R-Hell

Demons Fall in Love Too

Story and graphics by Kat Avila

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R-Hell: Demons Fall in Love Too

Text copyright © 2006-2010,

2012 by Kat Avila

Illustrations and photos copyright

© 2006-2010 by Kat Avila

Revised edition created from

original ISBN 978-0-557-48733-2

KINDLE VERSION

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All rights reserved.

No portion of this book may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without written permission from the copyright holder, except by a reviewer who may reproduce brief sections with attribution.

This book is a work of fantasy and fiction. Any character resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is coincidental and not intentional.


 

Dedicated to angels and demons

and their lovers

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Map, West Side

Map, East Side

1. Bon Voyage

2. The Forest Primeval

3. Prince Redd Will Come for You

4. Whose Body?

5. Search Party

6. Get a Job If You Want to Eat

7. Style and Friends

8. Detestable Hevins

9. Prince-napped

10. Wolfie Goes Werewolf

11. Where’s My Guardian Demon?

12. The Cursed and the Blessed

13. Help from World’s End

14. A Howling in the Dark

15. Divided We Fall

16. The Forbidden Mountains

17. Descent into Grand Hell

18. Bats, Bats, More Damn Bats

19. Grand Heaven Powwow

20. One Big Happy Family

21. Whose Web?

22. Welcome Home

23. R-Hell Again

24. Hell is Forever

Appendix A: Magical Abilities

Where Does Magic Come From?

Appendix B: Flower Lantern Time Chart

Flower Lanterns

Appendix C: Interview with Captain Banna

Appendix D: Vulture’s Recollections

Appendix E: Epilogue

Appendix F: Haiku/Poetry in R-Hell by K. Avila


 

Introduction

R-HELL began as a web comic in December 2006. Monthly pinups were drawn and colored to supplement the comic, which was produced irregularly. After awhile, I started doing only the pinups as a way to keep this fantasy world alive. Because I write faster than I can draw, R-HELL became a manuscript.

This book is a glimpse of the world as it was in 2010. Selected pinups are included. The story and the characters have changed somewhat over the years. R-HELL has become less about the relationship between Storm and Rain, and more about the creative and destructive forces moving through the realms of Grand Heaven and Grand Hell.

Angels and demons, welcome to R-HELL!

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Map, West Side

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Map, East Side

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Storm,

youngest prince of Grand Hell

storm approaching / erratic flight / of crows

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1. Bon Voyage

Day 1: Midmorning,

City of Eerie

“HOW AM I GOING TO MAKE my credit card payment? This isn’t going to be enough.” I stared at the two paper grocery bags I had filled to the brim. When you only get a couple dollars for a book you paid forty dollars for, that’s a lot of forty-dollar books you’ve gotta find, and I had already sold most of them days and weeks earlier. Sadly, I was down to the books that made me feel like I was selling significant body parts for food.

Thunder…? I glanced toward the skylight from where I was sitting and stepped over to the window for a better look. Opening the white wooden shutters, the sky was its usual clear blue with fluffy cotton clouds, though in the distance the cloud bellies were an ominous dark gray. Maybe the noise had come from a passing jet since I lived close to a military base. Nope, that’s thunder, an all-encompassing natural drumroll. Hmm, so strange. I didn’t think I was going to need an umbrella today; besides, there was already one in the car just in case.

Reaching for the luggage carrier, I caught myself before I tripped over the thin rollaway-bed mattress on the floor. Piled up on the mattress were heavy coats and sweaters that doubled as extra blankets. Things hadn’t been going my way lately. My work hours were on the Titanic, but I remained optimistic. Hope was not some glitter-charged fairy in a pink tutu with an annoyingly bright smile, but a wounded, howling, slobbering monstrous creature from the most wretched depths within that forced me out the door of my apartment.

My sacrificial books now sat in a cardboard box on a rusted two-wheel luggage carrier. After jiggling the door to check the lock, I stashed my keys next to my driver's license in a front pants pocket.

Next stop was the trash bin where a discarded sofa leaned vertically against the wall. I stooped to pick up a fly’s banquet pizza box and tossed it and my small bag of trash on top of the overflow. The bin usually wasn’t this full. Somebody had to be cleaning out their roach palace to move.

My unwashed car waited across the street beneath a sycamore tree spinning off crisp yellows and browns as the weather turned colder. I crossed the street using the sidewalk closest to the junior high and stubbornly tugged the luggage carrier behind me.

Then suddenly to my left, a black hearse bore down that mysteriously hadn’t been there a second ago. Before I lost consciousness, my final thought was, Damn driver was speeding in a school zone!


 

Vulture, a mercenary

this clear night / Orion / hunts once more

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2. The Forest Primeval

Day 1: Black afternoon,

Forest of Beginnings

A TAN BLOB WAS LEANING over me. Wait, make that a ruggedly handsome man with pale gold eyes waving a calloused hand in my face. Over his right nipple sailed a crescent moon and spiral tattoo. He was asking questions in an unknown language, puzzling since I could i.d. most of your major languages from having grown up in a multicultural environment, though I was hopelessly single-language handicapped myself.

The muscular outdoorsman with the smooth broad chest tried to get me to sit up. Should I be getting up when I’ve been hit by a car? This is not good first aid. The loose ends of his gray-streaked black locks tickled my face. The rest of his shoulder-length hair was held back by a leather band that wrapped around his temples. Leaning into him, I picked up a faint scent of sagebrush, of the grasslands and desert, reminding me of the trails I often hiked through coastal scrub and chaparral.

Blood spatter all over me. Yuck. But oddly enough, I felt no pain. Due to shock perhaps? Best not to move too much, or else I might unknowingly worsen my injuries.

Still yet another mystery, I wasn’t sitting in the middle of an asphalt-covered street, or on a leaf-strewn sidewalk, or anywhere in the master-planned city of Eerie. What, oh my god. I pushed myself up and out of the guy’s arms, and unsteadily surveyed the tall grassy field with majestic oaks all around. A few dry leaves crunched underfoot. This was Twilight Zone territory.

Besides the unfamiliar clothing and the sudden geographic relocation, something else was amiss. My body felt fundamentally very wrong. I had to see it with my own eyes. With trembling hands, I unbuttoned my bloodstained shirt.

Huh?!

How long did I stand there stunned?

I’m flat as a washboard!

While I had never really outgrown a training bra, I wasn’t that flat. Furthermore, there was this heavy hanging sensation down south. No way, Jose. I must’ve hit my head fuckin’ crazy hard, more like cracked it wide open.

And what about these bony things on top…HORNS?! Why do I have horns? I don’t have horns. Human beings do not have horns. Surely they don’t, though there was that one photo in the deviant biology book.

I took a breath, then another and another too quickly, and another after that. Hyperventilating, I tried hard to calm myself down and become Buddha. Slow down, breathe in regularly, breathe out regularly, with each breath I take I will relax even more. It wasn’t working!

The hunter fella left as I contemplated my navel and other things in orbit around it. Without hesitation, I followed my Good Samaritan and his glistening broad back, and the swords, knives, and shoulder leather sheath that guarded it. I stopped only when he did.

Glaring over his left shoulder, he menacingly barked, “Dette kye, Chibito!”

“I don’t care what you said!” I chirped. Given sex and family tree differences, my new voice didn’t sound much different. “I’m gonna keep following you!” I yelled more bravely.

I was miffed, because wasn't he supposed to keep helping me, at least leave me at the edge of civilization? He didn’t hear my complaint as he had already ditched me. “Hey! Wait! Come back! Don’t run!”

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The chibito had smelled dead, thought the hunter. I’m certain of it. Yet there he is following me. I don’t understand. Who breathed life back into his pale cold body? This is powerfully dangerous magic.

But the boy is alone now. Abandoned by a fickle savior. Easy prey.

The puzzled mercenary decided to give the fledgling a break. He had plenty of time to fulfill his current assignment, and maybe if luck was on his side this misplaced, confused chibi was attached to a nice reward.

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During a stopover at a trickling cool stream, Hunter stuck around to my surprise, but impatiently paced back and forth along the bank. I studied my watery reflection and stared with dismay at my newest head accessory. The horns made me look, well, devilish. Otherwise, how I looked hadn’t changed much. Same dark eyes, nose, mouth, and hair long enough to rubberband into a stubby ponytail, if I had had a rubberband.

My unfortunate torn shirt needed serious scrubbing to get the blood out. From the blood and these holes, this person could’ve been stabbed. By Hunter? Nah. He wouldn’t be sticking around then.

The original color of the thick fabric was off-white, and the deep turnover collar was embroidered with white-satin geometric designs. Pretty fancy for peasant fashion, as were the soft leather boots that came with the outfit. I pulled off the mustard brown trousers to wash, too.

“I wonder who the original owner of this shirt was,” I said to Hunter as I held it up by its long sleeves. He nodded as if he understood, or maybe he was just being polite.

Back on the trail, my clothes dried quickly, my energy evaporated faster. I had to stop. After handing me a couple strips of jerky, along with some unhelpful advice (due to a world language barrier), Hunter lost me where the forest thinned out to quiet miles of dry shrubs, cacti, and rock.

“Bye, bye, I hate you,” I wheezed, bent over and hurting, my feet on the verge of becoming a blister farm. I saw no other people or even animals. In the distance rose a formidable wrinkled wall of mountains, with snowcaps to remind me that tonight could be bitter cold.

A gigantic vulture was circling directly overhead. It wasn’t moving away. Was it eyeing me? That bird is large enough to carry off a person! I hustled back toward the safety of the darkening forest.

Despite the nagging ache in my lower leg—shin splints?— I hesitated to stop for long because I needed to find shelter. I followed a stream to a bright hollow where it ended in a pool. The surrounding mossy boulders provided a windbreak. If I tied together saplings and covered the frame with grasses and fallen leaves, I’d have a small hut that could be anchored against the boulders. As for food, aside from the jerky, I wasn’t sure what I could pick and eat without poisoning myself. I bit off a piece of jerky to slowly chew on, determined to make it last as long as I could.

Finding a sturdy twig, I shaved it to a sharp point against a boulder to use as a weapon and digging tool, and gathered a pile of rocks for throwing at whatever scared me during the night. While I had not spotted any large ground predators, the ones I knew of came out at dusk to hunt.

The great weight of the day sat heavily on me. Too much new business and no coffee. A car had hit me, and I had ended up in an alternate universe in some demon boy’s body. I didn’t know being in a coma could be this messed up, or feel this disturbingly real.


 

Redd,

eldest prince of Grand Hell

in an old snapshot / the shy smile / he still has

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3. Prince Redd Will Come for You

Day 1: Red evening,

Hell-of-the-World’s Sorrows

“HE HAS THE LUCK of the Shadow Queen,” snarled Prince Redd after he had dispatched Trance’s not-so-well-favored messenger with a quick sword stroke. He contemplated his fear-inspiring image in the newly stained sword: his singular noble phallic horn, fiery hair, cold baby blues, and deathly pale skin, quite unlike Storm, the uncelebrated youngest son of Queen Regina (some say due to budget cuts; others, apathy).

His half-brother had escaped yet another assassination attempt. Murta! Who had rescued him? Certainly not their mother. However, if Grand Heaven was involved, a strong possibility, there’d be complications.

Several soldiers had witnessed Trance, Redd’s chief assassin and lover, shove his sword through the terrified prince’s chest. There had been a brilliant flash of light, then the target was gone. A bewildered Trance remained behind with a blade ominously coated with royal blood, his hunting cleaver still sheathed. But surely, Prince Storm of Grand Hell was dead.

Nonetheless, Prince Redd was not one to take chances. As the ambitious ruler of the half-underwater Hell-of-the-World’s-Sorrows (aka Hell-of-Sorrows), he knew that demon princes weren’t killed off so easily, without extreme mischief, even though Storm was shamefully only half demon. If the head was not severed and kicked away from the body, you couldn’t be absolutely certain of death. There had been instances of cheating where a prince had been resurrected. This could become yet another.

With growing impatience Redd awaited the day his brother’s shriveled head would float in a curse-inscribed jar of formaldehyde—May You Rest Deep in Heaven—on a shelf in the royal bedroom. Killing a half-demon should have been a piece of sulfur cake.

He roughly booted his pet skulloctopus, a surprise gift from Trance. Small at just under ten feet, the death’s-head tyke responded to its master’s tender care by jetting a stream of thick black ink, which it then smeared down the steps away from the bleached coral throne to play with the cooling messenger.

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Since the prince couldn’t get within killing distance of his mom Queen Regina, he had turned his deadly gaze toward her heirs. There had been five besides himself, now butchered down to two pesky DTWs (Demons in The Way).

Prince Thunder, the second oldest son after Redd, was vigilant and surrounded by powerful and influential friends. That brother had infiltrated and taken over the government of Hell-of-a-1000-Deaths, a greatly feared state within Grand Hell. His consort was Aries, a war god. Their union was strong and unassailable.

Lake-of-Regrets on the southern border of Thunder’s kingdom had swallowed up many of Redd’s amphibious assassins, who needed a good soak periodically to maintain their health. Perhaps they had developed second thoughts about their mission after reaching the lake’s sorrowful shores.

Fortunately for Redd, his brother had his hands full with the grossly violent entertainment of his own kingdom. In addition, Thunder had never shown much interest in the throne of Grand Hell, having always assumed Redd would inherit it.

As for their baby brother, only recently had Redd discovered that Storm’s actual birth father was Captain Olympus of the Angeles Royale, elite swordsmen who protected the powerful court of Grand Heaven, a contemptible kingdom west of the neutral territory Purgatory. This explained why Storm had been brought up away from the intense scrutiny of his mother’s liberal politics and court, under the pretext he had a rare health condition helped only by the healing hot springs of Darkvine near Oni Mountain.

Sickly demon babies were as a rule of law killed outright, but if any had viewed their queen’s uncharacteristic charity as a sign she was getting soft, they weren’t around anymore. The half-demon had remained forgotten until Redd had deep-sixed three other foolish, careless, less-sheltered siblings.

Survival of the fittest was the law of the land. Queen Regina, the Shadow Queen, had won the throne after a vicious bloody battle with her older brother, the former King Claudius. She had been particularly sadistic and vengeful against anyone associated with him such that the memory dissuaded anyone from plotting against her. “Queen Regina will come for you if you don’t behave” was a common threat not just to children but to adults as well.

There is no current King of Hell. It is rumored Queen Regina killed and ate him not long after Storm’s birth. The divorcé hadn’t been very nutritious from having spent so much time on the run from his vindictive ex-wife. Ignoring the fate of one unlucky demon, Grand Hell had been relatively peaceful, until Prince Redd and his henchdemons started stirring things up.

The steady stream of refugees from Grand Hell into East Purgatory was largely due to the anticipation of what a regime under Prince Redd would be like. Redd’s generals and armies had been getting in extra swordplay during extended field trips. While demons had strong appetites for warrior-building frolic, there had to be limits; otherwise the race would’ve disappeared long ago to Grand Heaven’s advantage.

I might as well get a good workout in, since I'm obviously not going to get any restful sleep tonight. Trying to maintain a positive can-do attitude in the face of adversity, the Redd Demon asked for a braided leather whip and a riding crop. With a light step, he headed toward the wailing dark depths of ancient cold and dank dungeons.

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Wolfie, Storm’s wolf servant & guardian

standing in the doorway

in the dark

listening to the cricket’s song

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4. Whose Body?

Day 3: Black afternoon,

Forest of Beginnings

SINCE TWO DAYS AGO, I had managed not to get too sick by observing what the crows stole from each other, what the tree squirrels hoarded, and what the mule deer were grazing, which is no guarantee of safety, but it confirmed that this offshoot of reality acted very much like what I was used to. Absentmindedly I rubbed at a mild rash on my left hand and arm caused by a poisonous plant I’d never seen before.

The flight en masse of small birds woke me from my reverie. Digging stick in hand, I slipped behind a boulder. Voices were calling, “Storm! STORM!” A name? One voice sounded a lot like Hunter’s, so I peeked.

Hunter spied me and shouted to unseen others, a spark in his eyes and grinning as if he had won the lottery. Quickly running up next to him was an unusually large gray wolf whose ears twitched nervously. Something small shot out from behind them. I didn’t have time to duck or to think. I smacked the winged rat into the pool. AARGH!

A furious honey-blond teenager with a seriously hairy chest and bat wings rose sputtering and quivering from the water: “STORM! Bakahtarou! Porwi?!” The naked shapeshifter shook himself like a dog, spraying drops everywhere. He continued to curse.

After I got over my shock (go ahead, keep the weird stuff coming), I did the polite thing and apologized. “Sorry. That must’ve really hurt. But you’re lucky I didn’t stick you instead.”

Batboy stopped mid-tantrum, puzzlement and dismay dripping off his face. A hee-haw escaped me. His amber eyes turned toward Hunter for an explanation, while Wolfie transformed into a wizardly pinup with white silver locks that dropped to his chest. He draped himself in a drab gray and hooded monk’s robe. Another shapeshifter. I stopped laughing. Was Hunter one, too?

“Don’t come any closer.” I waved my puny spear. Hunter easily wrested the stick away and broke it in two in my face. I jabbed my finger at him. “Do you know how long it took me to make that?”

With too much enthusiasm, Batboy (who dug up shorts from somewhere) wrestled me to my knees and held my wrists behind me as Wolfie played doctor. Days late for that, don’t you think? The gray wolf relaxed a little when he couldn’t find any injuries. Holding my head between his hands and with preternatural power rolling off him, he gazed with a parent’s concern into my worried eyes. A bolt of electricity bit my brain.

“OWWW! That hurt! Oooh,” I moaned, pulling my hands free to support my fried head.

“Now we can understand each other.”

“Woool-fie, did you have to do that? My head, oh, my head.”

“I wasn’t sure it was going to work. ‘Wolfie,’ Prince Storm uses that name for me, too. The same prince whose body you’ve borrowed.” I know the shifter meant “stolen.” He was trying so hard to be pleasant. “I’m Prince Storm’s guardian, as is Grayson here. That’s Vulture over there. No strong connection to us.” Hunter waved from the boulder he was leaning against; his strong, lean physique positioned to best advantage. “Now tell me, what are you doing in Prince Storm’s body?” Wolfie’s smile was gone.

“I’m sorry.” I was apologizing a lot for things that weren’t my fault. I got to my feet and dusted myself off. Wolfie followed. “I’d give your prince’s body back if he asked for it. Where is he by the way?” Prince Storm’s body. I’m a prince. Weird, but cooler than polar ice.

“Who…are…YOU?” thundered Wolfie, his hazel brown eyes throwing off sparks. An invisible wave bully-pushed me, almost knocking me down.

Grrr! They were being unfair. All three of them stood in a half-circle before me with Wolfie in the middle. Storm’s guardians were angry, while Vulture watched with curious interest. “I’m Kitty Travis from the planet Earth. I’m really a girl, now stuck in this boy’s, no, a prince’s body,” I grinned back evilly.


 

Grayson, Storm’s bat servant & guardian

a whisper / dandelion seeds touch / and scatter

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5. Search Party

Day 3: Pink-red dusk,

Forest of Beginnings

IF KITTY TRAVIS’S SOUL was here, then where was Prince Storm’s? In Kitty’s body? There was nothing to do but to protect Storm’s body until he returned. If they could locate the missing body, that is.

Kitty had disappeared during an early dinner. Storm’s body had gradually become transparent much to Kitty’s great distress (What the —!) until she was no longer there. Grayson had already searched by air and hadn’t spotted anything worth investigating.

The mercenary Vulture had left to finish whatever work he had taken on. He’d keep his eyes and ears open for the wandering prince. It may have entertained him that an alien girl inhabited the body of Prince Storm, the number one target on the crazed Prince Redd’s hit list.

On the other hand, was Vulture lining up his next assignment? They paid a skullful of copper coins for information. However, much better than that, Prince Redd would pay gold bars for a body, dead or alive. A walking and talking Prince Storm was a political liability for him. That made it imperative for them that they find Storm first.

“What do you think happened?” Grayson’s dark amber eyes brightly reflected the small campfire. “Royals can teleport themselves to wherever they want to go. But Kitty just sort of faded away involuntarily.”

He bent forward to drop tea leaves into the conjured pot of now steaming water. While Grayson wielded better-than-average magical talent, he was humbled by the knowledge and experience of the widely respected and dutiful Wolfie; and Wolfie’s teacher had been none other than the infamous bogeyman Thorsdagr.

“Storm’s body must be psychically and physically unstable.” Wolfie brushed his silver hair and side braid back with an elegant hand and fed the campfire. Brilliant flaming tongues licked back and warmth returned. It had been a good idea to give Kitty a jacket.

“By unstable you mean his body is neither alive nor dead. A ghost, in other words.”

“Or something similar. The shell has to be material enough in order for it to be possessed by someone. That’s the best explanation I can come up with. The prince may show up again the same way he disappeared. The question is where. Hopefully he’ll stay in the area around the Forbidden Mountains.” Wolfie and Grayson would normally have teleported to wherever their charge was, but Kitty’s presence disrupted the link.

“Will it be Prince Storm…or Kitty?”

A soft sigh answered him. Grayson raised an eyebrow. “The other possibility is Storm and Kitty are both dead and have joined the Eternal Parade of Souls, and the stream of time is flowing again as it should.” A vision of Prince Storm’s headless body flashed through Wolfie’s mind, of what might have been. He tried to shake it out of his head.

Wolfie continued, “If it’s true that Trance found and trapped Storm, that man wouldn’t have missed the prince’s heart. Kitty herself thought she had died in her own world, the Hidden World that she calls Earth.”

“But Kitty was…is alive. In Storm’s body, but alive. That means Storm could still be alive too in Kitty’s body.”

“Grayson, your tea.”

“Oh!” Grayson quickly removed the pot from the fire and produced a wire strainer. They both summoned their favorite mugs to their hands from battered magical templates. “It’s pretty hot, so be careful.”

“Thank you.”

Warming his hands around a furrowed green ceramic mug that was slightly chipped, Grayson gazed up at the stars. “I hope we find Storm soon.” Countless times he had rescued his prince from harmful political mischief. Storm’s oldest brother Redd was the latest and most serious threat to Grayson’s adoptive family. That royal bad boy had lived up to earlier predictions. “I think I want to do one last fly-around.” Grayson’s bat wings popped out. The wings usually manifested first before the rest of him shifted.

“Save your energy. I trust you were thorough the first time. We’re not the only ones searching for him. Queen Regina has scouts looking for her son.”

“I didn’t think she cared.”

“She has some casual love for the half-demon. But more than that, the machinations of her sons amuse her.”

As they fell silent, the steady chirping of mate-seeking crickets rose around them. In the early morning, they would resume their search. What they would find, if anything, or a dead body or Kitty, they weren’t sure.

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Style, Thunder’s servant

sitting in the sun / heated buzzing of bees / blossom to blossom

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6. Get a Job If You Want to Eat

Day 4: Blue dawn,

East Jupiter Grove

I HAD TELEPORTED to Jupiter Grove, a major commercial and tourist hub in the broad region of Purgatory between Grand Heaven and Grand Hell. The River Styx, with no beginning or end, ran through the middle of the city. The east side was less well off than the west. (Guess which side I woke up shivering on.) This much I was told by a uniformed security officer who shooed me out from beneath a wooden multi-arch bridge.

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Stomach grumbling, I went looking for work. Tips for a job interview: proper appearance, attire, and attitude. I finger-combed my hair around my horns. My shirt had been mended by Grayson. He was of the opinion that his magical repair was no more fascinating to watch than wrinkles being ironed out by hand. Attitude, I’m working on it; some things don’t change so fast.

My eye was caught by a middle-aged guy watching a couple of kids making out in public. Behind the voyeur was a HELP WANTED sign in the window of Toadman’s Scrolls & Gifts. I could actually read and understand the odd curlicue lettering, a grudging thanks to Wolfie. I should’ve continued down the road, but at the time I didn’t know better.

“You’re from Grand Hell, aren’t ya?” Toadman was staring at the horns. He slapped at the acne on his leathery green cheek and wiped his hands on the blue shop apron that tied behind his flabby neck and waist. “We’re seeing a lotta refugees these days. Prince Redd’s been real busy.”

I dropped my hand from a horn. I wasn’t quite used to them yet. “I suppose you’re right, Mr. Toadman.” Was there a painless way to lose the horns?

“I’ve got a soft cap you can use. It ties in the back for a snug fit.” Toadman must’ve read my mind. “Won’t hire you if you don’t wear it. People don’t much like demons ‘round here. They say you’re taking jobs away from us Purgatorians. Heck, I’ll be honest with ya, I don’t care much for Hellions either, but you work cheap and hard. And you, you’re not bad-looking. Know what I mean. Good skin.” He chuckled.

Toadman gaping at me with those huge daisy-yellow eyes made me uncomfortable. I hoped Toad’s ideal woman wasn't another guy. Great, sexual harassment. But back to the business at hand. “How much do you pay for a day’s work?”

“Seven coppers a day.”

So how much was that? “Can you tell me how much it costs to rent a room in Purgatory?”

“You just got off the raft, huh? If you need a room, I have attic space you can rent upstairs for sixty coppers a month. Access is from the outside. There’s a ladder affixed to the wall. If you don’t have the money now, you can work for your rent and I’ll take it out of your pay.” Suddenly Toad’s eyes were focused on my left shoulder, and his hand lifted up as though to grab.

My fearful step back startled the fly, and it zipped away unharmed and uneaten. “Uhm, when can I start, Mr. Toadman, sir?”

Toad stroked his greasy mini-pageboy cut. His hair was such a dark shade of green it was almost black. He motioned. “Follow me to the back.” To an old white mutt with patches of fur missing, he shouted, “Ash, watch the store!”

Its bald spots could’ve been due to either a bacterial infection or a parasitic skin disease; in other words, no petting. The ugly sack of dog bones picked itself off the floor and padded to the front. “She’s a good soldier, does what she’s told. If she bothers you, just kick ‘er. ‘Course ya gotta be careful ‘bout that. She might bite back. Heh, heh.”

Don’t step on Toadie’s tail. I watched the snot-green stub sweep the straw-covered stone floor. A short beaded curtain accented the doorway to a rear storage area half as large as the front of the store. On the right was a cluttered desk where Toad did his bookkeeping. There was an upright nameplate that read “Wartback Toadman IV,” and next to that was a large snack jar of Celebrity brand’s fly-and-bug mix.

Toad unscrewed the lid off the jar. “Want some?”

“No, thank you. Had a big breakfast.” Stomach, please don’t give me away.

“This stuff gets better and better the older it gets. It ages well.” He tossed back a few handfuls before he closed the jar. “I got this along with the store from an older brother who didn’t come back from the last war.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. He was a real asshole. Now, that over there’s the bathroom.” He pointed to an open door to the left of a small round table with two chairs. The toilet was a rectangular opening in the floor with an inch-high wooden lip to keep your feet from slipping in. From the right, Toad grabbed the store’s uniform off the pegs and said, “Here’s your shop apron, and a cap. It’s your responsibility to make sure they stay clean.” The faded blue apron had spill stains on it. “What’s your name?”

“Storm. My name’s Storm,” I blurted without thinking.

“Sounds like bad luck,” Toad harrumphed. He pointed to the pegs. “You can hang your jacket there.”

Using Prince Storm’s name wasn’t very bright since someone was trying to kill him, but it couldn’t be helped now. It was possible the name “Storm” was as common here as “Tom” or “John.”

I studied the rows of storage shelves as Toad rummaged through his desk for a pencil. The nearest storage shelves were filled with woven baskets, ceramic kitchenware, and touristy knickknacks. Against the farthest wall were dusty cubbyholes of book scrolls and wall scrolls. I saw regular page books as well, but they were few and ornate.

Another employee was helping a customer when Toad and I walked out. After the customer left, bossman boomed, “Sty, you’re out of uniform and late!”

“Was I? Lemme tell you a real sad story. I was trying to help this old lady, see?, cross the street. How old was she? Older than Sandemon! So what’s she do? The hag whacks me with her bag.”

“Serves you right for your one hundred misdeeds.”

The tanned and dyed redhead then turned to me, dry split-ends sweeping sunburned shoulders. Momentary surprise crossed his face before a shining at-your-service smile wiped it away. “Who’s this? New boyfriend?”

“Smart-ass.” Toad then turned to me. “This is the younger, faster, on-time guy who’s replacing you. Storm, Style. He’s demon tribe like you.”

Style lifted his cap to show off his light clay brown horns. I showed him mine. “I’ve got pretty wings, too,” said Style. “Wanna see?” Wings popped out—thin, tough, and stretchy.

“Oh!” They were like Grayson’s. Now, was I being paranoid, or were Style’s lavender eyes showing more interest than he oughta have? Another Toad? Could this be a cultural thing?

“Have we met before?” I asked tentatively. A prince after all would know a lot of people.

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Bat guy stepped forward. I shuffled back. “You look like somebody I know. The resemblance is uncanny, but that guy wouldn’t be here…,” he jerked his thumb at Toadie, “working for him!”

“Get your butt back to work!” Toadie hollered. “Earn your wages. We’ve gotta customer! Storm, your cap.”

I adjusted it. “Ah, yes. Can’t forget.”

Style had already pivoted away to flirt with our customer. “Welcome to Toadman’s! Can I help you find anything?”

Toad patted my arm; I tried not to shudder. “Let me show you what’s behind the counter.” We went to the right of the discount sales table at the front of the shop. “Here are the bags, Storm.” He pointed to a shelf beneath the counter. “Never use a bag larger than you need. The larger bags cost me more money.”

A street urchin darted into the store and grabbed a fancy paperweight. As Ash took off barking, Toad reached for a throwing ax on the wall. “THIEF!” he warned passersby. The blade hit its target. A woman shrieked in horror. Actually, that was me.

Justice was swift in Jupiter Grove. “You’re such a girl!” Toad smacked my butt hard as he went to retrieve his cruel ax.

“Looks like extra work,” said Style over my shoulder. I jumped.

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“What now?” Style was staring at me again. Better cranky than scared after this morning’s excitement. I searched my person for anything amiss.

“Your skin is unusually clear, like a Hevin’s.”

“A ‘heaven’? Did I hear you right?”

“Storm, did a carriage hit you on your way here or somethin’?”

Yeah. Somethin’ like that.

“Y’know, a Hevin, our sissy rivals from Grand Heaven.”

“You’re calling me a sissy?”

Style looked exasperated. “Here, let me clean out your ears for you. Your straw brain probably needs restuffing, too.”

I held him off with my broom. “Knock it off, Style! We’ve got work to do.” Apparently, he was one of those touchy-feely guys, didn’t matter if it was a man or woman, just had to be tagging someone.

“You’re no fun.”

“Haven’t been. It’s not a new revelation.” I kept sweeping. The sun peered out from behind the clouds. I swept a little longer at the front of the shop. Later, we would lay down new straw over the floor.

“You used to be more fun,” grumbled Style.

“What didja say?”

“Nothing. By the way, do you need somewhere to crash tonight? The floor at my place is free, if you can get used to the smell of the city dump next to it.” Style pulled out a scroll and placed it in an adjacent cubbyhole where it probably belonged.

I blinked. “I can’t help but be suspicious of your kind offer.”

“C’mon. If I said my place was on the west side, then you should doubt me.”

“Serious? Then that would be great. Sure beats sleeping beneath a bridge.”

“Now who’s pulling whose leg?”

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When we left the store, I saw various sizes of red globes glowing brightly up and down the street from rooftops, balconies, and posts. I studied them curiously. Style gave me a weird look, not for the first time or the last time.

“Flower lanterns? You looking for a ripe one to pick?”

“Of course not! I’m no thief.”

“Didn’t mean it that way, angelhead. I meant, if you’re looking for a lantern, I’ll help you find a fresh one. Larger ones can be found just outside the city limits. This crop’s been overpicked.”

A small movement startled me. I grabbed Style. “Hey, that lantern’s got an eye. A real human-like EYE!”

“They’re just lanterns. Don’t get overly excited.” He didn’t mind my being clingy. “You don’t know who Hevins are. You’ve never seen a flower lantern before. What planet did you say you were from?” He patted and rubbed my cold hands.

“Nowhere close enough.”

“Look, they don’t bite.” He flicked the one that had terrified me. “No teeth!” he laughed.

“All right, all right.”

“Tell me the truth. Where were you before you came to Jupiter Grove?”

I wasn’t sure how much I could tell Style. “Somewhere. I don’t know the name. I was hurt, badly.” I think Storm died. “I’ve forgotten a lot.”

“Amnesia, huh?” Style appeared lost in thought.

Demons crawled out of the cracks as we plunged deeper into the worst neighborhoods of East Jupiter Grove. Demon horns, it turns out, vary in number and shape. Mine were inconspicuous compared to the antlers on some. You’d think a prince would have a grand stately pair, but my horns were the same as Style’s, except for the color.

A green-eyed devil woman grabbed me. Not the prettiest, but at least her breath didn’t stink. “C’mon, honey. Hang ten with me.” She sniffed my jacket. “Wolf?” When I didn’t say anything, she continued, “I’m way better company than him.” She winked at Style.

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“Uh, ma’am, you’ve got the wrong number! Eeek!” I squeaked as Style tugged me back hard.

To me, Style whispered, “Y’know, you say the strangest things,” then more loudly to the girl, “This one’s mine, babe.” Jealous, are we? He smooched me on the lips. “He’s mine, y’hear me, ALL MINE!” A slow hollow clap came from a balcony above us. We were tonight’s entertainment.

“Ewww.” I rubbed my lips to disinfect them. “I don’t do it with coworkers. Bleh.”

“You’re hurting my feelings. You don’t appreciate my champagne kisses?”

“Tell the maître d’ it wasn’t a very good year, okay?”

Working girl curled around Style and purred into his happy ear. “Hey, virgin bodyguard. Didn’t know you liked your toast buttered on both sides.” She teased the joker’s fiery red mane into tumbleweed.

“That’s right, girl. Mess me up. Got anything more?”

“Depends on what’s left of your paycheck.” She tucked a note into his back pocket and let her hand linger on his firm ass. When they started swapping saliva, I flipped my head to check out the rest of the scenery. Not much ‘cept for drunks-‘n’-punks and their girls and guys.

When I made eye contact, I heard, “Wanna do a three-way? We like your bleached horns.”

Before I could answer, Style pulled me away. “Ha, ha! Let’s go!” We flew (not literally) down Hustler Row, through hazy debris-cluttered, clothesline-laced alleyways until we reached a weather-beaten gray shack, one in an impressive sea of many, alongside a broad multi-humped garbage dump. The smell couldn’t have been worse. Someone had to have mixed in body parts into the poor man’s potpourri to sweeten the smell even more.

Style unlocked a tomato-spattered door and proclaimed, “Welcome to my castle!” A brilliant orange glow from a flower lantern in the left corner brightened the single-room shack. The table it sat on consisted of a broad wooden board sitting on short stacks of red bricks. You’d have to sit on the floor to make it work.

The bat tossed, kicked, and shoved a pile of clothing, blankets, pillows, and scrolls into the opposite corner. Straw mats and an oddly shaped section of gray shag carpet covered the floor. A small, taped window high and left of the door rattled in the wind.

“Reminds me of home.” I didn’t mean it sarcastically.

“Here. Take this.” He tossed an olive green shag pillow and a moth-eaten baby-blue blanket at me. Hugging them to me like long-lost friends, I found a spot on the carpet near the table to lie down.

Snug and warm in my cloth nest, I welcomed sleep and prayed silently that the creepy-crawlies didn’t climb into bed with me. I shuddered at the thought of what some of them might look like up close.

Style unfolded a piece of paper, followed by a whiff of smoke not long after. I cracked open my eyes. Paper flambé in a saucer. Just Sty cleaning house.

At one point, I felt him brushing hair out of my face and gently stroking my cheek, but otherwise batboy left me alone. I hoped my snoring wouldn’t keep him up.

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The note read: A Storm may be headed your way. Keep an eye open for a lost child. His parents are looking for him. The worst is feared, because the baby leash is torn.

Style smiled and glanced at his sleeping companion. “Now where’s my reward?”

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Rainbow, prince of Grand Heaven

flight of crows / across the evening sky— / caws everywhere

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7. Style and Friends

Day 5: Blue morning,

Style’s shack

HOW EARLY THAT BIRD has awoken to sing its song, I wish I could’ve jauntily announced, but it was the damnable shouting and cursing of vagrants and junk dealers moving through the city dump that got me up. What a wonderfully romantic way to start today’s movie.

I stretched, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and rolled onto my side toward the makeshift table. Style was still cruising dreamland. Good. He was cute when his mouth was shut. I hoped he’d stay that way for a while and give me some peace.

Flower lantern time was blue violet; its blunt purplish vine was taking on a healthy shade of green. After hurriedly relieving myself outdoors—no porta-potty?—I snuck back in for a little more shut-eye, rubbing my frozen hands together to return warmth and circulation.

Style stirred. Quiet mischief filled his lavender eyes. Ideas were already swimming from minnows to sharks in them. “We don’t have to go to work for some time.”

“When’s that?”

“When the vine is full green.” He pulled his persimmon orange hair back, reached for a blue clay cup on the table, and drank. “Want some water?”

“Gimme.” I emptied the cup and handed it back to him, and tried to get comfy again in my baby-blue blanket cocoon. Style squirmed over.

But when he spooned me, he jumped back a fraction. “Aaugh, you’re so cold, deadman!”

“Well, I was just outside.”

“Then let me warm your bones.” He drew back in. I was about to say don’t try anything funny, but it would just challenge him. He only wanted a teddy bear, and his vigorous warmth ate up a pie slice of my anxiety about the upcoming day.

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On our way to work, I learned Bridge Road is named after the multi-arch Bridge to Heaven, which connects the poor man’s east side of Jupiter Grove to the rich man’s west side. Approaching from the west, Bridge to Heaven is called Bridge to Hell. It says a lot about who you are by how you talk about the bridge. Several bridges cross over the River Styx, but Bridge to Heaven is the main span.

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Breakfast was on Style since I didn’t have any money. We shared a paper cup of freshly squeezed carrot juice and a still warm baguette. Because he doesn’t chew, he finished his half first and I ended up giving him a large wedge of what was left of mine.

“OOMPH!”

“You listening, Storm?”

“What?” I shoved his roadblock arm away. “Didja say somethin’ important? Should I be taking notes, Perfessor?” I rubbed at where he had slammed me.

He pushed back the tip of his nose and grunted, “Oink, oink.” Dashing ahead, the joker eluded my punch.

“Hold on! I don’t know my way to the store yet!” But he was right. I hadn’t been paying attention, and it wasn’t because of the nice clear skies this autumn morning. A dreamy fragment of Prince Storm’s memories had filtered through and distracted me, of a similar visit through town with his guardians Wolfie and Grayson.

With sadness not entirely my own, I wondered where they were now and what they were doing. They were probably really worried about their wandering prince. How far was Jupiter Grove from Redd’s assassin squads? Was it far enough?

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Toadman greeted us at the front with an ax. Another fool had tried to shoplift, lemmings with a death wish. Scavengers were already dragging away the body. Good. Mop-up wasn’t a great way to begin the day.

Style went to fetch our uniforms, while Toad cleaned and hung up his ax. “On time today, are we? Storm, you’re a good boy. Give me your hand.” He dropped seven copper coins into my hesitant palm for yesterday’s work. “It’s an advance. I’m feeling generous today.” Pinching my cheek, he cooed, “I wuv you, yes I do.” Someone blew a raspberry.

Moving a safe distance away, I examined the shiniest copper. The heads side showed a haloed angel with a forest of trees behind her and the words EMPIRE OF GRAND HEAVEN stamped above the serene scene. On the tails side was a grand sword rising out of flames with a mountain range behind it and the words EMPIRE OF GRAND HELL stamped below that.

Eventually I got around to asking Toad where I could rent a room, though I really wanted to stay with Style. Toad’s attic was out of the question. It was too close for comfort. “Is there an inn where they’ll give room and board for extra help at night?” Bossman suggested I try down by the river where the tourists hung out.

Style pouted. “Stay with me.” He gave me sad puppy eyes. “If you’re going to give anyone money, give it to me.”

My motivation for renting elsewhere was to keep batboy safe. I didn’t want him involved in case Prince Redd’s reach extended to Jupiter Grove. My quick excuse was, “I’m trying to be more independent.”

He wasn’t fooled. “All right, I see the scoreboard and I’m not winning. Living next to a dump isn’t in the top ten of lifestyles of the rich and famous. You want better? Here’s another game plan. I’ve gotta friend who owes me a favor. Angelman lives on the west side where all the gold halos live.”

“Angelman? Gold halos?”

“Richies. Uncharitable angels with heavy purses. My bud’s name is Rain, like a summer’s rain. He’s a big, no-nonsense kind of guy. I think you’ll like him. In fact, I’m having beer and monkeys with him tonight. I’ll introduce ya.”

Wasn’t going to ask, but it sounded like fun.

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“I thought we weren’t gonna meet till later,” Style sulked. The tall Rain and his solemn lieutenant Julio hadn’t given us time to even peek at an early-bird dinner menu. “What’s the big hurry?”

The auburn ponytailed Julio spoke for his similarly long-haired boss. “None. Just changed our minds. We couldn’t wait to meet this new friend of yours.”

Instinctively I moved behind Style, one trembling hand at the small of his back. Rain and Julio were giants in grayish brown capes and hunting boots. They projected strength, power, and intimidation, not Disney friendly at all. Even the street crowd had moved away. It didn’t help that Rain ignored Style to stare down at me with oddly glowing violet eyes—glowing eyes can’t be normal even for this place—eyes whose unnatural fire easily pierced through a wall of dirty-blond bangs.

Style shrugged. “Okay, Storm, say hi to Rain and his bud Julio.” But I’d already taken off toward less well-lit alleys. “STORM! STOOORM! He must’ve gotten cold fee…”

The angelic thugs dashed past Style, only to be slowed by rolling marbles and fishing nets dropped by drunks-‘n’-punks used to protecting their own. The nets exploded away when the Hevins threw up a high-speed wind funnel.

“Rain, you act more like a prince of Hell than Heaven,” Style grumbled to himself. He considered shifting, but catching up to Storm so quickly wouldn’t be fun. Why make it easy for the Hevins?

Together they reached the heart of the night market with its sweet-and-sour smells and quarrelsome noises. Vendors waved hats, held up baskets, banged on pots and pans, and swiftly traded salted pretzels and anteater tacos for copper coinage.

Cool evening breezes shifted the waves of Rain’s pale bangs out of his eyes as they raked the scene. Customers and vendors alike turned to gawk at the trio before returning to business.

“Maybe we turned on the star power a little too much,” said Julio.

Style gave them both a look. “You think?”

“We were supposed to be meeting one of the princes of Grand Hell,” said Rain. “That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting, far from it.”

“I did warn ya he’s not himself.”

“Let’s split up and meet back at my place when the lanterns start turning yellow, two colors from now, with or without Storm. This changes everything. We’ve confirmed the youngest prince is alive.”

As the towering Rain strode down the left side of the street, people tripped over themselves trying to get out of his way, sensing a great white shark in feeding mode in their midst. Hevins were rare in this part of town, and their presence had come to mean someone was in deep doo-doo or debt.

“If either of you finds him first, our bunny rabbit will die of fright,” said Style looking up into Julio’s cold gray blue eyes.

“Then you’d better find him before I do.” An inconvenienced Julio made his way down the opposite side of vendor carts and tents, his ponytail swishing this way and that way, with people parting for him as they had for his boss Rain.

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In a littered corner of an abandoned theater’s entranceway, off the lively thoroughfare of the night market, I quaked, my fragile nerves shot. “I want to go home, wherever that is.” A tear trickled down my cheek.

I almost missed the approaching footsteps. A kicked piece of trash alerted me. Too late. “Go away,” I wailed, wiping at my leaking eyes and nose. Rain stood a few feet away and squatted.

“Boo.” He wasn’t happy.

My back tried to press through the wall. The theater’s double doors were locked and chained shut, but that didn’t stop me from trying to pull and kick them open. “Murta! Double-double murta!” I cried, repeating a curse I had heard often in East Jupiter Grove.

“Hungry?” A gentler voice, his?, made me turn automatically. He had pulled out a dinner roll from a white paper bag. The bag had a drawing of a smiling demon child and a smiling angel child holding hands and eating yummy cookies together. Tra-la-la, la-la!

My attention narrowed to the roll. Style and I hadn’t eaten. Double-checking angelman, I could see his mysterious eyes were completely tucked away behind his bangs.

“Here. This roll’s got your name on it. Take it while it’s still warm. I know you want it.” His voice was calm and soothing.

Warily I stepped toward the half-kneeling man. Of course, it was a trap. Against my better judgment, I reached for the roll and tugged the bait out of his fingers, then backed away to nibble on it. Too much salt? Spicy?

His intense violet eyes peeked out, making me shudder. Still, that didn’t stop my greedy hand from thrusting out and demanding another roll. Rain reached into the bag once more.

Maybe I could fake him out and make a run for the border. Uhhhn, I reached back for the wall, my vision inexplicably blurring. Angelman ran over and caught me as I slumped.

“You, you cheated,” I slurred. “Angels aren’t supposed to…,” which made him chuckle. He must’ve put his own special seasoning on the rolls. Strangely, I wasn’t too worried. Bundled in the giant’s strong arms, I felt safe. Whereas when I had first looked into the glow of Rain’s eyes, I had seen only the cold void of my grave.


 

Storm’s Dream

streetlamp goes POP! / startled I look up / into the starry sky

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8. Detestable Hevins

Day 6: Blue morning,

Rain’s Place

I WAS NEITHER HOME nor at Style’s shack, because I was in a real bed with a headboard, not on a worn mattress or recycled piece of carpeting. A blue flower lantern and a matching floral porcelain pitcher and basin sat on a bedside cabinet. My copper coins, yesterday’s advance, were there as well. I slid out of bed, pocketed the coins, and drank some water.

The air around me felt different somehow. It reminded me of the time I had visited a historic English chapel where the knights prayed before going into battle. There was this energy, a sacred quiet.

Distracting me, sheer white curtains billowed from narrow arched windows and sounds of commerce filled my ears. Was that Bridge to Heaven on my left? Watercraft of all kinds sailed up and down the River Styx.

“Mommy, mommy. Look! There’s a devil up there!” I glanced down at the little boy and waved. He hid behind his rotund mother who glanced up with annoyance, but quickly returned to browsing the fruits and vegetables of the downstairs grocery. I wriggled my fingers by my ears and stuck out my tongue at the scaredy-cat.

I have to go to work. I can’t be late. I need this paycheck. Old habits die hard, especially ones that help you survive to the next unpredictable day. I walked over to the right side to find an escape route. A thick carpet of flower lantern vines clung to the wall, their unplantlike eyes closing to the sunlight. Seeing the natural ropes made me grin. I could climb out and not have to face my kidnappers. Style would be getting an earful from me.

Pain shot through my right foot when I hit the ground. You careless monkey. I stood as still as I could, daring not to take another step until the first tremors of pain had subsided. Moments passed before I finally pulled off the boot and saw that the outside edge of my foot was already turning purple. It would look much worse later. I tried not to hobble as I made my way past the riverside markets and vendors toward the bridge. So far, so good. No giants with cute cookie bags were in pursuit.

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About an hour or two later, my sweaty corpse crossed the store’s threshold. A cheery Toad glanced up from the change box where he was counting his money. The switch from his usual grumpiness was amazing when he was near cash. Money is happiness. Bossman chortled as he finished confirming the amount in the box. Finally giving me his full attention, he asked, “Where’s Sty?” And minutes later, “Something wrong with your widdle foot?”

I leaned heavily against the doorframe, exhausted before the workday had even begun. “I misstepped. It’s nothing serious.” I pulled up my hand to stop Ash from licking it. Who knew where that tongue had been on Toadie’s body?

Toad was frowning. “You should go see a healer.”

“Mmm, I’ll be all right.”

Style skipped in. “You don’t hafta look so happy to see me. Save it for the undertaker.” He slapped a greeting on my back and went to grab our aprons and caps. Returning, Style shoved me into the customer half of the store.

“Careful,” I winced.

“You could’ve at least stayed for coffee. Rain woke me to tell me you’d disappeared. You know how worried I was?” He pushed me again, the sadist.

“Owww. You’re not helping. Can’t you see I’m trying to keep weight off my foot? Why do you have to be so mean? Oh, I forgot, you’re a demon.” My right foot was pounding. I pictured an overzealous Hellion doctor sawing my foot off. “By the way, I don’t like your friends.”

“Well, they like you.”

“Like lions like lamb chops. That guy used a knockout drug on me!” I limped over to the nearest counter to set down an armload of scrolls to sort through.

“How did you hurt your ankle?” He sounded as if he cared.

I glared at him. “It’s none of your concern.”

“You ARE my concern. Your brother isn’t gonna like it if…” Style caught himself. He had said too much. Storm’s disappearance this morning had thrown him off his usual game.

MY brother? I froze, a position I might’ve stayed in if Toadman hadn’t cannonballed between us. Was Style working for Prince Redd?

“Stop harassing the employees, Sty. That’s my job. Now go to the back and take the packages on my desk to Mrs. Darkfield. The address is on the packages. It’s by the Hill-of-Ruins.”

“Huh? Way over there?”

“Stop whining. Just go already. Storm honey, don’t just stand there with your mouth open for flies. Get a broom and start sweeping. I need to run errands, so watch the store for me.”

Our boss took off after he made sure Style had picked up the packages and left the store. A customer strolled in as I was about to fetch a broom from the back, my mind still processing that Style might be on Redd’s payroll. “Welcome to…”

It was that angelic thug Rain. When it rains, it pours and a typhoon warning is issued.

The kidnapper ignored me, his overly long bangs shielding his unnatural eyes. He pretended to be fascinated by the trivial scrolls on the table in front of him. “I’m looking for a scroll on how to childproof a window, so the little ones don't leap out and hurt themselves.” Then he looked up.

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I twitched, pain shooting through me. “Just chain them to the bed!” I sputtered, clutching my broom for support.

Angelman shifted his head as if he was studying me. “Hmm, I’ll try that next time.”

“Will there be anything else, sir?” I stopped myself from backing away when Rain walked around to my side. I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. The honor of all demons was at stake. “Where’s Julio?”

“How nice of you to remember him. We thought it best if he stayed behind. There are times his moods even scare me.” Rain leaned over closely to whisper, “Wasn’t the room to your liking? By the way, it does come with a door.”

Ba-boom! went the punchline drum. I shuffled back and gave him the evil eye. “Whaddya want? If Prince Redd wants me dead, then you had a perfect opportunity last night.”

“Prince Redd? What does that infernal prince have to do with the room?”

I was about to say I knew about Style when my boss rushed in with four unsmiling Hellion goons. They blocked the entrance to the store.

“Storm, personal business should be taken care of during your lunch break. I thought I mentioned that to you during the orientation.” Toad was addressing me, but his eyes were on Rain.

“Toadman, I presume.”

“Hevin. This shop’s closed for inventory. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m sure there are things more to your liking on the other side of the river.”

“I’ve found something of interest here. I didn’t think you’d turn away anyone who was in a buying mood.”

“I didn’t, and the down payment was swift and incredibly generous. I could retire on that alone.”

“How about retiring now before you get seriously injured on the job?”

Their conversation went way over my head. There wasn’t anything in the store worth fighting over—except for Prince Storm’s head. Rain’s aura powered up. Julio slid in smoothly behind the unsuspecting demons. It would have been a good fight to watch if Storm’s body hadn't chosen that moment to fade and teleport out. Where were the controls to this demon?

The astonishment on everyone’s faces was priceless. Their rabbit was getting away. Yet, what were the foxes supposed to do when a couple of lions were roaring in their faces?

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Life was a bowl of tortilla chips and fresh salsa. I was being treated to lunch by my boss for completing the overhaul of the file room. Slimeball coworkers Darryl and Hannah, specialists in god-blessing my enemies and sticking pins in Kitty voodoo dolls, were on vacation, hopefully permanently. My credit card bill was already paid for the month. Paid?! I’m obviously dreaming.

That’s when I woke up. I’d have fallen out of bed except for Rain’s pale rattlesnake of an arm pulling me back. “Go back to sleep. You’re safe here.”

Safe? By whose definition? It was also dark outside, but moments ago it had been a.m. radio! Einstein Frankenstein, somebody better explain what happened.

“Besides, where are you going to go? Prince Redd knows you’re in the city. And you won’t outrun him with a sprained ankle,” he smirked. “Not to worry, this floor has a kekkai.”

“A ‘KEK-kah-ee’? What’s that?” My useless right foot felt heavy, tender, and stiff.

“You don’t know?” Whatever expression was behind the bangs, I was glad I couldn’t see it. “Style was right about you.”

“About what?”

“Never mind. It’s not important. A kekkai…,” he smoothly said the word in two syllables, “is a magic barrier. No one can get past the barrier unless invited in.”

“A magic barrier?” There was probably a course I could take somewhere on the science of magic.

“The best in the west.”

My blond guardian angel’s proximity, the pleasant smell of his skin and sweat both confused and alarmed me. Accursed pheromones. His hold loosened as I gingerly turned around to face him. Don’t wanna poke out an eye with the horns. There was bound to be a heavy karmic penalty. “I’m surprised you didn’t chain me to the bed,” I said to a curtain of bangs.

“Didn’t have any cuffs handy. Besides, you chose to return here.”

“I DID?!”

“I found you sleeping in my bed,” teased Papa Bear.

“Oh.” This teleporting thing was a problem. Where was the owner’s manual? Rain’s large warm hand brushed my face. I looked up questioningly at all that dark golden hair.

“Prince Storm, your father asked me to find you.”

“My father?” I had this image of an awesome trident-waving red demon with imposing ram horns and wicked tattoos.

“I know you don’t have the same father as your brothers, so you don’t have to pretend with me.”

“Huh?” Sounds like mom gets around. She’s a devil woman after all.

“I know your birth father is Captain Olympus of the Angeles Royale.”

“Los Angeles, did you say?” I wish everyone would stop speaking in code!

“How much did you forget?” He paused, reconsidering me with suspicion. “Your father is a Hevin, not a Hellion,” he went on in a long-suffering way.

“What? I don’t understand.” My image bubble popped. I was a little disappointed.

“How else could I work for your father? Queen Regina pulled in a favor. She knows your brother Prince Thunder can’t protect you any longer.”

Prince Thunder? Another brother? Then Style could be working for the good brother who told him to protect Prince Storm. That would make Rain a safe house, since Style had recommended him. Okay.

When I didn’t say anything, Rain continued. I later learned he usually wasn’t this talkative. “Our plan is to have you vacation in Grand Heaven for awhile. You can spend quality time with the dad who never tried before to see you, and we’ll watch how things settle between Queen Regina and the two brothers you have left.

“There’s a strong chance of another great war breaking out between Grand Heaven and Hell if Prince Redd sits on the throne. Should Queen Regina and Prince Thunder become casualties, then you my dear prince will be our last pawn…I mean, hope, our last hope.”

Oh yeah, I heard you right the first time, buddy. The whole thing sounded like a video game, and I wasn’t interested in playing dead hero in someone else’s world. “Uhm, Mr. Rain, before you fall asleep, could you please tell me where the bathroom is?”

Rain princess-carried me struggling half-heartedly to the bathroom down the hallway on the right. “No peeking!” I said as he carefully set me down inside the doorway.

My angel was waiting for me when I came out. After my head and horns hit the pillow again, I was too restless to sleep. Rain caught my hand before I could pull away his bangs. “Just checking to see if you’re awake. I guess you are. Why don’t you cut your bangs? Nobody can see your eyes.”

“That’s the point.” Rain straddled me, his giant hands trapping my hands on either side of my head. From this angle, I could see his glistening eyes and their eerie violet incandescence. Seeing them stirred something within me, as if Storm had been charmed by those mysterious eyes before.

“Does your foot hurt?”

“No-o-o.”

“Then why are you mo-o-oaning?” he mimicked.

That returned me to reality. I broke free and unapologetically turned my back to Rain.

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I wasn’t asleep long, I don’t think. Rain’s half of the bed was cold and empty. Suspicious noises were coming from outside. I hobbled over to the windows to investigate. Dark slender branches of tall eucalyptus gently swayed in the breeze, but the moon remained unobscured.

“Prince Storm, how depressing to see you again,” a climber greeted me from below, the short spikes of his hair lifting away from his scalp like a silver fire, except for a long flat section that covered his right eye. He smoothly pulled his lean and muscular body into the room. I pivoted toward the door. Two blood-tattooed demons blocked my way.

Dizziness overcame me as a reel of Storm’s memories desperately played, time enough for the demons to gag and restrain me. Finally, I recognized him, the emerald-eyed leading man: Prince Storm’s KILLER! The assassin they called Trance.

Trance pulled back his hair out of his face, showing a freshly scarred and empty eye socket. Screams erupted from me into the gag. “Your brother Redd is terribly angry with me. He’s even barred me from his chamber. All because I didn’t bring back your stupid head. Thanks to you, I have only one good eye left. There will be no interference from those detestable Hevins this time.” He raised his hand, and the door’s perimeter merged with the wall.

Rain, you must’ve heard the commotion.

Wasting little time, Trance softly chanted and inscribed symbols in the air. A strange, misty cloud of butterflies embraced us all, then poof!


 

assassin Trance and Storm

that kind of day / cries of a baby / taken by a crow

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9. Prince-napped

Day 6: Late green night,

Forgotten Souls Prison

WHO SCREWED UP my life? I went from worrying about a credit card payment to a princely assassin. Sulking, I eyed Trance from the cold, filthy floor where I was sitting shirtless and sockless, my hands tied behind me. Earlier, he had been studying and rubbing at a large tattoo on my back. If it wasn’t for this idiot, Storm would still be alive and I wouldn’t be bodysitting for Wolfie and Grayson.

“I’m not Prince Storm,” I said matter-of-factly. My knees bounced up and down in a futile effort to stay warm. The emptiness of the other cells did not comfort me. Trance’s soldiers stood outside the bars, no doubt hoping for a short interrogation, like the rats hiding in the walls waiting to gnaw on my bones.

“You look like him. You have the royal birthmark on your back. But you don’t have a hint of a scar where I stabbed the prince through―his―heart. No demon’s that good of a healer.”

My snow-haired jailer drew out a rusting sword. He held the trophy blade up to the light of a green flower lantern. “See the blood? I am certain this is the blood of Prince Storm. After all, I was there.” He turned to his guards. “Did I not kill the prince?”

“YOU KILLED THE PRINCE, SIR!” they chorused.

“Or did I kill a counterfeit?” Trance swiveled back to his prisoner. But this blood led to you. For a long moment, it seemed he couldn’t decide where to sheathe his sword—in its scabbard or in Storm again.

“I’m not Prince Storm.” I repeated my refrain of misunderstanding while staring at my mismatched bare feet, the right foot swollen and discolored as expected. “If I were this prince, I wouldn’t have been working at Toadman’s Scrolls & Gifts as a lowly clerk.”

“That was an unusual hidey-hole. However, your unprincely occupation doesn’t excuse you from being a person of interest. You were in the company of soldiers from Grand Heaven, not just any soldiers, but the Angeles Royale. They were I think protecting you, a ‘lowly clerk.’ Why is that?”

“Because they’re my coworker’s friends?”

“Such an astounding coincidence, as is your uncanny resemblance to the youngest prince of Grand Hell. How do you explain Prince Rainbow being your personal guard?”

“Prince Rainbow? You mean, Rain? He’s a prince?”

“Don’t play stupid. Prince Rainbow is the crown prince of Grand Heaven.”

“How would I know? I just met the guy two days ago!” Trance was pissing me off, even as scary as he looked. “Angels helping demons. That just doesn’t happen in my world. The religious zealots wouldn’t allow it.” I was thinking of Earth.

“Doesn’t happen in mine either.”

With false bravado, I asked Storm’s murderer, “Do you think you could untie me and give me a shirt? It’s freezing in here. I’m t-t-turning into a popsicle.”

“Are YOU…Prince STORM…or NOT?” The horned figure on the ground didn’t move. “Perhaps I kicked too hard. No matter.” Trance waved over a guard. “Wipe this half-breed’s blood off my boot before it stains.” Then he turned to the rest of them, “Make sure the prince stays alive. The Redd Demon wants to keep him around for his own prolonged amusement.”

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Storm of Grand Hell

and Rain of Grand Heaven

how early / that bird has awoken / to sing its song

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10. Wolfie Goes Werewolf

Day 7: Violet midmorning,

Rain’s Place

“‘CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, Prince Rainbow.’ This note is signed ‘Your favorite assassin of princes, Trance.’ You say you found it on this bed.” Wolfie crumpled up the taunting note and burned it to Grand Heaven. His usually smooth countenance was stormy with angry disappointment. “How could Prince Storm have been kidnapped under your watch? You’re squadron leaders in the Angeles Royale, the pride of Grand Heaven!”

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“I was in the bathroom washing,” mumbled Prince Rain.

“I was trying to give the princes their privacy,” sulked Julio.

“For what?” Style sounded suspicious.

“And where were you?” shot back Julio.

“I was busy,” said Style, his lavender eyes trying to evade Julio’s sharp gray blues. No one needed to know he had dallied at a tavern after learning Storm had been found. In his defense, who would’ve thought anyone could break Rain’s kekkai?

But of course, his mentor Wolfie guessed what happened. “Prince Thunder won’t be happy to hear you were getting drunk when his brother was nabbed.”

“Please don’t tell,” Style begged.

“We better find Storm in one piece and alive.” That was punishment enough for Style, because he sincerely wished no more harm to befall the accident-prone prince.

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“The kekkai should’ve held, especially against Trance,” protested Rain. With a frustrated yell, he hit the wall with the side of his fist: BOOM! He’d cover up the hole with an idyllic landscape later.

Wolfie’s eyes, a shade darker brown than usual, stared past Julio toward the busy River Styx. “Trance may have had something of Prince Storm’s in his possession, a souvenir to track him down with, such as an article of clothing. That link may’ve been enough to interfere with the kekkai.”

“No, not Rain’s kekkai.” Julio shook his head. “The BB [barrier breaker] would have to be something like a royal body part.”

The growing shocked and terrible look Wolfie directed from Julio to Style made everyone back away from the bat. “No one said anything about Storm missing body parts,” Wolfie snarled.

“He was fine, I swear, really, the last time I saw him,” squeaked Style. “Believe me.”

“Trance’s sword. He may not have cleaned the blade,” thought Rain aloud. “It was the only proof he had of the assassination.”

“The royal blood on the sword. Of course,” quietly concluded the gray wolf. No one moved or said a word.

Grayson, ever the peacemaker, was the first to break the silence. “Why don’t we continue this discussion in the kitchen over some breakfast? Where’s your kitchen, Julio? Coffee and toast for everyone. How ‘bout that?”

Style helped his buddy Grayson with the cooking. They had known each other since when they were pups and had studied magic together. Wolfie had introduced them so that the orphaned Grayson could learn about bat culture. They had been best friends since then.

Settled in the crowded kitchen, Wolfie explained what had happened in Darkvine. Trance’s attack and the severity of the prince’s injuries had resulted in amnesia and a disruption of Wolfie and Grayson’s link to the wandering prince. Storm's out-of-body experience was not included in the report.

A detail like that wouldn’t have escaped Prince Rain's attention, but if the Hevin wasn’t going to bring it up, then neither was he. What Wolfie couldn’t know was that Kitty’s overwhelming anxiety and confusion had blocked Prince Rain’s deep perception of the prince, a prince he had met only once when they were children.

Storm’s senior guardian briefly closed his eyes and massaged his forehead with a curse that all the bad stuff would just leave for Grand Heaven, notwithstanding his heavenly hosts in the room. “Trance will be returning to Hell-of-Sorrows with Prince Storm. We have to believe he’s taking the prince back alive, if he wants us to play his little game. Excuse me, Grayson. Is there any coffee left?”

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In his bedroom, Rain packed magical templates for a toothbrush and small pillow. He was reminiscing about when he had first met Prince Storm, the brilliant smile that had lit up the demon baby’s face as it reached for Rain from father Captain Olympus’s arms. Everyone else had feared Rain because of his peculiar violet eyes and their rare power.

Prince Storm had settled happily in six-year-old Prince Rainbow’s arms. The baby had been so taken by Rain’s eyes that it screamed and kicked whenever anyone else tried to hold it, including its own father. The sun blessed Rain’s off-golden hair; his soft touch comforted like a cool summer breeze. Thus, Rain had been stuck as the Hellion’s babysitter for the infant’s short visit in Grand Heaven. It hadn’t all been unpleasant and was certainly less lonely.

That was the last time Rain had seen Storm until recently, and the grown prince had not recognized him, had feared him like the other cowards. Rain had been put out, until he had gotten a better look at Storm’s troubled soul.

Souls burn different colors, reflecting the vitality of their owners. Prince Storm’s soul was a fragile but intense blue flame that illuminated a telltale hollow with blast marks in the auric body, usually indicating where a soul had once been but was no more: My candle life flickers in and out.

One could reasonably conclude Prince Storm had ceased to be when Trance stabbed him. That had been the case until reports surfaced proclaiming the prince was still alive, not surprising since some demons would never accept the death of a well-liked underdog prince. Rain and Julio had been drafted to look into this sensitive inter-kingdom matter.

Whose soul inhabited the half-demon’s body? Could it be the prince’s stubbornly clinging to its warm home, or had a ghoul assumed residency? It was rare but not unheard of for an anchorless soul to take possession of the recently dead. Storm did have this unrecognizable alien quality or energy about him. It wasn’t like anything Rain had ever come across in the Overworld.

What bothered Rain most was the flame’s instability; it could puff out in an instant. In short, Prince Storm would be verifiably dead, and Grand Heaven and Hell would be that much closer to war. Outside his bedroom windows, a howling wind passed.

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Spyder, leader of the Spyder tribe

cherry petals / twisting / in the spider’s web

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11. Where’s My Guardian Demon?

Day 7: Blue dawn,

Forgotten Souls Prison

“WAKE UP, LITTLE PIGGY.”

“Don’t―don’t shake me so hard. It hurts,” this cracked Humpty Dumpty protested. I rubbed crusted blood, pus, and unknown bacteria from under my nose, off the right side of my face where it had scraped the floor after Trance had kicked me, again and again.

“Prince Storm, we’re going to move you.”

MOVE?! My eyes popped open, but then I wished I had kept them shut. Nightmarish shadow men surrounded me, their naked warrior bodies half in and out of the prison floor and walls. Only slightly more eye-catching were their Medusa strands of silver hair animatedly crisscrossing the air.

A live serpentine ponytail turned my face toward a solemn dark man who emerged only waist-high through the floor. His mysterious eyes were moist moons in a twilight blue sky; jagged-dagger birthmarks ran down his cheeks from his eyes. “My name is Spyder, Prince of Spyders. Your rescue has been requested.”

Huh? Someone put in a P.O. for me?

At a signal from their fanged leader, the shadow men converged on both of us. We dropped through the center of a gigantic pulsating luminous web in the floor.

After the jump, I found myself pressing skin in the lap of Prince Spyder. His throne was a fur-covered natural stone formation. Spyder wore nothing more than black leather briefs and sturdy knee-high black buskins. His men were dressed similarly with different crest designs across the crotch.

Inky underground streams divided the cavern floor where man-sized, silver hair-wrapped cocoons were haphazardly strewn about. The web-covered walls of my newest prison twinkled as if millions of tiny stars were embedded in the dark rock beneath.

“Is this—your—castle?” Pain seeped into my speech from my whole aching body under the fur covering; Trance hadn’t been very nice.

Prince Spyder chuckled. “This is a rest area, my dear.” Following my wandering worried eyes, he added, “My captains are watching you because you look and smell very tender and delicious.”

Was he trying to scare me? That’s an odd thing to say―unless you’re cannibals! “You’re…you’re not going to e-eat me, are you?” My eyes nervously bounced from Spyder to his amused adviser and back. I was praying I wasn’t an entrée on their dinner menu.

“Of course not. We don’t snack on our allies.” A simple silver goblet was offered to Spyder. After sipping, Spyder licked away a thick streak of red from his lips.

“Here, drink this. It’ll ease your pain.”

“It’s medicine?” I was a little suspicious.

“Yes. It’s food and medicine,” he said with calm patience.

An animated silver ponytail held the goblet while I drank. The “tomato” juice went down like hot cocoa, warming the back of my throat, soothing my soul all the way to the ends of my cold-numbed toes. A contented sigh escaped, and I relaxed back in the prince’s arms as the goblet was taken away.

He wiped my lower lip with his finger and licked the excess off. “Feeling better?”

“Much better, thank you. Mmm.” My eyelids felt heavy.

A guard ran in and dropped to one knee, a silky waterfall of hair brushing the floor. “My lord, Prince Redd’s envoy, the one who calls himself Trance…”

My heart skipped a beat.

“…has arrived with a handful of soldiers.”

“Trance found us quickly enough.” Spyder grasped my chin. “Baby demon, he must have something of yours in his pocket.”

“I dunno what that could be,” I mumbled. I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. You really had to be careful about what you ate or drank on this planet. They are such bad hosts.

“Show Trance in alone,” Spyder commanded. He glanced at his longtime adviser Blue who gave him a bored look. Blue hit my radar as being different from the other Spyders, and it wasn’t solely because of the blue cast of his dark skin.

My previous captor didn’t look none too pleased to see me resting in the prince’s lap, but not for long; his royal ambassador persona took over. “Greetings, Prince of Spyders. Forgive my intrusion and unexpected visit. I have come on an urgent errand on behalf of Prince Redd of Grand Hell. I am charged with bringing Prince Storm back to his concerned eldest brother. What is your ransom?”

“The youngest prince of Grand Hell is not my prisoner. He’s a most welcome guest as you can see with your very own eyes.” Spyder gave me a tight hug. I drowsily hiccuped.

Trance couldn’t hide his unhappiness, even though he tried. “The almighty Prince Redd will be most grateful and generous to anyone who facilitates their overdue reunion. He’ll grant the most outlandish favors to see his brother again.”

“That’s why he sent his personal assassin to fetch him,” interrupted one of Spyder’s captains. The company laughed. The sound reverberated hollowly through the cavern. “We know Prince Redd hunts his brothers.”

The Hellion’s emerald green eyes narrowed, but he did not turn to look at the speaker. Keeping his gaze forward at Spyder’s feet, Trance observed, “The honorable Nation of Spyders does not usually get involved in the petty political affairs of the Overworld. In fact, it’s highly irregular for the Spyders to intercede on behalf of the weak.”

He looked back with rebuke at Spyder’s captains and guards. “The weak are prey. The weak are food. The disappearance of the weak will not be mourned.”

“They will not be mourned” was the soft and expected choral response.

“Shaddup,” I slurred, my lids almost closed. Spyder grasped my small hand to comfort me as I stirred uneasily.

Trance turned back to the throne, averting his eyes out of respect for the Underworld prince’s position. Something came to him. “Ah, I see, a prince of Grand Hell, especially one so young and defenseless, must be a rare delicacy. This opportunity does not come by often―or drop into one’s lap. You can have Prince Storm. I just need his cute―pygmy―head.”

“Dearest Trance, the head,” Spyder showed him mine, “is not merely ornamental and without value. This coarse hair…”

“Ouch!” I protested. “Don’t pull my hair!” I weakly wrestled with his large, smooth dark hands.

“These baby horns.” He skillfully rubbed at their base until he elicited a moan; I gave up to the cheat. “This midget skull, these red eyes, runny nose, and soft lips.” Spyder puckered mine. “So many favors can be bought and traded with one good head.”

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“And if it’s a royal head, why they’ll grant you a kingdom!” merrily threw in Spyder’s adviser. More gay laughter. Spyder waved for another fur when he felt me shudder.

I was a defenseless mouse caught between field snakes. Nothing to do but scamper under the blanket and snuggle up to the moist warmth of Spyder’s fine-haired, firm muscular chest. Whatever was in the tomato juice had soothed away most of my bodily complaints.

Trance droned on. He did not give up easily. “Honorable Prince of Spyders, I will accept whatever it pleases you to give.” A finger. A toe. Otherwise, Prince Redd will not take just another eye but my life. “Surely the Nation of Spyders does not wish for a misunderstanding to come between yourselves and the upcoming ruler of Grand Hell.”

“Hmm,” was all that came out of Spyder.

What will be, will be, and I drifted off to count demon-horned sheep.

Blue, Spyder’s adviser, stepped in. “Emissary Trance, what you say is true, which is why we have allied ourselves with Prince Storm and his supporters. We will not give him up to his older brother.”

“Apparently, there is no more to be discussed here. You have been charitable with your time and patience.” An infuriated Trance excused himself from Spyder’s triumphant smirking court.

The Prince of Spyders would not have undertaken such a provocative rescue without outside goading, thought the assassin as he swept fine, sticky web lines out of his way. Who had that kind of influence? Eventually, Storm would be delivered to that agent. He would bide his time, whatever was left. Now, who had displeased him that he could send with an update to Prince Redd?

Exiting the hall, Trance found himself surrounded by Spyder’s grim guards. “Where are my men?” he asked slowly and suspiciously.

“In the same place where all uninvited visitors go” was the oblique answer. What more was said couldn’t be heard over Trance’s angry bloodcurdling screams.

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A single eye stared back at the unsmiling Underworld prince from the bottom of his refreshment. “Pungent,” said the prince. Then he passed the ornate chalice back to his trusted adviser and half-brother Blue. Meanwhile, their fur-covered piggy was snoring up z’s in a side tunnel, a thick bed of moss cushioning his injured body.

Spyder impatiently stamped his feet. “Sandemon said to rescue the little piggy. We did. Now what? In the many years I’ve known the legendary kamui, I’ve seen the cunning bastard maybe a handful of times, only when he wants a favor.”

“It’s because he’s elusive that he has outlived the oldest among us,” calmly said Blue, and the indigenous Spyders were a long-lived people. “A hermit doesn’t ask for favors easily. It’s not a good sign that Sandemon does so now. Why bother at all for a minor prince?”

“Indeed. If we didn’t owe him a blood debt, I would have us stay clear of the tiresome politics of the Overworld kingdoms. Overworlders are food, neither friend nor foe.” Spyder’s eyes darted to the right at a bright green flash of light from Storm’s tunnel. A loud screeching and bellowing followed.

“That doesn’t sound like Prince Storm,” deadpanned Blue.

Soldiers stood up, hands ready at their knives, swords, and cleavers. Recognition, then weariness crossed Spyder’s face. “Another reason to not like Overworlders. They grow up, then they aren’t cute or tender any longer.”

The ground began to shake. Loose rocks tumbled and bounced around the tense, alert group. No one moved to check on Prince Storm.

“This growth spurt must be Sandemon’s doing. Let us observe from a safer place!” The Prince of Spyders shoved himself up from his temporary throne. A shimmering web portal exploded open beneath his feet to protect himself and his entourage.

Madness overtook Storm. Horns elongated, hands and feet curved into claws, and bat wings and a serpentine tail split through his back amid a global eruption of jewel green scales. A massive quake brought down Spyder’s countryside cavern, and a wicked creature lifted itself out of the dust.

“Prince Storm, you owe me blood,” grumbled Spyder from the safety of a nearby hill.

“That’s one magnificent dragon goblin,” said a captain. “Look at those brilliant black cat eyes.” Enormous moisture-filled eyes blinked back nervously like a shy girl’s. The transition had probably hurt a lot.

As the beast tentatively lifted its front claws, the glint off its shimmering new scales caused some guards to shield their eyes.

“The shine will eventually wear off.”

“He must be at least five times as tall as he was.”

“No, it’s more like three times. That dragon still has some growing up left to do.”

A dust storm kicked up as the yowling newborn flapped its sticky unhardened wings, first one, then the other.

“I’d date that handsome creature any day.” Well, “date” wasn’t the exact word the soldier used.

The monster overheard. A liquid column of fire erupted toward the group at the top of the hill, followed by a repeated mournful bellowing that was tinged with profound neediness.

“Prince Storm is summoning his attendants, and a new royal court will form,” explained the Prince of Spyders. “Sandemon’s interest has become mine. For now, let us return home before we make enemies of Sandemon’s protégé. He’s more than capable of protecting himself now.” The next fire blast narrowly missed them as they popped out of space back into the Underworld.

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The three-eyed giant Halloween the Mercenary looked up from where he was taking a piss. Within seconds, the quake almost knocked him off his feet. After the forest quieted, he heard a summons powerful and clear, and a collar and chain he didn’t know he had was yanked to follow the beacon.

Whatever pretty boy or girl had called for him would regret it. He’d make sure they saw the NO SOLICITING sign hung on his front door. He hadn’t turned his back on his responsibilities in one hell to be dragged into serving for another. If his younger, put-upon brother Darkmasque got wind of this, he would say it was just desserts for Hal’s abandonment of the throne of Death-from-Behind, a minor kingdom within the greater Hell-of-a-1000-Deaths ruled by Prince Thunder. Transforming into an enormous triple-eyed snake, Halloween rapidly slithered off westward.

Another mercenary Vulture heard the summons, too. Strangely, the call had come from the west and not east of the Forbidden Mountains. It must be Prince Storm or the impostor. He’s going through The Change. He shook his head in disbelief. And he’s calling me?! This can’t be happening.

A summons couldn’t be ignored. There were stories told of demons who had gone mad and killed themselves when prevented from answering. The summons was a curse and a blessing and a discovery of one’s destined master.

Vulture’s spirit rebelled against having a master, but he spread his vast black wings anyway. If the winds were good, he’d find the kid before dark and they could roost together.

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Halloween, a mercenary

driftwood / finds its way to shore… / lone cry of a seagull

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12. The Cursed and the Blessed

Day 7: Late pink afternoon,

Forest of Evolution

“OW-OW-OUCH!” I was glaring with trepidation at the three-eyed boa that had partially wound itself around my right forearm and anchored its sharp fangs into me. Its sparking angry eyes showed intelligence.

“GET—OFF—OF—ME!” Tears flowed from the pain of the bite and my growing fear. When frantic pulling and shaking didn’t work, I swung my arm to pound the snake into hamburger patties against a broad tree trunk.

The alarmed snake whipped off to save itself, shifting into a towering slab of man meat who menaced me with a long-handled ax. Snakeman somehow pulled off badass with his bald pate, weathered kimono, and straw sandals. Seriously, I’m in a weird anime video game. Out of what pocket did he pull that huge ax?

“You’re not very impressive for a Hellion prince.” Disgust etched his face. “A weepy runt like you called me?” He pointedly looked up and down at my nakedness, and smirked. He couldn’t help himself and his testosterone.

That made me stop crying a little. I flushed crimson with anger and embarrassment. Earlier I had peeled myself off the ground not far from where the earth had caved in, with no spider people around to explain what had happened. It was a big mystery. I turned my attention back to the two-legged reptile before me.

“I don’t remember meeting you. You have no reason to hate me. Is that how you normally greet people? With your fangs? I hope you die of blood poisoning!” My right biceps were starting to really ache and swell.

A corner of Snakeman’s bloody mouth turned upward. “Royal blood really is different.” He made a show of licking the blood from around his mouth.

“Just who do you think you are? I obviously don’t have any money or anything else worth stealing.”

“They call me Halloween. I’m a sword-for-hire.”

“Is that so?” I scooted back and looked around for defense: sticks, rocks, an angry skunk to throw.

“You’re neither the mad Prince Redd nor the cool strategist Prince Thunder. The others briefly had their courts and kingdoms, and now they’re dead or missing. You could be the youngest prince, but he’s supposed to be dead, too.”

“Leave the crazy naked kid alone, Halloween.” Vulture grumpily pushed himself out from the forest camouflage. “He’s not your prey.” Good Samaritans-R-Us to the rescue. My reluctant hero pulled out sword and knife to backup his message.

“Is he Prince Storm?”

“You could say that.

“That’s not a definite yes.”

“The important thing is the brat’s not your prey.”

“Vulture! You came back for me!” I said with relief.

“It’s not as if I had a choice.”

Halloween spat on the ground. “Is someone auditioning gladiators? Or were you summoned, too?” The warriors sized up each other, then they started arguing about some outstanding gambling debt.

I split. I’ve always been a good runner, but Storm’s embracing of his inner demon had boosted my strength and power levels. “Ha-ha, hee-hee! I’ve lost them!” But, uh-oh, not for long since I hadn’t tried to hide my tracks. I stared with dismay at the trail of broken twigs and muddy footprints behind me.

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Whirling around, I bumped into an unnatural wall: Rain and Julio in white-and-gold Angeles Royale finery, a glitzy angelwear fashion show. A trio of white feathered wings ending in lacy plumes gracefully erupted from their shoulders. What circus did they escape from?

“I’m not letting you go,” said the crown prince as I gazed up with astonishment from the quick trap of his firm arms.

“Rain.” His bright wings flapped and brushed me. “You can fly? With three wings isn’t that a bit hard?” I reached around to touch his feathers; my hand tingled, they were so incredibly soft. Rain was studying my snakebite.

“We don’t flap and fly. We levitate.” Julio turned to Rain and grimaced. “Glad you’ve got him and not me. Mud on white is not attractive.” Rain gave Julio a faint smile back.

A gray blanket manifested over me. “Where did you leave your clothes? We heard you crying all the way from Jupiter Grove.” Rain used an edge of the blanket to wipe the mud off my face.

I shrugged. “Dunno. I can’t remember. Rain, I can’t remember.” Worry furrowed my brow.

“It’s okay.”

Soft brown leather boots covered my bruised feet before I could say anything. I stared down at the instant boots.

“Your guardians will be here soon.” Rain had a distant look in his eyes. The showy uniforms of the Hevins magically downgraded and took on camouflage brown and gray tones. Moments later, Wolfie, Grayson, and Style materialized several feet away. The bats jumped off their mentor’s canine back, and all three shifted.

I stayed wrapped within the security of my princely angel’s strong arms until Wolfie took over. “Are you all right? Where are your clothes?”

“I’ve already been asked that.”

The wizard gently laid a concerned hand on my cheek and examined the swelling puncture wounds on my arm. “This is recent.”

“He’s been bitten by a large snake, maybe even a Three-eye,” said Rain. “But he’s not exhibiting any symptoms of poisoning.”

“Yeah, he had three eyes. He was a shapeshifter.”

Grayson washed and cleaned the bite; otherwise, he would have studied the venom left on the skin. It was nice to be fussed over, and I leaned into Wolfie.

“You’ve been through so much.” Thank Queen Regina you’re alive, thought Wolfie.

Style butted in. “Didja mistake a snake for a pillow?”

“I’m okay. I don’t think he has rabies.”

Julio corrected me. “Snakes can’t get rabies, but bats can.” The batboys shot him a look.

“How did you know where to look for me, Wolfie? I missed you guys.”

“You called for us. Grayson and I can hear your voice again.” The joy in Wolfie’s face was genuine. Such affection for his prince. With his magic, Wolfie transformed Rain’s blanket into a gray long-sleeved shirt and pants. The clothes would last without constant magical attention since they were interwoven with molecules of Rain’s wing feathers and Wolfie’s canine fur.

Within seconds after Rain unsheathed his blade, everyone else’s was out. “Hellions approaching rapidly from the east,” announced Rain. “Vulture and Halloween. Trance is not with them.” The company coolly slid into defensive stances while Wolfie held onto me and pulled me away from the front. An invisible wall of energy swept up around us.

“The Prince of Spyders rescued me from Trance,” I quickly explained to Wolfie.

“The Spyders don’t rescue. They hunt and feast. You’re just a walking blood pie to them. And they let you go? Just like that? You can’t trust them.” Julio turned back to the darkening forest ahead.

I don’t trust any of you. “I ditched Vulture and Halloween earlier. I’m not sure why they’re following me.”

“They could’ve been summoned,” Grayson said to Wolfie.

“More likely hired.” Style’s sword dagger was out.

“Stay alert either way.” Wolfie’s grip tightened.

Julio whispered to Rain, “I suggest we go ahead with our original plan and request asylum for Prince Storm in Grand Heaven.”

The three-eyed Halloween has excellent hearing. “GRAND HEAVEN?!” he harrumphed, fearlessly approached our well-protected space. “Why would Grand Heaven shelter a demon prince and not kill him?”

“It’s not unheard of. He’s already been granted the protection of the Angeles Royale.” Rain blocked my view of Halloween, and the invisible barrier around us grew more solid into a ghostly outline.

“That doesn’t answer my question, Rain-BOW.” He deliberately used the prince’s full given name and didn’t address him as a prince. “I am a demon…,” he slapped both hands on his chest for macho emphasis, “summoned by a demon prince. If he needs to hide out in Grand Heaven to save himself,” Halloween looked like he was going to puke, “then I should just kill the prince right here to save him from the humiliation and embarrassment.”

Wouldn’t have expected it, but Vulture nodded in agreement. “It’s the law of our land. Only the strongest remains. The disappearance of the weak will not be mourned.” Where had I heard that before? “If Prince Storm's guardians and his new court can’t protect him, he’ll lose the respect of all Hellions. You’re cutting off his horns.”

“Fine. Go ahead. Kill him. Slice him and dice him and serve him up to the Spyders or to Prince Redd,” said Wolfie. Grayson gasped. “Prince Storm is so weak and helpless after all. You’d be doing us all a favor.” Wolfie let go of me. Weariness sat heavy on his brow.

“WOLFIE!” I exclaimed in horror. “Don’t encourage them! Whose side are you on? Grayson, help me out here.”

The snake pouted. “You know I can’t kill him without doing harm to myself. I’ve been summoned.” When Halloween absorbed his ax into his hand, Rain and Julio sheathed their swords. The kekkai also disappeared.

“Too bad, isn’t it?” Wolfie won this round. “Well then, come up with another solution,” snapped the wolf. Julio pulled a twig out of Wolfie’s silky silver hair, a small kindness. Wolfie smoothed the fur on his robe back into place. “Can you two keep Prince Storm alive against his vile brother Prince Redd, and all of Redd’s assassins and armies?”

“Do sea serpents swim in the Ocean-of-Sorrows?” Vulture didn’t look like the joking type. “Of course we can. Gray Wolf, you haven’t lived long enough to doubt our abilities. And it won’t only be us. If Halloween and I are a preview, then Prince Storm will call to himself a court of battle-tested warriors and not a court of white-tongued diplomats.”

Style agreed. “It’s a good start. Just hearing Halloween or Vulture’s name will discourage the lesser headhunters. Together they’re Grand Hell’s version of the Angeles Royale, but more lone ranger.”

Rain did an elaborate fraternal handshake with Three-eyes that ended in hard-smacking fists. Were they old friends or enemies? “Halloween, you still have a choice. You can lead or follow. Your brother Darkmasque left the door open for your return. You can serve Prince Storm either way, as the leader of an allied kingdom or as a direct report.”

“Stay out of my business, angelman.” His eyes fried the Hevin’s bangs. “I didn’t ask for your advice. Shouldn’t you be more concerned with your upcoming nuptials? Or are you going to postpone them again? That must be one ugly princess the king fixed you up with.”

“She’s not ugly, and she could crush your toy rattle.”

“Ah, the real reason comes out. Ugly could crush yours, too.”

Grayson tugged me away from the dogfight. “Let’s break for camp by the lake and wait for any others who’ve been summoned. Like more warriors. Ugh. Can’t you call in some magicians also?”

A safe distance from the temper fest, he touched my swollen and tender upper arm. “Storm, did Halloween do this? Was it that arrogant snake?” Anger and chagrin seeped into his voice.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m feeling better. More important, Grayson, do you have any food on you? I’m starving.”

That got a laugh out of Grayson. Forgetting his earlier anger, he dug into his pocket for an envelope of black raisins. “Eat these before Style sees them.” I shared as we walked, then we raced to the edge of the lake to wash the evidence off our hands.

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Fish-with-Legs Lake was calm. The company settled into an uneasy truce: mercenaries Halloween and Vulture, Angeles Royale squadron leaders Rain and Julio, magician Wolfie, batboys Grayson and Style, and demon apprentice Kitty around the campfire where they were roasting more than marshmallows.

Seeing that his supervision was no longer required, Wolfie led me to a more private area. He erected an invisible field of energy, a kekkai. “We can talk freely now. We’ll be able to hear sounds outside of the barrier, but what we say will not travel beyond it.”

I relaxed against Wolfie who had switched to being furry and four-legged. Grayson’s poultice was working; my arm didn’t seem as swollen. I loosened the bandage.

“Kitty…”

I twitched at hearing my real name again. That’s never a good sign when they use your real name.

“Kitty, does anyone else know you’re from the Hidden World?” Then I realized Wolfie’s voice was coming through like a loud thought in my head. His canine lips weren’t moving.

“Do you think Vulture told anyone?”

“He said he wasn’t going to.”

“Y’know, Wolfie, I don’t want this job. I can’t be your Prince Storm anymore. Find a better actor. I hate lying to everyone. It’s not a good gig for me. And, in case you’ve forgotten, I have my own life to live.”

“Pretend awhile longer.”

“Nooo.” It came out like a howl. Wolfie’s head pulled back in surprise. “Something is happening to me. I’m changing. Not just this body. I feel like I’m losing myself, who I was, I mean…WHO―I―AM. It’s scaring me.” I rubbed at my tired eyes. “Storm’s still here.” I pounded at my forehead with the heel of my hand. “His memories, his feelings. His soul may be gone, but he’s still here.”

“Be Prince Storm until we can figure out how to return you safely to your world.” Wolfie’s hazel eyes lifted to meet mine.

“No,” I repeated with my head down and my hands clasped around my legs. I started to rock in place, trying to comfort myself.

“Don’t lose hope. We’ll find a way to return you home.”

He kept talking, but my mind’s white noise tuned his voice out. Then he stopped, and simply wrapped himself around me tightly. I looked at him.

“You resemble Storm enough you could have been sister and brother.” My eyes widened in surprise. “Your soul remembers the shape of its Hidden World auric body. The impression is fading, but I can see the irregularities.”

That almost made me laugh. “Being a girl is not a mass of irregularities. Bad Wolfie!” I bopped him lightly on the muzzle. He pushed and pawed me back. “Is your ability unique? Are you the only one who can see the true me?”

“Rain may be able to see through to that form. Most Hevins have a truth-seeking instinct, but his ability is peerless.”

That should’ve bothered me more, but I was homesick. I ruffled Wolfie’s fur and smoothed it back. “Wolfie, I’m really tired. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Today was the worst.” Feeling the sum of everything that had happened, I closed my eyes for a moment.

“It’s possible that Queen Regina, the prince’s mother, can force you and Prince Storm back into your original bodies.” He had a nasty vision of Kitty’s soul returning to a buried body and Storm’s body ending up lifeless with no soul to animate it. Not good either way.

“Can we visit her soon? Also, make these horns go away! I’m never going to get used to these.”

“Those horns can only be removed at the expense of losing your powers. Use a hat.” Seeing the forlorn look on his prince’s face, Wolfie licked at it out of habit. He was suddenly a man again carefully wrapping us both in the healing warmth of his robe.

The warmth felt good. “Thank you, Wolfie. Keep me safe, won’t you?” Things might have taken an interesting turn if Rain and Julio hadn’t shown up. Wolfie broke the kekkai.

“Cold?” Rain helped me up from the ground; Julio moved to Wolfie’s side like a second shadow. “You could rejoin us at the campfire.”

“I’m fine.” I dusted myself off and stared at Rain’s long wavy bangs, wondering what he could see, what any Hevin saw when they looked at a Hellion. Were Hevins and Hellions that different?

Physically they were. Hevins had tri-wings; Hellions could have animalistic horns and many, if not all, were shapeshifters. However, as far as the mind and soul, weren’t they all pretty much the same, aside from some cultural differences?

Julio and Wolfie were already moving away, heads bent together in discussion, probably over whether we would head next for Grand Heaven or Grand Hell. I didn’t want to be alone with Rain.

“Leave them be.” The giant blocked my way. “They don’t see each other very often.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I haven’t finished talking with Wolfie yet. Move.” I didn’t have the energy to fight with Rain. “Please move.” My heart started to beat faster, especially as the violet of Rain’s mysterious eyes grew brighter behind the screen of his bangs.

“There’s plenty of time to talk with your guardians while we wait for your court. Why don’t we have a prince-to-prince chat and continue where we left off in Jupiter Grove?” He trapped me against the cliff with his arms and body as his bangs lifted away.

Hypnotized by the supernatural fluorescence of his eyes, I could not look away. “This is…” I slid to the ground at the center of a bright whirlpool of captivating colors. Overwhelmed by the visual spectacle, I sat still where I was. Then the maelstrom was gone, and I was dizzily staring up at Rain’s startled face.

“Does Wolfie know?” His voice was scary and hollow.

“Know what?” I tried to stand, but my legs wouldn’t cooperate, probably muscle exhaustion from my earlier dash-‘n’-ditch.

“Know that you’re not Prince Storm,” he angrily whispered.

Game up. “Why don’t you ask Wolfie?” I mumbled to the dirt. My guardian had been right; Rain did have good intuition.

“I will. My advice to you is to not stray too far. You don’t want me hunting you.” His temples pounded as he fiercely strode away. Now it made sense what he had detected earlier, why Storm had not recognized him. This Prince Storm was a very good impersonator. She had almost fooled a prince of Grand Heaven, and that unsettled him more than the warm fuzzies he felt around the fraud. What was going on? Were the stakes so high it didn’t matter who took Storm’s place?

I hid my face in my hands and let a tidal wave of loneliness and despair crash over me. Demons don’t cry, do they? I might’ve stayed where I was had I not noticed Halloween’s worn kimono through my fingers. Who knows how much the mercenary had overheard? My puffy eyes climbed as far as his roped waist before he squatted down.

“Do you ever stop blubbering?” Without pity, he wiped away my tears with his calloused hands and not so gently pulled me to my feet.

"Owww! You’re hurting me! Let go, you big brute!" He didn’t. My inner monster began to peek out. I said, “LET GO!” and stumbled back.

“More members of your court have arrived.” He paused significantly before he added, “Prince Storm.”

“Big deal.”

"They’re asking for you and Wolfie.”

“So what? I’m not the damn prince anymore! I QUIT! No one ever asked if I wanted to do this job in the first place. Find someone else. I nominate YOU!” It was hard to get any anger going when I was looking at three eyes in one face. “Didn’t Prince Rainbow mention you had some training in the field?”

The unsympathetic cad didn’t answer, but picked me up and carried me back like a sack of rotten potatoes to the campfire to face up to my responsibilities. If he had to serve, then so did I.

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Teddy, Silver Mirror, and Eye-in-the-Bed had patiently waited for word from Wolfie and Grayson. Hearing the princely summons, Teddy had packed the compact mirror servant and an unburned block of what was left of Eye-in-the-Bed, and they had hitchhiked from Darkvine, across the Forbidden Mountains, toward the Forest of Evolution.

Wolfie had left the mirror servant with Teddy, since the bear didn’t have any magical strength to call the ghostly communicator from any reflective surface that wasn’t Silver’s home mirror. Eye-in-the-Bed was lucky to be alive; the servant would eventually grow itself back to a full bed, though it might take months without magical assistance.

During their sudden reunion, the pale and disoriented red-eyed prince hadn’t recognized any of them. That was to be expected given the trauma he had suffered, and who knows what else he had been through. Grayson’s miracle brew hadn’t been very effective for once.

“I don’t feel good,” the restless prince moaned. He carried the teddy bear sideways under one arm. Teddy didn’t mind. After all, it was nice to be carried for a change.

“Why don’t you sit down?”

“I’m going to throw up.” Which he did. Shivering, the prince leaned heavily against an oak. “Where’s Wolfie?”

“Are you cold? My lord!” Teddy quickly shifted to his real bear form to cushion his prince’s fall. Storm was barely conscious. The batboys ran over from the campfire.

“We can’t stay here in the open. He’s going into shock,” said Grayson. He conjured a small pillow and blanket, putting the pillow beneath Storm’s feet to encourage circulation to the brain. Style infused warmth into the blanket.

“You’re going to be a high-maintenance prince, aren’t you?” said Style, trying to be reassuring.

Two new arrivals rushed up. Charm and Kapah were bounty hunters who traveled on the back of a mammoth amphibious stingray. Their steed was recharging at the bottom of the lake.

“We saw a modest castle in the hills northeast of here at the foot of the Forbidden Mountains,” suggested Charm. “Let’s petition its lord for care and shelter.


 

Nomad, a soldier

(aka Blue and Thorsdagr)

reading his letter… / a cat yowls plaintively / under the window

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13. Help from World’s End

Day 7: Late yellow night,

Castle-at-the-World’s End

HALLOWEEN THE SNAKE unwound himself from around the unconscious Storm and slithered off the stingray. He joined the others staring up at the moonlit walls and towers of the castle whose powerful kekkai blocked landings from the air.

Wolfie in his pup form was set down by the tri-winged Julio; Rain stood next to them. Grayson, Style, and Vulture remained winged. It was late, and everyone was tired and grumpy and in need of a beer break.

As the mossy drawbridge dropped across the moat, an army of armed and animated skeletons became visible. Their ghostly radiance indicated their puppeteer was a magic-wielder.

“My kind of welcome,” grunted Vulture, flexing the muscles of his human form after transforming.

Style complained. “This is the wrong door. I want the one with the beautiful ladies behind it.” Grayson elbowed Style.

“I’m glad I came along. I was starting to rust.” Julio’s tri-wings were fully extended and quivering with anticipation.

However, the skeletons didn’t move forward. Instead, the bone wall parted to allow a modestly dressed manservant through. The servant strode ahead with confidence and overflowing power.

Wolfie’s jaw dropped. “That can’t be him.”

The man was now halfway across the bridge. He had dark brown hair with thick strands of warm blond that reached just past the top of his fur-trimmed leather vest.

Rain, who was standing beside Wolfie, said, “Looks like it.” When his tri-wings relaxed, everyone interpreted that to mean there would be no fight.

And there wasn’t. The manservant arrogantly pushed himself between Rain and Wolfie and climbed onto the nervous stingray to check on the unconscious prince.

“He’s dying! How can that be?” the man exclaimed. “What did you do to him?” His coffee brown eyes reproached Storm’s wolf guardian. The guardian had not carried out his duties well.

“Can you help us?” warily asked Rain. From behind his bangs, his violet eyes were softly glowing.

The manservant grinned mischievously at Rain. “I can’t fool you, can I, Prince Rainbow?” was the soft reply.

Rain winced at hearing his full name. “The lord of this castle probably could, if he actually tried. A new disguise I see.”

The servant beamed. “You like?” He threw open his arms to the motley company. “Welcome to Castle-at-the-World’s-End!” He was not disappointed to hear a few gasps. “There was a time when few travelers would have found this place, but I haven’t the energy to spare to move it around much anymore.

“Oh, let me introduce myself. I am the grand wizard Thorsdagr, formerly the Terror of the Kingdoms. I’m also Jollnir’s former teacher.” He looked fondly at Wolfie. “It pleases me greatly to play host once again to an esteemed prince of Grand Hell…though normally they’re conscious upon arrival. Afterward, of course, is a different story. Now, where’s my hospitality? Hostesses!” He clapped his hands twice. A Barbie gallery materialized in front of the supernatural skeletons.

“Whoa. There they are,” appreciatively whispered a wide-eyed Style.

“These women will escort you to your rooms and the baths where you may refresh yourselves.”

“This is good,” muttered Kapah.

“The baths, or the girls?” teased his partner Charm.

“If you’re still hungry, let one of my servants know and she can show you to the kitchen. We rarely use the dining hall these days, but we could have that cleaned. Is everything okay? If you’ll excuse me, we have a prince to save. Come, Prince of Rainbows and Jollnir.” The wizard, Wolfie, and the princes vanished.

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The castle’s immense secret basement was cluttered with dusty cobwebbed jars of herbs and spices, books and toys, and odd collections. Among them, Thorsdagr studied the pale body of Prince Storm lying on the blanketed table. “What is said in this room is to be kept amongst ourselves or shared only with great discretion.” He withdrew and sat on a wooden crate to think. It was some moments before he spoke again, his hands forming a small ribbed pyramid.

“A curious thing. The soul here is not the demon prince’s. Did you know that? Of course you did.” I thought so before, but now I’m certain. He paused to let the revelation sink in. “The prince’s original soul was released by the assassin Trance’s sword. This is old news.” He glanced at his former student and saw a shaken man. The wolf had known but had been in denial. Rain’s expression was guarded.

Thorsdagr went on, “Perhaps that’s why this body is dying. It has no soul, not the one it was created for. A vulnerable soul from another world, neither Hellion nor Hevin, was plucked and stuffed into this reanimated form.” His expression grew more serious and thoughtful. “Her soul would not have come voluntarily, but neither did it have the strength to resist.”

Rain shook his head. “Such a long-distance transplant is unheard of. To even think it would succeed…”

“Especially between the realms!” excitedly pointed out the wizard. “Between the Hidden World and ours! Normally, the body would reject any obviously foreign soul, but Storm’s body didn’t. There must be an unusually high degree of compatibility.”

“Twin souls,” added Wolfie, nodding to himself as if he finally understood something.

“A void was created when this soul was abducted. Her original body in the Hidden World could be trying to pull back its ghost. But that body is either weak or near death, since it should’ve succeeded by now.”

“That’s how we know Kitty’s body is still alive, and not dead and buried,” Wolfie thought aloud.

“Kitty?” asked Rain, but the wolf didn’t elaborate.

Thorsdagr got up to look at the prince again. He smoothed his hand over Storm’s wounds, and they were healed. “Jollnir?”

“I think Sandemon’s hasty hand is in this. His reach is immeasurable. Another point, there are few who could pull off such a switch and survive the backwash of negative chi. He must have extraordinary reasons to risk his own life and to sacrifice his substantial magical reserves.” Then Wolfie, aka Jollnir, returned to his uncannily quiet posture, confronted with more evidence than his visions that his dear prince, whose precious birth he had witnessed, was truly dead. Kitty’s body wouldn’t be trying to reel back its own soul if Storm’s were in residence in hers.

“You may be right,” sighed Jollnir’s teacher. He pulled his hands through his hair in a mild show of frustration. What to do next? “The kamui has indeed risked much, even himself, for this transfer. The destiny of souls is in the domain of the Great Mystery and is not something to be tampered with by the likes of us. But here we are.”

Rain brought up a wooden stool for Wolfie, then said, “It doesn’t take any foreknowledge to understand the strategic importance of a half-demon, half-angel prince at this time in the history of our world. We’re in danger of falling back into the Great War if Prince Redd sits on the throne of Grand Hell.”

“A female soul, too,” Thorsdagr tsked. “You can’t force a Hidden World soul to stay that neither wants to remain nor is strongly bonded to anything in this world. The future that Sandemon has seen must be truly bleak to justify such an intervention.” The wizard closed his eyes for a moment. “My powers are waning. I do not have the far-seeing I once had.”

“Our powers are tied to the health of this world’s life force. You’re not the only one who has experienced a decline. I should’ve caught on to Sandemon’s subterfuge earlier.” Rain glanced down; Storm’s guardian did not look back. He continued, “Prince Redd must not discover the truth. That’ll buy us some time to prepare for the worst the longer he doesn’t know of his triumph.”

“Whether Prince Storm’s continued existence will make a difference is debatable. Sandemon seems to think it does, as do you, and therefore Grand Heaven.” Thorsdagr went to his shaken apprentice. “Only for great love or great hate will a soul remain in any place beyond its allotted time.” With confidence in a crown prince’s miracles, Thorsdagr teleported out of the basement with his arm around a grief-stricken Wolfie.

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Rainbow’s eyes were ablaze as he looked at the chilled body before him, his hair partially lifted in an anti-gravity halo about his face. Prince Storm. Princess Storm. Whatever.

The flame of the Hidden World soul had become no more than a glowing ember, another winter leaf spinning down from the tree of life. Prince Storm cannot die. The words of his mentor Captain Olympus echoed in his mind. Was there any fatherly concern in that order? In any case, a distant father’s love cannot guarantee protection against a determined assassin’s sword, no matter how well positioned the father. Olympus’s son and Julio’s older half-brother (a fact unknown to Julio) had indeed died, murdered by prince-slayer Trance.

Prince Storm cannot die. An unfamiliar voice repeated the Captain's words. Rain glanced around into the shadows, but somehow he knew he would find no one there. An unusual cross-section of their world was interested in the welfare of one demon who, despite impressive parentage, was disappointingly average and magically incompetent according to rumors. It’s too bad you couldn’t blame it on inbreeding.

“Sandemon, can’t you just find another soul?” Even as that sentiment teased out, Rain directed a luminous field of healing energy over Prince Storm with a tight focus on the head and spinal column. This would be so much easier if Julio were here, but there were too many secrets. A flame now sputtered into place where the ember had been.

A faint blush crept back into Storm’s cheeks. The lips, too. Is this the part where the prince kisses the princess and she wakes up? If only it were that simple... The Hellion’s lips were moist and warm, their taste sweet and forbidden.

Feeling guilty, yet he lingered, and his own soul fire ignited in brilliance and intensity. Storm’s false soul leaned in to refuel its strength from that powerful hot star. Their souls blended for a moment.

Then the moment was over, because eternity is for fairy tales. He was already regretting it.

Rain saw the future. He would marry the beautiful, ambitious Princess Lilac from Field of Pleasant Dreams. It would be a loveless but respectful marriage. There would be heirs. After all, Grand Heaven’s well-known motto was “Procreation is life’s blessing.”

His wife would eventually take a lover (this was permitted though not encouraged), and she would finally be happy. He would be committed to his throne and would see Grand Heaven prosper and become greater than ever. A satisfying life could be had from being useful. This is what Sandemon showed him, a possible future.

The Hevin shook himself and got back to the business of returning Prince Storm to the world of the living. His forehead furrowed with concentration. I’m not letting you go, for the sake of our respective kingdoms…and for myself.


 

Lakan, a wolf boy

single sock / still missing / its partner

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14. A Howling in the Dark

Day 8: Blue morning,

Castle-at-the-World’s End

AN OLD-FASHIONED magic castle it was. It had been awhile since the castle had felt this alive. Thorsdagr could hear his castle quietly, happily humming to itself at the arrival of so many new and esteemed guests at one time. Smiling, he lifted his hand from the purring wall and continued his walk toward the kitchen.

Through the kitchen doors, the warm heat from the stoves and the smell of pancakes, sausages, and eggs welcomed the amused wizard. He saw everyone either busily preparing breakfast or already eating. A servant cleared a place with her ample bosom for Thorsdagr at the long table and set down before him her lord’s usual breakfast of buttered toast and coffee. No one had moved into the dining hall since it was warmer in the kitchen.

“Grand wizard, do you have any good news for us? How is our prince?” Style was by the stove frying eggs as a flirtatious servant stood by with a plate at the ready.

The kitchen got quiet. All conversation ceased. “Prince Rain is still with the Hellion prince. That personage has not awoken yet, but he has been physically healed. Where’s Jollnir?”

“You mean Wolfie? He’s sleeping in,” said Grayson.

“He was never an early riser. I can’t believe he became as good a magician as he did.” Thorsdagr bit into his toast. With that, the clatter in the kitchen arose again.

Alas, the peaceful normalcy of the morning was not to last. Shortly after breakfast and curious explorations of the castle and its grounds, harsh shouts called attention to the front: Fighting at the drawbridge!

Servants with half-filled baskets of berries, nuts, and greens hurried in the opposite direction past Storm’s eager crew. The ranks of Thorsdagr’s skeletons were being broken through by a howling long-maned wildman who sliced and hammered side-to-side with broad handheld axheads. Bones cracked and shattered. A bleached skull fragment tumbled to a stop at the feet of the castle’s lord.

“What in Queen Regina’s name is going on?” Thorsdagr was unaccustomed to this level of noise and disorder so early in the day. Nevertheless, he found he was anticipating the show Prince Storm’s fighters would put on.

With tangled black tresses that almost reached the ground, the muscular naked man was breathing heavily, but the determination in his sandstone brown eyes indicated he was no way near stopping his attack. He barked menacingly and howled.

The drawbridge became a gauntlet of obstacles. Halloween stood at the head of the parade. He did a fancy ax-twirling routine as a warm-up. Everyone gave him space. However, Lakan turned into a sleek black wolf that leaped over and easily dodged Halloween’s ax as he dipped into a squat. Halloween sprang up and looked back. “Who’s next?”

Next was the ambidextrous Vulture. His sharp hunting sword and cleaver were out and twirling fast. The wolf cautiously approached and then cannonballed in puppy form between Vulture’s legs. There was laughter.

“They’re playing with him,” observed Julio. “In a deadly serious way.”

“They’re testing to see what he’s capable of,” added Style. “No one’s worried that one of us can’t actually stop him.”

Charm cast his net over the emerging black furball, but a furious tornado of angry axheads cut through, leaving Charm with a useless net and an unused trident.

Grayson watched the canine shapeshifter parry Kapah’s duo hunting cleavers with duo axheads. “If this is a test, he’s passing, we’re failing.”

Not until the human wolf faced a battle-ready tri-winged Julio did he hesitate, as if he had never before seen a Hevin. He sniffed the air, and he was aware of the other warriors regrouping at Julio’s side.

Thorsdagr looked back at his castle. “Jollnir, time to wake up and shine your lord’s shoes.” The tardy gray wolf was immediately there. “What does that wildman…,” he pointed, “want?” Wolfie’s eyes grew wide as he took in the scene.

The sweating wolfman cautiously absorbed his axheads back into his hands; he didn’t sense any hostility from his peer. After a barked exchange, Wolfie translated. “His name’s Lakan. He says we have something that belongs to him.”

“What?!” Thorsdagr was truly puzzled.

“I’ve already told him we probably don’t, but he insists otherwise. He won’t tell me what this thing is supposed to be.”

Vulture took a guess. “Maybe wolfman heard Prince Storm’s summons.”

“If he sees the prince, he might calm down.” Even as he said it, Grayson wasn’t sure they should take that chance.

“What’s one more guest?” Thorsdagr finally said. “I’m not overly concerned since none other than Prince Rain guards the sleeping prince. Let the black wolf through.” Thorsdagr’s skeletons moved aside. Lakan fearlessly hurdled past them on four legs toward the underground rooms of the castle with everyone in pursuit.

When Lakan finally stopped, the horned prince’s still form lay within sight. A baggy-eyed, bad-tempered Hevin stood up at the stranger’s intrusion, his impressive tri-wings steadily unfurling behind him, but he relaxed his guard slightly at seeing Thorsdagr and the others come through the door.

The stranger approached softly howling. He sniffed, whined, nuzzled the prone prince, and received no response. Anxiously he looked over at Wolfie and yowled a query.

“We don’t know,” said Wolfie, as much to the rest of them as to Lakan. Lakan understood Wolfie’s human language from his manner and the collective somber mood.

Great disappointment and sorrow leached what was left of the black wolf’s energy. He dropped spent, defenseless, butt to the ground, his black hair pooling around him like freshly spilled ink, and yowled plaintively. He had wandered alone for so long after losing his pack at a young age due to border wars. This sleeping beauty demon smelled of the pack, of coming home, and it appeared the wolf had arrived too late for the reunion.

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“Who’s calling me?” Kitty with effort raised her head from the ground and twisted this way and that way. “I’m sure I heard someone say my name. Come out, wherever you are.”

Was it her imagination? She remained alert for any sound, holding her head up high, a little afraid in the dark.

Then from somewhere within the starless twilight, a creature whimpered. She forgot about her own plight. Poor baby! Is it hurt? Which direction? Ah, over there! She dragged herself over since her legs were numb and not cooperating for some reason. How long had she been sleeping? She felt so sluggish.

Mustering up her energy, she beckoned, “Puppy! Mommy’s here. C’mon!” The unhearing, unseeing black pup yipped when Kitty’s arms wrapped around its body. “Oh, you’re so soft and warm!” She soothed it, clung to its comforting energy as it licked and nuzzled her, and was glad to not be alone.

After some time, the fluffy thing wriggled out of her arms. “Don’t go, puppy! Don’t leave me here by myself!”

As if the animal understood, it didn’t go far but sat nearby, its large sandstone-colored eyes full of hopeful expectation. The puppy returned, tugged at her sleeve, ran off, and came back to tug some more. It growled with impatience.

“Okay, okay. Do you want me to follow you? Where are you going?” An old TV episode of Lassie came to mind. Behind the dog, she could make out a narrow dirt path. Was that there before? There was more light now.

She worked her way up to a standing position. The height was dizzying. Puppy barked excitedly. Kitty slid her right foot forward and balanced. Well, that’s a start. “Let’s leave this dark and lonely place together.”

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In the basement, in front of the entire company, there was a sharp intake of air from the half-demon on the table. Gasps of surprise. Chatter and movement froze.

I opened my eyes, awakening from a not very restful sleep, my head instinctively turning toward an unkempt man who lifted his tearstained face to meet my wide-eyed stare. Where’s the cute puppy? But I did know, just as he knew my secret.

“His name’s Lakan,” someone said.

Lakan stood and walked over, with my allies and servants gathering around. Wolfie gently pushed Lakan aside to talk to me.

“Welcome back, Prince Storm.” Relief was in Wolfie’s small, tired hazel eyes as he grasped my hand. He hadn’t wanted to lose another prince again so soon.


 

Storm and servants

a.m. & p.m. / a spider spins / in the front

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15. Divided We Fall

Day 14: Black noon,

Castle-at-the-World’s End

ALMOST A WEEK had passed. I had been moved from the basement to a tower room with an amazing view of the snowcapped Forbidden Mountains, though today there was heavy cloud cover. On the other side of those mountains were the many hellish states of Grand Hell.

My guardians Wolfie and Grayson were tutoring me in their culture, history, and geography. They also shared what they knew of the real Prince Storm, whom I had begun to think of as a distant cousin whose memories occasionally mixed in with my own.

The gray wolf said he would teach me how to use and control my powers when I was back on my feet. I hadn’t done any disappearing acts since Jupiter Grove, but you never knew when it could happen again.

My bed was repaired from a live fragment of Eye-in-the-Bed. The tall headboard framed a single giant eye, dark amber in color like Grayson’s eyes. Above the eye servant was the carved blessing “Sleep in Peace” and below it were the scary, not reassuring words “For I Am Watching Over You.”

The eye was always searching the room when it wasn’t napping. Perhaps there were things not visible to my eyes that it detected, though what a mere eyeball could do about that escaped me. I’d have to ask. Whenever it got excited, such as when I made eye contact, its thick lashes would go all a-quiver.

The floral compact that Silver Mirror called home lay closed on a nearby wooden table next to an inanimate teddy bear. Silver Mirror and Teddy were Storm’s two other longtime companions. Mirror servants were useful, but they had their limitations and were best used for short messages of a public nature.

Absentmindedly, I petted the warm black furball curled beside me. Lakan had never left my side since that day; he didn’t trust that I wouldn’t disappear on him if he wasn’t watching me every second. And I couldn’t sleep well without him beside me. We clung to each other fiercely. I’m not sure how much was due to our respective loneliness and how much to the enchantment of the summons.

Lakan didn’t have much of a human vocabulary yet, but he was learning fast under Wolfie’s tutelage. Why couldn’t Wolfie just give him the gift of speech as he did for me, but Wolfie said magic couldn’t fix everything. That’s what schools are for.

As Prince Storm, I had freed my restless wall-suffocated court with instructions to return in a month from their fact-finding missions. At that point, a more informed decision could be made as to whether Prince Storm would remain in exile or not. It was a ruse to buy more time for my recuperation.

Most everyone had left, including the Angeles Royale. I guess Rain had to get married. Style winged back to update Storm’s second eldest brother Prince Thunder. Vulture needed his space; but I was going to miss watching that powerful and humongous bird glide around the castle. I still found myself looking out the window for him out of habit.

Halloween stayed behind. Maybe Rain had something to do with it. I had seen the two of them talking a lot with each other. They would skulk away whenever they saw me.

I ordered Three-eyes to take a vacation, but he refused. I assured him I was safe and more than adequately taken care of. I was convalescing in Thorsdagr’s skeleton-protected castle. My regular longtime servants were still around.

“Are you jealous that Lakan is with me day and night?” I asked the giant shadow in the corner.

“Not at all. I’m not jealous of your dog,” replied Halloween. Lakan barked at him. “When are you gonna learn to talk? I don’t understand what you’re saying, pooch.”

“Something is headed this way” is all I got out before golden eagles jetted through the windows. Feathers, lots of them, filled the room. Halloween and Lakan were subdued before they had a chance to fight, partly due to the sharp talons digging into my neck and arms.

There’s a traitor among us. They knew exactly where to fly, thought Halloween. That the snake was kissing the ground at the stinking feet of eaglemen was especially bitter. Serpents and eagles were traditional enemies.

“Please, please don’t hurt my servants!” I hoped I sounded appropriately pitiful and helpless enough. Being suddenly dragged up from the bed was disorienting, and I leaned against my feathered captors as my hands and feet were bound.

“Kill all of them,” ordered their practical commander as he leaped out the window. He dropped me screaming into a shallow net held aloft by other flyers. The cries of dying men filled my ears over the crashing and sliding of swords until I could hear them no more, only the whistling of arctic winds and the strong, steady flap of wings.


 

Bolt, Trance’s younger brother

roar of the ocean / again and again / until sunset

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16. The Forbidden Mountains

Day 15:Black noon,

Hell-of-Death-from-High-Places

HOW CAN THE SUN STAY in the sky on such a sad day? Within moments, a hard rain thudded outside the throne room windows, further darkening the mood of the gathered in the great hall. Few of the warrior eagles the crew-cut white-blond commander had soared out with had flapped back with him. Among them had been the well-liked son of one of the nobles.

“Our talons are coated with too much of the queen’s blood. Have eaglemen become nothing more than thieving cormorants for Prince Redd? Was this fledgling prince worth what we sacrificed?” The upset kidnapper grabbed me up by my captive collar and shook me and my chains at the throne and the richly plumaged nobles on either side, tossing me to the smooth hard floor when he was done. “We have done ENOUGH! We’ve already flown one miserable prince to him. It is he who should be grateful to us, not the other way around.”

I was helped up by a blank-faced guard to a sitting position, my untreated cuts throbbing with pain. My obnoxious demon horns were gone, but that precaution robbed me of Storm’s birthright strength and powers.

Unruffled, the youthful ruler of Hell-of-Deaths-from-High-Places took the podium. King Royalsail said, “Even the heavens weep for our lost brethren. Let us set a place of honor in our hearts for those who have given their lives so that the rest of us may continue to live in peace. Now, I humbly ask for a moment of your time, a moment of silence and reflection to remember these valiant eaglemen.” As he bowed his head in mute prayer, his subjects respectfully followed their lord’s lead.

When their ruler straightened up, he acknowledged the hall with a sweep of his eyes, then looked at Glacier. “Dear brother, your concern has an audience, but we stand to lose much unless we continue to prove ourselves to be steadfast allies of the Redd Demon, whom as I speak swallows up Grand Hell grain by grain, rock by wall by mountain. The fear other Hellion states have of us and Prince Redd has kept peace at our borders.” Royalsail fiercely protected his kingdom and, in return, commanded great respect from his people.

“This is a nasty business to be involved in, trafficking in the deaths of princes, my lord brother. Surely a mother’s curse is in the making for our trespasses.” Scattered gasps of indignation came from the white-bellied merchant nobles at the soldier’s boldness.

Their grand owl stepped forward from under the mural of snowcapped mountains which wrapped around the hall. Guards quickly scooted out of her way as she revealed herself and folded back her nose veil. She was called an owl for her wisdom, not because she was of that bird tribe. The unsmiling ancient eagle was a potent sorceress whose magic and experience had helped breach Thorsdagr’s invisible barrier around his castle.

Nemesis spoke up. “Honorable Prince Glacier, it is the way of the land of Grand Hell for its princes and princesses to attain supremacy by any means possible.” She paused for effect. “‘The disappearance of the weak will not be mourned,’ ‘Hell’s truth keeps a sharp sword,’ and ‘No Hellion lives past their usefulness or strength’ are commonly expressed sentiments.” There was a round of nodding and murmured agreement from the nobles. Glacier cynically wondered how much of their babbling was just for show.

Owl lady kept moving forward toward us. “Queen Regina will not move against us for helping Prince Redd, but neither will she support anyone outside of her family with the blood of her sons on their hands. We can interpret this to mean she won’t do anything for or against us.”

Finally, she was standing face-to-face with Prince Glacier. She broke eye contact first to look down at me. Nemesis’s talon extended and cradled my reluctant chin. Prince Storm cannot die, whispered a voice inside the sorceress’s head. She twitched involuntarily before her hold loosened. Her heavily kohl-lined eyes narrowed and got hard as she searched the room.

Prince Storm must not die or else.

Shadows in the room sprung to life—wicked, half-rotted ghosts of warriors of ages past―roused from their eternal sleep beneath the ebony sedimentary sands of the coldest lake in a most mysterious cavern within the midnight core of the world. The night warriors crawled with impunity around this demon-protected peak in the Forbidden Mountains.

“Is something wrong?” a guard asked Nemesis. The owl didn’t say anything. She was trying hard to control her fear. Evidently, only she and I were able to see the animated shadows. She nervously traced a broad circle of protection around herself with her staff. From a pouch strapped to her waist, she brought out a pinch of sparkling ground moonstone and tossed it in four directions with a repetitive chant to drive away the threat: “That which we did not call forth, let it not seek or find us.”

Satisfied when the agitated shadows moved no closer, she stumbled over to King Royalsail and whispered frantically into his ear. The proud man shifted uneasily in his throne chair and was visibly upset. His eyes were alert to the horrifying phantoms; he could see them, too.

Royalsail stood up to calm the suddenly alarmed assembly. His broad shoulders and height displayed to good effect his royal black-feather cape with thin horizontal bands of pale gray. “Nemesis has cautioned us to not be hasty. We will study the situation further before we deliver Prince Storm to his brother. It appears this prince is not without formidable allies of his own.” As Royalsail held up his hands for silence, he thought with a talon of arrogant annoyance, Does this satisfy you, Sandemon?

“For the time being, Prince Glacier will be responsible for the care of this prisoner.” The king’s face appeared to brighten for a moment at his own mischief. “He will guarantee that no harm comes to the young demon prince.”

Glacier was not too taken aback. “I will do as you command, my lord and brother.” He then stared at me in the way that people do when they discover the lovely fruit they picked is actually poisonous. No one had missed Nemesis’s fearful reaction to Storm or something around him. Prince Storm was granted a reprieve as Glacier had requested, but the act did not gladden him.

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Flowers? I’m not dead yet! A thick spray of red roses slid off my chest as I raised myself up. On either side of me were two Tinseltown-beautiful, very naked attendants on the cushioned bed, which was crowned overhead by a purple canopy with embroidered white stars. The women were asleep, sorority princesses napping until the next happy hour. I chewed on a corner of my lip out of nervousness.

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Around my throat and arms, cloth bandages hid eagle-inflicted cuts and scratches that didn’t feel as inflamed as earlier. From criminal to royal treatment in a day, I wondered how long it would be before the birdmen changed their minds again.

A warm soft hand cupped my face and turned me toward the blonde. Another curious hand from the snuggling brunette was deep-sea fishing at my unprotected thigh.

“AAUGH!” I couldn’t help blushing furiously at what might become my first undercover experience. “Uhm, Prince Glacier didn’t know this, but I’m recovering from a deadly contagious disease! It’s not s-s-safe,” I coughed, “for you. Your informants knew I was bedridden before I was kidnapped.” Coughing and spitting saliva, I signaled for water, clutching at my neck from the real pain I felt there.

With perfectly cued eeks, the beauties leaped out of bed and grabbed their shimmering feathered robes. “We’ll tell the guards to fetch the herbalist.” They bowed their teased heads and excused themselves, dismay contorting their cute faces as they tore down the hallway for the nearest baths to scrub themselves clean.

When the elaborately carved bedroom doors opened again, a much-subdued Prince Glacier stepped through. He was followed by guards and a smaller man balancing a large cloth-wrapped bundle on his back. Leaning back against the bedpost, I saluted him with my finger and finished off the last of the wine direct from the carafe.

“Good, good, good―good vibrations.” I shuffled my feet in a poor imitation of dancing. Oh, yeah. Grape juice dribbled down the front of my birthday suit.

“How are you feeling, my royal enemy?” politely inquired Glacier. He couldn’t quite hide the disgust on his face at my appearance.

I majestically planted my left hand on the bed to balance. “Fine. Jus’ fine. So there!” I glanced down at the empty rose porcelain carafe in my hand, then hurled it. A guard intercepted it before it struck his commander. “Aaah, missed! That sucks. C’mon, give it back. I wanna try again.”

However, the guard remained where he was. I climbed onto the bed. “Birdman, you killed someone I know. I can feel it right here.” I pounded on my chest for emphasis. “Here in my heart. Oops, I think my hand needs to be lower.”

“Losses are inevitable in a war.”

“Can’t you say saw-reeey?” I let loose a long cry of frustration that should have opened back up the doors to Earth. “Why did you do it? For what? An alliance with a prince who murders his own brothers?!”

Pretty-pretty bloody roses. Who gave me the roses? “Off with their heads! Off heads! Off! Poor, poor, so dead roses.” I laughed and hiccuped from atop the bed to finally end up staring at a ceiling of stars, ignoring everyone, afloat among petals and stems. Good thing the roses had been dethorned. Like me. Hornless, thornless, my silly joke.

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Glacier kept his distance. “Prince Storm is understandably confused and upset. Too bad we can’t stuff him right back in the nest.” The only thing to do now was to leave this fine mess in the hands of another. “Eleria, if there’s anything you need, please do not hesitate to let me know.” With that, Glacier turned on his heels and flew out with the guards.

That left Eleria alone in the room with a drunken prince who was possibly infected with a fatal contagious disease. What to do? If I let the prince die, I’ll be scapegoated and plucked for a poor man’s feast.

A lock of ebony hair lazily fell into his handsome face. He fixed his ponytail, blond streaks running through it like winter sunshine, and resignedly headed toward the bed where he unceremoniously lifted away the sheet that covered an enemy's nakedness. The rebellious prince, his flushed face moist with tears, snot, and wine, tried to tug the slippery sheet back.

“This’ll take just a moment,” said Eleria, whose trained eye and smooth hands poked and prodded until he was satisfied, all the while wrestling with Storm over the sheet. The prince eventually gave up and fell flat on his face, moaning and sobbing into his white silk pillow.

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Tantrum over, I turned to look at the disturbingly calm herbalist. He used a damp cloth to wipe my face clean. “You remind me of my younger brother Teres, but he was sickly and he died two years ago.” Eleria replaced the sheet and added a baby-blue cotton blanket. “You will be Teres, and I will take care of you, my dear brother.” He lovingly kissed my forehead and dug into his bundle for pills.

What I did not know was Eleria had murdered Teres with his medical experiments. He had been recruited to be a plant and spy for Prince Redd. This was what the boy ghost of Teres shared as he hovered over my pill-numbed body.


 

Sean and Thomas, shieldmakers

“Our shields protect your future.”

sausages frying / in the old cast iron pan― / his cool touch

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17. Descent into Grand Hell

Day 15: Late yellow night,

Hell-of-Deaths-from-High-Places

“THE HERBALIST believes the hot spring baths will be beneficial,” the brunette perkily explained to the guards who held the doors open. She shook her luscious curled tresses for them and sexily batted her lashes.

“This late?” However, the guard wasn’t looking at her face.

“When you’re near death, every minute counts.” Her beefy assistant carried the groggy, drooling prince piggyback. “To tell you the truth,” she whispered breathily, “I don’t think he’s going to make it, but don’t tell anyone I told you,” she winked. The guards wished her luck. What they didn’t know was Jax was an undercover agent, no pun intended, for Prince Thunder.

Teres the ghost waved to Jax from around the corner. He resembled a ten-year-old version of Prince Storm, except for the deep shadows beneath his eyes that had lingered even after death. He led them to a linen storage closet and told Jax about the trapdoor. She lifted the door to reveal the entrance to a secret tunnel to the royal mausoleum.

At the foot of the steps into the tunnel was a box of torches. Jax lit one and checked on Storm who was sleeping fitfully. “Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll get you out of here.” She tied her hair back into a ponytail and dropped her skirt. She had on compression shorts. Her servant waited patiently for her next command.

They made great time through the spacious tunnel with Teres flying ahead. Before opening the door to the mausoleum, Jax listened.

“The night watchman is on the other side of the cemetery making his rounds,” said Teres. “There’s no one in the mausoleum.”

All was peaceful and remained so, even as they made their way down the crypt-filled white marble halls to the balcony that overlooked the gloomy Forest of Gargoyles. Salvation lay there.

“My brother Eleria will be furious when he discovers Prince Storm is gone,” said Teres. He excitedly clapped his hands in happy anticipation.

“I’m counting on you, Teres, to become a spirit light to keep the night watchman distracted. That way I can launch from here undetected.” Impressive chestnut-brown bird wings sprouted from Jax’s suddenly tough masculine shoulders. After the drug-dazed Storm was strapped in on Jax’s back, she commanded, “Norweg, return to your sheath.”

“Yes, my mistress.” As her attendant assimilated back into her right arm, Jax winced slightly. Next was a fast, steep drop to avoid detection as long as possible, a jump made especially risky by the additional weight.

“It’s showtime! Good luck, Jax.” Teres’s mottled wings spread outward behind him as he prepared to lift off. She detected a flicker of sadness in the eagle boy’s eyes before he faded out.

Jax waited a few minutes. She wondered how both she and Prince Storm were the only ones able to see the ghost. A foreboding sign, and she used it to provoke her to stay alert and strong. “Prince Thunder, I will save your brother.” Then she prayed, “I trust all to the Great Mystery.” She took a deep breath and hurled herself off the balcony into Grand Hell.


 

Storm and bat servant Grayson

looking for the hostel… / along the path / sweet wild raspberries

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18. Bats, Bats, More Damn Bats

Day 16: Blue dawn,

Forest of Gargoyles

“DO I HEAR WHIMPERING? Is that you, Lakan? Will you please shut up? You’re making my headache worse.” After my auditory hallucination, I could sense a welling of great anger inside my head, but not from Lakan. Halloween? Why are you always so pissed off? Ever heard of anger management?

My aching head and sore body were in a post-party state, only I hadn't been partying nor had it been fun. Let’s see. Someone helped me out of bed. We went for a ride. Now I’m waking up cold and alone in fancy PJs beneath some shrubbery. I picked up a beautiful, large brown feather lying next to me. Twirling it in my fingers, I wondered what bird it had fallen from.

What I could not know was Jax and Norweg had had to ditch me to lead our pursuers astray. As Jax’s wings gave out, pierced by one too many arrows, she had free-fallen in a kamikaze dive toward a mountain lake with Prince Storm’s impersonator Norweg. The eaglemen would eventually fish out only a solitary feathered body.

No one would know of Jax’s sacrifice, except for Prince Thunder when she didn’t return. He had received an urgent weather update from her via bat messenger: It’s going to rain hard. A Storm is approaching. Will arrive within the next few days.

Glancing up at the sky, I could see eagles circling widely near the brightening peaks. I threw the feather into a rising wind. I needed to be where the forest canopy was thicker, and I rolled on the ground to turn my jammies into camouflage wear.

Which direction to go? With the Forbidden Mountains here and the rising sun there, I was in Grand Hell and not Purgatory. Prince Redd was on this side. How close was I to Hell-of-Sorrows? I wouldn’t get back over the snow-covered peaks without help, especially with the loss of Storm’s superdemon abilities.

Whoever had left me in this place must’ve done everything they could. They had given me a headstart. It was up to me now to stay out of Royalsail and Glacier’s talons. They were the immediate danger. I ran toward the rising sun and slipped deeper into the awakening forest.

I whirled toward an unusual barking sound, which turned out to be an angry squirrel I had scared into the treetops. Thereafter, at every peculiar noise I comforted myself with the thought, Tree squirrels, tree squirrels. Through a tree break, I frowned at the lingering gray clouds. Was it going to rain?

Movement came from all over. Bats?! Attacking? Why? As the tiny ninjas clawed and bit away, I covered my face and promptly smashed into a sturdy tree. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds came to mind, and we know what happened to those people.

High-pitched shrieks instinctively tore from my throat; the bats backed off in a flurry of puzzled squeaks. Hesitantly facing my attackers, I registered a distant response to my distress. Moments later, Grayson materialized—half-man, half-bat—and embraced me within his arms and giant membranous wings. He surveyed the bats, now batmen, and determined they weren’t a threat.

“Storm, it’s me Grayson. Grayson.” He shook me gently. “Remember me? I heard you call my name. I’m here.” He sniffed and licked away the blood on my confused face. “Your horns. They’re gone.” His fingers wonderingly slid over the stumps where Storm’s horns used to be.

I nervously grasped onto the silky warm fur on Grayson’s chest, an intimate act surprising the bat servant since Storm hadn’t done that since childhood. The thick upper body fur appeared whenever he brought out his wings.

The bats’ leader Crawlspace was sincerely apologetic. “We didn’t know. We thought he was an eagleman. They’re out in force this morning. Are they looking for you?”

“Are you obligated to assist them?”

“No. They’re towel boys for Prince Redd and cannot be trusted.”

“Then help us by sheltering me and my injured master.” Grayson was crossing his fingers and hoping they would go along with the plan.

“No,” I countered, my voice quavering.

Crawlspace also did not agree at first. Finally, the tension was broken when he simply said, “Follow me,” as most of the bats rose into the air and flapped away. “We have an outpost not far from here.”

“I’m not going,” I said more desperately. I clutched at Grayson so tightly he winced. “No more bats. No bats.” I shook my hungover head back and forth.

“A mistake was made. They won’t attack.”

Tears flowed. “Grayson,” I sobbed. “Help me. Don’t let them have me.”

“We need to get you somewhere warmer. Safer. Do you understand?” He turned to Crawlspace and got directions to the outpost, then the bats flapped away.

I muffled my crying in Grayson’s chest. “You smell.”

Grayson wanted to cry now. He sat down against a tree to calm his weepy prince. “There, there.” He smoothed Kitty’s hair.

“Hmm.” I leaned into his comforting warm hand.

Grayson thought, I guess this would be a bad time to tell Kitty that Storm’s bear servant died in the castle attack. He didn’t know anyone could cry so long. “Hush now. C’mon, you’re a demon. Demons aren’t crybabies, especially demon princes. Didja know tears will stunt your growth?” He rocked Kitty, recalling how he had used similar words with a much younger prince years back.

When she fell asleep out of exhaustion and was softly snoring, he apologized for what he was about to do, “I’m really, really sorry, Kitty, but we can’t stay out here. It’s too dangerous. The eagles will find us, and I don’t have the strength at the moment to take us both back over the mountains.”

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“You finally came.”

The guards at the cavern’s southeastern entrance had been expecting company. Because they rarely received civilian visitors at the military outpost, there was mild excitement in the air. Earlier, they had scrambled to find and furnish a suitable guest room.

Insisting on carrying the prince himself, Grayson was escorted to a room where he gently off-loaded his charge onto the bed. After excusing the guards, he took a deep breath. At a full-length mirror, he called for Storm’s mirror servant Silver in order to speak to Wolfie.

“Where are you?” asked his mentor.

“We’re at a military outpost in the southern part of Grand Hell, near the Forbidden Mountains, in a lowland area of Hell-of-Deaths-from-High-Places. It’s called Gathering-Place-of-Bones.”

“That’s in the Forest of Gargoyles where the batmen live, right?”

“Correct. The bats and eagles don’t play well together, which means Storm will be safe at this outpost for now. I don’t know how Storm escaped from the eaglemen. He didn’t say much and did nothing but cry.”

“Storm was crying?” butted in Silver, his ghostly face appearing next to Wolfie’s solid figure in the mirror.

“Well, girls do that,” Grayson mumbled.

“Is he all right otherwise?” asked Wolfie.

“Nothing life threatening that I can see. I’ll do a more thorough inspection. Anyway, he’s asleep right now. Also, his horns are gone. It was a professional removal, down to the skull. He’s more vulnerable than ever before. Wolfie, how soon can you get here?”

“Tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Halloween and Lakan don’t want to be left behind, and we don’t have the magical reserves to teleport together, not after boosting you through. If Thor shows up,” which is doubtful, “we’ll be there earlier. Take care, Grayson, and thank you.”

“See you tomorrow then.” The mirror sighed and became an ordinary reflective surface again. Long distance was tough on Silver. Grayson turned his attention to a nearby fruit bowl, changed his mind, and went to the washroom.

A slatted lid covered part of a natural hot spring. He used a shallow wooden bucket to wash himself outside of the tub where a drain carried the soap and water away. Moments later, the heat was relaxing him as he sank into the tub, but not for long as he still had a prince to attend to.

Grayson stripped Storm of his bandages and dirty pajamas to give him a sponge bath. “And you said I smell?” he muttered over a steaming bucket. Afterward, he wrapped new neck and arm bandages and was tempted to keep on wrapping.

“I’m glad you called me,” he whispered to the still sleeping demon. He combed Storm’s hair with his fingers and tucked him in under the covers.

There was a knock at the door. “Our commander invites you and your master, if he’s up to it, to share a private tea with her.”

“It’ll just be me, thank you.” He checked one more time to make sure everything remained peaceful before quietly closing the door behind him.

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“The commander isn’t going to like this,” said the unhappy guard to the grinning batman.

“I just wanna peek. The prince is sleeping, right?”

“He’s not to be disturbed for any reason, especially yours.”

“But I’m not just anybody. And guess what? I didn’t come empty-handed. Tah-dah! Presenting lovely katydid earrings. Didn’t you say your charming girlfriend couldn’t find any?”

“Lemme see. Okay, your ticket looks good. But you can’t stay in there too long.”

“I promise.”

The door opened. The stranger’s dark brown eyes brightened as he tiptoed toward the bed with giddy anticipation. He had felt the fierce pull of the summons, but he hadn't had to travel anywhere. The prince was right in front of him, but where were His Hellness’s horns? He frowned at the disfigurement.

He slipped off his boots, then his jacket. There were bite marks on the cute prince’s face and on his hands and arms, and after pulling down the blankets, all over. I’m sorry, my prince. I should have been there to protect you. I’ve seriously neglected my duties. Happily spooning himself behind the prince, quite pleased by the fit, the stranger fell asleep.

This was the scene Grayson and the outpost commander saw. Kitty’s never going to trust me again, thought Grayson.

The commander’s son Targe sat up and tried to shake me awake. Irritated, I batted his hand away, to realize the person beside me couldn’t be Grayson if Grayson was at the foot of the bed. “Who’s this?!” I scooted away horror-stricken.

“Son, out of that bed now! We’re being overly friendly with the guests, aren’t we?” scolded Commander Flying Fox with both her hands on her hips.

“Mother, I’m not leaving him. He is my god.”

“Were you summoned?” curtly asked Grayson, the strain of the past two weeks showing in his face.

“Yes, I was summoned by this beautiful demon. By the way, darling, what’s your name?”

“NO MORE BATS!” I screamed. The air shimmered. Targe the bat was perched on my shoulder as I sat buck-naked in the dirt, while Grayson flapped around overhead. Grayson said we weren’t in Grand Hell anymore but somewhere in Purgatory, the southwestern region—dry, isolated, miles of rocks, sand, and cacti.

“Mommy?” peeped Targe.

“Get off! Get off!” I yelled, flailing my bare arms. Targe zipped away. “GRAYSON! Get down here, so I can rip your wings off!” I got up and threw rocks at the nervous bats. They missed wide. “Murta! GRAYSON!”

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“Who’s Grayson? The varmint you lost your clothes to?” A curious crowd of grizzly bearded men gathered, drawn by the fuss a naked stranger was making in their shabby mining town, not that they weren’t accustomed to unusual comings and goings by fortune-hunters and claim jumpers.

“Can someone get me clothes?” I covered Storm’s private parts with a page of newspaper. My other hand smoothed back my hair. Vanity is my name.

“Why doncha try winnin’ yer clothes back from that Grayson fella?” More hooting. They started throwing paper wads, pewter spoons, empty bottles and cans.

“Stop that, stop that!”

“Say, that demon’s disturbing the peace here in Noosetown. Maybe we oughta teach him a lesson.”

“ME?!” I hollered at the quickly closing circle. “Tell the asshole with the slingshot to stop shooting!”

“To the gallows! To the gallows! Der’z gonna be a hangin’! Der’z gonna be a hangin’! Ho-ho!” they merrily sang, clapped, and banged on metal.

“You’re kidding, right?” I said. “Let me down! Hey, don’t touch me there! AAAUGH!”

“Where are you going with my son?” drawled a familiar voice at the head of the parade.

“Your son? Vulture, you have a son?” There was a moment of stunned silence. “How ‘bout that? Who would’ve thunk? Let ‘im down. The demon’s been claimed.” The disappointed crowd dumped me in front of Vulture’s dusty boots. “Doesn’t look much like Vulture, does he.”

“It’s a good thing, too. Now, who suggested hanging my kid?” Everyone scrammed.

“Daddy!” I wrapped my arms around Vulture’s neck and gratefully kissed him all over. “Get me out of here, please.”

Vulture was in no hurry. “Son, where’s your trousers? Not supposin’ I learned you better.” More seriously, “You’re a mess.” He took in the invisible horns, the unraveling bandages. “And these marks can’t be love bites from Grayson…,” he trailed off.


 

Tombo, Prince of Dragonflies

it zips away / the dragonfly’s / shadow

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19. Grand Heaven Powwow

Day 16: Black noon,

White Palace of Grand Heaven

RAIN GAZED BEYOND the window at the billowy fine weather clouds. Instead of the stark minimalist headquarters for the Angeles Royale, they were meeting in a private room at his father’s luxurious palace. “Prince Storm can’t take over the administration of Grand Hell.” A small red dragonfly zipped past Rain into the room and out. “He’s not strong enough, not yet, may never be. He can’t even take care of himself…” Only Rain wasn’t thinking of Storm, but Kitty.

There was no immediate reply from Captain Max Olympus. Rain heard the captain clunk down his nectar glass on the doily-covered side table beside his armchair. “Prince Storm is dead.”

“Yes, I know,” Rain said, controlling his irritation. “Your son, who was Prince Storm, is dead.”

“A noncombatant female from the Hidden World possesses my son’s body through no fault of her own. Possibly for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An unremarkable commoner.” He spat out the last few words with distaste. “Prince Storm will die a second time,” he predicted, and Rain twitched. “Perhaps war with Grand Hell is inevitable.” The captain was watching his retirement fly away. “Future King of Grand Heaven, are we in agreement on this?”

“I don’t know.” Out of habit, Rain moved toward the bar. “Sandemon’s involved. He wouldn’t let what he has resurrected die so easily. He’s not a Sundays-only player.”

“It would’ve been better if he’d gotten involved one day earlier, before Storm’s assassination. But an immortal like Sandemon doesn’t think like us. He must find it extremely bothersome to have to get involved at all. A troubling vision must be forcing his hand.” As if to change the subject, the captain studied Rain until a frown formed on his target’s face. "You’ve changed somehow, gotten softer, but you were gone for only a short while."

“Cruelty is hard work.” Rain sat opposite his boss and set down a decanter and glass on the coffee table.

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“Indeed.” A glass was lifted.

Rain jumped to refill it, then he topped off his own glass. “The current Prince Storm is gathering an unorthodox group of warriors. It’s not a court of regular attendants. Halloween and Vulture are among his fighters.”

A bushy eyebrow raised. “Mercenaries. Notorious and experienced. Good picks, but difficult to manage. No magicians?”

“None besides Jollnir, whose master is the grand wizard Thorsdagr. However, methinks together their powers are not what they once were apart.”

“Everyone with magical abilities has reported an observable reduction. A court loaded with fighters would be more practical. Still, you need magicians to move fighters.”

“Magicians may come. It’s early in the summoning.”

“Were you summoned?”

Rain suppressed another twitch. Nothing got past the captain. How to answer, because he had thought about it himself earlier. “A Hevin can't be summoned by a Hellion prince.”

“Ah, but this Hellion prince has my royal blood coursing through him.”

His uncle wasn't going to make this easy. “Let me rephrase that, a prince of Hevin who has my powers cannot be commanded by a scrawny half-breed citizen of Grand Hell. Are you implying I’ve been compromised?”

A slight grin crossed Captain Olympus’s face at Rain’s mild outburst. “It’s probably not possible, one prince being able to summon another prince to his service. It has never happened as far as I know. I’m not worried.” Especially with your cousin Julio babysitting you. Unable to resist the temptation to bully his nephew further, he had to ask, “By the way, how was your honeymoon?”


 

Storm’s Ride

a truck rumbles by / nesting swallows / fill the air

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20. One Big Happy Family

Day 17: Early black afternoon,

Vulture’s Shack

I SAT AGAINST THE WALL on the floor of Vulture’s one-room shack. Style would’ve felt right at home. This morning we had breakfast with a family Vulture knew, who were surprisingly regular folks. I was dressed in the hand-me-downs of one of their sons, that is, a faded green shirt and sturdy blue trousers.

Inside an open front window sat the bats Grayson and a mewing Targe. I cast evil eyes toward the both of them huddled together for comfort and protection. Grayson stuck his tongue out at me, mimicked by Targe. I didn’t know Grayson could be so childish. Before I could throw a shoe, someone walked up the outside steps and there was a knock at the door. Grayson waved a wing to signal it was okay.

Wolfie in a gray kimono walked in first with the towering Halloween and the wolf pup Lakan behind him. Lakan bounded toward me with tail wagging.

“I missed you, too, Lakan!” I clutched the wriggling bundle to me, and stuck out and wiggled my tongue back at the bats. So there! Nyah, nyah, nyah. Wolfie and Halloween drew up chairs next to an amused Vulture at the card table.

“Storm, don’t be so hard on Grayson,” smiled Wolfie. He recognized our game. “You’re his first crush.” Now the blushing Grayson was angry with Wolfie. The bats were chased to the roof by roaring laughter.

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It was agreed Thorsdagr’s castle was no longer safe since it was on Prince Redd’s map. The castle’s once-invincible master could not stand up against both a mad mega-prince and another grand wizard, and thus the castle’s defenses had been breached.

Charm and Kapah, originally from Hell-of-Sorrows, were presumed dead since they had betrayed Storm by disclosing his hiding place. It didn’t matter that Prince Redd had threatened their families, who became monster doggy chow anyway. The power of a summons was such that a betrayal released a curse that manifested as a fast-acting internal poison. The only known antidote was to eat an honorable pure heart, which could not be found anywhere in or near Grand Hell and was even difficult to find in Grand Heaven.

Teddy had died during Storm's kidnapping. I didn’t know the bear very well, but it saddened me nonetheless since he had died trying to protect me. Each servant death took a piece of my heart along with it. Listening to the discussion made everything painfully real.

So to make things worse I tried to pick a fight with Halloween, nothing could be easier. However, Hal didn’t react like I thought he would. He didn’t say anything back. In truth, he appeared entertained. A capped circus monkey doing silly tricks for its master couldn’t have done better.

“You all have my princely permission to leave. Before you sell me out.” Lakan whined. “You can stay if you want, but it could get you killed. Now I’m going to the outhouse. The only place where I can get any privacy! Don’t any of you dare follow me!” Which was a stupid thing to say, because it guaranteed that someone would.

I rubbed at the scabs on my arms as I headed out the door, tripping down two steps into the dust and gravel. I looked at my bleeding palms and forearms. Whoa, I’m donating blood to the Red Cross again.

As I unsteadily got to my feet, someone yanked me up by the armpit from behind. “I can see how well you’re staying out of trouble,” said Rain.

I gave Rain a dirty look and dusted myself off. “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be sucking on your new bride’s face? Oh, before I forget, congratulations. I hope you have a happy life together.” When Rain gave me a look, I said, “Hey, I can be nice sometimes.”

The door creaked open, and Wolfie glided down the steps. Could a guy be any more graceful? Irritably I said, “Did I ring for you? I don’t need your help.” I was becoming more unlovable and demon prince by the minute.

Julio materialized next to Rain who scowled at his presence. Yes, we’re just one big happy family.

Another figure came into focus a few yards away. It was starting to get crowded. The demon had a single horn that pierced through a waterfall of brilliant red hair. Rain shoved me back hard enough that I almost fell again, but Wolfie caught me.

“PRINCE REDD!” loudly called out Rain to alert the others inside the shack.

“Prince Rainbow. Are we switching political parties?” Redd’s left hand caressed the sea-serpent embroidered, blood-red scabbard at his side. “No, I mustn’t be impatient,” he advised himself before his wide-open, crazed eyes settled on me and my injuries. My sad state brought a nasty grin to his face.

“That’s Prince Redd?” I didn’t appreciate him lapping up my misfortune like a dog on a popsicle.

“Running so low on assassins that you needed to come yourself?” yelled Julio.

Redd looked directly to the left as if someone were talking to him, but no one was there. He turned back to us. “Recent news of the deaths of several royal siblings has alarmed the Queen and her subjects. I’m merely checking on the health and welfare of my youngest brother.” He gave me a murderous stare. “He looks alive. How unfortunate.” Prince Redd coughed and wiped the saliva at his mouth almost daintily before launching himself at me.

Swords, knives, and Halloween’s long-handled ax blocked the way. “I had to try,” Redd cackled gaily from behind his protective kekkai. “You really didn’t think I came alone to the war, did you? I couldn’t keep all the fun to myself.”

Armored and fanged muscle with glinting tridents popped into place around us. The mariners had us trapped.

“Grand wizard Jollnir, please cooperate and hand over my brother. I hereby relieve you of your longtime obligation to the royal family of Grand Hell. In other words, you’re fired!” Redd stepped back into the greater circle of his guards.

“I can’t teleport Storm out,” Wolfie whispered to Rain. Bright sparks rained down over our heads as Rain tested the strength of Redd’s invisible cage.

Redd lifted a hand to the clear ceiling and announced to his soldiers, “I have no quarrel with the Hevins, not today. But if we must fight, Prince Rainbow of Grand Heaven cannot defeat me, the future king of the greater Grand Hell. We demons invented battle.”

“Leave me alone!” I yelled before Rain could taunt Storm’s brother back. “I don’t care who rules Hell! It’s not that great a place.”

Redd shrugged. “I set a goal for myself to see you dead, and I’m no quitter.” His shark crew laughed.

Someone needs to revise his mission statement. “I’ll kill myself if I don’t get some peace and quiet soon. Wait a few more days. No blood on your hands, and Mother won’t be mad at you!”

A loud guffaw came from Redd. He didn’t remember his baby brother being such a comedian, not that they had ever spent much time together growing up. Before he could say anything more, the ground rumbled and split, swallowing me, my companions, and all of Redd’s guards.

Prince Redd looked around and saw he was alone.

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21. Whose Web?

Day 17: Pink-red dusk,

Spyder’s lair

I RUBBED THE SLEEP from my eyes to find myself gazing into Prince Spyder’s calm full moon eyes in a twilight blue sky. The Underworld demon smelled of rich moist earth, as though he had come into the house from the backyard with freshly cut grass and dirt clinging to his clothes and boots. Only this dark-skinned prince did not wear much beyond a leather jock strap.

Spyder’s hand gently brushed my right cheek and down the side of my unbandaged neck. “Do you give consent?”

“Consent for what?” I shuddered involuntarily, watching with some wariness the moonlight-silver currents of his hair snaking around his head. “Where are my friends?” I suddenly remembered. If I was okay, then I was guessing everyone else was, too.

“Your attendants are safe, in another room, though I can’t say the same for your brother Redd's unfortunate guards.” A smirk rode Spyder’s face. His soldiers were sleeping off a seafood feast. Meanwhile, my guardians were staring forlornly through the iron anti-teleportation bars of their steel mesh cages.

“Where did you go the last time I saw you? You left me alone in the dirt without any clothes. That was kind of rude, don’t you think? What happened? Did you…?”

Spyder was giving me a Mona Lisa smile.

“That’s not an answer.”

“Our job was over when we rescued you that first time, or so we thought. Apparently, it isn’t. Now, do you give consent?”

“I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

“He’s asking for permission to accept a small blood donation from you,” answered Blue, an adviser who sounded a lot like the grand wizard Thorsdagr. I turned in the direction of the voice. In the dim light, I could just make out the other Spyders. Blue went on, “If he drinks your blood, it’ll be easier for him to track you.”

“For seconds,” teased someone. Everyone laughed.

“More important,” said Blue, “you’ll be hands off to the rest of us since you will belong to our prince.”

“Like owned by him? We’re not talking about marriage here, are we?”

“Marriage?” The questioning note in Spyder’s voice told me he didn’t think of bloodletting that way. A fresh burst of laughter from the witnesses around us. “No, I don’t think so. The blood is to seal a promise for protection.”

Hoodlums offering protection to a storeowner in exchange for a monetary donation. “Yeah, I understand,” I said. “Here, take a wrist. I give consent. This won’t hurt, will it?”

Disappointment crossed Prince Spyder’s face. I let him down somehow. “A wrist is for commoners. I prefer a neck vein.”

Now it was my turn to pout. “In case you haven’t noticed, someone’s been at my throat before you.”

“I can see that,” said the prince, tenderly tracing the healing path of the cuts the eagleman Glacier had made. “I’m prepared. Drink this.” He handed me a goblet. “I can’t promise no pain, but this will take away the worst.”

“All right. But I want to see Wolfie and the rest of my friends after this. I’m sure they won’t relax until they see I’m okay.”

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Not completely alone. Prince Redd spotted Grand Heaven’s Prince Rainbow and his armed escort Julio staring back with the same grim expression on their faces. He hadn’t planned to lead a war against the Hevins this early in the game, but this kind of sweet opportunity didn’t land into one’s sushi roll every day. Prince Rainbow’s head was just as good, if not better-looking, than his half-breed brother’s.

“I find it morally offensive that a prince of Heaven would aid and protect a prince of Hell. It’s against natural law. Any prince of Hell who would entertain the idea of such protection should be put to death for the honor of all Hellions.”

“You misunderstand us, Your Evilness, as usual. We’re simply observers keeping tabs on an investment,” corrected Rain.

“By the way, for our recordkeeping, how many brothers and sisters have you already snuffed?” asked Julio.

“Please don’t mistake that for any sympathetic concern,” added Rain.

“Yeah,” said Julio, “It’s not like we care much if there’s one less Hellion walking around, except for Storm.” He looked back at Rain for a reaction, and there was none.

“Point noted. Let’s see.” Redd gleefully started counting on his fingers. Remembering was so much fun. “There was Prince Tremor of Hell-of-Unforeseeable-Accidents. He had one. Next was Princess Hurricane of Hell-of-White-Lies. Oh, what a tangled web she was found hanging in! And lastly―well, not the last because I have one more brother left―there was Prince Tragedy of Hell-of-the-Abandoned. I almost felt sorry for him.”

The Hellion prince paused for questions. When none were forthcoming, he continued. “The only death that has eluded me is that of the youngest prince, barely out of the crib, a fool who has claimed no Hell and whom no Hell has claimed. But even if the entire universe moves against me to protect that half-breed, I will still find a way to return him to his accursed maker.”

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Prince Spyder didn’t get to finish his dessert. He almost vomited it up at first taste.

“Is everything okay?” I asked. My eyebrows drew together with some concern.

Spyder waved away his attendants and forced himself to swallow. Wiping his mouth with a proffered napkin, he said after a moment, “The taste wasn’t what I had been expecting. Not from a royal Hellion.” He studied me.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Maybe you were adopted.” He let out a disappointed sigh. “And you smelled so delicious. By the way, you still do. It’s a mystery to me.”

“Really.” I thought about it. Could my presence in Storm’s body have changed him that much, even down to his blood cells? “Does a commoner’s blood taste bad?”

“No. Your blood is worse than spoiled nectar.” He suspected Sandemon’s mischief. “I’ve lived a very long time and have never tasted anything quite this foul.”

“Oh. Should that mean something to me?”

“It means none of us will be hunting you,” said his adviser. Spyder’s captains laughed. The Underworld prince rinsed and spit into a basin that a servant was holding. He made a big show of it.

“It’s official. Dragon goblins are bad for your health,” said another.

Dragon goblin? Was he referring to me? “No one forced you to bite me,” I said in my defense to Spyder, arms crossed in front of my chest.

“Don’t let it concern you. A gulp of your blood is sufficient for me to track you, wherever you are in the world. I will follow your trail as I would follow a skunk. Nothing personal.” More laughter. “I’m in a charitable mood. Would anyone else like to try our honorable guest?”

“NO! No more sampling!” Not that there were any who volunteered. “May I see my friends now?”

Spyder beckoned to the nearest captain. “Please do me the honor of escorting our royal visitor to the holding pens.”

“Holding pens?” I asked horrified.

“Where we keep our food.”

“I’m not food.”

“Not anymore.”

“My friends aren’t food either. Promise me.” I wasn’t sure I was in a position to be demanding anything though.

“Because they are your loyal servants, they are safe and protected.”

I had more questions, but I was already being steered away. I overheard Spyder saying, “Captains, stay alert. Prince Redd is not the only power afoot this night.” Spyder did not share his thoughts that Sandemon had somehow sabotaged his blood sampling.

From down the long dark tunnel, I could make out Halloween’s voice. “We’ve been waiting patiently. Are you going to let us see Prince Storm or not?”

I ran on ahead. The captain gave chase and leapfrogged in front to stop me. “Do you want to be hunted as food?” He bared his long fangs.

I quickly shook my head.

“Then stay close to me and don’t act like prey.”

“Okay.” I hugged my escort the rest of the way. When we got to the end of the tunnel, I checked all the barred steel-mesh cells. My friends were being held in separate groups. “Thank god you’re safe.” A guard opened the cell where Wolfie and Lakan were, then locked the door behind me.

“When the Overworld danger has passed, you will all be released.” The captain didn’t say a word more and walked off, probably feeling a little hungry.

Some kind of understanding passed between Halloween and Vulture as they stood at the front of their cell. They would stand down for now.

Wolfie made me sit against a furry Lakan. He examined me from head to toe, showing exasperation at the sight of Spyder’s fang marks on my neck. He raised his hand over the wound to accelerate the healing.

The bat Targe pitifully mewed from the cell next to us until Grayson swatted him with a wing. They were watching from a shared cell wall. Targe was as needy as Lakan, but not half the fighter, surprising given who Targe’s mom was. Still, he was a substantial fighter, which showed how strong a crew this was. Grayson and Targe were good for each other. I was wondering how Grayson was adjusting to Storm’s death, and Targe was a good distraction.

After he was satisfied, Wolfie settled by my side. We held each other’s gaze suspiciously longer than usual. Wolfie was duty-bound to Storm. I didn’t know if he was my friend any more than Prince Spyder was. They had their own reasons for doing what they did. I suppose all my attendants did. It was strange to have people attached to me after being on my own for so long. I hadn’t made up my mind yet if I liked the situation or not.

The kaleidoscope of Halloween’s olive brown eyes was checking me out from the cell across the way. It was neat how his eyes could move in opposite directions.

This guy had attacked me at our first meeting, but I was beginning to trust him the most because of his blunt, at times painful, honesty. As we made eye contact, I saw a wisp of a smile cross his face before he turned to talk to Vulture who winked at me.

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When we emerged from the Spydermen’s web portal, Prince Redd was nowhere to be found. Apparently, he had only dropped by for a short hostile visit. That left Rain and Julio for me to deal with.

“Be a demon prince,” whispered Halloween before propelling me toward Prince Rain.

“I know, I know. You don’t have to nag.” I stopped after a few steps. A horned head shyly peered from behind Rain, her straight black hair hanging in a long curtain. New girl on the block. She moved forward with prodding from Julio.

“Her name is Kheina,” explained Rain. “KAY-nah. Someone told her Vulture was adopting demons. She’s been waiting for him.”

I looked over at Vulture who shrugged and accepted his role as Kheina’s “dad” for now. However, he made it clear this wasn’t going to be a permanent arrangement. One child was more than enough, especially since it was me.

We needed to rebuild Vulture’s shack. By nightfall, we had a decent shelter up. Cute, leggy Kheina was getting along famously with everyone, especially the boys Grayson, Targe, and Lakan, though I picked up a hint of venom whenever she glanced over at me. She scared me a little.

I’ll admit I was a tad jealous of the attention Kheina was getting. At the same time, wasn’t it nice to have female company, even if I couldn’t confess to being female myself.

Grayson was the bold one to approach me, but he generally acted as the peacemaker among us. The small flower lantern he carried bathed him in an unsettling red.

Perhaps I wasn’t giving off “I hate bats” vibes strongly enough to keep him away. Uncharacteristically, Targe stayed with Kheina and flirted with her, instead of pasting himself onto Grayson.

“Grayson, what’s up? Shouldn’t you be flexing your bat wings and yukking it up with the new girl?” He gave me a long, serious look. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Uh, no. Not really.”

“C’mon, I’ll show you where we can find berries.” Grayson dragged me away by the hand.

“Hey, I said I wasn’t hungry. Isn’t it late for a wilderness survival lesson? I’m tired. We’ve been working hard all day.” I looked back at the way we had come.

Grayson didn’t stop until he found a scrawny bush. “Here we go. Moonberries.”

“How do you know they’re not poisonous? Where I come from, white berries are not edible.”

“Then it’s a good thing we’re not there.” He stooped and picked a few pale white berries, tasting them first before he gestured for me to try some.

Instead, I leaned over his back, pressing him toward the ground, my arms around his neck. That didn’t stop him from trying to feed my face, so I went “Ah!” and let him pop in the berries.

“These aren’t that sweet, Grayson,” I said as I squatted down beside him.

“If there had been more rain, they would’ve been better.”

“Should we bring some back for the others to try? We could carry them in our shirts.”

“Let them scavenge their own.”

I laughed, and we ate the bush clean together. If he wanted to be a friend, who was I to stop him?

Afterward, in Vulture’s brand-new cabin, I rested safe and comfortable between the warmth of Grayson and Wolfie. There was a great feeling of familiarity to the arrangement. Prince Storm had never been lonely. I envied him.

Lakan pushed his moist wolf nose into my palm to remind me he was there. I scratched behind his ears and petted him until I drifted away into an uneasy sleep.

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Hours deep into the night, Rain roused me from my sleep and motioned to me to follow him outside. Flower lantern time was green. Not wanting to make a fuss and wake up everybody, I followed obediently. Kheina was sleeping peacefully next to Targe. But Wolfie wasn’t really asleep. Halloween was pretending. All of them. Better that they were soldiers and not actors.

Outside, with budding concern, I drowsily asked the rainbow prince, “What’s this all about?” I rubbed at my eyes. “What hellish business couldn’t wait till morning?” Or was it heavenly business?

“We’re sending you home.”

“Home? That’s great. Where is that? And who’s ‘we’?” I peered at him through half-shut eyes. His blond bangs were doing that strange aerial dance, and his beautiful, radiant violet eyes were in plain sight. I immediately felt very much at peace and light-headed. Rain’s special magic.

The giant angelman scooped up my cold hands in his. Now what? “I’m sending you home, back to the Hidden World where you belong. Your own body is calling for you and needs you. You must go back.”

“I need to go back. To my world,” I mockingly repeated. “Is this the part where I click together the heels of my ruby slippers? Stop joking around. You would’ve done it before if you could. Now it’s really late. Since it’s not a drinking night, I don’t see any reason to stay up.” I tried to pull my hands out of his, but he was stubborn and wouldn’t let go.

His lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying because of a loud buzzing in my ears. I panicked as I felt my body lose gravity and lift, and I watched with horror as a second pair of hands, luminous ghostly ones, separated from Rain’s hands, my soul body smoothly slipping out of and away from Storm’s vulnerable warm shell.

The tremendous effort and push needed for the send-off was evident on Rain’s face. Tears began to swiftly trickle from my eyes, light misty tears that would never touch the ground.

Lastly, in somewhat of a blur, I saw Wolfie coming out of the house wrapped in a blanket, down the steps, great grief on his face. For me, or for Prince Storm? Then I blacked out, and woke up in a hospital bed in a familiar world.


 

Halloween and Storm at a hot spring

where the wind / can’t touch it / a tumbleweed soaks

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22. Welcome Home

Day 24: Morning,

Welcome Hospital

I LOST SEVERAL DAYS between Rain holding my hands and a doctor checking my pulse and temperature. The doctor said nearly a month had passed since the hit-and-run. Someone had brought flowers. They were fresh. Before she left, the doctor showed me how to operate the remote control for the TV.

There would be a humongous hospital bill to remind me how much things were back to normal. What was Wolfie doing right now? Would they have an official burial for Storm?

A pajama-clad patient walked into the room. “Do you like the flowers?”

“You brought those?”

“I thought you’d like them.” He hesitantly pulled back his dark brown hair behind his ears. “I’m not used to having hair…this long.”

“Ha, ha,” I laughed cautiously. “I guess it can be bothersome if you get your hair cut regularly.” I found a rubberband and tied his hair into a stubby ponytail for him. The patient must be harmless since the hospital was letting him walk wherever he wanted.

“Those are pretty flowers,” I said, admiring the bright spray of yellow daisies, white roses, and baby’s breath.

“Somebody left those flowers in my room, but I thought you’d like them better.”

“You seem familiar. Do I know you?”

He smiled shyly. “It’s me. Halloween.”

My jaw dropped. It wasn’t because he had a full head of hair and only two eyes.

“I am that person you knew as Halloween,” he repeated more certainly. I wondered if he wasn’t acting awkward because I was a girl with bosoms in this world, and he was one of those machos for whom females were their Achilles’ heel.

“Why are you here? I’m not going back!” I started to panic and looked around for an escape route.

“I’m here to protect you, not to take you back. This hospital isn’t safe. You were followed. We’ve gotta leave before they find you here.”

The door opened, and a nurse stepped in. “Please don’t bother the patient. She’s very ill. Sir, we need you to return to your room.”

To me, she said, “The doctor says you are to remain in bed. It’s too soon for you to be discharged. I’m here to give you a sponge bath.”

“You’re not a nurse.” Halloween put his body between me and the nurse.

“Sometimes I am,” she smirked. A shimmering cloud enveloped the nurse rearranging her facial features to Kheina’s. “Try and stop me if you can.”

“Rainbow saw through you, but we didn’t think you were powerful enough to travel between the realms.”

“I had a little royal help.”

Halloween lunged toward Kheina who left the nurse’s body before he made contact. The body crumpled to the floor, a spoiling corpse. He kicked the head off to make it even less useful. I clapped my hands over my mouth to keep myself from screaming as he muttered a curse. “We need to get out of here before she possesses another body.”

I clung fiercely to Halloween as he checked the hall. We made our escape through a door by the cafeteria and flagged a taxi to my Aunt Stella’s place, where she gave us clothes and money without too many questions. She knew me well.

“You’re really okay, hon’?” Stella asked as she dropped us off at my place.

“Yeah. Just fine. I’m going to square things with my apartment manager. Then I’m going to Hawaii. I’ll be sleeping in a grass shack with my pet monkey and a pile of coconuts.”

“Kitty, you’re so much like your dad. Good luck and be careful,” she said. I hugged and kissed her. She winked at Halloween. “You two make such a cute couple.” If she only knew.

“So this is your home,” nodded Halloween as he followed me through the door.

“It was,” I shot back. I was going to say more, but Halloween was picking up and gazing at my things as if they were pretty seashells he had found on the beach. Let the child be.

I grabbed my daypack and threw in my wallet, laptop, energy bars, and essential docs. I thought about how I had been tracked down through a chi or life energy signature. A trace left behind on Storm’s body had been enough. “How long are we safe for, Hal?”

He frowned. “I don’t know. Kheina can possess the weak-minded or the recently dead. If we stay away from both, we should be okay.” That wasn’t comforting since idiots are as common as pillbugs. “She can try for stronger prey, but bodily control will be more difficult. In any case, the longer we avoid her, the harder it’ll be for her to find you as Storm’s chi signature erodes.”

“Won’t she have a fix on Kitty’s signature?” It was strange talking about myself in the third person.

“Your signature mixed in with Storm’s. Also, in this world, you’re not a prince. Your chi profile is significantly weaker. And as your chi asserts itself over Storm’s, you’ll be harder to follow.”

“Then what about yours? Your signature?”

“I’m shielding.”

“Of course.”

We took a cab to the Greyhound station. Through the cab’s passenger side window, I watched a gray pair of mourning doves take flight over a straw-yellow field of withered grasses. No other birds were in sight. Our world seemed so lifeless in comparison to Halloween’s, a world where natural wilderness was respected, nurtured, and harvested noninvasively for its magic-amping chi.

After four hours on the northbound bus, we got off, bought groceries at a gas station mini-mart, and found a rundown motel nearby to stay overnight. I was physically and mentally beat, and hoped there wasn’t anything on the evening news about the police searching for a runaway hospital patient or two.

We left the TV on for background noise and stuffed ourselves with cheap ham and cheese sandwiches and gooey cinnamon rolls, washing it all down with coffee and soda. Hal didn’t much care for my taste in food. Finicky demon. This was good stuff.

He finally got around to explaining how Rain, with Wolfie and Grayson’s permission, had sent me back to put me beyond Prince Redd’s reach. How Sandemon would react to their trying to put things right was beyond their concern.

But a hitchhiker had been detected too late by Rain. When Kheina’s latest host woke up, their earlier suspicions were confirmed. In a highly risky move, Halloween had volunteered to find and protect me in this world; our master-and-servant bond helped pull him to me.

Few Hellions or Hevins have as much chi as Halloween to cross over into the Hidden World, and it was generally understood to be a one-way ticket because the neglected body dies after a time. Hal’s soul had bodynapped a patient who had passed on only seconds before. Luckily for him, it had been a man and not a woman.

What Halloween did not share is how short his stay would be. The body he was in was already dying again, this time ironically from chi overload, which wouldn’t be a problem the other way around for Hidden World souls, but then they didn’t have the chi reserves to travel to the Overworld. Kitty had been a special case, because her soul had been reeled in by Sandemon.

As soon as his host body expired, Halloween’s soul would be drawn back to his original body. He had to eliminate Kheina before then. She had to be caught unawares and her heart staked or her head taken off before she could switch bodies. He had already failed once.

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The shower felt heavenly refreshing, though I would have enjoyed it more without Halloween right behind me. He marveled at the waterfall’s warmth, how the heat could be controlled without magic. All right, I confess, it was nice having someone to scrub my back for me, and he did it so well. “C’mon, no tickling!”

I might’ve been blushing harder if I hadn’t already spent so much time as Prince Storm bathing and swimming naked with the guys. Overworlders are more comfortable with nudity since they have public baths, and coed bathing is not a big deal.

Halloween towel-dried and brushed my hair while we watched sports on TV. I shivered at the sensation of his thick, firm fingers running through my damp hair. This vulnerable domestic side of him was nice. We were acting like an old married couple. When he was done, I snuggled back into his welcoming embrace, letting his warmth sink generously into me, down to the bones. But the danger we were in never left my mind.

“We must go back,” Halloween said as if he had finally reached a regrettable decision.

“Go back to where?”

“To Grand Hell.”

“No kidding. Remember to take Kheina back with you. Explain to her that I’m not Prince Storm.” There was a long silence. “Halloween? You have no obligation to protect me. I’m not your prince. This isn’t Grand Hell. If you’re homesick and you can return, you have my blessing.” I turned to face him. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.” Yeah, right. Back to my lonesome pitiful self.

His strong hands framed and cherished my face. The contact was welcome, but the deep sadness in his eyes scared me.

“I can’t go with you. I don’t want to.” I averted my eyes. I’m not a good liar. “You need a real prince, not an impostor. Certainly not a girl.” I turned toward the television set. That’s what TV is for, so you don’t have to talk to the person sitting beside you.

A sharp pain in my head made me wince and exclaim. I moved off the bed toward the bathroom.

“Something wrong?”

“Just a sudden headache. Nothing an aspirin couldn’t fix.” I had woken up from a coma this morning. We had been on the run all afternoon. A stress headache was to be expected.

The pain intensified tenfold, and the buzzing in my head drowned out the TV. I groaned against the wall just outside the bathroom door. “Halloween, can you…?”

A severe, horrendous pain ripped through from the back, through my heart. “I’m sorry, Kitty,” I heard faintly. Halloween had picked up a knife somewhere.

Feelings of pain, shock, and betrayal overwhelmed me. Not all of them mine. What? An alien co-presence belatedly discovered it was possible for Halloween to attack and pin her in this body. I spasmed; Kheina evaporated. My dwindling consciousness felt the tail of her essence slip away.

Halloween was literally sending me back to hell. I wondered what expression Halloween wore on his face as he held me fast against himself, feeling me collapse into that final night and breathing my tortured last in Eerie.

Normally, such a betrayal would have cursed and killed off the traitorous servant, but it only killed Hal’s Hidden World body and allowed his Overworld body to pull his soul home. As my soul rushed headlong through the curving worm tunnel back to Grand Hell, Hal’s soul was the surfboard I was stuck to. We were going back together, and damned if one of us wasn’t going to die again.


 

Sandemon, a powerful kamui

crickets chirping

outside the window…

these thoughts before sleep

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23. R-Hell Again

Day 25: Blue sunrise,

Noosetown

I AWOKE WITH A START breathing heavily, exploding through a Noosetown underground mine in the form of a long-horned, bat-winged Godzilla. My cat eyes sought out Halloween. “Where is he? Where’s the TRAITORRR?!”

My ear-shattering agonized howls brought out Captain Olympus and a contingent of the Angeles Royale from west of the Petrified Forests of Hope. “We’re here primarily to monitor and observe, and to come to Prince Rainbow and Julio’s assistance if they should need it. No harm is to come to the dragon goblin. Everyone got it? None. This demon could be of use to us.”

“It’s unusual to see Hellion dragon goblins this far west.”

“This one’s still young and lithe.”

“Captain, there’s a group of Spyders assembled over there.”

“Maybe they’re here for the leftovers.” Nervous laughter.

“Is that their leader? The tallest one?”

Prince Spyder nodded at Captain Olympus, who casually saluted back with his hand at his forehead. Spyder was observing the spectacle from farther away, having already seen the dragon goblin up close once before. “Prince Storm has returned to our world, but he doesn’t seem very happy.” Then his eyes swept over to a grouping of sandstone boulders where a lone figure was camouflaged and had risen only up to his nipples through the parched earth.

Blue followed his prince’s gaze. “Sandemon. He must be curious to see how his puppet’s tantrum will play out.”

I vented my grief against the perilously close Angeles Royale. They were smart enough to stay just beyond the reach of my fiery blasts. A few stray sparks, however, made soldiers step back to extinguish them.

“Halloween! I’m going to bury you!” I roared and howled. “So deep you’ll never be able to resurrect!” The ground in front of my clawed feet trembled, cracked open, and lifted free all the way to the boots of the tri-winged Hevins, forcing them to become airborne.

Hal materialized from out of nowhere holding his long-handled ax and leading a very familiar group. “Let the prince through,” he quietly asked of Wolfie, Prince Rain, and Julio who had combined forces to generate a sturdy protective kekkai against me. My sensitized hearing picked up everything they said.

“Are you nuts? Storm will kill you!” cried Grayson.

“No, he won’t. And I can protect myself.”

“Be realistic. You’re good but not that good,” said Vulture. Vulture and Targe solemnly and reluctantly drew out their blades, which weren’t going to discourage much the advances of a fire-breathing dragon goblin.

They’re raising their swords against their prince, I thought bitterly, then refocused on my original target. “That really hurt, Halloween.” It wasn’t just the consciousness-blasting physical pain.

“Kheina was trying to take over your body,” he answered. His face was set with the stubbornness I had grown accustomed to. “You would’ve died anyway. This way I could guide you back. Your soul would’ve been lost to us otherwise.”

“So you thought you’d kill two birds with one stone?”

“We need you here.”

“Ever thought to ask my opinion? Who’s your master?” I tried not to hiccup from crying.

“There was no time. One day you’ll understand.”

“No, you’ve got it wrong. It’s the other way around. I want you to understand what you did. Not tomorrow, not next week, but now. I can never, never, never go back! You MURDERED me! Kheina could have done that for you!”

“I didn’t murder you. You’re still alive,” muttered Halloween.

I glared at my former friends, then the Angeles Royale, the Spyders, mystery man. “Save your own frickin’ world yourselves! You traitors! You liars! You HEARTBREAKERRRS!”

My rage boiled over, and the kekkai broke with a loud crack. I smiled at my small victory. “Come forward, Halloween, for your royal punishment,” I snarled.

Rain moved to aid his friend, but Wolfie and Julio blocked him. I have to hand it to Halloween. I’ve never seen fear on his face, and I wasn’t going to see it now. I waited patiently, then vomited the fires of hell at him.

Lakan jumped in front.

“NO-O-O!” I instantly swallowed everything back too deeply, too far, and burned and melted from the tendermost inside out. I screamed and screamed and SCREEEAMED until my barbecued windpipe and lungs collapsed. When I hit the ground, it was as the regular demon Storm, tossing up lit ashes of myself, a macabre demon confetti to be scattered by the rising winds.

There was an eerie quiet. There was no fire and no pain. Not anymore. A cool mist fell over the world.

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“It’s the Weeping Angel,” murmured Prince Rain, staring at the radiant colossal angel cradling the charcoal doll that was once someone named Storm. A lullaby in a tongue long forgotten grew in the air, captivating and enchanting all who listened. The longer the angel held the sad form, the more recognizable it became, and soon it repaired itself to Prince Storm again.

When the Weeping Angel gazed up from the saved one, legendary waterfalls of tears cascaded from her shimmering eyes, past the mute crevice of her somber lips, slipping off the edge. Where the falls splashed the ground, the gray desert erupted with color, and where their bright pearly mist brushed the assembled, there was healing. Captain Olympus wept, but not alone.

“Look, she’s disappearing with Prince Storm,” said an awestruck Blue. He was not one to be easily impressed, but a sighting of the Weeping Angel was a rapturous mythological event.

Finally, she and her miracles were gone.


 

Thunder,

second eldest prince of Grand Hell

university library / lip print / on the window pane

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24. Hell is Forever

Day 26: Mo(u)rning,

Hell-of-Lost-Ideals

“STORM…PRINCE STORM,” a female voice nagged and shook my right shoulder.

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not Prince Storm,” I whined with my eyes still closed.

“You are now,” she gently chided. “I’ll leave your breakfast by the bed.”

I sat up and saw healthy pink arms and hands. I felt for my horns. Yup, the darned things were back. Massaging my temples, I asked the lady servant, “Before you go, where am I?”

“My lord, this is your kingdom.” She said it like, Not my problem, but yours. “The Hell-of-Lost-Ideals,” she finished with careful enunciation. Her smile wasn’t a full smile, as if she were somewhat out of practice.

“Lost ideals? What?” It took a moment for the name to sink in. Someone’s idea of a sick joke.

“Now, rest!” she scolded. “When you’re ready, you’ll be taken on a tour of your new kingdom. By the way, your brother Prince Thunder is handling royal affairs until you’re back on your feet. You don’t have a thing to worry about.” Toodly-doo! went unsaid.

Worried, me? Just wondering: Why am I still in HELL?!


 

Appendix A: Magical Abilities

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Where Does Magic Come From?

MAGIC OF THE OVERWORLD is crafted from uncommitted chi (pronounced “chee”) life energy molecules, much of it free-floating from plants during photosynthesis or food-making. The richest, most potent bursts of chi occur in the early morning hours. For magicians, it is quite true: The early bird catches the worm.

A basic task of magicians is to collect and absorb chi. They can build up reserves for later use. High-level magicians in good health are able to capture wider spectrums of these elusive molecules and to hold onto larger reserves, which is why they can do more magic.

Magicians are forbidden to take chi from living beings as it can cause death to the source. Additionally, such chi is of an inferior, unpredictable quality since it is already committed or attached. The constant use of inferior chi has long-term harmful effects on a magician’s mental and physical health, not to mention these lesser magicians will be hunted down mercilessly and executed by their own secret police if found out.

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Appendix B: Flower Lantern Time Chart

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Flower Lanterns

OVER THE COURSE of the night, the bulbous plants known as flower lanterns become brighter and run through the colors of the rainbow. Conversely, their leafy green vines darken in color to deep purple and stay that way until day arrives once more. By about 10 a.m., the vines are fully green once more. Many shops open at that time.

When the bulbs ripen or are at their maximum brightness, they can be cut from the vine and used as lanterns. Under ideal conditions, your lantern will usually last several months before shriveling up into a seed and losing its brilliance. Periodically give the bulb a light spray of water to keep it fresh longer.

Flowers lanterns are easy to grow. All you need is lots of sun, loamy soil, and one shriveled bulb. The plant requires very little water. In fact, overwatering is a frequent cause of death.

In about a year’s time, the vine will bear fruit and a new crop of lanterns will be ready to be harvested. The average size of a flower lantern is six inches in diameter, though larger lanterns up to a yard in diameter have been cultivated.


 

a sky draggen,

Prince Storm’s newest ally

by the overpass, / whirlpool of swallows / lifting, descending

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Appendix C: Interview with Captain Banna

INTERVIEWER: [Extends hand for handshake.] Hi, I’m a reporter for the Hell County Times Billboard. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for our billboard readers. Can I call you Captain Banna? I know your full name is Banna Crossblades and your position is actually First Counsel, but popularly they call you Captain Banna.

CAPTAIN BANNA: Yeah. Whatever. Captain Banna is fine. [Nods to guard at door who resumes his post outside her office.]

INTERVIEWER: [Takes out ink bottle, brush, and scroll from his bag.] To start, could you tell me about the day you first met Prince Storm?

BANNA: Oh that. [Her eyes narrow at someone in the doorway. She decides to ignore him.] Let’s see. When I first saw him, I wasn’t thrilled about having one more person to take care of. But we all saw her, the Weeping Angel.

INTERVIEWER: It’s still hard to believe, except there were so many witnesses to the sighting.

BANNA: Even now, I get gooseflesh thinking about it. At the time, I was in charge of the castle, with Prince Thunder helping to oversee things. He was there incognito, as a close friend of the family.

INTERVIEWER: This was just days after Rage Night.

BANNA: Yes, after my twin brother Freeman, who was ruler, and his servants were murdered. [Long pause. Blinks back tears.] You’ll have to excuse me. I was away on a scouting trip for Freeman. I should have been there fighting at his side. Maybe he’d still be alive.

INTERVIEWER: … You were saying about the Weeping Angel…

BANNA: [Composes self.] Ah, yes, but back to the Weeping Angel, she was cradling a small figure in her arms. That person turned out to be Prince Storm. How he had wound up with the grandest babe of them all I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER: Have you ever tried to ask?

BANNA: No. And he’s not one to share. The Weeping Angel entrusted him to us when we were still hardly able to keep ourselves together after the assassinations. Storm’s arrival added to the confusion.

INTERVIEWER: I remember hearing about the chaos as many fled the area in anticipation of the Redd Demon’s invasion.

BANNA: The only thing that kept me going was the need to avenge my brother’s death and the deaths of his servants and guards. Many of them had been childhood friends.

However, how much of a defense my guards and I could put up against the size and experience of Redd’s armies was a different matter altogether. Prince Thunder couldn’t be more involved than he already was. He and his older brother still maintained diplomatic relations. I understood, but…

INTERVIEWER: Then Prince Storm arrived on your doorstep.

BANNA: Yeah. At first, I wasn’t sure if the Weeping Angel’s gift was a blessing or a curse. The prince was disoriented and in a very foul mood.

INTERVIEWER: A bit surprising since he was, after all, honorably escorted to his new kingdom by a mythical being. Anyone else might’ve been thrilled out of their horns.

BANNA: Not him. He couldn’t have arrived any more bad-tempered than if he had ridden in on the back of a porcupine. We both were extremely unhappy, a matching pair of gargoyles. Oddly, our mutual anger and frustration helped us to bond and get along better than we might’ve otherwise.

He hated my kittens, Skar and Boots. Something about being allergic to cats. Y’know, they’re purebred silver-eyed cortina cubs.

INTERVIEWER: Meaning they’re completely white without any markings or stripes, right?

 

BANNA: Yeah. I remember the prince asking if they were shapeshifters. “Of course not,” I told him. “Do Skar and Boots look like shapeshifters to you?”

Then he said he’d never seen a cortina before. Can you believe that? So I dropped the book Birds and Beasts of Grand Hell into his lap.

INTERVIEWER: That’s a very heavy tome. It’s as thick as my fist!

BANNA: Ha, ha. Yeah, it certainly is. I told him, “Read. Expand your mind a little bit, your highness.”

When I returned with Prince Thunder, he had shoved the book off the bed. Not in seventh hell to see either of us, he turned over his lunch tray and spilled everything onto the floor. It made me angry to see the best food we could scrounge up go to waste like that. Well, my cubs enjoyed a feast.

INTERVIEWER: What was he upset about? Other than the book?

BANNA: Didn’t say. But because the Weeping Angel had delivered him and our kingdom had claimed him, I didn’t kill him. There’d been enough killing already.

Thunder said, “I recall my brother having better manners.” Storm then threw his lunch tray into a large wall mirror, shattering it. Before I knew what was happening, Thunder’s forearm was against Storm’s throat and he was gagging, but I wasn’t about to get in the middle of a family quarrel. About that time, Storm jammed his fingers up Thunder’s nose.

INTERVIEWER: He did?

BANNA: Don’t print that. That’s how the fight ended. “You fight dirty,” Thunder had said. And Storm shot back, “That’s how you survive.”

INTERVIEWER: Sounds like your prince.

BANNA: I had hope then we’d be able to defend ourselves against the Redd Demon. Redd’s armies hadn’t met any resistance on his way to the castle. He probably thought we’d be an easy conquest.

INTERVIEWER: Did he know his brothers were at the castle?

BANNA: Hard to say, or if he knew in time. He does have spies everywhere. I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared either way.

Another thing I remember Thunder saying to Storm was, “I heard you’re very difficult to kill.” And Storm asked, “Did you come to test that?” So Thunder answered, “No. I came to watch the war. I’m on vacation.”

INTERVIEWER: What a dysfunctional family.

BANNA: Hmm, I wouldn’t say that too loud. You never know who’s listening.

INTERVIEWER: Sorry. You’re right. The rats have ears.

BANNA: When Redd’s troops appeared like an oil spill on the dawn’s horizon, our prince shook off his guards to confront them. Many of us were dispirited, but that changed after the prince shapeshifted.

INTERVIEWER: He was supposed to be a dragon goblin.

BANNA: That’s what we were all expecting. He shifted and turned into a big effing phoenix instead.

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INTERVIEWER: First, the spectacle of the Weeping Angel. Then, the powerful symbolism of the crimson-winged phoenix.

BANNA: It was a surprise to all of us. Maybe even to the prince, because he stared with horror at his burning wings and body. No royal Grand Hellion had taken on the form of a phoenix in ages, and suddenly it had resurrected in our crevice of hell.

Storm opened his mind to all of us and projected: “Our goal is to stay alive today. Our goal is to protect the castle, so we have a place to sleep tonight. Our goal is to beat the crap out of Prince Redd’s army, so they don’t bother us again. Redd is a dead demon.”

 “REDD IS DEAD! REDD IS DEAD! REDD IS DEAD!” came the chant from the entire castle. Prince Thunder was in the middle of it all having a blast.

INTERVIEWER: I’ve met Prince Thunder. He’s quite a character.

BANNA: It works for him.

INTERVIEWER: What happened after Prince Storm shifted?

BANNA: In the Battle of New Hell, Storm sent out a broad wall of fire toward Redd’s army to push them back. Many of them are marine creatures, so fire is a good deterrent. Redd responded by switching to his long-necked sea monster form, and he put out his brother’s attack with long jetting sprays of water.

Our soldiers poured out of the castle: men, women, and children, clans with nothing left to lose. Change was in the air, and everyone felt it.

A child stumbled onto the discovery first. “The fire isn’t burning me! Look!” He gleefully ran through the flames in the battlefield unscathed, and word quickly spread.

I saw one she-demon on her knees weeping, “The fire doesn’t burn us. Grand Hell has accepted us again!” Others of us picked up torches and advanced more quickly since the enemy didn’t have the same protection against fire.

INTERVIEWER: It was a miracle for your side.

BANNA: All of us on the battlefield that day still have a strong immunity to burn injuries.

At one point, Redd screamed at Storm, “You aren’t supposed to be here! Why don’t you die already?” He was getting tired of putting out fires.

When our prince powered up into a great fireball and the sky draggens arrived, Redd called it a day and teleported out with his magicians. It literally got too hot for his soldiers to hang around, and the battle ended quickly.

INTERVIEWER: How was the victory party?

BANNA: CRAAAZY! We haven’t seen anything so wild since in the Grand Hall. After several hours of receiving much heartfelt congratulations and renewed pledges of loyalty, Prince Storm retired for the night.

I tried to send company to warm his bed, but he preferred to sleep alone. He said to me, “We’ve all had a long tiring day. Captain Banna, I’m sure you’ve worked the hardest of them all. Is there anything you want?”

I told him, “Peace and prosperity for our kingdom.” And he shot back, “Whaddya know. I want that, too! Now all of you, leave me alone!”

INTERVIEWER: So here we are. H.O.L.I. [Hell-of-Lost-Ideals] is rebuilding itself stronger than ever.

BANNA: The Redd Demon remains a threat. We were fortunate last time because he was caught off-guard. He wasn’t prepared to fight another royal Hellion, especially a fire-based one who was empowered by the H.O.L.I. throne. He had been expecting an easy conquest because his assassins had done their job.

However, I have confidence in our citizens that we can beat back the Redd Demon again if we need to. The sky draggens have joined up as allies, because the phoenix is in their pantheon of gods. They’ll be a big help to us against the eagles who have allied themselves with Redd.

There’s still a lot of excitement in the air, and we’re harnessing that to repair and refortify our kingdom. Just you wait and see. [Waves over her giant cortina tigers Skar and Boots from the doorway where they have been waiting patiently with Prince Storm.]


 

Aries,

Thunder & Storm’s childhood friend

awakening— / wave of morning light / washes through the room

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Appendix D: Vulture’s Recollections

3 years after the disappearance of Prince Redd;

a cottage near Castle-at-the-World’s-End

WE SERVANTS didn’t know at first exactly how much Prince Storm had changed after his arrival at H.O.L.I., that is, Hell-of-Lost-Ideals. The only news we had received about Redd’s first major defeat was that the Weeping Angel had dropped Storm off there, who had then transformed into a phoenix for the battle and not the expected dragon goblin.

However, shapeshifters can sniff the truth out. What should’ve been a joyous reunion between Prince Storm and his servants quickly turned awkward. You should have seen the stunned looks on our faces: Prince Storm was female?!

We were both surprised and suspicious. While we had known the Hidden World soul Kitty was female, we weren’t expecting a sex change when the Weeping Angel restored Prince Storm’s body.

In public, she remained Prince Storm; in private, she became just plain Storm. She didn’t use her birthname Kitty either since she had gotten used to being called Storm in our world.

Her subjects didn’t care when word eventually got out that their ruler was really a princess. That didn’t change history. Man or woman, Prince Storm had been cradled and cared for by the Weeping Angel, had protected their kingdom, and had even brought back the legendary phoenix to Grand Hell.

Today H.O.L.I. is a prosperous state, part of it due to the increased tourism. The monuments marking where the Weeping Angel and phoenix were first seen are popular destinations. Of course, Paradise Lost Swamp, the legendary home of the first demons, remains a must-see as well.

[A little boy runs over to give Vulture a hug, then runs back outside.] That was our son Chase. He’s not usually shy. Believe it or not, he can already write his own name. And he flies pretty well, too!

But back to my wife. So all of us who were Prince Storm’s servants were surprised. By the way, the servant bond we had to Storm through the summons was broken after his original body perished, but we still thought of ourselves as Storm’s servants and guardians.

Storm could’ve ended up marrying any one of us. However, in the end, I was at the head of the line. I never thought I’d marry again after the death of my first wife during a bank robbery. She was the reason I became a mercenary, to learn the skills to hunt down her killers. Now, I work as a contract surveyor.

The country around Castle-at-the-World’s-End is wild and beautiful. Chase loves it here with me and his uncle Thor, but he also likes visiting his mom at H.O.L.I. When Storm’s here, Captain Banna is acting ruler. The arrangement has worked out just fine for us.

Halloween occasionally drops by with his daughter Vine. She’s about the same age as Chase, maybe a year younger. Too bad about his Hevin wife though, she passed away not long after giving birth to Vine. The black wolf Lakan accompanies Halloween as his personal guard. I heard Lakan’s wife is expecting twins! We’re all excited about it.

The batboys come by together in a group: Grayson, Targe, and Style. They haven’t settled down yet, and it may be a few more wild years before they do.

We rarely see Wolfie, I mean the wizard Jollnir. He’s busy looking after and tutoring King Thunder’s three children by that man’s second partner Despair. With both Despair and his first partner, the god of war Aries, Thunder rules Grand Hell with a firm hand.

I am filled with a quiet satisfaction when I watch my wife and our son working and playing in the garden. I never would’ve imagined such precious peaceful moments of happiness coming out of a chance meeting with a lost blood-covered half-demon those years ago…

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Appendix E: Epilogue

Prediction

tearsdrops of wax

slip down the brightening candle

the psychic’s eyes

cast their deep silence

over your tabled world

relax she says

drink a little more wine

eat more steak

go ahead with your dreams

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Appendix F: Haiku/Poetry in R-Hell by K. Avila

a.m. & p.m., in Haiku Headlines 13, no. 4, p. 1

awakening, May 2007

by the overpass, in Haiku Headlines 14, no. 2

cherry petals, May 2003

crickets chirping, in Dragonfly 11, no. 1, p. 50

crows squawking, Jan. 2009

driftwood, in Red Pagoda 1, no. 3, p. 18

flight of crows, in Dragonfly 11, no. 3, p. 13

how early, Feb. 2009

in an old snapshot, in Dragonfly 10, no. 4, p. 57

it zips away, Aug. 2008

looking for the hostel, in Piedmont 9, no. 4, p. 42

my candle life, Apr. 2007

Prediction, in Taurus 12, p. 56

reading his letter, in Dragonfly 11, no. 3, p. 13

roar of the ocean, in Geppo Haiku Journal 16, no. 2

sausages frying, in Virtual Image 1, no. 3

single sock, Nov. 2006

sitting in the sun, in Stonepebbles 1, no. 3

standing in the doorway, Sep. 2009

storm approaching, Feb. 2010

streetlamp goes POP!, in Geppo Haiku Journal 16, no. 6,

and Honolulu Advertiser, 22 Feb. 1994, B3

that kind of day, May 2009

this clear night, Nov. 2009

a truck rumbles by, Summer 2000

university library, Nov. 2009

where the wind, 2000

a whisper, in Modern Haiku 14, no. 1, p. 13


 

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