Ch6.68 Trust

Steel claws dig into Sky’s jaw to raise his unresisting head, bringing him partially out of a state that cannot be called sleep, more of a fitful unconsciousness. He opens one eye reluctantly. The other is already open, unable to close but blind, the lid partially torn away, the orb split by the whip formed from the spine of a tortured, mad death goddess.

His one good eye takes a moment to focus on Nua, grinning at him with that young pale face, in structure and complexion nothing like the Nua he had known, in expression unmistakable, instantly recognizable. “Good morning, Azzie! Ready for our next session? I have a treat in store for you. I spent all night preparing this, just for you.”

He summons as much dignity as he can. “So far…you have bored me with your amateur attempts. Why don’t you…summon up some experts from Hell?” The truth is, though he has with supreme effort resumed his human form, he can feel it slipping away from him like a watermelon seed squeezed between two juice-slicked fingertips. And with it, he feels his hope trying to go. He knows they want to reduce him to a bestial status, that for some reason they cannot bind him, despite knowing his true name, and by itself that is reason enough to resist. But he knows that rescue is highly unlikely, and if such an attempt is made…the thought of even one of those he loves being killed or tortured makes him want to find a way to kill himself right now – except of course that they would not know, and would come after him anyway, only to find a corpse. He simply hopes that they will never find this place, wherever it is.

They will miss him, mourn him. But they will live. They will comfort one another. They will find a way to take down the Whisper safely, too late to rescue him, surely, but then they’ll know his fate. They’ll be able to move on. That is what he holds onto, this narrative. As the bone-deep whiplashes leave fissures in his flesh and even his soul, threatening to drown all that he has gained since escaping Hell – friendships, love, family, duty, pride, loss – drown it in roaring and agony, he holds onto that, that those he loves will come through this safely.

And then the whip slashes across Sky’s chest, prompting a scream of pain that he cannot stop, but forces into something distantly related to laughter. Fresh blood gushes from the wound, spattering the floor to thicken the caked, dried layers at his feet.

Nua moves closer to him, her lower lip thrust out, pouting like a spoiled child. “Now, that wasn’t a nice thing to say. Not when I’ve brought some visitors here to see you.” She gestures to the door behind Sky. He hears wheels on the stone-flagged floor, and sees a gurney come into his limited field of vision. It looks as if it was rescued from a rubbish heap, the metal frame rusted, the wheels squeaking, one of them jittering like an old man’s trembling hands. The thin mattress atop the frame is stained with old blood, and strapped down on it is a man, struggling, barefoot, wearing torn, bloody trousers. The man’s wrists are locked down with shackles engraved with magical glyphs. Sky cannot see his face at first – his blind eye is on that side. But as the Whisper tough pushing it parks it in front of Sky, he sees a familiar face staring at him, hazel eyes pleading above a ball-gag.

Dion.

Sky roars and strains against the chains, his skin darkening rapidly with tattoos. “NOOOOOO! LET HIM GO! LET THEM GO!”

“But they’ve come all this way! They were all so cute, too, barging in to save you.” Nua laughs at the two gods trying to break free of their bonds. She slides the vertebral form of the whip through her fingers. “Now, one thing I realized is, you’re right. I’ve been on the painful end of the whip for these past two centuries, but I’m still not good enough to torture someone who was born in Hell. But! It occurs to me that none of your precious little friends has ever known the pleasures of endless Hellish torture.” Her hand grazes Dion’s leg, who struggles harder, mumbling through the gag.

Barely resisting the urge to shift into his devil form, Sky begs, abject. “What do you want from me? This – this accomplishes nothing. Nua, why do this? Please, please don’t…”

“Dearest Azzageddi, you still haven’t realized, have you? All I want from you is,” Nua pauses for a breath, “your pain.” She raises the whip and strikes Dion across the torso, diagonally from left shoulder to right hip. Blood spatters Nua’s face and chest. He screams incoherently, arching his body as much as he can within the tight straps.

Sky lunges against the chains, his body transforming faster than ever before, the shackles grinding and cracking his wristbones as they adjust too slowly. His roar causes the stones in the walls to rattle, dust to fall from the ceiling. “I WILL DEVOUR YOU ALIVE! I WILL TEARRRRR YOU TO PIECES AS YOU BEG FOR MERRRRRRCY!

Nua strikes Dion again, across the thighs, opening up deep wounds there as well. “Oh, yes! Yes! Roar, Azzageddi! Your roars are music to my ears!” Transferring the whip handle to her left hand, she slips a long, slender knife, one made for the kitchen rather than fighting, free from her sleeve and plunges it into Dion’s shoulder, right into the joint, twisting it to make him scream, his eyes locked on Sky, seeing his friend, his commanding officer, become an enemy of the gods.

Sky’s roars become worse than incoherent, cursing in Malbolge, one of the languages of Hell, curses that could age or sicken a normal mortal.

Nua draws back the blade and makes a show of licking the blood from it. “Now now, if you are going to be rude, my little devil, I might have to hurt our guest a bit more. I might have to pour some demon ichor into his wounds.” She reaches into a pocket and removes a vial. “We both know what that does to gods, don’t we?”

Pleeeeease…” His abyssal voice rings strangely pitiful in begging. “Please, no. I will swear loyalty to you. Just let them go.

Nua gives him a smiles of pleasure, but waggles her finger in admonishment. “Ah ah ah! Slaves do not get to cut deals. You will serve me. But I will do whatever I wish.”

Sky raises his massive head and howls his frustration. Shoulders heaving as he sobs for air, he looks at the shivering god on the gurney, and says quietly, “Dion…Dion I am sorry. I’m sorry.

Sky knows there is nothing he can do. Begging will only give Nua pleasure and drive her to greater acts of horror. And his apologies mean nothing. This is all his fault.

Dion’s eyes widen, then close tightly as Nua unscrews the cap on the vial. He struggles harder, but the straps hold him almost motionless. Nua carefully pours about a third of the contents into the wound in Dion’s shoulder. The stench of concentrated, refined demon ichor fills the room. Sky groans, slumping in the chains as Gwydion struggles and seizes, the pain too great even to allow him to scream through the gag. His skin blackens around the wound, and then in blotches further from it, rotting him from the inside out. The enchanted shackles prevent him from using his magic to heal himself, though with that much poison, it wouldn’t make any real difference anyway.

Nua watches in rapt fascination. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this in action.” She holds the smoke-glass bottle up to check it. “Need to make sure I save some for the others.”

Gwydion gives one last, gag-muffled scream, all his muscles locking, and then he collapses. Dead.

Limp in the chains, Sky sobs. Dion was his friend. They had fought alongside each other, aided each other, gone from a shared, suspicious aversion between the no-Ring outsider and the pampered First-Ring elite to a shared respect for each other’s differing but overlapping senses of justice and honor. Sky had been unsure at first about the growing romance between Alma and Dion, but he had become happy for them both as it had flowered, and sad when they had fought so recently.

And now dead. So pointlessly, so traumatically. Sky wants to whisper prayers for Dion’s soul, but fears Nua might detect that. In her madness, perhaps she will allow the god’s soul to escape. If a soul can escape from this room.

Nua looks at the corpse as if just now realizing it’s dead. “Oops! I got a bit carried away with this one, didn’t I? I hardly made it last!” She smiles at Sky, almost normally, making the blood drops on her face all the more disturbing. “Don’t worry. I won’t be half as rash with the other ones.”

She goes to the door and yells into the hallway, “Bring in the next one! And take this filth out of here.”

A shaken gangster rushes in and wheels away the stretcher while another wheels in a gagged Saira, fighting like a trapped fox against the straps, desperately using every mote of energy she has, clearly not caring if she snaps a bone in her struggles.

Sky cannot stop himself from roaring again.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Now wasn’t that fun? This one lasted much longer than the other one, didn’t she?”

Nua wipes a curved flensing knife on her blood-soaked skirt, and tosses a liver onto Saira’s mutilated, still corpse. The low-ranking gang-member who comes in to wheel her out just stares for a moment, shocked into immobility, but takes the push-handle, tacky with half-dried blood, and pulls the gurney from the room.

“Shall we proceed to dessert?” Nua asks with a grin. “You’ll like this one, for sure. You liked her enough to take her into your lair. How was she, darling? Was she as good as I was? Did she like it when you did that little thing with your thumb? Surely you haven’t stopped doing that.”

Sky has been silent a long time, forcing himself to watch the slow death of Saira, but hanging from the chains as if in a coma otherwise, trying to will himself to die. At Nua’s words, he closes his eyes and says softly, “If you kill her, you’ll have nothing to use against me. And you know I will kill you at the first opportunity. If you keep her alive, I will serve you.

Gently, Nua replies, “Oh Azzie… Always so limited. Of course I will have something against you. With her dead, who is to stop me from snatching her precious Bunnies and turning their slender bones into flutes and rattles for demon-spawn? Why, my servants are on their way now to fetch the little critters.”

He sags, defeated. “Please, Nua…please…

Nua moves closer to him and strokes his muzzle. “You should have thought about that when you killed me.”

He lunges for her, arms stretches as far as they can, trying to catch her arm in his wolflike teeth. He almost succeeds. If this had been near the beginning of his capture, he surely would have, but he has been slowed by the torture. His teeth snap together on empty air. Nua dances back with a scream that turns into nervous laughter when she finds she has not had her arm torn off. She covers up her burst of fear by pirouetting to the door and calling harshly, “Bring her in!”

A servant wheels in the white-haired goddess, dressed in Guardia Dei indigo, pale and slender, gagged and bound like the others. Her eyes are closed and, though she does not scream, her frame shakes slightly. Tears wet the corner of her eyes.

Nua strokes Alma’s face, making the goddess flinch. “She is such a pretty little thing, isn’t she? I wanted to ride her body and use her to get to the very heart of the Death Clan. Use her body to blow her family to bits.” She moves her face closer to Alma’s, her bloodied dagger grazing her victim’s neck. “Don’t we look like we would match?”

Sky whispers, as quietly as he can in his abyssal voice. “Alma…Alma, I cannot stop this. I am so sorry…” He feels utterly helpless, useless, nothing but a monster that has brought all he loves to a slow death. How took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies. Because of him, they will all suffer slow, brutal deaths, all but Mayumi. Safe at the Academy, she will survive, shattered and haunted by the merciless murders of her family.

Trailing her dagger along Alma’s body, tracing the shape of her form, a hungry look on her face, Nua says, “Yes, you can apologize. I’ll make sure she lasts long enough to hear everything you have to say.” She scratches Alma’s calf, drawing a thin line of crimson, and then moves it up under Alma’s skirt. Alma gasps in through her nose, shakes her head no, as Nua teases the razor-sharp blade along the goddess’ inner thighs. Sky clenches his taloned, pinioned hands.

The necromancer leans down to whisper loudly into Alma’s ear, “I had him first, Death Clan whore.” She stabs between the goddess’ legs.

Alma’s azure eyes snap open and her back arches in pain, a scream issuing from her throat and bubbling around the ball-gag. She closes her eyes and screams again as Nua twists the dagger, then pulls it back and stabs again.

Sky screams with her through his tight-clenched teeth. The goddess turns her head to look at Sky for the first time, her blue eyes imploring him, too terrified by the vicious thrusts that she is merely confused, not frightened by this devil in chains.

Breathing heavily, as if inflamed by lust, Nua pulls the gore-covered blade out from under Alma’s blood-soaked skirt, pointing the knife at the goddess’ belly. “She can heal, can’t she?” Her voice is crazed, on the verge of breaking into laughter. “I’ll just slice her open like a peach!”

She plunges the knife into Alma’s stomach. Goddess of life and death both, her powers kept inactive by the shackles, she struggles, mad with pain, her head turning, eyes returning, pleading and terrified to Sky. Looking to a devil to save her from a mortal. Her blue eyes…deep as the sea.

Blue, Sky realizes. They got her eyes right. Perfect. Except they haven’t seen her since before she became the Spinner. The didn’t know that her eyes have changed.

And that is when he knows: This is all a sham. These people are not Gwydion, Saira, and Alma. They are strangers, transformed by magic into perfect copies. That is why they are gagged, so they cannot scream out their confusion coherently and thereby reveal that they are not who they appear to be.

But the torture, the death, is all real. These are almost certainly mortal innocents, perhaps people without homes, taken off the street and suffering simply to destroy Sky’s resistance. The devil’s heart breaks again. His friends are safe, for now. But these people, who have nothing to do with him, are caught up in this and dying senselessly, with no idea why.

All this burns through his mind in a moment. He knows he cannot let Nua know that he has caught on. He keeps his eyes locked on the suffering woman’s, trying to help her focus on him, on anything other than the pain. He wonders what she sees, this terrifying monster that has been begging for her life. He silently promises her that if he somehow escapes, he will find out who she was and tell her family, if she has one, that she did not run away from them, did not abandon them. That it was not her fault that she disappeared from their lives. He can only hope she can detect the real sympathy he has for her, so that she knows she is not dying alone. He has nothing else to give.

It does not end quickly. Nua makes it last, but eventually she is bored by Sky’s lack of responsiveness. She blinds the woman with demon ichor, thrilling to the woman’s struggles, even though so much of her blood is already gone from her body. And then it is over and Nua orders her gone.

Nua looks down at her black dress, shiny and clinging to her body, heavy with blood, the floor foul and incarnadine. “Well, I guess that’s the end of this session. Wasn’t that entertaining?” She smiles like a child who has just received a big bag of candy. Sky lowers his head, silent.

Nua walks closer to him. “Are you mine yet, Azzie? Have you realized yet that your only choice is to serve me?”

He takes some time to become aware of her, to process what she said. He looks at her in fear and slowly nods.

Trying to bite her before was unwise. If he kills her, Margrave will still have him in chains.

So when Nua touches his face, grinning, he does not try anything. It takes great effort, but he feigns complete passivity. “Now, where is the Azzageddi that I remember? The one I gave a body to? Show him to me.”

His first human form. The frightened young man that, at Nua’s orders two centuries ago, he killed and ate in order to steal his shape. Sky reaches deep, searching for that form of one who had rejected her. He has not worn it in in all those years since he killed Nua, not since acquired his usual one, that of an island demigod, in personal combat. They are the only two shapes he has ever stolen. It is not an ability that he is proud of, and since the cost is the murder and cannibalization of a victim, he does not wish to steal any others. But that first one is still there, deep in his memory. He struggles to change, the unfamiliar form and the powerful need to be a devil fighting him. Being human is too painful, vulnerable.

But finally he succeeds. Bloody, thin, and pale, he hangs in the chains.

Nua strokes his face, her fingers leaving cold lines of blood across his cheek. “That’s more like it.” She leans in and runs her tongue over his lips before she kisses him.

He kisses her back, hesitantly. Tears begin to spill from his human eyes. As a devil, he cannot weep.

She breaks away, speaking softly, “Show me your tongue.” She holds up the same knife she used on Alma.

He allows his fear to show. “P-please…” His voice is higher, weaker than in his usual human-seeming form.

Her voice is velvet-smooth, “You were a bad boy, Azzie. Mother will have to teach you manners. Now…obey.”

He opens his mouth and puts out his tongue. It is not at all difficult to look at her, silently begging for mercy.

In one smooth movement, she pinches his tongue with two fingers and slices it off, tossing it away like unwanted meat. Blood gushes into his mouth, and his mouth closes, his lips grazing her fingers, tasting his own blood and that of three strangers.

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Ch6.67 Trust

Darkness falls across the ward – all right, things are getting to be repetitive. It’s dark. It’s freaking dark. It’s always freaking dark. Clear? Clear. Good.

Truth be told, it isn’t always dark everywhere in Three Rats but when someone tends to lurk in the shadier areas and move preferentially in nighttime, darkness is sort of a given. Heck, darkness is a blessing. Last thing anyone trying to go unnoticed wants a big, great shining light following him or her or jyr around. Nothing a few cobblestones and crossbow bolts to the occasional street lamp won’t fix, though!

Anyway, the darkness does not bother Saira as she moves swiftly and soundlessly toward the meeting place she set up herself. She really has no desire to rush or even attend the meeting but the vague message in Alma’s handwriting, stuffed in the old crack in the wall of the abandoned school has her curious enough to meet the death goddess. She anticipates a huge part of the conversation to revolve around her sudden departure from Alma’s room and her care on the night of the gift-giving party, but she is prepared to counter that word for word. She is even half surprised it took any of the Dei in Three Rats this long to contact her. Well, not Dion. She would never expect Dion to contact her. Somehow her athletic, well-toned frame has failed to grab the attention of the magic god with a foolproof libido. Oh well, she doesn’t really like him, anyway.

Saira arrives at the place where an old circular plaza somehow got rammed by a huge stone building with tall spires and an insane amount of tiers of carved statues of people with too many arms, the wrong sort of legs and tongues too long for comfort, cutting three of the plaza’s exits and seriously narrowing the only remaining one. Flecks of paint keep falling off the once garish walls of the pyramid-like building, littering the ground below. Saira watches Alma from behind the massive sculpted head of a mean-looking snake with way too many teeth, wondering just how much the goddess realizes what she is doing to her expensive boots. Shouldn’t gods glide on air or something? Must be a bonus feature.

“This better not be a call for a scolding,” Saira calls out from her hiding place on the second tier of statues once the goddess gets close enough. “I have better things to do.”

She watches Alma look exactly to where she is hiding – wait…she was already looking in that direction, wasn’t she? She didn’t even turn her head looking for where the sound was coming from. Cringe.

“Why would I be scolding you?” Alma asks, looking toward Saira as if she could see through stone.

Thing is…she can, Saira reminds herself as she comes out of hiding and drops onto the floor, raising a small cloud of what must be really colorful dust. Mean night-vision, too.

“Come on, get on with it,” she coaxes the goddess. “Get it over with.”

“Get what over with?” Alma insists.

“Really?” Saira asks blankly. She waits for a full minute of silence but Alma just looks at her with a witless expression. Are those crickets chirping in the distance? Aaarrghh!!! “Come on! I can just hear it!”

She tilts her head to the right and makes a mock, too-high-pitched imitation of Alma’s voice. “‘Why would you leave without saying anything? Did we treat you wrong in any way?’” Tilting her head to the left, she adds in her own voice. “‘No, you didn’t.’” Head to the right. “‘Then why?’” To the left. “‘I needed to be on my own, out here where I belong.’”

Much to her surprise, Alma merely watches impassively as she goes on with the one-sided dialog, mimicking the goddess’ voice, words pouring out faster and faster. “‘You don’t belong in the streets. No one belongs in the streets. We wanted you to become a part of our family and you were enjoying it, weren’t you?’ ‘Uhh…Kinda.’ ‘Then why leave? All the Bunnies were distraught at finding you gone. Especially Cherry. You know how much Cherry likes you.’ ‘Well, it was your fault for bringing me to that station in the first place. I was perfectly happy dying from being stabbed in the gut by some demon, thank you very much!’”

She catches herself raising her voice to a near-shout on the last line and stops herself from going on with the scolding session. She feels scolded enough already, anyway.

Alma holds her silence for a little while longer as Saira regains her breath, watching the woman with a pair of eyes that keep glowing in a really eerie way – not the usual flare of her using her hocus-pocus-mambo-jambo scary death goddess thing but something different. Effortless, like the goddess doesn’t even realize she is doing it. Nothing Saira has ever seen her do unless strictly necessary and for as short a period as possible. Huh…weird. But kinda pretty too if you can get past the fact that, in the darkness of the alley, Alma’s head looks like it’s just hanging there and not really attached to anything else.

“You have…really put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?” the goddess asks slowly.

Well, that was anti-climatic. Oh, well…

Saira shrugs. No point in forcing the issue. “Heh, I had the time. This ward is getting to be a bit boring with you goody do-gooders going around putting criminals in jail. Messing with my livelihood. So, what took you three days to call me?”

Much to her surprise, Alma actually looks embarrassed at the question. “I have… been busy,” the goddess replies, looking away.

It takes Saira a moment to decypher the sudden shyness. And once realization dawns, her jaw drops in surprise. “Oh…holy…crap. You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you?”

Alma sighs, looking annoyed. “Contrary to popular believe, Saira, my life does not revolve around you.”

Oh, but she can’t fool Saira now! And she is not denying it either. Oh man, brilliant! Just brilliant! Saira bursts out in laughter. “Oh, this is hilarious! Everyone’s favorite mommy-cop managed to miss a whole person being gone for three days!”

Alma looks down at her laughter, glow-in-the-dark eyes dimming a bit in result. Saira wonders for a moment if she should feel bad for making the goddess feel self-conscious but she is currently too busy wishing she had enough light to see if she has managed to make Alma blush in shame to do the right thing. Oh, it’d just be perfect if Alma were blushing. Blushing over not noticing a mortal gone – gotta be something new to a death god.

“I am not proud of it, trust me,” Alma replies in a low voice before looking back up again. “Have you been feeling well, at least?”

Man, she really does look like she feels bad about it. Maybe Saira should go and give her a hug. Hmm…naah!

“Oh, I feel great,” Saira says, stretching as if she could encircle the world with her arms. “Wild and free again.” She grins. “And a lot more entertained now.”

“I’m glad I could brighten your day,” Alma retorts. “I do come with bad news, however.”

“Wait, wait, wait… You’re seriously not gonna scold me?” Saira asks, incredulously.

Alma shakes her head. “Alas, I think I’ve lost the moral high ground for that.”

Awww man! Three days of practicing for nothing!

“You just ruined a perfectly good speech,” Saira mutters. “So what’s up? What’s keepin’ you busy?”

“Sky has been kidnapped by the necromancer,” Alma replies deadpan, not even taking the time to beat around the bush a bit first.

Saira flashes back to an undead rat leaping teeth-first toward the death goddess not long ago. While Sky was asleep in his apartment. Yeah, he was asleep back then. So why’d he get taken instead? Did she skip a chapter or something? “I thought the necromancer wanted you.”

Alma nods, sighing almost inaudibly. “So did I. But instead they broke into Sky’s home and took him. There were demons involved.”

“Bad guys, huh? Always changing their minds,” Saira notes conversationally. “And let me guess, you want my help. You people are gonna ruin my street cred with your constant cries for help.”

“All I need is to know where I might find a salesman called Lucky Pete,” Alma says, clearly not in the mood for small talk about unimportant things like people’s careers in criminality. “Deals in infera aura. Have you heard of him?”

Saira shrugs. “Stuff like that isn’t usually what I’d go for. I’m guessing he doesn’t have a shop?”

“He has a stall at the demon market,” Alma explains. “We identified him as a possible lead when we went undercover. We think the necromancer buys her spell components from him.”

“And you’re thinking he might do house calls,” Saira half-whispers, thinking over the whole situation. She doesn’t particularly like the idea of exposing her sources to blueshirts, especially because a lot of her sources could tell a blueshirt from a civilian just by the way they walk into a room. But she has to admit that the thought of this necromancer being connected with that Whisper gang which, from what she’s heard, is yet another shard broken off the ex-Dukaines, with an unhealthy habit of employing demon summoners and diabolists (one of which might just be the very same guy she’s been hunting for years now), is enough to leave her a teensy bit…tense. She’s killed enough gods and demigods to fill a trophy room with stuffed heads (very ugly ones in some cases) but her last (and admittedly only) experience with demons has left her banged up enough to seriously consider doing that again in a hurry. At least not alone. She doesn’t have anything in her arsenal that can kill a demon. But she would love to add a certain diabolists’ head to her collection. Time to make a little investment. “All right, I gotta admit I like the big guy enough to help out. But for my next trick, I’ll need someone to come along with me. Not the kind of source I can just shoot into submission.”

Alma nods at this. “I will go with you. When–”

Saira cuts her off with a raised hand. “I’m sure you’d love to but uh…you’re kinda well-known around the block, if you get my meaning.” She looks the distinctively-transcendental goddess up and down to strengthen her point. “I need someone that can pass for mortal under close scrutiny. Maybe your boyfriend wouldn’t mind a walk with me?”

“I’ll let him know,” the goddess replies dryly, without a hint of humor at Saira’s use of the word boyfriend. “When?”

Huh…tough crowd tonight.

“Tomorrow morning,” Saira tells her. “At the Rio Novo bridge. Tell him to get ready to put on the charm. My source likes a little flirting going on and she’s all about the boys these days. Unless you’ve decided to finally put a leash on your little puppy.”

Again, that humorless tone. “Do as you must. He is his own dog.”

Sad. She doesn’t look annoyed or angry, she actually looks sad. Must be trouble in paradise. Saira wonders what must have happened there but Alma is already turning to leave, saying, “If you need anything else, Somrak is staying at the Singing Cockroach. First floor, third window from the left.”

“Any reason he isn’t at the station?” Saira asks. As in, is that why the fallout with Loverboy? she adds mentally.

He’d be stupid enough to do it, wouldn’t he? Of course he would be…

Alma stops in her tracks and turns back to face Saira again. “The necromancer threatened to kill Sky if I call for help,” she says with a meaningful look at the woman that is pretty much a whole conversation on its own.

“Oh, I see.” Well, so much for that theory. “Hey, what’s with the spooky eyes?

Alma sighs again and shakes her head. “Something that has been keeping me busy. Thank you, Saira. And please forgive my oversight. Anyway I can make it better?”

“Yeah, your cat followed me out,” Saira complains.

Alma’s chuckle at that feels strangely relieving. “And you want cat food?”

Cat food?! The heck!

“No, I want you to take her back!” Saira exclaims in annoyance. “I’ve been trying to get her to go back home for days.”

“It seems to me that she is home,” Alma notes before turning back and walking away, with a “Goodnight, little one.”

Saira watches her go in dismay, mumbling into the darkness. “But…but – Ah, crap…”

Stupid gods…

Ch6.66 Trust

One of the best tools in the kit of an off-blue is a simple little spell that sends vermin scurrying away, allowing a restful sleep in some of the nastiest armpits of the Insula, and before beginning his second night of sleep at the Singing Cockroach, Somrak, in lightweight cotton trousers and a simple close-fitting sleeveless singlet, has just finished casting it to make the bedbugs think there is a big, juicy, blood-filled mammal in the next room, when he hears a knock on the door.

He picks up a long, straight black-enameled dagger and rises, gliding quietly across the room, then opens the door while standing in a good position to evade a strike and also to strike in return. He relaxes when he sees it is Alma, wearing a hooded cloak, her distinctive white hair concealed and her divine aura suppressed as much as she can manage. She would still be a very noticeable figure to the variegated assemblage of lowlifes downstairs, but perhaps she will not be recognized as Sergeant Alma of the Guardia Dei.

Somrak feels his mouth go dry. He hasn’t seen her since last evening, and did not expect her to come for a visit. He’d planned to go by the station tomorrow morning to compare notes, knowing she is to meet Saira tonight. To have Alma so close, so unexpectedly, is a tortuous pleasure, but knowing he’ll likely have to tell her lies to keep her in the dark about Sky, and about what he really plans to do, is simply torture. He stands back to let her in, and closes the door. He holds up a finger, then sets up a small white candle the length and thickness of his smallest finger on an ashtray and lights it from his fingertip. It burns with a yellow flame.

“If that flame turns green, someone is trying to eavesdrop magically,” he says. He sits on edge of the bed, near the wall, giving her enough space to sit as there is no chair in the dingy, cramped room. “Visited a friend today. Got some more background on our gang. Probable identification of two more members.”

Alma lowers the hood from her head and looks around the room, taking in the torn and filthy wallpaper, the slightly lopsided bed with its brand-new sheets that Somrak bought in a market earlier in the day, the window so dirty that it only lets in a little distorted light from the sickly streetlamp outside. Then she looks at Somrak, her expression a touch reproachful. “Good evening to you too, sir.”

Somrak grimaces. “Sorry… Welcome to the abode. The cockroaches really do sing, you know. It’s not much, but it comes highly recommended.” Those mother-of-pearl eyes on him seem to look past his flesh, straight to his heart.

Alma gives an almost-silent snort at this. “I’m sure Gwydion would disagree. He has a bit of a story with the place. How was your day?” She sits, carefully, on the bed, which creaks a warning.

“I quietly visited a colleague on the post-Dukaine task force. We have a better idea of who’s in the gang. Figured I’d drop by and fill you and Dion in tomorrow.” From the side table, which looks as if an angry glance could cause it to collapse, he picks up a bottle of whisky that has no stopper and a none-too-clean shotglass upside down on the neck. “Want some? It’s a crime to call it whisky, but I ordered it from downstairs just for appearances. Works pretty good as a pesticide though.”

Alma puts a hand up, palm forward, and shakes her head. “Thank you but no. I will be meeting our common friend once I leave here. Just thought I would stop by and check how you were doing before going there.” She looks down at her hands, now clasped in her lap. “Gwydion told me…about the devil’s blood.”

Somrak sighs internally. “Yeah, that. Well, we can’t know they’ll still have it around when we go in. Devils don’t exactly serve guard duty. Their services are very expensive in terms of souls and contracts. Likely, it’s back where it belongs. Still, we’ll take precautions.”

He stops himself before he crosses the line from ‘too talkative’ to ‘babbling’. At least he hopes he stopped himself in time. He’s usually better at lying than this. But then he’s usually not lying to Alma. He can’t tell her that she doesn’t need to worry about the devil. First, because the devil is her best friend, Sky, the guy they’re going to rescue. Second, because they are not going to rescue Sky. Somrak is planning to let Alma and Dion investigate, then take what they learn and go in by himself, because he knows that this is–

“A suicide mission,” Alma mutters. Took the words right out of my head, Somrak thinks. Louder, she says, “This is shaping up to be a suicide mission. I can hardly imagine that they would not make use of such an asset once we go in.” She takes a deep breath. “And that’s if we can find them in the first place.” She looks truly disheartened.

Somrak is quiet for a minute, then mustering all his false confidence, assures her, “It’ll be a tough one, that’s for sure. But working together, we stand a chance. Three gods, one to deal with the sorcerer, one to deal with the necro, and one more of a generalist, but with plenty of experience dealing with both. They’ve picked a fight with the wrong crowd.” He lays a hand on top of both of hers.

Alma raises an eyebrow, her voice soft, non-accusatory in tone if not in words. “What is wrong with you, Somrak? Your hand is cold and so is your voice. You say those things but they are just something to say. This is Sky.”

Somrak releases her hands. “Yeah. It’s Sky.” He lets some of his worry creep into his voice. “And I know if I think about that too much, I’m not going to be able to do what I need to do. I’m going to be distracted.” Like I am right now. More firmly, he continues, “So my head is in that space it always is during a mission. Where it should be. For him, and for us as well.” He sighs. “Speaking of distractions… I… Never mind – it’s none of my business.”

That active eyebrow of Alma’s rises again. “What exactly isn’t your business?”

He is uncomfortable, but it could be important. “When you and Dion and I were together in the office, you two could barely look at each other. I know I was blind to all that on my first visit here, but in retrospect it’s a big change from how you were around each other before.” He waves his hand dismissively. “If you want me to shut up, just say so.”

Alma sighs, her alabaster tresses shaking along with her head, as if she wants to deny it ever happened. “We had an argument. Words were spoken that take time to lose their sting. Especially in the absence of an apology.”

His tone grim, Somrak says, “Let me guess who needs to apologize.” And which rich little prettyboy could do with a smacking.

“It’s not an argument unless both parties participate.” Alma looks away, at the wall in front of her, staring absently at an orange-and-black cockroach as long as her palm. “He found out about the kiss. And then I was rather late returning from Father’s estate.” She gestures vaguely toward her eyes. “Anyway, misunderstandings.”

“Misunderstandings?” Somrak tries but does not entirely succeed in keeping the anger out of his voice. It might take two, but Dion is the one who misunderstood, I’m sure. Then he checks himself. He knows he is biased in this case. And she does not seem to want any further outbursts. “I’m sorry, Alma. I never should have–”

She cuts him off with a shake of her head. “No, it is becoming clear that this argument was coming, one way or another. You were merely a catalyst.”

They are both silent for a long moment. He wants to ask, Can it be salvaged? But he dreads either a positive or a negative answer. To learn that those two are sundered fully would give him an opening, he is ashamed to acknowledge. But Somrak has no future prospects, no future at all, he is sure. Hope would only make him waver in his resolve. And he truly wants them to be happy.

Finally, shaking his head in annoyance at his treacherous thoughts, Somrak forces that aside and asks the question he has been wanting to ask, but that other things have constantly preempted. Pointing with two fingers to his own eyes, he asks, “So what’s up with the eyes?”

She looks down with a faint smile. “Oh…I seem to have acquired a new sphere.”

Somrak blinks in surprise. “A new… A new sphere? I assume you’re not a goddess of finding lost things now, or you’d have figured out where Sky is already.”

Alma shakes her head at the lame attempt at humor, but her smile increases minimally. “Nothing so immediately useful. Apparently, I am a Spinner, providing balance between Life and Death, sending souls to the Wheel and reincarnation. But it could not have come at a worse time. If this sphere is to bring balance to my powers, then that is something which will only come after much training. For the moment, it is mainly a distraction, though it is not as draining as it was at first.” She exhales deeply and stands slowly. “I should go. It is time. I hope you have a restful night.”

He stands with her, wishing he could drop this wall, tell her everything. Keep her here no matter the cost. But he does not. There are more important things, he insists to himself. “Be careful. This gang could be planning an ambush.”

She offers him a small smile. “I’ll be all right. Good night, Somrak.”

Words. Words are the problem. There just aren’t any that won’t make things worse. As she begins to turn, he reaches out, touches her arm. He barely stops himself from grabbing it. She turns back toward him, her eyes asking a silent question. He softly puts his arms around her, and feels his body relax as she puts her hands on his back and holds him tightly. His hands on her, his body, radiates the warmth that it did not before, a comforting heat, soothing, not passionate but speaking of the love he has for her.

He does not know how long they hold each other, but as he begins to become conscious of the passage of time, he releases her, looking into her strange eyes, stroking her smooth cheek. She reaches up and touches his hand, that small, sad smile for him, for the things they share and cannot share. Then, silent, she turns, pulling up her hood again as she opens the door and departs.

Somrak watches her go, watches the door close. He sits heavily on the bed, forearms on his knees, emotions in turmoil, detachment lost, silently cursing over and over like a mantra meant to bring his thoughts back under control.

Ch6.65 Trust

“Ah, awake. Again.”

Male voice, authoritative, cultured. Mortal. Second-Ring education, or learned to sound like it.

“This is becoming tiresome. It is not responding to any of the standard Seven Diabolical Bindings.”

Same voice. Sky hangs in his chains, body limp, eyes closed. He’s seen their faces. Seen the room, nasty little tile-walled torture chamber that it is, made to be easily hosed down. He doesn’t particularly want to see it all again.

He feels a whisper of breath on his ear, followed by the perpetually amused woman’s voice. “He is a tricky little devil, isn’t he? Maybe he needs some…motivation to respond? Do you, Azzageddi?”

Hearing his true name spoken with power behind it – not a great deal of power, but enough to electrify his senses – he opens his eyes. Well, one eye. The other is too swollen to open more than a sliver.

The shackles around his wrists are too tight, enough that his hands have gone numb and his wrists are in agony. Nevertheless, he hangs his whole body weight on them, his toes barely touching the ground. He could get his feet under him, stand up straight, but why bother? They’ll only whip him again. He can ignore this pain. It is there, it hurts, but he can push it to the background. The sudden pain is worse. And if they haven’t brought out their worst yet, he’ll be much surprised.

“Assume your true form, devil,” the man says. The one who refers to Sky as ‘it’, the pale man with the short, thinning brown hair, the light eyes, the trim little beard. “There is no reason to contain yourself this way. Those shackles will expand to fit just too tightly. They feed off any attempt to use your powers outside your body, however, and return that power with far worse pain.

Sky looks from one to the other with his one open eye. The girl, late teens or early twenties, all in black. A face new to cruelty. Madness, recently acquired. She likes to use his true name. How did she learn it?

“Names,” he croaks. “Who are you?” Though weak, bleeding, beaten, torn, he speaks with a Guardia authority, as if he is the interrogator, they the suspects in a crime.

The girl laughs. “Why, you don’t recognize me, Azzageddi? Oh, of course not. This poor little excuse of a body doesn’t quite bring it to mind, does it? But it’ll be easy to remember.” She runs a hand over his chest, smearing blood and sweat, then digs the claw-like rings the decorate the tips into the flesh of his pectoral muscle. “Because I brought you here.”

Sky grimaces but, though he feels his skin being pierced, he doesn’t make a sound of pain. Instead he grinds out, “You brought me here. Yes. Ambushed me in my sanctum. You’ll have to teach me how you broke in. After I throw you both into prison for what you’ve done.”

She smiles, fake-sweetly, licking blood off the silver claw-tips and glancing up at him seductively. Then she holds up a little clay jar, the top decorated with an ancient, infernal ward. “Oh, Azzie… So defiant. You have too much energy in you.” She takes the lid off and gingerly lifts out a writhing ball of slime, orange with black spots, like a slug trying to pass for a ladybird beetle. “Remember these? Still my favorite, how they burrow into open wounds and suck the life out of tissue. I think we tried them once, didn’t we? When you failed to bring back the book I wanted.”

Sky looks at her, quiet for several heartbeats. Impossible. She was long dead. But the dead have a way of coming back, when they are obsessed, demon-summoning necromancers. “Nua.”

She looks immensely pleased at this. She whispers, “Did you miss me?” as she applies the tiny demon leech, which burrows immediately into Sky.

The pain is immense, causing Sky to roar, writhe, straining against the chains. Nua looks at the jar, mockingly alarmed. “Oh! Goodness me!” She grins maniacally. “Looks like I summoned the ones that salivate acid. Poor Azzie!”

He feels his body, which has changed into his devil form twice in just the past few months, grow and shift, bones and muscles painfully realigning, skin splitting and hardening, wings and tail ripping free. The shackles grow too slowly for his wrists, cutting deeper into them, crushing the bones. His dinner-plate-sized hooves are soon resting on the floor, supporting his now far-more-massive weight, and he pulls against them, trying to break them. The blood, red-black and smelling of the blackest oceanic depths, runs in thick rivulets down his forearms, as the shackles cut deeper into his flesh.

Both his eyes are open now, one slightly less than the other, glowing blue-green, his wolfish muzzle open, the heavy horns over his eyes like a crown on his head. He beats the air with his wings, forcing his captors to step back. The leech within him dies with a muffled little cry, such an insignificant demon unable to survive the aura of a devil, a prince of Hell.

Nua says brightly to the man, “There. One devil, right up!” Her voice turns dry. “Try to be at least a little competent this time.”

The man’s eyes narrow and he looks at Nua with a much-practiced annoyance. “Am I to teach you manners again? How you waste my time with your little rebellions. It will not be long before I decide you are not worth keeping around, slave.” He jerks his head toward Sky. “Here’s your chance to show your worth. Reduce this to a state of brutal insensibility. Make it forget everything that makes its life worth living on the Insula. Make it hate all of that, as it should. And time is of the essence.”

Nua smiles as if being called a slave turns her on, and puts her hands on her master, stroking his expensive, perfectly tailored suit. She leans forward against him, breasts pressing against his chest, her voice close to a purr. “Can I have my toy back, Uncle Margrave?”

Margrave. Sky notes the name. The sorcerer reaches into his jacket and, like a magic trick, pulls out a long bullwhip that is clearly too big to fit in there. It appears to have been made from vertebrae, enough for a half-dozen mortals, covered in seamless black leather. “Don’t let me catch you using it on one of the men again,” he cautions.

Nua takes the whip greedily, her eyes locked on it as she slides the segments through her hands like the beads of a rosary. Viciously pleased, she takes it in one hand, while the other grazes Margrave’s torso, round to his back, sliding down below his beltline. “One of these days,” she murmurs as if to a lover, “I’ll use it on you.”

Margrave looks at her with contempt, ignoring her touch. “Remember that you are nothing but a bound soul. Bound to me. Harm me, even slightly, and you go straight back to Hell.”

“I’ll have your sweet little niece to keep me company,” Nua says, amused. “I’ll leave her little body hollow.” Suddenly, she forcibly kisses him.

Margrave stands stone-still, not responding to the kiss, until she pulls away. His look is withering. “Now that you’ve entertained our guest, perhaps you could get started on breaking him?” He turns to leave.

Nua pouts, then turns to Sky. “Soooo tense, that man. Needs to learn the value of a joke.” She swings her arm horizontally, causing the whip to slither across the floor like a python. “Now, where were we?”

Sky’s voice a soft, dangerous rumble, an abyssal volcano miles below the surface of the sea, ready to explode. “Do you rrrrreally think therrrre is anythinnnng you cannnn do to brrreak me that was not donnnne a thousand times worse in Hell? Comparrrrred to the least-skilled torrrrture demon, you are a rrrrrank amateur. As you were an amateur demon summonerrrr. And an amateur necrrrromancer as well.”

Nua spins like a dancer, swinging her arm, the tip of the whip cutting through the skin of his cheek and a piece of his lip. She does not shout but is clearly enraged. “I’ll show you just how bad I can be.” She strikes him again, across his broad chest.

Sky makes no response beyond clenching his teeth, refusing even to grunt. But the whip is alive, and it bites deep, its death-aura whipping even deeper, past his flesh and into his soul. He can feel the wounds there, wounds of the like he has not suffered in two centuries, since leaving Hell. The pain is blinding.

Despite his words, he can tell that he is not likely to hold out forever against this and more-imaginative tortures. He has more to lose, now. More ways to be hurt. People and things that he cares about. Life outside of Hell has softened him.

Nua lashes him again and again, her face indicating an eroticized cruelty that brings her deep pleasure from each sign of his pain. “Oh, I love bound weapons. Don’t you?” She stops and gently rubs the phallic handle of the whip against her cheek, breathing heavily. Her voice becomes like a school teacher telling a fairytale to a group of young children. “This one was a death goddess for this ward. Weak little thing. She screamed and begged as I broke her and bound her into her own spine. She is muuuuch stronger now. Maybe this is what I’ll do to your beloved death goddess. After I take her out for a SPIN!”

The whip lashes across Sky’s face, closing one of his eyes again, this time by splitting the orb like a grape.

Ch6.64 Trust

There are ways to move more quickly around the Insula than via the public portal system. Ways more secret as well. But such speed and secrecy conversely calls attention to those who watch for it, those who set up such pathways in the first place. The Guardia’s unnamed, unacknowledged, unofficial agents, known in the rumormill and to themselves as the ‘off-blues’, have their hidden trails, but to resort to those methods, while secret from the masses of gods and mortals and other inhabitants of the Insula, would bring much-unwanted attention.

And Somrak has called too much attention down upon his head already. After unearthing a double agent within the ranks of the off-blues, a sweet-faced servant of Hell, he was told by the Fencer to stand down, take some time off, and most of all stay away from Three Rats. He thoroughly failed to follow those orders, first obeying an invitation to spend the holidays – well, a mere two hours of the holidays – with his former partner Sky, and Sky’s rapidly gathering circle of family, including a certain snowy-haired sergeant, goddess of death and life, niece of said Fencer and the very reason, he is sure, he was told to stay away.

Alma. Fencer was right – he never should have gone to see her. Just the thought of her is enough to make his heart race, bring warmth to his face, and – being a fire god – set alight random flammables in the general vicinity if he is not careful. It is also apparently enough to shut off his judgement entirely and make him blind as an albino cave cricket. Somrak has been here enough times over the years to know that pursuing her is a terrible idea. And that is even without seeing what was, to everyone but him, diamond-clear: that Alma is already in love with someone else.

And so he kissed her, and oh, she kissed him back, with passion, even, dare he believe it, love. There is something there, it is clear, but her choice is not Somrak. Of course it isn’t. She’d have been a fool to choose him over the charming, smooth, urbane Gwydion, who is, let us not forget, the temporarily embarrassed scion of a wealthy and powerful Archon – an Archon who is, in just one more little facet of the gem that cannot quite be ignored, the patron of the Guardia itself.

That is not fair, he admonishes himself as he steps from the final portal, transferring to Little Falls in the Fourth Ring, in walking distance of portal-less Three Rats. Alma is no gold-digger, no ambitious user. Dion is just…well, look at the guy. And then look at yourself. Moody, scar-faced thug, useful for the Commander’s dirty work and nothing else. Would you be there for her when she needs someone? Would you even know what to say? Be honest: would you make her smile more often than you make her weep?

And yet, she calls and Somrak comes running. Straight from being healed, after a battle he should not have fought, to which he fled following that kiss – that kiss. Oh, that kiss. As painful as the revelation that followed it might have been, he will treasure it all his life.

One god. Eighteen frost giants, each of whom, in terms of raw power, could potentially kill a relatively minor god like Somrak.

Potentially.

SpecOps by now has probably arrived to find the ward liberated, and eighteen very large corpses scattered around the main town – which will be need months of rebuilding to recover from its very messy rescue – and the surrounding evergreen forests. The kills were the result of hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, attacks using traps and unconventional weapons. At least two giants managed to kill each other, though good luck to the investigators in figuring out how they had been tricked into it.

Somrak grins. SpecOps will be grumbling about that little display for years. Would they ever believe that it had been just one off-blue, upset at being rejected by a goddess?

As the Commander had once said nearly a century ago, spattered with blood in the aftermath of a suicidal demon-summoning that had left dead the summoner and nine others, “The most dangerous people are the ones who just don’t care whether they live or die.” What Somrak had taken away from that was, perhaps, not what the Commander had intended.

Please. I need your help. The words had formed in fire before his eyes as he lay in bed, recovering from a simple healing. They were in Alma’s handwriting, appearing just as she was burning the name-card on which she’d written them. It was a way he’d long used for quick-and-easy contact, and he’d left a card with Alma.

Not wanting to be stopped by the Fencer or the Commander or anyone else, Somrak had not done the fastest thing, which would have been to return to headquarters and use the long-range portal projector, or take the backdoor labyrinth of pocket-universe tunnels. Instead, he rushed for the nearest public portal – and just convinced it that he was somebody else. And the same with the next, and the next, changing his identity each time. He’d learned that little trick straight from the Commander, and knows it will be unlikely they will be able to track him.

Though if they really want to punish him for ruining SpecOps’ good time, the Fencer will be able to guess his destination in one try, even without knowing about the message. But that cannot be helped.

And there his destination is before him, across the plaza: Three Rats Station. What is it Alma needs? Something bad has happened, something to make Alma desperate enough to scrawl a vague plea and burn the card without a deeper explanation.

Instead of cutting across the little plaza for the front door, he pauses, then heads around the side of the building. Better to make his presence less obvious, he thinks, than saying hello to all the Popula cops on duty. He worked here for a week not long ago, and anyplace he stays for that long, he’ll find multiple ways in and out of they exist.

The second-floor washroom window is, as usual, slightly open to allow for a good airing of unpleasant odors. And – good luck – no one is using it. Blessing his trim build, he is, after a little squeezing and contorting, inside, then down the hall and at Alma’s office door. He can see the main room of the station below, two cops at their desks. If one of them were to look up now, he would be seen. Worst thing to do is move sneaky – that’ll just attract attention. Silent, but moving like this is his own home, he opens the door without knocking and goes in.

And there is Alma, sitting on the floor, surrounded by boxes of books, clothes, little objects, pictures…a guitar? Somrak, wanting to dwell on the worried look on Alma’s face, finds himself staring at the guitar, the lustrous red-blonde body and geometric inlaid design around the sound hole. It is Sky’s. He glances at the rest. Sky’s, all of it, much of it damaged, broken. Why are these things here? Whatever the reason is, it cannot be good. He feels as if he is in freefall.

“Somrak.” Alma stands up. Her voice is thick with fear. He tears his eyes away from the guitar and other things and takes her in. She looks almost ready to collapse, her face blank with emotional fatigue. And her eyes…their beguiling blue has changed, become pearlescent. It shakes him, makes him wonder for a moment if it is really Alma standing before him. But everything else – her weary stance, her distressed expression, even the slightly below-standard temperature of her body – tells him it is her.

He almost asks her about her eyes, but from what he can see, that is not the reason she summoned him. So instead he asks the question he does not want an answer to, “What is it? What happened to Sky?”

“He has been taken, Somrak. By the necromancer.” She gestures, exhausted and helpless, at the detritus. “With demons. Destroyed his sanctum as well.” She sounds on the edge of breaking down.

There is a voice in his head that says, She needs you! Hold her! But he can feel himself going into what he thinks of as ‘analysis mode’. He straightens, only then noticing the slight slump he’d gone into at her words. His face sets, unreadable, as he thinks furiously.

Sky taken. The necromancer is working with the Whisper. Diabolists. Agents of Hell. If they learn what Sky is, they’ll know he’s valuable. They’ll trade him for power, for closure of contracts, extended lifespan. And all that Sky knows will fall into Hell’s hands.

His voice is crisp and professional. “How do we know it’s the necromancer?”

Alma looks at him strangely, as if she cannot believe he’s reacting so coolly. “A message on the wall. Taunting. Promising to kill him if I called anyone. Besides, the place reeks of its filthy magic.”

That’s it then. The Commander feared this from the beginning. And part of my job was to prevent Sky from falling into Hell’s hands. Now that he has, or is on the verge of it, I have to report it directly to the Commander. And I know what he’ll do. What the Council will compel him to do, to prevent the supreme scandal: that the Guardia has been employing a devil for forty years.

They’ll send in the Sikari. And the Sikari do not do rescue missions. They do sterilizations.

He closes his eyes, clenches his fists, forces his breathing to slow. It’s what I’m supposed to do. But… He opens his eyes and looks at Alma’s face. The loss of Sky, the confusion at Somrak’s reaction. She loves him. Loves him dearly. And not just her. He remembers the party, watching Sky in that cheap red coat and matching silly hat, laughing “Ho ho ho!” for some reason and handing out presents. Merri and Cherry teasing him, but you could see from the way they talked to him that they adored him. Tulip treating him like he was her favorite uncle, sitting on his lap as she showed him her drawings. Kori and Sage talking with Sky like they truly enjoyed it, like they valued his company. And Chime, who barely speaks unless he is singing, smiling up at Sky as the tall god showed him how to play the ‘ukulele he’d given the Bunny for a Year End present. And all the while, Mayumi, nearby, chatting with him here and there, sometimes with others, but always back to Sky, their shared looks speaking of a powerful attraction.

Even before, when Sky was asleep, Somrak had been struck by how everyone in the station mentioned Sky, missing him, hoping he’d be back soon. Who could have imagined that big, broody, silent Tuma-Sukai could blossom here, inspire such attachment? For so long, Sky had been closed off, with only flashes of tenderness toward the injured, the frightened, to speak of what was going on beneath the surface.

Closed off. Like me. And I never even realized how much I’ve grown to like the guy.

He remembers their first meeting, the Commander introducing them, telling him Sky’s real name, his true nature. Somrak had felt revulsion. It had been a given that there would be no warmth between them. Sky was an abomination, a very dangerous tool to be destroyed the moment it was no longer of use. And Somrak’s job was to destroy Sky, to put him down like a rabid pet if he ever showed signs of betrayal, or if he was ever in danger of being captured by Hell.

When the Commander told Somrak that he was sending Sky to Three Rats, that the partnership was being broken up at least for awhile, Somrak had been first shocked, then relieved, then, to his surprise, melancholic. He hadn’t wanted to examine the reasons behind that sadness, and had seized upon relief. Finally he would no longer have that burden.

But what had the burden been, really? Sky? At first, yes, but over time, Somrak realized that the burden was knowing he might have to kill Sky someday. That thought came back to him with every rare smile, with those times he and Sky had laughed together.

Once, after a particularly bad mission, when they had been too late and children had died, Sky had been very silent. He had been crouched, turned away, and when Somrak had knelt to talk to him and call him away, he had seen the tears coursing down Sky’s cheeks. He’d seen Sky angry many times before that, but weeping? A devil, weeping for dead children? Without thinking, Somrak had put his hand on Sky’s shoulder, and the devil had broken, crying freely, shuddering, and Somrak had felt the tears rise to his own eyes.

He feels it now. He blinks rapidly, but one drop escapes and he quickly wipes it away. Rousing himself from these memories, he sees Alma studying his face, her confusion softening to a look of compassion. She steps closer, raising a hand to touch his hair, tracing from over his left eye back to where his ponytail is tied back.

“You haven’t changed it,” she says, her hand coming to rest on the juncture of his neck and shoulder.

It takes him a moment to realize what she means. “Oh, that.” When he had been wounded and poisoned, her phoenix, Starfax, had helped him, and for some reason, whimsy perhaps, had changed a single thin lock of his ebony hair to silver, with just a hint of blue in the right light. “No, I…well, it’s a reminder.”

She moves her hand again, touching the scar that runs across his face, where it twists and touches his mouth, producing a permanent, slight smirk. “Like this?” she asks.

He had told her the scar was a memory of someone. “Yes,” he says after a moment.

So tempting. He wants so badly to take her into his arms, to give her comfort and accept it in turn. But would she welcome that? He hesitates, and the moment ends. Her hand falls away and she crosses her arms, compassion in her eyes but also, perhaps, disappointment.

Somrak clears his throat and says, “The Whisper. They have him, so we’ll need to move quickly.” Running his eyes over the items rescued from Sky’s sanctum, frustration threatening to overpower the false confidence with which his tries to mask his voice, he asks, “Has Dion been examining these things for resonance? Maybe that will give us some hint of where they’re holding him.”

Alma nods at the sofa. “Gwydion is resting.”

Somrak looks and almost laughs. Dion, an arm thrown across his eyes and a blanket nearly covering him, lies asleep on the sofa. He scolds himself, So focused on Alma and Sky that you missed an entire god in the room with you. You’re going to have to be sharper to pull off…what? Just what are you planning to do?

“If it weren’t for him keeping Sky’s sanctum standing for awhile longer, I wouldn’t have managed to get so many of his things out.” Alma sighs, looking at the flotsam of Sky’s life. “Much was lost.”

“We have one tenuous lead,” Somrak says. “Lucky Pete. If we can track him down, maybe we can get a location.”

Alma nods in agreement. “We don’t know when the next demon market will be, however. But our resident criminal community should know where to find him, if they can be bothered to speak to us. Maybe Saira can help.”

As she speaks, Somrak bends to pick up the photo album. The cover is nearly torn off, spine broken, and he has to be careful to keep photos from sliding out. One nearly escapes and he catches it. Color, unlike most of them. A teenaged boy with a round face, kneeling in snow, hugging a dog, both of them caught in a moment of perfect joy. “Let’s ask her.”

“That will mean finding her first.” The voice is Dion’s, out of focus as he rises to a sitting position. Somrak looks at him, sees Dion instinctively touch his hair, smooth it, instantly setting it to perfection. “Saira left the bar after the gift-giving party, I’m told.”

Alma’s eyes widen. “What? But – I wasn’t told Anything. I just thought she was sleeping with one of the Bunnies.” She trails off, clearly dismayed at Saira’s departure and, worse, that she’d failed to notice it for three days. Three days? Somrak thinks. Not quite that.

Dion looks at her steadily, his face unreadable, and his eyes flick momentarily to Somrak and back to her again. Alma glares at Dion defiantly, then looks away from him, frowning. After a moment, Dion says, “You have been…busy. The Bunnies only mention it in whispers.” He turns his gaze to Somrak, and by way of greeting, only says, “Somrak.”

“Dion. You feeling better?” What’s going on between them? Somrak wonders. Something is wrong.

“Considerably, thank you,” Dion answers. “I imagine you already know of our predicament.”

Somrak nods. “I doubt they’ll have left any obvious clues, but I was thinking there might be some clue among the recovered items.” He looks to Alma. “Do you have any way to contact Saira?”

“I imagine her friends Aliyah and Cala will know how,” Alma says. “I will ask.” She turns and, with an air of relief, leaves.

Somrak glances after her, then casts his eyes back to the pile. He feels the muscle in his jaw working, a bad habit, and forces himself to stop it. “Sky, you idiot.” It slips out softly, mournfully. Then louder, he says, “Right…I suppose a matchbook for a restaurant is too much to ask for…” He sets the photo album on Alma’s desk, and squats to pick up a thick leather-bound book.

Dion stands up. “What do you need me to do?”

“Well, that depends. We probably…oh yes, definitely have demon blood here.” He rises and hands the book to Dion, a black, tarry substance splashed across the unrecognizable language of the title. “Tingles, like mild acid. Do you think you could track it?”

“If the owner is on the Insula and not in some pocket universe, I believe so. Give me time to set things up.”

“Let me know if you need me to get any–” Somrak breaks off. “Oh, almost forgot I’m not supposed to be here. Um, I guess I have to stay in this office for now.”

Dion looks at him curiously. “And why are you not supposed to be here?”

Somrak shakes his head. “Cops, always with the questions. I’m supposed to be resting after an operation.” The truth is always easier to remember later. The trick is remembering how much of it you’ve told. He winks at Dion. “Off duty. Let’s just keep this moonlighting between us. Besides, sounds like Sky will pay for it if you bring in help, so I’d better keep a low profile.”

Dion’s eyes narrow further. “And how did you get in here without being seen? I would have woken if you’d used any significant magic.”

“Washroom window should be closed and locked, not left open like it always is.” Somrak grins, his scar pulling it out of true as always, and to change the topic he taps the album of pictures. “Thank the Fates you got this out.”

Looking puzzled, Dion asks, “Important?”

“Probably Sky’s most important possession. Just his people. Family.” Somrak’s voice is softer.

Dion seems to study Somrak for a moment longer, then looks down. “I see. I’m sorry to say my abilities bought us little time to remove Sky’s possessions from his sanctum. It was Alma who chose what to take. I barely know what is in that pile.”

Without looking at Dion, Somrak picks up the one guitar that wasn’t smashed, holding it like he’s seen Sky do only a handful of times in all their years together. He strums his fingers across it once, the sound filling the air. “You ever hear him play?”

“Once only,” Dion says, “at the gift-giving party.”

“He’s good, eh?” Somrak holds it up, horizontally, like a sword, and looks at the god of magic. “Dion, you saved this. You saved all these things, these…connections to his past. Alma couldn’t have done it without you, and you couldn’t have done it without her, so you saved it every bit as much as she did.” He locks eyes with Dion. “Thank you. I mean, I know Sky would thank you. But I do too.”

Dion looks as if he didn’t expect this, but he nods. “He is our friend.”

Somrak turns back to the pile, gently setting the guitar against the side of the desk. “He is,” he says, his voice dark. He picks up an elaborately carved idol, a frightening face, full of sharp teeth, like a cross between human, dragon, and wolf, with big clawed hands, crouched on its haunches, surrounded by skulls, sticky with blood.

“Here, more blood,” Somrak says. His mind is elsewhere, on family, and drifting back to Alma’s changed eyes. He hands the idol over, about to ask Dion about Alma, but catches the scent on his fingers, and realizes that he has just given Dion an idol of Sky in a very stylized version of Sky’s devil form, covered in Sky’s own blood. Sky’s blood when he is in devil form. The smell is distinctive, like how he imagines the Insula-surrounding ocean smells deep down at the point where it fades from water into the chaos of the Void. Too late to take it back.

Dion frowns at it, barely bothering to sniff. Somrak can feel his hair stand on end as the fabric of reality bends ever so slightly to the pull of magic. Yet Gwydion does not seem to be casting a spell of any kind. It must be his sphere, the same one that activated during their fight with the demon, some time ago. “This is not demon blood. This is worse.” He looks at Somrak, visibly grim.

Somrak keeps his voice calm despite the internal panic. “Oh?”

“They have a devil. I’m sure of it.” Dion states at the idol, looking as if he is barely stopping himself from smashing it to pieces.

Wonderful. Sky’s blood in his human-seeming form would not have been detectably different from a human’s, with hints of the divine. But it seems he changed forms during his capture. “That…confirms that it’s the one we’ve labelled ‘The Lieutenant’ heading up this group. Few sorcerers have the ability to summon devils. Or the temerity.”

Dion looks up at him. “We need help from higher powers. Demons, we can defeat. Devils…”

Somrak shakes his head. “Alma took a big risk calling me in. Contacting anyone else…it’s dangerous. We need to keep this to just the three of us. I’ve faced a devil before, alongside Sky. And I saw you against that demon. You can handle it, Dion.”

He wants to be open. He wants to say, If we call in the big guns, they’re going to call in the bigger guns, and we’re going to be left watching while the Whisper, and Sky, are wiped out. But if I tell you that, I have to tell you why. And that is Sky’s secret. And the Commander’s.

Dion frowns, but he says nothing.

There is a knock on the door, and Alma walks in. “I know how to contact Saira. It’s not far.”

Somrak’s mind is racing. Come on, it’s time to decide what to do. “Do you know how long she’s likely to take to reply?”

“I will give her until tomorrow,” Alma says, barely looking at Gwydion. “Nothing more we can do in the meantime than go over what we already know, anyway.”

Somrak gestures to the pile. “You did good, Alma. And you’re doing good. We will find him.”

She gives him a small smile. “I have to take care of my harvests. I’ll return after that.”

Somrak nods, knowing enough about the Death Clan to understand that souls cannot wait, and that keeping things normal for now is a good idea. “I…had better find someplace to stay. Someplace anonymous.”

Alma says drily, “May I suggest the Singing Cockroach? Gwydion knows where it is.”

This prompts a grimace from Dion. “Yes. I can take you there.”

Somrak is again struck by the chasm that seems to have grown between the two. Whatever has happened, he hopes it will be bridged soon. They deserve their life, together or apart. And the likelihood of survival is slim, so slim. The Whisper are smart, and careful, and any juicy flies that find their way into their web will be wrapped up and drained. But if, with Alma and Dion’s help, Somrak can find where Sky is being held, then he will leave them behind, get in…and create enough chaos that Sky can escape.

He is loved. He has family. And what good would it be to drag that family in, to the deaths of some or all of them? If there’s any chance to get Sky out, I’ll get him out. Doesn’t matter whether I’m with him. And if there’s no way out, at least he’ll have company at the end.

They will be angry at Somrak, but who isn’t these days? One more lie, one more disappointment – but they will live. He’ll make sure of that. “Sounds good,” he says aloud. He looks Dion up and down. “I don’t think you’re going to fit through that little window. We got another way out of here?”

With a gesture, Gwydion opens a golden portal and gestures for Somrak to step through. “After you.”

Somrak smiles. “Traveling in style.” He looks at Alma, sees the misery lurking in her eyes, the tremulous smile on her face. “We’ll find him,” he promises. And thinks of all the promises he has broken. He turns and steps through.

Ch6.63 Trust

Dion leaves his room, tired of his own company for the moment. He has not slept, even after the work shift that followed the busy night spent aboard Niruí’s lunar barge. His body would have welcomed the rest. And his mind, the part of it that is crushed under the weight of his misery, would have welcomed it too. But the voices in his head have been relentlessly awake all day and all night. They have haunted and beaten him with his own words, his mistakes, his hypocrisy and double standards. And with the memories of what he had with Alma and no longer has. With the worry he feels for knowing she is sick with a new sphere but knowing no more than that and being helpless to aid her. To care for her…

Curséd Somrak and his roguish charm, his sweet-talking and his lips that go around kissing other people’s lovers. He had no business trying to steal Alma away. Except that he could not have known that Alma was Dion’s because even Dion had not had the certainty of spirit and heart to tell her that their temporary affair of shared solace and unattached pleasure had quickly become everything but temporary or unattached to him and to make their relationship known to all. Maybe…maybe because even he had not expected the pain he feels right now, the guilt and helplessness at thinking that it was he who threw it all out of the window. Alma had not been stolen away; she had told Somrak about Dion and how much she cared for the magic god. She had spent that night in Dion’s arms when she had been free to pursue any and all desires. Like he is. Because that is the deal.

Fates, he is such an idiot!

He leaves the kitchen, glad that the Bunny bartenders are nowhere to be seen. He can still hear Cherry’s voice calling to him, telling him it’s all a misunderstanding – if only he’d listened, unlocked the door. What will he do now to fix things and stop his aching heart from shrinking into nothingness?

He walks swiftly toward the door and opens it, thinking himself safe from Bunny advice, so distracted that he nearly rams into Sage, who was just about to walk in. The Bunny jumps aside to avoid him, looking at Dion with sincere concern for a moment. But something in the god’s expression keeps Sage from asking the question imprinted in his eyes.

“Excuse me, Sage,” Dion bids, trying to move past the Bunny.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I wasn’t paying attention,” Sage replies, taking the blame for himself and smiling softly at Dion while doing it. His expression darkens with sudden concern. “And… I was actually hoping to find you. I don’t want to bother but…”

Dion exhales deeply, mentally preparing for a conversation he does not want to have about his romantic mistakes, especially with his lover’s son. “What is it?”

“Well, I was wondering if you know where Sky is or why he is so late to his shift,” Sage says. “No one has seen or heard of him since he left with Mother. She returned but,” the Bunny shrugs “he didn’t.”

The question surprises Dion. It comes as a relief at first but then the possible meanings of it register and leave the god hoping against the worst. “Well…I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Have you asked Alma yet?”

“I was going to but I found her fast asleep in the office and I didn’t want to wake her. Her brother did say to let her rest.” The Bunny looks worried at this, making Dion worry again about the goddess’ condition. “He said she was unfit for duty, apparently. Not that that stopped her from going out…” He shakes his head in resigned frustration. “I thought it would be best to ask you first since it might avoid having to wake her up. I guess I’ll just have to go and do so.”

Dion considers this. “I only know the general location of Sky’s apartment, and how much of a tangle that area is. I suppose she will have to be asked.”

He hesitates to make a decision, then curses himself for his cowardice. What is he going to do, hide forever and never speak to her again? “I will wake her.”

“I can do it if you want…” Sage offers in soft tones.

Dion looks into the Bunny’s eyes with sad gratitude, but shakes his head. “I will take care of it.”

“Thank you,” Sage nods with a small smile. He moves to let Dion through, adding as if in afterthought. “Oh…her brother also said she might be a little off-center. Her new sphere and all.”

He shrugs apologetically and turns to enter the bar. Dion watches him disappear behind the door and sighs quietly. Time to check on the good Inspector’s wanderings.

He enters the station, careful to check Sky’s office just in case the god has meanwhile decided to arrive, before climbing the stairs to the office he shares with Alma. He steels himself before entering. He does not want to inflict his presence on her. He would rather let the sharp wound of their argument scab over, avoid the pain, not only for himself but for her as well, even more. But finally he opens the door and steps through.

He enters quietly to find her asleep on the sofa, a blanket put over her and already half kicked off, folders and sheets of paper lying over her and littering the floor, letting him know what she was doing before she fell asleep. She sleeps profoundly, belly up, face turned to the sofa’s back, hair falling messily over her face. Her closed eyes move quickly under her eyelids, her brow furrowing fleetingly at some stranger turn of a dream only to relax again the next instant.

He looks at her, tenderness overtaking him before guilt and loss return. She looks so beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful for looking so vulnerable, so at the reach of his touch, his caress, the loving kisses with which he would normally gently rouse her from sleep’s embrace. His peace, his bliss, his comfort, his – his love, yes, the love he had vowed to himself never to give away again, lies in her on that sofa and there is nothing he wants more than to join her and have them back. But he has made that impossible. And he has no desire to wake her, but…this could be serious. The more he thinks of it, the more he worries.

He clears his throat. “Alma?”

She does not open her eyes, instead mumbling in her sleep, “Hmmm…I’ll be right there, Sage…” Turning to lie on her side, snuggling with a folder from which the paper files have already slipped onto the cushions, she adds, “Five more minutes…”

Adorable… So adorable. His hand reaches out to stroke her hair away from her face so he can kiss her cool, soft cheek – no. No, he mustn’t. Dion swallows and purses his lips at the bittersweet taste of his own longing. His hand retracts before even grazing her form.

“Alma – Alma, wake up,” he calls to her a little louder. “I need you to wake up.”

The goddess frowns and turns toward him, her lips parting in a yawn that she is too sleepy and slow to cover with her hand. Instead, she rubs sleep from one eye and stretches lazily, her slender body arching in the gentle curve that, any other day, would have Dion running a lustful hand over her side and stealing the first soft kiss of the morning. Her eyes open slowly, their strange, swirling, glowing colors capturing the god’s wonder and concern as they focus on him. What he would give to know what consequences this new look entails…

She is silent for a moment, gazing at him with a slightly puzzled and awed expression before sadness pours into her features. “What do you want?”

His heart sinks at the change. And knowing he is to blame for it only makes the pain stab deeper. “Perhaps it’s nothing. Do you know where Sky is?”

Alma looks over Dion’s shoulder, at the only window in their office. “At this hour? Probably going home to sleep? How should I know, I’ve been in here since I came in.” Her eyes narrow and she sighs in tired exasperation. “What’s this about, Gwydion? Why all the questions? If you are looking to continue yesterday’s argument…”

He raises a hand to stop that fight from even starting. “No…no. It just seems no one here has seen him since he left with you this morning.”

“I – I thought he’d be in by now,” Alma says, looking as if she is trying to process the information. “I left him at his apartment getting ready for his shift. Are you sure he didn’t just slip in and then out again?”

Dion feels himself blanch at the thought of Alma and Sky together in the Inspector’s apartment but pushes through the mental pictures forming behind his orbits. “I-I suppose that is possible, but it would be unlike him not to let the ranking Popula officer know that he was going out. And I checked his office myself. No sign of him at all.”

She shakes her head. “He was just fine… We went out to check a lead about a rogue death god in Little Falls. Found him in an abandoned house, asked him about my cousin– Sky tried to capture him but he was too powerful.”

“So he was not apprehended?” Dion asks.

Alma shakes her head. “No. Sky apparently has a history with him and rushed to attack. Bastard slipped right through us with a drunkenness and love spell. Cuffed us to each other and took the key. We went to Sky’s apartment for a key and…”

Her voice trails off. Her eyes turn to the floor as her hand rises slowly to cover her mouth and a terrible ominous, sinking feeling hits Dion. His blood runs cold through his heart as he kneels by the sofa and asks in as soft and steady a voice as he can muster, “What happened, Alma?”

“A love spell happened, Gwydion.” Her words cut through him as if he had cast the spell himself. The loathing in her voice is almost unbearable. She looks away from him, her expression locked in coldness. “But Sky caught it before it got too far.” Her features darken with anger and she shoots upright. “And why should you care other than to throw another accusation–?”

Her pale face blanches even further as soon as she stands and she nearly falls back down at some sudden wave of weakness before Dion stands and puts his arms around her to support her. He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t force touch like this or hold her so closely on such a limping excuse but he can’t help himself. Rape. The one he loves, whose body he has held and dreamt of exploring to its hiddenmost depths so many times, refraining from his desire to the greater good and safety of all, has just described something very close to rape. For love spells remove one’s control over choice and desire, and prey on attraction or affection to strengthen them, blurring and tainting the lines of reason and sentiment. To have someone take away from her what she would not give him, her lover, at the best of times for fear of the consequences… He hopes she is telling the truth about Sky breaking the spell in time to prevent the worst.

He holds her, ready to beg for her forgiveness, to tell her exactly how big an idiot he is and swear to her again that he has never cast a love spell outside of a defensive tactic to confuse an opponent. She is even allowing him to hold her, her hands on his chest, frozen in place as if waiting, waiting for him to just say the words that will make it all all right again. All he has to do is speak.

“Alma…” he starts.

But something happens. She stiffens in his arms and pushes away, not with strength or urgency but firmly enough to make him release his hold, lower his arms.

“I should go check Sky’s apartment,” she says quietly, not looking at him. “If this god followed us there…”

His gut contorts in a celtic knot at the rejection, the reminder that he is to blame for their shared pain and cannot so easily erase his mistakes, his betrayal to their relationship. He nods but says, “You should not go alone. Not with a rogue death god or a necromancer out there. I will accompany you.”

Alma looks as if she is about to protest but then nods acquiescence. “His apartment has a portal to a pocket universe so it might take some magic to get through.” She walks over to her desk and reaches for her sword. “I just hope I can find his building at night.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

It is a silent walk, the one that takes them through the streets of Three Rats and in the direction of the tangle of alleyways and clashing roads where Sky’s apartment is located. Dion spends most of it in silence, stealing only the occasional, reluctant and worried glance at Alma, wanting to ask a thousand questions but fearing her anger and, most of all, her rejection. She walks with her eyes fixed on the space directly in front of her, the lines of her jaw and brow moving through concern, anger, fear…sadness. He can tell she is not at the top of her physical well-being, her usually firm posture wavering every two or three steps, her steps sometimes sounding off cadence. Whatever energy fuels her movements is doing so through sheer anger or force of will. And that only worries him further. The prospect of a possible enemy to face.

He decides to use that to try and break the silence. “This death god…Does he have any vulnerabilities we can take advantage of?”

Alma remains quiet for a moment that seems to stretch into eternity. And then she sighs and shakes her head, looking down in helplessness. “I don’t know. Sky attacked him before I could find any.”

“So he is no one you know?” Dion asks.

Again, she shakes her head. “Sky called him Sam. Said something about having met him outside the Insula, about Sam having betrayed him and his friends. A confusing story but… if he is to blame for Sky’s absence, we will have a hard time with him. He is far older than I and though he does know my father, he definitely does not observe Clan rules.”

Lovely… “Could he be responsible for your cousin’s disappearance?”

Alma breathes deeply. “He says he isn’t.” She spares Dion a cynical, skeptical look before stopping and scanning the street they have just arrived in. “His apartment is over here somewhere.” She closes and rubs her eyes, shaking her head violently in sudden frustration. “Blasted sphere, I can’t even see properly! We’re looking for a building with a mural of jungle flowers and animals on the side. Can you see it?”

Dion hesitates in leaving her alone in the middle of the street but he vaguely remembers seeing something like what she is describing down the street we just passed. “Give me a minute.”

He rushes back down the street to check that he really did see a colorfully painted wall just around a corner to his left before calling her to follow him.

She rolls her eyes and trudges in his direction, muttering. “Sky, you are moving to the station…”

He refrains from chuckling as they walk toward the building and stop just before a flight of stairs.

“Up the stairs,” Alma says. “First floor.”

Dion heads up the stairs, grimacing when the board of the third step sags and opens in two as if it were fractured already and just held in a normal-like position by the pressure of the nails keeping each end of the broken board pinned in place. He unhooks his shoe and casts a simple restoring spell to fix the step before signalling Alma to follow him. He catches her looking down at the step as if she holds a grudge against it and wonders if she already knew the thing was broken and decided not to say anything. On reaching the door, he knocks and waits, tries the knob at the lack of an answer from within. The knob catches. The door is locked. He glances back at Alma to find her with her sword unsheathed, ready for the worst. She nods at him and he nods back before knocking again, already whispering the words of a small spell to unlock the door. Childishly easy. It leaves him wondering how a god, one of the Guardia Dei, no less, can have an apartment in such a rundown area of the ward, away from the station, at the mercy of local gangs, and still not invest in some proper security for his home.

He will have to speak to Sky about that once they find him. They walk into the darkness of a moonless night filtering through the few windows in the apartment. Dion summons a couple of luminaries to light their steps. He immediately notices the absence of furniture. Chairs, sofa, not even a table to sit at. Sky’s barren apartment makes a joke out of such military concepts as Spartan living! Where was he sleeping? Dion’s head turns toward a wall. A sense of power coming from it triggers his senses, a thinner patch of reality imbedded into the wall. He walks toward it to inspect it closer.

“Someone came in here,” Alma notes, her voice coming from a little way away. “Several someones. The dust has been disturbed all over the place and there are several sets of footprints on the floor.”

“Probably the one good thing about bad housekeeping,” Dion replies absently, looking at the smudges on the wall where he can sense the portal is. “There is a portal here.”

Smears of blood on the wall. They look random at first as if a bloodied hand or shoulder had just scraped against it but closer inspection reveals faint patterns. Sigils, most likely. An acrid tinge to the air makes him move closer and sniff at the blood marks. Demon blood. Infera aura. And a third component that he cannot quite pinpoint, probably the activation ingredient to power the spell. He grimaces.

“This doesn’t look good…” he breathes, straightening back.

Alma is suddenly by his side, standing close enough to him that her familiar, lovely scent wafts faintly into his nostrils, overwhelming his magical senses for a moment, making him forget for a moment where his train of thought was going. But he looks into her worried eyes and the darkness returns to his mind.

“The portal is to his sanctum. A pocket universe, like yours.” She looks at the blood marks on the wall and takes a whiff at them as well and grimaces. “This isn’t god’s blood. Or human’s.”

Dion nods. “Demons.”

He puts a hand on the wall, wondering if this crude spell has truly managed to override the locking spells incorporated into the standard portal to a pocket universe. There is a sense of corruption, of Hellish presence to the portal and almost immediately, he knows that the portal has been breached. He infuses his power into the portal, his hand glowing with the gold of his eyes as lines are drawn on the wall, highlighting the limits of Sky’s pocket universe door. The wall within the lines distorts and fades into a haze, ready to allow them inside.

Feeling his blood curdle at what such an easy break-in – along with the deafening silence coming from inside the newly revealed apartment – entails, Dion looks at Alma before entering the portal, senses and reflexes at the ready.

What lies beyond is a spectacle of horror to the senses. A room, cave-like and simply but lovingly adorned, lies in ruins. The floor is littered with fallen books, broken things. A low, irregular wooden table is shattered as if cut through with an axe. A sofa torn as if it has been made to explode from the inside out. Shelves tumbled, knicknacks fallen to pieces. Paintings and carvings and musical instruments either ripped from the wall and smashed against something solid or seemingly punched through. The walls, covered in a papery cloth material, are scored with claw marks. Blood is splattered everywhere and smeared in symbols on one of the walls. Dion recognizes the symbols from Alma’s books, the Death Clan’s own language that he has asked her to teach him and which has proven more difficult to learn than most wizardly languages recorded. He shudders at the thought that this may very well have been the work of that rogue death god from Little Falls and of what he could have done and chose not to do while Alma was still here.

The feeling of his foot hitting something makes him look down. A small wooden box, intricately carved with a spiral and rosette motif lies open, its contents spilled all over the floor. Cards. Name cards, white with just a few exotic-looking letters painted in black. Just like the one Tulip had been playing with in the bar. Somrak. He leans down and picks up one, grimacing at the claw marks that scar the apartment floor. Just under the painted letters, a scribbled message in Sky’s handwriting. Another card holds a different message as if they had all been pre-written to use when convenient. And all of them words of alarm… An emergency communication system of some sort.

Dion sighs and shakes his head, thinking he has been feeling like a fool all too often lately. He straightens to see Alma staring at the message painted on the wall. She stands as if frozen, eyes fixed on the bloody words. And then suddenly, furiously, she bellows a word in her family’s language that can only be a curse because it makes the light in here dim and almost wink out completely before returning back to normal. He freezes at it, his body paralyzed for just that short instant. And his mind wonders in uneasy awe at how the beautiful, entrancing words she had once or twice breathed sweetly in his ear at his own request can belong to the same language that, if bellowed in rage, can freeze his blood and kill the light so.

“What–” he swallows his unease and regains composure. “What does it say? It is the death god, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” Alma says, her voice dry, sepulchral. “I doubt he would be so poor with his writing. This was written by someone who knows just enough of our language for spellcasting.”

Dion grimaces. “The necromancer, then.”

“The necromancer,” Alma agrees with a nod. She points at the words as she reads them. “We. Game. Play. No. High. Aid. He. Dead. Wait. I. You.”

Dion considers this. “We’ll play a game. No help from above or he dies. I’m waiting for you. Is that it?”

Alma sighs. “Seems so.” She looks around. “We’ll have to go through all of this for clues as to where he might have been taken.”

“We might not have enough time to do that,” Dion notes. A subtle sagging, melting feeling to the wall on which the message is written makes him inspect it closer. And then another wall. And the floor. And the full space of this room they are in. Oh no… “This universe has been corrupted. It is collapsing, as if its owner has been gone for months rather than hours. Worse – it is being actively eaten away at.”

He tries to keep his voice steady but he cannot completely erase the horror from it. Whatever happened in here, Hellish corruption has spread and infected the place, corroding it like some flesh-eating bug tearing away at a still-living body.

“Is there anything we can do?” Alma asks sounding every bit as frightened as she looks. “We need time to investigate. And to get Sky’s things out of here.”

Dion rushes through his mental library of memorized spells, his knowledge of the books on demonology and Hellish theory that he has been reading lately. “I will try to slow the contagion. Perhaps I can stop it. Or at least buy us some time.”

Alma nods, expression hardening. “What do you need?”

“I will manage with my magic, but it will require concentration,” he replies. “Maybe it would be best to start taking his things out of this place. Just to be on the safe side. If you need me to examine anything or the like, just…attract my attention gently. I don’t want my magic to collapse this place instead of holding it up.”

“I will take a look around and then start getting things out into the other apartment, then,” Alma says. “In the meantime, pretend I’m not here.”

Dion nods, and goes to stand in the center of the room. He glances around him once more before activating his magic.

Sky, what have they done to you?

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Ugh…”

He struggles against the weight of his eyelids, sealed shut against whatever is going on outside. The throbbing headache currently marching from somewhere in the region of his hindbrain to storm through his frontal lobes isn’t making things easier either. On the one hand, the pain is a good sign. It means he is still alive. On the other hand, death would probably be a much more pleasant alternative to the thundering, metaphorical gallop of the whole cavalry section of the Guardia Dei (composed mainly by centaurs, minotaurs and other suchlike heavy-footed, foul-humored creatures) going on behind his eyeballs. If only death weren’t so permanent…

Which reminds him, wasn’t he with Alma just moments before – moments? How long has it been since he passed out? Anyway, she was with him before he…

He fell. No, he threw himself. Against her. He tackled her to get her through the portal. Out of Sky’s pocket-universe apartment. Because his efforts were in vain and the infection was spreading faster than he could even detect it and the whole thing was collapsing on them. He had shouted for her to leave but she had insisted on taking just one more item out and then she had returned to make sure he left as well and that was right when he had been flying out of the room and into the empty apartment, onto the wooden boards. Has he hit his head?

The pain on the inside of his skull makes it hard to tell. He seems to remember a sudden, strong exhalation by his ear, right before the world went black, the sound of a ribcage being robbed of air. He raises a hand, reaches to touch the back of his head. No blood, no lacerations, no tenderness. Must not have been him to hit the floor first. Which means…uh oh…

He opens his eyes slowly, fighting with every twitch of his facial muscles against the intense gravity currently pressing against his eyelids. He groans at the light. It is soft light, probably the just the first hint of daylight, which nevertheless tells him that he has been out cold for at least half an hour. Not good. Not good at all. A smell of dust close to his nostrils and the sight of an horizon full of floor boards confirms that he is, for the moment, lying on the floor. His head is slightly raised, though. Something has been wedged under it to serve as a pillow. And there is cloth covering him.

A hint of Dei-blue in the general direction of his forehead and he moves his head from its slightly bent position to look at Alma, sitting on the floor, back against a nearby wall, currently looking at him. He blinks, grimacing at the pain that causes and opens his mouth to speak.

“A–” he swallows. Or at least he tries to. His mouth is as dry as parchment paper. It doesn’t taste much better than that, either.

“You passed out from exhaustion,” Alma explains, her whispered, quiet voice sounding to his hurting mind like a fanfare at band practice. “I already gave you some mana. Do you need more?”

There is something at her feet. A metal bowl of some sort. There is smoke rising from it. Dion catches a whiff of it. Burnt paper? With a hint of incense. Strange.

She puts something down on the floor by her side and rises slowly. A book. Or maybe a photo album. The cover of it is torn and the spine looks broken. Some pages are loose. Dion turns his head to look at her as she comes to kneel by him. She leans down to press her lips against his forehead, a cool, soft touch like the grazing of the wings of a passing butterfly. Not a loving kiss, he notices with sadness. More a reluctant touch, fleeting and restrained. Lasting just enough for her mana to pour into him, placating the angry pounding of the thousand fists of his mana headache. He can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as her energy infuses him and his eyes, half shut as he falls into a shallow trance, glow with the blue-green light of hers, for just an instant, quickly retrieving their usual hazel appearance as her mana binds with his, acquiring Dion’s unique resonance and adding to his depleted reserves. It feels different, somehow, its taste changed, balanced now, neither the bitter sandal of death or the sweet nectar of life depending on which sphere she is calling upon.

He would love to taste it again but now she has straightened and is looking at him with cold concern. “It’s gone, isn’t it? The apartment?”

Dion nods, feeling reluctantly optimistic at the almost complete lack of a pungent feeling of nausea from the movement. “I’m sorry, it was just too far gone. I tried.”

“I know you did,” she replies, looking away at the wall where the portal used to be, shoulders slumping noticeably. She looks back to him. “Can you stand? We should return to the station and get you some more mana.”

Dion struggles to a sitting position and then stands up, shakily at first but she reaches out a hand to help steady him and he finds his balance as soon as the room stops spinning around him.

“Yes,” he says. “And then we need to figure out what on the Insula we are going to do about this.”

Ch6 mid-chapter 4: The Lion and the Phoenix

A young lion once set out on a journey to look for his own pride. He was strong and proud, at the prime of his years and could no longer stay with the family that had watched him grow. It was time he found his own life and forged his own family. And so he did as he must and turned his back on his kin to begin his journey.

He traveled far and wide in search of a new home and a family. But wherever he went, he found none of his kind willing to be his pride and little prey to sustain him. He was chased away by other lions defending their prides, wounded, deprived of food and company. But still, he kept prowling the jungle for a territory of his own.

And when the jungle yielded nothing, he traveled beyond it until he reached the desert. Under the scorching sun, thirsty and famished, he climbed the dunes, desperate for prey and shade. He walked all day and found none. But when the night came, he saw a distant, reddish glimmer on the horizon. His strength renewed by hope, he ran all the way toward the light until it was just a few steps away. Suddenly before him, an oasis stretched, a verdant treeline surrounding a small lake.

Parched, the lion forgot about the light, ran to the water and drank until he could drink no more. And when his belly was full of water, his eyes began to wander to the trees in search of prey, for his dying thirst had sparked his hunger again. He found no animals on the ground but when he looked up, to a lonely, blackened branch just above the water on the other side of the lake, he saw a beautiful, radiant bird with glittering reddish-gold feathers that looked almost ablaze, so brightly colored they were. The lion had no doubt that this was the source of the light he had seen before.

The bird perched calmly on the branch, seemingly ignoring his presence. He quietly walked the margin, moving closer to it, intent on capturing the beautiful creature. Moved as much by hunger as by fascination, the lion could not help but desire this extraordinary prey. And so he sneaked his way through the reeds and the bushes until the bird was within reach. And he pounced.

But the bird had seen him and it took flight just as the lion jumped over the branch. Flapping its long wings, it flew out of reach of the lion, and set him alight, for she was a phoenix and her beautiful feathers were made of spark and flame. The poor lion landed on the grass, suffering horribly at the flames that consumed him, rolling on the ground to try to put them out. But they were divine flame and all he did was spread them to the trees and bushes around him until the whole oasis was ablaze. Maddened by the fire, he jumped in the lake. The flames died but not before all the water had evaporated and the lake was no more. By morning, the oasis was gone. And so was the phoenix.

Again, the lion found himself in the desert and although his belly rumbled with hunger, he roamed all day up dunes and down dunes until the coolness and darkness of night fell around him. Again, he saw a faint, red light in the sky and again he traveled for many hours in its direction. This time, he did not reach a lake and there was no oasis. Instead, he found only the blackened skeleton of a burnt tree and, reclining against it, a female spotted deer. The lion approached it as stealthily as he could and pounced on the recumbent animal. Dehydrated from the desert heat, the deer did not move or try to escape and soon the lion was feasting on his prey.

As he ate, however, he noticed the reddish tinge of a light shining above him. Lifting his eyes to a low hanging branch of the carbonized tree, he saw the fiery bird that had escaped him the night before. His mind inflamed by fury and vengeance, he climbed the tree and leapt to catch the phoenix. But again, the phoenix took flight and her flaming feathers brushed against him and set him on fire. With no water around, the lion roared in pain and rolled desperately in the sand, setting fire to the tree and to what remained of the deer. By the time the flames had died, the tree had crumbled to ash and the deer was carbonized and inedible. Morning dawned and the fire had burned the lion’s mane completely. His fur was gone, his skin now black as coal. And the phoenix had disappeared.

This time, the lion did not travel by day, choosing instead to lie down and nurse his wounds. He waited patiently for the night to come and only then did he rise to prowl the night for the red light he knew must be shining somewhere. He would catch the phoenix, he swore to himself. Even if he died in the flames of its fire, he would catch the bird that so mocked him. He found her in a hollow among the dunes, squatting over a pile of dry twigs and branches, slowly grooming her feathers and plucking from them tiny sparks that she would then spread around her. Impelled by his anger, without a second thought, the lion ran down the dune, his black skin mixing with the night shadows. And pounced.

By the time the phoenix saw him, it was too late. He caught her wings under his mighty paws, pinning her to the sand. She struggled to free herself, again her feathers set him alight but to no avail. He roared in glee as his prey squirmed under his weight.

“You, who have mocked me with your beauty and freedom, fall now under my might.”

The phoenix struggled and in her struggle, her beautiful feathers broke and fell. Her flames died. Her light dimmed. The lion looked down at his prey and was horrified. For the prize he had seen in the beautiful phoenix was no more and under his feet lay instead a pale bird looking at him through dull, dying eyes.

“My death be on you for I cannot live if I cannot be free.”

Moved by these words and by the suffering of the beautiful bird he once coveted and resented, the flaming lion took a step back, releasing the phoenix. With a gentle tap of his muzzle, he rolled her so that she lay on her stomach and then nudged her to take flight.

“Go and live,” he said. “For I gain nothing but regret from taking your life.”

The phoenix lifted her head to the heavens and wrapped her wings around her body, her flames sparking once again into life.

“May blessings find you, great king of the jungle, for the mercy you show tonight,” she said.

And with that, she burned brighter and disappeared in the flame, extinguishing the fire that burned the lion’s blackened skin. Soon, the morning followed and the lion set out again to cross the desert. He walked for many hours, finding nothing but sand, beginning to regret his sparing of the phoenix’s life when her body could have fed him for a day longer. And when the night fell…

The horizon glimmered red. Faithfully, the lion followed the light he knew must lead to the phoenix and arrived at an oasis. No, not an oasis, he realized, but a great jungle on the other side of the desert. His heart overcome by joy, he ran under the cool, green cover of the trees until he found a spring of the purest water. He drank and bathed and played in it, glad to leave the scorching heat of the sun behind him. And when he looked toward the bank, he saw two feline eyes staring back at him. A beautiful lioness, her fur a bright orange color, stood staring at him in fascination.

And it was thus that our young lion finally found a home and a mate. He lived many years in this jungle and had many descendants, who inherited the darkness of his fur in large stripes over the bright orange of their mother’s coat. They were the first tigers.

As for our phoenix…well, he never saw her again but to all of his children he would say, “If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, follow the red light.”

Where anger is power, mercy is wisdom. For true strength lies with the kind and good fortune lies with the strong.