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.

Ch5.49 Shards

The magical glyphs fade as Sergeant Gwydion cancels his spell of warding, and shortly thereafter one of the doors opens, the one through which Sky and Saira, and later Alma and Gwydion had entered. Now Corporal Stathos cautiously enters, looking around at the interior, visibly relieved that, whatever he has heard from Constable Kaur and others, all fiendish creatures that had lurked within are gone now. Glancing at the mangled bodies of the Snatchers, he swallows nervously, then approaches the Dei and their prisoners.

“Inspector, I have six constables outside. There are twenty-eight children – ah, and here is a twenty-ninth – plus the two Bunnies, and the, er, gryphon.” Stathos stands at attention as he makes his report. “Oh, and a cat.”

Sky stirs, having been sitting cross-legged, head down, during this. He stands, steadier than before, straightens the remains of his armored Guardia jacket, assumes a position nearly as formal as Stathos’ and nods at him. “Thank you, Corporal. We shall need to bring all those children back to the station. We also have these two prisoners,” he indicates the old demigoddess in shackles and the moaning, whimpering sorcerer, “and a wounded ally,” he nods at Saira, whom Alma is still working to heal. “Please organize the children. And make sure none of them run off. I understand most if not all of them are of the street.”

Stathos looks uncertain. “Street children, sir… They may not wish to go to a Guardia station, regardless of how much we wish to help them.”

Sky relaxes fractionally and touches Stathos’ shoulder. “I know, Phillipus. Just get them all there. They’ve been through too much to spend this night in some alley.”

“Yes, sir.” Stathos pauses to take the hand of the child Sergeant Gwydion has been healing. “Sergeant, it is good to see you again,” he says warmly. Though there was rotation every two weeks, Stathos’ shift commander had been Gwydion most of the time since these Dei officers had arrived, until the two Sergeants had been taken away from them by unfortunate circumstances.

“Thank you, Corporal,” Gwydion says, formally but warmly. “It pleases me to see you as well.”

Stathos smiles, and turning to Sergeant Alma, he says quietly, so as not to disturb her at her work, “Sergeant Alma, welcome back.” The goddess glances up and smiles, but she is clearly focused on her healing, so he gives a small bow to her and retreats with the child.

Gods…his grandparents have so many tales of working closely with the gods. His family had been servants of one of the highest families of the First Ring, priests and priestesses, butlers, tutors, stable hands, gardeners – whatever needed doing, they did it.

Until the scandal.

He doesn’t even know what the scandal was. No one in the family speaks of it. Soon, no one who had been old enough to understand it at the time will still be alive. It will be forgotten, as intended.

And where are the gods his family had served? They have left the Urbis, it is whispered, something that is inconceivable to him. For even though he has never lived in the First Ring, though he had been born and has lived his whole life here in Three Rats, he will always picture himself as he has been raised to: a proud servant of an honorable family of gods, among the grand palaces and temples at the lofty peak of the City of Heaven.

No matter how many generations his family will have to live in the Fourth Ring, at heart they will always belong to the First – even those who, like Philippus Stathos himself, have never had the good fortune of seeing the First Ring with their own eyes.

But even living in the Fourth Ring is better by far than leaving this world for some other altogether. The Urbis is all, the only place worth living in. Everywhere else is nothing more than barbaric.

And so he smiles as he looks upon the little herd of children. Constable Kaur – silly, friendly Aliyah – has taken charge of them, and is currently getting them to play at being Guardia, Acting Constables, standing at attention and shouting their names for her. She is amazing with children. He wishes he were as good. He loves his own daughters, but he also finds solace in the long hours of his job. He’s not always the best at knowing what to do or say around them.

He sees the two Bunnies, Sage and Mayumi, talking. They look rather shaken, and Mayumi suddenly bursts into tears and embraces Sage tightly. Stathos looks away. He knows them better than any of the other Bunnies, because they work within the station itself, and he knows that May, in particular, tries to stay formal in public. Sage, while less formal, is always calm, even-keeled. Stathos respects that, having been raised to value axioprepeia, seriousness and dignity.

He has a word with the constables about the need to keep the children with them as they return to the station, and as he speaks he spots a face in the small crowd of the curious who have come to see what the commotion is. A man in a sharp suit, long hair slicked back and tied in a ponytail, except for one lock carefully twisted into a curl that hangs on his forehead. Sallow skin, pockmarked by the scars of acne, one eye drooping slightly. Stathos does not need to think to memorize that face. The way those eyes glare at him, the expression of quiet malevolence, tells him this is a man who wishes him and all those with him nothing but ill.

Stathos locks eye with the onlooker, silently daring him to do something worth challenging him over. But the man merely smirks and turns away, slipping off into the darkness.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Sky closes the door to Alma and Dion’s office, dampening the tumult of the crowded station, filled as it is with Guardia from three shifts, over two dozen children who range from terrified seven-year-olds clinging to the leg of anyone who gives them a kind smile, to stone-faced pre-teens who refuse to say a word to blueshirts just on principle, and two panicky parents whose child was the only one not an orphan.

Other than Sage.

Sky leans against the door, feeling lighter than air now that he has left his weapons and his armored jacket – fit only for the rubbish heap after what it has been through this night, giving its life for his – in his own office. He watches the Sergeants as they look around the office they haven’t seen in weeks. They have been prisoners amid luxury; what must they think of returning to this narrow office, barely larger than his own cramped room, but with both of them jammed in together?

Alma is looking at accounting receipts on her desk – the desk Mayumi has been using to take care of station paperwork. She extends a hand over the fish bowl that sits on her desk and absent mindedly imparts a blessing over the small cactus and tiny hydrophobic nymph that dwell within.

Immediately,  “Hmm… this is new,” Dion says, looking at the sofa.

Sky glances at it. Inexpensive, simple, but comfortably functional, it was, until three days ago, in his own apartment. But then, he doesn’t use that apartment, it being merely a front for his secret, pocket-universe home. The sofa had been serving little purpose there other than camouflage.

“Well, after I broke yours…” he begins, then shakes his head. He steps forward and grips Dion’s shoulder, then Alma’s upper arm, grinning so hard it almost hurts. “It is so good to see both of you! I’m sorry…I don’t think I said it earlier. If I did, I’ve forgotten. All the fighting, the worry.” He inclines his head and sighs, now holding them as if they are the only thing keeping him on his feet. A wave of fatigue washes over him, making him wobble slightly.

Alma chuckles and takes his arm. “Maybe you should have a seat. You look exhausted.”

“As he should be, after trying to face a demon alone.” Dion takes the other arm, and together they guide Sky to the sofa, into which he sinks gratefully.

He lays his arms along the back of the sofa and lets his head fall back, so he is looking up at the ceiling. He has to admit, his eyes are burning from exhaustion. “Well I certainly wasn’t expecting a demon. You two couldn’t have shown up at a more opportune moment. I really thought…” He cuts off that gloomy thought and looks at Alma. “But I wasn’t alone, was I? Will Saira be staying with you?”

Alma sits on the edge of her desk, her slender hands gripping the corners. “I don’t see any other way of looking after her than letting her stay. Doctor Nataniel is a skilled physician, but something tells me that demonic venoms are somewhat out of his usual line of work.”

Sky nods sadly, ashamed, remembering the reluctance Saira expressed in helping him. “I would think so. I…rather pushed her into helping. But I could never have found that warehouse in time without her. Just tell me what you need. Anything.”

Alma smiles. “For now, just rest will do. I will let you know if there is anything else to be acquired.” She rubs her eyes. “I think we could all use some rest.”

“Yes, this isn’t quite the welcome party I had in mind,” Dion agrees.

Smiling weakly, Sky says, “We will have to make up for that, when things are a little calmer.” He pauses, looking from one to the other, then focuses on Alma. “So…you will be here for some time then?”

“Yes. I will be.” She glances at Dion, who is straightening his jacket, frowning at the stain of demon blood on the left sleeve.

“Is it all over, then? Are you back?” Sky asks. Desperation lends his voice a rough edge.

“We were acquitted,” Dion says. “Now we start anew. But perhaps Sergeant Alma could explain it, as the heaviest part of the sentence falls upon her.”

Alma tilts her head in confusion. “Gwydion, is everything all right?”

Dion looks at her, his expression of tiredness too perfectly held to be fully sincere. Beneath it, Sky can see the hidden signs of obvious discomfort and inner turmoil.  “Pardon me. I just need a little air. My head is throbbing from the mana I used. Maybe I’ll just join the Popula outside and help interview any parents that may show up asking about a lost child.”

Sky blinks, confused, then says, “Certainly. But…Gwydion.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You’ve just saved my life,” Sky says with a tired smile. “And we’ve all done as much for each other more than once. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but…if it would please you to do so, call me Sky. At least when it’s just the three of us, though I wouldn’t mind it at any time or place. In fact, it would be a pleasure.”

Dion hesitates, then says, “Of course. Sky. Please call me Dion. I hope you don’t mind if I take my leave.”

Sky nods and Gwydion exits, closing the door behind him. Alma watches him go and is left staring at the door. She sighs after a moment.

Turning his head back to Alma, brow furrowed, Sky says, “He was uncomfortable. What is it, Alma?”

Alma looks at him with a strange sadness in her eyes, resignation and mild disappointment in it. She fiddles with a pencil, rolling it on the desktop. “The sentence. I was sentenced to stay here with the Bunnies, where I will be far away from more…important eyes. Gwydion, however, is not bound by such problems. He was offered a chance to return to the First Ring. And he is struggling with it.”

“Oh.” Sky leans forward, elbows on his knees, looking down and speaking slowly. “No one could blame him for leaving. Returning to his home.”

Alma crosses her arms. “I certainly wouldn’t. And I told him as much. He does not belong here, Sky. Of us three, he is the least prepared for all this.”

Sky stays silent for a time, looking at nothing. Then he rouses and looks up at Alma, half-smiling. “He may surprise me yet, but…I believe he will stay.”

“Then he is more of a fool than I made him out to be.” She breathes deeply, then moves closer to him, to stroke a lock of hair away from his eye. “And how are you, my friend?”

Sky’s smile broadens at her kind words and caring touch. He glances over himself. “Filthy. I must smell awful.” Rubbing the back of his head with one hand and then examining the soot on his palm, he asks, “Is my hair burnt?”

“When was the last time you slept?” Alma asks, ruthlessly.

He looks up at her, answering her question with his guilty expression. “I am very well, Alma. Now that you are out of danger, and here.”

“Hmph.” Alma crosses her arms, looking an accusation at him. “Well, I believe our close encounter with a demon somewhat disproves your assumption that I am out of danger. But yes, I am here and apparently, I can’t leave. So… You are stuck with me.”

“I could not ask for more. That unfair sentence is to my benefit, I’m sorry to say. I would be at a loss if you were to leave. And of course your leaving would mean the Bunnies would leave as well. As much as they have been in trouble recently, they have become very dear to me.”

Alma exhales deeply, running her hand over his hair. “Well, then I guess you won’t mind if I go and join them. It has been awhile since I have had more than brief moments with them.”

Sky stands slowly, like an old man barely able to rise. “Yes. You should be with them. And I shall clean up.” He steadies himself with a hand on Alma’s shoulder, then they lock eyes and move into an affectionate embrace, like that of friends who have known each other for years. He cradles her head against his chest, marveling again at how he bore years at a time with no one to hold, no one to hold him. The closest thing to friends he had since returning to the Insula and even decades before that had not really been friends. Allies, commanders, partners, but not like this.

After a moment they let each other go, and Alma smiles up at him, blinking rapidly. She lightly slaps his chest. “Go and get cleaned and do something about that hair. Your shirt is torn as well. The Bunnies and I will wait for you at the bar for a drink. Which,” she sighs, “by the look of it, will probably have to be milk, so as to not set a bad example for our little guests.” She opens the door to let him out. “See you soon!”

He chuckles, and walks to the stairs, descending back into the barely reduced pandemonium of the main floor of the station, on his way to his office.

 

Ch5.40 Shards

“No… NO… PLEASE, NOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAIIIIIIII!!”

The shrieks rip Sage away from his dreams and force him into full vigilance. Someone opened the cage, scared the children. Every boy and girl is pressed against the brick walls, wailing and whimpering in terror.

They are trying to get away from the door. The little boy Sage was holding is now holding onto him desperately, yelling and crying convulsively as someone pulls him by a leg. By Sage’s side, the cat stands stiff, ears low, back arched, hair erect, hissing dangerously at the perceived threat.

It takes Sage a moment to snap into action. He pulls the little boy to him with all his strength. The man is by his right, crouching inside the low cage, all the other children trying very hard to sit as far away from him as possible. The little boy tries to kick the stranger with his free foot but the man manages to get a hold of it, use it to redouble the strength of his hold on the child.

“Come here!” the man growls, pulling the boy out of Sage’s grip.

With a loud hiss, the cat jumps onto the man’s face, sprung by its powerful hind legs built to leap onto prey. Its claws dig deeply into the man’s shoulder and into his left cheek, ripping into the flesh, leaving red marks that bleed down his face. The stranger reaches for the scruff of the cat’s neck, trying to pulling it off in that biggest of mistakes driven by panic. The cat digs its claws in again, holding on for dear life, growling and hissing in anger.

Sage tries to catch the boy again but, fueled by his fear, the boy runs away toward the door to the cage and away from him. By the door, Clarence, the albino snatcher, awaits a victim that runs straight into his arms.

“Got him!” he announces, grabbing the child.

By the Bunny, the man finally manages to rip the cat’s claws out of his face, now bleeding profusely, and throws the still raging animal against the wall. The cat hits the brick wall violently and falls on its feet before collapsing with a whimper.

“Don’t worry,” the man tells Sage while pulling a red handkerchief from a jacket pocket to wipe his face.”I will come for you very soon.”

Outside the cage, the little boy still kicks and screams in horror, in spite of the albino’s orders and threats for silence. A violent slap to the boy’s face reduces him to painful, terrified silence.

Terrified himself, Sage finds his way to the cat and picks it – her, the cat is a female –up, lulling her in his arms, stroking her long, silky coat. She has lost a nail on her right front paw and broken off several in the fight. Still, she purrs softly in his arms.

“Ya sure that’s all ya want?” the grey-furred snatcher asks, not even bothering to look up from the small pile of wadded-up twelve-stater bills, large and pale blue, that lies on a wooden crate currently passing for a table. “Da kid wi’ the ears and dat lil’ one?”

“Yes,” the stranger says, wiping his bloody face with the handkerchief.

Sage can see him better now that the haze of panic has faded. Tanned, tall and wiry, the man is dressed in a sharp black suit that must have cost him enough money to feed a small family for a month. Accustomed as they are to seeing in very low light, the Bunny’s eyes can just detect thin blood-red stripes embroidered against the black cloth, a detail that adds wine-colored highlights to the fabric as the man moves in dull, secondhand light of the warehouse. Shiny black shoes and wine-red silken gloves complete the outfit.

He looks nothing like the typical Three Rats gangster, Sage notices. In this ward, gang leaders are often not any better dressed or spoken than Paolo or Eater of Frogs. This man’s suit is no cheap thing, made of some artificial material. However, the bleached-blond hair, cut short and styled to look like something of a very fuzzy helmet, makes him look like he is trying too hard to look exotic. Or maybe, to look like someone else.

“Do we agree on the price?” the man asks, adjusting his metal-rimmed, red-lensed eyeglasses.

The snatcher looks at the old lady and then at his black-furred sibling. A nod between them is all it takes to seal Sage’s fate. Not far away, the little boy still struggles against Clarence, the albino.

“Sure,” the grey furred snatcher grunts. “‘F ya wanna pay that much, dat’s your business.”

“Man, if a bunny’s this pricey, we gotta get us some more somewhere!” the black-furred snatcher exclaims, reaching for a wad of bills and getting a slap on the hand from his dear old mom for his troubles.

“Well, if you do, my employer will definitely be interested,” the man in the suit offers. “In fact, he will be highly displeased if you try to sell one to anyone else.”

He walks to the middle of the warehouse and removes something small and white from his suit pocket. Chalk, it looks like. He then crouches and starts scratching the floor with it, straightening up and moving around, adding to his first drawings as whatever he is writing starts glowing faintly in the twilight.

“Hey, don’t ya draw on the floors!” Clarence bellows, dragging the boy alongside him as he walks up to the man.”Ma says that’s not right!”

The black-furred snatcher grunts again and, suddenly, faster than one would think he could be, he is standing by his pale sibling and slapping the back of Clarence’s head with violence.

“Shuddup, dufus!” he growls. “Can’t ya see he’s one o’dem magicky people? Wanna curse on yer head?”

“But… Ma said…” Clarence whines, rubbing his sore head.

Gripped tightly by his other hand, the little boy screams and tries desperately to pull free.

“It’s all right, Clarence,” the old lady says.

She is slower in her motions but quick for an old lady nonetheless. She is soon standing by the boy and speaking to him, breathing her foul spell into his nostrils. Slowly, the boy stops struggling, stops screaming, hangs his head and collapses into sleep.

“How come ya knew ‘bout dis one, anyway?” the black-furred snatcher asks, more interested in business than on his family’s antics. “We just got’im.”

“I have my ways,” the man replies, still busy scribbling all over the stone floors. Around him, a deep red, sparkling mist already rises as high as his ankles. “Not that your mother made it any easier for me with her no-peeking spells.”

“And how will you get him out of here?” the old lady asks, somewhat beaming with pride at the unwilling compliment. “He’s not exactly easy to miss.”

“Again, I have my ways,” the man says, scratching his last symbol on the stone.

The glittering mist rises higher as he steps out of the circle he has so carefully drawn. He is covered in sweat, Sage notices. Sweat and blood from his fight with the cat. Whether from the effort of conjuring the spell or the heat coming from the circle, it drops off his face and sizzles as it hits the reddish mist. Whatever the spell is meant to do, no good can come of it.

“This little boy will provide the key to my…transport,” the man adds, taking the sleeping boy from the albino.

He carries the boy to the edge of the gleaming circle, lowers him to a kneeling position, holds him by the chin, pull his head back to expose his throat. He reaches for something under his jacket and produces a ceremonial dagger, with an engraved blade and an intricate red-and-black hilt.

He hums his spell, raises the dagger.

And all Hell breaks loose…