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.”

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Ch6.88 Trust

Anguish. Suffocating anguish. Screams of shredded souls deafening her ears, running down her throat. Invisible claws tearing at her, desperately, hungrily.

Pain.

Endless pain. Senseless, hopeless. All-consuming. And she is naked before it, so vulnerable to it. No flesh to hold her, to sacrifice to these panicked, howling wrecks of what used to be people. They go for her soul. And she cannot hide from them. No…

No! This same pain again. This agony! Just like before, like that other time in the cells. But greater now. Stronger now. There are more of them. Or of what is left of them. They are so broken…nothing left that she can use to repair them. Nothing but her core.

And that is what they seek.

“Please, please…” she whimpers though she finds no lips to whimper with. “I can’t save your souls… You can’t take mine.”

A voice. Quiet. Kind. “Enough, now… Let her go.”

Why should they listen? The words sound like a gentle request. No order. No threat. Why should the wailing stop? The digging of corrosive talons pause? Why should they obey?

But they do. The shredded souls quiet down, their screaming trailing off with a questioning tone. She can feel them backing away, slowly. Hesitantly. And hover around her. Awaiting their chance.

Relief. Such welcome relief. Such wonderful silence. Magnificent emptiness of emotion. Of pain.

A stray thought finds its way to her conscience, poking at it softly like a parent gently awakening a slumbering child. “Who is there?” she asks. “How did you do that?”

“Even the most desperate soul listens if spoken to in the right tone,” the voice replies with a soft, beatific smile. Alma cannot see its source but she has learned long ago that voices can smile and cry and laugh and rage. And this one sounds so peaceful… so ancient. “And all of them can be saved, no matter how torn they are.”

A light begins to glow gently in the dim twilight that her eyes are becoming used to seeing. Her scrying eyes, so recently transformed into the standard of her vision. She looks around as the soft glimmer of her surroundings gains rhyme and reason. Up, down, left, right…directions are meaningless here. Is she standing up? Or lying down? It does not matter. For either a body is required and hers is far behind. Bodies cannot enter the ultimate sanctum, the very threshold of existence.

“The Wheel…” she breathes, amusing herself with the way concepts like breath remain attached to her even here. Matter shaping mind. “We are in the Wheel. It is you who I’ve felt watching me before.”

“Not just I,” the voice says. Male? Female? Who could possibly tell? “But yes, we have watched you come and go. It has been a long time since one of us has visited from the material realms. And we wondered if you would notice us.”

“One of you?” How many are there?, she wonders. “Do you mean Spinners? Gods of the Wheel?”

“Gods?” The voice sounds positively confused. “What are gods?”

The simple question hits her with unexpected weight. For so many reasons. How to explain the concept of a god to a being dwelling at the edge of all beings. There are no fears here. No desires. Nothing in the way of the matter that brings most gods to life. A challenge not much different from explaining the sound of birdsong to a deaf person. But if these beings have no concept of a god…what are they? And why are they here?

She decides to use the one example she reasons they will understand: souls. “Gods are beings with complex souls like my own. In basic shape. Eight layers around a stable core. No frail parts to be eaten away by time.”

“Ah… We never called ourselves gods. Still, many have lived and died since we have been here.” The voice sounds almost amused though its tone carries an empty contemplation suggestive of many centuries passed in this place.

“Who are you, then?” Alma asks, feeling her own thoughts drift away from emotion, sharing in the peace of her strange companion.

“We are Shan’doír,” is the answer. “Like you. Shape to core to purpose. Serving the heart of the Wheel.”

Shan’doír… There is a name she has never heard before. “Is this where all the people who serve the Wheel go when they ascend, then?”

“All souls come through here sooner or later. But none like ours since the great war.” A pause in speech. Was that sadness in those words? “And these souls are waiting for you to save them.”

Around her, the lingering, watchful residues of shattered souls begin to move again, encircling her, not screaming anymore but pouring threateningly like acid eating its way through a tabletop. She panics again, feeling them closer and closer. “I…I don’t know how. I have done it before but those souls were not quite as shattered as this.”

“You are the heart of the Wheel, the cleansing filter through which all souls are undone and rebuilt,” the voice says calmly. “Open yourself to them and let them through. Your core is with the Wheel. It cannot be destroyed by the simple touch of a soul. Now do not fight that touch, or all you will achieve is pain.”

Alma hesitates but the voice sounds so serene, so certain. And she has nowhere to go, no way to escape these approaching specters. There are moments of epiphany in life, people say. Moments when the stars align or the sun shines through the clouds in inspiring ways just as a word is spoken, just as a thought strikes a nerve. The answers will come, people say, when we are ready to listen.

This is not the time for epiphanies, it seems. As Alma forces herself to relax, fearfully opening herself to the shattered souls, no enlightenment comes to her. No spell, no mental pathway to shift her mana into a new shape. At the first touch, she flinches in pain before reclaiming control and relaxing again. One by one, the souls trickle into her and she feels them homing in on her core, advancing hungrily. She feels them reach for it, grab it, penetrate it without pause, curl within it like a caterpillar in a silk cocoon…and leave. Simply leave instead of claiming her essence to themselves. Leave… Emerge like butterflies spreading wings to the sun, changed, whole. Two brand new souls made of the vestiges of eight, singing in glee at their rebirth as they fade into the matrix of the spectral realm. Through the heart of the Wheel.

Alma herself.

If she had lungs to breathe with, the goddess would be breathing out deeply in relief. ““Thank you,” she says. “This sphere–” She catches herself, thinking that if these entities don’t know about gods, they will probably have no concept of spheres either. “This ability of mine has only recently awakened and I don’t quite know how to control it yet.”

“You will learn,” the Shan’doír voice assures her. “We have much to teach you. But now is not the time for that. You should not stay here too long while you are still learning. And the material realms must await your return.”

And suddenly, the memory hits her. Of the eerie corridor and the necromancer’s lair. Of being attacked. “Fates… Sky…the others! The demons! Yes, I have to return!” She looks around but there is nothing to see. No path she can discern. “But how?”

“Relax, listen to the Wheel,” the voice instructs her. “The paths in and out of it can be felt, not seen. There will be a difference. And there your gateway will be.”

“Will you be here, should I find my way back?” she asks.

“Of course, little soul. There is nowhere else for us to be.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The moons glow bright on the rooftops tonight, not another soul to be seen. A kingdom of desolation and it looks like she’s the queen. The heat is haunting like the growing fear inside. Couldn’t make it there, heavens know she tried.

Rush! Rush, Saira!

The air feels dead and wrong. A faint scent of smoke wafts in the breeze.

She rushes.

The scent is stronger now, the air thicker. Smoke and fire.

Fire!

Fire.

Not fire again. Not this same nightmare again. She runs into the growing smoke, sees the old abandoned building aflame.

And stops. Watching. How many times has it burnt down now? Twenty? Two hundred? A thousand times? Every night in her dreams. Most nights, at least. She never makes it on time. She never has.

Because she didn’t make it the first time. The one time it really mattered.

“Why?” she hears her friends voices rise in the air in tandem with the crackling flames.

 Why?

 Why?

 Why?

The echoes surround her, screaming. Accusing. And she sits.

Watching.

Her feet dangle over the edge of a rooftop just opposite the building’s. She cries from the smoke, from the suffering of years. How many times has she made that jump to the balcony so that she could look inside and watch her friends, her adopted family die all over again?

“Saira!” the voices beckon.

Saira!

 Saira?

 Why?

And just like clockwork, the shadows appear. Dark figures blurred by the smoke, moving on the rooftops not far away from her. She could chase them. She could catch them.

Maybe. Maybe. She never has. Not in her dreams. It took her years to catch them in the real world. And she hasn’t caught them all. Not yet. There is one missing. One still out there.

She swings her legs back onto the rooftop, stands up. Her crossbow is strapped across her back and she reaches for it, arms it with a fresh bolt.

And walks away.

“Why, Saira?” the voices ask.

 Why?

 Why?

 Why?

She doesn’t answer. They aren’t real. They never were. Her friends are at peace and she is on her way to join them, she knows. But first, she has to find him. The one who keeps getting away.

She has one more target to kill.

And another family to save.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Darkness again. Then a whimper. Long, drawn out. Weak. The low cry of someone who has been sobbing for far too long. Alma opens her eyes, wondering if it is her who is whimpering. No, not her eyes. She has no eyes here. She feels the living shell wrapped around her. A heart beating. Lungs breathing. A fully functioning unit.

That is not hers. She cannot command it to open eyes or sample scents. Or move. She feels imprisoned, though not completely uncomfortable. Not completely bound. There is such a frail connection between her soul and this flesh. But what is this flesh? Whose flesh is it? And are they here with her?

She stretches her senses through it in scouting spectral tendrils, but their path is barred, their efforts restricted by an invisible barrier. Within her reach there is mostly darkness, mostly cold. Everything so undefined. So empty. Echoing like a dome. Surrounding her. And though she hovers about, she cannot touch anything, extend her will to a single muscle, a single organ. Such a strange thing.

“Where am I?” she wonders.

The sobbing stops. “No, no, no, no, nooooo, who are you?” a frightened voice asks, its tones stretched with the strain of terror. “Please, don’t hurt me. Please, please, please…”

Alma searches the voidness in vain, hovering in every direction. Seeing nothing. “Unless you are a necromancer, you have nothing to fear,” she assures the trembling, almost childlike voice. “Who are you? I can’t see you from here.”

“Y-you…you’re the one she tortured to death,” the stuttering voice whimpers.

Tortured? To death? When? By whom? “It hurt to deal with those souls but I am quite certain that I am not dead,” the goddess replies. “My name is Alma. What is yours?”

The voice speaks again, small and hesitant at first but then pouring out in a rush of terror, like a flood escaping a broken dam. “I’m Trocia. She didn’t torture you. She took a woman off the street, and changed her to look like you. The woman had a little boy… And then she tortured the woman to death in front of Azzageddi.”

Pain. Anguish. They fill Alma’s surroundings, so palpable that the goddess can almost put a taste to them. She tries to reach Trocia, to empathize with her and reassure her but to no avail. The girl – she sounds to Alma like a young girl just in the brink of physical maturity – hides still from Alma’s reach.

“Monster,” the goddess growls. “I will see her rot in torment for eternity.”

The image of a face, pale, hollow-eyed and timid appears at the edge of Alma’s awareness. Dark hair, young features still round with the residues of childhood marred by grief. Trocia’s image of herself. “She wants to hurt you,” the girl says, a colder, bitter edge now sharpening her tone. “She wants to hurt everyone. But she really wants to hurt you. And Azzageddi. And Margrave.”

“Do you know why?” Alma asks.

And does it even matter? When has reason been important to the mad, the deranged, the immoral and amoral?

“She…sometimes she screams about the people who hurt her,” Trocia replies, her figure now clearer to Alma’s vision. Contracted, flimsy. Almost as if trying to hide within herself. “The Death Clan. Azzageddi k-killed her. Sent her to Hell. She…she sometimes forgets I’m here.” A pause. “Those are the best times.”

“Where is here, exactly?” Alma asks softly, hating Nua for what she has done to this distraught soul and wishing she could somehow spare Trocia all this pain. “And why isn’t she with us?”

For a moment, Trocia’s soul is revealed to her completely, its shape and its bonds to the living body around them both becoming clear. “This is me. My body! She left, oh she left, I thought…and then she put you in here.” The girl fades into the darkness again, just her voice left, quiet and morose. “Now…now she won’t need me anymore.”

“You mean she…” Alma feels as chill – no, not a chill. A surge of energy and dread – rush through her entire spectral being. If this is Trocia’s body and Nua is no longer in it–

Terrifying realization dawns. The soul bomb, the escape into the Wheel. Nua must have used those things to rob Alma of her own body. To take it for herself? But what can Nua do in a divine body? Alma’s power lies in her soul!

But…a divine body is ageless. It heals quickly. And it looks exactly like Alma.

The goddess struggles desperately against her bindings, horrible imagination filling her thoughts with images of her loved ones being attacked by her own body, hesitating to attack it and dying as a result of it.

No, no. They would fight her. They would kill her if they had to! They would do it if it meant saving themselves and all the others.

Wouldn’t they?

“Demons, I can’t move!” she cries as the wall built around her holds in spite of her efforts. “I can’t touch this body! I can’t control it! I need to see! I need to know what she is doing with my body!”

“No please I don’t want to open my eyes!” Trocia begs. “I don’t want to see what she’s doing to them! She makes me watch! She made me hold still while she made Azzageddi…”

The words make Alma stop struggling. Her rage simmers, cold in her voice as she demands, “While she made him what?”

“She made him…” Trocia’s voice chokes with a sob, a whimper. Pain and disgust and shame and helplessness fill Alma’s world. “Made him have sex with my body. And then she let me take control again. She told him she’d hurt me if he stopped.”

How to react to that? What to feel first? What to say? What to think? Alma is reduced to silence and stillness for a long, heartbroken moment. And she feels all of the sorrow in the world for this girl.

And she feels it for Sky.

“Oh little soul…” she whispers in dismay. “Please, help me defeat that monster. Let me at least see what she is doing to the people I love so that I can help them. Please…”

Trocia’s crying becomes a distant whimper and Alma fears for awhile that the girl has decided to leave the goddess here to rot in oblivion. But then, physical senses return. Sight and hearing and touch. Cold metal beneath her back and wrapped around her wrists and ankles. Voices. A ceiling. Weak, barely allowed sensations. Barely tolerated awareness.

Terrible things going on out there.

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…”

Ch6.81 Trust

It was tempting to stay at the bar, to accept Cherry and Merri’s invitation to sleep in the room upstairs that he’d used during his week-long stint as a regular cop here in Three Rats, but Somrak had, in his haste to bring a delirious, poisoned Gwydion to Alma, left his satchel behind.

Resembling a simple leather shoulder bag, it contains his spare clothes, a fair amount of cash, and a number of pieces of equipment that he will need for the morrow’s mission. Despite having left it in a room at the Singing Cockroach, a top competitor for Worst Dive in the Fourth Ring, he didn’t have any great fear of its being stolen. The bag is enchanted in numerous ways, much larger on the inside (he had once climbed into it so that Sky could smuggle him into the headquarters of a pixie-trafficking ring – a bit cramped and quickly stuffy, but survivable for the needed twenty minutes, and as a bonus he’d found a sock he’d lost years before) and with security-minded spells to prevent anyone but him opening it. If it were stolen, he could find it without much trouble as he could remotely activate a tracking spell. But that would waste time that he doesn’t have to spare.

So after Alma and Dion had left the planning to try to rest and – he presumed but did not wish to think on – comfort each other before the morning’s danger, Somrak had bid an affectionate goodnight to the Bunnies, resisted their renewed entreaties to stay, and slipped into the dark streets of Three Rats, his identity-concealing scarf over his face. He’d taken a winding, chaotic route, randomly choosing turns to make sure he was not being followed, before returning to the tavern infested with vermin large and small that he is calling home for one final night.

On the way, on impulse, he ducks into a shop and emerges with a half-pint bottle of decent whisky. Not great, but the best the place has. It occurs to him that it might be a millennium of torture in Hell before he gets another drink. Too bad he hadn’t thought to get some from the bar. Merri and Cherry have the good stuff. Ah, regrets.

He notices the Cockroach’s pale, flabby proprietor, red hair gone grey, cheeks and nose blooming with gin blossoms, giving Somrak the eye as he enters. The bar is nearly empty, as it usually has been during Somrak’s stay. Has it always been this way, or did the Bunnies’ Burrow steal the customers away? Or is it that the sort of extra-rough trade who drink here have begun to move out of Three Rats for greener pastures?

Not that it matters. Somrak has heavier issues on his mind.

At his door on the upper floor, he pauses. There’s someone in the room – he can see the heat through the thin wall. Somrak concentrates, sharpening his senses, and sees a human shape, a pattern of varying heat across the body. She – the height, the body outline, the concentrations of heat and the pattern of clothing tell him who it is – is standing, facing the door. No surprise, as he hadn’t been quiet coming up the stairs. He unlocks the door, casually, but ready to duck.

The sight of a thrown knife tumbling through the air at one’s face is unforgettable, but this is far from the first time Somrak has had a knife – or for that matter spear, axe, boulder, chair, beer glass, squirrel (flaming), cat (mutant), or devil (three times) – thrown at him. He doesn’t flinch, as it’s not aimed at his face, but slightly to the left. It makes one and a half revolutions from where it leaves Saira’s hand to where it embeds itself in the doorframe with a thump of impact and a three-toned wheezing squeak. Somrak looks at the knife, light and sharp of point, and at the large cockroach’s remains, the upper half of the insect still struggling, the lower half falling to the floor to twitch.

Then he grins at Saira as if this is the most normal thing in the world, and calls out, “Honey, I’m home!”

Chuckling at the grimace this prompts from Saira, he closes the door behind him and pulls the knife free, and tosses it back to Saira, nice and easy. “I’ll let you clean that off. What have you got against these cockroaches, anyway? That’s two.”

Saira leans back against the wall, next to the window, pulling out a rag and swiping the blade clean before returning it to a wrist-sheath. “And you just started counting.” She glances at the opposite wall, and Somrak sees marks left by the knife here and there, with dead roaches below, or in some cases still clinging to, those holes.

“No wonder Felix was giving me the eye downstairs,” Somrak says. “Probably thought it was me playing target practice up here.”

Saira shrugs. “Felix likes to sneak in and take what’s not his.”

“Aww, that’s sweet! You were thinking about me.” Somrak unbuckles his jacket but leaves it on, picking up his satchel and taking a seat on the edge of the bed.

“No surprise that he didn’t warn you there was somebody in your room,” Saira says. “If there’s a fight, he can always loot the bodies and sell them for pig feed.”

Somrak sticks his tongue out. “Those Bunnies have the right idea, being vegetarians. How long have you been waiting?”

She crosses her arms and turns to look out the window. “Long enough. Got acquainted with the roaches and all. How’s Prince Charming?”

Somrak as he pulls a small cube out of the bag, sized to fit on a palm and crafted of perfectly fitted-together triangles of various kinds of wood. He places it on the bedside table and presses the side of the box. A lid pops open. A crystalline bird rises from the top and hovers, spinning slowly in air, and a soft chiming tune begins to play, mournful yet sweet. “Feisty. Surprisingly so. Good thing you brought him here though. It was touch-and-go, but Alma healed him.”

Saira looks back over her shoulder at the sound of the music, and for a moment, Somrak catches the look of concern she feels about Gwydion. She knits her brow at the incongruous music box, but instead of asking about it, she says, “I thought he was dead, with that reaction. I didn’t get anything as bad as that when she did it to me. I mean, yeah, I use it to kill gods but I don’t poke’em with pins.”

“You just poke them with arrows.” Knowing she won’t ask, he tilts his head toward the music box and explains, “If the music becomes harsh and jangling, it means someone is trying to listen in from afar.”

Saira looks back out the window. “You ain’t paranoid if they really are summoning demons to to track you down and rip your guts out.”

“Anyway, there’s different kinds of demon-ichor poison. Sounds like what Dion got hit with is particularly nasty. Mind if I pay your supplier a visit when this is all over?”

Saira turns back to glare at him. “Yes, I do. Prettyboy’s already read me that sermon but I know he’s too by-the-book to break jurisdiction like that. You, on the other hand,” she jabs a finger at him, “can’t be trusted to follow the rules. Even though you’ve gone all soft and gooey inside.”

Somrak grins, lopsided, his scar pulling tight. “Oh I’m soft, am I? Well, you would know.”

Saira takes two steps toward him, which in the small room is enough to nearly be standing on his feet. “Mud bath left you cranky, did it? You actually hoping for a knife in the throat?”

Somrak shakes his head. “Me, cranky? No. Just funny, you calling me soft. After you brought me Dion like that, when you could’ve just dumped him. And the way you helped Sky and those kids before. Almost got yourself killed then. I seem to remember seeing you making decorations in the bar.”

Her voice dangerously low and smooth, Saira counters, “You mean when you were running around spreading glitter all over a certain white-haired gal? How’d that go, exactly? Did you get to confess your undying love to her?”

Somrak looks up at her, grin faded to a gentle smile. “Did I say you were wrong?” He shakes his head. “But don’t pretend you haven’t gone soft for these guys, too.” He keeps his eyes on hers until she crosses her arms again and pretends to be interested in the music box, which continues to play the same tune again and again as the little bird revolves. “So, you saw the punch-up with Dion.”

“I did,” she replies, sounding derisive. “I mean, I saw him fight you. You didn’t do much of anything there. Oh, and I heard some neat stuff too. Care to explain?” She looks back at him, her glare accusing.

Somrak lies back on the bed, crossways, legs still hanging off the side, feet on the floor. His open jacket leaves his belly protected only by a thin cotton undershirt, and he knows Saira is likely eyeing it with thoughts of where to best plunge a dagger to produce the most desirable effects. “Must be because I’m just so darned soft. Gonna start taking sugar with my coffee. Maybe wear footy pajamas to bed.” He laces his fingers behind his head, making himself even more vulnerable before her – incidentally telling her that he’s unafraid of anything she might do. In others, that might be foolishness. In his case, she knows that he is calling her bluff, telling her that all her aggressive posturing doesn’t play with him. “Well, ‘neat stuff’? I was choking on mud at the time, so I’m not entirely sure which ‘neat stuff’ you mean.”

Saira leans over him, one hand on the bed on each side of him. He looks up at her face over his, her eyes narrowed. He raises his eyebrows, wondering what she’s going to do, when she answers his curiosity by putting a knee on his belly, and then the other, letting almost her whole weight press against his guts as she kneels on his stomach. Oof!

Apparently the provocation of an upturned belly was too much to resist. He refuses to react, however, keeping his hands behind his head, tensing his abdominal muscles to support her. She puts her hands on his chest and grins coldly at him. “Start with the bit about the devil and why Babyface was so angry and you can go to the lies from there.”

“The leader of the Whisper, that you call the Devil’s Left Hand, is named Margrave.” He says it simply, keeping the strain of supporting her out of his voice, then pauses briefly to let it sink in, watching her expression change, all traces of amusement fading. “He’s got a devil with him. There were some…state secrets involved, and I couldn’t tell Alma and Dion right away. He got mad that I held that information back. Nature of the job. I have to keep secrets sometimes.” He pauses again, thinking she’s going to say something, but she remains silent, studying him. He releases the hands from behind his head and puts them on the bed to steady himself. “We know where Sky’s being held. At least we think we do. We’re going in in the morning. Dion and Alma wanted to go now, but they need rest and healing.”

After a long pause, she asks only “Where?” The single word is charge with an icy rage. She seems to have forgotten she’s awkwardly balanced on him. She seems to have forgotten everything else in the world.

Somrak looks up at her, resigned, and lays his hands on her leather-clad waist, gently nudging her aside. Not letting her gaze break free of his for an instant, she complies, sliding off him and sitting on the bed, legs half folded under her. If not for the expression on her face, it would be a fetching pose. He sits up and half-turns to face her. Trying without any hope to talk some sense into her, he asks quietly, “Did you not hear the part about the devil? And plenty of demons, too. Undead servants. Insane necromancer that’s back from the dead after two centuries. Chances are high that one or more of us gods aren’t coming back from this. Chances are certain no mortal will last long.”

Saira’s voice strains to form coherent words without breaking into a scream. “Where is that sick son of a bitch?”

Som looks at her, his expression turning to sorrow, his shoulders slumping a little in defeat. “Little Falls. On Pierre à Aiguiser Lane, overlooking the river. Burnt-out shell of a house, two stories, just a couple of walls still standing…”

He trails off as Saira goes pale at the description, though her expression, if anything, becomes even more deadly. Her voice is faint, barely a whisper, but it rises almost to a shout by the end. “I’m gonna impale his skull to those walls and set fire to whatever’s left of him. That was our house. That’s where his people murdered my gang.”

Somrak’s eyes widen in surprise, then he feels his own anger blossoming within. “Location of violent death. Harvesting the twisted mana from that to save on power.” He curses in a language known to few aside from fire gods, with a sound like a knot of pitch popping in a bonfire, and looks back up at Saira. “Right, let’s go over it. Vantage points, lines of approach, all that. You know the place, and we can use all the advantage we can get.”

Saira puts a hand forward. “Whoa, buddy, not so fast. How can I be sure you’re not just gonna run off with the info and leave me behind anyway?”

He decides not to tell her that that had been his plan with Alma and Dion. Instead, he lays it out. “You’re insane to be going in with us. It’s suicide. But I promised you before that you’d get your shot. Let me just ask you one more time so I can tell Alma I tried to stop you: Are you sure you want to do this? You can walk away, Saira. You can live.”

She does not look away. “I told you before, Softie. I died way before you met me.”

Looking back into her eyes, Somrak feels it: Defiance, determination – but more than that, a complete lack of regard for her own life, and the freedom that that brings. He can only admire it, and recognize it as well, for he is the same. Again, though, he feels sorrow at the loss. She may not value her own life, but he wishes they could have served together. Perhaps after her enemy is dead, she’ll turn to the Commander. Certain situations call for mortal Popula agents in the off-blues. Though her chances of survival are practically zero, he’s seem more unlikely things come to pass. “All right then. We leave for the station at dawn, meet up with Alma and Dion, and proceed to Little Falls. Now let’s get your intel.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The half-pint flask of whisky – not the rotgut that Somrak keeps in the room just for the look of things, but the whisky he bought on the way over – is down to a half-half pint, the bottle, corked, lying on the bed next to Somrak, the shot glass that had been resting upside down on the mouth of the bottle of rotgut on the bedside table, next to the music box. Sitting side-by-side on the bed, the fire god and the assassin, mortal by nature and mortal to her enemies, have creased sheets of paper scattered all over the bed and their own laps, with drawings and notes covering them. Dawn is only three hours away by this time.

“Told you, you don’t have an angle from there,” Saira insists. “Unless you’re planning on a frontal assault, that’s a stupid place to hide.” She shoots a glare at the music box. “Porra, I know this thing is for safety, but doesn’t it know any other songs?”

“Sorry,” Somrak replies with a yawn. “I barely even notice it anymore.” He leans forward and touches the spinning bird, which bounces slightly and changes color, from a pale blue to a soft green, and the tune changes to something almost like a lullaby. “Well, maybe we’ve got it all pinned down. We should get some sleep – it’s only a few hours to dawn.”

Saira yawns, as if she’s caught it from Somrak, and her eyes look suddenly droopy. She shakes her head hard, the locks of her light-brown hair flying as she tries to bring herself back to full alertness. “Sure, I’ll let you get your beauty sleep. You need all you can get, anyway.” She tries to stand, but only makes it halfway before she sits back on the bed. “Ugh… I did not drink that much.”

“Hey, whoa…” Somrak steadies her with a hand on her shoulder, keeping his voice soft and soothing. “What, are you planning on jumping out windows like that? Sleep here. I’ll take the floor. More comfortable than a lot of places I’ve slept. Besides, I don’t want to have to come find your hideout if you don’t show up on time.” He begins collecting the papers from the bed.

She flaps her hand lazily at him, waving him off. “I’ll be fine. Just need some fresh…” Her eyelids fall shut and she slips into unconsciousness.

Somrak catches her so that her head won’t hit the wall, and gently lowers her to the bed, turning her so her head rests on the pillow. As he stands, the sleepy look on his face disappears without leaving a trace behind. He lifts her legs and puts them on the bed, letting her lie on her side. He briefly considers removing her boots, but decides that could be going a bit far.

The box’s blue song does nothing magical, but the green song induces a deep sleep in mortals, though it has no effect on gods. He will leave it playing through the morning, so that Saira will slumber through the attempt to rescue Sky. He knows she’ll never forgive him, but there is betrayal and there is betrayal. Does he betray her by leading her to certain death, or by taking away her chance at Margrave? He chooses the latter.

The decision rankles. It is a broken promise, and furthermore he has already chosen to take Gwydion and Alma with him into danger, their dedication to Sky and desire to take down the necromancer being the justification. So why not Saira? But they have a chance of success; she does not. Bringing her would be murder. Even then, he almost decided to do so. What right does he have to stop her? She is right. She is a bolt shot from a crossbow, and this is the trajectory of her life.

But she can make another life. Let her join the off-blues. Better yet, let her sell fruit, or become a tour guide, or a zookeeper, or anything but what she is. Let her have a shot at something besides death. Is it arrogant for him to make that choice for her? Hugely. But he is a god, and she is a mortal, and in the end, pretending that they are on an equal footing is not justice to either of them.

He carefully adjusts the position of her head so she won’t wake up with a stiff neck, then tenderly touches her hair, brushing it away from her eyes. He whispers, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m a big softy. Sorry, kid.”

He sits down on the bed next to her legs and reopens the folded sheet with the map on it, lines drawn and redrawn. Laying it on his lap, he retrieves the half-empty flask and takes a swig from it, taking what pleasure he can from the burn of the whisky.

Ch6.72 Trust

The cockroach is singing. Singing its little thirteen-chambered heart out, squeezing air out of its abdominal spiracles, creating a high-pitched symphony that sounds like several tiny, tiny balloons whistling as they deflate through tiny tiny holes. There is actually a harmony to it, as it tries to attract a mate. Or whatever it’s doing. Maybe it just likes to sing.

Somrak knows that if he brings the insect’s insides to a boil, the whistling will become louder, higher-pitched, sounding panicked and desperate before the roach explodes. This one is safe. First, because he stopped killing them, deciding they weren’t as annoying as he’d thought at first. Their orange-and-black color scheme is rather handsome once you get used to it, a bit like a gigantic, stretched-out ladybird beetle. Then there’s the irksome sense of pity he feels for them. Pity for vermin. But there it is. That distressed whistle, like a scream for help, did him in. Now he can’t bring himself to kill them.

Finally, there’s the fact that the cockroach is right overhead, clinging to the ceiling, and if he pops it, it’ll rain flaming insect guts down on him.

You win, bug. You win. He toasts it with the shotglass of rotgut whisky he’s been balancing on his chest. He almost forgets himself, bringing the glass to his lips before he shudders and puts it back atop the thin cotton shirt stretched tight over his pectoral muscles. He tasted the abomination the Singing Cockroach calls its whisky when he first arrived here. A tiny sip was enough. Somrak knows what good whisky tastes like. He’s had plenty of it over the decades, quite a bit given or recommended to him by Sky. This stuff tastes like cockroaches are a principal ingredient. He just likes having the glass on his chest, even if it is time for breakfast.

Thinking of Sky sets Somrak’s mind down a path he’s been trying to avoid. He wishes he had brought a book, a dream projector, something. Anything to keep him from thinking about what horrors Sky is going through right now. So he starts thinking of Alma. The goddess he cannot have, that he’s lying to, preparing to betray her trust as soon as he knows where to find Sky. The object of his most tender affections, who loves another – and Somrak can’t even bring himself to hate his rival, because Somrak knows he’s a screwup, an oath-breaker. After more than a century of service to the Commander, of being Mister Reliable, the sharpest tool in the box, Somrak has been falling apart. And he knows he’ll bring nothing but misery to Alma because that’s how it’s gone every time before.

Oh thank you, brain! Vast improvement!

Deciding that it’s a choice between drinking the whisky and going out to find something to read, Somrak chooses reading material. Surely this ward has something decent to read, somewhere. Poetry might be too much to ask for, but then, pockets of squalor and hardship like this often breed the best poets. It’s just that nobody outside these wards ever hears of their genius. Fates, he can even hear, through the open window, a plaintive voice outside a shop down the street. He only knows greetings and farewells and such in the local language, from his brief time working here, but the message is universal: the singer loves someone, but he can’t have her.

Yeah, sure. That’s just because it’s all you can think about. Probably find out he’s singing about his mother’s cooking.

Before he can sit up and don his jacket and enchanted anonymizing scarf, an arrow hisses through the window and ends the cockroach’s song with a thunk, an arthropodic squeak, and a barely audible quivering thrum, that stops just as half the cockroach falls into Somrak’s vile whisky with a plop.

The fire god stays lying in bed for a moment, looking up at the arrow – a crossbow bolt, actually, he notes – and observing the angle with which it meets the ceiling. It must have been fired from the street, not from a building across the street, and therefore whoever fired it can’t see him. Standing up could change that.

He notes the fletching. Ah. Familiar – a pattern in the stabilizing feathers that has been recovered from the bodies of many a Dukaine and former-Dukaine gangster. Distinctive and left behind as a calling card. “Saira was here. I’m not dead yet, bastards. But you are.” He sets the glass of whisky-with-cockroach-guts-garnish on the rickety side table and cautiously approaches the window, looking out.

Nothing at first, just the sounds of the same singer starting another desolate song down the street, but with his heat sight, Somrak picks up the glowing form of a woman in the shadows, raising a crossbow again. He signals to her that she’s been seen, and she lowers the weapon, holding it in her right hand while beckoning him down with her left.

Well, this sounds better than lying here, thinking. He withdraws from the window, slips his jacket on, quickly straps on two blades aside from the others already part of the jacket or sheathed in his boots, or hidden away in extradimensional pockets, and then shoving the scarf into a side pocket, he jumps out the window, turning in mid-jump to catch the windowsill for just a moment to slow his descent, then letting himself drop the rest of the way, landing silently, feet together, knees flexed, arms out to his sides for balance. Ta-da! He turns and crosses the street to Saira, a question on his face.

He hasn’t seen the mortal, god-killing assassin since the Year’s End party, and he barely saw her there. He knew that today, Dion and Saira were going to talk to one of Saira’s suppliers. She looks grim. “Follow me. We have a problem.” Even before she finishes speaking, she’s turned and moved deeper into the alley. Somrak follows, senses straining, not liking how this is going. But he seems a warm shape in the morning shadows, not just warm but feverish, slumped against a wall.

“I wasn’t expecting this to happen,” Saira says, “but my informant was feeling greedy today. She left your friend in pretty bad shape.”

Somrak kneels next to Dion. He can see a flare of heat on the god’s left arm. “She attacked him?”

“Poisoned him,” Saira confirms. “Demon ichor. Her best stuff too. Just a drop but…I’ve never seen anyone react like that to it and stay alive. He’s too heavy for me to drag him the rest of the way back to the station.”

“You don’t look too good, buddy,” Somrak says to Dion, laying his left hand on the god’s chest, the other alongside his face, drawing away some of the fever-heat. “Can you walk?”

Rousing but slurring his words, Dion murmurs, “Yes…I…”

“You’ll need to steady him,” Saira says. “His legs started giving out halfway.”

Dion tries push himself up from the alley floor, but it’s clear he hasn’t the strength to stand. Thinking hard, Somrak asks him, “Can you make a portal?”

“I’m afraid…I’ve been using my mana to…inactivate the poison.” Dion sounds like he’s barely able to breathe.

Somrak replies, “Figured. You keep doing that. I’m going to get you to the station. Just relax now, and hold onto me with your good arm.” He shifts position, turning so his back is to Dion, squatting down between Dion’s legs and hooking his arms under the god of magic’s knees.

This brings Dion to life. He struggles, spluttering, “What are–?! You are not carrying me on your back as if I were a drunken prisoner!”

Somrak sounds scornful. “Stop being a baby. You’re seriously ill and you need to devote all your resources to staying alive. And I need to get you to Alma as fast as possible. Now hold on.”

Dion stiffens, then gives up. Though clearly not happy with the situation, he tosses a limp left arm over Somrak’s shoulder, and brings his good right arm around to grip his bearer’s jacket.

“Here we go,” Somrak says. He leans forward, getting the weight over his hips, then stands in a fluid motion, grunting with the effort of carrying a muscular, broad-shouldered god who outweighs him by a good amount. He breathes out. “Damn, man, how many donuts do you eat a day?”

Saira is watching this with a smirk. “The guy you’re looking for got himself locked up in Ablani. Caught breaking into a store.”

“Breaking into a store?” Somrak shakes his head.

“This is so undignified,” Dion grumbles.

On the back of his neck, Somrak can feel the sweat from his passenger’s face falling like the first drops of a summer rainstorm. “Yeah yeah, suck it up, big guy. You think it’s bad for you? Saira, can you pace us? Just in case some idiot tries something? Gangs around here… Could slow us down.”

“I’ll keep a lookout,” she says, pointing up at the rooftops. Then she narrows her eyes at Somrak. “You will let me into this. I’d hate to catch you breaking a promise.”

“Hey, a promise is a promise. I never break promises!” Somrak lies. “Right, here we go. I’ll take the most direct route back.”

“Sure. This will be fun to watch.” Saira goes out of sight, but Somrak hears her climbing up a waterpipe.

He starts jogging. Somrak is a god, but he’s not superhuman in strength. Even so, his compact, rock-hard muscle lets him support Dion and he makes good time. Just one foot in front of the other. Stay in the path. Ignore the people staring, the shouts and whistles, the jokes. Just one step, and another, and another. Keep going, Somrak. Dion’s grip is slackening, especially his injured arm, which is just hanging. Dion’s right hand holds tight to Somrak’s jacket, but even that is growing weaker. Somrak leans further forward to keep the god on his back.

Wait, did I make a wrong turn? No, no still on the right street. Have to turn at the fountain. Right, not much further. Only…a Hell of a lot more blocks.

If anybody tries to approach them, Somrak doesn’t notice. Maybe they got warning shots from Saira’s crossbow. Maybe they weren’t warning shots. For all he knows, Saira is leaving a trail of bodies in Somrak and Dion’s wake. The thought makes the fire god laugh.

Unfortunately, the repetitive heavy trudging does not shut down Somrak’s incessant thinking after all. All he has to do is keep Dion balanced on his back, run as fast as he can, and not get lost. So he has time to think about how Dion risked his life to find Sky. How Dion might even die tonight, if Somrak isn’t fast enough. About how determined Alma is to find Sky too, how they are both at least as determined as Somrak is.

And what Saira said. Her demand to be let into this. Yes, you promised her. Sky is being held by the Whisper, and as far as Somrak can tell, the head of the Whisper is the Lieutenant, the one she calls the Left Hand of the Devil. The one who ordered the murder of her gang, her family. He promised her and at the time, he believed she should be in on it.

For a moment his thoughts return to the job at hand as Dion slips slightly to the left. Somrak hops, shifting midair, landing hard – Knees! Ow – to slide Dion back into position.

“Come on, man,” Somrak grumbles. “You gotta hold on!”

He realizes Dion heard him when the one-handed grip on his jacket tightens, and the god mumbles in his ear, “Somrak? Dammit, I’ll tell her already…”

Somrak laughs weakly. “Yeah, sure, tell her, you big dope. Just hold on, Dion.

Trudge trudge trudge… So if Somrak has the right to risk his life, how can he take away that right from these others? All right, fine, Saira is a mortal, set her aside for now. But Dion? Alma? They’re already putting their lives on the line. Dion’s dying on Somrak’s back right now. Alma was nearly killed by shattered souls left behind by the necromancer’s bomb not so long ago. One of her corporals and his whole family has been murdered.

Somrak grimaces and powers forward. Who the Hell am I to say they can’t try? And let’s face it, going in alone might be all brave and self-sacrificing, but is it going to get Sky out? Not a chance. Time to reevaluate the plan. Maybe breaking promises isn’t the way to go after all.

Thighs burning, shoulders in agony, lower back shooting daggers of pain right up his spine, Somrak lets his mind run wild with this debate as a way of just ignoring the torment and continuing ahead. So what, then, are you going to turn Tulip and the others into orphans? Hell, you might’ve already got Dion killed. Is he even still alive back there? And what about Saira? Going to take a mortal along? She’ll be dead before she ever gets near the Lieutenant.

A hand grabs his bicep, but he keeps going a half-dozen steps, dragging his assailant along, before he comes back to the real world. He staggers, but Saira, with considerable effort, steadies him.

“Bad idea,” she says. Somrak looks at her in confusion, on the verge of collapse, but follows her pointing finger to see he was about to charge straight into Three Rats Station, where everyone would have seen an unmasked Somrak carrying their Sergeant Gwydion on his back. Bad idea indeed. “Get to the breezeway. Our death goddess has a portal there. Leads straight to her room.”

Somrak doesn’t even nod, just turns and trudges heavily to the breezeway. Saira runs ahead, around the station to the side where there’s a bathroom window that’s usually open. Every pain Somrak has been ignoring comes back full force as he plods forward. He’s not sure Dion is even breathing, but he can feel the god’s fever still raging. He stops in the breezeway just as the door from the station opens and Alma rushes out, her eyes wide with near-panic.

“Oh Ancients…Gwydion.” Her voice is a whisper as she frantically caresses Dion’s face, giving no indication that she has even noticed Somrak’s existence. After a moment, though, she glances at Somrak. “Hold on, I’ll just check to see that no one is in there.” By “in there,” he realizes she must mean her sanctum. Yes, having the place half-filled with Bunnies might be a bit awkward. Alma, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and concentrates, making a small circular gesture with her hands. A sparkling curtain of light springs up from the dirt around her feet, rising in multicolored rays to obscure her from his sight, until she disappears.

“Well looks like this is where I say boa noite,” Saira says. Somrak slowly turns his head to look toward her voice. She is standing at the corner of the building, shoulder resting against the wall, apparently having exited it the way she entered. She juts her chin toward Somrak’s burden. “Think he’s gonna make it?”

Somrak tries to shrug but doesn’t have the strength. “It’s all up to Alma,” he says. “Thank you…for getting him to me.”

Saira smirks. “Just don’t you forget to call on me when it’s time to go.” She turns on the ball of one foot, and she’s gone into the night.

Just as Saira leaves, the dazzling light rises from the ground again, and an arm reaches through it, grabbing Somrak’s wrist and pulling him into it. “Come, this way,” Alma says. He treads through the curtain of light and finds himself in her sanctum, which to him will always be remembered as a place of healing. He himself had been poisoned by demonic ichor not so long ago, something different from this but virulent as well. He stands still, waiting for the portal to fully dissipate, and for Alma to order him to do whatever needs doing. His mind is in no condition to make decisions, especially when the healer knows for better than he what to do.

Alma rushes to pull away the blankets on her bed. “Lay him there.” She moves out of Somrak’s vision as he moves like an automaton to the bed, returning with the same basin she used when she healed Somrak, filling it with water from the fountain.

Somrak slowly turns, then bending his knees, he straightens his back, allowing Dion to slip off and fall onto the bed. Gwydion bounces once, then Somrak carefully releases the god’s legs and stands fully, slowly, noticing pulled muscles he’ll have to heal soon. As he tries to straighten his legs again, his fatigued muscles give out, and he falls to his knees, catching himself from complete collapse by putting his hands out. A blue flash catches his sight and he sees Starfax, Alma’s phoenix, landing on the headboard to look down at Dion.

“Is’e okay?” Somrak slurs.

Alma, leaning over the supine body on the bed, says, “He is weak but still breathing.” She glances at Somrak, then looks at him again, longer. She finds a cup on the bedside table, dips it into the basin to fill it with water, and hands it to Somrak. “Here. It’ll make you feel better. You can rest in the alcove afterwards.” She sits on the edge of the bed and begins to open Dion’s shirt.

Somrak drinks very slowly, feeling the water filling his belly, traces of Alma’s mana in it diffusing through his stomach wall and into his body. He groans in pleasure and laboriously stands. “Jus’ tell me if I can do somethin’.”

She is struggling to get Dion’s jacket off. “You can help me remove his shirt and shoes.” Getting the jacket off his swollen left arm is difficult, but she manages it, and begins to unbutton his shirt. “Oh no…”

Somrak looks over her shoulder. The skin on Dion’s chest is darkening in tendrils and lines, looking disturbingly similar to the tattoos that appear on Sky’s face when he becomes angry. Somrak imagines he can almost see them growing before his eyes. Alma’s fingers trace the lines, which seem to be crawling across Dion’s chest from his left shoulder. She becomes rushed, desperate at trying to undo the buttons of his shirt.

Hardly thinking, Somrak pulls a short back-curved blade from one of the pockets of his jacket. The sharp edge is on the inside of the curve, used for cutting ropes or cloth, and he deftly slices Dion’s shirt from the neck down the left sleeve, exposing the arm to Alma’s ministrations. Where it is not mottled by thick, pulsating black lines, the arm is an angry red. Somrak pulls the shirt from under Dion’s back and off the uninjured right arm, tossing it aside, and sheathes the knife.

The point of entry is obvious, at the crease of the elbow, and Alma soaks a cloth in the basin and applies it. She gestures vaguely to the wardrobe on her right. “Left drawer, there is a box with mana orbs.”

Somrak is moving toward the wardrobe before she finishes talking, focusing in on the left drawer, slow but sure. He opens it and brings the whole box to Alma, setting it on the bed next to Dion so she can use as many as she needs. He stays standing, not trusting that he can get up again if he sits.

She opens the box and takes one of the orbs from it, barely looking at it, eyes fixed on Dion. The mana inside, in liquid form, sloshes gently, thick and viscid, as she puts it under his right hand and puts her hand over his fingers, closing them over it. Her snowy hair seems to stand on end, then moves as with a breeze as the room fills with the scents of spring and whispers of birdsong. Alma’s right hand is on the wet cloth over Dion’s left arm and her energy begins to flow through it, spreading through the black markings like oil trickling through water, slow but steady. From her left hand, the mana in the orb starts infusing into Dion’s body, easily spreading through the non-contaminated areas to create a blockade against the poison, trapping it against Alma’s healing magic. Somrak can follow it, seeing the fever dropping as the mana moves, sensing the mana itself as most gods can. It feels like an eternity for Alma’s magic to do its job. Somrak stays on vigil the entire time. Unable to help, still feeling vague but frustrated, hoping for orders to do something, he mutters under his breath, “Come on, Prettyboy…”

It is clear to see that Alma is devoting all her concentration, every measure of mana to healing Gwydion. The lines retreat, become thinner, slowly, very slowly disappearing from his skin, leaving behind only a coppery-red glow where they once were. Finally, there’s no blackness left in Dion, except a small mark of it around the original wound. Alma slumps and nearly collapses onto Dion when her magic leaves him. Dion’s body jerks suddenly, his back arches, and he gasps, eyes open. His head tilts to the side, his mouth moving in shuddered, slurred movements. Then his eyes close again, but he seems more at rest.

“Done…” she breathes.

Somrak turns carefully and slowly sits on the edge of the bed. He lifts a mana orb from the box and holds it out to her. “He gonna be all right?”

Alma nods, not looking at him, stroking the sweat-plastered locks of hair away from Dion’s face. “I hope so. Oh my dear…what kind of a price is this for mere information?”

“Information!” Somrak coughs a brief laugh. “Right… Lucky Pete got picked up breaking into a store. He’s being held in, uh, Ablani. Ablani Prison.”

Gwydion groans, his voice nearly inaudible, “Sommm… leave me alone… I’ll tell her…tell her I’m sorry…”

“Gwydion!” Alma takes his hand and squeezes it, obviously relieved, her other hand still cupping his cheek. “Gods, I was afraid I had failed. Can you hear me? You are in my room, dear. Saira and Somrak brought you here. You were poisoned. I think I managed to get most of it out of you.”

“I know, I know, I know…been so stupid. Stuuuuuuupid!” Dion mumbles. “Just shut up, Geryon! She’s the most important thing in the world to me – I’ll tell her! Just need some sleep…” And then he seems to slip back fully into unconsciousness.

Alma smiles, relief spreading over her face and her entire body. Softly, affectionately she says, “Sleep now, my love. She can wait.” She turns her head toward the box of mana orbs and seems almost startled to see Somrak sitting next to her, an orb in his hand. He raises it a little in offering, and she takes it, placing it on Dion’s chest, allowing its contents to seep through the solid glass and into the god’s spirit.

Somrak slowly stands, smiling. “Don’t forget to take one of those for yourself. I’ll head to Ablani and talk to Pete.”

Alma stands. “I’m coming with you.” She still looks like she has been through a battle, but her voice is strong again.

Somrak glances at the bed. “Dion stable?”

“He’ll be well,” she says. “And he’ll sleep for hours. Starfax will watch over him.”

Somrak nods. Letting her come now. Are you going to let her come when it really counts? “All right, then. I’m ready to go when you are.”

Ch6.71 Trust

“Now how do you know this person you’re taking me to?”

The walk from Rio Novo had been a mostly silent one so far. A blessing and a blight, from Dion’s point of view. On the one hand, it allowed him silence and time to think over the information gathered in Somrak’s short briefing, that morning. Not a lot of information and nothing very uplifting, unfortunately, but every bit would help.

On the other hand, it gave him opportunity to recall his conversation with the fire god from last night, Somrak’s warning against the very real possibility of either Dion or Alma not returning alive from the rescue mission, Dion’s own promise to speak to the death goddess and make amends. He had nearly done so that same night, when he met her in the breezeway, returning from her meeting with Saira, Geryon walking by her side. When she touched his hand and looked at him with sorrowful eyes and quietly told him of this arrangement to meet one of Saira’s contacts in no more than half a dozen words. If only Constable Longshot had not suddenly erupted from the station with a couple of papers that Dion had forgotten to sign…

And then she had signalled him to go take care of his duty and he had followed Longshot back into the station, leaving Alma to return to her sanctum and most likely obsess a little more over her family’s records of the Necromancer Wars. She had not slept in days, he could tell, and neither had he with any level of rest. But even though he had known her to be awake, or at least strongly suspected so, his courage had drained and the god had been left gazing at the office ceiling for most of his shift, trying to imagine a world in which her lovely eyes would never rest their gaze on him again. Impossible torture.

And so it was that, after meeting with Saira and silently following her towards the neighboring ward of Little Falls, he was now trying to break the heavy quietness between them with what would hopefully be a productive line of questioning.

Not that Saira was ever one to make things easy. “You don’t really wanna know how I know her, trust me.”

“Very well,” Dion says dryly. “As long she can give us a lead.”

Saira looks a little uneasy at this. “Yeah…’bout that…” She pauses as if she is trying to avoid the issue but after a glance at his unamused expression, she seems to make up her mind. “Getting her to give anything tends to get a bit tricky around the edges. Her business isn’t a very safe one. And you better not let her make you for a cop or we’re both dead in the water.”

“I see,” Dion replies, remembering why it is that he has never found Saira particularly enticing. Namely her tendency to make little of his abilities at anything. “Don’t worry about my cover. I will make sure she does not realize who or what I am.”

Again, she shows her distrust of him, eyeing him up and down as if he has just blatantly lied to her face. “Yeah… don’t take this wrong but you’re not exactly my first choice when it comes to this sorta thing. Too bad Ponytail is too busy elsewhere.” She shrugs. “Oh well..”

Dion’s jaw clenches at the comparison with Somrak but he refuses to humor her disdain. “We have a job to do.”

Saira’s chuckle at his reaction only makes it worse. “It’s true, then. There is trouble in paradise…” She pats his shoulder. “Don’t worry, love, where we’re going, you’ll get a perfect chance to use that smooth talk of yours to score a real hot chick. Might help your mood, to taste some variety.”

Dion cannot help but stiffen at her patronizing touch, anger rising, mostly at himself, for allowing her games to disturb him. He breathes deeply, locking eyes with her in a warning glare.

She seems to understand his wordless message, her expression darkening just about as much as his. Her tone is serious and quiet when she tells him, “I’m not kidding. She doesn’t trust easily and I… well, let’s just say we’ve been on better terms than we are now. You charmin’ her into talking may be the only way to get anything out of her about this Pete fella.”

Dion nods slowly at her words. So this is why he is coming along on this meeting. Very well, if charm is needed, a charmer he will be. The shift in thought is not at all difficult. There is a touch of anger in charm, a touch of possession, of superiority, power. Control. The absolute belief that one is at one’s best, regardless of the environment, one’s company. It is confidence in skill, in step, in speech. A hunter’s trust in the accuracy of his shot, the sharpness of his eye. He has been shaped in a land of great and arrogant beasts, of ruthless elements, where only the mighty and the bold dare survive and prevail. And once one has learned to match the great hunters, the whole of the world becomes prey.

He relaxes into himself and allows that confidence to pour over his shoulders, over his steps, to overflow and roll away from him. He is keeping his divinity well-hidden, his godly aura to a minimum, but what this is takes no magic, no power other than that of the mind over itself. He smiles at Saira, a lion – no, something bigger, much greater and older than any lion – baring his gleaming-white teeth at a housecat.

“I will be on my best behavior,” he states quietly, watching not without a certain glee as her pupils dilate, her hand reflexively and unconsciously opens and touches her hip, a fingernail grazing the exposed skin just above her belt.

Easy. So easy… If only he were willing.

It takes her just a fraction too long to return to herself, to grin mischievously and pat his cheek probably a little more playfully than intended. “That’s a good boy.”

No…it’s not.

They arrive at their destination shortly after. An apothecary shop, from the look of it. Various dried plants, looking old and stale from the crumbliness of their leaves, the wan color of their molding stems, hang from pieces of waxed string tied to a pair of hooks on each side of the low door. He signals Saira to enter first with an arching motion of his hand and wrist that seems to amuse (but please) her. A pair of steps lead inside, from the higher level of the street into a lowered room, dark and heavy with dust. It is a good thing that, like Three Rats, this area is neither prone to great bouts of rain nor flooding or the store would be better off selling rafters and decorative fish. He has but a moment to take in the various shelves, crowded with ceramic and glass pots, some opaque, some transparent, all advertising the names of the exotic remedies they carry inside.

Well, supposedly carry. Even without drawing on his magical senses, Dion can already feel the distinctive prickling to his nose and skin of things that no common apothecary should trade in. For no remedy for gods or mortals should resonate with the foul, poisonous essence of Hell.

A curtain of bamboo beads strung together with cheap twine rustles as it is moved aside to allow passage for who he supposes must be the shop owner. “Hello! And whót cán Ah – oh…it is you.”

The last few words are clearly directed at Saira and accompanied by a disdainful grimace instead of the smile that had adorned the apothecary’s face just seconds ago. An attractive woman, in a very specific definition of the word. Skin just a shade or two of brown deeper than the usual dark olive of most of the Three Rats population, exposed over the arms, neck, legs and belly. Her clothing made of cheap, rough cotton colored in dull reds, blacks and yellows, probably hand-dyed with natural pigments, reveals more than conceals a well-curved feminine form, wide hips and a slightly bulging abdomen with contours that seem to flow perfectly with the asymmetric cut of the dress: a top made to barely hide full breasts linked to a short skirt that ends mid-thigh by a large golden ring. Arms covered in wide bangles, ankles encircled by chain after chain of thick golden metal. Hair tied in a thick ponytail, hanging in coal-black dreadlocks. Beautiful, all of it, even if a little exaggerated for his tastes.

But what truly throws Dion off the mark are the scars. Row upon row of scarification marks all over her arms, her belly, her neck. Some short and straight, some long and jagged, some little more than raised bumps, a good many of them discolored and contrasting sharply with her skin’s natural tone. All of them clearly intentional, arranged in patterns, in symbols and images. She walks with a confidence that speaks of pride in her appearance. Dion asks himself why she would treat her own body so violently, going as far as piercing some of her scars with metal studs and rings, and trimming the tips of her ears to make them jagged.

He makes certain to hold his expression blank and pleasant in the face of this strange character.

“Gee…thanks for the warm welcome,” Saira complains by his side. “Is that how you greet every patient in need of treatment?”

“Di kind of illness you ha’, no poxión cán treet,” the apothecary replies, her thick accent forcing her to speak with a slow, irregular cadence. “Dei ha’ not cóme ahp with anyting yet fér rottan solles.”

Dion takes this time to consider the woman’s appearance. He has seen it before somewhere – ah, yes… in an old book about great yet sadly crazed mages and alchemists. He remembers a reference to one named Nomichor, famed for his dalliances into the dark arts of alchemical transmutation and fusion of demon bodies into animals and plants in order to study their physical properties. And famous as well for his habit and deep belief in the value of exposing himself to a varied assortment of his creations’ secretions by cutting his own skin and rubbing whatever foul drool or excrement he was studying onto his exposed flesh in the hopes of learning its virtues or, most of the time, dangers. He had died after one such experiment but not before losing a couple of limbs and a few other body parts to what he called ‘science’.

This woman, however, must be one of his followers, perhaps a descendant of one of his disciples. It surely explains the Hellish scents coming from jars labelled with names as innocent as ‘dried heather’. She jerks her chin at Dion, glancing at him with carefully appraising eyes. “A nu toy? You ne’er strock me fér a ‘gud and neet’ kind éf girl.”

Saira snorts at this, smoothly taking a step away from him. “Naah, you can have’im if you like. I just brought’im along to give you some money to earn.” She shrugs nonchalantly. “Unless you’re too mad at me to take an offer like that.”

Something in their tone and interaction speaks to Dion of latent resentment laced with physical attraction. As if these two women had once shared a bed and lived to regret it. He puts the thought aside, entertaining as it may be. More important issues are on the table.

“I am a client, Doctor,” he says with a smile, offering his hand palm up that she may take it. “Hers, briefly, and hopefully yours as well.”

The woman looks at him sideways, not taking his hand yet. “And wót it is dat you ah’ looking to ’eal? You look too gud to need mah sérvices. And noh bád enaf to need hérs.”

“Hey!” Saira protests.

The apothecary gives her no more than a smile in return before once again turning her attention to Dion, this time resting the tips of her fingers on the tips of his. “She tells you mah name. Wót is yors?”

He raises his hand to bring her fingers within the reach of his lips, kissing her scarred, rough skin in a slow, galant greeting, smiling at her and maintaining his gaze locked on her murky black eyes as he does so, ignoring for the moment the bitter taste of cussi and sumkir (either of which would easily see her imprisoned for dealing in demonic substances) infused deeply into her skin. Saira had not, in fact, told him this woman’s name but he nonetheless allows her the illusion of being the smartest person in the room. The assumption matters little to him but seems to please her immensely. And he wants her to be pleased with him.

“My name?” he asks as if this were anything but important. “You can call me Merillion.”

She smirks, nearly purring her response. “Ef corse, Ah can. And wót is it you need, Merillión?”

Her hand strokes his as she removes her fingers from his hold. Dion casually drops his hand and chuckles at her suspicion of him, letting his derisive laughter rumble a little deeper in his throat. “I am merely in need of information, and then I will leave you. For now. Who knows if we cannot do business again in the future? I have certain ingredients I need for my studies, and one of my providers, Lucky Pete–” he says the name with just the tiniest hint of distaste expected of him “–has disappeared on me.”

The woman takes a step closer to him, her head held slightly back as if she means to sniff the truth out of him. “Mebbe dis próvider ef yors senses sóme-ting abót you? Sóme-ting bad…” Her full lips move nearer his face. “For ’is healt?”

Dion looks at her coyly, though he makes no motion to pull back. She is standing just a hand’s breadth away from him, her body leaning at the hip, back arching ever so slightly so that she may maintain eye contact. She means to invade his space and he has no intention but to invite her in. “I wouldn’t know what is going on in his mind,” he says, speaking against her lips. “But I suspect his missing our meeting has more to do with the disruption to a certain recent market than anything he might think about me. I will be very grateful for any help.”

Her hands smoothen the lapels on his shirt as she notes in soft, quiet tones that are as amused as the grin on her face. “You dress like préih, Merillión. But Ah sense darknéss in yor solle. Pain in yor hart. And powah’ beyond a mortól mahn.”

“You have sharp eyes, Doctor,” he whispers, leaning his head slightly closer, letting his gaze fall just a little lower on her face. “Beautiful, sharp eyes.”

“Oh, you wou’ be amézed at wót dei cán see,” she purrs, her cheek brushing against his lips as she turns and walks away from him. “You know you kéme in he-ar wi’ a dead wumón?”

“Is that what they’re sayin’?” Saira asks with a touch of amusement.

“All I know is that she that has introduced me to you, and for that alone she has earned my gratitude,” Dion retorts dismissively, removing the lid of a porcelain jar sitting on a little pedestal and grimacing at the acrid stench of something being kept in very old embalming fluid. “And her substantial fee.”

Do people really believe a basilisk’s claw will heal broken bones overnight? he wonders.

The woman snorts at his ill-fated curiosity. “Well, word on di streets is Saira die helpin’ di Guardia fight a deemón and dei ték ’er body fer buryin’. Now she is he-ar, alive though I cán see di marks on her. Wót do you méke of dat, Merillion?”

“I am not a traitor!” Saira bellows suddenly and it takes Dion every morsel of self-control in his body not to turn to look at her. “I was trying to keep a bunch o’ kids from being sold to kibble!”

The god makes a show of exhaling deeply, feigning slight irritation. Saira’s tone is alarmingly outraged and hurt and he fears the woman may be stressing herself into one of her convulsive fits but he cannot afford to break character. “People talk and talk.” He raises a hand, gesturing vaguely in further dismissal. “Clearly not everything about her is as rumors say. But this is not my concern.”

“Not onless you ah’ Guardia too,” the apothecary counters, turning her smiling, highly entertained gaze from Saira’s enraged expression to Dion’s vacant profile. She studies him intensely while lifting the lid of a glass counter that doubles as a display case and removing from it an inconspicuous bottle from a throng of similar-looking bottles apparently containing colorful powders and mysterious liquids.

Dion laughs lightly at the accusation, turning to face her more directly. “Oh, is that your concern? My dear Doctor, I am a practitioner. Such so-called forces of authority are more a hindrance to my research than a benefit to anyone’s protection.”

She opens the bottle. “And wót is yor research, practitioner?”

Dion watches as she removes a carved-bone needle from a small jar of such items and dips its tip into whatever is being held in the thumb-sized container. He can see Saira’s expression of unease at the sight of it through the corner of his eye.

Still, he must continue. “My research? I am interested in expansion of the powers of the mind.” He sniffs at the scent that is just now reaching his nostrils as the apothecary moves closer to him. Demon ichor. Purified but spiked with something he cannot quite identify. He curses internally. “Interesting choice, that. Not really what I’m in the market for.”

“No, you don’ look like a killeh, like Saira,” the woman says with a snort that makes her bangles jingle in a bone-jittering choir. “Bót mébbe you woul’ lák to put mah mind at peace? Shó me you ah’ troo and mortól. Share yor pain wi’ Karm. Dén I might discóss di lost and found wi’ you.” She holds the needle sharp-end-up for his inspection. “A prick éf dis brings pain to mortóls but if you ah’ a god…it will hurt méch moh.” She leans closer to whisper in his ear. “Ah ha’ left moh den one god at di Barón’s doorstep wi’ dis special brew.”

He can fill her plump lips curl into an evil grin against his earlobe and cheek. A sadist’s grin, looking to watch him squirm and cower, basking in whatever fear and pain she may anticipate. But two can play that game.

“I come here to offer you business and you want to poison me?” he whispers back, fingers wrapping around her hand and tightening around it in an iron grip.

She chuckles and pulls away, smiling at first but then looking quite put off when, with a beatific smile of his own, he tightens his grip further, holding her hand in place. Still, it takes her only a fraction of a moment to relax and find sensual pleasure in their little game of tug-of-war. “Éf you are troo, you ha’ noting to feér but a littel pain. We all ha’ a price. Péi mahne or leeve.”

“Karm, come on,” Saira pleads. “My arm hurt horrors when you did that to me. Went numb for three days after that.”

Demon ichor, specialty brew. Most likely something of the sort he has seen Saira use to hunt and kill divine members of the Dukaine organization. One of very few things that is safer to mortals than to gods. That could easily kill a god, even in small amounts, if directed straight into vital organs with a plentiful blood supply, poisoning the organism and destroying the superhuman healing properties that are a prerogative of all but the weakest divine bodies. Though the amount of it lacing Karm’s needle is exceedingly small, it is still potent in its purity and, at the very least, extremely painful to experience.

But this is for Sky, for the hope of finding out where he is being held so that they can extract him and end the reign of terror of this necromancer who wishes nothing but to bring them pain and death. Who wishes nothing but to hunt down those who Dion cares about and remove them from his world. This is his part to play in the making sure that the enemy does not succeed. His moment to sacrifice. He dares not think that this might be in vain, that Karm will know or say nothing in the end.

So he plays along, releasing Karm’s hand and unbuttoning the cuff of his shirt so that he can easily roll up his sleeve. If he can have a choice of injection places, he may as well keep that foul needle away from any major blood vessels. Once he is done, he presents her his left forearm, an expression of annoyance on his face that he hopes hides well his inner concerns.

He draws upon his training, as a wizard and a martial artist, to strengthen himself against the agony he can only imagine will follow. His will is iron. It must be to do the things he does. And he will resist the urge to scream, to cringe, to collapse, to give her any of the sadistic pleasure she hopes to extract from him with this little game of hers. He will. He will. No pain or poison can match the agony his heart is in already, anyway.

Or so he tells himself.

Karm smiles through a mouth full of teeth carefully filed to sharp points and wraps her fingers around his forearm, pricking him. “Nice bréce-let, bai di wé. Prétti.” She strokes the bracelet that Alma has made for him and that he has not taken off since that gift-giving day with her poisonous, scarred fingers and Dion locks his jaw, barely resisting breaking every single one of them for daring soil his love’s gift with her tarnishing touch. “Méde wi’ lóve, wasit?”

The pain hits like a hammer. Her words are lost to his ears. The tiny drop of poison enters his skin like burning lava, corrosive acid eating away at his flesh, melting through tissue, through vessel walls, a drop stretching into a flood as it enters his bloodstream and spreads, spreads slowly like thick oil clogging his veins, seeping into muscle, into bone, stealing the life-giving air from his blood cells, suffocating everything in its passage. The acid of his arm’s desperate attempt to function in the absence of oxygen hurts him as much as the poison itself. It is…astonishing. His fist clenches – he cannot help it. The muscles of his forearm bunch and strain. And then it is spreading throughout his body, almost leisurely, breaking down the practiced, honed defenses against toxins that years of training have loyally kept in place as if they were nothing but paper against a flame. A terrible, consuming flame. He feels his temperature rise, sweat breaking out on his face. Involuntary reactions that he cannot control. But he can still control his breathing, and he keeps it smooth, as smooth as possible. The urge to scream is almost impossible to suppress, but he does through sheer force of will.

His one concession to pain is to close his eyes. The agonizing sensation is spreading quickly and he must focus. Something, something to take his mind off the agony, off the terrible feeling that he is dying in excruciating pain, off the rumbling within him of a force he has only barely felt in years but which moves now with irritation, like something being poked into vigilance after a sleep of ages. Something big and angry and confused, disgusted at the poison that spreads through its lair and threatens to destroy it. He is afraid, has always been afraid of this strange presence that rarely surfaces but takes over his senses whenever it does. A primitive, brutal rage he has used more than once to his survival in the Dragon Lands but knows not how to reach or tame. He would easily level this shop, half of the ward with it, he knows. But he cannot. He cannot let it out. Not now. Not now. The pain cannot blind him to his purpose or he will destroy what is their only lead to Sky’s location.

And then it will be his fault and the lovely hands that have weaved the bracelet that encircles his wrist will never again touch him with kindness. With love. It hurts to think about them, to think about her knowing that he is yet to repair the chasm he has opened between him and his beloved but still it is to her that he runs, to his memory of her, to escape the pain. To her smile, her touch, to stolen kisses in quiet times, to that last night in their office, her sleeping form lying in his arms, breathing peacefully against him in that slow, ever so slow way of hers that even in vigilance and effort clashes so strongly against his rushing heart, his quick breath. To her cool touch, her sluggish pulse that never fails to calm him down and infuse him with peace even as her lips excite his lust with their kiss. He runs to her in thought, mind trying to remind his body of the running of her fingers through his hair, of the gentleness of her hold, of the cleansing sensation of her healing powers spreading through him in search of wounds, enticing his cells to release whatever substances she knows of to drown pain with pleasure. He can almost feel it now, so vivid the agony makes his desperate memory.

He holds on to it so that his knees will not buckle, his eyes not fill with tears. He can fill Karm watching him, at the edge of his senses, her stare one of strange glee, almost as if she is feeding off his pain. He does not care. His mind is filled with a single thought: survival. Survival with a purpose. To make things right, to rebuild his little piece of paradise. He has to live. For her. To be with her again. To let her heal his wounds with her presence if not with her magic.

He feels a hand on his back. “You’re sick, Karm.”

Saira’s voice. He opens his eyes, feeling his physical pain under a flimsy control, not trusting himself to speak.

Karm shrugs. “You did sé Ah coul’ ha’ him.” She moves closer to Dion and her hands rest on his arms as she leans to touch her lips to his jaw, tasting his sweat-ridden skin. “Oh you ah’ so tense. Ah lóve et.”

She glances at Saira, then speaks, her mouth ever so close to Dion’s. “Wi’ you grón fer mi?”

With great effort, Dion wills himself to smile. “I’m not much for groaning.”

His eyes spell murder, he knows. He cannot help it. Within him, lashing in pain and confusion, his raging core roars and growls. I will crush you, you petty, meaningless little creature. And I will love every second of it.

For now, however, he has more important things to do. “You asked for a heavy price, Doctor. I paid it. Now it’s your turn to give me what I want.”

Karm looks into his eyes, then pouts in a way she probably thinks is adorable but that looks nothing but ridiculous for her personality. “Fahn… Ah guess we plé sóm odér tahme.” She suddenly steps away from him, her voice now serious and impatient. “Pete did noh shó ahp becóse he get bostéd fer breaking into a stór. Noh lák Pete at awlle.”

Dion sighs to conceal a sudden sharp burst of pain to his chest that almost steals his breath. He shakes his head as he regains control. “Well that explains things. Which ward is he in? At least I’ll know where he is.”

“Dei send awlle prisonérs to Ablani from he-ar,” Karm replies, leaning against her small counter of poisons. “Whót ah’ you lookin’ fer, Merrilión? Mébbe dére ah’ alternatifs to Pete.”

“I doubt you deal in infera aura,” Dion notes, rolling down his sleeve and touching his bracelet for what little comfort that brings him.

Karm blanches slightly at the mention of the infernal mineral, much to the god’s petty pleasure. “Ah… noh, sorre.” She turns toward the bamboo-bead curtain and the door beyond, announcing the end of their appointment. “Ha’ a nice dé, Mellirión. Cohm bék anytime.”

“Hey, don’t I get to shop?” Saira asks, looking peeved but, Dion notes from her quick, worried glance at him, not terrible so.

“Not todé,” Karm replies, not looking at her. Instead, she grins at Dion. “Mah dé is méde.”

“Glad to have given you such pleasure,” he says to her. “May the remainder of your day be as pleasant.”

“Whót a gentle mahn,” she jests, disappearing behind the curtains. “Be carefool, Merillión. Whót you seek……óders coul’ see you as competitión.”

“Be seein’ you, Karm,” Saira calls to her.

“Saira,” the apothecary’s voice rings from a distance. “You sté alive, now.”

And so they leave the shop, quickly, silently. They manage to pass a couple of alleys before Dion ducks into the shade of a taller building, staggering slightly from the violent bouts of pain stabbing at his gut. He puts a hand to the wall, breathing heavily from the effort of staying conscious.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Saira whispers at his side. “She doesn’t do that often on a first meet. How’re you doin’?”

In her defense, she sounds truly concerned. But he cannot bring himself to care. His torso is ablaze with agony, the hand he is using for support is shaking beyond his control. His stomach clenches, his abdomen contracting in a heave, a series of heaves. His breakfast, what little of it he had had the humor to eat gushes into his throat, acid of another kind making his esophagus burn and polluting his mouth on its way to the cobblestone street. He shudders as a new wave of contractions seemingly tries to rip the inner lining of his now empty stomach. No…no…no… He cannot fall now. He has to endure, to make it back to Three Rats. His powers flare to life, trying to inactivate the poison, though he has no experience of such things, no real knowledge of how to deal with something as destructive as demon ichor. All he has is anger.

“She doesn’t… do that often?” he heaves. “If you… had warned me…” He takes a deep breath, struggling for control. “I could have prepared…”

Saira ignores his growling tones and puts her hands to his sides to support him. “Shh… Don’t talk. Breathe. Don’t hold it in. That was damn brave of you but let it flow now. It’s bad but you’ll get better faster if you don’t fight it.”

He turns and leans his back against the crumbling mortar covering the building’s brick wall. He rolls back his sleeve to look at his progressively numbing arm and see the skin turning black around the area the needle touched. Quickly turning black. And spreading.

Good thing she didn’t see that… he thinks.

“Can the others help?” Saira asks, obviously disturbed by his reaction to the poison.

“I don’t know,” Dion confesses. “Gods are very sensitive to demon ichor. And not very good at inactivating it.”

But I have to be, he thinks. I have to be. Whatever it takes, I have to get home. I have to…

He holds his breath against nausea. …to make it right. To see her again. To tell her…I’m sorry. I should have trusted her. I should have.

He forces himself to stand up straight again, and looks intently at Saira. “Whatever happens to me, you will take me back to the station.”

To tell her how much I need her, how much I love her. Hold her again.

And though it is not the best-phrased of his requests, Saira seems to catch the urgency in his voice. She nods. “Let’s get you home.”

Just one more time.