Ch6.99 Trust

“Okay y’all, cookies are ready!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it won’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now there is nothing but a corpse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ch6.92 Trust

“Did you see that look she gave me? With that red eye?” Cherry glowers at Merri, squinting one eye and growling, “‘Don’t you raise your voice at me…’”

Despite all that has happened lately – learning that their mother Alma is in danger along with Sky and Gwydion, an attack by demons that the Bunnies fortunately weathered in Gwydion’s room under Geryon’s watchful eagle eye, and the sudden transformation of their bar into a botanical garden which she is still trying to decide whether or not she likes – Merri laughs at Cherry’s terrible but still recognizable imitation of the Fencer, their great-aunt. “Well you were interruptin’ her, darlin’.”

Cherry hugs herself and shivers. “Brrr. Scary!”

“Scarier than Melinor?” Kori asks, pushing a large leaf with big holes in it like a slice of living green Cheddar out of the way. “He’s cool…”

“Way scarier!” Cherry insists.

“Och, Melinor’s not scary at’all!” Merri agrees.

Geryon pads over to the sofa and hops up onto it, rustling his wings. He glances at Merri and sniffs. Well he doesn’t sniff, exactly. With that lovely yellow beak his nose-holes are too wee to really be useful for sniffing. But he looks like he sniffs, you know. “That is only because he did not threaten you, my dear,” he says loftily to cover up his wounded pride.

Merri ducks under a fern and, wishing for a pith helmet, plops down on the edge of the sofa. She drapes herself alongside Geryon, marveling as she always does at his soft fur and feathers, and nuzzles his neck. “Oh darlin’… I’ll admit, that would’ve left me a puddle o’ quiverin’ puddin’ on the floor, if he’d done it t’me. Ye handled it very well, love.”

“Well,” the gryphon murmurs, moving his head to rub against her cheek. “I was entrusted with your safety, after all. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. They are all dreadfully frightening, the lot of them. Gods of death…” He shudders. “I told Dion, time and again, it is a bad idea to get involved with that sort.”

Merri kisses him on his big, sharp, curved beak, and says gently, “Dear, that is our mother ye’re talkin’ about.”

Geryon casts his eyes down. “I uhm… I guess I can open an exception for her. But you will have to admit, she can be just as dreadful when she wants to be.”

“Oh yeah,” Cherry says, sitting down on the other side of him and stroking the top of his head. “Ain’t no doubt, she can do scary with the best of ‘em.”

There follows one of those odd moments who everyone falls silent at once for no particular reason, and the room becomes very still, and Merri looks about the room, their home, their bar, the building that dear Sky has rented to them on behalf of the Guardia, which owns the building. The wee ones, Kori and Chime and Tulip, are back to their old selves already, chasing each other around and exclaiming over discoveries. Sage is inspecting the changes to the place along with his human girlfriend Aliyah, dear sweet constable Aliyah, so brawny and tall, towering over the lovely male Bunny, the two of them marveling at the flowers and greenery, orchids and begonias and hibiscus and others Merri doesn’t even recognize, she’ll have to look them up, Mamma probably has a book that’ll say, and goodness, she wonders, are we going to have bees and hummingbirds in here, why that would be nice, perhaps, though the bees sound a bit scary. Merri starts to decide that she quite likes what Grandmamma, the stunningly beautiful Lyria, has done with the place, not only the plants but the nice, solid new furniture, tables and chairs all of dark heavy wood, and she wonders how much it was all damaged by the demons that invaded. Probably smashed to flinders, she thinks.

At the thought of demons, Merri’s mind flits back to that horrid night when they had to escape Three Rats, to get to the portal in the neighboring ward of Little Falls and face so many dreadful criminals who wanted nothing so much as to murder Bunnies, and those demigods and monsters and summoned hounds from Hell itself were sent against them, and even after they escaped to supposedly the safest building on the whole of the Insula they were ambushed by assassins and one of them lashed a nasty spiked chain at her and it wrapped around her leg and pulled her, pulled her away screaming from the arms of Cherry, her dearest, the other half of her heart…

Without a thought of doing so, Merri stiffens and grabs Cherry’s hand where it rests on top of Geryon’s head, making the gryphon twitch. He looks between the two of them, as Cherry looks over Geryon at Merri, her eyes wide. “What is it, baby?” Cherry asks, and it comforts Merri to see her darling’s face so concerned, but hurts her as well, knowing that Cherry is so easily worried and unsettled by all that’s been happening, perhaps more so than any other Bunny. Merri knows that Cherry is already on edge, what with all that’s happened, and who wouldn’t be, one could well ask, poor sweet Cherish, and Merri wants nothing more than to take her beloved in her arms and comfort her, which is a bit funny considering how just a moment ago it was Merri herself who was feeling so disturbed, but then there’s nothing like someone needing your help to steady you, is there?

Before Merri can actually say anything, Aliyah speaks up, having come up to them along with Sage. “Um, did they say someone else was comin’?” the cop asks.

Geryon breathes in deeply, the side of his chest pressing pleasantly against Merri, and releases his breath in a sigh of someone who has been put upon for a thousand years. “Yes… two more of them. I wonder what sneering haunt will greet us next…”

As if summoned by the words, two figures fade into sight, in the middle of the room where the foliage only hangs a little way from the ceiling in trailing vines of wisteria. One is draped in a dark-grey cloak that, from its outline, indicates that it covers a human-shaped male body, but that body as far as Merri can see is made entirely of shadows, darkness upon darkness, hooded and hovering just a finger’s length above the floor. The other looks just like his companion, except that his cloak is a bright sunny yellow with gold trim where the other’s cloak has silver embroidery, body made of light where his counterpart’s is made of darkness, shining and warm, not at all painful to look upon but much resembling how Merri has always imagined an angel would. They both turn this way and that, looking somewhat confused as to why they are here.

It is a heart-stopping moment for all, as there is no telling if these are friends or foes, only their grandmother’s assurance of the imminent arrival of guardians tipping the Bunnies, cop, and gryphon all slightly into the ‘maybe they’re friendly’ camp. Or at least Merri is tipped there, and she stands, because manners are manners and if these are demons of some sort – but really how could they be? they don’t look threatening at all, for all their strangeness and the feeling of power and ancient wisdom coming from them – well if they’re demons then the only way the younger Bunnies will escape is if there’s a distraction, so Merri stands and, looking at Cherry whose hand she still holds, nods and smiles to see Cherry, oh dear bright brilliant star that she is, nods as well despite her fears, and still holding hands they approach the two visitors.

Her voice only showing the slightest tremor of nervousness, Cherry calls out cheerfully, “Hey there! Welcome to the Burrow! Now with extra foliage. Heh. Y’all want somethin’ to drink, or eat?”

Not one to be outdone, and besides the two of them have always loved to put on a show of being a practiced pair, showmanship being such a part of the business that May so charmingly calls ‘the water trade,’ though Merri can’t quite remember if May ever explained why, Merri chirps, “I’m Rosemary, but everyone calls me Merri. This is Cherry. And…well, we can do the introductions as we go along, there bein’ so many of us. Please, sit down, ye’ve come such a long way after all.”

The figure fully made of shadows turns to focus on the Bunnies. This close and from her angle, for it seems like there’s hardly anyone who’s not taller than she, and what a bother that is sometimes, even Sage and Cherry and especially May are all taller not to mention all the humans and gods, Merri can see his face under his hood more clearly, yes, shadow on shadow and a glint of silver to one of the sides, to form a face none-too-solid but handsome, indeed it is, though doesn’t Cherry like to joke that to Merri every face is handsome or lovely, and oh yes it’s so isn’t it, and why shouldn’t it be for isn’t there beauty in everyone? Well maybe not everyone. Not that horrid Nekh who tried to have them killed and nearly killed Geryon and oh my the shadowy fellow is suddenly raising an arm and speaking of Geryon here he is again, jumping in front of Merri and Cherry, swollen up to full fighting size, a great eagle-headed-and-winged lion, feathers and fur puffed to make him even bigger, oh how glorious he is and he doesn’t even know it, does he? Poor dear Geryon, so brave in an emergency and so uncertain of himself in repose.

“Ladies, run!” he roars, and it’s best just to ignore the crack in his voice that makes him squeak at the very end because goodness knows bravery without fear is just foolishness, ain’t it?

Even though she feels no fear of the shadowy god, for god and even family she trusts he must be, Merri is about to scarper with Cherry because Geryon is their guardian, after all, and it would be embarrassing to him if they didn’t obey, men’s egos being so fragile, don’t you know, it’s just one of those things best not to mention most of the time.

Without pausing at the sight of a powerful and dangerous gryphon threatening him, the shadow-man removes his hood, revealing more clearly his wavering and never-quite-defined head, the darkness fading out in wisps to indicate hair, that silvery glint revealed to be, after all, a lovely earring very similar to Mother’s but a little different here and there, the primary impression of his unusual face being, from its smile, friendliness. And from that smile comes a voice, “Oh don’t run on our account. We were called to guard everyone here, after all.”

Well doesn’t Geryon look abashed at that. Merri puts her hand on his back to comfort him, and of course there’s Cherry doing it as well, for who couldn’t love him? “It ain’t no surprise we’re a little nervous,” Cherry says. “We just got attacked by a buncha demons. Dunno if Lyria told you that.”

Looking quizzically at Cherry, he says, in a voice not all all shadowy and dark and echoey like you might expect, but kind and convivial, “She did fail to mention it.”

And now the other one, the angelic fellow, all light where his companion is shadow, points, and Merri follows his glowing finger and sees he’s pointing at Tulip, who has a familiar ‘What did I do?’ look on her face. The dark one focuses on her intently, and says, “Yes, you’re right… Looks just like her.” It takes half a tick for Merri to clue in that he must be responding to a comment from the bright guy, something that even Bunny ears couldn’t catch. Shadows (as she is beginning to think of him seeing as he hasn’t offered up a name yet) looks around at all the Bunnies and chuckles a little. “Oh I see! You are Alma’s mini-clan, aren’t you?”

“Mini-clan?” Merri is astonished at the thought, but then smiles brightly and laughs. “Oh, I like that! We’re the Clan o’ the Bunny! We need our own plaid!”

Shadows laughs as well, delighted, and takes a step toward Merri, reaching out and touching her ears and running his fingers through her hair. His touch is surprisingly solid, cool, cooler than their mother’s touch but not cold or unpleasant at all. “This is brilliant! The transition of fur and hair, the ears… So absolutely perfect. And you are all different. Do you all have different personalities, as well? Different abilities, maybe?”

Merri resists the urge to take a step back. He’s so eager and innocent in his way that even though it’s quite off-putting to be talked about and handled that way, she can’t blame him. But best to put a stop to that kind of thing right off, and Cherry, after sharing a look with Sage, takes the lead, bless her. “Hon,” Cherry says, her drawl firm and friendly-but-you-better-respect as she would put it, “how about we just get to know each other the usual way? So, you know our names…”

His shadowy features roil in momentary confusion, but then he smiles. “Oh, how rude of me… That is Luminus and I am Imset. We’re your uncles!”

Luminus removes his hood as well. Except for being drawn in soft light, his features are identical to Imset’s, right down to the earring. He smiles and raises a hand in greeting.

Cherry’s grin blossoms, broad and free and so pretty with her full dark lips and bright teeth and her lovely light-brown skin. “Now that’s more like it! Wow, uncles! Family keeps gettin’ bigger!” Merri remembers how Cherry wept in her arms one night, over how their father, Arion, had still only visited a few of them, how most of their mother’s family hadn’t acknowledged them, so she knows how important Imset’s words are to her, even though Cherry normally doesn’t say so aloud.

Sage steps forward, releasing Aliyah’s hand. “I am Sage. These are Kori, Chime, and Tulip. And Aliyah and Geryon, our protectors and dear friends.” Aliyah puts her hands on his shoulders and gives him a squeeze.

“I must say,” Imset says, “I had never met a talking gryphon before now.”

Geryon is still settling his feathers down, trying to look as if he didn’t unnecessarily leap to their defense. “Yes, I’m a rare beastie. So you are lady Alma’s brothers?”

“Oh yes. The oldest ones she has,” Imset says. “Little Almy is our baby sister. I take it she’s not around, or we wouldn’t have been called.” He looks closer at Tulip. “You look just like she did when she was that tall.”

Luminus moves closer to Tulip, and leaning down he smiles and pets her head. Tulip looks up at him, dazed and fascinated, her jaw half-dropped, and Merri bursts out laughing at the sight of Tulip – Tulip! – rendered speechless.

“So what are y’all the gods of?” Cherry asks. “Some kinda death, right?”

Imset chuckles. “Something like it. We are the light and the darkness at the end of life.” He leans closer to Cherry. “Do you have a heightened sense of smell as well?”

Cherry leans closer to him, still grinning, her snub nose almost touching his longer, sharper one. “We got a normal sense of smell, but humans got a terrible one, so I guess you could call ours pretty sharp. We ain’t exactly bloodhounds, but we kick butt at wine tastin’.”

Imset looks down Cherry’s body, shaking his head in pleased amazement. “And those legs and feet… Amazing how she managed to make it all work… And I just cannot get over that witty tongue of yours! Father is insane for thinking Almy disgraced herself with you! So much better than Uncle Techu’s Anubi…”

At this revelation, Merri gasps dramatically. “Are ye sayin’…we’re related t’the Anubi-bai, er, bi?”

“WHEEE!” They all look over to see Luminus tossing Tulip in the air. Though the youngest Bunny is a slight-built wee thing, she is thirteen years old and tossing her about like a toddler takes a lot of strength, but fortunately she’s not being bounced off the ceiling yet. Merri notes that Sage is keeping a worried eye on those two.

Imset chuckles again at the silliness. “Oh yes. Our mother’s first husband created the Anubi. That was before he was put on trial by the Council and sent away. Mother joined Father’s harem after that. Well…it was not a harem yet, back then. Why do you think people find you so repulsive?” He says this casually, distractedly while stroking Cherry’s ear between two fingers, clearly not subscribing to general opinion. Still, it’s no pleasure to her yourself being described as repulsive.

Sage, seemingly satisfied that Tulip is having a blast, says, “We knew that our creation was a violation of the law. But according to our mother, we were not in any way designed. We simply came into being. We are as accidental, in a sense, as most mortals. Perhaps that is the difference?”

“Perhaps.” Imset looks as if he realizes he was becoming lost in the sensation of stroking the soft fur of Cherry’s ear, and smiles at her apologetically. “So…anything we can do to soothe your minds after that rendezvous with demons?”

“Well I think a nice cuppa tea is in order,” Merri says. “Also, we need t’explore our redecorated bar!”

“We’re just guessin’,” Cherry says, “but this must be Lyria’s way of cleanin’ up. Man, look at these tables! They’re so much nicer than before.”

“Yes, this has Lyria all over it,” Imset says. “Speaking of which… Where is she? She sent for us but she didn’t say much in her message.”

At this point, all three of the younger Bunnies are gathered around Luminus, who is conjuring up beautiful wavering multicolored lights, like an aurora, fascinating them. He hasn’t said a word yet but they don’t seem to mind. Merri watches with half a mind, until Sage’s serious voice brings her back to reality. “She and the Fencer and Melinor have gone to find Mother, and some other gods whom you may not know. It’s all rather worrying.”

Imset looks concerned. “Is my sister in danger? Who are these gods?”

“They are all Guardia Dei,” Sage explains. “One of them is a sergeant like Mother, named Gwydion. Oh, Somrak is a sergeant as well, but he’s not from this station. And then there is this station’s inspector, Sky, or rather Tuma-Sukai, as he is properly called. They seem to have gone up against the necromancer who bombed our station and killed some of our people awhile back.”

Merri feels her stomach clench and being reminded of the simply awful situation. “And Dion an’ Sky an’ Somrak, too, they’re all family to us an’ we’re worried sick.”

“Huh…” Imset’s insubstantial-looking hand strokes his jawline. “I remember hearing about that bomb. Hadn’t had one go off since Lum and I were youngsters. Gwydion… is he from the First Ring?”

“He is! Very posh an’aw,” Merri says. “But he’s begun to fit in well here. Place has grown on him!”

“Sommy’s a bundle of trouble, but we love him anyway,” Cherry adds. “Got a ponytail and a scar like this.” She draws a line across her face with her finger.

“Is this Gwydion the one who was caught seducing his way through the whole First Ring?” Imset asks, sending Merri and Cherry into a fit of giggling while Aliyah guffaws.

Geryon, on the other paw, sighs. “Yes. If you want his skin for losing a girlfriend, you will have to stand in line.”

“Oh no,” Imset laughs, “I find it all very amusing. Unless, of course, he is harboring bad intentions toward my little sister. Then I might have to harm him.”

Though it’s said in a friendly tone that seems to be Imset’s default, the statement puts a stop to the laughter. Merri and Cherry look at each other, and the latter says, “Well, uh, y’know…how about that drink? And weren’t you gettin’ tea, baby? Y’know,” Cherry says, back to addressing the twins, “she makes the best tea, even if it ain’t iced sweet tea.”

“But sometimes Cherry dear makes a pitcher o’ that iced abomination,” Merri responds, shaking her head with an amused sigh and heading for the kitchen.

“Hey, it’s good on a hot day!”

After she starts the fire and puts the kettle on, Merri leans against the doorframe and watches. Imset looks amused at the banter as Luminus sits by him and places a companionable hand on his shoulder. “So… you two are the oldest of the lot?” he says to Cherry.

“That’s right,” Cherry says. “Got no idea which of us appeared first, or if we both showed up at the same moment. We used to argue about it, but agreed it must’ve been simultaneous. Funny, we ain’t never asked Mom about that.”

Merri calls, “I was first an’ ye know it!” She laughs at Cherry’s dramatic eye-roll, and turns to the kettle, which is starting to hiss with the first signs of boiling.

“Oh, so you are twins! We are twins as well. Lum here was born just three days before me.”

Aliyah, who has been mostly silent around these older, more powerful and terribly strange but friendly gods, cries, “Ouch! That…is a long labor!”

“Oh, Mother wasn’t that put out by it. She had plenty to keep her entertained while she waited,” Imset explains.

Cherry laughs. “What, jugglers? Puppet shows? Poodles jumping through flaming hoops?”

Imset and Luminus look utterly confused, then look at each other and laugh, Luminus silently, Imset loudly enough for both. “Oh, she’s brilliant!” he says. “I don’t remember what she did, I hadn’t been born yet!

As Merri returns to the gathering, carrying a tray bearing the teapot filled with hot water, the tea steeping within, and a little cow-shaped pitcher of milk, a glass jar of sugar, and some biscuits on a plate, she sees that Luminus has decided to entertain them with another light show.

Ah, it must have been the young’ns who asked him because they are all sitting around the soft flare of a god, watching wide-eyed as little dots of light start crawling out from among the leaves of all the greenery that Grandmama left behind in the bar, crawling and rolling down the leaves like shimmering drops of dew in the morning light and falling and hovering, all different colors but so soft. Like fireflies in the summer. And it is like they’re growing now, just a little, and the bigger ones are blooming, all so slow, so quiet, stretching lazily in fine tendrils like slow, tiny, lazy explosions of silent fireworks, all over the bar, right in the air, where Kori and Chime can reach out and grab them and hold them in both hands, peeking into the little dark chamber created by their fingers and marveling at the way the ever-so-gentle lights are starting to change colors.

The sight of the rising, dancing lights evokes half-memories of the dream life she and Cherry shared while they slept together in magical stasis, sitting on the roof of their bar and watching a Year’s End festival display of pyrotechnics over a river. She used to know the names of the different kinds of explosions, peonies and chrysanthemums, rings and spiders and horsetails, marveling at the way the lit up the sky and reflected in the water, sipping champagne with Cherry. Oh what an exquisite time.

Ch6.90 Trust

The stench of them is getting closer. Demons, a group of them. Four at least. Lyria can feel them treading on the bare soil of the breezeway, corrupting it with their poisonous touch and with the slithering of their bodies, rotting seeds, killing roots. Defiling nature.

She curses under her breath. What kind of irresponsible fools would leave their home so vulnerable to an attack? And then again, this was never meant to be a home, was it? This was always just a prison, a quarantine unit. A grave to dangerous mistakes expected to die out in a few decades.

She shakes her head, throwing such thoughts back into the dark and grim abyss from whence they came. No time to entertain them now. A quiet thought, barely a conscious decision, and the floor by her foot sprouts a green stem, leaves, a large purple flower. A couple of tiny pixies stand in its eye and stretch their limbs, yawning lazily before taking to the air.

“Go,” Lyria tells them as she provides them with specific orders in a telepathic message. “Tell them to hurry.”

The little messengers nod and fly swiftly away, at full speed against the wall and past it. Her message will reach its intended targets very quickly, Lyria knows. It is all a matter of how long it will take them to come to her aid. She takes a couple of steps toward the kitchen, just to check that the gryphon has already sealed the portal into Gwydion’s room behind him. They should be safe in there, he and the Bunnies and that tall mortal girl.

Lyria takes a step back, turns to the door that leads into the breezeway. It would not do to give the enemy an indication of where her grandchildren are hiding. Her eyes flare with their vibrant, leafy green, her flaxen hair glimmers with the gold of ripe wheat in the summer sun. She glows with divinity just as the lights begin to dim around her, as the door is ripped off its hinges and crushed by a tentacled, saw-toothed mouth. A crawling shape enters and climbs the wall all the way to the ceiling, a mass of writhing arms, each of which is covered in blistering, festering wounds and gaping mouths from which issue a chorus of screams. Another demon, just a shapeless, writhing mass, slides over the floor, its stench so foul that Lyria has to activate a cleansing spell to keep herself from asphyxiating while she feels the floorboards rot under her feet.

The fourth is almost humanoid, tall, very tall, muscular, horned and winged. Tattered wings, stark black like the rest of its skin. No eyes, no mouth. Around him, darkness spreads, black chains hover with links as sharp as blades.

Lyria sighs for a moment at how simple and uncreative the fears of mortals can be. “Poor little demons. Born to suffer, to hate and slavery. You deserve the pity of the world.”

“Slaves deserve DEATH!” one of the demons roars in one of the lower tongues of Hell as all of them jump to attack with teeth, tentacles, talons and pseudopods. All of them as one, a rabid mass of Hellish nightmares pouncing on the life goddess.

She stands her ground, her powers unleashed to their full glory, their full horrifying magnificence. The air vibrates with the energy of Life, the room filling with the pulsating light of existence, with the rustling of leaves, the drumming of heartbeats, the whooshing sound of sap flowing in green stems. At a gesture of her hand, the boards and tables and chairs sprout thorn-laden vines that intercept and entangle the demons, tearing and constricting, deadly.

The demons roar, bound and stung. And she tilts her head in command. Venoms that harm even demons ooze from the tips of the thorns, into demon flesh.

“This is our world, little demon,” she whispers as the floorboards rise and twist into spiked mouths that bite and swallow two of the demons. “Long ago, we defeated you and locked you away in your Hell. Do you really think you can challenge us here?”

There are others, though, just arriving. She will need help soon enough. The demons wail and roar in pain as even the newcomers fall into her traps but pain is a constant to the lowly dwellers of Hell. They fight to move through the vines even as their flesh is ripped apart by them, chuckling when their corrosive blood eats through the plants, when their rotting miasma withers the verdant chains.

A demon breaks free before the rest and jumps at Lyria, dreadful maw open, teeth whirring around its jaws like a chainsaw, tentacles shooting to wrap around the goddess’ body.

“Diiiiieeeeeeee!” it bellows with poisonous breath, a sickly yellowish tongue whipping out, trying to grab hold of her neck.

Lyria raises an arm to catch the mucus-covered strip, which wraps around her limb instead of her neck, tightening its hold with bone-breaking strength. With a flash of divine power, her skin rises and thickens, her slender muscles bulge. Scales and spikes, tough and sharp, cover her arm, piercing through the surprised demon’s tongue, capturing it in place while the goddess’ free hand grows long, razor-edged claws that she uses to rip through the tentacles. Teeth manage to bite her, penetrating all the way down to her bones, but soon the demon is reduced to nothing but an angry mouth.

Other demons close in, tearing themselves out of the thorny vines, leaving assorted limbs behind inside her carnivorous plants’ mouths in sacrifice for their ultimate goal. Where are they?

Where are they?

A blur of movement to her right and a demon falls face first at Lyria’s feet, its armored skull bashed in from behind. A second demon is already being pulled back, flailing and wailing in confusion and fear. By her left, a blade pushes through the throat of the horned and winged shadow creature. The blade disappears and the demon staggers back, its wings, shredded and broken from the vines folding around its face in protection only to have the metal sword tip thrust through its chest with sudden force. An eerie light erupts in the blade, courses through the contorting, shrieking form of the mouthless creature as it seems to burn from the inside out. A bright flash and it crumbles in ashes, revealing the grimacing, disapproving features of Varah behind it.

“I was starting to wonder if you had heard my call,” Lyria says in casual welcome as she destroys the last portions of demon still clinging to her arm.

“I would have heard faster if you had mentioned demons,” Varah replies, a dagger flying off her left hand to pin the many-armed demon to the ceiling like a skewer through a kebab. It screeches in agony but almost immediately begins to pull at the blade, trying to free itself. “What is this? Where are the Dei?”

Left with no demons directly attacking her, Lyria once again stretches her powers through the ground and the walls, strengthening her vines, brewing new poisons in their stems, in their thorns. “They are apparently off on some hare-brained scheme–” she catches herself, just as a demon is bashed against the wall, making the building shake with ominous force. “Oh I should not say that. They have gone to rescue one of them.”

Varah frowns as she cuts a smaller demon in half. “Demons…Which one?”

“Tuma-Sukai,” Lyria replies darkly. “And obviously Hell has something to do with this.”

“The necromancer…” Varah nearly spits the word. “This has to be connected to it. I will kill your insubordinate child for not calling me!” She cuts a fiery demon’s head off in a clean blow so great is her rage.

“So you did not know then,” Lyria breathes, clenching her hand in a command that makes her vines tighten around two moribund creatures until their bodies collapse with a wet, sucking noise, crushed by the constricting stems. “And yet your Commander’s pet Somrak is with them…”

“I ordered that idiot specifically to stay away from this ward!” Varah bellows, stabbing a fallen demon through the eye, her sword glowing its spectral green as the poor creature’s soul is violently ripped from its dying body. “Your daughter keeps ruining all our good agents.” She pauses, her frown becoming a definitely not very flattering grimace. “He must have told them. Damn the fool… Too smart for his own good.”

A blood-curdling laugh from the ceiling catches their attention as the demon previously pinned there finishes gnawing a hole around Varah’s dagger and frees itself, dropping with its many arms stretched and bleeding over the goddesses. The vile thing disappears suddenly in midair, its shape a blur of moving color knocked off the path to Lyria’s head with a thundering blow. Lyria lowers her armored arm, injured from her previous attacker’s teeth but quickly healing, to see Melinor standing to the left of Varah, his hand almost casually gripping and crushing the demon’s core as if it were just a piece of rotten fruit before letting it fall on the floor. She breathes out in relief and gladness to see the tall, powerful god there.

“We need to find them,” Melinor says simply.

“Yes, little one,” Lyria says, scanning the area to make sure there are no more demons surprising them. “We must. That seems to be the last of them. Fortunately they were too preoccupied with us to attack the Popula.”

She ignores her divine senses for a moment and looks around the bar with the simpler, so sadly plain and incomplete senses of mortals. “Oh look at this mess! We can’t let the Bunnies return to this horror.” She sighs, shaking her head at the chaos. “Oh well… I was planning to do something like this anyway, as a gift.”

With a simple wave of her once again humanoid-looking hand, the vines begin to recede back to the ground, dragging away the demon corpses into the hotter, cleansing layers of the Insula’s core. With an echo of birdsong and a murmur of deer calls, the corrupted air is cleansed and filled with a flowery scent. The walls, floor, and furniture reform into a lovely, dark-wood paneled interior, matching and alive. Softly glowing petals of nocturnal flowers stretch from the walls, revealing colorful stamens that illuminate the room with a gentle light much more pleasant than any lamp or torch. Firefly-blossoms bloom in the ceiling. Foliage grows in the corners of the room, coated with softly insect-repelling substances.

“Huh…Pretty,” Varah harrumphs in that way of hers that makes such a positive word sound like honest criticism. She sheathes her sword, blade enchanted to be self-cleaning. “So, who can we shake for answers? Do the furry little hoppers know anything useful?”

Lyria dispenses her a displeased glance at the blunt description of the goddess’ grandchildren before answering. “No, but I know who does.” She moves toward the kitchen, to the pantry door through which she saw Bunnies and gryphon disappear and knocks on the doorframe. “Geryon, dear? It is safe now.”

The portal activates and Geryon hesitantly peeks out, looking at Lyria for reassurance. After a smile and a nod, he looks back into the portal, calling in “Yes, they’re gone,” before coming out himself.

The rambunctious curly redhead Rosemary is the first one of the Bunnies to leave the sanctum, carrying a metal stand for a censer as if it were a weapon, and soon sweet, loving Cherry follows her, armed with a little mother-of-pearl inlaid stool. They walk carefully through the kitchen and into the bar area, makeshift weapons raised as if expecting attackers to spring up from the floorboards. They stop suddenly, arms lowering and nearly dropping their cargo, eyes wide in awe. Mumbled whispers of “What the…” and “Oh my…” escape from their parted lips.

Their eyes drift toward Varah and Melinor and the mumbling stops. Their frames tense at the sight of the gods.

The human woman rushes out of the sanctum next, sword drawn and hissing at the girls, “Hey, I told you two to wait a second!”

As the other Bunnies emerge, some fearfully others rushing out, Lyria returns to the bar’s seating area, where Geryon is looking like a goose staring down a pair of foxes. “Dear, brave Geryon,” she says. “Thank you for protecting my family.”

Geryon tilts his head, in a raptorine show of suspicion. “You will forgive me, lady, if I don’t roll over and show my belly.”

“Finally, someone with a hint of intelligence in him,” Varah mutters with an amused snort.

Sigh. This is why giving mortals such leeway to think for themselves can be so dangerous… They just don’t understand divine urgency.

Lyria smiles slightly. “My apologies for before. But there were demons closing in and I truly needed to know. And Geryon, I need to know more. Where has my daughter gone?”

“I don’t know,” Geryon replies dryly, head swinging haughtily to the side. “They did not care to name addresses.”

“What did they care to name?” Varah growls.

Geryon hesitates, a bold move with such an imposing goddess as Varah. But whatever boldness is in him disappears as Melinor moves closer to him, radiating his aura of violence recently fueled by the fight, the left side of his face turned closer to the gryphon. “Speak.”

The single word, spoken in Melinor’s low-pitched and rough voice that would be so fetching if it weren’t being made to sound like a world of terrible threats, makes Geryon flinch back and cower. Still, the gryphon manages to keep his own voice from trembling too noticeably as he blurts out as quickly as his rigid beak will let him, “They are going after the necromancer. I told them they were insane, to go just the three of them and only a day after Dion was poisoned too. That alone was a close call. But they wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t listen too poor, wise Geryon telling them not to go after her. Nua. The necromancer’s name is Nua. I’m just here to protect the Bunnies because someone has to, right?”

Varah’s eyes widen and burn with rage, her one crimson eye looking like a beacon shining from the furnaces of Hell. “Nua…” she hisses. “If your friends are still alive, I will skin them for their folly!“

Lyria looks askance at the repeated threat against her child but she is not too far from admitting that Varah is justified in her anger. “I know my daughter. They would not have gone in without some form contingency plan. A message perhaps?”

She looks to Geryon for an answer, who in turn glances meaningfully at Fencer, the feathers on his head and neck rising subtly in nervousness. “The contingency plan involves the Sikari.”

The colors run out of Lyria’s face at the sound of that awful word, as bloodcurdling as “devil.” She looks at Varah in shock.

“They made it a law,” Varah mutters, exhaling deeply. “Remember, I was against the whole bloody plan from the beginning.”

“We are not following any cursed law that brings the Sikari in while Alma is still in there!” Lyria cries out.

She looks at the gryphon, her thoughts effortlessly flowing into his mind like a fresh stream flowing through the bed of an ancient, dried river. The other gods will be able to hear her, she knows, but it is only the Bunnies’ innocent dispositions that she cares to protect at this point. These demons that attacked us are proof that their plan was not fully well-informed. It may already have gone awry. Please, we need to go help them now. Before someone else notices what is going on and sends the Sikari whether we like it or not.

Geryon looks at her for a long silent moment and she can easily sense the speed of his thoughts, the moment of his decision. He sighs and nods, raising a taloned paw in which a small roll of paper materializes at a command word. “They trusted me with this. I did not read it but I assume it says all you need to know.”

Melinor takes the message, not brusquely or unkindly even if Geryon does flinch reflexively at the movements of the god, and reads its contents. “Little Falls. Neighboring ward.”

“When did they leave?” Varah asks.

“They left early this morning, I think, not long after dawn,” Sage volunteers. “Mother and Gwydion were in their office, and soon after, they were gone. Somrak’s scent was in the air.”

Varah grimaces. “We may be too late already.”

“We would sense it if she were dead,” Melinor notes, much to Lyria’s dismay. If there is one thing she would like to avoid is any talk of deceased parents around the children.

“Nua is the type that likes to play with her food,” Varah grumbles, apparently committed to making matters worse.

“What are y’all talkin’ about, dead?” Cherry nearly shrieks, eyes wide and lip trembling in fright.

Lyria strokes Cherry’s ears, a gesture she has noticed is somehow reassuring to Bunnies. “My dear, fear not. We will make sure no harm comes to your mother and her friends. But we must go now. Geryon will continue to be your guardian, and you must do as he says. All right?”

Cherry looks up at the goddess and nods, impulsively hugging Lyria in her anxiety. Lyria holds her for a short instant and strokes her hair, whispering soothing words before pulling away and putting her hands on Cherry’s cheeks to share a little meaningful look that wanders to all the other Bunnies and says, You must keep them all together and calm.

But more demons could already be on their way, for all she knows…

“We cannot just leave them here with no divine protection,” Lyria says to Varah. “I am half tempted to transport them all to my chambers…and go fetch Mayumi as well.”

That earns her a snort from Varah. “I would love to see my brother’s face when he walks in and finds them hopping around. Anyway, the one at the Academy is safer than all of these. And if we start moving these ones around, we will soon be answering uncomfortable questions before the Council.”

“I will stay behind and stand guard,” Melinor offers, standing as he often does at the side of such discussions only to intervene when things seem to start to derail.

The offer touches Lyria’s heart, knowing as she does that Melinor is often uncomfortable around children and would be even more so if he were to stay here, with people who require so much physical interaction and emotion, instead of doing whatever he can to save his beloved and only sister. “I will feel better with your strong arm beside us, little one. I think it is time these sweet creatures met more of their family.” Again she summons the messenger petal pixies, sending them on their way with a telepathic command and smiling softly at the fascinated look on her grandchildren’s faces at the sight of this simple magic. To all of them she announces, “Two gods will soon arrive. They will help keep all of you safe.”

“How will we recognize them?” Geryon asks.

“You will know,” Melinor states simply.

Geryon looks at the god, wings hanging a little low as if slumping in resignation. “Lovely…” he mutters before turning pleading eyes to Lyria, “Lady… I know they are all insane and in more trouble than I care to imagine but… Please be kind. Their choice was an impossible one.”

Lyria touches his cheek feathers affectionately. “Your loyalty is touching, dear child. First we will make sure they are safe and home and then…we will see what must be done.” She looks over the Bunnies one last time and smiles with a confidence she is far from feeling. She then moves closer to Melinor, saying, “Let us be on our way.”

Varah nods grimly, touching the young god’s shoulder. “Take us there.”

Ch6.86 Trust

On the desk chair in Alma’s sanctum, among the greenery and the quiet burbling of the fountain, Sage rises to the ball of his left foot, left hand on the edge of the polished wooden bookshelf for support, right leg held slightly back and to the side for balance, stretching his right arm, tugging with his fingertips at the spine of a book that contains, he knows, a color plate of a pair of Second-Ring courtiers from four centuries ago. He saw it months ago and wanted to make a jacket based on the man’s, and he decided earlier today that now is the time.

If only it weren’t on the highest shelf!

He can hear Cherry’s voice saying, We ain’t short – they’re all just crazy tall! But the truth of the matter is, sometimes it would be nice to have a little more reach. Mayumi, tallest of the Bunnies, could reach it. If she were here. If she were not far upslope, attending the Academy.

The thought of her missing brings him back to having both feet on the chair. Every time he remembers that she is gone, that she will be gone for half a year, his heart sinks. He knows she is safe, but he still can barely believe that she chose to leave them so soon after the seven of them awakened into this strange life in Three Rats. He had known, as far back as he can remember, that the others existed. He had seen glimpses of them in dreams within the dream in which he had lived. But to be together had been bliss. And though of course he loves Cherry and Merri and the younger Bunnies just as much, it is May he has been closest to since their awakening.

How must she feel, alone, separated from her family, among strangers? He sighs, wishing he could talk to her, hold her. Bunnies are not meant to be away from the ones they love. He hopes she can find someone while she is there.

And that brings even greater weight to his mind. He knows, of course, that she has fallen in love with Sky, and that May and the god had promised to stay in close communication. But Sky has disappeared, and Mother has offered no clear explanation for his absence. But she is deeply anxious about it. And no one has had a chance to let May know yet. She will have heard no word from Sky. It is perhaps too soon since her departure for her to be worried, but within a few days, that won’t be the case.

Surely Sky will be back by then, the Bunny thinks. He stretches again, then suddenly realizes he could just pull a book off a lower shelf, place it on the seat of the chair, and stand on that. Something big and thick, heavy and steady–

The fur on the nape of his neck stands on end. Sage has tightly-curled black hair on his skull, but like the other Bunnies, the fur around his neck, which in his case covers just the back of his neck and runs in a dagger shape between his shoulderblades, is short and soft. This ruff rises as he feels the presence of a magical charge in the air, and he turns to see that a portal, blue-green in color, is opening in Alma’s mirror on the opposite side of the room. Expecting his mother to step from it, he is surprised to see a fuller shape topped by waves of corn-golden hair, instantly recognizable as belonging to Lyria, Goddess of Life.

“Grandmother!” Sage turns and hops off the chair. “How wonderful to see you!”

Lyria’s eyes widen in surprise and delight, and at her brilliant smile the plants which grow throughout the room, though already healthy, perk up, quivering with vitality, several of them bursting into flower. “Hello, little one! It is wonderful to see you as well.” Her voice sounds as if she is on stage in a musical, on the verge of launching into song. She raises both arms, which are festooned with bags, the handles gripped in her fists or looped over her forearms up to her elbows. “”Would you lend me a hand, my dear? Yes, thank you.” As Sage takes some of the bags from her, she looks around and asks, “You are all alone in here? Where are the others?”

“Oh, none of us really live in this room anymore – we have our own rooms upstairs now.” At Lyria’s concerned glance, Sage assures her, “It seemed time. But everyone should be in the bar now. Well, everyone but May. I just came down looking for a book. I wanted to make something nice to cheer us up.”

Lyria’s expression of concern only increases. “And why do you need cheering up, little one?”

Bearing as many of the bags as he can, Sage leads the way to the door, wending past a fern that seems to want to worship Lyria. “Something is going on… Mother doesn’t wish to worry us, but something has happened to Sky, and she and Gwydion have gone off to take care of it. And, well, so many other little things. And with May being at the Academy…it is like a part of us is missing.”

Lyria blinks in astonishment. “The Academy? Which one? Surely not the Academy of Magic! I would have known if Mayumi had any aptitude for wizardry.”

“Oh, the Guardia one,” he says as they ascend the stairs, his voice apologetic. “I thought you would know.”

Lyria’s voice is shocked. “My daughter let one of her children join the Guardia? But that is no place for wonderful creatures like you! Well, it was no place for your mother, either, but once that girl gets something into her head – how awfully reckless of Alma to send Mayumi to that horrible place!”

“Mayumi very much wanted to go.” Sage’s midnight-furred ears fall, angling downward to unconsciously indicate his sorrow. “I don’t believe Mother wanted her to go at all. But we all knew May had to do it.”

Pausing near the top of the stairs, Lyria reaches out a hand and strokes one of his ears, trying to nudge it back up to its usual cheerfully erect position. She smiles sadly at him. “Oh, little one… It hurts you to be separated from her, no? But soon she will return. Maybe she will find some sense and see what a bad decision it was. My grandchildren, in the Guardia… Ah! I barely understand how Alma can tolerate such a life.”

Sage cannot help but smile at his vivacious grandmother’s encouragement, but he rises to defend her daughter. “Mother does so much good for the people here–”

“Grandmamma!” Merri’s high-pitched cry interrupts him, and she bounds over to embrace Lyria. Cherry is right behind, and the two of them are soon divesting her and Sage of the bags. The younger Bunnies, Kori and Chime and Tulip, gather around her, Tulip chattering and Kori asking questions and Chime just holding Lyria’s hand and humming a tune as they walk with her over to the sofa. Geryon languidly removes himself from the old, worn sofa to give her room, as his winged, leonine body tends to take up the entire thing, while Aliyah, Sage’s human lover who towers over him and the other Bunnies, comes closer, shyly standing behind Sage and putting her hands on his shoulders.

“Where’d she come from?” Aliyah whispers, bending down, her breath tickling his ear.

He tilts his head back and smiles brightly at her. “Mother’s mirror.”

A look of incredulity is followed by a guffaw, and Aliyah shakes her head. “Gods…”

He leans back against her and feels her powerful arms cross over his chest and pull him closer.

“Oh, I am so happy to see you all!” As she sits on the sofa, younger Bunnies piling onto it with her, Merri and Cherry going to the bar and kitchen to bring food and drink, Lyria’s voice fills the room, lending a cheerful energy to the dark walls, the cleaned and repaired furniture. “I was heartbroken that I could not attend your little gift-giving party but the preparations for our yearly ceremony are rather complex and tiresome. So I thought I would make this a slightly belated gift-giving and check to see how your mother is doing with her new sphere. But Sage tells me my daughter is out?”

Over the sound of rattling ice in a shaker, Cherry says, “Yeah, they’re bein’ all ‘Everything’s fine, babies, don’t worry,’ but none of us is buyin’ it!”

Merri, shaking her mass of ginger curls as she brings in a big plate heaped with brownies fresh from the oven, adds, “And dear Geryon is in on the act. Keepin’ us all together an’ repeatin’ ‘Oh, nothin’s wrong! Why d’ye ask?’” She shoots him a glare.

The gryphon looks too innocent to be believed. “Poor dear Geryon, being mistreated for just wanting to be around his favorite people.”

Lyria looks at Geryon and then at the Bunnies, pausing for a moment to smile at the sight of Sage in Aliyah’s arms. “All right, I see there has been a lot going on. Why don’t you tell me what you do know and then we can ask dear Geryon for answers again?”

Geryon gives her a nervous look, then looks away, pretending not to be in the room, prompting Merri, after setting down the tray which is already missing half its burden due to the voracious and happily munching adolescents, zips over to Geryon and cuddles him, kissing him on the beak. “Och, I know ye’re only doin’ yer job, love.”

Cherry hands Lyria a cocktail in a rocks glass with thin slices of carrot as a garnish, arranged to look like bunny ears. “Well, lessee, there was a big misunderstandin’ about who’s got the hots for who, then Momma shows up with super-cool but kinda weird eyes, then Sky disappears, then Somrak shows up – they tried to keep that a secret, but,” she taps the side of her nose, “we just pretended we didn’t know – and everybody’s acting like things’re fine only they sure as heck ain’t, and Dion got sick and punched Somrak, and now they’re all gone!” Cherry’s voice starts amused and calm, but rises in pitch and volume as she goes along. By the end she is gesticulating, and as she finishes, she is breathing hard, her eyes wide. Quietly, she says, “I hadn’t realized how scared I was.”

Lyria looks confused and progressively more worried at Cherry’s diatribe. “Oh my… That does sound serious. Hmmm… Gods do not ‘get sick’. Do you know what Gwydion had?”

Merri, still holding Geryon, looks at him apologetically before saying, “Geryon knows. He had a long talk with ’em behind a magical wall of silence.”

Head feathers puffing up, the gryphon insists, “Geryon knows nothing. All Geryon knows is that this place makes people go insane.”

Lyria opens her mouth to say something, but suddenly looks distracted, then concerned, as if listening to a news report of some disaster than none of the rest of them can hear. Then she looks at Geryon, her eyes flaring green. “Tell me.”

His eagle eyes widen and glaze over. “Dion was poisoned. Demon ichor,” he mumbles.

The Bunnies fall silent, and Merri cries out in shock, “Grandmamma!” Aliyah’s grip on Sage tightens. She would know, as Sage does, that gods cannot compel a mortal like Geryon to reveal a secret in such a cavalier manner. There are rules. The mortal must be sworn into their service, or there must be a court order. Or there must be some emergency. Sage can tell that Aliyah is struggling with whether to protest.

Lyria closes her eyes, breathing deeply. Suddenly, she opens them again, no longer glowing, and asks Geryon, “What did they tell you to do if things went wrong?”

Geryon scrambles to his feet and raises his head indignantly, feathers fluffed out to the full. “Lady Lyria, I swore to–”

Her cocktail in one hand, the other resting on Tulip’s back, unmoving, Lyria interrupts, her voice level. “There are demons moving in this direction. Whatever they told you to do, do it. Now.”

Geryon looks shocked. The feathers flatten almost instantly. He swallows, the nods. “I am going to need you all to go into Dion’s room.”

Merri is looking up at him from where she is sitting on the floor. But after only a moment of hesitation, she stands, her voice deadly serious. “Right, you heard ‘im. No, Kori, not up the stairs – there ain’t nothin’ ye need t’get! Into Dion’s room now!”

“But–” Tulip starts.

“No buts!” Cherry orders, her voice even firmer than Merri’s, but with an edge of fear. “Go!

As this exchange occurs, Lyria is looking at Aliyah, who is frozen. “You had better join them, dear. There is nothing you can do here.”

Aliyah is still holding onto Sage. “But the other cops – I gotta tell ‘em.”

“I will see to them.” Lyria is calm. “Now go with the Bunnies.”

Sage slips from Aliyah’s arms and pulls at her hand. “Grandmother will warn them.” He looks to Lyria for confirmation, and at her nod, he hustles the Constable through the gold-glowing portal behind the pantry door into Gwydion’s sanctum.

Merri puts her hand on Sage’s back to make sure he goes in before her, and he sees her air of absolute command falter for a moment as she catches Lyria’s eye, the fear showing on her freckled face. He hears Lyria says to Geryon, her voice very calm, “Go and do not open that portal unless I call for you. We will speak of this later, and you will tell me everything.”

Geryon looks as if he is perfectly ready to tell her every secret he has ever known, but suddenly Merri gives Sage a shove, and he stumbles into the comfortable, tastefully decorated pocket universe that is Gwydion’s sanctum. Sage quickly counts all the frightened-looking Bunnies in the room, counting four, then himself, and then Merri as she enters. Only six! he thinks, panicking for a moment, before he remembers that Mayumi is in the First Ring. He quickly moves to take Aliyah’s hand again.

Then Geryon enters. He spins, touches the portal with his forepaw and a whispered spell, and it disappears. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, turns to look at his charges, and sits, curling his tail around his rear legs. With false nonchalance, he says, “Well…let’s see if Dion has a deck of cards somewhere in here.”

Ch6.53 Trust

The knock on his office door wakes him. Well, rouses him, to be accurate. The Evil Hamster of Pointless Thinking, as Sky had long personified his insomnia, had been running ceaselessly on its Rusty Wheel of Doom, keeping a proper sleep far away.

He sighs heavily and sits up in his bed, fine linen sheets falling away. His pocket-universe home, his sanctum, is in near-total darkness. But the knocking on the door in the next universe over is always loud enough to wake him, as he has made certain it would be. The magic on that door, and on the one to his false apartment as well, is such that he will know if someone is knocking, or trying the knob, or even speaking purposefully toward the door, no matter where he is on the Insula. Except of course for the low-magic wards.

And here comes the voice, echoing not in his ears but in his head. “Inspector?” Ah, Aliyah. “Inspector, are you in there?”

That echoing, some side effect of the spell involved, makes Aliyah’s voice sound like it is in a vast empty cavern. Sky always grimaces at what this implies about the architecture of his skull.

At his mental command, a diffuse, indirect light begins to glow from around the edge where the curved, tapa-cloth-lined wall meets the koa-wood ceiling. Here, in this miniature world tailored to his specifications, matched to his mind, the light reveals a circular room, simply appointed, the bed taking up almost all of it, its point of intersection with the larger oval of the main room a doorless opening.

The temperature lowers slightly as he rises and dresses. Lifetimes of soldiering have led him always to leave his clothes at hand, ready to be donned, and he dresses mechanically, without hurry but with swift efficiency, then steps into the main room, a larger oval with shelves and a curved sofa along one side, small kitchen nook on the other, the bedroom doorway at one end of the oval, the door to the bath at the other.

It is quite simple and spare as such dwellings go, but this is suited to Sky’s nature. Books, a few paintings and photographs, wallpaper made from pounded bark and dyed in runic patterns of the island people whose god he had once been, a comfortable bed and bath – it is a retreat from the world, an externalization of himself.

He moves to a spot on the wall which, on laying his palm against it, glows golden, a doorway through which he steps and feels the familiar touch of disorientation as he leaves a sort of womb under his complete control for the much larger pocket universe that is the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heaven. Here, Reality is adjusted to favor gods, but not any specific one, and certainly not himself, a creature who stretches the definition of “god” to the breaking point. And thus this Reality feels much more real to him than the comfort of his sanctum. That retreat is sometimes welcome and even needed, but he truly prefers to spend most of his time grappling against the difficulties of a world not made to suit him.

His long legs only need three steps to stride diagonally across his office to reach the door and open it, to find the worried face of Constable Aliyah, Guardia Popula. She is looking up at him, for he is one of only two people taller than her at this station. Her brown, freckled face brightens slightly at seeing him, taking on a hint of that normally cheerful disposition she radiates.

“Oh thank the – well, you know…you!” she blurts. “I figured you might be sleepin’ in there. I know it ain’t your shift quite yet, but Sergeant Gwydion sent me back to get you.”

Sky moves to his locker and pulls out his New Year present from Alma and Gwydion, the sleek Ballion-mesh-lined jacket, and slips it on, enjoying the perfectly tailored feel of it on his limbs and shoulders. “What’s happened, Aliyah? Death’s Day Off?”

“You know it!” she confirms bitterly. “Big fight over at Rio Novo.”

Sky sighs as he straps on his truncheon and other weapons. “How bad are we talking?”

“Mostly cleanup now,” she says. “A little fighting left, maybe, but they’ve really done a number on each other.”

He decides to leave the crossbow. Obvious ranged weapons can escalate a situation like this, and only mortals are likely to try to take advantage of this day to engage in Death-defying behavior. Gods, even the stupider ones, tend to know better. Mortals unafraid of being turned into a pincushion may still be impressed by a good shaking from an angry deity roaring in their faces.

“You can fill me in on which gangs are involved on our way there. Let’s go, Constable.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Sky suppresses a sigh. He feels the cooling liquid running down his gift from Alma and Dion and dripping onto his Guardia trousers, soaking in. Well, it is inevitable. An armored jacket is fated to become bloodstained. Particularly if it is his.

He moves slowly, balancing the two rival gangsters on his shoulders. They are young and big and strong. One of them is moaning softly for someone named Lisa. The other is worryingly silent. The blood is coming from multiple stab wounds they’d delivered to each other’s torsos. Sky had found them slumped across from each other, muttering threats, lightheaded from blood loss. He’d done his best to stop the flow, using the simple battlefield-healing magic he knows along with mundane first aid, then lifted them and headed for the clinic that is commonly known as “Doc Nate’s.”

Seeing all the beds of the clinic full, he slowly kneels and then lowers them to the floor, Constable Silva moving quickly to help. The moaning gangster continues moaning for Lisa, while the other remains unconscious.

“Sorry about this, Doc,” Sky says as Nataniel approaches to give them a cursory examination.

Nataniel sighs, looking deeply tired. “No hay problema. Just leave them there. I will take care of them when I can.”

“I’ve done what little healing magic I can, stopping bleeding and such. Some of them, it’s just too late. But…today…”

The doctor waves dismissively. “Sí, sí…I know. Nobody dies. Maybe I can save some still. If more don’t pile up. This keeps up like this, I’ll need reinforcements.”

A shadow falls across them as someone stands between them and the fluttering gas wall-lamp. Sky looks up to see Gwydion, and straightens. “Is the fighting as over as it seemed down by the river?”

Dion looks sympathetically at the blood beading on Sky’s jacket. He is, himself, bearing the marks of a sudden arterial spray across his chest and face. Although he has wiped the latter away as well as he could, a missed smear of blood remains on the side of his nose. “I’d think there’s no one left to be fighting at all by now. Both gangs should be missing at least half of their people.” He sighs and shakes his head. “I hate Death’s Day Off. Every year, the same thing. Five calls on all sorts of violence in a single shift.”

Sky nods. “They think it means they can’t be killed. All it means is they can’t be killed today. But when all the blood has run out of your body, there’s no putting it back in. Or unpuncturing all your vitals.”

“What I could do with a proper hospital,” Nataniel mutters. “One genius over there sold both his kidneys to the black market. Thought they would grow back, he said.”

Dion looks across the clinic room, at every bed full, along with most of the floor space, with healthy young men who could have led productive lives. “Maybe we should make explanatory pamphlets or something…” he says in a dry voice.

“We could attach them to the knives they favor,” Sky replies, sighing. “Well, some of them will survive. Doctor, do you need any magical assistance? Though those who have passed the point of death cannot be saved, in my experience.”

Nataniel shakes his head. “Preserve your, eh, magical fuel, Inspector. The Sergeant here has done as much as he can, saving some of these lives. Pero I have to go back to work if any are to survive past tonight.” He mutters, “I swear death gods do this so we’ll pray to them…”

Dion chuckles. “Better than going on strike… Well, I’ll go check to see if any more bodies are dropping.”

“I’ll come with you,” Sky says grimly. “We need to make sure this has stopped.” Together they walk out, the glare of the setting sun making them squint as they trudge back toward the Rio Novo neighborhood.

“Think they really do it for the publicity?” Dion’s voice is low and thoughtful.

“The Death Clan?” Sky shrugs. “Who knows how it started? Now it’s such tradition, I don’t know if they could change it. A billion souls all dreading this day – that’s a lot of belief to overcome.” Not for the first time, he thanks Fate that he has no worshippers. Or very few. Though he does not encourage worship – which would be illegal for him, as Guardia, to do – he does receive prayers now and again. It is a strange feeling, to hear those voices, often too weak to make out, and to feel mana flowing into him from a mortal. And sometimes he thinks there is even a prayer to him from that island where, so very long ago, he was first worshipped as a god. Where he acquired this tall, dark form he has worn ever since.

That had been, as he discovered, a beautiful trap. A god, worshipped by even no more than the inhabitants of a single small valley, can find himself transformed by the worshippers’ expectations and desires. It is how he took on the characteristics of a god, how he became ocean-aspected. His other aspect, that of rebellion, had been much stronger then, not yet crushed beneath the heel of revolutions failed and successful, the successes often more disappointing than the failures. But then, his nature would not allow him to stay with them. He believed the best thing for them was to live on their own, with no gods.

And thus he was not there for them when the foreign ship came, their diseases welcomed with open arms, and soon after, their bullets. It was an error that fills him with guilt even now, nearly two centuries later. He took vengeance on the plunderers, but the damage had been done. The few survivors had, with Sky’s negotiation, been adopted into a village in a neighboring valley.

Dion’s words shake him from his self-recrimination. “Yes. Though, what it is they do that takes all of them coming together for a whole day…” He looks at Sky. “You’ve seen some of the more interesting family members. Even the ones who sound cordial can look a bit… unpleasant. Fodder for the imagination.”

“They are as they are shaped by those who pray to them, or pray to be ignored by them. Fear of death is so powerful, and so they take on frightful forms.” Sky glances at Dion with a smile. “Though not all are frightening.”

Dion snorts. “Even those who are beautiful can be a terror when their tempers are roused.”

“Don’t I know it,” Sky responds dryly, though with affection for the object of their discussion, Sergeant Alma.

“Sky…” Dion’s hesitation prompts Sky to look at him, eyebrows raised. “You worked with the Commander. Did you ever encounter Senator Death?”

Asking after Alma’s father? Sky thinks with surprise that turns to warmth. He really is serious about her. Well, that or very worried. “Only once,” he says aloud. “Decades ago. I was there to escort the Commander, and so I stayed in the background, silent. Death did not deign to notice my presence.”

“What do you think of him?”

Grimly, Sky says, “He’s a Senator. No one reaches those heights without a ruthless nature. He never even visited Alma during her arrest.” He shakes his head as he adds bitterly, “It wouldn’t have been good politics.”

“My uncle is of even higher rank,” Dion points out.

Sky looks at him, his eyes soft. “There are always exceptions,” he says. “Archon Math was instrumental in protecting you, Alma, and her children from an unjust punishment. I will always feel gratitude to him for that.” He does not say, however, that he still believes Math to be as coldly ruthless as Death, probably more so. In Sky’s opinion, Alma was saved because it was useful to Math to do so. But there is no point in telling that to the Archon’s nephew, practically his son. To change the subject, Sky says, “Have you met Alma’s mother?”

“I have.” Dion smiles. “Once, while we were at my uncle’s estate. She came to visit Alma. She was a bit…overwhelming.”

Sky laughs. “Yes, well… She smiled at me, that time, so long ago, when I was in Death’s presence. And then I’ve met her a few times since, here.”

“Here!” Dion sounds shocked. “Oh, she must have come to visit Alma, of course. And I can tell from the warmth in your voice that you like her.”

Sky smiles. “I do. She loves her daughter and her grandchildren – yes, she calls the Bunnies that without reservation. She loves them quite sincerely, and they very much love her in return. And she has shown me great kindness. But…” His voice becomes sad. “I really do think her skills of manipulation may make Death look like an amateur.”

“Really…” Dion mutters. “Why am I not surprised?”

“They are an ancient and ambitious family,” Sky says. “You must know far more about such things than I do.”

Dion nods, silent for the moment.

“Speaking of Alma, instead of her family,” Sky says, “don’t the two of you have an arrangement to meet?”

Again, the god of magic nods. “We do. Which leads me to ask: are you sure you want to switch shifts? Alma told me you were planning on spending Mayumi’s last night here with her.” He looks abashed. “I did not remember it when I asked you for the switch. Forgive me.”

Sky can sense behind the words the question, Why didn’t you mention it? And indeed, why hadn’t he? Is it because he is still confused how to handle this relationship with Mayumi? Because he is holding back, not simply to keep things slow, not simply because of the extreme power imbalance involved in a god/mortal pairing as well as a workplace romance between a chief-of-station and a, for the moment, office worker, not even because Mayumi is his best friend’s daughter? Though all of that is reason enough for holding back, and then some.

No, there is also that fact that so much of what Mayumi – and Alma, and Dion, and everyone – knows of him is a lie. He is no god. Or if he is, he certainly did not begin as one. He is a vile abomination, a product of cruelty and hate, something that no one in their right mind would ever trust. And yet they trust him. They are kind to him. They show him their love.

And it makes him feel ashamed. Whether he is worthy of that trust is less important than the fact that he is lying to them by omission, constantly. He must tell them. And he is terrified to do so.

Certainly he could never dive fully into a relationship with Mayumi without coming clean about what he is. But no matter how much he wishes to, how could her burden her with such a revelation just before she leaves for the Academy? That would be even more unfair than keeping the secret for now, or at least he has convinced himself of that. Can he trust his own judgement there, self-serving as it is? He calls himself a coward every time he thinks of it.

But no. Telling her now would be wrong. She does not need such distractions, and she seems happy to go along with his slow approach, though it is a frustrated sort of happiness. Strange as it may seem, the first person he knows he must tell is Alma. If any of them is capable of forgiving him for what he is, it is her, first and foremost. And with her help, perhaps Gwydion will. Mayumi…that will be for after she graduates.

He brings himself back to the present moment. “Nothing to forgive. Mayumi and I are rather looking forward to just being together tonight, on the job. It’s a busy night, anyway, though things should calm down after midnight. We can just, you know, talk. Relax.”

Dion looks at him and Sky can tell he doesn’t fully buy it, but says, “Very well, then. I will accompany you and make sure this particular crisis is over. And then I’ll head back to the station. Alma and May should be back by now.”

Sky shakes his head. “You should head back now. I think I can handle whomever might still be standing. Neither of these gangs has divine recruits, after all.”

With a chuckle bereft of humor, Dion agrees, “No… They just won’t die. Take care, Sky.”

For just a moment, Sky is tempted to tease Dion, say something silly like, You two be careful now. He quashes the temptation. Dion has lowered his formidable defenses to Sky only recently and, to be sure, very cautiously, ready to slam that door closed in an instant. Jovial teasing on the subject of Alma would be an idiotic move, and truly, it’s not Sky’s style anyway. Instead, he puts a heavy hand on Dion’s shoulder, and says with real warmth, “Have a good night.”

Dion smiles back, then turns to take another street, back toward the station, walking with eager and swift anticipation.

Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.

“WHAT??”

Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.

Ch6.43 Trust

The Year’s End. Renewal Week. Victory and Remembrance Week. New Year’s Dawning. Christmas. Prophet’s Ascension. Turning Time. Insular Equinox.

Many are the names by which this week is known around the Insula. It is a week like no other. For gods, mortals and all creatures in between, this week is the most sacred on the insular calendar. Many are the reasons for which it is celebrated. Some celebrate the greatest of victories over Hell’s devilish spawn, some celebrate the birth of prophets, others their death, others even their awakening to higher purposes. Some greet the spirits of their departed ancestors, some release them finally into non-existence. Some pray and fast, others are prayed to and feed hungrily on the concentrated prayers. Some make the mother of all parties to greet the new year, others see the dying year into its grave with solemn reverence. Some are busy fighting yearly battles to ensure the rising of a new sun, of a renewed moon, the resetting of the walls that keep Hell at bay. Some see to the birth of all that is new or the extinction of all that must be eliminated. It is a time for contemplation, for penitence, for sacrifice, for debauchery, for promises, for hope.

All over the great mountain hovering amidst the chaos that is the Void, this is the most magical time of all, the one that every soul must observe. And even for those who manage to remain atheist among so many divine beings, it is a week to be with one’s family, to enjoy street festivals and watch an old sun set for the last few times before it dies.

So join us now in our trip to the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heavens, and the great city that sprawls over its mountainous profile. It has been a long time since we have seen it from such a distance. From here, among the stars, where the moon gods are carefully aligning their pale homes into neat patterns amidst the infinite swirling darkness of chaos, where Void Riders gallop to herd blooming pieces of reality toward the ever-growing mountain, we can see all of the immense Isle. It is a single peak, a volcano erupted from nothingness, angry and glorious and ever-young yet ancient, blooming with possibilities, with life, with that greatest of powers that goes so far beyond what can be touched, seen or measured. The power of thought, of creation, of things in waiting to be and do. The power of all that is in spirit, mind and body. The power from which all life and creation spring.

The power of Reality.

The mountain has existed since the dawning of time. It has seen many ages come and go, many different dwellers, many wars, many armageddons. Here, time has ended and begun, again and again. But let us not focus on the past. The mountain no longer spits fire from its churning belly. Its sides are cool, carved by mighty rivers, covered in forests, in grass, in sand, in cobblestone. Now, as we look at it, the Insula is inhabited by all kinds of creatures, magical and otherwise. Gods revered in many different worlds have their homes here, for gods seldom like to live away from their kind for too long. Immortality has its consequences. A certain distrust of change is one of them. And so gods find a haven in this divine home, where they can be as they always were even after their worshippers die off elsewhere, after mortals reinvent their gods or forsake them altogether, where Time and its swirling currents are less ruthless. And other, smaller gods, younger gods who have never known any other worlds, live here too. Along with the creatures of our Earthly myths, of other planets, with any being the mind can create. And mortals. Countless mortals. Humans, like us. And humans unlike us. Animals long extinct in this planet. Others yet to find their place among us. The Insula is very, very vast indeed.

And at its heart, at its beating, fiery, still booming heart, the hosts of Hell are imprisoned for their crimes. What crimes? Who knows? The original war was so long ago. The reasons are lost, the original victors long gone from the Insula, deceased or ascended into the Void as all truly ancient gods must. All we know now is that the gods won, the devils lost and the hatred remains. Old hatred, distilled by the eras, honed by age. Pure, immortal, without cause or meaning. Blind. Deaf. The kind that burns through reason, that festers through oblivion, that keeps Hell plotting and fighting, and Heaven fearing the return of its enemies.

Today, they are plotting as they always plot. Their agents are active, busy, hidden in plain sight among the crowd of innocents that is happily celebrating the coming of yet another year. But leave them be. In this story we weave, this account of a world so much like our own, even Hell will have its time to take the stage. Someday.

But not today. Today, great farming regions bless their newborn animals, metropolitan areas call priests to exorcise the accumulated negative energies of the old year. Oceanshore people send wooden canoes filled with flowers and food to ask for a bountiful year. In all five rings, from the poor, overcrowded skirts of the great mountain to the privileged mountaintop estates, today is a day of peace.

And, ah….here is what you have come in search for. The mountain has rotated and now we can see it. Down there, in the Fourth Ring, almost Fifth. A ward like any other ward. Poor and forgotten by the great gods of the higher rings. Well, mostly. Not completely. It has become rather interesting lately, don’t you agree? So busy. So… attractive, for some reason. Such a strange little place, to which trouble and intrigue seem to flow like a stream descending a steep hill.

Welcome to Three Rats. Let us walk its streets, busier today than any other day of the year. Decorated in garlands of bright colors, compacted earth roads sprinkled with colorful powders, flowers and sheets hanging from the balconies. Our feet take us through the darker alleys and out into the stone-floored plazas, around fountains, across the market, past derelict buildings. At the end of our journey, stands the Three Rats Guardia Station, newly painted unlike most other constructions in the area.

And just behind it, another building awaits. A brand new wooden sign hangs over a door. The image of a rabbit has been engraved and burnt onto it. From inside, the sounds of a party well on its way.

This is our true, final destination. Welcome to the Burrow.

Let us go in and join the party. The place is brightly decorated with paper garlands and signs announcing merry wishes in a variety of languages and religious tones. At a corner, a tree which has probably never seen brighter or greener fields (but certainly carries some level of genetic memory of such things) is leaning slightly against a wall in its red vase. Paper decorations and strings of popped corn hang from its crooked branches with all the mirth the poor plant can manage. A little orb of glowing, golden light hovers softly at the top, bathing the tree in glittering highlights. Under it, boxes and boxes, of all shapes and sizes and wrapped in all colors of paper are waiting to be delivered to their respective recipients. Many already have.

All around, the tables are covered in hand-painted paper towels. A tall, thick candle shines in the center of each of them. Plates with pastries and salads, meats and appetizers have been placed on every available surface and some are even now empty, in need of being replaced with the next delicacy.

Everyone looks happy to be here. Conversations buzz and sizzle between the various guests. The mortal officers that man the station next door all have dropped by to join in the celebrations. Some are just taking a brief moment of pause from their shifts. The station cannot be left unattended, after all. But most of them are not on duty at all. They have just come to spend some time with their colleagues after enjoying a warm family gathering at home. For this is their family as well, bound not by blood but by hardship, by the everyday sharing of a common, dangerous burden. They are the guardians of others, keepers of peace, vigilants of all hours. And no one can truly understand their struggles and fears but those who see the streets through the same darkly tinted eyes that have seen the worst a mind can throw at the world.

Our Bunnies look radiant. Surprised a few hours ago with gifts from their favorite god of magic, each of them is wearing a brand new outfit, of fine cloth and carefully designed to fit their bodies and personalities. A short dress with a pleated skirt for Rosemary, a pair of close-fitting trousers and a stylish vest for Cherry, an adorable frilly ensemble for Tulip. Ah, and a simple, demure summery dress with a knee-length skirt for Mayumi. She was difficult to plan for… A fine shirt and tailored pants for Sage, shorts for Kori and Chime. They look like the stars that they are in this celebration that, this year, is all about them.

And the gods? Well, two of them are currently in the kitchen and trying to make their way in and out of it, carrying trays of food and empty glasses for refilling. Even gods should be helpful, after all. The space behind the counter is small for the five people currently in it. Sky has to lift the tray that Merri has just prepared for him so that Alma won’t hit it as she squeezes past him on her way back out of the kitchen. The goddess doesn’t even hesitate before ducking under his arm. It is almost like a dance.

“Ye look like ye been at this for years!” Merri notes, laughing happily.

“It does feel like years, doesn’t it?” Alma says with a soft laugh, stopping to look at god and Bunny. “Who would imagine it was only months?”

Sky nods. “Teamwork! Ends up working in all sorts of – yow!”

Two dashing figures nearly trip him on his wait of the kitchen. It seems that Tulip and Chime expect everyone to be as agile as themselves. The tray in Sky’s hand wobbles dangerously but here is another helping hand to catch it and smoothly lower it to a table nearby.

“Guess Master Pak can’t hang up his shoes yet,” Dion comments with a chuckle as he samples the little balls made of chocolate and condensed milk paste sitting on the tray that Sky was carrying.

The tall god looks at him appreciatively. “Nice catch – yeah, I still need dancing lessons from him.”

“Well, I could offer to teach you, but you seem to have picked a partner already,” Alma teases as she brushes by carrying a jar of fruit juice. She stops, her nose twitching. “Wait a minute…” She stands on tiptoes to sniffs Sky’s neck, grinning mischievously as she asks, “Wearing scents now, are we?”

Poor Sky… His face reddens almost immediately. “Well, uhm…”

“Now, ye’ve gone and made ‘im turn red,” a giggling Merri says, watching the scene from just a few steps away.

“Oh…” Alma chuckles. “Well, I think it suits your personality. And it’s very pleasant, indeed.”

“Aye. Fer Bunny noses too,” Merri notes with a wink at a red, red Sky.

Maybe it is best to leave our sheepish Inspector for now. Something you should see is happening just across the room, where most of the Popula have been enjoying their time off and talking about…well, mostly about work. The Guardia, like so many other professions, tends to become food, drink and air for the people in it. But at times like this, they mostly share the funny stories, the little everyday events that make people laugh. Machado, Aliyah, Cala, Wallace, you know them all. There are a few others too. Like Kiko Silva and Harinder Patel, from the night shift, both young constables, both arrived from the Academy less than a year ago. We don’t know them very well yet but give it time. They will find their voices. They all do. Like Deesh. Remember Deesh, kind, quiet, red-skinned and tongueless Deesh? He is here too, smiling and laughing silently at his fellow officers’ stories. And Syro…well, he is not truly Popula but he is just as Guardia as all the others. He does not have as many tales to share but he is quite happy just listening while tinkering with a small collection of fine tools and gauges he has just been gifted by the Dei.

Their happy laughter dwindles for a moment at the mention of an old story, from the times of the old station, before the Dei arrived here. The Popula go silent. The last year has brought many good things but it has taken good away as well. A reverent pause in remembrance of their fallen companions. Stathos and his family are quietly revived in a solemn toast. All but Cala join in. Her faith has her fasting during the day, this week, and never allows for alcohol in any case. But she closes her eyes in prayer.

There is someone missing. Where is our beloved Nataniel? The new clinic, the only real place where mortals can go for proper medical treatment in this ward has been keeping him quite busy. Three Rats has many people who cannot afford to be sick or hurt. And the neighboring wards are just learning about Nataniel’s clinic. The people who live closer to the borders are beginning to flock to the already overworked doctor’s doorstep.

But he seems to have managed to pry himself from the clinic. The bar door has just opened to let him through. He looks flustered with the effort of rushing not to be too late for the party but his lips part into a bright, friendly smile at the immediate cry of “Nate!” that the Popula shower him with. He may not like being called Nate but he loves his friends. And this is home.

His eyes widen at the sight of a god of beer dressed in a velvety ale-colored suit trimmed in white faux fur, plush jacket open around his beer belly, silly hat topped with a fuzzy pompom and tilted over an eye, walking around with a load of presents cradled on his thick, heavy arms, handing out Ho-ho-ho’s and colorfully-wrapped boxes. Breowan seems to be having fun with Sky’s imported customs. And everyone is already talking about making it a yearly tradition. Maybe Brew will bring good little boys and girls some customized beer mugs next year.

But back to Nataniel. He seems to have just remembered something very important. Such as the fact that, with all his work and distractions, he has not bought any gifts to give. Seeing his panic, Aliyah rushes to his side and envelops him in a tight, friendly hug that leaves the man’s chin pressed against the tall woman’s collarbone.

“Pretend I’m just sayin’ hello and tell me real quick: what did ya get for Cala?” she asks in a slightly too-loud whisper.

“I, uhh…” Nataniel hesitates but it is useless to deny it. His head hangs helplessly as they straighten from the embrace. “Nada. No me acordé.

“Oh man…you are gonna owe me.” Aliyah chuckles and rubs the back of her head before putting a hand on his back and guiding him toward the others. As they walk past a chair covered in wrapped presents, she takes a thin box decorated with a purplish ribbon and touches it to his back so he will take it. “She was lookin at that in a shop window the other day,” she tells him, mouth barely moving with the words. “Merci’s, if she asks.”

Nataniel stops and looks at her in shock. “Oh, Aliyah.. No…No puedo… I can’t…”

Aliyah immediately puts her hands on his shoulders to force him to turn and walk again. “Will you stop makin’ a scene?” She asks through a smile that is all teeth. Then she laughs nervously before whispering, “Here we go. Pretend I didn’t tell you that she smiles silly at you when she thinks you ain’t lookin.”

If the good doctor were not completely befuddled before, he surely is now. His handsome countryside-tan face has turned a nice dark raspberry shade and his mouth is drier than many deserts out there. And now his gaze is fixed on a certain large and curvy corporal that turns his head like no goddess of classical beauty has yet managed to do. It seems our kind and shy Nataniel has a little unconfessed office infatuation going on behind those friendly brown eyes.

“For you,” Cala says to him, holding up a soft package wrapped in blue crepe paper. “I saw you needed a new one to wear at the clinic.”

Nataniel takes it with his right hand, his left one nervously appearing from behind his back, where it has been holding the package Aliyah so selflessly gave to him. He holds the thin box in front of him as if it might explode if he so much as looks at it. “For you. Because… I see you… saw it … at Merci’s…thing.”

By his side, Aliyah’s hand moves to cover her eyes so quickly that she nearly slaps herself. Too late, she remembers herself and instantly puts her hand behind her back, failing very badly to look innocent when Cala glances a question at her.

Now, a good, experienced Guardia is not easy to fool. It takes the sensible, intelligent corporal less than a second to realize what is going on. But she plays along and unwraps her gift, smiling at the wine-red shawl lying inside the box. “It is very beautiful, Nate. Just what I was wanting.”

She kisses Nataniel’s cheek in a common sign of affection for both their cultures. Still, it nearly makes him drop his brand new surgical pajamas. Cala took some time embroidering his name on the shirt pocket. “I…thank you. I was really needing these.”

Aliyah tries not to laugh but her broad smile betrays her amusement. At a sign from Machado, she moves past Cala, winking at the corporal and quickening her step when Cala squints at her and reaches out to lightly slap her rear. After a chuckle and a few meaningful glances that make two pairs of cheeks warmer, the mortal pair is not-so-subtly left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Such a lovely scene… And such a lively party. It is hard to keep track of all that is going on in the room. Conversations fill the air, too many to follow. Food is being eaten, drinks are being drunk, gifts are being gifted.

And look at that! Young Tulip is ecstatic with all the presents she has been receiving. This is her first Year’s End, after all. She is currently on the worn-out sofa, showing Saira all the brand new crayons and watercolors that Sky has gifted her with. And the great Tales of the Urbis book that her mother bought for her. And the beautiful, flowery purse that Sage took so much care in sewing. The pretty headband that Cala found at a used-items shop. Oh, and the gift of gifts: the dress that Dion designed and that makes her growing, adolescent curves look a little less childish. The young Bunny cannot stop smiling and hopping happily around and poking people to show them her brand new treasures. In the blink of an eye, she is leaving Saira alone again to go and gawk at the simple capoeira outfit that Sergeant Machado has customized for Kori. But Saira is not alone. Chime is with her, rehearsing a few bars on a shiny new harmonica. Breowan is lounging on the sofa too, his jolly hat perching on his knee, jacket now fully unbuttoned to reveal a slightly, just slightly stained undershirt, hand curled around a frosty beer mug.

And Lexie, you ask? Well, the fluffy cat has decided that this is just too much agitation for her a few hours ago and is currently relaxing in the peaceful haven of Alma’s bedroom.

Speaking of Alma…where is our lovely death goddess? Ah! There she is! Right by the bar, enjoying a drink with Sky and Dion and radiant with all the happiness that fills the room. The three Dei look around them, at the buzzing party, and then at each other with contented sighs and shaking heads like old veterans watching children play. Any of them has seen more Year’s Ends than two or three of the other merrymakers combined. But this is something new for them as well. It is their first Year’s End together, in Three Rats and with all of the Bunnies and humans of the station. And what a year it has been for them! Less than a year, actually. Much, much less.

So much has happened, so many ups and downs. They raise their glasses in that quiet toast of friends of a lifetime that says We survived another one and drink in tranquil fraternity.

Sky is the first to break the silence. “Well, uh…Alma. I have something for you.” He is carrying a purple felt bag that bulges with an ominous curvature. He holds it up for Alma to take.

The goddess looks at the bag, which looks strained by heavy contents, and carefully takes it, feeling its weight. “I hope it’s not a ball and chain,” she jests as she opens it and peeks inside. With an expression of great curiosity, she places the bag on the bar counter and carefully slides it down to reveal a blueish sphere about the size of a cantaloupe. Her eyes widen at the beauty of the hollow, handcrafted orb, filled with clear water and lined with a sandy bed and some pretty rocks decorated with flowing seaweed. “Oh, Sky… It’s beautiful. What is it?”

The god’s dark skin takes on a slightly redder shade at her sincere admiration of it. “I found the sphere while shopping with Dion,” he explains. “I was able to fill it with seawater, and a very careful balance of plants and tiny sea life, sand, shells. If I did it right, and it receives the right amount of sunlight, it should last many years. Uh, only in a high-magic environment, though.”

Alma seems entranced by the exquisite mini-habitat. Even her eyes smile in awe as if she were a child looking at an aquarium for the first time. “Oh, look!” she cries, pointing a few glittering shapes out to Dion. “There’s even fish!”

Sky nods. “Yes, teeny tiny ones. They glow in the dark.”

“Oh, I love it! And I know exactly where to put it!” Alma hugs him happily with a single arm. Her other hand is currently too busy making sure the orb doesn’t roll off the counter. “Thank you.”

“It seems that Mister Cannot Choose a Present to Save His Life was just goading us all along,” Dion notes with a chuckle.

“Ah…I really am terrible at it,” Sky insists, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes flicking down for a moment in an endearing show of shyness. He seems to remember something. “Oh…I have something for you as well.” A quick trip to the makeshift Christmas tree and he returns holding a small wrapped packet, that feels compact and solid when Dion takes it. “I hope you like it.”

Beneath the simple paper, a wood box carved with intricate knotted patterns lies in waiting. “Beautiful craftsmanship,” Dion compliments it. His uncle has always favored these designs. For some reason, they seem like something that is very intrinsically theirs. Inside the box, there is a small, thin, double-edged dagger with no handguard and a handle carved to look as if it were wrapped in leather straps, now polished and worn with age and wear. Its sheath is made of engraved leather. Dion whistles quietly under his breath as he inspects it. “Gorgeous. Should make for a loyal secondary blade.” He pats Sky’s shoulder in friendly appreciation. “Thank you very much, Sky. I really like it. I just hope it doesn’t mean you have a good reason for me to need it anytime soon.”

“Considering the way things have gone in our lives?” They both chuckle at the little attempt at comedy. “It’s usually tucked into a boot top, traditionally, but it’s a good jacket-pocket blade. Called a sgian-dubh. It was a present to me long ago.”

Dion looks concerned at the revelation and carefully puts the knife down on the counter. “Oh Sky… I certainly don’t want to deprive you of a good memory…”

Sky shakes his head, smiling and gently pushes the dagger closer to Dion. “The way I look at it, it’ll serve me even better in your keeping than in my own. To know a friend has it, and that it might help him in a tight spot – that gives me comfort.” He shrugs. “You know how I tend to worry.”

Dion’s next exhalation is short, quick like a mocking snort but his eyes betray his esteem of the god of rebellion and his precious gift. He stores the dagger in his shirt pocket and pats it. “Thank you.”

Alma watches the scene with tenderness. One of her hands is twitching as if wants to be somewhere else, like stroking a certain magic god’s back, but instinct is trumped by reason this time and it stays where it is. Well…for a little while. Alma needs it to hold a wide, rectangular box that has been waiting for her, behind the bar. She sets the mysterious gift on the counter, just in front of Sky. “Speaking of tight spots, that takes us to your gift, Sky. We hope you like it and that it serves you well.”

Sky looks a question at her before opening his present. “Oh…” He looks surprised but pleased to see what almost looks like a casual jacket neatly folded inside. It is impeccably trimmed, modern and stylish and, of course, Guardia Dei blue. “Oh now that…that is beautiful.” He carefully pulls it out of the box, as if it might fall apart in his hands. The sleek jacket artfully crafted with many visible and hidden pockets and tailor-made to fit the Inspector’s long arms and beefy, somewhere-between-fit-and-fat torso looks more like something to wear on a fun night out than what it actually is: an armoured jacket. Whoever said that one cannot look good while walking into a fight? “It’s so much lighter than my old one but…” He strokes the fabric with his fingertips. “Is that Balva mesh?”

Dion shakes his head. “Ballion, a hybrid of it. Less vulnerable to piercing tips but not as flexible. Fortunately, you don’t seem to favor the more…flowing designs. It should manage to keep you safe when you forget to keep your guard up. Even cutting and sewing it is a nightmare.”

“Gwydion infused it with all sorts of protectives charms as well,” Alma adds. She urges Sky to get himself into the jacket. “Come on, try it on. It should look a lot better on you than that ugly thing you requested from Headquarters.”

“Oh, I suppose the one from HQ can be a backup, if they ever send it,” the god notes, slipping an arm into a sleeve.

Dion clears his throat with a meaningful, complicit glance at Alma that has the goddess chuckling. “I am afraid your request for a new one got…misplaced, somehow.”

But Sky doesn’t even seem to have heard him. He is too busy twisting this way and that, rolling his shoulders and raising his arms, flexing his elbows and somehow trying to bend his neck in ways that it is not meant to, in an effort to look down his own back. “Oh, this fits perfectly. It’s plenty flexible enough for me.” He looks at both his sergeants with tender appreciation. Are those tears welling up in his eyes? “Thank you both. You went to so much trouble. I love it.”

“Oh, all we had to do was misplace the little piece of paper with your measurements,” Dion says with his usual nonchalance as he takes a sip of his wine.

Alma is smiling and enjoying her cocktail, some new invention of Cherry’s. The joy around her truly warms her heart. But the occasional, subtle look toward the door that leads outside betrays a twinge of anxiety. Someone seems to be late.

She puts her glass down and turns to Dion. She has a gift left to give. “Well, now, what did I get for the god who has everything?”

“Hopefully not a bottomless chest,” is the god’s immediate, well-humored response.

“Not quite,” she replies with a chuckle. Holding one of her hands out, the other forgotten behind her back, she adds, “For my next trick, I will need your wrist, please.”

Dion looks at her open hand and raises his eyebrows in mock concern. “Uhm… Sky, could you check if she’s hiding a saw behind her back, please? I’m not so sure about this present.”

“A saw? Or perhaps a pair of shackles?” Sky chuckles and makes a show of peeking behind her back and shaking his head reassuringly at Dion.

“Oh, you two are just silly!” Alma complains. But she is not upset with them at all. Still, the goddess is looking a little nervous about this gift and when Dion holds out his wrist, she cannot help but confess as she places her hands on either side of it, thumbs touching the skin, “I hope I get it right… I did not have much chance to practice on proper subjects.”

Dion’s wrist moves back immediately. “Well, then maybe…”

But it is too late. Alma is already gripping it firmly. “Shh… I need to focus,” she admonishes him.

What happens next is a little thing of wonder. A soft scent of flowers and grass wafts in the air as Alma’s life sphere is activated. Soon, her fingers begin to glow with a coppery light that stretches in many, many lazy tendrils, twisted and intertwining, tracing complicated patterns on Dion’s skin, curling around his wrist. The brilliant light starts dulling and fading almost immediately, revealing a slim, flexible bracelet, almost like tree-bark tanned as if it were leather. On it, over a background of browns and greens, a golden, metal charm of a dragon curls in sleep, its spine traced in tiny reddish beads.

Alma looks at the final result of her efforts as if she cannot believe this is her own doing. “It worked…” she breathes.

She is not the only one who looks impressed and pleased with the final result. Dion brings his wrist closer to his face so he can admire the fine details, his fingers tracing the delicate twirls of the sturdy fabric that binds his wrist and testing the simple clasp that keeps the bracelet in place. “It surely is unique. And beautiful. Thank you.”

That has Alma smiling with ill-disguised pride. “It is also alive and aligned with you. And if you rub the beads in a pattern like so…” she taps the head of the dragon charm and then traces its spine from tail to neck, “music begins to play.”

“That is some very complex life magic,” Sky says when the music starts. “Amazing.”

It is a soft song, simple but very pretty. Like a nursery rhyme. The kind of thing that we hear in youth and then seem to forget until the time comes to sing it to our own children. It makes Dion’s eyes widen in surprise and confusion at something he did not know he remembered. “I…I think I know this song.”

“I hope you do. All the songs it plays are drawn from your memory,” Alma explains. “Things you’ve heard, even if long ago. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs from your first night out. Mother made one for me ages ago but…it can’t be made beforehand.” She strokes the bracelet, making sure she can’t spot any flaws in it. “It needs to be woven around its wearer to work properly. I’m glad you like it.”

A mocking frown and she holds a finger up at Dion in false scolding. “You are not easy to shop for.”

The song that Dion did not expect seems to have moved him deeply, even if he does not quite understand why. Still, he chuckles at Alma’s taunting. “I’m not sure I can top this but…” he produces a long, exquisitely wrapped box from a jacket pocket. “I hope you will like this.”

Alma unwraps and opens it, peeking inside with curiosity to find a beautiful crystal flask shaped like an elongated teardrop. She opens the flask and takes a whiff, closing her eyes in pleasure at the soft, willowy scent with notes of lilac and jasmine that take her back to sunny days of reading in her mother’s garden. “Oh… this brings back memories. I love it. It’s so light.”

She does not really see the small empathetic smile and nod that Sky gives to a very glad Dion. “I’m going to go show off my lovely jacket.” The tall Inspector knows to flee a scene before he becomes one witness too many to clandestine romance. “Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart.”

He moves away from his sergeants after a nod from Dion and a gentle pat on the arm from Alma. A subtle glance over his shoulder will tell him that he was right to leave. The couple is already lost in its little bubble of sweet, low-voice words and tender looks that are lipless kisses all of their own.

But, look out, Sky! Too long a glance and you will bump right into Mayumi, right in front of you!

Oh, good… He has managed to turn just in time. Collision is averted. A quick look around the god’s torso to see what he was looking at and May’s eyes are on his, exchanging a knowing smile with him that is like a shared secret. She takes his hand and guides him to a slightly less-crowded corner of the room.

“Thank you for the stationery,” she says in a voice that carries a note of uncertainty. “It’s really beautiful.”

“It’s enchanted,” Sky explains. “After you finish writing, it will disappear, and then appear in my office.”

“Oh…” Mayumi’s lips curl into a soft smile as realization dawns. “I suppose this means I’ll be writing a lot then.”

Gladness and sadness in her voice. Soon, Three Rats will be saying goodbye to one of our Bunnies. But worry not. The others will not forget about her so easily. And neither will we.

Let us leave her to enjoy as much of Sky’s loving company as she can. The sun is beginning to set outside and one of our more noctivagous friends is beginning to look a bit impatient. Saira is growing tired of so many people and so much friendliness all at once. This many people in one room usually means a fight to her.

So she is looking toward the stairs that lead up toward the first floor, thinking of going up on the roof to catch a breath of slightly less second-lung air. But someone is about to delay her plans. Cherry has just taken a seat by the unsettled assassin and is leaning against her shoulder. She is carrying a small box that she hands to Saira.

“Here, hon,” the Bunny says. “For you from all of us.”

Saira looks at the box as if it might snap a toothed lid and bite her hand off. She doesn’t take it. She barely even seems to breathe. “Why?”

“Snap! Because we love you, of course!” Cherry replies as if even asking is nonsense. She takes Saira’s hand and places the box in the woman’s palm. “Come on, open it.”

Saira does. Slowly, carefully. Inside the simple box lies a silvery locket, not much bigger than a quail’s egg. Its surface is delicately engraved with the image of a perching bird calmly grooming its feathers. It looks exquisite and expensive and fit for a goddess. Certainly not for a lowly mortal like Saira. Or at least that is what she thinks. People can be pretty silly about those things.

She glances at where Alma is still sharing a drink and a conversation with Dion. Cherry sees where she is looking and answers the question that Saira does not ask.

“Mom gave the locket, Dion threw his mojo on it. Everyone else…” she picks up the little piece of jewelry and opens it. Inside, soft lights project three-dimensional images, holograms of every member of the Three Rats Station family. Even Lexie is there. “We kinda gave ourselves. Everyone thought it should be me to give it to you.”

Saira takes a long time to find her voice again. It is difficult to find words when half of us wants to cry with bliss and the other half is trying to run for the hills. This stay of hers here has shaken beliefs that she thought were indestructible. And now, she does not quite know what to do with herself anymore. “It’s…pretty. Thanks,” she finally says, looking sideways at Cherry. “So, you’re callin’ her Mom now?”

The Bunny shrugs. “Eh, I’m warmin’ up to it. It’s nice havin’ a mom. Ain’t never had it before, you know?” She smiles apologetically at Saira and the woman can’t help but ruffle up her hair, making her pull away in fake irritation. “Hey! Don’t mess with the hair! That’s definitely not the right way to mess with a girl’s curls.”

That has Saira laughing. And suddenly, Rosemary is standing just in front of them and grabbing Cherry by the hands.

“Och, have ye forgotten, ye daftie? We need to show darlin’ Geryon his gift!” she exclaims.

Cherry’s eyes widen. Her full lips curve in a perfect circle. “Oooooh, right! Gotta go do that!” She gives Saira a quick peck on the cheek. “Gotta go, babe. Talk later.”

And then, they are off to find their furred and feathered lover, who has been solemnly posing for another one of Tulip’s drawings. Each of Alma’s oldest daughters grabs one of his forelimbs and they both cajole and drag him, past the couch – huh…where has Saira gone? She was just there a minute ago – and in the general direction of the stairs that lead up, where all the bedrooms are. The gryphon looks rather enticed by such a treatment.

But look, Tulip is coming along. And Sage and Aliyah and May and Sky. And Dion and Alma too. Geryon’s initial excitement is quickly fading away. It seems that he is not getting the present he was expecting. Such is life. But a room of his own is not a bad present to get at all. Will he like it?

Guess we will have to return later and find out. For now, it is time to make a little pause, stretch our legs, go outside, enjoy the sunshine and let this enchanting scene fade to black.