Writing Prompt ~~ The Devil is in the Details

Music: release (A Tale of Outer Suburbia) by Hands Like Houses

I scowled at the small, plain wooden box sitting so innocently on the cheap, round kitchen table. Though plain might be a bit of a misnomer, maybe unadorned was better. It had only a bronze hook latch to keep the lid closed, and the wood appeared as though someone had fanned orange-red flames across unfinished wood and then froze them in place with varnish. I’d been told it was made from elder wood, but I hadn’t been concerned with the box. It’s what was in the box that drew my ire.

“That was not part of our agreement,” I said, the distaste in my words as heavy in the air as an impending storm. I then turned the same narrowed eyes to the ‘man’ across from me, and the corners of my mouth turned down in a sneer.

He wasn’t anything remarkable. In fact, he had a face and demeanor that the average passerby would gloss over and forget about almost the same instant they saw him. As though their eyes simply slid over him. Nothing stuck out as memorable, which had raised my suspicions all the more when I first caught sight of him almost nine years ago in the bookstore where I worked.

Everyone had something that caught a person’s eye to catalogue them: scars, birthmarks, mannerisms, body types, markings, smell, and so on. But this man was almost so bland he was invisible. It would have raised my hackles if I’d had them. I guess being half-Fae meant I was lucky I hadn’t been born with hackles. Human and Fae genetics could do some terribly interesting things at times.

He tilted his head, considering me, and his eyes that were some shade in-between brown and hazel searched my face for what I guessed was some small crack in my façade. I held my silence. One of the first things I’d learned when living with my ‘father’ was that it was far more difficult to find yourself in trouble if you held your tongue. It was a lesson I needed to be taught only once, and the scars that littered my back were a daily reminder for caution and quiet observation.

So, we both sat there in cumbersome silence waiting for the other to break. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the endless patience that celestial and immortal beings were capable of, and after my clock ticked to ten minutes of nothing I broke.

“Why exactly are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked and smoothed my features into a bored, indifferent mask. I did it not only to stave off my headache before it could become a migraine, but also because it never paid to show a veritable god that you were curious. Maybe satisfaction brought a curious cat back, but I’d never been tempted to test the limits of just how much ‘immortality’ I’d inherited from dear ol’ dad.

“Do you not want it back?” he asked, curious.

My scowl was back quicker than someone could snap their fingers. I was fortunate he wasn’t from my pantheon, or else the reaction would leave me as nothing more than a splotch of gore in my unfortunately decorated kitchen. The 70s were not kind in regards to such things, and no, calling it retro didn’t make it any less regrettable. But cheap was cheap, and this was what I could afford.

Of course, his position outside my kind’s usual avenue of worship was why I’d wound up in this delicate situation in the first place.

“I think my continued existence in the world of the living is enough of a reason to never want it back, actually,” I replied scathingly.

“But you’d have your magic back,” he offered calmly, and not responding to my irritation. He was still watching me for something, some reaction.

I scoffed, leaned back in my chair, and took a sip of my rapidly cooling tea. My mind was tumbling through precisely why that was the first reason he thought I’d want it back. I’d lived just fine for nearly a decade without it.

“Magic isn’t everything,” I said, finally deciding on a nonchalant response, and shrugged my shoulders to support the words.

“Maybe, but you would have been able to help your friend,” he said.

The words weren’t cruel, per say, but they had the same impact as a car wreck. It knocked all the wind from me and brought my thoughts to a screeching halt. My chest ached with the weight of grief, and the responsibility of a ruined life hung heavy on my conscience.

I closed my eyes against the sharp pain that stabbed through my heart when her face floated into view. There’d been so much blood, and though I’d learned long ago to not let such a thing bother me, it was the fact that it was her blood. Half-Fae were tougher than humans by a large stretch, but we could still be injured a hell of a lot easier than full-blooded Fae. It took immense torture, a twisted purpose and will, and/or a weapon enchanted with the express purpose to kill their kind to have an effect on them. I’d watched one Fae who was hit fully by a semi-truck on a highway walk away with nothing more than a bad temper at the ‘inconvenience’.

So when Seirian showed up on my doorstep out of the blue utterly mangled, her usually kind smile gone beneath a mask of gore, I’d rushed her to the closest approximation of a healer I knew. Unfortunately, not all magics are compatible, and the hardiness of the Fae meant she healed faster than Aubert could fix things. As a result, with her Fae magic fighting his shamanic power, the best he could accomplish was the minimize the scarring. Seirian was now the only Fae I knew confined to a wheelchair.

Of course, if I’d had my healing powers I could have healed her far more effectively, and likely almost back to perfect. On the flip side of that, using my powers would have drawn the Hunters I’d been avoiding for nearing two decades right to my location. They thought I’d been merely suppressing my powers, and not that I’d managed to finagle a deal with a Devil. Not necessarily the Devil, though I wasn’t sure I’d know the difference unless he told me. Devil was just a broad classification of upper-level demons, the same way Fae covered a lot of ground in terms of beings originating from the British Isles.

At any rate, since magic is tied so closely with the soul my power disappeared into the box along with it. That ‘plain’ box was the only thing standing between me and a faction of supremely cheesed off beings that wanted nothing more than to see me flayed alive. At best.

I opened my eyes to meet his gaze once more. As though someone had pulled the plug on my emotions everything drained away, leaving me with an emptiness I hadn’t experienced since we’d removed my soul.

“Wishes and what-ifs are as substantial as pixie farts, Karroth. Risking my neck now won’t heal Seirian and would only result in ushering in my demise. So, I ask again: why are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked, my voice hoarse from unshed tears.

Something rippled beneath Karroth’s skin, and his eyes flashed with the catastrophic hellfire that pervaded his realm. It was a sobering reminder that, while I may not be a being of his pantheon, he was more than capable of killing me with the barest of thoughts with or without my powers to defend myself. It would be like a gnat picking a fight with a dragon.

“We need your assistance in getting through a ward to retrieve something that was stolen from us, Gwyneira Nic Trahaearn, lesser daughter of the Tylwyth Teg, and we would have your cooperation in exchange for sanctuary,” Karroth said formally and with Power behind the words, capital ‘P’ and all.

And when he said my name, despite the fact that all of my essence was set behind the highest wards the Devils possessed, it still rung my very being like clapper of large bell. It made every cell in my body hum, and for a moment it disrupted the bindings that held my glamour together.

There is power in knowing the Name of a thing, and though my human blood could disrupt some of said power, it did not cancel it out completely. As a sentient being, my Name didn’t lend someone control over me, but it made it impossible to not reveal my true self if they put their own Power behind Naming me. There are a few ways to see the true form of a Fae, and this was one.

Karroth’s eyes widened for a moment, as he’d never taken liberty with my Name or pushed my glamour aside. Therefore, he’d never seen what I truly looked like. Of course, it wasn’t every day that Devils and Fae crossed paths.

My glamour skills were a sight better than some of the snootier, higher-level Fae, because they reveled in flaunting their forms. I, however, was trying to not attract attention. The image I presented to the world with my magic was a woman with average looks, bordering plain, butterscotch blond hair that fell in waves to my mid-back, pale skin that was more suited to a redhead, and cornflower blue eyes.

What I truly looked like, though, wasn’t too terribly far off from the glamour, and I had the famed and fancied pale coloring of my people. Glamour works best when you don’t deviate too far from the original, though. The one thing that was always the most difficult to adjust was my hair, which was white as the driven snow, but the same length. Not being higher nobility meant I was already pushing the limits with how long my hair was now. Of course, I wasn’t exactly waltzing through the courts, so the danger level wasn’t too high. If they caught me, the length of my hair would be the least of my transgressions.

My eyes were normally a liquid cobalt blue that shimmered iridescent in the light, and my skin was so pale it was almost translucent at times. High cheekbones and delicate bone structure belied the innate strength that came with being Fae. Unfortunately, the glamour couldn’t help me with keeping said strength in check. I’d learned to be cautious after freaking out a co-worker when I’d overestimated lifting a large box of books and launched it across the room.

The real issue came with the glowing. My father’s people tended to glow with their power and emotions like wicked deadly lightbulbs. It wasn’t an all the time thing, but when strong emotions took us over or we were using our powers it tended to happen. I hadn’t had to worry about that since the removal of my soul, but I was glowing now. It likely had to do with Karroth using my Name, and how it may have tapped into some level of power in my very cells that went beyond what was in my soul.

I pushed my shoulders back and tilted my chin up to look down my nose at the Devil.

“You sure know how to flatter a lady by mentioning her lowly position with her people. Have you divested yourself of your kind’s famed silver tongue? Or am I simply lucky enough to be in the presence of the one Devil with less tact than a human?” I asked caustically.

I wasn’t the most devious of my kind; I couldn’t think a thousand moves ahead and I had no head for politics or sensing out ulterior motives. I was, however, enough in my right mind to try and buy time by playing on etiquette. He’d insulted me, and until such a thing was redressed I had time to think of a few questions and settle myself.

His eyes flashed with that inner fire again, my renowned peevish behavior finally scratching the surface of his calm façade. His apology was stilted, and only marginally genuine, but I inclined my head in acceptance. I didn’t have enough magical or political clout to do anything but accede anyway.

My glamour had finally settled back down and flowed back over my person like water filling an allotted space, smoothing over the surface. I let out a sigh at the familiar, almost imperceptible weight of it. To be exposed in such a way was disconcerting, to say the least, as though I suddenly found myself naked in front of him. That particular thought sent blood rushing to my face, and unfortunately the glamour didn’t conceal that.

Karroth raised an inquiring eyebrow, but I ignored him and cleared my throat.

“This sounds less like a favor and more like subtle demand. Why do you need me to get beyond this ward? You far outstrip me where power is concerned,” I noted, and watched his expression flash through varying emotions before settling into a rueful grin. Why such a sight had alarm bells clamoring in my brain and my instincts screaming like a banshee, I couldn’t say. The smile was pleasant enough, but there was something lurking beneath the surface that didn’t sit well with me on some level I couldn’t identify.

“I told them you wouldn’t just blindly want your soul back. They aren’t used to people who give up their souls for reasons other than greed and power,” Karroth said. Though his grin faded, amusement still danced in his eyes, like the flickering flame of a candle.

I snorted in disbelief and shook my head. “Cowardice isn’t a much better reason,” I pointed out.

“Is it truly cowardice to recognize when you are outmatched and take appropriate steps to ensure your survival?” he asked, continuing the vein of her observations. It was almost like he didn’t want to talk about why he was there, either. Or at least not directly.

“Some have pointed out I could have simply rolled over and faced my death like the nobility in my blood demanded.”

It was Karroth’s turn to snort. “As though any of them would sacrifice their own self-preservation to do the same.”

I tilted my head in assent. “You’re not wrong.” I paused, and took a moment to consider his words, ‘and we would have your cooperation.’ Pretty words with a very strong suggestion toward giving them what they wanted. Yes, he’d offered me sanctuary with the Devils, but, in a way, I was already halfway there by not being in possession of my soul. Was taking that step worth the risk of putting myself out in the open? Not to mention sanctuary and protection were two different animals. It was like the difference between a nice fence and a pack of guard dogs. Or a prison.

I grimaced in my thoughts only. There’s no telling what sanctuary meant to them. It could mean setting up wards on my house, person, place of work, and so on. Or it could mean they’d take me to one of their dimensions and I’d be trapped there. Forever. There wasn’t enough benefit to me to take the chance.

“Your offer is a most gracious one, Karroth, but regretfully I must decline at this time,” I said, using my ‘court polite,’ voice.

Karroth’s face remained calm, but his eyes gave the barest of twitches at my change in tone and answer. I wanted to point out he was the one to get all formal first, but I refrained. He was not pleased.

“We believed the offer of sanctuary to be a generous one,” he said, leaving the question hanging in the air. What about the offer was not satisfactory?

I wanted to sigh. “As I said, most gracious. However, I find myself wondering about a fair few things in regards to this agreement,” I said, tone only mildly curious, and leaving my own question on the air. May I ask questions?

The smallest spark lit his eyes, like an ember swirling from a campfire; the smallest flare and then gone. He nodded.

“First: what does sanctuary mean in my particular case in relation to the Devils?” I asked, trying to cover as much ground as possible while also being specific. If I had only asked, ‘What does sanctuary mean?’, he could rightly give me a quote out of the dictionary which might not cover what they considered sanctuary, and what it mean for me.

This time it was the corner of his mouth that tugged upward just a hair. “We would welcome you to our court,” he said, voice almost purring, as though the idea intrigued him in some way.

For me, though, it froze my insides and a stab of shock went straight through my heart. My eyes widened involuntarily, and my breath hitched. “While I would be most honored,” I said, my voice on the edge of stuttering, “such an accommodation would not be compatible with how I would like to live at this current time.”

For a moment he said nothing, and then his smile pulled a little higher. “That is unfortunate,” he said, mournfully, despite his unperturbed expression. “Our counter-offer is to place wards on your home.”

“That wouldn’t do me any good once I left,” I pointed out.

He shrugged. “It is a compromise. You have been offered full sanctuary on our terms, or partial on yours,” he said dispassionately.

I bit my lip, but knew he wasn’t going to budge on that. “What about an offer of protection for when I’m outside my home?”

He tilted his head in consideration. “What form of protection would you consider adequate?”

“Considering we’d be dealing with the higher Fae, like my father,” I said slowly, trying to think of what rank of demon wouldn’t be considered too high, or too low. “I’d wager nothing short of a Knight or sentinel, or two, would be sufficient.”

His eyebrows rose slowly. “You must think rather highly of yourself.”

I laughed, but it was a humorless sound, and brittle as thin ice. “I am no catch, Karroth. However, I have flouted not only a court full of easily pissed off Fae nobility, but also a Queen when I killed the first Hunter she sent after me. It is not for me that I ask for such power in protection. It’s for the poor, soulless demon, so that they’ll be of a sufficient power to protect us both, or at the very least themselves.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the phantom pains from my encounter racing along my nerves like ghosts of agony past. “Anything less would be asking for a slaughter,” I finished, my voice hoarse.

After a few moments of silence, I looked up at Karroth, and he was watching me thoughtfully. “As you say.”

It was neither an agreement or a denial. Guess I’d just have to wait and see, though I was still not considering taking it back. They still weren’t offering me anything to sway my decision.

“Even if both provisions were met—wards and a guard—I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, watching Karroth as I spoke. I didn’t trust the Devil for anything beyond our original deal: him keeping and using the power in my soul as he saw fit, and his discretion on keeping our arrangement and my current whereabouts to himself. The thought of what he might be using my soul for made something in my gut curl and twist, but there was nothing for it. There had been no other way.

“Don’t you want to know what it is you’re going to help us get before I…sweeten the pot, so to speak?” he asked.

He paused just before saying the last, and I narrowed my eyes at the hesitation. I wasn’t sure what his offer was, but it didn’t sound like something I’d actually like. It made the whole situation more suspicious than it already was.

“Fine,” I conceded, going with his suggestion. “What is it you and the Devils are trying to get back?”

“Cerridwen’s Cauldron, or rather, the Cauldron all leaders of the Underworld had a right to, until She took it for herself,” Karroth said, the latter half of his statement an aloud musing.

The world itself seemingly drew in a deep, shocked breath and froze at the former half of his words, and when it released everything shattered.

“What?!” I screeched, standing so suddenly that my chair toppled backward. “Are you insane?” I hissed, all polite pretense pulled away like ripping off a band aid.

“I suppose that depends on your point of view, but for the purpose of this discussion, no, I am not insane,” he replied, still calm.

Well, now his earlier reticence about telling me anything made sense. I wanted to shake him, maybe scratch his eyeballs out, just something violent to break the tranquility of his demeanor. Instead, because I valued having my lungs remain in my chest instead of being ripped out because I attacked the Devil, I settled for clenching my fists uselessly at my sides.

Of all the things I expected him to say, that particular one wasn’t even in the same universe as any of the others that had rattled around in my mind.

The Cauldron held the power of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth, and Cerridwen was a Dark Goddess of many who called the British Isles home. And I meant Goddess with an upper-case ‘G’. There were little gods, goddesses, and demi-gods running around, but Cerridwen was a Power. As far as I knew she was the rightful owner of the Cauldron. I’d never even heard speculation it wasn’t hers, even among those outside her pantheon and worshippers. If I thought I was in a bad place with the courts of Fae, the wrath of a Goddess was nothing in comparison. It was pure, unadulterated suicide.

“You’re joking, right? Pulling one over on me?” I asked, breathless and foolishly hopeful. Karroth wasn’t a prankster, and he rarely ever joked in such a manner. He might tease me to make me uncomfortable, but this was well beyond that.

“I cannot say that I am. She has long kept the Cauldron to herself, thinking it could buoy her powers as her following in this world waned. The Cauldron was never meant to remain in the power of one Power of the Underworld for so long. It is one of the anchors in our realm, and it was high time it was returned to Cynosium, before the damage is irreparable,” he said, his voice going low and determined.

Cynosium was the middle realm of the Underworld, like the center of a starburst design with the various Underworlds as the points at the end of the beams radiating outward. Outside of that I didn’t know much about it, as I’d never had cause to. I made it my life’s mission, quite literally, to not visit or involve myself in the matters of the Beyond and Below.

“I don’t know how I can help with that…” I started weakly, and then my mind snapped to one of my father’s rants after I’d failed spectacularly at ingratiating myself to his Queen during one of her balls.

You are nothing more than an aberration on our vaunted family tree. How one such as you could be descended from our Dark Mother, I will never know. I thought it would be enough to cleanse your vile human taint, but apparently I miscalculated,’ he’d sneered.

It was that night, when the coldness of his gaze let me know I’d outlived any potential usefulness he’d planned for me, that I made my escape. I took nothing from my room, just found what I considered my most normal-looking clothing, dressed, and slipped out of the faery mound. I’d been a reverse changeling; instead of a Fae leaving a Faery child with humans, I was a half-Fae left at the entrance of the mound after my father’s unfortunate tumble with a human. Which was a story I’d been beaten within an inch of my life for asking about. I still didn’t know the circumstances.

As for the rest of what he said…Cerridwen was also known as the Dark Mother among the Fae, and I sucked in a breath at the realization.

“You need something from me, but not me,” I said, my knees going weak. I kept a tight grip on the table to hold myself up.

Karroth nodded, and for the first time I saw something stir in his expression that lent credence to the stories of Devils. Their utterly devious and cruel nature. A slow smile crept over his face, and it was not nice in any way, shape, or form. It was very much what I imagined a goblin looked like when it came across an unsuspecting fairy and had it for a snack. Predatory.

“Those of Cerridwen’s line aren’t plentiful, and almost never leave the mounds. Even when they do, it’s only every few hundred years, if that, and never alone. They would never allow themselves to be captured, and we needed someone alive to get what we needed.” He paused here, and his gaze sharpened on me. “And then along came a half-Fae, Hunters on her heels, and desperate for a normal life. Someone with the blood of Cerridwen in her veins. Though it is weakened by your human side and seeming to get more so each day you are without your soul, it is still there. A spark of that power is what we need to get past her wards.”

As he’d continued talking, he’d leaned forward until maybe half a foot separated us, his eyes looking up into mine where I still stood. I was not an incredibly tall person, so his face wasn’t all that far from mine. I swallowed hard but couldn’t move.

“I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.

His smile went sharp and rueful again. “I had hoped you would simply go along, maybe in some gesture of defiance to your father’s people, but I should have known your fear ran far too deep.” He snapped his fingers, the sound cracking on the air almost like a whip. “Remember: this was not how I wished to go about this, but I have no choice,” he said, his voice low, but not really sounding very sorry at all.

“Everything before a ‘but’ statement is a lie,” I said, offhand.

“Perhaps,” he mused, and the sound of the front door opening and closing set my nerves on edge.

“Who…?”

Then she was there, moving her wheelchair into the kitchen, and I couldn’t breathe.

“Hello, Gwynnie,” she said, her voice soft and alluring, the accent lilting and rolling the words from her mouth like a tumbling stream.

I finally sucked in a breath past the tightness of my throat. “Hello, Seirian,” I said, barely choking the words out.

There was an air of resigned melancholy about her, like a haze diminishing her old, exuberant nature. Her usual emerald green eyes that sparkled like dew on fresh spring leaves, were instead dull. Her smile was small and sad, her skin an unhealthy pallor instead of shining white like moonlight. Her hair, which was more a shimmering platinum than white like mine, was pulled back in a ponytail. She’d told me after she healed, it made it easier to hide some of the scars on her scalp. Because, oh yes, scars littered her body like a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers.

Yet, she didn’t hate me for what happened, even though it was our friendship that had the Queen and my father destroying her life. Terrible did not even begin to describe what I felt over it. I wanted to crawl under a rock, curl into a ball, and die the slow death I deserved.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” I asked, though the part of my mind that wasn’t riddled by guilt had already started working through that.

“The Cauldron, Gwynnie, it can heal me,” she said simply, and made a small gesture to the Devil. “Karroth approached me about persuading you go along with this. However, I would never ask you to do something to put yourself at risk. I’m just glad I got to see you again, since you’ve been avoiding me. And I know that you would never let something silly like guilt get between our friendship,” she said wryly.

I saw her smile widen a fraction just before I cast my eyes down to the floor in shame. I didn’t think it possible, but her words made me feel even worse.

“You should be furious at me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“I could never be angry at my one and only friend,” Seirian said.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears I’d promised her I wouldn’t cry anymore. Seirian wasn’t a noble, in fact she’d been my servant at court, but I counted her as a friend and treated her as an equal. Which only made my father even more furious at me. That list was a long one.

“I-“

“I swear to the gods, if you say you’re sorry one more time I’ll learn to walk again just to beat the snot out of you,” she said cheerfully.

My head snapped up to look at her, and despite her tone it didn’t reach her eyes. She may not be mad at me as I thought she should be, but she wasn’t happy. Seirian was a being of cheer and light. She deserved to be dancing in the dappled sun of a forest floor in a piece of forest unseen by human eyes. Instead, she was here, in a city, dying the slow death of a Fae kept too long among humans and their modern technology and pollution.

I took a small, faltering step forward and reached out for her hand. When she reached forward and took mine in hers, her gasp was sharp in contrast to my slow, rattling exhale. Fae were touchy-feely creatures, and to have gone so long without touching one of our own, even a simple touch like this one, was a painful reminder of what we were lacking.

Our natural magics danced over each other’s skin, though mine much more muted than hers.

“Oh, Gwynnie, you feel like you’re on death’s doorstep,” she said in a choked whisper, voice bordering on horror. “Why would you do this to yourself?”

My small huff of a laugh was self-deprecating and bitter like the dandelions little Fae loved to eat.

“Like death, eh? What was the better choice, then? A slow, painless death over the centuries of torture they likely have planned for me?” I asked. Not meaning to sound as harsh as I had, but it was still there.

Some part of me had known being separated from my soul had the potential to kill me eventually. The changes over the last nine years or so had been gradual, creeping things. Until, one day, I realized everything around me had become muted: colors were subdued, food was ash, smells muted, music flat, and there was no feeling anything through the haze. I could still experience the range of emotions, but it was all on the surface—nothing pierced too deep. Except fear, it seemed.

Seirian’s hand gave mine a little squeeze. “We can do this Gwynnie. We have to, for the both of us,” she said, her eyes searching mine.

“At worst, maybe if we try this our deaths will be quick,” I joked.

Seirian raised a single eyebrow, letting me know she did not appreciate my dark humor.

“So, will I be able to report a favorable outcome to my masters?” Karroth asked.

He’d been quiet during the entire exchange, and I turned my gaze to him. His posture, words, and expression were the very definition of neutral, but there was that fire behind his eyes again.

My options were not fantastic. I could choose a slow death from lack of a soul, slowly fading out of existence, and keeping my friend crippled. I could do this, and then they’d slaughter us sooner or later. Maybe Seirian would survive, but she had a bad habit of trying to defend me, so she’d likely die, too. Of course, we might succeed, and that was the rub. Hope was as deadly, or more so, than despair.

I had no doubts that, given my blood and access to the Cauldron, they might have a decent chance at wresting it from Cerridwen. I just wasn’t optimistic on my chances as collateral damage. Because, if the Devils pulled this off, they would surely know I was involved. As Karroth pointed out, coming across this opportunity was rare, and rare circumstances were easy to pinpoint.

I sighed. “Fine.”

Seirian’s grin was the biggest I’d seen it since before her maiming, and even Karroth seemed to be genuinely excited about my answer.

“So, just how are we going about this convoluted form of suicide?” I asked, trying for humorous.

Seirian, buoyed by the light at the end of the tunnel of her injuries, took her hand from mine and wagged a scolding finger at me. Telling me to stop being so fatalistic.

Karroth, on the other hand, simply cleared his throat once she was done and started detailing the plan, because that’s where one of the Devils’ deadliest power lay: in the details.

Writing Prompt ~~ Of Fire and Rage

The lake was still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining taking the first step. Then the cracking of the ice like a whip cutting the air. He shivered, the phantom sensations of frigid water washing over him, swallowing him down. Inhaling water. Sinking. Drowning.

It had been a day where anything seemed possible, just as every day with her had been, and just as quick as Hope had taken root in his soul, She’d ripped it to shreds.

Though the lake whispered sweet nothings to him like the lover he’d just lost, his feet remained firmly on the shore. The snow crunched beneath his black combat boots each time he shifted his weight, and the cold seeped into every last inch of him with icy, grasping fingers. He didn’t shiver. In fact, anyone looking on might believe he was at ease, admiring the lake. The only sign of tension was out of sight: his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.

That, and the blood.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been covered with it, though he wished such things had been left in his past where they belonged. But he’d let his guard down and this was the price. He sighed, and turned his face upward to lock onto to the Heavens above, containing thousands of stars, a full moon, and darkness between them all that didn’t hold a candle to the cold dark that consumed his soul. His crystalline blue eyes were flat and dull.

“For over a thousand years I have served you,” he said, the edge of his voice ragged. “Why?” he asked, the word ripped from the rawness of what remained of his soul.

No answer. There never was. He growled, and ran a hand over his blood-spattered, bone white hair.

“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I’d never want to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I love you.” A weak smile lovingly graced her lips, and she brushed an errant lock of his hair from his forehead. Then her smile faltered, her usually warm, caramel eyes slid to a distant point over his left shoulder, and her arm fell to the floor of the cabin. She was gone.

He clutched her tighter to him, his face buried in her shoulder and hair. Even over the multitude of death scents hanging heavy on the air—blood, bowels, burned flesh, and more—he could still smell her. Vanilla, cinnamon, and apples. She’d joked that it probably had nothing to do with what she actually smelled like, and more his insatiable sweet tooth in regards to baked goods.

He’d run his hands through the thick, wavy, golden brown locks each chance he had, and this would be the last. He didn’t even care that said hair was covered in blood. The already drying, tacky fluid on the strands left trails of it on his face, as though someone had raked their claws across it.

He didn’t move for some time, and though his muscles screamed and cramped he refused to break the moment. To leave her. Eventually, though, he did. The only signs of his grief were the clear tracks of skin cutting through the red.

He hadn’t been able to leave her there, amidst the bodies and scattered bits of demon decorating what was left of the main room like gory confetti. But when he’d broken the shovel on his first thrust trying to penetrate the frozen ground, he fell back on the old ways.

Unlike creatures from other realms or dimensions, demons were bound to the earth and did not disappear on death. It was messy business, killing demons, even more so covering the evidence up. The human idea of what they thought their world was versus what is was, was tenuous and fragile. Humans tended to react rather violently at any disturbance in regards to their concept of their world. He could only be glad that his training in the early years happened when telling someone you were hunting demons got you praise, instead of a ‘go straight to the institution’ ticket.

The cottage burned brightly enough that someone might have wagered that white phosphorus had been thrown into the one-room structure, but that wasn’t the case. Lower-level and construct demons—demons created from the blood and/or flesh of more powerful demon—had highly flammable blood. It was not uncommon for larger demons to scoop up a handful, eviscerate them, set them on fire, and then lob them at opposing forces.

He grimaced as one particularly gruesome battle surfaced in his mind. A village, a hot summer, lots of straw, thatched-roof huts, and a horde of construct demons.

After setting the cottage ablaze, which would surely attract the local authorities no matter how remote their location, he moved back over to her cairn. Though he knew it was an abuse of powers, he could not bring himself to care. They could take his power, for all the good it’d done him, and shove it up their self-righteous asses. He’d used the hot, white light that burned deep within his core to carve out a footstone. The cairn itself overlooked the lake, and he would have done better for her if the fight had not taken so much out of him.

 

Emily Grace Farwell

25 December 2017

“Hope is seeing light in spite of being
surrounded by darkness”

 

“You were my light,” he rasped, his throat protesting the abuse it’d received between the yelling and smoke inhalation.

He looked to the sky once more and scowled. “I might not have been your most well-behaved soldier, but no one deserved this. Were you trying to teach me I didn’t belong here? Well, bang-up job.” He ground the words out from between clenched teeth.

When he turned his eyes back down to the cairn, his glower softened for a moment before snapping back in full force.

“Damn you, Emily! I told you how dangerous it was to be with me, but you never listen. You let optimism and hope guide you, and it set you on the path to your grave.” He shook his head. “I know I’m to blame for this, and you could have had so much—“

“God, you were always pathetic,” a female voice interrupted him, the tone half exasperated and half disgusted.

His frown deepened and his lip curled into sneer. He turned around and took in the figure near the tree line. She was tall, her body hard, lean, and scarred from countless battles. Their uniform had received upgrades over the centuries, evolving with military trends. They currently sported cargo pants, long-sleeved, lightweight tactical combat shirts, combat boots, and armor that consisted of a vest as well as pieces that covered just about anything but their joints. A deviation from the conventional might be their magical shielding that channeled their inner power through the plating, as well as gorgets and inner-thigh plating to discourage werewolves, vampires, and anything else that might want to gain access to a major artery for a snack or quick kill. While a solider in the desert had to worry about IEDs, their brand of combat was more concerned with not having your throat torn open by something with fangs. The material was magically enhanced to be just about anything one could hope for: lightweight, temperature-controlled, flexible, and nigh indestructible. Of course, they never did seem to get away from the red color scheme, which was as dark as a full-bodied red wine like Syrah.

Her platinum white hair was cropped nearly as short as his. Flint grey eyes matched the brittle laugh she let out at his regard, and it sounded as though it was sharp enough to make the air bleed.

The one thing she was not carrying was her sword, which sent a shock through him that trembled down to his very core. No one went anywhere without their weapon. Ever. Even within their stronghold, no one was ever to be unarmed. It was as good as him looking at her naked, which still didn’t even begin to cover how weird it was, since he knew she showered with the damn thing strapped to her back.

“Sabrael,” he greeted, tone cautious. His snarling anger had drained away in the face of her…bareness.

Her eyes narrowed, but a small, vicious smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “I told Them it would get even your temperamental attention, Desh.”

Tadeshiel—Desh—scoffed. “Considering it’s almost like you’re flitting around missing a limb, I’d say so,” he replied scathingly.

“Is that how you’ve felt the last three years?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered him.

Her words jabbed at him like tiny knives in his weakest spots. “That’s not your business,” he hissed, and spat the words at her like venom.

“So that’s a yes,” she said brightly, and ignored his growling in favor of examining her nails. “No one believed you’d last this long, and especially not the human, what with her being as fragile as they are.” She tilted her head to the cairn.

“Also none of your business,” he said, tone low and warning.

It was her turn to scoff. “Not my business? You mean when my partner abandons the Order we’ve been a part of for over a thousand years, and then taking up with a human no less—”

“I—”

But she overrode him, “—after everyone told him, over and over that it was a bad idea, even by those who had been through the exact same situation? But no, it’s none of my business when the High and Mighty Tadeshiel, He Who is Perfect in Every Way, Slayer of Armies, Possessor of the Thickest Skull in the History of—”

“None of those are my proper titles—”

“—the Order, One Who Knows Better than All, up and abandons us—me!—in the middle of the biggest battle, during the biggest war we’ve had in centuries. That doesn’t concern me?” Her voice had reached a fever pitch with her final word. Her eyes bled from their usual grey to molten gold as her power rose with her anger.

In the face of Desh’s numb silence, she continued.

“Do you realize what you put everyone through when you laid your sword down? I can’t even begin to recount the ramifications, since we were in the middle of a battle and one of our Imperial Legates walked away!”

Still, he said nothing.

“I don’t even know why they sent me out here to speak with you,” she said, her disgust almost palpable on the air like slime. “You’re nothing but a co—”

“I watched him die!” Desh shouted, his chest heaving witht he sudden onslaught of emotions Sabrael’s presence had evoked.

Sabrael’s expression was one of bewilderment. “Who…?”

Desh ran a hand through his hair. He’d done that a lot today. “Douma.”

She raised a single brow. “Douma?”

Desh blew out a sigh and nodded.

“The…healer?” she questioned, not quite able to place the name. To be fair, she had her own legions to oversee, so the fact she could even come close to the mark was impressive. Though, she’d always had a knack for memorizing troop names, faces, and abilities so could put them in a weird ranking system in her mind as to their usefulness. Also, it made punishments easier when she could identify all her troops on sight. He couldn’t figure out how she did it.

“Yes,” Desh said, exasperated. “The healer. He was…newer to our ranks. Under 100. Bright kid.”

Sabrael pursed her lips into a thin line at the mention of the healer’s age. “That’s practically a toddler.” After a small pause, though, she sighed. “Desh, we die all the time. I mean, not as often as the demons, mind you,” she said, and a ghost of a smile played over his lips. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do.”

Desh growled again. “I know that. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he died, it was more how everyone behaved after it.”

A mop of curly black hair, a lopsided, dimpled smile, and eyes that Desh realized now were so close in shade to Emily’s it made his chest ache. The demons had exercised their evil tendencies to the upmost of their ability when they came across the tent of injured warriors. Though immunes were trained in combat, they were caught unawares. None survived.

Desh walked into the small clearing where his immunes used to be, his eyes searching for one face in particular. When he found him, body cut nearly in two as it covered an injured warrior, there was no question in Desh’s mind that Douma had tried to protect the injured with his own life.

‘He was probably waiting for you to show up and save the day,’ a voice had whispered in his mind. A cruel thought from the darkest recess of his mind, and one that had repeated like a mantra since that moment, slowing wearing away at his sanity.

He’d tried to regroup and secure the area, but what he saw on the faces of his soldiers made his gut twist: knotted eyebrows, narrowed eyes, curled lips and wrinkled noses. Disgust. Whether it was at the situation, him, or both, Desh didn’t know. They didn’t want to expend forces to secure a clearing of dead bodies, despite the fact that each of them had been saved by the immunes at one point or another.

It didn’t matter that, logically, the commander in him knew they were correct. All he could think about was the young man who spoke with such passion about being an immune, he’d nearly put Desh’s eye out as he moved his hands with his words. Between the sight of Douma giving his last breath to save his patient, and failing, and what Desh saw on the faces of his soldiers, he was done. Desh looked into each and every face around him for some flicker of guilt or remorse, but when none was forthcoming he drew his sword. Leveling his coldest sneer at the lot of them, he thrust his sword into the blood-soaked earth, turned on his heel, and left everything he’d known for a thousand years.

Now here he was. Douma and Emily were dead, and all he had gained was a seething, thick pool of bitterness and grief weighing on his soul.

She was quiet in the face of his prolonged silence, but tilted her head to let him continue. Feelings and such weren’t really her area of expertise or comfort, but she did care about keeping her mission success rate as close to perfect as possible. She was ruthless and efficient; she applied pressure and words expertly to achieve the desired results and emotions, even if she didn’t completely understand said emotions herself. This contributed to her high success rate, and she’d be damned if Desh was going to try and screw that up—again.

They were opposites in just about every way, but their opposition complemented each other, which is why their legions always worked closely together. Where he was compassionate, she was merciless. Her pragmatism tempered his idealism, and while they were both intelligent, she was shrewder in tactical thinking while Desh was more perceptive with the emotional element. Sabrael was authoritative in her command, while Desh was participative.

And that was where the problem came in.

When he said nothing more, she scowled. “You got too emotionally attached to one of your subordinates, and when everyone else didn’t stop in the middle of a battle and sob along with you, you took it upon yourself to just abandon us?”

He could understand how she might perceive it that way, but… “Douma was young, exceptionally talented, and proud to serve, but none of that mattered to them. Some of Malgareth’s forces managed to break the line close to where the non-combatants were positioned. I had told Tearny, the Prime Immunes, to move camp earlier in the day, but he argued that many of the gravely wounded could not be moved.” His voice went soft at the last part, because that had been his first mistake, borne from his compassion.

Sabrael honed in on it like a bird of prey on a field mouse. “So instead of moving everyone else save the gravely wounded, whose chance of living was less than everyone else around them, you let your subordinate play on your kindness. Instead a handful being slaughtered they wiped out your Immunes, including this Douma,” she finished.

As she spoke, his demeanor shrank in on itself as her words beat him about his head and heart, making him small and frail. There was a howling in the back of his mind, like a storm ready to break upon the shore of his sanity.

“I revise my previous statement: you’re a coward and an idiot.”

He snapped. In his fight with the demons that took Emily’s life, he’d known his physical abilities had deteriorated over the three years he’d been away. Chopping wood was not an equal replacement for near-constant battle training. However, when he flashed across the clearing to attack Sabrael, he realized just how far he’d fallen.

Construct demons were pathetic, and the only advantage they usually had were numbers. That’s what happened with Emily. That and the fact she was human and fragile, and all he had were his personal magics and no sword. Sabrael, on the other hand, was not a construct demon. She’d always been top of just about every class they took, and she relished hand-to-hand combatives.

Sabrael turned, his fist missing her face. She grabbed his arm, continued his momentum with a slight adjustment, and her power flared. Her strength easily tripled with the surge of energy, and the trees surrounding the clearing never stood a chance.

Sabrael flashed to the impact crater past half a mile of splintered evergreens. He was dazed, and the disturbed snow of the trees created a slight haze and drifted slowly to resettle on the land. Though he’d recover quickly, it wasn’t quick enough if he needed to defend himself from her if she decided to go on the offensive. So when her face appeared in his field of vision, he stiffened. A thrill of terror sped through him like rabbits being flushed from their burrow, and his mind scrambled to clamp down on the dread threatening to overwhelm him. She was smiling. Sabrael only smiled when she was going to kill or heavily maim something.

“I—” he spluttered, trying to find the words, willing his body to cooperate.

“I feel better now, don’t you?” she crooned.

His eyes widened.

“Now,” she said, her tone deadly calm and smile sickly sweet, “I read the after battle reports, which were as painful to procure as it would be to drink incaendium piss—” Desh flinched at that glorious imagery, “—because fully half of both our forces were slaughtered. All because you decided to let personal guilt outweigh your duty and responsibility to your people. Not mine, not the Order’s, yours,” she said, the last word hissing and full of contempt.

“Sabr—”

She kicked him in the ribs. It might not have looked like much, but the cracking that reverberated through his body followed on its heels by searing pain and an inability to breathe begged to differ.

“I’m not finished. It’s rude to interrupt,” she said, voice calm again.

When he finally managed to drag in a breath, he coughed, and could not fully breathe in. His chest was tight, and his vision started to darken around the edges. Sabrael rolled her eyes and leaned over. He tried to move away, but she dug her finger painfully into the spot she’d kicked and he writhed in response. As her power moved through his body, it was as though someone had poured molten metal through his veins. His back arched and his fingers curled with the need to claw at something.

He’d forgotten how much healing hurt, especially coming from someone as unsuited to it as Sabrael. Yes, any of them could heal, but with a lack of a healer’s precision and temperament, it was like cutting off a limb to cure a broken bone. It worked…sort of. The only reason Desh could stand it was the fact they were of a similar potential strength. If she tried this with someone further down the respective ladder than them, they could die from the shock.

When she removed her finger, and along with it her power, he sagged back into his crater. His consciousness and body were floating in the wake of so much foreign power running rampant through his body.

“Drink this, or you’ll be useless for the next day,” a voice said, the words floating like dandelion fluff through his mind.

Something cool and hard pressed into his lips, but when he didn’t open his mouth the voice scoffed with disgust and forced it open. The liquid that hit the back of his throat was refreshing and cool like a mountain stream, followed closely on its heels with what felt like lightning dancing over his nerves. Desh gasped, and then coughed when some of the potion went down the wrong way.

When he’d relearned how to breath, he opened a bleary eye. Desh didn’t know how long he lay there, out of his mind, but when he came to Sabrael was sitting on a stump, her chin propped in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were back to their usual grey, her power having receded to just below the surface.

Given what Desh knew of Sabrael, he wasn’t sure if staying silent or speaking would contribute to his continued existence. As she watched him like a bug she was deciding whether or not to crush, Desh took a chance.

“Why are you here, Sabrael?” The words came out roughly, reflecting his weariness like a mirror.

She simply continued to look at him for a moment, not answering. Just as he started to say something else, she spoke.

“We want you back.”

The words froze his insides as though he’d actually plunged into the lake as he had imagined earlier.

“No.” It was a knee-jerk, instant response. The word hadn’t finished forming in his mind before it flew from his lips.

She raised a single eyebrow, the one on the right that was bisected by one of her many scars.

“Wallowing in self-pity for three years isn’t enough?” she asked, scathingly.

Desh scowled. “I just buried someone I loved, and you want me to jump back into the fray?”

Sabrael snorted and shook her head. “As if they’d put you in charge again after what you pulled? No.” She paused and cast a sly glance his way. “Despite the mess you left, I managed to beat back the demon horde, and as a result I earned a shiny new promotion. My record has never been better. We recently won a major battle and they offered me a reward. I chose you.” She shrugged.

Desh’s eyes bulged. “But you said They sent you to talk to me—”

“I lied to make you angry,” she said, cutting him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand as well as her words. She scanned the surrounding area. “And it worked. It broke the tension you were holding like a taut bowstring, and made you stop and listen because I could beat the wings off you right now. Now, do I have your attention?”

He quieted but held his glare. She’d manipulated him, and easily at that. He gave her a grudging nod, his teeth gritted against lashing out with words, and his fists clenched, because using those had proven equally as useless.

“Good,” she said, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “As I said, you were my reward.” She paused again and sniffed, looking down her nose at him. “Though maybe not a good one. This was my one chance to bring you back into the fold with minimal fuss, because they want to keep me happy and winning battles.”

“I still don’t see how this benefits me. I don’t want to go back,” he said, grumpy and dare he think it, even pouting a bit? He didn’t like to lose, and Sabrael had him at a distinct disadvantage.

She huffed out an annoyed breath. “If you’d shut up, I’m not finished,” she snapped.

Desh shut his mouth accordingly, though he still didn’t lose the scowl.

“I knew you’d need an incentive, but I haven’t gotten there yet. First, I want you to hear my terms, and if they are agreeable to you then I’ll tell you why I think you’ll jump at the chance of coming back. Okay?” she asked. She stood up then, hand going to her hips as she gazed down at him in his pathetic state. She knew he just needed a little push.

He didn’t like it, but she was going about this in a very fair way for him, but instead of being relieved, it made him all the more suspicious. Instead of luring him with the incentive, and then forcing him to give into her demands, she was giving him the chance to hear her demands, decide if he could handle them, and then walk away if he couldn’t.

It stank as bad as day-old fish left baking in a high summer heat…

“Fine,” he snapped back.

…but something niggled at the back of his brain, driving him forward.

“Good, now these are my demands…”

She droned on for the better part of fifteen minutes, outlining what would and would not be expected of him. It came down to the fact that Sabrael found herself rather displeased with the combat teachers, stating all the good ones had died, retired, or joined the fight on the battlefields. She was wroth about the whole situation, and the lack of proficient teachers was producing sub-par subordinates. This simply would not do.

She offered him an instructor position, but he’d hold no power—not even allowed the usual authority of a magister. She would assign him someone to dole out punishments and rewards and assist him in any way she deemed necessary. He’d be an old wolf with no fangs, teaching the young pups how to be a proper wolf. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

If she had concerns about his pride getting in the way of having no power while she held it all, then he could definitely say no one had been watching him the last three years. They’d written him off, just as he’d wanted. That being said, it was hard to get upset over hurt pride when you had none anymore.

“Okay,” he said quietly, “those aren’t the worst terms given what I did. They are agreeable, and fair.”

Her eyes went a little wide, and it made him smile. He’d surprised her, and it was an interesting, yet somewhat gratifying, feeling.

“Just like that?” she asked, incredulous.

Desh nodded. “Just like that. Now spill, and tell me why you think I’ll come back, even with such a kind offer,” he said, though he couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice. Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or on Earth would get him to go back…

“Malgareth is back.”

…except maybe that.

Eyes blacker than the void, heartless as a force of nature, curved horns, and a cold smirk danced in his vision, which had gone an alarming shade of crimson. A casual and cruel taunt on the battlefield, suggesting that he should check on his immunes instead of wasting time losing a fight with him.

He closed his eyes, and his body shook with the force of the rage that howled through him like a tornado of fire and fury. Desh was glad he was still laying on the ground. He wasn’t sure he could have kept his feet in the face of that revelation in combination with his recent healing.

When he opened his eyes again, Sabrael’s face was split with a feral, pleased grin at the expression she saw on his face. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and narrowed his gaze on her.

“When can we leave?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Song Inspiration: Demons by Jacob Lee

Potato Chip Prompt ~~ For Love

Looking back, it could have gone either way. It didn’t work out, which makes it look like fate, or a stupid decision, or both. But at the time I did have a few things in my favor. I had the backing of the King, which is a heady position to be in. I had a solid plan, solid people, the timing was right, and I had insider knowledge from someone who’d been through this ritual before. Everything was perfect, and with all things magic that should have been the first warning sign that something wasn’t right.

My intentions, to me, were for the greater good. Immortality? No more sickness, death, or hunger? Who would not want that? Of course, hindsight is a lens through which we can analyze the past and speculate where we went wrong. As it stood now, I can only lament the gravity of my actions from the eternal torment those around me and I now suffered.

How was I to know, at the time, the spirit I summoned to guide me through the summoning of the dead and immortality ritual was really a daemon? Or that he would take over my body in a moment of doubt? Could something done for love really be that bad, no matter the outcome?

Those are all just excuses, though, are they not? As the dead run rampant across the kingdom, those not killed at their skeletal hands were captured and tortured by the army of daemons who came through the portal. The portal itself was not open for long, but they were ready on the other side because of my stupidity and arrogance.

Now I cowered in the remnants of my broken soul, having fled from the sight of my undead wife. Her hatred of me burned in her eyes, because her soul had been ripped from the summerlands and ensconced in a half-rotted body.

I would be mad at me, too.

Maybe thinking it could have gone either way was how I consoled myself as the daemon raked its talons through my soul like a cougar sharpening its claws on a tree.

My wife had died of the wasting sickness, and I poured over the books in the old library trying to find the spell I had heard of in legends. A spell to raise the dead. The head sorcerer of the order said I was wasting my time. He was probably just trying to keep me away from something that had, obviously, turned out to be dangerous and beyond my ability.

Through research and countless hours I’d discovered a name, and a simple spirit summoning. Painless, and nearly first level difficulty. Then, after gaining my trust and stringing me along, it spoke of an immortality ritual. A one-two combination to conquer death.

The daemon showed me there were always fates worse than death. Or even a thousand deaths.

On the other hand, the daemon promised I would live forever. In everlasting agony, of course, but forever nonetheless.

Potato Chip Prompt ~~ Keep Going

The yellow lines on the highway sped by in a blue, and we flew through the night, and we felt free. But we weren’t, and we knew it. We were running from something, and running away was never the path to freedom. I thought about telling John to turn back. I thought about suggesting he leave me, and save himself. He might do the latter, since I’d forced my company on him, but he would never do the former.

“The Master will be furious,” I said in a whisper, barely even able to say that much out loud.

At first, John said nothing. He concentrated harder on the highway than the empty stretch of road really needed; either gathering his thoughts or avoiding them altogether.

“You forced me to take you along, and in doing so agreed to my terms. If you won’t go through with it you can get out of the truck, but I’m not going back.” He growled the last part.

I bit my lip, trying to keep down the fear welling inside. He made no mention if I would be alive if or when I got out of the truck. Dead men tell no tales, and such.

The life of a regular slave and a fight slave were as alike as a river and an ocean: similar, but vastly different. There was no love lost between the two kinds, but as our paths intermingled like deltas of the aforementioned bodies of water, we did our best to not make each other miserable. Most of us.

The demons in charge did that well enough on their own.

There were different types of fighting circles to cater to the desires of the demonic: human, non-human, and a bloody mix of the two. Last, but not least, there was a circle purely for disgraced demons. Like ‘John’.

He’d done something to piss off some higher ranking demon hundreds of years before I was born, and was thus thrown into the fighting pits. When he’d taken the opportunity to escape, I had demanded to go along.

“So?” he asked.

His hands gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white from the pressure, and it caused the ghostly scars that littered them like corpses piled over one another to disappear. We’d stolen the truck, because car theft was more difficult to track than John’s demonic teleportation. They also couldn’t summon him, because when he was thrown into the pits they’d flayed his personal summoning symbol from his shoulder. That way a human couldn’t accidentally help him escape.

A sharp pain followed by the coppery taste of blood filled my mouth. I’d bitten too hard. My lip throbbed and I licked the pooled blood before it spilled down to my chin. Running away might not bring true freedom, but sure as the Hell we were running from, we could try.

“Keep going,” I said, the words breathless and out of my mouth before I could stop them.

He nodded, and drove on.

Writing Prompt: Satisfied Customer

It wasn’t Grace’s usual kind of place. Her eyes cut judgmental swaths through the smoky interior of the bar, narrowing on the various ‘lowlifes’ scattered about like dry, dead leaves. Like the woman in the corner with scraggly grey hair, whose eyes were as dead as the fish in Grace’s local market. Or one of the men at the end of the bar, hunched over his beer as though a demon was coaxing his soul from him, one sip at a time.

She pursed her lips and gave a disdainful sniff, though regretted it immediately as an amalgamation of sour odors invaded her delicate nose. Her sea green eyes watered, and she coughed to try and remove the pungent flavor at the back of her throat.

“In or out, lady,” a rough voice grumbled not far from the door, the leather-clad biker squinting against the late afternoon sun streaming in behind the newcomer.

She jumped, but moved to comply, her steps small and faltering. As she made her way to the bar, her navy blue sailor pants, and blue and white striped, long-sleeve shirt were as out of place as her expertly styled, cream soda brown hair. Her white scarpin shoes hit the wooden floor with tentative thunks, and when she finally made it to the surprisingly clean bar top, a soft voice greeted her.

“What’ll ya have, doll?” a man asked, emerging from the murky shadows at the far end of the bar.

His hair was a soft black, with piercing, summer sky blue eyes. A perpetual smile quirked the corner of his mouth, and when he finally flashed a friendly smile, it was worthy of an orthodontia commercial.

Clutching her handmade bag in front of her, she slid onto a bar stool, flinching inwardly at what might be on the seat, but thankful she wore dark pants. While the bartender was a sight, her breath caught at what was mounted on the wall behind him: a gold vein antique mirror. It was large, and set in an ornate, gilded frame. Like her, it didn’t belong in such a seedy bar, but it was also like her in that it was broken. A spiderweb of cracks radiated from the center, throwing back a broken image; just like her heart.

“I heard…” she started, not wanting to sound foolish, and unsure of what exactly she was asking.

“Yes?” he prompted her.

“I heard you could help me with a broken heart,” she said, quick and under her breath. It was one of those things you hear about through the grapevine: a friend of a friend knew a second cousin twice removed whose best friend had come here for help. Or something like that. It was a rumor, not taken seriously except by those who believed in superstitions, or were dull of mind. It was probably just a place where druggies discovered trendy new narcotics. She wasn’t the drug-using type, but anything to dull the pain was welcome at this point; alcohol did nothing for her anymore.

His smile sharpened and turned hungry, like a predator spotting prey. “Is that so?”

“Y-yes,” she stuttered, her usual self-assured demeanor splintering.

“There is a price, of course.”

“I have money,” she said, moving to open her handmade purse.

“We don’t deal in money here, doll,” he said. “We exchange something a little more…eternal.”

She swallowed. All her instincts screamed at her to leave–to turn, run, and never look back. But her heart, shattered to more pieces than there were grains of sand, bade her stay. She couldn’t live with the pain any longer.

“Anything.”

The man nodded, still grinning, and put a hand under the bar. In the distance, a faint buzzing sounded for a moment. Not long after, a girl clattered down a narrow staircase, coming from the upstairs above the bar. She was disheveled, and her movements sluggish, as though she were about to melt languidly to the floor. When she lifted her head, her eyes were nothing but pupil peeking between strands of greasy, ginger spice hair.

“Come here, love,” the man crooned, crooking a finger at the girl.

A slow, dreamy smile spread across her face, and she fell into the man’s arms, snuggling against his chest. He let her stay there for a moment, then pulled her away, to arm’s length. His smile never changed as he moved one hand, faster than Grace could see. The next moment, the girl’s eyes had widened, and there was a gaping hole in her chest. Blood poured from the wound, unrestrained, like a dam letting loose. With her heart in his hand, he let the girl drop unceremoniously to the floor, like garbage.

Grace let out a strangled noise, and toppled the stool when she backed away from the bar. She glanced around wildly, but nobody else had moved, or acted like they even noticed what just happened. She’d dropped her purse to hold her hands out in front of her, to ward off the bartender.

“I–I–” she stuttered, not able to form a coherent thought, let alone sentence.

“Don’t worry, doll. This won’t hurt a bit,” he whispered near her ear, appearing there out of nowhere.

She jerked forward, but his arm caught her around the waist. At his touch, her body grew heavy, and she couldn’t move. Her head fell backward to rest on his shoulder, unable to support itself.

“What did you think was used to mend a broken heart, but another heart. Like patching jeans,” he said, matter-of-fact, as though they weren’t speaking of organs.

In her peripheral, the hand with the heart rose toward her chest. She tried to struggle free, scream–anything. It was to no avail, however, and he pressed the girl’s heart into Grace’s chest. Heat, like from a bonfire, flared through her, and scorching places she didn’t even know could feel such pain. Then it was gone, and her lungs filled  as she gasped for air, and life returned to her limbs. She stumbled away from the man, and her shaky hand ran over her sternum, where not even a single drop of blood had fallen. Had that really happened?

“What the hell?” she screeched, and rounded on the man.

“Precisely,” he said from behind her, magically back behind the bar.

She jumped in surprise and turned back again.

“Wha–”

“How do you feel?” he asked, interrupting her.

“What?! What a ridiculous question! I–”

“Not about that,” he said, waving a dismissive hand toward the dead girl. “How does your no longer broken heart feel?”

She stopped, her mouth hanging open, and realized she felt fine. In fact, better than fine. Her depression was gone, replaced by the old fire in her soul, before she’d given it over to that cheating scum. Purpose, drive, and a liveliness filled her to bursting. Despite the gruesome scene, she laughed, full of joy and pride; more like her usual self.

Grace picked up her fallen handbag, and placed her hands on her hips. She looked the bartender straight in the eye, and smiled. “I feel fantastic.”

“Excellent. I always love a satisfied customer.”

“About the price,” she started.

The bartender leaned against the bar. “Yes, the price.” He looked her over, and tapped his long, spider-like finger against his chin. “We’ll say twenty years.”

“Twenty years?”

“Yes, in twenty years I’ll collect my price. Until then, enjoy,” he said, and gave a small bow.

“What’s the price?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know, given the dead girl on the floor.

“Oh, nothing as gruesome as that. In fact,” he said, and held up a finger, “I’m sure it’s something you won’t miss. Have a nice life, doll.”

Grace wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of him, but whatever the price, she was sure her vast wealth would cover it. He’d said something more eternal, so maybe he meant her investments.  Either way, money talks to everyone–eventually.

“You, too,” she said, and spun on her heel.

She walked out the door, and glanced back only once to the dingy sign above the door: The Crossroads. It was barely visible under the dirt and grime of never being washed, and no one on the sidewalk paid any attention to seedy, hole-in-the-wall bar. Grace straightened her shoulders, and with a spring in her step went about her day.

Inside the bar, the bartender shook his head. “Not even a thank you. Typical human.” Then his eyes ranged over the patrons, and each one shuddered under his scrutiny. “Someone clean this up,” he barked, kicking the girl out of his way.

The burly biker scrambled to obey, while the bartender turned to face the mirror Grace had admired. He stroked a finger over the surface, and it rippled, as though he’d run his finger across a still pond. An eerie blue glow emanated from the reflecting glass, and between the cracks faces appeared. Young and old, men and women; the captured souls spanned the ages. They screamed, though no sound could be heard, and the demon gazed longingly into their tortured faces.

“Yes, another satisfied customer, indeed.”

The Trouble with Gods, Final Chapter

Final Chapter

We fell hard into the meld, and even here in our most intimate place, we were still one. Kairon hit the ground and remained in a heap, groaning. As we’d gone down through the link, the energy was ripped from him like deboning a fish. It left his flesh limp, and his skin sagging like an empty potato sack.

At least a potato sack is useful.

We walked over to his body and kicked him over to face upward. His eyes were open and staring, but they flicked over to us momentarily before he rolled back away and staggered to his feet.

“What have you done?” he screeched at us, his fingers trembling over the skin hanging from his face like jowls on a fat hog.

“We took back what was ours,” we said, and clenched our fist against the renewed power coursing through our limbs.

Still, he’d forged some kind of conduit between us, and there was a pull on our combined powers from him. It was weak, but gaining strength. We yanked back on it, like pulling on a rope. He fell forward onto his knees, and steadied himself with a hand on the ground. Where he touched came away coated in the oily taint. Our lip curled.

Most of the power came back, but some of it remained. Tiny threads of power he weaved together to try and form something cohesive he could work with.

We couldn’t give him the chance.

It’s time. 

We closed our eyes, and lifted a hand in the air above our heads, palm up.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his voice rising a couple of octaves.

We didn’t answer him the first time. Taking the shield down wouldn’t be easy, and we needed to concentrate. The energy to repel the Demon and Hood had soaked into the very ground. Trying to remove it was going to be like trying to pull out a weed with a deep taproot, and peeling it back would be the equivalent of skinning an animal without a knife.

At the first tug against the shield, Kairon managed to stagger to his feet. Though our eyes were closed, his movements through the meld sent ripples outward, and the small waves lapped against us.

“No!”

He lurched forward. We placed to other hand outward, palm toward him. He was new to the meld, so he didn’t have the control we did. We’d never had to shield within the meld, and we wouldn’t have known how to, if not for Kairon. A barrier snapped up between him and us, and he ran into it face first. It only stopped him for a moment before he pounded against it with both fists. It chipped away at our energy, bit by bit, and we needed to hurry this along before he could stop us.

The shield pulled, like the strap of a slingshot, and if we didn’t keep going until it snapped it would just spring back into position. Just as Kairon raised a fist to break through the weakened internal shield, the one outside shattered into thousands of iridescent shards, falling like glittering rain to the vision in our minds eye.

Kairon let out a scream of rage, and surged upward from the meld.

He was running.

We followed close on his heels, and staggered when we were thrown back into our physical body with such force it jolted us. Kairon was on the ground, his physical body matching the manifestation in the meld. When he turned his face up to look at us, fury burned within his eyes like that of a city fire out of control.

“You wretched, pathetic excuse for a god!”

He moved to grab us, just as he’d done before the meld, but we had no energy to withstand his assault. Before he could reach us, the Devourer, Shinkuma, pounced and landed on his back like a boulder. It flattened Kairon with a great whumph of air, and the creature growled low in his throat at the disgraced god.

“The time of your reckoning is at hand. The corruption is so thick on you, I could smell it through the shield. Shinkuma will feast today,” the Demon said.

Hood was nowhere to be found, and my heart tripped along at what that could mean.

Then the Demon whispered something to the Devourer in a language we couldn’t understand.

As the creature reared back to dive at Kairon’s throat, it’s head snapped to the side and it leapt backward, just in time to avoid Babaga landing over top of Kairon. Her hair belly rubbed along him, and I shuddered.

“Now, now, child, let not your beast run wild. This little morsel will be mine, not to return unto the divine,” she said, and cackled at the angry Demon.

Yet, he didn’t fight her, or try to deny her Kairon. Neither did he give her permission.

Kairon tried to crawl away, but she planted a long, spindly spider leg in the small of his back, pinning him to the ground.

“Time to die, little snake.” Then she reached down, grabbed Kairon by the hair, and lifted.

He was too weak to fight, though his eyes shone, silently pleading with us. We said nothing, and made no motion to stop Babaga.

She swallowed him in three gulps.

Her lower belly bulged, and moved for a minute, or two, during which we all watched in disgusted fascination. Finally, the movement stopped, and she sighed. She lowered her gaze to meet ours.

“If you do not wish to die, let the feather float, and fly,” she said, then giggled and jumped away, disappearing from sight behind the shrine in one go.

“I will not have my pet go home hungry,” the Demon growled.

Our head jerked to the right, facing the Demon, who we noticed for the first time was covered in a multitude of wounds. As was the Devourer, waiting for its master’s command to kill us.

The feather!

Bash’s voice range out from within, and we looked down to our belt. Despite merging all five of us together, it was still there. The soft glow made hope swell within us. We grabbed it, and threw it into the wind. It remained there for a moment, before turning into a small, brilliant spear, and hurtling back to where we’d last seen Hood.

The Demon whispered the same command as before, and Shinkuma jumped at us. Before he could reach us, however, he was struck down a golden, fiery fist, and landed in an unconscious heap at the Demon’s feet.

“Their fate is not in thy hands, Demon,” Hood said, appearing between us and the angry entity.

“They have touched, and been touched in turn by the corruption.” The Demon growled the words, doing a fair imitation of the Devourer.

“If they were tainted, they would not have been able to touch, or use, the feather to calleth on mine own aid.”

“I will tolerate, barely, the interference from a Fallen, but not from one such as you, Zadkiel.” The Demon spat. “You took my name, and made me what I am.”

“Thy actions were increasingly erratic, and vengeful. ‘Tis is not our place to judge. We protect the gods, until they prove useful only for a Devourer’s gullet, or need assistance returning to the Celestial.”

Devourers for the corrupt, and mercy killings for the crazy.

Or we simply fade. Mother’s voice whispered, sorrowful and soft as a wind stirring a tree over a child’s grave.

The Demon turned to us and weighed Hood’s words. “If you are wrong and they return to the Celestial, they will taint the energy, and destroy It. Better to be safe than sorry.” He pulled out his sword, and took a step forward.

Hood’s sword also appeared, but he held it loose in his grip.

“They fade even now, Brother. I swear on mine own name they art pure, and if I’m wrong may I Fall in disgrace.” Then Hood’s sword vanished.

As if Hood slapped him, the Demon took a step back. It was only another second of hesitation before the Demon’s sword disappeared, too.

Hood turned to us. “Whither Kairon was greedy, and walked from the true path of a god willingly, the Demon had been drawn down a path made from his own misconceptions. The price was steep, but so were the stakes. We could not alloweth him harm viable gods meant to return to the Celestial. His name was taketh from him, and he became a Demon. The job is important, but not one most willingly choose,” Hood admitted.

“I–” he started, then had to swallow. “–did what I thought was best. I was confident I knew better than the Collective. I’m still angry,” he admitted, and grit his teeth, “but you all were not wrong to do as you did.”

I suspected this was the closest the two of the beings would ever get to an apology. To each other, and us.

We can give him a name, Spud said.

We all considered his words incredulously, as the Demon was just willing to murder us in cold blood.

He was simply doing his job, Spud insisted. Let us do this final act with the rest of our energy. 

We sighed. He wasn’t wrong. It was there, now that Kairon was dead; we could use our power as gods and give him a name.

We moved forward, and Hood and the Demon froze. The Devourer, finally coming to, growled, uncertain. The Demon hushed him with a small, cutting gesture with his hand.When we were right in front of him, we motioned for him to lean over.When he did so, his hair fell forward in a shining sheet.

We put a finger to his forehead, and willed the remainder of our energy to go to him. “Your name was taken from you, and rightly so. But here, today, you stayed your hand when you could have killed us, all because you have faith in your Brother. Your new name is Besim.” As we made the pronouncement, the accumulation of energy we’d gathered released, and the Demon–Besim’s–eyes widened.

“Thank you,” he whispered, as we removed our finger, now translucent. “You didn’t have to do that.”

We shrugged. “We wanted to do one, final good deed before we were gone.” Then we turned to Hood, and smiled sadly. “Make sure the kids are okay?” we requested.

He nodded. “It will be done.”

“Though you’ve given me a name, by my own choice I will not return to the Collective. However, I will continue my work, though with more discretion, and honor the great gift you’ve given me this day,” Besim said, and smiled.

Then everything went hazy, or we did, and then there was nothing but warmth, light, and a sensation of completeness.

*********=

Eero wandered the grounds of Haven, kicking at pebbles. The flashes of light in the sky, and all the destruction of the city weeks ago had left the children anxious and uneasy. Then, when the fiery man returned but the others hadn’t, Eero and the others had cried for days.

The man reassured them that Jolly, Bash, Dare, Spud, and Mother had given their godhood to protect them, but it was little comfort on the long, dark nights. His parting gift, at the gods of Haven’s final request, was a permanent shield to protect the children.

“Time for dinner,” Coye said softly from behind Eero.

He balled his little hands into fists, and lowered his head, refusing to move. He couldn’t cry anymore tears. In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to cry again, he’d done it so much over the last few days.

“Not hungry,” he said, sullen and angry.

“You have to eat, Eero,” she insisted.

“Don’t want to eat. Want Mother, Jolly, Bash, and the others. Now!”

Coye was silent. They’d explained this numerous times to Eero, but he refused to listen. She walked forward, and gave him a brief hug. Instead of refusing her one in return, he turned around and buried his face in her skirts.

“Want them back, Coye,” he whispered.

Her heart broke all over again for him, and she sat them on the ground, rocking him back and forth. His body wracked with sobs, but no tears graced his dry eyes. After a while, his grip loosened.

“How about we talk to them?” Coye suggested, recalling what humans did for the spirits of their dead.

“Can they hear us?” he asked, hopeful.

“I’m sure they can, even if they can’t answer back,” she said, trying to make sure he understood how such a concept would work.”They loved us very much, and even after the people we love are gone, they are still with us in spirit.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Close your eyes,” she instructed, and he did so. “Now, you can either talk out loud, or in your head, and you can say whatever you want to them, you understand?”

He nodded, and his face screwed up in concentration. Coye smiled a small smile, and followed suit.

If you can hear us, wherever you all are, we miss you. We wish you could come back to us, but most of us understand why you cant. Thank you, for everything.

When she finished, she opened her eyes to a smiling Eero.

“Better?” she asked.

“Yes! Can I do that anytime?”

“Any time at all. Now, go wash up for dinner.”

He scampered off, and Coye stood, following along behind him at a more leisurely pace.

Everything will be okay, she insisted, and went back to tending dinner.

 

 

In a place between time and space, the Celestial swirled with all the colors imaginable, and unimaginable. It was warm, and safe. Then the words slowly filtered in. First, they were simply one or two, here or there. Then over time they formed sentences.

They listened, not sure why they were hearing them, but here in the place where everything was right, something was missing. Like a hole in the center of their being.

Get back to them, the words circled around them like a constellation around a planet. Distant, but real.

We can do this, were the next.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the energy pulled together, like water trickling down into a depression in the stone. Converging.

It’s time. This time the words were not theirs, but they had a vague sense of something powerful, and far beyond them.

Instead of being scared, though, we smiled.

Yes

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve

 

“How can we fight him?”

It came from everywhere and nowhere all at once. It was my thought, yet it wasn’t.

“We have to take the shield down so the Demon and Devourer can get him.”

“How? We are part of the shield…”

Even now it pulled at the very core of me. Of us. When he pulled the power from Mother and entered the link, he…took something from us. There was a piece missing, and even now it was part of him and his shield. His celestial corruption was reaching for us, trying to draw more power from us. It was greedy, just like its host.

“We went into this knowing dying was a likely outcome. We can’t let that stop us now.”

“The children–“

“–are strong, and we’ve taught them well.”

We simultaneously headed toward and were pulled to the shield. The black and gold lightning flashed in earnest now as the battle raged toward its peak. We had to hurry. Even Angels and Demons must have their limits, and Hood could only buy us so much time.

The city blurred beneath us. Random, familiar sights were captured in split-second moments of crystal perfection. With the joining, they were both recognizable and new, holding nostalgia and unfamiliarity in a cup like an intoxicating libation.

We passed the fight, but went by too fast to see who was winning or losing.

When we hit the shield, it wasn’t a hard impact, like a fist. It was like falling into a pile of sheered wool. Itchy, but not horribly uncomfortable. Unfortunately, after that, we dropped like a stone let go over a well. There to meet us once we hit the ground were the totems and the guards. One totem stepped forward, and though as a stone creature it had no face, it radiated malice like an forest fire radiated heat.

“We have been sent to take you to the master,” it rumbled.

“No,” we said, and reached forward. Through our new eyes, the bluish-white celestial energy coursed through the stone like veins of precious metal through mountain rocks. It also carried Kairon’s taint. It was like oil on water: shimmering and greasy. The totem grabbed our wrist in a crushing grip before we could touch it, but we didn’t need to reach it with our fingers–we only needed contact.

In that moment, everything paused–even the wind died down. The totem froze, as though we’d paralyzed it, and we turned our wrist in its grip until our palm was flat against the underside of the cold, stone arm. One of the larger veins ran through that part of the stone, and our fingers slid through the rock as though it were water, straight for the energy. It resisted at first, the taint making the energy slippery and hard to grab, but we finally hooked a finger around the vein, and pulled.

Clover weeds grow anywhere there’s dirt, and their stems and roots creep along the ground to create a system not easily eradicated. The kids loved to make crowns from the flowers, but Mother detested the things growing in the meager flower bed some of the children past had gifted to her. The best way to deal with clover, is to hook a finger beneath the root system, and work it upward, which pulls all the clover toward the initial root point. From there, you can pull the taproot out.

That is what we did with the totem.

We didn’t pull from the initial point, but between the contamination trying to infect us, and the untainted energy’s desire to reconnect with a pure source of celestial energy, it was drawn to us. Once we hooked our index finger and pulled some of it toward us, enough was separated from the totem that we could reach up with our other hand, grab it fully in our fist, and yank.

There was a flash, and a crack, like lighting splitting the air in front of us. Rocks exploded outward, pelting our body in a spray of gravel, and enshrouding us with a cloud of dust. There was nothing left of the totem, but a hissing and sizzling rope of energy, that crackled with small bolts stinging along our skin. The totems and guards drew back for a moment, as though collectively gasping, and then rushed forward as an angered mass.

We gripped the totem’s energy, and brought our right arm across and above our head as though we were blocking a strike from above. Our right foot remained planted as we pivoted with our left foot, and when we twisted our upper body and hips to the right, we brought the whip of energy down and across the first row of totems. As the energy connected with the first totem’s head, we flexed the tip of the energy into a hook, and it snagged the veins of energy as it cracked across five totems. They detonated outward just as the first one did. The humans, who weren’t so enthralled as Kairon would like to believe, cried out and shielded their face and eyes from the hail of rocks, and fell as they choked on the cloud of dust.

When the whip reached the end of its arc, we released the hook and sent the energy flying toward the shield. It impacted with enough force to make our teeth rattle, and lightning crawled across the energy field like giant spiders. We were still connected to the shield, and it took the breath from us as we fell to our knees.

“STOP!”

The shout echoed through both the link, and through the air. We jerked our hands up to our ears, though we couldn’t stop the painful ringing reverberating through our skull, and curled in on ourselves to get away from the noise. A high-pitched ringing replaced all sound, and when we removed our hands from our ears, there was blood on our palms. It was…strange seeing the red substance.

More power, and more control, but also a downside. Having such a corporeal form must mean we can also be hurt physically.

It was an observation from Bash’s corner of our mind. Always the strategist.

Through the link, Kairon’s agony seared us like thousands of hot knives, but it was distant. We weren’t melded, so we didn’t receive the full force of his pain, but getting it second-hand through the link wasn’t a walk in the rich people’s park, either. The shield was still more Kairon than it was us, and that obviously had some disadvantages.

“BACK DOWN, AND LET THEM COME TO ME!” It wasn’t as loud the first time, though it was still muffled and difficult to hear through our injured eardrums.

The totems, who had started forward, though more slowly than their destroyed counterparts had, stopped. They split down the middle of their formation, and made a statue hallway for us to pass through. The humans were still too incapacitated to notice or care about what was going on.

We stood, and started toward the inner shrine.

“We should stay and just hurt the shield. It hurts him.”

“But it hurts us, too. We wouldn’t be able to keep at it for too long.”

“If we take him down, it will happen all at once.”

“He made our ears bleed with his voice. How are we going to do that?”

Silence. None of us knew. Yet, we continued to the shrine.

“If we’re all attached to the shield, he can’t hurt us either. We have to harry him until he makes a mistake.”

“Like, a killing us kind of mistake?”

“Yes.”

Suicide by proxy was never the best battle plan on any day of the week, but it was all we had to go with. Mother’s optimism was waging a war with Bash’s pragmatism, both hoping against hope that we’d come up with a brilliant plan once we assessed the situation, and knowing it was unlikely. Spud was resigned, Dare was angry, and I was…sad. It was a strange sensation, but all I could think of was playing peek-a-boo with hundreds of toddlers over the long years, or hide and seek and tag with the older ones like Eero, and draughts or chess with the teens. Thinking about how it would all end today, because some god got uppity and greedy.

“Jolly!”

The voice pulled me from our reverie.

“Don’t, or we’ll fracture. Can’t you feel it?” Spud asked.

It was such a shock to hear him yell, it pulled me from the mire of my thoughts. He was right. The more we let our individual personalities take precedence over the goal as a whole, our energies tried to pull apart. Spud’s admonition snapped us back into focus, and our energies hummed in tune once more.

“More than one downside, it seems. Babaga left much out when offering this suggestion.”

As our thoughts almost destroyed our merging, our steps had slowed, but we still neared the shrine much faster than we would have liked.

There was no need to ask each other if we were ready, as we knew the answer.

The shrine doors opened of their own accord, and we stepped through them.

Kairon had changed, and not for the better.

Where he’d been an attractive male, with a lean body, decorated with all manner of fine clothing and heavy jewels, he was now fat from the energy he stole from us, and glowing with sweat and the eerie, shimmering of his power’s corruption. His fingers bulged around the bands of his rings, and in a human they would have had to cut the fingers off from lack of circulation. His robes had burst in the front, revealing a bloated belly, and wide waist. His skin everywhere was cracked and coursed with veins of pulsing, slimy celestial energy.

His short golden hair was in the final stages of falling out in clumps, and what was left was greasy and limp. His golden eyes, once as shiny as the coins people prayed to him for, were dull, and swirling with a black as dark as the ink from the squids that sometimes found their way into fisherman’s nets.

His perfect smile now revealed sharp teeth, receding gums, and they had torn at his lips as he smiled maniacally.

“Finally know where you belong? In service to the greatest god to ever walk this lowly plane?”

“Gag me with a spoon.”

“Hush.”

Kairon didn’t react to the thought, which meant he wasn’t submerged in the link.

“You have taken what’s not yours, Kairon. You have subjugated humans for your selfish purposes, and betrayed your faithful. You hide from your reckoning behind a shield not of your own power, and we have come to bring you to justice,” we claimed, our voices as one.

“Or, just a few good punches in the face.”

 “I have taken nothing that wasn’t rightfully mine. You, and the other gods of the city, are mine.” He laughed, and it grated on our nerves like a grinding wheel sharpening metal.

“He has stolen from the other gods as well…which means he is fat from more than just our energy. This gets better and better by the second.”

Before we had time to formulate our brilliant, last-minute, suicidal plan, Kairon moved. He was faster than his bulk suggested, and he slammed into us. His momentum carried us all to a nearby pillar, and we were smashed into the taint-covered, slimy rolls of his stomach. Though there was no urgent need to breath like a human would, an overwhelming panic brought on by the sense of suffocation drove the sense from our minds. We struggled, in vain, to free ourselves.

“Calm yourself, or all will be lost!” The strange voice howled like a winter’s storm, and brought with it a burst of energy that cleared our faces from Kairon by an inch.

“Hood…”

We had no idea what such a distraction cost him, but the fact that he could reach us here meant we’d done more damage to the shield than we thought.

Kairon cursed, and grabbed us by the neck.

“You will be mine! You can’t resist me if you’re unconscious. Having a physical body is not always an advantage, is it now?” he cackled.

“The link!” Mother shouted from the depths of our consciousness, and it clicked.

This was going to be painful.

Normally, melding was a joint process, but as Kairon had shown us, he could force his way in. Which also meant we could bring him down, even if he didn’t want to. As the world danced with stars and the edges of our vision darkened, we lifted a hand up and put it over his on our throat, .

“No, you will join us, Kairon.” We reached through the physical link, and dragged his consciousness, kicking and screaming, down into the deepest depths of the link.