Chapter 1: “The First Day” 17

As the bunnies settle down to sleep among the comfortable pillows, Alma walks up to her bed, falling more than sitting on it. Still humming a soft and peaceful lullaby, she shakes her head to cast out the dizziness that is always left behind after she taps into her one reserves of godpower. Thankfully, the month is almost over and she will soon be able to rely on Guardia-supplied mana instead of draining herself like this.

Too tired to worry too much about it but still held and bound by years of nightly rituals, she stands up once more and changes into a light, silk nightgown. Her energy reserves now reaching their lower limit, she gets into bed without even taking the time to brush her hair.

As the goddess lays down to rest, the light in the orb dims into almost absolute darkness. In the shadowy cage, two eyes the color of a summer’s dawn glow in the dark.

Uma ave feita de mito,

Com as penas da cor do céu

Tingidas do azul restrito

Ao mais marítimo breu.

Os seus olhos fechados

Eram da cor da madrugada,

Dois fachos animados

Pelo brilho da alvorada.

Que garras delgadas tinha,

Mais claras que ouro branco!

Belas plumas de rainha

Estendidas sobre o flanco,

Cauda de rasto de estrela,

Bico alvo de diamante,

Espargidos da luz que gela

De um eterno luar distante….

…A bird made of myth,

With feathers the color of the sky

Stained with a blue left only

To the most maritime darkness.

Her closed eyes

Were the color of dawn,

Two torches animated

By the glimmer of sunrise.

Such delicate claws, she had,

Brighter than white gold!

Beautiful plumes fit for a queen

Stretched over her flank,

Her tail a star’s flare,

Clear beak made of diamond,

Bathed by the freezing light

Of eternal distant moonlight…

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Chapter 1: “The First Day” 16

Gwydion stands before a heavy wooden door. Windows on both sides reveal eclectic groups of people sitting at tables, drinking, talking and some shouting, at times, within and across their groups.  Looking up, he sees a heavily weathered sign, letters deeply grooved into the wood spelling “The Singing Cockroac”, the obvious last letter having broken off sometime in the past. Under the letters is a carved relief emanating from the wood – an insect holding what appears to be a microphone.

Opening the door, Dion steps in, quickly surveying the room. Anchoring the middle is an elongated bar with stools on both sides. Barmaids with bosoms spilling out of tight, low-cut tops pour ales and hard liquor to desperate male patrons, improving their tips either through shameless flirting or by increasing customer blood-alcohol levels. Old, heavy, varnished wooden tables line each side, two-thirds occupied, mostly with groups of two or three. At the doorway to his left an old man sits alone drinking green tea.  Waitresses, garbed like barmaids, pass back and forth to the tables collecting monies and sometimes suffering unwanted advances or contact.

The noises, sounds and lighting quickly build a gestalt in his mind: dive bar. Interesting place Alma suggested, he muses.

Farthest up the bar a large man, probably considered muscular in the past, but slipping into obese with age, is propped on a stool. He leans on a manually geared cash register, the patterns of money flow, communication to the staff, and interaction with customers firmly identifying him as owner or boss. Dion minimizes his aura and moves his badge to his belt to best pass as a normal human and walks past the regulars at the bar, closing on the owner.

Clearing his throat as he approaches, Dion gains the attention of the owner. “Excuse me, sir. Would you be the owner of this establishment?”

The owner turns, facing Dion. “Yes. What do you want, Guardia?” he responds, looking the god over. “We didn’t call for cops here.”

Dion, immediately registering the arrogance aimed at his uniform, shifts to a diplomatic approach. “My apologies for the misunderstanding. I was informed that this establishment rents apartments upstairs.”

The owner looks at Gwydion and then begins to laugh. “To Guardia? I wouldn’t have your stinking kind around here! It’s bad enough when you blue-bellies come in here, busting my good paying customers and hauling them away without allowing them to pay their tabs. Now, you’re looking to reside here?! Get out!” he roars, pointing to the door with a meaty hand.

Dion, sensing a hush in the customers around him as they witness the exchange, decides an exit is the most prudent action to take. “My apologies again,” and bowing to the owner turns to leave.  He passes two tables before his path becomes blocked at the third, as one of a party of four rises in front of him.

“Excuse me,” Dion says.

Slightly taller than Dion, and approximately one-third greater in mass, the dark-haired, bearded man, smelling of many ales, fills the aisle from the table to the nearest bar chair.

“There is no excuse for you, Guardia,” the man snarls. “Hey, Maul!” he yells to the occupant sitting in the chair next to him. “Was this the one that locked you up?”

“Nah, Bull,” the other man responds, rising from his chair, his size, weight and smell matching his partner, with looks indicating a sibling connection. “That one wasn’t such a pretty boy. But, they still cost me a week’s pay.  Maybe we ask this boy to pony up.”

Dion, already anticipating a problem with the two over-served men, takes a step back to buy some room to move. The other two occupants of the table also rise, one a shorter, slightly built man, and a pretty, young lady, wearing black with eyes to match.

“Maybe that purdy jacket he got will do.  Those buttons look like they’ll fetch some money,” Bull growls, reaching to grab the lapel of Dion’s jacket.

With practiced accuracy, Dion intercepts the man’s wrist. Quickly shifting his grip, Dion twists the hand, forcing the wrist into a most painful position and taking the larger man down to his knees. Dion’s hope that this swift action would discourage the rest of the party is quickly dashed as Maul, alcohol emboldened, flips his chair backwards and rushes at the god.

Releasing Bull, Dion intercepts the brother. Taking advantage of Maul’s momentum, Dion steps sideways and arm sweeps his attacker, forcing him to fly sideways into an unoccupied bar stool and slam into the bar. Feeling motion nearby, Dion spins to see Bull back on his feet and positioning to throw a punch. As Bull’s arm comes forward, Dion again steps sideways, capturing the wrist as the arm passes.  Holding it straight, Dion palm hits the outside of the elbow, shattering it. Bull screams with pain, falling down while grabbing his arm.

Suddenly, Dion’s world inverts as Maul, rolling from the bar, hits the back of the god’s legs. Dion lands heavily on his shoulder, taking the rest of his momentum in a roll. Regaining his feet faster than the larger Maul, the god steps in, striking Maul in the groin with a side kick followed by a knee to the face, dropping the larger man to the floor next to his moaning brother.

At that moment, Dion senses magic being conjured nearby. Spinning in place, he witnesses the smaller male occupant in the midst of casting a spell. Amateur sorcerer, Dion quickly deduces, and reflexively raises an auric shield against the spell. Not having the time to analyze and counter, he flares the shield as the spell hits, burning the enchantment before it can manifest. The glaring light produced by spell hitting shield makes the room aware that they are not dealing with a Guardia Popula.

“Guardia Dei!” the young sorcerer cries, eyes wide with fear as he recognizes his opponent, and bolts from the table and races for the door. As he passes the last table, the old man strikes him with a cane and then smoothly reverses it, hooking the sorcerer with the curved end and slamming him to the table, unconscious.

As Dion takes a step towards the sorcerer, he feels a tug from his jacket. Spinning towards the tug, he spies the female member of the party, now standing aside the table, crouching low with a blade in each hand. The stance and wardrobe mark her as a kunoichi, a female practitioner of ninpo. Looking down, he spots a rent in his jacket where she had attacked and thankfully, only met fabric.

“And, I just fixed this,” Dion anguishes. No longer needing to conceal his divine status, he resorts to his well-practiced spells and quickly conjures and releases a focused love spell at the kunoichi. “Sorry about this, darling. But I can’t have you poking me with those.” As the spell hits, her pupils dilate. Dropping her blades, she falls to the floor on hands and feet, shaking her head and breathing hard.

Dion returns to the brothers, both now understanding and fearing their prior target.  Grabbing Bull’s arm, he straightens the damaged limb, receiving a howl from the large man. Dion then casts a healing spell on the elbow. “I regret that I had to injure you.  This will heal in a day or so. Do not exert any pressure on it until the pain subsides,” he warns him.

While still holding Bull’s arm, keeping his attention, Dion turns and levels a piercing stare at Maul, who returns a horrified look. Measuring his words, Dion states, “Gentlemen, I have no idea what complaint you have with the Guardia. Given the events here, I am willing to accept that the Guardia had reason to take umbrage with your actions. This was your one warning. Take action against my fellow Guardia again, and I will not halt at only a broken elbow.”

Rising and taking a few steps back to the table, Dion crouches down to the pretty kunoichi who still remains on hands and knees, her anguish over the spell’s effects causing tears to fall to the floor. Placing a finger under her chin, he lifts her face and meets her eyes. Leaning forward, he kisses her. She responds strongly as the spell-induced passion-hunger consumes her. Utilizing the contact, Dion invokes a counterspell, breaking the enchantment, and is somewhat surprised that although the forced passion vanishes, she does not immediately terminate the kiss.

“Darling, again my apology for the enchantment,” he says as he pulls away and lightly caresses her cheek. “Maybe we’ll have a chance to become better acquainted in the future without the need of these,” Dion states, picking up her blades and binding them to the table with a time-release spell.

Stepping towards the front table, Dion approaches the old man of oriental ancestry and the now-unconscious amateur sorcerer. Bowing slightly, he greets the old man. “My thanks to you for the assistance.”

The elder stands before the god, more than a head shorter than Dion. Leaning slightly on his cane, he studies the Guardia Dei intently. Finally speaking with an aged but strong voice, he states, “You handled yourself well there, Sergeant. I recognized some of the moves. Who was your instructor?”

Dion, taken slightly off-guard by the inquiry, takes a moment to rub his shoulder which pains him from his fall. He then responds, “I was trained in individual combat at the Academy by Master C. Lee. But,” still rubbing his shoulder, “it appears that I should have paid more attention.”

“Ah, Lee…” the elder muses. “A great instructor he is, as a great student of mine he was.”

Dion halts his shoulder rubbing and stares at the old man. “Are you Grand Master Pak?”

The old man laughs and looks back at the god. “So, Lee mentioned me. It is good that I am still in his thoughts.” Looking past the god at the bar owner, he continues. “I overheard that you were looking for lodging. It is unwise for you to hunt for a place this late. Come back with me to my dojo, and you will stay there until morning.” Looking down at the unconscious form laying on the floor, the Grand Master finishes, “I think this one will give you no more trouble.”

Lifting his cup and taking one last swallow of green tea, the old man leads the god out of the bar  to the street. Dion follows him for a short block, until they reach a nondescript, black-painted cinderblock building. The Grand Master unlocks the door and they enter.

Turning back to the god, the elder says, “I could go around each sconce and light candles, but if you would?”

Dion nods to the Grand Master and then casts a basic spell, setting all the candles alight. The warm, yellow radiance provides a soothing effect to the open room.  Although small in nature, Dion appreciates the detailed adornments of the dojo.

“You have an opinion to express?” the elder asks.

“Master Pak, I was just making note of what a fine dojo this is. The professionalism is evident.”

“Hmpf.” The elder grunts and leads the god to the end of the open space and into a small room containing a table and four chairs. “Take off your jacket and sit,” the Grand Master commands.

Dion complies, folding his jacket and setting it on a nearby chair, the pocket showing the damage from the Kunoichi’s blade exposed on top. The elder steps behind the god and begins moving his hands, rubbing them from elbow to past his opposing hand, each move accompanied with held and released breaths. Dion recognizes the pattern as the Grand Master concentrating his chi energy to his palms. Reaching out, the elder begins pressing on the god’s shoulder at different acupressure points and begins a reiki healing.

A short time later, the elder steps away from the chair. “Try your arm,” he commands.

Dion, flexes his shoulder and raises his arm upwards, noticing a marked reduction of the pain and discomfort. “A fine healing, Master. My gratitude to you.”

The elder looks at the god with concern. “The shoulder was a common injury and easily addressed. You have a second injury near where the Kunoichi attempted to slice you.  There is no indication of blade penetration, and the wound seems somewhat older.” Now looking hard at the god, “It also has magical aspects to it. I did not wish to disturb it.”

Dion, understanding what the Grand Master was perceiving, responds carefully. “I had a little incident earlier today. It is of no importance.”

“Hmm…” the elder muses and then points to a hallway intersecting the room. “There is a guest room down and to the left. You will stay there tonight. Then, when you find a place tomorrow, you will return here twice a week. Before you have any more incidents, we will work on the parts of your training where your attention waned.”

Chapter 1: “The First Day” 15

It’s around midnight when Sky comes out of his office, stretching his back, unused to bending over a too-low desk and dealing with paperwork for hours.

The desks of the Popula office are mostly unoccupied, but he sees Cpl. Kaur reading over some document, chin on her fist, elbow propped on the desk, sighing. He approaches her.

“Corporal,” he says. “No no no…don’t stand up…look, you don’t have to come to attention and salute and all that every time I say something to you.” He sits in the chair next to her desk, the one arrestees and witnesses would use if she were interviewing any. “Let’s just…save that for when Sgt. Machado is around, please.”

She grins tiredly. “Sure thing, Inspector. So…is this your watch then?”

“Which shift is this? Is it still night watch? Yes, I guess it is mine. But I explained to Sgt. Machado that we often have different sleep needs from humans…even from each other. Some of us don’t need to sleep at all. I can be here pretty much as needed. But yes, I prefer the night watch.”

“Me too,” she says. “I have an excuse to sleep in in the morning, and then I have all day free as long as we don’t get called in on an emergency.”

“Does that happen often here?”

“Oh yeah! This is a dangerous neighborhood. Drug gangs, kidnappers, extortionists, plus your run-of-the-mill drunks and pervos. Even now that we’re expanded, we only have four Guardia on each watch–well, four Guardia Popula. Now we have you gods…but the Sarge says you’re not supposed to be helping us with mortal, non-magical crimes.”

“Corporal, there’s a simple spell on my door. I’ve told Sgt. Machado this, and I want you to let everyone know about it, all right? Knock on my door and say my name, and I will hear you from wherever I am on the Mountain. And if you say it’s an emergency, I will come as swiftly as I can. I know the regulations about what kind of crimes we’re supposed to get involved in. But if you really think you need me for backup, call for me. I’ll take responsibility for any fallout. I’ll talk to my fellow Dei about that, too.”

“Gosh, thanks sir.” She smiles, then yawns hugely, bursting into embarrassed laughter as she sees Sky looking at her with a smile. “Sorry!”

“Corporal…haven’t you been here since early this morning?”

“Yeah…I got caught up in helping out Sgt. Alma with the Bunnies. And before that, I went shopping with Sgt. Gwydion.” She chuckles again. “He’s a funny guy.”

“Oh,” Sky says, feeling a stab of guilt for not having gone back into the store-room when he was free to do so. Every time he’d thought of going in there, he remembered those penetrating eyes looking into his, and he’d found something else to do. “Are they all right, then? The Bunnies?”

“Oh yeah, they’re sweethearts. It’ll be nice having them helping out… So, Inspector, you got in even before I arrived this morning. Do you have a place around here? I mean, a home?”

“Yes…I rented a flat off Chowringhee Road, past the market. I thought it would be nice to walk through the market every day.”

“Inspector, that area is dangerous! It’s a rat maze, and some of the rats walk on two legs and carry knives!”

Sky laughs. “Well, all the more reason for a cop to live there, eh? Maybe I can convince the bad elements to move out.”

Aliyah shakes her head. “I guess no mortal there is gonna be stupid enough to bother you more than once…but there’s even a couple of bad-natured gods there.”

“I’ll be sure to call on them. But to tell the truth, I haven’t even seen the place yet, and I had some furniture delivered today. I should go find the place, and check to make sure everything arrived safely.”

“And make sure it’s still there!”

He smiles. “Good night, Corporal. See you tomorrow.”

“See ya, sir.”

Sky heads out into the dark streets. The gas-fed lamps do little more than create more shadows, especially with half the lamps out of order. He would have to get on City Services about fixing them–better lighting alone could have an effect on crime. Crossing a bridge over the series of waterfalls that passes for a river in these parts, he notes the columns that make up the balustrade, carvings of gods he recognizes from a pantheon he would call Hindu, though they themselves did not call it that here. At the far end of the bridge is a rare sight in the City: a statue of the Kristos crucified, brow bleeding from the thorns. It makes him feel almost like he’s back on Earth. He stands looking for a moment, then walks on.

Even at this hour, some of the market stalls are open, mostly acting as open-air bars and eateries. He sees a fascinating variety of food for sale, on sticks and on cheap plates, from more cultures than he can recognize. Some of the bars look as if they might double as brothels, judging from the dress of the women lounging in front of them or within, color and style combinations sending subtle messages about price and techniques. He slips through the crowd, and is gratified that most do not make him for a god. Still, some do. One man raises his hands, palms together, eyes down, as Sky passes. Sky can barely feel the man’s prayer to him, adding to his store of power, bringing with it a longing for good fortune. With hardly a thought, the god brushes his fingers along the man’s hands as he passes, returning the tiny jolt of power, transformed, lending the man an infinitesimal fragment of strength, and with it a hint of a desire to break free and transform this poverty-stricken neighborhood. At this blessing, Sky’s hair is ruffled by an ocean breeze, the smell of the sea filling the air around him.

As he looks around, he sees a shopkeeper in a hijab staring at him. She must have sensed the manifestation of his magic as he blessed the man. She looks at him, haughty, letting him know she would never pray to a false god like him, and then turns away.

Sky smiles, admiring her bravery, her steadfast faith in the One God she has never seen, and continues on.

As he leaves the market, he mentally reviews the directions the estate agent had given him, and turns into a warren of twisting streets. Young, tough-looking men, mostly human, loiter with no apparent purpose on corners, eyeing him. He can sense chains binding them: chains of poverty, addiction, brutal fealty. He allows his divine power to shine through slightly more than usual, just enough to warn them that he is something they should not challenge.

The streets are an insane tangle, utterly illogical, and randomly paved in completely different ways. He soon realizes that Three Rats is the result of parts of at least two cities merging, occupying the same place at the same time as they broke away from their original world–perhaps the very same Earth he had lived on, he guesses–overlapping and becoming one. It must have been catastrophic, as buildings merged and, their structural integrity destroyed, collapsed. He stops before one twisted building that is both three and four stories high, still standing but uninhabitable with floors split in half and rooms closed off from each other by misplaced hallways. Graffiti on one wall is in Spanish…no, Portuguese. On another wall, it is in a script he recognizes as Devanagari, from India, but though he recognizes the writing system, he does not know the words.

He is just starting to wonder if his memory has let him down when he finds his building. He climbs rickety stairs, noting carefully which ones creak so that he can take them more quietly in the future, then takes out his key and opens the door to his third-floor apartment. Inside is darkness and a smell of mildew, a single living room/kitchen/bedroom, plus a tiny water closet. He opens the windows and spends a little time shoving his delivered furniture into place: a couple of chairs, a sofa, a small table, a rolled-up futon.

Then he pulls out a notebook in which is written an incantation given to him by another god. He tears out the sheet and presses it against the wall, remembering when everyone was using scrolls. He reads the incantation aloud, the words disappearing as he pronounces them. An area of the wall in the shape of a door flares yellow, then opens into another world.

It is a very small world, but bigger than the apartment. There is a comfortable living/dining area, a well-appointed kitchen, a study area with a desk, all contained within a cozy, cave-like oval. A curved sofa rests along one wall, and full bookshelves alternate with koa-framed paintings and photographs hung over tappa wallpaper. A door leads into a bath area.

Sky goes to a shelf and pulls out colorful sleeve containing a vinyl record. Handling it carefully, he lays it on the turntable of a hand-cranked, electricity-free, carbon-fiber-flywheel-powered stereo system, presses a button, sets the needle, and the room fills with the relaxing strains of Hawaiian slack-key guitar. He spins the crank a few times, careful not to make the record skip, until he is sure it has enough stored power to play the whole record.

Sky pours himself a single-malt whisky, imported like the record from the world he called home for over a century, and relaxes on the sofa, letting go of the day as best he can. He has lived in this place for decades, built for him by a god who specializes in such things, merely moving the entry portal when he has needed to move, usually maintaining a cheap, fake home as a front. Many gods use such pocket-dimensional homes, but Sky likes to pretend he is too poor to afford one. But his tastes are simple, and he rarely uses his divine power for other things, so he has plenty to keep this magical place in existence.

Finishing his drink, he rises and enters the bath, stripping off, then showering before sliding into the magically pre-heated water of the Japanese-style ofuro, where he has a nice, long soak. He finds his mind occupied with his sergeants. Machado is a touchy one, but he seems like a good cop, and Cpl. Kaur certainly seems to admire the man. Gwydion is hiding some embarrassment that seems to carry with it danger; Sky will have to keep an eye out for that. And Alma…how many times had Sky misstepped with her today? Is she a slave, or a slave owner? Both or neither? Those Bunnies…from the wording of the orders, and a subtle marginal note penciled in by the Commander, he knows that no matter what his recommendation the Council could very well have already made a decision, and he might be ordered to put the creatures down. There would be no working with Alma after that, he is sure. It wouldn’t matter to her that he was following orders. She would become his implacable enemy.

Is there a purpose behind that? Does Alma have enemies already? Sky lets the wheels of paranoia turn in his mind, dispassionately observing the results, waking his divine power to perceive the connections between and behind events, the chains connecting secrets and conspiracies. To break chains, one must first perceive them, and the chains of the slave are forged by chains of backroom collusion. There is something there, some reason the Bunnies are being released now…some reason he and these other two gods are here, together. But the connections are too obscure for now…he needs to learn more.

Once again, his mind is filled by the image of the Bunny who had approached him, who had been so fascinated by his badge, who had looked into his eyes and seemed to see him for what he was. He clinically observes his body’s reaction: shortness of breath, a drying of the mouth, a slight shakiness in his hands. Arousal. Why does she affect me so? he thinks. She’s not a real person…is she? And am I a coward for avoiding her? As he rises from the bath, he resolves to find out tomorrow.

Chapter 1: “The First Day” 14

Alma enters the basement room with the Bunnies following close behind.

It is just an old storage room, not very big but at least with a good height to the ceiling and some solid stone flooring. The dust lines and dirt voids on the floor indicate that it was, until not long ago, a rather full storage room, probably with bags and boxes stacked up to the ceiling.

“Are we supposed to sleep here? It’s filthy!” Rosemary complains.

“Yeah, there ain’t even any beds for us!” Cherry points out.

“We will be sleeping here, yes, after I make some minor adjustments,” Alma says in a pleasant tone. “And I will need you all to remain silent and let me focus on what I have to do.”

“Oh… Sure thing! We’ll just be real qui –”

“Cherry, shh!” Mayumi hushes her.

Alma waits for a minute or two as the bunnies become silent and then breathes deep. Reaching into a hidden pocket, she produces a small, brilliant orb, apparently made of glass and containing a golden liquid punctuated by golden specks, that catch the light as they move freely within the liquid. The orb is only three quarters full. She looks at her monthly allowance of Guardia-supplied mana with slight dismay. It will take all of it to make this room habitable and after that is gone, she will have to tap into her own, personal reserve. Things never go smoothly when that happens…

Alma dismisses these worries. It cannot be helped, after all. The bunnies just cannot sleep in this wreck of an empty room and that is that. She holds out the orb in the palm of her open hand, stretched  in front of her, and closes her eyes to concentrate on what she is trying to achieve. “Visualization!” she can almost hear her old master speaking to her in thought. “If you can see the magic happening in your mind, it will soon unfold before your eyes.”

She focuses on the layout she wants, every detail vivid in her mind, and whispers a command word, slowly releasing a minute fraction of her power into the orb, just enough to get it to release the mana it contains. Under her tight and constant mental grip, the mana begins to flow out of the orb and spread across the room, like a golden mist, the tiny specks of sheer power hovering like fine dust, much to the bunnies’ amazement and delight. Their mouths gape with mute fascination as the sparkling specks of dust begin to move and dance around the room, gathering in small motes, merging into larger bodies. Delicate, bright, winged bodies, flying in all directions. One of  them lands on Mayumi’s nose, making her cross her eyes, flapping its wings once or twice only to disappear almost immediately in a shower of golden dust when Rosemary tries to touch it.

As the shimmering butterflies gather in swarms that begin to hover around specific places in the room, reality begins to bend. The stone floor, suddenly rid of the dust of ages, begins to reshape itself as a large gap opens in it near the wall opposite to the door. The gap stretches and widens, spreading out in a rounded shape, like a tear falling horizontally to the left of the room. Alma opens her eyes and walks over to the edge of the gap, where it is wider, as it sinks to create a tiered bottom, shallower on the sides and deeper near the center. She looks down at the round, wide platform that is rising toward her to fill most of the gaping hole on the floor. It comes to stand just a couple of fingers’ breadth from the rest of the floor, serving as a small peninsula, in the center of which a shallow crater is already forming. A small swarm of golden butterflies swoops in, hitting the bottom at full speed and breaking into a fine mist that blurs sight for a moment and then disappears, leaving behind a small mountain of fluffy throw-pillows in several different shades of blue.

Alma looks at the pillows and then around her at the rest of the room. To the right of the door, a large wardrobe is just appearing, its shorter end facing the right wall against which a large, comfortable bed, clearly not a single person’s bed, is leaning. To the left of the door, a long and wide wooden desk or workbench stretches up to the corner of the room, following the left wall for a bit after that. Not very far away, a low platform is forming to hold a small table for her brushes and scents. The mirror above it offers Alma her own curious glance in return.

The goddess again turns to the stone platform and begins to walk around its edge. She takes one step into the hole and her foot lands on a small stone platform. She takes one more step and another platform greets her foot. And another one and another one, until she finally reaches the wall. Here, she places one hand on the stone wall, causing a section of it to move away from her so that the once rectangular room gains two extra sides. Two bookshelves immediately form to line them. The far wall, now standing a couple of steps away from Alma, begins to sprout what looks like a small boulder. As the stone slowly stops stretching and comes to rest at arms reach, slightly to Alma’s right side, something else begins to grow from within. A pair of hands, poised to make a cup, come out of the stone, closely followed by delicate arms attached to a beautiful stone statue of a young woman. Alma sends the now empty orb hovering into the exquisite hands of the statue and the last of the butterfly swarms immediately flies into it. The orb suddenly bursts with light, filling the room with a soft brilliance far easier on the eye than torches and lamps. Water begins to pour from the lovely stone hands, soon filling the great hole on the floor up to its edges. As Alma turns to return to the side of the bunnies, the fountain wall begins to sprout silvery shoots of metal. A cage begins to form, its frame fit to hold an animal as large as the bunnies but too loose to keep a small, unwilling inhabitant within. Vines and branches begin to fill its interior and fragrant flowers, some edible, some deadly, some just pretty, cover the ground.

“What is that?” Rosemary asks.

“That, dear, is a cage,” Alma replies.

“A… cage?” Rosemary inquires, searching her mismatched memories for the meaning of the word. “For us, bunnies?”

“No, dear. It is not for bunnies.”

“So…” the bunny finally grabs a hold of the concept of a cage. “To keep some other animal in?”

“No, Rosemary, to keep people out,” the goddess explains. “Now, come. Time for you to take a proper bath before you eat.”

Alma once again approaches what is now a small pool, testing the water with her hand. It is just the right temperature for a pleasant bath and she soon calls the bunnies to her side. The four older bunnies approach the water with care, gazing at their own reflections as they look at the undisturbed surface of the newly-created pool. Rosemary and Cherry are the first to touch the water, with a mix of care and fear, and then to thrust their hands in it. They quickly remove their clothes and dive in, thrusting their heads out of the water in search for air soon afterwards. They giggle and splash around, getting poor Sage all wet even before he even gets a chance to dip his fingers in the water. The two females share a meaningful look and a mischievous thought before reaching out and pulling him in by the legs of his trousers. He yelps as he falls in with a splash.

“Be careful, little ones,” Alma warns them in concerned but sincere delight. “Stay close to the margins of the pool, where it is shallow and safe.”

“We will!” Cherry replies, keeping Sage’s head out of the water so he can breathe.

“Aren’t you going in, Mayumi?” the goddess asks in a soft voice.

The bunny looks at the door, where her younger siblings still stand, too confused and overwhelmed to move. Alma follows her gaze and sighs. Well, at least now they can stand and walk, she thinks. Even if they still stumble a little bit. I guess all I can do is wait.

“You will need help with them,” Mayumi says in a matter-of-fact voice.

“Yes, I will,” the goddess concedes.
“I will help,” the bunny states before helping Alma guide the other bunnies to their very first bath.

Chapter 1: “The First Day” 13

“What is all this?” Alma asks at the sight of the small avalanche of clothing items falling from Cpl Kaur’s arms.

The mortal officer shrugs, letting go of whichever clothes still remained under her grasp. “Oh, that other sergeant said I should get plenty of changes of clothes for the Bunnies and I really didn’t argue,” she explains.

“But… there is enough here for a small army!” Alma says in exasperation as she goes through the pile.

“Yeah, he’s a great guy, that Dion,” the corporal says with a dreamy smile.

Alma looks up from the small mountain of fabric on the floor and straight into Kaur’s eyes, raising an eyebrow. The look she gives her could freeze a burning flame. “You mean, Sergeant Gwydion.”

Under the icy gaze, Cpl Kaur immediately checks her words. “Uhh…yeah, that’s what I mean. He’s a great guy…Sergeant Gwydion.”

“That remains to be seen,” Alma replies under her breath as the Bunnies begin to approach the textile offering.

Rosemary is the first to dive in in search of something better to wear than the old, oversized Guardia Popula tunics. She comes out of the pile holding a pair of trousers in each hand.

“Hey, look Cherry! Pants!” she cries, rushing to put them on. “And these actually fit!”

Cherry reaches into the pile and pulls out a short, plaid pleated skirt. “Try this skirt on, Merri! It’ll look great on you!”

“Ooh, you’re right!” the green-eyed Bunny replies as she gets out of the trousers and into the skirt. A small bump on the back of the skirt catches Alma’s attention.

“Come here, Rosemary,” she beckons her, making the Bunny spin in place in order to have a better look at her.  “Hmm… I do think we have a problem here.”

“Lemme see that,” Cpl Kaur takes a look at Rosemary’s skirt, noticing where it rises to accommodate the Bunny’s fluffy tail. “Yeah, I figured this would happen…shouldn’t be tough to fix. Good thing I stopped by my place and brought my sewing kit back with me.” She pulls a wicker basket decorated with felt flowers out of her backpack. “Oh, and I know just the person who can help us with that too! Wait a minute and I’ll come right back.”

Without any further warning, Kaur leaves the room, leaving Alma and the Bunnies to sort through the pile and choose which items to put to use now and which to save for a later date. The corporal comes back moments later, accompanied by a large woman capable of filling a room with her presence alone, also dressed in Guardia Popula blue, yards and yards of Popula blue. They chatter noisily and happily as they approach Alma.

“This is Constable Cala Lamore,” Cpl Kaur introduces the woman. “She’s the closest thing we have to a lawyer and she’s pretty good with a needle and thread too. Cala, this is Sergeant Alma.”

Cala waves a hand in a friendly greeting. “Hi, there!” she says and then looks around at all the Bunnies, whistling quietly as she sees them. “I can see we’ve got a full house now! And who are these cute little critters?” she asks.

Cherry jumps at the opportunity and starts introducing everyone. “Well, I’m Cherry, this is Rosemary, that over there is Mayumi with the younger ones and this is Sage.”

As he watches Cpl Kaur unpacking her sewing kit, Sage looks at the various sewing instruments in fascination. Slowly, silently, he picks up a needle and a length of thread. He threads the needle on the first try and starts hemming the legs on the pants that Cherry is now wearing, making her jump in surprise.

“Hey, what’re you doin’?” she yells at him.  “Stop that!”

“No, no,” Cala tells her. “Leave him be. He looks like he knows what he’s doing.”

Seeing how easily Sage is working, Alma picks up a box of pins and opens it to get one, eager to get started. As she tries to use one to mark the place where a blouse for Mayumi will need to be hemmed, she immediately stabs herself, releasing a soft, low complaint. Seeing the goddess struggle with the unfamiliar task, Alyiah and Cala exchange a knowing and sympathetic look.

“Here, dear,” Cala gently takes the pin from her. “Let me show you how it’s done.”

Watching intently as the constable exemplifies the proper and safest way to wield a pin, Alma says, “Thank you. I don’t want the two of you to be left with all the work.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout that.” Aliyah waves it off. “We wouldn’t expect a high-class goddess like you to know anything about sewin’ your own clothes.”

“How did you learn?” Alma asks.

“Oh, too many siblings and not enough money to buy new clothes,” Aliyah quickly explains. “We just have to take ’em in and then take ’em out and adjust the hemming, so that everyone gets to have clothes that fit.”

“Yes, we have this old shirt that’s been used by over three generations of Lamores!” Cala claims, with a look of uncontained pride.

Alma looks at her in something close to shock. “That is both endearing and frightening,” she replies in a careful tone.

“Here, dearie, along the seams is always the best way to go if you’re looking to do alterations in clothes,” Cala tells the goddess, quickly dismissing all the possible negative implications of her words. Looking up at the spot where Sage is quietly working away, she says, “Oh, and I can see you’re all fired up, Sage! Very good needlework! Looks like we’ve got a natural, here!”

“Thank you. I… am doing… good?” the bunny asks in a small voice, clearly still struggling with speech.

“You are doing well, yes,” Alma gently corrects him. “But I am afraid we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

“Oh,  we’ve tackled worse, haven’t we, Cala?”

“Yeah, I remember that time with all those kids at the orphanage. This is, like, nothing compared to that!”

“An orphanage?” Alma inquires. “There is an orphanage nearby?”

“Well, not as close as you might think but, yeah. Still within the Three Rats area.” Aliyah explains. “Right where it borders with Little Falls.” She shrugs. “But you probably don’t want to know about sad things, like orphans and gangs.”

“Actually, I do want to know more about the people and places of this neighborhood,” Alma replies with honest curiosity. “And you two seem to be just the people to enlighten me.”

“Wait, you want to know about us mortals?” Alyiah asks in disbelief.

“Of course.”

“Well, that’s very nice for a false goddess,” Cala says, nodding in slow approval.

Hmm, a monotheist, I see. Of course, there will be enough of those walking these streets and not all of them will be as nice as this one. Something to keep in mind, the next time I go out, Alma quickly figures. To Cala, she says, “In my family, we make it our business to know about people. Even the ones who believe we are false gods. Unfortunately, though, I have only had the chance to explore a small area around this station before coming in this morning.”

Cala and Alyiah once again look at each other, exchanging a knowing, nearly telepathic, look. Alyiah is the first to speak.

“Oh, well, if that’s the case, then here goes nothing…”

Chapter 1: “The First Day” 12

Not really bothering to wonder if he is going in search of clothes for the Bunnies, Alma watches Tuma-Sukai leave, glad that he can no longer rob her of the intimate nature of this moment, and then goes back to tending to the three remaining orbs. These are just a little smaller than the previous four and the two male Bunnies and the one female that come out of them look slightly younger, no older than children in their mid-teens, and more confused, as if still struggling to master such basic things as hearing and sight. They don’t stand up, sitting instead with a puzzled expression on their faces. Alma kneels by them and begins to speak softly, trying to get them to stand up on their own. After a couple of failed attempts, she decides to give them some more time and leaves them to rub their eyes that only now are getting accustomed to the low light of the room.

Corporal Kaur suddenly enters the room, and after a moment standing stunned at what she is seeing, she bursts into laughter. “Whoa! I see why you want the clothes!” She looks at the two gods as if they might explain what they are doing, cavorting with naked rabbit-eared people, but when no explanation is offered, she shrugs and walks to the piles of boxes. As she walks past, her eyes linger on the dark male Bunny, who smiles at her, causing her to laugh nervously. Alma makes a small, slightly growling sound with her throat. “Oh sorry ma’am,” she says. “But you gotta admit, he’s really…sorry, never mind.”

She busies herself with moving boxes, and Alma helps her. The corporal keeps chatting brightly, saying, “Man, if my dad knew what I was doing right now, he’d probably try to make me leave the Guardia!” and laughing loudly. Then she says, “There we go!” She drags out a box and opens it. “Ta-daa!” The box is full of blue button-down tunics, the mass-produced, lighter-colored ones worn by the Guardia Popula. “I’m sure we have some trousers around here, but they’ll never fit. These guys are too short and slender for what we have. The large shirts should be big enough to cover ‘em up.”

“These will do. We can’t have naked Bunnies walking around,” Alma replies. “Cherry, Rosemary, Mayumi, Sage, please come over here.”

Rosemary, the red-haired Bunny, comes over and bends down to get a look. “Ooo! Clothes!” she squeals. “Look, Cherry, real clothes! We’ve only ever dreamed of these!”

Shocked into silence, Gwydion watches as the dark Bunny, now known as Cherry,  bounds over, her tail shivering in delight. “Oh, good – we were getting filthy with all this dust. Hey,” she says, turning to Cpl. Kaur, “you have any aprons? And we’re gonna need sponges, buckets…this place is gonna take a lot of work, if you want us to stay here!”

Kaur gapes at them and finally finds her voice. “You can talk!”

Rosemary says, “Of course we can talk! Why wouldn’t we be able to talk?” She holds the tunic in front of her and looks at it critically. “Not exactly fashionable, is it? We’re going t’need somethin’ a bit more flash for the customers…” she mutters to herself.

“Here you go, Sage,” Alma says to the young, dark male while she slips a tunic on him. She looks at him, appreciatively. “Yes, these are a bit too big for you, but we will fix that in time.”

“Thank… you…” Sage replies, apparently still struggling with speech.

“Ma’am?” the human woman queries. Alma turns to her. “I could go get some of those things they want…aprons and such. Well, we already have buckets and sponges and all that but I could find them some more clothes that’ll fit them better and look better and I have a sewing kit at home and that’s just right around the corner and I make clothes for my sisters so I think I could modify some pants for their tails –”

“Corporal,” Alma interrupts. “Thank you, that is a kind offer. But don’t you have other duties?”

“Oh no, ma’am! I’m only here for the ceremony – I don’t come on duty until this evening but you know I really don’t have anything to do until then so –”

“Thank you!” Alma interrupts her again. The cheerful woman’s rapid chatter was exhausting her. “Well in that case, yes, please, I would appreciate it. I am afraid I don’t have money with me but if you give me some time to go and…”

Gwydion speaks up. “Not a problem. I’ll take care of it. In fact,” he smiles at Aliyah, “I would be honored to go with Corporal Kaur and help carry her bags. It’ll be a good chance to get to know the neighborhood.”

Aliyah looks surprised and pleased, her face flushing slightly as she looks at the handsome god. “Great! Um, let me think what we need…oh, and you’ll need to talk to Sgt. Machado…”

Alma tunes out their words and turns to all four Bunnies, looking at them with the care of a mother hen gazing at her chicks. The looks they give her in return are full of love, devotion and gratitude, as if the Bunnies could understand how long they have been held imprisoned and what their release means to the goddess. “Now, listen, little ones,” she says to them. “Your three younger siblings are not quite as advanced as you are, so I will need all four of you to help me tend to them until they are whole.”

“Until they are what?” Gwydion asks in a low voice, forcing Alma to acknowledge him. She looks at him, wondering how it is possible that such a gaudy-looking character can just disappear in the center of a room. Aliyah stands nervously quiet, her small Guardia notebook and pen in her hands.

“These Bunnies have spent years in their bubbles, away from the world. It has really stunted their growth, to the point where the younger ones are still not yet fully formed,” she explains.

“They look very anatomically correct to me,” the god responds with a smile at the image of Rosemary and Cherry modelling their oversized tunics.

“On the outside, yes. On the inside… They may still take some time to learn to perform the simplest of functions.”

“We will help,” Mayumi says as she turns to take three tunics to her younger brothers and sister.

“Yeah,” Cherry says, putting her arms around one of the younger, still-nameless Bunnies. “We’ll be with them every step of the way.

Alma quietly follows the four Bunnies as they race to take care of their younger siblings, leaving Gwydion and Aliyah to make their way out.

Chapter 1: “The First Day” 11

Unsettled, trying not to look at the creature in front of him, Sky glances over at Gwydion, who is speaking quietly to the first two Bunnies, smiling. The dark one seems to be enjoying his attention – Sky wonders how much of his words she can really understand – but the red-haired one is inspecting the bar intently. Suddenly she springs right over it, landing on the other side. Gwydion laughs in surprise.

Sky looks down at the one in front of him. She is still looking up at him, her hand resting on his badge. She is no longer smiling, but she doesn’t seem afraid, merely curious. He swallows, then clears his throat. He reaches for her hand, taking it gently from his badge. Her fingers close around his. He feels an almost electric charge at the contact.

He tries to speak, then takes a breath, realizing he had stopped breathing for a moment there. “I…I’ll be right back,” he says quietly, hoping she can understand. He is less surprised than he thought he would be when she nods and releases her light grip.

Sky turns and goes out to the breezeway, closing the door behind himself and leaning back against it. He takes several deep breaths of the cool air, the neighborhood smells of old incense and garbage filling his lungs.

What in cursed Hell? he thinks.

He crosses through the other door and re-enters the station, almost immediately spotting one of the newly-minted corporals, the woman. “Cpl. Kaur!” he calls out. She hurries over and salutes, and he returns her salute perfunctorily. “Corporal, do we have extra uniforms somewhere? Or…any kind of clothes, really?”

“Sir!” she says, still standing at attention. “We –”

“At ease, Corporal. And you don’t have to shout.”

She immediately relaxes. “Oh, um, we do have some clothes. They’re in boxes in that storage building you just came out of, sir.”

“Good! Can you tell me which boxes?”

She closes her eyes to visualize it. “Well, sir, I seem to remember that they got stacked in a couple of places in there, under some other boxes…honestly, it would be easier for me to dig them out than for me to tell you.”

Sky hesitates, then decides. “All right. Come with me, then. Just…don’t be shocked at what you see.”

“Umm, sure…?”

As they cross the breezeway, Sky hears the voice of Sgt. Machado, edged with anger. “Inspector! May I speak with you, sir?”

Sky immediately realizes what must be wrong – Machado is the bridge between Guardia Popula and Guardia Dei in this station. By issuing orders to the corporal directly, without going through her Guardia Popula superior, Sky has violated protocol. Twice in one day. He realizes he will have to smooth some feathers. “Corporal, you go ahead in there and help Sergeants Alma and Gwydion. I’ll be with you soon.” As she goes in, he turns to speak to the mortal sergeant. “Sgt. Machado, how can I help you?”