Ch6.46 Trust

“But it’s a dry heat.” They say that’s a damnfool thing to say – hot’s still hot, after all. But there is a difference. Three Rats isn’t always hot, but when it is, it sure isn’t dry. The humidity sucks the energy out of you, leaving you like a wet towel tossed into the street.

But this place, it’s hot like an oven. Heck, it’s hotter than Three Rats ever gets. So hot, Old Scratch his own self would sublet it as an annex for the really bad souls in Hell. But Cherry feels like she’s in Heaven. She’s sitting on a grass-covered rise looking over a gently rolling plain. The horizon is impossibly distant – compared to living on the side of a titanic mountain, everything here is just so flat. The sky overhead is almost oppressive in its immensity, so huge and blue and dotted with cute little sheep-clouds wandering across it, Cherry feels the urge to dig her fingers into the turf to keep herself from falling up into it. And the sun, right overhead where the sky becomes its deepest blue, doesn’t seem to be any kind of god in a fiery chariot, but just some far-away big ball of fire, baking her to the bones.

And she loves it. It feels fantastic. The arid heat, the breeze, the smell of the grass mingled with the perfume of the wildflowers: bluebonnets, winecups, greenthreads, red paintbrushes, Indian blankets. Even the cacti are blooming, big yellow and purple flowers on the prickly pears, hot pink on the beehive cacti, red on the scarlet hedgehogs. A few lonely mesquite trees dot the plain here and there, and overhead a pair of turkey buzzards, the tips of their big wings like spread fingers, drift lazily, circling, wondering if she’s maybe going to be dinner later on.

Didn’t she live in a dream for more than twenty years? Of course she knows one when she sees it. But to her, dreams can be just as real as the waking world. Dreams can be home. And this place feels like home. It pulls her with an irresistible strength. This dirt her fingers are digging into, that soil is part of her. Somehow, she doesn’t know how, but somehow she knows that this is where she was born.

The wind picks up a little and she puts her hand on her hat to keep it from blowing off. And she can hear them now. Yes, definitely horses. They’d been coming her way for a few minutes, at first just a mass that was hard to make out, so distant they were, but now she’s sure, they’re no cattle. She’d known anyway. How, she couldn’t say. Not like she’s ever really seen a herd of cattle or horses on the plains. She’s a city girl, a bar owner, not the cowgirl she’s dressed as right now. She stands and stretches, admiring the soft denim jeans she’s wearing, fitting her like a second skin and faded naturally from years of wear, the turquoise-and-silver belt, the hand-stitched cowboy boots, the cotton work shirt. She reaches up to remove the hat, a little tricky due to the slits that let her ears poke through the brim, but she slips it off and smiles at the simple but skilled straw construction and the beautiful red-green-blue pattern of the feather hatband. But those big far-sighted eyes of hers just can’t take so much sun, and she puts it back on, settling it over her thick curls, at the moment pulled back into a ponytail, or rather, in her case, a pony-puff that kind of matches the bunny-tail down below.

The sound of the mustangs’ hooves reaches her, and a distant whinny from them is answered by a loud neigh right behind her. She nearly jumps out of her skin, and does literally spring into the air, spinning in mid-jump like an armadillo that hears something sneaking up behind it, to land facing…what?

It takes her a long stare to figure out exactly what she’s looking at. This is no scruffy wild mustang that’s somehow tiptoed up behind her to go “Boo!” This is a huge, majestic stallion, blacker than black, like a hole cut in the universe, a doorway to another world, filled with stars, but the next moment he is solid, his black and white mane and tail blowing in the breeze. His head, raised to call out to the mustangs, lowers to sniff the ground, and then he swings his big head to the left and turns to walk away.

“That does it,” she murmurs to herself. “No more experimentin’ with cocktails before bed.” But she knows better than to deny dream logic. She jogs after the horse, saying “Hey, whoa! Hold up there, big fella!”

The horse stops and looks up at the sky. His mane billows across Cherry’s vision, and the sun is replaced by the moon, full and silvery, the sky a deep black broken only by ten thousand stars, most of them concentrated in a wide river swerving from horizon to horizon. He turns to look at her, once again appearing like a stallion-shaped opening in Reality, though his eyes regard her calmly, blinking once.

Cherry shakes her head at the sudden change, pulling her eyes from the fantastic sky to look at the transformed landscape, repainted in silver and black. “Well now ain’t that somethin’?” A crazy side-thought has her worrying about rattlers in the grass. Her left hand brushes something metal, like a tool on her belt. She looks down and sees she’s now wearing a sword, a rapier with a simple curved-bar guard, and beside it a long dagger with a matching guard. “Huh? Well that’ll do for a snake in a pinch, that’s for sure.” She looks at the weapons on her belt, then at the horse. “I can just imagine what a head-shrinker would make of all this. You got a name?”

The stallion lowers his great head, apparently back to being more on the solid side. Everything has a name, little Cherish. Even I.

Cherry feels the hat shift back on her head as her ears go down. “Whoa! I was just kiddin’.” She approaches closer. She looks at him for permission, and when she feels she has it, reaches out to touch his neck. “You…you ain’t just part of my imagination, are you? This is one a’ them deep dreams.”

It is a dream. And you are awake in it. In charge of all your thoughts.

Stroking his neck, then shoulder, feeling the sleek hair, the powerful muscles, she asks, “So who are you? You know my name. And nobody knows my real name ‘cept Merri.”

I have known your name for as long as you have had it. My name is Arion. I am a Void Rider from beyond the Insula. He looks up. Above, in the sky, the stars seem to dance, rippling as something invisible moves past them. Something that, from the distortions, seems distinctly horse-shaped.

“Ghost riders in the sky,” Cherry whispers, agape at the beauty. She looks back at him. “Arion… Alma told us about you. You’re…our, uh, our father.”

He turns his nose to her, breathing warm, moist, pleasant-smelling air against her face. I am. Your mother told me you were eager to meet me.

The Bunny puts her hands on his big cheek muscles. “Is it…really you then?”

It is. Inasmuch as newly created life forms have parents, you have them in your mother and I. It has been a long time, since I have last stood this close to you. Then, you fit in your mother’s arms with room to spare.

Long-pent feelings start to break free like a flash flood roaring down an arroyo. “You…did you…did you ever hold me?”

Of course. I have held all of you. At least once. Baby Bunnies…so fragile you were. As if a touch could break you. Or a whisper could blow you away.

He turns his head slightly, and Cherry’s eyes follow to see a strange scene taking place on the landscape, within a nimbus of wavering light. A couple, young and visibly nervous, look at the bundles they hold in their arms and smile. The man is tall and dark-tanned, with flowing black hair and a several locks of white. But Cherry’s eyes are on the white-haired woman, apparently younger than Cherry, in her early twenties perhaps, midway in appearance between the child that is Tulip and the mature cop Alma.

Cherry gasps. She hesitates, but can’t resist moving closer, wanting to see what they are holding. The woman looks incredulous but happy, doting on her cargo, holding it close to her chest. She lowers her arms, as if she can see the grown Bunny before her. Cherry sees a glimpse of light-brown skin, two long black-furred ears contrasted against the light-colored blanket, a nearly bald head with just a few swirls of black hair looking almost painted on. The eyes are closed and the plump-cheeked face is in repose, but the little mouth opens wide in a yawn.

And the man slips the other bundled infant into Alma’s arms – for surely it is Alma – and Cherry sees the pink face of another sleeping babe, reddish fuzz on her head, rust-furred ears quite short for a Bunny. Cherry feels tears spilling over her cheeks. She’s never even thought to see her dear Rosemary like this, at the moment of her creation, so tiny and perfect, from a time she doesn’t have the slightest memory of. She takes a step away and feels her back touch Arion, then turns and puts her arms around him. But she feels arms around her, big strong arms, safe arms, and realizes with a shock that she’s holding a human waist rather than the expected equine neck.

She looks up to see the same man that had been holding Merri moments before, looking not a bit older. His fingertips stroke her cheek, wiping away a tear, radiating old power, peace and wisdom despite his youthful appearance. I hope there can be joy behind your tears, little one.

She nods, and presses the side of her face against his chest, holding him tighter. “There is…it’s good to finally see you and hold you.” But then she takes a step back and slaps her hand against his chest, lightly. “But where the heck have you been all this time? If you can go into dreams, how come we didn’t have you with us all those years? We may’ve been livin’ in dreams, but they weren’t always nice ones!”

Arion looks at her with an expression that looks so ancient and far away that Cherry feels like there’s a canyon between them so deep and wide that no bridge could ever be built across it. I have always been closer than you knew, watching over you. As your mother watched over your bodies, I saw to it that your minds would have room to develop in stasis. Alas, there are rules that even I must follow in the Dreamlands. And not making myself known was one of them.

Cherry grabs her hat off her head and throws it on the ground, boiling over with anger. She turns away, mouth set hard to keep in words that she knows she’d regret letting loose, and crosses her arms. But when he puts those big hands on her shoulders, her body slumps a little. What’s the use of bein’ mad? she asks herself. Instead, she lets herself lean back against him, and then finds herself horizontal, lying on the grass and wildflowers, her head on his lap as he sits cross-legged. He’s stroking her curls gently, and she says, “I don’t understand any of that stuff. But…when it comes to gods, I figure I just gotta be okay with not understandin’.”

Cherry’s been lucky. Most of the gods she’s known are pretty down-to-earth, not setting themselves up as the natural masters of mortals. And even this god, so far above her that even many gods shake in their boots at the thought of him, doesn’t make her feel like a fool. If her confusion amuses Arion, as it would so many gods, stuck-up and mightier-than-thou as they tend to be, he shows no signs of it. It is all right for you to be angry at me, little Cherish. At your mother, at the Council, at Fate… I imagine that all of this feels utterly bewildering to you, not just as a mortal but as a child. And whether things could have been done differently or better, that is not for me to say. All I can do is focus on the present day and hope I will not make a bad job of it.

She closes her eyes and just tries to forget everything else, and just enjoy the simple pleasure of her daddy petting her hair. She does her best to push away regrets about time lost, and the suspicion that she’s not likely to see him again for a long time. And for a little while, it works. She feels she could almost fall asleep like this.

She murmurs, “So you visitin’ all the others too, tonight?”

No, Cherish. Tonight is your night.

“Aww…” She takes one of his big hands in her slender one, and squeezes affectionately. “Thank you.” She opens her eyes and cranes her head back a little. “You know I ain’t really got a good look at you in human form.” She sees, reversed, the long, handsome face, the flowing black hair with white locks, braided loosely and hanging over one shoulder. A stray thought crosses her mind and makes her giggle. Funny how Somrak’s got a white lock of hair now. Oh! Hope Arion didn’t hear that! She tries to quickly change the stream of her thoughts, just in case. “I don’t even know where to start with the questions. Do you have, like, hobbies? Probably not…”

Arion chuckles, light and easy, smiling down at her. The chasm between them might be wide, but just for the moment, they’re on the same side of it. I do. Watching over you is one of them. And that is why I am going to need you to wake up, now.

Cherry sits bolt upright and twists at the hip to look at him, her face consternated. “But…but why?”

Trust me, little one. There is something happening in the Waking World that you will not want to miss. I do not want you angry at me for keeping you from it.

“Uh oh. Is ice cream gonna be involved?” Now why the heck did I say that?

Arion laughs, short and whickering like a horse. No… He leans forward and cups her face in his hands, suddenly serious but tender. But tears might. He gives her a gentle kiss on the her forehead.

“No…wait!” But the sound of her voice makes her realize she’s no longer under the wide-open sky, but in her own room, sitting upright and twisted, trying to look behind her at a father who is, again, gone. Beside her, Merri stops her gentle snoring but just squirms a little for comfort and continues her usual stone-like sleep. Cherry looks down at Merri’s tousled red hair and disarrayed fleece pajamas, and smiles at how Merri refuses to believe she snores. But it’s the music Cherry falls asleep to. She wishes Merri could’ve been there with Arion, with her, together. Maybe next time.

And thinking of that…Cherry looks around. Where the hey did May get to? When Cherry had fallen asleep, May had been with them, joining them for a goodbye. Merri had been so upset about May leaving the day after tomorrow. Well, tomorrow now. And Cherry had to admit she’d gotten a little weepy too. She felt bad, knowing May probably wanted to be with Sky, but dang it, they needed May too. Sky could have her tomorrow night. Maybe that big lunkhead would finally take her to bed. Takin’ it slow…that’s just plain silly.

In the silence, Cherry’s ears twitch, catching the sound of Lexie’s meowing. Lexie don’t meow all by herself, Cherry thinks. And the furious whispers that follow confirm that someone’s being sneaky in the bar. Cherry slips out of bed to see what’s up.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Look at her, sneaking about like a common criminal trying to get out of jail. Wait, she is a common criminal trying to get out of jail! Fine, so…not a common criminal. More like a very specialized criminal. A very specialized criminal trying to get out of jail. Well, not jail, exactly. Technically not jail. The building adjacent to the jail. With a bar in it.

Ah, screw it! Saira doesn’t need a metaphor, anyway. What she needs is to get out of this damned nuthouse! Seriously, what’s wrong with these people, taking in killers from the street and bringing them into the family as if it were the most natural thing ever? Inviting them for parties and handing out family jewels with portraits and all? You’d think they’re on their way to including her in their wills and giving her the family name! Crazy folks…

The bar is quiet. Really quiet. The gift-giving party ended a few hours ago and everyone has either gone home, carrying insane amounts of food with them, or turned in and carefully left the cleaning up for tomorrow morning. The Bunnies are all burrowing in their rooms or in each other’s rooms or wherever it is they like to hide when they’re not in sight. Thankfully, none of them thought to spend tonight in Alma’s room. Sneaking past those furry ears is tougher than getting a banshee to screech in tune.

Not that sneaking past Alma herself is any easier but she’s not sleeping at her place tonight either. She might be out on her ghoulish rounds or she’ll be happily snuggling in the arms of Mister Hazel Eyes as a nice little cap to the special day. But probably out. It’s Dion’s shift, after all. Hopefully out. Hopefully not just about to enter the bar. Because Saira is about to leave.

It’s all just too much. They’re trying to adopt her! Her! For crying out loud! But…well, it was nice…wasn’t it? The sleeping in safety every night, the not having to worry about food or shelter. Being taken care of and made to feel like here is a place she can belong.

Stop it Saira, this is not you! she admonishes herself. You belong out there, not here on a leash!

Yes, she has to go before this pink-clouds-and-unicorns place causes irreversible damage to her finely honed mind. It was just a matter of time before she left, right? Everyone knew she was going to, no? Everyone knew. It’s who she is, a fleeting, deadly breeze blowing through the shadows, quick as a crossbow bolt, free and unstoppable. Free…

She sneaks past the staircase that leads upstairs, tiptoes past the kitchen entrance. Good, good. No sudden arrivals, no signs of anyone catching her mid-sneak. All’s good. Perfect so far.

“Meow?”

The call sounds so loud, she nearly hits her head against the ceiling with fright. So that is what a heart attack feels like…

Saira looks down and frowns in irritation at a very calm, inquisitive Lexie. “You stupid cat!” she hisses. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?! Stop giving me away!”

The large, fat cat with long hair that makes her look like a giant ball of fuzz tilts her head and looks up at Saira with huge yellow-green eyes that are mostly black right now due to the pale, weak moonlight that filters in through the windows. A silvery ball shines amidst the fur on the cat’s neck, a bell that Sage found for her in some shop and proceeded to attach to a nice black leather collar. Lexie had hated the thing at first. Man, how she had raced across the bar, half-crazed with the jingle that she couldn’t shake off, no matter how hard she tried! Now, that had been funny!

But now the bloody cat is moving without ringing the bell! What kind of hellish critter learns to do that so quickly?!

Lexie purrs, loud as a chainsaw, and rubs her head against Saira’s legs. “Meow?”

Saira nudges the cat away with a foot. “Shhhhh!! Stop doing that! You’re gonna get me caught!” She takes a few more steps toward the door but much to her desperation, Lexie follows her, trotting gingerly and making the bell around her neck ring like some fat old man dressed in red has just landed on the roof. “Oh, for the love of – No! You stay here. With Sage and the others. Go try to bite the tail off Starfax!”

“Caught? Are you…are you sneakin’ out?” a voice chimes from the stairs leading up to the first floor.

Ah crap. Saira hangs her head as she recognizes it as Cherry’s voice. Here comes the drama.

This is exactly the kind of thing that she was trying to avoid. Cherry descends the stairs, looking at her with big, shiny eyes and laid-back ears. Saira hasn’t even answered the question and Cherry already looks like she’s about to cry.

“Nope!” the woman lies. “No. Was just… gonna get the last piece of cake, that’s all.”

It’s a lame lie. No one sneaks out of bed to steal cake and takes the time to get dressed in street clothes and boots in the process. They certainly don’t take a crossbow and quiver with them either, unless it’s really great cake. Cherry’s full lips tremble with a whimper.

“Oh hon… Why? Why are you leavin’?” she asks in a tiny voice, moving closer to Saira to take the woman’s hand and look up at her in heartbreaking pleading. “Don’t go.”

Saira looks at the Bunny in silence for a moment. It’s a full show of misery that Cherry is putting up to convince Saira to stay. The woman knows she is being bullied into staying. Because yes, it’s bullying when someone throws their emotions at you and makes you feel horrible about yourself as if your thoughts and feelings didn’t matter a damned thing when held against theirs. And that makes Saira fume.

Which is probably the exact opposite of what Cherry intended but screw that! So, people are gonna be sad to see her go but she’s not gonna be happy staying either. Her place is outside, living her merry little life. And she has the right to want that. Unless someone will throw her in a cell or bind her in shackles, she is free to leave. So…

“Let me go!” Saira whispers, shaking off Cherry’s hold on her hand, ignoring the Bunny’s hurt expression at that. No more cutesy, hugsy, we love you so much, how can you do this to us mind tactics! Enough is enough! “I don’t belong here. This…” She gestures vaguely at the bar. “Is not me. I belong out there, runnin’ free, not here with twenty moms constantly looking over shoulder at what I do and don’t do and making paper thingies and pretendin’ my whole life has been like this. This is not me. And I can’t take it anymore. This is just too much! Even the stupid cat won’t get off my back!”

She nudges Lexie away with her foot again for show and while the cat takes a quick step back in surprise, she’s back to sniffing and marking Saira’s boot with the underside of her chin a few seconds later.

Cherry looks at Saira in silence. The Bunny seems to be struggling to absorb the full meaning of the woman’s words. Of course, she can’t. She never will. Their lives have been too different, their circumstances just too far apart to allow for comprehension. Cherry will never appreciate solitude or the thrill of uncertainty and danger. And Saira can’t make her understand. It would be like trying to explain what purple tastes like.

At the end of all that silence, Cherry sighs and looks down in defeat. “Will you let me get you that last piece of cake? Just…just for a few minutes? I’ll make you some coffee to go with it.”

Oh man… Just let me go already!

“I can’t take too long or people will start gettin’ back from their shifts and then it’ll be tougher to just go,” Saira tries to explain. “Sunshine, why are you doin’ this?”

“Cause I just don’t want you disappearin’ forever!” Cherry snaps, thankfully keeping her voice at an impassioned whisper. “Come on…just sit with me for a few minutes? Please? We could…we could go up on the rooftop. You can make your getaway from there.”

Saira looks at her, trying to find a good excuse to just bolt. But she can’t find any. Better to admit defeat and then just jump off the roof if that’s what it takes. “Fine…”

Damned Bunnies and their cute faces and RAIOS PARTAM ESSA GENTE TODA!

Apparently forgetting the coffee and cake thing, Cherry just turns towards the stairs, moving quietly in her bare feet, peeking behind her to make sure that Saira is not just going to sneak out of the bar behind her back. Lexie follows them up the stairs, quiet as a mouse. They walk down the hall, past rooms full with six sleeping Bunnies (and one gryphon), then up another set of stairs, through a trap door, and onto the flat roof of the Burrow.

Cherry heads over to the chimney, by far the best place to sit, with something to lean back against, and sits, looking at Saira as if the woman might disappear if she glances away.

She waits until Saira sits before she unleashes her sermon. “Look…I get it. You’re feelin’ all hemmed in. But…hon, you ain’t got no home out there!”

Saira breathes deeply and shakes her head. Predictable. Sooo predictable. “You don’t get it. You think you do but you don’t. You’re tryin’ to convince a sewer rat to behave like a hamster. Not gonna happen. This ain’t about home.” She focuses her eyes, cold and hard, the same eyes that have stared down hitmen and watched as they took their last breath, on Cherry. “I’m a killer, Cherry. Always have been, can’t shake it off. I’ve killed more people than you’ve probably met since comin’ to Three Rats. Heck, probably more than you’ve ever met ever. It’s what I’m good at. Not this whole home business.”

“Yeah but…you only kill people that deserve it…” Cherry argues weakly and Saira can see it in her eyes, how she’s struggling to fit the image of Saira, her patient, with Saira, the assassin, and use the first to forgive the latter. “But…Alma and Sky and them, they can’t just let you keep doin’ that, can they?”

Saira almost tells her about her agreement with Sky, that he had promised never to go after her for killing former Dukaines provided she cooperated with him, but stops herself. No point in tainting Sky’s image for someone who thinks of him as an example of virtue. “I’ll figure it out. There’s other wards. The Dukaines were everywhere in the Fourth Ring. And there’s always people lookin’ to hire someone like me. I’ll be fine.”

“You’re gonna leave the ward??” Now Cherry looks even more miserable. She puts her head down against her knees, hugging her legs, then looks up, eyes shiny with pent-up liquid. “What about next time somethin’ goes wrong? What if you get hurt again? The thought of you bleedin’ somewhere and we don’t even know about it…” Tears spill over as her voice breaks.

Saira pats her back awkwardly. It’s probably not a very reassuring gesture but at least Cherry won’t be choking anytime soon. “Ya know, I did make it fine for the last twenty-odd years without Bunny babysitters… Give me some credit, will ya?” She chuckles nervously.

“Don’t laugh! Just…” Cherry swallows, then chokes out a little sniffly laugh herself as Lexie rubs her face against Saira’s arm and makes her jump slightly.

Saira absentmindedly pets the cat, who is currently, and very slowly, making her way onto the woman’s legs. “I’ll be fine, Cherry. And… I’ll keep an eye on you, guys. Every now and again.”

She says that more because it’s what Cherry wants to hear than because it’s an actual plan. Saira’s reputation and livelihood have been severely threatened with her long absence. The first few weeks will probably be spent just getting her life back on track. But hey, it’s whatever works right now.

“You know they ain’t gonna look for you too hard, if some bad guys turn up shot fulla arrows,” Cherry says, reaching over to scratch Lexie in that spot at the base of her tail that she likes to be scratched for precisely eight seconds before she stops liking it. “I…I don’t want you to go at all. But…okay, I get it. Sorta. Just…come back sometimes? Thought of never seein’ you again…that just kills me, sweetie. Promise me?”

Oh, come on! Now I gotta promise?!

“See why I was just gonna sneak out?” Saira mutters. But a look at Cherry’s serious and heartbroken face has her hanging her head in defeat. It’s whatever works… “Fine… I promise… But you’re owin’ me cake!”

Cherry throws her arms around Saira, holding her tight. “You can have all the cake you want!”

Saira gasps. Cherry’s hug is nothing short of a golem’s death-grip. “Air… Sun…shine… air….”

Cherry releases her immediately, eyes wide in alarm. “Sorry! Merri says I don’t know my own strength…” She smooths Saira’s hair with a sigh. All that need for touching is really getting on Saira’s nerves but she does her best not to flinch away. “I never had a patient before. Not for any length of time anyway. It’s hard to let go. When you came in here… Anyway, I don’t want you to go, not even a little bit. But you…” Her voice breaks and she looks away. “You, uh, you be careful! And you come back!”

A few heartbeats and the Bunny’s head shoots back to look at Saira. But the woman is no longer there. From a rooftop nearby, Saira watches as Cherry looks to her side, then around the rooftop, the ward. Finally, Cherry hangs her head and slowly gets up to return inside.

The image leaves a bitter taste in Saira’s mouth but it is as it has to be. Her life’s purpose is out here and everything else will have to wait until she can call her task complete.

She exhales deeply and leans down to scratch Lexie behind the ears, regretting immediately that she brought the cat with her but knowing that she would not have been able to leave so smoothly and silently if she had left Lexie complaining behind her. The cat looks at her, head tilted in that upsettingly intelligent quizzical expression of hers.

“Meow?”

Saira jerks her head at Lexie. “Come on, you silly cat. Let’s go home.” She starts walking, cat at her heel. “And you better be good at huntin’ ‘cuz I ain’t feedin’ ya!”

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Ch6.43 Trust

The Year’s End. Renewal Week. Victory and Remembrance Week. New Year’s Dawning. Christmas. Prophet’s Ascension. Turning Time. Insular Equinox.

Many are the names by which this week is known around the Insula. It is a week like no other. For gods, mortals and all creatures in between, this week is the most sacred on the insular calendar. Many are the reasons for which it is celebrated. Some celebrate the greatest of victories over Hell’s devilish spawn, some celebrate the birth of prophets, others their death, others even their awakening to higher purposes. Some greet the spirits of their departed ancestors, some release them finally into non-existence. Some pray and fast, others are prayed to and feed hungrily on the concentrated prayers. Some make the mother of all parties to greet the new year, others see the dying year into its grave with solemn reverence. Some are busy fighting yearly battles to ensure the rising of a new sun, of a renewed moon, the resetting of the walls that keep Hell at bay. Some see to the birth of all that is new or the extinction of all that must be eliminated. It is a time for contemplation, for penitence, for sacrifice, for debauchery, for promises, for hope.

All over the great mountain hovering amidst the chaos that is the Void, this is the most magical time of all, the one that every soul must observe. And even for those who manage to remain atheist among so many divine beings, it is a week to be with one’s family, to enjoy street festivals and watch an old sun set for the last few times before it dies.

So join us now in our trip to the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heavens, and the great city that sprawls over its mountainous profile. It has been a long time since we have seen it from such a distance. From here, among the stars, where the moon gods are carefully aligning their pale homes into neat patterns amidst the infinite swirling darkness of chaos, where Void Riders gallop to herd blooming pieces of reality toward the ever-growing mountain, we can see all of the immense Isle. It is a single peak, a volcano erupted from nothingness, angry and glorious and ever-young yet ancient, blooming with possibilities, with life, with that greatest of powers that goes so far beyond what can be touched, seen or measured. The power of thought, of creation, of things in waiting to be and do. The power of all that is in spirit, mind and body. The power from which all life and creation spring.

The power of Reality.

The mountain has existed since the dawning of time. It has seen many ages come and go, many different dwellers, many wars, many armageddons. Here, time has ended and begun, again and again. But let us not focus on the past. The mountain no longer spits fire from its churning belly. Its sides are cool, carved by mighty rivers, covered in forests, in grass, in sand, in cobblestone. Now, as we look at it, the Insula is inhabited by all kinds of creatures, magical and otherwise. Gods revered in many different worlds have their homes here, for gods seldom like to live away from their kind for too long. Immortality has its consequences. A certain distrust of change is one of them. And so gods find a haven in this divine home, where they can be as they always were even after their worshippers die off elsewhere, after mortals reinvent their gods or forsake them altogether, where Time and its swirling currents are less ruthless. And other, smaller gods, younger gods who have never known any other worlds, live here too. Along with the creatures of our Earthly myths, of other planets, with any being the mind can create. And mortals. Countless mortals. Humans, like us. And humans unlike us. Animals long extinct in this planet. Others yet to find their place among us. The Insula is very, very vast indeed.

And at its heart, at its beating, fiery, still booming heart, the hosts of Hell are imprisoned for their crimes. What crimes? Who knows? The original war was so long ago. The reasons are lost, the original victors long gone from the Insula, deceased or ascended into the Void as all truly ancient gods must. All we know now is that the gods won, the devils lost and the hatred remains. Old hatred, distilled by the eras, honed by age. Pure, immortal, without cause or meaning. Blind. Deaf. The kind that burns through reason, that festers through oblivion, that keeps Hell plotting and fighting, and Heaven fearing the return of its enemies.

Today, they are plotting as they always plot. Their agents are active, busy, hidden in plain sight among the crowd of innocents that is happily celebrating the coming of yet another year. But leave them be. In this story we weave, this account of a world so much like our own, even Hell will have its time to take the stage. Someday.

But not today. Today, great farming regions bless their newborn animals, metropolitan areas call priests to exorcise the accumulated negative energies of the old year. Oceanshore people send wooden canoes filled with flowers and food to ask for a bountiful year. In all five rings, from the poor, overcrowded skirts of the great mountain to the privileged mountaintop estates, today is a day of peace.

And, ah….here is what you have come in search for. The mountain has rotated and now we can see it. Down there, in the Fourth Ring, almost Fifth. A ward like any other ward. Poor and forgotten by the great gods of the higher rings. Well, mostly. Not completely. It has become rather interesting lately, don’t you agree? So busy. So… attractive, for some reason. Such a strange little place, to which trouble and intrigue seem to flow like a stream descending a steep hill.

Welcome to Three Rats. Let us walk its streets, busier today than any other day of the year. Decorated in garlands of bright colors, compacted earth roads sprinkled with colorful powders, flowers and sheets hanging from the balconies. Our feet take us through the darker alleys and out into the stone-floored plazas, around fountains, across the market, past derelict buildings. At the end of our journey, stands the Three Rats Guardia Station, newly painted unlike most other constructions in the area.

And just behind it, another building awaits. A brand new wooden sign hangs over a door. The image of a rabbit has been engraved and burnt onto it. From inside, the sounds of a party well on its way.

This is our true, final destination. Welcome to the Burrow.

Let us go in and join the party. The place is brightly decorated with paper garlands and signs announcing merry wishes in a variety of languages and religious tones. At a corner, a tree which has probably never seen brighter or greener fields (but certainly carries some level of genetic memory of such things) is leaning slightly against a wall in its red vase. Paper decorations and strings of popped corn hang from its crooked branches with all the mirth the poor plant can manage. A little orb of glowing, golden light hovers softly at the top, bathing the tree in glittering highlights. Under it, boxes and boxes, of all shapes and sizes and wrapped in all colors of paper are waiting to be delivered to their respective recipients. Many already have.

All around, the tables are covered in hand-painted paper towels. A tall, thick candle shines in the center of each of them. Plates with pastries and salads, meats and appetizers have been placed on every available surface and some are even now empty, in need of being replaced with the next delicacy.

Everyone looks happy to be here. Conversations buzz and sizzle between the various guests. The mortal officers that man the station next door all have dropped by to join in the celebrations. Some are just taking a brief moment of pause from their shifts. The station cannot be left unattended, after all. But most of them are not on duty at all. They have just come to spend some time with their colleagues after enjoying a warm family gathering at home. For this is their family as well, bound not by blood but by hardship, by the everyday sharing of a common, dangerous burden. They are the guardians of others, keepers of peace, vigilants of all hours. And no one can truly understand their struggles and fears but those who see the streets through the same darkly tinted eyes that have seen the worst a mind can throw at the world.

Our Bunnies look radiant. Surprised a few hours ago with gifts from their favorite god of magic, each of them is wearing a brand new outfit, of fine cloth and carefully designed to fit their bodies and personalities. A short dress with a pleated skirt for Rosemary, a pair of close-fitting trousers and a stylish vest for Cherry, an adorable frilly ensemble for Tulip. Ah, and a simple, demure summery dress with a knee-length skirt for Mayumi. She was difficult to plan for… A fine shirt and tailored pants for Sage, shorts for Kori and Chime. They look like the stars that they are in this celebration that, this year, is all about them.

And the gods? Well, two of them are currently in the kitchen and trying to make their way in and out of it, carrying trays of food and empty glasses for refilling. Even gods should be helpful, after all. The space behind the counter is small for the five people currently in it. Sky has to lift the tray that Merri has just prepared for him so that Alma won’t hit it as she squeezes past him on her way back out of the kitchen. The goddess doesn’t even hesitate before ducking under his arm. It is almost like a dance.

“Ye look like ye been at this for years!” Merri notes, laughing happily.

“It does feel like years, doesn’t it?” Alma says with a soft laugh, stopping to look at god and Bunny. “Who would imagine it was only months?”

Sky nods. “Teamwork! Ends up working in all sorts of – yow!”

Two dashing figures nearly trip him on his wait of the kitchen. It seems that Tulip and Chime expect everyone to be as agile as themselves. The tray in Sky’s hand wobbles dangerously but here is another helping hand to catch it and smoothly lower it to a table nearby.

“Guess Master Pak can’t hang up his shoes yet,” Dion comments with a chuckle as he samples the little balls made of chocolate and condensed milk paste sitting on the tray that Sky was carrying.

The tall god looks at him appreciatively. “Nice catch – yeah, I still need dancing lessons from him.”

“Well, I could offer to teach you, but you seem to have picked a partner already,” Alma teases as she brushes by carrying a jar of fruit juice. She stops, her nose twitching. “Wait a minute…” She stands on tiptoes to sniffs Sky’s neck, grinning mischievously as she asks, “Wearing scents now, are we?”

Poor Sky… His face reddens almost immediately. “Well, uhm…”

“Now, ye’ve gone and made ‘im turn red,” a giggling Merri says, watching the scene from just a few steps away.

“Oh…” Alma chuckles. “Well, I think it suits your personality. And it’s very pleasant, indeed.”

“Aye. Fer Bunny noses too,” Merri notes with a wink at a red, red Sky.

Maybe it is best to leave our sheepish Inspector for now. Something you should see is happening just across the room, where most of the Popula have been enjoying their time off and talking about…well, mostly about work. The Guardia, like so many other professions, tends to become food, drink and air for the people in it. But at times like this, they mostly share the funny stories, the little everyday events that make people laugh. Machado, Aliyah, Cala, Wallace, you know them all. There are a few others too. Like Kiko Silva and Harinder Patel, from the night shift, both young constables, both arrived from the Academy less than a year ago. We don’t know them very well yet but give it time. They will find their voices. They all do. Like Deesh. Remember Deesh, kind, quiet, red-skinned and tongueless Deesh? He is here too, smiling and laughing silently at his fellow officers’ stories. And Syro…well, he is not truly Popula but he is just as Guardia as all the others. He does not have as many tales to share but he is quite happy just listening while tinkering with a small collection of fine tools and gauges he has just been gifted by the Dei.

Their happy laughter dwindles for a moment at the mention of an old story, from the times of the old station, before the Dei arrived here. The Popula go silent. The last year has brought many good things but it has taken good away as well. A reverent pause in remembrance of their fallen companions. Stathos and his family are quietly revived in a solemn toast. All but Cala join in. Her faith has her fasting during the day, this week, and never allows for alcohol in any case. But she closes her eyes in prayer.

There is someone missing. Where is our beloved Nataniel? The new clinic, the only real place where mortals can go for proper medical treatment in this ward has been keeping him quite busy. Three Rats has many people who cannot afford to be sick or hurt. And the neighboring wards are just learning about Nataniel’s clinic. The people who live closer to the borders are beginning to flock to the already overworked doctor’s doorstep.

But he seems to have managed to pry himself from the clinic. The bar door has just opened to let him through. He looks flustered with the effort of rushing not to be too late for the party but his lips part into a bright, friendly smile at the immediate cry of “Nate!” that the Popula shower him with. He may not like being called Nate but he loves his friends. And this is home.

His eyes widen at the sight of a god of beer dressed in a velvety ale-colored suit trimmed in white faux fur, plush jacket open around his beer belly, silly hat topped with a fuzzy pompom and tilted over an eye, walking around with a load of presents cradled on his thick, heavy arms, handing out Ho-ho-ho’s and colorfully-wrapped boxes. Breowan seems to be having fun with Sky’s imported customs. And everyone is already talking about making it a yearly tradition. Maybe Brew will bring good little boys and girls some customized beer mugs next year.

But back to Nataniel. He seems to have just remembered something very important. Such as the fact that, with all his work and distractions, he has not bought any gifts to give. Seeing his panic, Aliyah rushes to his side and envelops him in a tight, friendly hug that leaves the man’s chin pressed against the tall woman’s collarbone.

“Pretend I’m just sayin’ hello and tell me real quick: what did ya get for Cala?” she asks in a slightly too-loud whisper.

“I, uhh…” Nataniel hesitates but it is useless to deny it. His head hangs helplessly as they straighten from the embrace. “Nada. No me acordé.

“Oh man…you are gonna owe me.” Aliyah chuckles and rubs the back of her head before putting a hand on his back and guiding him toward the others. As they walk past a chair covered in wrapped presents, she takes a thin box decorated with a purplish ribbon and touches it to his back so he will take it. “She was lookin at that in a shop window the other day,” she tells him, mouth barely moving with the words. “Merci’s, if she asks.”

Nataniel stops and looks at her in shock. “Oh, Aliyah.. No…No puedo… I can’t…”

Aliyah immediately puts her hands on his shoulders to force him to turn and walk again. “Will you stop makin’ a scene?” She asks through a smile that is all teeth. Then she laughs nervously before whispering, “Here we go. Pretend I didn’t tell you that she smiles silly at you when she thinks you ain’t lookin.”

If the good doctor were not completely befuddled before, he surely is now. His handsome countryside-tan face has turned a nice dark raspberry shade and his mouth is drier than many deserts out there. And now his gaze is fixed on a certain large and curvy corporal that turns his head like no goddess of classical beauty has yet managed to do. It seems our kind and shy Nataniel has a little unconfessed office infatuation going on behind those friendly brown eyes.

“For you,” Cala says to him, holding up a soft package wrapped in blue crepe paper. “I saw you needed a new one to wear at the clinic.”

Nataniel takes it with his right hand, his left one nervously appearing from behind his back, where it has been holding the package Aliyah so selflessly gave to him. He holds the thin box in front of him as if it might explode if he so much as looks at it. “For you. Because… I see you… saw it … at Merci’s…thing.”

By his side, Aliyah’s hand moves to cover her eyes so quickly that she nearly slaps herself. Too late, she remembers herself and instantly puts her hand behind her back, failing very badly to look innocent when Cala glances a question at her.

Now, a good, experienced Guardia is not easy to fool. It takes the sensible, intelligent corporal less than a second to realize what is going on. But she plays along and unwraps her gift, smiling at the wine-red shawl lying inside the box. “It is very beautiful, Nate. Just what I was wanting.”

She kisses Nataniel’s cheek in a common sign of affection for both their cultures. Still, it nearly makes him drop his brand new surgical pajamas. Cala took some time embroidering his name on the shirt pocket. “I…thank you. I was really needing these.”

Aliyah tries not to laugh but her broad smile betrays her amusement. At a sign from Machado, she moves past Cala, winking at the corporal and quickening her step when Cala squints at her and reaches out to lightly slap her rear. After a chuckle and a few meaningful glances that make two pairs of cheeks warmer, the mortal pair is not-so-subtly left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Such a lovely scene… And such a lively party. It is hard to keep track of all that is going on in the room. Conversations fill the air, too many to follow. Food is being eaten, drinks are being drunk, gifts are being gifted.

And look at that! Young Tulip is ecstatic with all the presents she has been receiving. This is her first Year’s End, after all. She is currently on the worn-out sofa, showing Saira all the brand new crayons and watercolors that Sky has gifted her with. And the great Tales of the Urbis book that her mother bought for her. And the beautiful, flowery purse that Sage took so much care in sewing. The pretty headband that Cala found at a used-items shop. Oh, and the gift of gifts: the dress that Dion designed and that makes her growing, adolescent curves look a little less childish. The young Bunny cannot stop smiling and hopping happily around and poking people to show them her brand new treasures. In the blink of an eye, she is leaving Saira alone again to go and gawk at the simple capoeira outfit that Sergeant Machado has customized for Kori. But Saira is not alone. Chime is with her, rehearsing a few bars on a shiny new harmonica. Breowan is lounging on the sofa too, his jolly hat perching on his knee, jacket now fully unbuttoned to reveal a slightly, just slightly stained undershirt, hand curled around a frosty beer mug.

And Lexie, you ask? Well, the fluffy cat has decided that this is just too much agitation for her a few hours ago and is currently relaxing in the peaceful haven of Alma’s bedroom.

Speaking of Alma…where is our lovely death goddess? Ah! There she is! Right by the bar, enjoying a drink with Sky and Dion and radiant with all the happiness that fills the room. The three Dei look around them, at the buzzing party, and then at each other with contented sighs and shaking heads like old veterans watching children play. Any of them has seen more Year’s Ends than two or three of the other merrymakers combined. But this is something new for them as well. It is their first Year’s End together, in Three Rats and with all of the Bunnies and humans of the station. And what a year it has been for them! Less than a year, actually. Much, much less.

So much has happened, so many ups and downs. They raise their glasses in that quiet toast of friends of a lifetime that says We survived another one and drink in tranquil fraternity.

Sky is the first to break the silence. “Well, uh…Alma. I have something for you.” He is carrying a purple felt bag that bulges with an ominous curvature. He holds it up for Alma to take.

The goddess looks at the bag, which looks strained by heavy contents, and carefully takes it, feeling its weight. “I hope it’s not a ball and chain,” she jests as she opens it and peeks inside. With an expression of great curiosity, she places the bag on the bar counter and carefully slides it down to reveal a blueish sphere about the size of a cantaloupe. Her eyes widen at the beauty of the hollow, handcrafted orb, filled with clear water and lined with a sandy bed and some pretty rocks decorated with flowing seaweed. “Oh, Sky… It’s beautiful. What is it?”

The god’s dark skin takes on a slightly redder shade at her sincere admiration of it. “I found the sphere while shopping with Dion,” he explains. “I was able to fill it with seawater, and a very careful balance of plants and tiny sea life, sand, shells. If I did it right, and it receives the right amount of sunlight, it should last many years. Uh, only in a high-magic environment, though.”

Alma seems entranced by the exquisite mini-habitat. Even her eyes smile in awe as if she were a child looking at an aquarium for the first time. “Oh, look!” she cries, pointing a few glittering shapes out to Dion. “There’s even fish!”

Sky nods. “Yes, teeny tiny ones. They glow in the dark.”

“Oh, I love it! And I know exactly where to put it!” Alma hugs him happily with a single arm. Her other hand is currently too busy making sure the orb doesn’t roll off the counter. “Thank you.”

“It seems that Mister Cannot Choose a Present to Save His Life was just goading us all along,” Dion notes with a chuckle.

“Ah…I really am terrible at it,” Sky insists, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes flicking down for a moment in an endearing show of shyness. He seems to remember something. “Oh…I have something for you as well.” A quick trip to the makeshift Christmas tree and he returns holding a small wrapped packet, that feels compact and solid when Dion takes it. “I hope you like it.”

Beneath the simple paper, a wood box carved with intricate knotted patterns lies in waiting. “Beautiful craftsmanship,” Dion compliments it. His uncle has always favored these designs. For some reason, they seem like something that is very intrinsically theirs. Inside the box, there is a small, thin, double-edged dagger with no handguard and a handle carved to look as if it were wrapped in leather straps, now polished and worn with age and wear. Its sheath is made of engraved leather. Dion whistles quietly under his breath as he inspects it. “Gorgeous. Should make for a loyal secondary blade.” He pats Sky’s shoulder in friendly appreciation. “Thank you very much, Sky. I really like it. I just hope it doesn’t mean you have a good reason for me to need it anytime soon.”

“Considering the way things have gone in our lives?” They both chuckle at the little attempt at comedy. “It’s usually tucked into a boot top, traditionally, but it’s a good jacket-pocket blade. Called a sgian-dubh. It was a present to me long ago.”

Dion looks concerned at the revelation and carefully puts the knife down on the counter. “Oh Sky… I certainly don’t want to deprive you of a good memory…”

Sky shakes his head, smiling and gently pushes the dagger closer to Dion. “The way I look at it, it’ll serve me even better in your keeping than in my own. To know a friend has it, and that it might help him in a tight spot – that gives me comfort.” He shrugs. “You know how I tend to worry.”

Dion’s next exhalation is short, quick like a mocking snort but his eyes betray his esteem of the god of rebellion and his precious gift. He stores the dagger in his shirt pocket and pats it. “Thank you.”

Alma watches the scene with tenderness. One of her hands is twitching as if wants to be somewhere else, like stroking a certain magic god’s back, but instinct is trumped by reason this time and it stays where it is. Well…for a little while. Alma needs it to hold a wide, rectangular box that has been waiting for her, behind the bar. She sets the mysterious gift on the counter, just in front of Sky. “Speaking of tight spots, that takes us to your gift, Sky. We hope you like it and that it serves you well.”

Sky looks a question at her before opening his present. “Oh…” He looks surprised but pleased to see what almost looks like a casual jacket neatly folded inside. It is impeccably trimmed, modern and stylish and, of course, Guardia Dei blue. “Oh now that…that is beautiful.” He carefully pulls it out of the box, as if it might fall apart in his hands. The sleek jacket artfully crafted with many visible and hidden pockets and tailor-made to fit the Inspector’s long arms and beefy, somewhere-between-fit-and-fat torso looks more like something to wear on a fun night out than what it actually is: an armoured jacket. Whoever said that one cannot look good while walking into a fight? “It’s so much lighter than my old one but…” He strokes the fabric with his fingertips. “Is that Balva mesh?”

Dion shakes his head. “Ballion, a hybrid of it. Less vulnerable to piercing tips but not as flexible. Fortunately, you don’t seem to favor the more…flowing designs. It should manage to keep you safe when you forget to keep your guard up. Even cutting and sewing it is a nightmare.”

“Gwydion infused it with all sorts of protectives charms as well,” Alma adds. She urges Sky to get himself into the jacket. “Come on, try it on. It should look a lot better on you than that ugly thing you requested from Headquarters.”

“Oh, I suppose the one from HQ can be a backup, if they ever send it,” the god notes, slipping an arm into a sleeve.

Dion clears his throat with a meaningful, complicit glance at Alma that has the goddess chuckling. “I am afraid your request for a new one got…misplaced, somehow.”

But Sky doesn’t even seem to have heard him. He is too busy twisting this way and that, rolling his shoulders and raising his arms, flexing his elbows and somehow trying to bend his neck in ways that it is not meant to, in an effort to look down his own back. “Oh, this fits perfectly. It’s plenty flexible enough for me.” He looks at both his sergeants with tender appreciation. Are those tears welling up in his eyes? “Thank you both. You went to so much trouble. I love it.”

“Oh, all we had to do was misplace the little piece of paper with your measurements,” Dion says with his usual nonchalance as he takes a sip of his wine.

Alma is smiling and enjoying her cocktail, some new invention of Cherry’s. The joy around her truly warms her heart. But the occasional, subtle look toward the door that leads outside betrays a twinge of anxiety. Someone seems to be late.

She puts her glass down and turns to Dion. She has a gift left to give. “Well, now, what did I get for the god who has everything?”

“Hopefully not a bottomless chest,” is the god’s immediate, well-humored response.

“Not quite,” she replies with a chuckle. Holding one of her hands out, the other forgotten behind her back, she adds, “For my next trick, I will need your wrist, please.”

Dion looks at her open hand and raises his eyebrows in mock concern. “Uhm… Sky, could you check if she’s hiding a saw behind her back, please? I’m not so sure about this present.”

“A saw? Or perhaps a pair of shackles?” Sky chuckles and makes a show of peeking behind her back and shaking his head reassuringly at Dion.

“Oh, you two are just silly!” Alma complains. But she is not upset with them at all. Still, the goddess is looking a little nervous about this gift and when Dion holds out his wrist, she cannot help but confess as she places her hands on either side of it, thumbs touching the skin, “I hope I get it right… I did not have much chance to practice on proper subjects.”

Dion’s wrist moves back immediately. “Well, then maybe…”

But it is too late. Alma is already gripping it firmly. “Shh… I need to focus,” she admonishes him.

What happens next is a little thing of wonder. A soft scent of flowers and grass wafts in the air as Alma’s life sphere is activated. Soon, her fingers begin to glow with a coppery light that stretches in many, many lazy tendrils, twisted and intertwining, tracing complicated patterns on Dion’s skin, curling around his wrist. The brilliant light starts dulling and fading almost immediately, revealing a slim, flexible bracelet, almost like tree-bark tanned as if it were leather. On it, over a background of browns and greens, a golden, metal charm of a dragon curls in sleep, its spine traced in tiny reddish beads.

Alma looks at the final result of her efforts as if she cannot believe this is her own doing. “It worked…” she breathes.

She is not the only one who looks impressed and pleased with the final result. Dion brings his wrist closer to his face so he can admire the fine details, his fingers tracing the delicate twirls of the sturdy fabric that binds his wrist and testing the simple clasp that keeps the bracelet in place. “It surely is unique. And beautiful. Thank you.”

That has Alma smiling with ill-disguised pride. “It is also alive and aligned with you. And if you rub the beads in a pattern like so…” she taps the head of the dragon charm and then traces its spine from tail to neck, “music begins to play.”

“That is some very complex life magic,” Sky says when the music starts. “Amazing.”

It is a soft song, simple but very pretty. Like a nursery rhyme. The kind of thing that we hear in youth and then seem to forget until the time comes to sing it to our own children. It makes Dion’s eyes widen in surprise and confusion at something he did not know he remembered. “I…I think I know this song.”

“I hope you do. All the songs it plays are drawn from your memory,” Alma explains. “Things you’ve heard, even if long ago. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs from your first night out. Mother made one for me ages ago but…it can’t be made beforehand.” She strokes the bracelet, making sure she can’t spot any flaws in it. “It needs to be woven around its wearer to work properly. I’m glad you like it.”

A mocking frown and she holds a finger up at Dion in false scolding. “You are not easy to shop for.”

The song that Dion did not expect seems to have moved him deeply, even if he does not quite understand why. Still, he chuckles at Alma’s taunting. “I’m not sure I can top this but…” he produces a long, exquisitely wrapped box from a jacket pocket. “I hope you will like this.”

Alma unwraps and opens it, peeking inside with curiosity to find a beautiful crystal flask shaped like an elongated teardrop. She opens the flask and takes a whiff, closing her eyes in pleasure at the soft, willowy scent with notes of lilac and jasmine that take her back to sunny days of reading in her mother’s garden. “Oh… this brings back memories. I love it. It’s so light.”

She does not really see the small empathetic smile and nod that Sky gives to a very glad Dion. “I’m going to go show off my lovely jacket.” The tall Inspector knows to flee a scene before he becomes one witness too many to clandestine romance. “Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart.”

He moves away from his sergeants after a nod from Dion and a gentle pat on the arm from Alma. A subtle glance over his shoulder will tell him that he was right to leave. The couple is already lost in its little bubble of sweet, low-voice words and tender looks that are lipless kisses all of their own.

But, look out, Sky! Too long a glance and you will bump right into Mayumi, right in front of you!

Oh, good… He has managed to turn just in time. Collision is averted. A quick look around the god’s torso to see what he was looking at and May’s eyes are on his, exchanging a knowing smile with him that is like a shared secret. She takes his hand and guides him to a slightly less-crowded corner of the room.

“Thank you for the stationery,” she says in a voice that carries a note of uncertainty. “It’s really beautiful.”

“It’s enchanted,” Sky explains. “After you finish writing, it will disappear, and then appear in my office.”

“Oh…” Mayumi’s lips curl into a soft smile as realization dawns. “I suppose this means I’ll be writing a lot then.”

Gladness and sadness in her voice. Soon, Three Rats will be saying goodbye to one of our Bunnies. But worry not. The others will not forget about her so easily. And neither will we.

Let us leave her to enjoy as much of Sky’s loving company as she can. The sun is beginning to set outside and one of our more noctivagous friends is beginning to look a bit impatient. Saira is growing tired of so many people and so much friendliness all at once. This many people in one room usually means a fight to her.

So she is looking toward the stairs that lead up toward the first floor, thinking of going up on the roof to catch a breath of slightly less second-lung air. But someone is about to delay her plans. Cherry has just taken a seat by the unsettled assassin and is leaning against her shoulder. She is carrying a small box that she hands to Saira.

“Here, hon,” the Bunny says. “For you from all of us.”

Saira looks at the box as if it might snap a toothed lid and bite her hand off. She doesn’t take it. She barely even seems to breathe. “Why?”

“Snap! Because we love you, of course!” Cherry replies as if even asking is nonsense. She takes Saira’s hand and places the box in the woman’s palm. “Come on, open it.”

Saira does. Slowly, carefully. Inside the simple box lies a silvery locket, not much bigger than a quail’s egg. Its surface is delicately engraved with the image of a perching bird calmly grooming its feathers. It looks exquisite and expensive and fit for a goddess. Certainly not for a lowly mortal like Saira. Or at least that is what she thinks. People can be pretty silly about those things.

She glances at where Alma is still sharing a drink and a conversation with Dion. Cherry sees where she is looking and answers the question that Saira does not ask.

“Mom gave the locket, Dion threw his mojo on it. Everyone else…” she picks up the little piece of jewelry and opens it. Inside, soft lights project three-dimensional images, holograms of every member of the Three Rats Station family. Even Lexie is there. “We kinda gave ourselves. Everyone thought it should be me to give it to you.”

Saira takes a long time to find her voice again. It is difficult to find words when half of us wants to cry with bliss and the other half is trying to run for the hills. This stay of hers here has shaken beliefs that she thought were indestructible. And now, she does not quite know what to do with herself anymore. “It’s…pretty. Thanks,” she finally says, looking sideways at Cherry. “So, you’re callin’ her Mom now?”

The Bunny shrugs. “Eh, I’m warmin’ up to it. It’s nice havin’ a mom. Ain’t never had it before, you know?” She smiles apologetically at Saira and the woman can’t help but ruffle up her hair, making her pull away in fake irritation. “Hey! Don’t mess with the hair! That’s definitely not the right way to mess with a girl’s curls.”

That has Saira laughing. And suddenly, Rosemary is standing just in front of them and grabbing Cherry by the hands.

“Och, have ye forgotten, ye daftie? We need to show darlin’ Geryon his gift!” she exclaims.

Cherry’s eyes widen. Her full lips curve in a perfect circle. “Oooooh, right! Gotta go do that!” She gives Saira a quick peck on the cheek. “Gotta go, babe. Talk later.”

And then, they are off to find their furred and feathered lover, who has been solemnly posing for another one of Tulip’s drawings. Each of Alma’s oldest daughters grabs one of his forelimbs and they both cajole and drag him, past the couch – huh…where has Saira gone? She was just there a minute ago – and in the general direction of the stairs that lead up, where all the bedrooms are. The gryphon looks rather enticed by such a treatment.

But look, Tulip is coming along. And Sage and Aliyah and May and Sky. And Dion and Alma too. Geryon’s initial excitement is quickly fading away. It seems that he is not getting the present he was expecting. Such is life. But a room of his own is not a bad present to get at all. Will he like it?

Guess we will have to return later and find out. For now, it is time to make a little pause, stretch our legs, go outside, enjoy the sunshine and let this enchanting scene fade to black.

Ch6.39 Trust

It is the day before the Year’s End week and all around the house…

Everyone seems possessed! The bar is decorated like something out of an interior designer’s worst nightmares. Everywhere, ribbons and garlands and banners of all colors and tablecloths painted with flowers and stars and, for some reason, sheep. Scents clash in a battle for dominance of the bar and the station. All sorts of holiday drinks and sweets are being prepared. No ward on the Insula should be able to unite so many different seasonal recipes and traditions. Everyone seems to have a different song to hum at all times of day or night.

In their attempt to bring together all of their traditions and mix them into a single one, the Bunnies have created such a rich and diverse plan that Sage and Mayumi have spent the last two days organizing all their different activities into a color-coded schedule. They will probably need an egg-timer just so that everything they want to do gets, in fact, done.

But Alma is determined to give them whatever they want for this first Year’s End together, even if it is sure to drive half of the station into exhaustion. Of course, the Dei will have to take shifts to balance enjoying the festivities and keeping the station and ward under close watch. With the ever-present threat of this psychopathic necromancer and his soul bombs and zombie rats, they cannot afford to let their guards down completely. The same for the Popula. But everyone, absolutely everyone is looking forward to tomorrow. This is a precious celebration to them, all of them, Bunnies and Popula and Dei and all of their friends. Just months ago, their lives were so different… And in Alma’s case, so lonely. So empty. So…

Hopeless.

But all of that is behind her now. She has her Bunnies, new friends who would, literally, put their lives on the line for her and her children, some rather pleasant mortals to work with and a ward that shows all signs of actually starting to appreciate her presence, albeit with a little cringing at her non-Guardia activities. Bones of the trade. And… Nekh is gone from her thoughts! How wonderful it has been to taste every new event without his poisonous words ringing in her ear. She has found herself filling in for him at times, especially when her insecurities attack, but Sky’s return to active duty has relieved much of her stress and left her with more time to be with her children and her – dare she call him? – her boyfriend?

It just sounds so strange, calling Gwydion by that title. Boyfriend is not a word of gods. Gods have lovers, often more than one and often involving some way of stretching such a complicated, mortal thing as love through an eternity of whether passionate physicality or undying memory. Gods get bored easily. And then again, gods can love forever. One of the problems of becoming involved with mortals.

Boyfriend…The word rings almost childish in her ears. Alma is young for a goddess, her maturity and adulthood recent things. She was only in late Transition, what in human terms could be called the late teens, when she met Arion, a quarter of a century ago, after all. It had taken her over a dozen decades to reach that point. Now, only twenty-five years later, she is well into her Ripened Age. A century and a half…to reach where a human gets in little over thirty years. Some gods don’t take half as long. Others take much longer. Some never get there.

Either way, Gwydion is her lover, her companion and a very dear one indeed. She had forgotten how sweet that could be. And even though there have been other lovers, safe, trusted, occasional, rare lovers, and even with this unexpected attraction toward the deadly but curiously comforting and broken, Textbook-Example-of-a-Bad-Decision Somrak, the last person she has felt this close to was… Arion. The distant father of her children. Her dreams haven’t taken her his way in quite a while. She feels awful for it but… wasn’t he the one who left? Who kept their love on hold for so long, asking her to accept their impossible situation? He cannot return permanently to the Insula and she would not survive in the Void and maybe – maybe her heart has managed to understand what her mind still has such difficulty conceiving: that their dying love must change in order to survive. She loves him still, she knows, but differently now, no longer with the dreams and hopes of his return. It is not with him she would choose to share a future but there is still room for him in it. At her side. But at a distance.

As Cherry would say, gods are weird. All these thoughts go through her head as she hides one more gift from the Bunnies’ eyes in one of the many hidden recesses in her room. She shakes her head, grinning at her own silliness. Such a strange time to be thinking these things…

Especially when she is only one present short of a fully checked list: Gwydion’s present. And for as much as she has been struggling, she has failed to find the perfect one for him. Everything feels too shallow or too…binding? She sighs for the fiftieth time at the silliness of all this secrecy around their affair. All the Bunnies know, after all. Sky and Saira know as well. And a few other people probably suspect. But it had seemed like a good idea at the time and they had both agreed to it from the start. Now she just cannot find it in her to bring it up with him. It would feel like she is pressuring him into it. Like she’s not scared of what comes next. Of all people to fall in love with, she had to pick a philanderer. Stupid heart with its wants and needs.

What on the Insula will she give him?!

I give up.

She walks up to her vanity mirror and places a hand on it, conjuring a mental image of her mother. The mirror, which doubles as a portal attuned to Lyria’s essence is, like many things in this room, an old companion, one of those intrinsically magical objects that are independent of Alma’s magic even if she must recreate them every time she relocates. Considering how many times she has relocated already, some of these items have created and recreated so often that she can no longer remember how she came to own them in the first place.

“Mother,” the goddess calls in a whisper.

“What is it, little soul?” Lyria’s voice replies after a few seconds of unnerving silence.

“I need your help.”

A sigh from the mirror. Moments later, Lyria is standing in front of Alma, looking flustered and impatient.

“I am rather busy with the Dawning, Alma,” she announces in warning tones that say This better be important or at least amusing.

Alma hangs her head. Suddenly, the idea of asking for her mother’s help does not sound so attractive. After all, Lyria is major life goddess regardless of the internal quarrels generated by her choice in husband and part of the responsibilities for organizing the Life Clan side of the Year’s End ceremony, as long as the annual get together of the two usually estranged clans, falls heavily on the older goddess. “I know and I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have–”

“Is life in the Fourth Ring making you forget how to pronounce words properly?” Lyria interrupts, her naturally warm and amiable voice sharp as a blade.

Alma curses inwardly at the pompousness of upper ring speech and sighs. An irritated Lyria makes for a particularly stern one when it comes to proper etiquette. “Forgive me, mother. I should not bother you when you are amidst preparations for the Year’s End ceremony but I am on the verge of desperation.”

This seems to hit a nerve with Lyria. She tilts her head at Alma, suddenly looking very concerned. “What is wrong, Alma? Please, do not tell me this is about that terrible necromancer your father has you chasing.” She starts pacing around the room. “I asked him and asked him to keep you away from–”

“No, mother!” Alma cuts her off in a panic, holding her mother by the upper arms to stop her from pacing. She guides Lyria to sit on the bed and, as the older goddess looks at her quizzically, breathes deeply, feeling utterly silly for all this. “No, it is nothing like that. I am afraid my motives for calling you are far less…noble in nature.” She fumbles with her fingers. “My children are set on fabricating their very own Year’s End traditions.”

Lyria’s face lights up in joy as she puts her hands together in delight. “Oh, but that sounds wonderful! For a moment there, you looked like you were about to announce the end of the world.” She notes, looking at Alma in utter confusion. “Why are you so desperate?”

“Well, the celebrations include a gift exchange,” Alma explains.

“Ah…” Lyria nods in knowing sympathy. “Exchanging gifts was never something your father endorsed.” She taps Alma’s hand in dismissal. “Still, you love to shop for gifts! I seem to remember very good ones.”

“Yes, it is usually easy to pick,” Alma concedes. “But in this case, I just keep hitting a wall. I need your advice.”

Lyria leans forward in expectation, a sly grin dancing on her lips. “And who is at the receiving end of this gift giving conundrum?”

Alma breathes deeply and braces herself for what comes next. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You should have asked Sky instead!

She closes her eyes, cringes slightly and says, “Gwydion.”

She can feel Lyria remaining very still. “Math’s nephew.”

Alma opens a fearful eye. “Yes.”

“And why is it so difficult to shop for him?” Lyria asks with horribly fake innocence. “A nice shirt, a tie are all simple, easy choices. Unless…” And here her grin stretches into a wide smile, soon followed by a giggle. “Oh, I see…”

Ah, there it is, the triumphant giggle.

“Mother…” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes.

Still, Lyria is having too much fun to let go of the easy prey. “You do not want an easy choice, you want one with meaning.” She pats Alma’s hand with obvious pleasure. It feels odd, this fast acceptance of Gwydion, the god fled from the First Ring for his promiscuity, as a proper companion for one’s only daughter, but Lyria has always seemed to operate on a different scale of sane as everyone else. “Math was right in saying the two of you were getting to be very close.”

“You are just torturing me now,” Alma mutters.

And in that light, smiling, icecold way of hers, Lyria jabs the dagger in. “You lied to me before.”

It always hits home.

“I did not lie,” Alma argues, dismissing the shiver that is shaking her spine. “I merely…postponed telling the truth. Things were rather confusing at the time.”

“And now?” Lyria prompts her, her voice sweet again.

Alma shakes her head in frustration. No way out of it now… “Fine. We have been together romantically. For weeks. Just not publicly and not…” She glances at Lyria. “Exclusively.”

“Because of Arion?” Lyria asks quietly.

Alma shakes her head again. “Because of my tendency to create Bunnies and of Gwydion’s tendency to pursue multiple lovers.” She considers the question again. Arion had not been the first of their concerns when the deal had been struck. “And because of Arion as well, I guess.”

“You guess…” Lyria echoes in a whisper. “Has he even been in your thoughts lately?”

“Mother, my life has been hectic lately–” Alma starts.

“Still, you have found time to date someone new,” Lyria cuts her off with surgical precision. “Have you found time for Arion?”

She hasn’t, of course. Still, admitting it before her mother, who was always against their relationship, is a fat toad to swallow. “No…”

“Finally!” Lyria cries out in joy.

“Mother!” Alma hisses.

“Oooh, kitten!” Lyria suddenly coos as she seems to notice Lexie for the first time.

Lounging in a ball of fur on Alma’s bed, as has become her habit, the cat opens an eye to look at Lyria and stretches languidly, twisting her spine in a sinuous shape, paws stretched and lazily unsheathing their curved claws. Then, she turns, rises and stretches again, yawning at her own feline leisure before approaching the life goddess and rubbing against her side, purring like a bear snoring in a cave. Lyria dotes happily on the friendly animal, completely ignoring Alma as the cat rubs and paws and tosses herself onto the sheets and plays every existing card in the feline handbook to captivate Lyria’s attention. All animals are friendly to life gods. Of course, Lexie is usually friendly to begin with, apparently seeing each new person in her world as another source of petting and adoration. She is a queen, after all, and a queen can never have too many subjects or servants.

Feeling like this has gone for too long, Alma clears her throat, startling Lexie. Lyria looks blankly at her for a moment before realization dawns.

“Anyway, gifts…” the older goddess says as if the conversation had never been interrupted. “Something meaningful but not too meaningful. That will remind him of you but not scare him away with commitment.” She glances at Alma. “Although I will bet he is a lot more committed than you realize…”

“And why would you bet on that?” Alma asks, petting Lexie by way of apology for startling her.

“Because, you fool, he keeps coming back even though he knows you cannot give him what he is used to wanting,” Lyria states as if this is the most obvious thing on the isle. “But enough of that. Is there something he desires? Besides you, that is?”

Alma thinks about this for a moment. There in not much lying beyond Gwydion’s reach in terms of material possessions but their private conversations have brought to light deeper, more metaphysical desires. “Knowledge about his parents? His past?” She looks a plea at Lyria. “You knew them, didn’t you?”

“Alma, I was sworn to secrecy,” Lyria warns her. “I cannot reveal any more than you already know. For your beloved’s sake, do not ask me to bend the limits of my vow any further.”

“He has no memory of them,” Alma insists.

Can I even imagine what that must be like? she wonders.

“He was very young when it happened,” Lyria concedes with a nod. “Old memories get buried easily. But who knows? Maybe something will light up a spark.” She rises suddenly, making Alma hope for a change in her mother’s mind. “Hmm…maybe jewelry? Something he can wear?”

The suggestion rings disappointment. For once, Alma had hoped for one of Lyria’s careful slips of information.

“I thought of that but buying something seems a bit…impersonal,” the young goddess notes.

By her side, Lexie has decided that a warm spot on the bed is not something to be disdained and is already curling up where Lyria once sat.

“Then why not make it yourself?” Lyria suggests. “Did I not offer you something like that a few years back?”

Try half a century, mother, Alma snorts.

“Do you mean, my living bracelet?” she inquires. And then it hits her. Of course! That bracelet is not just a pretty thing that plays songs from her childhood, it is also deeply infused with Lyria’s essence, connecting the goddesses with a link made of memory. “Oh, that would be perfect! Could you make one for him?”

Lyria bobs her head pensively. “I certainly could but…it is such a personal gift, Alma. You should make it.”

Alma’s eyes widen in a mild panic. She has learned to create, of course. Against Death’s wishes, Lyria has managed to nurture Alma’s Life sphere with simple, often secret lessons that the young goddess has since used to develop her skills in a self-taught kind of way. But this is much more advanced than anything she has ever been taught. “I…I don’t know how.”

“Well, it is about time you learn, then,” Lyria, replies slightly flustered. “You are an adult, after all. No one can forbid you from learning to use a sphere properly anymore. And besides, you already have some experience with plants.”

Lyria gestures at Starfax’s verdant cage. The sight of the phoenix perching quietly among the leaves sparks a sudden, treacherous memory in the goddess.

“Ugh…” she mumbles. Somrak…

“What is it now?” Lyria asks.

“Make that two gifts I will need you to help me with,” Alma explains, rubbing her eyes to hide her discomfort.

Lyria’s eyes widen in amused surprise. “Oh, another meaningful gift, you mean?” She giggles. “I want to hear all about it! But first… I want to see my grandchildren.”

“Oh no!” Alma exclaims. “First, you help me, then you can go frolic with the Bunnies.”

Ch6.27 Trust

“…and Somrak will be trailing me as I make the meeting with Lucky Pete,” Gwydion finishes. “Thank you, Cherry,” he adds as the Bunny bartender sets his brown ale before him. She serves Somrak and Alma too, but pauses a moment to look at Alma questioningly before she puts the last one on the table in front of Saira.

Even as Alma nods, Saira complains, “Oh come on, Cher! She already said it was fine!”

Smiling, Cherry raises the pint glass to Saira in a toast, and places it before her. “To your health, hon.”

“That’s right,” Somrak says, raising his glass as Cherry fades back to the bar. “To your health. We wouldn’t have this lead without you.” His hair, including the single silver-blue lock he received from Starfax, falls over his eye and he uses his free hand to push it out of the way.

Saira sardonically raises her pint in return. “All hail my first ale!” She takes a deep quaff and sighs in contentment. “Ah, the taste of freedom.”

“Easy there now,” Alma cautions her. She feels almost sure Saira’s nerves are nearly back to normal, but she is still proceeding with caution. She wonders about her own nerves. Nekh has been strangely silent since the battle with the demon. After draining her Death sphere, she could no longer hear his voice, but now it has nearly returned to normal. Yet no Nekh. Mentally, she shrugs, and decides to be grateful for small respites.

“I know, I know,” Saira groans, reaching down to scratch Lexie’s back as the cat rubs her face against Saira’s leg. The assassin holds up the glass and looks at the dark contents. “Dang, Cher, this stuff tastes great! Is it just ‘cause I haven’t had a drink in forever?”

Merri answers while Cherry concentrates on adding a precise amount of vermouth to an experimental cocktail. “Breowyn put us onto that one. Called Bellhaven, from Little Falls. The brewer makes rum, too, an’ he ages the beer in oak casks that were used for the rum. Tasty, innit?”

“Hint of rum…no wonder I like it.” Saira takes another drink, only a single mouthful this time, then shoots Somrak a look as he again pushes his hair back behind his ear. “Will you stop doing that to your hair? Man, you look like a total girl.”

“I need a new hair tie,” Somrak mutters. “Always losing those things.” Then he looks at his hand, rolls his eyes, and holds his hand out to the others so they can see a few specks of glitter on his fingers. They laugh, and he says, “I’ve washed my hair twice. Still finding them.”

Sitting beside him, Alma shakes her head. “It’s amazing you can even keep one on for long.” She brushes her fingers through his hair, making Somrak smile like a cat getting its ears rubbed. “With hair so smooth, I’d imagine they would slide off after a few minutes.”

Saira reaches back to her own golden-brown hair and pulls free her hair tie. Shaking her locks loose, she holds out a silvery elastic band with two faceted black stones, onyx, dangling from it. “Here, you can have mine.”

Somrak takes it, looking amused and skeptical. “This seems…flashier than I would have expected you to wear. Those hard cases I usually work with – you’re just trying to get me killed, aren’t you?” Still, he spreads it on his fingers, draws his glossy black hair back with both hands, and twists the tie to make a ponytail. He turns his head to show it off. “There? Am I pretty now?”

Saira chuckles and takes another sip of her beer. “You’re a real prettyboy. Though I gotta say it looks better on white hair.”

Alma says, looking at Saira with fake annoyance, “That would be because it was originally bought to tie white hair.”

“Oh!” Somrak reaches behind his head to remove it. “I shall return it to you, Lady Alma.”

Alma laughs and matches his parody of First Ring dialect. “I bestow this favor upon thee, gallant warrior. May it serve as an amulet of good fortune in thine upcoming battles.”

Somrak smiles, but his voice becomes more serious. “My thanks…I shall keep it in memory of my all-too-brief time here, and my wise and gracious commanding officer.”

He holds Alma’s gaze for a moment, and Alma remembers Somrak’s babbling from when she was healing him. But he glances down, spotting Lexie slithering between his legs, and strokes the cat from head to tail as she moves back toward Saira.

Alma snorts. “Rosemary,” she calls toward the bar, “I think Sergeant Somrak has had more than his share of beer already.”

Somrak swiftly finishes the last gulp in his pint. “Yes, time to switch to whisky. If I know Sky, he has a personal bottle or twelve stowed somewhere. He likes the good stuff, I have to give him that.” And to Saira he says, jerking a thumb at Dion, “And he’s Prettyboy. I’m Ponytail.”

Dion sighs. “Prettyboy and Ponytail. It sounds like an adventure-comedy novel.” Somrak bursts out in laughter, but Gwydion suddenly looks confused, then seems to be experiencing a headache.

Alma, concerned, asks, “Everything all right?”

“I sense…no…” He makes a small mystic gesture with his right hand, then his eyes open wide. “The tracer spell–”

Cherry screams and points just as a fat, filthy creature the size of a large kitten leaps from the windowsill to land, skidding and scrabbling, in the middle of the table, knocking Somrak’s drink off the edge to shatter on the floor in an explosion of glass and foam. They take a moment to realize it is in fact a rat. Its fur is matted and pointing in every direction as if it hasn’t groomed itself in days, and the smell that hits them is that of a rotting corpse.

For a moment everyone freezes, leaning away from the rat as it turns its dull, dead eyes to each of them, as if memorizing their faces. It looks at Alma last, opens its chinless mouth to reveal long incisors, and out of its throat comes a voice.

“Death Clan…” the rat hisses. The voice is human and full of malevolence, one that could never have emerged from a rodent’s mouth.

Then it leaps. Straight at her face.

Alma is unmoving, eyes wide, time slowing. Something slams into her – Gwydion, tackling her, knocking her to out of her seat, but the rat is stopped, a swift shape slamming it to the tabletop, Somrak, a wild look in his eyes, standing over it, hand on the hilt of a dagger, the undead creature struggling where it is pinned to the table, suffering no pain from the blade.

There is a thunk as Somrak’s chair, knocked back as he stood, comes to a stop against the wall. Saira is holding an enraged cat, Lexie, apparently seized mid-pounce by the assassin. There is a moment of silence.

“Are you hurt?” Gwydion’s voice is a whisper in Alma’s ear.

She shakes her head, then convulsively grabs his forearm, holding tightly, and begins to shiver as the rat speaks again, slapping its tail against the table.

“Alma… What if I’d had a soul bomb strapped to me? Think what would have happened, Alma. But that would have been too easy.”

Gwydion raises a hand and begins to whisper a spell, but the rat squeaks and goes limp. Gwydion’s eyes glow golden and he concentrates, but after a moment he curses.

Somrak, hunched over the corpse, still gripping the handle of the blade, asks, “Connection cut?”

Gwydion nods. “Whoever was controlling it…I can’t track her.”

“Then can I burn this cursed thing?” Somrak’s voice is filled with a passionate loathing.

“Wait!” Gwydion helps Alma to her feet, looks at her with concern and makes certain she’s standing steadily, then turns to the rat and carefully teases his fingers at its belly, pulling away a glowing spider-like wraith. “My tracer spell.” His voice is grim.

“They know…” Alma moans, her voice shaking.

Staring at the rat, shoulder bunched, Somrak grinds out, “That merchant is either dead, or he’s been warned off from meeting us. Our only lead…”

Alma’s voice rises. “If it had had a bomb…”

If it had been a bomb, Nekh’s long-silent voice echoes in her mind, all these people you love would have been caught in it, dear Alma.

She takes a step back, looking around at Gwydion, Somrak, Saira with the cat still trying to get at the pinned rat – finally at Rosemary and Cherry where they are holding each other behind the bar. Her children. Her cherished, silly, loving, caring children. She remembers the shredded souls of Corporal Stathos and the prisoners after the first soul bomb was set off in their holding cells. Gibbering, ruined shades, insane, full of an unreasoning hunger for other souls in order to satiate their agony, never to be reincarnated, only to be returned to the Wheel with great effort and peril, and to be lost forever – a merciful annihilation. For these people she loves, for her own daughters to suffer such a fate…

And you couldn’t do a damned thing about it, could you? Useless! Nekh’s voice is gleeful in its taunting.

She cannot breathe. She cannot breathe! She wants to scream but she cannot breathe!

Nekh laughs. Just think about it! How Mayumi and Tulip and Sage and…the other two, whatever their names are – how they would feel, their older siblings stolen from them so horribly. Think about how Sky would feel, coming back to find that. How much would they blame the inadequate Death goddess who was the real target anyway?

Why isn’t everyone screaming?

All. Your. Fault. You broke the rules. Now the criminals don’t hesitate to go after Guardia, and Guardia families.

Without a sound, she flees out the door, into the night.

Ch6.21 Trust

The night is pleasant and perfect for harvesting souls. The sky is clear, filled with starlight. The air is warm and calm. As Year’s End seasons go, this one is shaping up to be a lovely one. Everyone at the station is beginning to prepare for it. The Bunnies are excited, the Popula are excited and all the Dei are becoming infected with the holiday spirit of Year’s End week.

Year’s End, New Year, Renewal Week, Victory Week, regardless of the name by which it is called, the holidays during which the seasons come full circle means different things to gods and mortals. To humans and mortals alike, except maybe the ones magically inclined, the week simply marks the end of the year and the beginning of a brand new one, full of hopes and possibilities. To the gods, it is a time of remembrance, of honoring the fallen of the great battle between gods and devils, of fulfilling sacred callings and duties.

To Alma, the Year’s End is mostly the latter. It is a time of renewal for all the souls harvested throughout the year, in a sacred ceremony shared by both Life and Death clans. The two clans seldom share anything at all and even during the ceremony, they are kept apart, barely speaking to each other, but for that one magical moment when the great Wheel of Life and Death is fed and spun, they come together to renew the pool of souls and prepare them for a new life on the Insula.

The goddess smiles at the memory of it as she rises after releasing the soul of an old woman who died alone in her bed. Alma has always loved attending the ceremony. Unfortunately, she has never found her place in it. Trapped between life and death, she could not possibly pick a side. But even so, just being there has always made her feel like a part of her clan, a member of her vast family. It is also a wonderful way of meeting brothers and cousins that she does not get to see all year.

Yes, must be real nice.  Nekh’s treacherous voice creeps into her mind. To meet with all those family members who think you should be dead.

Her imagination’s eye can see him lying belly up by the old lady’s corpse, looking at the dark, mold-infested ceiling as if it were a starlit night.

Pleasant as always, aren’t you Nekh? Alma frowns.

Oh, you know I love to help with your mood swings, Nekh replies, turning to recline on one shoulder, facing her. Mostly by causing them. Funny how no one ever mentions how your pretty face goes dark when you’re talking to me.

Not everyone is as rude as you are, Alma retorts.

A tingling sensation of her special senses catches her attention. Another death god has entered her territory. A death god has materialized in the room, actually. She turns to greet him.

“Melinor, brother!” she says, covering the distance to embrace him, forgetting all about Nekh for a moment.

He does not move but stiffly allows her to wrap her arms around his muscular torso. Taller than her, he lowers his head to look at his sister.

“Sister,” he says, by way of greeting.

Oh look…Death’s attack dog, Nekh sneers. Dad has made some ugly kids, hasn’t he Alma dear?

Alma ignores the former Archon and smiles at her brother’s stiffness. This is almost a ritual between them. God of violent death as he is, Melinor is hardly capable of being openly affectionate. There is no anger in him, there never was. But his heart was forged and shaped by worshippers who believe him to be ruthless and cold and so he is limited by whatever emotions they think best suit him. Still, Alma knows that in his way, he loves his little sister. To her, he has always been a knight in shining armor and nothing in the way his face is deformed or in the grumpy tones in his voice could ever erase the memory of all the times he defended and protected her from less…tolerant family members.

She kisses his left cheek, the one with the gaping wound that will never heal. It leaves the taste of iron on her lips. He does not flinch but closes his eyes, enjoying the soothing after effects of Alma’s healing kiss.

“It was very cruel of you not to have greeted me at the Curia,” she scolds him softly, lightly slapping his chest. “How long has it been since we’ve had a chance to speak?”

Melinor lets her scold him before finally wrapping his arms around her. Hesitantly, always hesitantly, he holds her close. She basks in his embrace, used to the faint scent of blood that his skin always exudes.

“You had company,” Melinor explains. “The kind that does not appreciate death gods.”

“You are my brother,” Alma insists. “My favorite one, in fact. They would have appreciated you as much as they did Chai.”

Yeah, everyone enjoys looking at the disfigured god who smells like blood and spilling guts, Nekh comments, playfully poking an eye of the cadaver by his side with the tip of his beak.

Melinor’s eyebrow rises, perhaps sensing the extra soul in the room, a subtle gesture that goes completely unnoticed by the death goddess.

“Are you… Doing all right here?” her brother asks, concerned. “The place seems beneath you.”

Alma chuckles. Melinor is so much the typical big brother…

“I like it,” she replies. “I like the people. And they seem to like us.”

Nekh snorts. Not that you have much choice, being stuck here for better or worse. Though I would prefer worse, mind you.

Either you stop manifesting, you poisonous hen, or you will have my brother asking uncomfortable questions to the both of us, Alma threatens him.

Fine, I’ll leave, Nekh mutters, fading away. Whining bitch.

Melinor releases Alma and gently pushes her away. “I need to see your book.”

The goddess looks at him in confusion. Every death god has a record book. In it, every single soul collected by him or her throughout the year is automatically logged, along with the soul’s history, the manner of death, the condition in which it was found and released. Any event concerning souls or the Death clan is recorded as well. Any information found relevant is also transmitted via the books as a means of secret, in-clan communication. It is a death god’s most treasured possession. One jy would not be found dead without, pardon the pun.

And certainly not something one surrenders without good reason.

“Why?” the goddess asks.

“Father asked for it,” Melinor shrugs.

Their father seldom reveals his reasons, even to the right arm he has found in Melinor.

“I have your new one here,” he announces, reaching into his jacket.

That confuses Alma even further. “We are a few weeks away from the Year’s End,” she notes, summoning her record book into her hand. “Which reminds me, have you seen Nasheena, our cousin stationed in Little Falls? I have been trying to contact her about this necromancer but she keeps not answering my summons.”

“You two were never the best of friends,” Melinor notes. “But I will look for her.”

“Thank you.”

She offers Melinor the black, leatherbound book. In the moonlight that filters through the bedroom windows and activated by Alma’s touch, silvery lines glisten on the cover, curling and stretching into a frame of delicate lilies. In the center, the magical ink draws a beautiful phoenix. It flaps its wings twice before perching peacefully, looking at Alma.

“Brother, why wouldn’t he wait for the ceremony?” Alma asks. “I would have surrendered it then.”

Melinor reaches to take hold of the book. “He does not think it would be wise for you to attend this year, considering your record.”

The words make Alma’s fingers clutch the volume involuntarily. “He is shutting me out of our most sacred ritual?” she asks, incredulously.

Melinor’s eyes glance away from hers. He holds out the small, new volume, black and leatherbound as well, in his free hand.

“You never did participate, anyway,” he answers flatly. “He is just sparing you the gossip and judging of our relatives.”

Alma snorts and finally releases the old book. “How considerate of him…” she comments bitterly.

As soon as she touches her new logbook, the same silvery lines of the old one start wriggling over the exquisite, expensive leather. The same lilies, her mother’s lilies, frame the cover. But instead of a beautiful phoenix, a nimble rabbit appears, running and leaping into sight and stopping suddenly, to stand and look up, over its shoulder. Alma is not amused by the obvious joke.

“A bunny…” she says. “Has Sesh suddenly developed a sense of humor?”

Melinor shakes his head. “She had nothing to do with it. He made it himself. For you.”

Alma’s head shoots up to lock eyes with Melinor. Death does not waste time making logbooks for his children. That task belongs to Seshat, the Death Clan’s scribe and record keeper and probably the only one (besides Death himself) who knows how many death gods there are in the Insula, each of them identified by a specific symbol, like Alma’s phoenix or Melinor’s shattered skull. And unlike Death, she does not exactly have what could be called a sense of humor.

“He went to great lengths just to unnerve me, then,” Alma concedes, swallowing her anger. “My symbol has always been the phoenix. Why change it?”

Melinor shrugs again. “Does it matter?”

“Yes, it matters!” Alma cries, fighting the urge to throw this new logbook out the window. “A bunny is a child’s symbol! To give it to an adult is complete mockery. Offensive, even.”

“He insisted,” Melinor counters impassibly. “It is the only one he made this year.”

Alma opens her mouth to argue but the words die in her throat. Yelling at Melinor is useless and unfair. Their father does whatever he pleases. That he took the time to make Alma’s book should flatter her. That he turned it into a mock celebration of the release of her Bunnies from stasis merely speaks of the pleasure he takes in pointing out her perceived failures.

“Sometimes I just wish he could let it go,” she sighs. “Forget the past.”

“Maybe you should remember instead,” Melinor replies.

The way his words were spoken, with a sharp edge of warning, sends ice down Alma’s spine. “What do you mean, I should remember?”

“Do you even know why they gave you that bunny in the first place?” Melinor inquires.

“I was too young,” the goddess states, progressively perturbed. “I have long forgotten those details.”

“It is what he used to call you.” Melinor’s lips curl into something that is neither a grin nor a grimace. “You were so small, pale, with that white hair… He would say you looked like a bunny rabbit and you would wiggle your nose at him in return.” His brows furrow. He shakes his head. “But then you went and made all those other ones. And he was never the same. To any of us.”

“And so everything can be blamed on my taint, is that it?” Alma hisses.

“No, Alma,” the god replies, deadpan. “Everything can be blamed on you. Sooner or later, that truth will hit you. Maybe then things can change again.”

Her heart fills with sorrow. Blunt as Melinor is, he is not cruel. He would never say those things just to taunt or hurt her. To hear such accusations from him is like taking a dagger straight to her heart. She feels her body grow cold with the pain.

“Do you hate me as well, brother?” she asks, dreading the answer.

Something in her voice or her face must show her grief. Very much unlike himself, Melinor moves closer to her and holds her tightly to him. “No. I simply do not understand you.”

His skin feels cold and he barely has a heartbeat but his reassuring touch fills Alma with warmth. Her knight in shining armor is guarding her still.

“Enjoy your Year’s End, sister,” he whispers in her ear. “Whatever you choose to do with it.”

“I wish you the same, brother,” Alma whispers back with a smile.

“For what it is worth,” he says as he fades away. “He couldn’t help but smile… When we heard about Nekh.”

Oh, of course he’d smile, that flaky prick! Nekh shrieks in Alma’s mind.

Her head in turmoil, filled with more questions than answers, Alma leaves the room and the building. The nightly air fills her lungs when she steps out into the street, any thoughts of harvesting gone from her mind. Her feet take her, almost unconsciously, in the direction of the station.

“Done for the day?” a familiar voice rings from somewhere behind her.

Alma stops and turns to look at Gwydion, who is just a few steps away. She remembers he was already out on a random patrol when she left for her harvests, earlier.

“My last one,” she concedes.

“Maybe I can interest you in letting me escort you back to the station?” he suggests, charming smile playing on his lips.

“An escort will not be necessary,” Alma replies, thrilling to see the smile fade. “But I would very much enjoy your company.”

Gwydion’s lips curl in pleasure once again. “Fair enough.”

They walk silently for a while, side by side. Silence not filled with stolen kisses and hungry caresses is starting to become a comfortable place between them. Of course, they very much enjoy all those things, stealing moments here and there, away from work and other concerns, to indulge in lustful intimacy. But the growing complicity and overall affection that have resulted from all they have experienced together seem to be laying the cornerstone of something a bit more lasting: friendship.

Or so Alma hopes. Not much can survive or be built between two people when friendship does not exist. And even if Gwydion does not seem to have many real friends or any actual concept that such a thing as friendship between man and woman can be achieved, he was more of a friend to Alma when the Bunnies were facing extinction than many would dare be. She owes him, at least, the benefit of the doubt.

She realizes that she has been glancing at him for a bit too long when he asks, “Is there a problem?”

Yeah, you’re still breathing, Nekh mutters, ill-humored after hearing Melinor’s words. And to think I offered you the possibility of working for me.

Alma smiles, as much out of lack of something to say as in pleasure at Nekh’s discomfort. “No… not really. Just wondering if you have plans for the Year’s End.”

Gwydion looks confused for a moment. “Year’s End? Oh, Triumph Week! I don’t really celebrate it. We never have, at my uncle’s estate. And you?”

Alma sighs. “My plans were cancelled. I have been advised not to visit my family for the celebrations.”

“Because of the Bunnies?” Gwydion inquires.

“The Bunnies. Nekh. Everything,” Alma explains. “Father is not pleased with me, it seems.”

Oh, suuuuuuuuuure! Nekh bellows. Blame it all on poor old dead Nekh! Oh, I’m giving you such a nightmare tonight!

If you are using the giant rats again, could you please provide a bottle of ketchup tonight? Alma replies, trying to keep a pleasant expression for Gwydion. I am in the mood for a kebab.

Maybe I will have your clueless little boyfriend there cut you again, the undead Archon hisses. Or just make you watch while he humps your precious Bunnies. At least they can be of some use in bed.

Alma grimaces at this. She knows she mustn’t but she cannot help it. Nekh’s nightmares are constant and worse each night. She barely takes more than a nighttime nap anymore. Probably thinking that her expression is a reaction to the thought of parental disapproval, Gwydion shifts his gait to walk closer to her, his arm just a finger’s width away from hers. He brushes his fingers against her wrist before slipping them between hers. The spontaneous, unknowing reassurance of what the real Gwydion is like brings a smile back to Alma’s lips. Nekh’s presence loses its edge at his touch.

“Maybe you could make amends if you visited, anyway,” he ventures, gently squeezing her hand.

Alma squeezes his hand back and blinks a couple of times before remembering what it was they were talking about. She grins at Gwydion’s innocence as they arrive at the station. “Maybe I should introduce you to my father, one of these days.”

Oh, please do, Nekh incites her. He’d love his new son-in-law.

Gwydion chuckles. “I see that my suggestion wasn’t all that wise. Oh well…”

He moves closer. His hand finds its way around her back, to the curve of her hip. “Their loss is our gain.”

Alma smiles and places a hand over his, leaning slightly to kiss the corner of his lips. “The Bunnies are planning a picnic for the holidays. Would you like to join us?”

You could be the main course, Nekh jests in a mellow falsetto.

The god seems to consider the offer for a moment. “I will have to check my schedule but I think I can just make it.”

Even knowing she sounds strained, Alma cannot help but laugh. “Playing hard to get, I see. Well, I should–”

The door to the station opens. The gods immediately part, trying to keep a certain level of decorum, but much to their surprise, no Popula or Dei come out. Instead, the door is kept open by some invisible force. Gwydion looks down and grins, urging Alma to do so as well. Moving slowly and quietly, body wedged to prop the door open, nose sniffing the air, the cat that Sage rescued from the warehouse is trying to sneak out of the station. She looks up at Alma, her big, yellow-green eyes staring questioningly at the goddess.

“Meow?”

Alma smiles and leans to pick up the cat, while Gwydion keeps the door open as they move inside.

“No, you may not go out, Lexie,” the goddess whispers. “What would Sage say?”

Deep in Alma’s mind, Nekh’s words echo. Seriously, cat. Run!

 

Ch6.11 Trust

Alma flips through the pages of the weekly report meant for the powers that be in the Guardia headquarters. Every mention of the Rio Novo incident has been carefully treated as just another gang quarrel, alien to the Guardia in spite of several complaints by broken and maimed gang members against a person unknown matching Somrak’s description perfectly. Alma sighs. Gwydion has already told her that he will speak with the fire god personally, assured her the issue will be settled without the need for her intervention. Of course, the goddess still wants to talk to Somrak, just to enlighten him about some of the rules, but she can barely hold it against him that he has chosen to use the information about Rio Novo the way he did. Lone agents are never good team players. What he did was wrong but hardly unexpected.

She flips to the next page. She does so with her left hand because her right one is currently trapped under Lexie’s head. The forearm attached to said hand is also trapped under the furry bulk of Lexie’s body. The cat has her rump turned to Alma, tail slightly tickling the goddess’ arm, chin resting on Alma’s knuckles while the long fat cat purrs in mild annoyance at the sergeant’s insistence on ignoring Lexie in favor of such a boring, uninteresting thing as a pile of paper. Alma taps her right index finger on the wooden desktop and smirks at the way the cat’s head recoils, glaring resentfully at her misbehaving prisoner.

Another page is flipped and Alma feels the weight on her right arm begin to shift. Slowly, ever so slowly, Lexie rises, eyes fixed on Alma’s report. A large paw steps forward, then another. Slowly.

Ever so slowly.

Millimetrically slowly.

Like the flow of the centuries.

Lexie’s ears are perked up, her body tense as she moves each paw, as if ready to react if Alma bars her way. Alma rests her chin on her left hand, watching as the cat steps on top of the paper and slowly, always slowly, sits down, then lies, paws hidden under the brownish-grey faintly striped blanket of fur that is Lexie. She lies like a sphinx on top of the report, hiding it from Alma’s view, large glinting yellow-green eyes fixed on the goddess in a wordless order of Pet me.

“I guess you’re right,” the goddess says, scratching Lexie behind the ears, which has the cat purring loud enough to be heard from the other end of the office. “You are much more interesting than any report.”

Alma had planned to have her harvests done early today in order to attend her first class with Master Pak at a sensible time, without the worry of being too tired afterwards to perform her divine duties. But her shift will be over in little over half an hour and the contractors she had been waiting for to look at the cells and give an estimate of the total cost of repair are running late in showing up. Not that there are many choices available in terms of Guardia-approved contractors (i.e. companies with slightly less flagrant tax-evasion), especially in a place like Three Rats, but the protocol demands this charade of calling multiple contractors to come in and analyse the damage and write up a plan and give an invariably wrong estimate of the time and money needed and spend a week filling out paperwork instead of actually getting any real work done.

Oh well, it is as it is… Alma thinks, moving her face closer to Lexie’s.

The cat stretches her neck forward, sniffing the air coming out of Alma’s nostrils, and soon their noses touch. There is nothing quite like the feeling of a cat’s cold, moist nose against one’s skin. It makes Alma smile.

“Sergeant Alma?” PPC Longshot hesitantly calls, head poking through the slightly open door.

“Yes?” Alma’s head shoots up, startling Lexie, who jumps off the desk and walks over to the sofa, one of her favorite sleeping spots.

“The contractors are downstairs to look at the cells,” Wallace says, opening the door fully. “I told them they could go ahead.”

Finally…

“Good,” Alma replies, rising from her chair. “Thank you, Wallace.”

Longshot opens his mouth to speak again but then looks down, silent, hands clasped together in front of him, sheepishly.

“Is there something wrong?” Alma asks, concerned.

Wallace shakes his head, slowly raising his eyes to her. “No, I… I wonder if I could accompany you. I’ve always been fascinated by…you know, dwarves.”

Alma smiles. Clumsy and clueless as Longshot may be, he can also be quite adorable in his childish innocence. “Of course you may accompany me.”

She hands him the sheet with the details for this particularly company, a gesture that has him grinning in pleasure. They move downstairs, walking by Sergeant Machado, who whispers “Good luck” with a grim expression on his face. Alma nods and thanks him, slightly unsure of what prompted him to say that.

Ugh…dwarfs… Nekh grunts. Nasty little things with big mouths.

Ah, I was wondering where you were, Alma replies.

Why, missed me? the former Archon counters. Am I growing on you?

I would hope not. You already occupy too much space as it is.

HEY! Are you calling me fat?!

She follows an eager Wallace downstairs, where half a dozen bulky creatures, short and lively, are already inspecting every corner of the prisoner holding area, which Alma has made sure to vacate in anticipation of their arrival. They look…talkative. Dressed in rough leathers, big and heavy work boots and yellow construction hard hats, they chatter and babble and gabber, mostly about the work ahead, it seems, but that she picks up mainly from gestures and body language, for whatever language they are speaking bears little resemblance to Urbia, the common language of the Insula. It is as if the words have no distinctive beginning or end and the sentences have no breathing pauses.

Three of them are females, clearly. Their facial features and the curves in their bodies say so without doubt. Bulky and short as they are, they are proportionate in their build and even quite attractive, with their short, frizzy hair that reveals long, delicate, membranous ears painted in swirly designs, and their full lips curved in an ever-present smile. Thick work gloves hide their hard-working hands and leather pants cover legs that are slightly thinner and visibly more shapely than those of their male counterparts. Two of them wear sleeveless shirts while the third is barechested. However, where pale skin should exist to match their pretty, sun-deprived faces, there is bare rock, veiny and rough, ochre and grey and even glinting with various minerals.

The males are not very different. Slightly taller, short-haired and clean-shaven, they mostly seem to have larger areas where rock has merged with their skin like some sort of extreme adaptation to a mostly underground environment. One of them has both rock-imbued chest and head exposed, no hard hat, his arms encased in protective leather sleeves. The other is mostly covered in leather except for large, granite-grey hands that sparkle with metallic elements. And the third and last is apparently wearing no pants. Of course, this is somewhat difficult to assess due to his smooth, basalt-black skin but the veins of rust-red oxidation that can be seen upon closer inspection are a dead giveaway. It is he who seems to be in charge of the whole operation.

Of all beings she has encountered, Alma had never experienced dwarves. She takes all of this in with amazement and without expectation. Wallace, however, looks more befuddled than impressed with the creatures he claims fascinate him.  

“Is the company name really Dwarf, Dwarf, Gnome?” he asks.

The black-legged dwarf turns to look at the young PPC with a suspicious eye. “Yeah, so?”

Wallace gulps at the veiled threat in the dwarf’s raised eyebrow “Uuhh…Where’s the gnome?

Ooooh, nice save, kid, Nekh sneers.

The dwarf raises his hard hat and scratches his forehead with one hand, the other one, holding his writing pad, resting against his hip. “That’s what I’d like to know. Guy ran away with my daughter. Could at least have taken the pretty one…” he trails off. Looking at Alma with an appraising eye to quickly determine who is really in charge here, he adds, “While we’re at it, can I file a complaint?”

“Against him?” Alma asks, trying not to chuckle.

“No, against her,” he huffs. “He was my best engineer.”

Women, huh? Nekh seems to commiserate. Plague of the world, they are.

Alma smiles at the dwarf, ignoring Nekh. “I am Sergeant Alma of the Guardia Dei. This is Probationary Constable Longshot. I was the one who called you here.”

“Oh, aye! I can see why you called, too,” the dwarf says brightly, proffering a leather-clad hand to shake Alma’s. “Bruhn Dwalkee, by the way. Looks like somethin’ went boom in here.”

Alma nods, shaking his hand in what she hopes is a firm enough fashion for a dwarf. “It did. We are currently looking for quotes to decide which company to contract to repair our cells.”

“Quotes…” Bruhn waves her off. “You don’t need quotes. You got us! All you need is right here.”

“Still, I–” Alma insists.

“Look,” Bruhn interrupts, raising a hand. “I know you have to talk about the quotes and all but here’s how it’s gonna go. You call someone else that’s cheap, they come in here, pickaxe at the ready, start breakin’ stuff, measure wrong, bust some pipes, maybe awake a dragon or two. You don’t want that.” He cringes slightly at the sudden crash of a pickaxe bursting through stone blocks and turns to his workers. “Hey! Careful there!”

Turning back to Alma, he goes on, barely skipping a beat. “You hire us, we get this ready two weeks after the estimated deadline. No sweat. I’ll even throw in the bribes you’ll need to get a construction license. And a mint.”

Alma, who is still looking nonplussed at the dwarf-woman currently wielding a pickaxe against the base-holds of the cell bars can just catch the end of his rambling. “We are government officials. We cannot go around bribing – Why is your employee bursting through our floor?”

Eh eh…Break it all! Break it all! Nekh cheers on.

“Uuhh…damage assessment,” Bruhn answers, turning to exchange a quick word with the dwarf-woman. “Yeah, that’s it! You know what you need here? A subbasement! Add a few sofas, some throw pillows, a colorful light, maybe some fake plants. BAM! Great lounge area.”

“This is a Guardia station, not a coffee shop,” Alma retorts. “And why would I need a subbasement?”

Bruhn jerks his thumb at a point behind his shoulder. “To go with the gaping hole on the floor over there.”

Alma’s eyes widen in disbelief and she rushes to where the dwarf-lady was just working. Through a hole no larger than Alma’s foot, she can see nothing but darkness and emptiness. Impossible! These floors should be solid. Even with a pickaxe, that dwarf should not have encountered anything but clay soil and bare rock. Who would be insane enough to build a cell over hollow ground?

Gotta love civil service and cheap contractors… Nekh comments, laughing at Alma’s bemusement. Oh this is gonna be sooooo amusing…

“There weren’t any holes this morning. That cell had prisoners in it just a few hours ago,” she mumbles. “Why would you even put a pickaxe to these stones?”

“Oh, she heard a hollow sound, thought she’d investigate,” Bruhn shrugs. “To prevent any surprises later.”

“I’m not quite sure if I should be glad or furious,” the goddess says. She can hear the sound of Nekh munching on metaphysical popcorn in the back of her mind.

“Well, I always say that if life hands you a tunnel, just grab the ketchup and call it a day,” Bruhn offers, taking her hand and guiding her away from the hole. “Look, don’t worry. Bruhn is here and he’ll take care of it, rats and all.”

Alma sighs. Life in command is Hell on the Insula, it seems. “When do you think you will be able to provide an estimate of the costs, Mr Dwalkee?”

“I’’ll draw the plans and do the math and have it all ready for you to look at in a week,” he replies, soothingly. “How does that sound?”

“Thank you, I will await your estimate,” Alma says. “Shall we go, Wallace?”

“I…I do have some questions, if you don’t mind,” Longshot hesitantly states. “For Mister Dwalkee.”

Uh oh…

“Ah, don’t be shy, then!” Bruhn exclaims, lightly slapping the tall PPC on the thigh. “Ask away! Dwarves love to chat!”

Wallace hesitates but then blunders on. “Uhm… It’s just… you don’t look like what you’d expect your average dwarf to look like.”

Dwalkee raises a bushy eyebrow. “Huh…like what?”

“Well, for starters, there’s a distinctive lack of axes here,” Wallace points out.

Bruhn snorts. “You usually need them to carve stone, do you?”

No, but they’re damned good if you’re just tall enough to chop a guy’s legs off at the knee! Nekh offers. Pay no attention to him, kid. Those nasty buggers all have axes at home.

Beyond Alma’s thoughts,Wallace keeps digging an early grave. “And if you’re a dwarf, where’s your beard? Everyone knows that dwarves have long beards.”

“Who told you that?!” Bruhn bellows, face red with sudden anger. “Any dwarf knows better than to grow a beard! Only those city-slick, surface dwellers grow beards like that makes’em ‘real’ dwarves! Hmpf, never seen a tunnel in their lives.”

“But…but…you’re a dwarf!” Longshot insists, bewildered. “It’s practically mandatory!”

“A beard?!” Bruhn exclaims. Taking a deep breath to regain his self control, he looks at Wallace as if to a particularly dense child. “Sonny, what do you think it is, an air filter? All sorts of rubbish get caught in it. Having to wash it every day, combing it, then your foot gets stuck, suddenly you’re rollin’ down a mine, droppin’ down shafts, scaring the living daylights out of some guy lookin’ for a lost temple.”

He turns to Alma. “I had a cousin who lost a kid in his beard. Went in age seven, didn’t come out until his wedding day. True story!”

“Ah, but at least I can see it’s true the women look a lot like the men,” Longshot ventures as the barechested dwarf-woman walks by.

“Nah, she’s just ugly,” Bruhn mutters.

I love this guy! Nekh coos.

“You better not be talking about me!” the female dwarf shrieks, glaring daggers at Bruhn.

“No, snookems!” Bruhn replies immediately, leaning conspiratorially closer to Alma. “Gets it from her mammy’s side, poor thing. Sweet as molasses, face like three-day-old porridge. And teeth… Will bite the nails off a wood board like it was fishbones in catfish.”

“Well, you could at least use… You know, the armor? A proper helmet?” Wallace suggests hopelessly.

“Laddie, you have a fundamental misunderstandin’ of the underground,” Dwalkee chuckles.

“Oh yeah, then why is that guy not wearing a hard hat?” Wallace asks, looking in fascination at the dwarf with a stone-inlaid head.

“Oh him?” Bruhn asks conversationally. “He doesn’t need one. His brains is made of hard rock.” To Alma, he adds, “Blunt as a pebble but real good for demolition. Him and the one with no gloves.”

Suddenly, I’m wondering what their approach is to battering rams.

The image Nekh sparks in Alma’s mind has the goddess blushing bright red. “Oh dear…”

“Hey, that guy doesn’t look like a dwarf!” Wallace suddenly cries, pointing at an exceedingly tall worker that has just entered the basement. Unlike his considerably shorter counterparts, he does not immediately join in the endless banter but merely grunts a hello. All clad in leather, no apparent rock inlays, sheepish expression reinforced by eyes that bear little intelligence in them, he looks suspiciously like a very tall, somewhat dimwitted human.

Dwalkee looks at him, then shrugs. “You’re just saying that ‘cuz his head keeps hitting the doorways. Discriminating on the basis of height.” He glares at Wallace, accusing finger pointed straight at the young man. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Longshot’s eyes widen in sudden panic, his face turns red, purple and all colors in between. He looks at Alma, then back at Bruhn. “I am soo sorry, I didn’t mean–”

Bruhn laughs heartily and slaps Wallace’s thigh again. “Nah, just kidding. He’s adopted.” He raises his voice so all his fellow dwarves can hear. “Just don’t tell’im. We wanna break it to him easy.”

The whole of the dwarf population bursts into laughter, except, of course, the poor tall dwarf-adoptee, who looks around with a vacant expression like someone trying to grasp the concept of a joke. Alma cannot help but feel bad for the poor soul, even as Nekh laughs in her thoughts.

Oh, come on! That was a good joke! Nekh says, still laughing. Gotta learn to laugh at your average idiot.

That is only because you have never been the one being laughed at, Alma replies, remembering sadder childhood days and cruel older brothers.

She feels a sudden urge to bound up the stairs and leave this place. “Wallace, we should leave these people to do their job in peace,” she says.

Longshot looks a little disappointed. “May I…May I ask just one last question? Please?”

Alma sighs. “Go ahead.”

Wait for it…Wait for it…

Wallace breathes deeply. “So…is it dwarves or dwarfs?”

BAM! I’m out! Nekh announces.

The seemingly simple question has Bruhn scratching his head again. “Ah, that timeless question. You see, to answer that, we’ll have to go back to the dawn of dwarf civilization.”

“Eh, dawn of dwarfs, dawn of dwarfs,” the barechested dwarf lady grumbles as she walks by carrying a long wooden ruler. She stops just by Wallace. “Look, honey, both forms are right. Just use whichever–”

“I’M SORRY!” Bruhn cuts her off, hands balled and thrusted against his hips. “And what kind of an expert is Mrs Dwalkee to–”

His words earn him a blow to his hard hat with the wooden ruler even before he finishes his sentence. “You raise that voice at me again and you’ll be doin’ the dishes for a week!”

“But, honeycakes…” Bruhn whimpers.

“If I may be so bold to intervene…” one of the barearmed female dwarves starts.

Please, don’t, Alma wishes in thought.

“As if anyone wants to hear your theories, Clothil!” the male dwarf with the stone fists calls out. “It’s dwarves! Everyone knows that!”

“As if that isn’t what I was gonna say!” Clothil harks back at her co-worker.

“No, it’s dwarfs!” the other female states. “On account of that agreement signed after the Second Great Dwarf War!”

“Yeah, but then the Third War happened so we ripped that damned agreement!” Bruhn counters.

“You can’t prove that! No one ever found proof of that war!” the female dwarf insists.

“Doesn’t matter what your mammy says, Guidde, the war happened!” Mrs Dwalkee barks, bare chest thrust forward at the girl-dwarf in dissidence. “I was there with my pops selling memorabilia!”

“Wow…” Wallace murmurs. “You had a war just to decide what the plural of dwarf should be?”

“Oh, and that’s not even the half of it!” Mrs Dwalkee exclaims, holding a hand up. “Sonny, you wanna know about dwarves? I’ll tell you about dwarves!”

And, much to Alma’s dismay, she does.

Alma and the Bunnies 2

Cherry clears her throat and asks, “Hey, uh…Mom? I got a question… Wait a second… Mama? Mommy? Hey whaddya wanna be called, huh? We ain’t never had anyone to call that before.” At first she sounds as if she is trying to make a joke, but as she trails off, Cherry’s voice becomes small and wistful.

Alma is now barely able to move with Tulip on her right shoulder, Mayumi on her left, and Cherry trapping her left arm against Mayumi’s back. All the Bunnies have their own rooms now, upstairs, but sometimes they just seem to need these moments of closeness, of reconnection,  when they come together and dogpile on her. Or Bunny-pile.

“Whatever you feel comfortable calling me is what you should call me,” she replies. “I will not hold it against you if all you can call me is Alma.”

Sage gently scoops up Tulip and carries her to the foot of the bed. “To me, ‘Mother’ sounds right, but sometimes ‘Mama’ feels right too.”

Ugh, that’s it. I’m going to be sick. Nekh fades away and Alma feels relief as his oppressive presence lifts from her mind for the moment.

Mayumi snuggles in closer. “I was raised to say that sort of thing quite formally.” She chuckles almost silently. “And in front of the Guardia officers, I couldn’t possibly call you even ‘Alma’. It would seem so…disrespectful to call you anything other than ‘Sergeant’ or ‘Ma’am’.”

Alma shakes her head. “I see no disrespect in it. But I do understand. You were going to ask a question, Cherry?”

Cherry looks up in surprise, as if she had completely forgotten this. Then, she seems to remember, “Oh yeah! Before I so rudely interrupted myself! I was gonna ask if you, uh, ever had a relationship gone wrong. Cause it kinda sounded like you were talkin’ from experience before.”

“Oh…” Alma’s voice trails off for a moment. “I… It did not exactly go wrong.” She grimaces. “And then again, I suppose it did. It started like a bedtime fairytale but then…circumstances pulled us apart.”

Cherry releases Mayumi’s hand and strokes Alma’s cheek. “You don’t gotta tell us if you ain’t ready. But now or later, we’re always ready to listen.”

“That’s right,” Rosemary chirps. “We’re bartenders, after all!”

Alma chuckles, and focuses on Mayumi’s brown eyes. “It was a bit like it is with you, dear. I had a strict, protected childhood. He was, and is, much older than I. Everything felt like the answer to a much-repeated prayer. The things I saw and learned from him were so different from what I had been allowed to see before. I often wondered if I didn’t look like a child in his eyes, if my words rang childish in his ears.” She smiles. “But one by one, he dispelled those fears and we were happy.”

Oh, what a happy-ever-after princess you are!

Alma mentally groans at Nekh’s return.

“So how come you guys ain’t together anymore?” Cherry asks.

Oh yes, do tell!

Alma breathes deeply, knowing what direction the conversation is taking and bracing herself for what comes next. Sooner or later, the truth would have had to come out. “Gods have their callings. And he was called away to look after his family. He is a Void Rider, a god of the vast nothingness beyond the Insula. And I… Like many other gods, I cannot survive there.”

Mayumi raises herself up on her elbows, her ears alert, her expression puzzled.

Cherry, her view of Alma blocked, shifts to sit cross-legged, and tilts her head to the side. “Void Rider…what’s that? Sounds kinda cool!”

Alma takes the opportunity to sit up as well, stretching her freed arms above her head. She says to Cherry, “They are gods of creation, of reality. Most of the time, they look like great, majestic horses. There are dozens of them.” She sighs. “He is their leader, so he must stay with them. As I must stay with you.”

Rosemary grins. “A horse, is he?”

Cherry looks Alma up and down with a lazy smile. “My oh my…” she says, while Mayumi simply blinks and blushes. Sage, on the other hand, does not seem surprised at all.

Ignoring Nekh’s derisive laughter, Alma smiles and says, “Some gods can change their shape, Rosemary… When I met him, he looked more…human. Albeit with some unusual characteristics.”

There is a heartbeat of silence before Cherry and Rosemary burst into laughter, Rosemary almost rolling off the edge of the bed, clutching her belly and curling into a fetal position, while Cherry flops onto her back again, head hanging off the upper end of the bed. Sage shakes his head and puts his palm to his face, while Mayumi just giggles quietly. The cat, Lexie, gives Rosemary an annoyed look and moves down to the end of the bed to sit next to Tulip, where she starts cleaning herself.

And you say I have a filthy mind, Nekh mutters. I don’t hold a candle to those two.

Alma blinks before realization dawns, then she chuckles, and the chuckle grows into a laugh. “I suppose I should have phrased that better. I meant his face…”

Rosemary finally stops laughing, and gasping for breath, rolls back to face Alma. “Och, we’re sorry! Our minds’re naturally right dirty.”

Alma shakes her head. “I wonder who you two take after…”

Mayumi sighs. “They’re really not quite as bad as they pretend to be.”

Alma shakes her head. “Moving on… He visited the Insula a few more times after that. But he can never stay long. Our love story has been on hold for a little over a decade, now.

Oh please, Nekh whines. Can’t you see he’s just not that into you? If he gave a damn, he wouldn’t stay away.

You sound like you are giving relationship advice now, Alma replies, amused, causing Nekh to groan and make sounds in her head of stomping away and slamming a door. As she feels that oppressive presence disappear again, she thinks to herself, I need to cuddle with my Bunnies more often.

Rosemary sits up. “A little over a decade? As in…thirteen years plus a bit?” She looks at Sage sitting at the end of the bed, blanket-wrapped Tulip curled up next to him. Sage nods at her, a slight smile on his lips.

 

Cherry sits up and looks at a grinning Rosemary, a smiling Sage, at Mayumi with her hand to her mouth, before looking at Alma, who watches and waits for their reactions as the truth dawns on them. “Huh?” Cherry looks at Tulip, who amazingly has slept through all this noise. “Wait, what??”

Sage asks quietly, “Do you mean this god is…our father?”

Alma takes a deep breath. It is time. “Yes. His name is Arion. When he left, Cherry and Rosemary had just been created.”

“But then,” Mayumi asks, “a little later he returned?”

“We were in love,” Alma says. “I love him still.”

Rosemary coos, “Awwww!”

Cherry raises her hand like a student. “So if we’re half horse, how come we got bunny ears instead a’ pony ears? I mean, that just makes zero sense.”

Alma says gently, “You are the result of a mystical process of creation, Cherry. You could just as well have dog tails. He is not your father in the traditional sense of the word, after all.”

Cherry grimaces. “Dog tails! Urgh! I like my Bunny tail!”

Alma shakes her head. “I miss him terribly but we just cannot seem to find a way to be together for longer than a glimpse into each other’s dreams. Loving each other and staying together are two very different things. Especially when gods are concerned.”

Mayumi nods slightly at this, her face thoughtful. Alma looks at her sadly, hoping that she and Sky will find a way.

Sage interrupts her thoughts, speaking up softly. “He came to me in a dream. When I was in the cage. He let me know you all were on your way to help.”

Alma raises her eyebrows in surprise, then smiles. “I am glad he did. And that he sent help so we could arrive quickly. Your father loves you and looks after you just as much as I do. Never doubt that.”

Mayumi hesitantly speaks, “I think…I had some sort of dream about him. But it’s very vague. Perhaps it was nothing. I can’t recall all of it.” For a moment she seems about to say more, but she closes her mouth and shakes her head slightly.

“Huh,” Cherry huffs, crossing her arms. “I don’t remember dreamin’ about him, but I sure would like to.”

Alma strokes the Bunny’s ears, the black fur amazingly soft. “If I see him in my dreams, I will let him know you want to meet him. But I have no way to control when it will happen. I have not dreamt of him since our first night here.”

Rosemary takes the cloth on Saira’s forehead and goes to the pool to wet it. “Well, we’re just happy ye’ve got someone here in the wakin’ world now.”

Cherry giggles and fans herself with her hand. “Yeah, talk about ‘my oh my!’ Hey, does this mean Dion’s off-limits to me and Mer?” She winks at Alma.

Rosemary laughs as she sits on the bed again and puts the cloth on Saira’s forehead. “Aw! Say it ain’t so!”

Alma looks at them, crossing her arms. “I would love to know just what you two are talking about.”

Mayumi looks at them disapprovingly. “They are just teasing, Mother.” Cherry sticks her tongue out at Mayumi.

“I see,” Alma says, choosing her words carefully. “So…you want to know if Gwydion and I… If we are involved romantically.”

Rosemary claps her hands, delighted. “Yes! Yes! Oh ye are, ain’t ye? The way ye look at each other!” She sighs at the romance of it.

Cherry chuckles. “The way you smell like each other.”

Alma rolls her eyes. Bunny noses… “We have been enjoying each other’s company, yes. But I am afraid neither of us is prepared to commit to any more than that.”

Mayumi says, gently, “He has…surprised us.” She smiles.

Sage nods. “Mmm. We really were not sure about him at first.”

“Ah, I always knew he was a good guy!” Cherry exclaims. “He resisted me and Mer, right?”

“Oh yes, he must’ve already had eyes for our dear Mama!” Rosemary agrees.

“Did you ever think that maybe he wasn’t attracted to the two of you?” Mayumi teases.

Cherry snorts. “As if!” and tackles Mayumi, tickling her sides. Mayumi screams quietly, laughing and struggling while Cherry tries to pin her wrists with one hand, breaking one hand free and tickling back. Tulip finally reacts, rolling over and grumbling incoherently at the noise.

Alma watches all this with a sense of amusement and wonder. To think that such a short time ago she was expecting to have her children, her own life, taken away from her. That these silly, wonderful beings could have been snuffed out by the whim of imperious gods who had never met them.

She clears her throat, causing the combatants to look at her, and glances at Tulip. They follow her glance, then look at each other and silently call a truce with a kiss, then lie in each other’s arms while Alma says, “Well, I must admit Gwydion is a scoundrel.” She smiles. “But he is a rather sweet one when he wants to be. We’ll see how it all goes.”

Rosemary asks, “Does this mean we should stop flirtin’ with ’im?”

“No way!” Cherry says, cuddling Mayumi, grinning. “It means we can flirt ten times as much, and he can’t do nothin’ about it!”

Alma chuckles. “Poor Gwydion. Flirt away all you like. But for now… If I don’t get some rest before my nightly harvests, I will be very grumpy later on during my shift.”

Cherry gives Mayumi another kiss, looking into her eyes for a long moment, then sits up. “Nobody wants a grumpy Alma.” She hugs Alma and kisses her as well. “As much as this warm comfy pile o’ Bunnies is temptin’ to stay in, we oughta be up in the bar. These cops are pretty good about servin’ themselves and leavin’ money, but that’s only for bottled beer.”

“Och yes!” Rosemary says. “This is usually a slow night, but still! Sage, would ye mind lookin’ after Saira, love?”

Sage nods, while Alma gently drags Tulip back up near her and lies down. The cat follows the young Bunny and curls up between Alma and Saira, her back pressed against Saira’s thigh.

“Could I stay as well?” Mayumi asks.

“You never need to ask,” Alma says, smiling at them both before closing her eyes. “Good night, little ones.”

Oyasumi…Okaasan,” Mayumi whispers.

Sage echoes her, “Sleep well, Mother.”

But Alma is already asleep.