The machinegun fire does not belong here. Nor do the rockets. This is not a ward that allows for chemical explosives. Something prevents it, something Syron explained once… The thought flits away like a burning leaf of paper torn from a code book, as three men in the trench ahead of him try to go over the top, and get knocked back down by the shockwave and shrapnel from a mortar shell. One lies groaning; the other two are still.
Sky steps over them, barely looking down. He does not wish to see their faces, fearing he will recognize them. The choking smell of rot and filth and ash pollutes the air he breathes. His hair is plastered to his skull by the rain. He holds a dagger, fingers through the brass knuckles of the grip, his long wool coat heavy around the hem with earth and blood. His feet are cold and wet. He is wounded, he thinks, but cannot remember where or how badly. But he strides through the trench, idiotically, for he is far too tall to stand upright safely. He is a moving target for the other side.
Ironic, since the other side is his side. He still expects to be shot in the head at any moment, by machinegunner or sharp-eyed sniper. For some reason, he doesn’t crouch.
There is someone he is here to kill. He can’t remember. All thought is vague. Faces form and dissolve before him. One that laughs and taunts, all huge grin and trickster eyes. One like a vulture, burning in the arms of a white-glowing female figure. A scaly viper’s face. A face of stone. A handsome face, one that had once filled him with pleasure to see. Face after face, a long line, many forgotten and entirely blank.
But then he sees her, the one he is hunting. The trench is gone. He is inside now, in a house, with no transition, standing on a stone-flagged floor, blood-clotted dirt oozing from his boot. He looks at the woman lying on the bed. She wears a simple nightgown. Her skin is sallow, her nondescript brown hair lank and thin. She is already dead, her neck broken, but carefully arranged as if sleeping. He approaches, looks down at her, adjusting his grip on the blade.
Why must he kill her? She is cold and long, long dead. He remembers holding her, as she cried his name. Not his name, but a name, that of the face he wore. He remembers pleasuring her, but taking no real pleasure from the act. Simply…a lack of pain.
He is here to kill her. How he knows this, he cannot say. He will cut her head off and stuff her mouth with salt. He will sew her lips shut. He will remove her heart and burn it, and bury the rest at a crossroads. Why? These are the things you must do.
“None of that will stop me,” she whispers.
Sky freezes. Her eyes are open. Her mouth is grinning in triumph. She begins to sit up.
“Hello, Azzageddi…” she coos sweetly.
“Sky?” The kiss on his cheek is cool and light, and the voice is soft and very welcome. “Sky…”
His eyes flutter open, and he draws a deep breath. He is home. It was merely another nightmare, one of the many dark dreams that keep him company most nights. But something is different here. There is someone in his arms. Well, one arm. He is in his home, on his sofa, his arm around…Alma? Alma.
Looking down at her, where she half-lies against him, comfortable but obviously trapped by his heavy arm. He exhales in relief, seeing her friendly grin, not the seductive look he had momentarily feared, or the dead, malevolent eyes…now where did that come from? The dream? But it is gone.
He feels a smile spread on his face, any feeling of dread banished at the thought that Alma, Alma, is here in his home. In his home, in his life, this friend. His friend.
“Sleep well?” he asks, voice thick and groggy.
Alma nods. “I did. But…if that clock is correct, I should return to the station.” Sky follows her gaze to a cheap-looking plastic-and-aluminum timepiece, the face about as big across as his hand, surmounted by a doll of a young woman wearing a grass skirt and a necklace of flowers to hide her breasts.
“It’s a few minutes off,” he says, sitting up and releasing her from his heavy embrace. “You have a little more time than you think.”
Alma stretches, standing. “Does the girl on the clock dance at noon or something? No, wait – we would have noticed.”
“Every hour, it’s supposed to play a different song, and she dances,” he explains. “But I disconnected that. I couldn’t sleep. Anticipating the song kept me staring at the ceiling.”
Alma laughs. “If you don’t like it, why do you keep it?”
He shrugs, and stands. “A friend gave it to me as a joke, as I was telling people at the time that I was from the islands that it came from. I regifted it to someone else. After he died, it came back to me.”
“Ah. A memory.” Alma nods, laying her hand on his upper arm and stroking it, her smile compassionate for his long-ago loss. “Good to know I can take a little more time. Would you mind if I took a bath before I leave?”
“Please do.” He holds out a hand to indicate one of the round doorways, one from which a constant faint sound of flowing water emerges. “Through there is the bath. In the vestibule, there’s one of those laundry boxes, the kind that you just pop your clothes, or anything really, in there, and it’s clean in a few minutes. Should be warm and fluffy by the time you finish. There are towels and such in an alcove next to that. Shampoo and soap in the bath itself. Oh…it’s a bit hotter than yours. Get in slowly. Do you want something to eat after? I’m…still feeling a little queasy after that spell. How about you?”
As she heads for the bath, Alma says, “I think I’ll leave eating for later, thank you. But coffee would be nice.”
“Yes, it would.” Sky goes into the little kitchen nook, fills the reservoir of a little coffee pot with water, the filter with fine-ground coffee. He hears Alma undressing, the sound of the laundry box closing. Then echoes of splashing water as she enters the bath, which is in a room considerably more cave-like than the rest of his sanctum.
As he sets the little pot – just big enough to make two espressos – on the unlit, smallest burner, he hears a hiss from the bath. “Oh, this is boiling! You have no skin!”
Sky laughs, but then, concerned, calls out, “If you feel lightheaded, get out. It’s really just a little above body temperature.” He pauses, considering, remembering how her body felt cool against him. “Oh, but your body temperature is lower than average. Uh, call me if you need help. I promise I’ll close my eyes.”
The light, echoing laughter from the bath makes Sky smile. There has never been a woman’s voice here. Well, not a live one. “That should be interesting to see you try,” Alma calls out.
Thinking of recordings, Sky goes to his stereo and cranks the flywheel up, enough to play one side of a record. He puts away the vinyl disc they had fallen asleep listening to, runs his fingers along the sleeves and pulls out another album, the cover an image of a warm-brown man wearing a blue-flowered shirt and a thick red lei of flowers, a gazebo and tropical trees in the background. He sets the disc carefully on the turntable, starting the machine so that the arm swings out and the needle gently kisses the tiny grooves in the surface of the platter. The sanctum fills with soft strings gently strummed, a man’s voice, pitched high but with a gravelly edge, singing in a language that, at the time he left that world, was all but lost to time.
He sings along under his breath as he opens a cabinet that has been enchanted to keep its contents fresh, choosing a mango, two kiwis, and an apple, and begins slicing them up. He remembers Alma had decided not to eat, but perhaps she will change her mind, as he himself has. If not, even the sliced fruit will keep in the cabinet until later in the day.
“That’s pretty,” Alma says from the bath. “What is it?”
“Music from another island,” he replies as he pares away the skins of the fruit. “Almost the same language as the other one. Singer’s name is Pahinui. I bought everything of his I could find…before I came back here.”
The sound of water sloshing, splashing, and a bare foot touching the waterlogged stone floor in the bath room. “Ah, you’re that kind of fan.” The goddess’ voice is amused, muffled slightly as she towels herself dry.
Sky chuckles silently. “You all right in there?” He turns on the flame under the little coffeepot.
“I think I’ll never eat lobster again.” The lid to the laundry box opens and he hears the sound of rustling fabric.
As the next song begins, Sky says, “First time I heard him play, I wanted to play like that. Wanted to sing…well, not quite like that, but something like that. Like me but like that, yeah?” He is amused to recognize that his voice is taking on a lilt that has been missing for decades, hints of an island dialect of a language he has heard in some wards of the city, called English. Like the local language of Three Rats, it is from Earth, brought here by the lost residents of a wandering chunk of reality.
The coffee begins burbling cheerfully as the fire turns the little reservoir of water to steam, forcing it through the grounds into the pot above.
“So why did you come back to the Insula, Sky?” Alma asks, reentering the main room, adjusting her clothes, fresh and warm from cleaning. “You said your family was gone…”
Sky looks at her, so beautiful. It feels good that he can admire his friend’s beauty without embarrassment. He lifts the still-burbling coffeepot and turns off the fire, and wordlessly pours the thick, dark liquid into two small cups, porcelain glazed a rich brown with a white crane, on matching saucers. He offers her one, black, no sugar, as he knows she likes it, and sets the bowl of fruit on the coffee table, but he doesn’t sit yet. His face is still, controlled.
“I uh…well, Laura had passed away about thirty years earlier, and it was getting a bit weird for Grampa to still be looking way too young, despite dying my hair white and so on. The grandchildren, great-grandchildren…I was becoming this sort of legend in their lives. I came when they called – I provided ways for them to send a message. But I faded from their lives, and then years went by with no message. I…had lost something with Laura’s death. Perhaps I should have clung to them, but it just seemed time to move on. I’d discovered a way back here a few years before, and I thought maybe I could slip back and forth. But then…”
He pauses as Alma touches his arm, squeezing it comfortingly. “I understand. To watch them age and pass away, generation after generation – it could not have been easy. I’m glad you stayed here.” She finishes her drink, closing her eyes and smiling at the taste of it. “Hmm, you’re getting better at coffee.”
Sky smiles nervously and drinks. “You were right about the local brewing method in Three Rats. And I picked up these beans in the First Ring, when Gwydion and I went shopping there for the New Year. It’s not quite as good as Archon Math’s.” He finishes his coffee, and setting down the cup steels her nerve and says, “Alma…there’s something…something I want to tell you. About why I stayed.” About how I was captured by the Commander, given a choice of being his tool or being destroyed, about what I am. The vile thing that I am. He doesn’t want to tell her. He really does not. But he must and the moment is now.
The song ends and in the moment of silence, Alma’s questioning gaze, which is lingering on his face, flicks toward the stereo – and catches on the silly clock next to it. “Oh Sky…I need to go. It’s my shift, and the Bunnies will be distraught from May’s departure. Is this something that can wait?” She sounds guilty, but he knows that she is already running late. And they have been out of contact with the station for several hours. Gwydion, and not only Gwydion but others, must be wondering if they are all right.
He nods, feeling a rush of relief, with shame hard on its heels for the cowardice it indicates. “Later, yes.” His stomach roils at the thought of knowing that, for several hours at least, he will have this hanging around his neck, a noose ready to pull tight when the trap door opens. He just wants to get it over with, to confront the shock and disgust she will surely feel but struggle to lead her through it to acceptance. Losing her friendship is his greatest fear. Keeping it honestly, his greatest hope.
But the moment is past. Later. Yes, later.
Flailing for something to say, he blurts, “Do you want me to escort you back? I can be ready in a couple of minutes.” Wait, he realizes, I could trigger the portal to open in my office, so she can go back directly.
“No, no,” she insists. “You must want to bathe, too. And I have one or two places to stop by on my way there.”
Sky hesitates, then decides to give in. “Very well. I know you can take care of yourself, but with all that’s out there, watch your back, Alma. And…I’m glad you stayed.”
Alma stretches up to kiss his cheek. “I am glad too. You opened your life to me, Sky. You know, I scolded you for being so open, back when we first met, but really you were keeping your true self hidden away, weren’t you? Off-blue paranoia… I know there is more to learn, but we have time to learn about each other slowly, to deepen our friendship.” She strokes his jaw, and her smile makes his heart feel as if it has stopped.
His attempt to return her smile is twitchy, and he nods and turns to move quickly to the wall, touching it to activate the portal, letting her into his false apartment. He opens the door for her. “I will see you soon.”
Alma pauses, searching his face. “Sky?” He can tell she is about to relent on her decision to leave, about to stay and hear him out now.
He shakes his head and smiles as brightly as he can. “Go. It can wait. I’ll come to see you at dinner time, in the middle of my shift. Now watch that broken step.”
As he eases into the steaming bath, his sanctum fills with the complex, exuberant piano of another favorite from Earth, a Russian composer and performer. Though it does make him want to find a piano for the bar, here is music he has never dreamed of emulating, grandiose, alternately delicate and glorious, furious, and brave, so brave.
He must be brave, he tells himself. After Alma, he must tell Gwydion. He thinks he will need her help there.
And then there is Mayumi. He groans. He is in love with her, for her humor, her fearlessness, even for her anger – but what a situation. He almost hopes she will forget him while she is at the Academy, fall in love with someone more appropriate there. But…she is a Bunny. If she is anything like Rosemary and Cherry, falling in love with someone else will not diminish her feelings for him.
And he truly does not want her to forget him. It has been so long. He does not know what their relationship will be like, but he knows that he would be shattered if she feared him too much for her love to survive. Still, he cannot be with her until she knows what he is. He cannot build that love upon a lie.
What is it about this place? All the barriers he has erected to contain his feelings, to survive in this friendless servitude, this slavery, have been smashed to splinters. Ever since the Commander made him vow to serve, he has resisted to urge to reach out to others. That in itself has been a torture worse to him than that inflicted by Hell. For Hell created him to have what devils and demons lack: empathy. Compassion. He simply cannot help but love those around him.
For some time he has suspected that it was this place, something about it, perhaps whatever drew the Oracle Nevieve and Master Pak and the attention of Archons and other powerful gods. Three Rats, a nexus of two lands, an oasis of plentiful magic in a part of the Fourth Ring that has a paucity of it, must be a place that breaks down walls such as his.
But no. That answer is too easy. It is not the place, not at all. It is the people. Alma, Gwydion, and he mistrusted and mistreated each other at the beginning, but he had found in them warm, strong hearts. And the Bunnies, not just Mayumi but all of them – their ability to break through, to slip past the thickest armor and nourish the most faltering flames of kindness and humanity never fails to elicit his admiration. There is no magic inciting these passions in him. It is the knowledge that here, finally, are people he can trust.
Here is family. Again.
The heat of the water seeps into his muscles, into his bones. He breathes slowly, willing his body to relax. The tension has him knotted and clenched, and he tries to release it. As the music soars, he casts his thoughts back, to the first time he listened to this, in concert, when he took Laura on the long trip to San Francisco, their first trip together more than a day’s travel away from their farm. She loved music, and though they played something nearly every day together, she on piano, he on guitar or ‘ukulele or violin, and they attended and even organized shindigs with music and dancing at least once a month, it had not been since shortly after the War that she had been to a concert of such virtuosity. Her hair was showing grey, the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkling as she watched, rapt, squeezing his hand as if she wanted to merge with him, share with him this joy, directly, that she felt surging in her breast.
She had been the only human, the only person, to hold his heart. There had been many who had touched his heart – far more than who had been touched by him – but she had held it. There was no need to merge further. He was already there.
But she had never, truly, understood what he was. She could not conceive it. He was a devil, she knew that, but that was only a word to her. She had known he was something supernatural soon after they’d met, working together to smuggle secrets out of Richmond to aid the armies of the North. He had been shot in the lung, and instead of dying, he had turned on their attackers and slain them with his bare hands, his eyes glowing blue-green. She had overcome her fear, and they had worked together again, and again. She was tireless in doing everything she could to defeat the Confederacy, which she, like him, considered an abomination, an affront against humanity. She was the highly educated daughter of a freed American slave and a Haitian evangelical minister come to America to preach freedom and revolution.
And so she had had a clear idea of what a devil is, but only as an abstract legend, not a real creature that could war against the gods. He answered all her questions, but his answers were not what she had learned to expect. There was no overarching omnipotent God that he could tell her of, though he admitted that there could be one. She had been stunned that he could sit in the church and sing the hymns with gusto, and greet her aging father in Boston with warm-hearted respect, shaking his hand and not bursting into flame.
Still, she knew him. Where it mattered. She held him in the night and soothed his nightmares away. She could hear those stories of being worshipped as a god, of a world of gods, and still tell him to change a grandchild’s diaper because she was busy with the laundry.
And then she was gone.
He felt the tears well up beneath his eyelids. Could he endure that loss again? So many losses, but that one outweighed them all. To think of it like this still caused a sharp pain to lance through his chest, like that bullet smashing his rib so long ago. He can feel her hand gripping his. He grits his teeth as the music soars.
And the music skips.
His eyes snap open. A tremor. He felt it, something like a small earthquake. That…is not good. It has never happened before. This sanctum is a universe unto itself, and though they are safe, sanctums can become unstable, collapse, disappearing from reality itself forever. Not that it would happen suddenly, but he has heard of it happening, very, very rarely. He will have to get it looked at right away, contact the god who made it for him.
Then through the music he hears another song, just at the edge of human hearing, like the barely audible pings of bats. It matches the strings of the concerto, but just off, warping them out of true, introducing chaos into the precisely planned, powerful beauty, like a worm at the center of a delicious piece of fruit, devouring and leaving behind waste and corruption.
Sky loosens a stone in the bath, pulling it free and dropping it to sink the the floor of the large pool-like tub. In the hidden space is a blade made of a single piece of obsidian, volcanic glass sharper than any steel. He stands, the water running off his body, splashing over the edge to sweep across the bathroom floor and smack against the wall.
Someone is in his sanctum. Something dreadful in its familiarity. Such a voice, and the pleasure it takes in destroying beautiful sounds, is not new to him, though he has not heard it in a very long time. Two centuries. The time since he escaped from Hell.
Shadows move beyond the doorway, then light, growing, a pale green that makes him think of the poisonous glow of radium clocks. He can feel his sanctum pulling away from that glow, cringing like a frightened animal.
A faceless head atop a beautiful androgynous body fills the doorway, glowing green. It has no arms, only ragged-feathered wings tucked in close, and its legs are those of a reptile. Its entire body is made of that sickening glow, the feel of which – not warmth, but a sort of pressure – makes him instantly nauseous, his guts clenching.
A demon. A demon in his sanctum.
Calling upon the power of the sea, he focuses the flow of the water in his bath to blast the abomination. Fortunately he has quite a volume of water to call upon. The design of the sanctum is such that comfortably hot water is constantly flowing in one end of the bath and out the other, through hidden vents that must, Sky assumes, connect to portals. So when the water slams into his uninvited guest, the demon, sizzling and steaming, staggers and falls back.
Sky is out of the tub, running surefooted across moving, flowing water that would make many tumble. He knows there is at least one more, for this is not the singer. Yes, there it is, plastered against the ceiling, its proboscis buried in the teak paneling like a mosquito sucking blood. It continues to ruin the music with its human-like mouth, staring at him with iridescent compound eyes.
Trying to see a way around it, to reach the portal, Sky only catches a glimpse of movement to his side, too late to dodge or block. The ape-bodied, triple-goat-headed attacker is a balinur, one of the footsoldiers of Hell, and he has sliced it half open before they hit the floor together. But though it cries in pain, it holds on, and the glowing, walking corruption is now on its feet again, bending over him, faceless head cocked as if amused.
Not pausing to try to remember exactly what could hurt such a being, he rips the balinur from his body, ignoring the long, deep slashes left by its claws, and uses it as a bludgeon against the green abomination. He can see the floor turning black around its feet, beginning to fester like a gangrenous wound, and hits it again and again with the howling lesser demon, driving it back until it crashes backwards over his sofa and smashes the table. It knocks aside the book of photographs, breaks the silly alarm clock.
He has lost the glass knife, but it was a weapon of emergency only, too fragile to last long in a fight. Now Sky reaches for his Guardia sword, left hanging on a hook. He has the grip in his hand when the singer drops on him, piercing his skin with tiny claws and holding on tight, pinning both of his arms against his chest. Sky staggers, roars, throwing himself against the wall, wincing at the jangling destruction of a guitar, the books falling to be spattered with blood jetting from his thigh.
His world begins to narrow into two possibilities: Hell or the Insula. These demons are clearly here to take him to Hell. He will not go. He has no idea how long he lived in Hell, only that his best moments there were infinitely worse than his worst moments outside of Hell. He would rather be utterly destroyed than return there. And so no other considerations are viable. He must break free, no matter the cost. No matter that his sanctum, his home for decades, is destroyed, along with every scrap of his past. These treasures are nothing if he is recaptured.
And so, as it stabs its barbed-needle proboscis deep into his mid-back, Sky bursts the singer’s grip through the simple expedient of becoming too large for it to hold on. Wings erupt from his shoulders. A tail whips across the room, flinging debris and hitting the flywheel-powered stereo, shattering the concerto along with the platter whose irregular grooves bear a permanent recreation of its beauty, now smashed into oblivion.
He staggers for the portal, which he can see now is open, flickering, but open. Someone has forced it, destroying the security measures he had in place – something that should be nearly impossible. But bargain enough with Hell and you can buy anything, including magic to defeat any other magic.
A clawed foot lands on the back of his neck, sudden massive weight smashing him face-first into the floor. The burning from that viridian touch slithers into his flesh, and resistant to poison as he is, these are demonic poisons, meant to harm even creatures of Hell.
Sky writhes, trying to get free, to stand, to cross the last few steps to freedom. He swings his arm and knocks the creature off him, woozily lunges to get upright, and crashes into the kitchen sink, breaking it free of the wall and destroying the tile mosaic that covered the countertop. He turns, trying to rise fully, opening his jaws and roaring defiance loud enough to shatter every glass in the cabinet.
The singer and the walking, glowing illness are unphased by this. Sky may be a devil, a being of higher rank than demons, but they owe no allegiance to him. As Tuma-Sukai lashes out with his crimson-black claws at the green-glowing body of one attacker, the other stabs him again with its organic needle, injecting a poison that, as far as Sky can tell, immobilizes with wracking pain and convulsions. He curls in on himself, strikes again, feeling a sharp satisfaction as he connects and provokes a bleat of agony from the insectoid demon. But a moment later, despite his size, Sky is knocked flying across his sanctum, bouncing off the opposite wall, falling into a heap of books and destroyed paintings.
He tries to stand, slips, begins vomiting. With a groan, he tries again. And again he fails.
Footsteps approach. He sees leather boots, and slowly looks up, taking in the form of a young human woman, a mortal, her form adorned with silver skull-shaped jewelry, a loose belt of what looks to be human finger-bones. She looks at him sardonically, triumphant, putting her hands on her hips, the fingertips of one hand decorated with silver rings each sporting a wicked claw.
“Hello, Azzageddi,” she purrs as he slides into darkness.