Dreamscape (part 3)

Running is almost effortless. All his attention is on the bird, the magnificent bird that is at once a falcon and…something else. All except for a tiny bit of grit rubbing his consciousness, questioning this entire situation. How is he running so easily and for so long? His legs should have given out long ago, shouldn’t they? After all, he can hardly do more than a slow walk anymore on that left knee of his. And his heart…

No. That doesn’t make any sense. He is not some old man suffering from long-ago injuries. He is in the prime of his life. Middle-aged, perhaps, but healthy and strong. A leader still, and still capable of teaching younger subordinates how to take down a suspect quickly and with minimal force. Or maximal force, when called for.

Still? Why still capable?

He shakes off this musing. The bird is gone from the sky. At the top of the hill is a figure, tall and pale, and on her arm, yes, there it is, perched in all its glorious plumage. The peregrine falcon? No, a far more colorful bird, with a tail of long feathers. Strange. Surely it is a hō-ō, a phoenix, a creature out of legend. And there is a large horse behind her, looking like a living avatar of midnight skies. How beautiful all three of them are.

He knows he is in the presence of the supernatural. But he does not slow as he trudges up the hill. It is not in his nature to shy away from mysteries.

The pale woman is stroking the bird. Despite hair like fresh-fallen snow, even from a distance her youthful beauty makes clear that she is not aged. But as he approaches her, he is almost stunned by her perfection. It takes him a moment to look beyond that and notice that her lovely attire is the deep indigo worn by the Guardia Dei. And then there is her badge. A sergeant. He would outrank her, if she were mortal. But of course she is not.

She is looking at him expectantly, and he senses an unspoken invitation to address her. He stops a respectful distance away and bows from the waist, formally. “Excuse me…I was searching for a falcon.”

“Did you find it?” the woman asks.

He looks at her guarded expression. He is astonished by what he sees there: a vulnerability born of fear. Fear of him. What could she possibly fear from him? “Forgive me, honored goddess. But I think perhaps it somehow…merged with this magnificent phoenix. It is a mystery that leaves me perplexed.”

His words seem to set her slightly at ease. The woman looks at the phoenix as if at an old friend. “Starfax, show me, please.”

The bird spreads its wings, buffeting the air and spreading a faint scent like burning temple incense. For a moment, between one flap and the next, he sees it as a falcon. Then it is itself again. It folds its wings and shakes its head, blinks, and regards Sueyoshi calmly.

The woman tilts her head. “How odd.” She looks at Sueyoshi. “Was the falcon yours?”

“Yes. Or rather, I was helping it. It had been injured. I was trying to nurse it back to health.”

The woman smiles at him, a smile filled with kindly sorrow. “I am afraid your falcon has taken flight for the last time.”

He feels a sharp pain in his heart. “Ah. I thought as much. It did not seem possible that the bird should be able to fly. It had been growing weaker. But…I had hoped.” He bows his head and whispers a prayer for the dead.

“Hoped?” she asks, when he finishes.

“Forgive my poor manners, Sergeant. I am Ishijima, Inspector of Oyafukodōri Station. It is my good fortune to meet you. We do not often receive visits from the Guardia Dei here.” He bows deeply.

“Inspector,” she replies, bowing her head. “My name is Alma, stationed in Three Rats, Fourth Ring. I am a death goddess.”

Death goddess? He feels himself grow cold. “I am honored. This unfortunate falcon…I was hoping to make a gift of it to someone.”

“I see. Unfortunately, I cannot bring him back. Death, I am afraid, only goes one way.”

He nods, then asks, “Forgive me but…is this a dream? It feels like one but I am not sure.” He closes his eyes. “I am sorry. Perhaps I sound like a senile old man.”

“No,” she replies with a smile in her voice. “This is a dream.” He feels a cool palm on his cheek, and he stiffens, but it is the gentle touch of a mother checking the temperature of a child. “Good,” she whispers, “there is still time in you.”

He opens his eyes, looking into hers. Such a strange and intense blue. And the feeling remains of her soft hand so cool on his bearded cheek. “Thank you,” he whispers. Then emboldened by the knowledge that it is a dream, he says, “Then the death of the falcon is not symbolic of my own passing. But is it symbolic of another’s?”

Alma shakes her head. “I believe that the only thing that died was the falcon’s dream of himself. Who do you fear for?”

His eyes fall, and he feels a chill return to his heart. “My daughter. Like the falcon, I found her, and like the falcon, she flew away. I have seen her in momentary dream-glimpses only since she left.”

Alma’s fair expression darkens and becomes sadder. She reaches out to him again, touching his sleeve. “Your daughter is well. She is…with family.”

Sueyoshi feels a rush of warmth fill his body. He fears he must be blushing. “Then she is alive? And…she has found those she lost?”

Alma’s expression clears. “Yes. And yes. She has found her place in the Wakenworld with her siblings. And her mother.”

He blinks rapidly, embarrassed at the rush of emotion he is experiencing. Yet he suddenly feels very close to this mysterious goddess, and he cannot stop himself from speaking of his daughter, even though he knows it makes him sound like every doting parent. “She admitted to me once, when she was very troubled – she must have been sixteen – that she knew she had other family. She had not told me, because she did not want me to think she was ungrateful. But I am very happy to know this.” Still, he realizes that his sorrow at being apart from her fills his voice.

The pale goddess gives him a tremulous smile. “You are truly a good man. I can see why she loves you so.

He feels confused. Then his heart begins to race as understanding begins to fall into place.

“I am glad she had you to raise her,” Alma continues, her hand still touching his arm, squeezing it slightly.

His eyes widen in realization. He opens his mouth to speak, but cannot.

As if she can read his mind the goddess nods. “Yes. Thank you for raising my child as your own. She is more than I could ever wish for.”

He shakes his head. “I must thank you. For bringing her into being and for giving me the opportunity to be part of her life.”

“Would you like to see her again? In the Wakenworld?”

Sueyoshi cannot believe his ears. “Is that possible? She exists there?” He is almost overwhelmed with emotion, but finally says, “Yes. Oh yes.”

The horse stomps his hoof and tosses his head. The goddess looks back at him, then at the Inspector again. “I will see to it. However, I must go now.”

Sueyoshi bows deeply, his eyes lowered. “I could not ask for a greater gift.”

He feels her hand lightly touch his shoulder. “I am sorry for your falcon, Inspector.” 

When he looks up, she and her companions are already gone, leaving him alone on the windswept hilltop.

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Dreamscape (part 2)

Alma… the voice calls her.

She fights its call for a moment. Something about the fear of waking up to unpleasant images makes her hesitate. And yet…she feels strangely safe. Arms embrace her gently from behind, a soft breeze fills her senses with a subtle flowery scent. The light that filters through her eyelids feels pleasantly warm against her skin.

Wake up, Alma, the voice beckons.

Her eyes flutter open. Strange green leaves that spread like fans hover in the breeze, hanging from the branches of a massive tree that stretches toward the setting afternoon sun and pulses with the slow, cadent life force of an ancient being. Before her, downhill, a green, wooded ward populated by short, stubby houses with roofs of ceramic tiles begins to settle in for the coming night.

Behind her, back against the trunk of the great tree, arms holding her closely as she reclines against his chest, Arion emanates peace and safety, filling her with a sense of tranquil bliss as she watches cherry blossoms dance in the warm, rising air that blows through her hair.

What a terrible nightmare, my love, he says in that unsettling habit of his of using telepathy when spoken words will suffice.

I thought– Alma starts, turning to wrap her arms around him and nestle her face against his chest.

I know, he interrupts her, sparing her from saying words that are too painful to form in her mind, let alone her throat.

He holds her closely for a moment as one would hold a frightened child, stroking her hair, letting the sound of his calm, slow heartbeat soothe her thoughts. He has always been like this with her. The older one, the wiser one, the stronger one. The one who always knows what to say.

And maybe that is why she has always loved him so, because in his loving arms, full of adoration for her, she has always felt safe, accepted, cared for, a world of difference from what she has always known from the other males in her life. To a helpless, hopeless young goddess, fated to be her parents’ puppet, the love of someone like Arion had been like the first rain after a lifetime of drought. He was her hope, her protector, her strength.

Until she was left alone to stand.

Where are we? she asks, turning back to look at the landscape around her. You have never brought me here.

These are the Dreamlands, the broken pieces of reality created by the idle activity of mortal and immortal minds as they rest from the effort of vigilance, Arion explains, gesturing to indicate the world around them. It is here that they linger long after the memory of them fades and it was here that our children’s minds dwelled as their bodies were trapped in stasis.

The dream world they speak of with such fondness… Alma notes with an edge of pain and bitterness.

Please, do not resent them for it, dear one, Arion requests, his cheek resting gently against her forehead. Imagine what it would be to live half a lifetime only to discover that you have been living in a dream and that you must now rebuild your entire life from the ground up.

Alma snorts at this. Has she not had to rebuild her life at least twice and every time she was assigned to a new station? I have learned a thing or two about starting over.

Ah, but it was different for you, was it not? Arion rebukes. You never believed the dream was real.

I wish it could be, Alma sighs and leans her head back against his chest. I miss you so.

Arion kisses her ear. And I you, my love.

Listen, about my behavior lately… Alma says, straightening and turning to look into Arion’s eyes.

No, he cuts her off, placing three fingers against her lips as if she were about to speak. Still, his mouth does not move as he adds, We are gods, Alma. Do not reduce us to the narrow visions of love that mortals share. What is a lifetime of loneliness to a creature who knows its days are numbered and running quickly away? Do we have the benefit of knowing that forever has an end to it?

He strokes her cheek and leans closer to her. No…among us who know never how long an eternity can last, the word ‘forever’ should never be spoken. And love should be more than a prison binding people together.

She pulls away from him. Shouldn’t love be a willing commitment? For all she has learned through the years, love has always been one thing: sacrifice.

You know that I am a daughter of a harem and that I do not look kindly at the idea of becoming a harem wife, she states. Or having a harem of my own…

Arion smiles and kisses her forehead. Your path is yours to follow, Alma, and your choices yours to make.

His fingers find her chin and gently lift her face to bring her gaze to his eye level, Love is generous, dear one. And I will never hobble you in its name.

Of course you wouldn’t, Alma retorts, turning around again, feeling something within her chest break at his words. So…does this place have a name?

Sawara-machi. Named after its Wakenworld, Third-Ring counterpart, Arion replies. Mayumi was raised here.

Why did you bring me here? Alma asks, her thoughts as cold as her voice would be.

I thought that Nekh might leave us alone for a moment if he were distracted enough by all the strange things in this other world, Arion explains, his patient, condescending tone ripping into Alma’s nerves. Why do you keep a piece of his soul within you, my love? Why not release him whole to the Wheel instead of allowing him to haunt your every waking hour?

And my every dream, for the past week… Alma concedes in conversational tones. Although Nekh’s absence is much appreciated, she could do with a swift ending to this dream. I never expected him to be strong enough to cling to me and stay behind, let alone to disturb my thoughts the way he does. I should have known better.

Speak to your father, dear, Arion insists. Have him help, please.

I would rather be haunted for eternity, Alma states matter-of-factly. I will take care of this myself. Besides, who knows if he won’t prove useful one of these days?

I rather doubt that Nekh has ever been useful to anyone but himself, Arion comments, seemingly distracted. Ah, there he is.

Alma glances at him to see where he is looking. She follows the line of his sight to where it hits the figure of a man, at the end of his middle age, running through the street on a straight path toward the hill and the tree against which the gods sit.

Who is he? she asks.

Sueyoshi Ishijima, Mayumi’s adopted father, Arion tells her. She is very much yearning to see him again, in the Wakenworld.

In the sky just above the man, Starfax (or the dream of her) soars, catching the breeze with her deep-blue wings. The man seems to be following the phoenix and the phoenix seems to be flying straight toward Alma.

Alma springs to her feet, her eyes narrow with angry suspicion.

“And you are putting me in his path,” she hisses, forgetting herself. “Arion, I resent being manipulated like–”

Please, my dear, Arion says, standing up himself. Sooner or later, this will have to happen. You cannot go on pretending that these people did not exist.

Alma sighs, knowing all too well that it is Arion who is in control of the dream.

Very well. But you cannot go on being a ghost to our children, either. I cannot keep hiding you from them. They need to meet their father, she demands in return.

I will arrange it, my love, Arion promises, smiling beatifically.

Thank you, Alma replies, focusing her sight on the ever-closing man. That is a Guardia Popula uniform. Is he Guardia in the Wakenworld?

Arion chuckles audibly at this. Does he look like he could be anything else?

Dreamscape (part 1)

Her mane billows in an unseen breeze as she gallops through the endless distance. Silver and white glitter on her smooth coat, filling the emptiness around her with the faint glow of her essence. Her long tail whips freely against her rump while she runs, jumps, kicks the air in the simple joy of being free to do as she pleases.

By her side, he gallops, sure and swift, his powerful legs carrying him without effort through the vastness of space. His presence fills her with a sense of safety and inner peace that she has not felt in years. His shiny black coat glistens against the hollow darkness of the Void, the long streaks of white hair among his black mane drawing swift ghosts of light in the air. Confidence and wisdom emanate from every pore on his elegant, majestic form.

She follows his lead, reading the movements of his strong, muscular neck and head to guess his next steps. She veers playfully toward him, letting her shoulder brush against his before running a little further ahead of him. A weak snap of his teeth against her flanks followed by his looming shape moving quickly past her has her neighing in exhilaration.

Their hooves pound the emptiness, raising thunder at each step. It grows louder and louder and louder until it fills her ears, her whole world. She glances behind her…

… and then she sees them. Void Riders. Dozens of them, dark and imposing, of all ages and sizes, running behind her, their hooves ripping pieces of reality from the nothingness of the Void at each vigorous pounding of their hoofed feet.

They are family. Even if they are not her family, they are family. Young foals run up to her, skid and slide, jump and bite the air, playing like the children they are, making her feel welcome among the running crowd. She looks to her right to see him looking at her, his ear turned in her direction announcing his vigilance before he veers to the right and guides the whole group through the dark horizon. They gallop for a long time, amidst stars and moons, suns and comets.

The nothingness breaks. A world takes shape.

The Insula.

Standing on the borders of Reality, they look down at the mountain that rises from the bowels of the Void in crowded circles filled with gods and men and all creatures in between. Below, they look like bugs squiggling through their earthen galleries, flying through the frail strands of being that the Urbis offers. She looks at the streets she used to know, at the world that once seemed so vast and rich before her eyes.

A desperate cry breaks the silence.

She looks to her left and her eyes widen in terror. The magnificent horses struggle and kick, their limbs and necks bound by ropes wrapped so tightly around them that they cut into the skin, burying into the flesh, digging deep to the bone, staining their dark coats with the glistening oily black of their blood. They flail with their necks, throwing their heads back, standing on their hind limbs, their eyes turned with such violence that only the white sclera peek through their eyelids. Pulled in different directions, they fall to the floor, kicking the air, snapping their teeth at the ropes that keep cutting into them, ignoring pain as they flail with their necks, trying desperately to get back on their feet.

The vision paralyses her. All around her, one by one, the Void Riders fall and disappear into the darkness, dragged by the terrible ropes that seem to stretch out of nowhere, pulled by invisible hands.

By her side, a body hits the ground.

Arion. Dead. His lifeless body stares blindly into the darkness as blood drips from his nostrils, clots over the cuts on his skin through which his bones project, his guts slip out of his belly and dry while the sliced arteries on his neck slowly spurt what is left of his blood as his heart beats for the last time.

She takes a few steps back with the shock, her lips trembling with terror. Something inside her breaks. She screams. It comes out as a neigh, primal and guttural, echoing her distress through the Void.

She runs. Through the nothingness she canters without knowing where to go. She has no plans, no destination. Only fear. Only terror. They are dead! All dead, all gone! Arion is gone! What will she do now? What will she do?

The touch of the lasso against her neck makes her skid to a halt. Her thoughts rush to fill the blanks. She must have run right into it. She feels its grip tighten, feels it bite into her flesh. Panic takes over again. Her hooves pound the floor, launch her up on her hind legs, kicking wildly with her hooves until she feels her forelimbs wrapped in the rough, chafing coils of the terrible, mysterious ropes. She fights against them, ignoring the pain, the unyielding cables that keep tightening and cutting into her like blades.

Her tail is snared. She feels the hair being pulled out, the skin burned by the friction of the dragging ropes. For as much as she fights, she can’t keep them from pulling at her, jerking her left and right. Another rope shoots from the darkness to encircle her muzzle, cutting through her lips. She can taste her own blood as it washes over her tongue.

She falls.

The ropes pull her, tear at her muscles, gnaw deep into the bone while she is dragged through the Void, kicking, flailing, screaming in pain and panic at the sight of the decaying corpses of the Void Riders all lined up in two rows like the most horrific of honor guards.

In the distance, other screams pierce the darkness. Horrible screams, frightening screams made all the more blood-curdling for sounding so familiar in her ears. She redoubles her struggles against the ropes. The end of the corpse-strewn avenue seems ever closer as the eerie cables pull her relentlessly but she doesn’t want to go. She doesn’t want to see what lies there.

In her freezing, paralyzed heart, she already knows.

The stench of sulphur and blood fills her nostrils. The ropes bite deeper into her as she thrusts her neck upwards and pulls on the ones that hobble her forelimbs, trying desperately to get back on her feet.

Still, the screams grow louder, nearer. The darkness ignites.

The growling red and orange of the fire pits taint her blood-stained coat, their charring breath burns into her wounds, cauterizing her flesh, stealing her screams.  

From a hook through the throat, the imposing carcass of Arion hangs gutted, his lifeless eyes staring blindly at her as she is dragged past him, gliding over the pool of blood and other bodily fluids oozing from his slit intestines. She closes her eyes, hoping that this is just a dream, a nightmare, anything but real. She tries to wake up, begs for the morning to come.

“Alma…” a voice calls.

She shudders at her name being spoken so softly. Her eyelids lock shut.

“Alma…” the voice insists.

Please, let this be a call to wake up, she prays.

Her eyes shoot open. She wails in despair. Above her, dangling from hooks that rip through their chests, the Bunnies dangle, lifeless, cut in unspeakable ways.

Mayumi’s ears are gone and so are her hands. Her liver lies on the floor. Cherry’s tongue hangs from a hole cut in her throat. Sage’s chest is ripped apart, his tender heart revealed through the slits that run between his ribs. Closeby, Tulip’s small, frail body convulses in the last agonies of death.

“Mommy…” she hears her say before the Bunny’s throat is flooded in blood.

Amongst tears, Alma sees him holding a bloody knife, looking blankly at the Bunny’s corpse as he reaches into it and pulls out her still-beating heart.

“Alma…” he says, turning to her.

Gwydion, no! she begs in shock. Please… Why?

“Look at what you’ve made me do, Alma,” he says, his soulless eyes looking down at her as he grins and walks over to her fallen figure.

What have you done, Gwydion? My family! she cries in thought.

Tulip’s heart slips off his fingers, gets squashed under his right foot. “It’s all right, now,” he says. “Now we can be together.”

Gwydion…

The ropes pull at her. To her right, a massive foul black demon covered in red symbols, all wings and horns and claws and teeth, erupts from a fire pit, bellows in rage as he tugs at her bindings.

She looks back at Gwydion. He raises the knife.

“I just have to get you out of that disgusting body.”

She closes her eyes.

Dragonflies

The springtime sun shines softly over the small garden. The luxuriant grass that covers the ground is still moist with morning dew and the tiny white and pink wildflowers are just now beginning to open to greet the sunlight. Still, the dragonflies are already busy, buzzing all around among the shallow ponds and bird baths that lend an aura of freshness and peace to the garden, in the backyard of the small but homely Second Ring estate.

On the grass and under the sun, a small child, no older than three years of age, runs without a single care. His black hair shines in the golden light that makes his hazel eyes look almost green. He runs after the dragonflies, shrieking in childish excitement,

“Dagonfwy! Dagonfwy! Dagonfwy!”

There are dozens of them, flying all around. Red, green, purple, golden, iridescent blue, the avid hunters of flying insects dazzle the young boy with their colorful, delicate wings and zigzagging flight. He runs after all of them and none in particular, laughing as he tries to capture one.

“Careful, Dion!” Eidon, his mother, calls out. “You don’t want to get hurt.”

She is slowly moving into middle age but no one would be able to tell. She looks young and always has looked this old for as far as she can remember. And she can remember years very gone. She is, after all, a goddess.

Sitting on a large, round stone, dressed in a simple green summer dress, color matching the little boy’s playing outfit, she shines in the sunlight like a fresh stalk of a spring shoot. Her long red hair glints with bright copper as the sun shines on her, kissing her pale, freckled cheeks. Her eyes glow with the greenish-brown hue that she has passed on to her first and only son. Her pale lips smile softly at the sight of the child running after his winged infatuations.

“Look, mommy! Dagonfwy!” little Dion exclaims, pointing at a yellow spotted insect perching peacefully on a water lily. The dragonfly takes flight as soon as the child steps closer. “Hey, come he’e!”

He chases it, running clumsily, arms stretched forward. “Wwaaooowww!”

“Dion, what are you doing?” Eidon asks, chuckling at his antics.

“I calling the dagonfwy,” Dion answers between roars, looking at his mother as if this was something she should already know. “Dagons roaw.”

“I think dragonflies are a bit too tiny to be dragons,” Eidon notes with a smile.

Dion stops and looks at his mother as if she is somehow failing to grasp the essentials of dragonhood. “They shmall now but they gwow big like this!” he explains, stretching his arms until he can stretch them no more.

He starts running in circles, arms still stretched. “And they fly and they ah bwave and scawy! And then… and then… and then…” He stops as he trails off, looking unsure at first but brightening up quickly. “Then they take me flying. And you and daddy come too!”

The goddess can’t help but chuckle. “That sounds fun.”

“I gotta catch one,” Dion states, dashing off again after another dragonfly.

Midway through what must feel like a highspeed chase to such a young child, he trips and falls face first on the grass. Dion sits up, face flushed, chin trembling. He holds his knee and turns his head to look at his mother, closes his eyes and opens his mouth.

“Mommy!!” he yells at the top of his lungs, tears already rolling down his cheeks like a young river.

“Aw, now…” Eidon says, walking towards him.

She kneels by his side and places a hand over the child’s scratched knee. With a little wave and a whispered word, the shallow wound is healed. “It’s nothing, look. All gone.”

She lifts her hand so Dion can see his unblemished skin. Pain and fright already dissipated, the child tackles Eidon and holds her fiercely. The goddess strokes his hair, holding him gently but close.

“Tupid dagonfwy,” Dion grumbles, turning to shout at a passing dragonfly. “I don’ like you!”

“Aawww,” Eidon soothes him, tapping his nose with a finger before sitting, crosslegged on the grass. “Maybe it got scared with your roaring, that’s all.”

“I wanna dagon,” Dion says in a low voice, cuddling against his mother’s chest like a baby cradled to sleep.

“Hmm…maybe we can start with something smaller,” Eidon suggests.

She holds out a hand and draws a glyph in the air with her finger. A small plush gryphon appears mid-air and hovers down to Dion’s lap. “How about this little gryphon?”

She has spent many hours on the doll, insisting to make it herself without resorting to magic, knowing well how the effort and love (and occasional blood drop) put into such tasks lives on in the results long after memory fades. The brown, fuzzy gryphon with lion paws on all four limbs (Eidon had considered making talons out of wood but a second thought deemed this too dangerous for a young baby like Dion) is far from perfect but it is, nonetheless, a source of pride to the goddess.

Dion looks at the doll, then at his mother. “Foh me?:

Eidon smiles. “Yes, for you. Say hi to him.”

Dion holds the toy at eye level. “Hi….” He smiles and hugs the gryphon tightly. “I like him!”

“I’m glad,” the goddess replies, wrapping her arms around boy and toy. “But he needs a name.”

Dion looks thoughtful for a moment. “Hmm… I know! Gyphy!”

“Gyphy?”

“No!” Dion exclaims. “Not Gyphy! Gyphy!”

It takes an instant of advanced translation for Eidon to understand. “Ah… You mean Gryphy.”

“Yesh,” Dion nods, hugging the doll. “His name is Gyphy. An’ he’sh mine.”

A tall, dark-haired god arrives at the garden, dressed in wizardly robes. Although his golden eyes and tanned skin bear no resemblance to the young boy’s, no one would be able to say this god is not his father. Dion’s facial features are the faithful copy of the well-mannered god’s. In time, the little boy will develop his father’s broad shoulders, his strong jawline, the easy smile and expressive eyebrows. For now, he has developed a son’s love of his father and shoots to his feet to run into the arms of the god, Giffleu.

“Hi there, buddy,” Giffleu greets his son, picking him up. He turns his attention to Eidon, for a moment. “Hello, sweetheart.”

“Look, daddy!” Dion exclaims, practically shoving his brand new toy in his father’s face. “I got a pwesent!”

Giffleu smiles broadly, tilting his head slightly back to look at the doll. “Oh, good! A new friend. Have you named him yet?”

“Yesh, this is Gyphy!” Dion answers happily. “He’s a gyphon. Gyphons are stwong!”

“Hmm… Gyphy–” Giffleu murmurs.

“It’s Gryphy,” Eidon corrects her loving husband as she approaches him.

“Right,” Giffleu says without missing a beat. “And did you know that gryphons can fly?”

Dion nods, pointing at Gryphy’s short, stubby wings. “Hmm mm. They got wings.”

“Do you want to see Gryphy fly?” Giffleu inquires.

Dion’s eyes widen at the prospect. “Can I?” he asks with excitement. “Can I? Can I?”

“Of course,” Giffleu replies with a chuckle. “He wouldn’t be a real gryphon if he couldn’t.”

“Show me,” Dion demands, shoving the gryphon in his father’s face again.

Giffleu gently pushes Gryphy away from his mouth, then puts his hand on the doll’s head. A whispered word of command and Gryphy’s eyes shine with the spark of animation. The gryphon’s head turns to one side, then another. His wings start flapping. And then, Gryphy leaps and takes flight, soaring over and around Giffleu’s head. Dion watches all of this, mesmerized, jaw dropped open in wonder. He stretches a hand and Gryphy flies lower, hovering just in front of the boy, wings flapping slowly. Giffleu puts Dion down on the floor and Gryphy follows his owner, landing by the child’s feet. Dion bends down and picks him up, hugs him tightly and then, after a quick glance to his parents, runs off to show Gryphy the garden and the dragonflies.

“Do you think we could somehow record this?” Eidon wonders after a welcome home kiss to her husband. “I want him to remember this moment.”

Giffleu smiles, an arm wrapping around Eidon’s back as they watch their son play. “How could he forget this, my love? Being pampered and loved by his beautiful mother?”

“Lyria says most children forget, that he will not remember this in a few years,” Eidon replies, leaning against the god. “I don’t want to risk it. I want him to always know how much he is loved.”

“We will make sure he remembers,” Giffleu says, kissing her head. “So, Lyria has visited, then?”

Eidon nods. “I asked her to come over to look at that spot in our garden where nothing ever grows. Maybe she will bring her little girl over next time. I’m sure Dion would like a playmate.”

A less fearful dragonfly lands on Dion’s nose and perches there for a moment, making the little boy twist his face in funny ways to try and focus his eyes on the colorful bug. A wiggle too many of Dion’s nose and the dragonfly takes off.

“Come back!” Dion calls as he chases it.

Giffleu and Eidon laugh in parental bliss.

“She is a frail little girl, I hear,” Giffleu notes. “Lyria’s daughter. Often sick. Stays indoors most of the time.”

“Oh…” Eidon mouths, leaning down to welcome a tired Dion into her embrace and pick him up. “Lyria didn’t tell me anything about illnesses. That explains why she is always so hesitant to schedule anything… Well, maybe in a few years her baby will be a bit stronger and then she can come and play.”

She rubs her nose against Dion’s, making him giggle. “And then you could have a little friend your age to grow up with you. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

An Assassin Awakes

Saira stalks the rooftops under the light of six different moons of various colors. For once, she is speeding to return to her gang’s hideout. The cold night air feels stifling. Something in her is screaming for urgency, telling her to go back even though she has been away for less than two hours and not captured anything worth selling or keeping.

The air is warning her of something terribly wrong. A faint scent of smoke taunts her nostrils.

She rushes.

Soon, the scent becomes stronger, the air thicker. Images become blurred by wisps of smoke. Shouts of alarm fill the otherwise silent night.

Saira stops. Listens.

“Fire!

“Fire!

Ice shoots down her spine, her legs spring into action. The cries are coming from the vicinity of her gang’s lair. She runs into the growing smoke, sees the flames rising from the old abandoned building she has come to call home. She jumps from a rooftop onto a balcony, a jump she has made a thousand times. The smoke and heat blind her but still she makes it. Against the roaring of flame, she can still hear faint screams coming from the inside. Her eyes fill with tears from grief and smoke.

Inside, her whole gang, her friends, her family, lie scattered. Some dead, some dying, all wounded, bodies pierced by blades, skulls bashed, limbs resting in positions that no healthy limb can be expected to adopt. The flames are too hot, the smoke too thick. The dying will soon be dead and there is nothing Saira can do to save them. Anger rises. Two of them are just kids…

Who did this?

Her eyes catch movement on the nearby rooftops. Saira doesn’t think twice. She leaps.

She doesn’t make it.

She falls…

She wakes and sits up, gasping for air, her hands reaching out and grabbing…something for dear life. Something firm but yielding. The colorful blurs before her eyes resolve into an image as her vision kicks in. She is holding onto Alma’s arms. Sitting by her, the goddess does not resist or fight her. Instead, she cups Saira’s elbows with her hands and gently pulls her closer, lightly pressing her cool lips to the woman’s forehead.

Saira lets her do it, wondering dreamily why it is that the goddess is kissing her.

“Finally, the fever breaks,” Alma whispers.

Fever? Saira wonder. Was she just checking my temperature?

“Where – Where am I?” she asks.

Her voice sounds raspy and weak to her ears, as if she has been screaming at the top of her lungs for hours. Alma, a mask of serenity on her face, slowly lowers Saira down to her pillow. The woman cannot find the strength to resist her.

“You are in my room, at the station,” Alma replies.

What?! “Why?”

A sudden spasm on her right leg makes her cringe and grind her teeth in pain. Her muscles contract with such strength that she could swear her right leg has suddenly become considerably shorter than the left. She closes her eyes to the pain but a touch of Alma’s hand over the sheets that cover her leg instantly washes the pain away. The abrupt relief has Saira gasping at first, then sighing gratefully. She opens her eyes again.

“Better?” Alma asks her. At a subtle nod from the woman, the goddess rises to her feet and crosses the room toward some sort of table or workbench. “You were wounded during our fight with the demon at the warehouse. I have managed to heal your flesh but your wound was contaminated with demon blood. Alas, there is only so much I can do against that.”

Memory slowly starts creeping back in. The piercing pain, the horrible spastic agony. Saira shudders at it. “So I’ve been here since then?”

Alma busies herself pouring hot water into a mug from a kettle that was sitting on a small gas stove. The scent that immediately fills the room is suspiciously medicinal. “Yes. Your body has been fighting against the poison for days. I was beginning to wonder if the fever would ever break.”

Saira touches her hand to her temple. Both are covered in sweat. Feeling as if she is still dreaming, her elusive thoughts still running ahead of her, she tries to make sense of her situation.

You brought me to the station… she realizes.

Her shocked words echo her thoughts. “You brought an assassin to a damned Guardia station?! The only way someone like me should end up here would be locked in a cell!”

Alma returns with the mug, looking and speaking like a resigned parent dealing with a particularly trying child. “Well, that could be arranged. But it would be a great deal more uncomfortable for someone in your condition.” She hands Saira the mug. “Here, drink this.”

Saira sniffs the brownish liquid, like a suspicious animal. “What is it? Some magic potion or something?”

Alma chuckles lightly. Saira almost expects her to call her silly but she says instead, “Close enough. It’s tea. With honey. You haven’t eaten anything in days. We need to get some nourishment in you. Settle your stomach.”

Saira drinks. The warm drink feels almost like a brick hitting her thoroughly empty stomach. Still, it tastes like a splash of Heaven. She looks around. “So this is your room?”

Alma smiles at her, obviously pleased to see her drink. “Yes, my sanctum. Where I am strongest and safest.” She walks away towards a wardrobe by the left of the bed. “And where I return to regain my strength.”

Saira takes the chance to look around more carefully. The whole room does feel like a sanctuary, peaceful and welcoming. Bookshelves line the walls and a little nook full of pillows offers the perfect place to relax and read them. A pool, to the right–

Wait, she has a pool in her bedroom?! she thinks, wide-eyed. With a fountain? Wow… Now that’s living in style.

Above the pool, inlaid in the wall, a cage, beautiful and filled with plants and flowers. Saira wonders for a moment at why Alma would keep her plants caged but then she notices it. Amidst the foliage, two beautiful ambarine eyes watch her. Beyond them, a sparkling-blue feathered body stretches, slender, elegant. A bird unlike any she has ever seen before watches her through the silvery bars of its cage.

Pretty… she thinks under the scrutiny of eyes that look too intelligent to be attached to an animal.

“I don’t get it,” Saira whispers, almost without noticing. “I really don’t. Why would you bring me here?”

Alma glances over her shoulder at Saira, eyebrow raised. “Would you rather have me leave you at that warehouse, wounded and sick after you helped save my Bunnies twice?”

“That’s just it! Why not just use me and throw me away after I become useless?” Saira insists. “I’m a killer, a criminal. Why would you care about what happens to me?”

Seemingly distracted, Alma picks a black nightgown among her clothes. “Because someone should.”

“Right, now give me the real reason,” Saira mutters, annoyed by Alma’s apparent indifference to her words.

Alma walks toward the alcove on the floor by the pool and puts the nightgown down by it. “Even if you cannot accept my gratitude to you, there should not need to be a reason to be kind.”

She walks to the workbench, picks up a tray with food and brings it to the alcove. “Saira, I am a goddess of death. In the path of my calling, I have met all sorts of people from all walks of life. I have seen their souls dissolve into memories, whole lifetimes reduced to a single moment. To some people, the only act of kindness they will ever know in life is the company of a death god as they leave it. And by then, it is too late.”

Never looking at the woman, she walks to the pool, tests the water with a bare foot. “We can never tell the full consequences of our actions, Saira. Every action taken, every word spoken, everything we forget or refuse to say, they all matter. If not to us, then to someone else.”

She finally looks at Saira, her face tranquil, pragmatic. “So why do I care? Because someone should. Because souls are saved and lives are changed only when someone decides to care.”

Saira can only snort at the speech. “It’s a nice dream.”

Alma smiles patiently as she walks back to the bed. “I am a mother, little one. My one dream is for my children’s happiness. It should be a nice one.”

Saira puts the mug, now empty, down on the bedside table. “So…am I a prisoner here?”

Alma shakes her head. “No, you are a guest, free to go wherever  you wish. However–”

She rushes to help Saira, who, weak from the poison and inactivity, had tried to get out of bed and almost fallen on the floor.

“You are in no condition to go anywhere on your own,” the goddess explains, putting an arm around Saira and helping her to her feet. “Come, time for a bath. You smell like days of feverish sweating.”

Slowly, Alma helps Saira cross the short distance to the pool and remove her sweat-soaked nightgown. Stone steps hidden in the water make it easier to lower the woman into the pool, and soon Saira sits on one of them, only her head above water, enjoying the lukewarm bath that makes her feel rejuvenated. Alma rinses her hair, then washes it with some sort of liquid that smells faintly of peaches. Another rinse and the goddess rises to her feet, removes her dress and walks into the pool as well.

Saira lets her wash her body, almost in a trance. The whole thing feels surreal. A goddess, a death goddess, by all accounts a higher, transcendental being with no reason to care about the lowly mortals whose souls she is tasked to harvest when the time comes, is actually taking the time to help her, a killer, a bad person according to the frail principles of mankind. She doesn’t seem disgusted by Saira’s sweaty, smelly body or bothered that she is currently completely naked and vulnerable in the presence of the woman she has willingly brought into her sanctum.

Thoroughly clean now and smelling of wildflowers, Saira is helped out of the pool. Immediately, she feels a soft breeze begin to blow against her body and through her hair, drying her off. It feels wonderful and relaxing, like a cool breeze at the end of a long, hot day.

By her side and always keeping an eye on her patient, Alma picks up the clean nightgown and helps Saira into it. It is very light and comfortable, with a flattering cut meant to show off a beautiful body without revealing too much skin.  

“Black,” Saira notes, running her hand over the silky fabric. “Always thought that’s what death gods would wear. Like a clan mark or something.”

Alma helps her into the pillow-lined alcove, holding her by the arms as Saira sits down and reclines.

“Not all of us do,” the goddess explains. “I haven’t worn black since I joined the Guardia.” She lays the food tray on Saira’s legs. “Remember, small morsels. We don’t want to overload a stomach that is no longer used to food.”

Saira nods and starts eating. It is only then that she notices the large ball of fur lying on a pillow just to her left. The ball unfurls, resolves into a brown-grey, long and slightly fat cat that stretches lazily, yawning at Saira. At the enticing scent of the cold cuts of meat served on a small plate currently sitting on the food tray, the cat starts walking towards the woman, purring, stopping just by her legs and sitting down, staring at Saira with huge, yellow-green eyes. She meows once. Saira splits a small slice of meat and offers half of it to the cat, holding it so it can eat, while she eats the other half.

Her eyes wander to Alma. Still naked and apparently not in the least bothered by it, the goddess is now standing by the wardrobe, hair already dry. Saira watches as she dresses, covering a beautifully pale, flawless body with a simple but elegant Dei-blue dress. The sight of the goddess getting ready to go out makes the mortal woman feel slightly uncomfortable in her own skin. Usually confident in her physical attributes, Saira feels crude and vulgar when compared to Alma’s divine, solemn beauty.

The goddess, however, does not seem to mind her audience.

“I will ask one of the Bunnies to come and change the bedsheets,” she says. “Other than that, they should leave you be and let you rest. If they do, for some reason, bother you with their curiosity, don’t be afraid to ask them to leave.”

“Where are you going?” Saira asks, absentmindedly scratching the purring cat behind its ears.

Now fully dressed and ready, Alma walks up to Saira again. “I am going to find someone dying alone tonight and keep them company.”

“Alma?” the woman whispers, looking up at the goddess as she leans down and kisses Saira’s forehead.

“Yes, little one?” Alma replies, stroking the cat’s chin before standing straight again.

Saira breathes deeply, feeling awkward at the unusual words. “I haven’t said these words and meant them in a long time but…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “And that is how a life is changed. Good night, little one.”

Saira watches her leave. “Good night.”

Geryon’s Transformation

The air hangs heavy in the dark, musty twilight of the ancient library of the High Academy of Magical Studies. It is a dark, eerie place of endless ominous rows of bookshelves and parchment shelves and sunbaked-plaque shelves and whatever other shelves the librarians had to come up with throughout the centuries to hold countless volumes of written, drawn and sometimes hand-signed knowledge. In their neatly organized shelves, the magic books stir at the unused nightly company. Glowing faintly, rattling their bindings, humming, they all seem to watch their unexpected guests, focusing their attention on the two stalking shadows that navigate the hallways in search of – wait a minute…

“Why again did you bring me to the library at this time of night?” Geryon asks.

His whispers, low as they are, seem to echo off the walls. Around him, the books flap their covers and flip their pages, mimicking the young wizard’s words almost perfectly with their sound.

Geryon cringes at the terrible murmur. Blasted library! To Hell with it and its keepers! It is bad enough in daytime but this feels like the opening of a bad horror story where the hysterical girl gets to live and the skeptic intellectual ends up impaled on a lampost…

“I did not bring you here, you followed me,” Dion whispers at him in annoyance. “Now stop making such a racket.”

“Well, if you are going to be picky about it…” Geryon retorts. “That still does not explain why we are sneaking into the library instead of into a well-lit pub. I thought you wanted to drink.”

Behind Geryon, a group of books bursts into song, making the young wizard jump a foot high in the air before realizing what has happened. He glares resentfully at the whole thirty-two-volume The Magic in Music collection as the tomes fall into a soft-toned chorus about a flower, a lunatic and a bicycle of some sort.

Both lurkers fall silent for a moment until the song and the noise die away. Thankfully, it is the librarian’s night off and no one is keen enough on finding a book to look for it themselves. The whole damned place is organized according to some indecipherable scheme created by the former librarian as a form of cruel and unusual punishment to students he did not like (i.e., any student really), making it nearly impossible to find whatever it is one is looking for without expert help. And Geryon can just swear that some of those older, nastier grimoires just hide behind other books to escape the probing hands of the more dedicated academic overachievers. Some of those leafy old buggers even seem to prey on their weaker co-inhabitants, growing thicker and thicker by the year. New editions…yeah, right!

Finally, Dion decides to speak. “I do not just intend to drink, I intend to get drunk.”

“Well, one does tend to follow the other quite nicely…” Geryon notes. His brow furrows. “Wait a minute, since when do you get drunk? You are a god and all that.”

Dion stops and turns to look at his friend. Even in the faint light, Geryon can just see the faint white glow of the god’s scleras as his eyes roll in their sockets. “Of course I can get drunk if I so choose. All I have to do is cancel my magic protections against toxic substances…” He shakes the two bottles in his left hand. “…such as alcohol.”  

“Can’t we at least get drunk in a less eerie place like say…a pub with busty barmaids?” Geryon insists. “Actually make it a pleasurable experience, so to speak?”

“I don’t want to get drunk with waitresses,” Dion waves him off. “Besides, I’ve been with them all.”

The words raise concern with Geryon. It is not that Dion is lying about having been with probably every single attractive (and sometimes even mildly unattractive) barmaid in the area. Finding a bar with at least one girl left untouched by him has become as difficult as finding a pair of matching socks in the Dean’s dresser (especially since stealing a sock from the Dean’s dresser was instituted as a freshman rite of passage by, well, Dion). But the god is not the type to drink alone or sulk in a corner as he nurses a pint. In fact, Geryon cannot remember Dion ever being anything other than jovial, charming, quick-witted and mischievous in the best of academic traditions. Without a drop of evil or bile, the young god seems to have never experienced worry or stress in his leisurely life. This sudden wish for isolation is completely out of character for him.

“Maybe they hired someone new,” Geryon ventures in a singsong voice.

“Will you stop?!” Dion nearly roars into the dark, high ceilings, like a huge beast trapped in its dark cave. In their shelves, the books sussurate, the plaques rattle, the prayer bells howl, the rune bones clickity-clack against their hardwood casings. The library seems to shake in fear at the sudden outburst.

Obviously annoyed at his own carelessness, the god sits down with his back against the shelves harboring the dusty, slowly disintegrating remains of the Ware’s An Hundred and Seventeen Marvelouss Transformations (With Many Uses Of a Moste Perntinente and Perspicatiouss Nature) collection of scrolls and goes silent until silence returns. When he speaks again, he is little more than hissing at a rather shocked, tremulous Geryon. “Why don’t you just leave? I am perfectly capable of getting drunk on my own, thank you very much.”

The young wizard looks down at his friend, wondering for a moment where this side of him has been hidden for so long. Sitting against the dusty bookshelves filled with ancient knowledge, opening one of the liquor bottles as if he holds a grudge against it, Dion looks like a grumpy old predator hiding to lick his wounds. Still, he also looks just like the same Dion from a few hours ago. For all he sounded positively terrifying when he roared, Geryon knows his friend. Ignoring his icy cold spine and making a big show of looking unphased, he sits down by Dion and extends a hand to the god.

“Fine… Pass it on, then,” he says with false irritation. “If you’re getting drunk, I  might as well keep you company.”

Dion opens the second bottle and hands it to him, muttering a warning. “Careful, it was made for gods.”

Geryon pauses with the bottle half raised to his lips. “Will it kill me?” he asks.

The god shrugs. “Probably not.”

“Probably?” Geryon raises an eyebrow.

Dion shrugs again before taking a swig of the sweet-scented liquid. “Don’t know… Never heard of humans drinking it.”

Geryon drinks anyway, on the basic premise that he is young and healthy, used to dealing with magic, and there is no way in the Insula he is going to just sit and watch Dion get drunk without getting in on the action. Thankfully, the drink does not kill him nor does it cause any changes he cannot live with (like turn his skin purple with pink polkadots). He is, however, left nicely drunk after just a half dozen swigs. Before he realizes it, Dion has already taken the bottle that Geryon was drinking from and switched it with the bottle that the god has just emptied. Even with his defenses and spells down, it still takes Dion a considerable amount of time and alcohol to get drunk.

“Why – Why we gettin’ drunk anyway?” Geryon asks.

The liquor makes thinking difficult. Geryon tries to read the label painted on the bottle, which, really, is what he should have done before drinking. The golden, handwritten lines that should resolve into some form of a written language (and Geryon knows plenty, misfit intellectual that he is) seem to run and squirm away from his sight, huddling into an indecipherable pile of…of…really fancy squiggly things.

“Ah’m…” Dion begins to slur. “Ah’m gettin’ drunk to…forget…somethin’. I got no idea why you’re gettin’ drunk.”

Geryon snorts and points at himself. “Look at me. I mean, look…at…me. I look like I need a reason?”

Dion looks his friend up and down, appraisingly. “You look like you need a miracle fro’ tha god o’ beauty, thass wha’ you need. An’ some muscle. Like, actual muscle.”

Geryon looks down at his own pale, scrawny body that somehow seems to include more bones, joints and skin than should be allocated to any normal human being. Blonde haired and blue-eyed, the young wizard looks like a mockery of the handsome First Ring god stereotype made popular by the cheap romantic novels that human girls spend so much time reading. He resents the muscles that will not bulge on his chest, the weakness of his thin arms that makes him unfit to lift anything heavier than a couple of textbooks. Hanging out with Dion at least makes him feel better about himself, as the god cannot be bothered to spend time appraising the looks of any person he does not plan on bedding. Well, at least not when he is sober.

“Ya know, ya should learn t’be nice t’people you don’t wanna hump,” Geryon retorts.

Dion seems to consider this, taking another, careful look at Geryon. “Well, you got good bones. Mean, all you got is bones. An’ skin.” He shakes a couple of fingers in the general direction of Geryon’s head. “An’ that thing you call hair.”

“Don’t you badmouth my hair!” the young wizard shrieks, raising a chorus of rustling pages. “Is’ my best quality!”

Dion blinks and opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out of it for a while. “Tha’ really says lots ‘bout you,” he finally says.

Geryon sighs. Truth be told, even his hair is terrible. Still, there are some things a drunken person just does not admit even to one’s drunken best friend. He lets silence creep in again before trying a new stab at the conversation.

“So…what you tryin’ to forget?”

“Huh?” Dion looks at him as if he doesn’t remember how he even got here in the first place.

“What you tryin’ to forget?” Geryon insists.

“Oh…” Dion looks down for a moment. “I don’ remember.”

“Is it a girl?” Geryon asks with a grin.

Dion shakes his head. “No, iss the booze,” he slurs, raising his empty bottle. “Really works.”

“Lessee… what did I wanna forget?” the god wonders, tapping the mouth of the bottle against his temple. Suddenly, he brightens up. “Oh! I remember!”

“Good, what is it?” Geryon urges him on.

“Oh…oh…” Dion’s face contracts in a grimace. “I wanna forget again.”

“Oh, come on!” Geryon cries, throwing his hands up in frustration.

Dion little more than whimpers. “Ah’m sad.”

“Sad?” Geryon protests. “Why’re you sad? You’re powerful, you’re smart, you’re goo’lookin’.”

“Thanks,” Dion mutters.

“Seriously, I’d do you,” Geryon states almost solemnly, looking sideways at Dion.

“Awww…. I’d do you too,” the god replies almost automatically. He raises an eyebrow in afterthought. “After lots more booze.”

“Yeah…” Geryon concedes, surreptitiously checking his empty bottle for any leftover drink.  “Anyway, all the chicks love you. You’re immortal, you’re a god–”

“Not all chicks,” Dion interrupts him.

Geryon snorts and waves him off. “Shut up! Who’d say no to you?”

Dion becomes very quiet again. “She did. An’…She’s dead.”

Geryon’s brow furrows in confusion. “You killed her? Thass cold, man.”

“I didn’t kill her, she died.” Dion explains. His voice is low now, almost muffled. The shadows in the library seem to wrap around him. “Last week. Edine. Thass her name… I really liked her. She was like, my first love. Even went dragon huntin’ in the Lands for her. Come back, she’s engaged to some idiot light god.”

“Oh…” Geryon mouths. He feels himself sobering up a bit. “How’d she die?”

Dion shrugs at this. “Freakish accident. Drowned at that big be-mortal-for-a-time resort thing downslope. Was takin’ a vacation there after separating from the jerk. I wass…you know, juss waitin’ for her to come back up. Take my shot again.”

Geryon nods. If love is a difficult thing among mortals, gods sure do take it to an extreme. They can have the emotional attention span of a shrew in heat or nurse an infatuation for centuries. They may love a being, any being, with a searing intensity that makes mortals dream of a lifetime of companionship, only to let go a few days later, satisfied in their emotions and having loved no less truly for having loved so shortly. And they can carry a torch for centuries without their feelings ever dwindling, ever wavering, regardless of whether or not they are loved back. Gods are plagued with eternity and with memory. And it’s really a close call, which of them can hurt them more. “Yeah, I remember…when I heard a ‘no’ for the first time.”

“Must’ve been tough,” Dion notes, glancing at the young wizard in sympathy. And then, because alcohol numbs sense beyond simple compassion, he adds, “You look like that, back then?”

“Wass that s’posed to mean?” Geryon mutters resentfully.

“You kinda look like a sewer rat on a bad day,” Dion replies. “An’ Ah’m drunk on Ambrosia. If that can’t make you look good, nothin’ can.”

“Hah! Wanna bet?” Geryon challenges him, looking up at the Ware’s scroll shelves. “‘s gotta be a spell somewhere in here tha’ can do that!”

Dion’s eyes suddenly widen, his face lights up. “I got an idea!”

Geryon tries to blink away the golden haze that is currently clouding his judgement. “Wha?”

“Let’s find it!” Dion exclaims, jumping to his feet to a nearby chorus of background music hummed by the more flashy volumes of The Magic in Music.

“Wha?” Geryon asks again, looking up at the god.

“The spell!” Dion explains in excitement. “Let’s find it, get you all buffed up, lookin’ real nice…THEN we hit the pub.”

Geryon’s synapses fire up at that. “Pub? I’m likin’ this already!”

He shoots up to his feet and starts racing Dion to find the right scroll. A momentary thought makes him pause. “Wait…isn’ tha’ kinda dangerous? What if you turn me into a hairy caterpillar or somethin’?”

“I promise, nothing less than vertebrate or higher!” Dion reassures him. “Come on… All these spells have counterspells anyway.”

“Well, fine…” Geryon submits. “Bu’ you’re not turnin’ me into a girl!”

Dion grins. “Oh, then I’d do you for sure! Come on!”

They scour the shelves of thick, ancient scrolls, struggling to read the fading labels engraved on the thick leather casings. They move from shelf to shelf, racing at first but then slowly losing momentum as their initial enthusiasm begins to dwindle with frustration.

Suddenly, Dion’s voice rings with renewed excitement.

“I found it! I found it!” he cries, hefting the heavy scroll out of its shelf. “Hear this ‘Dis Spelle Will Make The Subject Stronge as a Lion and Powerful as an Raptor’.”

Geryon’s eyes light up and widen. He starts shaking in anticipation. “Oooooooooh! Try it! Try it!”

“Ssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…” Dion scolds him. “Ah need to concen – concentrecate – focus.”

Painful empty minutes go by as Dion wrestles the scroll some more before finally removing it from the shelf and from its casing. The ancient parchment seems to crack and crumble at Dion’s every touch and the god struggles to unfurl it and get the complex enchantment in shape to be cast. He reads the words with care, taking the time to correctly pronounce each syllable.

Soon, the floor around Geryon’s feet is glowing golden. In the massive library, the books seem to murmur at first, flipping their pages in nervousness. Then, they go dead silent. Geryon rises in the air. His world is filled with a brilliant light and muffled, somewhat slurred chanting punctuated by occasional swearing as Dion struggles to read the next line of the spell. The wizard’s body begins to feel strange.

Something is not right.

Pain erupts from every limb, from every organ. It sparks in places that Geryon did not know he had. It leaves him breathless, voiceless as bones are reshaped, unfamiliar muscles bulge, hair grows. He is blinded by the light but he can swear he even feels his nails grow and change, his teeth sink back into his gums and merge with his skull.

Something is not right.

But it all happens so fast, so overwhelmingly fast that he cannot even call out to Dion to stop and save him. In the blink of an eye, the light is gone and he is standing again on the creaky wooden floors of the bleak, dark library, on all four of his paws.

ON ALL FOUR OF HIS PAWS?!

A few steps away, Dion looks down at him, jaw dropped.

The god scratches his head and looks back at the scroll as if puzzled by the results of his spell. In his hands, the scroll crumbles, falling to the floor in a neat pile of moldering dust.

Dion looks down at it, blinks. “Oooooooooh crap…”

Alma and the Bunnies 2

Cherry clears her throat and asks, “Hey, uh…Mom? I got a question… Wait a second… Mama? Mommy? Hey whaddya wanna be called, huh? We ain’t never had anyone to call that before.” At first she sounds as if she is trying to make a joke, but as she trails off, Cherry’s voice becomes small and wistful.

Alma is now barely able to move with Tulip on her right shoulder, Mayumi on her left, and Cherry trapping her left arm against Mayumi’s back. All the Bunnies have their own rooms now, upstairs, but sometimes they just seem to need these moments of closeness, of reconnection,  when they come together and dogpile on her. Or Bunny-pile.

“Whatever you feel comfortable calling me is what you should call me,” she replies. “I will not hold it against you if all you can call me is Alma.”

Sage gently scoops up Tulip and carries her to the foot of the bed. “To me, ‘Mother’ sounds right, but sometimes ‘Mama’ feels right too.”

Ugh, that’s it. I’m going to be sick. Nekh fades away and Alma feels relief as his oppressive presence lifts from her mind for the moment.

Mayumi snuggles in closer. “I was raised to say that sort of thing quite formally.” She chuckles almost silently. “And in front of the Guardia officers, I couldn’t possibly call you even ‘Alma’. It would seem so…disrespectful to call you anything other than ‘Sergeant’ or ‘Ma’am’.”

Alma shakes her head. “I see no disrespect in it. But I do understand. You were going to ask a question, Cherry?”

Cherry looks up in surprise, as if she had completely forgotten this. Then, she seems to remember, “Oh yeah! Before I so rudely interrupted myself! I was gonna ask if you, uh, ever had a relationship gone wrong. Cause it kinda sounded like you were talkin’ from experience before.”

“Oh…” Alma’s voice trails off for a moment. “I… It did not exactly go wrong.” She grimaces. “And then again, I suppose it did. It started like a bedtime fairytale but then…circumstances pulled us apart.”

Cherry releases Mayumi’s hand and strokes Alma’s cheek. “You don’t gotta tell us if you ain’t ready. But now or later, we’re always ready to listen.”

“That’s right,” Rosemary chirps. “We’re bartenders, after all!”

Alma chuckles, and focuses on Mayumi’s brown eyes. “It was a bit like it is with you, dear. I had a strict, protected childhood. He was, and is, much older than I. Everything felt like the answer to a much-repeated prayer. The things I saw and learned from him were so different from what I had been allowed to see before. I often wondered if I didn’t look like a child in his eyes, if my words rang childish in his ears.” She smiles. “But one by one, he dispelled those fears and we were happy.”

Oh, what a happy-ever-after princess you are!

Alma mentally groans at Nekh’s return.

“So how come you guys ain’t together anymore?” Cherry asks.

Oh yes, do tell!

Alma breathes deeply, knowing what direction the conversation is taking and bracing herself for what comes next. Sooner or later, the truth would have had to come out. “Gods have their callings. And he was called away to look after his family. He is a Void Rider, a god of the vast nothingness beyond the Insula. And I… Like many other gods, I cannot survive there.”

Mayumi raises herself up on her elbows, her ears alert, her expression puzzled.

Cherry, her view of Alma blocked, shifts to sit cross-legged, and tilts her head to the side. “Void Rider…what’s that? Sounds kinda cool!”

Alma takes the opportunity to sit up as well, stretching her freed arms above her head. She says to Cherry, “They are gods of creation, of reality. Most of the time, they look like great, majestic horses. There are dozens of them.” She sighs. “He is their leader, so he must stay with them. As I must stay with you.”

Rosemary grins. “A horse, is he?”

Cherry looks Alma up and down with a lazy smile. “My oh my…” she says, while Mayumi simply blinks and blushes. Sage, on the other hand, does not seem surprised at all.

Ignoring Nekh’s derisive laughter, Alma smiles and says, “Some gods can change their shape, Rosemary… When I met him, he looked more…human. Albeit with some unusual characteristics.”

There is a heartbeat of silence before Cherry and Rosemary burst into laughter, Rosemary almost rolling off the edge of the bed, clutching her belly and curling into a fetal position, while Cherry flops onto her back again, head hanging off the upper end of the bed. Sage shakes his head and puts his palm to his face, while Mayumi just giggles quietly. The cat, Lexie, gives Rosemary an annoyed look and moves down to the end of the bed to sit next to Tulip, where she starts cleaning herself.

And you say I have a filthy mind, Nekh mutters. I don’t hold a candle to those two.

Alma blinks before realization dawns, then she chuckles, and the chuckle grows into a laugh. “I suppose I should have phrased that better. I meant his face…”

Rosemary finally stops laughing, and gasping for breath, rolls back to face Alma. “Och, we’re sorry! Our minds’re naturally right dirty.”

Alma shakes her head. “I wonder who you two take after…”

Mayumi sighs. “They’re really not quite as bad as they pretend to be.”

Alma shakes her head. “Moving on… He visited the Insula a few more times after that. But he can never stay long. Our love story has been on hold for a little over a decade, now.

Oh please, Nekh whines. Can’t you see he’s just not that into you? If he gave a damn, he wouldn’t stay away.

You sound like you are giving relationship advice now, Alma replies, amused, causing Nekh to groan and make sounds in her head of stomping away and slamming a door. As she feels that oppressive presence disappear again, she thinks to herself, I need to cuddle with my Bunnies more often.

Rosemary sits up. “A little over a decade? As in…thirteen years plus a bit?” She looks at Sage sitting at the end of the bed, blanket-wrapped Tulip curled up next to him. Sage nods at her, a slight smile on his lips.

 

Cherry sits up and looks at a grinning Rosemary, a smiling Sage, at Mayumi with her hand to her mouth, before looking at Alma, who watches and waits for their reactions as the truth dawns on them. “Huh?” Cherry looks at Tulip, who amazingly has slept through all this noise. “Wait, what??”

Sage asks quietly, “Do you mean this god is…our father?”

Alma takes a deep breath. It is time. “Yes. His name is Arion. When he left, Cherry and Rosemary had just been created.”

“But then,” Mayumi asks, “a little later he returned?”

“We were in love,” Alma says. “I love him still.”

Rosemary coos, “Awwww!”

Cherry raises her hand like a student. “So if we’re half horse, how come we got bunny ears instead a’ pony ears? I mean, that just makes zero sense.”

Alma says gently, “You are the result of a mystical process of creation, Cherry. You could just as well have dog tails. He is not your father in the traditional sense of the word, after all.”

Cherry grimaces. “Dog tails! Urgh! I like my Bunny tail!”

Alma shakes her head. “I miss him terribly but we just cannot seem to find a way to be together for longer than a glimpse into each other’s dreams. Loving each other and staying together are two very different things. Especially when gods are concerned.”

Mayumi nods slightly at this, her face thoughtful. Alma looks at her sadly, hoping that she and Sky will find a way.

Sage interrupts her thoughts, speaking up softly. “He came to me in a dream. When I was in the cage. He let me know you all were on your way to help.”

Alma raises her eyebrows in surprise, then smiles. “I am glad he did. And that he sent help so we could arrive quickly. Your father loves you and looks after you just as much as I do. Never doubt that.”

Mayumi hesitantly speaks, “I think…I had some sort of dream about him. But it’s very vague. Perhaps it was nothing. I can’t recall all of it.” For a moment she seems about to say more, but she closes her mouth and shakes her head slightly.

“Huh,” Cherry huffs, crossing her arms. “I don’t remember dreamin’ about him, but I sure would like to.”

Alma strokes the Bunny’s ears, the black fur amazingly soft. “If I see him in my dreams, I will let him know you want to meet him. But I have no way to control when it will happen. I have not dreamt of him since our first night here.”

Rosemary takes the cloth on Saira’s forehead and goes to the pool to wet it. “Well, we’re just happy ye’ve got someone here in the wakin’ world now.”

Cherry giggles and fans herself with her hand. “Yeah, talk about ‘my oh my!’ Hey, does this mean Dion’s off-limits to me and Mer?” She winks at Alma.

Rosemary laughs as she sits on the bed again and puts the cloth on Saira’s forehead. “Aw! Say it ain’t so!”

Alma looks at them, crossing her arms. “I would love to know just what you two are talking about.”

Mayumi looks at them disapprovingly. “They are just teasing, Mother.” Cherry sticks her tongue out at Mayumi.

“I see,” Alma says, choosing her words carefully. “So…you want to know if Gwydion and I… If we are involved romantically.”

Rosemary claps her hands, delighted. “Yes! Yes! Oh ye are, ain’t ye? The way ye look at each other!” She sighs at the romance of it.

Cherry chuckles. “The way you smell like each other.”

Alma rolls her eyes. Bunny noses… “We have been enjoying each other’s company, yes. But I am afraid neither of us is prepared to commit to any more than that.”

Mayumi says, gently, “He has…surprised us.” She smiles.

Sage nods. “Mmm. We really were not sure about him at first.”

“Ah, I always knew he was a good guy!” Cherry exclaims. “He resisted me and Mer, right?”

“Oh yes, he must’ve already had eyes for our dear Mama!” Rosemary agrees.

“Did you ever think that maybe he wasn’t attracted to the two of you?” Mayumi teases.

Cherry snorts. “As if!” and tackles Mayumi, tickling her sides. Mayumi screams quietly, laughing and struggling while Cherry tries to pin her wrists with one hand, breaking one hand free and tickling back. Tulip finally reacts, rolling over and grumbling incoherently at the noise.

Alma watches all this with a sense of amusement and wonder. To think that such a short time ago she was expecting to have her children, her own life, taken away from her. That these silly, wonderful beings could have been snuffed out by the whim of imperious gods who had never met them.

She clears her throat, causing the combatants to look at her, and glances at Tulip. They follow her glance, then look at each other and silently call a truce with a kiss, then lie in each other’s arms while Alma says, “Well, I must admit Gwydion is a scoundrel.” She smiles. “But he is a rather sweet one when he wants to be. We’ll see how it all goes.”

Rosemary asks, “Does this mean we should stop flirtin’ with ’im?”

“No way!” Cherry says, cuddling Mayumi, grinning. “It means we can flirt ten times as much, and he can’t do nothin’ about it!”

Alma chuckles. “Poor Gwydion. Flirt away all you like. But for now… If I don’t get some rest before my nightly harvests, I will be very grumpy later on during my shift.”

Cherry gives Mayumi another kiss, looking into her eyes for a long moment, then sits up. “Nobody wants a grumpy Alma.” She hugs Alma and kisses her as well. “As much as this warm comfy pile o’ Bunnies is temptin’ to stay in, we oughta be up in the bar. These cops are pretty good about servin’ themselves and leavin’ money, but that’s only for bottled beer.”

“Och yes!” Rosemary says. “This is usually a slow night, but still! Sage, would ye mind lookin’ after Saira, love?”

Sage nods, while Alma gently drags Tulip back up near her and lies down. The cat follows the young Bunny and curls up between Alma and Saira, her back pressed against Saira’s thigh.

“Could I stay as well?” Mayumi asks.

“You never need to ask,” Alma says, smiling at them both before closing her eyes. “Good night, little ones.”

Oyasumi…Okaasan,” Mayumi whispers.

Sage echoes her, “Sleep well, Mother.”

But Alma is already asleep.