Monday, September 22, 2008

Going Under by Justina Robson

An unkempt dawn with ragged clouds crept to daybreak in Demonia. Fitful winds swung the gather-baskets outside the windows and made small trails of raw magic fizz and evaporate out of their tiny holes as Lila watched them move to and fro. Presently the grumbling, muttering form of the Collector appeared on Lila’s balcony.

The old demon was almost petrified with age but his movements were sure. Horned, thorned, blue, and knot-sided he climbed along the walls on his sticky feet and plucked the baskets from their hooks, replacing them with empties and chucking the full ones into a large sack on his back with all the expertise of a hundred years of practise. He ignored her, even though she was standing right in front of the full height windows that overlooked her private balcony and in turn she fixed her stare beyond the western edge of the city to the lagoon. It wasn’t polite to stare at old demons and they had some interesting curses to award for gawpers.

One of the Collector’s feet adhered briefly to the crystal pane in a biologist’s miracle of exquisitely tiny scales, hairs, and magic, then was gone without leaving a mark. It was said there was no surface that those creatures (she couldn’t remember the name, there were more kinds of demon than there were species in Otopia) couldn’t walk on, even the face of eternity.

They said a lot of things like that in Demonia, Lila reflected. To a human these gnarly little gnosticisms became irritating and portentous after a while. It was even more irritating later on at some point, if you stuck around, to discover that most of them were true. A frown made itself on her brow as she drew her silk dressing gown closer around her and folded her arms more tightly. The sight of the rising city was not comforting.

In the dawn’s light the dirigibles and boats that never ceased to ply the air and water dimmed their enchantments and changed their signal flags from the glowing night colours to day’s brilliant but ordinary hues. Blimps and zeppelins lost their resemblance to giant lightning bugs and became simple balloons. Then the giant gaudy fancy of the Theatre Des Artes suddenly blazed up from the Mousa Precinct as the sun rose high enough to catch its roof. Lila changed the filtering in her eyes to adjust for the shocking glare and continued her monitoring of the activity—demons everywhere, busy, active, full of energy as if there was no tomorrow. She felt tired with the kind of tiredness that follows frenetic activity, fear and grief once it has all passed. Pleasant, but still tired and in need of a lengthy, solitary rest.

There was a sigh and a yawn from behind her in the room. It was followed by the soft sound of silk sheets. From the voice’s tone she knew it was her husband, Zal, turning over and stretching out into her part of the bed. He was a heavy sleeper, for an elf, and had a fondness for pretending to lie comatose late into the morning whilst secretly being awake the entire time and composing songs in his head. He said it was the best time of day to imagine new things, before you opened your eyes and the world grabbed your attention and tried to make it fit yesterday instead of today. So she guessed he was wide awake, and faking.

A messenger sprite, decked in house colours, flitted up over her railing and deposited yet another covered basket with a beribboned handle onto the balcony floor after a momentary struggle to find a space among all the other baskets that were already set there, covering the table, the chairs, and some of the larger plant pots. It tipped its ridiculous little blue porter’s cap to her when the job was done and zipped off over the roof, farting methane that ignited on contact with its sparking tail and sent it jolting into the sky. The wind made all the ribbons flutter and dance. A few minutes later the clouds disbanded entirely and the sun shone with spring heat through the windows. It was deliciously warm.

Lila heard padding sounds just behind her and turned to look. A white demon, griffonesque, dragonish, horsey, with feathers and fur and quills and the air of a big cat, had crossed the floor. It lay down in the lozenge of sunlight beside her and closed its long, silver eyes to enjoy the heat. Its lengthy tail was curled upwards in a semicircle of pleasure as it made minor adjustments to reach perfect basking posture and settled down. Its wings, with their thorny and razored edges, were furled neatly along its back. Its ribs moved under its iridescent skin as it breathed, and elsewhere thin muscles like iron bands ran in ropes of efficient power that looked dynamic even though it was, she was certain, already and properly asleep again after its move. Teazle, her husband, could sleep for Demonia.

He could fall asleep at the drop of a hat though she had always found him getting up halfway through the night. He would fall asleep in human form, out of politeness, but then slide out of bed to shift to this, his natural shape. This was unsuited to humanoid beds and had a tendency to rip sheets and mattresses. He had his own nest that hung from the ceiling like a giant beehive. He said that the luxurious furs that made it up were all stripped from the bodies of his enemies but he might have been lying. Most demons just didn’t have such great fur.

Husband. What a stupid word that was. Wife. That was even stupider. Both carried a vast and toxic cargo of expectations and she could only stomach the associations for an instant because Zal was an elf demon and Teazle was a demon and the marriage was Demonian in nature and had nothing to do with her human culture’s hulking great trainloads of stupidity. Some people, she understood, found marriage and its roles a pleasantly comforting drama to enact. A shudder and a vision of her parents screaming at one another through a fog of alcholic disappointment invariably accompanied thoughts about it. As her mother gambled away fortunes and then flung herself into torments of guilt and self-loathing, her father became sweetly dutiful and the picture of noble caretaking. Then as their finances recovered and Mom got increasingly bored and began to fuss around the house, he would quietly pickle himself with vodka until he lost his job. Mom would then solve their problems by entering various poker tournaments at which, sober and determined, she would do well, until recklessness took over and so the cycle began again . . . Lila had, by the age of fourteen, long since given up the hope that this round would be the last of its kind and something banal and comforting would take its place.

Death had brought the curtain down on that one. How curious that in death they should so quickly forget the petty occupations that had obsessed every living moment. But they had. She’d met them there, in the afterworld, and it was as though they had never struggled. Her heart stabbed her with pain as she remembered, because in their faces, just before they had crossed over the final brink to Thanatopia’s unknown shores, she had seen their lonely and sober knowledge that the lives that were over had mostly been wasted. And there was nothing to be done about it. Nothing at all.

And she had not saved them.

Until they were dead she hadn’t even known that was her mission in life. Her firm, yet unacknowledged plan: she would make a successful career, save plenty of money, become socially impeccable and marry someone also of that mould in order to set an example and to become wealthy enough to start both parents off in detox programmes that really worked . . . gaining their undying love and gratitude and, above all, attention. No, that motive hadn’t revealed its tawdry martyred glory until she was back in her own body, what was left of it, and they were gone for good.

Are you going to maunder along all day? Murmured a testy voice just to the left of the middle of her head.

She shot a dart of sullen loathing at Tath, the presence in her chest.

The elf made the spiritual equivalent of a shrug as his aetheric body—the last surviving fragment of his being—circulated slowly around inside her heart where he had lived since his physical death, months ago. He sounded as precise and chilly as a mathematics professor intent on lecturing a tardy student even though—and, she thought, possibly because—he had been young and full of hopes when he died. Demons usually vent their rage more creatively. Let us do something excessive.

You hate demon ways.

I am beginning to find them curiously liberating. At least they do not hate themselves more than once a day.

Stop badgering.

Stop wallowing.

Trauma much? I’m allowed some wallow time.

I cannot see the point of it.

Lila flicked at her sleeve, flicking away his comment as she glared down at the sleeping white demon near her feet. She let Tath have his superiority, since it was all he’d got, but damn if he didn’t test her to the limit. She wanted to scream but that would entail a conversation with the living afterwards.

Teazle didn’t know about Tath’s permanent residency—his andalune body supported by her physical one. Only Zal knew, as far as she was aware, and she intended to keep it that way but Tath was unhappy and restless in a human host; anyone would be, she reasoned, if they were a helpless passenger in somebody else’s body. She ought to be more compassionate towards him, but she was tired of his eternal presence too, never knowing how much of her feeling and thoughts he was privy to. It made intimacy difficult with others whilst between Tath and herself their enforced closeness was like a wound that could open at any time and must be carefully protected. Since her parents had been murdered, they had entered a strange and sympathetic truce of sorts and as time passed they had naturally become more relaxed about the whole thing. She didn’t like that. She wanted it to stay frosty and uncomfortable, as that was the only distance possible. It ate at her that eventually casual attitudes would lead to a nasty truth as she started another round of

. . . marital bitching? he said, beating her to it.

Thank you.

Yes, marital bitching, with him.

I have not married you, human.

I wouldn’t marry you, elf, if you were the last person alive.

Fortunately that situation will never arise, Tath said with sufficient frost that she had cause to stop and doubt his sincerity for a moment. But she was too anxious to think on it, instead rushing into another defence.

I hope you didn’t find last night too . . . soiling. She was surprised at the stinging tone of her thought, which amply conveyed her embarrassment and anger at being perpetually spied upon, whether wilfully or not. It was a struggle not to let any memory surface for his perusal: she clearly saw one image of Zal naked.

I kept my promise. I have no idea what you are talking about. Did you all enact some dire orgy together? Who knew such an innocent little thing like yourself could be capable of that sort of debauchery?

Lila’s fear and anger suddenly evaporated and she snorted with laughter.

I overdid it?

You can’t carry off Puritan, she told him. It’s not your nature.

Tath grumbled but she sensed that he was pleased. She was reasonably sure that he hadn’t missed a trick either. At least he had been completely discreet about it and that was about the only mercy she was going to get.

She moved to the wall and pressed her face for a moment against the cool stone of the pillar that supported the window arch. Its solidity was reassuring. Memories of other kinds: her parents walking away to the cruise liner that would take them far from Thanatopia’s fragile shores into the infinite; an imagined vision of Zal’s first wife, Adai, taking the same journey, forlorn aboard an airship with white wings—these visions came as they always did, accompanied by a flood of guilt and sadness. And then other visions—darker and less certain. These came later, tripping trapping across the bridge of suspicion: she was not the first person to be made over using the bomb fault technology. There had been others. Surely. What happened to them? The existence of remote controllers was proven, but not how many there were, or of what kind. The intentions of those who held them were also a mystery. And for how long could she attempt to embrace the demon life when she was no demon? Or an elven life, being no elf, nor anything but herself—and even that not what she had dreamed it a few scant months before.

Something moving caught the corner of her eye and she looked up to see the imp, Thingamajig, hopping over the baskets on the balcony towards the door. He pressed his small, hideous face to the glass and stared at her; the pet who could not come in. On the carpet Teazle yawned and hooked some loops with his claws in a satisfied sort of way that seemed entirely in keeping with his leisurely pose but which signalled to Lila that he was highly alert. Teazle didn’t have a lot of time for imps; possibly less than ten seconds.

Outside Thingamajig was doing an elaborate mime. When she frowned at him, he went off and shortly returned with a dead bird. He tore out the tail feathers and stuck them to his bottom and then held the loose-necked head in front of his face. Then he dropped his props and wiggled his fingers close to his eyes before stretching his arms out, indicating all directions. Satisfied from the change on her face that she had understood, he returned to yanking ribbons off the baskets and licking them for traces of aether.

“He’s right,” Teazle murmured without opening his eyes. His tail twitched. “You should go and see her. It’s time.”

“If it’s time why is he still here?” she folded her arms and watched the imp’s activities. “Surely I’m still hellbound if he hasn’t gone away of his own accord?”

Teazle grunted, “Unlike most imps he seems to have an agenda that goes beyond tormenting the damned.” He sounded vaguely intrigued, but only vaguely. “If that weren’t the case I’d have eaten him already. But he hasn’t been on your shoulder in a week, and that’s good enough. Will you go alone?”

She knew enough about the white demon by now to know that a leading question from him was always a taunting opportunity in the making; if she said no, she’d drop in his estimation and his power over her—always a factor that must be accounted for, even with demons with whom you were intimate—would rise. This was a world where yielding to fear had dire consequences.

“I’ll get dressed and take a flight,” she said casually, not wishing in the slightest to make the visit.

“Zal and I will amuse ourselves,” Teazle murmured, making it sound in just those few words as though he had elaborate plans that would involve a great deal of life-threatening activity. No doubt he did. Lila wondered just how long they could survive a vacation in Demonia. “Don’t worry your human head about it,” was added into her silence.

“I don’t have a human head,” she said and turned around, heading towards the bathroom.

“Heart then,” the demon said with surprising fondness. “I know you love him. I’ll be sure and be the first to die.”

She couldn’t think of an adequate reply to that, so she just went and took her bath.


Thingamajig rode on Lila’s shoulder to the Souk. He babbled anxiously all the way about whatever caught his attention and, instead of his customary piercing of her earlobe with his sharp talon, he clutched the cloth of her padded vest in a vice grip.

“Can’t you sit still? I don’t know what you have to be nervous about,” she said crossly. The day was hot and humid, the roads seemingly full of lazy, torpid demons who were content to simply stare at her and mutter or else call various congratulations or deathwishes on her marriage. They oiled from their idleness into sudden huddles as she passed. She wanted to smack them, but for once nobody seemed in the mood for a duel.

Occasionally strangers attempted to press small gifts on her, as she had been warned they would, and she directed them to the servant behind her whom Teazle had instructed to collect and check all items. The servant had already sent one full bag back to the house. Lila hoped that personalised thank-you notes were not required, but reasoned that for what amounted to bribes, they were almost certainly not. The House of Ahriman had been a major demon cabal and the House of Sikarza was in a similar position before the wedding. Now their joint power was vast. Everybody who wasn’t allied to one of the great families was angling for a position with them.

The imp by her ear came to the end of his babbling history of the allegiances of the House of Ceriza, which they had passed some time ago, and made an unhappy noise before piping, “I have more business than you being damn nervous. She . . .” but he wasn’t able to go on. In fact, the word as he said it was so loaded with dread and the impossibility of escape, that it was quite sufficient.

“You will tell her that you want me around strictly on a retainer basis, won’t you?” he asked, for the thousandth time. “I mean you’ll say it quickly. I don’t want her getting the wrong idea and banishing me before you get to say it when you really intend to keep your promise and help me discover my true identity, which is your mission, you and the others, to do good things, like heroes of old, eh? Like the Maha Animae of the old days. You’d not let a small friend such as myself languish in the abysses of the infinite like just any old imp, waiting for some hopeless neurotic to walk past and pull them back into physical being with the force of their madness, would you? No. That would be a terrible thing indeed. And who knows where I might be stuck? I could be stuck halfway up the sky over the Lagoon and not even in the city, and then what would the chances be of some possessed dimwit flapping by close enough to pull me free of the miserable torment of limbo? None. Not for thousands and thousands and thousands . . .” he continued for a second as Lila’s hand clamped over his head but then stopped as she closed the implacable machinery of her fist.

“I’ll mention it,” Lila said in a very even voice, speeding up her tread to a pace just short of running. “Oh, I’m sorry, I seem to be crushing your skull . . .” She let go.

The imp remained motionless for a moment, then very carefully rubbed its hideous little face against her vest. “You have the tender mercies of a goddess. I shall say no more.” And it didn’t, although it vibrated with anxiety so violently she started to feel that his talking had been a better option.

Madame Des Loupes was the greatest clairvoyant of the age. Lila had met her before, and taken tea. Nothing bad had happened. She had been given no dire prophecies or information, and the tea was good. Madame had been infallibly correct and polite about Lila’s descent into hell, Lila thought. A pity for Lila that she had imagined fiery morasses and roasting spits instead of intense emotional and mental anguish, but either way, forewarned was not forearmed.

She had not understood her personal situation until much too late. Too late she realised that when a demon talked about living in hell, it meant you were living inside the worlds of your own illusions. Demons considered this a form of victimhood—you were a victim of an inaccurate reality. This made you easy meat for anyone who could push your buttons, whatever they were. And for those who were without illusion, seeing the hotspots of other people’s lies, self-­deceptions, motivations, and fears was simple.

Lila still wasn’t sure it was human to live without some illusions and to see what was there as clearly as the demons claimed to see it although seeing of reality for what it was . . . that had a power she couldn’t deny. But again, it wasn’t a power you could wield like a sword. It was a power you could follow, like a current, or you might fight and swim against it and drown. Either way you might drown in fact. Just knowing what things were like wouldn’t save you from them any more than knowing how a volcano works would save you from a fiery death if you got close to one that was going up.

Lila had once thought that all great powers of that kind, such as seeing The Truth and suchlike, were the powers of champions which would grant a kind of immunity from harm. They seemed legendary and otherworldly, supernatural abilities for the rare people who were spiritually developed enough to have gained them. But no. They were not like that at all. The only thing you had to do to acquire them was to stop fooling yourself (though that was not easy when you had spent a lifetime being bamboozled into your illusions by other bamboozled people who came from great long heritages of similarly bamboozled people who all had very good and proud reasons for wanting to believe bamboozling things).

However, the visionary gifts of the champions who saw truly—which she had thought of as so grandly elevated and conferring great privilege—showed instead the limits of one’s power; what one might do, or might not, and when. She got that now. Compared to the dreams she used to cultivate about knowing everything, dreams in which everything was so obvious that it was only a matter of doing the right thing at the right moment to ensure the whole world turned in a more favourable direction—why, the realisations of her own mistakes in so believing were like repeated slaps in the face with a wet, week-old dead fish. Look at Mom and Dad, who had finally seen through their self-destructiveness in the moments of their death, but never bothered to do so in life when it could have been of use. And look at Lila, who had shored them up in their folly with her protective lies and deceptions, while despising them secretly and pretending the entire thing was loving care. The horrific and pointless waste of it made her eyes prick with tears and her throat close with pain. And to think she had been going to show them, with her nice job and her superior sense of how to organise life, exactly how to be better people when she was busy blaming her sister for leaving home and bailing out and saying rude, nasty things about Mom and Dad . . .

Yes, the vision of the demons was hard to take. Because she felt she had at least managed to face most of its revelations, Lila was not as scared of Madame as she might be. But then, that was perhaps due to the limits of her vision, she thought, whereas Thingamajig was much better informed about Madame, even if he had forgotten exactly in what ways. Lila had no idea and so she was content to go and find out if Madame was prepared to, somehow, let her out of Hell, for Madame had that power at least. Lila knew, because Madame had given it to Zal.

A thought struck her as she turned through the beaded door of the Souk; its soul-guards tinkling in the wind with the sound of a thousand tiny sighs, “Is that why you’re an imp then, because you wouldn’t acknowledge some truth?”

“It was not a truth,” Thingamajig snapped, emphasising the last word. “It was a conjecture. An hypothesis. A notion. An idea unverified by scientific observations. A matter,” he intoned with the utmost loathing, “of opinion.”

“What was?”

“I don’t remember,” he said hopelessly and fell into a slump.

Lila set her eyes to tunnel vision as they began to pass the esoteric stalls. She had seen them once and once was enough. Part of her wanted to look again, to reinforce its belief that living things preserved in fluids twitched in bottles and much worse things lay dead in various ways . . . but she didn’t indulge herself. The dark magics were as practised as any other skill in Demonia; to artistic perfection, and beyond, to zeotika—corruption.

She was afraid she might see necromancers’ vials, and if she did, how could she pass, knowing what they held? Souls, or spirits, or whatever aetheric portions of beings could be detached from the gross mortal body would be imprisoned there. The bodies themselves might be in any state. No, she didn’t want to see them and to know, from Tath, what they were for. She didn’t want to feel his own cocktail of repulsion and desire. It felt shamefully weak, but to survive this world it didn’t pay to bring your human sensibilities too close to the surface.

Lila remembered when Tath had eaten Teazle’s brother. The glorious vampirism. The thrilling jolt of power, the gluttonous, eager bite that seized the spirit and shredded it to nothing more than primal energy.

No, she didn’t want to think about that. In her chest Tath was utterly silent, a suspended shimmer of presence no more intrusive than a breath of air. He and she were so closely attuned now that they rarely needed to speak, although they frequently did, to pretend that they didn’t feel one another’s hearts. Of their secrets, they were each other’s keeper. How soon that had come about . . . how easily.

Lila’s view widened as she cleared the narrow walk with its overhanging webs of fine floating coloured gauze and came to one of the major ways that led to the souk’s ancient heart. Along this passage there were fewer items on display and they were all artworks of various kinds: sculptures, paintings, fabrics . . . every kind of designable item. In the dim interiors of the old plasater-daub warehouses demons worked to pack things into crates and to load crates onto pallets which waited for nightfall when the trade closed and the streets admitted the passage of goods carts. She saw some marked for Otopia and, without any awareness of the long machine processes involved in the research that her AI performed, she understood that their barcodes directed them to Home Depot. She wondered if the buyers had any idea what the demons were capable of doing with apparently ordinary items, but that was a Customs matter, not for her to concern herself with.

“Wait wait wait!”

A blurt from the imp shook her out of her surreptitious spying. She slowed down and then stopped. They were alone in a narrow coil where the buildings blotted out most of the sky with their overhanging upper storeys, their flags and hoardings and drying laundry. She saw Thingamajig’s skinny arm pointing to a stand of unremarkable statues set close by the pavement. Rows of varying-sized demon models were ranked on cheap wooden shelving, held in place by lengths of rough twine. They looked like they were cast in resin or some kind of clay.

“Go closer!”

Oh. My. God.

Lila raised her eyebrows at this double jeopardy taunt and questions flicked through her mind. “What is it?” She idled across and pretended to browse the statues. On closer inspection she realised the workmanship was exquisite on every single one. They were models of demons in various dramatic poses, and incredibly lifelike. Every scale and hair was minutely rendered and the smallest ones were small enough to have fitted into a small pocket. Paper price tags were stuck to each one and after doing the conversion she thought they were a ­reasonably good value, if you liked that kind of thing. They were coloured, but not as brightly as real demons, as if the trend in that ­particular art leaned towards a muted understatement.

The imp crawled down the front of her vest, claws clinging, and hung there, fixated. “It’s really him.”

She tracked his gaze and found him looking at one of the largest pieces, almost waist high to her—standing to the side of the shelved items.

It’s really him, Tath echoed with a profound irony she didn’t ­understand.

The statue had a lot of horns and was various hues of red and orange. Large leathery wings and a spined tail were half extended, as though it was about to do something. Its face wore an expression of annoyance and the mouth was partway open.

“Someone you know?”

“Knew,” the imp said softly. “Yes indeed, the leader of my Precinct. A fearless hunter of the unrighteous he was, not only a mage but gifted with a shaman’s powers to call on the land. Rare. His art was geomancy. He could flatten cities with a stamp of his hoof or raise towns out of living rock. Made a lot of money in building. Had a whole passel of architects and pretty much the entire business all paid a tithe to him in some way or other. No way you could put up anything if he didn’t like you. He’d destabilise your foundations and make your materials fall into dust. A right bugger, he was.” It had grown thoughtful on the last few phrases and stared closely. “Just look at the size of him. Very powerful. How much is he?”

Lila looked for a tag but there was none . . . and at that moment the shopkeeper came out. She was thin and tall and green, with beautiful fins on her head. “May I help you?”

“I was just wondering how much this statue is,” Lila said.

The finned demon raised a membranous eyebrow. “Indeed. He’s not for sale at home. Export only. Are you perhaps a trader from Otopia?”

“No,” Lila said quickly. “Just a tourist.”

“Mmn,” the demon looked at her, not believing a word. “Well, if you’re very keen you can make me an offer.”

“I don’t even have a garden,” Lila said apologetically.

The demon nodded.

“Or a house big enough.”

“He’s not a domestic size,” the demon agreed. “Small ones for that. Lucky statues. Not a big totem. He’s more a corporate kind of . . . relic.”

Lila thought it best to keep to herself that she had no idea why anybody might want such things in the house or anywhere. “Company forum,” she agreed politely.

Lila, they are not facsimiles. They are real. These are demons who have passed into their predeath ages.

Lila felt her social smile freeze on her face, but then suddenly the strange conversation that she had once overheard in a tea house, where she had seen a demon shrink and ossify, clicked into to place. His friends had bitched that he wouldn’t fetch much money. Predeath?

Before true death a demon separates from the physical plane and its body petrifies and reduces, depending on how much spirit it had. Inside the remains the demon itself lives on, detached from worldly proceedings. It may stay there indefinitely, seeking to influence others through the aethereal planes, or it may depart for the endless shores.

How do you tell which ones are—really dead?

Only a necromancer can know, Tath said smugly. And I can tell you that most of these, including the big one, are fully present and listening to every word.

Just like you, she said and regarded the rigid little forms with a new wariness.

Well, good luck to them in the human world, Tath said acidly. They have as much chance of accurately placing a psychic influence on you dullards as they have of running a three-minute mile. You would think that thousands of years of effort occupying talismans and making themselves into New Age jewellery would have taught them that.

She decided not to ask for more detail, because she knew he wanted her to. “Come on,” she said to Thingamajig, and turned back to the road. “We’ve got other things to do.”

“Hey! What’s he retail for?” the imp screeched from her shoulder as she walked away.

The trader made some reply and Thingamajig bristled. ­“Overpriced.”

“So,” Lila said as she walked, “demons have infiltrated the human world.”

“Everyone has infiltrated the human world,” Thingamajig asserted breezily. “Long before you started noticing us with your fancy bomb whatsit. I wouldn’t doubt that was an arcane invention that required a lot of influence, if you may say, in its creation. You were a lot of innocent fun before it all became this serious diplomatic angst-fiasco and formal governmental whatnot. I often wonder who made that thing and why they wanted to spoil everything. Not only did we have you for light entertainment, but before it went off we also had worlds that were stable and pleasant and not prone to breaking up and dissolving into the primal materials. Of course many say it’s a conspiracy. Don’t know by whom and for what though. Can’t see what anyone had to gain by ruining everything. Now that we have you on the case, however, I’m sure it will all soon be sorted out.”

“That was sarcasm,” Lila said.

“Allow me some benefits,” the imp replied dourly. “I am facing my doom.”

They had arrived at Madame’s house.

The door opened as they reached it, not a step too soon and not a step too late. It revealed a lofty hallway lit with golden lights and decorated with filigree of golden wire in onyx. They were greeted with a silent bow by one of Madame’s potential suitors, who had now become her minion following his rejection rather than face exile from the object of his desire. This one was very tall, very thin with skin like antique paper. He was basically human in shape save for his long tattered tail and his green reptilian eyes. Lila was briefly grateful to have missed Madame’s favourites, the pair of hulking monsters with dead raven heads, but regretted the thought as soon as she had had it, for at this range there was nothing she could think or remember that Madame would not know.

“Greetings Ms. Ahriman Sikarza Black, Friendslayer,” the doorkeeper murmured, beckoning with a soft, slow underwater gesture of his hand. “This way.”

Madame Des Loupes was, as Lila remembered her, hideously beautiful in the way of demons. Her massive carrion bird’s head was angled to look out of the window where she leaned against her special backless chair, the train of her peacock tail sweeping gracefully to the wooden floor. Her woman’s body was wearing a delicate white lace blouse and skirt that looked like sea foam. It covered her legs to the knee, concealing the snakelike phallus that Lila knew she also possessed. Her feet were clad in delicate silk slippers.

She adjusted the open window as Lila entered and beckoned with one of her simple human hands on its slender, powerful arm. “Look,” she said. “Did you ever see so many faeries here? And for once not high on powder and spells. Their bags are full of rare artefacts and essences.” Her voice came from her beak, perfectly articulated despite the fact that neither beak nor tongue were suited for speech. Lila had no idea how she made the sound. On her shoulder Thingamajig clutched and shivered.

Lila was stuck for an answer, since she had not noticed much of anything at the Souk in her preoccupation with not noticing the things she particularly wanted not to notice. “Is there a special occasion?”

“They are preparing for war.” Madame did not seem particularly to care if this was the case. She showed Lila to the guest couch, a slender chaise, and waited for her to sit down. Lila did so cautiously, keeping most of her weight on her feet in case the delicate furniture didn’t want to take the weight of her machineries. The couch creaked faintly but seemed to hold firm.

“How do the Otopians care for the moths?” Madame asked then, finally turning her attentive gaze towards Lila. She left the window and brought her own chair to a more easy position for talking, slightly to Lila’s side rather than opposite her.

Lila knew she was referring to the invasion of creatures that were causing havoc across the human world and which, if she had been in Otopia still, she would be tracking down and capturing, attempting to talk with, perhaps killing if things were bad. And reports said sometimes things were bad even, though most of the incidents on record were of people being terrified rather than properly menaced or killed. “Not much. Do you know where they are from?”

“But of course, they are fey,” the demon replied as if it were common knowledge. “Hence my cause to mention it. Faeries everywhere. Most unusual to see such clusters of activity. The moths are not true faeries, merely a part of the fey world. They may take up the form of others and speak in words sometimes but they are more truly beasts than self-aware beings. A plague of them is an occasional phenomenon. It signals something important, though who can say what?”

“I’m not here about them,” Lila said, though she hoped she seemed grateful for information which was already more than the secret service had managed to provide her with.

“I know,” Madame said and for the first time fixed a gleaming black eye on the imp cowering on Lila’s shoulder. “You are here to request deliverance, such as Zal must have told you he received from me, but I hope it is not as a forerunner of an attempt to become demonic, because you are not capable of that.”

Lila stiffened, feeling insulted for a moment.

“You are human,” pointed out the demon with simple fairness. “You might conceivably copy our ways or be possessed by some of our vigor, but you cannot be one of us because the humans have no true affinity to the aether. Your connection to that aspect is passive. You are materially bound. Besides, two demon partners is more than enough of a connection to our spirit. You will do well to survive them.”

“Madame,” Lila said simply. “Can I be released now?”

“From Hell, you mean.” Madame signalled to the minion who had remained at the door and he went off. “But at any time of course. Simply stop pretending. You don’t need me.”

“But I thought . . .”

“Yes,” the demon continued, picking up on that thought, “you thought that if I gave Zal clearsight I should have to give it to you. But for the same reason I am unable to satisfy your wish to know what it is to be demonic, I can’t grant you the sight. It’s not a power that is transferable. Zal already had it himself, all I did was to open it fully. I didn’t make anything new.”

“And I don’t have it.” Lila remained composed, though underneath she felt an impending crush of disappointment and attempted to fend it off, searching for a scrap of pride with which to feel better.

“That,” Madame said, moving her beak and somehow pointing directly at Lila’s attempt to shore herself up, “would be the wrong way.”

“Humans are pathetic. Can’t see, can’t know, can’t do magic, can’t do anything,” Lila said, realising as she did so how childish it sounded. “I get it.”

“You don’t like it, but don’t pretend,” the demon agreed. “That’s just how it is. As for the seeing, well anyone can do that to the end of their own nose but most don’t. My kind of sight goes much further but it is no different. You have as much sight as you need. No, you came here wanting me to fix something about you, because you think that to escape the clutches of Hell means an eternal ticket to being right. Or to have the world turn the way you think it ought to. But I must emphasise that it will change nothing. Not one bit.”

“I . . .” Lila began but had nothing to say suddenly because Madame was, of course, right. “What does it mean, for a human?”

“Two things,” Madame said gently. “First that you are free to accept or reject the influence of others, and secondly that you are no longer prey for the devils.”

“The devils,” Lila repeated. “I thought devils and demons . . .”

It was Madame’s turn to stiffen, this time with repulsion.

“Are they different?”

“Your ignorance is that of all your kind—loathsome yet inescapable given your sorry history of misinformation, deceit, and general blindness to the aether so I may overlook the remark . . .” Madame laughed at her own outrage briefly, a girlish and oddly carefree sound that, coming from her huge beak as it did, was chilling. “My dear wretch, no. The devils and the demons are most certainly different. A demon might torment you via possession, but a demon is always passionate and vibrant and full of life, even if that is a kind of life and vigour that becomes destructive. Demons consume with fire and excess.

“A devil has no form outside the host except its ghost trace. They have no lives of their own. They are part of the undead realm, but also part of Zoomenon, a form of elemental negativity. Unlife. Where a mind is struck with self-hatred, where it would rather be moral than gentle, or right than compassionate . . . there you will find a devil at work.

“As you may see, no demon could be possessed by such a creature and function as a demon in any way. Demons are pro-life. Devils enjoy withering life where they may, and most of all they enjoy withering it when they encourage the host to spread the contagion and seed devils in the minds of others. Evangelism is their modus and moralising their watchword. Hell is the making of devils, and escape the work of demons. Elves and humans are frequently infested, and spread the infection to their descendants and associates without attempt to stem the plague. The more devilment in the world, the more miserable it is. It is why we despise those races the most.”

Lila nodded, recording everything and trying not to think of whether this did or did not qualify her for escape. “And how do you identify a devil?”

“It is simple. A voice in your mind will say that suffering leads to virtue or that virtue requires a sacrifice. It will justify misery in terms of a greater good coming later, or as the resulting karma from previous misdeeds—a deserved punishment. If the person afflicted with the devils is not religious, it will explain its ways in terms of social acceptability and personal pride. Thus you may know its work.”

Lila fought an urge to squirm on her seat. Thingamajig was stock still as Madame turned to him with her bright black eye.

“Imps are able to recognise devils in others because they are themselves possessed. They are a kind of immune system for our society. But where a person is not beset by evil then imps have no use at all.”

“He keeps saying you will make him leave.”

“Dead useful I am!” piped the imp suddenly, leaping into life and striking a swashbuckling kind of pose beside Lila’s head. “You know full well that it’s not easy to be rid of devils. They’re always lurking. Always coming back in that moment of doubt, that niggling feeling . . . you can’t be certain of your own mind once you’ve had them in. You gets in the way of them just now and then, and even if they go you carry on like they were there if you’re not careful: then they come back.”

Madame stared inscrutably. “Wantonly consorting with an imp is unheard of. We discard them. If you wish to amuse yourself or engage his services as a prophylactic, be warned it will be considered a weakness of character. Imps that do not leave once the devils are routed are generally slain on the spot. It is traditional.”

“I couldn’t keep him as a . . . pet?”

“You must realise that to linger around those infected with the devils is very dangerous. They will jump across at any opportunity. And as the imp says, there are few individuals who never suffer a second of doubt into which a devil might leap.”

Thingamajig sat up eagerly in the begging position and smiled.

There was a moment of pause and in it Lila felt Madame’s energy shift as clearly as though it were her own. The demon brimmed with power, ascending, because Lila had shown her a chink in her armour. Madame preened a feather on her tail with one hand and said coldly, “We do not have pets, only minions or, for parties, slaves. But an imp is already both; a public variety of scum.”

“And he’s an imp because he’s a demon with a devil?” Lila felt quite proud of herself for figuring this out.

“Yes. Who could be freed, if he had the balls for it, although that almost never happens. But enough talk about this sad creature. Tell me, how do you like your married state?”

Lila straightened her back and flicked the long scarlet swatch of hair out of her eyes. “Well now, I don’t know if two husbands will be enough.”

The surge of Madame’s power rise abated somewhat with this swagger and the demon laughed. “Glad to hear it. Did you want something more of me?”

“Since I’m here, I don’t suppose you know anything about this,” Lila held out her right arm, cued her AI, and activated it. The metal and weapons flickered, and they were so fast and so perfectly liquid in thier movement that they looked like a blur of soft, watery things shifting in the light for a second. After that second there was simply the stark, oily blackness of strange metal, the blade and the gun of what the AI knew as Standard Offensive Mode for the Right Arm. What remained of the shape of a human hand grasped the blade and the skin which had looked so perfectly ordinary was simply gone. There was no blood and it happened in silence.

Madame did not blink. She cocked her head with a fast, birdy movement to look more closely. Then she looked up at Lila and sat back again, “Am I to understand, given that you anticipate my reading, that this is not how it used to be?”

“Damn straight,” Lila said. “Used to be slower, messier, and I had to do some of the maintenance myself. There was just one mode and I had to equip it the slow way. Actually, I still have to equip it with various bits of ammunition and so on, but not like I used to. Let’s say it’s undergone some kind of upgrade. And the part that freaks me out the most is the skin. Watch.”

Lila wished for her ordinary arm back. There was the liquid movement, the blur of grey becoming soft beige and red, and then there was her arm, quite ordinary looking, with skin that creased in the right places, short nails, and warmth.

“But no maker on the human side has touched it?”

Lila nodded. “I get the impression that they don’t want to touch it any more.”

Thingamajig crouched, silent and unmoving. In her chest Lila felt Tath’s relief and her own surprise; he was relieved that she had finally spoken about what was going on.

In Alfheim she had been “cured” of the medical difficulties of becoming a cyborg. Where her body had been weakened and threatened to break under the strain of fusion to metal prostheses, it flourished with health and strength. But lately, pain had started to return. A new kind of pain, it had at first seemed that the magical process of her restoration was reversing itself and she and Tath had both assumed grimly that without more treatments in Alfheim it must surely revert entirely. She had prepared herself to begin once again the daily treatments, drugs and practices that allowed her to survive; a wearying series of ministrations that took hours. But when she looked for the damage and let the AI analyse her blood, she didn’t find any sign of deterioration. But the pain was there . . . and then a trip to the Security Agency medical centre revealed the cause. The machine was growing, and so was she. They were growing into each other slowly, but surely. At some points she was stronger, at some points it was. New lines of tissue were appearing, neither human made stronger by the exposure to elfin energies nor metal made animate by its weird fusion with metal elementals, but something new. Something that was both.

Well, that’s what they said and she thought. It was new. So you could say what you liked about it. It was only theory. The reality had no name and so far, no explanation.

The demon closed her bird eyes and sighed a heavy sigh that lifted her beautiful bosom and let it drop slowly. For a moment her heartbeat was visible in the slight tremor of the skin. If she was reading Lila’s thoughts, Lila had no sense of it.

“You wear a talisman,” Madame said at last, in a quiet voice.

Tath tensed. Lila had forgotten it, it was so familiar. Now she touched it without thinking. There were two necklaces: one given by the faeries, which looked like it ought to fall off the chain any second but never did—a silver spiral. The other was a smooth jewel held in a wooden circle hanging from a leather cord. This was the one Lila thought of first. It had been given to her to prevent demons from detecting Tath. The spiral had been passed to her via Zal and he’d said nothing about special powers, though he did mention that Poppy seemed to think it was useful for something. The problem, as ever, was with the fey vagueness of that “something.”

“Yes,” she said, since the matter was impossible to deny.

“This interests me as much as your strange biology,” Madame moved on her seat and her tail fanned out. A thousand eyes, all different, all alive, opened upon the pattern of the feathers. Some blinked and some did not. They all stared into distances beyond Lila’s appreciation and seeing them do so made a cold shudder run down her spine. Madame clacked her beak, “I have seen such items before, though not for a long, long time. And I have seen something like your arm before also, with my other eyes, in other minds and other places. So I am minded to say—if you tell me where one came from, I will tell you about the other.”

Lila frowned slightly, “I thought you knew all my thoughts.”

“I know who gave you the talisman and that he placed some added charm upon it, but not how he came by it, for you do not know that either. I am sure he did not make it. If you tell me its story, I will tell you where you can find another piece of the machine. Meanwhile I can tell you that the talisman itself, however and by whom it was apparently made, is the creation of no demon, human, faery, elf, or deadwalker. Their hands might have put it together, but their minds did not. It blinds me.”

Lila was momentarily nonplussed. “Then who?”

“There are others,” the demon said. “If I were you and I wanted to find the answers I would search out a strandloper. They are most likely to be willing to talk about these things as they feel no allegiances to those who would prefer their silence.” She brushed her hand almost carelessly against the plumage of her tail and plucked off an eye from the masses that blinked there. With a conjuror’s flourish she opened her hand and held it out to Lila. A smooth stone lay there, clouded and softly coloured in shades of brown and cream. It looked like a pebble from the beach. “Take this. When you have news for me place it on a feather.”

The imp on her shoulder went rigid but didn’t speak.

Tath whispered, She asks you to become one of her Eyes . . . he sounded very doubtful and more than a touch frightened. By his tone of it Lila judged that becoming one of Madame’s eyes might well entail a lot more than a few conversations. And now she must weigh where she stood and where the demon stood and if the deal was true and as it appeared, or was much more. Through the window Lila saw traces of sparkling lemon vapour brim momentarily and spill out of thin air. They brushed softly through the hanging veils of fabric there. Above them on the guttering a raven cawed suddenly, harshly, and there was a brief, deafening clatter of wings.

Wild aether.

There was a powerful conjunction looming here and the chance of a game. If only Lila had any sense at all for magic. But she was human, and she had none. The only reason she could detect the aether at all was through Tath; his senses on loan to hers. But if nothing else demons were creatures of their word, she knew this for a fact. Find some information and in exchange she would be able to get her hands on another piece of technology. This path seemed easier than trying to beat Dr. Williams, her boss, and others at the Agency to information that they didn’t want exposed. She knew they held more pieces of the puzzle, but they also possessed systems that could directly contact and control pieces of her AI, and she’d do anything to avoid giving them more opportunities to use them. The wish she barely dared acknowledge to herself, which consumed all her energy, was that she could find a way to ensure her freedom from outside interference. She was not going to be the Agency’s pet robot.

Lila looked at Madame but the bird eyes showed no trace of human emotions and the beak remained expressionless, of course. On her shoulder Thingamajig twitched and muttered a warning, making a warding sign with his free hand. Tath said, If there is a game bigger than the one she speaks of in the offing, then I would be less than hasty to agree to it if I were you.

Lila had to admit he was right. Madame was surely deadly and her schemes potentially far more cunning than anything she herself was going to think up, but she had no illusions that she was able to outsmart the demon. Game or no game, it was the only way she was going to get what she wanted.

She reached out and took the pebble. It was warm and felt so much like flesh that she almost dropped it straight away.

“Put it in your pocket,” advised the demon. “A pocket you do not much use.”

Lila found a small zip-up on her combat vest. She tried not to rush pushing the eye into it so she didn’t offend the demon, but her nerves jangled with the urge to get its unctuous touch off her as fast as possible. At last the pocket was closed, the shaking of her fingers concealed as she pressed them hard against it.

“Good,” Madame said conclusively.

Lila nodded and ignored the offer of an open door from the footmen. She walked to the open balcony and stepped over the rail, igniting her jet boots as she started to fall. Beneath her the warren of the Souk spread itself flat under the heat of the midday sky. She had no desire to set foot in it again so soon. Flight was easier and, she thought with a grim smile, more fitting for someone who had agreed to become one of the crows.

L

ila returned to their lodgings at the Ahriman house, dragging her feet as she considered whether or not doing a deal with Madame was a wise thing. Probably it was not. But she told herself she had no other leads and squashed the thought that kept springing up so eagerly—that two could tango, and if the Agency wanted to use spyware and controlware on her, she might as well try to use her own technological spells on them. Only the grim boredom of entering some tit-for-tat security contest stalled her from trying it. That and a fear of finding information she’d rather not know right now, about herself, and Zal, and Doctor Williams, whose rather magnificent coup d’etat on the Agency’s last director was disturbingly well planned and executed for a nice little old lady psychologist.

She was not surprised to discover Zal and Teazle were both gone. Once conscious they rarely wasted time loitering when they could be doing something suicidal or artistic. Her human self, she found to her dismay, reacted prissily and with uptight negativity in the face of most of their suggestions for recreational fun. She felt an overbearing urge to remind them that they had important business to attend to; music for Zal and intrigue for Teazle . . . they should be getting serious and working, not loafing around all the time while their respective Romes sizzled merrily away with the smell of carbonized career. She hated that part of herself, so it was a good thing they weren’t here or she’d probably have said something and given them one more reason to notice she was supremely mentally and emotionally unsuited for demonic life, and probably nowhere near as fun or attractive as they had been duped into thinking so far. And wasn’t that twist of self-hatred just the peach on the cake? She was grim as she looked up and found they weren’t there. And relieved.

In their place she was surprised to see the elegant figure of Malachi reclining and reading his personal organiser as he sipped a cup of tea. The black faery got up as soon as he saw her and set the cup down without a sound. His charcoal grey suit gave him a dashingly sinister air and his amber eyes glowed fiercely; a feature she had long grown used to. She barely noticed them, looking instead at the huge wings that were just visible behind him, like watercolours painted on the air. They were slightly ragged and butterfly shaped, veined with black, and moved in their own clouds of anthracite dust. The dust sparkled and tumbled and gave the appearance of being capricious—it whirled in little eddies and seemed not to want to settle on anything. Not for the first time Lila wondered exactly what properties it had and how powerful it could be in Otopia. She had felt more confident around him before Tath, when she couldn’t see this aspect of him. There was a lot she didn’t know about the faeries.

You know absolutely nothing, Tath corrected her with amiable pedantry. And if more people who attempt to deal with the fey assumed that from the outset, the better it would be. Even the elves, who have vast lorehouses full of ­collected faery knowledge, do not presume to know them.

They’re old then? Lila asked him silently, at the same time as she moved forward with a grin on her face to give Malachi a hug. She was hoping that Tath would have to admit there was somebody older and smarter than the elves. Not because it mattered to her if there was or not, but because it would make him annoyed and for reasons she didn’t like to speculate on too much, his being annoyed by her in small niggly ways made her happy.

Old, new, it makes no difference, the elf replied with genuine unease, giving Lila a sensation like her heart being lifted and lowered a millimetre—his equivalent of a shrug.

She frowned, unable to help it, both from the dismay of his not rising to the bait and also because she had learned that Tath’s magical instincts were spot on. The idea of his being discomfited by the fey, including Malachi, who was her friend, annoyed and disquieted her. Tath could sense these feelings in her, but instead of notching himself another victory in their little contest he stayed quiet. That made her feel even more peculiar, since he never missed an opportunity to score points.

“Something the matter?” Malachi asked, withdrawing gracefully from the hug and adjusting the lie of his sleeve.

“No,” Lila said. “Just one of those days in the making, you know, where you set out with a simple objective and then everything gets so complicated before lunchtime you wish you hadn’t started. What’re you doing here?”

“Can’t a friend come to visit without a reason?” Malachi recovered his teacup and remained standing, looking around the place with interest. He was a picture of elegant distraction though Lila was not fooled. Malachi wouldn’t appear without a good reason. “Where are the hubbies?”

“If you use that word again, I will kill you,” Lila said. “I have no idea. And seeing as it is still my honeymoon, technically speaking, I would have thought you’d call ahead instead of just appearing godmother-style in my bedroom.”

Malachi gave her a long, level look and then put the cup down. His voice became serious—as serious as it ever got. A few motes of dust scattered from his wings to the floor. “There’s a lot of what you might call Trouble at the Mill, since we started our gang. The Otopians don’t much care for the idea of you having so much freedom and are scampering through their paperwork for ways to make you come to heel. Things are tough for the Doc at the top and even more so because of the moths.” He looked down for a second, and Lila wondered what was going on. In a human such a movement was a signal of guilt or dissembling, but it would be rash to read this into a fey. Malachi shrugged and continued, “They’re proving more troublesome than it seemed at first. Doc was wondering if you’d return early and provide some help disposing of them. The boys too, if they’re willing. Unofficially for them of course although Zal’s manager is, I understand, regularly coming within inches of hospitalisation due to the lad’s failure to turn up for band practice.” He hesitated. “And I have someone you should meet. I was on my way here—halfway over—when a little bird told me you’d be looking for a Strandloper.”

“A little bird?”

“Mmn, about yay big,” Malachi held up one hand over his head, about seven feet high. “Dark stinking cape, human body, long beak, maggots for eyes.”

“She’s keen,” Lila said with a sense of dismay. She hadn’t even got home and Madame was pushing her on her way.

“That’s what I thought,” the faery said, suddenly animated with interest, his casually aloof features losing their hauteur. Of course he knew all about Madame and her minions, it was only the humans who were ignorant about the “new” races, their ways, wiles, and celebrities. “D’you know why?”

Lila shrugged. “I invited her. She wants me to find some information for her, and then she’s going to tell me about this,” Lila lifted her left hand and held it out between them. She knew that Malachi was familiar with what her hands could usually do, including growing new skin on demand and performing a variety of interesting mechanical tasks generally reserved for laboratory precision robotics and armaments, but these all involved a degree of ordinary human activities such as adding components like blades to achieve the desired effect. Now she was wearing black leather gauntlets as part of her ever-ready duellist preparations for regular Demonian life, which would ordinarily have got in the way of anything particularly clever. She waited until Malachi gave the hand his full attention, and then created a bottle opener out of the end of her middle finger. She then reassembled it as a finger, before shaking the hand as though it stung. It didn’t, but she felt it ought to have. A feeling of creepy satisfaction snuck through her flesh; haunted but loving it. Who wouldn’t love the ability to spontaneously accessorise? Who wouldn’t wonder why the hell they couldn’t do it two weeks ago?

“Drinking bottled beverages is so important they made it a design priority?” Malachi asked, not really asking but covering the awkward moment with his best quip. His look was halfway between charmed and alarmed.

“Strangely enough, no. Look,” Lila made a can opener from the same finger, then a socket wrench, then a screwdriver, then set it back to a finger, blowing on it because it was suddenly hot from the changes. A silver nimbus of agitated metal elementals shone briefly around her hand and then sunk back into the matte black illusion of a leather glove. Her hip twinged with an ache, like an old athlete’s joint sensing oncoming bad weather, and she frowned. She’d been ignoring small pains for a month, but there was no denying they were related to her new party tricks. She kept silent about them because worrying about it privately and suspecting the worst seemed better than coming out with it and having the worst formally confirmed by medical. Her own stupidity sometimes amazed her.

“I’m thinking it didn’t used to do that.” The faery stared unhappily at her hand and then his eyes narrowed in speculation. She flexed her fingers and put her hand down.

Lila gave him a slow, thoughtful nod. “You’re right. I was definitely much more like a robot with rubber gloves on a year ago. Now I don’t even need to bother requisitioning gloves. Or, come to that, boots and stockings.”

Malachi raised his eyebrows, “Does it do other colours?”

Lila imagined her hand wearing a red glove. The black became muddy brown and then mottled, as if cancerous. She went back to black quickly. “Seems I don’t have the hang of that. Or it doesn’t like it. Maybe it’s a goth technology.” She hesitated. “I don’t really like to dwell on why it will do some things and not others.”

They shared a glance of profound discomfort and worry and then both looked away at the same moment. Lila felt strange again, as she had with Madame when she had showed the demon the same thing, and she tried to forget that just now she had referred to parts of herself in the third person, as if they weren’t really her at all. A shudder tried to get going in her back but she didn’t let it show and instead it closed on her spine with a cold grip—the fear she didn’t want to know about that kept on screaming silently “What if it’s alive? What if it’s not you but something else? Was it always like this? Did they know when they remade you? Or is it something made lately, in Alfheim, because of Zal, in Demonia . . . what is it? Whose is it? Why? Didn’t Spiderman once have this kind of trouble and look what happened to him . . .”

No, she didn’t want to give in to that kind of fear. That was a luxury reserved for people who feared something they could actually flee from.

Tath sighed an elfin sigh—long, soft, and so eloquent you could have sent it to a debating competition as an irrefutable speech on the folly of human nature. Lila imagined herself giving him a kick in the pants and sent it as a mental image, but he was impervious to taunts.

Meanwhile, “On the plus side I don’t have to bother with two hours of medical and maintenance every night,” she said, attempting to be breezy and failing.

“You still go back for ammunition, medical gear, or downloads?”

It was a good question. She didn’t know the answer since she hadn’t used up any supplies since her last trip back to the Agency. In one of the wardrobes a large unopened holdall contained a field-base’s worth of spares. Of the duels she had fought during and since the wedding she used barehand and blade techniques to be on the safe side. She didn’t know what rounds were fatal and nonfatal to demons, and anyway, getting out a missile or bomblet seemed unsporting and not in the spirit of ritual mortal combat. At least the demons seemed to agree with her. None of them had made an attempt on her life with anything more accurate or long range than a single hand crossbow.

“The AI processes go up almost a hundred percent when it happens,” she said because it was all the hard information she had.

A voice said from her ear, “Yeah but even that’s been going down lately. I keep telling ya to change into something interesting like a speedboat and give it something to worry about but do you listen?” Thingamajig crawled out of his hiding form as a ruby, jewelling Lila’s ear, and stretched out on her shoulder to stare at Malachi with proprietorial interest. He was slightly hunched and stroked the backs of his own hands, eyes narrowed, like a villain in a pantomime.

“He must be an interesting third party in bed,” Malachi said. “Unusually quiet today.”

“I’ve got a name, you know,” the imp said sulkily, slumping back into his recent despondent state.

“Yeah, when you know what it is give me a call,” the faery replied.

“Myeh,” Thingamajig turned his back and buried his face in Lila’s hair, aiming his small rump directly at Malachi and briefly emitting a fart of yellow flame.

“Can you turn into a speedboat?” Malachi asked.

“No. When can I meet your strandloper?” Lila asked.

“Soon as,” the faery said. He returned his cup to a side table and straightened his coat. “I have to be getting back. A few matters . . . well, you’ll see.”

She guessed that his stiff formality was a signal to her that whatever was bothering them in Otopia was particularly irritating. He was usually so relaxed, this businesslike attitude was the equivalent of some other person’s major anxiety attack. So she nodded agreement and gave him a reassuring smile, hoping it didn’t seem to eager. On top of everything else she was fighting hard not to admit that going along with the Demon code of marry-to-payback might have been a mistake. Visions of having to live with Teazle and Zal forever danced regularly through her head like a tacky vaudeville show. But she didn’t want to think about it. The Ignore file in her brain would just have to get to gigabyte sizes.

“Before you go. I wanted to ask. Do you know anything about this?” Lila reached into her neckline and pulled free the faery necklace with its spiral. The other was tangled up and came with it, but it was the spiral she held forward.

Malachi glanced at it, almost nonchalantly although his wings gave a sudden flick and discharged about a pound of coal dust into the air in a glittering black cloud. The sooty bits spun and danced, forming curious storms. They would not sink down but circulated around him, globulating as if they wanted to make forms but couldn’t decide what. A tang of citrus flavoured the air suddenly. Lila recognised a local magical sink forming, her conviction boosted by Tath’s sudden nudge as the aether made him alert. The spiral tingled between her fingers as if it had been attached to a small battery and a tendril of white metal energy stretched cautiously forward from her fingertips towards it, but did not make contact.

“Is that the one the eachuisge singer gave you?”

Lila recognised the strange sound as the official faery name for Zal’s backing singers—water horse fey. “Poppy. The annoying one. Yes, her.”

“Is it now?” Malachi had become almost somnolent, his eyes glazing with a look that was focused into the never. He stepped forwards with his usual grace but slowly and raised a hand up towards the spiral, stopping when he was inches away. “When did she give it to you?”

“She gave it to Zal to give to me actually, before he tried to come here and ended up in Zoomenon instead. He gave it to me when he got back.”

“So he carried it while he was there . . .” this was a statement, not a question and Lila didn’t say anything. Malachi’s expression was serious, his gaze drifting idly, it seemed, down to the spiral, though he kept his faraway stare so that he was both looking and not looking at it. “I’m supposing she didn’t say why or what it was for?”

“A good luck charm,” Lila said, repeating what Zal had said, although he’d been so casual about it she never thought it was more than a bit of decoration with some faery twirl set on it, the kind you could buy for a few pounds at any fey roadside caravan or truck stop. They were magical items, of the only kind available in Otopia under the present laws, and usually held a petit-glamour of some kind, such as adding a little brightness to the eyes or, in the case of the famous Faeryware, enhancing flavour in food.

“Aye, it was lucky for him to survive more than a few hours in Zoomenon, locate the only source of organised energy in that world, free a lot of ancient ghosts from millennia of torment and in so doing discover the one shameful secret of elven history that would give him proof that the shadowkin and the elves of light are blood relatives. So it was. Lucky indeed.” Malachi said quietly and let his hand drop without touching the spiral. Motes of carbon flirted with touching it and rebounded, as if repelled or frightened. He shook his head and broke his own trance, “Have you ever tried losing it?”

“No, why would I?”

“You should ask Poppy where she found it.”

For the first time in a long time Lila thought of Zal’s kid­napping—faeries had been involved in that, though it was an elven plot. She was about to mention it when Malachi said, “And the other one? That’s not a faery thing.” His gaze was fixed on the talisman, ­narrowed.

“Sarasilien gave it to me. Just a token,” she mumbled, knowing that it was the only thing keeping all the magical adepts in her proximity from discovering Tath. She had no idea what magic the old elf had used to make it, even though she’d seen it done. It had seemed a trivial thing, but then again, Malachi had more than once hinted that a big song and dance routine was just that when it came to the magical arts; a great spell or a small one was the work of a moment and for true adepts no props were required. She hadn’t entirely believed him, mostly because faeries liked slinging grandiose claims around, but now she wondered.

“The understatement there is so low I’m starting to feel that I’m back in the old country,” Malachi said, straightening the hang of his jacket. Abruptly the clouds of scintillating black dust shot back onto his wings and skin, like iron filings to a magnet. “Next you’ll be telling me your new family are just like regular folks. I’ll be on my way. See you at the Agency.” His amber gaze was direct, meaning she’d better be there soon and that he was wise to her attempts to omit important information.

“Sure,” Lila said, showing him to the door.

As he turned to go he cast a last glance over the room, lingering on the huge rumpled bed. “A year since you first walked into Alfheim, huh? You’ve come a long way, baby.”

“It’s not what it looks like.”

He nodded and she wished to hell he would stop being so serious, like he was her sad and wiser father or something. Her own father of course . . . no, she couldn’t even imagine beginning to explain this to him—“Hi, Dad. Here’s my new husband. He’s an elf. And a demon. Yes, both. I know, isn’t it weird but yes, you can be both apparently. And this is my other husband. He’s just a demon and we all live together, oh, and this is a dead elf I had a hand in murdering six months ago—no, he doesn’t share the bed, just my body . . . and this is Thingamajig. Demon? Uh, yes, well just an imp. Like a cat but more irritating. He lives next to my head. Yes, husband in THAT sense of the word. Want some help opening that beer?” And then she wouldn’t be able to say any more because she would literally have died of embarrassment.

The faery turned and looked down into her eyes for a moment. “You don’t need to defend yourself to me,” he said. “I just want you to be safe.”

She didn’t like the implication in that and before she knew it said, “You’re not responsible for me. Don’t think about it.”

His gaze hardened with a flash of anger and then he laughed. “Telling a fey to be free is like telling water it’s wet.” His anger returned and hardened out into resolve. “I am what I am. And I say you are into things deeper and stranger than you understand. You run in without a second glance, yes, like the children the faeries love the best. No hesitation. A child of the heart. Wedded to demons. But you don’t—”

“I do so know about them,” she said, thinking of the Souk, the glamorous, deadly violence of every day.

“You know what they like to show you,” Malachi said, suddenly more gentle so she wished he was angry again. “And we’re the same. And the elves, and that’s all.” He glanced at her forehead and hair, where they were stained scarlet by the deadly magical energy which had destroyed her limbs.

“I’m not under any illusions,” Lila insisted, angry in spite of knowing he was only being thoughtful. “I don’t need protection. I’m not a little girl.”

His look said he thought otherwise and she scowled at him.

“Sling yer hook,” Thingamajig muttered from her hair. “I’d have thought you’d have more sense, faeryman. The lassie doesn’t like to know what she knows.”

“Spoken like a pro,” Malachi retorted. He leant down and kissed the air next to Lila’s cheek. “Tell the lads I said hello.”

She closed the door after him and leant against it for a moment. It put her opposite the balcony and the huge sprawl of beribboned baskets but all she saw was Malachi’s deadly seriousness. She would never have believed he could be spooked by anything if she hadn’t seen it for herself.


Cutting short her holiday was something Lila wanted to do about as much as she wanted a hole in the head, but on top of her burning desire to get the information out of Madame was the uncomfortable feeling she’d got from Malachi. Add to that the mention of a Strandloper and Zal’s discoveries during and after his last visit to Zoomenon, and suddenly the idea of sitting around doing not much of anything was too annoying to bear. She decided to leave as soon as possible and went to ready her backpack so she didn’t leave anything behind her which the demons could tamper with, like artillery shells, bullets, or the slim vials of various biochemicals that were the precursor compounds for all the drugs and treatments she was capable of manufacturing. It was an intricate and methodical task that left her just enough time to bring her memories of the Mothkin out of storage in her AI module and into her mind. She read as she worked.

The Mothkin were a form of Fey. They were suspected of crossing into Otopia in times prior to the Bomb, in ones and twos, and they were pencilled into the annals of cryptozoology as the most likely culprits in the Mothman incidents in the USA. Of course there was no USA now, only the myriad small islands and their tiny gulfs—independent states, cities, and townships packed into the endless channels of the mighty river system, Fluvia, and known collectively as the Millefoss. On a good day you might attempt to crossmap the old USA and the Millefoss. Aas for Europe, Asia, and Australia, nothing very recognisable remained of their seemingly permanent geography and even the oceans and their currents were all changed about—so much so that doubt was regularly cast on the whole Bomb story, and not only by the denizens of the other five Revealed Worlds. Lila wasn’t interested in fitting history together though, she just wanted an update on how to handle human-sized fey with big wings when they weren’t being ordinarily friendly like Malachi or the hundreds of other faeries who legally worked and lived in Otopia.

The Mothkin were a part of the fey world which was least human and most animal-like, including many beasts previously featured only in cryptozoological tracts. They were counted by the faeries as “sluagh,” a term they used for certain fey.

Fneh, Tath said, figuratively reading over her shoulder. The Sluagh are no faeries. Trust fey to throw names and information about carelessly. The Sluagh are Death’s gleaners, the souls of the restless dead.

People who didn’t cross over? Lila asked, recalling her brief visit to Thanatopia; its vast harbours and anchorages filled with ships and each ship the destination of a long line of slow marching people. That scintillating ocean of light.

Yes. They include those who cannot let go of their mortal business, but also necromancers and others who went willingly to band together and live on the shores between life and death.

What for?

The power. The elf shuddered with a strange mixture of anticipatory pleasure and revulsion. The sluagh enjoy the company of many magicians, shamans, and other crafters who have many chances to cross over from Thanatopia to other worlds to gain power and to use it for whatever ends they desire. They seek out the living in order to hunt them and suck their souls to ride. He hesitated, Much as I did to get us into Thanatopia.

So these fey are like that; same power source?

It seems so, the elf admitted. Though they do not sound particularly intelligent, unlike the sluagh.

Lila read on. Faeries working in the Agency had insisted that Mothkin be classified as part of the Soul Traders. The key difference between sluagh fey and others was twofold. First, sluagh fey had magic that was primarily focused on the psychic and spiritual planes, and secondly they were much less ready to adopt a human form when manifesting across worlds.

Mothkin were quite low among the sluagh, according to Lila’s carefully cross-referenced pointer to The Fabula, the Agency’s unofficial guide to all outworlders. They were regarded on a par with animals in terms of their level of consciousness, occasionally getting up sufficient acuity to mimic humans or even become briefly human in form, but usually simply working on the basics of eating, sleeping, and causing trouble. They had a purely psychic form that was considered their “worst” manifestation, since it had no physical element and could not be trapped or bound by ordinary means. This form of the Mothkin was a secondary stage in their lives—a late development, when they shed their bodies entirely after a successful mating and/or egg laying. In addition, the dust shed by adult Mothkin wings had a mildly narcotic effect. Among the dust were spores that, if inhaled, opened the carrier’s spirit to infestation by the psychic adult form.

There is a saying among the elves that the bodiless fey are the same as the devils, Tath said quietly as they both absorbed this piece of news.

“The devils?” Lila said aloud, surprised by the name. “Shouldn’t they be here then?” She meant in Demonia, instead of Faery.

There was a sudden pull and pain on the side of her head and a voice muttered, “You metal-headed glowwit. It ain’t the same thing. Just very similar.”

Lila scowled.

The Fabula had a footnote appended with official stamps by human agents:

Note: this was a faery entry written by faeries. Faery information should be regarded with the due degree of suspicion.

That was close to one hundred percent suspicion, Lila reflected and Tath’s green became lime with laughter.

Note 2: Officially the “psychic” form of Mothkin is to be disregarded as an hysterical fabrication by humans. It is assumed not to appear in Otopia or in human subjects, due to their demonstrated lack of magical affinity. At best is simply a term that might be used to apply to any mental affliction. Agents encountering claims of Mothkin interference by subjects should refer the subject to ordinary medical and psychiatric care.

After skimming this part, Lila paused in a moment of consideration. She was used to the bull-headed atheistic rationalism of the Agency, which plodded grimly onwards with its revisions of magical and supernatural explanations no matter what. Everything had a scientific label and a theory. She was mostly able to shrug this off as a necessary defense for people with fragile minds who had to make everything they encountered conform to their vision of how the world was supposed to be. Otopia, prior to the Quantum Bomb, had been filled with all kinds of religions and so forth, but since the bomb the Agency and its governmental allies had become ruthlessly materialist, perhaps as a reaction to the huge influx of simply inexplicable, and untenable, things that had hurtled its way ever since. But however you chose to read the cause and effect they were pussyfooting around, from this one bleak, dry note she reckoned that a plague of Mothkin meant a plague of madness.

Her hand pushed the last magazine of explosive rounds into its place in her pack and she sat back on her heels giving the whole thing a final shake to settle the contents and test its weight. No wonder Malachi had been looking hangdog at her—reporting the Mothkin was akin to reporting a covert declaration of war between his homeground and hers.

She zipped up the pack as she read on.

Exposure to Mothkin is rarely fatal. There was a link to official databases, which showed clearly the number of facts backing up this last “statistic.”

There were none. Not simply no deaths. No data.

The last sentence read: At worst it is reported that a Mothkin assault on a human subject could result in a type of coma, therefore these creatures are not regarded as a High Alert threat.

After this there was an addition with a faery signature, underlined three times: Stupid human. Mothkin are soul tappers. Coma=as good as dead unless a necromancer or shaman can rebuild the soul well enough that it can recharge itself in the old form. What is it with you people and this denial business anyway? Sometimes I wonder why we bother. Anyway, you’re not likely to encounter many Mothkin in Otopia. They don’t have the power to cross worlds unaided so just don’t do anything stupid.

Stupider.

The file ended there.

I wonder what not doing anything stupid means in this context? Lila thought, hefting the pack in one hand and setting off for the roof with a light step, glad to leave the apartment behind.

I will forgo the obvious reply and say simply that it means that you should not anger people who have the power to aid the Mothkin across. One might suspect that this is exactly what has happened in Otopia.

So, to get rid of the moths I have to find out who sent them over and what their problem is?

One would assume. But being a faery matter I doubt it will be so simple. And do not forget that the fey do not dabble in diplomacy as you know it, whatever that sly black cat might be pretending. Any human could have annoyed any faery and got this result one way or another. Will you interview your entire species?

Well, it would have to be a big annoy, Lila said. Surely? And then she remembered the kinds of things that annoyed Poppy and Viridia and Sand, Zal’s fey backing singers, and she sighed.

Quite so, said Tath.

Lila had reached the roof and the landing deck where the sizable number of Sikarza vehicles were parked at her disposal. She nodded to the deck officer and tucked her pack neatly into a corner of his warm little cubby where it was safe. He was used to her leaving things with him and not taking any of his craft. Stretching out her shoulders and taking a deep breath, she strolled across the long flat top of the palazzo to the edge.

Thingamajig put his head out of her hair, “Where are we going?”

“I’m looking for Zal,” she said. She initialized her jets, running through a little safety check to pass the time as she scanned the city. There were many possibilities for two demons out there but she was pretty sure she knew where Zal would have gone, whether or not Teazle was in a mood to follow.

She kicked off from the roof with a stamp of her right foot, not because it helped the jets any but because it felt good. Her arms swept back towards her sides as she let the AI and the propulsion power take care of her flight path. The warm breeze turned cold as it buffeted her face and whipped her hair around. She went up high, rolling and turning lazy circles, experimenting with moving her arms into different positions and seeing how they affected the flight. All the while she slowly moved closer to her target in the district of Muses and kept a little of her attention on radar, watching for signs of imminent attack. Her wedding had brought her a fresh list of duellists, no less than three hundred and forty-seven at the last count, and she had been crossing them off at a rate of four per day on average, excluding days spent entirely at home. She grinned at the sky as she swept a curve on her back, arms wide as a diver, and pretended she wasn’t dallying, her blood starting to rise with the anticipation of a fight.

Sure enough, she had been airborne only a minute before she picked up signs of pursuit. Without thinking about it she began to change course, taking herself away from her planned route and out over the waters of the lagoon. The pursuit followed, lingering over the shoreline where the warehouses of the cargo district were squashed cheek by jowl to the water’s edge. It was airborne but low and she almost lost it amid the masses of boats shuffling for position at the quays, thick as autumn leaves in a forest stream. But her tracking systems were tenacious as only machines could be. A pleasing flicker of hunter/hunted shivered through her and her mouth spontaneously formed a small grim smile. When you were good at something, no matter what it was, there was a pleasure in doing it. She preferred airborne fights. Flying demons had wings and wings were a distinct liability.

By the time she had reduced her speed almost to a loiter and was waiting testily for the attack, wondering if she could legitimately take a first strike before making a positive identification of the demon as a bone fide duellist, she was beyond the range of all the airtrade lanes except the major circular bus route and its huge, ponderous balloons. These were so stately that as far as she was concerned they were virtually stationary objects and thus were useless as anything except temporary cover, though for that they were very useful indeed as it was a capital offence to damage a public transport vehicle or its passengers in a duel.

Thingamajig put his head out of her hair and said, “Another fight is it? Well let me tell you, Missy, you’ll be paying for it with yet another devil for me to talk about if you’re not careful—the one who sits up late at night in your older years making you curse your stupid youth and the joy you took in the death you dealt.”

“Ah crap,” Lila said. “I don’t see any of you guys suffering from guilt.”

“Yeah, but we was born our way and you was born yours and you don’t have it in the blood. A yu-man . . .” he spoke as if he was talking about something unsavoury, “. . . a yu-man conscience is a terrible thing.”

As is a demon one, supposing such a thing exists, Tath said icily.

Lila was brought up short. She never thought that Thingamajig’s outbursts were ever related to himself. It was true, her conscience did nag her about the consequences of a demon lifestyle, particularly the death rates. But she had not asked any of them to fight her, and if it was her life or theirs, then she didn’t feel any guilt over what she had to do. Well, she shouldn’t . . . but maybe she did feel it when her inner voice reminded her that staying in Demonia was optional, not required. You did, it kept whispering just as Thingamajig had promised, you chose. Then again, what was she supposed to do? Never come here again? A slow burn of anger at her position started up in her belly as she turned and stood on the jets to face her assailant.

“Now is not the moment,” she said to the imp. “You can keep your cupboard full of skeletons to yourself.”

The tiny demon shrugged and dug his claws into her shoulder armour, “I see you lying, you know. And I’m not the only one. The devils have a sense for lies that can reach beyond time itself and let me tell you there are at least three of them stalking you right now, close as your own skin,” he said with a raspy primness. “But I’m your friend here. You stuck by me when She Who Shall Not Be Named wanted to fling me back into limbo—quite prematurely I must say, ’cos you is far from in the clear. But she don’t care if you spend eternity in hell either way, that was only up to you, but you don’t get that about us that we don’t care for anyone else’s business no matter what, never mind that isn’t the point, point is I say this: did it ever occur to you that your conscience is wrong and that you’re right not to give a damn about the demons and whatever other bozos you’ve killed? ’Cos trust me, they all were asking for it, just like this lot.”

Her attacker was a large humanoid demon with black and blue hide, dancing carefully among the highly populated boats below. Her senses, some of them human but most of them robot, tracked it effortlessly. Scans revealed its weapons—claws, a poisoned knife, a garotting wire, some kind of boomerang, several grenades of various kinds, plus an intricate and interesting personal display of tentacles and stinging appendages. It had a mouthful of teeth like a crocodile and a huge set of wasp wings. It was armoured. But most of all, supported by a girdle and two of its powerful arms, it was holding a very large and sophisticated gun. She could not determine what kind of gun.

As it moved it watched her and she got the impression it was smugly biding its time from its protective cover whilst she was simply standing there in the sky. She was winning on points, but points didn’t count in the end.

“Killing is wrong,” Lila said, almost on reflex, though as she said it she considered herself to be asserting a basic humanity that was inviolable. There was an absurdity to saying it at that moment which seemed to demand a laugh, but she couldn’t muster one. She was too busy studying the gun.

“Who says?” The imp dug his claws into her ear with familiar pain.

She saw a variety of rounds inside the clip and the typical twin-barrel design of demon guns: one for sport and one for serious. “Everyone.” She tried to figure out which it was going to choose—although technically she could not be penalised for murder, even if the instigator of the duel only set out with maiming weapons.

“Oh that’s convincing,” Thingamajig hoicked up a wad of phlegm and spat down into the lagoon. “Everyone. Of course. Everyone. Fneh. He’s not alone I bet. Look at him prancing around there like some fey princess.”

“I see them.” She had picked up the two others working with the obvious demon just as the imp mentioned it, having thought of the same thing herself. One was high above her in the cloud deck, the other was on the rooftops at the water’s edge. As ordinary Lila she would have missed them, but her AI was in permanent Battle Mode here and it had no problems locating the telltale movements of those showing too much interest in her position. It had started out with twenty-one candidates, but settled on just the two after a few pico­seconds of hard thinking. To Lila it was no more than her own intuition talking. Without hesitation she shot straight up as fast as her jets would carry her.

An instant later the air shimmered where she had been and there was a loud bang.

“Matter Vaporisator,” the imp said with relish. “Disguised as a common Letemhavit Repeater. Mmn, impressive. These guys have money behind them. That Zoomenon technology doesn’t come cheap.”

Lila, who had heard of MVs but not seen them, was suitably silent. Humans didn’t know how MVs worked, only that they instantly reduced their target to its consituent atoms. There was a theory about information removal . . . but the design didn’t interest her nearly as much as the sure knowledge that whatever it hit didn’t survive.

“They need three for the triangulation point,” Thingamajig informed her happily. “But the power source has to be with the one on the ground, the others will just have some crystals or shit. See, I went to this exhibition once in the Engineering District . . .”

Lila focused on the space above her. Icy air tore at her and vapour turned to water on her face, streaming down toward her temples and chin. Her skin burned and tingled but her inhuman eyes were able to stare without pain. She raised her right arm, felt the gun system assemble itself and the shot depart without having a single thought, go through her head. There was only the wind, the vector, the target, and the intent. Cold brilliant.

A few hundred metres above her the round detonated—shatterstar—and she darted sideways in the soft white mist as the shining fragments of coalescing and deteriorating elements burned in their characteristic sunburst yellow, white, and blue. They glimmered like witch lights and then winked out, their moment of astonishing destructive power spent. A second later two dark and indistinct lumps fled past her heading downwards. There was a trail of dark smoke and the stink of burning flesh.

“Barbecue,” muttered the imp happily.

As he spoke a thin, almost invisible tendril of green leapt out through her arm.

Lila felt Tath’s grab snag on something aetheric and, to her, intangible. Like a frog’s tongue, the tendril snapped home again and lodged in her chest. Satisfaction spun there, slowly.

I didn’t say you could eat them, she objected, but her words rang hollow because she felt the same glow of victory and there was a grin on her face, even if it was a grim one.

It never pays to be a soul short if death comes calling, Tath said. I’ve left most of them alone but we all have debts to pay and things to consider. You are not my master.

The imp, who was still ignorant of Tath’s presence, said, “Hey, did you see that?”

“See what?” she said after a second’s hesitation. She didn’t know what made her angrier, her revulsion at Tath, her hypocrisy, or the imp’s perfectly timed annoying and dangerous inquisitiveness. What are you doing with it? She snapped at the elf.

Storing it, came the reply. Later I will take one for you, just in case we need to travel to Thanatopia and back again. Shall I be so kind as to insure your pet as well? His tone left her in no doubt that he felt he had been more than generous so far in withholding his activities when she was fighting, but she couldn’t help raging.

These are my fights, you can kill your own damned . . .

Spare me, Tath retorted. We both know you need me fully capable if you are going to go haring back to Otopia on some crusade against the fey creatures. If you had any brains you would already have had me preserve the spirits of all your vanquished, so we had energy enough and to spare. I am simply performing the most basic and least cruel of the Arts. They were already dead—we are only delaying their journey a while. Perhaps you can think of other sources of the deathbound for me to collect? Maybe we can go and loiter outside a hospital for a lucky opportunity?

They’re people, she said stubbornly.

And what I do is wrong, he murmured. I know. I have heard it all before. But you will sing another song when I can be of use to you.

It’s not . . . she was going to say it wasn’t like that.

It is. It is just not to your liking. Or mine.

It was. Once upon a time she had been a saving grace, carrier of a soul; a good girl. Now they were part of a team. She felt like the agreement had been foisted on her, and maybe it had, because she could have made him leave. She chose not to. And here he was, her own private death collector.

I don’t know how you live with yourself. But she could have said it to herself.

“Hey!” Thingamajig dragged on her ear as she took a zagging, randomised path downward, watching all the time for a chance at the demon below. “I said, Did You See . . .”

“Shut up, I’m trying to think,” she said. The glow in her chest was black, laughing. You idiot, you’re supposed to stay secret.

“. . . cause I was under the distink impression you had no aetheric capabilities at all. Nada. Zilch. Even the French Bird didn’t say otherwise and you know that she can tell. So if you ain’t possessed by no demons and you don’t have any powers, then . . .”

“I said shut up,” Lila repeated, quietly, coldly, sidling through the cloud as beneath her the bits of dead demon began raining down on the cargo boats in steaming chunks.

Now that their first attack had failed, the other two demons were in retreat. She was within her rights to pursue and exterminate—no duellist had a right to leave the grounds alive if their opponent lived—but they were heading in opposite directions. It was not possible to tell if they would regroup or flee. The MV would be of no use now unless she were to foolishly stand directly between the two of them. Her first impulse was simply to leave them.

“No, no, no, you can’t be serious,” the imp jumped up and down, his claws snagging and pulling threads out of her vest shoulder. “Do you want to be hunted down like a dog by the devils from all the ages? Not to mention the demons from right now . . . KILL something!”

“But . . .” but she pitied them.

“Because . . .” the imp shook her ear violently, insisting that she finish. “You pity them because . . .”

Lila stood in the cloud, her gun at her side slowly remoulding itself, as though bored, into a long, curving blade. “Because they have no chance against me.”

“Is there some problem with this I’m not understanding?” Thingamajig sighed. “Do you have any idea how many demons want to be in your position?”

“But that’s just it,” she said, all the while continuing to track both of her victims.

“If you say ‘it’s not fair’ I will be forced to extreme measures,” the imp snarled. “It ain’t. But look, now you’ve had your identity crisis and you’ve given them a sporting chance. If you wait much longer you’ll disappoint the audience.”

She had not noticed the interest coming from elsewhere—but yes, dirigibles and boats were turning in their ways and the fast-moving craft of single demons were heading in her direction, some winking with camera lenses.

“I don’t like to kill,” she objected, electing the demon she had first seen, the one with the gun.

“Liar.”

She arrowed after the target on an indirect angle, watching its movements and deciding it was weaving its path only to distract. She looked ahead for any destination that was likely to be useful to it, but there was nothing in particular that stood out. In the meantime she identified it: Demon Duellist 388, Vekankal. His personal note: Die, bitch.

Articulate, she said to herself, startled to realise how angry and hurt the two words made her. She didn’t even know the guy. Her speed increased and the paparazzi vehicles began to lose ground.

Concise. Tath stretched out, reaching his aetheric body to just below her human skin. Where he could he always avoided the metal prosthetics, though he could run through them almost as easily as through flesh. Metal usually fouled elven aether senses, but hers did not. Another point she should have thought about more carefully when believing that human science had remade her. Her gut twisted for a moment and she tasted burning in the back of her throat.

Behind her now the second demon had slowed down. It moved cautiously, keeping her almost directly between itself and its partner. So that answered the question about whether the MV was still functional. Lila stayed airborne as she closed in. Her body seemed strangely rigid with a feeling that at first she didn’t recognise.

Rage, said the imp. Pure and simple. Rage at the whole unfair stupidity of the system. Rage against the machine. You might win this fight, but you’re still trapped like a fucking rat. His voice became as gritty as if he’d been smoking sixty a day his whole life long; two steps away from a cancerous rattle. She could hear him smiling as he picked her thoughts clean and she chose the right caliber of hot lead to slow her target down. Guns didn’t kill demons. Demons killed demons.

You don’t even know why you came here and stayed here and hitched yourself to that whitemare, Teazle, except of course that being allied to him seems like a good step better than being on his hit list. Plus his attention was incredibly flattering if also a bit creepy and you’re scared of him.

Lila pointed her right arm at the running demon in the city below her. It was in a crowd, shoving its way through, the heavy power unit of the MV slowing it down. The distance between them was about four hundred metres. Her forearm vibrated pleasantly with the thrum of perfectly engineered metal parts oiling themselves into position. Click. Blam. She took out the power unit first and hesitated . . . the demon dropped the useless thing and spun around, searching for her, spraying a random fire of its own missiles into the air.

And you feel like it’s fucked your relationship with the elf. And it has. And you know it. Before it even started. And you thought you were doing such a smart thing, such an adult and responsible and carefully planned out and clever thing. It would put you in a great position of power as well as largely out of the way of serious harm, give or take the odd deathmatch of note, and Zal would be all admiring of how brave you are, sticking with all this demon junk, death obsessed pigs that we are.

Blam, blam, blam. The pavement suddenly went green with blood and demons scattered, those closest to the victim leaping in to loot him as he fell, three wounds in his chest.

And then there’s the elf-style junk one must always suspect is still there—all that holier-than-thou vomit loitering beneath the surface. It’s swallowing one horrible shock after another like oysters, yum yum, very sophisticated and grown-up you are. Then suddenly it tastes just like a can of crap because now some bunch of chickenshit duellists have ganged up on you, and even in a three they’re so incompetent it physically hurts to smack them down. And you hate it. Where’s the glamour?

Lila dropped from the sky like a stone, making no effort to check her near-terminal speed. The demon was fighting its way to its feet, groping for close-range weapons, its ugly head snarling, body becoming scarlet and violet with extreme fury. Gore trickled from its chest. Lila’s boots struck it squarely on the head, the jet burns vanishing as she landed with full force and smashed its skull flat under her feet. She stood, pain rocketing through her hips and spine and into her own head like fire. Through the soles of her feet and the long metal lines of her legs she felt the demon’s soul flow like a thousand angry bees, hauled in on the fine, deadly line of Tath’s expertise. It vanished as he consumed it, slowly but surely going silent. Neither of them had a thing to say to one another.

Heh. So that’s rage. Congratulations, babe, you won the jackpot. Say, are you sure you’re not getting some aether? I coulda sworn I smelled something.

“I’m starting not to like you,” she said quietly to the imp as a polite riffle of applause rose out of the standing crowd. Without a second’s acknowledgement of it she took to the air in search of the third conspirator.

I’m glad you’re the cold, quiet kind, not one of those shouty ones, Thingamajig said contentedly, stabbing a hold on her ear. There’s a kind of sad dignity in the quiet ones, like they believe they still have a hold on things.

The third demon met her on the Bulwark, a place where the mass of the city cornered itself against the eroding stone of the continent at its back. Here homes and palaces were carved into the rock rather than built from it and their roofs were the smoothed planes of irregular basalt that had hardened there millions of years before, spewed from the mouths of ancient volcanos. Many traditional duels took place here. The stones were marked with thousands of years of demon feet, hands and claws raking through the moves of their martial arts. They’d patterned the surface until it resembled instructions on a dance card.

To remove her advantages this demon—a blueblack creature with a huge wolfish ruff, a lion’s head, and the four-armed body of a Hindu god—had chosen to establish hand to hand fighting. She knew that was its best chance. At close range her metal body could not be damaged significantly but her remaining human body was vulnerable if it could get through her guard. At base she wasn’t a fighter at all—she was a secretary with add-ons and attitude. At times like this that didn’t seem so comforting.

The demon stood on its starting spot, twenty metres away. She stood on hers, behind the line cut in the rock. It put down its gun and knives, undid its belt of strange-looking devices and threw it aside. She showed her empty hands. She could no more throw down her weapons than remove her limbs, but the gesture was considered enough. She’d been here before.

I should probably turn off the AI, she said guiltily to Tath, her shoulders sinking as the demon readied itself and raised its arms.

It rushed her, completely ignoring the usual steps of the first encounter. To Lila its approach took an age. Her AI mind accelerated and time slowed down. She had a year to step forward, block, and strike. It was over just like that. The demon fell dead to the stone, leaving its head in her hand. The heavy thing swung at the end of her wrist, dripping, her fingers in its eyes and her thumb in its mouth in the bowling grip she had used to wrench it from its neck.

Why do you not?

There was a scuffle as onlookers and casual fighters suddenly rushed forwards in the usual frenzy to appropriate another’s possessions. She sidestepped them.

Because then it’d kill me, she said and took off, going back for what was left of the other demon corpses.

She smiled for the photographers. She put the heads of the defeated demons on the Telltale poles outside the Library, for the benefit of browsing students of the Vicious Arts. There were a large number of poles by now, most of them featuring heads she’d put there. It was extremely unpleasant, thick with flies and the stench was unbelievable. The little Hoodoo priest who oversaw the place briefly looked up from his popular romance novel and gave her a friendly nod, “Miss Friendslayer.”

“Hi Shabaoth. How’s the headshrinking going?”

“Great. Thanks to your persistence I have nearly perfected the art. Soon I will be able to leave this place and move to the country.”

“Great.” She had no idea what the shrunken heads were for. She didn’t want to know.

With grim patience she paid her Victory Tax to the City Courthouse politely and then she went to the Mousa District, where she’d been headed all along to find Zal because he would surely be there playing. And he was there, in the classical concert hall, fooling around on a full-size golden harp while a bunch of other demons practised alongside him, jamming a little with their violas and bassoons and other things she didn’t know the name of. She tiptoed up into the gods of the auditorium, took a seat, wrapped her freshly washed hands around her knees, and listened.


Going Under © Justina Robson

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