Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.

“WHAT??”

Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.

Ch6.19 Trust

The pastries at Kyri’s are without a doubt the best in Three Rats. People come from all corners of the ward and even from neighboring wards just to taste them or even to buy a batch and stock their own cafés. But interestingly enough, Alma has never seen the Copper Pot full. Well, except for when it served as a water supply point during the crisis with the Pearl. But other than during that incident, the Copper Pot has always looked like the perfect, quaint little place, with a half dozen tables inside and the same number in the street outside, with the glass display always full of colorful, delicious pastries, filled with Kyri’s ever-changing music perfectly attuned to her customer’s mood and to her own. Even the air that escapes from the backdoor exudes a constant mouth-watering perfume into the street, the best advertisement for any bakery. It is somehow just the most wonderful place to visit.

Provided one does not mind the way Kyri tends to make people sing and dance to her tunes. Her powers are well known in the area and some customers will actually visit the Copper Pot just for a good sing-along but Alma mostly tries to avoid Kyri’s distortion field by buying her pastries and eating them elsewhere. But not this morning. The whole situation with the hunt for the demon market, combined with the physical and mental exhaustion from Pak’s training and, later, Saira’s return to her room the night before, frustrated and using Alma as a target for her anger at her own body, has not allowed for much rest or relaxation.

The goddess now tries to find a little peace and indulgence in treating herself to a quiet breakfast at the Copper Pot. Maybe sensing Alma’s tiredness, Kyri has been keeping her music very calm and soothing. The coffee here is quite good and, combined with the half a cinnamon-and-apple pastry she has just eaten and the tranquil reading of the local newspaper, it has been doing wonders to make the sergeant feel much better about her day.

The gentle ring of the bell over Kyri’s front door makes the goddess glance up from a story about a local gang member found severely beaten in an alley not far from the market. She smiles at Somrak, who is standing at the door and looking at her as if he has been searching for her. Nodding his acknowledgement of her, Somrak walks to the counter to order some coffee.

“Now, how about a pastry to go with your coffee? I’m guessing you’re an almond croissant,” says Kyri.

“No, just the coffee, thanks,” he replies, not noticing the shock on Kyri’s face.

“Seriously? I offer a free pastry and you say ‘Just coffee’? Here? You must be new in town,” she says, incredulously.

He sighs irritably, “Just coffee.”

As he walks back across the cafe, Kyris glares, petulantly, at the back of his ponytailed head. Suddenly, the music in the cafe changes to a fast jazz number. Somrak looks at his feet, trying desperately not to panic or fall over as he starts to tap-dance. The other customers in the cafe barely look up as a tap-dancing fire god tries to make his way to Alma’s table. As abruptly as the music started, the music segues back to the soft melody previously playing, and Somrak stops dancing.

Panting slightly from the exertion, Somrak tries to recompose himself as he walks over to Alma’s table and stands in front of her, thumbs in his trouser pockets.

“You didn’t just refuse one of Kyri’s pastries did you?” she asks, quizzically.

“Mmmaybe,” he replies. “You’re not telling me that I wound up dancing over a croissant?”

Alma nods. “To you it’s a croissant. To her it’s a deadly insult. Consider yourself lucky you were only dancing.”

As he stares cautiously at the figure behind the counter, Somrak remembers the reason for this meeting. “Anyway, Saira’s fine. No fighting, no injuries. But she had spasms on our way back.”

Alma nods, her smile feeling strained to her own lips. “I know. I was awake when she returned to my room, ranting and yelling and throwing accusations.” She shakes her head, trying to dislodge the memories of Saira’s horrible words. “Please, sit.”

Somrak obeys, sitting in the chair opposite to Alma’s. He waits in silence while Kyri brings him a cup of her delicious coffee. After the petite goddess leaves, muttering under her breath about coffee and ungrateful gods, the fire god leans forward, elbows on the table.

“She didn’t like hearing that I’m not taking her when I go into that demon market,” he says grimly. “The spasms came after that.”

“Was she…causing problems before?” Alma asks, sipping her own coffee.

“No, she behaved…Mostly,” Somrak replies, shaking his head. “But the cuttlefish we got the information from made me for Guardia…” Muttering, he adds, “For the weirdest of reasons…”

He lifts his cup and drinks from it with obvious pleasure. “Anyway, if he starts letting it slip she’s working with Guardia… I fear something could go wrong.”

“Of course,” Alma agrees, folding the newspaper and bending over to leave it on another table. “Well, she knows that she is in no shape to go out on a venture like that. She does not like it but she has already screamed away her anger.” She sighs. “I am just glad it was at me and not at the Bunnies.”

Somrak nods and his right hand jerks forward, only to stop and rest on the table, not far from Alma’s. “Sorry about that. In the meantime, I need two things.”

“Name them,” the goddess requests, trying to sound brighter. She pushes her plate with the other half of her pastry, still untouched, towards him. “And please, save me from myself.”

Somrak smiles at the offer, “I see I’m having the pastry whether I want it or not.”

“Be nice,” chides Alma. “She might make you sing next time.”

Feigning horror, he promptly takes a bite of the pastry, looking somewhat surprised at the taste at first and then pleased. Alma smiles at this, used to being surprised herself by Kyri’s artistry with flavor.

“Well…oh that was good…well, first I’ll need a partner,” the god says after some more satisfied munching. “Demon market means demon summoners. Maybe even already-summoned demons. I’d normally rely on Sky for that, but I understand from the report on your fight with the demon that Gwydion can banish them.”

Alma nods her agreement as she finishes her coffee. “He is surprisingly good at it, from  what I can tell. And I would be just a little less uncomfortable if he were to accompany you. He can easily pass for a mortal and will watch your back if things get out of hand.”

“Hopefully he won’t have to lift a finger,” Somrak notes, drinking as well. “And I know some pretty good disguise magic so locals won’t recognize him. Second thing, I need a shopping list.”

Alma looks at him with suspicion. “What are you planning to shop for?”

Somrak glances around to make sure Kyri is out of earshot and keeps his voice low as he answers. “Components for a Soul Bomb.”

Alma opens her mouth to protest but then closes it. Although she has already stated she does not want people to risk themselves by going after the necromancer, she also knows that Somrak is not the type to back away out of concern for his own safety. She shakes her head. It would be like punching the tip of a knife, as Sheila would say. “I can’t keep you away from that investigation, can I?

Somrak smiles a roguish, mischievous smile. “Why would you want to? I just want to find a lead – the dealer or dealers who sold our necro the goods. You’ll be following it up.”

Alma looks at him in silence for a moment, trying to keep a straight, serious face but feeling the corners of her lips twitch. “I don’t have that list. My clan is not too keen on sharing information about this issue.” She shrugs helplessly. All of her requests to her father for information about necromancers and Soul Bombs have been left unanswered so far. “Paranoia runs in the family…”

Somrak looks slightly disappointed but no less determined. “Well I was going to contact the Commander about it, with your permission.”

Feeling embarrassed by her own lack of information about an issue that should fall in her area of expertise, Alma analyses all of the resources she could possibly have available feverishly. The idea that pops into her mind makes her grimace at first but she decides to push through and go for it anyway.

“There may be someone I can resort to,” she hesitantly says.

“Do you think you can get it more quickly this way?” Somrak asks, studying her face intently.

Alma summons her brand new record book into her left hand and opens it on the page dedicated to sending messages to other clan members. A pen appears on her right hand. “Let us put it this way: if she does not get me the list, then not even the Commander can get it from my family. And trust me, the Commander will sooner or later know about it.”

She starts writing a message but stops. The market will mean disguises, so there is no need for her to stay behind instead of providing proper backup. Besides, undercover operations are always an exciting prospect.

“There is one more thing,” she says, looking down at the page where she scribbles her message.

Somrak’s voice sounds surprised and concerned. “What thing?”

“I am coming along on this one,” Alma announces, the book disappearing from her hand to the tiny self-generated pocket universe where it is normally kept.

The fire god’s eyes narrow for a moment, in consideration. “Well, it is your investigation…”

“I will be relying on your expertise, of course,” Alma assures him with a soft smile.

Somrak looks at her appraisingly. “Can you…pass for mortal?”

Alma’s smile widens. She seldom bothers to dampen the aura of divinity that exudes from her as naturally as the scent of her skin. To both death and life gods, hiding one’s nature is an almost unfathomable concept and trying to pass for a mortal even more so. It is, after all, one of the reasons why life gods are so popular and death gods so…unappreciated by most. The auras they cast around them attract and repel specific types of people as much as their personalities do. No matter how elegantly dressed or how softly spoken, Death will cause people to feel uncomfortable merely by standing in the same room.

But, of course, Guardia work does have its special requirements every now and again so Alma has learned to rein in her aura. She closes her eyes for a moment, takes a couple of deep breaths to concentrate and slowly compresses her soul to hide her divinity, stopping it from radiating its energy and reducing the feeling of transcendency she casts around her. The result is more felt than seen, since Alma barely has anything blatantly magical about her appearance, other than her divine beauty.

Somrak studies her for a long time, finally nodding his approval. “We’ll have to do something about that hair.”

Alma tilts her head. “Why, do you not like it?”

Somrak’s eyes widen suddenly and he tries stutter a quick response. “I w– I didn’t–” He sighs. “It’s a bit too easily recognizable.”

Alma laughs at his panicking. “Oh, I know, I know… I was just teasing.”

A sudden tingle in her senses makes her stop laughing. Someone has entered her territory. And the sensation she gets feels like… Could it be?

Alma stands up and Somrak does the same, looking at her questioningly. “Time to go,” the goddess says. “I think the answer to my request has arrived.”

Ch5.56 Shards

As they reenter the station, Alma, Gwydion, and Sky are each pulled in different directions. Sky and Machado take Cala aside to fill her in, interrupting a conversation she was having with the Voice, Ewá Nanã. The former Eye of the Council smoothly switches to Alma. “Sergeant? May I speak with you?”

Alma lightly touches Gwydion’s hand and shares a meaningful glance with him, then lets him go on his way. “Yes, Miss Nanã?”

The Voice pauses a moment, overhearing some of what Sky and Machado are saying. Corporal Cala Lamore clenches her fists, then raises them to her face and whispers a prayer.

Ewá looks again at Alma, sorrow stealing over her reserved features. “I am saddened at your further losses. I wanted you to know that no children or Bunnies have left while you were gone. I was about to return to the bar, but… Well, I have been thinking.”

Well, that’s an ominous start to a conversation… Nekh mutters nastily in her head, sounding very much like an exhausted child throwing a temper tantrum. If she says ‘we have to talk’, I’m getting out of here.

You will already be too late by days, you oversized chicken, Alma retorts, growling in thought.

To Ewá, she says, “Yes, Miss Ewá?”

Alma realizes that she must look truly tired for the demigoddess hesitates. For a moment, she looks almost as if she will drop whatever issue she wishes to discuss but then she plunges on.

“I have rented a house not far from here,” the Voice says. At Alma’s raised eyebrow, she continues, “I did tell you before, I have taken a liking to this ward. As I may have mentioned, my main focus as a Voice has been to represent my clan, but I devote my spare time to speaking for those who cannot afford a Voice in cases of the law. While taking on the unusual role of Observer for the Council, I became aware of how many people here could use someone like me. They need me much more than my clan does.”

“And you are one who is compelled to be useful,” Alma says.

This brings a very slight smile to the reticent face. “I suppose I am.”

Oh, isn’t she the perfect little teacher’s pet? Nekh snears.  

I thought you were leaving, Alma notes with a mental sigh.

I was…but then you said you wanted me to go, Nekh replies in mellow tones.

Alma ignores him while she considers Ewá’s words. “I can sympathize. But this does mean that the manner in which we serve this community will sometimes bring us into conflict.”

Ewá nods. “That is almost certain. I want you to know, then, that I have the highest respect for the work you do and for you, personally. Even if we may sometimes disagree over the guilt of one of my clients.” Her voice carries an almost undetectable flavor of amusement. “But that is not actually what I meant to tell you.”

“Oh?”

I love you! I love you and I want to make Bunnies with you! Leave Dion and Sky and run away with me!

Alma sighs internally and thinks Quiet! at the Archon’s soul.

Blissfully oblivious to the goddess’ internal dialog, Ewá makes her offer. “That house is larger than I will need. You have managed to place some of the children with families, but still you have nearly twenty. Keeping them in the Burrow is only a temporary measure, and you are Guardia, not childcare workers.”

“The Burrow?” Alma asks in confusion.

“Oh…yes. Rosemary and Cherry told me tonight that they have finally decided on a name for the bar.” Ewá’s smile is surprisingly affectionate, for the moment that it lasts. “But back to the point: These children can stay with me. My new home can serve as a center for finding them families.”

Alma’s tired mind takes a moment to process the full meaning of the words. “So instead of a law office, it will be an orphanage?”

“Let us say ‘in addition to’ rather than ‘instead of’.” Ewá tilts her head. “You clearly have a great deal of work ahead of you, and I want to see this ward safe and secure as much as you do. Please let me do this for you.”

Alma takes one of Ewá’s hands. The Voice glances at their clasped hands in mild surprise, but again flashes that elusive smile, and gently grips Alma’s hand. On an impulse, surprising herself as much as Ewá, the goddess moves closer and holds her, hands taking the demigoddess’ elbows, cheek resting gently against hers.

“You have already done so much for me,” Alma says, feeling suddenly, overwhelmingly grateful. She has a lot of people to thank and apologize to. “You saved my Bunnies. You saved me, and Gwydion as well. And now you are asking permission to remove a source of worry and distraction from us. Of course you can do this. And I assure you, I will help where I can.”

Ewá’s body at first stiffens at the embrace but then the Voice wraps her arms around Alma, holding her tightly for a moment. She seems to remember herself all of a sudden and releases the goddess, moving away from the embrace sporting a slight blush on her dark cheeks.

Told you… Nekh taunts.

Alma, however, smiles at Ewá. “Can we move them in the morning? I would not want to wake them up at this time of night.”

“Oh, of course. And I am sure you must be tired, Sergeant.”

Alma nods. “Tired and in need of a bath. I bid you goodnight.”

Ewá nods, turning to leave. “Yes. Boa noite.”

Alma exits the station into the breezeway before she can be pulled into any more conversations. She nearly enters the bar, but remembers her own comment about a bath. She desperately wants to hold her Bunnies, but she imagines the smell of blood on her clothes would disturb their sensitive noses. She instead calls upon the portal that leads to her room. Unlike Gwydion’s, hers is no door but merely a circular patch on the ground. She steps onto the spot and forms the correct mental image in her head, and the passage directly to her rooms opens and takes her away.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The bar is finally quiet, its gas lamps turned down to tiny glows to provide just enough light that the human children will not panic on waking. Cherry and Merri have disappeared to join poor, exhausted Geryon, to give him some tender care and kisses for once again risking himself to save a Bunny. Mayumi wonders sardonically if the gryphon will even be able to move tomorrow, but then she feels a wave of affection for him. For all his complaining, all his catty comments, he is always ready to help when need is greatest. She does not need to wonder why the two bartenders care for him so.

The human children – those that have not been shared out to nearby families – are sleeping on futons, pillows, rugs, and other makeshift beds across the floor of the bar, and even some donated mattresses. Some are sleeping peacefully, while others whimper as dreams of recent horrors or past abuse afflict them. Kori, who usually seems to need at least fourteen hours of sleep a day, is vigilant, making sure the rescued street kids stay put at least for this one night, and keeping an especially sharp eye on Chime. The slightly younger Bunny, however, seems to have been cured of his wandering ways, though how temporary this cure is remains to be seen. He is keeping watch over the others along with Kori, perhaps too disturbed by recent events to sleep.

The goddess Kyri sits at the bar near a brighter gaslight, drinking coffee and writing music, while Ewá Nanã has stepped across the way to the station to have a word with Cala. In a corner nearby, Aliyah snoozes on a pile of cushions, changed into a men’s Guardia uniform, as none of the spare women’s uniforms will fit her tall, solid frame.

Near her, Sage and Mayumi keep watch as well, dressed in comfortable sleepwear, Sage in soft shirt and shorts, Mayumi in an extra-large men’s undershirt, standard Guardia Popula pale blue, almost knee length on her. Though their encounter with violent demigods and a demon, not to mention the murder of Corporal Stathos, have left them worn out from adrenalin and emotional shock, still they cannot sleep. As the night crawls toward morning, their whispers are too soft to be heard by human ears. No one has told them what has happened with Stathos’ family, and the memory of demonic screaming haunts them. But finally Tulip, the youngest Bunny, sleepily approaches in her beribboned flannel nightgown and snuggles into Sage’s lap, and holding her seems to allow him to let go that tension. As he nods off, Mayumi kisses his forehead and strokes Tulip’s white-furred ears, then begins to step carefully between the sleeping bodies, heading toward the kitchen, desperate for some water.

She is almost there when the breezeway door opens. “Shhh…” Kori hisses softly toward the newcomer. It is Sergeant Gwydion. He nods at Kori and then at Kyri in response to her wave, and makes his way toward the kitchen as well, clearly going for the magical door to his rooms.

Mayumi waits for him, and when he is close enough to hear her whisper, she asks softly, “Luís and the girls?”

Gwydion looks at her, his expression one of mute sorrow. He merely shakes his head, but that is enough. Her ears lie back and she surprises herself by reaching out and grasping his wrist for support. The news is a shock to her, even though she had half expected it. The tears fill her eyes and she looks away, stifling a sob. They’d saved Sage, and no one – no one but the kidnappers – had died. And now tragedy upon tragedy.

She feels a hand on her shoulder. Gwydion looks at her sadly, and without thinking she puts her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly. Though the culture she was raised in is not nearly as physically affectionate as that of Three Rats, she has always felt more of a need for contact than most of the people she grew up around. Perhaps it is something encoded into Bunny behavior. But because of how she was brought up, she has always been the most reserved of the Bunnies. And Gwydion…he is quite reserved himself. She has to admit she had not taken to him at first. She had not trusted him. The way he had tried to seduce Alma had repelled her. How foolish of him, to approach her that way.

Has he changed in his time away? No matter. He had saved them. Risked all for them. His eccentricities mean little in comparison to that. And now he has returned from seeing those girls, whom Philippus had brought to the station once, with whom Mayumi had talked and played as she kept an eye on them for their father – Gwydion has just seen their lifeless bodies. Mayumi prays that it was quick for them, but she knows it most likely was not. So she is glad when Gwydion embraces her as well. She may not have seen their deaths, but she can smell it on him, mixed with his cologne, and she is grieving, too.

She takes a deep breath. She steps back and looks up at him. No words need be said. Shared sorrow is its own language.

She wonders where Alma is. Perhaps she will find her in the station. She longs to speak with her creator, her mother. And Sky as well. He will likely hide away in his pain, she knows. She has seen it more than once in these past weeks. She nods at Gwydion and lets him continue his path, while she deviates from hers, moving toward the breezeway door.

Ch5.55 Shards

“I am fine, Gwydion, I assure you,” Alma insists. “You don’t have to escort me there.”

“Just minutes ago, you could barely walk without aid,” Gwydion argues, his voice tinged with sincere concern. “You are weak. You could collapse in the middle of the street.”

Ah let her! Nekh says behind Gwydion, beak perched on the god’s shoulder. She’ll do fine lying in a ditch.

Ah, so you are back, Alma greets him dryly, trying to avoid looking at Gwydion’s shoulder with annoyance. Now that you can avoid being of any actual help.

Why would I want to help you? Nekh barks at her.

Because if I am found lying in a ditch, you will have been lying there too for just as long as I.

The vulture-headed apparition shrugs. Heh, I got nothing scheduled for tonight, anyway.

They stand outside in the breezeway, accompanied by Probationary Popula Constable Longshot, Ewá Nanã and Kyri. Inside, the Bunnies have been tasked with keeping watch over the sleeping children for the moment, even if some of them are conspicuously sneaking a peek out the very-nearly-but-not-quite-closed door of the bar. The message that Sky had Longshot deliver is clear. Alma’s unique skills are needed at Stathos’ family home. More casualties have been inflicted on the Guardia’s extended family. Hopefully, this time, without the use of soul-crushing bombs.

And it is probably the fear that such things are involved in this case, along with an apparent concern that Alma is not by far at her best, that has Gwydion paranoid about her safety and insisting on escorting her.

“I won’t collapse,” Alma assures him. “And we should not leave the station without a Dei. Especially now.”

But Gwydion is obstinate. “If they wanted to attack us at our weakest, they would have while we were…” His voice falters. “…down by the cells.”

“Pardon me,” Ewá intervenes. “But it sounds as if I could be of some assistance. I would gladly stay here with Dona Kyri to keep watch.”

“With all due respect, Miss Ewá, you are not a trained officer,” Alma tells her.

“That is true,” Ewá Nanã agrees. She holds out a hand, palm towards Alma, in a request to the goddess for patience.

Closing her eyes, the demigoddess breathes deeply and whispers “Ri Ró Ewá.”

A short harpoon, similar to the ones that some tropical tribe might use for fishing in the river, appears in her hand, along with a short, curved sword hanging from a belt of woven straw.

“I am, however, trained at defending others,” Ewá proceeds. “And from the word on the street, Kyri has some impressive ability in that area as well,” she adds with a meaningful look at the diminutive owner of the Copper Pot.

“Oh well, you know… When necessary,” Kyri blushes.

Supported by the generous offer, Gwydion looks again at Alma. “Please.”

Alma hesitates but she knows she is too tired to resist. She sighs. “Very well.” And turning to Kyri adds, “Just make sure to keep any weapons out of reach of the children.”

“Oh you know I’ll let no harm come to them,” Kyri waves her off.

“And I did not go to all that effort brokering a deal only to allow some murderous rabble to bring your Bunnies to harm now,” Ewá adds. “Nor to allow either of you to risk yourselves on your own. Be careful. We shall be vigilant.”

Gwydion nods at both of them, obviously grateful for their aid. “Thank you, ladies.”

Saying their goodbyes, the Dei walk away. Behind them, Nekh follows at his leisure, feathered arms crossed behind his head.

Guess you lose this one to the pretty boy, huh? he taunts Alma.

The goddess can but mutter under her breath. “I still think this is a bad idea….”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

They arrive at Stathos’ house, no more than a ground-floor apartment where he, his husband and his daughters used to live. Used to, yes. None of them lives any longer, here or anywhere else. Outside the door, a Popula Constable is leaning with his back pressed against the wall, his usually bright-red skin looking dull under the yellowish, sickly street lights, his mouth gaping at the heavens. What was his name again? Ah yes, Dheesh. Just Dheesh. Famous not so much for the skin color and the intricately scarified cheeks and forehead but for his pious nature and unbreakable vow of silence (mainly kept by an earlier sacrifice of his tongue to some fire god). His tribe is from very far away, in the Fourth Ring, on the other side of the Insula. But Guardia duty brought him here. His expression a mask of grief, he screams his sorrow soundlessly into the night.

Ooooooh! Looks like someone’s been having fun here! Nekh says excitedly.

You are loving every bit of this, aren’t you? Alma asks him bitterly,

She can almost feel him sneering. Oh, dear little Alma. More than you will ever know.

A sudden sense of coolness around her shoulders tells her that Gwydion has removed his supporting arm from its previous perch. The two Dei strive to stand straight and unmarred by their tiredness, solid against the constant aggressions of the day. Inside the apartment, in the main room, Sky awaits with Machado, both struggling to keep their expressions blank,  their feelings tamped. Still, their fury and grief creep through at the edges.

Two of the room’s plastered walls are painted in bright orange and yellow and populated by numerous drawings by Stathos’ young daughters. Another wall, originally white, was apparently being turned into a mural, showing the drafted beginnings of a peaceful beach scene with a little fishing boat at the center.

Most likely taken from a picture in a book, Alma thinks, saddened at how much was left unspoken during her short, infrequent conversations with the amiable but introverted Stathos. There is no ocean around these parts. Perhaps Stathos’ little pastime project. Or maybe Luís was the artist in the family?

It matters no longer. All the walls are now defiled by ancient symbols drawn in blood. Their owners will not be bothered by it.

In the center of the room, three bodies lie covered in white sheets. Beneath them, colorful rugs shimmer in the lamp light with the thick, velvety hue of seeping, coagulating blood. Doctor Nataniel is just now rising from examining the smallest one. Syron, his ever-present companion, stayed behind in the station to examine the cells. The physician looks at her and then at the ceiling, sighing. Alma’s eyes follow his gaze. Blood spatter on the white plaster speak of arteries slashed again and again without compassion.

“We’re too late,” Gwydion barely whispers.

…” Nataniel agrees sadly. “Nothing else we can do here.”

The air in the room feels almost electrified as if the very memory of screams and shrieks and whimpers and cries is somehow still alive, still vivid, still an open, gaping wound cut into the heart of room, telltaling unspeakable crimes.

But the air tells no stories. The time has come for the dead to speak.

Alma kneels by the dead bodies, laid out in a triangle. Blood seeps through the fabric of her clothes but she ignores it for now, focusing instead on removing the white sheets that cover the corpses. Most of the Popula look away from the cadavers of two little girls, one around seven years old and light-skinned with brown hair, the other ten years of age and darker with curly black locks, both adopted by Stathos and his companion, uncovered by the goddess’ efforts. Only Sky, Machado, Gwydion and Nataniel are left standing near the victims by the time Alma removes the final sheet, draped over the dead body of Luís, the kind bald-headed instructor of Luta Marajoara, a kind of soft, friendly wrestling that seems to appeal to people of all ages in this area, with an easy smile and a shrewd, optimistic vision of the world, the great love and pride of Stathos’ violently stolen life.

The little girls lie with their eyes open, their expressions locked in antemortem terror. On their foreheads, ancient symbols of submission have been carved with a blade. On their chests, glyphs for death have been scratched by sharp nails. At a subtle nod from Alma, Nataniel guides a very pale, grieving Machado away from the corpses.

“This was a message,” Sky says in a low, growling voice seething with barely contained fury. “Like the bomb. They want us to know we can’t touch them. But they can touch us.”

“Message received,” Gwydion mutters, choking back his horror and disgust.

“We will prove them wrong,” Sky promises.

Alma feels nothing but numbness. Her senses are dulled by trauma and exhaustion, her eyes register the scene but barely rouse in her anger or grief. The sight of the slit throats on the little girls, the unpleasant smell of the intestinal contents that spew from their slashed guts and contaminate the flesh, accelerating its decomposition, the touch of the soft skin on their arms that are still to lose the heat of life, none of it sparks anything in her. They seem empty, hollow, bereft of the souls that used to animate them and that she is still to collect.

The silence is what hits her. With effort, she summons her soul-sight and opens herself to the call of their souls. But no one speaks.

Luís, his legs and arms broken, eyelids cut, belly ripped open and penis hacked out and left by a wall after being used for a brush to paint the glyphs that speak of harvesting and binding, is just as soulless as his daughters.

“It will take more than you think,” Alma whispers.

Sky’s gaze turns to her, eyebrow raised. “What do you mean?”

Alma raises her head to look at him. She had not noticed that her words had been spoken allowed, let alone expected Sky to ask her that question. “Their souls are missing.”

She tilts her head at Sky, seeing him for the first time under the scrutiny of her soul-sight. The tall god has always felt somewhat…off when compared to other gods but now she can see why. His soul, intensely brilliant and vibrant like any other divine spirit is strangely without a constant, well-defined shape. Souls adapt to their vessels much like water poured into a container. They should not fade away at the edges or try to burst out of the bindings of their shape like tongues of flame casting shadows at the edges.

Looks sort of weird, no? Nekh comments standing by Sky and then pacing around him, unseen. Like he’s not big enough for his size. He grins behind his beak. Think he’s keeping nasty secrets from us?

I would not think either of us is entitled to speak ill of anyone keeping secrets, Nekh, Alma retorts.

“Were they destroyed like the others?” Gwydion interrupts her thoughts, already looking at the goddess as if he expects her to start screaming at any moment.

Alma, however merely shakes her head. “No. Collected. By someone other than myself.”

Black lines begin to crawl up Sky’s neck. It is with exceeding effort that he manages to force them down below the collar of his shirt. “A god of death?”

“No,” the goddess states with certainty.

“How can you be sure?” Sky insists.

“Death gods are extremely territorial,” Alma explains. “We must be, in order to extend our duties throughout the Insula. Our territories are constantly shifting but well-defined.  No clan god would step into my territory to collect without my knowledge or consent. While I was out, one of my brothers was gracious enough to take over. As soon as I arrived, I felt him leave. It is how we function.”

“But surely the Clan is immense,” Gwydion argues. “How could you possibly keep track of everyone?”

“I can’t,” Alma concedes. She gestures at the horrific scene around her. “But look at the symbols on the walls and on the bodies. No death god needs this… spectacle to collect a soul. Souls drift naturally towards us. This person is not answering the calling. This is a free agent and there is no way he or she is releasing the souls to the Wheel.”

“A demigod born outside the Clan, perhaps?” Sky ventures. “Or even a mortal necromancer?”

“Necromancers are a rare breed,” Gwydion says. “There shouldn’t be more than a handful left who can do more than a few parlor tricks. But according to the books, those did cause quite a lot of damage by using souls against gods, in the old days.”

Alma nods in agreement. Necromancers are taboo in many circles, thought even to be extinguished. The Death Clan itself has effectively expunged the issue of necromancers from most of the records available to Alma and her siblings and she knows little more than the basics about them. And surely nothing about Soul Bombs… Still, free agents of any kind are very much frowned upon, rogues dealt with swiftly and discreetly. She knows that her father will not stand in the way of her investigation.

“Death god or necromancer, this is most likely a very dangerous individual. One that should not be dealt with lightly,” she says. “My clan will want this to be handled as a clan issue. It is in our best interest to catch this person.”

Sky nods, reading her request in the words she avoids to speak. “This is your case. All the resources you need will be made available. Whatever this gang wants, they are willing to attack Guardia in our own station, and in our own homes. That is…unprecedented in Three Rats. We need to shut them down. And…if there is any way to get these souls back and put them to rest properly…”

Alma looks at the corpses once again, searches deeply and carefully for any possible remains of a soul. Spells are seldom fully effective in removing a soul in one piece and if just the right fragment is left behind and then released, then there is a chance that the rest of it will follow it into the Wheel. In a stroke of luck, very much the only one in the entire day, Alma finds the cores of all three souls still attached to their respective bodies, glowing faintly but steadily after being robbed of the spectral energy that makes for a mortal soul’s outer layer. Partially numbed in her exhaustion, the goddess had missed them earlier.

“Well, these ones I can save,” she announces as she begins to release the soul fragments. “He left a piece of them behind. The most important one and so, the one that is most strongly anchored to the body. Once it is released, the other pieces will follow it into the Wheel, no matter where they are now. But I can’t guarantee that our mysterious harvester will not use better tricks in the future.”

“Well, at least this time we get to laugh last,” Gwydion mutters.

“It will send them a message,” Sky states, turning to speak to the god of magic. “And Dion, while Alma focuses on this, I want you focusing on the other gangs. They’ll soon know we’ve been hit. Some will be thinking we are vulnerable. It is time to make them understand what three Dei can do together. Let them know that you two are back. I will assist wherever I am most needed, and coordinate. This eruption of chaos is going to end.”

Alma looks up, surprised that Sky would issue Gwydion such long-term orders after being told that the sergeant’s impending departure is a very real possibility. She finds herself holding her breath, waiting to know if Gwydion has already made his decision.

Gwydion’s eyes widen. He looks nervous, avoids looking directly at Sky. He has not decided yet. “Sky, I…”

Sky blushes in embarrassment at his faux pas. “I…I’m sorry. I forgot. Of course…you have a decision to make. Well. I will understand, whatever you choose.”

He pauses awkwardly and nods at the sergeants before leaving to Sergeant Machado.

Gwydion watches him go, looks down at his feet. “I wonder if I will…”

Ch5.54 Shards

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

“Hmm?” she murmurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slowly, now,” he advises her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah…” Alma mutters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rest… now, child…”

The child looks up at her.

“And slip… into dreams,”

The room goes silent. Her voice gains strength.

“Let slumber take you away.

Pale moonlight

Through windows now streams

And with you forever I stay.”

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

“To a bed of white blooms

And gardens in Spring

I bring you in peace and let lay.

Your slumbering eyes

That have seen everything

Will see no more today.”

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

“Sleep, you’re free,

And lay, safe with me.

Your dreams, please, don’t delay.

Now you can rest.

I heed your request

And with you forever I stay.”

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

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

“I bring light in my eyes

Like rogue fireflies

To show the path and the way

To where you will go,

Far from danger and woe.

Not a soul I will leave gone astray.”

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

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

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

“Love, be done

With the light of the sun

Now that the stars come to play.

Forget fear tonight,

Hold my hand, take flight

And with you forever I stay.”

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

Singing to him.

“At the edge of the dawn,

Where everything sleeps

Holding the seeds of the day,

Hidden deep in your heart

And caught in its keeps.

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

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

“Close your eyes,

There is nothing to see.

Welcome the darkness and may”

She looks at him, smiling as she sings.

Sweetly…

“Dreams come true,”

Softly…

“Your soul’s destiny”

Gently….

“And with you forever I…”

Just for him.

“…stay.”

 

Ch5.52 Shards

“Hey Mistah! You Stathos?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whaaaat, no tip fer me?”

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

Without further hesitation, Stathos strides out the door.

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

His victims. Oh his myriad victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Really, it’s all right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Dion is already running into the station.

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

Aire, he surmises. Just a draft.

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

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

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

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

Carefully, Cala opens the door.

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

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

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

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

Doria goes pale. “What…?”

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

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

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

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

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

Ch5.32 Shards

Dusk starts to fall over Three Rats, masking the neighbourhood’s aesthetic imperfections while providing deeper shadows for the most imperfect of its denizens to move in. Inside the bar, Cherry is fuming.

“Where on god’s green earth is that boy?! Ever since he decided to wake up, he’s been disappearin’ on us more often than spiders in dark corners!” she mutters, stalking along the breezeway that leads to the station, looking for Sage, who is currently just finishing off some paperwork for Cala before his much awaited first date with Aliyah.

“He’s probably at Kyri’s,” the gentle Bunny replies, stacking forms with an air of almost absentminded calm.

“I’ve told him time and time again, he needs to be home before dark. It’s not safe for him out there!” Cherry exclaims, her voice betraying a maternal concern that she does not always care to admit to.

Since Alma’s sequestration in the First Ring, Cherry and Merri have taken on the unofficial role of protecting their siblings by enforcing the rules that Inspector Sky laid out for them, especially the one pertaining to Bunnies never leaving the station unaccompanied. Chime keeps either ignoring their scoldings or just plain yelling back at them, which has mainly resulted in Tulip learning the meaning of such big words as ‘agoraphobic’ – along with much shorter words that she is vehemently forbidden from repeating. Well, fine, so maybe there is a bit of agoraphobia in there too but it is more than justified. Well, isn’t it?? After one of the big guys uphill sends a whole gang after you, who isn’t going to turn agoraphobic? Sigh… Chime, of course.

Cherry sighs. “I’ll just go and bother one of the officers to go fetch him. I better not leave the bar for long and I can’t promise that he won’t get a tap behind the ear from me either.”

Sage chuckles, then smiles reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that in a minute. It’s not dark yet and Kyri’s is not that far away, so I’m sure he’s safe.”

Cherry gives him a hug and a kiss to the cheek in gratitude. “You’re the best.” She starts making her way back to the bar. “And don’t you dare be late for your big date!”

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Sage walks the familiar streets that separate the station from the Copper Pot. He had hesitated in hassling a Popula to go fetch Chime. They all seem so overworked lately… And so, he had left the bar after getting ready for his date, intent on making his way back just in time, trusting Merri to keep quiet about his unescorted outing.

Now, he notices the deepening shadows stretching swiftly into the alleys and squares and worries about the wisdom of his decision.

Maybe Cherry was right, it is getting a little late, he thinks, his gait quickening, his gaze becoming cautious, ears straining to hear and interpret every little sound just in case.

But soon, the vision of Kyri’s quaint and homely little café dispels his worries. Walking through the door of the Copper Pot, Sage’s shoulders visibly relax, as he senses the comforting safety of Kyri’s presence.

“Heya Sage, come to collect the young one?” Kyri sings, smiling toward the youth at the piano.

“Hello Kyri, I thought I’d better come get him before Cherry storms in with a lasso,” Sage replies as Chime groans, rolls his eyes under the long bangs that keep blocking the view of half of his face and reluctantly starts moving away from the piano.

“That’s my fault,” Kyri says, “I completely forgot to remind him of the time.”

“And I’m sure that he forgot to look too,” Sage chuckles, glaring teasingly at his younger brother.

“Always the same,” Chime mutters. “Never get to do what I want.”

“Well, I suppose that I’d best let you two get moving. I’d hate for anything horrible to happen, like Cherry getting angry for instance…” Kyri says, picking up a parcel from the counter, “I made some pastries for y’all to take back to the station.”

“Thank you,” Sage nods respectfully, “They will be very much enjoyed.”

“Yeah!” interjects Chime eagerly, “Aliyah keeps saying that your baklava is better than…”

“Any other cake,” Sage interrupts him, softly but firmly stopping Chime before he can finish his sentence.

Kyri laughs. “I’m sure there are many things Aliyah enjoys more than my cakes!” she teases, as Sage blushes slightly even though he still smiles at her.

“We’d better go,” he notes. “It will be night time soon.”

“All right, my dear ones, be safe” Kyri bids them farewell, squeezing Chime’s hand briefly as the Bunnies walk away and out of the café.

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“Why did you stop me talking about Aliyah?” Chime asks, looking sideways at his older sibling as they walk quietly through the streets.

“I don’t know, but I’m not sure that Allie would want everyone to know just yet,” Sage replies, shrugging and looking at Chime in that ‘humans are weird’ kind of way that the Bunnies have begun to adopt lately. “I think that maybe human love is more complicated than we are used to… Allie says… I don’t know…”

Maybe it is because they are distracted or maybe the people following them were really, really quiet and standing on the right side of the soft evening breeze (note: smelly alleyways are great for hiding smells), but in spite of their innate prey-sharp senses, neither Sage nor Chime notice the presence following them in the shadows. All Chime hears is a few quick steps before he sees a larger shadow, slightly darker than the ones cast by the buildings, tackle Sage, who falls to the ground, pastries rolling and bouncing on the cracked pavement. Chime himself barely has time and wits to dodge the pale, furry arms that try to grab him from behind but instead only manage to slam him against the wall.

“We want them alive, you idiot!” the black, furry shape holding Sage barks as the Bunny struggles to release himself from strong muscular arms.

The pale assailant, so pale that he almost seems to glow in the dark, mutters a ragged apology before tapping Sage behind the ear. The Bunny stops struggling immediately, knocked unconscious by the blow. The two attackers turn to the terror-stricken, paralysed Chime, snarling at him and grinning through a mouth full of shiny, sharp fangs. The pale one tries to grab Chime again but the Bunny, moved by some unseen force, quickly evades his grasp and kicks his attacker in the shins before running out of the alley, easily outpacing the two goons. At the mouth of the alley, he turns back. The attackers have apparently given up on trying to grab him.

The thought that Sage is still in their power haunts him but there is nothing he can do. He is not strong like Kori or brave like May or scary like Cherry when she gets angry.

But he is fast…

Silently apologizing to Sage for his helplessness, Chime desperately dashes toward the Guardia station in search of help.