Ch6.58 Trust

The midmorning streets are populated by mortals going about their business, opening those shops that are not already opened, carts pulled by donkeys or more often men, delivering goods which the sharper housewives and restaurateurs are picking over before the vegetables, fish, or fruits can even be unloaded.

Behind her, Sky can see how every line of Alma’s body speaks of fury as she walks swiftly toward Little Falls Ward, and he finds himself in the unusual position of having to lengthen his stride to keep up with her.

“Alma…Alma, please slow down!”

She ignores him, if anything speeding up. “Where is he? Just tell me where I have to go.”

Pulling up beside her, he says, “They said he has set up a temple in an old house. Maybe murdered the owner. Alma, you’re straining yourself. Melinor–”

She cuts him off without pausing. “I am fine. I’ll deal with Melinor if he comes back asking questions. And I’ll tell him I don’t need a babysitter.”

Sky falls silent at that for a good many steps. He notes the glances, even outright stares they are attracting. Two Guardia Dei, two gods, proceeding through the streets as if marching on the way to war. Finally, pitching his voice as soft as he can while moving so fast, he speaks. “What Dion said…he regrets it. I could see the misery on his face.”

“Still didn’t stop him, did it?” she snaps. “It didn’t make him trust me any more for it. He accused me of…of… He thought I had lied to him to go be with Somrak instead! That I want a harem? If there is one thing I never understood about my father’s wives it’s how they all accept living in one!”

Shaking his head, Sky says, “He deserves whatever punishment you care to inflict on him. But don’t harm yourself in your anger, no matter how justified it is.”

Alma stops dead in her tracks, but does not turn to face him. Her shoulders are bunched, back slightly bent forward. Her voice is almost quivering with control. “Don’t tell me to stop being angry, Sky. I need to be angry because when I stop being angry I don’t know what I’ll be. And then I’ll definitely be useless. He – I can’t even believe this is happening! Why would he go and do this?”

“I don’t understand it, either.” Sky’s frustration with Gwydion’s foolishness makes him sound tired. “But I’ve seen people do it many times. Come on, you can be angry, just…” He moves into her field of vision and holds his hands out imploringly. “You’re adjusting to a new sphere! Let’s go sit down. This rogue god will wait a day or two.”

Alma raises her eyes to his, her jaw set. “Not if he’s responsible for what happened to my cousin Nasheena. We can’t find her anywhere. Father would kill me if I left a misbehaving clan member on the loose. Come on. At least being angry at him will be useful.”

Sky looks at her, on the edge of ordering her to stand down, wondering if she’d even obey. They have become more friends than Inspector in command and subordinate Sergeant, and as much as he treasures that friendship, this is one of those times that it can be a problem. But her words deter him. This is a member – a distant member but still a member – of her clan that is missing. And this could very well be connected to the necromancer who murdered Stathos and his family. Sky mutters, “I hope I’m not making a terrible mistake by agreeing. Fine. But keep that anger cold. And if I decide we need to retreat, no argument, Sergeant.”

Alma nods grimly, and they resume their trek. Soon enough they hit the edge of Three Rats. Though there are no “Welcome to Little Falls” signs, the change is obvious. Three Rats’ architectural style, a mishmash of two cultures from a world on which Sky used to live, those of Brazil and India, has leaked over the border into Little Falls, but Little Falls’ own style, which has leaked back into Three Rats as well, was never so terribly different as far as the design of ordinary buildings goes: low with plenty of windows, laid out for decent airflow, demonstrating their shared origins in warm, humid lands.

The vibrant façades, too, are different but in ways too subtle for outsiders to notice easily. Brilliant colors bring the avenues alive, with paintings of teenagers kicking a football, mermaids playing in the waves, angelic spirits extending their blessings to starving children, appeals for peace in these violent times. On the Three Rats side, however, the gods are more often sporting strongly colored skin of blue or red or midnight black, with multiple arms and faces, whereas on the Little Falls side, the gods are shown more as hiding their divinity behind the exterior of an average-seeming resident of Little Falls, who on average have skin of an even deeper shade of brown than most of the people of Three Rats.

It is the streets, though, that show the most obvious change. The Insula grows slowly by attracting parts of other worlds to it in a way that confuses the wisest minds at the Academy of Magic. Three Rats was made of two such pieces that merged on their way to this world, and as a result its streets are an insane tangle. Little Falls is laid out in a pattern that isn’t exactly the result of meticulous urban planning, but at least it makes sense, and one has to work much harder to get lost. Straight streets that meet at right angles? It is obvious that one has left Three Rats.

Also obvious, to the gods at least, is the subtle change in the flow of mana, that force which permeates all of the Insula Caelestis, without which a titanic mountain floating in a bubble of Reality amid a sea of Chaos could not exist at all. There is nowhere on the Insula that is bereft of mana, but there are places where its flow is impeded, or where it flows in unusual ways.

Here in Little Falls, it flows slightly more sluggishly than in Three Rats. Not enough to make being a god in Little Falls any harder. Maintaining one’s immortality, healing oneself – these are things any god can do, even on another world where magic is entirely absent. But affecting things outside oneself requires more effort in a low-magic ward. Little Falls and Three Rats both fall into the middle range, however, and the difference between the two, while noticeable to a god, does not have much practical effect.

It is not long before they are at the entrance to a cul-de-sac at the end of which looms – for ‘loom’ is the only word for it – an old, apparently abandoned home that is barely large enough to be considered a mansion. It is that house that seems to be required in certain neighborhoods, the house that goes unoccupied for some reason or another, and which all the children and no small portion of the adults agree must be haunted. And this being the Insula, it may very well be haunted. Not all Death gods are as fastidious as Alma, collecting the souls under their care immediately upon death. And Little Falls is known for its ghosts, many of whom are resistant to moving on.

A naked soul, shorn of its flesh, is a self-contained bundle of mana, and though it will slowly lose its power, the belief of the living can feed it, just as prayers feed gods. The ghost merely needs attention, and thus any ghost that desires to remain in this world, free of the Wheel and rebirth, must make its presence known. Prayer is unnecessary – only a fool prays to a ghost. But emotions will do nicely. And the easiest emotion for a ghost to provoke is fear.

This mansion is clearly doing its best to provoke some fear.

The gardens surrounding it are overgrown, with Spanish moss hanging down like looped nooses. The windows are broken in a way that suggests eyes and teeth. The door hangs open invitingly to any child who might be dared to dash inside and steal some tiny prize from off a table or desktop. The ghost or ghosts of this house might simply terrorize that child before allowing escape, as that would all the better spread fear, but some ghosts are not so restrained, feasting on terror, growing more powerful from it, to the point that they can affect the world, to slash and smash and strangle.

Sky has little fear of ghosts, however. It is a very rare ghost that can do any harm to a god. But if the information is right, there is a god in there, one who might know what has befallen Alma’s cousin, perhaps even know something about the necromancer. The thought that they have not stopped in at Little Falls Guardia Station to see the local inspector and gain permission for an arrest only gives him brief pause. His previous career as an ‘off-blue’, an off-the-books agent of the Commander tasked with the dirtiest grey-zone jobs, has made him rather cavalier about protocol, and though he tried, truly tried to be a proper station commander when he was sent to Three Rats, it wasn’t so long before desperate events had him breaking rules right and left simply to keep his ward from being drowned beneath a flood of violence. Breaking another now does not bother him overmuch.

And besides, Little Falls Station has a definite whiff of corruption about it. During the reign of the Dukaines, its inspector was clearly bowing to the powerful gang. Sky had been unable to do anything about that then, and he is unsure whether the Shards, the warring remains of the Dukaines, still control the Guardia here. Best to ask for forgiveness later than permission now.

“This is the place,” he says, needlessly.

“He is in there,” Alma replies. “I can sense the power coming from inside. Bodiless souls…and others.”

“Do you want to call for Clan backup?”

Alma looks at him darkly. “Do you want them to come and take me back to the Second Ring, where they can bind me to a bed?” She shakes her head. “No. I’d rather check for myself first. I don’t recognize his soul. We won’t attack unless we have to.”

“And I can barely detect his resonance at all here.” Sky sighs. “But there must be a lot of it for me to feel it from outside. Right. I go first. If he hits me, you can provide the counterpunch.”

Alma looks worried. “He’s a death god, Sky. I–”

“And if you are taken out, I may well be helpless against him. You know how to handle death gods. I’ve only gone up against one. Other than you.” He smiles.

“You and I have never actually fought,” she grumbles back at him.

“We’ve come close, though.”

Alma looks as though she’s about to argue about who goes in first, but then folds. “Fine… But I will be right on your heel should something happen.”

Together they approach the house, entering the garden and taking note of the sinister, body-length mounds of dirt on which mushrooms grow in profusion. Though it is still morning on a partly cloudy day, it feels like night is about to fall. Sky walks to the front door. He glances at Alma. “Does he know we’re here?”

“Almost certainly,” she says. “Unless he’s not at all cautious.”

With a sour look, Sky pushes the door, which barely hangs on a single hinge, open, and walks in, senses both mortal and divine sharp. The floor creaks, just like a good haunted house should, as they walk into the foyer. A broken crystal, from the fallen chandelier that occupies the center of the room, crunches under Sky’s boot. He walks around it, its lopsided stance clashing with the opposite tilt of the sagging catwalk above, inaccessible as the curved staircase has collapsed halfway up. The room grows darker as the door slowly swings shut behind them. Sky looks back to see Alma behind him, nowhere near the door. She rolls her eyes at the house’s theatrics.

Proceeding further into the house, Sky passes through a doorway into a parlor, its once-gayly colored wallpaper now moldy and peeling. In the center of the room is a round table with eight evenly-spaced chairs. Each is occupied by a corpse, all holding hands, dessicated and well on the way to mummification in the recent hot, dry days, their heads leaning back or lolling to the side, mouths slack as if screaming. Before one of them is a ball of crystal, blackened as if filled with soot.

“Tap, tap, tap. I hear a rat sneaking under the floorboards. Come to visit the Baron, have you?”

The voice comes from all around, as if from the wallpaper. It is deep and rich, unctuous, sardonic, with a musically lilting Little Falls accent.

Sky stops, tense, and whispers, “Oh no…”

Behind him, Alma asks, “What is it? I don’t recognize the voice.”

“I have gone up against one death god before,” Sky murmurs, “but not here on the Insula.”

Alma steps to stand beside Sky, any pretense of stealth gone now that they have clearly been noticed. “Are you suggesting this is an outsider, then?”

“Oh, how rude of you to refer to me like that,” the voice admonishes. “Why, that’s no way to treat family. Or even a dear friend. Is it, Tommo?”

Sky calls out, his voice harsh, “What happened, Sam? The real Baron Samedi figure out you were poaching his worshippers and you had to run and hide here? It was a good con while it lasted, eh?”

Out of a doorway across the room, a tall, slender god strolls into view, nonchalantly inspecting his nails. He wears a swallowtail jacket and a pair of ragged pants from a tuxedo, with no shirt, the nearly black skin of his emaciated chest and belly painted with white rib bones, his grinning face painted with a skull. His shaven head is topped by a slightly crushed top hat, and his feet are shod in a pair of beautifully elaborate cowboy boots, works of art by a master cordwainer. As he moves through shadows and light, his body shifts and the painted bones become real, the real flesh becoming a smoky illusion, and then it shifts back again.

“What can I say? Some people just don’t know how to share. And what are you doing here? So well accompanied, if I may add.” His grin broadens at Alma as she looks him up and down, her brow rising in displeasure.

“Release them,” Alma demands. Her voice is colder than any grave. “You should not be harvesting here nor should you keep souls to yourself. Give them back.”

“They should not have been playing with those trinkets…summoning me by my name,” The god replies. He spreads his hands. “And I cannot give them back. You see, I felt…peckish after being pulled into this place.” He walks closer to Alma. “And who is this daring young lady, Tommo?” He strokes her hair aside and makes a show of smelling her neck while looking at Sky. “Ah… A death goddess if ever I smelled one.”

The fresh, dangerous smell of a storm-tossed ocean fills the sepulchral air. Sky’s eyes turn a grey-blue color as black tattoos spread across his face, and he snarls, “Do not touch her, you traitor.”

Alma, conversely, remains still, apparently relaxed, extremely calm and not looking at Sky. “Inspector, there is no need for that. We would not want to hurt family.” She smiles at Sam, a pleasant, innocent little smile. And not a heartbeat later, her eyes are flaring with lethal power, a shockwave of spectral energy that slams the cadaverous god against the far wall, knocking aside the table and scattering the empty bodies. “Unless we have to.”

Sam, as Sky calls him, does not seem the least surprised by the attack. If anything, he looks immensely pleased as he slides down the wall to a sitting position on the floor, unhurt and grinning. “Ah… one of Azreh’s own blood, I see.” He stands, dusting himself off. “Tell me, has he finally succeeded in becoming the head of the Clan?”

“He has been so for centuries,” Alma replies as Sky moves into a more advantageous position, one hand on the hilt of his sword. “But our laws have not changed for even longer and they give me the right to punish you in our cousin’s name. You are trespassing on her territory.”

Sam looks taken aback by this. “Trespassing? And where is this cousin of ours, pray tell?” He grins. “I would love to have her over for dinner.”

“I could ask you the same question,” Alma counters calm as death. “Since she has recently gone missing. You wouldn’t happen to have…misplaced her. Would you?”

“How would I? I have never even met the poor thing.” Sam insists, batting his eyelids, grin growing into a mischievous smile. “Oh, but you sound just like our dear leader. Of course, I haven’t seen him in centuries. I was busy elsewhere. With Tommo, in fact.” He flashes his brilliant white smile at Sky. “Those were some pretty good days, weren’t they?”

“Very fine days, Sam,” Sky says, “until you betrayed your friends.”

Sam touches his bare chest with long, splayed fingers. “Betray? Me? I’m appalled that you would think so ill of my humble self.” Suddenly, with no transition, he is back across the room and mere inches from Alma. “Do not listen to him.” He takes her hand and kisses it. “I am the Baron, but you may call me Sam, your loyal cousin many times removed. Too many times, if this is what death is looking like these days.”

Alma does not look impressed. “Sam?”

“You don’t like it? Feel free to call me whatever you like.” He releases her hand and, without any sense of movement, he is behind Sky, his hands on Sky’s shoulders. “For instance, my friend here likes to call me ‘traitor’.” He stretches slightly and kisses Sky’s cheek.

Without moving, Sky asks, “What else do you call someone who switches sides four times in a slave uprising, in order to create the maximum number of deaths?”

“Goal oriented?” The Baron releases Sky and walks around the flipped table. “Our dear Alma – oh, excuse me, Sergeant Alma will know that a death god’s power depends on how many souls he can collect. And I do like my three meals a day.”

“You will not be getting them here,” Alma tells him with certainty.

The Baron sniffs, continuing to circle around, passing by Alma. “Pity. And here I thought we could become good friends, you and I. But I’ll tell you what: If you help me, I will just…return to where I came from and leave you alone for a few more centuries. All I need are some souls.” He moves behind Alma to throw an arm around Sky’s shoulders.

Alma smiles that pleasant, dangerous smile again. “No.”

There is a snapping sound, and Sam looks to see a Guardia shackle around his wrist. “Tsk tsk. I suppose this means I will be finding my own way out.”

Sky twists to try to slap the other shackle onto Sam’s free wrist, but the Baron slips under his arm, giving him a slight shove that sends him stumbling into Alma. A wave of divine power fills the air, a sound of drums and chanting, a smell of rum and blood.

“Nah nah nah nah nah naaaah! Such a bad boy, Tommo. That is no way to treat the host in his own house. Now I will have to punish you for that.” The voice echoes and fades, and Sky finds himself lying on top of Alma, on the street, in a familiar-feeling cul-de-sac, not quite sure what they are doing there.

Advertisements

Ch6.57 Trust

Dion walks slowly through the streets of Three Rats. He has been walking for hours, hardly noticing the portals, all the way from the First Ring, where Niruí’s lunar barge left him, early in the morning, at his request. He would have returned sooner, had the moon goddess not insisted on setting sail and showing him the wonders of the Insula as seen from above. He had not enjoyed it. None of it.

What a dreadful night… What a waste. Not by Niruí’s fault, quite the contrary. She had proven to be just as charming and welcoming as Dion remembered, showering him in her undivided attention, sharing with him food and drink made to please the most demanding of palates. He had not tasted anything like it since abandoning the First Ring. The lavishness, the exquisite attention to detail, the comfort of Niruí’s barge. Not having to worry about pleasing a larger crowd’s eyes, she had appeared before him dressed just enough to look naked, offering him a night of excess and physical pleasure. She had even put her gorgeous high priestesses at his disposal, inviting them to join in the gathering. She told him she knew of his fame and skill and put him to the test, forcing every little trick, every failproof movement out of him. And he had risen to the challenge, filled the night sky with her moans her pleasure, her cries of ecstasy, her endless pleas for more. He had entertained her and her priestesses, whose sighs and gasps had filled Niruí with wild, animalistic excitement.

They praised him and fed him and filled his cup with Ambrosia, bathed him and with him in moonlight.

But the food had a bitter taste to his lips. The drink left his mouth dry. And he felt soiled rather than clean at the bath, at the way they stroke his body and rubbed against it to tempt him into renewed passion. None of it felt pleasurable. No, all of it had been mechanical, detached, the product of habit and skill, fueled by anger and vengeance. Against love, against women, against…her. Alma had been in his thoughts the whole night, every memory of her, every moment, every word, every touch now sparking regret, now triggering anger, now flooding him with longing, an impulsive desire to go back and be with her.

By the end of the night, he had asked Niruí to dock in the First Ring and let him out there. She had demanded one last thrill for it, whispered an invitation for him to return again next year as her body seized with the first stages of climax. He had waited for her to fall back in bliss and then told her no.

He opens the door to the bar, feeling hollow, feeling guilty. The night spent engaging in seduction, in an empty dance with someone who matters little to him, something he’d once enjoyed but now…now it seems so pointless, was to him more of a torment than a relief. Has he ever even enjoyed, truly enjoyed these single-night affairs? Or were they just a distraction, a mindless pastime to give purpose to his empty hours?

What has he accomplished with going off with Niruí? Nothing. What had felt like revenge when he first grabbed that invitation has not brought him any satisfaction. The whole night, he wanted to be elsewhere, back here, clearing things up with Alma, finding out why she had been delayed. He’d started worrying about her at some point, once the anger subsided. His assumption that she was out with Somrak seems silly now, rushed. Perhaps something has happened. Perhaps he has her all wrong. Can he be sure that what Tulip saw wasn’t a misunderstanding?

How can he justify to her that he wasn’t here, waiting for her to return, for her to join him in a date that he invited her to, in the first place?

He climbs down the stairs to Alma’s room and knocks on her door, not knowing exactly what to expect. Will she be angry? Will she even be in there? He does not even know if she has returned or if she is, like everyone else probably is, at the portal in Little Falls, saying her last goodbyes to Mayumi before the Bunny leaves to the Academy. No one answers his knock and so, just to make sure, he turns the knob and enters. He freezes at what he sees.

On Alma’s bed, Sky is reclining against a pillow, his back against the headboard, his shoeless feet on the mattress. He sits over the covers while Alma lies under them, her head on his lap, her arms around his knees, her eyes closed, apparently asleep. Caught in the act of stroking Alma’s snowy hair away from her face, Sky is looking toward Dion, his face clouded with concern.

Dion is lost for words. Of all the things he could have expected, this loving little scene was surely not one of them. He feels the blood drain away from his face, his stomach grow cold with an icy anger.

“Dion…” Sky whispers as he tries to gently lift Alma’s head and slide out from under it, trying to replace his thigh with a pillow.

Dion swallows and turns to leave, trying to control the rage in his voice. “Don’t bother on my account.”

“Dion wait…” Sky bids him, finally getting up and walking after the magic god. “Come on.”

“I don’t need to wait, I have seen all I needed to see,” Dion hisses even though he stops walking. He shakes his head, wondering how a part of him can still be fighting the evidence and stopping him from darting out the room. “And to think I was actually worried about her…”

“Cherry told me…something,” Sky insists. “It was rushed and confusing. Listen…”

As he reaches out to put his hand on Dion’s shoulder, the magic god turns on his heels and slaps Sky’s hand away with the full force of his anger. Cherry! Cherry has been spreading Dion’s shame around, sharing it with Sky? Oh, how they must have laughed at the turning of tables against him and his seducing ways… “No. Enough!” he cries, waiving care and respect for Alma’s sleep. What sordid act has her so tired at this time of morning, anyway? “If she wants to have a harem like her father does, that’s up to her. Guess that’s the family standard anyway. I hope you and Somrak enjoy sharing in the spoils.”

In his defense, Sky looks sincerely shocked. “Harem? Dion! No…”

But Dion is beyond the point of paying attention to such things. “I turn my back one night and here you are! Are you going to tell me that you haven’t been attracted to her from the very start? Always with your little secrets and pettings? Why, I’m even surprised you bother with May.”

Sky’s expression darkens, his fists clenching in righteous anger. And the way the first swirls of black start crawling up his neck make Dion’s muscles tense as well. “You are misunderstanding things. If you would just listen to me–”

“Sky, stop!”

Sky freezes, stiff. And so does Dion. They both turn their heads slowly to the right, toward Alma’s bed, to where she sits, glaring at them through half-shut eyes. A faint glow to them makes Dion’s heart skip a beat.

“Leave us, please,” she asks in icy tones.

Even though she does not name names, it is clear that she is speaking to Sky. The tall god looks back at her, shoulders slumping slightly, sadness in his eyes, and the way he turns those same sorrowful eyes to Dion curdles the blood in the magic god’s veins. Something is wrong, very wrong. Somehow, Dion feels, he has just lost this argument.

Sky takes a deep breath before saying, “I will be upstairs.”

He moves closer to the bed, picks up his shoes and walks past Dion, his face a sorrowful mask, and exits the room, leaving Dion still frozen in place and staring at Alma’s angry face. Her eyelids have moved slightly up and he can see her eyes better now, the way they glow and shift colors, now greener, now bluer, shimmering with iridescent tones. Her whole aura feels different now, still hers but with a new undertone, an energy he had never sensed in her before. And she looks tired, sickly. Dion feels it again, that dreadful feeling that he has just committed an irreparable error. “You…what happened?” he mumbles, rushing to her side.

“It is a bit late for that, don’t you think?” she asks slowly, voice so cold that it cuts through his skin. She pulls the covers away from her legs. Too late, Dion sees that she is fully dressed underneath them, the cut of her dress having fooled him before. His mouth falls open in helplessness and he jerks forward instinctively as Alma’s legs shake under her as she gets up from the bed, placing a hand on the wall to steady herself. She turns her face away from him to say, “Sky would have told you but you wouldn’t listen to him.”

At her refusal to look at him, Dion lets his arms fall. His mind races as he tries to retrieve the line of his thought. He was angry before but all he is now is shocked and confused. What has he done. How…how did they get to this point where he is the one at fault? “Tulip…” he mumbles, trying to return to anger. “Tulip said she saw you and Somrak in the breezeway. Kissing.”

Alma’s head turns quickly to look at him again and the glare she shoots in his direction makes him wish she hadn’t. “Is that why you weren’t here last night?” Her voice grows louder and angrier as she adds, “Is that why you came in here spewing out those ridiculous accusations? If you knew the first thing about me, Gwydion, you’d know that the last thing I want is a harem! I grew up in a harem! I know better than anyone what it is like! Why would I even want one?!”

At his momentary loss for words, she narrows her strange eyes at him, the lines on her face and the sunken darkness under her eyelids making her look even more intimidating. “Where were you, Gwydion? When I was being brought here and asking for you in my sickness, where were you?”

He closes his eyes and ponders lying but his mind is blank of inspiration for good excuses. “I was angry. And I left with someone else.”

She shakes her head. “Not even a few hours…I am delayed and you–” She looks at him, eyes wide with shock. “Did you…? You thought I was with him? Is that what you thought?”

He looks down at his feet and wishes the floor would open a hole to swallow him whole. Her outrage is sincere, he can tell.

Oh, Dion, you fool… his inner voice scolds him. Apologize. Admit you were wrong. You cannot win.

He should. He should apologize. But…he can’t. “Is it a lie?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper. “What Tulip said she saw?”

“No,” her cool answer makes him look up again. “It’s the truth. She saw us kiss because we kissed. I was healing him and he kissed me. We kissed. So what?!” she exclaims, throwing her arms open in frustration. “How much further than that have you gone with whatever tart you spent last night with?!” She holds a hand up to stop him from answering. Not that he was going to. “Don’t even answer that. I know the answer.”

He does not know what to say anymore. Her admission hurts him but not half as much as the dawning realization that it is not an admission of guilt. She is not guilty of anything. Somrak kissed her and even so, their agreement works both ways. It is he who cannot stand to accept that. And now…

“You want the truth, Gwydion?” Alma goes on. “I care about him. I was worried about him. He was hurt and he was suffering and all I did was add to it because I care about you more.” She points a finger at him in accusation. “I told him ‘no’ and that’s why I didn’t even think of telling you, because I thought our agreement went both ways and even though I did nothing wrong I still did not want to hurt you! But I guess that’s not how things work in your sick little head!”

She hisses the last few words and storms out of the room, leaving Dion standing there, stunned into speechlessness and motionlessness. He stares at nothing, unblinking, unseeing. And when he finally turns to follow her, when he finally rushes up the stairs, a voice in his mind shouting Go! Make it right!, it is too late.

Sky and Alma are just walking toward the door, Sky’s face concerned as he asks “…are you sure? This suspect is in Little Falls.”

“I don’t care,” Alma nearly growls. “Let’s go.”

Sky barely has time to look back at Dion with a mix of exasperation and, strangely, apology before they are out the door. Leaving him all alone with his mistakes.

Ch6.56 Trust

This is weird. Like, really weird. Well, I mean, we’ve kind of gotten used to the weirdness by now but still…talk about a story!

First, we were all sleeping. Kind of. We weren’t really sleeping, were we? We were in stasis, whatever that is, because some big grumpy bullies said we are not really living creatures. Well, isn’t that stupid? I feel pretty living! Sure, we don’t look like everyone else and we don’t quite think like anyone else but I’m starting to think that no one looks and thinks like everyone else around here. Or anyone else, for that matter. Some people just like to think they can go around deciding who’s right and who isn’t. Guess that means that everyone’s always wrong unless they agree with the big silly god…archon…thingies way up in the Curia. Anyway…

We were sleeping. I don’t remember the sleeping part. There’s a lot of things I don’t remember. But Cherry and Merri and May and Big Brother Sage all talk about their dream lives. Like how they ran a bar or were in the Guardia or worked at an asylum for kids who lost their moms and dads. I don’t remember any dreams. I asked Kori and Chime once and they don’t remember any dreams either. Maybe because we were all too young to dream? Can you be too young to dream? Do babies dream or is it all just blank when they’re not eating or crying or doing whatever babies do when they’re not eating or crying?

To us it was like… well, being asleep, really. Close your eyes, mind goes black. Until the dreams start. Ours just didn’t. And when we woke up… we didn’t really wake up, either. There’s something else I don’t remember much… Waking up after Mom was told she could let us out of stasis. Do you know when you’re sleeping and something snaps you out of it and suddenly you’re really aware that you’re not sleeping anymore but you can’t quite move yet? And your eyes are still closed so you can’t see but you can hear stuff around you but you keep phasing in and out and in and out so it’s all kind of broken and you’re not sure which bits were real and which weren’t when you finally wake up for good? Well, that’s kind of what it was like. I remember voices sometimes, sometimes coldness or warmth or wetness (guess that’s when someone was giving me a bath). I remember being scared and confused. And sometimes being really safe and comfy, like someone was taking care of me. Mom’s voice…and her scent. Her touch. The other Bunnies too. Other people, like Sky and Dion and Allie and Callie and all. But it was all really fuzzy.

I remember running. Being scared. That’s one of the things I remember most. Being really scared. Lots of noise, people screaming. Dark places. Everything smelling of blood and dead things and scared people. I remember Dion carrying me somewhere. I wasn’t scared then. But then he let go and the screaming started again. Bunny screams so high-pitched and so loud that my ears hurt. Some spooky guy with a funny voice saying mean things about us and trying to hurt Mom and Dion and Geryon.

And then the bad guy was gone. That’s when I woke up. For good. And Dion was there, making sure I was all right. Being all nice and caring and all. He’s such a prince… Sigh…. Aaaaaanyway, things weren’t fuzzy anymore, though they were really, really confusing. Because Mom was on the floor and Sky was suddenly there, hugging her and everyone looked like something bad was about to happen.

And it did. They sent us away, back to our home, but they didn’t let Mom or Dion come back with us. The big bullies again, saying Mom had been bad and Dion had helped. Shows what they know! Mom isn’t bad. She’s…she’s Mom. Sometimes she gets mad but everyone gets mad. So she gets kinda scary when she’s mad, but that’s on account of her being a goddess. Gods are weird. She’s good to us. Reads us stories, teaches us stuff, plays with us sometimes. When she can. She’s been working a lot. But she always makes sure we’re all right. And we can sleep with her whenever we want, too, and go hang out in her room and stuff. She’s our Mom!

But they still made her stay, left us by ourselves. We were very sad. And scared. Mom…she had always been around, you know? One way or another. But suddenly, she wasn’t. We couldn’t go talk to her or see her. All the scents in her room were old. She was still alive but really far away and we didn’t know what to do or when she’d be back and everyone was on edge and fighting… We just… didn’t feel safe anymore. And Mom wasn’t there to tell us it would be all right. Sky tried. He took care of us. He’s nice. We uhm… I guess we could have been nicer. Not give him so much worry. Sneaking away and all. Stupid Chime and May…

But then… Mom came back! That was awesome! Out of the blue, everything got great and perfect and everyone was happy and we could finally be one big happy family. Well, I guess May wasn’t happy. Not for real. She’s leaving, now. Gonna become Guardia again, because that’s what she was in her dream. I think that’s silly. I dreamt I was a big furry sheep jumping over fences once. It was a really nice dream. But I can’t be a sheep! I’m a Bunny! And seriously, dealing with that wool, that must be real hot in the summer and it gets all frizzy and– Sigh… Sorry. I got a bit carried away there. I do that sometimes. Cherry says it’s because I’m still a kid. Yeah, sure Cherry, because you don’t go off on tangents every hour or so… Meanie grownups saying kids are silly just because we’re kids… Who gets to decide, anyway, if you’re all grown up or not? Is there, like, a fairy or something that pops us and waves her wand and says “You are now a grown up. Go and work and do boring stuff and…stuff”?

Where was I? I was going off again, wasn’t I? Sigh… Right, back to what’s going on now. May’s leaving. She says it’s just for a few months but that’s like…forever! Can’t really remember life without May. Then again, can’t really remember life without all my teeth. I hear babies don’t have teeth when they’re born and that little kids lose their too. Must make it hard to eat your veggies, not having any teeth…

We’re all sad she’s going. Even May. I keep asking why she’s going if that makes her so sad but no one gives me a straight answer. They just say I wouldn’t understand. Doesn’t sound like they do either, if you ask me. Not that anyone asks me anything. Mom is sad too but she says we should let May go because it’s what May needs to be happy. Except May isn’t happy, she’s scared. I can smell it on her. And she’s worried too. We’re all worried. Because Mom is sick.

Her big spooky brother brought her home last night and said we need to be real quiet and let her sleep so she’ll get better quick. Well, he didn’t say that to me but that’s what May said he said. Sky’s been taking care of Mom. And May, May’s been helping. But now it’s time for May to go and Mom woke up so Mom wants to walk May to the portal too so she can say goodbye to her, even though we can all tell Mom is still not feeling good.

Mom is a terrible patient, by the way.

“I’m fine, Mayumi,” she says. She is sitting at the edge of her bed and trying to get up but May keeps getting in her way. “I will accompany you to the portal in Little Falls.”

She still looks really tired. Her head is hanging a bit and her eyes aren’t open all the way and her voice is a bit mumbly but she doesn’t sound like she’s too weak to go with us to the portal. She’d probably be all right, I guess. But May is having none of it.

“Mother…I want you there,” May says, kneeling and holding both of Mom’s hands to stop her from getting up. “But I cannot ask you to trudge all the way to the Little Falls portal and then all the way back, when you are, um, doing something with a sphere.”

“It’s shapin’ up to be a real broiler of a day, too!” Merri pipes in, over May’s shoulder.

Merri is standing just behind May. Sky’s standing at the foot of the bed looking all worried and I’m… Well… I should be upstairs with Cherry and Sage and Kor and Chi but I sort of snuck in here when no one was watching and I’ve been hiding behind the hanging screen of pretty flowers that hides the door from the rest of the bedroom. It’s a great hiding spot against Bunny noses, you know. But I’m having trouble avoiding a sneeze.

“I promised your brother I would take care of you,” May insists, glancing at Sky. “Well, Sky promised, but I was there.”

They’re so cute, May and Sky. All trying to be all sneaky and dis-creet and “Oh, we’re too serious to be romantic around people because he’s sort of kind of my boss.” Silly May. Bosses can kiss too. I mean, bosses gotta have kids somehow, right?

Sky looks back at May and nods. That makes Mom frown a bit.

“Melinor worries too much,” Mom says. “I feel much better than yesterday.” She strokes May’s cheek and looks a bit sad. “I won’t be seeing you for the best part of six months. The least you could let me do is walk you to the portal.”

May’s ears droop down and she bites her lip, looking at Mom like someone’s making her pick between carrots and sprouts. “If you go with me, I am going to be terribly worried about you collapsing on your way back. I saw you last night, unconscious, and it was frightening.” She throws her arms around Mom’s waist all of a sudden, and hugs her real tight. “Please, I just want to know you’re well. Please stay and let Sky take care of you until you’ve fully adjusted to…this.”

I can’t really see her face now, because it’s buried in Mom’s dress. Mom holds her back and strokes her hair, smooths the black fur on her ears. Then she sighs. “Very well… Tulip?”

Eeeeep! She’s looking right at me now, through the screen and everything! Everyone looks super surprised to see me get out from behind the flowers and Merri is even giggling a bit about it but Mom is just looking like she knew all along and doesn’t mind.

“Yes, Mom?” I ask.

Her eyes look soooo pretty now. Well, they were pretty before and it kind of stinks that they’re a different color from mine now but the new ones?…super neat. Blues and greens moving about and mixing and twirling like someone dropped two colors of nail polish in a saucer and keeps mixing them with a toothpick. And they glow real soft too, like there’s a teeny tiny lamp inside Mom’s eyes. I wonder if it hurts, getting them like that.

“In the first drawer of my desk, there is a small package,” she says, smiling at me like everything’s fine. “Could you get it for me?”

Mom has kind of a workbench-desk thing to the left of the door… no, to the right of the door… Well, I’m facing the door and it’s to my right now, all right? It has three drawers in it and the bottom one is always locked. The second one is boring and the one at the top has all sort of stuff in it like scissors and tape and paperclips and all that. Cherry is always yelling at me for taking stuff out of it and not putting it back. But uhm…Wanna know a secret? Sometimes I do it just to watch Mom run around thinking she’s losing her mind a bit. Ihihihihih. Shhhh…

There’s a package in the drawer now, that I hadn’t seen there before. It’s wrapped in a pretty velvety dark-red paper stamped with some serious-looking symbol in gold ink. It looks like some sort of Year’s End present. “This one?” I ask Mom when I hand it over to her.

“Yes, thank you,” she says to me and I sit down and lean against her as she gives May the present. “Inside there is a wad of portal tickets. Always save one for emergencies but use the rest as you will. I will send or bring more later if you need them. Remember to visit your father as well, yes?”

May lets go of Mom to take the present in both hands. Her ears are drawn back and her chin is starting to shake a bit but she’s holding the package to her chest like it’s the best present she ever got. “Oh Mother… thank you.” She nods quickly. “I will. But I will visit here as well. I promise. When they allow me to, of course.” She rubs an eye to stop from crying. Aawww…poor May. “You know…”

May shakes her head and hugs Mom again. Mom holds her back with a sad little smile.

“I know,” Mom whispers, leaning down to kiss May’s head. “You will do wonderfully, I’m sure. You know all of this already. Just remember to stay focused and don’t let them walk over you. You are my daughter and you will show them just what you are made of.”

May nods, her face against Alma’s shoulder. It’s weird seeing May like that. She’s always so uptight. When she’s not all serious then she’s all mad. But she looks very tiny now. Scared. Just nestled in Mom’s arms like she was having a bad dream and is afraid to sleep alone now.

Behind May, Merri strokes our sister’s hair and looks a little smile at Mom. They look like they’re talking without words, which is actually pretty common between the two of them. After Mom, Merri is oldest in our little family. Maybe that’s why Mom and her seem to understand each other so well.

“I’ll make sure they have a well-armed guard there and back,” Sky chimes in softly.

Mom nods at him, then looks worried. “Isn’t Gwydion in yet? He could accompany them.”

Oh! I know the answer to this one! “He’s probably still out being m–”

But Merri cuts me off with a quick, “Och, he’s still out doin’ something or other. Must’ve gotten caught up in it.”

Weird…Why is Merri lying to Mom? Doesn’t Mom know the Dion is mad at her for kissing Uncle Som? Not that that’s a reason for being mad at anyone. Aren’t we supposed to kiss the people we like? Hmm… Maybe Dion wanted to kiss Som too? Or maybe… Dion wants Mom all to himself? No… He wouldn’t be that selfish. Would he?

Mom looks a bit suspicious. “Strange. We were supposed to…” She sighs.

“I am sure the Bunnies will be well with our best Popula accompanying them,” Sky says.

May lifts her head and rubs her nose with the back side of her wrist. “Maybe the other Bunnies should stay here too–”

“May!” Merri cries out, tapping her foot on the floor. Uh oh… It’s not a good idea, getting Mer mad. “Don’t you be silly, of course we’re comin’ along! This is our ward, an’ we’ll have Aliyah an’ Cala an’ more with us. We’ll be fine!”

Mom nods and sways a bit forward and back. Her eyes close a little like she’s trying to stay awake. “Most of the more troubling gangs have been dealt with. Sky will go with you to make sure.”

“But Sky has promised Melinor to watch over you,” May argues.

“We’ve been goin’ out with Popula protection for weeks now, and nothin’ bad’s happened since that berk Froggy Whatsisname got skewered!” Merri insists too. “This is no different.”

Sky doesn’t look like he’s very sure what to do. “I would feel better if…” He goes quiet because is looking at him and then at Mom in some special way. “But it’s true. The Popula have been doing an excellent job keeping the Bunnies safe.”

“There, it’s settled!” Merri chimes, putting her hands together in victory. “I’ll go gather Cherry and the others.”

She gives May a kiss on the cheek and dashes off upstairs. And suddenly, things go really quiet and awkward. Reeeeally awkward.

Mom puts an arm around me and leans a bit against me. It’s nice when she does that. I give her a hug and she gives me a kiss to the cheek.

“Maybe you should go get ready too, little one,” she whispers softly. “All right?”

I’d rather stay. But Mom is asking nicely. “All right, Mom.”

I give her another tight hug and then I leave. I think I’ll come back later, after we get back from the portal and go cuddle with Mom for a bit. Maybe she’ll feel better then. I knew that gods could get hurt – I mean, Mom and Sky and Dion get hurt all the time, fighting bad guys. Mostly small stuff, nothing like losing arms and having to grow new ones and all – but I didn’t know gods could get sick. It’s scary to think that they can. It’s scary to think that Mom could… Gulp. Die…

Upstairs, everyone is getting ready. Kor and Chi are all groomed and they even have shirts on today. They look bored out of their minds and Kor keeps pawing at his hair and muttering about how Cher used too much cream and how he looks like he got licked by a really big tongue now. I’m not saying he’s right about that but he could definitely be wronger. Chi’s been tying his hair in a ponytail lately. Says it makes him look cool. Yeah…right… like you can be cool in calf-length pants and suspenders.

Merri must have gone out and Big Brother Sage isn’t around either. Cherry is talking with Geryon, by the kitchen. She’s been looking really sad lately, Cher. I think it has to do with Saira going away and taking Lexie with her. And Mom being sick. And that fight with Dion yesterday didn’t help either. I…guess that was a bit my fault. But I didn’t do it on purpose! It’s just…tough to understand non-Bunny people sometimes and know what you can say and what you can’t. To us Bunnies, love is love. The more you give, the more you get. Friends love one another, and families love each other and some people pair up because they love each other too but you can always love more people, right? You don’t stop being able to love other people just because you already love someone. What kind of love is that?

I hope Dion isn’t too mad at me. I love Dion. I wish he wouldn’t be so uptight sometimes but I really, really love him. And I like how he loves Mom and all of us. Gosh, I hope he’s not that mad anymore.

Geryon is whispering something about Dion’s room. I arrived too late to know what exactly they’re going on about.

So I ask them. “What’s up?”

Cherry looks at me like she was sleeping and just woke up. “We ready to head out yet? We don’t want May bein’ late.”

Liar. She doesn’t sound anything like she wants May to be on time to leave.

“Yeah, we’re ready.” I pretend I can’t tell when she’s lying. “May’s just saying bye to Mom and all. What were you talking about?”

Geryon looks uncomfortable at the question and glances a question at Cher. Hmm… Mystery…

“Just makin’ sure Dion’ll have a friend to talk to when he gets back,” Cherry says quickly. Too quickly. “Now go get your hat, sweetie. You know how you burn when the sun’s strong.”

She tries to shoosh me upstairs but something’s fishy here. “I can stay and talk to Dion. Why’s he need a friend?”

“Because friends, my darling Tulip, are a good thing to have,” Ger replies, pushing me gently away with one of his furry paws. He’s in his smaller shape right now but I could still ride him like a pony if I wanted to. “Now, you go be a good Bunny and get your hat.”

Aw man, really? Geryon too? Why does everyone keep hiding stuff from me and being all sneaky like I’m too dumb to notice. Like I ‘wouldn’t understand’. Grr…I’m a kid but I’m not blind! I’m not deaf! I’m not stupid. I notice things. Why do people always assume I wouldn’t understand? They never try to explain in the first place!

“Fine…” I walk away, muttering and dragging my feet. “Don’t tell me… Always treating me like a kid…”

Two strong arms hug me from behind all of a sudden. “Oh sweetie, we’re so happy you are a kid,” Cher says against my ear. She sounds like she’s about to cry. “Won’t you let us have you as a kid for a little while longer? What with May g-goin’…”

She stops talking but hugs me tighter. Real tight. I think I’m going blue in the face. Help!

“Cher… I can’t…breathe…”

Oof! She lets go a bit. “Oops, sorry…” I can feel her hand petting my hair just as I see May coming up the stairs. “Oh, here comes May. Right…” Cher takes a deep, shuddery breath. “Let’s get this parade on the road. Where’s Sage?”

“He’s gettin’ Aliyah and Cala, darlin’,” Merri says from the door.

“Ah! My hat! Be right back!”

My hat! I almost forgot my hat! Can’t go out in the sun without it. I get my scalp all burnt up if I stay out in a strong sun too long. And it hurts! A lot! May says it’s because I’m so pale and my hair is all white, like Mom’s. But Mom never burns in the sun. She doesn’t tan either. Must be great being a goddess, sometimes… Big Brother Sage made me my hat. It’s really pretty and colorful, with flowers and leaves and a wide brim to keep my face in shade too. He even put a blue ribbon, the same color as Mom’s clothes. Dion says it matches my eyes.

By the time I get back downstairs with my hat already on, Sage is peeking in through the door that leads outside. “Our escort is ready. All set to go?”

Cher and May are standing by the bar counter, looking at each other like one of them is never coming back. Of course, that’s not true… Right?

Finally, they hug it out, and Cher breathes deep, takes May’s hand in hers and just real quietly says, “Ready…”

Ch6.55 Trust

Night has fallen over this side of the Insula. The streets will be swelling with all the people who regard this final day of the Year’s End as the true day of celebration, and who plan to party all the way until midnight to close the ending year, and then past it to welcome the new one.

Alma breathes deeply. She has never worked through this particular night due to her family’s special dispensations, but what retellings she has heard of it make the Inner Rings sound like Three Rats for one night each year. Pavia will certainly be dealing with some of that silliness. The death goddess makes a mental note to write and explain to her old partner the reasons of her delay, since Death will most certainly have dismissed Pavia as escort without much in the way of explanation.

“You should stay,” Melinor says, looming by her side, at the main entrance of the house. “Father would have you stay and spend the night.”

Alma cannot help but smile at that. On any other day, the thought of spending the night would not even have flared in her mind. Too many of her dark memories are housed in Death’s estate and her rushed departure after Cherry and Rosemary’s creation, twenty-four years prior, had generated enough malaise to make staying here a nearly unthinkable choice. This has not felt like home for too long and her presence here has often done more harm than good.

But tonight, she hesitates. She can barely remember the ceremony and even less anything that might have happened after it. Her thoughts feel hazy, as if a heavy veil of mist has fallen upon them, covering and blurring their shapes, distorting memories of sound or touch. One moment, she was hovering in the air, in indescribable ecstasy at the touch of thousands of souls moving through her; the next she was waking up in her bed, in the room that had been her own for over three quarters of a lifetime, kept clean but otherwise untouched since her departure. That had been an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. She had thought the room would have been given to someone else or reused for some other purpose. That it had been kept for her, even the plants in Starfax’s old enclosure still flowering and healthy, was like an unspoken wish for reconciliation.

And even though she feels weak and stiff, as if she has just taken a beating to her very core, she also feels strangely lighthearted and at peace, as if something in her has shifted toward balance and happiness. As if something very, very good has happened without her having any memory of it. It almost erases all the unpleasant moments spent here. And, for some reason, it makes her nurture an impulsive craving to run through the maze-like corridors in search of Death and tackle her Father in a long, tight embrace.

That might not go so well. Though the whim remains. For now, however, the darkened sky has Alma concerned for Mayumi, who will be worrying, no doubt, at her mother’s delay.

“I promised Mayumi I would pick her up before sunset, to take her home,” the goddess explains, marveling at the sharp, glittering contours of Melinor’s soul. For some reason, she cannot stop soul-scrying, even if she wills it so, but feels none of the familiar signs of exhaustion that keeping it up too long usually brings about. “And sunset has been and gone, already.”

“You are too weak to be traveling,” Melinor notes in that brusque, matter-of-fact way of his. “Is she not safe where she is?”

“She is,” Alma concedes, with a little nod that sends her head in a twirl. “But tomorrow she will be leaving for the Guardia Academy. My delay has already robbed her of precious time with her siblings.”

Melinor must notice her momentary disorientation, because he wraps an arm around her chest and pulls her to lean into the sturdy, reassuring cradle of his chest. “Very well,” he says, exhaling deeply in tamped-down exasperation. “I will take you to her and then transport the two of you to your assigned ward. I doubt you will make it there awake, anyway.”

Alma smiles, snuggling against him, reveling in that acrid, metallic scent of blood and pounded flesh that is, to her, the soothing scent of a loved one. “I love you too, brother.”

“Always the emotional one,” Melinor mutters, shaking his head. “Where is this place?”

Pulling away enough free her right hand, Alma produces her record book and gives him her annotations to read. She has drawn a simple map to Sueyoshi’s house, taking care in writing down the correct address and location of the ward in the vast Third Ring. Melinor’s teleporting does not work quite like the portals but, after a few questions, he seems satisfied with the information. He allows her to put the record book away, then holds her tightly as his powers activate, with a scent of sweat and charred bone, and sounds of battle and alarm. The world shifts around them.

The world goes black.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“When did you start these?” Mayumi is seated cross-legged on the floor, looking at sheet after sheet of various kinds of paper – wood-pulp or cotton-rag, smooth or highly textured, pure white to shades of cream or grey – on which are drawn dozens of images of her. Charcoal, pencil, ink-brush, even watercolor, she sees her face in different expressions, her form in different poses, often among scenes in the garden, or here in the house, sometimes in other locales. She recognizes the environs of the temple up on the hill that houses the local portal, where she and Alma arrived this morning.

“Maybe two or three years after the dreams began,” Sueyoshi replies. “I was trying to…to make sense of it? No, that’s not right.” He considers as he sits down again, setting a cup of tea for her nearby but away from the pictures. “I think I was trying to bring you here. To make you real.”

She looks up from the drawings. The older ones, near the bottom, are cruder, stiffer, more self-conscious, and the materials and techniques more experimental. The more recent ones more consistently use the same paper, heavy and handmade, slightly off-white, painted in ink with free-flowing minimalistic strokes that capture emotion more than realism, and which all seem to convey a sorrowful longing.

“I have always been real,” she tells him. “But I understand. I feared, for a time, that you did not exist in this waking world.”

“Even those of us who cannot use magic try to find ways to exert our will over the things we cannot control,” he says. “And yet, here you are. If I were superstitious, I would think it worked.”

Mayumi grins, then feels the smile disappear. She looks at him gravely. “Of course it did. You raised me with love, and these are an expression of love. That love, in dreams and in waking, ensured that I would find my way to you here.” She keeps her eyes locked on his for a long moment, then breaks it off, looking down at the pictures. “I feel strange to call images of myself ‘beautiful,’ but they are beautiful. I can’t…I can’t describe how much this, not just this, everything today, how much it has moved–”

She breaks off. Something has changed. Although the temperature is no different, she feels a chill, accompanied by an indefinable feeling in the air itself. Being near gods nearly every minute of her time in Three Rats, she has grown used to a subtle sense of their presence. Gwydion is the most difficult to notice in this way, his aura only causing the soft hairs on her neck and forearms to rise when he is actually performing magic. Sky’s presence is also subtle, nothing more than a hint of the ocean that straddles the line between his smell and something less tangible, and sometimes he suppresses it completely. Alma’s presence is both the easiest and most difficult to notice, perhaps because she conceals it the least, perhaps because she is Mayumi’s mother. It has been an almost constant presence for her, not only since she awoke to this world, but even before, always a background note in her dream life, and as such it is difficult to describe except in its rare absence. But all the Bunnies can tell if she is nearby, if they think about it, whether she is within sight or scent, or not.

And others, like Kyri or Breowan, announce their presence more strongly and physically. There is always a hint of music in the air when Kyri is nearby, while Breowan seems surrounded by an echo of beer, the slightest feeling of tipsiness that one might get from taking a deep sniff off the head of a glass of beer.

This is stronger, more like their grandmother, Lyria, or Gwydion’s uncle, the Archon Math, or the murderous criminal, the now-deceased Nekh – a feeling of power that just fills the air. But it resonates somewhat like Alma’s, when she is channelling the powers of death, something that Mayumi has born witness to more than once when her mother fought in defense of her children. However, it is more unsettling, though she cannot understand why just yet. She just knows it is different from Alma’s, and yet there is a connection. In Alma’s normal presence, there is that feeling of melancholy, of the longing for what has been lost or is to be lost, but with it is love, and…how did Merri put it? Continuation. Renewal. No, perhaps Sage had said that first, after Tulip, barely starting to speak and separated from Alma cruelly, had first articulated that loss of Alma’s divine presence.

Within this aura is not melancholy but dread, shot through with violence and blood, fire and screams.

A heavy tread on the garden veranda, and three hard raps on the back door. Sueyoshi stands, looking at the door, then at Mayumi. From his expression, she can see that he too senses the aura of death. He goes to the next room and returns holding a jutte, a metal baton with a fork-like tine along the side, near that grip, that had once existed to catch swords but was now simply traditional, the local version of the Guardia truncheon. By the time he returns, Mayumi is already up and holding her hands to stop him.

“Father, please, let me.”

“Are you sure?” He looks deeply concerned.

“Whoever it is, is here for me. And must be connected to Mother.” At his nod of assent, she turns and, taking a breath, opens the door.

Standing before her is an imposing figure, his face turned slightly so that only the right side is easily visible. It is a face she recognizes instantly, handsome, cold, disapproving, even though this side of it is half hidden by his long, unkempt midnight-black hair. And she knows, though she can barely see it, that the left side of that face, which he keeps turned away by habit, is a blasted, torn wound. Melinor, God of Violent Death.

But her gaze is pulled from his face almost immediately, as she sees what he is holding. Or rather who, for in his arms is Alma, asleep or unconscious, her body gently supported under her shoulders and knees by her brother’s powerful arms. Mayumi is surprised at how small she looks, for the Bunny is used to looking up at her mother, who is somewhat taller than the average human. All but her pale face and snowdrift of hair disappear against him, as she is wrapped in a black blanket, no, a cloak, most likely Melinor’s, and despite his fearsome aura, his face, the way his ochre eye barely glances at her, Mayumi sees the tender way he holds his sister, and she steps aside to let him enter.

Eschewing greetings, she asks, “What happened?” She feels a slight tremor in her voice, and decides it is from worry about her mother. Any fear induced by Melinor’s aura has disappeared, at least for her, for the moment.

“She is fine.” The god’s voice is flat and harsh, but bears no animosity despite that. “Are you Mayumi?”

“I am.” She pauses. “We have seen each other before. At the Curia. What has happened to my mother?”

It seems for a moment as if Melinor will not answer, but then he speaks. “She…evolved. I have come to take you back to the Fourth Ring at her request.”

“Evolved?” She shakes her head, her ears laid back. “But why is she unconscious? Is there anything we can do?”

“No.” If he was hesitating to speak to her before, he seems to have given in. “She is adapting to a new sphere. It is her battle to fight.”

Mayumi looks to Sueyoshi, still standing a few paces away. He looks as if he is fighting the urge to fall down in worship. She remembers that very few here in Sawara Ward would have had anywhere near as much contact with gods as she has experienced. She looks back at Melinor. “Should we let her rest here? Or take her back to her home?”

His locks of hair barely shake as he moves his head in negation, his eyes on Alma. “She would not stay in her home.” This confuses Mayumi for a moment before she realizes he must be referring to the Death Clan estate. “She will recover faster in her sanctum. Are you ready to leave?”

Mayumi looks again at Sueyoshi, then back to Melinor. “Yes.” Realizing that she has failed in all norms of propriety, she quickly introduces them, continuing to use Urbia, the common language of the Insula. “Sir, this is my father, Sueyoshi Ishijima. Father, this is…” She almost calls him her uncle, but stops herself. She does not believe he would welcome that. “…my mother’s brother, the god Melinor. I am sorry, Father…I must go.”

In the face of proper greetings, Sueyoshi gathers himself and bows very formally to Melinor, who nods stiffly in reply. “You are most welcome in my home, Divine One.” He straightens, then turns to Mayumi. “I understand. Already I have been blessed with your presence more than I ever thought possible. I…”

Mayumi steps into his moment of hesitation and embraces him tightly. She can tell he is shocked. Her time in Three Rats Ward has made her impatient with many of the rules of interaction in Sawara Ward. She feels his body, ravaged by age yet still strong, relax in her arms, and he holds her in return, surely feeling embarrassed to be doing so in front of such a forbidding, foreboding god, but Mayumi can sense that Melinor is paying them as little attention as possible. “You will see me again,” she insists in Japanese, her cheek pressed against his. “I promise. Many, many times. And you will see my siblings. You’ll love them. They’ll drive you crazy, but you’ll love them.”

He whispers to her, “This is your home, always, whatever other home you may have. Do not knock on entering.”

Mayumi squeezes him almost painfully, then steps back, and looks to Melinor. “I am ready, sir. I appreciate your patience.”

His eyes still on Alma, his face still turned so that only the unwounded side is visible, he replies, “You will need to touch me to be transported. You will be safe.”

She nods, stepping off the edge of the floor to slip her feet into her shoes where they wait in the genkan, the tile floor of the entryway one step down, and turns to stand beside him. She puts a hand through Melinor’s arm, fingers on the inside of his elbow, and she looks at her father, seeing his struggle to maintain his composure in the face of so much: meeting two gods of death in a single day, meeting the child he raised alone for ten years, for the first time. Feeling her heart so open to him, she knows she will keep her promise. She begins to say so, “I–”

But “–promise” is spoken somewhere else entirely, somewhere very familiar, Alma’s room in Three Rats Station.

Mayumi experiences vertigo at the sudden change, and clings tightly to Melinor’s arm until it passes a few seconds later. The familiar room is so different from her father’s home, the colors, the temperature, the humidity, the feel of it in every way, but it has become her home as well, even if she sleeps in another room upstairs now. These two homes she has, and yet tomorrow she is leaving them both for another, a narrow bed in a tiny, shared dormitory room at the Academy.

Reoriented, she moves directly to the bed, whipping aside the blanket to reveal that a large lump under it was merely a pillow, not the curled-up form of Tulip or Chime. She pulls that out of the way just as Melinor lays his sister down, crisply, efficiently, yet with a gentleness that sparks within Mayumi an affection for the dark, dour god.

Silently, she removes Alma’s boots, setting them in their usual place on the floor of the closet, and considers whether to choose a nightgown for the goddess, but on seeing that Melinor has spread the blanket over her, Mayumi decides that can wait. She catches him tucking the blanket in just a little around Alma’s shoulders, and carefully brushing a lock of white hair away from her face.

Not looking toward Mayumi, he speaks. “There is another god nearby.”

“That should be Inspector Tsuma-Sukai,” Mayumi says. “Or Sergeant Gwydion. Shall I get one of them?”

“Yes. A god will know to handle this better than mortals.”

Mayumi nods. “I shall return shortly.”

She throws open the door and rushes up the stairs into the Burrow, the bar run by Rosemary and Cherry, both of whom are seated at a table, Cherry looking upset.

“May!” Merri calls out. “Goodness, where have ye been? Tis nearly midnight!”

“Alma is in her room,” Mayumi says by way of explanation. “But don’t go in there yet! She needs quiet. I’ll be right back.”

“Wait a minute!” Cherry’s voice is rough, as if she’s been shouting. “Is somethin’ wrong with her?”

“She’ll be fine!” Mayumi wants to stay and find out what’s wrong with Cherry, but first she must find Sky. Before she leaves, she asks one question, however. “Is Dion in?”

Cherry casts her eyes down at this, and leaves Merri to say, “He’s not answerin’. I think he’s gone out, but I’ll knock again an’ tell him Alma’s back.”

Puzzled at this reply, but with no time to discuss it for the moment, Mayumi gives a little nod and dashes out of the bar, across the narrow breezeway and into the station, to Sky’s office door. She pauses, taking note of who is present in the constables’ office area, returning a friendly nod from Patel, then knocks just before opening Sky’s door without waiting for a reply.

She is greeted with the smell of a salty sea breeze, and peers around the edge of the door to see Sky sitting on the sofa with his jacket laid across his legs, hands over it, whispering some mantra. There is a hint of blood-scent in the air, rapidly dissipating, and the god’s eyes, blue-green as he calls upon his mana to cast some spell, quickly return to their familiar brown.

He blinks. “Mayumi!” His voice is soft, but the worry in it is obvious. He begins to stand but she whips around the door and, not bothering to shut it behind her, throws her arms around him, squeezing him hard, sliding onto his lap and drawing her legs up. She just holds him, eyes shut tight, for a long moment, feeling the tension draining out of her the moment his big hands touch her back, pulling her to him.

After a dozen heartbeats, he asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Alma,” she says. “Something about a new sphere. Her brother brought us back. She’s asleep – unconscious, really, in her room. He says she’ll be all right, but she needs you.”

She releases him and stands, taking one of his hands in both of hers. He stands without the need of assistance, and she lets him go once he is towering over her. The thought of holding his hand as they walk through the station is tempting, but she chucks the thought aside as silly and leads the way as they move rapidly back to the bar, him taking a single long stride to every two of her quick steps.

“Are you all right?” he asks as they go.

“Oh Sky…” She would not normally address him so informally where Guardia under his command would hear, but it just slips out. “I have had one of the best days of my life. But now I’m just worried for Alma. For Mother.” As she is speaking, they retrace her steps of minutes before, through two doors and into the bar. Merri and Cherry are standing now, looking as if they have been caught in the midst of a debate which Mayumi guesses involves whether to disobey her request that they stay out of Alma’s sanctum.

Cherry, looking at Sky, half-raises a hand and says, “Um…” but then bites her lips and drops her hand. “Let him take care o’ Alma, dearest,” Merri tells her, her voice drifting after them as Mayumi quickly leads Sky down the stairs.

As she opens the door, Mayumi has to adjust again to the resonance of violence filling this normally peaceful, comforting sanctum. She feels Sky’s hand on her shoulder as, in unthinking reaction, he almost pulls her back out of the room. She looks over her shoulder at him. “It’s all right,” she says. He relaxes, though not completely, and follows her into the room.

His hand still on her shoulder, she feels him tense again at the sight of Melinor, like a huge gore-crow, looming over Alma. The death god again turns his face so that the wounded side does not show. “Sir,” Mayumi says to him, “this is Tsuma-Sukai. Inspector, this is Alma’s brother, Melinor.”

Melinor jerks his head in Alma’s direction. “How many sphere awakenings have you seen?”

“One or two,” Sky replies, looking Alma over. “In young gods. Is that what this is? A third sphere?”

“The Wheel has awakened in her during our Year’s End ceremony.” Melinor’s voice is harsh, sepulchral. “The worst is past her but she is weak, still. We would have kept her for the night.” He glances at Mayumi without resentment, but she still feels accused and indicted. Her ears go back, but she says nothing.

Sky glances between them but only asks, “What do I need to do?”

Melinor places a hand on Alma’s head and gently opens one of her eyelids, revealing a soft glow. Mayumi’s eyes widen in surprise at the shifting colors, like mother-of-pearl. “Her powers are unstable for now. Try to keep her from using them. She may be irritable or distracted. She will be weakened for awhile. Unfit for duty.” He lets her eyelid flutter back closed, but she stirs slightly.

Sky looks grim. “I understand. We will keep her safe here.”

Alma moans softly and mumbles, “Hmm…Mel? Where…May?”

Mayumi takes Alma’s hand and feels the goddess’ cool fingers wrap around hers. “I’m here, Mother. You are home. Melinor and Sky are here too.”

“I’m…sorry… So late. Mel?”

Her brother strokes her hair. “Sleep, Almy. You are tired. You need to sleep.” There is no warmth in his voice, but at the pet name Mayumi glances up at Melinor’s face, and though, in his moment of incaution, she catches a clear look at the horrifically ravaged left side of his face, she cannot help but smile. She knows, buried deep, there is a good heart that Alma somehow has been able to reach. Mayumi doubts she ever could reach him like that, but she yearns to tell him how much his love for her mother means to her. Certain that this would make him uncomfortable, she holds back, however.

With a soft exhalation, Alma falls back into full slumber. Melinor straightens, or as much as he ever does, with his head always tilted away. He would be nearly Sky’s height if he stood fully erect. “I must go,” he says to Sky. “You will keep her safe here.” It is no request, simply a statement of fact.

Sky replies, “I will. Thank you for bringing her back to us.”

“It was not my choice. Starfax will help in recovery. You should keep the room uncrowded and free of noise.”

Sky glances at Mayumi, who nods and says, “I will do so, and let you know if any emergencies arise.”

“Thank you,” Sky says to her, and then to Melinor, “If my duties pull me away, Mayumi will stay with her. She will not be left alone, and will not be disturbed.”

To this, Melinor simply says, “I will see you again.” He fades away in a moment, and along with him, his aura of death disappears, to be replaced with Alma’s far more comforting one.

Ch6.52 Trust

The warm night air of summer feels cool compared to young Alma’s fevered forehead. She sleeps fitfully in her bed, her black cotton nightgown soaked in sweat. Sitting by the edge of the bed, Death strokes her beautiful silver-white, albeit drenched, hair away from her face and hums a lullaby to soothe her dreams.

“Pale moonlight
Through windows now streams
And with you forever I stay…”

“Daddy…” Alma whimpers in her sleep, reaching blindly for him.

Death takes her wandering hand, holding it gently in his. Her pale skin feels like burning coals against his cold fingers but she seems to calm down almost immediately at his touch. Her father exhales deeply as he watches her sleep. Little Alma has always been a frail child, prone to these sudden fevers that can last for days at a time. At the young age of eight years old, she has already been examined by the best healers of the Inner Rings and still, no cure to her condition has been found. No matter the specialist, the answer is always the same: deep within her, her conflicting spheres compete for dominance. It is up to the young goddess to find balance between them or to succumb under the heat of their quarrels.

Each bout seems to last longer and weaken her further. Soon, Death may be left without his only daughter. He has already started to say goodbye to his little Bunny Rabbit.

“It would mean the world to her if you were to be here when she wakes instead of when she sleeps,” a gentle, warm, feminine voice says. “You were never the same to her since the whole bunny incident.”

From behind, Lyria drapes her loving arms around his shoulders and strokes his chest. She kisses his temple before pressing her cheek against his.

“She still hates me for it,” Death replies, emotionless.

The bunny incident had been a complete disaster. Even if not very strong, little Alma had until then shown a natural inclination to souls and their gathering, just like her brothers. But then a friend of the family had gone ahead and offered her that damned bunny and the child had just been overwhelmed with adoration for the furry creature, so much so that she had created ten copies of it. The next morning Lyria had found her garden being ravenously destroyed by a horde of adorable bunnies that seemed to listen to and obey Alma’s every word.

She dismissed it as a normal event in a child-goddess attuned to Life. Of course, creating bunnies, regular rabbits like those found in nature is not by itself a crime, since they are not a new species. Although irritating to the Death Clan, it would not have been more than a simple faux pas.

But it was how Alma had created them that made her newfound powers so very dangerous. Somehow, Alma had been able to reach into the spectral realms, pull out half-cleansed souls and bind them to newly created bodies. They looked perfectly normal, beyond any suspicion at first glance…until they started to speak, in different accents of Urbia, relating stories of whatever lives they remembered living before they had become rabbits. And yet, their souls were rabbit souls, registering as nothing out of the ordinary, in spite of the human memories.

Death had been appalled at hearing them speak. They were half-formed but fully-incarnate abominations, no longer human but not entirely rabbit either. The scandal that had been the Anubi would be nothing compared to what the news of the creation of these…things would mean to the Clan. It should not even be possible for such a young goddess to pull souls that far through a renewing without a Spinner around to activate the Wheel. If she began doing it indiscriminately, pulling the dead back into life like the necromancers had done to build their hordes of undead slaves… No matter how young and weak, little Alma would have found no mercy in the Council.

They had to be destroyed and steps had to taken to ensure that the young goddess would never again create such creatures, that she would become solely dedicated to her death sphere and stay away from the dangers of creation. Death had forced her to watch as the little furry monsters were destroyed, one by one, victims of her sin. Her cries and tears had been soulcrushing, even for the hardened, calculating heart of Death but it was nothing compared to what she would have endured, had anyone outside Death’s estate found out about it. He had to make sure…he had to show her that her actions carried dire consequences.

That moment had destroyed their bond, inflamed a passionate anger in Alma towards her father, but it had broken her will to create anything else. Now, there is only spite left between them. And even that may not be for long, if she falls victim to her own nature.

“She resents you, yes,” Lyia concedes. “She is too young to understand. But she would not call your name in her sickbed if she hated you.”

Death gently squeezes his daughter’s hand. For a moment, it glows white with her mana. “She is again out of balance. One moment she is sending her life force through me, trying to heal wounds that aren’t there. The next she is trying to steal my mana for sustenance.”

The non sequitur statement achieves its purpose. Lyria nods and lets the bunny issue go. “She is a child infused with two very powerful antagonistic natures. It is normal for her to struggle for balance.”

She is right, of course. At such a young age, any divine is prey to the whims of his or her or jys spheres. Many child gods may not know an affectionate touch, the certainty of ground under their feet, even the taste of food and the scents of the world well into their adulthood, if their spheres awaken early and take too long to master. Alma may never again feel the warmth of sunlight on her skin if she does not manage to defeat this fever.

“These fits are becoming more frequent and severe as she grows,” Death argues, shaking his head. He lets go of Alma’s hand. “We must be ready to put an end to this condition should it become…permanent.”

The unspoken words in his statement make Lyria jump. Her usually warm voice blazes with anger. “I will not let you eliminate my only daughter, Azreh,” she hisses. “Our only daughter. The child that everyone thought we could never have…her fate will not be so petty as to die sick in bed!”

Death sighs as he rises to his feet. For as amiable as Lyria has always been, this is a conversation that has been triggering most of the arguments between the couple lately. As much as she has mostly conquered the hearts of the Death Clan with her kind, caring nature, Lyria is yet to adapt to the reality that her will and that of her husband are nothing when compared to the future of the clan.

“Some gods never find their balance, Lyria,” he says patiently but peremptorily. “And I must think of the greater good of this clan. I am Death. I cannot be weak and allow weaklings to corrode the strength of our family.”

She is your family,” Lyria insists, pointing at their recumbent daughter. “And she is no weakling. She is a child, burdened and blessed to be your daughter and mine. Do not give up on her just yet. Do not close your heart to her.”

“My nature does not allow me to heal her,” Death notes. “Her nature stops you from healing her. She is on her own. And she may very well not make it.”

In the moonlight filtering through the window, Lyria’s green eyes turn a pale, shimmering grey with her tears. She moves closer to her husband, cupping his face in her hands. “Can you not at least allow yourself to feel a fraction of the love I know you have for her? I can feel it in you. Love. Pure and endless.”

Her pleading feels like a blade plunging into his soul. Still, Death knows better than to raise her hopes with a merciful lie. “Should she not overcome her weaknesses, she will be able to contribute to the good of her family with nothing but her sacrifice. My personal feelings must not get in the way of that.”

“Give her a chance to grow out of it, at least,” Lyria begs as her tears roll down her cheeks in moonlit streams. “She is at a difficult age for any child. Give her a chance to show you that she can rise to the challenge. Your Bunny Rabbit…”

For as much as he tries to resist, Death cannot ignore her pain any longer. His arms wrap around her waist, pull her closer to him. His lips meet hers halfway. The mouths of the world have deemed their relationship to be a political hoax, a mutually beneficial arrangement to unite the families and score popularity points for the Death Clan.

Had that been true, Lyria would not have ascended so quickly in harem hierarchy. Had that been true, her kiss would not be able to light a spark in Death’s lifeless heart.

“You were always my weakness,” he whispers.

Lyria smiles sadly, stroking his cheek with her thumb. “You were never stronger than you are with me by your side, my love.”

It is true.

“If your hopes fail us, Lyria…” Death warns her as he holds her tightly to him.

She closes her eyes, nuzzling his neck. “They won’t.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Alma lies on her childhood bed, in her old room in Death’s estate. Books, toys, trinkets, scents. All have been kept in the exact same place as when she used to sleep here. However, she is in no condition to notice it. The ceremony has drained her into unconsciousness and she sleeps fitfully, grimacing occasionally as if in pain.

Varah and Lyria sit by her side, each holding one of her hands, paying close attention to her every breath.

“No fever,” Lyria notes. “This is not one of her crises.”

Death stands by the window nearby, collecting his thoughts as he glances at Sharia, who smiles beatifically at the young goddess.

“Of course it isn’t,” the old goddess says in serene tones. “It is the end of all crises, if anything.”

Death raises an eyebrow at this. It has been years since the Wheel has been spun with such force. And by such a young goddess. A young, untrained goddess with no idea of her true skill. He curses himself for not having foreseen this. The signs were always there, after all. But Spinners are so rare, always born into the Life Clan…and Sharia had kept her knowledge of this a secret well-hidden.

“Using her to awaken the Wheel without any preparation?” Death accuses her. “You could hardly have thought of something more idiotic to do, Sharia.”

Venomous, treacherous Life Clan snake, he thinks bitterly. And still you wonder why you were never welcome in this house.

“Oh boo hoo!” Sharia retorts, her benevolent façade distorted by irritation. “She’s not dead, is she? No permanent damage? What do you care if she is used for what she is actually meant to do?”

Their mutual dislike of each other is nothing new. Sharia would have long ago taken control of both clans if allowed, despicable and spiteful little would-be tyrant, thinking herself above Life and Death for her balancing power as a Wheel goddess. But for all her scheming, she has always failed in her purpose. The clans may come together at the call of her sphere but never, never at the call of her will.

“Maybe you two would like to save it for some other time,” Varah growls. “She’s starting to come to.”

On her bed, Alma stirs. “Hmm…?”

Death waits to see if the young goddess is truly awaken before resuming the conversation. When she seems to fall back to sleep, he again turns to Sharia. “She is still my daughter, Spinner.”

And you cannot have her to do your bidding.

Sharia tilts her head, staring at him in apparent fascination. Her eyes flare with vibrant, sharp intelligence. She looks nothing like the staggering, half-senile old bat from before.

“Is she?” she asks sweetly. “Funny that you choose now to act like her father.”

“Sharia!” Lyria cries in shock, turning her head almost 180 degrees to stare at the Spinner.

Sharia pays no attention to Lyria. Her words trickle like poison from her mouth as she walks toward Death.

“Face it. Even now, you are more bothered by the fact that you never realized she could belong to the Wheel than by any of my actions. You are angry at yourself for your blindness. And then…” she stares deeply into Death’s eyes. “You are already thinking about how you can use this to your advantage. Spinners have always been born to the Life Clan, after all. Your little scheme of marrying a Life goddess proved fruitful, finally.”

Lyria shoots to her feet, hissing in outrage as she dashes toward Sharia. “It was no scheme and you will not speak of us in that fashion, Sharia!”

Unafraid of the comparatively young goddess, the Spinner merely looks at Lyria and blinks. Her long years have left Sharia pretty much immune to fear. Of course, as a member of the Life Clan, the old goddess also enjoys the safety provided by the notion deeply imprinted within every life god that one must never, under any circumstance, attack one’s elders.

As if manipulated by a master puppeteer, Lyria freezes in her tracks just a step away from Sharia.

“Leave us, Lyria,” Death orders, keeping his eyes on the Spinner. “You as well, Varah.”

Lyria stares at him in shock. “Azr–”

“Do not fight me on this,” Death cuts her off in a cold voice that will not be denied.

Predicting Lyria’s impending outburst, Varah moves swiftly from behind and takes her by the arm. “Come. She’s going to be fine.”

Half-dragged across the room under the Fencer’s iron grip, Lyria follows Varah, glancing over her shoulder at her increasingly impatient husband. Death waits until they are out of earshot to return to the conversation.

“What is your game, Sharia?” he asks.

Sharia looks almost offended at the question. “My game? There is no game. The Wheel needs a Spinner and soon, that will not be me. She is next in line. I will have my successor in spite of all the stupid little ways in which you almost destroyed her spirit in your quest to bend her to your will.” She shakes her head, clicking her tongue in disapproval. “All these years, waiting for her to be strong enough to spin the Wheel without losing herself in it… And all because you cannot think of her as more than a disappointment.”

Not far away, Alma stirs again in her sleep.

“Do not presume to know my thoughts, Spinner,” Death replies frigidly, glancing at his daughter above Sharia’s head. “Now, leave.”

“She will need to be trained,” the old goddess warns him. “She is balancing three spheres now.”

“You will have your chance,” he states. But I will be watching you closely. “Now, go.”

Sharia stares at him for a moment, then merely shrugs. “I will leave you with your daughter.”

Soon, she is gone. Death walks up to the bed and sits by Alma, stroking her silken, silver-white hair. Her eyelids flutter at his touch. Behind them, like a wonderful scar of the ceremony, vibrant, electrical shades of green and blue slowly mutate, moving endlessly like ocean currents, and make her eyes look like the nacred inside of a beautiful seashell.

“Hmm – Father?” she mumbles.

“Yes?” Death replies.

“Did I do something wrong?” Alma asks sleepily.

“No,” he says. “Rest, now.”

Alma focuses her gaze on him for a moment. “What happened? Am I sick again?”

She is not fully conscious, Death realizes. Her tone, her words…she sounds younger, childish even. In her exhaustion, she seems to have reverted to her childhood years. Her lips purse with sudden agony.

“You spun the Wheel and acquired a third sphere,” he explains, knowing that she will probably not remember any of this by the time she awakes. “Your body and soul are adjusting to the strain.”

Alma does not even seem to grasp his words. “I remember… being sick.”

“You are not sick,” Death states sharply, turning to leave her. “Sleep. Your escort has been warned. Melinor will accompany you to the Fourth Ring once you feel better.”

Just as he begins to rise to his feet, her hand shoots out to grab his wrist, clutching it until her fingernails dig into his flesh. The muscles in her arms spasm, making her whimper.

“Please, don’t go,” she begs. “It hurts. Stay with me, Daddy.”

Death’s eyes soften at the word he has not heard her use in over a hundred years.

“By the time you wake up, you will not remember any of this,” he says softly, regretting that it must be so. “It will make no difference if I stay.”

“I’ll know,” Alma insists, her eyes already closing again. “I always knew. When you came to stay with me.”

Death’s eyes widen at the revelation. She had never said a word. All this time, he thought she resented him for not visiting her when she was ill.

“I’m scared,” she says weakly as her hand lets go of his wrist. “Please, stay.”

Death nods and slowly lies down by her, wrapping an arm around her shaking frame, holding his daughter close to him. “I will stay this time.”

Her shaking and spasming stop almost immediately. Alma snuggles in his arms, already falling asleep.

“I make you proud?” she mumbles.

Death kisses her forehead and whispers, “More than you know, Bunny Rabbit.”

Alma smiles and wiggles her nose in her sleep.

Ch6.51 Trust

Alma arrives at her family’s estate and says her farewells to Pavia. She is already late for the ceremony, she knows, but her presence there is only essential to one person: herself. So, after scheduling her escort back to the portal for three hours later, Alma rushes through seldom-used but well-known halls to reach an apparent dead end.

The hallway here leads into the shadows. Inside them, framed in black metal, small pieces of black glass meticulously arranged in intricate patterns would reveal the most delicate glyphs stretching in a spiral, drawing a portal that would fill the world with awe, if ever a light were to shine through them.

Alma reaches into that darkness and touches the glass, allowing the magic in the symbols to sense her essence, to recognize death in her. In the blink of an eye, the darkness engulfs her. She appears inside the sacred hall, a massive underground cavern lit only by the narrow skylight that pierces through the ceiling to allow the light of the sun in. The hall is still part of Death’s estate but the ground, up there, is part of the Life Clan’s property in the First Ring. All the life gods in the Urbis will be standing under the sun, around that opening in their ground, just as all the death gods in the Insula are standing down here, in the darkness cast around that single pillar of light shining on the circular platform in the center of the room. With all of them gathered here, not a creature will die, not a being will be born today.

But something is wrong. The ceremony should have started already. The sun needs to be aligned perfectly with the platform, shining directly on it to activate the Wheel. The Wheel Spinner, only goddess of the Wheel in the whole of the Insula, should be standing at the center, serving as its body, filtering the souls collected by the death gods throughout the year and resetting, renewing them so that the life gods can send them on their next incarnation.

The sun is shining. But the Spinner is nowhere to be found. The death gods are mostly just standing around, waiting for something to happen. Alma takes advantage of this and moves into the throng of brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts and other family members, looking for the place where her father will be standing. He will not be standing on any platforms or sitting on any thrones. In this most sacred of rituals, all death gods stand as equals.

A wheezing voice by her left rings familiar with spite just as she spots Death’s second wife, Macana and her son, Molochai. “Oh look… brothers. The… prodigal daughter… returns.”

Alma stops and turns to look at Clochol, the Death by Asphyxia, stretching his many, powerful arms. His large hands, fit for holding a mortal neck as its owner kicks and flails in suffocation, are open in mock surprise. Even if his blueish-purple face with bulging, bloodshot eyes smiles at Alma, she knows that he is not in the very least pleased with seeing her.

By his side, Sudic, the Weaver, Death by Hanging, taps his eight, spidery legs, with which he is said to hold the ropes that encircle the necks of his victims. The countless eyes that cover his torso blink at the goddess, one by one, while his voice scratches against his silk-filled windpipes. “If you are going to infiltrate a ceremony, at least be polite enough to be on time.”

And just behind Sudic, Narec, Drinker of Souls, scratches his sickly bluish-grey skin with yellowed, sharp talons and runs his tongue over his pointed fangs while he whistles derisively, “Or else take the door.”

Without a lower jaw, for this is how his worshippers envision him, he is forced to speak through slits on both sides of his neck. Seeing these three of her brothers always reminds Alma of how lucky she is to not have her sphere allocated to a specific type of death.

“Ready… to pick… sides,… this time?” Clochol wheezes, one finger mockingly twiddling with the earring nailed directly into his skull since he was created without a left ear.

The joke sends both his monstrous brothers into maniacal laughter, making Clochol laugh too at his own poor excuse for a witty sense of humor. Soon, however, his wheezing frame is shaking with breathless cough and he walks away, closely followed by Sudic and Narec, who prop him up so that he doesn’t fall. Alma sighs at all this, wondering if it is her taint or their divine nature that keeps the brothers despising her so even in spite of the obvious bonds connecting them all.

“Don’t pay attention to them,” Molochai says, gently hugging her hips.

Alma puts a hand on his head and strokes his hair. “I won’t, little brother. Not this time.”

Not far away, the gentle Macana nods and smiles reassuringly at her through soft, wrinkled features and waves a delicate hand in greeting. Alma smiles and nods back at her, in gratitude for her constant support. Macana has always been there to help her deal with unfriendly, bullying brothers like Clochol and his siblings. Her family is riddled with such characters.

“They do, however, have a point,” someone says from the vicinity of Alma’s right thigh. “You are late, sister.”

Alma looks down at Supa, the short, bulky, heavily armored death god with long frizzy hair that barely allows for the clan mark dangling from his left ear to be visible and a fiery beard that the dwarven people living in caves and tunnels all over – actually, under the Isle, have created for themselves. Rough-mannered and ill-tempered, he has never been affectionate toward his only sister. But he has never stood against her either.

So it is without animosity that Alma replies, “I was detained elsewhere. Why is the Wheel not turning yet?”

A carrion bird, black as night, lands on Supa’s helmed head. The creature’s exposed skull and spine sway as it crows, its mother’s silver chrysanthemum poking through the feathers of his left wing, while the fine chain of the supposed earring rattles softly against its vertebrae, “The Spinner failed the first attempts. She stepped out to regain her strength.”

Alma stares into the hollow orbits of Panai, Harbinger of Death and Cleaner of Corpses, as she processes the words he has just spoken. The Spinner is old and grows weaker every year but she has never failed to activate the Wheel.

“Yes, at this rate, we won’t have a ceremony next year,” Lwal echoes her fears as he enters the conversation.

Guardian god of cemeteries that lurks among the graves of mortals, Lwal is another of those unfortunate gods shaped too strongly by the feeble, fearful minds of Man. Created with a knack to tolerate few people and like no one but gravediggers, his otherwise noble spirit is trapped inside a hideous, chimeric body. Pale and sickly, his muscular human torso covered in short dirty hair that always smells of death and decay, he walks on strong, lupine legs balanced by a long, scrawny tail. His weaselly, elongated face crowned with bat-like ears, the left of which pierced as law demands, always seems to leer at everyone.

“Where are your pets?” he growls in question. “I thought you didn’t go anywhere without them.”

“They have no business being here,” Alma states, ice building in her voice at hearing the Bunnies being called pets.

“And you do?” Panai inquires, casually scratching his polished skull with a skeletal foot. The sound it makes would be blood curdling if Alma weren’t so used to it.

Alma’s eyes shoot back to Panai. If her gaze were a blade, it would pierce through steel right now. “Last I checked, we still shared a father, Panai. Unless you know something I don’t about that.”

“Oh, my little sister is developing a sharp tongue, I see!” the good humored tones of Imset’s voice ring suddenly as he drapes a cloaked arm over her shoulders. “Long time no see, Almy.”

Alma chuckles at the rarely used pet name. Imset, the Darkness at the End of Life, is the twin of her oldest brother. Always draped in the cloak that shapes his body entirely made of shadows, he is also one of the most good-natured of all of Death’s sons.

“The First Ring is too rich a prowling territory for the likes of me, Immy,” Alma greets him with a hug. “But it is always a pleasure to see you. Where is Lum? You two are never apart.”

Imset jerks his head to the left. “Look behind me.”

Closeby, Luminus, the Light at the End that guides souls into the afterlife salutes Alma by touching two fingers to his forehead. His body made of light where Imset’s is made of darkness, Luminus is the oldest of Death’s sons, born from Becech’s chest, three days before his twin. Though he keeps very much to himself, he is the gentlest of them all. He seems to be busy entertaining their easily bored cousins, Namka, Orcal and Ghedibo, three tiny, colorful and cheerful fairy-like goddesses in charge of collecting the souls of little babies. So Alma just smiles and nods back at him, not wanting to impose.

A fearsome bark puts an end to the conversation.

“Back to your positions, the lot of you! Sharia is returning. Alma, get out of the way!”

Alma looks into the distance to see Varah, the Fencer, glaring at her through a crimson eye. It is obvious that Alma is performing badly by not obeying her aunt’s shouted orders immediately. But there is also wild pleasure there, hidden deep in that glare. After all, is Alma not doing what her aunt had told her to do, in her very own special way? Does the Death by Blade see the spine that she has always urged her niece to grow finally stretching into existence?

Just as Alma is about to move, the tip of a cane taps her shin.

“Excuse me, young lady,” a withered, slightly cackling voice speaks from somewhere behind the goddess.

Alma twirls on her heels to face Sharia, Spinner of the Wheel. Old and wrinkled, her spine bent and shrunken by the weight of the centuries, Sharia is the only known goddess of the Wheel alive, charged with guarding the ever turning spiral of death and rebirth and summoning it into the material realms, where the living dwell, once a year so that the souls of the dead may be wiped clean of their memories and readied for a new life.

But the Wheel is a demanding master and Sharia bears its mark. Life flees swiftly from her grey hair and cloudy eyes. Every year she looks thinner, weaker, more worn. And without a successor in sight, the day may soon come when the Wheel no longer turns for the souls of the Urbis.

Alma tries to keep these worries away from her mind as she smiles pleasantly at the ancient goddess. “Do you not recognize me, Spinner?”

Sharia squints at her for a long moment. Eventually, her face brightens in recognition.

“Little Alma! How you have grown!” she cackles. “Why, you were just a little girl last year.”

Alma chuckles. “I am afraid it has been decades since I was a little girl.”

Much to her surprise, Sharia’s eyes narrow in irritation at her reply. “I am old, not daft, little girl!” the Spinner scolds her. “And I know what I say. Help me, please. I could swear this place gets bigger each year.”

“With pleasure, Sharia.”

Alma takes the arm that the old goddess proffers and does her best to steady the Spinner’s steps as they walk toward the platform in the center of the room. The sun will not be shining over it for much longer. At their passing, the assembled death gods move aside to let them through. Alma catches a glimpse of Melinor standing by her father, both looking at her with badly hidden curiosity.

“Is this the year you finally join us, dear?” Sharia’s voice interrupts her thoughts.

Alma sighs. “I would love to but where would I stand? Every year, I fail to answer that question.”

“And yet, every year you return,” Sharia notes, glancing up at Alma with a strange expression on her parchment-skinned face. “Even when you are invited not to.”

“This is still my clan,” Alma states firmly, bitterly. “Unless they cast me out, I have every right to be here. I have seen some uglier faces than these, lately. I will not be bullied out.”

She hardens her heart against the criticism and accusations she fears, but expects, from the Spinner. For all her sins, her taint, her weakness, Alma now knows that she does not deserve the treatment she has many times received from her family. For maybe the first time in her life, she allows herself to feel what she has been denied all these years: anger. At being discriminated againt, mocked, used, rejected by those who should be her safe harbor in a storm. Now, with the loving support of the new family she has been trying to build for herself, Alma is beginning to let go of the fear of rejection from her clan to embrace the reassuring knowledge that her friends and children await her return back home. Home… Where they are.

“Yes… You have grown,” Sharia whispers softly. “And not a moment too soon.”

Surprised by the Spinner’s words, Alma grins like a child receiving an unexpected compliment.

Still, she holds on to the simmering revolt that tempers her tone. “My father’s daughter may be weak, wise one, but my children’s mother cannot afford such luxury. Nor can my friends’ friend.”

Sharia nods thoughtfully and stops walking. They have arrived at the center of the platform.

“And where will she stand this year?” the Spinner asks, sweeping the room with her cane.

Alma snorts and looks up at the disk of sunlight coming through the ceiling and that falls so deliciously warm on her face. The answer to that question eludes her still.

“Is there some place halfway up?” she jests.

Sharia tilts her head to one side. “Funny you should mention that.”

She beckons for Alma to lean forward, as if she were about to reveal the secret of a hidden platform or room. Alma complies, entranced by the beautiful, vibrant, nacred blues and greens that suddenly surge through the Spinner’s eyes like rays of pure energy. Sharia stares into Alma’s deep blue eyes for a moment and slowly raises a hand to the young goddess’ forehead.

“Brace yourself,” she says. “This won’t be entirely pleasant.”

By the time her words register, it is already too late. At a touch of Sharia’s fingers, Alma’s soul seems to explode. The young goddess stumbles, taken by surprise as new energy, a new calling awakens in her. Her soul breaks from its bindings, rejecting its previous shape.

Alma throws her head back as a scream dies in her throat. The sensation is breathtaking, thrilling and painful. She feels her essence being stretched to impossible lengths, spreading as if it had the whole world to fill, her soul being pulled in opposite directions by her opposing spheres until it is but a thin strand of spectral mana. No longer the same shape as her soul, her body refuses to obey her command. And then, it refuses to hold her at all. She sees more than hears or feels it thumping onto the floor, lifeless, empty as the shell any body ever is to its precious cargo. She rises in the air, levitating until floor and ceiling are both halfway away. So strange… She can still feel herself, still find a shape to her essence. She can see and hear and feel the world around her but everything is so distant…so alien to her. The room feels flimsy, wavering as if it were just one of many possible rooms that could ever exist in this very same place of space and time and probability. Her family feels solid, though, shimmering like stars against a dull sky, all of them as certain and real as only death can stand at the edge of life. Family…but they are not like her. Not like her at all. How could they ever understand? If they can’t feel this…this… paaaaiinnn! Her back arched in pain, her spectral eyes open in an agony that is somehow mixed with pleasure, Alma watches powerless as the Wheel awakens and pillars of light shoot up from the ground all around her, twisting and converging to join the guiding light of her soul.

Below her, the room is silent with the astonishment of hundreds of death gods.

“What are you lot waiting for?” Sharia yells at them. “The Wheel is turning!”

Awakened by her words, Death gives the order and the ceremony begins. With a deep breath, each death god and goddess in the room calls forth every soul collected throughout the year to leave the realm of the dead, acting as a channel through which the souls by them released are brought back from their restful, biding sleep in the spectral realms and guided into the Wheel. One by one, the souls converge to the center of the room in a beautiful, eerie aerial dance, attracted by the alluring call of the Wheel, swarming to its heart, Alma.

“Don’t fight them, child!” Sharia advises her. “Let them through. First time is always the worst.””

It feels like the Soul Bomb all over again. The young goddess is like a beacon to these souls and they race to tackle her, enter her, move through her. But this time…

They race to leave her as well, to shoot in all directions through the gaping skylight above. None of them tries to hold on to her, none tries to steal her core. Instead, they each leave something behind and take something away, melting into Alma and then out of her, slightly different, slightly changed, clean and renewed.

It is all Alma can do to keep hold of herself in the swift, chaotic trade that threatens to completely rearrange her soul.

WhatWhat is? she manages to think. Speaking is completely out of the question. Throat and lungs are needed for that and she left hers on the floor, down there. Will she get them back?

She is confused, scared and yet, something in her core tells her that she is safe, that nothing of what she is will be lost. It is a knowing, wizened piece of her that was not there before.

“What’s happening?” Sharia guesses her question as if she could hear her thoughts. “You found your place in the Wheel. Now… let it turn!”

Ch6.49 Trust

The trip back to and through the portal is a bittersweet one for Alma. There is happiness in granting Mayumi the joy of meeting her adoptive father for the first time since the Bunny’s awakening into the realm of vigilance. Mayumi’s reaction at seeing the ward she remembered from childhood, the wave of joy her nimble body spread around her, as palpable and seering as heat from a flame, distorting the air around it, had been very close to overwhelming for Alma. And the meeting of that old man, whose years will not stretch much longer, had left the goddess glad to give Mayumi the chance to know him and be with the real him beyond the frail, fraying edges of her childhood dreamworld.

That the man is older than his dream version, Alma already knew. She had sensed it before, when Arion had arranged for their first meeting. But his condition is worse than the goddess had expected. The passage of time has taken a heavy toll on him. The risks of a life spent in the Guardia Popula and mostly likely resisting the idea of turning to gods of healing for help resolving minor problems of youth that have now degenerated into near-crippling illnesses of old age. Alma knows that for all her skill at healing, she cannot keep the man alive indefinitely.

It is not a matter of skill, really, not to her. Ageing is no more than the accumulation of tiny mistakes, and bigger ones as well, that little by little band together and force the body to adapt to their presence, straining its ability to cope, making it injure itself to sustain itself until, eventually, it is too damaged to function. Such mistakes do not afflict gods much, because the memory their bodies have of themselves is strong and detailed and capable of shifting of its own accord so that they may look different but be no less healthy for it. Unless they will it so. And the gods of healing have such memory of other bodies, of other races and species. And they can remind bodies of what they once were and truly are and drive them into changing to stay true to that memory. Healing is sometimes no more than sparking the memory in a body of what it felt like to be whole.

To be young. If done correctly, even age can be healed. But eternal youth hinders mortality. If mortal lives lasted forever, ending only through sudden trauma or untreated illness, the Insula would be far more crowded than it already is. And considering how much more plentiful mortals are, compared to gods, this would pose a serious threat to the latter. For the gods need worship to sustain their power and existence but mortals can adapt to a life without gods. They might even realize their full power, these creatures once created to entertain the whims of bored divinity. It is only by sheer dumb luck and carefully crafted politics that they have not done so yet. If mortals were to enslave their gods, keep only the ones they needed and feed them just enough worship to keep them functional but too weak to fight back…

And they could, in theory. For a while, at least. Nature knows its own doing. It is not out of cruelty that it allows mortal bodies to degenerate and weaken. Mortal minds were not made to endure the ages. Mortal souls are not stable enough to last the eons. Immortality is not just a thing of the flesh. A god’s soul is a self-sustaining force, constantly shifting and reshifting the balance of its energies, of the eight thick elemental layers surrounding its core, flexible but stable. Many mortal souls would need be consumed to forge even a minor, single godly soul. With their flimsy, simpler levels of energy, the souls of most mortals are not even strong enough to sustain themselves for more than a century or so.

And so, even if their bodies remained unmoved by the stretching decades, their souls would age still. And with them, their minds. The gods would soon have found themselves slaves at the hands of more than half-mad masters. Death would become something to pray for. And the gods would listen and grant mortal prayers, be eager to do it for once. Balance would be re-established, things returned to the time when gods had no one to pray to them, their divinity weakened but not erased. Everything would start all over again, with Hell taking the opportunity to break free and make the whole fine mess even worse and plunge things back into the Age of Nothingness for another few millennia. New mortals would come, new prayers to keep evil at bay uttered, another war against the devils. The Wheel of Fate turning endlessly and happily around its unshifting spokes.

So laws have been passed to stop this from happening, laws kept hidden from the mortals, who might take offense at them and not understand the long-term consequences (mortality tends to come with tunnel vision), and known only to gods of life, death and healing, to gods skilled enough to prolong life beyond the limits drawn by nature. No one is to heal damage caused by the natural progression of organic degeneration. Better not to tempt Fate.

And that is why Alma cannot save Mayumi’s father from his impending death. Even the healing she performed on him, unclogging some of the blood vessels feeding his heart and setting proper pace to one of the little energy-pulsing units that keeps the muscle contracting in proper order, was a bit of a stretch on the interpretation of the law. She estimates that a decade, maybe two, that is all he has left if he takes proper care of himself. The countdown of his life reminds the goddess of how short Mayumi’s years will seem, how quickly her daughter’s lifetime will fade away compared to Alma’s own.

It is with this dark thought hanging over her head like a storm cloud that Alma steps through the portal at Sawara-machi and out the one at Amarta. The lavish, colorful and busy streets greet her with their usual carefully groomed ignorance of her presence. Amazing how even gods and divine creatures, by all accounts as difficult to kill as a young star, are weary of death gods.

She misses Three Rats already. At least the people there have good reason to fear her but try, sometimes with some level of success, to be friendly and observing first of who she is and not just what she represents. How quaint that mortals, too simple-minded in their views of the universe to fully understand it, are more prone to try and understand it, to see things for what they are, than gods, who actually can.

Too bad their nature does not allow them to live long enough to do it.

“Now there’s my dangerous criminal!” a friendly voice startles her out of her grim contemplation.

Alma manages not to jump too high in her fright. She smiles in stoic endurance of Pavia’s gleeful snigger at a prank well achieved.

“And there is my faithful escort,” she replies once Pavia steps out of the shadow of the portal and into Alma’s line of sight. “Thank you so very much for escorting me, Pavia. I hate to pull you away from the celebrations.”

Pavia snorts at this, bending slightly to look at Alma through her short eyelashes. “You kidding? I got the short straw this year. On duty all week. Between the festival and the influx of visiting relatives from other wards, that place becomes a nightmare! Remember Trial Week at the station?” She stands shoulder to shoulder with Alma, facing away from the goddess, stretching her arms and raising her hands as if to frame a picture in midair. “Rich boys. Rich boys everywhere, getting waaaaaaay too drunk all week long!” She glances up at Alma. “You sure you don’t want to get back to that?”

Alma laughs at the all-too-accurate description of the Year’s End here. “Now that you mention it…no.”

The Amarta Guardia Station had been her first placement in the long list of stations that the goddess has worked in. And so far the longest as well. She had not chosen it, would not have chosen it for herself, not by a long shot, not with it being so closely positioned to her father’s home, but Pavia’s placement there had made it impossible for Alma to refuse staying. Pavia, her former roommate at the Guardia Academy, had been the only person Alma truly considered a friend at the time and, even though the goddess would not have done worse for the loneliness of being on her own, it would have felt like betrayal to leave Pavia in Amarta, all by herself.

Of course, her time at Amarta had not lasted longer than four years but those had been good times. Painful times of readjustment to Arion’s departure, to the Rosemary and Cherry’s – and later Mayumi’s – incarceration in stasis, to life away from her childhood home (though that was not really all that painful, no), but the work in a ward that was her own, with as good a friend as Pavia by her side, had brought warm flashes of momentary light into what was a nearly constant grim and dark mood brewing deep in Alma’s core.

Still, she does not miss all those spoiled, drunk brats reeking of the Fates-know-what expensive beverages they have just had and throwing up the contents of their divine stomachs into the paper bin before claiming that they could not spend the night in prison on account of being some powerful senator’s first born, that much. But ahh, how Alma had enjoyed proving them wrong every single time.

“I can’t join you,” she says to Pavia. “I have family business to attend to.” She sighs. “The annual meeting.”

Pavia’s gold-furred lupine ears twitch minutely before turning and dropping slightly as realization dawns on the demigoddess. Her voice loses its playfulness for a moment. “Oh… That old shindig.”

Alma nods resignation, marvelling still, after over two decades of knowing Pavia, at how the wolf-woman’s whole body radiates her state of mind so easily and completely. It is a trait of her kind, Alma knows, of the wolf-people, to be straight-forward and hold as little of their emotions in secret. Powerful warriors, aggressive and hot-headed but loyal to a fault, to family, friends and masters, they are great friends to have. And awful enemies to make.

They are predators and equipped as such. Not the feeble, human-type predator, with its flat teeth and very little in the way of physical weaponry or power, but sharp-toothed, sharp-minded creatures with amazing senses of smell, sight and hearing and a pair of legs made to run swiftly and leap efficiently for the kill. And, of course, they hunt in a pack. Surely, nowadays there isn’t so much hunting left to be done, because the simpler, kill-or-be-killed ways of their ward have been weakened by a certain lust for luxury items (though the wolf-people’s standards in luxury are certainly not in synchrony with the rest of the Insula) and the universal need for money to acquire them. But mercenary work is almost just as good as hunting and it does allow for their predatory instincts to be satisfied, so most wolf-people have turned to it. And, of course, now more and more of them are “moving on with the times” and beginning to crave less “primitive” lifestyle. Progress…

But Pavia is a wonderful specimen of her people and – possibly because this is one of those times of year when it pays to remind civilians of why they don’t want to do anything that would surely get them in trouble with the law – today, she has it on display. Her brown shorts edged in Dei blue reveal strong, muscular legs, lined at the back with a strip of soft, brown-grey fur, and always slightly bent at the knees, making her walk with a slightly springy, almost childish gait. Powerful thighs allow her thunderous bursts of speed. Her feet are long, with long toes hidden by the simple, malleable leather shoes she must wear to allow for a smooth transition between a humanoid plantigrade walk and a lupine, fully digitigrade run. Alma had found inspiration in the memory of those shoes when she had worked with Syron to make footwear for the Bunnies.

The torso, covered in a simple Dei-blue tunic, is lean and compact, not much endowed in the way of breasts but certainly not missing the trouble that such mostly decorative (and only temporarily functional) lumps of fat tend to cause for women with a habit of getting into fights. The arms are lean as well, darkly tanned, as is the rest of her body, and lined at the back with more of that short but soft fur. Her lovely, darkly tanned face is slightly elongated, the bridge of her nose wider than what humans would consider the norm to enhance her scenting. The eyes, large and bright with round pupils and yellow irises accented with orange, veiny details, are made to see movement a mile away – though Pavia has at some point confessed to having trouble distinguishing detail in people’s features if they are standing more than a couple of steps away.

All in all, the demigoddess looks every bit of what she is, a hunter at the service of the Guardia and, Alma would swear by it, the best tracker the force has at their beck and call. With the benefit of not being half as prone to fits of murderous rage as some of her countrymen (though Alma suspects the aggressiveness to be a result more of their humanoid minds flirting with the powerful build of their lupine bodies than the other way around. Non-human animals rarely slaughter for sport).

And now all of Pavia’s powerfully built body, from the amazing ears tilted downward to the long, bushy tail hanging still and tense, is showing her unease at the look of uncomfortable resignation on Alma’s face. Thankfully, awkwardness never lasts long with the demigoddess. She shrugs. “Well, could be worse, I guess. You could be missing a nice escort back to Dad’s place.” A bright smile lights up her face. “Come on… You always look better when you’re smiling. Or grinning. Probably grinning. Always know something interesting’s gonna happen when you grin.”

Alma cannot help but smile as they move to a quieter corner of the plaza where the portal is set. “It’s good to see you. Last time… I’m sorry we couldn’t spend more time together.”

Pavia shrugs nonchalantly. “Heh, I get it. You had the big hunk looking over your shoulder.” She glances sideways at Alma, a sly grin on her lips. “And liking what he was seeing. He make a move yet?”

Alma’s smile widens and she feels the slightest warm blush tinge her cheeks as she looks away, eyes turning upward with recollection. “Maybe…” She looks back at Pavia, wondering how long she can keep up the charade. “How are you? How is the family?”

“Oh, don’t you try to throw me off like that!” Pavia scolds her, tail whipping self-righteously. “Details. I want details. The dirtier, the better!”

“Pavia…”

It is useless to try and keep secrets, Alma knows. But the game is fun and Pavia’s expression of intent, anxious curiosity with those big yellow eyes looking up and shining, has always amused the goddess. Like a puppy after a toy…

The previous night, with its troubling start full of thoughts of Mayumi’s departure and then Somrak’s unexpected and mind-jumbling kiss, had taken a very pleasant turn indeed, in the quiet haven of Alma’s office. She had fallen asleep there, on the sofa, in Gwydion’s arms, after more than a few kisses and soft words and a mildly uncomfortable discussion on how to prevent more Bunnies. They had not reached any conclusions, too concerned with the possibility of failure to try any of Gwydion’s spells, but the conversation had left them more at ease with the subject and certainly even more eager – if such a thing is possible – to find a solution. At some point, the god of magic had left the sofa to return to work, leaving Alma to sleep peacefully, wrapped warmly in a blanket and in the comforting familiarity of his scent. The goddess had returned to her room only in the greying hours of morning – strange that Saira had been nowhere to be found – feeling radiant and at peace with the world, to bathe and change clothing before waking up Mayumi.

But that is not something to share at the first opportunity.

“Come on!” Pavia insists, ears perked and jaw dropped, flashing a sharp-toothed smile. “It’s all males at my station now and they’re too embarrassed to talk to me. Haven’t heard any real gossip in months!” She lets out a whimper of excitement. “Help a girl out…”

“I am not going to–” Alma starts, trying not to laugh.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” the demigoddess cuts her off, moving closer to Alma. “I’ll just find out on my own.”

And with that, she takes hold of Alma’s wrists, making the goddess stiffen as Pavia stretches to her full height and stands on the tips of her long toes to sniff the scents on Alma’s neck. Shorter than the goddess by a good hand’s width, Pavia leans against Alma as her nose searches avidly for clues of the goddess’ dalliances. Her warm breath, loud against Alma’s ear, tickles the goddess’ skin into startled laughter.

“Pavia!” Alma cries out mid-chuckle.

“What? You’ve never minded that before,” Pavia notes, still busy sniffing. Alma relaxes, allowing the demigoddess an easier search. “Well, that’s unexpected. Who’s the girl and the old guy? And…” Her nose crinkles against Alma’s cheek with a final, deep breath. “Ah… there he is… Alma, Alma, Alma… Didn’t know you had it in you.”

“I need to ask him for a spell to remove all scent…” Alma mutters as Pavia moves away. But it is not Gwydion’s scent on her skin that makes her mutter. She had never told Pavia about the Bunnies. “The girl… The girl is my daughter.”

“Well, that was fast!” Pavia exclaims, amused at her rash assumptions.

The amusement drains from her, however, when Alma takes her time to reply. The goddess breathes deeply and prepares to hurt the feelings of her old Academy companion. “She is twenty-two years old, Pavia.”

“Oh…” Pavia’s eyes look down in consideration. She looks up again. “Oh! But then…” She shakes her head. “No, I would have known. Your scent would have changed. We were still working together back then, how did you manage to keep a pup hidden like that?”

Alma shakes her head, guessing at the thoughts that must be rushing through Pavia’s mind. “I was never pregnant. I…created them.” She sighs. “It’s a long story, and a painful one. I was forced, by the Council, to seal my children away, magically. Until a few months ago, I had not seen them since their births.”

Pavia looks as befuddled as anyone would be expected to be at such a story. “Oh… Why would the Council do that? And…” Her brows furrow in confusion. “Children? There’s more than one?”

Alma nods. I wish… I wish I could tell you everything. I wish I told you before.

But she cannot. And so she places her hands on Pavia’s shoulders and looks down, deep into the demigoddess’ eyes, hoping she can see honesty in Alma’s gaze, in spite of the secrecy. “I am sorry I didn’t tell you. It just… It never seemed to be safe enough to do so.”

Though I know…you would not have failed me, her own guilt-burdened thoughts add.

“It is an awful mess I got myself into, before I ever enrolled the Academy, Pavia,” she tries to explain as best she can. “And…it hurt too much to even think of it, for a long time. I have seven children. And…I actually cannot say why the Council ordered me to separate myself from them. I am forbidden to discuss what happened prior to the current situation. Just suffice it to say, I would never have obeyed if I had been given any other choice.”

Her voice turns grim and steel-edged at those last words, her eyes trying to convey how limited, and for the most part fatal, Alma’s choices had been at the time. And how they can still be, really.

Pavia looks at her in silence for a long time, eyes serious and fixed in deep thought. Then, they soften and Alma can almost feel the first breath of a newborn decision.

“Is that why you were always so sad before?” Pavia asks, voice low, tail hanging low and barely moving.

Alma breathes deeply, closing her eyes against the wetness of tears. “That my children were growing up among dreams, enduring pains and fears, experiencing joys and love, all without me?” She nods.

She does not mention Arion. She had told Pavia, once, on a particularly difficult and lonely night, about her lover, departed to a place too far away to reach. She had not spoken Arion’s name or revealed what he was. And she had never mentioned him again, since that night.

Pavia strokes her hair, perhaps guessing at what Alma has not mentioned. Stretching, once again on her toes, she nuzzles the line of Alma’s jaw, hiding her face in the goddess’ soft, silver-white locks with a low, drawn out whimper of empathy. “I wish you’d told me.”

Alma wraps her arms around the demigoddess, stroking the back of her hair, where the spine joins the skull. She can barely keep the tears at bay but forces herself to do so. Pavia has never seen her cry. “I wish I had. I should have. But at the time, it was a pain I needed to hold close. I thought…that I was standing alone against the whole world. Even against people who cared for me.”

She feels Pavia’s arms wrap tightly around her, pulling her against her chest, the steady beat of the wolf-woman’s heart reverberating fullforce against her body. They have not stood this close in years, not since Alma stopped visiting and allowed herself to become lost to Pavia, knowing her to be comfortable in Amarta, with a partner and a family, thinking it would be best not to taint Pavia’s life with the bleak, hopeless presence of a friend with no real prospect of ever finding joy and happiness. Pavia deserved all those things, the sweetest blessings of life, and Alma had had no faith in them. She had allowed herself to become lost to memory, a ghost of the past, for Pavia’s benefit. But the way the demigoddess holds her, tightly then relaxing as if some great burden has just fallen off her shoulders or some old binding has become loose, tells her something entirely differently.

She had thought it her fault. Pavia had thought it her own fault that Alma had left. All this time, she had carried that fear and guilt in her.

Oh, Pavia…I am sorry. I am so sorry… I’m the one who is to blame. I should have… I should have been better to you.

“I would have helped, you know?” Pavia whispers against her shoulder. “Somehow…”

There is such relief there… Alma can barely imagine what a weight it has been. For someone whose nature is loyalty to believe she might have failed a dear friend… And to feel abandoned by someone she has chosen to be loyal to. Alma feels sick to her stomach to realize this. It was her who had not wanted help or the pain of becoming close to someone only to have them removed from her life.

“I know…” she breathes.

“I always stood by your side,” Pavia says. “You always knew where to find me. But you never told me where you were.”

Alma fights down the urge to cringe as that additional pike plunges into her heart. “Three Rats. It’s a little place down in the Fourth Ring. Almost Fifth. I will be there for quite a while. Council’s orders.” She pushes Pavia away a little so that she can look at the wolf-woman’s face. Wolf-people don’t cry but they look no less sorrowful for it. “So now you know where to find me,” she says, smoothing the fur on one of Pavia’s ears.

The demigoddess instinctively shakes her head to free her ear, making Alma chuckle quietly. “Man, you really must have messed up to end up that far down,” she notes.

“I’m afraid I really did,” Alma concedes, stroking Pavia’s neck again, scratching the patch of short, thick hairs there and feeling the unease begin to recede, replaced by an almost dizzying lightness.

Pavia looks up at Alma, her expression friendly again, tail wagging slowly in quiet bliss. “You know, I never thought you’d pick a middle-aged mortal to have kids with,” she says in contemplative, half-amused tones. “Changed tastes, did you?”

Alma freezes, surprised at the question, trying to figure out what on the Insula Pavia is talking about. And then it hits her… Sueyoshi. She snorts. “He’s… He’s not the father. Well, he’s her father, her adopted father I mean. I just met him for the first time today. Well, second. First time in…” She waves it off before things get too complicated again. “Never mind! He’s not the one.”

Pavia laughs at her fumbling. “All right, all right! So… who is?” She cocks her head in expectation. “Don’t tell me it was the rich boy. And talk about him! You do know all the stories about him, don’t you?” She looks at Alma with just a hint of worry. “Half the female population in the First Ring wants him dead for sneaking out of their beds and not calling them the next day. Seems that he collects lovers like some girls collect shoes. Never stays the night, never beds the same girl twice.”

“He is a scoundrel, yes,” Alma admits with a soft smile. “But that last part of the tale is not really true. At least, it has not been with me.”

“And to think I told him he didn’t stand a chance with you…” Pavia says with a mischievous grin. “All right, Alma! I knew you’d land some rich boy, eventually, you being…yourself, but I never thought you’d reel in a playboy hooked by the lip!”

Alma shakes her head, smiling at Pavia’s cheers. “Anyway… It’s not him. The father has been far away since the Academy. Visited a few times but even that, I guess, is over,” she says with a slow shrug of resignation.

“Oh sure, complain away in the arms of your hot new sergeant!” Pavia exclaims, making Alma chuckle. “Anyway… We’re gonna make you late.”

Alma sighs and nods as they start walking toward Death’s estate. “Something tells me I’m going to end up wishing I’d just let this whole thing go and stayed talking with you.”

Pavia looks down but snorts at some passing thought. “Remember that time we were late to…what was it? Oh! Animal control class! And we let half the backup critters out their cages just so no one would notice us sneaking in?” She laughs heartily at the memory. “Ah, Instructor Marun all covered in angry squirrels!”

“That was your idea!” Alma cries, chuckling.

“Oh, come on!” Pavia exclaims, crossing her hands behind her head. “That was epic!”