Ch6.53 Trust

The knock on his office door wakes him. Well, rouses him, to be accurate. The Evil Hamster of Pointless Thinking, as Sky had long personified his insomnia, had been running ceaselessly on its Rusty Wheel of Doom, keeping a proper sleep far away.

He sighs heavily and sits up in his bed, fine linen sheets falling away. His pocket-universe home, his sanctum, is in near-total darkness. But the knocking on the door in the next universe over is always loud enough to wake him, as he has made certain it would be. The magic on that door, and on the one to his false apartment as well, is such that he will know if someone is knocking, or trying the knob, or even speaking purposefully toward the door, no matter where he is on the Insula. Except of course for the low-magic wards.

And here comes the voice, echoing not in his ears but in his head. “Inspector?” Ah, Aliyah. “Inspector, are you in there?”

That echoing, some side effect of the spell involved, makes Aliyah’s voice sound like it is in a vast empty cavern. Sky always grimaces at what this implies about the architecture of his skull.

At his mental command, a diffuse, indirect light begins to glow from around the edge where the curved, tapa-cloth-lined wall meets the koa-wood ceiling. Here, in this miniature world tailored to his specifications, matched to his mind, the light reveals a circular room, simply appointed, the bed taking up almost all of it, its point of intersection with the larger oval of the main room a doorless opening.

The temperature lowers slightly as he rises and dresses. Lifetimes of soldiering have led him always to leave his clothes at hand, ready to be donned, and he dresses mechanically, without hurry but with swift efficiency, then steps into the main room, a larger oval with shelves and a curved sofa along one side, small kitchen nook on the other, the bedroom doorway at one end of the oval, the door to the bath at the other.

It is quite simple and spare as such dwellings go, but this is suited to Sky’s nature. Books, a few paintings and photographs, wallpaper made from pounded bark and dyed in runic patterns of the island people whose god he had once been, a comfortable bed and bath – it is a retreat from the world, an externalization of himself.

He moves to a spot on the wall which, on laying his palm against it, glows golden, a doorway through which he steps and feels the familiar touch of disorientation as he leaves a sort of womb under his complete control for the much larger pocket universe that is the Insula Caelestis, the Island of Heaven. Here, Reality is adjusted to favor gods, but not any specific one, and certainly not himself, a creature who stretches the definition of “god” to the breaking point. And thus this Reality feels much more real to him than the comfort of his sanctum. That retreat is sometimes welcome and even needed, but he truly prefers to spend most of his time grappling against the difficulties of a world not made to suit him.

His long legs only need three steps to stride diagonally across his office to reach the door and open it, to find the worried face of Constable Aliyah, Guardia Popula. She is looking up at him, for he is one of only two people taller than her at this station. Her brown, freckled face brightens slightly at seeing him, taking on a hint of that normally cheerful disposition she radiates.

“Oh thank the – well, you know…you!” she blurts. “I figured you might be sleepin’ in there. I know it ain’t your shift quite yet, but Sergeant Gwydion sent me back to get you.”

Sky moves to his locker and pulls out his New Year present from Alma and Gwydion, the sleek Ballion-mesh-lined jacket, and slips it on, enjoying the perfectly tailored feel of it on his limbs and shoulders. “What’s happened, Aliyah? Death’s Day Off?”

“You know it!” she confirms bitterly. “Big fight over at Rio Novo.”

Sky sighs as he straps on his truncheon and other weapons. “How bad are we talking?”

“Mostly cleanup now,” she says. “A little fighting left, maybe, but they’ve really done a number on each other.”

He decides to leave the crossbow. Obvious ranged weapons can escalate a situation like this, and only mortals are likely to try to take advantage of this day to engage in Death-defying behavior. Gods, even the stupider ones, tend to know better. Mortals unafraid of being turned into a pincushion may still be impressed by a good shaking from an angry deity roaring in their faces.

“You can fill me in on which gangs are involved on our way there. Let’s go, Constable.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Sky suppresses a sigh. He feels the cooling liquid running down his gift from Alma and Dion and dripping onto his Guardia trousers, soaking in. Well, it is inevitable. An armored jacket is fated to become bloodstained. Particularly if it is his.

He moves slowly, balancing the two rival gangsters on his shoulders. They are young and big and strong. One of them is moaning softly for someone named Lisa. The other is worryingly silent. The blood is coming from multiple stab wounds they’d delivered to each other’s torsos. Sky had found them slumped across from each other, muttering threats, lightheaded from blood loss. He’d done his best to stop the flow, using the simple battlefield-healing magic he knows along with mundane first aid, then lifted them and headed for the clinic that is commonly known as “Doc Nate’s.”

Seeing all the beds of the clinic full, he slowly kneels and then lowers them to the floor, Constable Silva moving quickly to help. The moaning gangster continues moaning for Lisa, while the other remains unconscious.

“Sorry about this, Doc,” Sky says as Nataniel approaches to give them a cursory examination.

Nataniel sighs, looking deeply tired. “No hay problema. Just leave them there. I will take care of them when I can.”

“I’ve done what little healing magic I can, stopping bleeding and such. Some of them, it’s just too late. But…today…”

The doctor waves dismissively. “Sí, sí…I know. Nobody dies. Maybe I can save some still. If more don’t pile up. This keeps up like this, I’ll need reinforcements.”

A shadow falls across them as someone stands between them and the fluttering gas wall-lamp. Sky looks up to see Gwydion, and straightens. “Is the fighting as over as it seemed down by the river?”

Dion looks sympathetically at the blood beading on Sky’s jacket. He is, himself, bearing the marks of a sudden arterial spray across his chest and face. Although he has wiped the latter away as well as he could, a missed smear of blood remains on the side of his nose. “I’d think there’s no one left to be fighting at all by now. Both gangs should be missing at least half of their people.” He sighs and shakes his head. “I hate Death’s Day Off. Every year, the same thing. Five calls on all sorts of violence in a single shift.”

Sky nods. “They think it means they can’t be killed. All it means is they can’t be killed today. But when all the blood has run out of your body, there’s no putting it back in. Or unpuncturing all your vitals.”

“What I could do with a proper hospital,” Nataniel mutters. “One genius over there sold both his kidneys to the black market. Thought they would grow back, he said.”

Dion looks across the clinic room, at every bed full, along with most of the floor space, with healthy young men who could have led productive lives. “Maybe we should make explanatory pamphlets or something…” he says in a dry voice.

“We could attach them to the knives they favor,” Sky replies, sighing. “Well, some of them will survive. Doctor, do you need any magical assistance? Though those who have passed the point of death cannot be saved, in my experience.”

Nataniel shakes his head. “Preserve your, eh, magical fuel, Inspector. The Sergeant here has done as much as he can, saving some of these lives. Pero I have to go back to work if any are to survive past tonight.” He mutters, “I swear death gods do this so we’ll pray to them…”

Dion chuckles. “Better than going on strike… Well, I’ll go check to see if any more bodies are dropping.”

“I’ll come with you,” Sky says grimly. “We need to make sure this has stopped.” Together they walk out, the glare of the setting sun making them squint as they trudge back toward the Rio Novo neighborhood.

“Think they really do it for the publicity?” Dion’s voice is low and thoughtful.

“The Death Clan?” Sky shrugs. “Who knows how it started? Now it’s such tradition, I don’t know if they could change it. A billion souls all dreading this day – that’s a lot of belief to overcome.” Not for the first time, he thanks Fate that he has no worshippers. Or very few. Though he does not encourage worship – which would be illegal for him, as Guardia, to do – he does receive prayers now and again. It is a strange feeling, to hear those voices, often too weak to make out, and to feel mana flowing into him from a mortal. And sometimes he thinks there is even a prayer to him from that island where, so very long ago, he was first worshipped as a god. Where he acquired this tall, dark form he has worn ever since.

That had been, as he discovered, a beautiful trap. A god, worshipped by even no more than the inhabitants of a single small valley, can find himself transformed by the worshippers’ expectations and desires. It is how he took on the characteristics of a god, how he became ocean-aspected. His other aspect, that of rebellion, had been much stronger then, not yet crushed beneath the heel of revolutions failed and successful, the successes often more disappointing than the failures. But then, his nature would not allow him to stay with them. He believed the best thing for them was to live on their own, with no gods.

And thus he was not there for them when the foreign ship came, their diseases welcomed with open arms, and soon after, their bullets. It was an error that fills him with guilt even now, nearly two centuries later. He took vengeance on the plunderers, but the damage had been done. The few survivors had, with Sky’s negotiation, been adopted into a village in a neighboring valley.

Dion’s words shake him from his self-recrimination. “Yes. Though, what it is they do that takes all of them coming together for a whole day…” He looks at Sky. “You’ve seen some of the more interesting family members. Even the ones who sound cordial can look a bit… unpleasant. Fodder for the imagination.”

“They are as they are shaped by those who pray to them, or pray to be ignored by them. Fear of death is so powerful, and so they take on frightful forms.” Sky glances at Dion with a smile. “Though not all are frightening.”

Dion snorts. “Even those who are beautiful can be a terror when their tempers are roused.”

“Don’t I know it,” Sky responds dryly, though with affection for the object of their discussion, Sergeant Alma.

“Sky…” Dion’s hesitation prompts Sky to look at him, eyebrows raised. “You worked with the Commander. Did you ever encounter Senator Death?”

Asking after Alma’s father? Sky thinks with surprise that turns to warmth. He really is serious about her. Well, that or very worried. “Only once,” he says aloud. “Decades ago. I was there to escort the Commander, and so I stayed in the background, silent. Death did not deign to notice my presence.”

“What do you think of him?”

Grimly, Sky says, “He’s a Senator. No one reaches those heights without a ruthless nature. He never even visited Alma during her arrest.” He shakes his head as he adds bitterly, “It wouldn’t have been good politics.”

“My uncle is of even higher rank,” Dion points out.

Sky looks at him, his eyes soft. “There are always exceptions,” he says. “Archon Math was instrumental in protecting you, Alma, and her children from an unjust punishment. I will always feel gratitude to him for that.” He does not say, however, that he still believes Math to be as coldly ruthless as Death, probably more so. In Sky’s opinion, Alma was saved because it was useful to Math to do so. But there is no point in telling that to the Archon’s nephew, practically his son. To change the subject, Sky says, “Have you met Alma’s mother?”

“I have.” Dion smiles. “Once, while we were at my uncle’s estate. She came to visit Alma. She was a bit…overwhelming.”

Sky laughs. “Yes, well… She smiled at me, that time, so long ago, when I was in Death’s presence. And then I’ve met her a few times since, here.”

“Here!” Dion sounds shocked. “Oh, she must have come to visit Alma, of course. And I can tell from the warmth in your voice that you like her.”

Sky smiles. “I do. She loves her daughter and her grandchildren – yes, she calls the Bunnies that without reservation. She loves them quite sincerely, and they very much love her in return. And she has shown me great kindness. But…” His voice becomes sad. “I really do think her skills of manipulation may make Death look like an amateur.”

“Really…” Dion mutters. “Why am I not surprised?”

“They are an ancient and ambitious family,” Sky says. “You must know far more about such things than I do.”

Dion nods, silent for the moment.

“Speaking of Alma, instead of her family,” Sky says, “don’t the two of you have an arrangement to meet?”

Again, the god of magic nods. “We do. Which leads me to ask: are you sure you want to switch shifts? Alma told me you were planning on spending Mayumi’s last night here with her.” He looks abashed. “I did not remember it when I asked you for the switch. Forgive me.”

Sky can sense behind the words the question, Why didn’t you mention it? And indeed, why hadn’t he? Is it because he is still confused how to handle this relationship with Mayumi? Because he is holding back, not simply to keep things slow, not simply because of the extreme power imbalance involved in a god/mortal pairing as well as a workplace romance between a chief-of-station and a, for the moment, office worker, not even because Mayumi is his best friend’s daughter? Though all of that is reason enough for holding back, and then some.

No, there is also that fact that so much of what Mayumi – and Alma, and Dion, and everyone – knows of him is a lie. He is no god. Or if he is, he certainly did not begin as one. He is a vile abomination, a product of cruelty and hate, something that no one in their right mind would ever trust. And yet they trust him. They are kind to him. They show him their love.

And it makes him feel ashamed. Whether he is worthy of that trust is less important than the fact that he is lying to them by omission, constantly. He must tell them. And he is terrified to do so.

Certainly he could never dive fully into a relationship with Mayumi without coming clean about what he is. But no matter how much he wishes to, how could her burden her with such a revelation just before she leaves for the Academy? That would be even more unfair than keeping the secret for now, or at least he has convinced himself of that. Can he trust his own judgement there, self-serving as it is? He calls himself a coward every time he thinks of it.

But no. Telling her now would be wrong. She does not need such distractions, and she seems happy to go along with his slow approach, though it is a frustrated sort of happiness. Strange as it may seem, the first person he knows he must tell is Alma. If any of them is capable of forgiving him for what he is, it is her, first and foremost. And with her help, perhaps Gwydion will. Mayumi…that will be for after she graduates.

He brings himself back to the present moment. “Nothing to forgive. Mayumi and I are rather looking forward to just being together tonight, on the job. It’s a busy night, anyway, though things should calm down after midnight. We can just, you know, talk. Relax.”

Dion looks at him and Sky can tell he doesn’t fully buy it, but says, “Very well, then. I will accompany you and make sure this particular crisis is over. And then I’ll head back to the station. Alma and May should be back by now.”

Sky shakes his head. “You should head back now. I think I can handle whomever might still be standing. Neither of these gangs has divine recruits, after all.”

With a chuckle bereft of humor, Dion agrees, “No… They just won’t die. Take care, Sky.”

For just a moment, Sky is tempted to tease Dion, say something silly like, You two be careful now. He quashes the temptation. Dion has lowered his formidable defenses to Sky only recently and, to be sure, very cautiously, ready to slam that door closed in an instant. Jovial teasing on the subject of Alma would be an idiotic move, and truly, it’s not Sky’s style anyway. Instead, he puts a heavy hand on Dion’s shoulder, and says with real warmth, “Have a good night.”

Dion smiles back, then turns to take another street, back toward the station, walking with eager and swift anticipation.

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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.

Ch6.40 Trust

“All right, that should take care of your gift problems,” Lyria announces cheerfully.

“Yes, and of the carpeting problems I did not know I had,” Alma notes, looking down at her bedroom floor.

Where there once was good, solid stone, now there is fresh green grass just tall enough to make a soft, fluffy mat that covers most of the floor. The scent of it must have captured Lexie’s attention, because she has woken up from her daily nineteen hours of sleep and is now trying to stretch herself all the way down to the floor without actually leaving the safety and warmth of the bed covers. Both forepaws on the edge of the bed, the cat sniffs suspiciously at this strange, new green thing that was definitely not there this morning. Hopefully she will not interpret this as an extension to her personal little litter box.

“Well, you needed some way to practice, did you not?” Lyria counters. She takes a deep whiff at the certainly fresher, greener scent in the room. “Oh, that smells wonderful! All that vibrant new life! Ah… Bare stone floors are a thing of mausoleums, if you ask me.”

Alma chuckles and grazes her sole of her bare foot against the grass. The sensation she gets is that of walking barefoot in a lawn, without the unsavory effects of getting one’s feet covered in dirt or rubbed against slithery creatures. Maintaining it will be a slight extra drain on Alma’s mana reserves, but not so very much. In fact, Lyria’s little lesson has been mostly about teaching the young goddess how to use her life sphere more efficiently, spending less mana to achieve the same results. And some of the things Lyria has shown her… Alma had never even considered such things were available to her, let alone attempted them herself. There will be hours of practice to follow up with it, that is certain.

“It is…strange. But not at all unpleasant,” she concedes. “If the Bunnies like it, I just might keep it.”

Lyria’s face lights up at the mention of the Bunnies. “Oh yes! Time to go see my grandchildren!” She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you have another project to keep me stuffed away in here?”

Poor little Lyria… Alma thinks as she chuckles. “But I thought you were too busy with the Dawning to stay for long, Mother,” she notes in sweet tones, a grin blossoming on her lips at Lyria’s obvious look of irritation. “Come, let us go see what your grandchildren are up to.”

A short pause to put her shoes on (Alma had discarded them at Lyria’s command) and the young goddess guides her mother to the door. As soon as they open it, they hear a commotion of voices from above. Cherry’s voice…and Rosemary’s as well. Alma and Lyria exchange a confused glance and swiftly climb the stairs, past the bar and straight to the first floor. Whatever is happening, it is happening in one of the Bunnies’ bedrooms. They can hear Tulip’s voice now, annoyed and whining. Cherry’s and Rosemary’s are distorted with laughter.

What on the Insula is going on?

The goddesses arrive in Tulip’s room just as the youngest of the Bunnies is darting out the door. Her head turned back to glare at her siblings, caught between laughter and cries of “Aww, is nae so bad!”, Tulip nearly rams into Alma as she stomps her way down the hall.

“Careful, little one!” Alma exclaims, gently holding Tulip by the shoulders. “What is going on here?”

“Oh, you gotta see this!” Cherry cries, looming by Tulip’s bedroom door. “Look at her face!”

Alma looks down at Tulip. “What is wrong with your face, dear?”

But Tulip just lowers her head further and looks away, seemingly hiding her visage from Alma’s sight. With a confused look at Lyria, the goddess kneels and cups the Bunny’s cheek with her hand, gently bringing Tulip’s face up toward her mother’s. The sight is something between shocking and hilarious. Tulip’s face is covered in makeup of all types and colors, everything spread and blended so chaotically that the Bunny looks like a canvas for an abstract piece of art. Dark rouge is spread along her pale forehead, eyeshadow is smeared in various shades across her eyelids and the bridge of her nose. Bright red lipstick is pretty much everywhere. There is even some makeup on her ears!

Surprise quickly gives way to an almost overwhelming urge to laugh. It takes all the self-control in Alma’s body to keep her amusement down to a smile. “Oh Tulip…”

She tips Tulip’s chin up so that Lyria can see what is going on. A soft gasp and almost immediate giggling fill the hallway.

“I just wanted to see if it’d make me look better!” Tulip protests, frowning and nearly crying, her hands clenched in fists, her long ears plastered back in anger at being laughed at.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s soft, white hair to soothe her. “Well, you may have overdone it just a little bit. Where did you get all that makeup, anyway?”

Tulip looks down, ears drooping, shoulders hanging low, all of the anger gone from her frame and replaced by a different type of nervousness. This is clearly an uncomfortable question and Alma already suspects the answer. Even if she does not wear makeup with any level of frequency, the goddess has always somehow felt an urge to keep a box of it close. Just a silly instinct, as if it were almost expected of her to do so. Tulip must have taken it. She could have kept it for months before Alma eventually found it missing.

“I’m sorry…” Tulip whimpers.

Alma cannot help but smile and wrap her arms around the Bunny, careful to keep all of that makeup away from her clothing. “You could have just asked me, little one. Now, why don’t you go wash your face and I will show you how to do it, if you like?”

She feels Tulip’s hug tighten around her before the Bunny releases her and steps back. A quick kiss from Lyria to Tulip’s forehead and the young Bunny dashes off happily toward the bathroom. Cherry and Rosemary are just now moving closer, having witnessed the exchange from Tulip’s bedroom. Eyes held down, ears at half perk, they look abashed before the goddesses, probably as much from witnessing Tulip’s anger and hurt feelings as from the scolding look Alma is giving them both. The oldest of her Bunnies can be rather childish in some respects. This is one of those times that puts forward so clearly the fact that, albeit being twenty-four years in age, the twins have only been awake to rationality for half of that time. They are grown-up children. And children can be so cruel…

“You two…” Alma whispers, shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t be too harsh on them,” Lyria intervenes. “It’s clear they already feel bad enough about it.”

The older goddess opens her arms to her granddaughters and the Bunnies rush to hug her tightly in a double-sided embrace that brings a warm, contented smile to Lyria’s face.

“Why don’t the three of us go downstairs and you can meet us there when little Tulip is done washing?” she asks.

Alma nods. “We will be right down.”

Cherry and Rosemary do not follow Lyria right away but pause to hug Alma. She holds them tightly. “Silly Bunnies” she whispers. “Go on, now.”

That earns her two bright smiles and soon she can hear Lyria chatting happily with the twins as they move downstairs. Done with the herculean task of removing all that makeup from her skin, Tulip eventually joins her mother, and looks at her expectantly. Alma tells her to go fetch the box of makeup. She could have easily gotten it from the little Bunny’s room but a childhood spent in a house where privacy was something that happened to other people has taught her the value in respecting some boundaries. Tulip’s room is meant to be her little haven and, without a proper reason or the Bunny’s approval, invading it would feel a bit like breaking and entering.

Makeup kit safely held in her hands, Tulip follows her mother downstairs, where the lighting is better. Cherry and Rosemary seem to have disappeared into the kitchen. Lyria already sitting on the sofa, apparently caught in the middle of a lively chat with Nataniel, who is sitting with Syron, at a table nearby. Alma catches but the end of that conversation but it seems to be about some sort of plant extract. The way Syron is paying such close attention to it has Alma wondering what exactly the extract is meant to do but she does not get a chance to figure it out. As soon as they notice her presence, goddess and mortals fall silent and turn to look at her.

“Ah, much better!” Lyria cries, putting her hands together. “Ready for your first makeover, Tulip?”

Tulip nods and takes a seat at a table, halfway between the sofa and Nataniel’s table. She opens the makeup box, spreading all the pencils and brushes and the various pull-out drawers of compressed powders and waxy pigments with great care. Then she waits, looking intently at Alma as the goddess picks a chair and brings it closer to the Bunny’s. Cherry and Rosemary choose that moment to leave the kitchen carrying trays with juice glasses and pieces of a delightfully fragrant carrot cake. Tulip’s head shoots to glare at them but Alma gently brings the Bunny’s face to look straight ahead. The older Bunnies serve Nataniel and Syron with soft-spoken words of friendliness and, with glances at Tulip and Alma, sit down by Lyria, one on each side of the goddess and holding a treat for their grandmother.

Alma picks a soft, wide brush from her array of tools and strokes Tulip’s cheeks with it, making the Bunny giggle with its tickling touch. Then she dips it in a faintly tan powder and starts applying it close to Tulip’s jaw, to accentuate her delicate frame, still too round and childlike.

“Tell me, dear, why the sudden urge to experiment with makeup?” the goddess asks, picking a slightly different shade that will go on the cheeks.

“I don’t want to look like a kid, anymore!” Tulip replies with an energy that nearly has her headbutting the brush off Alma’s hand. “I want to be pretty.”

Alma tilts her head at this. At her young age, Tulip is already stunning. Of course, she is a stunning child but her features are all promising of a budding beauty that will probably capture many a man and woman’s fantasies. Almost an exact copy of Alma at the beginning of her transition into adulthood, even prettier for the healthy light and warmth that radiates from a child never burdened with chronic, life-threatening fevers, Tulip has nothing to complain about in the beauty department. “But you are pretty. You are, in fact, quite beautiful.”

Tulip scowls at that. “I’m pretty sure you have to say that, being my mom and all,” she mutters

Lyria’s laughter erupts at the swift response from the Bunny, bringing to Alma’s mind some old conversations from her own childhood, around this same issue. For as much as Alma is aware of her beauty and form now, this was not always the case. Lyria is probably enjoying seeing the proverbial shoe being shoved over the other foot.

With a slight glance at her mother that has both goddesses rolling their eyes and smiling in sympathy with each other, Alma stops applying the powder meant to highlight the softness of Tulip’s forehead. “Don’t scowl, please.” She looks intently at Tulip as she waits patiently for the Bunny to relax her face. “Why would I say it, unless it was true?”

“And it is true, guapa,” Nataniel volunteers.

Tulip turns her head to shower him with a bright smile. The soft-spoken mortal doctor is a favorite among the younger Bunnies, doting on them and spending time showing them some of the more mundane wonders of nature whenever his work-filled schedule allows. Although extremely careful not to step over his limits, Nataniel has thus far revealed a talent for storytelling, using old tales to teach the Bunnies important lessons about life and mindfulness of others. If spoken in the right tone, his words carry the weight of law with them.

So Alma does not take it amiss when Tulip seems to accept his comment so readily after dismissing hers with barely a thought.

“Did you look like me when you were my age?” the Bunny asks, turning back to Alma.

“No, I looked much younger at age 13,” the goddess replies, glancing at Lyria. “Mother?”

“Oh yes. Much, much younger,” Lyria confirms with a nod. “Why, it took her decades to look like you, Tulip.”

Not turning so that Alma can apply the eyeshadow, Tulip nevertheless narrows her eyes, making Alma exhale in mild frustration. “How old were you, then, mom?”

Alma tries to remember exactly how long it has been since she last looked that young. “Hmm… I had probably seen a little over thirty – maybe forty turns of the year by then.”

Tulip’s eyes widen in shock. Alma can barely avoid poking her in the eye with makeup brush. “Forty?! How old are you now?”

“Tulip!!” Cherry cries, fanning her face in simulated shock over a background of Lyria and Rosemary’s laughter. “A proper lady don’t ask those things!”

“It’s fine,” Alma replies, chuckling herself. “I am one hundred fifty-three years old, little one.”

“Wow…” Tulip whispers, making the goddess smear the lipstick she was trying to apply on the Bunny’s lips.

“Tulip…” Alma breathes, licking her thumb to wipe the peachy pigment off her daughter’s cheek.

“Sorry…” Tulip apologizes. “Just, that’s really, really, really old.”

That makes Alma chuckle. She looks at Lyria intently. “I am really, really, really old.”

“Oh, dear me!” Lyria jests, the back of her hand pressed dramatically against her forehead. “I do not dare think how many more reallies I would warrant at my age.”

“Och, but ye two look so young!” Rosemary coos.

“Yeah, how do you manage?” Cherry asks.

Just as Alma is about to answer that, she hears a soft mutter from her left. She looks a question at Nataniel, who very subtly jerks his head in Syron’s direction. The technician-slash-scientist is not even looking at Alma or at any other person in the room, for that matter. His eyes are distant, as if he was thinking about something else and simply happened to react at some word that caught his attention.

“Syron?”

He looks at her, seemingly returning from so faraway place. “Species-linked metabolic divergence.”

Silence spreads around the bar. Six pairs of eyes focus on the man, all probably waiting for him to start to make sense.

Syron rolls his eyes and breathes deeply. The kind yet often cluelessly dangerous genius is used to speaking to audiences that do not understand him.

“If I may, lady,” he starts. “The prevailing theory around that is of species-linked metabolic divergence. It is quite a fascinating comparative work on the life expectancies of different species. Imagine a…” He seems to hesitate for a moment. “A rat! And a man. Anyone will rush to say that the average man lives longer than the average rat. But take that man and that rodent and count the number of times each of their hearts beats in a minute, an hour, a day. Now, multiply it by the number of days their lifetime lasts. You will find that the final number you obtain is similar.” His fingers tap the wooden table, punctuating his words. “Conception, gestation, birth, growth, mating, reproduction, aging and death, they all fit in a rat’s two years just as well as they do in a man’s seventy. So it is my understanding, and that of some esteemed colleagues, that rats don’t live shorter lives. They live faster lives, exhausting themselves in less time than men. The same happens between men and gods, where men are the proverbial rats. Gods only seem to live much longer lives than us, maturing slower, aging slower, effectively living slower.” He looks meaningfully at Alma. “Is this not what happened to you, lady?”

Alma smiles at him. The mortal scientist can barely be bothered to treat anyone by their Guardia rank titles, usually addressing his fellow mortals by their first names. But when it comes to gods, and especially to Alma, the inveterate atheist has always shown a delicate reverence, all the more charming because he barely seems to be aware of it.

Sadly, she cannot confirm his strange theories. “Not entirely so, I’m afraid. Gods age pretty much at their leisure. Some never do. Some are created fully grown. To a god born of gods, age does not necessarily link to maturity or physical appearance. We may age overnight, go from young to wrinkled in minutes.” She turns to face Tulip again. “I looked very much like you for a long time. And younger than I look now until Cherry and Rosemary were born.”

“What happened?” Tulip asks. On the sofa, Cherry and Rosemary are looking expectantly at Alma, hanging from her every word.

The young goddess looks at them, lowering her gaze as she moves from one to the other to avoid locking eyes with Lyria. With a sigh, she replies, “I realized that I was not a child anymore? There was no pregnancy, no time to adapt. Suddenly, I had two babies in my arms, whose safety and well being depended on my being able to take good care of them.” She puts the makeup brush down. “I was forced to grow up, and so I did. My face soon followed my mind in that aspect. In a few months, I was looking years older.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop at the melancholy in Alma’s voice.

Cherry and Rosemary are both holding Lyria but Alma does not look at her mother. Lyria was there, the day Arion left the Insula. She knows better than anyone about the original deals struck to ensure the Bunnies’ safety, about Death’s anger at knowing that his daughter had once again created forbidden life forms. And Alma knows what she will see in her mother’s eyes if she looks that way: empathy, regret, disappointment and a bitter, hardened pride.

The young goddess smiles softly at her youngest child. “I am very glad I grew up. It brought me here.” Her smile widens at the sight of Tulip’s ears slowly perking up. Alma strokes her cheek to remove a little speck of misplaced makeup. “There, all done.”

Tulip’s eyes widen and she rushes to pick up the makeup box so that she can see herself in the mirror. Her jaw drops, making Alma chuckle. “Wow… I look…”

“The way you will look in a few years, most likely,” the goddess completes the sentence. “And those years will pass in the blink of an eye, little Tulip. There is no point in rushing them.”

“But I look…beautiful!” Tulip insists, turning to look at Lyria. “Don’t I?”

“Gasp! How lovely!” Rosemary gasps.

“Dang, you look gorgeous, girl!” Cherry chimes in.

“Ah, little one, you have always been beautiful!” Lyria exclaims with a giggle at the Bunny’s enthusiasm. “Even without the makeup.”

“Well…” Tulip hesitates, looking at herself in the mirror again.

Alma strokes the Bunny’s hair, wanting to freeze this moment in time, to keep her little Tulip always this age, always this innocent and sweet. And yet, at the same time she is curious to take the rest of the journey with the young Bunny, eager to watch Tulip blossom into her early adulthood. What will that be like? Who will Tulip become? She catches movement at the edge of her sight and looks in the direction of the kitchen to sees Gwydion entering the bar, coming from his room, looking like someone still trying to drown away the sweet sirens of slumber.

“Ask Gwydion if you don’t believe us, little one,” the goddess suggests, jerking her head at him. “I know you treasure his opinion.”

Tulip’s head shoots back to spot Gwydion, nearly turning 180 degrees in the process. The young Bunny dashes off to stand just in front of him, hands clenched behind her back, face looking up at him with intense anticipation. “Hi…”

Gwydion smiles pleasantly at her, although Alma detect some hints of uncertainty in that smile. “Hello, flower.”

“Notice something different?” Tulip asks, standing on tiptoes to bring the god’s attention to her face.

Gwydion’s expression freezes suddenly. Any man who has ever interacted with women for any given amount of time will know and dread moments like this. He looks at her appraisingly for a long time, inspecting her clothing, apparently sniffing the air around her. Alma tries to signal to him but he seems too focused on his inspection to notice her.

Finally, he speaks, “Hmm… is it the hair?”

Alma cringes even before Tulip’s cry pierces through the room. “No! I’m wearing makeup!” Her ears droop in a most heart-wrenching fashion. “You don’t think I look better than before?”

Gwydion glances at Alma, who smiles and shrugs helplessly at him. “I can’t quite tell. You have always looked absolutely stunning.” He recovers with barely a pause. “However…”

“Yes?” Tulip squeaks, beaming at the compliment.

“It is never pleasant to kiss a cheek that tastes of makeup,” Gwydion notes. “You look older than your years. It seems to me that the makeup robs you of that vital part of your natural beauty, your youth.”

“But I look like a kid!” Tulip shrieks, flailing madly.

“No,” the god states firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder and raising her chin with the other, so that the Bunny focuses on him. “You look like a young lady. And soon, you will look like a grown woman and then like an old woman. I would understand it if you tried to look younger then than older now.”

Tulip’s eyes move down. “Well…”

“You already know what you will look like,” Gwydion notes in those soft, charming tones of his as he guides the Bunny’s face to look at Alma. “Look at your mother. It will not be long before you look like her without need for any makeup.”

“Yeah, but…How old will you be by then?” Tulip argues meekly.

Gwydion seems to consider this. “Hmm… Not much older than I am now, it seems. A decade, maybe?” He looks at Alma for confirmation and she nods at him. “It may seem like a long time to you but it will go by in an instant to me.”

Tulip looks somewhere between confused and slightly hopeful. “Oh…” She shrugs. “Well, this all seems like too much trouble to put on every day, anyway.”

“Now, there’s a smart girl!” Cherry quips.

“You’re just saying that because you don’t wear any makeup either!” Tulip retorts.

“Does it look like I need it?” Cherry replies. She immediately adds. “Don’t anybody answer that!”

The room explodes with laughter. In a glance, Alma catches Gwydion looking inquisitively at her and makes a little mental note to reward the god later for his outstanding performance.

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…”

Ch5.52 Shards

“Hey Mistah! You Stathos?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whaaaat, no tip fer me?”

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

Without further hesitation, Stathos strides out the door.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

His victims. Oh his myriad victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Really, it’s all right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Dion is already running into the station.

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

Aire, he surmises. Just a draft.

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

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

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

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

Carefully, Cala opens the door.

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

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

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

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

Doria goes pale. “What…?”

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

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

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

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

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

Ch5.50 Shards

Alma exits the station into the breezeway, breathing deeply, her mind rushing through the day’s events at the same time a flooding, all-consuming anxiety begins to set in. Finally released to enjoy life (albeit a Three Rats life) with her Bunnies, the cool night feels like the first breath of a brand-new life born from a long, difficult labor. Regardless of all the issues that remain to be settled, such as the Bunnies’ constant disobedience and their predictable, yet frustrating, difficulty at finding the ropes of a family life with the goddess, or Gwydion’s possibly impending departure–

Aaww! Why is it that all your boyfriends keep running for the hills, little Alma?

–or Nekh’s constant, haunting presence, Alma feels truly relaxed and optimistic for once.

Not even you will mar my good mood tonight, you overgrown magpie, she tells the vulture-headed god hitchhiking a ride in her mind.

I can always try… Nekh taunts her, his voice tailored to sound like soft whispers in her ear. Personally, I think it’s adorable that you think everything will magically fix itself just because you’re back. As if your little pets would suddenly start behaving the way you think they should or the playboy will change his ways or your darling Inspector won’t grow tired of your constant secrets and lies like a dog that never challenges its master. Do you really think he’ll never ask for a bone?

Alma shudders unconsciously at the sensation sparked by thoughts of the deceased Archon standing close enough to her to whisper like that.

Still, she defies him. You are right. No one can blame you for trying.

At the end of the breezeway, where the door to the bar stands, a tall shadowy figure, somewhat larger around the waist than the normal human shape would suggest seems to escape the chaos that resounds from within the building. Grinning softly at the tall woman and the much shorter Bunny, his arms around her waist, that her night vision finds in the shadows, Alma steps closer to see them parting, the woman straightening to her full height after having been bending down to kiss the Bunny.

“Making sure you have a statement from one of the victims, Constable?” the goddess speaks softly as she reaches a hand for the doorknob.

Yeah, in spit! Nekh mutters.

Aliyah Kaur’s body stiffens and she gasps in sudden panic, possibly at the memory of the angered goddess conjuring shadows and ghostly things in the warehouse, or at the thought that Alma’s anger may turn against her for catching her kissing Sage.

Sage, however, merely chuckles. Alma can feel him entering the bar just after her to quickly slip his hand into hers. She looks at him as if this is the first time she can truly see him, bask in the delicate lines of his beautifully rounded, dark-brown face as his full lips move to smile warmly at her, in obvious pleasure at the sight of her. Alma finds herself smiling freely, opening her heart to welcome him without fear that he will be taken away. She feels no relief for his return after being kidnapped by the Snatchers. Instead, the emotions flooding her heart wash away the fears of weeks, the anguish of years, and fills with gratitude a soul that so many times doubted her own strength to make it through one more day, to hope for one more day that this moment would come.

She leans down to press her forehead against his for a silent moment, before kissing the bridge of his nose. Slowly, the sheer entropy of nearly thirty children roaming about the room in search of food and water (with the occasional alarmed shout from one of the Popula about there being proper places to urinate and this not being one of them) breaks into their peace and forces them to emerge into the crowd surrounding them.

Just like on her first day here, the bar is once again empty of whatever scattered furniture it had been accumulating. However, this is no longer due to the absence of anyone using the room but instead, due to an overwhelming number of people trying to use it all at once. The furniture must have been moved elsewhere to allow for space to accommodate the warehouse refugees until more permanent arrangements can be made.

Ugh… this is the rat hole you were so eager to return to? Nekh whines. It’s a dump! Mind you, you deserve worse, but it’s not gonna help my eternity if I have to stare at these disgusting happy little faces wallowing around in this pigsty every day.

Well, you could just leave… Alma says softly. I would certainly not hold it against you.

Ah, as if I’d make it that easy for you, tart, Nekh snorts. Besides, wouldn’t you miss me?

Look around… Alma replies, grinning at the thought. No one misses you, Nekh.

Much to her delight, she stops feeling his presence in her mind after that. Alma moves toward the bar, Sage’s hand still nestled in hers, through a throng of filthy, snotty, thin faces, all attached to bodies moved by the driving sting of constant, chronic hunger. The children nearly trample each other in their attempts to grab a plate of the sandwiches that Cherry, Rosemary, Mayumi and Kori busy themselves distributing, making sure that even the younger, smaller infants are fed and trying their best to avoid the older ones from stuffing their pockets with all the sandwiches they can grab or bullying their peers into parting with the precious food. Too used to going hungry for whole days, their first priority usually lying in ensuring the next meal, preferably out of the rain and cold, these children of the streets behave like little more than famished beasts, consuming all they can before the food disappears, even after being assured that another meal will be provided tomorrow. To these young minds that should never worry about the prospect of mortality, who should believe themselves eternal and indestructible, tomorrow is a day to be feared every day.

The thought saddens Alma for an instant before being buried under the joy of seeing her Bunnies, their bright and caring faces contrasting so vividly against the dull-eyed faces of the older homeless teenagers they are working on feeding. The sound of Tulip’s raised voice coming from the kitchen, in an endless scolding of Chime for not working fast enough in making the sandwiches and for putting the lettuce on top of the scrambled eggs instead of the other way around, adds to her joy.

“Awright, ‘nother plate of sandwiches up!” Cherry announces, carrying a fresh plate into the motley crowd. “Who wants – oooookay, that’s another plate of sandwiches gone…” she adds, returning to the kitchen as the plate, ripped from her hands, disappears into the crowd. “Hey! Do not eat that plate! It’ll give you a stomachache!”

“More on the way, dears!” Rosemary assures the children, turning to walk back into the kitchen.

Alma joins them in the kitchen, the only place where some sort of peace can still be found.

“Hello, little ones,” she says with a smile.

Her two oldest Bunnies immediately rush to embrace her tightly, closely followed by Tulip, still wiping her hands on her flowery pink apron, and Kori, who has just stepped in to find his creator, by all accounts his mother, in the room. Alma embraces them, petting their heads, stroking their cheeks, allowing herself to express for once the love she has kept stored in her heart for so many years for this extraordinary family that is finally hers to keep. By the kitchen counter, Chime hesitates, looking ashamed and afraid of being scolded after all the problems that his escapades have caused. But there is just no room in Alma’s mind for anger. Not tonight. She motions him to come closer, thrilled to see him running towards her, nearly tackling her, arms thrown around her neck, feet just grazing Cherry’s face when she moves away just in time to allow her little sibling some space.

“I’m sorry,” he sobs against her chest. “I’m sorry…”

Alma does not speak. Her fingers running through the Bunny’s long blond hair and her arms around his shaking frame are enough to convey her forgiveness. Tomorrow, she may not feel as forgiving. But tomorrow still feels a long way away. Closeby, Mayumi kneels by a small boy, watching the scene while wiping the child’s face, effectively covered in eggs and melted butter after an attempt to eat a large sandwich whole with a single bite. At a subtle nod from Alma, she finishes cleaning him and gives him a smile before rising to her feet and walking toward the kitchen. She moves closer to Alma, looks up at her as the others make room, and then suddenly hugs her very tightly, sighing against her in relief.

“You’re home…” she whispers.

“So it seems,” Alma replies, still cradling Chime in one arm while embracing Mayumi with the other. “This will be home for us for quite awhile.”

Mayumi looks up, looking for an instant like she wants to say something. She seems to decide against it, just smiling and nodding instead.

“I am sorry I had to stay away for so long,” Alma apologizes to her Bunnies as she gently lowers Chime to the floor and nudges him to release her. “And that I had to keep you away. But I am here, now. And maybe we can start over.”

All around her, the Bunnies are blinking tears away. They move closer to her, trying their best to hug her all at once and bury their faces against her. She makes sure to caress them all, leave a soft kiss on the tops of their heads. Her eyes feel wet, at the verge of overflowing but she is not afraid of her tears. For once, she is free to be as vulnerable as she pleases.

“We missed you, Mom,” Tulip whispers, thin arms holding her tightly. “‘s no fun when you’re not here.”

“Well heck…you just did what you had to!” Cherry states with a sniffle, voice slightly muffled from a face still firmly pressed against Alma’s side. “But you’re really back? Is it all over then?”

“Yes, and my sentence is to stay here with all of you and never speak of what happened again,” the goddess replies, petting Cherry’s head. “And your sentence is to stay with me.”

“Well that’s a silly sentence! O’course we’re to stay with ye!” Rosemary chirps brightly. She turns to look at the little girl tugging at her pale green apron. “Och, what is it dear? I’ll get back to makin’ the food. Goodness me, what a madhouse!”

“Can I help?” Alma asks as the Bunnies begin to disperse into numerous activities.

“Sure thing!” Cherry exclaims, already filling water pitchers with freshly squeezed orange juice. “Uh, do we have any more blankets somewhere? These kids’re gonna be stacked like kindlin’ in here…”

“And some of them smell bad,” Kori complains, dragging a heavy box full of mismatched water glasses out of the pantry.

“Oh, the poor wee things do need baths…” Rosemary concedes, slicing a loaf of bread to prepare yet more sandwiches.

“Well, I am sure we can arrange for them to take a shower,” Alma says, turning to Mayumi and Sage, the two Bunnies most used to navigating the hallways of the station. “Mayumi, Sage, why don’t you guide them to the Constables’ washrooms? Meanwhile, I will speak to Corporal Lamore about finding towels and blankets for all of them.”

“Cala’s downstairs!” Cherry announces. “Uh, we let her an’ Doc Nate into your room, to take care of the hottie.”

Alma chuckles and nods at her. “Very well, I will go and talk to her. I need to go check on Saira, anyway. Let me know if there is anything else.”

Consumed by their chores, the Bunnies turn their attention towards the children, leaving the goddess feeling like she is now in their way. Alma leaves the kitchen toward the stairs that lead down into the basement, navigating the sea of proto-adults with some difficulty, stopping every now and again to stroke the cheek of any child who looks at her with pleading, affection-hungry eyes.

Eventually, she reaches her bedroom and enters. The door closes behind her, blocking the sounds of wailing children and the buzzing of hushed voices. Alma breathes deeply to compose herself before speaking to the human corporal and physician, hidden from them between the door and her hanging wisteria privacy screen.

She steps through the hanging flowers to find Nataniel sitting at the edge of the bed and applying some sort of ointment to Saira’s forehead while Cala fetches clean water from Alma’s pool to clean the now much shallower wound on the unconscious woman’s belly. Saira lies on the goddess’ bed, her body mostly limp, legs and arms occasionally contorting as a spasm locks the muscles in deep contraction. Nestled by the woman, the strange cat that Sage has rescued from the old hag in the warehouse lies sleeping, curled in a large ball of fur, snoring lightly, her wounds already healed by the goddess during their return to the station.

Saira’s wounds, however, are far more complex. Alma looks at her in pity, wishing her healing powers were just a little better. The shallow wound on Saira’s abdomen is just a cover for the more serious, hidden damage within that the goddess has not yet been able to repair. Closing the muscle and rushing the skin to start covering the gap was a priority, an attempt to reduce the risk of infection. But Saira’s body, affected as it is by poison and physical damage cannot withstand further healing just yet. Feverish, weak, the woman will need many more healing sessions before she can even be returned to full vigilance. All that Alma can do for now is let her rest.

She catches both Corporal Lamore and Doctor Nataniel looking at her in silence.

Funny… she thinks. For a sanctum, this room surely does welcome many visitors…

“Corporal. Doctor,” she greets them.

“Sergeant,” Corporal Lamore greets, her voice slightly tense.

Hola,” Nataniel greets as well. “I was just applying an ointment to help with the fever for tonight. I will be leaving right away, señora.”

“There is no rush,” Alma replies with a smile. “Corporal.”

“Ma’am?” Cala straightens up slightly.

“I would like to apologize… for my behavior earlier,” Alma says, feeling truly ashamed for having tried to intimidate a fellow officer. “I attacked you out of anger when all you were trying to do was help as much as you could and I am very much ashamed of my actions. I hope you can someday forgive me.”

La moshkelah!” the woman says, waving off Alma’s embarrassment but looking sincerely relieved to be burying that hatchet. “I’d be bellowing threats too if anyone tried to take one of my little sisters.”

By her side, Doctor Nataniel chuckles. “And mind you, diosa, she can be pretty scary too!”