Octo turned to me. “So, you want a new job? You should have thought of that before placing yourself in the hands of strangers and pissing off your betters.”
Tentacle-head put me off. “Sorry, I did not think that I had been sent to a Dickensian vision of Heaven.”
“Only you people think that this is ‘heaven’” he replied. “Then again, you’ve always needed some sort of motivation to act vaguely in your own best interests, even when staring disaster in the face.”
“I thought I would be judged on the quality of my skills and the confidence I had in them.” My earlier arousal died in the embers of anger.
“These systems of interaction were transplanted here by humans for humans, by people like you who insist on trying to tow their personal ideal of humanity into this place. Why else were you sent here instead of an afterlife more suited for those with less ego?”
“What do you mean when you mean by ‘here?’” I asked.
His large black eyes blinked at me slowly. “Is it not… obvious?”
“You were just lecturing me on the assumptions I’ve made? So, I am going to say, ‘no.’”
Dion was getting exasperated. ”You are spreading confusion! You should know better!”
“Yes, but I am a lowly angel in the presence of the Elect,” Octo bowed mockingly.
Dion grew cross. “That verbiage is after my time in the land of the living. I do not think of you and yours as servants.”
“And right you are to remember,” Octo replied. “So many of you forget; we were here first. Just because some of us chose to rebel does not mean that those who remain are all happiness in joy. There is variation within the Choir of the Machine of Creation. As long as it is not dissonant, all are in harmony. I see danger in what the shadowy masters who hold Paulos’ leash plan and…”
“You risk dissonance by meddling so,” Dion said, steely and bright. “Pre-emptive interdiction is not your role.”
“Cleaning up the mess,” Octo replied.
I felt a ripple in the local prana that peaked with the celestial’s anger, and I blurted. “You were the old lady at the city below, weren’t you?”
The nearly naked figure stilled. He approached the bed and when he was towering over me, he leaned in close. The flesh of the octopod head looked purple from a distance, but close up it had a faint, iridescent mottling and dully ridged texture. The tentacles that cloaked around his neck were very mobile and they reached out, adhering to my jaw and cheeks, pulling me closer. I saw no mouth but I clearly heard, “Do you think that you are special?”
The lack of transition brought instant thought. I could not stop my true feeling from rushing into my mind.
“Yes, you do.” He continued drawing me closer. His skin was dry and warm despite looking wet and cold. I wondered if there was a beak under the skirt of skin at the base of his face. “Do you think that you have been… evolved… by your transition into afterlife?”
I was not embarrased by this answer. I was having difficulty talking though, teetering on the edge of titilated and repulsed. Actually, I wasn’t fooling him. He knew I had tilted precipitously towards titilated. Still, I managed to drawl with a stable, focused voice. “No. I’m surprised I’m here actually.”
More tentacles gripped my face and he leaned onto the bed, crawling on, displacing my legs even through the blankets with his. I realized at this moment he had no scent.
“No scent alarms you then?” His voice had become increasingly distracting, a vibrating burr singing along my limbs. A warm breeze of prana burned out from him, runneling along my skin. My mind textured it, hunting for a tell, a signature. “You smell like space… burned metal.”
A hand groped me. I was inclined to mind, but I could see the line of his body stretching behind him and my dog brain reared.
The burr became more present. “It is remarkable how humans find some situations titillating. DO you still find me enticing?”
“There is a certain stiffness to the moment, yes.” Why lie?
“Is this the first time you’ve been this close to anyone since Paulos?”
Under the heat envelope of his body, power and the blanket, I felt cold and exposed. I whispered, “Yes.”
“You sold yourself for skill.” A lower tentacle detached to trail down my neck. “You accepted recompense for your purity. Driven to the edge of sanity, you even now take payment for almost losing the most precious part of yourself. Be thankful I bought something from you, or you would be blind, too.”
I did not move. Despite myself, I did not flag.
He leaned in, brushing stiffness against mine. Tentacles tipped my head back, as he pushed unfiltered power into me, robbing me of sight sound, and sensation. There was only his voice. “Drink up. I have a few things to say.” The gain of his outflow focused and I inhaled. He continued to talk. ”I think you are very aptly titled. However, as Dion said, there are limits to what one of my ranking can do. I am not like those other animal-headed chimera. I wield no flaming swords, nor lead legions. I can only influence. There will be a chance for you to ‘move up in the world.’ However, like your current position, it has limited matriculation possibilities. You will, however, get what you currently lack: respect.”
“Damn,” I whispered.
“I know,” he purred, radiating empathy and understanding. I felt my hands rending the sheet as the pranic pressure intensified, becoming a torrent, burning, flaying. I held on to him. He was real, power and flesh, around me, in me. ”Unlike some of my fellows, congress with ascended humans is not a pastime I tend to indulge in. I do not forget that it is our job to manage our shard of the Snowflake of Possibility, this, the Engine of Creation, against the horrors your kind will and have unleashed. You, Earth boy, are so easy, so malleable; a life time of standing on the outside looking in, followed by an eternity of the same, all because you listened to the wrong person. Tell me: if I make overtures to Sivar on your behalf, will you accept what will come?”
“What am I selling myself for this time?”
He laughed and moved under my hands, arching his back. ”Respect. The truth. The real reason Paulos did not resist their order to dispose of you, vow or not. There are reasons for everything. Some vows can be broken for the right reason, and part of that reason is that he did not love you enough, definitely not enough. Trust me. You will come out of this bargain… truly ahead. Will you let me negotiate with Sivar for you?”
I hesitated. ”Okay.”
“No,” he replied. “Not ‘okay.’ This is a vow between…cohorts.”
“I’m not good at making vows.”
“I will show you how.”
I could not say that he was cheating. I was in over my head. I should have said “no.” But I was trying to be brave. I was trying to be “in charge.” I scooted closer and let my thumbs trace and lift the edges of his brief loin cloth. “Show me. How do I make a vow that makes me do what Paulos did to me?”
He showed me…with no mercy. It was less an exchange of words than experience, promises and permissions. “For the brief duration of this joining: through the fruition of the reassignment of your work and True Name…and the first battle afterward. You will be my tool to be used and to be honed.”
I made the appropriate answering statements. It was all florid and overlong, but he was close to me, power and promises in an inhibition reaving shape. I agreed. I felt immediate regret, but I did not recant. “I’m going to regret this aren’t I?”
Octo laughed, a rumbling, pleasing sound that made the regret seem silly. Then he spoke, “In a short period of time, any illusions you had about this shard of ‘heaven’ will be removed.”
He let me go, and I fell back onto the bed, spots in front of my eyes. “Don’t worry. Dion has a degree of scandal that even he cannot stand. He thought I was going to ravish you. Well… I did… after a fashion just not in that way. Sleep. Dion thinks I changed your Name and then changed it back to teach you a lesson. The excess power in the room will be indicative of something, but he will think I led you on for a taste of mortality. Some of my fellows have… bad habits.” He crawled off of the bed, making a show of himself.
“You are such a fucking tease,” I replied.
“I wanted your undivided attention,” he replied, giving me a parting image of his impressive back, glutes and legs. A shadow hand ghosted out from me to caress the parts I could not reach before. ”I won’t renege. You believe, and are willing to live with your choice. I may not be a demon, but demons aren’t what you think they are.”
He disappeared. I initially felt none of the symptoms associated with imbibing Celestial power and then I fell fast asleep.
I had a nightmare. Well, I interpreted it as a nightmare.
I was in the Legion: a good soldier surrounded by comrades, even discreetly in love with a fellow soldier. The cost was self-sufficiency. My Legion and Ranger training with Paulos, my training with Sifu, and the steroid-like enhancement from the demon essence and the mutagenic Green Blessing: all would be would be traded for Legion training and dependency on equipment and devices that I could not identify or understand.
I would also be trading self-sufficiency for people: unidentified associates, friends, a family born in the ecstasy of the realization that life did not end and we were entering the afterlife together. We shared the grave knowledge that there were prices to be paid for eternity, and we would safeguard it together. There was something to be said for unity of purpose, but collective identity smothered me. Identity was mine. Want, need, faith, service. I was a bad servant on Earth. I spent time obsessing over surviving the transition and being able to survive on my own. It was what I prayed for, and it is what I got.
I would not trade it. How would that look? I know how it looked to me. I was biased, though. Maybe I was too biased?
In the dream I was completely ”normal.” Still dead though, still here, but there had been no premature exposure to sun, or demon goo, or angel blood, no pain.
It was not the me who I was, but the me I could have been, or could be.
“No.” I don’t know who I was saying it too. I know I felt the words leave my mouth through a deep blanket of sleep. What’s the point of sacrificing for something and then whining when you get it? If I had a brochure, I would certainly want to speak to a manager, but I didn’t. I went out on a limb. I went on faith. And if I did not see it through, what was the fucking point?
Hell, what if Atlantean campaign was successful? What if the panacea extractions helped? Despite what it meant to me and my so-called purity, to regret what Dion and Sivar had done to me seemed tantamount to wishing ill upon people whose lives had been saved.
I may not be a people person, but I wasn’t a monster. But… something was about to occur that would make me be one. I knew it. Octo’s admission that ‘he wasn’t a demon’ seemed to infer that he was definitely capable of traditional ‘demonic’ things. But if he was, according to Dion, unable to inflict direct action on a situation, how would he work?
He would use deception, manipulation, bribery, confidence games, social cultivation.
What was a demon really? Some people were concerned with me somehow becoming one. However, old beings who existed before the current social paradigm had evidenced no concern whatsoever that I was about to become a demon.
“I think I will stay as I am,” I replied to no one in particular. I did feel that the question had been posited to me, but in a very complex, not particularly linear format.
“Is that truly what you want?” I did not recognize the voice. It had an odd stereophonic quality, emphasized along its mildly elongated vowels.
“What are you doing here?” Octo interrupted.
“Dionysian Appolonian brought us into it,” the voice responded without identifying itself.
I interrupted. “Social life… I have definitely neglected a social life. I will try to find one, but I do not think that re-dying and dumping who I am is necessary to do it. I would rather be a misfit learning how to be normal than be imprinted with ‘normal’ even if said personality stamping is presented as a choice. It is as much a cheat as demon essence. One capitalizes on fears of being weak. The other capitalizes on fear of being alone. I think I would like to try and see this through, if no one here particularly minds. I am ready to choose to try. People leave the Legion; the camaraderie does not last. There are conflicts not depicted here. And even if we’re all of the same side with a shared experience so we may be more inclined to not see each other as Other, it is not a guarantee.”
“Indeed, it is not,” the voice responded. “We think that you do not cause dissonance with this action. You may proceed.”
Octo’s dry sarcasm left me chafed. ”Thanks.”
“He has a Calling,” the voice replied. “And in exchange for this, it will be his job. Not too bad since they burn out so easily otherwise.”
They stopped talking. That last exchange was too willfully cryptic. I was not sure if they had left. There was silence in the vaults of my dream.
I woke up, nauseous, dizzy, starving. ”How long have I been unconscious?”
Dion hove by the bed with a bowl of ambrosia. He sat it down and I resisted the urge to fall upon it greedily. I ate a single piece of dense matter and began examining my aura.
“Six months,” he replied. “It has been close to a year since you left for D’Orleans.”
“Was the collision averted?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “A vessel was able to intercept and divert the meteor.”
I nodded absently. “Am I still being investigated for consorting or potentially consorting with demons?”
He chuckled. ”The Inquisition did not like being sent on a wild goose chase. Primate Pepin is conducting an inquiry. “
Dion made a face said in a nasally, mocking voice. “Prana is not Divine.”
I muttered. ”Oh… him.” In a clearer voice I asked, ”So a year… that means I was kept asleep?”
“You were kept in stasis until the Inquisition was mostly sure you had not been contacted by demonic powers,” he said in the manner of one who had to deal with children.
“Dion,” I hazarded. “What is a demon?”
“Demons are evil creatures, fallen angels,” he replied.
“What is ‘dissonance’?” I asked.
“Eat your food,” he replied.
“Other people seemed to be certain I was going to become a demon,” I replied. “But you, Sivar, Sifu, the Octopus, you all seemed fairly blasé to the possibility. That usually implies that there is a difference between social conjecture and a hard fact.”
Dion’s eyes actually glowed when he looked at me. “Eat your food,” he said firmly.
My limbs felt alien and sore, and my head hurt. As I ate and the streaking hunger pains diminished, I immediately felt speedy and listless. “I feel like I have the flu.”
Dion did not relent. “Eat more; whine less.”
I kept eating. The striations in the ”muscles” of my body glowed in my mind’s eye, prana flowing free and fast, building and growing. I finished the bowl.
“I will be back with more,” he said backing out of the room.
I did not wait. My pebble pouch came to me on a tendril of shadowy prana and I ate a handful of stones. I lay down, closed my eyes, and concentrated on not letting any blockages form in my system.
Dion returned with Sivar, the doctor who performed my first ”transfusion,” and Primate Pepin. Uncomfortable formality accompanied them into the room. My scalp tightened, but I was in no shape to run. The little bit of food I had eaten cleared my mind and made the illness stop. I still did not feel up to fighting for my life, attempting an escape, or any other acrobatics.
Still, I did not want to put on a wan face. “What an eclectic group,” I commented sitting up more straight. “Good day worthies, I am honored and frightened by your gathered presences.”
“Do you know us?” Sivar hazarded.
What an…odd question, I thought before reciting. ”Prelate Sivar, who greeted me when I arrived just after death and wanted to make sure I had not committed suicide to get here; Primate Dion, who made sure I was put on this path.” I checked my right hand. The finger was still missing. “Dion also took my sacrifice. The unnamed doctor who shoved needles into my arms and legs to pump demon goop into me and suck it out through a funky dialysis machine, and the Primate who was so perturbed that I would be upset at being blinded. “
“I told you he was not amnesiac,” Dion preened, oily with satisfaction.
“I know you were presented with a choice while you slept. Why didn’t you choose the other road?” Pepin thundered. “That path led to purity and community and grace! Instead you chose… they let you choose this… deviation?”
Suddenly that damned dream made sense and I felt immediately violated. “That life was a lie! It was a pretty tale that would undoubtedly end when I was exposed to the realities of Free Will!” I got myself back under control. “That life is not out of reach. That life, the good things of that life, is not based simply on what group I was dropped into after I arrived. There has to be a willingness to join a community, a willingness to add an identity to your own. That was not something I ever aspired to when alive and Dion fulfilled that ideal in death.”
Pepin’s nostrils flared. Dion maintained a meek facade no one would have believed.
Sivar stepped forward. ”And among the indignities leveled at you out of your view and awareess; you do not mind being known primarily as one of my concubines?”
“How can the opinions of unknown others who aren’t paying me affect me?” I replied. “And even if I knew them, they have not even met my criteria about why I should care what they think.” I sat up straighter, irritation giving me attitude if actual strength still was not available. “Plus, I can cut a spaceship in two. They probably can too, but I can do it naked.”
“Feral heresy,” Pepin sniffed.
“Feral?” I snorted. “Heresy?”
“You throw that around too easily, Primate Pepin,” Sivar chided. “There is nothing false about the ways of the Rangers and of Qin.”
“It is…” Pepin began.
“Different,” Dion finished. “Not Demonic. And as you can see, his only demon taint is what we have given him. And if he had chosen the other possibility, he would still have the same taint. The angels cannot warp time, just influence how we perceive ourselves in it, and force our consciousness to make changes according to their edits of the Book. Lord Vycta is fine. He has made his choice.”
“Lord?” Pepin choked.
“Whoring doesn’t come cheap,” I retorted, only made bold by Sivar and Dion’s presence.
“At least you admit what you are,” the doctor interjected.
“Of course, you were the pimp who put me on the stroll,” I snapped.
“You are cursed,” Pepin hissed.
“And you are not God,” I replied. “You are just a spirit like the rest of us.”
Pepin turned several shades of red and pink before surging out of the room.
I closed the door with a thought and asked Sivar, ”Is he suppressing his presence? He feels nothing like you or Dion. Hell, Horace and Paulos have more of a presence.”
“Primates are not chosen because of their power,” Dion replied. “They are chosen for the clarity of their Vision. When he is calm and clear of mind, Pepin can perceive wonders.”
“What does he see regarding me that has him in such an uproar?”
“He sees nothing concerning you,” Sivar waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. “Your education or lack thereof, offends him mightily.”
“So he called in the Inquisition?” I asked.
“He did it after reciving testimony claiming to have witnessed your demonic apotheoisis. However during their investigation, they disagreed. More importantly, they were not willing to devalue Ranger membership,” she continued. “There are several members of the Inquisition who maintain strong relationships with Rangers.”
My moment had passed and I wilted back into the pillows. ”So, Pepin has not been placated. I have been asleep for six months, and I feel like crap. So what happens now?”
“You stay in bed and eat,” the doctor replied frankly. “You fiinished what I gave the Primate for you. I will get more. You need to eat.”
“What is your name?” I asked exasperatedly. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you’ve done things to me that used to require at least a date or two. I should at least know your name.”
“I would prefer not to give it,” he said quickly.
“You are a demon; you cannot know my name…”
I barked, “Okay, why is the crazy person my fucking doctor? You did this to me, you fucker! If you felt so poorly about it, you should have stopped!”
“You should be dead!” he hissed. “I put enough poison in that ambrosia to kill a regiment. Why are you alive?”
“Because he converts matter into prana directly,” Dion said, looking at the doctor sadly. “Why do you think I had you inject the demon blood into Vycta? If you fed it to him, the filtering process would not have occurred.”
“What kind of doctor is he?” I asked.
“Doctor,” Sivar put a hand on his shoulder, and I felt the shiver of her prana barely disturb the air. “Tell him what you see when you look at him.”
“Rewiring… changing,” the man’s face twisted as he spoke. “Please mistress, the Inquisitor said there was a danger…”
“If he proselytizes,” Dion said. “If he tried, the Celestials would strike him down.”
“Proselytize?” I sputtered.
“Zealots can be destabilizing.” Inquisitor Sebastian Augustine said from the doorway. “Particularly those who need the validation of others to spur them on.”
Sebastian had cast aside the gray robes he had been swaddled in when we first met. He was wearing a glossy, black enameled Legion breastplate with matte black cloth sleeves, matching snug breeches trousers which were tucked into knee-high polished black boots. His hands were hidden by soft black leather gloves. Sebastian’s skin still looked almost pearly. Somewhere he lost the oily cast to his complexion I noticd when we first met. He also looked much bigger than I remembered, still slim though.
I flopped back onto the bed. ”God! Why, why, why? I just wanted to be a fucking vagabond wandering through the afterlife, exploring.”
The room grew silent.
“Well, that was his wish,” Dion hazarded. “That’s why I chose him. Someone who expected streets and houses of gold and rivers of milk and honey would not have taken well to the wastelad.”
“Insanity,” Augustine muttered.
“He came away from the sun with minimal mutations,” Dion replied. “I took it as a sign.”
“Yes, the… tentacle penis. Paulos spoke of it in almost reverent if bashful terms.” Sebastian added with a bitchy flick. “By the way, Paulos is in a Warrior’s Bond with another Legionnaire. Do not expect him to come back to you, at least not for a while if at all.”
Sivar chided, “That was unkind, Inquisitor.”
Sebastian came fully into the room. “He should know that he is a free agent.”
“I always knew I was free to do as I will.” Sebastian was being a real prig.
“I see the faint hope you have held that you could romp around in the desert together for eternity, fighting monsters and helping save people from their own avarice, stupidity, and mistakes.” Sebastian did not come further into the room. “Your feelings are wasteful fantasy. Sivar has known for a while. That’s why Paulos returned your ring. A new emotional anchor has enhanced his power and his standing, and given him purpose. He has made vows and you know what vows mean to him.”
I was starting to hurt. Emotional armor sang into to place. “So what? What is done is done.”
Sebastian smiled. “Is your emotional nimbleness failing you?”
The severing of the feelings was almost audible. ”Diamonds are generally forever,” I replied. “They are also more dependable than lovers.”
“Sincere cynicism,” Dion sniffed. “Would you please leave, Inquisitor? Vycta needs his rest. Take the doctor with you.”
“He does not need rest,” the Inquisitor replied. “He needs fuel.” He stepped into the room. “Doctor Titus Hael, you confessed to attempting to murder a member of Principality Nobility against the expressed wishes of a Prelate and Primate.”
“Now see here,” the Doctor interrupted.
Ominously, Sivar and Dion stepped away from him.
“Heaven has a dirty secret,” Sebastian said, his voice sounding hollow. “There is a faster way of gaining power besides time and hard work, by literally consuming the essence of your fellow man. If your essence can overpower his, then you will gain strength. That is why Hael fears you. He sees you as a dark, eternally hungry maw. Now he will feed it.”
“I’m not eating anyone!” I retorted.
“It is necessary,” he replied. “ Hael must be punished. And the rumor of how he has been punished will make certain you do not bring followers to your side. Officialy, the good doctor’s death will be listed as an execution, but a rumor will always float about.”
“No!” the Doctor screamed, brandishing a shield of blazing prana. Sebastian flickered out of sight, emerging next to him driving a spear of light through his scapula and into the ground.
And then…I was suddenly hungry. I smelled the metallic ion burn. I could feel Octo moving in the room. Undetected, unseen. “No.”
“You have already volunteered,” Sebastian replied. “You gave someone the keys to you months ago. Negotiations have already been conducted.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“God made the light and the dark,” he replied. “Too many people repudiate that. This mechanic of reality would not be there if it wasn’t needed.”
“Time for lunch.” Octo whispered in my mind and the hunger came to the fore. By the time they fed me pieces of the screaming doctor, there was nothing but hunger and rage and Octo stepped fully into spiritual rapport. He did not posess me, it was more of an advanced puppetry.
It turns out that the eating was not Octo’s goal at all. I was being shown, not how to eat my fellow man, but how to digest him. A conscious management of matter intake for maximum safe consumpion even at the cost of assimilated power.
When the good doctor was gone, they fed me the evidence of the deed: my bedding and rug. Sivar and Dion were somber and quiet the entire time and they left, leaving me alone with Sebastian, with Octo still keeping me in check.
“Why did you do this?” I had asked that question before. I think it was trauma and diseblief that this had actualy happened. I focused on pulling myself together.
“You volunteered, remember? I need a villain for this operation, one who has been villified but is ultimately not what the public believes. You fit what I need. Do not worry; Hael has already been reborn to start anew with no memory of his terrifying passing.”
“I don’t do theatricals.” My affectation was spoiled by a tide of sudden, dragging fatigue.
He smiled. “Oh, I saw footage of your and Sivar’s ‘breakup’ in her throne room. I think you will be perfect.” He closed the door behind him.
Octo let me go. I rolled out of bed, landing hard on the floor, limbs changing, adjusting, and then the pain and nausea stopped. I felt renewed, reborn and I launched forward through the door and into the hallway, catching a glimpse of Augustine’s back just as he disappeared into a brightly lit room.
Manifested shadow-shaded prana clothed me and I flickered briefly into the dark reflection of the world for a moment to arrive beyond the door and into a cavernous circular chamber with a variety of featureless mannequins, archaic weapons racks, boulders, and massive enumerated weights.
“What in the hell?” I muttered.
“What do you think of your gymnasium?” Sebastian executed a grand sweep of his arms. “We did what we could to give you as much room as possible, given that we could not give you a swimming pool.”
“I… I… what’s going on?” I stammered.
“You have been cleared of all charges and your former paramour has had you ‘exiled’ in style to the outer ring of the CNAP in splendorous shame.”
“What charges? Demon stuff?”
“Autotheology,” he replied.
“It is a felony-class heresy,” he continued. “Worshiping yourself… thinking that one is one’s own god.”
“I thought that was covered under ‘idolatry?’“
“That is more accepted, particularly if the system acknowledges that the statue or idol isn’t actually the god,” he said dismissively. “The danger of an autotheologist isn’t in that they think they are God but that they inevitably become the center of a network of prana built by worshippers. If they become particularly powerful, they can reach into the land of the living. Then demons, real demons, get involved and all hell breaks loose because they can start diverting souls.”
“I can see why it would be frowned upon.” I replied. “But, why would anyone think that I have the makings of a charismatic cult leader?”
“Because we told certain people you did.” Sebastian’s smile never faded. “That, plus you have the demon taint, seemingly favored status in the harem of a Prelate, dalliances with an Amazon who is also a runaway Princess of Qin, and former romance with a Ranger.”
My mouth worked noiselessly for several minutes. Sebastian waited patiently while I got my marbles back in a sack so I could ask. ”So what’s the catch?”
“Do not tell the truth,” he replied. “Or rather, since so many people in the Principalities can tell they are being directly lied to, refuse to discuss the truth. You can have your privacy, to an extent, and your freedom to do as you will. Plus I do not think your new…benefactor would let you violate his contract with us involving you.”
“So, let the inferences do the work,” I replied.
“Exactly,” he beamed. “It is refreshing to speak with someone so young who grasps these things quickly. “
“Besides, I doubt anyone would believe me,” I replied.
“Oh they would,” Sebastian said with arched brow emphasis. “Then Sivar would have you killed. Probably a trip into the sun. As a former Sun Priestess of some long forgotten civilization she occasionally indulges in those kinds of displays.”
I shivered. Even though I had not processed, the dizzying reversals that just made themselves known, I tried to be urbane and blasé about it. “I should thank you for getting me out of the initial line of fire.” I looked around the room and sighed bitterly. When all else fails, navel gaze.
“I’m over trained and under socialized,” I replied. “I have no idea how to get clothes, or equipment, or even food up here.”
“You eat rock,” he retorted.
“I can eat rock,” I replied. “I like other things too.”
“Like what?” He asked. “And would you please stop floating around?”
I stepped into blackspace, emerging right in front of him, feet firmly on the ground.
Sebastian sighed. ”Children.”
“Jaded, I am not.” I looked around the room. “This life is still awesome.” I felt the tension relax from my face. “Still totally awesome!” Two featureless figures of humanoid shadow appeared, attached to me by the thinnest of umbilicals, and started dancing. I watched, controlling the action, grinning like a fiend.
“You wanted clothes.” Sebastian interrupted, picking up the thread of conversation. “You have clothes in your chambers.”
“Do they fit?” I replied.
“Measurements were taken while you were in stasis,” Sebastian shrugged. “You were suspended in a fluid and a laser mapping system ran over every inch of your body. The fit is probably more accurate than anything you have ever owned.”
“Why do my sleeping chambers look like my rooms at Sivar’s?”
Sebastian’s look was meaningful. “You should never forget who your allies are.”
“Are you an ally?” I asked.
He stepped closer. ”Maybe. Maybe I am here for another reason.”
Inquisitor Sebastian Augustine was not ugly. And, unfortunately, I usually reacted to trauma with increasingly poor decision making. Why break the pattern? I smiled, giving a bit of cover for me to still and assess the situation. ”So, you’ve seen me naked.”
“Often,” he replied.
“You have an unfair advantage,” I said.
“I can rectify that,” He replied. “Maybe back in your bedchamber?”
“With the blood?”
He frowned for a moment. ”It should not be a problem. We fed you anything that had Hael’s blood on it.”
I frowned slightly. ”Yeah… about the cannibalism.”
“You would have rather it wasted?” He replied.
“Maybe cooked and seasoned,” I replied. I considered for a moment. ”The whole flesh eating thing is another thing over my head so I won’t talk, right?”
He smiled. ”Correct. I mean, some will infer it, but they will not say it. The idea is offensively horrible.”
“But not to you,” I replied.
“No,” he said, watching my face. “There are practical reasons for not indulging in it though beyond the social implications. Do you want to hear them?”
“Sure,” I replied, oddly numb, face pleasant, mind blank, listening, open. It was a skill well used at meetings where horrible ideas were put forth and we needed to give a nonderisive opinion.
“You s…” He looked at me. “What are you doing?”
“Listening,” I replied. “And preparing to hear possibly disturbing information.”
“Oh,” he replied, narrowing his eyes. ”Your thoughts… I can’t read them easily anymore.“
“I haven’t done anything, Sebastian,” I replied. “Look, I remember my life, I’ve lived that life and I still have those. I may not have been a politician, a soldier, a spy, or whatever, but I did not live on a farm. There were social hells to navigate and I have social reflexes. Now, what were you going to say?”
The moment had passed. ”You did not ask to change anything?” The question came from no where. He was sounding like Pepin now.
“No,” I replied. “There was nothing that dream offered that I wanted. I wanted more time to train. I wanted to train until I couldn’t anymore. It was all I had of heaven, all I knew, and while I did train, it was all I wanted. I was happy, purposeful and at least with… and at least with one of my teachers, I was loved.”
Augustine’s face wrinkled in mild disgust and his barrier of professionalism shot into place.
I opted for reasonable. “Don’t shut me out because I was honest with you, Sebastian. I am not rejecting you. I am simply accepting my life and experiences in Heaven so far.”
“Are you going to fall in love with me as well,” he asked. There was an edge to the question.
“No. If we fuck, even once, it’s not because I want anything from you. Well except an encounter with your body, mind, and spirit.”
“You are greedy,” he remarked.
“Body isn’t good enough.” An edge crept into my voice. “I need to feel you, not just fuck you. “
He hesitated for a long moment and I felt something shift in him. “You are a whore.”
“And you have been window shopping my goods for months.” The retort was not complete yet. “You still won’t buy. Do I make you nervous Inquisitor?”
I noted an odd, defensive quality to his sudden fury as Sebastian’s right hand lashed out, first in a blur, and then he stopped moving. Prana sang through me. The light quality changed, seeming to dim. I stepped back and the singing stopped. The slap whipped through the air between us.
“I can’t believe you just did that?” I snapped.
Sebastian colored and swung again, prana rising off him as he enhanced the blow.
He slowed down again to stillness. I stepped aside, the singing in my skin more of a dull hum now, prickling tendrils tracing through my mind. I did not let the hum go; I tried to fiddle with it, trying to “quiet” it slowly. The prickling increased as Augustine slowly began to move, melting from the frozen state, completing his attempted slap.
Sebastian spun, moving smoothly into an outright punch, his power now wafting from him in waves as his fist moved with greater speed. I rode the hum upward again, watching him slow, the lights dimming and the air seemingly heavy but not impeding my movement. The hum seemed to grow hot and then fade and the effect was like exercising a muscle. I could clench, and he’d slow to stop.
He seemed to be able to see me at certain points and he continued his slow motion punching advance. Sebastian’s power literally smoked from him, his clothes starting to show rends and tears.
I stepped in and touched a side of his face. His skin was warm, smooth, flushed, and there was astonishment and self-loathing anger there. I stepped back and let the tension relax. He slowed back into motion, and I said, “You do not have to hit me to prove that you are a man.”
Sebastian stopped advancing, stilling slowly to attention with his left hand at the cheek where I touched him.
I felt the tension, not release, but turned destructively inward. The air felt normal. Light was normal. I watched Sebastian breathe. It wasn’t healthy, but I really wanted to do interesting things to him. To put that tension, that angst, to a more fun use.
“You…” he began.
Disengage, I thought.
“I need to exercise.” I replied turning to the equipment. I think my voice sounded somewhat tinny. “Yeah, exercise, something familiar. Let yourself out.”
“Wait!” Sebastian called. “Wait please!”
I had started to head back to the bedroom. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry.” the exterior, haughty, ice melting.
“You swing a mean fist,” I replied.
“I am the sum of my experiences, for good or evil,” I said.
“I came from the Church.” He explained. “I died and went directly to the Roman Principality. I have had to live a circumspect life and afterlife.”
“In order to stay in the Inquisition?” I think I was surprised that I kept a measure of accusation from my voice.
He countered. “No, but I am an operative for God in at least one of its recognized manifestations. That part being unknown about me means I can move in different places with different rules. It is what I know. It is what I am. It is what I love. Like you love being this… whatever you are.”
“But, according to Dion, a lot of the rules from Earth…”
Sebastian seemed uncomfortable. “The presence of so many different types of believers has made us broader, more confusing. It’s why I prefer to work with the Celestials. They may not be our greatest allies, but they are the ones, at least the eldest among them, who knew God.”
“A lot of people still hate us.” I replied. “They probably think re-education via rebirth is the best option.”
Sebastian did not reply immediately. The tatters of his emotional reserve were struggling to assemble. Now. I went to him, took his hand. “Look, you are going to reassemble your armor and go back out there and do your duty. Shouldn’t you at least let some of your tension out?”
“It… I… I’ve always just used prostitutes.” He was not resisting though.
Leading him back to bedroom, I conceded. “It is nice to not have to worry about getting someone to leave when you’re done. Don’t worry. I’m not clingy. Plus, I live here. You’re the one leaving afterward.” (by Hank T Cannon)