Dum Spiro Spero
See disclaimer in part 1
Shouting voices rang through the wreckage of the Obsidian Castle as red fire crawled up from the earth. A sense of pressure was beginning to fill the air; one by one, the Royal Army members who had come to work on the castle fled the wreckage, lest they become unable to retreat at all. Roswell and Rosary stayed at the edge of the ruins, directing the escape.
Nessiah did not retreat. Bearing the oppressive heat and the aura that was every bit as fierce as he remembered Brongaa's to have been, he squared his feet and stared Gulcasa down.
Already having failed to straighten up once, Gulcasa was hunched forward with his hair spilling over his face, the ends trailing in the dirt, arms tightly clenched around his chest. His cut hand was still bleeding steadily, deep red drops soaked into the hungry earth and sending up smoke as they dried.
"Get a hold of yourself," Nessiah said, voice raised, covering worry with anger.
Gulcasa didn't answer. He seemed to be shaking, as if trying to pull the flames that haloed his body back inside himself. His skin had already darkened from gold to a warm brown, and if he raised his face there would likely be black swirls around his eyes, the mask of his human side fallen away.
"Fight it," Nessiah said. His voice came out very harsh. "You can control yourself better than this!"
The sharp lines of Gulcasa's back rose and fell with the rhythm of his heavy breathing. He swung around, all that long hair whipping about like live flame, and his head was raised, lips starting to pull back in a snarl.
"Get out of my sight," he said, low and guttural. His eyes were blank pools of gold.
Nessiah raised both arms, stretching them out at his sides. "I am not going anywhere until you calm yourself and cease this utter foolishness."
A great shudder ran through Gulcasa's body. It occurred to Nessiah that the vague rumbling sound he heard came from within Gulcasa's chest. The look upon the emperor's face was murderous, and yet he still had both arms wrapped around himself as if to prevent his body from lurching forward on its own.
"Do you think, angel, that you would be spared?" The voice was cold and decidedly cruel: Not Gulcasa, then. Or at least not in his right mind. "If you would not have your blood adorn the foot of our new altar, you will go from this place and not return."
But if Gulcasa were not at least trying to fight, there would only be an attack—not a warning. "You can do this," Nessiah said. "Or was it mere bravado when you said that this is nothing like mastering your power for the first time? Remember yourself and fight!"
Gulcasa sank down as if to build for a spring, and then jerked back suddenly, shouting as if to the distant sky: "When I told you to fucking run, I meant it! Get out of here or you are going to die, I can't hold back forever—"
"That threat really only works on people for whom death is permanent," Nessiah shot back. "If you expect me to just walk away and leave you here when you need help and encouragement—"
This time Gulcasa did lunge—and fell to hands and knees, fists closing on the ground. His breathing was getting more and more violent, and was punctuated by snarls and coughs.
Nessiah would have stepped forward, but a hand closed on his upper arm and he very nearly jumped out of his own skin. He turned; it was Yggdra.
"This isn't working," she said in a low voice. "And we promised. We need time to think."
"But—" Nessiah said, but her grip was very firm and her arms were quite strong. It was follow along reluctantly or be dragged, and her pace kept quickening until they were running, dodging through the rubble and the fire at an unforgiving stride.
There was time enough to look back once. Gulcasa was still on hands and knees, shuddering and twitching like some badly restrained wild beast.
When they got to the steps, Roswell and Rosary were there waiting.
"And about time, too," Rosary snapped. "We need to make a barrier to keep all this—" she gestured to the fire and smoke and, presumably, Gulcasa behind it— "in and everything else out."
One of the disadvantages to not having eyes was that it rather dulled the effects of a withering look, but Nessiah cast one in her direction all the same. "If Gulcasa loses control—and mind you, he will lose control unless we come up with a countermeasure quickly—then I assure you, Brongaa will tear down your barriers like they are made of wet paper."
"You make one, then," she said, apparently stung.
"That is not a problem. You two will want to follow my lead: This has to be as powerful as possible or there will be no point," Nessiah said. He shrugged off Yggdra's hand and raised both of his own. Roswell and Rosary followed him a few beats later.
"So, we need a plan," Yggdra announced, and let her hands drop to her sides.
Her commanders, plus Nessiah, Emilia, Zilva, and the twins, were all camped out around the ruins of Flarewerk's southeastern gates. Everyone sat in a loose circle, pensive in the dimming light.
Construction had been put on hold, and all the civilians had been evacuated to Bardot. Yggdra had been unsure of what to tell them—surely the truth would send them into a panic, she had thought—but Luciana and Aegina gave her scornful looks and told her how very Fantasinian it was to want to hide everything from one's civilians even when something was obviously amiss. They had proceeded then to clear the city out, passing word around that Gulcasa was in danger of suffering a relapse from the Battle of Flarewerk, and just in case everyone ought to get clear until things were taken care of. The civilians had gone—not panicking at all, but still serious. Yggdra was reminded that in ancient times, this country had been a sanctum for those with powers like Gulcasa's.
"I think that before we start thinking about a plan," Kylier said, looking around, "we need to figure out why this happened at all. I mean, the last time Gulcasa had an episode, it was because he got caught off guard by assassins, right? I think the rest of us would've noticed if something jumped out at him during cleanup."
There was another brief quiet.
"We are told," Durant began hesitantly, "that this manner of self-destruction is the inevitable fate of all with inhuman blood. Our ancestors passed this knowledge down to us. Mother Paltina, the seer who read the signs—she and the other elders, and the elders in their day, preserved the warnings from ancient times for a reason."
"This is all very Fantasinian too," she said, "this bigotry. All the ills in our country that plagued it as we grew, they all had their root in the poison that seeped past our borders from the influence of your great thinkers—these men and women whose heads were filled with fairy tales about Brongaa's evil, and who had never met someone with demon blood in their lives. If you truly think that race determines one's destiny to such an extent, then may you realize your own folly and be ashamed. Now, be silent, or I will silence you with my sword."
Durant narrowed his eyes at her vitriol, apparently taken aback. "My lady, I believe I said that this is what we are told. I do not know how much of it is true. There is danger in demon blood, surely. But if there is a remedy to that danger, it was not passed down to us."
"Likely because your ancestors meant you to believe there is none," Aegina said. Though she did not get up or issue any physical threats like her sister, her one-eyed gaze was still full of reproach.
Durant shook his head, but held up his hands to indicate that he did not intend to make any retort.
"Now isn't a good time to argue," Yggdra said, looking about at her fellows. "Does anyone have any actual theories, then?"
Emilia sighed. "A thing I can think of is that my brother probably hasn't been using his powers enough these days. You all have basically kept him from using them at all, just in case Brongaa's soul inside him might take him over."
Yggdra cocked her head to the side. "I think I heard Gulcasa say something like that before—about how at first, he had to use his powers a certain amount to stay healthy… do you mean that that's still the case?"
"Yeah, that'd still be a thing," Emilia said. "My brother's power is a natural part of him. If he used it too much or didn't use it enough, he had—fits, for a little while at the beginning. By doing the ritual and becoming Brongaa's vessel, he basically powered up like crazy, so it's not totally unreasonable that he'd need to find a healthy balance again, right? But he hasn't been able to use his power at all—and the part of his power that comes straight from Brongaa has a will of its own. So, like, it can't really be helped if the littlest things threaten to make him lose control."
"If that's the case, then it might have created additional pressure," said Roswell, narrowing his eyes and raising gloved fingers to his mouth, "but what would have served as the actual trigger?"
There was silence for a while, and Yggdra surveyed her friends' pensive faces.
At last: "He cut his hand," said Nessiah. His voice was small; he had curled up with one leg close to his chest and his elbows rested against it, face in both hands.
Everyone looked at him for a moment.
"He cut his hand?" Russell repeated. "That's it?"
"He was in the ruins of Brongaa's shrine," Nessiah said, relentless, gaining volume. "Gulcasa is Brongaa's vessel. He had nearly completed the resurrection ritual, which was left undone because of the collapse of the shrine and Yggdra's removing him from that place. It's no wonder, really. I should have considered the possibility and stopped him beforehand."
"Are you implying that all the different catalysts combined to—sort of restart the ritual?" Rosary asked, folding her arms under her chest. "That's ridiculous—it shouldn't be possible for the shrine to be used in that condition. Brongaa wouldn't be able to use the volcano as a gateway for new incarnation with the fracture to the abyss sealed off."
Nessiah sat up, fingers steepled in front of his face. He pressed his palms together, letting his fingertips cross. "Yes, use of the shrine or volcano as a regeneration point is no longer possible. But there is one other way that Brongaa would be able to revive. Through Gulcasa's body."
Everyone looked at Nessiah blankly—everyone but Roswell and Rosary, whose faces immediately creased in something like horror and disgust, and Pamela, who put a hand to her chin and nodded with an intrigued expression.
Yggdra shook her head. "Does that mean—that Brongaa would, would possess him permanently?"
"No," Nessiah said. And: "You will note that I did not say in. I said through."
When everyone continued to stare at him aside from his fellow magicians, Nessiah pushed his hair back roughly and stood. "Either Brongaa will be reborn from within Gulcasa's body, or Gulcasa's body will be altered morphologically to suit Brongaa. The soul remembers its body's form. And this should be obvious, but Gulcasa will not survive this if it comes to pass."
Yggdra sat down heavily.
"But we can stop it," Aegina said. She spoke the words like a plain statement, but she looked up at Nessiah at the end of the sentence and her gaze was a question.
"Gulcasa might have been able to hold it in and get control of himself with immediate help, but at this stage I doubt that that will be a viable option. As I see it, our only choice is to seal Brongaa. As long as a seal succeeds now, initially, then it can be refined later when Gulcasa has regained his right mind."
Yggdra drew in a deep breath and clenched her fists on her skirt. "Then we'll create a plan centered around that—on making sure that Nessiah can get in close enough to lay the seal. Everyone, get armor and weapons. The armor is what's most important. We aren't aiming to kill, only to distract. Once you are ready, we'll gather here again and decide on tactics. I want you all back here by the end of the hour. Gulcasa is—his will is strong, but we cannot expect him to last forever on his own. We will carry out this operation with all due haste. Dismissed!"
There was a great clattering as everyone rushed off. Nessiah was the only one who didn't move. Yggdra had expected as much. While it was true that Nessiah didn't need heavy equipment, it was something about his body language—a kind of grimness he wore like a cloak that had drawn her eye.
He stood there, silent, and she realized that she was going to have to prompt him. "Nessiah, what else do you want to tell me?"
Nessiah took a breath and let it out very slowly. His hands were closed on his skirts. Even with his robes over top, it was clear that every line of his body was tense.
"I'm not confident," he said at last.
"About this plan working?"
"Yes. I mean—about my ability to make a proper seal."
Yggdra considered him.
"You've been researching ways to make a seal all this time," she reminded him, "and you are the strongest mage we have with us. And you know Gulcasa best. If anyone can do it at all, it's you."
Nessiah shook his head. His chains sounded with the motion, thick and dull and not at all musical. "If the research had helped—I would have sealed Brongaa for Gulcasa long ago."
Yggdra tilted her head to the side, and rose to come stand beside him. It was darkening, and the ruins of the castle glowed with smoke and occasional flashes of flame. "What has the trouble been, then?"
Silence. Nessiah seemed to be gathering his thoughts.
"Before I discuss this with you—I want your word that you won't discuss this with anyone other than myself, Emilia, Zilva, and the twins."
Mystified, Yggdra promised.
"As you may or may not already be aware, I have been experimenting using the research notes of Gulcasa's mother, who was a priestess and a relatively skilled magician. Much—very much of Bronquia's own literature and records of how to govern one's demon instincts have been lost to the waves of time, or burned by oppressors from Fantasinia and other countries with shifts in the power balance of the nations on this continent. And I was never one to spend much time in Bronquia, anyway. Your ancestors were my prerogative. So this research is the most recent and the most in-depth.
"And it is unhelpful in the extreme, because Gulcasa's mother was—" Nessiah cut himself off, then shook his head. "No, there really is no delicate way to put this. She was a bigot, of the highest class. Gulcasa mentioned to you, when we were discussing what to do about Kylier's powers, that his blood was sealed for most of his life. His mother was the one who put that seal on him. She believed, as many in Fantasinia believe, as your Durant said not ten minutes ago right here, that Brongaa's blood is evil, that the instinctive desire for battle and drive to seek power cannot be tempered enough for one with demon blood to coexist with humans in society. She saw in her child's blood an ill omen, and only allayed her fears for his future by sealing it away completely.
"Gulcasa told you the results, that his body was damaged by the seal and that his sudden acquisition of his true power has made his health unstable.
"She was researching in Lost Aries to find a way to create a permanent seal. I had wanted to examine her theories to find basis for a permanent separation of Brongaa's power and Gulcasa's own, something that would contain Brongaa perfectly until the natural end of Gulcasa's life. But everything that woman wrote and compiled was for the sake of subjugating Gulcasa's true nature itself. It is fundamentally divorced from my own aims.
"If I were to execute a spell based on the principles of her research, I would be taking away an essential part of who Gulcasa is. Even if he were able to forgive me for such a thing—it would destroy him physically. He can't—go back to the human he once believed himself to be. He can't go back any more than I can return to being the gods' soldier.
"This is the best way open to us. I agree with you on that much. But I have no confidence that I can make it work. All the time I've spent searching for the perfect method, I've come out empty-handed. So I cannot give you any guarantees."
When Nessiah finally fell silent, Yggdra could not even speak. There was no way that she could conceptualize what she had been told. She felt very curious, as if she were observing the scene from a great distance; her body felt like a paper doll.
It wasn't as though she didn't know that not every family was happy the way that hers had been. Milanor and Kylier, two of her dearest friends, had grown up in horrid conditions; she had seen the wastelands where they lived with her own eyes, known that they had been raised in an orphanage. She knew many people who had lost much to war and to discrimination. She had known that Bronquia, too, had been a poor country for a long time. She knew and understood that much. And she had known—at least intellectually—that Gulcasa's early life had been "difficult".
But hearing these things from Nessiah was different from that kind of knowing. It felt like something had been peeled back from the layer of how she perceived the world, giving her a brief glimpse of a twisted and viscerally ugly alternate reality.
Nessiah smiled. The expression was two fifths bitter, three fifths mean. Yggdra had not seen him wear this kind of smile since they had first met, upon Ancardia.
"Yes," he said, vindictive, barely above a whisper. "You and all of yours have been scarred by the war. That is a truth beyond denying. But so too is it undeniable truth that we have been broken for most of our lives."
Yggdra looked away. It was a dash of cold water to the face, and it stung.
"…I cannot really apologize," Nessiah said at length, "because the feelings I just expressed to you are true ones. I do hate that people like you have led blessed lives from the beginning. It's unfair of me, perhaps, because you didn't choose to be born a princess any more than I chose to be born as a slave, or Gulcasa to be born in a poor and abusive environment. But it remains that we were born unequal, and I hate the heavens that created us this way, and the people like you who take such gifts for granted.
"But all the same, my timing was poor. Please excuse me for it."
Yggdra clenched her fists and loosened them. "It's all right," she said.
Silence settled, a little awkward, a lot tense.
"I don't know very much about magic yet," Yggdra said on a flash of a thought. "But if the things that you've said are true, then there's no helping it if those research notes don't have an acceptable answer hidden in them. The only kind of person who can save Gulcasa is someone who loves him for who he is."
Nessiah turned to face her. "Are you really suggesting what I think you are," he said.
Yggdra made herself smile, putting on a brave face she didn't really feel. "If what you think I'm suggesting is to throw out all the research you've been doing and use your own strengths to come up with a way to help Gulcasa, then yes. That's exactly what I think you should do. Nessiah, you have a kind of magic that's different from anyone else's on this world. And—the one Gulcasa and I trust isn't some horribly misguided dead priestess. It's you."
Nessiah made as if to reply, then visibly swallowed his words. It was difficult to tell in the dimming light, but she thought that his pale cheeks were darkening. She briefly wanted to giggle.
"It's not as though I have any choice, not at this late date," he said, and turned back towards the castle. "I want to be able to answer the trust you've placed in me—if only this once."
You've been, was what she wanted to tell him, but Nessiah was already walking away in aimless steps, arms folded, clearly off in his own world. There would be other opportunities in the future.
Yggdra faced the castle again. Gulcasa was still there, fighting for control of himself with all his strength. She had saved him from the fire once. Even if not with her own hands, she would definitely save him again.
Nessiah remained untransformed as Yggdra led her people through the twilit streets of Flarewerk. Part of it was that a full-fledged angel at the height of his powers would surely attract Brongaa's attention immediately, and make any diversion useless. Part of it was that Nessiah needed to do delicate work with the Power of Words, and he needed to be sure that this body would not give out on him.
The army walked up the main street, gathering at the blasted steps in armor that flashed red from the tongues of fire within the ruin. Nessiah, still in the rear, lifted up his hands and pulled down the barrier.
Heat rolled out like a wave, and dissipated into the air. Smoke rolled out too, a haze that veiled the night sky and reflected back fire as the wind teased it apart. None pulled back, though Nessiah could see from grimaces—and feel, like a malaise—that many wanted to.
Yggdra, scepter clenched in her fist, raised her free hand into the air and signaled, clear against the fire. Her people—and Emilia, and Zilva, and Luciana and Aegina—moved into the ruins, a quick purposeful march that was just a few beats too slow to be called a charge.
Nessiah could have rushed in after them, wielding the most powerful spells he could manage in this form: It would have been meaningless. Striking Gulcasa down would be easy. But that was not a choice that he could make—that Yggdra could make. It was a matter of their feelings, but at the same time it was a matter of the world they wanted to build.
So he held his breath close, like a prayer, and waited precisely as long as had been agreed upon during the tactics meeting, no more and no less. When the time was up, he raised his head and stepped quietly into the smoky ruins.
The air was dense and oppressive, but not so much yet as to limit movement. Nessiah stayed low, listening to the murmur of battle and Brongaa's rumbling, and crept inward through the burning rubble.
He waited at the corner of what had been a high inner wall, focused on keeping his presence small and unremarkable as he watched. In the relatively open space of what had been a wide hallway once, a waltz grander than any the old castle had hosted was being danced: Yggdra and her people, and those who remained of Gulcasa's people, feinted around Gulcasa—around Brongaa, who rode his flesh—in patterns so fast and so relentless that the demon god must not realize that none aimed to strike.
Nessiah waited, tracing the pattern in his mind—like a spiderweb, like lace—and once he was sure, he stepped out into the rubble-strewn hall.
He did not run. He forced himself to remain calm. There was no break in the dancers' sequence even when some of them must have seen him: They were too well-disciplined for that, and Nessiah had to count on that, lest their gazes waver and give him away. He drifted, austere, as much the conductor overlooking the individual players in the orchestra as he had ever been.
And he slipped through the pattern, so that as Brongaa finally turned, Nessiah was already immediately behind him, ready to grip Gulcasa's upper arms in both hands and hold him fast.
"I need you to be still for me," Nessiah said, breathing sharply—he put power into the words and into his hands, working his will against body rather than spirit. His hands were so small against Gulcasa's arms that he could barely cover half their circumference. Without his power, he had no hope of keeping Brongaa from moving for long enough.
The dragon in both of them snarled in abhorrence of the trap. Nessiah lifted his hands to frame Gulcasa's face, and pulled him down and close, so that their foreheads nearly touched.
Nessiah opened his mind.
Nessiah's magic was based in language.
The wellspring of power in Gulcasa was a mess, hundreds of times worse than Kylier had ever been. Initially, it had just grown malformed and misshapen from the seal, and exploded like a strangling vine when that seal was removed. At that time, taking too much corrective action would have been equally damaging; the onus had been on Gulcasa to find a balance and self-regulate, with Nessiah only able to observe and give advice.
But now Gulcasa was not just his own garden, he was a container: And if his power was a flowerbed, then it was overgrown, riddled with something invasive and parasitic, almost all but blended with the natural growth.
Brongaa was in his heart, in his lungs, in his skin, in his mind. Gulcasa was drunk with it, heart and body messy and wretched. Nessiah remembered a night in the past, Gulcasa lying on the stone steps writhing with fever, pain and arousal in his voice in equal parts, an anguish that broke under guilt and eased into mindless pleasure. He remembered the blood thrumming in his own fingertips, his own physical reactions before he mentally blocked them out.
This was not like that night, because that night was Gulcasa at his most monstrous and his most vulnerable. The fever in him now was not his own.
Nessiah sifted through Gulcasa's mind, and if he was a gardener at a flowerbed, then Brongaa's thorns bit at his hands even as he pulled the unhealthy growth back and away from its chokehold on Gulcasa's body.
This is not your place, he whispered, over and over, Brongaa roiling and bridling beneath his hands. This is not your place. You belong elsewhere. You cannot have him.
And the words wrapped like little silver chains around Brongaa's fire, pulling it away and back even as the dragon snarled, because it was true: A great demon like Brongaa belonged in Niflheim, where its tyranny and its hellfire could be met in kind by its own near and distant kin; Brongaa, like Nessiah, was a traveler adrift in a world foreign to it, brought here by mistake and happenstance.
There was too much that was fated, and too much that was meant, and in the real world Brongaa was struggling, and Gulcasa too; in the real world Nessiah's hands hurt from the heat, and his head hurt from concentrating. Brongaa came to this world because of his power, and so Gulcasa was here and alive because of him, and in the same turn Gulcasa was suffering like this because of him, a million dizzying tangled threads of choice and coincidence, all interconnected.
Nessiah stroked Gulcasa's face with aching fingers, whispered a clumsy litany against Gulcasa's mouth, pushing Brongaa back, and back, and back. He caressed, and argued, and pleaded, breathing smoke and bitter air and drawing in the smell of Gulcasa's sweat, that harvest bonfire scent made sharp as a weapon with the immediacy of him, pulling it deep into his lungs.
He did not run out of words, because Nessiah's magic—because his entire being—was based and rooted in language, comfortable familiar symbols and syllables to be laid out in patterns and charms and great workings like weaving at a loom. But his voice failed him, and so he held on to Gulcasa around the jawbone and the nape of his neck and kissed him instead.
It was less awkward than the kiss that sealed their first contract, but at the same time more so, as a motion made in supplication: More so, because Gulcasa's body was burning and contorting and changing—Nessiah's fingers caught on hard sharp protrusions from Gulcasa's skin, angry baby scales; Nessiah's skin blistered from blood streaming down Gulcasa's back, his old work shirt straining and starting to tear against something trying to emerge from under his skin—
And with Gulcasa falling, tipping to his demon side, again altered perhaps irrevocably—still, Nessiah reached with spectral hands into Gulcasa and pulled the two spirits apart. Because Gulcasa was his father's son, half-demon, and his mother's son, half-human, and Gulcasa was the ward of a brutal society and a loving community, and what Gulcasa had done in desperation could not be taken back, but he was not and would never be Brongaa's gateway.
This is not your place, Nessiah spoke with his power. Bide your time, pass from this world with this mortal child, and return to where you belong. This is a path that remains open to you.
He pushed Brongaa into a halter of promises and condemnations, and heard distant gasps from familiar voices as he pulled from the power of his own chains to lock Brongaa in and away. The soul of the great dragon turned and roared, a great display of pride and righteous anger, but the bindings did not break.
Nessiah carefully allowed his hands to fall away from Gulcasa, eased back onto his heels and let Gulcasa straighten up. No outburst came. It was done.
The fire around Gulcasa—the fire that burnt through the ruins of the castle—died down to embers, and went out. The sun had set, and the light reflected from the moon illuminated the scene clearly. Gulcasa was a mess, his skin too pale, coated in thick shiny sweat and trails of blood. Clusters of red scales had erupted from under his skin like angry welts, shiny with blood and rimmed with pink; his shirt was hanging from his shoulders in tatters, wet crumpled things like half-formed wings at his back. His eyes were ringed with sleepless bruises, but they were his eyes, full of human reason, tired.
Nessiah let the vertigo take hold and deliberately allowed his legs to fold, sitting down in the scorched rubble to let his breath go in heartfelt relief. It seemed to him, as he gazed blankly up at Gulcasa's exhausted expression, that he had never felt so in love as he did this moment.
The wings disappeared, but the scales did not. Gulcasa stripped naked, located every last one of them, and ripped them out methodically with a pair of pliers.
"You need to not do that," Nessiah said later, once they were both rested. Flone had bandaged his hands, even though they were not badly burned, and Gulcasa had mostly left the little wounds left behind by the scales to heal in open air, perhaps licking them like a papercut.
"It's not a big deal," Gulcasa told him. "And I didn't feel like a person with those things growing out of me. I didn't like it."
"If it ever comes to that, you can talk to someone about removing them without hurting yourself like that," Nessiah said, crossing his arms. "We already dealt with Roswell's self-harm problems not too long ago, we don't need to go through the same thing with you now too."
Gulcasa looked mystified. "I don't think that's anywhere near the same thing?"
"Trust me when I say that it counts," Nessiah asserted.
They had been taking it in bits and spurts to finish up the new seal, which was nowhere near as intensive a process as the initial casting had been. All Nessiah had to do was touch Gulcasa's hands when the both of them were relaxed, and he could reenter the part of Gulcasa's mind where he had untangled Brongaa's soul from Gulcasa's natural abilities. Gulcasa remained perfectly calm in every session, as if it were utterly natural and unremarkable for Nessiah to poke around in his mental landscape, and Nessiah found it bewildering.
"Well, I trust you," Gulcasa said, amused.
"I don't see why," Nessiah said, his face turning red.
The entire process took less than two days before Nessiah was satisfied. The people of Flarewerk took the interim to return to business as usual, calm and unassuming, and Emilia and Zilva and the twins were apparently enjoying looking down their noses at the astonishment of Yggdra's people. Gulcasa wanted to go to the townspeople and apologize for the fuss, but Nessiah told him to at least wait until his scale scabs were closer to healed unless he wanted the citizens of Flarewerk fussing over him.
When it was done, Nessiah took Gulcasa to the outskirts of the little village where they stayed, on bare ground that had been one of Kylier's training grounds.
"Try using your power," he said.
It was perhaps a measure of Gulcasa's trust that he did not even seem to hesitate. He raised his forearms parallel to the ground, palm-up, and clenched his fists. He took a deep breath, and exhaled, and no sound came from his lips as he mouthed the incantation. His body lit up, dark skin red fire black markings. His hair lifted up in the thermals generated by his own flames, and it shimmered as it never had before: There seemed to be constellations trapped in all that red, casting off a constant rain of gold dust, glimmering and insubstantial.
Nessiah thought that it was beautiful, but did not say so aloud. Instead: "How does it feel?"
"There's no pain. I don't need to fight it," Gulcasa said, and his voice was his voice, and his eyes were still his eyes. He flexed his hands, twisting slightly in place to look at his own body as if he needed to assure himself that his power was indeed in effect. "It's unreal—I don't think it's ever felt this… natural to tap into the power of my blood."
Hearing this, Nessiah laid a hand to his chest and breathed out. "That's excellent. And a relief, if I may say so. Goodness, it's only taken three years and a terrible bout of possession to sort you out. I'm going to violently destroy all research to do with sealing demon blood in hope that future generations will never have to deal with any of this absolute shite."
Gulcasa laughed, a bright and lovely surprised sound, apparently provoked by Nessiah's oath. Nothing looked so natural as him, a demon benign and untamed, stars in his hair and the sun lighting his brown skin into rich beautiful colors.
"Try summoning your Artifact," Nessiah said on sudden inspiration.
Gulcasa cocked his head to the side like a little bird, then shrugged and produced his pactio card. It did not burn in his hand, any more than the ground burned beneath his feet. "Adeat."
Immediately he arched his back, his face creasing with a growl: He gripped the pole of his scythe as if for balance, and there was a great ripping of fabric as leathery red-gold wings erupted fully-formed and perfect from his shoulderblades.
The dragon wings were large, and they twitched as Gulcasa rolled his shoulders and grimaced. "Ow," he said, and "Fuck." He fidgeted in place again for a while. "What the hell?"
"A last aftereffect, I would theorize, although that honestly requires a bit more experimentation between using your Artifact with and without activation of your natural powers," said Nessiah, leaning in for a closer look. "No scale regrowth?"
"None. Thank god. And/or gods, I guess. Or science. Whichever." Gulcasa screwed up his face, his wings moving about jerkily as if he was trying them out. "And what are you grinning about, you ass?"
"Oh, nothing much. I was just considering flight lessons."
"They probably aren't even big enough to carry me," Gulcasa said sourly, and Nessiah covered his mouth with both hands to keep the giggle from escaping.
There was less than a week left for their scheduled stay in Bronquia, and the weather was fair.