Wheels and Teeth.

Crown Halfway Down His Head.

The dinner, as always, was a sum greater than its parts. It wasn’t just the food, spread down the length of the table and glistening with oils and spices, or the way nearly one hundred voices rolled into a cacophony that bounced off the high ceilings. It wasn’t the king’s men milling around with Galgalim’s staff, sharing stories and merging worlds. It wasn’t event he patient expression of the king himself while he waited for Silas to call their attention to the head of the table.

It was the moment that Galgalim entered the room that the event became a creature of its own, growing heads and limbs that Silas could spend years examining, dissecting, and never fully understand.

The psychopomp’s presence was not lost on even the most distracted guest. When he entered the chamber, the lights seemed to dim. The air pulled taut, vibrating with a low frequency in the spirit’s direction. Necks turned to face him. Lips stilled. Younger boys in heated debate sank down into their chairs. Even the candle light, positioned at intervals down the dining table, stopped dancing on their wooden wicks.

Silas himself did not make to sit down.

He raised his chin slightly in greeting, watching as King Elod stood from his side of the table.

Galgalim walked with a slow, fluid grace. His arms hung at his side, long and thin, his entire body wrapped in that shimmering dark-light wetness that Silas could not adequately compare to anything.

There was something hardened in the atmosphere around him. His black eyes scanned the table, passing calculatingly over his guests and staff alike, that deep brown shading beneath his lower lids only etched deeper into his skin. Still no irises, no whites to speak of. Now his pupils took up the entire space of his eyes, transforming them into a starless night.

The hush was absolute.

Galgalim had asked Silas if he looked like a predator. If he asked him now, Silas would have left it at a yes.

The psychopomp had the coldness of power all around him, and nobody who looked at him could thaw from it. He was their death. He was the leviathan they needed to fear above all mortal kings.

This was what Galgalim had been when Silas first met him. Other than that brief show of compassion when he’d scooped a baby up off the ground, he’d been detached and rigid in Silas’ presence. His personality was new. The empathetic nature of his authoritative, elegant presence was brand new. Tonight, the old Galgalim was here at such a high volume that Silas could have forgotten he’d ever seen something different.

“Thank you for having us, Ophanim,” the king spoke, voice filling the fresh silence.

Silas stilled. He was shocked every time Elod used Galgalim’s private, ancient name. Even he was too uncomfortable to ever speak it.

But Galgalim merely said, “Thank you, my king,” and rounded the table.

Silas did not pull out the chair for him. The creature did it himself, screeching it forward without ever laying on a hand on it. Only when he was pushed back in by the same magic did Silas seat himself, putting his attention on the plate immediately in front of him.

The waitstaff, headed by Marta, were all behind the kitchen doors, waiting for business to conclude and their feast to begin.

He could imagine her doubt leaning against the slit in the door, listening to their voices echoing through the open space. It’s what he had done before he’d begged Galgalim to take him as his secondary.

There were more than twenty people lining both sides of the table, but neither Elod nor Galgalim had any trouble projecting themselves vocally.

“You’ve brought a number of guests this year,” the psychopomp commented, flicking his eyes towards the row of visitors who wore the kings’ crest. They were all seated in close proximity, running the gambit from a gnarled-looking wood elf with bulging muscles, to a feeble human girl with her hands bunched nervously in her lap.

“Yes,” Elod nodded, “There are a few staff I wish to switch out. May I proceed?”

Galgalim tilted his head. “Yes.”

“Rowan for Thomas,” he said while consulting a list on his plate, glancing up to signal at a boy in armor. “Marcus for Yurie. Bedelia for Corinne.” He went on with his list of soldiers, pointing to each of the replacements as he announced them. “Reptala for Wyatt.”

Silas felt a pang of loss, soon matched by comfort. Wyatt was the best damn hope they had if an attack did befall them- but it was just as unlikely as ever, and he would find more fulfillment in real battles.

The boy himself was flushed red, letting out a sound of protest.

“I’ve barely been here a year,” he argued hotly when Elod turned towards his indignant surprise. “I haven’t even finished everyone’s training.”

“I never intended you to remain here long-term,” the king countered in a steady voice. “You needed a diverse experience to offset stagnation.”

“Stagnation-”

But he bit his tongue when Galgalim looked piercingly in his direction. Something flashed between the two of them. Wyatt grimaced and looked down, scowling.

The fact that Galgalim’s authority carried a weight that Elod’s did not wasn't lost on the king. He put a fist on the table, not forceful enough to shake down any dishes, but enough to draw the attention back onto himself.

“May I finish, or shall we dine only when everything is cold?”

“Yes, Elod,” Silas prompted him quickly, having to work thrice as hard to make his voice travel down the table. “Please continue.”

Silas could see the present staff exchanging looks with one another, aware that their own futures could be on the table. Elod listed off another round of employee exchanges, even going as far as to swap their best seamstress with the mousy looking girl.

When he was done, Silas breathed a sigh of relief. Really, he was happy if only to keep Marta. Without her, he wasn’t sure he’d have any real human to talk to in these walls. A part of him had been equally scared that Elod might try to snatch him up, for as wholly unlikely as it was, if it did happen he would not have been able to say no.

Everything that appeared to belong to Galgalim really belonged to the king: this estate, its resources, and all the flesh inside of it. Even the psychopomp, not bound to the world of flesh, was under his rule.

After those domestic matters were sorted, there was not much else to discuss. Silas’ records were still thorough, and the messenger continued to be prompt, as Elod remarked. Galgalim’s methods for soul guiding and life consumption had not changed since the last hundred of kings, and as such were not brought up at all. Silas fully expected that as soon as these sentiments were wrapped up, the king would tell him to call his waitstaff.

Instead, he cleared his throat. “There is one more thing,” he announced, and Silas instantly recalled that he had alluded to some other matter in the garden.

Galgalim took his eyes off the king and directed them to Silas. Power-filled by proxy, Silas turned. “Go on,” he prompted.

“I am not certain of the best way to broach this… " he considered. "This year, there’s been a rise in the amount of souls you’ve reaped. Assuming Silvanus has been keeping accurate records, there has been a 21% increase in death in my kingdom. Are your records accurate, Silvanus?”

“Yes,” he answered, trying not to tremble despite his tightening throat.

“I am going to propose an upper limit on the amount of souls you are permitted to take each year.”

Silas felt a tremor of surprise whip through him. He had been bracing so hard against what he thought the king was going to say that he wasn't prepared for anything else. “That is not even rem-” he started to say, but Galgalim held up a palm to quiet him.

“Silvanus is correct,” he spoke, “I cannot control when death occurs. I can only answer the call of a soul when it is ready to leave the body.”

“But you do not have to,” Elod said pointedly. “Your own servant is proof of that.”

Silas felt his heart fill his mouth. He felt flushed and violently uncomfortable, like he was chewing on cotton.

He needed to explain how even his one life being spared had been at a great expense to Galgalim. That one life not absorbed back into the psychopomp when it should have had damaged his health, and was still making an impact.

“Our harvests are expected to yield the worst crop in two decades,” he went on, “Because our coming winter is predicted to be the harshest we have known in as much time. The land is large, but our numbers do not reflect that. After the massacre of an entire village this year, there are not going to be enough to contribute to the survival of the kingdom. I am worried for all of us.”

“What are you asking me to do?” Galgalim cut in, overstepping his explanations. “Leave the souls clinging to their owners when your people are ready to die?”

“Not all of them,” Elod corrected, “Just enough to fill a quota. And I do not want you to just leave them suspended. I want you to put the life back into them.”

Silas did not think he could have felt worse. But when he looked over and saw Galgalim’s face, he did.

The psychopomp was frowning, looking down at his hands. All of the tense, dark energy around him had grown still, and now it hummed with thoughtful quietude.

“You would permit me to do that?” he asked softly.

He needed to speak out against this. Silas felt his pulse thrum crazily, but the sound drowned out all his thoughts, and he could not even think in words.

Galgalim’s unusual loyalty to his own humanity had usurped his power at this table. Silas knew that, but he could not believe it. It was unfathomable.

“Five hundred lives per year, or less. Elf and human alike,” Elod put on the table.

“Eight hundred,” Galgalim countered, “And in exchange, you will immediately begin putting protective policies in place. Subsidized farm land. Military outposts at each major town. Public shelters. I will provide a list, and provided you are diligently addressing each issue, I will agree to your terms.”

The king smiled proudly. He looked about the table as though affirming with the witnesses present.

“That’s all, then. May we eat?”

The voices hesitantly grew in volume again. After a moment, people started spooning massive piles of meat and vegetables onto their plates, followed by mountains of desert. Marta and her crew appeared from the storage doors, filling glasses, replenishing plates, and tending to guest needs. A girl named Neri came by and served Galgalim the single soul he’d reaped earlier this morning.

When there was nobody certain to notice, Silas felt the psychopomp’s fingers wrap around his wrist, vying for his attention. There would be apologetic sympathy on his face. There would be a gentle, private, sad smile for Silas and Silas alone.

He did not want to see it.

He jerked out of his master’s grip and escaped from the feast.

-


Silas fell over his desk, knocking his records down with a spiteful slap. Red-leather books spilled down all over the table.

He got to work, flipping them open so violently that he heard their spines snap. His fingers curled around the wrinkled parchment and he started ripping them out of the binding, claws out, crumpling them up and shredding them with his nails.

He didn’t have the patience to stack wood and light a fire, then wait for it to ignite. He wasn’t like Galgalim; he could not pull on molecules with his mind and bend them to his will. He needed destruction now. He needed to see his paragraphs of handwritten records be desecrated, killing that structure. Each entry included the date and time of death, the name of the resident, and a report regarding every detail about the death- he tore it all up.

His hand stilled when he came to the last entry he’d written as a direct witness. His fingers twitched at the fabricated account before he wailed and grabbed it, slicing through the inky, lying words.

Two hands grabbed him from behind. Five long fingers tightened around each of his wrists. He cried out in desperate anger, teeth and claws both sharp as needles.

“Doing that won’t change anything, Silas,” Galgalim told him, holding him still even as he snarled and twisted.

“Galgalim,” Silas ordered him through his teeth. “Go. Back. Downstairs.”

“Not yet,” he insisted, making Silas’ entire body flare with rage. “Not until you understand why I had to make that call.”

“I don’t give a shit,” Silas yelled back, fighting against the spirit’s iron-tight grip on him. “This is all so fucking delicate. You can’t make decisions like this. It is about more than just you and the king. When we fuck up, there are real consequences. Life and death has to be balanced. Genes have to be balanced. Look at me. Look at me. Two people fucked careless and it ended up making this. We have no fucking idea how this is going to affect things. We have no right to find out.”

“Silas,” Galgalim thundered over him, shutting up his hysterical outpouring. “We made mistakes. I made a huge mistake. I have to compensate for it somehow, and this is the only way I can.”

His voice was infuriatingly steady. Silas squeezed his eyes shut and felt tears fall from them, warm and thick. “It was my mistake,” he sobbed, pulling his arms in tight and feeling Galgalim’s come with them. “Just feed me to him and be done with it.”

“It was mine too,” he maintained in such an honest voice that it twisted Silas’ heart. “I should have been guarding you.”

Crying quietly now, Silas looked over his shoulder at Galgalim, all that dark power stripped down to the friend that Silas knew and adored. Galgalim's humanity was going to kill them all. And yet he could not see it extinguished. He loved it fiercely, he loved it against his own reason. Here was a calculatingly soulless creature, a chimera made out of ingredients, who had taught himself to laugh and care. That was amazing. Silas thought he was amazing.

Galgalim looked back at him, at the full-moon glow of the demon’s eyes, and yearned to make him happy. After seeing him broken once, he could not do it again. He let the male’s wrists go and brought his hands up to hold Silas steady by the shoulders.

“You need to go back downstairs,” Silas repeated in a hoarse whisper. “Finish the feast and make sure the king leaves satisfied. I can’t right now. I can’t.”

After a second of silence, Galgalim hugged him close.

“I will be back for you after,” he promised, trailing his palms down the demon’s arms. “I will come right here. I will defend my decision until you understand. Until you begin to agree.”

Then Silas felt him press a kiss to the back of his head, and vanish.

-


He didn’t know how it had been more than two months since it had happened. He didn't know how it had only been two months.

It had started as a nothing more than routine reaping.

Galgalim had summoned his assistant, telling him he’d picked up the taste of a soul, so Silas had climbed onto his back with his notebook and pen tucked into his pocket.

The soul was that of a baby elf's, which was less common but certainly not unexpected.

The clan of elves they were visiting were in a state of revelry- some vernal holiday that Silas was all too disconnected from to understand the importance of. The village was gathered together on a hill, celebrating with honey wine and a huge bonfire. Somewhere in that crowd was a premature baby, strapped to a mother’s chest in a makeshift sling.

The souls of babies were always strange, as Galgalim had learned from Silas’. They were weak, flickering spirits, hard to read and even harder to guide. When the two of them arrived at the festival, the baby’s soul was clinging harder than Galgalim had realized.

Silas remembered very little of what had happened after that.

While waiting for death to do its job, Galgalim had been called by another spirit, leaving Silas to accompany the mother until he returned. He thought it was a good idea. He thought understood these people, because half of him was wired like they were.

But the elves did not look at Silas like kin. They thought of him as a betrayer.

It was not the same with humans. With shorter lifespans and an intimate knowledge of how death worked, some of them clung to Silas crying, or used him as a soundboard for mourning when a loved one was being taken. He had done it a thousand times before, and even felt a strange sense of peace to have made it his responsibility. So he had stayed at the bonfire to offer the mother comfort, to walk her through the process, just like he always did. But it did not transpire.

That night, without the protection of his master, the village had ganged up on him.

Somebody said something about him not deserving his elven blood.

Another kicked him into the dirt.

The baby was passed off to a man and he ran, as though they could it hide from death.

A group of fighters lanced through the group, ready to stop him if tried to rise. It did not seem like they were going to to attack him unless he moved first, but then one of the men cursed his name and spit on him.

He did not know what happened inside of him then. He would not have known how to recreate it.

The part of him that was not elven reared up for the first time. He felt his eyes go blank. His claws withdrew. And then he expanded.

There was no other word for it.

It was like Galgalim: he stopped being a person and became a thing. He became an entity was a nature of its own.

His entire spirit lashed out and he attacked, splitting through the crowd. His body, insidious as a barbed net of smoke, careened for the elves, cutting through them, ripping them apart, tearing them to pieces. It was an explosion of rage and loneliness that he could not have resisted even if he wanted to. It was a catharsis, the intensity of which he'd never known.

Across the continent, Galgalim heard it. Dozens of souls screamed out at him in an instant, so many at once that he went dizzy with the overstimulation.

In a haze of desperate hunger and confusion, he turned around and shot back towards the village. He flicked through the souls. He checked every single one. Silas was not among them.

Silas was instead crumpled on the ground, alone, curled up in a bed of carnage.

Galgalim had whipped his head over the scene. There was no integrity to the bodies. They were piles of blood and flesh without an arrangement. The lucky ones had their limbs strewn over the hill. The unlucky ones hardly had any left to speak of.

The souls all stood around him, stunned by trauma, their energy vibrating unbearably in his presence.

“Silas,” he distantly heard himself say, weakly planting himself on the ground.

His mind was swimming with thirst. He had to start guiding some of these people across before he lost control of himself.

Silas was kneeling, curled unnaturally, his head in the dirt. When Galgalim tried to touch him he recoiled. Sobbing in terror, he hid his eyes inside his elbows, refusing to look.

“Silvanus,” he repeated, suddenly hyper-aware of his own voice. “Did you do this?”

Silas didn’t answer him. He shook with sobs, body wracked by them.

Galgalim grabbed him. He felt a sudden burst of anguish. Suddenly he felt an unbearable surge of empathy for Silas, fueled by sorrow and regret and despair. He didn't know how his demon was going to make its through this, and he didn’t know how to help.

“It’s okay, Silas,” he managed to say. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Let me deal with this.”

At first he couldn’t control himself. The souls were everywhere, making his head spin. He ate the first ten right there, snapping them up in his jaws. Then he hastily pushed another ten unforgivingly through the veil, afraid that he would swallow more if he lingered. It happened anyways. He consumed a handful in a fit of need.

Most of the souls were hysterical, trying to find their bodies. There was very little to find, which only made their hysteria worse. He grabbed their hands and forced them over the threshold, watching each one of them dissolve.

When he was finished only Silas was left, hyperventilating in the mound of dead bodies.

“Stand up,” he pleaded, afraid he would never see the same Silas again.

The demon didn’t move.

“Stand up,” he ordered, regretfully commanding this time.

Perhaps on reflex alone, Silas turned his head to the side, peeking out past his arm. His eyes connected with Galgalim. He looked broken. Galgalim did not know how it would be possible to reverse this damage.

He did not stand, so Galgalim sank to the ground.

“Let me take us home,” he begged, hitching the smaller’s shoulders up to make him rise. “We will rewrite this night. Anything could have attacked an unarmed group.”

“It was me,” Silas sobbed, his eyes blank. “I am a demon. It was me.”

Galgalim knew he was right, but he did not say anything. He gathered up his servant and barreled them back towards the castle.

In a few minutes Silas was deposited into his bed, crying and clinging to the sheets. Maybe it was the way his grief broke down everything around him, but to this day, he remembered that it was the first time he'd ever seen Galgalim as something more than just a sentient concept.

The entity still swirled all around him, but suddenly it seemed to have a body. Limbs curled around him, holding him from behind. They binded him tight, giving him something to cling to as he gasped and choked on air. Maybe Galgalim was showing his true self. Or maybe Silas had just needed it so desperately that he made it happen.

“I’m here, Silas,” he heard the psychopomp say, as though he had a mouth, as though he were breathing against the back of Silas’ neck. It just made him cry harder.

A hand ran over his belly and he felt it fill with warmth, as though he’d been fed a proper meal. Then the hand brushed over his neck and his strained, broken throat felt soothed, like he’d drunk a glass of water mixed with a healing balm.

Galgalim was filling his needs, restoring his mangled body back to where it should have been.

“I’m going to take away your distress,” Galgalim informed him, pressing a palm to his collars.

“Don’t,” Silas shivered helplessly, squeezing his eyes tight. He clenched his body together. “Please don’t do that.”

He could not let himself feel okay. He could not let himself be freed from this torture and forget the horrible truth of what he had done.

But all at once, spores of warmth bloomed in his chest and a soothing sensation fell over him, calming his pulse, stilling his mind, and ending his tears. The pain lost its edge and became a dull sensation buried deep in his chest. He reached for an image of the bodies but his mind refused to give it to him, sparing him another round with the never-ending shock of trauma and disbelief.

“I’m going to put you to sleep.”

Silas shivered, teeth chattering violently. He rolled his eyes up and turned onto his back. The psychopomp was not quite formless, but not completely humanoid either. He was still a cloud of substance, but some humanlike physique was carved out in the middle of it, lying against Silas’ body.

“Stay with me,” he whispered feebly.

“Okay, Silas,” Galgalim answered. “I will be here, even when you are sleeping.”

Silas reached out, not expecting to actually find anything. But he felt Galgalim there and pulled on him, making contact with the creature’s body.

Galgalim sat up and then lied down on top of him, their fronts pressed together. He had limbs that went on for miles, one wrapped around Silas’ back, the other splayed out by his head. Silas had never known him like this before.

The demon reached up and kissed him.

A mouth met his. Galgalim’s lips opened and Silas found his tongue, warm and precise, when it licked inside his mouth.

His head spun. None of this seemed real. Not the tongue in his mouth, not the set of knuckles raking lovingly against his face. Not the kindness of his master’s affection, or the way an unfaceable truth furrowed in the center of Silas’ chest.

Galgalim had pressed a hand to his forehead, and Silas had fallen slowly asleep with the entity still covering him.

All night, the psychopomp went mad with thirst for the rest of the souls, needing to go downstairs and have them brewed up. But he kept his word. He’d stayed until Silas had woken.

And then, for about a month after, he had stayed away. Because Silas had asked him to when he locked himself away in his bedroom.

It had caused the distance between them to grow back, as wide as the difference between the words servant and master.

But Silas had asked him to come back again tonight.

Down at the dining table, making polite chatter with the king and his men, Galgalim’s spirit throbbed with love with the demon. How gentle and polite he was. How unflinchingly devoted to what was right. And also how beautiful his true form must have been when it was unleashed upon that village of elves.

They would talk deep into the night, or Galgalim would simply let him sleep.

Either way, they would be together.

And Silas would see him like an equal, not a beholder. That was all Galgalim had ever wanted.