Ch6.95 Trust

It was excruciating. Excruciating to separate herself from the sword threatening to engulf her, to imprison her. To fight the pull, to move in the opposite direction. Away and away. Back into a body. A living body. Into herself.

But she welcomed the pain, embraced it, traveled on it. Anything, everything was less painful than the agony of being bound. And Nua’s momentary distraction was all that Alma needed to re-enter her body, to grab hold of flesh that is hers, of muscles, nerves, bones and organs that are hers by nature and origin. And though Nua fights viciously, Alma is winning.

“Death Clan bitch, do you really think you can throw me out?” Nua taunts her. “There’s no pain you can inflict on me that I haven’t felt a hundred-fold already! Even if you win over control of this body, I’ll stay here forever! I’ll be in you forever.”

“Necromancer filth,” Alma retorts, throwing her life force against Nua’s. “This is my body! Mine! You have no roots to spread here!”

Nua’s laughter is a vibration of energy against the goddess’ soul. “Really? It wasn’t that hard stealing this body from you in the first place. And learning to control it. I wear it so much better than you. Weakling.”

“We’ll see who is weak. I will not let you use this body to hurt my family!” Alma promises.

“Can I use it to hurt you?”

Suddenly, sharp pain fills Alma’s senses. Physical pain. Nua has managed to gain control of one of her arms. Pain and wetness. Blood. It is the stabbing of a blade to her own flank that Alma feels.

Nua takes the chance to wrap tendrils of spectral energy around Alma’s soul, pushing the goddess deeper into herself. “You have no idea of what I can do. But let me show you what I’ve done already to your precious family.”

The images move so quickly across Alma, thrown as they are directly from one soul to another. A devil, summoned from Hell, bound by Nua herself. Sky… And a terrified mortal, begging for his life even as the devil kills him at Nua’s command. Even as the devil eats him and then takes his shape.

“That was his first body,” Nua purrs against Alma’s awareness. “The one I gave him.”

And the memories continue, of Sky, Alma’s Sky as she knows him, bound in chains and bleeding, lunging in anger, transforming back into a devil and roaring threats. Begging… Sobbing…Weeping. As he is forced to watch Gwydion’s horrible death, as Nua thrusts a dagger under Alma’s own skirt. Except…none of these images could be true. Are they lies? Predictions?

“I found some mortals willing to play along,” Nua explains. “I just had to give them a little makeover and he fell for it like a day-old chick.”

“MONSTER!” Alma bellows, discharging her powers in a wave around her core that makes Nua hiss and recoil in pain.

And still, the necromancer laughs. “I cut his tongue out, too! For saying ugly things to me when he saw you lying on that gurney.”

More images, memories of Sky – not the form, the face she knows as Sky’s but the very certain knowledge that it is him – on top of someone, a notion of being pinned down by him. Of feeling him move inside her, endlessly, with the mechanical rhythm of an automaton, his eyes tightly shut, grief and disgust on his face. And a voice pleading to him, begging him to stop. Trocia…

Alma tries to look away but she cannot. The memory fills her whole.

“Is that what you came to save?” Nua teases her. “He is mine!”

Nua launches herself at Alma, with the recklessness of the insane. Anger and power drive her but her soul has only a fraction of the energy of Alma’s. The goddess holds her ground and drives Nua back, striking immediately to counterattack.

And the memory hits her. Gwydion destroying a pair of demons that stand before him and his parents, his face a mask of anger and joy. And grief. And disappointment. His mother calling his name, crying, and screaming. Mad.

Somrak atop a stone fortification, alone, watching an army move toward him, with Alma – no… Nua in Alma’s body heading the attack in a chariot driven by Gwydion and pulled by Sky in devil form. Helplessness and hopelessness.

The images break her focus. Her attack loses strength.

“Do you like the nightmares I made for them?” Nua asks. “What about the real thing?”

Nua strikes again, stabbing again at Alma’s body. Making her scream with the pain.

And forcing her to relive Nua’s memories of holding Gwydion’s chained body, of kissing his lips. Of mocking him as he roars in anger, struggling against his bindings, demanding to know where Alma is. Of whipping him with a whip made of Nasheena’s vertebrae and infused with her very soul. Of whipping Somrak. And Sky.

Images of Alma’s cousin screaming and begging surface in the throng of demented memorabilia.

I WILL ERASE YOU!” Alma roars in hatred. “HELL IS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT I WILL DO TO YOU!

She forgets all reason, wavers all sense. All of her, all of her power, of her essence, of her rage, of her love, life, death and everything in between. All that she is, she throws at Nua, tearing at the mortal’s soul mercilessly, exploding against its core, damaging it without the slightest hesitation.

She wants it gone.

Even as she sees Somrak falling from the top of the castle wall, his limp body a ball of fire. Even as she sees Gwydion kneeling in a circle of dead Bunnies half eaten by demons, holding her body and sobbing in grief. Even as she sees Stathos’ daughters held by Whisper thugs, crying and screaming as their throats are slit before their kneeling, bound father, their blood gushing to stain Luís’ tear-drenched face.

She attacks Nua, holding on to the necromancer, reveling at her screams of pain and confusion now at this sudden defeat. Yes… Nua is hurting. This is how it should be.

But then… something happens. Forces intervene, familiar but unexpected. Grabbing Alma, grabbing Nua. Pulling them apart. Alma resists. She isn’t done yet with Nua. She is nowhere near done.

But she is tired. And Nua is taken away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Darkness. Such quiet, unyielding darkness. A welcome change from the screaming, the bursting of energy, the pure rage coursing through his body. Gateways opening into horrible, unhallowed places. A million howling souls crashing against him and bellowing at him in terror and hatred. Him, the gatekeeper.

The enemy at the gate.

Light pours into his place of rest, cleansing, healing. A mildly welcomed light. But not the one he yearns for. He refuses to let it wake him, shuts his eyes tighter against it. His body feels more relaxed at its touch, less torn. But his spirit suffers still. He does not want to follow this greenish light that courses through him without regard for his privacy, without care for his boundaries. It violates his pain, healing with the force of a great tidal wave crashing over him. He turns away from it and dreams of the blue twilight that has once enveloped him in a nurturing haze.

But though the light eventually leaves him alone, another comes to disturb him. Liquid and wavering, softer and deeper. Almost the one he is waiting for but no…the scent is not right. Seaweed and low tides, not the lilac and willow of his desires. It speaks to him.

Wake up, Gwydion. You are needed.

He does not want to wake up. The last time he woke up, nothing good happened. He frowns at the memories that try to creep into his conscience.

She needs you, Gwydion. They all do. Wake up.

Within him, his essence rouses, looks up. It calls out.

Mate?

But the light is gone. He is alone again in the darkness. And though he wants nothing more than to hide in it for the rest of time, he feels his mind surface, his eyelids open.

And the world pours in.

Voices. Sobs. The watery light hurts his eyes at first, makes Dion groan. But soon the blurs resolve into images. The muscles of his arms and legs begin to respond. He rolls onto his side, looking around to recognize the familiar setting of the Oracle’s grotto. One of its myriad chambers, that he had never seen before. Chairs. He is lying on the floor. On the side he can see for now, he finds Somrak, sitting on the floor, looking up at the glowering, looming figure of Fencer.

Fencer…why is she even here? And how did they get here in the first place? The last he remembers, they were–

He shuts his eyes and shakes his head violently to dislodge the image before it forms. And when he is sure that he has succeeded in defeating his memories, he opens them again. By Somrak, a dirty sheet covers a lying body. Dion tenses, dread climbing over his spine at who this might be. He can only see a basic outline and the feet poking out. Narrow, feminine feet.

He struggles to sit up and the movement captures Somrak’s and Fencer’s attention. With a sorrowful look at Dion, the fire god glances down at the corpse by his side and lifts a corner of the sheet to reveal light brown hair, a young but hardened female face.

Saira.

Relief washes over Dion before regret finds its way in. He remembers her hanging off Margrave’s neck, being attacked by demons left and right, and feels sorry that she has paid for their escape with her life.

He notices Somrak jerking his head toward another corner of the room, urging Dion to look in that direction. And there he sees her, Alma, lying on the floor, in her family’s black clothing, gashes on her thigh and flank. Her brother, Dion recognizes him from before, and Nevieve are tending to her. Alma’s wounds are slowly disappearing as Nevieve works her magic on the goddess.

Mate!

And at the edge of his sight, he notices the elephant in the room for the first time. Or better said, the devil. Right there, by his side, but curled up and surrounded by that same light Dion experienced before, a light he now sees belongs to Lyria. So much of it that it had numbed Dion’s senses to the devil’s proximity. He instinctively tries to rise to his feet and leap against the devil only to feel a hand push him back down. “Status, Sergeant.”

Fencer’s hand. Fencer’s voice. Dion looks at her with all the hatred and violence he was about to discharge at the devil. He nearly attacks her instead of him, stopping only at the burst of pure, old and piercing power that she projects against him in a warning. Her eyes narrow, her one seeing, crimson eye glaring a challenge at him.

It forces Dion to stop and think, his mind to make sense of all he is seeing. His brain to remember that the devil he was about to attack is in fact Sky. Sky, his commanding officer. Sky, his friend.

Dion lowers his eyes, ashamed at what his instincts yell at him to feel and do. “We accomplished the mission, it seems,” he answers quietly, looking toward Alma. “Though I’m not quite clear on the details.”

“She’s going to be all right, Dion,” Somrak says from where he sits. “She’s fighting but she’s going to win.”

“At least we managed to get that…thing out of her.” Fencer’s disgust is palpable and there is no doubt of who she is referring to as a thing.

The necromancer. Nua. Dion breathes deeply in still not completely certain relief, hoping for it to be true. He looks back to the reclining goddess, her white-haired head on Nevieve’s lap. The last time he saw Alma, there was a war raging in her body for control of her flesh. She was trying to hurt herself…or someone in her was trying to hurt her, perhaps Nua, perhaps Alma herself. How could he tell? He had attacked her. Not her, Alma, but her, Nua. He just wanted the necromancer’s soul out of his beloved’s body, to rip it out with his bare hands as if that was even possible. He wasn’t thinking then. All there was was rage and hatred.

And fear.

“It is done,” Nevieve announces. “Now we wait.”

The wounds, the ripped and plastered black clothes made shiny by blood are gone. In a single, seemingly effortless twist of her magic, the Oracle has not only healed Alma’s body but cleaned it and replaced her fighting, Death Clan outfit with a simple, flowing turquoise-blue dress. No shoes. A worshipper’s humble vest.

Dion glances down to find his own clothes changed, his uniform trousers replaced by simple pure-white linen ones, tied at the waist with a cord. He is barefoot as well and, as far he can tell, clean and healed. For a moment he is surprised to find himself shirtless, armored jacket gone along with his sword. Then memory kicks in and he remembers again: Nua. She had removed his protective clothing, probably so that nothing would dull the bite of her whip. He shudders at the memory, feeling the pain of the wounds inflicted on his soul sharpen, defeating his natural defenses.

And it is not just his soul that is in pain. His body is healed but his mind, his emotions…he feels them raw, stripped of their fortifications like a tree stripped of its bark. The soft, vulnerable pulp exposed. Inside him, his core whimpers and begs for him to do something about the pain, about the helplessness and despair. About the missing half of him that currently lies on the floor of the grotto, motionless, flanked by the Oracle and by her brother. Melinor.

Dion rises to his feet, unsteady and stumbling, his body accusing a too-swift and draining healing, along with the exhaustion of the day’s harshness and probably the leftovers of having been poisoned just a couple of days ago. Or maybe just one day. Maybe a week. He cannot be certain of how long they were in the pocket universe or even how long he has been knocked senseless. Truly, he doesn’t care.

As Nevieve raises her head and looks at him with a beatific smile, he reaches Alma’s supine body. Carefully, the Oracle lays the goddess’ head back down on the floor and rises herself, her supporting hand reaching to touch Dion’s back as he kneels by Alma, on the side opposite to Melinor’s. He does not dispense any words to either of the gods. He cannot find anything to say. His eyes focus on the peaceful, pale-skinned face that looks to all the world to be sleeping in eternal slumber and his mind locks on the moment when the whip cut through his chest and his hope for the very first time.

A croaking voice, low and echoing fills his ears. “Thannnk you,” It says. “Thaaaaaank youuu…

The tone of it is enough to raise the hairs on the back of Dion’s neck, to make him turn to look at its source with almost enough speed to snap his spine. Though it speaks with sorrow and misery in its voice, though the memory of its lupine maw dripping with demon blood to save Dion’s own life reminds the god of who this devil is, he cannot help but glare at the… devil in the room, the Hellish beast spreading its corruption around it, teasing Dion’s sphere awake. Anything is better to feel than the shattering pain ravaging through him at the moment. And rage will do just fine.

And suddenly, Sky isn’t there anymore. Somrak isn’t there. Saira’s cooling body is gone. The room itself has changed. The older gods, all gone. A different chamber, altogether, smaller than the other one, glowing softly with a liquid light that projects its dancing glow on the walls and ceiling and reminds him of soft moments of bliss spent in a lush, green sanctum. Dion finds himself alone, kneeling in a depression of the stoney floor of the grotto that the years of erosion have filled with fine sand and someone’s careful consideration has covered with a woven banana leaf mat to make for a soft, dry bed, Alma lying by him.

He looks down at her, forgetting anger, forgetting threat. He strokes Alma’s hair, imagination painting all of the familiar expressions he has seen on her face. Every different smile, every hint of sadness, passion, rage. The ghosts of Nua’s disgusting, terrifying smile creep into his memory but he tries to sweep them away. At least for now. At least for now he wants to believe Fencer’s words that Nua is gone from Alma’s body. She would know, wouldn’t she? Her own niece? How many times has Fencer seen Alma’s soul? She would know.

Unable to endure another instant of distance, he shifts, gently putting an arm under Alma’s shoulders and lifting her to his chest, her lower back propped against his thigh. He cradles her, his eyes closed, straining to hear her gentle breathing, to detect her weak pulse. Why isn’t she waking up? Why won’t she come back to him?

He nearly shouts in fright when he opens his eyes to the dark, sitting figure of Melinor, watching, just before him. He has only seen Melinor once, at the Curia. The god had refused to approach him, Alma or the Bunnies then. And though Alma speaks of her brother with a tenderness that has had Dion wistfully wondering how sweet it might be to have a beloved sibling fawning over him, the impressive, powerful figure of the god of death, with his aura of violence and lingering scent of slaughter, does not exactly conjure up the friendliest of first impressions. What must Melinor think of Dion, with his fame and manner, romantically involved with the god’s younger and only sister? With Melinor’s beloved sister. There is no mistaking the concern in those slanted rusty-ochre eyes.

Eyes that he raises to look at Dion, without the slightest hint of displeasure or condemnation, in spite of Melinor’s overall look of a constant, chronic, cold, simmering rage. Empathy. There is empathy in that look. A shared pain. Dion casts his worries about the grim god’s blessing away. For now, they are both merely suffering with uncertainty over Alma’s recovery.

“It is…” Dion trails off, feeling his throat dry and cracked. He swallows and tries again. “It is her. Just her. You are certain?”

Melinor nods. “I know my sister’s soul.” His voice is just as low-pitched as his looks lead one to anticipate, and rough besides. But not as aggressive as might be expected. “The invader is captured elsewhere.” He touches Alma’s head, releases a stray lock of hair from her earring. “She needs time to regain control.”

Dion nods, holding her a little closer, lowering his head to kiss her forehead, to rest his own forehead against hers. He waits, feeling her skin against his, the coolness of her, the scent that, yes, faintly smells of her after Nevieve’s cleansing spell. His senses focus on her and just her, pained and relieved and hopeful and dreading.

“Alma… Come on, darling. Where are you?” He hears himself whispering to her.

Can he even reach her with simple words, wherever she is? His eyes are shut tightly against the tears that threaten to spill. Inside him, his essence howls its longing at the ether, like a lone whale calling for its mate across the oceans. Begging, searching, despairing for a reply.

Answer us. Return to us.

“Come back to us, Alma. Come back to me…”

Come back to us, mate. We are calling.

“I promised I wouldn’t leave you. Don’t leave me…”

Come back. Ours…

Mine.

A small eternity seems to pass. Dion whispers her name, incessantly calling her to him. He is mildly aware of other, new presences in the room, of his body gently rocking back and forth in that self-soothing movement of people in shock. Is this the fate that awaits him? To lose all those he allows himself to love? To be alone. Always alone. The world is suffering. The world is grief. The whole of him holds the living treasure in his arms as if she were the hope for his cure, the rock to save him from the gale raging within his soul. But she won’t wake up. She won’t wake up…

And he is so frightened to face the world without her.

Please, wake up. Please…

And then he senses it. Just a weak spark at the edge of his senses, at first, then a stronger flare against him. His own essence roars with joyful relief.

Here!

Here…

He pulls away a little just in time to feel Alma’s chest rise with a deeper breath, her eyes open wide, flaring with color and light. Her mouth gapes open, her back arches as the air fills with her scream. A scream of pure rage, of hatred, of anguish and pain and fear. It rises to almost unbearable intensity, echoes off the walls and almost seems to burst through them. Her body contorts in almost tetanic convulsion, her eyes wide open and filled with terror.

“Alma!” Dion calls to her, squeezing her against him. “Alma, it’s all right!”

He holds her, rocks her until the screams die in her throat. Until her lips slacken and her muscles relax just past the point of painful contraction. “It’s all right,” he tells her, his gentle voice sounding almost like a whisper after all the screaming. “You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

“Gwydion?” Alma’s eyes dart this way and that, seemingly unable to focus. “Gwydion!”

“I’m here. I’m here, darling,” he assures her. Is she blind? And why isn’t she moving her arms and legs?

Her eyes finally lock on him. “I had her!” she cries with urgency before a strong exhalation seems to rob her of her strength. “I had her… she disappeared.”

“We have her,” he tells her, hoping that Melinor did not deceive him. Even if he has, Dion refuses to think about it now. “We captured her. Rest now.”

He is so relieved. He feels the knot that his heart had become untangle in one single, twanging movement that courses through him, stealing his breath, making his body contract, then relax, his core expand with sudden glee, almost about to explode. She is here. His love is here, in his arms. He needs to believe it. He needs to believe that her brother and her aunt cannot be fooled into accepting a stranger. That his nightmare is over.

“You look so hurt…” Alma says, her voice half choked. She is looking at him, straight at him, grief in her features. Light and color swirling lazily in her irises. Yes, her eyes. Her tear-filled eyes.

“I’m all healed now. I’m fine,” he lies, stroking her hair.

Her lower lip trembles, her chin drawing in a little. “No… you’re not.”

She knows. Of course, she knows. Because this is Alma and her eyes look straight at him, into his soul. And they can see the damage that Nua inflicted on it. And they are crying in sorrow at it. “I will be,” he insists, summoning a tremulous smile to his own lips. It is so painful to smile…but he cannot bear her tears. “You’re here now.”

His smile falters, he holds her tightly to him, kissing her forehead, swaying again, feeling his cheeks burn, his throat dry, sniffling excess water from his eyes that will soon bathe his face in tears. “You scared me, darling. You scared me so much…”

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry…”

He whimpers, a thousand words pouring into his mouth and dying there. How afraid he was. How desperate. How broken and crushed. How glad he is now. How much all of it hurts, pleasure and pain. “It’s all right,” is all he manages to say. “It’s all right.”

Memory is tossed aside. Fear is tossed aside. Trauma. Suspicion. He wavers them all. Inside him, the whimpering, begging giant that immediately knew that Alma was possessed before Dion even managed to reason his way to that conclusion, howls for its mate. For his love. It grovels and cries for her, kept away for too long. Too hopelessly.

He cups her cheek in his palm and kisses her. Deeply, intermittently as their tears force them to break away to swallow and breathe. But he feels it, the blossoming of her spheres opening up to him, vividly, in that sharing of essence and mana that has been growing since their first kiss, barely more than physical pleasure at first, now nearly a full union of selves without even the need for the full physical contact of sex. She is so close…so close to him. Wrapped around his core.

A heavy hand lands on Dion’s shoulder, not a painful slap but just enough to startle him and make him look up.

Melinor looks at him with a grimace, shaking his head. “Not that,” the god warns him and for a moment Dion fears that Melinor will pose an obstacle to the relationship. “She has to stay in herself to rebuild the bond.”

The words are much more frightening than any condemnation of the love affair. With the sudden, icy touch of a bucket of cold water to the spine, realization dawns in Dion’s mind. Alma’s bond with her own body is still unstable and frail. And he was at the verge of breaking it with a simple, selfish kiss. Would he have assimilated her, he wonders with growing fear.

“Shouldn’t she take to her own body naturally?” he asks, alarmed. “Why isn’t she moving?”

“Her soul took serious damage,” replies Fencer’s rough voice. Dion jolts, instinctively firming his grip around Alma and turning his head to look at the Guardia Dei Subcommander, who says, “I’m surprised she’s even able to speak.”

Only then does Dion notice the other gods in the room. Lyria and Nevieve have both joined them as well, standing silent for now, their eyes on Alma. How long have they been watching? How much have they witnessed of his misery? Lyria looks at him with such sorrowful empathy that he is suddenly very aware of the drying tracks of tears on his cheeks, of the burning in his eyes. So many years of keeping his emotions concealed, his thoughts and concerns hidden under a mask of nonchalance… He swallows and looks away from the older goddess, unsure of how to feel about this. For now, he feels nothing. He is numbed by exhaustion and grief and relief, the extremes of so many emotions that none cries louder than the others. He has been stripped and skinned alive and he is so small, now. So helpless. Like a child. He lacks the willpower to even beg them to leave. And what right does he have to ask that of people worrying about a loved one?

“Mel?” Alma is asking, her head turning to look at her brother. “And Fencer. What – what are you doing here?” Her eyes widen, her face contorts into panic, head rising from Dion’s cradling arm with effort, since she seems unable to move any voluntary muscles below her neck. “Where are the others? Where are we?”

“We are in the Oracle’s grotto and they are here at my call, Alma,” Lyria replies in quiet tones. “Later, we will explain.”

“Mother?” Alma calls, her voice pitched higher with fear. “Sky? Sky!”

“He’s here,” Fencer barks with annoyance at her niece’s loud cry for her friend. “Now rest or you’ll never have the full control of that body back.”

“Somrak… Saira…?” Alma asks, her head turning this way and that, straining to see.

With a soft touch that would seem impossible for such an fearsome, violence-attuned god, Melinor places his hand on Alma’s forehead and gently, but firmly, pushes her down against Dion’s arm. “Later,” he says simply.

Alma looks at her brother, only her eyes moving in their sockets, and quiets in defeat. Still, she turns her gaze to Dion, a questioning whimper escaping her lips. “Gwydion?”

He almost tells her the truth. About Saira’s death, Sky’s and Somrak’s injuries. He decides against it. It would be too cruel, he he thinks, to burden her with such loss and suffering when she is barely holding on to her own body. And yet, he does not want to lie. Not to her. He does not know how much she has seen before the failed binding and during the fight with Nua and even if she has seen nothing, he cannot stand to tell her anything less than the truth.

So he keeps his words short as he reaches to hold her hand and bring it to his sternum. “They’re here. Now rest…please.”

She looks at him for a long, silent moment, then blinks and tilts her head against his chest, snuggling against him in a movement that involves only her head and neck. To his surprise and great solace, her fingers react to his touch, weakly curling around and squeezing his own. He kisses her brow, the room so empty of sound that he can hear her minute sigh of contentment at the caress. She almost seems to be sleeping with her eyes half open before she breathes, her voice calmer now, “I am so very tired…”

“Then sleep,” he whispers against the bridge of her nose. “Just sleep. I’ll be right here. I’m not letting you go.”

A tiny dimming of light announces the drop of her eyelids. “I guess… your pocket didn’t make it again.”

The nonsensical comment makes him pause. His pocket? He pulls away, looking at her peaceful, slumbering face in befuddlement, wondering what she meant by her words. And then it hits him. His pocket! His jacket pocket. The one that keeps being torn off regardless of how much Dion tries to reinforce it. And yes, it has not survived this time either. The whole of his jacket has disappeared in fact. The sudden realization makes him chuckle, then laugh, laugh uncontrollably at the joke that only Alma, the real Alma would know to make. “Oh, I’m never letting you go.”

Movement at the edge of his vision makes him look up to see Lyria kneeling by Melinor’s side. She smiles at the death god, a little smile that seems to request as much comfort as it tries to give. Melinor simply nods and Lyria turns her head to look at Alma, one hand reaching to affectionately stroke her daughter’s hair.

“She is asleep already,” she says to Dion. “And you should rest too, little one.”

“I’m fine,” Dion assures her, laughter fading to a blank smile. “I don’t want to sleep.”

Lyria’s voice is soft, quiet, sounding almost distant as she replies, “No, but you should.” She reaches to stroke his cheek, a gentle touch that is strikingly similar to her daughter’s. “You are exhausted. How you are even awake is a mystery to me.”

Whether it is a mere observation or a veiled incantation, Dion cannot tell. All he knows is that at the sound of her words, sleepiness creeps in, exhaustion takes over. He blinks against sleep like a child trying to fight off an afternoon nap.

“I…” His mouth opens in a yawn before he can finish his sentence.

And though he has not noticed her moving, he feels Lyria’s hands land on his shoulders and carefully tilt him to the left, nudging him to lie down on the mat. He follows her touch, unresisting, legs unfolding so that he lies fully on the makeshift but surprisingly comfortable bed.

“That is it…” Lyria says in a whisper. “Just a little rest. You can hold her while you sleep.”

Dion nods, arms still wrapped around Alma’s sleeping form, holding her close to him as his eyes begin to shut.

Tender fingers run through his hair, a motherly touch that he has not felt in over a century. Alma’s mother breathing a soft scolding. “The things you children get yourselves into…”

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Ch6.94 Trust

“Now give me a good reason to let you live–”

“…Alma?” At the sound of Lyria’s plaintive voice, the goddess known as the Fencer breaks off from glowering at Somrak to look toward her niece, cradled in Lyria’s arms. Fencer’s eyes widen after a moment, and she curses.

Sky, the newly broken wing from Melinor just one more in a long list of injuries, pulls himself with great effort back from the brink of attacking Alma’s brother. His instincts in this form are so much harder to control, and only moments before, Sky had been about to launch himself at a greater devil, selling his life to buy Somrak a moment longer to get Alma and Gwydion out of Margrave’s pocket universe. The rage of battle is not easily dismissed, nor is the comforting feeling of having given up on survival entirely.

The very presence of the powerful god of death-in-battle is a challenge to Sky’s Hell-shaped instincts, which see all gods as the enemy, screaming at him all the more strongly with his brain and entire body shaped as they are now. Melinor also stands between Sky and his friends. How sweet it would be to fight him, to die – as Sky knows he would – tearing the god apart. All this pain, this misery, finally ended. Just give in and be the devil they expect.

But it is the voices of the two goddesses, echoing in this dark, unfamiliar chamber, that bring him back. Lyria is frightened for Alma. And so, in her harsher fashion, is Fencer. Their fear carves out a space for Sky to have rational thought, to realize that all is not lost. If there is fear, there is hope. Alma’s soul is not going to Hell. Neither is Gwydion’s, nor Somrak’s, nor his own. Even Saira…

He looks at the fallen mortal, where she lies on the floor beside Somrak. Sky does not have the death gods’ ability to be certain, but her wounds are not survivable. Too much poison, too much trauma, too much blood lost. Too much time passed. They were unable to escape quickly enough.

Sky failed to act quickly enough.

He lowers his widespread arms, relaxes his flexed talons. The unbroken wing folds against his back, and Sky lowers his head in submission to Melinor. He cannot speak intelligibly with only the stump of a tongue in his mouth. But his body language is enough for Melinor’s battle aura to fade and for the god to turn his attention to his sister, Alma.

The God of Death in Battle joins Fencer and Lyria. The vibrant life goddess still holds her daughter, petting Alma’s head and whispering to her, while Fencer, thin and hard-muscled, examines her unconscious niece with a red-glowing eye.

Melinor does the same. “Something is wrong. I sense two souls in her body,” he says after a moment.

Fencer glares at Sky, clearly blaming him. But she turns the same look upon Somrak, who has found an old, filthy cloth in the basement they are in, dragging it out from under a collapsed corpse, some dessicated unfortunate that is, for whatever reason, here in this dark place. “What happened in there?” Fencer demands.

Somrak pauses in his preparation to cover Saira’s cooling body, looking at Alma, his expression helpless and hopeless. “If there are two souls in her… Then the necromancer is in there with Alma.”

Fencer stares at him as if she is planning just how to gut him, but instead of saying anything more, she just turns back to Melinor. “We need somewhere we can stuff a devil in.”

Lyria looks up. Her beautiful face is distraught, but her strength shows through. “I know where to go,” she insists. She reaches up toward Melinor, and the tall god kneels to allow her to touch the side of his head. A slight glow of green at the touch, and the death god nods.

“The others will need to be close,” Melinor says.

Fencer barks at Somrak, “Get over here, you and your devil friend both. Bring the prisoner, too.”

It is only then that Sky, who had been focusing so much on the gods in the room, notices a form trying to hide in the shadows. Just for a moment, his one good eye locks with hers.

Trocia. His relief at her survival is mixed with dread at that face, the face of Nua for the past days of his torture. And a deeper dread, a physical wretchedness even, at what Nua forced him to do to her. Her face is not animated with Nua’s sadistic humor. She is looking at him in terror.

He quickly looks away. He wants to tell her how good it is to see her alive and free of Nua, and to apologize. But even if he had a tongue, what apology would suffice? Every moment of his presence must be a continuation of her torture. He clenches his fists, digging his claws into his palms, piercing his skin. He shudders with memory of what he did, and what her body was forced to do to him while she watched, helpless. The door out of this basement is right there, open, at the top of the stairs. He could flee. He is foul. They would all be better off if he disappeared from their lives.

“Sky.” Somrak’s voice cuts through his panicking train of thought. He is holding Saira’s body, now wrapped in cloth. Trocia is behind him, still trying to hide, looking at nothing but definitely not at Sky. “Come on. You have to touch Melinor to be transported with him. Would you pick up Dion?”

Sky takes one last look at the open exit. It is night out there. The shadows beckon. But he turns and carefully lifts Gwydion, who remains unconscious. He moves closer to Melinor and apologetically touches the god’s leg with his tail.

Somrak touches Melinor with his arm, while all the others put a hand on him or use some other way of making contact. The death god looks down at Alma and simply transports them all as if were just a second thought.

They arrive in a chamber designed to welcome guests: It is spacious and comfortable, with chairs and a lounge to sit upon. There is a heavy door, however, sealing this windowless chamber off.

“Hmpf. A cell?” the Fencer snorts. “ And who is the jailor?”

Still holding Alma, Lyria replies, “The Oracle is careful of her privacy.” She looks down at her daughter. “Someone will be along in a moment.” It seems almost as if she is talking to Alma more than to the others.

Melinor kneels again, gently taking Alma into his own arms and lifting her from Lyria. The life goddess’ trust of him is evident in how she allows this, though she looks on the verge of protest. Fencer speaks up as she attends to Alma as well, in a voice not harsh but not especially soft either. “Go take care of the fools. Melinor and I have work to do and we all know you can’t help here.”

Lyria hesitates, then leaves Alma to them, going over to Sky. “Oh, little demon…” she begins.

“Such strange guests that do not announce themselves.” The door has opened without anyone noticing, and Nevieve, the Oracle, has entered the chamber. She stands tall, clad in a simple dress and sari, her dark skin iridescent where the light catches the very fine scales at the edges, her eyes white and strange.

Lyria turns from Sky, who has almost fallen into a trance at her approach, at the way she has, unlike Fencer, who looked on him with suspicion, or unlike Melinor, who saw him as an opponent in battle, come to him with only concern and pity, looking right past his outer form and seeing the same Sky she has always known. Sky does not know if he can ever express how much that means to him, here and now.

“Forgive us, Nevieve,” she says. “As you can see, our minds are in a tumult.”

Looking at Sky with her strange white eyes, the Oracle says, “So the inevitable has taken place. And the devil cradles his slayer in his arms.”

Sky looks down at Gwydion. Yes, his slayer. Hammer of Devils. Gwydion’s newfound power. Sky remembers the blow Gwydion gave him in Margrave’s lair. The pain is still there, among all the other pains.

Lyria turns back to him. She looks up into Sky’s face and strokes his muzzle. Or she tries. He cannot help but flinch away. He does not want to, but he is so convinced of his loathsomeness that he cannot bear to be touched by one so beautiful. “Oh, little one, what have they done to you?” she says softly. “So many wounds, some of them perhaps beyond my reach. Let me heal Gwydion first, and then I shall attend to you.”

She gets him to lay down Gwydion’s unconscious body onto the floor of the chamber, and then, surrounding the younger god’s body in a nimbus of verdant light, she heals Dion’s torn torso and all the other physical wounds he has sustained. After a moment, she sighs and looks up at Sky. “These whip-lashes cut so deeply, beyond the flesh and into the spirit. They will heal far more slowly.” She rises and once again touches Sky’s face. When he tries to pull away, she whispers, “Shhhh… When have I ever given you reason to fear my touch, little one? You are at a loss for words? Ah, I see.” He feels her probing magic, warm and energizing, within his mouth.

Meanwhile, Nevieve is crouching beside Gwydion. She touches his forehead, and her eyes flare white. “Hmm… How interesting.” Her hand glows white as she transfers mana and life force into Dion, at the same time wiping his body clean of all the blood and filth of that Hellish torture chamber, and replacing his ragged Guardia trousers with lightweight white-linen pants, leaving him bare-chested and barefoot, but looking now like one of her supplicants. “That should do.” Sky, with his one eye, glances to Somrak who, he sees now, has been given much the same treatment, healed, cleaned up, and given a change into simple white clothes. Sky can see that Somrak’s elaborate tattoo of tiger and phoenix is now ruined, however, for though the flesh is healed from the whip’s lash, the damage to the ink is not, leaving it mottled and blurred. He is sitting on the floor, back against the wall, looking at nothing. Beyond him, Trocia is stealing a frightened look at Sky, but she quickly looks away.

Nevieve looks toward Alma. “That seems like a much more dangerous fight.”

His voice low, Melinor urges, “Come on. Let go of her.”

“She’s trying to hold on,” Fencer growls, annoyed.

“Can you help them?” Lyria says to Nevieve. She is still performing an extensive preliminary examination of Sky – his injuries and physiology are complex, too complex, he imagines, for her to simply launch into healing him.

“I can only give her strength and heal her body,” Nevieve says. “Her soul is up to her to save. Still, it might be best to keep her body weak lest the soul who wins be the wrong one.”

Lyria insists with shaky conviction, “Alma will win. But any help we can give her–”

Suddenly Alma gasps. Sky strains to see. “I have her!” Fencer shouts to Melinor. “Don’t let the other escape.”

Sky feels a hand grip his. He looks down and sees that Lyria is holding his taloned hand tightly. Sky carefully closes his hand around hers, feeling a sharp pain lance through his heart at her action. To seek comfort from him!

The trusting touch takes him back to a grandchild of his, daughter of his adopted son, long, long ago and on another world, how small her hand in his as they walked together through the snow.

Events here and now shake him free from useless memories. In Fencer’s hand, a little blurry body of light appears, faint at first then materializing further and further until it looks like a small, sparkling pebble. Alma’s body glows faintly and Melinor puts a hand over her chest. “No,” he says. “Stay inside yourself.”

Nevieve smiles. “Ah, it seems that now it is my turn.” She walks over to Alma to start healing her body. At her glance, Melinor bows and steps away, standing guard. Fencer rises and walks away, toward Somrak.

Sky hears her begin to speak to Somrak in a low voice that might as well be shouting for its vehemence, but all thought of that fades as Lyria’s healing power begins to spread through his body, taking hold finally. The stump of his tongue, the gaping socket of his missing eye, and so many slashes from the whip, self-healed but not fully, for he had to conserve his mana, just enough to allow function. The broken wing, the deep stab in his hand from Alma’s dragon-tooth dagger. The crushing blow from Gwydion that broke ribs and bruised organs. All of it begins to heal, making him hiss and whimper, clamping his muzzle shut to keep from screaming and roaring. It hurts as much as taking all those wounds again at once, but at the same time it feels so good that he cannot keep his feet, falling to his knees.

If he were in his human form, he would be weeping. As it is, tears are not something he can summon in this shape.

Lyria has healed him before, but he was not a tenth as injured as now. He falls forward onto his hands, then curls in on himself, the formerly broken wing cupping itself around Lyria and pulling her even closer. He breathes harshly, but all thought flees as he nearly falls unconscious, blessed darkness rising in an attempt to claim him.

He is drowning. But when he became a god, he was a god of the sea. He cannot drown. No matter how far he is pulled down into the crushing depths, he will always swim to safety. He holds Lyria to him as his body shakes with tearless sobs.

Ch6.93 Trust

“No, no, no, come on, hold on, hold on!

The blood is pumping from Saira. Somrak tries to heal one wound, but healing does not come naturally to him. He is a god of fire, and fire destroys. Unable to draw upon his sphere for healing, he makes do with the same sort of magic that mortal wizards learn. And the abyssal poison in Saira’s wounds defeats such pitiful effort. He cannot even slow the bleeding.

Multiple punctures, deep and ragged, make him want to scream just from looking at what Margrave’s bound demons have done to her. And there is nothing he can do. He sees her eyes barely open, unfocused, but flicking toward him. Instead of screaming, he whispers, “Saira, please, stay with me… Alma’s gonna wake up, she’s going to be all right, she’s going to heal you.”

Saira’s body convulses in what is probably intended to be a laugh. “Quit it, Ponytail… I said…I wouldn’t–” She coughs up a gout of blood that runs down her chin, blood that stinks of demonic venom. “Wouldn’t survive. Stupid gods… Look after them.”

Som holds her tighter and whispers to her, “You got him. You got him. The Devil’s Right Hand. You got him.”

Somrak sets her down, then leans over Dion, grabbing his forearm and pulling him closer. “Come on, Prettyboy! Wake up! We need magic. You can put her in stasis or something, right?” He smacks Dion’s cheeks, but the god, his mana spent, remains unconscious. Somrak raises a hand to give him a good slap.

A huge hoof plants itself near Somrak’s knee, spreading out slightly to bear Sky’s massive weight, and a big taloned hand grasps Somrak’s arm. The devil squats, balancing easily with his tail and outspread wings. He looks at Saira. His face seems sad, pained – really, there’s no telling. That hairless canine muzzle is ripped from the whipping he has received, one eye put out. And it’s not as if Somrak has seen this face of Sky’s more than a handful of times in forty years. Sky has no desire to show it.

The room groans. The walls begin to bleed some kind of sap. Sky releases Somrak, who takes hold of Saira’s limp body and, with effort, stands. He is wounded himself. The whiplashes are nothing to scoff at. The damage to flesh is survivable for a god – at the worst, the wounds across his chest are only bone-deep. But the pain to his soul goes on and on, weakening him. He looks at Margrave – dead, his head wrenched backwards, the black-bone whip wrapped around his neck, buried in his throat. At Alma – unconscious, whatever is happening there unknown to the outside world. At Dion – unconscious as well.

And the woman that Alma was put into for a time, the girl really, is gone. In all the confusion of unbound demons, she disappeared. Slipped out. Glancing at the pile of weapons, spilled from a cart, Somrak notes that Saira’s crossbow is missing. Clever girl. Grabbed the best weapon.

Though how she got out… The door is hanging open, but beyond it is puckered flesh, pulsating. It looks for all the world like a tight-shut sphincter.

“The sword,” Somrak says to Sky. “Might need it. If Nua managed to bind Alma’s soul to it even a little…” He hopes Sky can understand.

The devil looks, spots the fine weapon, and hands it over to Somrak, who hooks two fingers around the guard to hold it while still carrying Saira. Then Sky looks at the blocked door. He flexes his claws, as if intending to rip his way through, but then he looks down at Margrave. The summoner is a corpse, or nearly so, and Sky brings one leg back and kicks him at the doorway, sliding his body across the floor.

The sphincter opens. To Somrak’s relief, nothing comes out. It simply reveals a passageway that looks distinctly intestinal.

There is a dull boom in the distance, behind the wall opposite the passage. Then another, closer. Somrak feels chilled. It sounds like the steps of a giant, walking. Another boom, closer.

We are come, to claim our soul…

It is a moan of doom, triumphant and dolorous, issuing from the world itself, this tiny pocket universe. Sky grunts at Somrak. He seizes Margrave’s body and tosses it onto his back, pinning it there by folding his wings up tight. Then he lifts Alma and Dion with great care.

“Come on!” Somrak urges him. “Let’s go!” Sky grunts at Somrak again, jerking his horned head at the corridor. Somrak looks to make sure the two unconscious gods are being held securely, then he rushes into the pulsating passage.

It is not open very far ahead, only a few strides, but as Sky follows from behind, bearing Margrave’s corpse, the passage keeps opening before them. And those world-shaking footsteps keep following from behind.

Sky is a devil, Somrak knows. And what is coming is, in all likelihood, a devil as well. It certainly feels more powerful than any demon, of another category entirely, as of a god compared to a mortal. And more powerful than Sky. Vastly so. A rot emanates from that direction, racing along the corridor, putrefying as fast as they can run. Faster. Somrak pushes harder. Saira… For a moment Somrak allows the thought to exist, that she is already dead, that it’s too late. He thrusts that away. Too late or not, she’s not remaining behind here. Hell itself is devouring this miniature world. Hell is claiming it as territory. Alive or dead, her soul may still be attached to her body. He’s not sure how that works, but he knows that no death goddess has sent it on its way. He will not let her be stuck here in any form.

And there it is: the portal. Well, the blank wall that held the portal. At the moment, it holds nothing. Somrak nearly crashes into it. He shifts Saira and slaps a hand against it, giving the wall a jolt of mana and sending the mental command for it to open.

Nothing.

Somrak realizes how terrified he is. He is never frightened in battle. Never! It is only in repose, after or before, or captured or otherwise unable to fight, that he feels fear. Battle? He’s too busy fighting to be afraid. And usually too busy laughing.

But not now. Now he is afraid that Sky and Dion and Saira and…Alma, afraid that they will all end up in Hell. That he’s led them to this. And he must admit that he is nearly paralyzed with fear at the thought of himself in Hell. Eternity of endless torture, ever-renewed, never numbed to it, always and ever screaming for mercy, in utter abjection. No dignity, no hope, no love. With every thought he feels more beaten down. Is this the approaching devil infecting his mind with despair? Or is he simply falling prey to his own cowardice at last?

With a thud, Margrave’s body falls to the floor. Sky has laid down Alma and Dion, carefully, and roughly dumped Margrave. He jerks his head at the corpse, then holds out a hand toward the door. It takes Somrak a moment of wondering why Sky isn’t speaking to catch his meaning. Somrak lays down Saira, grabs Margrave’s hand, and places it against the portal wall. He channels mana through it.

And nothing happens. The portal makes not the slightest hint of appearing.

Somrak feels his guts clench. He does what he has been avoiding: he turns to look behind them. He nearly vomits at the sight. The entire pocket universe, Margrave’s little sanctum, has been flayed open. It looks like exploded strips of flesh, gangrenous and full of tumors, undulating in some cosmic wind. The only spot of stability is where they stand now. The rest is claimed by Hell.

And beyond it? Only a vague shape in the darkness, something squatting, waiting to spring, something larger than any living creature Somrak has ever seen. That he cannot see it clearly is a mercy, the final mercy. For he knows that when it does show itself, all is over. All happiness, that is, all joy.

Once again, kneeling, he tries to wake Dion, shaking him in desperation. Still nothing, the Sergeant knocked cold by his earlier efforts. Not even a flicker of an eyelid.

Somrak stands and readies Alma’s sword. He will strike at it. He tells himself this, though he is not sure he believes it. But he cannot look at it. Instead he looks down, at Alma’s face. He will take that with him, into Hell. He will cling to that memory for as long as he can.

Beside him, Sky roars defiance. He spreads arms and wings wide. In one hand he holds the vertebral whip, the soul-shredding godbound weapon that was used to torture him and Somrak and Dion. He recognizes the feel of it, that of a god’s soul torn from its body and forced to commit evils. Unending pain, a miniature of Hell, driving the soul insane quickly.

In the other hand, Sky holds Margrave’s limp, broken, ragdoll body by one leg. He draws his arm back and hurls it at the devil, sending it spinning, cartwheeling at its master. Sky’s roar this time is of rage, hate, and unending refusal to submit. Somrak takes heart. At least he and Sky, partners for so long, are together at the end. But the guilt at having brought the others to this nearly consumes the fire god.

This is worse than death. All of them will find their souls in Hell. All of them will suffer, forever. But perhaps their souls can escape to the Wheel if their bodies die now. Somrak holds the sword, pointed toward Alma’s breast. Freed of her flesh, can Alma lead Dion’s and Saira’s souls to safety? Can he kill her, then Dion, in time?

And then two large, hard hands grab him from behind by the shoulders and pull him through the portal. Somrak flies through the air and lands on the floor of the basement in Little Falls, the sword clanging away into darkness, the world blessedly normal, the Insula, home, a place where gods belong. The air is knocked out of him, but tears of relief spring to his eyes.

As he pushes himself up onto his elbows, he sees other figures in the dark room. “Give her to me!” cries a voice more suited to songs of life and love than to fear, and yes, he did recognize it, for there is Lyria, Alma’s mother, cradling her daughter. Then the hulking shape that must have pulled Somrak through is now tossing Gwydion toward Fencer, who quickly sets him down.

And now the big one – ah, it must be Melinor, a god Somrak has heard about and has even seen striding a battlefield more than once, harvesting those slain in combat – Melinor is struggling, pulling a shape too big to fit easily through the human-sized portal. And yet, with a crack of bone, the god manages, hurling Sky behind him with a twist of his hips, forcing Somrak to roll out of the way to avoid being crushed. Sky falls heavily against a wall, one wing limp, and the devil starts to his feet, snarling at Alma’s brother.

“You two can solve your differences later!” Fencer snaps. “All right, girl, seal that portal!”

Somrak sees Trocia then, the formerly unconscious vessel for Alma’s soul, doing her best to stay unnoticed as long as possible. Pale, traumatized, she moves to obey.

“Wait!” Somrak cries. He springs to his feet and dashes for the portal, pushing past the girl. Fencer’s objection is cut off as he pushes his head and one arm through. His hand grasps Saira’s ankle, and he looks –

Oh, he shouldn’t have looked.

That face. That… He has seen Sky in his devil form. He has fought numerous demons. Undead. Other horrors, too many to count. He has seen the worst that anyone with sufficient lust for power and too little empathy can do to fellow creatures, things he feels ashamed even to know about.

All that is nothing compared to this, the face of a true Prince of Hell.

It is the end of all hope. It is the death of the heart.

And then he is pulled back through. And with him, hand locked on her ankle, comes Saira.

“NOW!” cries Fencer. Somrak could swear she has fear in her voice.

She should.

Trocia places her palms on the portal. It bulges. Something is pushing from the other side. But then it is gone. It disappears. But could it be reactivated from the other side?

Sky snarls again, leaning forward, muscles bunching. Is he preparing to launch himself at Melinor, or at the surface through which the more powerful devil can come? Somrak slaps Sky’s shoulder, trying to bring him to his senses.

Melinor ignores Sky. He brushes the girl aside and places his fingertips on the wall. It turns to dust in a great circle, dust that slides to the floor in a soft avalanche. With the destruction of the surface it was created on, the portal is forever gone.

Somrak pulls Saira to him. He tries to drive away memory of that face, and indeed it fades like a nightmare. Though it will return, he knows, in the dark, in sleep. He will not escape it so easily.

But for now he touches Saira’s slack face. Her skin is cold. He knows death.

A boot beside his face. He looks up. Fencer, glaring down at him.

“Now give me a good reason to let you live,” she growls.

Ch6.92 Trust

“Did you see that look she gave me? With that red eye?” Cherry glowers at Merri, squinting one eye and growling, “‘Don’t you raise your voice at me…’”

Despite all that has happened lately – learning that their mother Alma is in danger along with Sky and Gwydion, an attack by demons that the Bunnies fortunately weathered in Gwydion’s room under Geryon’s watchful eagle eye, and the sudden transformation of their bar into a botanical garden which she is still trying to decide whether or not she likes – Merri laughs at Cherry’s terrible but still recognizable imitation of the Fencer, their great-aunt. “Well you were interruptin’ her, darlin’.”

Cherry hugs herself and shivers. “Brrr. Scary!”

“Scarier than Melinor?” Kori asks, pushing a large leaf with big holes in it like a slice of living green Cheddar out of the way. “He’s cool…”

“Way scarier!” Cherry insists.

“Och, Melinor’s not scary at’all!” Merri agrees.

Geryon pads over to the sofa and hops up onto it, rustling his wings. He glances at Merri and sniffs. Well he doesn’t sniff, exactly. With that lovely yellow beak his nose-holes are too wee to really be useful for sniffing. But he looks like he sniffs, you know. “That is only because he did not threaten you, my dear,” he says loftily to cover up his wounded pride.

Merri ducks under a fern and, wishing for a pith helmet, plops down on the edge of the sofa. She drapes herself alongside Geryon, marveling as she always does at his soft fur and feathers, and nuzzles his neck. “Oh darlin’… I’ll admit, that would’ve left me a puddle o’ quiverin’ puddin’ on the floor, if he’d done it t’me. Ye handled it very well, love.”

“Well,” the gryphon murmurs, moving his head to rub against her cheek. “I was entrusted with your safety, after all. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. They are all dreadfully frightening, the lot of them. Gods of death…” He shudders. “I told Dion, time and again, it is a bad idea to get involved with that sort.”

Merri kisses him on his big, sharp, curved beak, and says gently, “Dear, that is our mother ye’re talkin’ about.”

Geryon casts his eyes down. “I uhm… I guess I can open an exception for her. But you will have to admit, she can be just as dreadful when she wants to be.”

“Oh yeah,” Cherry says, sitting down on the other side of him and stroking the top of his head. “Ain’t no doubt, she can do scary with the best of ‘em.”

There follows one of those odd moments who everyone falls silent at once for no particular reason, and the room becomes very still, and Merri looks about the room, their home, their bar, the building that dear Sky has rented to them on behalf of the Guardia, which owns the building. The wee ones, Kori and Chime and Tulip, are back to their old selves already, chasing each other around and exclaiming over discoveries. Sage is inspecting the changes to the place along with his human girlfriend Aliyah, dear sweet constable Aliyah, so brawny and tall, towering over the lovely male Bunny, the two of them marveling at the flowers and greenery, orchids and begonias and hibiscus and others Merri doesn’t even recognize, she’ll have to look them up, Mamma probably has a book that’ll say, and goodness, she wonders, are we going to have bees and hummingbirds in here, why that would be nice, perhaps, though the bees sound a bit scary. Merri starts to decide that she quite likes what Grandmamma, the stunningly beautiful Lyria, has done with the place, not only the plants but the nice, solid new furniture, tables and chairs all of dark heavy wood, and she wonders how much it was all damaged by the demons that invaded. Probably smashed to flinders, she thinks.

At the thought of demons, Merri’s mind flits back to that horrid night when they had to escape Three Rats, to get to the portal in the neighboring ward of Little Falls and face so many dreadful criminals who wanted nothing so much as to murder Bunnies, and those demigods and monsters and summoned hounds from Hell itself were sent against them, and even after they escaped to supposedly the safest building on the whole of the Insula they were ambushed by assassins and one of them lashed a nasty spiked chain at her and it wrapped around her leg and pulled her, pulled her away screaming from the arms of Cherry, her dearest, the other half of her heart…

Without a thought of doing so, Merri stiffens and grabs Cherry’s hand where it rests on top of Geryon’s head, making the gryphon twitch. He looks between the two of them, as Cherry looks over Geryon at Merri, her eyes wide. “What is it, baby?” Cherry asks, and it comforts Merri to see her darling’s face so concerned, but hurts her as well, knowing that Cherry is so easily worried and unsettled by all that’s been happening, perhaps more so than any other Bunny. Merri knows that Cherry is already on edge, what with all that’s happened, and who wouldn’t be, one could well ask, poor sweet Cherish, and Merri wants nothing more than to take her beloved in her arms and comfort her, which is a bit funny considering how just a moment ago it was Merri herself who was feeling so disturbed, but then there’s nothing like someone needing your help to steady you, is there?

Before Merri can actually say anything, Aliyah speaks up, having come up to them along with Sage. “Um, did they say someone else was comin’?” the cop asks.

Geryon breathes in deeply, the side of his chest pressing pleasantly against Merri, and releases his breath in a sigh of someone who has been put upon for a thousand years. “Yes… two more of them. I wonder what sneering haunt will greet us next…”

As if summoned by the words, two figures fade into sight, in the middle of the room where the foliage only hangs a little way from the ceiling in trailing vines of wisteria. One is draped in a dark-grey cloak that, from its outline, indicates that it covers a human-shaped male body, but that body as far as Merri can see is made entirely of shadows, darkness upon darkness, hooded and hovering just a finger’s length above the floor. The other looks just like his companion, except that his cloak is a bright sunny yellow with gold trim where the other’s cloak has silver embroidery, body made of light where his counterpart’s is made of darkness, shining and warm, not at all painful to look upon but much resembling how Merri has always imagined an angel would. They both turn this way and that, looking somewhat confused as to why they are here.

It is a heart-stopping moment for all, as there is no telling if these are friends or foes, only their grandmother’s assurance of the imminent arrival of guardians tipping the Bunnies, cop, and gryphon all slightly into the ‘maybe they’re friendly’ camp. Or at least Merri is tipped there, and she stands, because manners are manners and if these are demons of some sort – but really how could they be? they don’t look threatening at all, for all their strangeness and the feeling of power and ancient wisdom coming from them – well if they’re demons then the only way the younger Bunnies will escape is if there’s a distraction, so Merri stands and, looking at Cherry whose hand she still holds, nods and smiles to see Cherry, oh dear bright brilliant star that she is, nods as well despite her fears, and still holding hands they approach the two visitors.

Her voice only showing the slightest tremor of nervousness, Cherry calls out cheerfully, “Hey there! Welcome to the Burrow! Now with extra foliage. Heh. Y’all want somethin’ to drink, or eat?”

Not one to be outdone, and besides the two of them have always loved to put on a show of being a practiced pair, showmanship being such a part of the business that May so charmingly calls ‘the water trade,’ though Merri can’t quite remember if May ever explained why, Merri chirps, “I’m Rosemary, but everyone calls me Merri. This is Cherry. And…well, we can do the introductions as we go along, there bein’ so many of us. Please, sit down, ye’ve come such a long way after all.”

The figure fully made of shadows turns to focus on the Bunnies. This close and from her angle, for it seems like there’s hardly anyone who’s not taller than she, and what a bother that is sometimes, even Sage and Cherry and especially May are all taller not to mention all the humans and gods, Merri can see his face under his hood more clearly, yes, shadow on shadow and a glint of silver to one of the sides, to form a face none-too-solid but handsome, indeed it is, though doesn’t Cherry like to joke that to Merri every face is handsome or lovely, and oh yes it’s so isn’t it, and why shouldn’t it be for isn’t there beauty in everyone? Well maybe not everyone. Not that horrid Nekh who tried to have them killed and nearly killed Geryon and oh my the shadowy fellow is suddenly raising an arm and speaking of Geryon here he is again, jumping in front of Merri and Cherry, swollen up to full fighting size, a great eagle-headed-and-winged lion, feathers and fur puffed to make him even bigger, oh how glorious he is and he doesn’t even know it, does he? Poor dear Geryon, so brave in an emergency and so uncertain of himself in repose.

“Ladies, run!” he roars, and it’s best just to ignore the crack in his voice that makes him squeak at the very end because goodness knows bravery without fear is just foolishness, ain’t it?

Even though she feels no fear of the shadowy god, for god and even family she trusts he must be, Merri is about to scarper with Cherry because Geryon is their guardian, after all, and it would be embarrassing to him if they didn’t obey, men’s egos being so fragile, don’t you know, it’s just one of those things best not to mention most of the time.

Without pausing at the sight of a powerful and dangerous gryphon threatening him, the shadow-man removes his hood, revealing more clearly his wavering and never-quite-defined head, the darkness fading out in wisps to indicate hair, that silvery glint revealed to be, after all, a lovely earring very similar to Mother’s but a little different here and there, the primary impression of his unusual face being, from its smile, friendliness. And from that smile comes a voice, “Oh don’t run on our account. We were called to guard everyone here, after all.”

Well doesn’t Geryon look abashed at that. Merri puts her hand on his back to comfort him, and of course there’s Cherry doing it as well, for who couldn’t love him? “It ain’t no surprise we’re a little nervous,” Cherry says. “We just got attacked by a buncha demons. Dunno if Lyria told you that.”

Looking quizzically at Cherry, he says, in a voice not all all shadowy and dark and echoey like you might expect, but kind and convivial, “She did fail to mention it.”

And now the other one, the angelic fellow, all light where his companion is shadow, points, and Merri follows his glowing finger and sees he’s pointing at Tulip, who has a familiar ‘What did I do?’ look on her face. The dark one focuses on her intently, and says, “Yes, you’re right… Looks just like her.” It takes half a tick for Merri to clue in that he must be responding to a comment from the bright guy, something that even Bunny ears couldn’t catch. Shadows (as she is beginning to think of him seeing as he hasn’t offered up a name yet) looks around at all the Bunnies and chuckles a little. “Oh I see! You are Alma’s mini-clan, aren’t you?”

“Mini-clan?” Merri is astonished at the thought, but then smiles brightly and laughs. “Oh, I like that! We’re the Clan o’ the Bunny! We need our own plaid!”

Shadows laughs as well, delighted, and takes a step toward Merri, reaching out and touching her ears and running his fingers through her hair. His touch is surprisingly solid, cool, cooler than their mother’s touch but not cold or unpleasant at all. “This is brilliant! The transition of fur and hair, the ears… So absolutely perfect. And you are all different. Do you all have different personalities, as well? Different abilities, maybe?”

Merri resists the urge to take a step back. He’s so eager and innocent in his way that even though it’s quite off-putting to be talked about and handled that way, she can’t blame him. But best to put a stop to that kind of thing right off, and Cherry, after sharing a look with Sage, takes the lead, bless her. “Hon,” Cherry says, her drawl firm and friendly-but-you-better-respect as she would put it, “how about we just get to know each other the usual way? So, you know our names…”

His shadowy features roil in momentary confusion, but then he smiles. “Oh, how rude of me… That is Luminus and I am Imset. We’re your uncles!”

Luminus removes his hood as well. Except for being drawn in soft light, his features are identical to Imset’s, right down to the earring. He smiles and raises a hand in greeting.

Cherry’s grin blossoms, broad and free and so pretty with her full dark lips and bright teeth and her lovely light-brown skin. “Now that’s more like it! Wow, uncles! Family keeps gettin’ bigger!” Merri remembers how Cherry wept in her arms one night, over how their father, Arion, had still only visited a few of them, how most of their mother’s family hadn’t acknowledged them, so she knows how important Imset’s words are to her, even though Cherry normally doesn’t say so aloud.

Sage steps forward, releasing Aliyah’s hand. “I am Sage. These are Kori, Chime, and Tulip. And Aliyah and Geryon, our protectors and dear friends.” Aliyah puts her hands on his shoulders and gives him a squeeze.

“I must say,” Imset says, “I had never met a talking gryphon before now.”

Geryon is still settling his feathers down, trying to look as if he didn’t unnecessarily leap to their defense. “Yes, I’m a rare beastie. So you are lady Alma’s brothers?”

“Oh yes. The oldest ones she has,” Imset says. “Little Almy is our baby sister. I take it she’s not around, or we wouldn’t have been called.” He looks closer at Tulip. “You look just like she did when she was that tall.”

Luminus moves closer to Tulip, and leaning down he smiles and pets her head. Tulip looks up at him, dazed and fascinated, her jaw half-dropped, and Merri bursts out laughing at the sight of Tulip – Tulip! – rendered speechless.

“So what are y’all the gods of?” Cherry asks. “Some kinda death, right?”

Imset chuckles. “Something like it. We are the light and the darkness at the end of life.” He leans closer to Cherry. “Do you have a heightened sense of smell as well?”

Cherry leans closer to him, still grinning, her snub nose almost touching his longer, sharper one. “We got a normal sense of smell, but humans got a terrible one, so I guess you could call ours pretty sharp. We ain’t exactly bloodhounds, but we kick butt at wine tastin’.”

Imset looks down Cherry’s body, shaking his head in pleased amazement. “And those legs and feet… Amazing how she managed to make it all work… And I just cannot get over that witty tongue of yours! Father is insane for thinking Almy disgraced herself with you! So much better than Uncle Techu’s Anubi…”

At this revelation, Merri gasps dramatically. “Are ye sayin’…we’re related t’the Anubi-bai, er, bi?”

“WHEEE!” They all look over to see Luminus tossing Tulip in the air. Though the youngest Bunny is a slight-built wee thing, she is thirteen years old and tossing her about like a toddler takes a lot of strength, but fortunately she’s not being bounced off the ceiling yet. Merri notes that Sage is keeping a worried eye on those two.

Imset chuckles again at the silliness. “Oh yes. Our mother’s first husband created the Anubi. That was before he was put on trial by the Council and sent away. Mother joined Father’s harem after that. Well…it was not a harem yet, back then. Why do you think people find you so repulsive?” He says this casually, distractedly while stroking Cherry’s ear between two fingers, clearly not subscribing to general opinion. Still, it’s no pleasure to her yourself being described as repulsive.

Sage, seemingly satisfied that Tulip is having a blast, says, “We knew that our creation was a violation of the law. But according to our mother, we were not in any way designed. We simply came into being. We are as accidental, in a sense, as most mortals. Perhaps that is the difference?”

“Perhaps.” Imset looks as if he realizes he was becoming lost in the sensation of stroking the soft fur of Cherry’s ear, and smiles at her apologetically. “So…anything we can do to soothe your minds after that rendezvous with demons?”

“Well I think a nice cuppa tea is in order,” Merri says. “Also, we need t’explore our redecorated bar!”

“We’re just guessin’,” Cherry says, “but this must be Lyria’s way of cleanin’ up. Man, look at these tables! They’re so much nicer than before.”

“Yes, this has Lyria all over it,” Imset says. “Speaking of which… Where is she? She sent for us but she didn’t say much in her message.”

At this point, all three of the younger Bunnies are gathered around Luminus, who is conjuring up beautiful wavering multicolored lights, like an aurora, fascinating them. He hasn’t said a word yet but they don’t seem to mind. Merri watches with half a mind, until Sage’s serious voice brings her back to reality. “She and the Fencer and Melinor have gone to find Mother, and some other gods whom you may not know. It’s all rather worrying.”

Imset looks concerned. “Is my sister in danger? Who are these gods?”

“They are all Guardia Dei,” Sage explains. “One of them is a sergeant like Mother, named Gwydion. Oh, Somrak is a sergeant as well, but he’s not from this station. And then there is this station’s inspector, Sky, or rather Tuma-Sukai, as he is properly called. They seem to have gone up against the necromancer who bombed our station and killed some of our people awhile back.”

Merri feels her stomach clench and being reminded of the simply awful situation. “And Dion an’ Sky an’ Somrak, too, they’re all family to us an’ we’re worried sick.”

“Huh…” Imset’s insubstantial-looking hand strokes his jawline. “I remember hearing about that bomb. Hadn’t had one go off since Lum and I were youngsters. Gwydion… is he from the First Ring?”

“He is! Very posh an’aw,” Merri says. “But he’s begun to fit in well here. Place has grown on him!”

“Sommy’s a bundle of trouble, but we love him anyway,” Cherry adds. “Got a ponytail and a scar like this.” She draws a line across her face with her finger.

“Is this Gwydion the one who was caught seducing his way through the whole First Ring?” Imset asks, sending Merri and Cherry into a fit of giggling while Aliyah guffaws.

Geryon, on the other paw, sighs. “Yes. If you want his skin for losing a girlfriend, you will have to stand in line.”

“Oh no,” Imset laughs, “I find it all very amusing. Unless, of course, he is harboring bad intentions toward my little sister. Then I might have to harm him.”

Though it’s said in a friendly tone that seems to be Imset’s default, the statement puts a stop to the laughter. Merri and Cherry look at each other, and the latter says, “Well, uh, y’know…how about that drink? And weren’t you gettin’ tea, baby? Y’know,” Cherry says, back to addressing the twins, “she makes the best tea, even if it ain’t iced sweet tea.”

“But sometimes Cherry dear makes a pitcher o’ that iced abomination,” Merri responds, shaking her head with an amused sigh and heading for the kitchen.

“Hey, it’s good on a hot day!”

After she starts the fire and puts the kettle on, Merri leans against the doorframe and watches. Imset looks amused at the banter as Luminus sits by him and places a companionable hand on his shoulder. “So… you two are the oldest of the lot?” he says to Cherry.

“That’s right,” Cherry says. “Got no idea which of us appeared first, or if we both showed up at the same moment. We used to argue about it, but agreed it must’ve been simultaneous. Funny, we ain’t never asked Mom about that.”

Merri calls, “I was first an’ ye know it!” She laughs at Cherry’s dramatic eye-roll, and turns to the kettle, which is starting to hiss with the first signs of boiling.

“Oh, so you are twins! We are twins as well. Lum here was born just three days before me.”

Aliyah, who has been mostly silent around these older, more powerful and terribly strange but friendly gods, cries, “Ouch! That…is a long labor!”

“Oh, Mother wasn’t that put out by it. She had plenty to keep her entertained while she waited,” Imset explains.

Cherry laughs. “What, jugglers? Puppet shows? Poodles jumping through flaming hoops?”

Imset and Luminus look utterly confused, then look at each other and laugh, Luminus silently, Imset loudly enough for both. “Oh, she’s brilliant!” he says. “I don’t remember what she did, I hadn’t been born yet!

As Merri returns to the gathering, carrying a tray bearing the teapot filled with hot water, the tea steeping within, and a little cow-shaped pitcher of milk, a glass jar of sugar, and some biscuits on a plate, she sees that Luminus has decided to entertain them with another light show.

Ah, it must have been the young’ns who asked him because they are all sitting around the soft flare of a god, watching wide-eyed as little dots of light start crawling out from among the leaves of all the greenery that Grandmama left behind in the bar, crawling and rolling down the leaves like shimmering drops of dew in the morning light and falling and hovering, all different colors but so soft. Like fireflies in the summer. And it is like they’re growing now, just a little, and the bigger ones are blooming, all so slow, so quiet, stretching lazily in fine tendrils like slow, tiny, lazy explosions of silent fireworks, all over the bar, right in the air, where Kori and Chime can reach out and grab them and hold them in both hands, peeking into the little dark chamber created by their fingers and marveling at the way the ever-so-gentle lights are starting to change colors.

The sight of the rising, dancing lights evokes half-memories of the dream life she and Cherry shared while they slept together in magical stasis, sitting on the roof of their bar and watching a Year’s End festival display of pyrotechnics over a river. She used to know the names of the different kinds of explosions, peonies and chrysanthemums, rings and spiders and horsetails, marveling at the way the lit up the sky and reflected in the water, sipping champagne with Cherry. Oh what an exquisite time.