Ch6.17 Trust

“Finally! It’s like I’m out of jail!” Saira exclaims in pure joy.

Her hands interlocked, arms extended above her head, she stretches her back as she walks, glad to feel the cool night air against her face, her ears exulting at the dearly missed nightly sounds of a ward trying very hard to pretend to be asleep. For weeks, she has been stranded and trapped in her own body, in Alma’s room, in the bar, and now she finally has a good excuse to be outside without having to sneak out. Not that sneaking out is not fun. The Bunnies certainly make it a challenge, with those great ears of theirs, but there is a sense of freedom in this lifting of her captivity that she has not experienced in a long time. She knows she is not yet fully recovered but her mind demands the exercise as much as her body demands rest. She shivers in anticipation.

By her side, Somrak looks at her sideways, unable to help himself from watching her slim but now considerably less muscular frame curve as she stretches. “Remember what I said. If you feel any muscle tremors…”

Saira waves him off. “I know, I know.” She bats her eyelashes at him in mock submission. “I’ll just ask you to stop.”

This earns her a slight grimace. He has been badgering her with rules and advice since they left the station, like a scared babysitter. Of course, he has probably been threatened with all the tortures of Hell just to get the approval to bring her on this tour, something that leaves Saira mildly annoyed. For as much as she appreciates all the care put into her recovery, the general overprotectiveness of Alma and her brood’s vigilance can feel stifling to someone who has trusted her fate to the streets for years. Saira’s best judgement has kept her alive so far and against terrible odds in a world where women can consider themselves lucky if all that happens to them in a fight is getting beaten, and she would like to see this earn her at least some respect in the eye of a pretty goddess born with a silver spoon and the gift of immortality.

She looks down at her outfit, adapted from one of the older pieces in Alma’s wardrobe. Although practical, it is also a delicate thing, much like the goddess herself. The black fabric of the pants and shirt is light and flowy, the leather vest that protects her torso decorated with intricate floral patterns burned onto the surface. No cloak or hood tonight. One look at Alma’s choices in that department was enough to put that out of question but this means that her golden-brown hair, usually loose, now has to be braided. Black leather bands wrapped around her arms, forearms and thighs guard major blood vessels and provide places to carry blades or a quiver, but the patterns stitched onto them in (surprise!) obsidian-black thread glint faintly in the moonlight as if they were encrusted with tiny jewels. Saira’s old, worn sword-belt and the strap onto which her crossbow hangs clash as dramatically with the exquisite elegance of Alma’s clothing as her body does with that of the death goddess.

Taller and thinner, slender and willowy, Alma’s frame looks deceivingly frail, her body a transcendental vessel for surprising strength packed into effortlessly graceful movements. Saira is slightly shorter and, although shaped with the elegance of a dancer, motions smooth with years of practice, her curves trace well-toned muscles and speak of the force stored in flesh and tendon, efficient and deadly.

So different… the woman thinks to herself. But somehow…

She feels a connection to Alma, a shared wistfulness for the loss of fates that could have been but can never be. In this place, they call it saudade, a longing for something or someone gone, that may or may not return, and the nostalgia of days that can never happen again or even happen just once. The goddess who so often treats her like a child brings out an adult fascination in her. The differences between them seem to radiate from a common grief, like late winter and early spring bound together by the same chilly heart.

“So who is this contact you mentioned?” Somrak asks, breaking her train of thought.

Saira shrugs away her introspective mood. “Old acquaintance. It’s best if you just wait to meet him, trust me.” She glances at him. “How did you convince Mommy Alma to let me out, anyway?”

“She mostly convinced herself,” the god replies with a shrug. “I was already resigned to giving up when she finished thinking it through and saw how important it was.”

The answer somewhat surprises Saira. “Huh…”

“Saira…she cares for you,” Somrak notes grumpily, almost as a warning against any rash actions. “Very much. She did not want to say yes.”

Saira looks at him sideways. And why would someone like you care about something like that?

She knows what he is. He couldn’t hide his nature from her any more than a panther could hide from a leopard.

“Caring is just her first mistake,” she replies. “In this place here, caring gets you to one of two places: jail or grave… Which for us measly mortals is pretty much the same.” She adds with a shrug, “Learned that lesson a few times over.”

How many of her childhood friends have been taken to prison, never to return to their respective wards? The thought makes her reach instinctively for the butt of her crossbow, which she rubs as if it were an amulet of protection. A familiar alley looms to her right and she jerks her head in that direction. “This way.”

“This place?” Somrak inquires conversationally, following her with the casual, falsely relaxed gait of someone used to treading in dark places. “You mean the universe?”

Saira chuckles bitterly at the irony in his voice. “You tell me. My universe keeps changing sizes.”

Somrak nods, looking straight at the end of the alley. “You’re right of course. About caring. Still…”

She cuts him off, humorlessly. “You gonna tell me I need to leave the life and settle down too? I’ll be real disappointed if that’s your agenda here.”

Somrak’s lips curl in a half-smile. The side of his face that she can see is barely touched by the scar, making him look less cynical than probably intended. “You don’t see me fitting myself for an easy chair, do you? But it’s nice having someone who cares.” He looks down for a moment, his smile widens a little as he whispers half to himself. “Even when you know it’s foolish.”

Ah…so you got someone who cares too…

They reach the end of the alleyway, where two smaller alleys open their dark mouths into the night. A faint, scratching noise tells Saira that her contact is in the alley to her left and available for business. The subtle contrast of moving shadows reveals his position.

She takes a longer step and turns to stand in front of Somrak, her left hand on his stomach, forcing him to stand still. He looks at her questioningly as she draws her crossbow and loads it, so used to the movements that she can do all this without taking her eyes away from his.

“Careful, love. You’ll melt into those leathers if you get any softer,” she taunts him, voice soft as satin.

She is showing off, yes, but this is sort of the national sport of rogues everywhere and it is not every day that she gets to play the game with someone who is worth the trouble. Still looking at him, seeing a trace of concern in his eyes, she aims the crossbow into the shadows and fires. Almost immediately, they hear the cry of her wounded prey.

“Time to be tough now,” she grins into his shocked face and taps his chest before turning and strutting into the alley, crossbow resting against her shoulder. Ain’t every day you get to surprise a god!

“Squid of tha devil!” a familiar voice echoes through the alleyway. “Wha’ do I look like, a walkin’ kebab?!”

“Cal, Cal, Cal….” Saira says she travels about half of the alley between two stubby buildings, to where her contact is still grumbling.

“I’m jus’ mindin’ my own business here! Who tha Hell shoots into a dark alley, anyway?! You oughta be ashamed of yourself, shootin’ a holy priest like me!”

She nearly drops her crossbow at the sight of the terrestrial cuttlefish trying to pry the bolt from his mantle with his two longest tentacles, his eyes crossed as he tries to see the wooden shaft stuck far above his head, his body glowing bright red in anger. Laughing now would ruin her act but she can barely keep a straight face while he tugs pointlessly at the thing, body jerking back and forth under the force of each tug.

“Can’t! Get! This! OUT!”

“It’s not stuck in anything vital,” Saira states, struggling to keep a serious tone. “Besides, you leave it in there, you can really sell the martyr complex.”

“Ah, screw it…” Cal mutters, finally giving up. “You got a point there.” He takes a good look at her before pointing an accusatory tentacle. “Hey, you should be dead!”

Saira rolls her eyes at this. “If I had a half-hekte for every time somebody said ‘I thought you was dead.’ Listen, I need to resupply. When and where is the next night-market?”

Cal lifts half of his tentacles up and shrugs (insomuch any cuttlefish standing upright on its tentacles can shrug). “What do I look like, a newspaper? The Hell should I know?”

“Huh,” Saira huffs, pulling a fresh bolt from the quiver strapped to her right thigh. “Well then, I guess I could use some more target practice. Pretty sure you’ve got a few vital organs in there somewhere. Certainly not your brain…”

“Pretty tough talkin’ for someone lookin’ like the next Miss Insula…” Cal mutters. “OW!”

He twirls on two tentacles, trying to see the bolt now stuck on his head-fin. “The heck you do that for?! I was complementin’!” He stops, looking at her appraisingly, like a fashion designer inspecting a model. “You’re lookin’ all flowy an stuff! Kinda like a squid but better. Not so soft about the endoskeleton.”

Somrak’s approach has Cal flashing the purplish pink of suspicion. “He who you’re all dressed up for? This a date?” The cuttlefish asks in what he probably thinks is a conspiratorial tone. “Need a table and a plate of seaweed? I can arrange it…”

Saira, her brow knitted at being compared to a squid, shakes her head, starts reloading her crossbow. “Cal, that one was in your fin. Gonna start going more center-mass.”

Cal watches her aim a third bolt at him. “You know, I liked the other guy better. You didn’ shoot me when you was with ‘im.”

Somrak’s hands start to flicker with flames. “I’m starting to feel like cooking some seafood.”

Saira sighs and shakes her head. Tough guy act… It is obvious that this is his first encounter with Calimari Cal. Anyone dealing with Cal knows better than to rush. The cuttlefish is like an old radio: he’ll work better and longer than the more expensive models but only provided you know where to bang him with the hammer. Repeatedly.

Cal is so used to this routine that the show of force doesn’t even excite his cromatophores.

“Oh, you is?” He sways back on three tentacles and, suddenly, Somrak is covered in ink. “Cook that!”

He dashes down the alley, and Saira shoots him again. “OW!” He complains after falling face first and getting up again. “I ain’t stoppin’!!”

Just as he is about to escape the narrow alley, fire sprouts ahead of him, forming a wall of flames that bars his way. Cal skids to a halt, tripping on his own tentacles. He falls belly up, flailing madly in a panic.

“Oh, Great Cuttlefish!” he cries. “Save me from tha flames! Flames is for tha squids! I’ll even start prayin’ ta ya for real! Just save me from tha flames!”

From the other side of the fiery barricade, a tiny, raspy voice yells, “Gettin’ the butter!”

“Shut up, Frankie!” Cal shouts. “Just get tha water!”

Saira and Somrak walk up to the struggling cephalopod at their own leisure. Trying very hard not to look or stand too close to the fire god as he grumbles and shakes droplets of foul-smelling ink off his tight red-and-black leathers, Saira can barely keep a shaky grin off her lips that threatens to turn into full-blown laughter as she says, “Just give us the location, will you? I have some bastards to shoot and some of them will need a little special sauce. But you…” She kicks Cal’s mantle to help him turn right side up. “I don’t need anything special to send you to meet your Great Cuttlefish.”

Cal turns, managing a grip on the polished cobblestones strong enough to straighten and rise to his feet – make that walking tentacles. His voice turns mellowy and smooth, the kind that could convince an armless man to buy a lifetime supply of lacey gloves. “Come on, Sai. You wouldn’t do that. We’s buddies, right? How long we’ve been workin’ together, you an’ me? You shoot me, I scream, give you what you want. It’s like, our thing. Don’ go an’ ruin a good thing for a walkin’ barbecue.” He wraps a tentacle around her thigh and pulls her away from Somrak and the wall of flames, glancing back at the fire god with a definite tone of I’m-gonna-getcha-see-if-I-don’t. “I’m your pal. We’ve done the shootin’ and the screamin’. Tell the campin’ stove turn off the gas an’ we’ll find what you want, yeah?”

“You try to run again, cephalopod, and I’ll cook you from the inside out,” Somrak growls but cancels flame wall.

Cal spins and lunges toward him at lightning speed, poking a tentacle at Somrak’s belly. “Hey! Who you callin’ cephalopod?” He seems to remember the meaning of the word. “Oh..right…Anyway, whaddya want, Mistah Ponytail?”

Saira sighs. Somrak looks just about to forget his advice about not starting a fight. “Same thing as I want. Time. Location.”

Cal turns to look at her, then up at the sky. “Hmm.. Time’s tomorrow night. Location is at the corner of Don’t Know and Can’t Tell.”

Saira stares at him, humor gone from her face. She pulls another bolt from her quiver, this time one with a yellow ring around the shaft, the mark she uses for tips laced with demon ichor.

“Too bad, Cal,” she states, reloading her crossbow and aiming it at the cuttlefish. “You know when I make a threat, I always follow through. Been nice knowing you…”

“Oh, come on, Sai!” Cal shrieks, tentacles up in the air.  “I really don’ know!”

Somrak moves to Saira’s side and puts a hand on her crossbow, forcing her to lower the weapon. In response to her questioning look, he pulls out a small copper amulet the size of a stater coin out of a pocket and tosses it at Cal. “Will this help?”

Cal catches the amulet in a tentacle and looks at it under the moonlight, skin flashing bright orange and yellow in surprise. “You ‘ad this all along? Whaddya need me for? You already got the key!”

“Then turn the lock for us and we’ll get out of your…epidermis…” Somrak suggests.

Cal’s cromatophores turn his body the purplish pink of suspicion. “You got some pretty nice words for a thug…” He looks at Saira, voice low. “This one’s a bluefish too…Like the other one! You turnin’ bad, now? Betrayin’ the streets? Shame on you!”

Somrak’s hands ball into fiery fists. “Calling me a cop? You really want to see what it’s like in the grave, don’t you?”

Cal’s body starts to smoke slightly but he remains defiant. “I ain’t never been afraid o’ tha Guardia, Mistah. I just ain’t stupid either.”

“You keep calling me Guardia, you’re going to learn fear,” Somrak threatens, eyes flaring with flame. Standing by his side, Saira can feel the blistering heat rising from him. “Just because I was sent to school… Now very briefly, tell us how to use that and we can all say goodnight.”

Cal makes a show of shrugging as smoke billows faintly from his mantle and the alley is filled with the scent of cooked seafood. “Ya know, they don’t call me Calimari Cal for nothin’. Anyways…” He moves closer to Somrak, holding the amulet in front of him. “This here’s a map of these streets. All the side alleys that don’t come on no normal map. Some don’ even exist most of the time. That’s why it don’t make no sense. But if you wanna find the market…”

He extends a tentacle to slowly grab one of Somrak’s blazing fists and pull it down under the amulet. A glowing dot immediately starts glowing over one of the many black squiggly lines engraved on its coppery surface. “Put it over a flame. The spot it marks will be there when the moon is right. If you got the key on you, you’ll get in, no sweat.”

Somrak cancels his flames and reaches for the amulet but Cal pulls his tentacle back. “Lose the key, though, and you’re locked in,” the cuttlefish warns. “Or locked out, dependin’ on perspective.”

Saira waits for Cal to hand the amulet back to the god before unloading and putting away her crossbow. “If I start hearing nasty rumors about me and the Guardia, Cal, you know what’s going to happen,” she says coldly.

Cal throws four tentacles up in exasperation. “Now, why’d you have ta go an’ say that? I tol’ you, Cal’s your pal!” He jerks a tentacle at the opposite end of the alley. “Now, get outta here so’s I can go fetch some shears and get these harpoons outta my juicy self before I start growin’ spiky hair and enjoyin’ that music that sounds like a cat tryin’ ta hump a whale. Seriously! If I wanted one o’them piercin’ thingies, I’d have gone to a fishin’ contest and offer myself as a prize catch.”

Somrak looks at Saira and asks in low tones. “You sure about leaving him alive?”

Saira sighs and nods. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, she’s sure, Mistah Smiles-a-lot!” Cal echoes before turning to Saira. “Next time you come visit…bring that chick bluefish instead. If I’m gonna get all hot under the mantle, at least it’ll be for a good reason,” he tells her before walking away. “Hmm…I’m gettin’ hungry for some reason…”

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Ch5.38 Shards

Ah, the life of a rogue is equal parts a tragedy and never-ending fun!

Being fated to walk the dark alleys and rooftops while wearing a permanent target on one’s forehead (back…chest…leg…pick a body part) is a terrible thing. No place is a safe place, no face is a friendly face, no friend is a loyal friend…

Hell’s gates, no soul is a friend!

On the other hand, if one’s idea of fun involves days that are never alike and nights that are one’s to command, then the life of a rogue is the life to live. The law is but a word and justice is at arm’s length and within crossbow’s reach.

Morals are the luxury of the weak. Principle is the safeguard of the innocent. To those to whom Life and Fate have not been kind, a caring heart is the gift of the blessed. A strong arm, a resilient mind, those are the blessings of the outcasts.

Those are the tools of the ghosts in the alleys.

Currently, however, this ghost is not feeling all that insubstantial. What should have been a minor scuffle to get rid of two former Dukaines in their house turned out to involve a rather interesting assortment of blades, chains, a salt shaker, and two iron skillets. The fight ended with two dead ex-Dukaines (one of which attesting to what grain sized, white crystals of dried-out fish bathwater and universal irony can do to one’s eyeballs) and one bruised Saira. The assassin grins under her hood. That will show the others just how unlucky it can be, spilling salt all over the place like that.

And I did acquire a great new set of toys to use next time, she thinks as she steps into the dusty old air of the abandoned schoolhouse.

She stops to smell the air again and raises an eyebrow. The still atmosphere of the schoolhouse is like soft clay on a forest path. No visitor can expect to leave it unchanged, no invader can hope to go undetected. Just breathing the ancient, forgotten air is enough to leave a mark.

Well, the footprints on the dusty floors and the faint sounds of someone trying to stick a crossbow bolt into a certain chink on the wall help as well. She enters the long-abandoned classroom to see a hulking form fighting with the crumbling plaster, trying to get the bolt to stay stuck. Her grin widens.

My, oh my, look who it is, she tells herself, removing her hood. Inspector Tuma-Sukai.

His muttered swearing covers her silent approach perfectly as she sneaks up behind him and whispers in his ear. “We need to stop meeting like this, love.”

Crouched by the wall, the Inspector stiffens and half-turns to meet her gaze with his own intense brown eyes. If the unexpected, whispered words startled him, finding Saira’s face hovering half a breath away from his does nothing to make him relax. His umber cheeks take on a lovely hint of red at her sight.

Still, he looks somewhat relieved that it is her face and not, say, a demon dog’s looking back at him. “Something has happened,” he says, turning to face her fully as he rises. “I need your help. One of the Bunnies has been taken.”

Saira cocks her head. “You mean the animals or the–” Here she places a hand on the back of his head and sticks up two fingers like fake long ears, “–kiddies?” Hell’s demons, this guy is a walking tree. She has to stretch her whole body to reach behind his head, and press her chest against his.

To her deep pleasure, his adam’s apple bobs slightly at the touch, even as he narrows his eyes at her. However, he manages to regain some composure and before he speaks again. “One of Alma’s children. Sage.”

Saira hesitates before replying. Informing the Guardia in exchange for immunity is one thing. But all these favors to the Dei are sending the wrong image to the streets. Too many of them and she will be known as the biggest rat in Three Rats. Where the will of the mob rules the streets, street rep can be all that stands between an outlaw and certain death.

“You seem to be under the impression that I actually care,” she finally says, relaxing and moving slightly back.

“It isn’t just him,” Tuma-Sukai insists. “I told you before that children have been disappearing.” 

“And I have told you before that children always disappear in Three Rats,” Saira retorts. “Sometimes even on purpose,” she adds with a low, theatrical bow.

After all, I was one of them.

The joke falls on deaf ears and angry brains. Tuma-Sukai does not reply but his expression speaks volumes. His brow furrows, his jaw locks. And more disturbingly, pitch-black ink lines begin bleeding faintly through the skin of his cheeks, twisting and curling where moments before had been that delightful blush.

Still, there are nastier looking fellows out there. Longer teeth, more hair, sharper talons, the usual array of spikes and scales. Compared to them, Tuma-Sukai looks no more threatening than a one-eyed goat at a petting zoo.

His anger earns him no more than a raised eyebrow from the hardened killer, along with a slightly annoyed, “Tough audience tonight, huh?”

“This is not the time for bad jokes,” the Inspector growls. “If you want to pretend you don’t care about Three Rats, it’s all the same to me, but this is one of Alma’s children. And I can’t lose him.”

“I owe her and you nothing,” Saira hisses in return. “If anything, you people owe me. It’s one thing to be asked for help but I don’t like people throwing threats and debts in my face like that, Guardia!”

She turns away to leave, her voice bitter with resentment. “Being good is your job, not mine. And I ain’t never seen Guardia doing their job right.”

“Yes, you have! I was there. The promise she made, we kept. We’ve been doing our best and still it’s not enough! And two of my people may well burn for it, along with the Bunnies.” Tuma-Sukai’s voice issues from locked jaws, as if clenched teeth are the only thing preventing him from roaring his frustration and filling the empty rooms and hollow corridors with echoes, making the building sound like a courtroom teeming with accusations. “I have people getting stretched to their limits, underpaid and badly equipped, getting hurt because there’s too few Popula and only one Dei! And it would be so much easier to just cut deals with all the different shards and ride the wave until they pick a leader! And still, we keep our promise!

Saira remains in silence. Alma’s promise had been to not give up on Three Rats, in exchange for the Pearl. And from what Tuma-Sukai is saying, whatever they did, these clumsy Dei, the Dukaines fell in their wake. That alone is more than any of Saira’s or anyone else’s efforts have achieved in a long, long time. Heck, every Guardia station in any neighboring ward is either a pit of corruption or just a plain pit, everyone knows that! But not Three Rats Station.

Truth be told, Three Rats is becoming known as the only place in this quarter of the Fourth Ring where anyone can hope to enter a Guardia station in search for help and actually find it. Even their household doctor has opened up a clinic to help the people who can’t afford to get sick. No matter the chaos they may have caused, these Guardia are raising hope where there was not even the strength left to despair.

Of course, if Alma’s Bunnies are to stay in Three Rats, she would have every interest in keeping the streets safe for her offspring. So maybe that’s why she promised. Yet, her promise is being kept by the others, even in her absence. Even in the face of the craziest odds.

So why do they refuse to give up? Saira wonders. What’s so special about these newbies? And why do I care?

“If you need further motivation,” Tuma-Sukai interrupts her train of thought, “Aliyah Kaur. She and Sage are very close.”

That he would think that the mere mention of Aliyah’s name would actually move her makes Saira snort. But she has to admit, there’s more to this than just a bonus shot at some former Dukaines. What more exactly…that’s something for some other time. Probably involving some booze.

I’m gonna regret this, I just know I will, the assassin thinks to herself. Oh well, time to jump!

“Very well, love,” she concedes. “I may know something about this.”

She starts walking toward the door, glancing over her shoulder to see the inky lines start to fade on the Inspector’s face.

“Follow me and do me a favor,” she adds as she guides him into the darkness. “Leave your goody good-guy act behind. I’ll bet your dear death goddess won’t be bothering with morals either when she finds out you let one of her kids be taken while she was out. Oh and…”

A loud bump echoes in the shadows.

“…mind the low doorways.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Where are we going?” Tuma-Sukai asks as they rush through the complicated labyrinth of the dark crisscrossed alleyways of Three Rats.

“We’re gonna meet an acquaintance of mine,” Saira replies, hushing the Inspector once they arrive at a turn in a narrow path that looks exactly like any other alley in this part of the ward. “Shh… There he is.”

“Frankie? Frankie?!” a familiar voice accompanied by eight flailing tentacles calls out. “Where da heck is that li’l bugger? I swear he spends more time runnin’ around than–”

Saira signals for Tuma-Sukai to stay where he is before taking a shortcut to the other end of the alley.

“I’m gonna rip yer walkin’ tentacles off, Frankie!” the raging cephalopod goes on as she steps out of the shadows. “See how fast you run the–”

“Hello Cal…” she says.

“Holy Cuttlefish, creepy much?!” Calamari Cal shrieks.

Saira grins. “You don’t know the half of it. And you might wanna look behind you before you scuttle back from me any further.”

She nearly bursts out laughing when Cal turns around all of a sudden only to hit the towering figure of Tuma-Sukai, blocking his way. The walking cuttlefish falls backward, squirting black ink all over the inspector’s uniform with the fright.

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud, what is this, an intervention?!” Cal yells, tentacles flailing in the effort of getting back upright. “I’ve told ya, already, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no demon black market!”

“Demon black market?” Tuma-Sukai asks, shaking ink off a shoe.

“Focus, Guardia,” Saira warns him.

“Guardia? Whaddya mean Guardia?!” Cal cries, finally managing to get back on his tentacles. “Why’re you walkin’ around with a bluefish?”

He turns to Sky, his eyes narrow with distrust. “I didn’ do nothin’ and you can’t prove it.”

The Inspector’s eyes narrow as well but with the effort of remembrance. “You’re the one who visits Merri and Cherry’s bar, aren’t you?”

“What if I do?” Cal asks in the perennially rebellious tones of any small-time con artist talking to the law. “That forbidden now, Guardia?”

“You must know Sage then,” Tuma-Sukai insists. “He’s been kidnapped.”

Cal’s fin wiggles nervously at the name. “Is he one a’ them bunny people? Dark skin, with the pointy tentacles on his head?”

The description makes the inspector hesitate for a moment. “Er… yes.”

Cal’s body shakes suddenly in a cuttlefishy shrug. “Nope, never heard of ’im. Sorry. If that’s all there is, I’ll be goin’ now.”

He tries to leave. Unfortunately for him, there are only two ways out of the alley and walking away from Tuma-Sukai means walking right into Saira. The tip of her dagger makes his squishy flesh flap inward.

“Talk to me, citizen,” the Inspector orders.

“I heard you were telling a story, Cal,” Saira says conversationally. “About one of your kids and some other street kids.”

“You can’t hurt me!” Cal protests, edging away from the blade, chromatophores blinking with all sorts of colors in his nervousness. “Imma priest fer tha Great Cuttlefish. He’s the one true god! So technically, you’se other gods are fake an’ I can’t be hurt on account o’ some law or somethin’. Read yer books!”

“There’s quite a bit I can do to you if I need to, and still be within the bounds of the law,” Tuma-Sukai states, his voice low and vaguely terrifying for being so calm.

“And I’m not a goddess,” Saira adds, playfully waving the dagger in front of her. “Or Guardia, for that matter. Come on, I ain’t got all night!”

“You’se need ta eat less meat,” Cal mutters. “All that red stuff makes ya grumpy.”

He looks at their less-than-amused faces before giving up. “Fine, fine, what’s in it fer me if I talk?”

“I’m sure that Merri and Cherry would provide quite a few free drinks for someone who helped find Sage,” Tuma-Sukai offers. “On the other hand, if someone knew something and didn’t share it…”

“If that’s not enough motivation,” Saira contributes, “I’ve heard you can regenerate those tentacles, but it still hurts getting ’em cut off.”

“All right, all right, I get where ye’re goin’,” Cal gives in, looking around suspiciously and lowering his voice. “So here’s the grit. Two days ago, Pholupus–”

“Pholupus?” Saira interrupts.

“Ya try ta name three hundred seventy-five kids of yer own and we’ll see how that goes,” Cal growls. “Wanna hear the story or not?”

“Keep talking,” Tuma-Sukai urges him.

“Thanks,” Cal replies, waggling a tentacle at Saira. “Just between you and me, she really needs a mate ta calm her down. Have some few hundred spawnlings ta chase around. Mebbe ya could do somethin’ ’bout that, ya two-legged critters all have weird tastes like that.”

He tilts his body up at the progressively angrier inspector. “Tha’s a nice shade o’ black, by the way. Nice smooth lines too,” he comments, seemingly unphased by the emerging tattoos. “Almost as good as one dem bloody squids. Aaaaanyway… So, Pholupus was bein’ roughed around by some two-leggies when a buncha big fellas, like big-ass monkeys or somethin’, all muscles and furry tails and long purple hair an’ all, suddenly showed up and snatched two kiddies just like that.”

“This is the first description of these child slavers we’ve received since it started,” Tuma-Sukai notes.

“Well, Phol’s no fool,” Cal says with a hint of fatherly pride. “He’s no human, neither. Dem Snatchers din’t want nothin’ ta do with him. He got outta their sight fast as seahorses in seaweed.”

“Did he see where they went?” Saira asks.

Cal shrugs again, the wackiest of sights. “Sure, he followed ’em all the way to that abandoned warehouse on the corner of Catinga an’ Sharva. Said they gotta buncha kids there.”

The Inspector looks at Saira and she nods subtly in understanding. Next stop: bad guy lair.

“Cal, thank you,” he says. “I would like to ask one more thing of you, and I can assure you you’ll be rewarded for it.”

“What am I, an errand boy?” Cal argues for the sake of things. “Fine, Guardia, whaddya want?”

“Go straight to the station,” Tuma-Sukai instructs. “Tell Corporal Cala the location of the warehouse and that I said to send a team. And then tell Merri and Cherry that your drinks are on me until further notice.”

He looks questioningly at Saira. Seems that for all his running around, the good Inspector doesn’t know his way around the maddening labyrinth of streets in that part of the ward yet. Pfffft…rookies… Saira jerks her head in the direction they need to follow and the Inspector joins her in getting out of the alley as fast as possible.

Behind them, they hear Cal. “Heh, Frankie can do that. Yo, Frankie! I swear that kid’s been practicin’ camouflage with the octopuses again! Frankie!”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 18

“Hey! Speak of the devil-fish!” Aliyah laughs at her witticism as she and Cala stride into the bar behind their station. Cherry and Rosemary, still disagreeing about the name, are variously calling it the Celestial Bunny, the Urban Bunny, the Drunken Guardia, and many other names. Those customers, so far almost exclusively those working in the station next door, but little by little including nearby residents and those who pass through the area as the word spreads that it’s the safest bar in the ward, with the prettiest bartenders, tend to call it just “the Bunny Bar,” though when Cherry and Merri grow heated in their usually good-natured argument over the name, some of their patrons join in with ideas of their own, many of them bawdy jokes, such as Casa das Coelhinhas. And thus the pool of names grows and the argument shows no sign of ending.

Cala, entering just behind Aliyah, says drily, “Hello, Cal… We were just talking about you.”

The bar’s newest customer swivels on his barstool, a half-dozen of his shorter tentacles clinging firmly to the stool and one longer one slapping onto the bar to keep from tipping over. The other long tentacle is around Rosemary’s waist, the redheaded bunny laughing at something he’d just said, her freckled face pink.

Cal says, “Ugh… and Ah was havin’ a lovely day too, ‘till youse two showed up…”

Aliyah leans against the bar with a grin. “Aww, Cal…you know you love us!”

Cala crosses her arms and looks disapprovingly at the tentacle he has around Merri. “So what brings you here?”

Cal grunts and removes the tentacle after giving the Bunny a little squeeze, whispering to her, “Sorry, sweetcheeks but this one ain’t gone no sense of humor like you and me do.” He produces a soggy note from somewhere in the recesses of his mantle and extends it to Cala. “Ah came fer this note I got sent. What’s this ‘bout a bill, coppers? Ah give youse access, cooperate with youse and ye’re makin’ me pay?”

Cala takes the bill and checks it, then glares at him. “This all seems perfectly reasonable. We could have just arrested you, you know. In fact, we still could.”

Aliyah quietly orders a beer from Merri before she loudly adds, “Yeah, and Nate an’ Syro don’t exactly work for free, y’know! They’re experts!”

Cala leans closer to the cephalopod’s huge eyes. “And that doesn’t even take into account all the harm you’ve done! People are still recovering!”

Cal throws a few of his tentacles up in the air and flashes red. “Ah was gettin’ them closer to tha Great Cuttlefish!! Ain’t mah fault youse human people ain’t cut out tah receive divine messages!”

“Excuses!” Cala explodes. “Always excuses with you! All right, that’s it! I’m going to speak with the Sergeant… You know, Cal, we’ve kept this quiet until now, but–”

“Wait a second!” Aliyah interrupts, beer halfway to her mouth, one hand held up in a “stop!” gesture, obviously struck by a sudden thought. For a long moment she just stares at the wall of the bar, at the cheap posters of local singers and amateur sports teams. Then she looks at Cal. “You know, you really poisoned some people. But stickin’ you in jail ain’t gonna help nobody. I think…maybe I got a better idea.”

Before she can stop herself, Cala mutters, “Oh no…”

Cal crosses four of his tentacles and harrumphs. “Ah… Ah was wonderin’ when tha ‘special requests’ would start. Youse law enforcers are all alike, ya are. Spill it, copper. Whaddya want tah make this go away?”

Aliyah waves that off. “No no no no! Not a bribe! I’m talkin’ about showin’ some real community spirit here! Helpin’ everyone, no matter if they have legs or tentacles! Nate’s been taking’ about this for awhile now…”

Cala brightens. “You mean…the hospital?”

“Yeah! I mean think about it! A hospital with the Great Cuttlefish right there plastered over the doorway!” Aliyah holds her hands out, describing it through gestures along with her words.

Cal mutters as he considers it. “Hmm… A house o’ health in tha name o’ tha Great Cuttlefish… That…could work… Ah’m already in tha pharmaceuticals business, anyhow…”

Cala sharply cuts him off. “You will not be prescribing any drugs!”

Ignoring Cala, Cal looks at Aliyah sideways. “An’ supposin’ Ah’d be willin’ tah play along wi’that. Who’d be in charge o’ tha…ye know…tha gold bills o’health?”

Aliyah thinks about it. “Well Doc Nate’s gonna be in charge, but yeah, maybe he needs a secretary.”

Cala adds, “Not you, though, Cal – you are the spiritual benefactor. And a grifter of long standing. It’ll have to be someone that everyone can trust.”

Cal angrily retorts, “Are youse callin’ me dishonest? When have Ah been dishonest, tell me? Ah’m tellin’ ye, copper, ye’ll nevah meet a cuttlefish ye can’t trust! Them squids now…”

From back in the kitchen, a squeaky voice calls out, “Flames n’ butter!” Immediately following, Cherry squeaks in surprise and shouts, “Who the heck are you and what’re you doin’ in my kitchen? Go on, scat!” The sound of her rattling a pan sends the young cuttlefish scurrying into the main room, and Cherry spots the Guardia. “Oh hey guys! Thought I heard you two out here.”

Cal looks at the cops then shrugs. “Come on, ye gotta at least admire the lil’ bugger’s conviction…”

Aliyah waves hello and then returns to the earlier point. “Well, there was that time you tried to sell nonexistent stocks to those little old ladies…”

Cala interrupts her. “Let’s not even get started on counting all the lies Cal has told. The point is…” –here she pauses to look at Aliyah in admiration– “that’s a really good idea.”

Aliyah grins. “Aw, thanks! I do have one, once in awhile…”

“Must be the booze talkin’…” Cal mutters.

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 16

Calimari Cal watches impatiently, nervously tapping a tentacle on the floor, while Nataniel and Syro run their analyses in the Sanctuary room.

“You done yet?” he asks for the twentieth time in the last fifteen minutes.

“No,” Nataniel replies automatically.

“I am afraid we are just about as done as we were two minutes ago, Mister Calamari,” Syro notes.

“Don’ you call me that!” Cal hisses, stomping the floor with his tentacle.

Syro looks at him, a slight look of confusion on his perennially impassible face.

“I’m sorry, is that not your name?” he asks.

“No, it’s not,” Cal says with the cephalopod equivalent of a pout. “It’s a street name some squids gave me on account o’ bein’ almost cooked alive when I was jus’ lil’ ’n’ playin’ in tha street, close to a fried-goods stall. Stoopid squids. Cuttlefish will get’em all!”

“With flames an’ butter!” a child-like cuttlefish voice cries.

Cal turns around to look at his nephew. “Oh, there ya are, Frankie, ya lil’ hatchlin’!” he exclaims, placing a couple of tentacles vaguely where they hips would be on a human. “Where were ya when I needed ya?!”

“I went tah cook tha holy offerin’s fer yer lunch, Uncle,” Frankie says apologetically.

“Shut up, Frankie!” Cal hisses. He turns to Nate and Syro. “Sorry ’bout that. Kids ’n’ their big mouths.”

“And their way of telling the truth…” Nataniel mutters.

“Yeah… Real bugger, that,” Cal comments. “So, ya done yet?”

“No!” the Guardia officers cry in unison.

Calimari Cal throws four tentacles to the air in  exasperation, the chromatophores on his mantle flashing red and purple. “C’mon, guys! I got prayers tah say, people tah rip-o – oooooooooooff  tha jaws of their misguided beliefs.”

“And intoxicate with these sulphurous fumes, it seems,” Syro adds, shaking his head slowly. “The bathroom has a fissure on one of its walls, through which toxic fumes are infiltrating. I am afraid you will need to seal that room from public use, Mister Calamari.”

“Oh…” Cal whispers. “How ’bout private use?”

Cierra-la, Cal!” Nataniel nearly yells. “Just seal off the damned room.”

Cal hesitates for a moment, syphons flaring open in silent contemplation, but then waves a tentacle in agreement. “Fine, fine. Will that fix it?”

“Yes, provided it is properly sealed,” Syro states.

Cal nods in acceptance. “Good. So… you’s done now, right?”

“Yes, yes we are,” Nataniel says, probably as glad to get rid of Cal as the cuttlefish is of putting some distance between him and the cops.

“Good!” Calimari Cal replies, rushing Nate and Syro out the door of the Sanctuary. “A-di-ós, coppers!”

“Goodbye, Mister Calamari,” Syro greets, bowing his head slightly in old-fashioned etiquette before turning to leave. “Our colleagues will come by shortly to sort out the fines and fees.”

“Good, good,” Calimari responds, turning back into the Sanctuary. A moment later, he emerges again, nervously flushed. “Wait, what fees??”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 14

“Embrace tha gifts of tha Great Cuttlefish! Heed His callin’ and he’ll bring blessins into yer lives, mah Brothers and Sistas! As he spake tah me just t’other day, ‘Cal,’ he says tah me ’cuz we’s buddies and I’m his priest, ‘Cal’, he says, ‘Go forth an’ spread mah word and there’ll always be bread on yer doorstep and wine in yer napkin.’ At this point, Imma tell yah I think he was a bit on tha tipsy side but I know what he meant, Brothers! And Sistas… Sistas are important too and ain’t no one talkin’ ’bout sistas ’nough these days, ain’t that right Brenda? ’xcept people talk ’bout yah everyday on account of yah bein’ always in everybody’s business, but that’s fine, Cuttlefish loves yah anyways. And that’s His message, mah people! Accept His love and he’ll always make sure ye’re not short of somethin’ tah eat and tah have. And I promise I’ll have a talk with Him ’bout his aimin’ when it comes tah the wine… Aaaaaanyways! Who here will accept His touch today and see His message first hand? I got the sanctuary all fired up and there best be somebody ready tah take in tha Holy Visions ’cuz I can’t on account of havin’ tah write everythin’ down fer future interpretation of Cuttlefish’s wise words and His message tah y’all young and attractive people. Not you, Brenda. I ain’t talkin’ ’bout you.”

Cala almost flinches in disgust from the flood of preaching as she and Aliyah pull open the doors of the restaurant-turned-church, which reveals its mundane past in the form of scarred tables and splintered counters, but which is festooned with blue and green bunting and crude handmade posters depicting a tentacled deity blessing a motley collection of mortals of various species. “Ugh, ridiculous prattle…”

Aliyah laughs. “Good ol’ Calimari Cal. He’s hilarious! Really built up a head of steam there.” She cups her hands around her mouth and shouts, “Yo! Cal!”

“And so I say – Oh, crap, what’s tha cops doin’ here? I mean, that’s not what I say… Y’all just pray amongst yerselves.” The preacher, his bishop’s-mitre-shaped body rising almost as high as Cala’s shoulder, huge blue eyes with barbell-shaped irises down near the floor, slithers down from the pulpit and stage on eight relatively short, muscular tentacles, holding up two longer ones questioningly. “Whaddyah want?! I’m preachin’ here!” His squeaky voice blats out from a modified organ to the side, that would normally be used for channeling water, if his species of giant cuttlefish had not evolved to live on land.

“Preaching?” Cala says with disdain. “You call all that preaching? You’re no holy man. You’re nothing but a small-time grifter.”

Aliyah looks a little thoughtful and blurts out, “Are you even male, Cal?”

The cephalopodic preacher tilts back to glare up at her, the chromatophores in his skin flashing agitatedly. “I’m as male as an octopus in heat, Miss Copper! And that was some real good preachin’ too! Just ’cuz yah can do all that kneelin’ and risin’ stuff, it don’t mean mah kind o’preachin’ ain’t preachin’. We all gots our styles. Get with tha times, lady! Now, whadda youse two want from me?”

Aliyah crosses her arms and says, “We got people wanderin’ around the streets talking about crickets and oversexed llamas!”

Cala rolls her eyes and says more clearly, “We have reports that your worshippers are imbibing some kind of mind-altering drug. What do you know about it?”

The land-cuttlefish turns white with fear. “I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout no drugs. All I know now is tha callin’ and message o’ tha great Cuttlefish, God of all Cefflapods. ’cept fer squids – he don’t like no squids… Thinking they’s too important tah have Cuttlefish as a god an’all… Oh! An’ God of saltwater and seaweed and stuff like that. An’ crabs! He likes crabs too. Grilled… with a slice o’lemon.”

“Aww! Poor squids…” Aliyah sounds sincerely sad.

Cal points an accusatory tentacle at her. “Don’t yah side wit’ dem!!! They’s evil, I tells yah! They’s snobbish and they’s squishy and they turns tah rubber if yah tries tah cook’em and they’s not a part of tha Great Cuttlefish’s divine plan!” He turns to his mostly human audience and raises his longer tentacles. “Death ta tha squids!”

”With flames and butter sauce!” the audience replies, the human members in an almost mystical trance, the scattering of land-cuttlefish more self-aware.

Cala looks shocked and disturbed at the human parishioners’ lack of affect. “Uh…” She stops and, sort of herding him with her hand but not quite touching his smooth, color-shifting skin, she takes Cal aside and asks, “Tell me straight up Cal…does this god even exist? I mean, you know, as one of those who walk around claiming to be gods?”

“Straight up, miss… He exists tah me and that’s what matters, ain’t it? There’s a little o’im in every one of us. Unless ye’re on o’dem veggie lovers.” The human-sized invertebrate looks at her up and down. “And yah don’t look like no veggie lover…”

Aliyah pokes Cal. “Don’t you be talkin’ ‘bout Cala’s weight!” She looks at her finger in surprise. “Hey, you’re a lot less slimy than I thought you’d be.”

Cala glares at both of them. “What you’re doing is affecting people outside this so-called church. Now what is this mind-altering substance you’re using?”

“Yeah! Dude was seein’ hippos! In our Guardia station!” Aliyah crosses her arms as well and uses her height to try to intimidate the tentacular preacher.

He flaps the fins that line his mantle and flashes colors and patterns. “Well ain’t mah fault youse don’t cleans up yer place of work, is it? Besides, I ain’t dealin’ no drugs. I swear! I’m out of that there line of business. Ever since that thing with tha saltwater pills fer treatin’ stress, I promised mahself I’d never deal no drugs again.”

“Those pills very nearly killed some people!” Cala says severely.

“How was I supposed ta know youse primates get sick when yah drink saltwater? Anyways, all I’m doin’ is lettin’ people share in mah god’s message tah mankind an’ other kinds alike. ’cept fer squid.”

A smaller cuttlefish squeaks, “Flames and butter!”

“Shuddup, Franky!” He rolls his eyes and raises his longer tentacles in a sort of shrug. “Mah sista’s kid. And she’s got like 200 more o’those back at her place… Look, ladies, I got a sermon tah finish… It’s gettin’ tah the good part too, with all tha flames and tha monsters and tha squids gettin’ eaten and mah cousin Ben doin’ all tha scary noises and my pickin’ someone to go inta tha sanctuary tah receive Cuttlefish’s message of tha day.”

Cala blinks. “Sanctuary? Where is that?”

Aliyah glowers and almost growls. “Yeah! Make with the cooperation with authorities, Cal!”

“I ain’t makin’ with no cooperations! Don’t ye go disrespectin’ me like that! I’m all ’bout tha small business owners, I tells yah! Cooperations is fer squids!”

“With butter!”

“SHUDDUP, FRANKIE!” Calimari Cal half-closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Fine, whatevahs, I’ll show ye tha sanctuary. Even if youse is smirchin’ me. Cuttlefish teaches us tah show th’other cheek and cooperate with authority, he does.”

Aliyah laughs. “Cheeks? What cheeks?”

“Lead the way,” Cala says.

Cal slithers ahead of the two Guardia and takes them into what was once a back room meant for parties. The walls are covered with undulating curtains of blue and green, giving it a peaceful, undersea feeling.

“So here’s tha sanctuary, where people get tha message and I write it down. May not look like much but it’s holy enough fer two. Like tha decorations? I picked ’em meself.”

Aliyah pokes around. “Well, there ain’t nothin’ here that looks like drugs.”

Cala asks Cal, “Is there anywhere else the people go before they start having these so-called visions?”

“Well, I always has ’em shower first. Cuttlefish is very picky ’bout that. I mean, humans stink all tha time but in this weather, they sweats like it’s no squid’s business. Shut up – Oh… where’s that kid when ye need’im?”

Aliyah steps into the washroom, Cala close behind her, and they register a large tub added to the center of it before the smell slams into them.

Cala, coughing and putting a handkerchief over her mouth, gasps, “This room…that smell!”

“It stinks like rotten eggs in here!” Aliyah cries.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Cal says, looking confused at their reaction. “Imma male. I don’ know nothin’ ’bout no eggs.”

Aliyah sways. “Whoa…Callie? Uhh…I can…I can…I can totally see hippos…”

Cala grabs Aliyah and yanks her out of the room, rushing them both outside, past the parishioners, into fresh air. Holding her friend to keep her from falling, Cala fights off dizziness herself and asks, “Are you all right? Are you still hallucinating?”

Aliyah looks at her in fear. “Uh…are you a giant praying mantis with two heads?”

Cala shakes her head and feels a wave of nausea. “My head is swimming a bit. Come on, Aliyah, snap out of it!” She shakes her patrol partner and friend.

“Fine! Stop shakin’ me! I’m better now…at least, you only have one head now.”

Following them out onto the street, Cal says, “Youse two shouldn’t be drinkin’ durin’ workin’ hours. That’s bad Guardia work, that is.”

Cala snaps at him. “Cal, whatever is in that room is a dangerously powerful psychoactive drug! You have to stop putting humans in the baths, immediately! And we need to get our people to look at this.”

Aliyah, looking slightly less green now, asks, “You mean the Inspector and the Dei Sergeants?”

Cala shakes her head no. “There’s nothing supernatural about this. We need Syron. And Doctor Nataniel.”

Cal tries to hand them an orange sheet of paper. “Y’all wanna take a pamphlet tah help spread tha word ’bout tha Great Cuttlefish? I gots one right here.”

The two Guardia shout together, “NO!”

Cal raises his tentacles in another shrug. “Can’t blame a guy fer tryin’…”