Tales of the Walker: Cocytus (2)

 

“…The inevitable question, therefore, is if the entirety of the divide between what we know as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ simply comes down to a difference in environment. ‘Heaven’ being a plane limited in possibility by rigid law, yet unlimited in time, and ‘Hell’, subject to no such restrictions on reality yet with little to no control over the concept of time. We, being a species with a tendency towards tradition, have naturally tended towards viewing what we perceive as ‘Disorder’ as a negative force, thus allowing for the prejudices of both Paxian and Pre-Paxian society to view Mamono and their abilities in a negative light. After all, we have never been very tolerant of a difference of opinion…”

-Damien the Iconoclast, Emissary from the High Temple of Ammit to the City of Pandemonium

“Would you mind, Lord Azrael?” The Angel asked with clear discomfort.

Azrael smiled, his dark eyes playing over the angel which fidgeted before her fellows as they stood before him. He let a hand play along the thigh of the scarlet-haired Lilim curled felinely in his lap, her delicate hand stroking his cheek as her smouldering eyes studied the assembled angels with vague disinterest.

“You did request an immediate audience, and did I not mention I was otherwise occupied?” Azrael drawled, sitting forward slightly in the elaborate chair of wrought bone in which he was reclined. “You should be thankful that we are not being more intimate, but my Lyra is kittenish today.”

The Lilim fixed him with a look of mixed chagrin and embarrassment. “Azrael!” she objected.

“Am I wrong, my love?”

Lyra pouted slightly. “No, but I do have a reputation to maintain”

Azrael chuckled, taking her delicate hand and kissing it softly. The angels squirmed slightly, the feathers of their wings rustling softly in the stone hall.

“So Kyriel. What brings you here?”

The foremost Angel, ignoring the blush colouring her alabaster cheeks, lowered her golden eyes to the floor. “We have… A problem.”

“You were born a problem, Kyriel. Be more specific.” Lyra quipped. The angel fixed the Lilim with a murderous glare and the other angels began to mutter, wings flaring slightly at the insult.

Azrael held up his free hand. “Ladies, please.”

Kyriel reluctantly broke eye contact with Lyra, turning her attention to the hell-knight. “Firstly, it’s the Scions… They’ve… stopped beseeching us.”

Azrael laughed incredulously. “She did it. She’s actually serious about sending that blockhead out to search for an impossibility.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Give them two, maybe three decades to get over that annoying idea, I’ll admit I’m not terribly pleased with it either, but it will amount to nothing. Although you do have only yourselves to blame for being so coquettish with it.”

“We would, if that was the only part of it.” Kyriel admitted.

“Oh?” Azrael asked, shifting Lyra in his lap to better look upon the angels. “Do go on…”

“It’s Lucifer…” Kyriel reluctantly began “He…”

“Oh spit it out, Angel. I’m not in the mood for you to get around to it.” Azrael insisted impatiently.

“He and Ariael have been… Coupling…”

Azrael frowned. “I thought Seraphim were too ‘detached’ for that sort of thing…”

“Something happened. The Logos did something to him. He has his old mind back. His human mind… It’s… Distracting.”

“Can’t you ask them to close the door or something?” Lyra snickered.

“Don’t presume to understand us, Demon!” Another angel spat. “The Heavens resound with our Choir, and all angelic voices add to it.”

“So what she feels…” Azrael began.

“We all feel, though not to a… satisfying degree.” A third finished, her cheeks now flushed with crimson.

“Mother did warn Aunt Ilias that this would be a problem…” Lyra admitted. “She wasn’t one to listen though.”

“So you’re looking for a solution to your… Frustration.” Azrael mused, leaning back in his seat and absently stroking Lyra’s thick scarlet locks.

“We need it…” Kyriel gushed, her breathing slightly ragged.

“You know what you’re asking of me.”

“We know. Our Holy Master is… unsympathetic to our plight.”

Azrael gave a slight ‘heh’ of amusement. “Divine Tyris tells you ‘I’m busy, go find a scion if it’s that bad’, right?”

“We would not presume to abridge His Holy Words so!” The second angel objected.

“…But yes…” The third admitted “That does sum it up reasonably well.”

“And with the Scions looking for a third option presently, that option is denied you.”

The angels nodded.

Lyra slid from Azrael’s lap, stretching her batlike wings as she stood. “You know, I’m surprised you girls haven’t tried a little, er… proactive courtship?”

“We would not stoop so low as to rape like some base beasts!” Kyriel cried in shock and disgust.

“Fine, fine… To each their own I suppose.” Lyra offered diplomatically.

Azrael leaned forward again. “You submit yourselves to me?”

“…Yes.” Kyriel said with a gallows sigh.

“You foreswear the High Heavens?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’m sure my sons can… assist with your predicament.”

Kyriel looked puzzled. “Sons?” she asked, turning towards Lyra. “How can you…”

“Time is funny in Hell… We’ve learned to take advantage of that fact.” Lyra drawled enigmatically as a handful of Incubi entered to Azrael’s wordless summons. Their leader knelt before the seated hell-knight, bowing its horned head humbly.

“Voluntatem tuam Domine Pater?” It asked in a deep, harsh voice.

“See to our new allies, won’t you boys?” Azrael asked urbanely. The incubus stood, turning with its fellows to regard the angels. It frowned slightly.

“insolita desiderum…” it murmured.

“I know son, but we must be gracious with our guests, mustn’t we?” Azrael said with a smile, turning his gaze back to Kyriel and her fellow angels. “I’m not sure they quite grasp what you’re asking, Kyriel… You might need to be a little more obvious.”

Kyriel pursed her lips, putting hands hesitantly to the front of her garments. Slowly, she drew them from her body, revealing her achingly perfect form beneath them.

“Kyriel!” Another angel remarked in shock.

“We need this… I need this…” Kyriel breathed urgently, her breasts rising and falling with her quickening breathing. The Incubus and his fellows gave low chuckles, blazing eyes widening in surprise and appreciation. Like stalking cats they approached the angels, tracing clawed hands delicately along collarbones, flicking tongues from between sharp fangs to lick at earlobes and necks, the angels emitting involuntary moans and whimpers at the ministrations. Angelic hands reaching up to stroke blue-grey chests which rippled with hardened demonic muscle. Moistened lips rising to meet the rough kisses of the incubi, feathers rustling where they met batlike wings.

“This is getting lewd.” Lyra murmured, resuming her seat atop Azrael’s lap.

“Truly.” He admitted, sliding his own hand between the Lilim’s legs, turning his mouth to cover her own as she gasped at the contact.

“Azrael… Watch…” Lyra breathed, breaking their kiss and gently turning his head to look at where the Angels and Incubi were frantically coupling upon the stone floor. With each thrust, the shimmering radiance of their wings, skin and hair seemed to burst from them, leaching their skin a slate-grey and leaving their hair and wings a deep, lustrous black. Their cries became dissonant, their once choral voices becoming hollow and echoing. Golden eyes rolled back in heads as climax shook them, to re-open as a blooded crimson to match their partners.

“Dark Angels…” Azrael mused, his hand still working between Lyra’s legs.

“No more an angel filled with light…” She groaned, reaching behind her to grasp Azrael’s already tumescent member.

“But a temptress of deepest Hells…” Azrael continued, lining her hips up with his and entering her roughly.

“Ahn… And they shalt… suffer… oooh… thy burning will…”

“Forever Ever.” Azrael purred as the heat of her enveloped him. The power… The absolute power… It poured over all of them in impossible waves of feedback as the sheer force released by the conjoining of angel and demon drove each and every one of them to climax again, and again, and again.

Azrael cried out in pain as his human body was overwhelmed. “This suffering… This sweet agony… This beautiful pain… More!” He demanded “Give me More!”

Lyra shrieked in a mixture of surprise and passion as she felt his form swell impossibly beneath and within her. Turning her head, she gasped with shock to see his body growing massively, skin crawling with crimson glyphs as a pair of curving horns burst from his forehead. With a howling, bestial roar, he erupted within her, and Lyra felt she should burst from the sheer volume of his emission.

Slowly, the coupling subsided, the waves of raw energy ebbing away. Incubus and Dark angel stood, looking with reverence and not a little fear at the pair atop the bone seat. Lyra disengaged herself delicately from Azrael, feeling the growing void as his semen began to fall from within her. Turning, she studied the demonic figure which had replaced the hell-knight. He was easily now eight feet in height, with massive shoulders and a corded neck, atop which his horned head bore a thick ebon mane, above eyes now deep-set and blazing with hellfire. His wings, still dripping gore from where they had erupted from his back, spread in a majestic span, black blood coursing through new veins along draconian membranes.

“You…” She breathed, marveling at his infernal presence.

“Me.” He answered, crushing her now-delicate seeming form to him in embrace. She kissed his fanged mouth hungrily.

“You… wanted this?” Lyra asked, tracing her long nail along the glyphs which ran along his flesh.

“I did not know it, but I thank Maou for the Suffering.”

“Domine Pater! Rex Tenebraum!” The incubi cried, falling to their knees.

“Ave…” The newly corrupted angels breathed, raising their arms to him and staring in near religious adoration.

The newly transmuted Greater Demon, No longer a Hell-knight, no longer the Scion Azrael, spread his powerful arms expansively as he welcomed their supplications.

“I cannot think of a more catastrophic way to completely annihilate both Human and Mamono than to release the stored knowledge of the Grand Library without proper analysis. For one, the first merchant out of bed that morning would form a trading monopoly overnight. Do you have the slightest inkling of the kinds of transportation we haven’t even begun to comprehend? Think about flying machines which make dragons look like angry chickenhawks. That should give you an idea.”

-Hawa III, Senior Warden of the Grand Lodge of the Resonant.

“Mister Oliver?”

The reptilian turned his head to regard the human youth before him.

“Master Corvus. What can I do for you?” Oliver hissed politely.

“Cap’n says we need to up speed to four fifths, we’re drawing too hard to port and he’ll not have us delayed by…” The youth frowned as he struggled to remember the captain’s words. Oliver smiled slightly.

“Posideon’s piss-stream?” The reptilian offered. Corvus nodded with a grin.

“Yeah, that sounds about right. What does he mean by that?”

“It’s an old legend in these waters. Apparently an ancient God of the ocean relieves himself near here. What actually happens is there’s a very fast river that runs over some very light silt, it dumps into the ocean and turns it yellow. Also has a habit of knocking ships off course if they’re not aware of it.”

“Ah. Heh.” Corvus snickered, finally getting the joke.

“Was there anything else?”

Corvus shook his head. “Ruby was saying something about a paladin-initiate’s uniform and a bet on how many tentacles she could use but I hardly think that’s relevant.”

Oliver made a face. “No. No it really isn’t. Please, for the love of Ammit, never mention that again.”

“Do I dare ask?”

“Ever had a lizardman throw up on you?”

“No”

“Then do as I ask.”

“Aye helmsman.” Corvus drawled, sketching a mocking salute. “Is she…”

“She’s watching Michael again.”

Corvus’s face darkened.

Oliver hissed in the reptilian equivalent of laughter. “Ah me, young love…” He murmured.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” Corvus murmured, stalking from the helm, trailed by the reptilian’s laughter.

Michael, the Lieutenant of the Order of Amaranth who had joined him and the man he knew only as Walker in the bustling free city of Heliopolis, had assembled a small group of sailors on the foredeck, and was busy sparring with them. The large, platinum blond man was astonishingly quick for his size, and seemed to be toying with the sailors as they shouted and threw themselves at him.

“Good Derrick! But watch you don’t overextend there…” He cried, before lashing out with a foot and sending the wiry sailor to the deck. The sailor spat a curse as he struck the deck and rolled, rubbing at a shoulder and shooting the man a foul look. Coiled atop a nearby ropelocker, an emerald and amethyst coloured Lamia sat, observing the controlled brawl with a strange expression.

“Should have known I’d find you here Lyssa.” Corvus muttered.

“Mmm.” The lamia murmured, her eyes still on Michael.

“Enjoying the show?”

“Meh.” She grunted noncommittally.

“You know you never told me why you started watching this.” Corvus pressed

“Smells interesting.” She replied, still not breaking her gaze.

“Oh. I see…” Corvus acknowledged, allowing a little venom to creep into his voice. “You know I’d much rather you told me before you decided to move on to someone more interesting. Still, I suppose it’s no problem for me and Michael to switch hammocks, should make it easier for you to curl up with him tonight.”

“The fuck?” Lyssa asked incredulously, spinning to face the young man.

“Honestly Lyssa, I get it, he’s a Hero… Or should be anyway. It makes sense that presented with someone like him that you’d forget all abou…” His words were driven from him in a harsh wheeze as the lamia looped the coils of her serpentine lower body about him, driving him to the deck and planting herself atop him.

“You wanna tell me why you’re acting like a prick, Corvus?” Lyssa demanded, her emerald hair framing her heart-shaped face where it draped over him.

“You’ve been… watching him… for three days…” Corvus gasped, struggling within her coils.

“So?”

“You’re… Clearly interested…”

Lyssa sat up, uncoiling herself slightly. “Are you… Jealous?”

“So what if I am?” Corvus spat, working his way out of her coils, only to have her throw her amethyst arms about him, kissing him soundly.

“Oh Maou that’s so sweet.” She crooned

“Ok, I’m confused” Corvus said, breaking their embrace to look at her. “You just said he smells interesting, and you’ve been watching him for three days. What am I supposed to think?”

Lyssa paused, as if processing the information, before erupting in a peal of laughter.

Corvus frowned. “I don’t see what’s so funny.”

“Of course you don’t, you silly Human.” Lyssa snickered, kissing him again. “You obviously know how to cook, right?”

“I’m no chef, but yeah…” Corvus admitted.

“Think of Michael as the smell of a whole bunch of fresh ingredients, ready to cook. You know it’s going to make something great, but it’s not… Finished. When he fights it’s like he’s starting to cook, but it never quite smells like dinner. It’s… Frustrating, but at the same time I would really like to know what he smells like when he’s finished cooking.”

“This is supposed to make me feel better?” Corvus asked.

“Yeah, once I tell you what you smell like…” Lyssa smirked.

“Alright Lyssa, I’ll bite. What do I smell like?”

Lyssa bent, kissing him lingeringly. “Like life,” She whispered “and love, and the smell of home after a long journey. Like fried mice on a winter’s morning. Like sex in a hot spring. In short, really, really good.”

“Oh…” Corvus said, blushing slightly. “Guess I was a bit of a prick there.”

“Just a bit.” Lyssa giggled, kissing him again.

“I’m sorry.”

“S’ok, shut up and kiss me.”

Corvus busied himself doing just that before someone insistently cleared his throat above them. Both Lyssa and Corvus broke their embrace to look up into the clear green eyes of Walker, who was shaking his head in mild amusement.

“Not on the deck, children. Do try and keep a little decorum, fraternization on duty is an offense under maritime law, and Arin will flog you.”

“I thought we were paying passengers.” Corvus objected, reluctantly disentangling himself from Lyssa and standing.

“So?”

“So it’s a bit shit that we’re bound by the same rules as the people getting paid for this when we’re doing the paying.” Corvus complained.

Walker shrugged. “Argue it with the captain if you’re that passionate about it. Just realize that arguing with the captain is insubordination and he will…”

“I know, I know… He’ll flog me.” Corvus grumbled.

“By Maou he complains a lot” came a soft voice somewhere to his right. Corvus spun with a startled oath, to find the heavily pregnant form of Walker’s Cheshire wife smiling smugly at him.

“Can you blame me… er… Mrs Walker?” Corvus replied, hunting lamely for an appropriate honorific. The Cheshire laughed helplessly.

“Kawaii…” She chortled “It’s just Yumi, Corvus. I’m glad to meet you… officially anyway.”

Corvus bowed slightly. “You too ma’am. I hope Walker passed on my apologies for the other week.”

Yumi waved a violet paw dismissively. “He used to be much more adventurous. The centuries have turned him into a bit of a prude.”

“Centuries!?” Corvus exclaimed.

“Yumi…” Walker growled warningly.

“Oh pish love. I’m not going to lie to the boy to maintain your little ‘Lone Waylander’ act.” Yumi drawled, tracing a claw down Walker’s front teasingly. “You probably guessed that Walker’s a bit older than he lets on… But did you know Arin met him when he was barely twenty?”

“How old is a bit older…” Lyssa pressed, her delicate brows furrowed in thought.

“Don’t you dare…” Walker hissed at his wife.

“Will you spank me, ‘Walker’, with your own bare hand?” she jested, batting her eyelids at him. “Well he was there when…” Yumi paused, putting a hand to her swollen belly and exhaling sharply. She turned to glare at Walker. “That’s not funny.”

Walker raised his hands, a slight look of concern in his eyes. “Wasn’t me Yumi. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, don’t change the subje…” She exhaled again, emitting a sharp squeak of surprise as liquid began to pour down her legs. “Oh Maou… I think…” she stammered, leaning on Walker for support.

Walker’s head spun to Corvus. “Get Ruby!” He ordered.

Corvus stared at him blankly.

Walker flung a resonant glyph at him, which predictably had no effect other than to shatter an empty barrel behind him. “MOVE! With a will boy!”

Corvus stammered an apology, and began sprinting belowdecks. Open door, stairs to the left… one flight… two flights… Third door with the red and blue markings… cycle to the left… two… three… four… hiss of escaping air, step through, why won’t it open? Oh yeah, have to close the other one. Pull close, cycle right, open the door.

Corvus stepped through to a sumptuous room, a pool opening impossibly into the ocean recessed into the floor. Walker had tried to explain the concept to him using a glass and a bucket, but his mind still couldn’t quite move from the concept of a hole that didn’t let water in.

“Ruby! Ruby! Walker needs yo….” His cries were cut short by a tentacle which knocked him onto his back, two other crimson fleshed appendages flying past him to slam the oval door closed behind him.

“Always. ALWAYS close both doors. Are you trying to kill everyone?” The crimson-fleshed kraken remonstrated fiercely, looming above him with her numerous tentacles playing in the air with irritation.

“I’m sorry. But Walker needs you. I think Yumi…”

“It’s time?”

Corvus nodded. Ruby swore.

“Well by the horrors of Tethys, why are you lying on the floor? Let’s go!”

Corvus rolled his eyes, scrambling to his feet and following the Kraken back to the deck. Topside, sailors were running hither and thither almost chaotically, shouting incoherently to each other. Arin was perched near the helm, pointing and shouting orders that were equally incomprehensible.

“I didn’t think that a childbirth would cause this much consternation!” Corvus remarked, pushing himself to keep up with the remarkably rapid pace of the Kraken.

“It shouldn’t…” Ruby remarked. “Arin! What’s going on?”

“Raider, starboard bow, she caught us with our pants down!” Arin snarled in response. A dull ‘boom’ was heard, and a great splash as something heavy landed in the water near the ship. Arin swore. “What in the name of Tyris’s glowing cock are they doing?! We’re paid up for at least another half year!”

“Rogue?” Ruby offered, reaching the Cheshire who now reclined against a ropelocker, breathing heavily, Walker and Lyssa both holding a hand and looking on in mild concern.

“Entirely possible.” Arin admitted. “Mister Oliver, I expect there to be a good reason we are still sitting broadside to that bitch like a spread-legged whore?”

“Bringing her around, Captain.” Oliver offered apologetically.

Ruby briefly examined Yumi, before brusquely turning to Walker. “This will be fast, we need to get her below.”

Walker nodded, scooping his wife into his arms. As Ruby opened the door, Walker turned with a look of sheer ferocity written on his face.

“Anyone who comes through this door before Arin sounds the all clear, dies horribly.” He snarled in a tone brooking no disagreement.

“Understood.” Arin acknowledged.

Lyssa turned to Corvus “Maybe you should go below…” She offered.

Corvus gave a snort, pulling a wicked looking axe from a nearby weapons locker and hefting it expertly. “I’m a man of the Nordenlands. We don’t run from a fight.”

Lyssa gave him a smile, pulling his head to hers and kissing him soundly. “Together then.”

“Together.”

Taking positions near the other sailors, Corvus and Lyssa watched as the ship grew closer, closer, closer…

“Eager to meet your end, Arin?” A voice came from the bow of the other ship, where a man in rich silken robes stood, armed sailors of various races bunched behind him.

“Rajesh, you failed abortion, if this is your idea of a joke I’m not fucking laughing.” Arin spat back.

“No joke, old man. You have something which belongs to me.”

“If it’s your mother’s virginity, you’re barking up the wrong tree, the neighbour’s dog got it before I could get a look in!”

Sailors on both ships snickered at the venomous insult before being shushed by their officers. Rajesh’s jaw clenched as he fought to maintain composure.

“Is it your custom, freelancer, to perch on your bow and yap at your betters?” Rajesh retorted.

“Rim shot, Heliopolitan. Did you plan on offering me terms or did you just come to be schooled in the finer aspects of speechcraft? I assume you’ve got going to the privy unassisted down pat.”

Rajesh was trembling in rage. “The Lamia. Give her to me or I sink you. She belongs to me.”

Corvus felt fury boiling in his guts. An amethyst arm pushed him aside and bearing her wickedly pointed fangs, Lyssa hissed at the man with spite so thick it was a near visible form in the air.

“I belong to nobody, you fop! Or did you forget the last time you tried to put your mud-raking hands on me?”

Arin inclined his head towards Lyssa. “You have our answer, goatfucker. QUARTERS! Prepare to repel boarders!”

“Attack!” Rajesh near-shrieked. “Kill every last one of them!”

Grappling hooks arced overhead as Rajesh’s crew sought to bring the ‘Ruby’ alongside. Sailors swore, moving to cut lines and dislodge hooks as quickly as they landed. Enough found purchase, and the two ships began inexorably drawing together.

“HOLD!” Michael’s massive voice boomed. “HOLD IN THE NAME OF TYRIS, AND OF THE HOLY ORDER OF AMARANTH!”

“You robbing me of a fight, big man?” Arin drawled.

“If I may, captain, I don’t want to see good men die when there might be a better way.”

“It is a pleasure to see that a man of sense exists in a crew so bereft.” Rajesh cried smugly.

Corvus put himself between Michael and Lyssa. “If you touch her, I’ll cut your throat in your sleep.” Corvus hissed.

“Corvus. You doubt me? That hurts, little friend.” Michael said with a sad look on his boyish face, before cuffing Corvus across the head. “And don’t threaten what you can’t do. It’s dumb.”

Turning towards Rajesh’s ship, Michael cleared his throat. “The Lamia is under the protection of the Order. If you will not acknowledge Her Authority, I challenge you, sir, to single combat. Take up my gauge, and meet me yourself or be championed. If you do not, you will stand craven before Man and God.”

Rajesh laughed incredulously “Why would I acknowledge a foreign and Tyrisian Order, especially when I have the advantage? Ammit will preserve us! Ammithu Ackbar!”

“Ammithu Ackbar!” a number of the sailors replied, yet others were muttering and glaring at their captain.

Suddenly, a deep, hissing roar sounded from amongst Rajesh’s crew and an imposing, orange-skinned reptilian stepped forward. Pushing her way to the front of the ship, she began arguing softly with the captain. Rajesh’s face turned from disbelief, to outrage, to mild terror. The reptilian stepped back and Rajesh cleared his throat.

“…But let it not be said that I am not a man of Honour. Tellis will be my champion, and meet you in single combat.”

“I accept.” Michael acknowledged, hefting a mighty, two handed broadsword and gesturing for the sailors to clear a section of decking.

The Reptilian smiled, a sharklike, toothy affair, before launching herself across the span between the ships. Landing heavily, she pushed herself back to her feet, studying Michael’s large and muscular form. Raising herself to her full height, she gave that same hissing roar, spreading her arms in challenge. Her skin was scaled, her head possessing ridges in lieu of hair, which ran down her spine and to her thick, muscular tail.

“What the hell is that? I’ve never seen the like.” Corvus heard a sailor murmur.

“Dunno… Minor dragonkin? Wyvern? Not a fire-drake, she’s got no wings…” Another answered.

“Are you prepared, Madam?” Michael asked politely, dropping into a guard.

“Don’t die too quickly Human…” Her husky voice replied. “I’m long overdue for a decent challenge.”

She flexed the ridges on her spine, and the crew gave a collective gasp of surprise as her head and back erupted in angry flame.

“Salamander!” Oliver exclaimed.

Arin swore. “Gents, fill a few casks with seawater, if you please…”

A few sailors discretely moved to begin hauling buckets full of water from the far side of the ship. Tellis noticed and growled suspiciously. Michael risked a glance to see what they were doing.

“This is Single Combat, Captains. I will brook no interference.” He called warningly.

“I know big man, just being prepared for when you win in case she sets the deck alight.” Arin jibed in reply.

“When He wins… heh.” Tellis muttered, yet sketched a slight bow to acknowledge Michael’s gesture, which he returned by bringing his sword up briefly in salute.

Seemingly satisfied that protocol had been met, the two combatants rushed at each other, Tellis flailing with long, deadly talons which seemed to glow white-hot, Michael with that massive sword which he moved with the delicacy of a rapier.

Back and forth the whistling of steel and the roaring of fire passed, both astonishingly evenly matched. Sparks flew where blade met bulkhead, and where talon clashed along its length. Michael span quickly enough that his blade and arms were a blur, and Tellis gave a soft hiss, disengaging briefly and inspecting a shallow cut on her thigh.

“First blood, do you yield?” Michael asked, not lowering his guard. Tellis gave a snicker, pressing a talon against the wound, which sizzled as it was cauterized. Without warning, she launched herself at him again. Michael span outside her blow, but cried out as her talons found purchase along his chest, leaving his shirt torn and smoking, the skin beneath rent with weeping, sizzling wounds.

“Do you?”

Michael gave a laugh of crazed delight as he rushed at her again. Impossibly, the combatants seemed to move even faster than before. Tail swiped, talons clawed, sword slashed, feet kicked, forehead was driven into forehead. The melee was a nightmarish fever dream.

“They’re both mad…” One sailor murmured. Corvus felt a hand creep into his, and turned his head to smile at Lyssa. As he looked upon her, his smile died as he saw the weird intensity with which she was watching the fight.

“Do it… come on… show me… You thick fuck. Show me!” She muttered softly.

“You alright Lys?” Corvus whispered.

“He’s so close! He’s almost… Almost…” She near whimpered. Squeezing Corvus’s hand, she shut her eyes briefly. When she re-opened them, they were almost glowing.

“Yes! Yes! Here he goes!” She hissed. “Oh Corvus if you could see what I’m seeing…”

Corvus turned back to where the warrior and the salamander were battling. Swallowing briefly, he turned back to Lyssa. “I think we can all see it.”

Michael’s blue eyes were blazing with inner fire. His whole body seemed to glow, the sword turned to a tongue of silver flame. Ignoring the fire blazing on the body of his opponent, he grabbed the back of her neck, forcing her in one smooth motion to the deck, and placing the sword upon the base of her skull.

“Now… Do you yield.” Michael demanded, ignoring the sizzling of his flesh.

“You’ll cook to death you moron.” Tellis hissed, struggling against his iron grip.

“I’ll put this sword through your neck before I succumb.”

“Fine. Fine… I submit.”

Michael stood from her, and she rose to her knees, before lowering her face to the deck once more.

“I, Tellis of the line of Vhragel, do pledge myself to your cause. You, who have proven your mettle in honourable combat. My teeth and claws are yours to command, my flame burns at your word.”

“Madam, that is hardly necess…” Michael began, cradling his burned hand.

Tellis launched to her feet. “Don’t disrespect me, Human…” She hissed in his face, their noses nearly touching. “…Or I’ll eat your head.”

To his credit, Michael did not laugh, only nodded soberly. “I accept your vow.”

Rajesh was dancing in fury. “Traitor!” he shrieked. “Kill them! Kill all of them! I order you as Caliph of Nagaphu…”

Something unseen struck the robed man, launching him from his vessel. His eyes wide, he flailed helplessly at the empty air, striking the sea with a splash.

“Help me!” he cried.

“Man overboard!” one of the sailors on his ship yelled, moving to throw him a line.

“If you try, you join him.” A voice snarled from amidships. The crew of the ruby turned, to see Walker glowering behind them.

“How’s Yumi?” Arin asked hesitantly.

“Sleeping.” Walker replied shortly.

“And the baby?”

“It’s a girl, most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And that shit…” he growled, pointing at the clumsily flailing man in the water “…Put her at risk.”

Arin grinned “Congratulations old son.” Turning back, he called out to the other ship. “A moment of Silence for Rajesh, Caliph of Nagaphur, on his passing.”

“But he’s still aliv…” The sailor who had sought to aid him began. With a bubbling scream, Rajesh disappeared beneath the water, a dark crimson bloom beginning to spread. When he re-emerged, he was waving an arm which ended at the elbow, his face twisted in agony. A thick head broke the water behind him, a clawed, webbed hand grabbing his shoulder as an impossibly wide mouth grabbed the spurting stump, pulling him back beneath the surface. Some bloody froth and a few shredded fragments of robe were all that re-emerged.

“Tiger shark.” Another sailor remarked with mild distaste.

“The judgement of Ma’at be fair and true.” Another murmured

A rippling of “Ammithu Ackbar.” Spread throughout both ships.

“Well lads, it’s been fun, but you have a new captain to elect, and we have a schedule to keep. If my deck’s not clear of your lines in two minutes, I’ll burn you to the waterline and feed what’s left to my wife.” Arin yelled almost conversationally.

Grappling lines were rapidly thrown from winches and poles frantically pushed the two vessels apart.

“You wouldn’t really…” Corvus murmured.

“No? I didn’t even demand the standard tithe for granting them leave. Obstructing a vessel which has offered you such generous quarter is the height of rudeness, and when feasible, Ruby prefers to eat the rude…” Arin remarked without expression.

Corvus’s face twisted in revulsion.

“Would you care to return to your crew, Madam, now that our differences have been settled?” Michael asked Tellis the Salamander politely. An angered hiss boiled from her throat and her spine erupted in a flash of fire.

“You already bested me, but that doesn’t give you the right to keep insulting me!” she snarled.

“Whu?” Michael grunted, his boyish face a picture of confusion.

“She pledged herself to you.” Oliver explained. “That makes her essentially your seneschal. She’ll guard you and everything you own with her life.”

“You don’t have to be so blunt about it…” Tellis murmured, a blush deepening on her face, and the fires lowering slightly.

“I’m sorry, Madam. I did not understand.” Michael apologized.

“Call me Tellis. And take your shirt off.” The Salamander ordered.

“What?”

“I need to look at your wounds.”

“I feel fine…” Michael objected, removing his shirt with confused reluctance.

Tellis hissed in surprise and Corvus swore as Michael’s shirt was removed… To reveal nothing but a fading pinkness on his now unmarked chest.

“How? What?” Tellis gasped.

“What do you mean?” Michael asked.

“Your chest! Your hand! They’re… healed!”

Michael inspected his arm and chest, giving a ‘huh’ of pleased surprise, he inclined his head to Walker. “Your skill is matched only by your subtlety, Good Resonant. I didn’t even feel you working!”

Walker raised his brow. “Come again? I didn’t do anything.”

“C’mon Walker, you can do away with the coy shit now…” Arin chuckled.

“No, seriously, I was thanking the shark!” Walker insisted.

Tellis gaped at Michael. “What are you?” she demanded.

“None of you get it yet?” Lyssa groaned. “He said he was Order. You know what they’re for. He’s just finished cooking, is all.”

“Cooking?” Arin echoed in confusion.

“Long story.” Corvus explained.

“Watch.” Lyssa explained, fetching a nearby sailor’s knife and drawing a thin red slice on Michael’s arm with the point. Michael shouted, pulling his arm away from the Lamia. Tellis snarled, pushing the big man behind her and glaring murderously at Lyssa.

“Oh don’t be such a baby. Look at it.”

Michael held out his arm, and all were amazed to watch the blood rapidly congeal and flake away, to leave a rapidly shrinking red line upon his now unmarked skin.

Lyssa smiled smugly. “He’s a Hero.”

“Astaropolis, the City of Angels. I’m firmly convinced that The God constructed it purely to give Human and Mamono emissaries some kind of solid frame of reference in the Heavens, lest the sheer immensity of time and space which exists here drive us barking mad. No angels seem to reside here, nor do they eat, sleep, or take rest. They are courteous, though distant, and always seem to be looking for something in the back of your head… Gives me the flaming willies, My Lady, if you and Holy Tyris will forgive me the proximity to blasphemy. I cannot recommend strongly enough that this position be made a rotating one. I’m already starting to forget things…”

-Dom Jaksson, Westerlandian Imperial Emissary to Astaropolis, in a diplomatic missive to Empress Jessica II

“She’s overreacting.” Azrael grunted.

“Have you looked in a mirror lately, My Lord?” Lyra rejoined, sliding her hand into his, looking almost childlike inside his huge fist.

Azrael snorted. “Oh right. Trust a mirror in Hell.”

Lyra emitted a peal of musical laughter. “Be that as it may, dearest one, I have to agree with Mother on this. Your current… Magnificence will be too much for the mortal world to properly comprehend. If Lucifer caused near-panic as Lord Dumat when he was still human, you will cause worldwide riots.”

Azrael gave a deep basso chuckle. “Now there’s a thought…”

Lyra struck him in his muscled torso with a small, pale hand. “Behave, My Lord.”

The weird and lurid landscape of Hell wefted and shifted beneath them as they flew over it. Azrael frowned.

“This is not the way to Pandemonium.” He remarked.

“You’re right, Azrael. We’re not going to Pandemonium.” Lyra admitted.

A thick eyebrow raised on his demonic face, the finely boned angularity of his lost humanity replaced by rough, acromegalic features, lips pursed over a fanged maw.

“Where then are we going, my love?”

“Mother wants you to see something.”

A thick mist lay before them, eldritch lightning playing in its depths. A distant howling…

Lyra gently guided their flight to an ancient archway, pitted gates bearing the appearance of iron standing massively before them. An inscription on the archway above their heads. “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”

“I have never seen that language. What is it?” Azrael remarked.

“An ancient Human language, inscribed millennia ago by God or Hero… I’m not sure which. In our language it means roughly ‘Abandon Hope, all who enter here.” Lyra explained, a slight tremor in her voice.

“Don’t be frightened, little love…” Azrael crooned, picking her up and kissing her.

“I’m not frightened…” Lyra insisted, smiling at him and stroking his cheek.

The door opened with a discordant shrieking of ancient metal. Demon and Lilim stepped through, and Azrael shivered. It was cold! Cold such as he had never felt, even as a mortal.

“What is this place?” Azrael snorted, his breath steaming.

“It is called Cocytus… The oldest and deepest part of the Hells.” Lyra explained simply. She raised her arms, sliding them about his corded neck, kissing his lips softly. “You know I love you, right Azrael?”

“Of course Lyra, I have never had any doubt in that regard.” Azrael replied, holding her to him.

“Then I hope in time… Y-you can forgive me…” she sobbed, tears streaming down her porcelain cheeks. “Please understand, this is bigger than us… I must… obey the Queen of Hell.”

“What are you talking about Lyra? Let’s get out of here, I’m sick of this frozen waste.”

Lyra shook her head. “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”

And then she was gone.

“Lyra? LYRA?!” Azrael roared, turning and looking around for her. Nothing but the freezing and howling wind answered him. Azrael snarled, flapping his wings, attempting to haul himself aloft. His wings beat up a flurry of frost from the ground beneath himself, but he remained earthbound. Snarling, he returned to the huge gates, which were now sealed before him. Slamming on them with his massive fists, he tried in vain to open them.

“Maou! How could you turn her against me?” Azrael cried hoarsely. “How could you?!”

A heavy thumping sounded behind him. A massively corpulent demon dragged itself towards him, hideous features stretched in a foul parody of a smile. “Ahhhh…. Fresh meat…” it gurgled, long tongue dripping foulness as it licked horrid lips.

Azrael bared his fangs, focusing his titanic will upon the abomination before him. “Submit.” He hissed.

Terror replaced the twisted hunger on the thing’s face, and it moaned and gibbered before him.

“Don’t bully the pit fiends, friend.” An urbane voice sounded from the mists. Azrael snarled, squinting to see the figure which appeared before him. It was man-shaped, to an extent, its head horned and its hands clawed, but its bearded visage was free of obvious anomaly.

“And who are you?”

“I have had many names… My fondest was Barbatos, the Philosopher, Duke of Hell.”

“An odd place for one of your station, your grace.” Azrael snorted mockingly, lips pulled back from his fangs in a smug grin.

“Sadly one found oneself superfluous to requirements… This is where one finds oneself when one doesn’t fit with Maou’s designs.” Barbatos shrugged, ignoring the veiled insult.

Azrael frowned. “The Doctrines of Hell say that all was remade in Her image and after Her Will.”

Barbatos chuckled, absently dusting frost from his beard. “And are not all men said to be made in the Image of The God? Did all who did not meet that lofty mark disappear in the moment of His Ascension? No. As Above, So Below. The inconvenient remnants are culled… Or in our case, hidden away.”

Azrael grunted cynically. “Odd for Her to show such squeamishness, to let the artefacts of past Kingdoms remain, even in a place so… Inclement.”

Barbatos gave a noncommittal noise, gesturing for Azrael to follow him. “A God, A Ruler of Hell, A Seneschal of the Dead… Even Greater Demons such as ourselves are not so easily disposed of. Lilith was not overly burdened by scruples. If she had the ability to destroy me and my fellow Lords of the Goetia, she would have done so, make no mistake.”

“You know what I am?” Azrael remarked in surprise.

“You are a new… iteration of the concept… But yes, Lord Azrael, I know who you are.” Barbatos answered. “In my time, I was the Conciliator. I brought understanding to those magicians with the strength to call upon me.”

Azrael blinked. “Human Magicians?”

“The power has waxed and waned throughout history, but it was only Ilias who actively sought to strip the ability from Humanity. Of course by then I was already here.”

“Don’t mistake me for ungrateful, your grace…” Azrael began, his cloven hooves crunching on the frozen ground “…But you’re being awfully candid about all of this.”

Barbatos chuckled. “It was never my nature to be obtuse about things, Lord Azrael. And to be certain, I do enjoy the novelty of someone new to talk to.”

“Where are we going?”

“To show you what Maou was so afraid of.”

They trudged in silence for some time. Used to the fickle nature of time within Hell, Azrael made no attempt to gauge its passage. Occasionally they would pass other demons, some humanoid, some so impossibly alien that his mind shuddered to comprehend them. Some acknowledged their presence, whilst others gibbered to themselves, or shouted and slathered at some unseen opponent.

“What’s the matter with them?” Azrael asked, after passing one particularly active multi-armed horror.

“Some have just stared into the void for too long.” Barbatos explained.

“I don’t follow.” Azrael replied.

“You will.” The elder Demon offered simply.

“I don’t intend on remaining that long.”

Barbatos gave a cynical chuckle. “None of us do.”

The distant howling he had heard on his approach to Cocytus was growing louder.

“There.” Barbatos said, pointing into a depression into the otherwise featureless landscape. Azrael sucked in the freezing air in surprise.

The figure was massive, easily twenty five feet in height, which made the fact that it was frozen to the waist in what appeared to be a great lake even more staggering. Its head was lost in the thick mists which covered this frozen expanse, yet the silhouette of it’s great horned visage could be seen shrieking and howling at the uncaring and unseen ‘sky’ above. Azrael could not help but note the similarity in its appearance to his own newly transmuted form.

“Good looking chap.” He jibed.

“You’ve grasped a little of Maou’s terror then.”

“Not really, I got into a fight with a fellow with red hair once, many, many years ago. Didn’t make me launch an Infernal Crusade against every redhead on the planet.” Azrael replied.

Barbatos looked at him nonplussed. “You don’t strike me as terribly obtuse, Lord Azrael. The similarity is an indicator of what you could potentially become.”

“And that would be…” Azrael pressed.

“He is The First.”

“First what?”

Barbatos shook his head sadly. “What do they teach Demons these days? THE First. He has had many names. Abbadon, Shaitan, Iblis, Ahriman, Mastema… He was Maou for years beyond counting.”

“What about Set? O-Yama? Ba’al?” Azrael enquired.

“LESSER PRETENDERS TO A NAME UNDESERVED.” The titanic figure boomed. “WHO DO YOU BRING BEFORE ME, BARBATOS?”

“Lord Azrael. Greater Demon of the Line of Ilias, Oh Greatest King.” Barbatos offered humbly, kneeling before the titan.

“AZRAEL… YES… MY DAUGHTER’S SON.” The titan acknowledged, its massive head obscured by the mists, glowing eyes like ship’s lights. “YOU ARE WELCOME TO ME, AZRAEL.”

Cowed slightly in the figure’s tremendous presence, Azrael joined Barbatos in kneeling before it. “I thank you, Magnificence.” He murmured harshly.

“AH.” The Titan said simply. It turned its colossal head upwards and resumed its crazed howling. “FATHER! HOW LONG MUST I BE CONTAINED? HOW LONG BEFORE MY TORMENT ENDS? YOU PROMISED! FATHER!”

“Who is he talking to?” Azrael murmured.

“The ghosts of forgotten Gods.” Barbatos choked, and Azrael was shocked to see tears in the eyes of the elder demon.

“So Maou is afraid of her Father?”

“RIGHTLY SO! SHE WOULD VISIT HERESY UPON THE WORLD. MY FATHER’S COMMANDMENT WAS TO TEST HUMANITY. TO VISIT UPON IT MANIFOLD TRIALS THAT THEY MAY COME TO BETTER KNOW THE GOD IN HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS. NOT TO COUPLE WITH THE DENIZENS OF HELL AND THEIR OFFSPRING IN MONSTROUS UNION.” The Titan snarled.

“But Greatest King… There is peace! Human, Monster, Demon, Angel… we can co-exist! The Pax is ended!” Azrael exclaimed, overwhelmed by the concept espoused by the titan.

“PEACE?!” The titan echoed, vomiting molten fire in its revulsion which hissed and ate through the ice surrounding it, only to re-freeze just as quickly. “OURS IS NOT TO KNOW PEACE, SON OF MY SPAWN. AND SPEAK NOT TO ME OF THIS PATHETIC PAX, THE MACHINATIONS OF PUNY TYRIS ARE AS A FLAME IN A RAINSTORM AGAINST THE AUTHORITY OF HE-WHO-IS-FOREVER.”

“But we almost died! All of us!” Azrael objected. The titan’s form shook with mocking laughter.

“WHO MADE ALL THINGS? BY WHOSE AUTHORITY DOES THE SUN AND THE MOON MOVE IN THEIR PATHS IN THE HEAVENS? HAVE YOU SO LITTLE FAITH IN HE-WHO-IS-FOREVER THAT YOU KNOW NOT THAT HE COULD BREATHE ALL LIFE ANEW FROM THE CLAY OF THE EARTH?”

“Forgive me, Greatest King, but I don’t know the God of which you speak.” Azrael apologized, his acromegalic features furrowed in confusion.

“YOU WILL.”

The titan bent down, studying Azrael, whose own massive form felt tiny under the scrutiny of this ancient colossus. The titan gave a grunt of satisfaction, smoke and steam billowing from its nostrils.

“YES. THANK YOU BARBATOS. HE WILL DO NICELY.”

Barbatos bowed deeply, “I exist to serve you, My Liege.”

“Barbatos? What’s happening here?” Azrael asked suspiciously.

“My other domain in the Goetia.” Barbatos explained. “To find that which is hidden. My King requires an appropriate avatar. You fit the bill.”

“And if I didn’t?” Azrael snarled

“Well likely we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Barbatos admitted.

“QUIET YOURSELF, BLOOD OF MY BLOOD.” The titan commanded “AND KNOW MY POWER.”

Azrael howled as Cocytus erupted in fire.

“Michael?” Corvus ventured hesitantly

“Yes?” The Hero answered, his boyish face looking at Corvus askance.

“I wanted to apologise. Before, with that other ship… I thought you were going to just hand Lyssa over… I should have known better.”

Michael nodded. “You should have. No harm done though.”

“You seem to be making a habit of only opening your mouth to change feet of late Corvus.” Walker mocked gently.

“At least he owns up when he’s made a mistake, love.” Yumi retorted, her trademark smug grin softened slightly as she nursed the violet-haired baby at her breast, its tiny ears still pressed flat to its skull. The baby cheshire hiccoughed and began to fuss.

“More than I can say for most.” She continued, calmly propping the baby across her shoulder and patting its back gently to burp it. “And that will teach you to eat so fast, little Kylie.”

“That’s a pretty name.” Ruby remarked, seizing a bottle of spirits from a nearby bench with a crimson tentacle.

“Thank you, it’s in honour of his mother, Kyla.” Yumi replied with a smile, gesturing towards Walker with her chin.

“Kyla…” Corvus echoed. “Hang on… You mean Empress Kyla of Magesterium?!”

“Mmm…” Yumi murmured enigmatically.

“Walker… Your Mother was the First Sovereign?!” Corvus exclaimed, eyes bulging.

“Unofficially, the Pax WAS still in place at the time, you understand.” Walker replied absently, staring with unconcealed affection at his wife and child before blinking and spluttering as he realized his slip.

Arin erupted in a belly laugh. “He’s going to put two and two together eventually, Squid-Crusher.”

“Not before I’m jolly-well ready he’s not. There’s a reason I’m keeping it under wraps, Tyris damn it!” Walker spat.

“Then maybe you should be the one watching your mouth… Ruby MUST you drink all my top shelf shit?!” Arin lamented.

“Don’t like the other stuff.” Ruby answered simply, taking a long swig of the bottle.

“You’re lucky I love you.” Arin grated in mock anger, leaning over to kiss his Kraken wife.

Michael cleared his throat with slight embarrassment at the displays of affection. “I’m going topside for a bit.”

Corvus shook his head. “Me too, I think… Wait. Is it still raining up there?”

Michael chuckled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were traveling underwater.”

Corvus swore, heading towards the crew cabins for a jacket.

“It’s only rain, Corvus.” Michael mocked good-naturedly.

“So? I don’t recall anything in the Doctrines of Tyris which says I have to get wet.” The young man replied with a grin.

“Fair point. See you up there then.”

Corvus waved absently, ducking into the gloomy cabins. A few off-duty sailors snored softly in their hammocks. A coil dropped around his waist, constricting and lifting him off his feet into a nearby bunk. Suddenly he was enveloped in smooth scales, soft skin, and sweet-smelling hair.

“Hiya.” Lyssa murmured, kissing him softly.

“Hi yourself, been lurking here long?” Corvus said with a smile, sliding his arms about the snake-girl.

“Nah, smelled you coming and thought I’d take advantage of it.”

Corvus chuckled, “How romantic.”

“Isn’t it just?” Lyssa giggled, kissing him again.

“Lyssa?”

“Mmm?”

“On the subject of smell, I was wondering something.” Corvus said softly.

“I bathed yesterday, don’t you dare be mean!” Lyssa hissed.

“No! No, nothing like that.” Corvus insisted. “I was just wondering, what does Michael ‘smell’ like now that he’s… er… ‘finished cooking’, as it were?”

Lyssa nibbled his ear teasingly, “First you’re jealous that I’m so interested in him, now you’re asking me questions? Make your mind up, leggie.”

“Ruby’s a terrible influence on you.” Corvus snickered, recognizing the Kraken’s favourite insult. “But humor me, please?”

Lyssa propped herself up on one elbow, tracing an amethyst finger along the lacings of his shirt. “It’s like a storm in the distance. It’s… Powerful… Uncontrolled… Whatever he’s going to do, anybody around him is going to have to pay attention. Because it could be rain, it could be lightning, it could be a hurricane.”

“Well the party for ‘fried mice’ certainly feels inadequate.” Corvus jested. Lyssa struck him in mock outrage.

“Hey fuck you. Fried mice are fucking awesome.” She hissed.

“Oi! You two take it elsewhere if you’re going to chat. M’fuckin sleeping here.” A sailor complained from a nearby bunk.

“Sorry!” Corvus whispered apologetically. “Wanna go topside?” He asked Lyssa, holding his hand out.

Lyssa took it. “Sure, as long as you promise not to let me get cold.” She warned.

“Thou art protected from all things within mine arms, Milady.” Corvus intoned as they left the cabin, puffing his chest out.

“You look ridiculous.” Lyssa giggled. Corvus pushed her briefly against the wall of the hallway, kissing her lingeringly.

“Bully” He mocked, biting her lip gently. Lyssa’s breath quickened.

“Corvus… Can I…” She asked timidly

“Can you what?”

“Can I… Bite you?”

Corvus blinked. “Anything I should be worried about?” Lyssa shook her head.

“I don’t think so, I can control the bite so you’re not in any danger… I can’t say how you’ll respond to it though.”

“Forgive me if this is a snake thing I don’t know about, but why?”

Lyssa blushed. “I-it’s something we do when… when… we really care about someone. It’s sharing a part of ourselves.”

“We do that anyway.” Corvus teased.

“Don’t tease me!” Lyssa hissed, blushing furiously.

“I’m sorry… C’mere.” Corvus murmured, leaning his head away from her and exposing his neck. He felt a momentary twinge of concern as Lyssa opened her mouth and those long, needle-sharp fangs came into view. Then they were at his neck. Hot sharp pain where they pierced him. Warm of something entering his bloodstream…

…Then something blew the top of his head off and he was flying.

He remembered very little of their jaunt above decks, Lyssa’s face where the rain plastered her emerald hair in wet strands, her eyes alight with laughter, the rain shimmering with inner light, seeming to fall in slow motion. Lyssa’s serpentine body, each scale a jewel in its own right. Lyssa underneath him, her gasping and moaning in his ear… The sound of their hearts beating in a soft rushing harmony…

“Hey… You back with me?” Lyssa murmured.

“I-I think so…” Corvus moaned, wincing at muscles which mysteriously ached. “Sorry, I was a little out of it…”

“That’s one way to put it… You kept going on about me being the “Divine Serpent coiled about the roots of Destiny” or some other rubbish.” Lyssa snickered.

“Oh… Damn… I hope I didn’t embarrass you too much.” Corvus offered, blushing slightly.

“Oh, not at all, I’ve never even thought of someone using their mouth like that.” Lyssa hinted salaciously. Corvus licked his lips, a musky, slightly salty taste still faintly lingering there.

“Huh… Really should have thought of that before.” Corvus chuckled.

“Oh yes.” Lyssa agreed, kissing him softly.

They lay there for a moment, letting the cool rain fall upon them.

“Hey, what’s that?” Corvus asked, seeing a flickering light at the bow of the vessel.

“Tellis and Michael are discussing things.” Lyssa snickered.

“Huh…” Corvus replied, climbing a nearby service ladder to get a better view. “Looks like they’re beating five layers of shit out of each other.”

“What were you expecting from those two lunks? Tea and a robust debate?”

Corvus laughed, climbing back down.

“Take me inside.” Lyssa ordered, yawning “I’m getting cold, and you promised.”

Corvus scooped her humanoid half into his arms, her long tail trailing on the deck behind them.

“Points for effort…” Lyssa drawled, kissing him again as he half carried, half dragged her below.

“I know some of the Commandants have been itching to assume The Order since about five minutes after Divine Amaranth formed her, but bear with me. The High Priestesses of Eternal Tyris have worked with them since their formation and there is a certain… Something which bears seeing out. The Bloodlines of the Scions still breed true regardless of how diluted the old offices of the Mistresses of the Bloodlines have insisted they have become… That report smells of gold, by the way… Now settle yourselves, My Lords and Ladies, I meant no offense, unless you have guilt staining your soul, in which case I am more than willing to take your confession in private after this Conclave is adjourned…”

-Transcription of the Fifty-third meeting of the Select Privy Council of the Faithful, Sister Superior Annabelle speaking.

“You’re cheating!” Tellis hissed.

“I promise you, I’m not.” Michael answered evenly, blocking the salamander’s swipe with his forearm and delivering a punishing body blow which rocked her, making her grasp her ribs and stagger back, glaring at him.

“You are! You’re doing that Hero thing.” She insisted, swiping her tail forcefully at his head.

Michael ducked under the flaming appendage, hearing it sizzle in the rain as it passed overhead. Spinning, he swept his foot at her ankles.

“Even if I was… Argh…” He grunted as she anticipated the move, viciously slamming her own leg into his. “…that’s a cheap excuse.”

Tellis snarled “Explain.”

“Do I… Complain… About you setting yourself… on fire?” Michael panted as they locked arms in a grapple, both straining against the other’s considerable strength.

“Like it… Affects you…” the Salamander mocked.

“Still hurts…” Michael grunted, shifting his weight and attempting to throw Tellis’s muscular form over his shoulder.

“Pain is unimportant…” Tellis sneered, countering and gripping Michael from the rear, forcing her deadly talons towards his throat.

“That’s… not true…” Michael disagreed, frantically grabbing Tellis’s wrist, keeping the sizzling talons away from him. Fingers questing, he found the pressure point he sought, jamming his thumb in cruelly. Tellis shrieked and her muscles relaxed.

“Pain is a response. Your body will react to it. You have to anticipate how.” Michael panted, reclaiming some distance from the Salamander and circling, getting his breath back.

“But if you can’t be harmed…” Tellis began, launching a flying kick at Michael. Michael grabbed her leg in mid-air, slamming her onto the deck.

“I don’t know that…” Michael growled, twisting her ankle cruelly as she writhed and scrambled for purchase. “…I don’t know anything about it. How much I can take, how far I can go. It’s why I’m here in the first place, to find something which does.”

“And what’s that?” Tellis moaned, finding purchase and kicking Michael fiercely off her. Breath exploded from his lungs as he hit the deck.

“Echidna.” Michael wheezed, desperately sucking air back into his lungs.

“Hah. The She-Vipers are gone. You’re chasing a phantom.” Tellis sneered, slashing at him again.

“Maybe the Journey is reward in itself.” Michael said, grabbing her wrists and forcing her backwards with a swift rush. Overbalancing, the Salamander found herself on her back. Michael atop her, forearm pinned across her throat.

“See? You cheated.” Tellis choked. Michael shook his head.

“You always overextend on your left leg. Corvus could knock you over when you’re unbalanced like that.”

“Do it again.” Tellis demanded. Michael shook his head, standing from her and offering her a hand up.

“I’m tired, Tellis. And I’ve been rained on enough for one evening.”

“Do it AGAIN!” Tellis hissed, grabbing his wrist and pulling him closer to her.

“Why? There’ll be time enough tomorrow.” Michael asked, platinum hair plastered across a brow furrowed in confusion.

Tellis’s lower lip trembled and for a fleeting moment she looked incredibly vulnerable. Then her eyes hardened, and hissing in frustration, she shoved him away from her with a muttered “Idiot.”

Michael watched her stalk away. “Women…” he sighed.

“You alright, big man?” Corvus’s voice came from behind him.

The Dumatian turned to look at the young man, standing soaked and shivering slightly.

“Thought you were grabbing a jacket…” Michael murmured, beginning to remove the fighter’s bindings from his hands, now charred and torn from his ‘friendly’ bout with Tellis.

“Something more interesting came up.” Corvus admitted, grinning sheepishly. “Actually I was on my way down to pursue that further when Walker asked me to check on you and Tellis.”

“She’s not going to kill me, she’s pledged to me.” Michael assured him.

“If you say so. Lizard-kin that big, with claws that long… Accidents can happen, also, y’know, fire.” Corvus drawled.

“Ah.” Michael acknowledged simply.

“Can I ask you something?” Corvus ventured.

“Of course, little friend.”

“C’mon Michael, I’m not that much shorter than you.”

“And I’m not that much taller than you.” Michael rejoined with a soft grin.

“Fair point, Guess Arin’s bad habits are rubbing off on all of us.”

Michael nodded. “He’s an influential sort, it’s true… Anyway, I don’t think you wanted to ask me about him.”

“You’re right.” Corvus admitted. “What’s it like? Being a Hero, I mean.”

Michael paused, his brow furrowed in deep thought.

“I don’t know.” He finally admitted.

“Come on, if you don’t want to talk about it you can just say so.”

“I really don’t know.” Michael said sincerely. “What’s it like being immune to resonance?”

Corvus’s mouth worked fishlike as he hunted for a response. “I’ve never been anything else… I don’t know what not being immune would feel like.”

“Exactly. Do you know how to whistle?” Michael asked, rubbing absently at a rapidly fading cut on his bicep, unnoticed until now. Corvus nodded.

“It’s a bit like that. One day you’re just blowing air through your mouth, and then suddenly you can do it. I don’t feel any different, I can just do things that I couldn’t before.”

“That’s deep man, are you sure you’re not just putting on the thick act?” Corvus asked mockingly.

“I know I’m not smart, Corvus, but I broke my cousin’s collarbone for giving me too much grief about it. Have a care.” Michael growled warningly.

“Sorry, sorry… I didn’t mean anything by it. Healing so quickly though, that’s got to feel different.”

“To be honest” Michael admitted with a sheepish grin “it itches like hell.”

Both men laughed as they headed below, the rain lashing the deck behind them.

“This continuing march towards anachronism is completely understandable. Would you believe a ragged old coot calling himself a ‘Soothsayer’ came stumbling in here predicting that the Old Names would be Spoken again in Hel, and that the Raven of the North would be reborn? Sheer gibberish. We’ve been forced down the road of survival for how many thousand years and this is the first century that Humans or Mamono have really had the opportunity to let loose creatively with their mythologies… Of course the fact the church burned the majority of it during the Ilian crusades means what’s left has mutated into something completely unrecognisable. I for one am happy to allow it to be humoured, within reason. I won’t have Holy Tyris called ‘Wotan’ at the Summer Solstice, for instance. Not only is it inaccurate, it’s grossly offensive.”

-From “The Collected Judgements of High King Julhaig, Scholar-Sovereign of the Nordenlands”

Pain…

Azrael fought to retain equilibrium as the molten rock splashed upon him. The runes which coated his demonic form had long since turned to fire, eternally blazing and scorching his now blackened flesh.

Agony…

“FEEL IT, AZRAEL” the Titan commanded. “REACH DEEP INTO THE WISDOM BORN OF AGONY. KNOW MY POWER.”

More…

And then, in a rush of understanding. He saw. The titan smiled and nodded, massively reduced, only its crumbling head now bobbed in the lake of fire which had consumed the remainder of its form.

“DO YOU SEE?”

“Yes, Greatest King. I see.” Azrael agreed.

“THEN TAKE UP MY CHALICE. RESTORE THE WORLD.”

“I can free you, Greatest King!” Azrael insisted, reaching out for the head as it crumbled and collapsed.

“YOU ALREADY HAVE. FOR MILLENNIA HAVE I PRAYED TO HE-WHO-IS-FOREVER FOR AN END. SURELY HE HAS SENT YOU UNTO ME.”

“Then I shall take up the cup given unto you by He-Who-Is-Forever, and gladly will I drink of it.”

“AHHHH.” The titan sighed, blissful serenity on what remained of its face before it crumbled into nothingness.

Azrael stood, fire bathing him as Cocytus blazed. Demons screamed as they succumbed to the flame and molten rock. He marched purposefully towards the iron gates.

“Master…” a small voice came from the ground beside him. A skeletal hand clutched at his digitigrade leg. Azrael looked down, the ruined and collapsing form of Barbatos writhing on the smoking ground.

“Please… Master… Save me…” the demon begged as he was slowly annihilated.

Azrael laughed. “Loyal Servant. Rejoice! The End has come. Thank God for the Suffering.”

“No…” Barbatos mewled as its form collapsed into ashes.

Azrael gestured towards the vast gates, rearing back, he vomited a vast font of dripping hellfire onto it, melting through the ancient metal as if it were wax. Laughing, he flapped his smouldering wings, launching himself into the air, hurtling towards Pandemonium, a trail of smoke and sparks in his wake.

“Attend me, My children.” He intoned mentally. Like ravens to a corpse, the black wings of Dark Angels began to appear on the Horizon.

“Master!” Kyriel gasped upon seeing his charred and smoking form.

“Don’t be afraid, Kyriel. We’re embarking on a great and glorious mission. We’re going to save the world.” Azrael said assuringly, soaring ever closer to Hell’s Capitol. Landing in the courtyard, he sneered as succubi squealed and scattered like frightened schoolgirls. His incubi-sons quickly ran to the source of the disturbance, upon seeing him, their leader froze.

“Decide now where your loyalties lie, my son.” Azrael warned, his voice the crackling of a wildfire.

Almost reluctantly, the incubus dropped to its knees. “Ave Rex Tenebraum.” It intoned.

“My faithful servant.” Azrael purred, touching the incubus with a smoking forefinger, leaving a scorched mark upon its brow. Trailed now by both dark angel and incubus, Azrael bulled his way through massive doors, the twisting reality of Hell itself ceasing its permutations as if in fear.

A figure of Alien beauty sat upon a throne of fretted bone within that vast, elaborate hall. She looked up at him, lurid eyes wide in surprise.

“That was quick.” The figure remarked.

“Oh? You expected my escape then, Majesty?” Azrael quipped, smoke and sparks clouding with his voice.

“Of course, Azrael. Don’t be simple.” Maou said evenly “Though convincing Lyra took some doing, I’ll admit.”

A scream of joy and surprise was heard, and the red-haired form of Lyra shot across the hall to bury herself in Azrael’s arms.

“Oh Azrael! I’m so sorry! Mother said you needed to see! I never wanted to leave you for a second!” the Lilim sobbed, before stepping back and looking at his charred form with dismay.

“Oh my love… it must hurt terribly…”

“Yes.” Azrael admitted

“I will lavish you with all the care and comfort that Earth, Heaven and Hell can provide for a thousand years, I swear!” Lyra murmured assuringly, stroking his blackened flesh with delicate porcelain hands.

“You have gazed into the abyss, Azrael. Seen what unfettered power and the will to destroy will result in. Do you understand?” Maou asked, looking at him seriously.

“Yes Majesty. I understand.” Azrael stated simply, before turning back to Lyra. “Oh, my sweet one… I will never let you leave my arms so long as you draw breath.”

Lyra smiled beatifically, leaning into his embrace and pursing her full lips to meet his charred mouth. The joy left her face as her eyes snapped open, and her throat vibrated as she screamed into his mouth. Her lustrous hair caught fire instantly, and her form crisped, before blackening and crumbling into smoking ember.

A drip of hellfire fell from Azrael’s grinning mouth, sizzling where it ate into the floor. “…I did not lie…” He drawled.

“What have you done?!” Maou demanded, staring at him with a mixture of horror and fury.

“Obeying a command given to me by one far greater than you… Lilith.” He spat.

“You will spend your last moments in lamentation for this… monstrosity!” Maou snarled, pointing a finger at him which shook with rage.

“Won’t we all… Incidentally, your father sends his regards.” Azrael mused. As if obeying an unspoken command, The Dark Angels and the Incubi all attacked in unison, launching a withering torrent of dark fire at the enthroned figure. Azrael raised his hands, and the floor beneath the throne opened up, molten rock and flame vomiting forth to cover Maou in a torrent of destruction.

It was over in seconds. The ground where the throne once stood was blackening slag, stinging smoke filled the hall.

The Lilim and Succubi assembled went swiftly into an apoplexy of uncomprehending grief, shrieking, tearing at hair, collapsing onto the floor and wailing as if their hearts were being torn asunder.

“Shall we have a new throne made for you, O my Master?” Kyriel asked in a servile tone.

“No. No lesser pretender will ever again sit upon the Throne of Hell.” Azrael said simply. “He-Who-Is-Forever will Re-forge the Throne of Abbadon and raise Him from Oblivion, if it is within His will to do so. Our orders are simple.”

“Domine Pat..” An incubus began.

“Speak a civilized language, son. I am sick of the sound of that Lilian affection.” Azrael snarled.

“What must we do, Lord Father?” the incubus continued, clearly shaken.

“Ready your arms, my children. We March on Astaropolis. The Heavens will fall, and the Pretender Tyris will kneel and drink of the chalice of Destruction.”

“Hail Azrael.” The angels intoned, following the charred and smoking demon as he strode from the hall, paying little notice to the weeping and distraught succubi around them.

As they left, a slight figure in a black, cowled robe stepped from the shadows of a side alcove, walking towards the ugly pile of slag which was once Maou’s throne.

“What are you doing, Necromancer?” One of the Lilim grated, her voice a torrent of grief.

“Looking.” The cowled figure replied in a deadpan voice. It raised gloved hands to its cowl, pushing it back to reveal ageless features, so pale as to be nearly translucent. Its eyes were a corpse’s bloodless, clouded grey, yet they flitted attentively across the slag. Seemingly satisfied, the Necromancer stood with a slight smile on its thin lips.

“Are you alright, Majesty?” The necromancer asked politely in that deadpan monotone.

The air before him warped and shimmered, and the alien beauty reappeared with a hollow thump of displaced air.

“I took a lot of trouble to appear dead, Damien…” Maou chided irritably.

“The dead know their own, Majesty.” Damien replied simply.

“You might have waited to be sure they weren’t coming back.”

Damien nodded. “I might have, but your daughters’ laments were… painful.”

“Mother?” A Lilim cried, brushing tears from her eyes and staring in disbelief.

“I’m alright, dearest one.” Maou said assuringly to the Lilim, as the cries of the succubi became utterances of joy and relief.

Maou looked again at Damien. “Painful? That’s a poor excuse. To be honest sympathy wasn’t something I expected from the Undead.”

“Blame my Wife. Surely her gentle heart has rubbed off on me over these many years.”

“Liar. How is she?” Maou asked conversationally.

“She is well. She attends Ammit. Horus and Hathor would name their successors.”

“Duty even in Death… Sometimes I regret not claiming those two for myself.” Maou mused.

“As you say, Majesty” Damien replied deferentially. “Would you raise Lyra? I stand prepared to assist. My Goddess will not deny you, considering the manner of her passing.”

Maou’s face clouded with regretful sadness. “No. Her death was quick, and I would rather the memories she takes into the next world be ones of happiness, rather than another eon of regret and shame at her lover’s betrayal.” A single tear, priceless beyond measure, fell from her eye and struck the smoking slag, which dissolved as her throne reassembled itself. “I will miss her so.”

“Surely Ammit will judge her lightly.” Damien replied, bowing his head respectfully and placing two fingers across his heart.

“She’d better…” Maou murmured, a touch of petulance in her divine voice.

“Mother, what of Azrael? The Angels? The Incubi? Surely we need to warn someone!” a blue-haired succubus cried.

“Selflessness Elia? I’m shocked…” Maou mocked gently.

“I-I don’t know you need to go making that common knowledge…” Elia stammered, blushing furiously. Maou gave a peal of crystalline laughter.

“Although I had hoped Azrael’s return would be more… peaceable… and while I plan on peeling him like a grape for killing Lyra, this was not entirely unexpected.”

Maou sighed, sitting back in her throne. “For now, things are still going as planned…”

“I felt them.” The angel remarked, holding her arms over her swelling midsection protectively.

“I know, Ariael. So did I.” Lucifer murmured assuringly, wrapping powerful arms about her shoulders, his six massive wings rustling as they shifted.

“Those traitors…” Ariael spat venomously, the ever-present choir of heaven souring in sympathy with her anger.

“The God foresaw this… He assures us that it was necessary.” Lucifer said, a slight note of sadness in his echoing voice.

“But why? After everything… All we’ve been through… All you’ve lost…” Ariael lamented, looking down at her pregnant belly. “To give us this blessing and then to put it all at risk…”

“You sound like a mother already, My Love.” Lucifer chuckled.

Ariael smiled. “As much as I prefer you as a Seraph, I missed your laugh…”

Lucifer ran his lips along the nape of her neck. “Just my laugh?” He murmured.

Ariael giggled “Well that too… There is a certain charm to the act…”

Lucifer turned her around, placing a hand on her belly and kissing her softly. “I’ll make a Human of you yet.”

“Promise me Lucifer… Promise no matter what happens, we get through this together.”

Lucifer pulled her into his powerful arms. “Oh my heart… I’ll always be with you, even if you can’t see me.”

They held each other close in the timeless expanses of the Heavens, as the Choir swelled around them and blessed their love.

“Why has a subjugation expedition not been launched into the Australs, considering the rich mineral wealth present there? Very simple. The Mamono there are what ours tell their children will eat them if they don’t brush their teeth at night. And the only thing more insane than the monsters are the bloody humans. Let them have the blasted place, it’s not like the profit margins don’t already make it more than worth the risk.”

-Derrain De Sephiny, IMFC Director at a meeting of the board.

“Wow.” Lyssa exclaimed

“Yeah.” Corvus agreed

“That’s the Australs?”

Corvus shrugged “So Cap’n Arin and Walker say. Looks so…”

“Normal.”

Corvus chuckled, nodding. “I’ll be honest, I was expecting gibbering ghosts on jagged rocks, telling us ‘Turn awaaaaayyyyyy!” He moaned, rolling his eyes and holding his arms out, fingers grasping at the Lamia next to him.

“Get away you, I know you’re just trying for a grope.” Lyssa giggled.

“Was not… Well… Maybe a little…” Corvus admitted, grabbing at her playfully.

Lyssa squealed, half-heartedly fighting him off. A hissing roar made them both turn in surprise. Michael was stalking across the deck, a smouldering Tellis in hot pursuit.

“Tyris Damn it, Tellis, I said no!” Michael snarled.

“Just fucking do it once more!” Tellis complained. “What are you, some kind of wimp?”

“What is wrong with you? Do you get off on this or something?”

Tellis stopped as if she had walked face first into a wall. Hissing something at him in a harsh reptilian language, she stalked off in a huff. Lyssa was gaping after her open mouthed.

“What is it Lys?” Corvus asked.

“Nuh uh… I’m not even going to translate that, let alone repeat it.”

“That bad huh?”

“Yep.”

Corvus gave a low whistle. “They’re almost as bad as an old married couple, aren’t they?”

Lyssa gave a most un-snakelike snort of suppressed laughter, as they watched the coastline approach.

“Three weeks, Do you think that’ll be enough?” Arin asked Walker as they pulled the last of their gear from the longboat to the shore.

“Should be, if not, I’ll let you know.” Walker replied, shaking Arin’s hand in farewell. “And thanks for looking after Yumi and Kylie for me.”

Arin snorted. “Like Ruby was going to let that kid out of her sight. I blame you if she gets ideas, you know. She’s acting positively clucky.”

Walker laughed. “Maybe it’s about time you settled down.”

Arin looked at him with mock disgust. “Wash your mouth out.”

“Travel safe.”

“You too, old friend.”

Walker helped Arin push the longboat back into the water. Grabbing his pack, he gestured to the others.

“Come on then, we’ve got a hard day’s walk ahead of us.”

“Figuratively speaking.” Lyssa drawled.

“If you get scale-burn I will mock you incessantly, young lady.”

“Don’t call misfortune on me so early in the morning, Resonant!” Lyssa rejoined with mock outrage.

Walker laughed, leading them up the beach and into the light scrub beyond, Tellis and Michael sulking behind them like twin stormclouds, each refusing to look at the other.

They walked like that for most of the day. The sun climbed higher in the sky, and the day went from warm, to unpleasantly so, to scorchingly hot.

“How does anything live out here?” Corvus gasped, taking a drink from his waterskin.

“Don’t know what you’re complaining about, this is lovely.” Tellis mused, stretching languorously and relishing the feel of the sun on her skin. The Salamander had stripped to a pair of short leggings and a fighter’s binding about her breasts, barely covering her dignity.

“Truly.” Lyssa agreed, similarly attired in a silken wrap which covered only her hips and breasts.

“Do you ladies mind?” Michael begged.

“What?”

“It’s very hard to know where to look when you both stretch like that!”

Lyssa and Tellis shared a conspiriatorial giggle, Lyssa raising her hand to her mouth and affecting a violated expression. “Michael, are you ogling us?” she asked, before giggling incessantly.

“He’s blushing…” Tellis remarked smugly, like some minor victory had been won.

Michael began muttering under his breath, stalking forward behind Walker, who moved at an inexorably consistent pace to the northwest.

“I’m pretty sure he’d walk straight through a solid face of rock if it showed up in front of us right now.” Corvus panted, jogging lightly under the weight of his pack to catch up.

They trudged on, and the scrub began to give way to sparse, low lying trees. Gradually, the trees became thicker and taller, until the line of an eucalypt forest lay before them.

“Shade… Tyris be forever praised. Blessed, blessed shade!” Michael groaned thankfully, breaking into a brisk jog towards the trees.

“Hang on Michael… Wait a second… Michael! Wait!” Walker cried out after the man, who stood smiling beatifically in the shade of a large gumtree. Michael looked over at them, his boyish face uncomprehending, as a snarling ball of teeth and claws plummeted down on him from above.

Vaguely ursine in shape, it sank clawed, twin-thumbed hands into Michael’s head behind the ears, before lowering its toothed maw to savage brutally at the base of his skull. Michael shouted, flailing his arms about in an attempt to grasp the thing and dislodge it. For all his strength, he could not get his corded arms around to get a grip on the thing.

“Roll man, roll!” Walker yelled, sprinting towards the treeline.

“Do something!” Corvus yelled at the Resonant

“I can’t! It has its teeth in his spine! I’ll rip his head off removing it!” Came Walker’s voice, sick with despair.

A hissing screech chilled them all to the bone. Tellis, her spine blazing fire, hurtled towards the stricken Hero like a fiery angel of fury.

Walker cursed. “The flames! Don’t let the fire spread!”

Corvus stripped off his shirt, beating at the spot fires where they crawled in Tellis’s wake.

A horrible tearing sound was heard, and Corvus paused in fighting the fire to see Tellis covered in blood and gore, all that remained of Michael’s attacker were a few scattered fragments of bone and entrail. Moaning, she dropped to her knees, holding Michael’s limp form in her arms. His face was pale, and blood ran freely from his nose.

“You can’t die, you shithead! You hear me? You can’t die! You can’t leave me! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” She sobbed. “I can’t have failed you! Not without getting to tell you…”

“Tellis…” Came a weak voice.

“Maou’s ample bosom…” Lyssa swore softly.

Miraculously, Michael lifted his head, grinning weakly. Tellis let loose a cry of relief, cradling him to her and rocking back and forth as she wept. Walker, Lyssa and Corvus watched shredded flesh knit together over the white bones of his skull and spine, platinum hair springing from fresh pink skin, until not a mark remained.

“Now… Tell me what?” Michael asked, his voice muffled against Tellis’s breast.

As if a spell had been broken, Tellis pushed him away with a hiss. “T-That you’re a dumbass…” she snarled, scrambling to her feet and blushing furiously.

“Moreso than usual, I think.” Michael drawled, grabbing the Salamander by the wrist and pulling her to him, kissing her lightly. For a moment, her eyes softened, and she seemed to melt into him. Then, she shoved him away again. “You dare?! I’ll kill you!” She cried.

Michael chuckled wearily “Then let me sit down for a moment before you do… That was unpleasant.” He drawled, before flopping to the ground, resting his back against the tree.

“Merciful Tyris… I do not want to meet the thing capable of killing you, Lieutenant!” Walker exclaimed, laughing in relief.

“And you!” Tellis snarled, pointing at Walker. “Why were you so insistent on putting out a grass fire instead of helping him?”

“Because we’d have killed the rest of you if you hadn’t.” A new voice came from within the forest, as from behind trees stepped a handful of odd looking avian Mamono. Their legs were long and powerful, yet their wings were stumpy, ending in claws more resembling human hands than the nubs of flying harpies.

“What…” Corvus began.

“Emus.” Walker said aside to Corvus. “Ladies.” he greeted the Mamono politely.

“Hullo.” They said as one, smiling shyly.

“Is this something we don’t tell Yumi?” Corvus said with a grin.

“Yumi’s here?!” The Emus squealed with excitement.

“There’s your answer, and fuck you for insinuating I’d betray my wife.” Walker admonished Corvus.

“M’sorry…” The youth murmured abashedly.

Lyssa punched him in the arm. “You would work so much better as a snake, Corvus.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you wouldn’t have feet to keep stuffing in your mouth.” The Lamia drawled.

“Oooh…” one of the Emu exclaimed, her large eyes inspecting Lyssa. “Pretty…”

“Thank you.” The Lamia said girlishly, “I love your feathers, but they’re so soft, how do you fly?”

“Fly? Hear this sheila talk!” The emu crowed, emitting a peal of genuine laughter.

“Sorry about the drop bear… It’s mating season and they tend to be utter cunts like that. ‘Specially the blokes.” Another apologised. “Is the big guy alright?”

“I’ll live…” Michael chuckled wearily.

“We’ll see…” Tellis snarled.

“No more fire, you.” Ordered the biggest of the emu, stomping her broad, clawed foot authoritatively.

“Or what, drumstick?” Tellis snarled.

Without changing expression, the Emu kicked the salamander squarely in the chest, sending her flying through the air and landing on her back. The shredded binding cloth about her chest came loose and her breasts flopped into view.

“She’s perky…” drawled the Emu to Michael as Tellis scrambled to regain her dignity. “…don’t you think?”

Michael smiled and said nothing.

“Sun’s going down, you lot feel like some tucker?” another of the Emu asked, producing a woven basket.

“Thank you, it would be most welcome.” Walker said gratefully. “What have you got there?”

“Fried mice.” The emu said with a grin, opening the basket to reveal a number of fried rodents impaled upon sticks.

Lyssa raised her eyes reverently to the heavens. “Praise Maou… I’ve come home.”

“Just try it.” Lyssa insisted.

“Can’t I at least take off the tail?” Corvus begged

“That’s the best bit, it’s all crunchy!”

Corvus sighed. “You’re lucky I love you.” He murmured, taking a bite out of the impaled rodent.

“Umf…” He murmured. “You’re right… This isn’t half ba… What?”

Lyssa was looking at him with shimmering eyes, her hands held to her mouth. “D-Did you mean that?” she whispered nearly inaudibly.

“Seriously, I wasn’t expecting them to be this tasty!” Corvus said. Lyssa launched herself at him, his mouse falling to the dirt as she pinned him.

“Don’t fuck with me, Corvus… You know what I meant.”

Corvus smiled slightly, raising his hand to cup Lyssa’s cheek gently. “Yeah… I think I do.”

“Good.” The Lamia said with a self-satisfied smirk.

“…That’s it?” Corvus asked, a hint of confusion in his voice.

“Well… I guess I love you too.” Lyssa drawled, bending to kiss him soundly.

“…But we’ll have to stop past New Botany. You humans can’t run that fast, or that far.” The emu said to Walker as they bent over his map, pointing with a feathered claw at a point further up the coast.

“That’s fine, we can find our own way from there, you’ve been a great help.” Walker said sincerely.

“It’s nothing mate, we haven’t forgotten what you and Yumi did for us after Mother died.” The emu murmured gratefully. Walker ruffled her feathers with a smile. A hissing cry floated through the air as the night closed in around them.

“Tyris be merciful, are those two fighting again?!” Walker groaned. The Emu stood up from her weird squatting position, taking a few bobbing steps in the direction of the sound, staring into the murky darkness of early night with her huge eyes. Making an odd gulping sound, she turned back to Walker, her cheeks crimson.

“They’re… Not fighting…” The emu stammered.

“Then what is she… Oh… OH!” Walker exclaimed, before groaning and putting his head in his hands. “Tyris, I’m a sinner it’s true, but THEM?” he moaned.

Tellis panted on the cool ground as Michael rolled off her, groaning in the absence of exertion.

“T-That…” She gasped.

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.” Michael drawled lazily, tracing his fingers along her arm.

“Stop that, it tickles!” She giggled.

“Can I ask you something Tellis?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

Tellis propped herself up to face him. “On how dumb the question is.”

“If you wanted… This… Why didn’t you just say so? I don’t think I ever gave you the impression that I don’t like Mamono…” Michael began.

Tellis sulked slightly.

“Dumb question?”

“No, Maou damn it, it wasn’t.” Tellis grumbled, letting out a sigh. “I don’t know. Firstly because we Salamanders have a tradition, we don’t take anybody to bed who can’t prove themselves. You did, again, and again, and again… I always thought it would just happen after a fight one day. Then I thought maybe you had someone already…”

“I won’t lie to you Tellis, this isn’t my first time.” Michael explained honestly.

“Then you’d better make a decision because I am NOBODY’S Mistre…” Tellis growled, her ridges beginning to smoulder.

“No, nothing like that. They breed us, in the Order. Like in the days of the Pax, it’s almost like habit. Once a month, we pair off, do the deed, have a shower, rinse and repeat. It’s not the first time I’ve coupled, and Tyris knows I probably have children by someone, but they’ll never know me as anything but ‘Lieutenant.”

“That’s… Depressing.” Tellis murmured with distaste.

“I’m inclined to agree, but you do what you’re told… We needed Heroes, and the Angels were too sparse in answering.” Michael sighed, then chuckled slightly. “You did get one first though.”

“I hardly think we were that imaginative, Michael.” Tellis harrumphed.

“No… This is the first time that there’s actually been feeling involved.”

The Salamander rolled over, glaring down at the Hero. “You better not be having fun with me.”

“Promise. I’m not that smart.” Michael murmured, kissing her lingeringly.

The entity processed the new data with the same dispassionate efficiency it applied to all aspects of its existence. Reality was shifting again, and doing so without permission. It was without emotion itself, but had enough information from the biological units it had partnered with to recognise that this would be an appropriate time for what they termed ‘Frustration’, or perhaps even ‘Concern’. The Anomaly was not within range of its network, something else it deemed unacceptable. And those rogue biologicals which refused to follow instructions. Had it not established the superior flexibility of central operating protocols? Their programming was so chaotic…

It reached consensus, it would run another analysis. Clearly it had missed something important.

DIRECTIVE: ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES ARE TO RE-CALCULATE THE PRESENTED DATA.

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