AMCW storylines The Baron
They walk down a narrow alley to the little clearing around which short, stumpy buildings of all colors and states of conservation seem to have been planted without rhyme or reason other than someone felt like it. The people here are just a little different shape and hue. Some considerably shorter and skinnier than the average Morporkian, some taller but more slender, more delicate-shaped than most of the population under Lord Vetinari’s unyielding care. Skin color varies here from a yellowish paleness to a nice olive tan, eyes tend to be almond-shaped.
Susan looks around the myriad of Agatean immigrants roaming about, taking care of their busy lives making it big in Ankh-Morpork, land of opportunity. Many of these people have come from a segregated, imperialist nation, where a man is born with the luck of the family and caste he is born into. Of course, this is all very well good and well organized for those being born into the higher classes, with dominance and supremacy having already conveniently been figured out for them by some ancestor a long time ago whose name no one can quite spell properly anymore. For anyone born into the lower classes of the frolicking cesspool that is society as a whole, however, this means being born to be a gecko without any hope of ever evolving enough to join the alligators.
And that is why all these people have happily (and at a very quick pace) gathered their belongings and traveled all the way from the Counterweight Continent, across the Rim Sea, to the equally frolicking cesspool of Ankh-Morporkian society, in the hopes of joining all the local geckos in their dreams of growing a mouthful of sharp teeth (not necessarily their own mouth or even their own teeth). And mostly, they have done it. Unlike Agatean society, Morporkian society mostly values entrepreneurs and smooth talkers and, if all else fails, hard workers, and the people here all have managed to learn at least one of the three required arts. They live among the natives, in the house next door or the downstairs apartment, happily mingled with the colorful non-descript standard Morporkian inhabitant that is about as purely-bred as a mongrel sired on a new moon. So these little, all-Agatean neighborhoods are among the rarest and quaintest of places in the city.
Presently, they reach the door to a restaurant with a wood-carved lattice door decorated with two crouching tigers and a name written in curly letters that look like worms trying to avoid a strategically-placed grain of salt.
“I know how it looks but trust me--the food is great,” Saengfai says.
Susan smiles unsurely at the fire god turned private detective. They first met on a case involving a cult with a bad habit of kidnapping teenagers and brainwashing them into doing silly things like blowing themselves up in the middle of busy streets. Hired to extract one such kids from the grip of the group, Saengfai had then proceeded to lie, deceive and annoyingly remain one step ahead of the Watch in order to save the youth before the watchmen had finally managed to locate the cult’s headquarters and shut the whole operation down with minimal casualties (i.e., to the Watch). Azzageddi still doesn’t trust him. Susan...well, Susan had met Saengfai in a number of later, strangely coincidental occasions and found the fire god’s sense of humor rather appealing. Not that the rest of him is not appealing. Tall and well-built, olive-skinned, body slender but toned and tuned with precision into what looks like an easily underestimated fighting machine, face more delicate and prettier than the usual bulky Morporkian with slightly almond-shaped eyes and a sly, easy grin, he is quite appealing indeed. The long black hair tied back in a ponytail and usual leather jacket and pants garment he usually wears help complete the look. But looks can only survive for as long as there is a light on in the room. It was his sharp wit and relaxed charm that, after some insistence, finally got him this date tonight.
“It surely looks...exotic,” she replies, peeking through a tiny window in the door. “But I’ll trust your judgement.”
“Not exotic to me,” Saengfai says, guiding her inside and to a little, half hidden corner table. “This is home cooking. Oh...uh, do you like spicy food?”
Susan considers the question. “That would depend on the degree of spice. My grandfather could probably eat food hot enough to melt lead.” She looks at him and shrugs. “Alas, I am slightly more sensitive than he to spice.”
“That’s okay. Mama can make it so it’s not so bad. Like for kids, you know,” Saengfai offers before calling out to a short, plump woman who looks at him skeptically, nods tiredly, and calls out an order to the kitchen in a language Susan cannot quite understand. “And beer. Beer always helps with the heat.”
Susan grins. “Now, alcohol, I can handle. Like any good watchman should.” She looks around her.
The restaurant is one of those loud, busy places where the whole of a community seems to gather at least once a day to share in their cultural isolation and strange eating habits without really having to return to home to feel at home. The seats are made to simulate the custom of sitting on the floor, with bright cushions striped in red and yellow and pink embroidered with the occasional tribal pattern. The leg area is a dug, lowered cubby hole on the floor. The back support cushions are triangular prisms against which people lean and occasionally drape an arm. On the whole, it looks exotic enough to feature as a kitsch delicatessen for the rich and bored but the people who frequent the place are too blue-collared (and sometimes gang colored) to attract the upper classes.
A familiar tingle of a life about to find its end makes the goddess raise an eyebrow. “Hmm…”
“Yeah...rough crowd, but a good place for informants,” Saengfai concedes. “And Mama keeps the bad guys away. Things rarely get violent in here.”
“That was not what I was thinking about,” Susan states with a smile. “But I am not working tonight. Not as a cop or anything else.”
Saengfai’s lips curl pleasantly back at her. “Same for me. Though since I set my own hours, that means I never seem to be off work. Unlike you cops.”
A wiry waitress with a shy smile comes around carrying a tray with two pints of beer, a small woven basket and ten little sauce dishes, all of which she lays on the table, bowing slightly and exchanging a couple of whispered words with Saengfai. She looks at Susan with a glazed, absent look and an empty, confused smile as if she doesn’t quite remember why she felt the need to look in Susan’s way in the first place. The goddess doesn’t mind. She knows that Saengfai earns a living from passing for a mortal and a date with someone so clearly divine as Susan would ruin his cover. Besides, no one wants to see a personification of death looking their way no matter how beautiful said personification looks. So she thanks the server anyway before the woman turns and leaves the gods alone, wondering why she just carried food and silverware for two to a table that is clearly only sitting one.
“Amazing…” Saengfai notes. “I’ll never cease to be amazed at how people just don’t see you when you don’t want them to.”
“You seem to forget that I am not just a cop,” Susan says. “The secret lies in reminding people that they don’t want to see you.” She raises her pint in a mock salute. “And that is what I do.”
Saengfai clinks her pint with his, grinning. “Ah yes, two jobs. Was collecting souls just not challenging enough for you?”
“Strangely enough, I resisted the calling for quite a long time,” the goddess explains after a sip of the light-flavored beer. “I was already a constable by the time I finally gave in and joined the...family business.”
“Sounds a little familiar,” Saengfai concedes. “I was supposed to stick around my hometown, make sure the fires got lit, keep hearths warm, burn off the undergrowth, once in awhile get enraged when people broke the rules and burn down a house or something…” He shrugs. “Smiting… Not really my style.”
Susan nods. “Why sit around waiting for trouble to come to you when you can go to it instead?” She glances at him sideways. “Or even cause it, according to some reports I have been getting…”
A sly, mischievous grin blooms on the fire god’s lips. “Now you know better than to believe the sort of criminals and lowlifes we tend to encounter in our respective lines of work.”
Susan takes another sip of her beer before putting her pint down. “If I didn’t, would I be here tonight?” She looks at the food. “So...where should I start?”
Saengfai removes the lid of the little woven basket to reveal lumpy, steamed rice. With his spoon, he takes a small portion of it, that he then pours on his hand and molds into a little ball. Susan can see that the rice is sticky, thick, the kind that small children in school cafeterias everywhere tend to use for impromptu food wars and avant-garde ceiling artwork. Dipping the little ball of rice on a dish of yellowish, viscous sauce punctuated by pieces of chopped vegetables, he offers it for her to taste. "Try this first. It’s not spicy."
Susan looks a bit skeptically at the strange-looking appetizer but takes a bite out of it anyway. The rice is bland and lumpy but the sauce is a true explosion of flavors, intense, complex but quite surprisingly pleasant. "Hmm...very good!"
Her expression of pleasure seems to please Saengfai immensely. "Told you. I’d say, work your way up through this, this, then this," he says, indicating various dishes of colorful mixes of sauces, meat and vegetables. "That way the taste buds will still be able to work by the end."
Susan chuckles and takes another portion of rice, ready to try the next delicacy in line on the 'Saengfai scale of taste'. "Well, thank you for the beginner’s guide to Turnwise-Rimfront Agatean food," she replies, before taking a bite of a delicious mixture of...pork? probably pork and some root-y garnish.
She closes her eyes for a moment to better enjoy taste. She opens them again to find him looking at her, mouth still empty. "What about you?"
"Oh, I was just enjoying the view," he replies, smiling with something close to tenderness, making her blush subtly.
Finally, he takes his eyes off her, puts his hands together and closes his eyes, and joins her in the meal. A couple more dishes are served, these in simple earthenware pots and, after a brief explanation about the spice level in each of them, they eat in semi-comfortable silence for a while. Susan takes the time to take in the atmosphere, the steamy air, the exotic scents that waft from the various tables and trays, the people who dine together, the ones who eat alone but keep speaking to other diners and the staff as if they were family. This is one of those places. She cannot help but like it.
And beneath all of this, half drowned by all the noise, there is music playing in a language she does not understand, like a minority dialect of classic Agatean.
"What is the song about?" she asks.
Saengfai looks at her in confusion for a moment and then closes his eyes to better hear the music. "Oh...this one is from an opera based on an old story," he explains. "It’s about a lion who tries to catch a phoenix. He gets burnt, but finally catches her, then releases her in pity."
"What happens next?" Susan asks, intrigued.
"Well he met his mate after that, and because he was all char-broiled, and she was a lovely orange, they gave birth to the first tigers," the fire god answers with a small grin.
This makes Susan laugh. Humans and their explanations to things... "I don’t quite think that is how it works. But it is a lovely story. And the phoenix?"
Saengfai shrugs. "That doesn’t get mentioned in this version of the song. Just that she flew away."
Susan nods slowly, slightly disappointed. "It was the lion’s story, not hers. Some creatures are like that, just the vehicle of another’s tale."
From the narrow, screen-veiled entrance to the restaurant, the sounds of a commotion begin to rise. Her back turned to the door, Susan turns to see what is going on.
From his seat, Saengfai mutters with a frown. "Great...a new god…"
Strolling into the restaurant, a shiny black armor with purple detailing and a tremendous number of useless spikes in places sure to cause fatal self-inflicted stabbing and dismemberment if a joint is flexed or extended the wrong way, a set of decorative, impractical blades worthy of a VERY eccentric butcher strapped to his waist and a certain electric zing to the whole indicating hidden lasers and forcefields, a young god raises an arm (nearly poking himself in the eye) and calls out, "Hey, N3WBZZ, let’s make this place all purple!"
Suddenly, the beautiful red and blue walls painted with golden accents are turned bright purple. "And what's this weird food? I want a hamburger!" the god demands, summoning a big plate with a hamburger and fries on it to his hand.
Susan shakes her head slowly in disbelief. "Please, tell me I am not seeing what I think I’m seeing…" She mutters to no one in particular. "This was going so well..."
"Why do these guys even go anywhere if they’re just going to demand that it be exactly like what they see in their limited imaginations?" Saengfai complains, putting down his silverware.
Not far away, the waitstaff is begging the newcomer to change things back. Instead, he fills the room with balloons to celebrate victory in a great war no one has ever heard of.
Susan turns back to look at Saengfai, from whose hands a literal fiery anger already emanates. She puts her own hands over his to hide his flames from the other patrons. "I just wish they would learn where they can behave like this and where they mustn’t pull these stunts. Do you want to bet he will try to either fight or convert anyone who calls him out?"
"Do you want to bet that I hope he tries at this point?" the fire god growls, quickly extinguishing his flames and holding her hands in a gentle squeeze. He looks at her mildly abashed. "I’m sorry...this place is like a home away from home for me. I have to intervene. I hope you don’t mind..."
Susan grins. She was already expecting this. "I am sorry. But I am an officer of the Watch and I have to ask you to stand back while I intervene." She summons her badge to the front of her dress, over her chest as if to reinforce her request. "I hope you can forgive me."
Saengfai grins back at her, a hunter challenging another. "Hey, hold on a minute! I stood up first."
Susan's eyes flare in predatorial anticipation. "Oh, my dear sir, when will you realise that what matters here..." She snaps her fingers and time seems to slow to a halt in restaurant, leaving only the two of them and the young god unaffected. "...is that I always stand last. "
Looking around the room in confusion, the new god is already walking toward them through the crowd of motionless, slightly fuzzy waitstaff and diners frozen in time. "Hey, why’d everything stop moving?"
He spots them and realizes that they are immune to the spell. "Hey you two! You should be wearing my colors!"
With a wave of his hand, he transforms Saengfai's gorgeous black leather jacket and silk shirt, turning them various shades of purple. Susan's lovely black cocktail dress, with a light, flowing midthigh-length skirt and sleeves that cover her arms all the way down to the wrists but leave her alabaster shoulders bare and exposed, is not left unscathed. In the blink of an eye, she is wearing an ugly purple that is dangerously close to lilac.
At her furious gaze, the new god exclaims, "Don’t get mad! I’m a Trickster God! That means I’m just acting in character! Oh, and I’m Nidhogg Akio a half-dragon half-angel half-demon half-halfling, too."
Susan looks down at her dress and curses through her teeth. She turns to Saengfai. "One thing I probably did not tell you about me… I hate purple. " Her scythe appears in her right hand. "And pink."
Only then does she rise from her seat, to look at Nidhogg Akio with her deep blue eyes turned pitch-black, a skeletal hand peeking from her long sleeve to tap the shaft of her scythe with a bony finger. "Now tell me again about this acting in character business…little soul."
Nidhogg Akio’s eyes widen at the sight of the scythe. “Wow, cool. I’m a Death God too! In fact I’m THE God of Death. I’m older than the universe and I can kill anything. I’ve destroyed, uh, eighteen universes so far.”
“Look…” Saengfai starts in a carefully controlled tone of voice, as he rises from his seat. “Just turn everything back, all right? This doesn’t have to turn into a fight.”
“Who said anything about fighting?” Nidhogg Akio asks, raising his hands.
Suddenly, a small barrage of micro-missiles shoots out of Nidhogg Akio’s gauntlets and flies in Saengfai’s direction. The fire god sighs in exasperation and easily vaporizes the projectiles with fire. In the blink of an eye, Nidhogg Akio is being attacked with a series of vicious, swift kicks and falling on hands and knees before the older god, in spite of Nidhogg Akio’s flashy, high-tech armor.
“Ow! Uh...I allowed that,” the young god says, holding his bruised belly.
“Get up, then,” Susan orders him. “My turn.”
“I am a gentleman!” Nidhogg Akio exclaims. “I would never fight a lady.”
The words make Saengfai wince, predicting what a powerful, self-assured female like Susan, a cop no less, will think of such patronizing, chauvinist claims. He takes a step back as the goddess tilts her head at Nidhogg Akio, harrumphs and then, without warning, smashes the young god’s chin with the tip of the scythe shaft and sends him flying belly up.
“Am I supposed to be flattered that you consider me too weak and delicate to fight back?” she asks, nearly spitting the words.
“But you’re supposed--” Nidhogg Akio tries to argue, rising to his feet only to receive a roundhouse kick to the chin that sends him flying belly up again.
“Or that you believe a lady is a helpless being who lives only to satisfy your insecure little ego and bring you sandwiches?” Susan accuses him without skipping a single step.
Nidhogg Akio flies across the room and lands out of sight, somewhere at the now blurry borders of this timeless spot. Susan looks at Saengfai and smiles pleasantly at him. He smiles back at her and they turn to return to their table and wait for Nidhogg Akio to cool down for a while. If only the young god were that smart…
Nidhogg Akio erupts back into view as a giant, black, shambling mass of dripping, bellowing slime. “Right! You want a fight? I’ll give you a fight!”
Stretching like an endless black blob, he starts to absorb the entire scene and opens a black hole in the middle of the room, sucking furniture, patrons and workers into oblivion as collateral damage to his anger.
Saengfai looks stricken at the thought of such destruction. “No...these people are going to get hurt…”
“I don’t think our young friend cares much for mortals of any kind,” Susan notes calmly, looking at the shapeless blob. “Do you trust me, Saengfai?”
Through the corner of her eye, she sees Saengfai nod. “Good. I need him busy for a bit. Think you can keep his scatterbrain mind focused for a few minutes?”
Saengfai cracks his knuckles and his fists burst into flame. “I think I can get his attention.”
With a leaping kick, the fire god attacks Nidhogg Akio, hitting him with a combination of punches and kicks enveloped in Hellfire that sizzle against new god’s skin, making him yelp in surprise that he can even be hurt in this form.
Susan steps back, mentally searching through her records and halls for the name ‘Nidhogg Akio’. She mentally curses at her ignorance of the correct spelling of the young god’s name. “Keep going. Pretend I am not here.”
The fight continues between Saengfai and Nidhogg Akio, violent and complex. The young god constantly changes shape, now becoming a dragon, now becoming a titan, now growing wings, now becoming shapeless. Saengfai keeps attacking him, giving him no time or chance to react in between blows. Nidhogg Akio keeps denying having been hit.
“Oh you’re a fire god!” he says all of a sudden. “Of course fire gods all have a common origin and are vulnerable to cold!”
A blast of icy wind blows against Saengfai, which only succeeds at fanning his flames hotter.
“That’s idiotic!” the fire god exclaims, delivering yet another vicious blow. “Fire defeats cold, not the other way around.”
“Ow!! Well...I have the Staff of Kazaadum!” Nidhogg Akio announces, producing a black staff topped by a reddish glowing stone from somewhere in the region of his buttocks. “Which forces all fire elementals to obey me!”
Saengfai looks disgusted at this. “First, ew! Second, I’m not a fire elemental. Third, that’s something you just made up.”
Grabbing the staff, he breaks it on his knee and uses the two pieces like escrima fighting sticks. At each chance he gets, the fire god takes moments here and there to shove bodies away from the gaping well of oblivion in the middle of the room.
Susan watches Saengfai trying to save the people and silently regrets not being able to tell him that they are just dummies in her trap to drain Nidhogg Akio’s power. Without noticing it, the young god has been growing increasingly weaker but he is still too powerful to be dismissed. Besides, the boy needs to learn a lesson.
“Are you about done getting beaten, dear?” she asks. “I would like to be done with this and go back to the rest of my evening.”
Nidhogg Akio looks at her in between getting punched to the face...muzzle…pile of snot. “Hey, I will finish beating this guy--OW! STOP IT!!--in a minute! Then you and I can continue our date.”
Susan blinks in shock. “ Our date?”
Saengfai laughs as he keeps countering Nidhogg Akio’s porridge of ammunition, laser, spells and proto-magic charms. “You really shouldn’t make her mad.”
“You can’t tell me what to do! I’m a god!” Nidhogg Akio yells. “You just don’t understand that that means we have ultimate freedom to do anything! See, if you really thought about it--”
“Shut. UP!” Susan’s voice reverberates across the room.
It is THE VOICE, the dominating, terrifying command of Death that calls all creatures to obey without exception. Nidhogg Akio and Saengfai stop fighting, looking at her in momentary confusion and she reaches into her hair, produces the hourglass that contains the grains of Nidhogg Akio’s life, and grips it tightly. As a result, Nidhogg Akio grows stiff and still as if his body were clenched by a massive hand.
“We are gods, yes,” Susan says, walking toward the divine brat. “And this means we need people to believe in us and sustain our existence. They serve us and we serve them in return. So tell me, if you efface a whole universe, who is left to pray to you, to dream you into existence, to keep you alive?!”
“OW OW OOOOWWWW!!” Nidhogg Akio complains in pain as Susan grips the hourglass harder. “What are you talking about? I can do anything! I don’t need anyone else telling me what to do. You guys are just mean! Hey wait, I can do that voice thing too.” he turns to Saengfai, imitating Susan’s voice. “STOP HER. I COMMAND THEE.”
Saengfai hits him with particular viciousness. “It doesn’t work when nobody listens. People need to believe in you. And you need to believe in yourself. And even you...” A punch. “...don’t buy…” A kick. “...your own crap!”
“There is no point in hitting him any further,” Susan states. “He will soon be dead. His spell has eaten away most of the universe already. He will disappear into oblivion along with everyone he has killed. I could just destroy his hourglass but there is no need now.” She raises it to Saengfai to show him the progressively fainter sand grains. “See? His life is fading away. He should be feeling weaker right...about...now.”
“No!” Nidhogg Akio cries in desperation. “I’m not weaker, you are! I just looked up Susan Sto Helit on Wikithingy and I know you’re afraid of monsters!”
He changes into a big monster, the kind that cannot close his mouth without turning his cheeks into a sieve. “Rararrrrr!”
Saengfai touches a hand to his face and shakes his head. “Reading comprehension… She’s not afraid of monsters. You missed a word.”
“Of all days to leave my fire poker at home…” Susan mutters, moving closer to Nidhogg Akio. She quickly reaches for one of his ears, pulls it and twists it, ripping a scream of agony from the young god. “Searching for someone’s information on a website will tell you as much about that person as looking at the back cover of a book will tell you about its content.” She jabs an elbow to his throat for good measure. “And the next time you want to exploit my weaknesses, just save yourself the beating and turn into a box of chocolates.”
“No! Nonononononoooo!” Nidhogg Akio screams. “That’s not how it’s supposed to happen! See? I can still do anything.” He resumes his previous form of half-dragon half-angel half-demon half-halfling. “See? I, I, I can make you two go away! POOF!”
But to the young god’s despair, Susan and Saengfai go nowhere. Instead, Susan produces a pair of Watch magical handcuffs. “Of course you can.” She sighs, grabbing his hands behind his back. “And by the way, to you I am Watch Commander Susan Sto Helit. In the name of the Watch and the City of Ankh-Morpork, you are under arrest. Anything you say can and will make me extremely annoyed at this point…”
Slowly, time and normality are restored to the restaurant. Saengfai looks relieved to see the people are reappearing in their previous positions, all safe and well. With a wave of his hand, he changes his clothes back to their original color. He returns the walls to normal, dismisses the balloons, and changes Susan’s dress back to black.
“I seduce Susan Sto Helit with my charms,” Nidhogg Akio states nervously, changing into an angelic, muscular, blonde and blue-eyed, golden glowing form. “I am a God of Love after all, so I’m totally irresistible, plus nobody can resist a half-angel, everyone knows that--”
“No,” Saengfai says deadpan.
Nidhogg Akio looks at him in anguish. “But--”
“No,” Saengfai shakes his head. “Just...no.”
Susan merely cuffs Nidhogg Akio, chuckling at the situation. “Sorry, dear. I was never a fan of the blonde, blue-eyed, winged greek god stereotype.”
“I’m a Norse god from Battlecry! Do you even anime?!” Nidhogg Akio complains. He looks down and tries to force the handcuffs. “I-I break the cuffs! I said...I...break… HEY! Why won’t these break!?”
“They’re Watch shackles, made to shut off gods’ powers,” Saengfai explains.
“THAT’S NOT FAIR!” Nidhogg Akio cries. “The [REDACTED], do you [CENSORED] [Plus 21 ]...”
“That’s...weird...” Saengfai comments.
“New standard-issue shackles, complete with an Aura of Censorship,” Susan explains. “We are just testing the first field versions.”
Nidhogg Akio curses some more, with a lot of [QUESTIONABLE] and [PRIVATE] thrown into the mix.
“Might need a little adjusting,” Saengfai notes.
Susan smiles at him. “I kind of like it. Though I prefer silence.” She tugs at Nidhogg Akio, now as strong as a whimpy teenager. To Saengfai, who is looking around at all the people who are just looking at them surprised after time is reestablished, she says. “The restaurant and its people were never at risk. I am sorry, but I couldn’t break the illusion. I took us to a mirror dimension as soon as we intervened and just slowly cancelled his powers afterward.”
The fire god looks genuinely impressed. “You had me going there. Well in that case, our meal should still be on the table, nice and hot, waiting for us.”
Nidhogg Akio wheezes after yet another string of blocked profanity, then says, “Do they serve hamburgers in jail?”
“Yes, they do,” Susan replies with a grin. “On dwarf bread.” She turns to Saengfai. “Next time, we are going to my kind of place, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh come on, this almost never happens here,” the fire god counters. “But... I’m looking forward to your kind of place.”
“Dwarf bread?” Nidhogg Akio seems to brighten up. “That sounds good!”
Susan chuckles at the thought that someone might think the only kind of bread that can actually be used as ballistics in warfare is good. “Ah, I can’t help but love it when they’re young and innocent.” Again, she resumes conversation with Saengfai. “And as for us?”
“As for us...well I hope dumping this guy in a cell won’t take too long,” the fire god replies. “I was going to take you dancing after.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Susan says with a smile. She looks at Nidhogg Akio and laughs. “Or even the end of the world.”
“You know, that guy Azzageddi is going to strain a muscle trying to give me the stink-eye so hard,” Saengfai says as he pulls out Susan’s chair in the dimly lit club. Their table is right next to the dance floor, a little to the side, not far from the stage. The club is about three-quarters full, a clientele that spans a range of social class, but all dressed as well as they can, all looking with anticipation toward the stage, united in being aficionados of the singer whose name, Ming McSweeney, is written in chalk on a green slate, balanced on an artist’s easel next to the stage. Musicians--a pianist, percussionist, and two playing stringed instruments--set up on stage.
Susan chuckles, shaking her head. “He just worries. Old friends...Old habits.” She looks into the distance, smiling in fond memory. “We have looked after each other for a long time. I don’t have many secrets left that he does not know about.”
Saengfai smiles with her, enjoying the line of her jaw, the look in her eye. “And...he’s a friend. Well...in that case I like the protectiveness. Raises my estimation of the guy.” A waiter approaches and, after checking with Susan, Saengfai orders wine for them both.
Propping her elbow on the table, chin on her hand, Susan says, “I am glad. You would probably like him...and then, you could drive each other insane. Should I be worried that he has reason to worry?”
Saengfai actually considers this. “Well, I have to admit, by appearances, I’m probably not the sort of person people should trust right away. The kind of work I do...trouble tends to come along frequently. But as he gets to know me, I hope he’ll change his mind.”
“I hope you give him reason to,” Susan says dryly. “But my own line of work attracts just as much trouble as yours, if not more.” She waves her hand and looks around as the lights dim a little further and a beautiful woman with delicate Agatean looks takes the stage. “Enough about Azz, even if this is his sort of place.”
“Is it?” Saengfai asks, but falls silent as the singer’s sweet-but-husky voice fills the room, piercing hearts with its exquisite sadness, a pain more painful to let go of than to hold close.
Saengfai finds himself caught up in that voice, as he always is. Ming is only just beginning to become known in Ankh-Morpork, but she has a devoted but small following already. A member of one of the Agatean Empire’s old ruling families, she arrived fleeing dark forces two years ago, looking for her little sister. She came to Saengfai for help a week ago. And later tonight, he will be meeting someone who, he hopes, will bring this case to a happy conclusion.
The sadness in Ming’s voice is sincere and hard-earned. Saengfai hopes the beauty of that sorrow will not fade from her songs even if her heart is lightened before the morning.
The private detective opens his eyes to observe Susan. Her expression one of intent listening, eyes closed, immersed in the song. A perfect image of breathtaking beauty.
The song ends. She opens her eyes and whispers, “Beautiful.” She glances at him, catching his gaze, looks down with a small smile, and takes a sip of her drink.
Saengfai feels his heart trip over its own shoelaces. As the sound of chairs sliding out and couples rising mixes with the fading applause, he musters his sangfroid and says, “Her second song is always an upbeat dance number. Shall we?”
Susan looks at the others taking to the dance floor and then back at Saengfai. “Oh, your toes may come to regret that offer.”
The detective grins. “Only because we’ll dance the night away.” He takes her hand and leads her to the dance floor.
This song is more up-tempo, more fun, and Saengfai takes charge, leading her in such a way that she gives the lie to her warning. She has a natural grace, one he saw on display in combat earlier this evening, and though she’s not confident in her dancing, his confidence is enough for both of them.
An astonished but pleased look on her face, Susan turns and sinks into his arms, cheek to his cheek, then spins to face him. “My, someone has a hidden pastime...classes as a child?”
“Many.” Saengfai grimaces. “My mother always said, a real man knows how to dance. Personally I think she had some stereotypical notions of gender roles, but I figure it’s come in useful now and then.”
Susan snorts as she performs a perfect swingout without thinking about it or even knowing how to do it, just following her partner’s moves and tiny directions from his hands. “My mother mostly said ‘Susan, one must never run when wearing one’s best pink frilly dress’. Of course, I was mostly trying to run from the frilly dress…”
Saengfai laughs, glancing at her black cocktail dress. “At least whatisname earlier didn’t add frills to this lovely outfit.”
Susan’s face takes on a serious expression. “I would have killed him. Teenager or no teenager, he would be lying on a slab serving as parts for our Igor. Purple was bad enough.” She cringes at the very idea. “Although, I am glad you like the dress. I hadn’t worn it in a while.”
Saengfai twirls her and enjoys the way the skirt flares out. “Haven’t gone out dancing? Even with friends?”
“Let us just say the last time I went out with friends, a bathtub dropped from the ceiling and I ended up being called to protect two friends from an angry mob.”
Saengfai looks at her in surprise but doesn’t miss a step. “That was you? I went into that bar looking for someone later that night. They were still trying to get the bathtub back upstairs.”
Susan shakes her head. “They keep mending that ceiling but they have never managed to fix the stress point they leave on the support beams…” She smiles apologetically. “It has become a bit of a ritual since the Academy. But yes...after that, there was a bad breakup and…” She looks down, “nothing more worth going into.”
Saengfai feels her body stiffening at some painful memory of heartbreak, and as the dance reaches its climax, he spins her, ending the dance with an over-the-top dip that drives away the darkness and leaves her laughing in delight.
Then a slower, smoother number starts, an instrumental that displays the skill of the pianist, and the cop and the private detective begin dancing closer. Saengfai murmurs into her ear, “Maybe we can make some memories worth going into.”
Susan grins. “Careful with your promises. I might hold you to them, and then you would be in real trouble.”
“Promises? No promises. Not yet anyway. Just one good evening together. And then maybe another?” He marvels at how slender her waist is, and yet how powerful her muscles are as they shift beneath his hand.
“Very well,” Susan says. “But I am picking the next place.”
“Oh, will there be dancing? If it’s country line dancing, I’ll need to bring my cowboy boots.”
“You can bring the boots. But you will not catch me country line dancing anytime soon.”
“It’s fun!” Saengfai insists. He gazes into her eyes. “But...I like this.”
Susan smiles back at him. “I like it too.”
Saengfai leans forward, seeing the invitation in that smile, in her icy blue eyes, his heart racing in anticipation of this, their first kiss--and Susan’s earring makes a tiny chime that, were he not so close to her, he might never have noticed.
Susan flinches and looks genuinely annoyed. “Oh for the love of--”
Crestfallen, Saengfai says, “Your earring is ringing.”
“It is a distress call. I mostly have it because of Ambar, my little boy, but lately it has become a tool of my trade. It must be an emergency. It had better be an emergency.” She kisses his cheek, which he barely registers as a consolation prize compared to what almost happened. “I am truly sorry. Thank you for a wonderful night.”
Saengfai opens his mouth to object, wanting to say Hey, no, come on, the night’s just getting started! and then he closes it, because that comment about a little boy registers, and besides, she’s the Commanding Officer of the Watch, and if he got a call from a client in need, he would come running, and how much more responsibility does the Watch’s leader, and a mother besides, have? So instead of objecting he smiles a little sadly, and says, “‘Duty calls.’ I will console my broken heart with those words.”
Susan looks at him like she’s evaluating how serious he is about that, how much it is a joke to ease the sting of a date interrupted. She smiles, turns to leave, then stops, seeming to consider for a moment, then turns back and says, “You can console it with this instead.”
She takes his face in her hands and pulls him to her. They are nearly the same height, and his hands gently pull her body against his, one hand feeling the muscles of her lower back, the other resting between her shoulder blades. He tilts his head slightly to the left, as does she, and time seems to stop again as it did in battle earlier, but this time it is simply that Saengfai stops thinking, achieving, for an endless moment, that which the monks of his childhood tried to drill into him at the temple school, but that he never achieved then: a moment beyond thought, of pure bliss uncolored by the constant yammering of internal dialog.
As it ends, as if emerging from a trance, Saengfai says instinctively, “When?”
Susan, smiling, eyes still closed and resting her forehead against his, breathes, “When what?”
“When will I see you again?”
She laughs, and opens her eyes to look into his. The intensity of those strange blue eyes would be frightening if he didn’t find them so inviting. “You found me before, didn’t you? This time, just be ready to be found.”
And then, instead of walking out, she merely fades away, leaving him alone on the dance floor.
Susan fades into view at the AMCW guildhall, barely containing her fury. It better be an emergency. Oh, it better not be like the one time she got called because a bunch of papers went unsigned and one of the Patrician’s clerks was waiting at the door and he just could not wait for Susan to be done with her nice relaxing bath. Any clerk will be kicked on his rear end tonight if such is the case. And the Patrician will get kicked too if she’s called to his office! She was really enjoying herself and the company she was keeping. How long has it been since she has taken the chance to forget a bit about her responsibilities and just have a nice, pleasant evening in the company of someone she is genuinely attracted to? And he is funny and kind and a great dancer and...all right, sooooooooo he can be an outright liar but he wasn’t lying tonight! And then, a wonderful date turns out interrupted by an idiotic new god who better not be trying to blow up his cell! Saengfai had been kind enough to try and just go on with their evening but, of COURSE, THE GODS FORBID THAT COULD GO WELL TOO! Stupid, stupid call just when--
Susan sighs as she looks around the room. She had been looking forward to that first kiss. And it was a really good kiss. The memory of it makes her smile like a silly schoolgirl. Maybe they can make up for all this on a second date?
Her smile fades away. Mitzi is looking worried, standing and leaning over Sasha and Pasha as they heal... Silvershade? A gentle golden aura glows around the bunnies and Susan’s pet wolf, just a cub when she had rescued him, now a fully grown, gorgeous and well-fed male, with a silvery undercoat that shines through longer, light grey fur with a darker grey mask around the eyes, currently splattered with unclotted blood.
Silvershade looks up at her and whimpers.
“What--What happened?” Susan asks, running to kneel by her beloved animal companion, anger turned to shock.
Mitzi turns, her worry slowing her reflexes, and pauses a moment, her face on the edge of panic looking at Susan kneeling by her side. She throws her arms around Susan’s shoulders and takes three deep breaths, before releasing Susan and stepping back to compose herself.
After a short instant, she reports, “Twenty minutes ago, Silvershade emerged into Azzageddi’s temple, bleeding and in pain. I went into Twilight’s tunnel while Azzageddi followed after quickly healing Silvershade enough to stabilize him.”
The words barely register with Susan, suddenly hit with the very real possibility of losing Silvershade. Never minding the blood that covers his coat, she hugs him fiercely but carefully, at the verge of tears. “My poor puppy…”
Silvershade nuzzles her arms as Mitzi goes on with her report. “We found no trace of Twilight, but evidence that Ambar was playing with her in there. And there is a new tunnel… We don’t know where it leads. Azzageddi sent me back out, called you, and I brought Silvershade here for more healing. … We...we can’t get hold of Nyrini.”
As her initial shock begins to fade, Susan starts paying more attention to what Mitzi is saying. Still, it all sounds like an endless string of interrupted sentences. ...no trace...Twilight...Ambar...tunnel...Azzageddi sent me...we can’t… Nyrini...
She doesn’t like what she hears. In a half daze, she kisses Silvershade’s head and whispers to him “You stay here now, sweetheart.”
With a nod to Sasha and Pasha, she leaves him to the bunnies’ expert care and then rises to her feet and turns to Mitzi. “Show me where Azz went.”
Mitzi nods grimly and leads her quickly to Azz’s temple, then to Twilight’s bedroom and, once in there, to the back of the closet, where the entrance to the tunnel looms. The floor is stained with blood here, probably Silvershade’s blood, and Mitzi takes a quick anguished look behind at Susan before diving into the tunnel that leads to Twi’s secret, central room. Both goddess and bunny have to crawl on all fours here to navigate the tunnel, envisioned for small children, but soon they arrive at the nexus point between the three paths that lead to Azzageddi’s, Susan’s and Nyrini’s temples, respectively. In this well-lit room, a crowd of books, drawings, assorted toys, My Little Centaur figurines and little 3D puzzles (Ambar’s favorites) populates the floor in a typical, childish mess.
Susan inspects the little burrow for traces of the children and their whereabouts, looking for markings on the floor, on the walls, finding nothing worth of notice. And then, a bunch of drawings of a sinister, familiar figure draw her attention. Skin colored dark brown, a black suit and a top hat… She frowns and mutters, “Baron…”
Mitzi looks at the drawings over Susan’s shoulder. “Twi showed me one of those before. Or...she hid it from me, now I think of it… I didn’t really find it so strange at the time...but that was three days ago. Who is that?”
A small, black half-torn business card with white lettering lying under the drawings, reading:
BARON SAMEDI LA CROIX
Death and Resurrection, C--
Powerful god, Experienced--
confirms Susan’s suspicions.
“Here, he only usually himself Baron S,” she explains, showing Mitzi the card. “In other places, he is known as Baron Samedi La Croix. A death god and trickster. My uncle, in a sense.” She crumples the drawings in her hand with anger. “Where did Azz go? AZZ!”
“Down here,” Mitzi says, showing her the way to a fourth tunnel, one that should most definitely not be there. “The tunnel ends in blackness. He went through… I-I don’t know if he can hear.”
Susan peeks into the tunnel and breathes deeply. “Stay here. I’ll follow him,” She tells Mitzi, wrapping her in a reassuring hug. “Whatever happens, do not follow us.”
Mitzi holds on tightly to her for a moment. “Be careful. And…just...be careful.”
Susan nods. “I will.”
The new tunnel is bigger, much easier to navigate than the original ones. Of course, it was made for someone considerably bigger than the bunnies. Through the blackness and uncertainty, she arrives at a dimly lit room with no obvious floor or ceiling. Even the walls are only evident because of the six identical black caskets that line each of the four sides of the room. Azzageddi is standing in the middle of the room as if he were walking on air, his back turned to her, his fists clenched and shaking in anger.
She feels her heart sink to her feet. For the first time since arriving at the guildhall, Susan feels the full weight and urgency behind the reason her date was interrupted. The children are gone. Twilight and Ambar have been kidnapped by the Baron, a creepy trickster god with a single goal in life: to become the one and only god of death in the whole of existence. He also hates Susan with a passion. What he would be willing to do to the children just to hurt her--
“Azz!” her voice sounds weak and choked even to her ears.
Azz turns to look at her, his face lined with tattoos of fury. As soon as he recognizes her through the mists of his anger, the ink-black lines that cover his face begin to slowly fade away. “He has them. The Baron.”
Susan nods, struggling to keep her vocal cords under control. “I saw the drawings. Got to them right under our noses.” Panic and anger boil in her. She can barely fight back her tears. “I should have stayed home…”
She is so, so sorry! It would have been her turn to babysit them if she hadn’t accepted Saengfai’s invitation for dinner. Azz sees her reaction and dismay crosses his face. He strides to her, crossing the distance between them in half a dozen steps to hold her tightly.
Susan holds him back just as tightly. “How are we going to find them?”
Azzageddi strokes her back soothingly, trying to keep his nervousness from his voice. “We’ll find them because he wants us to. He has no reason to harm them, as long as he can get something from us. But we will outsmart him. We will get them back and he will be punished.”
“Oh, isn’t this a heartwarming picture?” a deep, sardonic voice resounds from behind Susan. “The two great watchmen, hugging each other, pretending they know what to do next. I should have brought something to wipe the tears with. Maybe some bunny fur will do the trick.”
Susan lets go of Azz and turns to see a the dark-skinned figure dressed in an impeccable tuxedo, top hat, black-and-white varnished shoes, leaning on a long, thin cane, his feet crossed in apparent relaxation. She recognizes immediately the skull-faced features of her uncle, Baron Samedi.
Azz turns to him in pleading. “Sam...I know we’ve had our differences, but you and I fought side by side in the Roundworld. These kids...bring them back.”
The Baron tilts his head and grins. “And why would I want to do something like that?”
“Because you have no use for them as anything other than leverage,” Susan says. “What do you want?”
The Baron disappears to reappear again behind Susan, lips by her ear, hands resting weightlessly on her shoulders. A hologram...He’s a hologram. “Ah...my lovely little niece, always so direct.” He appears again by Azz. “You should have learned from her, Azzageddi. The benefits of bargaining. As for what I want…”
Again, he reappears by Susan, making a show of inspecting his nail. “You have always known what I want. Your grandfather’s scythe. You will bring it to me.”
“Nonsense!” Susan exclaims in outrage. “I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to!”
“Then I guess it’s time for some rabbit stew…” Baron notes with a wicked edge to his tone.
Azzageddi shakes with fury at the words. “Samedi, if you harm them, I will dedicate my life to ending yours slowly and viciously…”
Baron taunts him, leaning against his shoulder and patting his head. “Now, now, my little devil, no need to be rude. Tell you what, I will give you three days.” He holds three fingers and wiggles them. “Deliver the scythe to this room before the end of three days or you better hope you can find me before midnight of the third day…”
He laughs, loudly and maniacally. And vanishes.
Susan feels her legs fail under her. She collapses to her knees, speechless, trying to process such a catastrophe. Death’s scythe is...beyond taboo. It’s the source of her grandfather’s power. It is linked to him and he carries it with him at all times. How could she ever steal it? More importantly, how could she ever risk handing it over to the Baron, knowing fully well what he would do with such power? But then, if she doesn’t do it, the children--
She can’t even think the words to describe what he’d do to them. Two steps away, Azzageddi stands still for a moment, gasping in an attempt to bring himself under control. Eventually he turns to look at Susan, his face a mask of fury and distress. He sits next to her, puts an arm around her and gently holds her to him, quietly. She can barely feel his touch.
“I can’t give it to him,” she says eventually, barely above a whisper.
“Shh. We can’t talk here. He’s listening,” Azz warns her, rising and helping her up. “Come on now. Whatever he thinks, we will find a way.”
Susan nods and follows him out to the burrow, where they collect Mitzi before returning to Azz’s temple. After giving Mitzi a brief summary of what has transpired, and explaining to her the dire need of maintaining any discussions about the situation away from mortal ears and minds that could easily be read by a character like the Baron, they retire to Azzageddi’s office.
“This place is as shielded as I can make it,” the god of rebellion says, taking a seat. “He’s a devious bastard, though.”
Susan cannot stay still for long enough to sit down. She paces the room, thoughts running through her head like stampeding wildebeests. And above all of them, the guilt for not having been present to protect the little bunnies. “I should have stayed home. Should have stayed...Damn it! I thought…” She sighs helplessly.
“Susan...you couldn’t have prevented this even if you’d stayed home,” Azzageddi tries to calm her down. “There is nothing for you to feel guilty about. He got to them away from our eyes. He’s a Trickster. Even if we’d watched every minute, he would’ve come up with something. … But Tricksters always have a fatal flaw in their plans, especially when they are committing an act of villainy. We will find it and exploit it.”
“We need to find where he’s hiding,” Susan states. “There are voodoo communities in the city. They’ll probably know…”
Azzageddi nods. “I’ve infiltrated two of them that are...darker in their worship. The undead, demonic influences, not true voudon societies.” He searches through a drawer and pulls out two files that he throws on the desk. “Here’s what I’ve gathered on them. Neither is so bad that they need to be shut down, but there are some individuals I’m keeping a close eye on.”
“If they worship him, they will never talk to us,” Susan notes. “Both you and I have become too well known in the past few months to play rogue now.” She throws her hands up. “And just when Nyri is undercover again!”
Azzageddi nod grimly. “I can pull her out. It would...end all possibility of accomplishing her mission, but…” He closes his eyes. “I can only think of those two right now. You know she would want us to call her in.”
Susan hesitates. Nyrini is the last person she would want around Baron. She sighs. “Call her in. Now...if you don’t mind...I’ll retire to my temple. I need to be alone.”
Azzageddi nods and breaks the security spell seals that keep the office isolated from prying ears. He hesitates to let Susan out but finally just lets her go, watching her fade away from the hallway, his heart twisted into a knot at the thought of her alone with her anguish.
Shaking his head, mind in a turmoil, he calls out to the air. “Aliyaa, to me!”
The burly human heroine assigned to him appears in front of him, rather beat up from the harshness of the road, her weapon at the ready.
“What the heck--” She looks around in confusion. “Oh hey Most Holy! I was kinda in the middle of--”
“We’re going somewhere,” Azzageddi announces in grim tones. “There’ll be people to fight.”
Aliyaa looks at him, eyes wide. “People? Not monsters?”
Azz nods silently as straps on his armor and weapons.
Aliyaa gulps but reluctantly obeys her god. “Okay…”
And BAMPH! They are gone.
Susan’s temple is silent as a crypt by the time Nyrini teleports into the main hall, accompanied by Azzageddi and Aliyaa. All three are dirty with blood, most of it not their own, except for Aliyaa, who seems to take it as a religious truth that a fight is not a fight until she gets some piece of her cut into or off altogether.
Nyrini is fuming. The mission with the (suspected) largest supplier of Slurp into Ankh-Morpork was going great! She had a snazzy, minimal black-and-yellow leather outfit, no more than the usual very short shorts, open-back top and knee-high boots that she looked great in, her career as an enforcer was booming aaaaaand, she had just managed to score a dinner date with the extremely attractive (and just about as crazy as a bag of cats) boss lady to discuss Nyri’s future prospects in the gang. It was all going great. Right until the screaming started and Azz ran into the door with Aliyaa, both covered in blood and yelling something like “You gotta come wit us now” before tackling her out of the lustful arms of her mark to bring her…
Here. Susan’s temple. Nyri is just pissed! She cancels her disguise and the short, dark-blue hair turns long, wavy and dark-brown again, her green eyes return to brown, the unmarred pale skin becomes tan and tattooed with magic symbols of all kinds. The sound of her stomping fills the room.
“I had her!” she yells at the world. “I just had her! And you just had to pull me from it and kill everyone--DON’T TOUCH THAT!”
Aliyaa, the target of the last, bellowed words, flinches back from the decorative statue of a handsome man playing a harp for an ascending angel. The thing is rigged with one of Leonard’s defense mechanisms. Nyrini doesn’t know which one but she is pretty that neither does Leonard.
Azz, his sword held loosely, blood dripping from it onto the floor looks at her sadly and grimly. “Nyri...it's Twi. And Ambar. They're missing. They've been taken.”
Nyrini freezes in her tracks and turns on her heels to look at Azzageddi, the meaning of his words too shocking to register yet. “Come again?” she asks quietly. “What did you just say?”
Aliyaa looks just as shocked. “WHAT??” This seems to be the first she’s heard of it as well.
“A death god, some relative of Sue's, wants something from her,” Azz explains, looking apologetically at the two, his shoulders slumped under the weight of tragedy. “He took them as leverage. We're going to get them back.”
If Nyrini was fuming before, she is certainly divinely furious now. Twilight?! Seriously?! Someone dared to snatch her daughter, her baby girl from her home just to get something from Sue?! Oh, heads are going to roll!!
“You can bet we are,” she growls, her fists clenched. “Just point me at’im.”
“I'm making a plan now,” Azzageddi says, putting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing it in sympathy. “Sue is too, I'm sure. Let's all three plan together.”
He then turns to Aliyaa. With a subtle wave of his hand, her wounds are magically healed, her clothes and equipment fully restored. Even her hair looks washed and neat (a strange look for the sporty, constantly questing woman). “It's all right. We'll get them back. You did good, my prophet.”
Aliyaa doesn’t seem so sure of his promises. For the first time, she looks down at her sword, now clean and shiny, and touches it as if expecting to feel the blood that once covered it stain her fingers. “I...I killed people.” As if this were somehow different from the thousands upon thousands of monsters she is always killing.
“I know...I'm sorry,” Azz replies, kissing her forehead with tenderness. “It was necessary.”
“Can I hang around the bar?” Aliyaa asks, almost in a whimper. “In case you need me.”
Azz nods. “Sure.”
He looks to Nyri with a request in his eyes and the goddess sighs, takes Aliyaa’s hand and, in the blink of an eye, teleports Aliyaa to the AMCW guildhall. She returns to Susan’s temple in just as long, not wanting to stay behind and talk to anyone else. Her heart is racing, pounding heavily with a terror she has never felt before. Never at the verge of death or failure, not even when being tortured and bound to her beloved crossbow has she felt so frightened, so helpless, so lost. She has no fear of self. But the thought of losing Twilight...
She doesn’t even look at Azzageddi as she walks by him and races down the hallway to Susan’s living quarters. “OK, let’s find Sue. SUE!”
Her voice echoes off obsidian and marble, filling each hall, with yelled, cried, whispered replicas of the original call, each more urgent, more desperate than Nyrini had intended it to be. It is not long before she sees Silvershade’s powerful head and neck appear at a door, looking at her through a pristine coat but nervous, fearful eyes.
“There, she must be in her study,” Nyrini points out, teleporting right into the center of Sue’s cozy office and library. Her big sister is leaning over her desk, reading an old tome bound in black leather with the intensity of a cop interrogating a suspect that refuses to talk. “Sis!”
Nyri’s cry has no anger in it. Too choked for words, the young goddess rushes around Susan’s desk and thrusts her arms around her older sister, her protector and caretaker through the years, hugging her tightly as if that alone could silence her inner turmoil. Susan holds her tightly back, wrapping her in that cool but protective cocoon that Nyri knows so well, and waits for her little sister to find her breath again.
“We’ll find them,” Sue whispers, stroking her hair. “We’ll find them…”
Nyri can only nod against her shoulder. She hears more than sees Azz arrive in the room, followed by a click of a door latch. A soft absence of one of Susan’s hands from its previous position indicates that the death goddess must have signalled him to enter and close the door. Nyrini releases her sister and looks at the distraught god, feeling guilty about how she just treated him. He looks at her and his eyebrows rise, his eyes soften in silent forgiveness.
“We can speak in privacy here,” Susan states.
“Who is this guy?” Nyri asks. “What does he want?”
“It's the Baron,” Azz says grimly.
“HIM?!” Nyri exclaims. “Oh, I’ll kill him…”
She has met the Baron before, of course. Heck, she has even infiltrated some of the cults devoted to him. The guy is charming but drop-dead insane, cruel to any real extent of the word and, when all else fails, just downright unpredictable, like he just keeps rolling a 20-side dice to decide what to do next.
Susan shakes her head slowly. “Nyr, the Baron is...family, in a sense. He is one of the more playful, greedy personifications of death. A dangerous, shameless, inconsequential trickster. And he has always wanted to be the Death God. He wants my grandfather’s scythe and the power it holds.”
“Well, then give it to him,” Nyri demands. “Get them back!”
“It’s not that simple,” Susan insists. “The scythe would give him power over the death of all things. He would be unstoppable. And besides...even if I wanted to give it to him, I can’t exactly just go and steal it.” She shakes her head again. “No, we need to find where the bunnies are being kept.”
“The Baron is expecting that,” Azz reminds her. “And he will do what he says, if we fail to retrieve them. It's very risky.”
“Then we get the scythe,” Nyri dictates, matter-of-factly. “Just tell me where it is.”
“Nyrini, it is Death’s scythe,” Susan explains in weak tones. “It is on him at all times.”
Realization dawns. It’s not like Death sleeps or leaves his scythe by the coat hanger when he’s home. “Oh...I’m guessing Gramps wouldn’t just accept an IOU in return?” Nyr ventures.
Susan simply collapses onto her chair in response, rubbing her eyes as if exhausted. “This is an impossible situation.”
“No chance of him lending it?” Azzageddi wonders, taking one of the comfortable chairs by the desk. “Death could help us out somehow, couldn't he?”
Susan shakes her head helplessly. “His scythe is...taboo.”
The room goes silent for a few moments. Susan is staring at some point beyond her desktop. Azz seems lost in thought. “What about a replica?” he asks.
Susan considers this. “I would need the original for a reference. The Baron will surely know exactly what it looks and feels like much better than I do.”
“But you are confident you could make a convincing replica, if you had it?” Azz insists.
Susan looks uncomfortable at the thought but not completely against it. “The hoax wouldn’t last long… As soon as he tried to drain power from it…”
Azz seems to hold on to her fragile willingness like a drowning man to a lifesaver. “But if you filled it with a good reserve of power first...he could be convinced to release the children, couldn't he?”
“Once he has what he wants, he has no reason to keep them,” Susan counters. Her expression darkens for a moment. “Just as he has no reason to keep them alive.”
“Then we need to find him and sneak them out while he’s distracted with the fake one,” Nyri concludes.
Susan looks up at her and tilts her head. Nyrini can almost hear the goddess’ mental gears turning. “But...how to find him?”
“We need a two-pronged approach,” Azz states, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Nyrini to get the scythe. Someone else to infiltrate the voudon cult. Nyrini already tried that...recently. And she can't do both anyway.”
“Then who?” Susan asks.
Azz looks up as if the answer were written somewhere among the veins of the black stone that lines the ceiling. “Can't be one of us. No disguise magic we have would be good enough to fool a high priest who's working directly for the Baron, especially when they're on the lookout. Has to be someone he'd never expect. Someone from outside the Watch…”
He looks back at the goddesses, thoughtful for a minute, face locked in a blank, absent expression. A narrowing of his eyes and a tensing of his lips betray the slow dawning of a reluctant decision.
Susan raises an eyebrow. “You know of someone.”
It is not a question.
“Former gang member in his youth,” Azz starts, looking like he’s regretting every word. “Joined the military to escape from that. Commando. Numerous dangerous missions. Excellent record. Some sort of trouble, came here and became a private investigator. Fire god...”
Nyrini whistles, impressed. “Sounds like my kind of guy. Got his address?”
Susan, however, does not seem half as amused. Her eyes widen at first but then narrow. “You didn’t… You checked the background on my date?!”
Nyrini looks from Sue to Azz, then back to Sue. “Oh…does he happen to have a brother?”
“I don’t know,” Susan tells her, voice tense but leveled, loaded with irony as she turns to Azz to ask, “Does he?”
“Several, actually,” Azzageddi replies, in too deep to claim ignorance but a definite uh oh expression on his face. “And sisters. It's a whole pantheon.”
“Unbelievable…” Susan hisses, rising from her chair. In a drawer, a box of paperclips starts rattling ominously. “Absolutely unbelievable!!”
“I told you he was crazy like that,” Nyri notes calmly, tapping a finger to her temple. “Paranoid…”
“I--” Azz starts but then concedes, “Well all right, that's fair.”
Susan bites her lip. “I have no words…”
“Sue...I just wanted to make sure he wasn't…” Azz tries to argue. “I knew the Baron had come sniffing around and...I was worried.”
But Susan’s face has gone blank, numb, her voice cold. “Do you know where I can find him at this time of night, then?”
Azzageddi nods. “He’s on a case. The, uh...torch singer? She needed him to find her sister.”
“Her name?” Susan asks drily.
“Ming,” Azz says. “McSweeney. On the corner of Throckmorton and Mangrove. Sue, I--”
“Thank you,” Susan cuts him off. “If he agrees, I will return with him.”
And in an instant, she has faded away, Silvershade with her. Nyrini can only whistle again and shake her head at Azz.
“Man, you really did it now, didn’t you? You just couldn’t let it lie…”
Azz looks at her sadly. “Nyr… I just… I just don’t want her getting hurt again. Or you.”
“We’re both big girls,” Nyri reminds him. “Besides, no one would be stupid enough to try to take advantage of her. We all know how that goes.”
“Well clearly the Baron is that stupid,” Azz says darkly. “He messed with my family on Earth. And now, again. I was a lot weaker then than I am now. He will regret this.”
“He won’t live long enough to,” Nyrini mutters.
Azzageddi says nothing to that, but it is clear to the goddess that somehow, he is thinking about how to make him live long enough to regret it very, very much.
The clouds which earlier had hung heavy and dark over Ankh-Morpork have made good on their threat and released their cleansing load upon the city. Susan Sto Helit splashes through rain-slicked streets, no raincoat, no umbrella, no hat, not even bothering to create a shield of force to protect herself from the downpour. She welcomes the cold rain. Focusing on the physical helps take her away from the endless, useless cycles of fury and fear and self-recrimination, from the images of her little boy and her niece shivering and alone, scared and probably suffering mistreatment, and doomed to a terrible death if she cannot come up with some way to save them.
Silvershade pads beside her. He also pays little attention to the rain. His wounds healed and apparently forgotten, he keeps an eye out and an ear cocked for anyone who might threaten his mistress.
They approach the club where she had danced with Saengfai earlier that evening. Only a few hours ago, but it feels like a month or more. How could she have been having so much fun, when her children were being stolen away from what she had thought was the most secure place they could be?
She glances into the alleyway alongside the club, and sees a shape--no, three--in the light of the club’s side entrance. It takes a moment to focus through the rain, but she quickly recognizes the private detective Saengfai, still wearing the leather jacket and slacks he had on earlier, his smooth glossy-black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Before him two women are embracing. One is the singer from the club, the improbably named Ming McSweeney (a very old, established family of the Agatean Empire), and the other a younger woman, maybe even a girl, who reminds her of Mitzi in appearance. They seem to be weeping, but happy.
The singer sends the younger woman into the club, then turns and puts her arms around Saengfai, kissing him quickly but passionately, releasing him to repeatedly say something in Agatean, most likely heartfelt thanks from the sound of it, and then she rushes into the club. The door shuts, and the detective shakes his head, smiling, then removes his hands from his pockets and begins walking toward the street, toward her.
“I guess that is another case neatly wrapped,” Susan says above the susurrus of the rain.
Saengfai looks up from his musing. “Susan…” His surprise turns into a smile, and his step subliminally picks up speed. “I thought I’d have to wait at least a day to see you again. I’m glad I was wrong.” He stops in front of her and glances quizzically at her companion.
Susan looks down at the wolf. “This is Silvershade. I raised him after his mother died. He was just a puppy.”
Saengfai studies her as she speaks. Susan wonders what he is thinking. Her fine white hair, with its one black lock, plastered to her skull and shoulders by the rain, her pretty black cocktail dress soaked to her skin. She must look positively dismal. But he says, “He’s beautiful. I, uh, know a place we can go where they won’t object to his presence. Or we can go to my office?”
Susan nods. “Your office would be best.”
Saengfai takes off his jacket and drapes it over her shoulders as if that’s the most normal thing in the world, his pale silk shirt immediately spattering with a pattern of fat raindrops. “It’s not far. Do you want to tell me what happened while we walk?”
He walks beside her, so that he and Silvershade are flanking her. She says, her voice numb, emotionless, “The reason I was called away from our date...people I care about were abducted tonight. Ambar, my son. And Twilight, my niece. I am sorry for putting this load on your shoulders but...I only have three days. After that, they will be dead.”
He is silent for a long moment, taking this in. Susan fears that his response may be along the lines of, Well, good luck with that. Instead, when he speaks, she hears the voice of someone who has had many a client with a similar tale of loss and pain. “Listen. This is what I do: find missing people. It’s what I specialize in. And I’ll do whatever I need to do to find them. You came to the right person.” His voice is confident, reassuring. It does not allow for a shred of doubt.
“I’m being blackmailed,” she says.
“Right. Tell me everything.” He takes her hand in his. It is slender, with long graceful fingers, but strong, with the callouses of one who has trained extensively to fight both armed and unarmed.
The words begin to pour out of her. “There is a little extradimensional space that connects my temple, Azzageddi’s temple and my sister Nyrini’s temple and which acts like a little burrow, where Twilight and Ambar usually play. It allows them to see each other often without having to bring them to the Watch House, while still having someone to babysit them. Silvershade usually watches over them. When I was called, he had just returned from that burrow, wounded and bloodied, and the children were nowhere to be found. Someone opened a fourth tunnel into the burrow and I believe he has been meeting them there often for the last few days, gaining their trust and having them keep him as a secret.”
She surrenders to Saengfai’s questioning, allowing him to guide her both along the streets and through her memories as he pins down exactly what she knows so far. The part of her mind that is always a cop cannot help but admire how he handles her, professional but also personable, not questioning too quickly or too slowly, lending his apparent confidence to her so that she feels calmer, almost ready to believe that this can have something other than a tragic ending. She barely notices when they transition from cobblestones to creaking wooden stairs, passing through glass doors, more stairs, a cheap office door with “Tiger Investigations” written in five languages on its glass window, and then into his office.
A cheap but comfortable sofa, continuing gentle questions as she sits and he hands her a warm mug of tea--Morporkian style, nothing exotic about it--and he sits across from her. She is warm, deliciously warm, inside from the tea, outside from...him? Oh yes, he is a fire god. He’s acting as a human-shaped radiator, leaning forward, already dry himself, Silvershade lying on the floor, belly toward the nice warm fireplace-man, water vapor rising from his wet fur.
Saengfai gets her a fresh mug of tea and makes another for himself in a chipped mug. He sits next to her on the sofa this time. He doesn't say anything at first, deep in thought about what she has told him--including Azzageddi's plan to send him into one of the Baron's cults in order to find the children.
"Right, sounds like I’ll be getting religion then," he says.
"Azzageddi and Nyrini can help," she replies. "Nyrini actually infiltrated a voudon group that worshipped the Baron not long ago with some degree of success. And Azz...he just keeps tabs on everyone."
Saengfai nods. "I’ll talk to them. And...we’re on a deadline. So I should talk to them tonight." He pauses, puts down his mug, and takes her hand with both of his. "Sue...I will find them."
Susan looks down at his hands and, setting her own mug on the floor, puts her free hand on top. She absently notes his use of 'Sue'. Nobody calls her that. Nobody but family. She finds she does not mind a bit, and for just a moment gives in to her desire to lean against him.
He slips one hand free and puts an arm around her, and the moment turns into a minute, then two. "I hope so," she finally replies. "They are both mortal and they cannot defend themselves." She is surprised at how small and lost her voice sounds then, so close to the edge of breaking. As if to compensate, the next words are filled with a cold fury. "And the gods forgive me for what I’ll do to him if we’re too late."
He kisses her now-dry hair. "They will." He pulls her closer to him and she presses her face against the silk of his shirt, enjoying the heat radiating from his body, his calming presence.
After some time, she realizes she has almost dozed off against him. Shock, she self-analyzes. Adrenalin wearing off. She rouses herself. Saengfai is right. They need to go to her temple, plan together with Azz and Nyri. "Some first date," she mutters.
Whispering in her ear, the detective says, "There’ve been some good parts." Suddenly he pulls his head back to look her in the eye. "You said ‘first date’. That means there will definitely be a second one. Right?"
Susan surprises herself again by smiling, almost laughing. "Unless you would rather run for the hills right now and escape the single mother with a wolf, a paranoid best friend and a crazy sister...I was hoping there would be another one."
Saengfai, strokes her cheek tenderly. “Oh I’m not letting you get away. Anyway...the family sounds like fun.”
Susan smiles. “Famous last words.” She cups his cheek in one hand, leans slightly forward, looking for any signs of hesitation--and finds herself hesitating. That impulsive kiss from earlier, in the heat of the moment, after dancing, after fighting alongside him even before that… Even without the kidnapping of the children, she’s hardly in her right mind this crazy night, now nearing morning.
Saengfai resolves her hesitation, kissing her, the delicious warmth of his lips spreading throughout her body, giving her permission to just for this moment put aside her fear and fury, until Silvershade whines and brings them back to the urgency of reality.
Susan pulls away, feeling herself blushing. “Right...shall I bring you to my temple? I have people waiting.”
Saengfai nods. “I’m ready.”
The two gods, along with the wolf, fade away, leaving the dilapidated private-eye’s office empty and silent.
“There were three of them. Far as I can tell, he never favored one over the other but each faction thought they ran the show. Kept moving around. They need a place where live people can disappear and zombies can pop up without much noise being made about it.”
Nyrini paces as she unwinds all the information she can remember about the local voudon cults, some that she has managed to infiltrate and others that she has simply learned about in the course of her investigative work. Nervous, frightened, angry as she is, she cannot really stand to be still and just wait for Susan to return with the private investigator. For all she knows, they may have been delayed or even not been able to meet. Either way, Susan is taking too damn long, long enough for Nyri to have returned to her temple and for Azz to have visited his to gather information from the kind of archives that are usually rigged to burn and/or blow up should someone unauthorized decide to know a bit too much for their own good.
Azzageddi, who has so far remained seated, quiet and grim, obviously disheartened but otherwise calm enough to keep his thoughts under control, nods at what he hears as he cradles an open folder on his lap.
“Graveyards becoming too obvious,” he says. “But under graveyards…”
“Slaughterhouses,” Nyrini recalls. “One of the groups used slaughterhouses. Maman ran that one. I never got to meet her, though.”
“Death's Domain?” Azz shakes his head. “They'll be on their guard. Lacroix Family.”
“They need supplies too,” Nyrini states, leaning against Susan’s heavy, wooden desk. “The stuff they use ain't easy to find. Maybe...2? 3 dealers in town? We can grill them.”
Azzageddi seems to consider this, slowly tapping his temple absentmindedly as he turns the issue over in his head. “We can make it obvious. Baron will expect it. Use the obvious as evidence that we're stumbling. While the real investigation goes on quietly.”
Nyrini nods. She hesitates before asking the question that has been haunting her thoughts. “You really think this guy is good enough?”
She is not really one to question her sister’s taste in men (which is considerably better than her own) but Susan has been alone since her breakup, dedicating all of her time to her divine calling, to the Watch, to her part time job teaching at the UU and, first and foremost, to her family. She has not been thinking of her own needs and wants for quite some time. And now, suddenly, she is smiling like a teenager every time she meets this mysterious rogue fire god who has done nothing but lie to the Watch so far and try to get Sue to allow him the gift of a romantic date with her. In Nyri’s book, that’s not much of a record to keep, even if it is impressive that someone has managed to rouse Susan from her emotional numbness. Can this private detective really be trusted?
“We'll know soon--” Azz replies.
His words trail off unspoken at the sight of Susan fading into view in the center of the room, accompanied by Silvershade and a handsome, slender-figured god in a leather jacket and a ponytail.
“Here we are,” the death goddess announces, gesturing from the newcomer to Azz and Nyr. “You already know Azzageddi. And that is my sister, Nyrini. Twilight is her daughter.” To Azz and Nyr , she says. “This is Saengfai.”
“I wish we could have met under easier circumstances,” Saengfai offers, nodding to Azz, who has in the meantime stood up.
He glances at Nyrini and a small flicker glints in his eye. Her long, wavy hair loose and wild over her shoulders and down her back, Nyri is, as usual, dressed in the kind of outfit that makes the word ‘minimalistic’ sound too big to describe it. Short leather vest and mid-thigh length shorts adorned with the usual blade sheathes and pockets, her beloved, ever-present crossbow currently strapped to her back and hidden from his sight. But the look he gives her is not the usual one of lust she gets from most males. Instead, it is one of careful appraisal of how much her outside looks match her inner self. He is studying her, keeping a guarded expression, a half smile about his lips that seems too appropriate to be fully spontaneous. That added to his falsely-relaxed, catlike poise, the way his weight shifts imperceptibly between his legs, the hands that stay close to his pockets as if he can’t quite decide what to do with them. They all speak volumes in the few breaths it takes Nyrini to analyze him.
“Yeah, that doesn't really happen in this family,” she says eventually, making sure to sound friendly but keeping her eyes locked on his face. “You're right, Azz, he does look Commando. Let me guess, Agatean Red Helmet?”
“Yeah…” Saengfai confirms, shooting an incredulous, mildly annoyed look at Azzageddi that makes Azz shrug and Nyri grin. “Mustered out a few years back.” He makes a show of looking her up and down, even though it is obvious he has already reached his conclusions. “Watch Dark Guard?”
Nyrini snorts. The division is a well-kept secret. That he knows of it means that he has been in the wrong place at the right time at least once. “Forever and always. Can't muster out of that unless you own your own plot in the graveyard.” Now more serious, she speaks to Sue. “We went back to Azz's and to my place. Got everything we could gather on these guys.”
“Good,” Susan replies with a minute nod. “We need to figure out a plan for your part in this as well.”
“Yeah, that's a whole different pickle, borrowing stuff from Gramps,” Nyrini notes grimly.
“It is only borrowing when people agree to lend something,” Susan retorts. She looks nervous, as if even considering this is dangerous, even here, in her temple, her private study. “Let us not talk about it here.”
Turning to the bookshelf, Susan moves closer to a particular section and pulls an old battered book out of alignment, then another one and another one. On the opposite wall, behind Azz and Saengfai, stone moves and a passage opens. “Follow me.”
“Aaaand down the rabbit hole we go,” Nyrini mutters humorlessly, anticipating what comes next.
“I've swept for bugs every way I know,” Azzageddi notes. “But if you have a more secure space, I'm all for that.”
“It is not just security but also convenience,” Susan explains, crossing the room to enter the newly revealed door.
As the death goddess walks by Saengfai, Nyri notices she lets her hand trail behind for just a second longer, to graze the fire god’s fingers in a tiny gesture of reassurance. He is not fast enough to react properly but the way his eyes follow her steps with a concerned softness pretty much determines Nyrini’s opinion of the guy.
“Come on,” she says, patting his shoulder before following Susan. “I don't like the place but she's right. It's better.”
She trusts that the gods will follow her and they do. They walk through a long, wide hallway lined with shelf upon shelf, row upon row of hourglasses. The roar of falling sand echoes in the background as they navigate through dark passageways and past side corridors. And then, in the middle of a narrow, shadowy hall, Susan turns suddenly into a slightly darker shadow and they reach...
A room. Well, sort of a room. More like a localized voidness. There are no walls, no floor, no ceiling, but they walk without falling in it. There is no light but they can see each other perfectly. And, as soon as all of them enter, not even the door is evident anymore. Creepy, stylish, definitely the place to avoid if you suspect that your life would make good fodder for a horror story.
“We can plan better here,” Susan states.
“Where are we?” Saengfai asks, looking around grimly.
“Nowhere. Everywhere. Anywhere,” Susan explains cryptically. “This is the space between space, between here and there. A bit of a physical loophole. We can watch most places from here provided they are already in our memory.”
“Kinda like a really creepy hologram room,” Nyrini adds for the god’s benefit. “Easier to share info if you can actually see stuff and not just hear it.”
“Nice,” Saengfai replies, looking at the assembly around him. “So let's go through it all.”
Nyr exchanges a glance with Azz. “Want me to start, love?”
Azzageddi merely nods.
And Nyrini nods as well. “OK, so…” She breathes deep and summons an image to mind. In the middle of the room, a hologram of the Baron in his fine tuxedo and nonchalant attitude appears. “Meet the infamous Baron Samedi Lacroix. Better known as the guy I'm gonna rip to shreds as soon as I get my hands on him…”
“I don't like this,” Susan says, seated, hugging herself. “They should both have been back by now.”
Azzageddi, behind her, puts his hands on her shoulders. “We have time.”
Susan stands suddenly, releasing herself from his touch, walking towards the window, unable to look at him. “This was an idiotic plan. Just…”
“Nyri will come through.”
“Of course I will.” At the sound of Nyrini’s voice, Azzageddi feels his knees buckle slightly. His confidence had merely been a front for Susan’s benefit. Nyrini chuckles as she walks past Azz, brushing her fingertips along his jawline. “I always come through. Except when I don't. But I did.”
Susan rushes to her, and Nyrini hands her the scythe. “There. We've got maybe twenty minutes before the game is over,” Nyrini says.
“I'll do my best.” Susan lays the scythe on a work table, next to another one that is nearly identical, and sets to work, her hands glowing blue-green, the mystic forces of a divine miracle in the making causing her white hair to rise and then writhe in breezes kicked up by power differentials in the air.
As Susan works, Azzageddi goes to stand next to Nyrini and puts an arm around her. She leans against him with a sigh, patting his hand. “Worrywart,” she chides. “Don’t I always come through fine?”
“There was you that time the Godbinder nearly killed you,” he says softly.
She replies by turning toward him, slipping her arms around his waist and hugging him. He puts his other arm around her and rests his cheek on top of her head. “So, um, took it off him while he was playing chess?” Azz asks.
Nyrini laughs. “Chess....chess?! Gramps plays poker! Only good game for four that you can play drunk.”
Azzageddi looks puzzled. “Four?”
“You know... Death, Famine, War ...what was the other one?”
Without looking up, Susan automatically says, “Pestilence.”
Azzageddi turns pale. “The Four… Well, thank goodness you’re all right.”
“For now, yeah. Let's see if I can give it back before he notices it's gone.”
Susan works furiously to make a faithful copy of the fabled Scythe of Death. Making the counterfeit match the original in appearance is one thing, but she must also make it feel right. And make it work, even if only for a short time, long enough to fool the Baron. But with only a few minutes to spare, she allows her powers to fade, and, straightening, looking ten years older from the expenditure of power, she hands the original to Nyrini.
“Here,” the death goddess says. “Be careful, please.”
“Sure thing. See you in a few.”
Azz manages a smile of encouragement for Nyrini before she disappears. He takes a deep breath and turns to Susan, looking with her at the fake scythe. “How long will it fool him?”
Susan shrugs. “Best case scenario? Half an hour.”
“What if it had more godpower in it?” he asks. “Could the façade last longer?”
“If it were carefully filtered into spectral energy.... Maybe an hour?”
“Can you use mine? Does it have to be Death Clan?”
“It has to go through me,” Susan says. “...but Azz, if we use yours and then find ourselves having to fight him…”
Azzageddi considers the possibilities, his brow wrinkled. Finally, he sighs. “And we will have to fight him. Because Sue ...we can’t let him take his revenge. And he will. He always does. So we have to take him down hard.”
Susan looks down, seeming almost shrunken by this heavy knowledge. “I know... I know. And still, nothing from Saengfai.”
Azzageddi takes her delicate hand. “I’m not really surprised. He needs to find out where the children are being held, but he might not be able to get free and report back to us without breaking cover--which would alert the Baron that he has the information.”
Susan sighs, squeezing Azz’s thick, scarred fingers. “You're right, I know. I just see the hours go by and I feel helpless.”
“He’ll come through.” Azzageddi wonders if Susan can tell he is trying to convince himself.
Susan snorts. “I thought you didn't like him.”
Azzageddi shrugs. “I saw how he looks at you. He’s not going to let you down. If there’s any way to succeed, he will.”
“I just hope he's all right,” the goddess murmurs, and Azzageddi holds her hand a little tighter.
“But we want to go home, Uncle Baron!” Twilight demands.
“Oh, dear little Twilight, I have told you before. You can't win at hide and go seek if you just stop hiding all of a sudden,” Baron says, patting the bunny’s head.
This is not fun. Not by a long shot. Not in any way as much fun as the Baron had told them it would be, playing hide and go seek with Mommy and Auntie Sue, who love to play games and are really good to her and Ambar. Even if they work so much and cannot be around most of the time to take care of the young bunnies, but Twi and Ambar aren’t little kiddies anymore and they can be alone too and they care of themselves just fine… Most of the time.
The Baron had found them in their safe little ex-tera-di-me-ni-ci-onal burrow, playing with their puzzles and learning books and My Little Centaur figurines. And even though he looks kinda scary with the whole skeleton thing, well, Queegqueg is mostly see-through and Twi can see his bones often enough to know where each one should go anyway. And the Baron knew all these fun games and he made them laugh and he told them, asked them not to tell anyone about him because sometimes Auntie Sue got mad at him for not doing his job too well and...well, Auntie Sue does get mad sometimes when stuff is not well done and she can be a bit scary too when she’s mad.
But the Baron said he’d visit just after this one game and so Twi and Ambar had said OK to coming. Silvershade had not liked that one bit. He really didn’t like Baron at all and when the god had reached to take Twi and Ambar’s hands, the wolf had attacked him. Twilight hopes Silvershade didn’t get as badly hurt as he seemed. There was so much blood...And then Baron had just dragged them away and now they are in a dingy, dark room with no windows or sunlight and they’ve been here for a really long time. Hours, at least! They want out. And they want out now!
“We're tired,” Ambar whimpers. “We wanna go back to our mommies.”
Twilight puts an arm around his shoulders and hugs him protectively, like the slightly older cousin she is. In her trouser pocket, the tiny panzer dragon Starlight hides very still in the fabric darkness.
“Well, that is not going to happen so you can stop whining and do as you're told!” Baron hisses before smiling again. “Now, who wants a nice, juicy carrot?”
“Your carrots make us sleepy!” Ambar complains.
“And they taste like rum!” Twilight adds, crossing her arms and putting a foot down.
“Ah, but how would you know what rum tastes like?” the Baron asks, pressing his nose against hers. His breath smells like rum too. And cigars. “Didn't your mommy tell you that rum is not for children? Maybe I should tell her about your...expertise in drinks.”
Twi rolls her eyes before looking into his, unimpressed. “I tasted rum on Mommy's lips. Duh.”
“Insolent children, I will have my fun getting rid of you,” the Baron mutters, pulling away. He summons his cane to his right hand and his top hat to his left. “But for now...time to meet your mommies and force them to hand over power of life and death in exchange for your measly lives.”
“They're gonna get you!” Ambar shrieks. “You can't win against my mommy!”
Twilight frowns. “And mine too…”
But the Baron simply chuckles at their threats. “Ah the innocence of youth! Soon it will be gone. And so will your mommies.” He wriggles his fingers at them. “Toodles!”
Ambar sits down heavily on the floor, ears drooped, cute nose sniffing away tears. “Twi? He's--he's not serious, right?”
Twilight kneels by the little bunny and hugs him. “He's a big meanie, is what he is. And...we need to get out of here.”
“But how?” Ambar sniffs. “He has that creepy nanny watching over us!”
As if to confirm that, a half-rotted, dead-on-her-feet woman with ashen skin and sunken eyes, dressed in a filthy, torn dress, waves limply from across the room.
“See?” Ambar says.
“Yeah…” Twilight agrees, trying to think of a plan. “But we gotta escape. If he doesn't have us, our Mommies will be safe.” Her ears droop and she pouts in misery. “And this is all my fault.”
Now it is Ambar who hugs Twi. “He looked nice at first. I thought he was nice too. And if you save us, you'll be a hero. Mommy and Auntie Nyri won't yell at you.”
“I'll still deserve to get yelled at,” Twilight states, hugging him back. “I bet he's not even our real uncle.”
“Doesn't matter now, does it?” Ambar shrugs, getting up and taking her hand. “Come on, Big Cous. How do we get out of here? Think we can fight her?”
Twilight shakes her head. “Ugh, no way.” She looks around. “Hmm. Hey Nanny?”
Zombie Nanny looks at them absently.
“We're soooo hungry,” Twilight lies. “Can we have some more of those carrots? Lots of 'em? Pleeeeeasse?”
Ambar looks at Twi in surprise at first but then decides to go along with the plan. “Oh, yes! Carrots!” He sticks his tongue out and rubs his belly. “Hmm…”
Zombie Nanny looks at them some more before turning and lumbering off, feet dragging on the stony floors toward the only door to the room.
“She's leaving!” Ambar squeeks in excitement. “OK, Twi, now what?”
Twilight puts a finger to her lips to ask for silence, and dashes to catch the door just before it shuts behind the nanny. She signals Ambar to follow, urging him to be silent, and they walk together, down a long, dark hall with many crossing hallways opening to it, like a rabbit or termite lair. And like rabbits do, they follow their noses, sniffing for fresh air that might indicate a way out and for other scents that might indicate the approach of someone looking for them. The place reeks of old scents of people with too much love for booze and not enough time for soap. Suddenly, as they round a corner...
The sound of voices, a conversation that they have just started to hear but that seems to have been going on for a while. Twilight recognizes the language as the one Mommy speaks when she talks about when she was little. She pulls Ambar back to the safety of the corridor they had been about to leave.
“Il faut être prudent, mon amour...c’est trop dangereux là,” a feminine voice coos with husky, passionate urgency.
“Pas de soucis,” a low, self-assured male voice whispers in reply. “Je serai bientôt de retour.”
Twilight peeks around the corner to see a couple kissing. The woman is young, dark-skinned, dressed in a short yellow top and a red, knee-length skirt, her hair wrapped in a colorful, but worn, cloth. She smells of fear and passion. The man is considerably taller, burly, skin dark as midnight, bald head decorated with a deep scar over the left ear, from which a heavy gold earring hangs. He is shirtless, his pants are dirty and rolled up to the middle of his calves. He smells of… ugh, rum.
“À bientôt…” the young woman whispers once they break away.
She disappears, teary eyed, through the...wall? Probably a portal of some kind. The man turns his back to where she has just vanished from and walks in the direction of where the bunnies are hiding. At each step, he seems to change. His looming figure becomes shorter, his burly muscles give way to a less impressive, stringier fitness, his pitch-black skin fades to a honey-colored tan, the shiny bald head sprouts long, smooth black hair tied in a ponytail. His lumbering, stiff walk turns into an easy, graceful feline gait.
Twilight shrinks further back into the shadows, watching him, holding Ambar so that he won’t move and give their location away.
“Shhh…” she tells him barely above a whisper. “There's a bad guy coming.”
The man walks right past them. Under the ever-present fragrance of rum, Twilight can smell blood on him, cheap perfume, sweat,.. chickens?! Well, OK, those are definitely chickens. In her hiding spot inside Twi’s pocket, Starlight stirs in nervousness. The man is looking around, as if looking for something, as if unfamiliar with this place. And then, he stops, pulls something out of his pocket and concentrates on it. She cannot see it at first but when he moves a fraction, Twi gets a better look of the thing wrapped in a reddish glow: a small centaur figurine with short stubby wings, colored a pretty purple with iridescent greenish manes. Her eyes go wide. Princess Lighthoof!
“Ça c’est à moi, ouai!!” she exclaims in outrage.
The man turns immediately towards her and she realizes she has just given her location away. She shrinks back into the shadowy alcove where Ambar is still hiding, staring at her in shock. They could run. They should run. But Twilight’s legs have suddenly decided that her getting caught requires much less effort on their part and so they are not about to run any time soon.
The man looks at where they are hiding and shakes his head, whispering to himself in a much more pleasant voice than before, “And here I thought this would take hours and I'd be too late.”
He walks over to look into their alcove, at the same time summoning a warm little ball of fire that exposes the bunnies with its light, and that he lets float not very far from his face. “Hey, you two…”
“Don't you try anything!” Twilight cries, shoving her hand into her pocket and producing a very surprised panzer dragon that looks at the man with a tilted head and one, slightly bulging eye. “We--we can take you down!”
Ambar glances uncertainly at Twilight but follows her lead. “Yeah! We can kick! And we can bite!”
The man makes a show of leaning back, away from Starlight, who is making low, confused clicking sounds with her throat. “Well I won't try anything. I'm Saengfai, and I'm here to take you home.”
“Right. And how do we know that's true?” Twilight demands.
“Well...I have this,” the man says, holding up Twilight’s centaur figurine. “Your mom Nyrini gave it to me so I could use magic to find you.”
Twilight doesn’t really know how to counter that. “Well, uhm…”
“You could have just stole it for Uncle Baron!” Ambar counters, frowning. “Don't believe him, Twi.”
The man is stroking Starlight’s nose with the tip of his finger and smiling at the pleased sounds that the dragon is making. So much for Twi’s plans of training her to be a guard-dragon… “Now how come I would come here to take you home if I was with this Baron guy?” he asks. “You know, I've never met him...and I don't want to. He doesn't sound nice.”
“Mommy says bad guys lie,” Ambar insists. “That's how you know they're bad. If you're a friend of our mommies, prove it!”
The man with the weird name seems to consider this. “Well…Ambar, your mom doesn't really like spicy food. And she has a pet wolf named Silvershade, who's really beautiful. And she's a good dancer.”
Ambar crosses his arms in suspicion. “Hmpf! Mommy doesn't dance.”
“Really?” the man seems a bit surprised. “Oh, well she doesn't think she can. But she's a lot better at it than she thought.”
“And Baron hurt Silvershade...” Ambar’s ears droop in sadness and he sniffs away a tear.
The man looks just as sad as he is. “He’s fine now. He was in my office three days ago, warm and happy. That’s when your mom asked me to find you.”
Twilight feels unsure about this stranger, no longer certain that he is one of the bad guys. She takes a bit more care in smelling him, in going through the mix and match of new and old scents, through the rum, the blood, the cheap, sickly sweet perfume left by that young lady from before, the chickens, the fish. And down there… deep, deep down...
She tugs at Ambar’s sleeve. “Smell him.”
Ambar looks at her a bit uncertain but he sniffs the stranger too.
“Gosh…” the man breathes. “I’ve been undercover for three days...I don’t know what you’ll smell…”
Under all those smells and above his spicy, smoky natural scent, is Susan’s scent, subtle and delicate. And, linked to it, Silvershade’s.
“You smell like Auntie Sue,” Twi explains. Her nose twitches at the puff of pheromones that comes from him as his pupils widen a bit at her words. “And you smell like you like her.”
“Heh...well, yes, I do,” the man replies, looking a bit embarrassed.
“A lot...” Ambar notes.
The man’s face turns bright red all of a sudden. “Well, uh…”
“He's blushing!” Twilight giggles, making Starlight growl in irritation over being shook.
“Anyway, we gotta get going!” the man says brightly. “Like I said, I don’t want to meet this Baron guy. I just want to get you two home--”
A half-rotten, greyish figure looms suddenly behind him.
“Look out!” Twilight and Ambar cry in unison.
The voice, high-pitched, childish… the Bolgosh-Vrommin case? The little Liu twins? Saengfai tries to claw his way up from the pitch-black depths into which he’s fallen, following the voice.
“Sing-pie! That's his name, right?”
Higher pitch but more mature--slightly older child. Girl, for sure. Alice Mackalbye? No...he flinches from that one. Not every case has had a happy ending.
“I don't know! His name's weird!”
The younger one again. Boy. Why so hard to think? Oh right--sapped. Cold-cocked. Kayoed. Laid out. Eighty-sixed. What the hell is it about being a private detective that makes it so easy for people to sneak up and knock me unconscious at dramatically useful moments? It gets old.
“He's your mommy's boyfriend, you should know his name! Hey, Mr Dingy-thigh?”
Mouth working. “Sayng-fie…” he groans. Mommy’s boyfriend? Susan. Susan’s son! Ambar. And Susan’s niece, Twilight. He sniffs, catching the scent of burnt rum, burnt carrots, burnt corpse. Ugh.
“He's speaking a funny language,” Ambar says, doubtfully.
“Maybe we should hit him on the head with something. I saw it in a movie. It's how they fix ada-ma-ne-sia.” Amazing how cheerful Twilight can sound about cracking her rescuer’s skull.
Right--back in the here-and-now. And all limbs functioning. Brains intact enough for the moment. Time to open eyes. Two adorable faces are staring down at him, one a handsome olive-skinned boy of about six with wavy dark-brown hair and long bunny-like ears, the other a slightly older girl with soft-grey hair and golden eyes. “No hitting… I've had enough of that today already.” He sits up slowly, holding the back of his head. He turns his head, closing his eyes as his vision spins. Come on now...time to stop with the spinning. These kids need to get out of here.
He concentrates and uses some of his divine power to heal himself, something he’s not especially good at doing, but he has the basic ability like all gods. He opens his eyes--no spinning. Good. There’s a burnt up corpse in a charred bundle in the corner, as expected from the smell. “Some party happen while I was out? We’re not in a cell...that’s good.” He doesn’t mention that it’s even better that they’re not in a torture chamber. Or a casket. He mutters, “Man, what’s with all the obsession with rum here?”
“Mommy likes it,” Twilight chirps. “She used to be a pirate.”
After a pause, Saengfai shrugs. “This doesn’t surprise me. Well, I’ll get her a bottle of Mekhong when this is over. See if she likes that better.” Saengfai pushes himself to his feet. The two buga-bunny children help him, and he pats them both on the head before he nudges the burnt corpse with one foot.
Twilight nods at it. “Yeah, Nanny followed us, I guess. She had lots of rum carrots in her pockets. Baron uses them to make us sleepy. After she knocked you out, Starlight attacked her. She breathed fire real good, didn’t you, Starlight?”
Ambar nods. “Nanny went all ‘whoosh’!”
“Good work.” The tiny dragon on Twilight’s shoulder preens as Saengfai strokes its snout. “Now let’s get you two--uh, three--outta here and back home.”
He takes them back to where he entered the Baron’s citadel. “Walls are weaker here…” He takes out a scroll, presses it against the wall, spreading it so he can read it. He mumbles the words, and a portal opens, through which he can see, to his great relief, the old, threadbare furniture of his office in Ankh-Morpork.
“Right, let’s step through--”
As if he’s been carefully considering this question for hours, Ambar asks, “If you like Mommy, why were you kissing that other lady?”
Twilight whispers loudly enough to echo in the hallway. “Ambar! Maybe your mommy doesn't kiss him...Shhhh!”
Saengfai feels his face burning. “Ahhh...well…” He avoids answering for a moment by ushering them into his office and sitting them down on the sofa. “I...had to kiss that lady because I was trying to find you. Sometimes...well, people are funny.”
Ambar seems quite relaxed about all this, as if his mother’s... boyfriend? ...kissing another woman is not a terribly huge deal. “So....is Mommy going to kiss you if you bring us back?”
Twilight nods sagely and looks at Saengfai. “Oh she gotta, right? She can't say no. That's how it goes, right?”
His face burning again, the detective says, “Let’s get you to the Watch House!”
Suddenly Twilight’s ears droop to the sides, making her look lost and afraid for the first time, as if realizing that she no longer has to hold it all off for her younger cousin’s sake. “Can I have Princess Lighthoof back, please?”
Saengfai kneels immediately and takes out the little toy centaur that he’d brought to help find the children. As a detective specializing in finding lost family members, he’s seen this moment before. He smooths the figurine’s mane before handing it to the little girl. “Here you go, dear.” As he hands it to her, he touches Twilight’s shoulder and looks seriously into her eyes. “You’ve been so brave.”
He means it. There’s nothing he admires so much as someone small and powerless who stands up and holds strong as long as they can. As tears well up in the child’s eyes, he has to blink back the moisture gathering in his own eyes.
Twilight holds the figurine in her fist, then hugs Saengfai tightly, her arms around his neck nearly strangling him. “I wanna go to my mommy!” she wails, all reserve breaking down as she starts to sob.
Ambar hugs them both, one thin arm around his cousin, the other around Saengfai, who snakes an arm out to hold the boy as well.
The detective, being a god of fire, instinctively radiates just the right amount of heat from his body to make them warm and comfortable after spending three days of cold neglect in the Baron’s dungeons. “We’re going home now,” he says. “Come on. Hold my hands. It’s not far at all.”
The gods arrive at the meeting point, the eerie dark chamber that looks just like Susan's little holoroom if it were to double as a funeral home showroom and that connects to Twilight and Ambar’s little extradimensional bunny burrow via a tunnel that definitely should not be there. Nyrini looks around and whistles at the half dozen black coffins that decorate each… uhm...wall? Yeah, let’s go with wall, even though they definitely look like there’s not much wall-iness there. She looks at Susan, who is holding the fake scythe wrapped in a black cloth. Dressed in black robes herself (this family definitely needs a makeover when it comes to color palettes), the pale, white-haired goddess looks like a ghost hovering in the middle of all this darkness. Azz, on the other hand, looks like a very nervous flower pot, in one of his ever-present Hawaiian shirts. Though just about ready for anything, he keeps shifting his weight from one leg to the other, shooting nervous glances at Susan, who is standing way too still for comfort.
Nyrini sighs. She’s been in these situations before. And she knows that eight out of ten of them don’t go so well to either side. She feels the numbness seep into her, the fake peace of emotionlessness move into her mind. All of this feels wrong. Twilight...She could not possibly stand to lose Twilight. But still, the practice of the ages comes to her aid. Just one more job. Each job is the last one and so is the next one.
She feels a shift in the air. Her gloved hands twitch minutely.
“Ah, welcome, welcome, my favorite little toy soldiers,” the perennially mocking and smooth voice of Baron Samedi LaCroix fills the chamber. “Welcome to my humble parlour.”
“There is nothing humble about you, Baron,” Susan says. “But I will make sure that there will be if you have dared to hurt my family.”
And suddenly, there he is, hovering by Susan, lying down in the thin air, arms crossed behind his head. “Now, now, little niece. It’s too early still to mix business with pleasure. And speaking of business…” He stands up properly. “Do you have it?”
“Do you have the children?” Azzageddi growls, stone-faced.
The Baron actually manages to look ever-so-slightly offended at the question. His hand shoots to his chest, fingers pressing the area where his heart would be if a guy like that had one. “But of course I have the children. What would I want children for if it weren’t to blackmail you?”
“We don’t even know if they’re alive, you bastard,” Nyrini notes, voice level. “Show ‘em to us.”
The Baron turns his eyes to her, his lips part in a grin that is all bright-white teeth and stretches from ear to ear. “Ah, yes!” He walks over to her, without hurry. “Nyrini….the sweet-tongued goddess of thresholds and pathways who likes to poke her nose into other people’s homes. And what would stop you from taking your winged little feet and teleporting the cherubs out of here, pray tell?” Now he is standing behind her shoulder, whispering into her ear. “Tsk tsk tsk... No… No tricking the trickster, sweetheart.”
Nyrini merely turns her head to look at him, an expression of sheer boredom and contempt on her face.
“Let us get this over with,” Susan says dryly, unwrapping the scythe. The blade on it glows with a spectral, blue-green edge. “Here is the scythe.”
The Baron leaves Nyrini, teleports to stand by Susan. He tilts his head at the scythe, grinning, black eyes reflecting the eerie light in pleasure, against the yellowish-white scleras of his eyeballs. He extends a hand very, very slowly to poke the scythe’s shaft with a black-skinned finger. And then, in a sudden, violent movement, he snatches it.
His victorious laughter makes Nyrini shift her weight to make ready for any sudden attacks. She sees Azz do the same, eyes locked on the Baron. Susan, however, doesn’t move. She seems to be only mildly annoyed by her uncle’s theatricality.
“Hand over the children, Baron,” the death goddess demands in humorless tones.
The Baron tilts his head, leaning against the scythe. “Yeeeeeeees, about that…” He snaps his fingers, the black room turns a dark crimson, the lids on the black coffins move and open to reveal a small army of decrepit zombies that suddenly flood the room. “No.”
The zombies, pitiful creatures all raggedy and decrepit, bits falling off even as they walk toward the gods, arms stretched forward, fingers curled like rapine talons, eyes vacant and miserable, jaws dropped in a silent, grunted scream of everlasting horror, advance to surround Nyrini.
And not far away, she hears Azz’s bewildered voice. “Zombies? Seriously?”
“Oh, they may not look like much, I agree,” the Baron concedes. “But face it, right now…neither do you.”
Nyri draws her sword and stabs behind her, cutting through muscle and tendon to leave a zombie knee bending uselessly. She turns and slashes, grimacing at the absence of any real reaction from the zombies. No pain, no backing away. They advance endlessly, in spite of severed limbs, of pierced chests. She aims for joints to disable movement.
Motion behind her. She summons her power to teleport behind a zombie shaped like an elderly lady in a rotted out church dress.
And fails. She tries and tries again but fails each and every time. Stunned by it, she misses her shot and gets clawed, almost bitten by the walking dead thing. “The hell?? I can’t...oh crap!”
Her powers don’t work!
“No…” Azzageddi seems to reach the same conclusion as he fights. “Nyri! We have no powers!”
“I kinda figured that one out already!” the goddess replies in a sing-song voice as she bashes the pommel of her sword against a skull. “Not that I need them to kick some zombie A'''!
She draws her crossbow to shoot an explosive-tip bolt through the eye socket of a zombie that was trying to catch Azz off guard. “Uhh...how do you kill a zombie again?”
“Traditionally?” Azz asks in almost conversational tones, barely flinching at the small explosion that sends a shower of bone and brain matter flying toward his back. “Fill its mouth with salt and sew it shut. But…” He smashes his fist against the top of a zombie’s head, causing it to drop. “I think he’s been watching movies recently. Head blow. But don’t let them bite you! Infectious…”
Nyrini throws her hands up, puts away her crossbow switches from the sword to the retractable, laser-rimmed short staff, one of the very few high-tech things she owns, along with the gloves she is currently wearing. “Really, man?! I mean, REALLY?!”
In spite of their best efforts, the flood of zombies seems endless. The two deities fight and fight, bashing, cutting, blowing up zombies. Until Nyrini decides she needs a breather and ducks a punch to place a hand on whatever passes for a floor here. No matter what the Baron has done to this place, removing their powers, her gloves are technological, not magical. And they can project solid holograms…
Suddenly, dozens of skeletal hands shoot up from the darkness and grab onto zombie ankles, pull on undead bodies to hold them down. Nyrini stops finally to look around, wheezing to catch her breath. Not ten steps away, Azz is doing pretty much the same thing.
And then, Nyri seems him, the Baron, struggling to free himself from the hands. But… something looks off. His skin looks greyish now, flaky. His limbs move without coordination, flailing aimlessly. His eyes look glazed, his grin is gone. He looks like...a zombie?!
“Wait...Isn’t that the Baron?” Nyri asks, pointing at the strange thing. “As a zombie?”
Covered in sweat and brains, Azz looks up at the zombified Baron. “That doesn’t make sense.” He crosses the room with heavy steps to grab what looks like a zombie Baron by the throat and slam it against a wall, breaking bone and tearing flesh as he rips the walking corpse from Nyri's holographic trap. “Huh...it really is a zombie. That means…”
He looks around, looking for the real Baron and notices what hadn’t yet registered with Nyri. “Where the hell is Susan??”
Nyrini’s eyes widen as realization dawns. She scans the room, feeling ice shoot down her spine. “Oh crap...I don’t see her. Do you think--?”
Azz curses under his breath, slamming the Baron’s abandoned body repeatedly against the wall, angrily, viciously, muttering at each hollow thud about how old he is getting for this kind of stuff. Once he is done, he just let it fall into the heap of bones that it is. “He dumped his body. He doesn’t really have one of his own. He takes them over, usually worshippers. But he can take over the unwilling. And if he adjusted local Reality so he had powers and Susan didn’t...she wouldn’t be able to stop him.”
“Damn it,” Nyri mutters. “DAMN IT!” she cries. “We have to find them! He’ll be going after the others, then. They wouldn’t fight her.”
Azz looks back to the tunnel they used to get here. But the tunnel is gone. They are sealed here, with all the zombies that are already managing to release themselves from their bindings. His shoulders slump in tired frustration. “He can’t have changed Reality over too large an area. Not that fast.” He shakes his head. “Come on...we’ll find a place where you can teleport.”
Nyrini looks around and points at one of the coffins that line the walls. “Zombies had to come from somewhere… Too many zombies, too few coffins.”
She walks over to a random coffin, opens its lid, peers inside. Darkness there...
And nothing more, she thinks bitterly.
And then, suddenly, the darkness is full of zombie. A rotting arm claws at her with bony, fleshless fingers and fractured nails. She bashes the lid closed on the thing’s arm, severing the arm at the joint, leans her back against the lid to keep the coffin from opening again and looks apologetically at Azz.
“Well, there’s definitely a portal there!” she offers.
But the other zombies are already getting up and more are coming out of the other coffins. The fight begins again.
And just then, a message comes over the earpiece (amazing how some things conveniently escape Reality shifts, huh?). Mitzi’s voice rings in her ear. “Safe!”
Nyri activates the staff again. “Not for long if we don’t get outta here!”
Susan opens her eyes to...nothing. Nothing at all. No darkness, no light, no limits, no walls. Absolutely nothing.
Where is she?
She turns this way and that but sees nothing. She tries to listen for sounds but none find her ears. She tries to move...but gets nowhere. What place is this? Neither hot nor cold nor anything? She feels weightless. Incorporeal. And then, a voice.
“Whoo! Wasn’t that fun?”
Susan grimaces. It is his voice. The Baron’s.
“Enjoying your new home, my sweet, sweet Susan?” he asks, appearing before her, arms casually crossed over his chest, top hat stylishly tipped over his right eye.
“Baron…” Susan growls, lunging forward.
Trying to...failing… Her arms refuse to move. Her legs seem stuck to the floor. She tries again but her uncle merely chuckles and shakes his head slowly.
Her eyes widen in cruel realization. He is in control here. Complete control. And she is his prisoner. But, where is she?
“Why are you doing this?” she demands, anger and betrayal mixed with unconfessed fear. “You have what you wanted, why bother breaking your word?”
“Why, my rebellious death goddess, because I can,” he replies, gripping her chin between his fingers, his eyes smiling mockingly into hers, his lying lips grinning in pleasure over teeth so white that they shine like torchlights against the bottomless depths of his mouth. “Oh, I just love it when you look at me with so much hatred in your eyes.”
Instinctively, she tries to break her face free from him but not even her neck obeys her now. All she can do is glare her fury at him. His other hand travels down her back to her rear, squeezing her against him. “That fire… I can feel it running through this nice, firm body. So...immensely...stimulating.”
He laughs his hideous laughter and the voidness suddenly blinks into images of an empty room, a door that gradually moves closer and then opens, a long, dark hallway, a shift like a head slowly tilting down to see... a charred heap of flesh and bone. A sudden puff of scent. Carrots and rum.
Memory pours back into Susan. The fake scythe, the coffin-lined room. Ambar. Twilight.
This body...my body. He must have possessed me when he cancelled our powers. Are those...No, no...
No, it is only one body. Too big to be a bunny. But then, where are they?
She grinds her teeth at being helplessly imprisoned in her own body. “Monster… Do you really think you’ll get away with this?”
The Baron looks almost disappointed at the cliché line. Still, he grins and nods. “But of course I do. Even if your kiddies seem to have escaped for now, all I have to do is find them again.”
He releases her face, suddenly standing in front of her in the same black robes she is donning, his top hat replaced by a white wig with a single black lock, framing his dark face, his skeletal orbits. He sways his hips bawdily, taps them lightly and playfully with his hands. “What do you think? That your friends will dare destroy this statuesque figure of yours and leave you with nowhere to go?”
His head tilts this way and that, face moving closer to hers again. “Oh poor Susan, wah wah!”
And then, he whispers in her ear, his hands climb her shoulders to her neck and jaw. “No...they won’t fight this body. These hands I’ll use to twist their necks. One. By. One.”
He kisses her in a sudden, forceful lunge, roars with laughter when she sinks her teeth into his lower lip.
Where are they? Susan thinks desperately. Are they safe? Has Saengfai rescued them? Will he keep them safe even if he sees me attacking them?
A voice chimes in. Mitzi’s. “Safe.”
Susan’s heart freezes in its tracks. “No…”
The Baron’s eyes shine with pleasure. “And now I know exactly where they are.” He laughs maniacally, pats her cheek with his hand. “You stay right there, sweetie pie. You are in for such a ride…”
And he vanishes, leaving Susan alone with her terror.
The red-haired bunny, Sasha, leans over the back of the sofa and takes Saengfai’s glass, empty of all but ice. Her pale, lightly-freckled face has a big smile on it, as she asks, “Can I get ye another, love?”
Saengfai shakes his head no, happy to have the children safe in their home, but worried about Susan and the others, who have not yet returned. Twilight is holding forth to Pasha, while Ambar corrects her version of events here and there. Pasha laughs as she listens, sitting on the floor, the heavy head of the wolf Silvershade resting on her lap. The two children each have a hand resting on the wolf’s flank, as if to reassure themselves they are really back in the safety of the AMCW bar.
Meanwhile Mitzi, sitting on the sofa with Saengfai, touches an earring she has that dangles from a piercing near the base of one rabbity ear, the one that’s half-white and half-black. She says into it, “Safe,” smiles, then looks back at the detective.
He’s met Sgt. Mitzi before, in the course of work. She’s well-known around this part of town as a cop who can be relied upon, who doesn’t take bribes and deals with perpetrators and victims fairly. A bit inflexible, maybe, but a good officer of the Watch.
“Thank you for bringing them back,” she says. “There are no words sufficient.”
Saengfai shrugs. “Ah, I was just helping a friend.”
A friend. Is that what Susan is to him? Ambar and Twilight calling him Susan’s boyfriend. Now there’s something to muse over. He likes Susan. He likes her a lot. But they walk in very different worlds. She is fabulously wealthy; he is barely scraping by, with clients who can only rarely pay and a hero who prefers to answer the phone and deal with clients than go out adventuring. He has one golden brick; Susan has an enormous temple, from what he hears. Her grandfather is Death himself.
He glances at the whole bar. Though there are no customers other than himself at the moment, it is humming with life. The kids chattering about their experiences--oh great, now Ambar is going on about that pretty cultist Saengfai kissed after convincing her to show him the way into the Baron’s stronghold--the vivacious Sasha and Pasha laughing, so glad to see them home, Mitzi now watching this as well, her eyes moist with happiness. The big wolf. The tiny dragon, flitting about.
Family. Everyone but him.
But that’s how it goes, right? You do a job, bring the missing loved ones home, bask in the gratitude, and then leave. Nothing wrong with that. Only maybe that’s not how it’ll go this time. He didn’t take on this job for money. He did it because...because a death goddess loves her mortal child so much she’s willing to put her own life on the line. Because two more people love these kids just as much. And more besides. Because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t do what he could.
He feels comfortable here, with these people he barely knows. But that in itself makes him uncomfortable. He’d have to be a fool to think he’d be accepted into their fold. And would he want that? Strange enough to have his hero Myrna hanging around, seeing to his paperwork and bills, sarcastically praying to him. To have those kinds of connections with even more people...he’d sworn off that years ago, when he fled his family and nation to come to Ankh-Morpork.
If it weren’t for the fact that the outcome is still up in the air, he would quietly slip away. Or would he? Is waiting for Sue and Nyrini and Azzageddi just an excuse to stay here longer?
Saengfai looks up from his wandering thoughts, smiling at Pasha’s exclamation. And yes, there she is, the pale goddess, current commanding officer of the AMCW (Godville Annex), Susan Sto Helit, strolling in from the shadows of the hallway, a wicked-looking scythe held loosely in her hand. She looks pleased with herself, almost as if she is chuckling under her breath. She must have defeated the Baron easily.
“We have won,” she says. “The others will be here shortly.”
With cries of “MOMMY!!!” and “Auntie Sue!!” the children are bounding toward her. Saengfai finds himself rising, and it takes him a fraction of a second even to realize what his own thoughts are shouting at him: No, wait, no no no don’t let them near him!
But the young bunnies are blocked in their path by a bristling Silvershade. The wolf growls at his mistress, head and tail low, the ruff around the neck and the hair along the spine erect.
“Silvershade! No! It’s Mommy!” Ambar cries. He crouches, preparing to jump over the wolf, but Silvershade growls more loudly, apparently on the verge of attacking Susan.
Susan, rather than looking confused or upset at this, laughs, a full, rich laugh that carries with it an underlying edge of cruelty. “Come on, Silvershade, do you not recognize your master?”
Mitzi approaches the children, drawing her simple Watch short sword with her right hand, taking Twilight’s arm with her left. Her eyes are locked on Susan. “It’s a trick...that’s not…”
Twilight grabs Ambar’s arm and pulls him back. The boy says, his voice quavering, “Aunt Mitzi, Mommy never called herself Silvershade’s master…”
Susan laughs again. “You mangy mutt...You should have died when you had the chance!” He waves his hand and Silvershade is flung aside by a shock wave, flying through the air with a yelp to thud against the bar. “And you,” Susan gloats, addressing the children who now cower behind Mitzi, “guess who’s riding your mommy’s lovely body!” The laughter rises to almost maniacal levels, echoing through the guildhall.
Mitzi releases her hold on Twilight and takes a step forward. Her ears are back, right foot ahead, blade held low and forward. “Sasha, Pasha...”
Pasha, gathering Ambar in her arms while Sasha does the same for Twilight, says, “We got ‘em, hon.”
“Get them out of here now!” Mitzi’s voice is harsh with grim determination, laced with terror.
“Oh but why leave so early?” The Baron, grotesquely wearing Susan’s form, chortles. “I want to play with all of you. I want her to watch you die.” He slashes the air with the scythe, and just as Sasha and Pasha with the children dash for the main door, all the doors and windows disappear, replaced with seamless, continuous wall.
Mitzi’s ears twitch, her eyes locked on Susan’s. The muscles in her legs bunch, about to leap at her adversary, her own creator, her mother, a move almost certain to mean her death…
Saengfai steps next to her, flames licking up from his fists to his forearms, leaving his clothing unburnt but fiercely hot nonetheless. “That’ll be just about enough. Time to get out of that body, Baron. You’re not going to hurt anybody here.”
Baron grins, opening Susan’s arms wide, inviting attack against her lovely form. “Ah, but you will. Please, please, please pound this one until there’s nothing left. I can always get another. Maybe even one of the mortals.”
As Saengfai hesitates, the Baron suddenly slashes the air again, a wave of spectral energy whipping from the scythe, straight at Saengfai, too fast for him to get his guard up. He feels a cold cut across his face, flinches too late, feels hot blood spurting in a line just below his eyes and is absurdly grateful to Baron for not catching him a little higher and blinding him. He staggers a step back, then automatically counters the next attack and the next, flames shielding his forearms. But he’s being beaten back step by step, back toward the bar.
Baron demands, “Is that all you have? You’ll have to attack me soon or you’ll just get tired.”
Saengfai blocks another slash, and it’s true--his flames are getting weaker. The spectral energy is sapping his power. He’s not a mature, powerful god. He doesn’t have anywhere near the power Susan or the Baron have. Tactically, his only choice is to go on the offensive. But that means trying his hardest to burn Susan, to cause her skin to crisp and split, to set fire to her alabaster hair.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Mitzi, moved away in order to flank Baron, preparing again to attack. How much worse must it be for her, attacking the goddess who gave her life? But he can see that she will not hold back, even though the attempt is doomed. No mortal could get past that scythe.
Behind him, he hears the children whimpering in fear as they cower behind the bar. There is a scraping of steel--one of the bartenders has drawn a weapon, ready to die in order to give Twilight and Ambar a few more seconds of life. Saengfai knows he will have to attack, now, so that Mitzi doesn’t just throw her life away. He has to try.
And then he hears a voice, tired but commanding. “Baron. Let. her. go.”
Azzageddi enters the room, followed by Nyrini. The tall god flexes his fists, which are covered with rotten gore, his face a mask of ferocity that crawls with writhing black tattoos.
Baron straightens and groans. “Ugh...You are sooooo annoying, Azzageddi. When will you do what you’re told?”
Nyrini points her crossbow at her sister’s form. “No fun in that, is there, Baron?”
Baron turns toward them, spinning the scythe casually, ignoring Saengfai and Mitzi. “I guess you learned about my little ruse, then. Oh well, what are you going to do about it?”
Azzageddi walks right up to Baron, unmindful of the scythe. “I’d give you one last chance but...you’ve gone well beyond that. Nyrini, follow me.”
And just as the Baron is about to strike Azzageddi, the big god’s eyes roll up and he collapses in a heap on the floor. Mitzi makes a strangled sound of distress at the sight.
Baron steps back, confused, as Nyrini shouts, “Wait for me!” and the Goddess of Thresholds and Pathways disappears.
“Oh...that was...unexpected.” Baron looks very slightly worried, but shrugs it off, then turns to grin evilly at Saengfai. “Ah well. Where were we?”
Susan watches the whole scene at the bar in sound-deprived horror, struggling helplessly against the Baron’s hold on her. He is nowhere to be seen but she guesses he must be at the center of the part of her brain that controls movement. She sees Azz and Nyri arrive to protect the bunnies and breathes deeply in relief.
If anyone can keep the Baron from winning, even at the cost of Susan’s body, it is her dearest friend and her sister, two people who know better than anyone about the sacrifices that must be made in situations like this. But…
But… Azageddi has just dropped, lifeless in front of her! Why? What happened?!
And suddenly, he appears before her, somehow transported into this prison on hers. Azz looks at her with a mixture of relief and sympathy and runs to hold her. Susan tries to embrace him in return but her metaphysical arms refuse to move, no matter how hard she tries. And then, before any explanations can occur, Nyrini appears before her as well.
“Whoa...this is a first…” she says, looking around the barren landscape of Susan’s mental prison.
“I can’t move…” Susan says weakly. Her voice is strained, each word takes terrible effort to speak. “He is going to hurt them with my body and I can’t move to fight him.”
“This is your body,” Azz states, matter-of-factly, holding her by the shoulders. “Your territory. You know it a thousand times better than he ever will. He's holding onto it with brute force for now. Just a few quick blows in the right place and he'll lose control. You just need power.”
“He took it all…” Susan whimpers. “Drained me.”
Azz smiles reassuringly at her. “I am the torch in the dark. The breaker of chains. He should have remembered Haiti…” His hand reaches for Susan’s, squeezing it gently as he instructs Nyri to take the other. “You'll take in our power. Both the raw power and its attributes. Nothing will keep you chained. Nothing will restrict you.”
“Uh, are we gonna survive this?” Nyri asks, looking uncertain.
“I'm...pretty sure,” Azz replies in not-so-sure tones.
Susan tries to nod but only manages to grimace. The more they wait, the more control she loses over her own thoughts. “I’ll be careful.”
“No, Sis. No being careful,” Nyrini counters, shaking her head vehemently. “Take this all the way. The kids' lives are at stake.”
Susan breathes in deeply and tries to concentrate. Her thoughts are becoming so fleeting, so alien to her… Her own thoughts. Her own mind! The Baron is taking everything she is and bending it to his will. He has always had a strange fixation, some kind of twisted, affectionate jealousy for her but this… She feels her discorporate self shiver at the memory of that forcibly stolen kiss. Is this...what passes for love to the Baron? Possession?
Beyond her prison, a muted battle keeps playing, the images of it projected on the walls of this chamber of horrors. Saengfai and Mitzi fighting to keep her, Susan--no, not her. Her body-- away from the children. It all feels so far away...her love of them, her memories of the Watch, those passionate, tender kisses from three nights ago. Everything becoming so alien to her that even emotion becomes nothing.
Hold on, now! she admonishes herself. Hold on. For their sake.
She does her best to ignore all of that and focus on opening the channels that allow Azz and Nyri to share their power with her. Soon, her hands begin to glow, red and brown, welcoming their divine energy into her quickly fading self. It is...renewing. The raw energy roars in her, awaking her fury, her resolve, her primal motherly protectiveness of her young, all of her young for all the bunnies are hers, one way or another, her fearsome loyalty to her friends, her Watch.
How dare he?
How dare he try to take what is hers?
The light surrounds her, the power burns within her like fire. Knowledge flows through her. Knowledge on possession, on how all things are bound together, on how all bindings can be shattered. Knowledge on how here and there and then and now are just words, on how all points are just one point, all paths a single path, all doors lead somewhere and anywhere and wherever she wants to go.
Old knowledge. Hard-learned knowledge. Things of experience. Things of divine calling. They treacle into her at first, then flow, the flood, bursting her bindings, releasing her from the Baron’s control.
And now that her spirit is free and powerful again, it is time to take her body back.
She looks at Azz and Nyri through pitch-black eyes. “Stay out of this. I’ll take care of him.”
What does one’s mind look like? Should it look like anything? Does one’s mental landscape change with one’s personality? One’s upbringing? Or is it all one and the same, just a blank canvas onto which information pours, old and new, to interact and form a temporary picture, a blueprint of an action that is then sent to the rest of the body, in charge of making something out of it?
Is there a palace for memory? A field or forest for tranquility? A fiery, gaping hole of teeth and hairy, crawling legs for fear? Is it just darkness? What lies between one’s eyelids and the pit that is the unconscious mind?
Whatever it is supposed to look like, in Susan’s case it should definitely not look like a smoky room with a lit fireplace in the corner, reeking of tobacco and rum, walls painted a worn-out ochre, a heavy, dark-wood throne in the middle and the lounging figure of the Baron, a leg draped casually over the chair arm, cigar dangling in his mouth, a rum bottle by his foot, enjoying the show filtered through the windows of Susan’s eyes, of Saengfai falling backward after a particularly strong blow.
“You were never a challenge, Prettyboy…” he mutters, a poisonous grin in every word.
“Is that why you wasted energy on redecorating?” Susan asks, standing behind him.
The sight of Saengfai rising, his handsome face bloody from a terrible gash over his nose and cheeks, a look of grim determination turned to her instead of the one of kind tenderness she has so often seen him dispense to her, his arms wrapped in flame and held protectively to keep her friends, her children safe from what the Baron is trying to do with her body, hurts her, pleases her and angers her. She could not possibly hate the Baron more than she does now.
The Baron, however, seems only mildly annoyed when he turns to peek at her, behind the throne. “Hmm… this was unexpected.”
“Vain, overconfident…” Susan states, rounding the heavy chair to stand between him and his favorite show. “You've violated every rule we have, every rule of decency. This ends now.”
The Baron looks up at her, tilting his head to peek at her from under the rim of his top hat, an expression of bored irritation on his black eyes, a lazy leer on his full, dark lips. Slowly, he straightens in his seat, unfolding more than rising from it to move closer to the goddess. “And just what are you going to do, my little Susan? A young goddess like you against an old fox such as myself?”
“This is my body. You are a stranger here, and you are not welcome,” Susan says with all the serenity of your average psychopath. She walks over to the fireplace, browses the iron stand by it to choose a nice, heavy poker. “You are right--I'm young, inexperienced compared to you.”
And then, she is not by the fireplace anywhere but rather standing behind him, moving as instantaneously and smoothly as he does. “So let's fall back on the old standbys, shall we?”
Before he can turn, the poker rises and falls, dealing a brutal blow to the back of his head. The Baron falls stiff, like a tree chopped for the wood. He puffs out of sight and repuffs into view, now sitting on the floor, top hat gone, rubbing the back of his bald head, whistling under his breath as he looks at her and grins.
“As you wish,” he replies, clearly amused with her rebellion. “This will just make it sweeter.” He lunges forward, body turned into a puff of black smoke from which his face pokes out, thrust close to hers, eyes flaring red. “Who do you think you are...LITTLE SOUL!”
A hand suddenly shoots out and grabs her neck, gripping it with bony fingers that press viciously against her throat.
But Susan knows better now. This is her turf. She disappears, leaving behind only a chuckle that rings in his ears, along with the pain of another blow to the back of his skull. “I am vengeance,” she hisses in his ear, before striking again. “I am the defender of the powerless.” She hits him again. “And you...are going nowhere.”
Another blow, the sound of shattering bone. The Baron falls again, spitting blood, his head now a hairless mess of blood and brain matter.
“Demons!” he curses, using the low ledge of the fireplace to steady himself as he staggers to his feet. “Where did you gather so much power?”
Susan grins. She has him right where he wants him. Almost casually, she picks up the bottle of rum he left by the chair and walks toward him.
“Unlike you, I have friends.” She holds the bottle. “Rum?”
His lips break into a grin as she takes a swig herself before handing him the bottle. And then, before he can even taste the foul drink, she sprays it onto him, onto the fire. The flames rise, find the alcohol on his clothing, climb up his legs, up his arms, up his back, lighting him up like a torch.
He flails in agony, screams in pain. “AARRRGGHHHHH!!! NOOOOO!!!”
He lunges desperately toward her, perhaps trying to burn her as well.
Susan holds out the poker, lets him impale himself on it. And then, she kicks the fallen bottle of rum into the fire and pushes poker and Baron, so that he stumbles backward into the flames.
In the bar, Baron, in Susan’s body, freezes, scythe raised to strike down Saengfai, who is leaning, nearly exhausted, against the bar. The detective has held off from attacking, knowing that Azzageddi and Nyrini are trying to do something, but now the repeated attacks of death-energy have sapped his strength so much, he does not think he can any longer mount an effective offense. The wound on his face, cold at first, is now burning, and he absently notices a pretty brown leg on the edge of his vision--Pasha, standing on the bar, a rapier in her hand, dagger in the other, ready to go down fighting.
He glances past the Baron to see Mitzi once again preparing to attack, her anguish only increased. It seems like half her family must be inside Susan’s body now. Not that they could succeed in stopping the Baron, but, if they did destroy that body somehow, would that also condemn Nyrini and Azzageddi to death, along with Susan?
Saengfai concentrates, gathering the last of his strength. The edge of the bar smolders as the flames enveloping his arms intensify, and he gathers himself to attack.
And still Susan’s body is frozen in mid-strike. Her eyes seem unfocused, and one of them is twitching. Her snarl of rage is slowly fading, and that face, normally so lovely but contorted by hate, is now going blank...and beginning to wear a look of shock and dismay.
Suddenly the scythe falls from insensate fingers to clang heavily on the floor, and the Baron, through Susan’s throat, curses in three languages, choking on the words. Fingers flex into claws and the goddess’ lips grimace with some internal struggle. Then a cry of offended anger and panic erupts from that mouth, “NOOOOOOOO!” and Susan falls, collapsing on the floor of the bar.
Saengfai allows the flames to gutter and die, looking at her in confusion and fear. On the other side, Mitzi is breathing hard, still ready to attack.
“The heck?” Pasha says, still standing on the bar, the tip of her rapier lowering. Sasha peeks over the edge, a metal pot on her head, cricket bat in her hands, and the two small bunnies peer cautiously with her, wordless.
From the body comes a moan, “Ummgh…”
Mitzi takes one step closer, her sword ready, but her body relaxing ever so slightly in hope.
Susan whips a hand out toward the bunny, making her jump back a full body length in surprise. But it is a gesture of warning, not an attempt to seize her. From the collapsed heap, the goddess groans, “Not...yet…”
The hand fumbles blindly for the scythe, fingers brushing it, twitching to examine it--the hand grabs it, drags it closer, and then begins to glow black, energy flowing into it along with a distant scream of Noooooooo! that is more intuited than heard.
Then slowly, painfully, Susan rises to her hands and knees. She looks around groggily, and when she sees Azzageddi’s body she reaches out to touch his ankle. A reddish light radiates from her hand and spreads over his body, which twitches slightly. Then Susan collapses again, more slowly this time, as if simply going to sleep.
Nyrini appears between Azzageddi and Susan, swaying, and promptly falls on one knee. “Whoa…Why’s the room spinning?”
Azzageddi sits up halfway, mumbling “S’the rum…” but gravity defeats him and the back of his skull makes a dropped-coconut sound as it hits the hardwood floor. “...ow…”
Sword arm limp now, Mitzi looks torn regarding who to assist first, but says, “Mother...?”
Susan’s eyes flutter. “Hmmm…”
Nyrini puts her hands on the floor, trying to push herself back to standing. “Did we win?”
Lying on the floor, Susan nods weakly. “We did. He’s...trapped...in the scythe.”
Nyrini lifts a fist limply, weak. “Yay…,” she says, in an exhausted, small voice.
Pasha sheathes her blades and sits down on the edge of the bar, shoulders slumped. “Man, I can do without that kinda excitement. Oh, hon, you look like you got the worst shavin’ cut I ever seen!” She bites her lip and reaches out to touch Saengfai’s face.
Just then Sasha cries, “Oh, Silvershade!” She leaps over the bar, the pot slipping from her curls to land loudly on the floor, and goes to cuddle the fallen wolf.
Pasha looks distraught, looking back and forth between Saengfai and Silvershade. “I uh...we kinda both gotta work together to heal at our best.”
Saengfai chuckles weakly. “Take care of him. I might look bad, but he’s hurt worse than I am.” Pasha smiles gratefully and dashes over to the wolf.
Mitzi drops her sword and sinks to her knees for a moment, trying to process having been on the verge of trying to kill Susan … and then dashes to her and hugs her. Her nose twitches as the strong smell coming off Susan. “Ugh...rum?”
“It...has its virtues.” The goddess smiles as she feels the arms around her, but is too weak to hug Mitzi back.
Ambar and Twilight, a little too small to hop clear over the bar like their aunts, clamber over and drop one on each side of Saengfai. Twilight immediately cries, “Mommy!” and runs to Nyrini, who rocks from the impact of a leaping embrace, but manages to stay kneeling.
“You okay, baby girl?” Twilight just nods her head against Nyrini’s shoulder and starts shaking in quiet sobs.
Ambar, however, hesitates, staring at Susan where Mitzi is holding her. He looks pale, frightened, his ears back.
“It’s all right,” Saengfai says to him. “It’s her. The bad guy is gone.”
Ambar looks at Saengfai’s bloody face. “Are you...sure?”
The detective nods. “Go on now. She needs your help. You have to be strong for her.”
The bunny’s face works, as if he’s fighting off more of the tears which are already drying on his olive cheeks, then he nods, and goes to Susan. Mitzi beckons him, gently pulling him into a three-way embrace, then extricates herself to let mother and child reassure themselves of each other’s presence.
As the Watch-bunny moves to see to Azzageddi, Saengfai pushes himself away from the bar to stand free. Sasha and Pasha steady him, though they themselves look woozy, remnants of a golden afterglow fading from their skin.
“Oh, yer poor face!” Sasha says.
“You just give’s a minnit,” Pasha slurs, as if pleasantly drunk. “Our kinda healin’ is, like, reeeeaaaal good, but ev’rbody involved needs a nap after. But fer you, Detective Ponytail, we’re gonna try healin’ again right off an’ stuff.”
Susan manages to sit up with a bit of help from Ambar. As she cuddles him, she murmurs, “There, there, little one. All is well now.” The wolf, Silvershade, slowly walks over and, turning three times, lies down next to them, his back pressing against Susan’s thigh. The goddess pets him. “I am so sorry, sweetheart…” Overhearing Pasha, she weakly calls to them, “Sasha, Pasha, bring him here, please.”
“Come on, cowboy,” Pasha says. They help him over to Susan and Ambar. A wave of weakness from the blood loss and from deflecting so many spectral attacks cause him to need their assistance sitting down without falling down.
“Fun night, huh?” he says.
Susan chuckles almost inaudibly. “What was that you said about cops and nights off?” She reaches a hand to touch his face. She looks at him sadly. “I am so sorry… All I could do was watch…”
Saengfai cannot help to think how strange it is to be looking upon this face that regards him so sorrowfully, so tenderly, that only minutes before was twisted in hate-filled rage. The face of the person who was trying to kill him, kill all these almost-defenseless mortals. Shouldn’t he feel repelled? Some sort of fear?
But the difference between Susan possessed by an evil spirit and Susan in control of herself is so wide that he feels no revulsion, not at all. Even Ambar, so terribly frightened that he will surely suffer nightmares from this, is unreservedly embracing his mother.
Saengfai smiles at her, wondering if it looks as bad to her as it’s feeling to him now. “The kids are okay. Nobody died. I call that a victory.”
Susan shakes her head and cups his cheek. Using her last dregs of godpower, she heals him. He can feel the wound closing, edges of skin knitting together, and as she finishes, she slumps against him, into his arms. Saengfai holds her, as she holds Ambar.
“Now,” she murmurs just before sliding into unconsciousness, “it’s a victory.”
Susan wakes up to a vision of a living room. Not her living room, that she is quite sure of, but a familiar one, nonetheless. After some mental search through her memories, she recognizes it as Azzageddi's home. Except that there seem to be a lot more futons than she seems to remember. A small, warm body against her proves to be Ambar, sleeping soundly in her arms. Susan strokes his cheek for a moment, then carefully lets go of him and props herself up to look around. On another futon, Azzageddi lies sleeping. Nyrini is on the sofa, holding Twilight, both lost in dreams. Susan lies again down, looking at the ceiling for a moment, memory flooding back in. She grimaces and exhales deeply, knowing all too well the aftermath of the Baron's attack will not be easy to handle.
The soft sound of her breathing causes Azz’s eyes to suddenly open. A slight look of panic floods his face, only to fade again as he focuses on her. A short moment to recognize her as her and he smiles.
Susan smiles weakly back at him. "Hi…"
"Morning…" he says softly, glancing at the sleeping Ambar with tenderness. "I hardly remember coming here from the bar."
Susan snorts softly in response, whispering, "I don’t remember at all. Yesterday feels like very long ago."
Azzageddi rolls onto his back and sits up, holding his head in his hands as if he were hung over. He scans the room, looking relieved to see Twi and Nyri, smiling toward the kitchen. Susan sits up herself again, feeling her head light and hollow, to see Mitzi preparing what looks like breakfast. She shares a weary smile with the bunny.
"Whole family is here, just about," Azz notes.
Susan looks around, feeling the absence of her wolf, uncertain if his wounds were properly taken care of. "Silvershade?"
"He’s walking with Saengfai," Mitzi says softly from the kitchen.
"Saengfai is here?" Azzageddi asks, surprised.
Mitzi nods in return and, for a moment, Susan feels confused.
"He seemed worried," the bunny explains. "You were all so out of it. And the scythe… None of us was sure how secure it is."
Susan shakes her head, trying to grab a hold of her thoughts. "I need to take that to Grandfather."
A sudden memory of the PI's face split open by an ugly wound makes her cringe and hide her blue eyes behind her hands. "I remember blood...a wound in Saengfai’s face. Did Sasha and Pasha take care of it?"
Mitzi brings out a tray loaded with plates of sliced fruit and small bowls of natural yogurt. And, because this is a Watch family, a coffee pot is hanging from a hook on the tray.
"You took care of it," Mitzi replies, smiling tenderly at Susan with a note of amusement on her lips. "With your last bits of power. Sasha and Pasha were rather put out, but they came along and treated him like a hero for awhile. Kept trying to tempt him into the baths…"
Susan chuckles at the thought of the bartenders dragging Saengfai through the hallways on their way to the baths. "Better than a parade, I guess...."
She takes a coffee cup, welcoming the warmth on her hands. Everything feels like it was so long ago... The children. Were they really taken? And Silvershade. Wounded? Saengfai... Did they ever finish their date? The moment shared in his office, was that real? Was the kiss an act of affection or one of compassion? And the Baron... The wound... Memory floods in like a light switch being flipped. Her body was used to frighten everyone, to attack Mitzi, to hurt Saengfai. She feels dirty, violated, confused and outraged.
Why would...why would he even stay? And why does it matter so much to her that he did? It was just a date. Well, a disaster of a date, anyway. No...no more dates for a while.
Mitzi's words cut into her derailing train of thought. "They didn’t succeed by the way. He talked to the monks. They’re chanting around the scythe...reinforcing any bonds," she says, shrugging as mortals usually do at the finer details of ritualistic magic.
Susan looks at her, taking time to process the bunny's words. "I...wasn’t wondering. The memories just...hit me suddenly." She shakes her head and takes a sip of her coffee. "This was a bad one."
Mitzi’s ears drop in that telltale bunny sign of emotional distress, and she sinks to her knees next to Sue, stroking the goddess' back. Susan looks at her and feels guilty that her numbness has her barely feeling Mitzi's soothing touch.
"It’s over," the bunny speaks softly. She pauses, eyes narrowing. "It is over, isn’t it?"
Susan nods. "Yes… Everything is over. The scythe and its prisoner will soon be out of our hands." She looks at Ambar, who is still sleeping and strokes his hair, craving the contact and reassurance of his safety. "Now it’s time to mend. Live for them for awhile."
Mitzi leans against her, silent, and Susan tilts her head to rest it against the bunny's.
Azz, on the other hand, stands a little unsteadily, but manages to stabilize himself, stretching. He looks at the children and then at Susan, expectantly, grim. "So...the burrow."
"Is over," Susan replies dryly. "Portals from now on."
Azz nods, apparently satisfied with the answer. "I really did not think it could be hacked into. But since it was, now I can see the flaw, how he did it." He shakes his head in self-disgust. "I should’ve seen it before…"
Susan stands slowly, using Mitzi's shoulder for support. She takes a moment steadying herself then motions to the god, still unsure of her steps. "Come here, please."
Azz steps over to her and Susan puts her arms around him, holding him tightly. "None of this was your fault. If it hadn’t been for you, my body would still not be mine."
Azzageddi holds her in that big enveloping hug of his that blocks out the world and feels like a soft, warm, most of all safe cocoon within which any caterpillar can feel like a butterfly. He kisses the top of her head.
"I just…" He takes a deep shaky breath and lets it out slowly. "I was scared."
Glad for the flowery shirt that hides her face, Susan feels her eyes fill with water, tears run down her cheeks. Her numbness is gone. Her emotions hit her all at once. But decades of silent suffering, of being strong for others, have silenced her sobs.
"It’s all right,” she says, voice still steady. "I was scared too."
Azz holds her tighter for a moment before releasing her. He looks at her face, gently wiping away a tear with his thumb, his expression of affection speaking of emotions that words can only reduce and never describe. Maybe to evade some of his own pain, he glances aside at Nyri and Twi. The vision makes him chuckle. "She gets like this after every mission. Couldn’t rouse her with dynamite."
"I imagine it gets harder every time," Susan replies. "Twilight is growing up and she is constantly away."
Azzageddi nods. "We’ll set up secure portals, nobody not approved gets through. Twi and Ambar can be in your temple, Nyri’s, here, the bar...like one single home, as far as they’re concerned. But… Yeah." His eyes lock on Nyri. "I think she can just stay home for awhile now."
It Susan's turn to chuckle. "Well, you did ruin her latest assignment…"
"Yeah…. ugh." Azz grimaces at the memory of Nyri's bloody extraction. "Time to deal with the aftermath of that. I...may be in a little trouble there." His eyes open wider at some random memory. "Oh...crap. And that means you may be in a little trouble, Commanding Officer Susan."
"Me?" Susan fakes innocence. "Sorry, I have no idea what you are talking about. My Watch House is a simple operation. No off-record assignments." She even pokes his chest to add to the act. "You explain to the big boys in Überwald. Or don’t. Just call it a sudden plague or something."
"Fine…" Azzageddi sighs. "At least the bad guys didn’t get away with their plan there… Of course, that was due to large amounts of violence…"
Susan pats his chest, sensing the regret in his voice. "You did what had to be done."
On his futon, Ambar stirs. Mitzi lies down to cuddle him and he clings to her in his sleep that soon is deep and peaceful again.
The distinctive sound of wolf nails clicking on stone floors announces Silvershade's arrival even before he enters the room, ahead of Saengfai. Susan kneels to welcome the wolf, who bounds toward her, mouth open with excitement, running into her embrace. The goddess holds him maybe a little too tightly for what an animal would be willing to accept as affection but Silvershade just nestles against her, licking her face and whimpering like a puppy at her soft words.
Saengfai’s face has a slight pink line across it, but it looks otherwise unmarred. His jacket and shirt also appear to have been cleaned of all traces of blood. His eyes follow Silvershade as the wolf crosses the room and he smiles at Susan as soon as he sees her.
"Morning!" he calls brightly. He then sees the children and Nyrini still asleep, and repeats in a whisper, "Morning…"
"Good morning," Susan greets him back, smiling at his friendly expression, feeling strangely relieved at it. "Welcome to life in the Watch."
Saengfai’s eyes go wide in humorous false panic as he moves closer, eyes on her and only her. "Did I just get drafted? Oh no!" He chuckles at his own joke but then his smile fades as he looks at her more closely. Maybe because he can see the tracks left by the tears she has shed, maybe because her eyes are redder than normal, something in the way she looks makes him kneel by her and place a gentle hand on her shoulder. "How are you?"
Susan, still petting Silvershade as much for the wolf’s comfort as for her own, touches his hand with her own. "Tired. A little overwhelmed. In the process of being all right again. And you?"
Saengfai shrugs and speaks with forced casualness. "Oh, just another day on the job, y’know."
Susan joins his game, in turn faking seriousness. "You should know by now, sir, that nothing good comes from lying to an officer…"
"Oh I don’t know…" Saengfai notes, glancing up at Azz with a grin. "If I hadn’t lied when we first met, I don’t think you and I would’ve ended up having our event-filled date."
"I think I would have preferred the boring version of that date," Susan sighs and shakes her head.
Saengfai strokes her hair. Gently. Soothingly. Reassuringly. "We can try for boring with the next one."
His touch and words bring relief to Susan's mind. Should they mean this much to her? It doesn't matter. She wants to hold him, kiss him for the exquisite warmth of him. But so much has happened... So many wounds will have to heal, so many memories to fade away... She can't expect to be well received in such a request, in public no less.
So all she does is smiles at him in gratitude at the offer of another chance. "I would like that..."
From above and behind her, Azz leans over her shoulder to hand Saengfai a cup of coffee. "She’s right though...welcome. To all this."
Saengfai rises to take the cup, a quizzical look in his eyes. "Um...what does that mean, exactly?"
Azz just shrugs. "It’s the kind of thing we figure out as we go along. But you helped when you didn’t have to. You put your life on the line to protect people who mean everything to me. So...welcome."
Saengfai smiles while looking unsure. "Okay…" He takes a sip of his coffee. "Uh, the monks have the--oh, that’s good…--the monks have the scythe." Turning to Susan, he asks. "Hey is that pronounced saithe or skythe? I’ve always wondered."
Susan rises, chuckling at the inconsequential character of that question compared to the much more serious issue being discussed. "You pronounced it right the first time. We would also have taken curvy-sharp-farming-thingy as a viable alternative."
Saengfai chuckles in response. "One of those words you see in writing more often than you hear it, here in the big city. Back home, our word just translates to 'grass cutter'.
"Ah… that makes sense," Susan concedes. "I don’t think I have ever used it to cut grass, however. But it is not a word I need to say often, either. It is just the tool of the trade. People have...expectations as to how the job should be done."
"I know about the expectations," Saengfai nods and says drily. "So many people seem to think I should be wearing a fedora, their beliefs are hard to resist." He shakes his head.
"I...don't think I want to know what I'd look like if I were to listen to all the worshippers out there," Susan considers.
"Probably not a good thing to muse over on an empty stomach," Azz notes. "So...how about breakfast?"