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.

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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.

Ch6.85 Trust

Somrak disappears into the portal and the room seems to grow a couple of degrees colder almost immediately, in spite of the smoldering anger coming from Saira’s eyes. The mortal woman looks a challenge at Alma, daring her to deny Saira her chance at vengeance as if prepared to fight for it. Alma merely sighs her resignation at such a choice for a way to die. There is only a very thin sliver of a chance that Saira will make it out of this alive. The goddess starts preparing her mind and her emotions for her former patient’s impending departure from the realm of the living. It will be a sad thing to hold Saira’s freshly-disembodied soul in her hands.

Looking disappointed at Alma’s lack of reaction, Saira mutters, “Fine…” and nearly stomps her way into the portal like a pouting brat who has tried and failed to upset her mother. The goddess follows, exchanging a glance with Gwydion of shared melancholy at the situation and of concern for what is yet to come. This little battle was merely an appetizer, she knows and so does he. Whatever lies beyond the portal is certain to be far more challenging than vampiric shadows.

But they cannot linger and leave Somrak and Saira unprotected. So with a soft, grazing touch to her lover’s hand and with his whispered reassurance that he will cover the rear should anything else pop up out of nowhere, she moves to cross the portal before him. As Alma enters, Somrak is pulling a blade out of a guard’s torso with a dreadful sucking sound reminiscent of a snake swallowing a mouse, low and swift but amplified by the deafening silence of the small antechamber. Blood pumps from the wound as the man expires with a grunt and a sigh, falling heavily on the floor by the god’s feet. Somrak shows no contempt for the man as he leans down just enough to wipe his blade on the dead guard’s jacket, as if the body were nothing now but a lumpy rag. Saira cannot even be bothered to look at it. It means nothing to her.

Alma wonders if she herself feels anything for this life just lost. Perhaps no more than the call of her essence to release the man’s soul into the Wheel before she moves on to take lives herself. She moves to crouch by the fallen guard but at the first step, a shadow at the corner of her eye and a sudden shriek makes her turn swiftly, barely in time to evade an attack of taloned fingers pointed at her throat, sharp teeth snapping, just grazing and missing the rise of her pale cheek. She slams her forearm and clenched fist into the side of the thing, knocking it against the wall as a crossbow bolt whizzes by, perfectly aimed at where the creature would have been it Alma hadn’t been so quick to respond. As it is, the projectile misses, hissing past Alma’s head close enough to blow a gentle breeze against her face, and buries itself in the wall with a dull sound just as the goddess’ other hand pins the little attacker by its neck against the stone.

A demon, a small one, no taller than the length of Alma’s arm, with a sickly yellowish skin covered in what would be best described as feather stubs, running in parallel lines along the length of its body. One leg looks almost human while the other is replaced with something close to shattered glass, blackish and oozing pus. Seven blade-sharp nails on each forelimb. Eight eyes in total, three pairs on the head and one on its belly, at the sides of a secondary leech-like mouth. No ears, no hair, no nose. It screams its hatred in some vile language of Hell, clawing at her arm as it tries to break free.

To no avail. Her hand squeezes its windpipe harder as her eyes flare and then darken, much like the shadows around them. Her hand glows with eerie light as Alma begins to drain the creature of the jumbled, fractal, pitiful mishmash of spectral energy that demons have for souls. It howls in pain at the flow of energy that burns its body from the inside out, convulsing as its muscles stiffen and cook, blackening into coal and ash. Soon, what was once a demon is no more than soot, crumbling between her fingers, down the wall, to the floor.

She breathes deeply and straightens, one hand moving instinctively to her arm, where the claws dug into her skin. She turns to find Gwydion standing by her side, sword drawn and stained with a film of orange blood, looking at her in worry. She looks down to see a severed tail lying by his feet, covered in the demon’s yellowish skin and armed with a most likely poisonous stinger. Amidst its squirming and clawing, it must have tried to sting the goddess, only to see its strike thwarted by Gwydion’s blade.

She smiles apologetically at the god, feeling a cold rush of fear travel down her spine at having completely missed the danger. She could have been paralyzed or sent into convulsions or worse if her partner had not been there to watch her back. He returns her smile, relief spreading over his features.

“Reminds me of a well-done dish of eel,” he says as a cleansing spell infused into the blade of his sword makes all traces of demon blood vanish from the metal.

The comment brings back the memory of their encounter with the demonic eels on their first visit to the Oracle’s grotto. It feels like a lifetime has gone by since that episode. She carefully avoids all thoughts of carbonized vulture-headed Archons.

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” Saira says, stepping closer, sounding only mildly impressed, though with a glint of exhilaration in her eyes.

Somrak, his muscles relaxing slightly from their combat-readiness, eyes glancing this way and that on the lookout for any more attacks, says with restrained curiosity. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Alma crouches by the deceased guard, whose spectral form lingers in detached contemplation of its no-longer functioning shell. It looks at her questioningly, not afraid but still with expectation. If she does not release it now and this pocket universe somehow collapses like Sky’s did, the soul could be trapped in the Void for eons, with no one to show it a way out. “Go on, now,” she says softly, cutting the final threads binding the soul to the material realm and opening the conduit that leads to the antechambers of the Wheel. “No more fighting for you.”

To Somrak she says aloud, “Weak demons are easy enough to handle. I suspect the rest of them will not go down so quietly.”

He nods, eyes looking softly at her. “One mortal guard and one weak-ish demon. After two nasty shadows – but not nasty enough to stop us. They’re going to spring a trap soon enough.” He looks at the others. “Let me range a bit ahead – if I trigger something, you can…get me out of it.”

“Or scoop up the remains,” Saira volunteers with a shrug.

“Go ahead, I will cover the rear,” Gwydion tells him.

With a nod Somrak takes the lead, his footsteps falling almost silently on the grey stone floors of the antechamber and the dark hallway that opens into it. They advance in single file, silent down the narrow passageway that would make a good profit selling cheap tickets to a carnival horror house. The high ceiling is lost in darkness above them while the walls are crisscrossed with an apparently unnecessary number of pipes and rusted steel bolts. Luminescent, reddish slime covers the walls, sprouting tufts of a sickly-orange mold here and there in eerie – and most definitely Hellish – symbols in random places and with no obvious order to them. All in all, the pocket universe looks like something decorated by a novice, overly-enthusiastic, satanist interior designer with a tendency to depression. The faint moans and screams lingering in the air and the sense of dormant, strangled life pulsating through the walls does not quite make it look any better.

Somrak remains vigilant as he scouts ahead, scanning for any possible signs of a side-passage or hideout that any ambushers could use to trap them. Nothing. No doors open, no enemies come. The hallway is empty except for the four of them.

Soon, they arrive at a doorway into darkness. Somrak, a few steps ahead from the rest of the group, signals them to stop and wait while he draws a knife from his belt and shoves it into the doorframe to prevent the sliding door from closing, should there be a mechanism designed to slide the door shut and trap them once they pass through it. He enters, leaving Saira, Alma and Gwydion looking at each other while they wait for his signal. Again, Saira gazes at Alma with defiance in her eyes but the goddess simply shrugs at her. Whatever happens, there is no going back now. For any of them.

The darkness beyond the door flickers to grey, then to glaring light as a set of bulbs fluoresce, revealing something like a back office, within which Somrak waits for them. As they enter, they see it is empty of enemies, abandoned in a haste by its previous occupants as a fallen chair and an unfinished plate of food appear to suggest. Grey walls, stone floors and ceilings, everything looking barren and somehow tortured into existence. And yet it is not entirely uncheerful. Two sofas, a gaming table and even a small kitchen area to one side with a little stove and a sink make it look almost homely, the scattered playing cards and chips and half-empty glasses of some cheap alcoholic beverage speaking of people spending their off-times here, in the endlessly uncreative ways of hired thugs in general.

“That tea there is warm,” Somrak murmurs, pointing to a mug sitting on the kitchen counter. “Somebody just left.”

“Which just means they know we are here,” Dion replies, eyes flashing golden as he scans the room with his mage sight. “I see nothing that could indicate a trap, though.”

Alma does the same, her eyes searching for any souls that might be lurking about in the hopes that walls are enough to block godly senses. Nothing, not even a common house fly resting on the wall to bring some life into this place. “And wherever they went, there is no trace of them anywhere nearby.”

Saira huffs at this. “Guy at the door must’ve pissed somebody off.” She shrugs, looking around. “They knew he was gonna die.”

“But they’re not going to that much trouble to try to convince us this isn’t a trap,” Somrak notes, with a slight grimace that his facial scar only amplifies.

“Then why are we following the straight and narrow path?” Saira complains. “We should be…” She looks around for any other doors that might provide an alternate route, but none are there to be found. Only the one through which they came…and a closed door through which to leave. “…gah!”

“This place can be reshaped by the creator,” Somrak explains to her, shoulders sagging a little in resignation. “We really have no choice but to go forward. Even if we gave up now, there could be no way back.”

Alma nods, grim. A glance at Gwydion shows her the god’s thoughts are no brighter than her own. “I guess there is no choice then. Unless anyone cares to start blowing up walls, onward we go.”

As the unspoken leader of the expedition, Somrak takes the handle of the closed door, no more appealing or appalling than any other, and with a look back at the rest of the party, pulls it open. Beyond it lies just another stretch of hallway. Stone walls, half-burnt-out torches. Everything dark and cold. Hopeless. Dead.

Before Somrak can take the first step down the hall, Gwydion’s voice cuts through the silence. “Somrak, wait. I’ve rested for long enough after the break-in spell and I can conjure a scout to go before us with considerably less danger.” He whispers a few unintelligible words and stretches a hand forward, palm up. In it, a familiar glittering, golden ball of light begins to glow, its shape twisting into the slender ferrety body with reddish eyes and a long fluffy tail that makes for Gwydion’s favorite scouting imp. The creature stands upright, looking smartly at at the god, awaiting its orders.

“Go. Scout for us.” He sets the ferret down and it sniffs the air, looking at the rest of them before scurrying out of the room. Gwydion’s eyes glow with his magic. “Now let us see what my little friend can find.”

Somrak touches the edge of the doorway. “Dion…is this a portal?”

Gwydion nods. “Yes. I suspect this place is built like an anthill. One main shaft into which various reality pockets may open at any time. It saves energy without compromising space. Any empty room merely ceases to be until it is needed, that way.”

Somrak’s grimace only increases at that, his chest rises and falls with one long breath. “Great…”

“Your little friend spotting anything we can kill yet?” Saira mutters, arms crossed.

“A few empty rooms,” Gwydion replies. “No traps unless they are triggered by an actual physical presence…” He trails off, apparently considering the possibility.

A sound. A scream, perhaps, though it sounds very faint. Nevertheless, gods and mortal become tense.

“There is someone screaming,” Gwydion says, his senses heightened by the scouting spell. “A woman by the sound of it. Coming from a room down the hall, I think. Sixth door to the left. But it’s closed. My scout can’t get in.”

“Oh, the old screaming victim act…” Saira breathes, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, I know,” Somrak agrees, voice dry. “But we have to check…”

He proceeds into the hallway, cautiously, closely followed by the others. Again taking the rear, Gwydion directs them to the door from which he thinks the scream came. Doors open into the hall, along the stone walls, each lying ajar, only a faint brilliance escaping from within each room lying beyond them.

“Your scout entered these rooms?” Alma asks him in a whisper.

“Just a peek at the door. Nothing worth mentioning,” Gwydion replies in the same soft tones.

“And there is no one around that I can detect…” Alma breathes.

How strange that a hive of criminal types is so empty and lifeless, even to her soul scrying… She feels her spine beginning to freeze with a creeping dread at what might lie ahead. Surely, the necromancer and her diabolist ally are expecting them. And considering their track-record, a particularly nightmarish welcome party will have been prepared to honor their uninvited guests.

From the end of the corridor, the lightspawn creature comes scurrying back to Gwydion, climbing up the god’s trouser leg and onto his shoulder with the ease of an illusion. “Nothing ahead but that one door,” Gwydion reports as the ferret dissolves into nothingness.

And just like the ferret, the door they were just passing winks out of existence, leaving behind blank wall. On the opposite wall, another door disappears. And one by one, each door they pass disappears, until they reach the one, closed door.

A low growl comes from somewhere in the vicinity of Somrak’s throat as he approaches the eerie entrance. “This is really starting to piss me off.” He reaches his hand out toward the doorknob but seems to hesitate. His hand draws back. “Am I just imagining it, or is this another portal?”

Gwydion nods. “It is. They all were. Had we gone into one of the other rooms, we probably would have been sealed inside it.”

Screams rise again, louder now. But for as much as Alma tries, her vision cannot penetrate through to whatever lies beyond the door. She grimaces in frustration. “Curse these portals. I can’t scry past closed portals.”

“Wait, it lets screams through but not your super-senses?” Saira asks, sounding suspicious.

“Portals can be adjusted in many ways,” Dion explains, his voice level but tense. “Some portals only allow image through and cannot be crossed unless one has the right key. And I cannot sense anything past the body of the portal.”

“They’re letting the screams through to unsettle us,” Somrak announces dryly. “This is it. The trap. And we have no choice but to step into it.” He looks at all of them, a shadow of – sadness? Regret? – darkening his visage for an instant before he turns to the door, and extends his palms toward it. They flare with a white flame, blindingly hot, far brighter than before with the shadows and zombies, a flame that seems to want to devour the entire pocket universe, as if it hates the very nature of it. The door twists, melts, and collapses, revealing the portal behind it.

And unleashing the voices. The screams. Countless, terrified, agonizing in breathtaking pain that not even death can put an end to. As Somrak moves quickly through the portal, immune to the heat, followed by Saira. Alma bends double in pain, clutching at her ears as if it could be of any help.

Gods, no…no…not again. Not the shattered souls she encountered in the basement of Three Rats Station. “No…no…” she whimpers, reflexively taking a step back.

A cry from behind her. “DEMONS!”

And someone pushes her into the portal.

Ch6.84 Trust

Felix, the owner of the Singing Cockroach, tries the door handle to the room occupied by the mysterious guy with no name. The guy whose face Felix can’t even remember. The guy whose room Felix has been working up the nerve to rob for days.

Well today is the day. Sure, it’s dangerous, but a guy like that has got to have something worth stealing equal to the risk in stealing it. Money, enchanted objects, information – there’s got to be something. And if he gets caught, Felix will do like he always does and accuse the mark of acting suspicious, justifying a room inspection. Just coming to the Cockroach counts as suspicious behavior. All right, he has a couple of scars from people he’s stolen from, but no pain, no gain.

The door handle doesn’t budge. Not rattling like it would if it were locked, but absolutely immobilized, as if the entire handle and lock assembly had been filled with concrete.

Felix grins, his loose rosaceate skin wrinkling in fine, irregular folds. A wizard lock can’t stop him. He pulls a jade-and-brass wheel from his pocket, crisscrossed with a half-dozen wires of silver, and sets it against the lock. One of the wires snaps with a tiny ping and falls away. At the same moment, the entire lock assembly crumbles to dust, and the door opens quietly.

Magic doesn’t come cheap, and that had been a very costly choice, but surely someone who would use a wizard lock would have something worth many times as much. Felix steps inside and for the first time notices music playing softly. Glancing around for the source, he sees a soft green glow from beside the bed.

The heavyset tavernkeep walks toward the bed. There is a shape on it. Even in the dim morning light, he can make out a woman’s curves. Yes, though clad all in leather, this is not his guest at all. She is paler, a little shorter. A sharp intake of breath through his nose accompanies his recognition. Saira! He has heard rumors that she might still be alive, and other rumors that she might be working with the Guardia. Well here she is, death on two legs, though at the moment death is lying on her side, one leg straight, the other bent at the knee.

Felix tries to remember why he is here. He shakes his head, looks at the tiny music box. A bird spins slow, floating in the green light. He reaches for it, but his hand feels heavy. The world sways, then he is floating, floating.

THUD.

The crash of Felix’s body kicks up tiny geysers of dust from the cracks between the shuddering floorboards. Felix does not notice. He is pleasantly unconscious. But the effect of the impact travels through the loose-boarded floor and causes the rickety bedside table to jump into the air. When it lands a moment later, the music box’s tiny top drops down and the music ceases.

The room is silent for long minutes, until Felix’s snores begin to rip through the air, snores that sound like an alligator being strangled by a very determined baboon. On the bed, Saira becomes even more still, her breath ceasing as her eyes open. It takes her a moment to recognize the appalling sound as a snore, and she quietly pushes herself up to get a better look.

On the floor is the unmistakable, apnea-cursed body of Felix, unnaturally asleep. Beside her is a distinct lack of Somrak. She looks around and sees that everything of Somrak’s is missing, aside from the music box and a slip of paper beneath it. Eyes narrowing, she pulls the paper from under the box, going to the window to open the curtain and let in the morning light.

She reads. After a moment, the paper crumples in her fist.

The furious hiss of her voice cannot compete with the snores, so even she cannot hear herself curse, “Cabrão…

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“That was too easy.” The crumbling remains of a wall, the broken ends of timbers burnt black and mold growing in the shaded crannies, serves as a convenient spot for Somrak to dump the body of a Whisper gangster so as to conceal it from the street. He wipes a dagger on the man’s jacket and sheathes it.

A scuff of boots on debris. He looks up to see Alma approaching. Her jaw is set, her left hand holding the grip of her sword white-knuckled, as if trying to push it further down into the scabbard. As if she knows that once she draws it, she will start to kill, and kill.

It is the nature of the mission, Somrak knows. He has seen in her a kindred spirit, someone for whom taking life is no sin if it is necessary. A warrior. He dealt with that tendency in himself by joining the off-blues, taking on a role where he could act with relative freedom and a lack of guilt. Alma took another path, sealing off that possibility as well as she could, becoming the ordinary sort of Guardia. She would make a damned good off-blue. Too good.

Alma looks down at the floor, studying it, her pearlescent eyes glowing with swirling colors. “It will get complicated soon enough. Eight mortals in the basement.” She frowns. “Plus two who look moribund.”

“Moribund?” Somrak asks. “You mean these souls floating around?” He gestures vaguely toward the abused, drained ghosts, invisible but tugging at the edge of his awareness. The poor things are barely holding on, like tatters of cobwebs, desperate for attention, for emotions to feed off of.

Alma gives her head a slight shake, a lock of white hair falling across her face. “Not quite. They look bound to a body but the link is rather delicate. Almost as if they were dying. I won’t know for sure until I see them.”

Gwydion joins them, having dispatched the other guard. Somrak can see by the gangster’s body heat that she is still alive, though presumably deeply unconscious. No surprise there. Prettyboy may have sworn to do whatever it takes, but he’s still not going to kill if he can avoid it, Somrak thinks. There is no criticism in his thought. Dion is who he is. And Alma is who she chooses to be. He has no wish to change them. He only wishes he could have left them behind, spared them whatever is ahead. Surely they will all have blood on their hands very soon.

“Either way,” Dion says, looking around, “the portal is located in the basement. I assume that trapdoor will have something to do with getting there.” His brow furrows as his eyes glint golden for a moment.

“What is it?” Alma asks.

“There is no spell sealing the entrance from the outside. No wards of any kind.” Dion’s voice is grim.

“Eight mortal guards just sitting around, waiting, all the time?” Somrak looks skeptical. “Well, can’t sneak in. We go in and hit them as hard as we can. Dion, focus on getting through the portal. Alma and I will handle the guards.” He realizes he’s sounding like he’s in charge. It’s a position he’s used to on missions like this, giving orders to Dei and Popula alike that he may never have met until mere days or even minutes beforehand. But even with long years of seniority over these fellow sergeants, they are companions, not subordinates. “Sound good?” he adds, to soften it.

“I will try to be quick.” Giving no sign of having taken offense, Dion walks over to the trap door and touches it. “I can sense a spell on the inside. It will attempt to seal us in once we enter.”

Alma folds her arms for a moment. As she unfolds them, each hand holds a throwing knife. “We knew it would be a trap.” She looks at Dion, then at Somrak, locking her gaze with them each for a moment. Somrak sees the determination in her eyes. “Here we go.”

Dion gestures and the lock clicks open without a touch. He holds the handle and looks at them. With a barely audible hiss of metal against leather, Somrak draws his two main blades: straight, narrow shortswords, sharp as surgical instruments, slender enough to slip through the slightest gaps in armor, each only a little longer than his forearms. He nods, and Dion swiftly opens the trapdoor. Somrak moves quickly, descending into the darkness, four steps, five, then turning and stepping out into empty space. The stairs have no bannister, and he drops a body-length to the floor below, absorbing the impact of the fall into his flexed legs, then rising, swords at the ready.

In the murky darkness, the fire god can see eight living bodies by their heat. Yet they are chilled, not far from death, starving. They stare back toward him in shock, and he hears them scrambling to their feet, not ready for battle, but in fear and perhaps hope of rescue.

These are not guards.

A creak of Alma’s gait upon the stairs. In the basement, before Somrak’s eyes, something darker than the darkest of shadows shifts, enveloping the prisoners, who scream in terror. A very brief scream, fading, followed by the multiple thud of bodies crumpling to the floor.

Only the dead sound like that.

A hissing laugh fills the air. The trapdoor slams shut, and something in their surroundings changes, inducing a slight nausea, a weakness. It is exactly what it feels like when going from a higher-mana ward to one with significantly lower, where the flow of magic becomes curdled and obstructed.

Alma lands just behind Somrak, swearing in the ancient language of the Death clan. Her voice low, she whispers, “I was wrong. Those aren’t moribund creatures. Their souls just flared to life.”

Gwydion lands next to them as well. “A suppression field.”

“Yep,” mutters Somrak. “Trap.” With far greater effort than usual, he awakens his sphere, flame flickering on from his fists to his forearms, then running up his blades. The inky living shadows flinch back, revealing the prisoners, who are beginning to stand. He feels no thrill of hope. Whatever stole their life force also sucked enough warmth from their bodies to cool them to well below ambient temperature. And even that is almost frigid, far colder than it should be. These shambling corpses should be nearly frozen solid. But they straighten, hollow-cheeked, hollow-eyed, and begin to stumble towards the trio of gods.

Somrak’s fire gutters, and he allows it to die almost away. The heat, he knows, is feeding these living shadows. They seem to fear the light, however. A pseudopod of darkness lashes at him, tentative like a cat trying to bat at an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous object. Just before it touches his arm, Somrak’s flame flares hot and bright again, and with a whine that sounds like a buzzsaw grinding against granite, it flinches back again.

But from the opposite side of the room, multiple shadow limbs strike at Alma and Gwydion. Apparently able to see them with ease, Alma draws her sword and parries them with blinding speed. Dion’s gold-lit blade is also out and defending against the approaching undead.

“Dion, find the portal and get it open!” Somrak orders. “Can you see the creatures, Alma?” He feels himself beginning to strain to keep his fire burning. A zombie, a dark, emaciated former beggar with matted hair and ragged clothes, reaches toward him, and Somrak transfixes its chest with one sword. Whispering “Rest now” in the Tongue of Fire, he sends a flare of cleansing, holy flame through its body, turning it almost instantly to ash. It stops, then collapses without a sound, a large puff of hot cinders rising above it momentarily.

A throwing dagger flies by his ear, its edges glowing a pale green. Sparing a glance back along its path, Somrak smirks to see that Alma was not even looking when she threw it with her still-extended off-hand, while she attempts to fight her way past the flailing tentacles of shadow toward their originating body. The shadow-creature on Somrak’s side of the room howls, reshaping and trying to pull back, seeming to struggle under Alma’s dagger-forged hold. Suddenly the dagger pulls free, however, bouncing across the floor to land at Somrak’s feet. The creature growls as it moves back on the attack.

“I’d love to help but the shadows are too thick around its core!” she calls to Somrak. “With this suppression…I can’t see where to strike!”

“No need to help,” Somraks mutters. “Doing fine. Just focus on–” He breaks off as a tentacle lashes against his left wrist, draining it of heat. Icy numbness nearly causes him to drop the sword in that hand. He whispers a curse.

And then Gwydion is by Somrak’s side, slashing his gold-glowing blade, the immaterial edge flinging away from his stroke and flying, surgically sharp, through the air and shadow, cutting deep and calling forth a hiss of anger and pain. The thing of shade seems to shift its attention to the god of magic.

“This is all very touching,” Somrak barks as he reduces another walking corpse to ash, “but Dion, get to the portal! I’m the one supposed to be keeping them off you, not the other way round!” He spins, slashing another tentacle that nearly gets past Dion’s parry. Two more tentacles; two more fiery cuts, followed by the laying to rest of a third confused, shambling corpse.

The opening is enough for Dion, who looks about, his eyes glowing in the darkness. He zeroes in on the portal and sprints for the other end of the room, bisecting a zombie on the way, shoulder to opposite hip, and coming to a halt at the wall. He runs his hands over it, whispering in some wizard-language.

Alma, meanwhile, is blocking multiple blows as shadow tentacles surround her. Somrak shouts a warning just before she is completely engulfed. He can do nothing to aid her – he is barely managing to keep his shadow-creature from doing the same to him. Alma disappears within for a moment, but then, with a scream, the creature spits her free, her eyes flaring white in the darkness. Alma is free, but wheezing. The suppression of her powers is forcing her to use too much mana to activate them, just as it is for Somrak, and presumably for Dion. It is all Alma can do to evade an attempt by a zombie to tackle her in a deadly hug. She hisses in frustration as she lops its head off, but the body keeps attacking her.

The drain of mana is bringing what should have been a brief, simple battle to a desperate stage. As the creature he is fighting attempts to pounce, Somrak flares, his entire body erupting in flames, burning his opponent, eliciting a scream and retreat back into the darker corner of the room. But Somrak staggers at the sudden use of so much mana. His fire gutters out entirely for a moment, and he automatically uses his blades against two undead that try to grapple him, taking off one arm at the elbow, slashing another across the torso ineffectively. That one manages to grip the god’s right arm as he tries to slip past it. The shadow moves forward again, eager to wrap itself around the god, to suck all of his delicious heat away, now that the bright light of his fire is gone.

There is a wet sound of sudden penetration, and with his thermal vision Somrak sees a crossbow bolt, cool and dark, transfixing the skull of the zombie holding his arm, trying to bite him. The god catches the hiss of a fuse and turns his head away just in time for the undead’s skull to explode in a dull thunk, but the shower of dead flesh goes mostly through the back if its skull, away from Somrak, and strangely through its left ear.

A clink of something metal bouncing across the floor, like a tin can full of something quite dense. Somrak mutters a curse just before he hears the familiar, expected voice shouting “Cover your eyes!”

A bright flash erupts in the room, blinding bright as a burst of sunlight. The blast assaults the ears, and even tightly shut eyes are dazzled by the burning, actinic flare redly penetrating the eyelids. In the aftermath of the explosion, the shadows shriek in agony.

Somrak opens his eyes, and amid the blobs of afterimage that nearly blind him, he sees it, a patch of darkness that writhes and keens. He dives after it, knocking aside a zombie, and plunges his sword into its immaterial but somehow resisting mass, summoning his reserves of mana to focus his flame through the weapon. The creature, demon or elemental of shadow or some unfamiliar form of undead, screams long and plaintively, its voice rising in pitch as it shrivels away entirely.

Dizzy, he turns to face other opponents, only to see the few remaining zombies become immobile and fall, unbalanced in mid-step, to the floor. Another shriek indicates that Alma has just finished off the other shadow. She looks at Somrak, tired but otherwise unscathed, and they both share a weak smile.

But the smile fades as easily as it came, as they turn to the sound of a shape in black leather dropping lightly from the stairs to land in a crouch, then straighten with feline grace. “Well, well. Looks like the gods can’t hold their own in a dirty fight after all.” Saira pushes her hood back and looks first at Alma, then Gwydion. Finally she lets her contemptuous gaze fall on Somrak. Her expression shifts from contempt to outright hatred.

As she walks toward him, Somrak sheathes his swords. Her body language tells him she’s planning to attack, to throw a punch. He prefers to get it over with, let her take out her anger on him, save her face by letting bash his. He can heal himself.

So when an utterly un-telegraphed snap-kick catches him in the groin, he is unready to block it or to ignore the flash of agony and the swift nausea that comes with it. He curls his spine, teeth gritted, but the more vulnerable areas of his body are well protected with his light, flexible armor, so some of the impact is absorbed and he is able to straighten back up after a second. Still, he gives her the satisfaction of seeing him in pain. He sees Alma looking at him with a cringe of not-exactly accurate sympathy.

Slowly, deliberately, Saira grinds out, “You earned that. You lying, oathbreaking son of a bitch.”

Somrak keeps his face as impassive as he can, jaw muscles working to prevent any sounds of pain. Saira turns to look at the other two gods. “Now are any of you other high-and-mighty stuck-up gods going to tell me I can’t be here? Because I am sick of this crap! I have earned. My. Place! And if you think–”

Saira stops suddenly, silenced by something Somrak cannot quite see, though he can feel it for sure. The sudden chill deep in the skeleton, rattling the teeth of anyone sensitive enough to sense it. Ghosts.

Saira turns slowly to look at it, and Somrak is sure she doesn’t even know exactly how she instinctively knows where to look. But there it is. In the dim light, a silvery light glimmers, goes out, and returns. Then another, and another, slashes of light, here and gone, combining to appear in the vague shape of a person, though details like gender cannot be made out.

Somrak can see Saira’s extremities cool and her core body temperature rise as she reacts in shock to the vision before her.

And there are more, at least three more of them, though it is hard to be sure, all gathering around her. Around Saira. Ghosts, the most pitiful of the undead. Zombies are more horrifying, but their souls and minds are gone. Some of the more powerful kinds retain their souls within their bodies, but in many cases that is only because they have embraced undeath, chosen a horrid existence over fear of moving beyond. Ghosts, though, are trapped by their trauma. They do not stay out of greed for more life, but because their deaths are so unjust that they cling to this world, confused, raging for vengeance or longing to protect someone.

Thinking without a brain is no mean feat, and few can manage it. Somrak tenses, ready to protect Saira if the ghosts attack. They could have some half-baked idea that she is to blame for their deaths. Fortunately, the more they manifest, the closer they come to solidity, which they must do to be seen, the easier it will be for him to cleanse them with holy flame.

Saira steps toward the closest ghost, the first to appear and apparently one she recognises, even though still very little is clear about the vaguely female facial features. “Emília? Oh no, no no no.” She raises a hand in distress, trying to touch the barely visible figure. “Emília, why? Why didn’t you leave?” She suddenly spins to glare at Alma. “Why are they here? Why haven’t they gone to their rest?” she demands.

Alma’s voice is soft. “At first I blamed the local death goddess for carelessness in not sending them on to the Wheel.” She approaches the ghost and touches it, letting a trickle of her mana flow into it. It gains solidity, and becomes almost the perfect image of a young woman, a child really, a teenager with her hair shaved on one side. “But that is not what happened, is it, little soul?”

The ghost blinks her eyes as if awakening, looking around as if truly seeing her surroundings for the first time in years. She breathes, actually drawing air into her temporarily real, though still translucent body. She looks at Saira, and her features, at first showing an immense relief, turn almost immediately to sorrow. She turns her gaze to Alma and it is obvious that some level of communication is happening between her and the goddess.

“I will relay her words to you, Saira,” Alma says, eyes still on the teenage ghost. “She is glad to see you. She says ‘We held each other when the house burned, and Breno said at least Saira got away. He screamed your name as we burned’.”

The ghost moves forward, floating more than stepping, and cups Saira’s cheek with her hand. The assassin shudders at the freezing touch, but she does not pull away.

“‘And then he came’,” Alma goes on translating. “‘He put us to sleep, but bound us here. We slept for so long. And then he awakened us’.”

A Mão Esquerda do Diabo,” Saira hisses in pain and hatred.

Alma’s countenance darkens. “How many others has he done this to, I wonder. Making their souls quiescent so that death gods will not notice them, ready to be called upon again to power spells or act as guardians.”

“Their mere presence would frighten away locals,” Dion says quietly.

“And the local death goddess is missing,” Alma says.

Saira ignores the gods. “Emília, rest now. All of you must rest now.”

The ghost smiles again. Saira brings her hand to the ghost’s, where it rests on her face. “I will find him. And he will pay. But you should go now.” She turns her gaze to Alma and nods to her.

The goddess evokes her power. For a moment, the shadows stretch again in response to Alma’s power but they are different from before. They are soft, velvety, infused with lavender and cinnamon, like the embalming oils some cultures use on the corpses of their dead. And they are welcoming, in a sense, like nothing else will disturb them, like there’s no punishment, no prize…just sleep. An eternal, bodiless sleep of the soul. The ghosts flare to almost solidity for a moment, each of them smiling and waving a last goodbye at Saira. Each of them hovering around her one last time, all kids, all of them. Her kids, in a sense. Her family, leaving her again and for good and this time toward a better place. Not afraid, this time. The ghost of the one Saira called Emília leans forward to kiss Saira’s forehead, then pulls away to join the others. They look at her, smiling their goodbyes. Then they wave and they fade to spectres and wink out, like a slow yawn of the universe.

Finally, Saira is left standing, eyes closed, her right hand resting on her own cheek, where the ghost’s hand was resting before. She stays there for a few seconds, then lets her hand fall and takes a deep breath, her eyes half shut. For a moment, Somrak sees peace in them, peace and loss, but then she catches him looking and the familiar glare of anger returns.

“Is that portal open yet?” she snaps at Gwydion.

“It is,” the god replies, indicating a man-high oval of almost-black green that swirls like pond-scum caught in a lazy vortex.

“Then let’s go,” she growls.

As she starts toward the portal, however, Somrak holds out a hand. “Allow me,” he says. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, but it’s probably alerted.”

Behind him, just before he passes through, he hears the mortal’s exasperated mutter of “Fine…”