Ch7.13 Revelations

There is no bottom to the Ocean which surrounds the Insula, the continent-sized volcano on which is built the Urbis Caelestis, the City of Heaven, the City of the Gods. And so in the depths of that ocean there are no deep-sea trenches filled with blind worms and the skeletons of whales and unimaginable pressure and a cold that bears no memory of warmth. It simply gradually fades from Reality into Void, as one crosses the border of the sphere-shaped universe in which the Insula exists with only itself and the Ocean for company.

And so the dream which Azzageddi dreams, of sitting, crushed by the weight of the ocean, frozen and trapped forever in utter darkness, is a dream of another world, a much larger world that knows multiple cities and vast continents, entire ranges of mountains – though none even approaching the size of the Insula – and plains and forests that could cloak the slopes of the Insula, filled with a variety of life that would astonish any resident, mortal or immortal, of the great mountain-city.

Azzageddi, in his dream, fights to remember his name. His other name. The name he was given by gentle, welcoming mortals as he rose from the surf on that other world, certain currents of the Ocean having carried him past the Void. For how else is the Ocean to be renewed, but by finding its way to a thousand other oceans on a thousand other worlds?

What was that name? He was not the first owner of it. That was a tall god, weakened by the low intensity of magic in this world, but still immortal and powerful. A bully who ruled the people of this island valley as if they were his slaves, this god found Azzageddi where he, in the shape of a weak, pale human, lay recovering from his journey in the care of beautiful dark maidens.

Tuma-Sukai. The Dark Ocean Wave. Tall and strong and full of rage.

He destroyed the hut, frightened off the young women, and did his best to kill what he saw as a usurping god. Azzageddi fled, and Tuma-Sukai followed. Their battle raged all over the island until, at the peak of the central mountain, it ended. And down from the slopes came Tuma-Sukai, the Dark Ocean Wave, bloody and exhausted, and changed. Forever changed. No longer a despot, not longer cruel, but a kindly god, a caring god, a god whose rage was only ever directed at that which threatened harm to his people.

And when a year later some bones washed down from the mountain-top, bones which bore the marks of large sharp teeth like no land-animal they were familiar with, they wrapped them and hid them away so that their dear Tuma-Sukai would not be disturbed by them.

And thus his life on Earth began with a lie. With slaughter. With cannibalism. Just as his life on the Insula had. And on Earth he always tried to make up for that, always tried to do good. But when he ventured out to explore the world in an attempt to understand his mortals’ place in it, he returned to find them nearly wiped out by colonial slavers, those few left behind maimed and diseased, their spirits broken.

There, at the bottom of the sea, the water pressing him down, down into the mud, he can remember only the mistakes. Leaving unprotected those who trusted him. Joining sides in war after war. Participating in battle after battle, killing again and again, his arm tiring as he uses his empty rifle like a war club to shatter skulls. The quiet knife between the ribs, to assassinate a dangerous advisor. The sudden murderous reaction to a friend’s betrayal, a blood spray across his new officer’s uniform. The crack of fingerbones as he breaks them, one by one, to learn something that later turned out to have no importance in the unpredictable shifts of fate. His team, all dead, because he took them in too early in a futile attempt to save a life, and he, gasping for air, paralyzed after taking eight musket balls to the torso, his divine healing barely managing to keep him alive, to finally roll over and crawl to a river, to float like a corpse to the gulf and sink away from all who knew him.

Leaving the ones he loved – what were their names? – to fight again. Why? Missing births, first loves, stories, returning to be a brooding stranger, haunted and silent and still, inexplicably, loved. But he does not remember the love, not now. He remembers no faces of those he loved. Only the faces of the corpses appear in this dream, and he would groan, scream, beg, if it were not that the ocean is pressing him down, down, the bootheel of a titan, crushing him.

Her laugh. The laugh of his summoner, his owner, his lover. She whips him. She cuts him. She makes the ones he loves scream. She murders them after slow torture, and then tortures them again. She tells him what he must do to a young girl, or she will hurt the girl much worse. And he does it.

He does it.

And he screams. And in his scream the ocean shatters into splinters that cut him, and a voice cries out.

“Oh, would you please stop that, little demon? You could have just as easily said you don’t like this color!”

Sky’s roar cuts off in a squeak. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to waking, the dim phosphor glow of the lichens outlining a shape, lithe and lovely but with matronly curves in her verdant dress, and his glowing devil-eyes widen to saucers as he realizes who it is.

The goddess Lyria uncovers her ears and lowers her arms, walking toward him, waving her hands at the deep shadows he cloaks himself in, wafting them away as if they were nothing but smoke. She ignores his profane hellish form, holding her hands out in offer of a touch, a friendly embrace. “Ah, much better! Good morning, little one. You look terrible.”

Sky cringes from her, hunching, ashamed for her to see him in this hated form. “Lyrrrrrrrriaaaa…” Though he pitches his voice as quietly as he can, still it vibrates through the room, shaking dust from the walls.

The goddess pays no mind to his attempt to pull away, putting her arms around his huge, heavy head, cradling it against her breast. She strokes his muzzle. “I can feel your voice in my bones, little one. In my teeth. Were you having a bad dream?”

He finds himself pressing his head against her, his entire body relaxing, his heart moved almost painfully at her kindness. He strains to modulate the tone of his voice into something less disturbing. “I was. I wish I could forget it.”

“There, there,” she murmurs, cuddling him, paying no attention to the spikes pressing against her soft flesh and the feverish heat coming off him. “It is over now.” He feels her fresh, life-giving power reach into him, permeating through him as she extends her senses to examine him. Her voice is worried when she says, “You look no better than the last time I saw you. How are you doing?”

“I…am in constant pain. The physical wounds are healed. Those of the soul…go deep.” That psychic pain feels like rips into universes from which flow every recrimination for all he has done wrong, every memory of torture and loss and betrayal – and with them neverending whispers of how worthless he is, how he ruins all he touches, how everyone and everything would be better off if he went away, or simply died.

As if hearing his thoughts, Lyria whispers, “Do you want to live, Tuma-Sukai?”

Carefully, so as not to tear her lovely dress with his horns and little spikes, he pulls away and looks into her eyes. He wants to say, simply, ‘yes’. That is what he would say to the others, and it would not be a lie. Not entirely. But this is Lyria, Alma’s mother, someone who has known his secret longer, who has kept it, who has always shown him affection and yet who has treated him as a game piece. He knows she will not feel personal pain at his honesty, as would Alma or Gwydion, or even Somrak.

After a moment he says, “Sometimes, I am unsure. But my friends suffered greatly to keep me alive. I could not let them down now.”

The goddess tilts her head. “So you are living for them. Such a heavy sacrifice if pain is constant.” She strokes his red-black skin, her eyes sorrowful. “We must find a way to help you heal. Have they been visiting?”

“They have,” Sky replies. “Somrak was almost living here, before receiving his new orders. He came by just yesterday. Alma and Gwydion have been coming when they can. Without me they have been quite busy, of course.”

Lyria looks around and, tucking her skirt around her, sits beside the curled-up devil. “You have held this ward through a war, all on your own, little one. There are two of them, and the times are much more peaceful now due to all your efforts, are they not? They can make it. And now they are far away, taking their little vacation.” She looks to him for understanding, as if she is the one who needs his compassion. “They are challenging their families by staying here in Three Rats, you know? And they may yet face heavy consequences for their rebellion against higher powers.”

He looks down. “I know. I have put them in danger.”

“They knew what they were doing,” she reminds him. “And they did it for you.” She closes her eyes, seeming to enjoy sitting with him, and he recalls with pleasure their previous conversations at the station. He shifts to allow her to be more comfortable.

“Will you visit them, during their time away from Three Rats?” he asks, after a moment of hesitation. He knows something happened between Lyria and her daughter, from hints and evasions dropped by Alma and Gwydion on their visits. He does not wish to pry into it, but mother and daughter both seem to be suffering over it.

She shakes her head slowly, as she strokes his head. “Alma does not wish to see me at the moment.” She opens her eyes and puts on a smile. “I hope she will not be angry at the little gift I left there, however. The Bunnies will enjoy the closets full of clothes, I’m sure.”

“They will. They always enjoy your presents. But I believe they would enjoy seeing their grandmother more. Whatever argument you have had with Alma, I cannot believe she loves you any less.”  

The goddess favors him with a small smile. “The love between parents and their children is a complicated thing. Too much of a battle of wills. We are fated to want their best but also to be thwarted by their own ideas about what is best.” Her smile grows but is still sad, and her eyes glance to Sky’s face, chest, and shoulders as he shifts position again, for her comfort and his own. “My daughter has never had to raise a sickly child or come to terms with the possibility of watching helplessly as her daughter dies. Such things are difficult to forget. She was always very strong, you see. But her weakness was also overwhelmingly evident.” She suppresses a giggle. “And you…you are looking better by the moment.”

Sky looks down at his hands and sees they are no longer taloned. He sees the color of his skin is changing into a familiar deep brown, the color of the second human shape he took, or rather the divine shape of the minor sea god, Tuma-Sukai.

He almost sobs in relief. The change has occurred without his notice, after days of trying, trying to reattain this form. And that it is this one, and not the other, the form of the pale man, the one that Nua first forced him to murder and devour when she summoned him from Hell two hundred years ago, and forced him to assume again in order to…to do what she commanded her body. No, not hers. The body of her master Margrave’s niece.

At this hateful memory he does sob, and Lyria turns to hold and rock him. She does not know what he did, and he cannot bring himself to tell her. But she knows he was hurt, again and again, in the most despicable ways. And though he feels unworthy of her touch and of her kindness, he lets her hold him, and lies down on the blankets that make his nest, and lays his head on her thigh.

“There, you see? You can heal. You will. And you are not alone, little one. Your friends will be strong for you for as long as you need them to be. And you must be strong for them as well. They did not think twice before risking everything for you, knowing full well your origins. And what of those origins? No matter your shape, I know your heart, Tuma-Sukai. You are no devil. How could a devil inspire such boundless loyalty, pray tell?”

Sky sits up, legs folded under him. His face wet with tears, he says to her, “It means a great deal to know you believe in the possibility that I can…become something other than what I was. And for you to come here to let me know. You know better than I, I think, whether I can heal. What will you tell them? Those who must decide what is to be done with me?”

“What should I tell them?” Lyria asks, her head tilted in inquiry.

“What you believe to be true,” he says. “But I will try to come back from this. I will try with all my strength. If only because there are those who would be saddened if I do not.”

Lyria smiles. “There are many, little one. How I do wish we could fill this awful cave with warmth and light and the cheerful chatter of those who miss you! At least I can take care of the first two, if you do not mind?” And without asking for further permission, she manipulates the cave lichens into putting forth blossoms that shine with toasty orange light rather than their previously heatless blue-green.

“There, now you won’t shiver in the dark,” she says.

Sky looks around at them, wondering what the Oracle will think. “This is perfectly balmy. Will the lichens be able to survive here?” He absently wonders that Doria has not shown up. Perhaps the priestess is out on her own business at the moment. And if anyone can come and go at will here in the Oracle’s sanctum, it would be the Oracle’s friend Lyria.

“They’ll just need more water than they’ve been getting from the wall-dripping,” Lyria says, unworried. “Splash some on them twice a day, from that rather milky-looking pool a couple of chambers down. It has a concentration of the minerals these plants need.” She leans against him and lets him now put his arms around her. “Just as you need more company in order to bloom.” She closes her eyes, leaning against his chest, trusting him completely. “You miss them, don’t you?”

“I do,” he says. “But I told you, they visit.” He strokes her hair, enjoying the feeling of holding someone, anyone, who cares for him. The ability to give care, not simply be cared for, is more healing than anything.

But he cannot help but think of those who cannot visit.

“Not the Bunnies,” Lyria contradicts his words, as if she could read his thoughts. “They want you home.”

Ah, the manipulation. She may be a master at it, but then she’s not really trying to hide it right now, he thinks. It is nothing he would take offense at, after all. She just wants him to do his best to get better quickly.

“And I want to be home with them. It preys on my mind that I cannot be there to protect them. When you last visited me at the station, before…all this…it might have seemed that watching over the Bunnies was just one more burden during that hectic time when Alma and Dion were away in the First Ring. But no, reading to Tulip, shouting at the younger boys to get to bed, the small kindnesses that Sage and Merri and Cherry showered upon me at random, just because they knew I was exhausted and barely holding on and that an out-of-the-blue hug or a pastry quietly left on the desk would cheer me immensely.” He realizes he has failed to mention one Bunny in particular, away from all the others at the Academy.

“And Mayumi?” Again, Lyria seems to read his thoughts. He knows she is not actually doing so. His defenses against that are formidable, but he knows she has no need. She simply knows him that well.

He cannot reply at first. Among all the pain, thoughts of her should have been a balm, but instead they have brought only more pain. The longer he fails to write to her, the harder it will be to do so, but how can he write anything truthful to her? He cannot tell her of his suffering. He cannot tell her of his secrets. It would derail her studies, and far worse, it would place her in danger. If the Council decides to expunge all knowledge of Tuma-Sukai from the Insula, they will have little compunction against ridding the world of a single Bunny.

How can he have ever imagined they could have an intimate relationship? The degree to which he was fooling himself is now crushingly clear. He is a monster, and a secret. And she should be free of all that. But…

“I don’t know what to tell Mayumi,” he says, his voice heavy with heartache.

After waiting a moment for him to say more, Lyria reaches up and squeezes his hand. “As long as you know what you cannot tell her. Would you like me to stay awhile longer?”

“I would love you to stay,” Sky says, returning her smile, and thinking how wonderful it is to smile, something his devil’s face has not the flexibility to do. How long he can hold this shape – this stolen shape that he wishes were his only one – he does not know. “I will make tea. But first I had better put on some clothes.”

The echo of Lyria’s laughter fills the chamber, and the lichens glow brighter at her joy. “Oh, feel free to walk about in whatever condition you find more comfortable. I live in a harem, after all. Very little in the way of doors.”

“Does Lord Death have men in his harem as well, then? I was unaware…” Sky ignores the slight rankle he always feels at calling Death a Lord. As much as he adores Alma and Lyria, as much as he respects the death gods Melinor and the Fencer, it is Senator Death, Lord Death, perhaps Archon Death someday, that Sky cannot bring himself to admire.

She giggles. “Oh, he has many sons that I have watched grow from the time they were just babies. Such a delightful sound, that of children running around the house. Most people take the Clan for a dreadful assembly of gods. They could not be much more wrong than that.” She sighs in contentment, whether at the memory or at being held, he is not sure. But when she speaks again, her voice has an edge of sorrow. “Can you tell me how they are doing, those rebellious godlings? Are they healing?”

“I hope so,” Sky says, stroking her hair again. There is something wonderfully intimate in this moment, yet nothing sexual in the slightest. “They do not tell me if they are doing badly. I suspect they don’t want to burden me. But Somrak is not so kind, thank goodness. He says they have, of course, been through a traumatic ordeal. They are recovering, but he feels responsible. We’re all…wounded.”

“Yes,” Lyria says, not making any indication that she wants to be anywhere else but in his comforting arms. “We all are.”

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Ch7.11 Revelations


Well that didn’t take long.

The call for a Dei investigation came the morning after Alma and Dion left Three Rats, and Pavia and the Fencer arrived. A robbery, it seems, and vandalism. Something for the gods to look into, according to the message sent back from the field by the mortal constable who had first taken the call. Magic involved.

And so Somrak and Pavia stride up to Bompreço Mercado, the grocery that Merri always refers to as ‘dear Mr. Patel’s shop.’ The owner, a middle-aged man with thinning black hair that falls across his forehead, is standing outside, leaning on a mop and looking impatient and bewildered and vaguely ill. From what Sgt. Machado mentioned, the place is rather ‘in the family’ – that is, one of the probationary constables is a nephew of the owner. The fire god, wearing proper Dei indigo-blue jacket and trousers instead of his usual dangerous-looking leathers, grumbles to his fellow sergeant, “Did you see the way Machado was trying not to smirk? That guy just wants to see me get in trouble… Hey, why you stopping?”

Pavia of the Wolf Clan is looking intently at a shop, her nose wrinkling, her ears laid back. Her brown-skinned face is well within the range of what Somrak would think of as ‘human’ – a rather wide range, really, seeing as, human-seeming as he is, Somrak has close relatives whose natural form is living flame – but it is rather more ‘three dimensional’ than some. She doesn’t have a snout by any means, but the shape of her face allows for more room in the nasal passages. And those passages look like they are wishing they could close themselves up right now. “Tell me you don’t want me to go in there,” she nearly whimpers.

The breeze from the direction of the shop quickens, and that’s when Somrak catches the smells that Pavia has already noticed. His stomach attempts to rebel. “Uh…oh man…got it. Well why don’t you talk to the victim while I take a quick look inside?” He coughs, a way of short-circuiting the dry heaves that he learned through considerable experience with hangovers and discoveries of rotting corpses at crime scenes. “It’s not like I want to spend much time in there, either.”

Somrak approaches closer to address the shopkeeper, who looks more impatient by the moment. “Mr. Patel! I’m Sergeant Somrak, and this–” He gestures at his partner, standing on the other side of the street. “–that…is Sergeant Pavia. So what happened? You can talk to the Sergeant over there while I take a look inside.”

“Where are the other ones?” the man demands, his brow knitted. “Who are you supposed to be, the new trainees or something?”

Great, Somrak thinks. The nerve of this guy. What is he, fifty years old? Does he think, just because the god he’s looking at has a beautiful, youthful, slightly cruel face that he must be some inexperienced boob? Doesn’t he know that Somrak has been doing this kind of work for…well, roughly a week? To his chagrin, Somrak has to admit that being a regular station-bound cop is considerably different from many decades of being a dashing special agent, ready to burst into anyplace without a warrant and start frying bad guys left and right. Somrak glances back at Pavia, who shrugs. Apparently she’s letting him be the one to come up with something clever. He looks back at the shop owner and bites back on his first sarcastic impulse, and on his second as well. His third reply, he allows past his teeth. “We’re experienced Guardia, sir. The others are currently busy and we were asked to help out.”

Patel merely shakes his head in disgust. Somrak can’t really blame him. The thick foetor in the air hits him like a slap this close, and when he actually enters the shop he hisses a curse that sounds like rapidly burning wood. It actually raises the temperature a few degrees, a bad idea in that this intensifies the smell, a malodorous melange of milk, meat, fruit, cheese, vegetables, and even such things as tea and coffee and spices all gone to rot. How dried coriander could go sour is beyond Somrak’s imagination, but there it is, and after a very quick examination of the place with as many magical senses as he can deploy within the few seconds that he is capable of concentrating, he staggers out of the shop, sucking in fresh air and fighting with every iota of strength against the urge to void his stomach all over the street.

He straightens and sees Pavia looking at him with amused ‘better you than me’ sympathy, while Patel looks ever more annoyed. “You’ve made it worse already!” the man calls out from across the street, where quite the crowd is gathering to bear witness to Somrak’s near-bout of vomiting, laughing and waving their hands in front of their faces at the smell. “I want the other Dei! They’re experienced with the local scum. This looks like it’s too much sand for your cart, if you get my meaning.”

The shop owner’s jab prompts more laughter. “Well they ain’t here,” Somrak growls as he returns to Pavia’s side of the street. “Trust me, I can get rid of the smell real quick, if you want.” He stops and takes a deep breath, forcing himself to stop thinking of how pleasant it would be to burn the festering shop to the ground. “Look, you have any enemies? Some gang wanting protection money? A witch maybe?” He’s known some very sexy witches in his time, but some of them do specialize in turning milk sour.

“You think some gang did this? Ain’t no gang that can do this around here,” Patel replies, voice full of scorn. “Not anymore since our regular Dei chased them all to jail.”

Somrak, starting to think there is something to be said for wards where gods and mortals hardly mix, is on the verge of failing to bite back a caustic remark that will literally singe Patel’s eyebrows off, when Pavia intervenes. “What my colleague it trying to ask is if you managed to see who did this or if you have any idea of who or what jy might be.”

“Oh, that!” Patel huffs, though he seems considerably less disdainful of the female Dei. Somrak wonders what it is – maybe he has the hots for her? Maybe Machado’s dislike of Somrak has already infected the man’s nephew? Or maybe Somrak just has that effect on people. “‘Course I saw him,” the human continues. “Came into my shop to demand tobacco. I didn’t give it to him on account that I don’t sell poison to kids and that’s when he made all my goods go rotten. Even my dog’s got diarrhea now. And the son of a cross-eyed mule got away with the smokes.”

“So what’s the guy look like?” Somrak asks.

“Told you, looks like a kid,” Patel says. Again with the attitude. “Not one I’ve ever seen before but could be from around here. Lingo kinda fits.”

This touches on a point of worry for Somrak, since he only knows a little of the local language. But that’s less important than the lack of any real description. “All right, a kid. How tall? What kinda hair, complexion? How’s he dressed?”

“What’s a complexion?” Patel asks.

As Somrak starts to formulate an answer to that, Pavia sighs and says, “Let’s start from the beginning. You said he looked local. Why?”

“Oh, you know… scrawny, dark-skin, barefoot. Like most kids playing around in the streets. I hope you’re quick learners too ‘cuz he don’t speak any Urbia.” Patel says. He eyes Somrak. “All that fancy upslope talk ain’t gonna go over well.”

Sometimes the urge to roll one’s eyes is so strong, stopping it feels like forcing the rest of one’s body to turn instead. “What was he wearing?” Somrak asks.

“Red shorts, red cap. Clay pipe.”

This is starting to sound familiar, Somrak thinks. Not the specifics, but the sort of ‘regalia’ that tends to be common among a certain kind of god, Somrak’s least-favorite kind: Tricksters. He suppresses an inner groan, remember one such god who turned himself into a bright blue ball to escape him and Sky, which, when picked up and played with by a group of old washerwomen, made them all spontaneously pregnant. Somrak had never seen Sky so furious before that. When they’d finally caught the trickster-god, discovering his weakness after a great many frustrating mishaps, Somrak had simply got out of Sky’s way and let him pound the prisoner into submission. He’d been surprised Sky didn’t kill the guy.

Pavia continues questioning Patel. “How old did he look?”

“About eleven? Twelve?” Patel shrugs. “You know, a kid.”

“No shirt, huh?” Somrak asks. “Any distinguishing features?”

Patel looks at him blankly. “Uh?”

As Somrak takes a moment to think how to reword his question while mentally vowing to pay a mage for an instant-language-course spell to let him get the Three Rats lingo down quick, Pavia asks in simpler Urbia, “Anything to make him stand out?”

“Like…” Somrak casts around and his eye catches Pavia’s thick-furred tail. “Like a tail!”

Pavia looks at him. “Really?” she asks dryly, with a slight wave of her thick-furred tail. She turns to Patel. “Anyway, yeah, anything like that?”

Patel shakes his head. “Nope. No tails or other.”

Somrak sighs and looks at Pavia, raising his eyebrows to silently ask, Anything else?

“You did not happen to see which way he went, did you?” Pavia asks.

“Nope. Though I guess he couldn’t go too far just hoppin’ on one leg like that,” Patel says.

Somrak looks stone-faced at Patel for a good ten seconds. “One leg? Hopping on…one leg?”

“Gotta hop when you ain’t got two of them to walk on,” Patel replies, nodding sagely. “Kinda made me feel for him when I first saw the young fella.”

Somrak just lets the silence hang in the air for a moment, rather than grabbing the man by his shirt and demanding why he thought having only one leg wasn’t a distinguishing characteristic, then says in a carefully calm voice, “Yes, I can imagine. Seemed to get around all right? No crutches or canes or anything?”

“Oh he was pretty quick on his foot. Vanished right out of the store as if he were thunder and lightning,” Patel notes, filling his pipe.

“Ah, so he didn’t actually hop then. He vanished.” Somrak entertains himself by lighting the man’s pipe for him remotely, rather than, say, setting the guy’s shoes on fire.

“Oh…uh, ‘brigado.” Patel gestures with his pipe at Pavia. “Your pal here might be able to smell him. Smoked like a chimney.”

Pavia immediately asks Patel, “What brand did he take to smoke?”

“Uh… Green Forest? Same I’m smoking right now?” He points at his pipe.

Somrak leans forward and takes a sniff himself, though mostly to drive away the smell of rotten fish and rancid mango juice, not to mention the milk and cheese. “Nice. Anything else?” he asks Pavia.

Pavia shakes her head. “Thank you, Mister Patel. We will keep you informed of our progress.”

“Right. When are the other cops coming back? You’re not here to replace them, are you?”

Somrak smirks. “I tell them you said that, Mr. Patel. It’ll give them a smile to know they’re so loved. They’ll be back soon enough.” As they turn and walk away, he asks Pavia, voice low, “You got a scent?”

The wolf-divine looks unsure, but says, “This way.” She heads down the road, and Somrak follows. After they turn a corner, she pauses and asks, “Anyone from the crowd still watching us?”

Somrak glances at a window that gives a clear reflection of the street behind them. “Doesn’t look like it. No trail?”

Pavia shakes her head. “Must’ve teleported out.”

“Figured. I was hoping our perp had just gone invisible, but that would’ve been too lucky.” Somrak shrugs. “We can patrol around hoping to spot a one-legged kid in a red hat, but this sounds like a job for the Popula. They keep an eye out for him, spot him, come running, we go get him. I’ll talk to Machado about getting their help.”

“I thought you said he doesn’t like you,” Pavia points out.

“Yeah, but see, I’m going to be all above that,” Somrak says, flicking his fingers out and revealing a thin cigar as if by magic. He raises his eyebrows at her as the tip of the cigar glows and smolders. “I’ll win him over with my abundant charm. Besides, if this god or whatever is local, maybe Machado knows who it is.”

Pavia looks at him for a long, silent moment, putting her hands on her hips. “Or… we could ask our lady Subcommander for help. That sounds slightly less disastrous.”

“There’s nothing disastrous about it.” What is this, ‘Everybody Thinks Somrak’s an Idiot’ Week? And if it is, do I get any discounts at the bargain sales? “Look, Machado’s not a bad guy, and I’m sure he and I can get along. And the Fencer is just wanting to see how things go here. She’s here to observe, not help out on some minor trickster misdemeanor.”

“Yes sir, Mister Commanding Officer,” Pavia replies, her tone skeptical and slightly amused. “Whatever you say, sir.”

“Trust me, asking Fencer for help with anything less than a demon attack is just going to make her think we’re incompetent,” he says. “More than she already does, in my case. Let’s get the mortals keeping an eye out, and…”

He pauses as words form before his eyes in fire, hanging there for just long enough to read. “Our friend has arrived.”

He looks at Pavia, who is looking at him funny for breaking off in mid-sentence. Her hackles are slightly raised as well. “What was that? I felt…magic?”

“Just a message for me,” Somrak says. “Let’s head back to the station. I’ll talk to Machado, then stroll around and ask people if they’ve seen the little crook. You want to stay at the station in case a report comes in?”

“Sure, I can find a nice spot where the sun hits all day and just lie down to sleep,” Pavia says.

Somrak smiles to cover up how nervous he feels about dropping by the Oracle’s Grotto in response to the message from Sky. “Right. Sounds nice. I’m looking forward to saying hi to some old friends.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Well hello there, Miss Priestess Doria.”

“Somrak!” Doria, her short hair wet at always, straightens from where she was dusting the kitchen shelves. Her cheeks dimple as she smiles at him. “Back already? I thought you would be too busy to come see us for a few days.”

He saunters into the grotto’s kitchen cave like he owns the place, brimming with confidence. “As if I could stay away from you, lovely lady.” He touches her rock-hard swimmer’s shoulder as he gives her a very warm kiss on the cheek. Her skin, like her hair, is perpetually damp, as if she’s just emerged from a bath. As a fire god, his sphere tries to dissipate the moisture where his lips and where his hand touch her, making her giggle as if he’s tickling her.

“Better watch it, hot stuff! This naiad’s going to douse your flame.” She playfully flicks her fingers at him, droplets of water hitting his skin.

Somrak doesn’t back off, touching the tip of his nose to hers. “Douse? No no no no no, you and me together, Doria, we’d make steeeeeam.”

Doria’s laugh echoes through the cavern as she turns from him and flicks a hand to indicate she should follow. “Come on!” Somrak chuckles as he enjoys the view of her muscular body walking away from him, clad as usual in a one-piece but flattering swimsuit, cut appealingly high at the hips. “I don’t know which of us has the cornier lines, Som. Anyway, I know the real reason you’re here.” She leads him to Sky’s lair, then steps aside and gestures toward a seated figure who is now rising. “Your guest awaits. Doctor?” she asks the visitor. “Would you like another pot of tea?”

“Please,” the god says, his voice soft and low. “Thank you, Priestess.”

As she leaves, Somrak approaches, looking the god over. “You still don’t have the slightest fashion sense, ‘Doctor’.” He extends a hand.

The god, a little shorter than Somrak and thin without Somrak’s muscle, takes the offered hand. “You know I don’t like being called that.”

Somrak grips the hand firmly, noting the rough skin and calluses before releasing it. “Thanks for coming, Wasure.”

“That’s a first, from you,” Wasure says. He raises his hand to his unkempt, long hair, longer than Somrak’s but not tied back in a ponytail, untidy and shot with grey. His face is young, though, almost childish, paler than Somrak’s but with similar hooded, haunted eyes. “And I understand another first is in order.”

Somrak nods reluctantly. “Yeah, well…can’t sleep.”

“Or eat,” a stygian voice rumbles from the shadows. “Or laugh.”

“I laugh,” Somrak says. “I always laugh.” He walks into the darkness, the shadow like a blanket covering a misshapen form more massive than one of the great white bears that roam the frozen regions of the Insula. He waves at the shadow as if driving away smoke. “Come on, Sky, turn it off.”

“You don’t laugh from the heart, my friend.” The concealing shadow fades, revealing the outlines of a creature from Hell, Azzageddi, better known as Tuma-Sukai, Sky to his friends, curled like a dog trying to stay warm, his long whip-tail around him, horned head looking out from between the leathery wings that still conceal most of his body.

“Did I ever?” Somrak strokes the ridge over Sky’s left eye, running his thumb over the row of tiny spikes that protrude from it. “What progress?”

Sky looks down and shakes his head, pulling it in a little.

“It’s only been a few days,” Somrak says. “Keep trying. If you give up, I’m going to kick your ass.”

“Sky told me what you saw,” Wasure says. “And what was done to you.”

Not turning to face the doctor, Somrak says, “You’re going to have to see it, right? In my head?”

“Yes, I will. I’m prepared.”

“I don’t know about that, Doc.” Somrak pats one of Sky’s horns, then turns. “Hate the thought of adding to the crap you have to carry around. But I can’t think of anyone else who can help.”

Wasure sits on the stone bench carved from the wall, and gestures for Somrak to do the same across the table from him. “Let’s wait for the tea to come, and share it, and then we can begin.”

Ch7.03 Revelations

The server, a slightly hunched and thin-cheeked woman named Rajani, with grey in her very long hair and a red bindi mark on her forehead, takes Somrak’s menu and gives him a tall glass of cold lassi with a sprig of mint garnishing it. “Please be patient, Oh Holy One,” she says. “As you can see, we are crowded today, and our kitchen is small. But we are always grateful for your blessing on our fire. Please accept this gift of thanks.”

“Just…stop calling me Holy One and we’ll call it even,” Somrak says, but he knows it’s useless. He sighs as she genuflects and retreats. The place serves great curry, just the way he likes it, and then he made the mistake of revealing he’s a god. The cheap gas range they use was sputtering and flaring, so he did his good deed for the day and fixed it – by blessing their fire. What does he know about fixing gas ranges? If he tried to solve the problem mechanically, he’d probably blow the place up. So…magic. He’s a fire god, which in his case includes kitchen god, and now they never have any problems. But now they know what he is and…they won’t take his money. Fates, he’ll have to renew that fire blessing soon, too. And he doesn’t even live here. Crap…

Well, he lives here for now. Until he receives orders otherwise, which may not be anytime soon. Lives here but doesn’t work here. On indefinite suspension, pending investigation and trial. And so for now his job is…babysitting.

All right, maybe that’s too strong. There’s no actual babies involved. But plenty of sitting. Here he is, Somrak, one of the deadliest, craftiest, craziest agents in the entire Guardia, the Dei responsible for taking down the Tolleride Gang single-handedly, the guy who foiled a plot to blow up the Curia and then quietly assassinated the senator who had arranged it, the guy who can actually say he’s probably changed the course of history once or twice, and now he’s stuck helping a devil recover from torture. Plus he’s keeping an eye on Bunnies, and wandering around Three Rats ward, just praying to witness a crime in progress so he can make a citizen’s arrest, preferably with extreme punching involved.

If he really is pressed to admit it, there are some pleasures. It’s agony, watching Sky trying and failing to regain his human form, and the rage this sends him into, but sitting and talking with the big ugly weirdo is relaxing. Amazing how little they’ve revealed to each other in all the years they’ve worked together. And then there’s having a nice drink on the roof with Cherry as the sun sets, and Tulip coming in for a cuddle before bed, and being able to talk to Alma… But she’s clinging to Dion for support. Of course. And he’s not going to try to muscle his way in between them, for sure. He sure wouldn’t mind if she clung to him once in awhile, though.

And he has to admit, he could stand to do some clinging, himself. You don’t get lashed with a godbound soul-whip and just shrug it off. Even fixing this shop’s little kitchen flame made him break out in a sweat. His powers are only slowly returning, and he’s nowhere near back to fighting shape. All those he’s supposedly babysitting? Funny how they look at him like he’s the one who needs their help.

Case in point: Not quite an hour ago, Sky telling Somrak, “You need to contact Wasure.”

Somrak was quiet for a moment before murmuring, “Yeah…maybe he can help Alma and Dion.”

In the shadows, Sky rumbled, “Not just them, my friend.”

“You think I need… “ Somrak dismissed it with a shake of his head. “Come on.”

Sky raised his heavy vulpine head, the curved-back horns gleaming red-black in the dim lighting. “You can look upon my true face without fear because you know it is the face of a brother. But you have seen the face of a Prince of Hell. You were moments away from killing two of the people you love, to save their souls from torment without end. Your soul is deeply wounded. And memory of that face is like shrapnel in the wound. It needs to be removed for healing to begin.”

Somrak glared at him. “I respect what Wasure does. But I’ve never used him before and I never want to. My memories are what I am!”

“What you are is hurt, more deeply than ever before,” Sky insisted. “You know how Wasure does his work. You will lose nothing of who you are. And you will be far better able to convince Alma and Dion to accept his help if you make use of it yourself.”

Somrak thought it over. “Fine,” he groused. “I’ll contact him. But what about you?”

Sky head withdrew back into the shadows. “Wasure cannot help me.”

And then someone is scraping the chair across from him and sitting. Somrak has to force himself not to strike, hard and full-force, as he is pulled back to the present and the little curry restaurant. Nobody should be able to sneak up on him like that! Nobody who doesn’t intend to kill him. But he sees the flash of crimson hair, and the mismatched eyes, one red, the other milky white, and he forces the tension away.

“Great. What now? Am I under arrest?” He picks up his glass of yoghurt and swirls it before taking a sip.

Fencer shrugs her compact, muscular shoulders. “Depends on whether or not you’re planning on paying for your meal.” She looks around at the pictures of the all-vegetarian dishes on the wall, ignoring the shocked, worried expressions of the staff and other patrons. The names and descriptions are written in Urbia, the local ward’s dialect, and some language he’s not even sure the name of, but whose script bears a vague resemblance to the one used in his own fiery birth-ward. “Bunny chow? Have those long-eared nuisances managed to reach as far as restaurant menus?”

“This place serves chicken to the heathens, if you ask special” Somrak says to Subcommander-at-Large Varah, one of the five subcommanders of the Guardia and the one with the deadliest reputation. “So what’s got you stalking me? Is it the leather? It’s the leather, isn’t it?”

She makes a show of looking him up and down. “It’s not even good leather. Won’t fit me, either. I think I’ll let you keep it.”

“Not good leather?” Somrak looks down at the handsome black-and-crimson of his outfit, exquisitely cut to fit him perfectly, accentuating his own trim musculature without ever binding or even creaking. That craftsmanship, along with the enchantments to turn blades, soften the impact of bludgeons, wrap shadows around him at need, and the many pockets that are larger on the inside, had easily cost him a year’s pay. True, this is his second-best suit, the best one having been destroyed in the mission to rescue Sky, but still, come on. “Now you’re just being ornery. So if it’s not that, then what’s up? I recommend the masala, by the way. It’s made with a weird spice since they can’t get the usual one here, but that just makes it unique.”

“I’m not here to eat.” She leans back in her chair, the back resting against the wall while the two front legs rise from the floor. “I’m here to give you your orders. Math threw a wrench in our machinery. You are being taken out of suspension.”

Somrak raises his eyebrows. “And thrown into what?”

She raises her hands, palms up, and indicates their surroundings. “Here. Your favorite playground as of a few months ago. You are being stationed with the Three Rats Dei force again.” Then she grins, something that looks far too unsettling for a smile. He recognizes it from long familiarity on another god’s face, and wonders if Fencer started smiling like that because of the Commander, or if the Commander picked it up from her. Or maybe they both have always smiled like that and that’s what made them fall for each other. Then she delivers the the diabolical sentence she was holding back. “You will head it. For a whole week.”

He just stares back at her, watching her grin only increase at having finally made him speechless. “Ah…” he begins, then closes his eyes and shakes his head. “I must be going deaf or something. I thought you said I would ‘head it’. Like, be in command? Of…the station?”

She nods, leaning back a little more, savoring his distress. “You will have one other Dei under your command and, of course, the Popula. Not the best of situations but since Archon Boss of Us All insisted on his favorite nephew taking a vacation…” She sneers at what she surely considers the pampering of the spoiled Guardia brat. The one who’s won the heart of her favorite niece.

“Dion is going on vacation?” He shakes his head again and puts out one hand, as if warding off a blow. “Hold on! Why am I in charge? Why not Alma? She was in charge before when I was here!”

Fencer simply looks at him, still smiling humorlessly, waiting for him to reach the obvious, logical conclusion.

His heart sinks. For one moment he had fooled himself into thinking that he and Alma might be left alone together for a few days. The image of the two of them in each other’s arms, comforting each other, blows away like smoke. “Oh…she’s going with him. And…oh great, am I in charge of the Bunnies too?” Not that he doesn’t want to Bunnies around, but they surely seem to have no difficulty in finding trouble.

Fencer shakes her head, still with the cruel grin. “Hoppers are going along with them, it seems. So you are truly flying solo. Well…nearly solo.” Her grin broadens, truly a death’s-head smile. “I’ll be there to watch over you.”

“You? You are going to serving in freaking Three Rats for a week?” He’s starting to wonder if someone spiked his lassi. “And I’m in charge? Of you?” He starts to imagine that he’s been kidnapped and placed in some false reality for interrogation purposes, and looks around for flaws.

Fencer snorts. Sounds just like Alma, the thinks. “Me? Serve under you? I haven’t served in a station in…ever.” She crosses her legs, relaxed as a cat. “I’ll just be the ever-present shadow in your daily life. I have paperwork and other issues of my own to take care of. Like preparing for your friends’ impending trial.”

He looks at her for a long while, thinking it through. “They’re getting a nice vacation. Must not be anything too bad waiting for them. And I’m being taken off suspension already. I’m guessing Prettyboy’s uncle is spinning this as a punishment? Which it is, no doubt, but… They’re going to be all right, aren’t they?”

Fencer shrugs, no longer grinning, no longer looking at him. He can tell she’s not entirely without worry. “I don’t know. Depends on how many tricks Math has up his sleeve. It’s all still up in the air. Council has their robes all riding up whatever uncomfortable crevices they have. You’ll have to testify, Alma will have to testify as she was second-in-command. Don’t know if Prettyboy will be made to do the same. Anyway… it should be a boredom- and anticipation-packed next few weeks. But for now, you’re telling your friends that their vacation starts tomorrow and so does your assignment. Their express portal opens midmorning, ten bells precisely, and they’d better be ready.”

Externally, his shoulders slump, a reflection of the internal subsidence of his spirit. “I’m in charge, I have some unnamed sidekick, and I have you supervising me. You. Who has even less station experience than I do, despite being older than most of the stations on this hunk of rock. Hey, no offense, you look great. For your age. So are these just verbal orders, or do I hand something over?”

Not paying the least attention to his needling, Fencer assures him, “I’ll be there tomorrow to commandeer the station, so to speak. And you do know your sidekick. You should be pleased with my pick for once.” She rises from her seat and leans over him, a hand on his shoulder, iron fingers digging into his muscle. Her voice growls low with an edge of amusement. “And the next time you question my competence, Ponytail, you better be willing to put some actual muscle where your mouth is.”

Somrak smiles up at her, ignoring the pain. “I love it when you talk dirty. Right then, I’ll see you tomorrow for the beginning of this insane farce.”

“Sweet dreams, Ponytail.” She releases her grip and straightens. “Enjoy the meal.”

Ch6.100 Trust

The day has been long. The night, longer. Nighttime is always long in Three Rats, where the massive peak of the Insula looms and blocks the sun for over half of the day’s twenty-four hours, but this night is different. It is not hour and moonlight that bring darkness to the ward, to the world in general. It is grief. Fear. Pain. Constant, unyielding pain, haunting the soul, biting deep beyond flesh, beyond bone. Pain that brings darkness to every thought, an overall difficulty to feed and keep a single positive thought. It steals smile and laughter, light and hope. And to three gods in particular, it rings too close, too loud. And too exhausting.

Dion, Alma and Somrak walk in heavy silence down a hallway indicated to them by Doria. Their rooms are ready, she has told them, and they will be located at the end of this corridor lined with stalagmites, some of which phosphoresce in the gloom of the grotto, lending it a greenish twilight of lichens and geckos and watery reflections from the small pools carved into the walls by condensation and time. Though tired and feeling the whole of his body crying for rest after being made to heal from its deep wounds at incredible speed by Lyria’s power, Dion supports Alma as they walk. Her legs are still not fully responsive, he has already noticed, and something else seems wrong for he has had to grab and pull her toward him twice already, to prevent her from walking into a wall and from hitting her foot against a stalagmite. He worries about what is going on. Perhaps her eyes are not functioning properly or her balance is off. Or perhaps, a terrified little part of him wonders, there are still traces of Nua inside his beloved, trying to make Alma hurt herself.

She holds onto his arm as they enter the chamber that Doria told them to expect, a relatively small room, with five doors opening into it, in addition to the hallway they have just left. In the center of the chamber, a circle of colorful pillows piled chaotically like shells cast ashore by the surf makes for a comfortable sitting area around a suspended table that is no more than a large circular brass tray suspended by four fine chains from the tip of a stalactite that hangs from the ceiling and stretches down to head height. Laid out on the table, are Alma’s sword, her curved dragon-tooth daggers, Saira’s crossbow and Dion’s own little blade, the sgian-dubh dagger given to him by Sky for Year’s End. The magic god finds himself surprised to see it there, considering that all of his other weapons and physical spell elements have disappeared in Margrave’s pocket universe. He feels some momentary relief at not having been particularly attached to any of the items he lost, though the loss of them still stings a little, if only for whose fault it was that they are gone.

The feeling of Alma’s hand squeezing his arm a little tighter than before makes him look at the goddess to see her stiffening, eyes clearly focused on the sword more than they have focused on any other object so far. Fear in her expression. Horror. He places his free hand over hers, reassuring.

“I was worried, that the binding had been partly completed,” Somrak says from a couple of steps to the right of them, his voice quiet, eyes fixed on Alma and filled with concern for her reaction. “I didn’t know what might happen if we left it behind then, but it didn’t seem like a good idea.”

Alma is silent for a moment before replying, “Thank you.” She does not look grateful at all, however, cringing away from the sword as if it might jump off the table of its own accord and attack her.

Shifting slightly to hold her hand and free his arm so it can curl around the goddess, Dion pulls her closer. She leans against him for comfort, her hand reaching to touch his chest, and the memory of Nua’s whip cutting through his flesh on the exact same spot that Alma is now touching flares a momentary stint of doubt that makes him stiffen instinctively. He bites it back, however, forcing himself to believe that Nua is gone, to relax under his lover’s touch, and to hold her as soothingly as he can. To distract his own thoughts, he turns to Somrak and asks, “Somrak…what is a Tragas?”

Silence is his only answer for a moment. Then, “Soul binders… Makers of artifacts from the souls of gods,” Somrak replies, voice grim and dry. “They were wiped out, about a century ago, and all knowledge of them expunged.”

“Then how do you know of them?” Dion insists. “Were you involved in their case?”

The fire god sighs, looking very much as if he would rather have his arms and legs broken than answer the question. Still, he answers. “You could say that. I was…a lackey of theirs. Muscle. It was a job. I was running from my family. When I learned what they were doing I turned on them, became the Guardia’s spy. Commander recruited me from that.”

Nestled in Dion’s arms, Alma looks pained as Somrak tells his story. Dion can only imagine how close the empathy the goddess might feel toward anyone subjected to such a cruel fate is. “Nua must have learned the magic in Hell. Or even before she was killed. My poor cousin…”

He strokes her side, his heart plunging for a moment at the thought of her lost and maddened, imprisoned in her own sword, forever away from him.

“Her soul can be released,” Somrak says. “But it will be permanently damaged.” His voice is flat and somber as he adds, half to himself. “Hell has good reason to spread the knowledge. Mortals armed with weapons that can kill gods. And using them to make even more such weapons and armor and whatever else. Once that snowball rolls enough, it would be unstoppable. Full-on war for supremacy.”

“What is wrong with you, Somrak?” Alma snaps suddenly, pulling away from Dion to glare at the fire god. “Haven’t we suffered enough for one day? Must you be making things grimmer with thoughts like that?” Her voice breaks, the words catching in her throat. “I was…almost…”

Somrak looks down, ashamed and subdued but still he insists on getting his point across. “You weren’t though. And we stopped it getting out into the world. You captured her. All this…it wasn’t just rescuing Sky. Remember that.” He looks up again only to find Alma turning her eyes from him, Dion unable to give him his agreement. The pain is too fresh to consider the good of the world at the moment or to find a silver lining in the veritable earthquake that was Nua. The sight of them makes the fire god exhale and shake his head before he takes the initiative of peeking into one of the rooms opening into the chamber. “Pretty nice for a cave…”

“Forgive me,” Alma’s voice is soft as she turns her head to face Somrak’s back. The fire god faces her at the sound of her words. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just… The world is too much to consider right now.” She pauses. “I think I can relieve Nasheena of her pain, at least.”

Somrak looks at her, his eyes glancing down, Dion notices, to where the magic god’s hand still rests on her side. Is that jealousy that flashes through Somrak’s face? Or just sadness? “Just be careful. She is…dangerous, now.” He looks away, toward the table, pointing at the daggers. “Sky had that one in his hand…” He looks back at them and Dion can see now, clearly, beyond the coolness of the hard-beaten agent and the cynicism of the fighter, just how disturbed and damaged Somrak truly is. “I’m sorry. I should just…I’m saying stupid things.”

“We have all been through too much,” Dion replies, empathizing with the fire god. “You don’t need to be sorry, Somrak.”

“We should take care of each other,” Alma agrees. “Things will not be easy. And you two…”

She trails off, looking from Dion to Somrak. Her eyes fill with grief, shining with a thin film of water that threatens to spill into tears. Of anyone Dion knows, she is the one most capable of seeing the damage inflicted on them, on Sky, on herself. They cannot hide it from her nor deceive her in regards to the depth of their transcendental wounds. Even more than Dion himself can have a notion of how much damage he has sustained, she can see it without even wishing to do so. And whatever she sees is clearly paining her beyond words. He wishes he could somehow reassure her but all he can do is offer her the proximity of his embrace.

“He…picked you both up so carefully,” Somrak half mumbles. “And at the portal, when we couldn’t open it, he put you down like a mother laying down sleeping children. And he turned to fight…”

“Fight what?” Dion asks.

But Somrak offers only a single word by way of answer: “Hell.”

For a moment, Dion thinks about pushing for more details. He can barely remember all that happened after he was freed from the mana-nullifying shackles and a lot more seems to have happened after he lost conscience. But something in the way Somrak shudders almost imperceptibly, diverting his eyes and taking a shaking, half-choked breath, makes him change his mind.

“I brought you there.” Somrak’s voice is nearly imperceptible. “All I could think was how it was all… How you were helpless and I was the one who brought you.”

The stiffening of Alma’s body against Dion’s makes him glance toward the goddess to see her tilting her head up, eyes shut tightly for a moment before opening again and blinking rapidly against tears. “We walked in by our own feet,” she says quietly before looking back at Somrak. “But please…no more of this tonight.”

The pleading tone of her voice seems to finally convince the fire god to quit the grim what ifs and let the issue fall for the moment. “Of course. I’ll just go to bed.”

He turns to walk into his room. With a quick glance at Dion that could very well contend with the most eloquent of speeches, Alma pulls away from him to move closer to Somrak. Dion offers no resistance. He himself is feeling a sharp note of sorrow and empathy for the fire god, on whose shoulders hangs the weight of the decision of walking into Margrave’s lair without help from the higher powers and the burden of guilt for the pain, the trauma and the loss that has befallen them all. Somrak is surprised to find Alma by his side, his face freezing, wide-eyed, at the reaching of her arms to wrap around him. But only for a moment. He holds her in return, tight and silent but for a ragged inhalation catching in his throat.

And with a look at Dion through watery eyes, the fire god reaches out, grabbing him and pulling him closer with a muttered joke of, “Yeah, you’re not getting away without a hug too, Mister Demon Blaster.”

Dion has no strength to chuckle, no reason to smile, but he knows Somrak expects nothing of the sort. Humor is merely a subterfuge to avoid the falling apart that will inevitably have to happen sooner or later. The magic god puts his arms around both Somrak and Alma, warmly, sharing in the short moment of solace.

Until eventually, it ends.

“Rest, Somrak,” Alma says, breaking away from the embrace. “May there be no dreams tonight.”

“I suspect there won’t be,” Somrak replies, likewise letting them go. “You two rest as well. Start recovering.”

And with that, Somrak disappears into his chosen room, the door closing behind him. Dion and Alma find themselves alone with each other and with the weapons laid out on the table like a macabre memorial to a horrible day. The sword, in particular, seems to capture Alma’s attention, and she stares at it with distant, fearful eyes.

Dion hesitates for a moment, not knowing what to say, then reaches to touch her hair, running his fingers through the silver-white locks. “It’s over now. It’s still just a sword.”

“It’s just hovering there all by itself,” Alma half mumbles.

Dion raises an eyebrow at the words. “It is lying on a table, surrounded by your daggers, mine, and Saira’s crossbow. Do you not see those?”

She shakes her head, her voice a whimper. “But I can see it. And I don’t know what it means.”

Dion holds her closely, moving to block her view of the sword. “Shhh… Maybe it’s just an after effect. Maybe it will go away. Maybe your eyes just need a rest.”

She nods against his shoulder. “I am stuck soul-scrying. I miss the old days, when I could just see normally and scrying took effort. Things were much less confusing.”

“I can’t say I don’t miss those beautiful blue eyes you had,” Dion concedes. “But maybe this also means your spheres weren’t damaged.” He kisses her ear, speaking softly. “Do you want me to put the weapons in some other room for now?”

Alma looks at him, and nods. “I just… I can’t stand to see them.”

“I understand. I’m not really enjoying looking at them. Give me a minute.” He releases her and walks toward the table. With a little bit of balancing and awkward gymnastics, he is able to pick up all of the weapons and carry them into the room just beside Somrak’s. It takes him less than a minute to lay them, without much ceremony, on the bed and, with a hesitant, worrying look at Alma’s sword, return to the chamber where the goddess awaits him.

“There, all–”

The words die in his throat. For just as he steps into the chamber, two figures appear out of thin air and surround Alma, shielding her from his sight. One dark as the shadows of a moonless night, the other glowing with a soft, strangely distant light, both cloaked and hooded, their faces and bodies hidden from Dion’s sight, they seem to surprise Alma as much as they do Dion, for he hears her gasp just before she disappears between them.

Though there is nothing Hellish about these newcomers, Dion’s aura flares immediately, his sphere screaming for bloody murder against anyone who might dare attack them at their weakest, his mind curling around spells while his muscles open usually collapsed blood vessels to allow for stronger, faster movement. The air becomes instantly charged with the light and scents of his divine power, tasting of salt and iron…and Hell.

The dark hooded figure pulls away from Alma immediately to look at Dion from the depths of its shadowy cloak. Dion cannot see its eyes nor its hands or feet. Just shadow, darkening now and yet glimmering against the natural twilight of the chamber. Its aura flares in a restrained warning that is nonetheless indicative of older and greater power than Dion’s as the cloak opens to reveal an incorporeal hand, little more than the cut-out of a hand appearing in stark contrast against the world around it.

And from behind it, Alma’s reassuring voice rings with an edge of worry. “Gwydion, no. It’s all right. They are my brothers.”

At her words, the dark figure removes its hood to reveal a face that is just as immaterial as its hand. It seems to be completely made of shadows, some lighter, some darker, some narrow and stark, defining the lines of cheekbones and lips, some soft where what should be hair is nothing but a blurry, fading collection of greyish motes. Still, somehow the whole ensemble manages to convey beauty and friendliness, much like the voice attached to it. “Sorry to startle you. I am Imset and that is Luminus.” He points at the glowing hooded figure hovering behind Alma. “We’re Almy’s biggest brothers. You have quite an aura there.”

Understanding takes a moment to settle in. Alma’s brothers. Friendly brothers. Not a threat.

Not a threat…

Slowly, with much effort, Dion brings his aura under control, the golden light fading from his eyes, the sense of impending attack fading away. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, shuddering as he releases the last of his energy and says, “My apologies. We are all a little unsettled.”

As if alerted by Dion’s previous display of power, Somrak opens his bedroom door to look outside, standing at the threshold and looking from the two brothers to Alma to Dion, silently, expectantly. His relaxed frame could very well mean anything from readiness to fight to a simple inquiry for an explanation – and perhaps a hint of disappointment at not having walked straight into a fight.

Possibly trying to prevent any further misunderstandings, Alma speaks up, looking toward her brothers. “Immy, Lum, these are Gwydion, my partner, and Somrak, both of the Guarda Dei.” She looks reassuringly at both Somrak and Dion. “My brothers, Imset and Luminus. The darkness and light at the end of life. Eldest of my father’s sons.”

The magic god cannot help but feel a soft flare of warmth at the way she so easily introduces him as her partner after two months of near-secret romance. For a moment, a possessive instinct makes him want to throw his arms around her and hold her closely in a show of property. But the rational side of him wins over, among other things reasoning that such a move would not sit well with his beloved’s older brothers, and instead finds some comfort in falling into the conventional expectations of politesse. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.”

In reply, the god now identified as Luminus removes his hood to reveal a face in every way similar to Imset’s, his brother, with the simple difference that where the latter is made of dozens of shades of darkness and shadow, the former seems to be made entirely of different tones of light, sometimes vapoury, sometimes almost solid. The facial features are an almost exact copy between the twins, however, and Luminus’ kindness shows through as he nods wordlessly at both Dion and Somrak, who return the greeting in kind.

“Mother told me you were watching over the Bunnies,” Alma says, speaking to Imset. “Has she dismissed you?”

“Yes. No dangers loom that we can sense,” her brother replies. “The poor kids were on edge at the demon attack but they’re bright. They bounce back quickly. Of course, the news had them all distraught but they seem to have calmed down now. Lyria is taking care of them.” Suddenly, impulsively, he embraces Alma again. Taller than his sister, and therefore than both Dion and Somrak, he seems to wrap her in his shadows as he leans to gently hold her. “And we just had to come check on you. Mel told us the gist of things. Oh sister… You look like your soul has been put through the grinder and pulled out the other side by a rabid dog.”

“That’s very much how it feels,” Alma replies, lost somewhere within Imset’s cloak.

Pulling away from her just enough to straighten and turn slightly, Imset looks at Somrak and then at Dion. “And not just yours either.”

The dawning realization that these gods, just like Alma, can see straight through the body and into the soul has Dion feeling uncomfortable. It is a silly thing that he should not have assumed before that any of the Death clan can gaze easily into his innermost core without so much as asking or needing permission, but still the mention of it makes the intrusion impossible to ignore. If he were completely naked, he would not feel any more ill-at-ease than he does now at being reminded that eyes other than Alma’s are gazing at the most intimate part of him.

And perhaps Somrak shares in the same discomfort, because he breaks his silence to say only, “Nice to meet you both. I’ll let you catch up with family.”

Imset looks dismayed for a moment at the sight of Somrak turning and disappearing back into his room. “Oh, I hope I didn’t offend him somehow.”

“He has just been through a great deal,” Alma replies. “I’m sure it was nothing you said.”

Imset nods, still looking at Somrak’s bedroom door. “I hope not. Your children had some very good things to say about him.” He turns to look at Dion. “And about you as well. They were worried about you. And they send their love.”

“We were worried about them too,” Dion replies. “It’s good to know they had friendly faces with them in a time of danger.”

“Yes. Thank you, Immy,” Alma adds, looking at both her brothers. “Lum.”

Imset strokes Alma’s head, the affection binding them clear in the gesture. His voice is soft and pleading when he says, “But Almy, this is no place for you. Not in that condition. Let us take you to our place. Not Father’s home, I know you wouldn’t want to go there. Our own. In the First Ring. Just to rest awhile.”

As if to reinforce Imset’s invitation, Luminus touches Alma’s shoulder, making the goddess look back at him. He hasn’t spoken a single word yet, Dion realizes, nor does Alma seem to find this strange. The light-spawn god seems to communicate solely by visual cues, exuding a quiet, serene tolerance while Imset, chatty and more impulsive, takes the reigns of conversation. An interesting dynamic for a set of twins.

Alma looks at both of them sadly and shakes her head before gently releasing herself from their touch and taking the few steps separating her from Dion. Reaching to take his hand, which the god offers her immediately, she leans against his shoulder. “No, Immy. I appreciate the offer but…I’m where I need to be.”

Squeezing her hand, Dion adds, “Thank you for that message from the Bunnies. It is deeply appreciated. But…” He looks at her, almost certainly of what she will say.

“We just need a few hours of nothing much happening to breathe deeply and prepare for what comes next,” she tells her brothers. “We have been away from our friends and family for long enough.”

Imset looks at the two of them, his expression wavering with uncertainty until Luminus’ hand touches his shoulder, making the darker twin turn his head to exchange a meaningful look with his brother. A whole conversation seems to flash, unspoken, between the two before Imset turns to face Alma again. “Well… I understand. Of course, it was just for a breath of fresh air. You are our little sister; of course we are going to worry. No matter how big and strong you get.”

And with that, Imset hovers closer to his sister, to place a shadowy hand on Alma’s cheek. Near him for the first time, Dion can now feel the coolness that Imset emanates, a shared feature of the death gods he knows. “If you need anything, just call. Don’t let Mel have all the fun,” the shadow god says before pressing an immaterial cheek against his sister’s. Dion has to strain to make out the words Imset whispers in Alma’s ear. “They are amazing. We’ll definitely come by for a visit one of these days and check on all of you.”

“You’ll be welcome anytime you decide to do so,” Alma replies, her lower lip trembling slightly.

With a kiss to her cheek and a whisper of “My brave little sister…” Imset pulls away and looks at Dion. “If anything happens that you can’t or don’t know how to deal with, call us. We’ll come. And…take care of her, please.”

Dion nods his assent, his reply a solemn oath. “I will.” Releasing Alma’s hand to drape his arm around her back, he adds. “Thank you. I hope we can get to know one another better, when things are…”

He trails off, words evading him. All he can do is gesture vaguely, helplessly with his free hand, the pain in his soul claiming too much of his attention, too much of his focus to allow for extensive conversation. He grimaces at a sudden flare of undeniable agony, hoping Imset will not interpret it as offensive.

The god smiles kindly at him, however. “You mean, not so strange?” He shrugs and puts a friendly hand on Dion’s shoulder. “I do hope I get to know the infamous Gwydion a bit better next time.”

The mention of his so-called fame makes Dion grimace. “I hope my fame is all you have against me.”

For a moment, Imset seems confused and Dion fears the worst. But soon, Imset is grinning and turning to Alma. “Oh, I don’t know. Do I have anything against him?”

The goddess manages a smile that is clearly strained, even though the look of affection she bestows on Dion is sincere and warm. She puts both of her arms around him, saying, “No… You love him.”

The words are soft, tender. Dion can’t help but hold her closer and reach to cup her cheek, bringing her head closer so he can kiss her temple before resting his head against hers. It is still a strange sensation to be so openly affectionate in the presence of others but the truth is that the little display seems to leave Imset immensely pleased. “Yes, I thought so,” the death god says, looking at Dion with approval. “Anyway, welcome to the family if no one else has had the chance to say it.”

Dion nods a thank you at him, letting Alma pull away for a moment to accept a kiss to the forehead from Luminus. The light god, whose presence is just as cool in spite of his gentle glow, touches Dion’s arm and smiles at him just as kindly as Imset did, in a way that seems to say, “It will be all right.”

Dion touches Luminus’ arm in return, half surprised to feel solidity against his fingertips. Although at first he was unsure about these two new acquaintances – indeed, he was on the verge of attempting to obliterate them when they took him by surprise – now he does long to make his words truth, and get to know them well. Unlike Melinor, for whom Dion is beginning to develop a sort of quiet admiration but whose blunt and grim ways are unwelcoming of closer contact, Luminus and Imset are sincere and kind in their love for their sister as well as their approach to people. If they are truly the embodiment of the sensations found at the end of life, then they are also the proof of that most idiosyncratic of beliefs of mortals: that death can be kind.

Even though it might not have the best timing. With great effort, he summons a smile for them both, straining to ignore the spiritual pain that slashes through him, echoes of the whipping he took mere hours ago. Thankfully, the twins do not force him to keep it on for long, vanishing instead with a final wave of their hands.

Finally alone…

Alma turns to look at him apologetically. “I’m sorry… They are very friendly but… they never really mastered the art of announcing themselves first.”

“I’m glad to have met them,” Dion replies, shaking his head. “I’m sorry for my initial reaction. For a moment I thought that things were not really over.”

“I know,” Alma breathes, reaching to take his hand. “Let us get to bed. Before the rest of the world decides to drop by for a visit.”

The suggestion is very much music to Dion’s ears. He cannot think of anything he wants more than to lie down and forget the world exists until the morning forces him awake. He would gratefully sleep for a month if he were allowed the luxury. Holding Alma’s hand, he guides her into one of the vacant rooms, making sure she does not stub her toes, barefoot as they both are, or her arms anywhere on their way to the bed. She sits but does not lie down, however, instead looking at him with worry in her eyes.

“Listen, I…” she starts but trails off. Looking down, she takes a deep breath before saying, “I’ll leave you alone if you need time. After what you’ve been through, I would understand.”

His eyes widen in shock at the offer. “No! No, I don’t want to be alone,” he replies, sitting beside her on the bed. “Maybe, with you beside me, I can sleep. I know that if you weren’t, I… I almost…” He breaks off and puts his arms around her, holding her tightly, not willing to put what almost happened, how very close he came to losing her, into words. “I need you to stay. I need you to stay and just be yourself. Help me forget that horrible smile on your lips.”

And yet the flash of fear of hearing Nua’s satiric voice reply to his plea makes his body freeze, the memory of her smile appearing before his eyes as if summoned by his words. It takes him the whole of his self-control not to pull away.

“I saw it…” Alma’s voice is barely above a breath as she holds him back just as tightly. “Not all of it. I saw her hurting you. And I was so…helpless.” She hides her face against his bare shoulder and he can feel the wetness there, of her tears rolling down his skin. “I couldn’t do anything, I was trapped in that other body. She laughed when she showed me. All she had done. To you and Somrak and Sky and – She was going to steal you all from me.”

By the end of it, she is sobbing, her body shaking with the convulsions of deep, choking crying. He holds her, letting her cry, feeling his own eyes well up with tears. Knowing her in pain, the sight and sound of her suffering ringing against his senses, is nearly unbearable. And still, it too is proof that she is no impostor.

His cheek against hers, he whispers soothing words in her ear. “You are here, with me. We are together. This is no dream, no nightmare. She’ll have the fate she deserves and we will find our way out of all this grief.”

He can barely sound convincing to his own ears but Alma still nods against his shoulder. “I just want to stop crying. I’m usually not one for crying.”

“I’d rather have you crying than silent,” Dion says, stroking her hair. “Come on, lie down now.”

She pulls away a little and nods again. Dion rises to allow her to pull her legs up onto the bed, watching as she slips under the pale green linen sheets, fully dressed, and out of reflex drapes her arms protectively around herself as if she were cold. He follows, lying down, carefully moving one arm so it slips under her neck, the other wrapping over her side, both pulling her closer to him until their bodies lie full length against each other.

She resists weakly at first but finally snuggles in his embrace, looking a question at him. “How…?” Her voice is wet with the tears that still run down her face. “How can you still hold me after all that? The things this body has done to you – I feel so…so repulsive in it!”

She tries to roll away from him, her hands reaching to cover her face in shame. He just tightens his hold of her, silent for a moment. How can he still hold her after all that? But then, how can he not? When she is solace and warmth and love to him? How painful would it be to lie in bed alone tonight, dreaming of horrible things, without the touch of his beloved, her scent in his nostrils like a balm to the mind? When even as memories of his torture spark, the body that caused him pain also brings him relief?

“I knew all along that it wasn’t you,” he says eventually. “I didn’t want to believe it at first and then I thought…I hoped you were still in there…somewhere. But then she whipped me and I knew–” His voice catches, his eyes start feeling wet. “I knew you weren’t. You would never allow her to do something like that. And I thought…” He holds her tighter, tears rolling down his eyes in a steady stream as he plunges his nose in her hair. “I don’t want to say it. I never want to feel so hopeless again.”

Somehow, she manages to wriggle one hand up through the space between their bodies, to cup his cheek. “I’m here. I promise you, it’s just me now.” She pulls away a little to kiss the bridge of his nose, her head tilting to bring her lips against his.

And it is only when they brush his lips that Melinor’s warning rings in Dion’s ears, making him pull away from her at the last moment. “Your brother warned me… Said it might interfere with your soul reconnecting with your body.”

She pauses, looking at him for a moment. He can see her expression hardening as if coming to a decision. “I risked the Council’s wrath for a night with you. I will risk losing myself in you for a kiss. I need you.”

He gazes into her eyes, torn. He needs her too. So badly. And though he fears any negative consequences, her proximity, his pain, the way his spirit has been crushed and his heart broken too many times today, all of it makes him long for her more than fear can keep him away. He swallows his concerns, leans forward and kisses her, basking in the synchrony of their movements, relief spreading as their essences blossom in search of each other. The feel of her is more restrained now, more contained in the physical limits of her body, but still the energy is there, her peace and coolness are there greeting his essence as it whimpers with longing and curls itself against her. For a moment, he is able to forget the cruel expression of Nua wearing Alma’s face as she whips him. For a moment, he can just inhabit that space of relief from care. For a moment.

Such a bittersweet moment… He lays his cheek against hers, his lips whispering of their own accord, “It’s you. It’s you. All of it. It’s all there.”

The words tumble forth, unconnected to conscious thought. Without knowing how, he feels his face drenched, his body jerk with deep, painful sobs. He holds her for dear life, crying as he doesn’t remember crying in over a century, like a child suddenly alone in the world. Like a broken man, robbed of his heart’s desire. He hates himself for crying, even as the tears grown heavier with the collected pain of decades, with all those other times when he should have cried, would have cried, if only he were this free to weep.

Her hand running softly through his hair is barely above a background sensation as he cries himself into a gentle lull. “Remember the first time we kissed?” she asks as he begins to recover control over himself. “Back at Math’s?”

He nods. How he could he not remember? “I remember every kiss. I cherish them all. Oh, Alma, I love you. I love you so much and I was going to let it all be taken away by Hell without ever letting you know it.”

“I already knew it, my love,” she whispers softly. “You did let me know. In so many little ways. And that day you were poisoned… When you were feverish and delirious, of all the things you could have said, you said I was the most important thing in the world to you. How could I not know?”

He pulls away to look at her, shocked at himself for the words he does not remember speaking. But he is grateful for those words. For what they meant to her. To them. He locks eyes with her, searing and serious, forcing himself to say what he has never said sincerely enough, knowingly enough, never for the right reasons or with the right meaning. “I love you.”

His heart stops beating for a moment, his lungs forget to breathe. He hangs, vulnerable, in silent fear, awaiting her reply. The reply he knows she will give but which he fears with terror might be different. Her eyes soften, she smiles a small smile that is an overwhelming relief for being so much one of her own. Her lips part with a heavenly breath of, “And I you.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Morning underground. In this cave system, there are no windows letting in the light, no birds singing. But a colony of bats does occupy some of the unused chambers, kept from the others by a simple spell, renewed monthly by the half-naiad Doria, that makes them feel uneasy in the ones that she and Nevieve occupy and make use of, simply to prevent their ammoniac droppings from becoming a problem. And so the rush of their ingress, returning from their hunt of moths and mosquitos, accompanied by chirps so high-pitched that only the deepest can be heard, serves as notification that the sun is rising.

Sky, unsleeping, opens his eyes. He listens as Doria, priestess to the Oracle, awakens from half-submerged slumber in a pool and rises, dripping, into the echoing peace of the tunnels and caverns. She goes to a chamber that must be, from the sound of thin metal ringing against stone surface, a kitchen. Ah, there is the sound of water filling a kettle, the flow singing within the hollow steel belly.

His body, still in its hateful devil form, is curled up on blankets laid down for him by Doria last night, before he returned from the connected chamber, Sky’s ‘rage room,’ as he thinks of it, a small cave which Nevieve has said Sky can freely use to attack the stone walls, venting his fury at the torture inflicted on him and his friends. For so long, Sky has controlled his emotions, fighting to keep from revealing what he is. Now he cannot control them for long. It is a process that seemed to begin when he came to Three Rats. He had built walls to keep from getting too close to anyone, but those walls have fallen. Rage, tenderness, love – all of these have blossomed in him like flowers in a desert that has suddenly received a heavy downpour.

Somrak is sleeping against him, using him like a large cushion. When Somrak came in scant hours ago, Sky’s old partner did not speak. He just lay down quietly and soon was asleep. Sky had said nothing as well. He didn’t know what to say. Somrak had been his keeper, potentially his executioner for four decades. Despite a few moments of kindness and shared pain, Somrak had never made such a tender gesture. He had never fallen asleep against Sky even in the devil’s human form, and here he was, curling up against him – after risking everything, even his soul, to rescue him. Sky was and is moved far beyond anywhere words can hope to reach. But he moved a wing to cover Somrak. The fire god seems to have spent his energies so much that he is barely able to keep himself warm.

He hears the voices of Alma and Dion talking quietly in the tunnel leading to this chamber. Sky resists the urge to flee into the shadows, and the urge to call shadows around himself, to hide. He considers this shape to be vile, monstrous. That those he loves will see him like this, have to endure his filthy presence – but there is Somrak, exhausted. How could he wake him?

And so when the Sergeants enter, the see Sky, frozen like a cat-lover with a kitten asleep on his lap, helpless and immobilized. Alma almost laughs, but then looks to Dion, whose forearm muscles tighten as he squeezes her hand. Dion’s face is momentarily that of a mongoose facing a deadly cobra, his hair rising like hackles, his aura almost imperceptibly flaring – but Sky can feel it, the aura of the Devil Hammer, like heat beating against him, the harsh palpable impact of a blazing sun pounding a night animal stranded in the open desert.

Alma touches Dion’s flexed forearm, soothing him, while Sky fights his body’s instinctive reaction to prepare for a deadly duel. His body must shift enough for Somrak to feel, however, because the fire god mutters loudly, as if talking in his sleep, “Can we just accept things are going to be awkward for a little while and then move on?” Somrak sits up and stretches lazily, then scratches his smooth-muscled belly. “If you guys can’t find your way back to being the friends you were, I am going to be really pissed.”

“If there is still a place for anger left in you, then you are the luckiest of us four,” Alma says, her voice filled to the brim with sorrow. “I would rather be angry. Then I wouldn’t feel exhausted. Or numb.” She shakes her head. “This will take a miracle to fix with the higher powers. Weeks, even months of keeping the Bunnies away from here. Who do we call to help? Who will come if we call?” She breathes deeply. “Accepting the reality before my eyes is the least of my problems, Somrak.”

He looks at her for a moment, her sad tone wiping away his defensive sarcasm. “I’ll report back to the Commander after we make our visit to the station, and the bar. I’ll make it clear that I ordered you two not to call for backup because of possible Whisper agents. He’ll know the truth. Anyway, assuming I still have a job, I’ll suss out his plans on what to do about Sky. If he orders me to…you know…I’ll come here and take Sky off the Insula.” He turns his head to look at Sky’s wolfish face. “I’m not going to be your executioner. If it comes to that, we’ll go renegade together. Pretty sure the Commander will give me time to make that happen.”

Dion shakes his head as if trying to banish the divine sphere that has so recently awakened within him. “What is it with you off-blues and your dreams of fleeing the Insula? I don’t think we will be able to avoid the Council taking interest in what happened. Ultimately, it may not be the Commander’s decision at all. And considering who is in charge of him and the Guardia…” He seems reluctant to say it out loud, but they are all aware that Dion’s uncle is the Archon Math, who holds the Guardia within his purview. “Anyway, you will not bear the consequences of our choices alone, Somrak. Whatever punishment comes, we’ll all endure our share.”

“Yes. Besides, I think I already gave my confession to Fencer yesterday,” Alma adds. “Whatever cards we have left to play, now is the time to play them.” She produces a small, round stone that seems to pulse with malevolence, the soulstone that serves as Nua’s prison. “This one is really just a conversation starter, I’m afraid.”

Somrak looks at it as if it were a highly poisonous spider. “The things she knows, though. Soul bombs and Tragas binding techniques. History. Who escaped the necromancer pogrom, and whether they have descendants. It’ll be worth a great deal.”

“She is…damaged.” Alma says quietly. “I wanted her gone. I don’t know what condition she’ll be in.” She puts the stone away in a pocket. “But I guess they don’t need to know that.”

Sky finally brings himself to speak up. His voice rumbles, “She is insane. If she were not so dangerous, she would be an object of pity. She will never cooperate with the Death Clan willingly. Perhaps they will find subtler means useful. A virtual environment…”

“Ah, found your voice after all that roaring,” Somrak says. “I’ll pass on the suggestion.” To Alma and Dion, he says, “Sometimes prisoners are interrogated by putting them in a kind of pocket-universe of the mind, to make them comfortable, trick them into giving up info…anyway, doesn’t matter now.” He shakes his head and stands. “I should get to that. I can skip the station. I’ll be in contact when I can.” He pats Sky on the flank.

Alma steps forward and puts a hand against Somrak’s bare chest. “We have to return to the station,” she insists. “If you’re not with us, the Bunnies will think you are dead as well.”

Somrak grimaces. “You really think they’re going to want to see me, ever again? I got Saira killed. I nearly got all of–”

“That is not…your fault,” Sky growls, pausing at a flash of pain. “It is mine, more than anyone here. They will want to see you. Take time with them.”

“They are worried about us all,” Dion points out, voice strained. “The more people they can see and make sure are in one piece, the fewer uncomfortable questions we’ll have to answer. And if we are going to be playing the blame game, I’d rather put my money on the psychopaths who tortured us in the first place.”

Somrak sighs, surrendering. “All right, I’ll go with you.” He looks at Sky. “Still can’t change back, partner?”

The devil shakes his head no. “I have tried. I am trying right now. The whip…maybe other things, too, have maimed me. I cannot transform.”

Yet,” Alma states as unchallengeable fact. “It will take time to heal. But we’ll manage. Somehow.” She says it as if force of will alone can make it happen. “We will all heal.”

Sky looks at her, trying to summon the words that come so unwillingly in this form. With this devil’s brain, malice is the default, and being a friend requires struggle. “The things I said before, my feelings for all of you, for the Bunnies…none of that was a lie. I have lived a lie for so long, my only desire now is to be truthful with all of you, in every matter. I…think I can regain control over my shape. I will do all I can.”

“Good,” Alma replies after a moment, reaching out to touch one of his backswept horns. “I’ll ask Nevieve for advice on anyone we can call on. And I still have one card left to play. We’ll get you the time you need…I hope. But for now, we must go.”

“We’ll do all we can to make things right.” Dion assures him. His earlier aggression is gone, but he seems tense, still.

Sky can tell that Dion, with his sphere pushing him to attack any scion of Hell, will need time to learn to accept what Sky is, if he ever can. The devil rises to his haunches, tail curled around his legs. “I could not hope to find better friends. I do not deserve you, but I shall strive always to be worthy of you.” He looks at Alma. “Yesterday, I pulled away at first. I was afraid that I would hurt you. But I would never hurt you.”

Alma’s hand moves down the horn to rest on top of Sky’s massive head. “I know. And if it still happened to be her in my body, I could have hurt you, I know. I understand. The doubt will linger for long, still.”

He relaxes at her touch, then looks to all three of them. “You came for me. I will never forget what you risked, and the sacrifices you made.”

“We should go,” Dion says after a pause, looking like he’s having trouble restraining himself.

“When we go out drinking, booze is always on you, big guy,” Somrak says. Even as he is joking, he’s moving near Dion, helping to guide him out. “Don’t go too crazy with the remodeling!”

Alma leaves her hand on Sky’s head for a moment longer. “Take care, Sky. I will see you again.” Then she turns to leave with the others.

As their footsteps and voices echo down the passage, Sky draws in on himself, wondering whether, despite their intentions, he has lost his friends forever. But the feeling of Somrak’s body asleep against his lingers, tingling, as does Alma’s touch. And Dion is fighting to resist his sphere, for Sky’s sake. Sky tells himself that he has not lost them. Perhaps if he says it enough times, he will feel it is true.

Ch6.97 Trust

In a shadowy chamber, water running down one wall, phosphorescent lichen and albino geckos on the rough stone, Somrak sits, his back to a table. Table – well, formerly a thick stalagmite that had broken off and was then cut and smoothed to a useful surface. The bench on which Somrak sits is a natural ridge of stone as well, shaped dexterously into a comfortable seat. Somrak does not make use of its legroom between the table and itself, instead stretching his legs away from the table, resting his back against the edge of it, his arms crossed over his bare chest, staring at nothing. Thinking, over and over, of what he could have done differently.

The mission had been a success. Technically. They got Sky out alive. None of the gods had died. But Saira… Saira died. For a moment he rages at her, in his mind. You weren’t even on our mission, were you? You were on your personal vendetta. I told you! Alma told you! Fates, I knocked you unconscious to keep you from meeting your death! Still you came…

None of this shows on his face. It remains impassive, as calm as the drops of water, as the slow breathing of a huge, dangerous beast in the deeper shadows further into the chamber.

But you kept your target immobilized, Somrak tells the dead woman he holds in his mind. He had to devote every trick he had to trying to survive, and still he failed at that. You did it, girl. You got him. You killed him. You laid your ghosts to rest, and yourself as well.

And in response, he hears her voice – no ghost, unless a desire to speak again just one more time can be called a ghost. Still as dumb as ever, Ponytail. Thinkin’ you have me figured out. Gods, but you gods are stupid.

He twists and brings his legs around, facing the table. On it, laid out like the main guest at a wake, is a body. The filthy cloth he had wrapped her in has been replaced by a clean white winding-cloth of soft cotton, the same material as these white trousers he is wearing, a magical gift from the Oracle. Much of the damage to the body has been repaired, as well. At least, with the face visible, Somrak can see no sign of trauma on Saira’s calm, cool mien.

He brushes a lock of her brown hair with his fingertips. “You got him,” he whispers.

Beyond him, where no lichen illuminates, a pair of eyes, glowing blue-green, open. They look at Somrak and Saira, then the head bearing them turns, ponderous, to the doorway. The illumination behind Somrak increases, throwing a shadow across Saira’s face. He turns to see Lyria at the doorway, a soft verdant light surrounding her, the aura of her Life sphere highlighting her maternal beauty. Behind her is a dark, hulking shape – Melinor, Alma’s brother. And passing her to enter the chamber is Alma herself, followed closely by Gwydion, bare-chested and white-breeched like Somrak.

Alma goes directly to Somrak, her eyes on his face. He can see the pain and anguish from the ordeal she has been through. Forcibly possessed by a twisted, evil soul. Trapped in a desperate fight for control of her own body. Made to witness Gwydion’s torture at the hands that same body. And Somrak’s own torture as well, let’s not forget that. And what else? What else did Nua put Alma through in there? He is certain it was far worse that the scourging Somrak himself suffered.

But before she speaks to him, her eyes – those strangely beautiful pearlescent eyes – move to Saira. She puts a hand on the corpse’s forehead for a moment, a stoic sorrow passing across Alma’s face. It lasts but a moment. Alma is a goddess of the House of Death. Cold lifeless bodies are not the focus of her sorrow. Or so Somrak assumes.

Then she lays that same hand on his cheek, turning his face up to hers. “Somrak?” Her voice is a plea for reassurance that he has come out of that little slice of Hell, not left himself behind somehow.

He looks into her eyes. Her touch is not as cool as it normally is. He suspects it is because his own fire is nothing but ashes, his body no warmer than a mortal’s. He opens his mouth, and out of it comes a voice barely above a whisper, but on the verge of becoming a wail. “I am sorry… Alma, I am so sorry…”

She puts her arms around his neck, pulling his head to her shoulder as she sits on the bench next to him. “Shh,” she whispers in his ear. “We all knew. And we’re safe now.”

After a brief hesitation, he holds her tightly, his hands on her lower back and shoulder blade. “I thought we were all lost. I almost–” He cuts himself off. He can’t. He just can’t tell her that at the moment before they were rescued, he was on the verge of killing her unconscious body in the hope that at least her soul might escape being pulled into Hell. Instead he asks, “Saira? Her soul?”

“Varah saw to it,” Melinor replies from the doorway, his voice low. “Personally.”

Over Alma’s shoulder, Somrak looks at him through locks of the goddess’ snowy white hair. He nods at Melinor. “Thank you.”

From the shadows comes a rumble of agreement, a sound like misshapen lava stones grinding in the stygian trenches of the ocean. “You pulled us from Hell, Melinor,” Sky says, pitching his voice as close to human as he can. “You saved us.” The glowing blue-green eyes blink.

“It was necessary,” Melinor says simply. He seems unused to being regarded with such gratitude.

Alma looks at Melinor, the edges of her mouth twitching into a tentative smile. She speaks as if just for Somrak, “Melinor has always been my protector. I learned much of my strength from him.” Then she rises, swaying as she tries to stand, hand reaching for the edge of the table.

Somrak puts a hand on her elbow and shifts to catch her, but Gwydion is at her side, his hand on her waist and the other clasping hers. “You should sit,” he says. His voice is gentle, but also strained from pain.

Somrak surprises himself with the flare of jealousy he feels. And in his memory he hears Saira’s derisive laughter. Still? he castigates himself. After you and Dion have saved each other’s lives, after all both he and she have been through with you, you’re still envious? You all nearly died, you were tortured together, you saw the face of a Prince of Hell, and still the teenage boy in you cannot resist crashing into the middle of everything. He lets go of Alma’s arm and sinks back onto the bench.

Seeming not to have noticed Somrak’s assistance, Alma looks at Gwydion with empathy and sadness and reaches to stroke his cheek, as she did Somrak’s but with, perhaps, more tenderness. Or maybe that is Somrak’s imagination. “I just wanted to see Sky before I do so.” She looks toward the darkness.

The glowing eyes dip, and the darkness intensifies, becoming palpable. “Stop trying to hide,” Somrak mutters in Sky’s direction. “She’s already seen your ugly mug. Fates know it’s looking better now that it was then.”

Sky narrows his eyes as Somrak. Then, slowly, the darkness fades to become merely the natural dim light of the cavern chamber. Sky’s true form, hulking and winged, becomes more and more visible, though its red-black coloration still fades into the shadows where he huddles. The diabolic aura of fear suppressed, he is merely ugly, dangerous in appearance, but not radiating a terror-inducing cloak of gloom.

He raises his vulpine head slightly as Alma approaches, the heavy horns that sweep back from his skull looking as if he is straining to against them to meet her gaze. His blinded eye is healed, scars removed from his face.

For a long moment, the two simply look at each other. Dion stands less than an arm’s length behind Alma, looking ready to snatch her away if Sky makes any sudden moves. Somrak aches for them. He has an inkling of how attached Sky is to the goddess, and how much she has come to trust and rely upon Sky.

Then Alma hesitantly reaches to touch Sky’s muzzle, stopping a few inches from it. Waiting. Hoping.

But Sky does not move toward her, instead pulling back slightly, cringing away. “I was going…to tell you,” he croaks softly. His voice is deeper, rumbling, but it is recognizably Sky’s. Somrak, who has heard the devil’s voice before when Sky was in this form, realizes that it lacks the disturbing abyssal, grinding quality that it normally carries. “You fell asleep. I was ready. And then you had to leave and I…I decided to wait. Alma…” He closes his eyes and turns his head away, ashamed. “If I had only told you then…

In a whisper that Somrak barely catches, Alma says, “I know what she did to you. She showed me.”

He looks back at her, eyes wide. He does not speak, but pulls into himself, moving his wings to cover his head.

And after a moment, she sighs and drops her hand, her head hanging. “I am too tired,” she says, her voice louder but softened by sorrow and exhaustion, “in too much pain to be angry, Sky. I have risked too much to turn my back now. We will…find a way somehow.” There is no coldness or resentment in her words. She turns.

Somrak cannot stop himself from shouting at Sky, “Stop being such an idiot! She knows what you are! Dion knows!” He stomps to Sky’s side, not sure if he is going to strike the devil or not. “We have been through all that, together! Saira died! And now we’re all here! We’re alive! You are alive! And you are not hiding away anymore! I won’t have it!”

“Somrak…” Alma’s voice is quiet and soft but it cuts through the echoes of his shouts like a knife. “Please, be kind.”

Somrak falls silent, feeling embarrassed and sick to his stomach. Dion speaks up in the moment of silence. “Sky? Can you…change back?”

A leathery rustle of wings precedes Sky’s bestial face once again revealing itself. He shakes his ponderous head. “I cannot.” His voice is a whisper, and tracks of moisture lend the skin below his eyes, trailing down the sides of his muzzle, glisten in the dim light.

Somrak feels even more ill at this news. He turns away from Sky, clenching his teeth, then leans against the wall. Long tasked with the job of being Sky’s keeper and, potentially, executioner, he knows what orders may come from up high if Sky can no longer assume a divine form. Somrak takes a moment to find his voice without shouting. “You’ll have to,” he says. “It’s good that we all know, but you can’t go out of here until you can change.”

Then he hears a soft, wondering comment from Dion. “I thought…devils could not weep. That’s what all the accounts say.”

Somrak and Alma both turn back to see Sky looking shocked. He raises a taloned hand to touch the tears on his face. “I…cannot,” he whispers. “There are those who can, but…in this form, I cannot.”

“Well you’re doing it now,” Somrak says. “Maybe you just never had reason to?”

Sky shakes his head. “I would have given much to have been able to weep in that torture chamber. How…how can I be doing it now?

Alma steps toward him, both hands out, and cups his face. Her pale hands are so small where the palms curve against the massive jaw muscles. Her thumbs slide gently across the tracks of tears. Her lips curved in a wavering smile, she says, “Perhaps you can change forms after all. When I look at you, my friend, it’s not a devil’s soul I see. And though I am not sure what it is, I know it is no hellish thing. Have you pretended to be a god so long that you have become one? Or are you something in between?”

Though he would tower over her at his full height, he must look up at her from his crouched position. “I didn’t want to…to do what she made me…

“Shh.” Alma strokes his muzzle. “I know. I know you never would. Now rest. You must heal.”

“Luckily, we are in no hurry to cast him out,” Nevieve says from the door, standing next to Lyria. “You can stay here, Tuma-Sukai, for as long as you take to recover.”

“And you should all stay here tonight,” Lyria says, beside her. Her voice is subdued, but she sounds confident in her opinion. “Your physical wounds are healed. But you all have deeper wounds. Tonight, at least, you need peace. And each other.”

“No…Mother,” Alma argues, who has released Sky and moved again closer to Dion. “The Bunnies will already be worried sick. They’ll be frightened after being attacked by demons like you said. And they’ll have to know about Saira and mourn her. And we’ll have to tell them…something about Sky and…” As she speaks, she sounds more and more overwhelmed by the weight of it all.

Lyria looks sad, but her green eyes carry a hint of amusement. “You make my case for me, little one. It is all too much for now. Was this Saira important to them?”

“She was,” Alma says. “To Cherry, particularly, but to all of them in some way. They nursed her back to health once…” She glances at the body. “They will be crushed to see her dead.”

“Then let me take Saira’s body to them so that they may mourn her,” Lyria says, walking closer and laying a hand on the corpse, “and I shall tell them as much as they need to know for now. They can get past the initial shock with me and begin their mourning. When you return, they will be ready to give and take comfort without burdening you with excessive emotion. Please, my dear one, let me do this for you.”

Alma looks uncertain, and she touches Dion’s hand for comfort. He takes it, and Somrak, watching them, rests a hand on one of Sky’s horns.

Dion looks from Alma to Lyria and back again. “If we are welcome to stay…” He looks at Sky, still partially huddled, and at Somrak. Their eyes lock for a moment, and Somrak nods to Dion, lending his vote to the ‘stay’ camp. “It might be well for those of us who understand what we have been through to stay here for a little longer.”

Nevieve favors them with her detached, ancient smile. “Doria is preparing your rooms as we speak. All close by. Sky will need some time for private rest soon enough, I imagine. And so will you three.”

Alma looks at her, at Dion, at Lyria, then looks down and nods in defeat. “Very well. Thank you, Oracle. Thank you, Mother.”

Lyria puts both her hands on Alma’s upper arms. “I will do what I can to comfort them.” She looks at her daughter with sad contrition, then slowly, giving Alma the chance to push her away, embraces her in relief. Lyria looks around at the others. “Do not despair. But do not imagine that your healing will be swift. Lean on each other. As Gwydion says, only you understand what you have been through.”

She releases Alma, then goes to Sky. “Oh, little soul.” Lyria caresses his face. “You have yet a great part to play in the lives of those you love. Do not think for a moment that this is the end of all that. Have I ever shrunk from you?” She strokes the wetness on his face in wonder. “A crying devil. To think I should have seen this.” Then she looks at Somrak and pats his chest affectionately. She turns to leave, signaling a request for Melinor to pick up Saira’s body.

“Tell my children…” Alma says, “that we’ll be back tomorrow. Please.”

Lyria pauses to say, “I will. And I will not leave them until your return. They will be safe under my watch.” She leaves, Melinor following her.

Alma embraces Dion, holding him tightly, hiding her face against his shoulder. She shivers with silent sobs. He holds her, whispering, “We are safe now. We are all safe.”

Somrak, his chest still tingling from Lyria’s touch, listens to Dion’s comforting words. He hopes Alma believes them. He hopes Dion does as well. But as he looks at Sky, trapped in a form that would get him killed the moment he shows himself in public, a form that could cause a scandal to bring down the Council itself, he knows they are anything but safe.

Still, no point in mentioning that now.

Ch6.95 Trust

It was excruciating. Excruciating to separate herself from the sword threatening to engulf her, to imprison her. To fight the pull, to move in the opposite direction. Away and away. Back into a body. A living body. Into herself.

But she welcomed the pain, embraced it, traveled on it. Anything, everything was less painful than the agony of being bound. And Nua’s momentary distraction was all that Alma needed to re-enter her body, to grab hold of flesh that is hers, of muscles, nerves, bones and organs that are hers by nature and origin. And though Nua fights viciously, Alma is winning.

“Death Clan bitch, do you really think you can throw me out?” Nua taunts her. “There’s no pain you can inflict on me that I haven’t felt a hundred-fold already! Even if you win over control of this body, I’ll stay here forever! I’ll be in you forever.”

“Necromancer filth,” Alma retorts, throwing her life force against Nua’s. “This is my body! Mine! You have no roots to spread here!”

Nua’s laughter is a vibration of energy against the goddess’ soul. “Really? It wasn’t that hard stealing this body from you in the first place. And learning to control it. I wear it so much better than you. Weakling.”

“We’ll see who is weak. I will not let you use this body to hurt my family!” Alma promises.

“Can I use it to hurt you?”

Suddenly, sharp pain fills Alma’s senses. Physical pain. Nua has managed to gain control of one of her arms. Pain and wetness. Blood. It is the stabbing of a blade to her own flank that Alma feels.

Nua takes the chance to wrap tendrils of spectral energy around Alma’s soul, pushing the goddess deeper into herself. “You have no idea of what I can do. But let me show you what I’ve done already to your precious family.”

The images move so quickly across Alma, thrown as they are directly from one soul to another. A devil, summoned from Hell, bound by Nua herself. Sky… And a terrified mortal, begging for his life even as the devil kills him at Nua’s command. Even as the devil eats him and then takes his shape.

“That was his first body,” Nua purrs against Alma’s awareness. “The one I gave him.”

And the memories continue, of Sky, Alma’s Sky as she knows him, bound in chains and bleeding, lunging in anger, transforming back into a devil and roaring threats. Begging… Sobbing…Weeping. As he is forced to watch Gwydion’s horrible death, as Nua thrusts a dagger under Alma’s own skirt. Except…none of these images could be true. Are they lies? Predictions?

“I found some mortals willing to play along,” Nua explains. “I just had to give them a little makeover and he fell for it like a day-old chick.”

“MONSTER!” Alma bellows, discharging her powers in a wave around her core that makes Nua hiss and recoil in pain.

And still, the necromancer laughs. “I cut his tongue out, too! For saying ugly things to me when he saw you lying on that gurney.”

More images, memories of Sky – not the form, the face she knows as Sky’s but the very certain knowledge that it is him – on top of someone, a notion of being pinned down by him. Of feeling him move inside her, endlessly, with the mechanical rhythm of an automaton, his eyes tightly shut, grief and disgust on his face. And a voice pleading to him, begging him to stop. Trocia…

Alma tries to look away but she cannot. The memory fills her whole.

“Is that what you came to save?” Nua teases her. “He is mine!”

Nua launches herself at Alma, with the recklessness of the insane. Anger and power drive her but her soul has only a fraction of the energy of Alma’s. The goddess holds her ground and drives Nua back, striking immediately to counterattack.

And the memory hits her. Gwydion destroying a pair of demons that stand before him and his parents, his face a mask of anger and joy. And grief. And disappointment. His mother calling his name, crying, and screaming. Mad.

Somrak atop a stone fortification, alone, watching an army move toward him, with Alma – no… Nua in Alma’s body heading the attack in a chariot driven by Gwydion and pulled by Sky in devil form. Helplessness and hopelessness.

The images break her focus. Her attack loses strength.

“Do you like the nightmares I made for them?” Nua asks. “What about the real thing?”

Nua strikes again, stabbing again at Alma’s body. Making her scream with the pain.

And forcing her to relive Nua’s memories of holding Gwydion’s chained body, of kissing his lips. Of mocking him as he roars in anger, struggling against his bindings, demanding to know where Alma is. Of whipping him with a whip made of Nasheena’s vertebrae and infused with her very soul. Of whipping Somrak. And Sky.

Images of Alma’s cousin screaming and begging surface in the throng of demented memorabilia.

I WILL ERASE YOU!” Alma roars in hatred. “HELL IS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT I WILL DO TO YOU!

She forgets all reason, wavers all sense. All of her, all of her power, of her essence, of her rage, of her love, life, death and everything in between. All that she is, she throws at Nua, tearing at the mortal’s soul mercilessly, exploding against its core, damaging it without the slightest hesitation.

She wants it gone.

Even as she sees Somrak falling from the top of the castle wall, his limp body a ball of fire. Even as she sees Gwydion kneeling in a circle of dead Bunnies half eaten by demons, holding her body and sobbing in grief. Even as she sees Stathos’ daughters held by Whisper thugs, crying and screaming as their throats are slit before their kneeling, bound father, their blood gushing to stain Luís’ tear-drenched face.

She attacks Nua, holding on to the necromancer, reveling at her screams of pain and confusion now at this sudden defeat. Yes… Nua is hurting. This is how it should be.

But then… something happens. Forces intervene, familiar but unexpected. Grabbing Alma, grabbing Nua. Pulling them apart. Alma resists. She isn’t done yet with Nua. She is nowhere near done.

But she is tired. And Nua is taken away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Darkness. Such quiet, unyielding darkness. A welcome change from the screaming, the bursting of energy, the pure rage coursing through his body. Gateways opening into horrible, unhallowed places. A million howling souls crashing against him and bellowing at him in terror and hatred. Him, the gatekeeper.

The enemy at the gate.

Light pours into his place of rest, cleansing, healing. A mildly welcomed light. But not the one he yearns for. He refuses to let it wake him, shuts his eyes tighter against it. His body feels more relaxed at its touch, less torn. But his spirit suffers still. He does not want to follow this greenish light that courses through him without regard for his privacy, without care for his boundaries. It violates his pain, healing with the force of a great tidal wave crashing over him. He turns away from it and dreams of the blue twilight that has once enveloped him in a nurturing haze.

But though the light eventually leaves him alone, another comes to disturb him. Liquid and wavering, softer and deeper. Almost the one he is waiting for but no…the scent is not right. Seaweed and low tides, not the lilac and willow of his desires. It speaks to him.

Wake up, Gwydion. You are needed.

He does not want to wake up. The last time he woke up, nothing good happened. He frowns at the memories that try to creep into his conscience.

She needs you, Gwydion. They all do. Wake up.

Within him, his essence rouses, looks up. It calls out.

Mate?

But the light is gone. He is alone again in the darkness. And though he wants nothing more than to hide in it for the rest of time, he feels his mind surface, his eyelids open.

And the world pours in.

Voices. Sobs. The watery light hurts his eyes at first, makes Dion groan. But soon the blurs resolve into images. The muscles of his arms and legs begin to respond. He rolls onto his side, looking around to recognize the familiar setting of the Oracle’s grotto. One of its myriad chambers, that he had never seen before. Chairs. He is lying on the floor. On the side he can see for now, he finds Somrak, sitting on the floor, looking up at the glowering, looming figure of Fencer.

Fencer…why is she even here? And how did they get here in the first place? The last he remembers, they were–

He shuts his eyes and shakes his head violently to dislodge the image before it forms. And when he is sure that he has succeeded in defeating his memories, he opens them again. By Somrak, a dirty sheet covers a lying body. Dion tenses, dread climbing over his spine at who this might be. He can only see a basic outline and the feet poking out. Narrow, feminine feet.

He struggles to sit up and the movement captures Somrak’s and Fencer’s attention. With a sorrowful look at Dion, the fire god glances down at the corpse by his side and lifts a corner of the sheet to reveal light brown hair, a young but hardened female face.

Saira.

Relief washes over Dion before regret finds its way in. He remembers her hanging off Margrave’s neck, being attacked by demons left and right, and feels sorry that she has paid for their escape with her life.

He notices Somrak jerking his head toward another corner of the room, urging Dion to look in that direction. And there he sees her, Alma, lying on the floor, in her family’s black clothing, gashes on her thigh and flank. Her brother, Dion recognizes him from before, and Nevieve are tending to her. Alma’s wounds are slowly disappearing as Nevieve works her magic on the goddess.

Mate!

And at the edge of his sight, he notices the elephant in the room for the first time. Or better said, the devil. Right there, by his side, but curled up and surrounded by that same light Dion experienced before, a light he now sees belongs to Lyria. So much of it that it had numbed Dion’s senses to the devil’s proximity. He instinctively tries to rise to his feet and leap against the devil only to feel a hand push him back down. “Status, Sergeant.”

Fencer’s hand. Fencer’s voice. Dion looks at her with all the hatred and violence he was about to discharge at the devil. He nearly attacks her instead of him, stopping only at the burst of pure, old and piercing power that she projects against him in a warning. Her eyes narrow, her one seeing, crimson eye glaring a challenge at him.

It forces Dion to stop and think, his mind to make sense of all he is seeing. His brain to remember that the devil he was about to attack is in fact Sky. Sky, his commanding officer. Sky, his friend.

Dion lowers his eyes, ashamed at what his instincts yell at him to feel and do. “We accomplished the mission, it seems,” he answers quietly, looking toward Alma. “Though I’m not quite clear on the details.”

“She’s going to be all right, Dion,” Somrak says from where he sits. “She’s fighting but she’s going to win.”

“At least we managed to get that…thing out of her.” Fencer’s disgust is palpable and there is no doubt of who she is referring to as a thing.

The necromancer. Nua. Dion breathes deeply in still not completely certain relief, hoping for it to be true. He looks back to the reclining goddess, her white-haired head on Nevieve’s lap. The last time he saw Alma, there was a war raging in her body for control of her flesh. She was trying to hurt herself…or someone in her was trying to hurt her, perhaps Nua, perhaps Alma herself. How could he tell? He had attacked her. Not her, Alma, but her, Nua. He just wanted the necromancer’s soul out of his beloved’s body, to rip it out with his bare hands as if that was even possible. He wasn’t thinking then. All there was was rage and hatred.

And fear.

“It is done,” Nevieve announces. “Now we wait.”

The wounds, the ripped and plastered black clothes made shiny by blood are gone. In a single, seemingly effortless twist of her magic, the Oracle has not only healed Alma’s body but cleaned it and replaced her fighting, Death Clan outfit with a simple, flowing turquoise-blue dress. No shoes. A worshipper’s humble vest.

Dion glances down to find his own clothes changed, his uniform trousers replaced by simple pure-white linen ones, tied at the waist with a cord. He is barefoot as well and, as far he can tell, clean and healed. For a moment he is surprised to find himself shirtless, armored jacket gone along with his sword. Then memory kicks in and he remembers again: Nua. She had removed his protective clothing, probably so that nothing would dull the bite of her whip. He shudders at the memory, feeling the pain of the wounds inflicted on his soul sharpen, defeating his natural defenses.

And it is not just his soul that is in pain. His body is healed but his mind, his emotions…he feels them raw, stripped of their fortifications like a tree stripped of its bark. The soft, vulnerable pulp exposed. Inside him, his core whimpers and begs for him to do something about the pain, about the helplessness and despair. About the missing half of him that currently lies on the floor of the grotto, motionless, flanked by the Oracle and by her brother. Melinor.

Dion rises to his feet, unsteady and stumbling, his body accusing a too-swift and draining healing, along with the exhaustion of the day’s harshness and probably the leftovers of having been poisoned just a couple of days ago. Or maybe just one day. Maybe a week. He cannot be certain of how long they were in the pocket universe or even how long he has been knocked senseless. Truly, he doesn’t care.

As Nevieve raises her head and looks at him with a beatific smile, he reaches Alma’s supine body. Carefully, the Oracle lays the goddess’ head back down on the floor and rises herself, her supporting hand reaching to touch Dion’s back as he kneels by Alma, on the side opposite to Melinor’s. He does not dispense any words to either of the gods. He cannot find anything to say. His eyes focus on the peaceful, pale-skinned face that looks to all the world to be sleeping in eternal slumber and his mind locks on the moment when the whip cut through his chest and his hope for the very first time.

A croaking voice, low and echoing fills his ears. “Thannnk you,” It says. “Thaaaaaank youuu…

The tone of it is enough to raise the hairs on the back of Dion’s neck, to make him turn to look at its source with almost enough speed to snap his spine. Though it speaks with sorrow and misery in its voice, though the memory of its lupine maw dripping with demon blood to save Dion’s own life reminds the god of who this devil is, he cannot help but glare at the… devil in the room, the Hellish beast spreading its corruption around it, teasing Dion’s sphere awake. Anything is better to feel than the shattering pain ravaging through him at the moment. And rage will do just fine.

And suddenly, Sky isn’t there anymore. Somrak isn’t there. Saira’s cooling body is gone. The room itself has changed. The older gods, all gone. A different chamber, altogether, smaller than the other one, glowing softly with a liquid light that projects its dancing glow on the walls and ceiling and reminds him of soft moments of bliss spent in a lush, green sanctum. Dion finds himself alone, kneeling in a depression of the stoney floor of the grotto that the years of erosion have filled with fine sand and someone’s careful consideration has covered with a woven banana leaf mat to make for a soft, dry bed, Alma lying by him.

He looks down at her, forgetting anger, forgetting threat. He strokes Alma’s hair, imagination painting all of the familiar expressions he has seen on her face. Every different smile, every hint of sadness, passion, rage. The ghosts of Nua’s disgusting, terrifying smile creep into his memory but he tries to sweep them away. At least for now. At least for now he wants to believe Fencer’s words that Nua is gone from Alma’s body. She would know, wouldn’t she? Her own niece? How many times has Fencer seen Alma’s soul? She would know.

Unable to endure another instant of distance, he shifts, gently putting an arm under Alma’s shoulders and lifting her to his chest, her lower back propped against his thigh. He cradles her, his eyes closed, straining to hear her gentle breathing, to detect her weak pulse. Why isn’t she waking up? Why won’t she come back to him?

He nearly shouts in fright when he opens his eyes to the dark, sitting figure of Melinor, watching, just before him. He has only seen Melinor once, at the Curia. The god had refused to approach him, Alma or the Bunnies then. And though Alma speaks of her brother with a tenderness that has had Dion wistfully wondering how sweet it might be to have a beloved sibling fawning over him, the impressive, powerful figure of the god of death, with his aura of violence and lingering scent of slaughter, does not exactly conjure up the friendliest of first impressions. What must Melinor think of Dion, with his fame and manner, romantically involved with the god’s younger and only sister? With Melinor’s beloved sister. There is no mistaking the concern in those slanted rusty-ochre eyes.

Eyes that he raises to look at Dion, without the slightest hint of displeasure or condemnation, in spite of Melinor’s overall look of a constant, chronic, cold, simmering rage. Empathy. There is empathy in that look. A shared pain. Dion casts his worries about the grim god’s blessing away. For now, they are both merely suffering with uncertainty over Alma’s recovery.

“It is…” Dion trails off, feeling his throat dry and cracked. He swallows and tries again. “It is her. Just her. You are certain?”

Melinor nods. “I know my sister’s soul.” His voice is just as low-pitched as his looks lead one to anticipate, and rough besides. But not as aggressive as might be expected. “The invader is captured elsewhere.” He touches Alma’s head, releases a stray lock of hair from her earring. “She needs time to regain control.”

Dion nods, holding her a little closer, lowering his head to kiss her forehead, to rest his own forehead against hers. He waits, feeling her skin against his, the coolness of her, the scent that, yes, faintly smells of her after Nevieve’s cleansing spell. His senses focus on her and just her, pained and relieved and hopeful and dreading.

“Alma… Come on, darling. Where are you?” He hears himself whispering to her.

Can he even reach her with simple words, wherever she is? His eyes are shut tightly against the tears that threaten to spill. Inside him, his essence howls its longing at the ether, like a lone whale calling for its mate across the oceans. Begging, searching, despairing for a reply.

Answer us. Return to us.

“Come back to us, Alma. Come back to me…”

Come back to us, mate. We are calling.

“I promised I wouldn’t leave you. Don’t leave me…”

Come back. Ours…

Mine.

A small eternity seems to pass. Dion whispers her name, incessantly calling her to him. He is mildly aware of other, new presences in the room, of his body gently rocking back and forth in that self-soothing movement of people in shock. Is this the fate that awaits him? To lose all those he allows himself to love? To be alone. Always alone. The world is suffering. The world is grief. The whole of him holds the living treasure in his arms as if she were the hope for his cure, the rock to save him from the gale raging within his soul. But she won’t wake up. She won’t wake up…

And he is so frightened to face the world without her.

Please, wake up. Please…

And then he senses it. Just a weak spark at the edge of his senses, at first, then a stronger flare against him. His own essence roars with joyful relief.

Here!

Here…

He pulls away a little just in time to feel Alma’s chest rise with a deeper breath, her eyes open wide, flaring with color and light. Her mouth gapes open, her back arches as the air fills with her scream. A scream of pure rage, of hatred, of anguish and pain and fear. It rises to almost unbearable intensity, echoes off the walls and almost seems to burst through them. Her body contorts in almost tetanic convulsion, her eyes wide open and filled with terror.

“Alma!” Dion calls to her, squeezing her against him. “Alma, it’s all right!”

He holds her, rocks her until the screams die in her throat. Until her lips slacken and her muscles relax just past the point of painful contraction. “It’s all right,” he tells her, his gentle voice sounding almost like a whisper after all the screaming. “You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

“Gwydion?” Alma’s eyes dart this way and that, seemingly unable to focus. “Gwydion!”

“I’m here. I’m here, darling,” he assures her. Is she blind? And why isn’t she moving her arms and legs?

Her eyes finally lock on him. “I had her!” she cries with urgency before a strong exhalation seems to rob her of her strength. “I had her… she disappeared.”

“We have her,” he tells her, hoping that Melinor did not deceive him. Even if he has, Dion refuses to think about it now. “We captured her. Rest now.”

He is so relieved. He feels the knot that his heart had become untangle in one single, twanging movement that courses through him, stealing his breath, making his body contract, then relax, his core expand with sudden glee, almost about to explode. She is here. His love is here, in his arms. He needs to believe it. He needs to believe that her brother and her aunt cannot be fooled into accepting a stranger. That his nightmare is over.

“You look so hurt…” Alma says, her voice half choked. She is looking at him, straight at him, grief in her features. Light and color swirling lazily in her irises. Yes, her eyes. Her tear-filled eyes.

“I’m all healed now. I’m fine,” he lies, stroking her hair.

Her lower lip trembles, her chin drawing in a little. “No… you’re not.”

She knows. Of course, she knows. Because this is Alma and her eyes look straight at him, into his soul. And they can see the damage that Nua inflicted on it. And they are crying in sorrow at it. “I will be,” he insists, summoning a tremulous smile to his own lips. It is so painful to smile…but he cannot bear her tears. “You’re here now.”

His smile falters, he holds her tightly to him, kissing her forehead, swaying again, feeling his cheeks burn, his throat dry, sniffling excess water from his eyes that will soon bathe his face in tears. “You scared me, darling. You scared me so much…”

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry…”

He whimpers, a thousand words pouring into his mouth and dying there. How afraid he was. How desperate. How broken and crushed. How glad he is now. How much all of it hurts, pleasure and pain. “It’s all right,” is all he manages to say. “It’s all right.”

Memory is tossed aside. Fear is tossed aside. Trauma. Suspicion. He wavers them all. Inside him, the whimpering, begging giant that immediately knew that Alma was possessed before Dion even managed to reason his way to that conclusion, howls for its mate. For his love. It grovels and cries for her, kept away for too long. Too hopelessly.

He cups her cheek in his palm and kisses her. Deeply, intermittently as their tears force them to break away to swallow and breathe. But he feels it, the blossoming of her spheres opening up to him, vividly, in that sharing of essence and mana that has been growing since their first kiss, barely more than physical pleasure at first, now nearly a full union of selves without even the need for the full physical contact of sex. She is so close…so close to him. Wrapped around his core.

A heavy hand lands on Dion’s shoulder, not a painful slap but just enough to startle him and make him look up.

Melinor looks at him with a grimace, shaking his head. “Not that,” the god warns him and for a moment Dion fears that Melinor will pose an obstacle to the relationship. “She has to stay in herself to rebuild the bond.”

The words are much more frightening than any condemnation of the love affair. With the sudden, icy touch of a bucket of cold water to the spine, realization dawns in Dion’s mind. Alma’s bond with her own body is still unstable and frail. And he was at the verge of breaking it with a simple, selfish kiss. Would he have assimilated her, he wonders with growing fear.

“Shouldn’t she take to her own body naturally?” he asks, alarmed. “Why isn’t she moving?”

“Her soul took serious damage,” replies Fencer’s rough voice. Dion jolts, instinctively firming his grip around Alma and turning his head to look at the Guardia Dei Subcommander, who says, “I’m surprised she’s even able to speak.”

Only then does Dion notice the other gods in the room. Lyria and Nevieve have both joined them as well, standing silent for now, their eyes on Alma. How long have they been watching? How much have they witnessed of his misery? Lyria looks at him with such sorrowful empathy that he is suddenly very aware of the drying tracks of tears on his cheeks, of the burning in his eyes. So many years of keeping his emotions concealed, his thoughts and concerns hidden under a mask of nonchalance… He swallows and looks away from the older goddess, unsure of how to feel about this. For now, he feels nothing. He is numbed by exhaustion and grief and relief, the extremes of so many emotions that none cries louder than the others. He has been stripped and skinned alive and he is so small, now. So helpless. Like a child. He lacks the willpower to even beg them to leave. And what right does he have to ask that of people worrying about a loved one?

“Mel?” Alma is asking, her head turning to look at her brother. “And Fencer. What – what are you doing here?” Her eyes widen, her face contorts into panic, head rising from Dion’s cradling arm with effort, since she seems unable to move any voluntary muscles below her neck. “Where are the others? Where are we?”

“We are in the Oracle’s grotto and they are here at my call, Alma,” Lyria replies in quiet tones. “Later, we will explain.”

“Mother?” Alma calls, her voice pitched higher with fear. “Sky? Sky!”

“He’s here,” Fencer barks with annoyance at her niece’s loud cry for her friend. “Now rest or you’ll never have the full control of that body back.”

“Somrak… Saira…?” Alma asks, her head turning this way and that, straining to see.

With a soft touch that would seem impossible for such an fearsome, violence-attuned god, Melinor places his hand on Alma’s forehead and gently, but firmly, pushes her down against Dion’s arm. “Later,” he says simply.

Alma looks at her brother, only her eyes moving in their sockets, and quiets in defeat. Still, she turns her gaze to Dion, a questioning whimper escaping her lips. “Gwydion?”

He almost tells her the truth. About Saira’s death, Sky’s and Somrak’s injuries. He decides against it. It would be too cruel, he he thinks, to burden her with such loss and suffering when she is barely holding on to her own body. And yet, he does not want to lie. Not to her. He does not know how much she has seen before the failed binding and during the fight with Nua and even if she has seen nothing, he cannot stand to tell her anything less than the truth.

So he keeps his words short as he reaches to hold her hand and bring it to his sternum. “They’re here. Now rest…please.”

She looks at him for a long, silent moment, then blinks and tilts her head against his chest, snuggling against him in a movement that involves only her head and neck. To his surprise and great solace, her fingers react to his touch, weakly curling around and squeezing his own. He kisses her brow, the room so empty of sound that he can hear her minute sigh of contentment at the caress. She almost seems to be sleeping with her eyes half open before she breathes, her voice calmer now, “I am so very tired…”

“Then sleep,” he whispers against the bridge of her nose. “Just sleep. I’ll be right here. I’m not letting you go.”

A tiny dimming of light announces the drop of her eyelids. “I guess… your pocket didn’t make it again.”

The nonsensical comment makes him pause. His pocket? He pulls away, looking at her peaceful, slumbering face in befuddlement, wondering what she meant by her words. And then it hits him. His pocket! His jacket pocket. The one that keeps being torn off regardless of how much Dion tries to reinforce it. And yes, it has not survived this time either. The whole of his jacket has disappeared in fact. The sudden realization makes him chuckle, then laugh, laugh uncontrollably at the joke that only Alma, the real Alma would know to make. “Oh, I’m never letting you go.”

Movement at the edge of his vision makes him look up to see Lyria kneeling by Melinor’s side. She smiles at the death god, a little smile that seems to request as much comfort as it tries to give. Melinor simply nods and Lyria turns her head to look at Alma, one hand reaching to affectionately stroke her daughter’s hair.

“She is asleep already,” she says to Dion. “And you should rest too, little one.”

“I’m fine,” Dion assures her, laughter fading to a blank smile. “I don’t want to sleep.”

Lyria’s voice is soft, quiet, sounding almost distant as she replies, “No, but you should.” She reaches to stroke his cheek, a gentle touch that is strikingly similar to her daughter’s. “You are exhausted. How you are even awake is a mystery to me.”

Whether it is a mere observation or a veiled incantation, Dion cannot tell. All he knows is that at the sound of her words, sleepiness creeps in, exhaustion takes over. He blinks against sleep like a child trying to fight off an afternoon nap.

“I…” His mouth opens in a yawn before he can finish his sentence.

And though he has not noticed her moving, he feels Lyria’s hands land on his shoulders and carefully tilt him to the left, nudging him to lie down on the mat. He follows her touch, unresisting, legs unfolding so that he lies fully on the makeshift but surprisingly comfortable bed.

“That is it…” Lyria says in a whisper. “Just a little rest. You can hold her while you sleep.”

Dion nods, arms still wrapped around Alma’s sleeping form, holding her close to him as his eyes begin to shut.

Tender fingers run through his hair, a motherly touch that he has not felt in over a century. Alma’s mother breathing a soft scolding. “The things you children get yourselves into…”

Ch6.94 Trust

“Now give me a good reason to let you live–”

“…Alma?” At the sound of Lyria’s plaintive voice, the goddess known as the Fencer breaks off from glowering at Somrak to look toward her niece, cradled in Lyria’s arms. Fencer’s eyes widen after a moment, and she curses.

Sky, the newly broken wing from Melinor just one more in a long list of injuries, pulls himself with great effort back from the brink of attacking Alma’s brother. His instincts in this form are so much harder to control, and only moments before, Sky had been about to launch himself at a greater devil, selling his life to buy Somrak a moment longer to get Alma and Gwydion out of Margrave’s pocket universe. The rage of battle is not easily dismissed, nor is the comforting feeling of having given up on survival entirely.

The very presence of the powerful god of death-in-battle is a challenge to Sky’s Hell-shaped instincts, which see all gods as the enemy, screaming at him all the more strongly with his brain and entire body shaped as they are now. Melinor also stands between Sky and his friends. How sweet it would be to fight him, to die – as Sky knows he would – tearing the god apart. All this pain, this misery, finally ended. Just give in and be the devil they expect.

But it is the voices of the two goddesses, echoing in this dark, unfamiliar chamber, that bring him back. Lyria is frightened for Alma. And so, in her harsher fashion, is Fencer. Their fear carves out a space for Sky to have rational thought, to realize that all is not lost. If there is fear, there is hope. Alma’s soul is not going to Hell. Neither is Gwydion’s, nor Somrak’s, nor his own. Even Saira…

He looks at the fallen mortal, where she lies on the floor beside Somrak. Sky does not have the death gods’ ability to be certain, but her wounds are not survivable. Too much poison, too much trauma, too much blood lost. Too much time passed. They were unable to escape quickly enough.

Sky failed to act quickly enough.

He lowers his widespread arms, relaxes his flexed talons. The unbroken wing folds against his back, and Sky lowers his head in submission to Melinor. He cannot speak intelligibly with only the stump of a tongue in his mouth. But his body language is enough for Melinor’s battle aura to fade and for the god to turn his attention to his sister, Alma.

The God of Death in Battle joins Fencer and Lyria. The vibrant life goddess still holds her daughter, petting Alma’s head and whispering to her, while Fencer, thin and hard-muscled, examines her unconscious niece with a red-glowing eye.

Melinor does the same. “Something is wrong. I sense two souls in her body,” he says after a moment.

Fencer glares at Sky, clearly blaming him. But she turns the same look upon Somrak, who has found an old, filthy cloth in the basement they are in, dragging it out from under a collapsed corpse, some dessicated unfortunate that is, for whatever reason, here in this dark place. “What happened in there?” Fencer demands.

Somrak pauses in his preparation to cover Saira’s cooling body, looking at Alma, his expression helpless and hopeless. “If there are two souls in her… Then the necromancer is in there with Alma.”

Fencer stares at him as if she is planning just how to gut him, but instead of saying anything more, she just turns back to Melinor. “We need somewhere we can stuff a devil in.”

Lyria looks up. Her beautiful face is distraught, but her strength shows through. “I know where to go,” she insists. She reaches up toward Melinor, and the tall god kneels to allow her to touch the side of his head. A slight glow of green at the touch, and the death god nods.

“The others will need to be close,” Melinor says.

Fencer barks at Somrak, “Get over here, you and your devil friend both. Bring the prisoner, too.”

It is only then that Sky, who had been focusing so much on the gods in the room, notices a form trying to hide in the shadows. Just for a moment, his one good eye locks with hers.

Trocia. His relief at her survival is mixed with dread at that face, the face of Nua for the past days of his torture. And a deeper dread, a physical wretchedness even, at what Nua forced him to do to her. Her face is not animated with Nua’s sadistic humor. She is looking at him in terror.

He quickly looks away. He wants to tell her how good it is to see her alive and free of Nua, and to apologize. But even if he had a tongue, what apology would suffice? Every moment of his presence must be a continuation of her torture. He clenches his fists, digging his claws into his palms, piercing his skin. He shudders with memory of what he did, and what her body was forced to do to him while she watched, helpless. The door out of this basement is right there, open, at the top of the stairs. He could flee. He is foul. They would all be better off if he disappeared from their lives.

“Sky.” Somrak’s voice cuts through his panicking train of thought. He is holding Saira’s body, now wrapped in cloth. Trocia is behind him, still trying to hide, looking at nothing but definitely not at Sky. “Come on. You have to touch Melinor to be transported with him. Would you pick up Dion?”

Sky takes one last look at the open exit. It is night out there. The shadows beckon. But he turns and carefully lifts Gwydion, who remains unconscious. He moves closer to Melinor and apologetically touches the god’s leg with his tail.

Somrak touches Melinor with his arm, while all the others put a hand on him or use some other way of making contact. The death god looks down at Alma and simply transports them all as if were just a second thought.

They arrive in a chamber designed to welcome guests: It is spacious and comfortable, with chairs and a lounge to sit upon. There is a heavy door, however, sealing this windowless chamber off.

“Hmpf. A cell?” the Fencer snorts. “ And who is the jailor?”

Still holding Alma, Lyria replies, “The Oracle is careful of her privacy.” She looks down at her daughter. “Someone will be along in a moment.” It seems almost as if she is talking to Alma more than to the others.

Melinor kneels again, gently taking Alma into his own arms and lifting her from Lyria. The life goddess’ trust of him is evident in how she allows this, though she looks on the verge of protest. Fencer speaks up as she attends to Alma as well, in a voice not harsh but not especially soft either. “Go take care of the fools. Melinor and I have work to do and we all know you can’t help here.”

Lyria hesitates, then leaves Alma to them, going over to Sky. “Oh, little demon…” she begins.

“Such strange guests that do not announce themselves.” The door has opened without anyone noticing, and Nevieve, the Oracle, has entered the chamber. She stands tall, clad in a simple dress and sari, her dark skin iridescent where the light catches the very fine scales at the edges, her eyes white and strange.

Lyria turns from Sky, who has almost fallen into a trance at her approach, at the way she has, unlike Fencer, who looked on him with suspicion, or unlike Melinor, who saw him as an opponent in battle, come to him with only concern and pity, looking right past his outer form and seeing the same Sky she has always known. Sky does not know if he can ever express how much that means to him, here and now.

“Forgive us, Nevieve,” she says. “As you can see, our minds are in a tumult.”

Looking at Sky with her strange white eyes, the Oracle says, “So the inevitable has taken place. And the devil cradles his slayer in his arms.”

Sky looks down at Gwydion. Yes, his slayer. Hammer of Devils. Gwydion’s newfound power. Sky remembers the blow Gwydion gave him in Margrave’s lair. The pain is still there, among all the other pains.

Lyria turns back to him. She looks up into Sky’s face and strokes his muzzle. Or she tries. He cannot help but flinch away. He does not want to, but he is so convinced of his loathsomeness that he cannot bear to be touched by one so beautiful. “Oh, little one, what have they done to you?” she says softly. “So many wounds, some of them perhaps beyond my reach. Let me heal Gwydion first, and then I shall attend to you.”

She gets him to lay down Gwydion’s unconscious body onto the floor of the chamber, and then, surrounding the younger god’s body in a nimbus of verdant light, she heals Dion’s torn torso and all the other physical wounds he has sustained. After a moment, she sighs and looks up at Sky. “These whip-lashes cut so deeply, beyond the flesh and into the spirit. They will heal far more slowly.” She rises and once again touches Sky’s face. When he tries to pull away, she whispers, “Shhhh… When have I ever given you reason to fear my touch, little one? You are at a loss for words? Ah, I see.” He feels her probing magic, warm and energizing, within his mouth.

Meanwhile, Nevieve is crouching beside Gwydion. She touches his forehead, and her eyes flare white. “Hmm… How interesting.” Her hand glows white as she transfers mana and life force into Dion, at the same time wiping his body clean of all the blood and filth of that Hellish torture chamber, and replacing his ragged Guardia trousers with lightweight white-linen pants, leaving him bare-chested and barefoot, but looking now like one of her supplicants. “That should do.” Sky, with his one eye, glances to Somrak who, he sees now, has been given much the same treatment, healed, cleaned up, and given a change into simple white clothes. Sky can see that Somrak’s elaborate tattoo of tiger and phoenix is now ruined, however, for though the flesh is healed from the whip’s lash, the damage to the ink is not, leaving it mottled and blurred. He is sitting on the floor, back against the wall, looking at nothing. Beyond him, Trocia is stealing a frightened look at Sky, but she quickly looks away.

Nevieve looks toward Alma. “That seems like a much more dangerous fight.”

His voice low, Melinor urges, “Come on. Let go of her.”

“She’s trying to hold on,” Fencer growls, annoyed.

“Can you help them?” Lyria says to Nevieve. She is still performing an extensive preliminary examination of Sky – his injuries and physiology are complex, too complex, he imagines, for her to simply launch into healing him.

“I can only give her strength and heal her body,” Nevieve says. “Her soul is up to her to save. Still, it might be best to keep her body weak lest the soul who wins be the wrong one.”

Lyria insists with shaky conviction, “Alma will win. But any help we can give her–”

Suddenly Alma gasps. Sky strains to see. “I have her!” Fencer shouts to Melinor. “Don’t let the other escape.”

Sky feels a hand grip his. He looks down and sees that Lyria is holding his taloned hand tightly. Sky carefully closes his hand around hers, feeling a sharp pain lance through his heart at her action. To seek comfort from him!

The trusting touch takes him back to a grandchild of his, daughter of his adopted son, long, long ago and on another world, how small her hand in his as they walked together through the snow.

Events here and now shake him free from useless memories. In Fencer’s hand, a little blurry body of light appears, faint at first then materializing further and further until it looks like a small, sparkling pebble. Alma’s body glows faintly and Melinor puts a hand over her chest. “No,” he says. “Stay inside yourself.”

Nevieve smiles. “Ah, it seems that now it is my turn.” She walks over to Alma to start healing her body. At her glance, Melinor bows and steps away, standing guard. Fencer rises and walks away, toward Somrak.

Sky hears her begin to speak to Somrak in a low voice that might as well be shouting for its vehemence, but all thought of that fades as Lyria’s healing power begins to spread through his body, taking hold finally. The stump of his tongue, the gaping socket of his missing eye, and so many slashes from the whip, self-healed but not fully, for he had to conserve his mana, just enough to allow function. The broken wing, the deep stab in his hand from Alma’s dragon-tooth dagger. The crushing blow from Gwydion that broke ribs and bruised organs. All of it begins to heal, making him hiss and whimper, clamping his muzzle shut to keep from screaming and roaring. It hurts as much as taking all those wounds again at once, but at the same time it feels so good that he cannot keep his feet, falling to his knees.

If he were in his human form, he would be weeping. As it is, tears are not something he can summon in this shape.

Lyria has healed him before, but he was not a tenth as injured as now. He falls forward onto his hands, then curls in on himself, the formerly broken wing cupping itself around Lyria and pulling her even closer. He breathes harshly, but all thought flees as he nearly falls unconscious, blessed darkness rising in an attempt to claim him.

He is drowning. But when he became a god, he was a god of the sea. He cannot drown. No matter how far he is pulled down into the crushing depths, he will always swim to safety. He holds Lyria to him as his body shakes with tearless sobs.