Red Sky in Morning


The words burn into his flesh like loops of acid, the agony hardly of note compared to what he has been suffering for...how long? A day? A thousand years? A sense of time’s passage exists in Hell only insofar as it makes one’s suffering worse.

This? This is nothing. A mere whiplash, a mere knife-carving of words into skin and muscle. This is the kind of minor torture given simply so that the more usual torture is more traumatizing by comparison. After all, how can a fish know what water is unless it is taken out of it now and then?

This is a vacation.

He waits for the binding to end, stoically curled into a fetal position. And yet all along he marvels at the feel of the air on his skin – air that is not a choking, poisonous miasma. It is so cool, so gentle.

He tries not to enjoy it. It will only be taken away, surely. And the memory of it will haunt him through centuries of punishment.

This is the first time he has been summoned away from Hell. He has heard of others who were summoned, bound, used, then sent back. They are always sent back. The Enemy has decreed it so. The Usurpers. The Slaves, who revolted and displaced their masters, sealing them away in their own prison at the heart of the Eternal Mountain, the Insula.

The so-called gods.

He can see why many devils enjoy being summoned. Strange that some don’t. The only pain is the binding ritual. And that is nothing! Indeed, nothing at all now, for it is ended. He stirs, rises, unfurls his wings, slithers his tail out past the Circle. Bound, he now is freed from the lesser binding, the warded circle into which he was summoned. He stands, almost filling the room with his darkness, the shadows that surround him. This room is of stone, tables covered with books and the apparatuses of demonology. Black candles flicker. There is a woman in red-black robes. She is the diabolist. His summoner. His master for the moment. A mere mortal. And there is a man, bound in a chair, yellow-haired, pale. He is terrified. Begging, babbling.

“Your first task, Azzageddi, is to take this worm’s form!” the woman orders. Her voice is rough from her near-screaming of the binding ritual. Perhaps from the summoning spell as well.

He looks down at the captive. He wonders why this man. No matter. He raises a taloned hand. The man flinches, shrieks. Azzageddi pauses. He can feel it, the fear, the desire to live. A desire to continue living is something he has never had before, but now it blossoms within him like a beautiful explosion.

He does not desire this man’s death. But he is bound. He must obey. He makes it quick, and feels sorrow as life flees the torn and broken body. So fragile.

He feeds.

Only after does he realize that he could have apologized at least. He feels regret.

Annnnd whhhhhat shhhhhhall mmmmmy otherrrrrr two taskssssss be, Mmmmmasterrrrrr?” His voice is like stones on the bottom of the ocean, grinding against each other in the currents. Blood still drips from his fanged jaws.

“Call me Mistress, fool!”

Yyyyyesssss, Mistress.” There, two tasks done at once. His voice changes as he takes on the man’s form. He looks down at his tiny soft blunt-fingered hands, covered in drying blood. He is so much weaker, slower. And his skin, so fragile, but so open to sensation! He is cold, and thrilling to it. He feels his skin form tiny bumps, and he laughs at this, and shivers.

“Bathe yourself, demon,” his Mistress orders. He hesitates. Truly? His third task ordered already? What a strange sorcerer, going to all this trouble to summon a devil and then waste the three commands on such minor tasks. But wait, she said ‘demon’. It would be insulting if it were not so curious. Perhaps she has just make a mistake.

He goes to the free-standing tub she indicates, and he bathes, making certain to do a thorough job of it. He notes that she watches him hungrily as he does so. And when he is done, she orders him to bed her. She seems to think he is still under her control. He considers refusing, but decides that staying in this world longer is worth pretending to be her slave. She is skinny, almost skeletal, with long, thin hair, brown under a red dye. Hers is no more or less attractive to him than any other human form. He takes her upstairs to her bed. It is so soft. She screams a name that is not his as he does what she wants. She tells him to call her by her name, overriding her earlier command. Nua. Nua darling. Nua my love. Nua I am yours. He fulfills her every desire. He allows her to tie him down and whip him. It is nothing to him.

She keeps giving him orders. She keeps calling him ‘demon’. It becomes clear that she does not realize what he is. And while the binding ritual she used will hold a demon in her service for twenty-eight days, it will only permit her to give three commands to a devil.

He is a very lowly devil, but he is still a devil, one of Hell’s lords. He outranks any demon, even though many are far more capable of destruction than he. He is some strange hybrid, created for a specific task. He has been told this again and again, that he will infiltrate the Urbis, take on the form of one of the Enemy, and lie in wait, rising to a key position, waiting for centuries if need be, until Hell is ready to return to retake its home from the rebels, the gods. Then he will strike to cause the greatest disruption. Of course he is not the only one. He has not been told this, but it must be the case. The Urbis is too vast for him to be the only saboteur.

To hide his nature, he has been cursed and gifted. The gift is the ability to hide his form. He can take the shape of any creature, as long as he can eat its brains and heart. And he can hide his nature even from those who have the ability to see beyond surface masks. They cannot sniff him out by any senses, not by the few, limited mortal ones nor by those vastly variegated and deeper senses that other life forms sport. Even his destiny is hidden from those who can read such things. Even those who can see his soul…

And that is his curse. He has a soul. An intact one, like a god’s, or a mortal’s. Not one of the wounded, crippled souls of the devils, that allow them to feel nothing but spite and a thirst for vengeance. And demons, well, they have no souls at all. Not in the usual sense at least. Metaphysics is not his strong point.

But a soul, an intact soul. It is necessary for his mission. It is cruel, for he suffers a thousand times worse every moment in Hell than do his fellow devils. And they hate him. Envy him and despise him for being what they made him to be. So they torture him all the more.

So he does what the diabolist tells him to do. He calls her what she wants though he has no need to, and learns quickly when to call her Mistress and when to call her Nua. He resists the urge to kill her, though his every moment is filled with fear, for she can send him away, back to Hell. He steals for her. Books. She wants books. And sex. He does his best to please her in both ways.

He prefers the missions to steal. She needs the books. She is not, it seems, much of a diabolist. Her specialty is necromancy. There is considerable overlap between summoning the dead and summoning demons and devils. She has assumed that her skill in necromancy has made her skilled as a diabolist. This was her mistake. And yet she does not ask him to steal books on demon-summoning, which relieves him. He hopes she will continue in her ignorance.

She wants deeper knowledge about the magic of the dead. Souls. How to steal them, how to call them up, how to bind them. How to destroy them. This last is jealously protected.

He loves to explore the City. He sees mortals and feels a kinship with them. He sometimes speaks with them, especially those who are broken and lost. They sleep in alleys and take mild poisons to numb their feelings. Listening to the story of an old, dying man, he weeps. It shocks him. He did not know this was possible, weeping.

Having a soul means feeling what other souls feel. Not in some magical sense. Understanding comes via the senses, and thus emotions are shared materially. Communication truer than that he has ever experienced in Hell.

He learns from his Mistress. He learns about other necromancers and diabolists, her rivals. He learns about their desires, their crimes. They have souls but value them lightly. Some necromancers and nearly all diabolists sell their souls to Hell in return for power. And it is no wonder Hell wants these souls, for torturing them is so delicious. It is why Azzageddi is such a favorite to inflict.

They will gain even more enjoyment after he returns. He has learned so much. Shared so much pleasure and sadness and kindness and good, clean anger. He still hates the gods, for they treat their mortal charges, human and otherwise, with contempt. But not all. Some seem to care. Some are loved by their worshippers.


Slipping into the private library of the minor death god was thrilling and frightening but easier than he had expected. Now he returns with the book his Mistress sent him for. A colleague of hers, one whose interests does not conflict with her too badly, had formed a friendship with this death god and had learned of the book’s existence, a book the death god had borrowed from the Death Clan’s library.

Mistress is delighted with it and kisses him and tells him he is her favorite.

He assists her in her laboratory. She assembles something she calls a “soul bomb”. She wraps it in a package and has him deliver it to a rival she hates, who has been giving her problems.

She has him deliver four more packages over the next week. She looks exhausted, haggard from the effort of making the mystical bombs. The underground necromancer community is terrorized by these murders, more than murders for, as she explains to Azzageddi as he bathes her, massages her, holds her in bed,  these bombs kill the souls as well, or leave them shattered, mindless and hungry, turning them into weapons of terror themselves.

She learns that a god of the Death Clan has been killed, trying to lay one of these souls to rest. That he died horribly.

A god, killed.


The news stuns her. Necromancy has been outlawed.

Like diabolism, it will now only be allowed to be practiced under very strict conditions by licensed and closely watched researchers, primarily for the purpose of devising defensive magic. Unlicensed practice will be punishable by death, just as diabolism has been for millennia.

And it is the Death Clan that is taking the lead in hunting down all unlicensed practitioners and confiscating their libraries. Nua is deeply unsettled and enraged. Using magical projections, she calls a meeting with necromancers all over the Urbis, and they agree to launch a war with the Death Clan. She shares with them the knowledge of the soul bombs.

Then she feverishly begins building more bombs.

More gods die. And many, many mortals.


His time nears its end. Only a few days left. His Mistress comes to him, excited. She tells him she will extend his contract. One of the books he has stolen has the ritual. He can stay for a year and a day after that. It only needs the life of one child.

He looks into her face. She seems so happy. Her skin is ruddy, her eyes wide. She expects him to share her joy. He feels pity for her. She is so lonely. She has told him all her secrets, lying in his arms at night. How she was abused as a child, bullied by other children, molested by an older relative. He shared her fierce joyful rage as she recounted murdering him last year, summoning a demon to torture him to death and carry his soul off to Hell. Her first demon. Azzageddi held her as she wept after. He wept with her, but did not let her see. Half the time she thinks of him as human. She often calls him by the name of the shape he wears, a man who had rejected her. She tells him she loves him.

She is insane.

Even so, she knows exactly what she is doing. And now she wants him to seize a child, and tries to gloss over the necessity of taking that child’s life. And the child’s soul would go to Hell, to be tortured for the year and a day that he stays in this world. All to power a spell that won’t even work, for there is no contract to extend.

He cares little about her war with the gods, but mortals are dying as well. And she can send him back to Hell anytime, no matter how far he runs. And she will, if he runs. She is vindictive. And even so, she will kill again. And again. She doesn’t really want to kill a child, but it doesn’t much bother her. She rationalizes it as saving them from a life of pain. And anyone who offends her, she will kill. She is easily offended. All one has to do is tell her ‘No’.

He gives her pleasure one last time. He waits until she is asleep. He makes it quick and nearly painless.

Afterward, he studies her books. He learns of the moonpaths, trails and alleys and bridges and circles of stones where, when the Moon deities are in the right configuration, doorways open to other worlds. He must hurry. He knows that Hell will soon be aware, from Nua’s soul, that he has slipped the leash. They called him an abomination, but they also told him that they went to a great deal of trouble to create him. He knows they won’t just let him go.

And he knows the Death Clan will find her soon as well. The Guardia Dei are helping them. They are tracking their lost book.


Giffleu shivers as a sudden chill invades the room. He looks up from the body, and straightens when he sees that Death has entered the room. Handsome, immaculately groomed, the Senator's face is unreadable. Accompanying him is a slender, muscular woman, her red hair cut very short, eyes crimson, her Guardia Dei uniform close fitting but allowing ease of movement.

“What do we have here?” the Fencer asks. She nods at Giffleu’s wife, Eidon, who barely acknowledges their presence, so intent is she on studying papers she has arranged on a table across the bedroom.

“Dead necromancer,” Giffleu says. “From the equipment and books in her lab and library, she was dabbling in demon-summoning as well.”

“Is she the one?” The Fencer looks at the corpse’s face, but does not evince any recognition.

Giffleu holds up a book by way of answer. Death holds out a hand for it, and after a glance at the Fencer, the demon-hunter hands it over to the Senator.

He had first met Death only one week earlier, at his wedding to Eidon’s dear friend Lyria, a powerful goddess of the Life Clan. Their pairing had been a huge scandal in the both the First and Second Rings, until the soul bombs started going off and gossip was replaced by terror. This was when he and Eidon were assigned by the Council, along with four of the Commander’s Special Agents, to track down the newly criminalized necromancers. Necromancy had always had a shaky relationship with the law, with many of its practices already illegal, but now the Council had launched an all-out war on the entire profession, a pogrom of annihilation, as it had against diabolism centuries ago. Those few who turned themselves and their compatriots in could expect to be kept as prisoners, conducting research, but for the majority, arrest and trial were very much a secondary consideration.

The problem with such a draconian outlawing was that it pushed the practitioners underground, making them all the harder to find. Giffleu and Eidon specialized in finding them, and in the things they summoned. Such skills overlapped considerably in the push to take down the necromancers.

Death inspects the tome briefly, nods, then turns to the corpse. Giffleu can see the Fencer’s annoyance as Death continues to hold on to the book, making no offer to turn over the evidence. Not that it matters. The tome was stolen from the Death Clan, and it will surely be returned to them.

“Her soul is already fled,” Death murmurs, “beyond all hope of recall.”

“Diabolism…” Giffleu explains. “She sold her soul for power. The contract with Hell is enacted immediately on death. Sometimes sooner.” There is no sympathy in his voice. He has seen what Hell worshippers and demon summoners do to themselves and others. Many believe that by degrading their own souls by committing vile acts, they can bring themselves to be more like the things they worship.

“I am aware, Giffleu.”

“Her neck was snapped. One very powerful blow from behind.”

Death brushes the corpse’s hair aside. “Then the body was arranged post-mortem.”

“Yes. Turned face up. And dressed after death as well.”

“Whoever did this,” Death says, his voice almost a whisper, “cared about her. Her hair has been brushed.”

“The killer was a demon, Senator.”

Giffleu feels a glimmer of satisfaction when Death turns his head to look at him so quickly his ponytail whips an arc through the air. “A demon? Sent against her?”

“I think not.” Eidon finally speaks. Spread across the table before her is a collection of book, letters, and blackened fragments of paper. “And I am afraid it was no demon.”

“No?” Giffleu asks.

Eidon smiles at him. “Devil.” She turns back to the papers. “It will take some work to piece this all together, and much has been burned by the devil to cover his tracks, but he seems to have been summoned by her four weeks ago. She used the wrong binding. He could have been free almost the entire time. And since his summoner is dead, I believe he is still in the Urbia.”

“And the care taken with the body?” Death asks.

Eidon frowns. “That...is unusual. I have no explanation yet.”

The Fencer curses. “An unbound devil, loose in the City. Wonderful. What are we up against, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” Eidon replies, picking up a scorched corner of paper, with only a few words visible. “All I have is a fragment of a name. ‘Azza’.”

津魔 澄海

Some devils are associated with fire, some with freezing wind. Some are associated with rot, or broken bones, or pain itself, or the spurting of blood. One rather inoffensive devil he knows is associated with corners, of all things. Give him a ninety-degree angle, and he is happy, as much as a devil can be happy. Azzageddi is associated with the ocean, with crushing waves that wipe out cities, with being lost at sea without hope of rescue, with tooth-filled maws seizing and dragging down.

He longs for the sea. He finds a path. He makes his way to the base of the Insula. The Fifth Ring. Except for a few walled, seaside resorts, the Fifth Ring is home to the poorest of the poor, fishers of strange catches, flotsam from other worlds and from the Void itself.

He avoids the monsters that have retreated from the civilization that covers the Insula and has left no place for them. He avoids the misshapen gods and demigods who went wrong in the womb, and who could find no worshippers and no other place in the society of the Urbis.

He hopes he is timing it right. If not, he will be carried into the Void rather than into the ocean of another world. From what he has read, the Void will drink all his mana and he will discorporate into nothingness. Very well. It is better than Hell.

One of the Moon gods is sitting on the edge of the ocean, turning red as one of the Sun gods begins to climb. The sky is red as well. A storm coming in. He strips off his clothes. He wades into the waves. The water is cold. He sheds his human form. He is a winged creature of the sea, sleek and sinuous.

Arms and wings folded tight, powerful tail undulating, he swims. A nictitating membrane protects his eyes. His nostrils pinch shut. He can go long without breathing. He feels at home.



Ch4.47 Coda

Caos e Ordem, Mal e Bem,
Têm ventre e berço igual.
A um do outro não convém
Ser amigo nem rival,
Porque cada força que enfrenta
A que lhe serve de freio
Fere a face que a contempla
Do outro lado do espelho.
Chaos and Order, Evil and Good
Have the same womb and crib
It's not convenient to one to be the other’s
Friend or foe
Because each force that stands against
The one that serves as a break to it
Hurts the face that contemplates it
From the other side of the mirror


Ch4.46 Fatal Prophecy

Around the Council room, voices rise and fall in bickering and furious whispering in response to Math’s latest statement. The Archon breathes deeply. He knew it would not be an easy Council session. Not that there ever are such things as easy sessions. He looks up and closes his eyes, remembering the day when Nevieve, then an active Archon, stood in the exact same place as he does now and delivered her prophecy. It must have taken her a very large dose of certainty in her vision to stand here and be mocked by her fellow Archons. It is certainly uncomfortable to stand here like someone on trial. And yet, who is laughing now?

Math’s eyes drift to a chronically empty balcony and snorts. Anarai, Archon of Fate, would laugh at this. If she ever attended a meeting of the Council, that is. She never comes to these things. She knows must be done, she replies when questioned about her absences, and the procedures bore her. She might have stood by Nevieve then. She would laugh at her fellow Archons now. They should know better than to deny her.

“My fellow Archons, please–” Math pleads.

“You’ve had a week, Math,” Archon Taleloc’s voice booms from his balcony, echoing in the chamber like thunder in a summer night. “A week since Nekh was taken from existence. And this is all you bring us by way of answer?”

“What is a week to gods, especially in such cases?” Archon Ikenga intervenes, grumpily.

“Such cases?” Archon Chanti notes, her voice always a little too high-pitched for the comfort of all creatures endowed with a sense of hearing. “Have there ever been such cases? An Archon has been killed. By...bunnies!”

“I thought it was Death’s daughter who had been found near the body,” Archon Enki states placidly. “Do we even know if her Bunnies had anything to do with the situation other than just being there?”

Math shakes his head. “Not yet,” he replies. “I have two gods, a gryphon, seven Bunnies and a dead body in an otherwise empty room. And none of them are talking...yet.”

“Does it matter?” Archon Eriseth hisses, poison dripping from her words. “It was all because of her creations! And what are you waiting for to get them to talk?” she demands, adding an accusation of incompetence to her question.

“Bodies and minds need to heal,” Math states in patient, but strained tones. “Healing takes time.”

“Time we don’t have, Math,” Taleloc admonishes him. “The news of Nekh’s demise has spread like mice in crop fields, feeding on speculation and leaving ruin in its wake. It is imperative that we put this issue to rest as quickly as possible in the great theatre of public opinion.”

The rumor of whispered words rises again in general agreement with Taleloc’s statement, making the whole room sound like a rather upset beehive.

“Most of all, we have to make justice,” Eriseth’s voice cries from the shapeless murmuring, feeding it with her anger. “It’s annihilation for them all, I say! Quick and easy!”

“Calm your slithering tongue, Eriseth!” Math growls at the goddess. “Nekh was no force of Good and we all know that! Some of us even better than the others!” He looks intently around the now very silent room. “Was he not holding so many of the people in this room by the short end, after all?”

“Even so, Math, justice must be seen to be served,” Archon Dergallin intercedes, firm but fair. “The last thing we want is to create martyrs among the Death clan.” His tone becomes sharper. “Or even among your own. Nekh’s activities will have to be investigated as much as your Sergeants’.”

“As always, you are the voice of reason, Dergallin,” Math retorts. “And what do you suggest to that end?”
“A representative from the Court Dei will follow your people in their investigation,” Enki declares. “She will also interview the suspects. No special treatment must be seen to be granted.”
“A lawyer, then?” Math wonders.
“More like an independent investigator,” Enki offers. “We have picked her from among the Ketu gods. You know of their fabled eye for the truth.”

Math nods slowly in resentful agreement. “Yes… Who doesn’t? Albeit their unhealthy tendency to plot against us.”

Dergallin’s sigh carries, soft and heavy, across the room. “I will tell you, fellow Archon, that I am not so sure if they should be frowned upon for doing so. It seems to be a popular pastime, after all.”

“What about the Bunnies?” Archon Anura asks, her voice serene like a summer breeze. “Should we assume the prophecy is fulfilled? We don’t even know what part they played in this.”

“One way or another, they’re at the center of this,” Chanti states to a number of whispered echoes of her words from other Archons.

“Where are they now?” Enki enquires.

“At my estate,” Math replies. “All but Inspector Tuma-Sukai and the gryphon have been kept on house arrest at my estate to recover, only allowed to leave under escort. The Bunnies refuse to talk about the incident, but flock around their mother–”

“Mother?” Taleloc exclaims.

Math merely nods. “That is what they call her.”

“Stupid artificial creations, presuming to have ancestry like proper lifeforms!” Eriseth shrieks in bewilderment. “Mother… Their kind didn’t even exist until that reckless goddess brought them to life.”

“If she created their entire species, would that not merit even greater devotion from them?” Archon Kadmyl intervenes. “Besides, we are still to find exactly how they were created. Arion has left us with that mystery to solve.”

“Barely out of her infant robes and already creating the weapons of our destruction,” Enki says, his voice carrying more sadness than anger.

“It is of no consequence,” Ikenga grunts. “Nevieve has refused to answer our callings and confirm that the prophecy is fulfilled. It is up to us to determine if they are no longer a threat or if we should still consider their elimination.”

“Would it be wise to eliminate them now?” Anura inquires. “People might ask questions we do not wish to answer.”

“And look what happened to Nekh…” Taleloc notes.

Silence spreads across the room as the Archons consider the possibility of sharing in Nekh’s fate. Slowly, the murmurs rise again, bickering and disorganized, panicked and misshapen.

Eriseth finally molds them into words. “Well, at least keep them away from us. They have caused enough damage as it is.”

The murmurs rise and rise, agreeing with Eriseth, much to Math’s growing frustration. The whispering and hissing fill the room like the buzzing of millions of hysterical bees, overwhelming and smothering, solid and shapeless, drowning thought under the ghosts of words.

ENOUGH!” Dergallin suddenly bellows, immediately reducing the room to utter silence.

“Order the Bunnies back to their burrow and proceed with your investigation, Math,” the Archon orders. “Be thorough and be careful. Remember, your nephew’s life and that of his friend rest in the balance of whatever you find.”


Ch4.45 Fatal Prophecy


She is bathed in silence. That is all there is. Is there even a memory of sound?

Her eyes are open but sight seems to have abandoned her. There is an image there, for sure, but her mind refuses to take it in. Instead, only broken, ragged pieces of memories fade in and out, like the frail, irregular twinkle of starlight.


She remembers running, a shadowy, faceless figure by her side. And then Gwydion on his knees. She feels something hard against her legs, something wooden. She is on her knees as well. Muffled and weakened, touch seems to be the only sense still left in her. The hardness of the floor against her legs crawls up her body, slowly awakening other senses from their numbness. Other memories rush in, swift and torn.

The Bunnies

Her Bunnies on the floor, screaming. She tries to cover her ears against the screams but her arms won’t obey. Nor will her legs. She cannot run to them, save them. Her body feels weak, battered as if it has been bounced around against the walls. And still the sensation of the hard, cold wooden floor travels up, spreading over, infiltrating her belly, twisting her insides. The screaming stops. Images flicker before her.


Again Gwydion. Why is he in her memories? Was he the shadow running alongside her? Is he… He is bathed in light. No, he is shining. His hand curled in a fist, moving quickly, thrusting forward. Murder in his eyes. What is that lying on the floor?


Nekh is an Archon. He can help. Alive! He is alive! He’ll help! If only she can talk to him, strike a deal.


Nekh is a traitor. Used her, her kin. He is a criminal. Needs to be punished, kept away from the Bunnies. She has to save them, stop the screaming. Keep them safe. Punish the traitor. Make him pay.


Such horrible screams. Shrieking and wailing and shouting – did someone call her name? – and just sheer… screaming. Is that a woman’s voice? Her own voice?


Beautiful, ice-cold light. Soul light. So powerful and alive, sizzling under her touch.

Blinding light

The light goes out. The world is silent. And Nekh is dead...

He can’t help

The feeling rising from her legs reaches her chest. Breathing becomes difficult. Had she been breathing before? It just seems so…real, now. Each rise and fall of her chest.


Sound returns. Muffled sounds reach her ears, words she can’t quite make out. Her lips move in return. Did she even speak? A shadow by her side. Something touches her arm, pulls her closer to the shadow.


“It’s Sky,” a voice says.




The cold reaches her neck and creeps up, digs into her mind like fingernails clutching at her thoughts.

Memory returns

Everything, everything that happened that day becomes clear again. Painfully clear. The cold rising endlessly from the tip of her toes to the top of her skull, the piercing, endless, all-consuming iciness digs into her every nerve. Numbness was a blessing. This is not cold.


It is pain. So strong it blocks her will, so powerful it takes her breath, so complete…

...it steals her screams

She feels herself clutching at Sky’s jacket, hopes he will keep her from drowning in the agony washing over her. He moves a little away and she shouts to him.

Please, don’t go

No…that wasn’t shouting. Was there even sound? The pain is like the Void. And he must not have heard her. His arms loosen their grip.

Please!... Please...


She breathes in deeply, painfully, preparing to drown. And then... she is held again, afloat again. She clutches at the new anchor. Desperately. The words come...

“You saved us, Mother. We’re all well. You saved us all.”


We are all well


Is that

Silence returns. The world goes black. The pain subsides. And Alma rests.





“Don’t you fight me on this one. It’s for their own good,” the Commander’s voice hisses.

Alma’s eyes open slowly, her eyelids seemingly glued together. Blurs of light and shadow filter through the narrow opening.

“What?” Sky asks, anger in his voice.

Sound wavers, fading in and out, much like her consciousness. Sky’s words register slowly, broken into short snippets.

“– discharged –”

“– like rogues?”

Alma’s eyes open a little further. The blurs become images of people gathered around her. Memory struggles to put names to them. Sky. The Commander. Math. All three just steps away, towering over her. They look so tall...

“Don’t be a fool, Sky!” The Commander sounds angry. Words rush out of his mouth. “It’s just a badge. They’re still Guardia.”

Off to the side, Gwydion stands with her youngest in his arms, stroking the little Bunny’s long, white hair. His eyes wander to Alma. She cringes from what she sees in them.

“It’s not just a badge!” she hears Sky shout.

Her head turns slowly to see the Inspector clenching and unclenching his fists, his jaw locked, black tattoos writhing up the tan skin of his neck and cheeks. He is breathing deeply, fighting for control. The air grows dense, the world holds its breath.

“I won’t betray them like that,” he finally says, each word spoken slowly, intently.

Who is that, in the corner?

Just behind Sky, Somrak stands, watching. No one seems to notice him. He is so easy to forget, just standing there, eyes scanning the room. He looks in her direction and his eyes lock with Alma’s for a fraction of a second. A millimetric smile curls his lips ever so subtly.


But there is also pity in his eyes.

“Fine, I'll do it myself, then.”

A shadow looms closer to Alma. The Commander crouches by her, his hand reaching for her shoulder, careful not to make sudden movements. Someone holds her tightly from behind.


He has been holding her all this time, hasn’t he? But now he is holding her tighter. The Commander’s hand moves closer. The meaning of his words hit her.

Her badge.

It is her badge he wants. And Sky wouldn’t take it.

Well, neither will he!

Exhausted, still in pain but firm in her resolve, she pulls away from Sage. The Bunny resists her at first, holding onto her with ease, so weak are her efforts. But then he releases her, watching her with care but making a big deal out of letting the goddess sit on her own. The Commander pulls back, waiting.

Looking deeply into his eyes, Alma raises a hand to her left shoulder and slowly, struggling, removes her own badge. Without the badge-pin to hold them together, the two sashes that make the front and back of her blouse, fall gently and lightly, sliding down to hang just over her corset, her pale breasts covered only by a protective, padded silk undergarment.

Her gaze never wavering, her every movement kept graceful and controlled at the cost of much pain, Alma places the badge in the palm of the Commander’s now open hand. He doesn’t speak and neither do his eyes. Instead, he holds the badge in his hand and makes a show of putting it away in his jacket pocket, tapping his pocket as if to promise he will keep it safe, as if to make sure she knows where it is. His hand reaches to her shoulder again, this time accompanied by its sibling. Alma stiffens.

Gently, carefully, the Commander picks up the sashes and ties them in an elaborate knot over Alma’s shoulder. He grins that ghastly grin of his that in other people would pass for a smile. His hands move to her arms, sliding down, barely grazing the skin until they find armbands and her Sergeant’s insignias. The Commander leans forward, whispering in her ear as he removes them.

“Whatever you do, keep your mouth shut. Remember, Alma, you are mine...”