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.

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

His victims. Oh his myriad victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Really, it’s all right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Dion is already running into the station.

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

Aire, he surmises. Just a draft.

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

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

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

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

Carefully, Cala opens the door.

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

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

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

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

Doria goes pale. “What…?”

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

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

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

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

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

Ch5.50 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!”

Ch5.21 Shards

“Lady Lyria!”

Sky’s voice on entering causes the entire station to freeze. Not that there are many Guardia in the station – most are either catching much-needed rest or out on patrol. But a few must always be around in case a member of the public comes in with an emergency, or even simply to make sure that Three Rats Station doesn’t get attacked by these Shards of the former Dukaine crime empire. Or, as at the moment, they were out dealing with said Shards along with their Inspector, now returning, a wounded moaning prisoner in tow and a large sheet-wrapped body over Sky’s shoulder, accompanied by Corporal Lamore, Constable Kaur, and two newly deputized Reserve Probationary Constable Guardia Dei: Kyri, looking every one of her modest collection of inches the glorious-but-diminutive battle-battered Valkyrie, and Brew, looking every inch (and with considerably more of them in every direction) the slightly befuddled friendly drunk, his expression eloquently conveying the sense of How did I get here and when can I leave?

But those few who are here – the perpetually clumsy Longshot, burly Silva, young Patel – are gathered around a presence who fills the room with a vital energy that the run-down place never sees.

Three Rats Station is home to three gods, and it does receive visits from a few others, but the less-ostentatious nature of most of these makes it easy for the mortals who work there to forget what a god really is. Inspector Sky may be quite tall and in anger his dark face might sometimes bloom with writhing, oil-black tattoos, but as he rarely displays his divine powers this is seen more as a mere quirk. And Sergeant Gwydion is even more circumspect about revealing his immortal nature without need, eschewing vulgar exhibitions. Of the three, Sergeant Alma is, in her unearthly pale beauty, the most obviously divine, yet even there the mortals have, for the most part, adjusted to it. Though the sight of her causes not a few mortal hearts to race, this is tempered by the knowledge that, as a goddess of the Death Clan, she can cause those hearts to stop forevermore with but a glance. Or at least, so goes the rumor.

But this early morning, as dawn claws its way between the crooked buildings, Three Rats Station is receiving a visit from one who has no reason to hide her light. The mother of the aforementioned Alma, she is a goddess of Life, and concealing that is alien to her nature. As she leans against the reception desk, surrounded by junior Guardia, receiving a mug of steaming coffee and an entranced smile from Doctor Nataniel, she fills the atmosphere with an almost audible hum, a palpable vibrato of life. The wilting jade plant on Corporal Lamore’s desk is perking up and sprouting white flowers for the first time, and the cactus in the corner that was going brown from some disease looks fully recovered and is even bearing a small clutch of prickly red fruit.

But nothing in the room looks as alive as Lyria, Herald of Spring, Lady of Life. She smiles to see Sky, placing her coffee on the desk, and steps to greet him, her smile dimming with concern. “Hello, little one. Oh my – you look exhausted.” Ignoring the corpse on his shoulder, she reaches up and strokes his cheek, filling the air with an even more intense manifestation of her power.

Sky closes his eyes as his exhaustion from many consecutive sleepless nights and stress from running the station without his Dei sergeants fades away, the expression on his face one of such pure pleasure that everyone present, from constable to criminal, mortal to deity, sighs in envy, wishing that this avatar of the very principle of Life itself would touch them the way Sky is being touched, body and soul, at that moment.

Sky’s eyes flutter open, bright with unshed tears, and he draws a shaky breath to regain his composure. Still, he cannot help but look down at Lyria in adoration, and she returns his gaze with amused maternal warmth. Her hand still resting along his jawline, she says, “There is something I would like to discuss with you, little one.” This pet name she uses for the Inspector does not seem so absurd to the onlookers, for though he towers over her, it is clear who is the more powerful entity in the room.

“Uh…please, shall we talk in my office? Corporal! Help our new deputies get the prisoner sorted. And…Eater of Frogs’ body.” He looks grim. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

To the station in general, Lyria says, “Thank you for your kindness,” and a round of shy murmurs along the lines of “Oh, it was nothin’” and “De nada, senhora” breaks out as she slides her hand down Sky’s shoulder and arm, to take his elbow, and says, “Please, do lead the way.”

Escorting her to a chair in his office and quietly shutting the door, Sky asks, “Would you like some tea? Though it seems like you were being well taken care of out there.” Still riding the high of Lyria’s healing, he cannot help but grin to have her here.

Lyria chuckles. “Oh yes, you have some lovely people working here.” Her chuckle transforms into an amused, lyrical giggle as he fills the kettle to boil some water. “But Sky, if I drink anything else, I fear I will soon sprout a leak. I do hate to pass on your hospitality, though.”

“Oh I thoroughly understand. I could use a mug myself, though, if you don’t mind.”

Her voice tinged with concern, the goddess says, “You do seem to have been through quite a battle. Is it always this way, my dear young friend?”

“I’m afraid things are worse all around the Fourth Ring, Lady.” Sky’s voice turns dark as he removes his armored Guardia coat and hangs it up along with his truncheon and sword, then proceeds with the calming ritual of making tea. “But with help from some friends, we may be turning things around.” He smiles and sits carefully in the other, older chair for guests, his knees almost touching hers. “It is so good to see you again. What brings you here?”

“Well, little one, I must say I would rather be here with my daughter present but it does seem that this won’t be possible for awhile still. I hear the Council is taking its time with inquiries…”

“Have you been to see her at Math’s?” Sky inquires.

Lyria glances down. “Not yet, I am afraid. It is so difficult to know what would help her case or not… The whole family stands much to lose from such a scandal. And after the Anubi, we really can’t afford another one.”

Sky nods in sympathy, but his voice has an edge of bitterness at the thought that politics can drive a wedge between family. “I understand. I saw her a few days ago. She is well. Worried, but well.”

Lyria nods and smiles warmly. “I am glad to hear that. Alma is a strong girl, that much I know. And, from what I hear, she is not alone in her struggles.”

“No, she is not. Sergeant Gwydion is with her. They seem to have become good friends.”

Lyria touches Sky’s knee, catching his eye with a knowing glint in her hers. “Friends are a good thing to have when one is alone. And how about you, forgotten in this wretched place? How are you faring?”

The god smiles. “As you said, I have good people here. And not just in the station. In the midst of this crisis, people show their true colors, and those who wish to pull together and stand against chaos outnumber those who take advantage of it. Still, I must admit I sorely miss my sergeants.”

“If all goes well, Sky, your friends should be returned to you soon enough. In the meantime, I have a favor to ask of you, if you don’t find it too taxing.”

“If it is within my powers, Lady, I will do anything to assist you.”

Lyria puts her hands together in joy. “Lovely! You see, little one…” She pauses, closes her eyes, and takes a breath. Sky is astonished that she seems to be, for a moment, shy. But then she opens her eyes and states, “I wish to meet Alma’s children. I was never allowed to see them, after all.”

Shocked, Sky stammers, “I…I had no idea. Since you were able to enter Alma’s home, I just assumed… Well, we shall have to rectify this immediately.” He sets his tea aside and stands. “Would you mind waiting a few minutes, however? I must make sure the prisoner is secured, or I would be remiss in my duties.”

She leans back in the chair with a laugh. “Oh, Sky, I am immortal. Time is all I have.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

As Sky leads Lyria down the stairs in the station’s annex, he explains, “If it were later in the morning, we’d probably find some of them upstairs in the bar.”

Lyria looks confused. “Why would they be in the bar? They are children.”

Sky chuckles. “Some of them are. As far as I can tell, they’ve aged at the same rate as humans do, while they were in their dream state. Rosemary and Cherry actually run the bar. They are business owners, technically renting the space from the Guardia for a nominal fee. They’re quite savvy about it, too. You’ll see.”

He knocks on the door to Alma’s apartment. There is a scurrying sound and then a high-pitched voice from the other side. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Tulip,” Sky says, “with a friend.”

“Uhm… Wait a minute. I’ll ask if friends can come.” There is more scurrying, and a loud whisper of, “Hey, wake up!” followed by sleepy moans.

“Tulip is the youngest,” Sky mentions to Lyria. “Thirteen, I think? She acts a bit younger, though. She’s just learned her name and started talking, after all.”

“She speaks well for someone who has just started,” Lyria says. She squeezes Sky’s hand nervously.

He returns the squeeze, reassuring her. “Oh she’s making up for lost time lately. She…mentions Sergeant Gwydion quite often. Asking when she will see him again.” He chuckles.

The door opens and a young, slender girl pokes her head out. Lydia gasps, and Sky realizes why, as the child, with her straight white hair, pale skin, and deep-blue eyes, resembles her creator Alma so closely. This must be what Alma looked like at that age, he thinks. Well, except for the ears of course. She is wearing a simple cotton nightgown, almost ankle-length, adorned with small bows and edged with lace. Its Guardia-blue color indicates it was probably made by Sage and his partners in tailoring, Corporal Lamore and Constable Kaur, from old, worn-out uniforms, like much of their clothing is.

Tulip looks up at Sky cautiously. “Cherry said to ask if your friend has a fever.”

From inside, Cherry’s voice rings out, “That ain’t what I said!”

Sky chuckles and replies, “I…don’t believe she does.”

Tulips shouts into the room, “Sky says his friend isn’t hot!”

“Too bad!” comes Cherry’s voice. “Let ’em in anyhow!”

Though all this was clearly audible, Tulip demonstrates her lack of confidence in humans’ paltry excuses for ears by, as she often does, nearly shouting, “They say you can come in anyway!”

Sky steps in as Tulip pulls the door wider, and is not surprised to see the other six Bunnies lying jumbled across Alma’s large bed, limbs intertwined, just beginning to untangle themselves and sit up. Mayumi, who had until moments before been cradled from behind in Sage’s arms, and with her own arms around Rosemary, gives Merri a kiss before releasing her and reaching for a random shirt to pull on. Cherry giggles and throws a pair of shorts at Chime, and strokes Kori’s hair out of his eyes.

“Come on, people, put on some clothes!” she says. “Don’t wanna make Inspector Sky blush, do ya?” She winks at Sky and, grinning broadly, makes no move to cover her own dark, curvaceous form until she sees that he has politely looked away, heat blooming in his cheeks, and then her pretty yet braying laugh breaks out and she pulls a blanket around her bare shoulders.

Then Merri’s gasp catches Cherry’s attention and she falls silent along with all the other Bunnies.

Merri is standing on the bed, paused in the process of pulling on a pair of shorts, her furry tail still not pushed through the little hole at the back. She’s staring open-mouthed in stunned silence at Lyria, her freckled face and upper chest flushed. Sky notes that Sage, Mayumi, and now Cherry are all equally frozen and fascinated by the sight of the newcomer, while Kori, Chime, and Tulip – all Bunnies who woke up from their “animal” stage much more recently – are looking at their elders in confusion.

And then Merri leaps, in a single bound landing next to Sky and throwing her arms around Lyria’s waist, hugging her tightly and squealing in wordless delight. Right behind her is Cherry, the blanket left fluttering to the floor as she also embraces Lyria, and moments afterward Mayumi and Sage join them.

Lyria laughs in pure joy, her voice echoing in harmony with the fountain in the middle of the room. She puts her arms around the four Bunnies who are mobbing her and says, “Hello, little ones. Do you know who I am?”

Merri looks up, tears in her green eyes. “Ye… We thought… It was just a… Ye were nae but a dream?”

Lyria pets Merri’s red hair, runs her fingers along her soft russet-furred ears, while her other hand strokes Sage’s lustrous deep-brown cheek as he gazes up at her smiling as if at an old friend. Speaking softly to herself, she murmurs, “You are all so perfect, so beautiful. What a work of art, Alma…”

Mayumi steps back, looking at Lyria in wonder. “You were my substitute teacher, sometimes. I…I can’t remember it well, but you always talked to me when I needed it.”

Cherry still holds Lyria tightly, her face pressed against the goddess’ bosom. “You were there, when we woke up to our names. You led us to that bar…where we found jobs cleanin’.”

Lyria glances meaningfully at Sky, who shakes off his surprise at all this and says, “Everyone, this is the Lady Lyria, Herald of Spring, Lady of Life. She is the wife of Senator Death, and mother of Alma.”

Merri gasps, “Alma’s mother! Why…that would make ye our grandmama – in a manner o’ speakin’!”

Cherry continues to hold Lyria tightly and simply murmurs, “I knew you were real, I knew it, I knew it…”

Lyria strokes Cherry’s sable curls. “I am real, yes. And I am very glad that Alma has managed to keep you all safe and sound. You are, without a doubt, her greatest creations and I have wanted to meet you for…so long.” Her voice nearly chokes on the final words as her emotions threaten to overwhelm her voice.

Mayumi gently grasps Lyria’s wrist and draws her toward the bed, whispering in Cherry’s ear to convince her to release the goddess. Showing Lyria where to sit, Mayumi asks, “How did you enter our dreams? And…why?”

Tulip, Kori, and Chime sit around Lyria, still looking at her curiously but without the recognition that the others are evincing. Kori leans against Chime and whispers, “What’s going on?” Chime holds his hands up casually and shrugs in return.

To Mayumi, Lyria says, “I don’t know, little one. To me, you were just a dream yourself. What a lovely coincidence, no? That we should dream of each other?” She smiles and winks.

Mayumi looks at her skeptically, but nods as if to say, Very well. For now.

Kori taps Lyria on the shoulder. “Hey, if you’re Mom’s mom, can you tell us how she is?”

Lyria sighs, “I haven’t seen her in some time, little one, but I hear she is being treated well at Math’s estate. Maybe I should pay her a visit so that I can give you better news, what do you think?”

Tulip climbs onto Lyria’s lap and looks at her pleadingly. “Could you check on Dion too, please? He’s there too and they won’t let me see him.” Her words prompt the others to variously roll their eyes, sigh, chuckle, giggle, or a combination of the above.

Lyria holds Tulip and, ignoring the others’ reactions, says, “Of course, dear. You care for him, do you?”

Tulip looks embarrassed. “Well… Uhm… Maybe… A little bit?”

Kori snorts. “More like a lot!”

Tulip blushes bright red.

Lyria chuckles. “Very well, Tulip, I will let him know you miss him.”

“Tuli loves Dion! Tuli loves…” sings Chime, mockingly before Sage cuts him off, saying “Don’t be mean.”

“And what is your name, dear?” Lyria asks the older Bunny. “Those dreams…it is difficult to remember some details.”

“I am Sage. And these two…young gentlemen are Kori and Chime.” He pauses and looks thoughtful. “Perhaps you were not in their dreams, or in dreams they can remember. They and Tulip awakened after we all entered this real world.”

“All worlds are real, little one, one way or another. And what about my beautiful granddaughters?”

Mayumi straightens and bows, palms on the front of her thighs. “I am Mayumi. It is a pleasure to meet you in this form. Though…” She blushes very slightly. “I thought you looked very nice with black hair, when I knew you before.”

“Och, she had lovely auburn hair when we knew ’er.” Merri says, sitting at Lyria’s feet and buttoning up a blouse that she has fetched. Cherry sits on the other side, laying her head on Lyria’s thigh, looking at her with adoration. “This here is Cherry, and I’m Rosemary, but everybody calls me Merri. Or Rose. Or ‘Hey, carrot-top!’”

Lyria looks utterly blissful. “Well, it truly is a pleasure to meet you all.” She looks at Sky, who has been edging toward the door. “Thank you, little soul,” she says gratefully, prompting giggles from Merri and Cherry at the affectionate diminutive.
Sky looks relieved to be given the hint to depart. “I shall take my leave, and let all of you spend as much time together as you would like. If you need me, I’ll be in the station. Or if I’m called away, Corporal Lamore can help you.” With a smile at all, and a lingering shared glance with Mayumi, happy to see her smiling once again among her family, he slips out the door.

5.14 Shards

Another day in Three Rats. Ewá Nanã has not, so far, had much of a chance to explore the ward on her own. When she told Inspector Tuma-Sukai the day before, after meeting the Bunnies – those fascinating creatures – that she needed to understand the ward itself as part of her observations, he had wanted to have her accompanied. “Please, Inspector,” she had insisted. “You are obviously far too overworked as it is, and your Guardia force spread too thin. I am, after all, a demigoddess, and I have been trained by my clan to defend myself. I don’t believe I need to fear moving around the same neighborhood that thousands of locals must venture out into every day.”

It was almost touching, the expression of worry on his face. After the way he stepped in to rescue her… Her childhood stutter, that she’d fought so hard and long to overcome, had returned while she was trying to interview the Bunnies. More like they had interviewed her. And flirted with her. And showed her that they were no mere creations, but people. It had thrown her off badly. Tuma-Sukai’s help had been most welcome. Yet he still regarded her as a tool of the Council, an organization in which he had no trust.

Perhaps he was starting to accept that she, as a member of the Candomblé clan, had no more trust in them than he did. Perhaps they could find a way to be allies. His admission that he had badly misjudged the Bunnies at first – another attempt at bridge building?

But if she went about with a Guardia escort, she wouldn’t perceive the real Three Rats.

And things are tense, she has to admit. She has stopped and spoken with merchants and street children. Breakfast in a pleasant café run by a small goddess who, it turns out, fought the Dukaines alongside the Guardia not long ago. The collapse of the Dukaine command structure has catapulted the entire Fourth Ring into a chaotic transition state. Three Rats is actually better off than some wards. The Dukaines were far less established here, and were weakened further by their failed attempts to monopolize the ward’s resources and then to assassinate the Bunnies. In wards where the gang ruled with an iron grip, the shattering and inter-shard warfare has left behind no authority at all. Despite its small and overstrained Guardia contingent, Three Rats at least has an institution it can turn to other than the gangs.

Still, the ward seems subdued. She has nothing to compare it to, not having been here before, but the locals seem welcoming and warm, for the most part, surprisingly so to an outsider like her. And when she manages to get them talking, they murmur how things have changed, how it was bad before, the poverty and violence, but the arrival of the Dukaines made it worse, and now it is all but open warfare. She is warned a dozen times to be careful.

Such warnings echo in her mind as she slips through a narrow, oddly angled street, more an alley really, the buildings not quite parallel. She has become turned around, and entered the street to find her way back to a house she had passed earlier, one that had caught her eye, and that had sported a ‘For sale’ sign. Considering what her clan expects of her, following her mission for the Council, she will need a residence in Three Rats. But the way buildings come together almost randomly in this ward has her disoriented.

She is thinking about retreating to the wider road when she hears shouting, a scream. Suddenly a half dozen boys, teenagers, are rushing past her. One is bleeding, supported by another. Behind them comes another group, slightly older. Ewá turns to face them, unsure if she should be fleeing or preparing to fight, and as one shoulders her aside, she feels a tug at her belly, a tearing sound and thinks, My blouse! just before the pain blossoms, and she realizes more than her blouse has been damaged. Another impact from the other side and she sees stars, then darkness.

The last thing she remembers is a sharp noise, a whistle.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

Pain. Noise. She doesn’t want to open her eyes.

Someone is calling out, “Doctor! Doctor! I need a doctor!”

Someone snaps, “The doctor is busy! You have to wait like the rest of us! Now shut up already!”

“But it hurrrrts!”

“Of course it hurts. You cut your finger off, idiot! But the bleeding is stopped, so you can wait.”

Closer, she hears quieter voices. A man muttering under his breath, very near. A little farther away, a whispered conversation, a male voice saying, “She was just laying in the street, y’know?”

“Lying.” A female voice.

“Huh? No, I’m telling the truth!”

“No, I mean… Never mind. You did good, Wallace, bringing her here so quickly.”

“Heh, y’know May, sometimes you sound so much like you’re in charge, I almost salute you.”

“Sorry… I… It’s hard to explain. I used to…never mind.”

She opens her eyes. Slowly, the blurs come into focus.

Buenos dias, Miss Sunshine.” A handsome, brown face is near hers, the eyes looking into hers, evaluating.

Bom dia,” she mumbles back. She moves her head slightly and closes her eyes again when dizziness makes the room spin.

“I was half hoping you would not wake up,” the man says. “Now I will have to numb you for stitches.”

Keeping her eyes closed, she asks, “Who are you? Where am I?”

“I am Doctor Nataniel and I will be your physician tonight on account of there being no one else available in Three Rats. And you are, señorita?”

She doesn’t answer at first, concentrating, trying to make the dizziness pass through force of will. Wishing that, like most gods and some demigods, she could heal herself with ease.

“The numbing is the most painful part,” Nataniel says. “Here we go…”

The pain in her abdomen suddenly spikes, a sharp needle piercing her skin to inject the liquid that makes her flesh burn and distend as it seeps into the tissues and pulls them with swelling. She grits her teeth, not wanting to make any sound. Still, she cannot stop a grunt of pain from escaping.

The female voice from before asks, nearer, “Do you need anything, Doctor?”

“More bandages. You know where they are, ?”

Hai.”

“There, a few more of these and the pain should go away,” the doctor says as the needle performs its terrible job again.

“Is it bad?” Ewá asks.

Nataniel, in that slightly distracted voice that indicates he’s focused on more important things, says, “Nothing is spilling out. But the blade caught the first muscle layer. You will need to be careful.”

“I just need to be able to make it to a healer,” Ewá gasps.

“I know a good healer,” the doctor says, “though she’s currently facing charges. But you will make it, if you stay still and don’t fight me.”

“I surrender myself to your expert care, Doctor,” Ewá manages to say.

“Good. This should only hurt you.”

Ewá’s eyes fly open at the doctor’s words. “Wh…what?”

Maldición, a bit! It should only hurt a bit! Perdón, my tongue slipped on the truth.”

To keep her mind off the pain, Ewá asks, “You are not…from here, are you?”

“There, the pain should disappear now. No. I’m from another ward, far away. Guardia duty saw me stationed here.”

“I see… Duty has also brought me here, from far away. Is it always so dangerous here?”

“Only when you go into a dark alley to fight people with knives,” Nataniel chides while he stitches her up. “Even if you are immortal, there are better ways to spend your time, you know?”

“I…was lost. I am usually more cautious. Something about this place…”

As he stitches away, the doctor agrees, “Hard to ignore, difficult to love and nothing left in it to hate. I have prayed at that altar already. Hence, this clinic.”

Ewá looks around, seeing an old building with new, or at least newish furniture and trappings. “Is this clinic new?”

. The only one in Three Rats too. And already I have trouble finding time to sleep.”

She sees a slender young woman, long, erect ears marking her as not quite human, come in bearing a tray with folded gauze bandages. She recognizes Mayumi from their brief meeting on her first day in Three Rats, which was…only yesterday. So much has happened so quickly.

“I see you have an assistant, at least.”

Mayumi’s ears go back a little and she looks reluctant to be there, but sets the tray on a metal table beside the bed.

“Ah, , May comes to help sometimes, but she has her own job at the station,” the doctor replies. “There, stitching done. And the blow to the cabeza, the head, seems to be no big problem. But you are going to lie here for one hour at least. You have lost blood and I don’t want you going off to your healer just to fall face down in the street again.”

Obrigada, Doctor Nataniel. Perhaps I could wait here with your assistant. I have been needing to speak with her.”

“Ah.” The doctor looks at Mayumi, who reluctantly nods. “Very well. I shall attend to my next patient.”

After he leaves, Ewá weakly pats the narrow bed she lies on. “Please, Mayumi.” The Bunny sighs and slowly sits on the edge of the mattress. After a moment, the Eye of the Council starts with a neutral question. “Who is Wallace?”

A very brief look of confusion flits across Mayumi’s face. “Oh, Constable Longshot. He brought you in, with Paolo.”

“Paolo?”

“A young gang leader. From what I gather, you were caught between a local gang – that’s Paolo’s – and one of the new ones. Paolo did not stay long, but he claimed a member of the other gang attacked you. I’m inclined to believe him. Paolo’s gang are not known for using violence against anyone they are not warring with.”

Ewá nods. “And here you are, away from the station. Are you not worried about the violence in the streets?”

Mayumi shakes her head. “This is my home now. My streets. I’m not going to hide.” She stands and pulls the thin blanket up a bit higher, tucking it around Ewá Nanã, fussing over her. “And forgive me, Observer, but I would have known the danger was coming far earlier, and avoided it.”

“The ears?”

“The ears. And an ability to read the streets.” Mayumi sits again.

“I’ve spoken with your… I’m sorry, what do you call them? Your brothers and sisters?”

Again Mayumi shakes her head. “Not really. It’s not the same. We just think of ourselves as family.”

“I see…I think.” Ewá pauses. “It was an enlightening interview.”

Mayumi looks at the Council’s Eye for a long moment, then asks, her voice flat, “So what do you think, then? Are we worthy of existence?”

Ewá feels a pang at her earlier assumptions. “As much as anyone I have met. But I noticed something. They were not at all happy that you were not there. Neither was Tuma-Sukai.”

Mayumi responds to this only by looking away, not guiltily, but resolutely. Her expression is one Ewá has seen many times before: This is none of your business.

So the lawyer says, as if talking to herself, “It seems as if young Chime is exploring the neighborhood as well. As I was leaving, I told the Inspector, ‘You cannot keep them all under control. You have not the time nor the hold over them. They do not see you as a parental figure or a commanding officer, but as a friend. And thus you cannot keep them safe.’ He did not look happy at this, but I could tell I was not teaching him anything he did not already know. And that he was very worried by it.”

Mayumi nods, but remains silent.

“I need to ask you, May… I’m sorry, is it all right if I call you May? Some of the others did. And the doctor, just now.”

“My name is not really amenable to shortening. The closest dimunation would be ‘Ma’, but nobody calls me that. I prefer Mayumi, but I tolerate ‘May’ from those I love, even though I find it silly.” She glances back down at Ewá.

“Thank you. Then…Mayumi, I need to ask you about that day, when Archon Nekh was killed.”

Mayumi stares at her, her eyes hard. Just as Ewá is starting to think the Bunny will remain stonily silent, Mayumi speaks. “Alma did what she had to do. That is all I have to say at this time.” She stands. “Now if you will excuse me, while I am no nurse, there are things I can do here to make the day easier on Doctor Nataniel. He will be by to check on you soon, and if you are ready to leave, I will fetch a constable to escort you to the portal.”

And before Ewá can say anything else, Mayumi slips out of the small room.

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 16

Calimari Cal watches impatiently, nervously tapping a tentacle on the floor, while Nataniel and Syro run their analyses in the Sanctuary room.

“You done yet?” he asks for the twentieth time in the last fifteen minutes.

“No,” Nataniel replies automatically.

“I am afraid we are just about as done as we were two minutes ago, Mister Calamari,” Syro notes.

“Don’ you call me that!” Cal hisses, stomping the floor with his tentacle.

Syro looks at him, a slight look of confusion on his perennially impassible face.

“I’m sorry, is that not your name?” he asks.

“No, it’s not,” Cal says with the cephalopod equivalent of a pout. “It’s a street name some squids gave me on account o’ bein’ almost cooked alive when I was jus’ lil’ ’n’ playin’ in tha street, close to a fried-goods stall. Stoopid squids. Cuttlefish will get’em all!”

“With flames an’ butter!” a child-like cuttlefish voice cries.

Cal turns around to look at his nephew. “Oh, there ya are, Frankie, ya lil’ hatchlin’!” he exclaims, placing a couple of tentacles vaguely where they hips would be on a human. “Where were ya when I needed ya?!”

“I went tah cook tha holy offerin’s fer yer lunch, Uncle,” Frankie says apologetically.

“Shut up, Frankie!” Cal hisses. He turns to Nate and Syro. “Sorry ’bout that. Kids ’n’ their big mouths.”

“And their way of telling the truth…” Nataniel mutters.

“Yeah… Real bugger, that,” Cal comments. “So, ya done yet?”

“No!” the Guardia officers cry in unison.

Calimari Cal throws four tentacles to the air in  exasperation, the chromatophores on his mantle flashing red and purple. “C’mon, guys! I got prayers tah say, people tah rip-o – oooooooooooff  tha jaws of their misguided beliefs.”

“And intoxicate with these sulphurous fumes, it seems,” Syro adds, shaking his head slowly. “The bathroom has a fissure on one of its walls, through which toxic fumes are infiltrating. I am afraid you will need to seal that room from public use, Mister Calamari.”

“Oh…” Cal whispers. “How ’bout private use?”

Cierra-la, Cal!” Nataniel nearly yells. “Just seal off the damned room.”

Cal hesitates for a moment, syphons flaring open in silent contemplation, but then waves a tentacle in agreement. “Fine, fine. Will that fix it?”

“Yes, provided it is properly sealed,” Syro states.

Cal nods in acceptance. “Good. So… you’s done now, right?”

“Yes, yes we are,” Nataniel says, probably as glad to get rid of Cal as the cuttlefish is of putting some distance between him and the cops.

“Good!” Calimari Cal replies, rushing Nate and Syro out the door of the Sanctuary. “A-di-ós, coppers!”

“Goodbye, Mister Calamari,” Syro greets, bowing his head slightly in old-fashioned etiquette before turning to leave. “Our colleagues will come by shortly to sort out the fines and fees.”

“Good, good,” Calimari responds, turning back into the Sanctuary. A moment later, he emerges again, nervously flushed. “Wait, what fees??”