Ch6.68 Trust

Steel claws dig into Sky’s jaw to raise his unresisting head, bringing him partially out of a state that cannot be called sleep, more of a fitful unconsciousness. He opens one eye reluctantly. The other is already open, unable to close but blind, the lid partially torn away, the orb split by the whip formed from the spine of a tortured, mad death goddess.

His one good eye takes a moment to focus on Nua, grinning at him with that young pale face, in structure and complexion nothing like the Nua he had known, in expression unmistakable, instantly recognizable. “Good morning, Azzie! Ready for our next session? I have a treat in store for you. I spent all night preparing this, just for you.”

He summons as much dignity as he can. “So far…you have bored me with your amateur attempts. Why don’t you…summon up some experts from Hell?” The truth is, though he has with supreme effort resumed his human form, he can feel it slipping away from him like a watermelon seed squeezed between two juice-slicked fingertips. And with it, he feels his hope trying to go. He knows they want to reduce him to a bestial status, that for some reason they cannot bind him, despite knowing his true name, and by itself that is reason enough to resist. But he knows that rescue is highly unlikely, and if such an attempt is made…the thought of even one of those he loves being killed or tortured makes him want to find a way to kill himself right now – except of course that they would not know, and would come after him anyway, only to find a corpse. He simply hopes that they will never find this place, wherever it is.

They will miss him, mourn him. But they will live. They will comfort one another. They will find a way to take down the Whisper safely, too late to rescue him, surely, but then they’ll know his fate. They’ll be able to move on. That is what he holds onto, this narrative. As the bone-deep whiplashes leave fissures in his flesh and even his soul, threatening to drown all that he has gained since escaping Hell – friendships, love, family, duty, pride, loss – drown it in roaring and agony, he holds onto that, that those he loves will come through this safely.

And then the whip slashes across Sky’s chest, prompting a scream of pain that he cannot stop, but forces into something distantly related to laughter. Fresh blood gushes from the wound, spattering the floor to thicken the caked, dried layers at his feet.

Nua moves closer to him, her lower lip thrust out, pouting like a spoiled child. “Now, that wasn’t a nice thing to say. Not when I’ve brought some visitors here to see you.” She gestures to the door behind Sky. He hears wheels on the stone-flagged floor, and sees a gurney come into his limited field of vision. It looks as if it was rescued from a rubbish heap, the metal frame rusted, the wheels squeaking, one of them jittering like an old man’s trembling hands. The thin mattress atop the frame is stained with old blood, and strapped down on it is a man, struggling, barefoot, wearing torn, bloody trousers. The man’s wrists are locked down with shackles engraved with magical glyphs. Sky cannot see his face at first – his blind eye is on that side. But as the Whisper tough pushing it parks it in front of Sky, he sees a familiar face staring at him, hazel eyes pleading above a ball-gag.

Dion.

Sky roars and strains against the chains, his skin darkening rapidly with tattoos. “NOOOOOO! LET HIM GO! LET THEM GO!”

“But they’ve come all this way! They were all so cute, too, barging in to save you.” Nua laughs at the two gods trying to break free of their bonds. She slides the vertebral form of the whip through her fingers. “Now, one thing I realized is, you’re right. I’ve been on the painful end of the whip for these past two centuries, but I’m still not good enough to torture someone who was born in Hell. But! It occurs to me that none of your precious little friends has ever known the pleasures of endless Hellish torture.” Her hand grazes Dion’s leg, who struggles harder, mumbling through the gag.

Barely resisting the urge to shift into his devil form, Sky begs, abject. “What do you want from me? This – this accomplishes nothing. Nua, why do this? Please, please don’t…”

“Dearest Azzageddi, you still haven’t realized, have you? All I want from you is,” Nua pauses for a breath, “your pain.” She raises the whip and strikes Dion across the torso, diagonally from left shoulder to right hip. Blood spatters Nua’s face and chest. He screams incoherently, arching his body as much as he can within the tight straps.

Sky lunges against the chains, his body transforming faster than ever before, the shackles grinding and cracking his wristbones as they adjust too slowly. His roar causes the stones in the walls to rattle, dust to fall from the ceiling. “I WILL DEVOUR YOU ALIVE! I WILL TEARRRRR YOU TO PIECES AS YOU BEG FOR MERRRRRRCY!

Nua strikes Dion again, across the thighs, opening up deep wounds there as well. “Oh, yes! Yes! Roar, Azzageddi! Your roars are music to my ears!” Transferring the whip handle to her left hand, she slips a long, slender knife, one made for the kitchen rather than fighting, free from her sleeve and plunges it into Dion’s shoulder, right into the joint, twisting it to make him scream, his eyes locked on Sky, seeing his friend, his commanding officer, become an enemy of the gods.

Sky’s roars become worse than incoherent, cursing in Malbolge, one of the languages of Hell, curses that could age or sicken a normal mortal.

Nua draws back the blade and makes a show of licking the blood from it. “Now now, if you are going to be rude, my little devil, I might have to hurt our guest a bit more. I might have to pour some demon ichor into his wounds.” She reaches into a pocket and removes a vial. “We both know what that does to gods, don’t we?”

Pleeeeease…” His abyssal voice rings strangely pitiful in begging. “Please, no. I will swear loyalty to you. Just let them go.

Nua gives him a smiles of pleasure, but waggles her finger in admonishment. “Ah ah ah! Slaves do not get to cut deals. You will serve me. But I will do whatever I wish.”

Sky raises his massive head and howls his frustration. Shoulders heaving as he sobs for air, he looks at the shivering god on the gurney, and says quietly, “Dion…Dion I am sorry. I’m sorry.

Sky knows there is nothing he can do. Begging will only give Nua pleasure and drive her to greater acts of horror. And his apologies mean nothing. This is all his fault.

Dion’s eyes widen, then close tightly as Nua unscrews the cap on the vial. He struggles harder, but the straps hold him almost motionless. Nua carefully pours about a third of the contents into the wound in Dion’s shoulder. The stench of concentrated, refined demon ichor fills the room. Sky groans, slumping in the chains as Gwydion struggles and seizes, the pain too great even to allow him to scream through the gag. His skin blackens around the wound, and then in blotches further from it, rotting him from the inside out. The enchanted shackles prevent him from using his magic to heal himself, though with that much poison, it wouldn’t make any real difference anyway.

Nua watches in rapt fascination. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this in action.” She holds the smoke-glass bottle up to check it. “Need to make sure I save some for the others.”

Gwydion gives one last, gag-muffled scream, all his muscles locking, and then he collapses. Dead.

Limp in the chains, Sky sobs. Dion was his friend. They had fought alongside each other, aided each other, gone from a shared, suspicious aversion between the no-Ring outsider and the pampered First-Ring elite to a shared respect for each other’s differing but overlapping senses of justice and honor. Sky had been unsure at first about the growing romance between Alma and Dion, but he had become happy for them both as it had flowered, and sad when they had fought so recently.

And now dead. So pointlessly, so traumatically. Sky wants to whisper prayers for Dion’s soul, but fears Nua might detect that. In her madness, perhaps she will allow the god’s soul to escape. If a soul can escape from this room.

Nua looks at the corpse as if just now realizing it’s dead. “Oops! I got a bit carried away with this one, didn’t I? I hardly made it last!” She smiles at Sky, almost normally, making the blood drops on her face all the more disturbing. “Don’t worry. I won’t be half as rash with the other ones.”

She goes to the door and yells into the hallway, “Bring in the next one! And take this filth out of here.”

A shaken gangster rushes in and wheels away the stretcher while another wheels in a gagged Saira, fighting like a trapped fox against the straps, desperately using every mote of energy she has, clearly not caring if she snaps a bone in her struggles.

Sky cannot stop himself from roaring again.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Now wasn’t that fun? This one lasted much longer than the other one, didn’t she?”

Nua wipes a curved flensing knife on her blood-soaked skirt, and tosses a liver onto Saira’s mutilated, still corpse. The low-ranking gang-member who comes in to wheel her out just stares for a moment, shocked into immobility, but takes the push-handle, tacky with half-dried blood, and pulls the gurney from the room.

“Shall we proceed to dessert?” Nua asks with a grin. “You’ll like this one, for sure. You liked her enough to take her into your lair. How was she, darling? Was she as good as I was? Did she like it when you did that little thing with your thumb? Surely you haven’t stopped doing that.”

Sky has been silent a long time, forcing himself to watch the slow death of Saira, but hanging from the chains as if in a coma otherwise, trying to will himself to die. At Nua’s words, he closes his eyes and says softly, “If you kill her, you’ll have nothing to use against me. And you know I will kill you at the first opportunity. If you keep her alive, I will serve you.

Gently, Nua replies, “Oh Azzie… Always so limited. Of course I will have something against you. With her dead, who is to stop me from snatching her precious Bunnies and turning their slender bones into flutes and rattles for demon-spawn? Why, my servants are on their way now to fetch the little critters.”

He sags, defeated. “Please, Nua…please…

Nua moves closer to him and strokes his muzzle. “You should have thought about that when you killed me.”

He lunges for her, arms stretches as far as they can, trying to catch her arm in his wolflike teeth. He almost succeeds. If this had been near the beginning of his capture, he surely would have, but he has been slowed by the torture. His teeth snap together on empty air. Nua dances back with a scream that turns into nervous laughter when she finds she has not had her arm torn off. She covers up her burst of fear by pirouetting to the door and calling harshly, “Bring her in!”

A servant wheels in the white-haired goddess, dressed in Guardia Dei indigo, pale and slender, gagged and bound like the others. Her eyes are closed and, though she does not scream, her frame shakes slightly. Tears wet the corner of her eyes.

Nua strokes Alma’s face, making the goddess flinch. “She is such a pretty little thing, isn’t she? I wanted to ride her body and use her to get to the very heart of the Death Clan. Use her body to blow her family to bits.” She moves her face closer to Alma’s, her bloodied dagger grazing her victim’s neck. “Don’t we look like we would match?”

Sky whispers, as quietly as he can in his abyssal voice. “Alma…Alma, I cannot stop this. I am so sorry…” He feels utterly helpless, useless, nothing but a monster that has brought all he loves to a slow death. How took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies. Because of him, they will all suffer slow, brutal deaths, all but Mayumi. Safe at the Academy, she will survive, shattered and haunted by the merciless murders of her family.

Trailing her dagger along Alma’s body, tracing the shape of her form, a hungry look on her face, Nua says, “Yes, you can apologize. I’ll make sure she lasts long enough to hear everything you have to say.” She scratches Alma’s calf, drawing a thin line of crimson, and then moves it up under Alma’s skirt. Alma gasps in through her nose, shakes her head no, as Nua teases the razor-sharp blade along the goddess’ inner thighs. Sky clenches his taloned, pinioned hands.

The necromancer leans down to whisper loudly into Alma’s ear, “I had him first, Death Clan whore.” She stabs between the goddess’ legs.

Alma’s azure eyes snap open and her back arches in pain, a scream issuing from her throat and bubbling around the ball-gag. She closes her eyes and screams again as Nua twists the dagger, then pulls it back and stabs again.

Sky screams with her through his tight-clenched teeth. The goddess turns her head to look at Sky for the first time, her blue eyes imploring him, too terrified by the vicious thrusts that she is merely confused, not frightened by this devil in chains.

Breathing heavily, as if inflamed by lust, Nua pulls the gore-covered blade out from under Alma’s blood-soaked skirt, pointing the knife at the goddess’ belly. “She can heal, can’t she?” Her voice is crazed, on the verge of breaking into laughter. “I’ll just slice her open like a peach!”

She plunges the knife into Alma’s stomach. Goddess of life and death both, her powers kept inactive by the shackles, she struggles, mad with pain, her head turning, eyes returning, pleading and terrified to Sky. Looking to a devil to save her from a mortal. Her blue eyes…deep as the sea.

Blue, Sky realizes. They got her eyes right. Perfect. Except they haven’t seen her since before she became the Spinner. The didn’t know that her eyes have changed.

And that is when he knows: This is all a sham. These people are not Gwydion, Saira, and Alma. They are strangers, transformed by magic into perfect copies. That is why they are gagged, so they cannot scream out their confusion coherently and thereby reveal that they are not who they appear to be.

But the torture, the death, is all real. These are almost certainly mortal innocents, perhaps people without homes, taken off the street and suffering simply to destroy Sky’s resistance. The devil’s heart breaks again. His friends are safe, for now. But these people, who have nothing to do with him, are caught up in this and dying senselessly, with no idea why.

All this burns through his mind in a moment. He knows he cannot let Nua know that he has caught on. He keeps his eyes locked on the suffering woman’s, trying to help her focus on him, on anything other than the pain. He wonders what she sees, this terrifying monster that has been begging for her life. He silently promises her that if he somehow escapes, he will find out who she was and tell her family, if she has one, that she did not run away from them, did not abandon them. That it was not her fault that she disappeared from their lives. He can only hope she can detect the real sympathy he has for her, so that she knows she is not dying alone. He has nothing else to give.

It does not end quickly. Nua makes it last, but eventually she is bored by Sky’s lack of responsiveness. She blinds the woman with demon ichor, thrilling to the woman’s struggles, even though so much of her blood is already gone from her body. And then it is over and Nua orders her gone.

Nua looks down at her black dress, shiny and clinging to her body, heavy with blood, the floor foul and incarnadine. “Well, I guess that’s the end of this session. Wasn’t that entertaining?” She smiles like a child who has just received a big bag of candy. Sky lowers his head, silent.

Nua walks closer to him. “Are you mine yet, Azzie? Have you realized yet that your only choice is to serve me?”

He takes some time to become aware of her, to process what she said. He looks at her in fear and slowly nods.

Trying to bite her before was unwise. If he kills her, Margrave will still have him in chains.

So when Nua touches his face, grinning, he does not try anything. It takes great effort, but he feigns complete passivity. “Now, where is the Azzageddi that I remember? The one I gave a body to? Show him to me.”

His first human form. The frightened young man that, at Nua’s orders two centuries ago, he killed and ate in order to steal his shape. Sky reaches deep, searching for that form of one who had rejected her. He has not worn it in in all those years since he killed Nua, not since acquired his usual one, that of an island demigod, in personal combat. They are the only two shapes he has ever stolen. It is not an ability that he is proud of, and since the cost is the murder and cannibalization of a victim, he does not wish to steal any others. But that first one is still there, deep in his memory. He struggles to change, the unfamiliar form and the powerful need to be a devil fighting him. Being human is too painful, vulnerable.

But finally he succeeds. Bloody, thin, and pale, he hangs in the chains.

Nua strokes his face, her fingers leaving cold lines of blood across his cheek. “That’s more like it.” She leans in and runs her tongue over his lips before she kisses him.

He kisses her back, hesitantly. Tears begin to spill from his human eyes. As a devil, he cannot weep.

She breaks away, speaking softly, “Show me your tongue.” She holds up the same knife she used on Alma.

He allows his fear to show. “P-please…” His voice is higher, weaker than in his usual human-seeming form.

Her voice is velvet-smooth, “You were a bad boy, Azzie. Mother will have to teach you manners. Now…obey.”

He opens his mouth and puts out his tongue. It is not at all difficult to look at her, silently begging for mercy.

In one smooth movement, she pinches his tongue with two fingers and slices it off, tossing it away like unwanted meat. Blood gushes into his mouth, and his mouth closes, his lips grazing her fingers, tasting his own blood and that of three strangers.

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Ch6.64 Trust

There are ways to move more quickly around the Insula than via the public portal system. Ways more secret as well. But such speed and secrecy conversely calls attention to those who watch for it, those who set up such pathways in the first place. The Guardia’s unnamed, unacknowledged, unofficial agents, known in the rumormill and to themselves as the ‘off-blues’, have their hidden trails, but to resort to those methods, while secret from the masses of gods and mortals and other inhabitants of the Insula, would bring much-unwanted attention.

And Somrak has called too much attention down upon his head already. After unearthing a double agent within the ranks of the off-blues, a sweet-faced servant of Hell, he was told by the Fencer to stand down, take some time off, and most of all stay away from Three Rats. He thoroughly failed to follow those orders, first obeying an invitation to spend the holidays – well, a mere two hours of the holidays – with his former partner Sky, and Sky’s rapidly gathering circle of family, including a certain snowy-haired sergeant, goddess of death and life, niece of said Fencer and the very reason, he is sure, he was told to stay away.

Alma. Fencer was right – he never should have gone to see her. Just the thought of her is enough to make his heart race, bring warmth to his face, and – being a fire god – set alight random flammables in the general vicinity if he is not careful. It is also apparently enough to shut off his judgement entirely and make him blind as an albino cave cricket. Somrak has been here enough times over the years to know that pursuing her is a terrible idea. And that is even without seeing what was, to everyone but him, diamond-clear: that Alma is already in love with someone else.

And so he kissed her, and oh, she kissed him back, with passion, even, dare he believe it, love. There is something there, it is clear, but her choice is not Somrak. Of course it isn’t. She’d have been a fool to choose him over the charming, smooth, urbane Gwydion, who is, let us not forget, the temporarily embarrassed scion of a wealthy and powerful Archon – an Archon who is, in just one more little facet of the gem that cannot quite be ignored, the patron of the Guardia itself.

That is not fair, he admonishes himself as he steps from the final portal, transferring to Little Falls in the Fourth Ring, in walking distance of portal-less Three Rats. Alma is no gold-digger, no ambitious user. Dion is just…well, look at the guy. And then look at yourself. Moody, scar-faced thug, useful for the Commander’s dirty work and nothing else. Would you be there for her when she needs someone? Would you even know what to say? Be honest: would you make her smile more often than you make her weep?

And yet, she calls and Somrak comes running. Straight from being healed, after a battle he should not have fought, to which he fled following that kiss – that kiss. Oh, that kiss. As painful as the revelation that followed it might have been, he will treasure it all his life.

One god. Eighteen frost giants, each of whom, in terms of raw power, could potentially kill a relatively minor god like Somrak.

Potentially.

SpecOps by now has probably arrived to find the ward liberated, and eighteen very large corpses scattered around the main town – which will be need months of rebuilding to recover from its very messy rescue – and the surrounding evergreen forests. The kills were the result of hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, attacks using traps and unconventional weapons. At least two giants managed to kill each other, though good luck to the investigators in figuring out how they had been tricked into it.

Somrak grins. SpecOps will be grumbling about that little display for years. Would they ever believe that it had been just one off-blue, upset at being rejected by a goddess?

As the Commander had once said nearly a century ago, spattered with blood in the aftermath of a suicidal demon-summoning that had left dead the summoner and nine others, “The most dangerous people are the ones who just don’t care whether they live or die.” What Somrak had taken away from that was, perhaps, not what the Commander had intended.

Please. I need your help. The words had formed in fire before his eyes as he lay in bed, recovering from a simple healing. They were in Alma’s handwriting, appearing just as she was burning the name-card on which she’d written them. It was a way he’d long used for quick-and-easy contact, and he’d left a card with Alma.

Not wanting to be stopped by the Fencer or the Commander or anyone else, Somrak had not done the fastest thing, which would have been to return to headquarters and use the long-range portal projector, or take the backdoor labyrinth of pocket-universe tunnels. Instead, he rushed for the nearest public portal – and just convinced it that he was somebody else. And the same with the next, and the next, changing his identity each time. He’d learned that little trick straight from the Commander, and knows it will be unlikely they will be able to track him.

Though if they really want to punish him for ruining SpecOps’ good time, the Fencer will be able to guess his destination in one try, even without knowing about the message. But that cannot be helped.

And there his destination is before him, across the plaza: Three Rats Station. What is it Alma needs? Something bad has happened, something to make Alma desperate enough to scrawl a vague plea and burn the card without a deeper explanation.

Instead of cutting across the little plaza for the front door, he pauses, then heads around the side of the building. Better to make his presence less obvious, he thinks, than saying hello to all the Popula cops on duty. He worked here for a week not long ago, and anyplace he stays for that long, he’ll find multiple ways in and out of they exist.

The second-floor washroom window is, as usual, slightly open to allow for a good airing of unpleasant odors. And – good luck – no one is using it. Blessing his trim build, he is, after a little squeezing and contorting, inside, then down the hall and at Alma’s office door. He can see the main room of the station below, two cops at their desks. If one of them were to look up now, he would be seen. Worst thing to do is move sneaky – that’ll just attract attention. Silent, but moving like this is his own home, he opens the door without knocking and goes in.

And there is Alma, sitting on the floor, surrounded by boxes of books, clothes, little objects, pictures…a guitar? Somrak, wanting to dwell on the worried look on Alma’s face, finds himself staring at the guitar, the lustrous red-blonde body and geometric inlaid design around the sound hole. It is Sky’s. He glances at the rest. Sky’s, all of it, much of it damaged, broken. Why are these things here? Whatever the reason is, it cannot be good. He feels as if he is in freefall.

“Somrak.” Alma stands up. Her voice is thick with fear. He tears his eyes away from the guitar and other things and takes her in. She looks almost ready to collapse, her face blank with emotional fatigue. And her eyes…their beguiling blue has changed, become pearlescent. It shakes him, makes him wonder for a moment if it is really Alma standing before him. But everything else – her weary stance, her distressed expression, even the slightly below-standard temperature of her body – tells him it is her.

He almost asks her about her eyes, but from what he can see, that is not the reason she summoned him. So instead he asks the question he does not want an answer to, “What is it? What happened to Sky?”

“He has been taken, Somrak. By the necromancer.” She gestures, exhausted and helpless, at the detritus. “With demons. Destroyed his sanctum as well.” She sounds on the edge of breaking down.

There is a voice in his head that says, She needs you! Hold her! But he can feel himself going into what he thinks of as ‘analysis mode’. He straightens, only then noticing the slight slump he’d gone into at her words. His face sets, unreadable, as he thinks furiously.

Sky taken. The necromancer is working with the Whisper. Diabolists. Agents of Hell. If they learn what Sky is, they’ll know he’s valuable. They’ll trade him for power, for closure of contracts, extended lifespan. And all that Sky knows will fall into Hell’s hands.

His voice is crisp and professional. “How do we know it’s the necromancer?”

Alma looks at him strangely, as if she cannot believe he’s reacting so coolly. “A message on the wall. Taunting. Promising to kill him if I called anyone. Besides, the place reeks of its filthy magic.”

That’s it then. The Commander feared this from the beginning. And part of my job was to prevent Sky from falling into Hell’s hands. Now that he has, or is on the verge of it, I have to report it directly to the Commander. And I know what he’ll do. What the Council will compel him to do, to prevent the supreme scandal: that the Guardia has been employing a devil for forty years.

They’ll send in the Sikari. And the Sikari do not do rescue missions. They do sterilizations.

He closes his eyes, clenches his fists, forces his breathing to slow. It’s what I’m supposed to do. But… He opens his eyes and looks at Alma’s face. The loss of Sky, the confusion at Somrak’s reaction. She loves him. Loves him dearly. And not just her. He remembers the party, watching Sky in that cheap red coat and matching silly hat, laughing “Ho ho ho!” for some reason and handing out presents. Merri and Cherry teasing him, but you could see from the way they talked to him that they adored him. Tulip treating him like he was her favorite uncle, sitting on his lap as she showed him her drawings. Kori and Sage talking with Sky like they truly enjoyed it, like they valued his company. And Chime, who barely speaks unless he is singing, smiling up at Sky as the tall god showed him how to play the ‘ukulele he’d given the Bunny for a Year End present. And all the while, Mayumi, nearby, chatting with him here and there, sometimes with others, but always back to Sky, their shared looks speaking of a powerful attraction.

Even before, when Sky was asleep, Somrak had been struck by how everyone in the station mentioned Sky, missing him, hoping he’d be back soon. Who could have imagined that big, broody, silent Tuma-Sukai could blossom here, inspire such attachment? For so long, Sky had been closed off, with only flashes of tenderness toward the injured, the frightened, to speak of what was going on beneath the surface.

Closed off. Like me. And I never even realized how much I’ve grown to like the guy.

He remembers their first meeting, the Commander introducing them, telling him Sky’s real name, his true nature. Somrak had felt revulsion. It had been a given that there would be no warmth between them. Sky was an abomination, a very dangerous tool to be destroyed the moment it was no longer of use. And Somrak’s job was to destroy Sky, to put him down like a rabid pet if he ever showed signs of betrayal, or if he was ever in danger of being captured by Hell.

When the Commander told Somrak that he was sending Sky to Three Rats, that the partnership was being broken up at least for awhile, Somrak had been first shocked, then relieved, then, to his surprise, melancholic. He hadn’t wanted to examine the reasons behind that sadness, and had seized upon relief. Finally he would no longer have that burden.

But what had the burden been, really? Sky? At first, yes, but over time, Somrak realized that the burden was knowing he might have to kill Sky someday. That thought came back to him with every rare smile, with those times he and Sky had laughed together.

Once, after a particularly bad mission, when they had been too late and children had died, Sky had been very silent. He had been crouched, turned away, and when Somrak had knelt to talk to him and call him away, he had seen the tears coursing down Sky’s cheeks. He’d seen Sky angry many times before that, but weeping? A devil, weeping for dead children? Without thinking, Somrak had put his hand on Sky’s shoulder, and the devil had broken, crying freely, shuddering, and Somrak had felt the tears rise to his own eyes.

He feels it now. He blinks rapidly, but one drop escapes and he quickly wipes it away. Rousing himself from these memories, he sees Alma studying his face, her confusion softening to a look of compassion. She steps closer, raising a hand to touch his hair, tracing from over his left eye back to where his ponytail is tied back.

“You haven’t changed it,” she says, her hand coming to rest on the juncture of his neck and shoulder.

It takes him a moment to realize what she means. “Oh, that.” When he had been wounded and poisoned, her phoenix, Starfax, had helped him, and for some reason, whimsy perhaps, had changed a single thin lock of his ebony hair to silver, with just a hint of blue in the right light. “No, I…well, it’s a reminder.”

She moves her hand again, touching the scar that runs across his face, where it twists and touches his mouth, producing a permanent, slight smirk. “Like this?” she asks.

He had told her the scar was a memory of someone. “Yes,” he says after a moment.

So tempting. He wants so badly to take her into his arms, to give her comfort and accept it in turn. But would she welcome that? He hesitates, and the moment ends. Her hand falls away and she crosses her arms, compassion in her eyes but also, perhaps, disappointment.

Somrak clears his throat and says, “The Whisper. They have him, so we’ll need to move quickly.” Running his eyes over the items rescued from Sky’s sanctum, frustration threatening to overpower the false confidence with which his tries to mask his voice, he asks, “Has Dion been examining these things for resonance? Maybe that will give us some hint of where they’re holding him.”

Alma nods at the sofa. “Gwydion is resting.”

Somrak looks and almost laughs. Dion, an arm thrown across his eyes and a blanket nearly covering him, lies asleep on the sofa. He scolds himself, So focused on Alma and Sky that you missed an entire god in the room with you. You’re going to have to be sharper to pull off…what? Just what are you planning to do?

“If it weren’t for him keeping Sky’s sanctum standing for awhile longer, I wouldn’t have managed to get so many of his things out.” Alma sighs, looking at the flotsam of Sky’s life. “Much was lost.”

“We have one tenuous lead,” Somrak says. “Lucky Pete. If we can track him down, maybe we can get a location.”

Alma nods in agreement. “We don’t know when the next demon market will be, however. But our resident criminal community should know where to find him, if they can be bothered to speak to us. Maybe Saira can help.”

As she speaks, Somrak bends to pick up the photo album. The cover is nearly torn off, spine broken, and he has to be careful to keep photos from sliding out. One nearly escapes and he catches it. Color, unlike most of them. A teenaged boy with a round face, kneeling in snow, hugging a dog, both of them caught in a moment of perfect joy. “Let’s ask her.”

“That will mean finding her first.” The voice is Dion’s, out of focus as he rises to a sitting position. Somrak looks at him, sees Dion instinctively touch his hair, smooth it, instantly setting it to perfection. “Saira left the bar after the gift-giving party, I’m told.”

Alma’s eyes widen. “What? But – I wasn’t told Anything. I just thought she was sleeping with one of the Bunnies.” She trails off, clearly dismayed at Saira’s departure and, worse, that she’d failed to notice it for three days. Three days? Somrak thinks. Not quite that.

Dion looks at her steadily, his face unreadable, and his eyes flick momentarily to Somrak and back to her again. Alma glares at Dion defiantly, then looks away from him, frowning. After a moment, Dion says, “You have been…busy. The Bunnies only mention it in whispers.” He turns his gaze to Somrak, and by way of greeting, only says, “Somrak.”

“Dion. You feeling better?” What’s going on between them? Somrak wonders. Something is wrong.

“Considerably, thank you,” Dion answers. “I imagine you already know of our predicament.”

Somrak nods. “I doubt they’ll have left any obvious clues, but I was thinking there might be some clue among the recovered items.” He looks to Alma. “Do you have any way to contact Saira?”

“I imagine her friends Aliyah and Cala will know how,” Alma says. “I will ask.” She turns and, with an air of relief, leaves.

Somrak glances after her, then casts his eyes back to the pile. He feels the muscle in his jaw working, a bad habit, and forces himself to stop it. “Sky, you idiot.” It slips out softly, mournfully. Then louder, he says, “Right…I suppose a matchbook for a restaurant is too much to ask for…” He sets the photo album on Alma’s desk, and squats to pick up a thick leather-bound book.

Dion stands up. “What do you need me to do?”

“Well, that depends. We probably…oh yes, definitely have demon blood here.” He rises and hands the book to Dion, a black, tarry substance splashed across the unrecognizable language of the title. “Tingles, like mild acid. Do you think you could track it?”

“If the owner is on the Insula and not in some pocket universe, I believe so. Give me time to set things up.”

“Let me know if you need me to get any–” Somrak breaks off. “Oh, almost forgot I’m not supposed to be here. Um, I guess I have to stay in this office for now.”

Dion looks at him curiously. “And why are you not supposed to be here?”

Somrak shakes his head. “Cops, always with the questions. I’m supposed to be resting after an operation.” The truth is always easier to remember later. The trick is remembering how much of it you’ve told. He winks at Dion. “Off duty. Let’s just keep this moonlighting between us. Besides, sounds like Sky will pay for it if you bring in help, so I’d better keep a low profile.”

Dion’s eyes narrow further. “And how did you get in here without being seen? I would have woken if you’d used any significant magic.”

“Washroom window should be closed and locked, not left open like it always is.” Somrak grins, his scar pulling it out of true as always, and to change the topic he taps the album of pictures. “Thank the Fates you got this out.”

Looking puzzled, Dion asks, “Important?”

“Probably Sky’s most important possession. Just his people. Family.” Somrak’s voice is softer.

Dion seems to study Somrak for a moment longer, then looks down. “I see. I’m sorry to say my abilities bought us little time to remove Sky’s possessions from his sanctum. It was Alma who chose what to take. I barely know what is in that pile.”

Without looking at Dion, Somrak picks up the one guitar that wasn’t smashed, holding it like he’s seen Sky do only a handful of times in all their years together. He strums his fingers across it once, the sound filling the air. “You ever hear him play?”

“Once only,” Dion says, “at the gift-giving party.”

“He’s good, eh?” Somrak holds it up, horizontally, like a sword, and looks at the god of magic. “Dion, you saved this. You saved all these things, these…connections to his past. Alma couldn’t have done it without you, and you couldn’t have done it without her, so you saved it every bit as much as she did.” He locks eyes with Dion. “Thank you. I mean, I know Sky would thank you. But I do too.”

Dion looks as if he didn’t expect this, but he nods. “He is our friend.”

Somrak turns back to the pile, gently setting the guitar against the side of the desk. “He is,” he says, his voice dark. He picks up an elaborately carved idol, a frightening face, full of sharp teeth, like a cross between human, dragon, and wolf, with big clawed hands, crouched on its haunches, surrounded by skulls, sticky with blood.

“Here, more blood,” Somrak says. His mind is elsewhere, on family, and drifting back to Alma’s changed eyes. He hands the idol over, about to ask Dion about Alma, but catches the scent on his fingers, and realizes that he has just given Dion an idol of Sky in a very stylized version of Sky’s devil form, covered in Sky’s own blood. Sky’s blood when he is in devil form. The smell is distinctive, like how he imagines the Insula-surrounding ocean smells deep down at the point where it fades from water into the chaos of the Void. Too late to take it back.

Dion frowns at it, barely bothering to sniff. Somrak can feel his hair stand on end as the fabric of reality bends ever so slightly to the pull of magic. Yet Gwydion does not seem to be casting a spell of any kind. It must be his sphere, the same one that activated during their fight with the demon, some time ago. “This is not demon blood. This is worse.” He looks at Somrak, visibly grim.

Somrak keeps his voice calm despite the internal panic. “Oh?”

“They have a devil. I’m sure of it.” Dion states at the idol, looking as if he is barely stopping himself from smashing it to pieces.

Wonderful. Sky’s blood in his human-seeming form would not have been detectably different from a human’s, with hints of the divine. But it seems he changed forms during his capture. “That…confirms that it’s the one we’ve labelled ‘The Lieutenant’ heading up this group. Few sorcerers have the ability to summon devils. Or the temerity.”

Dion looks up at him. “We need help from higher powers. Demons, we can defeat. Devils…”

Somrak shakes his head. “Alma took a big risk calling me in. Contacting anyone else…it’s dangerous. We need to keep this to just the three of us. I’ve faced a devil before, alongside Sky. And I saw you against that demon. You can handle it, Dion.”

He wants to be open. He wants to say, If we call in the big guns, they’re going to call in the bigger guns, and we’re going to be left watching while the Whisper, and Sky, are wiped out. But if I tell you that, I have to tell you why. And that is Sky’s secret. And the Commander’s.

Dion frowns, but he says nothing.

There is a knock on the door, and Alma walks in. “I know how to contact Saira. It’s not far.”

Somrak’s mind is racing. Come on, it’s time to decide what to do. “Do you know how long she’s likely to take to reply?”

“I will give her until tomorrow,” Alma says, barely looking at Gwydion. “Nothing more we can do in the meantime than go over what we already know, anyway.”

Somrak gestures to the pile. “You did good, Alma. And you’re doing good. We will find him.”

She gives him a small smile. “I have to take care of my harvests. I’ll return after that.”

Somrak nods, knowing enough about the Death Clan to understand that souls cannot wait, and that keeping things normal for now is a good idea. “I…had better find someplace to stay. Someplace anonymous.”

Alma says drily, “May I suggest the Singing Cockroach? Gwydion knows where it is.”

This prompts a grimace from Dion. “Yes. I can take you there.”

Somrak is again struck by the chasm that seems to have grown between the two. Whatever has happened, he hopes it will be bridged soon. They deserve their life, together or apart. And the likelihood of survival is slim, so slim. The Whisper are smart, and careful, and any juicy flies that find their way into their web will be wrapped up and drained. But if, with Alma and Dion’s help, Somrak can find where Sky is being held, then he will leave them behind, get in…and create enough chaos that Sky can escape.

He is loved. He has family. And what good would it be to drag that family in, to the deaths of some or all of them? If there’s any chance to get Sky out, I’ll get him out. Doesn’t matter whether I’m with him. And if there’s no way out, at least he’ll have company at the end.

They will be angry at Somrak, but who isn’t these days? One more lie, one more disappointment – but they will live. He’ll make sure of that. “Sounds good,” he says aloud. He looks Dion up and down. “I don’t think you’re going to fit through that little window. We got another way out of here?”

With a gesture, Gwydion opens a golden portal and gestures for Somrak to step through. “After you.”

Somrak smiles. “Traveling in style.” He looks at Alma, sees the misery lurking in her eyes, the tremulous smile on her face. “We’ll find him,” he promises. And thinks of all the promises he has broken. He turns and steps through.

Ch6.63 Trust

Dion leaves his room, tired of his own company for the moment. He has not slept, even after the work shift that followed the busy night spent aboard Niruí’s lunar barge. His body would have welcomed the rest. And his mind, the part of it that is crushed under the weight of his misery, would have welcomed it too. But the voices in his head have been relentlessly awake all day and all night. They have haunted and beaten him with his own words, his mistakes, his hypocrisy and double standards. And with the memories of what he had with Alma and no longer has. With the worry he feels for knowing she is sick with a new sphere but knowing no more than that and being helpless to aid her. To care for her…

Curséd Somrak and his roguish charm, his sweet-talking and his lips that go around kissing other people’s lovers. He had no business trying to steal Alma away. Except that he could not have known that Alma was Dion’s because even Dion had not had the certainty of spirit and heart to tell her that their temporary affair of shared solace and unattached pleasure had quickly become everything but temporary or unattached to him and to make their relationship known to all. Maybe…maybe because even he had not expected the pain he feels right now, the guilt and helplessness at thinking that it was he who threw it all out of the window. Alma had not been stolen away; she had told Somrak about Dion and how much she cared for the magic god. She had spent that night in Dion’s arms when she had been free to pursue any and all desires. Like he is. Because that is the deal.

Fates, he is such an idiot!

He leaves the kitchen, glad that the Bunny bartenders are nowhere to be seen. He can still hear Cherry’s voice calling to him, telling him it’s all a misunderstanding – if only he’d listened, unlocked the door. What will he do now to fix things and stop his aching heart from shrinking into nothingness?

He walks swiftly toward the door and opens it, thinking himself safe from Bunny advice, so distracted that he nearly rams into Sage, who was just about to walk in. The Bunny jumps aside to avoid him, looking at Dion with sincere concern for a moment. But something in the god’s expression keeps Sage from asking the question imprinted in his eyes.

“Excuse me, Sage,” Dion bids, trying to move past the Bunny.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I wasn’t paying attention,” Sage replies, taking the blame for himself and smiling softly at Dion while doing it. His expression darkens with sudden concern. “And… I was actually hoping to find you. I don’t want to bother but…”

Dion exhales deeply, mentally preparing for a conversation he does not want to have about his romantic mistakes, especially with his lover’s son. “What is it?”

“Well, I was wondering if you know where Sky is or why he is so late to his shift,” Sage says. “No one has seen or heard of him since he left with Mother. She returned but,” the Bunny shrugs “he didn’t.”

The question surprises Dion. It comes as a relief at first but then the possible meanings of it register and leave the god hoping against the worst. “Well…I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Have you asked Alma yet?”

“I was going to but I found her fast asleep in the office and I didn’t want to wake her. Her brother did say to let her rest.” The Bunny looks worried at this, making Dion worry again about the goddess’ condition. “He said she was unfit for duty, apparently. Not that that stopped her from going out…” He shakes his head in resigned frustration. “I thought it would be best to ask you first since it might avoid having to wake her up. I guess I’ll just have to go and do so.”

Dion considers this. “I only know the general location of Sky’s apartment, and how much of a tangle that area is. I suppose she will have to be asked.”

He hesitates to make a decision, then curses himself for his cowardice. What is he going to do, hide forever and never speak to her again? “I will wake her.”

“I can do it if you want…” Sage offers in soft tones.

Dion looks into the Bunny’s eyes with sad gratitude, but shakes his head. “I will take care of it.”

“Thank you,” Sage nods with a small smile. He moves to let Dion through, adding as if in afterthought. “Oh…her brother also said she might be a little off-center. Her new sphere and all.”

He shrugs apologetically and turns to enter the bar. Dion watches him disappear behind the door and sighs quietly. Time to check on the good Inspector’s wanderings.

He enters the station, careful to check Sky’s office just in case the god has meanwhile decided to arrive, before climbing the stairs to the office he shares with Alma. He steels himself before entering. He does not want to inflict his presence on her. He would rather let the sharp wound of their argument scab over, avoid the pain, not only for himself but for her as well, even more. But finally he opens the door and steps through.

He enters quietly to find her asleep on the sofa, a blanket put over her and already half kicked off, folders and sheets of paper lying over her and littering the floor, letting him know what she was doing before she fell asleep. She sleeps profoundly, belly up, face turned to the sofa’s back, hair falling messily over her face. Her closed eyes move quickly under her eyelids, her brow furrowing fleetingly at some stranger turn of a dream only to relax again the next instant.

He looks at her, tenderness overtaking him before guilt and loss return. She looks so beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful for looking so vulnerable, so at the reach of his touch, his caress, the loving kisses with which he would normally gently rouse her from sleep’s embrace. His peace, his bliss, his comfort, his – his love, yes, the love he had vowed to himself never to give away again, lies in her on that sofa and there is nothing he wants more than to join her and have them back. But he has made that impossible. And he has no desire to wake her, but…this could be serious. The more he thinks of it, the more he worries.

He clears his throat. “Alma?”

She does not open her eyes, instead mumbling in her sleep, “Hmmm…I’ll be right there, Sage…” Turning to lie on her side, snuggling with a folder from which the paper files have already slipped onto the cushions, she adds, “Five more minutes…”

Adorable… So adorable. His hand reaches out to stroke her hair away from her face so he can kiss her cool, soft cheek – no. No, he mustn’t. Dion swallows and purses his lips at the bittersweet taste of his own longing. His hand retracts before even grazing her form.

“Alma – Alma, wake up,” he calls to her a little louder. “I need you to wake up.”

The goddess frowns and turns toward him, her lips parting in a yawn that she is too sleepy and slow to cover with her hand. Instead, she rubs sleep from one eye and stretches lazily, her slender body arching in the gentle curve that, any other day, would have Dion running a lustful hand over her side and stealing the first soft kiss of the morning. Her eyes open slowly, their strange, swirling, glowing colors capturing the god’s wonder and concern as they focus on him. What he would give to know what consequences this new look entails…

She is silent for a moment, gazing at him with a slightly puzzled and awed expression before sadness pours into her features. “What do you want?”

His heart sinks at the change. And knowing he is to blame for it only makes the pain stab deeper. “Perhaps it’s nothing. Do you know where Sky is?”

Alma looks over Dion’s shoulder, at the only window in their office. “At this hour? Probably going home to sleep? How should I know, I’ve been in here since I came in.” Her eyes narrow and she sighs in tired exasperation. “What’s this about, Gwydion? Why all the questions? If you are looking to continue yesterday’s argument…”

He raises a hand to stop that fight from even starting. “No…no. It just seems no one here has seen him since he left with you this morning.”

“I – I thought he’d be in by now,” Alma says, looking as if she is trying to process the information. “I left him at his apartment getting ready for his shift. Are you sure he didn’t just slip in and then out again?”

Dion feels himself blanch at the thought of Alma and Sky together in the Inspector’s apartment but pushes through the mental pictures forming behind his orbits. “I-I suppose that is possible, but it would be unlike him not to let the ranking Popula officer know that he was going out. And I checked his office myself. No sign of him at all.”

She shakes her head. “He was just fine… We went out to check a lead about a rogue death god in Little Falls. Found him in an abandoned house, asked him about my cousin– Sky tried to capture him but he was too powerful.”

“So he was not apprehended?” Dion asks.

Alma shakes her head. “No. Sky apparently has a history with him and rushed to attack. Bastard slipped right through us with a drunkenness and love spell. Cuffed us to each other and took the key. We went to Sky’s apartment for a key and…”

Her voice trails off. Her eyes turn to the floor as her hand rises slowly to cover her mouth and a terrible ominous, sinking feeling hits Dion. His blood runs cold through his heart as he kneels by the sofa and asks in as soft and steady a voice as he can muster, “What happened, Alma?”

“A love spell happened, Gwydion.” Her words cut through him as if he had cast the spell himself. The loathing in her voice is almost unbearable. She looks away from him, her expression locked in coldness. “But Sky caught it before it got too far.” Her features darken with anger and she shoots upright. “And why should you care other than to throw another accusation–?”

Her pale face blanches even further as soon as she stands and she nearly falls back down at some sudden wave of weakness before Dion stands and puts his arms around her to support her. He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t force touch like this or hold her so closely on such a limping excuse but he can’t help himself. Rape. The one he loves, whose body he has held and dreamt of exploring to its hiddenmost depths so many times, refraining from his desire to the greater good and safety of all, has just described something very close to rape. For love spells remove one’s control over choice and desire, and prey on attraction or affection to strengthen them, blurring and tainting the lines of reason and sentiment. To have someone take away from her what she would not give him, her lover, at the best of times for fear of the consequences… He hopes she is telling the truth about Sky breaking the spell in time to prevent the worst.

He holds her, ready to beg for her forgiveness, to tell her exactly how big an idiot he is and swear to her again that he has never cast a love spell outside of a defensive tactic to confuse an opponent. She is even allowing him to hold her, her hands on his chest, frozen in place as if waiting, waiting for him to just say the words that will make it all all right again. All he has to do is speak.

“Alma…” he starts.

But something happens. She stiffens in his arms and pushes away, not with strength or urgency but firmly enough to make him release his hold, lower his arms.

“I should go check Sky’s apartment,” she says quietly, not looking at him. “If this god followed us there…”

His gut contorts in a celtic knot at the rejection, the reminder that he is to blame for their shared pain and cannot so easily erase his mistakes, his betrayal to their relationship. He nods but says, “You should not go alone. Not with a rogue death god or a necromancer out there. I will accompany you.”

Alma looks as if she is about to protest but then nods acquiescence. “His apartment has a portal to a pocket universe so it might take some magic to get through.” She walks over to her desk and reaches for her sword. “I just hope I can find his building at night.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

It is a silent walk, the one that takes them through the streets of Three Rats and in the direction of the tangle of alleyways and clashing roads where Sky’s apartment is located. Dion spends most of it in silence, stealing only the occasional, reluctant and worried glance at Alma, wanting to ask a thousand questions but fearing her anger and, most of all, her rejection. She walks with her eyes fixed on the space directly in front of her, the lines of her jaw and brow moving through concern, anger, fear…sadness. He can tell she is not at the top of her physical well-being, her usually firm posture wavering every two or three steps, her steps sometimes sounding off cadence. Whatever energy fuels her movements is doing so through sheer anger or force of will. And that only worries him further. The prospect of a possible enemy to face.

He decides to use that to try and break the silence. “This death god…Does he have any vulnerabilities we can take advantage of?”

Alma remains quiet for a moment that seems to stretch into eternity. And then she sighs and shakes her head, looking down in helplessness. “I don’t know. Sky attacked him before I could find any.”

“So he is no one you know?” Dion asks.

Again, she shakes her head. “Sky called him Sam. Said something about having met him outside the Insula, about Sam having betrayed him and his friends. A confusing story but… if he is to blame for Sky’s absence, we will have a hard time with him. He is far older than I and though he does know my father, he definitely does not observe Clan rules.”

Lovely… “Could he be responsible for your cousin’s disappearance?”

Alma breathes deeply. “He says he isn’t.” She spares Dion a cynical, skeptical look before stopping and scanning the street they have just arrived in. “His apartment is over here somewhere.” She closes and rubs her eyes, shaking her head violently in sudden frustration. “Blasted sphere, I can’t even see properly! We’re looking for a building with a mural of jungle flowers and animals on the side. Can you see it?”

Dion hesitates in leaving her alone in the middle of the street but he vaguely remembers seeing something like what she is describing down the street we just passed. “Give me a minute.”

He rushes back down the street to check that he really did see a colorfully painted wall just around a corner to his left before calling her to follow him.

She rolls her eyes and trudges in his direction, muttering. “Sky, you are moving to the station…”

He refrains from chuckling as they walk toward the building and stop just before a flight of stairs.

“Up the stairs,” Alma says. “First floor.”

Dion heads up the stairs, grimacing when the board of the third step sags and opens in two as if it were fractured already and just held in a normal-like position by the pressure of the nails keeping each end of the broken board pinned in place. He unhooks his shoe and casts a simple restoring spell to fix the step before signalling Alma to follow him. He catches her looking down at the step as if she holds a grudge against it and wonders if she already knew the thing was broken and decided not to say anything. On reaching the door, he knocks and waits, tries the knob at the lack of an answer from within. The knob catches. The door is locked. He glances back at Alma to find her with her sword unsheathed, ready for the worst. She nods at him and he nods back before knocking again, already whispering the words of a small spell to unlock the door. Childishly easy. It leaves him wondering how a god, one of the Guardia Dei, no less, can have an apartment in such a rundown area of the ward, away from the station, at the mercy of local gangs, and still not invest in some proper security for his home.

He will have to speak to Sky about that once they find him. They walk into the darkness of a moonless night filtering through the few windows in the apartment. Dion summons a couple of luminaries to light their steps. He immediately notices the absence of furniture. Chairs, sofa, not even a table to sit at. Sky’s barren apartment makes a joke out of such military concepts as Spartan living! Where was he sleeping? Dion’s head turns toward a wall. A sense of power coming from it triggers his senses, a thinner patch of reality imbedded into the wall. He walks toward it to inspect it closer.

“Someone came in here,” Alma notes, her voice coming from a little way away. “Several someones. The dust has been disturbed all over the place and there are several sets of footprints on the floor.”

“Probably the one good thing about bad housekeeping,” Dion replies absently, looking at the smudges on the wall where he can sense the portal is. “There is a portal here.”

Smears of blood on the wall. They look random at first as if a bloodied hand or shoulder had just scraped against it but closer inspection reveals faint patterns. Sigils, most likely. An acrid tinge to the air makes him move closer and sniff at the blood marks. Demon blood. Infera aura. And a third component that he cannot quite pinpoint, probably the activation ingredient to power the spell. He grimaces.

“This doesn’t look good…” he breathes, straightening back.

Alma is suddenly by his side, standing close enough to him that her familiar, lovely scent wafts faintly into his nostrils, overwhelming his magical senses for a moment, making him forget for a moment where his train of thought was going. But he looks into her worried eyes and the darkness returns to his mind.

“The portal is to his sanctum. A pocket universe, like yours.” She looks at the blood marks on the wall and takes a whiff at them as well and grimaces. “This isn’t god’s blood. Or human’s.”

Dion nods. “Demons.”

He puts a hand on the wall, wondering if this crude spell has truly managed to override the locking spells incorporated into the standard portal to a pocket universe. There is a sense of corruption, of Hellish presence to the portal and almost immediately, he knows that the portal has been breached. He infuses his power into the portal, his hand glowing with the gold of his eyes as lines are drawn on the wall, highlighting the limits of Sky’s pocket universe door. The wall within the lines distorts and fades into a haze, ready to allow them inside.

Feeling his blood curdle at what such an easy break-in – along with the deafening silence coming from inside the newly revealed apartment – entails, Dion looks at Alma before entering the portal, senses and reflexes at the ready.

What lies beyond is a spectacle of horror to the senses. A room, cave-like and simply but lovingly adorned, lies in ruins. The floor is littered with fallen books, broken things. A low, irregular wooden table is shattered as if cut through with an axe. A sofa torn as if it has been made to explode from the inside out. Shelves tumbled, knicknacks fallen to pieces. Paintings and carvings and musical instruments either ripped from the wall and smashed against something solid or seemingly punched through. The walls, covered in a papery cloth material, are scored with claw marks. Blood is splattered everywhere and smeared in symbols on one of the walls. Dion recognizes the symbols from Alma’s books, the Death Clan’s own language that he has asked her to teach him and which has proven more difficult to learn than most wizardly languages recorded. He shudders at the thought that this may very well have been the work of that rogue death god from Little Falls and of what he could have done and chose not to do while Alma was still here.

The feeling of his foot hitting something makes him look down. A small wooden box, intricately carved with a spiral and rosette motif lies open, its contents spilled all over the floor. Cards. Name cards, white with just a few exotic-looking letters painted in black. Just like the one Tulip had been playing with in the bar. Somrak. He leans down and picks up one, grimacing at the claw marks that scar the apartment floor. Just under the painted letters, a scribbled message in Sky’s handwriting. Another card holds a different message as if they had all been pre-written to use when convenient. And all of them words of alarm… An emergency communication system of some sort.

Dion sighs and shakes his head, thinking he has been feeling like a fool all too often lately. He straightens to see Alma staring at the message painted on the wall. She stands as if frozen, eyes fixed on the bloody words. And then suddenly, furiously, she bellows a word in her family’s language that can only be a curse because it makes the light in here dim and almost wink out completely before returning back to normal. He freezes at it, his body paralyzed for just that short instant. And his mind wonders in uneasy awe at how the beautiful, entrancing words she had once or twice breathed sweetly in his ear at his own request can belong to the same language that, if bellowed in rage, can freeze his blood and kill the light so.

“What–” he swallows his unease and regains composure. “What does it say? It is the death god, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” Alma says, her voice dry, sepulchral. “I doubt he would be so poor with his writing. This was written by someone who knows just enough of our language for spellcasting.”

Dion grimaces. “The necromancer, then.”

“The necromancer,” Alma agrees with a nod. She points at the words as she reads them. “We. Game. Play. No. High. Aid. He. Dead. Wait. I. You.”

Dion considers this. “We’ll play a game. No help from above or he dies. I’m waiting for you. Is that it?”

Alma sighs. “Seems so.” She looks around. “We’ll have to go through all of this for clues as to where he might have been taken.”

“We might not have enough time to do that,” Dion notes. A subtle sagging, melting feeling to the wall on which the message is written makes him inspect it closer. And then another wall. And the floor. And the full space of this room they are in. Oh no… “This universe has been corrupted. It is collapsing, as if its owner has been gone for months rather than hours. Worse – it is being actively eaten away at.”

He tries to keep his voice steady but he cannot completely erase the horror from it. Whatever happened in here, Hellish corruption has spread and infected the place, corroding it like some flesh-eating bug tearing away at a still-living body.

“Is there anything we can do?” Alma asks sounding every bit as frightened as she looks. “We need time to investigate. And to get Sky’s things out of here.”

Dion rushes through his mental library of memorized spells, his knowledge of the books on demonology and Hellish theory that he has been reading lately. “I will try to slow the contagion. Perhaps I can stop it. Or at least buy us some time.”

Alma nods, expression hardening. “What do you need?”

“I will manage with my magic, but it will require concentration,” he replies. “Maybe it would be best to start taking his things out of this place. Just to be on the safe side. If you need me to examine anything or the like, just…attract my attention gently. I don’t want my magic to collapse this place instead of holding it up.”

“I will take a look around and then start getting things out into the other apartment, then,” Alma says. “In the meantime, pretend I’m not here.”

Dion nods, and goes to stand in the center of the room. He glances around him once more before activating his magic.

Sky, what have they done to you?

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Ugh…”

He struggles against the weight of his eyelids, sealed shut against whatever is going on outside. The throbbing headache currently marching from somewhere in the region of his hindbrain to storm through his frontal lobes isn’t making things easier either. On the one hand, the pain is a good sign. It means he is still alive. On the other hand, death would probably be a much more pleasant alternative to the thundering, metaphorical gallop of the whole cavalry section of the Guardia Dei (composed mainly by centaurs, minotaurs and other suchlike heavy-footed, foul-humored creatures) going on behind his eyeballs. If only death weren’t so permanent…

Which reminds him, wasn’t he with Alma just moments before – moments? How long has it been since he passed out? Anyway, she was with him before he…

He fell. No, he threw himself. Against her. He tackled her to get her through the portal. Out of Sky’s pocket-universe apartment. Because his efforts were in vain and the infection was spreading faster than he could even detect it and the whole thing was collapsing on them. He had shouted for her to leave but she had insisted on taking just one more item out and then she had returned to make sure he left as well and that was right when he had been flying out of the room and into the empty apartment, onto the wooden boards. Has he hit his head?

The pain on the inside of his skull makes it hard to tell. He seems to remember a sudden, strong exhalation by his ear, right before the world went black, the sound of a ribcage being robbed of air. He raises a hand, reaches to touch the back of his head. No blood, no lacerations, no tenderness. Must not have been him to hit the floor first. Which means…uh oh…

He opens his eyes slowly, fighting with every twitch of his facial muscles against the intense gravity currently pressing against his eyelids. He groans at the light. It is soft light, probably the just the first hint of daylight, which nevertheless tells him that he has been out cold for at least half an hour. Not good. Not good at all. A smell of dust close to his nostrils and the sight of an horizon full of floor boards confirms that he is, for the moment, lying on the floor. His head is slightly raised, though. Something has been wedged under it to serve as a pillow. And there is cloth covering him.

A hint of Dei-blue in the general direction of his forehead and he moves his head from its slightly bent position to look at Alma, sitting on the floor, back against a nearby wall, currently looking at him. He blinks, grimacing at the pain that causes and opens his mouth to speak.

“A–” he swallows. Or at least he tries to. His mouth is as dry as parchment paper. It doesn’t taste much better than that, either.

“You passed out from exhaustion,” Alma explains, her whispered, quiet voice sounding to his hurting mind like a fanfare at band practice. “I already gave you some mana. Do you need more?”

There is something at her feet. A metal bowl of some sort. There is smoke rising from it. Dion catches a whiff of it. Burnt paper? With a hint of incense. Strange.

She puts something down on the floor by her side and rises slowly. A book. Or maybe a photo album. The cover of it is torn and the spine looks broken. Some pages are loose. Dion turns his head to look at her as she comes to kneel by him. She leans down to press her lips against his forehead, a cool, soft touch like the grazing of the wings of a passing butterfly. Not a loving kiss, he notices with sadness. More a reluctant touch, fleeting and restrained. Lasting just enough for her mana to pour into him, placating the angry pounding of the thousand fists of his mana headache. He can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as her energy infuses him and his eyes, half shut as he falls into a shallow trance, glow with the blue-green light of hers, for just an instant, quickly retrieving their usual hazel appearance as her mana binds with his, acquiring Dion’s unique resonance and adding to his depleted reserves. It feels different, somehow, its taste changed, balanced now, neither the bitter sandal of death or the sweet nectar of life depending on which sphere she is calling upon.

He would love to taste it again but now she has straightened and is looking at him with cold concern. “It’s gone, isn’t it? The apartment?”

Dion nods, feeling reluctantly optimistic at the almost complete lack of a pungent feeling of nausea from the movement. “I’m sorry, it was just too far gone. I tried.”

“I know you did,” she replies, looking away at the wall where the portal used to be, shoulders slumping noticeably. She looks back to him. “Can you stand? We should return to the station and get you some more mana.”

Dion struggles to a sitting position and then stands up, shakily at first but she reaches out a hand to help steady him and he finds his balance as soon as the room stops spinning around him.

“Yes,” he says. “And then we need to figure out what on the Insula we are going to do about this.”

Ch6 mid-chapter 1: Somrak & Memory

“I was on my own time, you know.”

“You don’t have your own time unless we say so.” Fencer’s voice is harsh, but also tired. Tired of him, Somrak is sure. Tired of excuses.

He’s leaning against the doorframe leading from the entryway to the receiving room in the Commander’s simple, spartan home. He’s just arrived, summoned a few hours ago via terse magical message, fiery letters floating in his mind’s eye: My home. Now. He had been washing blood from his hands in a pool of melted snow.

The room is wobbling in and out of focus. How many chairs? Three. Four? No, it’s three, it just looks like four. And the sofa. He remembers Sky stretched out on that, asleep, as Somrak was teaching a little godling to cook in the kitchen. Long time ago.

“Now explain,” Fencer growls as she sits on the top guy’s chair like it’s hers. Not that it’s the Commander’s favorite chair. That’s in the real living room, deeper in the house. This room? This is for guests who aren’t exactly friends, so the Commander doesn’t have to share the rest of his home with them. It is also a room that can be instantly sealed off and filled with deadly forces that even Somrak isn’t privy to. Just in case those not-friends become unfriendly.

There is a piercing pain that makes him think his skull may actually be fractured. It’s getting harder to ignore. He ignores it. “Just doing my job, lady,” he says, casually, hoping he’s not slurring his words. “And everybody else’s, as usual.”

“This is no training exercise!” Achmal, his hulking shoulders flexing, towers over Somrak. He’s even taller than Sky and far bulkier, all muscle, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his size to intimidate. His voice echoes down the twisting tunnel of the ice cave they are in. “Tell us what’s going on, Somrak!”

“Somrak, please.” Xinappa is a gentle soul for an off-blue, her origin a tropical ward, and she looks uncomfortable with the cold. “Call for extraction. We want to get out from under this glacier.” Her partner, Erissa, nods, her body wrapped in a warm coat, hood hiding her auburn hair.

Somrak looks at dour Ogive, who is silent, looking back with those bored killer’s eyes, his big silver bow on his back. A god of archery, Ogive can shoot the wings off a mosquito at a hundred paces, and put an arrow through a god’s eye at a mile. Somrak has seen him do it.

And at their feet is the healer brought along on this mission, a life god by the name of Renrak. His head is severed. The blood on the ice is frozen.

Somrak takes a breath. Achmal’s blustering does not move him. But it’s time to tell the truth. He nods at Renrak’s corpse.

“We’re here because one of us, according to the guys at the top, is a traitor. And we’re not leaving until we figure out who.”

Fencer is silent for a moment, glowering at him with those mismatched eyes, one red, one glowing silver. Finally she says, her voice tense with warning, “There are not enough words in this language to describe how much you annoy me, Ponytail. What he sees in you, I do not know. Now quit the idiotic jokes and give me a straight answer!”

He can’t actually remember what joke he made, so he shrugs, refusing to be intimidated. Also refusing to let his knees buckle. The only reason he isn’t sitting is he’s certain he won’t be able to stand up again. “What’s to complain about?”

“Stop. One more step and you die.”

 His voice is exhausted, but it rings through the corridor and echoes deep into the labyrinth formed by meltwater beneath the glacier. A womanly figure, her coat lost, is silhouetted by the blue glow of a portal that floats in the air, mere steps out of her reach.

Erissa turns. As a fire god, Somrak can make out her facial features in their heat patterns, but the effect is nonetheless alienating, her youthful beauty missing.

“Let me go, Somrak.” She sounds frightened. She should be. “I only did what I had to do.”

“You tried to frame me for Renrak. And then for Xinappa. Your own partner, Erissa! She covered for you! She lied for you!” Fury chases the exhaustion from his voice and, from his hands to his forearms, flames roar to life. Steam rises from his clothes and skin, soaked as he is with melted ice. “Ogive and Achmal are buried under tons of ice, maybe dead too.”

“You should have stayed under there with them.” She shakes her head, taking a step backward toward the portal. “You would have been safer. Somrak, please – they’re coming for me. They know I failed. They’ll take me to Hell before I can be interrogated.”

He should just set her aflame. She can still be interrogated with charred flesh. But though he has nearly spent all his godly power, he decides on giving her one last chance to surrender. He raises his right hand, and a wall of fire whooshes into existence behind her, between her and the portal, close enough to singe her hair. She staggers away, falling to her hands and knees. Water begins to trickle fast down the walls near her.

“Was it just for power, Erissa? Dissatisfied demi wanting to be a full goddess? Well you got what you wanted. Are you happy about the cost?” As his divine sphere pulses within, he can feel the fire burning even in his broken bones now, banishing the chill of melting his way through tons of collapsed ice. But his thoughts are cold as the heart of this glacier. “I’ll protect you from your masters. You’re going to tell us everything you told them, and everything they ever asked. And who put you in contact with them.”

“I’m not surrendering,” Erissa insists. She rises and the corridor pulses with a sickly green glow. Somrak’s wall of fire turns green, and he senses that he no longer controls it. He tries to get it back, but these demonstrations of power, meant to cow the off-blue traitor into submission, have used up his last reserves of mana. He cannot wrest control of it from the nearing forces of Hell. Then it goes out, but Erissa’s eyes still glow with the same deadly light. “They’re here. I always liked you, Somrak. You should have stayed away. Maybe they’ll give me another chance, in exchange for your soul.”

A shape forms, green-highlighted black against the blue portal from which it emerges. He recognizes it immediately. She has a long, thin-bladed sword in one hand, and one of her eyes is glowing silver.

The Fencer speaks, her voice harsh and undeniable. “Stand down, Corporal. It’s over.”

Erissa screams in frustration, the corridor trembling with her rage. The green light pulses more strongly, and the ice groans. A section of the tunnel collapses on top of Fencer, and the rest seems it could give way at any moment.

His left arm shattered and useless, Somrak draws a long knife from a thigh-sheath and charges.

“Were you ordered there?” she sneers. “Was it wise or necessary to act alone?”

He raises his right arm, palm up. The other stays where it is, pressed against the doorframe. Alma healed it one day ago. Now it’s broken again, the damage barely ameliorated through his own meager healing magic, just enough to hold it together. Alma would not be happy. He’s much better at destroying things than repairing them. “Necessary? We were short-handed following that nightmare you cooked up under the ice. And the Special Operations boys, let’s face it, wouldn’t have got the job done so quickly or thoroughly. So yes, necessary. And wise. The proof of that is in the results.”

“The results? Oh, you mean the dead gang of frost giants? The ones we never intended to kill in the first place?” Her voice rises in volume. She gets up and stalks toward him, as she speaks, ending up almost nose to nose with him. “Damn it, Somrak! You do not get to decide what needs to be done! Certainly not just because you need to vent your anger over whatever piece of stupidity you did on your day off! You should not even have been operational yet!”

An annoying stray thought crosses his exhausted mind: Damn, she looks good. I mean, I don’t exactly want to get with that, but I totally see why the Commander does. He forces his mind away from irrelevancies back to the fact that one of the most dangerous goddesses in this universe is deeply unhappy with him right now. She has, after all, been known to end problems with great abruptness and finality.

“What can I say?” His mouth is working on autopilot, and he finds himself wondering what will come out of it. “Your niece is a far better healer than our darling Butcher. And what were you planning to do with a bunch of murderous religious-fanatic frost giants anyway?”

The cold again. Not that it matters to him. Being a fire god means never needing long underwear.

He can still feel Alma’s kiss on his lips, tingling, even after almost a day. And the shame of learning how blind he’d been – he can feel that, too. He hadn’t wanted to see it. Hadn’t wanted to see she was in love with Dion.

So a quick getaway, back upslope to Guardia Headquarters – not the off-blues HQ, not after what happened under the ice – and one quiet inquiry later, here he is. Good to have a friend in Special Operations. Well, ‘friend’ might be pushing it. Someone who owes him enough to tell him what’s the nastiest, meanest operation coming up.

And that is here: Yotn, ward of frost and crags. Mountains on the slope of the Celestial Mount, broken black stone covered in eye-blinding white snow, small villages scattered in the valleys. It is very picturesque from his vantage point atop a ridge, looking down on two valleys. Except for the smoke and the smashed houses, the bodies in the cobblestone streets, and the enormous figures striding through them.

Frost giants. Disagreeable types. Classification of just what is and is not a god is always a fuzzy thing, and some call frost giants gods, but never to their face. Like the denizens of Hell, they hate gods, whom they consider to be young upstarts. And once in awhile they get it into their heads that it’s time for a war.

It never lasts long. The giants aren’t exactly idiots, but they don’t value thoughtfulness. They hold simple, direct action in great esteem. Somrak can understand. Action is the best way to chase away unsettling thoughts.

The giants have devastated two villages already, and have destroyed the ward’s public portal. Good thing for the Commander’s hidden portal network. The only disadvantage is that the secret portal is located a long, icy climb above the valley where the giants are having their fun. Somrak takes time to stretch his limbs. Of course he didn’t bring any climbing equipment. What’s the fun in that?

He looks at the black fingerless gloves on his hands, a gift from his rival for Alma’s affections. For a moment he considers taking them off, tossing them away, but he’s not angry at Dion. He’s angry at himself.

It will be two days before the Special Operations mission begins to take down the gang of giants. Plenty of time for Somrak to deliver his anger to some people who really deserve to receive it. Special Ops can thank him later.

Not that they will.

No longer shouting but all the more dangerous for how calm she sounds, Fencer moves even closer. Somrak pushes aside the absurd temptation to kiss her, surely born of a death wish. “I know it was her who healed you,” she growls softly. “You reek of her power. Tell me, did she heal you so you could flirt with death again? Is that how you plan to capture her attention? By having her come and collect your soul when you get yourself killed?”

Two frost giant corpses collapsing at once makes an impressive momentary earthquake. Somrak actually feels his feet leave the ground from the impact. A damaged house tumbles the rest of the way down, and there is a hiss all about as snow slides off the angled rooftops of the buildings still standing

One of the giants has buried his axe in the other’s head; the other has thrust a spear through his companion’s eye and out through the back of the skull. They now lie on their sides, still clutching their skull-destroying weapons, looks of surprise on their faces. They had, after all, been aiming at a fiery shape that had looked a great deal like Somrak, flying through the air between them.

Easy to shape fire into anything, he thinks, satisfied with the results of his trick. Let’s see the Special Ops guys figure out how that happened. He grins and strides through the main street of the village.

A full third of the houses are damaged beyond repair, he observes. Some are completely destroyed. Human bodies, of all ages and genders, lie scattered in the street, the victims of giants who believe their ancestors, whom they worship instead of gods, have ordered this tragic little crusade. They may well be right – who knows what madness the long-dead ghosts of aeon-old giants may preach? But littered among the human corpses are now those of giants, sixteen in all, some with boiled-to-explosion brains, some with their icy hearts burnt to ash, some with slashed tendons and then, brought to earth by legs that would no longer support them, slashed throats.

One of his favorite blades has broken. Even enchanted, dwarf-forged steel can’t stand up forever to the hard work Somrak puts it through, particularly because Somrak prefers his short swords narrow and light. He grumbles and sheathes the half-blade, reminding himself to visit his favorite equipment-smith and get a new one made. There goes two months’ pay –

And that’s when one of the giant corpses reaches out like lightning and grabs Somrak’s left arm, squeezing hard. Somrak screams as he feels his radius and ulna twist and then snap like twigs. The giant sits up, lifting Somrak from the ground. The god stares back at one hate-filled, pale-blue eye. The giant’s other eye is gone, along with almost half of his head, burned away by a particularly energetic display of a fire god’s power

“Tough…bastard,” Somrak gasps through clenched teeth.

The giant says something in that ponderous language that always sounds like an avalanche to Somrak. “Speak…Urbia…you stinking barbarian!” Somrak shouts. He is just summoning up the power to cook the rest of the giant’s brain when it smashes him to the hard stone street, once, then again.

He doesn’t break eye contact. He wonders if she can see the concussion in his eyes. After a long tense moment he says, “Message received. So is there anything else?”

She pulls back, staring at his face. “Yes. None of the other off-blues is willing to work with you. Your team is no more, Somrak.”

He clenches his jaw, though the pain that sends slicing through his head almost knocks him off his feet. “I’m sure I can find something to do.”

She turns and goes to the sideboard. “I better not hear of you going anywhere near Three Rats, Ponytail. That place is bad enough for our people without a walking menace like you around.”

He closes his eyes. The room is going out of focus again. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ve always wanted to take up macrame. Very calming, I’m told. You might try it.”

He hears the thup sound of a cork being pulled from the neck of a bottle, followed by the tink of the bottle’s neck touching a glass. Liquid pouring. “My brother has spawned enough sons with a talent for hangman’s nooses. I can do without the pointless artistry.” A little water being spritzed into the glass. “By the way, I have spoken to your master. He is handing your leash over to me on a permanent basis.”

Somrak opens his eyes and looks pointedly at the bottle next to her hand. Whisky, nothing very rare or refined, just simple and delicious. “Are there two glasses, or am I just drinking straight from the bottle?”

She lifts her glass and sips the whisky. “You’re in no condition to drink. Sit.”

He looks at the chair she nods toward and sighs. Walking with the care of a practiced drunk, he moves to it and carefully sits. The moment he does, the enervation of his unrested body washes over him, just as he’d feared. Every ache, every sharp stabbing pain, every throbbing agony comes on in full force. He clenches his teeth against a groan.

“So what’s next?” he gasps.

“Next is a visit from a healer. Don’t worry, it’s not the Butcher. Then you focus on getting your head screwed on straight. And after that, I have a couple of ways for you to make yourself useful.” She takes a drink. “Did you give her the sword?”

At the abrupt change in topic, Alma’s smile as he handed her the gift from Fencer returns in his mind. And the feeling of holding her in the breezeway. Kissing her. “I did. She likes it. Relieved you didn’t ask for the old one back.”

Fencer snorts. “She had the nerve to steal that one from me. Anyone that brave or stupid deserves a reward. Tell me, how’s your fencing?”

He feels very detached from his body. He hears his voice saying, “You tell me. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” But he thinks the clever words may have come out as senseless babbling.

Being witty is such hard work.

“You’re badly injured. Let me heal you.” The beautiful white-haired Sergeant reaches a hand to touch Somrak.

He moves back slightly, still twitching from the lightning strike that hit him. In the wake of the assassination attempt of this Alma and her Archon-Dooming Bunnies, he is not in the best of shape, but his body is already healing in the way nearly any god is capable of, even one as oriented toward destruction as himself. And if she’s anything like the off-blues’ staff healer, known as the Butcher, Somrak is better off healing himself. “Save it, Sergeant. You’ll likely need the mana later.”

He knows who she is, of course. When the Commander split up the forty-year Somrak and Sky partnership – an off-blue teamup both tumultuous and highly successful, and one that had outlasted any other partnership in the existence of the off-blue program – Somrak naturally looked into the Dei officers that Sky would be working with. But he hadn’t looked very closely and now here she is, face to face, the notoriously difficult Sergeant Alma, Dei of a dozen stations.

And seeing her face before him, pale and delicate while at the same time flushed with Life energy from healing the red-haired Bunny, he is certain he has seen her before. He will have to plumb his memory. Later. Assuming he survives.

She frowns at him. “It is a more efficient use of mana to heal you now, rather than leave you as a burden on the rest of us. I daresay I can heal you with greater ease than you can heal yourself.

He smiles, that lopsided grin pulled into a smirk by his scar, so infuriating to many even when it is an honest smile. This goddess, only a few decades his junior but barely a rookie Guardia compared to his mortal lifetime of service, mother-henning him. He finds himself charmed but, being who he is, he has to express himself sardonically. He turns to the Commander and jokes, “I see what you meant about her.”

He looks back to see her narrow-eyed glare at the Commander, which just makes Somrak like her more. He can imagine all those dull rulesbound station commanders she’s served under, not knowing what to do with her. He’d love to show her the off-blue life. She might even like it.

Ch6.59 Trust

Feeling utterly defeated and hating himself for all he has said and thought, Dion slowly walks to his room. As Alma’s words echo in his mind, he activates the magical door that leads into his sanctum and enters.

Where were you? Where were you when I was calling for you in my sickbed?

He stands unseeing for a moment. She was ill, then. Must still be. She did not look at all in good health. But she didn’t tell him, not a word about what is going on with her. He made her angry, hurt her feelings and now he must pay for it with the torment of worry and ignorance.

If you knew the first thing about me, you’d know that the last thing I want is a harem!

If you knew the first thing about me…

Did he get her so wrong? Was he so wrong to think that when she proposed their arrangement, when she offered him the possibility of being with others? Her ease with her children’s views of love, physical and otherwise, the way she believes that all things must die, eventually. Even love. Even pain…

He leans slightly back. Feeling the door behind him, the portal now deactivated, he slides down until he is sitting on the floor, knees bent, mind rushing in circles and standing completely still at once. He cannot even feel pain at the moment. He feels nothing, a void of emotion that not even copious amounts of drink would be able to reproduce. The gods know he has tried that before. But even that void feels terribly wrong. Cold. He feels so cold inside himself. Like a part of him has just left with her, out that barroom door.

…I care about you more.

Gods… What has he done?!

From the general direction of his bed, comes a sigh. A familiar voice mutters, “Dion, Dion, Dion, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”

Dion raises his head just enough to make out the sphinx-like form of Geryon lying on his bed, then lowers it again, shaking it. He cannot will himself to say anything. Every word he has spoken so far has turned out to be the wrong one.

“Cherry told me what happened,” Geryon goes on, lowering his head until his beak perches at the edge of the bed. “I was waiting for you but I guess I should have known you would be stupid enough to go straight to her instead of dropping by here first.”

…I did nothing wrong…

“What in Hell is wrong with me?” Dion mumbles. “I just…”

“You just…” Geryon echoes. He stretches lazily and snorts. “You just.” In his smaller form, he manages not to make the bed creak as he rolls over to lie belly up, looking upside down at Dion. “You just fought with your girlfriend out of jealousy, didn’t you? Of all things, Dion, I never expected you to be the jealous type, considering what you’ve done to so many happily-engaged couples. But then Tulip tells you she saw a kiss and you just go off like the world’s about to explode.”

You want the truth? I care about him.

“But she does want him! She admits it!” Dion cries, bringing his fists down on his knees with force. Even the pain of that blow is nothing compared with the turmoil rising within him. He puts his hands over his ears, trying to silence the memories of her anger, the echoes of her voice. It doesn’t work. “I know… She wasn’t with him. I don’t even know what she was doing, but she wasn’t with him.”

Geryon rolls to lie on his side, face to the opposite wall, tail slowly flicking up and down. “That would have been a neat trick, having a third sphere awaken in her and still make it to a date.” He turns his head to look at Dion. “That’s what happened, by the way. She collapsed and her family did not allow her to leave any earlier. Came back well into the evening, in her creepy brother’s arms, I’ve been told.” He exhales deeply, his eyes softening with sympathy. “You’ve really done it this time, my friend.”

Dion looks down, away from Geryon’s empathy. He does not deserve it. He does not deserve anything. Not after what he did to someone so precious to him. He wanted her so much, all to himself. Every touch, every kiss, every night spent holding her against him, matching his breathing to her lazy heartbeat. All he can feel now is how much he desperately misses her, how much he wants her back. But she will not come back, not if she has a drop of intelligence in her.

“I’ve ruined it. Destroyed it.” He breathes a shuddering sigh. “She’s not going to want to see me again. And I don’t blame her.”

“She’s angry,” Geryon says, standing up on the bed, beak pointed at Dion like a dog pointing out a grouse. “As she should be! Demons, Dion, I was there, looking down from my new room’s window! I watched the whole thing. I would have told you. I would have warned you if your sweet little death goddess happened to be making a mockery out of you.” He turns to jump off the foot of the bed. “But, nooo, all she cared about was hurting your feelings, not that that gained her any sympathy. You were all too quick to suspect her, weren’t you? Tell me, what is so different between what she did and what you do whenever some shorter skirt catches your eye?”

The words make Dion jerk his head up to attention. “Wait…you watched… You mean you watched Alma and Somrak? And you didn’t tell me?!”

“And what would you have done, had I told you, pray tell?” Geryon says, walking toward the god, his smooth tones cutting like a blade through Dion’s momentary anger. “Yes, I saw him kiss her and I saw her try to end it once and twice and then stop him finally, right after the door closed behind Tulip. Well, behind someone, I couldn’t see it from the angle of my balcony but I guess it must have been Tulip.” His beak hovers close to Dion’s face as he adds the rest of his words to the god’s torment. “I watched your girlfriend tell him about you and how wonderful it was to allow you, of all people, closer to her than anyone since the Bunnies were created. How much she did not want to hurt you. Would you have listened to that, had I told you about the kiss?”

No… Dion admits only to himself. I wouldn’t.

“She tried to end it?” He holds on to that detail as if it mattered. “Was he…forcing her to kiss him?”

Geryon snorts and turns, whipping Dion’s knees with his tails. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says as he turns again and sits on his hind limbs to groom the feathers on one wing. “Anyone trying that would find themselves waking up in the spectral realms. Like you said, she is attracted to him. They seem to connect at some level. They both sounded miserable.” He shrugs, looking at the god. “How should I know? All I know is that she said ‘no’, that you would not be able to accept something like that, and he left.”

Dion sighs and hangs his head. “Well he has her now. He will. Or Sky. They’ll probably treat her better than I have.”

Geryon throws his head back in a show of irritation. “Oh, quit the act, Dion! She’s yours. Probably already praying you’ll come crawling back so she can stop crying.” He narrows his eyes at Dion. “And you will. Face it, you are in love with her. You love her so much that you cannot stand the thought of her walking away so you tried to push her away instead. And now you are miserable because you just found out it hurts just as much. It is only a matter of time before you are sprawled at her feet and begging for her forgiveness.”

Dion doesn’t even raise his head. He would be at her feet now if he could, if the things he said and thought and did could be somehow taken back and forgotten. But… they can’t. “I don’t…deserve forgiveness.”

“No, you don’t,” Geryon concedes, voice dry of emotion. “You’re a miserable little wretch who just tossed the best thing he’s ever had out the window because deep down inside you are just an insecure adolescent who does not know how to handle love. Is that what you want me to say?” He rises again to swipe a heavy paw against Dion’s head. “Is that what you want to think for the rest of your stay here until you run back to your Uncle’s estate like the scared little child you are?” He places his paw on the god’s chest and leans in to hiss his words at Dion’s face. “You don’t deserve her forgiveness but fortunately for you she loves you. And love makes people blind and stupid. Doesn’t it?”

“I can’t rely on that,” Dion weakly argues. “But…I can’t stay away either. Maybe I can find a way to make it up to her.”

Geryon looks into Dion’s eyes in silence for a long time. He sighs. “Well, that’s a start, I guess,” the gryphon pats the god’s knee. “Now, let me out. I’m tired of watching you feel sorry for yourself.”

Dion grimaces, for the moment forgetting that he is blocking the door with his body. “Since when do I need to let you out? Are you a housecat?” He sighs and reaches out to touch Geryon’s head. “Thank you, my friend. I don’t deserve you, either. But I am glad you are here.”

“Sure, sure,” Geryon mutters, allowing the touch but shaking it off after a breath. “Now, move away from the door, before I have to walk over you to leave.”

Finally realizing what Geryon means, the god scooches away just enough to allow the gryphon through. As the portal that leads into the bar reopens, however, Geryon stops and looks back to Dion.

“Remember, every moment you spend too busy wallowing in self-pity is motivation for her to find comfort elsewhere. Pride is seldom a good friend in these things.” He shakes his head. “I truly had hopes for this one, my friend. She makes you smile.”

And with that, he leaves.

Ch6.57 Trust

Dion walks slowly through the streets of Three Rats. He has been walking for hours, hardly noticing the portals, all the way from the First Ring, where Niruí’s lunar barge left him, early in the morning, at his request. He would have returned sooner, had the moon goddess not insisted on setting sail and showing him the wonders of the Insula as seen from above. He had not enjoyed it. None of it.

What a dreadful night… What a waste. Not by Niruí’s fault, quite the contrary. She had proven to be just as charming and welcoming as Dion remembered, showering him in her undivided attention, sharing with him food and drink made to please the most demanding of palates. He had not tasted anything like it since abandoning the First Ring. The lavishness, the exquisite attention to detail, the comfort of Niruí’s barge. Not having to worry about pleasing a larger crowd’s eyes, she had appeared before him dressed just enough to look naked, offering him a night of excess and physical pleasure. She had even put her gorgeous high priestesses at his disposal, inviting them to join in the gathering. She told him she knew of his fame and skill and put him to the test, forcing every little trick, every failproof movement out of him. And he had risen to the challenge, filled the night sky with her moans her pleasure, her cries of ecstasy, her endless pleas for more. He had entertained her and her priestesses, whose sighs and gasps had filled Niruí with wild, animalistic excitement.

They praised him and fed him and filled his cup with Ambrosia, bathed him and with him in moonlight.

But the food had a bitter taste to his lips. The drink left his mouth dry. And he felt soiled rather than clean at the bath, at the way they stroke his body and rubbed against it to tempt him into renewed passion. None of it felt pleasurable. No, all of it had been mechanical, detached, the product of habit and skill, fueled by anger and vengeance. Against love, against women, against…her. Alma had been in his thoughts the whole night, every memory of her, every moment, every word, every touch now sparking regret, now triggering anger, now flooding him with longing, an impulsive desire to go back and be with her.

By the end of the night, he had asked Niruí to dock in the First Ring and let him out there. She had demanded one last thrill for it, whispered an invitation for him to return again next year as her body seized with the first stages of climax. He had waited for her to fall back in bliss and then told her no.

He opens the door to the bar, feeling hollow, feeling guilty. The night spent engaging in seduction, in an empty dance with someone who matters little to him, something he’d once enjoyed but now…now it seems so pointless, was to him more of a torment than a relief. Has he ever even enjoyed, truly enjoyed these single-night affairs? Or were they just a distraction, a mindless pastime to give purpose to his empty hours?

What has he accomplished with going off with Niruí? Nothing. What had felt like revenge when he first grabbed that invitation has not brought him any satisfaction. The whole night, he wanted to be elsewhere, back here, clearing things up with Alma, finding out why she had been delayed. He’d started worrying about her at some point, once the anger subsided. His assumption that she was out with Somrak seems silly now, rushed. Perhaps something has happened. Perhaps he has her all wrong. Can he be sure that what Tulip saw wasn’t a misunderstanding?

How can he justify to her that he wasn’t here, waiting for her to return, for her to join him in a date that he invited her to, in the first place?

He climbs down the stairs to Alma’s room and knocks on her door, not knowing exactly what to expect. Will she be angry? Will she even be in there? He does not even know if she has returned or if she is, like everyone else probably is, at the portal in Little Falls, saying her last goodbyes to Mayumi before the Bunny leaves to the Academy. No one answers his knock and so, just to make sure, he turns the knob and enters. He freezes at what he sees.

On Alma’s bed, Sky is reclining against a pillow, his back against the headboard, his shoeless feet on the mattress. He sits over the covers while Alma lies under them, her head on his lap, her arms around his knees, her eyes closed, apparently asleep. Caught in the act of stroking Alma’s snowy hair away from her face, Sky is looking toward Dion, his face clouded with concern.

Dion is lost for words. Of all the things he could have expected, this loving little scene was surely not one of them. He feels the blood drain away from his face, his stomach grow cold with an icy anger.

“Dion…” Sky whispers as he tries to gently lift Alma’s head and slide out from under it, trying to replace his thigh with a pillow.

Dion swallows and turns to leave, trying to control the rage in his voice. “Don’t bother on my account.”

“Dion wait…” Sky bids him, finally getting up and walking after the magic god. “Come on.”

“I don’t need to wait, I have seen all I needed to see,” Dion hisses even though he stops walking. He shakes his head, wondering how a part of him can still be fighting the evidence and stopping him from darting out the room. “And to think I was actually worried about her…”

“Cherry told me…something,” Sky insists. “It was rushed and confusing. Listen…”

As he reaches out to put his hand on Dion’s shoulder, the magic god turns on his heels and slaps Sky’s hand away with the full force of his anger. Cherry! Cherry has been spreading Dion’s shame around, sharing it with Sky? Oh, how they must have laughed at the turning of tables against him and his seducing ways… “No. Enough!” he cries, waiving care and respect for Alma’s sleep. What sordid act has her so tired at this time of morning, anyway? “If she wants to have a harem like her father does, that’s up to her. Guess that’s the family standard anyway. I hope you and Somrak enjoy sharing in the spoils.”

In his defense, Sky looks sincerely shocked. “Harem? Dion! No…”

But Dion is beyond the point of paying attention to such things. “I turn my back one night and here you are! Are you going to tell me that you haven’t been attracted to her from the very start? Always with your little secrets and pettings? Why, I’m even surprised you bother with May.”

Sky’s expression darkens, his fists clenching in righteous anger. And the way the first swirls of black start crawling up his neck make Dion’s muscles tense as well. “You are misunderstanding things. If you would just listen to me–”

“Sky, stop!”

Sky freezes, stiff. And so does Dion. They both turn their heads slowly to the right, toward Alma’s bed, to where she sits, glaring at them through half-shut eyes. A faint glow to them makes Dion’s heart skip a beat.

“Leave us, please,” she asks in icy tones.

Even though she does not name names, it is clear that she is speaking to Sky. The tall god looks back at her, shoulders slumping slightly, sadness in his eyes, and the way he turns those same sorrowful eyes to Dion curdles the blood in the magic god’s veins. Something is wrong, very wrong. Somehow, Dion feels, he has just lost this argument.

Sky takes a deep breath before saying, “I will be upstairs.”

He moves closer to the bed, picks up his shoes and walks past Dion, his face a sorrowful mask, and exits the room, leaving Dion still frozen in place and staring at Alma’s angry face. Her eyelids have moved slightly up and he can see her eyes better now, the way they glow and shift colors, now greener, now bluer, shimmering with iridescent tones. Her whole aura feels different now, still hers but with a new undertone, an energy he had never sensed in her before. And she looks tired, sickly. Dion feels it again, that dreadful feeling that he has just committed an irreparable error. “You…what happened?” he mumbles, rushing to her side.

“It is a bit late for that, don’t you think?” she asks slowly, voice so cold that it cuts through his skin. She pulls the covers away from her legs. Too late, Dion sees that she is fully dressed underneath them, the cut of her dress having fooled him before. His mouth falls open in helplessness and he jerks forward instinctively as Alma’s legs shake under her as she gets up from the bed, placing a hand on the wall to steady herself. She turns her face away from him to say, “Sky would have told you but you wouldn’t listen to him.”

At her refusal to look at him, Dion lets his arms fall. His mind races as he tries to retrieve the line of his thought. He was angry before but all he is now is shocked and confused. What has he done. How…how did they get to this point where he is the one at fault? “Tulip…” he mumbles, trying to return to anger. “Tulip said she saw you and Somrak in the breezeway. Kissing.”

Alma’s head turns quickly to look at him again and the glare she shoots in his direction makes him wish she hadn’t. “Is that why you weren’t here last night?” Her voice grows louder and angrier as she adds, “Is that why you came in here spewing out those ridiculous accusations? If you knew the first thing about me, Gwydion, you’d know that the last thing I want is a harem! I grew up in a harem! I know better than anyone what it is like! Why would I even want one?!”

At his momentary loss for words, she narrows her strange eyes at him, the lines on her face and the sunken darkness under her eyelids making her look even more intimidating. “Where were you, Gwydion? When I was being brought here and asking for you in my sickness, where were you?”

He closes his eyes and ponders lying but his mind is blank of inspiration for good excuses. “I was angry. And I left with someone else.”

She shakes her head. “Not even a few hours…I am delayed and you–” She looks at him, eyes wide with shock. “Did you…? You thought I was with him? Is that what you thought?”

He looks down at his feet and wishes the floor would open a hole to swallow him whole. Her outrage is sincere, he can tell.

Oh, Dion, you fool… his inner voice scolds him. Apologize. Admit you were wrong. You cannot win.

He should. He should apologize. But…he can’t. “Is it a lie?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper. “What Tulip said she saw?”

“No,” her cool answer makes him look up again. “It’s the truth. She saw us kiss because we kissed. I was healing him and he kissed me. We kissed. So what?!” she exclaims, throwing her arms open in frustration. “How much further than that have you gone with whatever tart you spent last night with?!” She holds a hand up to stop him from answering. Not that he was going to. “Don’t even answer that. I know the answer.”

He does not know what to say anymore. Her admission hurts him but not half as much as the dawning realization that it is not an admission of guilt. She is not guilty of anything. Somrak kissed her and even so, their agreement works both ways. It is he who cannot stand to accept that. And now…

“You want the truth, Gwydion?” Alma goes on. “I care about him. I was worried about him. He was hurt and he was suffering and all I did was add to it because I care about you more.” She points a finger at him in accusation. “I told him ‘no’ and that’s why I didn’t even think of telling you, because I thought our agreement went both ways and even though I did nothing wrong I still did not want to hurt you! But I guess that’s not how things work in your sick little head!”

She hisses the last few words and storms out of the room, leaving Dion standing there, stunned into speechlessness and motionlessness. He stares at nothing, unblinking, unseeing. And when he finally turns to follow her, when he finally rushes up the stairs, a voice in his mind shouting Go! Make it right!, it is too late.

Sky and Alma are just walking toward the door, Sky’s face concerned as he asks “…are you sure? This suspect is in Little Falls.”

“I don’t care,” Alma nearly growls. “Let’s go.”

Sky barely has time to look back at Dion with a mix of exasperation and, strangely, apology before they are out the door. Leaving him all alone with his mistakes.

Ch6.54 Trust

Dion walks briskly back to Three Rats Station. He could have used one of his portal spells to take him directly there, of course. The past few weeks of rushing to and fro all over the ward in search of gang hideouts and multiple interventions in the wake of the whole Dukaine affair have left him with enough knowledge of where most places are relative to the station that he could use such a magical shortcut with the smallest of chances of opening a portal straight into a brick wall. But the walk is good for him. It allows him a little mental distancing from a day of gang fights and bloodbaths and much too much in the way of putting himself between two groups of people keen on poking holes in each other with the various sorts of sharp implements they carry.

Of course, this is not all that has been preying on his mind for the past hours but being at the center of a gang battle tends to take up most of one’s available mental space, at least while the rusty blades are swinging. Now that the sounds of fighting and cutting and falling in a pool of blood that should equate to death on any other day are behind him, other worries rise to the spotlight of his mind. Like what condition will Alma be in when she returns from meeting her family? Dion doesn’t know Death personally, nor does he want to, but Alma’s occasional descriptions as well as Sky’s obvious animosity toward the senator leave a less than favorable idea of the head of the Death clan. As for the rest of the family itself, Dion has met only two or three of its members and, truthfully, they mostly sounded pleasant if a bit…disconcerting. Except for the Fencer, of course. The Fencer is mostly just unpleasant to be around of. And still, even she seems to share in the strange duality of the death gods he has met so far, an alien, indescribable charm paired with a very palpable sense of being in imminent danger. Probably the closest one might get to knowing what goes through the head of a mouse caught staring into the eyes of a hungry snake.

Though he feels none of that with Alma. Well, not anymore. Not after all they have been through together. But the charm is still there, he knows, wafting like an enticing scent. He has seen in it in the way others look at her, afraid but wanting, devoted but hesitant. She barely seems to notice it, though, focusing her attentions on him whenever they are not on her family. It is a wonderful thought that in spite of their mutual agreement of non-exclusiveness, she is still just his.

And now they are about to go on a date, the very first for them. Just the two of them, spending time together away from the station, unworried about being suddenly called or having Bunnies prying in and disturbing their peace with comments and opinions and the occasional nudge toward taking the relationship a step further. A night without hiding in their office or in Dion’s room to steal some moments to themselves. Just a simple, relaxing date to make a lasting, perfect little memory on the last day of an absolutely hectic year.

And even if they are long past first impressions, Dion worries about making the occasion a special one. It is their first date, after all. The first in what will hopefully be a long line of dates in delicious courtship. The thought of it leaves him feeling jittery but excited. How does one keep a lover happy for that long? Could he do it, after a life of short-lived affairs? How to keep the memories of past lovers and thoughts of potentially new ones away from the mind? Could he and Alma possibly be satisfied in being together for long?

He shakes his head to dislodge his fears. They have been happily together for weeks now. Keeping things that way should be easy, as should be a simple date. He has been on so many before, hasn’t he? Nothing wrong with one more. And even better if it is with her.

He stops at the entrance to the breezeway and looks at the sky, framed by the two adjacent buildings, bar and station. She should be back by now. The sun is already beginning to set, tinting the sky in bluish-orange.

He opens the door to find the bar pretty much empty at the end of the last day of Triumph Week holidays. Most people will be home with their families, enjoying this time of somewhat mindless celebrations to most mortals. Those who are not home, will either be hiding from the gang skirmish that has (hopefully) just ended, or happily bleeding away in Nate’s clinic as a result of it. The Popula on duty will mostly be there as well, keeping an eye on anyone fit to transfer directly to a jail cell after being patched up. Still, it is somewhat strange to find the bar so empty and quiet. Only Cherry is at the counter, currently busy at polishing the glasses with a dry rag for what is probably the twentieth time, from the bored, absent look on her face. Merri must be out running some errand with her usual bodyguard, Geryon.

Her eyes turn to look in his direction at the sound of the door closing behind him. She smiles to see him but an unhealthy dullness to her cheeks, as well as a shiny, misty film to her eyes tells him that not all is well in Bunnyland. “Well hey there, Sergeant D!” she greets him with strained cheerfulness. “How’s…” Her voice trails off as she sniffs the air in his direction. Her ears tilt back with worry. “Oh hon, you ok? I’m smellin’ blood… You ain’t been hurt, have you?”

Dion chuckles at this, moving closer to lean against the bar top. “Hello, Cherry. It’s none of my blood, I assure you. Just a random assortment of common thug.” He takes a whiff of the scent emanating from his clothing and winces at the absolute reek of sweat and carnage. “Ugh, even I can smell it. This is definitely my least favorite day of the year.”

“Now this here is somethin’, if it ever came up in our dream lives, I just can’t recall,” Cherry notes conversationally, putting away the glass, which is probably much thinner by now, from so much buffing. “People not bein’ able to die sounds real great for about five seconds, then it sounds like Hell.”

“And it is, my dearest Cherry,” Dion assures her. “Hell for Guardia, most definitely, even in the highest circles of the Isle. Some will even pray for death gods not to go on holiday. And speaking of death gods…” He tilts back and looks around the bar, toward the staircase that leads down into Alma’s room, his ears straining to hear the sounds of anyone else moving about in the building. “I trust our own lovely resident goddess has returned by now?”

Cherry makes a show of shaking her head at this, the unruly, curly locks of her black hair bouncing stiffly about at her brisk movements. She sounds annoyed when she replies, “‘Fraid not. She took May out and I got no idea when they’re s’pposed to be back.”

This makes Dion grin. Knowing how nearly impossible it is for the Bunnies to keep secrets from each other, Alma had not revealed to any of them where she was planning to take May. But she had done so to Dion and Sky, procuring their help to find the exact location of this Sawara Ward, where Mayumi’s adoptive father supposedly still lived. It was a secret they had all carefully kept, sharing in the anticipation of knowing how the usually too-controlled and proper Bunny would react. But now that the surprise is already in motion, he can reveal it to Cherry.

“She took May to meet her adoptive father,” he says. “It seems the man truly exists in this world. But they should have returned just before sunset. Hopefully they are not too terribly delayed.”

He fails to keep concern out of his voice but Cherry, her eyes absent again for a moment, barely seems to notice it. “May’s dad is for real? She told me she believed it but…wow.”

She trails off. Deciding that maybe it is best to just leave her to whatever thoughts torment the usually cheerful, dark-skinned Bunny, Dion says, “I’m sure she’ll be enjoying her gift.” He straightens to move toward the kitchen. “Well, shower time for me. I will need to at least not reek of blood for later.”

He stops just at the entrance to the pantry, where the portal to his private rooms is located, feeling mildly nervous to ask, “Did you…get what I asked for?”

That seems to bring Cherry back to the here and now. “Of course!” she exclaims brightly, gesturing toward the kitchen. “Me and Mer got it all fixed up in the kitchen, just waitin’.” She grins mischievously at him, an expression that, even on dark skin and much fuller lips, never fails to remind him of Alma. “So, this date…gonna be in your room, huh? Or hers?”

“Oh, we will be going out, of course.” It is Dion’s turn to grin. “And I will leave it at that. Not looking forward to being interrupted, after all.”

“Ooo, a picnic!” Cherry coos, playfully biting her lip before winking at him. “Well, I can put it in a basket for you while you go get non-reeky. Which I am sure Momma and all the rest of us’ll be grateful for. G’wan, scat!”

Dion chuckles as she gestures to shoo him into his room, promptly following her command. He slowly undresses, relaxing at the lazy task of removing his clothes while enjoying the gentle, solitary silence of his little personal haven. Scented oils of pine, fennel and rosewood burn in a small censer, to which the god has lately added a few drops of lilac, inviting rest and release of everyday stress.

He throws his clothes into a basket for later washing in the magical laundry unit he keeps in the bathroom, frowning at the once again torn pocket on his favorite uniform jacket. One of these days, he just might rip the damned thing off for good.

The bathroom is just at the right temperature, as usual, the water running in the shower at the perfect pressure and warmth to soothe his muscles and hit his spine where the skull meets the neck, radiating a sensation of gentle lightheadedness through his brain. He lets the tepid liquid course freely down his muscular frame, rolling smoothly over fit, well-toned muscle masses and tendon insertions to leave him feeling just as renewed as if he had spent the last few hours sleeping instead of working.

Relaxed, he washes vigorously, straining to rid himself of the clingy smell of blood and impending death. The two sylphids that usually keep this room at its comfortable temperature are already waiting for him by the time he leaves the shower, to fly and rub their incorporeal selves against him, drying him instantly with their warm, airy touch. Insubstantial fingers run through his hair to leave it dry and groomed.

He moves into the main room in search of the right suit for the occasion, enjoying the mild chill of the cooler air on his naked skin as he stops at a little dresser to pick up the bottle of his usual cologne. He hesitates for a moment, over whether he should just go au naturel this once, to please his date. But…old habits die hard. He chooses to don the usual scent, just to be on the safe side.

A few minutes later, he is fully dressed and ready for his date, jacket left behind on this pleasant night, shirt perfectly unbuttoned at the right length to give an air of casual relaxation without looking dishevelled. As he checks the whiteness of his teeth, however, a soft flashing light coming from the corner of the mirror catches his attention. Raising an eyebrow in confusion, he waves a hand to call up his personal calendar, watching intently as a grid appears projected on the mirror’s surface, with dates and annotations regarding appointments and other plans.

The flashing guides him to a note simply marked Niruí. Now where has he heard that name before? Niruí…Niruí… Ah, of course! The moon goddess.

Just a year before the whole Three Rats adventure began – a full year before this day, in fact – he had met Niruí at a Triumph Week celebration party. The moon goddess, someone had told him, lived aboard her moon barge for the whole of the Insular year, and did not visit the Insula proper at any other time than the last night of each year, when her lunar barge docked not far away from the Curia to allow the beautiful Niruí a night of fraternization with her fellow gods.

And oh, she was beautiful indeed, with her pale, blueish skin and long, smooth hair as dark as night decorated with tiny glittering stars. She appeared before the partiers wearing nothing but a very fine, translucent shawl over her thin body. Dion had immediately sought to capture the gorgeous goddess’ attention, smoothly brushing away the competition of his fellow young gods seeking Niruí’s company on this rare occasion. And he had, in fact, managed to speak to the goddess and exert his charm over her, thrilling to see her grey eyes glimmer in excitement at his soft-spoken flirtation. But Niruí had soon crushed his expectations. Apparently she had already pledged her company for the night to some other young deity, a dainty forest goddess, it seemed, or something else of the sort. But Dion, Niruí had promised, would not be left without his chance to spend a night of pleasure aboard her lunar barge. All he had to do was wait a year, for this very day, to have his date with Niruí.

And look, an invitation has just materialized by his hand, to serve as a portal into the moon goddess’s barge, should he still desire her company tonight. Such a shame that he already has plans elsewhere…

Oh well, no choice but to cancel. Or perhaps ask for another chance at a later date. Either way, attending is unthinkable. He would not trade his time with Alma tonight for ten rides on the moon barge in Niruí’s company.

Still marvelling and chuckling softly at his own change in priorities, Dion steps out into the kitchen to check if his dearest death goddess has arrived yet, to find Tulip sitting at the bar, playing with what looks like a small, white card. Cherry is with her, looking intently at the little card in Tulip’s hand but saying nothing about it for the time being.

As they do not seem to notice him, Dion clears his throat. “And I am–”

Immediately, Tulip’s arms clench around his stomach in an affectionate death grip that martial artists usually take decades to master. “Hi!” she greets him in a voice at least two octaves higher than her usual tone.

Cherry looks at her and then at Dion, snorting quietly at the god’s look of resigned helplessness against the youngest of the Bunnies. “Hey, there he is, smellin’…” She moves closer to him and makes a show of sniffing his scent, standing on tiptoes to reach his collar. “Smellin’ like Dion.”

“Oh, good. That means I managed to get rid of all unpleasant scents,” Dion replies, lips curling in pleasure to match Cherry’s smile. He absentmindedly strokes Tulip’s hair and looks down to take a closer glance at what she is holding. “Hello, little flower. What do you have there?”

“I don’t know,” the young Bunny replies, turning the card in her hands to reveal a few characters in some language unknown to him, drawn in apparently common black ink. “It’s just a blank card with some weird doodles on. Found it on Mom’s desk. I think it’s Som’s.”

“If it’s got squiggles on it, it ain’t blank, sweetie,” Cherry gently corrects her, leaning slightly to take a whiff of the card. “Yeah, that’s definitely Sommy’s. Smells kinda like a campfire,” she says, smiling wistfully at some passing thought.

“Perhaps just something he dropped when he was last here,” Dion suggests, though it sounds meek, even to his ears.

A small, white card with only two or three characters on it is most likely a name card, and if it is, in fact, Somrak’s, that would account for the strangeness of the language. And a name card is not something one just lets drop out of negligence, not in a place where everyone knows one’s name. So why would the fire god have left his card with Alma?

“Maybe it’s a secret message,” Tulip chimes in, squinting intently at the card as if that would force the paper to reveal its secrets. “Maybe… Oh!” she exclaims in sudden excitement. “Maybe it’s a super secret note to tell her to meet him. For a date!” She sighs, holding the card to her chest like it is something precious. “Wouldn’t that be romantic?”

The suggestion sends a chill down Dion’s spine but he says nothing in response. Cherry, on the other hand, merely laughs, failing to notice how he swallows his unease. “Sweetie, you been readin’ way too many of them romance books from that box Ewá rejected for her kiddies.” She shakes her head. “Some people donate the weirdest stuff…”

“But…but…it’s all there!” Tulip insists, hopping up and down in little irritated jumps, her fists clenched in frustration. “You can’t tell me it’s not there, ‘cuz I know! Som likes Mom! And Mom obviously likes Som…” She snorts and rolls her eyes as if this is a well known fact that people keep trying to ignore. “They even kissed and all! Why wouldn’t he wanna see her again?”

The words leave Tulip’s lips as if they meant nothing, swift and simple like the sharpest of blades. They hit Dion like a wall of knives moving against him at full speed, each of them piercing through his ears, headed straight for his heart. He feels it stop in his chest, along with his breathing.

Blood completely drained from his cheeks, he turns to Tulip. “What are you talking about, Tulip?”

Tulip looks up at him wide-eyed and worried, as if he has just spoken in tongues. “At the party. When they went outside. Mom said Som wasn’t feeling too good and I went out to check if she’d made him feel all better yet and they were kissing.” She shrugs before adding, “He looked all better.” She tilts her head at the god of magic, “Did I…say anything wrong? You don’t look so good.”

“It’s… all right, little flower,” Dion replies, feeling his mouth suddenly dry.

“Hon, I bet that wasn’t quite what it looked like…” Cherry notes, watching Dion’s face though ostensibly speaking to Tulip.

“What do you mean?!” Tulip immediately cries. “He was holding her against the wall and he had his mouth on hers and–”

“Hey now!” Cherry cuts her off. “How the heck long were you watchin’ anyhow? Couldn’t’a been more than a second and it’s not–” Her mouth freezes open and silent as she blinks. She focuses on Tulip again. “He was holdin’ her against the wall?”

“He was holding her pretty tight…” Tulip notes, nodding slowly.

Dion listens to them as if standing in a dream. Cherry’s arguing and Tulip’s comment barely register. He stopped paying attention since the words they were kissing dropped into his brain like a lead weight, searing hot and spiked like a hand from Hell crushing his thoughts. A hazy image of a pinkish mouth set against olive skin kissing Alma’s lips begins to form in his mind. He shakes his head to dislodge the repulsive thing before it can become any more solid.

“I think I had better go…elsewhere,” he mumbles, turning to walk back into his room.

He feels something hold him back. Looking down, he sees Cherry’s hand gripping his wrist. “Wait… I…I…” Her shoulders slump and she lets go of him. “I got nothing.”

“Wait, what’s wrong?” Tulip asks as Dion’s hand touches the pantry door to activate his bedroom portal.

“Well…I don’t know!” Cherry cries, throwing her hands up. “I don’t get the whole thing of bein’ mad about stuff like this anyway, but…” She speaks at Dion’s back, since he is already walking into his sanctum. “You know this could be all one big misunderstandin’.”

The portal closes behind him, to the muffled shouts and poundings of the Bunny. “Aaaaugh! Come on! You know Alma wouldn’t sneak off on you! She’s crazy about you! DION! Open the door! Let’s talk!”

No… there is nothing to talk about. He knew it. He knew it! The way Somrak looked at Alma and acted so friendly around her, showering her in compliments, defending her before the Fencer. And the way Alma played along, smiling and running fingers through the fire god’s hair, dismissing Dion’s suspicions as if they were nothing while getting closer and closer to Somrak.

And now the image of those two together, kissing, his scarred, disfigured face pressing lips against her pale skin, holding her slender body against the bar wall, blood- and tobacco-stained hands running over her body as if they had a claim to it while her delicate fingers unbind his ridiculous ponytail to dive into his straight, black hair burns against the inside of Dion’s eyelids, imagination filling in reality’s blank spots, revolting and tormenting.

He stumbles, feeling his legs weak under him, almost falling on his bed when his knees fail. But he shoots up from the covers just as quickly, turning to look at it with renewed horror. His bed, the bed he has shared with her so many times, made into their space of peace and union. Lies… all lies. They had never been alone in that bed, he sees now. Somrak, maybe even Arion had been there with them, holding her as he held her. And he, the charmer, the seducer, had fallen under her spell like so many clueless, too-easy-to-conquer goddesses had fallen under his.

Stupid, stupid, STUPID! How stupid of him to believe her! To believe for a moment in illusions, in lies. LIES! All a lie… Every moment, every secret shared, every caress. Had she lied about the risk of laying with him and creating more Bunnies as bait to keep him interested? Somrak is no less a threat there, after all. No safer a lover. Gods, had Dion not risked his neck, not stayed here, in this dump of a ward, for her?!

He grips the edge of his desk for support, breathing so quickly that he feels lightheaded. His heart lies dead still in his chest, or so it feels like. Some part of him cries out for sense, for reason. Part of him wants to give her the benefit of doubt, to believe in her still, refusing to accept that it could all have been a lie, reminding him of their agreement.

He hears its appeal but it is just too weak. The poisonous touch of betrayal and the roaring flame of anger burn through him with too much heat, too much strength to be denied. This has nothing to do with their agreement. This has nothing to do with finding a lover she can be safely intimate with for a night or two. No… She loves Somrak, is in love with him. And if she is in love with him, she can no longer love Dion.

The invitation resting innocently on his desk catches his eye and he feels something stir in his mind that is more animalistic than divine, a sudden impulse to take Niruí’s call and his revenge with him. He will show her. Yes, he will show Alma! If it is with Somrak that she wants to be, then he will move on before she even returns to Three Rats.

He takes the invitation, a maddened glee making his eyes shine as the portal opens with alluring sound. The portal starts pulling him into it as soon as it forms and he takes a step into it, saying goodbye to juvenile dreams of romance with death goddesses and accepting his solitary, seducing nature once again.