Ch6.92 Trust

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

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

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

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

“Way scarier!” Cherry insists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, it’s good on a hot day!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ch6.90 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did they leave?” Varah asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How will we recognize them?” Geryon asks.

“You will know,” Melinor states simply.

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

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

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

Ch6.87 Trust

Running. He has to keep running. He has to keep going. On and on. He is so close now, so close. He can feel it. He can sense their approach. And the sounds coming from afar? Their voices? Yes, yes! They must be! They have to be!

He is almost there.

Before him, the hordes of Hell shuffle out of the way, their terrifying, disgusting, evil faces blurring as he passes them with speed. They don’t attack him, oh no… They know better than that. They know better than attack the bane of demons, the god whose very purpose is to defeat them, destroy them, whose very essence embodies all that is contrary to them. The Enemy. Yes, he feels it clearly now. They fear him. They hate him. And they dare not touch him.

They dare not touch him.

“Dion wait!” Tulip’s voice rings from behind, high pitched as ever and sounding almost out of wind. “Please!”

“We can’t!” he shouts to her over his shoulder. “We’re almost there!”

They are almost there. Where his parents are. Where this low, pestering scum has taken his parents into torture and imprisonment. Away from him. He can still hear her screams.

His mother’s screams.

“Dion, they’re comin’ after us!” Cherry screams. “We can’t stop’em!”

“Just keep running!” Dion calls to her. “They won’t attack! They fear me!”

His mother’s screams as she was dragged to this…this nothingness. This emptiness of feelings other than pain and anguish. This place of hopelessness. For how many years? So many years. He has to save them! He has to!

He has to…

“Dion, stop!” Sky calls out. “We have to regroup and hold them back! We have to fight them off here!”

“My parents will help us when we get there!” Dion insists. “I know they will! We have to save them first! We have to!”

He has to. Whatever it takes, he has to save them. He has to find them. Free them. So much stolen. So much time lost. He left them here for so long. So long… He didn’t know. He didn’t remember. But he should have. He should have known. Even when the knowledge was denied to him.

He should have fought to know.

“Gwydion!” Alma’s voice is a cry of pain. Of suffering. “Gwydion, we’re going to lose them!”

“I know!” he agrees. “I know! We have to hurry! We have to keep going!”

He will fight now. He is strong enough to fight now. And he will save them. He will bring them back into the light. Into his life. He will show them the life he has life he has built with the people he has found. The person he has become. And he will hope for their love and beg for their forgiveness. And be their son again.

He’ll be their son again…

There! There they are! Bound in chains held by demons. Calling to him. Crying to him. His mother and father, their images blurred like the fuzzy memories he has of them. But he knows. He knows who they are. They are his. He has found them!

He has found them.

He roars a threat at the demons, launches himself at them. A beast unleashed, angry and vengeful. How dare they? How dare they! The demons drop the chains, don’t even try to fight him. He vanquishes them easily even as they try to run away from him. Ha!

Ha?

He stands before his parents, entranced. He thought their images would be clearer once he reached them but they are still a blur. And they are still calling endlessly, crying, screaming in horror and pain. As if they can’t see him. As if he weren’t there.

As if he weren’t there…

“Mother?” he asks hesitantly, fearfully.

“Dion!” she replies, her voice sounding choked and far away. “Dion! My baby! No! No! Run away, baby!”

“Mother, it’s all right,” Dion says. “I’m here to save you. I’m taking you home now.”

“Dion!” she shrieks in response. “Noooooo! No! Let go of my baby! Dioooooonn!”

A cold dread begins to crawl up his spine as the specter before him flails in a panic, its figure wavering before him, chains rattling with a clink of bone, not metal. Can it be? Can this really be his mother, reduced to insanity, to a single consuming thought throughout the years? To a single fear…for his safety. He reaches to reassure her with his touch, only to have his hand slapped away as if she were fending off an attacker. Beside her, Dion’s father stumbles and throws a weak punch at him, looking to defend his wife. Mad.

Both mad.

“Gwydion!” Alma again, this time screaming in sheer panic. A heart-wrenching sound of the purest despair. Something he has never heard from her.

Not from her.

But from his mother. A cry for a child. He rushes back to her, wondering why none of the others has caught up with him yet. Terror clutches at him. The demons that had fled from him now lurk again in the path that he followed here. They gather, hunched. And throw their heads in the air. Laughing. Voices gurgling with a wet, crunching sound. Eating. Feasting. On what?

ON WHAT?

He lunges at them, fighting them off, disbanding their group. Destroying the ones too slow to run. Punching. Kicking. Cutting them to shreds with blade and magic. He clears the area. And looks down.

And falls down.

To his knees. His eyes follow the trail of bodies back down the path. Merri. Sage. Mayumi. Cherry. Kori. Dead. Their bodies desecrated by claws and teeth. Bones shattered. Half eaten. Flesh bubbling where corrosive drool has touched it. Sky’s corpse – a devilish form that Dion had never seen before, revolting and horrible – lying in pieces, wings torn off and ripped to pieces. Arms cut at the wrists, legs mauled. Massive chest pierced, a gaping wound through which the tips of broken ribs protrude. Heart pulled from its vault and tossed aside like trash. No bite marks, no. A traitor’s flesh is too vile to eat, even for these demons.

Under one of his wings, Cherry’s right foot pokes through. Dion looks away from it. He can’t see her head or the bulge of her body under the membranous wing. The thought that a foot might all that is left of the Bunny… His eyes fill with tears. How?

How?

And not far away, the pale figure of Alma, lying down, her hair splayed in a filthy mess. He half crawls, half drags himself toward her, almost blinded by the water springing from his eyes. By despair. By regret. By grief.

In her arms, Tulip is curled. An arm missing. A calf ripped almost clean off the bone. A spike, black and vitreous like obsidian stone sticking out of her lower back, directed upwards. Dion rolls the still body over to see the tip of the lance poking through Tulip’s collarbone. His hand shakes as he carefully nudges her panic-stricken eyes closed.

Why was she even here? Why did they bring the Bunnies along? Why did he bring anyone along?

His sobs nearly make him topple while he slides an arm under Alma’s body, carefully pulling her to him. Her legs nearly detach from her torso as he does so. Her belly has been skewered by talons and spikes, her legs broken. One of her hands and forearm are missing completely. Her left ear, the one with the earring of her Clan mark, has been pulled off and tossed away. They have not tried to eat her. Maybe they didn’t have the time.

Not that it matters. She is dead. She is gone. He almost lost her before, almost gave her away. And now… Now he has lost her for good. He has lost all of them. His love. His friends. His family. Gone. He is alone again.

Alone.

“No,” he whimpers amidst the convulsions of his crying. “Please… no.”

Around him, the demons chuckle. The demons laugh. At him. At his loss. At his pain. “You left them all so handy, so easy to catch,” a demon mocks him. “You left them unguarded. They were so tasty.”

A roar of laughter rises from them. More demons approach and join in Hellish myrth.

“They called your name. I heard them call,” one says. “Did you hear it?”

“Oh yes, it made it sooo much better,” another adds. “And all for some half-mad souls.”

“Shut up,” Dion pleads, clutching Alma’s cooling corpse, begging in thought, praying in thought that she is not dead despite all odds. “Shut up!”

SHUT UP!” he roars.

Shut up…

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The stone is rough beneath his palms, tiny fragments flaking off from the uneven surface. The stones, born in the great throbbing heart of the Insula, molten rock periodically breaking free to gush and ravage and cool into solidity, have been carefully shaped and fitted to build the holdfast of Clan Fire. He can still feel that spirit of fire within each stone, remembered with a longing to become liquid again, to rejoin the heart from which they were ejected, to go from a collective One to small, cold individuals.

“Too late,” her voice hisses in his ear. Her heat would blister his skin from its proximity, were he not of the Fire Clan. His long, glossy hair would burst into flame, the subcutaneous fat under his skin would liquify and bubble, his flesh would char. From the hate in her voice, he imagines his mother would enjoy that. “Too late, too weak. Traitor!”

He does not bother to turn. His eyes are fixed on the distant horizon, across a plane so large it could never exist on the Insula, world of verticality. The plain is covered with lava, plump, rounded pillow flows, ropy twists, spiky claws sharper than any steel scalpel and longing to cut. It is dry, ash and dust blowing around aimlessly in gusts and momentary twisters. And far away, the army approaches.

“Abominations!” the Queen of the Court of Flame, his mother, crackles. To say she paces is not entirely accurate – she burns her way across the stone, causing pops and sometimes louder explosions as bubbles of air trapped within expand and explode from her passing. “All your fault! If you had stayed! If you had been what I made you to be! What you were conceived to be!”

“I was born to be a priest of cleansing fire,” Somrak murmurs. “The bane of the undead.” He heard it a thousand times growing up. His head shaved, his life nothing beyond ritual. To be a god and to be a priest as well, one must be perfect in holiness, beyond any sanctification available to crude mortals. His food, his sleeping hours, his clothing, his every movement, even every breath was a rite of sacrament. He could not blink except at the prescribed moment for blinking, and only in the approved manner of blinking. A single moment of wondering whether he might be allowed to play like other children resulted in a week-long cleansing, with scourgings and beatings and irrigations.

“And you failed! You ran away! Ungrateful squib! You are no child of–”

She is cut off with a tiny sound of surprise. The is a roar of flame, a sound of cracking and a whoosh of liquid. A splash that spatters Somrak’s back with cold seawater. And blood. Her blood, aflame, though it quickly goes out.

Still he does not look away. He is starting to be able to make out individuals in the vanguard now, shambling footsoldiers who are caught on jagged edges of stone and cut apart as others push against them. Mindless meat, stumbling their way forward. And there is a vehicle, made of gold and silver and black shining obsidian, shining, flashing in the merciless light of the sun.

A large hand rests on his shoulder, squeezes it companionably. It is wet with his mother’s blood. One might ask how a creature of flame has blood, but then one might ask how a creature of flame can think, can curse and complain, can have children of flesh and blood. Such asking is pointless.

Somrak asks, “Why did you kill her?”

Sky’s voice is cool, rising and falling in the inexorable strength of the waves. “I never liked her. Now look.” Sky’s other arm points toward the army, which has somehow become much closer without Somrak noticing, though he’s never taken his eyes off them. There are more elite troops visible now, horrors to make Hell’s princes nod in impressed acknowledgement. Vampiric commandos, each capable of tearing apart a dozen mortals in a blood-starved fury. Incorporeal wraiths, impossible to touch, ready to suck the life from any who face them. Giants made of dozens of human corpses gripping a bamboo framework, sewn together with cord, and animated as a single creature. So many others, bodies flayed into shapes to suit their leader’s purpose and to strike horror into her enemies.

“Can you do it?” asks Sky. “Can you strike her down? Can you even reach her? You who failed to complete training? You who have broken your vows as a priest, your vows as a Tragas binder of souls, your vows as a servant of the Commander, your vows to your fellow agents. Your vow to Saira.” Sky draws his arm back and rests his hand on Somrak’s other shoulder. “Can one who has broken so many vows, large and small, not himself be broken when the time comes? This is what you were made to do. But you refused. And now you are going to be ground beneath the wheels of her chariot, unnoticed, alone.”

“You are with me, my brother,” Somrak says, though he doesn’t believe it. Who would stand with him?

“No.” Sky’s voice is final. “I am there.”

The chariot is closer now. Somrak can see its driver, a beautiful god, his eyes vacant and haunted with loss and guilt. Gwydion. The collar around his neck chains him into place, and he lashes his whip like an automaton, driving forward the huge beast pulling the chariot, a devil with powerful legs, straining to pull the massive vehicle.

It is Sky, his skin red-black, his wings limp and dragging. His head is down, the heavy curved horns weighing him down. The harness is made of spiked chains that dig deep into his flesh and bones, and the whip, made of blackened vertebrae, tears deep gashes in his back.

And behind Gwydion is a massive throne of the same gold and silver and obsidian as the rest of the chariot. It is large enough for a frost giant, and so the pale body that lounges on it looks childlike. Alma, her fine white hair floating around her head in the heat-currents, her lips crimson and cruel, her face that of his Alma but her expression that of another, someone alien to her body.

“Is her soul still in there?” the Sky behind him asks. “Or is it already being tortured beyond imagining in the depths of Hell? Will you burn her? Will you watch her milky skin blacken? Will you end her reign?”

Somrak feels Sky lean in close, and feels the rough brush of the god’s stubbly cheek against his. “You will falter. You will be torn apart, and overrun, and ground into a paste. You will not be even a thought in her mind. Not now, not ever. Give in. Betray all at the last. Join me. Join Dion. Join her.”

Sky kisses him on the cheek. “Or would you rather be alone, brother?”

And then there is no one there. The wind picks up. The sounds of the moaning army reach him. And the light changes. Somrak looks up. The sun is black in the sky, still shining, somehow giving light, but black as the obsidian that makes the hubs of the great metal wheels of Alma’s chariot.

Somrak looks back at the army. He steps up onto the battlement wall, looking down. They are right up to the castle now. He has only to step forward, and he will fall, fall, fall and never stop.

To plunge afire into their midst. To find oblivion. To know nothing, ever again. To regret nothing. To harm no one.

To be alone no more.

To be no more.

Ch6.86 Trust

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

If only it weren’t on the highest shelf!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But–” Tulip starts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.78 Trust

Back in the breezeway between the Burrow and Three Rats Station, Somrak lights a cigarillo off the tip of his finger and savors that first long drag of aromatic vapor, pulling the hot smoke into his mouth, down his throat and deep into his lungs. As he exhales, the familiar pleasant buzz hits. He closes his eyes and leans back against the outside wall of the Bunnies’ bar, smiling slightly, feeling the rough wood on his bare back.

After returning from the business with Lucky Pete, Somrak had become acutely aware of how rank with sweat he’d become that morning, when Saira had tasked him with carrying a comatose and dying Dion halfway across Three Rats. While he knows several utilitarian spells for healing minor wounds, repelling vermin, blocking eavesdropping magic, opening locks, and so on, one thing he has never mastered is magic for sprucing up himself and his clothing in the field. Fortunately Alma was not overly put off by a little body odor earned in the service of saving her sweetheart’s life, which was good because, after telling her Sky’s secret and admitting that he’d been leading her on, planning to take Pete’s information and suicidally go it alone, Somrak had really needed a hug.

He chuckles at the thought. Somrak needed a hug. Sky would get a kick out of that. He takes another drag on the thin cigar, not one of the rare Angelino Golds that Sky had given to him only a few days before. He hasn’t even smoked any since the one he’d had outside the party just a few days ago. Has it been a week? And I was standing right here, this very spot, when Alma came out. The memory of that night has been much in his thoughts ever since.

He sighs, trying to think of something else. His hair, unbound, is clinging to his shoulders and upper back in damp locks, and he is wearing a pair of Popula-blue trousers that Rosemary found in storage while Cherry took his shirt and underclothes away to wash. She had offered to wipe down his leather jacket and pants, but those, fortunately, were enchanted to clean themselves slowly, so he had told her they only needed to be hung up for a little while. Funny how Merri hadn’t been able to find him a shirt when he knew, from staying here before, that that storage room had plenty of shirts. He chuckles again. Silly Bunny.

It’s good to see them again. He’s cautioned them all not to mention he’s here, telling them the partial truth that he’s in trouble with his bosses and he’s not supposed to be coming around. Cherry had looked suspiciously at him, leading him to guess she was thinking he’d somehow heard that Alma and Dion had had a fight. She had also seemed quite sad, though despite that and whatever suspicions she might be harboring, she’d welcomed him and told him they’d have his room ready. Again, he’d told her no need. Conversely, Tulip curling up on his lap was exactly what he needed – just holding a sweet kid like that while she chattered away, asking him about the complex tattoo across the left side of his chest, he could feel the tension leaving. He’ll go back in again soon and ask Cherry what’s wrong. They’re all worried, sensing things aren’t right. It won’t be long before it’s impossible to keep Sky’s absence a secret. Probably already too late.

And then, with a golden flare, an oval portal opens up not ten steps away from him. It’s not Alma’s, Somrak knows that immediately. The goddess uses a different school of magic. This is more the standard sort of portal, popular with wizards of the Academy of Magic and therefore in common usage across the Insula. Somrak tenses – it could be anybody. It could be an attack.

He is relieved when out of the portal steps Gwydion, just as shirtless as Somrak is, his hair similarly damp, but his face pale and his expression wild and pugnacious. He looks this way and that, his gaze locking on Somrak, his jaw clenching and shoulders flexing.

Somrak almost drops his cigarillo. “Dion! Are you–”

Dion moves unsteadily but quickly toward Somrak, but his toe catches on a rock in the bare dirt of the patch of breezeway between the portal and his target. Somrak, who puts his arms out to catch Dion even as he is thinking Is he attacking me? suddenly finds himself staggering backward, not sure what just happened but seeing the familiar flash of light triggered by his occipital lobe making contact with the inside of his skull.

It takes a moment for his head to clear enough for him to realize he’s been punched in the jaw. Though if he hadn’t known it was Dion’s rock-hard fist backed by a powerfully muscled body and countless hours of training in the martial arts, Somrak would have guessed he’d been kicked by a mule.

But stunned as Somrak is, he has been fighting longer than Dion has been alive, and most of it has been outside the training hall. Even as he admonishes himself for his carelessness, his arms are up and blocking Dion’s rapid follow-up blows without any conscious thought, slowly giving ground to give himself time to recover. When his back brushes the wall, he sideslips unconsciously, letting Dion punch the wall hard enough to chip paint off with a boom that echoes through the bar, making the nearby door rattle in its frame. Ending up beside and slightly behind Dion, Somrak grabs his opponent’s wrist, whips it behind Dion’s back, and pushes the god into the wall hard just hard enough to hopefully knocks some sense into him. Somrak elects not to hold into the wrist and twist it into a painful pin, however, instead releasing and dancing back, trying to leave behind that message of what he could have done.

“You sure got up on the wrong side of bed,” Somrak quips, bouncing lightly on the balls of his bare feet, half-closed hands up and ready. He rolls his shoulders, the muscles of his back flaring out like a cobra’s hood.

“Don’t you dare make fun of this!” Dion roars, charging again, whipping punches at Somrak that the smirking, ponytailed god barely manages to parry, blows backed by an unreasoning rage. “You bastard! You lied to us! Used us! For what?”

Dion might have considerably more muscle mass, but Somrak’s body is like a steel spring, compact, light, and despite the amazing speed of Dion’s blows, Somrak is considerably faster. He is tempted, so tempted, to go for it, just put it to the test, fight it out with Dion and see who comes out on top. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Alma – well, not much. Somrak just likes to fight. In their time as off-blue partners, Somrak and Sky had gone one-on-one a half-dozen times. Heck, those fights had brought them closer. Besides, everything goes all black-and-white once the violence starts. There’s no need for moral equivocation or consideration of multiple viewpoints. When some guy is trying to beat you to a pulp, the only thing you need to worry about is doing unto him before he does unto you.

Except…not this time. Dion is flagging. Wherever he got all that energy to cast a portal, come charging through, and start doing his best to turn Somrak’s face into tenderized steak, Dion is running out of that energy fast. He’s already slowing and stumbling. Somrak knows that all he has to do is keep blocking attacks for maybe half a minute longer and Dion will fall flat on his face. No fun beating a guy who can’t possibly win.

And on top of that, what will Alma think if he beats up her guy? And right after she’s healed him, too?

So he stays on defense and replied to Dion’s demand for explanation. “For what? For Sky! For you!” He blocks two more blows, constantly moving off the line-of-attack, forcing Dion to keep shifting his aim and moving his feet.

“You think we’d leave him there?” Dion cries. “Or leave that necromancer loose to attack us again?” One of Dion’s blows almost lands, but it is so weak that Somrak easily wards it off with a sweep of his forearm. Dion shakes his head. “I must have been mentally ill to trust you!” The god drops his fists, head down, breathing heavily and apparently doing all he can just to stay standing.

Somrak stops, lowering his guard halfway. “Dion. I was going to go in alone. I didn’t want to put you and Alma at risk. I… Yes I used you. I needed help with the investigation. But I was planning to ditch you. It just seemed too dangerous.”

Somrak’s conciliatory words seem to rekindle Dion’s fury. His eyes glow with golden light and an aura flares around his head and shoulders, different now, brighter than before, and within it…dragons? “Dangerous? You kept us in the dark! I told you about the devil and you lied to my face! You put us at risk – you!

Somrak feels the ground beneath his feet soften. He tries to spring away but finds himself trapped in sticky, viscous mud that defies gravity, already climbing halfway up his calves to immobilize him. Somrak realizes Dion maneuvered him to stand where there was no grass to make the spell work easier. “Tricky son of a–” Somrak mutters just before Dion’s right fist crashes into his cheek, knocking him off-balance so that his shoulders and the back of his head slam against the wall. The unexpected reversal is so sudden that Somrak’s divine sphere flares to life, his aura a fiery mandala through which a flaming tiger leaps, and when Somrak slaps the wall to push himself back on-balance, he leaves a hand-shaped scorch hot enough to burn through the pain and into the wood.

“Look at me!” Dion roars, throwing another punch that Somrak evades only by bending at the knees and hurling himself below the strike, slipping in the widening patch of mud, a flailing hand grabbing Dion’s pants-leg. Somrak twists as he falls, landing on his back with a splash of muck, only to have his breath knocked out when Dion lands on top of him.

The spell, meant only to momentarily immobilize Somrak, seems to have gone out of control, creating a small pool of now-soupy sludge. The two shirtless gods wrestle, their rugged, sinewy bodies slick with mud. Somrak grabs Dion’s shoulders and manages to roll over on top, but his hand slips. With no shirt, a muddy Dion is almost impossible to hold onto for long, and Dion’s extra mass gives him the advantage in a ground fight. Soon he’s back on top, Somrak beneath trying to wrap his legs around Dion’s waist, arms spread wide with his hands gripping Dion’s wrists just to keep the other god from pounding him. “Come on, Prettyboy,” Somrak grunts. “Lemme buy you a drink and let’s talk this over.”

There is a click and a flash. For a moment Somrak thinks he’s been punched in the head a third time, but all fists are accounted for. He grinds the back of his head deeper into the mud and looks back to see Cherry, upside down from his perspective, grinning, holding a camera and using her thumb to advance the film. She raises it again to her eye and says, “Cheese!” before the camera flashes again.

Somrak begins laughing at the absurdity of it all. Merri is standing next to Cherry, staring at the two wrestling, mud-slick gods, her milky, freckled complexion flushed pink, her emerald eyes wide, pupils dilated, looking like a longtime dream of hers has just been fulfilled. Next to her, Tulip and Chime, still young teenagers, are laughing their heads off, holding onto each other to keep from falling down. And next to them…

Alma is standing with her arms crossed, not looking happy at all.

Somrak stops laughing and had to fight an urge to leap to his feet and salute. Dion, on top of him, growls, “What are you laughing at, you lying sack of…” He trails off as Somrak points, uses one index finger from a gripping hand to point at their audience. Dion freezes, staring at Alma.

Somrak spits to the side, trying to get some mud out of his mouth. “So, uh, I dropped my keys and Dion here was trying to help me find them…”

This is met with stony silence from Alma, who simply continues to glare at Dion.

Cherry looks up at Alma, hesitates a moment, then asks, “You know all them old stories about giant gods wrestlin’ and makin’ mountain ranges and canyons and stuff by accident? Is this the truth behind the myths?”

The corner of Alma’s mouth twitches slightly. “I believe in some of those stories, ‘wrestling’ is a euphemism for something more amorous.”

“Oh goodness, I hope so,” Merri breathes as she puts her hand to her cheek, still looking dreamily at the two gods.

Somrak’s laughter echoes off the walls, and he allows his arms and legs to drop limp into the mire. He’s pretty sure Dion isn’t going to punch him now, and too amused and tired to care if he does.

And Dion does sit back and then rise from his knees, hardly a patch of skin free of the gleaming mud. He flicks some from his fingers and tries to wipe mud from his face, only succeeding in spreading it further. “Just…needed to set something straight.”

“With your fists?” Alma demands. “And what happened to your pants?” There is a gaping, black-edged rent in one leg of Dion’s trousers. Alma takes Dion’s hand and helps him step free of the mud pit, then holds a hand over his thigh. “As I thought, a minor burn. Just what you need, more wounds.” She touches Dion’s leg to heal him.

Getting into a sitting position requires some effort on Somrak’s part. “Oh…sorry. Things got a little hot.”

“I’ll say!” Merri jokes, while Tulip points at the hand-shaped scorch on the wall. “Look! That’s so cool!”

Cherry gasps. “Hey! You coulda set the bar on fire! And what are we gonna do about all this mud? Is it gonna change back?”

“You two will be the death of me,” Alma mutters.

Somrak touches the side of his mouth, checks his fingers, and grins at the sight of blood. He struggles to his feet Then he works on getting out of the mud, trying to smile reassuringly at the Bunnies. Meanwhile, Gwydion says quietly to Alma, “Sorry. I’ll surrender to your care.”

“Oh, now you say that?” Alma snaps at him. “Do you realize how difficult it was to heal you? Is it that amusing to leave me sick with worry?”

Dion looks positively miserable at this. “No. Not amusing at all.” He sways slightly, appearing to suddenly suffer a bout of dizziness.

Somrak moves quickly to catch him, steadying him with hands on Dion’s elbow and shoulder. “Whoa, there.” As Dion looks at Somrak in surprise, the latter asks Alma, “Where do you want him?”

Alma takes Dion’s arm and leads him two steps to the right. “Right here. I’ll see him to a warm bath. You can have the marvelous treat of explaining all this to your audience.” Her expression softens. “Come see me when you’re done and I’ll take care of your bruises.”

Somrak smirks as Alma raises the colorful curtain of magical energies that is the portal to her room, but his smile fades as she and Dion disappear and he has to think fast about what he can tell the Bunnies.

“So…looks like I need another shower.”

“Oh, ye’re not trackin’ mud all over our nice clean floors,” Merri scolds him. “Chime, Tulip! We need buckets of water.” The two younger Bunnies dash into the bar.

Somrak’s shoulders slump. “Seriously?”

Cherry points at the fallen half-smoked cigar. “And we ain’t pickin’ that up. You know how bad that smells?” She grins. “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll get you rinsed, then you can take another shower and by then your clothes’ll be ready. And we are just itchin’ to hear how you’re gonna explain all about them lies Dion was yellin’ about. Not that it’s any of our business…”

Somrak sighs as Tulip comes running out the door and gleefully hurls a bucketful of cold water on him.

Ch6.56 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom is a terrible patient, by the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Mom?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I ask them. “What’s up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cher… I can’t…breathe…”

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

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

“Ah! My hat! Be right back!”

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

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

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

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

Ch6.44 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.