They run through the maze of tangled streets, leaving the magical, unstable parasite dimension that the market usually occupies through a completely different access point than the one they took in. It takes Alma a few streets to finally make some sense of where they are. This area of Three Rats is hardly inhabited at all, mostly just a place of passage and short, whispered rendezvous. But there is no time to linger on that. Her eyes flare with her soul scrying and she swears under her breath as she tries to be of any use in finding the demon.
“Damned souls, where is she?!”
Fencer keeps appearing and disappearing from her divine senses, hardly giving her enough time to feel for her location with any level of certainty.
Can’t even do that right, can you? Nekh leers, amused at her frustration. Bet your ugly brother could tail her without even thinking about it.
I have many ugly brothers, Nekh, and they would all love to have your soul for a chew toy, Alma growls as she tries to hold on to Fencer’s trail. Now stop distracting me and let me do my job!
Stupid little half blood, the former Archon taunts her. You really think she needs your help? Really think she wants it?
Shut up– “Demons! I lost her again!” Alma cries out in anger.
“This way!” Gwydion calls out to her. “Just follow me, I can sense its path.”
Alma falls closer behind him, as does Somrak. Gwydion has been running slightly ahead of them, actually, his steps leading the way with a certainty that Alma has never seen in him. He looks this way and that, every now and again, his eyes flaring gold, a faint glow silhouetting his form against the dark streets. And no matter how many corners they turn and how many crossroads, he always seems to find the right path. Claw marks and signs of destruction scour the walls, the ground. Lamp posts, lamps long broken and never replaced, hang crooked or rooted off the streets and cast aside as if they were nothing. And all around, that oppressing, rotten, terrible stench of Hell.
Suddenly, they hear a deafening roar of falling stone by their left. An orange-red glow illuminates the next alley. The three gods barely stop to exchange a look between them before diving into it at running pace. Beyond the mouth of the alley, a clearing has just opened in the wake of the collapse of an old, unstable three-story building made of mortar and brick. As they arrive, flames are soaring high, enclosing the stone ruins in a full circle, in spite of an obvious lack of something to burn. It is hellfire, unnatural flame, sparked by magic and fed by it, the same kind of fire that Somrak wields but colder, weaker due to the demon’s recent arrival into this plane of existence. Inside the barrage of flame, Alma can see the Fencer ducking and evading the attacks of the confused, enraged demon that keeps trying to escape the stone ruins of the collapsed building.
Oooooh! This should be fun! Think she’ll lose her other eye? Nekh coos.
By Alma’s side, Somrak mutters, “Fire. Right, let me try to cancel its flames. It shouldn’t be too sure of its fire yet.”
He concentrates and the fiery perimeter surrounding the building begins to dwindle. Drawing his blades, Somrak makes a motion to run Fencer’s aid. Alma grabs his wrist to stop him, her eyes flashing with the eerie blue-green light of her soul scrying. At his questioning look, she replies with a jerk of her chin toward the demon, that is now backing away from his attacks against Varah at the feeling of its dying flames, its five partially-fused heads shooting this way and that atop their separate necks in confusion. Finally, its blind faces turn in Somrak’s direction. It sniffs the air, five gaping mouths cut like vertical slits vibrating membranous lips in a mixture of howls and growls. It leaps at the god.
And hits thin air as if it were a wall.
“Forcefield?” Gwydion wonders as the beast falls stunned not two steps away.
“Different dimension,” Alma explains.
“What are you waiting for, Alma? A gilded invitation?” the Fencer barks. “Help me establish a perimeter!”
Just let the bitch die! Nekh exclaims. What good has she been to you, anyway?
Nekh, I’m going to need you to make yourself scarce now, Alma says, ignoring his taunting.
And why would I do that – Oh… his tone changes as she calls to mind a mental image of what she is anticipating for the upcoming battle. That looks like it’s gonna hurt.
It will. Very much, Alma concedes. Won’t that please you?
Oh, my dearest conniving Death Clan whore... he whispers with obscene sweetness. That will please me oh so much…
Alma breathes deeply at the sudden release of pressure that his departure always causes and walks into the building, closely followed by her fellow Dei. Though neither Gwydion nor Somrak can see it, an intricate web of spectral strands surrounds the ruins like a dome. Currently, a few strands have moved aside, creating a temporary gap through which the gods enter the makeshift arena where Varah stands, her soul a nexus from which all strands arise to limit the demon’s movements. But she cannot keep the artificial borders impenetrable for long. Instead, she focuses her energy where it is needed most, reinforcing specific areas at the expense of the whole.
Alma responds to her aunt’s orders immediately, unleashing her power. Around her, darkness spreads, a restless murmur of departed souls rises to meet the stunned demon’s grunts. From the blackened ground, countless ghosts traced in light emerge, ripping their way in as if summoned from an unseen grave. Whispering words of death and loss, they crawl up Fencer’s webs and merge with them, hanging from the strands like spiders, reinforcing the barrier with their immaterial presence, making it visible even to unspecialized eyes.
Alma feels her control of them being removed from her by Varah, their energy commandeered by the older goddess as if the Fencer were a parasite sucking her life-blood. It does not matter. Alma knows that what is expected of her will require complete, perfect focus.
“Can you banish it?” she asks Gwydion, by her right side.
He seems to consider this for a moment. “I’ve never read of a demon quite like this before. I’ll need some time, and concentration.”
By Alma’s left side, Somrak calmly reassures her. “I’ll make sure he’s left in peace.”
Alma nods. The fire god is no fool. Nothing good would come from stepping between Alma and her mentor.
“Thank you,” she says. Turning to Gwydion, she asks, “Anything you can think of I should worry about?”
“Aside from fire…” The magic god closes his eyes in concentration. After an instant, he opens them again and blinks confused. “Blood is highly corrosive. It wants you to cut it.”
“Alma!” Fencer calls.
The young goddess turns to Somrak. “Whatever happens, do not intervene. It could be the death of me.” She moves her eyes from him to Gwydion. “Be careful, you two.”
They nod grimly at her and she rushes to her aunt’s side. The demon is already rousing, howling at the strengthened barrier that keeps it imprisoned in this barely isolated dimension.
“We’ve practiced this a thousand times,” the Fencer says in a low voice. “You know what to do.”
“I do,” Alma replies.
The Fencer draws her sword and, without warning, drives the pommel into Alma’s stomach. The blow of the metal is blunt and weak but through it comes the piercing agony of the Soul Stealer, Varah’s signature technique. It cuts through Alma’s soul, barely missing Nekh’s, driving through her with burning, unspeakable pain. Alma jerks forward, breathing raggedly, and is caught by Varah’s strong arms.
“Don’t hold back,” is her only advice.
Alma merely nods, still too breathless to talk. They have done this a thousand times and a thousand times more with Melinor holding the sword instead of Varah. The pain is always the same. And Alma has learned to bear it.
The good part of it is that Nekh is taking his retreat seriously, probably motivated further by the Fencer’s sudden attack. It is for the best. Alma cannot afford any distractions. Varah pulls the sword back and grips it in vertical position, the tip of her blade pointed downward and resting on the ground like in one of those old sculptures of great knights. From it, a single glowing strand stretches into Alma’s core like a leash.
Varah’s crimson eye flares for a moment and the sword begins to glow with spectral energy. A spectral web sprawls over the ground, covering it, stretching under the feet of gods and demon. The beast has its attention turned to Somrak and sniffs furiously in the god’s direction. Behind Somrak, Gwydion is immersed in the dangerous, complicated process of improvising a banishment spell.
Alma releases her power even further. The scales of her spheres tilt completely toward death. The black of her stained hair burns away to reveal silver-white, her brown leathers darken to complete blackness. Her blue eyes disappear into the shadows that fill her orbits. Only a blue-green spark flashes in place of her pupils. Her pale skin glows like a ghost against the darkness around her.
The demon turns its attention toward her. She draws her daggers, their blades flaring with her spectral energy. It has been awhile since she has drawn on her power like this. The pain, the thrill…it always feels like the first time. The demon howls.
Alma moves swiftly, evading the beast’s attack as it comes crashing down, sharp claws on two powerful forelimbs slashing the space that the goddess had just been occupying, the blink of an eye ago. The demon turns, roaring its anger. A burning tongue of hellfire suddenly bursts from the ground by Alma’s right and she moves quickly to the left. In a second, the fire dies, enraging the beast even further.
Thank you, Somrak, the goddess thinks without turning to look at the fire god.
She cannot turn. There is no time. The demon is already bounding toward her, its enormous bulk carrying powerful momentum. She adjusts her grip on her daggers, curses herself for leaving her sword at the station and lunges against her foe.
The Soul Stealer is a unique technique. It can be molded into many things. If sent surging through a blade, it can suck the lifeforce out of an opponent at each strike, no matter how shallow. Forged out of the spectral energy of its wielder, the Soul Stealer eats away at its victim, weakening its soul, even ripping it from the body it if need be. If it pierces through a soul, it can forge a link, or several, turning an unwilling victim into a mere puppet or a trained partner into a conscious, autonomous extension of one’s body. If woven into a web of glittering soul-strands…
It becomes a trap. In this spectral arena, Fencer is the weaver. Alma, her poisonous spider. And her leash allows her use of Varah’s senses, lets her see the demon’s broken, incomplete soul that her soul-scrying is usually blind to. The web tingles under her feet, vibrating with the demon’s presence, telling her where it is, how fast it is moving, where it will be.
And where it won’t. The young goddess rushes past the demon, barely evading its slashing attacks, nostrils filling with its sulphurous, rotting, hellish scent. Her daggers graze its soft-shelled body, metal sizzling against the hot, verrucous carapace.
Grazing. Not cutting. They don’t have to cut.
The demon shrieks as the magical, spectral edge of the metal blades cuts into its soul, tearing strips of it that curl around and bind to the piece of Alma’s spirit that is her own version of Varah’s Soul Stealer. The goddess takes a step back, senses a nexus opening in the web and steps on it. Immediately, the Fencer’s energy surges through her, catching and grabbing the demon’s soul-strands and latching them to the network of Varah’s woven trap, holding them tightly but not pulling on them.
The strands are fragile and not enough to grab a hold of the unstable, fractured soul of a demon, but more will follow. If the older goddess makes a mistake, if she pulls too soon, the strands will break, releasing the demon, and Alma will have to start again. If Fencer pulls the wrong strand, Alma’s soul will be the one trapped. If she lets go of Alma’s leash, the young goddess will be blind as a bat as to where to cut or where to step. Either way, it will be enough to turn her into a feast for the growling demon.
More flames shoot up by her feet, once, twice, three times, forcing her to keep moving. Somrak negates the first two but the demon spits a flaming ball of mucus against the god, breaking his concentration, forcing him to take a hit in order to protect Gwydion. Alma moves to strike the demon again, denying it a choice in opponents.
She attacks with her daggers again and again, tearing into its soul, binding each fragment to the throbbing network under her feet. Her hands hurt from holding metal against a hot target, her blades melt further at each strike until she has to switch them, discard the lumpy, shapeless used daggers for a renewed pair she pulls out of the recesses of her outfit. It is better she did not bring her sword. She would have hated to see it destroyed.
The beast keeps fighting, sending flame against all four gods, thrashing with its claws and stumpy, spiked tail, its body showing signs of the exhaustion imposed by the Soul Stealer. Alma can see its spectral bonds tightening under Varah’s grip, robbing it of some of its speed and force. It is almost fully caught.
She evades yet another five-front attack of fiery globs from its multiple mouths. She has to hurry. The burning touch of Varah’s soul-bond on her is taking its toll, exhausting her fast. If she can secure the last four strands in the next blow, that will be it. The targets shine brightly on the beast’s chest. She lunges forward.
But the beast doesn’t. It rises on its hindlimbs, imposing, monstrous, and bursts into flame. It is all Alma can do to freeze in her tracks and veer to her left, stumbling for balance. A tongue of flame bursts in front of her, another behind her. Alma looks around. She is trapped, surrounded by flame. The hideous shape of the demon casts its shadow above her, its five-fold head first turned to shoot its flames against Somrak, then turning to focus its nostrils on her. She cannot escape. It raises a vicious paw, strikes.
Alma falls backwards, body caught between its claws, miraculously spared from its flames by Somrak’s quick recovery. She squirms like a mouse trapped under a lion’s paw, her last set of blades sent flying by the beast’s attack. To her horror, she sees the soul-bindings that surround its forelimb tug at the demon to no avail. The demon roars and they break, not enough alone to hold it in place. If the binding is not complete, the prey can escape. Alma does not stand a chance. The beast sniffs at her, growls in anticipation of its feast, mouths gaping open, dripping with vile, oily spit. It bites.
It roars in pain. Alma feels the pressure holding her disappear and opens her eyes to see the leather-clad shape of Somrak kicking viciously at the demon’s head. The beast backs away in confusion and pain, releasing Alma, trying to keep away from Somrak’s blows. The death goddess just lies there, processing the scene for a breathless moment. Then, she springs to action, rising and fetching her daggers while the demon is distracted. Somrak keeps kicking, delivering swift strikes to the demon’s face, any of them enough to kill a mortal. Alma exchanges a brief glance with Fencer, feels the goddess’ grip tighten on her leash.
“Get out of there, you idiot!” Varah shouts at Somrak.
But it is too late. Somrak’s kicks fracture the largest of the demon’s skulls, breaking its skin against the bone. Blood gushes out and splashes the fire god, hitting his throat and making him yell with the sudden pain of its corrosive touch. The demon rears back, shaking its head, and Alma moves swiftly to push Somrak away from it. She can see the demonic blood trickling down under the fire god’s jacket but there is nothing she can do to help ease his pain. Her healing life sphere is completely dormant at the moment.
“I need you out of range now and protecting Gwydion,” she tells him. “I will finish this.”
Somrak nods and falls back to his previous position by the god of magic, grimacing in pain. Gwydion looks completely oblivious to his surroundings, his body glowing softly with a golden hue. Alma breathes deeply. She has to buy him the time he needs.
Her power again surging through the daggers, she makes the best of the demon’s confusion and immediately secures new bindings to replace the broken ones on the beast’s forelimb. Another strike rips through the demon’s central soul-fragments, yielding two more soul-strands that Alma quickly attaches to a nearby nexus in the web.
Two more….only two more to go.
Of course, they just had to be the tricky ones. She rushes toward the demon and it lunges to meet her, claws and maws ready to grab her, body burning with roaring flame, slightly slower from the Fencer’s grip on it. She dives forward and twists midair, landing on her back, sliding belly up on the floor, her head to the beast’s backside. She winces at the heat of the flames, thrusts the daggers up, feeling them melt. She screams as they burn her hands, as she sends her power into the demon’s belly, piercing through its spectral core. It shrieks and contorts at the pain, turning just as Alma emerges behind it. She gets up on one knee, waiting for its counterattack, grinning at the feeling of a nexus opening just under her, at Varah’s shooting spectral grip through the open channel of Alma’s soul.
The demon jumps.
And freezes midflight. Just for a second. A heartbeat.
The beast howls.
And falls, heavily, against the ground. Alma looks back at the Fencer. A grinning face meets her in reply. The trap is complete. The demon is going nowhere.
But it is still trying.
“Ugh, this one is a fighter.” Fencer grimaces, clutching at her sword, clearly struggling to keep both this alternate dimension and the demon under her control. “Hey, Ponytail! How’s Prettyboy doing over there?”
Fire geysers shoot up all around the area. The demon cannot move but it is nowhere near giving up.
Gwydion does not open his eyes but nods at Somrak, an indication that he is conscious of his surroundings.
“Almost there!” Somrak replies, forehead glistening from the effort of canceling the demon’s flames.
Still kneeling, Alma places her hands on the ground, wincing at the painful touch of her burnt palms fingers on the glittery, buzzing web of the Fencer’s trap. She unleashes whatever power she has left in her death sphere through the web to help reinforce it. “We’re ready when you are!”
Almost as if responding to Alma’s words, the ground begins to glow with a brilliant, golden light. Gwydion, standing straight and still, enveloped in a glowing, blinding aura, opens incandescent, coppery-golden eyes, raises a single hand in the direction of the demon. His lips move soundlessly, forming the words of his spell.
The light grows brighter, forcing Alma to close her eyes, piercing through her eyelids. She cannot protect herself with her hands, invested as they are on reinforcing the Fencer’s spell. She can hear the demon shrieking in pain, feel it pull at the bindings, trying to escape from the divine touch of Gwydion’s spell. The beast contorts and flails violently in a panic. But neither Varah nor Alma weaken their hold and the trap holds its prey tightly.
Darkness ensues. Not complete darkness, but a soft shadowy twilight like the hesitant arrival of a winter’s dawn. Alma risks opening her eyes, shakes her head against the greenish-purple ghosts left behind from the magical, blinding light. The ground is dark again. The demon lies senseless in the center of a summoning circle of golden glyphs, most of them completely new to the goddess. They spin slowly, burning with a strange light, reshaping themselves into hideous, blackened, distorted forms that somehow speak of only one thing.
At a roared word of “Submit!” from Gwydion, the circle contracts around the demon. The ground trembles as a huge, blackened, scaly talon shoots from the darkness, grabbing the dazzled demon, that seems to waken and fights wildly to release itself. The clawed hand that holds the beast relaxes its grip, wavering as if still immaterial.
Gwydion must not be certain of the spell yet. Alma feels the spectral bindings around the beast strain to keep it bound. She struggles to maintain her hold on them.
Gwydion roars again. “Submit!” Alma has never seen him as powerful, as iron-willed as this.
The hand begins to glow, traced in golden veiny light. It looks more solid now. The fingers close inexorably around the demon, begin pulling it into the ground. The demon flails but to no avail. It is doubly trapped.
Gwydion stumbles, his legs go limp from the effort of casting the powerful, never attempted spell. Somrak catches him, looks at the demon. The spell seems unaffected, still drawing the demon into whatever dimension lies beyond the darkness. Nightmarish voices wail and screech, calling gutturally for the frenzied demon. They are deafening, blood-curdling.
“Get out!” Fencer orders, voice barely above the terrible cries. “Alma, you too! I’ll hold it!”
Somrak obeys, pulling Gwydion away to a safe distance, but Alma refuses to move. She can feel the demon tearing the soul-strands, so terrified that it is destroying its own soul just for a chance to escape. “I’m staying!”
“This is not up for discussion!” Varah barks.
“You’re right, it isn’t!” Alma barks back.
The spell runs its course. With the death goddesses keeping it bound, helping Gwydion’s spell along, the demon is dragged into the screaming, sulphurous darkness and disappears. The voices go silent, the circle of blackened, hideous glyphs flashes into a bright halo of hallowed symbols and winks out of existence.
Alma remembers to breathe again. She cancels her influence, feels her soul retreat into her own body again, released from the Fencer’s hold. In its wake, some of Varah’s mana transfers into Alma, partially replenishing the young goddess. The mana does nothing to keep her death sphere from going numb. If they get into another fight, Alma will be useless as a death goddess.
But at least this is over. Behind her, the Fencer sheathes her sword. The darkness, the barrier, the web, they all disappear. Around them, only the cool, natural night remains. And instead of haunting voices, only a deafening silence fills the crumbled building.
Alma rises unsteadily to her feet, wincing at her blistered hands, and walks slowly toward the place where Somrak is propping Gwydion up on his feet, left arm under the magic god’s right armpit.
“Dion is weakened,” Somrak says with a grimace of obvious pain. His right arm hangs limp along his side. “Let’s get out of here before people start coming around to see what happened.”
“Can he walk?” Fencer asks in the tones of one more worried about the inconvenience of carrying a fallen comrade than anything else. She gives off no signs of being particularly tired after such a trying battle.
Gwydion nods, too tired to speak at this point, his forehead beaded with sweat. Her numbed death sphere allowing her a faster return of access to her life powers, Alma rushes to heal her burnt hands and moves quickly to his left, to help Somrak in propping him up, her right arm moving under his armpit and behind his back, hand gently and just for a moment squeezing his side in affection and encouragement before settling in its supporting hold of the magic god. Gwydion lays his hand on her shoulder with a small, exhausted smile at her.
“That was quite the banishment spell,” she says in honest admiration.
“Yes. Good job there, Prettyboy,” Fencer adds in the tense, uncomfortable tones of one not used to giving compliment. She must really have thought very little of Gwydion to be showing this much surprise at his skill. Her eyes go to Somrak and she barks halfheartedly, “You too, Ponytail.”
But then her gaze falls on Alma and lingers there. Her aunt’s anger feels to Alma like a bubbling cauldron, building up heat and radiating through her skin like a hand clenching in preparation for a blow. “As for you, missy…” Fencer growls. “Falling? Disobeying orders? What do you think this is, a practice run?! Could have gotten yourself killed. Or Ponytail over there.” She gestures at Somrak as if he were just a meaningless recruit. “I taught you better than that.”
Her words are like ice down Alma’s spine after the thrill of seeing a demon defeated and the Soul Stealer used for the first time in action in a real-life scenario with tremendous success. The young goddess looks down at her feet, sighing in sudden shame, her body hollow. “You did, my aunt.”
She does not dare to face Gwydion, whose hand has just tightened its hold on her shoulder, or Somrak, whose body temperature she feels rise against her hand where he is still holding Gwydion’s side. She has long learned to take Fencer’s scoldings as something to swallow and get over with, but being scolded in front of them verges on true humiliation. Of course, Fencer would never take time to consider such things, and even if she did, dismiss them as just another reason not to make mistakes in the first place.
“You have got to be kidding,” Somrak hisses suddenly, making Alma turn a shocked look in his direction. He has just released Gwydion and is moving dangerously close to Fencer. “Alma was amazing, and if you can’t see that, you need to get your eye fixed!”
“Careful, off-blue!” Fencer growls in a voice that promises aggression for his presumption. “I taught this girl everything she knows about fighting and if you thought that was amazing, then you don’t want to know what I haven’t taught her yet. No self-respecting fighter would let jyrself fall into a situation like that.” She turns to Alma again, a finger pointed at her in accusation. “And if I tell you to leave, you leave. What if the spell had sucked you in too, huh?!”
“She did fine,” Somrak insists, placing himself between Alma and her aunt. “And you may have dreams of turning her into a fighter, but you miss that she’s a damned good blueshirt. It’s not all about combat. Let’s not forget who’s in charge of this ward right now.”
Alma is lost for words. This Somrak is not at all what she is used to and the words coming out of his mouth don’t seem his at all. Where is the off-blue who left a whole gang crippled over a single overheard tip?
But when Fencer takes a threatening step forward, Alma finds the strength again to intervene. “Please, Somrak,” she asks, touching his back with her free hand to his back and wincing at the feel of his hot body against her newly healed, still sensitive skin. He glances back and moves aside at a significant glance from her. “I am sorry, my aunt. I stumbled and yes, a fellow Guardia suffered for it. But we gain nothing from discussing this here. Let us get to the station. Gwydion needs to rest and Somrak needs healing. The market has been dispersed, anyway. No point in staying out.”
“I agree,” Gwydion adds to her plea, the strain in his tone making his effort evident. “Besides, we seem to have attracted a lot of attention. There is no way we can go back now, without being made for Guardia.”
He makes a show of looking around them at the small crowd of wayward thugs, prostitutes and homeless, raggedy people gathering to see what has just happened to what was probably one of their many usual squat places. They look at the Guardia and it is to Alma’s great horror that she realizes that most of her disguise has been cancelled during the battle. One look at her and all four gods will have had their covers blown to pieces.
“Our animal-dealer is dead, anyway,” Somrak mutters bitterly.
Fencer glares at them all with renewed ferocity but eventually yields. “Fine. Let’s go, then.”
She turns on her heel and starts marching away without a second look to check if they will follow or if they need help. Alma looks apologetically at both Gwydion and Somrak, feeling relieved, grateful and lightheaded, almost dizzy at the mix of emotions that is hitting her like a brick wall. It is not just her hands that are oversensitive, she feels. The whole of her being tingles with emotion, open as she is to emotions that her death nature usually blocks.
To her right, Gwydion chuckles as Somrak again moves to help prop him up, signalling to Alma that he will take care of helping the god of magic on his way. “That little speech sounded familiar.”
“Yeah yeah, laugh it up, Prettyboy,” Somrak teases him in mock irritation.
Against all odds, Alma finds herself bursting in laughter. The tension leaves her, adrenalin burnt away, in long, wholehearted laughs that shake her frame almost painfully and have the two gods looking at her in pleased surprise. She has to wipe a tear from her eye with a finger still reeking of demon. “You know, if you two need a moment, I can leave you to find some place quiet…”