Ch6.37 Trust

The First Ring. Around the portal, streets radiate away, some lined with shops, others with restaurants, others with temples so that visitors to this smallest and yet least densely populated ring of the Urbis Caelestis can feel close to their gods. For the gods who live here are almost exclusively those who are worshipped, and worshipped intensely, often by millions of mortals across the City of Heaven, and in some cases millions more on worlds beyond. Some gods have entire planets where not a single soul knows of the existence of any god but one, and pour their mana-generating prayers into that one single god.

And so the gods who reside here do not live in ramshackle apartments or tiny dens or even stately mansions. They live in palaces surrounded by miles of wilderness, plots of land the size of entire wards, shaped into whatever forms their imaginations desire. Even setting aside the astounding amounts of power delivered to these gods by prayers, mana lines built into the nature of the Insula channel magic upward, so that the zones of the First Ring are the equal of the most high-magic regions of the Celestial Mountain.

There are no real cities in the First Ring. Instead, the portal stations dotted across it are surrounded by little trade villages, mainly catering to visitors, but usually with a few shops and restaurants that tempt business from the nearby residents. Few of these highest gods ever visit any of those businesses, of course. But they have servants – often beloved members of ancient lineages born to serve their gods and, not uncommonly, bearing at least traces of divine blood in their veins as a result – who go in their stead, to purchase goods even beyond the imagination of one who can create nearly anything. For gods, though powerful, are limited when it comes to subjects beyond their spheres, and the more powerful they are, the more focused they become. And so one of the great Solar Clan deities might be capable of shattering the Insula itself with the heat of a sun focused into a tight beam, but such a god may be unable to grill a filet of tuna to perfection with the skill of a mere mortal chef.

Mortals and gods are not the only residents, either. Sky looks up to see a wingless dragon sinuously swimming through the air. And on the wide, clean street there trots a creature that at first he mistakes for a unicorn. But it is more goat than horse, smaller but imperious in stance, its eyes flashing as it glances suspiciously at those it passes. Is it perhaps some sort of private Guardia? he wonders. For he recognizes it now, despite not having seen one in decades. A xiezhi, a being obsessed with truth, to the point that those who tell lies in its presence are in great danger of being impaled by its single straight horn.

It stops and stares at Sky. He pauses, looking back at it, allowing his companion, Gwydion, to walk ahead. Sky and the xiezhi lock eyes, and the creature lowers its horn. For a moment Sky wonders if it is about to charge, ruining this unexpected shopping trip with Dion before it can begin. But the xiezhi apparently cannot puzzle out just how Sky is a walking lie, and swinging its head away, it stiffly trots on.

Sky breathes out with relief and hurries to catch up with Dion. “I feel like I should’ve worn a black tie for this shopping expedition. Where’s this special place you have to drop by?”

Dion smirks at the comment, glancing at Sky. Though they both wear the same indigo-blue Guardia Dei uniform, Dion’s is custom-made of finer material, fitting his body comfortably and never bunching or pulling tight as he moves. It is very nearly formal dress despite being everyday wear for him. Sky, on the other hand, wears a standard-issue uniform, designed to be long-lasting and easy to clean more than any concerns over fashion.

“It is just around this corner,” Dion replies. “In fact, here it is.” He gestures at an elegant yet discreet-looking shop with a small iron plate engraved with the name Tamandoo’s. “Can’t go wrong with scent, can we?”

Sky laughs briefly. “Ohhh, I can think of a few ways scent can go wrong. But probably not in a high-class place like this. I’ve spent some time in the First Ring, but I’ve rarely bought anything all the way up here.”

“Ah, that is a shame, my friend. Only the best of the best can stand to be sold here. And this master scent-maker is a god devoted to scents and – whatever they use to make scents. He has never let me down.” Since Sky has known him, Gwydion has almost always sounded reserved, aloof, but here it is as if that reserve has fallen away. Is it being back in the First Ring? Anticipation of the upcoming celebrations? Or perhaps a happiness that things are now back to whatever passes for normal, with Sky returned from his much-needed rest? Or perhaps things are simply going well with Alma.

The door opens. A plump young woman, with a thick waterfall of wavy two-toned blue and gold hair and glossy black skin like that of an orca, holds it open and stands aside for them. She smiles at Dion familiarly. “Welcome back to Tamandoo’s, sir,” she says, and nods also to Sky. “I will notify the master that you are here.”

“It is good to be back, Vasilka.” Dion gestures for Sky to go first. “Shall we?”

Sky gives him an appreciative look and says, in an attempt at an upper-crust, First Ring accent, “But of course.”

He enters and pauses to take in the elegance of the room, comfortably appointed and perfectly balanced in terms of layout, color, light, and most especially smell. Not overpowering in any way, hints of perfume drift through the air, somehow not interfering with each other, discreetly entering his nose to call to him, like sirens beckoning in the waves.

After a murmured exchange at the doorway, as the god and the mortal servant quickly catch up with each other, Dion comes into the center of the room and breathes deeply, smiling. Vasilka disappears, only to return moments later bearing a tray with two delicate glasses of wine and a plate of hors d’ouvres, which she places on an elaborately carved table. “The master has been informed of your arrival and will join you and your friend in a moment, Master Gwydion.”

Sky looks at Dion surreptitiously. “Wine, huh?”

“Oh, most First Ring shops will offer this type of courtesy to their clients. Most of their clients won’t even be caught dead visiting the stores themselves, so a little special treatment can go a long way.”

Sky sips his wine. It is, of course, almost staggeringly delicious. He has long known that he simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe the taste of wines. ‘Piquant’ and ‘floral’ just sound ridiculous to him. He’s eaten flowers when he was starving – there is nothing ‘floral’ about the flavor of wine. All he knows is that he likes this very, very much. After savoring it for a moment, he says, “Must be a bit strange, being back in places like this after so long.”

Dion nods, but seems less overwhelmed with his wine. “It is a pleasant place to visit.” He looks down into his glass, pensively. “But all of this strikes me as distant when compared to Three Rats. More and more so each time I visit. It’s a bit…difficult to explain. It is as if there is something missing here.”

Sky is about to agree, organizing his thoughts as to exactly why, but the curtain slides open. “Dion! My dear, did I hear you talking about rats? How lovely to see you after so long! And oh, who’s your friend?”

Gods that do not conform to a human shape are not terribly unusual. Additional arms or legs, animal heads, wings, exotic colorings, all are barely considered strange even by many mortals, and not at all by gods. And some go well beyond that, even going so far as to wear amorphous, shifting forms, bodies made of light or electricity, even having no body at all. This deity, then, does not shock Sky, and indeed his form makes perfect sense. For he is, to an initial look, an upright anteater.

That is not quite accurate, Sky realizes as he looks a little more carefully. The body is covered in long, coarse hair, a light brown on the sides, white on the upper chest, and a darker brown on the back of the neck – although much of this is concealed by elaborately embroidered silk clothes, an outfit reminiscent of a kimono. The head is also very like an anteater’s, essentially scaffolding for a long, narrow nose. The snout’s nostrils are larger, however, and the eyes are as well, as large as a human’s and very human in appearance, pale brown and quite amused and appealing. And the paws are much closer to the hands of a primate than…whatever family of animals that anteaters belong to. Sky realizes he has no idea, but vaguely remembers they are distantly related to sloths.

But Gwydion is speaking. “My faithful Doo, allow me to introduce to you Inspector Tuma-Sukai of the Guardia Dei, Breaker of Chains, Shadow of Freedom. We work in the same station together. Sky, this is master-parfumeur Tamandoo, Suzerain of Scent, the best detector and creator of perfumes in the whole of the First Ring.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Sky says, extending his hand.

Tamandoo closes his eyes. His long, slightly prehensile downward curving snout twists, the nostrils flaring as they suck in air, and a slender round tongue covered in pink buds slithers out to wave in the air. “Oh, what an exotic scent. Tamandoo cannot place it but… Inspector, you are from far, far away, are you not?” Before Sky can answer, the god takes in a lungful again. “And both of you have recently come from the Fourth Ring, have you not? What a bouquet of smells, so variegated. So decadent! Tamandoo loves it!” He takes Sky’s hand delicately.

For the second time in less than an hour, someone is finding a way to probe tiny flaws in Sky’s disguise. It is this rather than any discomfort with the god’s flamboyancy that causes Sky to smile uncertainly and, after releasing Tamandoo’s hand, take another sip of wine rather than reply.

Dion chuckles, clearly at ease with this character. “You are right as usual, my dearest Doo. None can fool that nose. Maybe you’ll consider joining our forensic team someday.”

Tamandoo’s eyes go wide. “Tamandoo? In the Fourth Ring? Would Tamandoo not be murdered? Ah, but you are safe, and dear Inspector Tuma-Sukai is safe, so surely Tamandoo would be safe. It must not be as dangerous as silly people say with their silly little rumors, hmmm?”

Dion, though joking, hastens to assure him. “You know that I would never allow something as terrible as murder to happen to you. And who knows? You might find your new scent muse there? I have been hearing you have grown bored of privileged skins.”

The god of scents raises his palms in a gesture of despair. “Ah, everyone here smells the same, Dion. And they all want the same things. They say they wish to smell unique, but in the end they always play it safe. It is dull, yes, so dull.”

“I am sure,” Dion replies, appearing now to take the idea seriously, “these upslope people would adore the novelty of more rustic scents. Alas, you do not need to reply now. The invitation stands open and awaiting your decision. For now… I bring you a challenge.”

“A challenge?” The god clasps his hands together in excitement. “It has been long since Tamandoo has had a challenge.”

“I’m sure it will please you.” Dion looks to Sky apologetically. “Would you mind waiting here a bit while I tell Doo what I’m looking for? This will only take a minute.”

“Oh, of course,” Sky says. “I’ll, uh…” His hesitation at trying to decide what to do while waiting is cleared up when Vasilka reappears to refill his glass. “I’ll be fine right here.”

As Sky and Vasilka share a smile, Dion chuckles. “Shall we step over to your workshop, Tamandoo?”

“Ah, a personal matter.” The hirsute god puts his hand on Dion’s back and ushers him through the curtain. “Come come, let us go through here… There, now tell Tamandoo precisely what it is your heart desires.” The unctuous voice fades as a door beyond the curtain closes.

“You don’t wear any scent,” Vasilka says to Sky, the first thing, indeed, she has said directly to him. Her smile is friendly, however.

“I don’t,” he replies. “I can’t remember the last time I did. It’s just…not my kind of thing.” He shrugs.

“How do you know?” she asks. “Have you ever tried?”

“You not going to spray me with something, are you?” he asks suspiciously.

She laughs. “Not unless you tell me to. But…may I?” She takes his wineglass and sets it aside, then comes closer to him. “My nose is not as long-range as the master’s, but…”

He does not stop her when she stretches up on tiptoes to sniff deeply near his throat, her chest momentarily brushing against his jacket. Her clothes are perfectly tailored to fit her curvaceous body, and Sky cannot help but wonder at the texture of her glossy skin, how it would feel to touch. She settles back onto her heels and considers for a moment, then goes to a wall covered in small shelves on which rest hundreds of crystal bottles, each holding just a tiny amount of liquid. She runs her hand along from left to right, pauses, then goes down two shelves to lift a bottle with forefinger and thumb. She brings it to him, then opens it, the stopper having a thin rod of glass projecting from its bottom, onto which clings a drop of perfume. She sniffs it and smiles, her white teeth brilliant against her obsidian-black skin.

“You can just sniff this, but to get the proper effect, it really should be on your skin. How about your wrist?” She gives him a playful look.

“Well…” Spending much of his time in the field on Earth and the Insula, in situations where wearing added scent would be more likely to make him easier to detect, or would leave behind evidence, he has avoided perfumes. That, and they have always seemed, well, luxuries. And while he values certain luxuries highly – a long hot bath, a perfectly grilled steak, a glass of rare whisky, a handcrafted guitar – he eschews most of them. Life is complicated enough without adding more to it.

Still, he holds out his arm, wrist up. Vasilka takes his hand and applies the drop of scent, then uses her middle finger to spread it across the sensitive skin. “Wait a moment,” she says. “Wait for it to warm from your body heat.” She looks into his eyes, and he begins to suspect she may be flirting with him. “There, now smell.”

He holds his wrist up to his face and sniffs. It is subtle, not like he expected. Nothing sweet about it. Verdant, like a forest, like…oak. And just a hint of the sea. Seaweed.

A memory of England, the coast, with a team of six commandos, good men, preparing to depart on a mission. Only two survived.

He feels moisture behind his closed eyelids, a tingling in his face. He holds onto the memory for a moment, then lets it go, breathing slowly, regaining control. He opens his eyes and sees Vasilka looking up at him in concern.

“Thank you,” he says. “That was…”

As he hesitates over the choice of words – lovely, exquisite, heartbreaking? – the curtain is swept aside. Sky and Vasilka both look toward Tamandoo and Gwydion’s return as if they’ve been caught in an illicit act, but the two gods take no notice, seeming quite preoccupied. Dion’s face carries a slight frown.

“Tamandoo is so sorrowful that your principal request cannot be ready in time. But my dear, might Tamandoo recommend this?” Without a glance, he plucks a miniature bottle from one of the shelves and, smoothly whipping the stopper free, passes it momentarily past Dion’s face with a flourish, so that Dion passes through the scented air. Dion takes a sniff and he looks thoughtful. “It is a familiar scent, is it not? One that has proved successful in the past? Just until the true scent is ready to give at the next occasion for gifts.”

“Ah, this… I wonder if this would be the best choice. Maybe something a little different would be more appropriate. What does your nose say?”

Immediately Tamandoo puts the sample he is holding back and his tongue slithers out to lash the air before the wall of bottles, soon zeroing in on another one. “Ah, with her scent… This one. Most certainly.”

Dion takes a whiff as Tamandoo once again wafts the scent through the air. His face lights up with pleasure and surprise. “Heavenly. Almost perfect. Is this a new blend? I don’t recall ever encountering this one.”

The long-nosed god gives a shrug. “New…not new, precisely. Tamandoo came up with it some time back, but no one has yet purchased it. As Tamandoo says, the people of this Ring are not in search of the new and adventurous.”

“Well, this First Ringer is going to be the exception.” Dion takes the stopper and waves it in the air near Sky. “Don’t you agree that Doo is the best?”

Sky inhales and blinks at the sensation of lilac and…willow? It’s just a soft note, Sky knows the smell well, having stripped the bark and brewed willow tea in the past, to relieve the pain of…no. Now is not the time for those smell-evoked memories.

And after clearing those memories away, he realizes how well the blend of smells speaks of peace, serenity. Though he cannot recall Alma wearing scent, he can imagine that this would, indeed, suit her. “Oh…yes. That is exquisite, Tamandoo.”

The shaggy god clasps his hands in pleasure. “And can Tamandoo provide the Inspector with anything today?”

Sky looks to Dion for help. “Oh, uh…I really don’t know…” Despite the wonder of the scent Vasilka shared with him, he is reluctant to buy such a luxury for himself. He has a comfortable accumulation of savings due to forty years of spending very little on himself, but after speaking with Alma about the orphanage that Ewá Nanã has started and the school she hopes to start, he has decided to put the bulk of his savings toward that project which will be such a benefit for Three Rats.

Also, he does not want to buy a scent for Mayumi. The Bunnies’ noses are very sensitive, and he doubts she would wear it. And in any case she will not be allowed to, at the Academy. Not to mention the potential for undercutting the uniqueness of Dion’s gift to Alma.

Dion smoothly comes to his rescue. “I think my esteemed commanding officer has a slightly different gift in mind for his…special interest.”

“Ah,” sighs Tamandoo. “The Inspector has a paramour! Well remember, Inspector, you cannot go wrong with scent. It is the pathway to the most primitive structures of the brain. Scent creates and evokes memories. Please do return.”

As Sky muses on how well he has learned that lesson this day, Dion says, “Oh, I am sure we will.” He turns his head to regard Sky. “Shall we go hunt for our other gifts?”

“Yes.” Sky takes Tamandoo’s hand. “A very great pleasure meeting you. I hope it will not be long before I have that pleasure once again.”

Tamandoo puts his other hand on top of Sky’s. “So kind! Good fortune in your quest.”

As they leave the shop, Dion asks, “Is everything–”

The door opens behind them and Vasilka steps out. “Inspector?”

As Sky turns, she takes his thick wrist and places a small package on his open palm. She interrupts his protest by saying, with an impish, dimpled smile, “The first one is free. Come again soon.” Then she turns and slips back into the shop, giving a quick backward glance before the door shuts.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“There is nothing going on between us!” Sky insists, exasperated.

“Very well, very well,” Dion says playfully. “But I’ve known her for years and pretty Vasilka’s never given me any free samples.” He pauses for a moment. “Let me rephrase that. All I’m saying is, you must have made quite the impression on her.”

Sky grimaces. “Well… It sounds like you’ve ordered something unique for Alma.”

Dion’s smile persists but becomes slightly fainter, almost shy. “Hopefully something that will not displease. Unfortunately, it will take time to be ready. Something about the influence of the moons and an uncooperative fey of some sort.” The attempt at jocularity disappears as he gives Sky an intent look. “It is, however, a surprise.”

“Of course. My lips are sealed.” They walk in silence for a moment. “I, however…am terrible at choosing gifts. Once in awhile I stumble across something that cries, ‘This is the perfect gift for’ whoever, but that is rare, rare. And…the pressure when it is the first gift for someone you care deeply about.”

Dion is quiet at that. Sky glances at him and sees a still, anxious expression, but holds back from saying anything.

They go past a stall selling the sort of delicacies that visitors can purchase and give to family and friends to say, ‘I visited the First Ring!’ and turn down an alley past that. “This is not the tourist area,” Dion says, breaking his silence. “Well, that part of the street we were entering was, but back here is a little market mainly for the mortals who actually live here. The prices are considerably more reasonable, and the quality just as good, if a bit less…baroque.”

“Thank you,” Sky acknowledges. “I’ve spent time in all the Rings, but I have never really gone shopping in the First. Everything is beautiful. But I worry about it how it would play in Three Rats.”

Dion nods as they arrive at the collection of clean and orderly stalls. “It is important for the gift to fit the recipient. So…you’re having trouble choosing for May?” His voice, earlier mocking in a good-natured way, is now gentle.

Thinking back to how distant they had been with each other so recently, when Gwydion, with Alma, had been under house arrest and accused of deicide. The dismissal of charges followed by weeks of hard, dangerous work getting the gang warfare under control in Three Rats, have, however, led to greater closeness. Sky accepts this intimate question as sincere and warm-hearted, marvelling at the change. “I was thinking of a necklace or a bracelet, but I worry about how strict the Academy is about such things.”

“Ah yes. Alma told me that she has been accepted.” His eyes soften. Sky knows that Alma is distraught but resigned over the thought of her her most troublesome child’s impending absence. “May doesn’t strike me as a jewelry enthusiast,” Dion continues after a moment. “Maybe something more on the practical side?”

Sky nods glumly. “I thought about a bow. And arrows, you know. It’s what her name means actually. But again, she can’t take it with her. Might make a good graduation present though. In six months.” The thought of six thirty-six-day months with Mayumi separated from her family continues to fill him with dread.

As if sensing Sky’s thoughts, Dion suggests, “Maybe something to help her keep in touch with her family and friends? It seems to me that that’s where the greatest challenge will lie. And we both know what the Academy’s postal service is like.”

“Slow and no privacy, yes.” Sky warms to the idea. “Could she use…some kind of enchanted crystal? But you know, I really do like letters. Nobody sends letters anymore.”

Dion seems to suppress a chuckle. “How romantic of you. Well, I think we can adapt something for quick and accurate mailing that ensures privacy as well. Geryon and I used to have a little communication system back at the Magic Academy that should prove efficient enough if we can stabilize it for greater distances. I will leave the choice in stationery to your discretion. But–” He holds up a finger. “–it must be handmade. Don’t ask me why. I just know that if it isn’t, things can go very wrong.”

“That sounds like you are speaking from experience,” Sky comments with a smile. After a eye-rolling nod from Dion, Sky asks, “Do the letters just appear near her?”

“Yes. You may not want to mention to her that the transportation is imp-dependent. It might dampen the romantic atmosphere a little.”

“Oh,” Sky says. Though Sky is not nearly as skilled at spellcasting as Dion is, he knows a fair amount about it, and in particular knows about the nature of imps. In the popular imagination, they are demons, summoned from Hell to deliver messages, act as trackers, draw pictures very swiftly, and so on. Wielders of magic, on the other hand, know that imps are not demons at all, but simply an ephemeral life form, called from nothing, returning to nothing, usually lasting no more than the few minutes it takes to accomplish their reason for existence.

Mayumi, having grown up with virtually no knowledge of spell working, might find the idea of a creature showing up at her bedside to be disturbing. But messenger imps are shy, and try to deliver their messages when the recipient is not looking. “Yes, probably best not to tell her,” Sky agrees. “And it is circumventing the rules, but…everyone has to rebel against the rules in some way, don’t they? Thank you, Dion.”

“Oh I’m happy to help.” Dion picks up a filigreed brooch.

“Do you have any ideas yet for the other presents?” Sky asks absentmindedly as he looks over a display of finely wrought globes of glass.

“Personally, I was planning to get well-tailored outfits for each of them. Sage does such a good job with turning spare fabric into clothes for them, but I thought they’d like something special and festive. What do you think?”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Sky answers. “And it’s good to know, so I don’t get them something too similar. I was planning to get Kori a nice football.”

Dion nods. “That sounds like a good plan. And we all know how Tulip is so engaged in arts and crafts. I don’t think you would be mirroring anyone there if you were to pick something along those lines.”

“Oh yes, a set of pastels, and some good paper. Perhaps brushes and watercolors, too.” After receiving a nod of permission from the proud craftsman, Sky picks up a slightly blue-toned sphere, using his fingertips. It is about the size of an average cantaloupe. “And for Cherry and Rosemary, I was thinking of a wooden sign. For the bar, now that they’ve finally settled on a name for it.”

Dion raises an eyebrow. “You realize you will have to design it.”

Sky chuckles. “I’ve been making sketches, with Sage’s help. Of course he’s keeping it a secret.”

“Even Bunnies find it hard to keep secrets from Bunnies,” Dion says, shaking his head. “There is actually a woodworker’s shop not far away from the station where you could have it made.”

Sky smiles. “I think I know who you mean. Mr Mendonça, right?”

“Yes. Many artisans here would kill to have half of his skill. Well that leaves Sage, Chime, and,” Dion pauses for effect, “their mother.”

Sky laughs, still looking at the globe, examining the glass carefully for flaws. “Well Chime is easy. I have a small collection of musical instruments, and I thought I’d give him a ’ukulele.” A look of confusion from Dion prompts him to explain, “A kind of small guitar. I can teach him to play it, though I suspect he’ll surpass my skill in a day. And Sage, some tailoring tools. Though I’ll need to do a little research for items beyond needles, pins, and scissors.

“As for Alma…” Sky shows the bluish globe to Dion, holding it balanced on the spread fingers of one hand. “This is perfectly made.” The dealer looks pleased and a little smug.

“Made for what, if I may ask?” Dion sounds intrigued.

“When I was much younger,” Sky explains, “I was…attached to a pantheon of ocean gods. The new guy. One of them showed me how to make a glass orb into a microenvironment, by apporting seawater and life forms and so on into it. I haven’t done it in ages. I think it would appeal to Alma’s Life side. And perhaps Death as well. Balance.”

Dion peers into the orb as if he can see the finished result already. “You can fit an ecosystem in there? Interesting. I seem to remember a group of wizards who were very intent on that type of research but they only managed to use relatively simple life forms.” He straightens. “I think she would love it. You know, you said you were bad at choosing gifts.”

Sky laughs at Dion’s mock-scolding. “Maybe I’m having a good year.”

Geryon’s Transformation

The air hangs heavy in the dark, musty twilight of the ancient library of the High Academy of Magical Studies. It is a dark, eerie place of endless ominous rows of bookshelves and parchment shelves and sunbaked-plaque shelves and whatever other shelves the librarians had to come up with throughout the centuries to hold countless volumes of written, drawn and sometimes hand-signed knowledge. In their neatly organized shelves, the magic books stir at the unused nightly company. Glowing faintly, rattling their bindings, humming, they all seem to watch their unexpected guests, focusing their attention on the two stalking shadows that navigate the hallways in search of – wait a minute…

“Why again did you bring me to the library at this time of night?” Geryon asks.

His whispers, low as they are, seem to echo off the walls. Around him, the books flap their covers and flip their pages, mimicking the young wizard’s words almost perfectly with their sound.

Geryon cringes at the terrible murmur. Blasted library! To Hell with it and its keepers! It is bad enough in daytime but this feels like the opening of a bad horror story where the hysterical girl gets to live and the skeptic intellectual ends up impaled on a lampost…

“I did not bring you here, you followed me,” Dion whispers at him in annoyance. “Now stop making such a racket.”

“Well, if you are going to be picky about it…” Geryon retorts. “That still does not explain why we are sneaking into the library instead of into a well-lit pub. I thought you wanted to drink.”

Behind Geryon, a group of books bursts into song, making the young wizard jump a foot high in the air before realizing what has happened. He glares resentfully at the whole thirty-two-volume The Magic in Music collection as the tomes fall into a soft-toned chorus about a flower, a lunatic and a bicycle of some sort.

Both lurkers fall silent for a moment until the song and the noise die away. Thankfully, it is the librarian’s night off and no one is keen enough on finding a book to look for it themselves. The whole damned place is organized according to some indecipherable scheme created by the former librarian as a form of cruel and unusual punishment to students he did not like (i.e., any student really), making it nearly impossible to find whatever it is one is looking for without expert help. And Geryon can just swear that some of those older, nastier grimoires just hide behind other books to escape the probing hands of the more dedicated academic overachievers. Some of those leafy old buggers even seem to prey on their weaker co-inhabitants, growing thicker and thicker by the year. New editions…yeah, right!

Finally, Dion decides to speak. “I do not just intend to drink, I intend to get drunk.”

“Well, one does tend to follow the other quite nicely…” Geryon notes. His brow furrows. “Wait a minute, since when do you get drunk? You are a god and all that.”

Dion stops and turns to look at his friend. Even in the faint light, Geryon can just see the faint white glow of the god’s scleras as his eyes roll in their sockets. “Of course I can get drunk if I so choose. All I have to do is cancel my magic protections against toxic substances…” He shakes the two bottles in his left hand. “…such as alcohol.”  

“Can’t we at least get drunk in a less eerie place like say…a pub with busty barmaids?” Geryon insists. “Actually make it a pleasurable experience, so to speak?”

“I don’t want to get drunk with waitresses,” Dion waves him off. “Besides, I’ve been with them all.”

The words raise concern with Geryon. It is not that Dion is lying about having been with probably every single attractive (and sometimes even mildly unattractive) barmaid in the area. Finding a bar with at least one girl left untouched by him has become as difficult as finding a pair of matching socks in the Dean’s dresser (especially since stealing a sock from the Dean’s dresser was instituted as a freshman rite of passage by, well, Dion). But the god is not the type to drink alone or sulk in a corner as he nurses a pint. In fact, Geryon cannot remember Dion ever being anything other than jovial, charming, quick-witted and mischievous in the best of academic traditions. Without a drop of evil or bile, the young god seems to have never experienced worry or stress in his leisurely life. This sudden wish for isolation is completely out of character for him.

“Maybe they hired someone new,” Geryon ventures in a singsong voice.

“Will you stop?!” Dion nearly roars into the dark, high ceilings, like a huge beast trapped in its dark cave. In their shelves, the books sussurate, the plaques rattle, the prayer bells howl, the rune bones clickity-clack against their hardwood casings. The library seems to shake in fear at the sudden outburst.

Obviously annoyed at his own carelessness, the god sits down with his back against the shelves harboring the dusty, slowly disintegrating remains of the Ware’s An Hundred and Seventeen Marvelouss Transformations (With Many Uses Of a Moste Perntinente and Perspicatiouss Nature) collection of scrolls and goes silent until silence returns. When he speaks again, he is little more than hissing at a rather shocked, tremulous Geryon. “Why don’t you just leave? I am perfectly capable of getting drunk on my own, thank you very much.”

The young wizard looks down at his friend, wondering for a moment where this side of him has been hidden for so long. Sitting against the dusty bookshelves filled with ancient knowledge, opening one of the liquor bottles as if he holds a grudge against it, Dion looks like a grumpy old predator hiding to lick his wounds. Still, he also looks just like the same Dion from a few hours ago. For all he sounded positively terrifying when he roared, Geryon knows his friend. Ignoring his icy cold spine and making a big show of looking unphased, he sits down by Dion and extends a hand to the god.

“Fine… Pass it on, then,” he says with false irritation. “If you’re getting drunk, I  might as well keep you company.”

Dion opens the second bottle and hands it to him, muttering a warning. “Careful, it was made for gods.”

Geryon pauses with the bottle half raised to his lips. “Will it kill me?” he asks.

The god shrugs. “Probably not.”

“Probably?” Geryon raises an eyebrow.

Dion shrugs again before taking a swig of the sweet-scented liquid. “Don’t know… Never heard of humans drinking it.”

Geryon drinks anyway, on the basic premise that he is young and healthy, used to dealing with magic, and there is no way in the Insula he is going to just sit and watch Dion get drunk without getting in on the action. Thankfully, the drink does not kill him nor does it cause any changes he cannot live with (like turn his skin purple with pink polkadots). He is, however, left nicely drunk after just a half dozen swigs. Before he realizes it, Dion has already taken the bottle that Geryon was drinking from and switched it with the bottle that the god has just emptied. Even with his defenses and spells down, it still takes Dion a considerable amount of time and alcohol to get drunk.

“Why – Why we gettin’ drunk anyway?” Geryon asks.

The liquor makes thinking difficult. Geryon tries to read the label painted on the bottle, which, really, is what he should have done before drinking. The golden, handwritten lines that should resolve into some form of a written language (and Geryon knows plenty, misfit intellectual that he is) seem to run and squirm away from his sight, huddling into an indecipherable pile of…of…really fancy squiggly things.

“Ah’m…” Dion begins to slur. “Ah’m gettin’ drunk to…forget…somethin’. I got no idea why you’re gettin’ drunk.”

Geryon snorts and points at himself. “Look at me. I mean, look…at…me. I look like I need a reason?”

Dion looks his friend up and down, appraisingly. “You look like you need a miracle fro’ tha god o’ beauty, thass wha’ you need. An’ some muscle. Like, actual muscle.”

Geryon looks down at his own pale, scrawny body that somehow seems to include more bones, joints and skin than should be allocated to any normal human being. Blonde haired and blue-eyed, the young wizard looks like a mockery of the handsome First Ring god stereotype made popular by the cheap romantic novels that human girls spend so much time reading. He resents the muscles that will not bulge on his chest, the weakness of his thin arms that makes him unfit to lift anything heavier than a couple of textbooks. Hanging out with Dion at least makes him feel better about himself, as the god cannot be bothered to spend time appraising the looks of any person he does not plan on bedding. Well, at least not when he is sober.

“Ya know, ya should learn t’be nice t’people you don’t wanna hump,” Geryon retorts.

Dion seems to consider this, taking another, careful look at Geryon. “Well, you got good bones. Mean, all you got is bones. An’ skin.” He shakes a couple of fingers in the general direction of Geryon’s head. “An’ that thing you call hair.”

“Don’t you badmouth my hair!” the young wizard shrieks, raising a chorus of rustling pages. “Is’ my best quality!”

Dion blinks and opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out of it for a while. “Tha’ really says lots ‘bout you,” he finally says.

Geryon sighs. Truth be told, even his hair is terrible. Still, there are some things a drunken person just does not admit even to one’s drunken best friend. He lets silence creep in again before trying a new stab at the conversation.

“So…what you tryin’ to forget?”

“Huh?” Dion looks at him as if he doesn’t remember how he even got here in the first place.

“What you tryin’ to forget?” Geryon insists.

“Oh…” Dion looks down for a moment. “I don’ remember.”

“Is it a girl?” Geryon asks with a grin.

Dion shakes his head. “No, iss the booze,” he slurs, raising his empty bottle. “Really works.”

“Lessee… what did I wanna forget?” the god wonders, tapping the mouth of the bottle against his temple. Suddenly, he brightens up. “Oh! I remember!”

“Good, what is it?” Geryon urges him on.

“Oh…oh…” Dion’s face contracts in a grimace. “I wanna forget again.”

“Oh, come on!” Geryon cries, throwing his hands up in frustration.

Dion little more than whimpers. “Ah’m sad.”

“Sad?” Geryon protests. “Why’re you sad? You’re powerful, you’re smart, you’re goo’lookin’.”

“Thanks,” Dion mutters.

“Seriously, I’d do you,” Geryon states almost solemnly, looking sideways at Dion.

“Awww…. I’d do you too,” the god replies almost automatically. He raises an eyebrow in afterthought. “After lots more booze.”

“Yeah…” Geryon concedes, surreptitiously checking his empty bottle for any leftover drink.  “Anyway, all the chicks love you. You’re immortal, you’re a god–”

“Not all chicks,” Dion interrupts him.

Geryon snorts and waves him off. “Shut up! Who’d say no to you?”

Dion becomes very quiet again. “She did. An’…She’s dead.”

Geryon’s brow furrows in confusion. “You killed her? Thass cold, man.”

“I didn’t kill her, she died.” Dion explains. His voice is low now, almost muffled. The shadows in the library seem to wrap around him. “Last week. Edine. Thass her name… I really liked her. She was like, my first love. Even went dragon huntin’ in the Lands for her. Come back, she’s engaged to some idiot light god.”

“Oh…” Geryon mouths. He feels himself sobering up a bit. “How’d she die?”

Dion shrugs at this. “Freakish accident. Drowned at that big be-mortal-for-a-time resort thing downslope. Was takin’ a vacation there after separating from the jerk. I wass…you know, juss waitin’ for her to come back up. Take my shot again.”

Geryon nods. If love is a difficult thing among mortals, gods sure do take it to an extreme. They can have the emotional attention span of a shrew in heat or nurse an infatuation for centuries. They may love a being, any being, with a searing intensity that makes mortals dream of a lifetime of companionship, only to let go a few days later, satisfied in their emotions and having loved no less truly for having loved so shortly. And they can carry a torch for centuries without their feelings ever dwindling, ever wavering, regardless of whether or not they are loved back. Gods are plagued with eternity and with memory. And it’s really a close call, which of them can hurt them more. “Yeah, I remember…when I heard a ‘no’ for the first time.”

“Must’ve been tough,” Dion notes, glancing at the young wizard in sympathy. And then, because alcohol numbs sense beyond simple compassion, he adds, “You look like that, back then?”

“Wass that s’posed to mean?” Geryon mutters resentfully.

“You kinda look like a sewer rat on a bad day,” Dion replies. “An’ Ah’m drunk on Ambrosia. If that can’t make you look good, nothin’ can.”

“Hah! Wanna bet?” Geryon challenges him, looking up at the Ware’s scroll shelves. “‘s gotta be a spell somewhere in here tha’ can do that!”

Dion’s eyes suddenly widen, his face lights up. “I got an idea!”

Geryon tries to blink away the golden haze that is currently clouding his judgement. “Wha?”

“Let’s find it!” Dion exclaims, jumping to his feet to a nearby chorus of background music hummed by the more flashy volumes of The Magic in Music.

“Wha?” Geryon asks again, looking up at the god.

“The spell!” Dion explains in excitement. “Let’s find it, get you all buffed up, lookin’ real nice…THEN we hit the pub.”

Geryon’s synapses fire up at that. “Pub? I’m likin’ this already!”

He shoots up to his feet and starts racing Dion to find the right scroll. A momentary thought makes him pause. “Wait…isn’ tha’ kinda dangerous? What if you turn me into a hairy caterpillar or somethin’?”

“I promise, nothing less than vertebrate or higher!” Dion reassures him. “Come on… All these spells have counterspells anyway.”

“Well, fine…” Geryon submits. “Bu’ you’re not turnin’ me into a girl!”

Dion grins. “Oh, then I’d do you for sure! Come on!”

They scour the shelves of thick, ancient scrolls, struggling to read the fading labels engraved on the thick leather casings. They move from shelf to shelf, racing at first but then slowly losing momentum as their initial enthusiasm begins to dwindle with frustration.

Suddenly, Dion’s voice rings with renewed excitement.

“I found it! I found it!” he cries, hefting the heavy scroll out of its shelf. “Hear this ‘Dis Spelle Will Make The Subject Stronge as a Lion and Powerful as an Raptor’.”

Geryon’s eyes light up and widen. He starts shaking in anticipation. “Oooooooooh! Try it! Try it!”

“Ssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…” Dion scolds him. “Ah need to concen – concentrecate – focus.”

Painful empty minutes go by as Dion wrestles the scroll some more before finally removing it from the shelf and from its casing. The ancient parchment seems to crack and crumble at Dion’s every touch and the god struggles to unfurl it and get the complex enchantment in shape to be cast. He reads the words with care, taking the time to correctly pronounce each syllable.

Soon, the floor around Geryon’s feet is glowing golden. In the massive library, the books seem to murmur at first, flipping their pages in nervousness. Then, they go dead silent. Geryon rises in the air. His world is filled with a brilliant light and muffled, somewhat slurred chanting punctuated by occasional swearing as Dion struggles to read the next line of the spell. The wizard’s body begins to feel strange.

Something is not right.

Pain erupts from every limb, from every organ. It sparks in places that Geryon did not know he had. It leaves him breathless, voiceless as bones are reshaped, unfamiliar muscles bulge, hair grows. He is blinded by the light but he can swear he even feels his nails grow and change, his teeth sink back into his gums and merge with his skull.

Something is not right.

But it all happens so fast, so overwhelmingly fast that he cannot even call out to Dion to stop and save him. In the blink of an eye, the light is gone and he is standing again on the creaky wooden floors of the bleak, dark library, on all four of his paws.

ON ALL FOUR OF HIS PAWS?!

A few steps away, Dion looks down at him, jaw dropped.

The god scratches his head and looks back at the scroll as if puzzled by the results of his spell. In his hands, the scroll crumbles, falling to the floor in a neat pile of moldering dust.

Dion looks down at it, blinks. “Oooooooooh crap…”

Ch5.57 Shards

The day could not have been more intense. Hell, intense is a euphemism! Absolution of all charges, life-changing choices, returning to Three Rats to find the station in a mess after Sage’s kidnapping, riding horses that create reality, breaking into a warehouse to banish a demon and rescue a small army of children who now have nowhere to go and, as if all that were not enough, a bomb that shatters souls goes off in the station, killing two prisoners and a Popula right under the Guardia’s nose and very nearly driving Alma insane with pain. Not to mention the brutal murder of Stathos’ family…

Well, at least there isn’t much more that can go wrong tonight, Dion figures as he runs his hand along the frame of the pantry door to activate the portal that leads to his room.

His feet nearly drag on the floor from exhaustion. Sleep really is not an absolute need for gods like it is to humans, who will effectively die if they go too long without restoring their brains with some hours of slumber. However, the thought that gods do not get tired or require any sort of rest is completely wrong. Sure, they can go for days without sleeping if need be, mostly by burning mana to restore their minds for a while, but no one will want to work with them when that happens. Tired gods can be very, very grumpy and there is nothing worse than a grumpy person who has the means to smite you for the small sin of saying “Good morning!” in happy tones.

For as much as sleep may be an acquired taste to some people, it surely sounds like a great idea right about now. Unfortunately, the night has advanced to that point where Sky’s shift ends and the graveyard shift, Dion’s shift, begins. He will have to be on call, ready to respond if something (else) happens so that night of restful sleep will need to be re-scheduled to the following morning.

Still, a nice relaxing bath can perform miracles in the absence of actual rest and that is the single thought currently going through the exhausted god’s mind. He barely notices Geryon sleeping in his bed, making it bend in the middle under the gryphon’s massive weight, while Merri and Cherry cuddle against him, hiding their faces against his golden-brown fur.

With a thought, Dion summons the luxurious bathroom to the corner of his room, behind a large woven silk rug hanging from a wall and depicting two dragons perching over a nest where half a dozen eggs are beginning to hatch. Styled in marble and copper, the majestic room greets him with a warm bath already drawn and scented oils meant to soothe his spirit, burning in a small copper bowl in the shape of a sleeping fox. Two sylphids, faceless insubstantial air elementals gowned in translucent stolas, move around the room and through the walls, spreading heat and water vapor, fogging up all mirrored surfaces at their passage.

The scenario seems perfect for the making of all-important decisions but Dion puts them aside for some other moment. The warm, watery feeling enveloping him feels too good to be tainted with worry.

By the time he comes out of the bathroom, feeling invigorated and sporting a clean, impeccably styled suit, the room has become somewhat emptier and quite tense. The Bunnies are now gone, Dion notices, while Geryon lies barely awake on the bed and facing him, his tail curled around his body while the tip wags nervously, yet heavily as if it weighs tremendously on the gryphon as it moves up and down.

“What a welcome home they prepared for you, my friend,” the gryphon says, beak opening suddenly in a yawn.

Dion grins as he runs his fingers through his short, still wet black hair. “I would like to say that I’ve had worse but I really can’t think of anything that would top this.”

“No, of course not,” Geryon mutters, preening his right wing.

“How is your wing?” Dion asks, plopping onto a chair.

“Oh, much better, thank you,” the gryphon states conversationally, making a show of unfolding his wing with some difficulty and a painful grimace. “Albeit the strain of flying today.”

Dion smiles at the obvious dramatics. “Thank you, for your help. I am sure Alma appreciates it as well,” he says in all honesty. “Although she probably won’t thank you with cuddles.”

There are not many things left of Geryon’s former human image. Distorted by the raptor features that are a gryphon’s prerogative, his boyish appearance and golden hair have been replaced by a strong beak and golden-brown feathers. A slim body and pale skin have given way to powerful leonine muscles and short, soft fur. His once blue eyes are now yellowish orange. Even his voice has changed, limited as he is by a rigid beaked mouth. Reading his expression has become somewhat trickier as well. Thankfully, however, his sense of humor has remained the same.

Geryon shrugs and pretends to examine his talons, his tone one of tired humor. “Oh, well, what can one do? I certainly would not mind if she did, but I must say that Merri and Cherry have been the most delightful of nurses.” His expression darkens. “It was a heart-wrenching day but…Sage is safe.”

“Is the great and powerful Geryon going soft?” the god jests.

“Soft?! Well I should just let you ask those two how soft I am…” Geryon tips his head to the left to hide the tip of his beak under his wing in irritation. “Hmph!”

He must truly be exhausted, Dion thinks to himself. I wonder how he even found the strength to cast so many complicated spells in a matter of hours, especially after so many idle years. Would he have been able to do it if he were still human?

“They really are treasures…” the gryphon says affectionately, breaking his chain of thought. He looks at the bedroom door for an instant as if expecting the Bunnies to return at any moment and then turns back to focus his eagle eyes on the god. “And you look troubled.”

“Tell me…” Dion starts, avoiding eye contact with his one close friend. “If given the option of staying or going back to the First Ring, what would you do?”

Geryon looks somewhat surprised at the news but merely nods in understanding. “I see. So your enforced exile here has come to an end, has it?”

“I have a choice,” Dion explains, opening a random book from the volumes sitting on his desk. “Alma was sentenced to remain here with the Bunnies. I, however, can go anywhere I wish.”

“And yet you hesitate to return to chasing nymphs and young goddesses among the refined atmosphere of the First Ring.” Geryon’s words cut through him like a blade through butter.

“I can see why. Three Rats has so much to offer, after all,” the gryphon adds, rolling on his back to throw a pillow in the air and paw idly at it. “Bombs that destroy your soul. A vicious gang war to spice up slow days. Not to mention all the rats you can eat.”

“Three Rats is a hole,” Dion snorts. “All rubbish falls in here. And yet…”

“Yes indeed…and yet,” the gryphon replies rolling back to lie on his belly, letting the pillow fall on his rump. “Tell me, is it merely that lovely white hair and that perfect jawline that makes you pause? Because if that is all that keeps you here, my friend, you will not be happy.”

He changes into his smaller shape and jumps off the bed before adding, “And besides, I thought she was not romantically inclined. A frigid ice queen to anyone but her precious Bunnies.”

“She is not frigid,” Dion intervenes, slightly surprised at his own voice. “You should have seen her before.”

You should have heard her song, he adds to himself.

“Defending her, are we?” the gryphon asks, moving closer to the god. “My, such change… As she at least given you the favor of a kiss for your gallantry?”

Dion grins slyly for an instant but a sudden memory of the fair-skinned goddess in his arms soon turns his grin into a nostalgic smile. “I thought a gentleman did not kiss and tell.”

“Ha!” Geryon exclaims placing his furry paws on Dion’s knees. “A kiss and maybe more, I’d say. And still you want to be with her.” He uses Dion’s legs as support to jump onto the desk, whipping the god’s face with his tail as he turns around to press his beak against Dion’s nose and add, “I believe the obvious question now would be: who are you and what have you done to the real Dion?”

“Oh, stop that!” Dion scolds him, flicking Geryon’s beak before standing up. “I… I cannot explain it.”

Much to the god’s annoyance, he hears his friend laugh, dryly and bitterly. “I would be surprised if you could.”

“Besides, that is not all that makes me hesitate,” Dion rushes to add.

“Oh, do tell,” Geryon taunts him,  laying comfortably all over Dion’s books, tail happily swiping the air. “What besides the thought of her makes you cringe at the thought of leaving?”

“I don’t know,” the god concedes, sitting on the bed. “There is something about this ward…”

“Is it the smell?” Geryon asks with another yawn. “It certainly has a unique odor to it.”

The joke earns him a pillow thrown at his head, which the gryphon catches and hugs like a piece of meat snatched from the jaws of a competitor.

Dion sighs in frustration, before responding, “Something about it just feels more real than any great estate in the First Ring. I saw poor people – no, poor doesn’t even begin to describe their condition – I saw them open their homes and empty their pantries for the children outside in the bar. Who do you know in the First Ring who would do that? I…It makes me want to be like them. These people, not those other gods. But I don’t know if I belong here.” He scratches his head. “She surely does not believe I do.”

“Ah… ‘Belong’,” Geryon sneers, glancing at the god while kneading the pillow. “Where do you belong, Dion? Where do I? I have been asking myself the same question, lately.”

Dion can only shake his head. “I don’t know. My friend, I am lost.”

“This whole ward is lost,” Geryon mutters to himself as he stands up on the desk. “Wandering from one world to another, trapped where it doesn’t belong. What other place could be more perfect than this?”

“And what do you mean by that?” Dion asks.

“We have been moving through circles, hopping from parties to classrooms, being talented but too lazy to be good,” Geryon replies grumpily, moving in circles on the desk before lowering himself to the chair. “Where do we belong? We are nothing, Dion. A monster and a playboy, playing pretend–”

“I promised you I will not stop trying to change you back,” Dion cuts him off.

“Oh, I know…” Geryon growls, sitting down. “Have I not been hearing those words for years? But those two…” he adds gesturing at the door. “All of your lovely Alma’s brood, really, they take me as I am. That much is true for this ward. They do not see our past, our titles, our families or even our shape. Here… they see the person behind the name.

“And here I can see how much needs to be done. And pull people up rather than have my fun by dragging them down,” the gryphon adds, wrapping his tail around his legs.

Dion shakes his head. “Geryon… this is a dangerous, poor, crime-ridden ward. None of what we are used to.”

“Oh really?” Geryon tilts his head. “And here I thought it was a favorite tourist spot!

“Bloody Hell, Dion!” he snarls. “I was ready to flap my way out of here after that bomb,  strained wing or no.” He sighs. “And then the girls needed comforting so they turned to me for help…”

Geryon actually sounds shocked at this, pawing at his own chest. “To me! And they wanted to comfort me as well…”

“Now who is acting unlike himself?” Dion chuckles bitterly.

The joke pushes the already irritable Geryon into seething anger, making him stand on the chair, tail hung low, fur and feathers erect, making his small form look bigger and more menacing than normal. His whole body stands tense, ready to leap. His beak points straight at Dion as he answers, “And who is ‘myself’, pray tell? Who am I now? WHAT am I? And who…my friend…are you?”

Dion starts backing slowly at those snarled last words. “I–”

His answer is cut as Geryon tackles him, stealing the air from his lungs as the god is slung against the bed, back pressed against the mattress to evade the gryphon’s sharp beak, arms and legs pinned in place by Geryon’s powerful clawed paws.

“You see,” the gryphon growls. “I think I am starting to find the answers to those questions. And I am all but liking them.”

“You are no better than I, Geryon, that much I know,” Dion growls back.

“Ha! Like a kettle to the pot!” Geryon shouts, pawing accusingly at Dion’s chest.

“I am Guardia!” Dion shouts in return. “My uncle’s nephew! There, are you happy, now?!”

“Very well, then, Guardia?” Geryon replies, practically spitting that last word. “What is it you stand for? What is it you are? And… why?”

“I am the law. I am justice,” Dion says, looking away from the accusing yellow avian eyes. “Because…it was expected of me. And what else is there for me, other than that? What else could I be?”

The gryphon sighs in frustration and turns back to jump onto the chair again. “Everything. Anything. It is, after all, your choice. All I know, is that the monster is tired of hiding its claws under its wings.” He spreads his wings to their full length and flaps them once, blowing half a dozen parchments off of the desk. “How tired are you, my friend, of hiding your mind behind your suits?”

Dion sits up, admiring for a moment his friend’s impressive form, saddened by Geryon’s portrayal of himself as a monster and surprised that he, Dion, could actually think that becoming a gryphon was the best thing to ever happen to his friend.

He shakes his head before answering. “My mind has too many thoughts in it, too many images. And none of them are of the First Ring.” He buries his face against his hands. “In my dreams, I see the same faces over and over again. Sometimes smiling, sometimes broken. You, the Bunnies, Sky, the Popula.

“And yes, I confess, Alma,” he nearly shouts. “For some reason, Alma…”

He sighs, rising to his feet to pace around the room. “And this ward… its people, its streets… it haunts my mind, taints everything I see, holds dust against gold and still, it feels more precious than the First Ring, more real. And I don’t know why. And I don’t know what to do.”

Geryon shakes his head, his voice low with exhausted patience. “You are a fool, Gwydion.”

The unexpected epitome feels like betrayal to Dion. “You are calling me foolish?”

“Look at me!” Geryon roars, jumping off the chair to land by Dion in his fully grown, massive leonine form. “You did this! I have the right to call you a fool whenever I fancy and you have the right to take it quietly!”

The gryphon lowers his voice to add, “But right now, you are a fool of a different color.”

Dion exhales deeply. “A fool for a woman?”

Geryon merely shrugs at this. “You have always been a fool for women. It is hardly worth mentioning when it comes to you.”

With all the grace of his feline features, the gryphon walks back to the bed and climbs onto it. “I mean you are a fool when you claim you don’t know what to do. Of course you know. You made up your mind when you returned with her. You do not seek advice, you seek a blessing. And you have it. So go, run to her like the puppy you have become. Maybe she can make it worth your troubles.”

Drama queen… Dion thinks, snorting.

“Kicking me out of my own room so you can be alone with your nurses?” he says out loud.

“Of course I am,” Geryon concedes, lying down, making the lately very abused wooden frame creak under his weight. “The girls will be back after checking on the kiddies so don’t bring her here. We don’t want to add to the body count tonight.”

 

Ch5.54 Shards

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

“Hmm?” she murmurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slowly, now,” he advises her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah…” Alma mutters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rest… now, child…”

The child looks up at her.

“And slip… into dreams,”

The room goes silent. Her voice gains strength.

“Let slumber take you away.

Pale moonlight

Through windows now streams

And with you forever I stay.”

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

“To a bed of white blooms

And gardens in Spring

I bring you in peace and let lay.

Your slumbering eyes

That have seen everything

Will see no more today.”

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

“Sleep, you’re free,

And lay, safe with me.

Your dreams, please, don’t delay.

Now you can rest.

I heed your request

And with you forever I stay.”

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

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

“I bring light in my eyes

Like rogue fireflies

To show the path and the way

To where you will go,

Far from danger and woe.

Not a soul I will leave gone astray.”

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

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

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

“Love, be done

With the light of the sun

Now that the stars come to play.

Forget fear tonight,

Hold my hand, take flight

And with you forever I stay.”

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

Singing to him.

“At the edge of the dawn,

Where everything sleeps

Holding the seeds of the day,

Hidden deep in your heart

And caught in its keeps.

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

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

“Close your eyes,

There is nothing to see.

Welcome the darkness and may”

She looks at him, smiling as she sings.

Sweetly…

“Dreams come true,”

Softly…

“Your soul’s destiny”

Gently….

“And with you forever I…”

Just for him.

“…stay.”

 

Ch5.46 Shards

“Here it is,” Mayumi says, fumbling in the dark of the alley. “The door.”

Aliyah curses as she hits her knee on a loose brick. “Ow! Man, those kids are screamin’ their lungs out in there.”

Mayumi shudders. “If they’re seeing that…thing, I’m not surprised. We have to get them out.”

“What are they seeing, exactly?” Geryon asks.

It is amazing that he can even fit in the narrow alley. At first sight, he looked too bulky, too wide to fit a space where both May and Aliyah (mostly Aliyah) are having to negotiate with a slight, sideways tilt to their bodies. But now he is fitting snuggly, only the outer edges of his folded wings grazing against the brick. He also looks suddenly much shorter in height, his features less imposing, more…cute.

She says to him, “I only got a brief look. It was…like smoke. Black smoke. With legs of a spider, or a crab. Many legs.” She finds her breathing quickening, her heart pounding as she recalls it.

“Crab?” Aliyah asks. “I’m allergic to crab. Makes me all itchy.”

Mayumi can swear she hears Geryon’s eyes roll in the near-complete darkness. “Let us hope the nice crab doesn’t invite us over for lunch, then… Where is the door, my dear?”

Mayumi finds his shoulder, slides her hand down the soft fur of his foreleg, then takes his large paw and guides it to the edge of the door. “These boards across it – there are four of them.”

“Ah yes…” Geryon rears up, forepaws against the door, pressing his weight down on the top board, then the one below it. He then unsheathes his claws and pulls on one board while his other paw is pressed against the one below. There is a creaking noise, barely audible above the sound of panicking children, but that is all. “And nailed quite firmly, it seems.”

Aliyah, feeling it too, doubtfully offers, “Maybe I can wedge the sword behind a board…”

Mayumi pulls on a lower board, putting a foot against the door frame. “Perhaps if we all try together…”

Geryon sighs, exasperated. “Please, do let me know when it is time for the friendly gryphon to intervene. Those boards have clearly been nailed for years. There is no way we can pry them out without proper tools.”

“Fine, Mister Gryphon,” Aliyah says, resheathing her sword. “Got any more tricks up your…uh…the fur on your paw?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” Geryon retorts.

At that moment, the muffled sounds of screaming suddenly cease.

Aliyah says in a frightened whisper, “Whoa, did things just get real quiet in there?”

Mayumi feels as if her heart has stopped. “I…I can’t hear anything!” The warehouse is quieter than any tomb.

Geryon groans loudly, startling the other two. His voice echoes in the alley. “Dion, you idiot! Oh, you are never getting your bed back! Very well, ladies, take a step back, please. Things are about to get somewhat…toasty.”

Confused, Aliyah asks, “How far back we talkin’ about here?”

Mayumi grabs her arm. “Come over this way. Around the corner.” She only knows she doesn’t want to be near anything like that magical blast that Tuma-Sukai set off. But she and Aliyah both look back around the corner. A drift of the tall Constable’s very long, unbound hair falls onto Mayumi’s face, and the Bunny impatiently bats it away.

She can hear Geryon muttering to himself, “This’ll have to be quick and dirty.” He extends a claw and, though nearly blind in the darkness, scratches…something onto the wood of each board. “No iron filings, no sulphur, not even any fingers! Voice, symbols, and visualization only. Madness…” He pauses, takes a ragged breath, closes his eyes, then begins to whisper. As he does, points of light start to glow on the boards like embers, brighter and brighter, and suddenly burst into flame. Sparks spew from them, showering across Geryon’s flank, making his skin twitch and fur and feathers smolder. Before she pulls her head back around the corner, Mayumi sees Geryon’s eyes squeeze more tightly shut from the pain, but he does not stop whispering.

Aliyah gasps. “He’s gonna get burnt!”

Mayumi, trying to blink away starbursts of purple from her vision, grabs Aliyah’s arm to keep her there. “If you interrupt a wizard in the midst of a spell, bad things happen! He knows what he’s doing!” She suspects that he absolutely does – and that he knows it is also very dangerous.

In her dream life, Mayumi attended the Guardia Academy, and the intensive six-month training there includes one short course on Magic for Popula, the main message of which is, “Magic is not for you. Stay away, and call for a Dei officer.” But the Academy grudgingly agrees that it is useful to teach Popula recruits a little about how magic works, in case they have to deal with it in an emergency. And so every constable knows that one does not interrupt a wizard mid-spell.

And Mayumi remembers some other tidbits from her course. That while gods can use their own divine magic and even cast spells with relative ease due to their mana, mortals have no such advantage, unless they buy externally stored mana, which is terribly expensive. To make a spell work they have to use symbols, material components, gestures, ritualized chanting. This all allows them to draw mana out of the environment, ideally enough to fuel the spell. The more energy required, the longer and more elaborate the casting.

But it is possible to cheat. Like gods, mortals have an internal energy source: their own life force. Drawing on that allows human mages to cast spells with far more ease. But it can also trigger heart attacks, strokes, or other traumas. Many wizards simply die.

Getting a few minor burns from sparks is the least of Geryon’s worries.

The smell of burning wood and paint, plus a metallic stench, reaches them in a cloud, causing them both to start coughing. Mayumi wishes she could close her nose like she can her eyes, and to a lesser extent her ears. She crouches low to breathe more easily.

As she does, the light dies away, and Aliyah and Mayumi look around the corner again, then rush to Geryon. He is lying on his side, breathing heavily. “Oh, man…” Aliyah moans, running her hand over the feathers of his head. Mayumi kneels next to him and takes his paw in her hand.

The top board falls onto the ground, breaking in half as the center of it crumbles to ash. The other boards are nearly gone, and the door itself is warped within its frame.

“Don’t touch the door with bare skin,” Geryon cautions, his voice sounding like he has aged fifty years in barely a minute. “Give it a good kick. You cops are supposed to be good at that, right?”

“You’re alive!” Aliyah crows as she straightens and spins to face the door.

“Of course I’m alive,” Geryon mutters as Mayumi strokes his forelimb. “Only stupid people get killed by their own spells.” He flexes his paw, squeezing Mayumi’s hand, pricking it almost painlessly with his claws for just a moment.

Aliyah readies herself, then twists and lashes out a powerfully muscled leg with a side kick, a move that normally takes the average apartment door right off its hinges. The metal, still radiating heat, shatters into a mass of rust, and Aliyah’s foot goes all the way through to impact on…something.

“Wow! But oh no, there’s another wall on the other side!”

“That wall,” croaks Geryon, “is a courtesy of our friend Dion.”

The “wall” is like a glowing, hazy pane of ancient glass, warped by time, with occult symbols painted across it. The symbols slowly move, though whether it is the symbols alone or the glass itself moving is impossible to say.

On the other side of it, they can see small silhouetted forms: children, trying to peer through. One figure taller than the others is topped by long ears.

“He’s alive!” Mayumi gasps. “But how will we get to him?”

“Yeah, we gotta get them outta there!” Aliyah cries.

“Oh but of course!” Geryon raises his head. “Excuse me while I snap my fingers and get it done– Don’t you both know I haven’t performed magic in years?! And now in one night, I’ve…!”

Mayumi squeezes his paw. He looks at her, angry eagle eyes into her pleading expression, and he sighs. “Fine… Visit the Fourth Ring, they said. It will be good for you, they said… This bloody place should have a banner on every entrance: ‘Three Rats! Come for the stench – Stay for your funeral’!” He closes his eyes again and mutters, “Good thing for you I know shortcuts and backdoors for most of Dion’s spells.” He lumbers to his feet and raises one paw while whispering in some ancient language.

Sound from within the warehouse returns, very quiet at first, but then increasing as a hole appears in the glass-like barrier, rapidly expanding until it is large enough for even Aliyah to fit through if she ducks. The magical script on the barrier warps and flows around the hole. Immediately a sobbing child, hair matted, face dirty, starts to climb out. Something horrible is screaming beyond the children. Aliyah grabs the child and hands him toward Mayumi.

The Bunny pauses just a moment to give Geryon a kiss on the beak. He snorts and sits, his smaller, cuter form looking much less threatening than the thing howling inside. She turns to help the child and sees Sage, his handsome, dark face expressing fear and hope, looking out for a moment, seeing Aliyah and Mayumi, and his smile is the most beautiful thing she can imagine seeing. But immediately he ducks back inside to help other captives escape.

Ch5.45 Shards

We will be there soon, the voice speaks directly into his mind.

Dion ducks instinctively as yet another low balcony blurs past his vision.

The ride so far has been…interesting. Feeling far more substantial than they look, the magnificent horses that have come to Alma’s aid carry both him and the extremely worried death goddess swiftly and smoothly. The hooves of these amazing beasts produce no sound as they hit the stone-paved streets, their powerful legs moving at the same speed as a regular race-horse but somehow taking them through the alleys much faster than any horse is supposed to run.

Not only that, they seem quite oblivious to the fact that they are not supposed to be able to run through walls without hitting them. With their billowing manes and ghostly bodies, the horses navigate through the ward, impossibly fast, covering the distance between the station and the warehouse in what feels like half an hour compressed into only a handful of minutes. They enter alleys to come out into streets that do not connect with those alleys at all, phasing through the wall of a building to emerge from the back door of a house three blocks ahead and two blocks to the right.

And all this without seemingly ever moving within the buildings themselves! Everything is a blur, every glimpse of a location a fleeting image of a landscape that is suddenly no longer there. It is unlike any method of teleportation or portal creation he has ever learned or read about. Incompatible with every single dimensional drift or rift-exploit he has ever heard of. Oh, he will have to study this more closely.

Dion’s mind wavers between thrilling excitement and discomfort at the unique method of transportation. Of course, there are spells that allow one to do all these things. Some easier but time consuming, others more difficult to master but far more efficient once perfected and even some locked away in old, dusty tomes that are said to render the portal system completely unnecessary. However, his senses tell him that no spells are being cast here. These horses are merely navigating their own channels instinctively, effortlessly and allowing the Dei to do the same.

Doubtlessly,  there are gods who can travel at speed and move through space and even time with ease, but Dion has never been one of them or had the pleasure of meeting one. It is a unique, incredibly fascinating and smooth experience in travel. Unfortunately, it will also be a rather short one.

He risks a glance to his left. By his side, Alma rides the bigger, somehow slightly older-looking mare. Riding with ease, even in the absence of a saddle or reins, the goddess keeps her fair countenance locked in focused concern and seems unmoved by the wonder of such an incredible ride.

“How did you find Sage?” she asks out loud, probably, Dion suspects, just to do him the courtesy of being included in the conversation.

The child reached us in his dreams, the mare explains in a peaceful tone that washes tranquility into the god’s mind.

“His dreams?” Dion asks, feeling almost as if interrupting a conversation that has been going on without him. “Is that something Bunnies can do? Contact people via their dreams?”

Not willingly, the other mare explains with an edge to her thoughts that suggests youthful excitement and impatience. We watch over dreams. That is how we found him.

The innocent-sounding words ring deeply in Dion’s conscience. For as untamed as the unconscious mind can be – and truly, who can be blamed for where thoughts go when everything else is asleep? – he cannot help but feel a twinge of guilt and embarrassment at the thought of someone watching over some of his dreams. Can these horses even comprehend the dreams of other sentient beings? Do they keep minds from drifting so far from consciousness that they become lost? Or do they examine dreams for content and decide who should not wake up? Either way, the thought is somewhat disturbing.

Horses… Why horses? And no regular horses, for that matter. More what a horse’s dream of itself would look like. The kind of horse that any equine would worship if they could do so. Do horses even have their own gods?

“These horses are no common breed,” he comments to Alma. “Their auras feel like–”

Alma nods, completing the sentence without even bothering to look at him. “Gods. All of them. The Void Riders dwell beyond the Insula. They are responsible for creating much of the reality that is the Isle. They travel through chaos to find and herd broken pieces of reality that are then added to the Insula as it grows. And they can travel through them as if they were portals. Dreams are just different realities to them.”

“I see…” Dion whispers, filing the information for later research.

For now, however, the horses have stopped running.

We have arrived, the older mare announces, her head dropping and turning to the right, motioning the gods to dismount.

“Thank you,” Alma says, dismounting gracefully, stroking the mare’s neck as she steps forward.

Dion stares at them for a moment. Truly, the combination is a sight to see. The ghostly horse looks like the perfect mount for the solemn goddess who so often looks and moves like a specter herself. And how frightening it would be to meet them both at the mouth of some dark alley on a moonless night and gaze upon one’s last vision of the living world in the form of the pale, silvery-white-haired goddess dressed in the leather-corseted patrolling outfit that is her only compromise to armor, and her extraordinary, transcendental mount.

These idle thoughts are disrupted by the younger mare, who calls him back to reality with a curt neigh and a vibrant shake of her powerful neck. She throws her head back in impatience, urging him to dismount.

The god does so, sliding carefully off her rump and down her flank, gently patting her shoulder as he moves forward, instinctively treating the godly mare as if she were a common horse.

Your help is deeply appreciated,” he says.

She replies by turning her head to bring her muzzle closer to his face and breathe a moist gust of hot hair against his cheek and ear.

The child was well when he was found, the older mare informs. However, he is now awake. We do not know what has happened since.

“That is the warehouse, over there, isn’t it?” Dion asks, gesturing toward the old, rundown building standing at the corner of the next block.

“Yes, that is the corner that Corporal Lamore mentioned,” Alma replies, looking at the looming shape of the warehouse.

Our time on the Insula runs short, the mare warns them. We must go.

Both gods turn to look at her and Alma nods before saying, “Please, do. We will take care of things from now on.”

Tread carefully, child, the mare says, taking a couple of steps back before turning around to leave. Close by, the younger mare does the same. And good luck.

They both take off and suddenly, it is as if they were never there. Without a sound or a hoof mark on the pavement, they have disappeared from sight in the blink of an eye.

“Fascinating friends you have,” Dion comments, speaking in a low tone that sounds like rumbling thunder against the silence left by the departure of the Riders.

“More than friends,” Alma corrects him, turning to look at the warehouse once more. “Family.”

“Family?” the god asks in confusion. The Void Riders do not quite seem to fit either sphere in Alma’s ancestry.

“It is a long story,” the goddess concedes with a sigh. “One I will have to tell, sooner or later. For now… Sage is in there.

“We had best scout out the situation,” Dion states, walking alongside her down the street that leads to the warehouse.

In his mind, ancient words begin to band together, reshaping his mana into a scouting spell. In his hand, a glittering, golden light begins to glow, shapeless and insubstantial at first, but soon it starts twisting and bending and compressing into a long, slender body with short legs and reddish eyes, a delicate longilinuous head topped by short round ears. A long fluffy tail whips the air as the light-spawn creature climbs Dion’s arm to round his shoulders and look meaningfully at Alma, waiting patiently for her to notice it.

The light that emanates from it and draws its profile in sharp contrast against the world around must catch the goddess’ eye because she turns her head to look, first at Dion and then down at the ferrety creature perching on his shoulder. Her eyes are glowing with a faint aura, their deep blue crisscrossed by lines of greenish-white light that squiggle and rush to and fro between her pupils and the rims of her irises. She must have been trying to detect any souls inside the warehouse just now.

“It won’t be able to enter the warehouse itself due to the anti-scrying defenses, but it should be able to peek in some windows and look for guards outside,” Dion explains almost apologetically.

Alma merely nods, staring at Dion’s scouting spell for a moment before trying to touch the glowing animal with an extended finger. The spell curls and shies away from her, made as it is to evade capture. Dion touches her hand and nudges her fingers open, holding them and turning his own hand to show her how such a spell should be approached. When she holds her hand open before it, it leaps from the god’s shoulder into her palm, standing up on its hind legs and looking at her intently as if awaiting orders.

“We have thirty-seven souls inside. Thirty-two mortal and five divine,” she says, tilting her head to the right, only to be imitated by the ferrety shape. “And two more outside, a little further away.”

“One of these days, I would love to know how you do that,” Dion replies with honest wonder.

“Family trait,” Alma states almost absent-mindedly. “It comes with the scythe and the black robes. For now, I cannot tell friend from foe or adult from child. Please, help us with that.”

The scouting spell jerks its head up and down in a nod of understanding and quickly leaps from Alma’s hand, twisting and turning midair to land on the stone pavement, facing the warehouse. In quick bounds that make it look like a blur of bright light shooting through the street, it runs off toward the warehouse.

“Can you see if Sage is in there?” Dion asks.

Alma shakes her head slowly, sadly. “Unfortunately, no. There are too many souls to pick through and I am not powerful or skilled enough to make a clear image of what is going on inside. All I can tell is that thirty of them may be our missing children.”

“Well, let us see what we can learn from my spell,” Dion offers, activating the spell that allows him to see through the light-spawn creature’s eyes as it scurries through the street on its way to the warehouse.

A familiar, if somewhat blurred shape makes him order the spell to stop and take a sharp turn to the left. The two souls that Alma had detected can now clearly be seen through the scout’s eyes. One is the Popula Constable, Aliyah, dressed in a…blouse and a flowery skirt? And the other…

“Geryon…” Dion mutters, causing Alma to move closer in the hopes of catching his words.

Almost as if he can hear the god, the gryphon turns and peers down at the scout, straight into its bright red eyes, his raptorine beak looking disproportionately big for being so close. “Well, well, well…” the gryphon whispers with a mixture of mockery and sincere pleasure. “Look who is back to prowling the alleys. And using his powers for good, for a change.”

Transmitted into his brain through the scout’s ears, the jest feels to Dion like the warmest of welcomes from his companion of so many unwise adventures. His lips curl in a smile as he forgets for a moment the urgency of his mission.

“It is so good to see you, old friend,” he whispers.

“Old friend? Is it Geryon you see?” Alma asks.

“Yes,” Dion replies, smiling at her. “The scout has found him and Constable Kaur. Follow me.”

He leads her to the entrance of a building just across the street from the warehouse, where Geryon and the woman constable await them. Their expressions waver between relief and tremendous concern.

“Constable,” Dion greets the woman with a pleasant smile and a subtle nod.

“Geryon,” Alma greets the gryphon. She looks Aliyah up and down before adding, “Constable. What are you doing here in that attire and where is Mayumi?”

If Aliyah looked worried before, she looks positively panicky now. She quickly glances down at her skirt and then at the warehouse before half-stuttering “She’s… Ma’am, she’s–”

“I’m here,” Mayumi announces, suddenly appearing from somewhere behind Dion.

The Bunny’s voice sounds hoarse, breathless as if Mayumi has just taken a mad dash towards the building. She takes a couple of deep breaths in an effort to regain composure. Her eyes are locked on Alma’s face, as if she can’t believe the goddess is actually present.

“Finally, May!” Aliyah cries in relief and exasperation, grabbing the Bunny’s shoulders and shaking her, possibly a bit harder than intended. “Damn it, are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“There’s no time for that!” Mayumi retorts, releasing herself from Aliyah’s grip. She turns to Alma, the pupils in her large brown eyes dilated from fright. For a moment, she looks as if she wants nothing more than to throw her arms around Alma’s waist, but she straightens and drives the emotion from her expression. “Sergeants, Constable – Inspector Sky is in the warehouse with an ally, and they’re both in trouble!”

“An ally?” Dion asks while Alma glances back at the warehouse, eyes flaring, and murmurs something about three casualties.

“The woman who helped us when we escaped,” Mayumi explains. “Saira.”

“She’s here?” Aliyah whispers, glancing at the warehouse as well, her voice tinged with an edge of concern for the woman.

“Saira… He must have gotten her to help, after all,” Alma murmurs under her breath, her eyes regaining their usual appearance for a moment. She looks down at Mayumi, her lower lip trembling ever so slightly at the sight of the Bunny. “And you say Inspector Sky is in there with her?”

“They set off a magical trap.” Mayumi speaks quickly, sometimes failing to finish a sentence in her haste, her voice almost imperceptibly shaking. “Now they are being attacked by large beasts…like monkeys. And…there’s something else. Something horrible.” She shudders and grimaces, as if she is about to be sick, but she shakes it off, her eyes suddenly widening at a returning memory that had been driven from her mind by events. “There’s a door around the back, Alma. Ma’am. I saw it! It’s close to where Sage and the others are being held. I could go there and–”

“Do you know where this door is, Constable?” Alma interrupts her, shifting her gaze to Aliyah’s progressively more worried expression.

Aliyah fails to respond for a moment, distracted as she is, staring at Mayumi.

“Constable!” Alma insists in a sharp tone.

Aliyah’s head shoots up, her body straightening automatically as if struck by lightning. “Not by heart, Ma’am.” She hesitates before adding, “Maybe May could show us? I promise we’ll keep her out of trouble.”

Alma seems about to object but a sudden muted bellow of “No!” makes her look back at the warehouse and then at Dion. A subtle nod between them says it all. They are out of time.

Alma’s voice sounds dry, humorless and she does not bother to even glance at the Bunny as she says to the woman, “I don’t think you could do that even if you tied her to a lamp post. Very well, take her and take that door. Find the children and get them out. Hopefully our arrival will distract the kidnappers away from them.”

Mayumi’s fists clench and her ears lean back for a fraction of a second before she nods. She glances at Aliyah, who seems paralyzed for a moment before looking apologetically and submissively at Alma as if in need of her blessing.

“Look after her, please,” Alma speaks softly.

Aliyah brightens up and jerks her head in a quick nod of acquiescence. “Yes, sir!” She looks unsure for a moment. “Ma’am. Sir…”

“Geryon, could you go with them?” Dion asks his friend as the Bunny and Constable dash away. “Your strength may mean the difference…”

“I will help in any way I can,” Geryon assures him, turning to run towards the pair, wings tucked neatly against his body, his leonine legs packed with powerful muscles carrying him swiftly away.

The gods begin to walk at a quick pace towards the front door of the warehouse, using the short moment to prepare weapons and spells.

“This should be a dramatic homecoming scene…” Dion mutters as he starts noticing the light go out around him, the growing shadows already curling around the enraged death goddess walking by his side.

She looks at him with black, bottomless eyes, grinning in frighteningly joyous anticipation of a bloody fight, “Well, let us make sure we arrive with a bang, shall we?”

 

Ch5.42 Shards

“Can you see anything, Ger?”

To Mayumi’s long, sensitive ears, Aliyah’s whisper seems loud enough to hear not only across the street, but inside the warehouse. She reminds herself that humans – and hopefully whoever is in the warehouse – have astonishingly bad hearing. Their poor night vision and practically nonexistent sense of smell makes the Bunny wonder again, as she has before, how they have managed to become the dominant mortal species in the Urbis.

Probably because they need so much help from the gods that they constantly worship them. Everyone knows gods get their power from prayer. And many of them supposedly think of humans as little more than prayer machines. Though she has to admit, she’s never met a god with such an attitude.

The gryphon turns to regard Aliyah balefully. “My name is Geryon, my dear. Where I come from, Ger is what you call a one-eyed donkey with mange. And bad teeth.”

 

“Sheesh, sorry!” Aliyah replies, arms flailing dramatically for frustrated emphasis. “Can you see anything, Master Geryon the Mighty Mage Who Definitely Ain’t No Donkey?”

Geryon rolls his eyes. “As a matter of fact, I can see magical defenses on the windows and that door. The runes are crude and simple. They glow brightly in mage-sight. Explosive. Definitely enough to kill someone who isn’t prepared, but quite basic.”

Aliyah furrows her brow, looking out the window of the second-floor room they are huddled in, in an abandoned building across the road from the warehouse. She squints as if trying to see what Geryon is describing, but Mayumi knows that, without street lights, the Constable can barely even see the concrete walls, so streaked with rust as they are from the corrugated rooftop that they disappear into the shadows.

“Can you disarm them?” Aliyah asks.

Geryon looks uncomfortable. “Probably. It’s just…it has to be done carefully or…boom.”

Aliyah looks at him, compassionately. “I don’t wanna put you in danger. I really don’t. But you’re the only one who can do this.”

He sighs and looks back out the window, careful not to knock his beak against a shard of glass in the frame. “Mother said I should have been a baker, but noooooo. I had to be a mage.” He chuckles bitterly. “I’ll get your Guardia through the door in one piece. What happens to them after that will be up to them, however.”

“Constable?” Mayumi asks.

“Hmm?”

“We can only see two faces of the building from here,” Mayumi points out, careful to whisper louder than she normally would so that Aliyah can hear. “There could be other entrances.”

“Yeah,” Aliyah whispers back. “But that alley is dark. And narrow.”

“I am not going in there,” Geryon hisses. “I’d barely be able to turn around! These legs are not made for running in reverse.”

“I can–”

Aliyah whispers over Mayumi’s words. “Can’t see anything in there anyway. Might trip over somethin’ and alert them.”

“Hey!” As quiet as it is, Mayumi’s whisper demands attention. “I can see pretty well in those shadows. And I’m small, and very quiet. And if there is trouble, I can run faster than any human.”

“May,” Aliyah warns.

The Bunny sets her jaw. “I won’t do it without your orders, Constable. But I promise you, I will be cautious. And it’ll just take a couple of minutes.

Aliyah looks hard at her. “You know if they grab you it’ll make the situation twice as bad?”

Mayumi nods. “I know. They won’t grab me. They won’t even know I was there. Anything else – that would put Sage at risk.”

Looking down at the short Bunny, Aliyah’s face momentarily looks ten years older. “May, you take a quick, quiet scout, and you get back here. No heroics.”

Mayumi nods. “No heroics. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Slipping out of the building, avoiding line-of-sight of the warehouse’s windows, is no problem, nor is crossing the street and carefully moving into the alley. Syron had tried to explain to her once, over lunch, that Mayumi’s large eyes gather more light than a human’s but lack the thing cats have that makes their eyes glow with reflected light – he called it a tapetum something – that would give her true night vision. He had examined Cherry’s eyes to determine the correct reading glasses for her, and had taken the opportunity to test her vision in various ways. Mayumi felt her mouth twitch in amusement at the memory of Cherry’s complaints about the bizarre tests, but the Bunny bartender had been most pleased with her new glasses.

So in the nearly pitch-dark alley, she actually cannot see much better than a human. She moves very slowly, carefully, feeling broken glass under her thin-soled shoes. Wearing only the same t-shirt and shorts she had on after her bath nearly two hours ago, she does not want to cut herself on some rusty piece of metal in the dark.

There are no doors or windows in the alley that comes off the street, but as she turns the corner to the far side of the building, she sees faint light. A window! The glass is broken, and the opening covered from inside by rough planks of wood, but there are small gaps between the boards, and through those slender beams of light shine into the back alley. As she moves toward the window, she notices, in that tenuous illumination, a door, metal, sloppily painted over and boards haphazardly nailed across it long ago. She carefully avoids touching it but wonders if perhaps it is not magically warded. Those inside might not even have noticed it.

As she approaches, she hears voices inside. A vulgar one shouts, “Hey, don’t ya draw on the floors!” She reaches the window and, avoiding shards of glass, peers through the gaps, the sudden brightness making her eyes water, to see shapes moving across her limited field of vision. It takes a moment to resolve what she is seeing. Large, hairy beings, a man in a suit. He is hurting a child! She almost pulls away to rush back and report, but she notices something to her right, just on the other side of the wall. She must stretch to look at it: bars. A cage. And inside, small people. Children.

She gasps. She does not see his face, but two long black-furred ears tip into her sight for just a moment.

She almost calls out, but she stops. The creatures inside – she has no idea how sharp their hearing is. And is alerting Sage that she is there worth the risk? No. Passing up the chance to let him know how close he is to rescue, to let him know that those who love him are nearby, almost breaks her heart, but she resolutely pulls back from the window.

She looks at the wall, estimates the location of the bars she saw. The cage is in the back corner of the warehouse. And the door. That door is inside the cage. She is almost certain. If they could get the door open, Sage and the children could escape out the back.

She has already taken longer than she told Aliyah she would. It is time to return. She wants to hurry, not only for Sage but for the poor child whose pitiful high voice fills her ears. But hurrying now could jeopardize all. She decides that the safest way back is via the side of the warehouse that is somewhat visible from across the street. She will be able to see much better, and, crouching low, move swiftly below the windows. And Aliyah and Geryon will probably see her as well, and know she is all right.

She rounds the corner, sees movement, and instantly steps back into the shadows. There are people there! She carefully looks around the corner again. Even here, the light is still quite dim, but she quickly recognizes the large form of Tuma-Sukai, made even larger by his Guardia armored jacket. And with him is a woman she takes a moment to recognize, whose dark cloak almost succeeds in hiding a shapely body covered in tight-fitting leather. Sarai? No, Saira. The one who fought for us against the Dukaine hit squad. She’d never had a chance to ask Alma, but Aliyah had told her the mysterious woman’s name. They are preparing to open a service door. She can tell by the way their bodies are tensed, Sky is going to fling it open while Saira slips in. They must have already picked the lock.

The door.

The magically trapped door.

Everything seems to slow as Mayumi launches herself from hiding, racing toward them, hoping to catch them quietly. But she is too late. The Inspector is pulling the door open. The archer, crossbow at the ready, slips in like a shadow, and Sky takes a step after her. Mentally cursing, Mayumi calls out in Japanese:

Sukai! Wana yo!

Only a few body-lengths away now, she sees Sky react to her warning, but by leaping inside rather than back. She loses sight of him. And then there is a flash that seems to fill her whole world with light.