Ch6.44 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

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

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

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

“You came! You came!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“WHAT??”

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

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

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

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.43 Trust

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

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

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

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

The power of Reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.31 Trust

Morning on the streets around Three Rats Station is often a time of peace. Crime and accident most often find their expression in the depths of the night, when overindulgence in alcohol and other drugs anaesthetize the wiser angels of the mind and set free their inner demons. It is in the night that the sneak-thief, the assassin, the gang out for vengeance are most likely to conduct their sociopathic pursuits. Crime and ‘hey, watch this’ foolishness can occur at any time, but those most likely to commit such acts are more probably to be found peacefully asleep in the early hours after sunrise, soon to be waking and feeling the effects of the previous night’s imprudence.

Thus Corporal Cala Lamore finds it her favorite time to be on-shift. Her promotion has brought with it a considerable increase in paperwork and meetings, but under Sergeant Machado and ultimately Inspector Tuma-Sukai, the meetings are at least productive and usually brief. There has been a spike in late-night emergencies during Sergeant Alma’s temporary leadership, but Cala is not one to lay blame. She rather finds herself identifying with the immortal sergeant who has suddenly found herself thrust into a position of greater responsibility. That she has not handled it perfectly is only to be expected, but Sergeant Alma’s character has shown through in the way she has managed those momentary fumbles.

Cala snorts as she remembers the previous morning, and Alma’s silliness. These immortals, these so-called gods – among monotheists like Cala, there is still much disagreement about what they really are: devils, djinn, spirits of temptation sent to test the faith of true believers – have turned out to be far different to work with than Cala had imagined. In the Academy, Popula cadets did not mix with Dei, and since then the rare Dei officers sent from other wards to deal with some problem were all aloof. She cannot say she is truly friends with any of the three here – after all, they are her superior officers, and no matter how much she has grown to like them, she does not believe in blurring those lines – but under them the station has regained the family feeling that it had when it was much smaller up to a few months ago, when they relocated from the old, cramped station near the border with Little Falls, when it was just Corporal Machado in charge, and when Cala and Aliyah and poor Phillipus Stathos and a few others were constables together, before the Dei arrived along with so many new recruits and transfers. She had been afraid that familial feeling, that camaraderie would be lost forever, but it has returned. And with immortals! And not only that, but with Bunnies!

And now, wonder of wonders, Saira, she who Cala had long thought dead, has returned to them. Their friendship had ended years ago, and bridges had been burnt, but the two women have been cautiously, almost unintentionally rebuilding them, a plank here and a nail there, in the time Saira has been staying at the station.

Cala shakes her head at her reverie and returns to planning. With the worst of the gang wars dying down, she has had time to move patrols to parts of the ward that have hardly seen a Guardia presence in months. At the same time, however, she must not allow areas that have seen the worst violence to feel that they are being forgotten by the Guardia. Some there would bemoan that forgetting, while others would celebrate.

With a creak of door hinges, morning sunlight slants across the main room of the station and over Cala’s paper-strewn desk. She looks up to see a statuesque form silhouetted in the doorway. Though the backlighting obscures the visitor’s face, Cala immediately recognizes the outline. Dismissing a momentary stab of unworthy envy at immortals and how they always seem to be as tall, slender, and full-breasted as they desire to be, Cala stands and, doing her best to stop being suddenly conscious of her far more ordinary, mortal shape with its extra pounds that have refused to depart no matter how often she has made it clear to them that they are not welcome, she approaches the reception desk.

“Voice Ewá,” she calls out. “Good morning! And how are the kiddies?”

Ewá Nanã, bearing the title Voice because she speaks in defense of those accused of crimes, is currently taking care of nearly a score of orphans, runaways, and castaways in a house she acquired with the intention of starting a law office. Legal representation is something out of the reach of most in Three Rats, but sorely needed. The more pressing need of children who had been snatched by slavers has diverted her, and Cala, along with Aliyah, and several of the Bunnies, has been lending a hand.

The demi-immortal takes a step closer, but a rope she holds in her hand draws tight, preventing her from moving all the way from the door to the desk. The rope, Cala sees, looks strong, and leads out the door from Ewá’s hand. Whatever it is attached to is out of sight from the reception desk.

“Pardon me, Corporal,” Ewá says, “they are well. But I wonder if anyone has reported a lost cat.”

Cala thinks. “A lost cat?”

“The children didn’t want me to bring the cat here, but…we really cannot afford to feed it.”

“Well, might be a stray but let me – Wally, did anyone report a missing cat?”

Freezing as if he’s been caught in the act of something nefarious, or at least embarrassing, Wallace Longshot, a walking collection of knees and elbows, tall, redhaired, and legendarily clumsy, responds, “Uhm…there’s Mrs Patel’s shorthair.”

“Which one?” Cala asks. “She only owns Urbia shorthair cats.” To Ewá, she continues, “Anyway, could it be that one?”

“I am not much familiar with domestic breeds, but I suspect it is not.” The lead begins to slacken, and Ewá loops the rope around her hand, taking up the slack until a large head with golden eyes looks around the door frame.

“Ya Allah!! Is that a–?” She gulps. “Definitely not an Urbia shorthair. I…I think I’ll call a Dei to take care of your case, if you don’t mind.” She mutters to herself, “They can always heal if they get bitten…”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Through the door, Somrak hears a muffled exchange. Alma’s voice. “Good morning, Corporal.” Finally.

“Good morning, Sergeant!” Ah, that’ll be Lamore. Wonder if she’ll spill the beans?

But the Popula corporal doesn’t say anything more as the slight creak of the stairs signal Alma’s approach. The door handle turns, swinging open, and Alma enters her office and takes a step toward her desk before she stops at the tap of something against her knee. She looks down and her attention is caught by a tail, a tail furred in greyish-blue with white markings, that sleepily curls against her leg. Her eyes follow along it to see, lounging across her sofa, an exotically colored tiger, snoring gently, its forepaws and head on Somrak’s lap where he sits at the far end of the sofa, holding a folder in one hand, the other gently scratching the tiger’s neck.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” he whispers in mock urgency. “This vicious cat has put my leg to sleep!” He smirks at her look of astonishment, but holds in his laughter, not wanting to wake the tiger.

However, Alma barely glances at him. She cannot stop staring at the tiger. She whispers, “Is that–?” She moves closer and kneels by the sofa.

Somrak snorts quietly. “It had better be the same one. If there’s another one wandering around the ward… I didn’t want to wake him up, poor thing, but seriously, I’ve read this same report ten times, and it’s getting a little dull. I can’t reach my desk. Well, your desk.”

Alma starts scratching the sleeping tiger behind the ears. He sees glimmers of green around her hand, and a breeze out of nowhere carries a hint of jasmine and a momentary susurrus of leaves. The tiger opens a lazy eye, the golden eye with its round pupil focusing on her. “Hi,” she says again. “Remember me?” The tiger lifts his head, yawns, and then bumps his forehead against hers. “Oh, you do. Where have you been?”

Watching them, not wanting to move despite his earlier words, Somrak strokes the soft fur on the back of the tiger’s neck. “Don’t suppose you need another cat around the station? Just in case those dwarfs dig up some really big rats?”

“Oh, I’d love to keep him.” The tiger licks the back of her hand with its almost painfully rough tongue. “He’s so gentle. But…I can’t.” She presses her forehead against the tiger’s cheek. “I am so sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Somrak says. “I’ll take him with me. We’ll find someplace for him. Maybe the Commander will fall for him. Or, oh! Mrs Finch! She can feed the more annoying visitors to him.”

Alma laughs. “Well, you can always try my aunt. She loves big cats like these. She’d love you, wouldn’t she?” She buries her face in the softness of the thicker fur around the tiger’s neck, her voice becoming muffled as she talks to the feline. “Of course she would. And then maybe I could visit you. Just don’t let her bite you.”

Somrak opens his mouth, then closes it. “So many things I could say to that. Well, I can make this a peace offering. Might change the nature of the bites… Now…” With a grunt he slips out from under the tiger’s paws, stands and brushes at the shed fur on his trousers. “I wish I could claim that I found him, but one of our local demigods brought him here. It seems Ewá Nanã grew up having jaguars and other jungle creatures all around her as playmates, so she didn’t bat an eyelid when she found this guy in her garden.”

Still dispensing caresses to the tiger, Alma smiles at the name. “Just shows how smart he is, going to her for help. Ewá is far from a defenseless target. She pled my case with the Council. And won.”

“I thought the name seemed familiar,” he says. “And she settled here? Interesting. Well, at least I closed the case of the missing tiger, so my stay here hasn’t been a total loss.”

Alma gets up and looks at him, about to say something, but she stops as she notices something next to the desk, earlier blocked from her vision: his duffel bag. “Somrak…your bag.” She looks at him, a shadow crossing her face. “You’re going now?”

He nods. “My week is up. I have to return to my usual duties. And Sky is awake. He will be back with you later today.”

She tilts her head to the side. “I will miss you.” She laughs as he looks up at her. “Don’t look so surprised. I was about to say that you sound disappointed with your accomplishments here. You shouldn’t be. Your stay here was…a bit bumpy, and please forgive my initial reactions, but I am very glad Sky called you. Even with everything that did not quite work as planned, you helped us get a different grip on the case.” She looks up at the ceiling for a moment, smiling. “And it was fun, playing off-blue.”

“You’re a natural, Alma.” He leans against the desk, crossing his arms and looking down. “I am sorry about last night. I was…angry. At the loss of the lead. The taunting from that…abominable rodent. I have one of those divine-nature things about the undead. I had tunnel vision and didn’t even notice how badly it had affected you.”

Alma’s expression becomes heavier but not angry. She looks away, focusing on the tiger. “You don’t need to explain. Too much has happened in too little time. Since Nekh, I… My mind has not been given a chance to rest, return to its normal axis. I responded disproportionately. Anyway, what is done, is done.”

After a moment, Somrak says, his voice low, “You’ve been under a great deal of stress. On trial for your life, the Bunnies’ lives too, the bomb, now suddenly in command…I haven’t made it any easier. I am sorry for that.”

A moment later he feels her arms around him, embracing him tightly. He hesitates, surprised, and puts his arms around her as well. “You tried to help,” she says. “That is all I would ever hope for coming from a friend. Thank you for coming.”

A friend. Somrak holds her more tightly, feeling her cool body against his, refreshing like a dive into a stream. In the past few days he has experienced more affectionate physical contact – touches on the arm, caresses, hugs – than he normally does in months. It is not something he is accustomed to from growing up. He feels a surge of emotion and to his embarrassment finds he must blink back tears. He realizes his fire-god body temperature must be rising, and he releases her before that becomes uncomfortable. She moves back slightly, sees his expression, and a look of concern comes over her face.

She touches his hair, giving him an encouraging smile. “Feeling better?” she asks.

“Ahem, yes, yes I do.” He smiles weakly. “I could get used to all this hugging.”

Alma laughs softly. “I have to admit, I wasn’t much one for it myself until I got here. But seven very huggable Bunnies make a difference. Them and, well, some friends.”

“Don’t tell me Sky…” He feels shocked when she nods. “Uh…well like I said, I woke him up and got him caught up on what’s happened. He should be back in a couple of hours, after he’s fully awake and recovered from the shock of all I told him.”

Alma nods. “We will be ready to welcome him.” She lays a hand against his cheek. “I am sorry you have to leave. Maybe you would consider coming back?”

“Yes. When I can. You know how the job is.”

“Is Year’s End week a bad time in the off-blue schedule?”

Somrak feels surprised again. “Year’s End? Well, sometimes it is…but I’ll try.” She gives him an insisting look, serious but with an edge of amusement. “I’ll really try!

“I would like a solemn promise, please. Doesn’t have to be the whole week. Even just a day. We will time the gift-giving to accommodate you.”

Somrak takes both her hands in his, looking down, thinking for a moment, then looks her in the face solemnly. “I promise, if it’s at all possible, if I’m not putting a mission at risk, I will attend. But I think it’s best if you hold Gift-Giving on the usual day. I’ll aim for that. I don’t want anyone being inconvenienced if I can’t say until the last minute when I’m coming.”

A sudden memory jolts him, causing Alma to look at him strangely. “I almost forgot to tell you. I, um, well when I was looking into the flames last night…I can sometimes see visions, minor prophecies, in the flames.” He feels embarrassed. True prophecy is a vanishingly rare talent among gods, and even such weak ability as his own is far more fraudulently claimed than real. “I tried to see something to help us. And I did learn something.”

Alma looks at him curiously. “What is it, Somrak?”

“This is, of course, unreliable. But the flames tell me that we will not find this necromancer until after the year has died and been reborn, and after one of those searching has vanished and another returned.”

Alma absorbs this. “Perhaps you are the one who vanishes, and Sky returns.”

Somrak grins. “I was thinking the same thing. All the more reason for me to disappear before Sky gets back.”

“Very well. We will be wait–”

A sudden crash, accompanied by a slight tremor, interrupts her. For a moment the two deities just stare into each other’s eyes. Alma stops breathing, and he sees a flash of terror in her eyes. Oh no, he thinks. The soul bomb…another one?

She turns and rushes to the door. Somrak follows. Distracted by sight, from the corner of his eye, of the tiger climbing off the bed, ears back at the commotion, he almost runs into her when she stops in the doorway. A young male voice shouts from the stairs, “The dwarves! They found a cellar downstairs, below the cells!”

Somrak sees Alma slump in relief. “I will be right down.” Then she turns to find him just behind her. She puts her cool hand on his cheek again, cupping it, and gives him a quick peck on the other cheek. He feels his skin become suddenly much warmer – he had thought for just a moment she was going to kiss him on the mouth. She pulls back after the kiss with her eyebrows raised at his flash of heat, and says with a smile, “I have to go. Stay safe, yes?”

He tries to cover up his fluster with a smirk. “You sure you don’t need me in case something comes out of this hole the dwarfs have discovered?”

Alma shakes her head. “Silly… I’ll see you again!” Then she turns and rushes down the stairs.

Somrak feels a bump against his thigh. He looks down at the tiger which, after a nudge, is looking up at him expectantly. “Right, time for us to go, friend.” He reaches past the cat to lift his heavy bag and shoulder it. Then he pauses. Ghosting in and ghosting out is his normal mode of operation. Goodbyes make him uncomfortable. Of course he had to let Alma know he was leaving. She was briefly his commanding officer, after all. But he feels bad to leave without word to several others: Dion, Saira, and Cherry and Merri. But the prophecy, tiny though it is, says one must vanish. Better not push it.

He retrieves the rope and loops it around the cat’s head again. “Come on now, no more scaring the locals. Be nice and there’s a juicy steak in it for you.”

Ch6.26 Trust

Morning falls over Three Rats in layers, like heavy blankets being lifted one after another to expose a sleeping body to the light of day. Of course, this being Three Rats, the sleeping body in question tends to be nursing a hangover after a night of heavy drinking to forget about its unemployment status and the loss of its full food and rent budget for the week, so it tends to be very keen on holding onto the heavy, comfy, grayish linens of night and mutter obscenities while covering its head again and turning to sleep it off a bit longer. If the hangover is bad enough, it might even pull the odd stick with rusty nails and swing it around a bit for emphasis.

Morning may be a self-imposing and cruel little thing but it is by no means stupid and so it knows it’s best to stop hogging all the blankets and leave the whole hot mess for Afternoon to deal with.

Scientists and other skeptical killjoys alike may go through great lengths to refute this explanation as to why morning is always slower to dawn in Three Rats than in the neighboring wards, of course. They may pull photonic interference patterns and magic differential potentials and quantum force-field interactions out of their hats, even (for lack of wanting to know where else these people keep their crazy ideas when they’re not being used). But Three Rats is famous for spitting in the eye of Science and Logic (and any of their brothers, cousins or friends of the family unlucky enough to have stopped by for a visit), and give them a good kicking for ruining its buzz before going back to doing whatever in Hell it pleases, so it’s generally just best to accept things for what they are and not ask too many questions.

Either way, the morning is still a grayish, sad little thing outside the Burrow, the bar out behind Three Rats Station, by the time Saira raises her hands and voice in protest.

“Right, I’m done with this! I’m covered in glitter, there’s glue on my fingers – And why do I even have to be doing this in the first place?”

She drops a paper garland next to the three that Cherry has made in the time Saira has taken to make a mutant twisted version of just one. The writhing, monstrous red-and-purple paper worm sticks to her fingers as she shakes her hands and tries to get rid of it, rustling in what sounds like a derelict, papery cry of Why don’t you love me, Mamma! and she nearly rips it while pulling at the thing with her other hand to free herself.

Cherry can barely keep from laughing at her struggles. It takes her a couple of tries to be able to reply cheerfully, “Hey, this counts as physical therapy! Now hold this end…there! See? Ain’t so bad. Just gotta make four more of those.”

“Four?!” Saira looks at her like a distraught puppy. “Come on, Sunshine, can’t we do with just these four? Like…I’ll split this one in half and we can have two small ones?”

One of Cherry’s ears flops to the side in amusement, and she smiles brightly, all the brighter in contrast to her beautiful dark-brown skin. “I love it when you call me Sunshine.”

Meanwhile, Rosemary chooses this moment to drop off more colored paper. “Oh Saira, this is no’ but the beginnin’! Anyway, after the first one, makin’ the next is so very much easier.”

The look Saira gives her pretty much says she would rather be sentenced to a lifetime of breaking rocks with a rubber pickaxe. Lexie doesn’t help it all. Fascinated by the slithering action of the garland, the cat has already spent ten minutes stalking the elusive paper snake, jumping and pawing at the thing. Pulling sometimes. Heck, even biting! Saira’s garland isn’t just mutated, it’s actually a mutilated victim of feline nature. Here and there, it sports claw marks and tooth marks and spit marks. A few rings lie wrecked on the floor where they gave their lives for the rest of the herd.

Thankfully, Lexie eventually decided she didn’t like the taste of the glue and went to nestle on the sofa and lick the glitter off her brown-grey coat. There will be some very special gifts in the litter tray tonight.

Still, as if that wasn’t enough to add to Saira’s misery, Cala’s voice rises from two tables away, chuckling and echoing in a deep, bodily voice that opera singers would probably kill for. “As I live and breathe, would I ever think I’d see the great Saira making paper garlands…?”

Saira lowers her head, eyes glaring knives and icicles at the woman cop currently sitting surrounded by a sea of paper petals and the flowery decorations she’s been working on. She taps her sticky fingers on the tabletop, daydreaming scenarios of shooting Cala for that remark. Not fatally, mind you, just…maybe a leg? Or a foot? But that would get her into trouble. Arrrgh, she’s going soft, all right!

Aliyah, sitting at another table, her thigh pressed against Sage’s as they cut out shapes from colored paper and her body language trying to hide her pleasure over the Bunny’s closeness with just about as much success as a whale trying to hide behind a toothpick, joins the laugh fest. “Again, you mean! We got her to make, like, almost half of one waaaaaay back when. In the orphanage…”

Saira snatches the glue bottle and hefts it, ready to throw it at the woman’s head. But then, memory hits her.

Wait a minute…

“That wasn’t me, that was Whistle Suzy!” she cries, throwing the bottle anyway for old times’ sake. Aliyah ducks and the bottle hits her shoulder instead, spreading glue all over her uniform.

“Oh, come on! I just cleaned this too!” she complains, rising from her seat.

Sage sighs and patiently rises too, reaching for Aliyah’s hand with a soft offer of “Come on, there’s something in the armory that will clean that right off.”

Saira chuckles and shakes her head at the sight of tall, muscled, huge Aliyah being happily lead out of the bar by the short Bunny that would need a stepladder to stop looking up her nostrils before turning to explain to Cherry, “You see, she had this huge gap between her front teeth and when she talked – What?! That was funny!!” she complains at Cherry’s scolding eyes and crossed arms (tapping foot included).

The bartending Bunny opens her mouth to start her righteous moral tirade but just as the first sounds leave her throat, loud, screeching giggles fill the room followed by something around the lines of,

“Tulip, you brat! I’ll get you for that!”

Tulip, the youngest of the Bunnies at an age of thirteen going on six erupts into the bar from the kitchen, running, hopping and, most of all, laughing like a maniac who has just pulled the pin out of a grenade and refuses to give it back. Behind her comes Alma, racing after the Bunny that looks like a mini, cute version of herself, chasing Tulip around the bar with a big, mischievous smile on her face that seems out of place for being so unusual for the death goddess. Well, not that the fact that she’s currently wearing an old Guardia Academy shirt for a nightgown, her hair clearly just out of a night-long meeting with a pillow and feet bare on the wooden boards, is common for her either. The shirt is not hers, that’s for sure. Manly cut.

Huh…wonder if she remembered she’s about the same height as Dion before putting that on… Saira thinks, tilting her head in amusement at the sight of Alma’s pale legs completely exposed below the shirt that barely covers the soft curves of Alma’s rear.

Ahead of the goddess, Tulip jumps over chairs and tables and counters with practiced ease, shrieking herself to breathlessness as she hides from her mother’s grasp behind anyone she can find. The two are laughing so hard that none of their audience can help but laugh too and soon bellies are hurting and Bunnies are bending double in laughter, making it harder for Tulip to hide behind them.

A shadow catches Saira’s eye, like a change in the color of the air over the staircase that leads to the Bunnies’ rooms upstairs. She glances in that direction to see Somrak climbing down the dark, wooden steps, feet instinctively quiet and light like any killer’s should be. And now he’s nearly at the bottom of the last step and Tulip races past him at full speed and Alma hasn’t seen him yet, too focused on catching Tulip as she is. Saira cringes in anticipation. From her seat, Cala cries out.

“Serg–!”

But it’s too late. Somrak rounds the bottom of the stairs just as Alma is dashing by and catches a chestful of goddess for his stealth. Without thought, his arms surround Alma, catching her full inertia and turning it into a pirouette that could have scored points in a dance contest if they were holding one. Eventually, they come to a halt, looking like the isle’s most confused dancers ever, Alma held firmly in the god’s arms, her knees bent and face looking up at him in surprise, Somrak looking down at her, hands holding her by the back of her shoulders, a look on his face like a heron confronted with a suicidal fish. Silence. Alma’s pale face is already flushing into a pinkish red.

Saira whistles a wolf call and the room explodes into laughter again. Cherry cheers happily amidst body-jerking laughs. Merri is nearly falling off a barstool and Tulip has thrown herself on the floor, flailing in her amusement. Even Cala, usually rather empathetic about these things, has her back arched in uncontrollable, convulsive laughter. Kori, May and Chime peek out of the kitchen in confused surprise but Somrak’s body is shielding their view of Alma and so they just shrug and return to whatever it was they were doing in there.

Somrak glances surreptitiously down at Alma’s bare legs over her shoulders. His hands are gripping her shirt, unconsciously lifting the back of it and giving the whole room a view of the moon in plain morning. She is tugging at the hem of the shirt, more out of discomfort for being laughed at than out of modesty (Saira has never known Alma to worry much about what others might think of her figure) as she slowly extends her legs to full height and relaxes in Somrak’s hold.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stutters, barely audible. “I didn’t see you. I was…” She gestures helplessly to where Tulip is rolling on the floor in in fetal position, bent double with laughter, then sighs. “Never mind… Good morning, how are you feeling?”

Somrak smiles, making a show of keeping his eyes on her face as he replies brightly, “I feel well. Good morning to you!”

And then he bursts into laughter and Alma hides her flushed face against his shoulder and laughs too and everyone is laughing with them now and not just at them. Saira clenches her abdomen, feeling her muscles more taut and toned than she has since the whole demon thing. For a moment, she fears that she might start turning blue, so difficult it is to breathe. But eventually, things grow quiet again and everyone takes a good, long breath.

“Oh dear…I should go get dressed,” Alma says.

“No need to do so on my account…” Somrak offers, grinning like a kid looking at an unwrapped piece of candy. “I’m fine with the local customs.”

“Honey, that ain’t local customs,” Saira calls out. “Local customs, she loses the shirt!”

Alma flushes even further, glaring icicles at the woman. “You are not helping, Saira.”

“Not you, maybe,” Saira jests. “But I was definitely helping him!”

Alma shakes her head, chuckling quietly. Patting Somrak’s chest, she gently pulls away from him. “Anyway…I won’t be long.” She turns to the rest of the room in general. “And then maybe someone can explain to me what is going on here.”

“Oh, we’re makin’ decorations for New Year!” Merri chimes happily. “Y’see, these here paper chains will be goin’ all over the walls, an’–”

“Baby, she needs to go put some pants on,” Cherry interrupts her, with a sympathetic look to Alma.

“I know that!” Merri replies with an everything but subtle wink. “I was just tryin’ to keep ‘er around pantsless for awhile longer.”

The revelation makes Cherry’s mouth curve in an almost perfect circle. “Oh…Oops, sorry!”

Alma looks at the two Bunnies with something between motherly love and friendly irritation that Saira has often seen the goddess dispense her as well. She wonders suddenly if Alma sees her as a human ally or as one more of her mortal kids.

“Nice try,” the goddess says dryly before slowly starting on her way to the staircase that leads to her room, downstairs, her face and front carefully kept turned toward Somrak, hands prudently pulling down the hem of her shirt.

Somrak chuckles as she suddenly darts downstairs, pretending great interest in Tulip, who has finally managed to return to a standing position and is happily trotting her way to Saira’s side. “Well good morning, Miss!”

Tulip smiles at him, very much pleased with herself. “Hi!” She turns to Saira. “Do I get my treat now?”

Saira chuckles at her and pulls a piece of hard candy, a type of fruit and vegetable drop that Sage usually makes out of sugarcane molasses and fruit or vegetable juice, out of her trouser pocket. She hands it to Tulip with a light tap to the Bunny’s head. “There you go, sugarcube. You’ve earned it. Execution was flawless.” She glances at Somrak with a mischievous grin. “And with a bonus too.”

Tulip smiles as she takes the candy and happily starts munching on it. “It’s a pleasure to do business with you.”

The Bunny turns and walks away, leaving Saira chuckling. Tulip might spend most of her time acting younger than human kids her age but she definitely has an impish streak in her that will leave her mother screaming curses at the gods of puberty in probably not too long a time.

Meanwhile, Somrak steps closer to the woman’s table, watching Tulip disappear into the kitchen before giving Saira an appraising look. “Quite the operation. How are you?”

“Bored, glued, papered, glittered,” Saira replies, raising her uncomfortably sticky, glittery hands. “But otherwise well enough. Definitely not bouncing back from some fun with acid, like Merri said you did last night. You all right under that shirt now?”

Somrak nods, fingering the pale-blue Popula shirt he’s been lent. His throat looks patchy, with some lighter spots where the new skin has been made to grow over the demon-blood-induced wounds. “Other than needing a new jacket. Never gonna be able to get the smell of demon out of my old one.” He shakes his head with an expression of someone mourning over a particularly dear piece of clothing. Of course, considering how good the jacket looked on him, it wouldn’t be too hard to join in his grief. “So what’s going on here?”

Saira looks around the various tables covered in all sorts of paper flowers, garlands, banners and other typical seasonal decorations. If the Bunnies put up half of what they are making, the bar is going to look like something out of a design magazine in full-blown identity crisis.

“Bunnies want to celebrate their first Year Turning together,” she explains, picking up a wad of paper and a pair of scissors to cut out more of the ribbony shapes needed for the garlands. “Mer and Cher are cracking the whip, gonna make it big. And I’ve been enslaved – son of a–” She shoves her cut finger into her mouth and sucks on it, complaining loud enough for Cherry to hear. “This is not physical therapy, this is torture!!”

“Remember, only four more to go!” Cherry cheers her on, getting a tongue stuck out at her in response.

And that is when May returns from the kitchen, carrying a tray of round…ish, pale… cakes? Call it cakes for now – That girl is always coming up with the strangest things to eat – sprinkled in a beige powder that looks suspiciously like dust.

“Tell me how these are,” she says, putting the tray down on one of the few uncluttered tables. “I’m still trying to remember just how to make them…”

“What are those, May?” Cala asks, rising from her chair to take a closer look at the tray. “They look great but I’ve never seen something like that.”

Of course they look great, Cala, you lover of all things sweet.

“The inside is a bean paste, sweet,” Mayumi replies. “Covered in mochi, uh, pounded rice, and then sprinkled with kinako, a bean powder with sugar. But I don’t know if it’s the right kind of beans… It tastes different from my memory but…maybe it still tastes good?”

It probably does taste good because Kori, who is for some reason carrying a large wooden mallet over his shoulder, is already eating the weird-looking things and licking his fingers with little sucking sounds of absolute pleasure. And then again, Bunnies tend to like anything vegetable provided it is not actively trying to eat them at the moment, so it’s really anyone’s guess as to how good the mooch – noch – cakes…things really are.

“Well he likes it…” Cherry snorts, picking up a cake before Kori single-mouthedly drives them to extinction. “Oh hey, that’s nice!”

“Making the mochi was fun!” Kori exclaims, swinging the mallet to demonstrate how it is done. “BAM!”

Well, that explains why it sounded like the kitchen was going through an extreme makeover, Saira thinks.

Even if just a teenager, Kori is definitely the most athletically inclined and already the strongest of the Bunnies. Only him among them would have fun swinging a mallet for countless hours. And eat the full product of his labor in little under five minutes.

“Hey, show me how to make these chain things?” Somrak’s voice cuts into Saira’s reveries as he takes the chair opposite to her.

Saira looks at him like he has just asked her to show him how to reach the moon using a stepladder and two coconut shells but, before she can process the request, a familiar pale shape looms at the top of the stairs.

“Heh, I would but…your girl’s back,” she says, glancing meaningfully in that direction.

Somrak looks confused. “My girl?” He glances over his shoulder to see Alma, now sporting the Guardia-blue sari with silver embellishments she seems to have taken a liking to. He looks back at Saira’s grinning face in mild annoyance.

She pats his cheek in return, cooing at him. “You are sho cuuute!” She chuckles at her own jesting, before turning toward the goddess. “Hey, Alma, you’re not gonna make us cut out paper skulls to decorate or anything, are you? I mean, they’d be cool but I’m not about to get my fingers crooked from handling scissors all day.”

Alma chuckles, stopping by Cala’s table to take a look at all the different, colorful paper flowers. “I have no idea what you are talking about. My family mostly avoids the skull-and-bones cliché. Apart from a few…unsavory elements.” She turns to Cala, already returned to her seat and working her surprisingly delicate fingers away. “These are beautiful.”

In response, Cala offers her a bright-red paper poppy, that Alma sticks behind her ear with a small word of thanks.

Somewhere near the kitchen, May is already dragging Kori back to some radical cooking. “Come on! More rice needs pounding!”

“Sweet!” the Bunny replies, happily hefting the mallet.

“I wanna help too!” Tulip cries, rushing after them.

“Hey, where can we get a tree?” Cherry suddenly asks. “Like a real Christmas tree?”

Alma, who had been chuckling at Kori and Tulip, blinks at the dark-skinned Bunny in what looks like confusion. “What is a Christmas tree?”

“Oh, I know some Christians. Maybe they know,” Cala volunteers.

Alma nods absently as if the word “Christian” explained it all. Of course, gods tend to have a hard time understanding the newfangled monotheistic cults. Well, newfangled by godly standards, anyway. The so-called modern monotheistic religions are somewhere around two thousand years old in the Insula, though some of them will argue that the Insula did not exist before their god created it just because he thought it should exist. Why any god would bother to create a few billion beings just to hear them pray and whine all day is somewhat beyond the reach of Saira’s understanding but maybe even gods get so desperately bored that they’d be willing to do the divine equivalent of shooting their own foot. And probably what befuddles most gods is the intense insistence with which monotheists will deny the existence of the gods they can see walking, flying or fading in and out of sight in the streets every day while praying their hearts out to these higher, illuminated beings that no one can quite prove exist and that many will go to war to defend their take on something as simple as their god’s name or the correct length of his beard. In summary, mortals must seem as outlandish to gods as gods seem weird to mortals.

Thankfully, a great many monotheists have learned to interact without either offending them or allowing their presence to interfere with any ingrained beliefs. Cala, for instance, actually seems to like and get along well with Alma and Sky, while carefully avoiding Dion’s attentions – but that probably has different reasons than mere religious philosophy. Guardia Dei are forbidden from actively seeking worship and none of the gods in the station seem that bothered by people’s beliefs, no matter how unreasonable they sometimes are. Provided it doesn’t hurt anyone, they will let people believe whatever the heck they want, even if Saira has more than once caught them rolling their eyes or smirking at some piece of particularly colorful religious lore.

And, of course, it’s impossible to know everything about every single religion available, so now and again communication can get…interesting between mortals and divines.

“Is all of this for the Year’s End?” Alma asks, looking around. “Is that what you mean by Christmas?”

“Yeah… We thought we’d, like, combine all our different traditions an’ make it our own thing,” Cherry explains to a background sound of muffled hammering and Chime trah-lah-lah-lah-ing from the kitchen.

“Very well…how can I help?” Alma asks.

“Wrappin’ paper!” Merri says brightly. “An’ ribbons! An’ of course presents t’go inside ‘em! We’re goin’ t’be makin’ presents, mostly, as we have no money, but some bright paper would be lovely!”

Alma smiles at her excitement. “Sure, I will find you some. As for presents…I think it is the first Year’s End that will involve gift-giving for me.” She picks up the other end of the paper garland that Saira is currently working on to inspect the woman’s slightly less horribly disfigured second attempt at arts and crafts.

A mischievous thought has Saira tossing the garland into Alma’s hands. “Hey, great idea! Here, you have it!” she says, getting up and walking over to the bar as fast as she can. “Cherry, I’m done! Alma is taking over now!”

“Saira, I have to go to work!” Alma complains behind her.

“Don’t know, don’t care! I’m free! FREE!” Saira cries out, throwing her hands in the air as she dashes to perch on a bar stool.

“Hey! I got somethin’ else for you to do!” Cherry calls out, chasing after her.

In his chair, Somrak smirks and mutters something that has Alma laughing. Saira can see the goddess trying to make heads or tails out of the garland before frowning and looking at her pale fingers in annoyance.

Ah…that’ll be the glitter, Saira thinks with a smirk.

What happens next has the woman’s face freezing in an incredulous grin, her mind working overtime to try and bend around what her eyes are telling her is going on. To her gleeful surprise, she sees Alma’s eyes dart over the table, looking for the source of the glitter, her hand reaching for the little bottle of what could only be described as the shiny, craftsy equivalent of some human venereal diseases. The goddess unscrews the lid to the glitter bottle, looks inside it and then, with a millimetrical glance at Somrak, very intently pours a small mound of the silvery specs on the lid’s inner surface, leans slightly, holds it up to her mouth…

And blows a silver cloud against the left side of Somrak’s face!

Saira feels her body jerk with ill-restrained laughter before she can believe what she’s seeing. In his chair, Somrak is looking up at Alma, his face turned so that the woman can only see the left side of his face, his left eye closed against the starry landscape speckled against the olive sky of his skin. His hand reaches for a bottle of golden glitter. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

He raises the bottle of gold glitter, slowly unscrewing the cap. “Of course, you know what this means…”

Alma is already backing away toward the door, laughing. “Don’t you dare…I have to start my shift.”

Somrak taps a little mound of gold into his palm and stands, a diabolical look on his face. Saira sees Alma glance behind her, toward the door, probably calculating how fast she can escape the bar if she makes a run for it.

“No…No…I will never get it off – No!” Alma suddenly dashes toward the door.

But Somrak is faster. Much, much faster. In the blink of an eye, he is blocking her path and theatrically throwing a fistful of glitter in the air like a fairy sprinkling magic powder on a raggedy maid. Alma stands under a golden cloud, the whole of her glimmering and shimmering as the flecks catch the light, her head hung as she looks down at clothes that will take nothing short of a miracle to get glitter-free again.

“Least you could do was make it silver glitter,” Saira hears her say to the fire god.

“I thought the gold would make a nicer contrast to your hair,” Somrak replies with a smirk, casually smoothing the right side of his own hair with a gold-glittered hand.

Smooth, Ponytail, Saira chuckles quietly. Real smooth. Almost as good as the competition. Speaking of which…

She feels Dion approaching the bar counter, coming from the kitchen. She hasn’t turned to look at him but his footsteps have that poised, self-assured cadence that always gives him away. It always somehow has her expecting to see him in a burgundy-red patterned silk robe and room slippers.

He reaches the bar proper just as Merri cries out her exasperation over the laughter that is again booming across the room. “Och, that glitter is very dear! It’ll be comin’ outta yer paychecks!”

“It’s impossible to sleep here today,” Dion notes in mild annoyance, and Saira turns to see him rubbing his eyes with two fingers of one hand, as if the light was somehow too bright for him. He squints at Alma and Somrak, covered in glitter. “And then again, maybe I’m still dreaming…”

Both gods smile at him, Somrak with a soft, quiet chuckle and Alma, her back now turned to the fire god, with a mixture of amusement and tender gladness at seeing Dion that would probably have left Somrak in a much darker humor, were he able to see it.

Saira catches Alma’s hand subtly touching Somrak’s, grazing the fingers with which he holds the bottle of gold glitter to tease them into releasing it. Her eyes always on Dion, smile levelling into a grin that should be featured in encyclopedias right beside the word naughty, the goddess walks toward the bar. “Oh, we were just decorating for the upcoming holidays.”

“Is that…glitter on your hair?” Dion asks in the same tones with which a deer would turn to a wolf and ask, What is your family doing here?

“Yes,” Alma replies, now standing right in front of him, glitter already flowing into her palm. “Yes, it is.”

Dion’s eyes widen in too-slow realization. “Oh no – oh no, you don’t!”

Ch6.03 Trust

The moon is still high over the skies of Three Rats. In fact, there should be about five moons visible tonight, each with a different color and phase, each with a different rising and setting time, but they all seem to be nicely aligned with each other to give the illusion of a single, larger moon. A single moon that should not have stayed still in the night sky for the last two hours. Moon gods, as some people will very well know, are particularly enthusiastic lovers of games of chance so it would not be surprising if they had all just parked their assigned moons in the same spot and taken the night off to cheat their way through a few rounds of some strange card game.

The large moon casts its light over Three Rats, competing with the gas lamps to see which can do a worse job of illuminating the sinuous, narrow streets and rundown buildings in this part of the ward. Under the pale, silvery light, each damaged wall, pierced by the occasional, and sometimes not fully planned, window rises like a gravestone engraved with some cryptic, unnatural language.

Ah, the glamorous graveyard shift, Dion thinks shifting his gaze from the sky above to the Sky below. Perfect for anyone who likes moonlit nights, quiet alleys and the eerie feeling of being watched by things with too many legs.

“Situation?” the Inspector inquires.

“Human shard known to use earth related-elementals as enforcers,” Dion answers, using the slang term that he had first heard from Sky, but which had somehow spread to other stations in recent weeks. “Information says five humans, each with a different elemental: Magma, Metal, Dust, Clay, Stone. They have been using this house as a hideout for less than a week so they should still be here.”

The god of magic sighs inwardly. Sky was not expected to be a part of this raid. Dion’s sources had just confirmed the location of this shard when the sergeant gathered Alma and the four Popula he believed he would need for this operation. Sky had been napping in his office sofa at the time and so, in an effort to take some of the load off of his Inspector’s back, Dion had decided together with Alma not to ask him for backup. As soon as the Popula entered the armory to get equipped, however, the feather-light-sleeping Sky had popped out of his office and insisted on tagging along.

In a normal situation, Sky would be off-shift by now, resting during Dion’s graveyard shift and Alma’s day-shift before returning to fulfill his assigned duty. Unfortunately, normal situations are a thing of that wonderful time in the past before Nekh was killed and the Dukaines splintered to give rise to countless gang shards. Since then, the virtual border between Popula and Dei jurisdiction has become practically nonexistent in anything other than paperwork, forcing the gods to intervene in most situations. Dei shifts are now mostly shared, with the gods constantly being called out of their beds – sometimes, office sofas – to provide backup to their fellow Dei in the painstaking, but so far successful, operation of taking down the more powerful and problematic shards.

Sky’s presence at the station has been nearly constant, in spite of his sergeants’ best efforts to convince him to take care of himself and rest. Dion wonders if he has even visited his apartment in the last few days. The god of freedom looks permanently exhausted, struggling for focus and patience. He is a terrible accident waiting to happen, burning mana just to stay awake yet insisting on being present for just one more raid.

Thankfully, it is not solely on him that Dion can look to for support. By his side, Alma is just gathering their latest information, her eyes shining with the divine power of soul-scrying as she peers through the dusty sidewall window of the single-storey building against which the Dei are currently leaning. In an alley nearby, Corporal Lamore, Aliyah Kaur and two more Guardia Probationary Constables are waiting on Dion’s signal.

Dion grimaces at the thought of the two GPCs. Oliveira and Janssen had been fresh out of the Academy when the god’s adventures in Three Rats started. No probe should go through an initiation like this. All he can do is be glad that they have stepped up and risen to the challenge.

“I see five divines, six mortals,” Alma says softly, barely disturbing the night air but derailing Dion’s train of thought completely.

“Are you sure?” he asks her with mild surprise. “Only five mortals have been mentioned by my sources.”

Alma’s eyes flare with her power, burning icy-blue in the darkness as she looks at him. There is no anger in her silent response. It is merely a reminder of how often they have trusted her soul-scrying to prevent unpleasant surprises, in the last few weeks.

“A hostage, maybe?” Sky ventures. He touches Dion’s shoulder in fraternal encouragement. “Anyway, you have the lead.”

Dion nods, looking at both his fellow Dei. This is his shift, his responsibility. Sky and Alma are there for support and will trust his judgement, proceed as he sees fit. “No deadly force is to be used on the mortals unless absolutely necessary. I will go in first. Alma, your death sphere may not be the best against them.”

Alma nods, her words mirroring Dion’s thoughts. “Observe and adapt. Consider me your shadow.”

Dion turns his attention to Sky. “Based on your abilities, I would be more comfortable if you act as secondary backup on this one, Sky.”

“I’ll fall behind and pick up the rear,” the Inspector replies after a brief hesitation.

Dion looks down for a moment and inhales deeply. This is the last active shard on their very long list of powerful and violent gangs and taking it down will finally give the Dei enough space to breathe and resume some level of normality in their lives. If they fail to capture them tonight, it could be weeks before the gods get some much-needed rest. And Dion could really do with a return to proper Guardia protocol and the regular Popula/Dei boundaries. All these raids, all this work in the shady grey areas of police work make him feel uncomfortable and corrupt.

A gentle, subtle touch of Alma’s hand to the small of his back brings him sweet reassurance. She is here, ready to back him up. After so many raids, there is no one Dion would trust more to watch his back, with only Sky as a close second. The goddess seems almost able to read his mind, adapting swiftly to any changes in gameplan. Probably a result of all the time they have been spending together.

He looks at her, then at Sky. “Last one. Here we go.”

Rounding up the corner toward the front door of the building, he brings forth his favorite scouting spell, extending his hand to receive the light-spawn ferret whose slender head and red eyes immediately turn to await Dion’s orders. With a jerk of his head, the god gives his scout the signal to go into the building. Incorporeal, the spell moves through the simple brick wall and enters the dark room beyond it, giving Dion second-hand vision and hearing within the space he is planning to enter. At this late time of night, the gang members must be sleeping, tucked into the various dark corners of what looks like an old, abandoned bakery lit only by the fire that still burns in the wall-mounted wood-oven and spews its warmth into the room. The previous owner must have passed away or gone bankrupt long before this shard arrived here because the ceilings are covered in countless generations of spiderwebs and even the wooden shelves and boxes look stale and brittle.

As the ferrety scout moves through the room, Dion fails to find any signs of the elementals. He can hear the snoring and mumbling of the mortals but that is about it. Edging towards the door, the god grumbles under his breath. He knows better than to assume his sources were just exaggerating. Besides, didn’t Alma say she could detect five divine souls in there?

Well, I guess I’ll just have to draw them out, he concludes.

With a few brief words, he reshapes his scouting spell. In a matter of seconds, the light-spawn ferret becomes the perfect mirror image of Dion himself. The god peeks in through a filthy window, to see the false image of himself standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by the faint golden glow of his magic. A fleeting image of Alma’s blue eyes shining eerily through another window, pointed straight at him, lets the god know that she can see through his ruse and will not jump into the fray ahead of time.

Clearing his throat, the god shouts, “Guardia Dei, surrender immediately and you will be spared!”

The shout seems to work. Hidden in the shadows, the gang members blink themselves awake and jump to their feet. Dion cannot see them yet but he can hear their feet shuffling as they move slightly closer and then…

Nothing. For a long, breathless moment, there is no sound, no movement. The fake Dion stands, glowing, undisturbed. It is as if the mortals have vanished. Dion waits…and waits…

A sudden word, a strike sends his scout flying against the wall, disintegrating it in a shower of sparkling dust. With well-rehearsed moves, Dion casts a quick spell of dismissal over the Magma elemental that is now glowing red in the center of the old bakery, having been summoned to attack the false Dion. With a terrible shriek, the elemental falls to its knees, bashing its knuckles against the stone floor with fiery violence before melting away into the cracks in the stone.

One done, four to go.

“A trick!” one of the gangsters cries. “It’s a trick!”

As a single man, they start running toward the door, trying to escape before the Guardia can grab them. On the outside, Dion moves quickly to block their exit, standing at the entrance of the room. He cannot let them get away.

He draws his sword, and holds it low, letting the light of his magical blade blind his opponents before he moves in to take the first one down. The man tries to move out of his way, barely managing to evade Dion’s attempt to knock the mortal’s sword out of his hand. The next attack of Dion’s blade slashes through the man’s arm, disabling it. But the man is not alone. Knowing they are fighting no ordinary mortal, the other gang members leave nothing to chance.

Godly senses tell him of a sudden surge in power. Dion turns quickly on his heels to block the vicious attack of the metal elemental with his sword. It is more a reflex than a well-planned move that makes him use his blade. The metal elemental is completely unmoved by the strike of Dion’s sword against its body, its hand already moving to grab the blade and assimilate it. Not half as physically powerful but twice as fast, Dion moves the beautiful blade out of harm’s way and holds a hand out to cast another spell of dismissal.

An odd whooshing sound makes him glance to his left. The world turns grey.

Dion ducks instinctively, waiting to be engulfed by a cloud of dust. A loud grumble washes over him and he looks up just in time to see a green, leafy blanket materialize midair and engulf the dust elemental. The blanket rolls into a ball, growing tiny spring flowers as the elemental trapped inside knocks helplessly against the walls of its flowery prison.

The glint of light on metal catches Dion’s eye. He raises his hand, casting the spell of dismissal just as the metal elemental’s fists begin to fall over the crouching god. Above him, the creature throws its head back and screams with a voice like blades colliding. Dion has to roll on his side to escape being caught under the heavy body of the elemental as it falls, massive and stiff on the hard floor, splashing like quicksilver before disappearing from sight.

Jumping quickly to his feet, Dion sees Alma fighting against two of the mortals. Another lies on the floor already, unconscious but breathing. With a swift, twirling motion, Alma is suddenly standing behind one of the humans, her pale hand driving the pommel of her thin-bladed sword into the back of the man’s head. The mortal falls, wide-eyed and unconscious, to his knees, still clutching the dagger with which he had been trying to cut into Alma’s leather-clad belly.

The goddess turns to take down the fourth mortal but something in the shadows seems to grab hold of her from behind. Alma is lifted by the throat, feet flailing and trying to kick whatever stands behind her, her sword fallen to the floor as the goddess tries to free herself from her attacker. Dion can see the stoney fingers that wrap around Alma’s delicate neck tighten their hold on her. She looks like she may break at any moment.

“Alma!” he calls.

She looks at him, her eyes wide in anger and fear. Dion cannot banish the elemental without risking injuring Alma but she cannot afford to wait much longer. Trusting his instincts, and hoping Alma will trust him as well, Dion kneels and places one hand on the floor. The mortal that Alma was trying to take down looks at him and signals his only remaining friend, lurking somewhere behind and to the left of the god. Dion can only see one of the mortals moving and he hopes the other one is not moving much faster. Closing his eyes, he calls forth his power, shapes his spell.

The floor shakes. The men fall. A gaping fault opens beneath the stone elemental’s right foot, making it lose its balance and loosen its hold on Alma. The goddess breathes in with a loud wheeze before adding her powers to Dion’s. At her command, a summery breeze flows through the room, filling it with the scent of warm earth and ripe fruit. Plants begin to sprout and stretch into sight, between the stones, through the stones, wrapping around the fallen humans to stop them from rising again, breaking through the elemental’s body to shatter it under the insidious, unyielding power of all living things.

Dion carefully avoids the growing roots and stalks as he walks up to the goddess and helps her remove the last fragments of stone that still surround her neck.

“Are you all right?” he asks, grimacing at the sight of the bruises that mar her pale skin, revealed after a vine crushes the last of the stone fingers clutching Alma’s neck.

“Yes, just a bit dizzy,” the goddess replies, leaning down to pick up her sword. “Where is Sky?”

“Sky?” Dion asks in surprise. “I haven’t seen him. Maybe he stayed outside.”

Alma shakes her head. “No, I am sure I saw him come in just after me–”

Her voice trails off, her eyes widen again as she looks over his shoulder, at the other end of the room. “Look out!”

Thunder roars through the bakery. The gods fall to the floor.

Dion looks up, ears ringing, feeling the weight of Alma’s body fallen on his. Before he could react, she had switched places with him, shielding his body with hers. She lies over him now, her hands trapped under his torso. As sound begins to slowly fade back into Dion’s ears, he can hear her groaning softly. His hands move to her back, feeling her clothing strangely wet. Dion brings his fingers closer to his eyes. Blood. She is bleeding.

She is bleeding! Why?

His hands probe her back for answers until his fingers feel the edges of some kind of material buried into her flesh, piercing through the leather of her corset. Careful not to cause any more pain than necessary, Dion removes it from her body, making her groan again.

The god looks at what seems to be just a shard of a bigger item. With a softly rough texture and earthy pale color it almost looks like–

“Pottery?”

His eyes widen at the lighting of the proverbial torch of realization. The clay elemental.

“Everyone all right?” Sky’s voice rings, a bit hoarse as if he is still recovering from the explosion.

Even though being so much closer to the explosion probably stunned him considerably more than the sergeants, the god of rebellion rushes to them, shaking his head to drown out the ringing in his ears. He stumbles closer to where Dion is still lying on the floor, with Alma on top of him, and stops for a moment. His eyes widen in a sudden panic as he kneels by Dion’s side and helps move Alma off of him, carefully laying her unresisting form on the green mat that now covers the stone floor of the bakery.

“The sixth mortal,” she mutters.

Dion exchanges a knowing glance with Sky. “Go, I will take care of her.”

Sky nods, looking grim, hesitating to leave for a moment. “I think I saw a door over there. I’ll be right back.”

“You should go with him,” Alma says in the rigid tones of someone in deep physical discomfort. “I will be along in a moment.”

She grimaces as she tries to reach for another shard sticking out of her back. Dion shifts to his knees and moves closer to her, to inspect the damage.

“Sky can handle a mortal,” he replies, summoning a luminary to aid his vision. “You need help.”

Alma breathes deeply in defeat. “If you could just remove the shards so I can heal my wounds…”

“I can’t reach some of them,” Dion tells her. “I have to remove your corset.”

“Well, that should be no problem to you, then,” the goddess jests, trying to make light of the situation even though her voice betrays her pain. “You’ve had your fair share of practice there.”

“And it will never be enough,” Dion says with a half-grin.

Slowly, gently, he removes her corset and lifts her blouse, scowling at the sight of Alma’s pale, soft skin covered in the blood that oozes from three gashes of different sizes. A fifth wound, the one from which Dion took the first shard, is already closed, no more than a temporary red line smeared with clotting blood.

The god carefully removes the bigger shards first. Her body stiffens, muscles contracting, but she does not complain. Her wounds begin to heal almost immediately after Dion has removed the shard that caused them. As the pain begins to fade, Alma begins to relax.

Sky returns just a few minutes later and kneels immediately by Dion to look at the goddess’ back.

“I found the last one. Handed him over to Lamore,” he says, visibly worried. “What can I do to help?”

Too focused on the sensation caused by the tip of Dion’s knife digging through her flesh to remove the last shard, Alma remains silent but reaches a hand back to touch Sky’s leg.

Sky puts his hand on hers. “I’m sorry.” His voice is thick with regret.

Alma holds his hand and squeezes it as the last shard slides with some resistance out of her torn muscles. She does not speak until it is fully out. “It is nothing much. Will be gone in a minute.”

In effect, her skin immediately begins to close, the edges of her wounds glowing with a faint, reddish-gold light. Soon, the only trace left is the dry blood staining her skin and the fabric of her blouse.

“There, all better,” she says.

Sky releases her hand and stands, ready to help her and Dion up. He looks a decade older than he did before the fight. “I…didn’t expect an explosion.” He shakes his head, opens his mouth to say something else, closes it.

“That must have been some oven to do that to an elemental,” Dion comments as he helps Alma sit up. “Were you hurt by the explosion? You were considerably closer to it than us.”

Sky looks at his forearms. “Just some abrasions…nothing much. Alma…if one of those chunks had hit your head…” He looks ill at the thought.

“We all know the risks we face,” the goddess cuts him off, reaching a hand to Sky. “Help me up, please.”

He does, falling silent again. She takes the opportunity to take his forearms in her hands, healing his abrasions. “Do I need to say what we both know?”

He shakes his head. “I need rest, I know. I just…I knew once I started, I wouldn’t be able to rouse myself for anything for days, maybe a week.

“I have to admit, Sky, that we have been more worried about you than we seem to have been able to convey so far,” Dion says, rising to his feet. “There will always be another shard or another crime but if you don’t rest now, I’m afraid we’ll eventually lose you. If not to an accident, then to simple exhaustion.”

“We have been watching you consume yourself as if there was no tomorrow,” Alma adds, still holding Sky’s arms, squeezing them as if to wake him up from a dream. “I can’t watch it anymore.”

Sky’s hands wrap around Alma’s forearms as he hangs his head and argues weakly, “While you two were gone, it’s how I had to live.” He looks down as if overwhelmed by the memory of those days. “And by the time you got back, the only way to rest was to crash. I had to burn mana to keep going. Things were still too chaotic. All three of us together, we were able to take down all the major shards we know of. Now…I fear I won’t be there when you find that necromancer, Alma.”

Alma lets go of him to poke his chest with an accusing finger as she scolds the inspector. “You need to trust me. Trust us. We don’t work any differently without you looking over our shoulders.” Her hand moves up to stroke his cheek. Her voice becomes soft again. “You have done your part and no one I know would have done it better. But you can’t go on working like this any longer.”

Sky nods. “I do trust you both. I know you’ll handle things well. I’m just…afraid. It’s not you I don’t trust. It’s those who are still out there. And…the vow I made. How can I fulfill it when I’m unconscious for a week?” He shakes his head in defeat. “But I know you’re right. I cannot continue like this. Not without doing more harm than good. I’m putting myself on leave for a week. I’m sorry that you’ll have to work longer shifts.”

“We’ll manage,” Dion assures him, “and then compensate once you return.”

“Yes. We’ll extend our shifts and I’ll adjust my harvests to make sure we don’t both end up like you,” Alma says, pulling away from Sky. “Even if we are nowhere close to your level of exhaustion, I don’t really fancy the notion of standing here in a week trying to decide if I should sleep for a few days straight.”

With a grim nod, Sky concedes. He puts a hand on Dion’s shoulder, something that the sergeant has learned to see as an act of demure affection. “After we return to the station, I need to put a few things in order, and then I promise, I will go to bed.” His eyes become distant with thought, his mind already drifting. “I’d better go grocery shopping too…”

“At this time of night, Sky?” Dion reminds him with a chuckle. “You’d probably do better gathering food from the bar. I am sure Cherry and Merri would not say no.”

“Of course, you may oppose to living on salads for a week…” Alma notes, grinning.

Sky chuckles. “I’ll figure something out. But last time I did this, I woke up to find I’d sleep-eaten my way through everything edible in my home. Including things I didn’t realize were edible. I’m worried I may end up with fewer pillows.”

Ch5.56 Shards

As they reenter the station, Alma, Gwydion, and Sky are each pulled in different directions. Sky and Machado take Cala aside to fill her in, interrupting a conversation she was having with the Voice, Ewá Nanã. The former Eye of the Council smoothly switches to Alma. “Sergeant? May I speak with you?”

Alma lightly touches Gwydion’s hand and shares a meaningful glance with him, then lets him go on his way. “Yes, Miss Nanã?”

The Voice pauses a moment, overhearing some of what Sky and Machado are saying. Corporal Cala Lamore clenches her fists, then raises them to her face and whispers a prayer.

Ewá looks again at Alma, sorrow stealing over her reserved features. “I am saddened at your further losses. I wanted you to know that no children or Bunnies have left while you were gone. I was about to return to the bar, but… Well, I have been thinking.”

Well, that’s an ominous start to a conversation… Nekh mutters nastily in her head, sounding very much like an exhausted child throwing a temper tantrum. If she says ‘we have to talk’, I’m getting out of here.

You will already be too late by days, you oversized chicken, Alma retorts, growling in thought.

To Ewá, she says, “Yes, Miss Ewá?”

Alma realizes that she must look truly tired for the demigoddess hesitates. For a moment, she looks almost as if she will drop whatever issue she wishes to discuss but then she plunges on.

“I have rented a house not far from here,” the Voice says. At Alma’s raised eyebrow, she continues, “I did tell you before, I have taken a liking to this ward. As I may have mentioned, my main focus as a Voice has been to represent my clan, but I devote my spare time to speaking for those who cannot afford a Voice in cases of the law. While taking on the unusual role of Observer for the Council, I became aware of how many people here could use someone like me. They need me much more than my clan does.”

“And you are one who is compelled to be useful,” Alma says.

This brings a very slight smile to the reticent face. “I suppose I am.”

Oh, isn’t she the perfect little teacher’s pet? Nekh snears.  

I thought you were leaving, Alma notes with a mental sigh.

I was…but then you said you wanted me to go, Nekh replies in mellow tones.

Alma ignores him while she considers Ewá’s words. “I can sympathize. But this does mean that the manner in which we serve this community will sometimes bring us into conflict.”

Ewá nods. “That is almost certain. I want you to know, then, that I have the highest respect for the work you do and for you, personally. Even if we may sometimes disagree over the guilt of one of my clients.” Her voice carries an almost undetectable flavor of amusement. “But that is not actually what I meant to tell you.”

“Oh?”

I love you! I love you and I want to make Bunnies with you! Leave Dion and Sky and run away with me!

Alma sighs internally and thinks Quiet! at the Archon’s soul.

Blissfully oblivious to the goddess’ internal dialog, Ewá makes her offer. “That house is larger than I will need. You have managed to place some of the children with families, but still you have nearly twenty. Keeping them in the Burrow is only a temporary measure, and you are Guardia, not childcare workers.”

“The Burrow?” Alma asks in confusion.

“Oh…yes. Rosemary and Cherry told me tonight that they have finally decided on a name for the bar.” Ewá’s smile is surprisingly affectionate, for the moment that it lasts. “But back to the point: These children can stay with me. My new home can serve as a center for finding them families.”

Alma’s tired mind takes a moment to process the full meaning of the words. “So instead of a law office, it will be an orphanage?”

“Let us say ‘in addition to’ rather than ‘instead of’.” Ewá tilts her head. “You clearly have a great deal of work ahead of you, and I want to see this ward safe and secure as much as you do. Please let me do this for you.”

Alma takes one of Ewá’s hands. The Voice glances at their clasped hands in mild surprise, but again flashes that elusive smile, and gently grips Alma’s hand. On an impulse, surprising herself as much as Ewá, the goddess moves closer and holds her, hands taking the demigoddess’ elbows, cheek resting gently against hers.

“You have already done so much for me,” Alma says, feeling suddenly, overwhelmingly grateful. She has a lot of people to thank and apologize to. “You saved my Bunnies. You saved me, and Gwydion as well. And now you are asking permission to remove a source of worry and distraction from us. Of course you can do this. And I assure you, I will help where I can.”

Ewá’s body at first stiffens at the embrace but then the Voice wraps her arms around Alma, holding her tightly for a moment. She seems to remember herself all of a sudden and releases the goddess, moving away from the embrace sporting a slight blush on her dark cheeks.

Told you… Nekh taunts.

Alma, however, smiles at Ewá. “Can we move them in the morning? I would not want to wake them up at this time of night.”

“Oh, of course. And I am sure you must be tired, Sergeant.”

Alma nods. “Tired and in need of a bath. I bid you goodnight.”

Ewá nods, turning to leave. “Yes. Boa noite.”

Alma exits the station into the breezeway before she can be pulled into any more conversations. She nearly enters the bar, but remembers her own comment about a bath. She desperately wants to hold her Bunnies, but she imagines the smell of blood on her clothes would disturb their sensitive noses. She instead calls upon the portal that leads to her room. Unlike Gwydion’s, hers is no door but merely a circular patch on the ground. She steps onto the spot and forms the correct mental image in her head, and the passage directly to her rooms opens and takes her away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The bar is finally quiet, its gas lamps turned down to tiny glows to provide just enough light that the human children will not panic on waking. Cherry and Merri have disappeared to join poor, exhausted Geryon, to give him some tender care and kisses for once again risking himself to save a Bunny. Mayumi wonders sardonically if the gryphon will even be able to move tomorrow, but then she feels a wave of affection for him. For all his complaining, all his catty comments, he is always ready to help when need is greatest. She does not need to wonder why the two bartenders care for him so.

The human children – those that have not been shared out to nearby families – are sleeping on futons, pillows, rugs, and other makeshift beds across the floor of the bar, and even some donated mattresses. Some are sleeping peacefully, while others whimper as dreams of recent horrors or past abuse afflict them. Kori, who usually seems to need at least fourteen hours of sleep a day, is vigilant, making sure the rescued street kids stay put at least for this one night, and keeping an especially sharp eye on Chime. The slightly younger Bunny, however, seems to have been cured of his wandering ways, though how temporary this cure is remains to be seen. He is keeping watch over the others along with Kori, perhaps too disturbed by recent events to sleep.

The goddess Kyri sits at the bar near a brighter gaslight, drinking coffee and writing music, while Ewá Nanã has stepped across the way to the station to have a word with Cala. In a corner nearby, Aliyah snoozes on a pile of cushions, changed into a men’s Guardia uniform, as none of the spare women’s uniforms will fit her tall, solid frame.

Near her, Sage and Mayumi keep watch as well, dressed in comfortable sleepwear, Sage in soft shirt and shorts, Mayumi in an extra-large men’s undershirt, standard Guardia Popula pale blue, almost knee length on her. Though their encounter with violent demigods and a demon, not to mention the murder of Corporal Stathos, have left them worn out from adrenalin and emotional shock, still they cannot sleep. As the night crawls toward morning, their whispers are too soft to be heard by human ears. No one has told them what has happened with Stathos’ family, and the memory of demonic screaming haunts them. But finally Tulip, the youngest Bunny, sleepily approaches in her beribboned flannel nightgown and snuggles into Sage’s lap, and holding her seems to allow him to let go that tension. As he nods off, Mayumi kisses his forehead and strokes Tulip’s white-furred ears, then begins to step carefully between the sleeping bodies, heading toward the kitchen, desperate for some water.

She is almost there when the breezeway door opens. “Shhh…” Kori hisses softly toward the newcomer. It is Sergeant Gwydion. He nods at Kori and then at Kyri in response to her wave, and makes his way toward the kitchen as well, clearly going for the magical door to his rooms.

Mayumi waits for him, and when he is close enough to hear her whisper, she asks softly, “Luís and the girls?”

Gwydion looks at her, his expression one of mute sorrow. He merely shakes his head, but that is enough. Her ears lie back and she surprises herself by reaching out and grasping his wrist for support. The news is a shock to her, even though she had half expected it. The tears fill her eyes and she looks away, stifling a sob. They’d saved Sage, and no one – no one but the kidnappers – had died. And now tragedy upon tragedy.

She feels a hand on her shoulder. Gwydion looks at her sadly, and without thinking she puts her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly. Though the culture she was raised in is not nearly as physically affectionate as that of Three Rats, she has always felt more of a need for contact than most of the people she grew up around. Perhaps it is something encoded into Bunny behavior. But because of how she was brought up, she has always been the most reserved of the Bunnies. And Gwydion…he is quite reserved himself. She has to admit she had not taken to him at first. She had not trusted him. The way he had tried to seduce Alma had repelled her. How foolish of him, to approach her that way.

Has he changed in his time away? No matter. He had saved them. Risked all for them. His eccentricities mean little in comparison to that. And now he has returned from seeing those girls, whom Philippus had brought to the station once, with whom Mayumi had talked and played as she kept an eye on them for their father – Gwydion has just seen their lifeless bodies. Mayumi prays that it was quick for them, but she knows it most likely was not. So she is glad when Gwydion embraces her as well. She may not have seen their deaths, but she can smell it on him, mixed with his cologne, and she is grieving, too.

She takes a deep breath. She steps back and looks up at him. No words need be said. Shared sorrow is its own language.

She wonders where Alma is. Perhaps she will find her in the station. She longs to speak with her creator, her mother. And Sky as well. He will likely hide away in his pain, she knows. She has seen it more than once in these past weeks. She nods at Gwydion and lets him continue his path, while she deviates from hers, moving toward the breezeway door.

Ch5.54 Shards

Alma stirs in his arms, her eyes flutter open in the dim light of the basement. Like a child awakened in the middle of a pleasant dream, the torture and anguish of moments ago apparently forgotten, she snuggles languorously against him, nuzzling his chest where it meets the shoulder.

“Hmm?” she murmurs.

“Hi…” Gwydion whispers softly, stroking her nose with the tip of his finger.

The sight of a beautiful feminine face waking up is somewhat unusual to him. Decades of cultivating a detached approach to relationships after being badly burnt by his one and only true romantic infatuation have made sure that a “morning after” was something meant only for those silly enough to restrict their desires to a single, often unworthy partner. Goddesses were always, in Dion’s little black book, no more than different tastes of some potentially delicious intoxicant with a tendency to destroy one’s mind and body after chronic, intense exposure.

Still, he must admit that the vision of Alma’s sleepy expression lazily blinking away exhaustion and smiling tiredly at him is a soothing, peaceful elixir abating the memory of the day’s events. He certainly would not mind gazing upon it again, in less stressful times.

“What happened?” she asks, rubbing sleep out of her eyes.

“You nodded off for a moment,” Dion explains. “How are you feeling?”

The question seems to revive in her the memory of her agony. Her expression darkens for a moment, and she sits up straighter, albeit still leaning slightly against Dion’s shoulder.

“Better,” she replies, now fully vigilant. “Enjoying the silence in my head.”

“Good,” Dion says, glancing back behind the pillar against which he leans, at the glimpses of blue and movement by the door of the holding area.

Under more careful scrutiny, they resolve into the looming figure of Corporal Lamore, looking worried and hesitant. She glances at the corpse of Corporal Stathos, her fallen comrade, and then at the Dei, her eyes issuing a silent request to be allowed to begin the painstaking, essential task of removing the bodies and investigating the crime scene.

Dion nods subtly at her. “Do you think you can stand and walk?” he asks of Alma. “The Popula are waiting for us to clear the room.”

Alma looks down at her legs almost as if to confirm they are still there. “I think I can, yes.”

“Slowly, now,” he advises her.

Making sure to keep her supported, even if he is himself beginning to feel his tired body rebel against his command, Dion rises to one knee and then stands. Alma stands too, slightly shakily at first but then seems to finds her balance. With Dion’s arm firmly wrapped around Alma’s back at waist-level and her hand gently holding his, they find their way to the door, where the corporal awaits.

“The room is yours to inspect, Corporal,” Dion tells her. “Thank you for your patience.”

“Don’t mention it. We’ll take care of things from now on,” Cala assures them, her voice kept low in respect for the dead. She spares Alma a sincere, worried look. “Do you need anything, Sergeant?”

Alma smiles weakly at her. “I just need this day to be done.”

Cala moves aside to let them through and they exit the holding area. Alma however, stops in her tracks and turns back for an instant.

“Corporal, whatever pieces you can gather of the bomb, I would like to examine them myself,” she requests.

Cala nods in acquiescence. “I’ll have them be taken to your office.”

“Where’s Inspector Sky?” the goddess asks suddenly.

Corporal Lamore glances subtly and nervously at Dion. He can almost read the thoughts rushing through the woman’s mind. The note Stathos had left, which said no more than “Forgive me. They have my family”, has opened the very real possibility of still more casualties to be dealt with tonight. And after witnessing Alma’s torment, Cala seems to be set on sparing her from further ordeals.

“He’s…gone to check on Stathos’ family,” she replies.

“Ah…” Alma mutters.

“Come on,” Dion speaks before the goddess gets a chance to think twice about it. “Let us get you to your room so you can rest.”

Alma follows his lead silently. At each step she seems surer on her legs, regaining composure as she becomes more confident that her body will hold. They walk by the assembled ranks of the Popula that are now returning to the station, hastily called out of bed to aid in manning the place and investigating the explosion. They look at Alma with concern. Her screams would probably have been heard from the street. Still, she makes a point to put on a sympathetic half smile for them, reassuring the world that she will be all right, without being insensitive to the loss of a fellow Guardia. Even if Stathos had not been one of the officers in her shift, Dion knows they used to chat over the occasional cup of coffee whenever the corporal happened to be at his desk at the moment of Alma’s return from her harvests.

They make their way out to the breezeway, walking slowly toward the bar. From inside, whimpers and cries escape through the wooden door, making the Dei hesitate for a moment. They stand silent, listening.

“The children…” Alma notes. “They must be terrified.”

“We can go elsewhere if you like,” Dion suggests. “There doesn’t seem to be much peace to be found in there.”

Alma seems to consider this for a moment before shaking her head slowly. “No… No mother could ever leave a frightened child without comforting.”

She reaches for the door and opens it. Dion waits for her to go through and after some further hesitation and a soft sigh, enters himself, closing the door behind him. The children are agitated, unable to sleep even if their bedtime is long past. The older ones are sitting against the wall, eyeing the door, the blankets and pillows they were given rolled up, ready to leave at the first opportunity and spend the night in the streets where at least bombs in the next building are not a major concern.

Only a short, curvy figure exuding a faint divine aura seems to stop them. With her fists resting clenched on her hips, foot tapping the floor with a strange, musical rhythm almost as if its owner is only instants away from starring in a song-and-dance scene, she is talking to them with the irritated tones of one who will just not be disobeyed.

“…and if you try to leave again, I’ll bring back the orchestra! And this time, you’ll be singing about rainbows and unicorns!” she states by way of threat.

The older children open their eyes wide, obviously taking the threat seriously. They sit muttering to themselves but making no obvious motion to escape. Dion cannot help but grin. Of all the things he suspected could frighten these rough and tough proto-street-thugs, a song-and-dance routine was not at the top of his list.

Alma walks to the short little goddess, greeting her with a soft, “Thank you, Kyri.”

Meanwhile, Geryon is nowhere to be seen, having already retired, exhausted, into Dion’s room. The Bunnies are attending to the smaller children, who are still too shaken by the scare of the bomb to settle down and sleep, trying to soothe them and get them all to lie down.

A little boy, more frightened than the rest, escapes Kori’s muscular grip and runs toward Alma, hugging her legs in search of solace. Something about the goddess must feel comforting to him, because he simply refuses to let go of her. She strokes his head slowly, her peaceful, cadent touch doing well in the way of soothing the sobbing child.

From his place by the door, her whispered words are barely audible to Dion. “Don’t be scared, little one. No more bad things will happen tonight.”

Still, the child refuses to let go, and still, Alma strokes his hair, holding him with her spare hand, a pale, glimmering pillar in the late-night twilight of dancing shadows produced by the sparse oil lamps mounted on brass rings along the walls. In her calm, unmoving countenance, the tranquil, repeated gestures, in the attention she spares the little boy and only him, she feels unshakeable, the source of an unreal and transcendental safety draped upon the whimpering child like a soft blanket.

Against his progressively weaker sobs, she sends her weak, unsteady, humming voice.

“Rest… now, child…”

The child looks up at her.

“And slip… into dreams,”

The room goes silent. Her voice gains strength.

“Let slumber take you away.

Pale moonlight

Through windows now streams

And with you forever I stay.”

The little boy tugs at her hand and she kneels by him, her eyes still focused on the small child. She holds him to her chest, invites him to lay his head on her lap. A sense of peace and safety spreads over the bar, carried by her voice. And for a moment, nothing else seems to exist but her song.

“To a bed of white blooms

And gardens in Spring

I bring you in peace and let lay.

Your slumbering eyes

That have seen everything

Will see no more today.”

The little boy’s eyes close. Slowly, other children edge closer.

“Sleep, you’re free,

And lay, safe with me.

Your dreams, please, don’t delay.

Now you can rest.

I heed your request

And with you forever I stay.”

“Ha! I knew that girl had a song in her!” Kyri whispers low, soft flutes beginning to play around the small goddess to add body to Alma’s song. “Lovely lullaby too. Bit eerie. Requiem-ny. But pretty.”

Dion glances at the short figure, confused by the music for a minute before remembering the famous musical qualities to Kyri’s magic. And still Alma’s song goes on, washing fear away from the world.

“I bring light in my eyes

Like rogue fireflies

To show the path and the way

To where you will go,

Far from danger and woe.

Not a soul I will leave gone astray.”

A lullaby… Dion thinks, closing his eyes. Death’s daughter’s song is a lullaby.

The serenity that envelops him, the way her voice seems to silence everything around her feels almost like magic. Beautiful as her voice is, Dion finds himself thinking that it is not that which has him entranced. Any voice would do if it carried that same soft touch, like a spoken caress, to the deep dark places of his mind. A mother’s voice… A mother’s song…

Has anyone ever sung like that to me? he wonders.

“Love, be done

With the light of the sun

Now that the stars come to play.

Forget fear tonight,

Hold my hand, take flight

And with you forever I stay.”

And in his mind, summoned by the words, something awakens. Faint and blurry at first, little more than a sensation of having felt like this before. Then the memory comes, hazy, glimpsing, long forgotten. The touch of cradling arms. Coppery hair falling in a veil around him. Pale lips moving in song.

Singing to him.

“At the edge of the dawn,

Where everything sleeps

Holding the seeds of the day,

Hidden deep in your heart

And caught in its keeps.

Rest in peace, I’ll keep bad dreams away.”

A hesitant touch to his shoulder breaks the spell and makes him turn his gaze to the door just in time to catch Voice Ewá stepping into the bar. By Dion’s side, PPC Longshot whispers his apologies along with a message from Sky. The god nods at the man but looks at Alma, still singing peacefully, the children quietly sleeping around her, the Bunnies standing, embracing each other.

“Close your eyes,

There is nothing to see.

Welcome the darkness and may”

She looks at him, smiling as she sings.

Sweetly…

“Dreams come true,”

Softly…

“Your soul’s destiny”

Gently….

“And with you forever I…”

Just for him.

“…stay.”