Ch6.63 Trust

Dion leaves his room, tired of his own company for the moment. He has not slept, even after the work shift that followed the busy night spent aboard Niruí’s lunar barge. His body would have welcomed the rest. And his mind, the part of it that is crushed under the weight of his misery, would have welcomed it too. But the voices in his head have been relentlessly awake all day and all night. They have haunted and beaten him with his own words, his mistakes, his hypocrisy and double standards. And with the memories of what he had with Alma and no longer has. With the worry he feels for knowing she is sick with a new sphere but knowing no more than that and being helpless to aid her. To care for her…

Curséd Somrak and his roguish charm, his sweet-talking and his lips that go around kissing other people’s lovers. He had no business trying to steal Alma away. Except that he could not have known that Alma was Dion’s because even Dion had not had the certainty of spirit and heart to tell her that their temporary affair of shared solace and unattached pleasure had quickly become everything but temporary or unattached to him and to make their relationship known to all. Maybe…maybe because even he had not expected the pain he feels right now, the guilt and helplessness at thinking that it was he who threw it all out of the window. Alma had not been stolen away; she had told Somrak about Dion and how much she cared for the magic god. She had spent that night in Dion’s arms when she had been free to pursue any and all desires. Like he is. Because that is the deal.

Fates, he is such an idiot!

He leaves the kitchen, glad that the Bunny bartenders are nowhere to be seen. He can still hear Cherry’s voice calling to him, telling him it’s all a misunderstanding – if only he’d listened, unlocked the door. What will he do now to fix things and stop his aching heart from shrinking into nothingness?

He walks swiftly toward the door and opens it, thinking himself safe from Bunny advice, so distracted that he nearly rams into Sage, who was just about to walk in. The Bunny jumps aside to avoid him, looking at Dion with sincere concern for a moment. But something in the god’s expression keeps Sage from asking the question imprinted in his eyes.

“Excuse me, Sage,” Dion bids, trying to move past the Bunny.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I wasn’t paying attention,” Sage replies, taking the blame for himself and smiling softly at Dion while doing it. His expression darkens with sudden concern. “And… I was actually hoping to find you. I don’t want to bother but…”

Dion exhales deeply, mentally preparing for a conversation he does not want to have about his romantic mistakes, especially with his lover’s son. “What is it?”

“Well, I was wondering if you know where Sky is or why he is so late to his shift,” Sage says. “No one has seen or heard of him since he left with Mother. She returned but,” the Bunny shrugs “he didn’t.”

The question surprises Dion. It comes as a relief at first but then the possible meanings of it register and leave the god hoping against the worst. “Well…I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Have you asked Alma yet?”

“I was going to but I found her fast asleep in the office and I didn’t want to wake her. Her brother did say to let her rest.” The Bunny looks worried at this, making Dion worry again about the goddess’ condition. “He said she was unfit for duty, apparently. Not that that stopped her from going out…” He shakes his head in resigned frustration. “I thought it would be best to ask you first since it might avoid having to wake her up. I guess I’ll just have to go and do so.”

Dion considers this. “I only know the general location of Sky’s apartment, and how much of a tangle that area is. I suppose she will have to be asked.”

He hesitates to make a decision, then curses himself for his cowardice. What is he going to do, hide forever and never speak to her again? “I will wake her.”

“I can do it if you want…” Sage offers in soft tones.

Dion looks into the Bunny’s eyes with sad gratitude, but shakes his head. “I will take care of it.”

“Thank you,” Sage nods with a small smile. He moves to let Dion through, adding as if in afterthought. “Oh…her brother also said she might be a little off-center. Her new sphere and all.”

He shrugs apologetically and turns to enter the bar. Dion watches him disappear behind the door and sighs quietly. Time to check on the good Inspector’s wanderings.

He enters the station, careful to check Sky’s office just in case the god has meanwhile decided to arrive, before climbing the stairs to the office he shares with Alma. He steels himself before entering. He does not want to inflict his presence on her. He would rather let the sharp wound of their argument scab over, avoid the pain, not only for himself but for her as well, even more. But finally he opens the door and steps through.

He enters quietly to find her asleep on the sofa, a blanket put over her and already half kicked off, folders and sheets of paper lying over her and littering the floor, letting him know what she was doing before she fell asleep. She sleeps profoundly, belly up, face turned to the sofa’s back, hair falling messily over her face. Her closed eyes move quickly under her eyelids, her brow furrowing fleetingly at some stranger turn of a dream only to relax again the next instant.

He looks at her, tenderness overtaking him before guilt and loss return. She looks so beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful for looking so vulnerable, so at the reach of his touch, his caress, the loving kisses with which he would normally gently rouse her from sleep’s embrace. His peace, his bliss, his comfort, his – his love, yes, the love he had vowed to himself never to give away again, lies in her on that sofa and there is nothing he wants more than to join her and have them back. But he has made that impossible. And he has no desire to wake her, but…this could be serious. The more he thinks of it, the more he worries.

He clears his throat. “Alma?”

She does not open her eyes, instead mumbling in her sleep, “Hmmm…I’ll be right there, Sage…” Turning to lie on her side, snuggling with a folder from which the paper files have already slipped onto the cushions, she adds, “Five more minutes…”

Adorable… So adorable. His hand reaches out to stroke her hair away from her face so he can kiss her cool, soft cheek – no. No, he mustn’t. Dion swallows and purses his lips at the bittersweet taste of his own longing. His hand retracts before even grazing her form.

“Alma – Alma, wake up,” he calls to her a little louder. “I need you to wake up.”

The goddess frowns and turns toward him, her lips parting in a yawn that she is too sleepy and slow to cover with her hand. Instead, she rubs sleep from one eye and stretches lazily, her slender body arching in the gentle curve that, any other day, would have Dion running a lustful hand over her side and stealing the first soft kiss of the morning. Her eyes open slowly, their strange, swirling, glowing colors capturing the god’s wonder and concern as they focus on him. What he would give to know what consequences this new look entails…

She is silent for a moment, gazing at him with a slightly puzzled and awed expression before sadness pours into her features. “What do you want?”

His heart sinks at the change. And knowing he is to blame for it only makes the pain stab deeper. “Perhaps it’s nothing. Do you know where Sky is?”

Alma looks over Dion’s shoulder, at the only window in their office. “At this hour? Probably going home to sleep? How should I know, I’ve been in here since I came in.” Her eyes narrow and she sighs in tired exasperation. “What’s this about, Gwydion? Why all the questions? If you are looking to continue yesterday’s argument…”

He raises a hand to stop that fight from even starting. “No…no. It just seems no one here has seen him since he left with you this morning.”

“I – I thought he’d be in by now,” Alma says, looking as if she is trying to process the information. “I left him at his apartment getting ready for his shift. Are you sure he didn’t just slip in and then out again?”

Dion feels himself blanch at the thought of Alma and Sky together in the Inspector’s apartment but pushes through the mental pictures forming behind his orbits. “I-I suppose that is possible, but it would be unlike him not to let the ranking Popula officer know that he was going out. And I checked his office myself. No sign of him at all.”

She shakes her head. “He was just fine… We went out to check a lead about a rogue death god in Little Falls. Found him in an abandoned house, asked him about my cousin– Sky tried to capture him but he was too powerful.”

“So he was not apprehended?” Dion asks.

Alma shakes her head. “No. Sky apparently has a history with him and rushed to attack. Bastard slipped right through us with a drunkenness and love spell. Cuffed us to each other and took the key. We went to Sky’s apartment for a key and…”

Her voice trails off. Her eyes turn to the floor as her hand rises slowly to cover her mouth and a terrible ominous, sinking feeling hits Dion. His blood runs cold through his heart as he kneels by the sofa and asks in as soft and steady a voice as he can muster, “What happened, Alma?”

“A love spell happened, Gwydion.” Her words cut through him as if he had cast the spell himself. The loathing in her voice is almost unbearable. She looks away from him, her expression locked in coldness. “But Sky caught it before it got too far.” Her features darken with anger and she shoots upright. “And why should you care other than to throw another accusation–?”

Her pale face blanches even further as soon as she stands and she nearly falls back down at some sudden wave of weakness before Dion stands and puts his arms around her to support her. He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t force touch like this or hold her so closely on such a limping excuse but he can’t help himself. Rape. The one he loves, whose body he has held and dreamt of exploring to its hiddenmost depths so many times, refraining from his desire to the greater good and safety of all, has just described something very close to rape. For love spells remove one’s control over choice and desire, and prey on attraction or affection to strengthen them, blurring and tainting the lines of reason and sentiment. To have someone take away from her what she would not give him, her lover, at the best of times for fear of the consequences… He hopes she is telling the truth about Sky breaking the spell in time to prevent the worst.

He holds her, ready to beg for her forgiveness, to tell her exactly how big an idiot he is and swear to her again that he has never cast a love spell outside of a defensive tactic to confuse an opponent. She is even allowing him to hold her, her hands on his chest, frozen in place as if waiting, waiting for him to just say the words that will make it all all right again. All he has to do is speak.

“Alma…” he starts.

But something happens. She stiffens in his arms and pushes away, not with strength or urgency but firmly enough to make him release his hold, lower his arms.

“I should go check Sky’s apartment,” she says quietly, not looking at him. “If this god followed us there…”

His gut contorts in a celtic knot at the rejection, the reminder that he is to blame for their shared pain and cannot so easily erase his mistakes, his betrayal to their relationship. He nods but says, “You should not go alone. Not with a rogue death god or a necromancer out there. I will accompany you.”

Alma looks as if she is about to protest but then nods acquiescence. “His apartment has a portal to a pocket universe so it might take some magic to get through.” She walks over to her desk and reaches for her sword. “I just hope I can find his building at night.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

It is a silent walk, the one that takes them through the streets of Three Rats and in the direction of the tangle of alleyways and clashing roads where Sky’s apartment is located. Dion spends most of it in silence, stealing only the occasional, reluctant and worried glance at Alma, wanting to ask a thousand questions but fearing her anger and, most of all, her rejection. She walks with her eyes fixed on the space directly in front of her, the lines of her jaw and brow moving through concern, anger, fear…sadness. He can tell she is not at the top of her physical well-being, her usually firm posture wavering every two or three steps, her steps sometimes sounding off cadence. Whatever energy fuels her movements is doing so through sheer anger or force of will. And that only worries him further. The prospect of a possible enemy to face.

He decides to use that to try and break the silence. “This death god…Does he have any vulnerabilities we can take advantage of?”

Alma remains quiet for a moment that seems to stretch into eternity. And then she sighs and shakes her head, looking down in helplessness. “I don’t know. Sky attacked him before I could find any.”

“So he is no one you know?” Dion asks.

Again, she shakes her head. “Sky called him Sam. Said something about having met him outside the Insula, about Sam having betrayed him and his friends. A confusing story but… if he is to blame for Sky’s absence, we will have a hard time with him. He is far older than I and though he does know my father, he definitely does not observe Clan rules.”

Lovely… “Could he be responsible for your cousin’s disappearance?”

Alma breathes deeply. “He says he isn’t.” She spares Dion a cynical, skeptical look before stopping and scanning the street they have just arrived in. “His apartment is over here somewhere.” She closes and rubs her eyes, shaking her head violently in sudden frustration. “Blasted sphere, I can’t even see properly! We’re looking for a building with a mural of jungle flowers and animals on the side. Can you see it?”

Dion hesitates in leaving her alone in the middle of the street but he vaguely remembers seeing something like what she is describing down the street we just passed. “Give me a minute.”

He rushes back down the street to check that he really did see a colorfully painted wall just around a corner to his left before calling her to follow him.

She rolls her eyes and trudges in his direction, muttering. “Sky, you are moving to the station…”

He refrains from chuckling as they walk toward the building and stop just before a flight of stairs.

“Up the stairs,” Alma says. “First floor.”

Dion heads up the stairs, grimacing when the board of the third step sags and opens in two as if it were fractured already and just held in a normal-like position by the pressure of the nails keeping each end of the broken board pinned in place. He unhooks his shoe and casts a simple restoring spell to fix the step before signalling Alma to follow him. He catches her looking down at the step as if she holds a grudge against it and wonders if she already knew the thing was broken and decided not to say anything. On reaching the door, he knocks and waits, tries the knob at the lack of an answer from within. The knob catches. The door is locked. He glances back at Alma to find her with her sword unsheathed, ready for the worst. She nods at him and he nods back before knocking again, already whispering the words of a small spell to unlock the door. Childishly easy. It leaves him wondering how a god, one of the Guardia Dei, no less, can have an apartment in such a rundown area of the ward, away from the station, at the mercy of local gangs, and still not invest in some proper security for his home.

He will have to speak to Sky about that once they find him. They walk into the darkness of a moonless night filtering through the few windows in the apartment. Dion summons a couple of luminaries to light their steps. He immediately notices the absence of furniture. Chairs, sofa, not even a table to sit at. Sky’s barren apartment makes a joke out of such military concepts as Spartan living! Where was he sleeping? Dion’s head turns toward a wall. A sense of power coming from it triggers his senses, a thinner patch of reality imbedded into the wall. He walks toward it to inspect it closer.

“Someone came in here,” Alma notes, her voice coming from a little way away. “Several someones. The dust has been disturbed all over the place and there are several sets of footprints on the floor.”

“Probably the one good thing about bad housekeeping,” Dion replies absently, looking at the smudges on the wall where he can sense the portal is. “There is a portal here.”

Smears of blood on the wall. They look random at first as if a bloodied hand or shoulder had just scraped against it but closer inspection reveals faint patterns. Sigils, most likely. An acrid tinge to the air makes him move closer and sniff at the blood marks. Demon blood. Infera aura. And a third component that he cannot quite pinpoint, probably the activation ingredient to power the spell. He grimaces.

“This doesn’t look good…” he breathes, straightening back.

Alma is suddenly by his side, standing close enough to him that her familiar, lovely scent wafts faintly into his nostrils, overwhelming his magical senses for a moment, making him forget for a moment where his train of thought was going. But he looks into her worried eyes and the darkness returns to his mind.

“The portal is to his sanctum. A pocket universe, like yours.” She looks at the blood marks on the wall and takes a whiff at them as well and grimaces. “This isn’t god’s blood. Or human’s.”

Dion nods. “Demons.”

He puts a hand on the wall, wondering if this crude spell has truly managed to override the locking spells incorporated into the standard portal to a pocket universe. There is a sense of corruption, of Hellish presence to the portal and almost immediately, he knows that the portal has been breached. He infuses his power into the portal, his hand glowing with the gold of his eyes as lines are drawn on the wall, highlighting the limits of Sky’s pocket universe door. The wall within the lines distorts and fades into a haze, ready to allow them inside.

Feeling his blood curdle at what such an easy break-in – along with the deafening silence coming from inside the newly revealed apartment – entails, Dion looks at Alma before entering the portal, senses and reflexes at the ready.

What lies beyond is a spectacle of horror to the senses. A room, cave-like and simply but lovingly adorned, lies in ruins. The floor is littered with fallen books, broken things. A low, irregular wooden table is shattered as if cut through with an axe. A sofa torn as if it has been made to explode from the inside out. Shelves tumbled, knicknacks fallen to pieces. Paintings and carvings and musical instruments either ripped from the wall and smashed against something solid or seemingly punched through. The walls, covered in a papery cloth material, are scored with claw marks. Blood is splattered everywhere and smeared in symbols on one of the walls. Dion recognizes the symbols from Alma’s books, the Death Clan’s own language that he has asked her to teach him and which has proven more difficult to learn than most wizardly languages recorded. He shudders at the thought that this may very well have been the work of that rogue death god from Little Falls and of what he could have done and chose not to do while Alma was still here.

The feeling of his foot hitting something makes him look down. A small wooden box, intricately carved with a spiral and rosette motif lies open, its contents spilled all over the floor. Cards. Name cards, white with just a few exotic-looking letters painted in black. Just like the one Tulip had been playing with in the bar. Somrak. He leans down and picks up one, grimacing at the claw marks that scar the apartment floor. Just under the painted letters, a scribbled message in Sky’s handwriting. Another card holds a different message as if they had all been pre-written to use when convenient. And all of them words of alarm… An emergency communication system of some sort.

Dion sighs and shakes his head, thinking he has been feeling like a fool all too often lately. He straightens to see Alma staring at the message painted on the wall. She stands as if frozen, eyes fixed on the bloody words. And then suddenly, furiously, she bellows a word in her family’s language that can only be a curse because it makes the light in here dim and almost wink out completely before returning back to normal. He freezes at it, his body paralyzed for just that short instant. And his mind wonders in uneasy awe at how the beautiful, entrancing words she had once or twice breathed sweetly in his ear at his own request can belong to the same language that, if bellowed in rage, can freeze his blood and kill the light so.

“What–” he swallows his unease and regains composure. “What does it say? It is the death god, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” Alma says, her voice dry, sepulchral. “I doubt he would be so poor with his writing. This was written by someone who knows just enough of our language for spellcasting.”

Dion grimaces. “The necromancer, then.”

“The necromancer,” Alma agrees with a nod. She points at the words as she reads them. “We. Game. Play. No. High. Aid. He. Dead. Wait. I. You.”

Dion considers this. “We’ll play a game. No help from above or he dies. I’m waiting for you. Is that it?”

Alma sighs. “Seems so.” She looks around. “We’ll have to go through all of this for clues as to where he might have been taken.”

“We might not have enough time to do that,” Dion notes. A subtle sagging, melting feeling to the wall on which the message is written makes him inspect it closer. And then another wall. And the floor. And the full space of this room they are in. Oh no… “This universe has been corrupted. It is collapsing, as if its owner has been gone for months rather than hours. Worse – it is being actively eaten away at.”

He tries to keep his voice steady but he cannot completely erase the horror from it. Whatever happened in here, Hellish corruption has spread and infected the place, corroding it like some flesh-eating bug tearing away at a still-living body.

“Is there anything we can do?” Alma asks sounding every bit as frightened as she looks. “We need time to investigate. And to get Sky’s things out of here.”

Dion rushes through his mental library of memorized spells, his knowledge of the books on demonology and Hellish theory that he has been reading lately. “I will try to slow the contagion. Perhaps I can stop it. Or at least buy us some time.”

Alma nods, expression hardening. “What do you need?”

“I will manage with my magic, but it will require concentration,” he replies. “Maybe it would be best to start taking his things out of this place. Just to be on the safe side. If you need me to examine anything or the like, just…attract my attention gently. I don’t want my magic to collapse this place instead of holding it up.”

“I will take a look around and then start getting things out into the other apartment, then,” Alma says. “In the meantime, pretend I’m not here.”

Dion nods, and goes to stand in the center of the room. He glances around him once more before activating his magic.

Sky, what have they done to you?

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Ugh…”

He struggles against the weight of his eyelids, sealed shut against whatever is going on outside. The throbbing headache currently marching from somewhere in the region of his hindbrain to storm through his frontal lobes isn’t making things easier either. On the one hand, the pain is a good sign. It means he is still alive. On the other hand, death would probably be a much more pleasant alternative to the thundering, metaphorical gallop of the whole cavalry section of the Guardia Dei (composed mainly by centaurs, minotaurs and other suchlike heavy-footed, foul-humored creatures) going on behind his eyeballs. If only death weren’t so permanent…

Which reminds him, wasn’t he with Alma just moments before – moments? How long has it been since he passed out? Anyway, she was with him before he…

He fell. No, he threw himself. Against her. He tackled her to get her through the portal. Out of Sky’s pocket-universe apartment. Because his efforts were in vain and the infection was spreading faster than he could even detect it and the whole thing was collapsing on them. He had shouted for her to leave but she had insisted on taking just one more item out and then she had returned to make sure he left as well and that was right when he had been flying out of the room and into the empty apartment, onto the wooden boards. Has he hit his head?

The pain on the inside of his skull makes it hard to tell. He seems to remember a sudden, strong exhalation by his ear, right before the world went black, the sound of a ribcage being robbed of air. He raises a hand, reaches to touch the back of his head. No blood, no lacerations, no tenderness. Must not have been him to hit the floor first. Which means…uh oh…

He opens his eyes slowly, fighting with every twitch of his facial muscles against the intense gravity currently pressing against his eyelids. He groans at the light. It is soft light, probably the just the first hint of daylight, which nevertheless tells him that he has been out cold for at least half an hour. Not good. Not good at all. A smell of dust close to his nostrils and the sight of an horizon full of floor boards confirms that he is, for the moment, lying on the floor. His head is slightly raised, though. Something has been wedged under it to serve as a pillow. And there is cloth covering him.

A hint of Dei-blue in the general direction of his forehead and he moves his head from its slightly bent position to look at Alma, sitting on the floor, back against a nearby wall, currently looking at him. He blinks, grimacing at the pain that causes and opens his mouth to speak.

“A–” he swallows. Or at least he tries to. His mouth is as dry as parchment paper. It doesn’t taste much better than that, either.

“You passed out from exhaustion,” Alma explains, her whispered, quiet voice sounding to his hurting mind like a fanfare at band practice. “I already gave you some mana. Do you need more?”

There is something at her feet. A metal bowl of some sort. There is smoke rising from it. Dion catches a whiff of it. Burnt paper? With a hint of incense. Strange.

She puts something down on the floor by her side and rises slowly. A book. Or maybe a photo album. The cover of it is torn and the spine looks broken. Some pages are loose. Dion turns his head to look at her as she comes to kneel by him. She leans down to press her lips against his forehead, a cool, soft touch like the grazing of the wings of a passing butterfly. Not a loving kiss, he notices with sadness. More a reluctant touch, fleeting and restrained. Lasting just enough for her mana to pour into him, placating the angry pounding of the thousand fists of his mana headache. He can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as her energy infuses him and his eyes, half shut as he falls into a shallow trance, glow with the blue-green light of hers, for just an instant, quickly retrieving their usual hazel appearance as her mana binds with his, acquiring Dion’s unique resonance and adding to his depleted reserves. It feels different, somehow, its taste changed, balanced now, neither the bitter sandal of death or the sweet nectar of life depending on which sphere she is calling upon.

He would love to taste it again but now she has straightened and is looking at him with cold concern. “It’s gone, isn’t it? The apartment?”

Dion nods, feeling reluctantly optimistic at the almost complete lack of a pungent feeling of nausea from the movement. “I’m sorry, it was just too far gone. I tried.”

“I know you did,” she replies, looking away at the wall where the portal used to be, shoulders slumping noticeably. She looks back to him. “Can you stand? We should return to the station and get you some more mana.”

Dion struggles to a sitting position and then stands up, shakily at first but she reaches out a hand to help steady him and he finds his balance as soon as the room stops spinning around him.

“Yes,” he says. “And then we need to figure out what on the Insula we are going to do about this.”

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Ch6 mid-chapter 4: The Lion and the Phoenix

A young lion once set out on a journey to look for his own pride. He was strong and proud, at the prime of his years and could no longer stay with the family that had watched him grow. It was time he found his own life and forged his own family. And so he did as he must and turned his back on his kin to begin his journey.

He traveled far and wide in search of a new home and a family. But wherever he went, he found none of his kind willing to be his pride and little prey to sustain him. He was chased away by other lions defending their prides, wounded, deprived of food and company. But still, he kept prowling the jungle for a territory of his own.

And when the jungle yielded nothing, he traveled beyond it until he reached the desert. Under the scorching sun, thirsty and famished, he climbed the dunes, desperate for prey and shade. He walked all day and found none. But when the night came, he saw a distant, reddish glimmer on the horizon. His strength renewed by hope, he ran all the way toward the light until it was just a few steps away. Suddenly before him, an oasis stretched, a verdant treeline surrounding a small lake.

Parched, the lion forgot about the light, ran to the water and drank until he could drink no more. And when his belly was full of water, his eyes began to wander to the trees in search of prey, for his dying thirst had sparked his hunger again. He found no animals on the ground but when he looked up, to a lonely, blackened branch just above the water on the other side of the lake, he saw a beautiful, radiant bird with glittering reddish-gold feathers that looked almost ablaze, so brightly colored they were. The lion had no doubt that this was the source of the light he had seen before.

The bird perched calmly on the branch, seemingly ignoring his presence. He quietly walked the margin, moving closer to it, intent on capturing the beautiful creature. Moved as much by hunger as by fascination, the lion could not help but desire this extraordinary prey. And so he sneaked his way through the reeds and the bushes until the bird was within reach. And he pounced.

But the bird had seen him and it took flight just as the lion jumped over the branch. Flapping its long wings, it flew out of reach of the lion, and set him alight, for she was a phoenix and her beautiful feathers were made of spark and flame. The poor lion landed on the grass, suffering horribly at the flames that consumed him, rolling on the ground to try to put them out. But they were divine flame and all he did was spread them to the trees and bushes around him until the whole oasis was ablaze. Maddened by the fire, he jumped in the lake. The flames died but not before all the water had evaporated and the lake was no more. By morning, the oasis was gone. And so was the phoenix.

Again, the lion found himself in the desert and although his belly rumbled with hunger, he roamed all day up dunes and down dunes until the coolness and darkness of night fell around him. Again, he saw a faint, red light in the sky and again he traveled for many hours in its direction. This time, he did not reach a lake and there was no oasis. Instead, he found only the blackened skeleton of a burnt tree and, reclining against it, a female spotted deer. The lion approached it as stealthily as he could and pounced on the recumbent animal. Dehydrated from the desert heat, the deer did not move or try to escape and soon the lion was feasting on his prey.

As he ate, however, he noticed the reddish tinge of a light shining above him. Lifting his eyes to a low hanging branch of the carbonized tree, he saw the fiery bird that had escaped him the night before. His mind inflamed by fury and vengeance, he climbed the tree and leapt to catch the phoenix. But again, the phoenix took flight and her flaming feathers brushed against him and set him on fire. With no water around, the lion roared in pain and rolled desperately in the sand, setting fire to the tree and to what remained of the deer. By the time the flames had died, the tree had crumbled to ash and the deer was carbonized and inedible. Morning dawned and the fire had burned the lion’s mane completely. His fur was gone, his skin now black as coal. And the phoenix had disappeared.

This time, the lion did not travel by day, choosing instead to lie down and nurse his wounds. He waited patiently for the night to come and only then did he rise to prowl the night for the red light he knew must be shining somewhere. He would catch the phoenix, he swore to himself. Even if he died in the flames of its fire, he would catch the bird that so mocked him. He found her in a hollow among the dunes, squatting over a pile of dry twigs and branches, slowly grooming her feathers and plucking from them tiny sparks that she would then spread around her. Impelled by his anger, without a second thought, the lion ran down the dune, his black skin mixing with the night shadows. And pounced.

By the time the phoenix saw him, it was too late. He caught her wings under his mighty paws, pinning her to the sand. She struggled to free herself, again her feathers set him alight but to no avail. He roared in glee as his prey squirmed under his weight.

“You, who have mocked me with your beauty and freedom, fall now under my might.”

The phoenix struggled and in her struggle, her beautiful feathers broke and fell. Her flames died. Her light dimmed. The lion looked down at his prey and was horrified. For the prize he had seen in the beautiful phoenix was no more and under his feet lay instead a pale bird looking at him through dull, dying eyes.

“My death be on you for I cannot live if I cannot be free.”

Moved by these words and by the suffering of the beautiful bird he once coveted and resented, the flaming lion took a step back, releasing the phoenix. With a gentle tap of his muzzle, he rolled her so that she lay on her stomach and then nudged her to take flight.

“Go and live,” he said. “For I gain nothing but regret from taking your life.”

The phoenix lifted her head to the heavens and wrapped her wings around her body, her flames sparking once again into life.

“May blessings find you, great king of the jungle, for the mercy you show tonight,” she said.

And with that, she burned brighter and disappeared in the flame, extinguishing the fire that burned the lion’s blackened skin. Soon, the morning followed and the lion set out again to cross the desert. He walked for many hours, finding nothing but sand, beginning to regret his sparing of the phoenix’s life when her body could have fed him for a day longer. And when the night fell…

The horizon glimmered red. Faithfully, the lion followed the light he knew must lead to the phoenix and arrived at an oasis. No, not an oasis, he realized, but a great jungle on the other side of the desert. His heart overcome by joy, he ran under the cool, green cover of the trees until he found a spring of the purest water. He drank and bathed and played in it, glad to leave the scorching heat of the sun behind him. And when he looked toward the bank, he saw two feline eyes staring back at him. A beautiful lioness, her fur a bright orange color, stood staring at him in fascination.

And it was thus that our young lion finally found a home and a mate. He lived many years in this jungle and had many descendants, who inherited the darkness of his fur in large stripes over the bright orange of their mother’s coat. They were the first tigers.

As for our phoenix…well, he never saw her again but to all of his children he would say, “If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, follow the red light.”

Where anger is power, mercy is wisdom. For true strength lies with the kind and good fortune lies with the strong.

Ch6 mid-chapter 3: Cheapshirt

“The wrong dormitory?”

“That’s what I said.” The instructor, a woman with a jaw shaped like a brick that’s been dropped a few times, holds up the key that was assigned to Mayumi. It is larger, heavier, and considerably more elaborate than the one in her other hand. “This here is a Dei dorm key. The Popula keys are these little ones, see?” She hands Mayumi’s key back to her. “You’re in the Dei dorm.”

“But…” Mayumi’s ears droop back in confusion. “I’m Popula!”

“No, that’s not…” The woman pauses and takes a file off her desk. “Ishijima…Ishijima. Yeah, here it is. You’re in Dei 204.” She glances at the folded uniform under Mayumi’s arm. “I guess they gave you a Popula uniform by mistake. What’re you, kinda borderline-mortal/immortal?” She says it with a kind tone.

Mayumi shakes her head. “Not at all. And…” She rummages through the file she was given at the third registration checkpoint. “Here. It says I’m Popula.”

“Huh. Would you look at that?” The woman looks more closely. “Oh… Says here your mother is a Dei Sergeant. Is that right?”

“Yes.” Mayumi remembers how her heart had pounded with joy, seeing that on the form. Though it was only a passing notation on a registration form, it was an official form, declaring that Alma is her mother. Not the creator of some quasi-illegal artificial life form, but her mother. Who was responsible for that? Sky? Someone higher up the chain? Perhaps Ewá Nanã, the Voice, the lawyer who had saved her mother and Gwydion and all the Bunnies, had pulled it off.

“And you father’s Popula. Well then you’re some kind of demi,” the woman says, handing it back to Mayumi. “Anyway, you’re assigned what you’re assigned. And today is bonkers for everyone. Just go to your room for now, drop off your stuff, take a shower, and put on that uniform. Get some food in you. Induction ceremony is in two hours. You can get it sorted out tomorrow.” The voice continues to be kind, but also final. She clearly has a hundred other things to take care of today.

“Yes, Instructor Hasral. Thank you very much for your help!” Mayumi bows slightly out of habit, then gets out of the woman’s hair. She certainly doesn’t want to try to explain how her mother and her father hadn’t even met until yesterday.

The walk across campus is a long one. The Academy is divided into two halves, one for Dei, the immortals, near-immortals, and magically powerful members of the Guardia, and one for the Popula, the mortals of various species with little or no natural magical ability, the largest group of whom is the humans. There are numerous other species on the Insula, but humans seem to dominate, at least in the wards Mayumi has known, and certainly here at the Academy. And there are far more Popula than Dei at the Academy, but their training halls and dormitories are of roughly equal size. There is always talk about how mortals are as necessary to the working of the Urbis Caelestis as immortals are, but the immortals always get the nicer things.

It occurs to Mayumi that if she’s assigned to live in the Dei dorms due to some misunderstanding about her parentage, she still has all her classes on the Popula side of the campus. She pauses and checks her course schedule to make sure. Yes, she’s definitely taking Popula courses, she’s relieved to see. If she’d been put into Dei courses – well, thank goodness she wasn’t. She imagines there might be some coursework that could be fatal to a mortal.

But this does mean that, until the mistake is fixed and she is moved to the Popula dorms, she’s going to have to get up earlier to run across campus. Nearing the gloriously arched and crenellated Dei dormitory, which makes her think of an ancient fortress, she looks back toward the Popula buildings far in the distance across exercise fields and obstacle courses on which some eager newcomers are already testing themselves. She estimates ten minutes should be plenty of time. She can probably run it, flat out, in three. Being a Bunny means being fast. But ten minutes’ less sleep is a small price to pay for showing up looking calm and collected and free of sweat.

And surely it’ll only be for a day or two.

She enters the huge hallway, luxuriously decorated with paintings and sculptures, the wide marble floor lined with velvet sofas and leather chairs. Just this hallway has more luxury in it than is probably spread through the entirety of the Popula dormitories. Voices whisper from two goddesses, twins, it seems, with strange braids that float in the air like serpents, consulting their keys and then ascending one of the curving staircases.

Feeling tiny in the enormous hall, Mayumi follows them. From the number, she assumes her room is two floors above the ground floor, at least if they do things as in Three Rats, which there is no way of telling. Why should they? Perhaps she has the entire two-hundred-fourth floor to herself? Not that the place looks anywhere near that tall, but these are the Dei dorms. There could be a thousand extra-dimensional palaces crammed in here, for all she knows. Maybe every room comes with a celestial lion as a servant. Maybe she’ll be sharing a room with a storm god who keeps a typhoon going all the time. Mayumi nervously ascends the steps.

Fortunately, Room 204 does turn out to be on the second floor, two floors above the ground floor to be precise, just like they count floors in Three Rats. That touch of the familiar helps more than she wants to admit, because Room 204 is nowhere near room 203, which is nowhere near 205. She finds 204 down at the end of a hallway that features room numbers 213, 280, and 237.

Wondering what strange logic might have prompted such a random numbering scheme, she fits her key into the lock and turns it. The door opens with barely a sound – good. Assuming she has a roommate, they will be able to go in and out without disturbing each other much.

The room is dim, but brightens slowly as she enters. The increase in illumination stops just as it reaches Mayumi’s comfort level, she notices, slightly dimmer than most humans prefer. Will it get brighter when I need to read? she wonders. She looks around. The room is enormous by her standards. It is roughly as big as her mother’s divine sanctum, though lacking a huge bed, a fountain/bath the size of a small swimming pool, and a garden’s worth of plants, this room feels much bigger. There is a bunk bed in one corner, odd seeing as how there would be plenty of space to split the room into a suite with separate bedrooms. Also odd is the fact that the lower bunk bed is twice as wide as the upper one, a king-size versus a somewhat wide twin. The twin is supported by three posts, and a beam that goes from its un-posted corner diagonally to the bottom bed’s post. That lower bed could sleep three humans easily, or five Bunnies. But some gods are quite large, Mayumi knows. Perhaps that is why.

In the opposite corner is a pair of desks, each of which is bigger than the biggest one at Three Rats Station – which happens to be the one Mayumi often worked at, in the basement, taking care of Records. One of the desks has a tray on it with a covered plate, from which she can smell meat and vegetables, and something sweet. Another corner holds a little kitchen nook, and the fourth has a doorway that appears to be to a bath – which makes the apartment even bigger.

Scattered about the floor, just to break it up and make it not immediately suitable for holding a modest-sized dance party, are several old, comfortable-looking pieces of furniture. The walls above the desks feature large built-in bookshelves, which are roughly two-thirds full of a hodgepodge collection. Curious, Mayumi sets down her folder and uniform and pulls one tome out at random, and sees it has a title in Old High Urbia, or at least in the script, which she recognizes but cannot read. Well, maybe – it could be a related script. Anyway, she has never learned it except for words like “forbidden.” It is a language used only by gods and wizards and priests, and it is best for mortals like her not to mess with it. She quickly puts the book back.

She realizes then that she still has her duffel bag over her shoulder. She walks over to the beds, and it is then that she senses someone else in the room with her. She’s not sure what it is – perhaps her keen hearing is barely catching the sensation of a heartbeat – but she knows someone is there.

“Hello?”

A high-pitched voice rings out. “Don’t you even look at the top bunk! That’s mine!” It makes Mayumi think of a seven-year-old girl who has been smoking cigars for ten years.

“Oh… That’s all right,” Mayumi says, looking around the beds and seeing nothing. “I’m Mayumi.” She starts to wonder if she is dealing with an invisible god.

“Good for you, Rabbit Ears.”

Mayumi closes her eyes at that. Name calling… she thinks to herself, but she suppresses her displeasure. She experienced plenty of bullying her first time at the Academy, in her dream life, and she has already experienced some today. And now her roommate. She slips her duffel bag from her shoulder and lets it fall heavily to the floor beside the bed, and asks, “Is there something I should call you?”

The reply is not at all what she expected. “AAARRGHHH! MY STUFF! YOU ALMOST CRUSHED MY STUFF!”

Mayumi freezes, her ears slapping flat back against her head and neck to muffle the angry high-pitched squeal. She doesn’t want to move, afraid she’s going to destroy some other invisible thing. An image of a news-sheet headline flashes in her imagination:

BUNNY CADET ACCIDENTALLY MURDERS DEI ROOMMATE ON FIRST DAY AT ACADEMY! IS THE PROPHECY TRUE??

“What…what stuff?” she asks.

The voice comes up right near her head, making Mayumi flinch. “MY STUFF! ON THE FLOOR RIGHT THERE! RIGHT UNDER YOUR STUPID BAG! WHY WOULD YOU CRUSH MY STUFF?!” There is still no visible sign of her roommate, but Mayumi can feel a sort of shimmer in the air, a vibration, like a silent hum.

“But you said I almost–” Hunching, Mayumi carefully lifts her bag, looking down to see a satchel made of what looks like colorful autumn leaves stitched together, sitting beside where her bag was. Though small, it is easily big enough that the Bunny should have seen it, but its coloration blends into the carpet pattern. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. But look, I don’t think I crushed it at all.”

There is a soft thump of impact against Mayumi’s bag. Did she just kick my bag? Seriously? the Bunny thinks in astonishment.

Quieter now, but dripping with threat, the high-pitched voice says, “Consider yourself lucky, Princess Fluffy Tail.”

Mayumi exhales and very, very carefully sets her bag back down. It has been a long, emotional day, and the name-calling isn’t showing any sign of stopping. And now a threat. But she controls herself. “Well I seem to have three names now, and you still have none.”

“‘Course I got a name.” The voice drifts back toward Mayumi’s face, and now there is a flare of purple light. “You just don’t know it. What are you, anyways?”

That is just about enough. Mayumi’s voice takes on an edge. “Is there some rule that I must ask for your name three times, or something? Or is it just a secret?”

“Man, you really don’t know anything from nothing, do you? Names aren’t something you just hand over for no price. Names got power. Know someone’s name, you can do all sorts of things with it. You’re not a goddess, are you?”

Squinting at the light, trying to make out what it is, Mayumi states, “No, I am not. I’m a Bunny. And I’m mortal.”

The light winks out, to reveal a tiny creature about as tall as Mayumi’s knee, sitting at the edge of the top bunk. Her skin is dark purple with crimson lines on a wide forehead. Her head is almost too big for her thin neck, and she has huge eyes that take up much more space, relatively, than a Bunny’s, with two, no three concentric irises in lilac and pink tones. The crimson lips bear a sardonic look that is too jaded for anyone so small and, well, cute. Her hair is just a short pinkish fuzz except for a frizzy top-ponytail that hangs to one side. Her limbs are as thin as the rest of her body – shockingly thin, looking far weaker than Mayumi assumes she must be – which is clad in a sleeveless button-up white sweatshirt and matching high-cut shorts. The creature looks at her with ill-disguised curiosity, “The heck is a Bunny?”

Mayumi is relieved to finally have a face to look at. The resentment that has been building up, at the insults, the refusal to offer a name, the unnecessary shouting, the threat, largely dissipates. “Hello. It’s good to see you. Whatever your name is. Bunnies are the progeny of the goddess Alma, of the Death Clan. We…have long ears. Actually, we’re still figuring out what we are.”

The tiny Dei props an elbow on her thigh and her chin on a hand that seems far too small to hold up that huge head. “How come you’re mortal if your mom’s a goddess? She forget to do something while she was busy?”

“Um…I’m not sure, actually. We’re just mortal. But it seems the Academy was a bit confused, and so I was mistakenly assigned to the Dei dorms.”

“So you’re not a Dei-blue? Gonna be a cheapshirt?”

Mayumi narrows her eyes. “Cheapshirt?” Her voice is cold.

The little Dei shrugs. “You know, Popula. Bottom of the food chain.”

“Bottom,” Mayumi repeats, wishing she had misheard. “Of the food chain.” She feels sick to her stomach.

“Did something break inside a’you or–” The Dei stops, looking at Mayumi, and grins. “Oh Missy, you don’t wanna do it. You’re gonna get your cute lil’ self all bruised up, you do that…”

“Do what?” Mayumi is fighting to keep from raising her voice, but her tone is seething with fury. “Do you think I’m going to assault you simply for being arrogant and rude? I am not the one threatening her roommate with violence. Twice!”

The creature snorts. “Who said anything ‘bout violence? Look at me! Ever seen a pixie fight? Huh? Have you? Pixies don’t fight! We’re all peaceful. Big taboo, a fighting pixie. Teach little kids bad lessons, all that crap.”

Mayumi takes a breath. Different cultures. Misunderstandings. But… ‘cheapshirt!’ ‘Bottom of the food chain.’ Ugh! She takes another breath, willing away the anger. “Well I am glad to know something about you. And yes, I am meant to be Popula. Your fellow Guardia.”

“Well, huh-ray to me…” She rolls her huge eyes. “Sheesh… of all the roommates I could have gotten… You better not snore.”

Mayumi is silent for another three breaths. This just keeps getting worse. Reset. Start over. Her voice calm but strained, she says, “We seem to have gotten off to a bad start. As I asked before, is there something I should call you? You see, I actually do know some people are reluctant to share their names… so anything is fine.”

Her roommate looks at her in silence for a few appraising seconds, eyes narrow. “You try to write up a contract, it won’t work, you hear?”

Mayumi’s eyebrows rise in surprise, and it takes her a moment to understand. But she remembers some stories, and says, “I promise you, I would never attempt to bind you. And since I have no magical ability at all, I think you’re quite safe.”

Another high-pitched snort. “Yeah, tell that t’my uncle Borsi. Girl tells him all that, next thing he knows BAM! He’s hanging to a contract.”

“Did you just tell me your uncle’s name?” Mayumi feels a smile touch the corner of her mouth. Personal information!

Another suspicious stare. “That’s not his name. ‘S just what everyone calls him. Means ‘idiot’. Married 30 years now.”

“Well, I promise not to force you into marriage. Anyway, if you don’t want to give me a name, that’s all right. We probably won’t be roommates for more than a day or two anyway.” Mayumi gives up, turning away to sit on the edge of her spacious bed.

The raspy voice comes closer. “You planning on being a Pop with all that niceness in ya? Can’t even get a person to cough up their name?”

“I was unaware this was an interrogation.” Mayumi starts pulling some clothes out of her bag. “I’m afraid I do not have any handcuffs on me, either.” Her mouth twitches in a smile again.

“With my wrists? Yeah, good luck wi’ that.” She sighs. “Pari. Just to end your misery.”

Mayumi turns to smile quite friendly at Pari. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Pari. So, do you snore?”

In a growling voice, Pari replies, “I can put you to sleep so’s you won’t find out…”

Mayumi’s eyes widen. “Do you mean you can magically put me to sleep? That would be…useful. Is there any side effect?”

Pari raises a tiny fist. “Yeah, huge headache in the morning. Bruises. Maybe some missin’ teeth.”

Mayumi grimaces. Threats of violence are just a constant with her, then. Perhaps they don’t actually mean anything. “Have you eaten yet? I missed lunch.”

Pari jerks her head toward the tray. “That’s yours, then. I ate the pudding.”

“Thank you!” Mayumi crosses the room to the desk again and lifts the metal cover. She starts eating some salad even before sitting in the chair and turning it to face Pari.

“I didn’t bring it!” Pari cries as if accused of a crime. “They brought it over.”

“They bring your food to you in the Dei dorm?” Mayumi shakes her head at this luxury. “So…what is a pixie? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Pari’s jaw drops. “You mean you don’t freaking know?!”

Mayumi shakes her head. “I’ve heard the word. All I know is pixies are small and can fly.”

“Small? Small?!” Pari launches herself into the air, fists clenched, and drifts toward Mayumi. There are no wings, but just the same barely noticeable vibrato in the air as Mayumi noticed before. “Who you callin’ small, you free sample of human?!”

Mayumi holds up her hands. “Hey! Come on… I’m small compared to most people I know. At least you can fly. If something is on a high shelf, I have to get a ladder.”

Pari lands on the divan, crosses her arms and looks away haughtily. “Hmpf! Pixies are Fey-folk. Ya know, fairies and the sort? We don’t make wishes come true and we don’t teach kids to fly. Just… help out with nature and small critters and stuff. Some of us are good at other things. Kinda like everyone else. Like, Mam’s good with kitchens. Works at a restaurant sprinkling spices on stuff.”

Cautiously returning to munching on salad, Mayumi asks, “And do you have a specialty?”

“I get into fights a lot.” The matter-of-factness almost makes Mayumi laugh, but she stifles it because Pari seems to take offense just as often as she dishes it out.

“That,” Mayumi says instead, deadpan, “is not a surprise.” Then she considers herself, and remembers mistakes she has made. “I…well, I’ve had my own problems with that.”

“Meet a lotta scumbags too?” Pari asks.

“I have met some unsavory characters, yes. Some of them have tried to murder me and my family.” Dark memories flood in. Hellhounds, slavering for the blood of her and her siblings… Merri screaming. Nekh raising his hands to kill them.

Pari’s voice breaks through. “Uh? Why’d they try to kill you? You piss someone off?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “It was…a disagreement between gods. We were caught in the middle. We were…tokens on a board. Bottom of the food chain.” She looks up at Pari. “That’s part of the reason I want to be Guardia. I want to show that we’re more than that.”

“You the first in the family to join the Blues?” A little of the constant tone of antagonism seems to have disappeared from Pari’s voice.

“My mother is Dei. And my father is Popula. It’s…rather complicated.”

Pari suddenly straightens. “Dei… Wait… You said Alma? That Alma? Got her badge here some twenty years ago?”

“Um…yes?” Mayumi feels confused and worried that she has said something wrong, really wrong this time. She does not want to bring any kind of shame upon her mother.

But Pari starts laughing. “Oh man, you’re so lucky you’re a cheapshirt… This was her room!” She points to the door. Squinting from across the room, Mayumi can make out scratches in the lustrous, probably gasp-inducingly expensive wood of the door. “List over there, previous students who had this room. Carved on the door. Tradition here.”

Mayumi stands and goes to look. Name after name after name, in columns, many hundreds, two for every year. The Academy has a single six-month term every year. Six days to a week, six weeks to a month, ten months to a year. Two hundred sixteen days, minus a one-week break four months in, to train cadets using magically enhanced intensive methods, to prepare them for the incredibly diverse array of situations they will find themselves in, here in the Urbis Caelestis, the Celestial City. And there, twenty-four lines before the most recent pair, there is the name. ‘Alma’. And next to it, a name she does not know, ‘Pavia’.

Mayumi feels a chill. Why have I been assigned to the Dei dorms? Why my mother’s room? This cannot be a coincidence, can it? Aloud, she asks, “Why…why do you say I am lucky to be Popula?”

“Dei-blue that recruited me, he liked to tell stories from when he was a rookie here. Your mom was in some of them.” Pari chuckles. “My kinda goddess, you ask me. Pranks? Legendary.”

“Alma? Pranks?” Mayumi shakes her head. “It… That can’t be right.”

“Just do yourself a favor. You see old man Jutte, don’t tell him who you are. Now, you about done yet? There’s some kinda Induction thingy I’m supposed to be at. Byeeee!”

And with that, Pari takes wingless flight again, grabbing the doorknob and twisting her whole body to turn it.

The door slams behind her before Mayumi can say, “…goodbye.” She sighs. She glances at a timepiece on the desk – plenty of time for a shower before changing into her uniform for the Popula Induction, which, of course, comes after the Dei one.

Stood up to that martinet Pringle but couldn’t stand up to your roommate, she thinks as she undresses. She looks at her blouse, holding it before her. Like her skirt, it was handmade by Sage. Made with love, from surplus material. A cheap shirt.

Ch6 mid-chapter 2: Mayumi Arrives at the Academy

What is a portal? It is a doorway from one place to a discontinuous elsewhere, sometimes even another reality altogether. Mayumi has forgotten how strange that is, because movement via portals is an everyday occurrence around her. Gwydion goes in and out of his sanctum multiple times a day, via a door that sometimes leads to the pantry, sometimes to his home. And the doorway to her mother’s sanctum – well, perhaps that is a portal too. Mayumi isn’t sure, exactly. The room, a lush combination of bedroom, garden, and bath, was her home for the first weeks in this waking world, and there is certainly something otherworldly about it. It is not fully in this reality, so perhaps she is moving through a magical portal every time she goes in and out.

She misses it terribly now. She tells herself to gaman, to endure. She was in it only a few hours ago, after all.

But these thoughts about portals are brought on by the very different nature of the ones she is traveling through now. Public portals, requiring tickets, impersonal and cold. Each one different in form, some soaring and complex, some basic arches of concrete inscribed with incomprehensible symbols. But each one is the same, as well. The are not the warm portals of home. And each one of them carries her further away.

And transferring from portal to portal to portal, and all along the way upslope, she can spot them. Cadets. Cadets for the Guardia Academy. Cadets like her.

Some of them are wearing their uniforms. She resists the urge to tell them to go into a washroom in one of the larger portal stations and change back into civilian clothes. One isn’t supposed to put on the uniform until Induction. They’ll be told that with an exasperated sigh when they arrive. Like a great many Academy rules, it’s not written down anywhere. You’re supposed to know that It Just Isn’t Done.

Mayumi feels guilty for not telling them. She has an unfair advantage. Her father and her mother are both Guardia, and not only that, she’s been through the Academy before. In a dream. A dreamworld in which she was a Guardia Popula officer for two years.

But she doesn’t tell them. She doesn’t want to stick her nose into their business. She doesn’t want to call attention to herself. She’s already attracting stares. It’s the ears. Her long, black-furred Bunny ears. The tail too, but that’s not quite as immediately noticeable with the long jacket she’s wearing. She is the first Bunny to go to the Academy. The only Bunny with permission to leave Three Rats Ward. The only Bunny within a month’s travel by foot, at this point, for she’s all the way in the Second Ring by now, and with the next portal jump, she’ll be in the First Ring. One jump after that and she’ll be at the Academy gates.

She feels very small. Very alone. She clenches her jaw against the urge to cry again.

She really, truly did not want to cry when she said goodbye to her siblings. Merri and Cherry, Sage and Kori, Chime and Tulip. And Aliyah and Cala, escorting them. She did her best to hold it together, but when she looked into Cherry’s eyes… What she saw there. The sorrow, the loss, the fear. Cherry is so strong, so brave, but in a way, her heart is the softest of all the Bunnies. She cares so deeply and wants so very, very badly for everyone to be together, now that she has found her family. And she’s right. They should be.

Why am I doing this? Mayumi asks herself for the hundredth time. And the answer is, as always, that she must. She was Guardia in her other life, in that world of dreams. And that life must not disappear. She needs to hold onto it. And she was born to be Guardia. It is not just her parentage, but her soul that calls her to it.

Couldn’t she have waited until next year’s intake? But the opportunity was there. The upper levels of the Guardia had approved it. And the Bunnies are being treated like some kind of…experiment gone awry. There are those who truly feel that the best thing to do with them would be to break their necks, cut their throats, drown them – anything to make them go away and be forgotten. From what she understands, the Council’s decision to let them live had been a very near thing.

She is being given the chance to show that Bunnies can contribute to society. That they can be regarded as normal mortals. If she had turned down that chance, it might never have come again.

The weight of that responsibility makes her shoulders tense. She remembers looking into Cherry’s eyes and just dissolving into tears. And all of them had caught her, held her up, kept her from falling right there on the portal steps. She had been so close, so very close to just saying, “Take me home. I want to stay here with you.” She had wanted it so badly.

It had been Merri who had whispered in her ear, “Buck up, my love. Ye can do this. Ye’re gonna do this. Come on, now.” But it had not been Merri’s face that Mayumi had looked into when she blinked away the tears enough to see again. It had been Cherry’s. Those sad, huge, brown eyes. Cherry wasn’t smiling or trying to put up a good front. Her dark skin was lustrous with tears, and she had taken Mayumi’s face in her hands, and just looked at her. She looked like she was doing the hardest thing she had ever done.

“You go on now, baby,” Cherry said. The tears began afresh, but her voice was steady. “You go on now and you study hard. You come back to us with that badge. You make us proud. You will. And you do.” Then she kissed Mayumi, long and sweet, and on releasing her, Cherry gave her a little push toward the portal.

Mayumi quickly said goodbye to the others, wordlessly embracing and kissing the Bunnies and Aliyah and Cala, too. Then she turned and walked quickly, not trusting herself to stop. It was only in that last moment as she slipped her ticket into the slot in the arch of the portal that she heard a heartbreaking sob, and she turned her head as she stepped through, and saw Cherry sagging in Merri’s arms, clinging to her like a victim of drowning to a lifeguard.

And then they were gone. Her family, gone, left behind.

The next portal station had been a big one, and Mayumi had entered a washroom stall and sat in there for a good ten minutes, crying. But enough of that now. It is time to focus on what lies ahead.

She exits the final portal and for one moment she sees it, a few minutes’ walk up the street, the great shining white-marble gate of the Guardia Academy. But only for a moment. All around her is a press of bodies, and every single one of them is taller than she, it seems. She grimaces in annoyance, and with more people coming in from the portal from many different transfer points, she’s quickly shoved forward. Hemmed in on all sides by big, lumbering humans, she’s nearly crushed as she’s carried along. She holds tight to her bag and tries to endure the cacophony of noise and the almost overwhelming mix of body odors.

What should be a few minutes’ walk takes most of an hour, as the instructors at the gate check cadets through and tell them where to go. As expected, the ones wearing uniforms are told to change back to everyday clothes before Induction. One of the instructors is particularly derisive, and Mayumi finds herself shoved into the line that is moving toward him.

Mayumi’s heart sinks as she nears him. Right in front of her is a cadet dressed in Academy uniform. Stocky, with iridescent skin that subtly reflects every color of the rainbow, she assumes he is some sort of Dei: god, demigod, or maybe even a spirit of rainbows or something. She’s never been very clear on the dividing lines, but from what Sky has told her, they can be very blurry.

She listens as the instructor, puffed up with self-importance, chews him out. “Did you think you had any right to be wearing our uniform on the streets? You ain’t been inducted yet! You ain’t a cadet! You’re just some worthless citizen!”

Mayumi feels the sparse, soft fur on the back of her neck rise in anger. She clenches her teeth to keep herself from speaking up. She wants to remind the instructor that Guardia are citizens, that that is the whole point. Guardia uphold the public order but are never, never above those they protect. It is a job that may receive respect, as in the dream-ward she grew up in, where Guardia were honored in the same way that teachers and priests and doctors were honored, or they might be viewed with suspicion and derision, as they were in Three Rats when she first arrived there. But Guardia must always remember who they are.

But she stays quiet, burning with shame at doing so. Her mother would not want her to stay silent. Nor would her father. But she has a job to do. She needs to get into the Academy. And to do that, she must get past this gatekeeper.

So when the rainbow-colored almost-cadet is sent scurrying off to change, Mayumi’s face is composed.

“Name?” The instructor, tall for a human and towering over her, hardly glances at her at first.

“Mayumi Ishijima.” She is registered under her adoptive father’s name. Like most gods, her mother has no family name, being simply “of the Death Clan.” Mayumi cannot claim that, for the Death Clan does not recognize the Bunnies as family.

“Sponsoring officer?”

“Inspector Tuma-Sukai, Three Rats Station.” Mother could have sponsored her, but Sky is higher rank, and at the time he was preparing the application, Mother was under house arrest for murdering an Archon. Awkward.

The instructor really looks at her for the first time. “Dei Inspector, eh? Most of these goons ain’t got anybody higher than than a Popula Sergeant vouching for them, if that.” He takes in her civilian clothes, simple and home-tailored by her skillful sibling Sage, her small, slight build, her human face framed by straight black hair, and then the only non-human feature not hidden by her clothes, her long, erect ears. His eyebrows go up. “Ah, the Bunny. Heard a rumor about you.”

Oh no…

The instructor chuckles nastily, like he knows all sorts of secrets. “Oh, you’re gonna have a great time here, Bunny.”

Mayumi narrows her eyes and reads his badge. “Thank you for the warm welcome, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is even and cool. “Am I on your list, Assistant-Instructor?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, yeah.” Pringle seems annoyed at her precise enunciation of his full title. He juts his chin toward another queue past the gate, on campus grounds. “Go on, then. See you in class, Bunny.”

The way he says it, he seems to think it is an insult. She doesn’t move.

“Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is not raised, nor is it filled with anger or menace. But there is an edge to it that rings out above the chaos of noise around them, and fixes his attention back onto her. “My name is Ishijima. Perhaps that is difficult for you to pronounce?”

He blinks, then starts to smile humorlessly. He closes his notebook and turns his back on the long line waiting to get in the gate. “Are you talking back to me, cadet? No, you ain’t even a cadet yet, are you? You’re nothing, citizen.” He puts his fists on his hips and bends forward, looming over her, trying to intimidate her with his height.

She leans toward his face, staring intensely into his eyes, her whole world narrowing to just that. Her voice is low. “You think a citizen is nothing. You are a citizen. We are all citizens.” She leans forward just a little more, and the anger she is channelling at him makes him flinch back, as if she were about to bite him.

Before he can recover, she is walking away. She hears him stutter, “H-hey!” but he is cut off by another instructor shouting, “Keep it moving, Pringle!” She doesn’t look back.

Ch6 mid-chapter 1: Somrak & Memory

“I was on my own time, you know.”

“You don’t have your own time unless we say so.” Fencer’s voice is harsh, but also tired. Tired of him, Somrak is sure. Tired of excuses.

He’s leaning against the doorframe leading from the entryway to the receiving room in the Commander’s simple, spartan home. He’s just arrived, summoned a few hours ago via terse magical message, fiery letters floating in his mind’s eye: My home. Now. He had been washing blood from his hands in a pool of melted snow.

The room is wobbling in and out of focus. How many chairs? Three. Four? No, it’s three, it just looks like four. And the sofa. He remembers Sky stretched out on that, asleep, as Somrak was teaching a little godling to cook in the kitchen. Long time ago.

“Now explain,” Fencer growls as she sits on the top guy’s chair like it’s hers. Not that it’s the Commander’s favorite chair. That’s in the real living room, deeper in the house. This room? This is for guests who aren’t exactly friends, so the Commander doesn’t have to share the rest of his home with them. It is also a room that can be instantly sealed off and filled with deadly forces that even Somrak isn’t privy to. Just in case those not-friends become unfriendly.

There is a piercing pain that makes him think his skull may actually be fractured. It’s getting harder to ignore. He ignores it. “Just doing my job, lady,” he says, casually, hoping he’s not slurring his words. “And everybody else’s, as usual.”

“This is no training exercise!” Achmal, his hulking shoulders flexing, towers over Somrak. He’s even taller than Sky and far bulkier, all muscle, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his size to intimidate. His voice echoes down the twisting tunnel of the ice cave they are in. “Tell us what’s going on, Somrak!”

“Somrak, please.” Xinappa is a gentle soul for an off-blue, her origin a tropical ward, and she looks uncomfortable with the cold. “Call for extraction. We want to get out from under this glacier.” Her partner, Erissa, nods, her body wrapped in a warm coat, hood hiding her auburn hair.

Somrak looks at dour Ogive, who is silent, looking back with those bored killer’s eyes, his big silver bow on his back. A god of archery, Ogive can shoot the wings off a mosquito at a hundred paces, and put an arrow through a god’s eye at a mile. Somrak has seen him do it.

And at their feet is the healer brought along on this mission, a life god by the name of Renrak. His head is severed. The blood on the ice is frozen.

Somrak takes a breath. Achmal’s blustering does not move him. But it’s time to tell the truth. He nods at Renrak’s corpse.

“We’re here because one of us, according to the guys at the top, is a traitor. And we’re not leaving until we figure out who.”

Fencer is silent for a moment, glowering at him with those mismatched eyes, one red, one glowing silver. Finally she says, her voice tense with warning, “There are not enough words in this language to describe how much you annoy me, Ponytail. What he sees in you, I do not know. Now quit the idiotic jokes and give me a straight answer!”

He can’t actually remember what joke he made, so he shrugs, refusing to be intimidated. Also refusing to let his knees buckle. The only reason he isn’t sitting is he’s certain he won’t be able to stand up again. “What’s to complain about?”

“Stop. One more step and you die.”

 His voice is exhausted, but it rings through the corridor and echoes deep into the labyrinth formed by meltwater beneath the glacier. A womanly figure, her coat lost, is silhouetted by the blue glow of a portal that floats in the air, mere steps out of her reach.

Erissa turns. As a fire god, Somrak can make out her facial features in their heat patterns, but the effect is nonetheless alienating, her youthful beauty missing.

“Let me go, Somrak.” She sounds frightened. She should be. “I only did what I had to do.”

“You tried to frame me for Renrak. And then for Xinappa. Your own partner, Erissa! She covered for you! She lied for you!” Fury chases the exhaustion from his voice and, from his hands to his forearms, flames roar to life. Steam rises from his clothes and skin, soaked as he is with melted ice. “Ogive and Achmal are buried under tons of ice, maybe dead too.”

“You should have stayed under there with them.” She shakes her head, taking a step backward toward the portal. “You would have been safer. Somrak, please – they’re coming for me. They know I failed. They’ll take me to Hell before I can be interrogated.”

He should just set her aflame. She can still be interrogated with charred flesh. But though he has nearly spent all his godly power, he decides on giving her one last chance to surrender. He raises his right hand, and a wall of fire whooshes into existence behind her, between her and the portal, close enough to singe her hair. She staggers away, falling to her hands and knees. Water begins to trickle fast down the walls near her.

“Was it just for power, Erissa? Dissatisfied demi wanting to be a full goddess? Well you got what you wanted. Are you happy about the cost?” As his divine sphere pulses within, he can feel the fire burning even in his broken bones now, banishing the chill of melting his way through tons of collapsed ice. But his thoughts are cold as the heart of this glacier. “I’ll protect you from your masters. You’re going to tell us everything you told them, and everything they ever asked. And who put you in contact with them.”

“I’m not surrendering,” Erissa insists. She rises and the corridor pulses with a sickly green glow. Somrak’s wall of fire turns green, and he senses that he no longer controls it. He tries to get it back, but these demonstrations of power, meant to cow the off-blue traitor into submission, have used up his last reserves of mana. He cannot wrest control of it from the nearing forces of Hell. Then it goes out, but Erissa’s eyes still glow with the same deadly light. “They’re here. I always liked you, Somrak. You should have stayed away. Maybe they’ll give me another chance, in exchange for your soul.”

A shape forms, green-highlighted black against the blue portal from which it emerges. He recognizes it immediately. She has a long, thin-bladed sword in one hand, and one of her eyes is glowing silver.

The Fencer speaks, her voice harsh and undeniable. “Stand down, Corporal. It’s over.”

Erissa screams in frustration, the corridor trembling with her rage. The green light pulses more strongly, and the ice groans. A section of the tunnel collapses on top of Fencer, and the rest seems it could give way at any moment.

His left arm shattered and useless, Somrak draws a long knife from a thigh-sheath and charges.

“Were you ordered there?” she sneers. “Was it wise or necessary to act alone?”

He raises his right arm, palm up. The other stays where it is, pressed against the doorframe. Alma healed it one day ago. Now it’s broken again, the damage barely ameliorated through his own meager healing magic, just enough to hold it together. Alma would not be happy. He’s much better at destroying things than repairing them. “Necessary? We were short-handed following that nightmare you cooked up under the ice. And the Special Operations boys, let’s face it, wouldn’t have got the job done so quickly or thoroughly. So yes, necessary. And wise. The proof of that is in the results.”

“The results? Oh, you mean the dead gang of frost giants? The ones we never intended to kill in the first place?” Her voice rises in volume. She gets up and stalks toward him, as she speaks, ending up almost nose to nose with him. “Damn it, Somrak! You do not get to decide what needs to be done! Certainly not just because you need to vent your anger over whatever piece of stupidity you did on your day off! You should not even have been operational yet!”

An annoying stray thought crosses his exhausted mind: Damn, she looks good. I mean, I don’t exactly want to get with that, but I totally see why the Commander does. He forces his mind away from irrelevancies back to the fact that one of the most dangerous goddesses in this universe is deeply unhappy with him right now. She has, after all, been known to end problems with great abruptness and finality.

“What can I say?” His mouth is working on autopilot, and he finds himself wondering what will come out of it. “Your niece is a far better healer than our darling Butcher. And what were you planning to do with a bunch of murderous religious-fanatic frost giants anyway?”

The cold again. Not that it matters to him. Being a fire god means never needing long underwear.

He can still feel Alma’s kiss on his lips, tingling, even after almost a day. And the shame of learning how blind he’d been – he can feel that, too. He hadn’t wanted to see it. Hadn’t wanted to see she was in love with Dion.

So a quick getaway, back upslope to Guardia Headquarters – not the off-blues HQ, not after what happened under the ice – and one quiet inquiry later, here he is. Good to have a friend in Special Operations. Well, ‘friend’ might be pushing it. Someone who owes him enough to tell him what’s the nastiest, meanest operation coming up.

And that is here: Yotn, ward of frost and crags. Mountains on the slope of the Celestial Mount, broken black stone covered in eye-blinding white snow, small villages scattered in the valleys. It is very picturesque from his vantage point atop a ridge, looking down on two valleys. Except for the smoke and the smashed houses, the bodies in the cobblestone streets, and the enormous figures striding through them.

Frost giants. Disagreeable types. Classification of just what is and is not a god is always a fuzzy thing, and some call frost giants gods, but never to their face. Like the denizens of Hell, they hate gods, whom they consider to be young upstarts. And once in awhile they get it into their heads that it’s time for a war.

It never lasts long. The giants aren’t exactly idiots, but they don’t value thoughtfulness. They hold simple, direct action in great esteem. Somrak can understand. Action is the best way to chase away unsettling thoughts.

The giants have devastated two villages already, and have destroyed the ward’s public portal. Good thing for the Commander’s hidden portal network. The only disadvantage is that the secret portal is located a long, icy climb above the valley where the giants are having their fun. Somrak takes time to stretch his limbs. Of course he didn’t bring any climbing equipment. What’s the fun in that?

He looks at the black fingerless gloves on his hands, a gift from his rival for Alma’s affections. For a moment he considers taking them off, tossing them away, but he’s not angry at Dion. He’s angry at himself.

It will be two days before the Special Operations mission begins to take down the gang of giants. Plenty of time for Somrak to deliver his anger to some people who really deserve to receive it. Special Ops can thank him later.

Not that they will.

No longer shouting but all the more dangerous for how calm she sounds, Fencer moves even closer. Somrak pushes aside the absurd temptation to kiss her, surely born of a death wish. “I know it was her who healed you,” she growls softly. “You reek of her power. Tell me, did she heal you so you could flirt with death again? Is that how you plan to capture her attention? By having her come and collect your soul when you get yourself killed?”

Two frost giant corpses collapsing at once makes an impressive momentary earthquake. Somrak actually feels his feet leave the ground from the impact. A damaged house tumbles the rest of the way down, and there is a hiss all about as snow slides off the angled rooftops of the buildings still standing

One of the giants has buried his axe in the other’s head; the other has thrust a spear through his companion’s eye and out through the back of the skull. They now lie on their sides, still clutching their skull-destroying weapons, looks of surprise on their faces. They had, after all, been aiming at a fiery shape that had looked a great deal like Somrak, flying through the air between them.

Easy to shape fire into anything, he thinks, satisfied with the results of his trick. Let’s see the Special Ops guys figure out how that happened. He grins and strides through the main street of the village.

A full third of the houses are damaged beyond repair, he observes. Some are completely destroyed. Human bodies, of all ages and genders, lie scattered in the street, the victims of giants who believe their ancestors, whom they worship instead of gods, have ordered this tragic little crusade. They may well be right – who knows what madness the long-dead ghosts of aeon-old giants may preach? But littered among the human corpses are now those of giants, sixteen in all, some with boiled-to-explosion brains, some with their icy hearts burnt to ash, some with slashed tendons and then, brought to earth by legs that would no longer support them, slashed throats.

One of his favorite blades has broken. Even enchanted, dwarf-forged steel can’t stand up forever to the hard work Somrak puts it through, particularly because Somrak prefers his short swords narrow and light. He grumbles and sheathes the half-blade, reminding himself to visit his favorite equipment-smith and get a new one made. There goes two months’ pay –

And that’s when one of the giant corpses reaches out like lightning and grabs Somrak’s left arm, squeezing hard. Somrak screams as he feels his radius and ulna twist and then snap like twigs. The giant sits up, lifting Somrak from the ground. The god stares back at one hate-filled, pale-blue eye. The giant’s other eye is gone, along with almost half of his head, burned away by a particularly energetic display of a fire god’s power

“Tough…bastard,” Somrak gasps through clenched teeth.

The giant says something in that ponderous language that always sounds like an avalanche to Somrak. “Speak…Urbia…you stinking barbarian!” Somrak shouts. He is just summoning up the power to cook the rest of the giant’s brain when it smashes him to the hard stone street, once, then again.

He doesn’t break eye contact. He wonders if she can see the concussion in his eyes. After a long tense moment he says, “Message received. So is there anything else?”

She pulls back, staring at his face. “Yes. None of the other off-blues is willing to work with you. Your team is no more, Somrak.”

He clenches his jaw, though the pain that sends slicing through his head almost knocks him off his feet. “I’m sure I can find something to do.”

She turns and goes to the sideboard. “I better not hear of you going anywhere near Three Rats, Ponytail. That place is bad enough for our people without a walking menace like you around.”

He closes his eyes. The room is going out of focus again. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ve always wanted to take up macrame. Very calming, I’m told. You might try it.”

He hears the thup sound of a cork being pulled from the neck of a bottle, followed by the tink of the bottle’s neck touching a glass. Liquid pouring. “My brother has spawned enough sons with a talent for hangman’s nooses. I can do without the pointless artistry.” A little water being spritzed into the glass. “By the way, I have spoken to your master. He is handing your leash over to me on a permanent basis.”

Somrak opens his eyes and looks pointedly at the bottle next to her hand. Whisky, nothing very rare or refined, just simple and delicious. “Are there two glasses, or am I just drinking straight from the bottle?”

She lifts her glass and sips the whisky. “You’re in no condition to drink. Sit.”

He looks at the chair she nods toward and sighs. Walking with the care of a practiced drunk, he moves to it and carefully sits. The moment he does, the enervation of his unrested body washes over him, just as he’d feared. Every ache, every sharp stabbing pain, every throbbing agony comes on in full force. He clenches his teeth against a groan.

“So what’s next?” he gasps.

“Next is a visit from a healer. Don’t worry, it’s not the Butcher. Then you focus on getting your head screwed on straight. And after that, I have a couple of ways for you to make yourself useful.” She takes a drink. “Did you give her the sword?”

At the abrupt change in topic, Alma’s smile as he handed her the gift from Fencer returns in his mind. And the feeling of holding her in the breezeway. Kissing her. “I did. She likes it. Relieved you didn’t ask for the old one back.”

Fencer snorts. “She had the nerve to steal that one from me. Anyone that brave or stupid deserves a reward. Tell me, how’s your fencing?”

He feels very detached from his body. He hears his voice saying, “You tell me. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” But he thinks the clever words may have come out as senseless babbling.

Being witty is such hard work.

“You’re badly injured. Let me heal you.” The beautiful white-haired Sergeant reaches a hand to touch Somrak.

He moves back slightly, still twitching from the lightning strike that hit him. In the wake of the assassination attempt of this Alma and her Archon-Dooming Bunnies, he is not in the best of shape, but his body is already healing in the way nearly any god is capable of, even one as oriented toward destruction as himself. And if she’s anything like the off-blues’ staff healer, known as the Butcher, Somrak is better off healing himself. “Save it, Sergeant. You’ll likely need the mana later.”

He knows who she is, of course. When the Commander split up the forty-year Somrak and Sky partnership – an off-blue teamup both tumultuous and highly successful, and one that had outlasted any other partnership in the existence of the off-blue program – Somrak naturally looked into the Dei officers that Sky would be working with. But he hadn’t looked very closely and now here she is, face to face, the notoriously difficult Sergeant Alma, Dei of a dozen stations.

And seeing her face before him, pale and delicate while at the same time flushed with Life energy from healing the red-haired Bunny, he is certain he has seen her before. He will have to plumb his memory. Later. Assuming he survives.

She frowns at him. “It is a more efficient use of mana to heal you now, rather than leave you as a burden on the rest of us. I daresay I can heal you with greater ease than you can heal yourself.

He smiles, that lopsided grin pulled into a smirk by his scar, so infuriating to many even when it is an honest smile. This goddess, only a few decades his junior but barely a rookie Guardia compared to his mortal lifetime of service, mother-henning him. He finds himself charmed but, being who he is, he has to express himself sardonically. He turns to the Commander and jokes, “I see what you meant about her.”

He looks back to see her narrow-eyed glare at the Commander, which just makes Somrak like her more. He can imagine all those dull rulesbound station commanders she’s served under, not knowing what to do with her. He’d love to show her the off-blue life. She might even like it.

Ch6.62 Trust

The machinegun fire does not belong here. Nor do the rockets. This is not a ward that allows for chemical explosives. Something prevents it, something Syron explained once… The thought flits away like a burning leaf of paper torn from a code book, as three men in the trench ahead of him try to go over the top, and get knocked back down by the shockwave and shrapnel from a mortar shell. One lies groaning; the other two are still.

 Sky steps over them, barely looking down. He does not wish to see their faces, fearing he will recognize them. The choking smell of rot and filth and ash pollutes the air he breathes. His hair is plastered to his skull by the rain. He holds a dagger, fingers through the brass knuckles of the grip, his long wool coat heavy around the hem with earth and blood. His feet are cold and wet. He is wounded, he thinks, but cannot remember where or how badly. But he strides through the trench, idiotically, for he is far too tall to stand upright safely. He is a moving target for the other side.

Ironic, since the other side is his side. He still expects to be shot in the head at any moment, by machinegunner or sharp-eyed sniper. For some reason, he doesn’t crouch.

There is someone he is here to kill. He can’t remember. All thought is vague. Faces form and dissolve before him. One that laughs and taunts, all huge grin and trickster eyes. One like a vulture, burning in the arms of a white-glowing female figure. A scaly viper’s face. A face of stone. A handsome face, one that had once filled him with pleasure to see. Face after face, a long line, many forgotten and entirely blank.

But then he sees her, the one he is hunting. The trench is gone. He is inside now, in a house, with no transition, standing on a stone-flagged floor, blood-clotted dirt oozing from his boot. He looks at the woman lying on the bed. She wears a simple nightgown. Her skin is sallow, her nondescript brown hair lank and thin. She is already dead, her neck broken, but carefully arranged as if sleeping. He approaches, looks down at her, adjusting his grip on the blade.

Why must he kill her? She is cold and long, long dead. He remembers holding her, as she cried his name. Not his name, but a name, that of the face he wore. He remembers pleasuring her, but taking no real pleasure from the act. Simply…a lack of pain.

He is here to kill her. How he knows this, he cannot say. He will cut her head off and stuff her mouth with salt. He will sew her lips shut. He will remove her heart and burn it, and bury the rest at a crossroads. Why? These are the things you must do. 

“None of that will stop me,” she whispers.

Sky freezes. Her eyes are open. Her mouth is grinning in triumph. She begins to sit up.

“Hello, Azzageddi…” she coos sweetly.

“Sky?” The kiss on his cheek is cool and light, and the voice is soft and very welcome. “Sky…”

His eyes flutter open, and he draws a deep breath. He is home. It was merely another nightmare, one of the many dark dreams that keep him company most nights. But something is different here. There is someone in his arms. Well, one arm. He is in his home, on his sofa, his arm around…Alma? Alma.

Looking down at her, where she half-lies against him, comfortable but obviously trapped by his heavy arm. He exhales in relief, seeing her friendly grin, not the seductive look he had momentarily feared, or the dead, malevolent eyes…now where did that come from? The dream? But it is gone.

He feels a smile spread on his face, any feeling of dread banished at the thought that Alma, Alma, is here in his home. In his home, in his life, this friend. His friend.

“Sleep well?” he asks, voice thick and groggy.

Alma nods. “I did. But…if that clock is correct, I should return to the station.” Sky follows her gaze to a cheap-looking plastic-and-aluminum timepiece, the face about as big across as his hand, surmounted by a doll of a young woman wearing a grass skirt and a necklace of flowers to hide her breasts.

“It’s a few minutes off,” he says, sitting up and releasing her from his heavy embrace. “You have a little more time than you think.”

Alma stretches, standing. “Does the girl on the clock dance at noon or something? No, wait – we would have noticed.”

“Every hour, it’s supposed to play a different song, and she dances,” he explains. “But I disconnected that. I couldn’t sleep. Anticipating the song kept me staring at the ceiling.”

Alma laughs. “If you don’t like it, why do you keep it?”

He shrugs, and stands. “A friend gave it to me as a joke, as I was telling people at the time that I was from the islands that it came from. I regifted it to someone else. After he died, it came back to me.”

“Ah. A memory.” Alma nods, laying her hand on his upper arm and stroking it, her smile compassionate for his long-ago loss. “Good to know I can take a little more time. Would you mind if I took a bath before I leave?”

“Please do.” He holds out a hand to indicate one of the round doorways, one from which a constant faint sound of flowing water emerges. “Through there is the bath. In the vestibule, there’s one of those laundry boxes, the kind that you just pop your clothes, or anything really, in there, and it’s clean in a few minutes. Should be warm and fluffy by the time you finish. There are towels and such in an alcove next to that. Shampoo and soap in the bath itself. Oh…it’s a bit hotter than yours. Get in slowly. Do you want something to eat after? I’m…still feeling a little queasy after that spell. How about you?”

As she heads for the bath, Alma says, “I think I’ll leave eating for later, thank you. But coffee would be nice.”

“Yes, it would.” Sky goes into the little kitchen nook, fills the reservoir of a little coffee pot with water, the filter with fine-ground coffee. He hears Alma undressing, the sound of the laundry box closing. Then echoes of splashing water as she enters the bath, which is in a room considerably more cave-like than the rest of his sanctum.

As he sets the little pot – just big enough to make two espressos – on the unlit, smallest burner, he hears a hiss from the bath. “Oh, this is boiling! You have no skin!”

Sky laughs, but then, concerned, calls out, “If you feel lightheaded, get out. It’s really just a little above body temperature.” He pauses, considering, remembering how her body felt cool against him. “Oh, but your body temperature is lower than average. Uh, call me if you need help. I promise I’ll close my eyes.”

The light, echoing laughter from the bath makes Sky smile. There has never been a woman’s voice here. Well, not a live one. “That should be interesting to see you try,” Alma calls out.

Thinking of recordings, Sky goes to his stereo and cranks the flywheel up, enough to play one side of a record. He puts away the vinyl disc they had fallen asleep listening to, runs his fingers along the sleeves and pulls out another album, the cover an image of a warm-brown man wearing a blue-flowered shirt and a thick red lei of flowers, a gazebo and tropical trees in the background. He sets the disc carefully on the turntable, starting the machine so that the arm swings out and the needle gently kisses the tiny grooves in the surface of the platter. The sanctum fills with soft strings gently strummed, a man’s voice, pitched high but with a gravelly edge, singing in a language that, at the time he left that world, was all but lost to time.

He sings along under his breath as he opens a cabinet that has been enchanted to keep its contents fresh, choosing a mango, two kiwis, and an apple, and begins slicing them up. He remembers Alma had decided not to eat, but perhaps she will change her mind, as he himself has. If not, even the sliced fruit will keep in the cabinet until later in the day.

“That’s pretty,” Alma says from the bath. “What is it?”

“Music from another island,” he replies as he pares away the skins of the fruit. “Almost the same language as the other one. Singer’s name is Pahinui. I bought everything of his I could find…before I came back here.”

The sound of water sloshing, splashing, and a bare foot touching the waterlogged stone floor in the bath room. “Ah, you’re that kind of fan.” The goddess’ voice is amused, muffled slightly as she towels herself dry.

Sky chuckles silently. “You all right in there?” He turns on the flame under the little coffeepot.

“I think I’ll never eat lobster again.” The lid to the laundry box opens and he hears the sound of rustling fabric.

As the next song begins, Sky says, “First time I heard him play, I wanted to play like that. Wanted to sing…well, not quite like that, but something like that. Like me but like that, yeah?” He is amused to recognize that his voice is taking on a lilt that has been missing for decades, hints of an island dialect of a language he has heard in some wards of the city, called English. Like the local language of Three Rats, it is from Earth, brought here by the lost residents of a wandering chunk of reality.

The coffee begins burbling cheerfully as the fire turns the little reservoir of water to steam, forcing it through the grounds into the pot above.

“So why did you come back to the Insula, Sky?” Alma asks, reentering the main room, adjusting her clothes, fresh and warm from cleaning. “You said your family was gone…”

Sky looks at her, so beautiful. It feels good that he can admire his friend’s beauty without embarrassment. He lifts the still-burbling coffeepot and turns off the fire, and wordlessly pours the thick, dark liquid into two small cups, porcelain glazed a rich brown with a white crane, on matching saucers. He offers her one, black, no sugar, as he knows she likes it, and sets the bowl of fruit on the coffee table, but he doesn’t sit yet. His face is still, controlled.

“I uh…well, Laura had passed away about thirty years earlier, and it was getting a bit weird for Grampa to still be looking way too young, despite dying my hair white and so on. The grandchildren, great-grandchildren…I was becoming this sort of legend in their lives. I came when they called – I provided ways for them to send a message. But I faded from their lives, and then years went by with no message. I…had lost something with Laura’s death. Perhaps I should have clung to them, but it just seemed time to move on. I’d discovered a way back here a few years before, and I thought maybe I could slip back and forth. But then…”

He pauses as Alma touches his arm, squeezing it comfortingly. “I understand. To watch them age and pass away, generation after generation – it could not have been easy. I’m glad you stayed here.” She finishes her drink, closing her eyes and smiling at the taste of it. “Hmm, you’re getting better at coffee.”

Sky smiles nervously and drinks. “You were right about the local brewing method in Three Rats. And I picked up these beans in the First Ring, when Gwydion and I went shopping there for the New Year. It’s not quite as good as Archon Math’s.” He finishes his coffee, and setting down the cup steels her nerve and says, “Alma…there’s something…something I want to tell you. About why I stayed.” About how I was captured by the Commander, given a choice of being his tool or being destroyed, about what I am. The vile thing that I am. He doesn’t want to tell her. He really does not. But he must and the moment is now.

The song ends and in the moment of silence, Alma’s questioning gaze, which is lingering on his face, flicks toward the stereo – and catches on the silly clock next to it. “Oh Sky…I need to go. It’s my shift, and the Bunnies will be distraught from May’s departure. Is this something that can wait?” She sounds guilty, but he knows that she is already running late. And they have been out of contact with the station for several hours. Gwydion, and not only Gwydion but others, must be wondering if they are all right.

He nods, feeling a rush of relief, with shame hard on its heels for the cowardice it indicates. “Later, yes.” His stomach roils at the thought of knowing that, for several hours at least, he will have this hanging around his neck, a noose ready to pull tight when the trap door opens. He just wants to get it over with, to confront the shock and disgust she will surely feel but struggle to lead her through it to acceptance. Losing her friendship is his greatest fear. Keeping it honestly, his greatest hope.

But the moment is past. Later. Yes, later.

Flailing for something to say, he blurts, “Do you want me to escort you back? I can be ready in a couple of minutes.” Wait, he realizes, I could trigger the portal to open in my office, so she can go back directly.

“No, no,” she insists. “You must want to bathe, too. And I have one or two places to stop by on my way there.”

Sky hesitates, then decides to give in. “Very well. I know you can take care of yourself, but with all that’s out there, watch your back, Alma. And…I’m glad you stayed.”

Alma stretches up to kiss his cheek. “I am glad too. You opened your life to me, Sky. You know, I scolded you for being so open, back when we first met, but really you were keeping your true self hidden away, weren’t you? Off-blue paranoia… I know there is more to learn, but we have time to learn about each other slowly, to deepen our friendship.” She strokes his jaw, and her smile makes his heart feel as if it has stopped.

His attempt to return her smile is twitchy, and he nods and turns to move quickly to the wall, touching it to activate the portal, letting her into his false apartment. He opens the door for her. “I will see you soon.”

Alma pauses, searching his face. “Sky?” He can tell she is about to relent on her decision to leave, about to stay and hear him out now.

He shakes his head and smiles as brightly as he can. “Go. It can wait. I’ll come to see you at dinner time, in the middle of my shift. Now watch that broken step.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

As he eases into the steaming bath, his sanctum fills with the complex, exuberant piano of another favorite from Earth, a Russian composer and performer. Though it does make him want to find a piano for the bar, here is music he has never dreamed of emulating, grandiose, alternately delicate and glorious, furious, and brave, so brave.

He must be brave, he tells himself. After Alma, he must tell Gwydion. He thinks he will need her help there.

And then there is Mayumi. He groans. He is in love with her, for her humor, her fearlessness, even for her anger – but what a situation. He almost hopes she will forget him while she is at the Academy, fall in love with someone more appropriate there. But…she is a Bunny. If she is anything like Rosemary and Cherry, falling in love with someone else will not diminish her feelings for him.

And he truly does not want her to forget him. It has been so long. He does not know what their relationship will be like, but he knows that he would be shattered if she feared him too much for her love to survive. Still, he cannot be with her until she knows what he is. He cannot build that love upon a lie.

What is it about this place? All the barriers he has erected to contain his feelings, to survive in this friendless servitude, this slavery, have been smashed to splinters. Ever since the Commander made him vow to serve, he has resisted to urge to reach out to others. That in itself has been a torture worse to him than that inflicted by Hell. For Hell created him to have what devils and demons lack: empathy. Compassion. He simply cannot help but love those around him.

For some time he has suspected that it was this place, something about it, perhaps whatever drew the Oracle Nevieve and Master Pak and the attention of Archons and other powerful gods. Three Rats, a nexus of two lands, an oasis of plentiful magic in a part of the Fourth Ring that has a paucity of it, must be a place that breaks down walls such as his.

But no. That answer is too easy. It is not the place, not at all. It is the people. Alma, Gwydion, and he mistrusted and mistreated each other at the beginning, but he had found in them warm, strong hearts. And the Bunnies, not just Mayumi but all of them – their ability to break through, to slip past the thickest armor and nourish the most faltering flames of kindness and humanity never fails to elicit his admiration. There is no magic inciting these passions in him. It is the knowledge that here, finally, are people he can trust.

Here is family. Again.

The heat of the water seeps into his muscles, into his bones. He breathes slowly, willing his body to relax. The tension has him knotted and clenched, and he tries to release it. As the music soars, he casts his thoughts back, to the first time he listened to this, in concert, when he took Laura on the long trip to San Francisco, their first trip together more than a day’s travel away from their farm. She loved music, and though they played something nearly every day together, she on piano, he on guitar or ‘ukulele or violin, and they attended and even organized shindigs with music and dancing at least once a month, it had not been since shortly after the War that she had been to a concert of such virtuosity. Her hair was showing grey, the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkling as she watched, rapt, squeezing his hand as if she wanted to merge with him, share with him this joy, directly, that she felt surging in her breast.

She had been the only human, the only person, to hold his heart. There had been many who had touched his heart – far more than who had been touched by him – but she had held it. There was no need to merge further. He was already there.

But she had never, truly, understood what he was. She could not conceive it. He was a devil, she knew that, but that was only a word to her. She had known he was something supernatural soon after they’d met, working together to smuggle secrets out of Richmond to aid the armies of the North. He had been shot in the lung, and instead of dying, he had turned on their attackers and slain them with his bare hands, his eyes glowing blue-green. She had overcome her fear, and they had worked together again, and again. She was tireless in doing everything she could to defeat the Confederacy, which she, like him, considered an abomination, an affront against humanity. She was the highly educated daughter of a freed American slave and a Haitian evangelical minister come to America to preach freedom and revolution.

And so she had had a clear idea of what a devil is, but only as an abstract legend, not a real creature that could war against the gods. He answered all her questions, but his answers were not what she had learned to expect. There was no overarching omnipotent God that he could tell her of, though he admitted that there could be one. She had been stunned that he could sit in the church and sing the hymns with gusto, and greet her aging father in Boston with warm-hearted respect, shaking his hand and not bursting into flame.

Still, she knew him. Where it mattered. She held him in the night and soothed his nightmares away. She could hear those stories of being worshipped as a god, of a world of gods, and still tell him to change a grandchild’s diaper because she was busy with the laundry.

And then she was gone.

He felt the tears well up beneath his eyelids. Could he endure that loss again? So many losses, but that one outweighed them all. To think of it like this still caused a sharp pain to lance through his chest, like that bullet smashing his rib so long ago. He can feel her hand gripping his. He grits his teeth as the music soars.

And the music skips.

His eyes snap open. A tremor. He felt it, something like a small earthquake. That…is not good. It has never happened before. This sanctum is a universe unto itself, and though they are safe, sanctums can become unstable, collapse, disappearing from reality itself forever. Not that it would happen suddenly, but he has heard of it happening, very, very rarely. He will have to get it looked at right away, contact the god who made it for him.

Then through the music he hears another song, just at the edge of human hearing, like the barely audible pings of bats. It matches the strings of the concerto, but just off, warping them out of true, introducing chaos into the precisely planned, powerful beauty, like a worm at the center of a delicious piece of fruit, devouring and leaving behind waste and corruption.

Sky loosens a stone in the bath, pulling it free and dropping it to sink the the floor of the large pool-like tub. In the hidden space is a blade made of a single piece of obsidian, volcanic glass sharper than any steel. He stands, the water running off his body, splashing over the edge to sweep across the bathroom floor and smack against the wall.

Someone is in his sanctum. Something dreadful in its familiarity. Such a voice, and the pleasure it takes in destroying beautiful sounds, is not new to him, though he has not heard it in a very long time. Two centuries. The time since he escaped from Hell.

Shadows move beyond the doorway, then light, growing, a pale green that makes him think of the poisonous glow of radium clocks. He can feel his sanctum pulling away from that glow, cringing like a frightened animal.

A faceless head atop a beautiful androgynous body fills the doorway, glowing green. It has no arms, only ragged-feathered wings tucked in close, and its legs are those of a reptile. Its entire body is made of that sickening glow, the feel of which – not warmth, but a sort of pressure – makes him instantly nauseous, his guts clenching.

A demon. A demon in his sanctum.

Calling upon the power of the sea, he focuses the flow of the water in his bath to blast the abomination. Fortunately he has quite a volume of water to call upon. The design of the sanctum is such that comfortably hot water is constantly flowing in one end of the bath and out the other, through hidden vents that must, Sky assumes, connect to portals. So when the water slams into his uninvited guest, the demon, sizzling and steaming, staggers and falls back.

Sky is out of the tub, running surefooted across moving, flowing water that would make many tumble. He knows there is at least one more, for this is not the singer. Yes, there it is, plastered against the ceiling, its proboscis buried in the teak paneling like a mosquito sucking blood. It continues to ruin the music with its human-like mouth, staring at him with iridescent compound eyes.

Trying to see a way around it, to reach the portal, Sky only catches a glimpse of movement to his side, too late to dodge or block. The ape-bodied, triple-goat-headed attacker is a balinur, one of the footsoldiers of Hell, and he has sliced it half open before they hit the floor together. But though it cries in pain, it holds on, and the glowing, walking corruption is now on its feet again, bending over him, faceless head cocked as if amused.

Not pausing to try to remember exactly what could hurt such a being, he rips the balinur from his body, ignoring the long, deep slashes left by its claws, and uses it as a bludgeon against the green abomination. He can see the floor turning black around its feet, beginning to fester like a gangrenous wound, and hits it again and again with the howling lesser demon, driving it back until it crashes backwards over his sofa and smashes the table. It knocks aside the book of photographs, breaks the silly alarm clock.

He has lost the glass knife, but it was a weapon of emergency only, too fragile to last long in a fight. Now Sky reaches for his Guardia sword, left hanging on a hook. He has the grip in his hand when the singer drops on him, piercing his skin with tiny claws and holding on tight, pinning both of his arms against his chest. Sky staggers, roars, throwing himself against the wall, wincing at the jangling destruction of a guitar, the books falling to be spattered with blood jetting from his thigh.

His world begins to narrow into two possibilities: Hell or the Insula. These demons are clearly here to take him to Hell. He will not go. He has no idea how long he lived in Hell, only that his best moments there were infinitely worse than his worst moments outside of Hell. He would rather be utterly destroyed than return there. And so no other considerations are viable. He must break free, no matter the cost. No matter that his sanctum, his home for decades, is destroyed, along with every scrap of his past. These treasures are nothing if he is recaptured.

And so, as it stabs its barbed-needle proboscis deep into his mid-back, Sky bursts the singer’s grip through the simple expedient of becoming too large for it to hold on. Wings erupt from his shoulders. A tail whips across the room, flinging debris and hitting the flywheel-powered stereo, shattering the concerto along with the platter whose irregular grooves bear a permanent recreation of its beauty, now smashed into oblivion.

He staggers for the portal, which he can see now is open, flickering, but open. Someone has forced it, destroying the security measures he had in place – something that should be nearly impossible. But bargain enough with Hell and you can buy anything, including magic to defeat any other magic.

A clawed foot lands on the back of his neck, sudden massive weight smashing him face-first into the floor. The burning from that viridian touch slithers into his flesh, and resistant to poison as he is, these are demonic poisons, meant to harm even creatures of Hell.

Sky writhes, trying to get free, to stand, to cross the last few steps to freedom. He swings his arm and knocks the creature off him, woozily lunges to get upright, and crashes into the kitchen sink, breaking it free of the wall and destroying the tile mosaic that covered the countertop. He turns, trying to rise fully, opening his jaws and roaring defiance loud enough to shatter every glass in the cabinet.

The singer and the walking, glowing illness are unphased by this. Sky may be a devil, a being of higher rank than demons, but they owe no allegiance to him. As Tuma-Sukai lashes out with his crimson-black claws at the green-glowing body of one attacker, the other stabs him again with its organic needle, injecting a poison that, as far as Sky can tell, immobilizes with wracking pain and convulsions. He curls in on himself, strikes again, feeling a sharp satisfaction as he connects and provokes a bleat of agony from the insectoid demon. But a moment later, despite his size, Sky is knocked flying across his sanctum, bouncing off the opposite wall, falling into a heap of books and destroyed paintings.

He tries to stand, slips, begins vomiting. With a groan, he tries again. And again he fails.

Footsteps approach. He sees leather boots, and slowly looks up, taking in the form of a young human woman, a mortal, her form adorned with silver skull-shaped jewelry, a loose belt of what looks to be human finger-bones. She looks at him sardonically, triumphant, putting her hands on her hips, the fingertips of one hand decorated with silver rings each sporting a wicked claw.

“Hello, Azzageddi,” she purrs as he slides into darkness.

 

Ch6.61 Trust

“He used something like that on me once before, long ago,” Sky is saying. The pleasant, relaxing sounds of stringed instruments and voices singing in languages barely known on the Insula issue from the speakers connected to Sky’s windup, flywheel-powered record player. Sky has one hand wrapped around a mug of coffee, feeling the heat from it penetrate his fingers. The mug has no handle. It is rustic-looking but with a subtle elegance, and the smell steaming from it triggers a sense of calm in the long-time imbibers of the drink regarded as sacred among some cultures of the City of Gods. The music, the coffee, the goddess next to him combine with the feeling of welcome that he always feels here in his sanctum. It is like a living thing, almost – no consciousness at all, but there is a sort of spirit here in this, his home. “A combination of drunkenness and lust. It’s like a squid spraying a cloud of ink to cover its escape. But it leaves behind devastation.”

Alma is leaning against him, exhausted, his other arm around her. She is cradling a matching cup of coffee in both her hands, looking wan, ready to drop off to sleep at any moment. She is still incorporating her new sphere and none of this has helped. “I despise love spells. They distort everything. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have…” She looks up at him, embarrassed. “You know.”

He looks at her, his face sorrowful. “I know. Of course I know. And neither would I.” At a raised eyebrow from her, he snorts. “Look…if there were any goddess I were going to fall in love with, it would be you. I know myself that well. But, as much as I love you, I’ve never…never been attracted that way, to immortals.”

Alma’s mouth opens. “Oh.” She pauses for a heartbeat. “Well, no wonder I’ve felt so at ease with you. I’ve known some gods who were drawn to mortals. It usually works the other way around, though. I could never bind to mortals. They are so…temporary. So frail.”

Sky shakes his head. “I’ve known gods like that, too, who go chasing after mortals and then abandon them before they can become inconveniently old.” His tone has an edge of disgust to it. “That’s not me. It’s not that I have a particular passion for mortals. More that I don’t have this…complete lack of passion for them. It’s something in how I was made. Maybe connected with the rebellion thing. I don’t really know.” But I have suspicions, he wants to say. All offspring of Hell are born with an antipathy for their former slaves, the gods. In me, it is quite muted, but still comes through in this way. And the evil and cruelty I suffered in Hell makes unthinkable any feelings of affection for one of my fellow devils or demons. But mortals – I was made to feel empathy for them. To lead them in rising up.

“You have no choice, then?” Alma asks, interrupting his reverie. “Other than to love those who will inevitably leave you to mourn alone?”

Sky shrugs. “I have a choice. I have chosen to live in isolation for more than sixty years.”

She closes her eyes in sympathetic pain and leans her head more firmly against his side. “Poor Sky. Well, I hope this doesn’t add to your pain, but I’ve never felt romantically pulled toward you, either.”

Sky chuckles. “That isn’t painful to hear. If I didn’t already know it, I would say it’s a relief. I mean, it would be flattering, but since I can’t reciprocate, it would complicate things. I’ve…had a goddess or two fall for me. You’re my dearest friend. It would fill me with sorrow if you loved me in a way I could not return.”

Alma finishes her coffee and sets the cup on the table, which has several small objets d’art on it. Passing over a knotted dragon carved of ivory, a small school of ceramic carp, each painted in unique patterns and apparently designed as chopstick holders, and a comical bug-eyed mudskipper whose gaping mouth holds a random assortment of pens and pencils, she picks up a carving of lustrous wood, looking at it absently, running her thumb over the smooth surface. It is a statuette of a god or demon done in a fantastical, almost parodic style, with a huge wolflike muzzle of shark teeth, backswept horns, a big overhanging belly, bowed legs, and upturned laughing eyes. It holds a harpoon in one hand and a bundle of fish on hooks in the other, and its draconic tail wraps around a pile of skulls scattered about its feet.

“Part of me is wondering now…” she begins, leaving Sky hanging, waiting for how that will finish and filling in the blank with a hundred possibilities. “…if Gwydion was right.”

It takes him a moment for it to click into place. “When he accused you of forming a harem? First of all, he had the wrong idea about me. Second, correct me if I’m wrong, but the only god other than Dion who has fallen in love with you lately is Somrak. Not much of a harem.”

She says silent for a two slow breaths. “So you know about Somrak, then?” she asks, her voice low.

“After all those years of being his partner, I can read him easily,” Sky replies. “It was pretty obvious he had developed feelings for you, at least while I was asleep for a week. Maybe before that. I should have seen it coming. You…are his type. Anyway, I just think you’ve been meeting the sort of gods, lately, who are naturally going to be drawn to you. Coincidence.”

“If only I weren’t drawn to them,” she says. “I really always wanted something simple. Two people for as long as it lasts. I thought I had that and then I didn’t and now I had it again but…I don’t.” She shrugs. “We’re not exclusive, Gwydion and I. At least in theory. Turns out that just went one way. Worked fine for as long as I didn’t want anyone else.”

Sky is quiet for a moment, just comfortingly rubbing her shoulder. Then he says, “He’s afraid. I wouldn’t claim to understand that kind of thinking…except maybe I do. For me, it wasn’t other lovers. It was war. I was with someone I loved, truly loved, and we only had so many decades we could be together, and yet I would go off to war every few years. Part of it was my nature, but part…fear of that all-encompassing commitment. And of what I knew would come after. Fear of the end. It took me time to figure that out, and to stop running away.”

“I love him, Sky. I didn’t think I did, at first. It was just… We were both going through very difficult times and it was solace, being together. No commitments. Just a way to avoid thinking. Together, for a time. But then time went by and it didn’t take long for that to change. But I never pushed. It’s not like I’m any better at commitments than he is.”

As diplomatically has he can, Sky says, “I’ve heard…rumors about his romantic tendencies.”

“I’m very much aware of his general approach to the opposite sex.” Alma smiles wryly at Sky. “I’m not young enough to believe in fairy tales, you know?”

“Hey, there are some wards where not believing in fairy tales will get you killed,” Sky jokes. “Anyway, he hasn’t learned to trust yet. Not just you, but himself. That’s what I think, anyway. And you’re absolutely right to be furious with him, but…” He sighs. “Maybe I’m just a fool, but I think you two are going to be good together.”

Alma cuddles against him. “I’m not furious anymore. Just sad…tired. Wondering what I’ll find when I return to the station. And how he found out about Somrak.” She looks up at him. “So I’m Som’s type, then? And what does that mean, exactly?”

Sky pulls her closer, relishing the simple physical contact. “Ah, Somrak. I’ve rarely seen his cynicism break down. It only ever has around goddesses who are at least as tough as he is. Not in the sense of raw power, but in mental strength. People who have…been through Hell, but who do not let it limit them. He respects that.” He pauses. “And…well, it’s none of my business…”

In mild irritation, Alma insists, “Oh, just ask already. What would I have to hide from you now?”

“I was just wondering what the draw is, with him. As you said, you just want something simple. But it’s clear you are attracted to him.”

Alma takes a deep breath. “Have you ever tracked a criminal who takes amusement in taunting you, outsmarting you, being one step ahead? And the chase becomes consuming? You want to outsmart him, learn to think like him until you’re not quite sure which thoughts are yours and which of them aren’t?”

Sky nods, his mind going back over a number of cases.

“Death gods are like that too,” she continues, “with people who keep – what do they say? Flirting with death? It’s more than a simple expression. It’s alluring. But…that’s not all of it. As you say, Somrak is just so broken. So alone. I know that kind of loneliness. The numbness.” She sighs. “Anyway, I wouldn’t leave Gwydion to run after him. And that is what I told him, that day during the party.”

Sky nods again. After so many years of being Somrak’s responsibility, Somrak’s partner, and very recently, maybe, Somrak’s friend, he knows what she means. “Despite what happened, I’m glad I asked him to come to Three Rats. He needs someone. Us.”

“He has us,” She smiles humorlessly. “For as long as he wants us. How long have you two been together?”

“Oh, the Commander partnered me up with him when I was fresh out of the Academy. So about forty years.”

Sounding tired, Alma murmurs, “Why would he? I thought Somrak was many times our senior.”

“He is,” Sky says. “He has been an off-blue longer than you, Gwydion, and I put together have been Guardia. But he’s actually younger than I. So maybe the Commander thought we would sort of balance each other out.”

“It seems too long a time to spend as an off-blue,” she says with a sigh. “Anyway…I admit I was surprised to find he could be so friendly. He surely seemed less amenable when we first met at the Curia. And Gwydion took to him as well, I could tell, in spite of the jealousy. And the Bunnies…” She covers her face with her hands, dropping the wooden figurine on her lap. “Gods, the Bunnies…. Might have had an eighth one tonight if you had not broken that spell.”

Sky’s eye go wide. “What?” he squawks.

Alma fidgets with the hem of her dress as she talks. “I’m afraid I cannot quite control how I create them… You see, I can’t…you know. Not with gods. Not without risks.”

“Oh.” He thinks of the consequences. The thought of offspring has always disturbed him, since he has no idea what the result could be. He feels ill again. Then he realizes what this means for her and Gwydion. “And so Dion and you…?”

“I know.” She looks up at the ceiling. “It’s frustrating to say the least. Hence the whole arrangement deal. I would risk it with him, though, if the Council weren’t watching. If another Bunny pops up…”

A new Bunny would very possibly see Alma sentenced to Hell after all, and the existing Bunnies coldly executed. “The consequences for you and all of them would be dire. There’s no, um, magical way of…?”

She shakes her head. “Still looking. No choices so far. Mortals are safe. Demigods are too, it appears. But gods…too powerful an exchange of mana. And really, I have no interest running around lying with whoever is safe. Truth is, I’m not even sure how I do it.”

“What about this new sphere?” Sky asks. “Will it bring balance, or more difficulty?”

“I don’t know, really. The Wheel is everything. Life to Death to Life again. When a soul is spun through it, it is cleansed. Reshaped. Through the Spinner – a god of the Wheel, that is – a soul may reach the Wheel. It’s a strange sensation. Indescribable. Pain and ecstasy.” Alma shakes her head. “It was frightening when it awoke in me. I was not prepared for it. And Spinners…they’ve always been Life gods. For as far as I can remember, just one of them lives at each generation. Our current Spinner has been growing weak. We had been afraid she would disappear without leaving a successor.”

Sky feels worried. “Does this spinning weaken gods then? Is it going to bring you to harm?”

“I don’t know,” she says again. “But Sharia is rather aged. I think she is merely becoming senile. The Wheel takes power in order to be channeled, I think. Maybe…she is too old to summon enough power.”

“Strange to think of gods becoming old, but I suppose it works that way for some,” Sky muses. The truth is, most gods disappear after a few centuries, very few lasting more than a dozen. Exactly what happens to them is unclear; the consensus is that they ascend to a higher plane of being.

They fall quiet, and Alma looks around the room. On the curved wall are pictures of people, some smiling, others keeping their faces woodenly expressionless, framed in hand-carved, sometimes painted frames that are themselves works of art. A half-dozen guitars are mounted on the wall as well, decorative but easily removed to be played, and there are smaller ones as well. Weapons also at hand: two curved swords of different designs, a short spear, a hardwood club with what appears to be shark teeth embedded along the edges to make a primitive, wicked sort of sword. She picks up the statuette again from her lap. “So who is this?”

Sky laughs. “Oh, that’s me. I started out as a god on another world. I was worshipped in a tiny kingdom that occupied a single valley on a small island. This,” he juts his chin at the record player, “is music by people who live on that island.”

“But not by your people?” Alma asks.

Sky shakes his head slowly. “I failed to protect them. I wanted to explore the world. Disease and the actions of stronger, predatory nations wiped them out while I was away. By the time I returned, they were gone. No one ever recorded their music. I am the only one left who knows their songs.” He tries to speak matter-of-factly, but the shame in his voice is obvious. Even after all this time, he thinks of them almost every day.

Alma squeezes his hand. “Well if you looked anything like this, you’ve certainly changed.” The gentleness of her voice softens the sardonic words. “So, why is it that you keep this place so well hidden?”

“Oh, part of the paranoia of being off-blue, I suppose,” he answers. “I’ve always kept a fake place that can be ‘found’ by enemies. Not that I’ve taken great care of keeping this secret. Being part of a regular station is simpler. Enemies can usually be met head on.”

Alma smiles. “I’m not really one to talk. My sanctum is busier than Kyri’s bakery. But I like this place. It feels rather like you. Simple on the surface. Hints of a million stories to tell in every little thing. Like this idol, and the pictures. Or that little carving on the shelf over there.”

Sky looks, and stretches to pick it up and show it to her. It is a yellowed piece of ivory, somewhat triangular, the size of his palm, curved on one side and almost straight on the other, with a rounded tip and a base made of polished, fantastically twisted driftwood. On one side is carved in delicate lines an image of a ship in full sail, plowing through the waves; on the other is a large fish-like creature, a spout of water or spray or maybe even smoke rising from its head. “That…is something carved for me by my, well, my grandson. He was on a sea voyage, and became quite the artist during it. This is the ship he was on, the Hamilton,” he points to the tiny name carved on the hull. “And this is what they hunted.”

Alma is wide-eyed as she takes it from him. “You have a grandson? This means you had children, at some point. Where are they?”

Again, he tried not to sound as sad as he feels. “Long gone. They were all adopted. Mortals.”

Alma says nothing, but puts a hand on his and squeezes it gently.

After a long moment of silence he says, “I met her not long after my encounter with Sam there. Well, some years, but it didn’t seem so long. Slaves had risen up on an island, and I had gone to aide them, and there was Sam. For a time, I thought we were friends. Then he switched sides. Anyway,” he reaches for a thick portfolio on the table, opening it to reveal images, photographs, some of them by methods she had never seen before, until he finds one of a serious-faced couple in finery – a wedding photo. It takes her a moment to recognize Sky, his hair completely different, slicked back and with furry sideburns, wearing a black suit with a curious little bow around his neck. The woman next to him is in white, with a veil over her hair, her face darker than his, lips full, a knowing look as if she has seen through the photographer and holds some secret of his. “This is her. Laura. We met, and I fell in love. And it being in the midst of war – a different war – we found children who needed homes. I… Well, we soon had a family. And one thing I know is, picking a fight with Sam while one has a family is not a good idea. So I did my best to forget that vow of revenge.”

“And you saw him again you just thought you’d go for it?” Alma asks.

Sky shakes his head ruefully. “I knew giving him a chance to act was a mistake. I thought I should try to take him out quickly, neutralize his powers. I thought he was going to do something to you. So…I acted. But as usual, he was already prepared.”

“I will report to Father about him, now that I know what we are dealing with,” she tells him. “He is family. That helps. The Clan will deal with him.” She turns slightly to stroke Sky’s temple. “And I think you should let that vow fall for the time being. You have a family.”

Sky reluctantly nods assent. “He is more trickster than death god, really. Be careful. And then there is the necromancer…”

Alma looks down, her hand lowering again. “Yes, there is that. I have been reading the information that my father has finally unlocked about the wars. So much that I didn’t know about my clan, what it went through. And finding something that will be of use to us is like sifting through a mountain of sand in search of gold.”

“We will find them,” Sky says. “They’ve gone underground, it seems, but we will find them. And you need to be in good shape for when we do. You should rest.”

“Maybe if I did, this day would end sooner.” She laughs derisively. “Maybe I could wake up and the world would be sane again.”

Sky looks askance at her. “This world? Has it ever been sane?” He gestures with his chin again, toward one of the two doorways. “There’s a bed in there. Or I could get some blankets for the sofa here. You could take a nap.”

“And what will you do? While I nap?” she asks.

“I could use some sleep as well,” he says. “It’s my usual time. So I’ll take whichever one you don’t prefer.”

“I’m pretty much sure we would both fit here on the sofa, then,” Alma suggests. Sky blinks in surprise, but she smiles sardonically and continues, “Figure we have pretty much established there is no chance for anything improper taking place between us. I’m just… I guess I’ve grown used to not sleeping alone.” Her voice and expression are apologetic.

Sky smiles. “I’ve fallen asleep here many a time.”

“Good,” she says. “You can tell me about your grandson and this sea monster. Is this its tooth? It must be almost as big as a dragon.”

“Bigger,” he says. “Much bigger than all but the oldest dragons. The oceans of that magic-poor world contain many such creatures.”

Alma snuggles against him for comfort, sets the carving on the table next to the little Sky-idol, and closes her eyes. “Thank you…by the way. For showing me this piece of you. I know I keep scolding you for being too open but the truth is…you just pretend to reveal too much while keeping far more hidden, don’t you? Paranoid, is what you are. It’s nice, learning a bit more of the mystery that is Tuma-Sukai.”

He holds her, silent and still, feeling her breath slowing. The day has left her so exhausted that he knows she is fading quickly. His heart beats faster, as he closes his eyes and steels himself to speak. Finally, as if afraid of someone else hearing, he whispers, “Alma? There’s something I want to tell you. That I’ve been wanting to tell you for so long. That I am terrified to tell you but…I must.”

She makes a tiny sound, soft like a sigh of pleasure. She is asleep, he realizes. He looks fondly at her face, made innocent by slumber, and feels suddenly, sharply grateful for her trust in him. He wants to protect her from all the myriad threats that beset them. Not just her. Her children, and Dion as well. Sky knows he would give up his life for any of them.

He strokes her hair and kisses the top of her head. “It’ll wait for morning.”