Ch6.33 Trust

Alma walks into her room, her mind set on finding a present for Saira among her things. The goddess has had an idea about that and she is certain that she already owns the perfect main component she will need to make the gift. However, something makes her pause even before she gets through the flowery privacy screen that covers her door.

The room is frozen.

It is not just a matter of temperature. In fact, the room does not feel that much cooler than normal. But the air is still. The usually wavering light reflected by the pool is dull and grey. The fountain has gone quiet. Time has stopped here.

Alma breathes deeply. Not many people could enter her sanctum uninvited and produce such changes. And only one person, in fact, could suck the life out of this flowery haven with his presence.

“I need to start sealing the entrances,” she mutters to herself.

“And then how will your little mongrels walk in here wagging their tails and asking for sanctuary?” a pleasant yet dry voice asks in return, through the screen. “You just can’t resist helping the fallen, can you?”

Ooooh, look who has come to visit… Nekh coos from his cozy little spot in Alma’s mind.

Alma does her best to ignore the winged haunt and steps through the flowers. Her eyes linger for a moment on the figure that stands beyond it, just two steps away from the pool. His long, pitch-black hair carefully pulled away from his face and tied into a loose ponytail with a satin ribbon to compliment a clean-shaven and pleasant face, allied to the pristine long black coat wrapped around his tall, slim body and fastened all the way to his neck with silver and mother-of-pearl inlaid buttons, paired with the carefully chosen trousers and boots, presents an amiable and delicate image to the public, far less frightening than the depictions of Death that Alma is used to seeing in temples and holy texts. No. Her father is a Senator, a politician, keen on becoming an Archon. And it is all a popularity contest, really, as much about looks as it is about wisdom or actual power.

Skin of a sheep, heart of a wolf, mind of a snake, the goddess thinks as her gaze travels up and down his elegant figure.

Aawww… You missed your daddy, didn’t you? Nekh taunts her. Knight in charming armor that he is.

Shut up, Nekh, Alma growls. Or I will surrender you to him.

To Death, she says. “The simplest act of kindness can save a life. But what would you know of such things?”

“I tend to the dead, child,” Death replies, stepping closer to his daughter, his pale skin contrasting so sharply against his jacket, that he seems to hover like a ghost amidst the shadows surrounding him. “As should you, being what you are.”

He reaches a hand to her and takes her chin between his fingers, holding her head higher until his black eyes stare into hers and she can see the delicate greenish-blue aura of his power glowing faintly at the very rim of those deep dark pools. “But you are always caring for the living…” he whispers softly, his every word laced with poison. “You are so much like your mother. So…primitive. Like an animal waiting to be tamed.”

“Was it you who tamed mother?” Alma ventures, her every thought focused on resisting the alluring darkness of her father’s eyes, like a mouse facing the hypnotic gaze of a snake. “Or was it she who tamed you?”

Can you say ‘dysfunctional family’? Nekh comments.

Silence!

“Do your new friends know this side of you?” Death whispers, placing a hand on her cheek and stroking it with his thumb. His face moves closer to hers as he adds, “Will they stand by your side when they find how poisonous your beauty can be? How many walls and traps are hidden behind it?”

Seriously, it’s just like watching two snakes mating! Nekh exclaims, clearly amused.

“Are you contemplating adding me to your harem, father?” Alma asks in a derisive tone. “Is your only daughter to become one of your concubines?”

She places a hand on his chest. Under her touch, he feels cold and quiet. Death has no heartbeat.

He chuckles quietly, taking obvious delight in his daughter’s insubordination. “For as much as I would like to go through the pleasure of breaking you to suit my whims, little soul, my current concerns are of a far more practical nature,” he replies, letting go of her and stepping away. “You are investigating a Soul Bomb.”

It is not a question.

“I knew this was not a courtesy visit,” Alma mutters, her arms crossed over her chest. “We were attacked with one, yes. The incident was recorded in my book. And Varah will have told you all she knows by now.”

Death nods. His back turned to the goddess, he seems to inspect every corner of her room as if trying to memorize it. “I read your report. Impressive, Alma. But very stupid. It would not be the first time a dismembered soul destroyed a death god. Especially, a weak one.”

“I had never even heard of a Soul Bomb before,” Alma notes in chilly tones.

“None has been used since the time of the Cleansing, when we made sure all the necromancer scum were wiped out,” her father explains, turning back to face her. “Is that not so, Nekh?”

At a snap of Death’s fingers, the vulture-headed deceased Archon materializes in the room, not two steps away from where Alma is standing. For the first time since his murder, the goddess can clearly see him instead of being haunted by images of where he would be standing and what he would be doing if he were, in fact, solid. Seeing him does not make his presence any less unpleasant.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” Nekh says, trying to sound confident and derisive.

“You really shouldn’t,” Death states, his tone dry as an ancient tomb. “But I should have predicted you would not go into the Wheel quietly. Has this piece of his soul been latched onto you since the attack at the Curia?”

“He first manifested some two weeks later,” Alma answers. Although he is still looking at the former Archon, the question was clearly meant for her.

At this point, there is no gain in lying. She could never have hidden Nekh from Death. A glimpse at her was really all her father needed to know her secret, even assuming the Fencer had not told him about it yet. And she would have told him…along with a number of other things. Alma can already see the wheels turning in his mind, calculating the best way to use Nekh’s soul to his advantage.

“I see,” Death whispers to himself. He finally looks at Alma. “And why did you not call me to remove him?”

Alma snorts. She puts herself between her father and Nekh, walking slowly towards Death, making sure he looks at her as she retorts, “Why? Would you have helped me, then? The way you did not help me when the Council came for my head?”

Her face is a finger’s width away from his when she whispers, “Daddy?”

“Ooooh… Look who’s throwing her claws out!” Nekh calls, clapping his hands in mock applause.

Death ignores him, looking impassive at his daughter’s accusations. “Why are you so stressed? They did not take it, did they?” His eyes lock on hers again. His words are charming but commanding. “Surrender him to me, Alma.”

“No,” the goddess denies him.

“Raaooowwwrrr,” Nekh jests.

Anger flares in Death’s eyes like a storm brewing on a moonless night. “You do realize I do not need your permission.”

I do, Alma thinks to herself, feeling somewhat guilty to be enjoying this so much. But for the first time in a long time, I am not afraid of you.

“He is latched on tightly,” she says. “And we both know that if I hold on to him, you will be forced to extract half of my soul just to take his. Is that what you want to do? Finally, finally end my miserable, shameful existence?”

“You go, girl!” Nekh cheers.

“Shut up, Nekh!” Alma and Death cry in unison.

“Birds of a feather…” the dead Archon sulks.

“Find me something I want and you can have him,” Alma offers, wondering how much longer she can keep this up. “I am sick of his whining and grumbling, anyway.”

Death chuckles. It is a most disturbing sound, like the lid of a sarcophagus sliding to let a cursed mummy out. “You have learned a few tricks. Now let us see if you can actually be useful. The necromancer. I have reason to believe it has killed your cousin Nashina. I want it eliminated. Not arrested, not tried. Destroyed.”

“Nashina? So that is why she would not reply to my calls!” Alma exclaims, eyes wide in disbelief. Her eyes narrow as anger begins to replace shock. “I will need information.”

“It will be provided,” Death replies.

“And the ceremony?” the goddess asks, cursing the question for sticking in her throat, making her sound desperate. “The one you ordered me not to attend.”

Death shrugs, seemingly unphased by this. “Your aunt has already bothered me too much about the issue. I will tell you what I told her. I could not care less if you show up or not. You have never been necessary for it, anyway. The souls you collect have always been mine to process.” He tilts his head, grinning softly. “And I am not the one who has to take the walk of shame in front of the whole clan.”

“It would not be the first one,” Alma hisses.

Death nods and snaps his fingers. A small pendant made of crystal shaped like a teardrop appears in his palm. Glancing at Nekh for no more than a second, he hands his daughter the jewel. “Throw him in there. I will not have his filth pollute the ceremony. Or cloud your judgement.”

In the blink of an eye, he is gone. And in his wake, light returns, sound returns, time once again ticks away. The room returns to normal.

Alma breathes deeply in relief. Her conversations with her father are always exhausting. His games drain her but, in her family, not playing means losing and no one wants to lose against Death. She feels sorry for the thousandth time that she can only seem to make him smile when she is fighting him. And speaking of fighting and being tired…

She holds up the jewel her father gave her.

Nekh’s eyes widen with realization. “Wait, what are you doing?”

She lowers her walls, relaxes her hold on Nekh’s soul.

“No!” Nekh cries.

At a whispered command, the crystal begins to glow, a vortex appears in its center.

“Noooo!” Nekh screams, trying to hold on to Alma against the overwhelming pull of the crystal.

He doesn’t stand a chance.

“Waaaaaaait!!”

He disappears, sucked into the heart of the crystal. Infused with his soul, the once colorless, transparent stone turns a vibrant, dark brown. Alma sighs in relief, enjoying the wonderful silence inside her head.

“Thank you, Father,” she whispers.

Her torture finally over, she rushes to find what she was looking for inside her jewelry box and leaves the room in search of better company.

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Ch6.28 Trust

Gwydion has to run hard to catch up with Alma. He calls out her name more than once, but she does not slow. Fortunately her ghostly white hair nearly glows in the light of three Moon goddesses high above, and even when Alma slips out of sight around a corner, he quickly finds her, at last, collapsed at the edge of a fountain in a square a few blocks from the station.

She is breathing hard, clutching the circular stone bench that circumscribes the fountain itself, knees on the flagstones of the square. Gwydion approaches, kneels, and puts his hands gently on her shoulders.

Alma does not turn to face him. Her voice is broken by tears. “They know my name. This is all my fault. It’s all my fault.”

“What? No…” Dion tries to gently talk her down from her panic. “Alma, your name is well known in Three Rats. Surely they know Sky’s name and mine too. Any low-level gangster does by now. They are just trying to get under your skin.”

“The bomb, Stathos’ family, this rat…” She looks over her shoulder at him. “You heard it. They were going after me. We thought it was against us all but… It all started when I–” She seems to realize her voice has been growing louder, and that the square, not entirely unpopulated, now has several people staring at this odd spectacle. “–when I killed Nekh. This is punishment. I shouldn’t have killed him. I shouldn’t have. The Council should have sent me to rot in Hell.” She curls in on herself, hands covering her ears. “At least it would be better than this.”

Dion holds her closer. “No no no… Hell is not better. The Council decided that your actions were justified. And I would never want you anywhere but with me. Alma, listen, this is not your fault.”

“He haunts me, Gwydion. Nekh. He haunts my mind at all hours, day or night. I can’t sleep, I can’t think. I can’t…” She breaks down in silent tears, her fingers gripping the lapels of his jacket, pulling him closer.

“Shhh, it’s all right.” He struggles to find the right words, knowing she is wracked with guilt, but still not quite believing she did the right thing in killing Nekh, no matter how glad he was at the Council’s decision. “He can’t hurt you. He’s gone and you’re here, with friends, with your family. You know you did what you had to do.” He has struggled over it a great deal, himself. He has come to accept that he both believes what he is telling her, and at the same time believing what she did was wrong. What she had to do was merely the lesser of two possible wrongs. And this guilt, this pain, is the punishment.

Alma nods against his chest. “I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Shh. There’s no point in torturing yourself over it. These people are just gangsters who want this ward for themselves. We’ll deal with them like we always have. Now breathe. I’ll keep you safe.”

Alma slowly begins to calm down. “Forgive me. I…I shouldn’t have run away like that. If they were watching, they’ll be laughing about it now. Of how their plan worked.”

“They won’t be laughing for long,” Dion insists. “We shall have the last laugh.”

The goddess lifts her head to nod at him, her eyes red from the tears. “Thank you.” She puts her arms around him, holding him tightly. “You are so gentle,” she whispers.

“Only with you,” he whispers back. He smiles at her wryly, hoping for a smile in return. “Don’t I get a kiss?”

Giving him a small, wan smile, she lays her head on his shoulder. “Yes.”

Dion cups her cheek and raises her head slightly, his eyes closing as he kisses her.

With all his dalliances, the kiss has been one of his favorite moments, a work of art in miniature, a minuet compared to the symphony that is sex. The kiss, ah, now there is intricacy, a conjuration of just the right amounts of delicacy and passion balanced against each other. He is in control and does all he could to leave his companion faint with pleasure, using nothing more than his lips. His kisses, he knows, are memorable.

But with Alma, all that has disappeared. Though the muscle memory is still there, restraint and thought are gone. Each time they kiss, he loses himself in her, as if diving deep, only to resurface, breathless. Faint.

There is applause across the square as some joker cheers them on. “Brava!” The drunken woman’s companions shushes her.

Dion mutters, “Let’s get back home. Where we can have some privacy.”

Alma nods, and allows him to help her to her feet.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Ye’re no’ gaenta burn a perfectly good table!” Merri insists to Somrak as he carries the rat-impaled table into the small patch of dirt behind the bar. Sage has been turning the former dumping ground for trash into a garden, and little furrows have just started sprouting green leaves next to the sickly mango tree.

Cherry counters, “Merri, it has undead rat guts all over it!”

“That’s nought but a wee mess. It’ll clean up fine with soap an’ a scrub brush!”

“Zombie rat guts? Uh-uh, no way our customers are eatin’ offa that! I’m with Sommy on this one.”

Somrak sets the table down away from the plants and ends the argument by smashing the table to kindling with one powerful kick. Not looking at the suddenly silent Bunnies, he says, “You choose a replacement. Anything you want. Put it on my tab.” He fishes his dagger out from the wreckage, carefully removes it from the body of the rat, then pulls out a handkerchief from a pocket and wipes the dagger clean.

Then he looks at the dagger and the air fills with the scent of burning and the sound of crackling fire. His hair blows in the wind. The dagger’s blade catches fire briefly, a blue cleansing flame that dies after a moment. He sheathes the dagger, then looks at the remains of the table and the rat corpse, setting them afire, and tosses the handkerchief onto the flames.

He squats, watching the intense blaze, and barely notices Cherry’s receding voice saying, “Man, gods are weird.”

The flames dance and crackle. Like all things in this magical world, they have a spirit. Elementals, gods, muses. Even devils, dragons…even mortals. They are all, at core, the same. Spirits, embodied or not. And fire, fire in its brief life has an eternal perspective. Like still water in a silver bowl under the light of a moon, fire can tell stories of the future and the past, to those attuned to listen.

The flames dance and hiss. Gold and red, sparks and shimmers of heat in the air, devouring wood, oxygen, and corrupted flesh. Somrak listens.

But a voice from behind him, sardonic and tough, interrupts his communion. “You…are an idiot.”

Somrak holds up a hand, silent, staring into the blaze. Saira’s voice, after a pause, invades his reverie again. “Nice day for a barbecue. Rat’s gonna be a bit on the charred side, though.”

Somrak hangs his head, then holds his hands out to the flames as if warming them. The fire rises higher, higher, burning white hot, reducing table and rat to the finest ash, then dying away in moments. He stands and turns to see Saira leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

“Sorry, were you saying something?” he asks.

Saira grins and shakes her head, like she can’t believe him. “I was asking if you were enjoying yourself.”

“Not really. I was,” he gestures vaguely, “talking with the flames.”

Saira gives him a skeptical look. “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s fun. Got your priorities set straight there and all.” She shakes her head in disgust and turns to leave. “Man, and they say I’m cold.”

Somrak snaps at her, “I was trying to divine some sort of lead to find this necromancer. To do something useful.” He mutters to himself, “Everything I’ve tried to do here has fallen apart.”

Saira turns back at this. “Where’s Alma?” she asks, her voice bereft of emotion.

Confused, Somrak says, “She…went out.”

“Yeah. Wasn’t just your leads that fell apart there, huh? But here you are, burning a table instead of watching out for someone you actually seem to care about. What a hero…”

“I’m trying to help her!” Somrak almost shouts. “This necromancer is going to kill again. And she seems to have a grudge against Alma. You heard what the rat said.”

“And what if Alma ran out that door and into a trap?” She lets that sink in, once again leaning against the wall. “She was out of her mind, I could tell. She’d be a real easy target, lured out like that.” Saira shrugs. “Heck, we may never see her again.”

Som looks shocked. “I…I didn’t think she–” He starts to walk past Saira to reenter the bar, but she puts a hand on his chest to stop him.

“Prettyboy went after her. And I didn’t hear any loud booms or calls for help. They should be fine. And yeah, you didn’t think.” Saira’s dry voice softens slightly. “And you know what? I wouldn’t have either just a few weeks ago. This ain’t the lone life, love. This thing they got here is a freaking family. It’s weird but it kinda works. And if you want in on it – and trust me, you do – you gotta change your game.” She straightens up. “Anyway, I said my piece. You look decent enough to be worth saying it to.” She turns to go back in.

“So all that about her possibly needing help…”

Saira grins. “Got you to listen.”

Somrak pauses, then asks, “Think you can handle a shot of whisky?”

“I can handle two,” Saira says. “Gonna drown your sorrows?”

Somrak shrugs. “Just thought…it’d be nice to talk for awhile longer.”

She appraises him. “Yeah, all right. You can apologize to Mer and Cher for their table while I sneak the bottle out from behind the bar. Let’s go up on the roof. Good view up there.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

A golden portal opens and Alma and Gwydion step out of it into the Burrow’s kitchen, only to hear “GAH!” and the sound of breaking glass as Rosemary drops an empty pint glass she had been putting away.

“Sorry! Sorry…” Alma says as she bends to pick up the bigger shards.

Rosemary launches into a nerve-wracked tirade. “Yeh broke two glasses earlier, then Sommy burnt me table, an’ ‘e says ‘e’s gaenta replace it but it was still a perfectly good table even if it were rescued from a rubbish heap–”

She takes a good look at Alma and stops talking. Whatever she sees in the goddess’ face makes her ears droop and her eyes soften from anxiety to concern. “Oh dear…” The Bunny grabs a bowl and holds it for Alma to drop the glass fragments into, sets it aside, and then embraces her mother.

Alma holds onto Rosemary, laying her cheek against the Bunny’s curly red hair. The warm feeling of connection is doubled when another pair of arms hugs her from behind. Alma feels Cherry put her face against her mother’s back and sigh. Their touch is so reassuring in its sincerity that she finds it impossible to let go of them right now. Or maybe even ever. Maybe they could stay like this until the world stops spinning and starts making sense for once. And that could take a very long time, indeed.

Ugh… I hate it when you get like this, Nekh gags in her thoughts. Your mind tastes like molasses left too long in the sun.

Then go lick something else for a change, Alma replies but even that retort is weak, exhausted. She needs silence. So badly. Just silence. Abandonment. To vanish, yes. Hide away from everything. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

Behind her, Gwydion whispers to the Bunnies, “She just needs to rest.”

Rest… Yes… That would be good too.

Alma feels the two Bunnies nod, and then after a moment of squeezing her tighter, they let her go. And as they do, it is as if Nekh has left with them. Maybe he can sense her weakness, how she is too beyond sense to fight him and squirm under his taunting and give him what he wants: pain. She has none of that left in her right now.

After giving Gwydion a quick double-Bunny squeeze, to which he responds with a smile and an arm to momentarily cuddle each of them, Cherry says, “Now y’all scat. I gotta go make sure Sommy don’t let Saira drink any more o’ that whisky.”

The thought of Saira drinking whisky hits Alma with a strange intensity. Something in her moves, feeble and uncertain. She feels like she should be bothered by the information but it doesn’t move her enough to elicit a response. She decides to file it away for later. Unresisting, she follows the warm, gentle touch of Gwydion’s hands as they guide her to the pantry door, touching it to activate the entrance to his sanctum, before ushering Alma in. She catches him glancing back at Rosemary, and the Bunny’s nod of understanding: that no one, particularly younger Bunnies, will be disturbing them.

As the door closes, Gwydion moves his hands to Alma’s shoulders and she erases what little space was left between then, holding him closely, the need for physical contact unsated since her Bunnies awoke her to it. She sighs in pleasure, head on his shoulder, standing relaxed in the arms that wrap around her like silk spun around a caterpillar. “Thank you. It all seems less dark with you close.”

Gwydion’s voice is gentle against her ear, and she can hear the smile in it, as clear as the curve in his lips as they touch her cheek. “I can draw you a bath, if you like? After all that running, it would help you relax.”

His tone is so soft, so tempting, like a glowing lure in the pitch-black depths. Her mind races to wonderful memories of warm, scented water and a bathtub made for two. She almost says yes. But when she opens her eyes and raises her head to look at Gwydion, she finds her vision blurring, her head shrieking in pain at how intense the soft light in his room suddenly feels. She sighs and shakes her head. “If you don’t mind, I just want to rest for a little while. I feel so tired…and I have harvests to do later.”

Gwydion nods and touches his cheek to hers. If there is disappointment there, he keeps it out of his voice. “Rest it is. I’ll be right here with you until it is time to return to duty.” He releases her, much to her agony at the breaking of the embrace, and leads her to the bed.

Alma lies down on the sheets, not bothering to remove anything but her shoes. She looks at him, waiting for him to join her, anxious to feel him close again, her skin feeling cold where the contact broke off. As soon as he lies down by her side, she slides her way to him and snuggles comfortably against his exquisite solidity, reveling in the texture of his shirt, in that scent of his cologne now mixed with sweat. She holds him and he holds her back, his leg slid between hers to bring her closer to him. In any other occasion, sleep would be the last thing on her mind.

Gwydion kisses her delicate ear and whispers, “You are safe. Nothing will disturb you here, darling. Sleep.”

And that is that. Slumber envelops her like quicksand. Smiling, already half asleep, her lips breathe, “I love you.”

The mind attached to them doesn’t even register the arms that wrap even tighter around Alma just a moment later.

Ch6.23 Trust

They run through the maze of tangled streets, leaving the magical, unstable parasite dimension that the market usually occupies through a completely different access point than the one they took in. It takes Alma a few streets to finally make some sense of where they are. This area of Three Rats is hardly inhabited at all, mostly just a place of passage and short, whispered rendezvous. But there is no time to linger on that. Her eyes flare with her soul scrying and she swears under her breath as she tries to be of any use in finding the demon.

“Damned souls, where is she?!”

Fencer keeps appearing and disappearing from her divine senses, hardly giving her enough time to feel for her location with any level of certainty.

Can’t even do that right, can you? Nekh leers, amused at her frustration. Bet your ugly brother could tail her without even thinking about it.

I have many ugly brothers, Nekh, and they would all love to have your soul for a chew toy, Alma growls as she tries to hold on to Fencer’s trail. Now stop distracting me and let me do my job!

Stupid little half blood, the former Archon taunts her. You really think she needs your help? Really think she wants it?

Shut up “Demons! I lost her again!” Alma cries out in anger.

“This way!” Gwydion calls out to her. “Just follow me, I can sense its path.”

Alma falls closer behind him, as does Somrak. Gwydion has been running slightly ahead of them, actually, his steps leading the way with a certainty that Alma has never seen in him. He looks this way and that, every now and again, his eyes flaring gold, a faint glow silhouetting his form against the dark streets. And no matter how many corners they turn and how many crossroads, he always seems to find the right path. Claw marks and signs of destruction scour the walls, the ground. Lamp posts, lamps long broken and never replaced, hang crooked or rooted off the streets and cast aside as if they were nothing. And all around, that oppressing, rotten, terrible stench of Hell.

Suddenly, they hear a deafening roar of falling stone by their left. An orange-red glow illuminates the next alley. The three gods barely stop to exchange a look between them before diving into it at running pace. Beyond the mouth of the alley, a clearing has just opened in the wake of the collapse of an old, unstable three-story building made of mortar and brick. As they arrive, flames are soaring high, enclosing the stone ruins in a full circle, in spite of an obvious lack of something to burn. It is hellfire, unnatural flame, sparked by magic and fed by it, the same kind of fire that Somrak wields but colder, weaker due to the demon’s recent arrival into this plane of existence. Inside the barrage of flame, Alma can see the Fencer ducking and evading the attacks of the confused, enraged demon that keeps trying to escape the stone ruins of the collapsed building.

Oooooh! This should be fun! Think she’ll lose her other eye? Nekh coos.

By Alma’s side, Somrak mutters, “Fire. Right, let me try to cancel its flames. It shouldn’t be too sure of its fire yet.”

He concentrates and the fiery  perimeter surrounding the building begins to dwindle. Drawing his blades, Somrak makes a motion to run Fencer’s aid. Alma grabs his wrist to stop him, her eyes flashing with the eerie blue-green light of her soul scrying. At his questioning look, she replies with a jerk of her chin toward the demon, that is now backing away from his attacks against Varah at the feeling of its dying flames, its five partially-fused heads shooting this way and that atop their separate necks in confusion. Finally, its blind faces turn in Somrak’s direction. It sniffs the air, five gaping mouths cut like vertical slits vibrating membranous lips in a mixture of howls and growls. It leaps at the god.

And hits thin air as if it were a wall.

“Forcefield?” Gwydion wonders as the beast falls stunned not two steps away.

“Different dimension,” Alma explains.

“What are you waiting for, Alma? A gilded invitation?” the Fencer barks. “Help me establish a perimeter!”

Just let the bitch die! Nekh exclaims. What good has she been to you, anyway?

Nekh, I’m going to need you to make yourself scarce now, Alma says, ignoring his taunting.

And why would I do that Oh… his tone changes as she calls to mind a mental image of what she is anticipating for the upcoming battle. That looks like it’s gonna hurt.

It will. Very much, Alma concedes. Won’t that please you?

Oh, my dearest conniving Death Clan whore... he whispers with obscene sweetness. That will please me oh so much…

Alma breathes deeply at the sudden release of pressure that his departure always causes and walks into the building, closely followed by her fellow Dei. Though neither Gwydion nor Somrak can see it, an intricate web of spectral strands surrounds the ruins like a dome. Currently, a few strands have moved aside, creating a temporary gap through which the gods enter the makeshift arena where Varah stands, her soul a nexus from which all strands arise to limit the demon’s movements. But she cannot keep the artificial borders impenetrable for long. Instead, she focuses her energy where it is needed most, reinforcing specific areas at the expense of the whole.

Alma responds to her aunt’s orders immediately, unleashing her power. Around her, darkness spreads, a restless murmur of departed souls rises to meet the stunned demon’s grunts. From the blackened ground, countless ghosts traced in light emerge, ripping their way in as if summoned from an unseen grave. Whispering words of death and loss, they crawl up Fencer’s webs and merge with them, hanging from the strands like spiders, reinforcing the barrier with their immaterial presence, making it visible even to unspecialized eyes.

Alma feels her control of them being removed from her by Varah, their energy commandeered by the older goddess as if the Fencer were a parasite sucking her life-blood. It does not matter. Alma knows that what is expected of her will require complete, perfect focus.

“Can you banish it?” she asks Gwydion, by her right side.

He seems to consider this for a moment. “I’ve never read of a demon quite like this before. I’ll need some time, and concentration.”

By Alma’s left side, Somrak calmly reassures her. “I’ll make sure he’s left in peace.”

Alma nods. The fire god is no fool. Nothing good would come from stepping between Alma and her mentor.

“Thank you,” she says. Turning to Gwydion, she asks, “Anything you can think of I should worry about?”

“Aside from fire…” The magic god closes his eyes in concentration. After an instant, he opens them again and blinks confused. “Blood is highly corrosive. It wants you to cut it.”

“Alma!” Fencer calls.

The young goddess turns to Somrak. “Whatever happens, do not intervene. It could be the death of me.” She moves her eyes from him to Gwydion. “Be careful, you two.”

They nod grimly at her and she rushes to her aunt’s side. The demon is already rousing, howling at the strengthened barrier that keeps it imprisoned in this barely isolated dimension.

“We’ve practiced this a thousand times,” the Fencer says in a low voice. “You know what to do.”

“I do,” Alma replies.

The Fencer draws her sword and, without warning, drives the pommel into Alma’s stomach. The blow of the metal is blunt and weak but through it comes the piercing agony of the Soul Stealer, Varah’s signature technique. It cuts through Alma’s soul, barely missing Nekh’s, driving through her with burning, unspeakable pain. Alma jerks forward, breathing raggedly, and is caught by Varah’s strong arms.

“Don’t hold back,” is her only advice.

Alma merely nods, still too breathless to talk. They have done this a thousand times and a thousand times more with Melinor holding the sword instead of Varah. The pain is always the same. And Alma has learned to bear it.

The good part of it is that Nekh is taking his retreat seriously, probably motivated further by the Fencer’s sudden attack. It is for the best. Alma cannot afford any distractions. Varah pulls the sword back and grips it in vertical position, the tip of her blade pointed downward and resting on the ground like in one of those old sculptures of great knights. From it, a single glowing strand stretches into Alma’s core like a leash.

Varah’s crimson eye flares for a moment and the sword begins to glow with spectral energy. A spectral web sprawls over the ground, covering it, stretching under the feet of gods and demon. The beast has its attention turned to Somrak and sniffs furiously in the god’s direction. Behind Somrak, Gwydion is immersed in the dangerous, complicated process of improvising a banishment spell.

Alma releases her power even further. The scales of her spheres tilt completely toward death. The black of her stained hair burns away to reveal silver-white, her brown leathers darken to complete blackness. Her blue eyes disappear into the shadows that fill her orbits. Only a blue-green spark flashes in place of her pupils. Her pale skin glows like a ghost against the darkness around her.

The demon turns its attention toward her. She draws her daggers, their blades flaring with her spectral energy. It has been awhile since she has drawn on her power like this. The pain, the thrill…it always feels like the first time. The demon howls.

And attacks.

Alma moves swiftly, evading the beast’s attack as it comes crashing down, sharp claws on two powerful forelimbs slashing the space that the goddess had just been occupying, the blink of an eye ago. The demon turns, roaring its anger. A burning tongue of hellfire suddenly bursts from the ground by  Alma’s right and she moves quickly to the left. In a second, the fire dies, enraging the beast even further.

Thank you, Somrak, the goddess thinks without turning to look at the fire god.

She cannot turn. There is no time. The demon is already bounding toward her, its enormous bulk carrying powerful momentum. She adjusts her grip on her daggers, curses herself for leaving her sword at the station and lunges against her foe.

The Soul Stealer is a unique technique. It can be molded into many things. If sent surging through a blade, it can suck the lifeforce out of an opponent at each strike, no matter how shallow. Forged out of the spectral energy of its wielder, the Soul Stealer eats away at its victim, weakening its soul, even ripping it from the body it if need be. If it pierces through a soul, it can forge a link, or several, turning an unwilling victim into a mere puppet or a trained partner into a conscious, autonomous extension of one’s body. If woven into a web of glittering soul-strands…

It becomes a trap. In this spectral arena, Fencer is the weaver. Alma, her poisonous spider. And her leash allows her use of Varah’s senses, lets her see the demon’s broken, incomplete soul that her soul-scrying is usually blind to. The web tingles under her feet, vibrating with the demon’s presence, telling her where it is, how fast it is moving, where it will be.

And where it won’t. The young goddess rushes past the demon, barely evading its slashing attacks, nostrils filling with its sulphurous, rotting, hellish scent. Her daggers graze its soft-shelled body, metal sizzling against the hot, verrucous carapace.

Grazing. Not cutting. They don’t have to cut.

The demon shrieks as the magical, spectral edge of the metal blades cuts into its soul, tearing strips of it that curl around and bind to the piece of Alma’s spirit that is her own version of Varah’s Soul Stealer. The goddess takes a step back, senses a nexus opening in the web and steps on it. Immediately, the Fencer’s energy surges through her, catching and grabbing the demon’s soul-strands and latching them to the network of Varah’s woven trap, holding them tightly but not pulling on them.

The strands are fragile and not enough to grab a hold of the unstable, fractured soul of a demon, but more will follow. If the older goddess makes a mistake, if she pulls too soon, the strands will break, releasing the demon, and Alma will have to start again. If Fencer pulls the wrong strand, Alma’s soul will be the one trapped. If she lets go of Alma’s leash, the young goddess will be blind as a bat as to where to cut or where to step. Either way, it will be enough to turn her into a feast for the growling demon.

More flames shoot up by her feet, once, twice, three times, forcing her to keep moving. Somrak negates the first two but the demon spits a flaming ball of mucus against the god, breaking his concentration, forcing him to take a hit in order to protect Gwydion. Alma moves to strike the demon again, denying it a choice in opponents.

She attacks with her daggers again and again, tearing into its soul, binding each fragment to the throbbing network under her feet. Her hands hurt from holding metal against a hot target, her blades melt further at each strike until she has to switch them, discard the lumpy, shapeless used daggers for a renewed pair she pulls out of the recesses of her outfit. It is better she did not bring her sword. She would have hated to see it destroyed.

The beast keeps fighting, sending flame against all four gods, thrashing with its claws and stumpy, spiked tail, its body showing signs of the exhaustion imposed by the Soul Stealer. Alma can see its spectral bonds tightening under Varah’s grip, robbing it of some of its speed and force. It is almost fully caught.

She evades yet another five-front attack of fiery globs from its multiple mouths. She has to hurry. The burning touch of Varah’s soul-bond on her is taking its toll, exhausting her fast. If she can secure the last four strands in the next blow, that will be it. The targets shine brightly on the beast’s chest. She lunges forward.

But the beast doesn’t. It rises on its hindlimbs, imposing, monstrous, and bursts into flame. It is all Alma can do to freeze in her tracks and veer to her left, stumbling for balance. A tongue of flame bursts in front of her, another behind her. Alma looks around. She is trapped, surrounded by flame. The hideous shape of the demon casts its shadow above her, its five-fold head first turned to shoot its flames against Somrak, then turning to focus its nostrils on her. She cannot escape. It raises a vicious paw, strikes.

Alma falls backwards, body caught between its claws, miraculously spared from its flames by Somrak’s quick recovery. She squirms like a mouse trapped under a lion’s paw, her last set of blades sent flying by the beast’s attack. To her horror, she sees the soul-bindings that surround its forelimb tug at the demon to no avail. The demon roars and they break, not enough alone to hold it in place. If the binding is not complete, the prey can escape. Alma does not stand a chance. The beast sniffs at her, growls in anticipation of its feast, mouths gaping open, dripping with vile, oily spit. It bites.

It roars in pain. Alma feels the pressure holding her disappear and opens her eyes to see the leather-clad shape of Somrak kicking viciously at the demon’s head. The beast backs away in confusion and pain, releasing Alma, trying to keep away from Somrak’s blows. The death goddess just lies there, processing the scene for a breathless moment. Then, she springs to action, rising and fetching her daggers while the demon is distracted. Somrak keeps kicking, delivering swift strikes to the demon’s face, any of them enough to kill a mortal. Alma exchanges a brief glance with Fencer, feels the goddess’ grip tighten on her leash.

“Get out of there, you idiot!” Varah shouts at Somrak.

But it is too late. Somrak’s kicks fracture the largest of the demon’s skulls, breaking its skin against the bone. Blood gushes out and splashes the fire god, hitting his throat and making him yell with the sudden pain of its corrosive touch. The demon rears back, shaking its head, and Alma moves swiftly to push Somrak away from it. She can see the demonic blood trickling down under the fire god’s jacket but there is nothing she can do to help ease his pain. Her healing life sphere is completely dormant at the moment.

“I need you out of range now and protecting Gwydion,” she tells him. “I will finish this.”

Somrak nods and falls back to his previous position by the god of magic, grimacing in pain. Gwydion looks completely oblivious to his surroundings, his body glowing softly with a golden hue. Alma breathes deeply. She has to buy him the time he needs.

Her power again surging through the daggers, she makes the best of the demon’s confusion and immediately secures new bindings to replace the broken ones on the beast’s forelimb. Another strike rips through the demon’s central soul-fragments, yielding two more soul-strands that Alma quickly attaches to a nearby nexus in the web.

Two more….only two more to go.

Of course, they just had to be the tricky ones. She rushes toward the demon and it lunges to meet her, claws and maws ready to grab her, body burning with roaring flame, slightly slower from the Fencer’s grip on it. She dives forward and twists midair, landing on her back, sliding belly up on the floor, her head to the beast’s backside. She winces at the heat of the flames,  thrusts the daggers up, feeling them melt. She screams as they burn her hands, as she sends her power into the demon’s belly, piercing through its spectral core. It shrieks and contorts at the pain, turning just as Alma emerges behind it. She gets up on one knee, waiting for its counterattack, grinning at the feeling of a nexus opening just under her, at Varah’s shooting spectral grip through the open channel of Alma’s soul.

The demon jumps.

And freezes midflight. Just for a second. A heartbeat.

The beast howls.

And falls, heavily, against the ground. Alma looks back at the Fencer. A grinning face meets her in reply. The trap is complete. The demon is going nowhere.

But it is still trying.

“Ugh, this one is a fighter.” Fencer grimaces, clutching at her sword, clearly struggling to keep both this alternate dimension and the demon under her control. “Hey, Ponytail! How’s Prettyboy doing over there?”

Fire geysers shoot up all around the area. The demon cannot move but it is nowhere near giving up.

Gwydion does not open his eyes but nods at Somrak, an indication that he is conscious of his surroundings.

“Almost there!” Somrak replies, forehead glistening from the effort of canceling the demon’s flames.

Still kneeling, Alma places her hands on the ground, wincing at the painful touch of her burnt palms fingers on the glittery, buzzing web of the Fencer’s trap. She unleashes whatever power she has left in her death sphere through the web to help reinforce it. “We’re ready when you are!”

Almost as if responding to Alma’s words, the ground begins to glow with a brilliant, golden light. Gwydion, standing straight and still, enveloped in a glowing, blinding aura, opens incandescent, coppery-golden eyes, raises a single hand in the direction of the demon. His lips move soundlessly, forming the words of his spell.

The light grows brighter, forcing Alma to close her eyes, piercing through her eyelids. She cannot protect herself with her hands, invested as they are on reinforcing the Fencer’s spell. She can hear the demon shrieking in pain, feel it pull at the bindings, trying to escape from the divine touch of Gwydion’s spell. The beast contorts and flails violently in a panic. But neither Varah nor Alma weaken their hold and the trap holds its prey tightly.

Darkness ensues. Not complete darkness, but a soft shadowy twilight like the hesitant arrival of a winter’s dawn. Alma risks opening her eyes, shakes her head against the greenish-purple ghosts left behind from the magical, blinding light. The ground is dark again. The demon lies senseless in the center of a summoning circle of golden glyphs, most of them completely new to the goddess. They spin slowly, burning with a strange light, reshaping themselves into hideous, blackened, distorted forms that somehow speak of only one thing.

Hell.

At a roared word of “Submit!” from Gwydion, the circle contracts around the demon. The ground trembles as a huge, blackened, scaly talon shoots from the darkness, grabbing the dazzled demon, that seems to waken and fights wildly to release itself. The clawed hand that holds the beast relaxes its grip, wavering as if still immaterial.

Gwydion must not be certain of the spell yet. Alma feels the spectral bindings around the beast strain to keep it bound. She struggles to maintain her hold on them.

Gwydion roars again. “Submit!” Alma has never seen him as powerful, as iron-willed as this.

The hand begins to glow, traced in golden veiny light. It looks more solid now. The fingers close inexorably around the demon, begin pulling it into the ground. The demon flails but to no avail. It is doubly trapped.

Gwydion stumbles, his legs go limp from the effort of casting the powerful, never attempted spell. Somrak catches him, looks at the demon. The spell seems unaffected, still drawing the demon into whatever dimension lies beyond the darkness. Nightmarish voices wail and screech, calling gutturally for the frenzied demon. They are deafening, blood-curdling.

“Get out!” Fencer orders, voice barely above the terrible cries. “Alma, you too! I’ll hold it!”

Somrak obeys, pulling Gwydion away to a safe distance, but Alma refuses to move. She can feel the demon tearing the soul-strands, so terrified that it is destroying its own soul just for a chance to escape. “I’m staying!”

“This is not up for discussion!” Varah barks.

“You’re right, it isn’t!” Alma barks back.

The spell runs its course. With the death goddesses keeping it bound, helping Gwydion’s spell along, the demon is dragged into the screaming, sulphurous darkness and disappears. The voices go silent, the circle of blackened, hideous glyphs flashes into a bright halo of hallowed symbols and winks out of existence.

Alma remembers to breathe again. She cancels her influence, feels her soul retreat into her own body again, released from the Fencer’s hold. In its wake, some of Varah’s mana transfers into Alma, partially replenishing the young goddess. The mana does nothing to keep her death sphere from going numb. If they get into another fight, Alma will be useless as a death goddess.

But at least this is over. Behind her, the Fencer sheathes her sword. The darkness, the barrier, the web, they all disappear. Around them, only the cool, natural night remains. And instead of haunting voices, only a deafening silence fills the crumbled building.

Alma rises unsteadily to her feet, wincing at her blistered hands, and walks slowly toward the place where Somrak is propping Gwydion up on his feet, left arm under the magic god’s right armpit.

“Dion is weakened,” Somrak says with a grimace of obvious pain. His right arm hangs limp along his side. “Let’s get out of here before people start coming around to see what happened.”

“Can he walk?” Fencer asks in the tones of one more worried about the inconvenience of carrying a fallen comrade than anything else. She gives off no signs of being particularly tired after such a trying battle.

Gwydion nods, too tired to speak at this point, his forehead beaded with sweat. Her numbed death sphere allowing her a faster return of access to her life powers, Alma rushes to heal her burnt hands and moves quickly to his left, to help Somrak in propping him up, her right arm moving under his armpit and behind his back, hand gently and just for a moment squeezing his side in affection and encouragement before settling in its supporting hold of the magic god. Gwydion lays his hand on her shoulder with a small, exhausted smile at her.

“That was quite the banishment spell,” she says in honest admiration.

“Yes. Good job there, Prettyboy,” Fencer adds in the tense, uncomfortable tones of one not used to giving compliment. She must really have thought very little of Gwydion to be showing this much surprise at his skill. Her eyes go to Somrak and she barks halfheartedly, “You too, Ponytail.”

But then her gaze falls on Alma and lingers there. Her aunt’s anger feels to Alma like a bubbling cauldron, building up heat and radiating through her skin like a hand clenching in preparation for a blow. “As for you, missy…” Fencer growls. “Falling? Disobeying orders? What do you think this is, a practice run?! Could have gotten yourself killed. Or Ponytail over there.” She gestures at Somrak as if he were just a meaningless recruit. “I taught you better than that.”

Her words are like ice down Alma’s spine after the thrill of seeing a demon defeated and the Soul Stealer used for the first time in action in a real-life scenario with tremendous success. The young goddess looks down at her feet, sighing in sudden shame, her body hollow. “You did, my aunt.”

She does not dare to face Gwydion, whose hand has just tightened its hold on her shoulder, or Somrak, whose body temperature she feels rise against her hand where he is still holding Gwydion’s side. She has long learned to take Fencer’s scoldings as something to swallow and get over with, but being scolded in front of them verges on true humiliation. Of course, Fencer would never take time to consider such things, and even if she did, dismiss them as just another reason not to make mistakes in the first place.

“You have got to be kidding,” Somrak hisses suddenly, making Alma turn a shocked look in his direction. He has just released Gwydion and is moving dangerously close to Fencer. “Alma was amazing, and if you can’t see that, you need to get your eye fixed!”

“Careful, off-blue!” Fencer growls in a voice that promises aggression for his presumption. “I taught this girl everything she knows about fighting and if you thought that was amazing, then you don’t want to know what I haven’t taught her yet. No self-respecting fighter would let jyrself fall into a situation like that.” She turns to Alma again, a finger pointed at her in accusation. “And if I tell you to leave, you leave. What if the spell had sucked you in too, huh?!”

“She did fine,” Somrak insists, placing himself between Alma and her aunt. “And you may have dreams of turning her into a fighter, but you miss that she’s a damned good blueshirt. It’s not all about combat. Let’s not forget who’s in charge of this ward right now.”

Alma is lost for words. This Somrak is not at all what she is used to and the words coming out of his mouth don’t seem his at all. Where is the off-blue who left a whole gang crippled over a single overheard tip?

But when Fencer takes a threatening step forward, Alma finds the strength again to intervene. “Please, Somrak,” she asks, touching his back with her free hand to his back and wincing at the feel of his hot body against her newly healed, still sensitive skin. He glances back and moves aside at a significant glance from her. “I am sorry, my aunt. I stumbled and yes, a fellow Guardia suffered for it. But we gain nothing from discussing this here. Let us get to the station. Gwydion needs to rest and Somrak needs healing. The market has been dispersed, anyway. No point in staying out.”

“I agree,” Gwydion adds to her plea, the strain in his tone making his effort evident. “Besides, we seem to have attracted a lot of attention. There is no way we can go back now, without being made for Guardia.”

He makes a show of looking around them at the small crowd of wayward thugs, prostitutes and homeless, raggedy people gathering to see what has just happened to what was probably one of their many usual squat places. They look at the Guardia and it is to Alma’s great horror that she realizes that most of her disguise has been cancelled during the battle. One look at her and all four gods will have had their covers blown to pieces.

“Our animal-dealer is dead, anyway,” Somrak mutters bitterly.

Fencer glares at them all with renewed ferocity but eventually yields. “Fine. Let’s go, then.”

She turns on her heel and starts marching away without a second look to check if they will follow or if they need help. Alma looks apologetically at both Gwydion and Somrak, feeling relieved, grateful and lightheaded, almost dizzy at the mix of emotions that is hitting her like a brick wall. It is not just her hands that are oversensitive, she feels. The whole of her being tingles with emotion, open as she is to emotions that her death nature usually blocks.

To her right, Gwydion chuckles as Somrak again moves to help prop him up, signalling to Alma that he will take care of helping the god of magic on his way. “That little speech sounded familiar.”

“Yeah yeah, laugh it up, Prettyboy,” Somrak teases him in mock irritation.

Against all odds, Alma finds herself bursting in laughter. The tension leaves her, adrenalin burnt away, in long, wholehearted laughs that shake her frame almost painfully and have the two gods looking at her in pleased surprise. She has to wipe a tear from her eye with a finger still reeking of demon. “You know, if you two need a moment, I can leave you to find some place quiet…”

 

Ch6.21 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And certainly not something one surrenders without good reason.

“Why?” the goddess asks.

“Father asked for it,” Melinor shrugs.

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melinor shrugs again. “Does it matter?”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe you should remember instead,” Melinor replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My last one,” she concedes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because of the Bunnies?” Gwydion inquires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meow?”

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

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

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

 

Ch6.13 Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmpf!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would he do that without telling me? she wonders

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

Shut up, Nekh.

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

Shut up!

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

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

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

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

Alma nods slowly. “I see.”

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

What do you mean?

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

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

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

“No,” she hears herself saying.

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

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

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

Ah, the plot thickens…

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

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

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

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

Oh, you just know he will, Nekh leers.

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

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

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

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

“There is no one else,” Alma states.

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

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

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

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

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

Nekh…

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

Stop it!

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

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

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

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

What is she doing?

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

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

Sky was wrong. She is terrible at this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s her condition?” Somrak asks.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so is Alma.

 

Ch6.11 Trust

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

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

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

Ever so slowly.

Millimetrically slowly.

Like the flow of the centuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HEY! Are you calling me fat?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ooooh, nice save, kid, Nekh sneers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still, I–” Alma insists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh oh…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this guy! Nekh coos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alma sighs. “Go ahead.”

Wait for it…Wait for it…

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

BAM! I’m out! Nekh announces.

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

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

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

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

“But, honeycakes…” Bruhn whimpers.

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

Please, don’t, Alma wishes in thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, much to Alma’s dismay, she does.

Ch6.09 Trust

“Sergeant. Thank you for coming.” Ewá Nanã had approached the door cautiously, but she is relieved and pleased to see it is Alma – the first time she has seen the pale goddess in nearly two weeks. At an admonishing look from the Guardia Dei, Ewá corrects herself. “I mean Alma, of course.” After Ewá acted as the Eye of the Council and, through careful negotiation, or rather manipulation, managed to help bring about a resolution that spared the lives of Alma, fellow-sergeant Gywdion, and Alma’s brood of Bunnies, Alma had insisted Ewá stop calling her ‘Sergeant’, a gesture that had warmed Ewá more than Alma knew.

Ewá had always been considered a little off by those of her clan. Distant, formal, not given to the gestures of affection that came so easily to her people. Her family, her clients thought her cold, but she appreciated warmth from them even while being unable to express it in return. Some saw past that – some, not many. Even so, they always sought to change her. She even has a few worshippers, mortal students of Law, praying to her for wisdom, who know her well enough to detect the true feelings swaddled in an instinctive restraint.

She finds herself more comfortable outside the lands of the Candomblé Clan, as a result. Too many there want her to be something she is not. Here, far from her home in the Second Ring and halfway around the great mountain, she is an outsider. But she has always been an outsider. Here, at least, no one expects her to be anything but.

She feels free. Lonely, but free.

She senses that kindred spirit in Alma: perpetually out of place, misunderstood. Indeed, she knows from her research that Alma has had it far worse. And now she understands Alma’s fierce protection of her creations, her children. For it is with children that Ewá has found, for the first time in her life, the ability to express the tenderness she feels inside.

Though so often coupled with firmness, she finds.

Before Alma can reply, Ewá catches movement out the corner of her eye and calls out, “Pirma, put that down, please. Thank you. We do not hit people with brooms, now do we?” The twelve-year-old, her formerly long, matted hair cut short and neat to let it grow back out untangled and lice-free, leaves off chasing her fellow orphan, nods reluctantly, and goes back to using the broom for its intended purpose. Only then does Ewá look at the child and smile affectionately. Then, to Alma she asks, “Sorry…would you like something to drink?”

She sees that Alma is looking at her in surprise, and Ewá feels her face burn, as if she had been caught doing something wrong. Smiling. No one expects her to smile. That detached part of her that is always analyzing everything wonders what she looks like to the goddess, for she has never seen herself blush. It is rare and a mirror has never been available, but perhaps it is like her aunt’s similarly mahogany-brown skin which deepens with a berry-red undertone when she laughs and laughs – and Ewá forces her mind back to the here and now as Alma says with amusement, “I am not quite sure if heating up water would be safe around your new wards.”

Ewá hesitates for a moment, making sure she will not suffer her childhood affliction of stuttering, and says, “Oh they are quite well behaved – Jao! What did I tell you? Now apologize to Moishe. Now shake hands. Very well, go on now. It’s your turn to do the dishes.” Ewá sighs as the two boys separate. “Well, they are becoming better behaved by the day.”

Alma tilts her head. “Do you need help with them? I can stop by once or twice a week.”

“Oh, you don’t…” Ewá stops herself. She was just about to say no, reflexively, but why? The offer is sincere. “Actually… Thank you, that would be very much appreciated. They are good children but…” She indicates for Alma to follow her and leads her into the kitchen.

“Having an adult to talk to is something you miss?” Alma smiles knowingly.

“Yes. I really have not made much progress with starting my law firm, either. And to think I hope to turn this into a school.” Ewá shakes her head, filling a saucepan with water, adding sugar, and setting it upon a gas flame, stirring the sugar in the water absentmindedly as if she’s done it thousands of times.

“A school?” Alma asks.

A small, chagrined smile flickers on Ewá’s lips. “It would be nice, would it not?”

“It would be wonderful! Especially since three of my children are still learning how to read. And I don’t always have the time…” Alma trails off, embarrassment coloring her voice.

“Oh, please send them here!” Excitement fills her voice as she sets two tiny cups on saucers and a cloth filter beside them. “To have them learning alongside these children…well, it might help set an example. It would be a pleasure to see them again as well. And if any of the older Bunnies felt like joining us, to assist, perhaps?”

Alma smiles. “I will talk to them about it. Sage, I am sure, would love to know how his little friends are doing.”

“I am sure they would be very happy to see him again. Just a moment.” Ewá looks around. “Pirma, where is Ben? Bring him here please. Thank you.” The water boiling, she adds almost-black ground coffee, stirs it, and lifts it off the heat, pouring it into each cup through the filter, and then offers one to Alma.

Pirma brings a boy a little younger than herself, his hair cut very close, skin a shade lighter than Ewá’s. The demigoddess puts her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Sergeant, this is Ben. Say hello to Sergeant Alma, Ben.”

Ben mumbles something that might be a greeting, his eyes cast down.

Bom dia, Ben,” Alma says, before taking a sip of her cafézinho. She smiles in appreciation at Ewá but stays silent to hear, finally, the real reason she has been summoned.

“Ben was recruited into a gang who call themselves the Blood Sprayers,” Ewá explains. “Their leader is a demigod of no particular sphere, it seems, but he is strong and fast. Ben no longer wants to be part of their gang, and he came here of his own will. But yesterday I received a visit from the gang.”

“I see. They want their newest recruit back.”

Ewá nods, gently squeezing Ben’s shoulder. “And that will not happen.”

Ben mumbles, “I don’ wan’ make trouble…”

Ewá pets his close-cropped head. “You are no trouble at all, my dear. Sergeant Alma will set all to right.”

Alma sets her cup and saucer down on the kitchen table and bends to look Ben in the eye. “I will see to it that they don’t bother you anymore. Are there other children like you in this gang?”

Ben nods. “My brother, Temo. He don’ wan’ be with ‘em neither. But…”

“If it is in my hands, Ben, he will join you soon. Do you know where the gang usually hides?”

Ben looks up at Ewa, who smiles reassuringly, then looks at Alma. The child struggles with the ingrained resistance to tell the Guardia anything, a survival trait that, unfortunately, does not serve him well here. Ewá squeezes his shoulder gently again to encourage him, and Ben says, “They got a squat, house over past Madrigal, roof burnt on the corner a little…”

Ewá says, “I have it marked on a map.”

Alma smiles. “How lovely to have my work done for me. I will gather some backup and head over there as soon as possible. Meanwhile, do you need anything else?”

Ewá strokes Ben’s hair and whispers to him. He mumbles “‘brigado” to Alma and flees the room. “No, that is a great load off my mind, Alma.”

“It is what we are here for. Especially if it means destroying these gang shards, and those who pop up to emulate them. I am starting to think that it would have been easier if the Dukaines had held together.”

Ewá nods grimly. “They would be stronger, but now it is like battling an infestation of constantly multiplying cockroaches.” She pauses. “You know I would gladly act as backup, but…” She trails off with a sigh at the sound of another fracas breaking out back in the living room.

Alma chuckles. “You will probably be receiving more residents soon.”

Ewá accompanies her to the door and opens for her. “I am deeply grateful, Alma.”

Alma glances toward the roof of the building across the street, a look of worry crossing her face. Ewá looks as well, but sees nothing.

Alma smiles at Ewá. “About that gang…I would not worry about it for long. Or any other, really.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The short early-afternoon shadows fail to entirely eclipse the alleyway that Alma cuts through on her way back to the station. She strides half-in and half-out of the shade, the edge lined with the shapes of rooftops, balconies, anti-bird spikes, fluttering clothes on lines. Mentally she tsks as she catches movement of a shape that, in better days, would not have allowed itself to appear in shadow-casting sunlight.

She continues walking, however, allowing herself to be stalked. Only when the shadow attempts to leap a gap, again revealing itself, and slams chest-first into the edge of the next rooftop, requiring a desperate scramble to climb back to safety, does the goddess stop, turning to look up, and call out, “You like being hurt, don’t you?”

Ah, let her! Nekh squawks. If she falls and dies, at least you won’t have to hear her complain about being sick anymore.

Alma pays no attention to him. After a long silence, her stalker starts to climb down a rusty ladder, landing, stumbling slightly, then recovering to limp toward her. “What, this?” Saira says. “Ain’t nothin. Anyway, little birdie told me there was trouble brewing with that place.” She jerks her thumb back toward the orphanage.

Arms crossed, Alma asks, “And why would the little bird assume you wanted to know about the orphanage?”

Saira rolls her eyes. “‘Cause the little birdie is a great big galoot named Aliyah. I guess she’s the one told you about how Miss Prim and Proper wanted to talk to you?”

Alma shakes her head, turning to continue to the station. “Ewá,” she says.

“Huh? Sure, whatever.” Saira shrugs and tries to hide her limp as she trails Alma. “Kids sure are flockin’ to her.”

Alma glances discreetly at the woman, stifling a sigh. It feels like most of her mana has been spent in mending Saira’s injuries. Of course, this would be of no consequence if so many of them did not happen to be caused by Saira’s stubbornness in trying to heal faster than her body allows. But as it is, she keeps hurting herself trying to act like she is not hurt anymore!

Yeah, that ungrateful little bitch! You should just let her die!

Oh, shut up, Nekh! Alma retorts. Go choke on a bone!

To Saira, she says in mildly irritated tones, “She is doing a fine job with them. The house is becoming a safe harbor for wayward children. I am sure you have heard of such places, street child that you are.”

Saira nods. “Lived in one when I was a kid.”

“And it still did not keep you from the gang life,” Alma cannot help but mutter.

Ouch! Straight through the heart!

“That gang was my family.” Saira’s voice carries a sharp edge of warning.

This time, Alma does sigh as she stops walking and looks at Saira in silence for a moment. She had regretted her muttered words as soon as she spoke them but now that the wound is open, all she can do is cut into it to remove the rotting flesh that she feels keeps poisoning Saira’s mind.

“Where is your family now?” she asks, finally.

Glaring, her voice flat, the assassin replies, “You know better than me, Death Goddess.”

Alma looks at her impassively. “No, I don’t. Your gang is dead. Your family… Where they are is your choice, not mine.”

Saira stares at her sullenly for a long moment more, then snorts and casually breaks eye contact. She turns and continues limping. “Anyway…Miss Prim – Ewá ain’t gonna have to lose any sleep anytime soon.”

Alma walks with a slightly lengthened stride, catching up to Saira without any apparent rush. “No, she won’t. But not because of you. Return to the station. You are not ready for these things yet.”

Yeah, baby stays home with the sitter while the grown ups play! Nekh chimes in with a chuckle. Explosion in three, two…one…

“I’m fine! Think I ain’t been banged up before?” She reaches for a drainpipe and easily grabs it with one hand, hoists herself off the ground, starts climbing it like a creature of the rain forest, more arboreal than terrestrial – until a back spasm makes her curse and she falls half a story to the ground, landing off-balance and smacking down hard on her back. “…dammit” she whispers.

Nekh chuckles in Alma’s head. She can almost see the vulture-god standing in the street and pointing at the Saira. Taking a single step, she kneels next to the mortal. “Hold still,” she says quietly as she takes hold of Saira’s shoulder and puts a hand between the assassin’s shoulder blades. Her healing hands glow blue-green as a fresh-smelling breeze fills the alley. “You were saying?”

Saira mutters through clenched teeth. “Stupid demon venom…” She grabs Alma’s arm for support as the pain stops, bruises disappear, and muscles unlock.

Alma chuckles and kisses her cheek before helping Saira up to stand. “I love you too, dear.”

Saira is briefly at a loss for a reply, looking into Alma’s eyes with a confused but intense expression. Then she simply rises to her feet, swaying a little as she stands, and simply starts walking back in the direction of the Guardia station. “Yeah, well, I was wantin’ a beer anyway.”

“You would prefer some juice,” Alma suggests in a tone that implies Saira will have no choice at all in this matter. “And a banana.”

Saira rolls her eyes. “Yeah yeah… But hey, you know juice’ll kill you dead around these parts. Beer now, that’s healthy stuff. Full of vitamins and all that.”

Alma shakes her head. “Absolutely incorrigible. Come on, let us return to the station so I can check on these Blood Spitters or whatever they call themselves.”

“And whisky’s even better,” Saira continues. “But the best is this local stuff called cachaça. Made from sugar cane. Trust me, the good stuff is better than any rum.”