Ch7.05 Revelations

There is an intrinsic belief to most intelligent creatures that every creature’s path is anything but lonesome. We are connected to others, through blood, through emotion, through responsibility. And every now and again, through something more. There are souls meant to cross our path and leave it almost immediately, shockingly sometimes. Earth-shaking, life-altering contacts. Other souls, however, are meant to stay. They are meant to walk the path with us, to guide us sometimes. To follow, sometimes. To walk side by side until the inevitable end. To be our soulmates.

And while this is true, the assumption that tends to follow – that soulmates are a once-in-a-lifetime event – is not. That they are to be romantic partners is not true either. The truth is that soulmates come in the most variable shapes and sizes. Skin, fur, feather, scale, spirit. Friend, family, lover. Companion. Love has but the shape we give it.

And it may come from the most unexpected places. At least for some. It is a strange thing for some, Alma knows, the relationship she has with Starfax. It is not a vocal love – Starfax does not speak, at least in any form of speech understood to most – not a physical one – the elusive phoenix rarely seeks petting – but it is, nonetheless, a loyal, companionable friendship. It is an understanding, of neither dominance or ownership between two souls who are better together than apart. A quiet, reassuring love that rests on the knowledge that this other being has chosen to follow the same path and won’t leave but for some unpredictable tragedy.

Starfax has always been there. Egg to hatchling to blossoming adulthood, she has always been free to leave, the bars of her cage a meaningless obstacle for the ethereal phoenix, meant more to ensure the peace, safety and privacy of a hiding place than to keep her from leaving. And Starfax has never left. Never judged.

Through fevers and depression and pointless wandering from station to station, all the way down to dark Three Rats, she has followed Alma’s path. And though she has mostly stayed out of the way of the Bunnies and even of Gwydion’s sight whenever he visits Alma’s sanctum, the goddess knows her best friend, her soulmate of decades, has accepted them as new features in Alma’s life.

Which is all to the goddess’ happiness, what little of it she has found in her heart in these last few days since Sky’s abduction and extraction from Nua’s malevolent talons. “Life as normal” has not been an easy thing to deal with. In spite of Arion’s promise of help, the nightmares have been a constant. And though her family treats her no differently – albeit with an obvious increase in the number of daily hugs and odd glances her way in search of reassurance – Alma still feels like a detached, almost alien presence in her own body. The frayed edges of her soul, torn by the power of the godbinding spell and then by Nua’s desperate attacks, refuse to grab a firm hold of her corporeal self. She is attached to her body only by tendrils, she knows, a gentle hold she might accept more easily if not for the stupid, mind-numbing fear that some part of Nua is still left in her, biding for a moment of distraction to finish what she started.

The thought terrifies Alma. And not just her. Gwydion as well. She has caught him glancing her way more than once with a look about him of careful, fearful examination. In the worst of her moments, she has thought of leaving, of sparing everyone the uncertainty, of sparing him the dread. She has mostly opted to hide away somewhere and cry the breath out of her lungs in those moments, hating herself for her own cowardice in longing to make herself disappear for good. Permanently.

And certain as three after two, Starfax has been there, perching nearby, watching in silence. Guarding her friend. Ready to go wherever Alma goes. Even those times when Gwydion has not managed to find her, when his arms haven’t embraced her and pulled her close and held her tightly, breaking any resolve to leave with that silent plea for her to stay.

How can he love her still? How can he still want her by his side in the safety and sanctity of his bed every night and come looking for her in a panic if for some reason she’s not there when he wakes? How can he hesitate before every kiss but still kiss her? The lips that have smiled at his screams of pain…

It’s the touch of Starfax’s cheek to her own that makes Alma realize she was crying yet again. The goddess smiles at the phoenix, perching on the bedside table by where Alma has laid open the one piece of luggage she is packing to take to Gwydion’s parents’ estate for this dreadful vacation she can’t help but wish she had never agreed to. Yet another emotional blow for Gwydion in such a short period of time, in a house none of them knows, that might even be dangerous – she is not sure can handle it all. But she will have to. For him and for her children, who desperately need a stress-free vacation.

“It won’t be as frightening if you’re there too,” she says, scratching the back of Starfax’s head before her hand slides down to pick up the cord around the phoenix’s neck, to which a brown jewel is attached. Nekh’s soul-gem, that Alma has entrusted to Starfax’s safe-keeping for the past two weeks. “Soon you won’t have this burdening you anymore.”

She takes the jewel for now. It will be needed for the conversation she has scheduled for–

“Alma?” Gwydion’s voice cuts through her train of thought.

Alma closes her hand around the jewel, then closes her suitcase. “I am almost ready.”

“Come on,” he says gently, kneeling behind her and resting hands on her shoulders. “Everyone is ready and I’m afraid Merri is about to get a hand’s width shorter under the weight of all the luggage she’s bringing along.”

The thought makes Alma snort as she leans back against him. “Who would have guessed she’s that type of girl? And it’s not like she is particularly fashion-centered on a daily basis.”

The subdued humor of Gwydion’s quiet chuckling is as much a pleasure as the feeling of his arms wrapping around her in a little squeezing embrace before he loosens his hold. “Maybe she’s just anxious.”

“She’s not the only one,” Alma notes, twisting a little to look at his face sideways. “You barely slept last night.”

He looks pained. “And I kept you awake…I’m sorry for that.”

With a little more twisting and adjusting, she manages to shift sideways fully, so that she can rest her head on his shoulder. “Don’t be. It’s not like I’m going to miss the nightmares I didn’t have because I was awake.” She closes her eyes as he strokes her hair. “And at least awake I could keep you company and be there for you.”

He doesn’t reply but keeps petting her for a moment. Intimacy has not been easy, not with the ghost of Nua tearing a gash of trauma and uncertainty between them. Since the night before their rescue of Sky, their essences have not been closer than the moderate closeness a kiss allows. Their walls are raised, not just against each other but against the world, a disheartening scar that has Alma fearing for the future of their relationship. Though they hold on, fiercely, to each other, hoping they can heal together.

“Maybe we can both get some sleep this week,” Gwydion breathes, kissing the side of her head before rising to his feet. “Come on…”

Alma rises as well after closing her suitcase. “Could you take my bag upstairs, please? There is a book I want to take with me…”

“Of course,” he replies, reaching to pick up her suitcase and looking mildly surprised at its lightness. “Don’t be long. The portal is scheduled to open in five minutes.”

“I will be right out,” Alma assures him, feeling a little pang of guilt at the little grain of truth she is not quite telling him.

He nods and leaves, closing the door behind him. And immediately, the room feels colder, the air drier, the light duller, lifeless. Not because he is gone. Because someone else has stepped in.

“A touching scene,” her father says with that mild intonation of humor he puts into every sentence, as if the world exists to amuse him. “If not for your failure to mention our scheduled appointment.”

“He has enough on his mind already,” Alma says, turning to face her father, currently sitting on the edge of the bed. “He certainly does not need to have this weighing on it.”

Death tilts his head and smiles. Just smiles. And in Alma’s mind his unspoken accusation blooms, He doesn’t need to know you never told him about Nekh’s soul.

The thought chills her. It’s no work of telepathy or suggestion. It is merely the product of years upon years of his shaping touch on her. On the part of her that she fears is just like him, cold and calculating and ruthless. Useful, oh so very useful. Cut Fates, oh so very costly…

She keeps her faint smile set, her expression carefully blank. “Thank you for coming, Father.”

His lip twitches with a grin. “My pleasure, I am sure. And why am I here?”

Alma holds a hand up in front of her, letting Nekh’s soul-gem dangle from it on its cord like an enticing prize. “Let us say you have something I want.”

Death’s grin grows with unrestrained pleasure. “It was only a matter of time. Was it not?”

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Ch7.04 Revelations

The moment Somrak enters the station, there he is: Sergeant Edison Machado, Three Rats Station’s ranking Popula officer. The powerfully built man looks like he could break Somrak in half, if he could catch him. His hairless, dark-brown, bullet-shaped head turns and, even under his Guardia jacket, Machado’s burly shoulders strain the material as they flex at the sight of the gracile fire god. His eyes, slightly yellowed at the edges, lock onto Somrak’s, his expression betraying a continued lack of trust.

Somrak smirks and holds up two fingers to give a jaunty little wave. My friend, are you in for a surprise. Aloud, he says, “Boa tarde, Sergeant. Como vai?

Tudo tranquilo…” Machado growls, turning as Somrak slips past him and proceeds up the stairs.

Lindo!” Somrak knocks on the door to Alma and Dion’s office.

“Come in, Somrak.” Alma’s voice is muffled by the door, but comes through clearly.

As he opens and steps through, he asks, “Was it my cheerful stride on the steps that tipped you off?” He closes the door behind him. “Your aunt is stalking me.”

“Must be your animal magnetism,” Dion replies from his desk, where he is leaning back in the chair, loosely holding a pen pinched between his finger and thumb as if he has paused in writing a report. “Maybe you should adjust it to attract something a little less threatening instead…like a chimera.”

Ah, that winning Dion smile! Yet Somrak catches a hint around the eyes of the same soul-shredding pain that Somrak himself is constantly straining to ignore, caused by the same godbound whip. “Seeing as she’s also gone insane, I think I’d be better off dating fully grown dragons.” He takes a seat on the sofa, resting his elbows on his thighs. “I have good news, and I have strange news.”

Alma and Dion look at him, then at each other, then back at him, quizzically. The shared look of a couple. Alma says, “I hope you’re not announcing your joining my clan, Somrak. You have your charms but I doubt Fencer would leave the Commander for you.”

“Commander?” Dion looks shocked and shakes his head in incredulity. “Well, that explains quite a lot…”

Somrak chuckles at Dion’s surprise. “Well, would that be so bad? I could be the God of Cremations.” He shakes his head and takes a deep breath, the grins brightly and spreads his hands. “You two are going on vacation!” His voice suddenly takes on a hint of a carnival huckster announcing a big winner. “I have no idea where, but you’re going. Tomorrow. Portal opens at ten bells. With all the Bunnies, apparently. Well, not May. I don’t think May, anyway. But yes, vacation time!”

Alma looks surprised, but Dion just nods. “Yes, we know where we are going. An estate I inherited just recently. But it is not like my uncle to give such short notice of something like this.”

“I don’t know about that, but, uh, congratulations on the estate.” Somrak feels even more disconnected from reality. Now Dion is a landed aristo? He shakes it off. “So you might be wondering who is going to be running this place while you’re gone.”

“We…did set that as a prerequisite for accepting this week of absence,” Dion agrees.

Somrak eyes him suspiciously. “You didn’t happen to request anyone, did you?”

He shifts his accusatory gaze to Alma as well, just in case, prompting her to raise her hands, excusing herself from blame. “Math only spoke to Gwydion about this.”

Somrak turns his gaze on Dion, one eyebrow slightly higher. “Anyone mentioned to your uncle? Because otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to like this any more than I do.”

“We did not go as far as discussing possible temporary placements,” Dion says. “And considering he offered a permanent reassignment at first, I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind to go into such details.” He narrows his eyes. “Just who is being assigned here?”

“You’re looking at him,” Somrak says, drily. He lets it sink in for a moment. “And yes, I’ll be in command.”

Their eyes go wide in shock. Dion absently whispers, “He really did it…”

Alma sits. If her chair hadn’t been right there, Somrak thinks she would’ve fallen to the floor. She leans back in her seat, elbow propped on the arm of the chair, softly biting her knuckle. “I…” She looks at Dion. “We have been managing to recover here…”

“Now that the initial shock is gone…maybe we don’t need to go on this vacation,” Dion adds in agreement.

Somrak rolls his eyes and flops back on the sofa, almost bashing his head against the wall. “Oh, thanks! Can’t really blame you – I’ve been thinking the same myself. Oh!” He sits up again, with a You’re gonna love this look on his face. “That’s not even the weirdest news! Guess who’s going to be taking up residence, to ‘keep an eye on me’, which I assume means ‘chortle with glee as I flail about’.”

“Calamari Cal,” Dion suggests, deadpan, making Alma burst into a short bout of laughter.

“And here I thought there weren’t any weirder possibilities,” Somrak says. “No, it’s Fencer. She’s not going to help by the way. Just watch.”

Alma’s eyes widen in even greater worry. “Oh dear… We should definitely stay. This is too flammable a place for the two of you put together.”

Dion, less serious, looks around and sighs. “I did like this old building… Perhaps they are trying to convince us to leave by making sure there will be nothing to return to.”

Somrak glares at the two gods until they look mildly sheepish. It’s easy to forget that despite his careless attitude and youthful good looks, he is decades older and carrying several times as much experience as a cop – even if his experience is all on the unconventional side. “All right, listen. It’s orders. And whatever Fencer’s or whoever’s plan is, I’m not following their little ‘Somrak is a screwup’ script. You’re going to go. I’m going to do my job. And you’re not going to come back to a smoking crater. Got it? I’m going to tell them to go to Hell by being the best – by not being the worst commanding officer.”

Alma looks down and is silent for a moment. Quietly, seriously, she says, “I am afraid about something else, Somrak. Sky…what if…what if I turn my back for a week and return to find Sky mysteriously gone or fallen to his wounds…”

They both know what she really means. Somrak has long held the job of Sky’s executioner, should the devil-in-god-guise ‘lose control’, or fall into the wrong hands, or become a broken tool, no longer useful. The Council, fearful of a scandal, could order the Commander to order Somrak to carry out this duty at any moment.

Somrak rises and steps around Alma’s desk. She looks up, her expression apprehensive, as he kneels beside her chair. He takes her left hand in both of his and looks into her eyes.

“I will keep an eye on Sky,” Somrak promises, his voice soft and serious. “If the Commander got the order, he would tell me first, even if he was told to give the job to someone else. He would tell me so I could get Sky away. But just in case…Doria has assured me that I’ll know instantly if anyone tries to enter the Oracle’s grotto with ill intent.” At her sad but reassured smile, his heart nearly stops, but he tries to hide the effect she has on him behind a carefree smile, squeezing her hand before letting it go and standing. “And I’ll have a second-in-command Dei. Don’t know who, yet, but Fencer says I know whoever it is.” He wrinkles his brow and looks over at Dion. “Which could mean a whole lot of people. Hopefully not one who hates me.”

“Well,” Dion reasons, looking as if he’s running through some old acquaintances’ names as well, “we should talk to Machado about these orders and then get to packing. We only have so many hours to prepare, considering it’s evening already.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Alma says. “He won’t question orders from the mouth of a Guardia Dei Subcommander herself, but it’s still best to break it to him gently.” She sighs. “This was supposed to be a week to relax.”

“You can relax!” Somrak insists. “I’m the one who’s not going to relax. Things will be fine! That will be my mission: keeping things fine. And I will do it just to piss off your aunt.” He gives a little smirk. “All right, I’ll do it so you two can stop worrying, too. You’ll see. It’ll be great.”

“And you will make sure to water and feed Lexie too, while we’re away?” Alma asks, a hint of a smile twitching the corners of her mouth.

“The cat? I gotta take care of the cat? Right, deal’s off…” Somrak smiles to give the lie to his affronted countenance. “Of course I’ll take care of Lexie. Lexie loves me. I’m all warm. I can’t even sit down before she tries to jump on my lap.”

“Like I said, animal magnetism,” Dion notes with that brilliant, charming smile of his. “Perhaps you should try scratching Fencer behind the ears too. Or rub her belly.”

Somrak holds out his hands and shakes them. “Uh-uh! She’s the kind of cat, she loves having her belly rubbed for about three seconds, then she rips your arm off.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, looking at both of them. “So…there’s more weird news.” He waits until they look at him uneasily. “I can’t be sure of his schedule, which is always changing, but you may get a visit from somebody there. After he visits me here.”

“And who would this be?” Dion asks, suspicious at the sound of dread in Somrak’s voice.

The fire god struggles with just how to say it. “In the off-blues, you know we have a healer. Not a very good one. But for…special cases, we have an outside contractor.” He leans against the wall and folds his arms, looking at nothing in particular. “Sometimes we have secrets we need sealed away, so that they can’t be gotten at even under torture or mental invasion. And…sometimes we have memories that aren’t doing us any good. Sky called them ‘shrapnel in a wound’. Memories that refuse to shut up. Memories that don’t teach us or help us avoid making dumb mistakes again. They do nothing but hurt us.” He looks up at them. “That’s the kind of healer this guy is.”

He sees that while he was speaking, both of them have looked away, down, like him, and the haunted look on their faces surely mirror his own. They know exactly what kind of memories he’s talking about.

“I’m not sure anyone can just come in and heal a mind,” Alma says, skeptical.

Somrak nods. “He doesn’t, exactly. But he makes it possible to heal on its own. Personally I’ve resisted ever using him, but…it’s different this time. It can take multiple sessions. He’s very concerned about…being invasive. He’s just about the most discreet god on the Insula, too, or we wouldn’t use him. His mind is safe from being opened up through magic or interrogation or anything. Just…if I can get him to drop by your estate, will you talk to him? It’s your decision whether to use him.”

“Manipulating memory…it’s rarely a good idea,” Dion murmurs. “And these are very dangerous memories. We’re already walking the tightrope. If we take a wrong step and cause a scandal…”

“Yeah…” Somrak spreads his hands. “I’ve contacted him, and he’s coming to talk to me. Which is pretty nice, seeing as I’m not offblue anymore. From what I’m told, he erases nothing. It’s…well, better to let him explain it. I’ll just say that if you decide to go for it, you can trust him.”

They are silent for a moment, considering. Then they look at each other, tentative, seeking reassurance that they are in agreement. Alma says, “Well, I suppose we can always talk to him. That much shouldn’t hurt.” Her voice rises slightly at the end of each statement, almost making them into questions.

Dion nods. He looks at Somrak and tries to recover his smile. “I’ll leave you with indications on how to get to the estate.”

“Thanks. Might need to run up there in an emergency anyway.” Somrak takes a breath, letting it out with puffed cheeks. “Right…this is really happening, isn’t it? I swear, if they turn me into a regular station-bound Guardia… Eh, I’d probably be glad for the change.”

“Let us get your station up to speed, then, Inspector Somrak.” Alma rises from her chair. “This should be interesting.”

Ch7.02 Revelations

Following a soft knock on the door, Merri turns the knob and opens it into the Bunnies’ first home in the waking world, the calm and beautiful sanctum of their mother, Alma. She pokes her head in, red curls brushing the partially opened door beside one russet ear and the doorframe beside the other. Nobody in the bed, which is really what Merri expected, Dion being on duty and the location of the other Bunnies being known to her, but still she cannot help but feel a pang of disappointment. How lovely it would have been had Sky been lying there, recuperating from his mysterious fate in the tender, healing arms of their mother. Sure and it would’ve been an unlikely event, but in a world where even impossible events are a regular occurrence, how can you blame a simple Bunny for hoping for the merely unlikely?

Cherry puts her hands on Merri’s shoulders from behind and rests her chin on top of Merri’s head. The pale redhead grins and twitches her ears so they flick Cherry’s tawny cheeks. Oh, it feels good to smile, just smile, those muscles so unused lately. Merri knows that someday she’ll have a million smile wrinkles, and she doesn’t mind a bit. But these last few days, ever since the end of the Year’s End celebration, really, have been so awfully sorrow-filled. Merri resists the urge to turn and hug Cherry for making her smile, and instead follows where she can feel Cherry’s chin pointing, past the curtain of hanging purple-flowered wisteria vines, past the bed, toward the sound of water sloshing in the fountain pool at the center of the room.

“Yes, my dears?” comes Alma’s voice from that direction. Of course she knows it’s the two of them. She would, wouldn’t she? It’s her home, her sacred sanctum.

The two Bunnies enter, slipping off their shoes, and quickly move to the pool where they have bathed many a time. This was their home. It is still, in a way, their home, even though they have moved out into their own small shared room upstairs. At first, on waking to this world and discovering that their dreams-within-dreams of a family had come true, they had wanted nothing more than to sleep with everyone in the same bed, every night, in communal bliss. But even Bunnies long for a little privacy, a place very slightly separated from others to have some peace and quiet now and again. And that bed certainly was crowded. And, well, Merri and Cherry had lived together just the two of them their whole dream-lives, and as much as they both love Sage and May, the oldest pair of Bunnies would always be most closely attached to each other. Sometimes they just need to be with each other and no one else.

“We dinnae wanna interrupt your bath, Mum,” Merri says as the round the bed and see Alma in the bath, turned toward them, her elbows on the edge of the pool and her long white hair wet against her head and shoulders and floating in the water.

She looks so beautiful yet so tired, Merri thinks. So very sad at all that she’s been through. But still Alma tries to smile and says, with a little chuckle in her voice, “It’d be a rare thing, a bath that doesn’t get interrupted for one reason or another. Come in. Everything all right?”

Cherry says, “Well…we got a question or three.”

They both go to her and sit on the edge of the pool on either side of Alma, letting their legs dangle in the warm water. Merri holds up a pale-blue envelope with the seal of the Guardia Academy printed on it. One end is neatly sliced open. That’s Cherry – she always uses scissors to open envelopes, while Merri just tears the flap open. Cherry is so neat and tidy in some ways, like envelopes and bottles and cocktail utensils, but such a hopeless mess when it comes to folding clothes or even putting dirty ones in the hamper.

Merri can see by her eyes that Alma recognizes from whom the envelope has come. Cherry speaks up. “We gotta write back to May, but…”

“She’s no’ worried yet,” Merri says. She gestures with the envelope. “She sent this express. I dinnae ken why but…she must’a been longing for home. But Sky gave her that magical stationery an’aw, an’ it’s supposed t’be fast, an’ she will’ve nae heard back from him, right? She’s nae worried yet, but it willnae be long. And we got some drawin’s that Tulip did and Grandmama’s present and the like that we can send her, but when it comes time to write…”

“We can’t think of nothin’ to say,” Cherry almost whispers. Merri looks at her with concern.

Their mother takes a deep breath and sinks a little further into the water. The pool is shallow, and they can see her long pale form under the surface, wavering with the ripples, as Alma’s chin comes to rest on her forearms.

“I know,” she says. “This is not easy. My first impulse is to make certain all my children are together and safe, but I told Mayumi that she would get her shot at becoming Guardia. I’m afraid that if I say anything to make her worry, she will just speed back here as fast as she can. And then, imagine, could she just stay here for a day or two before returning to her studies? No…she would turn her back on the Academy, give up her place there this term in order to stay with her family. I sincerely doubt she would ever get another chance if she did so.”

Merri looks at Cherry. This is something they’ve discussed. “And we do no’ want that.” Her voice is firm.

Cherry’s black-furred ears are already down, one down the back of her neck, the other angled off to the side, both making dents in her loosely curled afro. “I know.” Her voice is subdued. “But everything we think of to tell her is scary and sad! Demons attacked us, and Sky disappeared. And you and Dion and Sommy were hurt. And…” She closes her eyes tightly and whispers, “Saira.”

Alma reaches out and rests a hand on Cherry’s thigh, stroking it. “I know, little one. I don’t want to ask you to lie or keep secrets. But I need you to understand, because Mayumi surely would not, that there is nothing she can do here to change any of those things. The only thing she would achieve by leaving the Academy at this point would be the death of her dream.” Alma sighs. “I will be writing back to her as well. If anyone has to bend the truth here, it will be me. All I ask is that you don’t write anything that might contradict what I will say.”

Cherry takes her mother’s pale hand in her own and holds it. “Guess we oughta let you read ours before we send it.”

“We can write about positive things!” Merri insists. “The lovely garden that Grandmama gave us in the bar. The wine cellar…”

“She already knows about that, baby,” Cherry says, looking at her.

“…right.” Merri’s own ears, normally so perky, fall back. To her mother, she says, “She’ll know we’re holdin’ things back. At least she has nae started askin’ about Sky yet.”

“But she will, if she don’t hear from him,” Cherry says. “Is he gonna be able to write her? And…we don’t really know what’s goin’ on there ourselves.” She sounds as if she’s bursting to ask questions.

Alma looks even more exhausted, and Merri is about to suggest talking about it later, but she herself is dying, dying to know what has happened to their dear, patient, sometimes-grumpy protector, Sky. They’ve hesitated in asking for days now, and the pain of not knowing is becoming agony.

Alma starts slowly. “I can’t really tell you all of it but what I can say is…he has not disappeared. We know where he is. But just like we were wounded, he was too.” She pushes herself up with her hands until her arms are straight, elbows locked, and she’s able to look the both of them intently in the eyes, at the same level, her hair wrapping her shoulders, arms, and upper torso like alabaster seaweed. She looks like a selkie rising from the water that runs in rivulets down her body. “Badly wounded,” she emphasizes. “He is healing but he cannot do that here.”

Suddenly Merri, who has done a better job of holding herself together these past few days so that Cherry, who feels the loss of Saira so keenly, can mourn, feels shaken and weak. The desire to weep rises in her and she can barely fight it down. Sky, wounded. They’ve seen him wounded before, many times. Once it was as if half his face had been shattered and torn, and yet he still was walking around, doing his job, giving them a smile as best he could. He rescued Merri herself once as she was being dragged away from Cherry, screaming, to certain death, and this after he’d been pounded into a pulp of broken bones by a giant. That he is so injured that he’s had to be sent to some sort of god-hospital is horrifying. And so her voice is suddenly smaller and more childish than Cherry’s when she asks, “Can’t we…see him? Can’t we visit him?”

Alma looks at her with compassion and shakes her head. “No,” she says, as if it is breaking her heart to do so. “I’m sorry, little ones. He is healing rather quicker than we first thought but…he’s just not ready yet. He’s not in any immediate danger, though, and we’re hoping for a full recovery. You understand why I can’t go around spreading this or telling Mayumi about it. There is nothing any of us can do to help.”

“Can we send him something?” Cherry asks, sounding stronger, as always stepping up whenever Merri shows weakness, just as Merri does when Cherry needs her to. “To make him feel better?”

Alma smiles, though the sorrow is still very evident in her eyes. “I’m sure he would love that. It will surely drive him to get well sooner. He misses all of you very much.”

“He’d better get well soon,” Merri says, still shaky but recovering. “We all miss him. And May won’t be happy when she finds out we deceived her, even if it is for her own good.”

Alma nods, her expression serious. “I know. And that is why I will take all the blame there. Just tell her the truth, that you don’t know where he is but I do. And I’ll tell her something to keep her from panicking too much. Can you go that far?”

After a deep breath, Cherry says, “We can… Ain’t gonna be easy. That girl asks questions – she just can’t stop bein’ a cop. But we’ll do our best.”

“We’re older,” Merri insists, though she feels dreadfully uncertain. “We know what’s best for her! She’ll accept it. Eventually.”

Alma smiles again. “Now I’m wishing I had a sister. Anyway, positive things… Well, you can mention your grandmother’s visit and all the gifts she brought for you.”

“We’re sendin’ May’s present to her – oh right, Mer already said that. We were gonna put in a nice bottle of wine too, but that made it too heavy.”

“It would also never reach her,” Alma tells Cherry. “All inbound mail is checked. Things like alcoholic beverages do not make it past inspection.”

“Oh bother,” Merri says. “An’ I was gonna send her some o’them tiny sample bottles o’ Beirão, too! Perhaps we can smuggle them in a loaf o’ bread or somethin’.” She pauses for a moment, choosing her next words carefully. “We…ken there’s things ye cannae tell us. And ye must know too that we’re dying t’learn everything about what’s happened. We’ve nae been askin’ because, well, ye gods’ve been through so much, that’s somethin’ any fool can see. And we ain’t the only ones who’ve lost dear Saira. We ken ye loved her as well. We just…we just want ye to know, we do care. We trust ye to tell us what ye can. We dinnae wanna burden you with questions…”

Cherry breaks in as Merri’s mouth seems like it’s about to charge over a cliff. “She just means we’re ready to listen any time. How are you doin’? And Dion? Y’all been through the ringer.”

“We have,” Alma says, her eyes lowering. Her elbows unlock and she slowly lowers herself back into the pool, her hair spreading out on the water’s surface. “Physically, I am fine. We’re both fine. Mentally…some days are better, some are worse. Mostly, we manage to be all right. Saira’s loss was terrible but…” She looks up at them, only her shoulders above water now, trying to smile but her eyes pleading for understanding from her two oldest children, who are only a fifth her age. “I’m a goddess of life and death, right? I should be good at handling these things.”

They both listen to her, and watch her, and smell her, and they know she’s not handling it as well as she’d like. Cherry pushes off the edge and slips into the pool, her clothes on, and sinks into the water to hug Alma tightly. A moment behind her, Merri does the same, and their mother puts her arms around the two of them and holds them as if this is the best thing that has happened to her all day. Her breath hitches and the two Bunnies tighten their grip a little, but after a moment Alma manages to say, “Thank you. Anyway, I’m feeling much better. And so is Gwydion.”

Still holding her, Merri says, “We know ye cannae just stay home an’ stay safe. We know life ain’t like that for ye. But we need ye, Mum. Be careful as ye can…please?” Cherry just nods against Alma’s bare shoulder in agreement with Merri’s heartfelt plea.

“Whatever it takes to come home to you.” Alma kisses Rosemary’s head, then Cherry’s. “I love you, you know?”

Cherry whispers, “We know. We feel it all the time.” She loosens her grip and looks down at her soaking clothes. “Well, that was silly…” She reaches down and undoes the buttons of her shorts and slips them off underwater. She sniffles and looks back at Alma. “We’re gonna have our family back together again, ain’t we?”

“I am doing all I can to make it happen,” Alma says, sounding as if she is mustering all her reserves of confidence. “And I truly think that we’ll soon be together again, all of us. Getting on each other’s nerves.”

As Cherry lifts her wet t-shirt and gets stuck pulling it over her head, Alma grins and tickles the Bunny’s bare sides, causing Cherry to shriek and fall backwards, splashing. “NO! I’M TOO TICKLISH!”

Laughing loudly, the first real laugh she’s had in oh ever so long, Merri joins in with tickling Cherry, and the resulting splashes arc over their heads and reach all the way to the bed.

Interchapter Ch6-7 2: Math Comes for Dion

The rushing of water gushing from the shower head is a welcome sign of peace in the chaos of the last two days. Two? More… Life has been misery since the beginning of the new year, flooded with pain and nightmares. Some brought on by his own stupidity and insecurities, some by the hands of sadists and maniacs with plans to help unleash Hell on the Insula and destroy all that he loves. Some by the secrets kept by his own family, of blood and of heart, given to him by simple genetics and brought to him by the machinations of Fate and the gods know how many other minds combined, accepted by him for a hundred reasons. Secrets… A life butchered by secrets, stumped and blinded by the knowledge kept from him, all for the sake of what? Of pain? Of safety? Of the unremitting anguish that has driven him to numbness and apathy toward others? Of a purposeless existence.

And now some of the secrets are revealed, laid bare before him, a sphere blossomed. A good friend’s mask dropped to reveal the hideous face of the ultimate enemy perched on the neck of someone who loves him, who has sacrificed for him. So many questions brought forth… He still doesn’t know what to think about it all.

For now, there is peace. After the return home, not twenty hours ago. After the tearful, quiet reception from the Bunnies and station personnel, their faces gaunt at seeing Dion’s, Alma’s and Somrak’s weakened condition, the faint physical marks left on their bodies that even Lyria’s healing could not quite make disappear. They had had a day to mourn Saira’s loss already but the relief seeing the gods returned had brought forth fresh tears, the reassuring, if weak, embrace of their mother unleashing the pain and dread the Bunnies had been keeping at bay for a whole night. They had hugged Dion and Somrak as well, just as strongly, just as lovingly, quiet and subdued by Lyria’s constant care and vigilance. Until finally the gods’ wounds and exhaustion had caught up to them and Lyria had gently pulled the Bunnies away and ordered Somrak, Dion and her daughter all to bed.

Rest, however, had not come easy. Well, it had, at first, their recovering bodies demanding sleep and horizontality for the first few hours. But the pain was a constant and the nightmares had followed. Nua’s horrible grin distorting Alma’s beautiful face, the evil of that hateful soul killing the flowing, ever-shifting light and color of his beloved’s eyes. The slashing of the whip against his skin and the dreadful cackle in a voice made to whisper loving words sweetly in his ear.

Dion had awakened, startled, in his own bed, in his own room, fiercely holding the pale, white-haired body of someone he took, to his terror, a little over a minute to safely identify as his love. His great love, whose very essence he had tasted and merged with, tainted by the suspicion he cannot quite shake that Nua might still be hiding in there somewhere. He knows, he knows Fencer has removed Nua. He has received Melinor’s, Imset’s and Luminus’ confirmations, her brothers who have known her for over a century. But that part of his mind that is scared and wounded is holding up the suspicion like a shield. He had frozen, watching Alma whimper and struggle in her sleep, her brow furrowed in suffering, wondering for a moment in dissociative contemplation if he should wake and reassure her or smother what could still be Nua in her sleep. The very triggering of the thought of hurting his beloved had snapped him out of it, so unimaginably painful it was. So shameful and monstrous it was. In the end, he had swallowed his fears and kissed her cheek and gently woken her, whispering reassuring words in her ear. Somehow it was easier when she was awake, the expression on her face, the colors in her eyes so very hers. The way she looked at him, embraced him, silent, frightened and relieved. He had held her, kissed her, the initial instinct of pulling away from Nua drowned in the familiar movements of Alma’s lips, in the taste of her mana, her essence. They lay together, not doing anything much or saying anything important. Just looking at each other and holding each other, breathing in their respective scents, listening to each other’s breathing. Sharing silence.

And eventually she had settled down and fallen back to sleep, peaceful sleep this time. And he had stayed awake, watching her, incapable of falling asleep himself but forcing his eyes to gaze at her face and recognize all the little traces, his mind to remember all the other times he had watched her slumber. Registering every little telltale sign, every expression, every twitching of her eyelids and lips, the ever-so-subtle wiggling of her nose that is just too adorable for words.

Until the pain in his soul had found a reflection in his body again and lying down had become too uncomfortable. So he had opted for a hot shower to relax his muscles and, hopefully, his mind. Just a little bit of normality to sooth his thoughts, shaken by trauma. And it worked.

Dion exits the shower feeling better about himself, cleaner. Somehow taking a simple shower makes him feel more truly clean than Nevieve’s cleansing spell, the touch of the water more solid than magic against his skin. He stands still to allow the sylphs to rub and wrap around him, to dry his body.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, he feels the unmistakable tingle of a spell, reality shifting around him, transporting him to the familiar sight of his uncle’s private study, in the presence of the Archon himself. Not the one he uses to meet with plaintiffs and professional acquaintances, the grand, bright marble platform on which Math had first met Alma and the Bunnies right after their escape from the Fourth Ring, but the smaller, darker, more intimate one, lined with bookshelves and featuring that dark wood desk against which Dion once kissed Alma and she kissed him back, passionately, just the second of hundreds, thousands of kisses but engraved into his mind for the secrets he shared with her then. And they hadn’t even been lovers.

“I thought we should have a little talk,” Math says, sitting at that very same dark wood desk, looking grim and solemn and maybe – Dion is not quite sure – worried. “How are you, my boy? You’ve been through quite a rough patch, from what I gather.”

Dion looks down to find himself dry and fully dressed, the little detail and indication that Math had been watching, spying on him to know when best to bring him here. Just like Math, to spy on people and break their intimacy, all under the simple excuse that it is all for their own good.

He nods slowly, annoyed already and uncertain of what to expect of this unexpected conversation. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But I am…recovering.” He looks around him, surprised at how much he doesn’t want to be here, in this safe, so very safe, First Ring estate. “I cannot stay long.”

Math rises from behind his desk and comes around, his face now a full mask of concern. “Gwydion…you can stay as long as you wish. Certainly you would be safer and more comfortable here.” The Archon pauses, looking Dion up and down as if to look for any physical wounds. “You nearly died.”

“I know this. I was there,” Dion replies, speaking slowly out of a certain need to breathe deeply between sentences and keep from shouting a demand to be sent back to where he should be resting and healing. Home. “I was not the only one. And because of it, if they find me missing, they will panic and think me abducted. They don’t need the additional trauma.”

Math waves the prospect of causing generalized panic among Dion’s loved ones off as if it were a mere nuisance. “Fine…I’ll have you back in moments.” He leans back against his desk, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m keeping an eye on the place. No one has noticed your absence yet. But Gwydion…it is time to come home.”

Ah…there it is. Math’s move.

No! Home is mate.

I know, he thinks to himself, still finding it odd, this novelty of having his own essence speak to him, its impulses and quick anger permeating his thoughts. Home is family.

We don’t go.

I won’t go.

Out loud, Dion asks, his eyes narrow with warning, “Is that an order, Uncle?”

Math’s eyes narrow as well, lips pursing for a second before he nods. “It could be. It easily could be.” He lowers his head, rubs his eyes. “You have no idea how much danger you are in. You have been engaging in all sorts of wild escapades, but now your sphere has awakened. Hell very well may be aware that there is a Hammer of Devils alive and walking the Insula. You will be targeted.”

“Like my parents were before me,” Dion growls, fists clench on either side of his hips. “I remembered that day, Uncle. In the garden. My mother’s screams of panic as she was dragged away. It took demon ichor for me to remember.”

We were weak. We were hurt.

Math shakes his head, looking at the ceiling, at the bookshelves, at everything but Dion. “Such memories…bring nothing but pain. And you have had enough of that.” He looks at his nephew. “This can be spun to make you out to be a hero, Gwydion. Sure, you were led astray by a rogue Guardia, but you managed to save the day. Promotion to Inspector, a nice quiet station in a First Ring ward… You can get your life back on track.”

No! We don’t go.

The sudden flash of anguish at the thought of leaving everyone behind in Three Rats is almost breathtaking. Dion stands befuddled as if Math’s words were a slap to his face. “What? What do you mean by that? You think I saved the day? That someone led me in there as if I were a lamb for slaughter?”

We are not stupid!

“It plays better that way,” Math says, unphased. “That fellow, Somrak, apparently he was going through some sort of mental collapse. Disobeying orders, slaughtering an entire gang of giants on his own and disrupting an official action…” He shakes his head as if it were all a chain of unfortunate events.

“He was trying to prevent the Sikari from being sent to murder Sky along with his captors!” Dion shouts. “We all were!” He points an accusing finger at Math. “All because of the laws the Council created to contain Sky!”

“Wise laws,” Math shoots back, eyes steely, voice low but firm. He straightens, stands fully. “You know, I find myself surprised. You, Nephew, are a Hammer of Devils. The Hammer of Devils, to be precise. And here you are speaking of a devil as someone to rescue.”

Dion cannot even tell what is worse: the words or the fake, casual tone of mild concern and confusion in his uncle’s voice.

“And whose fault is it that I am only now discovering what I really am? Who refused to ever let me know as much as who my parents were?” Dion hisses, stomping his way closer to Math. “Who sent me down to Three Rats to serve under the command of said devil through maddened Archons and gang wars until we became friends?”

Math glowers at Dion, his power, massive and powerful and just…ancient, leaking through every pore on his skin, spreading around him until he seems to grow taller, bulkier, more intimidating than the fit old man he normally portrays himself as without changing at all. His beard and hair bristle with mana, his expression locked in severe scowl. “I did what I did to protect you. But now that your sphere is active, you need to come home. Where I can keep a closer eye on you.”

“And do what?! Put a collar around my neck and walk me by the leash where I will never see another demon again?” Dion can barely control his fury, the impulses of his sphere reacting against the perceived attack of Math’s demonstration of power, feeding his anger until his aura flares and glows its righteous golden, his eyes glowing, showing their black, inky marks. His voice changes to a roar. “Like a tame attack dog. And what will you show me of my sphere? What will you teach me about being a Hammer of Devils? Do you think that bringing me to the First Ring will make things better?! That I will magically heal and live a happy inconsequential life without Alma or Sky or the Bunnies, here, under your wing?!”

“Calm yourself!” Math thunders, the lights dimming except around his head and face.

The thought of leaving his friends and lover, his family, behind puts more of a dent on Dion’s fury than Math’s shout. The prospect of not having them with him makes him sick to his stomach. He could never heal without them. He misses them already.

We want to leave! Let’s go!

We will… We will.

But he cannot will himself to turn away from his uncle. Not yet. Math softens slightly, and the lights return to normal. “My boy, I merely wish to take you out of what now seems to have become a nexus point for Fate. If I had known the Oracle had taken up residence there, I’d never have sent you. And you don’t have to leave them behind, you know. I can easily arrange a transfer for Sergeant Alma and her brood.”

“A transfer?” Dion asks, slightly subdued. “You mean you would transfer Alma and Sky and the Bunnies to some rich neighborhood where we can all hide away?”

Perhaps knowing the strength of Dion’s anger is broken, Math goes to the sideboard and pours a glass of ambrosia. “I wasn’t thinking of a neighborhood. There’s an estate. Lots of woodland and fields. Gardens. Deer. Guest house. I suppose you could put Tuma-Sukai in there, though how I’d explain to the Council…” He glances at Dion. “Would you like a glass?”

Dion breathes deeply and shakes his head. His voice is calmer but strained when he says, “No, thank you. I… We all have our responsibilities. Alma is limited to the Fourth Ring with her children. And locking the Bunnies in an estate would be cruel to say the least.” His mind seems to spin, unable to reach all the ramifications of this offer. “I am not even going to ask how I’d climb to Inspector in this fantasy of yours.”

“Oh, you know…portals.” Math replies as if the words made any sense. Cryptic as usual. Just more of the same. He takes a sip of his drink. “Are you sure the Bunnies wouldn’t like it? I thought for sure they’d enjoy the estate. Nature and all… Well it’s too bad, seeing as it’s yours by right of inheritance.”

Dion looks at Math, eyes wide open, body frozen in shock. “My… parents’ estate?” He is almost afraid of the answer to that question. That such a place may be real, on the Insula and not just in his dreams… “It exists? All this time, you have held onto it and never let me know?!” Anger starts rising again in him, making him pace around the room just so he won’t take the easier route and punch the daylights out of Math. “I have been an adult for decades! I had every right to know it was there! Why do you keep doing this to me?! Do you truly hate me this much? Am I that much of a burden in your life?!”

Math sighs, standing still, twirling his glass in his hand. “I told you – I’ve been trying to keep you safe! It is all of a piece. And while sometimes your actions have been burdensome, I most certainly do not consider you a burden. I want to keep you alive and in this world!” He looks at Dion, pained. “I do not hate you, Gwydion. I have never hated you. You are all I have.”

Could have fooled me. “And yet you play me for a pawn and decide my life for me ahead of time as if I were incapable of thinking for myself,” Dion says bitterly. He stops pacing, crosses his arms. “What is your plan? I accept to return to the First Ring and then what? What marvellous life have you designed for me after I run away from the Fourth Ring with my tail tucked between my legs?”

“Well that is up to you. I hadn’t really planned on the devil surviving long… And I’ve only recently come to realize that your feelings toward Alma are as serious as they appear to be.”

Of course…through constant spying, Dion can’t help but think.

Math takes another sip of his drink. “As long as the Council knows that she and the Bunnies are in one place, out of the way, I’m sure she could work in the same station, under your command. With time, perhaps the two eldest Bunnies could be permitted to open a bar near there.” He tilts his head this way and that. “That might take a few years…”

“A few years?” Dion’s voice is sorrowful, his anger once again faltering. “What are a few years to you, Uncle? They are mortal. In a few years, they will be old. And the other Bunnies? One of them is at the Guardia Academy. Will you confine her to an estate after that?”

“Ah yes,” Math says, seemingly satisfied at the way things are going. “She was allowed to attend the Academy as an experiment. Assuming she graduates, she’ll be allowed to serve under controlled conditions. Probably the same station as her mother. Not that I think there’s any danger of her leaping upon the nearest Archon and ripping his head off, but some of my comrades do seem to think that way.” His voice is amused as if it were all one big joke. “Now think of how safe they’ll be. Kept away from all the dangers of a place like Three Rats.”

He swears internally, feeling dejected at how tempting the offer sounds, at how tired he is, how full of thoughts pulling him this way and that. How much he wants to just rest, sleep, run away from everything and just…sleep. In peace. Away from the pain and the problems and the danger of it all. He finds himself wanting to say just say yes to Math.

“And what will happen?” he asks, instead. “To Three Rats?”

Math looks genuinely surprised. “To Three Rats? It’ll…go on the way it always has, I assume. Meaning badly, but please, that’s not your concern, is it? It’s not like it’s home.”

And at that, Dion freezes, the lull of Math’s apparently sensible offer shattered. “What do you mean, it’s not home? It is home for the Bunnies. And it has become a home to us. The places, the people. They are like family. We’ve all been together through hardship and through better times. The Popula are not mere mortals, they are friends.”

Math looks at Dion pityingly, an Archon watching a young god care for mere mortals and finding it endearingly pointless. “Gwydion…mortals come and go. It’s what they are. If you become so attached to individuals, you risk greater pain than you experienced in your torture. As a whole, being concerned with them is a very good thing, but individuals…” He shakes his head. “You will see. Only immortals can stand by you through the centuries.”

“You know nothing of what pain I went through in my torture,” Dion growls, clenching his fists. “Of fear and hopelessness. And holding the one you love in your arms and…” his voice breaks as the memory of holding Alma in his arms, motionless and cold creeps into his mind. He pauses, taking a deep, ragged breath to regain composure. “And she won’t wake up. We learned very well how mortal we can be too. Besides, the Bunnies are mortal. Are you telling me that Alma is wrong in loving her children the way she does?”

Math takes a deep breath himself. “I am sorry. I do know nothing of your torture. But I do know the pain of loss. And I do not think Alma can do otherwise than love her dear creations. But I do not want to imagine what it will be like for her when they are old and perishing one by one. She will certainly need your strength then. Still, better that than a premature death in a dangerous ward. Even assuming there’s not another attack by demons, one of them could be knifed by some street urchin at any time.”

Dion bites his lip, bitter at how he cannot really deny that logic. And maybe seeing how conflicted he is, Math presses the point. “Why don’t we give it a little trial? A week at the estate? With Alma and the Bunnies. You’ll see how much they love it.”

“I…” Dion hesitates, looking torn, but then nods in defeat. “I will propose it to Alma.”

Math beams with a smile as if he has just conquered a great victory. “Good!” He pauses, his eyes distant for a moment. “Oh, I had best get you back. Alma is stirring. I’m afraid those clothes will have to stay here. Probably a good thing you didn’t have any ambrosia…”

And even before Dion can react to the words, he finds himself back in his own bathroom, naked, the sylphs just whisking away, surprised as he is at his sudden materialization. He doesn’t bother dressing, rushing to return to the bedroom proper, to the bed where Alma is stirring, batting her eyes open and stretching lazily.

Thankful that Math didn’t make him damp again, Dion slips into bed and lies next to her, slipping an arm under her neck, pulling her close, into a kiss, even before she awakes fully, his need of her bypassing the instinctive hesitations and visions of his recent trauma. She takes a second to respond, kissing him back once realization dawns, still a little sleepily, her arm reaching automatically to drape over his side. The kiss is a reassuring delight, familiar and cool, the perfect soothing remedy for the turmoil of his thoughts. His heart quiets, his essence curls against hers in bliss. He could kiss her for hours.

“Hmm…this is a nice way to wake up,” she breathes once they break away, snuggling against him.

“It’s a nice aftermath to an unsettling conversation,” he replies, holding her close, stroking her hair. At her quizzical look, he explains, “My uncle took me away for a talk.”

That seems to wake her up immediately. Her eyes widen with worry. “Oh… What kind of talk?”

“A ‘time to come home, my boy’ talk,” he says, sighing, uncomfortable even as he imitates Math’s speech. Pausing, he looks into her eyes for a moment, gathering his words and his nerves before presenting the issue to Alma. “He’s offered to settle us on an estate. Safe and far upslope. An estate that…belongs to my parents’.” He is silent a moment to let the meaning of that settle in her mind. “He says he can arrange to have the Bunnies and you moved there. Even Sky, after he is well.”

She looks back at him, reaching to stroke his cheek, a sad empathy in her eyes. Her voice is soft when she replies, “And what would we do with our days? Would we be his puppets the same way my mother wanted me back to Father’s house to be a political bargain doll again? And wasting away in isolation until he needs us for something else?”

The gentleness, that subdued resignation of her voice somehow makes the words hit harder than if they had been shouted. They cut through the idyllic landscape of Math’s offer like a knife through butter. She is right, he knows, seeing right through the illusions and plans in a way he wishes he could sometimes. That sometimes just makes him sad.

“Most likely,” he says with a sigh, closing his eyes at her caresses to his face. “He offered a station. A promotion. Portals back and forth between the station and the estate.” He opens his eyes again. “Part of me rejects it outright. Because yes, it would tighten his grip. But on the other hand, Alma, this place has been incredibly dangerous. Even we have nearly died, or much, much worse on more than one occasion. And for the Bunnies…” He grimaces at the memory of that horrific dream, of each of the Bunnies dead and eaten by demons. “He offered a chance to try it out. A week.”

How surprising that he is actually considering it, actually wishing for a way out of Three Rats. No…not out of Three Rats. Just out of this string of nightmares and pain. Just a week-long pause can’t be so bad, can it?

She holds his gaze, her fingers running through his hair, stroking the rim of his ear. She is silent for a long while, making him wonder what is going through her mind, what words she is choosing not to say. Finally, she asks, “This is the estate you lived in as a child? You must be craving to see it.”

Is he? Yes, yes he is. What will he find there? He wants to know. “I am,” he says after a moment. “Either way, I will need to go there to look at my past and see what I can find. But this trial stay…what do you think?”

She looks away, her fingers resting, still for a moment, on his temple. “I don’t know. The station needs us and I hate to leave when there is no Dei to stay behind. And we just told Sergeant Machado we wouldn’t leave. It always seems like we can never manage to stay here long. And to be that far away from where we can keep watch over Sky… But…” she sighs, looks at him. “I see the pain in my children’s eyes. The fear. They need a time off, I think. And I hate to admit but, you and I…”

“We need time away too,” he says, breathing out with relief at her mirroring of his thoughts. “Time away from constant threats and darkness. It will only be a week, I promise, and only if Math can work out some way for Three Rats to be watched over properly in our absence.”

She touches her forehead to his. “I hate to prove my mother right. But let us not make any decisions about leaving permanently, all right? I know this ward is dangerous but, it has become home. Turning my back on it just to run away from danger…what would we think of ourselves for it?”

He nods, cupping the back of her head. “I chose to stay where I could make a difference. What difference could I possibly make in some First Ring ward where everyone is a god who’s never known deprivation, or the servant of one? But, it’s not just my decision. I can’t make it for you and for them. The thought of one of them being taken from you before their time is intolerable to me. And the people we know here…we do good in their lives, don’t we?”

She nods as well. “The ward has changed since we first arrived here. Shops opened, the market is livelier than ever. Children will soon have a school. And the deal we negotiated so that Nataniel could have his work hours be mostly spent at the clinic really paid off. The bar is nearly full every evening.” She sighs. “I never thought I would love this ward so much.”

“I was very close to saying yes,” Dion admits. “He made a very strong case. But I feel the same way about this ward. Still, I would love to have you along, and the Bunnies, when I visit the estate. We can take some much-needed time off. Sky will surely tell us to go.”

She holds him a little tighter. “Hopefully, it will help with our recovery, long as that will be. And bring a smile to my children’s faces. I hate to see them so sad and frightened.” She looks at him, a small smile on her face. “I do want to see where little Gwydion used to live. Though…it must be an emotional trip for you. I don’t want to disturb your discovery of things or hinder your recalling of any old memories you might have.”

He considers this, smiling at her concern as if it were a caress of its own. “Perhaps there will be times when I need to be in solitude, rooms I will want to enter alone. And we will have to explore the house carefully and establish safe areas. At the very least so nothing that should not be disturbed does not get…disturbed.” He smiles wryly as the haze of slumber starts veiling his thoughts. “I think I’m not making sense anymore.”

She smiles softly at him. “Well, seeing as you are dressed for bed – or should I say undressed? – I think we can delay our shifts a little and take some much needed rest. Sleep on the issue, so to speak. And maybe you’ll start making sense again after that.”

He smiles, his eyelids heavy at the hypnotic peace of this joint haven of theirs. “Maybe he’ll do something really crazy and put Somrak in charge of the ward.” He chuckles as he drifts into sleep.

She chuckles softly as well, holding him close. “Now that would be something worth seeing.”

Interchapter 6/7 1: Telling Machado

“Come in!”

Sergeant Edison Machado is a big man with a big voice that with little effort fills a room and knocks paint off the walls, but even he is surprised by how loudly he shouts at the knock on his office door. He’s been expecting it. He’d heard they had returned this morning, and after spending some time with family, his fellow sergeants have come to visit him.

He remains seated, elbows on his desk, as the door handle turns. Merri told him they’d had a hard time, but come on, they’re Dei, they’re able to bounce back from anything. Not mortals, though. Not Saira, the troubled and troublesome kid who grew up to be an assassin, almost took Aliyah with her into gang life, would have if it hadn’t been for him steering her into a career as Guardia Popula. He’d tried to keep Saira out of it too, but he’d attended the simple little funeral to her, as Lyria, the Bunnies’ grandmother, used her magic to inter Saira’s corpse beneath the struggling mango tree out back, and then bring its leaves into bright green health. The thing hasn’t ever brought forth fruit before, but maybe this year…

The door opens and the two gods look in, Dion and Alma. He is ready to blast them with fury. How could they not take him along on their mission? Or even tell him? Hadn’t he been there for them when the Dukaine gangs tried to kill Alma’s kids? And a flock of demons had attacked while they were away. If the Bunnies’ grandmother hadn’t happened to visit…

But one look at their faces and his anger dries up to dust and blows away. Alma asks, “I wonder if we can have a word with you for a moment?” Her face is thinner, somehow even paler than usual, the skin under her pearlescent blue eyes dark, showing up almost like bruises. She is obviously making an effort to remain her usual calm and courteous self. And Dion looks just as worn out, as if someone has kept him awake for a week straight. Sorrow, too, etches their faces in ways he could hardly imagine seeing on an immortal, if he hadn’t already seen it before, at the deaths of Corporal Stathos and his family weeks ago. But this is deeper. Something has afflicted them to their core.

Machado rises as he takes all this in, in his haste almost knocking over the crossbow he has left propped against his desk, ready to use if the station is attacked again. It’s the one the Inspector gave him so recently for New Year, and he has a bolt slotted in, ready to fire after only drawing the bowstring back. “Come in.” His voice is soft with concern. “Sit, will you? You want something? Coffee?”

“That would be lovely, thank you.” Alma walks in, moving with conscious care as if she has recently lost some degree of control over her own limbs, and is not entirely sure that control has returned. “Can I help with anything?”

“No, no, you just sit down and rest,” Machado insists, fumbling for his coffee pot and his bag of coffee, custom roasted, blended, and ground extra-fine for him by the best torrador in Three Rats, a man whose sister was once very sweet on him.

Gwydion makes certain the door is completely shut, and locks it. “I am going to cast a simple silence spell on the walls, if you don’t mind,” he warns. “Just to prevent the escape of unwanted rumors.” He puts his palms together and takes a deep breath. His head and hands begin to glow with golden light.

“No problem,” the mortal sergeant mutters as he carefully fills the filter of his pot with the almost-black powder. The reminder that other gods aside from ‘his’ could be listening in disturbs him. What sort of trouble continues to linger after all that has happened?

As he screws the pot together and sets it on the flame of the single gas burner, he sees that Dion has finished casting his spell and is taking a chair beside Alma’s. The god’s hand grazes the goddess’, and she takes his hand without apparent thought. They share a look, haunted, but reassuring each other: I am still here with you.

Machado has of course been aware of the attraction the two have had for each other. Most of the cops in the station had been betting on Alma and Sky becoming a couple, as despite a rocky start it was clear how much affection they bore one another, how rapidly they’d become close. But even though he’d been rather hoping that Sky and Alma would end up together, he’d known the pale Sergeant Alma would find herself in the arms of the handsome rake, Gwydion.

Edison believed Sky when he said he was really planning to stay in Three Rats, and circumstances were for some reason forcing Alma to stay, so it would have settled Machado’s mind if those two had become lovers, but it was clear that Dion would win. It was the way they fought. Alma was too comfortable with Sky too quickly, moving from a distrust to a mutual bond, a reliance on one another, the battles suddenly ceasing – but with Dion there was the fighting but also the glances, the dance of attraction and resistance. And Machado had found he couldn’t help liking the ladies’ man, someone who reminded him of himself, but he’d been worried the scoundrel would pack off and leave Alma broken-hearted. Or take her away.

But that worry was gone, especially in the past couple of weeks. Each of the three Dei had taken lead on different missions, and Edison had been along on several of them as support. With all the gang warfare, they’d needed to ignore the lines between Dei and Popula missions many times. Is it still just a Popula mission when you’re up against a gang that outnumbers all the Popula in the ward three to one? Or when they claim to have magical armor that protects them from arrows? And even when it’s clearly a Dei mission, there are often mortal supporters who need to be arrested and processed, too many for the Dei to round up and get back to the station on their own, especially when they have two or three ruffian demigods to control. Having Popula officers along means arrest and imprisonment are choices back on the table, not simply “kill or release.”

And Dion had done a fine job leading. All of them had. He couldn’t believe how smoothly they’d come to work together, with each other and with him and his Popula cops. How could they ever have managed the past months without a combined station of Dei and Popula working as one? And yet this still is far from the norm. Three Rats is an experiment in having mortals and gods in the same station, one of only a handful across the Insula.

So Machado is pleased to see the two of them taking comfort in each other. Office romance…well, at least they’re the same rank, he thinks. And they’ve been restrained so far. Surely they’ll continue to be in public. And now I’m owed fifteen…no, sixteen beers by those who bet Sky would bag her!

With effort, Alma tears her eyes away from Gwydion’s, takes a deep breath, and says, “I don’t think we need to tell you that something very serious has happened in the past few days.”

He looks up from pouring the powerful espresso into tiny cups, mismatched but clearly chosen carefully. “Yeah…I heard some of it, but so far it’s all fog and rumors. Is this the kind of thing you can fill me in all the way?”

“Yes and no,” Alma replies. “Inspector Tuma-Sukai was kidnapped from his apartment four days ago by the necromancer that killed Stathos and his family. She was working with a powerful demon summoner.”

Machado curses under his breath as he spills some of the coffee. He shakes his head and grabs a napkin. “You got her? And got the Inspector back?”

Dion nods and takes over the narrative, as if saving Alma from the exhaustion she is clearly experiencing. “We did. But the battle was nearly lost. We were captured and…” He trails off, his voice rough and haunted. “Things went very wrong. We were lucky to escape.”

Machado sighs and serves them their coffee. “You know…I would’ve come along. I mean, don’t know if I could’ve done anything but…I would’ve.” He rubs his smooth-shaved head as he says this. He was fully prepared to shout something like this at them. It had sounded far more indignant and explosive in his mind.

An expression of bitter remorse mars Alma’s beauty. “The only mortal we took with us was buried beneath a tree today. She would not take no for an answer.”

“You can see for yourself a hint of the condition we were left in,” Dion adds, holding his cup in both hands as if to warm them, though the day is already becoming hot. “And Sky…it will take time to know if he can ever recover.”

Machado pauses in rubbing his bald head at this, looking at them in shock. “You saying he might have to retire? But…he’s Dei! How can a Dei get hurt so bad to have to muster out?”

“There are weapons that can harm even gods,” Alma says, the bitterness in her voice changing to a numb echo of horror. “Weapons that reach past the body, into our souls. Deadly for mortals, torture to us.” She pauses, looking ill, her coffee still untouched. “And he was ruthlessly tortured.”

Machado’s broad shoulders sag. “Is there… What can we do?”

Alma glances at Dion and then the two Dei look at Machado, an agreed-upon moment having been reached. “That is the reason for this conversation,” Dion says. “We are not quite sure what happens next but there will certainly be some sort of punishment awaiting us in the near future, for going into the necromancer’s lair without reporting to the higher command.”

“And until then, the station has to keep running,” Alma says, looking at Machado earnestly. “We are weakened but we can certainly keep working. And we will need your help more than ever in keeping everything on its axis.”

A dozen questions jam in his throat, so that in the end none are asked. He looks from one to the other god. “These are Dei matters,” he says when he can get a word out, “so I won’t ask why you didn’t tell the command. But you know I got your back, as best as a mortal man can. You know every cop in this station does. All I ask is, you let me know if there’s some chance of a counterstrike. These necro-demon lovers – any of them left to take revenge?”

Alma closes those strange eyes and shakes her head. “I strongly suspect they went as far as killing their own thugs to summon demons and power their weapons against us.” She sighs. “The leaders are either dead or captured. We should be safe. As for Sky…he is being taken care of by people we can trust. We will find him all the help we can.”

Machado nods, sorrow subduing his thoughts. But there are practicalities to attend. “So what do I say if some upslope brass sits me down and sweats me?”

“The truth. You did not know what was going on. We never told you anything until it was too late and we were back.” Dion’s tired voice is reasonable. “As you said, these are Dei matters. If they want answers, they can come to us.”

“As for in-house commentary…” Alma opens her eyes as she speaks up again. “You are being told more than anyone other than Gwydion, Somrak, Geryon and I currently know. The Bunnies have an inkling of what happened but they don’t know just how grim things are looking for Sky. And we cannot risk them knowing or following us around to find out where he is. It would be cruel to make them live in fear of what is yet to come. The same goes for the rest of the Popula.”

Machado’s distress deepens. He doesn’t want to lie to them, especially not to his student in capoeira, Kori, but he nods in agreement. “I got it. I guess there’s no way I could visit the Inspector?”

Dion shakes his head in refusal. “For as much as he would deeply appreciate it, the orders are for strict isolation right now.” His voice is compassionate. He clearly knows how much this is affecting the mortal sergeant. “We will keep you apprised, however, of his progress.”

Machado reluctantly nods. He and Inspector Sky had fought side by side, armed with crossbows, to hold back a team of assassins to let Dion and Alma escape with the Bunnies once. When the weather changes, his leg still hurts where it took an arrow. And it hurts, now, that he can’t do anything to help Sky. “Appreciated. And…all that you told me, thank you for that too.”

Alma looks thoughtful. “Edison…” she says, before pausing to drink her coffee.

He feels an electric prickling of skin on his forearms. She has almost never used his first name. It’s a name not at all usual in this ward, and almost nobody but his mother calls him by the name she gave him. Even to his friends, he’s typically called Machado.

“There won’t be any official change in command until the higher powers have their say,” she continues, “but I think we can live well without an official leader. We all know our jobs. And perhaps we can work out some sort of daily schedule with you in charge of a shift with just a Dei on call?”

He nods. “I used to run this whole place,” he points out, matter-of-factly. “Well, the smaller station before we moved. Anyway, I think we can manage, no problem.” He hesitates before asking, “Uh, how long you think it’ll take for you to get back to a hundred percent?”

“A couple of decades, maybe? Maybe more?” Alma forces herself into a small smile at Machado’s alarmed expression. “We can manage a good eighty percent right now, I think. Certainly enough so we don’t put anyone at risk. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to belittle your leadership skills or experience.”

“Oh no, no offense taken. I just meant, I can manage. Unless, you know, demons attack again.” He stands and gathers their cups. “You want more? Though you look like all the coffee in the world ain’t gonna keep you up much longer.”

“And we still have our reports to write,” Dion sighs.

“Yes…” Alma locks eyes with Machado’s. “Thank you. For listening and understanding. And for your discretion. We are blessed to have you as a friend.”

He blinks and reflexively reaches up to rub his head at that after setting down the cups and saucers next to his tiny office sink. He feels his cheeks burn at her words. “Yeah well, same here, you know? And forget about the paperwork for now, eh? Go rest. I’ll bang on your door if we need you for an emergency.”

He goes to open the door for them as they stand.

“I guess…paperwork can stand to wait a few hours,” Dion notes. He puts a hand on Machado’s rock-solid bowling-ball of a shoulder and looks him in the eye. “Thank you.”

Machado smiles, embarrassed. He remembers clashing with these gods early on. He’d been sensitive about the way his command had suddenly been put under these immortal beings, how everything had changed. “Thank you. Without you guys…we’d be working for the Dukaines. Or dead.”

Dion returns his smile, squeezing his shoulder before exiting the office. He feels a cool touch on his upper back, and he turns to find Alma giving him a gentle embrace. Again he feels a thrill of shock. Her ethereal beauty would make any man’s heart race, but also to be held, however briefly, by a goddess of death…

Her cheek touches his forehead – it is easy for him to forget how much taller she is than he, though she is the same height as Dion – and he muses that having her there at the end to see his soul off would be the best anyone could hope for. Then she is gone, following Dion, off to rest and to recover, and Machado is left alone with thoughts of loss and change and an uncertain future.

Ch6.100 Trust

The day has been long. The night, longer. Nighttime is always long in Three Rats, where the massive peak of the Insula looms and blocks the sun for over half of the day’s twenty-four hours, but this night is different. It is not hour and moonlight that bring darkness to the ward, to the world in general. It is grief. Fear. Pain. Constant, unyielding pain, haunting the soul, biting deep beyond flesh, beyond bone. Pain that brings darkness to every thought, an overall difficulty to feed and keep a single positive thought. It steals smile and laughter, light and hope. And to three gods in particular, it rings too close, too loud. And too exhausting.

Dion, Alma and Somrak walk in heavy silence down a hallway indicated to them by Doria. Their rooms are ready, she has told them, and they will be located at the end of this corridor lined with stalagmites, some of which phosphoresce in the gloom of the grotto, lending it a greenish twilight of lichens and geckos and watery reflections from the small pools carved into the walls by condensation and time. Though tired and feeling the whole of his body crying for rest after being made to heal from its deep wounds at incredible speed by Lyria’s power, Dion supports Alma as they walk. Her legs are still not fully responsive, he has already noticed, and something else seems wrong for he has had to grab and pull her toward him twice already, to prevent her from walking into a wall and from hitting her foot against a stalagmite. He worries about what is going on. Perhaps her eyes are not functioning properly or her balance is off. Or perhaps, a terrified little part of him wonders, there are still traces of Nua inside his beloved, trying to make Alma hurt herself.

She holds onto his arm as they enter the chamber that Doria told them to expect, a relatively small room, with five doors opening into it, in addition to the hallway they have just left. In the center of the chamber, a circle of colorful pillows piled chaotically like shells cast ashore by the surf makes for a comfortable sitting area around a suspended table that is no more than a large circular brass tray suspended by four fine chains from the tip of a stalactite that hangs from the ceiling and stretches down to head height. Laid out on the table, are Alma’s sword, her curved dragon-tooth daggers, Saira’s crossbow and Dion’s own little blade, the sgian-dubh dagger given to him by Sky for Year’s End. The magic god finds himself surprised to see it there, considering that all of his other weapons and physical spell elements have disappeared in Margrave’s pocket universe. He feels some momentary relief at not having been particularly attached to any of the items he lost, though the loss of them still stings a little, if only for whose fault it was that they are gone.

The feeling of Alma’s hand squeezing his arm a little tighter than before makes him look at the goddess to see her stiffening, eyes clearly focused on the sword more than they have focused on any other object so far. Fear in her expression. Horror. He places his free hand over hers, reassuring.

“I was worried, that the binding had been partly completed,” Somrak says from a couple of steps to the right of them, his voice quiet, eyes fixed on Alma and filled with concern for her reaction. “I didn’t know what might happen if we left it behind then, but it didn’t seem like a good idea.”

Alma is silent for a moment before replying, “Thank you.” She does not look grateful at all, however, cringing away from the sword as if it might jump off the table of its own accord and attack her.

Shifting slightly to hold her hand and free his arm so it can curl around the goddess, Dion pulls her closer. She leans against him for comfort, her hand reaching to touch his chest, and the memory of Nua’s whip cutting through his flesh on the exact same spot that Alma is now touching flares a momentary stint of doubt that makes him stiffen instinctively. He bites it back, however, forcing himself to believe that Nua is gone, to relax under his lover’s touch, and to hold her as soothingly as he can. To distract his own thoughts, he turns to Somrak and asks, “Somrak…what is a Tragas?”

Silence is his only answer for a moment. Then, “Soul binders… Makers of artifacts from the souls of gods,” Somrak replies, voice grim and dry. “They were wiped out, about a century ago, and all knowledge of them expunged.”

“Then how do you know of them?” Dion insists. “Were you involved in their case?”

The fire god sighs, looking very much as if he would rather have his arms and legs broken than answer the question. Still, he answers. “You could say that. I was…a lackey of theirs. Muscle. It was a job. I was running from my family. When I learned what they were doing I turned on them, became the Guardia’s spy. Commander recruited me from that.”

Nestled in Dion’s arms, Alma looks pained as Somrak tells his story. Dion can only imagine how close the empathy the goddess might feel toward anyone subjected to such a cruel fate is. “Nua must have learned the magic in Hell. Or even before she was killed. My poor cousin…”

He strokes her side, his heart plunging for a moment at the thought of her lost and maddened, imprisoned in her own sword, forever away from him.

“Her soul can be released,” Somrak says. “But it will be permanently damaged.” His voice is flat and somber as he adds, half to himself. “Hell has good reason to spread the knowledge. Mortals armed with weapons that can kill gods. And using them to make even more such weapons and armor and whatever else. Once that snowball rolls enough, it would be unstoppable. Full-on war for supremacy.”

“What is wrong with you, Somrak?” Alma snaps suddenly, pulling away from Dion to glare at the fire god. “Haven’t we suffered enough for one day? Must you be making things grimmer with thoughts like that?” Her voice breaks, the words catching in her throat. “I was…almost…”

Somrak looks down, ashamed and subdued but still he insists on getting his point across. “You weren’t though. And we stopped it getting out into the world. You captured her. All this…it wasn’t just rescuing Sky. Remember that.” He looks up again only to find Alma turning her eyes from him, Dion unable to give him his agreement. The pain is too fresh to consider the good of the world at the moment or to find a silver lining in the veritable earthquake that was Nua. The sight of them makes the fire god exhale and shake his head before he takes the initiative of peeking into one of the rooms opening into the chamber. “Pretty nice for a cave…”

“Forgive me,” Alma’s voice is soft as she turns her head to face Somrak’s back. The fire god faces her at the sound of her words. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just… The world is too much to consider right now.” She pauses. “I think I can relieve Nasheena of her pain, at least.”

Somrak looks at her, his eyes glancing down, Dion notices, to where the magic god’s hand still rests on her side. Is that jealousy that flashes through Somrak’s face? Or just sadness? “Just be careful. She is…dangerous, now.” He looks away, toward the table, pointing at the daggers. “Sky had that one in his hand…” He looks back at them and Dion can see now, clearly, beyond the coolness of the hard-beaten agent and the cynicism of the fighter, just how disturbed and damaged Somrak truly is. “I’m sorry. I should just…I’m saying stupid things.”

“We have all been through too much,” Dion replies, empathizing with the fire god. “You don’t need to be sorry, Somrak.”

“We should take care of each other,” Alma agrees. “Things will not be easy. And you two…”

She trails off, looking from Dion to Somrak. Her eyes fill with grief, shining with a thin film of water that threatens to spill into tears. Of anyone Dion knows, she is the one most capable of seeing the damage inflicted on them, on Sky, on herself. They cannot hide it from her nor deceive her in regards to the depth of their transcendental wounds. Even more than Dion himself can have a notion of how much damage he has sustained, she can see it without even wishing to do so. And whatever she sees is clearly paining her beyond words. He wishes he could somehow reassure her but all he can do is offer her the proximity of his embrace.

“He…picked you both up so carefully,” Somrak half mumbles. “And at the portal, when we couldn’t open it, he put you down like a mother laying down sleeping children. And he turned to fight…”

“Fight what?” Dion asks.

But Somrak offers only a single word by way of answer: “Hell.”

For a moment, Dion thinks about pushing for more details. He can barely remember all that happened after he was freed from the mana-nullifying shackles and a lot more seems to have happened after he lost conscience. But something in the way Somrak shudders almost imperceptibly, diverting his eyes and taking a shaking, half-choked breath, makes him change his mind.

“I brought you there.” Somrak’s voice is nearly imperceptible. “All I could think was how it was all… How you were helpless and I was the one who brought you.”

The stiffening of Alma’s body against Dion’s makes him glance toward the goddess to see her tilting her head up, eyes shut tightly for a moment before opening again and blinking rapidly against tears. “We walked in by our own feet,” she says quietly before looking back at Somrak. “But please…no more of this tonight.”

The pleading tone of her voice seems to finally convince the fire god to quit the grim what ifs and let the issue fall for the moment. “Of course. I’ll just go to bed.”

He turns to walk into his room. With a quick glance at Dion that could very well contend with the most eloquent of speeches, Alma pulls away from him to move closer to Somrak. Dion offers no resistance. He himself is feeling a sharp note of sorrow and empathy for the fire god, on whose shoulders hangs the weight of the decision of walking into Margrave’s lair without help from the higher powers and the burden of guilt for the pain, the trauma and the loss that has befallen them all. Somrak is surprised to find Alma by his side, his face freezing, wide-eyed, at the reaching of her arms to wrap around him. But only for a moment. He holds her in return, tight and silent but for a ragged inhalation catching in his throat.

And with a look at Dion through watery eyes, the fire god reaches out, grabbing him and pulling him closer with a muttered joke of, “Yeah, you’re not getting away without a hug too, Mister Demon Blaster.”

Dion has no strength to chuckle, no reason to smile, but he knows Somrak expects nothing of the sort. Humor is merely a subterfuge to avoid the falling apart that will inevitably have to happen sooner or later. The magic god puts his arms around both Somrak and Alma, warmly, sharing in the short moment of solace.

Until eventually, it ends.

“Rest, Somrak,” Alma says, breaking away from the embrace. “May there be no dreams tonight.”

“I suspect there won’t be,” Somrak replies, likewise letting them go. “You two rest as well. Start recovering.”

And with that, Somrak disappears into his chosen room, the door closing behind him. Dion and Alma find themselves alone with each other and with the weapons laid out on the table like a macabre memorial to a horrible day. The sword, in particular, seems to capture Alma’s attention, and she stares at it with distant, fearful eyes.

Dion hesitates for a moment, not knowing what to say, then reaches to touch her hair, running his fingers through the silver-white locks. “It’s over now. It’s still just a sword.”

“It’s just hovering there all by itself,” Alma half mumbles.

Dion raises an eyebrow at the words. “It is lying on a table, surrounded by your daggers, mine, and Saira’s crossbow. Do you not see those?”

She shakes her head, her voice a whimper. “But I can see it. And I don’t know what it means.”

Dion holds her closely, moving to block her view of the sword. “Shhh… Maybe it’s just an after effect. Maybe it will go away. Maybe your eyes just need a rest.”

She nods against his shoulder. “I am stuck soul-scrying. I miss the old days, when I could just see normally and scrying took effort. Things were much less confusing.”

“I can’t say I don’t miss those beautiful blue eyes you had,” Dion concedes. “But maybe this also means your spheres weren’t damaged.” He kisses her ear, speaking softly. “Do you want me to put the weapons in some other room for now?”

Alma looks at him, and nods. “I just… I can’t stand to see them.”

“I understand. I’m not really enjoying looking at them. Give me a minute.” He releases her and walks toward the table. With a little bit of balancing and awkward gymnastics, he is able to pick up all of the weapons and carry them into the room just beside Somrak’s. It takes him less than a minute to lay them, without much ceremony, on the bed and, with a hesitant, worrying look at Alma’s sword, return to the chamber where the goddess awaits him.

“There, all–”

The words die in his throat. For just as he steps into the chamber, two figures appear out of thin air and surround Alma, shielding her from his sight. One dark as the shadows of a moonless night, the other glowing with a soft, strangely distant light, both cloaked and hooded, their faces and bodies hidden from Dion’s sight, they seem to surprise Alma as much as they do Dion, for he hears her gasp just before she disappears between them.

Though there is nothing Hellish about these newcomers, Dion’s aura flares immediately, his sphere screaming for bloody murder against anyone who might dare attack them at their weakest, his mind curling around spells while his muscles open usually collapsed blood vessels to allow for stronger, faster movement. The air becomes instantly charged with the light and scents of his divine power, tasting of salt and iron…and Hell.

The dark hooded figure pulls away from Alma immediately to look at Dion from the depths of its shadowy cloak. Dion cannot see its eyes nor its hands or feet. Just shadow, darkening now and yet glimmering against the natural twilight of the chamber. Its aura flares in a restrained warning that is nonetheless indicative of older and greater power than Dion’s as the cloak opens to reveal an incorporeal hand, little more than the cut-out of a hand appearing in stark contrast against the world around it.

And from behind it, Alma’s reassuring voice rings with an edge of worry. “Gwydion, no. It’s all right. They are my brothers.”

At her words, the dark figure removes its hood to reveal a face that is just as immaterial as its hand. It seems to be completely made of shadows, some lighter, some darker, some narrow and stark, defining the lines of cheekbones and lips, some soft where what should be hair is nothing but a blurry, fading collection of greyish motes. Still, somehow the whole ensemble manages to convey beauty and friendliness, much like the voice attached to it. “Sorry to startle you. I am Imset and that is Luminus.” He points at the glowing hooded figure hovering behind Alma. “We’re Almy’s biggest brothers. You have quite an aura there.”

Understanding takes a moment to settle in. Alma’s brothers. Friendly brothers. Not a threat.

Not a threat…

Slowly, with much effort, Dion brings his aura under control, the golden light fading from his eyes, the sense of impending attack fading away. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, shuddering as he releases the last of his energy and says, “My apologies. We are all a little unsettled.”

As if alerted by Dion’s previous display of power, Somrak opens his bedroom door to look outside, standing at the threshold and looking from the two brothers to Alma to Dion, silently, expectantly. His relaxed frame could very well mean anything from readiness to fight to a simple inquiry for an explanation – and perhaps a hint of disappointment at not having walked straight into a fight.

Possibly trying to prevent any further misunderstandings, Alma speaks up, looking toward her brothers. “Immy, Lum, these are Gwydion, my partner, and Somrak, both of the Guarda Dei.” She looks reassuringly at both Somrak and Dion. “My brothers, Imset and Luminus. The darkness and light at the end of life. Eldest of my father’s sons.”

The magic god cannot help but feel a soft flare of warmth at the way she so easily introduces him as her partner after two months of near-secret romance. For a moment, a possessive instinct makes him want to throw his arms around her and hold her closely in a show of property. But the rational side of him wins over, among other things reasoning that such a move would not sit well with his beloved’s older brothers, and instead finds some comfort in falling into the conventional expectations of politesse. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.”

In reply, the god now identified as Luminus removes his hood to reveal a face in every way similar to Imset’s, his brother, with the simple difference that where the latter is made of dozens of shades of darkness and shadow, the former seems to be made entirely of different tones of light, sometimes vapoury, sometimes almost solid. The facial features are an almost exact copy between the twins, however, and Luminus’ kindness shows through as he nods wordlessly at both Dion and Somrak, who return the greeting in kind.

“Mother told me you were watching over the Bunnies,” Alma says, speaking to Imset. “Has she dismissed you?”

“Yes. No dangers loom that we can sense,” her brother replies. “The poor kids were on edge at the demon attack but they’re bright. They bounce back quickly. Of course, the news had them all distraught but they seem to have calmed down now. Lyria is taking care of them.” Suddenly, impulsively, he embraces Alma again. Taller than his sister, and therefore than both Dion and Somrak, he seems to wrap her in his shadows as he leans to gently hold her. “And we just had to come check on you. Mel told us the gist of things. Oh sister… You look like your soul has been put through the grinder and pulled out the other side by a rabid dog.”

“That’s very much how it feels,” Alma replies, lost somewhere within Imset’s cloak.

Pulling away from her just enough to straighten and turn slightly, Imset looks at Somrak and then at Dion. “And not just yours either.”

The dawning realization that these gods, just like Alma, can see straight through the body and into the soul has Dion feeling uncomfortable. It is a silly thing that he should not have assumed before that any of the Death clan can gaze easily into his innermost core without so much as asking or needing permission, but still the mention of it makes the intrusion impossible to ignore. If he were completely naked, he would not feel any more ill-at-ease than he does now at being reminded that eyes other than Alma’s are gazing at the most intimate part of him.

And perhaps Somrak shares in the same discomfort, because he breaks his silence to say only, “Nice to meet you both. I’ll let you catch up with family.”

Imset looks dismayed for a moment at the sight of Somrak turning and disappearing back into his room. “Oh, I hope I didn’t offend him somehow.”

“He has just been through a great deal,” Alma replies. “I’m sure it was nothing you said.”

Imset nods, still looking at Somrak’s bedroom door. “I hope not. Your children had some very good things to say about him.” He turns to look at Dion. “And about you as well. They were worried about you. And they send their love.”

“We were worried about them too,” Dion replies. “It’s good to know they had friendly faces with them in a time of danger.”

“Yes. Thank you, Immy,” Alma adds, looking at both her brothers. “Lum.”

Imset strokes Alma’s head, the affection binding them clear in the gesture. His voice is soft and pleading when he says, “But Almy, this is no place for you. Not in that condition. Let us take you to our place. Not Father’s home, I know you wouldn’t want to go there. Our own. In the First Ring. Just to rest awhile.”

As if to reinforce Imset’s invitation, Luminus touches Alma’s shoulder, making the goddess look back at him. He hasn’t spoken a single word yet, Dion realizes, nor does Alma seem to find this strange. The light-spawn god seems to communicate solely by visual cues, exuding a quiet, serene tolerance while Imset, chatty and more impulsive, takes the reigns of conversation. An interesting dynamic for a set of twins.

Alma looks at both of them sadly and shakes her head before gently releasing herself from their touch and taking the few steps separating her from Dion. Reaching to take his hand, which the god offers her immediately, she leans against his shoulder. “No, Immy. I appreciate the offer but…I’m where I need to be.”

Squeezing her hand, Dion adds, “Thank you for that message from the Bunnies. It is deeply appreciated. But…” He looks at her, almost certainly of what she will say.

“We just need a few hours of nothing much happening to breathe deeply and prepare for what comes next,” she tells her brothers. “We have been away from our friends and family for long enough.”

Imset looks at the two of them, his expression wavering with uncertainty until Luminus’ hand touches his shoulder, making the darker twin turn his head to exchange a meaningful look with his brother. A whole conversation seems to flash, unspoken, between the two before Imset turns to face Alma again. “Well… I understand. Of course, it was just for a breath of fresh air. You are our little sister; of course we are going to worry. No matter how big and strong you get.”

And with that, Imset hovers closer to his sister, to place a shadowy hand on Alma’s cheek. Near him for the first time, Dion can now feel the coolness that Imset emanates, a shared feature of the death gods he knows. “If you need anything, just call. Don’t let Mel have all the fun,” the shadow god says before pressing an immaterial cheek against his sister’s. Dion has to strain to make out the words Imset whispers in Alma’s ear. “They are amazing. We’ll definitely come by for a visit one of these days and check on all of you.”

“You’ll be welcome anytime you decide to do so,” Alma replies, her lower lip trembling slightly.

With a kiss to her cheek and a whisper of “My brave little sister…” Imset pulls away and looks at Dion. “If anything happens that you can’t or don’t know how to deal with, call us. We’ll come. And…take care of her, please.”

Dion nods his assent, his reply a solemn oath. “I will.” Releasing Alma’s hand to drape his arm around her back, he adds. “Thank you. I hope we can get to know one another better, when things are…”

He trails off, words evading him. All he can do is gesture vaguely, helplessly with his free hand, the pain in his soul claiming too much of his attention, too much of his focus to allow for extensive conversation. He grimaces at a sudden flare of undeniable agony, hoping Imset will not interpret it as offensive.

The god smiles kindly at him, however. “You mean, not so strange?” He shrugs and puts a friendly hand on Dion’s shoulder. “I do hope I get to know the infamous Gwydion a bit better next time.”

The mention of his so-called fame makes Dion grimace. “I hope my fame is all you have against me.”

For a moment, Imset seems confused and Dion fears the worst. But soon, Imset is grinning and turning to Alma. “Oh, I don’t know. Do I have anything against him?”

The goddess manages a smile that is clearly strained, even though the look of affection she bestows on Dion is sincere and warm. She puts both of her arms around him, saying, “No… You love him.”

The words are soft, tender. Dion can’t help but hold her closer and reach to cup her cheek, bringing her head closer so he can kiss her temple before resting his head against hers. It is still a strange sensation to be so openly affectionate in the presence of others but the truth is that the little display seems to leave Imset immensely pleased. “Yes, I thought so,” the death god says, looking at Dion with approval. “Anyway, welcome to the family if no one else has had the chance to say it.”

Dion nods a thank you at him, letting Alma pull away for a moment to accept a kiss to the forehead from Luminus. The light god, whose presence is just as cool in spite of his gentle glow, touches Dion’s arm and smiles at him just as kindly as Imset did, in a way that seems to say, “It will be all right.”

Dion touches Luminus’ arm in return, half surprised to feel solidity against his fingertips. Although at first he was unsure about these two new acquaintances – indeed, he was on the verge of attempting to obliterate them when they took him by surprise – now he does long to make his words truth, and get to know them well. Unlike Melinor, for whom Dion is beginning to develop a sort of quiet admiration but whose blunt and grim ways are unwelcoming of closer contact, Luminus and Imset are sincere and kind in their love for their sister as well as their approach to people. If they are truly the embodiment of the sensations found at the end of life, then they are also the proof of that most idiosyncratic of beliefs of mortals: that death can be kind.

Even though it might not have the best timing. With great effort, he summons a smile for them both, straining to ignore the spiritual pain that slashes through him, echoes of the whipping he took mere hours ago. Thankfully, the twins do not force him to keep it on for long, vanishing instead with a final wave of their hands.

Finally alone…

Alma turns to look at him apologetically. “I’m sorry… They are very friendly but… they never really mastered the art of announcing themselves first.”

“I’m glad to have met them,” Dion replies, shaking his head. “I’m sorry for my initial reaction. For a moment I thought that things were not really over.”

“I know,” Alma breathes, reaching to take his hand. “Let us get to bed. Before the rest of the world decides to drop by for a visit.”

The suggestion is very much music to Dion’s ears. He cannot think of anything he wants more than to lie down and forget the world exists until the morning forces him awake. He would gratefully sleep for a month if he were allowed the luxury. Holding Alma’s hand, he guides her into one of the vacant rooms, making sure she does not stub her toes, barefoot as they both are, or her arms anywhere on their way to the bed. She sits but does not lie down, however, instead looking at him with worry in her eyes.

“Listen, I…” she starts but trails off. Looking down, she takes a deep breath before saying, “I’ll leave you alone if you need time. After what you’ve been through, I would understand.”

His eyes widen in shock at the offer. “No! No, I don’t want to be alone,” he replies, sitting beside her on the bed. “Maybe, with you beside me, I can sleep. I know that if you weren’t, I… I almost…” He breaks off and puts his arms around her, holding her tightly, not willing to put what almost happened, how very close he came to losing her, into words. “I need you to stay. I need you to stay and just be yourself. Help me forget that horrible smile on your lips.”

And yet the flash of fear of hearing Nua’s satiric voice reply to his plea makes his body freeze, the memory of her smile appearing before his eyes as if summoned by his words. It takes him the whole of his self-control not to pull away.

“I saw it…” Alma’s voice is barely above a breath as she holds him back just as tightly. “Not all of it. I saw her hurting you. And I was so…helpless.” She hides her face against his bare shoulder and he can feel the wetness there, of her tears rolling down his skin. “I couldn’t do anything, I was trapped in that other body. She laughed when she showed me. All she had done. To you and Somrak and Sky and – She was going to steal you all from me.”

By the end of it, she is sobbing, her body shaking with the convulsions of deep, choking crying. He holds her, letting her cry, feeling his own eyes well up with tears. Knowing her in pain, the sight and sound of her suffering ringing against his senses, is nearly unbearable. And still, it too is proof that she is no impostor.

His cheek against hers, he whispers soothing words in her ear. “You are here, with me. We are together. This is no dream, no nightmare. She’ll have the fate she deserves and we will find our way out of all this grief.”

He can barely sound convincing to his own ears but Alma still nods against his shoulder. “I just want to stop crying. I’m usually not one for crying.”

“I’d rather have you crying than silent,” Dion says, stroking her hair. “Come on, lie down now.”

She pulls away a little and nods again. Dion rises to allow her to pull her legs up onto the bed, watching as she slips under the pale green linen sheets, fully dressed, and out of reflex drapes her arms protectively around herself as if she were cold. He follows, lying down, carefully moving one arm so it slips under her neck, the other wrapping over her side, both pulling her closer to him until their bodies lie full length against each other.

She resists weakly at first but finally snuggles in his embrace, looking a question at him. “How…?” Her voice is wet with the tears that still run down her face. “How can you still hold me after all that? The things this body has done to you – I feel so…so repulsive in it!”

She tries to roll away from him, her hands reaching to cover her face in shame. He just tightens his hold of her, silent for a moment. How can he still hold her after all that? But then, how can he not? When she is solace and warmth and love to him? How painful would it be to lie in bed alone tonight, dreaming of horrible things, without the touch of his beloved, her scent in his nostrils like a balm to the mind? When even as memories of his torture spark, the body that caused him pain also brings him relief?

“I knew all along that it wasn’t you,” he says eventually. “I didn’t want to believe it at first and then I thought…I hoped you were still in there…somewhere. But then she whipped me and I knew–” His voice catches, his eyes start feeling wet. “I knew you weren’t. You would never allow her to do something like that. And I thought…” He holds her tighter, tears rolling down his eyes in a steady stream as he plunges his nose in her hair. “I don’t want to say it. I never want to feel so hopeless again.”

Somehow, she manages to wriggle one hand up through the space between their bodies, to cup his cheek. “I’m here. I promise you, it’s just me now.” She pulls away a little to kiss the bridge of his nose, her head tilting to bring her lips against his.

And it is only when they brush his lips that Melinor’s warning rings in Dion’s ears, making him pull away from her at the last moment. “Your brother warned me… Said it might interfere with your soul reconnecting with your body.”

She pauses, looking at him for a moment. He can see her expression hardening as if coming to a decision. “I risked the Council’s wrath for a night with you. I will risk losing myself in you for a kiss. I need you.”

He gazes into her eyes, torn. He needs her too. So badly. And though he fears any negative consequences, her proximity, his pain, the way his spirit has been crushed and his heart broken too many times today, all of it makes him long for her more than fear can keep him away. He swallows his concerns, leans forward and kisses her, basking in the synchrony of their movements, relief spreading as their essences blossom in search of each other. The feel of her is more restrained now, more contained in the physical limits of her body, but still the energy is there, her peace and coolness are there greeting his essence as it whimpers with longing and curls itself against her. For a moment, he is able to forget the cruel expression of Nua wearing Alma’s face as she whips him. For a moment, he can just inhabit that space of relief from care. For a moment.

Such a bittersweet moment… He lays his cheek against hers, his lips whispering of their own accord, “It’s you. It’s you. All of it. It’s all there.”

The words tumble forth, unconnected to conscious thought. Without knowing how, he feels his face drenched, his body jerk with deep, painful sobs. He holds her for dear life, crying as he doesn’t remember crying in over a century, like a child suddenly alone in the world. Like a broken man, robbed of his heart’s desire. He hates himself for crying, even as the tears grown heavier with the collected pain of decades, with all those other times when he should have cried, would have cried, if only he were this free to weep.

Her hand running softly through his hair is barely above a background sensation as he cries himself into a gentle lull. “Remember the first time we kissed?” she asks as he begins to recover control over himself. “Back at Math’s?”

He nods. How he could he not remember? “I remember every kiss. I cherish them all. Oh, Alma, I love you. I love you so much and I was going to let it all be taken away by Hell without ever letting you know it.”

“I already knew it, my love,” she whispers softly. “You did let me know. In so many little ways. And that day you were poisoned… When you were feverish and delirious, of all the things you could have said, you said I was the most important thing in the world to you. How could I not know?”

He pulls away to look at her, shocked at himself for the words he does not remember speaking. But he is grateful for those words. For what they meant to her. To them. He locks eyes with her, searing and serious, forcing himself to say what he has never said sincerely enough, knowingly enough, never for the right reasons or with the right meaning. “I love you.”

His heart stops beating for a moment, his lungs forget to breathe. He hangs, vulnerable, in silent fear, awaiting her reply. The reply he knows she will give but which he fears with terror might be different. Her eyes soften, she smiles a small smile that is an overwhelming relief for being so much one of her own. Her lips part with a heavenly breath of, “And I you.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Morning underground. In this cave system, there are no windows letting in the light, no birds singing. But a colony of bats does occupy some of the unused chambers, kept from the others by a simple spell, renewed monthly by the half-naiad Doria, that makes them feel uneasy in the ones that she and Nevieve occupy and make use of, simply to prevent their ammoniac droppings from becoming a problem. And so the rush of their ingress, returning from their hunt of moths and mosquitos, accompanied by chirps so high-pitched that only the deepest can be heard, serves as notification that the sun is rising.

Sky, unsleeping, opens his eyes. He listens as Doria, priestess to the Oracle, awakens from half-submerged slumber in a pool and rises, dripping, into the echoing peace of the tunnels and caverns. She goes to a chamber that must be, from the sound of thin metal ringing against stone surface, a kitchen. Ah, there is the sound of water filling a kettle, the flow singing within the hollow steel belly.

His body, still in its hateful devil form, is curled up on blankets laid down for him by Doria last night, before he returned from the connected chamber, Sky’s ‘rage room,’ as he thinks of it, a small cave which Nevieve has said Sky can freely use to attack the stone walls, venting his fury at the torture inflicted on him and his friends. For so long, Sky has controlled his emotions, fighting to keep from revealing what he is. Now he cannot control them for long. It is a process that seemed to begin when he came to Three Rats. He had built walls to keep from getting too close to anyone, but those walls have fallen. Rage, tenderness, love – all of these have blossomed in him like flowers in a desert that has suddenly received a heavy downpour.

Somrak is sleeping against him, using him like a large cushion. When Somrak came in scant hours ago, Sky’s old partner did not speak. He just lay down quietly and soon was asleep. Sky had said nothing as well. He didn’t know what to say. Somrak had been his keeper, potentially his executioner for four decades. Despite a few moments of kindness and shared pain, Somrak had never made such a tender gesture. He had never fallen asleep against Sky even in the devil’s human form, and here he was, curling up against him – after risking everything, even his soul, to rescue him. Sky was and is moved far beyond anywhere words can hope to reach. But he moved a wing to cover Somrak. The fire god seems to have spent his energies so much that he is barely able to keep himself warm.

He hears the voices of Alma and Dion talking quietly in the tunnel leading to this chamber. Sky resists the urge to flee into the shadows, and the urge to call shadows around himself, to hide. He considers this shape to be vile, monstrous. That those he loves will see him like this, have to endure his filthy presence – but there is Somrak, exhausted. How could he wake him?

And so when the Sergeants enter, the see Sky, frozen like a cat-lover with a kitten asleep on his lap, helpless and immobilized. Alma almost laughs, but then looks to Dion, whose forearm muscles tighten as he squeezes her hand. Dion’s face is momentarily that of a mongoose facing a deadly cobra, his hair rising like hackles, his aura almost imperceptibly flaring – but Sky can feel it, the aura of the Devil Hammer, like heat beating against him, the harsh palpable impact of a blazing sun pounding a night animal stranded in the open desert.

Alma touches Dion’s flexed forearm, soothing him, while Sky fights his body’s instinctive reaction to prepare for a deadly duel. His body must shift enough for Somrak to feel, however, because the fire god mutters loudly, as if talking in his sleep, “Can we just accept things are going to be awkward for a little while and then move on?” Somrak sits up and stretches lazily, then scratches his smooth-muscled belly. “If you guys can’t find your way back to being the friends you were, I am going to be really pissed.”

“If there is still a place for anger left in you, then you are the luckiest of us four,” Alma says, her voice filled to the brim with sorrow. “I would rather be angry. Then I wouldn’t feel exhausted. Or numb.” She shakes her head. “This will take a miracle to fix with the higher powers. Weeks, even months of keeping the Bunnies away from here. Who do we call to help? Who will come if we call?” She breathes deeply. “Accepting the reality before my eyes is the least of my problems, Somrak.”

He looks at her for a moment, her sad tone wiping away his defensive sarcasm. “I’ll report back to the Commander after we make our visit to the station, and the bar. I’ll make it clear that I ordered you two not to call for backup because of possible Whisper agents. He’ll know the truth. Anyway, assuming I still have a job, I’ll suss out his plans on what to do about Sky. If he orders me to…you know…I’ll come here and take Sky off the Insula.” He turns his head to look at Sky’s wolfish face. “I’m not going to be your executioner. If it comes to that, we’ll go renegade together. Pretty sure the Commander will give me time to make that happen.”

Dion shakes his head as if trying to banish the divine sphere that has so recently awakened within him. “What is it with you off-blues and your dreams of fleeing the Insula? I don’t think we will be able to avoid the Council taking interest in what happened. Ultimately, it may not be the Commander’s decision at all. And considering who is in charge of him and the Guardia…” He seems reluctant to say it out loud, but they are all aware that Dion’s uncle is the Archon Math, who holds the Guardia within his purview. “Anyway, you will not bear the consequences of our choices alone, Somrak. Whatever punishment comes, we’ll all endure our share.”

“Yes. Besides, I think I already gave my confession to Fencer yesterday,” Alma adds. “Whatever cards we have left to play, now is the time to play them.” She produces a small, round stone that seems to pulse with malevolence, the soulstone that serves as Nua’s prison. “This one is really just a conversation starter, I’m afraid.”

Somrak looks at it as if it were a highly poisonous spider. “The things she knows, though. Soul bombs and Tragas binding techniques. History. Who escaped the necromancer pogrom, and whether they have descendants. It’ll be worth a great deal.”

“She is…damaged.” Alma says quietly. “I wanted her gone. I don’t know what condition she’ll be in.” She puts the stone away in a pocket. “But I guess they don’t need to know that.”

Sky finally brings himself to speak up. His voice rumbles, “She is insane. If she were not so dangerous, she would be an object of pity. She will never cooperate with the Death Clan willingly. Perhaps they will find subtler means useful. A virtual environment…”

“Ah, found your voice after all that roaring,” Somrak says. “I’ll pass on the suggestion.” To Alma and Dion, he says, “Sometimes prisoners are interrogated by putting them in a kind of pocket-universe of the mind, to make them comfortable, trick them into giving up info…anyway, doesn’t matter now.” He shakes his head and stands. “I should get to that. I can skip the station. I’ll be in contact when I can.” He pats Sky on the flank.

Alma steps forward and puts a hand against Somrak’s bare chest. “We have to return to the station,” she insists. “If you’re not with us, the Bunnies will think you are dead as well.”

Somrak grimaces. “You really think they’re going to want to see me, ever again? I got Saira killed. I nearly got all of–”

“That is not…your fault,” Sky growls, pausing at a flash of pain. “It is mine, more than anyone here. They will want to see you. Take time with them.”

“They are worried about us all,” Dion points out, voice strained. “The more people they can see and make sure are in one piece, the fewer uncomfortable questions we’ll have to answer. And if we are going to be playing the blame game, I’d rather put my money on the psychopaths who tortured us in the first place.”

Somrak sighs, surrendering. “All right, I’ll go with you.” He looks at Sky. “Still can’t change back, partner?”

The devil shakes his head no. “I have tried. I am trying right now. The whip…maybe other things, too, have maimed me. I cannot transform.”

Yet,” Alma states as unchallengeable fact. “It will take time to heal. But we’ll manage. Somehow.” She says it as if force of will alone can make it happen. “We will all heal.”

Sky looks at her, trying to summon the words that come so unwillingly in this form. With this devil’s brain, malice is the default, and being a friend requires struggle. “The things I said before, my feelings for all of you, for the Bunnies…none of that was a lie. I have lived a lie for so long, my only desire now is to be truthful with all of you, in every matter. I…think I can regain control over my shape. I will do all I can.”

“Good,” Alma replies after a moment, reaching out to touch one of his backswept horns. “I’ll ask Nevieve for advice on anyone we can call on. And I still have one card left to play. We’ll get you the time you need…I hope. But for now, we must go.”

“We’ll do all we can to make things right.” Dion assures him. His earlier aggression is gone, but he seems tense, still.

Sky can tell that Dion, with his sphere pushing him to attack any scion of Hell, will need time to learn to accept what Sky is, if he ever can. The devil rises to his haunches, tail curled around his legs. “I could not hope to find better friends. I do not deserve you, but I shall strive always to be worthy of you.” He looks at Alma. “Yesterday, I pulled away at first. I was afraid that I would hurt you. But I would never hurt you.”

Alma’s hand moves down the horn to rest on top of Sky’s massive head. “I know. And if it still happened to be her in my body, I could have hurt you, I know. I understand. The doubt will linger for long, still.”

He relaxes at her touch, then looks to all three of them. “You came for me. I will never forget what you risked, and the sacrifices you made.”

“We should go,” Dion says after a pause, looking like he’s having trouble restraining himself.

“When we go out drinking, booze is always on you, big guy,” Somrak says. Even as he is joking, he’s moving near Dion, helping to guide him out. “Don’t go too crazy with the remodeling!”

Alma leaves her hand on Sky’s head for a moment longer. “Take care, Sky. I will see you again.” Then she turns to leave with the others.

As their footsteps and voices echo down the passage, Sky draws in on himself, wondering whether, despite their intentions, he has lost his friends forever. But the feeling of Somrak’s body asleep against his lingers, tingling, as does Alma’s touch. And Dion is fighting to resist his sphere, for Sky’s sake. Sky tells himself that he has not lost them. Perhaps if he says it enough times, he will feel it is true.

Ch6.97 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, no point in mentioning that now.