Ch7.05 Revelations

There is an intrinsic belief to most intelligent creatures that every creature’s path is anything but lonesome. We are connected to others, through blood, through emotion, through responsibility. And every now and again, through something more. There are souls meant to cross our path and leave it almost immediately, shockingly sometimes. Earth-shaking, life-altering contacts. Other souls, however, are meant to stay. They are meant to walk the path with us, to guide us sometimes. To follow, sometimes. To walk side by side until the inevitable end. To be our soulmates.

And while this is true, the assumption that tends to follow – that soulmates are a once-in-a-lifetime event – is not. That they are to be romantic partners is not true either. The truth is that soulmates come in the most variable shapes and sizes. Skin, fur, feather, scale, spirit. Friend, family, lover. Companion. Love has but the shape we give it.

And it may come from the most unexpected places. At least for some. It is a strange thing for some, Alma knows, the relationship she has with Starfax. It is not a vocal love – Starfax does not speak, at least in any form of speech understood to most – not a physical one – the elusive phoenix rarely seeks petting – but it is, nonetheless, a loyal, companionable friendship. It is an understanding, of neither dominance or ownership between two souls who are better together than apart. A quiet, reassuring love that rests on the knowledge that this other being has chosen to follow the same path and won’t leave but for some unpredictable tragedy.

Starfax has always been there. Egg to hatchling to blossoming adulthood, she has always been free to leave, the bars of her cage a meaningless obstacle for the ethereal phoenix, meant more to ensure the peace, safety and privacy of a hiding place than to keep her from leaving. And Starfax has never left. Never judged.

Through fevers and depression and pointless wandering from station to station, all the way down to dark Three Rats, she has followed Alma’s path. And though she has mostly stayed out of the way of the Bunnies and even of Gwydion’s sight whenever he visits Alma’s sanctum, the goddess knows her best friend, her soulmate of decades, has accepted them as new features in Alma’s life.

Which is all to the goddess’ happiness, what little of it she has found in her heart in these last few days since Sky’s abduction and extraction from Nua’s malevolent talons. “Life as normal” has not been an easy thing to deal with. In spite of Arion’s promise of help, the nightmares have been a constant. And though her family treats her no differently – albeit with an obvious increase in the number of daily hugs and odd glances her way in search of reassurance – Alma still feels like a detached, almost alien presence in her own body. The frayed edges of her soul, torn by the power of the godbinding spell and then by Nua’s desperate attacks, refuse to grab a firm hold of her corporeal self. She is attached to her body only by tendrils, she knows, a gentle hold she might accept more easily if not for the stupid, mind-numbing fear that some part of Nua is still left in her, biding for a moment of distraction to finish what she started.

The thought terrifies Alma. And not just her. Gwydion as well. She has caught him glancing her way more than once with a look about him of careful, fearful examination. In the worst of her moments, she has thought of leaving, of sparing everyone the uncertainty, of sparing him the dread. She has mostly opted to hide away somewhere and cry the breath out of her lungs in those moments, hating herself for her own cowardice in longing to make herself disappear for good. Permanently.

And certain as three after two, Starfax has been there, perching nearby, watching in silence. Guarding her friend. Ready to go wherever Alma goes. Even those times when Gwydion has not managed to find her, when his arms haven’t embraced her and pulled her close and held her tightly, breaking any resolve to leave with that silent plea for her to stay.

How can he love her still? How can he still want her by his side in the safety and sanctity of his bed every night and come looking for her in a panic if for some reason she’s not there when he wakes? How can he hesitate before every kiss but still kiss her? The lips that have smiled at his screams of pain…

It’s the touch of Starfax’s cheek to her own that makes Alma realize she was crying yet again. The goddess smiles at the phoenix, perching on the bedside table by where Alma has laid open the one piece of luggage she is packing to take to Gwydion’s parents’ estate for this dreadful vacation she can’t help but wish she had never agreed to. Yet another emotional blow for Gwydion in such a short period of time, in a house none of them knows, that might even be dangerous – she is not sure can handle it all. But she will have to. For him and for her children, who desperately need a stress-free vacation.

“It won’t be as frightening if you’re there too,” she says, scratching the back of Starfax’s head before her hand slides down to pick up the cord around the phoenix’s neck, to which a brown jewel is attached. Nekh’s soul-gem, that Alma has entrusted to Starfax’s safe-keeping for the past two weeks. “Soon you won’t have this burdening you anymore.”

She takes the jewel for now. It will be needed for the conversation she has scheduled for–

“Alma?” Gwydion’s voice cuts through her train of thought.

Alma closes her hand around the jewel, then closes her suitcase. “I am almost ready.”

“Come on,” he says gently, kneeling behind her and resting hands on her shoulders. “Everyone is ready and I’m afraid Merri is about to get a hand’s width shorter under the weight of all the luggage she’s bringing along.”

The thought makes Alma snort as she leans back against him. “Who would have guessed she’s that type of girl? And it’s not like she is particularly fashion-centered on a daily basis.”

The subdued humor of Gwydion’s quiet chuckling is as much a pleasure as the feeling of his arms wrapping around her in a little squeezing embrace before he loosens his hold. “Maybe she’s just anxious.”

“She’s not the only one,” Alma notes, twisting a little to look at his face sideways. “You barely slept last night.”

He looks pained. “And I kept you awake…I’m sorry for that.”

With a little more twisting and adjusting, she manages to shift sideways fully, so that she can rest her head on his shoulder. “Don’t be. It’s not like I’m going to miss the nightmares I didn’t have because I was awake.” She closes her eyes as he strokes her hair. “And at least awake I could keep you company and be there for you.”

He doesn’t reply but keeps petting her for a moment. Intimacy has not been easy, not with the ghost of Nua tearing a gash of trauma and uncertainty between them. Since the night before their rescue of Sky, their essences have not been closer than the moderate closeness a kiss allows. Their walls are raised, not just against each other but against the world, a disheartening scar that has Alma fearing for the future of their relationship. Though they hold on, fiercely, to each other, hoping they can heal together.

“Maybe we can both get some sleep this week,” Gwydion breathes, kissing the side of her head before rising to his feet. “Come on…”

Alma rises as well after closing her suitcase. “Could you take my bag upstairs, please? There is a book I want to take with me…”

“Of course,” he replies, reaching to pick up her suitcase and looking mildly surprised at its lightness. “Don’t be long. The portal is scheduled to open in five minutes.”

“I will be right out,” Alma assures him, feeling a little pang of guilt at the little grain of truth she is not quite telling him.

He nods and leaves, closing the door behind him. And immediately, the room feels colder, the air drier, the light duller, lifeless. Not because he is gone. Because someone else has stepped in.

“A touching scene,” her father says with that mild intonation of humor he puts into every sentence, as if the world exists to amuse him. “If not for your failure to mention our scheduled appointment.”

“He has enough on his mind already,” Alma says, turning to face her father, currently sitting on the edge of the bed. “He certainly does not need to have this weighing on it.”

Death tilts his head and smiles. Just smiles. And in Alma’s mind his unspoken accusation blooms, He doesn’t need to know you never told him about Nekh’s soul.

The thought chills her. It’s no work of telepathy or suggestion. It is merely the product of years upon years of his shaping touch on her. On the part of her that she fears is just like him, cold and calculating and ruthless. Useful, oh so very useful. Cut Fates, oh so very costly…

She keeps her faint smile set, her expression carefully blank. “Thank you for coming, Father.”

His lip twitches with a grin. “My pleasure, I am sure. And why am I here?”

Alma holds a hand up in front of her, letting Nekh’s soul-gem dangle from it on its cord like an enticing prize. “Let us say you have something I want.”

Death’s grin grows with unrestrained pleasure. “It was only a matter of time. Was it not?”

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Ch7.04 Revelations

The moment Somrak enters the station, there he is: Sergeant Edison Machado, Three Rats Station’s ranking Popula officer. The powerfully built man looks like he could break Somrak in half, if he could catch him. His hairless, dark-brown, bullet-shaped head turns and, even under his Guardia jacket, Machado’s burly shoulders strain the material as they flex at the sight of the gracile fire god. His eyes, slightly yellowed at the edges, lock onto Somrak’s, his expression betraying a continued lack of trust.

Somrak smirks and holds up two fingers to give a jaunty little wave. My friend, are you in for a surprise. Aloud, he says, “Boa tarde, Sergeant. Como vai?

Tudo tranquilo…” Machado growls, turning as Somrak slips past him and proceeds up the stairs.

Lindo!” Somrak knocks on the door to Alma and Dion’s office.

“Come in, Somrak.” Alma’s voice is muffled by the door, but comes through clearly.

As he opens and steps through, he asks, “Was it my cheerful stride on the steps that tipped you off?” He closes the door behind him. “Your aunt is stalking me.”

“Must be your animal magnetism,” Dion replies from his desk, where he is leaning back in the chair, loosely holding a pen pinched between his finger and thumb as if he has paused in writing a report. “Maybe you should adjust it to attract something a little less threatening instead…like a chimera.”

Ah, that winning Dion smile! Yet Somrak catches a hint around the eyes of the same soul-shredding pain that Somrak himself is constantly straining to ignore, caused by the same godbound whip. “Seeing as she’s also gone insane, I think I’d be better off dating fully grown dragons.” He takes a seat on the sofa, resting his elbows on his thighs. “I have good news, and I have strange news.”

Alma and Dion look at him, then at each other, then back at him, quizzically. The shared look of a couple. Alma says, “I hope you’re not announcing your joining my clan, Somrak. You have your charms but I doubt Fencer would leave the Commander for you.”

“Commander?” Dion looks shocked and shakes his head in incredulity. “Well, that explains quite a lot…”

Somrak chuckles at Dion’s surprise. “Well, would that be so bad? I could be the God of Cremations.” He shakes his head and takes a deep breath, the grins brightly and spreads his hands. “You two are going on vacation!” His voice suddenly takes on a hint of a carnival huckster announcing a big winner. “I have no idea where, but you’re going. Tomorrow. Portal opens at ten bells. With all the Bunnies, apparently. Well, not May. I don’t think May, anyway. But yes, vacation time!”

Alma looks surprised, but Dion just nods. “Yes, we know where we are going. An estate I inherited just recently. But it is not like my uncle to give such short notice of something like this.”

“I don’t know about that, but, uh, congratulations on the estate.” Somrak feels even more disconnected from reality. Now Dion is a landed aristo? He shakes it off. “So you might be wondering who is going to be running this place while you’re gone.”

“We…did set that as a prerequisite for accepting this week of absence,” Dion agrees.

Somrak eyes him suspiciously. “You didn’t happen to request anyone, did you?”

He shifts his accusatory gaze to Alma as well, just in case, prompting her to raise her hands, excusing herself from blame. “Math only spoke to Gwydion about this.”

Somrak turns his gaze on Dion, one eyebrow slightly higher. “Anyone mentioned to your uncle? Because otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to like this any more than I do.”

“We did not go as far as discussing possible temporary placements,” Dion says. “And considering he offered a permanent reassignment at first, I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind to go into such details.” He narrows his eyes. “Just who is being assigned here?”

“You’re looking at him,” Somrak says, drily. He lets it sink in for a moment. “And yes, I’ll be in command.”

Their eyes go wide in shock. Dion absently whispers, “He really did it…”

Alma sits. If her chair hadn’t been right there, Somrak thinks she would’ve fallen to the floor. She leans back in her seat, elbow propped on the arm of the chair, softly biting her knuckle. “I…” She looks at Dion. “We have been managing to recover here…”

“Now that the initial shock is gone…maybe we don’t need to go on this vacation,” Dion adds in agreement.

Somrak rolls his eyes and flops back on the sofa, almost bashing his head against the wall. “Oh, thanks! Can’t really blame you – I’ve been thinking the same myself. Oh!” He sits up again, with a You’re gonna love this look on his face. “That’s not even the weirdest news! Guess who’s going to be taking up residence, to ‘keep an eye on me’, which I assume means ‘chortle with glee as I flail about’.”

“Calamari Cal,” Dion suggests, deadpan, making Alma burst into a short bout of laughter.

“And here I thought there weren’t any weirder possibilities,” Somrak says. “No, it’s Fencer. She’s not going to help by the way. Just watch.”

Alma’s eyes widen in even greater worry. “Oh dear… We should definitely stay. This is too flammable a place for the two of you put together.”

Dion, less serious, looks around and sighs. “I did like this old building… Perhaps they are trying to convince us to leave by making sure there will be nothing to return to.”

Somrak glares at the two gods until they look mildly sheepish. It’s easy to forget that despite his careless attitude and youthful good looks, he is decades older and carrying several times as much experience as a cop – even if his experience is all on the unconventional side. “All right, listen. It’s orders. And whatever Fencer’s or whoever’s plan is, I’m not following their little ‘Somrak is a screwup’ script. You’re going to go. I’m going to do my job. And you’re not going to come back to a smoking crater. Got it? I’m going to tell them to go to Hell by being the best – by not being the worst commanding officer.”

Alma looks down and is silent for a moment. Quietly, seriously, she says, “I am afraid about something else, Somrak. Sky…what if…what if I turn my back for a week and return to find Sky mysteriously gone or fallen to his wounds…”

They both know what she really means. Somrak has long held the job of Sky’s executioner, should the devil-in-god-guise ‘lose control’, or fall into the wrong hands, or become a broken tool, no longer useful. The Council, fearful of a scandal, could order the Commander to order Somrak to carry out this duty at any moment.

Somrak rises and steps around Alma’s desk. She looks up, her expression apprehensive, as he kneels beside her chair. He takes her left hand in both of his and looks into her eyes.

“I will keep an eye on Sky,” Somrak promises, his voice soft and serious. “If the Commander got the order, he would tell me first, even if he was told to give the job to someone else. He would tell me so I could get Sky away. But just in case…Doria has assured me that I’ll know instantly if anyone tries to enter the Oracle’s grotto with ill intent.” At her sad but reassured smile, his heart nearly stops, but he tries to hide the effect she has on him behind a carefree smile, squeezing her hand before letting it go and standing. “And I’ll have a second-in-command Dei. Don’t know who, yet, but Fencer says I know whoever it is.” He wrinkles his brow and looks over at Dion. “Which could mean a whole lot of people. Hopefully not one who hates me.”

“Well,” Dion reasons, looking as if he’s running through some old acquaintances’ names as well, “we should talk to Machado about these orders and then get to packing. We only have so many hours to prepare, considering it’s evening already.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Alma says. “He won’t question orders from the mouth of a Guardia Dei Subcommander herself, but it’s still best to break it to him gently.” She sighs. “This was supposed to be a week to relax.”

“You can relax!” Somrak insists. “I’m the one who’s not going to relax. Things will be fine! That will be my mission: keeping things fine. And I will do it just to piss off your aunt.” He gives a little smirk. “All right, I’ll do it so you two can stop worrying, too. You’ll see. It’ll be great.”

“And you will make sure to water and feed Lexie too, while we’re away?” Alma asks, a hint of a smile twitching the corners of her mouth.

“The cat? I gotta take care of the cat? Right, deal’s off…” Somrak smiles to give the lie to his affronted countenance. “Of course I’ll take care of Lexie. Lexie loves me. I’m all warm. I can’t even sit down before she tries to jump on my lap.”

“Like I said, animal magnetism,” Dion notes with that brilliant, charming smile of his. “Perhaps you should try scratching Fencer behind the ears too. Or rub her belly.”

Somrak holds out his hands and shakes them. “Uh-uh! She’s the kind of cat, she loves having her belly rubbed for about three seconds, then she rips your arm off.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, looking at both of them. “So…there’s more weird news.” He waits until they look at him uneasily. “I can’t be sure of his schedule, which is always changing, but you may get a visit from somebody there. After he visits me here.”

“And who would this be?” Dion asks, suspicious at the sound of dread in Somrak’s voice.

The fire god struggles with just how to say it. “In the off-blues, you know we have a healer. Not a very good one. But for…special cases, we have an outside contractor.” He leans against the wall and folds his arms, looking at nothing in particular. “Sometimes we have secrets we need sealed away, so that they can’t be gotten at even under torture or mental invasion. And…sometimes we have memories that aren’t doing us any good. Sky called them ‘shrapnel in a wound’. Memories that refuse to shut up. Memories that don’t teach us or help us avoid making dumb mistakes again. They do nothing but hurt us.” He looks up at them. “That’s the kind of healer this guy is.”

He sees that while he was speaking, both of them have looked away, down, like him, and the haunted look on their faces surely mirror his own. They know exactly what kind of memories he’s talking about.

“I’m not sure anyone can just come in and heal a mind,” Alma says, skeptical.

Somrak nods. “He doesn’t, exactly. But he makes it possible to heal on its own. Personally I’ve resisted ever using him, but…it’s different this time. It can take multiple sessions. He’s very concerned about…being invasive. He’s just about the most discreet god on the Insula, too, or we wouldn’t use him. His mind is safe from being opened up through magic or interrogation or anything. Just…if I can get him to drop by your estate, will you talk to him? It’s your decision whether to use him.”

“Manipulating memory…it’s rarely a good idea,” Dion murmurs. “And these are very dangerous memories. We’re already walking the tightrope. If we take a wrong step and cause a scandal…”

“Yeah…” Somrak spreads his hands. “I’ve contacted him, and he’s coming to talk to me. Which is pretty nice, seeing as I’m not offblue anymore. From what I’m told, he erases nothing. It’s…well, better to let him explain it. I’ll just say that if you decide to go for it, you can trust him.”

They are silent for a moment, considering. Then they look at each other, tentative, seeking reassurance that they are in agreement. Alma says, “Well, I suppose we can always talk to him. That much shouldn’t hurt.” Her voice rises slightly at the end of each statement, almost making them into questions.

Dion nods. He looks at Somrak and tries to recover his smile. “I’ll leave you with indications on how to get to the estate.”

“Thanks. Might need to run up there in an emergency anyway.” Somrak takes a breath, letting it out with puffed cheeks. “Right…this is really happening, isn’t it? I swear, if they turn me into a regular station-bound Guardia… Eh, I’d probably be glad for the change.”

“Let us get your station up to speed, then, Inspector Somrak.” Alma rises from her chair. “This should be interesting.”

Interchapter Ch6-7 2: Math Comes for Dion

The rushing of water gushing from the shower head is a welcome sign of peace in the chaos of the last two days. Two? More… Life has been misery since the beginning of the new year, flooded with pain and nightmares. Some brought on by his own stupidity and insecurities, some by the hands of sadists and maniacs with plans to help unleash Hell on the Insula and destroy all that he loves. Some by the secrets kept by his own family, of blood and of heart, given to him by simple genetics and brought to him by the machinations of Fate and the gods know how many other minds combined, accepted by him for a hundred reasons. Secrets… A life butchered by secrets, stumped and blinded by the knowledge kept from him, all for the sake of what? Of pain? Of safety? Of the unremitting anguish that has driven him to numbness and apathy toward others? Of a purposeless existence.

And now some of the secrets are revealed, laid bare before him, a sphere blossomed. A good friend’s mask dropped to reveal the hideous face of the ultimate enemy perched on the neck of someone who loves him, who has sacrificed for him. So many questions brought forth… He still doesn’t know what to think about it all.

For now, there is peace. After the return home, not twenty hours ago. After the tearful, quiet reception from the Bunnies and station personnel, their faces gaunt at seeing Dion’s, Alma’s and Somrak’s weakened condition, the faint physical marks left on their bodies that even Lyria’s healing could not quite make disappear. They had had a day to mourn Saira’s loss already but the relief seeing the gods returned had brought forth fresh tears, the reassuring, if weak, embrace of their mother unleashing the pain and dread the Bunnies had been keeping at bay for a whole night. They had hugged Dion and Somrak as well, just as strongly, just as lovingly, quiet and subdued by Lyria’s constant care and vigilance. Until finally the gods’ wounds and exhaustion had caught up to them and Lyria had gently pulled the Bunnies away and ordered Somrak, Dion and her daughter all to bed.

Rest, however, had not come easy. Well, it had, at first, their recovering bodies demanding sleep and horizontality for the first few hours. But the pain was a constant and the nightmares had followed. Nua’s horrible grin distorting Alma’s beautiful face, the evil of that hateful soul killing the flowing, ever-shifting light and color of his beloved’s eyes. The slashing of the whip against his skin and the dreadful cackle in a voice made to whisper loving words sweetly in his ear.

Dion had awakened, startled, in his own bed, in his own room, fiercely holding the pale, white-haired body of someone he took, to his terror, a little over a minute to safely identify as his love. His great love, whose very essence he had tasted and merged with, tainted by the suspicion he cannot quite shake that Nua might still be hiding in there somewhere. He knows, he knows Fencer has removed Nua. He has received Melinor’s, Imset’s and Luminus’ confirmations, her brothers who have known her for over a century. But that part of his mind that is scared and wounded is holding up the suspicion like a shield. He had frozen, watching Alma whimper and struggle in her sleep, her brow furrowed in suffering, wondering for a moment in dissociative contemplation if he should wake and reassure her or smother what could still be Nua in her sleep. The very triggering of the thought of hurting his beloved had snapped him out of it, so unimaginably painful it was. So shameful and monstrous it was. In the end, he had swallowed his fears and kissed her cheek and gently woken her, whispering reassuring words in her ear. Somehow it was easier when she was awake, the expression on her face, the colors in her eyes so very hers. The way she looked at him, embraced him, silent, frightened and relieved. He had held her, kissed her, the initial instinct of pulling away from Nua drowned in the familiar movements of Alma’s lips, in the taste of her mana, her essence. They lay together, not doing anything much or saying anything important. Just looking at each other and holding each other, breathing in their respective scents, listening to each other’s breathing. Sharing silence.

And eventually she had settled down and fallen back to sleep, peaceful sleep this time. And he had stayed awake, watching her, incapable of falling asleep himself but forcing his eyes to gaze at her face and recognize all the little traces, his mind to remember all the other times he had watched her slumber. Registering every little telltale sign, every expression, every twitching of her eyelids and lips, the ever-so-subtle wiggling of her nose that is just too adorable for words.

Until the pain in his soul had found a reflection in his body again and lying down had become too uncomfortable. So he had opted for a hot shower to relax his muscles and, hopefully, his mind. Just a little bit of normality to sooth his thoughts, shaken by trauma. And it worked.

Dion exits the shower feeling better about himself, cleaner. Somehow taking a simple shower makes him feel more truly clean than Nevieve’s cleansing spell, the touch of the water more solid than magic against his skin. He stands still to allow the sylphs to rub and wrap around him, to dry his body.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, he feels the unmistakable tingle of a spell, reality shifting around him, transporting him to the familiar sight of his uncle’s private study, in the presence of the Archon himself. Not the one he uses to meet with plaintiffs and professional acquaintances, the grand, bright marble platform on which Math had first met Alma and the Bunnies right after their escape from the Fourth Ring, but the smaller, darker, more intimate one, lined with bookshelves and featuring that dark wood desk against which Dion once kissed Alma and she kissed him back, passionately, just the second of hundreds, thousands of kisses but engraved into his mind for the secrets he shared with her then. And they hadn’t even been lovers.

“I thought we should have a little talk,” Math says, sitting at that very same dark wood desk, looking grim and solemn and maybe – Dion is not quite sure – worried. “How are you, my boy? You’ve been through quite a rough patch, from what I gather.”

Dion looks down to find himself dry and fully dressed, the little detail and indication that Math had been watching, spying on him to know when best to bring him here. Just like Math, to spy on people and break their intimacy, all under the simple excuse that it is all for their own good.

He nods slowly, annoyed already and uncertain of what to expect of this unexpected conversation. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But I am…recovering.” He looks around him, surprised at how much he doesn’t want to be here, in this safe, so very safe, First Ring estate. “I cannot stay long.”

Math rises from behind his desk and comes around, his face now a full mask of concern. “Gwydion…you can stay as long as you wish. Certainly you would be safer and more comfortable here.” The Archon pauses, looking Dion up and down as if to look for any physical wounds. “You nearly died.”

“I know this. I was there,” Dion replies, speaking slowly out of a certain need to breathe deeply between sentences and keep from shouting a demand to be sent back to where he should be resting and healing. Home. “I was not the only one. And because of it, if they find me missing, they will panic and think me abducted. They don’t need the additional trauma.”

Math waves the prospect of causing generalized panic among Dion’s loved ones off as if it were a mere nuisance. “Fine…I’ll have you back in moments.” He leans back against his desk, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m keeping an eye on the place. No one has noticed your absence yet. But Gwydion…it is time to come home.”

Ah…there it is. Math’s move.

No! Home is mate.

I know, he thinks to himself, still finding it odd, this novelty of having his own essence speak to him, its impulses and quick anger permeating his thoughts. Home is family.

We don’t go.

I won’t go.

Out loud, Dion asks, his eyes narrow with warning, “Is that an order, Uncle?”

Math’s eyes narrow as well, lips pursing for a second before he nods. “It could be. It easily could be.” He lowers his head, rubs his eyes. “You have no idea how much danger you are in. You have been engaging in all sorts of wild escapades, but now your sphere has awakened. Hell very well may be aware that there is a Hammer of Devils alive and walking the Insula. You will be targeted.”

“Like my parents were before me,” Dion growls, fists clench on either side of his hips. “I remembered that day, Uncle. In the garden. My mother’s screams of panic as she was dragged away. It took demon ichor for me to remember.”

We were weak. We were hurt.

Math shakes his head, looking at the ceiling, at the bookshelves, at everything but Dion. “Such memories…bring nothing but pain. And you have had enough of that.” He looks at his nephew. “This can be spun to make you out to be a hero, Gwydion. Sure, you were led astray by a rogue Guardia, but you managed to save the day. Promotion to Inspector, a nice quiet station in a First Ring ward… You can get your life back on track.”

No! We don’t go.

The sudden flash of anguish at the thought of leaving everyone behind in Three Rats is almost breathtaking. Dion stands befuddled as if Math’s words were a slap to his face. “What? What do you mean by that? You think I saved the day? That someone led me in there as if I were a lamb for slaughter?”

We are not stupid!

“It plays better that way,” Math says, unphased. “That fellow, Somrak, apparently he was going through some sort of mental collapse. Disobeying orders, slaughtering an entire gang of giants on his own and disrupting an official action…” He shakes his head as if it were all a chain of unfortunate events.

“He was trying to prevent the Sikari from being sent to murder Sky along with his captors!” Dion shouts. “We all were!” He points an accusing finger at Math. “All because of the laws the Council created to contain Sky!”

“Wise laws,” Math shoots back, eyes steely, voice low but firm. He straightens, stands fully. “You know, I find myself surprised. You, Nephew, are a Hammer of Devils. The Hammer of Devils, to be precise. And here you are speaking of a devil as someone to rescue.”

Dion cannot even tell what is worse: the words or the fake, casual tone of mild concern and confusion in his uncle’s voice.

“And whose fault is it that I am only now discovering what I really am? Who refused to ever let me know as much as who my parents were?” Dion hisses, stomping his way closer to Math. “Who sent me down to Three Rats to serve under the command of said devil through maddened Archons and gang wars until we became friends?”

Math glowers at Dion, his power, massive and powerful and just…ancient, leaking through every pore on his skin, spreading around him until he seems to grow taller, bulkier, more intimidating than the fit old man he normally portrays himself as without changing at all. His beard and hair bristle with mana, his expression locked in severe scowl. “I did what I did to protect you. But now that your sphere is active, you need to come home. Where I can keep a closer eye on you.”

“And do what?! Put a collar around my neck and walk me by the leash where I will never see another demon again?” Dion can barely control his fury, the impulses of his sphere reacting against the perceived attack of Math’s demonstration of power, feeding his anger until his aura flares and glows its righteous golden, his eyes glowing, showing their black, inky marks. His voice changes to a roar. “Like a tame attack dog. And what will you show me of my sphere? What will you teach me about being a Hammer of Devils? Do you think that bringing me to the First Ring will make things better?! That I will magically heal and live a happy inconsequential life without Alma or Sky or the Bunnies, here, under your wing?!”

“Calm yourself!” Math thunders, the lights dimming except around his head and face.

The thought of leaving his friends and lover, his family, behind puts more of a dent on Dion’s fury than Math’s shout. The prospect of not having them with him makes him sick to his stomach. He could never heal without them. He misses them already.

We want to leave! Let’s go!

We will… We will.

But he cannot will himself to turn away from his uncle. Not yet. Math softens slightly, and the lights return to normal. “My boy, I merely wish to take you out of what now seems to have become a nexus point for Fate. If I had known the Oracle had taken up residence there, I’d never have sent you. And you don’t have to leave them behind, you know. I can easily arrange a transfer for Sergeant Alma and her brood.”

“A transfer?” Dion asks, slightly subdued. “You mean you would transfer Alma and Sky and the Bunnies to some rich neighborhood where we can all hide away?”

Perhaps knowing the strength of Dion’s anger is broken, Math goes to the sideboard and pours a glass of ambrosia. “I wasn’t thinking of a neighborhood. There’s an estate. Lots of woodland and fields. Gardens. Deer. Guest house. I suppose you could put Tuma-Sukai in there, though how I’d explain to the Council…” He glances at Dion. “Would you like a glass?”

Dion breathes deeply and shakes his head. His voice is calmer but strained when he says, “No, thank you. I… We all have our responsibilities. Alma is limited to the Fourth Ring with her children. And locking the Bunnies in an estate would be cruel to say the least.” His mind seems to spin, unable to reach all the ramifications of this offer. “I am not even going to ask how I’d climb to Inspector in this fantasy of yours.”

“Oh, you know…portals.” Math replies as if the words made any sense. Cryptic as usual. Just more of the same. He takes a sip of his drink. “Are you sure the Bunnies wouldn’t like it? I thought for sure they’d enjoy the estate. Nature and all… Well it’s too bad, seeing as it’s yours by right of inheritance.”

Dion looks at Math, eyes wide open, body frozen in shock. “My… parents’ estate?” He is almost afraid of the answer to that question. That such a place may be real, on the Insula and not just in his dreams… “It exists? All this time, you have held onto it and never let me know?!” Anger starts rising again in him, making him pace around the room just so he won’t take the easier route and punch the daylights out of Math. “I have been an adult for decades! I had every right to know it was there! Why do you keep doing this to me?! Do you truly hate me this much? Am I that much of a burden in your life?!”

Math sighs, standing still, twirling his glass in his hand. “I told you – I’ve been trying to keep you safe! It is all of a piece. And while sometimes your actions have been burdensome, I most certainly do not consider you a burden. I want to keep you alive and in this world!” He looks at Dion, pained. “I do not hate you, Gwydion. I have never hated you. You are all I have.”

Could have fooled me. “And yet you play me for a pawn and decide my life for me ahead of time as if I were incapable of thinking for myself,” Dion says bitterly. He stops pacing, crosses his arms. “What is your plan? I accept to return to the First Ring and then what? What marvellous life have you designed for me after I run away from the Fourth Ring with my tail tucked between my legs?”

“Well that is up to you. I hadn’t really planned on the devil surviving long… And I’ve only recently come to realize that your feelings toward Alma are as serious as they appear to be.”

Of course…through constant spying, Dion can’t help but think.

Math takes another sip of his drink. “As long as the Council knows that she and the Bunnies are in one place, out of the way, I’m sure she could work in the same station, under your command. With time, perhaps the two eldest Bunnies could be permitted to open a bar near there.” He tilts his head this way and that. “That might take a few years…”

“A few years?” Dion’s voice is sorrowful, his anger once again faltering. “What are a few years to you, Uncle? They are mortal. In a few years, they will be old. And the other Bunnies? One of them is at the Guardia Academy. Will you confine her to an estate after that?”

“Ah yes,” Math says, seemingly satisfied at the way things are going. “She was allowed to attend the Academy as an experiment. Assuming she graduates, she’ll be allowed to serve under controlled conditions. Probably the same station as her mother. Not that I think there’s any danger of her leaping upon the nearest Archon and ripping his head off, but some of my comrades do seem to think that way.” His voice is amused as if it were all one big joke. “Now think of how safe they’ll be. Kept away from all the dangers of a place like Three Rats.”

He swears internally, feeling dejected at how tempting the offer sounds, at how tired he is, how full of thoughts pulling him this way and that. How much he wants to just rest, sleep, run away from everything and just…sleep. In peace. Away from the pain and the problems and the danger of it all. He finds himself wanting to say just say yes to Math.

“And what will happen?” he asks, instead. “To Three Rats?”

Math looks genuinely surprised. “To Three Rats? It’ll…go on the way it always has, I assume. Meaning badly, but please, that’s not your concern, is it? It’s not like it’s home.”

And at that, Dion freezes, the lull of Math’s apparently sensible offer shattered. “What do you mean, it’s not home? It is home for the Bunnies. And it has become a home to us. The places, the people. They are like family. We’ve all been together through hardship and through better times. The Popula are not mere mortals, they are friends.”

Math looks at Dion pityingly, an Archon watching a young god care for mere mortals and finding it endearingly pointless. “Gwydion…mortals come and go. It’s what they are. If you become so attached to individuals, you risk greater pain than you experienced in your torture. As a whole, being concerned with them is a very good thing, but individuals…” He shakes his head. “You will see. Only immortals can stand by you through the centuries.”

“You know nothing of what pain I went through in my torture,” Dion growls, clenching his fists. “Of fear and hopelessness. And holding the one you love in your arms and…” his voice breaks as the memory of holding Alma in his arms, motionless and cold creeps into his mind. He pauses, taking a deep, ragged breath to regain composure. “And she won’t wake up. We learned very well how mortal we can be too. Besides, the Bunnies are mortal. Are you telling me that Alma is wrong in loving her children the way she does?”

Math takes a deep breath himself. “I am sorry. I do know nothing of your torture. But I do know the pain of loss. And I do not think Alma can do otherwise than love her dear creations. But I do not want to imagine what it will be like for her when they are old and perishing one by one. She will certainly need your strength then. Still, better that than a premature death in a dangerous ward. Even assuming there’s not another attack by demons, one of them could be knifed by some street urchin at any time.”

Dion bites his lip, bitter at how he cannot really deny that logic. And maybe seeing how conflicted he is, Math presses the point. “Why don’t we give it a little trial? A week at the estate? With Alma and the Bunnies. You’ll see how much they love it.”

“I…” Dion hesitates, looking torn, but then nods in defeat. “I will propose it to Alma.”

Math beams with a smile as if he has just conquered a great victory. “Good!” He pauses, his eyes distant for a moment. “Oh, I had best get you back. Alma is stirring. I’m afraid those clothes will have to stay here. Probably a good thing you didn’t have any ambrosia…”

And even before Dion can react to the words, he finds himself back in his own bathroom, naked, the sylphs just whisking away, surprised as he is at his sudden materialization. He doesn’t bother dressing, rushing to return to the bedroom proper, to the bed where Alma is stirring, batting her eyes open and stretching lazily.

Thankful that Math didn’t make him damp again, Dion slips into bed and lies next to her, slipping an arm under her neck, pulling her close, into a kiss, even before she awakes fully, his need of her bypassing the instinctive hesitations and visions of his recent trauma. She takes a second to respond, kissing him back once realization dawns, still a little sleepily, her arm reaching automatically to drape over his side. The kiss is a reassuring delight, familiar and cool, the perfect soothing remedy for the turmoil of his thoughts. His heart quiets, his essence curls against hers in bliss. He could kiss her for hours.

“Hmm…this is a nice way to wake up,” she breathes once they break away, snuggling against him.

“It’s a nice aftermath to an unsettling conversation,” he replies, holding her close, stroking her hair. At her quizzical look, he explains, “My uncle took me away for a talk.”

That seems to wake her up immediately. Her eyes widen with worry. “Oh… What kind of talk?”

“A ‘time to come home, my boy’ talk,” he says, sighing, uncomfortable even as he imitates Math’s speech. Pausing, he looks into her eyes for a moment, gathering his words and his nerves before presenting the issue to Alma. “He’s offered to settle us on an estate. Safe and far upslope. An estate that…belongs to my parents’.” He is silent a moment to let the meaning of that settle in her mind. “He says he can arrange to have the Bunnies and you moved there. Even Sky, after he is well.”

She looks back at him, reaching to stroke his cheek, a sad empathy in her eyes. Her voice is soft when she replies, “And what would we do with our days? Would we be his puppets the same way my mother wanted me back to Father’s house to be a political bargain doll again? And wasting away in isolation until he needs us for something else?”

The gentleness, that subdued resignation of her voice somehow makes the words hit harder than if they had been shouted. They cut through the idyllic landscape of Math’s offer like a knife through butter. She is right, he knows, seeing right through the illusions and plans in a way he wishes he could sometimes. That sometimes just makes him sad.

“Most likely,” he says with a sigh, closing his eyes at her caresses to his face. “He offered a station. A promotion. Portals back and forth between the station and the estate.” He opens his eyes again. “Part of me rejects it outright. Because yes, it would tighten his grip. But on the other hand, Alma, this place has been incredibly dangerous. Even we have nearly died, or much, much worse on more than one occasion. And for the Bunnies…” He grimaces at the memory of that horrific dream, of each of the Bunnies dead and eaten by demons. “He offered a chance to try it out. A week.”

How surprising that he is actually considering it, actually wishing for a way out of Three Rats. No…not out of Three Rats. Just out of this string of nightmares and pain. Just a week-long pause can’t be so bad, can it?

She holds his gaze, her fingers running through his hair, stroking the rim of his ear. She is silent for a long while, making him wonder what is going through her mind, what words she is choosing not to say. Finally, she asks, “This is the estate you lived in as a child? You must be craving to see it.”

Is he? Yes, yes he is. What will he find there? He wants to know. “I am,” he says after a moment. “Either way, I will need to go there to look at my past and see what I can find. But this trial stay…what do you think?”

She looks away, her fingers resting, still for a moment, on his temple. “I don’t know. The station needs us and I hate to leave when there is no Dei to stay behind. And we just told Sergeant Machado we wouldn’t leave. It always seems like we can never manage to stay here long. And to be that far away from where we can keep watch over Sky… But…” she sighs, looks at him. “I see the pain in my children’s eyes. The fear. They need a time off, I think. And I hate to admit but, you and I…”

“We need time away too,” he says, breathing out with relief at her mirroring of his thoughts. “Time away from constant threats and darkness. It will only be a week, I promise, and only if Math can work out some way for Three Rats to be watched over properly in our absence.”

She touches her forehead to his. “I hate to prove my mother right. But let us not make any decisions about leaving permanently, all right? I know this ward is dangerous but, it has become home. Turning my back on it just to run away from danger…what would we think of ourselves for it?”

He nods, cupping the back of her head. “I chose to stay where I could make a difference. What difference could I possibly make in some First Ring ward where everyone is a god who’s never known deprivation, or the servant of one? But, it’s not just my decision. I can’t make it for you and for them. The thought of one of them being taken from you before their time is intolerable to me. And the people we know here…we do good in their lives, don’t we?”

She nods as well. “The ward has changed since we first arrived here. Shops opened, the market is livelier than ever. Children will soon have a school. And the deal we negotiated so that Nataniel could have his work hours be mostly spent at the clinic really paid off. The bar is nearly full every evening.” She sighs. “I never thought I would love this ward so much.”

“I was very close to saying yes,” Dion admits. “He made a very strong case. But I feel the same way about this ward. Still, I would love to have you along, and the Bunnies, when I visit the estate. We can take some much-needed time off. Sky will surely tell us to go.”

She holds him a little tighter. “Hopefully, it will help with our recovery, long as that will be. And bring a smile to my children’s faces. I hate to see them so sad and frightened.” She looks at him, a small smile on her face. “I do want to see where little Gwydion used to live. Though…it must be an emotional trip for you. I don’t want to disturb your discovery of things or hinder your recalling of any old memories you might have.”

He considers this, smiling at her concern as if it were a caress of its own. “Perhaps there will be times when I need to be in solitude, rooms I will want to enter alone. And we will have to explore the house carefully and establish safe areas. At the very least so nothing that should not be disturbed does not get…disturbed.” He smiles wryly as the haze of slumber starts veiling his thoughts. “I think I’m not making sense anymore.”

She smiles softly at him. “Well, seeing as you are dressed for bed – or should I say undressed? – I think we can delay our shifts a little and take some much needed rest. Sleep on the issue, so to speak. And maybe you’ll start making sense again after that.”

He smiles, his eyelids heavy at the hypnotic peace of this joint haven of theirs. “Maybe he’ll do something really crazy and put Somrak in charge of the ward.” He chuckles as he drifts into sleep.

She chuckles softly as well, holding him close. “Now that would be something worth seeing.”

Interchapter 6/7 1: Telling Machado

“Come in!”

Sergeant Edison Machado is a big man with a big voice that with little effort fills a room and knocks paint off the walls, but even he is surprised by how loudly he shouts at the knock on his office door. He’s been expecting it. He’d heard they had returned this morning, and after spending some time with family, his fellow sergeants have come to visit him.

He remains seated, elbows on his desk, as the door handle turns. Merri told him they’d had a hard time, but come on, they’re Dei, they’re able to bounce back from anything. Not mortals, though. Not Saira, the troubled and troublesome kid who grew up to be an assassin, almost took Aliyah with her into gang life, would have if it hadn’t been for him steering her into a career as Guardia Popula. He’d tried to keep Saira out of it too, but he’d attended the simple little funeral to her, as Lyria, the Bunnies’ grandmother, used her magic to inter Saira’s corpse beneath the struggling mango tree out back, and then bring its leaves into bright green health. The thing hasn’t ever brought forth fruit before, but maybe this year…

The door opens and the two gods look in, Dion and Alma. He is ready to blast them with fury. How could they not take him along on their mission? Or even tell him? Hadn’t he been there for them when the Dukaine gangs tried to kill Alma’s kids? And a flock of demons had attacked while they were away. If the Bunnies’ grandmother hadn’t happened to visit…

But one look at their faces and his anger dries up to dust and blows away. Alma asks, “I wonder if we can have a word with you for a moment?” Her face is thinner, somehow even paler than usual, the skin under her pearlescent blue eyes dark, showing up almost like bruises. She is obviously making an effort to remain her usual calm and courteous self. And Dion looks just as worn out, as if someone has kept him awake for a week straight. Sorrow, too, etches their faces in ways he could hardly imagine seeing on an immortal, if he hadn’t already seen it before, at the deaths of Corporal Stathos and his family weeks ago. But this is deeper. Something has afflicted them to their core.

Machado rises as he takes all this in, in his haste almost knocking over the crossbow he has left propped against his desk, ready to use if the station is attacked again. It’s the one the Inspector gave him so recently for New Year, and he has a bolt slotted in, ready to fire after only drawing the bowstring back. “Come in.” His voice is soft with concern. “Sit, will you? You want something? Coffee?”

“That would be lovely, thank you.” Alma walks in, moving with conscious care as if she has recently lost some degree of control over her own limbs, and is not entirely sure that control has returned. “Can I help with anything?”

“No, no, you just sit down and rest,” Machado insists, fumbling for his coffee pot and his bag of coffee, custom roasted, blended, and ground extra-fine for him by the best torrador in Three Rats, a man whose sister was once very sweet on him.

Gwydion makes certain the door is completely shut, and locks it. “I am going to cast a simple silence spell on the walls, if you don’t mind,” he warns. “Just to prevent the escape of unwanted rumors.” He puts his palms together and takes a deep breath. His head and hands begin to glow with golden light.

“No problem,” the mortal sergeant mutters as he carefully fills the filter of his pot with the almost-black powder. The reminder that other gods aside from ‘his’ could be listening in disturbs him. What sort of trouble continues to linger after all that has happened?

As he screws the pot together and sets it on the flame of the single gas burner, he sees that Dion has finished casting his spell and is taking a chair beside Alma’s. The god’s hand grazes the goddess’, and she takes his hand without apparent thought. They share a look, haunted, but reassuring each other: I am still here with you.

Machado has of course been aware of the attraction the two have had for each other. Most of the cops in the station had been betting on Alma and Sky becoming a couple, as despite a rocky start it was clear how much affection they bore one another, how rapidly they’d become close. But even though he’d been rather hoping that Sky and Alma would end up together, he’d known the pale Sergeant Alma would find herself in the arms of the handsome rake, Gwydion.

Edison believed Sky when he said he was really planning to stay in Three Rats, and circumstances were for some reason forcing Alma to stay, so it would have settled Machado’s mind if those two had become lovers, but it was clear that Dion would win. It was the way they fought. Alma was too comfortable with Sky too quickly, moving from a distrust to a mutual bond, a reliance on one another, the battles suddenly ceasing – but with Dion there was the fighting but also the glances, the dance of attraction and resistance. And Machado had found he couldn’t help liking the ladies’ man, someone who reminded him of himself, but he’d been worried the scoundrel would pack off and leave Alma broken-hearted. Or take her away.

But that worry was gone, especially in the past couple of weeks. Each of the three Dei had taken lead on different missions, and Edison had been along on several of them as support. With all the gang warfare, they’d needed to ignore the lines between Dei and Popula missions many times. Is it still just a Popula mission when you’re up against a gang that outnumbers all the Popula in the ward three to one? Or when they claim to have magical armor that protects them from arrows? And even when it’s clearly a Dei mission, there are often mortal supporters who need to be arrested and processed, too many for the Dei to round up and get back to the station on their own, especially when they have two or three ruffian demigods to control. Having Popula officers along means arrest and imprisonment are choices back on the table, not simply “kill or release.”

And Dion had done a fine job leading. All of them had. He couldn’t believe how smoothly they’d come to work together, with each other and with him and his Popula cops. How could they ever have managed the past months without a combined station of Dei and Popula working as one? And yet this still is far from the norm. Three Rats is an experiment in having mortals and gods in the same station, one of only a handful across the Insula.

So Machado is pleased to see the two of them taking comfort in each other. Office romance…well, at least they’re the same rank, he thinks. And they’ve been restrained so far. Surely they’ll continue to be in public. And now I’m owed fifteen…no, sixteen beers by those who bet Sky would bag her!

With effort, Alma tears her eyes away from Gwydion’s, takes a deep breath, and says, “I don’t think we need to tell you that something very serious has happened in the past few days.”

He looks up from pouring the powerful espresso into tiny cups, mismatched but clearly chosen carefully. “Yeah…I heard some of it, but so far it’s all fog and rumors. Is this the kind of thing you can fill me in all the way?”

“Yes and no,” Alma replies. “Inspector Tuma-Sukai was kidnapped from his apartment four days ago by the necromancer that killed Stathos and his family. She was working with a powerful demon summoner.”

Machado curses under his breath as he spills some of the coffee. He shakes his head and grabs a napkin. “You got her? And got the Inspector back?”

Dion nods and takes over the narrative, as if saving Alma from the exhaustion she is clearly experiencing. “We did. But the battle was nearly lost. We were captured and…” He trails off, his voice rough and haunted. “Things went very wrong. We were lucky to escape.”

Machado sighs and serves them their coffee. “You know…I would’ve come along. I mean, don’t know if I could’ve done anything but…I would’ve.” He rubs his smooth-shaved head as he says this. He was fully prepared to shout something like this at them. It had sounded far more indignant and explosive in his mind.

An expression of bitter remorse mars Alma’s beauty. “The only mortal we took with us was buried beneath a tree today. She would not take no for an answer.”

“You can see for yourself a hint of the condition we were left in,” Dion adds, holding his cup in both hands as if to warm them, though the day is already becoming hot. “And Sky…it will take time to know if he can ever recover.”

Machado pauses in rubbing his bald head at this, looking at them in shock. “You saying he might have to retire? But…he’s Dei! How can a Dei get hurt so bad to have to muster out?”

“There are weapons that can harm even gods,” Alma says, the bitterness in her voice changing to a numb echo of horror. “Weapons that reach past the body, into our souls. Deadly for mortals, torture to us.” She pauses, looking ill, her coffee still untouched. “And he was ruthlessly tortured.”

Machado’s broad shoulders sag. “Is there… What can we do?”

Alma glances at Dion and then the two Dei look at Machado, an agreed-upon moment having been reached. “That is the reason for this conversation,” Dion says. “We are not quite sure what happens next but there will certainly be some sort of punishment awaiting us in the near future, for going into the necromancer’s lair without reporting to the higher command.”

“And until then, the station has to keep running,” Alma says, looking at Machado earnestly. “We are weakened but we can certainly keep working. And we will need your help more than ever in keeping everything on its axis.”

A dozen questions jam in his throat, so that in the end none are asked. He looks from one to the other god. “These are Dei matters,” he says when he can get a word out, “so I won’t ask why you didn’t tell the command. But you know I got your back, as best as a mortal man can. You know every cop in this station does. All I ask is, you let me know if there’s some chance of a counterstrike. These necro-demon lovers – any of them left to take revenge?”

Alma closes those strange eyes and shakes her head. “I strongly suspect they went as far as killing their own thugs to summon demons and power their weapons against us.” She sighs. “The leaders are either dead or captured. We should be safe. As for Sky…he is being taken care of by people we can trust. We will find him all the help we can.”

Machado nods, sorrow subduing his thoughts. But there are practicalities to attend. “So what do I say if some upslope brass sits me down and sweats me?”

“The truth. You did not know what was going on. We never told you anything until it was too late and we were back.” Dion’s tired voice is reasonable. “As you said, these are Dei matters. If they want answers, they can come to us.”

“As for in-house commentary…” Alma opens her eyes as she speaks up again. “You are being told more than anyone other than Gwydion, Somrak, Geryon and I currently know. The Bunnies have an inkling of what happened but they don’t know just how grim things are looking for Sky. And we cannot risk them knowing or following us around to find out where he is. It would be cruel to make them live in fear of what is yet to come. The same goes for the rest of the Popula.”

Machado’s distress deepens. He doesn’t want to lie to them, especially not to his student in capoeira, Kori, but he nods in agreement. “I got it. I guess there’s no way I could visit the Inspector?”

Dion shakes his head in refusal. “For as much as he would deeply appreciate it, the orders are for strict isolation right now.” His voice is compassionate. He clearly knows how much this is affecting the mortal sergeant. “We will keep you apprised, however, of his progress.”

Machado reluctantly nods. He and Inspector Sky had fought side by side, armed with crossbows, to hold back a team of assassins to let Dion and Alma escape with the Bunnies once. When the weather changes, his leg still hurts where it took an arrow. And it hurts, now, that he can’t do anything to help Sky. “Appreciated. And…all that you told me, thank you for that too.”

Alma looks thoughtful. “Edison…” she says, before pausing to drink her coffee.

He feels an electric prickling of skin on his forearms. She has almost never used his first name. It’s a name not at all usual in this ward, and almost nobody but his mother calls him by the name she gave him. Even to his friends, he’s typically called Machado.

“There won’t be any official change in command until the higher powers have their say,” she continues, “but I think we can live well without an official leader. We all know our jobs. And perhaps we can work out some sort of daily schedule with you in charge of a shift with just a Dei on call?”

He nods. “I used to run this whole place,” he points out, matter-of-factly. “Well, the smaller station before we moved. Anyway, I think we can manage, no problem.” He hesitates before asking, “Uh, how long you think it’ll take for you to get back to a hundred percent?”

“A couple of decades, maybe? Maybe more?” Alma forces herself into a small smile at Machado’s alarmed expression. “We can manage a good eighty percent right now, I think. Certainly enough so we don’t put anyone at risk. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to belittle your leadership skills or experience.”

“Oh no, no offense taken. I just meant, I can manage. Unless, you know, demons attack again.” He stands and gathers their cups. “You want more? Though you look like all the coffee in the world ain’t gonna keep you up much longer.”

“And we still have our reports to write,” Dion sighs.

“Yes…” Alma locks eyes with Machado’s. “Thank you. For listening and understanding. And for your discretion. We are blessed to have you as a friend.”

He blinks and reflexively reaches up to rub his head at that after setting down the cups and saucers next to his tiny office sink. He feels his cheeks burn at her words. “Yeah well, same here, you know? And forget about the paperwork for now, eh? Go rest. I’ll bang on your door if we need you for an emergency.”

He goes to open the door for them as they stand.

“I guess…paperwork can stand to wait a few hours,” Dion notes. He puts a hand on Machado’s rock-solid bowling-ball of a shoulder and looks him in the eye. “Thank you.”

Machado smiles, embarrassed. He remembers clashing with these gods early on. He’d been sensitive about the way his command had suddenly been put under these immortal beings, how everything had changed. “Thank you. Without you guys…we’d be working for the Dukaines. Or dead.”

Dion returns his smile, squeezing his shoulder before exiting the office. He feels a cool touch on his upper back, and he turns to find Alma giving him a gentle embrace. Again he feels a thrill of shock. Her ethereal beauty would make any man’s heart race, but also to be held, however briefly, by a goddess of death…

Her cheek touches his forehead – it is easy for him to forget how much taller she is than he, though she is the same height as Dion – and he muses that having her there at the end to see his soul off would be the best anyone could hope for. Then she is gone, following Dion, off to rest and to recover, and Machado is left alone with thoughts of loss and change and an uncertain future.

Ch6.95 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I use it to hurt you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The images break her focus. Her attack loses strength.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wants it gone.

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

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

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

But she is tired. And Nua is taken away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

The enemy at the gate.

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

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

Wake up, Gwydion. You are needed.

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

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

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

Mate?

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

And the world pours in.

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

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

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

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

Saira.

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

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

Mate!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer us. Return to us.

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

Come back to us, mate. We are calling.

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

Come back. Ours…

Mine.

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

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

Please, wake up. Please…

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

Here!

Here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.94 Trust

“Now give me a good reason to let you live–”

“…Alma?” At the sound of Lyria’s plaintive voice, the goddess known as the Fencer breaks off from glowering at Somrak to look toward her niece, cradled in Lyria’s arms. Fencer’s eyes widen after a moment, and she curses.

Sky, the newly broken wing from Melinor just one more in a long list of injuries, pulls himself with great effort back from the brink of attacking Alma’s brother. His instincts in this form are so much harder to control, and only moments before, Sky had been about to launch himself at a greater devil, selling his life to buy Somrak a moment longer to get Alma and Gwydion out of Margrave’s pocket universe. The rage of battle is not easily dismissed, nor is the comforting feeling of having given up on survival entirely.

The very presence of the powerful god of death-in-battle is a challenge to Sky’s Hell-shaped instincts, which see all gods as the enemy, screaming at him all the more strongly with his brain and entire body shaped as they are now. Melinor also stands between Sky and his friends. How sweet it would be to fight him, to die – as Sky knows he would – tearing the god apart. All this pain, this misery, finally ended. Just give in and be the devil they expect.

But it is the voices of the two goddesses, echoing in this dark, unfamiliar chamber, that bring him back. Lyria is frightened for Alma. And so, in her harsher fashion, is Fencer. Their fear carves out a space for Sky to have rational thought, to realize that all is not lost. If there is fear, there is hope. Alma’s soul is not going to Hell. Neither is Gwydion’s, nor Somrak’s, nor his own. Even Saira…

He looks at the fallen mortal, where she lies on the floor beside Somrak. Sky does not have the death gods’ ability to be certain, but her wounds are not survivable. Too much poison, too much trauma, too much blood lost. Too much time passed. They were unable to escape quickly enough.

Sky failed to act quickly enough.

He lowers his widespread arms, relaxes his flexed talons. The unbroken wing folds against his back, and Sky lowers his head in submission to Melinor. He cannot speak intelligibly with only the stump of a tongue in his mouth. But his body language is enough for Melinor’s battle aura to fade and for the god to turn his attention to his sister, Alma.

The God of Death in Battle joins Fencer and Lyria. The vibrant life goddess still holds her daughter, petting Alma’s head and whispering to her, while Fencer, thin and hard-muscled, examines her unconscious niece with a red-glowing eye.

Melinor does the same. “Something is wrong. I sense two souls in her body,” he says after a moment.

Fencer glares at Sky, clearly blaming him. But she turns the same look upon Somrak, who has found an old, filthy cloth in the basement they are in, dragging it out from under a collapsed corpse, some dessicated unfortunate that is, for whatever reason, here in this dark place. “What happened in there?” Fencer demands.

Somrak pauses in his preparation to cover Saira’s cooling body, looking at Alma, his expression helpless and hopeless. “If there are two souls in her… Then the necromancer is in there with Alma.”

Fencer stares at him as if she is planning just how to gut him, but instead of saying anything more, she just turns back to Melinor. “We need somewhere we can stuff a devil in.”

Lyria looks up. Her beautiful face is distraught, but her strength shows through. “I know where to go,” she insists. She reaches up toward Melinor, and the tall god kneels to allow her to touch the side of his head. A slight glow of green at the touch, and the death god nods.

“The others will need to be close,” Melinor says.

Fencer barks at Somrak, “Get over here, you and your devil friend both. Bring the prisoner, too.”

It is only then that Sky, who had been focusing so much on the gods in the room, notices a form trying to hide in the shadows. Just for a moment, his one good eye locks with hers.

Trocia. His relief at her survival is mixed with dread at that face, the face of Nua for the past days of his torture. And a deeper dread, a physical wretchedness even, at what Nua forced him to do to her. Her face is not animated with Nua’s sadistic humor. She is looking at him in terror.

He quickly looks away. He wants to tell her how good it is to see her alive and free of Nua, and to apologize. But even if he had a tongue, what apology would suffice? Every moment of his presence must be a continuation of her torture. He clenches his fists, digging his claws into his palms, piercing his skin. He shudders with memory of what he did, and what her body was forced to do to him while she watched, helpless. The door out of this basement is right there, open, at the top of the stairs. He could flee. He is foul. They would all be better off if he disappeared from their lives.

“Sky.” Somrak’s voice cuts through his panicking train of thought. He is holding Saira’s body, now wrapped in cloth. Trocia is behind him, still trying to hide, looking at nothing but definitely not at Sky. “Come on. You have to touch Melinor to be transported with him. Would you pick up Dion?”

Sky takes one last look at the open exit. It is night out there. The shadows beckon. But he turns and carefully lifts Gwydion, who remains unconscious. He moves closer to Melinor and apologetically touches the god’s leg with his tail.

Somrak touches Melinor with his arm, while all the others put a hand on him or use some other way of making contact. The death god looks down at Alma and simply transports them all as if were just a second thought.

They arrive in a chamber designed to welcome guests: It is spacious and comfortable, with chairs and a lounge to sit upon. There is a heavy door, however, sealing this windowless chamber off.

“Hmpf. A cell?” the Fencer snorts. “ And who is the jailor?”

Still holding Alma, Lyria replies, “The Oracle is careful of her privacy.” She looks down at her daughter. “Someone will be along in a moment.” It seems almost as if she is talking to Alma more than to the others.

Melinor kneels again, gently taking Alma into his own arms and lifting her from Lyria. The life goddess’ trust of him is evident in how she allows this, though she looks on the verge of protest. Fencer speaks up as she attends to Alma as well, in a voice not harsh but not especially soft either. “Go take care of the fools. Melinor and I have work to do and we all know you can’t help here.”

Lyria hesitates, then leaves Alma to them, going over to Sky. “Oh, little demon…” she begins.

“Such strange guests that do not announce themselves.” The door has opened without anyone noticing, and Nevieve, the Oracle, has entered the chamber. She stands tall, clad in a simple dress and sari, her dark skin iridescent where the light catches the very fine scales at the edges, her eyes white and strange.

Lyria turns from Sky, who has almost fallen into a trance at her approach, at the way she has, unlike Fencer, who looked on him with suspicion, or unlike Melinor, who saw him as an opponent in battle, come to him with only concern and pity, looking right past his outer form and seeing the same Sky she has always known. Sky does not know if he can ever express how much that means to him, here and now.

“Forgive us, Nevieve,” she says. “As you can see, our minds are in a tumult.”

Looking at Sky with her strange white eyes, the Oracle says, “So the inevitable has taken place. And the devil cradles his slayer in his arms.”

Sky looks down at Gwydion. Yes, his slayer. Hammer of Devils. Gwydion’s newfound power. Sky remembers the blow Gwydion gave him in Margrave’s lair. The pain is still there, among all the other pains.

Lyria turns back to him. She looks up into Sky’s face and strokes his muzzle. Or she tries. He cannot help but flinch away. He does not want to, but he is so convinced of his loathsomeness that he cannot bear to be touched by one so beautiful. “Oh, little one, what have they done to you?” she says softly. “So many wounds, some of them perhaps beyond my reach. Let me heal Gwydion first, and then I shall attend to you.”

She gets him to lay down Gwydion’s unconscious body onto the floor of the chamber, and then, surrounding the younger god’s body in a nimbus of verdant light, she heals Dion’s torn torso and all the other physical wounds he has sustained. After a moment, she sighs and looks up at Sky. “These whip-lashes cut so deeply, beyond the flesh and into the spirit. They will heal far more slowly.” She rises and once again touches Sky’s face. When he tries to pull away, she whispers, “Shhhh… When have I ever given you reason to fear my touch, little one? You are at a loss for words? Ah, I see.” He feels her probing magic, warm and energizing, within his mouth.

Meanwhile, Nevieve is crouching beside Gwydion. She touches his forehead, and her eyes flare white. “Hmm… How interesting.” Her hand glows white as she transfers mana and life force into Dion, at the same time wiping his body clean of all the blood and filth of that Hellish torture chamber, and replacing his ragged Guardia trousers with lightweight white-linen pants, leaving him bare-chested and barefoot, but looking now like one of her supplicants. “That should do.” Sky, with his one eye, glances to Somrak who, he sees now, has been given much the same treatment, healed, cleaned up, and given a change into simple white clothes. Sky can see that Somrak’s elaborate tattoo of tiger and phoenix is now ruined, however, for though the flesh is healed from the whip’s lash, the damage to the ink is not, leaving it mottled and blurred. He is sitting on the floor, back against the wall, looking at nothing. Beyond him, Trocia is stealing a frightened look at Sky, but she quickly looks away.

Nevieve looks toward Alma. “That seems like a much more dangerous fight.”

His voice low, Melinor urges, “Come on. Let go of her.”

“She’s trying to hold on,” Fencer growls, annoyed.

“Can you help them?” Lyria says to Nevieve. She is still performing an extensive preliminary examination of Sky – his injuries and physiology are complex, too complex, he imagines, for her to simply launch into healing him.

“I can only give her strength and heal her body,” Nevieve says. “Her soul is up to her to save. Still, it might be best to keep her body weak lest the soul who wins be the wrong one.”

Lyria insists with shaky conviction, “Alma will win. But any help we can give her–”

Suddenly Alma gasps. Sky strains to see. “I have her!” Fencer shouts to Melinor. “Don’t let the other escape.”

Sky feels a hand grip his. He looks down and sees that Lyria is holding his taloned hand tightly. Sky carefully closes his hand around hers, feeling a sharp pain lance through his heart at her action. To seek comfort from him!

The trusting touch takes him back to a grandchild of his, daughter of his adopted son, long, long ago and on another world, how small her hand in his as they walked together through the snow.

Events here and now shake him free from useless memories. In Fencer’s hand, a little blurry body of light appears, faint at first then materializing further and further until it looks like a small, sparkling pebble. Alma’s body glows faintly and Melinor puts a hand over her chest. “No,” he says. “Stay inside yourself.”

Nevieve smiles. “Ah, it seems that now it is my turn.” She walks over to Alma to start healing her body. At her glance, Melinor bows and steps away, standing guard. Fencer rises and walks away, toward Somrak.

Sky hears her begin to speak to Somrak in a low voice that might as well be shouting for its vehemence, but all thought of that fades as Lyria’s healing power begins to spread through his body, taking hold finally. The stump of his tongue, the gaping socket of his missing eye, and so many slashes from the whip, self-healed but not fully, for he had to conserve his mana, just enough to allow function. The broken wing, the deep stab in his hand from Alma’s dragon-tooth dagger. The crushing blow from Gwydion that broke ribs and bruised organs. All of it begins to heal, making him hiss and whimper, clamping his muzzle shut to keep from screaming and roaring. It hurts as much as taking all those wounds again at once, but at the same time it feels so good that he cannot keep his feet, falling to his knees.

If he were in his human form, he would be weeping. As it is, tears are not something he can summon in this shape.

Lyria has healed him before, but he was not a tenth as injured as now. He falls forward onto his hands, then curls in on himself, the formerly broken wing cupping itself around Lyria and pulling her even closer. He breathes harshly, but all thought flees as he nearly falls unconscious, blessed darkness rising in an attempt to claim him.

He is drowning. But when he became a god, he was a god of the sea. He cannot drown. No matter how far he is pulled down into the crushing depths, he will always swim to safety. He holds Lyria to him as his body shakes with tearless sobs.

Ch6.93 Trust

“No, no, no, come on, hold on, hold on!

The blood is pumping from Saira. Somrak tries to heal one wound, but healing does not come naturally to him. He is a god of fire, and fire destroys. Unable to draw upon his sphere for healing, he makes do with the same sort of magic that mortal wizards learn. And the abyssal poison in Saira’s wounds defeats such pitiful effort. He cannot even slow the bleeding.

Multiple punctures, deep and ragged, make him want to scream just from looking at what Margrave’s bound demons have done to her. And there is nothing he can do. He sees her eyes barely open, unfocused, but flicking toward him. Instead of screaming, he whispers, “Saira, please, stay with me… Alma’s gonna wake up, she’s going to be all right, she’s going to heal you.”

Saira’s body convulses in what is probably intended to be a laugh. “Quit it, Ponytail… I said…I wouldn’t–” She coughs up a gout of blood that runs down her chin, blood that stinks of demonic venom. “Wouldn’t survive. Stupid gods… Look after them.”

Som holds her tighter and whispers to her, “You got him. You got him. The Devil’s Right Hand. You got him.”

Somrak sets her down, then leans over Dion, grabbing his forearm and pulling him closer. “Come on, Prettyboy! Wake up! We need magic. You can put her in stasis or something, right?” He smacks Dion’s cheeks, but the god, his mana spent, remains unconscious. Somrak raises a hand to give him a good slap.

A huge hoof plants itself near Somrak’s knee, spreading out slightly to bear Sky’s massive weight, and a big taloned hand grasps Somrak’s arm. The devil squats, balancing easily with his tail and outspread wings. He looks at Saira. His face seems sad, pained – really, there’s no telling. That hairless canine muzzle is ripped from the whipping he has received, one eye put out. And it’s not as if Somrak has seen this face of Sky’s more than a handful of times in forty years. Sky has no desire to show it.

The room groans. The walls begin to bleed some kind of sap. Sky releases Somrak, who takes hold of Saira’s limp body and, with effort, stands. He is wounded himself. The whiplashes are nothing to scoff at. The damage to flesh is survivable for a god – at the worst, the wounds across his chest are only bone-deep. But the pain to his soul goes on and on, weakening him. He looks at Margrave – dead, his head wrenched backwards, the black-bone whip wrapped around his neck, buried in his throat. At Alma – unconscious, whatever is happening there unknown to the outside world. At Dion – unconscious as well.

And the woman that Alma was put into for a time, the girl really, is gone. In all the confusion of unbound demons, she disappeared. Slipped out. Glancing at the pile of weapons, spilled from a cart, Somrak notes that Saira’s crossbow is missing. Clever girl. Grabbed the best weapon.

Though how she got out… The door is hanging open, but beyond it is puckered flesh, pulsating. It looks for all the world like a tight-shut sphincter.

“The sword,” Somrak says to Sky. “Might need it. If Nua managed to bind Alma’s soul to it even a little…” He hopes Sky can understand.

The devil looks, spots the fine weapon, and hands it over to Somrak, who hooks two fingers around the guard to hold it while still carrying Saira. Then Sky looks at the blocked door. He flexes his claws, as if intending to rip his way through, but then he looks down at Margrave. The summoner is a corpse, or nearly so, and Sky brings one leg back and kicks him at the doorway, sliding his body across the floor.

The sphincter opens. To Somrak’s relief, nothing comes out. It simply reveals a passageway that looks distinctly intestinal.

There is a dull boom in the distance, behind the wall opposite the passage. Then another, closer. Somrak feels chilled. It sounds like the steps of a giant, walking. Another boom, closer.

We are come, to claim our soul…

It is a moan of doom, triumphant and dolorous, issuing from the world itself, this tiny pocket universe. Sky grunts at Somrak. He seizes Margrave’s body and tosses it onto his back, pinning it there by folding his wings up tight. Then he lifts Alma and Dion with great care.

“Come on!” Somrak urges him. “Let’s go!” Sky grunts at Somrak again, jerking his horned head at the corridor. Somrak looks to make sure the two unconscious gods are being held securely, then he rushes into the pulsating passage.

It is not open very far ahead, only a few strides, but as Sky follows from behind, bearing Margrave’s corpse, the passage keeps opening before them. And those world-shaking footsteps keep following from behind.

Sky is a devil, Somrak knows. And what is coming is, in all likelihood, a devil as well. It certainly feels more powerful than any demon, of another category entirely, as of a god compared to a mortal. And more powerful than Sky. Vastly so. A rot emanates from that direction, racing along the corridor, putrefying as fast as they can run. Faster. Somrak pushes harder. Saira… For a moment Somrak allows the thought to exist, that she is already dead, that it’s too late. He thrusts that away. Too late or not, she’s not remaining behind here. Hell itself is devouring this miniature world. Hell is claiming it as territory. Alive or dead, her soul may still be attached to her body. He’s not sure how that works, but he knows that no death goddess has sent it on its way. He will not let her be stuck here in any form.

And there it is: the portal. Well, the blank wall that held the portal. At the moment, it holds nothing. Somrak nearly crashes into it. He shifts Saira and slaps a hand against it, giving the wall a jolt of mana and sending the mental command for it to open.

Nothing.

Somrak realizes how terrified he is. He is never frightened in battle. Never! It is only in repose, after or before, or captured or otherwise unable to fight, that he feels fear. Battle? He’s too busy fighting to be afraid. And usually too busy laughing.

But not now. Now he is afraid that Sky and Dion and Saira and…Alma, afraid that they will all end up in Hell. That he’s led them to this. And he must admit that he is nearly paralyzed with fear at the thought of himself in Hell. Eternity of endless torture, ever-renewed, never numbed to it, always and ever screaming for mercy, in utter abjection. No dignity, no hope, no love. With every thought he feels more beaten down. Is this the approaching devil infecting his mind with despair? Or is he simply falling prey to his own cowardice at last?

With a thud, Margrave’s body falls to the floor. Sky has laid down Alma and Dion, carefully, and roughly dumped Margrave. He jerks his head at the corpse, then holds out a hand toward the door. It takes Somrak a moment of wondering why Sky isn’t speaking to catch his meaning. Somrak lays down Saira, grabs Margrave’s hand, and places it against the portal wall. He channels mana through it.

And nothing happens. The portal makes not the slightest hint of appearing.

Somrak feels his guts clench. He does what he has been avoiding: he turns to look behind them. He nearly vomits at the sight. The entire pocket universe, Margrave’s little sanctum, has been flayed open. It looks like exploded strips of flesh, gangrenous and full of tumors, undulating in some cosmic wind. The only spot of stability is where they stand now. The rest is claimed by Hell.

And beyond it? Only a vague shape in the darkness, something squatting, waiting to spring, something larger than any living creature Somrak has ever seen. That he cannot see it clearly is a mercy, the final mercy. For he knows that when it does show itself, all is over. All happiness, that is, all joy.

Once again, kneeling, he tries to wake Dion, shaking him in desperation. Still nothing, the Sergeant knocked cold by his earlier efforts. Not even a flicker of an eyelid.

Somrak stands and readies Alma’s sword. He will strike at it. He tells himself this, though he is not sure he believes it. But he cannot look at it. Instead he looks down, at Alma’s face. He will take that with him, into Hell. He will cling to that memory for as long as he can.

Beside him, Sky roars defiance. He spreads arms and wings wide. In one hand he holds the vertebral whip, the soul-shredding godbound weapon that was used to torture him and Somrak and Dion. He recognizes the feel of it, that of a god’s soul torn from its body and forced to commit evils. Unending pain, a miniature of Hell, driving the soul insane quickly.

In the other hand, Sky holds Margrave’s limp, broken, ragdoll body by one leg. He draws his arm back and hurls it at the devil, sending it spinning, cartwheeling at its master. Sky’s roar this time is of rage, hate, and unending refusal to submit. Somrak takes heart. At least he and Sky, partners for so long, are together at the end. But the guilt at having brought the others to this nearly consumes the fire god.

This is worse than death. All of them will find their souls in Hell. All of them will suffer, forever. But perhaps their souls can escape to the Wheel if their bodies die now. Somrak holds the sword, pointed toward Alma’s breast. Freed of her flesh, can Alma lead Dion’s and Saira’s souls to safety? Can he kill her, then Dion, in time?

And then two large, hard hands grab him from behind by the shoulders and pull him through the portal. Somrak flies through the air and lands on the floor of the basement in Little Falls, the sword clanging away into darkness, the world blessedly normal, the Insula, home, a place where gods belong. The air is knocked out of him, but tears of relief spring to his eyes.

As he pushes himself up onto his elbows, he sees other figures in the dark room. “Give her to me!” cries a voice more suited to songs of life and love than to fear, and yes, he did recognize it, for there is Lyria, Alma’s mother, cradling her daughter. Then the hulking shape that must have pulled Somrak through is now tossing Gwydion toward Fencer, who quickly sets him down.

And now the big one – ah, it must be Melinor, a god Somrak has heard about and has even seen striding a battlefield more than once, harvesting those slain in combat – Melinor is struggling, pulling a shape too big to fit easily through the human-sized portal. And yet, with a crack of bone, the god manages, hurling Sky behind him with a twist of his hips, forcing Somrak to roll out of the way to avoid being crushed. Sky falls heavily against a wall, one wing limp, and the devil starts to his feet, snarling at Alma’s brother.

“You two can solve your differences later!” Fencer snaps. “All right, girl, seal that portal!”

Somrak sees Trocia then, the formerly unconscious vessel for Alma’s soul, doing her best to stay unnoticed as long as possible. Pale, traumatized, she moves to obey.

“Wait!” Somrak cries. He springs to his feet and dashes for the portal, pushing past the girl. Fencer’s objection is cut off as he pushes his head and one arm through. His hand grasps Saira’s ankle, and he looks –

Oh, he shouldn’t have looked.

That face. That… He has seen Sky in his devil form. He has fought numerous demons. Undead. Other horrors, too many to count. He has seen the worst that anyone with sufficient lust for power and too little empathy can do to fellow creatures, things he feels ashamed even to know about.

All that is nothing compared to this, the face of a true Prince of Hell.

It is the end of all hope. It is the death of the heart.

And then he is pulled back through. And with him, hand locked on her ankle, comes Saira.

“NOW!” cries Fencer. Somrak could swear she has fear in her voice.

She should.

Trocia places her palms on the portal. It bulges. Something is pushing from the other side. But then it is gone. It disappears. But could it be reactivated from the other side?

Sky snarls again, leaning forward, muscles bunching. Is he preparing to launch himself at Melinor, or at the surface through which the more powerful devil can come? Somrak slaps Sky’s shoulder, trying to bring him to his senses.

Melinor ignores Sky. He brushes the girl aside and places his fingertips on the wall. It turns to dust in a great circle, dust that slides to the floor in a soft avalanche. With the destruction of the surface it was created on, the portal is forever gone.

Somrak pulls Saira to him. He tries to drive away memory of that face, and indeed it fades like a nightmare. Though it will return, he knows, in the dark, in sleep. He will not escape it so easily.

But for now he touches Saira’s slack face. Her skin is cold. He knows death.

A boot beside his face. He looks up. Fencer, glaring down at him.

“Now give me a good reason to let you live,” she growls.