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.

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Six

Chapter Six

 

You ever find yourself in a situation that completely boggles any sense of normalcy you have? Like, earlier today I was minding my own business, trying to find some new kids and games. Then I was nearly eaten by a Devourer, met a Demon, spoke to a shady god that set me up to be eaten by a spider creature, and the only thing keeping that creature from eating me was an unknown, hooded entity. Now I needed to come up with three good questions to help whatever predicament we’ve found ourselves in.

What the mother loving duck was going on?

I turned to Dare, whose brow was drawn down in concern and anger. The anger wasn’t a new look, but the concern was.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the…whatever it was behind us spoke first; “I caution you. Speak no queries in her presence, lest you lose one.”

This time when Dare went to speak, I stopped him by grabbing his hand.

“She can’t hear us this way,” I said, and kept an eye on the spider-bitch as I did so. Nothing indicated she had heard, but my scrutiny deepened her scowl.

“What the mother loving duck is going on?” he asked. I burst out laughing. The Babaga hissed in irritation, but Hood didn’t stir.

“Sorry,”  I said to Dare’s displeasure sizzling through our shared conscious. “Should we ask why the Demon is here?”

“Yes,” he replied. Though his tone implied I was an idiot for asking him such an obvious question.

“Why is the Demon here, in Raventide?” I didn’t ask about what the Demon had said to me, since he vowed to destroy Haven if I did so. I had no idea what powers a Demon possessed, but anything that could control a Devourer was not an entity I wanted to play chicken with.

“It is not currently in Raventide,” Babaga said, sidestepping the question.

Dare ground his teeth. Hood shifted scant centimeters, and Babaga clacked her teeth and bared them.

“Demons are the skywaves to wash clean the shores of godhood. Houses built on crooked foundations will be carried to the Celestial sea.”

“So she isn’t going to give us a straight answer,” Dare grumped, and glared at the spider-creature. His bravery emboldened by Hood’s presence.

Dare had never been good at riddles, though neither had I. I’d save this answer for Mother, though something was prodding at my thoughts. Mother was right: I could have sworn I should know this, but somehow the information was gone.

“How ’bout why we couldn’t remember what a Demon is, but Kairon could?” he offered, as curious as I was as to why we didn’t know.

“It’s a good question, but should we waste one on that?”

“You got anything better?” 

I scrunched my face for a moment, rolling it over in my mind, but in the end I came up with nothing.

“Why couldn’t we remember what the Demon was, but Kairon could?” I asked.

Babaga’s laugh was low, raspy, and as cruel as a rusted blade through the eye. “Snakes atimes hide in the long grasses, burrowing beneath the ground to avoid the tread of the wolves. Little flies are scattered by the wolves, away from the garbage.” She threw her head back in gleeful laughter that tore into our ears like claws. It shifted some of the rags covering her body, and revealed a distended abdomen that must have dragged on the ground. It was also covered with white hair.

“Snorg this g–“

“Dare!” I scolded. He growled low in response.

“She isn’t giving us a straight answer!”

“Did you think she would? Plus, I got this one,” I said quickly, forestalling any more cursing. “Kairon must have some kind of protection around his shrine. The rest of us, not being as powerful, don’t. I wonder how the Demon does it?” I wondered aloud in the consciousness.

Dare, not being one for such deep thinking, scoffed. “I’d rather know what the guy behind us is.”

I tilted my head in consideration. It wasn’t a bad question.

“Last question, Babaga,” I said. She spat reply. “What is the entity behind us.”

Though we could not see his face, and though it was barely a movement at all, I could have swore Hood leaned back in surprise.

Babaga was silent for a long moment before she bared her teeth. “Spiders cannot speak on the nature of birds.”

“She can’t tell us,” I said in shock. “I didn’t think anything hindered Babaga.”

“Your questions done, and the spider’s belly empty. Someone shall pay ere some day for such a travesty,” she ground out, and then howled in frustration and hunger. “Begone! Pests!” she spat. She picked up the nearest rocks, about the size of my fist, and threw them near us.

We ducked and dodged the projectiles, which were not aimed with any accuracy lest she anger Hood behind us. Scrambling back the way we came, up the many stairs towards the city sewers, and out into the night air. The bells of the city tower clanged the hour: Mitternight.

“It should be dawn, at least,” Dare scoffed.

I couldn’t have agreed more, though to be fair time was finicky. Speeding up when good times were being had, and slowing down when boredom crept through the seconds like a snail.

“Hood is gone,” Dare observed, plucking the nomenclature from our link.

I checked behind us and he was correct; Hood had not followed us out of the tunnels.

I shrugged. “A problem for another time.” Though it was a problem that was queued right behind the one of the Demon, I’d wager.

The air was still heavy with sewer stench, but cleaner than being amongst the tunnels. Humidity hung on the air like a heavy curtain, and the streets were mostly deserted aside from the city watch. Despite all the normalcy, however, fear roiled in my gut like a chunk of rancid meat.

“Let’s get back home and tell the others what we’ve discovered,” I whispered. It was as though the night’s attention had turned toward us, and bore down on us. Watching, and waiting to fall on us like a pack of Devourers.

Dare glanced around, his eyes darting here and there, and nodded. “I want to be behind the barrier as soon as possible.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Five

Chapter Five

 

I’d never liked being underground. Let alone underground in the sewer system and caves. The sewers stunk, as most sewers do, and I was thankful my clothing was mostly immune from the filth. It wasn’t part of my construct, so most of it sloughed off as we passed through it. Dare fumed under his breath, but I ignored him.

As we got closer to the caves, the tunnels narrowed. After going past the final sewer grate, the sewage dropped off and we had to bend at the waist to keep our heads from scraping the ‘ceiling’. Not too long after that, the tunnel declined and spiraled, and stairs were roughly carved into the limestone.

“No wonder this loon doesn’t come to the surface often. Would you if you had to climb all these damned stairs?” Dare asked, and huffed out an annoyed sigh.

“Or maybe she wants to discourage visitors,” I suggested.

“Consider me discouraged,” Dare said scathingly.

“Don’t get persnickety with me,” I shot back, and ducked down quickly from a small stalactite. Since Dare was right behind me, and the lighting was poor, he smacked his face on it.

Dare cursed using some of the most vile words I’d ever heard from him. He must have been hanging around the rougher parts of town to pick those up.

“Ooh, I’m telling Mother,” I teased.

Dare scowled. “Mother can go snorg a duck for all I care.”

Shock rippled through me, and I gasped. “Dare!”

“What? Like I care. Let’s get this over with,” he grumbled.

I shook my head and didn’t reply. I wasn’t really going to tell mother, but he couldn’t speak that way around the littles. Guards hate street kids already, without having a seven year-old shouting profanities in the market. If given half a chance they would, and at the worst time possible.

The stairs continued downward. The only sounds in the tight space were the splats of water off the stalactites Dare was more cautious about, and the soft shuffle of our feet. Just when I wondered if we’d reach the Netherrealms, the floor bottomed out. The final step down was jarring. I’d expected another step, but was instead met with floor, and I had to catch myself before I fell.

Dare snickered. “Serves you right.”

I continued my earlier tactic to ignore him, and looked around. The cave had a bluish-green glow. I approached a wall, curious about the light, and discovered it was some kind of fuzzy plant.

“Look at this, Dare,” I said, and reached out to touch whatever it was.

Dare slapped my hand down, and the sound echoed through the large chamber.

“You don’t know what that is, Jolly. Don’t go touchin’ it!” he admonished.

I glowered at him, but didn’t respond. Instead, a scraping sound, like something heavy being dragged across the floor, filled the cave. It was punctuated by something striking the limestone at regular intervals. I swallowed, and exchanged a wide-eyed glace with Dare.

“What is this? Two little godlings come prancing to my parlor, like little flies to the spiders web,” an old woman’s voice cackled.

To say her words bounced off the walls would be inaccurate. They reverberated through the chamber, like the vibration of a bell being rung. Along with the other sounds, it made it impossible to tell where Babaga was.

I swallowed again, my voice not wanting to cooperate. “Not flies to a spider’s web, but instead children to seek a wise woman’s advice,” I replied, voice tremulous and hopeful.

No one knew what Babaga was, or how old. The one god I’d asked who’d been around as long as, or longer than, Kairon, said she’d been there before the city was built.

“‘No,’ proclaims the tiny fly, ‘I’m not here for tea.’ Instead it seeks to gather knowledge of what is meant to be,” she continued in an eerie sing-song voice, then clapped and squealed with glee after she was finished.

“Yes, Kairon sent us,” I said slowly, not sure if I should mention the priggish god. With how Kairon reacted to her visit, and how Kairon acted in general, doing so was hit or miss on whether it would be helpful. Or not.

I inched forward, toward what I guessed was the middle of the cave. Dare held the back of my shirt in a tight grip. Each time I moved forward he protested by pulling on my shirt, but moved along reluctantly with me when I wouldn’t stop.

“‘The snake has sent us from his lair, to roust the spider out.’ Her venom weakened the vain god’s nerve, and with his forked tongue seeks to stay the inevitable with little morselssss.” The final word was drawn out and sibilant, and it made my breath catch.

“Are you saying he sent us down here to die?” I asked. Dare froze behind me, and sucked in a breath.  We both stopped moving forward.

“Such a smart little insect. Woe, too late. Dinnertime is upon us, and gazing makes us so hungry.” Babaga’s voice deepened with the final word, and came out as a growl from all sides.

“Hark!” a voice boomed from behind us, shaking the ground and rattling our teeth.

Dare and I screeched in surprise, while Babaga howled in anger. There was also a thread of fear in the sound, or maybe I was projecting. Or hoping.

“The pretty bird has come to eat the ssspider,” she hissed. “Would it care for little insects instead?”

“Nay, vile creature. Speak, and give no further chase,” the voice continued.

Slowly, I turned to look past Dare, whose eyes were closed and his head shaking ‘no’ in a continuous motion. I always had to look.

They were tall and male. Even if the light hadn’t been almost too dim to see him, his hood was too deep and pulled too low to make out his face. A soft, white glow emanated from behind him. It threw a shadow over his body, which was covered from neck to floor with a robe that was gray in the gloom. There was also a strain in the air around him, like a person holding a rope on a pulley, trying to keep a boulder from falling to the floor.

“Clever little flies should remember birds eat them, too,” Babaga said.

I whipped my head back toward her. I’d never actually seen Babaga before; only heard stories. Judging by the scream trying to scramble from my throat like a cat out of a tub full of water, the stories didn’t do her justice.

She’d said she was a spider, and she wasn’t far off. Her mouth was small and pursed, revealing only pointed upper and lower front teeth. She scuttled over the floor. Her elbows were out wide with spindly arms, and her legs were similarly frail and in a position impossible for a human–thighs in a straight line with her hips, and feet flat on the floor. Her hands had only two finger-like protrusions, and an opposable thumb. One of them held a thick, gnarled cane, which was probably what made the thumping noise as she tried to walk earlier. What little clothing she had was ragged, and didn’t manage to cover much of her body and its coarse, white hair.

It was the eyes, though, that got me; twitching and moving in different directions. All eight of them. They were a dull bluish-green, much like the glowing plants on the walls.

“Enough,” the man boomed again. “Speak.”

Babaga screeched and cowered back from the voice, as though it hurt her. She hissed between pointed teeth, and glowered with a few of her eyes at us.

“Three. Questions three I’ll answer thee. Ask them right, or doomed you’ll be,” she spat, unhappy and reluctant.

You ever had one of those moments where you a thousand questions were running through your mind, but the minute you get a chance to ask them you go blank? I was having one of those. It also didn’t help that I was stuck between a creature that wanted to eat me, and likely could, as well as a creature that the first was afraid of.

What had I gotten us into?

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Four

Chapter Four

 

“A demon? Aren’t those just fairy stories the humans tell?” Dare scoffed at the god’s proclamation. As for me, it sent a cold, slimy worm of dread wriggling through my belly.

“You are young in existence and naive of mind if you believe demons to be human stories,” Kairon replied coldly, addressing Dare for the first time.

“We’re almost as old as you are,” Dare countered. It was true, though Dare acted the age he looked, instead of how old he was. To be fair, that was in our construct. After 300 years or so, even the youngest of gods will mature a little, most of the time. Dare was the exception to quite a few rules.

“Mother seemed to think someone has messed with our memories. She recognized…something about him when I showed her, but couldn’t put her finger on what,” I said, pulling Kairon’s attention back to me.

The news deepened the worried frown on his visage. He leaned forward, threaded his fingers together, put his elbows on his knees, and pushed his thumbs against his lower lip in contemplation.

“I do not like this. Memories removed, and a demon supposedly in the city.” I bristled at the ‘supposedly’, but fumed internally instead of protesting out loud. It would only serve to offend Kairon, and we needed what information he had.

“But you’re expecting some kind of trouble,” Dare interjected, and gestured to the totems in the shadows of the shrine.

Kairon hesitated for only a moment, and something passed through his eyes.

“Babaga paid me a visit,” he muttered, even more annoyed by this news than he was at Dare’s presence.

I recoiled from his words, and Dare cursed. No one knew exactly what Babaga was, but she was older than dirt and scary as all get-out. No one wanted her to pay them a visit, as she always bore unwelcome news, but no one turned her away. She wasn’t evil, but she wasn’t playing for team good, either.

“What did that crone want?” Dare spat the words like a bad taste in his mouth that lingered longer than it was welcome.

“That is my business, but she did say something was coming,” Kairon said, then paused as a thoughtful expression came over him. “Maybe you should pay her a visit.”

Dare jumped like a pincher beetle bit him. “Are you freakin’ out of your gourd?” he yelled. The totems stirred restlessly, and my breath caught as they rumbled their displeasure at Dare’s antics.

I grabbed a fistful of his dirty tunic and yanked him back down to the mat. “Sit down,” I hissed, and he fell unceremoniously to his rump with a loud thump. He glared daggers at me, but I had a warhammer in my glare, and he backed down. I’d take sullen and quiet over loud and getting us killed, even if it meant he’d get me back for it later.

“I apologize, Kairon; you know Dare has no manners.” The last came out harsh, and directed more toward Dare than Kairon.

Kairon nodded synpathetically, and didn’t look toward the other god again. “As I said, I believe you should pay her a visit. It may be most enlightening.” Kairon’s words had a finality about them, so I stood and bowed again. This time a little lower than I had before to make up for Dare’s attitude. Then Dare stood and bowed, more angry than mocking now. It wasn’t as low as he should have, so I put my hand on the back of his head and shoved him down till he was level with me.

“We appreciate this, Kairon, and will do as you suggest,” I said. Kairon waved a hand through the air, dismissing us, and we headed back out of the shrine.

Once we were a couple streets away, Dare whirled on me, fists ready to fly. I was prepared for it, though. He was seething through the link, and I was set to handle whatever impulsive action he was about to take.

“What’s the big idea, you little bitch?” he growled, standing on the balls of his feet for quicker movements, and ready to throw down.

“Kairon is an arrogant ass,” I said, and my proclamation threw him so off balance he stumbled forward. His mental and physical floundering gave me time to continue without fear of being walloped. “But you have to tread carefully around his ego, or he clams up faster than, well, a clam. We needed information,” I reminded him.

“I ain’t gonna be no bootlicker,” he said, falling into the familiar lingo of the street kids, and spat on the ground.

“Nobody said you were,” I ground out, finally starting to lose my patience with his accusation that I was a bootlicker. “You have to play his game, or you don’t get what you want. We found out who the man with the silver eyes is, even if we don’t know why our memories of demons,” I choked on the word in disbelief, “are gone. We also got another lead: Babaga.”

“Some lead,” he said, and scuffed the ground. He knew he’d hit a nerve, though he’d never apologize. His averted gaze, staring at the cobblestones that had been swept for the evening, was as close as I would get to him making amends. Then his head shot up as he felt my decision resonate through the link. “You aren’t thinking about seeing that old witch, are you?”

“We have to.”

“Uh, we have to go see her just about as much as we need a visit to Hollow.”

I shuddered. “Don’t talk about that place–it’s nothing alike.”

Hollow was where gods went, or rather were sent, when they’d become useless or gone crazy from disbelief. It wasn’t so much a place, as an entity that absorbed the gods and dispersed their energy back through the world. Making way for other gods to be created. Devourers, on the other hand, consumed the energy and gave nothing back. It was reincarnation versus a dead end–literally.

While one sounds infinitely more useful than the other, neither was a fate any god wanted.

“We don’t know what she is, or what she wants. She could kill just as easily help us,” he pointed out, and I didn’t disagree with him. But…maybe I was too curious for my own good.

“If you want to go back to Haven, I won’t fault you, but I’m going to visit her,” I said, firm in my decision.

“We got what we wanted from Kairon, and I don’t think Mother or Bash would like this,” Dare warned, a last ditch effort to sway me with the threat of Bash’s and Mother’s wrath.

I shrugged. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

With that, I headed northeast. Dare gave a resigned sigh, and followed me not long after I started running. Our destination was the entrance to a cave system connected to the sewers beneath the city, known as the Atramen Caves. Since they were beneath the city we were still technically within city limits, and were able to go there.

Able, but not willing. Though there was a demon running around who could control Devourers, and I was more concerned about where we were currently headed. I knew a Devourer would eat me, but what I didn’t know was what Babaga would do if she wasn’t up for visitors.

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Three

Chapter Three

 

“Do we really need to go see that old, wet blanket?” Dare complained, not for the first time since leaving camp.

Our footfalls made no noise as we ran down the dirt, then cobbled streets. Everything was built better the closer you got to the palace. The cobblestones smoothed out, and the design of the houses was grander and increasingly spaced out. The number of guards went up, too.

“Mother said it would help us figure out who the man with the silver eyes is,” I replied, also not for the first time.

The lamplight cast a ruddy orange glow on us and everything we passed. The magefire lamps were only in the wealthier areas. Novice fire mages went out into the city, and with a snap of a finger they lit the lamps. Closer to where we lived they still used oil lamps. The danger of an accidental fire was higher with them. I preferred the soft yellow glow, almost like good butter, of the oil lamps over the harsh orange of the magefire.

Dare scoffed. “He let you go, didn’t he? I say we leave well enough alone, and no trouble will come our way.”

I frowned. It was true, he let me go, but it seemed conditional. Like he was waiting on something before coming back and having his Devourer eat me. “Your determination has not yet been made…” His chilling words were brittle and sharp in my mind, as though they could cut me simply by thinking them. I shuddered. Dare was wrong. He may have let me be, but there was an invisible guillotine hovering over my neck. All our necks.

I didn’t reply this time, and Dare fell into a grudging silence. Though his construct was meant to defy authority and bend the rules, there was a limit. When four of the five of us made up our mind about something, he had to go along even if he didn’t agree with it. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave me to be eaten by a Devourer because he didn’t care, he just didn’t want to go to Kairon’s.

Something was…off when we got to Kairon’s shrine. Two guards were outside the wrought-iron gate. Beyond that patrols ranged the grounds, and yet more guards were posted at the entrance to the shrine’s main building.

Dare and I exchanged raised eyebrows.

“Well, Mister High and Mighty seems worried about something.” He stood with his hands on his hips as he took in the sight. “I’ve never seen so many totems.”

He was right. The guards were totems, not humans, and there were more posted here than I’d seen before in the entire city, combined. Totems were made of various materials, depending on what’s handy: wood, metal, stone. They could be formed into anything, like animals and giants. Usually, though, they were human-shaped, above average human height, and a little wider. The bigger the totem, the more power it took to maintain it. What struck me was the sheer number of totems, and how well they were constructed and maintained. To have this many, operating independently, and made of stone? I couldn’t conjure this much power if I had fifty years to gather it.

We slowly approached the gate. We didn’t know what the totems’ orders were. Rather than being skewered or chopped in two by the wicked sharp halberds, we were cautious. The weapons weren’t made of stone like them. The poles were a sturdy wood, and the blades were metal and glowing a strange blue. Like when lightning hits the ocean. Their heads were nothing more than chiseled, solid stone helmets. It matched the rest of them, as though they were armored in solid stone.

“Identify yourself,” one of the totems said. It was difficult to tell which. Totems always had this strange echoing rasp, and no faces or mouths that moved while they talked.

“We are Play and Prank from Haven, and we wish to speak with Kairon,” I replied, my voice only a little wobbly. I didn’t know what the weapons were enchanted with, but I imagined it wouldn’t do me any good to find out.

Most weapons couldn’t kill gods. Devourers could, of course. Then there were special magics that could do it, but only other gods possessed such power. I didn’t know if Kairon had the halberds forged to kill gods. The need to do so was rare, but by the looks of the weapons, Kairon was ready for anything. Just in case.

There was a long pause, and I had to wonder if totems could think. It was a silly thought, since totems could only follow orders. Sure, these ones could probably do a wide range of actions, but only what was given to them by their creator. Anything outside those bounds, like authorizing people to go into the shrine, they would not do.

Just when I started to think we should hightail it out of there before we lost our heads, the totems rumbled as the rocks ground together when they moved from in front of the gate.

“Access granted. Do not leave the path. Go straight to the shrine building.”

The gate swung open on silent hinges. Dare and I made our way past them, pace quick and shoulders tight.

“Thank you,” I managed to say, voice breathless with fear as passed. Then Dare laughed at me, and I almost slapped my forehead. Totems don’t usually get manners put into their understanding. It would be like thanking a building for standing there.

“You are welcome,” one of them replied.

Shock jolted through me as though I was hit over the head by a club, and I started at the response. My mouth hung open, and I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking until Dare pulled on my arm.

“Come on, Jolly,” he urged. When I stumbled as he pulled me off balance, the movement got my brain working again.

“Did it…?” I couldn’t even finish the question.

“Yeah, it did,” he said, his thoughts darkening his face. “For him to make them that sentient–” he stopped mid-sentence, not sure where to go with it, and shook his head.

“Then worried doesn’t even begin to cover how he’s feeling. Still think we shouldn’t have come?” I gave a verbal jab. He scowled, but didn’t answer.

The path to the shrine had smooth, white gravel, like thousands of tiny eggs shifting beneath our feet. The patrols who crossed the path paused to let us go by before continuing on their circuit. They moved over the grass, and it took me a moment to realize why they didn’t leave torn earth in their wake. They were walking on the air, about an inch above the ground.

All this going on, yet Kairon was still worried about how his grass looked. A laugh sputtered out of me, and Dare’s head jerked to me at the sound.

“What?” he asked, glowering at me for surprising him. I pointed out what the totems were doing, and Dare scoffed. “What a persnickety jackass.”

I shushed Dare, casting a nervous glance to the totems. “Oh, get over it. If they were going to attack me, they’d have done it at the gate. Kairon knows what I think of him.”

Well, he wasn’t wrong.

I relaxed a little. “That doesn’t mean you need to tempt fate with all our lives,” I reminded him. He rolled his eyes, but said nothing more.

I wasn’t wrong, either.

The shrine was as old as the city itself. In fact, it was the first building they erected when they decided to establish the city. The wood was sturdy, old, but well-maintained. The front archway stood over a large offering box. The roof was triangular, but curved inward with shingles painted white. It was perpendicular to the roof over the rest of the shrine, but twice the width of the porch, in length, to the right and the left. Just beyond the archway was a small porch that ran the length of the building, and all the way around.

We moved past the box, along with two more guards, and went to the polished, dark walnut double-doors. There were four guards here, two on each side, and the ones closest to the doors opened them for us. Despite the doors’ weight, the totems opened them easily, and the hinges made no noise, just like the gate. The only sound was from the totems, their rocks grinding and grumbling as they moved.

The inside was lit by magefire, and was a wide, open space with mats evenly spaced over the floor. They were for worshipers to come in and pray. An aisle was clear through the middle, leading to the back to a raised platform. On the platform was a low couch, though calling it a couch was too banal. Yet calling it a throne would be too extravagant. It was so low, that if a person put their feet flat on the ground, their knees would rise above their waist, making them look as though they were crouching.

Kairon sat on it, his ankles crossed loosely on a small, golden cushion on the floor.

“Welcome, Haven gods,” he greeted. His voice was silvery, almost musical. He held his arms out and away, with palms toward the vaulted ceiling with wooden beams. Incense wafted through the air, making it a little hazy, and the scent of nutmeg hung on the air like a heavy curtain.

“Greetings, and well met, Kairon, god of wealth and prosperity,” I replied. I tilted my chin a little to the left and dropped my head a touch, as well as executing a small bow. Mine was deferential, giving respect to a god far more powerful than me. Kairon was always a stickler for etiquette.

Dare’s bow, on the other hand, tread the line of mocking and disrespect. It was nothing new, though, and Kairon didn’t even break eye contact with me to look at him.

“What brings you to my shrine this lovely day?” he asked. He lowered his arms, and placed his hands, one over the over, lightly on his lap.

After he spoke, an acknowledgement that we could proceed, we walked to the final row of cushions in front of the platform.

“Why do you have so many totems wandering your grounds on such a lovely day, keeping your worshipers at bay?” I asked, gesturing to the empty cushions.

Kairon’s shrine was never empty. Someone was always praying to him for prosperity and money. Kairon could be officious, and I didn’t have a lot of time to tiptoe around his ego. Plus, catching him off guard might reveal more information than he would be willing to give us. You never knew.

Surprise fluttered through his eyes. A jolt of displeasure tainted the air, and it left the taste of copper on the back of my tongue. It took all my willpower not to smack my lips and swallow to be rid of the taste.

“I expect such insolence from Dare, but not you, Jolly. I thought you knew better.” His voice was sad, and it made the air heavy and oppressive. I had to swallow back tears and the urge to throw myself to the ground, begging forgiveness. Dare grabbed my hand, and our connection bolstered my resolve.

The more powerful gods could evoke emotions in others with theirs–even lesser gods. It was how they inspired people who visited their shrines. When humans came to Kairon’s, they left with a spring in their step. They believed they’d be successful and profitable, or whatever their desire was. The gods actually did very few miracles, where they actively bent the fabric of fate, reality, or whatever to give a person their desired outcome. Most of the time they simply inspired people to better their situations themselves.

Kairon doing this to fellow gods was a slap in the face. However, it was overlooked and not given much attention when done to gods like Dare and me. We might be gods, but we were not his equals. The only reason I could resist was because of my bond with the others. Mother had been right to send Dare with me. Not just for added help in avoiding Devourers, but protection from Kairon, too.

So what did I do about his blatant insult? Ignored it.

“I saw a man with silver eyes tonight.”

This time his astonishment reared him back as though I’d been the one to slap him.

“You lie,” he said, breathless, and dropping any pretense of protocol.

“I do not,” I said, firm and unwavering.

For the first time in my existence, Kairon looked worried. He ran a long-fingered hand, heavy with rings of various metals and gems, through his short, golden hair. As the strands moved, they reflected the magefire, as though they were made of the metal he promised to people.

“This is…disturbing, to say the least,” he finally said after a long, tense silence.

“Who is he?” Dare asked, finally speaking. I opened my mouth to warn him not to piss Kairon off, but he gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. Or maybe he was telling me to shut up. If I had to bet, I’d say the latter.

Kairon waved a hand through the air. “Who he is, is not important. He is merely one amongst many,” Kairon said, dismissing the question. “What is important, is what he is.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, and exchanged a wary glance with Dare.

“What is he, then?” I asked, wondering if I wanted to know.

Kairon leveled an ominous look at the two of us. His eyes, gold as all gods’ eyes are golden, reflected the magefire like two coins out of the many in his vast fortune.

“He is a demon, and his coming spells doom for our city.”

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter Two

Chapter Two

 

Mother was not pleased. What else was new?

Even though I was one of the fastest in the camp, Bash could teleport at will, the tattletale. When I made it to the heart of the camp, not far from where the river ran beneath the bridge, she was waiting. She’d never been tall, and had the perpetual appearance of a sixteen year-old. Street kids were wary of full-grown adults. Mother looked old enough to hold authority over the littles, but not so old as to be a threat.

Her high low skirt and matching sleeveless top were a faded mauve, and wrinkled, while the leggings beneath were the color of wheat. She had freedom of movement, but it also gave the toddlers a skirt to clutch as she cooked or did chores. Her bare feet were slender and tanned, and moved quiet and nimble from sleeping children and between toys.

Where my golden eyes were molten, hers were flecks layered one over the other, like rose petals. Not to mention scowling like a cat who’d had its tail stepped on.

“How could you do something so stupid?” she demanded.

The activity in the camp had slowed as I approached. They knew something was up because Mother was pacing in her usual spot on the ground. Normally it was for the kids who were out, yet hadn’t come back in a timely fashion. Not this time. Now everyone hushed, and watched with unabashed curiosity as Mother began her tirade.

“If you die, we all die, Jolly,” she said, as though I didn’t know that already.

I mumbled as much under my breath, and her delicate nostrils flared. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” I replied, sullen. She took a breath to continue her verbal lashing, but I interrupted. “Did Bash tell you what happened?”

“Yes. He told me you met a Devourer while out trying to find some silly new game. That you were lucky to get away alive,” she said from between clenched teeth. Trying as best she could to find patience.

I fumed. Typical Bash, only telling her what he thought was important, and not what was really important. Trying to get out of sharing what I saw. He was also conspicuously absent. Jerk.

“Did he tell you someone was controlling the Devourer?”

“No one controls Devourers,” she said, brushing me off. In a roundabout way she called me a liar at worst, and foolish and mistaken at the least.

“Well, this guy was.” I exhaled slow, ready for a fight at my next words. “I want to meld to show you what happened.”

“Absolutely not! Dinner is cooking–”

“Dinner isn’t important right now!”

A low muttering went up in the camp. Food and meals were close to the divine to these kids. What I’d said was near sacrilege. Some were angry, mostly the younger kids. Others were thoughtful and concerned. They recognized the gravity of what I said, in light of my knowledge of their lives.

“I can handle dinner until you finish,” an older, quieter girl offered, her voice soft. Coye has been with us since she was three. It’d taken her three years to utter a single word, even though she knew how to talk. Mother sensed something terrible had happened to her, but Coye never spoke of it. To this day, she hid behind her black, long curtain of hair, and slouched to hide the fact she was taller than average for a girl.

Mother frowned. We tread carefully with Coye, because she was fragile as spun glass. Any little negative comment or action could send her cowering for days. Refusing to eat or speak with us. Mother was backed into a corner, and she knew it. I could have cheered, but that was a little too smug. Though by the look Mother shot me that could scald like boiled water, I didn’t need to say anything. She could sense my triumph.

Mother tossed her golden blond plait over her shoulder, and gave a disdainful sniff. It was her sign that she was going to try and be a bigger god than me, even though she thought I was being ridiculous.

“Spud is still out, and Dare is nearby but hiding,” she said, as though she had a bad taste in her mouth saying the latter’s name.

“I’m here,” Dare piped up, sitting on top of one of the tents with his legs crossed. Though no human could sit up there, he could. He was only a bit more substantial than me, but could alter his density to be feather light. It came in handy when you were trying to hide and spook the kids.

Dare was the other end of the fun spectrum from me. Where my smile was full of joy, his was roguish. Where I teased, he taunted. Physically we were a match, except for our hair. His was blacker than the tar they used on the ships in the bay.

“Do you know where Spud is?” Mother asked, hands on her hips.

“Like I keep up with potato head.” He scoffed, and reclined back, hands laced behind his head.

Mother ground her teeth. She did that when Dare got obstinate.

“I’m here,” Spud said, raising a hand in greeting as he made his way between the tents. He had several other kids in tow, all carrying dirty flour sacks of varying size. They were his scavenger crew. They went out with him to forage, work, or beg for food. We called him Spud, because more often than not we ended up with potatoes.

“Jolly wants to meld,” Mother said, letting the scorching tone in her voice convey just how pleased she was at the prospect.

Spud shrugged. His wide, pleasant face, covered in freckles, showed no concern for the idea. If you went by size, Spud looked around the same age as Mother, maybe a little older. I’d seen mountains less solid than his sturdy frame, and shorter than his towering height. I always expected kids to be intimidated. I mean, who wouldn’t be a little scared of a guy whose hands were larger than most kid’s faces? They never were. In fact, the littles climbed all over him, or begged for rides on his shoulders and back. He complied, amiable about it all.

After a long moment, he spoke. “If that’s what Jolly wants, I don’t see why not.”

Mother huffed out an exacerbated sigh, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Because we are vulnerable to attack when we do that,” she reminded him.

Spud shrugged again. It wasn’t as though Spud was slow in the mind. He took his time with his thoughts almost more than he did with his physical actions. A snail could beat the guy in a race.

With three out of five for the meld, I’d won. It was a risk, but I needed them to see I wasn’t making things up, and if I was right to worry about the situation.

Mother closed her eyes, her mouth pressed in a thin, annoyed line, and mentally called Bash.

He popped in. Pissed enough at the situation that he didn’t control the displaced air, and it sent a whoosh of dust in all directions away from him.

“I asked you not to do that in camp. I don’t want the children to get dirt in their eyes,” Mother scolded. At least it wasn’t aimed at me this time.

Bash ignored her, which he was wont to do with each of us at one time or another. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Bash put his staff on the ground, not worried about the kids messing with because it was too heavy for them. Spud ambled forward. Dare dropped from the top of the tent, light as a cat. I stepped forward and held out a hand to Mother. I kept it flat, palm down. She put hers under mine, leaving space for Spud to put his right above hers, and resting on it, and Bash’s above his. My hand went on top of Bash’s, and his irritation sizzled along my skin like bacon in a hot pan. Dare put his over mine, and the link deepened.

The order of our hands represented the foundation of our construction. Parent, unconditional love, forgiving, strength of soul: Mother. Provider, dependable, gentle, strength of body: Spud. Protector, determined, watchful, strength of mind: Bash. Play, happy, free, strength of heart: Me. Prank, mischievous, brave, strength of personality: Dare.

The P five of Haven, as the stranger said.

Once the deeper link established itself, we ‘pushed’ our energies out to our connected hands. A golden light, like the tendril of a vine, moved from each of us like a snake moving slow through grass. I closed my eyes against the brightness of Mother’s, Spud’s, and Bash’s. Their lights were always stronger than Dare’s and mine. It was one reason why they were as substantial as any human.

It was also why they thought they were far more important.

When the energy met over our hands, it combined into a little ball. My sense of self shifted from within me, to a spherical chamber. It was bright, as though made from sunbeams. Created from a melding of all five of our minds, it allowed us to see and experience things the others had gone through. Our normal link gave us a sense of what was going on, but this was profound. We were as close to one another as any beings–human or divine–could get.

“Show us,” Mother said, her voice echoing and impatient.

I moved to the center of the sphere, not exactly walking since we didn’t have a physical body to move. It was more like gliding. The others gathered around. There was a pool of swirling, opaque white liquid in a shallow basin on a pedestal. Almost like watered down milk, but more pearlescent. You could never see father than an inch in, but I was never tempted to put my hand to the bottom.

Instead, I touched a single finger into the water, no farther than the first knuckle and right near the rim. I closed my non-existent eyes, and recalled the incident with the man. I played through the entire encounter. When I finished, I almost opened my eyes.

“Once more,” Bash demanded.

I complied.

When I got to a point where I faced the man, full on, Mother spoke up.

“Hold it there,” she said. Her voice was close, as though she leaned over the pool to get a better view.

I kept the image of the man firm in my mind’s eye, never wavering from the cold eyes and emotionless face.

“Enough,” she said, after what seemed like forever.

I let go of vision, and it scattered like marbles dropped on the ground. I opened my eyes, taking in the hovering visions of my fellow gods. Spud’s usually unconcerned demeanor was worried, his thick sandy brown eyebrows drawn down in concern. Mother and Bash were grim as look passed between to the two. When I turned to Dare, he just shrugged.

“Do you see what I mean?” I asked.

Mother turned to face me, her expression not changing.

“We need to get back to the camp,” she said, without answering my question.

I went to protest, but Spud held up a hand. “She’s not dismissing your concern, Jolly. We just need to get back to the kids. The barriers are down with Bash in here, and the littles are getting hungry. Coye has never been good at keeping them at bay, and you know how we have to ration,” he said, his voice slow and steady as the march of time.

I huffed out a sigh, but nodded. We started the process of going back to our physical forms. It was much like trying to untangle a ball of knotted twine. Time-consuming and tedious.

Once back in our bodies, we dropped our hands. Bash gave one, hard look at Mother, then popped back to reconnect with the boundaries. Spud ambled over to where Coye was, almost hyperventilating from all the children’s loud complaining. When he took over stirring the soup, Coye scampered off to her tent. Only Dare, Mother, and I remained.

“What is going on?” I asked. It was odd. I should have most of the same base knowledge as the others. There are certain things we don’t share, because the others don’t care to know. I don’t care about how to plant and harvest food. Bash doesn’t care about knowing how to play checkers. Spud doesn’t care about the best places in the camp to surprise a kid, and so on.

“I don’t know exactly,” she admitted.

I scoffed. “You three have to know something, or you wouldn’t look so distressed,” I accused.

“I’m not lying. I don’t know exactly. It just seems as though I should,” she said, frustrated, and almost to herself. “When I saw his eyes, something squirmed at the back of my brain. Something telling me it’s important.”

If she didn’t look so confused and bothered by her statement, I would have said, ‘I told you so’. I also didn’t point out that we technically didn’t have brains, since we were flesh and blood.

“What do you think we should do?” Dare asked. He wasn’t precisely concerned, but he wasn’t his usual joking self, either. The gravity of the man with the silver eyes was affecting us all.

“I think,” she started, her words slow, “that you and Jolly need to go see Kairon.”

Dare made a rude noise, and my eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Why do we need to go see him?” I asked. At the same time, Dare muttered, “Pretentious twat.”

“Because I think we were made to forget whatever this is. If anyone knows who, or what, that man is, and why our memories are gone, he would,” she said.

“Why do both of us need to go?” Dare whined. All concern for the situation, gone, in light of who we were visiting.

“Because it’s too dangerous for Jolly to go alone,” she said, and made a shooing motion at us.

I shrugged, and turned to leave the camp, and Dare dragged his feet through the dirt. As we passed, Spud was still stirring the soup so slow, you’d think it was made of molasses.

When we came up even with him, he said, “Don’t be gone too long. You know how Mother worries.”

 

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter One

Chapter One

 

If I had a heart, it’d be pounding quicker than the sticky fingers of the kids who created me. I slid into a darkening alley, my footfalls softer than the down of a chick, and my presence no more substantial than a shadow. My slight frame, forever the size of an eight year old, fit easily between the grey, stone wall of the bakery, and a couple stacks of wooden crates leaning haphazardly against it. I held a breath I didn’t need to take, and waited.

A snuffling, like a combination of a pig rooting through a trough and a dog scenting a rabbit, came first. Through the spaces between the boards, I watched a nose appeared around the corner. It was slitted, with four of them on each side of a long, slender, fox-like snout, and when it breathed in and out they quivered. Its mouth hung open as it panted, while its tongue lolled over teeth that were jagged as broken glass. It had ears like a bat, and no eyes, but there were saucer-like indents in its skull where eyes would have been. The skull itself was wide, almost like a bear’s. It finished revealing itself, and blocked the exit to the alley all in one go. The body was that of a jackal, while its twin tails twitched like a cat’s. The color of its hairless, taught skin, though, wasn’t black as humans perceived black, but the complete absence of color: a void. Its mere presence sucked in the light around it, and threw nothing back for eyes to see.

Devourer. 

I swallowed involuntarily. Devourers ate gods, and though I was nothing more than a wisp of a god, a god I was. Gods were born from humans; their thoughts, wishes, desires, and so on. There were the larger, more powerful gods, who represented the strongest of human emotions: hate, love, greed, generosity, sorrow, joy, debauchery, virtue, and such.

Me? I was the culmination of the orphans, the street kids–the unwanted–of the city. I was a minor god, or probably less than a minor god. I was barely visible even to the children who conjured me, because the wishes of broken children are fragile things. Easily destroyed, easily forgotten, and easily left behind when adulthood comes calling.

Adults were stronger, and it showed in their gods. I endured, but they did, too, and were powerful besides.

Noting that the Devourer hadn’t moved, I admitted I could do with a little less endurance and a little more power. They rarely bothered the powerful gods, who could perform blessings of peace or destruction to be rid of the dangerous creatures. Those without such power had no option but to run. I didn’t even have the option of calling for help. The powerful gods wouldn’t care to save a god they considered worth no more than the scum on a lakebed, the weaker gods would have run themselves, and the average human couldn’t see Devourers, let alone combat them. The oblivious chattering of the residents in the evening’s soft, fading light, was muffled and unconcerned. Lucky them.

It stood, still as a statue, and waited. The only advantage being so puny afforded me, was that my scent was barely discernible to Devourers. Then it did something that, in my three hundred or so years of existence, I’d never seen before. It shuddered, and in the depression where eyes would be something bubbled through the skin, but didn’t break it. It was similar to the ‘lahva’ people spoke of from other lands; liquid rock that could destroy with its mere presence.

What bubbled out pooled in the depression, until it became like a fly’s eye: bulging, circular, and unblinking. Instead of being red, as lahva was often described, it was a sickly green, like some of the potions I’d seen kids snag from apothecaries in the city.

After the whatever-it-was finished coming out, the Devourer zeroed in on where I hid. A growl rumbled in its gut, as though another animal resided there, in combination with a hiss from the back of its throat, like that of an angry snake.

“What is it, Shinkuma?” a soft voice asked, and the Devourer turned its head toward something out of sight of the alley, its tails twitching in what might be called happiness, if they experienced such a thing. The utter lack of emotion in the words, comparable in many ways to the beast’s lack of color, sent a sensation of spiders crawling down my spine.

The Devourer swung its head back toward me, and made another rumbling hiss. Despite being mostly incorporeal, I still interacted with the physical world. I couldn’t walk through the walls to escape, and though I was created to be exceedingly quick, the Devourers were quicker.

I’m sorry, Bash, you were right; I shouldn’t have gone out. He’d never weep for me. His construction held no room for one of my primary traits: curiosity. He protected, and made safe the unwanted children, so he was stern yet gentle, and he regarded me with thinly veiled disdain most of the time. There was also no tolerance for intruders, and they were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.

There was movement at the entrance, and my molten gold eyes widened in shock when they locked with the unfeeling, silver eyes of a tall, slender man. His clothing spoke of old wealth, with loose, silk pants that were gathered just below the knee and wrapped down to the ankles, and were dyed the black of a moonless night. His shirt, made of the same flowing material, was the purest of white, and tucked into the top of his pants. He had a fitted, knee-length, long sleeved jacket on, despite the intense heat of the summer, which was made from a stiffer material, black, with silver buttons and embroidery. Ankle boots with low heels were a polished black, and lace-less, as though they simply came into existence on his feet. Maybe they had.

His face and nose were narrow, with skin pale as death itself, and thin lips that had never known a smile. His right hand, with long, agile fingers, rested casually on the hilt of an old, chipped sword, which looked as out of place on him as he did in the back alley of Lady Wept Hill. It did not have a sheath, and was slid through a wide, midnight blue silk belt.

“Come out, or Shinkuma will eat you,” he said, even and undemanding, but the underlying command in his lifeless words reverberated through my very bones.

“To make eating me easier? You did not say he would not eat me if I come out,” I replied, my voice small and wobbly.

I might have hated myself for it, if self-loathing was part of my construct. Fear was there, because in some forms of play fear existed, ready to be conquered, but the fear wasn’t always that precise during construct. It meant I could feel it in any form or fashion, not just in the healthy, fun way.

“If you do not come out, you will surely be eaten. If you do come out, you may yet live, lowly god,” he countered.

I huffed out an indignant scoff. I knew my rank among gods, but drawing attention to such a thing was callous, and tacky. Still, a slight existence was better than the oblivion of the Devourer’s gullet.

When I moved back out the way I’d come, I scowled at him from behind shaggy, poppy red bangs, as he examined my face with its smattering of freckles and smudges of dirt. The rest of my hair was curly and wild, barely brushing my narrow shoulders. The course material of my tunic-length, beachgrass green shirt was bunched in my small fists to keep them from shaking. The fitted shorts that stopped at my knobby knees were the same color and material, and like most kids whose age I reflected, I wore no shoes.

“Ah, I see. You are one of the ‘P’ five of Haven.” He considered me for a moment, and those eyes as cold as distant stars gave nothing away. “Which one are you? Not Protection, or Parent, I would wager,” he said, “since they are not able to leave the confines of Haven.”

“Play,” I said, sullenly, and crossed my arms over my chest.

“What is your True Name?” he asked.

I ground my teeth. “I do not give my True Name to those who threaten my life,” I growled, doing a weak imitation of the Devourer.

“You do not?” He tilted his head in consideration for a long moment, and it shifted his shoulder-length, silky hair, which was the grey of thunderstorm clouds. Just as with my heart, if I was capable of sweating I’d be doing so. The seconds ticked by, each more excruciating than the last as the Devourer’s attention remained unwavering on me. “As you say, then. Your determination has not yet been made, and you will not speak of this, or Shinkuma will destroy Haven. Do you understand, lowly god?”

Your determination has not yet been made. What in Celestial’s name did that mean? However, I nodded, a little too quick to support my bravado from moments before.

“Good.” Then he lifted his right hand from the sword’s hilt to eye level, and without breaking eye contact, snapped his fingers. The Devourer and the strange man vanished, and I very nearly collapsed to the ground.

Instead, I took a deep breath and leaned my back against the bakery’s wall. People, who were conspicuously absent when the man and the Devourer were here, walked by the entrance to the alley. They were running evening errands, or on their way home, and not one of them noticed me. Grownups rarely did, but at this particular moment it made me want to curl up on the cobblestones, still warm from the day’s heat, or maybe throw rocks at them to get them to notice me.

Neither options being particularly helpful, I fairly flew from Lady Wept back to Haven instead. I’d been there looking for new game ideas for the children, as well as potential new inhabitants. However, it would do no one any good if I were killed, so I cut my expedition short in light of the encounter with the man and the Devourer. The streets outside of Lady Wept were eerily quiet, as though they, too, wished to not draw attention to themselves, lest they be cut down or eaten. Or, maybe I was being melodramatic, and it was just the growing dark sending people into their homes. Imagination was not always the boon people made it out to be.

Haven, a place for children and children only, was tucked beneath one of the outer bridges of the city of Raventide. It wasn’t the largest of bridges in a city that boasted multiple canals, bridges, and a seaside view, since the homeless adults guarded such territories fiercely, but it was comfortable. The stone arch they resided under was all land, and was next to an arch over a small river, with the third arch also over water. It meant they had no territorial disputes over their bridge. It also provided water to drink, play, and wash in. It was warm in the shallows, yet still chilly in the deeper parts even in summer.

As I approached, the perimeter fence made from driftwood, and other foraged materials, glowed with a soft, blue radiance. Only gods, and those who manipulated god magic such as priests and priestesses, could see it. It was strong, and it had to be to withstand the adults, ever looking to kidnap and kill the children, or take Haven from us. It also enabled Protector–Bash–to teleport instantly to any point of the fence. It is directly connected to his essence, the way a child is connected to a mother by umbilical. It was his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness.

When I neared, there was a small pop of displaced air, and a short flash like the poppers given to children during festivals with fireworks.

“What happened?” Bash prompted. He was the size of a thirteen year-old kid, lanky in build, and wore no shoes. His ragged shorts were a ruddy brown, and held up by a length of jute rope just wider than his thumb. A tan, sleeveless shirt covering his lean chest was just as ragged as his shorts. Arrogance, reflected in his constructed age, tilted his chin upward, and he looked down on me in disapproval with golden eyes just like mine. There was a disdainful curl to his lips, and nostrils flared from annoyance, while his thick, black eyebrows were drawn down in a scowl. His chestnut hair was shorn close to his scalp, and I could see his deeply tanned skin through it.

“Jolly, did you hear me?” he asked, growing more impatient. “What happened? And don’t try to feed me dung and say nothing. We’re connected, Jolly; I know something happened,” he growled, and swung the staff, thick as a blacksmith’s bicep, with a single hand from where it rested over his shoulders, and slammed the metal-capped butt of it on the hard-packed, dusty earth. It would be impossible for a human to wield such a weapon, being far too wide for even two adult hands. However, since it was part of his construction and thus a part of him, it would never leave his hand unless he wished it, or he was dead.

“I ran into a Devourer–”

“Ravens of the Night take you, Jolly. Are you trying to get us, and yourself, killed? I told you–”

“Not to go out. Yes, I know, Bash,” I interrupted right back. “But the Devourer isn’t the problem–well, not the whole problem, at rate–the man controlling the Devourer, is.” I shuddered. The man told me not to speak of it, but there was something wrong, and it wasn’t as if Bash could leave and tell anyone, anyway.

“No one controls Devourers. They are controlled by nothing more than their hunger for gods.” He scoffed at me.

“I’m not lying! The man even had a name for it.” At the last moment, I didn’t divulge the name. Names were powerful, and if it was the Devourer’s True Name, it might summon the creature to us. “Anyway, the man had the strangest eyes, and there was no way he was human.”

“Of course he wasn’t human. Humans can’t see, hear, or feel Devourers as they can with gods.”

I sighed. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with Bash, and the others might not believe me, either. I needed to get everyone together to show them what happened. We were connected, since our construction happened at the same time, from a group wish made by the first unwanted children of Raventide, not long after its founding. That was three hundred-odd years ago, and Bash’s unwillingness to budge was unchanged in all those long years.

“Have the perimeters been quiet?” I asked, and scanned the area. Summer wasn’t as bad as winter for interlopers, but we had to be ever vigilant. There were always too many who would take advantage of any wavering in our protection.

“They have,” he admitted, grudgingly, not wanting to do what I wanted, but unable to tell a lie to me because of the connection.

“Good. Lets go get the others so I can show you all what happened. There’s no way this will bring anything positive to our doors.”

“We don’t have any doors in Haven,” Bash pointed out.

I rolled my eyes, and moved past him. Never did have a sense of humor. I jumped lightly over the glowing fence, and the familiar wave of hopes, fears, and dreams of the youngest of the unwanted of Raventide, washed over me. It was cleansing, and comforting, as though I’d reconnected with a piece of my soul.

Home. 

 

Fair to Middlin’: Final Chapter

Final Chapter

 

The mirror in my room reflected something I’d rarely seen: me in a new suit. I’d chosen pants–black–since healers could do little with burned flesh and my calf was a pit of scars. However, they made sure it remained operable, and though it was atrocious looking I knew I’d gotten off light. It’d taken a few weeks of physical therapy, in conjunction with the training I was doing to qualify for my new job, but the limp was gone and it only ached on rainy days.

No one could tell me what became of Apollo and Daphne, though I knew for sure she’d never returned to the sewers. The magical passageway was still there when I checked it out, but everything that had been in the chamber was gone–even the marble tree. Oliver reassured me that, if nothing had changed, we’d have likely seen something on the news if Apollo had gone on another rampage. The only indication I’d gotten that everything had turned out okay, was a bouquet of Laurel tree flowers that never died. I truly hoped it was a good sign.

I’d pulled half my hair back into a clip, and put on minimal make-up. The shirt beneath was a royal blue long-sleeved button-down, the jacket was black to match the pants, and I’d thrown on some new black hush puppies with a low heel and straps across the toes. The outfit was a congratulations from my parents, as well as their version of holding their breath; we all knew I’d never lasted long at a job, but we were all hoping this was different.

“I could have given you better, you know,” a familiar, low, sensuous voice crooned from my bed.

I shrieked like a banshee and spun around, nearly stumbling backwards into the mirror. He lounged across the bed, propped up on an elbow, his expensive suit as out of place in my apartment as a ball gown in a dive bar.

“I didn’t invite you in!” I scowled, breathless.

“Well, I am not a Vampire, so your invitation is not needed. Though, if you want to be technical, you have invited me into your life for the foreseeable future,” he said, reminding me of my debt to him. His honeyed words like a drug, loosening the muscles in my body and making my brain fuzzy. My eyes dropped, and I started to smile.

No! The word slammed through my mind like lineman with little resistance on the scrimmage. I straightened my slumping form, and glared at the demon.

“Stop that,” I growled. He wasn’t shocked at my resistance, but instead his grin broadened. “Why do you look like the cat who ate the canary?” I asked, not trusting his intentions one iota.

“This is going to be fun, little Mid. Try not to get too attached to Oliver; he does not always do what is best for his partner’s continued existence,” he purred, and promptly disappeared before I could say anything–or ask him what he was talking about.

My doorbell rang, and I swallowed the yelp before it came out. I’d need to steel my nerves if I was going to last even three days with the Omnies.

I strode over to the door, and opened it in what I hoped was a cool and calm manner. Oliver was on the other side, a half-smile greeting me.

“Nervous?” he asked.

I straightened my shoulders. “Of course not; lead the way.”

“Good. You’ll do great,” he reassured, and turned to head toward the stairs, me following behind.

We walked down the flight of stairs out to my stoop, where Viktor was sweeping, again. It was odd, to see him doing this when I knew who and what he was, but also not odd, because this fit him, too.

“First day?” he asked gruffly, and paused his work to lean on the broom.

“Yes,” I said, with only a slight tremor of excitement making my voice wobble.

“Don’t get eaten!” Techur called, then cackled, and Dan, Hank, Justin, and Gil followed suit.  They appeared from the side of the stoop, their yellow eyes dancing at my expense.

“Useless mutts,” Viktor grumbled, almost affectionately, and the little pack laughed again. “You should all be at work.”

“We wanted to see the mouthy meat off for her first day,” Techur countered, “and our bosses know we’re coming in a little late.” Then he turned to Oliver. “You watch out for her, Omnie, or I’ll rip your throat out.” There was a grumbling assent from the other Shifters, then Techur winked at me, and the group loped off to work.

Viktor harrumphed. “You make strange friends, kotyonok, but it suits you. Be careful,” he said, fondly, then went back to sweeping.

“No parting words for me?” Oliver joked as we made out way down the last few stairs.

Viktor didn’t stop sweeping to respond; “I do not need to say anything; you know I could do far worse to you than rip your throat out if any harm comes to her. I trust that it will not.” His accent deepened for a moment, and I’d turned to face him when he started to speak. There was a darkness there, etched into every line of his being, that spoke of someone far more dangerous than I knew. Viktor was still relaxed when he said it, but it was the calm before a potential and violent storm, and though Oliver didn’t tense up, he couldn’t quite relax the same way as the Vucari.

There was a tense moment where neither of them spoke, then Oliver tilted his head to the right and tilted it downward in the same show of respect Viktor had given him at the meeting.

“As you say,” Oliver said, then unlocked the car for the two of us to get in.

If I though my life was interesting before, it was nothing compared to what was likely ahead of me. I wanted a job, but you know what they say: be careful what you wish for.

 

Fair to Middlin’: Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

 

I was blinded, and I couldn’t move, but there was a jerk on the back of my shirt and I fell backward. A searing pain burned through my left calf, and if I hadn’t already lost my sight from the flash, it would have burst with stars from the agony. Burning flesh pervaded my nostrils, and the nausea roiling in my gut told me it might just be my flesh.

“Shit.” Oliver breathed the curse word in my ear. “Uh, well at least it’s cauterized.” Those were the last words I heard before my world tilted and I lost a few minutes of time.

When the world swam back into view, there was a tightness just below the knee, but no more arrows were thudding in the area. Instead, the noise was replaced by the barking of gunshots, and the closest was behind me from where I was laying on the ground.

“What happened?” I groaned, and tried to roll over.

Oliver’s hand pressed my shoulder back down to the ground. “You don’t want to do that. Trust me.”

“How long was I out?”

“Not long, but I can’t get you out of here. He took out all the ambulances, and any that tried to approach.”

“No one has shown up to help?” I asked, incredulous. How long would it take for some of the Greek gods to haul their rear ends down here and take care of their fellow god?

“Viktor is here nipping at his heels, and a few others are keeping him distracted now that we can see him.”

I grunted, and when Oliver looked away to take a shot at Apollo, I sat up and put my back against the mangled body of the patrol car. When I looked down at my leg, I gulped, and did my best not to throw up. My calf was torn, nearly in half, and the skin and flesh burned almost beyond recognition.

“I told you not to do that,” Oliver admonished, and took a few more shots.

Before I could respond with any acerbic wit, I caught sight of someone walking between the cars. My eyes widened as the smoke cleared and revealed Daphne, strolling with deliberate steps, over and between debris.

I blindly reached over and smacked Oliver to get his attention.

“What!?”

“Daphne’s here,” I managed to say, the words sticking unpleasantly in my throat.

“Daphne!” Apollo’s voice boomed as he rushed toward her. Daphne raised a hand in a sharp, cutting motion, and a stream of water lashed out at Apollo like a whip. His head jerked back, though no mark marred his skin. Perks of being a god, I supposed.

“You shall not have me, Apollo. Now leave in peace!” she demanded, but Apollo’s eyes shone with the fervor of intense, unrequited love.

“Daphne, come with me.” His voice was breathy, and he held out a hand to her.

“No.”

His face contorted in rage, and the police car closest to him suffered for her refusal. He threw it at one of the buildings, shattering windows and destroying the brick of the walls.

“Daphne, you’ve got to run. He’s not going to listen to reason, like I’d hoped,” Oliver shouted, but Daphne shook her head. Of course, she wasn’t the only one to hear him, and Apollo turned his attention to us.

“You! You’re the one who kept her hidden,” he accused, then his head tilted and his intense gaze took me in,” and you are the one who helped these lowly beings see me to attack me. You will both pay!”

“I think not!” Techur came out of nowhere and leapt onto Apollo’s back, then promptly suck his teeth into the god’s shoulder. With a shrug, Apollo threw him off, and he slammed into the side of a now useless ambulance. All that from a shrug, and he was out cold.

“Y–”

“Don’t,” Oliver said roughly. “You’ll accomplish nothing good by bringing a demon to this battle, and he likely wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize any standing with the Greeks.”

I sighed, and watched as Apollo continued to approach.

“Then there is nothing left to do but die then, huh?” I asked, resigned.

“Sure seems that way.” He sighed in turn.

“Guess it wasn’t an awful way to spend a day. At least I’ll die with a friend,” I joked, and a lop-sided, manic grin broke over my face.

“Sounds good to me.” He shrugged, and a similar smile spread across his face.

“Be silent, the both of you!” Apollo roared, and reared back to strike us.

At that moment, a flash of light and the sizzle of the molecules in the air splitting shattered the night.

“That will be enough out of you,” a voice rumbled.

“You’re late, old man,” Oliver said, weary and cheeky.

Once my vision cleared from the flash, there was a set of broad and muscled shoulders blocking my view of Apollo. The figure was imposing, even in a toga and sandals. Zeus was no longer in a suit, and somehow he was more terrifying with less clothing on.

“Do not speak to me in such a way, mortal.”

“Show up on time next time, and maybe I won’t,” Oliver continued, ignoring the command.

Zeus said nothing further, just took in the crouched and smoking form of Apollo.

“She is mine!” he screamed up at Zeus. Then his bow was in his hands and aimed at Zeus before anyone could react. Anyone except Zeus that is. He kicked Apollo in the face before he could loose an arrow, and sighed.

“What a disaster. I will have Eros’ wings for this.” Zeus turned to Daphne. “You are coming with me, and we will get this sorted out, one way or another.”

There was another flash, followed this time by a rumble of thunder, and the three of them were gone.

“Well, that was almost anti-climactic,” Oliver said, and slid to the ground next to me.

“Would you rather have us dead?” I asked, and groaned as my head thudded back against the car.

“Considering all the paperwork I’m going to have to do because of this clusterfuck, it’s a close thing.”

 

Fair to Middlin’: Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen

 

Demons are bastards, perhaps even in the religious sense. My head spun, and my stomach tried to empty its contents as though I’d been out on a tequila bender. Solid ground met my feet, and my legs would have collapsed even if someone hadn’t yanked me down to the ground.

“What the hell?” a familiar voice yelled, and my knee smacked the pavement when I fell. It hurt like a son of a bitch, and tore my knee up. “Sophie?”

“Oliver?” I strangled out, and pressed my palms against my eyes to try and orient myself. There was shouting all around, mixed in with sirens, the smell of ozone, exhaust, and blood. It was a noxious cocktail of smell and sound, and though my balance and stomach reoriented, I didn’t want to remove my hands and have the sights to go along with it. Of course, I didn’t really have a choice.

“Yeah, what are you doing here?” he fumed.

I removed my hands and tried to focus on the ground in front of me, my vision still somewhat blurry.

“Drai sent me. I’m here to help.”

“The demon? You went to the demon?” he yelled. It might have been equal parts anger and being heard over the noise, but I doubted it.

“Yes, I did, to try and get you help. I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a seriously pissed off god up there trying to skewer you!” I countered.

“I just need to get to–”

“Daphne? Been there, done that, and she ain’t buying what you’re trying to sell,” I said, frustrated and short with him.

“Fuck, are you serious?” he asked, incredulous. I finally got a good look at him. He was bleeding from various cuts, scrapes, and bruises over various parts of his body, and his clothing was ripped and dirty.

“You look like hell,” I said, instead of answering the obvious.

“Well, wonder boy’s done a bang up job on us.” The car shook as another arrow impacted it, and I made myself as small a target as possible.

“Here’s the plan. I help you get through his crazy light illusions so you can take better shots at him, and hopefully that will keep him occupied until someone from his pantheon takes him out,” I finished, and another arrow hit a different car with a cop behind it. He dove to his left, just barely getting out of the way as an arrow embedded in the asphalt.

“How are you supposed to help us with your Sight? Especially with a god?”

“I can focus my power on him to help bring him into focus. If I use enough power I can influence what other people see, too.” Well, at least in theory, but he didn’t need to know that. I’d never been through any kind of formal training, and I wasn’t the strongest Mid out there.

“Is he going to know what’s happening?” Oliver asked, and took a peek back over the top of the hood.

“I don’t know, but we won’t know until we try.”

Oliver pulled back and considered me, scowling. “This isn’t a good idea.”

“But it’s the only one we have,” I said, persistent. He shook his head, but not in disagreement, in defeat. It was the best I was going to get.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and then turned toward Apollo. When I opened my eyes I could understand why they were having so many problems hitting him, aside from having arrows shot at them. It was like looking through a faceted gem, or crystal, where the images were multiplied and different sizes.

I formed a diamond with my hands with my thumbs together and pointing down. Normally, a Mid’s power is evenly distributed through both eyes, and sits at an average level of power. It’s much like a river’s normal water level, but just like a river the flow can be manipulated through various means: dams, droughts, canals, levees, and so on. I held my hands over my left eye–my dominant one–so that I could peer through the formed diamond. By utilizing the diamond, it was like adding a scope to a rifle; it enhanced my powers and gave me the ability to focus it all in one eye. Or, more accurately, it went from wearing a pair of glasses to bring my vision to normal, to that of a magnifying glass over one eye.

I tilted my hands and head upward to get a good look at Apollo. I shut my right eye, and began focusing my energy to my left eye. Apollo started to come into focus, like a camera, but not as fast or precise as those digital ones. My forehead beaded with sweat, and a slight tremble started in my hands and limbs. My left eye watered, but I couldn’t risk blinking and breaking the power I’d built up.

“How much longer?” Oliver asked, and I could have throttled him.

“Shut. Up,” I ground out from between clenched teeth.

Slowly, after what seemed like hours, but was minutes if not seconds, he came into focus. Now came the difficult part. To be able to project my power onto Apollo, so that Oliver and the other officers could see what was going on, I had to ‘throw’ the power at him. If my aim was off, if I hadn’t built enough power, or if he dodged, it would all be for nothing.

Thankfully, he wasn’t moving around much, since no one could hit him, and he was doing more damage to the officers and agents than they were doing to him. Not to mention that whole immortality thing. The bullets wouldn’t do much more than annoy him, but it was their best shot.

“Get ready.” I barely managed to say it under my breath, and my shaking was worse. Oliver said something into what I guessed was a handheld radio, but I could look at him to know for sure.

Then, as I was getting ready to throw the power at him like a net, his fiery blue gaze focused on me. My heart stuttered in fear, but instead of making my magic do the same, it sent a surge of energy through me, bolstering my resolve. I was getting fed up with these supernatural powerhouses throwing their weight around like wrecking balls, and demolishing the little guys like me and the dog shifter kid. Or, hell, even Daphne. As Apollo materialized another arrow, nocked it, and pulled back on the string, I couldn’t blame Daphne from covering her tail and keeping her head down.

However, I might be able to do something about the flying dirtbag who drove her to live in a sewer.

I shoved outward toward the god, and threw my power with all the force I could muster, like a basketball player throwing a ball from their chest as fast and hard as they could. Just before my power hit him, he let loose the arrow. My power slammed into him, and shattered the light illusions around him, like someone crystallized the sun and smashed it on the ground.

It blinded my left eye, like a camera flash but a hundred times more intense, but not before one final image widened my eye further. Apollo let loose the arrow, and it was headed straight for me, but hitting him with my power took everything from me. I couldn’t move, and the arrow was moving too fast. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job anymore.