Ch6 mid-chapter 4: The Lion and the Phoenix

A young lion once set out on a journey to look for his own pride. He was strong and proud, at the prime of his years and could no longer stay with the family that had watched him grow. It was time he found his own life and forged his own family. And so he did as he must and turned his back on his kin to begin his journey.

He traveled far and wide in search of a new home and a family. But wherever he went, he found none of his kind willing to be his pride and little prey to sustain him. He was chased away by other lions defending their prides, wounded, deprived of food and company. But still, he kept prowling the jungle for a territory of his own.

And when the jungle yielded nothing, he traveled beyond it until he reached the desert. Under the scorching sun, thirsty and famished, he climbed the dunes, desperate for prey and shade. He walked all day and found none. But when the night came, he saw a distant, reddish glimmer on the horizon. His strength renewed by hope, he ran all the way toward the light until it was just a few steps away. Suddenly before him, an oasis stretched, a verdant treeline surrounding a small lake.

Parched, the lion forgot about the light, ran to the water and drank until he could drink no more. And when his belly was full of water, his eyes began to wander to the trees in search of prey, for his dying thirst had sparked his hunger again. He found no animals on the ground but when he looked up, to a lonely, blackened branch just above the water on the other side of the lake, he saw a beautiful, radiant bird with glittering reddish-gold feathers that looked almost ablaze, so brightly colored they were. The lion had no doubt that this was the source of the light he had seen before.

The bird perched calmly on the branch, seemingly ignoring his presence. He quietly walked the margin, moving closer to it, intent on capturing the beautiful creature. Moved as much by hunger as by fascination, the lion could not help but desire this extraordinary prey. And so he sneaked his way through the reeds and the bushes until the bird was within reach. And he pounced.

But the bird had seen him and it took flight just as the lion jumped over the branch. Flapping its long wings, it flew out of reach of the lion, and set him alight, for she was a phoenix and her beautiful feathers were made of spark and flame. The poor lion landed on the grass, suffering horribly at the flames that consumed him, rolling on the ground to try to put them out. But they were divine flame and all he did was spread them to the trees and bushes around him until the whole oasis was ablaze. Maddened by the fire, he jumped in the lake. The flames died but not before all the water had evaporated and the lake was no more. By morning, the oasis was gone. And so was the phoenix.

Again, the lion found himself in the desert and although his belly rumbled with hunger, he roamed all day up dunes and down dunes until the coolness and darkness of night fell around him. Again, he saw a faint, red light in the sky and again he traveled for many hours in its direction. This time, he did not reach a lake and there was no oasis. Instead, he found only the blackened skeleton of a burnt tree and, reclining against it, a female spotted deer. The lion approached it as stealthily as he could and pounced on the recumbent animal. Dehydrated from the desert heat, the deer did not move or try to escape and soon the lion was feasting on his prey.

As he ate, however, he noticed the reddish tinge of a light shining above him. Lifting his eyes to a low hanging branch of the carbonized tree, he saw the fiery bird that had escaped him the night before. His mind inflamed by fury and vengeance, he climbed the tree and leapt to catch the phoenix. But again, the phoenix took flight and her flaming feathers brushed against him and set him on fire. With no water around, the lion roared in pain and rolled desperately in the sand, setting fire to the tree and to what remained of the deer. By the time the flames had died, the tree had crumbled to ash and the deer was carbonized and inedible. Morning dawned and the fire had burned the lion’s mane completely. His fur was gone, his skin now black as coal. And the phoenix had disappeared.

This time, the lion did not travel by day, choosing instead to lie down and nurse his wounds. He waited patiently for the night to come and only then did he rise to prowl the night for the red light he knew must be shining somewhere. He would catch the phoenix, he swore to himself. Even if he died in the flames of its fire, he would catch the bird that so mocked him. He found her in a hollow among the dunes, squatting over a pile of dry twigs and branches, slowly grooming her feathers and plucking from them tiny sparks that she would then spread around her. Impelled by his anger, without a second thought, the lion ran down the dune, his black skin mixing with the night shadows. And pounced.

By the time the phoenix saw him, it was too late. He caught her wings under his mighty paws, pinning her to the sand. She struggled to free herself, again her feathers set him alight but to no avail. He roared in glee as his prey squirmed under his weight.

“You, who have mocked me with your beauty and freedom, fall now under my might.”

The phoenix struggled and in her struggle, her beautiful feathers broke and fell. Her flames died. Her light dimmed. The lion looked down at his prey and was horrified. For the prize he had seen in the beautiful phoenix was no more and under his feet lay instead a pale bird looking at him through dull, dying eyes.

“My death be on you for I cannot live if I cannot be free.”

Moved by these words and by the suffering of the beautiful bird he once coveted and resented, the flaming lion took a step back, releasing the phoenix. With a gentle tap of his muzzle, he rolled her so that she lay on her stomach and then nudged her to take flight.

“Go and live,” he said. “For I gain nothing but regret from taking your life.”

The phoenix lifted her head to the heavens and wrapped her wings around her body, her flames sparking once again into life.

“May blessings find you, great king of the jungle, for the mercy you show tonight,” she said.

And with that, she burned brighter and disappeared in the flame, extinguishing the fire that burned the lion’s blackened skin. Soon, the morning followed and the lion set out again to cross the desert. He walked for many hours, finding nothing but sand, beginning to regret his sparing of the phoenix’s life when her body could have fed him for a day longer. And when the night fell…

The horizon glimmered red. Faithfully, the lion followed the light he knew must lead to the phoenix and arrived at an oasis. No, not an oasis, he realized, but a great jungle on the other side of the desert. His heart overcome by joy, he ran under the cool, green cover of the trees until he found a spring of the purest water. He drank and bathed and played in it, glad to leave the scorching heat of the sun behind him. And when he looked toward the bank, he saw two feline eyes staring back at him. A beautiful lioness, her fur a bright orange color, stood staring at him in fascination.

And it was thus that our young lion finally found a home and a mate. He lived many years in this jungle and had many descendants, who inherited the darkness of his fur in large stripes over the bright orange of their mother’s coat. They were the first tigers.

As for our phoenix…well, he never saw her again but to all of his children he would say, “If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, follow the red light.”

Where anger is power, mercy is wisdom. For true strength lies with the kind and good fortune lies with the strong.

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Ch6 mid-chapter 3: Cheapshirt

“The wrong dormitory?”

“That’s what I said.” The instructor, a woman with a jaw shaped like a brick that’s been dropped a few times, holds up the key that was assigned to Mayumi. It is larger, heavier, and considerably more elaborate than the one in her other hand. “This here is a Dei dorm key. The Popula keys are these little ones, see?” She hands Mayumi’s key back to her. “You’re in the Dei dorm.”

“But…” Mayumi’s ears droop back in confusion. “I’m Popula!”

“No, that’s not…” The woman pauses and takes a file off her desk. “Ishijima…Ishijima. Yeah, here it is. You’re in Dei 204.” She glances at the folded uniform under Mayumi’s arm. “I guess they gave you a Popula uniform by mistake. What’re you, kinda borderline-mortal/immortal?” She says it with a kind tone.

Mayumi shakes her head. “Not at all. And…” She rummages through the file she was given at the third registration checkpoint. “Here. It says I’m Popula.”

“Huh. Would you look at that?” The woman looks more closely. “Oh… Says here your mother is a Dei Sergeant. Is that right?”

“Yes.” Mayumi remembers how her heart had pounded with joy, seeing that on the form. Though it was only a passing notation on a registration form, it was an official form, declaring that Alma is her mother. Not the creator of some quasi-illegal artificial life form, but her mother. Who was responsible for that? Sky? Someone higher up the chain? Perhaps Ewá Nanã, the Voice, the lawyer who had saved her mother and Gwydion and all the Bunnies, had pulled it off.

“And you father’s Popula. Well then you’re some kind of demi,” the woman says, handing it back to Mayumi. “Anyway, you’re assigned what you’re assigned. And today is bonkers for everyone. Just go to your room for now, drop off your stuff, take a shower, and put on that uniform. Get some food in you. Induction ceremony is in two hours. You can get it sorted out tomorrow.” The voice continues to be kind, but also final. She clearly has a hundred other things to take care of today.

“Yes, Instructor Hasral. Thank you very much for your help!” Mayumi bows slightly out of habit, then gets out of the woman’s hair. She certainly doesn’t want to try to explain how her mother and her father hadn’t even met until yesterday.

The walk across campus is a long one. The Academy is divided into two halves, one for Dei, the immortals, near-immortals, and magically powerful members of the Guardia, and one for the Popula, the mortals of various species with little or no natural magical ability, the largest group of whom is the humans. There are numerous other species on the Insula, but humans seem to dominate, at least in the wards Mayumi has known, and certainly here at the Academy. And there are far more Popula than Dei at the Academy, but their training halls and dormitories are of roughly equal size. There is always talk about how mortals are as necessary to the working of the Urbis Caelestis as immortals are, but the immortals always get the nicer things.

It occurs to Mayumi that if she’s assigned to live in the Dei dorms due to some misunderstanding about her parentage, she still has all her classes on the Popula side of the campus. She pauses and checks her course schedule to make sure. Yes, she’s definitely taking Popula courses, she’s relieved to see. If she’d been put into Dei courses – well, thank goodness she wasn’t. She imagines there might be some coursework that could be fatal to a mortal.

But this does mean that, until the mistake is fixed and she is moved to the Popula dorms, she’s going to have to get up earlier to run across campus. Nearing the gloriously arched and crenellated Dei dormitory, which makes her think of an ancient fortress, she looks back toward the Popula buildings far in the distance across exercise fields and obstacle courses on which some eager newcomers are already testing themselves. She estimates ten minutes should be plenty of time. She can probably run it, flat out, in three. Being a Bunny means being fast. But ten minutes’ less sleep is a small price to pay for showing up looking calm and collected and free of sweat.

And surely it’ll only be for a day or two.

She enters the huge hallway, luxuriously decorated with paintings and sculptures, the wide marble floor lined with velvet sofas and leather chairs. Just this hallway has more luxury in it than is probably spread through the entirety of the Popula dormitories. Voices whisper from two goddesses, twins, it seems, with strange braids that float in the air like serpents, consulting their keys and then ascending one of the curving staircases.

Feeling tiny in the enormous hall, Mayumi follows them. From the number, she assumes her room is two floors above the ground floor, at least if they do things as in Three Rats, which there is no way of telling. Why should they? Perhaps she has the entire two-hundred-fourth floor to herself? Not that the place looks anywhere near that tall, but these are the Dei dorms. There could be a thousand extra-dimensional palaces crammed in here, for all she knows. Maybe every room comes with a celestial lion as a servant. Maybe she’ll be sharing a room with a storm god who keeps a typhoon going all the time. Mayumi nervously ascends the steps.

Fortunately, Room 204 does turn out to be on the second floor, two floors above the ground floor to be precise, just like they count floors in Three Rats. That touch of the familiar helps more than she wants to admit, because Room 204 is nowhere near room 203, which is nowhere near 205. She finds 204 down at the end of a hallway that features room numbers 213, 280, and 237.

Wondering what strange logic might have prompted such a random numbering scheme, she fits her key into the lock and turns it. The door opens with barely a sound – good. Assuming she has a roommate, they will be able to go in and out without disturbing each other much.

The room is dim, but brightens slowly as she enters. The increase in illumination stops just as it reaches Mayumi’s comfort level, she notices, slightly dimmer than most humans prefer. Will it get brighter when I need to read? she wonders. She looks around. The room is enormous by her standards. It is roughly as big as her mother’s divine sanctum, though lacking a huge bed, a fountain/bath the size of a small swimming pool, and a garden’s worth of plants, this room feels much bigger. There is a bunk bed in one corner, odd seeing as how there would be plenty of space to split the room into a suite with separate bedrooms. Also odd is the fact that the lower bunk bed is twice as wide as the upper one, a king-size versus a somewhat wide twin. The twin is supported by three posts, and a beam that goes from its un-posted corner diagonally to the bottom bed’s post. That lower bed could sleep three humans easily, or five Bunnies. But some gods are quite large, Mayumi knows. Perhaps that is why.

In the opposite corner is a pair of desks, each of which is bigger than the biggest one at Three Rats Station – which happens to be the one Mayumi often worked at, in the basement, taking care of Records. One of the desks has a tray on it with a covered plate, from which she can smell meat and vegetables, and something sweet. Another corner holds a little kitchen nook, and the fourth has a doorway that appears to be to a bath – which makes the apartment even bigger.

Scattered about the floor, just to break it up and make it not immediately suitable for holding a modest-sized dance party, are several old, comfortable-looking pieces of furniture. The walls above the desks feature large built-in bookshelves, which are roughly two-thirds full of a hodgepodge collection. Curious, Mayumi sets down her folder and uniform and pulls one tome out at random, and sees it has a title in Old High Urbia, or at least in the script, which she recognizes but cannot read. Well, maybe – it could be a related script. Anyway, she has never learned it except for words like “forbidden.” It is a language used only by gods and wizards and priests, and it is best for mortals like her not to mess with it. She quickly puts the book back.

She realizes then that she still has her duffel bag over her shoulder. She walks over to the beds, and it is then that she senses someone else in the room with her. She’s not sure what it is – perhaps her keen hearing is barely catching the sensation of a heartbeat – but she knows someone is there.

“Hello?”

A high-pitched voice rings out. “Don’t you even look at the top bunk! That’s mine!” It makes Mayumi think of a seven-year-old girl who has been smoking cigars for ten years.

“Oh… That’s all right,” Mayumi says, looking around the beds and seeing nothing. “I’m Mayumi.” She starts to wonder if she is dealing with an invisible god.

“Good for you, Rabbit Ears.”

Mayumi closes her eyes at that. Name calling… she thinks to herself, but she suppresses her displeasure. She experienced plenty of bullying her first time at the Academy, in her dream life, and she has already experienced some today. And now her roommate. She slips her duffel bag from her shoulder and lets it fall heavily to the floor beside the bed, and asks, “Is there something I should call you?”

The reply is not at all what she expected. “AAARRGHHH! MY STUFF! YOU ALMOST CRUSHED MY STUFF!”

Mayumi freezes, her ears slapping flat back against her head and neck to muffle the angry high-pitched squeal. She doesn’t want to move, afraid she’s going to destroy some other invisible thing. An image of a news-sheet headline flashes in her imagination:

BUNNY CADET ACCIDENTALLY MURDERS DEI ROOMMATE ON FIRST DAY AT ACADEMY! IS THE PROPHECY TRUE??

“What…what stuff?” she asks.

The voice comes up right near her head, making Mayumi flinch. “MY STUFF! ON THE FLOOR RIGHT THERE! RIGHT UNDER YOUR STUPID BAG! WHY WOULD YOU CRUSH MY STUFF?!” There is still no visible sign of her roommate, but Mayumi can feel a sort of shimmer in the air, a vibration, like a silent hum.

“But you said I almost–” Hunching, Mayumi carefully lifts her bag, looking down to see a satchel made of what looks like colorful autumn leaves stitched together, sitting beside where her bag was. Though small, it is easily big enough that the Bunny should have seen it, but its coloration blends into the carpet pattern. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. But look, I don’t think I crushed it at all.”

There is a soft thump of impact against Mayumi’s bag. Did she just kick my bag? Seriously? the Bunny thinks in astonishment.

Quieter now, but dripping with threat, the high-pitched voice says, “Consider yourself lucky, Princess Fluffy Tail.”

Mayumi exhales and very, very carefully sets her bag back down. It has been a long, emotional day, and the name-calling isn’t showing any sign of stopping. And now a threat. But she controls herself. “Well I seem to have three names now, and you still have none.”

“‘Course I got a name.” The voice drifts back toward Mayumi’s face, and now there is a flare of purple light. “You just don’t know it. What are you, anyways?”

That is just about enough. Mayumi’s voice takes on an edge. “Is there some rule that I must ask for your name three times, or something? Or is it just a secret?”

“Man, you really don’t know anything from nothing, do you? Names aren’t something you just hand over for no price. Names got power. Know someone’s name, you can do all sorts of things with it. You’re not a goddess, are you?”

Squinting at the light, trying to make out what it is, Mayumi states, “No, I am not. I’m a Bunny. And I’m mortal.”

The light winks out, to reveal a tiny creature about as tall as Mayumi’s knee, sitting at the edge of the top bunk. Her skin is dark purple with crimson lines on a wide forehead. Her head is almost too big for her thin neck, and she has huge eyes that take up much more space, relatively, than a Bunny’s, with two, no three concentric irises in lilac and pink tones. The crimson lips bear a sardonic look that is too jaded for anyone so small and, well, cute. Her hair is just a short pinkish fuzz except for a frizzy top-ponytail that hangs to one side. Her limbs are as thin as the rest of her body – shockingly thin, looking far weaker than Mayumi assumes she must be – which is clad in a sleeveless button-up white sweatshirt and matching high-cut shorts. The creature looks at her with ill-disguised curiosity, “The heck is a Bunny?”

Mayumi is relieved to finally have a face to look at. The resentment that has been building up, at the insults, the refusal to offer a name, the unnecessary shouting, the threat, largely dissipates. “Hello. It’s good to see you. Whatever your name is. Bunnies are the progeny of the goddess Alma, of the Death Clan. We…have long ears. Actually, we’re still figuring out what we are.”

The tiny Dei props an elbow on her thigh and her chin on a hand that seems far too small to hold up that huge head. “How come you’re mortal if your mom’s a goddess? She forget to do something while she was busy?”

“Um…I’m not sure, actually. We’re just mortal. But it seems the Academy was a bit confused, and so I was mistakenly assigned to the Dei dorms.”

“So you’re not a Dei-blue? Gonna be a cheapshirt?”

Mayumi narrows her eyes. “Cheapshirt?” Her voice is cold.

The little Dei shrugs. “You know, Popula. Bottom of the food chain.”

“Bottom,” Mayumi repeats, wishing she had misheard. “Of the food chain.” She feels sick to her stomach.

“Did something break inside a’you or–” The Dei stops, looking at Mayumi, and grins. “Oh Missy, you don’t wanna do it. You’re gonna get your cute lil’ self all bruised up, you do that…”

“Do what?” Mayumi is fighting to keep from raising her voice, but her tone is seething with fury. “Do you think I’m going to assault you simply for being arrogant and rude? I am not the one threatening her roommate with violence. Twice!”

The creature snorts. “Who said anything ‘bout violence? Look at me! Ever seen a pixie fight? Huh? Have you? Pixies don’t fight! We’re all peaceful. Big taboo, a fighting pixie. Teach little kids bad lessons, all that crap.”

Mayumi takes a breath. Different cultures. Misunderstandings. But… ‘cheapshirt!’ ‘Bottom of the food chain.’ Ugh! She takes another breath, willing away the anger. “Well I am glad to know something about you. And yes, I am meant to be Popula. Your fellow Guardia.”

“Well, huh-ray to me…” She rolls her huge eyes. “Sheesh… of all the roommates I could have gotten… You better not snore.”

Mayumi is silent for another three breaths. This just keeps getting worse. Reset. Start over. Her voice calm but strained, she says, “We seem to have gotten off to a bad start. As I asked before, is there something I should call you? You see, I actually do know some people are reluctant to share their names… so anything is fine.”

Her roommate looks at her in silence for a few appraising seconds, eyes narrow. “You try to write up a contract, it won’t work, you hear?”

Mayumi’s eyebrows rise in surprise, and it takes her a moment to understand. But she remembers some stories, and says, “I promise you, I would never attempt to bind you. And since I have no magical ability at all, I think you’re quite safe.”

Another high-pitched snort. “Yeah, tell that t’my uncle Borsi. Girl tells him all that, next thing he knows BAM! He’s hanging to a contract.”

“Did you just tell me your uncle’s name?” Mayumi feels a smile touch the corner of her mouth. Personal information!

Another suspicious stare. “That’s not his name. ‘S just what everyone calls him. Means ‘idiot’. Married 30 years now.”

“Well, I promise not to force you into marriage. Anyway, if you don’t want to give me a name, that’s all right. We probably won’t be roommates for more than a day or two anyway.” Mayumi gives up, turning away to sit on the edge of her spacious bed.

The raspy voice comes closer. “You planning on being a Pop with all that niceness in ya? Can’t even get a person to cough up their name?”

“I was unaware this was an interrogation.” Mayumi starts pulling some clothes out of her bag. “I’m afraid I do not have any handcuffs on me, either.” Her mouth twitches in a smile again.

“With my wrists? Yeah, good luck wi’ that.” She sighs. “Pari. Just to end your misery.”

Mayumi turns to smile quite friendly at Pari. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Pari. So, do you snore?”

In a growling voice, Pari replies, “I can put you to sleep so’s you won’t find out…”

Mayumi’s eyes widen. “Do you mean you can magically put me to sleep? That would be…useful. Is there any side effect?”

Pari raises a tiny fist. “Yeah, huge headache in the morning. Bruises. Maybe some missin’ teeth.”

Mayumi grimaces. Threats of violence are just a constant with her, then. Perhaps they don’t actually mean anything. “Have you eaten yet? I missed lunch.”

Pari jerks her head toward the tray. “That’s yours, then. I ate the pudding.”

“Thank you!” Mayumi crosses the room to the desk again and lifts the metal cover. She starts eating some salad even before sitting in the chair and turning it to face Pari.

“I didn’t bring it!” Pari cries as if accused of a crime. “They brought it over.”

“They bring your food to you in the Dei dorm?” Mayumi shakes her head at this luxury. “So…what is a pixie? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Pari’s jaw drops. “You mean you don’t freaking know?!”

Mayumi shakes her head. “I’ve heard the word. All I know is pixies are small and can fly.”

“Small? Small?!” Pari launches herself into the air, fists clenched, and drifts toward Mayumi. There are no wings, but just the same barely noticeable vibrato in the air as Mayumi noticed before. “Who you callin’ small, you free sample of human?!”

Mayumi holds up her hands. “Hey! Come on… I’m small compared to most people I know. At least you can fly. If something is on a high shelf, I have to get a ladder.”

Pari lands on the divan, crosses her arms and looks away haughtily. “Hmpf! Pixies are Fey-folk. Ya know, fairies and the sort? We don’t make wishes come true and we don’t teach kids to fly. Just… help out with nature and small critters and stuff. Some of us are good at other things. Kinda like everyone else. Like, Mam’s good with kitchens. Works at a restaurant sprinkling spices on stuff.”

Cautiously returning to munching on salad, Mayumi asks, “And do you have a specialty?”

“I get into fights a lot.” The matter-of-factness almost makes Mayumi laugh, but she stifles it because Pari seems to take offense just as often as she dishes it out.

“That,” Mayumi says instead, deadpan, “is not a surprise.” Then she considers herself, and remembers mistakes she has made. “I…well, I’ve had my own problems with that.”

“Meet a lotta scumbags too?” Pari asks.

“I have met some unsavory characters, yes. Some of them have tried to murder me and my family.” Dark memories flood in. Hellhounds, slavering for the blood of her and her siblings… Merri screaming. Nekh raising his hands to kill them.

Pari’s voice breaks through. “Uh? Why’d they try to kill you? You piss someone off?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “It was…a disagreement between gods. We were caught in the middle. We were…tokens on a board. Bottom of the food chain.” She looks up at Pari. “That’s part of the reason I want to be Guardia. I want to show that we’re more than that.”

“You the first in the family to join the Blues?” A little of the constant tone of antagonism seems to have disappeared from Pari’s voice.

“My mother is Dei. And my father is Popula. It’s…rather complicated.”

Pari suddenly straightens. “Dei… Wait… You said Alma? That Alma? Got her badge here some twenty years ago?”

“Um…yes?” Mayumi feels confused and worried that she has said something wrong, really wrong this time. She does not want to bring any kind of shame upon her mother.

But Pari starts laughing. “Oh man, you’re so lucky you’re a cheapshirt… This was her room!” She points to the door. Squinting from across the room, Mayumi can make out scratches in the lustrous, probably gasp-inducingly expensive wood of the door. “List over there, previous students who had this room. Carved on the door. Tradition here.”

Mayumi stands and goes to look. Name after name after name, in columns, many hundreds, two for every year. The Academy has a single six-month term every year. Six days to a week, six weeks to a month, ten months to a year. Two hundred sixteen days, minus a one-week break four months in, to train cadets using magically enhanced intensive methods, to prepare them for the incredibly diverse array of situations they will find themselves in, here in the Urbis Caelestis, the Celestial City. And there, twenty-four lines before the most recent pair, there is the name. ‘Alma’. And next to it, a name she does not know, ‘Pavia’.

Mayumi feels a chill. Why have I been assigned to the Dei dorms? Why my mother’s room? This cannot be a coincidence, can it? Aloud, she asks, “Why…why do you say I am lucky to be Popula?”

“Dei-blue that recruited me, he liked to tell stories from when he was a rookie here. Your mom was in some of them.” Pari chuckles. “My kinda goddess, you ask me. Pranks? Legendary.”

“Alma? Pranks?” Mayumi shakes her head. “It… That can’t be right.”

“Just do yourself a favor. You see old man Jutte, don’t tell him who you are. Now, you about done yet? There’s some kinda Induction thingy I’m supposed to be at. Byeeee!”

And with that, Pari takes wingless flight again, grabbing the doorknob and twisting her whole body to turn it.

The door slams behind her before Mayumi can say, “…goodbye.” She sighs. She glances at a timepiece on the desk – plenty of time for a shower before changing into her uniform for the Popula Induction, which, of course, comes after the Dei one.

Stood up to that martinet Pringle but couldn’t stand up to your roommate, she thinks as she undresses. She looks at her blouse, holding it before her. Like her skirt, it was handmade by Sage. Made with love, from surplus material. A cheap shirt.

Ch6 mid-chapter 2: Mayumi Arrives at the Academy

What is a portal? It is a doorway from one place to a discontinuous elsewhere, sometimes even another reality altogether. Mayumi has forgotten how strange that is, because movement via portals is an everyday occurrence around her. Gwydion goes in and out of his sanctum multiple times a day, via a door that sometimes leads to the pantry, sometimes to his home. And the doorway to her mother’s sanctum – well, perhaps that is a portal too. Mayumi isn’t sure, exactly. The room, a lush combination of bedroom, garden, and bath, was her home for the first weeks in this waking world, and there is certainly something otherworldly about it. It is not fully in this reality, so perhaps she is moving through a magical portal every time she goes in and out.

She misses it terribly now. She tells herself to gaman, to endure. She was in it only a few hours ago, after all.

But these thoughts about portals are brought on by the very different nature of the ones she is traveling through now. Public portals, requiring tickets, impersonal and cold. Each one different in form, some soaring and complex, some basic arches of concrete inscribed with incomprehensible symbols. But each one is the same, as well. The are not the warm portals of home. And each one of them carries her further away.

And transferring from portal to portal to portal, and all along the way upslope, she can spot them. Cadets. Cadets for the Guardia Academy. Cadets like her.

Some of them are wearing their uniforms. She resists the urge to tell them to go into a washroom in one of the larger portal stations and change back into civilian clothes. One isn’t supposed to put on the uniform until Induction. They’ll be told that with an exasperated sigh when they arrive. Like a great many Academy rules, it’s not written down anywhere. You’re supposed to know that It Just Isn’t Done.

Mayumi feels guilty for not telling them. She has an unfair advantage. Her father and her mother are both Guardia, and not only that, she’s been through the Academy before. In a dream. A dreamworld in which she was a Guardia Popula officer for two years.

But she doesn’t tell them. She doesn’t want to stick her nose into their business. She doesn’t want to call attention to herself. She’s already attracting stares. It’s the ears. Her long, black-furred Bunny ears. The tail too, but that’s not quite as immediately noticeable with the long jacket she’s wearing. She is the first Bunny to go to the Academy. The only Bunny with permission to leave Three Rats Ward. The only Bunny within a month’s travel by foot, at this point, for she’s all the way in the Second Ring by now, and with the next portal jump, she’ll be in the First Ring. One jump after that and she’ll be at the Academy gates.

She feels very small. Very alone. She clenches her jaw against the urge to cry again.

She really, truly did not want to cry when she said goodbye to her siblings. Merri and Cherry, Sage and Kori, Chime and Tulip. And Aliyah and Cala, escorting them. She did her best to hold it together, but when she looked into Cherry’s eyes… What she saw there. The sorrow, the loss, the fear. Cherry is so strong, so brave, but in a way, her heart is the softest of all the Bunnies. She cares so deeply and wants so very, very badly for everyone to be together, now that she has found her family. And she’s right. They should be.

Why am I doing this? Mayumi asks herself for the hundredth time. And the answer is, as always, that she must. She was Guardia in her other life, in that world of dreams. And that life must not disappear. She needs to hold onto it. And she was born to be Guardia. It is not just her parentage, but her soul that calls her to it.

Couldn’t she have waited until next year’s intake? But the opportunity was there. The upper levels of the Guardia had approved it. And the Bunnies are being treated like some kind of…experiment gone awry. There are those who truly feel that the best thing to do with them would be to break their necks, cut their throats, drown them – anything to make them go away and be forgotten. From what she understands, the Council’s decision to let them live had been a very near thing.

She is being given the chance to show that Bunnies can contribute to society. That they can be regarded as normal mortals. If she had turned down that chance, it might never have come again.

The weight of that responsibility makes her shoulders tense. She remembers looking into Cherry’s eyes and just dissolving into tears. And all of them had caught her, held her up, kept her from falling right there on the portal steps. She had been so close, so very close to just saying, “Take me home. I want to stay here with you.” She had wanted it so badly.

It had been Merri who had whispered in her ear, “Buck up, my love. Ye can do this. Ye’re gonna do this. Come on, now.” But it had not been Merri’s face that Mayumi had looked into when she blinked away the tears enough to see again. It had been Cherry’s. Those sad, huge, brown eyes. Cherry wasn’t smiling or trying to put up a good front. Her dark skin was lustrous with tears, and she had taken Mayumi’s face in her hands, and just looked at her. She looked like she was doing the hardest thing she had ever done.

“You go on now, baby,” Cherry said. The tears began afresh, but her voice was steady. “You go on now and you study hard. You come back to us with that badge. You make us proud. You will. And you do.” Then she kissed Mayumi, long and sweet, and on releasing her, Cherry gave her a little push toward the portal.

Mayumi quickly said goodbye to the others, wordlessly embracing and kissing the Bunnies and Aliyah and Cala, too. Then she turned and walked quickly, not trusting herself to stop. It was only in that last moment as she slipped her ticket into the slot in the arch of the portal that she heard a heartbreaking sob, and she turned her head as she stepped through, and saw Cherry sagging in Merri’s arms, clinging to her like a victim of drowning to a lifeguard.

And then they were gone. Her family, gone, left behind.

The next portal station had been a big one, and Mayumi had entered a washroom stall and sat in there for a good ten minutes, crying. But enough of that now. It is time to focus on what lies ahead.

She exits the final portal and for one moment she sees it, a few minutes’ walk up the street, the great shining white-marble gate of the Guardia Academy. But only for a moment. All around her is a press of bodies, and every single one of them is taller than she, it seems. She grimaces in annoyance, and with more people coming in from the portal from many different transfer points, she’s quickly shoved forward. Hemmed in on all sides by big, lumbering humans, she’s nearly crushed as she’s carried along. She holds tight to her bag and tries to endure the cacophony of noise and the almost overwhelming mix of body odors.

What should be a few minutes’ walk takes most of an hour, as the instructors at the gate check cadets through and tell them where to go. As expected, the ones wearing uniforms are told to change back to everyday clothes before Induction. One of the instructors is particularly derisive, and Mayumi finds herself shoved into the line that is moving toward him.

Mayumi’s heart sinks as she nears him. Right in front of her is a cadet dressed in Academy uniform. Stocky, with iridescent skin that subtly reflects every color of the rainbow, she assumes he is some sort of Dei: god, demigod, or maybe even a spirit of rainbows or something. She’s never been very clear on the dividing lines, but from what Sky has told her, they can be very blurry.

She listens as the instructor, puffed up with self-importance, chews him out. “Did you think you had any right to be wearing our uniform on the streets? You ain’t been inducted yet! You ain’t a cadet! You’re just some worthless citizen!”

Mayumi feels the sparse, soft fur on the back of her neck rise in anger. She clenches her teeth to keep herself from speaking up. She wants to remind the instructor that Guardia are citizens, that that is the whole point. Guardia uphold the public order but are never, never above those they protect. It is a job that may receive respect, as in the dream-ward she grew up in, where Guardia were honored in the same way that teachers and priests and doctors were honored, or they might be viewed with suspicion and derision, as they were in Three Rats when she first arrived there. But Guardia must always remember who they are.

But she stays quiet, burning with shame at doing so. Her mother would not want her to stay silent. Nor would her father. But she has a job to do. She needs to get into the Academy. And to do that, she must get past this gatekeeper.

So when the rainbow-colored almost-cadet is sent scurrying off to change, Mayumi’s face is composed.

“Name?” The instructor, tall for a human and towering over her, hardly glances at her at first.

“Mayumi Ishijima.” She is registered under her adoptive father’s name. Like most gods, her mother has no family name, being simply “of the Death Clan.” Mayumi cannot claim that, for the Death Clan does not recognize the Bunnies as family.

“Sponsoring officer?”

“Inspector Tuma-Sukai, Three Rats Station.” Mother could have sponsored her, but Sky is higher rank, and at the time he was preparing the application, Mother was under house arrest for murdering an Archon. Awkward.

The instructor really looks at her for the first time. “Dei Inspector, eh? Most of these goons ain’t got anybody higher than than a Popula Sergeant vouching for them, if that.” He takes in her civilian clothes, simple and home-tailored by her skillful sibling Sage, her small, slight build, her human face framed by straight black hair, and then the only non-human feature not hidden by her clothes, her long, erect ears. His eyebrows go up. “Ah, the Bunny. Heard a rumor about you.”

Oh no…

The instructor chuckles nastily, like he knows all sorts of secrets. “Oh, you’re gonna have a great time here, Bunny.”

Mayumi narrows her eyes and reads his badge. “Thank you for the warm welcome, Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is even and cool. “Am I on your list, Assistant-Instructor?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, yeah.” Pringle seems annoyed at her precise enunciation of his full title. He juts his chin toward another queue past the gate, on campus grounds. “Go on, then. See you in class, Bunny.”

The way he says it, he seems to think it is an insult. She doesn’t move.

“Assistant-Instructor Pringle.” Her voice is not raised, nor is it filled with anger or menace. But there is an edge to it that rings out above the chaos of noise around them, and fixes his attention back onto her. “My name is Ishijima. Perhaps that is difficult for you to pronounce?”

He blinks, then starts to smile humorlessly. He closes his notebook and turns his back on the long line waiting to get in the gate. “Are you talking back to me, cadet? No, you ain’t even a cadet yet, are you? You’re nothing, citizen.” He puts his fists on his hips and bends forward, looming over her, trying to intimidate her with his height.

She leans toward his face, staring intensely into his eyes, her whole world narrowing to just that. Her voice is low. “You think a citizen is nothing. You are a citizen. We are all citizens.” She leans forward just a little more, and the anger she is channelling at him makes him flinch back, as if she were about to bite him.

Before he can recover, she is walking away. She hears him stutter, “H-hey!” but he is cut off by another instructor shouting, “Keep it moving, Pringle!” She doesn’t look back.

Ch6 mid-chapter 1: Somrak & Memory

“I was on my own time, you know.”

“You don’t have your own time unless we say so.” Fencer’s voice is harsh, but also tired. Tired of him, Somrak is sure. Tired of excuses.

He’s leaning against the doorframe leading from the entryway to the receiving room in the Commander’s simple, spartan home. He’s just arrived, summoned a few hours ago via terse magical message, fiery letters floating in his mind’s eye: My home. Now. He had been washing blood from his hands in a pool of melted snow.

The room is wobbling in and out of focus. How many chairs? Three. Four? No, it’s three, it just looks like four. And the sofa. He remembers Sky stretched out on that, asleep, as Somrak was teaching a little godling to cook in the kitchen. Long time ago.

“Now explain,” Fencer growls as she sits on the top guy’s chair like it’s hers. Not that it’s the Commander’s favorite chair. That’s in the real living room, deeper in the house. This room? This is for guests who aren’t exactly friends, so the Commander doesn’t have to share the rest of his home with them. It is also a room that can be instantly sealed off and filled with deadly forces that even Somrak isn’t privy to. Just in case those not-friends become unfriendly.

There is a piercing pain that makes him think his skull may actually be fractured. It’s getting harder to ignore. He ignores it. “Just doing my job, lady,” he says, casually, hoping he’s not slurring his words. “And everybody else’s, as usual.”

“This is no training exercise!” Achmal, his hulking shoulders flexing, towers over Somrak. He’s even taller than Sky and far bulkier, all muscle, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his size to intimidate. His voice echoes down the twisting tunnel of the ice cave they are in. “Tell us what’s going on, Somrak!”

“Somrak, please.” Xinappa is a gentle soul for an off-blue, her origin a tropical ward, and she looks uncomfortable with the cold. “Call for extraction. We want to get out from under this glacier.” Her partner, Erissa, nods, her body wrapped in a warm coat, hood hiding her auburn hair.

Somrak looks at dour Ogive, who is silent, looking back with those bored killer’s eyes, his big silver bow on his back. A god of archery, Ogive can shoot the wings off a mosquito at a hundred paces, and put an arrow through a god’s eye at a mile. Somrak has seen him do it.

And at their feet is the healer brought along on this mission, a life god by the name of Renrak. His head is severed. The blood on the ice is frozen.

Somrak takes a breath. Achmal’s blustering does not move him. But it’s time to tell the truth. He nods at Renrak’s corpse.

“We’re here because one of us, according to the guys at the top, is a traitor. And we’re not leaving until we figure out who.”

Fencer is silent for a moment, glowering at him with those mismatched eyes, one red, one glowing silver. Finally she says, her voice tense with warning, “There are not enough words in this language to describe how much you annoy me, Ponytail. What he sees in you, I do not know. Now quit the idiotic jokes and give me a straight answer!”

He can’t actually remember what joke he made, so he shrugs, refusing to be intimidated. Also refusing to let his knees buckle. The only reason he isn’t sitting is he’s certain he won’t be able to stand up again. “What’s to complain about?”

“Stop. One more step and you die.”

 His voice is exhausted, but it rings through the corridor and echoes deep into the labyrinth formed by meltwater beneath the glacier. A womanly figure, her coat lost, is silhouetted by the blue glow of a portal that floats in the air, mere steps out of her reach.

Erissa turns. As a fire god, Somrak can make out her facial features in their heat patterns, but the effect is nonetheless alienating, her youthful beauty missing.

“Let me go, Somrak.” She sounds frightened. She should be. “I only did what I had to do.”

“You tried to frame me for Renrak. And then for Xinappa. Your own partner, Erissa! She covered for you! She lied for you!” Fury chases the exhaustion from his voice and, from his hands to his forearms, flames roar to life. Steam rises from his clothes and skin, soaked as he is with melted ice. “Ogive and Achmal are buried under tons of ice, maybe dead too.”

“You should have stayed under there with them.” She shakes her head, taking a step backward toward the portal. “You would have been safer. Somrak, please – they’re coming for me. They know I failed. They’ll take me to Hell before I can be interrogated.”

He should just set her aflame. She can still be interrogated with charred flesh. But though he has nearly spent all his godly power, he decides on giving her one last chance to surrender. He raises his right hand, and a wall of fire whooshes into existence behind her, between her and the portal, close enough to singe her hair. She staggers away, falling to her hands and knees. Water begins to trickle fast down the walls near her.

“Was it just for power, Erissa? Dissatisfied demi wanting to be a full goddess? Well you got what you wanted. Are you happy about the cost?” As his divine sphere pulses within, he can feel the fire burning even in his broken bones now, banishing the chill of melting his way through tons of collapsed ice. But his thoughts are cold as the heart of this glacier. “I’ll protect you from your masters. You’re going to tell us everything you told them, and everything they ever asked. And who put you in contact with them.”

“I’m not surrendering,” Erissa insists. She rises and the corridor pulses with a sickly green glow. Somrak’s wall of fire turns green, and he senses that he no longer controls it. He tries to get it back, but these demonstrations of power, meant to cow the off-blue traitor into submission, have used up his last reserves of mana. He cannot wrest control of it from the nearing forces of Hell. Then it goes out, but Erissa’s eyes still glow with the same deadly light. “They’re here. I always liked you, Somrak. You should have stayed away. Maybe they’ll give me another chance, in exchange for your soul.”

A shape forms, green-highlighted black against the blue portal from which it emerges. He recognizes it immediately. She has a long, thin-bladed sword in one hand, and one of her eyes is glowing silver.

The Fencer speaks, her voice harsh and undeniable. “Stand down, Corporal. It’s over.”

Erissa screams in frustration, the corridor trembling with her rage. The green light pulses more strongly, and the ice groans. A section of the tunnel collapses on top of Fencer, and the rest seems it could give way at any moment.

His left arm shattered and useless, Somrak draws a long knife from a thigh-sheath and charges.

“Were you ordered there?” she sneers. “Was it wise or necessary to act alone?”

He raises his right arm, palm up. The other stays where it is, pressed against the doorframe. Alma healed it one day ago. Now it’s broken again, the damage barely ameliorated through his own meager healing magic, just enough to hold it together. Alma would not be happy. He’s much better at destroying things than repairing them. “Necessary? We were short-handed following that nightmare you cooked up under the ice. And the Special Operations boys, let’s face it, wouldn’t have got the job done so quickly or thoroughly. So yes, necessary. And wise. The proof of that is in the results.”

“The results? Oh, you mean the dead gang of frost giants? The ones we never intended to kill in the first place?” Her voice rises in volume. She gets up and stalks toward him, as she speaks, ending up almost nose to nose with him. “Damn it, Somrak! You do not get to decide what needs to be done! Certainly not just because you need to vent your anger over whatever piece of stupidity you did on your day off! You should not even have been operational yet!”

An annoying stray thought crosses his exhausted mind: Damn, she looks good. I mean, I don’t exactly want to get with that, but I totally see why the Commander does. He forces his mind away from irrelevancies back to the fact that one of the most dangerous goddesses in this universe is deeply unhappy with him right now. She has, after all, been known to end problems with great abruptness and finality.

“What can I say?” His mouth is working on autopilot, and he finds himself wondering what will come out of it. “Your niece is a far better healer than our darling Butcher. And what were you planning to do with a bunch of murderous religious-fanatic frost giants anyway?”

The cold again. Not that it matters to him. Being a fire god means never needing long underwear.

He can still feel Alma’s kiss on his lips, tingling, even after almost a day. And the shame of learning how blind he’d been – he can feel that, too. He hadn’t wanted to see it. Hadn’t wanted to see she was in love with Dion.

So a quick getaway, back upslope to Guardia Headquarters – not the off-blues HQ, not after what happened under the ice – and one quiet inquiry later, here he is. Good to have a friend in Special Operations. Well, ‘friend’ might be pushing it. Someone who owes him enough to tell him what’s the nastiest, meanest operation coming up.

And that is here: Yotn, ward of frost and crags. Mountains on the slope of the Celestial Mount, broken black stone covered in eye-blinding white snow, small villages scattered in the valleys. It is very picturesque from his vantage point atop a ridge, looking down on two valleys. Except for the smoke and the smashed houses, the bodies in the cobblestone streets, and the enormous figures striding through them.

Frost giants. Disagreeable types. Classification of just what is and is not a god is always a fuzzy thing, and some call frost giants gods, but never to their face. Like the denizens of Hell, they hate gods, whom they consider to be young upstarts. And once in awhile they get it into their heads that it’s time for a war.

It never lasts long. The giants aren’t exactly idiots, but they don’t value thoughtfulness. They hold simple, direct action in great esteem. Somrak can understand. Action is the best way to chase away unsettling thoughts.

The giants have devastated two villages already, and have destroyed the ward’s public portal. Good thing for the Commander’s hidden portal network. The only disadvantage is that the secret portal is located a long, icy climb above the valley where the giants are having their fun. Somrak takes time to stretch his limbs. Of course he didn’t bring any climbing equipment. What’s the fun in that?

He looks at the black fingerless gloves on his hands, a gift from his rival for Alma’s affections. For a moment he considers taking them off, tossing them away, but he’s not angry at Dion. He’s angry at himself.

It will be two days before the Special Operations mission begins to take down the gang of giants. Plenty of time for Somrak to deliver his anger to some people who really deserve to receive it. Special Ops can thank him later.

Not that they will.

No longer shouting but all the more dangerous for how calm she sounds, Fencer moves even closer. Somrak pushes aside the absurd temptation to kiss her, surely born of a death wish. “I know it was her who healed you,” she growls softly. “You reek of her power. Tell me, did she heal you so you could flirt with death again? Is that how you plan to capture her attention? By having her come and collect your soul when you get yourself killed?”

Two frost giant corpses collapsing at once makes an impressive momentary earthquake. Somrak actually feels his feet leave the ground from the impact. A damaged house tumbles the rest of the way down, and there is a hiss all about as snow slides off the angled rooftops of the buildings still standing

One of the giants has buried his axe in the other’s head; the other has thrust a spear through his companion’s eye and out through the back of the skull. They now lie on their sides, still clutching their skull-destroying weapons, looks of surprise on their faces. They had, after all, been aiming at a fiery shape that had looked a great deal like Somrak, flying through the air between them.

Easy to shape fire into anything, he thinks, satisfied with the results of his trick. Let’s see the Special Ops guys figure out how that happened. He grins and strides through the main street of the village.

A full third of the houses are damaged beyond repair, he observes. Some are completely destroyed. Human bodies, of all ages and genders, lie scattered in the street, the victims of giants who believe their ancestors, whom they worship instead of gods, have ordered this tragic little crusade. They may well be right – who knows what madness the long-dead ghosts of aeon-old giants may preach? But littered among the human corpses are now those of giants, sixteen in all, some with boiled-to-explosion brains, some with their icy hearts burnt to ash, some with slashed tendons and then, brought to earth by legs that would no longer support them, slashed throats.

One of his favorite blades has broken. Even enchanted, dwarf-forged steel can’t stand up forever to the hard work Somrak puts it through, particularly because Somrak prefers his short swords narrow and light. He grumbles and sheathes the half-blade, reminding himself to visit his favorite equipment-smith and get a new one made. There goes two months’ pay –

And that’s when one of the giant corpses reaches out like lightning and grabs Somrak’s left arm, squeezing hard. Somrak screams as he feels his radius and ulna twist and then snap like twigs. The giant sits up, lifting Somrak from the ground. The god stares back at one hate-filled, pale-blue eye. The giant’s other eye is gone, along with almost half of his head, burned away by a particularly energetic display of a fire god’s power

“Tough…bastard,” Somrak gasps through clenched teeth.

The giant says something in that ponderous language that always sounds like an avalanche to Somrak. “Speak…Urbia…you stinking barbarian!” Somrak shouts. He is just summoning up the power to cook the rest of the giant’s brain when it smashes him to the hard stone street, once, then again.

He doesn’t break eye contact. He wonders if she can see the concussion in his eyes. After a long tense moment he says, “Message received. So is there anything else?”

She pulls back, staring at his face. “Yes. None of the other off-blues is willing to work with you. Your team is no more, Somrak.”

He clenches his jaw, though the pain that sends slicing through his head almost knocks him off his feet. “I’m sure I can find something to do.”

She turns and goes to the sideboard. “I better not hear of you going anywhere near Three Rats, Ponytail. That place is bad enough for our people without a walking menace like you around.”

He closes his eyes. The room is going out of focus again. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ve always wanted to take up macrame. Very calming, I’m told. You might try it.”

He hears the thup sound of a cork being pulled from the neck of a bottle, followed by the tink of the bottle’s neck touching a glass. Liquid pouring. “My brother has spawned enough sons with a talent for hangman’s nooses. I can do without the pointless artistry.” A little water being spritzed into the glass. “By the way, I have spoken to your master. He is handing your leash over to me on a permanent basis.”

Somrak opens his eyes and looks pointedly at the bottle next to her hand. Whisky, nothing very rare or refined, just simple and delicious. “Are there two glasses, or am I just drinking straight from the bottle?”

She lifts her glass and sips the whisky. “You’re in no condition to drink. Sit.”

He looks at the chair she nods toward and sighs. Walking with the care of a practiced drunk, he moves to it and carefully sits. The moment he does, the enervation of his unrested body washes over him, just as he’d feared. Every ache, every sharp stabbing pain, every throbbing agony comes on in full force. He clenches his teeth against a groan.

“So what’s next?” he gasps.

“Next is a visit from a healer. Don’t worry, it’s not the Butcher. Then you focus on getting your head screwed on straight. And after that, I have a couple of ways for you to make yourself useful.” She takes a drink. “Did you give her the sword?”

At the abrupt change in topic, Alma’s smile as he handed her the gift from Fencer returns in his mind. And the feeling of holding her in the breezeway. Kissing her. “I did. She likes it. Relieved you didn’t ask for the old one back.”

Fencer snorts. “She had the nerve to steal that one from me. Anyone that brave or stupid deserves a reward. Tell me, how’s your fencing?”

He feels very detached from his body. He hears his voice saying, “You tell me. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” But he thinks the clever words may have come out as senseless babbling.

Being witty is such hard work.

“You’re badly injured. Let me heal you.” The beautiful white-haired Sergeant reaches a hand to touch Somrak.

He moves back slightly, still twitching from the lightning strike that hit him. In the wake of the assassination attempt of this Alma and her Archon-Dooming Bunnies, he is not in the best of shape, but his body is already healing in the way nearly any god is capable of, even one as oriented toward destruction as himself. And if she’s anything like the off-blues’ staff healer, known as the Butcher, Somrak is better off healing himself. “Save it, Sergeant. You’ll likely need the mana later.”

He knows who she is, of course. When the Commander split up the forty-year Somrak and Sky partnership – an off-blue teamup both tumultuous and highly successful, and one that had outlasted any other partnership in the existence of the off-blue program – Somrak naturally looked into the Dei officers that Sky would be working with. But he hadn’t looked very closely and now here she is, face to face, the notoriously difficult Sergeant Alma, Dei of a dozen stations.

And seeing her face before him, pale and delicate while at the same time flushed with Life energy from healing the red-haired Bunny, he is certain he has seen her before. He will have to plumb his memory. Later. Assuming he survives.

She frowns at him. “It is a more efficient use of mana to heal you now, rather than leave you as a burden on the rest of us. I daresay I can heal you with greater ease than you can heal yourself.

He smiles, that lopsided grin pulled into a smirk by his scar, so infuriating to many even when it is an honest smile. This goddess, only a few decades his junior but barely a rookie Guardia compared to his mortal lifetime of service, mother-henning him. He finds himself charmed but, being who he is, he has to express himself sardonically. He turns to the Commander and jokes, “I see what you meant about her.”

He looks back to see her narrow-eyed glare at the Commander, which just makes Somrak like her more. He can imagine all those dull rulesbound station commanders she’s served under, not knowing what to do with her. He’d love to show her the off-blue life. She might even like it.

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.

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.