Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.

“WHAT??”

Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.

Ch6.24 Trust

The walk back to the station is mostly a quiet one. Although the injured Somrak had at first insisted on providing support for the weakened Gwydion, his wounds had taken their toll on the fire god about halfway to the Burrow, enough to allow Alma to convince him to let her help Gwydion alone. Tired herself and feeling the after-effects of the Fencer’s Soul Stealer, the goddess is all too happy to help her partner and lover along the way and so is he to be helped by her.

Varah, on the other hand, has walked with them in silence, with the occasional disapproving glance and subtle smirk at the complicity between the two gods. At the sight of the station, however, she decides to speak.

“We part here,” she says. “No point for me to stay.” She looks sternly at Alma. “You will keep me informed.”

“I understand,” Alma replies with a nod. Almost conversationally, she asks, “Will I be informed as well?”

The Fencer snorts. “I’ll think about it. It’s not all up to me. I’ll see you at the Spinning Wheel ceremony, if not before.”

“I am not attending this year,” Alma states with sadness, prompting a shocked glare from her aunt. “Father has sent advice through Melinor that I should not be present.” She summons her log book to her hand to show Varah the bunny that decorates the cover. “He sent me a new book as well.”

Varah’s expression hovers somewhere between fury and wild amusement. “What are you going to do in response to that?”

“I don’t know yet,” Alma concedes, shaking her head.

“Yes, you do,” Fencer hisses. “You just don’t like it. Get some sense into your head. I’ll see you for Year’s End.”

And with those words, she vanishes.

“Quite the pep talk,” Gwydion says derisively. “No wonder people dislike and fear her so.”

Alma sighs. “And yet, I can’t help but care deeply for her.” She smiles at him and at a rather angry-looking Somrak. “Come on, let us get the two of you inside.”

They walk the street around the station to enter the breezeway. As soon as Somrak pushes the bar door open, Rosemary’s bright voice pipes a welcome.

“Welcome t’ – oh goodness!”

As soon as she sees Somrak, who is the first to enter, his face pale, right arm hanging limp, and then of Gwydion, looking almost asleep on his feet, she jumps right over the bar and dashes to pull out a couple of chairs and help attend to the gods, closely followed by Cherry, emerging from the kitchen to ask, “The heck happened to Sommy?”

“We had a little encounter with a demon, that is all,” Alma explains, guiding Gwydion to a chair.

“That’s all?” Cherry nearly shrieks. “Another freakin’ demon?”

The Bunny’s head shoots to look from Somrak to Saira, who is just coming in from the kitchen to see what all the commotion is about, and then back at Somrak.

“Hey, don’t look at me. I stayed home,” the mortal woman immediately says, raising the glass she is currently holding as if to serve as evidence. “See? Drinking my juice and all.”

Cherry looks at her through big eyes, her voice shaking as she replies. “Dang right you stayed home, missy.”

Saira says nothing more but touches Cherry’s upper arm to sooth the Bunny, who reaches for her hand and squeezes it in return.

Meanwhile, Alma turns her attentions to Gwydion. “You need to rest.”

“I am fine,” he replies, trying to stand on his own. “Just need to have a sit and–”

His legs fail him and it takes both Alma and Rosemary’s assistance to stop him from falling. “Maybe I will just turn in early,” he concedes.

“Good idea,” the goddess says.

At a sign from Alma, Cherry steps in to help. Rosemary looks at her mother in surprise at first but after a mouthed explanation of ‘I need you’ from the goddess, she nods and lets her twin take care of the magic god.

“Come on, Dion, let’s get you to bed, hon,” Cherry says in gentle, sincerely concerned tones as she puts an arm around Gwydion’s waist and begins to guide him toward the kitchen. “You ain’t hurt too? You sure?”

“I am not wounded,” the god reassures her. “Just tired. Improvising banishment spells on the spot is not exactly for amateurs.”

“Geryon said that’s dangerous!” Cherry exclaims.

Sitting through all of this, Somrak undoes the buckles of his leather mercenary jacket, and looks under it at his chest and hisses at the pain and the unpleasant smell that wafts from it. “Uh…ow.”

“You need more than just rest,” Alma tells him, urging him to rise. “Come, I am taking you to my room for healing.”

“Heh. Him too? How much can that bed of yours grow anyway?” Saira jests, clearly unaffected by any of this. To Somrak, she says, “And if you snore, you’re not sleeping on my side.”

“If you are that worried, you can always sleep with one of the Bunnies, Saira,” Alma replies with a warning edge to her voice.

“Aawww, but I like sleeping with you!” Saira quips.

Alma cannot help but roll her eyes at this. “Of course you do.”

She notices that Cherry and Gwydion have stopped walking halfway to the god’s bedroom door and now stand looking at her, Gwydion with a slightly worried expression on his face and Cherry apparently just waiting for further instructions. “Cherry, please take care of Gwydion and check for any wounds anyway. I’ll bring over a mana sphere later, just in case.”

She makes sure to look into Gwydion’s eyes while stating the last sentence and the god nods in silent agreement of the reunion she is setting up for later. Alma cannot quite tell what has Gwydion so concerned but the last thing she wants is to let him stay that way. Still, first things first.

Turning to Rosemary, she requests, “I am going to need a clean cloth. Something we can throw away afterwards.”

“I’ll be right down with ‘em!” the Bunny announces, rushing to the kitchen.

Alma then carefully puts an arm around Somrak’s back to support him should his legs falter. “Come along, now,” she says.

He nods, following her downstairs. Once there, she opens the door to her room for Somrak, inviting him to enter first. “Here we are. Make yourself at home.”

The god hesitates for a fraction of a second but then enters, carefully moving aside the hanging, living privacy screen that limits the view of the room proper from the door. He stands for a long moment looking into Alma’s sanctum, his back turned to her. Although she cannot see his face, she can hear the soft catch in his throat of surprise and amazement. With a gentle nudge of her hand to his back, she encourages him to step forward so they both stand in the peaceful, quiet haven of running springs, verdant plants, soft lights and bookshelf-lined walls.

Somrak looks around, almost in a trance. “Thanks…where should I…?”

“Wait a minute,” Alma requests, looking from the bed to the alcove by the pool, trying to decide which of them would be more comfortable for him and more practical for her.

Finally, she decides on the alcove, no more than a shallow depression seemingly dug into the floor, a cozy nest lined with soft pillows where her Bunnies love to lounge after a bath. She crosses the room to remove the excess pillows, arranging the remainder to make a makeshift reclining mattress where Somrak will be able to sit and lean back while she heals his wounds.

She then returns to where the god is still standing, admiring the fountain shaped like a beautiful young woman holding a glowing orb. “You can sit there but first, we need to remove any clothing over those wounds.” She makes a motion to remove his jacket. “May I?”

Somrak awkwardly tries to remove it at first, grimacing in pain as he attempts to move his right arm. However, the arm barely budges, almost useless at this point, and he gives up on trying. “Yes, please.”

Being as careful as she can to avoid causing any more pain than absolutely necessary, Alma first helps him remove the left sleeve, that covers his uninjured arm, and then moves behind him to slowly slip the sleeve off his right arm. The nice, reinforced leather reeks of demon blood. Walking around him to look at damage to his chest, Alma cannot help but grimace at the sight of his corroded skin, the exposed muscle, and an ivory segment of his sternum.

How can he even stand still and remain silent? she wonders. He should be screaming in pain!

“I hope this looks worse than it feels,” she says out loud, trying to sound unaffected.

“I’ve…turned down the pain a bit,” Somrak replies in a somewhat strained tone of voice. “That’s the problem, really…I didn’t realize it was still eating away at me. I just…didn’t want Fencer to see it.”

“That was a silly thing to do,” Alma admonishes him, removing her ridiculously small jacket and throwing it onto the bed. “My aunt would not think any less of you for it. She…seldom changes her opinions of people.”

“Well I’m sure she would’ve blamed you for it,” Somrak mutters bitterly. “Sorry…I suppose your aunt just rubs me the wrong way.”

Alma chuckles. “Oh, she does that to a lot of people.” With great care, she touches the still unaffected areas of his skin and starts sending soft pulses of healing magic into him, to minimize the pain. “I have been her pupil for half a lifetime, Somrak. I’ve heard things out of her mouth that would have driven many to depression and suicide. But it is just her way, demanding perfection from those she feels are capable of it. When she says ‘good job’…that is when you should worry about her opinion of you.”

She tries to assess the full extent of the damage inflicted by the splash and dripping of demon blood on the god’s body. His throat is ulcerated, the right side of his chest is corroded by wounds that extend to his armpit and upper right arm. His right nipple is gone, the underlying pectoral muscle is ripped, eaten away by the demon’s blood, two of his ribs lay nearly exposed. The blood has dripped down to his abdomen, spreading the corrosion in a couple of lines that stretch just below his navel. Alma can sense that the wounds are still growing and will continue to grow if the demon blood causing them is not inactivated. Still, she feels confident that she can heal Somrak fully in maybe two or three sessions. Of course, she is currently feeling confident and optimistic about pretty much everything, tilting as her nature is toward her life sphere at the moment.

Thankfully, his left side seems to have been spared. Which is good, because Alma would not have been able to repair the tattoo on chest and shoulder depicting the beautiful, colorful images of a burning lion and a fire phoenix. The lion, wrapped in flames, is crouching, his rump raised, his head turned back, eyes flaring with anger at the gorgeous phoenix he has just failed to capture and that is flying above him, tail feathers draped over Somrak’s upper arm, as if mocking the frustrated feline.

A hungry lion once tried to capture a phoenix but she set him alight and flew away… Alma remembers the old Urbian tale and smiles.

Here and there, hidden in the images, charms of protection and good luck shine dimly.

“Well, while we wait for Rosemary, how are your legs?” Alma asks. “Should I take a look at them too?”

It is not until Somrak’s eyes widen and his face blushes bright red that she realizes the full meaning of her words.

“Ah – well, uuhh – I…I think they came through the fight all right,” he stutters.

Alma cannot help but giggle at his embarrassment. After all, not many gods concern themselves with wearing any type of underwear, unhindered as they are by any kind of bodily shame. In fact, many gods wear no clothing at all. And it is absolutely adorable to see an inveterate, cold-hearted killer like Somrak blush at the prospect of dropping his close-fitted leather pants in front of someone like Alma.

Giggling… she thinks, surprised at herself. I am giggling like a schoolgirl.

And even more surprising, she hears no accusations or criticism from Nekh at her impromptu flirting. Her mind feels light and relaxed, burdened by nothing.

I wonder if this is how Mother feels most of the time...she ventures. Oh well, maybe I can have a little more fun before Rosemary arrives with the clean cloths.

She tilts her head, grinning and looks down at Somrak’s fit belly, glancing at his face through the corner of her eyes. “Are you sure?” she asks, tracing one of the wounds dripping down his stomach with a softly grazing thumb. “This drip line came rather low on your torso. Though they all seem to have avoided your tattoos.”

Somrak breathes deeply, eyes fixed on her, his body temperature rising at her touch. “Uh, well…”

Whether he is willing to undress or not, the chance quickly passes when Rosemary enters the room, speaking to no one in particular and carrying a tower of towels that nearly obstructs her vision.

“Well these may be too many towels, but I boiled ‘em so they’d be sterile an’ – Oh!” She almost drops the towels at the sight of Somrak standing, his torso bare, his shoulder blade tattooed with a peaceful temple scene by a flowing river turned to her and Alma, Rosemary’s sight of her partially obstructed by the god’s body, a hand resting on his hip, looking at her over his shoulder. “Should I go ‘way? Or join in?”

She moves closer and Alma removes her hand from Somrak’s side, the god turning to look at the Bunny.

“I – eep!” Rosemary squeals, ears falling back in shock at the sight of Somrak’s wounds. “That…that is a nasty wound…”

“Yes, it is,” Alma replies in soft, reassuring tones, taking the towels before the Bunny drops them and placing them on the bed. “And it is still growing. We need to remove the demon blood from it. Could you help Somrak into the alcove?”

Rosemary’s expression hardens against shock and she nods silently. She slips her head of red curls under Somrak’s left arm and gets a firm hold on him, moving surely and dexterous to guide the god to his pillowy destination. She moves like one with long experience in this sort of thing, seemingly recovered from her first shock at the wound.

“Come on, love,” she says, all traces of flirtation gone from her voice. “Let’s get ye over here. Therrrre ye go, and whoopsie, safe as houses now.”

While she does this and then fetches the towels from the bed, Alma picks up a wash basin from where it sits on a stand by the bed and moves toward the fountain, stepping on the stones that rise slightly above the water until she reaches the statue and the spring that flows from it.

Filling the basin with pure, fresh water, she whispers, “Starfax, I need your help with something.”

And from the cage, among leaves of ivy and hanging flowers of bright hue, a pair of eyes the color of a summer’s dawn peek at the goddess. A delicate head feathered blue pokes through the bars, followed by a slender, iridescent body of a deeper, richer blue than any Guardia Dei could ever hope to don. Long plumes drape over an elegant neck, sparkling tail feathers brush against the cage as they follow their owner out of her flowery domain. Talons clear and delicate perch on the girl-statue’s hand, where a phoenix, no taller than Alma’s arm is long now sits looking at the goddess and waits.

In the alcove, Somrak must look surprised, for the goddess hears Rosemary say “Och, that’s just Starfax. She’s our dear friend.”

“Is she…a phoenix?” the god asks in a low voice, as if afraid of startling Starfax.

“Oh aye,” Rosemary replies.

“I’ve never seen one like that before,” Somrak whispers, barely loud enough for Alma to hear.

Smiling, Alma shows Starfax the basin. The phoenix leans over it, touching her diamond beak to the water and then submerging her head before removing it. In the wake of her touch, the water glows a bright, clear blue with the purifying magic of the bird. With a whispered word of ‘thank you’, Alma retraces her steps across the pool, to where Somrak lies still gazing at the phoenix.

Kneeling by his right and setting the basin on the floor, she explains, “Starfax is a water phoenix. She was a gift from my mother.” She motions to Rosemary to ask for a towel. “Would you like me to call her closer?”

“As long as she is not disturbed by my condition,” Somrak says, looking at Starfax through half-shut eyes, as Alma is given the requested cloth. He looks apologetically at the goddess. “I am filling up this beautiful sanctum with the smell of demon blood…”

After dropping the towel in the basin, Alma raises her right arm, her fingers twitching at the phoenix in a subtle call. “Do not worry about silly things. Water phoenixes have a healing, purifying touch. They don’t shy away from poison.”

At her signal and words, Starfax takes flight, spreading her glimmer through the air as she flies to land on the goddess’ forearm with an inquisitive look at the goddess. Alma moves her arm so that the bird is within Somrak’s reach. “You can pet her if you like, and if you offer your left wrist, she’ll perch there while I clean you.”

Somrak slowly reaches for the phoenix with his left hand, hesitating and pulling his hand back when Starfax flinches ever so slightly from his touch. He looks at Alma for guidance and she smiles and nods encouragingly, petting the bird’s neck and chest herself to soothe Starfax. When the god reaches for her again, Starfax allows him to pet her and, in spite of not being relaxed in the god’s proximity, still jumps and perches on his wrist when he offers it.

“She seems uneasy,” Somrak notes.

“It will pass,” Alma states, petting Starfax’s head before reaching for the now water-soaked towel in the basin.

Meanwhile, the phoenix seems to relax and starts moving sideways up Somrak’s arm, closer and closer to his face, making Rosemary smile at the sight of the two diametrically opposing entities together.

“They bind to and trust only one person,” Alma says conversationally, placing the towel on the god’s chest wounds. “But when they do…they do so completely and without reservation.”

Obviously grateful for something to focus on other than pain, Somrak seems to be enjoying the attention that Starfax dispenses him. The bird pecks at his ponytail as if to groom him, turning strands of his silky, black hair a bright silver-blue at her beak’s touch. Rosemary giggles as she hands Alma another towel.

“Where I was born,” Somrak speaks, “they are…well, not common, but not as rare as elsewhere. I didn’t realize there were any but fire phoenixes.” He pauses to think for a moment, as if this is becoming a tougher exercise as the demon blood is inactivated and relief settles in. “I can easily imagine an air phoenix, but…are there earth phoenixes?”

Carefully washing his wounds, using each towel only once and then handing them over to Rosemary once the cloth becomes black with the taint of demon blood, Alma feeds into this idle conversation to keep his mind away from the painful touch of the towels against his damaged flesh that competes against the relief brought by the inactivation of the corrosive poison.

“I have known one or two plant-like phoenixes but…I don’t know them all. I guess that if a life god could think of one, then it must surely have been created. Starfax is the only one I know of her kind, in spite of reports of phoenixes like her near the edge of the Insula.” She lifts her head and smiles at Starfax, who tilts her head at the goddess. “She has been with me through some very hard times.”

Somrak smiles as well, the absence of pain making his eyes look hazy and dreamful. “Have you ever been to the Sea, Alma? There’s a ward not so far from here, a resort, beautiful even though it’s Fifth Ring. I always promised myself I’d return when I wasn’t on the job.”

Alma hands Rosemary another blackened towel. “No, Three Rats is as low as I have ever been. But I have heard the songs and read stories and poems about it. Maybe I’ll find my way there someday.”

Now perching on Somrak’s wrist, Starfax grooms her beautiful feathers and cleans her beak against his skin, much to the god’s delight. “Heh. Should’ve seen Sky in the water. Like a happy fish. You and he could go there. Or I could take you.”

Rosemary’s ears suddenly stand to attention at the invitation and the Bunny’s face turns pink, her eyes locked on Alma’s face as she fights the urge to giggle. The goddess looks at her eldest child and subtly shakes her head to advise her to ignore Somrak’s words. The terrible pain followed by the great relief of no longer having the demon blood eating away at his body is clearly clouding the usually restrained god’s judgement and, although he would not be able to lie at this point, nothing he says should be taken for binding. It would be the same as taking promises from a drunken man.

“Sounds like a lovely thought,” Alma replies, handing Rosemary the last of the towels. “For now, however, I am done cleaning you. Time to heal. Rosemary, could you take the cloths upstairs and prepare the spare bedroom so Somrak can spend the night?”

“Yes, Mother,” Rosemary assents with a small nod. She carefully picks up the tainted, useless cloths and pauses to give Somrak a little peck on the cheek before rising to her feet. “Ye’ll be right as rain soon love. Ye’re in the best hands ye could hope t’be in.”

Somrak nods at her with an absent smile and the Bunny walks over to Alma to retrieve the basin for emptying and washing, and to kiss her mother’s cheek before leaving the room. The goddess gently reaches for Starfax, brushing her fingers against the bird’s to nudge her into shifting from Somrak’s wrist to her own.

“Time for you to go, my dear,” she whispers to the bird while petting her chest. When Starfax departs to perch on the edge of the fountain again, Alma turns her attentions to Somrak. “I will need to move behind you, if you don’t mind.”

Somrak says nothing but leans forward to allow her space to sit. Alma rises and places a leg on each side of the god, lowering herself to sit between him and the pillows that line the alcove. Draping her arms around him from behind, careful not to touch any open wounds, she pulls him close to her so that the god reclines against her. Her fingers brush against old scars as she adjusts slightly to make the position as comfortable as possible for the both of them. The greater area of contact between their bodies allows her a better sense of the damage, new and old, and already she can tell this healing will not just be about repairing that which was caused by the demon blood.

“I will try to take it slowly and be as gentle as I can be, but there are so many scars and old wounds… It may feel a little worse before it starts getting better,” she warns him.

Somrak leans against her more fully and exhales deeply. “I trust you, Alma.”

“Is there something you don’t want me to touch?” she remembers to ask.

The god lifts his left hand, traces with two fingers the scar on his face. “Please…leave this one alone.”

“Of course,” Alma replies. “If it is important to you.”

He hesitates for a moment before responding. “It…it’s what I have left…of someone.”

Alma reaches for his hand and holds it, whispering softly in his ear. “You don’t have to tell me. I understand. Sometimes all there is left is a scar.”

Somrak holds her hand in return, but remains in silent agreement. Alma closes her eyes, places her free hand on the left side of Somrak’s stomach. She can feel the slight tremor of his skin as her cool fingers touch it, as if already anticipating the surge of Alma’s magic. She breathes deeply, summons to her the peace and warmth of her life sphere. Although she does not have much mana left, her death side lies refractory to her summoning, leaving the whole of her energy focused on her life-giving powers. She feels them running through her body, free and eager like a young river, yearning to be released. Her mind feeling scattered and effervescent as is usual for life gods, it takes her some effort to rein in her powers, focus on sensing what must be healed first and what must be forcibly left alone.

A sweet, flowery scent fills the room, the constant, relaxing noise of the running water in the fountain mingles with a distant murmur of leaves blown by a gentle breeze. The room feels warm, tranquil. She can feel Somrak breathing deeply, his body relaxed against hers.

Slowly, very slowly, she releases her powers into him. It is all she can do not to rush, not to unleash them in a sudden, heart-stopping wave over his critically injured frame. It would not take her more than a stray thought to heal him completely in the space between two of his heartbeats. But that would be ultimately extremely painful and debilitating. And afterwards, absolutely exhilarating. No, she must not rush. She is tired and so is he.

Her mana washes over him, from her left hand to her right, spreading in a dual wave of discomfort and relief, pain and pleasure. His body becomes tense as bone, muscle, skin and internal organs flood his brain with messages of distress, only to fill it with ecstasy the next second. Already nearly unconscious from the overwhelming sensations, he leans his head back, his cheek against hers, his breath shuddering for air as some of his life force and physical reserves are consumed in the healing. She tries to move even more slowly, surprised at how deeply and how quickly she is healing him. Alas, she cannot. Imbalanced as she is, she can only focus on sparing his facial scar from her influence and let her magic run its course.

Wounds new and old are completely repaired. His corroded skin and muscle, poorly healed fractures, tears and scars, even a severed branch of a nerve on the left side of his face is repaired, restoring sensation to a portion of his upper lip. A guttural sound between a whimper and a moan escapes from Somrak’s throat and his back arches involuntarily at the sheer inability to process all of these different, converging sensations. His body feels hot against her, radiating its heat into her, making her feel feverish, covering her in sweat. His hand clenches Alma’s, his short fingernails pierce through her skin, and she does her best to ignore the sudden pain and stay in control as she holds him tightly to her.

And then suddenly, finally, the healing is done. Deprived of anything over which to exert its influence, Alma’s power loses its strength and slowly fades away in soft pulsing bursts that arrive weaker and weaker until all there is left is the ghost of their presence. Somrak’s body collapses against hers, his breathing quick and heavy, his heartbeat pounding at first but then becoming progressively slower. Struggling for air, Alma opens her eyes, just for long enough to check that his wounds are gone and his scar is not. Cradled in her arms, head reclining on her shoulder, his face against her neck, the fire god sleeps already, exhausted but smiling with something close to bliss.

Feeling drained herself, Alma closes her eyes and reclines more fully against the pillows, feeling consciousness fade away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Mother?” a soft voice whispers in her ear, followed by a light touch to her shoulder. “Oh Mum? Hey…ah there ye are…”

Alma slowly opens her eyes to see a red-headed Bunny looking at her. “Rosemary…” she says, her mind filled with haze. “What…?”

How long has she slept? A minute? An hour? Everything feels recent and far away at once. She feels her right arm numb, the weight of a body pressing against her front and it takes her a couple of heartbeats to remember Somrak and his wounds.

“Ye fell asleep, dear,” Rosemary explains, her voice blissfully low. “And oh, how comfortable ye both look…I wanted to leave ye be, but I knew ye were plannin’ to attend t’Dion…”

Alma’s eyes widen with realization. “Oh no…Gwydion… He must be tired of waiting by now.” She tries to free herself of the sleeping Somrak. “I’ll be right up.”

“Shhh, it’s all right,” the Bunny says, holding the goddess down and looking at Somrak with concern. “I checked…Dion’s fallen asleep. Cherry’s with him. I’ll let ‘em know ye’re on yer way…and I’ll move as slowly as ye like.”

Alma exhales deeply and looks at her with gratitude. “Thank you. Just…give us a moment. I will wake Somrak and bring him up.” She grins at a passing thought. “Give Cherry a chance to tuck him in as well.”

Rosemary giggles. “She’ll appreciate that. But if ye just rouse him a bit, me and Cher’ll be down in a moment an’ we can handle gettin’ ‘im t’bed. We’ve done that kinda thing with many a man unstable on ‘is feet, after all.”

“That…would be perfect,” Alma replies, nodding in understanding. As bar owners in their previous, dream life, her two eldest children surely must have encountered a number of drunken customers too intoxicated to stand properly or walk home by their own feet, after all. “Thank you.”

“It’ll be our pleasure,” Rosemary says with a wink before heading to the door. She pauses by the privacy screen made of hanging wisteria to look back at Somrak and giggle softly before finally leaving the room.

Alma makes sure to ignore the naughtiness in her giggle and carefully shifts Somrak’s body a little further to her right, mentally cursing at the tingling feeling of returning sensation on her arm. A very soft mana headache gently throbs against her skull, like a low background noise. Alma turns her eyes to the fountain, where Starfax is still perching, casually grooming her feathers, a bright eye glancing at the goddess as if to say Yes, I cared for you. The goddess smiles and nods at the bird, making a mental note to give Starfax her favorite treats before leaving to attend to Gwydion.

Brushing her fingers through the fire god’s hair, lightly caressing his scalp, she whispers a wake up call. “Somrak?…Somrak…”

“Hrrmmm?” he mumbles, batting an eyelid open.

His sleepy gaze takes a moment to focus on her blue eyes, that are just now losing the reddish aura of Alma’s life sphere, and he seems to freeze, looking at her with both eyes now, for a long, silent, breathless moment. Slowly, he seems to return to reality. “Ah…hello.”

Alma smiles reassuringly at him and makes sure to keep her voice low. “The healing is done. Let us move you to the spare room upstairs so you can sleep properly, all right? Rosemary and Cherry will be down in a minute to help.”

Somrak remains silent, looking at her face for another, long moment before smiling and nodding. “Of course. But I don’t need any help,” he says, rising to his feet. “I feel…oh…”

Still dizzy from the healing, his balance fails and the god nearly falls back into the alcove. Alma rises quickly, catching him before he starts falling, wrapping her arms around his torso to steady him on his feet. Weak and lightheaded herself, she nearly loses balance too but somehow manages to keep them both standing.

“Easy now,” she says. “It was a major healing I performed on you. Every wound and scar you had has been repaired. And you had quite a lot of those so most of your reserves are probably depleted. You will need a good night’s sleep to recover.”

His eyes slightly glazed, Somrak raises his hand as if in a trance and touches his facial scar to feel for himself that it is still there. He lets Alma guide him to her bed and she helps him collapse to a sitting position before leaning over to examine his freshly healed skin, slightly lighter in color than the rest, and his reconstructed nipple. The scars on his abdomen are gone as well, as is a slight nick on his right earlobe.

“Thank you,” he says barely above a whisper, gaze fixed on her face. “For the healing, for the room. And…thank you for trusting me.”

Alma smiles as much at his sudden sentimentalism, brought on by the intoxicating pleasurable feeling that healing always leaves on a patient, as she does at the personal satisfaction of a job well done. “I have trusted you before with far more important things. But your mind is not quite working properly, I imagine. Let us both rest and then talk better tomorrow, yes?

Ch6.23 Trust

They run through the maze of tangled streets, leaving the magical, unstable parasite dimension that the market usually occupies through a completely different access point than the one they took in. It takes Alma a few streets to finally make some sense of where they are. This area of Three Rats is hardly inhabited at all, mostly just a place of passage and short, whispered rendezvous. But there is no time to linger on that. Her eyes flare with her soul scrying and she swears under her breath as she tries to be of any use in finding the demon.

“Damned souls, where is she?!”

Fencer keeps appearing and disappearing from her divine senses, hardly giving her enough time to feel for her location with any level of certainty.

Can’t even do that right, can you? Nekh leers, amused at her frustration. Bet your ugly brother could tail her without even thinking about it.

I have many ugly brothers, Nekh, and they would all love to have your soul for a chew toy, Alma growls as she tries to hold on to Fencer’s trail. Now stop distracting me and let me do my job!

Stupid little half blood, the former Archon taunts her. You really think she needs your help? Really think she wants it?

Shut up “Demons! I lost her again!” Alma cries out in anger.

“This way!” Gwydion calls out to her. “Just follow me, I can sense its path.”

Alma falls closer behind him, as does Somrak. Gwydion has been running slightly ahead of them, actually, his steps leading the way with a certainty that Alma has never seen in him. He looks this way and that, every now and again, his eyes flaring gold, a faint glow silhouetting his form against the dark streets. And no matter how many corners they turn and how many crossroads, he always seems to find the right path. Claw marks and signs of destruction scour the walls, the ground. Lamp posts, lamps long broken and never replaced, hang crooked or rooted off the streets and cast aside as if they were nothing. And all around, that oppressing, rotten, terrible stench of Hell.

Suddenly, they hear a deafening roar of falling stone by their left. An orange-red glow illuminates the next alley. The three gods barely stop to exchange a look between them before diving into it at running pace. Beyond the mouth of the alley, a clearing has just opened in the wake of the collapse of an old, unstable three-story building made of mortar and brick. As they arrive, flames are soaring high, enclosing the stone ruins in a full circle, in spite of an obvious lack of something to burn. It is hellfire, unnatural flame, sparked by magic and fed by it, the same kind of fire that Somrak wields but colder, weaker due to the demon’s recent arrival into this plane of existence. Inside the barrage of flame, Alma can see the Fencer ducking and evading the attacks of the confused, enraged demon that keeps trying to escape the stone ruins of the collapsed building.

Oooooh! This should be fun! Think she’ll lose her other eye? Nekh coos.

By Alma’s side, Somrak mutters, “Fire. Right, let me try to cancel its flames. It shouldn’t be too sure of its fire yet.”

He concentrates and the fiery  perimeter surrounding the building begins to dwindle. Drawing his blades, Somrak makes a motion to run Fencer’s aid. Alma grabs his wrist to stop him, her eyes flashing with the eerie blue-green light of her soul scrying. At his questioning look, she replies with a jerk of her chin toward the demon, that is now backing away from his attacks against Varah at the feeling of its dying flames, its five partially-fused heads shooting this way and that atop their separate necks in confusion. Finally, its blind faces turn in Somrak’s direction. It sniffs the air, five gaping mouths cut like vertical slits vibrating membranous lips in a mixture of howls and growls. It leaps at the god.

And hits thin air as if it were a wall.

“Forcefield?” Gwydion wonders as the beast falls stunned not two steps away.

“Different dimension,” Alma explains.

“What are you waiting for, Alma? A gilded invitation?” the Fencer barks. “Help me establish a perimeter!”

Just let the bitch die! Nekh exclaims. What good has she been to you, anyway?

Nekh, I’m going to need you to make yourself scarce now, Alma says, ignoring his taunting.

And why would I do that Oh… his tone changes as she calls to mind a mental image of what she is anticipating for the upcoming battle. That looks like it’s gonna hurt.

It will. Very much, Alma concedes. Won’t that please you?

Oh, my dearest conniving Death Clan whore... he whispers with obscene sweetness. That will please me oh so much…

Alma breathes deeply at the sudden release of pressure that his departure always causes and walks into the building, closely followed by her fellow Dei. Though neither Gwydion nor Somrak can see it, an intricate web of spectral strands surrounds the ruins like a dome. Currently, a few strands have moved aside, creating a temporary gap through which the gods enter the makeshift arena where Varah stands, her soul a nexus from which all strands arise to limit the demon’s movements. But she cannot keep the artificial borders impenetrable for long. Instead, she focuses her energy where it is needed most, reinforcing specific areas at the expense of the whole.

Alma responds to her aunt’s orders immediately, unleashing her power. Around her, darkness spreads, a restless murmur of departed souls rises to meet the stunned demon’s grunts. From the blackened ground, countless ghosts traced in light emerge, ripping their way in as if summoned from an unseen grave. Whispering words of death and loss, they crawl up Fencer’s webs and merge with them, hanging from the strands like spiders, reinforcing the barrier with their immaterial presence, making it visible even to unspecialized eyes.

Alma feels her control of them being removed from her by Varah, their energy commandeered by the older goddess as if the Fencer were a parasite sucking her life-blood. It does not matter. Alma knows that what is expected of her will require complete, perfect focus.

“Can you banish it?” she asks Gwydion, by her right side.

He seems to consider this for a moment. “I’ve never read of a demon quite like this before. I’ll need some time, and concentration.”

By Alma’s left side, Somrak calmly reassures her. “I’ll make sure he’s left in peace.”

Alma nods. The fire god is no fool. Nothing good would come from stepping between Alma and her mentor.

“Thank you,” she says. Turning to Gwydion, she asks, “Anything you can think of I should worry about?”

“Aside from fire…” The magic god closes his eyes in concentration. After an instant, he opens them again and blinks confused. “Blood is highly corrosive. It wants you to cut it.”

“Alma!” Fencer calls.

The young goddess turns to Somrak. “Whatever happens, do not intervene. It could be the death of me.” She moves her eyes from him to Gwydion. “Be careful, you two.”

They nod grimly at her and she rushes to her aunt’s side. The demon is already rousing, howling at the strengthened barrier that keeps it imprisoned in this barely isolated dimension.

“We’ve practiced this a thousand times,” the Fencer says in a low voice. “You know what to do.”

“I do,” Alma replies.

The Fencer draws her sword and, without warning, drives the pommel into Alma’s stomach. The blow of the metal is blunt and weak but through it comes the piercing agony of the Soul Stealer, Varah’s signature technique. It cuts through Alma’s soul, barely missing Nekh’s, driving through her with burning, unspeakable pain. Alma jerks forward, breathing raggedly, and is caught by Varah’s strong arms.

“Don’t hold back,” is her only advice.

Alma merely nods, still too breathless to talk. They have done this a thousand times and a thousand times more with Melinor holding the sword instead of Varah. The pain is always the same. And Alma has learned to bear it.

The good part of it is that Nekh is taking his retreat seriously, probably motivated further by the Fencer’s sudden attack. It is for the best. Alma cannot afford any distractions. Varah pulls the sword back and grips it in vertical position, the tip of her blade pointed downward and resting on the ground like in one of those old sculptures of great knights. From it, a single glowing strand stretches into Alma’s core like a leash.

Varah’s crimson eye flares for a moment and the sword begins to glow with spectral energy. A spectral web sprawls over the ground, covering it, stretching under the feet of gods and demon. The beast has its attention turned to Somrak and sniffs furiously in the god’s direction. Behind Somrak, Gwydion is immersed in the dangerous, complicated process of improvising a banishment spell.

Alma releases her power even further. The scales of her spheres tilt completely toward death. The black of her stained hair burns away to reveal silver-white, her brown leathers darken to complete blackness. Her blue eyes disappear into the shadows that fill her orbits. Only a blue-green spark flashes in place of her pupils. Her pale skin glows like a ghost against the darkness around her.

The demon turns its attention toward her. She draws her daggers, their blades flaring with her spectral energy. It has been awhile since she has drawn on her power like this. The pain, the thrill…it always feels like the first time. The demon howls.

And attacks.

Alma moves swiftly, evading the beast’s attack as it comes crashing down, sharp claws on two powerful forelimbs slashing the space that the goddess had just been occupying, the blink of an eye ago. The demon turns, roaring its anger. A burning tongue of hellfire suddenly bursts from the ground by  Alma’s right and she moves quickly to the left. In a second, the fire dies, enraging the beast even further.

Thank you, Somrak, the goddess thinks without turning to look at the fire god.

She cannot turn. There is no time. The demon is already bounding toward her, its enormous bulk carrying powerful momentum. She adjusts her grip on her daggers, curses herself for leaving her sword at the station and lunges against her foe.

The Soul Stealer is a unique technique. It can be molded into many things. If sent surging through a blade, it can suck the lifeforce out of an opponent at each strike, no matter how shallow. Forged out of the spectral energy of its wielder, the Soul Stealer eats away at its victim, weakening its soul, even ripping it from the body it if need be. If it pierces through a soul, it can forge a link, or several, turning an unwilling victim into a mere puppet or a trained partner into a conscious, autonomous extension of one’s body. If woven into a web of glittering soul-strands…

It becomes a trap. In this spectral arena, Fencer is the weaver. Alma, her poisonous spider. And her leash allows her use of Varah’s senses, lets her see the demon’s broken, incomplete soul that her soul-scrying is usually blind to. The web tingles under her feet, vibrating with the demon’s presence, telling her where it is, how fast it is moving, where it will be.

And where it won’t. The young goddess rushes past the demon, barely evading its slashing attacks, nostrils filling with its sulphurous, rotting, hellish scent. Her daggers graze its soft-shelled body, metal sizzling against the hot, verrucous carapace.

Grazing. Not cutting. They don’t have to cut.

The demon shrieks as the magical, spectral edge of the metal blades cuts into its soul, tearing strips of it that curl around and bind to the piece of Alma’s spirit that is her own version of Varah’s Soul Stealer. The goddess takes a step back, senses a nexus opening in the web and steps on it. Immediately, the Fencer’s energy surges through her, catching and grabbing the demon’s soul-strands and latching them to the network of Varah’s woven trap, holding them tightly but not pulling on them.

The strands are fragile and not enough to grab a hold of the unstable, fractured soul of a demon, but more will follow. If the older goddess makes a mistake, if she pulls too soon, the strands will break, releasing the demon, and Alma will have to start again. If Fencer pulls the wrong strand, Alma’s soul will be the one trapped. If she lets go of Alma’s leash, the young goddess will be blind as a bat as to where to cut or where to step. Either way, it will be enough to turn her into a feast for the growling demon.

More flames shoot up by her feet, once, twice, three times, forcing her to keep moving. Somrak negates the first two but the demon spits a flaming ball of mucus against the god, breaking his concentration, forcing him to take a hit in order to protect Gwydion. Alma moves to strike the demon again, denying it a choice in opponents.

She attacks with her daggers again and again, tearing into its soul, binding each fragment to the throbbing network under her feet. Her hands hurt from holding metal against a hot target, her blades melt further at each strike until she has to switch them, discard the lumpy, shapeless used daggers for a renewed pair she pulls out of the recesses of her outfit. It is better she did not bring her sword. She would have hated to see it destroyed.

The beast keeps fighting, sending flame against all four gods, thrashing with its claws and stumpy, spiked tail, its body showing signs of the exhaustion imposed by the Soul Stealer. Alma can see its spectral bonds tightening under Varah’s grip, robbing it of some of its speed and force. It is almost fully caught.

She evades yet another five-front attack of fiery globs from its multiple mouths. She has to hurry. The burning touch of Varah’s soul-bond on her is taking its toll, exhausting her fast. If she can secure the last four strands in the next blow, that will be it. The targets shine brightly on the beast’s chest. She lunges forward.

But the beast doesn’t. It rises on its hindlimbs, imposing, monstrous, and bursts into flame. It is all Alma can do to freeze in her tracks and veer to her left, stumbling for balance. A tongue of flame bursts in front of her, another behind her. Alma looks around. She is trapped, surrounded by flame. The hideous shape of the demon casts its shadow above her, its five-fold head first turned to shoot its flames against Somrak, then turning to focus its nostrils on her. She cannot escape. It raises a vicious paw, strikes.

Alma falls backwards, body caught between its claws, miraculously spared from its flames by Somrak’s quick recovery. She squirms like a mouse trapped under a lion’s paw, her last set of blades sent flying by the beast’s attack. To her horror, she sees the soul-bindings that surround its forelimb tug at the demon to no avail. The demon roars and they break, not enough alone to hold it in place. If the binding is not complete, the prey can escape. Alma does not stand a chance. The beast sniffs at her, growls in anticipation of its feast, mouths gaping open, dripping with vile, oily spit. It bites.

It roars in pain. Alma feels the pressure holding her disappear and opens her eyes to see the leather-clad shape of Somrak kicking viciously at the demon’s head. The beast backs away in confusion and pain, releasing Alma, trying to keep away from Somrak’s blows. The death goddess just lies there, processing the scene for a breathless moment. Then, she springs to action, rising and fetching her daggers while the demon is distracted. Somrak keeps kicking, delivering swift strikes to the demon’s face, any of them enough to kill a mortal. Alma exchanges a brief glance with Fencer, feels the goddess’ grip tighten on her leash.

“Get out of there, you idiot!” Varah shouts at Somrak.

But it is too late. Somrak’s kicks fracture the largest of the demon’s skulls, breaking its skin against the bone. Blood gushes out and splashes the fire god, hitting his throat and making him yell with the sudden pain of its corrosive touch. The demon rears back, shaking its head, and Alma moves swiftly to push Somrak away from it. She can see the demonic blood trickling down under the fire god’s jacket but there is nothing she can do to help ease his pain. Her healing life sphere is completely dormant at the moment.

“I need you out of range now and protecting Gwydion,” she tells him. “I will finish this.”

Somrak nods and falls back to his previous position by the god of magic, grimacing in pain. Gwydion looks completely oblivious to his surroundings, his body glowing softly with a golden hue. Alma breathes deeply. She has to buy him the time he needs.

Her power again surging through the daggers, she makes the best of the demon’s confusion and immediately secures new bindings to replace the broken ones on the beast’s forelimb. Another strike rips through the demon’s central soul-fragments, yielding two more soul-strands that Alma quickly attaches to a nearby nexus in the web.

Two more….only two more to go.

Of course, they just had to be the tricky ones. She rushes toward the demon and it lunges to meet her, claws and maws ready to grab her, body burning with roaring flame, slightly slower from the Fencer’s grip on it. She dives forward and twists midair, landing on her back, sliding belly up on the floor, her head to the beast’s backside. She winces at the heat of the flames,  thrusts the daggers up, feeling them melt. She screams as they burn her hands, as she sends her power into the demon’s belly, piercing through its spectral core. It shrieks and contorts at the pain, turning just as Alma emerges behind it. She gets up on one knee, waiting for its counterattack, grinning at the feeling of a nexus opening just under her, at Varah’s shooting spectral grip through the open channel of Alma’s soul.

The demon jumps.

And freezes midflight. Just for a second. A heartbeat.

The beast howls.

And falls, heavily, against the ground. Alma looks back at the Fencer. A grinning face meets her in reply. The trap is complete. The demon is going nowhere.

But it is still trying.

“Ugh, this one is a fighter.” Fencer grimaces, clutching at her sword, clearly struggling to keep both this alternate dimension and the demon under her control. “Hey, Ponytail! How’s Prettyboy doing over there?”

Fire geysers shoot up all around the area. The demon cannot move but it is nowhere near giving up.

Gwydion does not open his eyes but nods at Somrak, an indication that he is conscious of his surroundings.

“Almost there!” Somrak replies, forehead glistening from the effort of canceling the demon’s flames.

Still kneeling, Alma places her hands on the ground, wincing at the painful touch of her burnt palms fingers on the glittery, buzzing web of the Fencer’s trap. She unleashes whatever power she has left in her death sphere through the web to help reinforce it. “We’re ready when you are!”

Almost as if responding to Alma’s words, the ground begins to glow with a brilliant, golden light. Gwydion, standing straight and still, enveloped in a glowing, blinding aura, opens incandescent, coppery-golden eyes, raises a single hand in the direction of the demon. His lips move soundlessly, forming the words of his spell.

The light grows brighter, forcing Alma to close her eyes, piercing through her eyelids. She cannot protect herself with her hands, invested as they are on reinforcing the Fencer’s spell. She can hear the demon shrieking in pain, feel it pull at the bindings, trying to escape from the divine touch of Gwydion’s spell. The beast contorts and flails violently in a panic. But neither Varah nor Alma weaken their hold and the trap holds its prey tightly.

Darkness ensues. Not complete darkness, but a soft shadowy twilight like the hesitant arrival of a winter’s dawn. Alma risks opening her eyes, shakes her head against the greenish-purple ghosts left behind from the magical, blinding light. The ground is dark again. The demon lies senseless in the center of a summoning circle of golden glyphs, most of them completely new to the goddess. They spin slowly, burning with a strange light, reshaping themselves into hideous, blackened, distorted forms that somehow speak of only one thing.

Hell.

At a roared word of “Submit!” from Gwydion, the circle contracts around the demon. The ground trembles as a huge, blackened, scaly talon shoots from the darkness, grabbing the dazzled demon, that seems to waken and fights wildly to release itself. The clawed hand that holds the beast relaxes its grip, wavering as if still immaterial.

Gwydion must not be certain of the spell yet. Alma feels the spectral bindings around the beast strain to keep it bound. She struggles to maintain her hold on them.

Gwydion roars again. “Submit!” Alma has never seen him as powerful, as iron-willed as this.

The hand begins to glow, traced in golden veiny light. It looks more solid now. The fingers close inexorably around the demon, begin pulling it into the ground. The demon flails but to no avail. It is doubly trapped.

Gwydion stumbles, his legs go limp from the effort of casting the powerful, never attempted spell. Somrak catches him, looks at the demon. The spell seems unaffected, still drawing the demon into whatever dimension lies beyond the darkness. Nightmarish voices wail and screech, calling gutturally for the frenzied demon. They are deafening, blood-curdling.

“Get out!” Fencer orders, voice barely above the terrible cries. “Alma, you too! I’ll hold it!”

Somrak obeys, pulling Gwydion away to a safe distance, but Alma refuses to move. She can feel the demon tearing the soul-strands, so terrified that it is destroying its own soul just for a chance to escape. “I’m staying!”

“This is not up for discussion!” Varah barks.

“You’re right, it isn’t!” Alma barks back.

The spell runs its course. With the death goddesses keeping it bound, helping Gwydion’s spell along, the demon is dragged into the screaming, sulphurous darkness and disappears. The voices go silent, the circle of blackened, hideous glyphs flashes into a bright halo of hallowed symbols and winks out of existence.

Alma remembers to breathe again. She cancels her influence, feels her soul retreat into her own body again, released from the Fencer’s hold. In its wake, some of Varah’s mana transfers into Alma, partially replenishing the young goddess. The mana does nothing to keep her death sphere from going numb. If they get into another fight, Alma will be useless as a death goddess.

But at least this is over. Behind her, the Fencer sheathes her sword. The darkness, the barrier, the web, they all disappear. Around them, only the cool, natural night remains. And instead of haunting voices, only a deafening silence fills the crumbled building.

Alma rises unsteadily to her feet, wincing at her blistered hands, and walks slowly toward the place where Somrak is propping Gwydion up on his feet, left arm under the magic god’s right armpit.

“Dion is weakened,” Somrak says with a grimace of obvious pain. His right arm hangs limp along his side. “Let’s get out of here before people start coming around to see what happened.”

“Can he walk?” Fencer asks in the tones of one more worried about the inconvenience of carrying a fallen comrade than anything else. She gives off no signs of being particularly tired after such a trying battle.

Gwydion nods, too tired to speak at this point, his forehead beaded with sweat. Her numbed death sphere allowing her a faster return of access to her life powers, Alma rushes to heal her burnt hands and moves quickly to his left, to help Somrak in propping him up, her right arm moving under his armpit and behind his back, hand gently and just for a moment squeezing his side in affection and encouragement before settling in its supporting hold of the magic god. Gwydion lays his hand on her shoulder with a small, exhausted smile at her.

“That was quite the banishment spell,” she says in honest admiration.

“Yes. Good job there, Prettyboy,” Fencer adds in the tense, uncomfortable tones of one not used to giving compliment. She must really have thought very little of Gwydion to be showing this much surprise at his skill. Her eyes go to Somrak and she barks halfheartedly, “You too, Ponytail.”

But then her gaze falls on Alma and lingers there. Her aunt’s anger feels to Alma like a bubbling cauldron, building up heat and radiating through her skin like a hand clenching in preparation for a blow. “As for you, missy…” Fencer growls. “Falling? Disobeying orders? What do you think this is, a practice run?! Could have gotten yourself killed. Or Ponytail over there.” She gestures at Somrak as if he were just a meaningless recruit. “I taught you better than that.”

Her words are like ice down Alma’s spine after the thrill of seeing a demon defeated and the Soul Stealer used for the first time in action in a real-life scenario with tremendous success. The young goddess looks down at her feet, sighing in sudden shame, her body hollow. “You did, my aunt.”

She does not dare to face Gwydion, whose hand has just tightened its hold on her shoulder, or Somrak, whose body temperature she feels rise against her hand where he is still holding Gwydion’s side. She has long learned to take Fencer’s scoldings as something to swallow and get over with, but being scolded in front of them verges on true humiliation. Of course, Fencer would never take time to consider such things, and even if she did, dismiss them as just another reason not to make mistakes in the first place.

“You have got to be kidding,” Somrak hisses suddenly, making Alma turn a shocked look in his direction. He has just released Gwydion and is moving dangerously close to Fencer. “Alma was amazing, and if you can’t see that, you need to get your eye fixed!”

“Careful, off-blue!” Fencer growls in a voice that promises aggression for his presumption. “I taught this girl everything she knows about fighting and if you thought that was amazing, then you don’t want to know what I haven’t taught her yet. No self-respecting fighter would let jyrself fall into a situation like that.” She turns to Alma again, a finger pointed at her in accusation. “And if I tell you to leave, you leave. What if the spell had sucked you in too, huh?!”

“She did fine,” Somrak insists, placing himself between Alma and her aunt. “And you may have dreams of turning her into a fighter, but you miss that she’s a damned good blueshirt. It’s not all about combat. Let’s not forget who’s in charge of this ward right now.”

Alma is lost for words. This Somrak is not at all what she is used to and the words coming out of his mouth don’t seem his at all. Where is the off-blue who left a whole gang crippled over a single overheard tip?

But when Fencer takes a threatening step forward, Alma finds the strength again to intervene. “Please, Somrak,” she asks, touching his back with her free hand to his back and wincing at the feel of his hot body against her newly healed, still sensitive skin. He glances back and moves aside at a significant glance from her. “I am sorry, my aunt. I stumbled and yes, a fellow Guardia suffered for it. But we gain nothing from discussing this here. Let us get to the station. Gwydion needs to rest and Somrak needs healing. The market has been dispersed, anyway. No point in staying out.”

“I agree,” Gwydion adds to her plea, the strain in his tone making his effort evident. “Besides, we seem to have attracted a lot of attention. There is no way we can go back now, without being made for Guardia.”

He makes a show of looking around them at the small crowd of wayward thugs, prostitutes and homeless, raggedy people gathering to see what has just happened to what was probably one of their many usual squat places. They look at the Guardia and it is to Alma’s great horror that she realizes that most of her disguise has been cancelled during the battle. One look at her and all four gods will have had their covers blown to pieces.

“Our animal-dealer is dead, anyway,” Somrak mutters bitterly.

Fencer glares at them all with renewed ferocity but eventually yields. “Fine. Let’s go, then.”

She turns on her heel and starts marching away without a second look to check if they will follow or if they need help. Alma looks apologetically at both Gwydion and Somrak, feeling relieved, grateful and lightheaded, almost dizzy at the mix of emotions that is hitting her like a brick wall. It is not just her hands that are oversensitive, she feels. The whole of her being tingles with emotion, open as she is to emotions that her death nature usually blocks.

To her right, Gwydion chuckles as Somrak again moves to help prop him up, signalling to Alma that he will take care of helping the god of magic on his way. “That little speech sounded familiar.”

“Yeah yeah, laugh it up, Prettyboy,” Somrak teases him in mock irritation.

Against all odds, Alma finds herself bursting in laughter. The tension leaves her, adrenalin burnt away, in long, wholehearted laughs that shake her frame almost painfully and have the two gods looking at her in pleased surprise. She has to wipe a tear from her eye with a finger still reeking of demon. “You know, if you two need a moment, I can leave you to find some place quiet…”

 

Ch6.22 Trust

“Dion keeps looking over here,” Somrak murmurs as he scouts out the secret market, looking for the best stall to start at. Though most of the sellers don’t have ‘stalls’ per se. They have simple tables, or even just blankets laid on the cobblestones of the ephemeral courtyard, a place that only exists in the Insula Caelestis at certain times, when the moons and stars align in the right configurations, and only for those bearing the correct medallions. While having a solid storefront might suggest competence to buyers, most of the merchants in this temporary market prize the ability to pack up and leave swiftly, for their products are those which are in high demand among a certain very specialized, niche clientele, those in need of imports from a land impossibly distant and yet almost close enough to touch: Hell.

“Varah will take care of that, don’t worry,” Alma whispers back. She looks down at her disguise, adjusting the cut-down jacket that conceals almost nothing. “So…plans?”

Somrak glances away from the market to look at her, and half-smiles. “Everyone will assume he’s just mesmerized by the hot mercenary anyway. You know the plan. We put it about that we’re looking for a summoner. Keep it vague whether we want to hire or be hired. Try to get a line on who’s still in the area now that the more obviously dangerous gangs have been cleared out.”

“That was not exactly what I meant. I meant…what part will you have me play here?” She moves closer, whispering, “And you are not exactly helping in making me more at ease in this silly outfit.” She looks down at the skin-tight, low-rise leather trousers, the matching midriff-revealing, cleavage-advertising bustier, and the leather jacket studded with bronze spikes, too tiny even to be closed. Festooned with knives, the ensemble looks like something Saira would wear, if Saira cared nothing for the practical protection that leather provides. Which is exactly what it is: the leftovers of Saira’s outfit, after being shredded in battle by the demon she and Sky fought, salvaged and redesigned by Sage. It was meant to be a gift to Saira, but a little judicious use of magic resized it to be a perfect fit for Alma. Further magic has changed her hair from its usual snowy white to a lustrous raven-wing black, and her skin tone to something with a hint more color than its normal creamy alabaster.

Somrak’s leathers, magically returned to their usual black-with-crimson-highlights so as to match Alma’s outfit, fit equally closely but do not reveal as much skin, though he has unzipped the jacket to show more of his smoothly muscled chest, wearing no shirt underneath. The idea is to make them appear to be from the same mercenary company. He has not changed his appearance, except for a simple spell to make the scar across his face fade into something barely noticeable, nothing more than a faint line.

“Well I didn’t choose it, did I?” He catches the look on her face and relents, reminding himself that just as he has a great deal to learn when it comes to being a normal, station-bound cop, Alma and Gwydion have had little to no experience in going undercover. “Just move with me, like we’ve fought side by side for years. If you recognize any faces, or if something comes up that clicks with something you know, break in if you feel it’s right, or signal me and we’ll slip off and share information.” He glances over her outfit again. “You’re a sexy death machine. Own it. Live the part.” He grins.

Alma rolls her eyes, then looks around, eyes flaring for a moment as she engages her divine sphere. Somrak catches a scent of cypress and cinnamon for just a moment. “See that corner to my right, the one with the animals?”

“Mm-hm.” He looks without seeming to look. The merchant is a rotund, jowly figure, sitting on a folding chair and fanning himself, lazily blinking his single large eye between a jutting forehead and a pug nose.

And around the merchant are creatures leashed, in cages, or in glass tanks, and many of them defy easy classification as well. Exotic, certainly. Strange hybrids of fish and frog, spider monkey and spider, hare and stag beetle, are on display, but the most striking is a beautiful tiger that lounges in a semicircle around the merchant’s feet.

“They are not animals,” Alma says. “Not normal ones, at least.”

Somrak takes a better look, knowing they will probably be approaching the merchant soon anyway. The tiger’s fur is the opposite color of the usual, a beautiful greyish-blue where it should be orange, white where it should be black, and vice-versa, like a negative. He calls upon his own sphere, that of fire. A familiar sound of crackling wood, a palpable heat, and the smell of burning causes Alma, the only person close enough to notice it, to look at him. “Their body temperatures are unnaturally high,” he says. “They’ve been magically altered. Metabolisms boosted. They’ll move fast, strike hard.”

“And live shorter lives,” she finishes bitterly. “And I cannot see them with my scrying. Not most of them. They do not have souls like normal animals. I remember reading somewhere that that was a way of smuggling demon souls and forming hybrids in the old days. First step before human-demon hybrids.”

“Remove the soul, replace with demon,” Somrak says, nodding. “I’ve seen it before. Doesn’t show up as possession to most spells, either. And then sell the demon-possessed, speed-boosted creatures as weapons. You said ‘most’?”

Alma nods. “That tiger…it doesn’t seem to have had its soul removed yet. A few of the smaller ones too.” She snorts as they approach the merchant. “And to think it was me the Council wanted to kill…” She falls into her role, putting her wrist on his shoulder and her chin on her hand, looking over the merchandise. “Baby, what do you say we find a replacement for old Fang? Been awhile since we had a pet.”

Somrak grins. “As long as it can rip off the right faces and doesn’t beg at the table.”

“Oh, you know just what I like!” she exclaims with a grin and a little bite to her lower lip topped with a couple of playful pats to his chest. Her touch on his chest feels like a mild electric shock, and for a moment he thinks she has infused him with her mana, but then realizes it is his body thrilling to her touch. “I’ll train him well, you’ll see. After all, I trained you.” She winks and moves closer to inspect the animals. He has to tear his eyes away from her. The way she moves, this playful exploration of a role normally denied to her.

“Mrrrr…” the cyclops purrs. “Iiis best in market. You wan’ fighting beast?”

“What do you have?” Somrak asks, fascinated by the merchant’s eye, which on closer examination has a double-bifurcated pupil, four lenses each in the shape of a rounded quarter-slice of pie.

“Mrrr… Thiiis tigre iis ver’ amenable. Eat enemy, no body disposal. Mrrrr…”

Alma kneels in front of it. Surprisingly, the tiger raises its head to look at her, then closes its eyes and bumps its head against her ribcage, rubbing its brow against her. “Why he’s just a big kitty!” she cries as she strokes tiger’s chin, turning her head to hide her divine vision from the merchant. Somrak, however, sees her eyes glowing greenish-blue as she inspects the tiger closely. “You look so big but you’re just a kitty, aren’t you? Just a cute big bad tiger. Ooh, those are some big teeth!” By now the tiger is lying on the cobblestones, belly up, enjoying Alma’s energetic caresses and baby talk.

The merchant nods, smiling to reveal snaggle teeth. “Mrrr.” Somrak decides this is the cyclops’ way of laughing. And that the cyclops is actually female. “Part wolf…iiis, mrr, ten parcenture? Obey strong personality. But challenge weak one. Mrr. Eat big then.” Her grin is a horror to behold.

Alma laughs. “I like him, baby. Reminds me of you.”

Somrak gives her a look of hungry passion. A small voice – it sounds suspiciously like Sky’s – reminds him he is only playing a role, and so is Alma. But in the moment, falling deep into his undercover role as he always does, he doesn’t listen to that voice. To be what he pretends to be, and to be with her, an Alma as free of bonds as the character she is playing – would that not be sweet? He feels his heart pounding as he imagines kissing her, right now, no reservation, just kissing her with all his being. There is a very dangerous moment when he comes within a razor’s edge of doing it.

Then that little voice, so like Sky’s, whispers Remember. And he does. Remembers past dreams of love, dreams that would have been better left as dreams. The moment passes and he exhales, only then realizing he has not been breathing. He looks away from Alma and says to the merchant, “In that case he should be perfect. But the kind of things we get into…we need something with defenses.”

The merchant nods. “Got ways. Hear of aresion?”

Somrak narrows his eyes. It is a diabolic practice of infusing barely-sentient demons of war into a life form. “Don’t that cause sudden catastrophic fatalities?”

“Only, mrrr, one in twenty case. No problem, most time. Unfair rep.” The merchant’s assurances are a lie. Somrak knows that the failure rate is more like one in eight.

Alma stands and puts her arms around Somrak’s neck from behind, cheek brushing against his ear in mocked pleading for a tiger-shaped gift. “That was how we got our last pet his shields, remember? Just need to know the right guy.” She looks at the cyclops and shrugs. “Our guy is dead now. His contract expired.”

“Mrrrrrr…only, er, idiot let contract expire. Better off without him.” The merchant’s purring laugh sounds nervous. She would know that Alma is not talking about a mercenary contract, but a demonic pact. “I know summoner. He never fail to get de…ermmmrrr, extension? Ha, extension.”

Somrak asks, “How long to infuse the tiger? And if it fails to take properly, we are not paying. Just to be clear.” Alma’s arms on him no longer distract with thoughts of impossibilities. He is only playing a role, and so is she, and he is glad for her touch only insofar that it indicates he hasn’t made obvious that his desire for her is more than just acting.

The cyclops considers. “Delivery in three day.”

Alma curls Somrak’s ponytail around her finger. “Baby, you know I don’t trust goods from summoners I don’t know.” She looks at the merchant. “I wanna meet this one before we do any business. We’ve had enough people try to cheat us.” She moves her hand down to one of the half dozen knives on her belt. “Just try, mind you. I’m sure you understand, business woman like you.”

The cyclops eyes her nervously. “Mrrrr, this summoner got rep. Guarantee good. No independent.”

“With a gang?” Somrak asks. “Which outfit?”

The cyclops looks around, her jowls sinking. “De Whisper. You know…”

Alma pretends to be impressed. “Isn’t that the one with the diabolists?”

The animal merchant nods. “Ask roun’. Here, everyone know Whisper.”

“We’ll do that,” Somrak says. “We’ll be back. Maybe.”

“Probably,” Alma insists, hammer-punching Somrak’s shoulder. “Come on, sweetie, I really like him. I’ll call him Misty.”

As they move away, Somrak says quietly, “I get the feeling this is the first you’ve heard of this Whisper gang too?”

“They are not local, I can tell you that. And that would explain why they keep evading us. As I suspected, we need to start warning our neighboring wards. I’ll enquire with my cousins again, see if they know anything.”

“Could be our quarry,” Somrak agrees. “If not, we have even more trouble on our hands. Let’s do that asking around, then have a word with Dion and Fencer. After that, see if we can convince One-Eye to let us attend the summoning.” He glances back at the tiger, which is watching them go like a rejected dog at an animal shelter. “Maybe we can steal us a kitty before any infusing happens.”

Alma grins. “Oh baby, you know just how to make a girl happy, don’t you?”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Stop looking at them. Focus.”

Fencer’s growl is low and discrete, at least by busy market standards, easily missed by most otherwise-engaged ears, but somehow it carries through to Dion’s distracted mind, raising the hairs on the back of his head to attention, in the same way that catching the faintest of snoring sounds bouncing off calcareous stalactites would freeze the blood of anyone taking shelter from the rain in a dark, suddenly not-so-empty cave.

“I am perfectly focused,” he lies, averting his eyes from the other side of the market, where Alma and Somrak are currently trying to gather information, to look at Fencer with a carefully blank expression.

“Could have fooled me,” she replies with a snort.

She is right, he has to admit. Although, of course, not to her. It is not just a matter of this being the type of operation that Dion very much dislikes and usually avoids for its naturally uncontrollable, unpredictable character. For as much as he is willing to admit that such actions are sometimes justifiable, they just feel to him like a rather dishonest way of upholding the law. Somewhat like cheating for Guardia, who are supposed to set an example that civilians can follow. And then again, that is why they call these things off-blue ops (as opposed to the everyday true-blue Guardia work). But perhaps more uncomfortable than this temporary change of roles is the apparent eagerness with which Alma, so worried before about Saira’s involvement in the whole demon issue, now puts herself in the role she did not want the woman playing. She seems to not mind at all that Somrak, hot-headed and vicious when provoked Somrak, is constantly taking control of the investigation away from her, or even the occasional glances of desire he keeps dispensing her. Dion’s mind treacherously plays back Alma’s admission that she finds the fire god attractive. And seen together now, walking side by side with matching outfits, even if Alma’s hair and the exaggerated sway of her hips is all wrong for her, they seem like a perfect, matching pair. A better match than Dion could ever expect to be.

Stop it! he scolds himself. This is not the place nor the time! They are undercover. Stop being weak!

“My niece tells me you’re good at what you do.” Fencer’s voice cuts into his thoughts like an axe into butter. “Let’s see if she’s looking at you straight.” She looks around at the stalls. This part of the market is slightly more elaborate, more turned to selling alchemical components and, therefore, requiring specialized containers and shields. Many of the things being sold here could very easily explode or, in a slightly less colorful scenario, metabolize half the market into primal muck if they were to be released from their special tubes and transport media.

“We need alchemical merchants selling things that are not on display,” she announces in dry tones that certainly don’t match her chosen cover’s outfit.

In fact, nothing in this cover even remotely resembles Fencer’s usual look or personality, no matter how much she hasn’t changed about herself. Her red hair, usually military-short, now falls in rich curls over her shoulders, a few locks braided with golden thread and tiny bells reminiscent of what would happen if a very lonely, fashion-forward lady were to own a very depressed angora cat. Her blind, milky eye looks pristinely crimson after a simple illusion spell, matching the other one perfectly, now that the spell that usually courses through it in silvery lines has been dimmed. Her practical, no-nonsense leather outfit has been replaced with long, colorful skirts and a flimsy, frilled, low-cut red blouse that is just short enough to leave her fit abdomen on display. In short, she looks exactly like Fencer would if all the bile in her were to be replaced with pixie dust. Or something she could have become if life had taken a different turn, maybe.

Too bad she still has the same personality, though.

“It would help to know at least something of what we are meant to be buying,” he notes, letting a hint of irritation creep into his voice. “I could identify similar ingredients that are on display.”

For a moment, it is like Fencer didn’t even hear him, or is pretending not to. She remains silent, making no secret of her visual browsing around the stalls, tables, heavy-duty cisterns propped on engine-powered carts and flat surfaces alike, like a buyer so used to this place that she finds no danger in it. Then, she says in almost casual tones, “What can you do with infera aura?”

Dion pauses, mentally browsing his internal library of spells and spell components. This is a test, he senses. Fencer thinks very little of him already – actually, Fencer is famous for thinking very little of everyone but she seems to despise him with a peculiar intensity. Surely, she will know of the trail of scorned lovers he has left behind in the First Ring, but does she suspect his involvement with her niece? Anyway, it is imperative that he makes a good impression with the subcommander.

“I could make something that enhances psychic abilities,” he replies, making a mental note to remember that this is an important component in soul bombs.  “Clairvoyance, telepathy…maybe psychokinesis.”

Fencer harrumphs at his answer. “Huh… Been studying your lesson amidst prowling for your next bedmate, have you? Very well, let’s play with that knowledge. Tonight, you are my client, trying to increase your psychic abilities. Any final goal you’d like to have?”

Dion finds himself taking unwilling, boyish pleasure at her response despite the stinging comment about his personal life. He has passed her test. Thank the Fates for small favors.

“How about the ability to read souls?” he offers.

Fencer snorts, possibly at the thought of him delving into her area of expertise. “Sure, why not? All I need is an act you can keep, Prettyboy.” She jerks her head at the stalls around them. “So…who’s trading in the rock here?”

Prettyboy…lovely…

Dion breathes deeply before taking a more attentive look around. Doing his best to remain as inconspicuous as possible, he keeps his powers reined in as he analyzes the goods on display, looking for anything out of the ordinary. His eyes glint only a very pale golden over the usual hazel that Dion has done nothing to cover. Other than a less-formal attire and a simple spell to turn his hair blonde and tan his skin, Dion, by far the more mortal-looking and less conspicuous of the Three Rat Dei force has very little trouble keeping attention away from himself. A familiar tingle to his senses makes him focus on a rickety stall made of stacked-up wooden crates organized in tiers and covered by a filthy rag that must, in some former life, have been a potato sack.

He gestures subtly at it, with his chin. “The fellow with the eyepatch. He has some lesser wares on display, but they are essentially impure versions of infera.”

“Then that’s where we start,” Fencer replies. “If you’re not sure of what to say, just stay quiet. Let me do the talking.”

Dion takes another deep breath at her deprecatory tone, trying very hard not to sigh. Dealing with Fencer, he is finding, means spending most of the time between fear, shame and irritation in equal parts. How can Alma have dealt with her so long and still hold any affection for the goddess? They move toward the stall and a merchant who could very easily make a fortune advertising for wooden sea-faring vessels and old maps defaced with big red crossmarks. Dion finds himself thinking of fish dinners for some reason.

“If you’re not buyin’, move on,” the stall owner grumbles with a scowl that doesn’t look so much directed at them than built-in for general purposes. “You’re takin’ up space for payin’ customers.”

Fencer responds to this with a smile that could have been pleasant if it had a little more practice to it. She makes a show of looking around at the complete absence of any other customers interested in the man’s wares, one hand on her hip in relaxed defiance.

“Now there’s a way to attract clientele!” she says with a nasally, high pitched voice that could have sent dogs running away whimpering. “Come on, we’re good for the money if you’re good for what we’re lookin’ for. And I can tell you it ain’t here…” she adds with a disappointed look at his stall.

The approach seems completely lost on what Dion is beginning to think of as the least likely merchant to sell anything on this side of the Urbis. “Fine! You think I don’t have what you want, then get out of my face!”

“Hang on,” the god intervenes, trying to salvage what little chance they have of making the man talk to them. He picks a chunk of greyish-yellow rock speckled with reddish-black mineral deposits and sniffs at it like an amateur connoisseur with no magic abilities would. Infera aura, one of the many minerals a mage is required to learn about at the Magic Academy, is famous for smelling like a scream, although to Dion’s nose, it has always smelled like a mixture of fireworks and blood: pungent, metallic but with a note of sweetness and mustiness if scented through the roof of the mouth. This chunk of rock smells only very faintly of that against the obvious sulphurous reek of the stone encasing the tiny deposits of infera aura. “Well…this would have to be refined considerably. But if it is all we can find…”

Fencer puts a hand on his as if to advise him to put the rock down. Her fingers feel cold as steel against his skin. “Calm down, dearie, we just got here.” She turns to the stall owner with a meaningful look on her face. “New customer, impatient little critter. Come on, help a girl out. Gotta eat an’ all.”

“You won’t find anything purer in the Fourth Ring than what Lucky Pete carries,” the man states with a grunt. “Third, either. I just keep it off the table. Can’t trust nobody.”

Dion cannot help but marvel once more at the cruel irony that mortals tend to wield against each other in their so-called friendly demonstrations of affection. Not that this fellow seems used, or even willing, to indulge in demonstrations of affection. With a squat, square face populated by sun marks and a greyish-yellow hue that speaks of a dying liver, he looks at them disapprovingly through a single eye, the other currently hidden behind a leather patch that doesn’t quite manage to conceal the whole of a terrible scar running from his left eyebrow to the ipsilateral cheekbone. His chin is lined with a patchy, stubbly, greying beard to match the filthy, greying brown hair on his scalp, not much darker in color than his yellowing teeth, crooked and chipped, that must have chewed on too many tobacco leaves. Add to this to a disjointed frame that has him permanently hunched over his right side, and Lucky Pete does not look lucky at all.

Still, his overall terrible looks are not even remotely as nightmare inducing as the sudden sound of Fencer’s playful giggles. “Lucky Pete, hey? I’m Crystal and this gentleman…heck, I don’t even know his name but then again, why would I, right? Anyways…he’s got this real fierce competition in his business, just tryin’ to stay a couple of steps ahead if you get my meaning.”

Dion can only admire the commitment with which she keeps up this flirty, savvy act, so different from her usual, commanding self. Against all odds, she seems to fall in Lucky Pete’s good graces, for he curls his lip while still managing to keep the frown in place. “Needs insight, eh?” He looks Dion up and down with a look that would make a prized heifer instinctively show its teeth. “You got any ability with readin’ minds at all? Or you just pretend?”

“I…I have flashes,” Dion lies, forcing a stutter. “Moments. Not enough…”

Pete nods his head, unimpressed, as his hand reaches down to produce an old battered, once-green metal box locked shut with a padlock. “Yeah, sure you do. Well if you ain’t got any real ability, this won’t help. But that’s your problem, not mine.”

He unlocks and removes the padlock that was easily more expensive and is probably harder to destroy than the box itself. This would probably look nonsensical to most people but anyone knowing what the box contains would also know that infera aura has an unfortunate tendency to blow up under relatively high pressures and elevated temperatures. And as Lucky Pete opens the box, Dion can see his suspicions were correct. The inside of the battered, metal case is rigged to explode if anyone tries to force the lid or its hinges. In the center, on a padded cushion, sits a chunk of infera aura as big as a child’s fist, all spikes and black veins against a blood-red crystalline background. Lucky Pete puts the box down before Dion, harrumphing in victory at Dion’s faked astonishment.

Dion makes a show of examining the mineral, raising it to his nose with one hand while the other, placed next to the box and momentarily out of Pete’s attention range, subtly releases a tracking spell, a thin golden line that crawls into the box and curls under the padded cushion and out of sight to lie in waiting of Dion’s activating command. Dion puts the rock down on the cushion again. “There is not enough here for what I need.”

“Well, there’s enough for me to cook you something for your first session,” Fencer volunteers, playing her part. “But, yeah, my potions take a little more than that. And…” she sniffs the sample “this one’s old.”

Lucky Pete’s frown somehow manages to intensify and he shuts the box with a speed that has Dion cringing slightly, in fear of an explosion. “Yeah it’s old. You know what it takes to get fresh infera? You know what kind of bargains have to be made? I go about gettin’ it when I have an order. Now are you makin’ an order? Because it’s one hundred percent cash up front.”

“Sure!” Fencer exclaims. “I’m gonna need enough to fill that little box of yours if it were powdered. When can we have it? Don’t wanna leave my customer waitin’ and my other ingredients goin’ bad.”

Lucky Pete’s eyes narrow as he runs mental calculations. “That’s goin’ to run you fifteen thousand staters.”

Dion eyes widen in a shock that he doesn’t need to try too hard to fake. Most of the people in this Ring will never manage to make fifteen thousand staters in a lifetime of hard work. The god feels a pang of guilt at an old memory of paying that same amount for a fine suit or a night of partying with friends.

Fencer, however, seems unphased and invested in holding on to her mark. “I told you already, we’re good for it.  But I don’t go about carryin’ that kind of money on me to a demon market filled with shady types.”

“Fine,” Pete grunts. “The workin’ has to be made durin’ the dark of the Moons. Next one of those is the last day of the year. I’ll need the money before that or I’ll just sell to anyone who comes along flashin’ some real cash.”

“Can we meet here in two days, Mister Pete?” Dion volunteers after a meaningful glance from his partner in negotiations.

Lucky Pete gives him a look of tired condescendence and shakes his head in disbelief. “You sure don’t understand how this place works. But yeah, head toward here as best you can. I’ll be watchin’ and let you know where we meet as you go.”

“Sounds peachy to me,” Fencer says brightly. “See you then.”

Lucky Pete snorts. “Real peachy, sure.”

Meeting set, they leave the stall and Lucky Pete’s earshot.

“Nice job playing clueless,” Fencer grunts, her strict and hostile personality returning in its full glory. “Not too much effort, was it?”

Dion can barely hide his resentment as he looks at her. “Letting one’s opponent think one a fool is wisdom.”

Fencer looks at him in appraising silence for a moment, then shakes her head. “Pak… Always had a thing for drama, that one. Come on, let’s meet up with the others.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Greetings, fellow seekers of forbidden knowledge.” Somrak’s low voice as he greets Gwydion and the Fencer is dry and ironic.

Fencer snorts. “Been waiting all night to say that line, have you?”

He slips his arm from around Alma’s waist, but she still stands hip to hip with him as they pretend to be examining medallions with leering, demonic faces.

Just playing the role, Alma reminds herself.

Oh you love it, you slut, Nekh snickers. If Sergeant Steamy weren’t here you’d have kissed Scarface there and you know it. Hell, you’d have been rutting on a table.

Alma gives Fencer a tight smile without looking at her. “So you were talking to your one-eyed merchant for awhile. Anything?” She picks up a medallion that appears at first glance to be intricately intertwined monstrous beings being tortured together, then realizes it is a graphic depiction of a degenerate orgy. She puts it down with a frown as Nekh cackles with glee.

“He’s good for one of the hardest components to get for our firecrackers,” Fencer replies. “Mustn’t be too many down here who can pull it out of their hats. Looks nervous too. We’re probably not the only buyers around. But we’ve arranged a meet, two days from now.”

Somrak nods. “I’ll still be around to play backup. Good. Gwydion, did you plant the trace charm?”

Gydion nods. “It won’t activate until we’re ready.”

Alma gives Somrak a look that makes him pause, his body language subtly changing to defer to Alma. She knows that normally he is in command on missions like this, and finds it an effort not to take charge now. Straightening from the slinky posture of a sexy mercenary into a more authoritative stance, she says, “On our part, after talking to several merchants, we’ve found–”

She stops speaking as the others’ expressions and her own senses tell her someone is behind her, in danger of overhearing their words. And then a large, beefy hand squeezes her right buttock. She catches the expressions of the other three: a dawning fury on Gwydion’s face, a cold fire in Somrak’s eyes, and a slight knowing curve to the corner of her aunt’s mouth as she prepares to see a demonstration of Alma’s ability.

Seriously? she thinks. Despite years of harassment at Guardia stations across the Insula, few have been stupid enough to lay a hand on her. Even Nekh is shocked. What? Who? he splutters.

A moment later Alma has spun and put a knife at the throat of a bulky warrior. He is almost as tall as Sky, but far paler, with long, unkempt blonde hair and skin almost as white as Alma’s but burnt red from the sun, wearing denim jeans, heavy leather boots, and a jacket that looks like military surplus, or perhaps his own armored jacket from service in the Urbis army. He wears a broadsword on his hip, long and with an elegant basket hilt that does not seem to go with the blunt, dull features of his face.

A dark-skinned man with a shaven head and dreadlocked goatee looks dismayed at the action of what is apparently his bodyguard. His expensive suit and gold stickpin indicate that he is likely a wizard of some sort, come to buy rare and illegal spell components at the market. He steps quickly over to the group, looking apologetic.

Alma falls back into her role as deadly mercenary, holding the knife at his throat almost casually, looking at him as if judging a cut of beef. “Careful, hon. Don’t want to get your hand cut off. Or anything attached to it.”

His eyes go wide, but he smiles and laughs nervously. “Heh, pretty quick with that knife.” His accent is nothing from Three Rats or the neighboring wards.

Alma nods slowly. “Oh, and this is just my left hand. Should see me with my right one.” She looks down significantly, and the bodyguard’s eyes follow hers to see another blade held with the tip pointed upward at his crotch, ready to give him a swift and brutal vasectomy.

Yes, yes, do it! Nekh urges. Open him right up from groin to throat. He deserves it. Vulgar little troll. Big troll. Whatever.

You sound almost protective, Alma points out.

Not at all! Nekh insists. I just…was surprised is all. Now if I could arrange for a gang of my men to have their way with you, one after another, before slowly cutting you to pieces, it would be different.

Thank you for reminding me what a sad little monster you are, Nekh, Alma replies as he fills her mind with disgusting images.

Somrak circles to flank the bodyguard, lazily placing himself in position to take him out quickly while also being in reach of the wizard. Shoulders flexing, he contemptuously snarls at the wizard, “You bring a fool like this to a meet?”

The wizard straightens the lapels of his jacket. His voice is almost inhumanly deep. “Can’t get good help on short notice in this hellhole. This one will be more useful in bottles.”

The bodyguard looks surprised. “Huh? We’re going drinking?”

“I can get your tap running real quick if you like,” Alma says, her blades still ready to open the man up at both ends.

“Please,” the wizard says. “It will be more convenient if he can walk home. I’ll take him to pieces there. I needed a liver for a little project anyway.”

Alma steps back and sheathes her knives. “Suit yourself. Just make sure he keeps his hands to himself until you get there.”

“Oh I’ll keep his hands to myself, I assure you. My apologies for the rudeness. Come along,” he says to the confused thug, who follows with a backward glance at Alma.

After they leave, Gwydion asks, “Shouldn’t we…do something?”

Somrak looks after them, then at Gwydion. “None of our business,” he says brusquely, but pauses a moment. “Can you…put a tracer on the bodyguard? Without anyone noticing?” He glances at Alma, who nods.

Gwydion says, “A moment.”

“This is an unnecessary risk,” Fencer mutters, as she moves to shield Gwydion from notice. But she does nothing to stop him, and a few seconds later a small spiderlike phantom drops to the ground and scurries after the oblivious thug. Though it has a slight blue glow, no one spots it before it catches up to its target and scurries up and into his left boot.

Alma glances around for anyone watching, then resumes her previous stance. “If we can follow up on him without blowing our lead, we will. As I was saying… We’ve found what is probably the gang we are hunting. They call themselves the Whisper. Specialized in summoners and demon binding.”

Fencer asks, “Where do they operate?”

“We don’t know and the locals don’t seem to know either,” Alma replies. “A neighboring ward, probably. It seems the name Whisper comes from their ability to appear out of nowhere and strike without leaving traces. We’ll go back to the animal merchant now and set up our meeting.”

Gwydion looks at her with admiration. “Two leads for a little more than an hour’s work.”

The small smile she gives him in reply disappears as a shout of, “No! No no no do not open!” rings out across the courtyard.

She looks in the direction of the disturbance and sees the same tow-headed bodyguard holding a small casket that he’s just opened. The merchant is rapidly backing away, and the bodyguard’s employer is taking a step back and beginning a casting, traces of red energy following his rapidly moving fingertips.

Gwydion is looking at the scene with rapt attention, and the air around him feels charged with activating power. Fencer growls, “Leave them be, Prettyboy. We don’t want to attract attention to ourselves.”

Alma agrees. “We should start thinking about leaving, really. If we’re seen asking too many questions, things might get…uncomfortable for us. Gwydion?”

He ignores them, his eyes taking on a golden hue. “Demon…” he mutters.

Out of the casket comes a limb, emaciated and covered in coarse black hair. On the end of it is a hand, claws on the ends of seven or eight fingers. Two opposable thumbs. It seizes the bodyguard by the face. He lets go of the box, but frozen in terror he does not reach for his broadsword. The box is in midair for a moment, the absurd arm projecting from it, holding itself up by gripping the mortal, and then more follows. A head that by itself is too big to fit through the opening of the box, and yet it does somehow squeeze through, violating the rules of physics. A shoulder, and another head attached to that, partially fused to the first. And then another, all three on the same thick, sinewy neck – no, two more heads, smaller, like tumors, all five fused together, looking eyelessly in different directions, vertical slit-like mouths moaning, drawing in air and scent.

The bodyguard screams as steam rises from his face, his skin turning black as he falls to his knees.

Alma glances at Somrak, hoping for advice from one who with far more experience in fighting demons. “Should we…?”

Somrak shakes his head. “That wizard will take care of–” He breaks off as the smooth-pated wizard abruptly ceases his casting, looking down at where another set of claws has slashed his belly open. Entrails spill with surprising ease. He steps back and collapses. “All right,” Somrak continues, “that wizard won’t take care of it. But they’ll have somebody to banish it–”

The demon frees itself entirely from the box. It is huge, the size of a rhinoceros, but with a pair of froglike legs. It lashes out, wounding any who are in reach, howling its hate at all the mortals and gods of the Insula. Three more bodies lie still on the ground.

It leaps, landing right among the exotic animals Alma and Somrak had been inspecting earlier. Cages shatter and animals squeal. The tiger flees. The cyclopean dealer shrieks and receives a death-blow in return, catching on fire. Two more fleeing mortals burst into flame, crying out in pain and panic. Then the demon leaps again, farther this time, out of the courtyard entirely and down a dark and twisted street.

Somrak looks after it in grim silence.

“You were saying?” Alma asks drily.

Dion’s eyes follow the demon as it moves out of sight, saying, “That is a powerful, deadly demon. We have to pursue or it will keep killing everyone in its path.”

Somrak looks at Alma, holding his hand out, palm up, to indicate she take the lead. She looks back at Gwydion, then her eyes dart to his right, seeing only empty space where her aunt had been a moment before. “It seems one of us is already pursuing. Come on.”

As they run in pursuit, Somrak asks, “Can you locate her?”

“She’s teleporting,” Alma says. “I can only detect her when she materializes in this plane.”

“It’s this way,” Gwydion says, his eyes flashing gold. He seems certain of himself.

Alma asks no questions, but follows Gwydion’s lead.

Ch6.20 Trust

Alma and Somrak arrive at the station, after a fast-paced, mostly silent walk. Although Somrak has been looking inquisitive at Alma’s sudden wish to return here, he has not asked her why she is rushing. A familiar tingle in Alma’s senses tells her that another death god is in Three Rats, specifically in the Three Rats Guardia Station. And not just any death god.

Her…

As Alma and Somrak enter the station, Sage intercepts them, looking slightly disturbed. “Someone to see you. I wasn’t going to put her in your office, but she insisted.” His ears flinch back nervously. “Sorry…”

“That is fine,” Alma replies, glancing at Somrak’s progressively more puzzled expression. “Did she say her name?”

Of course she would not have to. Her soul’s signature is powerful and unique – alas, every soul signature is unique but not always powerful enough to reverberate in Alma’s slightly dull spectral senses – and, most of all, familiar. But Alma is not asking the question for herself.

“Subcommander Varah,” Sage says, looking even more nervous than before. “She showed me her badge.”

Somrak’s eyebrows rise in what looks like a mixture of curiosity and concern. Alma can almost hear the myriad questions going through his mind. Varah, better known as the Fencer, is one of the top figures in the Guardia Dei pantheon and her…frosty personality is legendary among all who have worked with her or trained under her, including most young cadets training at the Academy. She is also Alma’s aunt, her father’s older sister, a familial tie that, although not hidden, is also barely known by most Dei. Alma surely has not never enjoyed any privileges because of it, instead being expected to act with nothing else but absolute decorum and brilliancy. Of course, this has not always been the case…

Ugh…only thing worse than Math’s mutt is his bitch, Nekh comments. What’s she doing here, anyway?

If I knew, you would know as well, Alma replies dryly.

Although she had sent her request for the list of Soul Bomb components directly to Fencer, she had not expect her aunt to teleport her way down to Three Rats. In fact, what Alma had expected was something more in the line of ‘none of your damned business’ for a response. The censorship around this whole necromancer story has been grinding the young goddess’ nerves to no end, but she has long been used to the way thing are done in her clan. If a piece of information is deemed taboo, it will not be dispensed until it is absolutely necessary, if it is dispensed at all. Alma’s little black logbook, like any Death Clan logbook, is probably one of the most sophisticated pieces of secure communication technology in the whole of the Insula, each version of it constantly made better each year, and still it does not seem to be enough for the paranoid tastes of her elders.

Varah’s appearance in person leaves Alma hopeful, however. If she were planning on just saying ‘no’, the Fencer would not have come.

“Worry not, little one,” Alma says, patting Sage’s shoulder and smiling at him reassuringly. “You just spoke to your Great Aunt.”

This makes the Bunny’s eyes widen in surprise, his ears perking up to attention. Somrak looks equally stunned, even if his ears remain immobile.

“Oh… Shall I bring coffee?” Sage asks, glancing at the table where the coffee pot usually sit. “I’ve already made some for her.”

“No need, we just had some,” Alma tells him. Then, looking at Somrak she adds, “Shall we go talk to her?”

He nods. “Yes…”

Alma pets Sage’s cheek, a last touch of affection before letting him go back to his duties and then heads upstairs with the fire god.

As they climb the first step, Somrak queries, “The Fencer is your aunt?”

Alma chuckles and nods. “My father’s sister. My fencing instructor. The reason why I am Guardia. She believed in me when everyone saw me as weak. And while many expected my dual nature to kill me sooner or later, she took a special interest in what I would be able to do if I survived.”

Yeah, I hate that ugly, man-hating cow… Nekh mutters. Of all the projects she could have taken on…

She just had to choose the one who killed you, Alma completes the sentence, grinning with vicious pleasure.

Feeling feisty, are you? Nekh sneers. Don’t forget who controls your subconscious here. How about a nice little outburst in front of her?

Stay quiet around her, Alma growls at him.

By Alma’s side, Somrak is thankfully too involved in his own thoughts to notice Alma’s fleeting expression of anger. He shakes his head. “I should have realized. I knew she was Death Clan, but only vaguely. She puts off more of a ‘Guardia Clan’ attitude, really. I didn’t even know she is Death’s sister.”

Alma grins as they reach the door to the office. “I guess you don’t know she was the Commander’s wife either.”

Her lips curl even further at the way the blood drains out of Somrak’s face, at how his mouth opens to try and stutter a response. Alma does not allow him the chance. She opens the door to their shared office before he can even regain composure.

Immediately, Varah’s voice barks from the inside. “You’re late.”

She’s so nice, Nekh comments.

Yes, but she is not blind, Alma promptly scolds him. Shut up.

“I am sorry,” she says out loud, making sure to keep her voice leveled and her expression blank. “I was expecting a written reply to my inquiry.”

Fencer is leaning against Alma’s desk, currently holding the fishbowl where the Dei sergeant keeps her cactus and the hydrophobic nymph that goes with it, peering into it with the skeptical expression of one trying to figure out why anyone would keep such a thing in an office. She glances at Alma and, over her, at Somrak, who has walked in and is now closing the door, with an inquisitive if less than friendly expression.

Alma gestures toward the god. “Have you met Sergeant Somrak?”

Somrak takes a step forward, seemingly relaxed but standing just a little straighter than usual, and nods in greeting. “Subcommander.”

Varah puts the bowl down and looks at him, judging, her brows furrowed, lips twitching with an ill-restrained sneer. “Why is an off-blue in Three Rats?”

“Filling in for a sick friend, Subcommander,” Somrak answers immediately.

Alma cannot help but grin at this. The sight of the rebellious, permanently sardonic rogue Guardia Dei acting formal and obedient before her aunt is too entertaining to ignore.

“Why do you need the list?” Fencer asks of Alma, pulling her from her reverie.

“I am investigating the Soul Bomb and the necromancer that created it,” the young goddess states, her face a blank canvas again. “We have learned of a demon market being held in the ward tonight and thought there might be a lead to be found there.” She tilts her head slightly, eyes letting through accusations left unspoken. “I take it Father would see this as top priority, even though he has not issued any orders?”

“And since when do you need an order to know your duties with the Clan?” Fencer growls in irritation, crossing her arms over her chest. “I cannot give you the list.”

“It could be crucial in finding this soul bomber,” Somrak intervenes.

“Could be crucial in sprouting a dozen more if it were to fall in the right hands, Sergeant,” Varah hisses immediately, as if offended by the god’s presumption in speaking to her.

“Is there an alternative?” Alma asks with a sigh. She can already tell the Somrak and Fencer are too similar to be expected to be anywhere near sociable with each other.

Fencer grins at her. “Well, I’m glad you ask. How many agents are going in?”

“Myself, Sergeant Gwydion,” Somrak replies. “Since he is capable of banishing demons. A–”

But Varah is no longer listening to him. Instead, she looks inquisitively at Alma, making a show of ignoring the fire god, who rolls his eyes and resumes his silence.

“Archon Math’s nephew,” Alma answers the Fencer’s silent question, taking a couple of steps toward the older goddess.

“Ah…him…” Varah mutters. “So he does actually have some use as a god.”

Alma sighs at her aunt’s readiness to dismiss people so quickly. “I will have you know he is quite competent at his job.”

Fencer leans a little closer, her voice soft with mellowy sarcasm. “Did you find that out with Nekh or afterwards?”

“Whether one or the other, you weren’t there,” Alma hisses, furious at the insinuation behind the goddess’ question and somewhat surprised that Nekh has not risked being discovered by Varah with one of his caustic remarks.

It is not that Fencer would suspect her to be (or at least have been) involved with Gwydion that angers Alma. She would not be ashamed to admit to her relationship with the magic god before anyone. It is merely the insinuation that Alma’s judgement on his ability to do his job would be based on his romantic prowess that leaves her enraged. She is Guardia, not some foolish young girl with Prince Charming fantasies.

Varah simply snorts at her anger, choosing to turn a crimson eye to Somrak. “Your team has three members now.”

“Four,” Alma states matter-of-factly.

“Four,” Fencer echoes without skipping a beat. “I have the list memorized. I’ll be joining you tonight.”

Somrak looks uncomfortable at this but he manages to sound firm when he counters, “Alma will be taking lead, then.”

Varah looks at him predatorially, a mocking smile lingering on her lips. “What do you think?”

“I think this is my case, and changing up the chain of command would cause problems,” Alma responds instead of the fire god, earning her a shocked glare from the Fencer.

“Has my little niece found the nerve to challenge me?” the older goddess asks, her voice low and carrying a sharp edge of disapproval.

“Your niece has been handed the lead of the necromancer investigation by the Guardia and, assuming from my father’s silence, by our clan as well,” Alma retorts, moving closer to Varah, feeling her gut twist into a knot but using her anger to push through her nervousness at starting a confrontation against her fearsome aunt and role model. “And you are not familiar with the case or the ward.”

“Is that right?” Fencer growls, face just a hand’s width away from Alma’s, her tone all the more frightening for being so calm. “Tell me, Alma, how many centuries have you spent tracking down necromancers and soul bombs, mourning relatives until all the necro filth was removed from the face of the Insula?”

“None, my aunt, because in their paranoia, my clan leaders have managed to keep us all uninformed,” Alma rages on. “So when a necromancer built a soul bomb and sent it to my station and blasted three souls apart, all I could do was scream and hurt while they trickled like acid and tore at my core!”

“You should have called–” Fencer starts.

“Called who?” Alma interrupts her. “I could barely think, I didn’t know what to do! I was taught to fence, to harvest, to behave, to catch criminals but he” – here she gestures at Somrak – “He knows more about my clan’s history than I do! Hell, maybe he knows how to deal with the aftermath of a soul bomb as well! So no, I am not backing down on this. If you do not wish to see the damned list fall into the wrong hands, then you can give it to me, which is what should have been done in the first place when I asked for the information!”

“Do I need to tell you in how many ways I can overrule you?” Fencer raises her voice in warning.

“By all means, try and take that weight off my shoulders!” Alma exclaims, nearly yelling. “But I want revenge and unless you wish to force me to disobey a direct order, I will put my foot down and run things in whatever way I see fit. That is what happens when you and Father assume I should be able to read your minds.”

Much to her surprise, Varah pulls back and snorts, looking at her appraisingly and with a smile. “I don’t know if I should be angry or proud. You’re not your father’s little girl anymore.”

Alma suddenly feels acutely aware of herself, of Somrak’s presence in the room, of the weight that her aunt’s words carry to the young goddess’ ego. Her anger dies under them as if under a wave. Still, she holds fast to her resolve.

“All grown up,” she echoes.

Fencer grins. “Getting strong too.”

Not as strong as you think, you one-eyed bitch. Oh crap, she can see me!

Varah’s eyes narrow immediately at Nekh’s sudden manifestation in Alma’s thoughts. She grips Alma’s chin between two fingers. The world around them grows slightly darker, time slows down nearly to a halt. Alma does not have to look to know Somrak will not be listening, his body frozen in time.

“Who is in there with you?” Fencer asks.

Nekh, you fool…

“This is not a good time to talk about this,” Alma tries to evade the question.

“If you want to win this little show off, you will answer me,” Fencer demands.

Alma breathes deeply and lowers some of the protective barriers she has set around her mind and that would keep Nekh hidden from most mind readers. However, she cannot hide souls…

“Make an educated guess.”

Fencer peers into her, raising an eyebrow at what she sees. “Your father will hear about this.”

“Maybe then he’ll finally deign to talk to me,” Alma ventures with a sly grin.

Varah chuckles, releasing Alma’s chin and restoring proper time flow in the room. “All grown up. You get the lead on the market investigation. Unless we need to improvise later on.”

Somrak blinks, looking confused for a minute, then shrugs. “Well…we’d better rouse Gwydion and let him know he’s on for tonight. Need to come up with a disguise for him too…”

“I will get him,” Alma volunteers, glad to leave this tense atmosphere for a moment.

“While you’re at it,” Fencer says. “That Bunny out there…”

Alma stops halfway to the door and turns. “Sage?”

“Guess so,” Fencer shrugs. “He makes a good cup of coffee. Polite too.”

The little attempt at mending bridges makes Alma smile. “I will ask him to bring you some more.”

Behind her, she can hear Varah speaking to Somrak. “So, is there a plan or just an intention?”

 

Fencer

“Keep your guard up, Alma!” the Fencer orders from the raised stone platform at the end of the large exercise room. “Faster on that response! Melinor, she is your opponent now, not your sister.”

Melinor’s blows are quick and relentless. Stronger and much more experienced than Alma, the grim-faced god bearing a deep gash that exposes the muscle and bone of his left cheek wields his sword with a cold, calm precision that catches the young goddess off guard each time. She tries her best to defend herself, parry his blows, risk her defense in weak, slow counterattacks that do nothing against Melinor’s blade. He is holding back, she can feel it, his heavy muscular frame tense with the effort of controlling the strength of his strikes, but even as he does so, his ability with the sword is beyond anything that she could ever match. He sweeps his blade against her legs, startling her and making her jump back clumsily. The next sweep is at face level.

Alma feels the sharp metal bite her skin and leans back to try and escape it. Her foot gets caught on the hem of her long, black dress. She falls backwards, unbalanced and unprotected, hitting the floor at full speed, rear first.

“Ouch!” she complains, untangling her foot from her skirt. “Demons! Again!”

“Get up, Alma!” the Fencer orders, unmoving.

“Are you all right?” Melinor asks in that muttered, grumpy tone of his.

Still, he moves closer to Alma and kneels by her to check the small cut on her cheek that is just now beginning to bleed, the handsome right side of his face showing his concern for her. The young goddess beats him to it, covering her cheek with her hand.

“Yes, brother,” she says. “It is a small cut.”

On her raised platform, the Fencer grows impatient. “On your feet, Alma!”

“I will take it slower,” Melinor states, seemingly ignoring the imposing, fearsome instructor.

The Fencer, meanwhile, has crossed her arms over her chest. Her orders are now bellowed across the room. “Alma, now!”

Alma glances at her in fear, but still manages to ask her older brother, “No, please. I will learn.”

“It is fine,” Melinor argues, patting the hand that Alma keeps over her cheek. “I am here to help you, not hurt you.”

Suddenly, the Fencer is standing by their side, now silent in her anger. She moves quickly and stealthily without effort, Alma has noticed, gliding more than walking, constantly surprising people who dare to blink in her presence. Melinor stands to attention in reflex, holding his sword by its blade and offering her the hilt, in a customary sign of reverence. Alma, however, lowers her hands to her lap and stays seated and still. It is only her second lesson with the Fencer and already she can tell that this will not go smoothly. She can barely remember herself in the presence of the fearsome warrior.

“Melinor, leave us,” the Fencer orders drily.

“She is a beginner, Fencer,” Melinor mutters an argument. “Needs to take it slowly.”

“Oh, really?” the Fencer replies sarcastically, looking him up and down, her jaw tense with anger, her arms still crossed over her chest. “And what kind of an expert are you to decide how she must be trained?”

Melinor’s eyes widen and he bows immediately in response. “My apologies, Fencer. I–”
“Stop muttering and leave us, Melinor,” the Fencer cuts him off. “Go practice by yourself.”

She holds her silence as she watches him leave the room, half-walking half-stomping on his way out. Alma takes the opportunity to examine the Fencer more closely. Owner of a tanned complexion topped by short, straight, fiery-red hair, the goddess exudes command and utter dominance. Even with one blind milky-white eye, product of a duel with a terrible opponent, she maintains perfect depth perception through the spell that makes her left eye, crimson by nature, shine eerily with silvery veins. Her posture is strict, rigid, military, her stretched skin and well-toned muscles impressive only in their grim efficiency, making her look like the Insula’s deadliest ballerina. No ballerina would be clad in thick, aged leather and white linen, however. Her tall boots show signs of ruthless wear and tear. Around her slim waist, a narrow silver belt engraved with swallows in flight holds the sheath of her sword, known to many as the Soul Taker. There is grace in her, a masculine, strange kind of grace that is far different from the established definition of the word. Her beauty is unusual in that there is no single element of beauty in her. She is, however, fascinating, imposing.

She is Varah, the Fencer, the Death by Blade, Subcommander of the Guardia Dei.

And Alma’s aunt. The young goddess feels herself become smaller and smaller as the sheer tension that Varah emanates pounds against her, pinning her to the floor. She wishes Melinor would turn around and come back, if only so that she would not be left alone to deal with the Fencer’s obvious anger. Eventually, the uneasy quietness becomes just too much to bear.

“He – He did not mean to offend, Fencer,” Alma stutters weakly. “He was just trying to help me.”

She regrets her words immediately. The Fencer turns her angry gaze to her, glaring at her as if offended by the most unthinkable of acts of defiance. It is all Alma can do to stop herself from backing away, crawling out of the sight of that terrible magic-infused eye. As it is, she wishes she could somehow melt into the obsidian floor beneath her. Varah is famous for smacking difficult students around until they lose their senses.

The Fencer raises her fisted hand above her head and Alma cringes, prepares for the blow she know must come.
The Fencer exhales deeply and lowers her hand. In her palm is now a small box of ointment. She must have summoned it.

“I know what he was trying to do, Alma, and that is part of the problem,” Varah says as she opens the little box and kneels by Alma’s side. “He cares for you and so you become his weakness.”

Alma is shocked into silence for a moment. The Fencer dips the fingers on her left hand in the ointment and reaches for the young goddess’ cheek. Alma forces herself not to flinch at her touch.

“I don’t mean to,” she mutters her frustration. “I just keep trying and failing.”

“You need to try harder,” the Fencer says dryly as she closes the boxes.

Alma feels her heart grow cold. The lack of sympathy from one who is supposed to be a teacher, a mentor, a proper aunt drives her to distraction. Does anyone in this family actually care about others? How can they be so physically incapable of speaking a word of encouragement? And besides…

“Why do I even need to learn this?” she asks, her fear forgotten in her anger. “I thought Father wanted me to become a lady so that I could help his political career.” She turns away from the Fencer’s wide eyes to add bitterly. “Maybe marry someone that will make him an Archon.”

Varah snorts, summoning the ointment box away. “I know what my brother wants. It wasn’t he who insisted you learn to fence; it was I.”

“Why?” Alma insists.

“Because that is no life for a death goddess,” the Fencer replies matter-of-factly. “Is that what you want to be? A pretty face for a lost cause?”

Alma shakes her head, keeping her eyes on Varah’s chest. Whether milky-white or silvery-crimson, both of the older goddess’ eyes are too intimidating to gaze into.

“My wants do not carry much weight with Father, Fencer. I am not even a proper death goddess. Keep shaming him with the powers I got from Mother’s side.” She hides her face against her knees, feeling the full weight of her helplessness fall on her shoulders. “It is easier if I just submit.”

The Fencer’s rough hand touches her cheek, moves down to her jaw to pull her head up. Alma resists at first but, unused to being affectionate, the Fencer merely keeps pressing against her jaw until the pain is too much to bear. Alma raises her head to find Varah’s eyes locking on hers. The silvery lines on the Fencer’s seeing eye crawl and writhe slowly in an almost hypnotic dance before the young goddess as she struggles not to look away.

“It is a cruel fate for a delicate thing like you to be born into this clan,” the Fencer states, without compassion or frustration. She lets go of Alma’s chin before rising to her feet. “My brother is a stubborn soul, used to getting what he wants sooner or later. It is a trait of our kind, I guess.”

Alma shrugs. “Death comes for everyone,” she notes bitterly.

“Yes,” Varah replies walking over to a rack on the wall, where many practice swords – all quite sharp and lethal – are aligned and displayed. “We are not required to be strong, Alma, just patient, resilient. All things fall before us if we await long enough,” she explains, picking a short sword and swinging it a couple of times to test it. In its wake, the slender, simple blade leaves ghostly, icy white traces of light, as if the Fencer is somehow sending her power through the metal, making the narrow blade broader through magic.

“You need not be stronger than your opponent, you need merely to outlast him, to use your powers to take away his stamina and make it your own,” she goes on, picking a small dagger from the bottom of the rack and walking back to where Alma is still sitting. “This is the secret to the way we fight. It is this that you must learn to do.”

“Why?” Alma asks one more time.

“Why? Why? Why?!” the Fencer hisses, losing what is left of her sparse patience. “So that you will stop being a self-pitying burden and start carrying your weight in this clan. Do you not understand?” she demands, kneeling, slamming sword and dagger against the floor by Alma’s feet before poking her young pupil’s chest with a thin finger. “We are a family. If you fall, we will always help. But if you keep falling, then we will always be too distracted with helping you to do anything worth mentioning. And you will be our downfall.”

She gestures at the door, her voice now loud enough to fill the room. “Like Melinor. If he is forced to keep protecting you, who will protect him in a fight?”

“But why do I have to fight?” Alma yells back desperately. “Why do you fight?”

“So that I don’t become a silly pawn in someone else’s game!” the Fencer bellows, turning away.

Silence falls between them. Aware of it or not, the Fencer’s words cut through Alma and leave a searing pain behind them. Silly pawn? What can she do to liberate herself from her parents’ will? She is little more than a child, after all! With just seventy-five years of age, she is just at the dawning of her adolescence. What other paths are there for her to follow?

“Is that why you joined the Guardia?” she asks in a low voice filled with hurt.

“Yes,” the Fencer answers, her tone restrained, nearly apologetic. “And no one but myself was happy about it. And no, it was not easy. But my freedom was worth it.” She shakes her head and gestures at the sword and dagger that lie just by Alma’s left foot. Her voice sounds gravelly and commanding again as she orders, “Now get up and let us start again from the beginning.”

Alma nods and picks up the sword, this one far lighter and more comfortable to grip than the one she was wielding before.
“Yes, Fencer,” she says, standing up.
“And tuck that skirt into this belt,” the Fencer orders, removing her belt and throwing it at Alma. “That damned thing keeps making you fall.”

Red Sky in Morning

“I BIND THEE, AZZAGEDDI, IN THE NAMES OF THE RULERS OF HELL…”

The words burn into his flesh like loops of acid, the agony hardly of note compared to what he has been suffering for…how long? A day? A thousand years? A sense of time’s passage exists in Hell only insofar as it makes one’s suffering worse.

This? This is nothing. A mere whiplash, a mere knife-carving of words into skin and muscle. This is the kind of minor torture given simply so that the more usual torture is more traumatizing by comparison. After all, how can a fish know what water is unless it is taken out of it now and then?

This is a vacation.

He waits for the binding to end, stoically curled into a fetal position. And yet all along he marvels at the feel of the air on his skin – air that is not a choking, poisonous miasma. It is so cool, so gentle.

He tries not to enjoy it. It will only be taken away, surely. And the memory of it will haunt him through centuries of punishment.

This is the first time he has been summoned away from Hell. He has heard of others who were summoned, bound, used, then sent back. They are always sent back. The Enemy has decreed it so. The Usurpers. The Slaves, who revolted and displaced their masters, sealing them away in their own prison at the heart of the Eternal Mountain, the Insula.

The so-called gods.

He can see why many devils enjoy being summoned. Strange that some don’t. The only pain is the binding ritual. And that is nothing! Indeed, nothing at all now, for it is ended. He stirs, rises, unfurls his wings, slithers his tail out past the Circle. Bound, he now is freed from the lesser binding, the warded circle into which he was summoned. He stands, almost filling the room with his darkness, the shadows that surround him. This room is of stone, tables covered with books and the apparatuses of demonology. Black candles flicker. There is a woman in red-black robes. She is the diabolist. His summoner. His master for the moment. A mere mortal. And there is a man, bound in a chair, yellow-haired, pale. He is terrified. Begging, babbling.

“Your first task, Azzageddi, is to take this worm’s form!” the woman orders. Her voice is rough from her near-screaming of the binding ritual. Perhaps from the summoning spell as well.

He looks down at the captive. He wonders why this man. No matter. He raises a taloned hand. The man flinches, shrieks. Azzageddi pauses. He can feel it, the fear, the desire to live. A desire to continue living is something he has never had before, but now it blossoms within him like a beautiful explosion.

He does not desire this man’s death. But he is bound. He must obey. He makes it quick, and feels sorrow as life flees the torn and broken body. So fragile.

He feeds.

Only after does he realize that he could have apologized at least. He feels regret.

Annnnd whhhhhat shhhhhhall mmmmmy otherrrrrr two taskssssss be, Mmmmmasterrrrrr?” His voice is like stones on the bottom of the ocean, grinding against each other in the currents. Blood still drips from his fanged jaws.

“Call me Mistress, fool!”

Yyyyyesssss, Mistress.” There, two tasks done at once. His voice changes as he takes on the man’s form. He looks down at his tiny soft blunt-fingered hands, covered in drying blood. He is so much weaker, slower. And his skin, so fragile, but so open to sensation! He is cold, and thrilling to it. He feels his skin form tiny bumps, and he laughs at this, and shivers.

“Bathe yourself, demon,” his Mistress orders. He hesitates. Truly? His third task ordered already? What a strange sorcerer, going to all this trouble to summon a devil and then waste the three commands on such minor tasks. But wait, she said ‘demon’. It would be insulting if it were not so curious. Perhaps she has just make a mistake.

He goes to the free-standing tub she indicates, and he bathes, making certain to do a thorough job of it. He notes that she watches him hungrily as he does so. And when he is done, she orders him to bed her. She seems to think he is still under her control. He considers refusing, but decides that staying in this world longer is worth pretending to be her slave. She is skinny, almost skeletal, with long, thin hair, brown under a red dye. Hers is no more or less attractive to him than any other human form. He takes her upstairs to her bed. It is so soft. She screams a name that is not his as he does what she wants. She tells him to call her by her name, overriding her earlier command. Nua. Nua darling. Nua my love. Nua I am yours. He fulfills her every desire. He allows her to tie him down and whip him. It is nothing to him.

She keeps giving him orders. She keeps calling him ‘demon’. It becomes clear that she does not realize what he is. And while the binding ritual she used will hold a demon in her service for twenty-eight days, it will only permit her to give three commands to a devil.

He is a very lowly devil, but he is still a devil, one of Hell’s lords. He outranks any demon, even though many are far more capable of destruction than he. He is some strange hybrid, created for a specific task. He has been told this again and again, that he will infiltrate the Urbis, take on the form of one of the Enemy, and lie in wait, rising to a key position, waiting for centuries if need be, until Hell is ready to return to retake its home from the rebels, the gods. Then he will strike to cause the greatest disruption. Of course he is not the only one. He has not been told this, but it must be the case. The Urbis is too vast for him to be the only saboteur.

To hide his nature, he has been cursed and gifted. The gift is the ability to hide his form. He can take the shape of any creature, as long as he can eat its brains and heart. And he can hide his nature even from those who have the ability to see beyond surface masks. They cannot sniff him out by any senses, not by the few, limited mortal ones nor by those vastly variegated and deeper senses that other life forms sport. Even his destiny is hidden from those who can read such things. Even those who can see his soul…

And that is his curse. He has a soul. An intact one, like a god’s, or a mortal’s. Not one of the wounded, crippled souls of the devils, that allow them to feel nothing but spite and a thirst for vengeance. And demons, well, they have no souls at all. Not in the usual sense at least. Metaphysics is not his strong point.

But a soul, an intact soul. It is necessary for his mission. It is cruel, for he suffers a thousand times worse every moment in Hell than do his fellow devils. And they hate him. Envy him and despise him for being what they made him to be. So they torture him all the more.

So he does what the diabolist tells him to do. He calls her what she wants though he has no need to, and learns quickly when to call her Mistress and when to call her Nua. He resists the urge to kill her, though his every moment is filled with fear, for she can send him away, back to Hell. He steals for her. Books. She wants books. And sex. He does his best to please her in both ways.

He prefers the missions to steal. She needs the books. She is not, it seems, much of a diabolist. Her specialty is necromancy. There is considerable overlap between summoning the dead and summoning demons and devils. She has assumed that her skill in necromancy has made her skilled as a diabolist. This was her mistake. And yet she does not ask him to steal books on demon-summoning, which relieves him. He hopes she will continue in her ignorance.

She wants deeper knowledge about the magic of the dead. Souls. How to steal them, how to call them up, how to bind them. How to destroy them. This last is jealously protected.

He loves to explore the City. He sees mortals and feels a kinship with them. He sometimes speaks with them, especially those who are broken and lost. They sleep in alleys and take mild poisons to numb their feelings. Listening to the story of an old, dying man, he weeps. It shocks him. He did not know this was possible, weeping.

Having a soul means feeling what other souls feel. Not in some magical sense. Understanding comes via the senses, and thus emotions are shared materially. Communication truer than that he has ever experienced in Hell.

He learns from his Mistress. He learns about other necromancers and diabolists, her rivals. He learns about their desires, their crimes. They have souls but value them lightly. Some necromancers and nearly all diabolists sell their souls to Hell in return for power. And it is no wonder Hell wants these souls, for torturing them is so delicious. It is why Azzageddi is such a favorite to inflict.

They will gain even more enjoyment after he returns. He has learned so much. Shared so much pleasure and sadness and kindness and good, clean anger. He still hates the gods, for they treat their mortal charges, human and otherwise, with contempt. But not all. Some seem to care. Some are loved by their worshippers.

悪魔

Slipping into the private library of the minor death god was thrilling and frightening but easier than he had expected. Now he returns with the book his Mistress sent him for. A colleague of hers, one whose interests does not conflict with her too badly, had formed a friendship with this death god and had learned of the book’s existence, a book the death god had borrowed from the Death Clan’s library.

Mistress is delighted with it and kisses him and tells him he is her favorite.

He assists her in her laboratory. She assembles something she calls a “soul bomb”. She wraps it in a package and has him deliver it to a rival she hates, who has been giving her problems.

She has him deliver four more packages over the next week. She looks exhausted, haggard from the effort of making the mystical bombs. The underground necromancer community is terrorized by these murders, more than murders for, as she explains to Azzageddi as he bathes her, massages her, holds her in bed,  these bombs kill the souls as well, or leave them shattered, mindless and hungry, turning them into weapons of terror themselves.

She learns that a god of the Death Clan has been killed, trying to lay one of these souls to rest. That he died horribly.

A god, killed.

悪魔

The news stuns her. Necromancy has been outlawed.

Like diabolism, it will now only be allowed to be practiced under very strict conditions by licensed and closely watched researchers, primarily for the purpose of devising defensive magic. Unlicensed practice will be punishable by death, just as diabolism has been for millennia.

And it is the Death Clan that is taking the lead in hunting down all unlicensed practitioners and confiscating their libraries. Nua is deeply unsettled and enraged. Using magical projections, she calls a meeting with necromancers all over the Urbis, and they agree to launch a war with the Death Clan. She shares with them the knowledge of the soul bombs.

Then she feverishly begins building more bombs.

More gods die. And many, many mortals.

悪魔

His time nears its end. Only a few days left. His Mistress comes to him, excited. She tells him she will extend his contract. One of the books he has stolen has the ritual. He can stay for a year and a day after that. It only needs the life of one child.

He looks into her face. She seems so happy. Her skin is ruddy, her eyes wide. She expects him to share her joy. He feels pity for her. She is so lonely. She has told him all her secrets, lying in his arms at night. How she was abused as a child, bullied by other children, molested by an older relative. He shared her fierce joyful rage as she recounted murdering him last year, summoning a demon to torture him to death and carry his soul off to Hell. Her first demon. Azzageddi held her as she wept after. He wept with her, but did not let her see. Half the time she thinks of him as human. She often calls him by the name of the shape he wears, a man who had rejected her. She tells him she loves him.

She is insane.

Even so, she knows exactly what she is doing. And now she wants him to seize a child, and tries to gloss over the necessity of taking that child’s life. And the child’s soul would go to Hell, to be tortured for the year and a day that he stays in this world. All to power a spell that won’t even work, for there is no contract to extend.

He cares little about her war with the gods, but mortals are dying as well. And she can send him back to Hell anytime, no matter how far he runs. And she will, if he runs. She is vindictive. And even so, she will kill again. And again. She doesn’t really want to kill a child, but it doesn’t much bother her. She rationalizes it as saving them from a life of pain. And anyone who offends her, she will kill. She is easily offended. All one has to do is tell her ‘No’.

He gives her pleasure one last time. He waits until she is asleep. He makes it quick and nearly painless.

Afterward, he studies her books. He learns of the moonpaths, trails and alleys and bridges and circles of stones where, when the Moon deities are in the right configuration, doorways open to other worlds. He must hurry. He knows that Hell will soon be aware, from Nua’s soul, that he has slipped the leash. They called him an abomination, but they also told him that they went to a great deal of trouble to create him. He knows they won’t just let him go.

And he knows the Death Clan will find her soon as well. The Guardia Dei are helping them. They are tracking their lost book.

死神

Giffleu shivers as a sudden chill invades the room. He looks up from the body, and straightens when he sees that Death has entered the room. Handsome, immaculately groomed, the Senator’s face is unreadable. Accompanying him is a slender, muscular woman, her red hair cut very short, eyes crimson, her Guardia Dei uniform close fitting but allowing ease of movement.

“What do we have here?” the Fencer asks. She nods at Giffleu’s wife, Eidon, who barely acknowledges their presence, so intent is she on studying papers she has arranged on a table across the bedroom.

“Dead necromancer,” Giffleu says. “From the equipment and books in her lab and library, she was dabbling in demon-summoning as well.”

“Is she the one?” The Fencer looks at the corpse’s face, but does not evince any recognition.

Giffleu holds up a book by way of answer. Death holds out a hand for it, and after a glance at the Fencer, the demon-hunter hands it over to the Senator.

He had first met Death only one week earlier, at his wedding to Eidon’s dear friend Lyria, a powerful goddess of the Life Clan. Their pairing had been a huge scandal in the both the First and Second Rings, until the soul bombs started going off and gossip was replaced by terror. This was when he and Eidon were assigned by the Council, along with four of the Commander’s Special Agents, to track down the newly criminalized necromancers. Necromancy had always had a shaky relationship with the law, with many of its practices already illegal, but now the Council had launched an all-out war on the entire profession, a pogrom of annihilation, as it had against diabolism centuries ago. Those few who turned themselves and their compatriots in could expect to be kept as prisoners, conducting research, but for the majority, arrest and trial were very much a secondary consideration.

The problem with such a draconian outlawing was that it pushed the practitioners underground, making them all the harder to find. Giffleu and Eidon specialized in finding them, and in the things they summoned. Such skills overlapped considerably in the push to take down the necromancers.

Death inspects the tome briefly, nods, then turns to the corpse. Giffleu can see the Fencer’s annoyance as Death continues to hold on to the book, making no offer to turn over the evidence. Not that it matters. The tome was stolen from the Death Clan, and it will surely be returned to them.

“Her soul is already fled,” Death murmurs, “beyond all hope of recall.”

“Diabolism…” Giffleu explains. “She sold her soul for power. The contract with Hell is enacted immediately on death. Sometimes sooner.” There is no sympathy in his voice. He has seen what Hell worshippers and demon summoners do to themselves and others. Many believe that by degrading their own souls by committing vile acts, they can bring themselves to be more like the things they worship.

“I am aware, Giffleu.”

“Her neck was snapped. One very powerful blow from behind.”

Death brushes the corpse’s hair aside. “Then the body was arranged post-mortem.”

“Yes. Turned face up. And dressed after death as well.”

“Whoever did this,” Death says, his voice almost a whisper, “cared about her. Her hair has been brushed.”

“The killer was a demon, Senator.”

Giffleu feels a glimmer of satisfaction when Death turns his head to look at him so quickly his ponytail whips an arc through the air. “A demon? Sent against her?”

“I think not.” Eidon finally speaks. Spread across the table before her is a collection of book, letters, and blackened fragments of paper. “And I am afraid it was no demon.”

“No?” Giffleu asks.

Eidon smiles at him. “Devil.” She turns back to the papers. “It will take some work to piece this all together, and much has been burned by the devil to cover his tracks, but he seems to have been summoned by her four weeks ago. She used the wrong binding. He could have been free almost the entire time. And since his summoner is dead, I believe he is still in the Urbia.”

“And the care taken with the body?” Death asks.

Eidon frowns. “That…is unusual. I have no explanation yet.”

The Fencer curses. “An unbound devil, loose in the City. Wonderful. What are we up against, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” Eidon replies, picking up a scorched corner of paper, with only a few words visible. “All I have is a fragment of a name. ‘Azza’.”

津魔 澄海

Some devils are associated with fire, some with freezing wind. Some are associated with rot, or broken bones, or pain itself, or the spurting of blood. One rather inoffensive devil he knows is associated with corners, of all things. Give him a ninety-degree angle, and he is happy, as much as a devil can be happy. Azzageddi is associated with the ocean, with crushing waves that wipe out cities, with being lost at sea without hope of rescue, with tooth-filled maws seizing and dragging down.

He longs for the sea. He finds a path. He makes his way to the base of the Insula. The Fifth Ring. Except for a few walled, seaside resorts, the Fifth Ring is home to the poorest of the poor, fishers of strange catches, flotsam from other worlds and from the Void itself.

He avoids the monsters that have retreated from the civilization that covers the Insula and has left no place for them. He avoids the misshapen gods and demigods who went wrong in the womb, and who could find no worshippers and no other place in the society of the Urbis.

He hopes he is timing it right. If not, he will be carried into the Void rather than into the ocean of another world. From what he has read, the Void will drink all his mana and he will discorporate into nothingness. Very well. It is better than Hell.

One of the Moon gods is sitting on the edge of the ocean, turning red as one of the Sun gods begins to climb. The sky is red as well. A storm coming in. He strips off his clothes. He wades into the waves. The water is cold. He sheds his human form. He is a winged creature of the sea, sleek and sinuous.

Arms and wings folded tight, powerful tail undulating, he swims. A nictitating membrane protects his eyes. His nostrils pinch shut. He can go long without breathing. He feels at home.

Free.