The moon is still high over the skies of Three Rats. In fact, there should be about five moons visible tonight, each with a different color and phase, each with a different rising and setting time, but they all seem to be nicely aligned with each other to give the illusion of a single, larger moon. A single moon that should not have stayed still in the night sky for the last two hours. Moon gods, as some people will very well know, are particularly enthusiastic lovers of games of chance so it would not be surprising if they had all just parked their assigned moons in the same spot and taken the night off to cheat their way through a few rounds of some strange card game.
The large moon casts its light over Three Rats, competing with the gas lamps to see which can do a worse job of illuminating the sinuous, narrow streets and rundown buildings in this part of the ward. Under the pale, silvery light, each damaged wall, pierced by the occasional, and sometimes not fully planned, window rises like a gravestone engraved with some cryptic, unnatural language.
Ah, the glamorous graveyard shift, Dion thinks shifting his gaze from the sky above to the Sky below. Perfect for anyone who likes moonlit nights, quiet alleys and the eerie feeling of being watched by things with too many legs.
“Situation?” the Inspector inquires.
“Human shard known to use earth related-elementals as enforcers,” Dion answers, using the slang term that he had first heard from Sky, but which had somehow spread to other stations in recent weeks. “Information says five humans, each with a different elemental: Magma, Metal, Dust, Clay, Stone. They have been using this house as a hideout for less than a week so they should still be here.”
The god of magic sighs inwardly. Sky was not expected to be a part of this raid. Dion’s sources had just confirmed the location of this shard when the sergeant gathered Alma and the four Popula he believed he would need for this operation. Sky had been napping in his office sofa at the time and so, in an effort to take some of the load off of his Inspector’s back, Dion had decided together with Alma not to ask him for backup. As soon as the Popula entered the armory to get equipped, however, the feather-light-sleeping Sky had popped out of his office and insisted on tagging along.
In a normal situation, Sky would be off-shift by now, resting during Dion’s graveyard shift and Alma’s day-shift before returning to fulfill his assigned duty. Unfortunately, normal situations are a thing of that wonderful time in the past before Nekh was killed and the Dukaines splintered to give rise to countless gang shards. Since then, the virtual border between Popula and Dei jurisdiction has become practically nonexistent in anything other than paperwork, forcing the gods to intervene in most situations. Dei shifts are now mostly shared, with the gods constantly being called out of their beds – sometimes, office sofas – to provide backup to their fellow Dei in the painstaking, but so far successful, operation of taking down the more powerful and problematic shards.
Sky’s presence at the station has been nearly constant, in spite of his sergeants’ best efforts to convince him to take care of himself and rest. Dion wonders if he has even visited his apartment in the last few days. The god of freedom looks permanently exhausted, struggling for focus and patience. He is a terrible accident waiting to happen, burning mana just to stay awake yet insisting on being present for just one more raid.
Thankfully, it is not solely on him that Dion can look to for support. By his side, Alma is just gathering their latest information, her eyes shining with the divine power of soul-scrying as she peers through the dusty sidewall window of the single-storey building against which the Dei are currently leaning. In an alley nearby, Corporal Lamore, Aliyah Kaur and two more Guardia Probationary Constables are waiting on Dion’s signal.
Dion grimaces at the thought of the two GPCs. Oliveira and Janssen had been fresh out of the Academy when the god’s adventures in Three Rats started. No probe should go through an initiation like this. All he can do is be glad that they have stepped up and risen to the challenge.
“I see five divines, six mortals,” Alma says softly, barely disturbing the night air but derailing Dion’s train of thought completely.
“Are you sure?” he asks her with mild surprise. “Only five mortals have been mentioned by my sources.”
Alma’s eyes flare with her power, burning icy-blue in the darkness as she looks at him. There is no anger in her silent response. It is merely a reminder of how often they have trusted her soul-scrying to prevent unpleasant surprises, in the last few weeks.
“A hostage, maybe?” Sky ventures. He touches Dion’s shoulder in fraternal encouragement. “Anyway, you have the lead.”
Dion nods, looking at both his fellow Dei. This is his shift, his responsibility. Sky and Alma are there for support and will trust his judgement, proceed as he sees fit. “No deadly force is to be used on the mortals unless absolutely necessary. I will go in first. Alma, your death sphere may not be the best against them.”
Alma nods, her words mirroring Dion’s thoughts. “Observe and adapt. Consider me your shadow.”
Dion turns his attention to Sky. “Based on your abilities, I would be more comfortable if you act as secondary backup on this one, Sky.”
“I’ll fall behind and pick up the rear,” the Inspector replies after a brief hesitation.
Dion looks down for a moment and inhales deeply. This is the last active shard on their very long list of powerful and violent gangs and taking it down will finally give the Dei enough space to breathe and resume some level of normality in their lives. If they fail to capture them tonight, it could be weeks before the gods get some much-needed rest. And Dion could really do with a return to proper Guardia protocol and the regular Popula/Dei boundaries. All these raids, all this work in the shady grey areas of police work make him feel uncomfortable and corrupt.
A gentle, subtle touch of Alma’s hand to the small of his back brings him sweet reassurance. She is here, ready to back him up. After so many raids, there is no one Dion would trust more to watch his back, with only Sky as a close second. The goddess seems almost able to read his mind, adapting swiftly to any changes in gameplan. Probably a result of all the time they have been spending together.
He looks at her, then at Sky. “Last one. Here we go.”
Rounding up the corner toward the front door of the building, he brings forth his favorite scouting spell, extending his hand to receive the light-spawn ferret whose slender head and red eyes immediately turn to await Dion’s orders. With a jerk of his head, the god gives his scout the signal to go into the building. Incorporeal, the spell moves through the simple brick wall and enters the dark room beyond it, giving Dion second-hand vision and hearing within the space he is planning to enter. At this late time of night, the gang members must be sleeping, tucked into the various dark corners of what looks like an old, abandoned bakery lit only by the fire that still burns in the wall-mounted wood-oven and spews its warmth into the room. The previous owner must have passed away or gone bankrupt long before this shard arrived here because the ceilings are covered in countless generations of spiderwebs and even the wooden shelves and boxes look stale and brittle.
As the ferrety scout moves through the room, Dion fails to find any signs of the elementals. He can hear the snoring and mumbling of the mortals but that is about it. Edging towards the door, the god grumbles under his breath. He knows better than to assume his sources were just exaggerating. Besides, didn’t Alma say she could detect five divine souls in there?
Well, I guess I’ll just have to draw them out, he concludes.
With a few brief words, he reshapes his scouting spell. In a matter of seconds, the light-spawn ferret becomes the perfect mirror image of Dion himself. The god peeks in through a filthy window, to see the false image of himself standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by the faint golden glow of his magic. A fleeting image of Alma’s blue eyes shining eerily through another window, pointed straight at him, lets the god know that she can see through his ruse and will not jump into the fray ahead of time.
Clearing his throat, the god shouts, “Guardia Dei, surrender immediately and you will be spared!”
The shout seems to work. Hidden in the shadows, the gang members blink themselves awake and jump to their feet. Dion cannot see them yet but he can hear their feet shuffling as they move slightly closer and then…
Nothing. For a long, breathless moment, there is no sound, no movement. The fake Dion stands, glowing, undisturbed. It is as if the mortals have vanished. Dion waits…and waits…
A sudden word, a strike sends his scout flying against the wall, disintegrating it in a shower of sparkling dust. With well-rehearsed moves, Dion casts a quick spell of dismissal over the Magma elemental that is now glowing red in the center of the old bakery, having been summoned to attack the false Dion. With a terrible shriek, the elemental falls to its knees, bashing its knuckles against the stone floor with fiery violence before melting away into the cracks in the stone.
One done, four to go.
“A trick!” one of the gangsters cries. “It’s a trick!”
As a single man, they start running toward the door, trying to escape before the Guardia can grab them. On the outside, Dion moves quickly to block their exit, standing at the entrance of the room. He cannot let them get away.
He draws his sword, and holds it low, letting the light of his magical blade blind his opponents before he moves in to take the first one down. The man tries to move out of his way, barely managing to evade Dion’s attempt to knock the mortal’s sword out of his hand. The next attack of Dion’s blade slashes through the man’s arm, disabling it. But the man is not alone. Knowing they are fighting no ordinary mortal, the other gang members leave nothing to chance.
Godly senses tell him of a sudden surge in power. Dion turns quickly on his heels to block the vicious attack of the metal elemental with his sword. It is more a reflex than a well-planned move that makes him use his blade. The metal elemental is completely unmoved by the strike of Dion’s sword against its body, its hand already moving to grab the blade and assimilate it. Not half as physically powerful but twice as fast, Dion moves the beautiful blade out of harm’s way and holds a hand out to cast another spell of dismissal.
An odd whooshing sound makes him glance to his left. The world turns grey.
Dion ducks instinctively, waiting to be engulfed by a cloud of dust. A loud grumble washes over him and he looks up just in time to see a green, leafy blanket materialize midair and engulf the dust elemental. The blanket rolls into a ball, growing tiny spring flowers as the elemental trapped inside knocks helplessly against the walls of its flowery prison.
The glint of light on metal catches Dion’s eye. He raises his hand, casting the spell of dismissal just as the metal elemental’s fists begin to fall over the crouching god. Above him, the creature throws its head back and screams with a voice like blades colliding. Dion has to roll on his side to escape being caught under the heavy body of the elemental as it falls, massive and stiff on the hard floor, splashing like quicksilver before disappearing from sight.
Jumping quickly to his feet, Dion sees Alma fighting against two of the mortals. Another lies on the floor already, unconscious but breathing. With a swift, twirling motion, Alma is suddenly standing behind one of the humans, her pale hand driving the pommel of her thin-bladed sword into the back of the man’s head. The mortal falls, wide-eyed and unconscious, to his knees, still clutching the dagger with which he had been trying to cut into Alma’s leather-clad belly.
The goddess turns to take down the fourth mortal but something in the shadows seems to grab hold of her from behind. Alma is lifted by the throat, feet flailing and trying to kick whatever stands behind her, her sword fallen to the floor as the goddess tries to free herself from her attacker. Dion can see the stoney fingers that wrap around Alma’s delicate neck tighten their hold on her. She looks like she may break at any moment.
“Alma!” he calls.
She looks at him, her eyes wide in anger and fear. Dion cannot banish the elemental without risking injuring Alma but she cannot afford to wait much longer. Trusting his instincts, and hoping Alma will trust him as well, Dion kneels and places one hand on the floor. The mortal that Alma was trying to take down looks at him and signals his only remaining friend, lurking somewhere behind and to the left of the god. Dion can only see one of the mortals moving and he hopes the other one is not moving much faster. Closing his eyes, he calls forth his power, shapes his spell.
The floor shakes. The men fall. A gaping fault opens beneath the stone elemental’s right foot, making it lose its balance and loosen its hold on Alma. The goddess breathes in with a loud wheeze before adding her powers to Dion’s. At her command, a summery breeze flows through the room, filling it with the scent of warm earth and ripe fruit. Plants begin to sprout and stretch into sight, between the stones, through the stones, wrapping around the fallen humans to stop them from rising again, breaking through the elemental’s body to shatter it under the insidious, unyielding power of all living things.
Dion carefully avoids the growing roots and stalks as he walks up to the goddess and helps her remove the last fragments of stone that still surround her neck.
“Are you all right?” he asks, grimacing at the sight of the bruises that mar her pale skin, revealed after a vine crushes the last of the stone fingers clutching Alma’s neck.
“Yes, just a bit dizzy,” the goddess replies, leaning down to pick up her sword. “Where is Sky?”
“Sky?” Dion asks in surprise. “I haven’t seen him. Maybe he stayed outside.”
Alma shakes her head. “No, I am sure I saw him come in just after me–”
Her voice trails off, her eyes widen again as she looks over his shoulder, at the other end of the room. “Look out!”
Thunder roars through the bakery. The gods fall to the floor.
Dion looks up, ears ringing, feeling the weight of Alma’s body fallen on his. Before he could react, she had switched places with him, shielding his body with hers. She lies over him now, her hands trapped under his torso. As sound begins to slowly fade back into Dion’s ears, he can hear her groaning softly. His hands move to her back, feeling her clothing strangely wet. Dion brings his fingers closer to his eyes. Blood. She is bleeding.
She is bleeding! Why?
His hands probe her back for answers until his fingers feel the edges of some kind of material buried into her flesh, piercing through the leather of her corset. Careful not to cause any more pain than necessary, Dion removes it from her body, making her groan again.
The god looks at what seems to be just a shard of a bigger item. With a softly rough texture and earthy pale color it almost looks like–
His eyes widen at the lighting of the proverbial torch of realization. The clay elemental.
“Everyone all right?” Sky’s voice rings, a bit hoarse as if he is still recovering from the explosion.
Even though being so much closer to the explosion probably stunned him considerably more than the sergeants, the god of rebellion rushes to them, shaking his head to drown out the ringing in his ears. He stumbles closer to where Dion is still lying on the floor, with Alma on top of him, and stops for a moment. His eyes widen in a sudden panic as he kneels by Dion’s side and helps move Alma off of him, carefully laying her unresisting form on the green mat that now covers the stone floor of the bakery.
“The sixth mortal,” she mutters.
Dion exchanges a knowing glance with Sky. “Go, I will take care of her.”
Sky nods, looking grim, hesitating to leave for a moment. “I think I saw a door over there. I’ll be right back.”
“You should go with him,” Alma says in the rigid tones of someone in deep physical discomfort. “I will be along in a moment.”
She grimaces as she tries to reach for another shard sticking out of her back. Dion shifts to his knees and moves closer to her, to inspect the damage.
“Sky can handle a mortal,” he replies, summoning a luminary to aid his vision. “You need help.”
Alma breathes deeply in defeat. “If you could just remove the shards so I can heal my wounds…”
“I can’t reach some of them,” Dion tells her. “I have to remove your corset.”
“Well, that should be no problem to you, then,” the goddess jests, trying to make light of the situation even though her voice betrays her pain. “You’ve had your fair share of practice there.”
“And it will never be enough,” Dion says with a half-grin.
Slowly, gently, he removes her corset and lifts her blouse, scowling at the sight of Alma’s pale, soft skin covered in the blood that oozes from three gashes of different sizes. A fifth wound, the one from which Dion took the first shard, is already closed, no more than a temporary red line smeared with clotting blood.
The god carefully removes the bigger shards first. Her body stiffens, muscles contracting, but she does not complain. Her wounds begin to heal almost immediately after Dion has removed the shard that caused them. As the pain begins to fade, Alma begins to relax.
Sky returns just a few minutes later and kneels immediately by Dion to look at the goddess’ back.
“I found the last one. Handed him over to Lamore,” he says, visibly worried. “What can I do to help?”
Too focused on the sensation caused by the tip of Dion’s knife digging through her flesh to remove the last shard, Alma remains silent but reaches a hand back to touch Sky’s leg.
Sky puts his hand on hers. “I’m sorry.” His voice is thick with regret.
Alma holds his hand and squeezes it as the last shard slides with some resistance out of her torn muscles. She does not speak until it is fully out. “It is nothing much. Will be gone in a minute.”
In effect, her skin immediately begins to close, the edges of her wounds glowing with a faint, reddish-gold light. Soon, the only trace left is the dry blood staining her skin and the fabric of her blouse.
“There, all better,” she says.
Sky releases her hand and stands, ready to help her and Dion up. He looks a decade older than he did before the fight. “I…didn’t expect an explosion.” He shakes his head, opens his mouth to say something else, closes it.
“That must have been some oven to do that to an elemental,” Dion comments as he helps Alma sit up. “Were you hurt by the explosion? You were considerably closer to it than us.”
Sky looks at his forearms. “Just some abrasions…nothing much. Alma…if one of those chunks had hit your head…” He looks ill at the thought.
“We all know the risks we face,” the goddess cuts him off, reaching a hand to Sky. “Help me up, please.”
He does, falling silent again. She takes the opportunity to take his forearms in her hands, healing his abrasions. “Do I need to say what we both know?”
He shakes his head. “I need rest, I know. I just…I knew once I started, I wouldn’t be able to rouse myself for anything for days, maybe a week.”
“I have to admit, Sky, that we have been more worried about you than we seem to have been able to convey so far,” Dion says, rising to his feet. “There will always be another shard or another crime but if you don’t rest now, I’m afraid we’ll eventually lose you. If not to an accident, then to simple exhaustion.”
“We have been watching you consume yourself as if there was no tomorrow,” Alma adds, still holding Sky’s arms, squeezing them as if to wake him up from a dream. “I can’t watch it anymore.”
Sky’s hands wrap around Alma’s forearms as he hangs his head and argues weakly, “While you two were gone, it’s how I had to live.” He looks down as if overwhelmed by the memory of those days. “And by the time you got back, the only way to rest was to crash. I had to burn mana to keep going. Things were still too chaotic. All three of us together, we were able to take down all the major shards we know of. Now…I fear I won’t be there when you find that necromancer, Alma.”
Alma lets go of him to poke his chest with an accusing finger as she scolds the inspector. “You need to trust me. Trust us. We don’t work any differently without you looking over our shoulders.” Her hand moves up to stroke his cheek. Her voice becomes soft again. “You have done your part and no one I know would have done it better. But you can’t go on working like this any longer.”
Sky nods. “I do trust you both. I know you’ll handle things well. I’m just…afraid. It’s not you I don’t trust. It’s those who are still out there. And…the vow I made. How can I fulfill it when I’m unconscious for a week?” He shakes his head in defeat. “But I know you’re right. I cannot continue like this. Not without doing more harm than good. I’m putting myself on leave for a week. I’m sorry that you’ll have to work longer shifts.”
“We’ll manage,” Dion assures him, “and then compensate once you return.”
“Yes. We’ll extend our shifts and I’ll adjust my harvests to make sure we don’t both end up like you,” Alma says, pulling away from Sky. “Even if we are nowhere close to your level of exhaustion, I don’t really fancy the notion of standing here in a week trying to decide if I should sleep for a few days straight.”
With a grim nod, Sky concedes. He puts a hand on Dion’s shoulder, something that the sergeant has learned to see as an act of demure affection. “After we return to the station, I need to put a few things in order, and then I promise, I will go to bed.” His eyes become distant with thought, his mind already drifting. “I’d better go grocery shopping too…”
“At this time of night, Sky?” Dion reminds him with a chuckle. “You’d probably do better gathering food from the bar. I am sure Cherry and Merri would not say no.”
“Of course, you may oppose to living on salads for a week…” Alma notes, grinning.
Sky chuckles. “I’ll figure something out. But last time I did this, I woke up to find I’d sleep-eaten my way through everything edible in my home. Including things I didn’t realize were edible. I’m worried I may end up with fewer pillows.”