Civil Blood


In this quiet place, among the water wheels and bagua, I meditate upon the fact that those who lead the world once knew my name.

They knew me and feared me, called to me and worshipped our people. Yet things change, and this—a chosen elision, a will to hide—has become necessary in a time filled to overflowing by the Ever-Dying humans and their mess. In mere generations, by design, my family and I have been mythologized.

Ironically, this has made it easier for me to hide now.

You seem unimpressed by this, my ursine friend—you strange and gentle bear-like beast, masticating bamboo by my side. Truthfully, I appreciate your company. Apart from you, I have no companions here, which, sadly, I have earned.

Doubtless it does not sound like hardship to you. Is this land not beautiful? Does not the very air engender peace? It is and does, but you see, I have woven it into a prison of personal torment, for while your distant relatives and lovers and kin may be nearby, none of mine currently are.

I am truly alone. And by the gods, I deserve to be.


I have finally done it, you see? I have driven away the one person I believed would never abandon me, though she knew my failings best.

Ravena. My oldest living child.

Not my first. No, my first was . . . different. In so many ways, Ravena’s opposite!

Content against curious.

Temperate against tempestuous.

Motherly against murderous.

Yet are we all not differing from one another in unique ways? I no more blame Ravena for her burling brilliance than I do my first child for her avoidable and self-sacrificing end. I loved—love—them both.

My first child is long gone from the world. Ravena is here, and well, and still raging at me from the other side of this planet.

I took something away from her. A thing she honed and redefined. A thing she adopted from former gods and made her own, a name, a title, a position of blood and death and glorious violence. I have taken from her the role of my knife.

Will you forgive me one vanity? Though my choice seemed so essential, so crucial, so necessary for her growth and that of my family’s, I cannot think now of a good enough reason to have done it.

Yes, she occasionally slew without order, out of turn, but she only ever did so for the sake of our distinctly thirsty family. Yes, she violated every rule of conduct handed down to us from the creator of knife and its purpose, flaunting her power and her right, but for good cause—and what are these small discords to lives so long as ours?

I thought to spare her more anger. I thought to give her rest. I thought, separated from this sharp, weighted title, that she might recover and find peace.

I thought the rest of my Children might grow to love her if they did not fear death by her hand.

I was wrong. Instead, she left me. She left us all—and now goes to create her own brood of Night-Children out of my influence entirely. My Children fear her more than ever. She has become an enemy, a ghoul, a great and monstrous fear to be avoided at all costs.

My precious family shatters. All slipped from my hands the moment I let her go.

I could force her to return, but that would only serve to choke all knots tighter.

Surely it is not wrong to let her do this?

Surely—

The rules and laws I have created for my Children keep them safe, but times have changed, and cultures have changed. Surely her actions will not lead to ill.

I have forsaken my right to stop her. I drove her from me as certainly as if I’d thrown her from a cliff. I deserve to be here. I am a bad father, a bad lover, a bad friend. Or at least, a very foolish one.

And you merely concern yourself with bamboo! Fah.

I will meditate upon this. I will find and correct my faults—all beneath the acid-rain penance of loneliness—and I will not make such a mistake again.


Do you hear the chimes, my black-and-white friend? I do, and they should not be ringing.

There is a specific timbre to these tones, borne to me upon the Wind; it is a great and terrible magic, familiar though long-unheard. Both the instruments and their tune have been forgotten—I personally saw that they would be, for their use had grown too savage, too cruel, too bloodied even for my Night-King taste.

These chimes can only be rung from the hollowed-out bones of a Red Dragon. Who dares wield such instruments to call to me?

And oh, they are calling.

The wielder knows their tune, knows the time and tempo to ask me to come by names long-forgot, to summon my savageness sharpened by need, to take what I wish and leave ash behind.

It is a deadly thing to do. Dangerous. Deranged. I honored it centuries ago—indeed, I designed it!—and would come, drink my fill, ravage the enemies of my summoner in a bath of blood and brinking joy, and then, if the summoner were very lucky, retain enough of my mind from the Beast’s grip that I did not destroy them and their followers, too.

It is a melody of desperation, regrettable on all sides, and to own their refrain means the summoner knows the potential cost of my coming.

Few now are so vindictive against another that their own lives merit so little. Vengeances should be left behind in the age of blood and bared beating hearts, of rolling heads and limbs askew, still twitching.

More than this: how could this fool have obtained both tools and tune in the first place?

Ah! You have stopped chewing. You see? This is a question worth pondering.

Of first importance to me is my family—my precious Night-Children, made by my blood and beloved by name. All that I do is to prevent harm to them, even by accident, and this situation poses a greater threat than I am comfortable ignoring.

Someone has found dragon-bone chimes. Someone has found the words to call me. Likely, they have found more than this.

What other secrets hide in that cursed cache, of which I knew nothing? Do they know how to find us? Do they know how to destroy us?

I have not paid for my crime of stabbing the heart of my most precious Child, yet to ignore this endangers her, too. Not even she is as strong as I, as capable of defense.

Those chimes call to me. For the sake of those I love, I must go.

Your grunts match my sigh, friend.

I will go see what the summoner wants, and determine what must be done to ensure my family’s safety.

This is not how I planned my return to the world, but it seems all my recent plans have gone amiss.

Farewell.


Rome.

A city of marvels, so they say.

An empire of men with urine-soaked breath, thinking themselves more glorious than all who came before. Patently untrue, for all that their faith lends gravitas.

This city has grown since I was here last, so long ago—grown from the imagination of Marcus Terentius Varro’s victories and unifications, from the wild battles of tongue and time. It has become a tyrant, dominating the lands.

Many of my Children dwell here; I feel them, of course. I know their hearts. I taste their emotions and stray thoughts. They are happy here, content, pleased with lovers and land and libated gore, and none of them know true distress.

This is a circumstance I intend to perpetuate.

The chimes call on, insistent, luring my Beast with beating hearts and blood outpoured. Yes, this summoner truly wants me here, but they may regret this choice.

The chimes come from the absurdly large palace upon Palatine Hill.

It is a gargantuan and ugly beast, spreading so wide that it seems to clutch at the estates around it, threatening, like a grasping hand, to engulf.

I grab a passing servant and ease him, bidding him tell me its name before sending him on his way without memory of my question.

The answer surprises me: it is the Domus Transitoria, home to Emperor Nero.

A man I have heard of even in my isolation. His name is whispered on the wind—ambition, deceit, and deadly intelligence.

I have no impression that he would ever disregard his own worth. Surely the poisonous head of such a serpentine state would not risk his everything by calling to me.

Well. True to those rumors, his home is certainly not that of a humble man.

Columns and klinai pollute the empty space, while the tale of some battle or deific seduction plays out in painted stucco like a leash around its roof. Baths roost atop one side, and walled gardens daub the other with color. Statues—as garish as fresh blood on white sand—stare at nothing, thoughtful with hips out and hands posed.

I have been in the forests alone too long. This is an overwhelming assault to my senses—yet it is not enough of a distraction to take away from the scent.

Living blood, dripping blood, blood from beating hearts spills here. And living blood, living and surging, is what we need. We cannot drink from the dead, and whoever is bleeding people here understands that most keenly. I smell no dead blood. Within me, my long-denied Beast stirs.

This is too precise. Someone knows far too much to have simply stumbled across forgotten texts. I have no choice but to treat this as a threat to my Children.

No one threatens my Children and survives me afterward.


I am not in a good mood when I land upon the palace roof, searching for the progenitor of insults.

The opus sectile mosaic colors the rooftop like galaxies and magic fire, dizzying, and on it chants a herd of strange priests in filthy furs. Half-humans with mad eyes, they stand in a sticky pool of blood from the victims that kneel between them. The dragon-bone chimes are hollowed to such fineness that the torchlight makes them glow, and the language being flogged is the Merchant tongue of Az’Kabek.

These people cannot know what they are saying. To them, it is ritual, nonsense syllables repeated over and again, but to me, it is a hammer-blow of sweet memory and sorrowed loss: Come home, Blood King, and taste true glory.

With this comes another wave of want from my starving Beast.

How long has it been since I last fed? Too long.

But that ought not to be enough to leave me feeling like this.

Off-balance. Overwhelmed. Woozy.

There is foreign magic in those chimes, magic not originally part of my crafted summoning spells. Something far worse than I suspected is happening here.

I hear the human steps behind me at the far end of this roof, marching up the stairway that leads into the undoubtedly gaudy interior of this palace.

It is only a human. I ignore him. But their owner does not ignore me.

“Do you like them?” says a male voice, rough from years of volume, arrogant in tone, utterly and stupidly unafraid. “We prepared all this for you, Blood King.”

By them, I can only assume he means the children.

The victims are girls, crouching between this blasphemous horde. They bleed not from fertility but from wounds, cuts kept open too long in tender flesh, smeared with pomegranate and herbs to keep them from clotting.

They do not suffer. Drugged, eyes glazed, they are dying, and likely will have no memory of their last hours.

Do you like it? the human says.

Once upon a time, I might have. When I believed the humans owed me everything. When I saw them as fuel, toys, pets.

But they are also potential Children, worthy to join my family and taste eternity, and that is a double-lensed view that could not hold.

“I do not care for it, no,” I tell the voice’s owner, and turn to see who speaks.

It is a truly smug man who looks upon me now, heavy-browed and small-featured and square jawed. Red-haired—still a fascinating genetic anomaly to me, though that is a tangent for another day—his eyes a slate-hard blue, he nods graciously, as though my looking at him were mere obsequence. “Of course you like them. There is no need to lie to me, after all. We are both men of great power.”

Oh, we are, are we?

The girls’ blood drips. Az’Kabek’s Merchant tongue torments. My mood does not improve.

Who. Taught. Him. This.

I have kept those among the Mythos away from this planet, away from the fragile Ever-Dying humans of this world, because they are mine. They belong to me. I saved them. I brought them here. I created this world for their survival, and its barriers have not been breached for hundreds of years.

It is time for answers. I turn my will upon this man, this mortal, this Ever-Dying fool, and try to ease him.

And I find myself blocked.

Someone has spelled him, protecting his mind from my influence.

Likely the same someone who has altered the spells behind me. Likely the same someone who perhaps has arranged this whole affair.

In seconds, it all comes together. I know this power.

“The Raven King has come to you,” I say.

The human hides his surprise well, but his heartbeat gives him away. “Yes.”

Kanon, the Raven King.

He has vexed me since before Az’Kabek.

He has tried to weaponize me, failed, forcing us both to endure both uneasy war and unpleasant peace ever since.

Kanon, lord of the lightless world of Umbra and ancient as stones. I thought he’d finally moved on. What nonsense is this?

The human does not like being ignored. “Among the Mythos, I am Ever-Dying, called Nero, once called Lucius, now known as Imperator Nero Claudius. And you are Naktam, Nox Aeterna, the Blood King, Lord of the Night Whispers—and Father of the Night-Children.”

I am shocked enough to hear a human equating himself in worth to the magic-using Mythos that I simply stare.

He fills the silence. “I have summoned you here for a purpose, Blood King,” says Nero, and dares to approach me.

Dares.

Should I kill him?

That is my hunger talking. I did not come here to topple empires, but to find answers. “You have not made a wise choice today,” I say.

Nero laughs, and then he claps his hands.

The priests continue chanting, but their words change; it is Az’Kabek mixed with something else, something foul.

And my hunger grows.

“Don’t you see?” Nero sweeps his arm at the magic priests, at the bleeding girls, at the sacrilege abounding. “You have come, just as he said! And now you are mine! You belong to me, and you will do as I say!”

Oh, for the love of all that bleeds.

I turn away from him. Frothing madness is not my concern, but rather the source of knowledge here; if only the priests know these things, then I can slay them and be on my way without worrying about the consequences of killing an emperor.

Political upheaval decamps my Children, and I do not wish to see that happen today.

And Nero does not wish to be ignored. He strides up to me and dares to reach for my head.

Of course, I move. “What are you doing?” I ask the madman in spite of better judgement.

He seems startled that I did not wait for him to grab at me, but that fades at once beneath his glowing and gloating grin. “Kneel.”

The sound I make is not quite a laugh; a surprised puff of air and breath, unplanned. “Excuse me?”

His mouth twists. “Kneel.”

Perhaps I should just eat everyone on the roof.

Perhaps I should just eat everyone in this palace.

Perhaps I should just eat this city, this people, this race and range of beating hearts and sticky-sweet blood, eat and eat and take and tear until all flesh quivers and screams at my coming and gives itself to me even as it weeps—

Oh, gods.

I shake my head.

Nero’s triumph has stretched his face into a rictus of insanity, joyful and certain.

I grit my teeth and force myself to truly hear what those priests are saying.

I know this language. Not well; I never spoke it, never used it. But… this is a curse.

This is a powerful curse.

Being cast upon me.

Anger clears my mind, clamps shut the Beast’s mouth with iron. “What have you done here, you mortal, fragile fool?”

Nero makes a disgusted sound. “I have done what no other ever has: secured my immortality!” He raises his arms to the heavens, and then he laughs hard and harsh, laughter like waterfalls and thunderstorms and boulders tumbling down the mountainside. “Do it now, Blood King!” he screams. “Give it to me! Immortality! Give me all your power!”

What, precisely, does he think I do? Share power? Transfer my abilities into him, as though that would not instantly make him mine, owned, even subservient, and not the god he thinks he’d be? Is that what Kanon told him would come of this? 

One thing is clear: he thinks I am bound to do it because he has offered these children to me, tainted with this curse.

Oh, I can taste them; can savor the warm, sweet beauty of their living blood, the smoothness of their skin, the heat of their tiny bodies; I could make them writhe in joy before dropping them to the ground to bleed their last, unheld, unsung, undone.

Ages past, I would have. Long before this fool’s empire was even a dream, I would have.

Those days have died.

I own my Beast. I am in control. And no one, neither Ever-Dying nor Darkness nor devil untold, will ever wrest that control from me again. “No.”

My word smacks him like lightning in his thunderstorm, and stricken, he stares at me.

“Do you know the words they speak?” I growl, low, and I can see from the changing tint of his skin that my eyes have begun to glow very green, indeed.

His jaw clenches. “You refuse?” Wonder in his tone almost makes it sweet.

Do you know what they say, or are these words gibberish in your ears?” And I bellow this. Roar it. Tremble the very ground with my anger.

I have not shouted in centuries. Perhaps that spell has affected me, after all.

He sways back, bold enough not to run, and then his face twists again, mouth turning down, frowning like an ugly mask of death. “As if I would bother to learn such filthy, low-brow conjurings.” And he spits.

I was right. His breath smells of urine.

Enough of this. The priests, then, must die. “Leave, emperor of mortal dust. Leave, or I will rethink my decision not to kill you.”

And instead of anything reasonable, Nero screams at me. Screams, leaning forward, veins popping, like a disobedient toddler.

I have no time for this. I must kill the priests, search their belongings, and ensure no one here can ever summon me again.

Nero does not like being ignored—but I had hardly expected him to throw a cithara in my direction. Where did he even find it?

It misses, of course, shattering on the mosaic and scattering tiles, and he screams again. A vase this time, snatched from who knows where. It shatters wildly, nicking blood from the skin of others on the roof.

Madman. I reach for the first priest.

He suddenly changes tack. “Fine! Have it your way! I call condemnation upon your head!”

The priests alter their chant again, but now it is a tongue I know.

This is the tongue of Umbra. They are calling a champion, a warrior. A Raven Prince; a high position in Kanon’s personal army.

Nero bares his teeth at me, his slate eyes wide and bloodshot. “You will pay for disrespecting me!”

Really?

The words they use are a spell of exchange: if this person comes and takes whatever he is offering, they will have to try to fulfill his wish.

But there is a trick to this kind of spell. Bespelled bargains unfulfilled result in spell-expulsion, a magical backfiring, usually quite violent.

Does he think to attack me? Whoever he calls would be unable. No one from that world is strong enough to match me, not for thousands of years. “You are going to destroy your palace,” I tell him.

You are going to die, begging for mercy, at my feet!”

Likely not. I need to kill these priests, ruin whatever tools they are using, and—

Suddenly, the priests slay the girls.

Stab them, moving as one, and the girls gasp as life leaves their bodies, falling like withered petals.

Ah, but those blades are tools of Umbra: the energy of Hades’ passing as he gathers their souls collects in the black blades of those knives.

Well. That certainly generated enough power to summon something.

The change of living blood to dead quiets my Beast and calms my hunger and rage.

I was not on the edge of that cliff, but I came close enough to see it. This was not acceptable, at all, at all—and now, I must wait longer to act because whatever he summoned could hurt my Children instead of me. The bargain is sung. Killing the priests will not stop it now.

Damn it all.

It takes a moment; the priests are not true Mythos, but mere Kin, mixed-blood, of unknown parentage. Nero paces, muttering threats no one can hear, and I sigh, tapping my foot—but the power they stole from those children is enough.

The air between them . . . rips.

Splits like a sheet between fists, ragged and jagged with ruin, and power pushes through like a wave of heat after an explosion.

Footsteps, heavy and armored. Summoned by promised price, by the deliciousness of life-death energy which the People of the Darkness so crave.

Then a voice calls out from that ragged, oxygen-sucking hole to another world, and shock stills me once more.

Who summons me?” bellows a familiar timbre—one nowhere near as deep its owner would like it to be—and a shower of black feathers spew suddenly from the opening. They slice through the priests and into the roof’s concrete, smoking, adding more life-death energy to those black blades.

How convenient.

That solves the issue of clean-up for me. I ignore the emperor, step over to the priests’ bodies, and search them for manuscripts or pottery chips or whatever they used to gain this ritual knowledge.

Nero’s arms are raised. “Come forward, Prince of Ravens! Come and take your bounty!”

Through that hole, as if stepping from shadow like oil, appears a small man for such a weighty step. He wears black armor from head to toe, etched with deeply-red feathers that burn and smolder as though he cooks inside. His eyes—crimson, glowing—penetrate where they fall, and he sees me, casually stepping upon dragon-bone chimes to break them.

His voice betrays his smile. “Night?”

I cannot help my smile in return.

I have known that voice, that form, every inch of him well, and deep in my heart, perhaps in another world, something cracks wide.

We together caused more mischief than the city of Kemet could handle. We may have gone so far that they felt it wise to replace us with other people’s deities on our way out . . .

“Behold!” bellows Nero, gesturing at the black blades, scattered among the dead. “For you! All for you, if you fulfill my bargain!”

“Oh, that’s—hold on a moment,” says Ahmose the Raven Prince, and he bends to take up a blade. His gauntlets glow shockingly red for a moment, then vanish, allowing him to hold it in bare, slightly feathery skin. “Beautiful. Innocent. Sweet.” He inhales deeply.

White mist rises from the blade, sparkling as if filled with firework-seeds, and the whole knife goes gray and cracks apart in his hands like chalk.

“Yes. Yes!” Nero screams, either unaware or uncaring that he is the only mortal still living upon this roof, and that only thanks to Kanon’s ministrations.

Perhaps he thinks he’s just special.

“Mm,” says Ahmose. “Did you taste any of this yet?”

“No,” I say. “I did not take his bargain.”

“Shame. That blood’s gone to waste, then.” He has no use for it, but he lifts and drains each blade with great care, thoroughly enjoying the essence.

Ahmose looks up from the last, crumbling blade. His helm glows, then vanishes the same way his gauntlets did. And his face….

A young man in appearance. Feathery black hair and golden skin with hints of pinion-patterns. Eyes of blazing red, and a smile of mischief and knowing.

“Now, you are mine!” shrieks Nero.

Ahmose glances at me as if to say, Do you believe this guy? then stands and smiles like the naughtiest ember ever to start a flame. “Sure, buddy,” he says soothingly to the mad human. “What do you want?”

Nero points at me. “Destroy him!”

The look Ahmose gives me is comical, in spite of everything. “Are you serious?”

And for the second time in a night—perhaps the second time in his life—Nero is denied. “Yes! Destroy him!”

Ahmose sighs, puffing out his cheeks, and looks around. “I can’t.”

Nero sputters like an overheated tea kettle, and spittle flies out to hiss and evaporate on the overheated concrete around Ahmose’s feet.

I’m too amused to interrupt this now.

What?” Nero finally manages.

Ahmose points. “I can’t kill him. He’s much stronger than I am. Even if I tried, he’d tear me to pieces.”

Nero makes disconnected vowel sounds. Evidently, he was given no PlanC.

Pieces, do you hear? You wouldn’t have enough left to make a quilt,” says Ahmose.

And behind him, the gap in the air trembles, and from it comes a horrible bone-creaking sound.

The desecrated bodies abruptly burst into purple flame.

That is darkfire.

That is a terrible backfire from this broken spell—a magical blaze from Umbra that gives heat but no light. Well, in this world, it is unearthly, casting us all in ghoulish glow.

And it is hungry.

Nero takes a sudden step back, staring at that flame.

As if it knows it has an audience, it spreads.

Fast, fast, oh, so fast, it devours the bodies and leaves only ash, and then moves toward us as if seeking living beings.

My time to find answers has gone. Ah, but I am in luck: a single vellum scroll has rolled from some priest’s pocket, and is not yet aflame. I lunge for it.

“Time to go!” says Ahmose, then embraces me like a favorite toy. Effortlessly, he lifts us into the air to fly away.

I hear Nero’s steps as he runs back down the way he came, and best of luck to him. That darkfire will not go out until the sun rises—and that is many hours away.


Some distance from the seven hills, Ahmose and I sit beneath the smoke-hid stars and share a cask of beer.

It is brewed from nightwheat, an excellent Fey flavor, and it calms me. So does Ahmose. So does the knowledge that my Children are safe: I commanded them from this place the moment we left the roof. Better they lose their homes than their lives.

“So this thing,” says Ahmose, studying burnt-edge vellum I snagged, “is an altered version of that old anthem you used to use.”

“So I gathered.”

“Look at this. See? I don’t know these words.”

I lean over to look. Well within his space. Well near enough to enjoy his warmth. “That is because it is a language you should never know,” I murmur, taking it from him, and lie back, my head in his lap, holding it up as if to see better by the light of his eyes. “These are words from Guhmarish. A created tongue for curses. This was supposed to ensnare me.”

He goes quite still. “Ensnare?”

This was no mere annoyance.

I see it now; Kanon and I had the same instructors in strategy, after all, and commanded armies together until he could bear my independence no more. “He did something like this before, your grandfather. This was an attempt to rob me of control. To . . . place my Beast back in charge.”

Ahmose inhales and holds it. He knows. He knows. The freedom of my Beast would be the end of the world.

Not today.

“Years ago, his first attempt at this almost worked,” I say. “I suppose he thought that by boosting the power, it would work now. Fortunately for us all, I outgrew him.”

“Why would he . . .” Ahmose’s fingers tease the curls in my hair. “Explain, please.”

If Kanon had the foresight to use this spell on any of my Children, it would have broken them—and I myself would have had to kill my Child.

Anger rises again, and I try to tamp it down. I was lucky; Kanon must truly want me dead. The cruelty of forcing me to slay one of my own would have been, to me, the worser fate, but I suppose he is blinded. “I wish I could explain it. I have never truly understood why your grandfather hates me so.”

That is a lie. I know very well why—but Ahmose does not need that knowledge in his already-wounded soul.

He is so very still.

I continue. “The only thing I do not understand is the secondary plan. Why involve you? I presume that was you they were calling.”

“Yes,” he says. “It was my new title, in fact—Prince of Ravens. I’ve been promoted.”

“Why would he send you?” I murmur. “The only possible result is I would have killed you, not even knowing I’d painted myself with your blood.”

He touches my cheek. “Maybe that was the point.”

It is my turn to stiffen. “You are family,” I snarl, because family should not do these things to one another, should not, but unforgivably often does.

Silence.

It is not only my family imperiled tonight. “That coward,” I murmur, and sit up. “When you failed to fulfill this spell, the darkfire would still have spread.”

“And your Children are vulnerable,” says Ahomse softly, because he knows me, knows my love, knows what matters most in my heart.

And so, of course, does Kanon.

Kanon may come at me all he likes. But today, he endangered my Children.

He will not enjoy what comes next.

“Your eyes are brighter than the fire, my friend,” says Ahmose, and offers me more brew.

I’m sure they are. Indeed, even his own copper skin has taken on the green tint of my anger. “I think a visit to your grandfather is overdue for me.”

Ahmose takes a deep breath and runs his hand through his hair. “And I think it’s time I visited Zenith for a while. See my mother’s people. I want no part of it.”

I do not blame him. Kanon may have tried to kill him; but they are still blood. “Of course.”

“Hey,” Ahmose says. “Before you go, let’s go make trouble somewhere. Get our minds off all this.”

Still the mischief-king. “I can’t say I’m in the mood.”

“No?” He raises his eyebrow. “Not even to see Mab’s latest creation? She’s building a pyramid, Night. An actual pyramid, for reasons unknown.”

I cannot help a chuckle. Mab is more dramatic than even I, and she is dead. “Well . . .”

“Come on. Let’s just dive-bomb them or something. You know. Nothing fancy.”

Nothing fancy, he says.

“Anything you want, Ahmose.” And I am surprised to find I mean it. “In fact, it may be better for your grandfather to wonder why I have not immediately arrived at his doorstep, don’t you think? A little fearful anticipation may do him some good.”

And I smile as I realize something else: I am through punishing myself.

It will not bring her back. It will not protect my family. If I want to protect them, I need to remain a presence. I need to return to the world and remind all why they once feared to whisper my name.

“Come on.” Ahmose’s armor disappears, leaving soft linen, inviting and clean. “Come on! Let’s go play.”

“Nero first,” I say. “I need to be absolutely certain he does not know the spells used tonight, and I doubt Kanon’s spells protect his mind from me any longer. But after that, we are free to bother Fey all you like.”

Play we shall. Mischief, we’ll make.

And perhaps more than just that. This mischief will make me visible once more to the Mythos. And when we have played and word has reached the Raven King, and he wonders just what I have planned, I will visit him myself, and we will have a little talk.

He targeted my Children.

By the time I am done with him, he never will again.

“Those wriggly ears!” says Ahmose.

“Divebombing Fey, it is,” I agree, and together, we vanish into the night, he into smoke and I into dust, and leave the burning mortal city behind.

The empire won’t fall for the sake of a fire, after all. And who knows? Maybe Nero will learn to be more careful.

And perhaps fish will learn to fly.

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