Baby New Year – Labyrinth December 2017

Prompt: Genre Baby – Sci-fi, Fantasy, Action, Slice of life, Comedy

Bah, how does he start these ridiculous things?

Ah, yes. There are lots of ways to die in Multiverse, some bad, some worse. Good ways, there aren't any. At least, not according to the only expert I know on the subject, a chain-smoking itinerant who calls himself "Death".

Believe it or not, that fool had the audacity to stab me once. I've killed him at least ten times since, and I don't doubt that I will kill him again someday, possibly even by accident. You see, Death has a habit of getting in my way.

Being over four-thousand years old and a warrior all of my life, I am no stranger to bloodshed. I was in the thick of the Fourth Mage War, and present for the Second Battle of Raedawn. I've killed a great number of people, ranging from pitchfork-wielding farmers to fairly terrifying wizards and priests. I've also slain several dragons singlehandedly. It is no exaggeration for me to say that if I have decided to kill someone, they will die.

Death, of course, is the exception to that rule. No matter how I end him, he never stays dead. Sometimes, that is irritating. Sometimes, I am grateful for his resilience. The fact that he always comes back reminds me that not everyone does.

It is difficult to remember that life is a fragile thing when you've survived having an entire city fall on you, or walked away from a duel with a demigod.

To be honest, I don't know a damned thing about death.

I do, however, know something about life.

This story of mine has two principal themes. To some extent, it is about why I don't like New Year's Eve. Chiefly, however, I consider it a cautionary about the potential consequences of bringing home strange women from seedy bars on the edge of space and time.

There is a bar on the edge of the Multiverse called the Last Chance

It was built on what I've heard tell was once an IR waystation. Raids repeatedly strip the place of everything valuable, but Brothers and Sisters looking for a drink or a set of stitches always build it back up. The appearance of the Last Chance varies so dramatically that it can only be recognized by its remoteness, and by the quantity of refuse floating around it in the Dark. At the time of this story, the quintessential "bar on the edge of space and time" had taken the form of a dozen tin roof shacks and a massive satellite dish poking out of a tiny planetoid.

The Last Chance is a Freelancer dive, and that's a different sort of place from your run-of-the-mill Etone bar. You see, members of the Etone Brotherhood are usually flashy and charismatic. They take pride in their coats and bold tattoos. Put simply, they are "fun" at parties. Freelancers, on the other hand, don't wear their allegiances on their sleeves. They rarely sit together to socialize, but instead pick individual dark corners to sulk in. This is no exaggeration on my part - the Freelancer lifestyle calls to those who prefer to avoid emotional ties. If Freelancers weren't all at least somewhat self-loathing, they wouldn't be traveling the Multiverse alone.

Now Death, the character around whom this story revolves, is the quintessential Freelancer. Like most of his ilk, he is possessed of questionable hygiene and a marked tendency to self-medicate. He is also notoriously terrible with women. What makes him tolerable is that, despite his name, the man really has quite a zest for life. He enjoys a good drink, a good meal, or a good joke. Give him a cigarette to get his ear, and if you buy him a drink, he'll consider you a friend.

Waiting on Death, I took a booth in the front of the room. As soon as I sat down, someone sent me a drink, whiskey with the scent of paint thinner in a glass that appeared unsanitary.

A woman at the bar made eye contact with me, a daring move for a Freelancer. She was a middle-aged red-head with some sort of repulsive cybernetic thing attached to her ear and implanted into her skull just above her right eye. I smiled back at her, though only to be polite and thank her for sending me a drink.

Another drink also came my way, what might have been the only bottle of champagne ever to pass through the doors of the Last Chance. The grizzled Knight who'd sent it looked vaguely familiar. He gave me a little salute. It took me a moment to remember that I'd given away two hundred bottles of the shit to everyone who wasn't dead after the Nakhet Riots.

Though I'm no Freelancer myself, even the best in the business have some modicum of respect for me. I don't like to be alone, but I am not afraid of the Dark. Most people find Freelancing terrifying, and rightly so. The Multiverse is a dangerous place.

Death, and all that.

When Death finally arrived, I heaved a sigh of relief. At the time of his first demise, he was just past thirty. He doesn't look much older presently, save for his eyes and the raccoon-like dark circles around them. Death owns exactly one suit, black in color and always worn with a skinny tie which makes him look like he went shopping at a discount store for something he could wear to a funeral. Probably his own funeral, though I am certain that's not the look he's going for.

Death drug a chair over to my table, notably avoiding the bench seat that would have put his back towards the door. Though he is more immortal than I am, he's also unreasonably paranoid. I pushed the whiskey towards him with the back of my hand. That strange gesture made the bartender twitch. Clearly, he'd seen the same thing before, most likely from someone who'd torn another patron limb from limb.

Demons have a bad reputation throughout the multiverse. It's why I generally make an effort not to be recognized as one.

Death obviously gathered that I was annoyed, because he scooted his chair back and reached for one of his guns. They aren't actual guns. The first is a water pistol. The second is a lighter. The third pops out a little flag which reads "Bang" when the trigger is pulled. Fortunately for Death, enough bluster while brandishing anything that has the general shape of a gun is enough to deter most people.

"Come now, Death, don't be absurd," I scolded him. "I've no reason to kill you today."

My companion relaxed slightly. Because of our strange relationship, Death is one of the few people in the Brotherhood who actually knows what I am. "Sorry I'm late," he said. "Hope you weren't waitin' too long."

"A moment spent in this place is too long," I wrinkled my nose, and brushed some sort of powdery filth from my shirt. "Is there a reason we couldn't meet elsewhere?"

"I don't argue with Bloody Mary," Death informed me. "Bitch is outta her goddamn mind."

"Bloody Mary?" I eyed him suspiciously.

"You don't know who she is?" Death stared at me. The cigarette he'd been about to smoke tipped out of his mouth and fell onto the table.

"The name doesn't ring a bell," I admitted.

"Oh, for the love of..." Death rolled his eyes. "The Scavenger Hunt last year? Dame with all the fuckin' swords? Asian. Like five-foot nothin', dressed head to toe in fishnets and red leather? Uses more cuss-words than word-words?"

"Ah," I observed. I suddenly had a very clear picture of the woman he described, though it wasn't exactly the one Death had tried to paint for me. Notably, I didn't remember her clothes.

"I know that look, old man," Death wrinkled his nose. "You slept with her, didn't you?"

"I think so, yes. Wouldn't you have? If given the opportunity, obviously," I replied.

"It don't bother you that Mary's a murderous psychopath?" Death snorted. "Look, old man. Strictly speakin', I ain't too fond of gettin' stabbed through the ribs!" He finally managed to light his cigarette, took a long drag, and drank down the whiskey in my dirty glass.

"Everyone worthy of consideration has killed you before. Myself included," I paused.

Death scowled, but he didn't protest. He knew that was the truth.

The door creaked, and the Last Chance fell silent. Freelancers are normally quiet, but it was apparent that something worrisome had just happened. A huge bear of a man wearing a cowboy hat walked into the bar. He was carrying a nasty-looking plasma rifle over his right shoulder, still faintly smoking. In his left hand, he clenched a rectangular metal case, probably made to house the same rifle. All of the patrons of the Last Chance were armed, myself included... but a plasma rifle was some serious heat.

"Hey, Seven," Death gestured to the man. "Over here!"

Seven clomped over to us. He studied me, and his eyes seemed to say that he was unimpressed.

"Seven, I got you that fuckin' case so you could put your fuckin' rifle in it," Death scolded.

The big man snorted.

"Did you meet with Mary?" Death pressed.

"Did," Seven nodded. "So you're him?"

"Panther," I replied. "Yes."

"You oughta call em' "Boss Panther", or just "Boss"," Death explained. Obviously, he was still teaching his companion the basics of life within the Brotherhood. "Ya might hear some Brothers talking about the Prince of the Streets. Panther is who they mean. This old man is good people. You cross him, he'll fuckin' bury you though."

I smiled at that. Funny, coming from Death.

"This asshole calls me "Seven"," the big man jerked his thumb at Death. "But my name's Jeff Carroll. Formerly of Earth."

"Seven is a better name," I informed him. "Though I've heard tell that you got it because you were collected for the Scavenger Hunt. Item number seven."

"Did Death tell you that?" Seven frowned.

"Actually, he didn't have to. You've been making ripples. Tadakatsu's afraid of you. Calamity Jane thinks you're a good sport," I replied. "The next time you run into him, Ricardo might offer you a contract. Tell him to fuck himself. You'll get a better deal."

He gave me a sideways look. "Uhuh. Right."

"Champagne?" I offered.

"Don't mind if I do," Seven nodded. "You got a glass?"

"Drink from the bottle," I replied. "I haven't touched it. Can't abide by the shit. Of course, everyone thinks I love it because I gave a dozen cases away after the Nakhet Riots.I was only trying to appear generous while... disposing of evidence."

Death grinned. He's been around for some time, and his memory is impressive.

Seven took a long drink. When he'd finished, he smiled slightly. "Thanks. You know, I don't usually like sweet stuff either. But, right now, it feels a little… festive. Tis the season, after all."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"It's New Year's Eve," Seven informed me. When he realized that I still didn't know what he meant, he sighed. "An Earth holiday. You say goodbye to the past year. And, well... people drink champagne and make toasts. Also, there's a New Year's baby," He added. "You know, I think that's what makes this whole business real weird."

Death stared at Seven's case as he said that. It made a faint gurgling noise.

"What've you got in there?" Death pushed himself back a little into the corner, as if he was expecting something to suddenly leap out and kill him.

"Sit down," Seven said, though we were both already sitting. "And keep quiet, all right?" He sat in the booth across from me, back to the door, and slowly opened the case.

A pair of blue eyes owlishly blinked at me. Wrapped in a stained t-shirt and surrounded by plasma cartridges, Sober-Ups, and crushed packs of cigarettes was a baby. The tiny, fragile-looking thing was days old at best, with a scrunched red face and only a small bit of fuzzy black hair.

"Why are you carrying a baby in your rifle case?" I demanded. While any sentient being ought to know that a baby doesn't belong in a closed container with weapons and drugs, I've seen humans do all sorts of inconceivable things to their offspring.

"Mary," Seven said, as if that explained everything.

"It's hers?" Things were getting stranger by the moment, and in a manner I did not like at all. "Why did she leave it with you?"

"She didn't leave it with me. I'm just the delivery man. She's leavin' it with you," Seven replied, very matter-of-fact. "Says it's yours."

"Preposterous," I snorted.

Death did not look convinced. "You did sleep with her."

"So? Still preposterous," I replied. "And you, Death, should know why."

"Oh?" Seven seemed confused.

"It's cause's he's a demon," Death explained, pointing at me rudely. He was neither quiet nor subtle, and I considered breaking his fingers.

Seven frowned and squinted at me. When I glared at him, he quickly turned away. "Ah. Makes sense then. That's why Mary don't want it. She says it's a demon baby," Seven said.

"Stupid cow," I snorted. "Mary wouldn't know a demon if one bit her on the ass. That's a tested fact."

I brushed him aside and picked up the baby.

The baby studied me, seeming curious. I noted that its ears were slightly pointed, which didn't necessarily mean anything, but there was surprising strength in the tiny hand that latched onto my fingers. What really caused my heart to flutter, however, was a faint spark of gold in those huge, dark blue eyes. The odds against what I was seeing were frankly, astronomical. The whole thing was preposterous.

It was not, however, impossible.

I picked up my coat. It was better than an old t-shirt, but more for fashion than actual warmth. ""Nasu, mab met'ha, kyube?" I asked the little one, speaking in my native tongue. It wasn't something I did often, and certainly not where I could be overheard. "Na, kyube? You are mine, aren't you?"

The baby responded only with a broad toothless grin and a gurgle. That was all it took. I was positively smitten. My son was nearly grown and unreasonably bitter, but I still remembered how lovely it had all been, when he was young and full of fire and wonder.

"How can you tell it's not a normal baby? Aren't demons supposed to be like eight feet tall with wings and horns and shit?" Seven wondered.

"We're shapeshifters," I replied. "And I've experience with halfblood children. If the mother's human, their blood won't be obvious until they're older. Twelve or fourteen, usually."

"Where are you going?" Death wondered.

"Obviously, I'm leaving this shithole," I informed him. "It's no place for a child. Least of all my child."

"Just like that?" Seven blinked in surprise. "You don't want... I don't know, a paternity test?"

"If Mary doesn't want this baby, someone has to care for it,' I replied. There was no point in explaining what I'd already seen in the child's eyes. "I suppose it's stupid to ask if you have any milk or diapers?"

Seven looked embarrassed.

I sighed. "My point exactly."

"But ain't your wife going to be mad?" Death demanded.

"Oh, quite the contrary!" I laughed. "We've always wanted another child. A daughter would be wonderful."

"Yeah, but... considerin' you an' Mary?" Death pressed.

"Are you sure your wife doesn't care that you ain't loyal to her?" Seven slowly disassembled his plasma rifle and put it back in its case.

"Watch your tongue! I am absolutely loyal to my wife! I'd kill for her. I'd die for her! I almost did, once. What is your problem?" I demanded.

Neither of them would tell me.

Death followed me home.

Now, I should probably explain how shocking this was, considering that I normally handle my Etone business out of my office in Zenith. I wasn't sure who'd told the nuisance where I actually lived, and decided that some sort of punishment was probably appropriate.

I'd gotten up to check on the baby when I first saw Death on the security camera in the kitchen. I went up to the crenelations over the gatehouse, a vantage point from which I could stare down at him in a manner I felt was appropriate, considering the ungodly hour of morning it was. Anything business before noon is positively uncivilized from my perspective.

Death waved, an obnoxious grin on his face, and held up a bottle of champagne, as if he thought that was something he could use to placate me.

"I told you, I don't drink that shit. What do you want?" I demanded, wrinkling my nose.

"So the Prince of the Streets does live in a castle?" he observed.

"It's my wife's," I informed him. That was true. Of course, it was also true that I was "Prince" of more than just "The Streets"... but that was a conversation I had no desire to get into, particularly before coffee. The last time I'd had enough of the Brotherhood, I'd killed far too many people and fought my idiot brother for the throne of Tirs Uloth. I almost won it from him, which seemed like an accomplishment at the time. In retrospect, it was sheer idiocy. What I would have done with so much responsibility, I have no idea. Suffice to say, it is better to be an exiled Prince than a hated King.

"I'm just checkin' on you an' the baby," Death said. "Have you talked to Mary?" He asked.

"Absolutely not. She gave Kalyu to your idiot lackey who stuffed her in a plasma rifle case," I replied.

"Kalyu?" He frowned.

"The child needed a name. Granted, I should have waited for her mother, but I'm sure she'll approve. Kalyu the Poet was my wife's grandmother. Brilliant woman. Supurb warrior. Fitting, I think," I said.

"What about your wife? You talked to your wife yet?" Death pressed.

I immediately thought of the conversation I'd had only a few hours ago. It was simply too delightful, keeping Ejora guessing what my surprise was while Kalyu slept peacefully with her head resting on my shoulder.

"Not in detail. I told her I'd found her a New Year's baby, and she's been trying to guess what it is. I believe right now she thinks I bought a horse. She'll be delighted," I replied. "And the timing couldn't be better. She's usually in a foul mood around the holidays."

Death gave me a strange look. "You ain't talkin' about New Years, are you? Cause that's come and gone already."

"I truly do not understand the... obsession you humans have with years," I snorted. "But no, it has nothing to do with your stupid champagne holiday. The Horse Festival is very important to my wife, and all she asks of our son is for him to come home once a year and help her show our yearlings. But invariably, when Nayru does show his face, he's unwashed, reeking of cheap booze, and useless."

"How old is he?" Death wondered. "Your kid."

"Only sixty-four years," I snorted. "And thinks he's grown already."

"Speakin' of grown, has that baby been growin'?" Death asked.

"In less than twenty-four hours? Are you mad?" I eyed him suspiciously. The fact that the child did feel somewhat heavier, I attributed to the fact that she was both properly dressed and fed.

"What about you? You got a headache? Feelin' wobbly?" He pressed.

"I'm perfectly fine," I replied.

"Hunh. Probably so. You're pretty strong, ain't ya?" Death paused.

"You've seen me throw a motorcycle at a helicopter," I reminded him.

"Ever heard of something called a Sabraxin Cuckoo?" Deatha asked.

"I have not," I admitted. "Very well, regale me."

"It's a psychic parasite. Nasty. Named for an Earth bird what lays its eggs in other bird's nests," Death explained.

"And?" I pressed.

"Well, I ran into Ricardo right after you left the Last Chance. Apparently he's huntin' one. Wanted Seven to come along with his plasma rifle. I still think they ain't got enough firepower," Death admitted.

"Sounds lovely," I paused. "But I fail to see how this explains your presence here."

"I'm gettin' to that part," Death snapped, though I could already tell that he wasn't going to be straightforward in the least. To some extent, I didn't think he was actually capable of telling a story without a great deal of embellishment or unneccessary details. "See, I heard from Ricardo that he heard from Lucky, and Lucky heard from Tadakatsu who heard from Mad Mack that Mary went to Sabraxi recently. Cause, you know, apparently Dizzy always wanted to stare off into the Dark, and damn if that psychotic bitch ain't a little sentimental," Death said. "Could be that this demon baby ain't what it seems."

"Preposterous. Besides, Mary would know if she birthed a child or not," I retorted.

"Not necessarily. It's a psychic parasite. It makes you think it's whatever you want it to be so it can drain your life away. Cuckoos are dangerous, old man. They kill most of their hosts in just a few days," Death replied. "To get rid of em', ya gotta hack em' to bits and then burn everything so it don't regenerate. Probably easier to sneak up on the thing, so it don't realize we're wise to it."

"Get off my property, you lunatic," I said.

I went back inside and found Kalyu exactly where I'd left her, snoozing on the rug near the kitchen fire, one of the only places in the drafty old castle where she would be warm. With those already old eyes, she stared up at me. Not a peep from her, and never really a cry. Perhaps that was strange for a baby, but I rather considered it to be a good sign, a mark of strong character.

"I'd like to tell you," I said to her, "That this will be the only time someone will think you are a monster. But... that would be lying."

Because she seemed to be listening, I told the child a story I'd never told anyone. When I was finished, I was surprised at how tired I felt. Probably, I had needed to get it off of my chest for some time.

"Never fear, though," I reassured her. "There is one trait which members of our family are known for. We always rise above."

Because he evidently didn't value his life, Death came back the next morning. He let himself in somehow, and came to harrass me while I was working at my forge.

"You again?" I glared at him.

"Did you give the baby a bath?" He demanded.

"Why would I do that?" I frowned.

"Cause babies need baths," Death replied.

"Obviously, you've never lived in a castle. When it's this cold, I won't bathe myself," I replied.

"So is your wife home yet?" Death pressed.

"She is not, and I'll not permit you to harass her," I replied. "Go away."

"You really oughta give that baby a bath," he repeated.

"Death, do not make me kill you!" I warned him, pointing with my hammer. "You, of all people, should know that I take no pleasure in it!"

He sighed and sat down on the split rail fence a few feet away from where I was working. I ignored him and went to see how my project was faring. The ruddy mage gold was softer than the iron or steel I usually worked with, and required a more delicate touch.

"So what are you makin'?" Death wondered, suddenly changing his tune.

"A tak cha," I replied. I reached for the chain around my neck, and showed him the two important amulets that I always wore. ""The tak na says I am a warrior in my own right, capable of defending myself. The tak su says my wife is also a force to be reckoned with, and would stand with me in battle or avenge me in death. A tak cha is for a child. For their protection," I explained.

"Bein' immortal, you sure worry a lot about death," Death paused.

"So do you," I replied.

"Touche, touche," he smiled slightly. "So where's the baby now?"

"It's not any of your business, but she's sleeping in the kitchen," I replied.

"Why the kitchen?" Death wondered.

"Because this is a castle, and it's bloody cold," I snorted.

"Can't figure why you want this baby so bad," Death paused.

"You must not have children," I replied.

"Yeah, but you're like... four thousand years old. And, uh... you got tons of gorgeous women around all the time," he informed me, as if that was something I didn't know. "How many kids have you got, anyway?"

"Two sons. One died some time ago," I said. "The other won't come home unless I bribe or threaten him. Not that you could possibly understand, Death... but when I first came to this place, I left behind everything I'd ever known. Yes, I've come to love my life here, but it's all very ephemeral. Blink, and you've missed it. I stopped going to funerals a long time ago. More of my friends are dead than living. Tell me, have you never wanted something capable of outlasting you?"

Death looked subdued. "Shit," he said. "Never would've guessed you were such a softie. Guess I should probably leave you alone then, old man. Good luck with the kid."

He lit a cigarette and turned to walk away.

I might have let him go, but when I put down my hammer, I noticed that the door leading into the kitchen was ajar. I immediately went to check on Kalyu, but she was not lying where I'd left her. All that remained was the blanket she'd been wrapped in, and she was too young yet to be crawling. For the briefest of moments, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feared that Death was perhaps right, and I'd brought home some vile beast instead of a baby. That is, until I saw an empty package of cheap cigarettes and a plasma shell lying on the floor.

"You bastard!" I growled. Furious as I was, I accidentally threw the door off its hinges and into the ceiling.

Death realized he'd made a grievous error only too late. He'd already started walking away, but he broke into a sprint as he saw me storming out of the house. Though I knew that killing Death was useless, I seized the hammer from my forge, still hot, and hurled it at his head. My aim was perfect. The hammer struck the back of his skull with a heavy, wet thunk. He collapsed face first to the ground.

I stared down at him, lying there in a huge, spreading pool of his own blood and he gave me a smug sort of smile, as if he'd perfectly predicted his own grisly demise. "Don't say... I didn't warn you," he said, and then dropped dead.

"When I get back, I'm going to kill you again," I informed him, not that he could hear me.

I caught up with Seven just in time to see him jump into a cab. Not many of the roads are paved around our castle, and the ones that are usually need considerable repairs after the winter snow. Whoever was driving the cab was no slouch behind the wheel, but I knew every inch of my property and took a shortcut through the trees to the bridge.

The cab careened away from the bridge when I burst out of the forest, but it was too late for the driver to turn back to the main road. I skidded to a stop in front of the car and caught it by the front bumper, somewhat. Mostly, the cab hit me at about forty miles per hour, I tried not to fall over, and then I picked it up. The scent of burning tires filled the air, but the car couldn't actually go anywhere with its front wheels off the ground. Seven, in the passenger seat, looked terrified.

"Give her back!" I said.

"It's not what you think," Seven protested, clutching his rifle case to his chest.

"Panther, you fuckin' idiot! It has to be destroyed! It's a goddamn monster!"

That shrill voice was one I recognized. Bloody Mary was Seven's getaway driver.

"How could you say that about your own blood?" I glared at her. "What's the matter with you, woman?"

While I was distracted, Seven jumped out of the car. He moved to throw his case over the side of the bridge, but he didn't get far enough.

In two steps, I was in front of him. "The three of you are certainly bold, I'll give you that. But you cannot best me," I said. "And unlike the fool who put you up to this, you will not be coming back from the dead."

I cracked all of my knuckles at once as I extended my claws. Shapeshifting is painful business, and it becomes increasingly difficult the less you do it. I couldn't recall the last time I'd completely shed my human form, but it had been awhile. My ears and my jaw popped.

Seven stared. He was not a coward, but his hands were shaking. Probably, he would surrender if I showed him exactly how outclassed he was. All I cared about was getting Kalyu back unharmed. Still, I didn't like to kill anyone I didn't have to, even if they were deserving of death.

I heard a distinctive hum. It wasn't until I saw the blue glow of Seven's plasma rifle out of the corner of my eye that I realized that Bloody Mary had the massive gun and was about to shoot me. The blast hit me square in the chest and threw me forty feet over the side of the bridge.

Hitting the icy river brought the fury that had been building up inside me out with force. I decided I was done playing games. Before I even broke the surface of the water, I was halfway through changing.

Flying isn't easy with waterlogged wings, and it's somewhat more difficult when every muscle in your body feels as though it is on fire. I landed on my knees, and tried not to show how terrible I felt. Normally, shapechanging feels liberating, but the process took far more out of me than I'd expected. I was weaker than normal, and that was a troubling realization.

"Fuck," Bloody Mary said, staring at me. There were a good number of Etone who thought I talked a good game, and evidently she had been one of them.

Seven slowly passed me his rifle case. I fumbled with the latch. I wasn't sure if it was because my blood was running so hot, or if there was another reason. Seeing Kalyu inside, confused but fortunately in one piece, I sighed in relief.

"It's all right, little one," I reassured her. "You know who I am."

She gave me another of her heart-melting toothless grins.

"Hold it right there," Death ordered.

I blinked in surprise and slowly turned to face him.

"Alive again already?" I observed. "I suppose I should've been more... thorough. What do you think you're doing?"

The idiot was pointing a gun at me. Well, not an actual gun, but one of his usual toys. "What's gotta be done," he replied.

"I know that's not a real gun," I reminded him.

Death looked grim. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger. First, a stream of water hit me between the eyes, and then he concentrated his fire on Kalyu.

She howled, a sound I'd never before imagined, and her form began to melt into a mass of writhing purple tentacles and far too many eyes. Shocked as I was, I dropped the horrible thing. Bloody Mary was on it in a heartbeat, stabbing with more swords and other sharp objects than any sane person should conceivably be carrying. When she was done, Seven shot its remains three or four times with his plasma rifle, until there was nothing left on the bridge but a charred, smoking grease spot.

"I tried to warn you, and you fuckin' killed me," Death said.

For a long while, I stared in horror at the ground. I couldn't sort out what I'd just seen. It had been too quick, and too awful.

"Say one word about this to anyone, ever, and I will kill you again," I replied.

Thinking our fight wasn't over, Seven tried to shoot me in the back of the head, but his rifle clicked twice, evidently out of ammunition. Undeterred, he whacked me with the butt of it instead. I staggered slightly and turned to glare at him so that he would understand exactly how powerless he was.

He immediately dropped his weapon and held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. Pride compelled me to walk away without showing weakness, but when I returned to my house and saw the half-finished amulet lying near my forge, I collapsed.

Even when Death is right, he is sometimes intolerable.

Several hours later, I was still lying on the kitchen floor in the dark, nursing a bruise from Seven's plasma rifle on the back of my head, and the burn from where Mary had shot me in the ribs. I didn't have the strength to do anything, and I wasn't sure if that was because the cuckoo had been draining my life force for two days, or because I was so furious that the Multiverse had found yet another way to make my existence more difficult and painful.

"Elhil?" Ejora wondered uneasily, coming inside from the stables. "Why is there blood all over the courtyard? Where is the door?"

"Ah," I grimaced. I'd almost forgotten about killing Death. "You haven't been to the bridge yet, have you?"

When my wife came into the firelight and saw what a mess I was, she gasped. She was so surprised that she lost control over her appearance and shifted into her true form as she came to my side. "Agh, I just ruined my blouse," she grimaced, wiping my face with her sleeve. "But great gods, Elhil, what happened to you?"

"I killed Death today," I said. "Also, I tried to stop a cab with my body and took two shots from a plasma rifle. Until a few hours ago, I thought we had a daughter, but then she was shot with a water pistol and turned into a cuckoo."

"A cuckoo?" Ejora's voice faltered. I knew I sounded mad.

"A tentacled horror that had to be put down," I clarified. "Chopped up and melted, specifically."

"Nayohysk," she said. My wife was not normally one to curse, but really, no other words would suffice. "Was that what you meant, that you'd brought a baby for me?"

I nodded. "A daughter, or so I thought. I'm an idiot."

"You're not. You have such a heart. Like no one I've ever known," Ejora sighed heavily. She laid on the floor beside me and wrapped her arms around my neck. "But honestly, how do you always get mixed up in these sort of things?"

"I'm a descendant of the Goddess of Chaos. I'd venture to say its... expected?" I paused. "At very least, none of my esteemed ancestors ever lived normal lives. To say nothing of my niece."

Ejora sighed heavily. "Well, I suppose that's true."

"Would you have liked to be a mother again?" I asked.

"More than anything," she said, nestling closer to me. "Have you heard from Nayru?"

"If our son would speak to either of us, it would be you," I reminded her.

As if Fate had heard those words, I heard the porter's door creak.

My son did not paint an ideal picture. As usual, he was dressed in a ragged orange vest that I could've sworn we burned years ago and smoking a cigarette in the house, which was expressively against his mother's rules. Ejora didn't yell at him to put it out. The look on her face told me that she was about to do something thoroughly ridiculous, and enjoy every minute of it.

"My baby!" Ejora exclaimed, leaping to her feet and wrapping Nayru in an enormous hug. He couldn't have resisted her if he'd wanted to, not without shapeshifting, which was something he was loathe to do for any reason. As it was, he didn't resist in the least and let her hold him close like a rag doll.

"I'm not a baby," Nayru groaned. "Mother! Ow! You're going to break my ribs."

"Hush, you," she scolded him. "Your father brought me a new year's baby, but it tried to eat him and he had to kill it. Let me have this."

Nayru sighed in defeat. Though he wouldn't have wanted anyone to notice, I saw him smile.