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The Fencer

Fencer, Alma, Melinor

“Keep your guard up, Alma!” the Fencer orders from the raised stone platform at the end of the large exercise room. “Faster on that response! Melinor, she is your opponent now, not your sister.”

Melinor’s blows are quick and relentless. Stronger and much more experienced than Alma, the grim-faced god bearing a deep gash that exposes the muscle and bone of his left cheek wields his sword with a cold, calm precision that catches the young goddess off guard each time. She tries her best to defend herself, parry his blows, risk her defense in weak, slow counterattacks that do nothing against Melinor’s blade. He is holding back, she can feel it, his heavy muscular frame tense with the effort of controlling the strength of his strikes, but even as he does so, his ability with the sword is beyond anything that she could ever match. He sweeps his blade against her legs, startling her and making her jump back clumsily. The next sweep is at face level.

Alma feels the sharp metal bite her skin and leans back to try and escape it. Her foot gets caught on the hem of her long, black dress. She falls backwards, unbalanced and unprotected, hitting the floor at full speed, rear first.

“Ouch!” she complains, untangling her foot from her skirt. “Demons! Again!”

“Get up, Alma!” the Fencer orders, unmoving.

“Are you all right?” Melinor asks in that muttered, grumpy tone of his.

Still, he moves closer to Alma and kneels by her to check the small cut on her cheek that is just now beginning to bleed, the handsome right side of his face showing his concern for her. The young goddess beats him to it, covering her cheek with her hand.

“Yes, brother,” she says. “It is a small cut.”

On her raised platform, the Fencer grows impatient. “On your feet, Alma!”

“I will take it slower,” Melinor states, seemingly ignoring the imposing, fearsome instructor.

The Fencer, meanwhile, has crossed her arms over her chest. Her orders are now bellowed across the room. “Alma, now!”

Alma glances at her in fear, but still manages to ask her older brother, “No, please. I will learn.”

“It is fine,” Melinor argues, patting the hand that Alma keeps over her cheek. “I am here to help you, not hurt you.”

Suddenly, the Fencer is standing by their side, now silent in her anger. She moves quickly and stealthily without effort, Alma has noticed, gliding more than walking, constantly surprising people who dare to blink in her presence. Melinor stands to attention in reflex, holding his sword by its blade and offering her the hilt, in a customary sign of reverence. Alma, however, lowers her hands to her lap and stays seated and still. It is only her second lesson with the Fencer and already she can tell that this will not go smoothly. She can barely remember herself in the presence of the fearsome warrior.

“Melinor, leave us,” the Fencer orders drily.

“She is a beginner, Fencer,” Melinor mutters an argument. “Needs to take it slowly.”

“Oh, really?” the Fencer replies sarcastically, looking him up and down, her jaw tense with anger, her arms still crossed over her chest. “And what kind of an expert are you to decide how she must be trained?”

Melinor’s eyes widen and he bows immediately in response. “My apologies, Fencer. I–”

“Stop muttering and leave us, Melinor,” the Fencer cuts him off. “Go practice by yourself.”

She holds her silence as she watches him leave the room, half-walking half-stomping on his way out. Alma takes the opportunity to examine the Fencer more closely. Owner of a tanned complexion topped by short, straight, fiery-red hair, the goddess exudes command and utter dominance. Even with one blind milky-white eye, product of a duel with a terrible opponent, she maintains perfect depth perception through the spell that makes her left eye, crimson by nature, shine eerily with silvery veins. Her posture is strict, rigid, military, her stretched skin and well-toned muscles impressive only in their grim efficiency, making her look like the Insula’s deadliest ballerina. No ballerina would be clad in thick, aged leather and white linen, however. Her tall boots show signs of ruthless wear and tear. Around her slim waist, a narrow silver belt engraved with swallows in flight holds the sheath of her sword, known to many as the Soul Taker. There is grace in her, a masculine, strange kind of grace that is far different from the established definition of the word. Her beauty is unusual in that there is no single element of beauty in her. She is, however, fascinating, imposing.

She is Varah, the Fencer, the Death by Blade, Subcommander of the Guardia Dei.

And Alma’s aunt. The young goddess feels herself become smaller and smaller as the sheer tension that Varah emanates pounds against her, pinning her to the floor. She wishes Melinor would turn around and come back, if only so that she would not be left alone to deal with the Fencer’s obvious anger. Eventually, the uneasy quietness becomes just too much to bear.

“He – He did not mean to offend, Fencer,” Alma stutters weakly. “He was just trying to help me.”

She regrets her words immediately. The Fencer turns her angry gaze to her, glaring at her as if offended by the most unthinkable of acts of defiance. It is all Alma can do to stop herself from backing away, crawling out of the sight of that terrible magic-infused eye. As it is, she wishes she could somehow melt into the obsidian floor beneath her. Varah is famous for smacking difficult students around until they lose their senses.

The Fencer raises her fisted hand above her head and Alma cringes, prepares for the blow she know must come.

The Fencer exhales deeply and lowers her hand. In her palm is now a small box of ointment. She must have summoned it.

“I know what he was trying to do, Alma, and that is part of the problem,” Varah says as she opens the little box and kneels by Alma’s side. “He cares for you and so you become his weakness.”

Alma is shocked into silence for a moment. The Fencer dips the fingers on her left hand in the ointment and reaches for the young goddess’ cheek. Alma forces herself not to flinch at her touch.

“I don’t mean to,” she mutters her frustration. “I just keep trying and failing.”

“You need to try harder,” the Fencer says dryly as she closes the boxes.

Alma feels her heart grow cold. The lack of sympathy from one who is supposed to be a teacher, a mentor, a proper aunt drives her to distraction. Does anyone in this family actually care about others? How can they be so physically incapable of speaking a word of encouragement? And besides…

“Why do I even need to learn this?” she asks, her fear forgotten in her anger. “I thought Father wanted me to become a lady so that I could help his political career.” She turns away from the Fencer’s wide eyes to add bitterly. “Maybe marry someone that will make him an Archon.”

Varah snorts, summoning the ointment box away. “I know what my brother wants. It wasn’t he who insisted you learn to fence; it was I.”

“Why?” Alma insists.

“Because that is no life for a death goddess,” the Fencer replies matter-of-factly. “Is that what you want to be? A pretty face for a lost cause?”

Alma shakes her head, keeping her eyes on Varah’s chest. Whether milky-white or silvery-crimson, both of the older goddess’ eyes are too intimidating to gaze into.

“My wants do not carry much weight with Father, Fencer. I am not even a proper death goddess. Keep shaming him with the powers I got from Mother’s side.” She hides her face against her knees, feeling the full weight of her helplessness fall on her shoulders. “It is easier if I just submit.”

The Fencer’s rough hand touches her cheek, moves down to her jaw to pull her head up. Alma resists at first but, unused to being affectionate, the Fencer merely keeps pressing against her jaw until the pain is too much to bear. Alma raises her head to find Varah’s eyes locking on hers. The silvery lines on the Fencer’s seeing eye crawl and writhe slowly in an almost hypnotic dance before the young goddess as she struggles not to look away.

“It is a cruel fate for a delicate thing like you to be born into this clan,” the Fencer states, without compassion or frustration. She lets go of Alma’s chin before rising to her feet. “My brother is a stubborn soul, used to getting what he wants sooner or later. It is a trait of our kind, I guess.”

Alma shrugs. “Death comes for everyone,” she notes bitterly.

“Yes,” Varah replies walking over to a rack on the wall, where many practice swords – all quite sharp and lethal – are aligned and displayed. “We are not required to be strong, Alma, just patient, resilient. All things fall before us if we await long enough,” she explains, picking a short sword and swinging it a couple of times to test it. In its wake, the slender, simple blade leaves ghostly, icy white traces of light, as if the Fencer is somehow sending her power through the metal, making the narrow blade broader through magic.

“You need not be stronger than your opponent, you need merely to outlast him, to use your powers to take away his stamina and make it your own,” she goes on, picking a small dagger from the bottom of the rack and walking back to where Alma is still sitting. “This is the secret to the way we fight. It is this that you must learn to do.”

“Why?” Alma asks one more time.

“Why? Why? Why?!” the Fencer hisses, losing what is left of her sparse patience. “So that you will stop being a self-pitying burden and start carrying your weight in this clan. Do you not understand?” she demands, kneeling, slamming sword and dagger against the floor by Alma’s feet before poking her young pupil’s chest with a thin finger. “We are a family. If you fall, we will always help. But if you keep falling, then we will always be too distracted with helping you to do anything worth mentioning. And you will be our downfall.”

She gestures at the door, her voice now loud enough to fill the room. “Like Melinor. If he is forced to keep protecting you, who will protect him in a fight?”

“But why do I have to fight?” Alma yells back desperately. “Why do you fight?”

“So that I don’t become a silly pawn in someone else’s game!” the Fencer bellows, turning away.

Silence falls between them. Aware of it or not, the Fencer’s words cut through Alma and leave a searing pain behind them. Silly pawn? What can she do to liberate herself from her parents’ will? She is little more than a child, after all! With just seventy-five years of age, she is just at the dawning of her adolescence. What other paths are there for her to follow?

“Is that why you joined the Guardia?” she asks in a low voice filled with hurt.

“Yes,” the Fencer answers, her tone restrained, nearly apologetic. “And no one but myself was happy about it. And no, it was not easy. But my freedom was worth it.” She shakes her head and gestures at the sword and dagger that lie just by Alma’s left foot. Her voice sounds gravelly and commanding again as she orders, “Now get up and let us start again from the beginning.”

Alma nods and picks up the sword, this one far lighter and more comfortable to grip than the one she was wielding before.

“Yes, Fencer,” she says, standing up.

“And tuck that skirt into this belt,” the Fencer orders, removing her belt and throwing it at Alma. “That damned thing keeps making you fall.”



It is raining.

Clouds have crept through the usually clear night skies to obscure the stars and the grim rain deities who have taken rainfall as their calling tug and poke at the heavy, lazy collections of vapor and water drops, herding them and urging them to melt into the watery curtain that covers the world outside the window, stealing the light, the joy and the color away from the day until all there is left is just grey, solemn twilight.

This is not the light rain of the kinder gods of flurry, sent at the end of the drought to wash over a slumbering world, nurture the plants, warn the animals of the coming of new shoots and children of all kinds and shapes. No, this is the unyielding, unforgiving, depressing rain that lulls the mind with its song and opens doors long ago sealed, brings forth old regrets, washes away the scabs of deep, ancient wounds and leaves the soul unprotected against bitter, predatory melancholy.

It is a rain of mourning and it could not suit Math’s disposition any better.

He sighs and moves away from the window, feeling his flaxen hair lose its color, the grooves on his face become deeper. He feels older, more tired, defeated by Fate if not by Time. Time, after all, has not just robbed him of his only sister and brother-in-law.

The serene, monotone voice of the demigod conveying the terrible news goes silent for a moment as its owner realizes that the Archon is not quite listening anymore. Math looks at the young boy sitting on the chaise lounge clutching a small stuffed toy gryphon. The doll sits looking at Math with beady black eyes, body glowing with a faint, magical light.

“And that is my nephew, is he?” the Archon asks, fixing his gaze on the quiet but alert little boy.

“Yes, your lordship,” the demigod replies. “His name is Gwydion. It was your sister’s wish that he would be left in your care, should anything happen to her.”

“But he’s little more than a toddler!” Math exclaims.

“He is four years old, master Math,” the patient, austere demigod concedes.

The Archon sighs. The boy sitting before him is the spitting image of his father, with long shiny black hair and a well-drawn jawline. Young as he is, he sits straight and attentive, head turning as his inquisitive eyes pay close attention to the world around him, much like his father's used to do. And the hazel in his eyes is exactly the same pleasantly quaint shade of brown that his mother's used to own.

The boy looks down at his toy gryphon, pats it on the head, and the disproportionately small wings on the thing begin to flap. The plush animal rises in the air, clearly animated by a spell of some sort, and performs a little pirouette in midair, much to the child's amusement. Gwydion giggles and claps his hands before calling the toy back to his lap. Looking up, the boy fixes his gaze on his uncle and smiles innocently.

Her smile...

Math shakes his head slowly. “I should have visited more often… What is he playing with?”

“His favorite toy, Gryphy,” the demigod explains. “His father taught him to animate it and he has been inseparable from it since.”

He is a quiet, somber character with long dark hair that falls in waves over his shoulders and thick eyebrows that make his deep-set eyes, already dark brown by nature, look darker, sadder, wiser than most mortals’. His thin moustache and short beard are beginning to turn grey but here and there the light still manages to rip reddish highlights from the soft facial hair. His words are deliberate and kind, both in content and in sound, the perfect mirror of the tranquil heart and solemn mind from which they arise.

Iovan, Demigod of Learning, Groomer of Minds, Guardian of Youth. Many praise him as the best tutor a First Ring child could ever wish for. However, his services are nearly impossible to hire. This is the kind of tutor that knocks on one’s door one night with a guarantee that he is needed, whether his future employer realizes it or not.

Slowly, it dawns on Math that he has not only inherited a child but also his tutor. He looks to his right to find two beady black eyes staring back at him. A soft, plush bleak hovers just a finger’s width away from his nose. A bushy brown tail brushes softly against his shoulder. The sight makes him cringe slightly. From his perch on the chaise lounge, Gwydion smiles beatifically at his uncle.

“I don’t want to look at him and see his parents. My grief is too recent,” the Archon says. “Cut his hair, change his clothes. Everything that has been brought from my sister’s house is to be destroyed.” He grabs the gryphon and hands it to Iovan. “You can start by this toy. It is disturbing to look at.”

The order causes the tutor’s eyes to widen. “Please, your lordship,” he requests as he carefully holds the plush animal. “If I may… The boy has just lost his parents and he is in no condition to sustain the loss of the only friend he has in this world.”

“That…thing is not even real,” Math insists. “It is just a stuffed toy.”

“Yes, but his mother made it for him,” Iovan argues.

“She didn’t even make a proper-looking gryphon,” Math rants on. “Who has ever heard of a gryphon with feline forepaws?”

“She thought that eagle talons might wound the child,” Iovan insists softly, patiently. “Please, master Math. It is the only thing he has left of her. And he is so young now… In a few years, he won’t even remember the way she looked.”

“Good, he won’t be asking questions I can’t answer, then,” the Archon mutters. “From now on, his mother and father are geasa in this house, do you understand? Even their names are not to be spoken. I don’t want him going down the same path they did.”

“I understand, my lord Archon,” the demigod nods in acceptance. “And the toy?”

Math sighs. Iovan is right. Regardless of the well-known resilience of youth, there are only so many blows a child can sustain before being completely destroyed. “I just don’t want to see it, Iovan. Keep it out of my sight, where it won’t remind me of my grief.”

“Thank you, your lordship.”

“Has he even begun to show any hints of a sphere?” the Archon enquires.

“No,” Iovan answers, releasing the gryphon back to the growingly impatient boy, who welcomes his friend by hugging him tightly. “None whatsoever. His father has taught him a few spells and he seems to take to that form of magic quite easily. But nothing else seems to cause him to react the way a god-child should. Even as a baby, his days were rather uneventful.”

“Lovely,” Math snorts derisively. “How tragic and comical that the sole heir of two of our most powerful weapons against Hell is useless as a god.”

“He is young still, my lord,” Iovan notes. “He may yet reveal some great skill. Who knows if he can’t master his father’s more complicated spells? The ones he was trying to perfect before tragedy struck.”

“I don’t want him anywhere near those spells or anything that could send his father’s enemies on the hunt for him,” Math warns the demigod. “Just worry about raising him. I will deal with his education.”

“I shall, my lord Archon,” Iovan states, extending a hand in the child’s direction. Gwydion slides carefully off the chaise and, holding his beloved toy tightly in his arms, walks over to his tutor’s side. “Say goodnight to your uncle Math, little Dion.”

The boy looks up at Math and bows brightly. “Goodnight, Uncle Math.”

“Goodnight, nephew,” Math replies. He looks at the demigod. “Goodnight, Iovan.”

“Goodnight, my lord,” Iovan says as he turns to leave, offering his hand for the young boy to hold. “Come with me now, Dion, and hold on tightly to Gryphy. We don’t want to lose him, do we?”

Dion takes Iovan’s hand and hugs the toy with his free arm, nuzzling the stuffed gryphon. “No,” he says. “Are we going home now? I wanna see my mommy.”

Math watches them leave the room before collapsing onto a chair and helping himself to a glass of Ambrosia from the crystal decanter that sits on the small table by the chaise.

“Oh, Eidon…” he whispers in between sips. “Of all the things you could have left me alone to deal with, why did it have to be him?”


Red Sky in Morning


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

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

This is a vacation.

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

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

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

The so-called gods.

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

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

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

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

He feeds.

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

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

“Call me Mistress, fool!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A god, killed.


The news stuns her. Necromancy has been outlawed.

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

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

Then she feverishly begins building more bombs.

More gods die. And many, many mortals.


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

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

She is insane.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am aware, Giffleu.”

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

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

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

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

“The killer was a demon, Senator.”

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

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

“No?” Giffleu asks.

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

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

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

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

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

津魔 澄海

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

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

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

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

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

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