Ch6.76 Trust

“Azzie… Wake up. Wake up, Azzageddi…”

His name. His hated true name. Only those who seek to bind him to their will use it. It is the name of slavery for him, for the true name of devil or demon is the command word of control, the password to the soul. Even when Alma used it – when he told it to her, without telling her why he had a secret name – it was so that he could make the Adamantine Vow, when he promised to protect the Bunnies no matter the cost to him. Although he took that vow of his own free will, in order to convince Alma to trust him, he was still, in effect, indirectly binding himself into her service.

Tuma-Sukai is the name he stole, along with his second human form, that of a tall, dark demigod, cruel and ripe for overthrow by his own people, led in uprising by Sky, in that island valley on Earth long ago. Sukai is shortened to Sky by his friends. Azzageddi is a name he would like to forget entirely.

He feels razor claws stroking lightly along his face, not quite cutting his skin. He flinches away, opening his one eye to pain, to cold, to the atmosphere of undeath and unclean death, the aura of a sanctum tuned to necrotic energies, nested within a larger one attuned to Hell. He looks up into the mad face of Nua, and memories of the island, of Arion, fade completely from his surface thoughts, to be locked away tight. With them goes all but the faintest echo of hope.

“Are you feeling better, Azzie? Is it hurting too bad?”

He shivers, his eye wide like a child that knows that soft words and a gentle touch are a precursor for reasonless punishment.

Nua runs her ring-clawed fingers along his jaw, contemplating him like an unfinished work of art. He must keep his head up or suffer lacerations. “You know, I was very mad at you for what you did so long ago, and after I was so generous to you, too. Breaking my neck like that… But I have to admit, I missed you.” She runs her metal claws down his throat, then grips him firmly, not quite choking him, the claws pressing against his skin right on the verge of puncturing it. She leans closer and gently, slowly kisses him, coaxing his lips to part, forcing her tongue into his mouth until she teases the stump encrusted with thick, half-congealed scabs that is all she has left him of his tongue.

A muffled whimpering escapes from his mouth into hers as he kisses her back. He fights the urge to scream, to roar. He raises his hands, and discovers to his shock that he is no longer chained. the chains are off. His hands are free.

He could do it now. He could change, swiftly, and kill her in his devil form.

But no. Surely she is ready for that. She must be. This is a test, to see if she has truly broken him. And even if he did succeed, there is the chain around his neck. And there is Margrave. The time is not yet ripe. He pushes all thought of rebellion deep, deep, locking it away. He is shattered. He is crushed. He is a broken beast, a slave, and that is what he will be until the right moment comes.

He touches her hair, then flinches away for fear she might punish him for daring to do so. One of her claws cuts into his neck at his movement. But Nua breaks away from the kiss, her lips twisted in a cruel smirk, victorious, stained crimson and flecked with black curds of blood. She breathes into his mouth, “Do you want to make me happy, Azzie?”

Sky nods, afraid to do anything else.

She pulls taut the chain around his neck so that the links dig in just enough to make breathing uncomfortable. “Are you going to behave?”

He nods, desperately.

Nua smiles her sick little smile, full of cruelty and insanity. “Come with me. There’s a good friend I want you to meet. Her name is Trocia.”

She leads him out of the room.

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Ch6.74 Trust

“Why?”

The voice is bereft of hope, of love, of life. It is the voice of one of the closest friends Sky has ever had, someone he loves dearly, who has shown him kindness and admiration, who has shared her vulnerability with him and propped him up with her strength. And it issues from a throat that is cold meat, beginning to rot even here in the cold, damp cell where he is chained.

“Why, Sky?”

He huddles shivering in the corner, still wearing the form of the pale young man that the necromancer Nua forced him to take on centuries ago, on his arrival in the Urbis Caelestis, and now again. He can see his questioner’s feet, her shapely ankles now swollen and looking bruised from unpumped blood pooling in her lower limbs. He has no wish to look up at her face, especially since, to do so, he would have to let his eyes travel up the gore-soaked skirt, under which Nua had stabbed her again and again.

“You lied to us and now we are dead.”

Sky has to remind himself that this is not Alma. She looks exactly like Alma, but this is merely some poor soul reshaped and forced to play the part. Forced to die a slow, hideous death simply to break his will. And now she has been reanimated, a rotting meat puppet worn by a necrotic spirit, no mind of its own, just doing what it’s been told to do: destroy Sky’s morale. Take everything about him that is human, everything he has gained in two centuries outside of Hell, shatter it, and grind the pieces into sand. Reduce him to a beast. A slave.

“We trusted you.” A male voice. Gwydion. “We trusted you with our lives.”

Another shape shuffles into the room. “Why?” it moans. Saira.

Why indeed? Why had he not told Alma what he was when he had the chance? Why had he not told her the truth? Perhaps things would have been different. She would have stayed, to talk, or perhaps insisted that he return to the station with her. Either way, the Whisper would have been unlikely to have captured him.

Now three innocents have died. And his friends will try to rescue him. They might truly die.

“It hurts,” the false Saira whimpers. “What she did to me hurts. Your fault.”

“We’d all be better off if you were dead,” not-Gwydion whispers.

“Now my children will die,” Alma says, flat, “because of you.”

No, that’s not really Alma.

Surely it’s not.

He saw the eyes, after all. Nua got the eyes wrong. They were Alma’s old eyes, before whatever it was that happened to them a couple of days ago. Or a week ago. How long has it been? Anyway, they got the eyes wrong. He has to believe that.

Unless being locked in enchanted, divinity-suppressing shackles causes her eyes to revert. If that is the reason they changed back, then he is wrong. This is really Alma, Gwydion, and Saira.

“I should never have trusted you,” Saira moans.

“Did you see what she did to us?” Gwydion asks. “Did you watch?”

Alma takes a step closer. “The dagger…it still cuts.”

“The poison burns,” Dion complains. “It burns like acid.”

“Will she kill us, Sky?” Saira begs. Her voice is the most alive-sounding. “Will you ask her to kill us?”

Sky covers his ears, moaning, around the blood still congealing in his mouth. He cannot form words to object or to agree. His tongue has been cut out. The stump throbs. He is slowly, slowly healing it, but it will take many days. He can heal quickly, but only when he is actively attempting to fulfill his divine sphere, by defending the downtrodden and helpless. Here, it is he who is helpless. He is nothing. Worse than nothing. He is a danger to all those he loves. Even if he could kill himself, he would not, for what if his friends do come? Will finding him dead be a good repayment?

Then Alma’s voice speaks, not in the affectless tones of the dead, but clearly, full of life.

“The light.”

And the other two repeat her words, again sounding like their normal selves. “The light.”

Sky looks up from where he cringes, to see the three of them with their heads up, pointing past him. There is a warmth behind him. A breeze carrying the scent of fresh air, a salty ocean. Tropical birds call.

He looks behind him, but still sees only the rough stone wall. One stone, however, glimmers faintly. Sky claws his way up the wall to his feet, shivering, barely able to stay conscious. He reaches for the stone with a shaking hand.

And at his touch, it is gone, along with the wall, the cell, the chains, and the complaining corpses. He is standing on verdant grass, the sun, warm and bright, overhead, in a sky of blue perfection. The large fronds of palm trees rustle in the breeze, and the sound of the surf prompts him to turn to see waves breaking soft on a beach of smooth, near-white sand. He has not seen the ocean in years, except at a distance, from good views on the Insula. But this is the ocean of Earth, his former home. There is something about it, different from the sea that surrounds the Insula. It feels endless.

He looks down at himself. His skin is a deep, rich brown, over a body well-muscled and also well-fed, his waist adorned with soft, white tappa cloth made from pounded bark. It is the shape he normally wears, dressed as he normally was so long ago, during his time as the god-king of a small valley on an archipelago island in one of the vast oceans of Earth. Here, it was almost always warm and pleasant. Even the rainy season was hardly wetter than the dry one. Food readily available from the land and the sea, occasional battles with the neighboring valleys, but usually settled with little or even no bloodshed.

This is all gone, he thinks. All lost.

A voice behind him – and yet somehow not behind him, but within him – says, Yes, it is a dream.

Sky turns to see a tall stallion, or rather a piece of the night sky in the shape of a stallion, standing on the grass, head turned to the side, looking at him. One moment the horse looks like a doorway to the infinite Void, the next like a solid, three-dimensional horse, merely a deep velveteen black, so dark Sky feels dizzy, his eyes falling into it. He blinks, feels his tongue in his mouth, all pain gone, and tentatively asks, “Who are you?”

I am Arion, Son of Chaos and Void Rider. The horse flared his big nostrils, taking in the air, and looks around with apparent interest. His voice is in Sky’s head, but Sky can feel a direction to it. An artful use of telepathic projection. A friend of yours, even if you do not yet know me.

His voice weak, Sky replies, “The father of the Bunnies.”

Arion lowers and raises his head in an equine nod. Yes. Such a strange dream you were having. The horror and pain in it caught my attention from among millions of dreams. I could not help but take a closer look. Forgive my invasion.

Sky studies him as he speaks, wracking his brain for any way this could be a trick by Nua. But she cannot penetrate his deepest thoughts, cannot even know that she cannot penetrate them. The Princes of Hell designed him, part of a long-term plan to create devils who could infiltrate and hide among the gods of the Insula. Even gods who can see the soul itself, like Alma, cannot quite see how he is different, and even Nevieve, greatest of the Oracles known still to be resident on the Insula, could not see his future until he dropped his disguise – or so she claimed. Sky’s mind was created to be able to close off his thoughts, and to be aware of what has passed in or out of that hidden chamber. He cannot see any way she could have filched knowledge of Arion from him, for he knew next to nothing of the Void Rider in the first place, nothing more than his name and that he had been involved in the creation of the Bunnies.

The only conclusion Sky can come to is that this is real. As real as a dream can be, that is.

“Thank you,” he says. “That dream…was a reality. I must have fallen asleep.” His breathing quickens. “Please, can you tell me? Are my friends alive? Are they well?” His voice nearly breaks on the final word.

Arion looks back over his shoulder, as if he notices something in the sky behind him. I can tell you that your friends are alive although I cannot enter their minds unless they sleep. One of them sleeps fitfully but all the others are awake, it seems. And all my children are safe and sound. You were captured?

Sky nods. He orders his thoughts, knowing that time must be limited. If he wakes, this connection will be cut, and with it his only way of getting a message to Alma and Gwydion. “Kidnapped from my own sanctum, by an enemy I killed two centuries ago. Her name is Nua. She has returned from Hell. She is trying to break my will at the behest of her master, a diabolist called Margrave. Using magic to change the appearance of innocent victims, they are trying to convince me they have captured and murdered Alma, Gwydion, and Saira. I cannot tell you the depth of my gratitude to hear that they yet live. But I fear that if I do not convince my captors they have broken me, they will do worse. More bystanders will die in agony.”

Two centuries, Arion muses, lost in memory for a moment. Ah, the Necromancer War against the Death Clan. I was still on the Insula then. And my beloved had not yet even been born. If I know Alma, she will be looking for her dear friend. But you are not on the Insula.

“It feels like a sanctum of some sort. It resonates with the powers of Hell, and also those of undeath,” Sky replies. Then he speaks very clearly and deliberately. “But you must tell them, this is a trap. They must not come to rescue me. Tell them, I beg you. They must gather a proper force and come to destroy these fiends. That is far more important. Not a rescue. A military assault.”

Arion steps closer, the sound of his hooves soft on the grass, and touches Sky’s cheek with his muzzle, snorting warm air against his skin. I will tell them. If I cannot find Alma’s mind, another will surely be available. But is it possible that you do not yet know the friends you have?

Sky closes his eyes. This simple touch, of kindness, not malice and pain, nearly brings him to tears. How long has it been since he fell asleep with Alma in his arms? Since he kissed Mayumi? “I do know them. That is why I fear what they will do. But they do not know me. If they did… I almost hope they would turn from me. I would rather die than see them come to harm.”

The fuzzy, whiskery touch that tickles his skin mutates into soft fingertips tracing Sky’s jawline. He opens his eyes to see a dark human face, midway between handsome and beautiful, smiling with soft amusement, framed in a long mane of black hair with white streaks. Arion’s mouth still does not move as he speaks. Young godling, in all my centuries I have learned that no matter how well we know someone, they can still surprise us. And though I may be the one who is surprised, I rather doubt that I am the one who is wrong. He removes his hand from Sky’s face with one final, gentle stroke. You can rest here, in this haven for now. Your captors will be entertained by a dream of my own creation.

“Thank you,” Sky says with feeling. “Though I am far from safe, you have saved me. I must make them think they own me. I must even believe it myself, will all but a tiny reserved corner of my being. It is a knife’s edge to walk. Being able to rest here, in this place so like that where I was strong and worshipped, if only for a single minute, gives me the strength to go on.”

Arion nods and smiles. I owe you a great deal, Tuma-Sukai. And I hope that your friends will succeed. He looks around again as if evaluating the place, gesturing generally to the island, the ocean, the sky. Remember that this is who you are. And in the end, that is all that matters.

Sky lowers his head in respect. “I will not forget that, or you, Void Rider. I am trying not to hope to escape this place, just to hope this horror can be ended. But if I do escape, your children will always have me to watch over them.”

Arion closes his eyes and smiles in appreciation. Suddenly, a whinny along with a splashing and a thumping of hooves galloping on wet sand prompts Sky to turn, his eyes widening to see horses, dozens of them, running through the surf, jumping and reeling, young foals snapping bites at the foam they raise in their wake. Sky feels a smile rise to his lips, his hopeless situation fading, just for a moment, from his mind.

And when he turns back, he sees that once again, Arion is in the form of a celestial horse, his long mane flowing in the rising breeze.

Sensing that their time together is drawing to a close, Sky asks, “Can you tell them where my prison is?”

Arion shakes his head. No. I cannot place it on the Insula. I could only find you through your nightmare. But have faith. You will be found. Rest now, Tuma-Sukai. You will need it for what is yet to come.

Sky struggles to maintain his composure. “Please tell them… Tell them what I said. Nua, Margrave – they must be stopped. That is the priority. That is an order from me. I will see to my own safety.”

Arion just snorts and wheels away. Remember your loyalties, Tuma-Sukai. Remember who you are. When the time comes, that is the only thing that can save you. In the distance, the other horses neigh and he is soon galloping, through the sand, through the air and through the sky, away from the dream, leaving Sky alone on the beach.

Ch6.68 Trust

Steel claws dig into Sky’s jaw to raise his unresisting head, bringing him partially out of a state that cannot be called sleep, more of a fitful unconsciousness. He opens one eye reluctantly. The other is already open, unable to close but blind, the lid partially torn away, the orb split by the whip formed from the spine of a tortured, mad death goddess.

His one good eye takes a moment to focus on Nua, grinning at him with that young pale face, in structure and complexion nothing like the Nua he had known, in expression unmistakable, instantly recognizable. “Good morning, Azzie! Ready for our next session? I have a treat in store for you. I spent all night preparing this, just for you.”

He summons as much dignity as he can. “So far…you have bored me with your amateur attempts. Why don’t you…summon up some experts from Hell?” The truth is, though he has with supreme effort resumed his human form, he can feel it slipping away from him like a watermelon seed squeezed between two juice-slicked fingertips. And with it, he feels his hope trying to go. He knows they want to reduce him to a bestial status, that for some reason they cannot bind him, despite knowing his true name, and by itself that is reason enough to resist. But he knows that rescue is highly unlikely, and if such an attempt is made…the thought of even one of those he loves being killed or tortured makes him want to find a way to kill himself right now – except of course that they would not know, and would come after him anyway, only to find a corpse. He simply hopes that they will never find this place, wherever it is.

They will miss him, mourn him. But they will live. They will comfort one another. They will find a way to take down the Whisper safely, too late to rescue him, surely, but then they’ll know his fate. They’ll be able to move on. That is what he holds onto, this narrative. As the bone-deep whiplashes leave fissures in his flesh and even his soul, threatening to drown all that he has gained since escaping Hell – friendships, love, family, duty, pride, loss – drown it in roaring and agony, he holds onto that, that those he loves will come through this safely.

And then the whip slashes across Sky’s chest, prompting a scream of pain that he cannot stop, but forces into something distantly related to laughter. Fresh blood gushes from the wound, spattering the floor to thicken the caked, dried layers at his feet.

Nua moves closer to him, her lower lip thrust out, pouting like a spoiled child. “Now, that wasn’t a nice thing to say. Not when I’ve brought some visitors here to see you.” She gestures to the door behind Sky. He hears wheels on the stone-flagged floor, and sees a gurney come into his limited field of vision. It looks as if it was rescued from a rubbish heap, the metal frame rusted, the wheels squeaking, one of them jittering like an old man’s trembling hands. The thin mattress atop the frame is stained with old blood, and strapped down on it is a man, struggling, barefoot, wearing torn, bloody trousers. The man’s wrists are locked down with shackles engraved with magical glyphs. Sky cannot see his face at first – his blind eye is on that side. But as the Whisper tough pushing it parks it in front of Sky, he sees a familiar face staring at him, hazel eyes pleading above a ball-gag.

Dion.

Sky roars and strains against the chains, his skin darkening rapidly with tattoos. “NOOOOOO! LET HIM GO! LET THEM GO!”

“But they’ve come all this way! They were all so cute, too, barging in to save you.” Nua laughs at the two gods trying to break free of their bonds. She slides the vertebral form of the whip through her fingers. “Now, one thing I realized is, you’re right. I’ve been on the painful end of the whip for these past two centuries, but I’m still not good enough to torture someone who was born in Hell. But! It occurs to me that none of your precious little friends has ever known the pleasures of endless Hellish torture.” Her hand grazes Dion’s leg, who struggles harder, mumbling through the gag.

Barely resisting the urge to shift into his devil form, Sky begs, abject. “What do you want from me? This – this accomplishes nothing. Nua, why do this? Please, please don’t…”

“Dearest Azzageddi, you still haven’t realized, have you? All I want from you is,” Nua pauses for a breath, “your pain.” She raises the whip and strikes Dion across the torso, diagonally from left shoulder to right hip. Blood spatters Nua’s face and chest. He screams incoherently, arching his body as much as he can within the tight straps.

Sky lunges against the chains, his body transforming faster than ever before, the shackles grinding and cracking his wristbones as they adjust too slowly. His roar causes the stones in the walls to rattle, dust to fall from the ceiling. “I WILL DEVOUR YOU ALIVE! I WILL TEARRRRR YOU TO PIECES AS YOU BEG FOR MERRRRRRCY!

Nua strikes Dion again, across the thighs, opening up deep wounds there as well. “Oh, yes! Yes! Roar, Azzageddi! Your roars are music to my ears!” Transferring the whip handle to her left hand, she slips a long, slender knife, one made for the kitchen rather than fighting, free from her sleeve and plunges it into Dion’s shoulder, right into the joint, twisting it to make him scream, his eyes locked on Sky, seeing his friend, his commanding officer, become an enemy of the gods.

Sky’s roars become worse than incoherent, cursing in Malbolge, one of the languages of Hell, curses that could age or sicken a normal mortal.

Nua draws back the blade and makes a show of licking the blood from it. “Now now, if you are going to be rude, my little devil, I might have to hurt our guest a bit more. I might have to pour some demon ichor into his wounds.” She reaches into a pocket and removes a vial. “We both know what that does to gods, don’t we?”

Pleeeeease…” His abyssal voice rings strangely pitiful in begging. “Please, no. I will swear loyalty to you. Just let them go.

Nua gives him a smiles of pleasure, but waggles her finger in admonishment. “Ah ah ah! Slaves do not get to cut deals. You will serve me. But I will do whatever I wish.”

Sky raises his massive head and howls his frustration. Shoulders heaving as he sobs for air, he looks at the shivering god on the gurney, and says quietly, “Dion…Dion I am sorry. I’m sorry.

Sky knows there is nothing he can do. Begging will only give Nua pleasure and drive her to greater acts of horror. And his apologies mean nothing. This is all his fault.

Dion’s eyes widen, then close tightly as Nua unscrews the cap on the vial. He struggles harder, but the straps hold him almost motionless. Nua carefully pours about a third of the contents into the wound in Dion’s shoulder. The stench of concentrated, refined demon ichor fills the room. Sky groans, slumping in the chains as Gwydion struggles and seizes, the pain too great even to allow him to scream through the gag. His skin blackens around the wound, and then in blotches further from it, rotting him from the inside out. The enchanted shackles prevent him from using his magic to heal himself, though with that much poison, it wouldn’t make any real difference anyway.

Nua watches in rapt fascination. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this in action.” She holds the smoke-glass bottle up to check it. “Need to make sure I save some for the others.”

Gwydion gives one last, gag-muffled scream, all his muscles locking, and then he collapses. Dead.

Limp in the chains, Sky sobs. Dion was his friend. They had fought alongside each other, aided each other, gone from a shared, suspicious aversion between the no-Ring outsider and the pampered First-Ring elite to a shared respect for each other’s differing but overlapping senses of justice and honor. Sky had been unsure at first about the growing romance between Alma and Dion, but he had become happy for them both as it had flowered, and sad when they had fought so recently.

And now dead. So pointlessly, so traumatically. Sky wants to whisper prayers for Dion’s soul, but fears Nua might detect that. In her madness, perhaps she will allow the god’s soul to escape. If a soul can escape from this room.

Nua looks at the corpse as if just now realizing it’s dead. “Oops! I got a bit carried away with this one, didn’t I? I hardly made it last!” She smiles at Sky, almost normally, making the blood drops on her face all the more disturbing. “Don’t worry. I won’t be half as rash with the other ones.”

She goes to the door and yells into the hallway, “Bring in the next one! And take this filth out of here.”

A shaken gangster rushes in and wheels away the stretcher while another wheels in a gagged Saira, fighting like a trapped fox against the straps, desperately using every mote of energy she has, clearly not caring if she snaps a bone in her struggles.

Sky cannot stop himself from roaring again.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Now wasn’t that fun? This one lasted much longer than the other one, didn’t she?”

Nua wipes a curved flensing knife on her blood-soaked skirt, and tosses a liver onto Saira’s mutilated, still corpse. The low-ranking gang-member who comes in to wheel her out just stares for a moment, shocked into immobility, but takes the push-handle, tacky with half-dried blood, and pulls the gurney from the room.

“Shall we proceed to dessert?” Nua asks with a grin. “You’ll like this one, for sure. You liked her enough to take her into your lair. How was she, darling? Was she as good as I was? Did she like it when you did that little thing with your thumb? Surely you haven’t stopped doing that.”

Sky has been silent a long time, forcing himself to watch the slow death of Saira, but hanging from the chains as if in a coma otherwise, trying to will himself to die. At Nua’s words, he closes his eyes and says softly, “If you kill her, you’ll have nothing to use against me. And you know I will kill you at the first opportunity. If you keep her alive, I will serve you.

Gently, Nua replies, “Oh Azzie… Always so limited. Of course I will have something against you. With her dead, who is to stop me from snatching her precious Bunnies and turning their slender bones into flutes and rattles for demon-spawn? Why, my servants are on their way now to fetch the little critters.”

He sags, defeated. “Please, Nua…please…

Nua moves closer to him and strokes his muzzle. “You should have thought about that when you killed me.”

He lunges for her, arms stretches as far as they can, trying to catch her arm in his wolflike teeth. He almost succeeds. If this had been near the beginning of his capture, he surely would have, but he has been slowed by the torture. His teeth snap together on empty air. Nua dances back with a scream that turns into nervous laughter when she finds she has not had her arm torn off. She covers up her burst of fear by pirouetting to the door and calling harshly, “Bring her in!”

A servant wheels in the white-haired goddess, dressed in Guardia Dei indigo, pale and slender, gagged and bound like the others. Her eyes are closed and, though she does not scream, her frame shakes slightly. Tears wet the corner of her eyes.

Nua strokes Alma’s face, making the goddess flinch. “She is such a pretty little thing, isn’t she? I wanted to ride her body and use her to get to the very heart of the Death Clan. Use her body to blow her family to bits.” She moves her face closer to Alma’s, her bloodied dagger grazing her victim’s neck. “Don’t we look like we would match?”

Sky whispers, as quietly as he can in his abyssal voice. “Alma…Alma, I cannot stop this. I am so sorry…” He feels utterly helpless, useless, nothing but a monster that has brought all he loves to a slow death. How took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies. Because of him, they will all suffer slow, brutal deaths, all but Mayumi. Safe at the Academy, she will survive, shattered and haunted by the merciless murders of her family.

Trailing her dagger along Alma’s body, tracing the shape of her form, a hungry look on her face, Nua says, “Yes, you can apologize. I’ll make sure she lasts long enough to hear everything you have to say.” She scratches Alma’s calf, drawing a thin line of crimson, and then moves it up under Alma’s skirt. Alma gasps in through her nose, shakes her head no, as Nua teases the razor-sharp blade along the goddess’ inner thighs. Sky clenches his taloned, pinioned hands.

The necromancer leans down to whisper loudly into Alma’s ear, “I had him first, Death Clan whore.” She stabs between the goddess’ legs.

Alma’s azure eyes snap open and her back arches in pain, a scream issuing from her throat and bubbling around the ball-gag. She closes her eyes and screams again as Nua twists the dagger, then pulls it back and stabs again.

Sky screams with her through his tight-clenched teeth. The goddess turns her head to look at Sky for the first time, her blue eyes imploring him, too terrified by the vicious thrusts that she is merely confused, not frightened by this devil in chains.

Breathing heavily, as if inflamed by lust, Nua pulls the gore-covered blade out from under Alma’s blood-soaked skirt, pointing the knife at the goddess’ belly. “She can heal, can’t she?” Her voice is crazed, on the verge of breaking into laughter. “I’ll just slice her open like a peach!”

She plunges the knife into Alma’s stomach. Goddess of life and death both, her powers kept inactive by the shackles, she struggles, mad with pain, her head turning, eyes returning, pleading and terrified to Sky. Looking to a devil to save her from a mortal. Her blue eyes…deep as the sea.

Blue, Sky realizes. They got her eyes right. Perfect. Except they haven’t seen her since before she became the Spinner. The didn’t know that her eyes have changed.

And that is when he knows: This is all a sham. These people are not Gwydion, Saira, and Alma. They are strangers, transformed by magic into perfect copies. That is why they are gagged, so they cannot scream out their confusion coherently and thereby reveal that they are not who they appear to be.

But the torture, the death, is all real. These are almost certainly mortal innocents, perhaps people without homes, taken off the street and suffering simply to destroy Sky’s resistance. The devil’s heart breaks again. His friends are safe, for now. But these people, who have nothing to do with him, are caught up in this and dying senselessly, with no idea why.

All this burns through his mind in a moment. He knows he cannot let Nua know that he has caught on. He keeps his eyes locked on the suffering woman’s, trying to help her focus on him, on anything other than the pain. He wonders what she sees, this terrifying monster that has been begging for her life. He silently promises her that if he somehow escapes, he will find out who she was and tell her family, if she has one, that she did not run away from them, did not abandon them. That it was not her fault that she disappeared from their lives. He can only hope she can detect the real sympathy he has for her, so that she knows she is not dying alone. He has nothing else to give.

It does not end quickly. Nua makes it last, but eventually she is bored by Sky’s lack of responsiveness. She blinds the woman with demon ichor, thrilling to the woman’s struggles, even though so much of her blood is already gone from her body. And then it is over and Nua orders her gone.

Nua looks down at her black dress, shiny and clinging to her body, heavy with blood, the floor foul and incarnadine. “Well, I guess that’s the end of this session. Wasn’t that entertaining?” She smiles like a child who has just received a big bag of candy. Sky lowers his head, silent.

Nua walks closer to him. “Are you mine yet, Azzie? Have you realized yet that your only choice is to serve me?”

He takes some time to become aware of her, to process what she said. He looks at her in fear and slowly nods.

Trying to bite her before was unwise. If he kills her, Margrave will still have him in chains.

So when Nua touches his face, grinning, he does not try anything. It takes great effort, but he feigns complete passivity. “Now, where is the Azzageddi that I remember? The one I gave a body to? Show him to me.”

His first human form. The frightened young man that, at Nua’s orders two centuries ago, he killed and ate in order to steal his shape. Sky reaches deep, searching for that form of one who had rejected her. He has not worn it in in all those years since he killed Nua, not since acquired his usual one, that of an island demigod, in personal combat. They are the only two shapes he has ever stolen. It is not an ability that he is proud of, and since the cost is the murder and cannibalization of a victim, he does not wish to steal any others. But that first one is still there, deep in his memory. He struggles to change, the unfamiliar form and the powerful need to be a devil fighting him. Being human is too painful, vulnerable.

But finally he succeeds. Bloody, thin, and pale, he hangs in the chains.

Nua strokes his face, her fingers leaving cold lines of blood across his cheek. “That’s more like it.” She leans in and runs her tongue over his lips before she kisses him.

He kisses her back, hesitantly. Tears begin to spill from his human eyes. As a devil, he cannot weep.

She breaks away, speaking softly, “Show me your tongue.” She holds up the same knife she used on Alma.

He allows his fear to show. “P-please…” His voice is higher, weaker than in his usual human-seeming form.

Her voice is velvet-smooth, “You were a bad boy, Azzie. Mother will have to teach you manners. Now…obey.”

He opens his mouth and puts out his tongue. It is not at all difficult to look at her, silently begging for mercy.

In one smooth movement, she pinches his tongue with two fingers and slices it off, tossing it away like unwanted meat. Blood gushes into his mouth, and his mouth closes, his lips grazing her fingers, tasting his own blood and that of three strangers.

Ch6.65 Trust

“Ah, awake. Again.”

Male voice, authoritative, cultured. Mortal. Second-Ring education, or learned to sound like it.

“This is becoming tiresome. It is not responding to any of the standard Seven Diabolical Bindings.”

Same voice. Sky hangs in his chains, body limp, eyes closed. He’s seen their faces. Seen the room, nasty little tile-walled torture chamber that it is, made to be easily hosed down. He doesn’t particularly want to see it all again.

He feels a whisper of breath on his ear, followed by the perpetually amused woman’s voice. “He is a tricky little devil, isn’t he? Maybe he needs some…motivation to respond? Do you, Azzageddi?”

Hearing his true name spoken with power behind it – not a great deal of power, but enough to electrify his senses – he opens his eyes. Well, one eye. The other is too swollen to open more than a sliver.

The shackles around his wrists are too tight, enough that his hands have gone numb and his wrists are in agony. Nevertheless, he hangs his whole body weight on them, his toes barely touching the ground. He could get his feet under him, stand up straight, but why bother? They’ll only whip him again. He can ignore this pain. It is there, it hurts, but he can push it to the background. The sudden pain is worse. And if they haven’t brought out their worst yet, he’ll be much surprised.

“Assume your true form, devil,” the man says. The one who refers to Sky as ‘it’, the pale man with the short, thinning brown hair, the light eyes, the trim little beard. “There is no reason to contain yourself this way. Those shackles will expand to fit just too tightly. They feed off any attempt to use your powers outside your body, however, and return that power with far worse pain.

Sky looks from one to the other with his one open eye. The girl, late teens or early twenties, all in black. A face new to cruelty. Madness, recently acquired. She likes to use his true name. How did she learn it?

“Names,” he croaks. “Who are you?” Though weak, bleeding, beaten, torn, he speaks with a Guardia authority, as if he is the interrogator, they the suspects in a crime.

The girl laughs. “Why, you don’t recognize me, Azzageddi? Oh, of course not. This poor little excuse of a body doesn’t quite bring it to mind, does it? But it’ll be easy to remember.” She runs a hand over his chest, smearing blood and sweat, then digs the claw-like rings the decorate the tips into the flesh of his pectoral muscle. “Because I brought you here.”

Sky grimaces but, though he feels his skin being pierced, he doesn’t make a sound of pain. Instead he grinds out, “You brought me here. Yes. Ambushed me in my sanctum. You’ll have to teach me how you broke in. After I throw you both into prison for what you’ve done.”

She smiles, fake-sweetly, licking blood off the silver claw-tips and glancing up at him seductively. Then she holds up a little clay jar, the top decorated with an ancient, infernal ward. “Oh, Azzie… So defiant. You have too much energy in you.” She takes the lid off and gingerly lifts out a writhing ball of slime, orange with black spots, like a slug trying to pass for a ladybird beetle. “Remember these? Still my favorite, how they burrow into open wounds and suck the life out of tissue. I think we tried them once, didn’t we? When you failed to bring back the book I wanted.”

Sky looks at her, quiet for several heartbeats. Impossible. She was long dead. But the dead have a way of coming back, when they are obsessed, demon-summoning necromancers. “Nua.”

She looks immensely pleased at this. She whispers, “Did you miss me?” as she applies the tiny demon leech, which burrows immediately into Sky.

The pain is immense, causing Sky to roar, writhe, straining against the chains. Nua looks at the jar, mockingly alarmed. “Oh! Goodness me!” She grins maniacally. “Looks like I summoned the ones that salivate acid. Poor Azzie!”

He feels his body, which has changed into his devil form twice in just the past few months, grow and shift, bones and muscles painfully realigning, skin splitting and hardening, wings and tail ripping free. The shackles grow too slowly for his wrists, cutting deeper into them, crushing the bones. His dinner-plate-sized hooves are soon resting on the floor, supporting his now far-more-massive weight, and he pulls against them, trying to break them. The blood, red-black and smelling of the blackest oceanic depths, runs in thick rivulets down his forearms, as the shackles cut deeper into his flesh.

Both his eyes are open now, one slightly less than the other, glowing blue-green, his wolfish muzzle open, the heavy horns over his eyes like a crown on his head. He beats the air with his wings, forcing his captors to step back. The leech within him dies with a muffled little cry, such an insignificant demon unable to survive the aura of a devil, a prince of Hell.

Nua says brightly to the man, “There. One devil, right up!” Her voice turns dry. “Try to be at least a little competent this time.”

The man’s eyes narrow and he looks at Nua with a much-practiced annoyance. “Am I to teach you manners again? How you waste my time with your little rebellions. It will not be long before I decide you are not worth keeping around, slave.” He jerks his head toward Sky. “Here’s your chance to show your worth. Reduce this to a state of brutal insensibility. Make it forget everything that makes its life worth living on the Insula. Make it hate all of that, as it should. And time is of the essence.”

Nua smiles as if being called a slave turns her on, and puts her hands on her master, stroking his expensive, perfectly tailored suit. She leans forward against him, breasts pressing against his chest, her voice close to a purr. “Can I have my toy back, Uncle Margrave?”

Margrave. Sky notes the name. The sorcerer reaches into his jacket and, like a magic trick, pulls out a long bullwhip that is clearly too big to fit in there. It appears to have been made from vertebrae, enough for a half-dozen mortals, covered in seamless black leather. “Don’t let me catch you using it on one of the men again,” he cautions.

Nua takes the whip greedily, her eyes locked on it as she slides the segments through her hands like the beads of a rosary. Viciously pleased, she takes it in one hand, while the other grazes Margrave’s torso, round to his back, sliding down below his beltline. “One of these days,” she murmurs as if to a lover, “I’ll use it on you.”

Margrave looks at her with contempt, ignoring her touch. “Remember that you are nothing but a bound soul. Bound to me. Harm me, even slightly, and you go straight back to Hell.”

“I’ll have your sweet little niece to keep me company,” Nua says, amused. “I’ll leave her little body hollow.” Suddenly, she forcibly kisses him.

Margrave stands stone-still, not responding to the kiss, until she pulls away. His look is withering. “Now that you’ve entertained our guest, perhaps you could get started on breaking him?” He turns to leave.

Nua pouts, then turns to Sky. “Soooo tense, that man. Needs to learn the value of a joke.” She swings her arm horizontally, causing the whip to slither across the floor like a python. “Now, where were we?”

Sky’s voice a soft, dangerous rumble, an abyssal volcano miles below the surface of the sea, ready to explode. “Do you rrrrreally think therrrre is anythinnnng you cannnn do to brrreak me that was not donnnne a thousand times worse in Hell? Comparrrrred to the least-skilled torrrrture demon, you are a rrrrrank amateur. As you were an amateur demon summonerrrr. And an amateur necrrrromancer as well.”

Nua spins like a dancer, swinging her arm, the tip of the whip cutting through the skin of his cheek and a piece of his lip. She does not shout but is clearly enraged. “I’ll show you just how bad I can be.” She strikes him again, across his broad chest.

Sky makes no response beyond clenching his teeth, refusing even to grunt. But the whip is alive, and it bites deep, its death-aura whipping even deeper, past his flesh and into his soul. He can feel the wounds there, wounds of the like he has not suffered in two centuries, since leaving Hell. The pain is blinding.

Despite his words, he can tell that he is not likely to hold out forever against this and more-imaginative tortures. He has more to lose, now. More ways to be hurt. People and things that he cares about. Life outside of Hell has softened him.

Nua lashes him again and again, her face indicating an eroticized cruelty that brings her deep pleasure from each sign of his pain. “Oh, I love bound weapons. Don’t you?” She stops and gently rubs the phallic handle of the whip against her cheek, breathing heavily. Her voice becomes like a school teacher telling a fairytale to a group of young children. “This one was a death goddess for this ward. Weak little thing. She screamed and begged as I broke her and bound her into her own spine. She is muuuuch stronger now. Maybe this is what I’ll do to your beloved death goddess. After I take her out for a SPIN!”

The whip lashes across Sky’s face, closing one of his eyes again, this time by splitting the orb like a grape.

Ch6 mid-chapter 1: Somrak & Memory

“I was on my own time, you know.”

“You don’t have your own time unless we say so.” Fencer’s voice is harsh, but also tired. Tired of him, Somrak is sure. Tired of excuses.

He’s leaning against the doorframe leading from the entryway to the receiving room in the Commander’s simple, spartan home. He’s just arrived, summoned a few hours ago via terse magical message, fiery letters floating in his mind’s eye: My home. Now. He had been washing blood from his hands in a pool of melted snow.

The room is wobbling in and out of focus. How many chairs? Three. Four? No, it’s three, it just looks like four. And the sofa. He remembers Sky stretched out on that, asleep, as Somrak was teaching a little godling to cook in the kitchen. Long time ago.

“Now explain,” Fencer growls as she sits on the top guy’s chair like it’s hers. Not that it’s the Commander’s favorite chair. That’s in the real living room, deeper in the house. This room? This is for guests who aren’t exactly friends, so the Commander doesn’t have to share the rest of his home with them. It is also a room that can be instantly sealed off and filled with deadly forces that even Somrak isn’t privy to. Just in case those not-friends become unfriendly.

There is a piercing pain that makes him think his skull may actually be fractured. It’s getting harder to ignore. He ignores it. “Just doing my job, lady,” he says, casually, hoping he’s not slurring his words. “And everybody else’s, as usual.”

“This is no training exercise!” Achmal, his hulking shoulders flexing, towers over Somrak. He’s even taller than Sky and far bulkier, all muscle, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his size to intimidate. His voice echoes down the twisting tunnel of the ice cave they are in. “Tell us what’s going on, Somrak!”

“Somrak, please.” Xinappa is a gentle soul for an off-blue, her origin a tropical ward, and she looks uncomfortable with the cold. “Call for extraction. We want to get out from under this glacier.” Her partner, Erissa, nods, her body wrapped in a warm coat, hood hiding her auburn hair.

Somrak looks at dour Ogive, who is silent, looking back with those bored killer’s eyes, his big silver bow on his back. A god of archery, Ogive can shoot the wings off a mosquito at a hundred paces, and put an arrow through a god’s eye at a mile. Somrak has seen him do it.

And at their feet is the healer brought along on this mission, a life god by the name of Renrak. His head is severed. The blood on the ice is frozen.

Somrak takes a breath. Achmal’s blustering does not move him. But it’s time to tell the truth. He nods at Renrak’s corpse.

“We’re here because one of us, according to the guys at the top, is a traitor. And we’re not leaving until we figure out who.”

Fencer is silent for a moment, glowering at him with those mismatched eyes, one red, one glowing silver. Finally she says, her voice tense with warning, “There are not enough words in this language to describe how much you annoy me, Ponytail. What he sees in you, I do not know. Now quit the idiotic jokes and give me a straight answer!”

He can’t actually remember what joke he made, so he shrugs, refusing to be intimidated. Also refusing to let his knees buckle. The only reason he isn’t sitting is he’s certain he won’t be able to stand up again. “What’s to complain about?”

“Stop. One more step and you die.”

 His voice is exhausted, but it rings through the corridor and echoes deep into the labyrinth formed by meltwater beneath the glacier. A womanly figure, her coat lost, is silhouetted by the blue glow of a portal that floats in the air, mere steps out of her reach.

Erissa turns. As a fire god, Somrak can make out her facial features in their heat patterns, but the effect is nonetheless alienating, her youthful beauty missing.

“Let me go, Somrak.” She sounds frightened. She should be. “I only did what I had to do.”

“You tried to frame me for Renrak. And then for Xinappa. Your own partner, Erissa! She covered for you! She lied for you!” Fury chases the exhaustion from his voice and, from his hands to his forearms, flames roar to life. Steam rises from his clothes and skin, soaked as he is with melted ice. “Ogive and Achmal are buried under tons of ice, maybe dead too.”

“You should have stayed under there with them.” She shakes her head, taking a step backward toward the portal. “You would have been safer. Somrak, please – they’re coming for me. They know I failed. They’ll take me to Hell before I can be interrogated.”

He should just set her aflame. She can still be interrogated with charred flesh. But though he has nearly spent all his godly power, he decides on giving her one last chance to surrender. He raises his right hand, and a wall of fire whooshes into existence behind her, between her and the portal, close enough to singe her hair. She staggers away, falling to her hands and knees. Water begins to trickle fast down the walls near her.

“Was it just for power, Erissa? Dissatisfied demi wanting to be a full goddess? Well you got what you wanted. Are you happy about the cost?” As his divine sphere pulses within, he can feel the fire burning even in his broken bones now, banishing the chill of melting his way through tons of collapsed ice. But his thoughts are cold as the heart of this glacier. “I’ll protect you from your masters. You’re going to tell us everything you told them, and everything they ever asked. And who put you in contact with them.”

“I’m not surrendering,” Erissa insists. She rises and the corridor pulses with a sickly green glow. Somrak’s wall of fire turns green, and he senses that he no longer controls it. He tries to get it back, but these demonstrations of power, meant to cow the off-blue traitor into submission, have used up his last reserves of mana. He cannot wrest control of it from the nearing forces of Hell. Then it goes out, but Erissa’s eyes still glow with the same deadly light. “They’re here. I always liked you, Somrak. You should have stayed away. Maybe they’ll give me another chance, in exchange for your soul.”

A shape forms, green-highlighted black against the blue portal from which it emerges. He recognizes it immediately. She has a long, thin-bladed sword in one hand, and one of her eyes is glowing silver.

The Fencer speaks, her voice harsh and undeniable. “Stand down, Corporal. It’s over.”

Erissa screams in frustration, the corridor trembling with her rage. The green light pulses more strongly, and the ice groans. A section of the tunnel collapses on top of Fencer, and the rest seems it could give way at any moment.

His left arm shattered and useless, Somrak draws a long knife from a thigh-sheath and charges.

“Were you ordered there?” she sneers. “Was it wise or necessary to act alone?”

He raises his right arm, palm up. The other stays where it is, pressed against the doorframe. Alma healed it one day ago. Now it’s broken again, the damage barely ameliorated through his own meager healing magic, just enough to hold it together. Alma would not be happy. He’s much better at destroying things than repairing them. “Necessary? We were short-handed following that nightmare you cooked up under the ice. And the Special Operations boys, let’s face it, wouldn’t have got the job done so quickly or thoroughly. So yes, necessary. And wise. The proof of that is in the results.”

“The results? Oh, you mean the dead gang of frost giants? The ones we never intended to kill in the first place?” Her voice rises in volume. She gets up and stalks toward him, as she speaks, ending up almost nose to nose with him. “Damn it, Somrak! You do not get to decide what needs to be done! Certainly not just because you need to vent your anger over whatever piece of stupidity you did on your day off! You should not even have been operational yet!”

An annoying stray thought crosses his exhausted mind: Damn, she looks good. I mean, I don’t exactly want to get with that, but I totally see why the Commander does. He forces his mind away from irrelevancies back to the fact that one of the most dangerous goddesses in this universe is deeply unhappy with him right now. She has, after all, been known to end problems with great abruptness and finality.

“What can I say?” His mouth is working on autopilot, and he finds himself wondering what will come out of it. “Your niece is a far better healer than our darling Butcher. And what were you planning to do with a bunch of murderous religious-fanatic frost giants anyway?”

The cold again. Not that it matters to him. Being a fire god means never needing long underwear.

He can still feel Alma’s kiss on his lips, tingling, even after almost a day. And the shame of learning how blind he’d been – he can feel that, too. He hadn’t wanted to see it. Hadn’t wanted to see she was in love with Dion.

So a quick getaway, back upslope to Guardia Headquarters – not the off-blues HQ, not after what happened under the ice – and one quiet inquiry later, here he is. Good to have a friend in Special Operations. Well, ‘friend’ might be pushing it. Someone who owes him enough to tell him what’s the nastiest, meanest operation coming up.

And that is here: Yotn, ward of frost and crags. Mountains on the slope of the Celestial Mount, broken black stone covered in eye-blinding white snow, small villages scattered in the valleys. It is very picturesque from his vantage point atop a ridge, looking down on two valleys. Except for the smoke and the smashed houses, the bodies in the cobblestone streets, and the enormous figures striding through them.

Frost giants. Disagreeable types. Classification of just what is and is not a god is always a fuzzy thing, and some call frost giants gods, but never to their face. Like the denizens of Hell, they hate gods, whom they consider to be young upstarts. And once in awhile they get it into their heads that it’s time for a war.

It never lasts long. The giants aren’t exactly idiots, but they don’t value thoughtfulness. They hold simple, direct action in great esteem. Somrak can understand. Action is the best way to chase away unsettling thoughts.

The giants have devastated two villages already, and have destroyed the ward’s public portal. Good thing for the Commander’s hidden portal network. The only disadvantage is that the secret portal is located a long, icy climb above the valley where the giants are having their fun. Somrak takes time to stretch his limbs. Of course he didn’t bring any climbing equipment. What’s the fun in that?

He looks at the black fingerless gloves on his hands, a gift from his rival for Alma’s affections. For a moment he considers taking them off, tossing them away, but he’s not angry at Dion. He’s angry at himself.

It will be two days before the Special Operations mission begins to take down the gang of giants. Plenty of time for Somrak to deliver his anger to some people who really deserve to receive it. Special Ops can thank him later.

Not that they will.

No longer shouting but all the more dangerous for how calm she sounds, Fencer moves even closer. Somrak pushes aside the absurd temptation to kiss her, surely born of a death wish. “I know it was her who healed you,” she growls softly. “You reek of her power. Tell me, did she heal you so you could flirt with death again? Is that how you plan to capture her attention? By having her come and collect your soul when you get yourself killed?”

Two frost giant corpses collapsing at once makes an impressive momentary earthquake. Somrak actually feels his feet leave the ground from the impact. A damaged house tumbles the rest of the way down, and there is a hiss all about as snow slides off the angled rooftops of the buildings still standing

One of the giants has buried his axe in the other’s head; the other has thrust a spear through his companion’s eye and out through the back of the skull. They now lie on their sides, still clutching their skull-destroying weapons, looks of surprise on their faces. They had, after all, been aiming at a fiery shape that had looked a great deal like Somrak, flying through the air between them.

Easy to shape fire into anything, he thinks, satisfied with the results of his trick. Let’s see the Special Ops guys figure out how that happened. He grins and strides through the main street of the village.

A full third of the houses are damaged beyond repair, he observes. Some are completely destroyed. Human bodies, of all ages and genders, lie scattered in the street, the victims of giants who believe their ancestors, whom they worship instead of gods, have ordered this tragic little crusade. They may well be right – who knows what madness the long-dead ghosts of aeon-old giants may preach? But littered among the human corpses are now those of giants, sixteen in all, some with boiled-to-explosion brains, some with their icy hearts burnt to ash, some with slashed tendons and then, brought to earth by legs that would no longer support them, slashed throats.

One of his favorite blades has broken. Even enchanted, dwarf-forged steel can’t stand up forever to the hard work Somrak puts it through, particularly because Somrak prefers his short swords narrow and light. He grumbles and sheathes the half-blade, reminding himself to visit his favorite equipment-smith and get a new one made. There goes two months’ pay –

And that’s when one of the giant corpses reaches out like lightning and grabs Somrak’s left arm, squeezing hard. Somrak screams as he feels his radius and ulna twist and then snap like twigs. The giant sits up, lifting Somrak from the ground. The god stares back at one hate-filled, pale-blue eye. The giant’s other eye is gone, along with almost half of his head, burned away by a particularly energetic display of a fire god’s power

“Tough…bastard,” Somrak gasps through clenched teeth.

The giant says something in that ponderous language that always sounds like an avalanche to Somrak. “Speak…Urbia…you stinking barbarian!” Somrak shouts. He is just summoning up the power to cook the rest of the giant’s brain when it smashes him to the hard stone street, once, then again.

He doesn’t break eye contact. He wonders if she can see the concussion in his eyes. After a long tense moment he says, “Message received. So is there anything else?”

She pulls back, staring at his face. “Yes. None of the other off-blues is willing to work with you. Your team is no more, Somrak.”

He clenches his jaw, though the pain that sends slicing through his head almost knocks him off his feet. “I’m sure I can find something to do.”

She turns and goes to the sideboard. “I better not hear of you going anywhere near Three Rats, Ponytail. That place is bad enough for our people without a walking menace like you around.”

He closes his eyes. The room is going out of focus again. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ve always wanted to take up macrame. Very calming, I’m told. You might try it.”

He hears the thup sound of a cork being pulled from the neck of a bottle, followed by the tink of the bottle’s neck touching a glass. Liquid pouring. “My brother has spawned enough sons with a talent for hangman’s nooses. I can do without the pointless artistry.” A little water being spritzed into the glass. “By the way, I have spoken to your master. He is handing your leash over to me on a permanent basis.”

Somrak opens his eyes and looks pointedly at the bottle next to her hand. Whisky, nothing very rare or refined, just simple and delicious. “Are there two glasses, or am I just drinking straight from the bottle?”

She lifts her glass and sips the whisky. “You’re in no condition to drink. Sit.”

He looks at the chair she nods toward and sighs. Walking with the care of a practiced drunk, he moves to it and carefully sits. The moment he does, the enervation of his unrested body washes over him, just as he’d feared. Every ache, every sharp stabbing pain, every throbbing agony comes on in full force. He clenches his teeth against a groan.

“So what’s next?” he gasps.

“Next is a visit from a healer. Don’t worry, it’s not the Butcher. Then you focus on getting your head screwed on straight. And after that, I have a couple of ways for you to make yourself useful.” She takes a drink. “Did you give her the sword?”

At the abrupt change in topic, Alma’s smile as he handed her the gift from Fencer returns in his mind. And the feeling of holding her in the breezeway. Kissing her. “I did. She likes it. Relieved you didn’t ask for the old one back.”

Fencer snorts. “She had the nerve to steal that one from me. Anyone that brave or stupid deserves a reward. Tell me, how’s your fencing?”

He feels very detached from his body. He hears his voice saying, “You tell me. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” But he thinks the clever words may have come out as senseless babbling.

Being witty is such hard work.

“You’re badly injured. Let me heal you.” The beautiful white-haired Sergeant reaches a hand to touch Somrak.

He moves back slightly, still twitching from the lightning strike that hit him. In the wake of the assassination attempt of this Alma and her Archon-Dooming Bunnies, he is not in the best of shape, but his body is already healing in the way nearly any god is capable of, even one as oriented toward destruction as himself. And if she’s anything like the off-blues’ staff healer, known as the Butcher, Somrak is better off healing himself. “Save it, Sergeant. You’ll likely need the mana later.”

He knows who she is, of course. When the Commander split up the forty-year Somrak and Sky partnership – an off-blue teamup both tumultuous and highly successful, and one that had outlasted any other partnership in the existence of the off-blue program – Somrak naturally looked into the Dei officers that Sky would be working with. But he hadn’t looked very closely and now here she is, face to face, the notoriously difficult Sergeant Alma, Dei of a dozen stations.

And seeing her face before him, pale and delicate while at the same time flushed with Life energy from healing the red-haired Bunny, he is certain he has seen her before. He will have to plumb his memory. Later. Assuming he survives.

She frowns at him. “It is a more efficient use of mana to heal you now, rather than leave you as a burden on the rest of us. I daresay I can heal you with greater ease than you can heal yourself.

He smiles, that lopsided grin pulled into a smirk by his scar, so infuriating to many even when it is an honest smile. This goddess, only a few decades his junior but barely a rookie Guardia compared to his mortal lifetime of service, mother-henning him. He finds himself charmed but, being who he is, he has to express himself sardonically. He turns to the Commander and jokes, “I see what you meant about her.”

He looks back to see her narrow-eyed glare at the Commander, which just makes Somrak like her more. He can imagine all those dull rulesbound station commanders she’s served under, not knowing what to do with her. He’d love to show her the off-blue life. She might even like it.

Ch6.62 Trust

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.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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.

 

Ch6.61 Trust

“He used something like that on me once before, long ago,” Sky is saying. The pleasant, relaxing sounds of stringed instruments and voices singing in languages barely known on the Insula issue from the speakers connected to Sky’s windup, flywheel-powered record player. Sky has one hand wrapped around a mug of coffee, feeling the heat from it penetrate his fingers. The mug has no handle. It is rustic-looking but with a subtle elegance, and the smell steaming from it triggers a sense of calm in the long-time imbibers of the drink regarded as sacred among some cultures of the City of Gods. The music, the coffee, the goddess next to him combine with the feeling of welcome that he always feels here in his sanctum. It is like a living thing, almost – no consciousness at all, but there is a sort of spirit here in this, his home. “A combination of drunkenness and lust. It’s like a squid spraying a cloud of ink to cover its escape. But it leaves behind devastation.”

Alma is leaning against him, exhausted, his other arm around her. She is cradling a matching cup of coffee in both her hands, looking wan, ready to drop off to sleep at any moment. She is still incorporating her new sphere and none of this has helped. “I despise love spells. They distort everything. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have…” She looks up at him, embarrassed. “You know.”

He looks at her, his face sorrowful. “I know. Of course I know. And neither would I.” At a raised eyebrow from her, he snorts. “Look…if there were any goddess I were going to fall in love with, it would be you. I know myself that well. But, as much as I love you, I’ve never…never been attracted that way, to immortals.”

Alma’s mouth opens. “Oh.” She pauses for a heartbeat. “Well, no wonder I’ve felt so at ease with you. I’ve known some gods who were drawn to mortals. It usually works the other way around, though. I could never bind to mortals. They are so…temporary. So frail.”

Sky shakes his head. “I’ve known gods like that, too, who go chasing after mortals and then abandon them before they can become inconveniently old.” His tone has an edge of disgust to it. “That’s not me. It’s not that I have a particular passion for mortals. More that I don’t have this…complete lack of passion for them. It’s something in how I was made. Maybe connected with the rebellion thing. I don’t really know.” But I have suspicions, he wants to say. All offspring of Hell are born with an antipathy for their former slaves, the gods. In me, it is quite muted, but still comes through in this way. And the evil and cruelty I suffered in Hell makes unthinkable any feelings of affection for one of my fellow devils or demons. But mortals – I was made to feel empathy for them. To lead them in rising up.

“You have no choice, then?” Alma asks, interrupting his reverie. “Other than to love those who will inevitably leave you to mourn alone?”

Sky shrugs. “I have a choice. I have chosen to live in isolation for more than sixty years.”

She closes her eyes in sympathetic pain and leans her head more firmly against his side. “Poor Sky. Well, I hope this doesn’t add to your pain, but I’ve never felt romantically pulled toward you, either.”

Sky chuckles. “That isn’t painful to hear. If I didn’t already know it, I would say it’s a relief. I mean, it would be flattering, but since I can’t reciprocate, it would complicate things. I’ve…had a goddess or two fall for me. You’re my dearest friend. It would fill me with sorrow if you loved me in a way I could not return.”

Alma finishes her coffee and sets the cup on the table, which has several small objets d’art on it. Passing over a knotted dragon carved of ivory, a small school of ceramic carp, each painted in unique patterns and apparently designed as chopstick holders, and a comical bug-eyed mudskipper whose gaping mouth holds a random assortment of pens and pencils, she picks up a carving of lustrous wood, looking at it absently, running her thumb over the smooth surface. It is a statuette of a god or demon done in a fantastical, almost parodic style, with a huge wolflike muzzle of shark teeth, backswept horns, a big overhanging belly, bowed legs, and upturned laughing eyes. It holds a harpoon in one hand and a bundle of fish on hooks in the other, and its draconic tail wraps around a pile of skulls scattered about its feet.

“Part of me is wondering now…” she begins, leaving Sky hanging, waiting for how that will finish and filling in the blank with a hundred possibilities. “…if Gwydion was right.”

It takes him a moment for it to click into place. “When he accused you of forming a harem? First of all, he had the wrong idea about me. Second, correct me if I’m wrong, but the only god other than Dion who has fallen in love with you lately is Somrak. Not much of a harem.”

She says silent for a two slow breaths. “So you know about Somrak, then?” she asks, her voice low.

“After all those years of being his partner, I can read him easily,” Sky replies. “It was pretty obvious he had developed feelings for you, at least while I was asleep for a week. Maybe before that. I should have seen it coming. You…are his type. Anyway, I just think you’ve been meeting the sort of gods, lately, who are naturally going to be drawn to you. Coincidence.”

“If only I weren’t drawn to them,” she says. “I really always wanted something simple. Two people for as long as it lasts. I thought I had that and then I didn’t and now I had it again but…I don’t.” She shrugs. “We’re not exclusive, Gwydion and I. At least in theory. Turns out that just went one way. Worked fine for as long as I didn’t want anyone else.”

Sky is quiet for a moment, just comfortingly rubbing her shoulder. Then he says, “He’s afraid. I wouldn’t claim to understand that kind of thinking…except maybe I do. For me, it wasn’t other lovers. It was war. I was with someone I loved, truly loved, and we only had so many decades we could be together, and yet I would go off to war every few years. Part of it was my nature, but part…fear of that all-encompassing commitment. And of what I knew would come after. Fear of the end. It took me time to figure that out, and to stop running away.”

“I love him, Sky. I didn’t think I did, at first. It was just… We were both going through very difficult times and it was solace, being together. No commitments. Just a way to avoid thinking. Together, for a time. But then time went by and it didn’t take long for that to change. But I never pushed. It’s not like I’m any better at commitments than he is.”

As diplomatically has he can, Sky says, “I’ve heard…rumors about his romantic tendencies.”

“I’m very much aware of his general approach to the opposite sex.” Alma smiles wryly at Sky. “I’m not young enough to believe in fairy tales, you know?”

“Hey, there are some wards where not believing in fairy tales will get you killed,” Sky jokes. “Anyway, he hasn’t learned to trust yet. Not just you, but himself. That’s what I think, anyway. And you’re absolutely right to be furious with him, but…” He sighs. “Maybe I’m just a fool, but I think you two are going to be good together.”

Alma cuddles against him. “I’m not furious anymore. Just sad…tired. Wondering what I’ll find when I return to the station. And how he found out about Somrak.” She looks up at him. “So I’m Som’s type, then? And what does that mean, exactly?”

Sky pulls her closer, relishing the simple physical contact. “Ah, Somrak. I’ve rarely seen his cynicism break down. It only ever has around goddesses who are at least as tough as he is. Not in the sense of raw power, but in mental strength. People who have…been through Hell, but who do not let it limit them. He respects that.” He pauses. “And…well, it’s none of my business…”

In mild irritation, Alma insists, “Oh, just ask already. What would I have to hide from you now?”

“I was just wondering what the draw is, with him. As you said, you just want something simple. But it’s clear you are attracted to him.”

Alma takes a deep breath. “Have you ever tracked a criminal who takes amusement in taunting you, outsmarting you, being one step ahead? And the chase becomes consuming? You want to outsmart him, learn to think like him until you’re not quite sure which thoughts are yours and which of them aren’t?”

Sky nods, his mind going back over a number of cases.

“Death gods are like that too,” she continues, “with people who keep – what do they say? Flirting with death? It’s more than a simple expression. It’s alluring. But…that’s not all of it. As you say, Somrak is just so broken. So alone. I know that kind of loneliness. The numbness.” She sighs. “Anyway, I wouldn’t leave Gwydion to run after him. And that is what I told him, that day during the party.”

Sky nods again. After so many years of being Somrak’s responsibility, Somrak’s partner, and very recently, maybe, Somrak’s friend, he knows what she means. “Despite what happened, I’m glad I asked him to come to Three Rats. He needs someone. Us.”

“He has us,” She smiles humorlessly. “For as long as he wants us. How long have you two been together?”

“Oh, the Commander partnered me up with him when I was fresh out of the Academy. So about forty years.”

Sounding tired, Alma murmurs, “Why would he? I thought Somrak was many times our senior.”

“He is,” Sky says. “He has been an off-blue longer than you, Gwydion, and I put together have been Guardia. But he’s actually younger than I. So maybe the Commander thought we would sort of balance each other out.”

“It seems too long a time to spend as an off-blue,” she says with a sigh. “Anyway…I admit I was surprised to find he could be so friendly. He surely seemed less amenable when we first met at the Curia. And Gwydion took to him as well, I could tell, in spite of the jealousy. And the Bunnies…” She covers her face with her hands, dropping the wooden figurine on her lap. “Gods, the Bunnies…. Might have had an eighth one tonight if you had not broken that spell.”

Sky’s eye go wide. “What?” he squawks.

Alma fidgets with the hem of her dress as she talks. “I’m afraid I cannot quite control how I create them… You see, I can’t…you know. Not with gods. Not without risks.”

“Oh.” He thinks of the consequences. The thought of offspring has always disturbed him, since he has no idea what the result could be. He feels ill again. Then he realizes what this means for her and Gwydion. “And so Dion and you…?”

“I know.” She looks up at the ceiling. “It’s frustrating to say the least. Hence the whole arrangement deal. I would risk it with him, though, if the Council weren’t watching. If another Bunny pops up…”

A new Bunny would very possibly see Alma sentenced to Hell after all, and the existing Bunnies coldly executed. “The consequences for you and all of them would be dire. There’s no, um, magical way of…?”

She shakes her head. “Still looking. No choices so far. Mortals are safe. Demigods are too, it appears. But gods…too powerful an exchange of mana. And really, I have no interest running around lying with whoever is safe. Truth is, I’m not even sure how I do it.”

“What about this new sphere?” Sky asks. “Will it bring balance, or more difficulty?”

“I don’t know, really. The Wheel is everything. Life to Death to Life again. When a soul is spun through it, it is cleansed. Reshaped. Through the Spinner – a god of the Wheel, that is – a soul may reach the Wheel. It’s a strange sensation. Indescribable. Pain and ecstasy.” Alma shakes her head. “It was frightening when it awoke in me. I was not prepared for it. And Spinners…they’ve always been Life gods. For as far as I can remember, just one of them lives at each generation. Our current Spinner has been growing weak. We had been afraid she would disappear without leaving a successor.”

Sky feels worried. “Does this spinning weaken gods then? Is it going to bring you to harm?”

“I don’t know,” she says again. “But Sharia is rather aged. I think she is merely becoming senile. The Wheel takes power in order to be channeled, I think. Maybe…she is too old to summon enough power.”

“Strange to think of gods becoming old, but I suppose it works that way for some,” Sky muses. The truth is, most gods disappear after a few centuries, very few lasting more than a dozen. Exactly what happens to them is unclear; the consensus is that they ascend to a higher plane of being.

They fall quiet, and Alma looks around the room. On the curved wall are pictures of people, some smiling, others keeping their faces woodenly expressionless, framed in hand-carved, sometimes painted frames that are themselves works of art. A half-dozen guitars are mounted on the wall as well, decorative but easily removed to be played, and there are smaller ones as well. Weapons also at hand: two curved swords of different designs, a short spear, a hardwood club with what appears to be shark teeth embedded along the edges to make a primitive, wicked sort of sword. She picks up the statuette again from her lap. “So who is this?”

Sky laughs. “Oh, that’s me. I started out as a god on another world. I was worshipped in a tiny kingdom that occupied a single valley on a small island. This,” he juts his chin at the record player, “is music by people who live on that island.”

“But not by your people?” Alma asks.

Sky shakes his head slowly. “I failed to protect them. I wanted to explore the world. Disease and the actions of stronger, predatory nations wiped them out while I was away. By the time I returned, they were gone. No one ever recorded their music. I am the only one left who knows their songs.” He tries to speak matter-of-factly, but the shame in his voice is obvious. Even after all this time, he thinks of them almost every day.

Alma squeezes his hand. “Well if you looked anything like this, you’ve certainly changed.” The gentleness of her voice softens the sardonic words. “So, why is it that you keep this place so well hidden?”

“Oh, part of the paranoia of being off-blue, I suppose,” he answers. “I’ve always kept a fake place that can be ‘found’ by enemies. Not that I’ve taken great care of keeping this secret. Being part of a regular station is simpler. Enemies can usually be met head on.”

Alma smiles. “I’m not really one to talk. My sanctum is busier than Kyri’s bakery. But I like this place. It feels rather like you. Simple on the surface. Hints of a million stories to tell in every little thing. Like this idol, and the pictures. Or that little carving on the shelf over there.”

Sky looks, and stretches to pick it up and show it to her. It is a yellowed piece of ivory, somewhat triangular, the size of his palm, curved on one side and almost straight on the other, with a rounded tip and a base made of polished, fantastically twisted driftwood. On one side is carved in delicate lines an image of a ship in full sail, plowing through the waves; on the other is a large fish-like creature, a spout of water or spray or maybe even smoke rising from its head. “That…is something carved for me by my, well, my grandson. He was on a sea voyage, and became quite the artist during it. This is the ship he was on, the Hamilton,” he points to the tiny name carved on the hull. “And this is what they hunted.”

Alma is wide-eyed as she takes it from him. “You have a grandson? This means you had children, at some point. Where are they?”

Again, he tried not to sound as sad as he feels. “Long gone. They were all adopted. Mortals.”

Alma says nothing, but puts a hand on his and squeezes it gently.

After a long moment of silence he says, “I met her not long after my encounter with Sam there. Well, some years, but it didn’t seem so long. Slaves had risen up on an island, and I had gone to aide them, and there was Sam. For a time, I thought we were friends. Then he switched sides. Anyway,” he reaches for a thick portfolio on the table, opening it to reveal images, photographs, some of them by methods she had never seen before, until he finds one of a serious-faced couple in finery – a wedding photo. It takes her a moment to recognize Sky, his hair completely different, slicked back and with furry sideburns, wearing a black suit with a curious little bow around his neck. The woman next to him is in white, with a veil over her hair, her face darker than his, lips full, a knowing look as if she has seen through the photographer and holds some secret of his. “This is her. Laura. We met, and I fell in love. And it being in the midst of war – a different war – we found children who needed homes. I… Well, we soon had a family. And one thing I know is, picking a fight with Sam while one has a family is not a good idea. So I did my best to forget that vow of revenge.”

“And you saw him again you just thought you’d go for it?” Alma asks.

Sky shakes his head ruefully. “I knew giving him a chance to act was a mistake. I thought I should try to take him out quickly, neutralize his powers. I thought he was going to do something to you. So…I acted. But as usual, he was already prepared.”

“I will report to Father about him, now that I know what we are dealing with,” she tells him. “He is family. That helps. The Clan will deal with him.” She turns slightly to stroke Sky’s temple. “And I think you should let that vow fall for the time being. You have a family.”

Sky reluctantly nods assent. “He is more trickster than death god, really. Be careful. And then there is the necromancer…”

Alma looks down, her hand lowering again. “Yes, there is that. I have been reading the information that my father has finally unlocked about the wars. So much that I didn’t know about my clan, what it went through. And finding something that will be of use to us is like sifting through a mountain of sand in search of gold.”

“We will find them,” Sky says. “They’ve gone underground, it seems, but we will find them. And you need to be in good shape for when we do. You should rest.”

“Maybe if I did, this day would end sooner.” She laughs derisively. “Maybe I could wake up and the world would be sane again.”

Sky looks askance at her. “This world? Has it ever been sane?” He gestures with his chin again, toward one of the two doorways. “There’s a bed in there. Or I could get some blankets for the sofa here. You could take a nap.”

“And what will you do? While I nap?” she asks.

“I could use some sleep as well,” he says. “It’s my usual time. So I’ll take whichever one you don’t prefer.”

“I’m pretty much sure we would both fit here on the sofa, then,” Alma suggests. Sky blinks in surprise, but she smiles sardonically and continues, “Figure we have pretty much established there is no chance for anything improper taking place between us. I’m just… I guess I’ve grown used to not sleeping alone.” Her voice and expression are apologetic.

Sky smiles. “I’ve fallen asleep here many a time.”

“Good,” she says. “You can tell me about your grandson and this sea monster. Is this its tooth? It must be almost as big as a dragon.”

“Bigger,” he says. “Much bigger than all but the oldest dragons. The oceans of that magic-poor world contain many such creatures.”

Alma snuggles against him for comfort, sets the carving on the table next to the little Sky-idol, and closes her eyes. “Thank you…by the way. For showing me this piece of you. I know I keep scolding you for being too open but the truth is…you just pretend to reveal too much while keeping far more hidden, don’t you? Paranoid, is what you are. It’s nice, learning a bit more of the mystery that is Tuma-Sukai.”

He holds her, silent and still, feeling her breath slowing. The day has left her so exhausted that he knows she is fading quickly. His heart beats faster, as he closes his eyes and steels himself to speak. Finally, as if afraid of someone else hearing, he whispers, “Alma? There’s something I want to tell you. That I’ve been wanting to tell you for so long. That I am terrified to tell you but…I must.”

She makes a tiny sound, soft like a sigh of pleasure. She is asleep, he realizes. He looks fondly at her face, made innocent by slumber, and feels suddenly, sharply grateful for her trust in him. He wants to protect her from all the myriad threats that beset them. Not just her. Her children, and Dion as well. Sky knows he would give up his life for any of them.

He strokes her hair and kisses the top of her head. “It’ll wait for morning.”