Ch7.05 Revelations

There is an intrinsic belief to most intelligent creatures that every creature’s path is anything but lonesome. We are connected to others, through blood, through emotion, through responsibility. And every now and again, through something more. There are souls meant to cross our path and leave it almost immediately, shockingly sometimes. Earth-shaking, life-altering contacts. Other souls, however, are meant to stay. They are meant to walk the path with us, to guide us sometimes. To follow, sometimes. To walk side by side until the inevitable end. To be our soulmates.

And while this is true, the assumption that tends to follow – that soulmates are a once-in-a-lifetime event – is not. That they are to be romantic partners is not true either. The truth is that soulmates come in the most variable shapes and sizes. Skin, fur, feather, scale, spirit. Friend, family, lover. Companion. Love has but the shape we give it.

And it may come from the most unexpected places. At least for some. It is a strange thing for some, Alma knows, the relationship she has with Starfax. It is not a vocal love – Starfax does not speak, at least in any form of speech understood to most – not a physical one – the elusive phoenix rarely seeks petting – but it is, nonetheless, a loyal, companionable friendship. It is an understanding, of neither dominance or ownership between two souls who are better together than apart. A quiet, reassuring love that rests on the knowledge that this other being has chosen to follow the same path and won’t leave but for some unpredictable tragedy.

Starfax has always been there. Egg to hatchling to blossoming adulthood, she has always been free to leave, the bars of her cage a meaningless obstacle for the ethereal phoenix, meant more to ensure the peace, safety and privacy of a hiding place than to keep her from leaving. And Starfax has never left. Never judged.

Through fevers and depression and pointless wandering from station to station, all the way down to dark Three Rats, she has followed Alma’s path. And though she has mostly stayed out of the way of the Bunnies and even of Gwydion’s sight whenever he visits Alma’s sanctum, the goddess knows her best friend, her soulmate of decades, has accepted them as new features in Alma’s life.

Which is all to the goddess’ happiness, what little of it she has found in her heart in these last few days since Sky’s abduction and extraction from Nua’s malevolent talons. “Life as normal” has not been an easy thing to deal with. In spite of Arion’s promise of help, the nightmares have been a constant. And though her family treats her no differently – albeit with an obvious increase in the number of daily hugs and odd glances her way in search of reassurance – Alma still feels like a detached, almost alien presence in her own body. The frayed edges of her soul, torn by the power of the godbinding spell and then by Nua’s desperate attacks, refuse to grab a firm hold of her corporeal self. She is attached to her body only by tendrils, she knows, a gentle hold she might accept more easily if not for the stupid, mind-numbing fear that some part of Nua is still left in her, biding for a moment of distraction to finish what she started.

The thought terrifies Alma. And not just her. Gwydion as well. She has caught him glancing her way more than once with a look about him of careful, fearful examination. In the worst of her moments, she has thought of leaving, of sparing everyone the uncertainty, of sparing him the dread. She has mostly opted to hide away somewhere and cry the breath out of her lungs in those moments, hating herself for her own cowardice in longing to make herself disappear for good. Permanently.

And certain as three after two, Starfax has been there, perching nearby, watching in silence. Guarding her friend. Ready to go wherever Alma goes. Even those times when Gwydion has not managed to find her, when his arms haven’t embraced her and pulled her close and held her tightly, breaking any resolve to leave with that silent plea for her to stay.

How can he love her still? How can he still want her by his side in the safety and sanctity of his bed every night and come looking for her in a panic if for some reason she’s not there when he wakes? How can he hesitate before every kiss but still kiss her? The lips that have smiled at his screams of pain…

It’s the touch of Starfax’s cheek to her own that makes Alma realize she was crying yet again. The goddess smiles at the phoenix, perching on the bedside table by where Alma has laid open the one piece of luggage she is packing to take to Gwydion’s parents’ estate for this dreadful vacation she can’t help but wish she had never agreed to. Yet another emotional blow for Gwydion in such a short period of time, in a house none of them knows, that might even be dangerous – she is not sure can handle it all. But she will have to. For him and for her children, who desperately need a stress-free vacation.

“It won’t be as frightening if you’re there too,” she says, scratching the back of Starfax’s head before her hand slides down to pick up the cord around the phoenix’s neck, to which a brown jewel is attached. Nekh’s soul-gem, that Alma has entrusted to Starfax’s safe-keeping for the past two weeks. “Soon you won’t have this burdening you anymore.”

She takes the jewel for now. It will be needed for the conversation she has scheduled for–

“Alma?” Gwydion’s voice cuts through her train of thought.

Alma closes her hand around the jewel, then closes her suitcase. “I am almost ready.”

“Come on,” he says gently, kneeling behind her and resting hands on her shoulders. “Everyone is ready and I’m afraid Merri is about to get a hand’s width shorter under the weight of all the luggage she’s bringing along.”

The thought makes Alma snort as she leans back against him. “Who would have guessed she’s that type of girl? And it’s not like she is particularly fashion-centered on a daily basis.”

The subdued humor of Gwydion’s quiet chuckling is as much a pleasure as the feeling of his arms wrapping around her in a little squeezing embrace before he loosens his hold. “Maybe she’s just anxious.”

“She’s not the only one,” Alma notes, twisting a little to look at his face sideways. “You barely slept last night.”

He looks pained. “And I kept you awake…I’m sorry for that.”

With a little more twisting and adjusting, she manages to shift sideways fully, so that she can rest her head on his shoulder. “Don’t be. It’s not like I’m going to miss the nightmares I didn’t have because I was awake.” She closes her eyes as he strokes her hair. “And at least awake I could keep you company and be there for you.”

He doesn’t reply but keeps petting her for a moment. Intimacy has not been easy, not with the ghost of Nua tearing a gash of trauma and uncertainty between them. Since the night before their rescue of Sky, their essences have not been closer than the moderate closeness a kiss allows. Their walls are raised, not just against each other but against the world, a disheartening scar that has Alma fearing for the future of their relationship. Though they hold on, fiercely, to each other, hoping they can heal together.

“Maybe we can both get some sleep this week,” Gwydion breathes, kissing the side of her head before rising to his feet. “Come on…”

Alma rises as well after closing her suitcase. “Could you take my bag upstairs, please? There is a book I want to take with me…”

“Of course,” he replies, reaching to pick up her suitcase and looking mildly surprised at its lightness. “Don’t be long. The portal is scheduled to open in five minutes.”

“I will be right out,” Alma assures him, feeling a little pang of guilt at the little grain of truth she is not quite telling him.

He nods and leaves, closing the door behind him. And immediately, the room feels colder, the air drier, the light duller, lifeless. Not because he is gone. Because someone else has stepped in.

“A touching scene,” her father says with that mild intonation of humor he puts into every sentence, as if the world exists to amuse him. “If not for your failure to mention our scheduled appointment.”

“He has enough on his mind already,” Alma says, turning to face her father, currently sitting on the edge of the bed. “He certainly does not need to have this weighing on it.”

Death tilts his head and smiles. Just smiles. And in Alma’s mind his unspoken accusation blooms, He doesn’t need to know you never told him about Nekh’s soul.

The thought chills her. It’s no work of telepathy or suggestion. It is merely the product of years upon years of his shaping touch on her. On the part of her that she fears is just like him, cold and calculating and ruthless. Useful, oh so very useful. Cut Fates, oh so very costly…

She keeps her faint smile set, her expression carefully blank. “Thank you for coming, Father.”

His lip twitches with a grin. “My pleasure, I am sure. And why am I here?”

Alma holds a hand up in front of her, letting Nekh’s soul-gem dangle from it on its cord like an enticing prize. “Let us say you have something I want.”

Death’s grin grows with unrestrained pleasure. “It was only a matter of time. Was it not?”

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Interchapter 6-7 4: Offblue Upbraiding

Ah, Guardia Headquarters. Normally Somrak portals directly into the offblues’ offices, deep within the palatial building, the unofficial division hidden away from prying eyes with rooms labelled ‘Office 21’ and ‘Closed for Repairs’ and ‘[random gibberish symbols from forgotten language]’. But even though he still has the key for the portal – difficult to take away a magical passphrase – and he doubts it’s been changed, he knows he isn’t welcome. Most of the surviving offblues blame him for the enormous mess under the glacier, in which three of their Dei members died. That one of the dead was a traitor who killed the other two does not seem to be changing the ‘Somrak has lost it’ theme that has taken hold. But then, Somrak doesn’t really disagree.

So coming in from the nearest public portal is a nice change of pace. HQ is among other governmental buildings, all huge and impressive and practically shouting ‘obey’ to the lesser gods and mortals below, great cliffs of stone surrounding the plaza. Guardia HQ features double doors that stretch a dozen stories in height, open at all times, flanked by enormous statues of a Dei and a Popula in formal uniform, their badges pure solid gold. Both male, Somrak notes, shaking his head and chuckling to himself.

He climbs the many wide steps and enters the building, feeling the tingle of powerful security spells registering who he is and everything he is carrying with him. But the Guardia and the handful of civilians going about their business pay him little attention. Like the statue of the Dei outside, he is wearing a proper, standardized uniform, a deep indigo-blue jacket and trousers with epaulettes and rank insignia and his flame-shaped badge on display, boots and even the stupid cap. None of this but the badge is required for Dei, who are given to individualizing their uniforms, and Somrak normally doesn’t even wear his badge where anyone can see it, nor his rank. But today he is obviously Guardia Dei, his badge flashing, and his sergeant’s stripes there for all to see.

He misses the familiar creak of his crimson-and-black leathers, but he’s making a fashion statement today. And when he finally reaches the waiting room for the Commander’s office, the raised eyebrows on Mrs. Finch are a good payoff.

As Somrak removes his cap and tucks it under his arm, the aging mortal secretary stands and comes around her desk. There are seven people seated and waiting, some of them obviously gods, one of them a powerful politician’s aide that Somrak has met before, but it is as if they don’t exist to her. She walks right up to Somrak and holds her hands out.

He stops in his tracks and takes them. Her skin is soft and loose to his touch. Her face smiling, a map of wrinkles forming. He instantly warms, his sphere reacting to this woman he has admired for over four decades as she has done her job here, first as an assistant and later as the Commander’s chief clerical staff. She is not normally demonstrative in the affection he suspects she feels for all the Commander’s close-held officers, and he feels his heart speed up as she squeezes his hands. Being favored with such special regard on this of all days is more moving than he could have imagined.

“You look a very proper Guardia officer, Sergeant,” she says, letting go his hands and unnecessarily adjusting his lapels. She looks up into his eyes. Is that pity in her green eyes? Has she heard that he’s to be dismissed, stripped of his badge, arrested? Or perhaps she’s heard of the torture, of the deep unhealed wounds in his soul that make him want to scream in despair every second of the day. “They are waiting for you.” Her voice is soft, encouraging. She smiles. “Go show them who you are,” she whispers, too softly for anyone else in the room to hear.

He is so very tempted to kiss her for that.

And so he does. Invisibly to the room, not touching her at all, he projects a tiny bloom of heat onto her right cheek. It starts soft and rises slightly in temperature, then fades, more than a quick peck but less than a huge smooch. Certainly nothing that will knock her off her sensible work shoes. It takes her a moment to realize what just happened, and she blushes. Blushes! He smiles broadly, teeth flashing white against his golden-brown skin, as she looks at him, scolding but pleased.

She pats his chest and whispers, “You scoundrel. Go on now.” As Mrs. Finch turns and walks back to her desk, Somrak laughs silently at the added jaunty bounce to her step. And then he strides for the doors, pretending to ignore the jealous glares of those left behind.

The Commander is standing in the middle of the room, and turns to look at Somrak. Like many older gods, the Commander chooses to wear the form of an older human, in his case balding with ruddy, leathery skin pulled tight over his ropey muscle and bone. Somrak, however, wonders if the Commander was born looking like this. He cannot imagine his boss as a child.

“What in Hell were you thinking?” No preamble, just launching right into it, which is only to be expected from the Commander.

“You’re assuming he thinks,” the Fencer mutters from where she’s sitting in a chair by the desk. She and the Commander were apparently having a conversation when he walked in.

“And hello to the both of you,” Somrak replies, trying to be breezy and careless. “Should I do ramrod straight for this, or can I sit?”

The Commander looks him up and down. “This is the first time in about a century you’ve asked before you sat yourself down.” To Fencer. “Sure they didn’t replace him with a good shapeshifter?”

“It’s him minus the scar,” Fencer replies. “Which is just as well, because he’s gonna have a hard time healing his soul after the treatment it took.” She glares at Somrak, looking like she’s imagining shriveling the flesh from his bones. “That they all took.”

“Can I use that as an excuse to get out of this?” Somrak asks. “I would much rather be relaxing, trying to heal…” Though he makes it sound like a joke, it most certainly is not. But he does take it as an opportunity to sprawl on the most comfortable chair available.

“You’ll explain yourself,” the Commander insists. “You’ll tell us why you kept this off the books, no backup, putting all of you at risk.”

Somrak tilts his head at the Fencer. “Like I told her: the Sikari. You’ve warned me clearly what would happen if Sky got into a situation like that. You’ve all but directly told me not to contact you if I think I can get him out. Or are you going to deny that now?” His voice is casual – someone who overheard the tone but not the words would never guess he was accusing the Commander of hypocrisy.

But it is the Fencer who replies, growling as dangerously as her pet tiger, Kuhn. “You took a god who had just been poisoned and a goddess who shouldn’t even have been thinking of activating any of her spheres into a pocket universe completely out of your control. Not to mention a now-very-dead mortal.”

Somrak’s face becomes grim. “I used them to learn where Sky was. I couldn’t do that on my own. Then I was going to ditch them and go in alone.”

“But you didn’t have the resolve for that.” The Commander almost spits. “Couldn’t stand fast. I knew you were getting soft. All this rubbish lately. Going off to fight giants.” He shakes his head. “You know, most offblues don’t last twenty years before they die or break down. I guess I should just be happy you lasted five times as long.”

“We’re not getting out of this by blaming it on a washed-out agent,” Fencer notes. “This was the definition of stupid. And all because your little boy couldn’t stay away from Three Rats.” She turns her glare on Somrak again. “And when I specifically ordered you to stay away. Or was speaking in Lower Formorian at the time?”

He meets that glare, the red eye, the silver eye – not an easy thing even for a god. But Somrak just recently looked into the face of one of the Princes of Hell. His soul had been whipped by a bound death goddess, wielded by an insane necromancer wearing the body of Fencer’s niece, the woman he loves. Somrak isn’t going to quail at a mean glance. “She called me. She needed help. They told her not to call for help, and implied they had Guardia moles. Which is almost certainly true. So she called me.” He clenches his jaw for a moment before continuing. “I knew what answering that call would mean. You want my resignation?”

“Does it even matter what I want?” Fencer demands. She throws her hands up and leans back in her chair. “What I wanted was an operative I could trust and count on. What I wanted was to be kept informed about a necromancer I have hunted for two hundred bloody years! Who decimated over forty of my cousins and nephews!” Her voice rises to a roar. “Who nearly managed to kill my niece twice with a pain you can never even imagine! Bind her to a sword like she bound her cousin to that whip! It doesn’t matter what I want! I can’t even have the benefit of you realizing just how badly you screwed up! Or take us seriously for once in your wretched life!” She abruptly stands and walks toward the window, leaning forward to grip the sill and putting her head against the glass.

After a moment of silence that rings through the office after Fencer’s outburst, Somrak says, “I take this seriously. I know what happened, and what almost happened. If I could do it over again… But we didn’t know this was your necromancer until the last minute. And even you wouldn’t have known they were using Tragas godbinding techniques, would you? That’s not something Nua had any knowledge of before she went to Hell. If I could do it over… But we got Sky out. And Alma. And Dion.” He takes a breath. “I made the call. You decide what happens now.”

The Commander looks at Fencer’s stiff back. “You’re damned right we’ll decide. But first we have to find out if you’re going to be punished by the Council. You knew your responsibility to notify me the moment Agent Tuma-Sukai had been captured. You didn’t just violate chain of command. You didn’t just ignore orders. You broke the law. So what we decide isn’t going to matter a rat’s whisker if the Council wants to crucify you.”

“And when will they decide?” Somrak asks.

The Commander snorts. “Probably won’t be months. But it won’t be tomorrow, that’s for sure.”

Fencer straightens and turns, crossing her arms. “Meanwhile, you are on leave. No use to the offblues, that’s for sure.”

“What about Sky?” Somrak asks. “Is his head on the chopping block?”

“You better pray for a miracle,” Fencer replies, grim. “Or for your friends to have some tricks up their sleeves.”

Somrak looks at the two of them. “He served for forty years. He’s loyal. He’ll recover.”

Somrak is not given to pleading, but the imploring tone of his voice prompts the Commander to mutter, “Demons, don’t start begging. I know all that. Just keep him in line. Get him ready. If the Council sends an Eye to inspect him and he can’t shift to god-shape… If you want to be useful, go kick him into shape.”

“And Ponytail,” Fencer says, “on the off chance that you might get out of this in one piece, I would advise you to consider your own loyalties very carefully.”

Somrak nods, then stands and straightens slightly to stand at attention. He is not quite the model of stiff perfection, but for him the effect is striking. “I will. Will that be all?” There is no trace of insolence in his voice.

“Take your sorry carcass out of here,” the Commander says with a sigh. “You’re officially suspended. Don’t go anywhere we can’t easily find you. Be ready to appear before a tribunal on a moment’s notice. And get that thrice-damned devil ready for the same.”

“And while you’re at it,” Fencer adds, “tell whatever is left of the Three Rats Dei to await orders until the Council decides how all of you will be punished. They are on strict household management until then.” Somrak looks at her, feeling a sharp pang of melancholy at how tired and old she looks. He knows he is the one responsible for it.

“Understood.” He wants to repeat that Alma and Gwydion are not culpable for violating the Council law regarding actions to take in the event of Sky’s capture, that they did not even know of the law’s existence and that he takes full responsibility for violating it. But that is all in the report, and they know it was a lie. Alma has already told Fencer that they went in, eyes wide.

He turns and goes, thoughts of what the future is to bring weighing him down like stones piled high on this shoulders. But he is still bearing his badge and his stripes for now. On his way out, he grins at Mrs. Finch, pointing a finger at her with a wink and giving her just a tiny spot of warmth on her cheek again. Then he is quickly out of the offices and heading back to a public portal, for the long journey downslope to Three Rats.

Interchapter 6/7 3: Family Photos

The stack of books is like a fortress tower, looming beside Mayumi’s elbow. She keeps meaning to put them on the shelf, the shelf right in front of her, certainly a more convenient location and far easier to pull a book out for consultation. Yet she keeps them in a stack. She has no time! No time to clean up, no time to eat, no time to sleep. She forgot to brush her teeth this morning and all day she’s felt on her teeth the growing accumulation of the residue of gulped-down food snatched in passing from the Popula cafeteria as she rushed from classroom to classroom. She thinks she may have accidentally eaten a bun with bacon in it. Her herbivorous stomach has been making the most amazing rumblings. One of the instructors stopped in mid-sentence and looked toward her in shock after one particularly loud gurgling that sounded like an attempt to summon some kind of frog-demon. The entire class had had a good laugh over that.

It is the second day of the Academy. The first day of classes. Two hundred fifteen days to go.

A mere six months to prepare a Guardia for a thousand possible situations, fantastically different wards, a purposefully convoluted system of law that even Voices, the lawyers of the world, can never fully comprehend. Indeed, sixty years would not be enough, but a focus on the true basics – how to approach, how to be flexible, how to take control of a dangerous situation while still serving the public good – means a generalist approach, molding recruits into cops who must think, not merely follow rules. It’s the only way it can work.

The side of her head leaning against a hand, her fingers in her straight black hair, Mayumi studies the passages. She remembers this from her dream-life. Not the passages, not exactly, but the way the teachers seemed to delight in the students’ collective gasp when they gave out the first-day reading assignment. The big pile of books on the desk, the teacher sitting beside it, grinning like a wolf looking at a bunch of sheep trapped in a pen. “You’ll have read Mbuti, Spinnocci, Cao Fu, al Bishi, Hartono, Vasconcelos, and Butler…by tomorrow.” Gasp! “There will be a test.” Groan!

She knows it will get easier. Cadets will get used to the workload, but also the workload will ease off, at least in the amount of reading, moving more into practical training. The initial data dump is meant both the provide a theoretical basis to what they learn later, and to kick loose anyone who doesn’t truly want to be here. The Guardia doesn’t really need people who can absorb useful information from five chapters and two entire books overnight – for a single class – but it does need people who will try their hardest.

Unfortunately, hard-working doesn’t necessarily translate to kind-hearted. Most of the courses have Assistant-Instructors, and Mayumi felt her heart sink this morning when the syllabus for “Basics of Criminal Psychology” landed on her desk and an oily voice puffed against the fur of her ear. “Hello there, Bunny.”

She couldn’t stop her ear from flinching back, but she kept herself composed otherwise. She’d been half expecting this. Standing up to bullies always comes with a cost. “It’s pronounced Ishijima, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.”

“Guess who’ll be grading the test, Bunny.” Pringle grinned cruelly at her.

Mayumi looked around at the enormous classroom. Some students were standing because there weren’t enough desks. The Guardia had lost a lot of officers in the Shard War, and the cap on the number of recruits must have been raised. She would have to remember to get to classes early to be sure of a seat. But to Pringle, she said, “That looks like a lot of work, Assistant-Instructor. I’ll write my answers extra clearly, for your tired eyes.”

Remembering the confused look on his face, brought forth by her sympathetic smile, makes her chuckle now, in her room. Then her stomach rumbles again, not in hunger at all, sounding like eighteen unoiled doors creaking in the wind at once. She clutches it in discomfort.

“Hey! If you explode and spray your organs all over the walls, you are gonna have to clean it up yourself!” Pari is on her bed, the smaller, upper bunk, large enough for a pair of very friendly humans and nearly big enough to be an apartment in itself for the pixie. She is sitting in front of a thick hardcover book, heavier than herself, propped open against a pillow. As Mayumi glances over at her, Pari falls backwards to lie on the bed, staring at the ceiling, arms open. “Ugh. Booooooring! Why do I need to know all this junk? Half of this stuff will never apply to me, anyway!”

Mayumi asks, “Why is that?” She is trying to read and talk at the same time.

Pari flips over onto her stomach and props her chin on her hands. Her tiny body and ability to levitate allow her to move in unexpected ways. “You haven’t been payin’ attention, have you? I’m a pixie? Pixies don’t fight. They barely get in trouble with the law.”

“But what if you’re posted to another ward?” Mayumi points out.

Tapping the side of her disproportionately large skull, the pixie says, “Then I’ll make sure I use my head and break theirs!” She chuckles at her own joke, but Mayumi has already become absorbed in her class notes again. Moments later, Pari’s high-pitched voice startles her at its nearness as the pixie lands on Mayumi’s desk. “So what’s gotten you so interes– Hey, those are Dei books! Are those your mom’s?” She pulls one out from near the bottom of the stack, forcing Mayumi to catch and rebalance the rest. Pari starts flipping through it.

“That one is on use of force,” Mayumi says. “About two-thirds of it is not really applicable to Popula, but it’s an interesting read anyway.”

“Think there’s cheat sheets in these?” With her tiny hands, turning the pages takes effort, and Pari creases a page. Mayumi’s hand grasps the top edge of the book, and she looks over it at Pari.

“There are plenty of notes slipped in between pages,” she says. “Though never written in the margins. Mother respects books deeply, and I hope to return these to her in the same condition as when she gave them into my care.” Mayumi pauses, looking at Pari seriously. “Her notes will be at least as helpful to you as they are to me. Probably more. Would you like to study them?”

“I don’t know,” Pari growls, crossing her arms. “Might get some legendary Death goddess sicced on me if I make a crease in a page or something…”

“The books are my responsibility, and any damage will be mine alone to admit to. But just…” Mayumi pauses. “As a friend? Be careful with them.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Pari dismisses it, flipping through another page or two to look at the little pieces of paper written in Alma’s small, careful handwriting. “Ooooh – hey, what’s that?” She picks up a slightly thicker piece of paper that has fallen from between two pages and turns it. “Oh, that ain’t notes. It’s just an old picture.” She tosses it aside, apparently casually, but in Mayumi’s general direction.

Mayumi picks it up. The Insula, with its varying levels of magical and technological potential in different regions, has numerous methods for making visual reproductions. This picture seems to have been taken via a camera of some sort, developed on a chemically treated film. It is strangely thick. She studies it, having to hold it away slightly. I’m not as farsighted as Cherry, but I really should get reading glasses, she thinks. Then she recognizes one of the two figures. “Oh…that’s Mother. And…someone?”

Suddenly Pari is at her shoulder, hovering, that inaudible hum in the air tickling Mayumi’s cheek. “Oh… Well, they’re both in Academy uniforms so…classmate? Which one’s your mom?”

A smile dawns on Mayumi’s face, attended by a feeling of real joy. “On the left, with the white hair. She styled it differently then.”

Alma looks at the camera, as ethereal in beauty as ever despite the simple Dei cadet uniform. Her eyes are blue, the same eyes she had until just three nights ago when she returned, strangely changed, from her Death Clan meeting. Mayumi wonders if she will ever see those blue eyes again, or if her mother has been forever altered. She touches the surface of the picture, tracing her finger along Alma’s hair, remembering how silky it felt when she was held by her mother.

“Huh…she looks kinda sad a bit, don’t ya think?” Pari asks.

Mayumi nods. “She…often does.” In fact there is an air of melancholy around Alma at most times, a beautiful sadness that makes all all her progeny want to be near her, to elicit a smile like the sun breaking through a calm grey sky. Such smiles feel like victories.

Pari looks at the picture, then at Mayumi. “Well, pretty sure the wolf-chick next her ain’t your dad. You take after him, then? ‘Cuz…you look nothing like her. And I ain’t just talkin’ about the ears and all.”

Mayumi laughs. “Well, none of us looks like her, except for the youngest, who looks almost exactly like her. As for our father…I’m afraid I don’t look anything like him, either.”

Pari raises an eyebrow. “You sure he’s your dad? Gods are weird sometimes.”

“Gods are indeed quite unusual,” Mayumi agrees. “And we aren’t exactly related to either of them in the usual way. From what I understand…we simply appeared after they, well, made love.”

“Oh…Sheesh, makes you think twice before gettin’ into bed with a guy.” Pari looks at the picture. “Or a girl. That one’s looking at your mom like she’d go for it.”

Mayumi looks again. “Oh…yes… I see what you mean. She’s not just a classmate, is she?” The woman has wolf ears in the same way Mayumi has bunny ears, and there is a luxuriantly furred tail behind her legs. She is looking at Alma with a cajoling grin, as if saying, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun!’ But her eyes look almost desperate, questioning, with canine devotion. ‘Do you love me? Do you love me?’ “Perhaps she is the Pavia who lived here with Mother.”

Pari looks back at the bunk beds. “Think they uh… Saved on detergent for the sheets?

That makes Mayumi smile again. “I hope they made each other happy. But now they’re apart.” Her smile fades. “The Academy…six months is a long time, and yet no time at all.”

“Yeah, but don’t you go looking at me funny. I’m not playin’ on that field.” She looks at the beds again. “Ugh…Hope they did it on your bed.”

Mayumi snorts, looking at the beds, too. “Probably – mine has more space. Anyway, it was over twenty years ago. I have a feeling both of those beds have played host to numerous couples in the years since. Roommates or otherwise.”

The look of disgust on Pari’s face makes Mayumi laugh. “Ugh! Way to keep me awake tonight! Anyway, if they’re not together anymore, who’s workin’ with your mom these days?”

Mayumi goes to her closet, where she’s deposited her dufflebag. She has only hung up about half her clothes, which is not many, and out of it she pulls a case from which she retrieves a small album of pictures. She brings it back to the desk and opens it to show Pari. The image looks different, almost painted, achieved as it is via a simple sort of magic rather than chemistry. “This is Mother now. And this is her with Gwydion and Tuma-Sukai. Sky. He’s the Inspector, while they are Sergeants.”

“So, she has two guys now instead of a girl? And check out how happy she looks, huh? Huh?

Mayumi laughs again, shaking her head. “She and Sky are not lovers. Though they care for each other a great deal.”

“They sure look like lovers to me. And hey, if you’re sayin’ she’s not lovers with the tall dark guy, she must be with Mister Hot Pants over there.” Pari points at Dion. “He looks like a real piece of work.”

Mayumi nods. “I did not know what to make of him at first. But he has saved my life, and the lives of my siblings, more than once. And, well, he has changed.”

“What, like turned into a cactus or somethin’?”

“He… He seemed to think only of himself at first. I don’t think he feels that way anymore.” She smiles at all three of them, seeming to belong together, like some trio out of legend.

“You have the hots for him, is that it?” Pari nudges her. “Come on, admit it! Or do you like the big guy instead? Hey are you blushing?! Oh you do!”

Mayumi feels the warmth in her face. “Sky and I have been…trying to decide what to do about our feelings for each other. I don’t know how that will go.” She turns the page to a picture of Sky on the left, and all the Bunnies on the right.

“Whoa! Major mishmash!” Pari counts the Bunnies. “Your mom and the guy in the picture make all of those?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “I don’t have a picture of our father. But yes, all seven of us came from the same two parents. As you can see, there is little in the way of shared heredity. We don’t really think of each other as brothers and sisters so much as…family. But we are very close.”

Though it is not something she is at all ashamed of, Mayumi doesn’t mention that the four older Bunnies, herself included, are also lovers. It is not something that seems unnatural to her, though she knows it is different for humans. She cannot guess what it might be like for pixies, but considering some of the things Pari has said, Mayumi wouldn’t want to risk disturbing her.

“Yeah, your folks are kinda colorblind, aren’t they? Pretty much like us pixies, only we’re even more colorful. So your dad’s not around?”

“He is far, far away. But I have met him once. I don’t really think of him as my ‘dad’.” She pauses, realizing that her description of her life is just getting more and more complicated. “He’s my father, and I want to get to know him, but I was raised by another man, a mortal. And I think of him as Father. Truly, in my heart he is my father.”

“So… another boyfriend of your mom’s?” Pari puts her fists on her skinny hips. “Really, how many people is she juggling here?!”

Mayumi laughs softly at the idea of Alma and Sueyoshi being in any way sexually intimate with each other. “My father and Mother only met for the first time…two days ago?” Can it have been such a short time? “They have never been lovers.”

Pari’s voice changes, becoming almost angry. “So she just uhm…left you with this guy so he’d raise you? That’s cold. I wouldn’t want anything to do with a mom like that.”

“Alma had to do what she did in order to keep us alive. It’s a very complicated story, and…I don’t think I’m allowed to tell some of it, as it might get her into trouble. But she had two choices. She could have allowed us to be put to death. She chose for us to live apart from her so that we could live. It took me some time to realize how painful that was for her.” She looks at Pari, her eyes pleading for understanding. “I love her dearly.”

A bit embarrassed, Pari mumbles, “Oh…well, then. If you put it that way…”

“I know it seems very strange, but there is so much more to her, and all of us, than even we know. That is why I hesitate to judge. I’ve been judged quite severely. Called an abomination. Judged and sentenced – to death.”

“Sheesh!” Pari exclaims, buzzing back away. “You could do with a makeover but you’re not that ugly!”

Mayumi props her elbow on the desk and looks at Pari, resting her head on her fist. “Enough about me. I’m tired of talking about me. I’ve been wanting to get to know you more but…you seem rather private, so I didn’t want to push. I don’t know anything about your people except from stories, and I’m sure they’re full of inaccuracies.”

Pari tilts her head. “Do you pay extra for each big word you drop into a conversation?”

Mayumi feels disappointed at what she is beginning to perceive as evasion behavior. The insults don’t sting as much now that Mayumi sees them for what they are: a way of avoiding revealing anything of herself. “If you don’t want to talk about yourself, Pari, that’s all right. I’ll be ready to listen if you ever do feel ready. I’m all ears.” She looks back at her books, with a small grin at her joke.

Out of the corner of her eye, Mayumi sees the pixie looking at her, then away, as if she’s trying to make up her mind. Then Pari takes flight and goes to her leafy satchel, which is hanging from one of the bedposts. She rummages in there, then comes back and shows Mayumi a small piece of photo paper, about a quarter the size of the pictures they’ve been looking at. It features herself and another pixie, this one with dantier features, with pastel-blue skin and long dark-blue hair with a white streak, hugging Pari lovingly from behind. They’re both laughing happily.

“That’s the only one I brought with me,” Pari explains.

The Bunny beams at the sight, squinting to focus better. “Who is she?”

“My baby sister. Been takin’ care of her since the day she popped out of her flower.”

Her tone makes Mayumi look at her with concern. I’ll ask how the flowers work later. “But now…?”

“We got Mams. Just Dad ain’t around and Mams works long hours. Anyway, she’s all grown up now. Already started a job.” Pari sounds proud of her younger sibling.

“What sort of job?” Mayumi suddenly realizes that, aside from the burst of joy at seeing the picture of her mother’s Academy days, she feels happier than she has since leaving home, and that part of the reason is that Pari herself has not been feeling happy at all, until now, and a huge tension between the two of them seems to be dissipating. “From the stories, I’m imagining things like…watching over princesses.” She chuckles to show how she realizes how foolish that is.

The pixie snorts. “An’ where do you find a princess on this here island? Naah… We’re poor folk. Sis is just putting the colors on flower petals and paintin’ butterfly wings. She’s all artsy like that.” Pari leans against a book. “Definition of a proper pixie.”

“But you chose the Guardia.” Mayumi is just going to assume for now that Pari is telling the truth about the butterfly wings. More to ask about later.

“Yep. I’m no good at customer service. Besides, I stink at arts an’ crafts.” Pari shrugs.

Looking back at the picture, Mayumi says, “You both look very happy. Do you miss home?” She realizes how sad that came out, how her own homesickness tinted the words.

As if totally clueless to Mayumi’s tone, Pari replies, “Nope. Not even a bit.”

This surprises Mayumi. “Is there something wrong there?”

A shrug from the pixie. “Not really. Just no me-shaped hole for me to fit in. They’re probably celebratin’ that I’m gone right now. No one likes a pixie that can knock you out without using fairy dust.”

“Well…you’re planning to go back, though?”

“These guys rarely send people far away from home on their first assignments. Besides, not that many Dei there so… Maybe that’s the hole I’m meant to fill. You planning on going back to your place?”

“Yes. I hope I can. And…to tell the truth, my family and I have been ordered to stay there. I’m only here under special permission. So I think it’s a sure thing. If not…” Mayumi shakes her head to banish the unthinkable. Being sent away from her siblings… But she remembers the strange little fortune that the Oracle told her only a few days ago. According to her, Mayumi will indeed be away for some time.

She picks up the photo of her mother and the wolf-girl again. Turning it over, she sees writing on the back. It is nothing but a date, twenty-five years ago. Mayumi does some quick calculation – it is not the same year that her mother would have been in the Academy, but rather a few months before that term began. Strange… Mayumi runs her thumbnail along the thick edge, and it starts to peel apart. She feels excited. What she had thought was a product of the technology used to produce the photo is instead two photos stuck together. She very, very carefully teases them apart.

Fortunately she manages without causing any damage. The top photo does indeed have writing on the back: ‘Alma & Pavia’, followed by a date around the middle of the term, twenty-five years ago. The other picture, curled slightly from being peeled back from the top one…

Mayumi gasps. It is her mother, looking considerably younger, with a tall, dark man. And in her mother’s arms are two small bundles.

Two babies, with blankets around them.

Mayumi can see the Bunny ears. And she can see the hair, not nearly as full as it would be later, but curly, and clearly reddish on one babe’s head, and black on the other’s. It is her older siblings, perhaps just appeared, and the tall man looks upon them dotingly, a little dazed, while her mother looks both happy and frightened.

“What’s that?” Pari asks, leaning to look. “Ooo, who’s the hottie?”

“I think…he’s my father,” Mayumi says, wonderingly.

“I thought you said you met him before!”

Mayumi shakes her head. “It was in a dream and…he didn’t look like this.” She doesn’t want to explain that her father is a Void Rider, and often appears in the form of a black stallion full of stars. “Look at how young Mother seems. This is only a few months before the other picture. She looks ten years older.”

“And a lot sadder,” Pari points out. “Those two the redhead and the dark chick?”

“Rosemary and Cherry. I’ve never seen a picture from this time. Of any of us as babies.”

“Oh, hey, stop with the waterworks!” Pari sounds embarrassed, and Mayumi reaches up with surprise to touch her wet cheek. She hadn’t realized she was crying.

“Sorry, I…” She can hear Cherry’s voice scolding her: Why’re you always apologizin’, May? Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a few tears, baby. At the thought, she almost sobs.

“Oh man, it’s gettin’ worse…”

“I just…I miss them so much!” She shuts her eyes tight, as if that could end the weeping.

“Great…” Pari sounds annoyed. “What’re you gonna do? Cry yourself to sleep every night? Give up and go home?”

“No!” Mayumi opens her eyes, defiant at the annoyance. “I’m not giving up! I just miss them, is all!”

“Yeah, well… Quit with the tears, will you?”

“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Mayumi asks, sniffling and wishing they had some tissues.

“Pfft!” Pari seems to try to make a show of nonchalance. “Got a little sister, remember? Boy, that girl will cry up a lake if a puppy looks at her the wrong way. You…you gonna be all right? Maybe you ought to go to bed.”

Mayumi nods, feeling comforted at the hint of concern in Pari’s voice. “It’s funny. All my life I slept alone, except sometimes with my father, like when I was sick, until I woke to this world, and suddenly I was sleeping with the others almost every night. Big pile of Bunnies… Or just one or two of them, or Mother, or Sky. Now, back to just me. I guess I’ll get used to it soon.”

Pari looks awkward. “I can uh… I can stay with you if you want. Nothing I’m not used to either. And it’s a really big bed.”

Mayumi looks at her in surprise, speechless for a moment at the kindness, mouth open, and then she smiles. “That would be so kind.” She sniffles again.

Pari narrows her eyes. “But you better keep your hands to yourself, Missy! Not your mom’s dog-girl, here.”

With soft laughter, Mayumi says, “I think I can manage to resist.”

Interchapter Ch6-7 2: Math Comes for Dion

The rushing of water gushing from the shower head is a welcome sign of peace in the chaos of the last two days. Two? More… Life has been misery since the beginning of the new year, flooded with pain and nightmares. Some brought on by his own stupidity and insecurities, some by the hands of sadists and maniacs with plans to help unleash Hell on the Insula and destroy all that he loves. Some by the secrets kept by his own family, of blood and of heart, given to him by simple genetics and brought to him by the machinations of Fate and the gods know how many other minds combined, accepted by him for a hundred reasons. Secrets… A life butchered by secrets, stumped and blinded by the knowledge kept from him, all for the sake of what? Of pain? Of safety? Of the unremitting anguish that has driven him to numbness and apathy toward others? Of a purposeless existence.

And now some of the secrets are revealed, laid bare before him, a sphere blossomed. A good friend’s mask dropped to reveal the hideous face of the ultimate enemy perched on the neck of someone who loves him, who has sacrificed for him. So many questions brought forth… He still doesn’t know what to think about it all.

For now, there is peace. After the return home, not twenty hours ago. After the tearful, quiet reception from the Bunnies and station personnel, their faces gaunt at seeing Dion’s, Alma’s and Somrak’s weakened condition, the faint physical marks left on their bodies that even Lyria’s healing could not quite make disappear. They had had a day to mourn Saira’s loss already but the relief seeing the gods returned had brought forth fresh tears, the reassuring, if weak, embrace of their mother unleashing the pain and dread the Bunnies had been keeping at bay for a whole night. They had hugged Dion and Somrak as well, just as strongly, just as lovingly, quiet and subdued by Lyria’s constant care and vigilance. Until finally the gods’ wounds and exhaustion had caught up to them and Lyria had gently pulled the Bunnies away and ordered Somrak, Dion and her daughter all to bed.

Rest, however, had not come easy. Well, it had, at first, their recovering bodies demanding sleep and horizontality for the first few hours. But the pain was a constant and the nightmares had followed. Nua’s horrible grin distorting Alma’s beautiful face, the evil of that hateful soul killing the flowing, ever-shifting light and color of his beloved’s eyes. The slashing of the whip against his skin and the dreadful cackle in a voice made to whisper loving words sweetly in his ear.

Dion had awakened, startled, in his own bed, in his own room, fiercely holding the pale, white-haired body of someone he took, to his terror, a little over a minute to safely identify as his love. His great love, whose very essence he had tasted and merged with, tainted by the suspicion he cannot quite shake that Nua might still be hiding in there somewhere. He knows, he knows Fencer has removed Nua. He has received Melinor’s, Imset’s and Luminus’ confirmations, her brothers who have known her for over a century. But that part of his mind that is scared and wounded is holding up the suspicion like a shield. He had frozen, watching Alma whimper and struggle in her sleep, her brow furrowed in suffering, wondering for a moment in dissociative contemplation if he should wake and reassure her or smother what could still be Nua in her sleep. The very triggering of the thought of hurting his beloved had snapped him out of it, so unimaginably painful it was. So shameful and monstrous it was. In the end, he had swallowed his fears and kissed her cheek and gently woken her, whispering reassuring words in her ear. Somehow it was easier when she was awake, the expression on her face, the colors in her eyes so very hers. The way she looked at him, embraced him, silent, frightened and relieved. He had held her, kissed her, the initial instinct of pulling away from Nua drowned in the familiar movements of Alma’s lips, in the taste of her mana, her essence. They lay together, not doing anything much or saying anything important. Just looking at each other and holding each other, breathing in their respective scents, listening to each other’s breathing. Sharing silence.

And eventually she had settled down and fallen back to sleep, peaceful sleep this time. And he had stayed awake, watching her, incapable of falling asleep himself but forcing his eyes to gaze at her face and recognize all the little traces, his mind to remember all the other times he had watched her slumber. Registering every little telltale sign, every expression, every twitching of her eyelids and lips, the ever-so-subtle wiggling of her nose that is just too adorable for words.

Until the pain in his soul had found a reflection in his body again and lying down had become too uncomfortable. So he had opted for a hot shower to relax his muscles and, hopefully, his mind. Just a little bit of normality to sooth his thoughts, shaken by trauma. And it worked.

Dion exits the shower feeling better about himself, cleaner. Somehow taking a simple shower makes him feel more truly clean than Nevieve’s cleansing spell, the touch of the water more solid than magic against his skin. He stands still to allow the sylphs to rub and wrap around him, to dry his body.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, he feels the unmistakable tingle of a spell, reality shifting around him, transporting him to the familiar sight of his uncle’s private study, in the presence of the Archon himself. Not the one he uses to meet with plaintiffs and professional acquaintances, the grand, bright marble platform on which Math had first met Alma and the Bunnies right after their escape from the Fourth Ring, but the smaller, darker, more intimate one, lined with bookshelves and featuring that dark wood desk against which Dion once kissed Alma and she kissed him back, passionately, just the second of hundreds, thousands of kisses but engraved into his mind for the secrets he shared with her then. And they hadn’t even been lovers.

“I thought we should have a little talk,” Math says, sitting at that very same dark wood desk, looking grim and solemn and maybe – Dion is not quite sure – worried. “How are you, my boy? You’ve been through quite a rough patch, from what I gather.”

Dion looks down to find himself dry and fully dressed, the little detail and indication that Math had been watching, spying on him to know when best to bring him here. Just like Math, to spy on people and break their intimacy, all under the simple excuse that it is all for their own good.

He nods slowly, annoyed already and uncertain of what to expect of this unexpected conversation. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But I am…recovering.” He looks around him, surprised at how much he doesn’t want to be here, in this safe, so very safe, First Ring estate. “I cannot stay long.”

Math rises from behind his desk and comes around, his face now a full mask of concern. “Gwydion…you can stay as long as you wish. Certainly you would be safer and more comfortable here.” The Archon pauses, looking Dion up and down as if to look for any physical wounds. “You nearly died.”

“I know this. I was there,” Dion replies, speaking slowly out of a certain need to breathe deeply between sentences and keep from shouting a demand to be sent back to where he should be resting and healing. Home. “I was not the only one. And because of it, if they find me missing, they will panic and think me abducted. They don’t need the additional trauma.”

Math waves the prospect of causing generalized panic among Dion’s loved ones off as if it were a mere nuisance. “Fine…I’ll have you back in moments.” He leans back against his desk, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m keeping an eye on the place. No one has noticed your absence yet. But Gwydion…it is time to come home.”

Ah…there it is. Math’s move.

No! Home is mate.

I know, he thinks to himself, still finding it odd, this novelty of having his own essence speak to him, its impulses and quick anger permeating his thoughts. Home is family.

We don’t go.

I won’t go.

Out loud, Dion asks, his eyes narrow with warning, “Is that an order, Uncle?”

Math’s eyes narrow as well, lips pursing for a second before he nods. “It could be. It easily could be.” He lowers his head, rubs his eyes. “You have no idea how much danger you are in. You have been engaging in all sorts of wild escapades, but now your sphere has awakened. Hell very well may be aware that there is a Hammer of Devils alive and walking the Insula. You will be targeted.”

“Like my parents were before me,” Dion growls, fists clench on either side of his hips. “I remembered that day, Uncle. In the garden. My mother’s screams of panic as she was dragged away. It took demon ichor for me to remember.”

We were weak. We were hurt.

Math shakes his head, looking at the ceiling, at the bookshelves, at everything but Dion. “Such memories…bring nothing but pain. And you have had enough of that.” He looks at his nephew. “This can be spun to make you out to be a hero, Gwydion. Sure, you were led astray by a rogue Guardia, but you managed to save the day. Promotion to Inspector, a nice quiet station in a First Ring ward… You can get your life back on track.”

No! We don’t go.

The sudden flash of anguish at the thought of leaving everyone behind in Three Rats is almost breathtaking. Dion stands befuddled as if Math’s words were a slap to his face. “What? What do you mean by that? You think I saved the day? That someone led me in there as if I were a lamb for slaughter?”

We are not stupid!

“It plays better that way,” Math says, unphased. “That fellow, Somrak, apparently he was going through some sort of mental collapse. Disobeying orders, slaughtering an entire gang of giants on his own and disrupting an official action…” He shakes his head as if it were all a chain of unfortunate events.

“He was trying to prevent the Sikari from being sent to murder Sky along with his captors!” Dion shouts. “We all were!” He points an accusing finger at Math. “All because of the laws the Council created to contain Sky!”

“Wise laws,” Math shoots back, eyes steely, voice low but firm. He straightens, stands fully. “You know, I find myself surprised. You, Nephew, are a Hammer of Devils. The Hammer of Devils, to be precise. And here you are speaking of a devil as someone to rescue.”

Dion cannot even tell what is worse: the words or the fake, casual tone of mild concern and confusion in his uncle’s voice.

“And whose fault is it that I am only now discovering what I really am? Who refused to ever let me know as much as who my parents were?” Dion hisses, stomping his way closer to Math. “Who sent me down to Three Rats to serve under the command of said devil through maddened Archons and gang wars until we became friends?”

Math glowers at Dion, his power, massive and powerful and just…ancient, leaking through every pore on his skin, spreading around him until he seems to grow taller, bulkier, more intimidating than the fit old man he normally portrays himself as without changing at all. His beard and hair bristle with mana, his expression locked in severe scowl. “I did what I did to protect you. But now that your sphere is active, you need to come home. Where I can keep a closer eye on you.”

“And do what?! Put a collar around my neck and walk me by the leash where I will never see another demon again?” Dion can barely control his fury, the impulses of his sphere reacting against the perceived attack of Math’s demonstration of power, feeding his anger until his aura flares and glows its righteous golden, his eyes glowing, showing their black, inky marks. His voice changes to a roar. “Like a tame attack dog. And what will you show me of my sphere? What will you teach me about being a Hammer of Devils? Do you think that bringing me to the First Ring will make things better?! That I will magically heal and live a happy inconsequential life without Alma or Sky or the Bunnies, here, under your wing?!”

“Calm yourself!” Math thunders, the lights dimming except around his head and face.

The thought of leaving his friends and lover, his family, behind puts more of a dent on Dion’s fury than Math’s shout. The prospect of not having them with him makes him sick to his stomach. He could never heal without them. He misses them already.

We want to leave! Let’s go!

We will… We will.

But he cannot will himself to turn away from his uncle. Not yet. Math softens slightly, and the lights return to normal. “My boy, I merely wish to take you out of what now seems to have become a nexus point for Fate. If I had known the Oracle had taken up residence there, I’d never have sent you. And you don’t have to leave them behind, you know. I can easily arrange a transfer for Sergeant Alma and her brood.”

“A transfer?” Dion asks, slightly subdued. “You mean you would transfer Alma and Sky and the Bunnies to some rich neighborhood where we can all hide away?”

Perhaps knowing the strength of Dion’s anger is broken, Math goes to the sideboard and pours a glass of ambrosia. “I wasn’t thinking of a neighborhood. There’s an estate. Lots of woodland and fields. Gardens. Deer. Guest house. I suppose you could put Tuma-Sukai in there, though how I’d explain to the Council…” He glances at Dion. “Would you like a glass?”

Dion breathes deeply and shakes his head. His voice is calmer but strained when he says, “No, thank you. I… We all have our responsibilities. Alma is limited to the Fourth Ring with her children. And locking the Bunnies in an estate would be cruel to say the least.” His mind seems to spin, unable to reach all the ramifications of this offer. “I am not even going to ask how I’d climb to Inspector in this fantasy of yours.”

“Oh, you know…portals.” Math replies as if the words made any sense. Cryptic as usual. Just more of the same. He takes a sip of his drink. “Are you sure the Bunnies wouldn’t like it? I thought for sure they’d enjoy the estate. Nature and all… Well it’s too bad, seeing as it’s yours by right of inheritance.”

Dion looks at Math, eyes wide open, body frozen in shock. “My… parents’ estate?” He is almost afraid of the answer to that question. That such a place may be real, on the Insula and not just in his dreams… “It exists? All this time, you have held onto it and never let me know?!” Anger starts rising again in him, making him pace around the room just so he won’t take the easier route and punch the daylights out of Math. “I have been an adult for decades! I had every right to know it was there! Why do you keep doing this to me?! Do you truly hate me this much? Am I that much of a burden in your life?!”

Math sighs, standing still, twirling his glass in his hand. “I told you – I’ve been trying to keep you safe! It is all of a piece. And while sometimes your actions have been burdensome, I most certainly do not consider you a burden. I want to keep you alive and in this world!” He looks at Dion, pained. “I do not hate you, Gwydion. I have never hated you. You are all I have.”

Could have fooled me. “And yet you play me for a pawn and decide my life for me ahead of time as if I were incapable of thinking for myself,” Dion says bitterly. He stops pacing, crosses his arms. “What is your plan? I accept to return to the First Ring and then what? What marvellous life have you designed for me after I run away from the Fourth Ring with my tail tucked between my legs?”

“Well that is up to you. I hadn’t really planned on the devil surviving long… And I’ve only recently come to realize that your feelings toward Alma are as serious as they appear to be.”

Of course…through constant spying, Dion can’t help but think.

Math takes another sip of his drink. “As long as the Council knows that she and the Bunnies are in one place, out of the way, I’m sure she could work in the same station, under your command. With time, perhaps the two eldest Bunnies could be permitted to open a bar near there.” He tilts his head this way and that. “That might take a few years…”

“A few years?” Dion’s voice is sorrowful, his anger once again faltering. “What are a few years to you, Uncle? They are mortal. In a few years, they will be old. And the other Bunnies? One of them is at the Guardia Academy. Will you confine her to an estate after that?”

“Ah yes,” Math says, seemingly satisfied at the way things are going. “She was allowed to attend the Academy as an experiment. Assuming she graduates, she’ll be allowed to serve under controlled conditions. Probably the same station as her mother. Not that I think there’s any danger of her leaping upon the nearest Archon and ripping his head off, but some of my comrades do seem to think that way.” His voice is amused as if it were all one big joke. “Now think of how safe they’ll be. Kept away from all the dangers of a place like Three Rats.”

He swears internally, feeling dejected at how tempting the offer sounds, at how tired he is, how full of thoughts pulling him this way and that. How much he wants to just rest, sleep, run away from everything and just…sleep. In peace. Away from the pain and the problems and the danger of it all. He finds himself wanting to say just say yes to Math.

“And what will happen?” he asks, instead. “To Three Rats?”

Math looks genuinely surprised. “To Three Rats? It’ll…go on the way it always has, I assume. Meaning badly, but please, that’s not your concern, is it? It’s not like it’s home.”

And at that, Dion freezes, the lull of Math’s apparently sensible offer shattered. “What do you mean, it’s not home? It is home for the Bunnies. And it has become a home to us. The places, the people. They are like family. We’ve all been together through hardship and through better times. The Popula are not mere mortals, they are friends.”

Math looks at Dion pityingly, an Archon watching a young god care for mere mortals and finding it endearingly pointless. “Gwydion…mortals come and go. It’s what they are. If you become so attached to individuals, you risk greater pain than you experienced in your torture. As a whole, being concerned with them is a very good thing, but individuals…” He shakes his head. “You will see. Only immortals can stand by you through the centuries.”

“You know nothing of what pain I went through in my torture,” Dion growls, clenching his fists. “Of fear and hopelessness. And holding the one you love in your arms and…” his voice breaks as the memory of holding Alma in his arms, motionless and cold creeps into his mind. He pauses, taking a deep, ragged breath to regain composure. “And she won’t wake up. We learned very well how mortal we can be too. Besides, the Bunnies are mortal. Are you telling me that Alma is wrong in loving her children the way she does?”

Math takes a deep breath himself. “I am sorry. I do know nothing of your torture. But I do know the pain of loss. And I do not think Alma can do otherwise than love her dear creations. But I do not want to imagine what it will be like for her when they are old and perishing one by one. She will certainly need your strength then. Still, better that than a premature death in a dangerous ward. Even assuming there’s not another attack by demons, one of them could be knifed by some street urchin at any time.”

Dion bites his lip, bitter at how he cannot really deny that logic. And maybe seeing how conflicted he is, Math presses the point. “Why don’t we give it a little trial? A week at the estate? With Alma and the Bunnies. You’ll see how much they love it.”

“I…” Dion hesitates, looking torn, but then nods in defeat. “I will propose it to Alma.”

Math beams with a smile as if he has just conquered a great victory. “Good!” He pauses, his eyes distant for a moment. “Oh, I had best get you back. Alma is stirring. I’m afraid those clothes will have to stay here. Probably a good thing you didn’t have any ambrosia…”

And even before Dion can react to the words, he finds himself back in his own bathroom, naked, the sylphs just whisking away, surprised as he is at his sudden materialization. He doesn’t bother dressing, rushing to return to the bedroom proper, to the bed where Alma is stirring, batting her eyes open and stretching lazily.

Thankful that Math didn’t make him damp again, Dion slips into bed and lies next to her, slipping an arm under her neck, pulling her close, into a kiss, even before she awakes fully, his need of her bypassing the instinctive hesitations and visions of his recent trauma. She takes a second to respond, kissing him back once realization dawns, still a little sleepily, her arm reaching automatically to drape over his side. The kiss is a reassuring delight, familiar and cool, the perfect soothing remedy for the turmoil of his thoughts. His heart quiets, his essence curls against hers in bliss. He could kiss her for hours.

“Hmm…this is a nice way to wake up,” she breathes once they break away, snuggling against him.

“It’s a nice aftermath to an unsettling conversation,” he replies, holding her close, stroking her hair. At her quizzical look, he explains, “My uncle took me away for a talk.”

That seems to wake her up immediately. Her eyes widen with worry. “Oh… What kind of talk?”

“A ‘time to come home, my boy’ talk,” he says, sighing, uncomfortable even as he imitates Math’s speech. Pausing, he looks into her eyes for a moment, gathering his words and his nerves before presenting the issue to Alma. “He’s offered to settle us on an estate. Safe and far upslope. An estate that…belongs to my parents’.” He is silent a moment to let the meaning of that settle in her mind. “He says he can arrange to have the Bunnies and you moved there. Even Sky, after he is well.”

She looks back at him, reaching to stroke his cheek, a sad empathy in her eyes. Her voice is soft when she replies, “And what would we do with our days? Would we be his puppets the same way my mother wanted me back to Father’s house to be a political bargain doll again? And wasting away in isolation until he needs us for something else?”

The gentleness, that subdued resignation of her voice somehow makes the words hit harder than if they had been shouted. They cut through the idyllic landscape of Math’s offer like a knife through butter. She is right, he knows, seeing right through the illusions and plans in a way he wishes he could sometimes. That sometimes just makes him sad.

“Most likely,” he says with a sigh, closing his eyes at her caresses to his face. “He offered a station. A promotion. Portals back and forth between the station and the estate.” He opens his eyes again. “Part of me rejects it outright. Because yes, it would tighten his grip. But on the other hand, Alma, this place has been incredibly dangerous. Even we have nearly died, or much, much worse on more than one occasion. And for the Bunnies…” He grimaces at the memory of that horrific dream, of each of the Bunnies dead and eaten by demons. “He offered a chance to try it out. A week.”

How surprising that he is actually considering it, actually wishing for a way out of Three Rats. No…not out of Three Rats. Just out of this string of nightmares and pain. Just a week-long pause can’t be so bad, can it?

She holds his gaze, her fingers running through his hair, stroking the rim of his ear. She is silent for a long while, making him wonder what is going through her mind, what words she is choosing not to say. Finally, she asks, “This is the estate you lived in as a child? You must be craving to see it.”

Is he? Yes, yes he is. What will he find there? He wants to know. “I am,” he says after a moment. “Either way, I will need to go there to look at my past and see what I can find. But this trial stay…what do you think?”

She looks away, her fingers resting, still for a moment, on his temple. “I don’t know. The station needs us and I hate to leave when there is no Dei to stay behind. And we just told Sergeant Machado we wouldn’t leave. It always seems like we can never manage to stay here long. And to be that far away from where we can keep watch over Sky… But…” she sighs, looks at him. “I see the pain in my children’s eyes. The fear. They need a time off, I think. And I hate to admit but, you and I…”

“We need time away too,” he says, breathing out with relief at her mirroring of his thoughts. “Time away from constant threats and darkness. It will only be a week, I promise, and only if Math can work out some way for Three Rats to be watched over properly in our absence.”

She touches her forehead to his. “I hate to prove my mother right. But let us not make any decisions about leaving permanently, all right? I know this ward is dangerous but, it has become home. Turning my back on it just to run away from danger…what would we think of ourselves for it?”

He nods, cupping the back of her head. “I chose to stay where I could make a difference. What difference could I possibly make in some First Ring ward where everyone is a god who’s never known deprivation, or the servant of one? But, it’s not just my decision. I can’t make it for you and for them. The thought of one of them being taken from you before their time is intolerable to me. And the people we know here…we do good in their lives, don’t we?”

She nods as well. “The ward has changed since we first arrived here. Shops opened, the market is livelier than ever. Children will soon have a school. And the deal we negotiated so that Nataniel could have his work hours be mostly spent at the clinic really paid off. The bar is nearly full every evening.” She sighs. “I never thought I would love this ward so much.”

“I was very close to saying yes,” Dion admits. “He made a very strong case. But I feel the same way about this ward. Still, I would love to have you along, and the Bunnies, when I visit the estate. We can take some much-needed time off. Sky will surely tell us to go.”

She holds him a little tighter. “Hopefully, it will help with our recovery, long as that will be. And bring a smile to my children’s faces. I hate to see them so sad and frightened.” She looks at him, a small smile on her face. “I do want to see where little Gwydion used to live. Though…it must be an emotional trip for you. I don’t want to disturb your discovery of things or hinder your recalling of any old memories you might have.”

He considers this, smiling at her concern as if it were a caress of its own. “Perhaps there will be times when I need to be in solitude, rooms I will want to enter alone. And we will have to explore the house carefully and establish safe areas. At the very least so nothing that should not be disturbed does not get…disturbed.” He smiles wryly as the haze of slumber starts veiling his thoughts. “I think I’m not making sense anymore.”

She smiles softly at him. “Well, seeing as you are dressed for bed – or should I say undressed? – I think we can delay our shifts a little and take some much needed rest. Sleep on the issue, so to speak. And maybe you’ll start making sense again after that.”

He smiles, his eyelids heavy at the hypnotic peace of this joint haven of theirs. “Maybe he’ll do something really crazy and put Somrak in charge of the ward.” He chuckles as he drifts into sleep.

She chuckles softly as well, holding him close. “Now that would be something worth seeing.”

Interchapter 6/7 1: Telling Machado

“Come in!”

Sergeant Edison Machado is a big man with a big voice that with little effort fills a room and knocks paint off the walls, but even he is surprised by how loudly he shouts at the knock on his office door. He’s been expecting it. He’d heard they had returned this morning, and after spending some time with family, his fellow sergeants have come to visit him.

He remains seated, elbows on his desk, as the door handle turns. Merri told him they’d had a hard time, but come on, they’re Dei, they’re able to bounce back from anything. Not mortals, though. Not Saira, the troubled and troublesome kid who grew up to be an assassin, almost took Aliyah with her into gang life, would have if it hadn’t been for him steering her into a career as Guardia Popula. He’d tried to keep Saira out of it too, but he’d attended the simple little funeral to her, as Lyria, the Bunnies’ grandmother, used her magic to inter Saira’s corpse beneath the struggling mango tree out back, and then bring its leaves into bright green health. The thing hasn’t ever brought forth fruit before, but maybe this year…

The door opens and the two gods look in, Dion and Alma. He is ready to blast them with fury. How could they not take him along on their mission? Or even tell him? Hadn’t he been there for them when the Dukaine gangs tried to kill Alma’s kids? And a flock of demons had attacked while they were away. If the Bunnies’ grandmother hadn’t happened to visit…

But one look at their faces and his anger dries up to dust and blows away. Alma asks, “I wonder if we can have a word with you for a moment?” Her face is thinner, somehow even paler than usual, the skin under her pearlescent blue eyes dark, showing up almost like bruises. She is obviously making an effort to remain her usual calm and courteous self. And Dion looks just as worn out, as if someone has kept him awake for a week straight. Sorrow, too, etches their faces in ways he could hardly imagine seeing on an immortal, if he hadn’t already seen it before, at the deaths of Corporal Stathos and his family weeks ago. But this is deeper. Something has afflicted them to their core.

Machado rises as he takes all this in, in his haste almost knocking over the crossbow he has left propped against his desk, ready to use if the station is attacked again. It’s the one the Inspector gave him so recently for New Year, and he has a bolt slotted in, ready to fire after only drawing the bowstring back. “Come in.” His voice is soft with concern. “Sit, will you? You want something? Coffee?”

“That would be lovely, thank you.” Alma walks in, moving with conscious care as if she has recently lost some degree of control over her own limbs, and is not entirely sure that control has returned. “Can I help with anything?”

“No, no, you just sit down and rest,” Machado insists, fumbling for his coffee pot and his bag of coffee, custom roasted, blended, and ground extra-fine for him by the best torrador in Three Rats, a man whose sister was once very sweet on him.

Gwydion makes certain the door is completely shut, and locks it. “I am going to cast a simple silence spell on the walls, if you don’t mind,” he warns. “Just to prevent the escape of unwanted rumors.” He puts his palms together and takes a deep breath. His head and hands begin to glow with golden light.

“No problem,” the mortal sergeant mutters as he carefully fills the filter of his pot with the almost-black powder. The reminder that other gods aside from ‘his’ could be listening in disturbs him. What sort of trouble continues to linger after all that has happened?

As he screws the pot together and sets it on the flame of the single gas burner, he sees that Dion has finished casting his spell and is taking a chair beside Alma’s. The god’s hand grazes the goddess’, and she takes his hand without apparent thought. They share a look, haunted, but reassuring each other: I am still here with you.

Machado has of course been aware of the attraction the two have had for each other. Most of the cops in the station had been betting on Alma and Sky becoming a couple, as despite a rocky start it was clear how much affection they bore one another, how rapidly they’d become close. But even though he’d been rather hoping that Sky and Alma would end up together, he’d known the pale Sergeant Alma would find herself in the arms of the handsome rake, Gwydion.

Edison believed Sky when he said he was really planning to stay in Three Rats, and circumstances were for some reason forcing Alma to stay, so it would have settled Machado’s mind if those two had become lovers, but it was clear that Dion would win. It was the way they fought. Alma was too comfortable with Sky too quickly, moving from a distrust to a mutual bond, a reliance on one another, the battles suddenly ceasing – but with Dion there was the fighting but also the glances, the dance of attraction and resistance. And Machado had found he couldn’t help liking the ladies’ man, someone who reminded him of himself, but he’d been worried the scoundrel would pack off and leave Alma broken-hearted. Or take her away.

But that worry was gone, especially in the past couple of weeks. Each of the three Dei had taken lead on different missions, and Edison had been along on several of them as support. With all the gang warfare, they’d needed to ignore the lines between Dei and Popula missions many times. Is it still just a Popula mission when you’re up against a gang that outnumbers all the Popula in the ward three to one? Or when they claim to have magical armor that protects them from arrows? And even when it’s clearly a Dei mission, there are often mortal supporters who need to be arrested and processed, too many for the Dei to round up and get back to the station on their own, especially when they have two or three ruffian demigods to control. Having Popula officers along means arrest and imprisonment are choices back on the table, not simply “kill or release.”

And Dion had done a fine job leading. All of them had. He couldn’t believe how smoothly they’d come to work together, with each other and with him and his Popula cops. How could they ever have managed the past months without a combined station of Dei and Popula working as one? And yet this still is far from the norm. Three Rats is an experiment in having mortals and gods in the same station, one of only a handful across the Insula.

So Machado is pleased to see the two of them taking comfort in each other. Office romance…well, at least they’re the same rank, he thinks. And they’ve been restrained so far. Surely they’ll continue to be in public. And now I’m owed fifteen…no, sixteen beers by those who bet Sky would bag her!

With effort, Alma tears her eyes away from Gwydion’s, takes a deep breath, and says, “I don’t think we need to tell you that something very serious has happened in the past few days.”

He looks up from pouring the powerful espresso into tiny cups, mismatched but clearly chosen carefully. “Yeah…I heard some of it, but so far it’s all fog and rumors. Is this the kind of thing you can fill me in all the way?”

“Yes and no,” Alma replies. “Inspector Tuma-Sukai was kidnapped from his apartment four days ago by the necromancer that killed Stathos and his family. She was working with a powerful demon summoner.”

Machado curses under his breath as he spills some of the coffee. He shakes his head and grabs a napkin. “You got her? And got the Inspector back?”

Dion nods and takes over the narrative, as if saving Alma from the exhaustion she is clearly experiencing. “We did. But the battle was nearly lost. We were captured and…” He trails off, his voice rough and haunted. “Things went very wrong. We were lucky to escape.”

Machado sighs and serves them their coffee. “You know…I would’ve come along. I mean, don’t know if I could’ve done anything but…I would’ve.” He rubs his smooth-shaved head as he says this. He was fully prepared to shout something like this at them. It had sounded far more indignant and explosive in his mind.

An expression of bitter remorse mars Alma’s beauty. “The only mortal we took with us was buried beneath a tree today. She would not take no for an answer.”

“You can see for yourself a hint of the condition we were left in,” Dion adds, holding his cup in both hands as if to warm them, though the day is already becoming hot. “And Sky…it will take time to know if he can ever recover.”

Machado pauses in rubbing his bald head at this, looking at them in shock. “You saying he might have to retire? But…he’s Dei! How can a Dei get hurt so bad to have to muster out?”

“There are weapons that can harm even gods,” Alma says, the bitterness in her voice changing to a numb echo of horror. “Weapons that reach past the body, into our souls. Deadly for mortals, torture to us.” She pauses, looking ill, her coffee still untouched. “And he was ruthlessly tortured.”

Machado’s broad shoulders sag. “Is there… What can we do?”

Alma glances at Dion and then the two Dei look at Machado, an agreed-upon moment having been reached. “That is the reason for this conversation,” Dion says. “We are not quite sure what happens next but there will certainly be some sort of punishment awaiting us in the near future, for going into the necromancer’s lair without reporting to the higher command.”

“And until then, the station has to keep running,” Alma says, looking at Machado earnestly. “We are weakened but we can certainly keep working. And we will need your help more than ever in keeping everything on its axis.”

A dozen questions jam in his throat, so that in the end none are asked. He looks from one to the other god. “These are Dei matters,” he says when he can get a word out, “so I won’t ask why you didn’t tell the command. But you know I got your back, as best as a mortal man can. You know every cop in this station does. All I ask is, you let me know if there’s some chance of a counterstrike. These necro-demon lovers – any of them left to take revenge?”

Alma closes those strange eyes and shakes her head. “I strongly suspect they went as far as killing their own thugs to summon demons and power their weapons against us.” She sighs. “The leaders are either dead or captured. We should be safe. As for Sky…he is being taken care of by people we can trust. We will find him all the help we can.”

Machado nods, sorrow subduing his thoughts. But there are practicalities to attend. “So what do I say if some upslope brass sits me down and sweats me?”

“The truth. You did not know what was going on. We never told you anything until it was too late and we were back.” Dion’s tired voice is reasonable. “As you said, these are Dei matters. If they want answers, they can come to us.”

“As for in-house commentary…” Alma opens her eyes as she speaks up again. “You are being told more than anyone other than Gwydion, Somrak, Geryon and I currently know. The Bunnies have an inkling of what happened but they don’t know just how grim things are looking for Sky. And we cannot risk them knowing or following us around to find out where he is. It would be cruel to make them live in fear of what is yet to come. The same goes for the rest of the Popula.”

Machado’s distress deepens. He doesn’t want to lie to them, especially not to his student in capoeira, Kori, but he nods in agreement. “I got it. I guess there’s no way I could visit the Inspector?”

Dion shakes his head in refusal. “For as much as he would deeply appreciate it, the orders are for strict isolation right now.” His voice is compassionate. He clearly knows how much this is affecting the mortal sergeant. “We will keep you apprised, however, of his progress.”

Machado reluctantly nods. He and Inspector Sky had fought side by side, armed with crossbows, to hold back a team of assassins to let Dion and Alma escape with the Bunnies once. When the weather changes, his leg still hurts where it took an arrow. And it hurts, now, that he can’t do anything to help Sky. “Appreciated. And…all that you told me, thank you for that too.”

Alma looks thoughtful. “Edison…” she says, before pausing to drink her coffee.

He feels an electric prickling of skin on his forearms. She has almost never used his first name. It’s a name not at all usual in this ward, and almost nobody but his mother calls him by the name she gave him. Even to his friends, he’s typically called Machado.

“There won’t be any official change in command until the higher powers have their say,” she continues, “but I think we can live well without an official leader. We all know our jobs. And perhaps we can work out some sort of daily schedule with you in charge of a shift with just a Dei on call?”

He nods. “I used to run this whole place,” he points out, matter-of-factly. “Well, the smaller station before we moved. Anyway, I think we can manage, no problem.” He hesitates before asking, “Uh, how long you think it’ll take for you to get back to a hundred percent?”

“A couple of decades, maybe? Maybe more?” Alma forces herself into a small smile at Machado’s alarmed expression. “We can manage a good eighty percent right now, I think. Certainly enough so we don’t put anyone at risk. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to belittle your leadership skills or experience.”

“Oh no, no offense taken. I just meant, I can manage. Unless, you know, demons attack again.” He stands and gathers their cups. “You want more? Though you look like all the coffee in the world ain’t gonna keep you up much longer.”

“And we still have our reports to write,” Dion sighs.

“Yes…” Alma locks eyes with Machado’s. “Thank you. For listening and understanding. And for your discretion. We are blessed to have you as a friend.”

He blinks and reflexively reaches up to rub his head at that after setting down the cups and saucers next to his tiny office sink. He feels his cheeks burn at her words. “Yeah well, same here, you know? And forget about the paperwork for now, eh? Go rest. I’ll bang on your door if we need you for an emergency.”

He goes to open the door for them as they stand.

“I guess…paperwork can stand to wait a few hours,” Dion notes. He puts a hand on Machado’s rock-solid bowling-ball of a shoulder and looks him in the eye. “Thank you.”

Machado smiles, embarrassed. He remembers clashing with these gods early on. He’d been sensitive about the way his command had suddenly been put under these immortal beings, how everything had changed. “Thank you. Without you guys…we’d be working for the Dukaines. Or dead.”

Dion returns his smile, squeezing his shoulder before exiting the office. He feels a cool touch on his upper back, and he turns to find Alma giving him a gentle embrace. Again he feels a thrill of shock. Her ethereal beauty would make any man’s heart race, but also to be held, however briefly, by a goddess of death…

Her cheek touches his forehead – it is easy for him to forget how much taller she is than he, though she is the same height as Dion – and he muses that having her there at the end to see his soul off would be the best anyone could hope for. Then she is gone, following Dion, off to rest and to recover, and Machado is left alone with thoughts of loss and change and an uncertain future.

Ch6.100 Trust

The day has been long. The night, longer. Nighttime is always long in Three Rats, where the massive peak of the Insula looms and blocks the sun for over half of the day’s twenty-four hours, but this night is different. It is not hour and moonlight that bring darkness to the ward, to the world in general. It is grief. Fear. Pain. Constant, unyielding pain, haunting the soul, biting deep beyond flesh, beyond bone. Pain that brings darkness to every thought, an overall difficulty to feed and keep a single positive thought. It steals smile and laughter, light and hope. And to three gods in particular, it rings too close, too loud. And too exhausting.

Dion, Alma and Somrak walk in heavy silence down a hallway indicated to them by Doria. Their rooms are ready, she has told them, and they will be located at the end of this corridor lined with stalagmites, some of which phosphoresce in the gloom of the grotto, lending it a greenish twilight of lichens and geckos and watery reflections from the small pools carved into the walls by condensation and time. Though tired and feeling the whole of his body crying for rest after being made to heal from its deep wounds at incredible speed by Lyria’s power, Dion supports Alma as they walk. Her legs are still not fully responsive, he has already noticed, and something else seems wrong for he has had to grab and pull her toward him twice already, to prevent her from walking into a wall and from hitting her foot against a stalagmite. He worries about what is going on. Perhaps her eyes are not functioning properly or her balance is off. Or perhaps, a terrified little part of him wonders, there are still traces of Nua inside his beloved, trying to make Alma hurt herself.

She holds onto his arm as they enter the chamber that Doria told them to expect, a relatively small room, with five doors opening into it, in addition to the hallway they have just left. In the center of the chamber, a circle of colorful pillows piled chaotically like shells cast ashore by the surf makes for a comfortable sitting area around a suspended table that is no more than a large circular brass tray suspended by four fine chains from the tip of a stalactite that hangs from the ceiling and stretches down to head height. Laid out on the table, are Alma’s sword, her curved dragon-tooth daggers, Saira’s crossbow and Dion’s own little blade, the sgian-dubh dagger given to him by Sky for Year’s End. The magic god finds himself surprised to see it there, considering that all of his other weapons and physical spell elements have disappeared in Margrave’s pocket universe. He feels some momentary relief at not having been particularly attached to any of the items he lost, though the loss of them still stings a little, if only for whose fault it was that they are gone.

The feeling of Alma’s hand squeezing his arm a little tighter than before makes him look at the goddess to see her stiffening, eyes clearly focused on the sword more than they have focused on any other object so far. Fear in her expression. Horror. He places his free hand over hers, reassuring.

“I was worried, that the binding had been partly completed,” Somrak says from a couple of steps to the right of them, his voice quiet, eyes fixed on Alma and filled with concern for her reaction. “I didn’t know what might happen if we left it behind then, but it didn’t seem like a good idea.”

Alma is silent for a moment before replying, “Thank you.” She does not look grateful at all, however, cringing away from the sword as if it might jump off the table of its own accord and attack her.

Shifting slightly to hold her hand and free his arm so it can curl around the goddess, Dion pulls her closer. She leans against him for comfort, her hand reaching to touch his chest, and the memory of Nua’s whip cutting through his flesh on the exact same spot that Alma is now touching flares a momentary stint of doubt that makes him stiffen instinctively. He bites it back, however, forcing himself to believe that Nua is gone, to relax under his lover’s touch, and to hold her as soothingly as he can. To distract his own thoughts, he turns to Somrak and asks, “Somrak…what is a Tragas?”

Silence is his only answer for a moment. Then, “Soul binders… Makers of artifacts from the souls of gods,” Somrak replies, voice grim and dry. “They were wiped out, about a century ago, and all knowledge of them expunged.”

“Then how do you know of them?” Dion insists. “Were you involved in their case?”

The fire god sighs, looking very much as if he would rather have his arms and legs broken than answer the question. Still, he answers. “You could say that. I was…a lackey of theirs. Muscle. It was a job. I was running from my family. When I learned what they were doing I turned on them, became the Guardia’s spy. Commander recruited me from that.”

Nestled in Dion’s arms, Alma looks pained as Somrak tells his story. Dion can only imagine how close the empathy the goddess might feel toward anyone subjected to such a cruel fate is. “Nua must have learned the magic in Hell. Or even before she was killed. My poor cousin…”

He strokes her side, his heart plunging for a moment at the thought of her lost and maddened, imprisoned in her own sword, forever away from him.

“Her soul can be released,” Somrak says. “But it will be permanently damaged.” His voice is flat and somber as he adds, half to himself. “Hell has good reason to spread the knowledge. Mortals armed with weapons that can kill gods. And using them to make even more such weapons and armor and whatever else. Once that snowball rolls enough, it would be unstoppable. Full-on war for supremacy.”

“What is wrong with you, Somrak?” Alma snaps suddenly, pulling away from Dion to glare at the fire god. “Haven’t we suffered enough for one day? Must you be making things grimmer with thoughts like that?” Her voice breaks, the words catching in her throat. “I was…almost…”

Somrak looks down, ashamed and subdued but still he insists on getting his point across. “You weren’t though. And we stopped it getting out into the world. You captured her. All this…it wasn’t just rescuing Sky. Remember that.” He looks up again only to find Alma turning her eyes from him, Dion unable to give him his agreement. The pain is too fresh to consider the good of the world at the moment or to find a silver lining in the veritable earthquake that was Nua. The sight of them makes the fire god exhale and shake his head before he takes the initiative of peeking into one of the rooms opening into the chamber. “Pretty nice for a cave…”

“Forgive me,” Alma’s voice is soft as she turns her head to face Somrak’s back. The fire god faces her at the sound of her words. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just… The world is too much to consider right now.” She pauses. “I think I can relieve Nasheena of her pain, at least.”

Somrak looks at her, his eyes glancing down, Dion notices, to where the magic god’s hand still rests on her side. Is that jealousy that flashes through Somrak’s face? Or just sadness? “Just be careful. She is…dangerous, now.” He looks away, toward the table, pointing at the daggers. “Sky had that one in his hand…” He looks back at them and Dion can see now, clearly, beyond the coolness of the hard-beaten agent and the cynicism of the fighter, just how disturbed and damaged Somrak truly is. “I’m sorry. I should just…I’m saying stupid things.”

“We have all been through too much,” Dion replies, empathizing with the fire god. “You don’t need to be sorry, Somrak.”

“We should take care of each other,” Alma agrees. “Things will not be easy. And you two…”

She trails off, looking from Dion to Somrak. Her eyes fill with grief, shining with a thin film of water that threatens to spill into tears. Of anyone Dion knows, she is the one most capable of seeing the damage inflicted on them, on Sky, on herself. They cannot hide it from her nor deceive her in regards to the depth of their transcendental wounds. Even more than Dion himself can have a notion of how much damage he has sustained, she can see it without even wishing to do so. And whatever she sees is clearly paining her beyond words. He wishes he could somehow reassure her but all he can do is offer her the proximity of his embrace.

“He…picked you both up so carefully,” Somrak half mumbles. “And at the portal, when we couldn’t open it, he put you down like a mother laying down sleeping children. And he turned to fight…”

“Fight what?” Dion asks.

But Somrak offers only a single word by way of answer: “Hell.”

For a moment, Dion thinks about pushing for more details. He can barely remember all that happened after he was freed from the mana-nullifying shackles and a lot more seems to have happened after he lost conscience. But something in the way Somrak shudders almost imperceptibly, diverting his eyes and taking a shaking, half-choked breath, makes him change his mind.

“I brought you there.” Somrak’s voice is nearly imperceptible. “All I could think was how it was all… How you were helpless and I was the one who brought you.”

The stiffening of Alma’s body against Dion’s makes him glance toward the goddess to see her tilting her head up, eyes shut tightly for a moment before opening again and blinking rapidly against tears. “We walked in by our own feet,” she says quietly before looking back at Somrak. “But please…no more of this tonight.”

The pleading tone of her voice seems to finally convince the fire god to quit the grim what ifs and let the issue fall for the moment. “Of course. I’ll just go to bed.”

He turns to walk into his room. With a quick glance at Dion that could very well contend with the most eloquent of speeches, Alma pulls away from him to move closer to Somrak. Dion offers no resistance. He himself is feeling a sharp note of sorrow and empathy for the fire god, on whose shoulders hangs the weight of the decision of walking into Margrave’s lair without help from the higher powers and the burden of guilt for the pain, the trauma and the loss that has befallen them all. Somrak is surprised to find Alma by his side, his face freezing, wide-eyed, at the reaching of her arms to wrap around him. But only for a moment. He holds her in return, tight and silent but for a ragged inhalation catching in his throat.

And with a look at Dion through watery eyes, the fire god reaches out, grabbing him and pulling him closer with a muttered joke of, “Yeah, you’re not getting away without a hug too, Mister Demon Blaster.”

Dion has no strength to chuckle, no reason to smile, but he knows Somrak expects nothing of the sort. Humor is merely a subterfuge to avoid the falling apart that will inevitably have to happen sooner or later. The magic god puts his arms around both Somrak and Alma, warmly, sharing in the short moment of solace.

Until eventually, it ends.

“Rest, Somrak,” Alma says, breaking away from the embrace. “May there be no dreams tonight.”

“I suspect there won’t be,” Somrak replies, likewise letting them go. “You two rest as well. Start recovering.”

And with that, Somrak disappears into his chosen room, the door closing behind him. Dion and Alma find themselves alone with each other and with the weapons laid out on the table like a macabre memorial to a horrible day. The sword, in particular, seems to capture Alma’s attention, and she stares at it with distant, fearful eyes.

Dion hesitates for a moment, not knowing what to say, then reaches to touch her hair, running his fingers through the silver-white locks. “It’s over now. It’s still just a sword.”

“It’s just hovering there all by itself,” Alma half mumbles.

Dion raises an eyebrow at the words. “It is lying on a table, surrounded by your daggers, mine, and Saira’s crossbow. Do you not see those?”

She shakes her head, her voice a whimper. “But I can see it. And I don’t know what it means.”

Dion holds her closely, moving to block her view of the sword. “Shhh… Maybe it’s just an after effect. Maybe it will go away. Maybe your eyes just need a rest.”

She nods against his shoulder. “I am stuck soul-scrying. I miss the old days, when I could just see normally and scrying took effort. Things were much less confusing.”

“I can’t say I don’t miss those beautiful blue eyes you had,” Dion concedes. “But maybe this also means your spheres weren’t damaged.” He kisses her ear, speaking softly. “Do you want me to put the weapons in some other room for now?”

Alma looks at him, and nods. “I just… I can’t stand to see them.”

“I understand. I’m not really enjoying looking at them. Give me a minute.” He releases her and walks toward the table. With a little bit of balancing and awkward gymnastics, he is able to pick up all of the weapons and carry them into the room just beside Somrak’s. It takes him less than a minute to lay them, without much ceremony, on the bed and, with a hesitant, worrying look at Alma’s sword, return to the chamber where the goddess awaits him.

“There, all–”

The words die in his throat. For just as he steps into the chamber, two figures appear out of thin air and surround Alma, shielding her from his sight. One dark as the shadows of a moonless night, the other glowing with a soft, strangely distant light, both cloaked and hooded, their faces and bodies hidden from Dion’s sight, they seem to surprise Alma as much as they do Dion, for he hears her gasp just before she disappears between them.

Though there is nothing Hellish about these newcomers, Dion’s aura flares immediately, his sphere screaming for bloody murder against anyone who might dare attack them at their weakest, his mind curling around spells while his muscles open usually collapsed blood vessels to allow for stronger, faster movement. The air becomes instantly charged with the light and scents of his divine power, tasting of salt and iron…and Hell.

The dark hooded figure pulls away from Alma immediately to look at Dion from the depths of its shadowy cloak. Dion cannot see its eyes nor its hands or feet. Just shadow, darkening now and yet glimmering against the natural twilight of the chamber. Its aura flares in a restrained warning that is nonetheless indicative of older and greater power than Dion’s as the cloak opens to reveal an incorporeal hand, little more than the cut-out of a hand appearing in stark contrast against the world around it.

And from behind it, Alma’s reassuring voice rings with an edge of worry. “Gwydion, no. It’s all right. They are my brothers.”

At her words, the dark figure removes its hood to reveal a face that is just as immaterial as its hand. It seems to be completely made of shadows, some lighter, some darker, some narrow and stark, defining the lines of cheekbones and lips, some soft where what should be hair is nothing but a blurry, fading collection of greyish motes. Still, somehow the whole ensemble manages to convey beauty and friendliness, much like the voice attached to it. “Sorry to startle you. I am Imset and that is Luminus.” He points at the glowing hooded figure hovering behind Alma. “We’re Almy’s biggest brothers. You have quite an aura there.”

Understanding takes a moment to settle in. Alma’s brothers. Friendly brothers. Not a threat.

Not a threat…

Slowly, with much effort, Dion brings his aura under control, the golden light fading from his eyes, the sense of impending attack fading away. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, shuddering as he releases the last of his energy and says, “My apologies. We are all a little unsettled.”

As if alerted by Dion’s previous display of power, Somrak opens his bedroom door to look outside, standing at the threshold and looking from the two brothers to Alma to Dion, silently, expectantly. His relaxed frame could very well mean anything from readiness to fight to a simple inquiry for an explanation – and perhaps a hint of disappointment at not having walked straight into a fight.

Possibly trying to prevent any further misunderstandings, Alma speaks up, looking toward her brothers. “Immy, Lum, these are Gwydion, my partner, and Somrak, both of the Guarda Dei.” She looks reassuringly at both Somrak and Dion. “My brothers, Imset and Luminus. The darkness and light at the end of life. Eldest of my father’s sons.”

The magic god cannot help but feel a soft flare of warmth at the way she so easily introduces him as her partner after two months of near-secret romance. For a moment, a possessive instinct makes him want to throw his arms around her and hold her closely in a show of property. But the rational side of him wins over, among other things reasoning that such a move would not sit well with his beloved’s older brothers, and instead finds some comfort in falling into the conventional expectations of politesse. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.”

In reply, the god now identified as Luminus removes his hood to reveal a face in every way similar to Imset’s, his brother, with the simple difference that where the latter is made of dozens of shades of darkness and shadow, the former seems to be made entirely of different tones of light, sometimes vapoury, sometimes almost solid. The facial features are an almost exact copy between the twins, however, and Luminus’ kindness shows through as he nods wordlessly at both Dion and Somrak, who return the greeting in kind.

“Mother told me you were watching over the Bunnies,” Alma says, speaking to Imset. “Has she dismissed you?”

“Yes. No dangers loom that we can sense,” her brother replies. “The poor kids were on edge at the demon attack but they’re bright. They bounce back quickly. Of course, the news had them all distraught but they seem to have calmed down now. Lyria is taking care of them.” Suddenly, impulsively, he embraces Alma again. Taller than his sister, and therefore than both Dion and Somrak, he seems to wrap her in his shadows as he leans to gently hold her. “And we just had to come check on you. Mel told us the gist of things. Oh sister… You look like your soul has been put through the grinder and pulled out the other side by a rabid dog.”

“That’s very much how it feels,” Alma replies, lost somewhere within Imset’s cloak.

Pulling away from her just enough to straighten and turn slightly, Imset looks at Somrak and then at Dion. “And not just yours either.”

The dawning realization that these gods, just like Alma, can see straight through the body and into the soul has Dion feeling uncomfortable. It is a silly thing that he should not have assumed before that any of the Death clan can gaze easily into his innermost core without so much as asking or needing permission, but still the mention of it makes the intrusion impossible to ignore. If he were completely naked, he would not feel any more ill-at-ease than he does now at being reminded that eyes other than Alma’s are gazing at the most intimate part of him.

And perhaps Somrak shares in the same discomfort, because he breaks his silence to say only, “Nice to meet you both. I’ll let you catch up with family.”

Imset looks dismayed for a moment at the sight of Somrak turning and disappearing back into his room. “Oh, I hope I didn’t offend him somehow.”

“He has just been through a great deal,” Alma replies. “I’m sure it was nothing you said.”

Imset nods, still looking at Somrak’s bedroom door. “I hope not. Your children had some very good things to say about him.” He turns to look at Dion. “And about you as well. They were worried about you. And they send their love.”

“We were worried about them too,” Dion replies. “It’s good to know they had friendly faces with them in a time of danger.”

“Yes. Thank you, Immy,” Alma adds, looking at both her brothers. “Lum.”

Imset strokes Alma’s head, the affection binding them clear in the gesture. His voice is soft and pleading when he says, “But Almy, this is no place for you. Not in that condition. Let us take you to our place. Not Father’s home, I know you wouldn’t want to go there. Our own. In the First Ring. Just to rest awhile.”

As if to reinforce Imset’s invitation, Luminus touches Alma’s shoulder, making the goddess look back at him. He hasn’t spoken a single word yet, Dion realizes, nor does Alma seem to find this strange. The light-spawn god seems to communicate solely by visual cues, exuding a quiet, serene tolerance while Imset, chatty and more impulsive, takes the reigns of conversation. An interesting dynamic for a set of twins.

Alma looks at both of them sadly and shakes her head before gently releasing herself from their touch and taking the few steps separating her from Dion. Reaching to take his hand, which the god offers her immediately, she leans against his shoulder. “No, Immy. I appreciate the offer but…I’m where I need to be.”

Squeezing her hand, Dion adds, “Thank you for that message from the Bunnies. It is deeply appreciated. But…” He looks at her, almost certainly of what she will say.

“We just need a few hours of nothing much happening to breathe deeply and prepare for what comes next,” she tells her brothers. “We have been away from our friends and family for long enough.”

Imset looks at the two of them, his expression wavering with uncertainty until Luminus’ hand touches his shoulder, making the darker twin turn his head to exchange a meaningful look with his brother. A whole conversation seems to flash, unspoken, between the two before Imset turns to face Alma again. “Well… I understand. Of course, it was just for a breath of fresh air. You are our little sister; of course we are going to worry. No matter how big and strong you get.”

And with that, Imset hovers closer to his sister, to place a shadowy hand on Alma’s cheek. Near him for the first time, Dion can now feel the coolness that Imset emanates, a shared feature of the death gods he knows. “If you need anything, just call. Don’t let Mel have all the fun,” the shadow god says before pressing an immaterial cheek against his sister’s. Dion has to strain to make out the words Imset whispers in Alma’s ear. “They are amazing. We’ll definitely come by for a visit one of these days and check on all of you.”

“You’ll be welcome anytime you decide to do so,” Alma replies, her lower lip trembling slightly.

With a kiss to her cheek and a whisper of “My brave little sister…” Imset pulls away and looks at Dion. “If anything happens that you can’t or don’t know how to deal with, call us. We’ll come. And…take care of her, please.”

Dion nods his assent, his reply a solemn oath. “I will.” Releasing Alma’s hand to drape his arm around her back, he adds. “Thank you. I hope we can get to know one another better, when things are…”

He trails off, words evading him. All he can do is gesture vaguely, helplessly with his free hand, the pain in his soul claiming too much of his attention, too much of his focus to allow for extensive conversation. He grimaces at a sudden flare of undeniable agony, hoping Imset will not interpret it as offensive.

The god smiles kindly at him, however. “You mean, not so strange?” He shrugs and puts a friendly hand on Dion’s shoulder. “I do hope I get to know the infamous Gwydion a bit better next time.”

The mention of his so-called fame makes Dion grimace. “I hope my fame is all you have against me.”

For a moment, Imset seems confused and Dion fears the worst. But soon, Imset is grinning and turning to Alma. “Oh, I don’t know. Do I have anything against him?”

The goddess manages a smile that is clearly strained, even though the look of affection she bestows on Dion is sincere and warm. She puts both of her arms around him, saying, “No… You love him.”

The words are soft, tender. Dion can’t help but hold her closer and reach to cup her cheek, bringing her head closer so he can kiss her temple before resting his head against hers. It is still a strange sensation to be so openly affectionate in the presence of others but the truth is that the little display seems to leave Imset immensely pleased. “Yes, I thought so,” the death god says, looking at Dion with approval. “Anyway, welcome to the family if no one else has had the chance to say it.”

Dion nods a thank you at him, letting Alma pull away for a moment to accept a kiss to the forehead from Luminus. The light god, whose presence is just as cool in spite of his gentle glow, touches Dion’s arm and smiles at him just as kindly as Imset did, in a way that seems to say, “It will be all right.”

Dion touches Luminus’ arm in return, half surprised to feel solidity against his fingertips. Although at first he was unsure about these two new acquaintances – indeed, he was on the verge of attempting to obliterate them when they took him by surprise – now he does long to make his words truth, and get to know them well. Unlike Melinor, for whom Dion is beginning to develop a sort of quiet admiration but whose blunt and grim ways are unwelcoming of closer contact, Luminus and Imset are sincere and kind in their love for their sister as well as their approach to people. If they are truly the embodiment of the sensations found at the end of life, then they are also the proof of that most idiosyncratic of beliefs of mortals: that death can be kind.

Even though it might not have the best timing. With great effort, he summons a smile for them both, straining to ignore the spiritual pain that slashes through him, echoes of the whipping he took mere hours ago. Thankfully, the twins do not force him to keep it on for long, vanishing instead with a final wave of their hands.

Finally alone…

Alma turns to look at him apologetically. “I’m sorry… They are very friendly but… they never really mastered the art of announcing themselves first.”

“I’m glad to have met them,” Dion replies, shaking his head. “I’m sorry for my initial reaction. For a moment I thought that things were not really over.”

“I know,” Alma breathes, reaching to take his hand. “Let us get to bed. Before the rest of the world decides to drop by for a visit.”

The suggestion is very much music to Dion’s ears. He cannot think of anything he wants more than to lie down and forget the world exists until the morning forces him awake. He would gratefully sleep for a month if he were allowed the luxury. Holding Alma’s hand, he guides her into one of the vacant rooms, making sure she does not stub her toes, barefoot as they both are, or her arms anywhere on their way to the bed. She sits but does not lie down, however, instead looking at him with worry in her eyes.

“Listen, I…” she starts but trails off. Looking down, she takes a deep breath before saying, “I’ll leave you alone if you need time. After what you’ve been through, I would understand.”

His eyes widen in shock at the offer. “No! No, I don’t want to be alone,” he replies, sitting beside her on the bed. “Maybe, with you beside me, I can sleep. I know that if you weren’t, I… I almost…” He breaks off and puts his arms around her, holding her tightly, not willing to put what almost happened, how very close he came to losing her, into words. “I need you to stay. I need you to stay and just be yourself. Help me forget that horrible smile on your lips.”

And yet the flash of fear of hearing Nua’s satiric voice reply to his plea makes his body freeze, the memory of her smile appearing before his eyes as if summoned by his words. It takes him the whole of his self-control not to pull away.

“I saw it…” Alma’s voice is barely above a breath as she holds him back just as tightly. “Not all of it. I saw her hurting you. And I was so…helpless.” She hides her face against his bare shoulder and he can feel the wetness there, of her tears rolling down his skin. “I couldn’t do anything, I was trapped in that other body. She laughed when she showed me. All she had done. To you and Somrak and Sky and – She was going to steal you all from me.”

By the end of it, she is sobbing, her body shaking with the convulsions of deep, choking crying. He holds her, letting her cry, feeling his own eyes well up with tears. Knowing her in pain, the sight and sound of her suffering ringing against his senses, is nearly unbearable. And still, it too is proof that she is no impostor.

His cheek against hers, he whispers soothing words in her ear. “You are here, with me. We are together. This is no dream, no nightmare. She’ll have the fate she deserves and we will find our way out of all this grief.”

He can barely sound convincing to his own ears but Alma still nods against his shoulder. “I just want to stop crying. I’m usually not one for crying.”

“I’d rather have you crying than silent,” Dion says, stroking her hair. “Come on, lie down now.”

She pulls away a little and nods again. Dion rises to allow her to pull her legs up onto the bed, watching as she slips under the pale green linen sheets, fully dressed, and out of reflex drapes her arms protectively around herself as if she were cold. He follows, lying down, carefully moving one arm so it slips under her neck, the other wrapping over her side, both pulling her closer to him until their bodies lie full length against each other.

She resists weakly at first but finally snuggles in his embrace, looking a question at him. “How…?” Her voice is wet with the tears that still run down her face. “How can you still hold me after all that? The things this body has done to you – I feel so…so repulsive in it!”

She tries to roll away from him, her hands reaching to cover her face in shame. He just tightens his hold of her, silent for a moment. How can he still hold her after all that? But then, how can he not? When she is solace and warmth and love to him? How painful would it be to lie in bed alone tonight, dreaming of horrible things, without the touch of his beloved, her scent in his nostrils like a balm to the mind? When even as memories of his torture spark, the body that caused him pain also brings him relief?

“I knew all along that it wasn’t you,” he says eventually. “I didn’t want to believe it at first and then I thought…I hoped you were still in there…somewhere. But then she whipped me and I knew–” His voice catches, his eyes start feeling wet. “I knew you weren’t. You would never allow her to do something like that. And I thought…” He holds her tighter, tears rolling down his eyes in a steady stream as he plunges his nose in her hair. “I don’t want to say it. I never want to feel so hopeless again.”

Somehow, she manages to wriggle one hand up through the space between their bodies, to cup his cheek. “I’m here. I promise you, it’s just me now.” She pulls away a little to kiss the bridge of his nose, her head tilting to bring her lips against his.

And it is only when they brush his lips that Melinor’s warning rings in Dion’s ears, making him pull away from her at the last moment. “Your brother warned me… Said it might interfere with your soul reconnecting with your body.”

She pauses, looking at him for a moment. He can see her expression hardening as if coming to a decision. “I risked the Council’s wrath for a night with you. I will risk losing myself in you for a kiss. I need you.”

He gazes into her eyes, torn. He needs her too. So badly. And though he fears any negative consequences, her proximity, his pain, the way his spirit has been crushed and his heart broken too many times today, all of it makes him long for her more than fear can keep him away. He swallows his concerns, leans forward and kisses her, basking in the synchrony of their movements, relief spreading as their essences blossom in search of each other. The feel of her is more restrained now, more contained in the physical limits of her body, but still the energy is there, her peace and coolness are there greeting his essence as it whimpers with longing and curls itself against her. For a moment, he is able to forget the cruel expression of Nua wearing Alma’s face as she whips him. For a moment, he can just inhabit that space of relief from care. For a moment.

Such a bittersweet moment… He lays his cheek against hers, his lips whispering of their own accord, “It’s you. It’s you. All of it. It’s all there.”

The words tumble forth, unconnected to conscious thought. Without knowing how, he feels his face drenched, his body jerk with deep, painful sobs. He holds her for dear life, crying as he doesn’t remember crying in over a century, like a child suddenly alone in the world. Like a broken man, robbed of his heart’s desire. He hates himself for crying, even as the tears grown heavier with the collected pain of decades, with all those other times when he should have cried, would have cried, if only he were this free to weep.

Her hand running softly through his hair is barely above a background sensation as he cries himself into a gentle lull. “Remember the first time we kissed?” she asks as he begins to recover control over himself. “Back at Math’s?”

He nods. How he could he not remember? “I remember every kiss. I cherish them all. Oh, Alma, I love you. I love you so much and I was going to let it all be taken away by Hell without ever letting you know it.”

“I already knew it, my love,” she whispers softly. “You did let me know. In so many little ways. And that day you were poisoned… When you were feverish and delirious, of all the things you could have said, you said I was the most important thing in the world to you. How could I not know?”

He pulls away to look at her, shocked at himself for the words he does not remember speaking. But he is grateful for those words. For what they meant to her. To them. He locks eyes with her, searing and serious, forcing himself to say what he has never said sincerely enough, knowingly enough, never for the right reasons or with the right meaning. “I love you.”

His heart stops beating for a moment, his lungs forget to breathe. He hangs, vulnerable, in silent fear, awaiting her reply. The reply he knows she will give but which he fears with terror might be different. Her eyes soften, she smiles a small smile that is an overwhelming relief for being so much one of her own. Her lips part with a heavenly breath of, “And I you.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Morning underground. In this cave system, there are no windows letting in the light, no birds singing. But a colony of bats does occupy some of the unused chambers, kept from the others by a simple spell, renewed monthly by the half-naiad Doria, that makes them feel uneasy in the ones that she and Nevieve occupy and make use of, simply to prevent their ammoniac droppings from becoming a problem. And so the rush of their ingress, returning from their hunt of moths and mosquitos, accompanied by chirps so high-pitched that only the deepest can be heard, serves as notification that the sun is rising.

Sky, unsleeping, opens his eyes. He listens as Doria, priestess to the Oracle, awakens from half-submerged slumber in a pool and rises, dripping, into the echoing peace of the tunnels and caverns. She goes to a chamber that must be, from the sound of thin metal ringing against stone surface, a kitchen. Ah, there is the sound of water filling a kettle, the flow singing within the hollow steel belly.

His body, still in its hateful devil form, is curled up on blankets laid down for him by Doria last night, before he returned from the connected chamber, Sky’s ‘rage room,’ as he thinks of it, a small cave which Nevieve has said Sky can freely use to attack the stone walls, venting his fury at the torture inflicted on him and his friends. For so long, Sky has controlled his emotions, fighting to keep from revealing what he is. Now he cannot control them for long. It is a process that seemed to begin when he came to Three Rats. He had built walls to keep from getting too close to anyone, but those walls have fallen. Rage, tenderness, love – all of these have blossomed in him like flowers in a desert that has suddenly received a heavy downpour.

Somrak is sleeping against him, using him like a large cushion. When Somrak came in scant hours ago, Sky’s old partner did not speak. He just lay down quietly and soon was asleep. Sky had said nothing as well. He didn’t know what to say. Somrak had been his keeper, potentially his executioner for four decades. Despite a few moments of kindness and shared pain, Somrak had never made such a tender gesture. He had never fallen asleep against Sky even in the devil’s human form, and here he was, curling up against him – after risking everything, even his soul, to rescue him. Sky was and is moved far beyond anywhere words can hope to reach. But he moved a wing to cover Somrak. The fire god seems to have spent his energies so much that he is barely able to keep himself warm.

He hears the voices of Alma and Dion talking quietly in the tunnel leading to this chamber. Sky resists the urge to flee into the shadows, and the urge to call shadows around himself, to hide. He considers this shape to be vile, monstrous. That those he loves will see him like this, have to endure his filthy presence – but there is Somrak, exhausted. How could he wake him?

And so when the Sergeants enter, the see Sky, frozen like a cat-lover with a kitten asleep on his lap, helpless and immobilized. Alma almost laughs, but then looks to Dion, whose forearm muscles tighten as he squeezes her hand. Dion’s face is momentarily that of a mongoose facing a deadly cobra, his hair rising like hackles, his aura almost imperceptibly flaring – but Sky can feel it, the aura of the Devil Hammer, like heat beating against him, the harsh palpable impact of a blazing sun pounding a night animal stranded in the open desert.

Alma touches Dion’s flexed forearm, soothing him, while Sky fights his body’s instinctive reaction to prepare for a deadly duel. His body must shift enough for Somrak to feel, however, because the fire god mutters loudly, as if talking in his sleep, “Can we just accept things are going to be awkward for a little while and then move on?” Somrak sits up and stretches lazily, then scratches his smooth-muscled belly. “If you guys can’t find your way back to being the friends you were, I am going to be really pissed.”

“If there is still a place for anger left in you, then you are the luckiest of us four,” Alma says, her voice filled to the brim with sorrow. “I would rather be angry. Then I wouldn’t feel exhausted. Or numb.” She shakes her head. “This will take a miracle to fix with the higher powers. Weeks, even months of keeping the Bunnies away from here. Who do we call to help? Who will come if we call?” She breathes deeply. “Accepting the reality before my eyes is the least of my problems, Somrak.”

He looks at her for a moment, her sad tone wiping away his defensive sarcasm. “I’ll report back to the Commander after we make our visit to the station, and the bar. I’ll make it clear that I ordered you two not to call for backup because of possible Whisper agents. He’ll know the truth. Anyway, assuming I still have a job, I’ll suss out his plans on what to do about Sky. If he orders me to…you know…I’ll come here and take Sky off the Insula.” He turns his head to look at Sky’s wolfish face. “I’m not going to be your executioner. If it comes to that, we’ll go renegade together. Pretty sure the Commander will give me time to make that happen.”

Dion shakes his head as if trying to banish the divine sphere that has so recently awakened within him. “What is it with you off-blues and your dreams of fleeing the Insula? I don’t think we will be able to avoid the Council taking interest in what happened. Ultimately, it may not be the Commander’s decision at all. And considering who is in charge of him and the Guardia…” He seems reluctant to say it out loud, but they are all aware that Dion’s uncle is the Archon Math, who holds the Guardia within his purview. “Anyway, you will not bear the consequences of our choices alone, Somrak. Whatever punishment comes, we’ll all endure our share.”

“Yes. Besides, I think I already gave my confession to Fencer yesterday,” Alma adds. “Whatever cards we have left to play, now is the time to play them.” She produces a small, round stone that seems to pulse with malevolence, the soulstone that serves as Nua’s prison. “This one is really just a conversation starter, I’m afraid.”

Somrak looks at it as if it were a highly poisonous spider. “The things she knows, though. Soul bombs and Tragas binding techniques. History. Who escaped the necromancer pogrom, and whether they have descendants. It’ll be worth a great deal.”

“She is…damaged.” Alma says quietly. “I wanted her gone. I don’t know what condition she’ll be in.” She puts the stone away in a pocket. “But I guess they don’t need to know that.”

Sky finally brings himself to speak up. His voice rumbles, “She is insane. If she were not so dangerous, she would be an object of pity. She will never cooperate with the Death Clan willingly. Perhaps they will find subtler means useful. A virtual environment…”

“Ah, found your voice after all that roaring,” Somrak says. “I’ll pass on the suggestion.” To Alma and Dion, he says, “Sometimes prisoners are interrogated by putting them in a kind of pocket-universe of the mind, to make them comfortable, trick them into giving up info…anyway, doesn’t matter now.” He shakes his head and stands. “I should get to that. I can skip the station. I’ll be in contact when I can.” He pats Sky on the flank.

Alma steps forward and puts a hand against Somrak’s bare chest. “We have to return to the station,” she insists. “If you’re not with us, the Bunnies will think you are dead as well.”

Somrak grimaces. “You really think they’re going to want to see me, ever again? I got Saira killed. I nearly got all of–”

“That is not…your fault,” Sky growls, pausing at a flash of pain. “It is mine, more than anyone here. They will want to see you. Take time with them.”

“They are worried about us all,” Dion points out, voice strained. “The more people they can see and make sure are in one piece, the fewer uncomfortable questions we’ll have to answer. And if we are going to be playing the blame game, I’d rather put my money on the psychopaths who tortured us in the first place.”

Somrak sighs, surrendering. “All right, I’ll go with you.” He looks at Sky. “Still can’t change back, partner?”

The devil shakes his head no. “I have tried. I am trying right now. The whip…maybe other things, too, have maimed me. I cannot transform.”

Yet,” Alma states as unchallengeable fact. “It will take time to heal. But we’ll manage. Somehow.” She says it as if force of will alone can make it happen. “We will all heal.”

Sky looks at her, trying to summon the words that come so unwillingly in this form. With this devil’s brain, malice is the default, and being a friend requires struggle. “The things I said before, my feelings for all of you, for the Bunnies…none of that was a lie. I have lived a lie for so long, my only desire now is to be truthful with all of you, in every matter. I…think I can regain control over my shape. I will do all I can.”

“Good,” Alma replies after a moment, reaching out to touch one of his backswept horns. “I’ll ask Nevieve for advice on anyone we can call on. And I still have one card left to play. We’ll get you the time you need…I hope. But for now, we must go.”

“We’ll do all we can to make things right.” Dion assures him. His earlier aggression is gone, but he seems tense, still.

Sky can tell that Dion, with his sphere pushing him to attack any scion of Hell, will need time to learn to accept what Sky is, if he ever can. The devil rises to his haunches, tail curled around his legs. “I could not hope to find better friends. I do not deserve you, but I shall strive always to be worthy of you.” He looks at Alma. “Yesterday, I pulled away at first. I was afraid that I would hurt you. But I would never hurt you.”

Alma’s hand moves down the horn to rest on top of Sky’s massive head. “I know. And if it still happened to be her in my body, I could have hurt you, I know. I understand. The doubt will linger for long, still.”

He relaxes at her touch, then looks to all three of them. “You came for me. I will never forget what you risked, and the sacrifices you made.”

“We should go,” Dion says after a pause, looking like he’s having trouble restraining himself.

“When we go out drinking, booze is always on you, big guy,” Somrak says. Even as he is joking, he’s moving near Dion, helping to guide him out. “Don’t go too crazy with the remodeling!”

Alma leaves her hand on Sky’s head for a moment longer. “Take care, Sky. I will see you again.” Then she turns to leave with the others.

As their footsteps and voices echo down the passage, Sky draws in on himself, wondering whether, despite their intentions, he has lost his friends forever. But the feeling of Somrak’s body asleep against his lingers, tingling, as does Alma’s touch. And Dion is fighting to resist his sphere, for Sky’s sake. Sky tells himself that he has not lost them. Perhaps if he says it enough times, he will feel it is true.

Ch6.99 Trust

“Okay y’all, cookies are ready!”

The plate is heavy in Cherry’s hands, but the cookies – chocolate chip, almond, and peanut butter – smell heavenly. Serving baked goods out to everyone lends Cherry some slight distraction from the worries that plague her mind.

There has been no news. Not since hours ago when Grandmamma Lyria left them in the care of the Twins, Uncle Imset and Uncle Lum. All they know is that their mother, Alma, along with Dion, is out on a mission to rescue Sky. And that their enemies can send squads of demons. And that those demons were supposed to kill or capture the Bunnies, and they would’ve done it, too, if Grandmamma hadn’t shown up. They would’ve killed us all, she thinks. They would’ve done worse than that…

She stops where she is and shuts her eyes tight. Stop it! You’re gonna break down and scare the younger ones! Just…stop thinking about it.

She takes a breath and opens her eyes and, to her dismay, Chime is looking right at her. It doesn’t look like anyone else saw her freeze up, but sweet little Chime, with those long dirty-blonde bangs hanging half over his eyes, is staring at her. It can be hard to tell what Chime is feeling when he’s not playing music. He wakes up when playing with Kori, too – his big brother is a hero to him, even though Kori wins pretty much every race, every wrestling match, every whatever. But a lot of the time, Chime is sort of dreaming, “seeing music everywhere” he told her once. She’d been reading a novel on the bed in her and Merri’s room, and he’d just come in and lay down next to her. She’d put an arm around him, not even really thinking about it, and asked him what was on his mind. When he told her, she’d asked, “Don’t you mean hearin’ music everywhere, sweetie?” He’d shaken his head on her shoulder. “Seeing.” Then he’d fallen asleep.

But Cherry knows him well enough to know that he’s pretty scared too, and the sight of her just freezing like that is not helping, no way. So she puts a fragile smile on her face and makes sure everyone gets cookies. All the Bunnies, except of course May who is away, take at least one – Kori takes three, though rejecting the peanut butter as “gross,” and Merri insists on calling them “biscuits,” which is just silly – and Geryon, who loves chocolate chip, and the Twins, instant uncles, just add Bunnies. Aliyah has gone back to the station next door for a little while, even though she’s not technically on duty. They just got hit by demons, after all. Must be some form for reporting that.

Just as Imset is taking his cookie, he and his brother both look past everyone else. Cherry feels the fur on the back of her neck stand on end, and she turns, almost sagging in relief to see it’s Lyria, next to the huge, foreboding figure of Melinor. Melinor might be kind of scary, but he’s scary to other people, not to the Bunnies. He might not think of them as family, but they are Alma’s, and that’s good enough for him. At least that’s how it seems.

But in Melinor’s arms is a shrouded form, a human form, wrapped tight in a white sheet that covers it completely. The world seems to contract, going dark at the edges of her vision, and sound becomes muffled. There’s a part of her mind that just observes this, surprised that she hasn’t dropped the plate with the remaining cookies, but somehow she automatically sets it down on the table beside her. She watches as Sage and Merri approach Melinor, looking at that white-shrouded shape, and they turn to look at her as they catch the scent and realize who it is. Cherry is too far away for the smell to hit her yet, but they turn and look at her, right at Cherry, and she knows, from that.

It’s not Sky, of course. He’s about the same size as Melinor, which would make carrying the body a lot more awkward. And it’s not Mama. If it were, Lyria and Mel would both be shattered, and Merri and Sage too. Dion is bigger, more muscular than that shape, and Somrak, well, they wouldn’t be singling out Cherry to look at with concern and sorrow, now would they?

So she knows. She shakes her head, trying to refuse it, but she knows. She takes a step forward, then another. Then she passes into the scent as it wafts outward. Even though the body has been cleaned up, the smell of death is there along with some foul poison, but there it is. Saira. That’s definitely Saira.

Scent triggers memory so easily, and bam, it hits Cherry hard: massaging Saira’s back, the muscles twitching after an attack. In the bath together, Saira looking at her, smiling, all comfortable and happy, saying “I like you, Fluffy Ears.”

Cherry starts to tremble, and as Merri wraps her arms around her, Cherry sags and moans into her embrace. She just lets Merri take over. That little part of her mind that’s observing all this says, Yeah, that’s heartbreak, all right.

The following few minutes are just a blur to her. Sage asking after Mama, and the others. “They are safe,” Lyria says immediately. “Alive. But little ones, I need you to listen and understand. They cannot return tonight.”

“What happened to Mom? And Dion and Sky? Uncle Som? Why’s Saira…?” Tulip’s voice trails off, shaken by tears. “What’s going on? Where’s our Mom?” Kori demands. Imset talking with Melinor in a strange language, their voices low but heavy. Merri’s loving voice whispering to her, telling her it’ll be all right.

But it won’t.

Yeah, but what are you gonna do, huh? There’s that voice again, Cherry’s own. Gonna just be a sack of potatoes in Merri’s arms? There’s Tulip cryin’. They’re scared. Pull it together!

Cherry grips Merri’s shoulder and literally pulls herself upright, standing up on her own two feet. She takes a long glance into Merri’s eyes, marveling at that deep, amazing green, then lets her go and turns to see to the kids. She still feels as if the floor has disappeared, as if she’s falling through the air, but she can’t ignore the younger ones. Tulip is already in Lyria’s arms, but Kori is standing, fists clenched, looking frightened and furious at once. She puts her arms around him, gently, and though he’s stiff and resistant at first, he can tell how much she’s hurting, and he lets go of his anger and holds her, affected as much by her pain as by his own need for comfort.

Past Kori’s shoulder, she sees Chime still sitting on the sofa, all alone. Cherry holds out and arm to him, and he comes, pale and scared, and just grabs onto both her and Kori, holding them tightly.

All she can offer for the moment is physical contact. The words just won’t come.

But Merri is telling them, “She’ll be home soon.” Then to Lyria, she asks, “Won’t she?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Lyria says after a moment. “She asked me to tell you she will be back by tomorrow and not to leave your side until then.”

“How bad is it?” Geryon asks. Cherry lifts her head from her embrace of the two younger boys and sees that he is near Melinor, who is laying Saira’s body on the bar with Merri’s help, the only place other than the floor or the sofa that is long enough to lay her out.

Lyria exhales deeply. “Not as bad as it could be but…” She looks back at the Bunnies, “Children, your mother and her friends went against a necromancer and a dangerous demon summoner to rescue Tuma-Sukai. They have defeated the criminals and found Sky but they have all been injured. Deeply.” She raises a hand at their alarmed expressions. “None of them is at risk and their bodies have been healed. But there are deeper wounds. And those will take a long time to heal. They will require your patience and understanding.”

“We’ll be strong for them,” Merri says. “But…can we not go see them? Or…” She trails off.

“They need peace, little ones. Time to regain some of their strength,” Lyria explains. She touches Merri’s head. “And you must know… Tuma-Sukai cannot return tomorrow. His wounds require the most care and he will need to stay confined to his healer’s home for a long while. Most likely without visitors.” Her voice is gentle but pained.

Cherry clenches her jaw shut, shuts her eyes tight, and holds onto Kori, grateful for his strong arms. She just knows if she were to start asking the questions she wants to ask, What do you mean, we can’t see him? He needs us! What the Hell is goin’ on?! she will end up screaming. So she just stays silent.

“Can they heal, Lady?” Geryon asks quietly.

Lyria nods. “I believe so. Though… I have no way of knowing how long that will take. Their bodies are healed. The rest…”

“And how much trouble are they in?” the gryphon insists. Trouble? Cherry thinks. Oh no…no no no, not again…

Lyria sighs. “That remains to be seen. But I will see to it that not too much comes to pass.”

Imset moves closer to Lyria, whispering to her in that other language. They exchange a swift but somewhat heated argument, then Lyria nods in defeat. Imset kneels by Cherry. “She is alive, all right? I can sense her soul. We’ll drop by and see her before we return home. Don’t worry about anything.” He smiles reassuringly.

Cherry lets go of Kori and puts her hands on Imset’s shoulders. They’ve just met these new uncles, one silent, one talkative. She looks him in his strange, shadowy face and feels an almost overwhelming gratitude at his acceptance of her, of all of Alma’s children “Thank you…” she whispers. “Tell her…tell her we all love her, and, and all of ‘em, and…”

Then words fail her, and she puts her arms around Imset’s neck and holds on tight. All of it, blows coming one after another – almost losing their mother, and Dion, and Sky, and now Saira’s death, which she just cannot bear to think about – combined with all of these Death Clan gods here, most of them showing so much kindness when they’re in the middle of their own crisis, and even Melinor taking this time to be here, this is really something, no matter how much he might seem not to care, all of this is just clashing in pain and healing that she can’t speak.

Imset holds her and strokes her hair. Merri soon comes and gently pulls her away, kissing Imset’s cheek and murmuring her thanks, telling the Twins to go with grace and to return soon. Imset replies quietly, then rises and, with a look at Luminus, both gods vanish.

As Cherry walks to the bar, she hears Melinor ask, “Do you require me to stay?”

“No, little one,” Lyria says. “All the enemies are defeated. I don’t expect any counterattacks tonight. Go. Tell your father I will be busy awhile.”

Cherry feels Melinor vanish. There’s no need for special senses for that. The god of violent death radiates an aura of dread that is hard to ignore sometimes. But though that aura is gone, dread remains, brought in other ways. Cherry touches the sheet where it covers Saira’s face, and carefully pulls it back.

So pale. So still. All life gone. That life that Mama nurtured and healed, that Cherry helped in her own way, lesser but more constant, fled forever. Cherry touches the cool cheek. Saira was so beautiful, so deadly. Frightening, really, but full of life at the same time.

And now there is nothing but a corpse.

“Oh baby,” Cherry whispers, running her finger along the soft, short hair of Saira’s eyebrow.

Behind her, Cherry hears Lyria whispering to the younger Bunnies, “It will be all right. I am here to take care of you.” The door of the bar opens, and footsteps approach. A gasp. Aliyah is on one side of Cherry, staring at Saira’s face, and Cala is on the other, silent and somber. Aliyah puts her hands to her face and sobs.

Cherry steps back. She knows a little of the history there. Aliyah and Cala were childhood friends with Saira, a friendship ruptured and only repaired recently and partially. Cala reaches a hand out to rub Aliyah’s back.

In stepping back, Cherry nearly steps on Sage, who holds her hand, looking at her, his beautiful dark features so empathetic. But at the sound of Tulip’s plaintive voice, they turn.

“Mom can come home!” Tulip insists. “We’ll let her sleep. We’ll just hug her and let her sleep. You can go get her.”

“You can hug her tomorrow, little Tulip,” Lyria insists. “She will need all of your hugs tomorrow. But she is probably already asleep and I cannot go disturb her now.”

“Let us hope she is asleep,” Sage says, stroking Tulip’s white hair. “We will welcome her home soon enough.”

Cherry asks, her voice low, “Grandmama, what about… Is Saira…her…soul? Is it okay?”

“She is at peace,” Lyria explains, her eyes on Cherry’s, compassionate. “Her soul has been released by Varah, the goddess you met earlier. It will return to the Wheel.”

“So she’ll be reborn.” Cherry nods to herself. “What…what now?” Cherry asks. “Do we…bury her?”

“Is that her custom? I am not sure about burial rites…” Lyria seems genuinely unsure what to do. “I could join her body with the Insula, of course. Return it to the great cycle of things so it can feed new life.”

The tall Guardia cop Aliyah, her face wet but recovered, approaches and puts her hands on Sage’s shoulders. She clears her throat. “Saira didn’t have religious feelings one way or the other. Just always said her body would be worm food soon enough. I guess…makin’ that comes true, in a nice way, that’d be somethin’ she could get behind.” Cala, coming to stand beside her friend and colleague, nods.

“Well, maybe we can consider a little patch of garden? A tree to remember her by?” Lyria suggests.

Cherry considers this. “Out back? There’s that tree in the corner, sickly little thing. Maybe she can give it some strength if she was under that.” She smiles, just a little. “I know it ain’t her no more but it’d be like havin’ her nearby.”

Lyria nods. “I will let you say your goodbyes tonight, and tomorrow morning, as early as possible, we will take care of that. All right? The little ones should get to bed for now.”

It takes some time, but soon everyone has gone away. Lyria and the others are in Alma’s sanctum, preparing for bed, all planning to sleep together in safety and warmth. Aliyah and Cala have both said quiet prayers over the body to their faraway god, and after a little while Cala returns to work while Aliyah, off-shift, returns to her family.

In the quiet of the bar, most of the lights extinguished, Cherry once more goes to Saira’s body. She smooths the hair back from the corpse’s forehead, and stares at that settled expression. Is that the slightest hint of a smile on Saira’s face? Did she finally achieve what she wanted?

“You never knew peace in your life, baby,” Cherry whispers to her. “Wish you coulda found it with us. I will never, ever forget you.” She leans over and presses her lips to the cool skin of Saira’s forehead.

Then straightening, she carefully rearranges the sheet to cover Saira’s face, and turns to descend the stairs, toward her family, and life, and love.