He strokes Alma’s hair, imagination painting all of the familiar expressions he has seen on her face. Every different smile, every hint of sadness, passion, rage. The ghosts of Nua’s disgusting, terrifying smile creep into his memory but he tries to sweep them away. At least for now. At least for now he wants to believe Fencer’s words that Nua is gone from Alma’s body. She would know, wouldn’t she? Her own niece? How many times has Fencer seen Alma’s soul? She would know.

Unable to endure another instant of distance, he shifts, gently putting an arm under Alma’s shoulders and lifting her to his chest, her lower back propped against his thigh. He cradles her, his eyes closed, straining to hear her gentle breathing, to detect her weak pulse. Why isn’t she waking up? Why won’t she come back to him?

He nearly shouts in fright when he opens his eyes to the dark, sitting figure of Melinor, watching, just before him. He has only seen Melinor once, at the Curia. The god had refused to approach him, Alma or the Bunnies then. And though Alma speaks of her brother with a tenderness that has had Dion wistfully wondering how sweet it might be to have a beloved sibling fawning over him, the impressive, powerful figure of the god of death, with his aura of violence and lingering scent of slaughter, does not exactly conjure up the friendliest of first impressions. What must Melinor think of Dion, with his fame and manner, romantically involved with the god’s younger and only sister? With Melinor’s beloved sister. There is no mistaking the concern in those slanted rusty-ochre eyes.

Eyes that he raises to look at Dion, without the slightest hint of displeasure or condemnation, in spite of Melinor’s overall look of a constant, chronic, cold, simmering rage. Empathy. There is empathy in that look. A shared pain. Dion casts his worries about the grim god’s blessing away. For now, they are both merely suffering with uncertainty over Alma’s recovery.

“It is…” Dion trails off, feeling his throat dry and cracked. He swallows and tries again. “It is her. Just her. You are certain?”

Melinor nods. “I know my sister’s soul.” His voice is just as low-pitched as his looks lead one to anticipate, and rough besides. But not as aggressive as might be expected. “The invader is captured elsewhere.” He touches Alma’s head, releases a stray lock of hair from her earring. “She needs time to regain control.”

Dion nods, holding her a little closer, lowering his head to kiss her forehead, to rest his own forehead against hers. He waits, feeling her skin against his, the coolness of her, the scent that, yes, faintly smells of her after Nevieve’s cleansing spell. His senses focus on her and just her, pained and relieved and hopeful and dreading.

“Alma… Come on, darling. Where are you?” He hears himself whispering to her.

Can he even reach her with simple words, wherever she is? His eyes are shut tightly against the tears that threaten to spill. Inside him, his essence howls its longing at the ether, like a lone whale calling for its mate across the oceans. Begging, searching, despairing for a reply.

Answer us. Return to us.

“Come back to us, Alma. Come back to me…”

Come back to us, mate. We are calling.

“I promised I wouldn’t leave you. Don’t leave me…”

Come back. Ours…

Mine.

A small eternity seems to pass. Dion whispers her name, incessantly calling her to him. He is mildly aware of other, new presences in the room, of his body gently rocking back and forth in that self-soothing movement of people in shock. Is this the fate that awaits him? To lose all those he allows himself to love? To be alone. Always alone. The world is suffering. The world is grief. The whole of him holds the living treasure in his arms as if she were the hope for his cure, the rock to save him from the gale raging within his soul. But she won’t wake up. She won’t wake up…

And he is so frightened to face the world without her.

Please, wake up. Please…

And then he senses it. Just a weak spark at the edge of his senses, at first, then a stronger flare against him. His own essence roars with joyful relief.

Here!

Here…

He pulls away a little just in time to feel Alma’s chest rise with a deeper breath, her eyes open wide, flaring with color and light. Her mouth gapes open, her back arches as the air fills with her scream. A scream of pure rage, of hatred, of anguish and pain and fear. It rises to almost unbearable intensity, echoes off the walls and almost seems to burst through them. Her body contorts in almost tetanic convulsion, her eyes wide open and filled with terror.

“Alma!” Dion calls to her, squeezing her against him. “Alma, it’s all right!”

He holds her, rocks her until the screams die in her throat. Until her lips slacken and her muscles relax just past the point of painful contraction. “It’s all right,” he tells her, his gentle voice sounding almost like a whisper after all the screaming. “You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

“Gwydion?” Alma’s eyes dart this way and that, seemingly unable to focus. “Gwydion!”

“I’m here. I’m here, darling,” he assures her. Is she blind? And why isn’t she moving her arms and legs?

Her eyes finally lock on him. “I had her!” she cries with urgency before a strong exhalation seems to rob her of her strength. “I had her… she disappeared.”

“We have her,” he tells her, hoping that Melinor did not deceive him. Even if he has, Dion refuses to think about it now. “We captured her. Rest now.”

He is so relieved. He feels the knot that his heart had become untangle in one single, twanging movement that courses through him, stealing his breath, making his body contract, then relax, his core expand with sudden glee, almost about to explode. She is here. His love is here, in his arms. He needs to believe it. He needs to believe that her brother and her aunt cannot be fooled into accepting a stranger. That his nightmare is over.

“You look so hurt…” Alma says, her voice half choked. She is looking at him, straight at him, grief in her features. Light and color swirling lazily in her irises. Yes, her eyes. Her tear-filled eyes.

“I’m all healed now. I’m fine,” he lies, stroking her hair.

Her lower lip trembles, her chin drawing in a little. “No… you’re not.”

She knows. Of course, she knows. Because this is Alma and her eyes look straight at him, into his soul. And they can see the damage that Nua inflicted on it. And they are crying in sorrow at it. “I will be,” he insists, summoning a tremulous smile to his own lips. It is so painful to smile…but he cannot bear her tears. “You’re here now.”

His smile falters, he holds her tightly to him, kissing her forehead, swaying again, feeling his cheeks burn, his throat dry, sniffling excess water from his eyes that will soon bathe his face in tears. “You scared me, darling. You scared me so much…”

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry…”

He whimpers, a thousand words pouring into his mouth and dying there. How afraid he was. How desperate. How broken and crushed. How glad he is now. How much all of it hurts, pleasure and pain. “It’s all right,” is all he manages to say. “It’s all right.”

Memory is tossed aside. Fear is tossed aside. Trauma. Suspicion. He wavers them all. Inside him, the whimpering, begging giant that immediately knew that Alma was possessed before Dion even managed to reason his way to that conclusion, howls for its mate. For his love. It grovels and cries for her, kept away for too long. Too hopelessly.

He cups her cheek in his palm and kisses her. Deeply, intermittently as their tears force them to break away to swallow and breathe. But he feels it, the blossoming of her spheres opening up to him, vividly, in that sharing of essence and mana that has been growing since their first kiss, barely more than physical pleasure at first, now nearly a full union of selves without even the need for the full physical contact of sex. She is so close…so close to him. Wrapped around his core.

A heavy hand lands on Dion’s shoulder, not a painful slap but just enough to startle him and make him look up.

Melinor looks at him with a grimace, shaking his head. “Not that,” the god warns him and for a moment Dion fears that Melinor will pose an obstacle to the relationship. “She has to stay in herself to rebuild the bond.”

The words are much more frightening than any condemnation of the love affair. With the sudden, icy touch of a bucket of cold water to the spine, realization dawns in Dion’s mind. Alma’s bond with her own body is still unstable and frail. And he was at the verge of breaking it with a simple, selfish kiss. Would he have assimilated her, he wonders with growing fear.

“Shouldn’t she take to her own body naturally?” he asks, alarmed. “Why isn’t she moving?”

“Her soul took serious damage,” replies Fencer’s rough voice. Dion jolts, instinctively firming his grip around Alma and turning his head to look at the Guardia Dei Subcommander, who says, “I’m surprised she’s even able to speak.”

Only then does Dion notice the other gods in the room. Lyria and Nevieve have both joined them as well, standing silent for now, their eyes on Alma. How long have they been watching? How much have they witnessed of his misery? Lyria looks at him with such sorrowful empathy that he is suddenly very aware of the drying tracks of tears on his cheeks, of the burning in his eyes. So many years of keeping his emotions concealed, his thoughts and concerns hidden under a mask of nonchalance… He swallows and looks away from the older goddess, unsure of how to feel about this. For now, he feels nothing. He is numbed by exhaustion and grief and relief, the extremes of so many emotions that none cries louder than the others. He has been stripped and skinned alive and he is so small, now. So helpless. Like a child. He lacks the willpower to even beg them to leave. And what right does he have to ask that of people worrying about a loved one?

“Mel?” Alma is asking, her head turning to look at her brother. “And Fencer. What – what are you doing here?” Her eyes widen, her face contorts into panic, head rising from Dion’s cradling arm with effort, since she seems unable to move any voluntary muscles below her neck. “Where are the others? Where are we?”

“We are in the Oracle’s grotto and they are here at my call, Alma,” Lyria replies in quiet tones. “Later, we will explain.”

“Mother?” Alma calls, her voice pitched higher with fear. “Sky? Sky!”

“He’s here,” Fencer barks with annoyance at her niece’s loud cry for her friend. “Now rest or you’ll never have the full control of that body back.”

“Somrak… Saira…?” Alma asks, her head turning this way and that, straining to see.

With a soft touch that would seem impossible for such an fearsome, violence-attuned god, Melinor places his hand on Alma’s forehead and gently, but firmly, pushes her down against Dion’s arm. “Later,” he says simply.

Alma looks at her brother, only her eyes moving in their sockets, and quiets in defeat. Still, she turns her gaze to Dion, a questioning whimper escaping her lips. “Gwydion?”

He almost tells her the truth. About Saira’s death, Sky’s and Somrak’s injuries. He decides against it. It would be too cruel, he he thinks, to burden her with such loss and suffering when she is barely holding on to her own body. And yet, he does not want to lie. Not to her. He does not know how much she has seen before the failed binding and during the fight with Nua and even if she has seen nothing, he cannot stand to tell her anything less than the truth.

So he keeps his words short as he reaches to hold her hand and bring it to his sternum. “They’re here. Now rest…please.”

She looks at him for a long, silent moment, then blinks and tilts her head against his chest, snuggling against him in a movement that involves only her head and neck. To his surprise and great solace, her fingers react to his touch, weakly curling around and squeezing his own. He kisses her brow, the room so empty of sound that he can hear her minute sigh of contentment at the caress. She almost seems to be sleeping with her eyes half open before she breathes, her voice calmer now, “I am so very tired…”

“Then sleep,” he whispers against the bridge of her nose. “Just sleep. I’ll be right here. I’m not letting you go.”

A tiny dimming of light announces the drop of her eyelids. “I guess… your pocket didn’t make it again.”

The nonsensical comment makes him pause. His pocket? He pulls away, looking at her peaceful, slumbering face in befuddlement, wondering what she meant by her words. And then it hits him. His pocket! His jacket pocket. The one that keeps being torn off regardless of how much Dion tries to reinforce it. And yes, it has not survived this time either. The whole of his jacket has disappeared in fact. The sudden realization makes him chuckle, then laugh, laugh uncontrollably at the joke that only Alma, the real Alma would know to make. “Oh, I’m never letting you go.”

Movement at the edge of his vision makes him look up to see Lyria kneeling by Melinor’s side. She smiles at the death god, a little smile that seems to request as much comfort as it tries to give. Melinor simply nods and Lyria turns her head to look at Alma, one hand reaching to affectionately stroke her daughter’s hair.

“She is asleep already,” she says to Dion. “And you should rest too, little one.”

“I’m fine,” Dion assures her, laughter fading to a blank smile. “I don’t want to sleep.”

Lyria’s voice is soft, quiet, sounding almost distant as she replies, “No, but you should.” She reaches to stroke his cheek, a gentle touch that is strikingly similar to her daughter’s. “You are exhausted. How you are even awake is a mystery to me.”

Whether it is a mere observation or a veiled incantation, Dion cannot tell. All he knows is that at the sound of her words, sleepiness creeps in, exhaustion takes over. He blinks against sleep like a child trying to fight off an afternoon nap.

“I…” His mouth opens in a yawn before he can finish his sentence.

And though he has not noticed her moving, he feels Lyria’s hands land on his shoulders and carefully tilt him to the left, nudging him to lie down on the mat. He follows her touch, unresisting, legs unfolding so that he lies fully on the makeshift but surprisingly comfortable bed.

“That is it…” Lyria says in a whisper. “Just a little rest. You can hold her while you sleep.”

Dion nods, arms still wrapped around Alma’s sleeping form, holding her close to him as his eyes begin to shut.

Tender fingers run through his hair, a motherly touch that he has not felt in over a century. Alma’s mother breathing a soft scolding. “The things you children get yourselves into…”

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.

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.