Wheels and Teeth.

Dreams of Hair and Lips.

It took fifty-nine gleaming plates (and ten aching fingers) before Silas felt calm again. At the very least, the monotonous motions and warm suds clinging to his elbows had tired him out. Standing over the sink, his eyelids were finally drooping.

“Silvanus,” the kitchen manager said in a concerned voice, a wet rag thrown over her shoulder. “Why don’t you head in? You do so much for us already.”

With a dejected sigh, Silas flicked his hands out over the sink, splattering water and bubbles back into the basin. It was late now, but the kitchen was still abuzz in preparation. Pans sizzled, searing up sauces that needed to be chilled overnight in the industrial fridges. White-aproned chefs carted around heavy double-deckers loaded with ingredients, arranging them for easy access in the morning. Knife-wielding interns made quick work of the vegetables that could be diced ahead of time.

Running a hand over her straw-blonde head, the manager smiled apologetically. “Not to mention, we’re kind of counting on you to run the feast tomorrow.”

Silas felt his mouth turn up in lazy pride, then forced it back down. “You’d be just fine without me, Marta,” he waved off, resisting the urge to pilfer an apple from a passing cart. “But I am happy to help however I can.”

He was being uselessly modest, but at least both of them knew it.

The only reason the psychopomp were afforded these manors was because they were seen as counterparts to their corresponding lords. Where the kings ruled over the jurisdiction of the living, they presided over the same territory- just while managing the other side of the coin. Ultimately, it was posh and pointless. Entities did not need a million rooms and enough staff to host grand parties. They did not care. And their lack of interest left others like Silas to assume the responsibility of caring, as if a well-cooked swan was enough to convince their superiors that death was still playing a fair game.

Tomorrow, the lord presiding over their territory would bring along his entire entourage, and with a full belly, once more deem Galgalim worthy of representing the unspoken side of his coin.

A look in Marta’s eye caught Silas’ attention.

“He’s been acting unusually, huh?” she broached with masked lightness, looking over at the sink before carefully pointing her eyes back at Silas.

He didn’t care how perceptive it was, nor what she wanted to get at. “I don’t talk about the master outside of his presence,” he stated plainly, feeling the last of the water dry from his dark skin.

Marta was quiet another moment, but she did not yet dismiss him.

“I respect your devotion to him,” she finally settled, her stance firm. “And I would also stand beside him, even if I had my pick.”

If there was any second meaning buried within that declaration, she did not reveal it. Instead she wished him a goodnight, sending him off to sleep.

Silas was almost regretful to trade the busy, flavorful kitchen for the cold halls of the manor. Once he was out of the grand hall and winding up through the turret stairwell, it became quiet enough to make his ears ring. Moonlight slashed weakly through the windows, barely lighting his way through the second-floor corridor. He lived exactly opposite to Galgalim’s quarters on the other side of the building.

He’d done his research on the other pyschopomps. At his insistence, he and his master had even traveled to meet some of them in their castles.

And Marta was right.

They were all just… death. But each one of them looked different. They all acted in their own ways. Maybe that had something to do with the kinds of creatures they guided- or maybe it was more along the lines of the kinds of souls they drank. He didn’t know. But he would have chosen to serve Galgalim too. Every time.

Perhaps even if he had been forced not to.

Pushing open the door, the thick, lonely air of Silas’ room greeted him. There was a heavy gloom in the atmosphere of his private quarters. This was the only place he could discharge it, and it certainly lingered long after he was gone.

Most nights, he sat down to produce a brief record of the day’s proceedings before going to sleep. The shelf above his fireplace was filled bookend-to-bookend with decades of identical red volumes. But tonight he merely shut the journal on his desk and climbed immediately into bed, not even bothering to warm the room.

The cold arms of his blanket welcomed him with their clarity. They curled around him and soothed his mind, making him feel settle for the first time all night.

In a moment he’d forgotten all about duty and masters, about feasts and kingdoms.

There was just the comfort of his sheets and the taste of sleep in his mouth, sucking him into darkness.

And then there were lips sucking at his skin.

Disoriented, he didn't know how much time had passed since he'd laid down. He didn't know where we was in the world.

They pressed against his neck, plush and warm, and a waterfall of hair fell around his face. He gasped belatedly, both in shock and at the sudden explosion of impossible lust. Her body was in his arms, curled around his bare front, and when he made to call for help she kissed his open mouth.

There was a loud bang from across the room.

Silas jolted out of sleep, ripped harshly back into the cold dark of his bedroom. He was sweating and shaking, the sheets bunched up in his arms, body so far from pleasure that it seemed impossible now to remember the dream.

“I thought we solved the nightmare problem,” he heard Galgalim say, framed by the open door. His voice cut like a sterile blade through the fog swirling inside Silas' mind.

Scrambling to sit up against the headboard, Silas declawed from the sheets. He let the razor-sharp tips of his fingers disappear back below the cuticles.

“I…” he said, letting go of a trembling breath. “I thought so too.”

He refocused and saw Galgalim looking at him, feeling a second jolt streak through his body. He still wasn’t used to the creature having eyes. He wasn’t used to being seen.

“I’m sorry for waking you,” his master offered before lighting the fireplace with a glance over his shoulder. A stack of wood already piled atop the grate flared to life, bringing light to the room. Silas peeled the sheets off him and stood up, going to sit down on the ledge of the hearth.

“I’m glad you did,” he murmured, letting the new warmth lick against his back. “It was witlessly optimistic to think that a year was enough time to test the protection spell. That’s only three months it was actually at work.”

Tall and ever-vibrant, Galgalim looked at the bed as though he could still see the succubus there. Even though she had only been in Silas’ dream, he was certain that Galgalim could see her lingering presence.

“It wasn’t foolish,” Galgalim answered. “She’s visited you in the first nine months before.”

Grinding his teeth, Silas wrapped his arms around himself and looked away. “To show me, yes,” he agreed reluctantly, eyes wandering out the hall. “But not for more. Tonight she wanted more.”

He didn’t know why the creature had latched onto him. Most succubi flitted from victim to victim, but she kept coming back for him. Already, she had eleven of his children. He didn’t know what she did with them. He didn’t know what kind of lives they lived. It was more than he could bring himself to think about.

“What can we do?” he found himself asking, intercepting the tears that were building up in his throat.

The entity seemed to think for a moment, its mouth pursed in thought.

“If balance should matter to you so much, perhaps an early death can compensate for one well-prolonged.”

The cold taste of mourning was all but ripped out of Silas’ heart.

“Galgalim, you don’t even have jurisdiction over succu-” but then he saw that the creature was taunting him, its lips curved up, and he let his tension out in a deep, laughing sigh.

“You know, I wasn’t enamoured with it at first," he admitted, "But that face gives you away, psychopomp.”

Galgalim stopped, cocking his head. “Do you see me as having a face?” he asked, the words conveying such a deep well of interest that Silas felt as though he could drop down a thousand coins and never hear them reach the bottom.

“Yes,” Silas admitted after a moment of hesitation. It felt natural in one sense, uncanny in another. It almost felt like a man was standing in the room with him.

That sense was broken when he looked into the fire and saw Galgalim was hovering a kettle over the flames. The entity moved deeper into the room, the door closing behind him.

“I’m sorry, Silas,” he spoke soberly, sitting down on the hope chest at the foot of Silas’ bed. “I thought the spell would work. I called for the best witches I knew, and they assured me they’d only ever had success. I am not sure how to proceed.”

Hands folded in his lap, Silas looked down. “It might just be something I have to bare. Once a year is not that awful.”

The intensity of Galgalim’s gaze compulsed him to look up.

“It was awful,” he contended. “I felt you suffering through the whole castle. That’s why I came.”

Silas didn’t know what to say, but he didn’t have to. Galgalim stole his attention by whisking the kettle through the air and pulling a mug off of Silas’ desk, filling it with the steaming water. Then a bag of aromatic leaves appeared in his hand, and he got up to deposit it in the water.

As his fingers released the sachet, Silas grabbed him around the wrist.

Galgalim," he snarled in a warning voice, the tone of mourning still lingering. “Do not serve me.”

He rarely touched the psychopomp. It was usually too much for his flesh to handle, either burning him or swallowing him whole. But tonight it was like touching yet more flesh. He pleaded with his eyes for his master to stop fighting his boundaries like this.

Galgalim turned to face him, but did not make to free himself from Silas’ grip.

“I cannot make you a cup of tea when you are in distress,” he questioned. “I cannot sit with you and talk to you like you are my equal.”

Silas looked pained. He felt pained.

“No,” he answered, fingers clenched around the bony wrist. “I am here because you chose me to be. I'm indebted- and I will pay that off until you finally do take my life. But I serve you. I am not your equal.”

“Then you serve me in a way I never asked for.” Silas couldn’t look up at his eyes. He couldn’t let himself see what he knew was there.

“I don’t believe that,” he mumbled instead.

Galgalim knelt down, forcing their eyes to be at level with each other. “Then let go of my arm and let me leave,” he dictated.

Silas tightened his face but he did not let go. He felt Galgalim’s other hand come up to rest on his shoulder. All at once, it felt like he was being held, and he wanted to cry. It was a luxury somebody in his life and role would never have, albeit in the form of a nightmare, where a demonic creature desecrated his body in order to steal his children.

“Why would you take me?” he finally managed in a whispered voice, spitting the words. “Why let me live? What was the point?”

When Galgalim didn’t answer, Silas was sure they were going to freeze like this. Too afraid to move and too afraid to stay in this position, they would petrify, and all that’s left of them would be a statue to put in the garden.

But in a voice as low as Silas’ own, Galgalim at last gave his answers.

“You were the only one who knew how I felt.”

Silas could see the flames shining in the entity’s eyes. He was close enough to see all the secrets inside his being.

“Lonely?” he growled bitterly, eyes crooked in sadness. “Rejected? An anomaly?”

He watched as Galgalim gave one slow, affirming nod.

“But you are not alone, Galgalim,” he argued. “There are hundred like you. There are thousands of your kind.”

“None of them feel,” the psychopomp expounded, hoping Silas would understand. “None of them think about what they do. They don’t carry the burdens of the lives with them. They just erase them.”

Silas' grip loosened

"You chose to serve me," Galgalim reminded him, voice steady. "All I ever wanted from you was companionship."

Silas let go. He turned to the side and touched the drink his master had filled for him.

Released, Galgalim drew back. Still he stayed on his knees, looking up at the small elf.

“Will you stay here tonight?” Silas asked, the cup shaking in his hands. “And make sure she doesn’t try to come back?”

“Yes. I will keep your fire burning.”

He felt scared. He’d never seen his master like this. If he crossed this line in his head, he did not know what would be waiting for him. He was terrified of everything he might learn. Terrified that he would go back to seeing this monstrous creature as his friend, and forget it was something dangerous that he needed to keep on his good side.

“Do you feel love?” he blurted impulsively, after he’d set down the cup and risen to climb back into his bed. He asked it impartially but he stilled in place, not wanting to disrupt the answer.

Galgalim was sitting on the ledge of the fireplace where he had just been, holding Silas’ mug.

“I feel tremendous amounts of love,” he rumbled, the words sad. “Do you?”

“I feel betrayed,” Silas answered by way of avoiding his own query. “I expected this world to owe me nothing, and I was still disappointed by it.”

“Tell me what you want, Silas,” Galgalim spoke. “I will accommodate you.”

“I want this castle to go back to normal,” Silas snapped a little too quickly. “Just let me do my job and I will be happy. And… don’t leave,” he added, quietier. “Don’t leave without telling me.”

There were thousands of his kind.

Silas didn’t believe that any of them other than Galgalim would have stayed.