Ch6.44 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Somrak?”

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

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

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

“You came! You came!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“WHAT??”

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

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

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

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.43 Trust

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

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

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

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

The power of Reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.13 Trust

Mrs Dwalkee had started a veritable ramble, the mother of all historical rants in the basement of the Three Rats Guardia Station, to the sound of several cries and grumbles of protest and/or support from her fellow dwarves…dwarfs…whatever the plural of dwarf should be. And the more Alma thought about it, the more she wished there would not be a need for the word to have a plural.

The goddess could barely stand to listen to more than what felt like the first two paragraphs of an encyclopedia before turning and climbing up the stairs, her head already throbbing from too many shouts and shrieks and sheer overload of information. Even Nekh had disappeared, driven away by the pointless banter.

Alma is so distracted trying to drown out the echoes of dwarf voices – while ignoring the racket coming from downstairs – that she nearly walks right into Somrak on his way downstairs.

“Somrak?” she asks in surprise. “Has your shift started yet?”

Somrak nods, looking at her questioningly. “Half an hour ago.”

Alma looks at down at the bottom of the steps, rubbing her temple. “I have been down there for over an hour… I guess that explains the headache.”

“What’s going on down there?” Somrak asks, raising an eyebrow.

Alma turns to him with a smile, gently guiding him away from the stairs. “A philosophical discussion on the nature and nomenclature of dwarvenkind.”

“Jesus, Maria e José!” Machado mutters, glancing resentfully at Somrak for a second before focusing his attention on Alma. “Is that the dwarfs down there?”

“Yes,” Alma nods with a small smile. “Wallace asked what the plural of dwarf was.”

Sergeant Machado sighs, shaking his head. “Longshot…I swear that boy would put a lit match to an oil drum and be surprised with the explosion. They’ll be there all night!”

“I was sent to help out with a dwarf problem once,” Somrak says, grimacing at the memory. “I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking I’m stuck in one of their dinners…everyone arguing around me.”

Machado glares at him as if Somrak should not even dare speak, but then shrugs and quickly turns to leave. “Well, my shift is over.”

“And so is mine,” Alma says, glancing questioningly at Somrak, who looks slightly uneasy in her presence.

“I wonder if I could speak with you about something,” he says in serious tones.

Doesn’t even give you a breather, Nekh chirps. What a gentleman!

He is not the only one… Alma grumbles in thought.

She would really prefer to just go out on her harvests and let the familiar, usually peaceful task wash away the chaos of her meeting with the dwarves and her worries regarding the necromancer, Sky’s hibernation and Rio Novo. However, it is probably about the latter that Somrak wishes to discuss and it will be better for everyone if this matter is put to rest as quickly as possible. She hopes Gwydion has already spoken to the fire god.

“I think we should speak, yes,” she replies, gesturing toward the staircase to the first floor and her office. “Shall we go upstairs?”

They walk in silence the whole way into the sergeants’ office. Although there is no room for a third desk, Alma has invited Somrak to use her desk at his leisure for the length of his stay in Three Rats. It is a rare event to find all three sergeants working in the office at the same time anyway and Gwydion does not mind in the least if Alma uses his desk. She surely prefers this arrangement to the option of moving into Sky’s office for the week. It would feel wrong, almost as if she wished him gone for good. No, his space will remain untouched. Somrak can stay here.

She walks over to the little table by the window and pours herself a glass of water. She offers some to Somrak but he refuses it with a subtle shake of his head.

“I need to ask you about something…” he states instead. “But first, I think I need to apologize.”

Alma takes a couple of refreshing sips, before saying, “I am not the most important person you need to apologize to. You managed to step on quite a few toes on your very first day here.” She refills her glass before moving to lean against her desk. “I take it Gwydion has spoken to you about it already.”

Somrak nods. “Yes…and I see it from his viewpoint. I will be more careful in the future.” His tone turns inquisitive. “Assuming I have a future here? However short it may be.”

Aaaawwww, isn’t he such an adorable little puppy, all of a sudden! Nekh coos in contempt. Afraid mommy will send you packing back to your real boss, are you?

Alma does her best to ignore Nekh, focusing instead on the cold sensation of the half-empty glass as she touches it to her forehead, in the hopes it will stop her budding headache from growing any stronger. She looks at Somrak, one arm crossed lazily over her waist, eyes half shut, her voice calm and soft. “Should I allow you a future here?”

You’re flirting again… Nekh notes sweetly. With a killer…

Does that make you jealous, Nekh? Alma retorts. Is that why you keep giving me relationship advice?

Hmpf!

“How much trouble can I get up to in a few more days?” Somrak asks, spreading his hands, shoulders raised in in helplessness.

He looks serious for a moment but then breaks into a mischievous smile. It is almost as if he is challenging her to answer.

Alma smiles back and shakes her head at his lack of shame. “This station is a magnet for troublesome types, it seems.” She puts her glass down on the desk. “I agree with Gwydion. This is not entirely your fault.”

She looks at him through the corner of her eye. “But I will keep my eye on you more closely from now on.”

Somrak looks down and taps his temple with his index finger. “Ah. Well, I’m not sure how well my question will go over then.” He takes a deep breath and looks up at her. “Gwydion has told me of a demon market.”

Alma’s smile fades away at the mention of the demon market. She raises an eyebrow in mild suspicion. “He did, did he?”

Why would he do that without telling me? she wonders

Maybe your little pet isn’t as tame as you thought, Nekh’s poisonous words seep into her thoughts. Going behind your back with the new guy. Tsk tsk tsk… I call that betrayal

Shut up, Nekh.

Sooner or later, they will all betray you, Nekh taunts her. And this one will be the first.

Shut up!

She tries to hide her inner dialog but she can feel her expression darken. Somrak seems to take this as a veiled accusation.

“Yes, well…perhaps he thought it was just the sort of thing for me,” he answers dryly. “And in a sense he’d be right. Though it’s really more something I’d look into alongside Sky.”

“Where is Gwydion?” she asks. She would surely like to speak with him about this.

Somrak shrugs his indifference. “I think he might not have had a great deal of sleep before speaking with me. So, probably catching up.”

Alma nods slowly. “I see.”

He better be practicing real hard at sleeping because he’ll be doing it for a long time, won’t he, my sweet little bitch? Nekh ventures.

What do you mean?

Oh, I can feel it in you, the former Archon says. You want to kill him for going behind your back.

No, I want to ask him why, Alma states.

How dare he play rogue on you? Nekh insists. Mister Protocol himself! Just undermining your authority, making you look bad when you are left in charge. You’ll make him pay for it.

“No,” she hears herself saying.

Somrak looks taken aback by this. His eyes narrow. “No? I haven’t even asked yet.”

“I am sorry,” Alma apologizes, cupping her right elbow on her left hand so she can rest her chin on her knuckles. “Go ahead. Ask.”

Somrak sighs. “Well I asked about a guide, and Gwydion suggested Saira. But…” He looks uncertain. “I get the impression that this is not a good idea?”

Ah, the plot thickens…

Alma lowers her head and rubs her eyes. She is annoyed, tired and, worse, under Nekh’s influence. Her patience is spread thin. All she wants is to leave and find time to think things through. How could Sky think she would make a good leader?

“Let me see if I understand this correctly,” she speaks in a carefully level voice. “Just hours after a fiasco like Rio Novo, you and Gwydion come up with a new operation to look for a traveling demon market and recruit Saira to help. And this sounds like a good idea to the two of you?”

Somrak looks somewhat cross at her words. “I haven’t recruited Saira for anything. If you say I shouldn’t, I won’t even talk to her.” He takes a step forward. “But am I not to even search for the demon market, then?”

Alma locks her eyes with Somrak’s for a long moment while she considers the wisdom in this. He is a good agent, she knows. He would not still be alive if he weren’t. But Rio Novo…that was a disaster. Not a huge disaster, but…will he drag Saira into a fight?

Oh, you just know he will, Nekh leers.

Shut. UP! she orders. Let me think! Can I not have my own mind to myself for a single minute?

She can feel Nekh’s delight at her growing distress. Why, dearie…No.

She sighs. “How do you plan on doing that?”

Somrak considers her question for a moment, taking the opportunity to sit down on the sofa. His darkly playful side put to rest for the time being, he seems to take care in his answer. “Well, Saira was the one Gwydion suggested. If there is someone else who could give me a good lay of the land, or introduce me to people, that would ease the way, speed things up. If not…” He shrugs, even though he looks far from relaxed. “It won’t be the first time I’ve operated blind. But it’ll slow things down.”

“There is no one else,” Alma states.

Their sources are not that good yet, she knows. Even finding Saira was a fluke.

“I could wait for Sky to wake up,” Somrak offers only to shake his head immediately afterwards. “But he’s too obvious. Too well known here. And…” he looks at her with a small smile. “Well I was hoping I might be able to learn something to help you with the necromancer.”

Lo, what a gallant knight! Nekh mocks. Offering to help keep Princess Alma safe from the wicked mage.

It is meant as a nice offer, Nekh, Alma growls.

Yes, they all offer to help, don’t they? Nekh insists. You know, I don’t know what is better, that they all assume you’re so incompetent you need them to get the job done or that they think they can do the job for you.

Nekh…

I can just see the headlines, the former Archon chuckles. Death’s daughter gets killed after her friends are blown up by a Soul Bomb because she was too dumb and weak to find a single necromancer.

Stop it!

His words are like acid in her thoughts. They will all be gone. All of your precious little pets and admirers. Because they all know just how weak and helpless you really are. Princess…

“I don’t need help! I don’t need help with the blasted necromancer!” she cries.

Her eyes flare an icy-blue before the light disappears from her irises. She can feel the shadows grow toward her from all corners of the room as she clutches the edge of the desk. “I will find him or her or it and deal with the issue! The last thing I need are protectors who can do nothing to save their souls from this person, let alone mine! I cannot be worrying at every waking hour…”

She feels breathless. Her rage loses its strength. “About all of you…”

What is she doing?

On the sofa, Somrak has sat back in shock at the outburst. He looks at her with a neutral expression now, as the afternoon light begins to creep back into the room.

She cannot bear to look at him as she forces herself to breathe slowly, deeply. Ignoring Nekh’s victorious laughter, she tries to bring her thoughts back into order, her priorities set straight. Nekh’s poisonous words are just that: poison. She will find the necromancer and make sure no one is hurt in the process. Somrak’s offer of help should ring in her ears as a benevolent gesture, sprouting from good intentions. The kind that paves the road to Hell.

Sky was wrong. She is terrible at this.

Her once-again blue eyes focused on a distant point beyond Gwydion’s desk, she speaks in a low, tired voice, trying to return to the issue at hand. “She is almost well, Somrak. But only almost.”

She can see Somrak blinking. “I’m rather confused. Should I look into the demon market or not?”

Alma turns her gaze to him, wondering for a moment why he is confused. She realizes his mind must still be dealing with her outburst and feels ashamed of her momentary loss of self-control. When she speaks, it is as much to enlighten him as it is reclaim some level of rational thought.

“You don’t stand a chance without Saira. I walk these streets every night and I have found nothing yet. But yes, they know me. For more reasons than just my badge. You are still unknown here, despite your best efforts and I cannot help you, nor can Gwydion or even Sky. But Saira can and she is not completely recovered yet.”

She is trying to convince herself, she knows, saying out loud what she instinctively knows is true. Saira will jump at the opportunity to return to her old lifestyle. Asking her for help is like dangling a piece of candy in front of a child. Does Alma have the right to use that to exploit Saira’s natural talents? Is Saira in the right mind to make a good decision? The whole thing feels wrong but what other choice is there?

How can the Commander make this kind of decision every day?

Easy, Nekh answers with a grunt. He’s playing with pawns. Only an idiot keeps friends to play with.

“What’s her condition?” Somrak asks.

“She is mostly stable but too strong an exertion may cause sudden muscle spasms,” Alma explains. “She knows how to deal with them well enough by now. These things are increasingly rare but…still unpredictable. Everything else, I have managed to heal.”

Somrak takes a moment to consider. “I won’t take her into battle. I won’t start anything with her present. I’m just trying to find clues. If it comes time to take down the market, I’ll come to you and Dion.” He glances at Gwydion’s desk. “Particularly Dion. I’m used to Sky being ready to banish demons. It’s not really my thing.”

Alma stands up and walks closer to him. “Can I trust you to do as you say? Can you really stop yourself from starting a fight she cannot stand to be in?”

He is a god. Saira is a mortal. Will he remember that? Can she trust him with her life? If only Alma could go herself instead…

 

Somrak nods assertively. “I can if she can. Can I count on her to hold back? Because if she starts something, I’ll have to finish it.”

 

Alma snorts. They are talking about someone who was just yesterday falling off rooftops. “She has been bedridden and caged here for weeks. The moment she steps outside those doors with a good excuse to stay out, she will not hold back on anything. She will start a fight if she must and like any good youngling, she will not spend a second considering the limits of her mortality.” She breathes deeply. “And that is what has me worried. She is very good. Experienced. But reckless.”

Somrak looks down for a moment, then back up. “Reckless is not good. If she’s going to get herself killed, and possibly me, then…” He locks eyes with Alma. “Would she listen if I set very clear rules of engagement? Or would she listen to you?”

“She is smart enough to obey…” the goddess replies. “If you can get her to listen. I am sure you have worked with the type before.” She grins at a passing thought. “I imagine you have to deal with one such person every time you look in the mirror.”

This manages to bring a fleeting grin to Somrak’s lips. “I know myself. And I can be reckless. But not with partners.” He grimaces, an expression made more dramatic by the scar distorting at his skin. “I guess this means I’ll have to be the responsible one. If you will allow it, I’ll talk to her about it. If she wants to do it, and if I think I can trust her to follow my groundrules, then we’ll look into the market. If not…” The god shrugs. “Back to the drawing board.”

Alma nods and jerks her head at the office door, feeling utterly defeated. “Go talk to her. Gwydion will fill you in on what we have found so far once he wakes up. And Somrak…” Her eyes carry her misery as she pleads. “Please don’t let me down.”

“You know I can’t make guarantees,” he says, avoiding any false promises. “We’ll be talking to dangerous people. But if she and I can work together, we’ll get back here without a scratch.”

“That is what I am hoping for,” Alma half-whispers. She turns to leave. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have my harvests to see to before I get my rear end handed to me by a short, old martial artist.”

Somrak looks at her with a brief quizzical expression. As she begins to walk out of the room, he calls “Alma…”

The goddess stops just by the arm of the sofa, a step away from the door. His eyes find hers and, for a moment, there is that feeling again of a thousand unspoken words imprinted on the intensity of his gaze.

“She clearly means a great deal to you,” he says, looking serious and resolute. “I will keep that in mind every minute that we’re looking into this. I promise.”

Alma can only manage half a smile but it will have to do. “Thank you,” she replies, reaching for his face, cupping a cheek in her hand. “While you do that, make sure to keep yourself safe too.”

She strokes his skin with her thumb. His cheek feels very warm against her cool palm and so does the hand he raises to cover hers. The warmth that shoots through her at the touch of his hot skin makes her shiver with a strange delight as he holds her hand against his cheek and smiles slightly. He lets go of it and she hesitantly removes her hand from his face. In their wake, her fingers and palm leave pale ghosts on his skin, like ice thrown onto burning embers.

Like ice against a flame, they evaporate. Soon, they are gone.

And so is Alma.

 

Ch5.55 Shards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will prove them wrong,” Sky promises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” the goddess states with certainty.

“How can you be sure?” Sky insists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch5.53 Shards

There are no words for it.

It is a mixture of pain, fear, anger, despair, anguish, confusion, every single negative thought wrapped in breathtaking, unbearable suffering. And it is just getting worse.

What’s going on?! Nekh’s voice resounds in her head, as panicked as she is. What’s happening?!

Alma does not answer. Her eyes can barely see past the blurring mists of her agony. Somewhere, in the bowels of the station, something unspeakable has been done. Souls are screaming, burned, broken, ripped apart by some violent cataclysm. She can hear them, horribly maimed, their shrieks echoing into the night.

She runs into the station, feeling their pain grow stronger within her, yearning desperately to escape the ever-sharper cries that tear at her soul but knowing that she could never walk away. Not her. Not from them…

Gods, how can you bear this?! Nekh insists, his bond to her forcing him to share in her anguish. Shut’em up!

But Alma cannot stop them screaming anymore than she can stop running. She dashes down the stairs into the basement, nearly knocking down Gwydion, who is just making it down the last step. He looks at her almost as if he does not recognize her, so haunted and distorted her face looks.

Sky is already there, at the door to the cell holding area. He turns to look at them, stricken but stony, his eyes dull with silent anger and grief. Around them, the basement looks surprisingly untouched. But inside the cell block…

Sky moves aside to let his Sergeants in.

Gwydion’s voice sounds almost like a whisper against the wailing of tortured souls. “What happened here?”

The cells are barely touched, no more than a few bars twisted and broken on the one that used to hold the sorcerer. Inside them, the bodies of the two prisoners, each in their own cell, lie seated against the walls, their blood smeared on the white plaster, drawing an impact zone and then the drag marks of the dead carcasses where they had hit the walls and slid down to the floor. The old hag looks almost pristine, aside from the crushed back of her skull. The sorcerer is missing his hands and his nose, and his chest has been turned into a bloody pulp.

“A bomb, or a spell,” Sky says, half to himself, almost as if he cannot believe what he is seeing. “I don’t know how. The sorcerer was thoroughly searched. He was wearing enchanted shackles. He couldn’t possibly have cast a spell.”

No… No… It’s not possible… Alma whimpers in thought as she paces around the room, unable to stand still under the desperate attacks of two shattered souls.

Two?… No, three. Against the far wall, away from the sorcerer’s cell, a body in Guardia blue is splayed out. It takes the goddess some effort to recognize it as Corporal Stathos. Sergeant Machado is already kneeling by him.

And always, the soundless, wordless, shapeless voices scream, louder and louder, in pain, in despair, unyielding to any force, souls that have lost their essence, unable to find peace. She can barely hear anything else. But no one else can hear them, no one. Pained as they look, Gwydion and Sky cannot hear their awful cries. It is at her that they scream, at her that they pull, attracted to the death goddess’ essence.

“His soul–” she tries to tell them. “All their souls–”

Make them stop, Alma!! Nekh wails. Make them shut up!!

“Stop!” Alma screams, bending double in agony, covering her ears against all the terrible voices. “Stop screaming! I can’t!”

She senses more than sees Sky, who was kneeling by Stathos’ mangled corpse, rise to his feet at her screams. Although he is just a couple of steps away, a short eternity goes by before she feels his strong arms wrap around her, keep her on her feet. He holds her gently but tightly to his chest and she grips his shirt as if she could hide from the voices in his embrace. Sky’s caring touch is a meager shelter against the wailing of souls that can no longer see beyond their own agony.

“Nothing left… There’s nothing left!” she desperately tries to explain, looking up at his concerned expression. “Just screams… Pain… I can’t release them.”

Sky’s eyes widen with comprehension as she speaks. “I could feel…something,” he whispers almost to himself. “They’re screaming so loudly even I can sense it.”

From somewhere by the door, Sergeant Machado roars, “Lamore, get those damn looky-loos out of the hallway. You’re in charge of the station upstairs for now. I need to be down here.”

“Yes sir!” the Corporal replies.

Please, Alma, Nekh begs in a painful whimper. Make it stop…

A shadow moves in Alma’s peripheral vision. Gwydion has covered the distance between them and the sorcerer’s cell that he had been inspecting before Alma screamed for help. He looks at her through worried, terrified eyes, anguished to find something he can do.

“It hurts,” she whimpers pleadingly at him, weakly pushing herself away from Sky’s hold, hoping desperately to find as before, relief in Gwydion’s arms. “Can’t…make it stop.”

Gwydion reaches out a hand to her, glancing at Sky to release her. The tall god nods gently in agreement but speaks to her first.

“Alma…” he says.

Oh no… Nekh speaks weakly. What are they–? They’re trying to get in!

The muscles in Alma’s arms spasm uncontrollably as, suddenly, the desecrated remains of the broken souls bash, all at once, into her spectral shields. Destroyed, poisoned, shapeless as they are, they burn like acid sloshing against her skin, searing into her mind, melting into her soul.

“Alma!” Sky calls her as she fights for breath. “Can Stathos, can any of them tell us what happened? Can the sorcerer tell us anything?”

Alma’s voice sounds almost like a squeak. “No… They don’t exist anymore. All there’s left is pain.”

Someone else joins them. Corporal Lamore, looking like there is not a single drop of blood left in her, is now standing by them, holding a piece of paper in her trembling hand.

She hesitates, looking back at Sergeant Machado, who is doing his best to stay out of the way without actually leaving, but then says to Sky, “Inspector. I’m sorry but…you must read this.”

She holds out the note and Sky takes it in one hand, gently helping Alma into Gwydion’s arms, who holds her close to him, whispering soothing words in her ear as he looks questioningly at the inspector. Whatever is in the note, Sky seems staggered by it.

“I have to go,” he states, holding the note out so that only Gwydion can read it. The magic god’s hands instinctively cup Alma’s cheek, to blind her to the words. “Assist Alma in laying these souls to rest. If they can truly tell us nothing…there must be a way to take away their pain. If…if not, get her out of here and find a way to contact the Death Clan. Machado, with me.”

With that, Sky disappears out of the room and up the stairs, barking orders about teams and full armor, closely followed by Sergeant Machado, leaving Alma shaking, legs nearly giving out, in Gwydion’s arms. She hides her face against his neck, breathing in his scent, crying tearlessly, chokingly at the trickling fire that burns through her spirit.   

“It’s all right,” Gwydion whispers, trying his best to sound reassuring. “It’s all right… Breathe… I have you now.”

He glances at Cala, who quietly leaves the room, growling for people to clear the area. Gwydion makes a motion to follow and Alma clings to him desperately.

“Please, don’t leave,” she begs him.

Another wave of excruciating pain makes her scream again. Her legs fold under her, her hands clench Gwydion’s ribs, even Nekh recoils and hides deep in the recesses of her mind. Shapeless, she cannot stop the souls from flowing into her essence. They are getting closer to her core.

Gwydion helps her to a sitting position on the floor and kneels by her, never letting go. “Shhh…I won’t,” he reassures her, stroking the back of her head. “I won’t. But I do want to take you away from here.”

“No… No, they’ll follow me!” Alma tells him. “They are latched on.”

“There has to be something we can do, Alma,” Gwydion insists softly.

He finds a more comfortable position, sitting with his back against a pillar and cradling her, keeping her face looking at his and away from the spot where, not three steps away, Stathos’ dead body lies staring blindly at the ceiling.

“What is it that they are doing to you?” the god asks as he strokes stray locks of her hair, plastered against her face with sweat, away from her forehead and eyes.

His touch is soothing, calming, but not nearly enough to numb her pain.

“It just…hurts,” she says, breathing heavily with the effort of thinking beyond the tormenting haze. “So much… They need a core… To be released. Bomb blew it up. Now, they want mine. Ripping… Drilling… I can’t stop them.”

“Can’t you find them a new one?” Gwydion suggests. “Make one if need be?”

“No – I don’t know.” Alma shakes her head. “The pain… Weak. Can’t focus…”

The god of magic looks at her in silence for a moment, his eyes scouring her face, guided by wild thoughts, desperate plunges into memory and conjecture. His hand cups her face, carefully pulls her up as he leans down to her. Alma reaches for his shoulder with a pale, shaking hand.

His eyes already glow golden, his breath glimmers with countless motes of light as he says, “Focus on me.”

Alma nods weakly and their lips meet. Silence, relief. The kiss drowns the voices, banishes them beyond the borders of her soul again, strengthening her shields with Gwydion’s mana. All she feels is his presence, his touch, the strong, refreshing sensation of his life force warming her heart, saving her soul from being dismantled for parts. She accepts his gift with desperate gratitude, strains to make it last endlessly.

But the voices return, bickering, muttering. After the day’s events, Gwydion must be as depleted as she is, maybe even more. His power will not last much longer, Alma realizes. There must be something she can do. Her thoughts made sharper by the relief that Gwydion’s touch and mana provide, the goddess looks for a solution. New cores cannot be made by someone like her but if only she could find an alternative. Could she use Nekh as bait?

Suddenly, her senses spark. There! The hag’s soul is not completely without a core! But it is badly damaged… If Alma can repair it, then the other two will flock to the easier target, bind to that. And she will be able to release them.

She uses all the mana she can spare, all the precious mana she can afford to take from Gwydion to seize the fractured core and weave the rest of the hag’s soul around it, layering it in spectral patches glued together by Alma’s own mana. Soon, they mend the core. And immediately, like scavengers looking for the weakest, easiest prey they can find, the spectral dust and shards of Stathos’ and the sorcerer’s soul turn their attention to the restored core. They scream as they charge it and it screams in pain and desperation as they assimilate it, latching on, melting into it until only one soul, newly created, remains.

The screams are so terrible that even Gwydion shudders as they pierce through the spectral fabrics of reality. Still, the new soul is released.

They break from the kiss. The god throws his head back, fighting for breath.

“It’s over,” Alma wheezes. “They’re…gone.”

In the abysmal silence that follows, their heavy breaths seem to roar. Slowly, the gods recover, grateful for the temporary privacy they were granted. Alma lies peacefully against Gwydion, curled up in his embrace, her breathing now deep and rhythmic. He lowers his head to look at her, tired but relieved. His hand once again strokes her hair, caresses her ashen face.

He kisses her forehead. Then her lips. He rests his forehead against hers.

“I feel so weak,” Alma whispers. “Who would do something like that? And why Stathos?”

“Don’t worry about that now,” he replies. “Rest. I’ll hold you until you feel stronger.”

“Thank you for staying,” she says, too tired to make sense of her own words.

Gwydion smiles softly and kisses her forehead again. “Where else would I go?”

Ch5.41 Shards

They arrive at the station smiling nervously. The feeling of being back and free of charges is a good one but it competes with all the questions still hanging over their heads. How will the Popula react to them? How will the Bunnies? Will things merely return to what they were before, give or take a massive gang war?

Alma reaches for her badge, safely pinned to her robes at chest height. Her heartbeat, much lower than a human’s even at the most exciting of times, pounds heavily through the silvery metal to pulse against her palm and, somehow, the sensation calms her. By her side, Gwydion looks at the doors of the Three Rats Guardia Station without making any movement to them. She glances at him only to find him glancing back at her, his fixed smile wavering for a moment, letting his own nervousness shine through.

They nod at each other before reaching for the doors, each of them placing a hand on one of the rat-shaped doorknobs (all hail artistic humor) and pulling a door open.

What they see inside leaves them speechless. Popula rush about, carrying weapons and donning the reinforced leather jackets that they normally wear when expecting a confrontation with a hostile crowd. Corporal Lamore seems to be coordinating them, calling out their names and giving them orders to move out to their assigned streets.

Probationary Lance Constable Longshot suddenly darts out of the armory and into Alma’s field of vision like a meerkat on caffeine, holding too many pieces of armor in his scrawny arms, sorting them, handing them around and – Alma cringes – hitting the corner of a desk and falling on his rear end to a shower of falling metal and a symphony of clinks and pangs.

Sitting at the desks the Popula usually occupy, the Bunnies seem to await something nervously, holding each other and looking at the Popula with pleading and fear in their eyes. Alma counts one, two, three, four—

A shadow dashes past her. Turning, she sees Tulip hanging from Gwydion’s neck, her long feet dangling excitedly in the air as she nearly suffocates the god by hugging him so tightly that her cheek is pressed against his. Gwydion looks at Alma, smiles and shrugs slowly, helplessly as he pats Tulip’s back before gently prying her arms from his neck and lowering her to the floor.

“You’re here!” the young Bunny cries, jumping up and down. “You’re finally here and just when we need you!”

The words send ice down Alma’s spine. She looks back at the other Bunnies, who are just now beginning to notice her presence and moving to join her. Five Bunnies… She counts five Bunnies.

“What happened, Corporal?” Alma asks the passing Corporal Lamore. “Why is the station in such chaos?”

“I would like to say I am glad to see you, Sergeant, but…” Cala hesitates. “We have a situation.”

“Where are Mayumi and Sage?” Alma asks, keeping her voice level. “And where is the Inspector?”

“May is with Constable Kaur,” Corporal Lamore replies nervously.

A terrible feeling takes over Alma. She feels the blood flow away from her face, the shadows grow longer and darker around her. “And Sage?”

Cala swallows before answering, making obvious effort to stand firm. “We have had a problem with children going amiss in the ward, lately.”

“I know. Sage?” Alma insists, her eyes wide.

“Has gone missing, Sergeant,” Corporal Lamore states.

Alma’s world shatters. She can barely breathe as the words sink in.

“No, no, no, no…” she mumbles, looking at everything but seeing nothing, her head darting left and right in the violent effort of trying to cope with what she has just been told. One of her worst fears has come true.

Ha! You’re gonna lose a Bunny! Nekh’s voice taunts her. Finally, someone called pest control!

Please, stop, Nekh! she pleads. Not now. Not now…

Shadows gather around her, responding to her desperation. She feels her heart freeze in fear, her usually cool skin grow ice-cold to the touch.

This is a nightmare, her thoughts race. A joke! So much pain to save them from the Council and now some gang takes Sage!

Anger rises within her. How dare they? How dare anyone touch her children and expect to get away with it? How did they even get their hands on Sage?

It was just a matter of time, Alma dear, Nekh goes on. They’re monsters. Someone was bound to see that sooner or later.

Get… out… of… my… HEAD!! Alma roars in thought.

The blue in her eyes turns black as the shadows swirl around her, blowing through her silver-white hair, drawing her contours in a darkness that whispers and howls her pain with a thousand voices.

“Who?” she growls, stomping in Cala’s direction, making the woman flinch, even as she struggles to stay put. “Who did this?”

“We…we don’t know,” Cala concedes, shaking her head. “Not for sure.”

The shadows around Alma grow to engulf the whole station, extinguishing all light. The shrieks and growls grow louder. All around her, the air crackles with the spectral greenish-blue of lost souls summoned by her rage.

Still the Corporal does not move. What is wrong with her?! How can they not know?! How did anyone get to Sage?! Alma takes one more step towards her to try and shake an answer out of the woman but suddenly finds herself restricted. Powerful arms wrap around her from behind, keeping her from moving. She looks at Cala to find her bathed in a golden light against which Alma’s shadows crash and growl helplessly. Against her, a body shakes ever so subtly while trying hard to hold on to her.

“I couldn’t stop you before but I can stop you now,” Gwydion whispers in Alma’s ear, his voice shaking as much as his arms. “You need to calm down, Alma. We will figure things out. But you are frightening everyone. Even the Bunnies.”

He is right. Everyone in the room is looking at her as if she is about to steal their souls. Her Bunnies look at her with a mix of fear and compassion in their eyes.

A monster, she thinks. Have I become the monster everyone feared they were?

Pretty much, yes, Nekh notes conversationally.

She hangs her head. The shadows around her lose strength and disappear into the warm light of the shielding spell that Gwydion is still projecting in a circle beyond the gods.

“We will find him,” he whispers to her as the last of the howling shadows dies. “We will bring him home.”

She feels him relax and let go of her. His spell breaks into a rain of motes of light, leaving her standing alone in the middle of the room, wishing she could still feel his warmth against her skin. Time seems frozen. The whole station falls silent.

And then five pairs of arms are thrown around her from all directions, holding her tightly. She holds her Bunnies against her, petting their heads reassuringly, whispering apologies for having frightened them.

“Where is Inspector Tuma-Sukai?” she hears Gwydion ask.

“He is out, looking for Sage,” Cala explains. “And we’re getting ready to join in the search. We have a lead.”

“What lead?” Alma asks.

“Geryon managed to scry a warehouse that’s blocking scrying,” Corporal Lamore says, looking somewhat unsure at how that sentence can make any sense. “At the corner of Catinga and Sharva. We believe the gang that has been going around kidnapping children is in there. We just…can’t be sure Sage will be there too.”

“Either way, that is where we are going,” Alma states, letting go of her Bunnies.

“Yes,” Gwydion agrees. “If you give me a few minutes to get familiarized with the map to the area, maybe I can open a portal to a nearby building and save us some time… Although this may take a few tries. I don’t quite know that part of the ward very well and with the anti-scrying spell…”

Take your time, pretty boy, Nekh says. Maybe that’ll give them the time they need to kill him.

A prickly feeling on the back of her neck makes Alma turn to look behind her. She cannot help but smile at what she sees. “That…may not be necessary, Gwydion.”

By the door, two gorgeous horses stand, looking bigger and more majestic than any horse should be, their manes billowing in a ghostly breeze. Although they look somewhat brown in color, their nearly transparent bodies let through blurry images of the furniture beyond them. Even light seems to waver and curve as it bounces against their lustrous coats.

“Wow…what are those?” Kori asks, eyes wide.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Horsies!!” Cherry shrieks, jumping up and down.

“No…they are not just horses,” Gwydion whispers in wonder.

“Well, they sure look like horses t’me,” Rosemary notes. “If not, then what are they?”

The thought hits all minds in the room at once. Family.

Son of a bitch! Void Riders! Nekh swears. Since when can they come to the Isle?

The bigger and more magnificent of the horses, a mare, takes a step forward, rhythmically raising and lowering her head as if nodding a greeting. We cannot stay on the Insula for long, child. We will take you to the little one but we must hurry.

Even if the telepathic message is projected around the room, free for all to ‘hear’, Alma knows who the mare is speaking to. The goddess nods at the Void Riders’ matriarch, Arion’s mother herself. I understand.

Arion is watching… He knows where his child is, has just sent help to save him! Alma finds herself suddenly grinning.

“Alma, what is going on?” Gwydion asks her.

“I will explain everything on the way there,” Alma assures him. “But we need to leave now.”

Diabo da peste, se eu lhes deixo sair assim!” Sergeant Machado yells at them as he walks through the station’s front door. “Dei or no Dei, you are not leaving the station without gearing up!”

Ch5.03 Shards

It is all falling apart. Violence is soaring in Three Rats. The invading Dukaines had been a huge problem, but now with Nekh gone, the enormous gang is in the process of doing what any organization made up of greedy, antisocial malcontents is certain to do when its iron-handed leader disappears: they are rapidly shattering into hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand shards all around the Fourth Ring, near the base of the mountain floating in a sea of Chaos that is the Insula Caelestis, the Heavenly Mountain on which dwell a myriad of gods, demigods, immortal creatures, and other divines, along with a far larger mass of mortal humans and many other species as well.

Usually impoverished and unstable at the best of times, the Fourth Ring is the recipient of all the trash tossed down from the rings above, both metaphorically and literally, and crime there thrives like rapidly proliferating weeds in a fertile soil of neglect. With a policy to contain it there and leave the people to suffer, the Guardia assigned to the Fourth Ring are themselves often little better than the criminals they supposedly work against but all too often work with, in a mutual dance of corruption and brutality. To be assigned to the Fourth Ring, a Guardia either has to be from there, as is the case with most of the mortal Guardia Popula at Three Rats Station, or have been sent there as a punishment. That is what landed the three divine Guardia Dei in Three Rats, months ago now, sent with various degrees of justice or injustice, depending on one’s viewpoint, on hardship duty to endure abject squalor far from the culture and comfort of the upper rings.

And now there is only one.

“Sir?”

The high-pitched voice from the doorway brings Tuma-Sukai back to reality. He lifts his head from his hands and sees Mayumi looking in. He notes the darkness still haunting her face. She has taken her creator Alma’s arrest hard – particularly the reason for that arrest. Still, as much as the sadness around her eyes pains him, it is a pleasure he allows himself to simply look upon her face, a friendly face, for just a moment before that face tells him whatever new misfortune this day, this hour even, will bring.

He sees her almost speak, then pause. She steps into the office and approaches his desk, studying his face. “When did you last sleep?” Her voice brims with concern, her forehead lined, her troubled mein framed by straight black hair, parted in the middle, surmounted by those almost absurd yet endearing black-furred ears that gave her and her siblings the name “Bunny.”

He sits back in his chair and thinks back. “Uh…well.” He had meant to lie and say, Oh, last night, of course, but then he realized that not only is Mayumi good at picking up on lies, having been trained to it by her Guardia dream-father, he also knows that she is handling scheduling and would know that he had gone out on two – no wait, three – calls last night: a robbery in progress, a murder scene, and another report of someone grabbing homeless kids off the street. With things as bad as they are, the line between Popula cases, involving mortals, and Dei cases, involving divines, has been erased entirely. They are understaffed, as two of the Dei are being held for questioning and trial in the First Ring, and more and more of the Popula are being taken out of action by the rising tide of violence. It was a wonder none of the Guardia has died yet.

“Sky… You haven’t slept since before it all happened, have you?” Mayumi’s voice carries a mix of reproach and dismay. She puts a hand on his, and even as a part of him tells him he should resist, he reflexively turns his hand to take hers and squeeze it reassuringly before releasing it.

“I’ll be all right,” he insists. “I can go a long time without rest. Now, what’s up?”

She looks as if she might argue, but instead says, “Sergeant Machado and the corporals are here to see you.”

“Oh, is it already time for that?” Sky turns in his chair and begins to rise to start making tea, but Mayumi smoothly intercepts him, getting between him and the tea set, putting a hand against his chest and gently pushing against him to keep him seated. She starts making tea and shakes her head at him, as if she doesn’t know what to do with him.

With a half smile, he says, “Thank you. Anyway, why are you telling me this and not Sage?” The youngest adult but the oldest male of the Bunnies, Sage is assigned to be a general secretary to the sergeants and to Inspector Tuma-Sukai, a job he normally does with aplomb. Mayumi is assigned to Records, but also serves as a messenger and does other jobs around the station as needed.

She tilts her head, looking at him, her obsidian hair falling over one large brown eye. “He is sleeping, or he should be, if Merri and Cherry will let him. As you should be. Sir.”

“I’ll catch some sleep as soon as I can. And thank you. For your concern.” His words elicit a smile from her.

A soft knock pushes the door wider, and Sergeant Machado enters, followed by Corporal Stathos and Corporal Lamore. Machado limps over to the sofa and lowers himself onto it with a wince, while Cala Lamore and Philippus Stathos take chairs. Stathos has a black eye, from breaking up a fight between gangs two days earlier, and Lamore, who has just been promoted to corporal, looks as if she is trying to hide her exhaustion. Sky has been pleased to see her fitting into her new rank quickly and smoothly despite the current crisis. Of course it has helped that her predecessor, now-Constable Aliyah Kaur, has been cheerfully helping her partner get up to speed, apparently happy to be back in a role with less responsibility.

As Mayumi serves steaming tea, Sky asks, “How is the leg, Sergeant?”

Machado rubs his thigh, where a crossbow bolt tore through during the big fight against the Dukaines, just before their gang fell apart. “Oh fine, fine. Far better than if Sergeant Alma had not healed it. And all this rushing about, eh, kind of loosens it up.” His grimace belies his words.

Sky shakes his head. “I wish I were better at the art of healing.” He pauses. “More importantly, I wish we had more time to rest and recover. Oh, thank you.”

He accepts a cup of steaming tea from the Bunny, and then observes how she smoothly serves the others in descending order of seniority, automatically, the most natural thing in the world to her. He notes her concerned look at the exhaustion etched in their faces, and as she slips away quietly he says, “We’re all worn out. And the more we push ourselves beyond our limits, the more mistakes we’ll make. We are at the point where rest is more important than numbers on the streets. I want you to order those under your command to take eight hours off in every twenty-four, and organize things so you still have the maximum number of people on duty within that constraint. We’ll set up some extra cots so constables can sleep here. And I want each of you taking the same amount of time off as well.”

Corporal Stathos speaks up hesitantly. “Inspector, forgive me, but we need more personnel, not fewer.”

Cala, however, shakes her head. “He’s right. We already have three out on injuries, and it’s just going to get worse. We need to be sharp out there. But sir,” she says as she fixes Sky’s eyes with her own, “Philippus is also right. We need more Guardia, somehow. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise it’s all going to fall apart,” Machado finishes darkly, his eyes downcast. He looks up at Sky. “Before, when we had the water crisis, you pulled some of the independent gangs together.”

Sky nods. “I will talk to the ones who came through for us before. The problem is, now it’s war. They’re already fighting for their survival against these Dukaine ‘shards’, both the remnants of the ones we fought quite recently, and the ones who are moving in from neighboring wards. So they’re not likely to give me much attention. But if I can bind them into some sort of order–”

He pauses at Cala’s grimace. “Yes, Corporal Lamore, I know. It’s unlikely to work.”

“Sorry sir. It’s just – Oh!” Cala breaks off as Mayumi reenters with a big bowl of freshly cut fruit, a cantaloup, a couple of apples, grapes, watermelon, which she begins handing around. “Thank you!” the corporal says with pleasure.

“Merri and Cherry are the ones to thank,” Mayumi says. “They know how hard you’ve been working.”

Sky asks her to stay, and explains the new schedule. “Please help these three prepare the schedule, and you have my full permission to harangue anyone who tries not to follow it.”

She looks at him skeptically, and he can nearly hear her thought: Including you? But she holds her tongue in front of the others. “Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.” She leaves the bowl and disappears once again.

As she munches on a thick slice of apple, Cala says, “Sir, as I was about to say, as horrible as it sounds, these rumors of child-snatchings could be the thing to weld the local anti-Dukaine gangs toge–”

Once again Corporal Lamore cuts herself off as Mayumi pokes her head in. “I’m sorry! There’s someone here to see the Inspector, and she says she’s from the Council…”

Sky feels shock, but then realizes what it must be connected to. Sergeant Alma. He nods at Mayumi, who opens the door wide while stepping aside.

A very tall woman, almost as tall as Sky, strides into the room. She is dressed simply in elegant business attire, a formal black jacket and close-fitting skirt, with a cream blouse patterned with tiny violets. Her skin is almost as deep brown as Sergeant Machado’s, her face long, her mouth both sensuous and severe, her hair flat against her skull, pulled back into a tight bun. Her bright, attentive eyes glance at each of the seated Guardia Popula, who all straighten unconsciously at her imperious air, and then she focuses on Sky.

“Inspector Tuma-Sukai,” she says in cultured Urbian with a trace of an accent that sounds almost local, but not quite the same as that of Three Rats. Her voice is deep and powerfully confident. “I am Ewá Nanã, Seeker of Justice, Guardian of Truth, Council’s Eye, requested to be Observer in the case concerning your Sergeants Alma and Gwydion. Since they are under your direct command, I have come to introduce myself before meeting them. We should speak in private.”