Ch6.89 Trust

“Shut up,” Dion mumbles as his eyes open slowly, heavy with the weight of his exhaustion. Of his grief. Of his regret and loneliness.

He looks down, expecting to find dark floor covered in blood, covered in muck. Expecting the empty half-light of Hell. The corpses of his beloved family around him, in his arms. But he finds none of that. The floor here is grey. Just plain, stone grey. The light is the flickering yellow of torches. No corpses to hold. No hands to hold them with.

No free hands, that is.

He tries to move his arms and legs only to find himself immobile, to hear the rattle of the chains that hold him, hanging by the wrists, feet hovering a hand’s breadth above the floor.

Oh Fates…what now?

He does not raises his head. He is so tired. And what reason would he have to expect anything? To fear anything? His reasons to live are gone, slaughtered because of his obsessive search for his past, for his parents. A need he did not even know he had until the mere knowledge of a couple of names awakened it. Until the gift of such measly things offered a path and a hope to his origins. To his search of himself. A gift from his lover’s lips…

From the one who brought to him the family that accepted him and loved him when he believed family was not something he desired or deserved. Loving friends, supporting and kind. Ready to dive with him into Hell to save people they knew nothing about. That he knows nothing about.

And now they are gone…all gone. And he is nothing again.

Weakling! We are not made for weakness

That voice again, inside him. The one of his sphere. He wonders for a moment if all gods hear something similar coming from their core.

Shut up. I am tired. My friends are gone.

Lies! Lies! Listen! See!

With great effort, he obeys. His head feels too heavy to raise but he listens. The dripping of water somewhere behind him. Soft steps on the floor, back and forth. Something dragging on the stone. A dry, solid sound. The rumbling, fitful aspiration of difficult breathing. Of a large something’s difficult breathing. A feeling of coolness to his chest and arms, and of dampness to his feet. His jacket and shirt are gone and so are his boots. The familiar weight of his sword gone from his left hip.

We are trapped inside

Inside what?

 

Ourselves

Yes. True. He feels his mana’s flow limited to his own body, trapped there. The chains holding him were made for gods. Enchanted. In this state, he is no more powerful than a mortal. He sighs. Just a short, deep exhalation, all he has the strength to make. A prisoner of Hell. How fitting.

He deserves it for his sins.

No! Listen!

The steps have paused. They start again, now walking his way. He raises his head slowly, though his interest in what comes next is very little.

And his eyes widen at the sight. His chest swells with relief. With sheer joy. A nightmare. It must have been. All a nightmare. Or this is the dream. For here is Alma, alive and well, walking toward him, smiling softly. Seeing her returns his hope, stirs his memories. No, they weren’t in Hell. They did not go out looking for Dion’s parents. And they did not bring the Bunnies with them. No, they brought Saira and Somrak. And they were looking for Sky.

He turns his head to see the mortal lying unconscious on the floor beside him, her hands bound behind her back. Somrak is kneeling on the floor a couple of steps away, wrists shackled with mana-suppressing chains, held high above his head, which hangs low. Breathing. Probably unconscious as well.

“Sweetheart!” Alma calls to him as she stands now before him, at arm’s reach. “Did the demons hurt you?”

“Alma… Oh Alma, I’m so relieved,” he breathes before the thought strikes him that she cannot possibly know about his dream. “I thought–”

STOP!

What? No! She’s alive! She’s alive…

Not ours

What…?

Not ours. Not the same. Look. Listen

He looks at Alma, feeling his heart sink even as his mind struggles to make sense of what he sees. This is Alma. It is. But… It’s not. The soft smile curling her lips is mocking, not loving. Not relieved at the sight of him awake. Her eyes are full of the sharp wit he is used to but the light of their swirling colors is somehow duller than normal. In fact, the colors don’t swirl at all. They are mere blotches.

“Alma…?” he asks, wondering what exactly is going on. “What happened? Why are we chained?”

And why are you free?

Now standing very close to him, so close that he can feel her scent in his nostrils, she caresses his chest, curling against him. “We were attacked. They locked us in here with that…thing.” She nearly spits the last word as she turns a little and points to a far corner. “You were all knocked out and I… He watches us. We can’t leave for as long as he watches.”

Her voice is childlike, so pleading. He feels the urge to hold her even as he thinks how strange it sounds, how alien it sounds coming from Alma’s lips. And her scent…it feels stale, lacking the gentle vibrancy of her life. Could it be? Are his senses telling him she is not real? Or is he just imagining these things?

He looks at the hand with which she points to the corner, to see her holding a…whip? One made of black-leather-covered vertebrae. In the corner – his eyes open more fully as he sees a devil, crouched but huge, watching him with its glowing blue-green eyes. It is partially cloaked in darkness, but what he can see is horrifying, a sight that triggers again the memories of his parents being dragged away from him.

Enemy! Scum!

He wants nothing more than to attack the creature, destroy it, send it back to Hell, but the chains holding him prevent his powers from activating, prevent his body from any useful movement even as his muscles tense and instinctively try to lunge at the thing.

And then something in it, something in its resigned crouch, in the way the eerie light of its eyes dims at the sight of him, rings familiar. Very familiar.

Sky.

“Sky,” Dion breathes, swallowing the innate hatred and disgust he feels to even see in the creature the soul of his friend. “Isn’t that Sky?”

“They made a soul bomb go off before we came in,” Alma goes on, completely oblivious to his question. “So many souls screaming for help. It was painful.”

She wraps her arms around him, lays her head against his chest, stroking his skin with her cheek. “I screamed but you didn’t help me. No one helped me. It felt like it would last forever. Like I was going to die. I was so alone…”

She straightens a little, looks up at his face, their similar heights offset by the fact that he is hanging from the ceiling. With a sudden movement, like a snake’s head thrusting forward for a kill, she kisses him. And though he kisses her back, hoping against his instincts that she is merely confused by the attack or damaged somehow by the shattered souls she mentioned, his dread only rises, heavy and cold in his stomach. For kissing her is like kissing a stranger, the movements of their lips completely out of their familiar, pleasant rhythm, her tongue that should move like silk in a breeze thrust into his mouth like a battle ram.

Not ours

No…not ours.

But then, where is she? His whole body stiffens at the dawning realization his findings imply. The images from before might have been a nightmare but this is no better. He is bound and so are the others. And Alma…

Her beautiful face looks at him with an evil grin, her body pulled away from the intimate touch at the notice of his tense frame. That lovely face, distorted by the taint of the dark soul behind it. Nua. “Have you found out, yet? Or should I kiss you again, sweetheart?”

Dion’s own face contorts in rage. “Whoever you are, whatever you are, get out of her!”

He lunges forward but the force of the movement is lost without a floor under his feet to use for support. To gather momentum. He merely dangles forward and back, struggling against his chains. Making them rattle.

Nua snorts at him. “Why? Would you rather watch her body collapse like the empty shell it is?” She touches Alma’s chest with Alma’s hand, looking down at her black-clad bosom and turning this way and that as if trying on a new outfit. “She’s not in here anymore. I snatched this delightful piece of flesh while she was screaming in pain and going mad at being attacked by a half dozen shredded souls. Not even a sample of what I went through in Hell but it’s a start.”

“Where is she?” he demands, straining against the chains. “WHERE IS SHE?! What did you do with her?!”

GIVE HER BACK!

“Oh, she’s somewhere safe, for now. I’ll have so much fun with this body! I’ll make it my new plaything.” Nua sounds like a child given a new pet. She runs Alma’s hands all over her body, never releasing the whip, rubbing the blackened thing against her skin with erotic intent. Dion has to force himself not to look away. “Show it pleasure and pain and corrupt it until it can’t hold me anymore. And the best thing is, I can ride it right into the heart of her hateful, despicable little clan and destroy them from the inside.” She glances toward the corner where Sky’s devilish, silent form crouches. “Maybe I’ll give it to my pet to play with for a night. I know he likes her…” She moves closer to Dion again, cupping his cheek in Alma’s palm. “But you like her more, don’t you?”

Dion cannot help but glance past her at Sky, his gut tied in a knot with the horror Nua is suggesting. He remembers the conversation he had with Alma, his Alma, in the pool of her sanctum about the love spell that nearly… She had been so uncomfortable with the mere prospect of laying with Sky. He swallows though his throat feels dry with terror and cringes away from Nua’s words, seeing Sky cringe as well in his corner. Yes, he is sure now that it’s Sky.

“Do you tell her you love her when she slips into your bed at night?” Nua goes on, her voice smooth and poisonous. “Her and all her precious little Bunnies? Do you lie to her as she squirms under you? Tell her she is the love of your life as you thrust into her?”

“I don’t lie to her,” Dion growls. “I never lied to her. I never told her–”

I love her.

His voice trails off, his eyes widening as he suddenly becomes aware of that one truth. In all this time, through the good and the bad, the fear of losing her, the joy of holding her, he has never spoken those words to Alma. Never. For so many reasons… It was her, always her to speak of love. To call him her love. And he never told her – not in those words at least – of his love. Of how his heart breaks now at the thought of her gone.

“Of course you lie,” Nua replies sweetly. “All men lie to get what they want. And we both know what they really want.”

“Listen to me,” he says, desperate for even the smallest shred of hope that Alma is still somewhere she can be reached. “Your plan will never work. They’ll detect you in a second. The Death Clan will have you out of her body and what they will do to you… Your best bet is get back in your own body and run.”

Nua waves him off. “Oh, I know they could detect my soul. And that’s why I’m bringing hers along. In this.” She turns back and walks to a far corner of the room, opposite to where Sky is crouching. The squeaking of rickety wheels against the stone floor announces the approach of an old metal gurney being pushed to the center of the room by the necromancer in Alma’s body. On the gurney, a young girl lies unconscious, bound in chains just like Dion’s, her black hair splayed, and close-fitting, skin-revealing black clothing in a mess. He vaguely remembers seeing her in the room just before he collapsed into the nightmare. And on top of the girl, a sword in its sheath. Nua picks it up and brings it closer to Dion, drawing it in a mad pleasure at the soft sound it makes as it leaves the scabbard, at the way the light of the torches reflects off the silver blade engraved with simple words in the language of Death.

On the way

Alma’s sword.

“It’s a beautiful little thing, isn’t it?” Nua asks, her voice more revolting for being Alma’s. “Such a pretty vessel for your girlfriend’s soul. Oh, she will go mad from the pain of being bound to an object but she won’t have to endure it too long until I get all my soul bombs placed and armed. Unless…” She grins and grabs the sword around the sharp blade, barely reacting as it cuts into the skin, a shy trickle of blood sliding slowly down the blade. “I grow attached to her. She seems easy to grow attached to, wouldn’t you say?”

Kill it! KILL IT!

A soul bound to an item– No, no, the simple process of attempting it requires pain beyond description. Not a single account of successful binding exists where the soul was anywhere near recoverable after reversing the process. And god’s souls are so much more powerful than mortal souls, so much more rebellious against such things. How could a god be trapped in something so lifeless as a simple weapon? But if Alma is bound she’d be no better than the God Striker, maddened by pain and anger. To hold her in his hands but never again in his arms…

KILL IT! We want her back!

I can’t kill it! I can barely move.

And even if he could attack, that is Alma’s body and she is bound to be somewhere in it, still. Locked away. Trapped, maybe. Or dormant, stuck in a dream like he was. He can’t destroy her vessel.

We want her back

We do.

So very much. “You can’t bind gods’ souls to objects,” he tells Nua, though the conviction in his voice falters even to his own ears. “Only demons’ souls, or elementals–”

Nua simply snorts. How he hates that snort. “What makes you think you’re so special, god-boy? Allow me to demonstrate.” She raises the whip she is holding, making it sway with a movement of her wrist. “This one was a death goddess too. If I whip you with it, I can guarantee it’ll leave a mark.”

If he could only wake her up, get her to manifest somehow and take control of this body. If only…

“She will never allow you to harm me or any of her loved ones,” Dion says. “You may have caught her off-guard with the bomb but that is her body and she is much more powerful than you can ever be! So whip me! Go ahead! She’ll stop you before you even raise your arm!”

She harrumphs, lips curling in a sneer. “Do you really think she could stand in my way after all I learned in Hell for two hundred years of torture and hopelessness? With all I knew even before she was born? A weakling half-something goddess who can’t even deal with a tiny soul bomb and eight blown-up humans?”

“You know nothing of her strength!” he roars. “You know nothing of her!”

KILL IT!

Nua smiles, twirling the whip with a movement of her wrist. “I know one thing about her. I told you,” she raises her arm, “she’s not in here anymore!

The whip comes down and lashes at Dion, striking him across the chest, making him shriek with a pain unlike any he has ever felt before. The leather-covered bones bite deep into his bare skin, into the muscle, but that is nothing. The soul trapped in the weapon goes straight for his soul. He feels it tear at his essence, split through the first layers of his being, making him forget for a moment who or even what he is. Light fades from his eyes for an instant, sounds become dull and faraway. All there is is pain. Sharp, complete, all-consuming pain.

And in the aftertaste of it, in the wake of the roars and recoiling of his sphere, heartbreaking grief. There is only pleasure in Nua’s eyes, only wild glee at his suffering. No confusion, no shaking of her whip hand to indicate an inner struggle. And no sign of Alma. Where is she? Where is Nua keeping her if she truly plans on binding his beloved to her own sword?

Nua laughs.

As his divine body immediately starts to heal the physical wounds, for no shackles entirely suppress such a basic function of godhood, Dion is stunned by pain and despair.

Suddenly, there is a rattling of chains. Unnoticed by Nua in her sadistic mirth, Somrak yanks himself up using his chains for support, and lashes out with one of his legs. In her distraction and eagerness to have the best angle to strike Dion, she moved too close to the fire god and Somrak’s leg swiftly catches her across the neck, the other catching her behind, trapping her in a scissorhold. Choking her.

Dion watches, numb, as Somrak tightens his grip, face contorted in grim determination, stealing the air from Nua’s lungs as he growls out. “Tragas!”

The word means nothing to Dion and he doesn’t even call out to Somrak as Nua flails, trying to fight him, nails digging at the fire god’s thighs. And then she stops fighting altogether, the horrible smile returns to her lips.

And she laughs again, wheezing amidst laughter and poisonous words, “Oh yes! Yes! Hurt this body! Hurt it until she has nothing to return to! Destroy your friend.”

From his corner, Sky roars, a loud, earth-shaking cry. It stuns Somrak just long enough to allow Nua to slip free of his hold. And she spares no time to regain her breath before whipping him with vicious force, grinning as she clutches at her neck. “Pathetic… All of you… So weak…”

Somrak’s cry of pain has not even died in his throat before she whips him again. A twist of her arm and the whip is cutting Dion’s side and belly, making him scream though he tries not to. He hates her and fears her, her and that whip which seems to be animated by an anger all of its own, screaming its hatred at him as it cuts into his soul.

And in his corner, Sky roars again, helplessly, pointlessly, achieving no more than a bone-shaking, ear-ringing strike at Dion’s eardrums. A roar followed by a soft, dry, lazy clapping. Applause, slow and ironic.

“Oh yes, pathetic indeed. Pathetic all round.”

Dion looks toward the source of the sound. A short, thin man, with very short hair and a beard, has walked into the room. Or maybe he has been here all along, hiding unnoticed in a dark corner. His dark grey suit and black cane would allow for it. And the way he speaks, Dion knows it must be Margrave.

“Nua, these souls are meant to be sold to Hell, and here you are, damaging them.” The man tuts at the necromancer possessing Alma’s body.

The look she gives him is a promise that she will tear him apart at the first opportunity, her maniacal smile an indication of how much she would truly enjoy it. “They can have whatever is left after I’m done with them.” She moves toward him, leaning to place a hand on his shoulder and speak into his ear, obviously pleased with finding herself taller than him. “Do you come to gloat about the good job you left for me to do? Or do you want one of them to yourself?”

Margrave does not even look at her as he sighs. “Slave, remember – they are all mine. I only allow you to have them as much as I wish, and I will take them away the moment it pleases me.” He reaches to touch the forehead of the girl lying on the gurney. “Let us get this Death Clan goddess’ soul out of my niece and into that sword.”

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Ch6.87 Trust

Running. He has to keep running. He has to keep going. On and on. He is so close now, so close. He can feel it. He can sense their approach. And the sounds coming from afar? Their voices? Yes, yes! They must be! They have to be!

He is almost there.

Before him, the hordes of Hell shuffle out of the way, their terrifying, disgusting, evil faces blurring as he passes them with speed. They don’t attack him, oh no… They know better than that. They know better than attack the bane of demons, the god whose very purpose is to defeat them, destroy them, whose very essence embodies all that is contrary to them. The Enemy. Yes, he feels it clearly now. They fear him. They hate him. And they dare not touch him.

They dare not touch him.

“Dion wait!” Tulip’s voice rings from behind, high pitched as ever and sounding almost out of wind. “Please!”

“We can’t!” he shouts to her over his shoulder. “We’re almost there!”

They are almost there. Where his parents are. Where this low, pestering scum has taken his parents into torture and imprisonment. Away from him. He can still hear her screams.

His mother’s screams.

“Dion, they’re comin’ after us!” Cherry screams. “We can’t stop’em!”

“Just keep running!” Dion calls to her. “They won’t attack! They fear me!”

His mother’s screams as she was dragged to this…this nothingness. This emptiness of feelings other than pain and anguish. This place of hopelessness. For how many years? So many years. He has to save them! He has to!

He has to…

“Dion, stop!” Sky calls out. “We have to regroup and hold them back! We have to fight them off here!”

“My parents will help us when we get there!” Dion insists. “I know they will! We have to save them first! We have to!”

He has to. Whatever it takes, he has to save them. He has to find them. Free them. So much stolen. So much time lost. He left them here for so long. So long… He didn’t know. He didn’t remember. But he should have. He should have known. Even when the knowledge was denied to him.

He should have fought to know.

“Gwydion!” Alma’s voice is a cry of pain. Of suffering. “Gwydion, we’re going to lose them!”

“I know!” he agrees. “I know! We have to hurry! We have to keep going!”

He will fight now. He is strong enough to fight now. And he will save them. He will bring them back into the light. Into his life. He will show them the life he has life he has built with the people he has found. The person he has become. And he will hope for their love and beg for their forgiveness. And be their son again.

He’ll be their son again…

There! There they are! Bound in chains held by demons. Calling to him. Crying to him. His mother and father, their images blurred like the fuzzy memories he has of them. But he knows. He knows who they are. They are his. He has found them!

He has found them.

He roars a threat at the demons, launches himself at them. A beast unleashed, angry and vengeful. How dare they? How dare they! The demons drop the chains, don’t even try to fight him. He vanquishes them easily even as they try to run away from him. Ha!

Ha?

He stands before his parents, entranced. He thought their images would be clearer once he reached them but they are still a blur. And they are still calling endlessly, crying, screaming in horror and pain. As if they can’t see him. As if he weren’t there.

As if he weren’t there…

“Mother?” he asks hesitantly, fearfully.

“Dion!” she replies, her voice sounding choked and far away. “Dion! My baby! No! No! Run away, baby!”

“Mother, it’s all right,” Dion says. “I’m here to save you. I’m taking you home now.”

“Dion!” she shrieks in response. “Noooooo! No! Let go of my baby! Dioooooonn!”

A cold dread begins to crawl up his spine as the specter before him flails in a panic, its figure wavering before him, chains rattling with a clink of bone, not metal. Can it be? Can this really be his mother, reduced to insanity, to a single consuming thought throughout the years? To a single fear…for his safety. He reaches to reassure her with his touch, only to have his hand slapped away as if she were fending off an attacker. Beside her, Dion’s father stumbles and throws a weak punch at him, looking to defend his wife. Mad.

Both mad.

“Gwydion!” Alma again, this time screaming in sheer panic. A heart-wrenching sound of the purest despair. Something he has never heard from her.

Not from her.

But from his mother. A cry for a child. He rushes back to her, wondering why none of the others has caught up with him yet. Terror clutches at him. The demons that had fled from him now lurk again in the path that he followed here. They gather, hunched. And throw their heads in the air. Laughing. Voices gurgling with a wet, crunching sound. Eating. Feasting. On what?

ON WHAT?

He lunges at them, fighting them off, disbanding their group. Destroying the ones too slow to run. Punching. Kicking. Cutting them to shreds with blade and magic. He clears the area. And looks down.

And falls down.

To his knees. His eyes follow the trail of bodies back down the path. Merri. Sage. Mayumi. Cherry. Kori. Dead. Their bodies desecrated by claws and teeth. Bones shattered. Half eaten. Flesh bubbling where corrosive drool has touched it. Sky’s corpse – a devilish form that Dion had never seen before, revolting and horrible – lying in pieces, wings torn off and ripped to pieces. Arms cut at the wrists, legs mauled. Massive chest pierced, a gaping wound through which the tips of broken ribs protrude. Heart pulled from its vault and tossed aside like trash. No bite marks, no. A traitor’s flesh is too vile to eat, even for these demons.

Under one of his wings, Cherry’s right foot pokes through. Dion looks away from it. He can’t see her head or the bulge of her body under the membranous wing. The thought that a foot might all that is left of the Bunny… His eyes fill with tears. How?

How?

And not far away, the pale figure of Alma, lying down, her hair splayed in a filthy mess. He half crawls, half drags himself toward her, almost blinded by the water springing from his eyes. By despair. By regret. By grief.

In her arms, Tulip is curled. An arm missing. A calf ripped almost clean off the bone. A spike, black and vitreous like obsidian stone sticking out of her lower back, directed upwards. Dion rolls the still body over to see the tip of the lance poking through Tulip’s collarbone. His hand shakes as he carefully nudges her panic-stricken eyes closed.

Why was she even here? Why did they bring the Bunnies along? Why did he bring anyone along?

His sobs nearly make him topple while he slides an arm under Alma’s body, carefully pulling her to him. Her legs nearly detach from her torso as he does so. Her belly has been skewered by talons and spikes, her legs broken. One of her hands and forearm are missing completely. Her left ear, the one with the earring of her Clan mark, has been pulled off and tossed away. They have not tried to eat her. Maybe they didn’t have the time.

Not that it matters. She is dead. She is gone. He almost lost her before, almost gave her away. And now… Now he has lost her for good. He has lost all of them. His love. His friends. His family. Gone. He is alone again.

Alone.

“No,” he whimpers amidst the convulsions of his crying. “Please… no.”

Around him, the demons chuckle. The demons laugh. At him. At his loss. At his pain. “You left them all so handy, so easy to catch,” a demon mocks him. “You left them unguarded. They were so tasty.”

A roar of laughter rises from them. More demons approach and join in Hellish myrth.

“They called your name. I heard them call,” one says. “Did you hear it?”

“Oh yes, it made it sooo much better,” another adds. “And all for some half-mad souls.”

“Shut up,” Dion pleads, clutching Alma’s cooling corpse, begging in thought, praying in thought that she is not dead despite all odds. “Shut up!”

SHUT UP!” he roars.

Shut up…

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The stone is rough beneath his palms, tiny fragments flaking off from the uneven surface. The stones, born in the great throbbing heart of the Insula, molten rock periodically breaking free to gush and ravage and cool into solidity, have been carefully shaped and fitted to build the holdfast of Clan Fire. He can still feel that spirit of fire within each stone, remembered with a longing to become liquid again, to rejoin the heart from which they were ejected, to go from a collective One to small, cold individuals.

“Too late,” her voice hisses in his ear. Her heat would blister his skin from its proximity, were he not of the Fire Clan. His long, glossy hair would burst into flame, the subcutaneous fat under his skin would liquify and bubble, his flesh would char. From the hate in her voice, he imagines his mother would enjoy that. “Too late, too weak. Traitor!”

He does not bother to turn. His eyes are fixed on the distant horizon, across a plane so large it could never exist on the Insula, world of verticality. The plain is covered with lava, plump, rounded pillow flows, ropy twists, spiky claws sharper than any steel scalpel and longing to cut. It is dry, ash and dust blowing around aimlessly in gusts and momentary twisters. And far away, the army approaches.

“Abominations!” the Queen of the Court of Flame, his mother, crackles. To say she paces is not entirely accurate – she burns her way across the stone, causing pops and sometimes louder explosions as bubbles of air trapped within expand and explode from her passing. “All your fault! If you had stayed! If you had been what I made you to be! What you were conceived to be!”

“I was born to be a priest of cleansing fire,” Somrak murmurs. “The bane of the undead.” He heard it a thousand times growing up. His head shaved, his life nothing beyond ritual. To be a god and to be a priest as well, one must be perfect in holiness, beyond any sanctification available to crude mortals. His food, his sleeping hours, his clothing, his every movement, even every breath was a rite of sacrament. He could not blink except at the prescribed moment for blinking, and only in the approved manner of blinking. A single moment of wondering whether he might be allowed to play like other children resulted in a week-long cleansing, with scourgings and beatings and irrigations.

“And you failed! You ran away! Ungrateful squib! You are no child of–”

She is cut off with a tiny sound of surprise. The is a roar of flame, a sound of cracking and a whoosh of liquid. A splash that spatters Somrak’s back with cold seawater. And blood. Her blood, aflame, though it quickly goes out.

Still he does not look away. He is starting to be able to make out individuals in the vanguard now, shambling footsoldiers who are caught on jagged edges of stone and cut apart as others push against them. Mindless meat, stumbling their way forward. And there is a vehicle, made of gold and silver and black shining obsidian, shining, flashing in the merciless light of the sun.

A large hand rests on his shoulder, squeezes it companionably. It is wet with his mother’s blood. One might ask how a creature of flame has blood, but then one might ask how a creature of flame can think, can curse and complain, can have children of flesh and blood. Such asking is pointless.

Somrak asks, “Why did you kill her?”

Sky’s voice is cool, rising and falling in the inexorable strength of the waves. “I never liked her. Now look.” Sky’s other arm points toward the army, which has somehow become much closer without Somrak noticing, though he’s never taken his eyes off them. There are more elite troops visible now, horrors to make Hell’s princes nod in impressed acknowledgement. Vampiric commandos, each capable of tearing apart a dozen mortals in a blood-starved fury. Incorporeal wraiths, impossible to touch, ready to suck the life from any who face them. Giants made of dozens of human corpses gripping a bamboo framework, sewn together with cord, and animated as a single creature. So many others, bodies flayed into shapes to suit their leader’s purpose and to strike horror into her enemies.

“Can you do it?” asks Sky. “Can you strike her down? Can you even reach her? You who failed to complete training? You who have broken your vows as a priest, your vows as a Tragas binder of souls, your vows as a servant of the Commander, your vows to your fellow agents. Your vow to Saira.” Sky draws his arm back and rests his hand on Somrak’s other shoulder. “Can one who has broken so many vows, large and small, not himself be broken when the time comes? This is what you were made to do. But you refused. And now you are going to be ground beneath the wheels of her chariot, unnoticed, alone.”

“You are with me, my brother,” Somrak says, though he doesn’t believe it. Who would stand with him?

“No.” Sky’s voice is final. “I am there.”

The chariot is closer now. Somrak can see its driver, a beautiful god, his eyes vacant and haunted with loss and guilt. Gwydion. The collar around his neck chains him into place, and he lashes his whip like an automaton, driving forward the huge beast pulling the chariot, a devil with powerful legs, straining to pull the massive vehicle.

It is Sky, his skin red-black, his wings limp and dragging. His head is down, the heavy curved horns weighing him down. The harness is made of spiked chains that dig deep into his flesh and bones, and the whip, made of blackened vertebrae, tears deep gashes in his back.

And behind Gwydion is a massive throne of the same gold and silver and obsidian as the rest of the chariot. It is large enough for a frost giant, and so the pale body that lounges on it looks childlike. Alma, her fine white hair floating around her head in the heat-currents, her lips crimson and cruel, her face that of his Alma but her expression that of another, someone alien to her body.

“Is her soul still in there?” the Sky behind him asks. “Or is it already being tortured beyond imagining in the depths of Hell? Will you burn her? Will you watch her milky skin blacken? Will you end her reign?”

Somrak feels Sky lean in close, and feels the rough brush of the god’s stubbly cheek against his. “You will falter. You will be torn apart, and overrun, and ground into a paste. You will not be even a thought in her mind. Not now, not ever. Give in. Betray all at the last. Join me. Join Dion. Join her.”

Sky kisses him on the cheek. “Or would you rather be alone, brother?”

And then there is no one there. The wind picks up. The sounds of the moaning army reach him. And the light changes. Somrak looks up. The sun is black in the sky, still shining, somehow giving light, but black as the obsidian that makes the hubs of the great metal wheels of Alma’s chariot.

Somrak looks back at the army. He steps up onto the battlement wall, looking down. They are right up to the castle now. He has only to step forward, and he will fall, fall, fall and never stop.

To plunge afire into their midst. To find oblivion. To know nothing, ever again. To regret nothing. To harm no one.

To be alone no more.

To be no more.

Ch6.85 Trust

Somrak disappears into the portal and the room seems to grow a couple of degrees colder almost immediately, in spite of the smoldering anger coming from Saira’s eyes. The mortal woman looks a challenge at Alma, daring her to deny Saira her chance at vengeance as if prepared to fight for it. Alma merely sighs her resignation at such a choice for a way to die. There is only a very thin sliver of a chance that Saira will make it out of this alive. The goddess starts preparing her mind and her emotions for her former patient’s impending departure from the realm of the living. It will be a sad thing to hold Saira’s freshly-disembodied soul in her hands.

Looking disappointed at Alma’s lack of reaction, Saira mutters, “Fine…” and nearly stomps her way into the portal like a pouting brat who has tried and failed to upset her mother. The goddess follows, exchanging a glance with Gwydion of shared melancholy at the situation and of concern for what is yet to come. This little battle was merely an appetizer, she knows and so does he. Whatever lies beyond the portal is certain to be far more challenging than vampiric shadows.

But they cannot linger and leave Somrak and Saira unprotected. So with a soft, grazing touch to her lover’s hand and with his whispered reassurance that he will cover the rear should anything else pop up out of nowhere, she moves to cross the portal before him. As Alma enters, Somrak is pulling a blade out of a guard’s torso with a dreadful sucking sound reminiscent of a snake swallowing a mouse, low and swift but amplified by the deafening silence of the small antechamber. Blood pumps from the wound as the man expires with a grunt and a sigh, falling heavily on the floor by the god’s feet. Somrak shows no contempt for the man as he leans down just enough to wipe his blade on the dead guard’s jacket, as if the body were nothing now but a lumpy rag. Saira cannot even be bothered to look at it. It means nothing to her.

Alma wonders if she herself feels anything for this life just lost. Perhaps no more than the call of her essence to release the man’s soul into the Wheel before she moves on to take lives herself. She moves to crouch by the fallen guard but at the first step, a shadow at the corner of her eye and a sudden shriek makes her turn swiftly, barely in time to evade an attack of taloned fingers pointed at her throat, sharp teeth snapping, just grazing and missing the rise of her pale cheek. She slams her forearm and clenched fist into the side of the thing, knocking it against the wall as a crossbow bolt whizzes by, perfectly aimed at where the creature would have been it Alma hadn’t been so quick to respond. As it is, the projectile misses, hissing past Alma’s head close enough to blow a gentle breeze against her face, and buries itself in the wall with a dull sound just as the goddess’ other hand pins the little attacker by its neck against the stone.

A demon, a small one, no taller than the length of Alma’s arm, with a sickly yellowish skin covered in what would be best described as feather stubs, running in parallel lines along the length of its body. One leg looks almost human while the other is replaced with something close to shattered glass, blackish and oozing pus. Seven blade-sharp nails on each forelimb. Eight eyes in total, three pairs on the head and one on its belly, at the sides of a secondary leech-like mouth. No ears, no hair, no nose. It screams its hatred in some vile language of Hell, clawing at her arm as it tries to break free.

To no avail. Her hand squeezes its windpipe harder as her eyes flare and then darken, much like the shadows around them. Her hand glows with eerie light as Alma begins to drain the creature of the jumbled, fractal, pitiful mishmash of spectral energy that demons have for souls. It howls in pain at the flow of energy that burns its body from the inside out, convulsing as its muscles stiffen and cook, blackening into coal and ash. Soon, what was once a demon is no more than soot, crumbling between her fingers, down the wall, to the floor.

She breathes deeply and straightens, one hand moving instinctively to her arm, where the claws dug into her skin. She turns to find Gwydion standing by her side, sword drawn and stained with a film of orange blood, looking at her in worry. She looks down to see a severed tail lying by his feet, covered in the demon’s yellowish skin and armed with a most likely poisonous stinger. Amidst its squirming and clawing, it must have tried to sting the goddess, only to see its strike thwarted by Gwydion’s blade.

She smiles apologetically at the god, feeling a cold rush of fear travel down her spine at having completely missed the danger. She could have been paralyzed or sent into convulsions or worse if her partner had not been there to watch her back. He returns her smile, relief spreading over his features.

“Reminds me of a well-done dish of eel,” he says as a cleansing spell infused into the blade of his sword makes all traces of demon blood vanish from the metal.

The comment brings back the memory of their encounter with the demonic eels on their first visit to the Oracle’s grotto. It feels like a lifetime has gone by since that episode. She carefully avoids all thoughts of carbonized vulture-headed Archons.

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” Saira says, stepping closer, sounding only mildly impressed, though with a glint of exhilaration in her eyes.

Somrak, his muscles relaxing slightly from their combat-readiness, eyes glancing this way and that on the lookout for any more attacks, says with restrained curiosity. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Alma crouches by the deceased guard, whose spectral form lingers in detached contemplation of its no-longer functioning shell. It looks at her questioningly, not afraid but still with expectation. If she does not release it now and this pocket universe somehow collapses like Sky’s did, the soul could be trapped in the Void for eons, with no one to show it a way out. “Go on, now,” she says softly, cutting the final threads binding the soul to the material realm and opening the conduit that leads to the antechambers of the Wheel. “No more fighting for you.”

To Somrak she says aloud, “Weak demons are easy enough to handle. I suspect the rest of them will not go down so quietly.”

He nods, eyes looking softly at her. “One mortal guard and one weak-ish demon. After two nasty shadows – but not nasty enough to stop us. They’re going to spring a trap soon enough.” He looks at the others. “Let me range a bit ahead – if I trigger something, you can…get me out of it.”

“Or scoop up the remains,” Saira volunteers with a shrug.

“Go ahead, I will cover the rear,” Gwydion tells him.

With a nod Somrak takes the lead, his footsteps falling almost silently on the grey stone floors of the antechamber and the dark hallway that opens into it. They advance in single file, silent down the narrow passageway that would make a good profit selling cheap tickets to a carnival horror house. The high ceiling is lost in darkness above them while the walls are crisscrossed with an apparently unnecessary number of pipes and rusted steel bolts. Luminescent, reddish slime covers the walls, sprouting tufts of a sickly-orange mold here and there in eerie – and most definitely Hellish – symbols in random places and with no obvious order to them. All in all, the pocket universe looks like something decorated by a novice, overly-enthusiastic, satanist interior designer with a tendency to depression. The faint moans and screams lingering in the air and the sense of dormant, strangled life pulsating through the walls does not quite make it look any better.

Somrak remains vigilant as he scouts ahead, scanning for any possible signs of a side-passage or hideout that any ambushers could use to trap them. Nothing. No doors open, no enemies come. The hallway is empty except for the four of them.

Soon, they arrive at a doorway into darkness. Somrak, a few steps ahead from the rest of the group, signals them to stop and wait while he draws a knife from his belt and shoves it into the doorframe to prevent the sliding door from closing, should there be a mechanism designed to slide the door shut and trap them once they pass through it. He enters, leaving Saira, Alma and Gwydion looking at each other while they wait for his signal. Again, Saira gazes at Alma with defiance in her eyes but the goddess simply shrugs at her. Whatever happens, there is no going back now. For any of them.

The darkness beyond the door flickers to grey, then to glaring light as a set of bulbs fluoresce, revealing something like a back office, within which Somrak waits for them. As they enter, they see it is empty of enemies, abandoned in a haste by its previous occupants as a fallen chair and an unfinished plate of food appear to suggest. Grey walls, stone floors and ceilings, everything looking barren and somehow tortured into existence. And yet it is not entirely uncheerful. Two sofas, a gaming table and even a small kitchen area to one side with a little stove and a sink make it look almost homely, the scattered playing cards and chips and half-empty glasses of some cheap alcoholic beverage speaking of people spending their off-times here, in the endlessly uncreative ways of hired thugs in general.

“That tea there is warm,” Somrak murmurs, pointing to a mug sitting on the kitchen counter. “Somebody just left.”

“Which just means they know we are here,” Dion replies, eyes flashing golden as he scans the room with his mage sight. “I see nothing that could indicate a trap, though.”

Alma does the same, her eyes searching for any souls that might be lurking about in the hopes that walls are enough to block godly senses. Nothing, not even a common house fly resting on the wall to bring some life into this place. “And wherever they went, there is no trace of them anywhere nearby.”

Saira huffs at this. “Guy at the door must’ve pissed somebody off.” She shrugs, looking around. “They knew he was gonna die.”

“But they’re not going to that much trouble to try to convince us this isn’t a trap,” Somrak notes, with a slight grimace that his facial scar only amplifies.

“Then why are we following the straight and narrow path?” Saira complains. “We should be…” She looks around for any other doors that might provide an alternate route, but none are there to be found. Only the one through which they came…and a closed door through which to leave. “…gah!”

“This place can be reshaped by the creator,” Somrak explains to her, shoulders sagging a little in resignation. “We really have no choice but to go forward. Even if we gave up now, there could be no way back.”

Alma nods, grim. A glance at Gwydion shows her the god’s thoughts are no brighter than her own. “I guess there is no choice then. Unless anyone cares to start blowing up walls, onward we go.”

As the unspoken leader of the expedition, Somrak takes the handle of the closed door, no more appealing or appalling than any other, and with a look back at the rest of the party, pulls it open. Beyond it lies just another stretch of hallway. Stone walls, half-burnt-out torches. Everything dark and cold. Hopeless. Dead.

Before Somrak can take the first step down the hall, Gwydion’s voice cuts through the silence. “Somrak, wait. I’ve rested for long enough after the break-in spell and I can conjure a scout to go before us with considerably less danger.” He whispers a few unintelligible words and stretches a hand forward, palm up. In it, a familiar glittering, golden ball of light begins to glow, its shape twisting into the slender ferrety body with reddish eyes and a long fluffy tail that makes for Gwydion’s favorite scouting imp. The creature stands upright, looking smartly at at the god, awaiting its orders.

“Go. Scout for us.” He sets the ferret down and it sniffs the air, looking at the rest of them before scurrying out of the room. Gwydion’s eyes glow with his magic. “Now let us see what my little friend can find.”

Somrak touches the edge of the doorway. “Dion…is this a portal?”

Gwydion nods. “Yes. I suspect this place is built like an anthill. One main shaft into which various reality pockets may open at any time. It saves energy without compromising space. Any empty room merely ceases to be until it is needed, that way.”

Somrak’s grimace only increases at that, his chest rises and falls with one long breath. “Great…”

“Your little friend spotting anything we can kill yet?” Saira mutters, arms crossed.

“A few empty rooms,” Gwydion replies. “No traps unless they are triggered by an actual physical presence…” He trails off, apparently considering the possibility.

A sound. A scream, perhaps, though it sounds very faint. Nevertheless, gods and mortal become tense.

“There is someone screaming,” Gwydion says, his senses heightened by the scouting spell. “A woman by the sound of it. Coming from a room down the hall, I think. Sixth door to the left. But it’s closed. My scout can’t get in.”

“Oh, the old screaming victim act…” Saira breathes, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, I know,” Somrak agrees, voice dry. “But we have to check…”

He proceeds into the hallway, cautiously, closely followed by the others. Again taking the rear, Gwydion directs them to the door from which he thinks the scream came. Doors open into the hall, along the stone walls, each lying ajar, only a faint brilliance escaping from within each room lying beyond them.

“Your scout entered these rooms?” Alma asks him in a whisper.

“Just a peek at the door. Nothing worth mentioning,” Gwydion replies in the same soft tones.

“And there is no one around that I can detect…” Alma breathes.

How strange that a hive of criminal types is so empty and lifeless, even to her soul scrying… She feels her spine beginning to freeze with a creeping dread at what might lie ahead. Surely, the necromancer and her diabolist ally are expecting them. And considering their track-record, a particularly nightmarish welcome party will have been prepared to honor their uninvited guests.

From the end of the corridor, the lightspawn creature comes scurrying back to Gwydion, climbing up the god’s trouser leg and onto his shoulder with the ease of an illusion. “Nothing ahead but that one door,” Gwydion reports as the ferret dissolves into nothingness.

And just like the ferret, the door they were just passing winks out of existence, leaving behind blank wall. On the opposite wall, another door disappears. And one by one, each door they pass disappears, until they reach the one, closed door.

A low growl comes from somewhere in the vicinity of Somrak’s throat as he approaches the eerie entrance. “This is really starting to piss me off.” He reaches his hand out toward the doorknob but seems to hesitate. His hand draws back. “Am I just imagining it, or is this another portal?”

Gwydion nods. “It is. They all were. Had we gone into one of the other rooms, we probably would have been sealed inside it.”

Screams rise again, louder now. But for as much as Alma tries, her vision cannot penetrate through to whatever lies beyond the door. She grimaces in frustration. “Curse these portals. I can’t scry past closed portals.”

“Wait, it lets screams through but not your super-senses?” Saira asks, sounding suspicious.

“Portals can be adjusted in many ways,” Dion explains, his voice level but tense. “Some portals only allow image through and cannot be crossed unless one has the right key. And I cannot sense anything past the body of the portal.”

“They’re letting the screams through to unsettle us,” Somrak announces dryly. “This is it. The trap. And we have no choice but to step into it.” He looks at all of them, a shadow of – sadness? Regret? – darkening his visage for an instant before he turns to the door, and extends his palms toward it. They flare with a white flame, blindingly hot, far brighter than before with the shadows and zombies, a flame that seems to want to devour the entire pocket universe, as if it hates the very nature of it. The door twists, melts, and collapses, revealing the portal behind it.

And unleashing the voices. The screams. Countless, terrified, agonizing in breathtaking pain that not even death can put an end to. As Somrak moves quickly through the portal, immune to the heat, followed by Saira. Alma bends double in pain, clutching at her ears as if it could be of any help.

Gods, no…no…not again. Not the shattered souls she encountered in the basement of Three Rats Station. “No…no…” she whimpers, reflexively taking a step back.

A cry from behind her. “DEMONS!”

And someone pushes her into the portal.

Ch6.84 Trust

Felix, the owner of the Singing Cockroach, tries the door handle to the room occupied by the mysterious guy with no name. The guy whose face Felix can’t even remember. The guy whose room Felix has been working up the nerve to rob for days.

Well today is the day. Sure, it’s dangerous, but a guy like that has got to have something worth stealing equal to the risk in stealing it. Money, enchanted objects, information – there’s got to be something. And if he gets caught, Felix will do like he always does and accuse the mark of acting suspicious, justifying a room inspection. Just coming to the Cockroach counts as suspicious behavior. All right, he has a couple of scars from people he’s stolen from, but no pain, no gain.

The door handle doesn’t budge. Not rattling like it would if it were locked, but absolutely immobilized, as if the entire handle and lock assembly had been filled with concrete.

Felix grins, his loose rosaceate skin wrinkling in fine, irregular folds. A wizard lock can’t stop him. He pulls a jade-and-brass wheel from his pocket, crisscrossed with a half-dozen wires of silver, and sets it against the lock. One of the wires snaps with a tiny ping and falls away. At the same moment, the entire lock assembly crumbles to dust, and the door opens quietly.

Magic doesn’t come cheap, and that had been a very costly choice, but surely someone who would use a wizard lock would have something worth many times as much. Felix steps inside and for the first time notices music playing softly. Glancing around for the source, he sees a soft green glow from beside the bed.

The heavyset tavernkeep walks toward the bed. There is a shape on it. Even in the dim morning light, he can make out a woman’s curves. Yes, though clad all in leather, this is not his guest at all. She is paler, a little shorter. A sharp intake of breath through his nose accompanies his recognition. Saira! He has heard rumors that she might still be alive, and other rumors that she might be working with the Guardia. Well here she is, death on two legs, though at the moment death is lying on her side, one leg straight, the other bent at the knee.

Felix tries to remember why he is here. He shakes his head, looks at the tiny music box. A bird spins slow, floating in the green light. He reaches for it, but his hand feels heavy. The world sways, then he is floating, floating.

THUD.

The crash of Felix’s body kicks up tiny geysers of dust from the cracks between the shuddering floorboards. Felix does not notice. He is pleasantly unconscious. But the effect of the impact travels through the loose-boarded floor and causes the rickety bedside table to jump into the air. When it lands a moment later, the music box’s tiny top drops down and the music ceases.

The room is silent for long minutes, until Felix’s snores begin to rip through the air, snores that sound like an alligator being strangled by a very determined baboon. On the bed, Saira becomes even more still, her breath ceasing as her eyes open. It takes her a moment to recognize the appalling sound as a snore, and she quietly pushes herself up to get a better look.

On the floor is the unmistakable, apnea-cursed body of Felix, unnaturally asleep. Beside her is a distinct lack of Somrak. She looks around and sees that everything of Somrak’s is missing, aside from the music box and a slip of paper beneath it. Eyes narrowing, she pulls the paper from under the box, going to the window to open the curtain and let in the morning light.

She reads. After a moment, the paper crumples in her fist.

The furious hiss of her voice cannot compete with the snores, so even she cannot hear herself curse, “Cabrão…

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“That was too easy.” The crumbling remains of a wall, the broken ends of timbers burnt black and mold growing in the shaded crannies, serves as a convenient spot for Somrak to dump the body of a Whisper gangster so as to conceal it from the street. He wipes a dagger on the man’s jacket and sheathes it.

A scuff of boots on debris. He looks up to see Alma approaching. Her jaw is set, her left hand holding the grip of her sword white-knuckled, as if trying to push it further down into the scabbard. As if she knows that once she draws it, she will start to kill, and kill.

It is the nature of the mission, Somrak knows. He has seen in her a kindred spirit, someone for whom taking life is no sin if it is necessary. A warrior. He dealt with that tendency in himself by joining the off-blues, taking on a role where he could act with relative freedom and a lack of guilt. Alma took another path, sealing off that possibility as well as she could, becoming the ordinary sort of Guardia. She would make a damned good off-blue. Too good.

Alma looks down at the floor, studying it, her pearlescent eyes glowing with swirling colors. “It will get complicated soon enough. Eight mortals in the basement.” She frowns. “Plus two who look moribund.”

“Moribund?” Somrak asks. “You mean these souls floating around?” He gestures vaguely toward the abused, drained ghosts, invisible but tugging at the edge of his awareness. The poor things are barely holding on, like tatters of cobwebs, desperate for attention, for emotions to feed off of.

Alma gives her head a slight shake, a lock of white hair falling across her face. “Not quite. They look bound to a body but the link is rather delicate. Almost as if they were dying. I won’t know for sure until I see them.”

Gwydion joins them, having dispatched the other guard. Somrak can see by the gangster’s body heat that she is still alive, though presumably deeply unconscious. No surprise there. Prettyboy may have sworn to do whatever it takes, but he’s still not going to kill if he can avoid it, Somrak thinks. There is no criticism in his thought. Dion is who he is. And Alma is who she chooses to be. He has no wish to change them. He only wishes he could have left them behind, spared them whatever is ahead. Surely they will all have blood on their hands very soon.

“Either way,” Dion says, looking around, “the portal is located in the basement. I assume that trapdoor will have something to do with getting there.” His brow furrows as his eyes glint golden for a moment.

“What is it?” Alma asks.

“There is no spell sealing the entrance from the outside. No wards of any kind.” Dion’s voice is grim.

“Eight mortal guards just sitting around, waiting, all the time?” Somrak looks skeptical. “Well, can’t sneak in. We go in and hit them as hard as we can. Dion, focus on getting through the portal. Alma and I will handle the guards.” He realizes he’s sounding like he’s in charge. It’s a position he’s used to on missions like this, giving orders to Dei and Popula alike that he may never have met until mere days or even minutes beforehand. But even with long years of seniority over these fellow sergeants, they are companions, not subordinates. “Sound good?” he adds, to soften it.

“I will try to be quick.” Giving no sign of having taken offense, Dion walks over to the trap door and touches it. “I can sense a spell on the inside. It will attempt to seal us in once we enter.”

Alma folds her arms for a moment. As she unfolds them, each hand holds a throwing knife. “We knew it would be a trap.” She looks at Dion, then at Somrak, locking her gaze with them each for a moment. Somrak sees the determination in her eyes. “Here we go.”

Dion gestures and the lock clicks open without a touch. He holds the handle and looks at them. With a barely audible hiss of metal against leather, Somrak draws his two main blades: straight, narrow shortswords, sharp as surgical instruments, slender enough to slip through the slightest gaps in armor, each only a little longer than his forearms. He nods, and Dion swiftly opens the trapdoor. Somrak moves quickly, descending into the darkness, four steps, five, then turning and stepping out into empty space. The stairs have no bannister, and he drops a body-length to the floor below, absorbing the impact of the fall into his flexed legs, then rising, swords at the ready.

In the murky darkness, the fire god can see eight living bodies by their heat. Yet they are chilled, not far from death, starving. They stare back toward him in shock, and he hears them scrambling to their feet, not ready for battle, but in fear and perhaps hope of rescue.

These are not guards.

A creak of Alma’s gait upon the stairs. In the basement, before Somrak’s eyes, something darker than the darkest of shadows shifts, enveloping the prisoners, who scream in terror. A very brief scream, fading, followed by the multiple thud of bodies crumpling to the floor.

Only the dead sound like that.

A hissing laugh fills the air. The trapdoor slams shut, and something in their surroundings changes, inducing a slight nausea, a weakness. It is exactly what it feels like when going from a higher-mana ward to one with significantly lower, where the flow of magic becomes curdled and obstructed.

Alma lands just behind Somrak, swearing in the ancient language of the Death clan. Her voice low, she whispers, “I was wrong. Those aren’t moribund creatures. Their souls just flared to life.”

Gwydion lands next to them as well. “A suppression field.”

“Yep,” mutters Somrak. “Trap.” With far greater effort than usual, he awakens his sphere, flame flickering on from his fists to his forearms, then running up his blades. The inky living shadows flinch back, revealing the prisoners, who are beginning to stand. He feels no thrill of hope. Whatever stole their life force also sucked enough warmth from their bodies to cool them to well below ambient temperature. And even that is almost frigid, far colder than it should be. These shambling corpses should be nearly frozen solid. But they straighten, hollow-cheeked, hollow-eyed, and begin to stumble towards the trio of gods.

Somrak’s fire gutters, and he allows it to die almost away. The heat, he knows, is feeding these living shadows. They seem to fear the light, however. A pseudopod of darkness lashes at him, tentative like a cat trying to bat at an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous object. Just before it touches his arm, Somrak’s flame flares hot and bright again, and with a whine that sounds like a buzzsaw grinding against granite, it flinches back again.

But from the opposite side of the room, multiple shadow limbs strike at Alma and Gwydion. Apparently able to see them with ease, Alma draws her sword and parries them with blinding speed. Dion’s gold-lit blade is also out and defending against the approaching undead.

“Dion, find the portal and get it open!” Somrak orders. “Can you see the creatures, Alma?” He feels himself beginning to strain to keep his fire burning. A zombie, a dark, emaciated former beggar with matted hair and ragged clothes, reaches toward him, and Somrak transfixes its chest with one sword. Whispering “Rest now” in the Tongue of Fire, he sends a flare of cleansing, holy flame through its body, turning it almost instantly to ash. It stops, then collapses without a sound, a large puff of hot cinders rising above it momentarily.

A throwing dagger flies by his ear, its edges glowing a pale green. Sparing a glance back along its path, Somrak smirks to see that Alma was not even looking when she threw it with her still-extended off-hand, while she attempts to fight her way past the flailing tentacles of shadow toward their originating body. The shadow-creature on Somrak’s side of the room howls, reshaping and trying to pull back, seeming to struggle under Alma’s dagger-forged hold. Suddenly the dagger pulls free, however, bouncing across the floor to land at Somrak’s feet. The creature growls as it moves back on the attack.

“I’d love to help but the shadows are too thick around its core!” she calls to Somrak. “With this suppression…I can’t see where to strike!”

“No need to help,” Somraks mutters. “Doing fine. Just focus on–” He breaks off as a tentacle lashes against his left wrist, draining it of heat. Icy numbness nearly causes him to drop the sword in that hand. He whispers a curse.

And then Gwydion is by Somrak’s side, slashing his gold-glowing blade, the immaterial edge flinging away from his stroke and flying, surgically sharp, through the air and shadow, cutting deep and calling forth a hiss of anger and pain. The thing of shade seems to shift its attention to the god of magic.

“This is all very touching,” Somrak barks as he reduces another walking corpse to ash, “but Dion, get to the portal! I’m the one supposed to be keeping them off you, not the other way round!” He spins, slashing another tentacle that nearly gets past Dion’s parry. Two more tentacles; two more fiery cuts, followed by the laying to rest of a third confused, shambling corpse.

The opening is enough for Dion, who looks about, his eyes glowing in the darkness. He zeroes in on the portal and sprints for the other end of the room, bisecting a zombie on the way, shoulder to opposite hip, and coming to a halt at the wall. He runs his hands over it, whispering in some wizard-language.

Alma, meanwhile, is blocking multiple blows as shadow tentacles surround her. Somrak shouts a warning just before she is completely engulfed. He can do nothing to aid her – he is barely managing to keep his shadow-creature from doing the same to him. Alma disappears within for a moment, but then, with a scream, the creature spits her free, her eyes flaring white in the darkness. Alma is free, but wheezing. The suppression of her powers is forcing her to use too much mana to activate them, just as it is for Somrak, and presumably for Dion. It is all Alma can do to evade an attempt by a zombie to tackle her in a deadly hug. She hisses in frustration as she lops its head off, but the body keeps attacking her.

The drain of mana is bringing what should have been a brief, simple battle to a desperate stage. As the creature he is fighting attempts to pounce, Somrak flares, his entire body erupting in flames, burning his opponent, eliciting a scream and retreat back into the darker corner of the room. But Somrak staggers at the sudden use of so much mana. His fire gutters out entirely for a moment, and he automatically uses his blades against two undead that try to grapple him, taking off one arm at the elbow, slashing another across the torso ineffectively. That one manages to grip the god’s right arm as he tries to slip past it. The shadow moves forward again, eager to wrap itself around the god, to suck all of his delicious heat away, now that the bright light of his fire is gone.

There is a wet sound of sudden penetration, and with his thermal vision Somrak sees a crossbow bolt, cool and dark, transfixing the skull of the zombie holding his arm, trying to bite him. The god catches the hiss of a fuse and turns his head away just in time for the undead’s skull to explode in a dull thunk, but the shower of dead flesh goes mostly through the back if its skull, away from Somrak, and strangely through its left ear.

A clink of something metal bouncing across the floor, like a tin can full of something quite dense. Somrak mutters a curse just before he hears the familiar, expected voice shouting “Cover your eyes!”

A bright flash erupts in the room, blinding bright as a burst of sunlight. The blast assaults the ears, and even tightly shut eyes are dazzled by the burning, actinic flare redly penetrating the eyelids. In the aftermath of the explosion, the shadows shriek in agony.

Somrak opens his eyes, and amid the blobs of afterimage that nearly blind him, he sees it, a patch of darkness that writhes and keens. He dives after it, knocking aside a zombie, and plunges his sword into its immaterial but somehow resisting mass, summoning his reserves of mana to focus his flame through the weapon. The creature, demon or elemental of shadow or some unfamiliar form of undead, screams long and plaintively, its voice rising in pitch as it shrivels away entirely.

Dizzy, he turns to face other opponents, only to see the few remaining zombies become immobile and fall, unbalanced in mid-step, to the floor. Another shriek indicates that Alma has just finished off the other shadow. She looks at Somrak, tired but otherwise unscathed, and they both share a weak smile.

But the smile fades as easily as it came, as they turn to the sound of a shape in black leather dropping lightly from the stairs to land in a crouch, then straighten with feline grace. “Well, well. Looks like the gods can’t hold their own in a dirty fight after all.” Saira pushes her hood back and looks first at Alma, then Gwydion. Finally she lets her contemptuous gaze fall on Somrak. Her expression shifts from contempt to outright hatred.

As she walks toward him, Somrak sheathes his swords. Her body language tells him she’s planning to attack, to throw a punch. He prefers to get it over with, let her take out her anger on him, save her face by letting bash his. He can heal himself.

So when an utterly un-telegraphed snap-kick catches him in the groin, he is unready to block it or to ignore the flash of agony and the swift nausea that comes with it. He curls his spine, teeth gritted, but the more vulnerable areas of his body are well protected with his light, flexible armor, so some of the impact is absorbed and he is able to straighten back up after a second. Still, he gives her the satisfaction of seeing him in pain. He sees Alma looking at him with a cringe of not-exactly accurate sympathy.

Slowly, deliberately, Saira grinds out, “You earned that. You lying, oathbreaking son of a bitch.”

Somrak keeps his face as impassive as he can, jaw muscles working to prevent any sounds of pain. Saira turns to look at the other two gods. “Now are any of you other high-and-mighty stuck-up gods going to tell me I can’t be here? Because I am sick of this crap! I have earned. My. Place! And if you think–”

Saira stops suddenly, silenced by something Somrak cannot quite see, though he can feel it for sure. The sudden chill deep in the skeleton, rattling the teeth of anyone sensitive enough to sense it. Ghosts.

Saira turns slowly to look at it, and Somrak is sure she doesn’t even know exactly how she instinctively knows where to look. But there it is. In the dim light, a silvery light glimmers, goes out, and returns. Then another, and another, slashes of light, here and gone, combining to appear in the vague shape of a person, though details like gender cannot be made out.

Somrak can see Saira’s extremities cool and her core body temperature rise as she reacts in shock to the vision before her.

And there are more, at least three more of them, though it is hard to be sure, all gathering around her. Around Saira. Ghosts, the most pitiful of the undead. Zombies are more horrifying, but their souls and minds are gone. Some of the more powerful kinds retain their souls within their bodies, but in many cases that is only because they have embraced undeath, chosen a horrid existence over fear of moving beyond. Ghosts, though, are trapped by their trauma. They do not stay out of greed for more life, but because their deaths are so unjust that they cling to this world, confused, raging for vengeance or longing to protect someone.

Thinking without a brain is no mean feat, and few can manage it. Somrak tenses, ready to protect Saira if the ghosts attack. They could have some half-baked idea that she is to blame for their deaths. Fortunately, the more they manifest, the closer they come to solidity, which they must do to be seen, the easier it will be for him to cleanse them with holy flame.

Saira steps toward the closest ghost, the first to appear and apparently one she recognises, even though still very little is clear about the vaguely female facial features. “Emília? Oh no, no no no.” She raises a hand in distress, trying to touch the barely visible figure. “Emília, why? Why didn’t you leave?” She suddenly spins to glare at Alma. “Why are they here? Why haven’t they gone to their rest?” she demands.

Alma’s voice is soft. “At first I blamed the local death goddess for carelessness in not sending them on to the Wheel.” She approaches the ghost and touches it, letting a trickle of her mana flow into it. It gains solidity, and becomes almost the perfect image of a young woman, a child really, a teenager with her hair shaved on one side. “But that is not what happened, is it, little soul?”

The ghost blinks her eyes as if awakening, looking around as if truly seeing her surroundings for the first time in years. She breathes, actually drawing air into her temporarily real, though still translucent body. She looks at Saira, and her features, at first showing an immense relief, turn almost immediately to sorrow. She turns her gaze to Alma and it is obvious that some level of communication is happening between her and the goddess.

“I will relay her words to you, Saira,” Alma says, eyes still on the teenage ghost. “She is glad to see you. She says ‘We held each other when the house burned, and Breno said at least Saira got away. He screamed your name as we burned’.”

The ghost moves forward, floating more than stepping, and cups Saira’s cheek with her hand. The assassin shudders at the freezing touch, but she does not pull away.

“‘And then he came’,” Alma goes on translating. “‘He put us to sleep, but bound us here. We slept for so long. And then he awakened us’.”

A Mão Esquerda do Diabo,” Saira hisses in pain and hatred.

Alma’s countenance darkens. “How many others has he done this to, I wonder. Making their souls quiescent so that death gods will not notice them, ready to be called upon again to power spells or act as guardians.”

“Their mere presence would frighten away locals,” Dion says quietly.

“And the local death goddess is missing,” Alma says.

Saira ignores the gods. “Emília, rest now. All of you must rest now.”

The ghost smiles again. Saira brings her hand to the ghost’s, where it rests on her face. “I will find him. And he will pay. But you should go now.” She turns her gaze to Alma and nods to her.

The goddess evokes her power. For a moment, the shadows stretch again in response to Alma’s power but they are different from before. They are soft, velvety, infused with lavender and cinnamon, like the embalming oils some cultures use on the corpses of their dead. And they are welcoming, in a sense, like nothing else will disturb them, like there’s no punishment, no prize…just sleep. An eternal, bodiless sleep of the soul. The ghosts flare to almost solidity for a moment, each of them smiling and waving a last goodbye at Saira. Each of them hovering around her one last time, all kids, all of them. Her kids, in a sense. Her family, leaving her again and for good and this time toward a better place. Not afraid, this time. The ghost of the one Saira called Emília leans forward to kiss Saira’s forehead, then pulls away to join the others. They look at her, smiling their goodbyes. Then they wave and they fade to spectres and wink out, like a slow yawn of the universe.

Finally, Saira is left standing, eyes closed, her right hand resting on her own cheek, where the ghost’s hand was resting before. She stays there for a few seconds, then lets her hand fall and takes a deep breath, her eyes half shut. For a moment, Somrak sees peace in them, peace and loss, but then she catches him looking and the familiar glare of anger returns.

“Is that portal open yet?” she snaps at Gwydion.

“It is,” the god replies, indicating a man-high oval of almost-black green that swirls like pond-scum caught in a lazy vortex.

“Then let’s go,” she growls.

As she starts toward the portal, however, Somrak holds out a hand. “Allow me,” he says. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, but it’s probably alerted.”

Behind him, just before he passes through, he hears the mortal’s exasperated mutter of “Fine…”

Ch6.83 Trust

The latch of the door to Alma’s thin metal office locker complains with its usual rusty whine as it infallibly sticks and refuses to let her open it to deposit the Guardia-blue uniform dress she had arrived in. She has since changed outfits. Apparently she had been keeping the one she is now wearing in that locker, away from prying eyes and well-intended hands. A full body suit, black as the vastness of the Void, hiding her pale skin from her feet all the way up to her neck. As usual, it includes no armored jacket, but to the trained eye the light, fine fabric it is made of reveals the strength of its fibers, the science and art of its weaving that makes it resistant to most blades unless they are somehow enhanced with magic spells. Critical areas, like the chest, the collar, wrists, armpits and inner thighs are reinforced with leather embroidered with onyx thread to ensure their protection. Leather flat-heel boots rise high, to her knees, doubtlessly impregnable at the shins and calves, from the complex stitching camouflaged almost completely against the jet background.

It is strange to see her in her family’s colors, her ghostly pallor and white hair so strikingly intensified by the all-consuming darkness of her clothing that leaves her hands and head looking almost like cut-outs against the solidity of reality, glowing with a light of their own. Her softly glimmering eyes, more difficult to read since changing from their former gorgeous blue, seem to look vacantly at nothing as she extracts a roll of canvas from the finally cooperating locker and unfurls it on the table. Blades. Throwing daggers, stilettos, flat and thin as paper or cylindrical and sharp like icepicks. She selects and pockets them, one by one, making them disappear in the many folds and nooks artfully crafted into her outfit for that purpose. No emotion in her expression, no hesitation in her choices. Nothing more than a strange resignation and calm to her frame. Only the air is tense, charged with the familiar energy of dread and anticipation.

Dion watches through the corner of his eye as she straps the curved dragontooth blades that Somrak gave her, and that she has been since made a permanent feature of her standard weaponry, to her belt, at the small of her back. He feels no jealousy to see her wearing them. He knows he himself would never present her with a weapon but if they end up saving her life in a moment of need, they will have been a gift well-given. From someone who cares to keep her in this world.

The small knife that was Dion’s Year’s End present from Sky lies on the desktop by his badge, waiting to be pocketed. The sgian-dubh, the knife a devil gave him, twice a gift for having been once offered to Sky by someone who likewise cared about a loved-one’s safety. His friend’s gift.

What a strange life it is…

He dons his immaculate reinforced jacket, much lighter and more flexible (and truth-be-told, more fashionable) than standard-issue, custom-made and enhanced with spells of protection. His weapons are fewer than Alma’s, but carefully enhanced, so that even if his spells fail him, even if his mana is completely depleted, the keenness of his blade will be undulled. He pockets items into which he has bound spells, already charged and ready to release, tiny scrolls of parchment, wafers of thin stone, and others that will give him additional magical support, along with the spell components he will need to break through any portals, the recipe a concoction of his own, free of any Hellish ingredients that might jeopardize their way out. And of course, the all-important mana orbs, several of them, compressed into their smallest form to fit into his belt pack.

The sliding of a wooden drawer. Alma solemnly places her badge in a desk drawer and locks it with a spell. Dion does the same. As she makes sure her tightly braided hair will not become undone, he picks up the knife and hides it in the waistband of his pants, snug inside a newly-stitched loop of fabric on his right side.

The morning had found them once again entwined, sharing that one last moment, that one last kiss, tasting each other’s skin, each other’s love in the desperate, uncertain vulnerability of people about to die. Their rhythms closer together this time, senses immersed in joyful intoxication, they had delayed dawn as their essences happily engaged each other, warring, dancing, mating in their sweet release of the corporeal shells of flesh and blood bodies. He had followed her without fear into the eye of the vortex she calls the Wheel this turn and she had held him there, her welcoming essence wrapped around the untamed tempest of his core, time seemingly frozen around them just for a single, glorious instant of unfathomable peace.

And again he had felt the momentary possibility of a life to be but she had gently driven it away, back to wherever souls wait for a vessel. No new Bunny awaited them upon their return to harsh reality.

Which he is relieved for. If one of them does not return – no, no. Not at all the best thought to entertain at a time like this, when his beloved is just unsheathing her brand-new sword, beautifully made and perfectly balanced for her, to check one more time the keenness of a blade magically forged to always be at its sharpest. To once again read the inscription she already knows by heart as if the sight of the blade, the silky, muffled sound of it slithering out of its scabbard is somehow reassuring. Little signs that she is, beneath the solemn mask of her lovely face and the graceful movements of her slender limbs, just as nervous and fearful as he.

She sheathes the sword again and fastens the simple sword belt adorned with a pattern of swallows in flight around her waist. A deep breath as she squares her shoulders against what is to come and she turns her bright, luminescent eyes to him, her lips curled in a tired, sympathetic smile.

“Ready,” she breathes.

Dion looks back at her and nods, trying to see the lines of the fearsome warrior he has seen bloom in her at times of need set against her pale, delicate features. Amazing how the same face can go from pleasant to eerie, the same body harbor a soul capable of being cold and caring, peaceful and passionate. Terrifying and kind. Life and Death as they dwell in all creatures, materialized and amplified in her, twirling around the nexus of her third sphere: the Wheel. He wonders for a breath’s length what that may do to her personality in the future.

Though for that, they do need a future…

He pockets the last of his portable spell-items and rounds his desk to meet her in the little space by their sofa that marks the unofficial center of the office. A moment of silence as their gazes lock in almost telepathic communication and her arms softly wrap around him, his own enveloping her in their embrace, tightening until their heartbeats reverberate quietly against each other.

One more kiss, perhaps the final one. Hopefully not so. He looks at her as they break away, afraid for her and proud of her, of her strength, her determination, of the steely resolve dethroning the fear in her eyes. Glad to take this memory of her with him into the unknown, to hold the taste of her on his lips as he whispers, to himself as much as her, “Ready.”

She smiles softly and he delights in the cool touch of her hand cupping his cheek, returning the caress by running his fingers through her braided hair, inadvertently releasing a thin lock of silver-white strands that fall over her left eye. With an apologetic grin, he combs the offending lock away from her forehead and over her ear, grazing the almost translucent cartilage onto which the fine silver chain of her Clan earring is permanently attached. His fingertips follow it down to the delicate lily, touch the long, thin rod onto which six tiny experimental self-regenerating mana orbs are held like little proto-universes just waiting to explode into completely new realities.

He holds her gaze, happily hypnotized by the ever-shifting iridescence of its colors while the sensation of midnight-black fabric against his palm replaces the usual freshness of her alabaster neck. An unwelcome reminder of what they were getting ready for.

He touches his forehead to hers when her arms surround his shoulders, her voice mustering words of reassurance. “It will be all right.”

He nods. “We will see to it. Now, if only a certain fire god keeps his promise…”

“My ears are burning,” Somrak’s voice rings quiet from the office door.

Dion looks at him, draped in a ragged outer robe that only lets through a peek at his usual tightfitting but strangely comfortable-looking leathers, doubtlessly as loaded with as many weapons as he has seen Alma conceal in her outfit though only a handful can be readily seen on careful inspection. His thin, ever-present satchel hangs cross-strap from his shoulder. He may have just arrived or been here for nearly as long as Dion has held Alma in his arms for all the magic god knows. One thing he has to hand to Somrak: whenever he is not seeding destruction and demolition, the fire god can be just as sneaky as a mouse in fuzzy socks.

“We all ready?” Somrak asks, looking grimly at the embraced couple. He is studying their faces, Dion notices, possibly looking for any signs of doubt.

He finds none. “We’re ready,” Alma tells him, slowly removing her arms from their perch on Dion’s shoulders.

The god releases her, not without a little regret at having to do so. He catches the goddess’ eye, exchanging with her a glance that words might translate into here we go.

Somrak nods, pauses, his eyes closing for a moment as he breathes deeply. When he opens them again, the grimness is gone, replaced by a cold, calculated calm. He seems moved by their determination for just a fraction of an instant, smiling even before he returns to the business at hand. “Let’s go.”

“Gwydion?” Alma prompts the god.

Dion nods, knowing what comes next. “I can take us as far as the border. I don’t know Little Falls well enough to open a portal there with any degree of safety.”

“Even so, it’ll help us avoid being spotted,” Somrak says. “Best to go the rest of the way on foot, anyway.”

True. Dion raises a hand, murmuring a couple of words, no more than a simple aid to focus his mind around the spell to create a portal. He holds his surroundings in his mind, calls to memory the location a little side-street he has walked many times and studied closely for future reference during his patrols, remembering the path to it, the distance, shortening it through the sheer power of his will. There becoming here, both places bound at the interface of his conscience.

His eyes flare golden as reality bends to oblige him in a single golden circle of light drawn in the air in the middle of the room. Alma draws a knife from a fold of her sleeve, holding it with the blade against the inner surface of her wrist for concealment.

“I’ll just need a second,” she announces as she steps into the portal. No question in her tone, no hint at expecting or desiring their approval of her initiative. She just steps forward and is gone.

Somrak spares Dion a glance he cannot quite put a meaning to, then follows her through after a couple of heartbeats. Finally, Dion follows as well, sealing the portal behind him, leaving the office as empty and still as if they had never been in it.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Grey-brown and plump from the rich pickings in this alley behind a bakery, a rat freezes, its ears perking up as something in the air changes. It is almost as if lightning is about to strike. A swirling circle forms against one graffiti-adorned wall, a circle of glowing gold, that widens rapidly, filling the entire alley with a charge of energy that has the rat’s fur standing on end. It watches uncomprehendingly as the portal stabilizes, and then ripples as a human steps out. No, not a human – it is death itself. And death is staring at him. The rat turns so quickly its tail whiplashes against a post, and it scurries away, squeezing through a crack beneath the bakery’s back door, to go in search of old bread to gnaw upon.

Somrak steps into the alleyway on the border between Three Rats and Little Falls, seeing Alma looking at something with a mild expression of amusement before she starts scanning the alley. He steps out of the way just as Gwydion joins them, canceling the portal behind him.

“All clear,” Alma says. “More or less. We should be safe.”

“More or less?” Dion asks.

“The rats are plentiful. But all alive.” She looks to Somrak, a question in her strange, mysterious eyes.

He holds her face in his sight for just a moment, trying to memorize the line of her jaw, the tilt of her mouth. If all this goes wrong, any or all of them could all be facing oblivion, or worse. If he’s going to endure unremitting torture in Hell for eternity, such memories may provide the tiniest sliver of comfort, for a short time, before the greatest torturers in Reality can corrupt even those memories into devices of torture.

Without a word, he indicates their direction with a jerk of his head, the proceeds out of the alley, taking back ways where possible, avoiding main roads, but when those roads are the only practical choice, taking them casually and walking swiftly, purposefully. It wouldn’t do to catch the attention of the local Guardia, for the three gods are out of their jurisdiction. Showing up without warning, heavily armed and in force, no orders, could result in detainment by the locals, uncomfortable questioning, and delays that they can no longer afford.

The alleys, fortunately, are straighter and far more fathomable than those of Three Rats. Little Falls is not made up of two wards somehow mashed together during their journey from their homeworld to the Insula. Like driftwood, Little Falls ended up on the shores of the Insula long ago. It too arrived from another world, one with a great variety of smells and colors, it seems: mouth-watering cooking and open sewage ditches, rainbow-bright murals and splashes of dried blood. It is a ward very much like Three Rats, but with its own character, its own food, its own music, its own local dialect of Urbia and its own language entirely. But the most immediate difference the hurried gods notice is how very easily navigated its streets are, compared to Three Rats.

Soon they arrive at an abandoned garden surrounded by a low concrete wall. Somrak hops it easily, crossing the patch of dried sticks that were once vines of tomatoes and stalks of eggplants to crouch at the opposite wall. Down the block, past old, dilapidated houses that were once small mansions, is the shell of a house that is clearly abandoned, its roof fallen in, one wall almost entirely gone, another barely standing. Somrak leans back against the wall and takes out several sheets of paper folded together. Straightening them and showing them to the other two Dei, now crouched beside him, he indicates the sketches of the area, and the map of the burnt-out house.

“The only thing left is the basement, really, though there may be one or two rooms intact on the ground floor. The portal Pete told us of, if it’s still there, is in the basement. Dion, can you detect it from this far away?”

Gwydion’s eyes flare gold, and he nods in the affirmative. “I can sense something, but weak, perhaps masked. From this far, I can’t pinpoint it.”

Alma seems distracted, staring at something on the wall – or rather, through it. She closes her eyes hard and shakes her head, then turns to look at the fire god. “Somrak, how do you know this place so well?”

He knew this moment would come. He ignores his sinking heart and plows ahead with the explanation. “My source was waiting for me in my room last night. Saira wanted to make sure we didn’t leave her behind.”

Alma’s brow furrows. “I take it from her absence that you decided to do the sensible thing.”

Somrak gives a single, quick nod. “Though it was a near thing. She makes a good case. This is the building where her gang – her family – were murdered on the orders of the one she calls the Devil’s Right Hand, who is very likely in that pocket universe we seek to enter. She deserves her shot at taking him out. And not so long ago, I promised her I’d give her that shot. But in the end, I cast a sleep spell on her. I knew I had to get her guard down, or she’d be out the window after sticking a knife in my chest if I tried anything. So I had to act like of course we were bringing her along. I had to plan things out with her.” He shakes his head, angry at himself. “She should sleep until noon. Plenty of time. We’ll be done here, one way or another.”

Gwydion frowns. “You did account for the sudden differential in coming to this ward via portal, didn’t you? Unless the spell is fully independent, such a transition could have weakened or even broken it.”

The right corner of Somrak’s mouth goes up, pulling the scar on his face tight. “It’s an enchanted music box. I’ve used it plenty of times, and yes, it’s fully independent of me. Timing’s not exact, but it’s pretty consistent. If someone disturbs her, she can still wake up. I couldn’t leave her helpless in the Roach. But I cast a lock on the door.”

“You did the right thing,” Alma says, squinting toward the burnt-out house again. “And that is definitely the correct building.”

“They have sentries, then?” Dion asks. “How many?”

“Just two that I can see. I’m not sure how my soul-scrying will respond to demons, anymore.” Alma squints. “But there are also the souls of mortals floating about.”

Somrak grunts. “The place is haunted?”

Alma nods, grim. “That’s a simple enough way to think of it. Crude but it’ll do. You had better pray Saira doesn’t awake in time to come here. Or she will very literally join her friends.”

Somrak forces himself not to roll his eyes at her tone. Having been raised to be a holy zealot in the fight against the undead, Somrak knows more about them than Alma realizes. He is sure that, like virtually every member of the Death Clan, she hates to see a soul left to suffer after its body has died. He’d been taught that simple ghosts were objects of pity, but not within his intended purview – his people would have called upon the Death Clan to handle them, reserving their holy fire for the more malevolent undead, such as zombies and vampires.

Still, even ghosts can be dangerous, particularly to those they have reason to take vengeance on. And ghosts are generally insane, though whether they became insane before death, or their thinking became deranged because no death god had harvested them, all depends on the ghost. Dying while raging against the injustice of it is the most common way of becoming a ghost, and then existing as a disembodied soul doesn’t really allow for much in the rational-thought department. No brains, no logic. So a ghost might target a loved one as easily as an enemy, blaming the loved one for surviving. And the guilt of a survivor can draw ghosts like a baby’s breath draws malarial mosquitoes.

“The ghosts may have been enslaved as sentries by the necromancer,” Somrak says. “Can you send them on quietly?”

Alma considers this, looks at the building again. “I think she is draining them for energy to use in her magic. Human souls are not stable enough to provide so much energy for a long time. They are decaying. Fast. I doubt they will be alert enough to raise the alarm.” Her voice is full of disgust at the mistreatment of these souls.

“Will it destroy them?” Dion asks. “So that they cannot reincarnate?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. Just transition them faster, so to speak. Destroying a single soul would require tremendous power. Which Nua doesn’t have if the accounts are to be trusted.”

“Then we can ignore them until we’ve secured the portal,” Somrak says. “Now, let’s pinpoint those sentries.”

Ch6.81 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.80 Trust

“He really walloped you a couple times,” Cherry says, half-sympathetic, half-amused as she stands behind Somrak’s chair, running her fingers through his just-rewashed hair with one hand to comb it into some semblance of order, and holding a wet towel wrapped around ice against his cheek and the side of his mouth with the other. “I could totally do you up in braids,” she adds as an aside. “Whaddya think? Like, a half-dozen thin ones startin’ from the front here? Or just one braided ponytail down the back?”

Somrak’s leather-clad shoulders shake in silent laughter. “Can I have ribbons with that?”

“Oh, ye better not let Tulip hear ye say that!” Merri admonishes him as she sets a pint of ale on the table before him. “She’ll turn ye into a special project – ye’ll end up with more ribbons than hair.” She looks around as she sits across from him. “Speakin’ of whom, where’d she go? Ah well…” She turns abruptly to fix Somrak with an inquisitorial gaze, setting elbows on the table, chin on her clasped fists, her fiery curls bouncing and bright green eyes sparkling. “Now then! What was all that about?”

“Oh boy,” Somrak mutters, taking up his beer and raising it to her. “Cheers.” He starts to drink it slowly but without stopping.

Merri rolls her eyes and tilts her head. “Now come on! Mum said ye should explain it us!” When he holds up a finger to indicate Still drinking! she groans and pretends to collapse onto the tabletop.

Cherry insistently squeezes his shoulder, her grip surprisingly strong. “Hey, come on… I don’t like all this secret stuff,” she pleads, sounding just this side of desperate.

Somrak raises the bottom of the glass higher and finishes quickly, then reaches up and takes her hand in his, turning his face to look up at her dark face framed in a halo of ebony curls, her beauty marred by her sincere worry. He sighs and sets down his beer.

“Come on, sit down.” He pats the seat of the chair next to him, and she pulls it out and takes a seat. “I’ll tell you no lies, but I can’t tell you much truth. I’m sorry. This is a case where even most cops can’t be told much.”

Merri leans forward and whispers, “Is it Sky? Has somethin’ happened to him? Only Sage said he was missin’ an’ Mum an’ Dion went out lookin’ for him an’ ever since they’ve been terribly worried an’ closed-mouth.” As she speaks, all pretense of joking disappears and she reaches to put her pale hand atop Cherry’s, which is still holding Somrak’s tightly.

Somrak puts his free hand on both of theirs and takes a breath. “As I told you before, my bosses don’t know I’m here. But there’s others who mustn’t learn I’m here as well. The people who murdered your Corporal Stathos. Sky is with them, and we’re going to bring him home.” As he speaks, he looks from one the the other, his face darkly serious.

Cherry’s eyes shine with forming tears. “Is he hurt?” she whispers.

Somrak shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. But you know he’s strong. And Alma will heal him.”

Cherry and Merri seem to study him, Merri’s nose and cheeks turning pink as she seems to be holding back tears as well. But she takes a deep, shaky breath and, her voice determinedly calm, asks, “Is there anything that we can do? Anything at all?”

“You can keep quiet about it. And you can keep all the Bunnies here, home,” he says, doing his best to project a confidence he doesn’t feel. “It’s very important for us to know you’re safe.”

“We’ll do that,” says Cherry. “But what about Dion? He was actin’ like a crazy guy out there. Yellin’ about lies?”

“Dion…” Somrak sighs. “Dion was poisoned, while trying to find Sky. And…I held back some information a little longer than I should have. That made him very angry, and I don’t blame him for punching me. But I am annoyed about losing that cigar.”

Cherry smacks his shoulder. “Don’t joke. Is Dion gonna be okay?”

A bright, loud voice, high-pitched and childish, pierces the tense, gloomy conversation. “He says he’s fine.” Tulip bounces over from the stairs that lead down to Alma’s sanctum, and plops herself onto Somrak’s lap. “Seems fine. Just taking a bath with Mom.”

“Oh, ye wee scamp!” Merri scolds her, smiling brightly and blinking away her tears. “Sneakin’ around. Tell us all how they are!”

Tulip shrugs. “I didn’t get to hear much before Mom caught me! She’s like, scary good at catching me now. But they were talking fine ‘bout souls and stuff. And they were hugging so I guess they’re fine. I asked if Dion is feeling better and he said he’s feeling great.” She puts her arms around Somrak’s neck. “Mom says to tell you they’ll come upstairs in a bit. So is that why you didn’t punch back? ‘Cause it was your fault Dion got hurt?”

“That’s part of it,” Somrak says, looking into her blue eyes, marveling again at how much she resembles Alma when she was much younger, when Somrak met her the first time. And he does his best to put out of his mind her blithe report of Alma and Dion bathing together and ‘hugging,’ which his idiotic brain tries to turn into something more. “But also…he’s my friend, even if he’s not so sure about that right now. I don’t want to hurt my friends.” Ah, but you’re so good at it, he cannot help but tell himself. Will you be coming back to this place carrying a body? Will it be their beloved Sky? Or Dion? Or worst of all, their mother? How will you live with that? Or will the four of you just disappear and never be heard from again?

“Speak o’ the divvil!” Merri says. “There they are.” Following her gaze, Somrak sees Alma and Dion coming up the stairs, holding hands. Dion is freshly washed and clothed, dressed casually in a simple silk shirt and close-fitting trousers, and Alma looks as if she has had a bath as well, having changed into another sari. She gives Somrak a wary smile, which he returns with as good a facsimile of his devil-may-care, scar-twisted smirk as he can manage, and smiles even more broadly at Dion.

For his part, Dion keeps his expression reserved toward Somrak for the moment, but his face softens as he looks at Cherry. Her black-furred ears are laid back, denting her afro, and Somrak can see that she’s looking at Dion with concern and sorrow.

Alma looks at the gathering and makes a stab at breaking the ice. “Well, this is certainly a happy reception…”

Merri stands. “Oh come in and sit down! Time to mend fences over somethin’ nice to drink.” She moves toward the bar to fetch beverages, while Cherry follows her more slowly. Meanwhile, Tulip slips off Somrak’s lap to dash to Dion for a hug, then she runs off toward the stairs leading to the upper floors. Somrak hears her greet Geryon.

Dion looks at Alma and signals her to sit, while he holds out a hand a hand to stop Cherry. He looks at her uncertainly. After a moment of the two of them looking at each other in silence, Cherry asks him, “What can I get you?”

He tentatively extends an arm and puts it around her shoulders, drawing her close. She seems surprised for a moment, and then with a little whimper she hugs him tightly around the waist. He wraps his other arm around her, bending his head to whisper something to her. Somrak hears, “…should have listened…” and “…sorry…”

Cherry clenches one of her hands into a fist and gives Dion a light, painless punch on the back. Her cheek pressed against his chest, she almost sobs, “You’re darned tootin’ you should’ve.” She leans back slightly and looks up at him, her eyes bright, her face worried, her voice tiny. “Are you ok?”

Dion nods. “I am now.” He looks at Geryon, who, just arriving, glances sideways at him, as if he can’t be bothered with all this emotion.

Cherry give Dion a big, bright smile and pats his chest, then looks at Alma and Geryon. “So what’s everybody drinkin’?”

“Considering my healer would probably disapprove of alcohol right now,” Gwydion says, “what do you have that is mild on an empty stomach?”

Cherry considers. “How about some nice warm milk? Or tea?”

“Tea sounds good. Thank you.” Dion moves to sit down.

“You got it, hon,” Cherry replies, then quickly takes the others’ orders before joining Merri at the bar.

Dion sits with Somrak and Alma, while Geryon steps up onto the nearby sofa, his eagle gaze on the three gods. Dion nods to Somrak. “I see you are almost fully healed.”

Alma, her voice half-amused, half-scolding, says, “I think he’s just dragging it out to keep Cherry and Rosemary treating him like a war hero.” She brushes her fingertips along his face, scents of spring filling the air, and the bruising on Somrak’s face disappears, along with the cut on his lip.

Somrak touches his cheek after Alma’s fleeting touch leaves it warm and whole. “That bruise was getting me a lot of attention. What am I going to do now?” Looking a little more serious, he leans forward, elbows on the table, and asks Dion, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I have been through something I don’t ever want to experience again.” Dion exhales. “I’ll live. But I don’t recommend trying it.”

Merri brings Somrak another ale, while Cherry brings a steaming cup of tea for Dion and of coffee for Alma. Cherry asks, “You guys gonna be okay with each other now, or we gotta set up round two?”

“Oh yes,” Geryon pipes up with his smooth, every-sarcastic voice. “Give us some time to advertise and sell tickets. We’ll make a fortune out of it.”

“Ooo yes!” Merri coos, taking away Somrak’s empty glass. “That was quite the display you two put on. Seems a shame not to let everyone see.”

“Come on, Mer,” Cherry says, “let’s let ‘em talk. We got Bunnies to round up anyway.”

“Indeed, we do,” Merri says, pausing and suddenly giving Alma a kiss on the cheek. The surprised goddess turns to look and sees the fear showing through past the Bunny’s usually cheerful demeanor, but the redhead follows Cherry before Alma can react.

Looking at Somrak, Alma asks, “Just what did you tell them?”

Somrak waits until the two have gone upstairs, calling out for Chime, Tulip, Kori, and Sage, the asks, “They can still hear overhear us, can’t they?”

“Very much so, yes,” Geryon replies. “Their ears are as sharp as my eyes. But…” He closes his eyes, muttering, and stretches his forepaws out before him, flexing them so the toes spread out and the claws extend. Around then the air seems almost to solidify, light bending distorted through a not-quite-perfectly transparent shell around them, and all sound from beyond it deadens. “Not anymore,” he finishes.

Alma nods at him. “Thank you, Geryon.”

“Yes,” says Dion, his voice dry, “thank you for assuming you should be included.”

Geryon fluffs the feathers on his head. “Oh, like you can afford not to include me at this point. I am, after all, your walking conscience.”

“That explains a lot,” Dion mutters.

Somrak listening to the exchange, weighing the ramifications. “It’s up to you two. But Geryon, if you’re included, some of what you learn could get you in trouble. We’re talking state secrets here.”

The gryphon rolls his eyes. “Please, unless I’m to be turned into anything in the class of sardine or below, I really couldn’t care less. And unless you forget, the first time we met, these two had just sent an Archon to the angels, so to speak.”

“And you’d just stood between that Archon and some Bunnies,” Somrak reminds him. He looks at Alma and Dion. “I’m all right with it if you are.”

The lovers look at each other, then Alma says to Somrak, “We have news.”

“Yes, about Sky and his captor.” Catching Geryon’s expression, Dion quickly explains, “The truth is, Sky was captured a few days ago by the necromancer we have been tracking. He is alive and still on the Insula. Well, in a pocket universe. He is being tortured but holding on with the help of a friend of Alma’s.” He glances at her as if checking that the word ‘friend,’ which Somrak notes he fractionally paused before using, is correct.

His eyes round, Geryon says, “Well, no wonder you have all been so strange, lately.”

Somrak leans forward. “How do you know all this, Dion?”

Alma replies instead. “Arion… Void Rider. Former Archon, god of…Reality, really. The father of my children. He can travel in the Dreamworld.”

“And he walked into my dream,” Dion says, “when I was fighting off the poison.”

Somrak drops his eyes, thinking it over. “If he’s still being tortured, that confirms the idea that this is being done to lure Alma into a rescue attempt.”

Dion nods. “Perhaps, yes. Sky sent us a message, saying it was a trap, yes. And that his captor’s name is Nua. To look for her in the records of the Necromancer War, about two hundred years ago.”

Somrak looks up at the mention of two centuries. Coincidence?

Alma pulls her Death Clan logbook from, apparently, nowhere, and opens it. “Let us see what we can find.” She looks at intently, clearly reading, but to Somrak’s surreptitious glance the pages look blank, except perhaps for the barest blur of lines of writing, indicative of a spell to protect the information from unapproved eyes. “Ah, here she is. I knew the name seemed familiar. Nua was a famous necromancer. She was actually credited with starting the war in the first place. Not the sharpest blade in the armory but vicious, relentless. She stole the original formula for the Soul Bombs and shared it with other necromancers, sowing great chaos. She used them to kill rival necromancers and in the tumult over…” She pauses a moment. “Over forty death gods perished.” She shudders and Dion places a hand on her arm. Somrak had not been in Three Rats when the Whisper assassinated one of its own arrested members to prevent him from revealing their secret to the Guardia, an event which killed Corporal Stathos and another prisoner, shredding their souls and nearly killing Alma as well, as those damaged, maddened souls attacked her.

But he had read the report with a horrified anger. Though he had long ago abandoned his own clan, he still carried with him the indelible mark of the attitudes they tried to inculcate in him: to regard the undead, and by extension necromancers, as abominations, cancers in the body of the universe that had to be purified with flame. He had, indeed, been raised to be a sort of warrior-priest, a god in the service of greater gods, a weapon to be wielded against such monstrosity. It does not escape his sense of irony that he has ended up doing exactly that in the Commander’s service, minus the hypocritical dogma and familial abuse that prompted him to leave home.

Somrak says, “She considers the Death Clan her enemy, then. But how has she survived two centuries only to surface now in Three Rats?”

Alma keeps reading. “Well, she didn’t. She was killed, two centuries ago. The investigators found her posed as if she were sleeping. A merciful kill, it seemed, quick and painless. Her soul was gone, doubtlessly claimed by Hell. My aunt was in charge of the investigation, along with two unnamed specialists in demons and Hell. One of them claimed a devil had been at the scene, summoned by Nua herself.” Somrak sits up straight, the blood draining from his face but at the same time thinking, Of course. “Only a piece of the contract was found. Half a name. ‘Azza–’.” Alma looks alarmed as she breaks off.

Somrak and Alma share a shocked look as they both understand. Then Somrak looks at Dion, then at Geryon. To the gryphon, he says, “You’d better be sure you’re in all the way, or walk away now.”

Grimly, Geryon says, “For some reason, I fear my mind has already reached the conclusion you are about to confirm. Allow me.” He turns to Dion and demands, “Are you insane? In what Hellish reality does this sound like a good idea?”

“I know,” Dion sighs. “It doesn’t. Probably because it isn’t. But whether or not I should turn my back on someone who has been nothing less than a friend, I still can’t afford to leave this Nua character running loose. You’ve seen what she did just to send a message.”

Somrak says darkly, “This isn’t just about Alma then. She’s getting back at Sky. And if we’re captured, she’ll use us to torture him further.”

Dion asks, “Can we be sure it was Sky who killed her before?”

Alma and Somrak nod together. Alma says, “When he took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies, Sky confessed to me that his real name was Azzageddi and made me promise I would keep it to myself. I didn’t make much of it, at the time. I had too many problems to focus on it and it’s not unheard of, anyway, gods using false names to stay free from certain contracts. But the name fits, doesn’t it?

“He was taking a real risk sharing that,” Somrak says, shaking his head. “If you’d ever studied demonology, you’d have been suspicious at the sound of it. He put himself completely into your hands.”

Her voice slow, Alma says, “The truth is, the Vow he took more or less ensures he cannot hurt me, no matter what is done to him. But you two…” She looks at Gwydion and Somrak.

“Sky will resist,” Somrak insists. “He’s being tortured by a necromancer who played at being amateur devil-summoner and got herself killed, and another sorcerer, Nekh’s lieutenant, who is still mortal for all his ability. Sky’s been through worse. Still…” He says to Dion, “It’s good that you know his true name. It’ll help if some binding needs to be broken.”

Dion nods as he absorbs this, then asks Alma, “You said you found out where he’s being held?”

“Lucky Pete gave us a location,” she replies. “We will have to find the entrance to the pocket ourselves, but it is our best bet so far.”

“This is of course provided they haven’t moved the entrance,” Somrak cautions, hating to be the killjoy. “But I think they want us to find them. Or at least they want Alma. Anybody else is a bonus. They just don’t want to make it too obvious that they’re letting us find them. If they made it too hard, they know we’d have to contact the Commander.”

Geryon asks the obvious question, “And just why exactly aren’t we contacting the Commander?”

Somrak hesitates only a moment. After all, the gryphon already knows the Sky is a devil, that his true name is Azzageddi – it’s pointless to hold anything back now. “Sky knows a lot of secrets. And being born one of the Enemy, if it ever got out that the Guardia has been employing him for decades, with the approval of the Council, they would send in the Sikari and just kill everyone involved, Sky included.”

“Lovely,” Geryon mutters. “So you are planning on invading the enemy’s lair with an army of…” He looks around the table, “three?”

“Three,” Somrak confirms. “No mortals coming along. No offense.”

Geryon laughs as if Somrak had just told the most delicious joke. “Oh, you certainly didn’t expect me to volunteer, did you?”

Somrak’s mouth twitches at the corner. “Well after the way you threw yourself at that Archon…”

“Oh, I learned my lesson there, I assure you,” Geryon says, pointing with one paw at Somrak’s chest as if he’d be poking it if the sofa were only a little closer. Then he pauses and asks, “So who should I notify, when you three disappear without a trace into the deepest, darkest pits of Hell?”

Dion sighs, “Geryon…”

The gryphon stands up on all fours, glaring at Gwydion. “Oh, shut up! This is insane, and you know it! Heroic deeds, blazing glory – who will pick up the pieces you are leaving behind to go save your friend?” He shifts his gaze to Alma. “Who will comfort and protect your Bunnies? Or tell your families what happened? Hmm?”

Alma and Gwydion find themselves unable to reply, or even to meet the fierce eagle gaze.

The magical dome around them is temporarily superfluous, as all within fall silent. After several pregnant seconds pass, Somrak gravely says, “I would not blame anyone in the slightest for staying here. My intention was to go in alone, anyway. But after all you did…” He nods at Dion’s arm, where the poison was injected by Saira’s informant. “I realized I couldn’t just ditch the two of you without giving you a chance. That’s when I accepted I’d have to tell you what Sky is. But Geryon is right. You have people here who need you.”

Alma’s voice is low but clear and firm. “How would I tell my children that I let their Uncle Sky die? Or tell my clan that I let Nua run loose? No, I cannot back away.”

“My family is either dead or here,” Gwydion says. “And part of that family is being tortured in some pocket universe, somewhere. I’m in.” He looks to Geryon. “All I ask of you, my friend, is that if something happens, you get the Bunnies into my room, erase the door, and open a new one somewhere else, somewhere safe. And then… I can’t ask for anything beyond that.”

Alma stands and walks to Geryon, crouching so that her eyes are on a level with his. She looks into his eyes, imploring. “If you get them to my mother, I’m sure she’ll care for them. Please, Geryon. Even if you don’t understand, pretend you do and keep my children safe. I beg you.”

Geryon pulls his head back, blinking, his beak slightly open, looking stunned. He shakes his head, ruffling his feathers. “Oh, quit the dramatics, my lady. Of course I will look after them.” He sounds quite affected by her plea, and by the responsibility thrust on him.

The goddess puts her arms around his neck and presses her cheek to his. “Thank you.”

Dion chuckles at his friend’s stammered inability to reply to that, and Somrak imagines he can almost see the gryphon blushing through his feathers. What Geryon said about family continues to spin in Somrak’s mind, for he has been thinking along the same lines of late. What family has he had, since he fled that of his birth? He fell in with a gang as bad or perhaps even worse than the Whisper, and then was rescued by the Commander, and given the chance to redeem himself. Since then, the off-blues, the unnamed ‘special missions’ department within the Guardia, has been his family, but it’s been a highly dysfunctional one. Only a few days ago, one whom he had trusted with his life had turned out to be an agent of Hell, a spy, and he had had to kill her. And for decades the colleague he was closest to, Sky, was also the person he was supposed to kill at any sign of unreliability.

Dion is right. This is family, here. It is Dion’s and Alma’s and Geryon’s and the Bunnies’. And it is Sky’s. But is it Somrak’s. Can it really be? Surely it’s too early to tell, whatever they might say. But Somrak knows one thing. He wants it. Badly.

Out loud, he says, to Alma and Dion, “The truth is, I wouldn’t have a chance without your help. Sky wouldn’t have a chance. But if I thought we still didn’t have a chance together, I wouldn’t bring you into it. We do have a shot at getting him out. But just in case, I’ll prepare a message for the Commander. If we don’t return after a full day, Geryon, or if you’re attacked here, simply burn the message. He’ll receive it.”

Geryon, a wizard familiar with such things, nods grimly.

“Oh, and you’ll be better off pretending you have no idea who or what this Azzageddi is, or that Tuma-Sukai is anything other than a big lovable lug,” Somrak adds. He nods to Dion and Alma. “That goes for the two of you as well.”

Dion says, “Arion said Sky is close to giving out, so we should move as quickly as possible.”

“Yes,” Alma agrees. “The more we delay, the more he’ll suffer. We should fetch our equipment.” She stands, as does Gwydion.

But Somrak holds up a hand. “Wait. Dion, you are still recovering from being poisoned. And you,” he continues, looking at Alma, “have barely slept in days, and you’re still suffering from a mana hangover after healing him. And somebody punched me in the mouth, I think. If we go in with anything less than our best condition, we are putting the mission at risk.”

Alma looks at Dion, who looks uncertainly back at her. “But…Sky…” she murmurs.

Geryon sighs and hops off the sofa to stand between them. “As much as it pains me to say it, Scarface does have a point. Both of you are too weak to be of any use at the moment. And if this necromancer is truly trying to lure you in, she will be in no hurry to kill Sky.”

The two look at one another again, and Gwydion finally sags his shoulders and admits, “I suppose you’re right.”

“Rest,” insists Somrak. “After you’ve had a good meal. But before that, let’s go over the information again I got day before yesterday. With what we know now, it might shed some more light on the other gang members. Geryon, could you drop the silence shield so we can order something to eat?”