Walking through the streets, the four cops in their armored jackets – two immortal Guardia Dei, two mortal Guardia Popula – prompt night-time conversations to cease and gathered knots of humans and other citizens to stare, and in some cases to break up and slip away. The two gods, Insp Tuma-Sukai and Sgt Gwydion, do not attempt to conceal their divine status now, allowing their natural auras of power to be felt, making them seem bigger, more powerful, more dangerous, drawing the attention of every mortal they pass.
Sky glances back at the two mortal constables trailing them. GC Lamore is even larger in her bulky jacket, but she moves easily in it, graceful and confident. In addition to the usual truncheon, she bears a simple, deadly short sword at her side, having qualified in its use years ago. Probationary Constable Patel carries only the truncheon, and moves awkwardly in his armored jacket, not used to the additional weight. Sky makes a mental note to regularly train with all the station’s cops, two or three a day, unscheduled and randomly, in the basic weapons of the Guardia: truncheon, short sword, staff, and crossbow. Unarmed as well, of course. It would be a good way to get to know them, and to keep them sharp. They would practice on their own, in order to be ready for him.
As they approach the bar Kyri told him about, Sky notices a hesitation from Gwydion. He stops. “What is it, Sergeant?”
“The Singing Cockroach, sir? I, uh...well, I was here last night, actually.”
“Oh really? Doesn’t seem like your kind of place. Kyri said it was a real dive. Very rough.”
“It is, sir. In fact...it seems a lot quieter tonight.” He sounds concerned.
Sky turns to GC Lamore. “Constable?”
She takes a step forward. “Sir. The Cockroach...well, sir, ‘dive’ doesn’t quite cover it. Before the expansion to the new station, Sergeant Machado...Corporal Machado then, of course...gave us standing orders never to enter alone, preferably in groups of four. Even the Zeffrettis just left it alone.”
Gwydion speaks up, “Does it seem...overly quiet to you?”
She looks around the area and at the exterior of the building, then nods. “Normally there’d be shady characters hanging around the outside, making deals and cadging drinks, buying and selling banned items. And the bar itself should be a lot more active. Definitely too quiet.”
Gwydion nods to Sky. “That’s how it was last night, sir. Something’s wrong.”
Sky looks grim. “We’ll check it out. Constables, stay out here. Prevent civilians from entering.” GC Lamore salutes; after a moment, GPC Patel does as well. “Sergeant, be ready.”
Sky walks up to the door and lays a hand on it, lightly. He looks up at the broken sign, then closes his eyes, muttering a small spell. Detecting no immediate danger, he grasps the handle and opens the heavy door, then steps into the bar.
He takes in the centrally placed bar, the heavy tables, automatically calculating positions, lines of movement, looking for doors and other exits. At the cash register, the bar owner stands nervously, watching the entering Dei cops with frightened eyes. A single barmaid is serving a god fitting the description of Eater of Frogs, who is seated at a table at the far end of the room. She is just setting down a full bottle of wine and taking away an empty one. She looks at the cops with fearful eyes that appeal for help, then she moves away.
Sky notes only one other figure in the room. She would stand out even if the room were crowded, however: not only is she gorgeously statuesque, her body is clothed only in smokeless blue flames that lick across her pale skin and red hair as if she had been doused in alcohol and set alight. She is not at all bothered by this, nor do her flames seem in danger of setting afire the chair she is sitting in or the table on which she leans one elbow. She smiles, chin on fist, at Sky and Gwydion, a challenging smile, cruel. Sky recognizes it as an attempt to intimidate. He gives her a dead stare, then focuses on the scaly god at the other end of the room.
His voice rings out. “Eater of Frogs. You’re under arrest for extortion and destruction of private property. Come along quietly.”
The snake god hunches over his mug of wine and laughs hissingly, looking at Sky with hooded eyes. “Inssspector Tuma-Sssssukai! What a pleassssure. Won’t you sssshare my wine? I’ve only jussst ssssstarted another bottle. Wouldn’t want it to go to wasssste.” He raises a glass in mock toast to Sky and Gwydion, then drinks, his lipless mouth scaled black above, white below.
Sky draws his truncheon and strolls into the middle of the room, stopping to stand in a wide stance, truncheon at his side. In a bored voice, he says, “Put down the wine and come along, snake. I won’t tell you again.” Sky can feel Gwydion’s presence behind him, the prickle of magic being prepared.
Eater of Frogs tilts his mug up, drinking deeply, a little wine spilling over the corner of his mouth and trickling down the side of his throat onto his shirtless, dead-white chest. He sets down the mug and looks at the cops with amusement, the shakes his head. “No, I don’t think sssso, Insssspector. Inssstead, I think you’ll be coming with me. My bossssesss want to talk with you. Ssssset boundariessss, dissscusss who getssss to control what, in the new order.”
Sky tilts his head to one side.
“Oh come now, Inssspector! Sssssurely you didn’t think we’d cheat you out of your cut! We don’t much like accommodating rivalssss, it’ssss true, but the Guardia are the biggessssst gang in the Cccccity. We’re reassssonable people. You’ll find working with the Dukaine Organization to be highly profitable.” The god begins to refill his mug.
Sky takes one step forward and swings his truncheon, shattering mug and bottle simultaneously, the bottle exploding into shards and soaking the snake god’s satin jacket. Eater of Frogs sits frozen for a moment, dripping, hand still holding the neck of the bottle in the midst of pouring.
“Well...” Eater of Frogs says with incongruous pleasure, setting down the broken bottleneck. “I ssssuppossse it’ssss Plan B then.” He stands, knocking his chair over. At the same time, the woman in blue flames stands and moves a little closer.
“Does Plan B involve you coming along like a nice snake?” Sky asks.
“No, Insssspector. Plan B involvessss my beating you and your pretty friend until you both beg for mercccccy, ssssso everybody in this ward knowssss that the Guardia can’t protect them from the Dukainessss.” The thuggish god chuckles. “Perssssssonally, I wanted that to be Plan A, but my ssssuperiorsss inssssisssted on offering negotiation firsssst.”
In that same bored voice, Sky says, “Don’t be stupid. As it is now, you’re only going to serve a brief period of incarceration in Purgatory.” He uses the common nickname of the prison for divine criminals. “If you attempt to assault two Guardia Dei, you’ll go away a long time.” His voice becomes inflected with a dangerous rumble. “Not to mention all the damage I will personally inflict on you.”
Sky turns and glares freezingly at the flaming woman as she moves closer. “And you...leave now. I have nothing to charge you with yet, except maybe public indecency.”
In glancing toward the inspector, something catches Gwydion’s attention. “Look out!” He shouts suddenly, shoving his commanding officer in one direction while making a quick but complex gesture with his other hand, a well-practiced generalized counterspell. His target is a shadow that, Sky sees now, is unnaturally extended, having slowly stretched across the floor toward Sky’s back while he was talking with Eater of Frogs.
The spell takes effect instantly, causing the magically stretched shadow to wink out of existence, and a dark shape to appear where the shadow had been. A figure cloaked in shifting shadows stumbles, unbalanced, and falls to one knee, almost dropping a smoky, glassine blade. Without hesitation, Tuma-Sukai kicks the new opponent in the ribs, brutally, lifting the shadowy god completely off the floor to fall groaning nearly two meters away, the obsidian knife spinning away under a table.
Then Sky feels a powerful impact himself, his heavy reinforced jacket only partially absorbing Eater of Frogs’ punch to his kidney. Staggering a few steps, Sky feels a liquid burning in his side that quickly spreads. Poison? he thinks. But he didn’t penetrate the jacket. The pain slows him, and the snake god is far faster than he anyway.
With breathtaking speed, Eater of Frogs presses his attack, slamming Sky with three more massive blows, fists wreathed in an aura of poison. Right shoulder, left cheek, and mouth blaze with pain, both from impact – he can feel his cheek and upper lip split and bleeding – and magically injected venom.
“Whoo!” shouts Eater of Frogs. “Come on, Tuma-Sssssukai! It’ssss no fun if you don’t fight back!”
As he shakes his head to clear it, Sky hears a scream. He turns his head to see Gwydion embraced by the flaming woman, blue flames spreading across him. Rather than burning, the flames leave frost behind, and seem to burrow into the sergeant’s flesh. She kisses him on the mouth as he writhes in agony.
Eater of Frogs laughs. “Cast a love spell on her, Ssssergeant, you get what you dessserve!"
Taking advantage of the snake god’s distraction, Sky swings his truncheon, delivering a strong left-handed blow to the belly. Without oppressed victims to protect, or someone to assist in rebellion, Sky cannot activate most of his divine powers, but he is just as strong as Eater of Frogs, perhaps stronger. Putting his full weight into it, he sends his opponent smashing through a table and into a wall.
Then, grabbing a fallen chair, he hurls it at the burning woman’s back with all his strength, half breaking it against her. She releases Gwydion and falls, arching her back in pain. As Gwydion staggers back and falls as well, the flames enveloping him die, and reaching a hand toward her as she struggles to rise, the sergeant gasps out a single word in a language of magic that Sky recognizes: “PAIN!” Her pain momentarily, magically multiplied many times, her mouth opens in a silent scream and she collapses in an insensate heap.
As he stands, Gydion barely, instinctively dodges a sudden slicing attack from the shadowy figure whose attempt to backstab Sky he had earlier disrupted. Gwydion blocks the next knife attack, forearm to forearm, and then counterattacks with a painful stomp on the instep and a wrenching arm lock, making the shadow-wreathed figure gasp in pain and preventing the knife from being used. But the shadowy god drops the knife and catches it left-handed, forcing Dion to release his hold to block the next attack.
Sky feels a scaly grip on the back of his neck, and he is thrown to the floor. He rolls and lands on his back, getting his arms up, holding out his truncheon to fend off the attack. But Eater of Frogs is too fast, pouncing on the inspector, slapping aside the truncheon and sending it across the room, straddling his chest and seizing him by the throat with one hand while drawing back the other to punch Sky’s face once, twice, three times. Each time, more divine poison fills Sky’s veins.
Glancing to see that Dion is still occupied, Eater of Frogs looks down again at Sky and grins, his mouth full of small hooked teeth, his tongue bifurcated. “I have to compliment you, Inssspector! Mosssst godssss can’t hold up againsssst my poissson ssstrike ssssso long.” He punches Sky again, across the cheek, tearing a flap of skin loose. “You ssssshould have taken the deal! After all, we’re grateful to you! When you took out our rivalssss lasssst month, you opened the ssssslave market for a big exssssspansssion!” The god laughs and hits Sky again.
As the words register, Sky realizes he’s dealing with a slaving organization. He starts to laugh along with the snake god. Eater of Frogs stops laughing and looks at him, puzzled.
Sky slams his fists in hammer blows into the snake god’s sides, feeling the sickening crunch of ribs cracking. As his opponent hisses in pain, Sky grabs the lapels of Eater of Frogs’ jacket and jerks him to the side and down, breaking the floorboards as he smashes the ophidean deity beneath him. Holding his opponent down, getting on top, Sky looks at the others in the room with his ruined face. Through a veil of blood, he sees that the flaming woman is back up and preparing to help her partner. Sky’s gore-matted hair hardly moves as a wind smelling of the ocean blows at gale force around him, as his eyes turn the color of a black hurricane cloudbank. Tattoos blossom and writhe across his face, the backs of his hands, all his exposed skin.
“STOP!” he says in a voice that cannot be denied, any more than can a typhoon-driven flood. The two who are fighting Dion freeze in their tracks. “THIS WORM IS NOT YOUR MASTER ANY LONGER!” He gestures toward them, and the breaking of their chains of loyalty is almost audible. Suddenly, their reason for fighting at least temporarily gone, they waver.
“SUBMIT!” Sky roars. The shadow god drops the knife and kneels. The shadows disappear, revealing a small male god, head shaved, the face of a child. Dion, not knowing how long this effect will last, grabs the shadow god and slams him across a table, locking his arm behind him and slapping on a pair of silver, magical handcuffs. Then he looks up for the flaming woman, only to see her running out the door, her will strong enough to resist Sky’s command.
Dion looks at Sky, but the badly wounded god is focusing on Eater of Frogs, who is laughing again.
“You’re voiccccce doessssn’t work on me, Inssspector!” The snake god tries another lightning-quick punch, but Sky blocks it, and then another. He is visibly healing, wounds knitting together. His reserves of mana seem to be bottomless as he gathers power and sends it throughout his body, repairing it, and burning away the traces of poison.
“And your poison doesn’t work on me, snake. Weak stuff, really.” He slams a fist into his opponent’s chest, shattering his ribs and tearing his heart, knowing the snake god will just heal it, but that it will greatly reduce his mana. The scaled god convulses in pain. “You shouldn’t have told me so much.” Sky hits Eater of Frogs again, crunching more bone. “But now you’ve started, you’re going to tell me more.” Another shattering punch. “Everything you know.” Crunch. “Probably not much...” Crunch. “But...” Crunch. “Everything...” Crunch.
Sky looks down. The snake god looks like he has been run over by a wagon. Sky reaches back and takes his pair of magic-encrusted handcuffs, rolls the ragdoll god over, and almost puts the cuffs on him before Gwydion holds out a hand.
Sky looks up, confused.
Gwydion says, breathing hard, “If you...cuff him...he won’t be able to...heal. He could even...die.”
Sky grunts assent, then stands slowly. “Right. Sure.” He steps away, still holding the cuffs. “I’ll give him a minute.” He looks at the sergeant. “You all right, Dion?”
“Yeah...uh, yes. Yes sir,” Dion responds, his breath coming more under control.
Sky laughs and puts a hand on Dion’s shoulder, then takes it away, leaving a large bloody print on Dion’s jacket. “Oh...sorry about that...”
Dion glances at it and sighs. “This jacket’s been through a lot,” he mutters. Louder, he asks, “What about the one that ran away?”
Sky shakes his head. “We’ll have our hands full, taking these two to Little Falls Station. They have the right sort of cages to hold them until they can be taken to Purgatory.”
“We just let her go?”
“We’ll get her later. Don’t worry.” Sky looks down at Eater of Frogs, who has started groaning in pain. His torso looks a bit more three-dimensional than it did. “Right, I think that’s enough.”
He bends down to handcuff his prisoner.