Ch7.15 Revelations

The landscape flies by, thriving forests and parks, rivers and lakes, peppered with barely glimpsed houses, mansions mostly but some snug little cottages, Second-Ring estates and the vacation homes of First-Ringers, the latter often kept secret from their ruling-class compatriots. Though not always. The Ystumllyn District, three rural wards strung together – as rural as one can get on a mountain-spanning city at least – left to nature though far from truly wild, a favorite destination for rich Third-Ring hikers and campers, is spoken of with longing even in the First Ring, with its otherworldly pleasures.

The little village of Ystumllyn, capital of the district, has the only public portal for leagues and leagues, and the itinerant god was grateful for the availability of the small two-wheeled ceffyl-drawn trap. The magnificent grey-dapple horse, her mane in complex braids, had kept up a steady stream of conversation all the way from the portal, even as she ran upon roads invisible to eyes other than hers, sometimes well above the treetops, others descending right down to the physical road that he would have taken many hours to walk upon if he had had to reach his destination on foot.

“You know, most people assume I can’t even speak,” she says. “They just think, ‘Oh, a horse! Take me to the prettiest lake, will you?’ When I say, ‘Sure thing!’ you should see them jump!” She laughs. Neighs. Either way it’s a pleasure to hear. “We’re almost there, by the way.”

She is slowing. “I’m sorry to say goodbye,” the god says. “Thank you for such an enjoyable ride.” His voice is congenial, inviting conversation, the sort of voice you find yourself opening up to, telling things you haven’t told your friends, and especially not your closest loved ones, a voice that you know will not judge you, that will understand and tell you what you need to hear. Not what you want to hear, perhaps, but what you need.

“Hey, I’m sorry to say goodbye, too,” the horse, Ffion, calls back, the wind whipping her words to his ears. “Good passengers are a gift. You said you’re only staying at this estate a short time?”

“A few hours,” he says – almost shouts, for his words have to fight against the air current to reach her. The have entered a long driveway, and the wheels bounce and hooves clipclop as they alight on the sand-clay road surface. “I’m not entirely certain how long, but not overnight.”

“I’ll stick around,” she says as they pull to a stop in front of the manor house. “You just whistle for me. You know how to whistle, right?”

He smiles at the comfortable bantering tone. “Thank you. Are you sure? Shall I, um, unhook the carriage?”

“No need. Don’t forget anything, now. Seriously, don’t leave anything behind. It’ll be destroyed.”

As he steps out, he turns to look back at her and sees the little trap-carriage folding in on itself, like a kind of origami, folding in and in and then up the yoke to become nothing but a small, comfortable-looking pack upon Ffion’s back. “There,” she says. “I’ll just take a trot around, graze – don’t worry, this will be a little break for me. Then I can have the pleasure of your company on my way back.”

The god’s path takes him into darkness more often than light, and within that darkness is misery beyond the imagining of most people in this part of the Insula. Though he does receive gratitude and indeed love from those he helps, the simple amiable appreciation of one being for another in such a beautiful setting is a balm to his soul. He walks to her and bows. “I shall whistle for you. And I look forward to the ride.” He puts a hand to his heart in gratitude.

She tosses her head and trots off toward the woodlands, and he watches her go. He has never had to treat one of the several species of intelligent horses that populate the Insula, and cannot help but wonder what their inner lives are like. Then he turns to face the doors of Afallon Fach, the estate whose lands now stretch around him as far as he can see – which, with the tall trees about, is admittedly not terribly far, but still enough space for hundreds of families. But if the entire Insula were to be packed with nothing but densely populated tenements and the farmland to feed the masses, there would be no green like this remaining. It is a conundrum that goes well beyond his remit, so as always, he puts it aside. He has more immediate concerns.

He walks up the steps and rings the bell, which chimes deep within the building, a small mansion that has had tastefully designed wings added to either side over the years.

As he waits, he can hear, carried to him on the caressing breeze, the cheerful, excited voices of children, or perhaps adults who have not forgotten the child within their souls. He cannot make out the words, but his mind flashes back to only this morning, in a hideous slum tucked away in a wealthy, productive Third-Ring city, an inevitable result of ward policies that maximize profit over all else. The children of the slum make their living picking through a tremendous garbage heap, finding fragmentary strips of gold, silver, and star-steel that can be sold to the trash-heap’s informal ‘owner’ for a mere third-hekte for each stater of their worth. The children have no choice but to accept what payment they can get, and to suffer from the slow poisoning of other alchemical waste they encounter. And that is far from the only indignity they must endure.

Or rather, that they had to endure. The Guardia sometimes seems to be no more than a tool of the wealthy and powerful to wield against the poor and weak, but now and again they right wrongs. And a good number of them know, when there are traumatized people who need help, that they can call upon him. So when this trash-king was deposed and an entire cruel economy unravelled, the god sometimes known as Balm of Forgetting came at the call of an old friend to see what he could do.

It wasn’t much. But it was something.

Steps approach. The doors open.

The face which greets him is no servant. Black hair, a strong jaw, a powerful, lithe body. There is an aura of power, even danger around this god, but even a momentary glance is enough to see that he is walking wounded. His tanned skin is pale from trauma-induced stress.

Gwydion. Somrak’s mental image of him is an unmistakable match.

As the master of the estate looks him up and down, the healer god wonders what he sees. The surface is easy: a small, dark man with unbound, wind-tossed black hair shot with grey. Dressed like a hobo, almost, a once-expensive vest, frayed, over a construction-worker’s shirt and the denim pants of a farmer, torn at the knees, not as some fashion statement but because he had not had time to mend them since tearing them in a scuffle two weeks ago.

Does this highborn god see beyond that? Perhaps he does. Life in the Fourth Ring can teach much to an opened mind.

“Gwydion, of the House of Math?” he asks.

“That is me,” the god says. “Please come in.” He stands aside to allow passage, revealing his companion. “This is Alma.”

The introduction is unnecessary. She is, if anything, even more physically attractive than Gwydion, and from what he saw in Somrak’s mind, he would know her in an instant. But physical beauty means little among gods. True, it is often a reflection of the soul, in the way that mortals only think it is for themselves, but beauty can be kind, or it can be cruel. And it can just as easily be a mask for the most grotesque corruption. But there is an aura about her, even more than Gwydion, of empathy and of pain. Even without being primed by Somrak and by Sky, the healer knows he would be ready to help these two, no question.

The tall, snow-skinned, white-haired goddess nods in greeting. “Welcome, Doctor…”

“Wasure,” he says. “Thank you for the welcome. Is there somewhere we can sit and talk?”

The two of them share a look, apprehensive but hopeful. “Uhm…yes,” Alma says. “Where do you think would be best?”

Gwydion considers her question for a moment, revealing his newcomer status in this estate. He recovers after a moment. “The library should serve well. This way, Doctor Wasure.”

“Just Wasure is fine,” the healer says, looking around the entry room, taking in the tasteful decoration. Gwydion leads the way as they proceed into a hallway with a turn, then another, before they arrive at a room lined with the sort of thick leather-bound books that are the only reason Wasure would want to own a house. A house, he reflects, makes an excellent place of safe-keeping for books that are too heavy to carry around. But when is there time to read?

“We have heard good things about your work,” Alma says conversationally. He can hear the worry she is trying to mask. “But I will confess to being a little skeptical about this whole process.”

Wasure smiles, his teeth very white in a face deeply tanned by the outdoors. “Somrak… He’s always been skeptical of my treatments, too. If he told you I’m so good, he’s being a bit of a hypocrite. But he said you needed me right away.” He sits, feeling the pain in his feet and back that he has been ignoring all day. The chair tells him something about the people who built this estate, something that matches the other things he has seen. They understand comfort. More concerned with how a chair can actually give ease than with how it looks, they deserve the gratitude he now feels for their tastes.

But he continues, “And just to be clear, I am charging for the portal and the ride from there. It was the easiest way to get here quickly and I cannot do that sort of magic myself. I overcharge my wealthier patients so I can provide free services for those who can’t pay. Somrak told me to send the bill to the Archon Math.” He looks at Dion. “Is that correct? Somrak can be a joker…”

“Oh…yes, I think that will be all right,” Dion says, apparently not bothered at all. “If not, I’ll take care of it.”

“We’ll take care of the bill,” Alma assures Wasure. “Do you mean you provide this same kind of service to people in poorer wards?”

Wasure inclines his head. “Victims of crimes, especially abuse and violence. There is never any shortage. The Guardia contracts my services for their members, and that’s steady pay to keep me fed, but private consultations like this let me fund clinics and train others who show talent in this.” He shrugs. “And the wealthy have their pain as well.”

Gwydion takes a seat across from him, while Alma moves to stand behind her partner, putting her hands on his shoulders. “How exactly does this work?”

“You may have heard about magic that locks away secrets within the head of the knower.” Wasure has explained this many times before. “That is how I started. I am a god of memory, but with a very narrow specialization. Enter the mind, find the memory, and put it in a metaphorical box. Lock it, and give the key to the holder – in the Guardia, with something important enough for calling on one such as me, that means a subcommander or the Commander himself.”

Wasure notes that the couple have offered him no refreshment yet. This does not surprise him, nor does it bother him. They are afraid of what his presence means, and don’t even realize they have forgotten hospitality. “But I realized that some memories were not secrets but still…undesirable. It’s dangerous to erase them, very dangerous. But if they could be locked away, and the key given to the patient, then they would still be there if needed, but muted. Knowledge of the pain is still there. Even knowledge of what happened. But the details, and the sheer power, are locked away, to be brought out only when the patient wishes. Not haunting the patient’s thoughts, disturbing sleep, and so on.”

“I wonder… The situation that caused our… current issue also triggered other memories.” Alma looks significantly at her partner. “Gwydion and I have both recently discovered new spheres and acquired new knowledge, and all those things are, in one way or another, connected with the trauma. Will this process affect those memories as well?”

“Not in my experience. Bursts of suppressed memories tend to come near the triggering trauma, but not long afterwards, no new memories will come from that trigger. Later traumas could trigger more memories, of course. But if the trauma is as bad as what Somrak told me, after the initial burst it could be drowning out finer details of the reawakened memories. Locking away the trauma could make the ‘new’ memories clearer.” Wasure pauses. “You should understand that, to do this, I have to enter your psyche to a great depth. I need to examine your memories to be certain I’m targeting exactly the right one. It’s usually not hard to find the one causing pain, but I will inevitably see adjacent, connected memories. It can’t be helped. All I can say is, I am bound by my oath to keep anything I see strictly confidential. I use the memory-locking technique on myself, so that no one can get it out of me.”

“With all due respect…who holds the key?” Alma sounds doubtful.

“Myself,” he says. “I could not trust another. But I have a refinement of the technique, which I’m afraid must remain a secret, so that if I am under duress I can make it impossible for me to release the memories even if I wanted to. No torture or mental command can force me. I would die before I revealed my patients’ thoughts.”

Dion asks, “And the Commander trusts you with secrets of the Guardia?”

Wasure nods. “If he did not, I assume that I would have been ‘eliminated’ long before now.”

Her expression still apprehensive, Alma looks from Wasure to Gwydion, silently asking the latter for his opinion. Gwydion considers it for several heartbeats, then looks at her and nods. “Somrak vouches for him.”

That these four words seal the deal for the both of them brings a burst of warmth to Wasure’s spirit. He has been acquainted with Somrak for decades, but only really began to know the god of fire when Somrak asked for help. A high opinion of himself is a mask that Somrak wears, and as is so often the case, the mask displays the very opposite of what it conceals. But Wasure, who has so recently seen many of Somrak’s most harrowing thoughts, found himself surprised at how much he liked the offblue agent. He had expected someone far colder and more callous, but what he discovered was someone who, despite his faults and mistakes, could inspire loyalty and trust.

Alma reaches to hold Gwydion’s hand, then turns to Wasure, her voice deadly serious. “These memories…they are not just our secrets. They are Guardia and even Council secrets as well. There is a lot to lose if they ever see the light of day.”

“I understand,” Wasure says. “Two days ago, I treated Somrak. He told me it was all right to tell you. There were things I saw then that I think you are referring to now. Naturally, they are locked and I cannot speak of them, but perhaps knowing that I already hold those secrets is enough to reassure you.”

“What do we have to do?” Alma asks, coming around the sofa to sit next to Gwydion. “Do we simply give you permission and let you work on our psyches?”

“Permission is required, certainly. I would never enter a mind against its will, and even more so never cause changes in an unwilling one. But you will be an active participant, awake and aware. You will, I am afraid, have to look clearly upon those memories you want locked one more time, to be certain there is no error.” His voice is apologetic. “But after that, they will lose their power. You will be freed of them.”

Alma takes a deep breath, then nods. Her eyes are lowered, but they focus on Wasure’s shoes. Or rather the beaten, taped remains of his shoes. He remembers that he keeps forgetting to replace them. He is glad that at least he remembered to bathe recently.

Gwydion breaks the moment of silence. “Do we need to prepare? Enter a trance? Cast a ritual?”

Wasure shakes his head. “You just need to be ready. To feel the desire to be free of that pain enough to overcome your natural revulsion of having a stranger enter your mind. Ideally, we would spend hours or even days getting to know one another so that you would welcome me. But that is an ideal rarely possible for practical reasons. You have as much to do, I am sure, as do I. We both have those who need our help.”

“Then…what are we supposed to do?” Alma asks, her voice still uncertain.

“Why don’t we begin with you, Alma? Gwydion, could you stay here and make sure we are undisturbed?” Wasure stands, turns, picks up his chair, and moves it closer. He sits again and holds out his hands for Alma to take.

Taking another deep breath, the goddess slips her hands into his. He can feel how cool her hands are, and how strong her grip. He closes his eyes and slows his breath. Reaching across with his mind, he sends a message, barely touching the surface of hers. Forgive me for entering your mind. I will make it as brief as possible.

Alma does not react in surprise, as most of his mortal patients do, at hearing his mental voice. But she does flinch at the intrusion. The torturer invaded my body. Cast me out. Pretended to be me and… Contact is almost broken as she tries to block the memory before it surfaces.

He waits patiently for her to allow him closer again. This is the memory you wish to be locked away. I am afraid you will have to let me near it. This will not be pleasant, I know. But it will not take long.

This is not the only memory haunting me, Alma confesses. I barely know where to start. This is just the one that surfaces most frequently.

If there are indeed many, this will require additional sessions, Wasure tells her. But most unpleasant memories should not be locked. You must ask yourself if they make you weaker, or give you strength.

At that, Alma braces herself, then lets him enter her mind fully. Half-glimpsed around him, he sees so much joy, and so much pain. He does his best to avoid looking, but it is impossible not to catch fragments, especially those that include faces he recognizes, as those jump out of the background at him: flashing blades in front of the impassive face of the Fencer, desperate kisses shared with Gwydion, Sky smiling tenderly at her as he puts a blanket on her, Somrak screaming in pain as Alma watches her own body whipping him.

Ah yes, that last is a memory that he saw within Somrak, but from the opposite end of the whip. He is nearing the depths of Alma’s pain. And he is drawn toward one, as if she were leading him by the hand, or as if that memory were a point of great gravity, pulling him in. It is one of Sky, again. Sky, who has always refused Wasure’s help, and who Wasure now knows to be a devil. Sky, wearing a different face, looking down at Alma – no, not Alma, someone else, a memory that came to Alma second hand. A memory inflicted on her. And in it, Sky is committing an act of rape.

It is all the more soul-wrenching for how familiar it is. So many of those memories he locks away are of this crime. So Wasure does not flinch from it, but he does feel helpless fury wash over him, as always. Still, he retains as much detachment as he can. He is here to do a service. He does not allow himself the luxury of radiating anything more than measured sorrow into Alma’s psyche.

And he sees the expression on Sky’s face. That unfamiliar, pale face. Sky does not want to do this. He is victim as well as victimizer. The woman who is suffering can hear words in her own memory, words spoken by one who is psychically possessing her, Do it, Azzageddi. Do it or I shall do far worse to this pathetic fool’s body.

Alma’s voice comes to him, sad and wounded. I will let you judge for yourself whether this weakens me.

This is not your memory, he replies, keeping his thought-voice impassive, but another’s, shared to cause you pain. It does you no good the feel what this girl felt. But being another’s, it is quite easy to lock away, for it has only a weak connection to others. May I?

Please… Alma suddenly sounds much younger, like a child.

He reaches out and touches the memory, and instantly it shrinks to a dark pinpoint. In the process, he experiences the full force of it that Alma has. But after that devastating moment, the simple fact remains – that the necromancer Nua forced Sky to commit this act as a simultaneous torture of himself and of Trocia, whose body Nua controlled. But Trocia’s screams, Sky’s agonized face, these are sealed away, for Alma as much as for him. Rather than actively preying on her mind, they become like the memory of a broken arm from childhood – she knows it happened but the trauma is gone.

Wasure leaves her the knowledge of how to unfold this memory again, should she ever need to search it for details. Then he shakes it off with a mental shiver, and asks her, There is more, is there not?

There is, she concedes.

Another memory drifts near, seething and sobbing, practically begging for his attention. This one?

That one. The goddess’ inner voice is a whimper. You want to… she trails off, resigned.

I do not want to, he tells her, calm and gentle and implacable. But it is the only way.

And so she opens to him more of the memories Nua shared with her, of the necromancer curling against Gwydion in Alma’s body, of kissing and whipping him. And Somrak as well. Memories that Nua delighted in showing Alma, that have haunted her waking and dreaming ever since. Her friends. Her loved ones. Suffering at her own hands.

Those hands, in the exterior, physical world, clench in pain around Wasure’s. He squeezes them back in reassurance. These memories, although inflicted on Alma by the necromancer, are ones that were experienced by her own body while Nua was occupying it. The dividing lines between mind and body and soul are wavering and blurred, and these memories are stronger, more deeply felt because of the physical side. She can feel her own muscles jump as she remembers pulling her arm back and slashing forward, cutting Gwydion’s flesh and spirit with the whip. But as he touches the memory, with her permission, it shrinks away, locked and powerless over her.

The release is as overwhelming as the onslaught of the memories, and Alma crashes back to full awareness of her surroundings. She opens her eyes as they fill with tears. She pulls her hands free of Wasure’s and hides her face in them as her body jerks with powerful sobs.

Wasure, flung from her mind, opens his own eyes and finds Gwydion looking stricken, returning from where he had gone to stand near the library door. Wasure nods toward Alma to indicate the session is ended and Gwydion should go to her. Then, as the god rushes to his beloved’s side, Wasure rises and goes to look out the window at the pleasant view, breathing carefully, entering his own mind and locking away the horrors he has taken on.

He can see the owners of those youthful voices he heard earlier, several children returning from some playful expedition in the woods. No, not all children, he sees. Three young adults, two teenage boys, and two children. He recognizes them from half-glimpsed memories.

Behind him, he hears Alma weeping, cradled in Gwydion’s arms as the god whispers to her, comforting words of little logical but great emotional truth, until she comes back to herself. Wasure waits, watching Alma’s children, letting all else fall away as he watches them approach the house. Alma’s pain became, for a moment, his own pain. Alma’s memories became his own memories.

Of course they are less harmful to him. He is acquainted with Sky, and learning that the former off-blue is actually a devil was disturbing, but considering the monsters in god and mortal form that Wasure has encountered, less disturbing than seeing Sky caught up in such a loathsome act. The mixture of disgust and pity will only serve to block his ability to help these people, here and now, however. So he watches the young people, noting their long, furred ears, focusing on their cheerful attachment to each other. Love. That is what he sees. Family. Care.

He lets that wash away the pain. He must. If he could not, then the things he has seen would have led him to self-annihilation long ago.

Behind him, he hears Gwydion’s voice. “Are you all right? Are you…better?”

“I am…It feels better. But it is hard…reliving it all one more time.”

“Is it done, then? So quickly? It was only a few minutes.”

“It felt like an eternity,” Alma tells him. “Maybe I’m primed for it. I don’t know.” She pauses a moment. “It is not all gone. Just two or three of the worst memories. But…you mustn’t fight it. It’s like… Like when Arion entered your dreams, I guess? I could feel…he can’t do it if you don’t let him in.”

Wasure does not know who Arion is. But it is none of his business, so he sets that aside. It seems time to re-engage. The trauma of experiencing Alma’s memories of torture is fading. He is ready for more.

He turns to see that Gwydion is watching him, an arm around Alma, and the Dei sergeant asks, “Will there be more sessions then?”

“With Alma? If she wishes.” He stands, loose and relaxed, the fingers of one hand idly checking a loose button that is about to fall off if he doesn’t sew it back on soon. He says to both of them, but mostly to Alma, “I can go right back in. But I’ve found it works best to allow some time, a few days or at minimum a few hours, between sessions. You may find there are memories you thought you wanted locked away that you no longer do. And do not forget – if you change your mind, you can always unlock that which is locked.”

Alma listens and nods. Her eyes are red from crying, and her pale skin is flushed, but she seems considerably relieved. “I think…I would rather wait and see. Is there anything you recommend I do? Regarding these other memories?”

“They may be somewhat more intense for a little while.” Wasure has seen that sometimes, things can become briefly worse after treatment. “There is only so much space in your fore-conscious, and some of what has been occupying it has been cleared away. But because you know now that the worst memories can be put away, the impact of the other memories is often somewhat reduced. Just knowing that this treatment is an option can sometimes lead to deciding there is no need to lock some of them.” He pauses. “Quiet, lack of stress, peace – these are all helpful. Avoiding the memories through work or excitement is not helpful in this process. I understand you have several children?”

Alma nods. “They are playing outside. Hopefully safe but well supervised. One of my children is currently away, but the six remaining do live with me.”

“Somrak told me of them in simple conversation, not as part of the healing process,” he says. “He seemed charmed by them, though mildly exasperated. He mentioned that they seem reluctant to accept that the desire to be alone is not always negative. Is this sometimes stressful?”

Alma hesitates in answering. “Well…they are very…communal. And my sanctum is the first home they’ve known…” She looks down, a bit embarrassed.

“I am not implying that they are doing anything wrong,” Wasure says, picking his words carefully. “Just that, in your current state, you might need more time alone or with only one or two other people at a time. Calm, supportive people. If you explain that to them, enlist them in aiding your recovery, perhaps that would give them a feeling of being helpful which they may well need. Loved ones often feel helpless and frustrated when those they love are suffering, especially when their attempts to help create more stress.”

Dismay is not an expression that suits the goddess’ face. “It will be heartbreaking to feel that I am casting them out of that sanctum.”

“Perhaps I could talk to them,” Wasure offers. “Or one of them? A leader, if there is one.”

She breathes in deeply and nods assent, considering. Then she looks at Gwydion. “Is it your turn now?”

His arm still around her, the handsome god strokes her hair, trying to look reassuring but unable to hide his nervousness. “They will understand,” he says. Then, readying himself, he removes his arm from her and holds out his hands. Wasure crosses the room and sits again in the chair across from them. He takes Gwydion’s hands in his own, feeling their strength, but also feeling the vulnerability of the god.

Wasure readies himself, knowing that this time he will experience Gwydion’s pain not second-hand, but directly, as the subject of it. This time will be far worse. But this is nothing new for him. This is his reason for being. It is what he must do, day after day, year after year.

For just one moment he wonders what it is like to take a day off, to practice his own advice and just be alone with himself, or even more unlikely, to relax in the arms of someone who loves him. Then he sets aside the absurd thought.

“Close your eyes, Gwydion, and let me in,” he says.

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Ch7.12 Revelations

The day has so far been a quiet, lazy day of relaxation. Of course, the definition of relaxation seems to vary greatly among the various members of the family but thankfully does not seem to involve half a dozen Bunnies flooding the garden on finding their mother and her lover sleeping cuddled under the morning sky.

The night before, with its bittersweet conversation about their shared fears and traumas, had actually resulted in a little lifting of the dark cloud hanging over Dion’s and Alma’s heads. The honesty and vulnerability of it, awkward as it was by the very nature of the discussion, had brought them closer together through the abyss that has lately haunted their thoughts and made them feel isolated and hopeless, even in each other’s arms. A nice, if difficult, first step in the direction of recovery of their happiness together.

And waking up with Alma in his arms, the first rays of sunlight brushing against her skin and glowing against her hair as her eyes lazily fluttered open and her lips curled in a soft, subdued smile, had been a wonderful bonus, one of those ever-new sensations that he hopes will never get old. It had brought to mind that other time, that fateful day when the soul-bomb exploded in the cells and Alma used all her power and a good portion of his to heal the souls destroyed in the blast. When she collapsed with exhaustion in his arms and he held her until she woke up, eyelids rising in that same languorous way, to look at him and smile as if the world did not exist beyond the limits of their exchanged gaze. Had he fallen in love with her then? Or before?

He doesn’t know. Life before being enamored of her has become a bit of a fuzzy memory of something he was never quite happy about. Even through the constant pain in his soul and the fear in his mind, life is much better now that he can look forward to waking up each morning with her lying peacefully by his side, usually in his arms, resting in the comfort of his – of their bed. Though they both keep separate sanctums, it’s a rare night that she doesn’t sleep in Dion’s sanctum and the room has come to welcome her like a regular denizen, her calming presence as much a pleasurable background essence to the room as Dion’s own.

Her peaceful presence, with her slow heartbeat and nearly inaudible breathing, that cool touch to her skin that is like the gentle freshness radiating from a flowing river in the hotter seasons of the year. And the adorable little unconscious wiggle to her nose whenever he strokes her sleeping face. How could he ever want to give that up? When knowing she is with him calms the turmoil in his mind and brings solace even to those nights when sleep seems impossible?

When the touch of her hand to his is like a shield warding off panic and doubt whenever he needs it, like now that they have resumed exploration after a whole morning of slow, unrushed work in the garden, helping the Bunnies restore the lawn and preparing the pond to serve as a pool when fancy swings them in that direction. Trusting Geryon to keep an eye on the Bunnies, especially the younger ones, Dion and Alma now walk through the hallways where they had found the magic-warding glyphs the day before.

So far, they have found only a small greenhouse for special plants, some more delicate, some notoriously averse to contact with people and animals, their stalks and leaves almost perfectly camouflaged against the stone walls and glass window panes. Some nocturnal, kept in a shadowy corner. All still alive, still cared for by their assigned nymphs, which had been very happy for the company of the first visitors in over a century. Alma had not been able to recognize all of the plants, though she was sure that some bore Lyria’s mark of creation and the greenhouse structure in itself had undoubtedly received the life goddess’ touch and blessing. Dion had seen how fascinated she was by it all, perhaps even wondering how she could try her hand at something like that back in Three Rats.

A couple of other doors have revealed the usual supply closets, these especially stocked with equipment necessary to tackle magic gone rogue and transcendental fires. A third door had but the glyphs of summoning for a portal to another building in the estate, this one further removed from the main building and guesthouse. They had explored just enough to know it was an incredibly well-supplied laboratory, the likes of which any wizard at the High Magic Academy would be willing to go into a life of crime to own. What kind of experiments had been carried out there, Dion wondered? They had looked for journals, notes, anything that might indicate a smidgen of what his parents had been delving into at the time of his disappearance but…nothing. Nothing more than the handwritten labels on bottle after jar after flask to even indicate the shape of their calligraphy. None of which, Dion had noticed with a twinge of heartache, bore any resemblance to his own.

And now that the best part of the afternoon is gone, they are back in the main house and at the doorstep of a large study, comfortable and cozy like the rest of the house, but with a higher ceiling lined with darkwood panels. A large desk of the same wood, much wider than would normally be necessary, as if two desks had been merged at one of the longer ends, sits toward the far end of the room, with one well-padded chair on each side, indicating a habit (or at least a desire) of his parents to study/work together, perhaps exchanging notes and ideas and interesting new knowledge found buried in some old book as they came across them. And Fates, there are certainly a lot of books here.

The walls are lined in bookshelves, top to bottom. No stairs to reach the higher levels, not here in the Second Ring, where mana flows freely and a simple word of command will see a book floating down or flying back up to its designated spot. Which means they knew where to find each book by heart…

Dion can’t help but smile at the family portrait hanging on the far wall, at his mother’s happy face and her hazel-colored eyes that he inherited from her, at his father’s serene countenance of quiet joy, the jawline and black hair that have made their way to Dion by virtue of genetics. In his rare fantasies about his parents, which have lately become a much more frequent affair, he has always deduced, from his own love of books and curiosity about the inner workings of things, that his parents must have been lovers of knowledge. More than anything, that little bit of wondering has never failed to make him feel close to them, like a common thread to bind him to his ancestry. And to find this sanctum of peace and learning, with its sofa and reclining chairs and the fireplace that, from the lack of ash and scorch marks must have only ever seen magical safe-fire, the type that exudes a comfortable warmth without the dangers of spreading and consuming the precious paper tomes, is as much an emotional experience as having found his old childhood bedroom.

Incredible how he feels so much closer to them here than he did in their bedroom or in any of his dreams. And though it is becoming progressively easier to take all of this in as the various rooms of the estate unlock some of their memories to him, he still feels overwhelmed by the clashing feelings of sorrow, love, joy, loss and relief which are awakened with each step.

He rests a hand on the back of the sofa for support, letting the wave crash over him and waiting for it to recoil again. Coolness over his forearms and against his cheek announce Alma’s embrace, her body pleasantly pressed against his back. He closes his eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation, the upside of so many emotions vying for his attention being their cancelling of each other, leaving only, for just a short, quiet moment, the wonderful touch of her skin at the forefront of his thoughts.

And as the eye of the storm travels and the noise of all his other musings returns, he catches himself looking at his parents’ picture and wondering if they would welcome Alma into the family and give him their happy blessing. If they would accept her children and the rest of the Three Rats family. Even a devil like Sky…

They would, he tells himself. Because they loved him and that is what loving parents do…right?

“This is quite the library,” Alma murmurs in his ear. “I wouldn’t mind losing myself in here for an afternoon or ten.”

Dion smiles as he turns to face her. “Maybe something we can consider for a future two-person vacation. Call it a romantic getaway.”

“For as long as we stay away from the thriller and horror section,” she jests, kissing his cheek before turning to look at a shelf and run her fingers over the spines of the books, caressing the leather and reading the titles in that age-old ritual of all book-lovers. She stops at the first of a fifty-volume collection of thin books titled The Wondrous Mysteries of Afallon Hill. Afallon…like the name inscribed above the door of the estate and listed as its address: Afallon Fach. Eidon’s and Giffleu’s little paradise.

She picks the book out of the shelf and flips through the pages of simple text, clearly meant for children, and colorful, beautifully drawn illustrations. “Oh… I remember this. I used to love this series when I was a child.” She looks over the rest of the volumes. “And they had the whole thing. Even additional volumes of unpublished manuscripts by the author.”

Dion peeks at the pages, searching his memory. “I…I remember being read to from that. I think… The pictures are so familiar. Were they friends with the author, you think?”

Alma looks for the first page, to find a handwritten dedication there in greenish-grey ink that she shows Dion. “It seems so. Look. He even added a little sentence about them in the acknowledgments.”

“‘My dearests, we shall always have these dreams to share’,” Dion reads, feeling stunned at the affectionate intimacy of the words. “It almost sounds as if he had known them since they were young.”

“Maybe we can find him and ask,” Alma suggests, closing the book and returning it to its place.

“That would be quite the feat, considering the author ascended a few years ago,” a softly speaking, dry but sardonic voice says.

It is a voice that Dion has never heard before. It carries a feeling of hopelessness with it, even of helplessness, like a tragic inevitability that is as much alluring as frightening. But that is not the speaker’s own feeling – rather, it is the feeling induced in the listener. Not panic-inducing, no. Not an abrupt despair but a slow-creeping, blood-curdling dread that trickles down the spine and washes away all warmth, all light. A voice spoken from the mouth of an endless, eternal abyss.

He turns to look at the newcomer, the usual bravery and threat with which he would normally face any foe drowned by the drop in ambient temperature, by the way time seems to hold still around him, the hovering motes of dust frozen in the suddenly dim light of the room. It is as if the world has held its breath with no intention to ever breathe again. For the very last time.

Beside Dion, Alma has turned as well, seemingly unphased by the alien presence. “Father,” she greets without particular warmth.

Instinctively, Dion edges a little closer to her, not knowing if he is trying to protect her or seeking her protection. The god standing before him, in the middle of the room, looks anything but threatening unless, of course, one fears well-dressed businessmen or Voices or, worse, politicians. Taller than Dion, though not by much, Alma’s father doesn’t appear physically powerful, his expensive charcoal-grey suit and carefully groomed figure more an attempt at integration in a society that innately, culturally and instinctively fears Death and, by proxy, all death gods than to impress anyone. If anything, Death’s natural aura is already intimidating enough that any other upsetting features would merely be adding insult to injury. The stark-black eyes that seem to warp all light around them as if that is where it goes to die, are currently looking at Dion and flickering with something that might, with some imagination, be interpreted as a glint of amusement.

The pale face that is, in conjunction with the delicate lines of his jaw and the arch of his fine eyebrows, the totality of the physical features that Death shares with Alma, looks at Dion with a thin, predatory smile which the magic god is beginning to find unnerving, mostly for the similarity it bears to Alma’s when she is annoyed at someone she cannot quite afford to antagonize openly.

Speak

The inner voice of his sphere awakes him to awareness of the awkward, long silence Dion has allowed to spread inside the room. This is his house, after all, and here is his beloved’s father, whose blessing is not vital but desirable.

Show it we are not weak

I will, I will!

“Senator Death,” he says out loud in guarded tones. “Welcome.”

Death tilts his head ever so slightly toward Dion in informal greeting. “Young Master Gwydion. It is a pleasure, I’m sure.” The tone is level, serene. Sepulchral, even. Death looks around the room as he adjusts an already perfectly smooth lapel. “Time does go by quickly. I had not set foot in this estate for well over a century. Of course, it was mostly Lyria who had a habit of visiting often.”

The casual revelation is like an electric shock. “You have been here?” Of all people, is Death the one who can answer Dion’s questions about his parents? He forgets caution for a moment, impelled by sheer need to know. “You knew my parents? And…Lyria knew them?”

He looks at Alma, who looks the equivalent of a shrug toward him.

“Eidon and Giffleu… Demon slayers and devil hunters,” Death replies as if talking about the owner of a particularly nice deli down the street. “Rare talents to spark on the Insula. I remember they were quite useful during the Necromancer War, for instance when a certain devil was summoned and then disappeared.” He tilts his head at Dion, the soft smile on his lips growing just a little at what dawn’s in Dion’s realization is a mention of Sky. “Talented young couple. Guests at my wedding to Alma’s mother. Eidon was a longtime friend of Lyria’s. I think… you were five years old, Alma, when they went missing. Their house reeked of Hell and their son was found hiding under a garden table, hugging…something…” He seems to struggle with the memory. “A stuffed animal of some sort. Covered in demon blood and flesh. He had no recollection of what had happened, it seemed. I’m sure you know what happened next.”

Gryphy! He must have been holding Gryphy! Gods, he should have brought Gryphy along.

“Can you tell me…if there is any other information about what happened to them?” Dion asks, hopeful and fearful. He feels Alma’s fingers slip around his and squeeze his hand. He squeezes back reflexively.

Death does not seem bothered by the gesture in the least. “All I can say with certainty is that they are not dead. No bodies were ever found, no souls returned to the Wheel.” He raises his hands, palms up. “But that can only mean so much. Souls can hide in many dark places as you have had yourself the chance to find out.” His eyes glance for only a fraction of a moment toward Alma, their dark glow dulling ever so slightly. Is that a hint of fatherly worry? Whatever it is, it makes Alma tighten her hold on Dion’s hand. But then the sardonic glimmer returns, as does the dry amusement in Death’s voice. “I seem to remember there was even a discussion around adopting you into the family when they disappeared.” He dismisses it with a subtle wave of a hand. “Some wish of Eidon’s or other. Math refused, of course.”

Yet another shock. Dion wonders if he actually looks as pale as Alma, feeling the whole of the blood content in his veins drop to his feet. His parents, still alive? Adoption? Into Death’s family? Into Alma’s family… Under Lyria’s care. To be raised like a brother to his beloved, in a large family with so many mothers and brothers and cousins that even Alma can’t name them all. A real family with a mother-figure like bubbly, caring Lyria. All under Death’s watchful eye, a senator aiming for a seat in the Council raising an Archon’s only nephew.

He is speechless as his thoughts spin off their tracks at full speed. If he were to speak, he fears nothing comprehensible would emerge. The revelation is just too staggering to process.

And Alma looks just as dumbfounded as he is at all this. She, however, recovers faster, used as she is at dealing with her father. “Father…who else knew of this?”

Death looks at his daughter and shrugs, a slow, leisurely rising and falling of his shoulders. “Not that many people. All of them sworn to secrecy by Math, of course, Lyria included. Well, all except me.” He gestures vaguely with his left hand. “The problem of not coordinating one’s plans with other people’s.”

He turns and suddenly he is standing by the bookshelf to Dion’s left, inspecting a volume bound in red leather engraved with golden letters. Not a step taken, no portal, no gestures or delay. Simply gone from one place to the other by simple teleportation. The kind of thing Dion wishes he could do but hasn’t yet quite managed to figure out.

“But the world is not half as big as people dream it to be,” Death goes on speaking to Alma in conversational tones. “Especially where the Inner Rings are concerned. Though for all intents and purposes your path was cut off from Gwydion’s with his parents’ disappearance, Fate does have a twisted sense of humor curled around her stubbornness.”

Dion hisses, biting back a curse at the revelation. It shouldn’t shock him. It shouldn’t. He knows the kind of manipulative, know-better-than-anyone person his uncle is. But he still can’t help but be angry at the revelation of yet another betrayal of his trust. “My uncle and his secrecy!”

Stop it, you idiot, he admonishes himself. None of this is new. And Death is having fun pulling your strings.

He reins in his fury, unwilling to lose control in front of Alma’s father, certain as he is at this point that Death doesn’t think much of him and unwilling to contribute to that general perception. He schools his face back into calm blankness, as is proper of high society, before stepping into the conversation, “And yet our paths crossed again. And it is difficult at this point to believe that was an accident.”

Death looks at Dion through the corner of his eye, a look of utter condescension that might have registered as offensive or hurtful if the young god could somehow overcome the feeling of being suspended midair above a tank of starving revelations fighting each other for the opportunity to knock him senseless. “There are no accidents in this world, Young Gwydion. Not for the likes of you or even myself. Many plans are always at work, many minds competing to pull the right strings to make things go one way or another. And Fate, greater than and god, always having her own ideas. This you see is the result of many plans, all clashing together and culminating in the mess before you.”

Perhaps tired of the games and innuendo, maybe protective of Dion against someone she has always described as emotionally abusive, Alma steps between the two gods, her eyes narrow, one hand touching Dion’s belly as if to push him away from her father, words devoid of any subterfuge. “You knew about Sky. And so did Mother.”

They are not questions. There is no doubt in her voice. And Death does not try in the least to contradict her. “And your Commander,” He says instead. “And Varah. And Math…just to mention the people you know who might take an interest in your comings and goings.” He turns to face her, suddenly standing much closer than before. “Some secrets are best shared, Alma. What the Commander knows, Math knows. What Varah knows, I know.”

Death smiles and there is something fundamentally wrong about that that Dion can’t quite put his finger on. “It is all rather simple and logical once you think about it. And if you follow the thread for long enough, there is even the Council to wonder about. Giving a devil a Guardia badge and assigning their brave Dei to work under his command…” He shakes his head in disapproval, though his eyes are still pinned on Alma’s. “If they were anyone else, they would be on trial themselves. Which brings us to the matter I am here to discuss. The fate of your devil friend.”

Sky’s fate? Can they truly be planning on destroying him? Dion waits for Alma to say something but she doesn’t. She merely looks at her father in silence, holding his gaze, as if an entire conversation is going on beyond Dion’s understanding.

So he takes the turn to speak. “His fate? So they are considering eliminating him after all his loyal service? He was an asset before. Isn’t he an asset anymore to the Guardia?”

He finds himself raising his voice by the end of it, his fists clenched in anger at the injustice of it all. Though he cannot – sadly, he cannot stand close to Sky in his current form without feeling an almost overwhelming urge to destroy the devil-turned-god, he still feels friendship and loyalty toward the friend who had Dion’s back so many times and who now needs someone to do the same for him.

“Gwydion…” Alma murmurs empathetically, half turning to touch one of his clenched hands. “That is why I asked Father for his help. So that we can find a way to spare Sky and give him a chance at healing. I know Math will intercede for us but…”

She glances back toward Death, who says in the patronizing tones of a teacher dealing with a particularly dim student, “What my daughter is trying not to say is that you are forcing your uncle to expend a good many favors to reach a deal that requires a little more…force behind it.” He tilts his head. “Besides, he himself is not a fan of said devil, is he?”

Dion looks from one to the other as realization dawns and a horrible self-consciousness settles in. “This could weaken my uncle’s position in the Council.”

He feels stupid and slow for not having realized this before. Perhaps because throughout his whole life Math has never quite failed to find a solution for any problem he truly wanted solved, Dion has never very seriously considered the cost of trading in the future of the Insula. Of course, there were the parties he had been made to attend on his uncle’s behalf, the people he absolutely had to charm and keep happy, the myriad mindless little things – Dion realizes now how little but also how important – he had had to do in his uncle’s name. And the ones he absolutely had been forbidden to do, sometimes at great personal suffering, for the sake of the family name. But all in all, politics had always been someone else’s game to play and plan. Dion had merely executed. And now, standing in a room with a god who is famed for his political craftiness, and his daughter who has been shamelessly trained and used as an asset by her father, Dion feels like he is simply playing catch up. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to what was going on in the background before, when life was all about boring cocktail parties and pointless outings.

“Your previous endeavors have already forced Math to bargain his way out of letting you pay for Nekh’s demise,” Death says. “It is rather unorthodox to execute a traitor before he is proven treacherous, after all.”

“I understand that,” Dion replies. “But Senator, you are not on the Council. How will you–?”

Death raises a hand to cut him off. “Such questions are best not asked lest you get an answer you will regret hearing.” Again that unnerving smile which makes Dion very certain that he does not, in fact, ever want to hear that particular answer. “Your uncle will paint the two of you as blind followers, so mostly, it is the devil and his rogue agent friend who will be shouldering greater punishment.” He tilts his head. “Which is where your bargaining chip comes in useful, of course.”

“Nua…” Dion mutters.

Death nods. “Nua.”

The bargaining chip…Nua’s soul. By his own request, Dion has no idea where Alma is keeping the soul-gem in which Fencer imprisoned Nua and would rather forget they still have it in their possession. The thought of the necromancer still being so close to them is disturbing to the magic god, haunting him with a very real fear of a possible escape.

“Will we be called to testify?” Alma asks her father.

Death nods. “You will. Which is something of an unusual event in itself.” He turns and takes a step toward the middle of the room. An actual step. And then he is there and not standing here anymore. “The Council is already primed to accept that version of the story, I suspect, but you will be allowed a voice.”

He looks at them over his shoulder as he pretends to inspect a glass paperweight placed on the desk. “Of course, I am merely a consultant in this case. An expert witness to use your Guardia’s terms. So you will be tasked with most of your own defense and your friends’.” He gestures, holding the heavy-looking half-sphere with a colorful, twisted core. Dion can’t help but cringe at the thought of it falling and breaking before he has had the chance to hold it at least once. “Should you be averse to seeing them burn with the full burden of guilt, that is. Mostly, I will have a say on the true value of your bargaining chip.”

“Nua holds a great deal of information, and we hold Nua,” Alma says as if to lay it all out to Dion. And though he is sure she is not doing it on purpose, he still feels a bit diminished that she thinks he needs the explanation. “The Death Clan has the means to interrogate her and…we have our past with her, of course. I doubt the Council would have the heart to deny us if we requested she be handed over permanently to pay for her crimes against my family.”

Death nods agreement, smoothly putting the paperweight back down on the table. “Indeed. Though of course the Council’s heart is far from its most troublesome part. It is its head you must sway. And offering Nua, with her knowledge of necromancy, of Hell, of Soul Bombs to destroy souls beyond recovery and kill death gods as an added bonus, is very much a good way to do so. Not to mention her expertise in forging soulbound weapons that will wound any god no matter how powerful.”

He turns, leaning back against the desk to look at the two younger gods. “This little stunt, reckless as it was, has put the Clan at an advantage in this matter, Alma. After investigations proved how corrupt Nekh was, you now eliminate his main henchman, ending his reign of demon summoning and devil binding, and deliver to the Council’s hands a necromancer whose soul has been wanted for over two hundred years. This should at least alleviate the Council’s accusations against you. Play your cards right,” he raises a hand palm down and turns it until his palm faces up, “and the tables turn.”

“And once Nua is surrendered…What sort of existence will she be in, while being interrogated?” Dion asks, feeling ill at the thought of Nua’s continuance to exist in any form.

“Not one she will enjoy or be able to escape from,” Death assures him. “Varah has been chasing her for well over two centuries and I can assure you…” He raises an eyebrow as if to punctuate his next sentence. “She is already rather cross over not having captured Nua herself. But this is not something you should worry yourself with too much, Young Gwydion. Especially during a vacation in paradise. I trust Math’s ingenious plan of luring you both back up the mountain is failing miserably?”

A statement framed as a question. And such a casual change in the subject without even skipping a beat… Dion has to admire the mastery in rhetoric. The clear disdain with which Death sees through Math’s scheme as if it were child’s play and knows its outcome leaves the young god wondering what the outcome might be if Death ever joined his mind with Math’s resources and the two decided to take over the Council. And then again, it’s no secret that the Council is exactly where Death wants to be. The thought of how close that may be to becoming a reality makes him grimace.

After the initial impact of meeting Death, Dion is now starting to feel a little more at ease in the Senator’s presence. Hopefully he is still on time to raise his standing with Alma’s father from dim-as-a-rock to slightly-more-intelligent-than-the-average-fish. He looks at Alma, who returns his gaze and reaches to hold his a hand. He feels Alma’s fingers interlace with his, their touch sending a little electric thrill up his spine. Lyria knew about their budding romance maybe even before they themselves realized how serious it was to become, and she had been all for it, even going as far as gently nudging them toward each other. And Math had, possibly by virtue of decades of enduring Dion’s dalliances, never really said a word as to the wisdom or foolishness in Dion choosing Alma for a companion. Frankly, his uncle seemed not to care in the least. But Death is, somehow, far more intimidating than Lyria and Math put together into a bag with a couple of angry cats, and Alma’s simple show of affection feels to Dion like a shouted announcement of their love.

Which doesn’t even make Death’s brow twitch. So Dion gathers his courage and says, “We may consider living here, someday. But right now, we have people counting on us in Three Rats.”

“Only to be expected,” Death replies. “There go Lyria’s plans to entice you both back to the Inner Rings, flowing down the proverbial drain pipe.”

Though the words seem almost of a sighed resignation, his expression remains the same self-pleased mask from before. A fact that Alma points out. “You don’t seem at all bothered by that, Father.”

Death touches the tips of his fingers to his own beautifully-clad chest, making a show of looking confused.“Me? Oh, my plans are flexible things,” he says, amused. “And I don’t mind in the least having someone right on top of the action, so to speak.”

Plans, plans all around. Plans on top of plans, amidst plans, depending on other plans. Dion is so tired of plans… And he is tempted to just tell all these elder gods to go bob for smiles in Hell and leave him alone. Well, at least Death’s plans, whatever they are, are subtle enough not to rub in Dion’s face.

As it is, the head of the Death Clan is already looking at both him and Alma with an expression that suggests his time is precious and they have already used too much of it. “Is there anything else you require other than a small miracle for your friends?”

The veiled dismissal seems to have no effect on Alma. What must it have been like, being raised and shaped by a personality like Death’s? Meeting her father surely explains quite a bit of what Dion has often considered must be just a personal quirk, a twist in Alma’s humor that he was not certain might be a family trait. And she looks so much like him, sounds so much like him, they are fundamentally different but at the same time this Alma standing before him right now is not the same caring, relaxed, loving Alma Dion is used to knowing. This feels more like Alma, the politician, the eternally bored and unimpressed elite who is intimidated by nothing and knows how to reason her way out of everything. Dion is unsure of how to feel regarding this side of her. Thankfully, she rarely lets it out.

“I assume you know nothing about healing torn souls?” Alma asks with a sigh.

“In the days of old, that would be a Spinner’s task,” Death notes. “Though I would not advise you to seek anything from Sharia other than the lessons she insists you must take.”

The suggestion does not sit well with Alma. “She is not even a proper Spinner, Father,” she argues.

Death tilts his head quizzically, replying in a cool, dry voice. “And until you prove your own skill without a need for her interference, neither are you.”

Again that ease of movement that allows him to cross space as if it were nothing. In the blink of an eye, Death is standing just before Alma, his fingers around her chin, fixing her head in place. “So you will be smart and do the faithful-student act you have learned to do so well until she outlives her usefulness and is advised to ascend as she should have done a good few centuries ago.”

Dion clenches his fist reflexively, feeling his core react to this treatment of his lover. Her father though he might be, Death has no right to treat her like this. Not her. Not Dion’s mate. He only keeps from interfering through sheer force of will. Alma, on the other hand, does not give Death the satisfaction of fighting to free herself but the look she gives her father is pure loathing. If her eyes could kill and Death were mortal, his body would be lying cold and still on the floor before her with its internal organs pulled out.

Eventually, however, she is forced to concede in defeat, “Yes, Father.”

“Much better,” Death says, like a trainer commending a prized dog. His eyes glance toward Dion, a glint of proud satisfaction amidst the eternal darkness. “Forgive my daughter’s tendency to rebellion, Young Gwydion. I am still working on adjusting the finer points of her attitude.”

She is still mine, his unspoken words seem to say. I taught her all of her tricks and no matter what, I am the one holding her leash.

Dion clenches his jaw, biting back a retort at the way Death diminishes his own daughter in front of one who holds her as the most important person in his life.

Kill it. It hurts our mate!

The desire to attack Alma’s father is nearly overwhelming under the additional anger of his sphere but Dion cannot afford to do something like that. So he stays quiet and hates himself for it, hoping Death will leave soon. Which thankfully, he seems to want to do.

“In the meantime, my time here runs short. Enjoy the rest of your vacation,” Death says, letting go of Alma’s face.

“Thank you for the elucidations, Senator,” Dion says, tense. “And thank you for the kindness of telling me about my parents.”

“A truly remarkable couple,” Death says absentmindedly. “Sharp minded. I am sure you will learn quite a bit from their notes.”

“I will see you again, Father,” Alma says, deadpan, cutting off any possibility for an extended conversation.

This merely makes Death grin. “And I you, daughter. And Alma…do remember to put on a show. It is about time you find a use for that willfulness of yours.”

And then he is gone. And the light and colors return to the room, the air regains its freshness, time begins to flow again without fear. Life returns. Dion feels himself exhale deeply and wonders if he spent the whole conversation with his breath held. Beside him, Alma relaxes as well, as if some string in her just broke, allowing her to hang her shoulders and breathe deeply.

She looks down, the faint light of her eyes dulling, her face a mask of sorrow. She raises her eyes to him, her eyebrows rising in helplessness. “I’m sorry you had to suffer that.”

He reaches to take her hand, then pulls her closer, into his embrace, taking solace in her closeness. “It’s a lot to take in. But none of it as unpleasant as watching him treat you like that. It was all I could do to keep from punching his teeth out.”

Her arms wrap around his waist as she lays her head on his shoulder, sighing contentedly when his hand cradles it. “He wasn’t even being particularly caustic…” She pauses. “It’s like a game. It used to be worse, when I was younger. He steps into the room and…there it is. That tension, the pulling of each other’s strings until they break. Can’t really interact with him in any other way. And I hate it. Hate the person I become when he’s around.” Her voice sounds tense with suffering and she holds him tighter for comfort. “And most of all, I hate that you had to see it.”

The cold, calculating, sharp-tongued and sharp-minded daughter of an ambitious politician. Yes, it has been awhile since Dion last saw that Alma. Since Nekh, maybe. The memory of yet another trial makes him shudder. He covers up the involuntary shiver by stroking her silky hair, a simple caress that never fails to calm his nerves.

“I would have appreciated the warning…” Still, he can hardly fault Alma for calling on her father. If anything, it’s surprising that he’d agree to intervene in her favor this time. “I assume he isn’t doing any of this out of fatherly love for you.”

“We have debts and favors to exchange between us,” Alma explains without really explaining. “Things best left in their own dark corners for a rainy day. I just…” She straightens to lock eyes with him, pleading. “I can’t risk losing this trial because I refused to play all my cards.”

He breathes deeply, then nods in acceptance. “I know. We keep going to Math but your father is right. Uncle’s influence has its limits and…he’s not exactly a fan of Sky. Or Somrak.”

She snuggles in his embrace, holding him closely for comfort. As always, the contact with his warmer body makes her cool skin slightly warmer and it is a pleasurable sensation, the feeling of that contrasting duo against him, pressed against his chest, fitting snug in his arms as if they were the perfect match. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you,” she says in a whisper. “I didn’t know when he was going to show up.”

Though that isn’t exactly a proper excuse, Dion decides to let it go. It will be a long time, he realizes, before he can truly understand her relationship with her father. The same way he doesn’t always understand his own relationship with Math. Which begs the question, “What do you think he’s going to do? Do you think he’ll undermine Uncle’s position?”

Alma takes a moment to consider this. “I think he gains nothing from antagonizing Math. And Mother would kill him.” She pulls away a little to look at him and immediately he feels her absence. “But frankly… I don’t think I want to know.”

He smiles a humorless, helpless little smile and pulls her closer again, stroking her hair and kissing her ear before saying, “I do love your attitude. He can take his poisonous manipulations elsewhere.”

He feels a smile bloom on her lips as he presses his cheek against hers. She strokes his back in long, cadent movements, letting silence add weight to his words. “Imagine what growing up in that environment would have been like for you,” she says, eventually.

“Well, yes…” he concedes. “That would be a real damper in my fantasy but…think about it. To grow up with you, in such a large family.” The thought makes him feel almost nostalgic over something that never happened. “And with your mother – I know she’s as bad as Math and Death when it comes to scheming but…”

“But she would have raised you and loved you as her own,” Alma completes the sentence for him, pulling away just to look at him. And the certainty in her voice and the affection in her eyes as she drapes her arms over his shoulders and smiles at him make him feel misty-eyed with emotion. “Despite all the manipulation, she truly loves us. And I would have had a friend my age to grow up with me. Though, I was always sick as a child. You’d have found me a bore.”

He can’t help but smile at that, his hands falling down her sides to her waist. “Or maybe I would have held your hand and read to you in your sickbed.” His smile turns mischievous. “And grown up with very confusing feelings of love and attraction toward my adoptive sister…”

“Stretching the word incest to its limits,” she jests, leaning closer for a kiss.

He leans toward her as well, yearning for that kiss. But just as their lips are about to meet, the memory springs. Of her lips pressed against his in almost brutal contact, her tongue invading his mouth, moving under the control of a cruel, alien presence. Her scent stale in his nostrils. He stiffens and shivers, his throat nearly shutting with a gag. He feels Alma start to pull away, certainly noticing his tense body, but just before she can move any further, he pulls her closer and kisses her, forcing himself to acknowledge the differences between what his fears anticipated and the real familiarity of her lips. And as he does so, as the movements of her kiss and the scent of her breath and freshness of her skin reassure him like a soothing balm, he relaxes, kissing her with gentle longing. Oh, how he misses being free to just enjoy it…

As they pull away, she flashes a little awkward smile at him, eyes glancing down for a moment. Looking up at him again, she breathes, “I would have loved it.”

He purses her lips, biting back the urge to apologize for his hesitation. Each one of these moments hurts her, he knows. He can see her heart break a little even now. But somehow an apology just makes things feel even worse so he takes another avenue of discussion. “I’d like to think it would have kept me from becoming the person you despised just months ago.”

“I like to think he has evolved nicely into the god I gave my heart to,” she replies simply.

Such simple words, such sweet, heart-melting words. Spoken not even a minute after his near rejection of her. He holds her tightly. It’s the only thing he can do that won’t risk hurting her further. “Only after he gave his heart to you,” he says, sincerely, hoping she can believe it.

She holds him back in silence as if the slow beating of her heart against his were enough of an answer. A sign of forgiveness. Dion basks in it, considering for a moment how this handicapping of their intimacy at a time when he is recovering from having nearly lost her and needs to feel her close more than ever has made his needs for physical contact shift to an almost constant, irrational yearning for her close touch. It isn’t healthy, he knows, but he is helpless against his need.

“Do you think your father hates me?” he finds himself asking.

“I think…I don’t care,” she breathes, her forehead pressed against his.

He opens his mouth to point out that that doesn’t constitute an actual answer but stops as something triggers his senses. A gentle pulling at his attention as mana levels fluctuate at the tripping of one of the guarding enchantments set around the estate. A visitor. He stiffens, straightening and looking off toward the path that leads to the road to town, trying to detect any hints of foul intention that might indicate an actual threat.

“What is it?” Alma asks, pulling away and looking at him with worry.

“Someone is approaching the front door,” Dion tells her. “Perhaps our expected visitor.”

Alma looks worried, nervous at the possibility. “Just as we needed to recover from our last one…” She looks down, straightening her light, summer dress.

He reaches to take her hand and interlaces his fingers with hers. He cups her cheek with his free hand and when she looks up at him, he touches his lips to hers, kissing her with all the love and adoration he can pack into a kiss without the benefit of a full contact of souls. He feels her return it with every single morsel of the emotion he puts into it and his heart seems to expand to the point of bursting in his chest as they hold the contact until blissful breathlessness forces them to break it.

“It will be all right,” he breathes, his heart racing as they pull away.

She nods. “It will be.”

He looks at her, breathes deeply and squares his shoulders, squeezing her hand just as the doorbell chimes.

Ch7.10 Revelations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good night!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch7.08 Revelations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should have brought Gryphy along with me…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, he has always loved dragonflies…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch7.05 Revelations

There is an intrinsic belief to most intelligent creatures that every creature’s path is anything but lonesome. We are connected to others, through blood, through emotion, through responsibility. And every now and again, through something more. There are souls meant to cross our path and leave it almost immediately, shockingly sometimes. Earth-shaking, life-altering contacts. Other souls, however, are meant to stay. They are meant to walk the path with us, to guide us sometimes. To follow, sometimes. To walk side by side until the inevitable end. To be our soulmates.

And while this is true, the assumption that tends to follow – that soulmates are a once-in-a-lifetime event – is not. That they are to be romantic partners is not true either. The truth is that soulmates come in the most variable shapes and sizes. Skin, fur, feather, scale, spirit. Friend, family, lover. Companion. Love has but the shape we give it.

And it may come from the most unexpected places. At least for some. It is a strange thing for some, Alma knows, the relationship she has with Starfax. It is not a vocal love – Starfax does not speak, at least in any form of speech understood to most – not a physical one – the elusive phoenix rarely seeks petting – but it is, nonetheless, a loyal, companionable friendship. It is an understanding, of neither dominance or ownership between two souls who are better together than apart. A quiet, reassuring love that rests on the knowledge that this other being has chosen to follow the same path and won’t leave but for some unpredictable tragedy.

Starfax has always been there. Egg to hatchling to blossoming adulthood, she has always been free to leave, the bars of her cage a meaningless obstacle for the ethereal phoenix, meant more to ensure the peace, safety and privacy of a hiding place than to keep her from leaving. And Starfax has never left. Never judged.

Through fevers and depression and pointless wandering from station to station, all the way down to dark Three Rats, she has followed Alma’s path. And though she has mostly stayed out of the way of the Bunnies and even of Gwydion’s sight whenever he visits Alma’s sanctum, the goddess knows her best friend, her soulmate of decades, has accepted them as new features in Alma’s life.

Which is all to the goddess’ happiness, what little of it she has found in her heart in these last few days since Sky’s abduction and extraction from Nua’s malevolent talons. “Life as normal” has not been an easy thing to deal with. In spite of Arion’s promise of help, the nightmares have been a constant. And though her family treats her no differently – albeit with an obvious increase in the number of daily hugs and odd glances her way in search of reassurance – Alma still feels like a detached, almost alien presence in her own body. The frayed edges of her soul, torn by the power of the godbinding spell and then by Nua’s desperate attacks, refuse to grab a firm hold of her corporeal self. She is attached to her body only by tendrils, she knows, a gentle hold she might accept more easily if not for the stupid, mind-numbing fear that some part of Nua is still left in her, biding for a moment of distraction to finish what she started.

The thought terrifies Alma. And not just her. Gwydion as well. She has caught him glancing her way more than once with a look about him of careful, fearful examination. In the worst of her moments, she has thought of leaving, of sparing everyone the uncertainty, of sparing him the dread. She has mostly opted to hide away somewhere and cry the breath out of her lungs in those moments, hating herself for her own cowardice in longing to make herself disappear for good. Permanently.

And certain as three after two, Starfax has been there, perching nearby, watching in silence. Guarding her friend. Ready to go wherever Alma goes. Even those times when Gwydion has not managed to find her, when his arms haven’t embraced her and pulled her close and held her tightly, breaking any resolve to leave with that silent plea for her to stay.

How can he love her still? How can he still want her by his side in the safety and sanctity of his bed every night and come looking for her in a panic if for some reason she’s not there when he wakes? How can he hesitate before every kiss but still kiss her? The lips that have smiled at his screams of pain…

It’s the touch of Starfax’s cheek to her own that makes Alma realize she was crying yet again. The goddess smiles at the phoenix, perching on the bedside table by where Alma has laid open the one piece of luggage she is packing to take to Gwydion’s parents’ estate for this dreadful vacation she can’t help but wish she had never agreed to. Yet another emotional blow for Gwydion in such a short period of time, in a house none of them knows, that might even be dangerous – she is not sure can handle it all. But she will have to. For him and for her children, who desperately need a stress-free vacation.

“It won’t be as frightening if you’re there too,” she says, scratching the back of Starfax’s head before her hand slides down to pick up the cord around the phoenix’s neck, to which a brown jewel is attached. Nekh’s soul-gem, that Alma has entrusted to Starfax’s safe-keeping for the past two weeks. “Soon you won’t have this burdening you anymore.”

She takes the jewel for now. It will be needed for the conversation she has scheduled for–

“Alma?” Gwydion’s voice cuts through her train of thought.

Alma closes her hand around the jewel, then closes her suitcase. “I am almost ready.”

“Come on,” he says gently, kneeling behind her and resting hands on her shoulders. “Everyone is ready and I’m afraid Merri is about to get a hand’s width shorter under the weight of all the luggage she’s bringing along.”

The thought makes Alma snort as she leans back against him. “Who would have guessed she’s that type of girl? And it’s not like she is particularly fashion-centered on a daily basis.”

The subdued humor of Gwydion’s quiet chuckling is as much a pleasure as the feeling of his arms wrapping around her in a little squeezing embrace before he loosens his hold. “Maybe she’s just anxious.”

“She’s not the only one,” Alma notes, twisting a little to look at his face sideways. “You barely slept last night.”

He looks pained. “And I kept you awake…I’m sorry for that.”

With a little more twisting and adjusting, she manages to shift sideways fully, so that she can rest her head on his shoulder. “Don’t be. It’s not like I’m going to miss the nightmares I didn’t have because I was awake.” She closes her eyes as he strokes her hair. “And at least awake I could keep you company and be there for you.”

He doesn’t reply but keeps petting her for a moment. Intimacy has not been easy, not with the ghost of Nua tearing a gash of trauma and uncertainty between them. Since the night before their rescue of Sky, their essences have not been closer than the moderate closeness a kiss allows. Their walls are raised, not just against each other but against the world, a disheartening scar that has Alma fearing for the future of their relationship. Though they hold on, fiercely, to each other, hoping they can heal together.

“Maybe we can both get some sleep this week,” Gwydion breathes, kissing the side of her head before rising to his feet. “Come on…”

Alma rises as well after closing her suitcase. “Could you take my bag upstairs, please? There is a book I want to take with me…”

“Of course,” he replies, reaching to pick up her suitcase and looking mildly surprised at its lightness. “Don’t be long. The portal is scheduled to open in five minutes.”

“I will be right out,” Alma assures him, feeling a little pang of guilt at the little grain of truth she is not quite telling him.

He nods and leaves, closing the door behind him. And immediately, the room feels colder, the air drier, the light duller, lifeless. Not because he is gone. Because someone else has stepped in.

“A touching scene,” her father says with that mild intonation of humor he puts into every sentence, as if the world exists to amuse him. “If not for your failure to mention our scheduled appointment.”

“He has enough on his mind already,” Alma says, turning to face her father, currently sitting on the edge of the bed. “He certainly does not need to have this weighing on it.”

Death tilts his head and smiles. Just smiles. And in Alma’s mind his unspoken accusation blooms, He doesn’t need to know you never told him about Nekh’s soul.

The thought chills her. It’s no work of telepathy or suggestion. It is merely the product of years upon years of his shaping touch on her. On the part of her that she fears is just like him, cold and calculating and ruthless. Useful, oh so very useful. Cut Fates, oh so very costly…

She keeps her faint smile set, her expression carefully blank. “Thank you for coming, Father.”

His lip twitches with a grin. “My pleasure, I am sure. And why am I here?”

Alma holds a hand up in front of her, letting Nekh’s soul-gem dangle from it on its cord like an enticing prize. “Let us say you have something I want.”

Death’s grin grows with unrestrained pleasure. “It was only a matter of time. Was it not?”

Ch7.04 Revelations

The moment Somrak enters the station, there he is: Sergeant Edison Machado, Three Rats Station’s ranking Popula officer. The powerfully built man looks like he could break Somrak in half, if he could catch him. His hairless, dark-brown, bullet-shaped head turns and, even under his Guardia jacket, Machado’s burly shoulders strain the material as they flex at the sight of the gracile fire god. His eyes, slightly yellowed at the edges, lock onto Somrak’s, his expression betraying a continued lack of trust.

Somrak smirks and holds up two fingers to give a jaunty little wave. My friend, are you in for a surprise. Aloud, he says, “Boa tarde, Sergeant. Como vai?

Tudo tranquilo…” Machado growls, turning as Somrak slips past him and proceeds up the stairs.

Lindo!” Somrak knocks on the door to Alma and Dion’s office.

“Come in, Somrak.” Alma’s voice is muffled by the door, but comes through clearly.

As he opens and steps through, he asks, “Was it my cheerful stride on the steps that tipped you off?” He closes the door behind him. “Your aunt is stalking me.”

“Must be your animal magnetism,” Dion replies from his desk, where he is leaning back in the chair, loosely holding a pen pinched between his finger and thumb as if he has paused in writing a report. “Maybe you should adjust it to attract something a little less threatening instead…like a chimera.”

Ah, that winning Dion smile! Yet Somrak catches a hint around the eyes of the same soul-shredding pain that Somrak himself is constantly straining to ignore, caused by the same godbound whip. “Seeing as she’s also gone insane, I think I’d be better off dating fully grown dragons.” He takes a seat on the sofa, resting his elbows on his thighs. “I have good news, and I have strange news.”

Alma and Dion look at him, then at each other, then back at him, quizzically. The shared look of a couple. Alma says, “I hope you’re not announcing your joining my clan, Somrak. You have your charms but I doubt Fencer would leave the Commander for you.”

“Commander?” Dion looks shocked and shakes his head in incredulity. “Well, that explains quite a lot…”

Somrak chuckles at Dion’s surprise. “Well, would that be so bad? I could be the God of Cremations.” He shakes his head and takes a deep breath, the grins brightly and spreads his hands. “You two are going on vacation!” His voice suddenly takes on a hint of a carnival huckster announcing a big winner. “I have no idea where, but you’re going. Tomorrow. Portal opens at ten bells. With all the Bunnies, apparently. Well, not May. I don’t think May, anyway. But yes, vacation time!”

Alma looks surprised, but Dion just nods. “Yes, we know where we are going. An estate I inherited just recently. But it is not like my uncle to give such short notice of something like this.”

“I don’t know about that, but, uh, congratulations on the estate.” Somrak feels even more disconnected from reality. Now Dion is a landed aristo? He shakes it off. “So you might be wondering who is going to be running this place while you’re gone.”

“We…did set that as a prerequisite for accepting this week of absence,” Dion agrees.

Somrak eyes him suspiciously. “You didn’t happen to request anyone, did you?”

He shifts his accusatory gaze to Alma as well, just in case, prompting her to raise her hands, excusing herself from blame. “Math only spoke to Gwydion about this.”

Somrak turns his gaze on Dion, one eyebrow slightly higher. “Anyone mentioned to your uncle? Because otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to like this any more than I do.”

“We did not go as far as discussing possible temporary placements,” Dion says. “And considering he offered a permanent reassignment at first, I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind to go into such details.” He narrows his eyes. “Just who is being assigned here?”

“You’re looking at him,” Somrak says, drily. He lets it sink in for a moment. “And yes, I’ll be in command.”

Their eyes go wide in shock. Dion absently whispers, “He really did it…”

Alma sits. If her chair hadn’t been right there, Somrak thinks she would’ve fallen to the floor. She leans back in her seat, elbow propped on the arm of the chair, softly biting her knuckle. “I…” She looks at Dion. “We have been managing to recover here…”

“Now that the initial shock is gone…maybe we don’t need to go on this vacation,” Dion adds in agreement.

Somrak rolls his eyes and flops back on the sofa, almost bashing his head against the wall. “Oh, thanks! Can’t really blame you – I’ve been thinking the same myself. Oh!” He sits up again, with a You’re gonna love this look on his face. “That’s not even the weirdest news! Guess who’s going to be taking up residence, to ‘keep an eye on me’, which I assume means ‘chortle with glee as I flail about’.”

“Calamari Cal,” Dion suggests, deadpan, making Alma burst into a short bout of laughter.

“And here I thought there weren’t any weirder possibilities,” Somrak says. “No, it’s Fencer. She’s not going to help by the way. Just watch.”

Alma’s eyes widen in even greater worry. “Oh dear… We should definitely stay. This is too flammable a place for the two of you put together.”

Dion, less serious, looks around and sighs. “I did like this old building… Perhaps they are trying to convince us to leave by making sure there will be nothing to return to.”

Somrak glares at the two gods until they look mildly sheepish. It’s easy to forget that despite his careless attitude and youthful good looks, he is decades older and carrying several times as much experience as a cop – even if his experience is all on the unconventional side. “All right, listen. It’s orders. And whatever Fencer’s or whoever’s plan is, I’m not following their little ‘Somrak is a screwup’ script. You’re going to go. I’m going to do my job. And you’re not going to come back to a smoking crater. Got it? I’m going to tell them to go to Hell by being the best – by not being the worst commanding officer.”

Alma looks down and is silent for a moment. Quietly, seriously, she says, “I am afraid about something else, Somrak. Sky…what if…what if I turn my back for a week and return to find Sky mysteriously gone or fallen to his wounds…”

They both know what she really means. Somrak has long held the job of Sky’s executioner, should the devil-in-god-guise ‘lose control’, or fall into the wrong hands, or become a broken tool, no longer useful. The Council, fearful of a scandal, could order the Commander to order Somrak to carry out this duty at any moment.

Somrak rises and steps around Alma’s desk. She looks up, her expression apprehensive, as he kneels beside her chair. He takes her left hand in both of his and looks into her eyes.

“I will keep an eye on Sky,” Somrak promises, his voice soft and serious. “If the Commander got the order, he would tell me first, even if he was told to give the job to someone else. He would tell me so I could get Sky away. But just in case…Doria has assured me that I’ll know instantly if anyone tries to enter the Oracle’s grotto with ill intent.” At her sad but reassured smile, his heart nearly stops, but he tries to hide the effect she has on him behind a carefree smile, squeezing her hand before letting it go and standing. “And I’ll have a second-in-command Dei. Don’t know who, yet, but Fencer says I know whoever it is.” He wrinkles his brow and looks over at Dion. “Which could mean a whole lot of people. Hopefully not one who hates me.”

“Well,” Dion reasons, looking as if he’s running through some old acquaintances’ names as well, “we should talk to Machado about these orders and then get to packing. We only have so many hours to prepare, considering it’s evening already.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Alma says. “He won’t question orders from the mouth of a Guardia Dei Subcommander herself, but it’s still best to break it to him gently.” She sighs. “This was supposed to be a week to relax.”

“You can relax!” Somrak insists. “I’m the one who’s not going to relax. Things will be fine! That will be my mission: keeping things fine. And I will do it just to piss off your aunt.” He gives a little smirk. “All right, I’ll do it so you two can stop worrying, too. You’ll see. It’ll be great.”

“And you will make sure to water and feed Lexie too, while we’re away?” Alma asks, a hint of a smile twitching the corners of her mouth.

“The cat? I gotta take care of the cat? Right, deal’s off…” Somrak smiles to give the lie to his affronted countenance. “Of course I’ll take care of Lexie. Lexie loves me. I’m all warm. I can’t even sit down before she tries to jump on my lap.”

“Like I said, animal magnetism,” Dion notes with that brilliant, charming smile of his. “Perhaps you should try scratching Fencer behind the ears too. Or rub her belly.”

Somrak holds out his hands and shakes them. “Uh-uh! She’s the kind of cat, she loves having her belly rubbed for about three seconds, then she rips your arm off.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, looking at both of them. “So…there’s more weird news.” He waits until they look at him uneasily. “I can’t be sure of his schedule, which is always changing, but you may get a visit from somebody there. After he visits me here.”

“And who would this be?” Dion asks, suspicious at the sound of dread in Somrak’s voice.

The fire god struggles with just how to say it. “In the off-blues, you know we have a healer. Not a very good one. But for…special cases, we have an outside contractor.” He leans against the wall and folds his arms, looking at nothing in particular. “Sometimes we have secrets we need sealed away, so that they can’t be gotten at even under torture or mental invasion. And…sometimes we have memories that aren’t doing us any good. Sky called them ‘shrapnel in a wound’. Memories that refuse to shut up. Memories that don’t teach us or help us avoid making dumb mistakes again. They do nothing but hurt us.” He looks up at them. “That’s the kind of healer this guy is.”

He sees that while he was speaking, both of them have looked away, down, like him, and the haunted look on their faces surely mirror his own. They know exactly what kind of memories he’s talking about.

“I’m not sure anyone can just come in and heal a mind,” Alma says, skeptical.

Somrak nods. “He doesn’t, exactly. But he makes it possible to heal on its own. Personally I’ve resisted ever using him, but…it’s different this time. It can take multiple sessions. He’s very concerned about…being invasive. He’s just about the most discreet god on the Insula, too, or we wouldn’t use him. His mind is safe from being opened up through magic or interrogation or anything. Just…if I can get him to drop by your estate, will you talk to him? It’s your decision whether to use him.”

“Manipulating memory…it’s rarely a good idea,” Dion murmurs. “And these are very dangerous memories. We’re already walking the tightrope. If we take a wrong step and cause a scandal…”

“Yeah…” Somrak spreads his hands. “I’ve contacted him, and he’s coming to talk to me. Which is pretty nice, seeing as I’m not offblue anymore. From what I’m told, he erases nothing. It’s…well, better to let him explain it. I’ll just say that if you decide to go for it, you can trust him.”

They are silent for a moment, considering. Then they look at each other, tentative, seeking reassurance that they are in agreement. Alma says, “Well, I suppose we can always talk to him. That much shouldn’t hurt.” Her voice rises slightly at the end of each statement, almost making them into questions.

Dion nods. He looks at Somrak and tries to recover his smile. “I’ll leave you with indications on how to get to the estate.”

“Thanks. Might need to run up there in an emergency anyway.” Somrak takes a breath, letting it out with puffed cheeks. “Right…this is really happening, isn’t it? I swear, if they turn me into a regular station-bound Guardia… Eh, I’d probably be glad for the change.”

“Let us get your station up to speed, then, Inspector Somrak.” Alma rises from her chair. “This should be interesting.”

Interchapter Ch6-7 2: Math Comes for Dion

The rushing of water gushing from the shower head is a welcome sign of peace in the chaos of the last two days. Two? More… Life has been misery since the beginning of the new year, flooded with pain and nightmares. Some brought on by his own stupidity and insecurities, some by the hands of sadists and maniacs with plans to help unleash Hell on the Insula and destroy all that he loves. Some by the secrets kept by his own family, of blood and of heart, given to him by simple genetics and brought to him by the machinations of Fate and the gods know how many other minds combined, accepted by him for a hundred reasons. Secrets… A life butchered by secrets, stumped and blinded by the knowledge kept from him, all for the sake of what? Of pain? Of safety? Of the unremitting anguish that has driven him to numbness and apathy toward others? Of a purposeless existence.

And now some of the secrets are revealed, laid bare before him, a sphere blossomed. A good friend’s mask dropped to reveal the hideous face of the ultimate enemy perched on the neck of someone who loves him, who has sacrificed for him. So many questions brought forth… He still doesn’t know what to think about it all.

For now, there is peace. After the return home, not twenty hours ago. After the tearful, quiet reception from the Bunnies and station personnel, their faces gaunt at seeing Dion’s, Alma’s and Somrak’s weakened condition, the faint physical marks left on their bodies that even Lyria’s healing could not quite make disappear. They had had a day to mourn Saira’s loss already but the relief seeing the gods returned had brought forth fresh tears, the reassuring, if weak, embrace of their mother unleashing the pain and dread the Bunnies had been keeping at bay for a whole night. They had hugged Dion and Somrak as well, just as strongly, just as lovingly, quiet and subdued by Lyria’s constant care and vigilance. Until finally the gods’ wounds and exhaustion had caught up to them and Lyria had gently pulled the Bunnies away and ordered Somrak, Dion and her daughter all to bed.

Rest, however, had not come easy. Well, it had, at first, their recovering bodies demanding sleep and horizontality for the first few hours. But the pain was a constant and the nightmares had followed. Nua’s horrible grin distorting Alma’s beautiful face, the evil of that hateful soul killing the flowing, ever-shifting light and color of his beloved’s eyes. The slashing of the whip against his skin and the dreadful cackle in a voice made to whisper loving words sweetly in his ear.

Dion had awakened, startled, in his own bed, in his own room, fiercely holding the pale, white-haired body of someone he took, to his terror, a little over a minute to safely identify as his love. His great love, whose very essence he had tasted and merged with, tainted by the suspicion he cannot quite shake that Nua might still be hiding in there somewhere. He knows, he knows Fencer has removed Nua. He has received Melinor’s, Imset’s and Luminus’ confirmations, her brothers who have known her for over a century. But that part of his mind that is scared and wounded is holding up the suspicion like a shield. He had frozen, watching Alma whimper and struggle in her sleep, her brow furrowed in suffering, wondering for a moment in dissociative contemplation if he should wake and reassure her or smother what could still be Nua in her sleep. The very triggering of the thought of hurting his beloved had snapped him out of it, so unimaginably painful it was. So shameful and monstrous it was. In the end, he had swallowed his fears and kissed her cheek and gently woken her, whispering reassuring words in her ear. Somehow it was easier when she was awake, the expression on her face, the colors in her eyes so very hers. The way she looked at him, embraced him, silent, frightened and relieved. He had held her, kissed her, the initial instinct of pulling away from Nua drowned in the familiar movements of Alma’s lips, in the taste of her mana, her essence. They lay together, not doing anything much or saying anything important. Just looking at each other and holding each other, breathing in their respective scents, listening to each other’s breathing. Sharing silence.

And eventually she had settled down and fallen back to sleep, peaceful sleep this time. And he had stayed awake, watching her, incapable of falling asleep himself but forcing his eyes to gaze at her face and recognize all the little traces, his mind to remember all the other times he had watched her slumber. Registering every little telltale sign, every expression, every twitching of her eyelids and lips, the ever-so-subtle wiggling of her nose that is just too adorable for words.

Until the pain in his soul had found a reflection in his body again and lying down had become too uncomfortable. So he had opted for a hot shower to relax his muscles and, hopefully, his mind. Just a little bit of normality to sooth his thoughts, shaken by trauma. And it worked.

Dion exits the shower feeling better about himself, cleaner. Somehow taking a simple shower makes him feel more truly clean than Nevieve’s cleansing spell, the touch of the water more solid than magic against his skin. He stands still to allow the sylphs to rub and wrap around him, to dry his body.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, he feels the unmistakable tingle of a spell, reality shifting around him, transporting him to the familiar sight of his uncle’s private study, in the presence of the Archon himself. Not the one he uses to meet with plaintiffs and professional acquaintances, the grand, bright marble platform on which Math had first met Alma and the Bunnies right after their escape from the Fourth Ring, but the smaller, darker, more intimate one, lined with bookshelves and featuring that dark wood desk against which Dion once kissed Alma and she kissed him back, passionately, just the second of hundreds, thousands of kisses but engraved into his mind for the secrets he shared with her then. And they hadn’t even been lovers.

“I thought we should have a little talk,” Math says, sitting at that very same dark wood desk, looking grim and solemn and maybe – Dion is not quite sure – worried. “How are you, my boy? You’ve been through quite a rough patch, from what I gather.”

Dion looks down to find himself dry and fully dressed, the little detail and indication that Math had been watching, spying on him to know when best to bring him here. Just like Math, to spy on people and break their intimacy, all under the simple excuse that it is all for their own good.

He nods slowly, annoyed already and uncertain of what to expect of this unexpected conversation. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But I am…recovering.” He looks around him, surprised at how much he doesn’t want to be here, in this safe, so very safe, First Ring estate. “I cannot stay long.”

Math rises from behind his desk and comes around, his face now a full mask of concern. “Gwydion…you can stay as long as you wish. Certainly you would be safer and more comfortable here.” The Archon pauses, looking Dion up and down as if to look for any physical wounds. “You nearly died.”

“I know this. I was there,” Dion replies, speaking slowly out of a certain need to breathe deeply between sentences and keep from shouting a demand to be sent back to where he should be resting and healing. Home. “I was not the only one. And because of it, if they find me missing, they will panic and think me abducted. They don’t need the additional trauma.”

Math waves the prospect of causing generalized panic among Dion’s loved ones off as if it were a mere nuisance. “Fine…I’ll have you back in moments.” He leans back against his desk, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m keeping an eye on the place. No one has noticed your absence yet. But Gwydion…it is time to come home.”

Ah…there it is. Math’s move.

No! Home is mate.

I know, he thinks to himself, still finding it odd, this novelty of having his own essence speak to him, its impulses and quick anger permeating his thoughts. Home is family.

We don’t go.

I won’t go.

Out loud, Dion asks, his eyes narrow with warning, “Is that an order, Uncle?”

Math’s eyes narrow as well, lips pursing for a second before he nods. “It could be. It easily could be.” He lowers his head, rubs his eyes. “You have no idea how much danger you are in. You have been engaging in all sorts of wild escapades, but now your sphere has awakened. Hell very well may be aware that there is a Hammer of Devils alive and walking the Insula. You will be targeted.”

“Like my parents were before me,” Dion growls, fists clench on either side of his hips. “I remembered that day, Uncle. In the garden. My mother’s screams of panic as she was dragged away. It took demon ichor for me to remember.”

We were weak. We were hurt.

Math shakes his head, looking at the ceiling, at the bookshelves, at everything but Dion. “Such memories…bring nothing but pain. And you have had enough of that.” He looks at his nephew. “This can be spun to make you out to be a hero, Gwydion. Sure, you were led astray by a rogue Guardia, but you managed to save the day. Promotion to Inspector, a nice quiet station in a First Ring ward… You can get your life back on track.”

No! We don’t go.

The sudden flash of anguish at the thought of leaving everyone behind in Three Rats is almost breathtaking. Dion stands befuddled as if Math’s words were a slap to his face. “What? What do you mean by that? You think I saved the day? That someone led me in there as if I were a lamb for slaughter?”

We are not stupid!

“It plays better that way,” Math says, unphased. “That fellow, Somrak, apparently he was going through some sort of mental collapse. Disobeying orders, slaughtering an entire gang of giants on his own and disrupting an official action…” He shakes his head as if it were all a chain of unfortunate events.

“He was trying to prevent the Sikari from being sent to murder Sky along with his captors!” Dion shouts. “We all were!” He points an accusing finger at Math. “All because of the laws the Council created to contain Sky!”

“Wise laws,” Math shoots back, eyes steely, voice low but firm. He straightens, stands fully. “You know, I find myself surprised. You, Nephew, are a Hammer of Devils. The Hammer of Devils, to be precise. And here you are speaking of a devil as someone to rescue.”

Dion cannot even tell what is worse: the words or the fake, casual tone of mild concern and confusion in his uncle’s voice.

“And whose fault is it that I am only now discovering what I really am? Who refused to ever let me know as much as who my parents were?” Dion hisses, stomping his way closer to Math. “Who sent me down to Three Rats to serve under the command of said devil through maddened Archons and gang wars until we became friends?”

Math glowers at Dion, his power, massive and powerful and just…ancient, leaking through every pore on his skin, spreading around him until he seems to grow taller, bulkier, more intimidating than the fit old man he normally portrays himself as without changing at all. His beard and hair bristle with mana, his expression locked in severe scowl. “I did what I did to protect you. But now that your sphere is active, you need to come home. Where I can keep a closer eye on you.”

“And do what?! Put a collar around my neck and walk me by the leash where I will never see another demon again?” Dion can barely control his fury, the impulses of his sphere reacting against the perceived attack of Math’s demonstration of power, feeding his anger until his aura flares and glows its righteous golden, his eyes glowing, showing their black, inky marks. His voice changes to a roar. “Like a tame attack dog. And what will you show me of my sphere? What will you teach me about being a Hammer of Devils? Do you think that bringing me to the First Ring will make things better?! That I will magically heal and live a happy inconsequential life without Alma or Sky or the Bunnies, here, under your wing?!”

“Calm yourself!” Math thunders, the lights dimming except around his head and face.

The thought of leaving his friends and lover, his family, behind puts more of a dent on Dion’s fury than Math’s shout. The prospect of not having them with him makes him sick to his stomach. He could never heal without them. He misses them already.

We want to leave! Let’s go!

We will… We will.

But he cannot will himself to turn away from his uncle. Not yet. Math softens slightly, and the lights return to normal. “My boy, I merely wish to take you out of what now seems to have become a nexus point for Fate. If I had known the Oracle had taken up residence there, I’d never have sent you. And you don’t have to leave them behind, you know. I can easily arrange a transfer for Sergeant Alma and her brood.”

“A transfer?” Dion asks, slightly subdued. “You mean you would transfer Alma and Sky and the Bunnies to some rich neighborhood where we can all hide away?”

Perhaps knowing the strength of Dion’s anger is broken, Math goes to the sideboard and pours a glass of ambrosia. “I wasn’t thinking of a neighborhood. There’s an estate. Lots of woodland and fields. Gardens. Deer. Guest house. I suppose you could put Tuma-Sukai in there, though how I’d explain to the Council…” He glances at Dion. “Would you like a glass?”

Dion breathes deeply and shakes his head. His voice is calmer but strained when he says, “No, thank you. I… We all have our responsibilities. Alma is limited to the Fourth Ring with her children. And locking the Bunnies in an estate would be cruel to say the least.” His mind seems to spin, unable to reach all the ramifications of this offer. “I am not even going to ask how I’d climb to Inspector in this fantasy of yours.”

“Oh, you know…portals.” Math replies as if the words made any sense. Cryptic as usual. Just more of the same. He takes a sip of his drink. “Are you sure the Bunnies wouldn’t like it? I thought for sure they’d enjoy the estate. Nature and all… Well it’s too bad, seeing as it’s yours by right of inheritance.”

Dion looks at Math, eyes wide open, body frozen in shock. “My… parents’ estate?” He is almost afraid of the answer to that question. That such a place may be real, on the Insula and not just in his dreams… “It exists? All this time, you have held onto it and never let me know?!” Anger starts rising again in him, making him pace around the room just so he won’t take the easier route and punch the daylights out of Math. “I have been an adult for decades! I had every right to know it was there! Why do you keep doing this to me?! Do you truly hate me this much? Am I that much of a burden in your life?!”

Math sighs, standing still, twirling his glass in his hand. “I told you – I’ve been trying to keep you safe! It is all of a piece. And while sometimes your actions have been burdensome, I most certainly do not consider you a burden. I want to keep you alive and in this world!” He looks at Dion, pained. “I do not hate you, Gwydion. I have never hated you. You are all I have.”

Could have fooled me. “And yet you play me for a pawn and decide my life for me ahead of time as if I were incapable of thinking for myself,” Dion says bitterly. He stops pacing, crosses his arms. “What is your plan? I accept to return to the First Ring and then what? What marvellous life have you designed for me after I run away from the Fourth Ring with my tail tucked between my legs?”

“Well that is up to you. I hadn’t really planned on the devil surviving long… And I’ve only recently come to realize that your feelings toward Alma are as serious as they appear to be.”

Of course…through constant spying, Dion can’t help but think.

Math takes another sip of his drink. “As long as the Council knows that she and the Bunnies are in one place, out of the way, I’m sure she could work in the same station, under your command. With time, perhaps the two eldest Bunnies could be permitted to open a bar near there.” He tilts his head this way and that. “That might take a few years…”

“A few years?” Dion’s voice is sorrowful, his anger once again faltering. “What are a few years to you, Uncle? They are mortal. In a few years, they will be old. And the other Bunnies? One of them is at the Guardia Academy. Will you confine her to an estate after that?”

“Ah yes,” Math says, seemingly satisfied at the way things are going. “She was allowed to attend the Academy as an experiment. Assuming she graduates, she’ll be allowed to serve under controlled conditions. Probably the same station as her mother. Not that I think there’s any danger of her leaping upon the nearest Archon and ripping his head off, but some of my comrades do seem to think that way.” His voice is amused as if it were all one big joke. “Now think of how safe they’ll be. Kept away from all the dangers of a place like Three Rats.”

He swears internally, feeling dejected at how tempting the offer sounds, at how tired he is, how full of thoughts pulling him this way and that. How much he wants to just rest, sleep, run away from everything and just…sleep. In peace. Away from the pain and the problems and the danger of it all. He finds himself wanting to say just say yes to Math.

“And what will happen?” he asks, instead. “To Three Rats?”

Math looks genuinely surprised. “To Three Rats? It’ll…go on the way it always has, I assume. Meaning badly, but please, that’s not your concern, is it? It’s not like it’s home.”

And at that, Dion freezes, the lull of Math’s apparently sensible offer shattered. “What do you mean, it’s not home? It is home for the Bunnies. And it has become a home to us. The places, the people. They are like family. We’ve all been together through hardship and through better times. The Popula are not mere mortals, they are friends.”

Math looks at Dion pityingly, an Archon watching a young god care for mere mortals and finding it endearingly pointless. “Gwydion…mortals come and go. It’s what they are. If you become so attached to individuals, you risk greater pain than you experienced in your torture. As a whole, being concerned with them is a very good thing, but individuals…” He shakes his head. “You will see. Only immortals can stand by you through the centuries.”

“You know nothing of what pain I went through in my torture,” Dion growls, clenching his fists. “Of fear and hopelessness. And holding the one you love in your arms and…” his voice breaks as the memory of holding Alma in his arms, motionless and cold creeps into his mind. He pauses, taking a deep, ragged breath to regain composure. “And she won’t wake up. We learned very well how mortal we can be too. Besides, the Bunnies are mortal. Are you telling me that Alma is wrong in loving her children the way she does?”

Math takes a deep breath himself. “I am sorry. I do know nothing of your torture. But I do know the pain of loss. And I do not think Alma can do otherwise than love her dear creations. But I do not want to imagine what it will be like for her when they are old and perishing one by one. She will certainly need your strength then. Still, better that than a premature death in a dangerous ward. Even assuming there’s not another attack by demons, one of them could be knifed by some street urchin at any time.”

Dion bites his lip, bitter at how he cannot really deny that logic. And maybe seeing how conflicted he is, Math presses the point. “Why don’t we give it a little trial? A week at the estate? With Alma and the Bunnies. You’ll see how much they love it.”

“I…” Dion hesitates, looking torn, but then nods in defeat. “I will propose it to Alma.”

Math beams with a smile as if he has just conquered a great victory. “Good!” He pauses, his eyes distant for a moment. “Oh, I had best get you back. Alma is stirring. I’m afraid those clothes will have to stay here. Probably a good thing you didn’t have any ambrosia…”

And even before Dion can react to the words, he finds himself back in his own bathroom, naked, the sylphs just whisking away, surprised as he is at his sudden materialization. He doesn’t bother dressing, rushing to return to the bedroom proper, to the bed where Alma is stirring, batting her eyes open and stretching lazily.

Thankful that Math didn’t make him damp again, Dion slips into bed and lies next to her, slipping an arm under her neck, pulling her close, into a kiss, even before she awakes fully, his need of her bypassing the instinctive hesitations and visions of his recent trauma. She takes a second to respond, kissing him back once realization dawns, still a little sleepily, her arm reaching automatically to drape over his side. The kiss is a reassuring delight, familiar and cool, the perfect soothing remedy for the turmoil of his thoughts. His heart quiets, his essence curls against hers in bliss. He could kiss her for hours.

“Hmm…this is a nice way to wake up,” she breathes once they break away, snuggling against him.

“It’s a nice aftermath to an unsettling conversation,” he replies, holding her close, stroking her hair. At her quizzical look, he explains, “My uncle took me away for a talk.”

That seems to wake her up immediately. Her eyes widen with worry. “Oh… What kind of talk?”

“A ‘time to come home, my boy’ talk,” he says, sighing, uncomfortable even as he imitates Math’s speech. Pausing, he looks into her eyes for a moment, gathering his words and his nerves before presenting the issue to Alma. “He’s offered to settle us on an estate. Safe and far upslope. An estate that…belongs to my parents’.” He is silent a moment to let the meaning of that settle in her mind. “He says he can arrange to have the Bunnies and you moved there. Even Sky, after he is well.”

She looks back at him, reaching to stroke his cheek, a sad empathy in her eyes. Her voice is soft when she replies, “And what would we do with our days? Would we be his puppets the same way my mother wanted me back to Father’s house to be a political bargain doll again? And wasting away in isolation until he needs us for something else?”

The gentleness, that subdued resignation of her voice somehow makes the words hit harder than if they had been shouted. They cut through the idyllic landscape of Math’s offer like a knife through butter. She is right, he knows, seeing right through the illusions and plans in a way he wishes he could sometimes. That sometimes just makes him sad.

“Most likely,” he says with a sigh, closing his eyes at her caresses to his face. “He offered a station. A promotion. Portals back and forth between the station and the estate.” He opens his eyes again. “Part of me rejects it outright. Because yes, it would tighten his grip. But on the other hand, Alma, this place has been incredibly dangerous. Even we have nearly died, or much, much worse on more than one occasion. And for the Bunnies…” He grimaces at the memory of that horrific dream, of each of the Bunnies dead and eaten by demons. “He offered a chance to try it out. A week.”

How surprising that he is actually considering it, actually wishing for a way out of Three Rats. No…not out of Three Rats. Just out of this string of nightmares and pain. Just a week-long pause can’t be so bad, can it?

She holds his gaze, her fingers running through his hair, stroking the rim of his ear. She is silent for a long while, making him wonder what is going through her mind, what words she is choosing not to say. Finally, she asks, “This is the estate you lived in as a child? You must be craving to see it.”

Is he? Yes, yes he is. What will he find there? He wants to know. “I am,” he says after a moment. “Either way, I will need to go there to look at my past and see what I can find. But this trial stay…what do you think?”

She looks away, her fingers resting, still for a moment, on his temple. “I don’t know. The station needs us and I hate to leave when there is no Dei to stay behind. And we just told Sergeant Machado we wouldn’t leave. It always seems like we can never manage to stay here long. And to be that far away from where we can keep watch over Sky… But…” she sighs, looks at him. “I see the pain in my children’s eyes. The fear. They need a time off, I think. And I hate to admit but, you and I…”

“We need time away too,” he says, breathing out with relief at her mirroring of his thoughts. “Time away from constant threats and darkness. It will only be a week, I promise, and only if Math can work out some way for Three Rats to be watched over properly in our absence.”

She touches her forehead to his. “I hate to prove my mother right. But let us not make any decisions about leaving permanently, all right? I know this ward is dangerous but, it has become home. Turning my back on it just to run away from danger…what would we think of ourselves for it?”

He nods, cupping the back of her head. “I chose to stay where I could make a difference. What difference could I possibly make in some First Ring ward where everyone is a god who’s never known deprivation, or the servant of one? But, it’s not just my decision. I can’t make it for you and for them. The thought of one of them being taken from you before their time is intolerable to me. And the people we know here…we do good in their lives, don’t we?”

She nods as well. “The ward has changed since we first arrived here. Shops opened, the market is livelier than ever. Children will soon have a school. And the deal we negotiated so that Nataniel could have his work hours be mostly spent at the clinic really paid off. The bar is nearly full every evening.” She sighs. “I never thought I would love this ward so much.”

“I was very close to saying yes,” Dion admits. “He made a very strong case. But I feel the same way about this ward. Still, I would love to have you along, and the Bunnies, when I visit the estate. We can take some much-needed time off. Sky will surely tell us to go.”

She holds him a little tighter. “Hopefully, it will help with our recovery, long as that will be. And bring a smile to my children’s faces. I hate to see them so sad and frightened.” She looks at him, a small smile on her face. “I do want to see where little Gwydion used to live. Though…it must be an emotional trip for you. I don’t want to disturb your discovery of things or hinder your recalling of any old memories you might have.”

He considers this, smiling at her concern as if it were a caress of its own. “Perhaps there will be times when I need to be in solitude, rooms I will want to enter alone. And we will have to explore the house carefully and establish safe areas. At the very least so nothing that should not be disturbed does not get…disturbed.” He smiles wryly as the haze of slumber starts veiling his thoughts. “I think I’m not making sense anymore.”

She smiles softly at him. “Well, seeing as you are dressed for bed – or should I say undressed? – I think we can delay our shifts a little and take some much needed rest. Sleep on the issue, so to speak. And maybe you’ll start making sense again after that.”

He smiles, his eyelids heavy at the hypnotic peace of this joint haven of theirs. “Maybe he’ll do something really crazy and put Somrak in charge of the ward.” He chuckles as he drifts into sleep.

She chuckles softly as well, holding him close. “Now that would be something worth seeing.”