Ch5.60 Shards

Margrave stands in the doorway, watching Trocia – or rather Nua, the soul possessing his niece’s body – as she crouches near a small fire she has built in the middle of her bedroom floor. The necromancer’s clothes are soaked with blood, the bare skin on her arms smeared with it. The fire burns atop the concrete, the simple woven rug tossed aside in a heap against the wall.

The light of the fire is the only one in the room. It flickers across Nua’s face, her features expressionless, like the dead that so fascinate her. That fascinated his niece, trapped somewhere deep inside. That face bears some resemblance to his own, though she has her mother’s – his sister’s – mouth and jawline. His nose, though. Definitely his nose.

Those eyes search the flames, as if they might give her some answer. Is it divination? No matter. Enough.

He walks into the room as if he owns it, because he does. He owns her as well. “You were told I wanted to see you,” he says.

Nua continues staring at the flames, but smirks, her face coming alive. “I had something to do. But you came to see me. How thoughtful of you.”

He feels his jaw muscles contract. He had almost ordered her dragged before him, but he knew what would happen then. He would have dead henchmen on his hands. Or undead. She would just reanimate them and claim she’d improved them.

“What are you burning?” he asks.

“A box,” she says.

“A box…” He pauses, then asks, “The box you arrived in?”

She nods, grinning. “You shouldn’t leave things lying around if you don’t want people burning them.” When Trocia had foolishly asked to be made into a necromancer, the demon had given her a box containing Nua’s soul, from which Nua had erupted and taken over Trocia’s body. Margrave had allowed Nua to continue controlling his niece because he needed her knowledge. He still needs it.

And she knows.

“What a lovely philosophy of life that is. Perhaps I should burn your things,” he says scornfully.

“This is mine,” she says. “What else would you burn? My rug? My bed?” She stands, looking at him sardonically, and running her fingers down the curves of her borrowed body. “This dress?” She walks close to him, raising her arms, resting them on his shoulders and wrapping them around his neck, her breasts pressing against his chest. “How about this body? Do you want to make me burn?”

He glares at her. “You stink of blood. And you’re staining my suit.”

She chuckles low in her throat. “I guess you’ll have to burn it. The smell of blood has always excited me. Like a lion or a werewolf.”

“Yes, I see it does,” he says with distaste. “You certainly lost control last night. I told you to kill the corporal’s family. There was no need to be so…messy about it.”

“Awww!” Her mock-apologetic expression is made more obscene by the four streaks of dried blood running diagonally across her face, left by her fingers hours before. “Are we sowwy those poor widdle girls suffered?” Her face twists into contempt and she spins and walks back, kicking the fire into sparks and embers. “What kind of devil-worshipper are you? Yes, I made them scream. Their father too. You told me to send a message to the Guardia – well I sent a message! A message they’ll never forget!”

“Do not raise your voice to me.” His voice is sepulchral. “If you become more trouble that you are worth, I will not need that box. I can dismiss your soul back to Hell any time.”

A flash of fear crosses her face, and she returns to him, biting her lower lip, raising a hesitant hand to his cheek. “Oh please, Daddy, please don’t. I’ll be good.” The childish tone annoys him, and he turns his face from her touch. She laughs, mocking. “You’ll send me away when I’m no longer useful to you. Which is never.”

“I’ll send you away when it pleases me to.” He sighs. “Your actions will incite the Guardia to redouble their efforts.”

“I can have another Soul Bomb ready in five days, with the proper materials,” murmurs Nua as she puts her arms around his waist, nuzzling his throat. “We’ll hit them again and again.”

“And bring down the Death Clan on our heads, along with the full force of the Guardia. No.” Margrave shakes his head, trying to ignore the pleasurable reaction his body is having to the little bites she is giving the sensitive skin of his throat. “We go silent here in Three Rats. Pull back to our stronghold in Little Falls.”

“What??” she cries. “Pull back? I want that Death Clan bitch! I want her and her little Bunnies! I want her to watch them die slowly in front of her, and then reanimate as my cold, perfect, undying toys, and then when she’s filled with despair I’ll take her soul!

Margrave pushes her away, so that she falls back on her bed. He looks down at her, shaking his head. “My former employer’s impatience cost him his life. It did not cost me mine, and neither will I allow yours to do so. The Three Rats Guardia do not know which of their many enemies attacked them, so they will attack them all. Being reunited, together with their grief and fury, will make them difficult to stop. They will do our work for us, crippling most of our rivals in Three Rats, so that when we are ready, we can come back in and take the entire ward. Meanwhile, we will learn their weaknesses so that we can remove them as a threat. If I cannot suborn them into being my tools, their souls will go to the highest bidders of Hell.”

“But–!”

“But I am sure we will find a way for you to have your fun with her,” Margrave reassures the necromancer. “Now clean yourself, and your room. We will be moving out of this location tomorrow, and there will be no sign we were ever here.”

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Ch5.59 Shards

Alma sits at her desk with the very few charred bits and pieces that are left of the bomb, examining them, scanning them with the senses that make her kind unique among gods. A quick dip in her pool and some bathing under Starfax’s rejuvenating light have done wonders in the way of refreshing the goddess and eliminating the unpleasant odors of bloody corpses. And the lovely scent of soap on her clean, flowing dress helps in keeping terrible memories at bay.

These bomb fragments, however, are trying her patience. For all her efforts, she has managed to learn close to nothing about the bomb or its maker, find no clue or evidence of where to look next. She fights a sudden, angry urge to swipe these useless pieces of trash off her desk and into the metal bin by her left.

Currently lying belly-up on Gwydion’s desk, his feathered arms under his head, one leg crossed over the other and idly kicking the air, Nekh snaps his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

Forget it. I know those things and they’re good! he says for the twentieth time. Not even you stand a chance against them.

Sick and tired of him, Alma picks up a distorted piece of what looks like the lid to a cheap metallic hard-candy box, probably used to store the explosive component of the bomb, and brings her hand back to throw it at the offending hallucination. She is nearly caught in the act of attacking an empty desk by the figure that looms by the door.

“Still working?” Gwydion asks in tired tones.

Nekh shoots up to look at the newcomer. Oh, great! The genius has arrived! Now you don’t have to be incompetent all by yourself.

Knowing all too well that confessing to being haunted by the Archon would just be adding lunacy to the long tab that she has been running with her fellow Dei’s patience, Alma sighs and nods her head in response.

“I keep trying to find some piece of information in this bomb,” she says, returning the would-be projectile to its place among its silent fellows. “Alas, I am failing miserably. And you? Shouldn’t you be resting in case something happens during your shift?”

“I thought I’d rest here,” Gwydion replies, taking the short steps that separate the door from her desk. “I will have to be on call, anyway. And besides, my room is being haunted.”

Alma can’t help but glance at Nekh.

It wasn’t me! the vulture-headed former Archon cries.

“It would not happen to be by someone who could enlighten us as to where to look for answers, would it?” Alma enquires, half joking.

Gwydion shakes his head as he sits on the chair that plaintiffs usually use when being interviewed. “I am afraid not. There is a gryphon in my room… And two Bunnies.”

Alma smiles at the mental image of her two older children cuddling with Geryon’s massive figure. She carefully avoids any thoughts that include anything more than cuddling.

“Mine has a wounded assassin. And maybe some Bunnies escaped from the bar as well,” she guesses.

Filthy creatures, Nekh mutters. You need a better pest repellent. How about creating a man-sized fox?

As difficult as it is becoming as exhaustion settles in again, Alma makes a point of ignoring him.

Gwydion, in the meantime, looks at her in amused perplexity. “They haven’t quite taken to sleeping in their own rooms yet, I see.”

Alma nods at first but then shakes her head. The concept of privacy is at best unstable to her Bunnies. They may burrow in their rooms and request their space but the next five minutes may find them all invading her room and her bed for the simple fact that they crave her company. Of course the pool and the large, comfortable bed aid tremendously in making her room a favorite Bunny hideout.

Tonight, however, they would be using it for the safety it provides, the knowledge ingrained in them that the goddess’ sanctum is protected against most threats and infused with the peace and hospitality that makes them feel as if cradled in their creator’s arms.

“It was a traumatic night for all,” she explains, rising from her chair. “And they can sleep in my room whenever they fancy. Do you wish me to leave so you can rest?”

“That is the last thing I would want you to do,” Gwydion says with the mellow tones of a well-rehearsed line. His expression becomes serious for a moment. “I am staying in Three Rats. I have given this great thought.”

Suddenly sitting comfortably in Alma’s chair, Nekh snorts. Apparently not enough or you’d be running up the mountain right now.

Alma, however, feels her chest grow wider with relief. She walks around her desk until she comes to stand in front of Gwydion. Her eyes look into his questioningly, wondering about the strength of his resolve. She truly would not have blamed him for leaving. Faced with that possibility, she might have left too.

And yet, this spoiled First Ringer keeps surprising her, much to her gratitude. Regardless of his wandering habits, he is competent in his job, trustworthy in times of need. He is also at the center of her emotional turmoil. For as much as she hates to admit it, his presence soothes her. She would understand, but not be pleased to see him go. And then again, why would he stay?

“What is there to gain from doing so, Gwydion?” she queries, leaning against the edge of her desk.

“Do you wish me gone before you fall permanently under my charms?” the god replies playfully.

Alma chuckles at his lack of shame. “Or you under mine?” She resumes her serious tone. “The truth, Gwydion, please. You know I like you better without the masks.”

As if he’d quit them for you… Nekh taunts her.

Gwydion takes a moment to reply. His gaze wanders to a far corner of the room, his fingers run idly over his badge, currently pinned to his jacket. He seems to struggle with the prospect of admitting to some uncomfortable truth out loud.

“Sometimes a mask is all there is,” he says with a sad smile before asking, “What is it like?”

Alma’s eyes widen in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

Gwydion tilts his head, places his elbow on the chair arm, rests his chin on his knuckles.“What is it like, to be born with a purpose, a calling, a place in the great scheme of things that always defines you, always tells you who you are, no matter where you go or what you do?”

Alma cannot help but snort. Her calling is, after all, more a product of her upbringing than of any instinctive urge. She could very well live a fulfilled life even if she were somehow impeded from collecting souls. “I may not be the best person to answer that question, Gwydion.”

“You are the only one of us with divine duties beyond the Guardia,” the god insists. “Badge or no badge, no matter where you go, you are a death goddess.”

Alma tilts her head, still failing to see where he is going with this. Still, she plays along. “Am I? Or am I a life goddess? Or both? Or none? Regardless of what you may think, I am really a failure as a death goddess. Weak, they say, tainted. And too…transcendental to be accepted as a life goddess.” She lowers her gaze to the floor, tasting the bitter, poisonous words as they roll out of the hiddenmost depths of her mind and down her tongue. “To either side of the family tree, I am but the crippled half of something that could otherwise be great.”

And you agree with them, don’t you? Nekh accuses. Aren’t you pathetic?

“Tell that to the souls you saved today or the kids sleeping soundly in the bar,” Gwydion states, jerking his head at the door. “Or even the Bunnies we keep risking our lives to save.”

He looks away from her, seemingly trying to convince his lips to utter some unspeakable secret. “I don’t have one,” he barely more than mutters.

“What don’t you have?” Alma asks, feeling much like a blind person trying to learn how to coordinate colors.

Gwydion’s discomfort and frustration are palpable. “A sphere. A calling. You have your duties, Sky has his freedom and rebellion. And all I have is magic.

He snorts derisively, trapped in his own self-loathing. “Magic…” he grumbles, slapping his thigh with an open hand. “Magic is the prerogative of any god! I just happen to be better than most at learning new spells. And even humans can cast those.”

“No human I have ever met could banish a demon on his first try,” Alma offers in the sweet tones of one who wants to change someone’s mind without knowing what they need to hear.

Unable to stay put any longer, Gwydion rises from his chair to pace as he confides in her, “And still… I have no real purpose in this world as a god. What have I achieved in a century and a half of existence that could even compare to what I’ve done and seen in our short weeks here? In this broken, disheveled ward, a single act of ours is a miracle, even if it is just a stupid spell. Where I come from, it is mundane, meaningless if only because everything is so easy that nothing is worth anything. Not even people. Not even me…” He shakes his head. “And I needed a friend to point it all out to me.”

“You will never climb in the ranks here,” Alma reminds him. “Math’s daring and charming nephew may very well be forgotten among the venerated court of the First Ring.

All those young gullible girls that won’t have a chance to get under you, Nekh sneers.

Just as Alma is about to think something nasty at the vulture-headed apparition, Gwydion shoots yet another difficult question at her. “Do you miss the Second Ring?”

It actually takes Alma some time in silence to gather her words. Does she miss the Second Ring? Is it even in her thoughts for most of her days or nights? Are the places and faces anything more than memories kept through the years?

“No,” she answers, standing up. “Oh, it had its virtues. Memories and places that have been a constant presence through my lifetime. Comforts I will not find anytime soon in these wards. People I have met. Good people, true and simple, even in the blinding opulence of the Inner Rings. But my existence there…” She shakes her head. “It is difficult to miss a place that I have never belonged to. Have you ever been a stranger in your own home, Gwydion? Merely tolerated in your difference?”

He shrugs and looks at her, sadness pouring into his features. “What home, Alma?”

The full meaning of those simple words sends ice down Alma’s spine. For better or worse, she has had a family, a mother, a father, a multitude of stepmothers, uncles and aunts and brothers to look after her and be with her and be her family, to teach her principle, guide her as she grew. As strange and dysfunctional as it was and is, poisonous even at times, she has had that guiding rod, that map and harbor through life that all families should be.

Even with an influential uncle pampering him, how empty a life can one have, when priceless affection is so easily replaced with expensive gifts? How hollow and weak can a heart become if kindness and empathy are never infused into it?

Oh boo hoo! Poor little Dion is an orphan raised by a wealthy uncle. Woe is he! Nekh chides by Gwydion’s ear, his beaked mouth hiding a spiteful leer. Should have been created as an egg by a one-eyed hermit lost in the middle of the desert to see what’s good for you…

It is Alma’s great relief that Dion cannot hear him. Instead, the young god covers the short distance that separates them and comes to stand by her, gazing into her eyes as if seeking all of her memories of having a home. Although just as tall as she is, he almost seems to loom over her for a moment as the wretched emptiness beyond his pupils seeks ravenously in her for something to be fodder and sustenance to that void in his anguished mind.

“You told me to stay with my family. Where is that, exactly?” he asks slowly, weakly. “What family is it if you know more of them than I?”

“Gwydion…” she whispers, falling into silence as words evade her.

The next second, he is holding her tightly, pressing his lips against hers in a desperate request for her touch. She is quick in her acceptance of him, welcoming silence in the movements of his kiss, relieved by his need of her, refusing to let go of him until he finally breaks the kiss and presses his forehead against hers, eyes closed against the harshness of the world beyond the limits of their embrace.

“I am tired of these difficult days, tired of thinking about the disaster my life has become,” he says among strangled breaths.

Thinking was never really your thing, was it, pretty boy? Nekh snorts, somewhere in the room.

But Alma pays no attention to him. Her full senses are focused on the feverish warmth of the hands that cradle her face, on the trembling of the body that yearns for her touch, on that strangely enticing scent that fills the air around her and blurs her thoughts, on the lips that hover so close to hers as Gwydion whispers,

“I don’t want to think anymore.”

The world falls away. His lips take hers, drinking with thirst from what passion he finds there even before she can react and fully join him. She grips his jacket and pulls him closer, glad for her blank thoughts, for the void in her mind that her body fills with the feeling of him. She barely notices him removing his jacket before her hands find the buttons of his shirt of their own accord. His hands slide down her neck, draw the curve of her shoulders, move down her arms and in their wake, through some unspoken spell, the folds of her dress become undone and fall, gently, to reveal the soft, milky flawlessness of her skin to his touch. The first brush of his fingers against her exposed belly steals her breath. The touch of her breasts against his bare chest steals his.

They break from the kiss, their eyes meet. In the sepulchral silence broken only by their struggled breathing, his trousers hit the floor.

For a moment, she lowers her gaze. Her eyes follow her faintly glowing hands as they stroke his chest, feel the powerful beating of his heart, the sizzling touch of his mana as it surges through the muscular frame of his body. His arms encircle her in return, pulling her close, pressing the small of her back, bringing her hips against his. Her eyes find his again, see the soft catch in his breath that the gentle grazing of her fingernails over his spine causes. Admiring the resolve with which he stands still against her trembling body that the feel of his erection keeps disturbing with lightning and bloodrush, she draws his jawline in small kisses, arouses his sensitive throat with the touch of her lips, the slow, gentle brushing of her tongue that feels like torture to both of them. She can taste his very soul in her mouth.

A stray moan of his sees her feet off the floor. Her body laid gently on the couch, she receives him with open arms, embraces him, explores his back with hands that glow brighter as his untamed life force is thrown against her walls at each kiss, overwhelms her senses at each touch. She can feel his hungry senses consuming her, the essence of him melting into her own. Her walls are lowered. Her fingertips dig gently into his skin.

How long has it been since she was last touched like this? Surely since Tulip was created. Tulip…

Oh gods… The Bunnies!

Her eyes shoot open.

“Wait,” she pleads, taking his face in her hands to capture his attention.

Sitting on her desk, feet suddenly hitting the wood with violence as they dangle over the side, Nekh cries, No! I want to see how you do it! I want a Bunny!

“What is wrong?” Gwydion asks, looking at Alma with a mixture of confusion and concern. His tone is gentle and inviting when he adds as he strokes her cheek, “You want this just as much as I do. I can feel it in your touch.”

The goddess closes her eyes, struggling to resist the pent up desire and need that fill her every thought. He does not help at all with his constant caresses, the little kisses that do so well in the way of tempting her to abandon all concerns. He is right. She wants this. Gods, how she wants it!

Pushing him away is physically painful to her. Watching him slowly yield to her efforts, in his eyes the look of someone who fears having done something wrong, she sits by him, gathering her thoughts and her breath, being still while every fiber of her being cries for his touch and her mind is filled with the single, imperative drive to tackle him and find sweet release in his arms. It takes her a moment of silence staring away from him, looking at anything that is not those hazel eyes admiring the pale curves of her slender figure, to reclaim some control over her thoughts.

“You are right, I do want it,” she finally says, looking down at her hands that no longer glow. She looks back at him. “But what I want is of no consequence. Gwydion, I was not teasing you before. This is how the Bunnies were created and the gods know I cannot stop myself from doing it again.”

He looks as if he will fight her, yell at her for cutting their exciting escapade short. For a moment, his leg muscles tense as if ready to march him out of the office and past a slamming door. In the end, he surprises her for the second time tonight. Maybe because of the pleading look in her eyes or perhaps due to sheer curiosity, he merely sits with his back against the arm of the couch and looks at her with what almost feels like genuine care.

“Maybe it is time you let your masks fall as well, Alma,” he nearly whispers with no hint of anger or frustration in his voice. “This is a story in need of being told.”

Yes, do tell your current sweetheart about the guy you’re still in love with, Nekh mocks from his perch.

Alma glares at Nekh for a short instant before giving in to Gwydion’s request. The truth will have to be told sooner or later and although this is not the best of times, perhaps it is as close as they will ever get to the right time.

“Very well,” she concedes, sitting with her back against the opposing couch arm so that she can look into Gwydion’s eyes as she warns him, “Although this is a tale you may not enjoy.”

It is amazing what one will confide in complete strangers. Awful truths, poisonous secrets, haunting thoughts, we tend to dump them easily on the shoulders of those whose face we may never gaze upon again in our lifetime. How remarkable it is to not fear the judgment of one who has no need, reason or calling to like us or otherwise. And yet, how difficult it is to share with the people who love us, whose heart is open to our every word, the deepest and darkest of our thoughts, the most disturbing of our secrets.

Maybe if it was love they shared, the telling of a past love affair would have burned Alma’s tongue or displeased Gwydion’s ears. Maybe if their newfound intimacy had more to it than physical need to silence the chaos of their thoughts, the words would not have come to the goddess’ throat. It is with the cold calm of one who has played and replayed the story of her great love in her head over and over again for the past decades that Alma relays nearly everything having to do with the creation of the Bunnies. How she met Arion, how they fell in love, how many months later, after a night of intense passion she woke up feeling weak and barely able to leave the bed. How she found Cherry and Rosemary, the oldest and first of her Bunnies, sleeping in a little ball of light hovering just over her bed.

She tells him of Arion’s departure to look after his own family, threatened with extinction, and to keep their little brood safe, at least for their first years, from the Council’s relentless political games. How each of his infrequent visits to the Insula resulted on another Bunny being created, regardless of all the methods they tried to prevent it from happening.

At each turn in her story, Gwydion listens in silence, speaking only to ask the occasional question here or there. Although his original arousal is gone, it is not replaced with offense or disgust, or even with desire to make fun of the goddess’ belief in such a thing as love. Instead, Alma finds in his eyes the one thing she would not think to see there: pity.

“What a strange case…” he notes at the end of her tale.

Alma nods. “Frustrating, at the least.” She sighs, feeling every bit as broken and pathetic as her unusual condition makes her whenever romantic relationships are involved. “As you can see, Gwydion, regardless of what I want or not, I cannot give in to desire without risking our frail safety from the Council’s attention.”

She rises from her seat, feeling oppressed and uncomfortable in her elegant, statuesque body. Taking a couple of steps so that she stands by Gwydion’s reclining figure, she reaches down to stroke his jaw and pull his chin up so that he looks at her.

“I will leave you to find one who can warm your bedsheets tonight,” she announces.

Just as she moves away to pick up her dress from the floor, five fingers wrap around her wrist. She looks back to find Gwydion looking at her, his hand holding her before she can leave. In his eyes, a simple plight.

“Not tonight,” he asks, pulling her gently down to him. “Don’t leave tonight.”

Alma smiles sadly. Nekh rolls his eyes.

Ugh… This is even more pitiful than I thought. I’m out of here, he states, muttering to himself as he fades away, much to Alma’s relief. Already feeling sick from all the sweetness…

Grateful for the invitation to stay, Alma nods her agreement and joins Gwydion on the couch. Small as it is, the piece of furniture generously donated by Sky cannot hold them lying side by side. It is after some shifting and careful arrangement of various limbs (along with a general agreement that the much lighter goddess should lie on top of the fit yet rather heavier god) that they find themselves lying comfortably, basking in each other’s warmth and chuckling at their newly found clumsiness.

Arousal sparks again. Gwydion strokes her back slowly with one hand, the other running fingers through her hair as he watches with obvious pleasure the shimmering white strands falling over her shoulders.

“There must be a way,” he barely whispers. “This cannot be forbidden.”

“I know of none,” Alma gently replies, tracing the contour of his lips with her fingers. She grins slightly as she jests, in bittersweet tones, “And wouldn’t that make it more trouble than a night with me is worth?”

Gwydion grins back, seemingly unphased at the veiled accusation. A blanket that was considerately left lying over the back of the couch unfolds itself at his command and gently falls over them, to shield them from the cool night air.

“Maybe we can make it more than one night for my efforts,” he suggests.

It is not love, she thinks.

However, she cannot help but feel affection toward the god. All she has learned about him, all he has proved himself to be in the past few weeks, his actions, his words, his relinquishing of his unmoving, perennial façade at her simple request, all have changed her vision of the vain, womanizing spoiled brat she met on her first day in Three Rats.

She finds herself wanting to like him more. Rising slowly on her arms, she offers him a kiss. He accepts it eagerly, joining his lips to hers with passion. Patiently, she breaks from the kiss and shakes her head slowly at him, wondering if this is the first time he has been kissed this way. She touches her lips to his in a second kiss, gentle, slow, warm with something more lasting than arousal. At first, he seems to resist, almost as if confused, but eventually he relaxes, joins her in a long, tranquil union of lips and tongues.

All worries disappear for a moment. She loses track of time altogether.

“And just what was that?” Gwydion asks as she lies down again.

Feeling very tired all of a sudden, Alma snuggles against his chest and smiles.

“That, my dear, is what we’ll have to find out.”

 

Ch5.58 Shards

Mayumi steps into the breezeway just as Alma’s form disappears in a circular curtain of sparkling light. She raises a hand and opens her mouth to call to Alma, but it is too late. The goddess is gone. Mayumi’s ears droop back.

She shakes her head and whispers to herself, “Magic.” She may have taken a class about how it works, but she will never understand it more deeply than that. She has never felt any calling toward it.

The thought gives her pause. Could any of the Bunnies be talented in that respect? Perhaps not Cherry or Merri or Sage. Like her, they have been awakened to their own names and natures for years, and would probably have found a way to learn magic within their dreamworlds if they had any such affinity. But what of the younger ones? Perhaps not Kori – he is very practical-minded. Chime? Always lost in his music. Is music related to magic? And what of Tulip? She looks so much like Alma.

After what Geryon has accomplished today, and the danger he has put himself in, she finds herself hoping that Tulip will just be a normal Bunny like the rest of them.

She enters the station proper. Cala, her eyes red-rimmed, is talking with Sergeant Machado over a map, pointing to streets and buildings while Machado nods, a vein throbbing on his dark bald head. Dheesh sits slumped in his chair, looking emotionally wrung out, his normally crimson skin pallid to the point of being nearly pink. Two other Popula are moving about the office. May goes to Sky’s door, knocks gently, and opens it.

Light cuts a wedge across the darkness, revealing the office, empty. But she glances down to see Sky’s legs blocking her way, feet bare. The tall Inspector is too long for his sofa, and his legs hang off the end. He rouses, pulls his legs in, allowing her to enter.

She shuts the door and lets her eyes adjust to the soft, comforting darkness. He is lying across the sofa, empty whisky glass on the floor. He begins to get up, but she steps forward, putting a hand on his chest to forestall him. He settles back, looking at her questioningly. She stands there staring at him, her hand still out, listening to his breathing and her own.

“Mayumi?” he whispers.

She doesn’t move, tries not to think. She just wants to do what’s right, not what she or anyone else thinks is right. A part of her mind asks her if that makes any sense, and she finds she doesn’t care. She lowers herself, lying along him, rolling so that she nestles into the furrow between his body and the back of the sofa. He slides his arms around her, his big hands on her back. She can feel his heartbeat pounding through her chest, her own heart like a faster echo. She pushes herself up a little, her forearm across his broad chest, looking at his dark face, the whites of his eyes almost glowing in contrast.

She waits, waits for him to stop her. She has nearly done this a dozen times, and always something in him or in her pulled back. Will he do it tonight? Do the safe, responsible thing? Tell her no?

His right hand very cautiously moves up from her midback to her shoulderblades, and he pulls her closer, so softly, as if ready to release her at her slightest hesitation. She moves her face to his, pauses just a moment to smell him, to share his breath, the scent of his skin, his sweat, the whisky, all combining to be him, making her a little lightheaded, and then she is tasting him, kissing him, finally finally finally her lips on his, her mouth open to his, and then there is no thinking for a time, almost as if she has forgotten her name, reverted to that time in her life before thought, lost in him, lost to all self-reflection.

But awareness, inevitably, returns.

She is still there, on his chest, breathing easily now, comfortable, her face against his neck, her hand stroking his hair. She is half-surprised to find her shirt still on. Well, this has been such a dark night. She shudders as memories of loss return, and he holds her tighter.

“What is it?” he murmurs.

“Philippus. His family.”

He nods, kisses her brow. “Is that…why?”

“Why I’m here? Yes.” She looks him in the eye. “I’m not the only one who needs to be comforted, either.”

He is quiet for several heartbeats. “Thank you. But…it’s more than that. Isn’t it?” His uncertainty makes her chuckle.

She nods. “You know…you know that I love you, don’t you?”

He nods. “And I love you. I do. But…”

She sighs. “But.” Nothing she didn’t expect, but she can hear the bitterness nonetheless.

“I am your boss.”

“And so you’ve held back all this time. And so I’ve held back too, when it goes so much against my nature to do so.” She raises herself up on her forearms again to look him in the face. “I know that perhaps this is only one night. Let us allow ourselves this. This night. Tomorrow, we can think of what to do.”

He nods assent, and she lays her head back on his chest. “You make a comfortable bed,” she murmurs.

He laughs softly, making her bounce. His hand slips down and brushes her tail, then pulls away. “Oh, sorry.”

“No…touch me there. You can touch me anywhere you like.” She brings her leg up, caressing the top of his thigh with the inner part of her own.

“The fur is…very soft. Is this…um…”

“Erotic? Yes, I guess it is.” She giggles. She’s not much given to giggling, but she can’t help it in this moment. “Anyway, it feels good.”

“Oh…I don’t want to go too far,” he says.

So serious, she thinks. She stretches a little and kisses his cheek. “As far as you want, and no farther. I’m just going to enjoy being with you like this.”

They are silent for a time, as he strokes her tail, and she shakes it and makes them both laugh. “Sky?”

“Hm?”

“Is there anyone else?”

He pauses. “No.”

“It’s all right. You’re a god. Nobody expects you to be monogamous. And I’m a Bunny. I’m not quite like Merri and Cherry, but…”

His voice is soft but clear. “I haven’t been with anyone since long before you were born.”

“Oh…” That stuns her, causes her to pause before asking “…why?”

He is quiet for a long time, stroking her hair now, quiet long enough that she worries she has said something wrong, but just as she is about to offer an apology, he says, “I’ve only fallen in love once. And except for a few heat-of-the-moment encounters, like…after a near-death experience or something, I’ve never had the desire to make love to someone I didn’t love. Love…like a lover, I mean.”

She hesitates to ask who, but she can’t resist the urge. “That woman…I saw her.”

“Hm?” Sky doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea what she’s getting at.

“Remember when you healed my foot? Back on the first day. No, it was the day after we were brought into this world. When I followed Zefretti.” There is a name she hasn’t thought about for some time.

The memory dawns in his eyes. “Oh, right.”

Though she has committed to it already, she still must force herself to say it. “When you healed me, I saw something. Like a vision. I think…it was a memory of yours.”

He goes very still. “A woman?”

She nods. “Very dark skin, like Sage’s, grey hair. Her face was lined, but she was beautiful. Or…I saw her as beautiful, because you did. You…” Her voice catches, and the words that follow echo the pain, the heartbreak that came to her from Sky, along with that vision. “You loved her so much.”

Sky takes a deep breath, causing her body to rise and fall slowly. “She was beautiful. Always. But her hair was black when I met her. And she was about your age.”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I would never have read your mind.”

“No. Sometimes it happens. Especially when someone as clumsy at spellcasting as I am does it. And especially when it’s healing.”

“I think…” Her voice shakes. “I think that’s when I fell in love. Knowing that you could love someone like that.” She touches his eyebrow, tracing it with one finger, gazing into his eyes. “Knowing someone loved you so much.”

He holds her tighter. “I’ve been alone for so long. And now…”

She kisses his mouth again, softer and lingering this time. “You have a family now. The Bunnies, we all think of you that way, you know. Even if some of us don’t always listen to you.” She hears the guilt in her voice at this. “But we all love you. Even if it’s not the same way I love you.” She pauses to think. “Though I’m sure Merri and Cherry would be all over you if they ever thought you’d welcome it.”

She can actually feel the warmth from his blush, and she laughs. “And…I think Alma loves you as well. I know you love her.” It is almost a question.

He nods, his blush fading slowly. “I can’t remember how long since I’ve had a friend as close as she is.” He touches her soft, straight midnight hair again, runs his fingers along one ear, enjoying the soft black fur. “We are only friends,” he reassures her.

She makes a soft mmm of pleasure at his touch. She loves having her ears stroked. “I think,” she murmurs, smiling, “that only is not the right word. You two are more than friends. But I’m glad you’re not lovers. That…would be complicated.”

They lie together like that for hours, often silent, sometimes talking quietly. At one point she weeps for Philippus and his family. He joins her in this. She kisses his tears and imagines that this must be how the ocean tastes.

She listens to his heart, slow and deep. All the turmoil, the anger, worry about past and future, it all evaporates.

A chicken calls a block away. The rumor of dawn lightens the room. “I think our night is over,” he whispers as she opens her eyes and realizes she had fallen asleep.

She pushes herself upright, straddling his belly. She looks at the window, blinking, then down at him. “It’s over for now,” she says. “We have things to think about.”

He rests his hands on her thighs. “And talk about.”

She bends down, kisses him once again, not as thrilling as the first time but so very warm and welcoming and right. Then she swings her legs off him and stands, straightens her long shirt, and asks, “Did you sleep?”

He shakes his head, sitting up.

“What? Why not?” Her ears go back from worry. “You need to sleep,” she insists.

He smiles. “I will, when I can…” The smile departs. “There is much to do,” he says, his voice heavy.

She shakes her head. “I’ll be back here soon. In uniform. At least rest your eyes for a few minutes.”

He nods and dutifully lies back, closing his eyes. She sighs, turns and opens the door, then looks back and catches him watching her go. He smiles sheepishly, and she returns the smile, admonishing, shakes her head, then leaves.

Ch5.57 Shards

The day could not have been more intense. Hell, intense is a euphemism! Absolution of all charges, life-changing choices, returning to Three Rats to find the station in a mess after Sage’s kidnapping, riding horses that create reality, breaking into a warehouse to banish a demon and rescue a small army of children who now have nowhere to go and, as if all that were not enough, a bomb that shatters souls goes off in the station, killing two prisoners and a Popula right under the Guardia’s nose and very nearly driving Alma insane with pain. Not to mention the brutal murder of Stathos’ family…

Well, at least there isn’t much more that can go wrong tonight, Dion figures as he runs his hand along the frame of the pantry door to activate the portal that leads to his room.

His feet nearly drag on the floor from exhaustion. Sleep really is not an absolute need for gods like it is to humans, who will effectively die if they go too long without restoring their brains with some hours of slumber. However, the thought that gods do not get tired or require any sort of rest is completely wrong. Sure, they can go for days without sleeping if need be, mostly by burning mana to restore their minds for a while, but no one will want to work with them when that happens. Tired gods can be very, very grumpy and there is nothing worse than a grumpy person who has the means to smite you for the small sin of saying “Good morning!” in happy tones.

For as much as sleep may be an acquired taste to some people, it surely sounds like a great idea right about now. Unfortunately, the night has advanced to that point where Sky’s shift ends and the graveyard shift, Dion’s shift, begins. He will have to be on call, ready to respond if something (else) happens so that night of restful sleep will need to be re-scheduled to the following morning.

Still, a nice relaxing bath can perform miracles in the absence of actual rest and that is the single thought currently going through the exhausted god’s mind. He barely notices Geryon sleeping in his bed, making it bend in the middle under the gryphon’s massive weight, while Merri and Cherry cuddle against him, hiding their faces against his golden-brown fur.

With a thought, Dion summons the luxurious bathroom to the corner of his room, behind a large woven silk rug hanging from a wall and depicting two dragons perching over a nest where half a dozen eggs are beginning to hatch. Styled in marble and copper, the majestic room greets him with a warm bath already drawn and scented oils meant to soothe his spirit, burning in a small copper bowl in the shape of a sleeping fox. Two sylphids, faceless insubstantial air elementals gowned in translucent stolas, move around the room and through the walls, spreading heat and water vapor, fogging up all mirrored surfaces at their passage.

The scenario seems perfect for the making of all-important decisions but Dion puts them aside for some other moment. The warm, watery feeling enveloping him feels too good to be tainted with worry.

By the time he comes out of the bathroom, feeling invigorated and sporting a clean, impeccably styled suit, the room has become somewhat emptier and quite tense. The Bunnies are now gone, Dion notices, while Geryon lies barely awake on the bed and facing him, his tail curled around his body while the tip wags nervously, yet heavily as if it weighs tremendously on the gryphon as it moves up and down.

“What a welcome home they prepared for you, my friend,” the gryphon says, beak opening suddenly in a yawn.

Dion grins as he runs his fingers through his short, still wet black hair. “I would like to say that I’ve had worse but I really can’t think of anything that would top this.”

“No, of course not,” Geryon mutters, preening his right wing.

“How is your wing?” Dion asks, plopping onto a chair.

“Oh, much better, thank you,” the gryphon states conversationally, making a show of unfolding his wing with some difficulty and a painful grimace. “Albeit the strain of flying today.”

Dion smiles at the obvious dramatics. “Thank you, for your help. I am sure Alma appreciates it as well,” he says in all honesty. “Although she probably won’t thank you with cuddles.”

There are not many things left of Geryon’s former human image. Distorted by the raptor features that are a gryphon’s prerogative, his boyish appearance and golden hair have been replaced by a strong beak and golden-brown feathers. A slim body and pale skin have given way to powerful leonine muscles and short, soft fur. His once blue eyes are now yellowish orange. Even his voice has changed, limited as he is by a rigid beaked mouth. Reading his expression has become somewhat trickier as well. Thankfully, however, his sense of humor has remained the same.

Geryon shrugs and pretends to examine his talons, his tone one of tired humor. “Oh, well, what can one do? I certainly would not mind if she did, but I must say that Merri and Cherry have been the most delightful of nurses.” His expression darkens. “It was a heart-wrenching day but…Sage is safe.”

“Is the great and powerful Geryon going soft?” the god jests.

“Soft?! Well I should just let you ask those two how soft I am…” Geryon tips his head to the left to hide the tip of his beak under his wing in irritation. “Hmph!”

He must truly be exhausted, Dion thinks to himself. I wonder how he even found the strength to cast so many complicated spells in a matter of hours, especially after so many idle years. Would he have been able to do it if he were still human?

“They really are treasures…” the gryphon says affectionately, breaking his chain of thought. He looks at the bedroom door for an instant as if expecting the Bunnies to return at any moment and then turns back to focus his eagle eyes on the god. “And you look troubled.”

“Tell me…” Dion starts, avoiding eye contact with his one close friend. “If given the option of staying or going back to the First Ring, what would you do?”

Geryon looks somewhat surprised at the news but merely nods in understanding. “I see. So your enforced exile here has come to an end, has it?”

“I have a choice,” Dion explains, opening a random book from the volumes sitting on his desk. “Alma was sentenced to remain here with the Bunnies. I, however, can go anywhere I wish.”

“And yet you hesitate to return to chasing nymphs and young goddesses among the refined atmosphere of the First Ring.” Geryon’s words cut through him like a blade through butter.

“I can see why. Three Rats has so much to offer, after all,” the gryphon adds, rolling on his back to throw a pillow in the air and paw idly at it. “Bombs that destroy your soul. A vicious gang war to spice up slow days. Not to mention all the rats you can eat.”

“Three Rats is a hole,” Dion snorts. “All rubbish falls in here. And yet…”

“Yes indeed…and yet,” the gryphon replies rolling back to lie on his belly, letting the pillow fall on his rump. “Tell me, is it merely that lovely white hair and that perfect jawline that makes you pause? Because if that is all that keeps you here, my friend, you will not be happy.”

He changes into his smaller shape and jumps off the bed before adding, “And besides, I thought she was not romantically inclined. A frigid ice queen to anyone but her precious Bunnies.”

“She is not frigid,” Dion intervenes, slightly surprised at his own voice. “You should have seen her before.”

You should have heard her song, he adds to himself.

“Defending her, are we?” the gryphon asks, moving closer to the god. “My, such change… As she at least given you the favor of a kiss for your gallantry?”

Dion grins slyly for an instant but a sudden memory of the fair-skinned goddess in his arms soon turns his grin into a nostalgic smile. “I thought a gentleman did not kiss and tell.”

“Ha!” Geryon exclaims placing his furry paws on Dion’s knees. “A kiss and maybe more, I’d say. And still you want to be with her.” He uses Dion’s legs as support to jump onto the desk, whipping the god’s face with his tail as he turns around to press his beak against Dion’s nose and add, “I believe the obvious question now would be: who are you and what have you done to the real Dion?”

“Oh, stop that!” Dion scolds him, flicking Geryon’s beak before standing up. “I… I cannot explain it.”

Much to the god’s annoyance, he hears his friend laugh, dryly and bitterly. “I would be surprised if you could.”

“Besides, that is not all that makes me hesitate,” Dion rushes to add.

“Oh, do tell,” Geryon taunts him,  laying comfortably all over Dion’s books, tail happily swiping the air. “What besides the thought of her makes you cringe at the thought of leaving?”

“I don’t know,” the god concedes, sitting on the bed. “There is something about this ward…”

“Is it the smell?” Geryon asks with another yawn. “It certainly has a unique odor to it.”

The joke earns him a pillow thrown at his head, which the gryphon catches and hugs like a piece of meat snatched from the jaws of a competitor.

Dion sighs in frustration, before responding, “Something about it just feels more real than any great estate in the First Ring. I saw poor people – no, poor doesn’t even begin to describe their condition – I saw them open their homes and empty their pantries for the children outside in the bar. Who do you know in the First Ring who would do that? I…It makes me want to be like them. These people, not those other gods. But I don’t know if I belong here.” He scratches his head. “She surely does not believe I do.”

“Ah… ‘Belong’,” Geryon sneers, glancing at the god while kneading the pillow. “Where do you belong, Dion? Where do I? I have been asking myself the same question, lately.”

Dion can only shake his head. “I don’t know. My friend, I am lost.”

“This whole ward is lost,” Geryon mutters to himself as he stands up on the desk. “Wandering from one world to another, trapped where it doesn’t belong. What other place could be more perfect than this?”

“And what do you mean by that?” Dion asks.

“We have been moving through circles, hopping from parties to classrooms, being talented but too lazy to be good,” Geryon replies grumpily, moving in circles on the desk before lowering himself to the chair. “Where do we belong? We are nothing, Dion. A monster and a playboy, playing pretend–”

“I promised you I will not stop trying to change you back,” Dion cuts him off.

“Oh, I know…” Geryon growls, sitting down. “Have I not been hearing those words for years? But those two…” he adds gesturing at the door. “All of your lovely Alma’s brood, really, they take me as I am. That much is true for this ward. They do not see our past, our titles, our families or even our shape. Here… they see the person behind the name.

“And here I can see how much needs to be done. And pull people up rather than have my fun by dragging them down,” the gryphon adds, wrapping his tail around his legs.

Dion shakes his head. “Geryon… this is a dangerous, poor, crime-ridden ward. None of what we are used to.”

“Oh really?” Geryon tilts his head. “And here I thought it was a favorite tourist spot!

“Bloody Hell, Dion!” he snarls. “I was ready to flap my way out of here after that bomb,  strained wing or no.” He sighs. “And then the girls needed comforting so they turned to me for help…”

Geryon actually sounds shocked at this, pawing at his own chest. “To me! And they wanted to comfort me as well…”

“Now who is acting unlike himself?” Dion chuckles bitterly.

The joke pushes the already irritable Geryon into seething anger, making him stand on the chair, tail hung low, fur and feathers erect, making his small form look bigger and more menacing than normal. His whole body stands tense, ready to leap. His beak points straight at Dion as he answers, “And who is ‘myself’, pray tell? Who am I now? WHAT am I? And who…my friend…are you?”

Dion starts backing slowly at those snarled last words. “I–”

His answer is cut as Geryon tackles him, stealing the air from his lungs as the god is slung against the bed, back pressed against the mattress to evade the gryphon’s sharp beak, arms and legs pinned in place by Geryon’s powerful clawed paws.

“You see,” the gryphon growls. “I think I am starting to find the answers to those questions. And I am all but liking them.”

“You are no better than I, Geryon, that much I know,” Dion growls back.

“Ha! Like a kettle to the pot!” Geryon shouts, pawing accusingly at Dion’s chest.

“I am Guardia!” Dion shouts in return. “My uncle’s nephew! There, are you happy, now?!”

“Very well, then, Guardia?” Geryon replies, practically spitting that last word. “What is it you stand for? What is it you are? And… why?”

“I am the law. I am justice,” Dion says, looking away from the accusing yellow avian eyes. “Because…it was expected of me. And what else is there for me, other than that? What else could I be?”

The gryphon sighs in frustration and turns back to jump onto the chair again. “Everything. Anything. It is, after all, your choice. All I know, is that the monster is tired of hiding its claws under its wings.” He spreads his wings to their full length and flaps them once, blowing half a dozen parchments off of the desk. “How tired are you, my friend, of hiding your mind behind your suits?”

Dion sits up, admiring for a moment his friend’s impressive form, saddened by Geryon’s portrayal of himself as a monster and surprised that he, Dion, could actually think that becoming a gryphon was the best thing to ever happen to his friend.

He shakes his head before answering. “My mind has too many thoughts in it, too many images. And none of them are of the First Ring.” He buries his face against his hands. “In my dreams, I see the same faces over and over again. Sometimes smiling, sometimes broken. You, the Bunnies, Sky, the Popula.

“And yes, I confess, Alma,” he nearly shouts. “For some reason, Alma…”

He sighs, rising to his feet to pace around the room. “And this ward… its people, its streets… it haunts my mind, taints everything I see, holds dust against gold and still, it feels more precious than the First Ring, more real. And I don’t know why. And I don’t know what to do.”

Geryon shakes his head, his voice low with exhausted patience. “You are a fool, Gwydion.”

The unexpected epitome feels like betrayal to Dion. “You are calling me foolish?”

“Look at me!” Geryon roars, jumping off the chair to land by Dion in his fully grown, massive leonine form. “You did this! I have the right to call you a fool whenever I fancy and you have the right to take it quietly!”

The gryphon lowers his voice to add, “But right now, you are a fool of a different color.”

Dion exhales deeply. “A fool for a woman?”

Geryon merely shrugs at this. “You have always been a fool for women. It is hardly worth mentioning when it comes to you.”

With all the grace of his feline features, the gryphon walks back to the bed and climbs onto it. “I mean you are a fool when you claim you don’t know what to do. Of course you know. You made up your mind when you returned with her. You do not seek advice, you seek a blessing. And you have it. So go, run to her like the puppy you have become. Maybe she can make it worth your troubles.”

Drama queen… Dion thinks, snorting.

“Kicking me out of my own room so you can be alone with your nurses?” he says out loud.

“Of course I am,” Geryon concedes, lying down, making the lately very abused wooden frame creak under his weight. “The girls will be back after checking on the kiddies so don’t bring her here. We don’t want to add to the body count tonight.”

 

Ch5.56 Shards

As they reenter the station, Alma, Gwydion, and Sky are each pulled in different directions. Sky and Machado take Cala aside to fill her in, interrupting a conversation she was having with the Voice, Ewá Nanã. The former Eye of the Council smoothly switches to Alma. “Sergeant? May I speak with you?”

Alma lightly touches Gwydion’s hand and shares a meaningful glance with him, then lets him go on his way. “Yes, Miss Nanã?”

The Voice pauses a moment, overhearing some of what Sky and Machado are saying. Corporal Cala Lamore clenches her fists, then raises them to her face and whispers a prayer.

Ewá looks again at Alma, sorrow stealing over her reserved features. “I am saddened at your further losses. I wanted you to know that no children or Bunnies have left while you were gone. I was about to return to the bar, but… Well, I have been thinking.”

Well, that’s an ominous start to a conversation… Nekh mutters nastily in her head, sounding very much like an exhausted child throwing a temper tantrum. If she says ‘we have to talk’, I’m getting out of here.

You will already be too late by days, you oversized chicken, Alma retorts, growling in thought.

To Ewá, she says, “Yes, Miss Ewá?”

Alma realizes that she must look truly tired for the demigoddess hesitates. For a moment, she looks almost as if she will drop whatever issue she wishes to discuss but then she plunges on.

“I have rented a house not far from here,” the Voice says. At Alma’s raised eyebrow, she continues, “I did tell you before, I have taken a liking to this ward. As I may have mentioned, my main focus as a Voice has been to represent my clan, but I devote my spare time to speaking for those who cannot afford a Voice in cases of the law. While taking on the unusual role of Observer for the Council, I became aware of how many people here could use someone like me. They need me much more than my clan does.”

“And you are one who is compelled to be useful,” Alma says.

This brings a very slight smile to the reticent face. “I suppose I am.”

Oh, isn’t she the perfect little teacher’s pet? Nekh snears.  

I thought you were leaving, Alma notes with a mental sigh.

I was…but then you said you wanted me to go, Nekh replies in mellow tones.

Alma ignores him while she considers Ewá’s words. “I can sympathize. But this does mean that the manner in which we serve this community will sometimes bring us into conflict.”

Ewá nods. “That is almost certain. I want you to know, then, that I have the highest respect for the work you do and for you, personally. Even if we may sometimes disagree over the guilt of one of my clients.” Her voice carries an almost undetectable flavor of amusement. “But that is not actually what I meant to tell you.”

“Oh?”

I love you! I love you and I want to make Bunnies with you! Leave Dion and Sky and run away with me!

Alma sighs internally and thinks Quiet! at the Archon’s soul.

Blissfully oblivious to the goddess’ internal dialog, Ewá makes her offer. “That house is larger than I will need. You have managed to place some of the children with families, but still you have nearly twenty. Keeping them in the Burrow is only a temporary measure, and you are Guardia, not childcare workers.”

“The Burrow?” Alma asks in confusion.

“Oh…yes. Rosemary and Cherry told me tonight that they have finally decided on a name for the bar.” Ewá’s smile is surprisingly affectionate, for the moment that it lasts. “But back to the point: These children can stay with me. My new home can serve as a center for finding them families.”

Alma’s tired mind takes a moment to process the full meaning of the words. “So instead of a law office, it will be an orphanage?”

“Let us say ‘in addition to’ rather than ‘instead of’.” Ewá tilts her head. “You clearly have a great deal of work ahead of you, and I want to see this ward safe and secure as much as you do. Please let me do this for you.”

Alma takes one of Ewá’s hands. The Voice glances at their clasped hands in mild surprise, but again flashes that elusive smile, and gently grips Alma’s hand. On an impulse, surprising herself as much as Ewá, the goddess moves closer and holds her, hands taking the demigoddess’ elbows, cheek resting gently against hers.

“You have already done so much for me,” Alma says, feeling suddenly, overwhelmingly grateful. She has a lot of people to thank and apologize to. “You saved my Bunnies. You saved me, and Gwydion as well. And now you are asking permission to remove a source of worry and distraction from us. Of course you can do this. And I assure you, I will help where I can.”

Ewá’s body at first stiffens at the embrace but then the Voice wraps her arms around Alma, holding her tightly for a moment. She seems to remember herself all of a sudden and releases the goddess, moving away from the embrace sporting a slight blush on her dark cheeks.

Told you… Nekh taunts.

Alma, however, smiles at Ewá. “Can we move them in the morning? I would not want to wake them up at this time of night.”

“Oh, of course. And I am sure you must be tired, Sergeant.”

Alma nods. “Tired and in need of a bath. I bid you goodnight.”

Ewá nods, turning to leave. “Yes. Boa noite.”

Alma exits the station into the breezeway before she can be pulled into any more conversations. She nearly enters the bar, but remembers her own comment about a bath. She desperately wants to hold her Bunnies, but she imagines the smell of blood on her clothes would disturb their sensitive noses. She instead calls upon the portal that leads to her room. Unlike Gwydion’s, hers is no door but merely a circular patch on the ground. She steps onto the spot and forms the correct mental image in her head, and the passage directly to her rooms opens and takes her away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The bar is finally quiet, its gas lamps turned down to tiny glows to provide just enough light that the human children will not panic on waking. Cherry and Merri have disappeared to join poor, exhausted Geryon, to give him some tender care and kisses for once again risking himself to save a Bunny. Mayumi wonders sardonically if the gryphon will even be able to move tomorrow, but then she feels a wave of affection for him. For all his complaining, all his catty comments, he is always ready to help when need is greatest. She does not need to wonder why the two bartenders care for him so.

The human children – those that have not been shared out to nearby families – are sleeping on futons, pillows, rugs, and other makeshift beds across the floor of the bar, and even some donated mattresses. Some are sleeping peacefully, while others whimper as dreams of recent horrors or past abuse afflict them. Kori, who usually seems to need at least fourteen hours of sleep a day, is vigilant, making sure the rescued street kids stay put at least for this one night, and keeping an especially sharp eye on Chime. The slightly younger Bunny, however, seems to have been cured of his wandering ways, though how temporary this cure is remains to be seen. He is keeping watch over the others along with Kori, perhaps too disturbed by recent events to sleep.

The goddess Kyri sits at the bar near a brighter gaslight, drinking coffee and writing music, while Ewá Nanã has stepped across the way to the station to have a word with Cala. In a corner nearby, Aliyah snoozes on a pile of cushions, changed into a men’s Guardia uniform, as none of the spare women’s uniforms will fit her tall, solid frame.

Near her, Sage and Mayumi keep watch as well, dressed in comfortable sleepwear, Sage in soft shirt and shorts, Mayumi in an extra-large men’s undershirt, standard Guardia Popula pale blue, almost knee length on her. Though their encounter with violent demigods and a demon, not to mention the murder of Corporal Stathos, have left them worn out from adrenalin and emotional shock, still they cannot sleep. As the night crawls toward morning, their whispers are too soft to be heard by human ears. No one has told them what has happened with Stathos’ family, and the memory of demonic screaming haunts them. But finally Tulip, the youngest Bunny, sleepily approaches in her beribboned flannel nightgown and snuggles into Sage’s lap, and holding her seems to allow him to let go that tension. As he nods off, Mayumi kisses his forehead and strokes Tulip’s white-furred ears, then begins to step carefully between the sleeping bodies, heading toward the kitchen, desperate for some water.

She is almost there when the breezeway door opens. “Shhh…” Kori hisses softly toward the newcomer. It is Sergeant Gwydion. He nods at Kori and then at Kyri in response to her wave, and makes his way toward the kitchen as well, clearly going for the magical door to his rooms.

Mayumi waits for him, and when he is close enough to hear her whisper, she asks softly, “Luís and the girls?”

Gwydion looks at her, his expression one of mute sorrow. He merely shakes his head, but that is enough. Her ears lie back and she surprises herself by reaching out and grasping his wrist for support. The news is a shock to her, even though she had half expected it. The tears fill her eyes and she looks away, stifling a sob. They’d saved Sage, and no one – no one but the kidnappers – had died. And now tragedy upon tragedy.

She feels a hand on her shoulder. Gwydion looks at her sadly, and without thinking she puts her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly. Though the culture she was raised in is not nearly as physically affectionate as that of Three Rats, she has always felt more of a need for contact than most of the people she grew up around. Perhaps it is something encoded into Bunny behavior. But because of how she was brought up, she has always been the most reserved of the Bunnies. And Gwydion…he is quite reserved himself. She has to admit she had not taken to him at first. She had not trusted him. The way he had tried to seduce Alma had repelled her. How foolish of him, to approach her that way.

Has he changed in his time away? No matter. He had saved them. Risked all for them. His eccentricities mean little in comparison to that. And now he has returned from seeing those girls, whom Philippus had brought to the station once, with whom Mayumi had talked and played as she kept an eye on them for their father – Gwydion has just seen their lifeless bodies. Mayumi prays that it was quick for them, but she knows it most likely was not. So she is glad when Gwydion embraces her as well. She may not have seen their deaths, but she can smell it on him, mixed with his cologne, and she is grieving, too.

She takes a deep breath. She steps back and looks up at him. No words need be said. Shared sorrow is its own language.

She wonders where Alma is. Perhaps she will find her in the station. She longs to speak with her creator, her mother. And Sky as well. He will likely hide away in his pain, she knows. She has seen it more than once in these past weeks. She nods at Gwydion and lets him continue his path, while she deviates from hers, moving toward the breezeway door.

Ch5.55 Shards

“I am fine, Gwydion, I assure you,” Alma insists. “You don’t have to escort me there.”

“Just minutes ago, you could barely walk without aid,” Gwydion argues, his voice tinged with sincere concern. “You are weak. You could collapse in the middle of the street.”

Ah let her! Nekh says behind Gwydion, beak perched on the god’s shoulder. She’ll do fine lying in a ditch.

Ah, so you are back, Alma greets him dryly, trying to avoid looking at Gwydion’s shoulder with annoyance. Now that you can avoid being of any actual help.

Why would I want to help you? Nekh barks at her.

Because if I am found lying in a ditch, you will have been lying there too for just as long as I.

The vulture-headed apparition shrugs. Heh, I got nothing scheduled for tonight, anyway.

They stand outside in the breezeway, accompanied by Probationary Popula Constable Longshot, Ewá Nanã and Kyri. Inside, the Bunnies have been tasked with keeping watch over the sleeping children for the moment, even if some of them are conspicuously sneaking a peek out the very-nearly-but-not-quite-closed door of the bar. The message that Sky had Longshot deliver is clear. Alma’s unique skills are needed at Stathos’ family home. More casualties have been inflicted on the Guardia’s extended family. Hopefully, this time, without the use of soul-crushing bombs.

And it is probably the fear that such things are involved in this case, along with an apparent concern that Alma is not by far at her best, that has Gwydion paranoid about her safety and insisting on escorting her.

“I won’t collapse,” Alma assures him. “And we should not leave the station without a Dei. Especially now.”

But Gwydion is obstinate. “If they wanted to attack us at our weakest, they would have while we were…” His voice falters. “…down by the cells.”

“Pardon me,” Ewá intervenes. “But it sounds as if I could be of some assistance. I would gladly stay here with Dona Kyri to keep watch.”

“With all due respect, Miss Ewá, you are not a trained officer,” Alma tells her.

“That is true,” Ewá Nanã agrees. She holds out a hand, palm towards Alma, in a request to the goddess for patience.

Closing her eyes, the demigoddess breathes deeply and whispers “Ri Ró Ewá.”

A short harpoon, similar to the ones that some tropical tribe might use for fishing in the river, appears in her hand, along with a short, curved sword hanging from a belt of woven straw.

“I am, however, trained at defending others,” Ewá proceeds. “And from the word on the street, Kyri has some impressive ability in that area as well,” she adds with a meaningful look at the diminutive owner of the Copper Pot.

“Oh well, you know… When necessary,” Kyri blushes.

Supported by the generous offer, Gwydion looks again at Alma. “Please.”

Alma hesitates but she knows she is too tired to resist. She sighs. “Very well.” And turning to Kyri adds, “Just make sure to keep any weapons out of reach of the children.”

“Oh you know I’ll let no harm come to them,” Kyri waves her off.

“And I did not go to all that effort brokering a deal only to allow some murderous rabble to bring your Bunnies to harm now,” Ewá adds. “Nor to allow either of you to risk yourselves on your own. Be careful. We shall be vigilant.”

Gwydion nods at both of them, obviously grateful for their aid. “Thank you, ladies.”

Saying their goodbyes, the Dei walk away. Behind them, Nekh follows at his leisure, feathered arms crossed behind his head.

Guess you lose this one to the pretty boy, huh? he taunts Alma.

The goddess can but mutter under her breath. “I still think this is a bad idea….”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

They arrive at Stathos’ house, no more than a ground-floor apartment where he, his husband and his daughters used to live. Used to, yes. None of them lives any longer, here or anywhere else. Outside the door, a Popula Constable is leaning with his back pressed against the wall, his usually bright-red skin looking dull under the yellowish, sickly street lights, his mouth gaping at the heavens. What was his name again? Ah yes, Dheesh. Just Dheesh. Famous not so much for the skin color and the intricately scarified cheeks and forehead but for his pious nature and unbreakable vow of silence (mainly kept by an earlier sacrifice of his tongue to some fire god). His tribe is from very far away, in the Fourth Ring, on the other side of the Insula. But Guardia duty brought him here. His expression a mask of grief, he screams his sorrow soundlessly into the night.

Ooooooh! Looks like someone’s been having fun here! Nekh says excitedly.

You are loving every bit of this, aren’t you? Alma asks him bitterly,

She can almost feel him sneering. Oh, dear little Alma. More than you will ever know.

A sudden sense of coolness around her shoulders tells her that Gwydion has removed his supporting arm from its previous perch. The two Dei strive to stand straight and unmarred by their tiredness, solid against the constant aggressions of the day. Inside the apartment, in the main room, Sky awaits with Machado, both struggling to keep their expressions blank,  their feelings tamped. Still, their fury and grief creep through at the edges.

Two of the room’s plastered walls are painted in bright orange and yellow and populated by numerous drawings by Stathos’ young daughters. Another wall, originally white, was apparently being turned into a mural, showing the drafted beginnings of a peaceful beach scene with a little fishing boat at the center.

Most likely taken from a picture in a book, Alma thinks, saddened at how much was left unspoken during her short, infrequent conversations with the amiable but introverted Stathos. There is no ocean around these parts. Perhaps Stathos’ little pastime project. Or maybe Luís was the artist in the family?

It matters no longer. All the walls are now defiled by ancient symbols drawn in blood. Their owners will not be bothered by it.

In the center of the room, three bodies lie covered in white sheets. Beneath them, colorful rugs shimmer in the lamp light with the thick, velvety hue of seeping, coagulating blood. Doctor Nataniel is just now rising from examining the smallest one. Syron, his ever-present companion, stayed behind in the station to examine the cells. The physician looks at her and then at the ceiling, sighing. Alma’s eyes follow his gaze. Blood spatter on the white plaster speak of arteries slashed again and again without compassion.

“We’re too late,” Gwydion barely whispers.

…” Nataniel agrees sadly. “Nothing else we can do here.”

The air in the room feels almost electrified as if the very memory of screams and shrieks and whimpers and cries is somehow still alive, still vivid, still an open, gaping wound cut into the heart of room, telltaling unspeakable crimes.

But the air tells no stories. The time has come for the dead to speak.

Alma kneels by the dead bodies, laid out in a triangle. Blood seeps through the fabric of her clothes but she ignores it for now, focusing instead on removing the white sheets that cover the corpses. Most of the Popula look away from the cadavers of two little girls, one around seven years old and light-skinned with brown hair, the other ten years of age and darker with curly black locks, both adopted by Stathos and his companion, uncovered by the goddess’ efforts. Only Sky, Machado, Gwydion and Nataniel are left standing near the victims by the time Alma removes the final sheet, draped over the dead body of Luís, the kind bald-headed instructor of Luta Marajoara, a kind of soft, friendly wrestling that seems to appeal to people of all ages in this area, with an easy smile and a shrewd, optimistic vision of the world, the great love and pride of Stathos’ violently stolen life.

The little girls lie with their eyes open, their expressions locked in antemortem terror. On their foreheads, ancient symbols of submission have been carved with a blade. On their chests, glyphs for death have been scratched by sharp nails. At a subtle nod from Alma, Nataniel guides a very pale, grieving Machado away from the corpses.

“This was a message,” Sky says in a low, growling voice seething with barely contained fury. “Like the bomb. They want us to know we can’t touch them. But they can touch us.”

“Message received,” Gwydion mutters, choking back his horror and disgust.

“We will prove them wrong,” Sky promises.

Alma feels nothing but numbness. Her senses are dulled by trauma and exhaustion, her eyes register the scene but barely rouse in her anger or grief. The sight of the slit throats on the little girls, the unpleasant smell of the intestinal contents that spew from their slashed guts and contaminate the flesh, accelerating its decomposition, the touch of the soft skin on their arms that are still to lose the heat of life, none of it sparks anything in her. They seem empty, hollow, bereft of the souls that used to animate them and that she is still to collect.

The silence is what hits her. With effort, she summons her soul-sight and opens herself to the call of their souls. But no one speaks.

Luís, his legs and arms broken, eyelids cut, belly ripped open and penis hacked out and left by a wall after being used for a brush to paint the glyphs that speak of harvesting and binding, is just as soulless as his daughters.

“It will take more than you think,” Alma whispers.

Sky’s gaze turns to her, eyebrow raised. “What do you mean?”

Alma raises her head to look at him. She had not noticed that her words had been spoken allowed, let alone expected Sky to ask her that question. “Their souls are missing.”

She tilts her head at Sky, seeing him for the first time under the scrutiny of her soul-sight. The tall god has always felt somewhat…off when compared to other gods but now she can see why. His soul, intensely brilliant and vibrant like any other divine spirit is strangely without a constant, well-defined shape. Souls adapt to their vessels much like water poured into a container. They should not fade away at the edges or try to burst out of the bindings of their shape like tongues of flame casting shadows at the edges.

Looks sort of weird, no? Nekh comments standing by Sky and then pacing around him, unseen. Like he’s not big enough for his size. He grins behind his beak. Think he’s keeping nasty secrets from us?

I would not think either of us is entitled to speak ill of anyone keeping secrets, Nekh, Alma retorts.

“Were they destroyed like the others?” Gwydion interrupts her thoughts, already looking at the goddess as if he expects her to start screaming at any moment.

Alma, however merely shakes her head. “No. Collected. By someone other than myself.”

Black lines begin to crawl up Sky’s neck. It is with exceeding effort that he manages to force them down below the collar of his shirt. “A god of death?”

“No,” the goddess states with certainty.

“How can you be sure?” Sky insists.

“Death gods are extremely territorial,” Alma explains. “We must be, in order to extend our duties throughout the Insula. Our territories are constantly shifting but well-defined.  No clan god would step into my territory to collect without my knowledge or consent. While I was out, one of my brothers was gracious enough to take over. As soon as I arrived, I felt him leave. It is how we function.”

“But surely the Clan is immense,” Gwydion argues. “How could you possibly keep track of everyone?”

“I can’t,” Alma concedes. She gestures at the horrific scene around her. “But look at the symbols on the walls and on the bodies. No death god needs this… spectacle to collect a soul. Souls drift naturally towards us. This person is not answering the calling. This is a free agent and there is no way he or she is releasing the souls to the Wheel.”

“A demigod born outside the Clan, perhaps?” Sky ventures. “Or even a mortal necromancer?”

“Necromancers are a rare breed,” Gwydion says. “There shouldn’t be more than a handful left who can do more than a few parlor tricks. But according to the books, those did cause quite a lot of damage by using souls against gods, in the old days.”

Alma nods in agreement. Necromancers are taboo in many circles, thought even to be extinguished. The Death Clan itself has effectively expunged the issue of necromancers from most of the records available to Alma and her siblings and she knows little more than the basics about them. And surely nothing about Soul Bombs… Still, free agents of any kind are very much frowned upon, rogues dealt with swiftly and discreetly. She knows that her father will not stand in the way of her investigation.

“Death god or necromancer, this is most likely a very dangerous individual. One that should not be dealt with lightly,” she says. “My clan will want this to be handled as a clan issue. It is in our best interest to catch this person.”

Sky nods, reading her request in the words she avoids to speak. “This is your case. All the resources you need will be made available. Whatever this gang wants, they are willing to attack Guardia in our own station, and in our own homes. That is…unprecedented in Three Rats. We need to shut them down. And…if there is any way to get these souls back and put them to rest properly…”

Alma looks at the corpses once again, searches deeply and carefully for any possible remains of a soul. Spells are seldom fully effective in removing a soul in one piece and if just the right fragment is left behind and then released, then there is a chance that the rest of it will follow it into the Wheel. In a stroke of luck, very much the only one in the entire day, Alma finds the cores of all three souls still attached to their respective bodies, glowing faintly but steadily after being robbed of the spectral energy that makes for a mortal soul’s outer layer. Partially numbed in her exhaustion, the goddess had missed them earlier.

“Well, these ones I can save,” she announces as she begins to release the soul fragments. “He left a piece of them behind. The most important one and so, the one that is most strongly anchored to the body. Once it is released, the other pieces will follow it into the Wheel, no matter where they are now. But I can’t guarantee that our mysterious harvester will not use better tricks in the future.”

“Well, at least this time we get to laugh last,” Gwydion mutters.

“It will send them a message,” Sky states, turning to speak to the god of magic. “And Dion, while Alma focuses on this, I want you focusing on the other gangs. They’ll soon know we’ve been hit. Some will be thinking we are vulnerable. It is time to make them understand what three Dei can do together. Let them know that you two are back. I will assist wherever I am most needed, and coordinate. This eruption of chaos is going to end.”

Alma looks up, surprised that Sky would issue Gwydion such long-term orders after being told that the sergeant’s impending departure is a very real possibility. She finds herself holding her breath, waiting to know if Gwydion has already made his decision.

Gwydion’s eyes widen. He looks nervous, avoids looking directly at Sky. He has not decided yet. “Sky, I…”

Sky blushes in embarrassment at his faux pas. “I…I’m sorry. I forgot. Of course…you have a decision to make. Well. I will understand, whatever you choose.”

He pauses awkwardly and nods at the sergeants before leaving to Sergeant Machado.

Gwydion watches him go, looks down at his feet. “I wonder if I will…”

Ch5.54 Shards

Alma stirs in his arms, her eyes flutter open in the dim light of the basement. Like a child awakened in the middle of a pleasant dream, the torture and anguish of moments ago apparently forgotten, she snuggles languorously against him, nuzzling his chest where it meets the shoulder.

“Hmm?” she murmurs.

“Hi…” Gwydion whispers softly, stroking her nose with the tip of his finger.

The sight of a beautiful feminine face waking up is somewhat unusual to him. Decades of cultivating a detached approach to relationships after being badly burnt by his one and only true romantic infatuation have made sure that a “morning after” was something meant only for those silly enough to restrict their desires to a single, often unworthy partner. Goddesses were always, in Dion’s little black book, no more than different tastes of some potentially delicious intoxicant with a tendency to destroy one’s mind and body after chronic, intense exposure.

Still, he must admit that the vision of Alma’s sleepy expression lazily blinking away exhaustion and smiling tiredly at him is a soothing, peaceful elixir abating the memory of the day’s events. He certainly would not mind gazing upon it again, in less stressful times.

“What happened?” she asks, rubbing sleep out of her eyes.

“You nodded off for a moment,” Dion explains. “How are you feeling?”

The question seems to revive in her the memory of her agony. Her expression darkens for a moment, and she sits up straighter, albeit still leaning slightly against Dion’s shoulder.

“Better,” she replies, now fully vigilant. “Enjoying the silence in my head.”

“Good,” Dion says, glancing back behind the pillar against which he leans, at the glimpses of blue and movement by the door of the holding area.

Under more careful scrutiny, they resolve into the looming figure of Corporal Lamore, looking worried and hesitant. She glances at the corpse of Corporal Stathos, her fallen comrade, and then at the Dei, her eyes issuing a silent request to be allowed to begin the painstaking, essential task of removing the bodies and investigating the crime scene.

Dion nods subtly at her. “Do you think you can stand and walk?” he asks of Alma. “The Popula are waiting for us to clear the room.”

Alma looks down at her legs almost as if to confirm they are still there. “I think I can, yes.”

“Slowly, now,” he advises her.

Making sure to keep her supported, even if he is himself beginning to feel his tired body rebel against his command, Dion rises to one knee and then stands. Alma stands too, slightly shakily at first but then seems to finds her balance. With Dion’s arm firmly wrapped around Alma’s back at waist-level and her hand gently holding his, they find their way to the door, where the corporal awaits.

“The room is yours to inspect, Corporal,” Dion tells her. “Thank you for your patience.”

“Don’t mention it. We’ll take care of things from now on,” Cala assures them, her voice kept low in respect for the dead. She spares Alma a sincere, worried look. “Do you need anything, Sergeant?”

Alma smiles weakly at her. “I just need this day to be done.”

Cala moves aside to let them through and they exit the holding area. Alma however, stops in her tracks and turns back for an instant.

“Corporal, whatever pieces you can gather of the bomb, I would like to examine them myself,” she requests.

Cala nods in acquiescence. “I’ll have them be taken to your office.”

“Where’s Inspector Sky?” the goddess asks suddenly.

Corporal Lamore glances subtly and nervously at Dion. He can almost read the thoughts rushing through the woman’s mind. The note Stathos had left, which said no more than “Forgive me. They have my family”, has opened the very real possibility of still more casualties to be dealt with tonight. And after witnessing Alma’s torment, Cala seems to be set on sparing her from further ordeals.

“He’s…gone to check on Stathos’ family,” she replies.

“Ah…” Alma mutters.

“Come on,” Dion speaks before the goddess gets a chance to think twice about it. “Let us get you to your room so you can rest.”

Alma follows his lead silently. At each step she seems surer on her legs, regaining composure as she becomes more confident that her body will hold. They walk by the assembled ranks of the Popula that are now returning to the station, hastily called out of bed to aid in manning the place and investigating the explosion. They look at Alma with concern. Her screams would probably have been heard from the street. Still, she makes a point to put on a sympathetic half smile for them, reassuring the world that she will be all right, without being insensitive to the loss of a fellow Guardia. Even if Stathos had not been one of the officers in her shift, Dion knows they used to chat over the occasional cup of coffee whenever the corporal happened to be at his desk at the moment of Alma’s return from her harvests.

They make their way out to the breezeway, walking slowly toward the bar. From inside, whimpers and cries escape through the wooden door, making the Dei hesitate for a moment. They stand silent, listening.

“The children…” Alma notes. “They must be terrified.”

“We can go elsewhere if you like,” Dion suggests. “There doesn’t seem to be much peace to be found in there.”

Alma seems to consider this for a moment before shaking her head slowly. “No… No mother could ever leave a frightened child without comforting.”

She reaches for the door and opens it. Dion waits for her to go through and after some further hesitation and a soft sigh, enters himself, closing the door behind him. The children are agitated, unable to sleep even if their bedtime is long past. The older ones are sitting against the wall, eyeing the door, the blankets and pillows they were given rolled up, ready to leave at the first opportunity and spend the night in the streets where at least bombs in the next building are not a major concern.

Only a short, curvy figure exuding a faint divine aura seems to stop them. With her fists resting clenched on her hips, foot tapping the floor with a strange, musical rhythm almost as if its owner is only instants away from starring in a song-and-dance scene, she is talking to them with the irritated tones of one who will just not be disobeyed.

“…and if you try to leave again, I’ll bring back the orchestra! And this time, you’ll be singing about rainbows and unicorns!” she states by way of threat.

The older children open their eyes wide, obviously taking the threat seriously. They sit muttering to themselves but making no obvious motion to escape. Dion cannot help but grin. Of all the things he suspected could frighten these rough and tough proto-street-thugs, a song-and-dance routine was not at the top of his list.

Alma walks to the short little goddess, greeting her with a soft, “Thank you, Kyri.”

Meanwhile, Geryon is nowhere to be seen, having already retired, exhausted, into Dion’s room. The Bunnies are attending to the smaller children, who are still too shaken by the scare of the bomb to settle down and sleep, trying to soothe them and get them all to lie down.

A little boy, more frightened than the rest, escapes Kori’s muscular grip and runs toward Alma, hugging her legs in search of solace. Something about the goddess must feel comforting to him, because he simply refuses to let go of her. She strokes his head slowly, her peaceful, cadent touch doing well in the way of soothing the sobbing child.

From his place by the door, her whispered words are barely audible to Dion. “Don’t be scared, little one. No more bad things will happen tonight.”

Still, the child refuses to let go, and still, Alma strokes his hair, holding him with her spare hand, a pale, glimmering pillar in the late-night twilight of dancing shadows produced by the sparse oil lamps mounted on brass rings along the walls. In her calm, unmoving countenance, the tranquil, repeated gestures, in the attention she spares the little boy and only him, she feels unshakeable, the source of an unreal and transcendental safety draped upon the whimpering child like a soft blanket.

Against his progressively weaker sobs, she sends her weak, unsteady, humming voice.

“Rest… now, child…”

The child looks up at her.

“And slip… into dreams,”

The room goes silent. Her voice gains strength.

“Let slumber take you away.

Pale moonlight

Through windows now streams

And with you forever I stay.”

The little boy tugs at her hand and she kneels by him, her eyes still focused on the small child. She holds him to her chest, invites him to lay his head on her lap. A sense of peace and safety spreads over the bar, carried by her voice. And for a moment, nothing else seems to exist but her song.

“To a bed of white blooms

And gardens in Spring

I bring you in peace and let lay.

Your slumbering eyes

That have seen everything

Will see no more today.”

The little boy’s eyes close. Slowly, other children edge closer.

“Sleep, you’re free,

And lay, safe with me.

Your dreams, please, don’t delay.

Now you can rest.

I heed your request

And with you forever I stay.”

“Ha! I knew that girl had a song in her!” Kyri whispers low, soft flutes beginning to play around the small goddess to add body to Alma’s song. “Lovely lullaby too. Bit eerie. Requiem-ny. But pretty.”

Dion glances at the short figure, confused by the music for a minute before remembering the famous musical qualities to Kyri’s magic. And still Alma’s song goes on, washing fear away from the world.

“I bring light in my eyes

Like rogue fireflies

To show the path and the way

To where you will go,

Far from danger and woe.

Not a soul I will leave gone astray.”

A lullaby… Dion thinks, closing his eyes. Death’s daughter’s song is a lullaby.

The serenity that envelops him, the way her voice seems to silence everything around her feels almost like magic. Beautiful as her voice is, Dion finds himself thinking that it is not that which has him entranced. Any voice would do if it carried that same soft touch, like a spoken caress, to the deep dark places of his mind. A mother’s voice… A mother’s song…

Has anyone ever sung like that to me? he wonders.

“Love, be done

With the light of the sun

Now that the stars come to play.

Forget fear tonight,

Hold my hand, take flight

And with you forever I stay.”

And in his mind, summoned by the words, something awakens. Faint and blurry at first, little more than a sensation of having felt like this before. Then the memory comes, hazy, glimpsing, long forgotten. The touch of cradling arms. Coppery hair falling in a veil around him. Pale lips moving in song.

Singing to him.

“At the edge of the dawn,

Where everything sleeps

Holding the seeds of the day,

Hidden deep in your heart

And caught in its keeps.

Rest in peace, I’ll keep bad dreams away.”

A hesitant touch to his shoulder breaks the spell and makes him turn his gaze to the door just in time to catch Voice Ewá stepping into the bar. By Dion’s side, PPC Longshot whispers his apologies along with a message from Sky. The god nods at the man but looks at Alma, still singing peacefully, the children quietly sleeping around her, the Bunnies standing, embracing each other.

“Close your eyes,

There is nothing to see.

Welcome the darkness and may”

She looks at him, smiling as she sings.

Sweetly…

“Dreams come true,”

Softly…

“Your soul’s destiny”

Gently….

“And with you forever I…”

Just for him.

“…stay.”