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.

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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.

Ch6.91 Trust

Sky watches, unable to act. He roared when Somrak tried to choke Alma. No, not Alma. Alma’s body. He roared then, and again when Somrak was whipped.

But more than that he cannot compel himself to do. He is Nua’s. He has given himself over to her. She has broken and bound him.

Hasn’t she?

His talons scrape against the concrete floor, dust erupting. Margrave is here, clapping. The Lieutenant. Nekh’s right hand. Such a small man. Margrave and Nua, in the same room. If he could act, Sky could kill them both. He is not even chained.

But Nua is in Alma’s body. And Nua’s body – no, Nua has no body. Trocia’s body is lying on the gurney. And is Alma in there? He cannot kill her, in case Alma is in there.

He cannot kill Trocia anyway. Because he cannot do anything without Nua’s say? No… Because he has hurt Trocia. Nua has hurt her, so much. And because Nua made him, he has hurt her. She forced him – Nua forced him…

The shame makes him fight the urge to vomit. Even in this form, with its devil’s brain and body, what he did to poor Trocia makes him want to die.

Nua allowed Trocia to regain control of her body, just for a moment. While Sky was thrusting away, holding her down as Nua had commanded him, Nua let Trocia speak, beg, scream. She struggled. She wept.

And she told Sky that she forgave him.

He broke then. He shattered. He forgot any possibility but submission to Nua’s rule. Because anything else was just too painful to accept.

And so now, Sky does not move. He does not act.

Nua uses Alma’s face to grin. She produces two curved daggers, made of an enamelled, organic material. Sky recognizes them. The gift from Somrak to Alma, for Year’s End. “I found these fun little toys too,” she says to Margrave, her master. “The males could go in them, since they want to stay with their little friend so much.” She turns her beautiful face, marred by the twisted, insane evil that hides within the perfect divine flesh, and looks at Gwydion and Somrak, looking their hanging, bleeding bodies up and down as if appraising meat. “Make a nice matching set.”

Margrave takes one of the daggers, considering. “Dragon’s tooth. These would make deadly weapons, with these gods’ souls in them.” He looks at the captives. “What do you think, Sergeants? An eternity as a weapon, slaying gods, or an eternity in Hell? Which is more appealing?”

Croaking, weak, Somrak sneers. “Come one step closer and let me show you what I think, Tragas scum…”

Nua lashes out with the vertebral whip, all that remains of Little Falls’ resident Death Goddess. It rips across Somrak’s bare chest again, opening a new, ragged wound, making a lopsided bloody X across his torso. Having endured that whip and its soul-scoring damage himself, Sky cringes in on himself, reliving that pain through Somrak’s agonized howl. “That was not very polite of you,” Nua purrs. “But that sharp tongue will surely give a good edge to any blade.”

She spins on her toe and sways over to the gurney. Sky is dismayed at how quickly she has taken to Alma’s body. Many species of possessor-demons exist in the legions of Hell, and most of them cannot so quickly master a new body. Somehow Nua has gone from Trocia’s awkward mortal form to Alma’s taller divine one without missing a beat. No stumbling, no hesitation. She seems ready to stay in there for an eternity.

He remembers, when the others fell unconscious, before Gwydion and Somrak were disarmed, all their clothing but their pants stripped off, chained by the wrists and raised off the floor, how Alma struggled, screamed, as she was attacked by something he could not see. But Nua, in Trocia’s body then, gloated at how the shredded, violated souls were weakening Alma. She had had her assistants chain Trocia’s body down, and Alma’s as well, and then effected the soul transfer. All while Sky was frozen, helpless.

This all could, after all, have been another trick.

They stripped Saira, too, divesting her of her many blades and nearly all her clothes, leaving her in nothing but her leather pants and a pair of handcuffs. Mortal that she is, they didn’t bother to hang her up, just leaving her behind the others.

Nua picks up Alma’s sword, sighting along the length of the blade, and rests the tip on Trocia’s chest. “Shall I start?”

Margrave sighs in impatience. “You know that your mind must be calm for this.”

Nua grins, that seductive but utterly mad grin that blossoms on her face so easily, that makes Alma look hateful and diseased. “What do you suggest to calm me…master?”

The absurd sexual charge in her voice prompts only a withering glare. “Why don’t you try taking a deep breath and counting down from ten?” Margrave’s contempt would whip her bloody if it could take physical form.

Coughing laughter that ends on a gurgle and expectoration of thick blood. “You two make such a great couple!” Somrak’s teeth are crimson and ivory as he smiles at them like a predator ready to bite at its first chance.

Nua sets down the sword beside Trocia’s body. She turns, tossing her pure-white hair, and takes a few steps to Somrak, careful not to approach close enough that he can attack her again. Her tone is frighteningly sweet, all the more disturbing for being Alma’s voice. “You know, hurting you would be sure to calm me down but…if I damage your soul too much it’ll become useless.” She smiles. “Tell you what, I’ll hit your friend instead, this time.” Somrak’s wordless shout is drowned out by Gwydion’s scream as a mere flick of Nua’s wrist sends the sinuous living whip cutting through Dion’s flesh, opening a wound along his side and tearing again at his soul. The whip seems to take pleasure in its enslavement, full of mad hatred.

“And I will lash him again, any time you open that dirty little mouth to speak,” Nua adds before she turns away.

Somrak glares at her, his compact muscles straining against the chains, so obviously wanting to burn her, but keeping his jaw clenched shut.

As she takes position next to Trocia’s body again, Nua smiles, deranged, at Margrave. “I’m calm now.”

The sleeping body stirs. Trocia’s mouth opens and struggles to make a sound, like someone who has endured a stroke and is relearning to use her body. “Sssss… Sssssss…”

Margrave paces around the gurney, his hands clasped behind him, holding his silver-headed cane horizontally. His clothes are so consummate, so carefully chosen to create the perfect ensemble. The tailored wool suit, charcoal grey, the wine-colored silk tie, trinity-knotted, the soft-cotton white shirt. He rounds the table, not far from Gwydion and Somrak. “Yes, we’ll have things all set to right soon enough. That’ll show you not to open boxes from demons, silly girl,” he murmurs to Trocia.

Nua lifts the sword again and begins to whisper in a language that will leave her throat raw for days. It is one of the numerous languages of Hell, one of those that has never been used for conversation. It is purely a language of spellcasting, one that taps right into the underlying grammar of Creation itself, but one of an earlier Reality, with a vocabulary more alien and evil.

The edges of the sword begin to glow with a black light. A similar light begins to flicker along the edges of Trocia’s body, stabbing into it, reaching deep, hooking and drawing out a soul. Trocia stirs, arching her back, writhing against the chains that bind her. But the voice that issues from her mouth has a familiar timbre.

“Sssssskyyy! Hhhhelllp!!” It is weak, but Sky can hear Alma in it, despite the mortal’s throat and mouth. Then she screams, almost roars.

And then a great many things happen at once.

Margrave lurches upright, leaning back, his face twisted into extreme annoyance, silently asking, ‘What now?’ as he releases his cane and claws at his throat. Sky sees what has appeared around it: a short length of chain, attached to the handcuffs around Saira’s wrists. She is behind him, her hair wild, a knee dug into his back. Sky can see half of her face, and the fury written there could frighten a god.

“I finally have you, you son of a bitch! You’re DEAD!” Saira’s voice rings off the stone walls.

Margrave’s perfectly tailored suit begins to shiver, awaken, and transform. The necktie expands, becoming scaly and clawed, pushing under the chains to serve as a cushion. His jacket flies open like a pair of stunted wings, then curves, sprouting long, back-curved spikes, impaling Saira’s vulnerable body in several places. His pants slither off his legs, turning into two centipedes, their sharp-tipped legs latching onto Saira’s leather-clad ones, their mandibles biting deep.

Saira screams her pain but in her determination and hatred she does not let go of Margrave as the demons attack her, merely shifting the chain to get it past his reptilian protector and get it around his bare throat again.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The pain is immense, indescribable, expanding, contracting. Consuming. There is a whole universe of it. Alma’s whole universe is made of pain. Arms of darkness reach into her and pull her into…something. Something that is not her. A lifeless body, cold and motionless. Restraining. A prison of senselessness. She tried. She tried to call for help. But it is too late.

She can feel it as the invisible force sucks her out of Trocia’s unresisting form and drags her, stretching her soul almost to the point of breaking, into her new prison.

Her own sword.

Discorporate, without a solid hold on Trocia’s body as it is not her own, Alma tries to fight it, resisting in any way she can, clutching at what little she can grab of Trocia’s flesh in the most desperate of attempts to avoid this binding. And the more she resists, the more she is stretched to infinity, the more her soul is frayed, strands of it torn and flailing free. She wants to scream. Tries to scream. But she cannot. She calls on her powers but for the strength they give, she needs to remain whole. And she tries to escape to the Wheel but the pain is maddening. The gateway remains closed to her. She calls, whimpers, begs in thought to the Shan’doír, asking their help. Their protection.

But no one comes.

The binding strengthens. Her hold falters. No! No! No!

Images of her family, of her children, of her friends, of Gwydion fill her conscience. The soul is shaped by memories. Of one’s body, of one’s life, of one’s emotions. And there is pain…so much grief in hers. So much regret. And there was so much hope…

Loss. Failure. She will fail them all. The Bunnies for never again returning to them. Her friends for becoming an instrument of their doom. Sky…for not saving him. Sky… Tortured into submission, forced to rape a young girl, to abandon all hope, even his godly shape.

I am so sorry, Sky

As her powers waver, as the maddening agony swarms and overwhelms her, she finally screams, a single memory filling her like the demented spark of salvation. The Vow…

The Vow…

She lets go, drawing what is left of her powers around her, projecting them like an explosion. All of her thinking that one thought, calling that one call.

Sky! Azzageddi! Remember your vow….

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Is it a trick? Is it Nua, trying to get Sky to reveal himself as a traitor? Sky bunches his shoulders. Trocia, with Alma inside. Somrak and Gwydion, bloodied but struggling uselessly now to get free of their chains. Margrave is being strangled, but Saira is hurt, hurt so badly – I must…I must ACT! he rages within his own mind, jaws clenched.

As Saira screams in pain and rage, Nua proceeds with the magic, grinning in glee. She seems all too happy to let the assassin kill Margrave if she is able. Trocia’s back arches as her body starts to glow, the chains pressing into her flesh, the sheer power of Alma’s divine soul making it visible even to Sky, with his lack of specialized senses. Suddenly Trocia’s body collapses and a ball of light hovers in the air, sprouting tendrils that move toward the sword as if they were being sucked into it. But the tendrils stop halfway there, dangerously close but somehow seeming to resist the call of the metal. The air feels electrified, alive with soundless screams. The mind more than the ears registers unspeakable pain and the strained words,

Sky! Azzageddi! Remember your vow…

The words penetrate past Sky’s paralyzed surface, down into the hidden recesses where he has kept a secret even from himself: that he is not bound, not entirely broken. He has endured so much, thought his friends tortured to death, been forced to commit unspeakable acts, been blinded in one eye, had his tongue cut out, had his bones broken and his very soul whipped again and again, but all along he has kept one tiny spark of rebellion ready for the right moment. Hidden behind a stone, inside a dream, so deep even he could not see it.

The pieces are in place. He is free to move. Margrave and Nua are both here, unmindful of him. The time is here, right now.

There is a crash that shakes the entire chamber as Sky’s shoulders slam into the ceiling as he rises. His wings spread to cover half the room, shadow within them. His arms are spread wide, talons ready to grasp, his tail lashing, upsetting a cart of restraints and torture instruments and the stripped-away clothes and equipment of the captives. There are a surprising number of knives and swords there.

He roars.

The roars before were shocking, stunning, sudden attempts to stop Somrak from killing Alma’s body, or to try to stop the torture. This is something else entirely. The bones and organs of everyone in the room vibrate with this basso-profundo bellow. The stones of the walls and ceiling release dust and mortar, and begin to shake free, falling here and there. It goes on and on, making everyone cringe, panicking the demons that swarm around Saira and Margrave, making Nua drop the sword.

Then it becomes even louder, and deeper. Nearly beyond endurance. And that is when every link of every chain in the room pops, shattering. Tuma-Sukai, Breaker of Chains, lives up to his name. Even the enchanted, sphere-suppressing chains holding Somrak and Dion cannot withstand him. Even the metaphorical chains that bind the demons into Margrave’s service cannot survive.

And the half-forged binding that would have turned Alma into a living sword is swept away like a cobweb before a gale. Alma’s soul, unnaturally outside of any body, flies instantly to its natural home, and her body staggers as the alien presence within loses control, for Nua’s bonding of Alma’s body has been broken as well.

All happening at once…

Somrak falls to the floor as the chains give way, but having seen Sky do this before he recovers quickly and is launching himself at Margrave, only to smack right into a screaming unbound demon, all thrashing arachnoid limbs and spikes and leathery wings. It shrieks and attacks him, but Somrak grapples, and white flames hot enough to melt steel are bursting out from deep within it. In moments, its body is nothing but ash, and whatever soul it has is on its way back to Hell.

The demons are scattering, released from their slavery. One of the centipedes folds in on itself and disappears, while the other continues attacking Saira, biting her thigh and injecting venom as she screams and pounds at it with her fist.

The chains binding her wrists now broken, Saira rips the centipede demon from her rapidly swelling leg and hurls it away. She seizes the closest thing at hand, the fallen bone-whip, twisting it around Margrave’s throat and using it as a strangling cord, pressing her last chance at revenge. Margrave’s face turns purple, a wheezing gurgle issuing from his wide-open mouth, and a soft but terrible buckling sound as his trachea collapses.

Saira, of course, knows the feel of a throat going. She releases him, falling back into Somrak’s arms, as Margrave falls forward onto one palm, still trying to pull the whip free with the other, his eyes bugging out, a look of astonishment on his purple-black face.

Beside Somrak and Saira, Dion has fallen to the floor in a heap. He shakes his head to clear it, ears ringing and stunned by Sky’s roar. He focuses on Nua, on Alma, staggering. Alma’s soul, drawn toward the sword, snaps back into her true body as if pulled by a stretched length of rubber.

A golden aura filled with serpentine, draconic forms, begins to take shape around Dion’s head.

All this Sky witnesses as his roar falls silent. He has time to think, What is this? And then to answer himself: Hammer of Devils!

Gwydion launches himself against Nua in Alma’s body, tackling her against the makeshift altar where Trocia’s body lies and making her cry out in surprise and pain. The necromancer turns just in time to bury her nails deep in the muscle of his neck.

Sky moves, easily reaching across Trocia’s still body to grasp Nua’s forearm with a huge clawed hand, pulling her off Dion roughly, making her rip five tracks of flesh off Dion’s neck. Sky pushes in between them, his long wolfish face near hers, growling.

To Dion it must seem as if Sky intends to bite her head off. To Dion, he must seem to be nothing but a devil, the greatest of enemies. For Dion, Sky can sense, is indeed the Hammer of Devils. How this can be, what kind of change must have been wrought, Sky cannot imagine now. All he knows is that the golden light in Dion’s eyes, blindingly bright, holds only hatred for Sky’s horrid countenance: a long lupine muzzle full of fangs, one eye blinded and scarred, heavy ram-like horns, skin the red-black of congealed blood, the color derived from constantly moving scripts of blasphemy.

For Dion, his friend, instinct takes over, exiling logic to the darkness of endless war. Every pulse of energy in Dion’s body surges in outrage and natural hatred for the devil in front of him, demanding it be exterminated, not just sent back to Hell. Amid the golden glow, blackness pours from his pupils and up through the furrows of green and brown pigment in the irises, to draw curly, spiky sigils with edges made sharper from the light around them. Sky is captivated, for he can read them. They are the language that was once shared by both Heaven and Hell. They are beyond holy, beyond profane. He feels a momentary urge to fall to his knees in willing, joyful submission.

The power rising within Gwydion, pouring through the gateways opening deep in his divine sphere, are so similar to Sky’s own powers of Hellish origin that he recognizes the approach of his own potential demise. Dion pulls his arm back, wrapped and shielded in light that courses with patterns of scaly, vicious, implacable, sinuous dragons. Gwydion opens his mouth and challenges Sky with a roar of his own.

And he strikes the devil, making Sky hunch with pain. Sky keens like a wounded orca, dropping Nua, or perhaps Alma, and staggers back one step, his hoof stomping the ground hard enough to make the gurney bounce, so that Trocia’s body falls to the floor.

But Sky recovers, surprisingly agile, raising a claw which must, to Dion, be aimed at the god’s head – instead snatching the remaining centipede demon out of the air as it leaps from where Saira threw it, ready to latch onto and bite and tear and envenom anything in its path.

Sky brings the writhing creature to his mouth, fixing Dion’s golden-glowing eyes with his own single blue-green one, and bites down, tearing the arthropod’s head off with his teeth. Sky feels the sting of its venom wash over his mouth, burning the stump of his tongue, but he ignores that. He stares into Gwydion’s eyes as gore drips from his muzzle.

The shock on Gwydion’s face seems to revive reason. He stares at Sky for two, three breaths, then a cry makes him turn to his right, where Alma-or-Nua is flailing and staggering, one of the dragon-tooth daggers in her hand, stabbing herself in her own thigh.

It is not the first wound. She must have been stabbing herself while the two of them – once, in a sense, rivals for her affection, though each desiring a different kind of affection from her – were facing off. Sky interposes his huge hand between the weapon and her vulnerable body. The dagger stabs deep, chipping a metacarpal bone, making him grunt. He twists his hand, pulling the blade from her grasp, then lets her fall into Gwydion’s arms. Sky leaves the dagger impaled in him as he looks around for other enemies.

And he has no trouble finding them. Clawing their way out of the walls and floor and ceiling, demons are arriving by the dozen. Some are multijointed and chitinous, some are furred and covered in seeping wounds. Some are partly mechanical; some are partly immaterial. All are foul, of an attunement opposed to anything natural to the Insula.

Sky looks at Margrave. The sorcerer, asphyxiating from his collapsed throat, is tracing sigils in his own blood on the floor. He is summoning demons randomly, unbound, as dangerous to himself as to anyone else in the room. He is drawing upon his own ebbing life energy to do so. Caring nothing for his own safety, he only hopes to bring down his killers with him.

Sky raises a fist and brings it down on Margrave’s back in a hammerblow. Ribs crack, and with them Margrave’s spine. The summoner collapses entirely and becomes still. Then Sky turns to fight.

And he sees a projectile made of pure mana shoot out from Gwydion’s hand to hit a demon that is leaping for him and Alma, burning a hole in it. It falls back and strives but fails to get up, contorting as the hole in its belly grows larger and larger until the demon shrieks one last time before it is completely consumed. Dion stares at his hand in amazement, as if wondering how he did that, the turns toward the other demons in the room. The berserker rage that he nearly unleashed on Sky, Dion now allows it to flow free upon the other demons, magic moving through him unbidden.

All around the room, the demons shriek in pain and panic, staggering and clutching at their heads, their chests, at whatever hides their core, buckling and falling to the floor. They scream until the world seems like it will break from the sheer intensity of it. And suddenly, they explode, from the inside out, disintegrating as their flesh is shot across the room.

Even Sky feels it. He is surprised, though, by how little he feels it. The demons are torn apart, but within his guts is a force trying to do the same to him, a force easily resisted though intensely uncomfortable.

The world goes quiet. Dion breathes in the silence and then his knees buckle. As he drops Alma, as he falls to the floor, a broad, taloned hand catches them and lowers them gently.

Ch6.89 Trust

“Shut up,” Dion mumbles as his eyes open slowly, heavy with the weight of his exhaustion. Of his grief. Of his regret and loneliness.

He looks down, expecting to find dark floor covered in blood, covered in muck. Expecting the empty half-light of Hell. The corpses of his beloved family around him, in his arms. But he finds none of that. The floor here is grey. Just plain, stone grey. The light is the flickering yellow of torches. No corpses to hold. No hands to hold them with.

No free hands, that is.

He tries to move his arms and legs only to find himself immobile, to hear the rattle of the chains that hold him, hanging by the wrists, feet hovering a hand’s breadth above the floor.

Oh Fates…what now?

He does not raises his head. He is so tired. And what reason would he have to expect anything? To fear anything? His reasons to live are gone, slaughtered because of his obsessive search for his past, for his parents. A need he did not even know he had until the mere knowledge of a couple of names awakened it. Until the gift of such measly things offered a path and a hope to his origins. To his search of himself. A gift from his lover’s lips…

From the one who brought to him the family that accepted him and loved him when he believed family was not something he desired or deserved. Loving friends, supporting and kind. Ready to dive with him into Hell to save people they knew nothing about. That he knows nothing about.

And now they are gone…all gone. And he is nothing again.

Weakling! We are not made for weakness

That voice again, inside him. The one of his sphere. He wonders for a moment if all gods hear something similar coming from their core.

Shut up. I am tired. My friends are gone.

Lies! Lies! Listen! See!

With great effort, he obeys. His head feels too heavy to raise but he listens. The dripping of water somewhere behind him. Soft steps on the floor, back and forth. Something dragging on the stone. A dry, solid sound. The rumbling, fitful aspiration of difficult breathing. Of a large something’s difficult breathing. A feeling of coolness to his chest and arms, and of dampness to his feet. His jacket and shirt are gone and so are his boots. The familiar weight of his sword gone from his left hip.

We are trapped inside

Inside what?

 

Ourselves

Yes. True. He feels his mana’s flow limited to his own body, trapped there. The chains holding him were made for gods. Enchanted. In this state, he is no more powerful than a mortal. He sighs. Just a short, deep exhalation, all he has the strength to make. A prisoner of Hell. How fitting.

He deserves it for his sins.

No! Listen!

The steps have paused. They start again, now walking his way. He raises his head slowly, though his interest in what comes next is very little.

And his eyes widen at the sight. His chest swells with relief. With sheer joy. A nightmare. It must have been. All a nightmare. Or this is the dream. For here is Alma, alive and well, walking toward him, smiling softly. Seeing her returns his hope, stirs his memories. No, they weren’t in Hell. They did not go out looking for Dion’s parents. And they did not bring the Bunnies with them. No, they brought Saira and Somrak. And they were looking for Sky.

He turns his head to see the mortal lying unconscious on the floor beside him, her hands bound behind her back. Somrak is kneeling on the floor a couple of steps away, wrists shackled with mana-suppressing chains, held high above his head, which hangs low. Breathing. Probably unconscious as well.

“Sweetheart!” Alma calls to him as she stands now before him, at arm’s reach. “Did the demons hurt you?”

“Alma… Oh Alma, I’m so relieved,” he breathes before the thought strikes him that she cannot possibly know about his dream. “I thought–”

STOP!

What? No! She’s alive! She’s alive…

Not ours

What…?

Not ours. Not the same. Look. Listen

He looks at Alma, feeling his heart sink even as his mind struggles to make sense of what he sees. This is Alma. It is. But… It’s not. The soft smile curling her lips is mocking, not loving. Not relieved at the sight of him awake. Her eyes are full of the sharp wit he is used to but the light of their swirling colors is somehow duller than normal. In fact, the colors don’t swirl at all. They are mere blotches.

“Alma…?” he asks, wondering what exactly is going on. “What happened? Why are we chained?”

And why are you free?

Now standing very close to him, so close that he can feel her scent in his nostrils, she caresses his chest, curling against him. “We were attacked. They locked us in here with that…thing.” She nearly spits the last word as she turns a little and points to a far corner. “You were all knocked out and I… He watches us. We can’t leave for as long as he watches.”

Her voice is childlike, so pleading. He feels the urge to hold her even as he thinks how strange it sounds, how alien it sounds coming from Alma’s lips. And her scent…it feels stale, lacking the gentle vibrancy of her life. Could it be? Are his senses telling him she is not real? Or is he just imagining these things?

He looks at the hand with which she points to the corner, to see her holding a…whip? One made of black-leather-covered vertebrae. In the corner – his eyes open more fully as he sees a devil, crouched but huge, watching him with its glowing blue-green eyes. It is partially cloaked in darkness, but what he can see is horrifying, a sight that triggers again the memories of his parents being dragged away from him.

Enemy! Scum!

He wants nothing more than to attack the creature, destroy it, send it back to Hell, but the chains holding him prevent his powers from activating, prevent his body from any useful movement even as his muscles tense and instinctively try to lunge at the thing.

And then something in it, something in its resigned crouch, in the way the eerie light of its eyes dims at the sight of him, rings familiar. Very familiar.

Sky.

“Sky,” Dion breathes, swallowing the innate hatred and disgust he feels to even see in the creature the soul of his friend. “Isn’t that Sky?”

“They made a soul bomb go off before we came in,” Alma goes on, completely oblivious to his question. “So many souls screaming for help. It was painful.”

She wraps her arms around him, lays her head against his chest, stroking his skin with her cheek. “I screamed but you didn’t help me. No one helped me. It felt like it would last forever. Like I was going to die. I was so alone…”

She straightens a little, looks up at his face, their similar heights offset by the fact that he is hanging from the ceiling. With a sudden movement, like a snake’s head thrusting forward for a kill, she kisses him. And though he kisses her back, hoping against his instincts that she is merely confused by the attack or damaged somehow by the shattered souls she mentioned, his dread only rises, heavy and cold in his stomach. For kissing her is like kissing a stranger, the movements of their lips completely out of their familiar, pleasant rhythm, her tongue that should move like silk in a breeze thrust into his mouth like a battle ram.

Not ours

No…not ours.

But then, where is she? His whole body stiffens at the dawning realization his findings imply. The images from before might have been a nightmare but this is no better. He is bound and so are the others. And Alma…

Her beautiful face looks at him with an evil grin, her body pulled away from the intimate touch at the notice of his tense frame. That lovely face, distorted by the taint of the dark soul behind it. Nua. “Have you found out, yet? Or should I kiss you again, sweetheart?”

Dion’s own face contorts in rage. “Whoever you are, whatever you are, get out of her!”

He lunges forward but the force of the movement is lost without a floor under his feet to use for support. To gather momentum. He merely dangles forward and back, struggling against his chains. Making them rattle.

Nua snorts at him. “Why? Would you rather watch her body collapse like the empty shell it is?” She touches Alma’s chest with Alma’s hand, looking down at her black-clad bosom and turning this way and that as if trying on a new outfit. “She’s not in here anymore. I snatched this delightful piece of flesh while she was screaming in pain and going mad at being attacked by a half dozen shredded souls. Not even a sample of what I went through in Hell but it’s a start.”

“Where is she?” he demands, straining against the chains. “WHERE IS SHE?! What did you do with her?!”

GIVE HER BACK!

“Oh, she’s somewhere safe, for now. I’ll have so much fun with this body! I’ll make it my new plaything.” Nua sounds like a child given a new pet. She runs Alma’s hands all over her body, never releasing the whip, rubbing the blackened thing against her skin with erotic intent. Dion has to force himself not to look away. “Show it pleasure and pain and corrupt it until it can’t hold me anymore. And the best thing is, I can ride it right into the heart of her hateful, despicable little clan and destroy them from the inside.” She glances toward the corner where Sky’s devilish, silent form crouches. “Maybe I’ll give it to my pet to play with for a night. I know he likes her…” She moves closer to Dion again, cupping his cheek in Alma’s palm. “But you like her more, don’t you?”

Dion cannot help but glance past her at Sky, his gut tied in a knot with the horror Nua is suggesting. He remembers the conversation he had with Alma, his Alma, in the pool of her sanctum about the love spell that nearly… She had been so uncomfortable with the mere prospect of laying with Sky. He swallows though his throat feels dry with terror and cringes away from Nua’s words, seeing Sky cringe as well in his corner. Yes, he is sure now that it’s Sky.

“Do you tell her you love her when she slips into your bed at night?” Nua goes on, her voice smooth and poisonous. “Her and all her precious little Bunnies? Do you lie to her as she squirms under you? Tell her she is the love of your life as you thrust into her?”

“I don’t lie to her,” Dion growls. “I never lied to her. I never told her–”

I love her.

His voice trails off, his eyes widening as he suddenly becomes aware of that one truth. In all this time, through the good and the bad, the fear of losing her, the joy of holding her, he has never spoken those words to Alma. Never. For so many reasons… It was her, always her to speak of love. To call him her love. And he never told her – not in those words at least – of his love. Of how his heart breaks now at the thought of her gone.

“Of course you lie,” Nua replies sweetly. “All men lie to get what they want. And we both know what they really want.”

“Listen to me,” he says, desperate for even the smallest shred of hope that Alma is still somewhere she can be reached. “Your plan will never work. They’ll detect you in a second. The Death Clan will have you out of her body and what they will do to you… Your best bet is get back in your own body and run.”

Nua waves him off. “Oh, I know they could detect my soul. And that’s why I’m bringing hers along. In this.” She turns back and walks to a far corner of the room, opposite to where Sky is crouching. The squeaking of rickety wheels against the stone floor announces the approach of an old metal gurney being pushed to the center of the room by the necromancer in Alma’s body. On the gurney, a young girl lies unconscious, bound in chains just like Dion’s, her black hair splayed, and close-fitting, skin-revealing black clothing in a mess. He vaguely remembers seeing her in the room just before he collapsed into the nightmare. And on top of the girl, a sword in its sheath. Nua picks it up and brings it closer to Dion, drawing it in a mad pleasure at the soft sound it makes as it leaves the scabbard, at the way the light of the torches reflects off the silver blade engraved with simple words in the language of Death.

On the way

Alma’s sword.

“It’s a beautiful little thing, isn’t it?” Nua asks, her voice more revolting for being Alma’s. “Such a pretty vessel for your girlfriend’s soul. Oh, she will go mad from the pain of being bound to an object but she won’t have to endure it too long until I get all my soul bombs placed and armed. Unless…” She grins and grabs the sword around the sharp blade, barely reacting as it cuts into the skin, a shy trickle of blood sliding slowly down the blade. “I grow attached to her. She seems easy to grow attached to, wouldn’t you say?”

Kill it! KILL IT!

A soul bound to an item– No, no, the simple process of attempting it requires pain beyond description. Not a single account of successful binding exists where the soul was anywhere near recoverable after reversing the process. And god’s souls are so much more powerful than mortal souls, so much more rebellious against such things. How could a god be trapped in something so lifeless as a simple weapon? But if Alma is bound she’d be no better than the God Striker, maddened by pain and anger. To hold her in his hands but never again in his arms…

KILL IT! We want her back!

I can’t kill it! I can barely move.

And even if he could attack, that is Alma’s body and she is bound to be somewhere in it, still. Locked away. Trapped, maybe. Or dormant, stuck in a dream like he was. He can’t destroy her vessel.

We want her back

We do.

So very much. “You can’t bind gods’ souls to objects,” he tells Nua, though the conviction in his voice falters even to his own ears. “Only demons’ souls, or elementals–”

Nua simply snorts. How he hates that snort. “What makes you think you’re so special, god-boy? Allow me to demonstrate.” She raises the whip she is holding, making it sway with a movement of her wrist. “This one was a death goddess too. If I whip you with it, I can guarantee it’ll leave a mark.”

If he could only wake her up, get her to manifest somehow and take control of this body. If only…

“She will never allow you to harm me or any of her loved ones,” Dion says. “You may have caught her off-guard with the bomb but that is her body and she is much more powerful than you can ever be! So whip me! Go ahead! She’ll stop you before you even raise your arm!”

She harrumphs, lips curling in a sneer. “Do you really think she could stand in my way after all I learned in Hell for two hundred years of torture and hopelessness? With all I knew even before she was born? A weakling half-something goddess who can’t even deal with a tiny soul bomb and eight blown-up humans?”

“You know nothing of her strength!” he roars. “You know nothing of her!”

KILL IT!

Nua smiles, twirling the whip with a movement of her wrist. “I know one thing about her. I told you,” she raises her arm, “she’s not in here anymore!

The whip comes down and lashes at Dion, striking him across the chest, making him shriek with a pain unlike any he has ever felt before. The leather-covered bones bite deep into his bare skin, into the muscle, but that is nothing. The soul trapped in the weapon goes straight for his soul. He feels it tear at his essence, split through the first layers of his being, making him forget for a moment who or even what he is. Light fades from his eyes for an instant, sounds become dull and faraway. All there is is pain. Sharp, complete, all-consuming pain.

And in the aftertaste of it, in the wake of the roars and recoiling of his sphere, heartbreaking grief. There is only pleasure in Nua’s eyes, only wild glee at his suffering. No confusion, no shaking of her whip hand to indicate an inner struggle. And no sign of Alma. Where is she? Where is Nua keeping her if she truly plans on binding his beloved to her own sword?

Nua laughs.

As his divine body immediately starts to heal the physical wounds, for no shackles entirely suppress such a basic function of godhood, Dion is stunned by pain and despair.

Suddenly, there is a rattling of chains. Unnoticed by Nua in her sadistic mirth, Somrak yanks himself up using his chains for support, and lashes out with one of his legs. In her distraction and eagerness to have the best angle to strike Dion, she moved too close to the fire god and Somrak’s leg swiftly catches her across the neck, the other catching her behind, trapping her in a scissorhold. Choking her.

Dion watches, numb, as Somrak tightens his grip, face contorted in grim determination, stealing the air from Nua’s lungs as he growls out. “Tragas!”

The word means nothing to Dion and he doesn’t even call out to Somrak as Nua flails, trying to fight him, nails digging at the fire god’s thighs. And then she stops fighting altogether, the horrible smile returns to her lips.

And she laughs again, wheezing amidst laughter and poisonous words, “Oh yes! Yes! Hurt this body! Hurt it until she has nothing to return to! Destroy your friend.”

From his corner, Sky roars, a loud, earth-shaking cry. It stuns Somrak just long enough to allow Nua to slip free of his hold. And she spares no time to regain her breath before whipping him with vicious force, grinning as she clutches at her neck. “Pathetic… All of you… So weak…”

Somrak’s cry of pain has not even died in his throat before she whips him again. A twist of her arm and the whip is cutting Dion’s side and belly, making him scream though he tries not to. He hates her and fears her, her and that whip which seems to be animated by an anger all of its own, screaming its hatred at him as it cuts into his soul.

And in his corner, Sky roars again, helplessly, pointlessly, achieving no more than a bone-shaking, ear-ringing strike at Dion’s eardrums. A roar followed by a soft, dry, lazy clapping. Applause, slow and ironic.

“Oh yes, pathetic indeed. Pathetic all round.”

Dion looks toward the source of the sound. A short, thin man, with very short hair and a beard, has walked into the room. Or maybe he has been here all along, hiding unnoticed in a dark corner. His dark grey suit and black cane would allow for it. And the way he speaks, Dion knows it must be Margrave.

“Nua, these souls are meant to be sold to Hell, and here you are, damaging them.” The man tuts at the necromancer possessing Alma’s body.

The look she gives him is a promise that she will tear him apart at the first opportunity, her maniacal smile an indication of how much she would truly enjoy it. “They can have whatever is left after I’m done with them.” She moves toward him, leaning to place a hand on his shoulder and speak into his ear, obviously pleased with finding herself taller than him. “Do you come to gloat about the good job you left for me to do? Or do you want one of them to yourself?”

Margrave does not even look at her as he sighs. “Slave, remember – they are all mine. I only allow you to have them as much as I wish, and I will take them away the moment it pleases me.” He reaches to touch the forehead of the girl lying on the gurney. “Let us get this Death Clan goddess’ soul out of my niece and into that sword.”

Ch6.87 Trust

Running. He has to keep running. He has to keep going. On and on. He is so close now, so close. He can feel it. He can sense their approach. And the sounds coming from afar? Their voices? Yes, yes! They must be! They have to be!

He is almost there.

Before him, the hordes of Hell shuffle out of the way, their terrifying, disgusting, evil faces blurring as he passes them with speed. They don’t attack him, oh no… They know better than that. They know better than attack the bane of demons, the god whose very purpose is to defeat them, destroy them, whose very essence embodies all that is contrary to them. The Enemy. Yes, he feels it clearly now. They fear him. They hate him. And they dare not touch him.

They dare not touch him.

“Dion wait!” Tulip’s voice rings from behind, high pitched as ever and sounding almost out of wind. “Please!”

“We can’t!” he shouts to her over his shoulder. “We’re almost there!”

They are almost there. Where his parents are. Where this low, pestering scum has taken his parents into torture and imprisonment. Away from him. He can still hear her screams.

His mother’s screams.

“Dion, they’re comin’ after us!” Cherry screams. “We can’t stop’em!”

“Just keep running!” Dion calls to her. “They won’t attack! They fear me!”

His mother’s screams as she was dragged to this…this nothingness. This emptiness of feelings other than pain and anguish. This place of hopelessness. For how many years? So many years. He has to save them! He has to!

He has to…

“Dion, stop!” Sky calls out. “We have to regroup and hold them back! We have to fight them off here!”

“My parents will help us when we get there!” Dion insists. “I know they will! We have to save them first! We have to!”

He has to. Whatever it takes, he has to save them. He has to find them. Free them. So much stolen. So much time lost. He left them here for so long. So long… He didn’t know. He didn’t remember. But he should have. He should have known. Even when the knowledge was denied to him.

He should have fought to know.

“Gwydion!” Alma’s voice is a cry of pain. Of suffering. “Gwydion, we’re going to lose them!”

“I know!” he agrees. “I know! We have to hurry! We have to keep going!”

He will fight now. He is strong enough to fight now. And he will save them. He will bring them back into the light. Into his life. He will show them the life he has life he has built with the people he has found. The person he has become. And he will hope for their love and beg for their forgiveness. And be their son again.

He’ll be their son again…

There! There they are! Bound in chains held by demons. Calling to him. Crying to him. His mother and father, their images blurred like the fuzzy memories he has of them. But he knows. He knows who they are. They are his. He has found them!

He has found them.

He roars a threat at the demons, launches himself at them. A beast unleashed, angry and vengeful. How dare they? How dare they! The demons drop the chains, don’t even try to fight him. He vanquishes them easily even as they try to run away from him. Ha!

Ha?

He stands before his parents, entranced. He thought their images would be clearer once he reached them but they are still a blur. And they are still calling endlessly, crying, screaming in horror and pain. As if they can’t see him. As if he weren’t there.

As if he weren’t there…

“Mother?” he asks hesitantly, fearfully.

“Dion!” she replies, her voice sounding choked and far away. “Dion! My baby! No! No! Run away, baby!”

“Mother, it’s all right,” Dion says. “I’m here to save you. I’m taking you home now.”

“Dion!” she shrieks in response. “Noooooo! No! Let go of my baby! Dioooooonn!”

A cold dread begins to crawl up his spine as the specter before him flails in a panic, its figure wavering before him, chains rattling with a clink of bone, not metal. Can it be? Can this really be his mother, reduced to insanity, to a single consuming thought throughout the years? To a single fear…for his safety. He reaches to reassure her with his touch, only to have his hand slapped away as if she were fending off an attacker. Beside her, Dion’s father stumbles and throws a weak punch at him, looking to defend his wife. Mad.

Both mad.

“Gwydion!” Alma again, this time screaming in sheer panic. A heart-wrenching sound of the purest despair. Something he has never heard from her.

Not from her.

But from his mother. A cry for a child. He rushes back to her, wondering why none of the others has caught up with him yet. Terror clutches at him. The demons that had fled from him now lurk again in the path that he followed here. They gather, hunched. And throw their heads in the air. Laughing. Voices gurgling with a wet, crunching sound. Eating. Feasting. On what?

ON WHAT?

He lunges at them, fighting them off, disbanding their group. Destroying the ones too slow to run. Punching. Kicking. Cutting them to shreds with blade and magic. He clears the area. And looks down.

And falls down.

To his knees. His eyes follow the trail of bodies back down the path. Merri. Sage. Mayumi. Cherry. Kori. Dead. Their bodies desecrated by claws and teeth. Bones shattered. Half eaten. Flesh bubbling where corrosive drool has touched it. Sky’s corpse – a devilish form that Dion had never seen before, revolting and horrible – lying in pieces, wings torn off and ripped to pieces. Arms cut at the wrists, legs mauled. Massive chest pierced, a gaping wound through which the tips of broken ribs protrude. Heart pulled from its vault and tossed aside like trash. No bite marks, no. A traitor’s flesh is too vile to eat, even for these demons.

Under one of his wings, Cherry’s right foot pokes through. Dion looks away from it. He can’t see her head or the bulge of her body under the membranous wing. The thought that a foot might all that is left of the Bunny… His eyes fill with tears. How?

How?

And not far away, the pale figure of Alma, lying down, her hair splayed in a filthy mess. He half crawls, half drags himself toward her, almost blinded by the water springing from his eyes. By despair. By regret. By grief.

In her arms, Tulip is curled. An arm missing. A calf ripped almost clean off the bone. A spike, black and vitreous like obsidian stone sticking out of her lower back, directed upwards. Dion rolls the still body over to see the tip of the lance poking through Tulip’s collarbone. His hand shakes as he carefully nudges her panic-stricken eyes closed.

Why was she even here? Why did they bring the Bunnies along? Why did he bring anyone along?

His sobs nearly make him topple while he slides an arm under Alma’s body, carefully pulling her to him. Her legs nearly detach from her torso as he does so. Her belly has been skewered by talons and spikes, her legs broken. One of her hands and forearm are missing completely. Her left ear, the one with the earring of her Clan mark, has been pulled off and tossed away. They have not tried to eat her. Maybe they didn’t have the time.

Not that it matters. She is dead. She is gone. He almost lost her before, almost gave her away. And now… Now he has lost her for good. He has lost all of them. His love. His friends. His family. Gone. He is alone again.

Alone.

“No,” he whimpers amidst the convulsions of his crying. “Please… no.”

Around him, the demons chuckle. The demons laugh. At him. At his loss. At his pain. “You left them all so handy, so easy to catch,” a demon mocks him. “You left them unguarded. They were so tasty.”

A roar of laughter rises from them. More demons approach and join in Hellish myrth.

“They called your name. I heard them call,” one says. “Did you hear it?”

“Oh yes, it made it sooo much better,” another adds. “And all for some half-mad souls.”

“Shut up,” Dion pleads, clutching Alma’s cooling corpse, begging in thought, praying in thought that she is not dead despite all odds. “Shut up!”

SHUT UP!” he roars.

Shut up…

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The stone is rough beneath his palms, tiny fragments flaking off from the uneven surface. The stones, born in the great throbbing heart of the Insula, molten rock periodically breaking free to gush and ravage and cool into solidity, have been carefully shaped and fitted to build the holdfast of Clan Fire. He can still feel that spirit of fire within each stone, remembered with a longing to become liquid again, to rejoin the heart from which they were ejected, to go from a collective One to small, cold individuals.

“Too late,” her voice hisses in his ear. Her heat would blister his skin from its proximity, were he not of the Fire Clan. His long, glossy hair would burst into flame, the subcutaneous fat under his skin would liquify and bubble, his flesh would char. From the hate in her voice, he imagines his mother would enjoy that. “Too late, too weak. Traitor!”

He does not bother to turn. His eyes are fixed on the distant horizon, across a plane so large it could never exist on the Insula, world of verticality. The plain is covered with lava, plump, rounded pillow flows, ropy twists, spiky claws sharper than any steel scalpel and longing to cut. It is dry, ash and dust blowing around aimlessly in gusts and momentary twisters. And far away, the army approaches.

“Abominations!” the Queen of the Court of Flame, his mother, crackles. To say she paces is not entirely accurate – she burns her way across the stone, causing pops and sometimes louder explosions as bubbles of air trapped within expand and explode from her passing. “All your fault! If you had stayed! If you had been what I made you to be! What you were conceived to be!”

“I was born to be a priest of cleansing fire,” Somrak murmurs. “The bane of the undead.” He heard it a thousand times growing up. His head shaved, his life nothing beyond ritual. To be a god and to be a priest as well, one must be perfect in holiness, beyond any sanctification available to crude mortals. His food, his sleeping hours, his clothing, his every movement, even every breath was a rite of sacrament. He could not blink except at the prescribed moment for blinking, and only in the approved manner of blinking. A single moment of wondering whether he might be allowed to play like other children resulted in a week-long cleansing, with scourgings and beatings and irrigations.

“And you failed! You ran away! Ungrateful squib! You are no child of–”

She is cut off with a tiny sound of surprise. The is a roar of flame, a sound of cracking and a whoosh of liquid. A splash that spatters Somrak’s back with cold seawater. And blood. Her blood, aflame, though it quickly goes out.

Still he does not look away. He is starting to be able to make out individuals in the vanguard now, shambling footsoldiers who are caught on jagged edges of stone and cut apart as others push against them. Mindless meat, stumbling their way forward. And there is a vehicle, made of gold and silver and black shining obsidian, shining, flashing in the merciless light of the sun.

A large hand rests on his shoulder, squeezes it companionably. It is wet with his mother’s blood. One might ask how a creature of flame has blood, but then one might ask how a creature of flame can think, can curse and complain, can have children of flesh and blood. Such asking is pointless.

Somrak asks, “Why did you kill her?”

Sky’s voice is cool, rising and falling in the inexorable strength of the waves. “I never liked her. Now look.” Sky’s other arm points toward the army, which has somehow become much closer without Somrak noticing, though he’s never taken his eyes off them. There are more elite troops visible now, horrors to make Hell’s princes nod in impressed acknowledgement. Vampiric commandos, each capable of tearing apart a dozen mortals in a blood-starved fury. Incorporeal wraiths, impossible to touch, ready to suck the life from any who face them. Giants made of dozens of human corpses gripping a bamboo framework, sewn together with cord, and animated as a single creature. So many others, bodies flayed into shapes to suit their leader’s purpose and to strike horror into her enemies.

“Can you do it?” asks Sky. “Can you strike her down? Can you even reach her? You who failed to complete training? You who have broken your vows as a priest, your vows as a Tragas binder of souls, your vows as a servant of the Commander, your vows to your fellow agents. Your vow to Saira.” Sky draws his arm back and rests his hand on Somrak’s other shoulder. “Can one who has broken so many vows, large and small, not himself be broken when the time comes? This is what you were made to do. But you refused. And now you are going to be ground beneath the wheels of her chariot, unnoticed, alone.”

“You are with me, my brother,” Somrak says, though he doesn’t believe it. Who would stand with him?

“No.” Sky’s voice is final. “I am there.”

The chariot is closer now. Somrak can see its driver, a beautiful god, his eyes vacant and haunted with loss and guilt. Gwydion. The collar around his neck chains him into place, and he lashes his whip like an automaton, driving forward the huge beast pulling the chariot, a devil with powerful legs, straining to pull the massive vehicle.

It is Sky, his skin red-black, his wings limp and dragging. His head is down, the heavy curved horns weighing him down. The harness is made of spiked chains that dig deep into his flesh and bones, and the whip, made of blackened vertebrae, tears deep gashes in his back.

And behind Gwydion is a massive throne of the same gold and silver and obsidian as the rest of the chariot. It is large enough for a frost giant, and so the pale body that lounges on it looks childlike. Alma, her fine white hair floating around her head in the heat-currents, her lips crimson and cruel, her face that of his Alma but her expression that of another, someone alien to her body.

“Is her soul still in there?” the Sky behind him asks. “Or is it already being tortured beyond imagining in the depths of Hell? Will you burn her? Will you watch her milky skin blacken? Will you end her reign?”

Somrak feels Sky lean in close, and feels the rough brush of the god’s stubbly cheek against his. “You will falter. You will be torn apart, and overrun, and ground into a paste. You will not be even a thought in her mind. Not now, not ever. Give in. Betray all at the last. Join me. Join Dion. Join her.”

Sky kisses him on the cheek. “Or would you rather be alone, brother?”

And then there is no one there. The wind picks up. The sounds of the moaning army reach him. And the light changes. Somrak looks up. The sun is black in the sky, still shining, somehow giving light, but black as the obsidian that makes the hubs of the great metal wheels of Alma’s chariot.

Somrak looks back at the army. He steps up onto the battlement wall, looking down. They are right up to the castle now. He has only to step forward, and he will fall, fall, fall and never stop.

To plunge afire into their midst. To find oblivion. To know nothing, ever again. To regret nothing. To harm no one.

To be alone no more.

To be no more.