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.

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

 

“This is…fascinating,” Kairon crooned. His consciousness invaded every corner of the link, like an aggressive animal searching out new territory, shoving against each of us.

“Get out of here!” Dare raged, and tried to gather his waning energy to buck Kairon from the link.

He failed, miserably.

“Pipe down, insect.” Kairon went to flex his energy to push Dare out, but he hadn’t been in long enough to have complete control; despite his abundance of energy versus ours draining away.

We had to get to Mother, all of us. If we were connected, we could fully enter the link and do a partial meld. Hopefully, that would give us the oomph we needed to get rid of him.

I crawled toward Mother, as Bash and Dare did the same.

“How useless,” Kairon hissed.

Bash was closest, and could barely get a finger through the barrier surrounding Mother and Kairon. Dare joined him not longer after, but held off until I got there, too, to try and not let on to the plan. The barrier was stronger here, next to its source, than at the perimeter of the shrine.

Even after we put our hands one on top of the other, as we did to get through earlier, we couldn’t manage to get inside farther than our elbows. When we stopped our progress, Kairon smiled wider.

“Mother…” I whispered, the effort of trying to pass through the barrier strangling the word, even in my mind. Even if things were to end here, we would see this end together.

Then she looked up at us trying to get through to her. She reached out, her arm and hand trembling to reach us. A slippered foot came down on her hand–hard. With no energy to cry out, her face contorted in a grimace of pain.

It was then that something inside of us snapped. Mother might be bossy, in my business, and obstinate, but she was caring, steadfastly loyal, and kind. No one did that to her and got away with it.

“Hang on,” Bash said, rage like I’d never heard from him in his voice, and suddenly it was like we were being sucked through a space a thousand times smaller than us.

I’d have screamed if I could’ve, but there was nothing in the space, and like Mother I couldn’t muster the energy anyway.

We landed next to Mother in a tangle of bodies, and knocked Kairon away from us. He stumbled forward, and then whipped around, shock over his features.

“No!”

But he was too late. We were touching, and that was all it took to throw us into a shallow meld.

Maybe because we’d never tried this exactly, or maybe because of the bizarre situation, but we weren’t in the link. Once we melded, we were thrown over Raventide, as though we were flying above it like the seagulls and their hungry ha-ha-ha calls. 

The battle between the Angel and the Demon continued to rage, though how long they could continue was anyone’s guess. The Devourer was harrying the Angel while the Demon made calculated attacks. Hood, on the other hand, had no issue keeping the both of them at bay. One was measured and controlled, while the other two were overzealous with their attacks.

We were mesmerized, the four of us, until we were pulled toward Haven. It was over in a blink, and we hovered above, then lowered toward the ground. The children were grouped around Spud, who was on the ground. His form was hazy, and some of the children were weeping. Coye’s eyes were wide and fearful, the fallout of losing the Haven gods like a chaotic stew in her mind. Eero watched on, a sadness and resignation beyond his years on his face. 

Spud looked upward, sensing our presence. We reached for him as he reached for us, then he disappeared and reappeared next to us. Some children gasped, while the others cried out, and not a small number fell to the ground and sobbed. 

“What is going on?” Spud asked. 

“I don’t–“

“Quiet, little flies, for time is short,” Babaga said, her voice ringing out in in the meld. 

“What are you–“

“Silence! Or I shall eat you instead of help.”

We were quiet after that. 

“It’s time,” she said, “to have some fun, become more powerful: be as one.”

Dare opened his mouth, which was met by an irritated hiss. He promptly shut it again. 

“Picture your goal in your minds, and join hands. Without you, Kairon rules the land. Such a thing cannot pass, the power of gods is not to last,” she intoned. 

No god lasted forever, and our power was meant to return to the Celestial, to be recycled for other needs and desires of the humans. When a god, such as Kairon, went beyond their reach, it tainted their energy. Such energy couldn’t be allowed to return to the fold, or risk tainting it all. That was where the Demons and their Devourers came in. They protected the Celestial from the tainted energy by having the Devourer consume the god’s tainted energy. 

The Angel’s function was to protect all the gods whose energies had not been tainted. Devourers and Demons made no distinction: any god in their way was fair game. 

After the Demon had called Hood an Angel, all the knowledge that Kairon made us forget by manipulating the celestial energy, had come rushing back. 

“To what purpose? Fight Kairon? He’s too powerful,” Bash said, and shook his head. 

“Together, strong. Apart, fall. Stronger means more control.”

“More control of the Celestial energy? Like what Kairon did to make us forget?” Mother asked. 

Babaga cackled. “Smart little bug.” Then, though we could only sense it, she sobered. “Now, shoo.”

The five of us faced each other. 

“Beat the tar out of Kairon?” Dare prompted.

“Sounds like the best plan we’ve had in ages,” I said, a feral grin on my lips. 

“Then let us concentrate on that,”Bash said, and held out a hand to me. 

I took it, and then took Spud’s hand on my other side. Then we all closed our eyes. It wasn’t the easiest thing, keeping my mind from a thousand other thoughts to concentrate on the one, but I willed every fiber of my being toward the one objective: stop Kairon. 

It took forever, though only moments must have passed. Slowly, though, something warmed at my fingertips, then progressed up my arms. I didn’t open my eyes, for fear of what I might see, as well as breaking my single-minded determination to kick Kairon’s arrogant head across the city. 

When I did open my eyes, everything was different. I was no longer me, but I was. I turned to look down at the children, still expecting them to be absorbed in their grief at losing us. However, they were all looking back up at us, wide-eyed. 

“You’re…so beautiful,” Coye whispered, her eyes shining with tears and awe. 

It warmed something inside to see her better, if not happy, to see us alive, like the sun breaking through the clouds. Though I wasn’t sure what would happen after this, at least we could give them this moment.

“Go beat the bad man,” Eero said, conviction replacing his resignation. A grim determination on his young features, combined with the line of tears and snot through the dirt on face, made my chest ache. It was a new sensation for me, and it must have been Mother’s contribution to the joining.

We nodded our head at the children, and then turned toward Kairon’s shrine. Golden and black lightning waged war across the skies, as the two protectors of the Celestial continued their battle.  Beyond that, the power they wielded struck the barrier and sizzled off. It was time to level the playing field.

“Let’s go,” we said, our voices and purpose united. 

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

 

There was no better time to be invisible to adults than now. The shrine grounds were crawling with guards, who all had a glassy-eyed, vacant stares, and they moved past us without second glances. They weren’t just the stone totems from yesterday; there were humans here, too. I shuddered, a chill crawling down my spine like sewer slime.

Gods were essentially an amalgamation of energy from the Celestial, brought to life by the desires, hopes, and wishes of the sentient beings of the world. Our constructs had base knowledge, like how we should have known about Angels and Demons, while the specifics could be as varied as Bash’s capabilities versus mine. The mindless way the humans were wandering around the grounds, like worker bees protecting a hive, was something else Kairon had forced us to forget.

I just wished I knew how, though with the Demon’s appearance the why was obvious. Whatever summoned the Demon to Raventide, Kairon was part of the reason. He was scared, and holed up like a fox, baring his teeth.

“Where do you think she is?” Bash asked under his breath.

Even though they couldn’t see us, there was no use in taking the risk they might be able to hear us, and hone in on our position. Though it was eerie that Kairon was using humans, it gave us an advantage over the totems. Totems could see gods, no matter how minuscule, because they were forged from the same Celestial energy as gods.

I closed my eyes and reached out through our consciousness. Unfortunately, now that we weren’t near the barrier, it was as if she was everywhere, and I couldn’t pinpoint her location. I blew out a frustrated breath and opened my eyes.

“She’s everywhere,” I said.

Bash scowled, but Dare smiled. It was thin-lipped, and grim. “We don’t need to know where she is, we just need to know how Kairon operates.” He paused, and I made a circle motion with my hand, urging him to continue. “He’s an extravagant peacock, and exactly like the over-the-top villains the kids love to hate in all Mother’s stories.” Dare stopped again, and pointed to the largest building in the shrine, nestled in the middle of other, smaller buildings. “She’ll be there, and him with her.”

We headed toward the buildings. The main building, where Kairon received visitors, was only the main building because it was the most important; not because of its size. The one beyond the greeting room was by far larger, and likely housed any human shrine workers, and the totems when not in use.

The three of us skirted around the buildings, avoiding the totems, and ducking in and out of the alleys. They were dark, thanks to the cloud cover and rain, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever loved terrible weather more than now.

“Celestial blessed, this place is like a small city,” Dare complained, as we were waiting for another group of totems to stomp by. “He puffs himself up, like those stupid, fluffy yapper dogs the rich women like.”

He wasn’t wrong. The shrine had deceived us into thinking it was smaller than it was, and I wondered what else Kairon was using his power to do.

Unfortunately, once we finally reached the largest building, it was absolutely surrounded by totems.

“Snorg,” Dare growled.

“How do we get past these things?” Bash said, echoing Dare’s frustration.

Something fluttered in my gut. “I think we should just walk in.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Dare screeched in my ear.

“Shh!” Bash admonished, then turned to face me, his golden eyes dull in the low light. “Why?”

“If they hurt us, they hurt Mother. They need her for the barrier.”

“They could still capture us, making it impossible to save Mother,” Bash said, making an observation. His usual scathing nature was put on hold in light of the situation, though it peeked through now.

“Mother is already in a weakened state, and I doubt they’d risk making it worse.”

“We’ll have to take the chance,” Dare said, backing me up. He may not agree with me, but he’ll always take my side over Bash’s.

Bash huffed, but didn’t refute us. Then with nothing left to say…I simply stood, straightened my shoulders, and marched out toward the totems.

Nothing happened. They didn’t move.

“Weird,” Dare murmured.

Though they showed no signs of moving, we still moved at just above a crawl. They were perfectly spaced, like soldiers in a formation, and there was just enough room for us to squeeze through. Bash remained silent, as his staff made the going slower, and he needed all his concentration to not accidentally hit the totems. We made it through them without incident, though if it were possible for us to sweat, we would be.

We opened the heavy, ornate, wooden doors, without a single squeak from the hinges. Still, the totems made no movement behind us, and we stepped inside.

There she was, in a heap in the middle of the room. Her back was to us, and she wasn’t moving. Then Bash did something he shouldn’t have been able to: he teleported to Mother’s side. Well, almost. Something stopped him about five feet from her, and he was thrown back. He landed on his feet, but then again, Bash always landed on his feet.

“Hey!” Dare ran over to join Bash.

Bash cut an angry glance behind him to Dare. “Shut up, you idiot.”

“Now, now. It’s too late for that,” Kairon’s oily voice said from the balcony above the main floor.

He jumped lightly, and landed next to Mother, who still hadn’t moved. He could pass through whatever barrier was there, but Bash couldn’t.

At the sound of Kairon’s voice, Bash stood at the ready with his staff, and Dare held up his fists. I remained in the doorway, desperately trying to think of a way out of the situation.

“What are you doing to Mother, Kairon?” Dare demanded.

“He’s siphoning her ability to make a shield, right?” I asked, and took a couple steps forward.

The harsh glow from the magefire tinted everything in orange, especially the arrogant smile on Kairon’s face.

“Such a smart little godling. Yes, I’m using her to make a shield, but she’s been so much more useful than that.”

“Because the Demon won’t attack us. It’s here for you,” I said, and stumbled with my next step.

“Yes,” Kairon hissed. “The Demon cannot attack without cause, and apparently none of you brats have done anything deserving of his blade,” he spat. “So not only did she give me a barrier, but it’s one the Demon cannot touch.”

Bash’s staff hit the floor with a heavy thud, and he leaned on it, wavering on his feet. Dare fell to a knee, and Kairon watched, unsympathetic.

“Unfortunately, for you at least, taking her from Haven and then using her to create a barrier has this nasty side-effect of draining all your energy.”

I could sense it then–the drain. As though I was caught in a riptide, and nothing would be better than putting head to pillow and sleeping. My eyes drooped before I caught myself, and I cleared my throat and tried to stand straighter.

The Angel’s and Demon’s battle still raged, and only to a discerning ear could one differentiate between their clashing blades and the rolling thunder of the storm.

“I’m sure one will kill the other before your companion has been all used up,” Kairon stated. “If the Angel is victorious, I won’t have anything to worry about. If the Demon wins, well, I should have enough totems and subjugated humans on hand to take him down.” He was smug, and filled with confidence in his plan.

“Won’t they just send another Demon?” I asked out loud. “Hang on, guys,” I urged the others through our link.

“J-Jolly?”

“Mother!” the three of us shouted through the link in unison. We all flinched, but Kairon either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. He was talking, but it was taking all my effort to concentrate on the link.

S-save…yourselves…”

“Fat chance,” Dare responded.

“We’ll figure this out, and save you,” Bash said, his usual arrogance marred by the fact he could barely stand.

Then something caught my attention: Kairon was no longer talking. In fact, his eyes were narrowed, and he was glancing between the four of us. He reached down and grabbed Mother by the wrist.

A presence appeared in the link. It was large, nearly overtaking the connection, and greasy like lamp oil.

What do we have here, hm?”

A thrill of fear raked down my spine like claws. Kairon was in the link, and any advantage we had was dead.

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

 

As we flew, a storm was gathering over Raventide. The ominous black and grey clouds formed before our eyes, like watching hours of weather in mere seconds. Unsecured shutters banged against the houses, and snatches of fearful conversations were ripped away by the heavy gusts. The air was weighed down with moisture, and the potential for the worst deluge the city had seen in decades. Everyone was taking shelter, and the streets cleared as we made our way to the shrine.

My head spun. Kairon’s.

“Why is she at Kairon’s?”

Hood didn’t answer, and I blew out a breath. He wouldn’t relay any information about the current situation, unless we would discover it soon, anyway. So I tried something else.

“How can you take Bash there without it hurting us worse?”

He ignored me for a few wing beats, then sighed. “Thou ask many questions,” Hood grumbled.

“I’m modeled after a kid. What did you expect?” I countered.

This time the rumble from Hood wasn’t words, it was laughter. “True enough.” Then he added; “Soon you will find out how it is possible.”

This time I grumbled, but my heart beat wildly when Kairon’s shrine came into view. If the number of guards the previous evening were enough to raise eyebrows, the number now would have shot them clear from my forehead. Dozens upon dozens of them ranged the grounds, and at least ten stood in front of the gate.

Yet none of them turned an eye toward us.

“They can’t see you,” I observed.

“Nay.”

He landed on a rooftop just beyond the shrine’s perimeter, and away from the front gate.

“This is as far as I can take thee.”

“Why?” Bash asked.

Hood motioned toward the shrine. “Kairon has erected a barrier.”

I cut my eyes toward the outside wall, tall and foreboding. When I jumped lightly from the rooftop to the street, Bash and Dare protested, but I continued forward. About five feet from the wall, it started: a warm and buzzing sensation. Like being almost too close to a fire, filled with bees that weren’t stinging you.

Yet, it was also familiar. When I reached out a hand and tried to place it on the barrier, my hand slid through instead, like sticking my hand in the pudding Dare snitched for the kids one time. Then it hit me in the gut.

“The barrier feels like Haven, and…Mother,” I said, breathless.

“What?” Dare’s fury sizzled through the connection. He leapt from the building and joined me, my hand still in the barrier. When Dare placed his hand with mine, the connection to the false Haven deepened, and I could just detect Mother on the outer edge of my awareness.

She was dying.

“Let’s go, Bash!” Dare barked.

I turned to look back at Bash, still with Hood. Bash nodded, and moved to leave, but Hood held onto his hand.

“Take this,” Hood said. He pulled out one of his smaller, flaming feathers from where the wings connected near his back. “This will aid you in being away from Haven.”

Bash hesitated. Then Hood’s head jerked back toward the entrance of the shrine.

“Take it,” Hood boomed, brooking no argument.

Bash jumped, but took the feather and tucked it in his waistband. If you didn’t know what to look for, the glow wasn’t noticeable. Then Bash released Hood’s hand, and jumped from the roof. Nothing happened. No crippling pain like when Mother was taken.

Hood nodded. “Be off.”

Though Bash was the biggest stick in the mud, he still glanced around with barely contained curiosity as he made his way toward us. Being outside Haven, something I took for granted, was something he’d never experienced. He caught me watching him, and he pursed his lips: Bash couldn’t blush. He would have, though, if it were possible. I nodded, understanding, though I didn’t say anything out loud. Dare never would have let him hear the end of it.

I glanced back at Hood. “Thank y–”

“Go!” he yelled, just as a Devourer leapt from one of the alleys below and attacked.

I let out a startled cry, and reached toward Hood with the hand not stuck in the barrier.

“He said go!” Bash said.

He grabbed my outstretched hand, and pushed the both of us into the barrier, with Dare close behind. After an eternity of struggling, though it was likely only seconds, we fell through between the barrier and the wall.

I scrambled to my feet, and turned to check on Hood. He’d thrown the Devourer to the roof next to his, and it crouched, growling.

“It’s been a long time, Zadkiel.” It was the lifeless tone of the silver-haired Demon.

He materialized behind his Devourer, Shinkuma. The wind died down, and barely stirred the Demon’s clothing, which hadn’t changed since I’d seen him on Lady Wept Hill. This time, though, a ghost of a smile graced his lips.

Hood–Zadkiel–ignored him.

“Be off, gods,” Hood said, with measured patience. Then he put his right hand to his left hip, and the golden light there brightened, turning white and blinding. There was a flash, and as I blinked against the light, thunder rumbled overhead.

When the light surrounding Hood cleared, he held the hilt of a sword, nearly as big as him. The crossguard was gold, with delicate, interwoven vine patterns. The hilt itself was as crimson as a rose, and the flat of the straight, razor-sharp blade had a blood groove.

The Demon’s smile widened, to the point of crazed. He, too, placed his hand on the battered hilt of his old, chipped sword. When the curved blade slid through the wide belt at his waist, however, it transformed. The chips smoothed out, and the edges sharpened. The blade itself darkened to a black to match that of the Devourer, as though the Demon wielded a slice of the night sky.

Then something was pushing its way out of his back. Unlike the golden, fire feathers of Hood, these were locust wings, opaque and black, like murky water. They slowly fanned the air behind him.

The Demon spared a glance for the three of us standing, watching. “Once I finish with the Angel, godlings, you’re next.”

When the Demon said the word, ‘Angel’, something itched at the back of my mind the way it had when we’d first heard the word ‘Demon’. We should know about them, too.

Kairon had much to pay for.

“Let’s go, Jolly,” Bash urged, and tugged on my arm.

The Angel and the Demon took their fighting stances, and the Devourer growled.

I pulled my arm out of Bash’s grip, and cupped my hands around my mouth to project my voice. “You better beat the pants off him, Hood!” Then I glared at the Demon.

Even though I couldn’t see it, the warmth that pulsed from glow surrounding Hood was that of a smile. The first patter of rain hit the cobblestones of the street in front of us, and then, quicker than lightning, Hood charged forward with his left hand supporting the blade by the ricasso. The Demon rushed forward to meet him, and when their blades met, the resulting collision sent a concussive force through the city. It rattled shingles loose, shook dust and dirt from everything, and crumpled some of the less than sound structures nearby.

My eyes were wide as I tried to watch the exchange between the two, but they were too fast.

“Move, Jolly,” Bash’s voice, breathless with awe, said from near my ear.

I jumped in response, but nodded. I tore my gaze away from their fight just long enough to climb the wall. The rain was falling in sheets, making it impossible to see more than ten to fifteen feet in front of us. Still, I ran away from the wall once I was on the other side, to try and find an angle to catch sight of Hood. The last thing I saw was the two of them taking to the air, fighting across the sky in streaks of gold and black.

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

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

“He took her outside of Haven,” Dare said, shocked. “She can’t leave. It–It’s not possible!” Then he groaned as another wave of agony washed through us.

“What’s going on?” Bash moaned. He’d crawled over to us, with Spud not far behind.

“Eero said,” I started, then gathered my wits, “someone took Mother. Outside. Haven.” The end of the sentence was broken, as I grit my teeth against the pain as it grew in intensity. It was all we could do to not pass out.

“Get. Her. Back?” Spud asked in the same staccato speech.

I opened my mouth to answer, but the pain finally leveled off, and I fell the rest of the way to the ground in relief. It hadn’t gone away, but it remained the same, which was its own blessing.

“He must have stopped,” Dare groaned next to me.

“That snorging Demon. I’ll kill him!” Bash growled.

Dare cut his eyes to Bash, and opened his mouth to comment on the cursing, but I jerked my head. As satisfying as it would be to take it to Bash, we didn’t have the time.

“How do you know it was the Demon?” Spud asked.

“Who else could it have been?” Bash asked, scathing.

“Hey, don’t be mean with Spud just because–”

“Don’t tell me what to–”

“Both of you, just shut up!” I yelled, then groaned and held my head again. It was like I upset a feral cat clawing the inside my skull. “We need to come up with a plan. Not fight,” I said, barely above a whisper.

Bash nodded, terse, while Dare blushed.

“What should we do, Jolly?” Spud asked, his calm eyes looking at mine expectantly.

My eyes widened, and I turned to find Bash and Dare staring at me. “Why do I have to come up with the plan?” I asked, flabbergasted.

Everyone shrugged.

“I don’t know how we’d go about fighting a Demon. I can’t imagine he’d take Mother and just give her back because we asked nicely.”

“We need to come up with something, though; I doubt Mother can last long outside the barrier,” Bash whispered, and glanced toward the children.

After we’d fallen to the ground, they’d gathered by the river in case the fires came to our side. They were huddled at its edge, under blankets mended by Mother’s steady hands. The younger ones had drifted off to sleep, clutching the older kids. Tears streaked through the dirt on their faces that Mother was usually here to help wash off each night. The older children watched us over the sleeping forms of the younger ones, questioning. Expecting.

“Or us, for that matter,” Dare added.

I broke my eye contact with the kids, and turned back to the others. “Do you think we could find her through our link? I mean, a plan is all well and good, but we don’t even know where she is.”

“It’s a good place to start,” Spud agreed.

We gathered, albeit slowly because of the pain, and held hands. I took a deep breath, trying not to panic at the heavier scent of smoke on the air. The fires were getting closer. The others closed their eyes, and I followed suit.

I pictured the others in my mind’s eye, their forms glowing. Everything was a red sea of pain, trying to drag us down in its riptide. 

“Can you sense her?” Spud asked. His voice was thick and faraway, despite him standing right next to me. 

“There’s too much,” Dare gasped, his words dragged away like paper shredded in a gale. 

“Deeper,” I responded. 

We struggled to go further inward. The effort enormous and draining, but there was something off about the energy pulling away. So I followed it. 

Everything went from red as a rose in full bloom, to black darker than the deepest tunnels of Raventide. The quiet was like a soft pillow over my head. 

“Mother?” I asked, softly. The darkness ate the words, but something stirred on the edge of our circle of hands. 

“Jolly?” Mother’s voice was near my ear, pained and muffled. 

“Mother! Where are you?”

“I…I don’t know. North?I couldn’t–” she faded out for a moment “–can’t move.”

“We’re coming for you.”

“No, the children–“

“We can’t help the children if we die!”

She was silent. 

“We’re coming for you.” Before she could respond, the connection broke, and we were thrown from the consciousness. 

We fell to the ground, hard.

“Bash!” Eero yelled.

Bash scrambled to his feet, and called his staff to him. It hit his hand with a dull thud, and he leveled it in the direction Eero was pointing. There, at the edge of the barrier, was the entity from Babaga’s.

“What do you want, Hood?” Bash growled.

The entity didn’t move, but from deep within the hood disapproval stared back.

“I am here to offer my assistance,” he rumbled.

Bash flinched.

“How?” I asked, getting up from the ground.

“I can escort thee to your comrade. I know where she is being held.”

We froze. “Where is she?” I demanded.

Hood turned to me. “I will take you there.”

The others and I exchanged glances. It was our only chance of coming back.

“Be not mistaken, god. I offer assistance, but there may be no return journey. This goes beyond all of us,” he said.

I chewed on my lip in consideration.

“Our options are possible death over inevitable death?” Spud asked, the gravity of the situation making his slow voice slower.

Hood nodded.

“Can you take those of us who cannot move beyond the boundary, without injuring us further?” Bash asked. His usual bravado shone through as he lifted his chin in defiance to Hood.

“Yea.”

“You guys go, and I’ll stay here with the children. I’ll be able to let them know through the connection if you succeed,” Spud said.

He mentioned nothing of our failure, but if one of us was eliminated the others would not survive.

Dare started to protest, but Spud shook his head. “I’m slower than a snail on my fast days.” He wasn’t wrong.

“We must depart. Now.” Hood didn’t sound precisely impatient, but he was ready to be off.

“We’ll be back,” I said, to Spud and the children, who were all now awake.

Eero ran froward and hugged me, hard. To the smaller ones I was more substantial, because they needed Play more than the older children. However, it was rare for me to have any physical contact with the children. I was the intro to a game, sometimes the arbiter, but never an actual participant. I never minded, because it’s not like I had anything to miss. It was all about the game.

But here, now, I was so much more.

I hugged him back, just as tight, and then he pulled away.

“You can do it, Jolly.” There was such absolute conviction in his eyes, even I believed. If only for a moment.

I turned to Hood. “Let’s go.”

“Take my hand.” He held a hand out, over the edge of the barrier, and it was as though he was pushing through something thick.

The moment the three of us touched his hand, his way over the barrier eased, somewhat. It was then he caught fire before us. The flames were golden, warm, and engulfed us, too. Dare yelped, and tried to jump back, but I blocked him with my body. I grabbed his hand with my other one before he removed his. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew we all needed to remain connected. At least for now.

“Stop being a wuss,” I hissed in his ear.

Then Hood pulled us into the air, and I yelped, too. Wings made of the same fire flared out behind him, and beat against the air.

“Where are we going?” I yelled against the wind rushing past our faces. It was the second time I’d asked, and I didn’t expect an answer. So, imagine my surprise when he gave a straight answer this time.

“Kairon’s.”

 

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

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

 

“A Demon, huh?” Bash said, incredulous as always.

Dare bristled, but Mother laid a consoling hand on his arm.

“There is no reason to believe that Babaga was lying to us, Bash,” Mother said. “Especially since she seemed genuinely afraid of whatever the hooded being was.”

‘Demons are the skywaves to wash clean the shores of godhood.’ Doesn’t sound very good for us, huh?” Spud said, his slow, ponderous voice bringing the real issue back to our attention.

“What’s a skywave?” a young voice inquired, half-asleep.

As one, we all turned to a small boy, around four years old, rubbing his eyes and clutching a stuffed animal. The stuffed animal was so old no one knew what kind of animal it was anymore, and his gingerbread brown curls were matted from his pillow.

Mother rose from her seat at our small, dilapidated table, and glided over to the child. When she picked him up and put him on her hip, he laid a head against her shoulder and gazed up with curious eyes.

“Skywaves are waves so tall they touch the sky,” she said, and his eyes widened. The dim light of the cheap magefire lamp reflected in his green eyes.

“Taller than Spud?” he asked, in awe.

Spud smiled slowly, and the rest of us let out surprised chuckles – even Bash.

“Yes, even taller than Spud,” she said, laughter still in her voice.

“Is something wrong, Eero?” Bash asked.

Eero snuggled down into Mother’s embrace a little more, hiding from Bash. Bash loved the children, but he was a little intimidating to the smaller ones.

“I had a nightmare, and Junie told me I was being a baby and to go back to sleep, but now I’m thirsty,” he said, the words muffled. “Are skywaves bad?” he asked, switching back to his original query, with barely a breath between his explanation and the question.

Mother hesitated, not wanting to frighten the child. “Skywaves are…not good or bad, themselves. It’s what they do that’s bad.”

“But doesn’t that make them bad?” A scowl donned his face. “When I took Nonna’s toy you said I was bad.”

“Yes, but skywaves aren’t people, or gods. Is the rain bad simply because it makes you wet when you want to be dry?”

“No, I guess not.”

“It’s the same for skywaves. You, on the other hand, know you’re not supposed to take Nonna’s toy,” she replied, her tone a little more firm with a light reprimand.

He took a moment to absorb what she was saying, and then shrugged. “Can I have some water?”

“I’ll get you some, bud,” Spud said. He rose from his seat and wandered to the rain collection barrel we used for drinking water. The one next to it, with a towel over the side, was used for washing little hands and faces. He picked up the metal ladle hanging on the edge of the drinking barrel, and brought a scoop full of water to Eero.

The little boy drank as much as his belly would hold. Mother would usually limit him, but she wanted him off to bed so we could continue discussing the matter at hand.

“I’ll be right back,” Mother said, and carried the yawning child back over to the sleeping area.

Spud sat back down, and with trepidation on the air like heavy humidity, we watched her go.

“I don’t care for this Demon business,” Bash said.

“Oh, believe it now, do you?” Dare asked, scathing.

I shushed Dare. “Now is not the time.” Though I couldn’t blame him. Bash could be a major pain in the rear.

“What are we going to do?” Spud asked, a crack in his usual unperturbed demeanor.

“What can we do? He controls a Devourer,” I said, and shuddered.

“What about–” Bash stopped short. “Do you smell that?”

We all lifted our noses to the air and inhaled. Faint, but growing stronger, was the smell of smoke. We stood, as one, and scanned the area. Panic raced through the connection just as the glow from a fire came from the direction of the sleeping children.

“Mother!” Bash yelled, his voice joining those of the children, now frantic.

We raced over to the sleeping area, but I stopped short as the city came into view.

“Jolly! Hurry up!” Dare yelled in my ear.

Though it startled me, I couldn’t break eye contact with the skyline. As smoke drifted across my vision, I pointed toward the city.

“What the sno–” Then he broke off what he was about to say when he turned.

“It’s all on fire. The entire city,” I said, breathless.

Flames licked up toward the sky, and the screaming of the children was joined by howling and wailing from the other denizens of Raventide.

“Jolly,” Dare said, and shook me by the shoulders. “I don’t give two flips about those other people. We need to help the kids!”

The jarring motion and his words broke my lapse in concentration, and I pushed him off.

“You’re right. Sorry.”

Then we ran, headlong, toward the crying and screaming. Bash was already there, running toward the river with a child in each arm, and the older children held the hands of some of the younger ones as they followed. I didn’t see Mother anywhere.

Spud had an armful of kids, walking faster than I’d ever seen, and following behind the others.

“Where’s Mother?” I yelled, trying to be heard over the deafening noise now seemingly coming from all corners of the world.

“I can’t find her,” Spud said as he passed.

Something slipped into my hand, and when I turned to look, Eero’s hand was in mine. He had a cut on his forehead, and I dropped to a knee to be eye level with him.

“Eero! What happened? Are you okay?” I reached up to touch the cut, but stopped short.

Tears filled his eyes, and he cried. I couldn’t make out what he was trying to say, when a sudden lance of pain shot through my skull. I closed my eyes tight and curled in on myself, recoiling from the pain.

All four of us: Bash, Spud, Dare, and me, screamed. The others fell to the ground, trying not to hurt the children, and Dare grabbed his head, now on his knees next to me.

“He took her. The bad man took her!” Eero said, shaking my shoulder.

Dazed out of my senses, with the pain almost unbearable, I looked up at the child through blurry eyes.

“Who? What?” was all I could manage.

“The bad man took Mother!”

Dare and I jerked upward, the pain nearly making us black out, and followed the source of the pain. It was emanating from our connected consciousness.

Whoever the bad man was, he’d done what shouldn’t have been possible: he’d taken Mother outside of Haven.

Humans always pray to the gods for help. But when it’s the gods who need the help, who are we supposed to pray to? Right about now, it’d be nice to know.