Ch5.52 Shards

“Hey Mistah! You Stathos?”

The squeaky voice is like fingernails on a slate. Corporal Stathos looks down to see a young land cuttlefish looking up at him with its huge eyes. The weird pupils always remind him of a grimacing mouth.

“I am. What are you doing in here?” Stathos asks. “We are quite busy, as you can see.” Actually, the chaos in the station has decreased considerably. The Inspector had sent two constables to the warehouse to guard the site so that the Dei could go over it more thoroughly for clues in the morning, and then told Sergeant Machado that he could send home as many off-shift Popula as possible. The place was returning to normalcy. Stathos was starting to think he might get home in time to sleep briefly before escorting his daughters to school in Little Falls.

“Yeah, yeah. Mah uncle Cal tol’ me ta tells you’s bluefish dat da Inspectah’s headin’ ovah ta da warehouse on da corner a Catinga an’ Sharva.”

Stathos sighs. “The Inspector, young mollusk, is upstairs taking a shower. He and many more of us visited that warehouse hours ago. If you are expecting a reward for this uselessly late information, you are mistaken.”

“Hey, I got delayed!” The land cuttlefish throws some of his tentacles in the air. “It ain’t mah fault! I’m a growin’ kid! I gotta eat every half hour or I keel over dead!”

“That is fascinating, but I am far too busy for a lesson in cuttlefish husbandry.” Stathos takes a report from a constable, checks something, then signs it.

“Well I got somethin’ else!” Stathos feels his trouser leg being jerked by a tentacle.

“Are you still here?” He looks at those disproportionately big and somehow cynical eyes and sighs. “Very well, what is it?”

“As I was comin’ in, some two-legs outside gimme a hekte ta tell ya he needs ta talk ta yas.”

Stathos huffs his impatience. “Oh? Well he can come in just as you did.”

“He said it’s about where da other kids is,” the cuttlefish whispers conspiratorially. “Said he’d only tell it ta you’s, alone.”

Stathos looks doubtfully at the cephalopod, weighing this story. There are informants that Stathos has cultivated, and they are quite reluctant to be seen entering a Guardia station. Still, something seems wrong about all this. He considers whether he should bring along backup, even at the risk that it could scare the informant away.

Just then the goddess Kyri returns. She had been there earlier, arriving just after the remarkable departure of Sergeants Alma and Gwydion on the backs of dreamlike steeds, and Cala had sent Kyri to the bar to take care of the Bunnies before she could start all the Guardia cops singing and dancing like some stage show. Now she was back with baskets full of bread and bottles of milk and other nourishment for the children.

“I’ve found six houses that are willing to take in children,” she chirps to no one in particular and everyone at once as she sweeps through the room like someone twice her actual diminutive size, “and I can manage a half dozen of the dear little things at my café for a few days, I daresay! Oh what fun it’ll be!”

Although she seems to be on the way to the bar, Stathos decides to make himself scarce, in case singing starts again. “Very well,” he says to the cuttlefish. “I’ll go speak with this person. Now you get out from underfoot.”

“Whaaaat, no tip fer me?”

Stathos sighs and fishes in his pocket, then tosses the youngster a third-hekte coin, the smallest denomination of money in the Urbis. “You’ve already been paid, so that’s a bonus. Now scat!”

Without further hesitation, Stathos strides out the door.

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They maimed him. Took his thumb. But he deserved it. He deserves so much worse. He has harmed so many, ruined their lives, ended their lives, and for many others death would have been a gift compared to how he left them. The enslaved, the prostituted, the murdered, the sacrificed, the raped, the abused, the tortured.

His victims. Oh his myriad victims.

Their cries echo through his mind. If his hands were free of these shackles, and if he had a sharp instrument, he would stab his eardrums, but he knows that would do nothing to stop the wails, the begging, the pitiful screaming. He had built a castle of uncaring, and that castle had been reinforced by his master, his teacher, to preserve his master’s secrets. But this god, this Inspector, has washed it all away, a tsunami of compassion, and all those memories, all his understanding of how they would feel, floods him, breaks the chains, tears down the walls, and now he is drowning, drowning.

He knows he will tell them everything. It will feel so good, to help them, to expiate some tiny, tiny fraction of this guilt. He will never be rid of it, though. He wants to die. His soul, of course, was promised to Hell, and he will enter a timeless age of suffering, but he is already in Hell, in his mind.

There is a knock at the door. The tall, gangly redheaded constable who has been nodding off in a chair outside the cells rises, looks through a small window, and unlocks the door to allow another to enter. No, this one is of a higher rank. The sorcerer sees how he kindly but firmly tells the younger man to get himself something to eat.

The constable hesitates. He senses dimly what the sorcerer, with his newfound oversensitivity, notices readily, that this superior officer is terribly worried, on the edge of panic, in fact. His face is pale, breathing shallow and rapid. He is holding a package, wrapped in paper and twine as if it had been mailed, holding it as if he suspects it contains vipers.

The sorcerer recognizes the paper. A particular shade of pale yellow which had been purchased in bulk, used to wrap packets of drugs, or lunches, or anything else that Margrave’s gang needed wrapped in the daily flow of business. Not that such paper isn’t common, but…what is the likelihood that a Guardia corporal, in a state one step above shock, would come to deliver him a package that was from some random admirer?

In the next cell, the old harridan wheedles, “Oh, won’t ye bring Granny somethin’ tasty?”

“Wallace, go on now,” the Guardia officer urges softly. “I’ll watch over them.” He starts to close the door, then pulls it open again. “Wallace! Wait a moment.” The officer pulls out one of those little notepads that the blueshirts carry, and a little pencil, and quickly writes a note. As he writes he says, “Give this to the Inspector. After you eat. There’s no hurry, but don’t forget.” He tears it off, pauses, then hands it to the younger man. “Go on.” He locks the door behind the departing constable before turning to lock eyes with the sorcerer.

“Is that for me?” the demon-summoner asks.

“Yes.” The Guardia’s voice breaks and the word barely makes it out of his throat.

The sorcerer sighs, half in pleasure. His cheeks are wet with tears shed for his victims. He rises puts his shackled hands through the bars. “It’s all right,” he says. “I don’t mind.”

“I don’t know what’s in it,” the Guardia says. “I don’t want to know. But I have to give it to you. They’ll kill my–”

“I know. Really, it’s all right.”

The Guardia steps toward the cell and holds out the package. It seems heavy. The sorcerer looks at him and tries to smile again. He reaches out with his unwounded hand and says, just before he touches it, “I am sorry.”

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Sky finishes buttoning his pressed Guardia shirt, hair still wet from the shower, combing it with his fingers and trying to get a look in the fogged mirror at the patch of burnt hair on the back of his head, annoyed with himself at forgetting to bring a brush. He’d thought about using the secret doorway to his own extra-dimensional apartment, but explaining how he’d had a bath in his own office would be awkward. And he had been very tempted to don an aloha shirt and a relaxed pair of chinos instead of uniform, just to celebrate the safe return of Sage and being reunited with Alma and Dion, but there is still a prisoner to interview, and depending on what information he gives up, Sky could well be gearing up again for a raid.

Just one coffee at the bar with his sergeants, his friends, and then back to work. He is still running on mana-fueled wakefulness, and he feels like too little butter spread across too much bread. The deep bite wounds and broken bones of his left arm are mostly healed, and though the belly wound still hurts, the demonic poison is mostly cleared from his system. He grips the small sink, closes his eyes, hangs his head, and fills his lungs with the steamy air.

The sound of children’s voices outside makes him raise his head. There is a knock, and Mayumi’s voice calling out, “Is anyone in there?”

He chuckles and opens the door to see a hallway filled with a small group of the rescued children, all the girls who had not been taken in by people in the neighborhood, each of them holding a towel and some Guardia-blue clothes. Mayumi is actually taller than all but one of them, an unusual sight.

He smiles at her, and she returns the smile nervously. “I’ll get out of your way,” he says. “I’m sure they want to get to bed as soon as possible. It must be going on two in the morning.”

Mayumi nods and gets the tallest girl to take one of the smallest ones in first, while Sky squeezes past them in the narrow hallway. As he does, Mayumi touches his arm. He looks back at her, and she says quietly, “I’m sorry…about going to the warehouse.”

He sighs. “We’ll talk about that later. After things are quiet again. Until then, whatever happens, none of you, none of you, leaves the premises without approval from myself and Sergeant Alma. Plus a Guardia escort. Tell the others. Someone wanted to buy a Bunny. Someone–”

There is a powerful bang that causes the building to shake. Mayumi’s ears go down and she crouches to steady herself, eyes wide, and all the children freeze as well. There is a moment of silence as every mortal in the station shares a collective thought: What was that?!

But Sky falls to one knee, one hand to his head, the other against a wall, groaning. He feels a larger explosion than the physical one, a blast wave that hits his soul like a sucker punch. He has never experienced anything like it, and is stunned and confused.

He comes back to his senses after a moment, to Mayumi shouting his name, her hands cupping his face. He looks up at her. “What happened?” she almost shouts. He merely shakes his head and puts one hand over hers for a moment, then stands and charges down the stairs.

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Dion’s search for a distraction from the mind-wrenching task of choosing to either stay or return to the First Ring has him outside, helping in coordinating attempts to find an at least temporary home for as many orphans as possible. The rumor that the child slavers had been captured and a number of children saved from some terrible fate has spread like a summer fire on dry pasture and the people of the ward, long suffering with the loss of children to disease, gang wars and, occasionally, kidnappers, have been reacting to it by offering the vacant rooms in their homes and the food in their pantries to help the rescued infants. The sight of these people arriving at the station with blankets and baskets full of whatever little they can spare, and still looking guilty that they cannot spare more, is equal parts touching and disturbing to Dion. Even after having, like Sky and Alma, sent instructions to local merchants to deliver food and clothing at the Dei’s expense, he feels humbled and petty before this show of utter generosity. It will never cease to amaze him how the terminally poor can be so giving when they have barely anything to give.

“Excuse me, young man,” a rough, worn voice with just a hint of an underlying pulmonary condition calls him back to reality. “I hear you’ve found some lost kids?”

Dion turns to his left to see a bent old man with the body frame of a once well-built young man looking up at him. His calloused hands with swollen knuckles, that he rubs continuously as if afflicted by constantly cold fingers tell a story of hard, repetitive work. The deep lines on his face, spotted by age and perhaps some liver disease, speak of a once jovial, smiling nature long buried in great sadness.

“Yes, we have, sir,” Dion replies. “Are you looking for a lost child?”

A sudden fit of coughing makes the old man shake and wheeze for a moment. Dion rushes to put his arms around him, but the old man gently waves him away.

Breathing deeply, he says, “No young man. Only child I could be looking for was taken over ten years ago. She’s nowhere near, by now.”

The sadness in his eyes looks greater than any mortal heart could bear. Dion wonders if he could ever accept that burden with such submissive, resigned dignity. “I am very sorry for your loss, Mister…”

The old man seems to wake up from a daydream. “Oh, I forget myself.” He extends a hand. “Gabriel Castro Alves, woodworker.”

“Sergeant Gwydion, Guardia Dei,” Dion replies, shaking the man’s hand firmly but gently. “What brings you here, Mr. Alves?”

“I came by to ask if you need help finding a home for the children,” Gabriel explains. “I hear most of them are homeless.”

Dion brightens up slightly. “Yes, indeed, we are looking–”

A sudden blast from inside the station shakes the building behind Dion. He spins around on his heels, breathless as if he has just taken a direct hit to his chest, eyes wide with shock.

“Oh dear…” the old man whispers. “Maybe you should go see what happened.”

But Dion is already running into the station.

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The hairs on the back of Nataniel’s neck rise all of a sudden and he shivers. Which is strange. The room does certainly does not feel any cooler but his spine feels icy cold. He looks at Cala, who is staring at the goosebumps on her arms with a surprised expression. She looks up at him and shrugs.

Aire, he surmises. Just a draft.

A whimper and a low thud makes them look to their left and rush in the direction of Sergeant Alma’s closet to catch the goddess just in time and stop her from falling. Sweating and pale, wheezing and bloodless, the goddess looks like she has just been shot through the chest. Her eyes stare widely at Cala as the strong woman helps the goddess steady herself.

“What is it, Ma’am?” Cala asks in a panic. “What’s going on?”

“Souls…gone…” Alma wheezes. “Ripped apart. No, no, NO!”

Suddenly, as if possessed by some devilish spirit, the goddess shoves Cala aside and half-runs, half-stumbles toward the door. Hissing some strange word that Nataniel does not quite catch, she disappears, enveloped in an icy-blue light, behind the flowers that hide her bedroom door. Looking at each other for answers, Nataniel and Cala shrug again before walking toward the door. Even though they had not heard it open or close behind the goddess, Alma is nowhere to be found.

Carefully, Cala opens the door.

Shrieking and wailing floods the room. The children sound terrified.

Ay, Virgen… Nataniel thinks, crossing himself. What now?

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The waterfall parts like a curtain, allowing Ewá to step through without getting drenched. Doria gestures with a web-fingered hand. “I hope you received that which you sought, Ewá Nanã.”

“Thank you, Priestess. And may you–” Both of them gasp as a ripple passes through them, some sort of shockwave, attenuated by distance but touching their souls nonetheless.

Doria goes pale. “What…?”

“I fear I know where that might have come from,” Ewá says.

Doria looks quizzically, then her eyes widen just before a groan of distress echoes from the grotto. “The Oracle! She is more sensitive to such things!”

“Do you need my help?” Ewá asks, though she longs to rush to Three Rats Station, imagined death and destruction filling her thoughts.

Doria shakes her head, droplets of water scattering from her hair. “Thank you but no! Please go – I must attend to my lady!”

With that, Doria disappears into the passage, and Ewá Nanã moves swiftly into the open air.

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Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cala brightens. “You mean…the hospital?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smaller cuttlefish squeaks, “Flames and butter!”

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

Cala blinks. “Sanctuary? Where is that?”

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

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

“With butter!”

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

Aliyah laughs. “Cheeks? What cheeks?”

“Lead the way,” Cala says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two Guardia shout together, “NO!”

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