Ch7.10 Revelations

The day has been long, with the settling down of all the Bunnies into their assigned rooms, the oooh’s and aaaah’s of finding the brand new clothes and the inevitable fashion show in the hallway that followed and the wanting to explore the house and start work in the garden and the other dozen things that come with being along for a vacation with six other people, all under the age of thirty. Granted that, for a human, thirty years of age seem to be looked upon as the beginning of the dreaded, steep downhill slope toward senility but to a hundred-fifty-year-old goddess with a life expectancy of quite a few millennia, even the energy of two twenty-four-year-old Bunnies is just a little too much to handle, let alone that of four more who are even younger.

So it is no surprise that, not long after dinner, Alma cannot really stay up anymore. And neither can Gwydion, reeling as he is from seeing the house for the first time since his childhood and then finding his own former bedroom in the afternoon, the one Alma had kept him out of before. The poor thing had stayed kneeling in the middle of the room for at least an hour, surrounded by walls lovingly painted with scenes of knights and dragons and leaping sheep and even a large, cartoonish gryphon by the head of the bed. Just kneeling, his shoulders slumped, looking around like a pilgrim arrived at the temple of his god, worshipping at the altar of Memory, letting the full weight of all he has lost, all that has been taken away from him fill his mind and his heart with sorrow and, Alma suspects, a strange kind of relief. How many times must he have wondered if he was ever loved, ever truly desired by his parents? How can a child grow happily in that uncertainty, deprived of a fitting surrogate to provide the love and compassion that all beings require to grow? Math, she has come to see, has no notion of how to be comforting or kind, choosing instead to buy affection with gifts and luxurious activities. None of which can comfort a child awakened from a nightmare or mourning the loss of his parents.

The last few hours have already shown her more of Gwydion’s reasons for becoming a playboy than most of the time spent with him at Math’s house, awaiting the Council’s verdict. So much grief…and she is already tired of it, of carrying it in her heart and sharing in his pain. How can he possibly live and smile day after day after so many years of living with it?

And yet, she is happy to share in his grief and does so willingly, knowing herself privileged for having the chance to do so. It is just that…it all takes its toll and she is exhausted now. She just wants to lie down, curl up in a ball and sleep.

So she excuses herself from the family evening spent by the fireplace and Gwydion follows her example. And, much to their surprise, so do the Bunnies and, of course, Geryon. They insist on turning in against Alma’s assurance that even the younger ones are free to stay up a bit longer. And soon, all are standing in the hallway that leads to the various bedrooms, saying their goodnights.

“The chocolate an’ berries were divine!” Rosemary says in her usually joyful tones as she embraces Alma. “And wasn’t the singing fun?”

Alma can’t help but smile at it. “Considering you were doing most of it, I’m sure you enjoyed it twice as much as everyone else.” She kisses the top of Rosemary’s head. “Good night, dear.”

“Good night!”

The Bunny releases Alma and moves to embrace Gwydion, who is just managing to pry Tulip’s iron-grip arms from his neck. As Rosemary moves, Cherry takes her place hugging Alma, clinging to the goddess in obvious need of physical reassurance. Alma holds her back closely, stroking her daughter’s dark-furred ears.

After a moment, Cherry looks up at Alma and asks, “It’s going to be all right, ain’t it?”

Alma nods, seeing in Cherry’s eyes a glint of real fear that it is not. “It will. We’ll make it so,” she promises, as much to the Bunny as to herself. “Are you enjoying this place?”

Cherry smiles a little and nods. “It’s a good place to just chill out. But…” Her voice trails off, the smile gives way to concern. “Just a week, right?”

The question brings a hint of relief to Alma. Safer and more luxurious than Three Rats as it is, the estate carries a heavy emotional load that manages to be just as exhausting as daily station life in the Fourth Ring ward that has become their home. She doesn’t quite know how she would manage things if her children decided they would much rather stay here.

“Just a week, then we go back,” Alma assures Cherry. “Just to breathe a little bit of lighter air.”

“Worried about the bar?” Sage asks, approaching to embrace both Alma and his sister.

“We got regulars!” Cherry points out, cheek pressed against Alma’s chest. “They’re gonna be really put out if we stay away too long.” She sighs. “This is good, though. Gotta bring May here, sometime. And Sky too.”

“Definitely,” Alma agrees, even though a treacherous thought in her mind arises to say If we can save him.

“Cherry, stop hogging mom!” Tulip complains. “We wanna hug her goodnight too!”

“Just five more minutes!” Cherry calls out, laughing when Tulip groans with irritation. She releases Alma and, after another smile at her mother, moves to give Gwydion her goodnights.

As soon as Cherry opens the way for Tulip, all three younger Bunnies pile around Alma, hugging her from multiple directions, saying goodnight and stretching to distribute kisses at will. Alma basks in them, her ears barely catching Geryon speaking to Gwydion in a low voice.

“…might make a nice spa-like resort. Tempter nymphs pampering the guests. While the owner obsesses over all the secrets hidden in these various nooks and crannies.”

Gwydion sighs. “I know…. I need to take it slowly. And I am. I promise.”

Freeing herself from Kori, Tulip and Chime, Alma slips her hand into Gwydion’s. “Goodnights have been said. Perhaps it is time for us all to retire?”

With a meaningful look at Alma, that she responds to with a small smile, Geryon agrees. “Yes, indeed.”

It feels almost like a passing of a metaphorical baton, the way he looks at her then glances at Gwydion. The ever-sardonic gryphon seldom shows obvious signs of worry with his closest friend but for those who can read them, such small gestures make evident the concern he feels about someone he has known much better and for much longer than Alma. That he trusts her to look after Gwydion’s well-being is just as important to her – or maybe more – as the quiet feeling of friendship which has been growing between them.

With a final chorus of “Goodnight,” the Bunnies retreat into their respective rooms, Cherry and Rosemary insisting that Geryon join them, something the gryphon does not offer much resistance in obliging to.

Which leaves Alma and Gwydion alone again, facing the prospect of a night spent in the room they now know used to belong to Eidon and Gffleu. Gwydion’s parents.

As they enter the room, Alma reflexively squeezes his hand, feeling him return the gesture with hand that is shaking ever so slightly. They stop just a couple of footsteps beyond the door, looking at the bed, at the tasteful furniture, at the little nook by the window. The air feels heavy with a sort of dreadful sorrow, even to Alma, who has never known the loss of an empty childhood home.

“How are you feeling?” she asks, looking at Gwydion’s pale face, at his haunted eyes.

He keeps staring at the bed as if fearing it will spring to life and attack him. “I think…I don’t know. It’s all too much to process.”

His body stiffens, muscles ready. For a moment, she doesn’t know what he is planning on doing but then he advances toward the bed, hand still firmly holding hers, and sits, looking up at Alma in a silent request for her to join him. She sits by him, offering her other hand for him to hold as well, letting an awkward silence spread between them. What can she say to make him feel better?

She looks down at her leg where her hands are held in his, her fingers slowly stroking his skin. She curses internally at her incompetence in finding something to say. After what feels like a short eternity, he releases one of her hands and drapes his arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. He buries his nose in her hair and she can hear him inhaling deeply, the air leaving his lungs in a long, ragged exhalation.

“You’ve had a long day,” she says and her voice sounds loud and harsh even to her ears. It also sounds like the contest winner of the Useless Things To Say Show.

Still, he replies softly, “And you too, being there for me. I know it wasn’t easy.”

“It’s where I had to be,” she assures him. “And none of it will ever be nearly as hard for me as it is for you.”

“This is a haunted house,” he murmurs. “And it gets to me that I can barely remember what the ghosts look like. Just bits and pieces. A voice here, a vision there. But nothing I can make sense of. I think – I think I remember my father’s voice. And the way my mother held me one time I fell down. Her voice…it’s mixed with yours, sometimes. With other female voices.” He sighs. “It’s all so distant. So broken…”

He looks truly disheartened. Truly lost. She puts both of her arms around him and holds him closely. “I’m not sure this is the best place for us tonight. There are plenty of other rooms. We can prepare one for ourselves in ten minutes.”

He looks around, morose. “If I sleep somewhere, what does that say of how I think of them?” He shakes his head. “Geryon is right. If I could, I’d spend the next few days exploring every little thing, trying to remember my life here. I’d forget about you and the Bunnies and him and–” He looks at her, desperate for an answer. “But I can’t forget about them. I went so long not fighting to know and now that I do, I – I can’t just walk away because it might hurt.”

“Of course not,” she agrees, reaching to stroke his cheek. “But you do need to rest. You are exhausted and in all kinds of pain. You need to rest and recover to be ready to face what might come next. That is what we’re here for.”

Another ragged breath and he presses his forehead against hers. “I’m becoming a whining, pitiful wreck.”

She snorts softly, just a quick exhalation against his lips. “I can handle a little whining.” She pulls away and looks into his eyes. The smile doesn’t come easily to her lips but, for him, she makes the effort. “Let us try something. Forget what your parents would think and don’t worry about me or Geryon or the Bunnies. What do you want to do right now? Where do you want to go?”

He looks confused. “Right now, this very moment?”

“Yes, right now,” she says. “Wherever you want to go, we go. Whatever you want to do, we do. Go out to eat, visit a theater. Get drunk in a bar. Even if you want to go alone.” Though truly, the last thing she wants is to leave him alone.

He smiles a little at her suggestions and thinks it over. “I…I can’t think of anywhere to go. I just want to be with you. Just you and me with no haunting thoughts.”

She looks at him in silence for a moment, trying to decide what to do. She had been counting on him to have an epiphany. But a blur of bluish light filtering through the window catches her eye and she rises, taking his hands and nudging him up. “Come with me.” She looks around and reaches for a blanket left at the foot of the bed.

He rises, his hand pulling a little on hers as he reaches to grab a pillow, that he tucks under one arm as he follows her, unresisting and with a small smile on his lips, down the hallway, down the stairs, across a room and a couple of turns, into the living room. At a last minute thought, she stops, leans down to reach under the table, and removes the blanket she had stored there in the building-block basket before straightening and guiding him outside, to the garden. The night is pleasant, not too warm and not too cold. And perching on a branch, her shimmering blue feathers shining in the moonlight and irradiating a soft glow that covers a little patch of grass, Starfax watches and awaits. In the bushes, not far away, fireflies glimmer faintly and muffled sounds like rustling leaves announce the woodland spirits that are going about their usual nightly business.

Alma smiles at the phoenix and releases Gwydion’s hands, letting the blankets drop at her feet. “I know there are plans to restore this by hand but…” she starts and trails off as she kneels and touches the grass, sending her magic through it.

It is a simple, normally easy spell that shouldn’t take that much out of her. But the way she has been feeling lately, even with the higher levels of freely flowing mana it leaves her even more tired than she already feels. Still, the verdant lawn obeys her call, weeds dwindling until they fade under the grass, night-blooming flowers opening to the moon just a week or two before their season, releasing a pleasant scent. She doesn’t manage (nor does she want) to affect more than the patch of garden bathed in Starfax’s radiance but it is enough for them to have plenty of space.

Alma spreads the blanket she brought from the living room on the lawn, feeling an odd, double-edged sensation of homage and intrusion into Gwydion’s past. She looks at him, waiting for his reaction. He smiles and joins her, laying down the pillow, which is long enough for both of them and then lying down, looking an invitation at her. She grabs the blanket she brought from the bedroom and reclines as well, draping it over them both and resting her head on the pillow. He lies facing her, his fingers caressing her face and her neck down to her shoulders and arms.

“Do you like my idea?” she asks in a whisper.

“I love it,” he replies, looking at her with a sweet melancholy that verges on adoration. She feels her heart thump in her chest at the sight of it and wonders if somehow she can make it so it will always feel that way. “I can breathe better here.”

She snuggles against him, her arm over his side. “Then I’m glad I followed Starfax here.”

He cranes his neck to look at the perching bird, then lies back to look at the stars that slowly dance above them. “She’s a bird with good taste in romantic spots.”

“She has good taste all around,” Alma replies with a soft smile. “She loves you.”

“How can you tell?” Gwydion asks. “She doesn’t exactly…interact with me much.”

Alma looks at him, stroking his back. “This light we are bathed in, it’s her doing. It’s a healing, cleansing light. And she rarely, very rarely gives it to anyone other than me. So I know she likes you. And that she wants you to get better.”

“Can you talk to her? Does she understand you? Maybe telepathically?” he asks, curious.

Alma shakes her head. “No telepathy. I talk but she doesn’t use words to answer. I just… I’ve known her for over a century. I look at her and I know from the way she stands, the way she moves, the things she does, what she wants to convey. And even when I talk to her, I think she mostly reads my intentions in my behavior.” She looks down, a little self-conscious. “I like to think of her as my soulmate.”

He caresses her jawline with a finger and nudges her chin up. “It must be wonderful to know someone so closely… I hope someday I can know you that well.”

She closes her eyes, enjoying his touch, her voice catching in her throat when she replies, “I hope so too.”

She hears him inhale deeply. “I…I know we haven’t…ever since what happened…” he trails off, hesitating. “Our intimacy – if…If you don’t… feel ready…”

She opens her eyes and looks at him with sorrow. “I miss you! I miss…us. Before it all happened. The way we could be so comfortable and not be afraid and – And there were no memories of being…” She looks down, tries to catch her breath. “Sometimes I wonder…I look in the mirror and I look for her there. And I know she’s not but it’s the memory of her and… And I wonder if you think the same. When we’re together.”

She cannot bear to look at him but his silence fills the space between them like a brick wall. It’s enough to be an answer in itself. Eventually, he says, “She was wearing your face. It was the only face I ever saw her wear. I don’t think she could have hurt me more, really, no matter how hard she tried. Inhabiting you, telling me that you were gone. That she was going to bind you into your sword…” He looks at her, helpless. “I know how foolish it is. I know she is gone and that this is you. I know it. But that cruel expression won’t stop flitting before me and tainting everything.”

Alma closes her eyes as the words sink in. She can’t blame him. The sword Fencer gave her has been sitting beside her locker in the office she shares with Gwydion ever since that night. She can’t stand the thought of wielding it, scared of the way it seems to hum her name and call for her to wield it. And maybe she is hearing things, but at the same time she can’t bear the idea of disposing of it, feeling an irrational need to keep it close by. And the fears around Nua’s return are the same as his, with the poisonous addition of all the memories the necromancer shared as they battled for Alma’s body. How can they heal from what she’s done? How can anyone be expected to bounce back from that?

“I’m frightened,” she barely more than whispers, her words moist, like her eyes. “I feel vile. Like I recovered my body but it is not mine anymore. Just a tainted, horrible thing capable of… I’m ashamed of it. And I feel so guilty that it was so easy for her to just…” She swallows away tears.

Gwydion’s leg slips between hers and gently pulls her closer as his arms hold her tightly. “Shh… We’ve talked about this. She set the trap. She had everything ready to exploit our weaknesses. It could have been much worse.” He strokes the back of her head as her tears give way to sobs. “I cannot imagine how terrible it is for you. But I understand the sort of pain. Helpless. Robbed of all agency.”

“What if…we can’t heal?” she asks, swallowing tears. “I don’t want to lose you. And I’m doing all I can but I get scared sometimes that it will never go away. That it will kill the way we feel for each other.”

His hand on her cheek makes her open her eyes to look at his searing, determined expression. “We will heal. Whatever it takes, I’m not letting go. There is no one – no one in this world that means even a tenth of what you mean to me.” His face softens, his fingers pet her skin. “I’m scared too. But I know we’ll make it through. I don’t have a choice but to believe that. I can’t lose you. I can’t. You are the core of my family. I didn’t really have a family until your children decided they wanted me in theirs. Until a few other people decided they wanted to be a part of your family. And it’s become a wonderful thing and I can’t lose that. I can’t lose another family, Alma. I can’t be alone again. Hollow. I…” He closes his eyes.

She cups his cheek and speaks as much to him as to herself. “I’m here. I’m here… You won’t lose me.”

He nods. “We need to do something about this. Whatever it is.”

She looks at him through tears and leans closer to kiss the bridge of his nose. “Do you think this healer Somrak spoke of will work?”

He looks back at her. “I think…it’s time to put fear aside and let him try. Whatever it takes to smile with you again and be happy by your side.”

He smiles tentatively, small and wry and she smiles back at him, just as small. “It seems my ingenious plan to get away from ghosts didn’t work after all.”

He touches her temple. “They’re in here. And here.” He touches his own head. “They’re following us around.” He pulls her closer, caring and protective. “But I am with you and I’m not letting go. That’s the most important thing.”

Alma nods, holds him close. “I am not going anywhere.”

She leans her head closer and touches her lips to his under the stars.

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Ch7.08 Revelations

The portal opens to a stone platform under an arched, stone roof. On the platform, glyphs of protection and transportation – facilitators to travel into the estate overlapped with filters to keep visitors with bad intentions from simply teleporting in – are inlaid in tiny tiles of different stones that glow as the energy of the portal flows through them. And beyond the platform, a narrow, roofed pathway through a garden gone wild, left to its devices for over a century, the dried corpses of dead plants tangled and showing through the green shoots of new grass and small bushes. Among them, tiny sprites lounge and play, probably used to calling the property their home for generations now, as is usual in these high mana, Upper Ring estates. The pathway leads to the main house, the guest house looming further away, to the left side of the garden. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to cause concern.

Dion takes it all in with a shallow breath, his heart both racing and catching at the sight. Can he truly remember any of this? Are any of his blurry memories real or is the familiar feeling he is experiencing just a product of an overeager imagination? How can he ever be certain?

Well, no way of knowing for now. He grips the handle of his suitcase a little tighter, then leans back and calls through the portal, “Come on. It’s all right.”

After him comes Kori, who runs out, a medium-sized backpack dangling from his shoulders and hitting his back as he rushes to explore the immediate surroundings. Merri and Cherry are next, slower, more cautious. More burdened as well. Cherry has a large backpack strapped to her back which looks heavy enough, but Merri is carrying a backpack and hauling two large suitcases which, Dion knows for a fact, she needed help to close. He wonders just how many clothes the Bunnies own, since none of them seems the type to engage in retail therapy. Other than, maybe, Tulip, who is just stepping through the portal with Sage, complaining to her patient brother about the weight of her small suitcase, probably in hopes that he will offer to carry it, along with his own. Alma and Chime calmly take up the rear, followed by a hesitant Geryon.

“Oh lovely,” the gryphon comments, looking around at the overgrown garden. “A week in the jungle. I wonder if we will find some long-abandoned temple inhabited by blood-drinking cultists with a habit of ripping the beating hearts from people’s chests.”

“It just needs a little work,” Alma says softly, touching Geryon’s head and looking reassuringly at Dion. “I’m sure we can have the plants tame again in a couple of days.”

The god nods at her with a small smile, glancing to see Geryon look down, abashed, as if having just been reminded of some deal struck when Dion wasn’t watching. Though not quite the best of friends, the gryphon and the goddess seem to have reached a certain comfortable camaraderie more based on a quiet, mutual understanding than on outright demonstrations of affection. Something Dion delights to see, for he doesn’t know how long his best friend will last and would not in any circumstance want to be in a position where keeping his lover meant letting go of someone who has been nothing but a loyal and kind (in his own way) companion to him.

“Yes, I am sure it will,” Geryon murmurs, apologetic.

“Ohhh that’s why you brought us along,” Cherry jokes. Though sad and haunted for the past few days, she is already brightening considerably from her state of mourning. It seems the change in scenery is working its magic on her. “Buncha gardeners and maids! Can I get a big floppy straw hat?”

“Ooo, I want a maid outfit!” Merri laughs, a little forced but, like her sister, looking radiant at the prospect of this vacation. She appraises the garden and sighs, smiling, “I’ve always wanted a flower garden.”

“Well, when one is named after a flower, a garden must seem like an appropriate place to be,” Geryon notes, brushing a wing against her in affection. “I am sure you will brighten it with your presence, as soon as we can have all the weeds standing lower than the average giant.”

“And we’ll take care of clothes and tools soon,” Dion says, trying to match their enthusiasm. “There’s probably a storage shed with such things…” He gestures vaguely with his one free hand. “Somewhere. We’ll search for it. But please, remember: let me or Alma or Geryon check any room or building before entering. Just to be on the safe side.”

“We will remember,” Sage assures him, looking intently at the three younger Bunnies, who are already putting their luggage down in order to go off on their own.

“But we wanna explore!” Tulip bickers, bouncing on her toes.

“But we are going to explore slooooooowly,” Alma insists, a look on her face that never fails to catch her children’s attention to the seriousness of her tone. It as always struck Dion like a little bit of magic all of its own. “And probably get our things inside the house first and foremost. I swear, I have never seen so much luggage being dragged around for a simple week of vacation!”

“Well we didnae ken what t’bring!” Merri cries, defending herself since she is, by far, guilty of most – nay, all of it.

“So you brought half the closet!” Cherry says, insisting to Alma, a thumb pointing at the stuffed shoulder bag hanging over the Bunny’s shoulder, “This here’s all I packed. She packed a whole bunch more of my clothes when I wasn’t lookin’.”

“Considering how many hours a day you ladies spend naked, even that backpack seems a little excessive,” Geryon notes in a half mutter that gets him a squinting glare from Cherry, followed by the Bunny’s tongue sticking out at him.

“I…think we better head to the house,” Alma says, exchanging a meaningful look and a helpless smile with Dion. “Before this turns into a wild camping campaign.”

She joins him, walking just a couple of steps behind him as they follow the path toward the house, the pale, stone-lined walls stretching left and right with long, tall windows. A house filled with natural light…just the way he–

Well, the way he thinks he remembers it. Dion unlocks the garden door with ease. There is no key to it, just a series of movements of the knob that he knows instinctively to make. Though the last time he made them, he would have needed to use both hands and stand on his tiptoes.

They enter the building in almost solemn silence. The door opens into a bright living-room, spacious but still cozy-feeling, the furniture and decor seemingly picked more for simple comfort than for any complex idea of theme-based design, as is the Upper Ring fashion. Instead, the chairs and low table are sturdy wood of beautiful but plain lines. The large windows that can be opened fully, turning the room into a semi-outdoor space, and have a subtle tint to them, he realizes, so that the light that filters through is soft and not aggressive to the eyes. Still he can see motes of dust, much, much less dust than would be expected for a house closed and uninhabited for so long to accumulate.

It looks like Math sent a cleanup crew, he thinks. Probably sylphs. They are amazing at dusting.

On the floor, by the table, he sees a blanket laid out, a little crumpled as if someone has been sitting on it. And on the blanket…is that a set of building blocks? He walks toward it, putting his luggage down and crouching to pick up a handful of them. Colorful, wooden building blocks, some translucent, made of the exotic Bineh’iu tree pulp. A memory of this very same blanket and these very same blocks strikes him. But his hand could only hold one at a time back then…

I should have brought Gryphy along with me…

“Think they put out some fresh linens for the beds?” Cherry asks, breaking his train of thought. “If not, we better get to airin’ the sheets and stuff out now, take advantage of this sun.”

“First things first,” Alma intervenes, moving to stand behind Dion and lean down to kiss his temple. She reaches under the table and pulls out a little basket, in which more building blocks are stored. She whispers in his ear, “I could see it from where I was standing. Maybe we should put them away for safekeeping?”

He looks at her gratefully and proceeds to put all the blocks inside the basket, standing and letting her pick up and fold the blanket with practiced ease. The way his mother would have done it.

“It is best if the six of you stay here with Geryon for a moment while Gwydion and I make a first recognition of the house to make sure the main rooms are safe,” she says as she carefully places the folded blanket in the basket and pushes the whole set under the table again, glancing quizzically at Dion. “Unless you would prefer to do it alone or take Geryon with you?”

He shakes his head and holds out a hand for her to hold. “No, please come with me. Geryon, could you watch over them?”

“Oh, of course. Is that not why your Bunnysitter was invited to come on this vacation?” the gryphon replies, walking over to a chaise lounge and climbing onto it, his smaller, household form allowing him to fit in it. Dion winces at the thought of the future brushing of gryphon fur off the cream-colored velvet. “I shall attentively guard them until your victorious return. Please do make sure not to scream too loudly when you find the inevitable secret room of bloody demise.”

Cherry plops down beside Geryon and gives him a nervous look. “Don’t even joke about that stuff, baby, please?”

“I am sure the house is perfectly safe,” Geryon assures her, his raptorine features showing his concern for her. “Dion is just being his growingly usual paranoid self. You have nothing to fear, darling Cherry.”

“Can we play in the garden while you do all that boring stuff?” Kori asks, looking tired of waiting already.

Dion hesitates before giving in. “Very well. The garden seems to contain nothing dangerous aside from a few potentially annoying insects. Perhaps you can find some particularly interesting ones.”

The Bunny’s face lights up immediately with excitement. “Cool! Come on, guys!”

Cherry smiles as the three youngest Bunnies charge out into the garden as if they haven’t seen the outdoors in months. “Nobody but that boy’s gonna get excited about gettin’ bit by bugs,” she says, rising as well. “Come on, Merri – let’s start figurin’ out what we gotta do for the garden.”

And as they busy themselves, leaving Geryon lounging on the chaise, one eye intently locked on all the activity going on outside, Dion guides Alma into one of two hallways leading further into the house. They walk quietly through the ground floor, inspecting a more formal, but equally simple dining room, a few storage rooms and the large kitchen, which would still easily pale against the one in Math’s estate. The house, spacious as it is, was clearly built for a small family with just the necessary amount of servants attending it, not too many, not too few. Everything looks tastefully picked and put together, every room conserved by some sort of spell to feel as fresh and clean as when it was last inhabited. His parents, Dion realizes, were no fans of lavishness or fashion. Their taste comes through in the understated beauty of each room, in the finer details of wallpaper and furniture and a statue or painting or vase here and there. Their home such a different scenario to what his childhood could have been.

“Does any of this feel familiar to you?” Alma asks softly as they walk toward the right wing of the house.

“Completely familiar and utterly unknown,” he replies in a near-whisper. “I feel as if I have lived here, yet I recognize almost nothing.”

“You were very young back then,” she says in a quiet voice. “It is normal for it to feel that way.”

They stop by the mouth of a hallway, its entrance lined with magical glyphs of warding. Dion runs his fingers through them, the language in which they are written so easily decipherable. His eyes flare as he inspects to see that the spells bound to magic symbols are still active. “I think this might to lead to where they used to work. Maybe not the best place to go into right now.”

And yet, he feels his heart racing at the thought of what he might find past this threshold. He squeezes Alma’s hand almost without even realizing it and she squeezes it back.

“Why don’t we make it off-limits for now and explore upstairs instead?” she suggests. “We can come back here in the afternoon.”

He follows her unresisting as they walk away, but not without another glance toward the mysterious hallway. A couple of turns later, they find the servant access staircase – through the kitchen – to the first floor.

“Hmm, this seems like a floor for living quarters,” Alma notes as they walk through far less complicated and segmented hallways. “There must be bedrooms behind these doors.”

“I’ll check them,” Dion replies. “I’m sure Uncle would have removed or cordoned off any dangers, but he probably has a blind spot when it comes to mortal safety.”

Alma nods agreement, her eyes glowing with the gentle light that, since the awakening of her third sphere, she never quite manages to hide. “Always best to check. They seem to be empty of living creatures, though.”

He smiles at her and then activates his own divine sight before opening the door and stepping in. Inside is a white-walled room, lit with the daylight that filters through a pair of yellowish, translucent curtains, the heavier, opaque drapes tied back at this time of day. The two-person bed is freshly made, sitting against the wall, in the middle of the room, while on the dresser are placed the most varied amenities. An inner door leads to a small bathroom.

“Seems that there are no worries to be had with bed-linens,” Dion says. “Everything is made up quite nicely.”

“The Bunnies will be overwhelmed at all this space in a single bedroom.” She looks at him ruefully, as if to say even though this is just standard for us, isn’t it? And it is. Some people he has met might even think it too small. “They might end up picking just one room and piling themselves together in it.”

“That will disappoint Geryon,” Dion says as he opens a closet and freezes, jaw dropped, to see it full of clothes. Not just any clothes. Blouses and skirts and vests and pants and dresses, half in somewhat frilly, flowery designs, the other more simple, but notably with some leather pieces, all fit for a short human – or a Bunny. “Oh my…seems like Uncle has made Rosemary’s over-packing even less necessary.”

He stands aside so Alma can see the panoply of garments that could easily dress a Bunny for months without having to repeat the same outfit. “I think this is meant to be for Merri and Cherry.”

Alma’s jaw drops just as much as his did and she covers her mouth with her hand in shock. “They will be going crazy with all of this…enough clothes for a whole year.” She looks at Dion, her eyes questioning. “Did you know about this?”

Dion shakes his head, pulling open a drawer on the dresser. “Oh, this is all Math’s own madness, I assure you.” He lifts out a red silk brassiere trimmed in lace, his eyebrow raised. He hastily puts it away, trying not to get too much of his scent on it. “Please tell me Uncle asked someone on staff to pick these out…”

His voice trails off at the sound of Alma’s laughter. Music to his ears, that doesn’t fail to make him smile. It has become such a rare thing and even now it is laced with an edge of despair. He knows better than anyone, how much she needs it.

“You know, there should be at least four more rooms for four more Bunnies,” she points out.

He nods. “Yes, I think there’ll be a room for each. Even one for May, I would guess, though she can’t be here on this trip.” His voice is somewhat grim when he adds, “He doesn’t do things by half measure. He wants them to love this place.”

Alma’s expression softens and she moves closer to him, reaching to hold both his hands in hers. “Well… It’s all right for them to love it. It does not mean this is the life they want to live for the rest of their days.” She locks eyes with him. “And the same goes for us.”

He squeezes her hands before releasing them and taking comfort in a full embrace. He closes his eyes, enjoying the proximity such a touch allows when most other things have been tainted by their recent sufferings. “We’ll let them give this place its fair shot. Then they can choose. They do seem…lighter than they’ve been. Their smiles brighter, more laughter. If they decide they want to stay…”

“We will deal with that if and when it happens,” Alma says softly close to his ear, her hand stroking his back. “For now, they should not be the only ones smiling more.”

She pulls back and smiles at him. It takes him a moment before he smiles back at her, his hand reaching to cup her cheek, to lean her head closer, until their lips meet. Now that their courtship is known to all, he should be enjoying her kisses more often, kissing her whenever he wants to with no cares as to who might see. He hates Nua all the more passionately for taking that pleasure away from him. For sneaking into his mind whenever is trying to enjoy his beloved’s touch.

As they break, Alma’s smile is subdued as if she could sense his thoughts, but she reaches for his hand and pulls him gently toward the door, jesting, “Come on, one of these rooms should be ours. Let us see if your uncle’s staff remembers my underwear size.”

“I am almost afraid to look at what they picked out for me,” he replies, following her. “If it’s the same staff member who chose the lingerie in that drawer, I might have a dresser full of thongs.”

Alma chuckles as they move down the hall, opening room after room. “The novelty type with animal themes, or would you go bolder and try the lace?”

“Maybe something that lights up, with a little warming unit for those cold winter days,” Dion replies, joining in the joke.

Soon, they have found all five rooms meant for the Bunnies, one of them reserved for May, as Dion suspected, and even one meant for Geryon. After Alma opens yet another door and peeks inside for just a moment before closing the door again, a sad look on her face. She shakes her head. “This is not it.”

“Should I not look in there?” Dion asks, feeling worried at her expression.

“You should, just…” she breathes deeply and touches his arm. “Maybe after we’ve settled in.”

He swallows, the dread of all the painful memories that might be unlocked during this visit rising in him. Everything he has lost, hidden behind closed doors in a house kept secret from him for so long. But he chooses to trust Alma’s judgement. He would certainly be a wreck already if she weren’t here with him. “Maybe we should just skip ahead to this last one,” he says, opening the very last door, at the end of the hall.

They peek in together and freeze in their tracks. The room is spacious without being oppressively grand, with a high ceiling and large windows on one wall arranged in a sort of alcove where a frame and mattress for a sort of bench have been placed. The bed is a four-poster that again has plenty of room but doesn’t look like one of those exaggerated affairs where finding one’s mate in bed might involve a map and a couple of hours of squirming travel. Two doors open into the room. One, Dion sees, leads into a walk-in closet, with just about as much as clothing inside it as both gods could wear in a year, suits and others for Dion on one side, various garments for Alma on the other, all of it similar to what they normally wear, at least what he is sure Math has seen them in.

Alma walks enters the second door to find a private bath with a bathtub that seems to invite bathing in pairs. Everything of the highest quality but with the same simplicity they have found throughout the house. She walks back into the bedroom part of the suite. “If your parents decorated this room, then they had amazing taste. And did not favor the more outrageous styles of interior designing.”

Dion walks around the room, running his hands along the wallpaper, a deceptively simple design that reveals complexity on closer examination. He remembers his fingers running through it, once before, when they were much, much smaller. “I was fascinated by this,” he barely more than whispers. “I remember…staring at it, tracing it with my fingers. Look, it doesn’t just repeat, there’s a rhythm to it. A reason…”

Alma joins him, looking intently at the wallpaper. “It looks almost as if it was fabricated as a single, wall-sized piece.” She touches her fingers to the wall, tracing the designs alongside him. Her eyes drift toward the window-lined alcove. “That alcove has a mattress thicker than would be needed to just sit down and there seem to be fittings for some sort of railing. I wonder as if it was used as a bed.” She looks at him. “Possibly for a child.”

He looks at her, eyes widening as realization dawns. With a few steps, he covers the distance to the alcove and kneels by it, touching the mattress as if in a trance, his movements not quite decided upon by his own conscious mind. And he remembers, very faintly, seeing his mother lean over him, the cream-colored ceiling with its sculpted cornice just above her. “I slept here…” he murmurs. “This was their room. I slept here in my first months.” He closes his eyes and sways forward, arms on the mattress.

He feels her rushing from where she was standing by the bed to his side, putting one arm around him. “You were their little boy. They wanted you close.” She sits down with her back against the alcove, placing something on the floor beside her. “Here, sit down with me.”

He breathes deeply, feeling flushed and dizzy at the onslaught of memories and emotions. Sitting down feels like a titanic effort but he does so, looking at the bedroom as if it were the tomb of his whole childhood.

“Look,” Alma says, handing him a small picture frame. “It was on the bedside table.”

He turns pale, almost not daring to look at what the picture inside might be, afraid to find…what? What picture kept on one’s bedside table could be so horrible to look at? He seizes it and studies the image intently, his breath stopped at the sight of a young-looking couple, the male tall and tan, his eyes golden and the smiling expression on his strong but kind-looking face an almost perfect match to the image that greets Dion whenever he looks in the mirror. The female sits on the grassy ground of the garden, copper-haired and paler, lines much more delicate but certainly bearing a familiar resemblance to Math’s, smiles as well, her hazel eyes almost shining with happiness. They are both looking at the toddler in her arms, light-skinned, chubby arms wrapped around a much younger-looking Gryphy. A dragonfly is perched on the dolls’ fuzzy head and little baby Dion, his black hair longer than he ever remembers wearing it, is looking at it entranced.

Yes, he has always loved dragonflies…

After a few heartbeats he feels himself breathe again. “It’s them. This…this is the first time I’ve seen their faces outside of dreams in more than a century.”

Beside him, Alma studies the picture as well, her arms around him, squeezing him gently. “They look so young. So happy. They were absolutely in love with that little boy.”

“Do you think so?” he asks her, almost fearfully. His chest feels as if it is about to burst, full of unanswered questions and sorrow.

She smiles softly at him and points at the picture. “The way they are looking at you… I know that look very well.” She strokes his cheek. “You have your mother’s eyes. And your father’s too, when you cast your magic.”

Dion draws a shaky breath, fighting back tears. It is all so sad, so overwhelmingly sad. “I…” He tears his eyes away from the picture, from the happy trio to look at her, hating to feel so lost before her but unable to avoid it. “I don’t know…if I can stay in here. I don’t know…oh Alma…”

He hangs his head and turns to lean against her, head on her shoulder, overcome by the crashing waves of emotion: loss and reconnection, the pain of the memories of their abduction breaking against suddenly resurgent memories of playing in that garden, enhanced by the muffled noise of the Bunnies shouting joyfully outside. He remembers being happy. He remembers it if only in contrast to how sad he feels now, how mournful. His body shakes with a wordless cry of pain as she holds him closely against her and kisses the side of his head, her body almost instinctively rocking gently.

“It’s all right,” she whispers. “It’s all right. Whatever you decide, we’ll do and no one will mind that. We have all the time in the world. We can take it slowly. It’s all right.”

He holds on tightly to her, letting her rock him, comfort him. Letting her make him feel safe and supported. Her words barely bear meaning, muffled against his sobs, but the sound of her voice is enough. And she keeps murmuring, things he makes no sense of, some words in her family’s language, he thinks, which she has whispered in his ear before to snap him out of some more horrid nightmare or other. They lull him, soft and steady, together with the slow cadence of her heartbeats against his body, until he is no longer sobbing, no longer shaking. Until he is just breathing quietly against her neck, unsure of how long they have sat like this, the picture frame still firmly gripped in his hand.

And maybe feeling him calm down, she says, “We can go back to Three Rats. Or try the guest house. Anything that makes you feel better. Whatever you wish, we’ll do.”

Her lovely scent creeps into the foreground of his attention, soothing him. “I just need…to absorb it all. So much…”

“I know,” she replies, stroking his hair. “Where is Gryphy? Did you bring him along?”

He can’t help but smile at her remembering of his childhood companion. “No… I never thought of it. But I wish I had.”

“I can go downslope and bring him over for you,” she suggests. “It shouldn’t take me more than a few hours.”

“Oh no, no, no, no,” he refuses adamantly. “You will not leave me here to my ghosts for hours just to go back for a toy. I’ll just hold you instead. I’m happy holding you for comfort.” He straightens a little to look into her eyes. “I can’t imagine…not having you here to do this with me.”

She smiles at the words, strokes his cheek. “I’m yours. I’ll be here every step of the way. You were loved and you are loved. Very much so.”

He presses his forehead against hers, closing his eyes. “I’m blessed. I know I am. I need to find more of them but…slowly. I know that there are many more of these moments coming my way. I just need to tackle them one at a time.”

She nods, leaning upward to kiss his forehead. “Of course. Baby steps.”

“Yes,” he agrees, glancing at the picture. “Baby steps…”

Ch6.99 Trust

“Okay y’all, cookies are ready!”

The plate is heavy in Cherry’s hands, but the cookies – chocolate chip, almond, and peanut butter – smell heavenly. Serving baked goods out to everyone lends Cherry some slight distraction from the worries that plague her mind.

There has been no news. Not since hours ago when Grandmamma Lyria left them in the care of the Twins, Uncle Imset and Uncle Lum. All they know is that their mother, Alma, along with Dion, is out on a mission to rescue Sky. And that their enemies can send squads of demons. And that those demons were supposed to kill or capture the Bunnies, and they would’ve done it, too, if Grandmamma hadn’t shown up. They would’ve killed us all, she thinks. They would’ve done worse than that…

She stops where she is and shuts her eyes tight. Stop it! You’re gonna break down and scare the younger ones! Just…stop thinking about it.

She takes a breath and opens her eyes and, to her dismay, Chime is looking right at her. It doesn’t look like anyone else saw her freeze up, but sweet little Chime, with those long dirty-blonde bangs hanging half over his eyes, is staring at her. It can be hard to tell what Chime is feeling when he’s not playing music. He wakes up when playing with Kori, too – his big brother is a hero to him, even though Kori wins pretty much every race, every wrestling match, every whatever. But a lot of the time, Chime is sort of dreaming, “seeing music everywhere” he told her once. She’d been reading a novel on the bed in her and Merri’s room, and he’d just come in and lay down next to her. She’d put an arm around him, not even really thinking about it, and asked him what was on his mind. When he told her, she’d asked, “Don’t you mean hearin’ music everywhere, sweetie?” He’d shaken his head on her shoulder. “Seeing.” Then he’d fallen asleep.

But Cherry knows him well enough to know that he’s pretty scared too, and the sight of her just freezing like that is not helping, no way. So she puts a fragile smile on her face and makes sure everyone gets cookies. All the Bunnies, except of course May who is away, take at least one – Kori takes three, though rejecting the peanut butter as “gross,” and Merri insists on calling them “biscuits,” which is just silly – and Geryon, who loves chocolate chip, and the Twins, instant uncles, just add Bunnies. Aliyah has gone back to the station next door for a little while, even though she’s not technically on duty. They just got hit by demons, after all. Must be some form for reporting that.

Just as Imset is taking his cookie, he and his brother both look past everyone else. Cherry feels the fur on the back of her neck stand on end, and she turns, almost sagging in relief to see it’s Lyria, next to the huge, foreboding figure of Melinor. Melinor might be kind of scary, but he’s scary to other people, not to the Bunnies. He might not think of them as family, but they are Alma’s, and that’s good enough for him. At least that’s how it seems.

But in Melinor’s arms is a shrouded form, a human form, wrapped tight in a white sheet that covers it completely. The world seems to contract, going dark at the edges of her vision, and sound becomes muffled. There’s a part of her mind that just observes this, surprised that she hasn’t dropped the plate with the remaining cookies, but somehow she automatically sets it down on the table beside her. She watches as Sage and Merri approach Melinor, looking at that white-shrouded shape, and they turn to look at her as they catch the scent and realize who it is. Cherry is too far away for the smell to hit her yet, but they turn and look at her, right at Cherry, and she knows, from that.

It’s not Sky, of course. He’s about the same size as Melinor, which would make carrying the body a lot more awkward. And it’s not Mama. If it were, Lyria and Mel would both be shattered, and Merri and Sage too. Dion is bigger, more muscular than that shape, and Somrak, well, they wouldn’t be singling out Cherry to look at with concern and sorrow, now would they?

So she knows. She shakes her head, trying to refuse it, but she knows. She takes a step forward, then another. Then she passes into the scent as it wafts outward. Even though the body has been cleaned up, the smell of death is there along with some foul poison, but there it is. Saira. That’s definitely Saira.

Scent triggers memory so easily, and bam, it hits Cherry hard: massaging Saira’s back, the muscles twitching after an attack. In the bath together, Saira looking at her, smiling, all comfortable and happy, saying “I like you, Fluffy Ears.”

Cherry starts to tremble, and as Merri wraps her arms around her, Cherry sags and moans into her embrace. She just lets Merri take over. That little part of her mind that’s observing all this says, Yeah, that’s heartbreak, all right.

The following few minutes are just a blur to her. Sage asking after Mama, and the others. “They are safe,” Lyria says immediately. “Alive. But little ones, I need you to listen and understand. They cannot return tonight.”

“What happened to Mom? And Dion and Sky? Uncle Som? Why’s Saira…?” Tulip’s voice trails off, shaken by tears. “What’s going on? Where’s our Mom?” Kori demands. Imset talking with Melinor in a strange language, their voices low but heavy. Merri’s loving voice whispering to her, telling her it’ll be all right.

But it won’t.

Yeah, but what are you gonna do, huh? There’s that voice again, Cherry’s own. Gonna just be a sack of potatoes in Merri’s arms? There’s Tulip cryin’. They’re scared. Pull it together!

Cherry grips Merri’s shoulder and literally pulls herself upright, standing up on her own two feet. She takes a long glance into Merri’s eyes, marveling at that deep, amazing green, then lets her go and turns to see to the kids. She still feels as if the floor has disappeared, as if she’s falling through the air, but she can’t ignore the younger ones. Tulip is already in Lyria’s arms, but Kori is standing, fists clenched, looking frightened and furious at once. She puts her arms around him, gently, and though he’s stiff and resistant at first, he can tell how much she’s hurting, and he lets go of his anger and holds her, affected as much by her pain as by his own need for comfort.

Past Kori’s shoulder, she sees Chime still sitting on the sofa, all alone. Cherry holds out and arm to him, and he comes, pale and scared, and just grabs onto both her and Kori, holding them tightly.

All she can offer for the moment is physical contact. The words just won’t come.

But Merri is telling them, “She’ll be home soon.” Then to Lyria, she asks, “Won’t she?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Lyria says after a moment. “She asked me to tell you she will be back by tomorrow and not to leave your side until then.”

“How bad is it?” Geryon asks. Cherry lifts her head from her embrace of the two younger boys and sees that he is near Melinor, who is laying Saira’s body on the bar with Merri’s help, the only place other than the floor or the sofa that is long enough to lay her out.

Lyria exhales deeply. “Not as bad as it could be but…” She looks back at the Bunnies, “Children, your mother and her friends went against a necromancer and a dangerous demon summoner to rescue Tuma-Sukai. They have defeated the criminals and found Sky but they have all been injured. Deeply.” She raises a hand at their alarmed expressions. “None of them is at risk and their bodies have been healed. But there are deeper wounds. And those will take a long time to heal. They will require your patience and understanding.”

“We’ll be strong for them,” Merri says. “But…can we not go see them? Or…” She trails off.

“They need peace, little ones. Time to regain some of their strength,” Lyria explains. She touches Merri’s head. “And you must know… Tuma-Sukai cannot return tomorrow. His wounds require the most care and he will need to stay confined to his healer’s home for a long while. Most likely without visitors.” Her voice is gentle but pained.

Cherry clenches her jaw shut, shuts her eyes tight, and holds onto Kori, grateful for his strong arms. She just knows if she were to start asking the questions she wants to ask, What do you mean, we can’t see him? He needs us! What the Hell is goin’ on?! she will end up screaming. So she just stays silent.

“Can they heal, Lady?” Geryon asks quietly.

Lyria nods. “I believe so. Though… I have no way of knowing how long that will take. Their bodies are healed. The rest…”

“And how much trouble are they in?” the gryphon insists. Trouble? Cherry thinks. Oh no…no no no, not again…

Lyria sighs. “That remains to be seen. But I will see to it that not too much comes to pass.”

Imset moves closer to Lyria, whispering to her in that other language. They exchange a swift but somewhat heated argument, then Lyria nods in defeat. Imset kneels by Cherry. “She is alive, all right? I can sense her soul. We’ll drop by and see her before we return home. Don’t worry about anything.” He smiles reassuringly.

Cherry lets go of Kori and puts her hands on Imset’s shoulders. They’ve just met these new uncles, one silent, one talkative. She looks him in his strange, shadowy face and feels an almost overwhelming gratitude at his acceptance of her, of all of Alma’s children “Thank you…” she whispers. “Tell her…tell her we all love her, and, and all of ‘em, and…”

Then words fail her, and she puts her arms around Imset’s neck and holds on tight. All of it, blows coming one after another – almost losing their mother, and Dion, and Sky, and now Saira’s death, which she just cannot bear to think about – combined with all of these Death Clan gods here, most of them showing so much kindness when they’re in the middle of their own crisis, and even Melinor taking this time to be here, this is really something, no matter how much he might seem not to care, all of this is just clashing in pain and healing that she can’t speak.

Imset holds her and strokes her hair. Merri soon comes and gently pulls her away, kissing Imset’s cheek and murmuring her thanks, telling the Twins to go with grace and to return soon. Imset replies quietly, then rises and, with a look at Luminus, both gods vanish.

As Cherry walks to the bar, she hears Melinor ask, “Do you require me to stay?”

“No, little one,” Lyria says. “All the enemies are defeated. I don’t expect any counterattacks tonight. Go. Tell your father I will be busy awhile.”

Cherry feels Melinor vanish. There’s no need for special senses for that. The god of violent death radiates an aura of dread that is hard to ignore sometimes. But though that aura is gone, dread remains, brought in other ways. Cherry touches the sheet where it covers Saira’s face, and carefully pulls it back.

So pale. So still. All life gone. That life that Mama nurtured and healed, that Cherry helped in her own way, lesser but more constant, fled forever. Cherry touches the cool cheek. Saira was so beautiful, so deadly. Frightening, really, but full of life at the same time.

And now there is nothing but a corpse.

“Oh baby,” Cherry whispers, running her finger along the soft, short hair of Saira’s eyebrow.

Behind her, Cherry hears Lyria whispering to the younger Bunnies, “It will be all right. I am here to take care of you.” The door of the bar opens, and footsteps approach. A gasp. Aliyah is on one side of Cherry, staring at Saira’s face, and Cala is on the other, silent and somber. Aliyah puts her hands to her face and sobs.

Cherry steps back. She knows a little of the history there. Aliyah and Cala were childhood friends with Saira, a friendship ruptured and only repaired recently and partially. Cala reaches a hand out to rub Aliyah’s back.

In stepping back, Cherry nearly steps on Sage, who holds her hand, looking at her, his beautiful dark features so empathetic. But at the sound of Tulip’s plaintive voice, they turn.

“Mom can come home!” Tulip insists. “We’ll let her sleep. We’ll just hug her and let her sleep. You can go get her.”

“You can hug her tomorrow, little Tulip,” Lyria insists. “She will need all of your hugs tomorrow. But she is probably already asleep and I cannot go disturb her now.”

“Let us hope she is asleep,” Sage says, stroking Tulip’s white hair. “We will welcome her home soon enough.”

Cherry asks, her voice low, “Grandmama, what about… Is Saira…her…soul? Is it okay?”

“She is at peace,” Lyria explains, her eyes on Cherry’s, compassionate. “Her soul has been released by Varah, the goddess you met earlier. It will return to the Wheel.”

“So she’ll be reborn.” Cherry nods to herself. “What…what now?” Cherry asks. “Do we…bury her?”

“Is that her custom? I am not sure about burial rites…” Lyria seems genuinely unsure what to do. “I could join her body with the Insula, of course. Return it to the great cycle of things so it can feed new life.”

The tall Guardia cop Aliyah, her face wet but recovered, approaches and puts her hands on Sage’s shoulders. She clears her throat. “Saira didn’t have religious feelings one way or the other. Just always said her body would be worm food soon enough. I guess…makin’ that comes true, in a nice way, that’d be somethin’ she could get behind.” Cala, coming to stand beside her friend and colleague, nods.

“Well, maybe we can consider a little patch of garden? A tree to remember her by?” Lyria suggests.

Cherry considers this. “Out back? There’s that tree in the corner, sickly little thing. Maybe she can give it some strength if she was under that.” She smiles, just a little. “I know it ain’t her no more but it’d be like havin’ her nearby.”

Lyria nods. “I will let you say your goodbyes tonight, and tomorrow morning, as early as possible, we will take care of that. All right? The little ones should get to bed for now.”

It takes some time, but soon everyone has gone away. Lyria and the others are in Alma’s sanctum, preparing for bed, all planning to sleep together in safety and warmth. Aliyah and Cala have both said quiet prayers over the body to their faraway god, and after a little while Cala returns to work while Aliyah, off-shift, returns to her family.

In the quiet of the bar, most of the lights extinguished, Cherry once more goes to Saira’s body. She smooths the hair back from the corpse’s forehead, and stares at that settled expression. Is that the slightest hint of a smile on Saira’s face? Did she finally achieve what she wanted?

“You never knew peace in your life, baby,” Cherry whispers to her. “Wish you coulda found it with us. I will never, ever forget you.” She leans over and presses her lips to the cool skin of Saira’s forehead.

Then straightening, she carefully rearranges the sheet to cover Saira’s face, and turns to descend the stairs, toward her family, and life, and love.

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.

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.”