The day has been long. The night, longer. Nighttime is always long in Three Rats, where the massive peak of the Insula looms and blocks the sun for over half of the day’s twenty-four hours, but this night is different. It is not hour and moonlight that bring darkness to the ward, to the world in general. It is grief. Fear. Pain. Constant, unyielding pain, haunting the soul, biting deep beyond flesh, beyond bone. Pain that brings darkness to every thought, an overall difficulty to feed and keep a single positive thought. It steals smile and laughter, light and hope. And to three gods in particular, it rings too close, too loud. And too exhausting.
Dion, Alma and Somrak walk in heavy silence down a hallway indicated to them by Doria. Their rooms are ready, she has told them, and they will be located at the end of this corridor lined with stalagmites, some of which phosphoresce in the gloom of the grotto, lending it a greenish twilight of lichens and geckos and watery reflections from the small pools carved into the walls by condensation and time. Though tired and feeling the whole of his body crying for rest after being made to heal from its deep wounds at incredible speed by Lyria’s power, Dion supports Alma as they walk. Her legs are still not fully responsive, he has already noticed, and something else seems wrong for he has had to grab and pull her toward him twice already, to prevent her from walking into a wall and from hitting her foot against a stalagmite. He worries about what is going on. Perhaps her eyes are not functioning properly or her balance is off. Or perhaps, a terrified little part of him wonders, there are still traces of Nua inside his beloved, trying to make Alma hurt herself.
She holds onto his arm as they enter the chamber that Doria told them to expect, a relatively small room, with five doors opening into it, in addition to the hallway they have just left. In the center of the chamber, a circle of colorful pillows piled chaotically like shells cast ashore by the surf makes for a comfortable sitting area around a suspended table that is no more than a large circular brass tray suspended by four fine chains from the tip of a stalactite that hangs from the ceiling and stretches down to head height. Laid out on the table, are Alma’s sword, her curved dragon-tooth daggers, Saira’s crossbow and Dion’s own little blade, the sgian-dubh dagger given to him by Sky for Year’s End. The magic god finds himself surprised to see it there, considering that all of his other weapons and physical spell elements have disappeared in Margrave’s pocket universe. He feels some momentary relief at not having been particularly attached to any of the items he lost, though the loss of them still stings a little, if only for whose fault it was that they are gone.
The feeling of Alma’s hand squeezing his arm a little tighter than before makes him look at the goddess to see her stiffening, eyes clearly focused on the sword more than they have focused on any other object so far. Fear in her expression. Horror. He places his free hand over hers, reassuring.
“I was worried, that the binding had been partly completed,” Somrak says from a couple of steps to the right of them, his voice quiet, eyes fixed on Alma and filled with concern for her reaction. “I didn’t know what might happen if we left it behind then, but it didn’t seem like a good idea.”
Alma is silent for a moment before replying, “Thank you.” She does not look grateful at all, however, cringing away from the sword as if it might jump off the table of its own accord and attack her.
Shifting slightly to hold her hand and free his arm so it can curl around the goddess, Dion pulls her closer. She leans against him for comfort, her hand reaching to touch his chest, and the memory of Nua’s whip cutting through his flesh on the exact same spot that Alma is now touching flares a momentary stint of doubt that makes him stiffen instinctively. He bites it back, however, forcing himself to believe that Nua is gone, to relax under his lover’s touch, and to hold her as soothingly as he can. To distract his own thoughts, he turns to Somrak and asks, “Somrak…what is a Tragas?”
Silence is his only answer for a moment. Then, “Soul binders… Makers of artifacts from the souls of gods,” Somrak replies, voice grim and dry. “They were wiped out, about a century ago, and all knowledge of them expunged.”
“Then how do you know of them?” Dion insists. “Were you involved in their case?”
The fire god sighs, looking very much as if he would rather have his arms and legs broken than answer the question. Still, he answers. “You could say that. I was…a lackey of theirs. Muscle. It was a job. I was running from my family. When I learned what they were doing I turned on them, became the Guardia’s spy. Commander recruited me from that.”
Nestled in Dion’s arms, Alma looks pained as Somrak tells his story. Dion can only imagine how close the empathy the goddess might feel toward anyone subjected to such a cruel fate is. “Nua must have learned the magic in Hell. Or even before she was killed. My poor cousin…”
He strokes her side, his heart plunging for a moment at the thought of her lost and maddened, imprisoned in her own sword, forever away from him.
“Her soul can be released,” Somrak says. “But it will be permanently damaged.” His voice is flat and somber as he adds, half to himself. “Hell has good reason to spread the knowledge. Mortals armed with weapons that can kill gods. And using them to make even more such weapons and armor and whatever else. Once that snowball rolls enough, it would be unstoppable. Full-on war for supremacy.”
“What is wrong with you, Somrak?” Alma snaps suddenly, pulling away from Dion to glare at the fire god. “Haven’t we suffered enough for one day? Must you be making things grimmer with thoughts like that?” Her voice breaks, the words catching in her throat. “I was…almost…”
Somrak looks down, ashamed and subdued but still he insists on getting his point across. “You weren’t though. And we stopped it getting out into the world. You captured her. All this…it wasn’t just rescuing Sky. Remember that.” He looks up again only to find Alma turning her eyes from him, Dion unable to give him his agreement. The pain is too fresh to consider the good of the world at the moment or to find a silver lining in the veritable earthquake that was Nua. The sight of them makes the fire god exhale and shake his head before he takes the initiative of peeking into one of the rooms opening into the chamber. “Pretty nice for a cave…”
“Forgive me,” Alma’s voice is soft as she turns her head to face Somrak’s back. The fire god faces her at the sound of her words. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just… The world is too much to consider right now.” She pauses. “I think I can relieve Nasheena of her pain, at least.”
Somrak looks at her, his eyes glancing down, Dion notices, to where the magic god’s hand still rests on her side. Is that jealousy that flashes through Somrak’s face? Or just sadness? “Just be careful. She is…dangerous, now.” He looks away, toward the table, pointing at the daggers. “Sky had that one in his hand…” He looks back at them and Dion can see now, clearly, beyond the coolness of the hard-beaten agent and the cynicism of the fighter, just how disturbed and damaged Somrak truly is. “I’m sorry. I should just…I’m saying stupid things.”
“We have all been through too much,” Dion replies, empathizing with the fire god. “You don’t need to be sorry, Somrak.”
“We should take care of each other,” Alma agrees. “Things will not be easy. And you two…”
She trails off, looking from Dion to Somrak. Her eyes fill with grief, shining with a thin film of water that threatens to spill into tears. Of anyone Dion knows, she is the one most capable of seeing the damage inflicted on them, on Sky, on herself. They cannot hide it from her nor deceive her in regards to the depth of their transcendental wounds. Even more than Dion himself can have a notion of how much damage he has sustained, she can see it without even wishing to do so. And whatever she sees is clearly paining her beyond words. He wishes he could somehow reassure her but all he can do is offer her the proximity of his embrace.
“He…picked you both up so carefully,” Somrak half mumbles. “And at the portal, when we couldn’t open it, he put you down like a mother laying down sleeping children. And he turned to fight…”
“Fight what?” Dion asks.
But Somrak offers only a single word by way of answer: “Hell.”
For a moment, Dion thinks about pushing for more details. He can barely remember all that happened after he was freed from the mana-nullifying shackles and a lot more seems to have happened after he lost conscience. But something in the way Somrak shudders almost imperceptibly, diverting his eyes and taking a shaking, half-choked breath, makes him change his mind.
“I brought you there.” Somrak’s voice is nearly imperceptible. “All I could think was how it was all… How you were helpless and I was the one who brought you.”
The stiffening of Alma’s body against Dion’s makes him glance toward the goddess to see her tilting her head up, eyes shut tightly for a moment before opening again and blinking rapidly against tears. “We walked in by our own feet,” she says quietly before looking back at Somrak. “But please…no more of this tonight.”
The pleading tone of her voice seems to finally convince the fire god to quit the grim what ifs and let the issue fall for the moment. “Of course. I’ll just go to bed.”
He turns to walk into his room. With a quick glance at Dion that could very well contend with the most eloquent of speeches, Alma pulls away from him to move closer to Somrak. Dion offers no resistance. He himself is feeling a sharp note of sorrow and empathy for the fire god, on whose shoulders hangs the weight of the decision of walking into Margrave’s lair without help from the higher powers and the burden of guilt for the pain, the trauma and the loss that has befallen them all. Somrak is surprised to find Alma by his side, his face freezing, wide-eyed, at the reaching of her arms to wrap around him. But only for a moment. He holds her in return, tight and silent but for a ragged inhalation catching in his throat.
And with a look at Dion through watery eyes, the fire god reaches out, grabbing him and pulling him closer with a muttered joke of, “Yeah, you’re not getting away without a hug too, Mister Demon Blaster.”
Dion has no strength to chuckle, no reason to smile, but he knows Somrak expects nothing of the sort. Humor is merely a subterfuge to avoid the falling apart that will inevitably have to happen sooner or later. The magic god puts his arms around both Somrak and Alma, warmly, sharing in the short moment of solace.
Until eventually, it ends.
“Rest, Somrak,” Alma says, breaking away from the embrace. “May there be no dreams tonight.”
“I suspect there won’t be,” Somrak replies, likewise letting them go. “You two rest as well. Start recovering.”
And with that, Somrak disappears into his chosen room, the door closing behind him. Dion and Alma find themselves alone with each other and with the weapons laid out on the table like a macabre memorial to a horrible day. The sword, in particular, seems to capture Alma’s attention, and she stares at it with distant, fearful eyes.
Dion hesitates for a moment, not knowing what to say, then reaches to touch her hair, running his fingers through the silver-white locks. “It’s over now. It’s still just a sword.”
“It’s just hovering there all by itself,” Alma half mumbles.
Dion raises an eyebrow at the words. “It is lying on a table, surrounded by your daggers, mine, and Saira’s crossbow. Do you not see those?”
She shakes her head, her voice a whimper. “But I can see it. And I don’t know what it means.”
Dion holds her closely, moving to block her view of the sword. “Shhh… Maybe it’s just an after effect. Maybe it will go away. Maybe your eyes just need a rest.”
She nods against his shoulder. “I am stuck soul-scrying. I miss the old days, when I could just see normally and scrying took effort. Things were much less confusing.”
“I can’t say I don’t miss those beautiful blue eyes you had,” Dion concedes. “But maybe this also means your spheres weren’t damaged.” He kisses her ear, speaking softly. “Do you want me to put the weapons in some other room for now?”
Alma looks at him, and nods. “I just… I can’t stand to see them.”
“I understand. I’m not really enjoying looking at them. Give me a minute.” He releases her and walks toward the table. With a little bit of balancing and awkward gymnastics, he is able to pick up all of the weapons and carry them into the room just beside Somrak’s. It takes him less than a minute to lay them, without much ceremony, on the bed and, with a hesitant, worrying look at Alma’s sword, return to the chamber where the goddess awaits him.
The words die in his throat. For just as he steps into the chamber, two figures appear out of thin air and surround Alma, shielding her from his sight. One dark as the shadows of a moonless night, the other glowing with a soft, strangely distant light, both cloaked and hooded, their faces and bodies hidden from Dion’s sight, they seem to surprise Alma as much as they do Dion, for he hears her gasp just before she disappears between them.
Though there is nothing Hellish about these newcomers, Dion’s aura flares immediately, his sphere screaming for bloody murder against anyone who might dare attack them at their weakest, his mind curling around spells while his muscles open usually collapsed blood vessels to allow for stronger, faster movement. The air becomes instantly charged with the light and scents of his divine power, tasting of salt and iron…and Hell.
The dark hooded figure pulls away from Alma immediately to look at Dion from the depths of its shadowy cloak. Dion cannot see its eyes nor its hands or feet. Just shadow, darkening now and yet glimmering against the natural twilight of the chamber. Its aura flares in a restrained warning that is nonetheless indicative of older and greater power than Dion’s as the cloak opens to reveal an incorporeal hand, little more than the cut-out of a hand appearing in stark contrast against the world around it.
And from behind it, Alma’s reassuring voice rings with an edge of worry. “Gwydion, no. It’s all right. They are my brothers.”
At her words, the dark figure removes its hood to reveal a face that is just as immaterial as its hand. It seems to be completely made of shadows, some lighter, some darker, some narrow and stark, defining the lines of cheekbones and lips, some soft where what should be hair is nothing but a blurry, fading collection of greyish motes. Still, somehow the whole ensemble manages to convey beauty and friendliness, much like the voice attached to it. “Sorry to startle you. I am Imset and that is Luminus.” He points at the glowing hooded figure hovering behind Alma. “We’re Almy’s biggest brothers. You have quite an aura there.”
Understanding takes a moment to settle in. Alma’s brothers. Friendly brothers. Not a threat.
Not a threat…
Slowly, with much effort, Dion brings his aura under control, the golden light fading from his eyes, the sense of impending attack fading away. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, shuddering as he releases the last of his energy and says, “My apologies. We are all a little unsettled.”
As if alerted by Dion’s previous display of power, Somrak opens his bedroom door to look outside, standing at the threshold and looking from the two brothers to Alma to Dion, silently, expectantly. His relaxed frame could very well mean anything from readiness to fight to a simple inquiry for an explanation – and perhaps a hint of disappointment at not having walked straight into a fight.
Possibly trying to prevent any further misunderstandings, Alma speaks up, looking toward her brothers. “Immy, Lum, these are Gwydion, my partner, and Somrak, both of the Guarda Dei.” She looks reassuringly at both Somrak and Dion. “My brothers, Imset and Luminus. The darkness and light at the end of life. Eldest of my father’s sons.”
The magic god cannot help but feel a soft flare of warmth at the way she so easily introduces him as her partner after two months of near-secret romance. For a moment, a possessive instinct makes him want to throw his arms around her and hold her closely in a show of property. But the rational side of him wins over, among other things reasoning that such a move would not sit well with his beloved’s older brothers, and instead finds some comfort in falling into the conventional expectations of politesse. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.”
In reply, the god now identified as Luminus removes his hood to reveal a face in every way similar to Imset’s, his brother, with the simple difference that where the latter is made of dozens of shades of darkness and shadow, the former seems to be made entirely of different tones of light, sometimes vapoury, sometimes almost solid. The facial features are an almost exact copy between the twins, however, and Luminus’ kindness shows through as he nods wordlessly at both Dion and Somrak, who return the greeting in kind.
“Mother told me you were watching over the Bunnies,” Alma says, speaking to Imset. “Has she dismissed you?”
“Yes. No dangers loom that we can sense,” her brother replies. “The poor kids were on edge at the demon attack but they’re bright. They bounce back quickly. Of course, the news had them all distraught but they seem to have calmed down now. Lyria is taking care of them.” Suddenly, impulsively, he embraces Alma again. Taller than his sister, and therefore than both Dion and Somrak, he seems to wrap her in his shadows as he leans to gently hold her. “And we just had to come check on you. Mel told us the gist of things. Oh sister… You look like your soul has been put through the grinder and pulled out the other side by a rabid dog.”
“That’s very much how it feels,” Alma replies, lost somewhere within Imset’s cloak.
Pulling away from her just enough to straighten and turn slightly, Imset looks at Somrak and then at Dion. “And not just yours either.”
The dawning realization that these gods, just like Alma, can see straight through the body and into the soul has Dion feeling uncomfortable. It is a silly thing that he should not have assumed before that any of the Death clan can gaze easily into his innermost core without so much as asking or needing permission, but still the mention of it makes the intrusion impossible to ignore. If he were completely naked, he would not feel any more ill-at-ease than he does now at being reminded that eyes other than Alma’s are gazing at the most intimate part of him.
And perhaps Somrak shares in the same discomfort, because he breaks his silence to say only, “Nice to meet you both. I’ll let you catch up with family.”
Imset looks dismayed for a moment at the sight of Somrak turning and disappearing back into his room. “Oh, I hope I didn’t offend him somehow.”
“He has just been through a great deal,” Alma replies. “I’m sure it was nothing you said.”
Imset nods, still looking at Somrak’s bedroom door. “I hope not. Your children had some very good things to say about him.” He turns to look at Dion. “And about you as well. They were worried about you. And they send their love.”
“We were worried about them too,” Dion replies. “It’s good to know they had friendly faces with them in a time of danger.”
“Yes. Thank you, Immy,” Alma adds, looking at both her brothers. “Lum.”
Imset strokes Alma’s head, the affection binding them clear in the gesture. His voice is soft and pleading when he says, “But Almy, this is no place for you. Not in that condition. Let us take you to our place. Not Father’s home, I know you wouldn’t want to go there. Our own. In the First Ring. Just to rest awhile.”
As if to reinforce Imset’s invitation, Luminus touches Alma’s shoulder, making the goddess look back at him. He hasn’t spoken a single word yet, Dion realizes, nor does Alma seem to find this strange. The light-spawn god seems to communicate solely by visual cues, exuding a quiet, serene tolerance while Imset, chatty and more impulsive, takes the reigns of conversation. An interesting dynamic for a set of twins.
Alma looks at both of them sadly and shakes her head before gently releasing herself from their touch and taking the few steps separating her from Dion. Reaching to take his hand, which the god offers her immediately, she leans against his shoulder. “No, Immy. I appreciate the offer but…I’m where I need to be.”
Squeezing her hand, Dion adds, “Thank you for that message from the Bunnies. It is deeply appreciated. But…” He looks at her, almost certainly of what she will say.
“We just need a few hours of nothing much happening to breathe deeply and prepare for what comes next,” she tells her brothers. “We have been away from our friends and family for long enough.”
Imset looks at the two of them, his expression wavering with uncertainty until Luminus’ hand touches his shoulder, making the darker twin turn his head to exchange a meaningful look with his brother. A whole conversation seems to flash, unspoken, between the two before Imset turns to face Alma again. “Well… I understand. Of course, it was just for a breath of fresh air. You are our little sister; of course we are going to worry. No matter how big and strong you get.”
And with that, Imset hovers closer to his sister, to place a shadowy hand on Alma’s cheek. Near him for the first time, Dion can now feel the coolness that Imset emanates, a shared feature of the death gods he knows. “If you need anything, just call. Don’t let Mel have all the fun,” the shadow god says before pressing an immaterial cheek against his sister’s. Dion has to strain to make out the words Imset whispers in Alma’s ear. “They are amazing. We’ll definitely come by for a visit one of these days and check on all of you.”
“You’ll be welcome anytime you decide to do so,” Alma replies, her lower lip trembling slightly.
With a kiss to her cheek and a whisper of “My brave little sister…” Imset pulls away and looks at Dion. “If anything happens that you can’t or don’t know how to deal with, call us. We’ll come. And…take care of her, please.”
Dion nods his assent, his reply a solemn oath. “I will.” Releasing Alma’s hand to drape his arm around her back, he adds. “Thank you. I hope we can get to know one another better, when things are…”
He trails off, words evading him. All he can do is gesture vaguely, helplessly with his free hand, the pain in his soul claiming too much of his attention, too much of his focus to allow for extensive conversation. He grimaces at a sudden flare of undeniable agony, hoping Imset will not interpret it as offensive.
The god smiles kindly at him, however. “You mean, not so strange?” He shrugs and puts a friendly hand on Dion’s shoulder. “I do hope I get to know the infamous Gwydion a bit better next time.”
The mention of his so-called fame makes Dion grimace. “I hope my fame is all you have against me.”
For a moment, Imset seems confused and Dion fears the worst. But soon, Imset is grinning and turning to Alma. “Oh, I don’t know. Do I have anything against him?”
The goddess manages a smile that is clearly strained, even though the look of affection she bestows on Dion is sincere and warm. She puts both of her arms around him, saying, “No… You love him.”
The words are soft, tender. Dion can’t help but hold her closer and reach to cup her cheek, bringing her head closer so he can kiss her temple before resting his head against hers. It is still a strange sensation to be so openly affectionate in the presence of others but the truth is that the little display seems to leave Imset immensely pleased. “Yes, I thought so,” the death god says, looking at Dion with approval. “Anyway, welcome to the family if no one else has had the chance to say it.”
Dion nods a thank you at him, letting Alma pull away for a moment to accept a kiss to the forehead from Luminus. The light god, whose presence is just as cool in spite of his gentle glow, touches Dion’s arm and smiles at him just as kindly as Imset did, in a way that seems to say, “It will be all right.”
Dion touches Luminus’ arm in return, half surprised to feel solidity against his fingertips. Although at first he was unsure about these two new acquaintances – indeed, he was on the verge of attempting to obliterate them when they took him by surprise – now he does long to make his words truth, and get to know them well. Unlike Melinor, for whom Dion is beginning to develop a sort of quiet admiration but whose blunt and grim ways are unwelcoming of closer contact, Luminus and Imset are sincere and kind in their love for their sister as well as their approach to people. If they are truly the embodiment of the sensations found at the end of life, then they are also the proof of that most idiosyncratic of beliefs of mortals: that death can be kind.
Even though it might not have the best timing. With great effort, he summons a smile for them both, straining to ignore the spiritual pain that slashes through him, echoes of the whipping he took mere hours ago. Thankfully, the twins do not force him to keep it on for long, vanishing instead with a final wave of their hands.
Alma turns to look at him apologetically. “I’m sorry… They are very friendly but… they never really mastered the art of announcing themselves first.”
“I’m glad to have met them,” Dion replies, shaking his head. “I’m sorry for my initial reaction. For a moment I thought that things were not really over.”
“I know,” Alma breathes, reaching to take his hand. “Let us get to bed. Before the rest of the world decides to drop by for a visit.”
The suggestion is very much music to Dion’s ears. He cannot think of anything he wants more than to lie down and forget the world exists until the morning forces him awake. He would gratefully sleep for a month if he were allowed the luxury. Holding Alma’s hand, he guides her into one of the vacant rooms, making sure she does not stub her toes, barefoot as they both are, or her arms anywhere on their way to the bed. She sits but does not lie down, however, instead looking at him with worry in her eyes.
“Listen, I…” she starts but trails off. Looking down, she takes a deep breath before saying, “I’ll leave you alone if you need time. After what you’ve been through, I would understand.”
His eyes widen in shock at the offer. “No! No, I don’t want to be alone,” he replies, sitting beside her on the bed. “Maybe, with you beside me, I can sleep. I know that if you weren’t, I… I almost…” He breaks off and puts his arms around her, holding her tightly, not willing to put what almost happened, how very close he came to losing her, into words. “I need you to stay. I need you to stay and just be yourself. Help me forget that horrible smile on your lips.”
And yet the flash of fear of hearing Nua’s satiric voice reply to his plea makes his body freeze, the memory of her smile appearing before his eyes as if summoned by his words. It takes him the whole of his self-control not to pull away.
“I saw it…” Alma’s voice is barely above a breath as she holds him back just as tightly. “Not all of it. I saw her hurting you. And I was so…helpless.” She hides her face against his bare shoulder and he can feel the wetness there, of her tears rolling down his skin. “I couldn’t do anything, I was trapped in that other body. She laughed when she showed me. All she had done. To you and Somrak and Sky and – She was going to steal you all from me.”
By the end of it, she is sobbing, her body shaking with the convulsions of deep, choking crying. He holds her, letting her cry, feeling his own eyes well up with tears. Knowing her in pain, the sight and sound of her suffering ringing against his senses, is nearly unbearable. And still, it too is proof that she is no impostor.
His cheek against hers, he whispers soothing words in her ear. “You are here, with me. We are together. This is no dream, no nightmare. She’ll have the fate she deserves and we will find our way out of all this grief.”
He can barely sound convincing to his own ears but Alma still nods against his shoulder. “I just want to stop crying. I’m usually not one for crying.”
“I’d rather have you crying than silent,” Dion says, stroking her hair. “Come on, lie down now.”
She pulls away a little and nods again. Dion rises to allow her to pull her legs up onto the bed, watching as she slips under the pale green linen sheets, fully dressed, and out of reflex drapes her arms protectively around herself as if she were cold. He follows, lying down, carefully moving one arm so it slips under her neck, the other wrapping over her side, both pulling her closer to him until their bodies lie full length against each other.
She resists weakly at first but finally snuggles in his embrace, looking a question at him. “How…?” Her voice is wet with the tears that still run down her face. “How can you still hold me after all that? The things this body has done to you – I feel so…so repulsive in it!”
She tries to roll away from him, her hands reaching to cover her face in shame. He just tightens his hold of her, silent for a moment. How can he still hold her after all that? But then, how can he not? When she is solace and warmth and love to him? How painful would it be to lie in bed alone tonight, dreaming of horrible things, without the touch of his beloved, her scent in his nostrils like a balm to the mind? When even as memories of his torture spark, the body that caused him pain also brings him relief?
“I knew all along that it wasn’t you,” he says eventually. “I didn’t want to believe it at first and then I thought…I hoped you were still in there…somewhere. But then she whipped me and I knew–” His voice catches, his eyes start feeling wet. “I knew you weren’t. You would never allow her to do something like that. And I thought…” He holds her tighter, tears rolling down his eyes in a steady stream as he plunges his nose in her hair. “I don’t want to say it. I never want to feel so hopeless again.”
Somehow, she manages to wriggle one hand up through the space between their bodies, to cup his cheek. “I’m here. I promise you, it’s just me now.” She pulls away a little to kiss the bridge of his nose, her head tilting to bring her lips against his.
And it is only when they brush his lips that Melinor’s warning rings in Dion’s ears, making him pull away from her at the last moment. “Your brother warned me… Said it might interfere with your soul reconnecting with your body.”
She pauses, looking at him for a moment. He can see her expression hardening as if coming to a decision. “I risked the Council’s wrath for a night with you. I will risk losing myself in you for a kiss. I need you.”
He gazes into her eyes, torn. He needs her too. So badly. And though he fears any negative consequences, her proximity, his pain, the way his spirit has been crushed and his heart broken too many times today, all of it makes him long for her more than fear can keep him away. He swallows his concerns, leans forward and kisses her, basking in the synchrony of their movements, relief spreading as their essences blossom in search of each other. The feel of her is more restrained now, more contained in the physical limits of her body, but still the energy is there, her peace and coolness are there greeting his essence as it whimpers with longing and curls itself against her. For a moment, he is able to forget the cruel expression of Nua wearing Alma’s face as she whips him. For a moment, he can just inhabit that space of relief from care. For a moment.
Such a bittersweet moment… He lays his cheek against hers, his lips whispering of their own accord, “It’s you. It’s you. All of it. It’s all there.”
The words tumble forth, unconnected to conscious thought. Without knowing how, he feels his face drenched, his body jerk with deep, painful sobs. He holds her for dear life, crying as he doesn’t remember crying in over a century, like a child suddenly alone in the world. Like a broken man, robbed of his heart’s desire. He hates himself for crying, even as the tears grown heavier with the collected pain of decades, with all those other times when he should have cried, would have cried, if only he were this free to weep.
Her hand running softly through his hair is barely above a background sensation as he cries himself into a gentle lull. “Remember the first time we kissed?” she asks as he begins to recover control over himself. “Back at Math’s?”
He nods. How he could he not remember? “I remember every kiss. I cherish them all. Oh, Alma, I love you. I love you so much and I was going to let it all be taken away by Hell without ever letting you know it.”
“I already knew it, my love,” she whispers softly. “You did let me know. In so many little ways. And that day you were poisoned… When you were feverish and delirious, of all the things you could have said, you said I was the most important thing in the world to you. How could I not know?”
He pulls away to look at her, shocked at himself for the words he does not remember speaking. But he is grateful for those words. For what they meant to her. To them. He locks eyes with her, searing and serious, forcing himself to say what he has never said sincerely enough, knowingly enough, never for the right reasons or with the right meaning. “I love you.”
His heart stops beating for a moment, his lungs forget to breathe. He hangs, vulnerable, in silent fear, awaiting her reply. The reply he knows she will give but which he fears with terror might be different. Her eyes soften, she smiles a small smile that is an overwhelming relief for being so much one of her own. Her lips part with a heavenly breath of, “And I you.”
Morning underground. In this cave system, there are no windows letting in the light, no birds singing. But a colony of bats does occupy some of the unused chambers, kept from the others by a simple spell, renewed monthly by the half-naiad Doria, that makes them feel uneasy in the ones that she and Nevieve occupy and make use of, simply to prevent their ammoniac droppings from becoming a problem. And so the rush of their ingress, returning from their hunt of moths and mosquitos, accompanied by chirps so high-pitched that only the deepest can be heard, serves as notification that the sun is rising.
Sky, unsleeping, opens his eyes. He listens as Doria, priestess to the Oracle, awakens from half-submerged slumber in a pool and rises, dripping, into the echoing peace of the tunnels and caverns. She goes to a chamber that must be, from the sound of thin metal ringing against stone surface, a kitchen. Ah, there is the sound of water filling a kettle, the flow singing within the hollow steel belly.
His body, still in its hateful devil form, is curled up on blankets laid down for him by Doria last night, before he returned from the connected chamber, Sky’s ‘rage room,’ as he thinks of it, a small cave which Nevieve has said Sky can freely use to attack the stone walls, venting his fury at the torture inflicted on him and his friends. For so long, Sky has controlled his emotions, fighting to keep from revealing what he is. Now he cannot control them for long. It is a process that seemed to begin when he came to Three Rats. He had built walls to keep from getting too close to anyone, but those walls have fallen. Rage, tenderness, love – all of these have blossomed in him like flowers in a desert that has suddenly received a heavy downpour.
Somrak is sleeping against him, using him like a large cushion. When Somrak came in scant hours ago, Sky’s old partner did not speak. He just lay down quietly and soon was asleep. Sky had said nothing as well. He didn’t know what to say. Somrak had been his keeper, potentially his executioner for four decades. Despite a few moments of kindness and shared pain, Somrak had never made such a tender gesture. He had never fallen asleep against Sky even in the devil’s human form, and here he was, curling up against him – after risking everything, even his soul, to rescue him. Sky was and is moved far beyond anywhere words can hope to reach. But he moved a wing to cover Somrak. The fire god seems to have spent his energies so much that he is barely able to keep himself warm.
He hears the voices of Alma and Dion talking quietly in the tunnel leading to this chamber. Sky resists the urge to flee into the shadows, and the urge to call shadows around himself, to hide. He considers this shape to be vile, monstrous. That those he loves will see him like this, have to endure his filthy presence – but there is Somrak, exhausted. How could he wake him?
And so when the Sergeants enter, the see Sky, frozen like a cat-lover with a kitten asleep on his lap, helpless and immobilized. Alma almost laughs, but then looks to Dion, whose forearm muscles tighten as he squeezes her hand. Dion’s face is momentarily that of a mongoose facing a deadly cobra, his hair rising like hackles, his aura almost imperceptibly flaring – but Sky can feel it, the aura of the Devil Hammer, like heat beating against him, the harsh palpable impact of a blazing sun pounding a night animal stranded in the open desert.
Alma touches Dion’s flexed forearm, soothing him, while Sky fights his body’s instinctive reaction to prepare for a deadly duel. His body must shift enough for Somrak to feel, however, because the fire god mutters loudly, as if talking in his sleep, “Can we just accept things are going to be awkward for a little while and then move on?” Somrak sits up and stretches lazily, then scratches his smooth-muscled belly. “If you guys can’t find your way back to being the friends you were, I am going to be really pissed.”
“If there is still a place for anger left in you, then you are the luckiest of us four,” Alma says, her voice filled to the brim with sorrow. “I would rather be angry. Then I wouldn’t feel exhausted. Or numb.” She shakes her head. “This will take a miracle to fix with the higher powers. Weeks, even months of keeping the Bunnies away from here. Who do we call to help? Who will come if we call?” She breathes deeply. “Accepting the reality before my eyes is the least of my problems, Somrak.”
He looks at her for a moment, her sad tone wiping away his defensive sarcasm. “I’ll report back to the Commander after we make our visit to the station, and the bar. I’ll make it clear that I ordered you two not to call for backup because of possible Whisper agents. He’ll know the truth. Anyway, assuming I still have a job, I’ll suss out his plans on what to do about Sky. If he orders me to…you know…I’ll come here and take Sky off the Insula.” He turns his head to look at Sky’s wolfish face. “I’m not going to be your executioner. If it comes to that, we’ll go renegade together. Pretty sure the Commander will give me time to make that happen.”
Dion shakes his head as if trying to banish the divine sphere that has so recently awakened within him. “What is it with you off-blues and your dreams of fleeing the Insula? I don’t think we will be able to avoid the Council taking interest in what happened. Ultimately, it may not be the Commander’s decision at all. And considering who is in charge of him and the Guardia…” He seems reluctant to say it out loud, but they are all aware that Dion’s uncle is the Archon Math, who holds the Guardia within his purview. “Anyway, you will not bear the consequences of our choices alone, Somrak. Whatever punishment comes, we’ll all endure our share.”
“Yes. Besides, I think I already gave my confession to Fencer yesterday,” Alma adds. “Whatever cards we have left to play, now is the time to play them.” She produces a small, round stone that seems to pulse with malevolence, the soulstone that serves as Nua’s prison. “This one is really just a conversation starter, I’m afraid.”
Somrak looks at it as if it were a highly poisonous spider. “The things she knows, though. Soul bombs and Tragas binding techniques. History. Who escaped the necromancer pogrom, and whether they have descendants. It’ll be worth a great deal.”
“She is…damaged.” Alma says quietly. “I wanted her gone. I don’t know what condition she’ll be in.” She puts the stone away in a pocket. “But I guess they don’t need to know that.”
Sky finally brings himself to speak up. His voice rumbles, “She is insane. If she were not so dangerous, she would be an object of pity. She will never cooperate with the Death Clan willingly. Perhaps they will find subtler means useful. A virtual environment…”
“Ah, found your voice after all that roaring,” Somrak says. “I’ll pass on the suggestion.” To Alma and Dion, he says, “Sometimes prisoners are interrogated by putting them in a kind of pocket-universe of the mind, to make them comfortable, trick them into giving up info…anyway, doesn’t matter now.” He shakes his head and stands. “I should get to that. I can skip the station. I’ll be in contact when I can.” He pats Sky on the flank.
Alma steps forward and puts a hand against Somrak’s bare chest. “We have to return to the station,” she insists. “If you’re not with us, the Bunnies will think you are dead as well.”
Somrak grimaces. “You really think they’re going to want to see me, ever again? I got Saira killed. I nearly got all of–”
“That is not…your fault,” Sky growls, pausing at a flash of pain. “It is mine, more than anyone here. They will want to see you. Take time with them.”
“They are worried about us all,” Dion points out, voice strained. “The more people they can see and make sure are in one piece, the fewer uncomfortable questions we’ll have to answer. And if we are going to be playing the blame game, I’d rather put my money on the psychopaths who tortured us in the first place.”
Somrak sighs, surrendering. “All right, I’ll go with you.” He looks at Sky. “Still can’t change back, partner?”
The devil shakes his head no. “I have tried. I am trying right now. The whip…maybe other things, too, have maimed me. I cannot transform.”
“Yet,” Alma states as unchallengeable fact. “It will take time to heal. But we’ll manage. Somehow.” She says it as if force of will alone can make it happen. “We will all heal.”
Sky looks at her, trying to summon the words that come so unwillingly in this form. With this devil’s brain, malice is the default, and being a friend requires struggle. “The things I said before, my feelings for all of you, for the Bunnies…none of that was a lie. I have lived a lie for so long, my only desire now is to be truthful with all of you, in every matter. I…think I can regain control over my shape. I will do all I can.”
“Good,” Alma replies after a moment, reaching out to touch one of his backswept horns. “I’ll ask Nevieve for advice on anyone we can call on. And I still have one card left to play. We’ll get you the time you need…I hope. But for now, we must go.”
“We’ll do all we can to make things right.” Dion assures him. His earlier aggression is gone, but he seems tense, still.
Sky can tell that Dion, with his sphere pushing him to attack any scion of Hell, will need time to learn to accept what Sky is, if he ever can. The devil rises to his haunches, tail curled around his legs. “I could not hope to find better friends. I do not deserve you, but I shall strive always to be worthy of you.” He looks at Alma. “Yesterday, I pulled away at first. I was afraid that I would hurt you. But I would never hurt you.”
Alma’s hand moves down the horn to rest on top of Sky’s massive head. “I know. And if it still happened to be her in my body, I could have hurt you, I know. I understand. The doubt will linger for long, still.”
He relaxes at her touch, then looks to all three of them. “You came for me. I will never forget what you risked, and the sacrifices you made.”
“We should go,” Dion says after a pause, looking like he’s having trouble restraining himself.
“When we go out drinking, booze is always on you, big guy,” Somrak says. Even as he is joking, he’s moving near Dion, helping to guide him out. “Don’t go too crazy with the remodeling!”
Alma leaves her hand on Sky’s head for a moment longer. “Take care, Sky. I will see you again.” Then she turns to leave with the others.
As their footsteps and voices echo down the passage, Sky draws in on himself, wondering whether, despite their intentions, he has lost his friends forever. But the feeling of Somrak’s body asleep against his lingers, tingling, as does Alma’s touch. And Dion is fighting to resist his sphere, for Sky’s sake. Sky tells himself that he has not lost them. Perhaps if he says it enough times, he will feel it is true.