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.

Ch6.64 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 1: Somrak & Memory

“I was on my own time, you know.”

“You don’t have your own time unless we say so.” Fencer’s voice is harsh, but also tired. Tired of him, Somrak is sure. Tired of excuses.

He’s leaning against the doorframe leading from the entryway to the receiving room in the Commander’s simple, spartan home. He’s just arrived, summoned a few hours ago via terse magical message, fiery letters floating in his mind’s eye: My home. Now. He had been washing blood from his hands in a pool of melted snow.

The room is wobbling in and out of focus. How many chairs? Three. Four? No, it’s three, it just looks like four. And the sofa. He remembers Sky stretched out on that, asleep, as Somrak was teaching a little godling to cook in the kitchen. Long time ago.

“Now explain,” Fencer growls as she sits on the top guy’s chair like it’s hers. Not that it’s the Commander’s favorite chair. That’s in the real living room, deeper in the house. This room? This is for guests who aren’t exactly friends, so the Commander doesn’t have to share the rest of his home with them. It is also a room that can be instantly sealed off and filled with deadly forces that even Somrak isn’t privy to. Just in case those not-friends become unfriendly.

There is a piercing pain that makes him think his skull may actually be fractured. It’s getting harder to ignore. He ignores it. “Just doing my job, lady,” he says, casually, hoping he’s not slurring his words. “And everybody else’s, as usual.”

“This is no training exercise!” Achmal, his hulking shoulders flexing, towers over Somrak. He’s even taller than Sky and far bulkier, all muscle, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his size to intimidate. His voice echoes down the twisting tunnel of the ice cave they are in. “Tell us what’s going on, Somrak!”

“Somrak, please.” Xinappa is a gentle soul for an off-blue, her origin a tropical ward, and she looks uncomfortable with the cold. “Call for extraction. We want to get out from under this glacier.” Her partner, Erissa, nods, her body wrapped in a warm coat, hood hiding her auburn hair.

Somrak looks at dour Ogive, who is silent, looking back with those bored killer’s eyes, his big silver bow on his back. A god of archery, Ogive can shoot the wings off a mosquito at a hundred paces, and put an arrow through a god’s eye at a mile. Somrak has seen him do it.

And at their feet is the healer brought along on this mission, a life god by the name of Renrak. His head is severed. The blood on the ice is frozen.

Somrak takes a breath. Achmal’s blustering does not move him. But it’s time to tell the truth. He nods at Renrak’s corpse.

“We’re here because one of us, according to the guys at the top, is a traitor. And we’re not leaving until we figure out who.”

Fencer is silent for a moment, glowering at him with those mismatched eyes, one red, one glowing silver. Finally she says, her voice tense with warning, “There are not enough words in this language to describe how much you annoy me, Ponytail. What he sees in you, I do not know. Now quit the idiotic jokes and give me a straight answer!”

He can’t actually remember what joke he made, so he shrugs, refusing to be intimidated. Also refusing to let his knees buckle. The only reason he isn’t sitting is he’s certain he won’t be able to stand up again. “What’s to complain about?”

“Stop. One more step and you die.”

 His voice is exhausted, but it rings through the corridor and echoes deep into the labyrinth formed by meltwater beneath the glacier. A womanly figure, her coat lost, is silhouetted by the blue glow of a portal that floats in the air, mere steps out of her reach.

Erissa turns. As a fire god, Somrak can make out her facial features in their heat patterns, but the effect is nonetheless alienating, her youthful beauty missing.

“Let me go, Somrak.” She sounds frightened. She should be. “I only did what I had to do.”

“You tried to frame me for Renrak. And then for Xinappa. Your own partner, Erissa! She covered for you! She lied for you!” Fury chases the exhaustion from his voice and, from his hands to his forearms, flames roar to life. Steam rises from his clothes and skin, soaked as he is with melted ice. “Ogive and Achmal are buried under tons of ice, maybe dead too.”

“You should have stayed under there with them.” She shakes her head, taking a step backward toward the portal. “You would have been safer. Somrak, please – they’re coming for me. They know I failed. They’ll take me to Hell before I can be interrogated.”

He should just set her aflame. She can still be interrogated with charred flesh. But though he has nearly spent all his godly power, he decides on giving her one last chance to surrender. He raises his right hand, and a wall of fire whooshes into existence behind her, between her and the portal, close enough to singe her hair. She staggers away, falling to her hands and knees. Water begins to trickle fast down the walls near her.

“Was it just for power, Erissa? Dissatisfied demi wanting to be a full goddess? Well you got what you wanted. Are you happy about the cost?” As his divine sphere pulses within, he can feel the fire burning even in his broken bones now, banishing the chill of melting his way through tons of collapsed ice. But his thoughts are cold as the heart of this glacier. “I’ll protect you from your masters. You’re going to tell us everything you told them, and everything they ever asked. And who put you in contact with them.”

“I’m not surrendering,” Erissa insists. She rises and the corridor pulses with a sickly green glow. Somrak’s wall of fire turns green, and he senses that he no longer controls it. He tries to get it back, but these demonstrations of power, meant to cow the off-blue traitor into submission, have used up his last reserves of mana. He cannot wrest control of it from the nearing forces of Hell. Then it goes out, but Erissa’s eyes still glow with the same deadly light. “They’re here. I always liked you, Somrak. You should have stayed away. Maybe they’ll give me another chance, in exchange for your soul.”

A shape forms, green-highlighted black against the blue portal from which it emerges. He recognizes it immediately. She has a long, thin-bladed sword in one hand, and one of her eyes is glowing silver.

The Fencer speaks, her voice harsh and undeniable. “Stand down, Corporal. It’s over.”

Erissa screams in frustration, the corridor trembling with her rage. The green light pulses more strongly, and the ice groans. A section of the tunnel collapses on top of Fencer, and the rest seems it could give way at any moment.

His left arm shattered and useless, Somrak draws a long knife from a thigh-sheath and charges.

“Were you ordered there?” she sneers. “Was it wise or necessary to act alone?”

He raises his right arm, palm up. The other stays where it is, pressed against the doorframe. Alma healed it one day ago. Now it’s broken again, the damage barely ameliorated through his own meager healing magic, just enough to hold it together. Alma would not be happy. He’s much better at destroying things than repairing them. “Necessary? We were short-handed following that nightmare you cooked up under the ice. And the Special Operations boys, let’s face it, wouldn’t have got the job done so quickly or thoroughly. So yes, necessary. And wise. The proof of that is in the results.”

“The results? Oh, you mean the dead gang of frost giants? The ones we never intended to kill in the first place?” Her voice rises in volume. She gets up and stalks toward him, as she speaks, ending up almost nose to nose with him. “Damn it, Somrak! You do not get to decide what needs to be done! Certainly not just because you need to vent your anger over whatever piece of stupidity you did on your day off! You should not even have been operational yet!”

An annoying stray thought crosses his exhausted mind: Damn, she looks good. I mean, I don’t exactly want to get with that, but I totally see why the Commander does. He forces his mind away from irrelevancies back to the fact that one of the most dangerous goddesses in this universe is deeply unhappy with him right now. She has, after all, been known to end problems with great abruptness and finality.

“What can I say?” His mouth is working on autopilot, and he finds himself wondering what will come out of it. “Your niece is a far better healer than our darling Butcher. And what were you planning to do with a bunch of murderous religious-fanatic frost giants anyway?”

The cold again. Not that it matters to him. Being a fire god means never needing long underwear.

He can still feel Alma’s kiss on his lips, tingling, even after almost a day. And the shame of learning how blind he’d been – he can feel that, too. He hadn’t wanted to see it. Hadn’t wanted to see she was in love with Dion.

So a quick getaway, back upslope to Guardia Headquarters – not the off-blues HQ, not after what happened under the ice – and one quiet inquiry later, here he is. Good to have a friend in Special Operations. Well, ‘friend’ might be pushing it. Someone who owes him enough to tell him what’s the nastiest, meanest operation coming up.

And that is here: Yotn, ward of frost and crags. Mountains on the slope of the Celestial Mount, broken black stone covered in eye-blinding white snow, small villages scattered in the valleys. It is very picturesque from his vantage point atop a ridge, looking down on two valleys. Except for the smoke and the smashed houses, the bodies in the cobblestone streets, and the enormous figures striding through them.

Frost giants. Disagreeable types. Classification of just what is and is not a god is always a fuzzy thing, and some call frost giants gods, but never to their face. Like the denizens of Hell, they hate gods, whom they consider to be young upstarts. And once in awhile they get it into their heads that it’s time for a war.

It never lasts long. The giants aren’t exactly idiots, but they don’t value thoughtfulness. They hold simple, direct action in great esteem. Somrak can understand. Action is the best way to chase away unsettling thoughts.

The giants have devastated two villages already, and have destroyed the ward’s public portal. Good thing for the Commander’s hidden portal network. The only disadvantage is that the secret portal is located a long, icy climb above the valley where the giants are having their fun. Somrak takes time to stretch his limbs. Of course he didn’t bring any climbing equipment. What’s the fun in that?

He looks at the black fingerless gloves on his hands, a gift from his rival for Alma’s affections. For a moment he considers taking them off, tossing them away, but he’s not angry at Dion. He’s angry at himself.

It will be two days before the Special Operations mission begins to take down the gang of giants. Plenty of time for Somrak to deliver his anger to some people who really deserve to receive it. Special Ops can thank him later.

Not that they will.

No longer shouting but all the more dangerous for how calm she sounds, Fencer moves even closer. Somrak pushes aside the absurd temptation to kiss her, surely born of a death wish. “I know it was her who healed you,” she growls softly. “You reek of her power. Tell me, did she heal you so you could flirt with death again? Is that how you plan to capture her attention? By having her come and collect your soul when you get yourself killed?”

Two frost giant corpses collapsing at once makes an impressive momentary earthquake. Somrak actually feels his feet leave the ground from the impact. A damaged house tumbles the rest of the way down, and there is a hiss all about as snow slides off the angled rooftops of the buildings still standing

One of the giants has buried his axe in the other’s head; the other has thrust a spear through his companion’s eye and out through the back of the skull. They now lie on their sides, still clutching their skull-destroying weapons, looks of surprise on their faces. They had, after all, been aiming at a fiery shape that had looked a great deal like Somrak, flying through the air between them.

Easy to shape fire into anything, he thinks, satisfied with the results of his trick. Let’s see the Special Ops guys figure out how that happened. He grins and strides through the main street of the village.

A full third of the houses are damaged beyond repair, he observes. Some are completely destroyed. Human bodies, of all ages and genders, lie scattered in the street, the victims of giants who believe their ancestors, whom they worship instead of gods, have ordered this tragic little crusade. They may well be right – who knows what madness the long-dead ghosts of aeon-old giants may preach? But littered among the human corpses are now those of giants, sixteen in all, some with boiled-to-explosion brains, some with their icy hearts burnt to ash, some with slashed tendons and then, brought to earth by legs that would no longer support them, slashed throats.

One of his favorite blades has broken. Even enchanted, dwarf-forged steel can’t stand up forever to the hard work Somrak puts it through, particularly because Somrak prefers his short swords narrow and light. He grumbles and sheathes the half-blade, reminding himself to visit his favorite equipment-smith and get a new one made. There goes two months’ pay –

And that’s when one of the giant corpses reaches out like lightning and grabs Somrak’s left arm, squeezing hard. Somrak screams as he feels his radius and ulna twist and then snap like twigs. The giant sits up, lifting Somrak from the ground. The god stares back at one hate-filled, pale-blue eye. The giant’s other eye is gone, along with almost half of his head, burned away by a particularly energetic display of a fire god’s power

“Tough…bastard,” Somrak gasps through clenched teeth.

The giant says something in that ponderous language that always sounds like an avalanche to Somrak. “Speak…Urbia…you stinking barbarian!” Somrak shouts. He is just summoning up the power to cook the rest of the giant’s brain when it smashes him to the hard stone street, once, then again.

He doesn’t break eye contact. He wonders if she can see the concussion in his eyes. After a long tense moment he says, “Message received. So is there anything else?”

She pulls back, staring at his face. “Yes. None of the other off-blues is willing to work with you. Your team is no more, Somrak.”

He clenches his jaw, though the pain that sends slicing through his head almost knocks him off his feet. “I’m sure I can find something to do.”

She turns and goes to the sideboard. “I better not hear of you going anywhere near Three Rats, Ponytail. That place is bad enough for our people without a walking menace like you around.”

He closes his eyes. The room is going out of focus again. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ve always wanted to take up macrame. Very calming, I’m told. You might try it.”

He hears the thup sound of a cork being pulled from the neck of a bottle, followed by the tink of the bottle’s neck touching a glass. Liquid pouring. “My brother has spawned enough sons with a talent for hangman’s nooses. I can do without the pointless artistry.” A little water being spritzed into the glass. “By the way, I have spoken to your master. He is handing your leash over to me on a permanent basis.”

Somrak opens his eyes and looks pointedly at the bottle next to her hand. Whisky, nothing very rare or refined, just simple and delicious. “Are there two glasses, or am I just drinking straight from the bottle?”

She lifts her glass and sips the whisky. “You’re in no condition to drink. Sit.”

He looks at the chair she nods toward and sighs. Walking with the care of a practiced drunk, he moves to it and carefully sits. The moment he does, the enervation of his unrested body washes over him, just as he’d feared. Every ache, every sharp stabbing pain, every throbbing agony comes on in full force. He clenches his teeth against a groan.

“So what’s next?” he gasps.

“Next is a visit from a healer. Don’t worry, it’s not the Butcher. Then you focus on getting your head screwed on straight. And after that, I have a couple of ways for you to make yourself useful.” She takes a drink. “Did you give her the sword?”

At the abrupt change in topic, Alma’s smile as he handed her the gift from Fencer returns in his mind. And the feeling of holding her in the breezeway. Kissing her. “I did. She likes it. Relieved you didn’t ask for the old one back.”

Fencer snorts. “She had the nerve to steal that one from me. Anyone that brave or stupid deserves a reward. Tell me, how’s your fencing?”

He feels very detached from his body. He hears his voice saying, “You tell me. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” But he thinks the clever words may have come out as senseless babbling.

Being witty is such hard work.

“You’re badly injured. Let me heal you.” The beautiful white-haired Sergeant reaches a hand to touch Somrak.

He moves back slightly, still twitching from the lightning strike that hit him. In the wake of the assassination attempt of this Alma and her Archon-Dooming Bunnies, he is not in the best of shape, but his body is already healing in the way nearly any god is capable of, even one as oriented toward destruction as himself. And if she’s anything like the off-blues’ staff healer, known as the Butcher, Somrak is better off healing himself. “Save it, Sergeant. You’ll likely need the mana later.”

He knows who she is, of course. When the Commander split up the forty-year Somrak and Sky partnership – an off-blue teamup both tumultuous and highly successful, and one that had outlasted any other partnership in the existence of the off-blue program – Somrak naturally looked into the Dei officers that Sky would be working with. But he hadn’t looked very closely and now here she is, face to face, the notoriously difficult Sergeant Alma, Dei of a dozen stations.

And seeing her face before him, pale and delicate while at the same time flushed with Life energy from healing the red-haired Bunny, he is certain he has seen her before. He will have to plumb his memory. Later. Assuming he survives.

She frowns at him. “It is a more efficient use of mana to heal you now, rather than leave you as a burden on the rest of us. I daresay I can heal you with greater ease than you can heal yourself.

He smiles, that lopsided grin pulled into a smirk by his scar, so infuriating to many even when it is an honest smile. This goddess, only a few decades his junior but barely a rookie Guardia compared to his mortal lifetime of service, mother-henning him. He finds himself charmed but, being who he is, he has to express himself sardonically. He turns to the Commander and jokes, “I see what you meant about her.”

He looks back to see her narrow-eyed glare at the Commander, which just makes Somrak like her more. He can imagine all those dull rulesbound station commanders she’s served under, not knowing what to do with her. He’d love to show her the off-blue life. She might even like it.

Ch6.62 Trust

The machinegun fire does not belong here. Nor do the rockets. This is not a ward that allows for chemical explosives. Something prevents it, something Syron explained once… The thought flits away like a burning leaf of paper torn from a code book, as three men in the trench ahead of him try to go over the top, and get knocked back down by the shockwave and shrapnel from a mortar shell. One lies groaning; the other two are still.

 Sky steps over them, barely looking down. He does not wish to see their faces, fearing he will recognize them. The choking smell of rot and filth and ash pollutes the air he breathes. His hair is plastered to his skull by the rain. He holds a dagger, fingers through the brass knuckles of the grip, his long wool coat heavy around the hem with earth and blood. His feet are cold and wet. He is wounded, he thinks, but cannot remember where or how badly. But he strides through the trench, idiotically, for he is far too tall to stand upright safely. He is a moving target for the other side.

Ironic, since the other side is his side. He still expects to be shot in the head at any moment, by machinegunner or sharp-eyed sniper. For some reason, he doesn’t crouch.

There is someone he is here to kill. He can’t remember. All thought is vague. Faces form and dissolve before him. One that laughs and taunts, all huge grin and trickster eyes. One like a vulture, burning in the arms of a white-glowing female figure. A scaly viper’s face. A face of stone. A handsome face, one that had once filled him with pleasure to see. Face after face, a long line, many forgotten and entirely blank.

But then he sees her, the one he is hunting. The trench is gone. He is inside now, in a house, with no transition, standing on a stone-flagged floor, blood-clotted dirt oozing from his boot. He looks at the woman lying on the bed. She wears a simple nightgown. Her skin is sallow, her nondescript brown hair lank and thin. She is already dead, her neck broken, but carefully arranged as if sleeping. He approaches, looks down at her, adjusting his grip on the blade.

Why must he kill her? She is cold and long, long dead. He remembers holding her, as she cried his name. Not his name, but a name, that of the face he wore. He remembers pleasuring her, but taking no real pleasure from the act. Simply…a lack of pain.

He is here to kill her. How he knows this, he cannot say. He will cut her head off and stuff her mouth with salt. He will sew her lips shut. He will remove her heart and burn it, and bury the rest at a crossroads. Why? These are the things you must do. 

“None of that will stop me,” she whispers.

Sky freezes. Her eyes are open. Her mouth is grinning in triumph. She begins to sit up.

“Hello, Azzageddi…” she coos sweetly.

“Sky?” The kiss on his cheek is cool and light, and the voice is soft and very welcome. “Sky…”

His eyes flutter open, and he draws a deep breath. He is home. It was merely another nightmare, one of the many dark dreams that keep him company most nights. But something is different here. There is someone in his arms. Well, one arm. He is in his home, on his sofa, his arm around…Alma? Alma.

Looking down at her, where she half-lies against him, comfortable but obviously trapped by his heavy arm. He exhales in relief, seeing her friendly grin, not the seductive look he had momentarily feared, or the dead, malevolent eyes…now where did that come from? The dream? But it is gone.

He feels a smile spread on his face, any feeling of dread banished at the thought that Alma, Alma, is here in his home. In his home, in his life, this friend. His friend.

“Sleep well?” he asks, voice thick and groggy.

Alma nods. “I did. But…if that clock is correct, I should return to the station.” Sky follows her gaze to a cheap-looking plastic-and-aluminum timepiece, the face about as big across as his hand, surmounted by a doll of a young woman wearing a grass skirt and a necklace of flowers to hide her breasts.

“It’s a few minutes off,” he says, sitting up and releasing her from his heavy embrace. “You have a little more time than you think.”

Alma stretches, standing. “Does the girl on the clock dance at noon or something? No, wait – we would have noticed.”

“Every hour, it’s supposed to play a different song, and she dances,” he explains. “But I disconnected that. I couldn’t sleep. Anticipating the song kept me staring at the ceiling.”

Alma laughs. “If you don’t like it, why do you keep it?”

He shrugs, and stands. “A friend gave it to me as a joke, as I was telling people at the time that I was from the islands that it came from. I regifted it to someone else. After he died, it came back to me.”

“Ah. A memory.” Alma nods, laying her hand on his upper arm and stroking it, her smile compassionate for his long-ago loss. “Good to know I can take a little more time. Would you mind if I took a bath before I leave?”

“Please do.” He holds out a hand to indicate one of the round doorways, one from which a constant faint sound of flowing water emerges. “Through there is the bath. In the vestibule, there’s one of those laundry boxes, the kind that you just pop your clothes, or anything really, in there, and it’s clean in a few minutes. Should be warm and fluffy by the time you finish. There are towels and such in an alcove next to that. Shampoo and soap in the bath itself. Oh…it’s a bit hotter than yours. Get in slowly. Do you want something to eat after? I’m…still feeling a little queasy after that spell. How about you?”

As she heads for the bath, Alma says, “I think I’ll leave eating for later, thank you. But coffee would be nice.”

“Yes, it would.” Sky goes into the little kitchen nook, fills the reservoir of a little coffee pot with water, the filter with fine-ground coffee. He hears Alma undressing, the sound of the laundry box closing. Then echoes of splashing water as she enters the bath, which is in a room considerably more cave-like than the rest of his sanctum.

As he sets the little pot – just big enough to make two espressos – on the unlit, smallest burner, he hears a hiss from the bath. “Oh, this is boiling! You have no skin!”

Sky laughs, but then, concerned, calls out, “If you feel lightheaded, get out. It’s really just a little above body temperature.” He pauses, considering, remembering how her body felt cool against him. “Oh, but your body temperature is lower than average. Uh, call me if you need help. I promise I’ll close my eyes.”

The light, echoing laughter from the bath makes Sky smile. There has never been a woman’s voice here. Well, not a live one. “That should be interesting to see you try,” Alma calls out.

Thinking of recordings, Sky goes to his stereo and cranks the flywheel up, enough to play one side of a record. He puts away the vinyl disc they had fallen asleep listening to, runs his fingers along the sleeves and pulls out another album, the cover an image of a warm-brown man wearing a blue-flowered shirt and a thick red lei of flowers, a gazebo and tropical trees in the background. He sets the disc carefully on the turntable, starting the machine so that the arm swings out and the needle gently kisses the tiny grooves in the surface of the platter. The sanctum fills with soft strings gently strummed, a man’s voice, pitched high but with a gravelly edge, singing in a language that, at the time he left that world, was all but lost to time.

He sings along under his breath as he opens a cabinet that has been enchanted to keep its contents fresh, choosing a mango, two kiwis, and an apple, and begins slicing them up. He remembers Alma had decided not to eat, but perhaps she will change her mind, as he himself has. If not, even the sliced fruit will keep in the cabinet until later in the day.

“That’s pretty,” Alma says from the bath. “What is it?”

“Music from another island,” he replies as he pares away the skins of the fruit. “Almost the same language as the other one. Singer’s name is Pahinui. I bought everything of his I could find…before I came back here.”

The sound of water sloshing, splashing, and a bare foot touching the waterlogged stone floor in the bath room. “Ah, you’re that kind of fan.” The goddess’ voice is amused, muffled slightly as she towels herself dry.

Sky chuckles silently. “You all right in there?” He turns on the flame under the little coffeepot.

“I think I’ll never eat lobster again.” The lid to the laundry box opens and he hears the sound of rustling fabric.

As the next song begins, Sky says, “First time I heard him play, I wanted to play like that. Wanted to sing…well, not quite like that, but something like that. Like me but like that, yeah?” He is amused to recognize that his voice is taking on a lilt that has been missing for decades, hints of an island dialect of a language he has heard in some wards of the city, called English. Like the local language of Three Rats, it is from Earth, brought here by the lost residents of a wandering chunk of reality.

The coffee begins burbling cheerfully as the fire turns the little reservoir of water to steam, forcing it through the grounds into the pot above.

“So why did you come back to the Insula, Sky?” Alma asks, reentering the main room, adjusting her clothes, fresh and warm from cleaning. “You said your family was gone…”

Sky looks at her, so beautiful. It feels good that he can admire his friend’s beauty without embarrassment. He lifts the still-burbling coffeepot and turns off the fire, and wordlessly pours the thick, dark liquid into two small cups, porcelain glazed a rich brown with a white crane, on matching saucers. He offers her one, black, no sugar, as he knows she likes it, and sets the bowl of fruit on the coffee table, but he doesn’t sit yet. His face is still, controlled.

“I uh…well, Laura had passed away about thirty years earlier, and it was getting a bit weird for Grampa to still be looking way too young, despite dying my hair white and so on. The grandchildren, great-grandchildren…I was becoming this sort of legend in their lives. I came when they called – I provided ways for them to send a message. But I faded from their lives, and then years went by with no message. I…had lost something with Laura’s death. Perhaps I should have clung to them, but it just seemed time to move on. I’d discovered a way back here a few years before, and I thought maybe I could slip back and forth. But then…”

He pauses as Alma touches his arm, squeezing it comfortingly. “I understand. To watch them age and pass away, generation after generation – it could not have been easy. I’m glad you stayed here.” She finishes her drink, closing her eyes and smiling at the taste of it. “Hmm, you’re getting better at coffee.”

Sky smiles nervously and drinks. “You were right about the local brewing method in Three Rats. And I picked up these beans in the First Ring, when Gwydion and I went shopping there for the New Year. It’s not quite as good as Archon Math’s.” He finishes his coffee, and setting down the cup steels her nerve and says, “Alma…there’s something…something I want to tell you. About why I stayed.” About how I was captured by the Commander, given a choice of being his tool or being destroyed, about what I am. The vile thing that I am. He doesn’t want to tell her. He really does not. But he must and the moment is now.

The song ends and in the moment of silence, Alma’s questioning gaze, which is lingering on his face, flicks toward the stereo – and catches on the silly clock next to it. “Oh Sky…I need to go. It’s my shift, and the Bunnies will be distraught from May’s departure. Is this something that can wait?” She sounds guilty, but he knows that she is already running late. And they have been out of contact with the station for several hours. Gwydion, and not only Gwydion but others, must be wondering if they are all right.

He nods, feeling a rush of relief, with shame hard on its heels for the cowardice it indicates. “Later, yes.” His stomach roils at the thought of knowing that, for several hours at least, he will have this hanging around his neck, a noose ready to pull tight when the trap door opens. He just wants to get it over with, to confront the shock and disgust she will surely feel but struggle to lead her through it to acceptance. Losing her friendship is his greatest fear. Keeping it honestly, his greatest hope.

But the moment is past. Later. Yes, later.

Flailing for something to say, he blurts, “Do you want me to escort you back? I can be ready in a couple of minutes.” Wait, he realizes, I could trigger the portal to open in my office, so she can go back directly.

“No, no,” she insists. “You must want to bathe, too. And I have one or two places to stop by on my way there.”

Sky hesitates, then decides to give in. “Very well. I know you can take care of yourself, but with all that’s out there, watch your back, Alma. And…I’m glad you stayed.”

Alma stretches up to kiss his cheek. “I am glad too. You opened your life to me, Sky. You know, I scolded you for being so open, back when we first met, but really you were keeping your true self hidden away, weren’t you? Off-blue paranoia… I know there is more to learn, but we have time to learn about each other slowly, to deepen our friendship.” She strokes his jaw, and her smile makes his heart feel as if it has stopped.

His attempt to return her smile is twitchy, and he nods and turns to move quickly to the wall, touching it to activate the portal, letting her into his false apartment. He opens the door for her. “I will see you soon.”

Alma pauses, searching his face. “Sky?” He can tell she is about to relent on her decision to leave, about to stay and hear him out now.

He shakes his head and smiles as brightly as he can. “Go. It can wait. I’ll come to see you at dinner time, in the middle of my shift. Now watch that broken step.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

As he eases into the steaming bath, his sanctum fills with the complex, exuberant piano of another favorite from Earth, a Russian composer and performer. Though it does make him want to find a piano for the bar, here is music he has never dreamed of emulating, grandiose, alternately delicate and glorious, furious, and brave, so brave.

He must be brave, he tells himself. After Alma, he must tell Gwydion. He thinks he will need her help there.

And then there is Mayumi. He groans. He is in love with her, for her humor, her fearlessness, even for her anger – but what a situation. He almost hopes she will forget him while she is at the Academy, fall in love with someone more appropriate there. But…she is a Bunny. If she is anything like Rosemary and Cherry, falling in love with someone else will not diminish her feelings for him.

And he truly does not want her to forget him. It has been so long. He does not know what their relationship will be like, but he knows that he would be shattered if she feared him too much for her love to survive. Still, he cannot be with her until she knows what he is. He cannot build that love upon a lie.

What is it about this place? All the barriers he has erected to contain his feelings, to survive in this friendless servitude, this slavery, have been smashed to splinters. Ever since the Commander made him vow to serve, he has resisted to urge to reach out to others. That in itself has been a torture worse to him than that inflicted by Hell. For Hell created him to have what devils and demons lack: empathy. Compassion. He simply cannot help but love those around him.

For some time he has suspected that it was this place, something about it, perhaps whatever drew the Oracle Nevieve and Master Pak and the attention of Archons and other powerful gods. Three Rats, a nexus of two lands, an oasis of plentiful magic in a part of the Fourth Ring that has a paucity of it, must be a place that breaks down walls such as his.

But no. That answer is too easy. It is not the place, not at all. It is the people. Alma, Gwydion, and he mistrusted and mistreated each other at the beginning, but he had found in them warm, strong hearts. And the Bunnies, not just Mayumi but all of them – their ability to break through, to slip past the thickest armor and nourish the most faltering flames of kindness and humanity never fails to elicit his admiration. There is no magic inciting these passions in him. It is the knowledge that here, finally, are people he can trust.

Here is family. Again.

The heat of the water seeps into his muscles, into his bones. He breathes slowly, willing his body to relax. The tension has him knotted and clenched, and he tries to release it. As the music soars, he casts his thoughts back, to the first time he listened to this, in concert, when he took Laura on the long trip to San Francisco, their first trip together more than a day’s travel away from their farm. She loved music, and though they played something nearly every day together, she on piano, he on guitar or ‘ukulele or violin, and they attended and even organized shindigs with music and dancing at least once a month, it had not been since shortly after the War that she had been to a concert of such virtuosity. Her hair was showing grey, the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkling as she watched, rapt, squeezing his hand as if she wanted to merge with him, share with him this joy, directly, that she felt surging in her breast.

She had been the only human, the only person, to hold his heart. There had been many who had touched his heart – far more than who had been touched by him – but she had held it. There was no need to merge further. He was already there.

But she had never, truly, understood what he was. She could not conceive it. He was a devil, she knew that, but that was only a word to her. She had known he was something supernatural soon after they’d met, working together to smuggle secrets out of Richmond to aid the armies of the North. He had been shot in the lung, and instead of dying, he had turned on their attackers and slain them with his bare hands, his eyes glowing blue-green. She had overcome her fear, and they had worked together again, and again. She was tireless in doing everything she could to defeat the Confederacy, which she, like him, considered an abomination, an affront against humanity. She was the highly educated daughter of a freed American slave and a Haitian evangelical minister come to America to preach freedom and revolution.

And so she had had a clear idea of what a devil is, but only as an abstract legend, not a real creature that could war against the gods. He answered all her questions, but his answers were not what she had learned to expect. There was no overarching omnipotent God that he could tell her of, though he admitted that there could be one. She had been stunned that he could sit in the church and sing the hymns with gusto, and greet her aging father in Boston with warm-hearted respect, shaking his hand and not bursting into flame.

Still, she knew him. Where it mattered. She held him in the night and soothed his nightmares away. She could hear those stories of being worshipped as a god, of a world of gods, and still tell him to change a grandchild’s diaper because she was busy with the laundry.

And then she was gone.

He felt the tears well up beneath his eyelids. Could he endure that loss again? So many losses, but that one outweighed them all. To think of it like this still caused a sharp pain to lance through his chest, like that bullet smashing his rib so long ago. He can feel her hand gripping his. He grits his teeth as the music soars.

And the music skips.

His eyes snap open. A tremor. He felt it, something like a small earthquake. That…is not good. It has never happened before. This sanctum is a universe unto itself, and though they are safe, sanctums can become unstable, collapse, disappearing from reality itself forever. Not that it would happen suddenly, but he has heard of it happening, very, very rarely. He will have to get it looked at right away, contact the god who made it for him.

Then through the music he hears another song, just at the edge of human hearing, like the barely audible pings of bats. It matches the strings of the concerto, but just off, warping them out of true, introducing chaos into the precisely planned, powerful beauty, like a worm at the center of a delicious piece of fruit, devouring and leaving behind waste and corruption.

Sky loosens a stone in the bath, pulling it free and dropping it to sink the the floor of the large pool-like tub. In the hidden space is a blade made of a single piece of obsidian, volcanic glass sharper than any steel. He stands, the water running off his body, splashing over the edge to sweep across the bathroom floor and smack against the wall.

Someone is in his sanctum. Something dreadful in its familiarity. Such a voice, and the pleasure it takes in destroying beautiful sounds, is not new to him, though he has not heard it in a very long time. Two centuries. The time since he escaped from Hell.

Shadows move beyond the doorway, then light, growing, a pale green that makes him think of the poisonous glow of radium clocks. He can feel his sanctum pulling away from that glow, cringing like a frightened animal.

A faceless head atop a beautiful androgynous body fills the doorway, glowing green. It has no arms, only ragged-feathered wings tucked in close, and its legs are those of a reptile. Its entire body is made of that sickening glow, the feel of which – not warmth, but a sort of pressure – makes him instantly nauseous, his guts clenching.

A demon. A demon in his sanctum.

Calling upon the power of the sea, he focuses the flow of the water in his bath to blast the abomination. Fortunately he has quite a volume of water to call upon. The design of the sanctum is such that comfortably hot water is constantly flowing in one end of the bath and out the other, through hidden vents that must, Sky assumes, connect to portals. So when the water slams into his uninvited guest, the demon, sizzling and steaming, staggers and falls back.

Sky is out of the tub, running surefooted across moving, flowing water that would make many tumble. He knows there is at least one more, for this is not the singer. Yes, there it is, plastered against the ceiling, its proboscis buried in the teak paneling like a mosquito sucking blood. It continues to ruin the music with its human-like mouth, staring at him with iridescent compound eyes.

Trying to see a way around it, to reach the portal, Sky only catches a glimpse of movement to his side, too late to dodge or block. The ape-bodied, triple-goat-headed attacker is a balinur, one of the footsoldiers of Hell, and he has sliced it half open before they hit the floor together. But though it cries in pain, it holds on, and the glowing, walking corruption is now on its feet again, bending over him, faceless head cocked as if amused.

Not pausing to try to remember exactly what could hurt such a being, he rips the balinur from his body, ignoring the long, deep slashes left by its claws, and uses it as a bludgeon against the green abomination. He can see the floor turning black around its feet, beginning to fester like a gangrenous wound, and hits it again and again with the howling lesser demon, driving it back until it crashes backwards over his sofa and smashes the table. It knocks aside the book of photographs, breaks the silly alarm clock.

He has lost the glass knife, but it was a weapon of emergency only, too fragile to last long in a fight. Now Sky reaches for his Guardia sword, left hanging on a hook. He has the grip in his hand when the singer drops on him, piercing his skin with tiny claws and holding on tight, pinning both of his arms against his chest. Sky staggers, roars, throwing himself against the wall, wincing at the jangling destruction of a guitar, the books falling to be spattered with blood jetting from his thigh.

His world begins to narrow into two possibilities: Hell or the Insula. These demons are clearly here to take him to Hell. He will not go. He has no idea how long he lived in Hell, only that his best moments there were infinitely worse than his worst moments outside of Hell. He would rather be utterly destroyed than return there. And so no other considerations are viable. He must break free, no matter the cost. No matter that his sanctum, his home for decades, is destroyed, along with every scrap of his past. These treasures are nothing if he is recaptured.

And so, as it stabs its barbed-needle proboscis deep into his mid-back, Sky bursts the singer’s grip through the simple expedient of becoming too large for it to hold on. Wings erupt from his shoulders. A tail whips across the room, flinging debris and hitting the flywheel-powered stereo, shattering the concerto along with the platter whose irregular grooves bear a permanent recreation of its beauty, now smashed into oblivion.

He staggers for the portal, which he can see now is open, flickering, but open. Someone has forced it, destroying the security measures he had in place – something that should be nearly impossible. But bargain enough with Hell and you can buy anything, including magic to defeat any other magic.

A clawed foot lands on the back of his neck, sudden massive weight smashing him face-first into the floor. The burning from that viridian touch slithers into his flesh, and resistant to poison as he is, these are demonic poisons, meant to harm even creatures of Hell.

Sky writhes, trying to get free, to stand, to cross the last few steps to freedom. He swings his arm and knocks the creature off him, woozily lunges to get upright, and crashes into the kitchen sink, breaking it free of the wall and destroying the tile mosaic that covered the countertop. He turns, trying to rise fully, opening his jaws and roaring defiance loud enough to shatter every glass in the cabinet.

The singer and the walking, glowing illness are unphased by this. Sky may be a devil, a being of higher rank than demons, but they owe no allegiance to him. As Tuma-Sukai lashes out with his crimson-black claws at the green-glowing body of one attacker, the other stabs him again with its organic needle, injecting a poison that, as far as Sky can tell, immobilizes with wracking pain and convulsions. He curls in on himself, strikes again, feeling a sharp satisfaction as he connects and provokes a bleat of agony from the insectoid demon. But a moment later, despite his size, Sky is knocked flying across his sanctum, bouncing off the opposite wall, falling into a heap of books and destroyed paintings.

He tries to stand, slips, begins vomiting. With a groan, he tries again. And again he fails.

Footsteps approach. He sees leather boots, and slowly looks up, taking in the form of a young human woman, a mortal, her form adorned with silver skull-shaped jewelry, a loose belt of what looks to be human finger-bones. She looks at him sardonically, triumphant, putting her hands on her hips, the fingertips of one hand decorated with silver rings each sporting a wicked claw.

“Hello, Azzageddi,” she purrs as he slides into darkness.