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.

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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.

Ch6.98 Trust

School, for godlings, is a strange, strange thing.

You can’t really predict their powers. Sure, there are clans, and they breed for bloodlines that have an affinity for related divine spheres to awake within them, but even in the Wind Clan there’s always a chance of a kid turning out to be the God of Sunflower Seeds or something. Then what do you do? But even within the constraints of a clan’s tendency, there’s a lot of room for surprises. Just look at the Death Clan and all their different kinds of death. Probably have a god of Death by Poking Forks into Toasters. Just think of how that first manifests itself. Could happen any time between ten seconds after birth and half a century or more. Some five-year-old kid jamming forks into everything he can find, including the nanny’s ankle, somehow instinctively knowing it’s supposed to go into a toaster – only the Death Clan estate is in a low-tech ward and they don’t have any electricity.

The Commander, highest ranking officer of the Guardia, drums his fingers on the armrest of his chair as these idle thoughts drift through his head. A number of parent-gods have stood up and gone to get refreshments while they wait for the show to restart. The hammering and sawing is pretty loud, he has to admit.

School. He looks around and sighs. How long has he been coming to these events? And there’s always some kid with no control over his powers who screws it up. Never his girl, you can bet on that, but then she’s had a lot of practice. Screwing up with her powers is not the problem there. Refusing to grow any older and graduate out of elementary school, on the other hand…

He checks the door again and sees a slender, muscular goddess with short red hair. He doesn’t like the look on her face. “For once it’s not me who’s late. What’s going on? You look like you just ate a lemon thinking it was an orange.”

Subcommander Varah, better known as the Fencer, sits. She props an elbow on the chair arm, looking forward, annoyed. “I’m fine. What happened to the stage? Looks like a bomb went off.”

“Things had just got started when that Strength Clan kid threw a tantrum,” the Commander explains.

Varah grimaces. “Hate that kid. Keeps trying to bully Yllaina. Somebody ought to clap him in Dei manacles until he can control his damned sphere. I’d show him a few manners myself if it weren’t against the law.”

“He’s an idiot, for sure, but at least it was entertaining. Dwarves should be done rebuilding the stage in about twenty minutes.” He looks at her again. She’s still staring at the demolished stage as if willing the dwarves to hurry up. “Right, let’s go talk.”

Fencer looks at him sideways. “About what?”

The Commander raises his chin, grinning humorlessly. “Oh, guessing games, is it? Maybe it’s about Somrak disappearing, and stirring up trouble in Three Rats? Significant demon incursion there? Death Clan members poking their nose in? Am I getting warm?”

She narrows her eyes and looks away. He knows that he loves showing off how well he’s keeping track of everything, a bit too much. “If you know everything already, what’s the use of talking to me?” she growls.

“Obviously I don’t know everything yet,” he says, mollifying her. “But if a gang of demons breaks through in a ward I keep an eye on, you know I’m going to check around. So what’s going on?”

Varah exhales deeply. “Fine, let’s go outside.” She gets to her feet and vanishes.

A moment later he appears next to her outside the school. He’s already pulling a cigar from his breast pocket. He uses a little pocket cigar cutter to guillotine off the tip, thinking as he always does of how perfect the little device is for removing fingers, and lights up. All the while his eyes are on her as she speaks.

And she does, leaning against the back wall of the school, eyes on the horizon, arms crossed over her chest. “It happened. They all know the truth now. Well, a part of the truth, at least.”

“Just so I don’t go off half-cocked, yelling about the wrong thing, which truth are we talking about here?” He takes his first puff, savoring the hot espresso-mixed-with-almond flavor that fills his mouth.

“The necromancer I was looking for in Three Rats was the same that got away from me two centuries ago.” She looks at him. “Guess who killed her then. Who she came back for.”

He wrinkles his brow, then closes his eyes. He is instantly in touch with the acres of Guardia records, files through which he can search from afar whenever he needs to. It is an extension of his memory, in essence. He zooms in on one cabinet, one drawer, one file. He doesn’t need to take it out. He can read the pages just as they are, in the dark and pressed tightly together.

Azza–

The word he curses under his breath would strike a mortal blind if one were nearby to overhear. “How in Hell did we miss that?”

“We only had half a name.” She sounds bitter. It had been her case. “Anyway, we missed it. She kidnapped him. And my lovely little niece decides she is a grown-up now and doesn’t need guidance anymore so she calls in your other little pet, gets Math’s nephew to help and some mortal or other. They went into the necromancer’s lair without backup. You should have seen them on the way out.” She looks away, but the Commander can see that she is trying to hide the concern she feels for her niece, Alma.

He’s never been the comforting type, but he spares her a glance of compassion. “Coincidence piled on coincidence. Too much to be possible. Somebody is manipulating events. Somebody aside from us, and Math, and the others we already know of. The Oracle? Another oracle?”

Fencer nods in agreement with his frustration. “The mortal is dead. Tuma-Sukai is stuck in his original form, soul too tortured to manage to change back. I don’t know if he’s salvageable. Gwydion and Somrak took a beating as well. God-bound weapon, made out of a minor goddess from my clan. Alma… It was a close one for her. We could barely keep her in her body.” She sighs. “And now they all know.”

“Bound weapons…” The Commander’s voice is heavy. “That confirms our suspicions – the Tragas are back. And of course it’d be Somrak in the middle of that. Didn’t think he was a piece in the game, but someone does. The mortal – it was that assassin?”

Fencer nods. “We have a problem in Somrak. His loyalties are not with your off-blues anymore and he doesn’t trust either of us. He thought we would have brought the Sikari in.”

He mutters, “He was supposed to think that, because it’s what we’re supposed to do. He knew even if he brought us in and we didn’t call in the Sickos, we’d be putting our positions at risk. But yeah…Somrak no longer trusting me – he’s going to be falling to pieces.”

“On the slightly less grim end of the spectrum, our suspicions are confirmed. Gwydion did inherit his parents’ talents. Somehow he managed to keep his sphere dormant for this long.”

“Finally. And he still rescued Sky instead of killing him?” The Commander chuckles. “Always knew that kid had more to him than Math thought.”

Fencer grimaces. “He’s still weak,” she insists. “And he’ll make my niece weak with him. Those two are together now.”

“Still?” The Commander is surprised. “I figured that’d last a week, tops.”

She shakes her head. “Solid. Forged in battlefire. Not going anywhere anytime soon.”

“Reminds me of someone.” He gives Varah that tight grin that makes babies cry two blocks away. “Right, so Alma’s weak from the necromancer and her new sphere and a hundred other things, Gwydion’s weak from his new sphere and being a lovesick puppy, Tuma-Sukai’s been tortured, Somrak’s falling apart – these guys need a vacation. Only we can’t give them one. But we can keep an eye on the place and quietly intervene. Otherwise, a lot of our plans go in the toilet. The few that haven’t already.”

“Math will want our hides.” Fencer’s voice is grim. “He’ll want Tuma-Sukai eliminated for good. And Lyria was talking about pulling Alma out of there. I have to admit I wouldn’t mind that at all but it seems I have ‘lost all claims’ to a certain insubordinate child’s future.” She sounds sarcastic but the Commander can tell, from long and intimate association, that she’s actually hurt by her niece’s words. “Alma doesn’t want to leave but I have never known Lyria to give up easily. And anyway, we cannot let them go out of this unpunished. Not officially, at least.”

He casually turns to lean against the wall next to her and puts an arm around her waist, like it’s got nothing to do with her feeling bad. “Lyria has her plans. I wouldn’t be surprised if making a show of pulling Alma out wasn’t just a move. But yeah, we need to make a show of punishing them. In some cases, not a show. If we don’t, it’ll cost us.”

To his surprise she allows him to keep his arm around her. “She’s gonna fight for them. All of them. You know that. And…I will have to tell my brother everything. I cannot go against him, as you very well know.”

A short barked laugh. “Except for all the times you have, secretly. Yeah, I know.”

Varah shrugs. “This thing should be restarting about now.”

“Too bad we can’t stay here until our kid sings,” he mutters. “That’s the only bit I care about.”

“Yeah, well…I hope you brought wax for your ears because some of these kids sing like harpies.” Varah detaches herself from the wall, turns and without warning grabs his chin in one hand and kisses him with the full force of her frustration.

The Commander knows better than to pass up a moment like this. He drops his cigar and holds onto her, one hand on the back of her head, the other on the small of her back. Her muscles, so hard and compact, shift under his calloused hands, and her body presses against his, pinning him to the wall. When the kiss ends, he is breathing a little faster, a little harder. He can feel her heart, too, pounding against his chest. He doesn’t say anything. He’s learned better than that. It took being married to her, getting divorced from her, and having a child together after that was all over, but he has learned.

She rests her forehead against his for a moment, eyes closed, then pulls away. “Let’s go, then.”

His voice is a little rougher than usual, after that kiss. “Yeah. I think I can even sit through that Storm Clan kid’s singing now.”

The Fencer snorts and vanishes.

Ch6.97 Trust

In a shadowy chamber, water running down one wall, phosphorescent lichen and albino geckos on the rough stone, Somrak sits, his back to a table. Table – well, formerly a thick stalagmite that had broken off and was then cut and smoothed to a useful surface. The bench on which Somrak sits is a natural ridge of stone as well, shaped dexterously into a comfortable seat. Somrak does not make use of its legroom between the table and itself, instead stretching his legs away from the table, resting his back against the edge of it, his arms crossed over his bare chest, staring at nothing. Thinking, over and over, of what he could have done differently.

The mission had been a success. Technically. They got Sky out alive. None of the gods had died. But Saira… Saira died. For a moment he rages at her, in his mind. You weren’t even on our mission, were you? You were on your personal vendetta. I told you! Alma told you! Fates, I knocked you unconscious to keep you from meeting your death! Still you came…

None of this shows on his face. It remains impassive, as calm as the drops of water, as the slow breathing of a huge, dangerous beast in the deeper shadows further into the chamber.

But you kept your target immobilized, Somrak tells the dead woman he holds in his mind. He had to devote every trick he had to trying to survive, and still he failed at that. You did it, girl. You got him. You killed him. You laid your ghosts to rest, and yourself as well.

And in response, he hears her voice – no ghost, unless a desire to speak again just one more time can be called a ghost. Still as dumb as ever, Ponytail. Thinkin’ you have me figured out. Gods, but you gods are stupid.

He twists and brings his legs around, facing the table. On it, laid out like the main guest at a wake, is a body. The filthy cloth he had wrapped her in has been replaced by a clean white winding-cloth of soft cotton, the same material as these white trousers he is wearing, a magical gift from the Oracle. Much of the damage to the body has been repaired, as well. At least, with the face visible, Somrak can see no sign of trauma on Saira’s calm, cool mien.

He brushes a lock of her brown hair with his fingertips. “You got him,” he whispers.

Beyond him, where no lichen illuminates, a pair of eyes, glowing blue-green, open. They look at Somrak and Saira, then the head bearing them turns, ponderous, to the doorway. The illumination behind Somrak increases, throwing a shadow across Saira’s face. He turns to see Lyria at the doorway, a soft verdant light surrounding her, the aura of her Life sphere highlighting her maternal beauty. Behind her is a dark, hulking shape – Melinor, Alma’s brother. And passing her to enter the chamber is Alma herself, followed closely by Gwydion, bare-chested and white-breeched like Somrak.

Alma goes directly to Somrak, her eyes on his face. He can see the pain and anguish from the ordeal she has been through. Forcibly possessed by a twisted, evil soul. Trapped in a desperate fight for control of her own body. Made to witness Gwydion’s torture at the hands that same body. And Somrak’s own torture as well, let’s not forget that. And what else? What else did Nua put Alma through in there? He is certain it was far worse that the scourging Somrak himself suffered.

But before she speaks to him, her eyes – those strangely beautiful pearlescent eyes – move to Saira. She puts a hand on the corpse’s forehead for a moment, a stoic sorrow passing across Alma’s face. It lasts but a moment. Alma is a goddess of the House of Death. Cold lifeless bodies are not the focus of her sorrow. Or so Somrak assumes.

Then she lays that same hand on his cheek, turning his face up to hers. “Somrak?” Her voice is a plea for reassurance that he has come out of that little slice of Hell, not left himself behind somehow.

He looks into her eyes. Her touch is not as cool as it normally is. He suspects it is because his own fire is nothing but ashes, his body no warmer than a mortal’s. He opens his mouth, and out of it comes a voice barely above a whisper, but on the verge of becoming a wail. “I am sorry… Alma, I am so sorry…”

She puts her arms around his neck, pulling his head to her shoulder as she sits on the bench next to him. “Shh,” she whispers in his ear. “We all knew. And we’re safe now.”

After a brief hesitation, he holds her tightly, his hands on her lower back and shoulder blade. “I thought we were all lost. I almost–” He cuts himself off. He can’t. He just can’t tell her that at the moment before they were rescued, he was on the verge of killing her unconscious body in the hope that at least her soul might escape being pulled into Hell. Instead he asks, “Saira? Her soul?”

“Varah saw to it,” Melinor replies from the doorway, his voice low. “Personally.”

Over Alma’s shoulder, Somrak looks at him through locks of the goddess’ snowy white hair. He nods at Melinor. “Thank you.”

From the shadows comes a rumble of agreement, a sound like misshapen lava stones grinding in the stygian trenches of the ocean. “You pulled us from Hell, Melinor,” Sky says, pitching his voice as close to human as he can. “You saved us.” The glowing blue-green eyes blink.

“It was necessary,” Melinor says simply. He seems unused to being regarded with such gratitude.

Alma looks at Melinor, the edges of her mouth twitching into a tentative smile. She speaks as if just for Somrak, “Melinor has always been my protector. I learned much of my strength from him.” Then she rises, swaying as she tries to stand, hand reaching for the edge of the table.

Somrak puts a hand on her elbow and shifts to catch her, but Gwydion is at her side, his hand on her waist and the other clasping hers. “You should sit,” he says. His voice is gentle, but also strained from pain.

Somrak surprises himself with the flare of jealousy he feels. And in his memory he hears Saira’s derisive laughter. Still? he castigates himself. After you and Dion have saved each other’s lives, after all both he and she have been through with you, you’re still envious? You all nearly died, you were tortured together, you saw the face of a Prince of Hell, and still the teenage boy in you cannot resist crashing into the middle of everything. He lets go of Alma’s arm and sinks back onto the bench.

Seeming not to have noticed Somrak’s assistance, Alma looks at Gwydion with empathy and sadness and reaches to stroke his cheek, as she did Somrak’s but with, perhaps, more tenderness. Or maybe that is Somrak’s imagination. “I just wanted to see Sky before I do so.” She looks toward the darkness.

The glowing eyes dip, and the darkness intensifies, becoming palpable. “Stop trying to hide,” Somrak mutters in Sky’s direction. “She’s already seen your ugly mug. Fates know it’s looking better now that it was then.”

Sky narrows his eyes as Somrak. Then, slowly, the darkness fades to become merely the natural dim light of the cavern chamber. Sky’s true form, hulking and winged, becomes more and more visible, though its red-black coloration still fades into the shadows where he huddles. The diabolic aura of fear suppressed, he is merely ugly, dangerous in appearance, but not radiating a terror-inducing cloak of gloom.

He raises his vulpine head slightly as Alma approaches, the heavy horns that sweep back from his skull looking as if he is straining to against them to meet her gaze. His blinded eye is healed, scars removed from his face.

For a long moment, the two simply look at each other. Dion stands less than an arm’s length behind Alma, looking ready to snatch her away if Sky makes any sudden moves. Somrak aches for them. He has an inkling of how attached Sky is to the goddess, and how much she has come to trust and rely upon Sky.

Then Alma hesitantly reaches to touch Sky’s muzzle, stopping a few inches from it. Waiting. Hoping.

But Sky does not move toward her, instead pulling back slightly, cringing away. “I was going…to tell you,” he croaks softly. His voice is deeper, rumbling, but it is recognizably Sky’s. Somrak, who has heard the devil’s voice before when Sky was in this form, realizes that it lacks the disturbing abyssal, grinding quality that it normally carries. “You fell asleep. I was ready. And then you had to leave and I…I decided to wait. Alma…” He closes his eyes and turns his head away, ashamed. “If I had only told you then…

In a whisper that Somrak barely catches, Alma says, “I know what she did to you. She showed me.”

He looks back at her, eyes wide. He does not speak, but pulls into himself, moving his wings to cover his head.

And after a moment, she sighs and drops her hand, her head hanging. “I am too tired,” she says, her voice louder but softened by sorrow and exhaustion, “in too much pain to be angry, Sky. I have risked too much to turn my back now. We will…find a way somehow.” There is no coldness or resentment in her words. She turns.

Somrak cannot stop himself from shouting at Sky, “Stop being such an idiot! She knows what you are! Dion knows!” He stomps to Sky’s side, not sure if he is going to strike the devil or not. “We have been through all that, together! Saira died! And now we’re all here! We’re alive! You are alive! And you are not hiding away anymore! I won’t have it!”

“Somrak…” Alma’s voice is quiet and soft but it cuts through the echoes of his shouts like a knife. “Please, be kind.”

Somrak falls silent, feeling embarrassed and sick to his stomach. Dion speaks up in the moment of silence. “Sky? Can you…change back?”

A leathery rustle of wings precedes Sky’s bestial face once again revealing itself. He shakes his ponderous head. “I cannot.” His voice is a whisper, and tracks of moisture lend the skin below his eyes, trailing down the sides of his muzzle, glisten in the dim light.

Somrak feels even more ill at this news. He turns away from Sky, clenching his teeth, then leans against the wall. Long tasked with the job of being Sky’s keeper and, potentially, executioner, he knows what orders may come from up high if Sky can no longer assume a divine form. Somrak takes a moment to find his voice without shouting. “You’ll have to,” he says. “It’s good that we all know, but you can’t go out of here until you can change.”

Then he hears a soft, wondering comment from Dion. “I thought…devils could not weep. That’s what all the accounts say.”

Somrak and Alma both turn back to see Sky looking shocked. He raises a taloned hand to touch the tears on his face. “I…cannot,” he whispers. “There are those who can, but…in this form, I cannot.”

“Well you’re doing it now,” Somrak says. “Maybe you just never had reason to?”

Sky shakes his head. “I would have given much to have been able to weep in that torture chamber. How…how can I be doing it now?

Alma steps toward him, both hands out, and cups his face. Her pale hands are so small where the palms curve against the massive jaw muscles. Her thumbs slide gently across the tracks of tears. Her lips curved in a wavering smile, she says, “Perhaps you can change forms after all. When I look at you, my friend, it’s not a devil’s soul I see. And though I am not sure what it is, I know it is no hellish thing. Have you pretended to be a god so long that you have become one? Or are you something in between?”

Though he would tower over her at his full height, he must look up at her from his crouched position. “I didn’t want to…to do what she made me…

“Shh.” Alma strokes his muzzle. “I know. I know you never would. Now rest. You must heal.”

“Luckily, we are in no hurry to cast him out,” Nevieve says from the door, standing next to Lyria. “You can stay here, Tuma-Sukai, for as long as you take to recover.”

“And you should all stay here tonight,” Lyria says, beside her. Her voice is subdued, but she sounds confident in her opinion. “Your physical wounds are healed. But you all have deeper wounds. Tonight, at least, you need peace. And each other.”

“No…Mother,” Alma argues, who has released Sky and moved again closer to Dion. “The Bunnies will already be worried sick. They’ll be frightened after being attacked by demons like you said. And they’ll have to know about Saira and mourn her. And we’ll have to tell them…something about Sky and…” As she speaks, she sounds more and more overwhelmed by the weight of it all.

Lyria looks sad, but her green eyes carry a hint of amusement. “You make my case for me, little one. It is all too much for now. Was this Saira important to them?”

“She was,” Alma says. “To Cherry, particularly, but to all of them in some way. They nursed her back to health once…” She glances at the body. “They will be crushed to see her dead.”

“Then let me take Saira’s body to them so that they may mourn her,” Lyria says, walking closer and laying a hand on the corpse, “and I shall tell them as much as they need to know for now. They can get past the initial shock with me and begin their mourning. When you return, they will be ready to give and take comfort without burdening you with excessive emotion. Please, my dear one, let me do this for you.”

Alma looks uncertain, and she touches Dion’s hand for comfort. He takes it, and Somrak, watching them, rests a hand on one of Sky’s horns.

Dion looks from Alma to Lyria and back again. “If we are welcome to stay…” He looks at Sky, still partially huddled, and at Somrak. Their eyes lock for a moment, and Somrak nods to Dion, lending his vote to the ‘stay’ camp. “It might be well for those of us who understand what we have been through to stay here for a little longer.”

Nevieve favors them with her detached, ancient smile. “Doria is preparing your rooms as we speak. All close by. Sky will need some time for private rest soon enough, I imagine. And so will you three.”

Alma looks at her, at Dion, at Lyria, then looks down and nods in defeat. “Very well. Thank you, Oracle. Thank you, Mother.”

Lyria puts both her hands on Alma’s upper arms. “I will do what I can to comfort them.” She looks at her daughter with sad contrition, then slowly, giving Alma the chance to push her away, embraces her in relief. Lyria looks around at the others. “Do not despair. But do not imagine that your healing will be swift. Lean on each other. As Gwydion says, only you understand what you have been through.”

She releases Alma, then goes to Sky. “Oh, little soul.” Lyria caresses his face. “You have yet a great part to play in the lives of those you love. Do not think for a moment that this is the end of all that. Have I ever shrunk from you?” She strokes the wetness on his face in wonder. “A crying devil. To think I should have seen this.” Then she looks at Somrak and pats his chest affectionately. She turns to leave, signaling a request for Melinor to pick up Saira’s body.

“Tell my children…” Alma says, “that we’ll be back tomorrow. Please.”

Lyria pauses to say, “I will. And I will not leave them until your return. They will be safe under my watch.” She leaves, Melinor following her.

Alma embraces Dion, holding him tightly, hiding her face against his shoulder. She shivers with silent sobs. He holds her, whispering, “We are safe now. We are all safe.”

Somrak, his chest still tingling from Lyria’s touch, listens to Dion’s comforting words. He hopes Alma believes them. He hopes Dion does as well. But as he looks at Sky, trapped in a form that would get him killed the moment he shows himself in public, a form that could cause a scandal to bring down the Council itself, he knows they are anything but safe.

Still, no point in mentioning that now.

Ch6.96 Trust

Warmth over the skin. Freshness below. The scent of grass on her nostrils, of earth still drying from the wetness of morning dew. And a distant sound of flowing, splashing water.

Alma opens her eyes to a bed of green grass stretching over a hill lined with trees that slopes down toward a bank of pebbles and a natural pool. A blue sky spreads above her, lit by the still not too warm sun of a lazy day of late Spring. She blinks and sits up, recognizing hill and pool in that detached, hazy way of a reality the mind is prepared to accept in spite of its inconsistencies. The grass is green, the trees are tall and rich with foliage, the water blue and crystalline. And she sees all this without effort, without the ever-competing fore-image of the sparkling souls of each and every being, of plants and animals big and small that has become her regular sight for the past few days. The waterfall which should feed into the pool is nowhere to be found; the ledge from which her children have taken turns jumping into the water is gone.

And in the water, four furry creatures swim. Otters, three brown and one white, frolic happily, swimming, grooming themselves and each other, diving and surfacing with crabs and small fish in their mouths. Two of them float gently, belly up, holding each other by the front paws so as to not float away. Alma watches the scene, feeling her heart warm to it, incapable of smiling but touched, deeply touched and holding onto the sweetness and peace that so starkly contrasts with what she knows is her reality in the Wakenworld. For she has visited this reality enough times to know that this is a dream and that it will collapse if she allows her conscious mind to refuse it.

Of all the things I miss about life on the Insula, a day like this is very near the top of the list, she hears the calm voice in her head.

She turns her head to find him sitting by her side, in his humanoid form, his legs bent at the knees and elbows resting on his thighs, hands hidden between his legs in a position that reminds her of a sitting foal. She is not in the least surprised to recall that he was not there just a few seconds ago. Arion…

The god of reality and keeper of dreams nods, his eyes still looking at the pool. You were drifting in slumber, mind wide open to anything that might take an interest in it. I had no difficulty finding you. And bringing you here.

It has been awhile since we met in dreams, she notes. Her mind feels vacant, numb. But at the edge of her awareness, she can sense it. The pain that bides in waiting for her to acknowledge it.

Oblivious to it, Arion smiles softly. I am not surprised. Your heart has turned its affections elsewhere and thus your mind followed. He looks at her with mild amusement, perhaps catching the change in her expression, the way she hesitates in discussing such issues now that her world is so full of other, more pressing worries. Oh, please… Why that guilt? My time in the Insula may very well have been and gone, Alma. To expect you to remain alone and, worse, lonely in an attempt to be faithful to our love would be rather selfish of me, don’t you think? In time, you might even grow to resent me for expecting such sacrifice of you while I spend my eternity anything but alone. He shakes his head in dismissal and looks at the happily swimming otters again. If I could somehow trade places with young Gwydion, enjoy his good fortune for holding you in his arms and spending his days in your company, you would not find me hesitating. But as it is, my love for you can live only in my wishes that you will find happiness. Even if it is not by my side.

Alma is quiet for a moment, feeling the sadness of her memories of years waiting for his return to the Insula, alone and with the Bunnies hidden away in their stasis bubbles, return to her mind. She had come to let go of it, lately, slowly finding relief in a present shared with a lover whose mind and her heart she feels closer to her own. But bitter as it may be, she knows Arion deserves the dignity and consideration of having this discussion with her, to her speak of what has happened, of what her heart dictates for her future. Even if it is merely to say goodbye.

 

This easiness with which you let go of something you want has always baffled me, she says, leaning against him, feeling tired even though she knows that at least a part of her is currently sleeping. Fate knows I am not capable of it. And how strange is it to hear you speaking of my choices in romantic partners.

Arion puts an arm around her, holding her close to him in that caring, protective way of his that has always felt so soothing to her. I know… But who else knows your heart this well, my dear? He leans and presses his lips to her head, stretching the kiss as he speaks with the easiness of one who does not require a mouth to converse. I assure you that there is nothing easy about it.

A touch of his hand to the line of her jaw and she looks up at him, into those black eyes and their silvery lines that seem to hold the whole of the infinite Void. I love you, he says. As I have always loved you. Today or in a thousand years, this will not change. And though there is pain in letting go now, I would rather let my love be generous and live on in whatever form we find for it. His lips curl in a smile. Besides, I like young Gwydion. He has a long and difficult path ahead of him but he will rise to it. As will you by his side – Alma?

She throws her arms around him, her tears rolling freely, released by his words, by the feeling of finality that is this ending of their romance, a love which had been dwindling, fading into time and distance but that nonetheless was there, like an umbilical cord attached to her past, to her growth. The sadness in saying goodbye to it, for as much as this is not a goodbye to Arion and the affection he holds for her, is enough to break the dams of the dream, to awake the slumbering pain of her conscience, of her knowledge of the Wakenworld, of her present, of Nua and her torture. Of Gwydion and the way his soul looked ripped to shreds as if attacked by the claws of some vicious spectral beast. Pain over pain over pain, wave over wave of it mounts and crashes against Alma’s mind, stealing her breath, threatening her sanity. She holds Arion as if he could save her from falling into madness with his touch alone.

Alma, what happened? he asks, concerned, his arms folding to wrap around her. None of this can be making you suffer so. We both felt it coming. Speak to me. Why is your mind in such poor condition?

We went after Sky, Alma replies before she remembers that Arion may not recall one dream in millions. After my friend that you found being tortured and told Gwydion about. And it–

She hides her face against him, the fact that he can read her mind the only thing making their conversation possible through her convulsive sobbing. They did terrible things. To all of us.

He holds her, quietly, letting her cry freely until the strong and reliable affection of his embrace wins over her momentary burst of anguish and grief. Eventually, he says. You are safe here. Do you need help in the Waken World?

Alma shakes her head against his chest. No… We made it out though I don’t know how. She feels her throat well up with the excess water that her eyes are draining into her nose. She…she gave them terrible dreams. Stole my body. Tried to bind my soul to my sword.

The dreams must have been the disturbance I sensed, Arion notes absentmindedly. But by the time I reached it, it was gone. He strokes her hair reassuringly when a whimper escapes her lips. Now, now… It is over. It is all over. And you are safe.

She straightens to look at him, feeling her eyes burning and swollen from the tears. Can you…can you sense them? Any of them?

The question makes Arion look up, at the sky, his ears twitching slightly as if he is listening to the sounds of every dream being dreamt. Gwydion sleeps. The others are beyond my reach.

Please, spare him from nightmares, she pleads.

The humble, heartfelt request has Arion looking down at her again, a small and sad smile on his face. He sleeps in a blissful void of thought. No dreams good or bad will disturb him. The Void Rider kisses Alma’s forehead, gently, lovingly. And no nightmares will disturb you. I will keep watch over your mind and theirs. And whenever they are open to my influence, you will dream of nothing but peaceful days like this. Though I cannot promise that this will be the case every night.

The goddess closes her eyes at his kiss. Thank you, nonetheless. That you would take care of them… It means the world to me. She shakes her head, breathing a sigh. I don’t know… how we will heal from this.

I knew when I met you, Arion tells her, his cheek grazing the ridge of her brow, that within the subdued young lady hid an untameable strength. I gave my heart to it. And still, my love, it amazes me how very nearly indestructible you are. She feels his cheek rise with the gentle curling of his sips. You will heal. There will be pain and anger and fear. But you will rise again. And you will be just as strong as they need you to be.

It hurts so badly, Arion. All of it, she confesses, too tired and overwhelmed to be ashamed at her weakness. In this place within their embrace, there has never been space for such fears.

Then stay here for now. He strokes her hair, holding her, and for the moment she is grateful that he is simply everything she needs him to be. Cry as much as you want. Rest as much as you like. And I will hold you until you are strong enough to return to them.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Time goes by. She does not know how long. All she knows is that the dream with Arion slowly fades away into the darkness before wakening, the memory of tears still searing her throat (and screams…she remembers screams) as she feels the touch of an arm around her, a familiar, soothing scent teasing her nose. Voices speaking.

“…no good reason for her to continue this…this folly! She has nearly been killed multiple times, nearly lost her soul, nearly condemned to Hell! And all because her children were not accepted. Well they are accepted now! Or they will be – I will see to that. It is time for her to come home and take her rightful place within the Clan!”

Lyria’s voice. Her mother’s voice. Alma catches the concern, the distress in the older goddess’ tone and grimaces at it as she tries to remember how to command her eyes to open.

“She must leave Three Rats, yes,” Varah’s rough voice, this time. Anger with a strange hint of fear in her words, alien to the fearsome goddess Alma has come to know. “But not to go back to your lady-in-waiting little games. She was raised to be a warrior for the Clan and that is what she will keep being. And she will remain Guardia.”

Ah… Of course, eyelids fold up. She opens her eyes to see Gwydion, or better said, his soul. His beautiful, vibrant soul, damaged and ravaged by Nua’s efforts. She instinctively reaches to cup his cheek with her hand and cringes internally at the lazy way her arm responds to her command, muscles contracting at their own leisure, making her movements slow and clumsy. Still, she manages to touch Gwydion’s face without slapping him and he turns his head just enough to brush his lips against her wrist, breathing a little sigh against her skin.

“Why?” Lyria cries, her voice pitched higher this time. “You have led her down this path of danger and misery and bloodshed, when she is a mother, a healer. And now she is our Spinner. We need her safe or the Wheel will have no living soul to connect us to it!”

Gwydion is lying full length beside Alma, his arm draped over her side, holding her to him. He pulls away a little, his head turning downward, in the direction of his feet. In the direction of the voices, Alma realizes. She rolls slightly and looks toward them as well.

Fencer’s soul is as crimson as her hair, as her eyes, swirling and bubbling like blood flowing from an open wound or coating a slashed windpipe. Her growling tone, tainted as it is with nervousness, is still filled with the determination and steadfastness that is the hallmark of the warrior goddess. “Just because your Clan’s weaklings cannot handle more than that one task it does not mean all Spinners must act that way. It takes strength and certainty and we all know the cost of acquiring such things. She’s stronger now than ever before. We just have to dial it back, return her to safer environments.”

“That at least we can agree on,” Lyria concedes. “But I resent your insinuation regarding my clan. The last I checked, my Clan is the same as yours, dear sister!”

Bickering… Endless bickering while they discuss Alma’s future for her. As if she weren’t capable of making her own decisions. As if she weren’t even in the room. More of the same. More of the usual. Their plans drawn over her life, over her pain. Blind to her will. To her suffering. What is it to them, but an excuse to do as they please, an argument to throw over the table and justify their choices?

More of the same…

“Enough…” Alma croaks, cursing herself for how weak and inaudible her voice sounds to her.

“Were your clan the same as mine, your child would not have grown amidst fevers and illness,” Fencer goes on, mindless of her niece’s words. “Had she been a full death goddess, she never would have faced the Council’s wrath in the first place!”

Again…try again. With all you have now.

“ENOUGH!”

It is not by far the strong, confident bellow she would have liked it to be. Her cry comes out like a harsh, half-drawn out screech. But it does the job of capturing their attention. Alma struggles to rise to her feet but her legs are not yet fully responsive, and even her arms have difficulty bearing her weight. It takes the support of Gwydion’s strong arms to get her to a sort of uncomfortable sitting position. It will have to do.

“How dare you?” she hisses at the two older goddesses. “How dare you see our pain and act like it is yours? Do you have any idea what we have been through?! How can you entertain yourselves blaming each other and planning my future like that?!”

The goddesses stand still, looking – or Alma hopes they are looking, curse these changed eyes that make it so difficult for her to see into the material planes – at her.

Lyria is the first to speak, her voice still high-pitched with bewilderment. “Alma, I just want what’s best for you–”

“Because you wanted the best for me,” Alma interrupts her, feeling the lines of her face contort into a growl, “I was practically a prisoner in my own house for over a century! A century of being called weak and worthless.” She glares at Varah, remembering a long-gone fencing lesson and being accused of being on track to becoming a burden to her family. “How many of my brothers and cousins still bother to even acknowledge my existence? How many of them have placed bets over how long it would take me to die?”

But it is Lyria, not Fencer, who speaks. Stutters. “I never… You were…”

The words die in the throat of the goddess of life, sentence interrupted before it reaches its all-too-predictable finale.

“Weak?” Alma bitterly completes it for her. “Yes, I was. The only place I could hope to be strong in that house was in Varah’s practice room.” She gestures toward the Fencer’s red soul. “And still, I wasn’t. I was always too slow, too crude, too…everything! Nothing I did was ever enough, for any of you! Not you, not to my father, not to anyone!”

Her fist hits the mat beside her, not with any of the force she would have liked to infuse into the gesture but still with a certain level of assertiveness. She looks down and spreads her fingers, breathing in deeply, the texture of the woven material taking over her sense of touch as tears of frustration and a century of self-loathing well up in her eyes. “And I accepted it all because that was all I knew. I believed every word, every last cruel comment for the truth.” She raises her eyes to her mother and aunt. “But then Arion happened and it all went wrong for you, didn’t it? Even he sought to guide me in his one way. But at least he was kind!”

“Kindness is an invitation to slack off,” Fencer grunts.

“Kindness also validates a person’s path!” Alma nearly spits out. “It softens a hard life. I did not learn that until my children were released. That being kind can be more important than being right. I tried to treat them the way you treated me! But which of you even tried to guide me the day I went to you for advice with Rosemary and Cherry in my arms?”

“I did try to help you!” Lyria argues.

“You sent me straight to Nekh,” Alma hisses, cold and final, lip curled in a sneer.

Silence falls in the room. Only the soft hummings of breath vibrate the air, Alma’s breathing feeling too harsh and loud to her own ears. She lets it stretch, lets the awkwardness and guilt grow and spread their roots in this absence of arguments, of excuses. Allowing her elders’ imagination fill in the blanks and spin accusations in their minds far more damning than anything she could possibly find the heart to say.

And when she can no longer bear the weight of this pregnant pause, she speaks again. “You lost your claim to my future that day. You don’t get to decide whether I stay or return with you. I made my choices. Calling Somrak, staying quiet, going in, in spite of the danger, they were my choices. We all chose. Any of us could have refused to go in, refused to go against orders. We’ve been through Hell in there. There isn’t much more the Council could throw at us that would even make a dent now.”

“But Alma, this place, it’s a life of constant danger,” Lyria somehow finds the nerve to insist. “Your children were attacked by demons! We fought them off, but we’d never even have known if I hadn’t come by for a surprise visit. Please…come home.” Her voice breaks, fighting for control. “Bring them home.”

At Lyria’s words, Alma freezes, her eyes wide, spine frozen in a solid block with fear and fury. And even though Lyria immediately assures her that the Bunnies are alive and unharmed, Alma cannot make herself move or speak. Numbly she feels Gwydion’s arm wrap around her back, pull her unresisting to lean against him.

“They are safe,” he whispers in her ear. “We prepared for such an event, remember? Geryon was there.” He strokes her head, soothingly, holding her close to him. “I’m free to go as I please. I won’t leave your side if you want to go with your mother. I just want you to be safe.”

She takes solace in his touch, feeling her body relax into his embrace, her mind running at full speed even though she feels exhausted. Defeated. “I am so tired… I’ve been running for over twenty years with those Bunnies. I thought…I had made a home for them here. That this was home for them. For us.”

She feels him nod against her head. “It certainly feels that way, most of the time.”

“And besides, the Council wants me down here,” Alma adds.

“We can change that,” Lyria says pleadingly, barging in on their whispered conversation to push her point. “Surely we can.”

“Stop pushing. She’s made her choice,” Varah grunts almost immediately. “I have to go report this in. I’ll release the mortal’s soul before you kill yourself trying to do it in the condition you’re in.”

“The mortal?” Alma asks, confused. “Do you mean…?”

“Saira,” Gwydion explains. “The last I saw her, Margrave’s demons were attacking her viciously. It seems the wounds were too much for her to handle. We have her body. And her soul.”

Saira…

Alma closes her eyes, lowers her head. She knew. She knew that the chances of Saira making it out of that Hell alive were nearly non-existent. She accepted that, the moment the woman insisted on accompanying them. And yet, a part of her had hoped, a part of her blames herself for not being there to heal the woman – the young woman with a whole life ahead of her – and save her from the jaws of the death she had long sought.

From the call of the very Wheel that Alma serves.

A soft thud and a sudden feeling of contact and pressure against her legs snaps Alma out of her grim thoughts, making her reach for the vale formed by the adjoining of her legs, stretched full length in front of her. She grabs what feels like a small, round stone that she is surprised to see glowing faintly and fitfully against the background of her own soul.

“Your catch,” Varah says by way of explanation. “Good job, Sergeant.”

And then the goddess is gone, the echoes of her words, spoken as if they were nothing important, ringing in Alma’s ears. Her jaw drops in disbelief.

“Did she really say…?” she asks to no one in particular.

Good job… She had never heard Fencer say those words before. To anyone! And oh, how she had longed for those words, she realizes… From so many people. But from Fencer, her mentor and role model for so long in all things concerning strength and courage, more than most.

“She did,” Melinor says beside her, making her look to her left.

She is not surprised to find him there. A part of her knew he was here in the room, by her side the whole time. His soul flares before her eyes and, though she cannot see his expression, she can almost feel the radiance of his pride. Of his empathy. She wonders if this is how he has expressed himself all along, emotions confined to his soul, revealed now by her newfound ease at soulscrying. Though her lips refuse to curl in a smile, Alma nods and stretches an arm toward him, her hand closed tightly around what she now realizes is a soulstone, a prison for Nua’s demented soul as it awaits trial, her aunt’s present of a bargaining chip.

She feels Gwydion’s embrace loosen, allowing her to tilt toward her brother, who takes the initiative of embracing her, for once in so many years. “I will have to leave soon, but I am here until you no longer need me.”

“Thank you for all you did,” Gwydion says, voice filled with heartfelt sincerity.

“She is my sister,” Melinor replies to him. His embrace tightens a little around Alma, his deep voice sculpting the words into something of a justification, a blessing and a warning, all put together.

On any other occasion, Alma would chuckle at the rare demonstration of brotherly protectiveness. As it is, she simply leans back toward Gwydion when Melinor releases her and gently pushes his sister toward the arms of the god of magic, who holds her just as closely.

“I want to see the others,” she says after a moment.

“Of course,” Gwydion replies. “Let us just figure out how to get you on your feet.”

Ch6.95 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I use it to hurt you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The images break her focus. Her attack loses strength.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wants it gone.

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

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

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

But she is tired. And Nua is taken away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

The enemy at the gate.

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

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

Wake up, Gwydion. You are needed.

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

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

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

Mate?

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

And the world pours in.

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

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

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

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

Saira.

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

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

Mate!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer us. Return to us.

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

Come back to us, mate. We are calling.

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

Come back. Ours…

Mine.

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

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

Please, wake up. Please…

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

Here!

Here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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