Ties that Bind

a novel by Karen Buckeridge


CHAPTER THREE

Avis' pressed his fingers and toes into the slimy walls of The Walk and braced himself for the short climb upwards. At the sound of the Malebranche devils' wicked cackling behind him, he pulled himself up that first step. The muscles of his exposed biceps and thighs strained as he dragged himself inch by inch from that disgusting place. It had been hours since Clarise had left, maybe even days, but Uriel had been true to his word. Avis had been forced around The Walk twice in order to recover from the injuries he had incurred the first time around when he had refused to crawl.

Up he climbed. Unlike those below him, he was not truly of the Damned. They were mortal souls with no real celestial strength, while he was a god, and Sarvalis had indicated at the completion of the second lap that he was to climb out himself—without assistance. Inch by inch, hand over hand, he made his own way from that insidious sub-level.

He reached the top and crawled over the rocks on to the mountainside itself. Was it really real? Had it really happened? Lying on his stomach with his head bowed to the stones, he waited for something—anything. He was well again. As well as anyone could be who hadn't eaten in so long that food was nothing more than a distant memory. Weak, yes, but unharmed-for now.

As he caught his breath he realised nothing had come to claim him. Nothing moved him, pushed him, leashed him, beat him or any one of a thousand other things he had been forced to endure since his incarceration. His breathing began to slow for the first time in a long, long time. Was it true? His pain-numbed mind began to wonder. Was he free? After all this time, was he truly free of the Damned?

His eyes skirted as far as they could see without moving his head; the slightest spark of hope entering his heart. He choked on his first breath. He choked on the second as well. By the third he began to snort, and by the fourth, he chuckled.

Free.

Free … free … free … free!

His laughter was short lived as an armoured pair of legs landed on the mountain beside him. "Enjoying yourself?" Uriel asked.

Avis' elation turned to terror and he quickly covered his newly healed head with both arms without uttering a word.

"No doubt you have been told by others how unpleasant your next stay shall be, so I will add only this: if you ever give me cause to hunt your miserable hide down again, you will not have Clarise's generosity to protect you. I will create my own Hell somewhere in the middle of The Unknown Realms—where no one but I shall hear you scream for the rest of your natural existence. No one will know where you are, and no one will rescue you. Do you hear me, slae-el?"

Avis rocked his head beneath his hands.

"Then return to the Well where my sister awaits your arrival. Treat her as you should have been treating her from the beginning, and stay out of my way if you know what is good for you."

Avis nodded emphatically and rose to his hands and knees, only to feel the cold metal of Uriel's boot on his exposed back. "No one said you were to do it on your feet," he said, and gave Avis a sharp push that flattened him to the ground. "Crawl back to her on your stomach like the slae-el you are, and beg her forgiveness—a forgiveness none of us believe you deserve."

Avis bobbed his head in acknowledgement of the command. Slither. Of course. How stupid of him to think he would be permitted to stand. But slithering wasn't that hard. He proved it right there and then by sliding out from beneath Uriel's boot and crawling across the rocks down towards Antenora.

The putrid stench of the Ninth Sub-Level that had turned Avis' stomach once so long ago now filled his senses as he continued to crawl belly down across the simple stone bridge that was only just suspended over the ravine of disease. Looking down, he could have reached out and touched the Damned below, had he been so inclined. Their sickening misery was all too familiar a sight to him, and with a swallow of hope that this would not be where he wound up again, he looked to the Gates of Antenora ahead of him and continued on.

Avis paused momentarily beneath the grand arches that separated the two levels, where neither the heat of Eighth Level, nor the Cold of Ninth could reach him. He had never been given the luxury of stopping there before—he was always pushed from one environment to the other with little concern for his Mystallian inability to cope with such dramatic climate changes. He had realised while crossing the bridge of disease that Uriel was following from a distance and assumed it was for one of two reasons. Either he didn't want to be that close to the Damned if he could help it, or more likely so he could uphold his end of his bargain with Clarise and not bring further harm to Avis on his journey back. Walking at his side, it would probably have been too much of a temptation to sink his flaming sword into Avis' neck, just to hear him cry out one last time. If it was the latter, Uriel was indeed a rare breed of demon, for someone who bore the mantle of Crown Prince of Hell, he spent most of his time in Heaven. Perhaps Heaven's way of open honesty and absolution to one's word was slowly beginning to adhere to the demon prince.

Uriel's expression darkened as he approached and he made a grand gesture with one hand for Avis to keep going.

With a heartfelt moan, Avis rolled back to his stomach and turned towards the arctic wastelands before him. On his naked stomach, this was going to hurt—a lot. And by forcing him to do this without laying a finger on him, Uriel would be keeping his word of not personally causing him any further harm. To everyone else, it would appear as if Avis had decided to push himself through the punishment of The Ninth Level one last time to prove his sincere regret at his treatment of Clarise; something Uriel could never be held accountable for. Rot his shining hide. Heaven's influence or not, there was still a big part of that bastard that was a sneaky, manipulative demon.

Then a distant thought penetrated Avis' mind. No one would hold Uriel responsible, because it would come down to Avis' word against his masters' if he dared to speak out at all. No one else was present that could bear witness to who made the decision to crawl across Antenora. But marriage in the celestial realms meant more than just a bonding of two people's eternal lives. Clarise's blood flowed in his veins, and more importantly, his flowed inside Clarise.

Avis glanced over his shoulder and swallowed as Uriel approached. He was playing on hope, and this was not the place for hope. What if he were wrong about Clarise? What if she denied him? To side-step Uriel's final act of vengeance would cost him so dearly if he couldn't reach the safety of Clarise in time. The women believed everything the men told them, and were obedient to them to the death. Belial or Uriel only had to order her and the other ladies to never mention the subject of Avis' disappearance and the subject would never be aired again. Avis needed the wisdom of his youngest brother. As a God of Fortune, Chance's insight into his odds would be very useful right about now.

Avis swallowed again. Crawl through Antenora, or risk a short cut. 'Mother, guide my hand,' he thought to himself almost in prayer, as he reached his right arm forward. He curled his fingers as if to try and grasp the rugged edge of the first ice-cade, then, without warning, he arched his arm up and around in a half-circle that ended on his thigh and called out "Clarise!"

He heard Uriel's bellow of rage from the distance, but the vision of what lay before him shifted from the endless frozen wasteland of Ninth Level to the warm and inviting smile of his wife in her Mystallian form. She stood with her hands before her as a dutiful wife and behind her Avis could see the replica of his Mystallian quarters that she had so painstakingly duplicated. Hearing Uriel's fast approach, Avis quickly lifted himself on to his knees and reached both his hands towards her. "Clarise!" he both cried and begged, willing her to take his hands and pull him to safety. "Help me!"

Clarise's eyes widened, and without asking any questions she reached forward and took him by the wrists, hauling him over the celestial/mortal threshold of space that separated them. "Avis," she said, tears in her eyes as she ran her fingers through his hair. "Oh, Avis—I am so sorry …"

Still on his knees, Avis wrapped his arms around her waist, buried his face into the fabric of her dress and cried like a child. Free. He was finally free! As the realty of his situation began to sink in, his muscles weakened with relief and he slid to the ground at her feet, but he continued to clutch at the hem of her dress and weep. No more traps—no more delusions—no more torture. Clarise was real. Clarise was really real. Clarise was here.

With his hands still entangled in her dress, Avis felt the connection of another family member attempting to reach his wife, and was under no misconceptions as to who it was. Uriel's image moments after Clarise accepted the connection confirmed Avis' greatest fear, and he slid in behind his wife for protection.

"Ahh," Uriel said, his voice ferociously calm as he looked at Avis. "I see you made it back … Avis."

Not slae-el. Not the Damned. Avis. He had his name back again! It sounded wonderful, coming from the lips of his master, even if the venom could barely be contained.

"Uriel, you have my deepest gratitude for returning Avis to me, but was there something you wanted of me?" Clarise asked.

Uriel shook his head. "Not at all, dear sister. Avis vanished through a blood-link a few moments ago and considering my oath to return him to you, I wanted to make certain it was you he contacted and not someone else from his family in Mystal." He looked past Clarise again to the god that cowered on the ground behind her. "If he had made the mistake of escaping Hell, I would have been forced to hunt him down again. That would have been…" his lips twitched a little and his eyes gleamed with the fantasy of fulfilling his earlier promise. "… unpleasant. Do you not agree, Avis?"

Avis whimpered and lay on the ground with his hand covering his head at the not so subtle threat. He hadn't gone anywhere. He was right here. He didn't need to be hunted down—he had done as he was told—more or less.

"Uriel, please," Clarise said, knowing she was missing a very large portion of this conversation but having a fair idea what it was.

Uriel closed his eyes and sighed. "Oh, very well." He opened them again to look at his sister. "Why you have chosen to make the same mistake twice is beyond me, Clarise. But the mistake is yours to make." He held out his hands palm upwards towards Clarise, who immediately placed her own in his.

However, instead of stepping through as Avis had done, Uriel merely bowed at the waist and kissed both sets of knuckles, before stepping away to allow the link between them to vanish.

Avis trembled with uncertainty as Clarise turned, and knelt beside him with a comforting smile. "You are exhausted beyond comprehension, my love,' she said, stroking the long dark hair from his tear-glazed eyes. "You need rest to settle your agitated mind. Then things will not appear quite so frightening." She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, then slipped her hands beneath his knees and shoulders and lifted him into the air as if he weighed no more than a child. "Things will be better in the morning, beloved." She carried him across the room, laid him upon the bed then drew the sheets up around him. "I promise."

Avis' gaze shifted around the room nervously. There was a time when he would have found this room and its contents perfectly acceptable and he would have fallen straight into a deep, restful sleep without a moment's hesitation. But that was before. This room—and what he had been forced to do and had done to him whilst in it—he could never sleep here again. Not comfortably …

"Clarise …" he whined.

"Shhh," Clarise crooned, reaching for a medium sized golden goblet and freshly pressed napkin, both of which were sitting on a matching golden tray on Avis' bedside table. She braced the back of his neck with one hand and helped him to sit up, pressing the goblet to his lips. "Drink, my love."

Years of unconditional obedience kicked in automatically and Avis swallowed the substance without ever knowing what it was or why he was doing it. He drained the cup, realising after the first mouthful it bore the same rich, alluring flavour as ambrosia—–a specialty liquor from Olympus that Zeus had introduced him to eons earlier. He finished the drink with a satisfied sigh and smiled, for it was the first thing to reach his stomach in a long time that didn't attack him from the inside on contact.

He watched Clarise intently as she lay his head down and wiped his mouth with the edge of the napkin, searching for any hint as to what was to happen next. The drink was for something other than satisfying his years' old thirst. It had to be. It had been sitting there, waiting for him to return.

As he continued to stare at Clarise, his fears slowly began to ebb away. Not as in a complete suppression of them: more … an understanding that a wave of indifference was smothering them. He felt … relaxed. Oh, yesss, he thought with a satisfied drawl. That would be the word, if he had to choose one over all others at that moment: relaxed. The years of torture drifted further away and a lurid smile worked at the corners of his lips. This was good. He breathed in deeply and released it with an even deeper sigh of contentment.

"There you are, my love," Clarise crooned, as Avis' eyes began to sag. "Calm yourself, and sleep…"


When Avis awoke, he sensed the presence of family blood in his vicinity before he opened his eyes. He had not been asleep long enough to be deluded into thinking it was one of his family members from Mystal. It had been years since he'd last laid eyes on any of them and there was no mistaking their animosity towards him during that last family 'reunion'. He had burned more bridges than he ever realised when he took a heavy hand to Clarise. For eons, he had lived with the assumption that his pantheon would stand by him no matter whose wrath he invoked with his various assaults on their women. They always had in the past. But it seemed even they feared the repercussions from Clarise's ancient family and decided disowning him was better than burning with him. After what he had endured, he no longer held that decision against them.

It could have been his ex-his wife, but the sensation had the distinct hint of youth to it. More likely one of his two children, and considering she was sitting there and not attacking him, he made a realistic guess as to which of the two it was. But what was it Clarise had called her now? Of all things, the girl had been named after a common Mystallian flower. Daisy … no … Petunia … no … Rose … no!

Damn his memory! What was it? He should at least remember the names of his own children, and 'never having met them' was not an excuse. 'One must walk where one has once been to see if the path one left behind was clear,' to quote a Mystallian colloquial … colloque … that's it—it was something like … collo-column … columns? No, dammit! It was floral not architectural! Think flower …

His memory and intelligence worked furiously over the next few seconds until he finally had it. Then, with his lips curled into a knowing smile as if he had been awake and in possession of the knowledge forever, he rasped, "Hello, Columbine."

He opened his eyes, and immediately covered them with his left hand to protect them against the bright light that poured in from the illusion of an early morning sun outside. 'Mnnnhh,' he grizzled, rubbing his eyes until he could peer through the cracks in his fingers without crying.

Only when the brightness no longer affected him did he lower his hand to focus on a young child perched on the golden bed frame at his feet. Once again, he almost missed her in his initial sweep of the room, as she was dressed in the same deep maroon silk that the multiple layers of bed canopy consisted of, and she had chosen to perch herself amongst those folds. Only her beautiful, long raven hair gave away her location. It was as dark as his and easily reached her knees, if the mass curled in her lap was anything to go by.

'Perched' really was the accurate term. She was balanced on her toes like a bird with her legs folded beneath her and a hand clutching the frame on either side supporting her weight.

When he returned his quick appraisal to her face, he found she had tilted her head slightly to one side and was watching him with childish curiosity. Her lips were small but they had a particular shapeliness to them, and her skin bore the snow-like paleness that was a virtual trademark of the Mystallians. But, like her mother, it was her eyes that Avis found so entrancing. They were so dark they almost held a depth to their own about them, yet they blinked continually at him, as if awaiting some kind of response.

"Very pretty," he said, realising that she would be stunning when she grew older, if this was what she was capable of producing now. He tried to smile at her, and was genuinely thrilled to find her capable of shifting into a Mystallian form at such a tender age. But his pleasure at that prospect soon quelled as he began to envision all the kinds of trouble he would receive as her father, when others would try to take advantage of her, just as he had taken advantage of her mother. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about that.

He realised she was still watching him, and gave her another weak smile. Children were never his specialty.

"Mother says I am Bi- … ah … Bi-…" Columbine's gaze dropped to her knees as the complicated word continued to elude her.

"Bi-pedal?" Avis suggested, as a wild guess.

Columbine shook her head. "It means 'two forms'. Bi-schlerian…?"

"Bi-schalarian," Avis corrected with an appreciative smile, recognising the strange word as a combination of Mystallian and Chaotic. Columbine nodded, her black eyes sparkling thank-fully. "That's a big word, for a little girl like you to remember."

Columbine beamed with pride at the compliment, but lowered her eyes respectfully and refused to move an inch from her perch.

Knowing sooner or later she would have to say something, even if it was only to voice one of a thousand questions he felt certain the child must have, Avis propped his head up with one hand and waited for her to regain eye contact with him. He just needed to wait.

Unfortunately, patience was never one of Avis' strongest virtues. Many implied it was something he'd never possessed and he certainly wasn't of the temperament to debate it.

So, after a minute or so had passed and the chit still hadn't moved, he twisted his lips slightly in annoyance. "You don't talk very much, do you?"

Columbine shook her head, her gaze flicking over the top of her lowered eyes now and again to gauge his reaction to her subservience. Avis recognised the Highborn Hellion trait and tsked all the more. "I think you've been in Hell too long, young lady."

As he spoke, he noticed the muscles in her legs spasm beneath the strain of maintaining that indecently cramped position. It must have been killing her to squat like that for however long she had been perched there before he awoke; but still she said nothing. That hardly surprised him. The Hellions had raised the girl from the beginning, and they had taught him in a much shorter space of time how to take a phenomenal amount of pain without uttering a word of complaint.

"Columbine, put your feet on the bed and rest your backside against the frame," he said, "before you numb everything from the waist down–if you haven't already."

Swallowing uncomfortably, Columbine tilted all her weight on to her right foot and edged her left down to the bed, pushing it to the outer most edge to give her father as much room as possible.

Avis shook his head slightly and rubbed two fingers in a circular pattern against the side of his right eye. Only a Highborn demoness would go to so much trouble to comply with something so simple. He envisioned what extremes she would have gone to, had he asked something more complicated of her.

With her foot balanced precariously on the edge, Columbine leaned into her straightened knee to shift her weight the other way.

"No!" Avis cried suddenly, catching her both mentally and physically as she pitched forward into his outstretched arms. "Easy, girl," he crooned, lifting her into the air and swinging her around so that she sat with her legs over the edge of the bed and her back against his hip, ignoring her gasp of horror. "We've only just met. There's no need to throw yourself at me just yet."

Although he had meant it to ease the situation, Columbine rolled her shoulders and bowed her head reproachfully, lowering her eyes to the hands that were crossed in her lap.

Her lack of response annoyed him and he closed his eyes to utter a frustrated curse before taking her gently by the jaw and guiding her young face around to him. "We're really going to have to work on your communications skills, Columbine, if you and I are to get along. You know that, don't you?"

When she still didn't react except to lower her eyes to his palm, his mind began to race for anything that would help break through to her. He was by no means a child-person, and he was fast running out of ideas. Then he thought of his youngest brother still in Mystal. Children of all ages loved him because he was always playing with them, doing hideously embarrassing dances that never ceased to make them laugh. At the time Avis had sworn nothing could ever make him behave so ridiculously. Fortunately, he had the feeling that kind of play was still beyond his shy young daughter. But there had to be something. He rubbed his lip thoughtfully.

Then he had it. One act in particular that Chance always undertook with his children and grandchildren when they were young, and it never ever failed to gain some kind of a response from them – even if it was only to punch him in the arm afterwards because they felt they were growing too old for his childish tickling games.

As a mischievous smile crept across his lips, he refocused his attention on his silent offspring. Then, dropping his hand from her jaw, he snaked it quickly around her waist. "C'mere, you," he grinned and ignoring her sudden yelp of surprise he rolled on to his side away from her, dragging her across his hip and chest and pinning her to the bed beside him.

Columbine arched her back and squealed as his fingers buried themselves mercilessly into her sides. Tears sprang to her eyes as she abandoned her upbringing and thrashed in his arms, crying to the point of begging to be released, but with a delighted chuckle of his own, Avis tightened his grip and continued the assault.

Then, suddenly, Avis' fingers jarred together as Columbine's mass vanished from within his grasp.

At first he was confused by the disappearance, but when he realised what must have happened, he looked around the room for her, far more impressed with her abilities than he had been before. Not even her mother could change shape that fast.

He found her, kneeling in the far corner between the body length mirror and the wall, with her head bowed forward. Her hands were still wrapped around her sides and her small frame shuddered with belated feelings. "Well," he said with a victorious chuckle, as he braced his head with both hands, "so you can be impulsive when the mood takes you."

Columbine shuddered again, in what he hoped was pleasure.

"Just out of curiosity, what do I get for guessing you've never been tickled before?" he asked, rolling on to his side to watch her more comfortably. He could almost feel the confusion radiating from the young girl. "Columbine, look at me."

Columbine's eyes gingerly came up to his. They were wide and dark, creased with fear despite her bottom lip being firmly fixed between her teeth to hide her smile. "Uh-Uh," Avis chided, tutting her actions and waving his finger at her. "You have a pretty face, young lady. I'd like to see the smile that goes…"

"Columbine! What are you doing here in your Bi-pedal nightgown?" Clarise demanded from the doorway.

Hearing the anger in her voice, Avis quickly looked towards his wife, and couldn't suppress the wave of terror at the sight of her standing in the doorway. Her natural form made it difficult to judge the severity of her anger, but there was no mistaking the clawed hands that rested on her hip joints, or the vicious way her tail flicked in tight, sharp movements.

Avis whimpered in fear and slid from the bed to join his daughter on his knees with his head bowed to the ground, never once looking up from that original appraisal. It had been too ingrained now—how to behave around angry demons.

"Columbine, when you rise, look directly at me. Look nowhere else in the room. Then go and get changed for breakfast."

"Yes, mother," he heard Columbine reply.

From his place on the floor, Avis heard the shuffle of silk as Columbine rose to her feet and retreated towards the door, but he didn't lift his head to see her leave. A knot formed in his stomach when he heard the sound whack of his wife's tail as she struck their daughter on her way past, causing the youngster to burst into tears and flee, but he dared not move for fear they would harm her further if they learned she actually meant something to him.

Long after the muffled footsteps of their fleeing daughter echoed into nothing, Avis heard the fine click of Clarise's heeled shoes coming towards him.

"Avis," she whispered, placing a Mystallian hand on his shoulder. "Stand, my love. Your place is no longer on the floor at our feet and it breaks my heart to see you there." She cupped his shoulder a little and pulled him back on to his haunches. When she saw the despair in his eyes, she ran her hand down the side of his face and knelt beside him. "Oh, Avis," she said, and wrapped one arm around his neck, pressing her head into his shoulder. "I am nothing to fear, my love. I am your wife, and your will is my life, not the other way around."

Avis opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again and swallowed.

Clarise felt the lump in his throat move and asked, "What is it?"

Instead of answering, Avis licked his lips and remained silent. "Nothing," he lied.

Clarise placed her hand on his cheek and drew his face towards hers. "What is it?" she asked, her voice barely above that of a whisper.

Avis looked to the open doorway. "If…" he began again, then shook his head.

"Avis, please."

"If I can … that is … if … if I'm allowed … to have my own way …" He spoke that last part very quickly in case he had overstepped the boundary, tensing for her reaction. When she offered none except to hear him out, he relaxed a little. "Don't punish Columbine for visiting me." He bit his bottom lip straight afterwards, waiting to see if he had said the right thing.

Instead of exploding with rage at his impertinence, Clarise smiled warmly. "Do not fear for Columbine, beloved. She is an extremely adept Hellion and her reaction to the smack was simply one of accordance, not pain. What is pain to someone who can heighten senses in one instant, and eliminate them altogether the next as we do?"

Avis thought about the way she had become non-corporeal in an instant when he cornered her and nodded in agreement. Someone with that level of control would easily be able to manipulate what was and wasn't being felt inside his or her body. "How is she able to have such control?" he asked, again looking towards the door, as if expecting her to reappear at any time. "She's just a child."

"She is gifted," Clarise agreed with a sigh, "and it is unfortunate that Cora has turned that gift into a point of contention."

"Cora?"

"Cora has … on occasion, found the need to act on her jealousy."

Avis released a deep grumble from the pit of his stomach. Sibling rivalry. How well he knew that sensation. Despite his seniority, as a child he had often instigated cruel and dangerous pranks against his younger siblings for no other reason than because he could. He began to understand why their mother never approved of it, and it didn't matter that Luck in particular would always manage to escape unharmed. Mastery of shapeshifting would have been a thousand times worse.

"She's Mystallian," he said.

"They both are," Clarise replied, not certain to the source of the reference.

"Yes, but Cora more so. Our women have never been backwards in coming forwards." He smiled a little, remembering less than memorable moments from his past. "There has even been the occasion when one of my sisters has put me on my arse, when she's felt I've needed it."

"I know."

That brought Avis up short. "How did you know that?"

Clarise blushed and looked anywhere but her husband's face. "Lady Armina came to me a few times and offered to … shall we say … forcefully remind you of your marital vows to me while I was living in Mystal."

Thinking of precisely what his robust younger sister of War would have said to his reproachful Highborn Hellion wife, Avis pulled his lips into a bemused sneer. "Reee-allly," he drawled with an arched eyebrow. But the amusement died when he remembered their last encounter. Supreme God or not, Armina had ousted him with the help of their courts. He was in effect, still exiled from his homeland.

He didn't want to think about that now. The embarrassment of that defeat, while nothing compared to what he had endured in the Nine Levels of Hell, still knotted his stomach.

Clarise rose to her feet. "You still need rest, my love," she said, holding her hands out for him.

Avis shook his head in denial, but surrendered his hands and allowed her to pull him upright. "I've slept enough …" he began to bluster.

Clarise placed a silencing finger across his lips. "Sshhhh," she hushed, with an endearing smile. "Trust me."

With the pillows piled in such a way that he could sit up, she gently eased him back into the bed, going as far as to lift his feet from the floor and slide them under the haphazardly discarded sheets. Then she drew the sheets to his chest, leaving his upper body free to move.

It was then that Avis became aware of his surroundings. "Clarise…" he whined, looking from one piece of furniture to the next with great disdain.

But Clarise had turned towards the doorway and clapped loudly twice, never noticing his discomfort. The same two gangly creatures that had answered her summons before appeared with a courteous bow, one carrying a tray of freshly diced fruit, the other a canter of chilled water and a delicately etched clear goblet.

And suddenly the accommodation didn't seem so bad.

Licking his lips hungrily, he swallowed a mouthful of saliva so thick it almost choked him.

"This is Frash and Tilu," Clarise said, gesturing firstly to the one with the food, then the one with the drink. With his eyes locked on the food, Avis barely saw them. "They will be bringing your meals until you have regained your strength in a day or two. Anything you need, you need only clap twice and they will appear to do your bidding. It is not much compared to the banquets of Pandess but you will need to regain your stamina before you move on to more nourishing meals."

Avis watched them separate as they approached him, the one with the food coming past Clarise to kneel beside the bed with her hands extended over Avis' chest. The starving god didn't wait to see what the other was up to. With the fruit now under his nose, he took two huge handfuls and stuffed them in his mouth, shovelling it to the back to make room for more before it vanished.

"Avis, easy, my love! You will give yourself an upset stomach," Clarise warned, wiping his chin with a napkin, while her free hand restrained his other fistful of fruit.

Avis tried to explain how he wouldn't get a stomach ache no matter how much he ate, but the burble that escaped his food-laden lips was incomprehensible.

"Here," she said, taking the filled goblet from Tilu and tilting it to his lips. "Gently now."

But Avis wasn't interested in gently. The moment the nourishing liquid touched his tongue he dropped the fruit and snatched at the base of the goblet, tilting it sharply and guzzling the water as quickly as he could.

"Avis, no!" Clarise chastised, breaking his grip on the goblet.

A small noise of defiance escaped Avis' throat as he leaned forward with his hand outstretched for the goblet, but Clarise was adamant. "Slowly," she said, holding the goblet away from him and allowing her eyes to change into balls of flame inside her Mystallian skull to reiterate the command, not only as his wife, but also as a Hellion Highborn.

The reaction in Avis was instantaneous. Like an abused child, his hand dropped to the bed and he hid the offending limb beneath the sheets, his eyes anywhere but on her and his back burrowing into the pillows and mattress to escape her.

Seeing his will completely collapse, Clarise regretted her decision to resort to the Hellion's influence over him and returned her eyes to Mystallian before lifting his chin to look at her. "Slowly," she repeated, pressing her forehead against his. "Please, trust me, my love. There is plenty of fruit to settle your stomach, but these first steps must be slow or the pain that will follow will make you think you are back amongst the Damned."

After that, Avis ate only the food she fed him as she offered it, and watching him, Clarise fought to keep her tears in check.


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