“Can’t you do something for her?” Victor Royal demanded.
He wasn’t a man used to being ignored, but Larrah the Blind was used to not suffering fools lightly, and ignored him like a pro as she went about her preparations.
Nyx took his hand, folding her fingers around his. “Darling, you’re fussing.”
“You’re in pain.”
“You’ve witnessed me in pain before, often enough.”
“Too often,” he said. “Besides, that’s different and you know it.”
“Yes. This is different. This is worthy and productive --”
Just then, another deep and wrenching spasm hit. Whatever else she might have been about to say became a long hiss through clenched fangs. Her grip on Victor bore down with inhuman strength, but his bore up under it. Dark power gloved their linked hands in shadowy tendrils.
“-- no cause ever more so,” she finished, gasping, when the moment passed.
Victor threw Larrah another look, a look suggesting that if a certain mage-doctor didn’t get on the game and do her job, he’d pick her up by the scruff of the neck and shake her like a troublesome kitten. It had about as much effect as his earlier demand.
“If you want to make yourself useful,” Larrah told him, laying out blankets beside a basin of strangely-shimmering water with the scents of oils and unearthly spices wafting on its steam, “then massage with your knuckles right above the base of her tail.”
Nyx, braced upon a marble birthing couch acquired from an ancient temple to Rhea, leaned forward over the gravid scarlet bulge of her belly and unfurled her smoldering wings. Their fanning flex added smoky notes of cinnamon, musk, and brimstone to the air.
The birthing couch, as with the furnishing of the entire room, had been insisted upon by Doctor Northwood, whose house it was. A shrine to welcoming new life, under the roof of an avatar of death.
Even now, that avatar of death and Wisdom Royal, Victor’s grandfather, would be in the study at the far end of the hall. To all outward appearances, just a pair of elderly and distinguished gentlemen biding the time over brandy and chess as they awaited the news.
Larrah’s husband, Theo March, was in there with them, if far less at his ease in such surroundings. He hadn’t been head over heels at the idea of Larrah playing midwife. “If anything goes wrong, and I mean anything,” he’d said, “getting killed will be the least of our worries.”
Yes, there were places in Paragon City with higher-tech defenses and armed guards … yes, there was the palace of indomitable stone at the heart of Bela’Tzuriel where Victor still held rule … yes, the finest doctors and healers of the mortal realm could have been called in … this, though, this all around proved the most suitable compromise.
Victor pressed his left fist where Larrah had indicated, rolling his knuckles into the bunched, tense muscles on either side of Nyx’s spine. She groaned. Her tail twitched and curled. Larrah flicked an arcane gesture, then nodded to herself.
“Good,” she said. “Contractions are getting closer --”
“Nnngh!” Nyx agreed, wracked by another.
“-- should be almost time.”
“You’ve got this, love,” Victor said. “You’ve got this.”
She blew out a gusty exhalation and slid him a sultry smile. “Another … new and unique sensation … to experience … thanks to you.”
He leaned over to kiss the top of her head. Her normally short and spiky white hair had grown out full and lush over the course of the pregnancy, spilling in tangled tresses past her collarbones. Modesty, of which she held little enough to begin with, had been cast aside; but for the partial draping of a linen cloth sacred to Isis, she wore only a smooth band of gold to match the one on Victor’s finger.
“I guess you’ll finally have to marry me,” he’d said, months ago, a few days after she’d informed him of their latest impending complication.
Nyx had arched a white brow. “Beg pardon?”
“You care about me too much to stick me with the shameful stigma of being an unwed father.”
Victor grinned. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’”
The wedding and its lead-up had, of course, been far from uneventful. It had just about turned Hell and Heaven inside out, involving gods and monsters, angels, demons, and earth-shaking cataclysms.
But, now, here they were.
“And it’s a girl,” Larrah said. The announcement was mere formality; they’d already known for weeks, courtesy of various scryings and spells.
Nyx fell back, heaving for breath. Victor embraced her and she wrapped her arms around him. He covered her face with kisses, murmuring how he loved her, how magnificent she was.
“Don’t you ever forget it,” she said, with a smoky, exhausted chuckle.
Larrah, meanwhile, dipped the howling reddish thing with the outraged scrunched-up expression into the basin, eliciting another loud protest. The baby squalled and kicked, splashing, flailing tiny fists.
Her form looked to be like that of any newborn human, no wings or tail, no visible horns or claws. A slight point to the ears, maybe … a dusky rose-pinkness of skin, several shades lighter than Nyx’s crimson hue … and a full head of hair, as thick and black as Victor’s.
When she was rinsed, anointed, and clean – though by no means quiet – Larrah patted her dry and swaddled her. She turned to Nyx and Victor, the eerie sunkenness of her discolored and eternally closed eyelids somehow seeming to regard them with cynical amusement.
“Ready?” she asked.
Victor nodded. He squeezed Nyx’s hand again, then let go, squaring his shoulders and taking a step forward.
Larrah set the bundle at his feet, unwrapping the blanket to leave the baby squirming there on the floor, naked and helpless. Exposed to the cool air, and decidedly not happy about it.
How something so small could produce so much noise … so much temper and indignation … thrust suddenly from warm and muffling comfort into this rude, cold, bright world …
Slowly, Victor bent, reaching out with slightly trembling hands to gather up the howling baby. Holding her, he stood straight again. For several seconds, he simply was as if mesmerized. At last, he spoke.
“I acknowledge this child ...”
– at the sound of his strong voice, the crying ceased; the baby’s eyes flew open and fixed fascinated upon him; they were a deep and brilliant indigo, those eyes, like his, like panes of stained glass in a cathedral, illuminated through by a fierce light –
“... as of my Blood and of my House.” He paused, gazing with a matching fascination, and added, “And first-born heir to all that is mine, in this realm or any other.”
Nyx, watching from the birthing couch, uttered a soft vocalization, something part sob, part sigh, and part laugh.
Victor stroked the ball of his thumb along the baby’s cheek. Her little mouth sought toward the touch, working hungrily, but her eyes never left his.
“Hello … Grace,” he said.
Then he blinked, and swayed on his feet. The color drained from his face.
“Maybe --” was as far as he got before this eyes rolled back and his knees buckled.
As he keeled over, Larrah deftly plucked the baby from his grasp and pushed her at Nyx. “Hold this.”
“Is he all right?” With an unthinking instinct she never would have believed herself capable of, Nyx folded Grace to her chest.
“Big damn hero,” she snorted, stepping over Victor to open the door. “Fainted, that’s all.”
There had been classical music playing in the study at the other end of the hall, but it was silenced now. Likely turned off at the first telltale wails, and now they were all jittering on tenterhooks of anticipation and apprehension.
“Hey, handsome!” she called. “Little help down here?”
In that hush, Theo March’s muttered “Oh Christ, now what?” was clearly audible, followed by the quick clump of his boots. He poked his head into the room, started noticeably at the sight of a partially linen-draped Nyx, looked hastily away, and saw Victor sprawled on the rug.
“The proud papa,” Larrah explained dryly, “could use a drink, a cigar, and some smelling salts. Not necessarily in that order. Can you handle it?”
“Sure,” Theo said. “Uh, yeah. Sure.”
Nyx’s attention, once reassured as to Victor, was drawn to the child. To herself, cradling the child, as if she’d always known how. This tiny life in her arms, so new and so vibrant … tiny hands clutching, tiny mouth questing, a scent like warm cocoa and carnations after a cleansing rain …
An overwhelming rush struck her, an intense whirl of emotion and sensation. All along, she’d thought of this as … as something of Victor’s, as her gift to him and her solemn charge from him to carry and protect … but this was more. This was something of hers as well.
Their dark miracle truly was, and Nyx was further astonished to find glimmering tears falling from her own eyes.
“Ai na,” she whispered. “Yes, little one, perhaps I can do this after all.”
Theo, with the assistance of the ever-diligent butler MacGregor, hefted Victor off in the direction of the study. Meanwhile, unable to restrain themselves any longer, Michael Northwood and Wisdom Royal had slipped into the room.
They approached the couch where Nyx nuzzled the baby in her arms, and stood by her, one on each side.
Nyx glanced up. “Ecce filia,” she said, shifting her gaze from one old patriarch to the other. “Behold, a daughter is born.”
“Oh, my lamb, my dear lamb,” Michael Northwood said, patting her hand. “What thou has wrought. She is beautiful.”
Wisdom Royal said nothing, just brushed tender fingertips through Grace’s thick crop of black hair, then bent and kissed Nyx’s brow between the bases of her downcurved grey horns. It tingled through her like the blessing she knew it to be.
“Is it wrong of me,” said Victor, returning from the changing table with a freshly-diapered Grace in his arms, “to be kind of glad she wasn’t born with a tail?”
Their suite was luxurious, several rooms flowing into one around a central circular fireplace topped by a suspended chimney. Curved windows overlooked a night-spangled seascape where waves rushed foaming on pale sand.
Nyx smiled. She lounged amid heaps of cushions and reached up for the baby as Victor neared. “No more so,” she said, “than it is for me to be glad for her lack of teeth.” Settling Grace to her breast, she added, “When she already has a mouth like a mousetrap.”
Victor both winced and chuckled. He slid onto the bed behind Nyx, embracing her, fitting himself between her wings so that her back rested on his broad, bare chest. Wrapping his arms around her waist, he kissed her wing-strut, kissed her neck, and settled his chin onto her shoulder to peer down at the greedily nursing face.
“Mmm.” Nyx rolled her head against his, sighing. She, too, looked at their daughter, whose tiny rose-pink hands clutched like kneading cat’s-paws. “Gluttony is a sin, little one.”
“Near the bottom of the list, isn’t it?” asked Victor.
“Are you now an expert on the deadly sins, my darling?”
“I had a good teacher.”
“Your teacher can’t take all the credit. Some natural talent and inclination was involved.”
“Me? Paragon of virtue.”
“Shall we count them off? Lust, Wrath --”
“Now, hey, extenuating circumstances.”
“-- Pride,” she said, casting him a sly sidelong glance.
Victor considered a moment. “Yeah, okay, you got me on that one.”
She curled her tail around his calf. “We’ll not even bother with the vanagloria heresy.”
“What was it Caesar said? It’s only hubris if you fail?”
“Ah, so, it isn’t vainglory if you are … how’s the phrase? All that?”
“I am all that.” He kissed her neck again and bit playfully at her earlobe.
“Ai na, love, that you are.” She relaxed languidly into his embrace and shifted their daughter to the other breast. Grace complained, then latched on with a grunting sort of mewl.
“Fainted,” Victor mused, chagrined. “Can’t believe I fainted. The guys will never let me live it down.”
“What guys? Not Michael and your grandfather, certainly. Nor Theo; he’s far too prudent--”
“Oh ... Vince, Virgil, Reg … you know, the guys.”
“Does it perturb you?”
He laughed. “Nah. Like any of them would have done better. Besides, I made it through the birth part with no problem. It was just the, oh, whole overwhelming realization of total responsibility.”
“Agreed.” Nyx traced one of her short, blunt claws along the chubby, dimpled line of Grace’s leg. “Strange, is it not, how an eight-pound lump of flesh and fluids changes everything?”
“There’s a quote for the baby book.”
“Speaking of Vincent, has he given his reply?”
“Slugged me in the arm hard enough to dent a bank vault, and said something like, ‘Vic, man, anything for you, though you gotta understand, in my line of business, that title, it has some, ah, other connotations.’”
“Ha! Yes, that it rather does. And in mine, as well.”
“Then he asked if you were okay with it, I pointed out you had a walking suit of animated infernal hellfire armor set up to play nanny, he shrugged and said fine, and we went over to scope the talent at his newest fight club.”
“Any promising prospects?”
“A couple, but the best of them wouldn’t last thirty seconds in the lowest of the Stone Rings.”
“There’s that Pride again.”
“What? It’s true.”
“Most living mortals would be at something of a disadvantage.” Since Grace seemed, finally, to have slowed toward satiation, Nyx coaxed the lazily slurping mouth loose. “Now the tricky part,” she said. “I’m told there’s a knack to it, but Larrah’s advice was less than helpful.”
“What was Larrah’s advice?”
“Along the lines of ‘stand clear.’ She seemed of the opinion babies have an extradimensional capacity for liquid volume.”
“Actually,” said Victor, “that’s probably pretty legit. Here.” He flipped a towel over his shoulder, lifted Grace up to it, and administered three firm pats. Grace uttered a blorping gurgle the likes of which Nyx had never heard outside of Hell. A milky ooze dribbled onto the towel. “See? Nothing to it.”
“If your Chancellors could see you now.”
“Okay, that might be worse than the guys not letting me live down the fainting thing.” He leaned back into the pile of pillows, supporting a sleepy Grace against his chest with one hand cupped under her diaper-padded rump, and curled his other arm around Nyx. “To think, there was a time not so long ago when I was trying to walk away from Bela’Tzuriel.”
“Before we knew the truth,” Nyx said. “Before we even suspected.”
“I was determined it’d have no hold over my bloodline,” he said. “Who would have guessed it was the other way around?”
She stroked his dark goatee, turned his face toward hers, and kissed him. “How they hate you, the big boys, the powers-that-be, for what you’ve accomplished.”
“What we’ve accomplished.” He pulled her closer. “And it’s only the beginning.”
In the midnight silence of an eldritch library, a young man walked alone. To either side of him rose ornate shelves, rich wood richly carved, inlaid with sigils both decorative and protective, set with moon-silver and precious stones.
The books themselves were, for the most part, far less elaborate. The more powerful they were, the simpler and humbler they appeared. Scuffed and timeworn, yellowed, tattered at the edges … these were no monastic manuscripts of illuminated calligraphy, no gilded hieroglyph papyrus scrolls. They were diaries and journals, notebooks, collections of scraps and doodles bound together.
The young man himself was young in years and features, fit in health and physique, but other aspects of his appearance suggested experiences beyond mere time. His hair, once dark, once dyed even darker, had been spell-struck to a frosty silver-white. His eyes had the look of eyes accustomed to gazing into the most abyssal places of the world. And his voice, when he spoke, was a low, hoarse rasp, the legacy of torments no living mortal should endure.
He strode muttering among the stacks, consulting shelf-marks, comparing them to a notebook of his own. Now and then, he’d run a distracted hand through his frost-touched hair, and it had by now taken on a dishevelment reminiscent of geniuses and madmen.
Flames flickered blue and green in wall-sconces as he passed through a stone-arched hall into a round reading chamber with a high-domed ceiling. At its center stood an ebony desk with a top made from a slab of polished carnelian; atop this glowed a laptop projecting a large holographic screen.
Halfway to it, the young man paused. He sniffed the air, as if catching some whiff of another scent amid musty paper, leather bindings, ink, cobwebs, wood, and arcane candles. Some scent such as, perhaps, cinnamon and brimstone.
His head tilted. He said, in an inquisitive talking-to-myself tone, “Nyx?”
“Gregory,” came a smoky chuckle in reply.
Clearly having not really been expecting any answer, he jumped and spun. She emerged from her infernal concealment, continuing to chuckle at his astonishment.
“Nyx!” That time, he cried her name aloud, rushing to fling his arms around her. “What are you doing here? How did you know?”
“Valerie told Michael, and Michael of course told me,” she said, warmly welcoming the embrace, and further ruffling his already disheveled hair.
“I can’t believe it! It’s been ages!” A thought struck him; he stepped back and darted a gaze at her midsection. As he saw the svelte state of it, and did quick calculations, his eyes went wide.
Nyx smiled. “I’ve brought someone to meet you.”
His mouth dropped open. “You … here … really?”
“But of course.” A pass of her hand cleared away more shadows, revealing a quite smart and functional upscale baby-carrier resting on a table, and the small form slumbering within. “Gregory, this is Grace.”
For long moments, he only looked, looked at the dusk-pink face fringed with tufts of ink-black hair peeking from beneath the edges of a knitted cap, looked at the tiny fingers gripping the satiny edging of a blanket, at one bootied foot poking out.
“Ah, gods ...” he whispered at last. Then he drew a breath, and grinned. “Grace. Victor’s idea?”
“He knew I would have vetoed Hope or Angela,” Nyx said with a wry but indulgent tone. “We considered various family names as well, but ...”
“It’s perfect,” he said. “And so is she. Just perfect.”
“Yes,” Nyx said. “Yes, she is.”
Grace, having stirred during their conversation, yawned and blew a spit-bubble, and opened sleepy indigo eyes. Gregory extended a hand, then hesitated. “May I …?”
“Of course. Grace, this is Gregory.”
He gingerly touched the little knuckles. Grace relinquished her grip on the blanket to seize his forefinger instead, then promptly tried to haul it to her mouth.
“Here.” Nyx reached for the carrier’s straps. “Hold her, if you like.”
“Go on. You’ll be fine.”
As Nyx divested Grace of the blanket, Gregory saw the soft black cotton romper with Mommy’s Li’l Devil embroidered on it in red and gold, and he began to laugh. It more than quelled any nervousness, letting him take the offered armful with ease. Grace wriggled agreeably until she was comfortable, clutching a fistful of his shirt, and began gumming it.
“Provided you don’t mind drool-spots, that is,” Nyx added.
“If drool is the worst I get, I’ll count myself lucky.”
“Ai na, so you will be.” She leaned a hip against the table, watching them. “I do have a favor to ask of you,” she said. “Would you stand godparent for her?”
Gregory gaped. “M … me? Her godfather? Nyx … I’m not --”
In a swift motion, she pinched his lips shut between her blunted claws. “I’ll brook no talk of worthiness or unworthiness, if such were about to leave your tongue.”
“Mrf-hrf,” he mumbled, chastened.
“Whatsoever the current status of your magic matters not a whit in this regard,” she continued. “Are we understood?”
She released him. “Good. Now, it is a duty you would have to share with Victor’s dear friend Vincent, but if that is acceptable to you --”
“Vincent? Vincent Crime? As in, Violent Crime?”
Nyx shrugged, smiling. “As I have often said, bedfellows make strange politics. So, will you?”
He looked down at the baby in his arms, who still held his forefinger in one death-grip and a slobbery wad of his shirt in another. “I’d be … well, terrified, but honored. Absolutely terrified, and absolutely honored.”