God Complex

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The Killer's Code

First law of the Killer’s Code: Respect the elders.

“Azzy, why’d you drag me out here,” Nemain complains from behind Azrael. He stands on a cliff across from what might’ve been a landfill, or perhaps all that’s left of a small town. Everything blurs together in this gray, burnt out husk of a realm.

“Azzy,” Nemain says again in a much higher pitch. “Hey, Azzy. Are you ignoring me?” He doesn’t respond, even as she prods his back with a straight finger.

“Azzy.” Every utterance of his name comes with another poke.

“AzzyAzzyAzzzy.”

When Azrael looks over his shoulder he finds a ripple forming in the space behind them. Hel steps from the gateway and without so much as a passing nod, she picks up Nemain. Hel holds Nemain in her arms, where she writhes against the much larger girl’s grip.

“You keep this up and I’ll get the baby sling,” Hel says in a dry tone.

“No,” Nemain gasps, “not the dreaded baby sling!”

“So stop distracting him.” Hel pauses and Azrael hears her cloak rustling, she must’ve been putting Nemain down. “He’s studying.”

The second law of the Killer’s Code: Seniority is weighed in souls taken, not years lived.

There’s still so much Azrael has to learn. He hadn’t sensed Hel’s arrival. Even now, the only presences he can count are Nemain’s and his own.

Azrael refocuses on the sight before him. The lot is empty but doesn’t stay that way for long.

A centaur gallops onto the scene. He has a briefcase beneath his arm and makes sure to keep the cloak around his shoulder pulled up high enough to hide his face. There are two other creatures with him as well, likely the centaur’s bodyguards. They’re lower than deities but greater than mortals; swine that doesn’t even deserve classification.

As expected of a military figure, the centaur’s right on time. Azrael, like his master, had been fed this specific time and location. The one who ordered the hit on the centaur called him out here for some sort of exchange, no doubt over the contents of the briefcase. As the job isn’t Azrael’s he doesn’t have all the details. What he does know is that the centaur was a member of The Olympian army during The Apocalypse and that he’s been selling information about the family ever since Midgard lost contact with the other Realms. Given there’s no way any of these proceedings could have reached Zeus, Azrael suspects this job was orchestrated by the members of the Centaur’s own platoon. The Olympians may be considered snakes by every other pantheon but it’s hard to deny the loyalty they show one another.

It’s funny how guilty the centaur looks and how shitty his situation is but yet he’s still here. That’s what The Apocalypse does to people. This guy is willing to sell out his own familia, come out to some shady ass ditch to be murdered and all for the chance to get his hands on a little bit of orison. Azrael can’t blame him though. This could very well be the last shot at divinity he gets.

In spite of the hard times, The Reaper refuses to budge on the organization’s methods. Their prices haven’t changed and their standards sure as hell haven’t either. It was already hard enough for people to come up with the orison to stage an assassination, what makes The Reaper think it’s going to be any easier with a recession looming? Or does she just not care if they go hungry so long as their stylish status is preserved?

“You still haven’t told me why you brought me along, Azzy. He’s not my teacher,” Nemain grumbles, and while Azrael pretends not to notice his thoughts cling to her words. He’s at odds with himself. Stay and learn, or leave and satisfy Nemain. Well, she could go, but then he’d get very little insight on the coming display.

“That’s a good point. I wonder why he brought you here,” Hel says sarcastically.

A rolling wind seizes Azrael’s attention. The breeze doesn’t come alone, as a soft whistle sheds from the biting air. By now Azrael has the tell committed to memory. A low hum beneath a careless wind carrying the bitter taste of soot and blood. It’s his teacher’s calling card. Funny, Azrael’s earliest lesson involved calling cards, trademarks and signatures and how he shouldn’t have one. His murders should be indistinguishable from fatal happenstance. Another lesson that followed was that Azrael could have a signature if he was talented enough to afford one.

Azrael watches a stream of white lily petals float by the centaur. As he stares, eyes locked forward, he feels a nipping chill at the base of his neck. The unknowing prey looks around while rubbing their hands together for warmth.

“Azzy,” Nemain whispers in a shaky voice, “did it just get really cold?”

“Quiet Raven,” Azrael whispers. “I just need you to watch this as closely as you can.”

For good measure Azrael lets his arms hang loose. His fingers go taut and the ends of his fingernails heat up. He feels blood running down from his heart, through his veins, over his knuckles, and to his nails. From the tips of his fingers comes his thread. Long, thin and gleaming in the light, his wires snake down to the ground and then some. Subtle twitches of his fingers command the thread, allowing him to position them around Nemain. All it would take is a single flick of his pinky and he could restrain her, any more pressure, or a tug with any other finger and he’d cut through her skin. His scythe demands a steady hand.

Nemain has the tendency to lose herself when exposed to blood. So Azrael has to make sure she doesn’t get too excited during the show. At the same time, he absolutely needs her to watch his teacher’s every move, even more intently than he does.

Third Law of the Killer’s Code: Never kill without pay.

“I don’t wanna miss this.”

Even when Hel sits down she still towers over Azrael. The giantess summons her rifle and stares at the battlefield through her scope. Azrael looks back to the lot where the targets back away as a figure appears before them. In comes the smell of death then the sounds of creaking bones making way for muscle. Damp cloth drags along the sand. There’s a flickering light that extends out from a helmet atop his head. The glow flashes in and out, diced up between the four targets standing like deer’s in his headlights. Worn hands tremble atop a pickaxe used a walking cane. Wrinkles crease along his long, soot-covered face, curving around to the back of his head by way of pointed batlike ears. He reeks of coal and minerals, and every step brings with it an updraft of soot. The ‘old man’ is here; Supay.

Supay comes to a stop before his prey. Looking up at them, the old man cocks his neck to the side, a crack accompanies the motion. The group of dead men approaches, the centaur front and center.

“You the guy,” asks the centaur, to which Supay says nothing. The centaur clears his throat. “You the guy?” Again, nothing. So the centaur holds up the briefcase. Shakes it a little. “About Ares. Remember?”

Soot blows into Azrael’s eyes, but he doesn’t blink.

“Azzy,” Nemain’s voice creeps along his ear but he doesn’t look at her. “Those men...they’re about to...” He hears her panting and the way her voice shifts back and forth between sounding scared and aroused.

It’s different when they’re in control. When they pick and choose who dies they don’t feel this unholy helplessness. He’s only felt this way once before, and he shudders in spite of himself. This must be what their targets feel like all the time.

“I don’t wanna see it. It’s gonna be bad, really bad, I know it. I know it...!”

After that, she shrieks. It happens when she’s ill-prepared and hasn’t taken ‘flight’ yet. This is why Azrael needs to prep her, show her a bit of blood before the curtains rise. That screech lets Azrael know for certain that these men do die here. Nemain senses it, now she just has to see it happen, then he’ll know.

Nemain’s loud scream shatters Azrael’s eardrums and puts him on his knees. He glances over to find the targets keeling over in pain, though Supay and Hel seem unphased. Azrael whips his arms up and stretches his fingers. Wires tighten around Azrael’s shoulders and hoist him to his feet. He steps towards Nemain, but her unending cry forces him back.

Wires entangle around Nemain’s horns and once Azrael feels he’s gotten the leverage he forces his thread to tighten. Kicking his leg back and driving his arms down cause the wires to tug Nemain’s head upwards, taking her eyes off the quarry.

“Eyes up,” Azrael demands, feeling the shake from the timbre of his voice. He’s shaking so much he almost can’t control himself. At that moment Azrael can’t tell his twitching thumbs from his other fingers. His eyes widen when he hears a cry from behind him. “Raven?” Azrael turns at once.

Fourth Law of the Killer’s Code: No distractions.

“Something cut me...” Nemain rubs her arm then pulls her hand away to reveal her painted red palm. Soon the ruby on her hand reflects in her eyes. A long, soft gasp leaves her quivering body; Banshee’s taken flight.

Banshee squirms in place. As Banshee gyrates, she runs her hands up her curvy midsection. The further up her hands go, the pinker her skin becomes. A long curved tail ending in feathers stretches out from behind her. sharp feathers overtake her hands, and the small horns on her forehead grow large, sharp and red.

“Azzy,” she says in a lusty voice. “I wanna have fun...”

Following a vapid giggle, Banshee leaps up into the air. She spins and summons her scythe mid-twirl. Black feathers dance around her, momentarily disarming Azrael with the beauty of it all.

‘Shit,’ he thinks to himself as he works to restrain Nemain while keeping an eye on Supay. He whips both his arms outwards, then flicks his wrist downwards. He flexes fingers over and over again until he gets his wires where he wants them. One more tug ties Banshee up, restraining her in midair. She moans and Azrael feels it vibrating all the way through his wires and into his core. Azrael lowers Banshee to the ground, where he props her up and shifts her in a way where she can watchSupay’sdisplay.

“So that’s how you do it,” Hel notes from beside Azrael.

He mentally chastises himself for having slipped up. Though an annoyance, Banshee’s talents make it all worth it. Hel might have figured out how Azrael does his work, but now Azrael could find out how Supay does his.

Azrael refocuses on Supay as the man finally reaches his grounded targets. The centaur glares up at him and tries to get to his feet, but stumbles, still discombobulated from Banshee’s wail earlier. Azrael’s breathing picks up and matches Banshee’s own anticipating breaths.

“Come on...do it....dooo it...”

Then, Banshee’s wish comes true. The Centaur and his men fall to the ground, ichor leaking from their mouths, stomachs bloated, eyes red and dimmed. Azrael shivers.

“Wow.” Azrael looks over as Hel puts away her scythe and stands up. “That was awesome. S’always a pleasure watching an old master reap. Wouldn’t you agree, Azrael?”

Azrael wants to grit his teeth, wants to lower his brow, wants to scowl, scream and call her a liar. He doesn’t, he just stares impassively in her direction and nods.

“He’s quite the example.” Azrael kneels before Banshee and tears his thread from around her. “I learn more each time I watch him.” Azrael lies, having not been able to keep up with anything Supay did down there.

His gaze flits up to Hel on occasion while he finishes untying Banshee. Hel’s staring at him, and he fears her apathetic gaze is wary of his words. Could she tell he’s lying? Did she know his eyes weren’t as good as her’s? There’s no way. It’s her, she’s the one lying. She didn’t see Supay either. She’s just trying to psyche him out.

Fifth Law of the Killer’s Code: One never doubts the abilities of themselves or others.

“Okay Raven,” Azrael says as he uses a finger to raise Banshee’s head up by her chin so that he can catch her scarlet gaze. “It’s time to land.”

Banshee blinks until the red in her eyes becomes blue again. Her horns shrink, her skin pales, her tail recedes and the wild smirk on her face fades.

“Azzy,” Nemain whispers. A soft smile comes to her face. She’s about to open her mouth to continue when Azrael raises a finger near his lips, shushing her. He stands, turns and looks out to Supay where he’s already finished converting his targets into Orison.

“Down here. Now.”Supay’svoice is an old mess that sounds like it could collapse between words. Azrael bows then looks from Hel to Nemain.

Hel nods and then opens up a portal. Nemain stands up and walks to Hel’s tear before running back and tackling Azrael. She isn’t all that heavy and he could have taken the force, but instead, he falls back, letting her think she’d pushed him over. She sits up on top of him, a smile smeared on her face.

“I’ll see you at home, Azzy. Don’t have too much fun without me.” She gives him a peck on the cheek before bouncing off of him and speeding after Hel. Azrael takes two fingers to his face. Had he’d seen the kiss coming he might’ve smiled for her.

When it’s clear the two girls are gone Azrael proceeds to Supay. He slides down the side of the cliff then hurries to reach the side of his crouched master. Supay looks up at him with squinted eyes. His mouth trembles as though he’s chewing something.

“Did you catch any of my technique Azrael,” Supay asks.

With haste, Azrael responds. “Of course. I saw everything, sir.”

Supay rubs his chin then takes several steps away from Azrael. He pulls his pickaxe out of the ground then slices upwards with it, opening a portal.

“Hmmm, I guess I’ll need to work even slower next time.” Supay walks through the opening and Azrael follows, angered that yet another person may have seen right through him. “When we return to base applaud your little girlfriend for me, would you? Though a bit unorthodox, her scream did speed up the process. Not only did it deafen the target, but I’m sure they went blind as well. Made my job a lot easier.”

“Yes sir,” Azrael says. “I’ll be sure to let her know, sir.”

“Also.” Supay kneels down in front of the body of water waiting for them through the portal. He grabs ahold of Azrael’s cloak and tugs him down so that they’re eye level. Supay takes a handful of the water and pours it over each of Azrael’s ears. Of course, Azrael winces but doesn’t break loose fromSupay’sgrip. “Why don’t you use that fancy thread of yours and knit some earmuffs or something so that she doesn’t blow out your ears everytime she wails.”

“Yes, sir. I understand, sir.”

The two share a gondola as they traverse the river Styx. As pupil Azrael has to do all the rowing. When he first arrived he had to rely on Charon to get him to and fro, but now he’s gotten quite accustomed to directing himself. Up ahead Azrael can see the river forking into two streams. One stream becomes a sea of steady flames, and the other pulsates with a faint green light.

Shit, was he supposed to get onto Phlegethon or Acheron? Azrael looks back and forth between the rivers, but before he can make a decision he feels knock on the left side of his head. He glances back to see Supay nodding towards the glowing river. Right, Acheron leads to Lethe, which can get them to Death’s Domain.

Of course, how many times had The Reaper said it before? ’Weeping proceeds Death” or something to that effect. A clever way to say that it isn’t too long of a sail from the “river of woe” to Death’s Domain.

As they sail, Azrael notices a pattern of pulsating light beneath their gondola. It’s timed much like a heartbeat. The further they get the more time there is between the flashes. Not to mention the soft sound of crying growing from the river.

“Have you memorized the sixth law yet,” Supay asks, causing Azrael to straighten up. Azrael grunts and glances over the side of the boat where he sees a number of damned souls swimming by. After all that happened today, Azrael really wasn’t in the mood for a quiz. Even so, he tries to answer.

“No matter what, remain focused,” Azrael says with complete confidence, or at least, what he hopes would appear as confidence; thoughSupay’sraspy chuckle dashes it.

“Almost.“The old man shakes his head. “But almost isn’t good enough. Remember this: Above all else. Be death.”

Azrael glances back to the placid surface of the river, the corners of his mouth tugging downward as he pulls his hood forward. ‘Be death.’ He still doesn’t quite grasp the meaning. He kills his targets as he’s bidden; swiftly, indiscriminately, never leaving a trace of his involvement, yet there’s something lost on him. Something elusive, just out of reach. His teacher always reassures him that if he survives long enough, that he would understand in time, but that did nothing to assuage the frustration that grows inside him with each passing day. In spite of that, he doesn’t let it show.

“Yes, sir.”

Azrael’s eyes drift to the craggy shore on either side of them. He leans back in his seat, a sigh slipping past his lips. It brings with it the faintest memory, nothing more than a wisp of sight and sound; of himself as a small child, cold, alone and sputtering on a beach. He remembers being so cold and having that feeling of utter helplessness only known to children. A woman in white he hadn’t known at the time, and then a comforting light.

He doesn’t have much time for reminiscing asSupay’sworn voice seizes his attention. “Look alive, Azrael.”

An ancient, decrepit pier hangs out above the water, jutting from the shore like a shattered limb. Docked boats, much like their own, rock at either side. Azrael’s gaze makes it’s way up the beach, to the fields beyond and the unassuming, crumbling ruins scattered amongst them. A few more strokes of his scythe bring them close enough to drop anchor. A spectral tether snakes out and ties their gondola to the dock.

Supay swings his scythe up, hooking the blade onto the pier and pulling himself up in a fluid motion belying his age. He turns his attention to the end of the dock. Like always, Charon stands at the end of the pier, wordlessly holding out a pale hand. Supay slips a gnarled hand into his cloak. He flips a pair of orison into Charon’s palm then steps around him. Azrael follows suit, striding past the ferryman onto the shore that lays before him.

A path was hewn cleanly through the outcroppings that lined the beach, working it’s way further inland until it disappears amidst the overgrown foliage. Stray, pale lily petals waft past on a stale breeze as the trail leads him through through a field of the ghostly flowers.

They draw closer to the mess hall, Azrael puts distance between himself and his teacher. He falls back and lets Supay enter first. These halls were once packed with killers but now only the best, most elusive or luckiest remain.

Supay joins the other Elders at the front of the room. Gathering near the end of the hall are two smaller cliques. Azrael watches as Veles tries seducing Ishtar. It’s funny to see how the cerulean haired death god goes about his routine without cracking a grin. He presses a hand against the wall, right over Ishtar’s blonde head. Her lion ears twitch as his forearm brushes against them. Veles’ lower half is like a snake, and by coiling his tail he’s able to give himself, even more, height over the tan goddess. From Azrael’s perspective, the entire display is more intimidating than romantic. There’s a difference in the way Azrael watches things now. He sees with much more clarity. Sure, he hadn’t been able to see Supay earlier, but he can definitely read these two. Even though they look carefree, both death gods have to be alert and ready to kill at a moment’s notice.

The Grim Reaper made it clear to him when he joined; A Psychopomp’s first attack should be their last attack. The Psychopomp to reveal their scythe and not kill is a Psychopomp who will end up dead themselves.

“Come on Ish,” Veles says, raising an eyebrow. “I made a big score the other week, and a cut can be yours if you just-”

“I just what?” Ishtar glares up at Veles. She steps forward and flicks her wrist, which causes her fingernails to extend and sharpen at his neck. These are her scythes “You think you can buy me? Just what kind of girl do you think I am?”

“The kind that kills for money.”

“For power,” Ishtar hisses. “Besides. Not a single man has survived my love.” She says that last word with a hefty amount of venom. “You wouldn’t be any different.”

Veles leans back and scratches at the little bit of hair on his chin. “Oh. I get it. You’re still hung up over Gil-”

At that point, Azrael notices something that once eluded him. It’s like he sees the impulses traveling to from Ishtar’smind to her muscles. There’s a subtle twitch, a fine jerk right before her arm fires forward at Veles. With expert ease, she pinches his tongue between the sides of her claws. There she holds him, a flick of the wrist away from permanently removing the pink muscle.

Closing her eyes, she purrs, “What’s the matter loverboy? Cat got your tongue?”

Azrael groans.

Another Psychopomp approaches the pair. Rhiannon’s an odd assortment of parts. Her midsection is that of a headless young woman which tapers into the legs of an ebony Clydesdale. Beneath her right arm rests her head. She has a pale freckled face and stringy washed out carrot-colored hair. Her hair is so long it’s parted into two twin tails that brush the floor.

“Cut it out you two. You shouldn’t be fighting,” Rhiannon whispers.

Ishtar doesn’t let Veles go. So the Dullahan holds her head up and thrusts it out towards the two.

“Come on. Listen up, I’m talking to you.” She beats her hooves into the ground and whips her tail. She groans then lifts her head over her shoulders. “Remember the code. Law 4. No distractions.”

“Wow,” Veles says, his tongue free of Ishtar’s grip. “You have the code completely committed to memory, don’t cha?”

A common prank pulled among the younger Psychopomps was to ignore Rhiannon unless her head was above her neck. Azrael guesses it’s some form of hazing, considering she’s one of the newer recruits.

“Yeah. Is that a problem?” Rhiannon looks away while taking a step back; one of her dark gloved hands pressed against her heaving chest. “Shouldn’t we all? It’s Psychopomp 101, is it not?”

“Kind of,” Ishtar says as she crosses her arms, her tail darting around behind her. “It’s more of a loose guideline than anything.”

Rhiannon stomps both of her front hooves down. “What? A loose guideline? What does that even mean? A guideline is meant to guide. So it should still be followed to the utmost of our capabilities. Don’t you understand how important the code is to us!? We should eat, sleep and breath it! It’s how we stay alive! It’s how we function! It’s everything to us! It’s what drives us forward towards our goals!”

“No distractions.” Veles points out while still scratching his stubble. “These laws got you pretty sidetracked. Didn’t think ol ‘Rules Rhia’ would become a rule breaker herself.”

Ishtar glances up at him. Veles looks down at Ishtar. They both nod to each other in some kind of agreement. Rhiannon tosses her head over her shoulder, and it lands perfectly in a saddle on her back. She’s faced away from the other two, but from where Azrael is he can see the red coming to her cheeks.

“Y-you can’t just say that. It makes no sense! You can’t break rules by following them. You two are delinquents, you don’t know anything!”

They’re all delinquents, technically.

“Seeing as you’re the one who broke her, wanna calm her down,” Ishtar asks, both hands covering her ears.

“How?” Veles uncoils his tail so that he’s closer to Rhiannon’s height. He peeks down at Ishtar then back to Rhiannon who’s still stomping about.

“I don’t know!” Ishtar groans and shakes her head. “Just do whatever it is ya gotta do to get her mind off the rules. You know, give her a distraction from her distraction, I guess.”

Veles shrugs before slithering around Rhiannon. He picks up her head and brings it towards his face. “Here. I’ll help you focus on what’s important”

It doesn’t go much further than that. Rhiannon’s hind legs kick back into Veles chest, causing him to drop her and go flying back.

The situation didn’t seem to phase Rhiannon as Azrael expected. Rather than looking upset or violated she seems...enlightened?

“I think I get it. Of course. It all makes sense now. Some distractions are necessary!” Rhiannon spins around, tosses her head up, then ducks down just in time for it to land on her neck.

In a flamboyant arch, she points at Veles and Ishtar. “My adherence to the code must be one of these necessary distractions! Thank you, Veles for being such an insightful individual.” Rhiannon crosses her arms and nods. “Using a necessary distraction to block out unnecessary ones. I couldn’t have thought of it myself!”

Did she have to repeat it so many times?

Ishtar lets out a defeated sounding meow as she helps Veles up. “Great. You’ve somehow made her worse.”

As funny as these three are Azrael can’t let himself get attached. He’s already made that mistake once within these ranks. Speaking of which, he let this distraction keep him away from his for long enough. So Azrael turns and looks to the other table where he finds Thanatos, Hel and of course, his beloved Nemain.

Nemain sits atop Thanatos’ shoulders, and that makes Azrael angry. Nemain looks happy talking to Thanatos, and that makes Azrael angry. Both of her arms cling around Thanatos’ neck, and that makes Azrael angry. He reaches the table, angry. He sits down, angry. He looks at Thanatos, angry. He glances at Hel and nods, angry. He looks at Nemain, and it all goes away.

“Azzy!” Nemain is first to greet him, as usual, as expected and as wanted. “I was beginning to think you liked your new friends more than us!”

Azrael shakes his head and he feels the need to brush some loose strands of ebony out of his face. “Of course not. They’re...unprofessional.”

“Huh. Guess that’s a word for it.” Nemain says with a shrug. “Personally I’d call it....‘fun’, but whatever.”

“Fun.”Hel peeks up from a notepad she’s been scribbling in. Azrael thinks he might’ve read Thanatos’ name written a few dozen times over before Hel covers the page. “Sounds boring.”

By now they’d all said something except Thanatos. Azrael peers at him but doesn’t make it obvious. Tries to make it look like he’s staring at Nemain, which honestly, he’d much rather do, but this asshole is in his way.

Of all the butchers gathered here, Thanatos is the worst. There’s a pompous air about him that just makes Azrael’s blood boil. Even though he no longer bloodies his hands he still breaks bread with killers. If the kid was even the least bit smart he’d have left this organization centuries ago.

“Hey, Nemain. I’m leaving,” Thanatos mutters. “The Reaper will be making an announcement soon. I should be up there.” Thanatos stands and lets Nemain leak off his shoulders. She pouts and like that Azrael gets angry again.

“Okay, Thanny!” Nemain’s grin does return, which Azrael likes even if it isn’t of his doing. “We’ll talk to you later.”

There’s a touch between the two; Nemain’s fingers drum along Thanatos’ arm. Azrael knows it’s just the way Nemain is, that she doesn’t know any better, that for her it’s a completely innocent gesture, but it still leaves him seething.

“Yeah. Later.”Hel tosses in quickly, and Azrael sees her take a quick look at Thanatos before looking back down to her notes.

Thanatos nods and takes his leave; good riddance.

With a sigh, Nemain plops down onto her seat across from Azrael. He feels a tug on at his pant leg and glances down to see her bare feet, toes pinching at the dark fabric.

“Heeeeey,” she says in a rumbling whisper. “Thinkin’ bout somethin’?” She rests her chin in her hands and leans forward over the table. A smile creases her lips. “Thinkin’ bout someone?”

Azrael feels something, then fights the urge, beats it back.

“Should I leave?” Azrael hears Hel’s voice and sighs, almost thankfully; he’d begun feeling hot. “This is getting weird.”

Nemain touches Hel. “No, no stay. I’m only razzing the Azzy a bit. He likes it.” She winks at him. “Don’t cha Azzy?”

Azrael doesn’t respond, not the way she probably expects at least. He’s fighting down the corners of his mouth as they conspire to betray him. So instead of responding to her question, he reaches out, puts a hand on her’s then pulls her forward. For the briefest of moments, while watching her draw near, lips part and eyes wide, he thinks about taking a risk. Instead, he turns her arm, so that he can look for the cut he made earlier.

“You’re better. I’m glad.”

“Oh yeah, that? Hel took me by the river and got it cleaned up,” Nemain says, nodding in Hel’s direction. Azrael appreciates that. He’d been worried. A cut from his wires, like any Psychopomp’s scythe wouldn’t heal, not without the water from the river.

“Sorry,” Azrael says, remaining brief.

Azrael rolls around the idea of saying more. It’s not a secret, at least not with Hel. So in front of her, it’s okay to just care, right? As Azrael lets the thoughts move from his mind to the back of his throat, he feels a heavy silence descends upon the room. It isn’t natural, never is. It hangs in the air, snuffing out any and every sound in the room, killing it before it has a chance to spring to life.

“Shhhhhhh”

Even a pin dropping at that moment would go unheard. The Reaper has something to say.

Reluctantly, Azrael let’s go of Nemain and shifts his attention front and center towards the Elders. He feels something brushing along his side and passing over into his lap. With a glance down he finds that forest of auburn hair he loves so much. He doesn’t get to be this close with Nemain too often so he decides to treat his senses with her presence. The slight tinge of cinnamon and death touches his nose and it’s better than he expected. He feels her gripping his arms so he lets her guide him. Nemain wraps his arms around her waist and then pushes her head back against his chest. He looks down at her and she looks up at him.

Even though he can’t hear her, he can read her lips.

“Pay attention.”

Azrael smiles inwardly then turns his attention forward and rests his chin atop her head.

He watches as The Reaper puts some space between herself and the other Elders; Anubis, Izanami, and Supay. They are all just like The Reaper, there’s something monstrous about them. Anubis muscular frame is tied in bandages that work their way up from his wrists to his face, leaving only his cold purple eyes exposed. Nestled atop his short dark hair is a pair of jackal ears that twitch and turn with the rest of his head. Beside him is Izanami, whose skin is a dead cold grey, and covered with a thin film of sliminess. She has shining white eyes that peek from beneath a curtain of long black hair that hides her face. Then there’s Supay using his pickaxe to hold himself up. Last is the pale white reaper herself. While she does look mostly normal there are occasions where her skeletal hands do creep out from beneath her long white sleeves.

Azrael sees Thanatos off to the side of her. Their gazes pass over one another. Azrael wonders if Thanatos would notice the malice in his eyes.

“So this is all that remains,” The Reaper whispers. “Well, I guess you’re just the best of the best, aren’t you?” She looks to the other elders and finds Izanami motioning to her. So The Reaper waves a hand, and Azrael can suddenly hear the sound of Izanami breathing. That’s right, she silences even the other elders.

“We’re not just going to write the others off like that, are we?” Izanami, she’s a good teacher. Azrael can tell because even with the body of a horse, and her head under her arm, Rhiannon does good work. Azrael knows little about her beyond that, and that she wields a kusarigama; she’s probably gross under all that hair.

“Shouldn’t we put our efforts towards confronting the hunter? The Psychopomps are the best killers in the 9 realms, yet there’s someone out there who thinks they can make sport of us?” Izanami shakes her head, causing that wave of black hair covering her face to sway. “Do you want us, ‘death itself’, to die?”

Azrael looks at The Grim Reaper, mostly because he feels Nemain fidgeting in his lap, and clenching at his robes. She’s anxious, and judging from the room, everyone is. Ishtar, Veles, and Rhiannon all peek up on occasion from lowered heads. Even Hel isn’t making any kind of eye contact with The Reaper’s visage.

The Reaper doesn’t reply to Izanami but does look over at Supay and Anubis. She waves a hand towards them, and like that Azrael hears their breathing as well.

“You two.” She calls for their attention. “Do you agree with Izanami? Do you think that death is at risk of being killed?”

She has this way of asking questions, talking really. Like, if one were to say the wrong thing that’d be it. Cut clean through and left as only memory smeared across her scythe.

There are only two people that The Reaper seems to give any leeway and that’s Thanatos and Nemain. Azrael can’t figure out why she favors Thanatos at all. But he does know how much of a necessity Nemain is. It’s why she, of all the psychopomps, can’t just buy her way out. Not that it matters, she would never want to leave The Reaper.

“For most death is an inevitability,” Anubis says. Azrael never thought it fit, hearing that soft, borderline sweet sound coming out of a monster. “Even as gods we mustn’t forget that. Death isn’t treated as a natural part of our lives. So perhaps this should be seen as a symbolic death. The end of the Psychopomps. We came into this world to guide mortal souls to the afterlife. A lot has changed. But we shouldn’t seek purpose where there is none. By killing this way we’re asking to be killed.”

“Anubis,” The Reaper says. “Why are you telling me things I already know? You’ve never really liked my repurposing of our talents, have you? This won’t be the first time the Psychopomps faced their end. We would have died out a long time ago but I decided the Psychopomps shouldn’t become a memory. So we reincarnated into another form. That’s what we will do again. I mean, look at the mortal world. Evolution is natural, isn’t it?”

Anubis, without a word, simply nods. Next, The Reaper’s sight falls on Supay. Supay looks up at her, coughs into his hand and gives a light chuckle, shaking his head. Figures, if there’s anyone who follows her word it’s him, oldest of the old.

“Back to my original point then.” The Reaper’s eyes pass over Ishtar, Veles, and Rhiannon before grazing over Hel, Nemain and himself. “I called you three elders here with your apprentices to offer you something. A name came up the river today.”

Azrael’s eyes widen he audible reactions around the room. Everyone is excited, well, as excited as a room of stoic killers are allowed to be. This is quite possibly the last chance any of them will have to earn any more divinity.

Rhiannon trots forward. She kneels her forelegs and raises her head. “Teacher,” she says, curving her palm so that her head faces Izanami. “Please endorse me. I want the job.”

“We’ve taken enough work recently.” Izanami looks in Rhiannon’s direction. “You can stand to keep low for a while.”

“But master-” is all Rhiannon musters before Azrael sees Izanami’s hair fly up, momentarily revealing her face. He feels Nemain jump, and cling to him, so he looks down instead. By the time he’s looking up again, Rhiannon has fallen in line behind Izanami.

“Teacher,” Ishtar whispers, stepping towards Anubis. She eyes him, holds up a hand and flicks out her claws. He just shakes his head. She retracts her lengthened nails then lowers her ears before shuffling behind him. Judging by the way Veles leaned back, he isn’t even going to bother.

Azrael could take the job, should take the job. He looks to Hel. Maybe he can ask for her help. If he’s got her coverage then taking a job even with the hunter about is worth the risk. Right now he needs to amass power as fast as possible. Azrael shifts in his seat, but the weight of Nemain keeps him planted. Okay, maybe they can wait a bit longer.

“So. No one then,” The Reaper says then glances at Supay. “I’m surprised. Your apprentices normally have such hungry eyes about them.” She looks in the direction of Azrael’s table. Azrael feels Nemain clench and he himself looks up to catch The Reaper’s gaze. Quickly, he looks away, his skin cold.

“Cain.” The Reaper’s word rolls off her tongue with an expert cunningness about it. Azrael feels her gaze locked onto him in particular. He knows why. “That’s the name of the target, in case it matters. How ironic. The first murderer is to be murdered. Though the payout isn’t so great, I guess I can take the job myself...”

Azrael feels something rocket him up. He’s to his feet, and Nemain is tight against his chest and he hadn’t realized he’d been holding onto her.

“I’ll go.” Azrael is blunt, not even a look to Supay for any kind of approval.

With a heavy step, he moves forward, setting Nemain down as he goes.

“Azzy,” Nemain says, and he pretends to ignore her. He hears it, maybe again, faintly, he can’t tell anymore. There’s a tugging on his robe, but it can’t stop him.

“Law 1, Azrael, respect the Elders,” The Reaper whispers.

“Law 2,” Azrael says as he draws closer to her. “Seniority is weighted in souls taken, not years lived. In my short time here I’ve nearly overtaken Izanami in kills. So I haven’t spoken out of turn if that’s what you’re trying to imply.”

Azrael catches Thanatos staring at him.

The Reaper tilts her head. “Allow Supay to endorse you. Get his blessing before going out there. I’m actually surprised.” Her eyes narrow. “Do you not fear The Hunter?”

Azrael fears The Grim Reaper more than The Hunter. But, he hates Cain even more than he fears her. “One doesn’t doubt the abilities of themselves or others. Law 5.”

“Is this personal?” Azrael knows she’s searching him and finding everything she needs. “Because, if it’s personal I can’t let you go. Only kill for pay. Law 3.”

“I’ll still get paid, won’t I?” Azrael’s own eyes narrow now. He’s heating up inside. “Who cares if it’s personal? I’ll go alone so there are no distractions. I’ll end him. I know how I want to do it and-”

The Reaper cuts him off. Not with a scythe, but with her words. “You’re sounding a lot like-”

Like a battle between blades, Azrael cuts her off right back.

“He’s dead.” Azrael grits his teeth, emotion leaking through. He knows at this point he’s broken the code so many times over, and he’s verbally attacking the Grim Reaper herself, but he doesn’t care, because he has to kill him.

“I’m going to kill him,”Azrael says.

After that he expects it. To cut through, the clean cold steel. It’ll feel the way he imagines. It wouldn’t hurt for long, and after that, he’d be reunited with so many as a trophy staining The Reaper’s blade. He has a mission, a goal, yet the mere mention of that man’s name puts him at a hair’s length of losing it all.

“Boy!”

He didn’t know what put him on his knees. If it was his respect for Supay or the bass in his voice. He’s on his knees, staring at the ground, shivering, sweating. He hears what those men earlier must have heard, the waySupay’srags drag along the ground. Unlike those men, Azrael knows what comes next. He hears Supay come to a stop at his side and sees his coal cluttered robes out of the corner of his eyes.

“Let him take the job. He wants it bad and I’ll be damned if I’m not curious why. I’ll even supervise in case things get...messy”

Azrael doesn’t look up, not until he feels a hand on his shoulder; Supay’s. As it rises, so does he. Azrael turns to see The Reaper staring him down. He watches her eyes, follows them as they fall on Nemain. He grows cold like he thinks he would if The Reaper herself ever touched him. Then, with a simple nod to Nemain, whose expression is somewhere between confusion and fear, The Reaper speaks.

“Don’t say I’ve never done anything for you.”

The Reaper summons a goblet which she offers to Azrael. It’s filled with water from the river. As with each time before Azrael takes the chalice and drinks from it, bounding him to the contract.

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