Ch6.41 Trust

The first day of Year’s End, and the Sun overhead seems well aware of it. The Urbis is awash with clashing traditions, but most of them agree that this day, the first of five, is a day for eating outdoors. Perhaps somewhere over the Insula, storm gods are mischievously ruining someone’s fun, but here in Three Rats they have stayed away, and today’s Sun seems determined to make the residents know that She is there with them.

She? Mayumi pushes her hair back from where it has fallen across her face and wipes the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. Everyone around here thinks of the Sun as male, and it’s true, the greater portion of those gods are. But where she grew up, in a quiet dream-district that had once been part of a land called Nihon, the Sun was worshipped as female. Mayumi, her knowledge of the nature of the Urbis Caelestis limited to little more than the people and the handful of gods of her ward, had not even realized that there was an entire clan of sun gods until her recent arrival in the waking world, suddenly finding herself in daily contact with people from very different cultures and beliefs and levels of knowledge about the nature of this bizarre mountain-universe. The fact that many of those people are members of her own family left her for some time even more off-balance, but she has, after many difficulties, come to a degree of peace with it.

And just in time to upend it all by leaving. As she unpacks the wicker basket filled with delicious rye sandwiches, empanadas of various kinds, still-warm potatoes wrapped in foil, fat triangles of onigiri riceballs, deep-fried acarajé, bowls filled with cut-up chunks of fruit, savory vada donuts, and more, she pauses to watch Kori and Chime kicking around a worn-out ball with their bare feet, Merri dashing between them to intercept and giving them a surprisingly good run for their money. Sky arrives through a magical portal that has been set up, wearing dark-green shorts and a flowery shirt, bearing with ease two huge watermelons, one on each shoulder. He smiles at her and she returns it, but that only provides a contrast to the melancholy she feels at the thought she will soon be leaving all this for six-tenths of a year, in pursuit of a dream of becoming Guardia.

Then as she watches the ball shoots right between Sky’s legs, closely pursued by Merri, Kori, and Chime. Sky spins like a drunk trying to dance, actually going up on one leg as Chime dashes beneath him. Mayumi bursts into laughter as the tall god barely recovers enough so as not to drop a melon.

“I have a feeling we could feed a small army with all we’ve brought.” Mayumi turns to look at Alma, bent to help her unpack the food and lay it out on a sheet. The goddess grins at her, with a brief glance toward Sky. “I’ll take care of this, Mayumi. It looks like Sky needs some help.”

Mayumi looks gratefully into her mother’s eyes. She knows what Alma is doing. Despite the goddess’ misgivings about her mortal child being involved with an immortal, she wants Mayumi’s happiness, and the Bunny doesn’t have much time before she leaves. Still, she hesitates until Alma insists. “Go on!” With a smile, Mayumi obeys.

“Need some help?” she asks Sky as she approaches.

The tall god looks happy to see her. “Just trying to figure out where’s best to put these. In the water?”

Mayumi nods. “If we put them there,” she says, pointing to the edge of the falls, where two rocks create a miniature pool big enough for the two melons, “they won’t float off and they will be cool until we’re ready to smash them.”

He follows her toward the waterfall. “Smash them? Not slice them up?”

“Oh we can slice them,” she says. “But when I was a child, we always took turns wearing a blindfold and trying to hit the watermelon with a stick to break it open.”

“Sounds messy,” he says, “but fun.”

“It is a little messy,” she agrees. She pulls her lightweight dress off over her head, folding it simply and setting it on the grass. The grey bathing outfit she is wearing underneath is not the one Cherry picked out for her. That one was tiny and…well she was going to keep it for some other time, when it is just family. Though as Cherry reasonably pointed out, why bother wearing anything at all in that case? But no, today she has on a more reasonable swimsuit, with a top more like a jogging bra and a bottom that provides a bit more coverage than the strings-and-a-scrap-of-cloth that Cherry favored.

She steps into the pool and reaches up to take the melon. Sky looks doubtful – each melon is almost as long as her torso – but he slips the first one off his shoulder and, bending to the side, lets her take it. Something about the way their muscles connect makes Bunnies stronger than humans of a similar size would be, especially in the legs, and while she does grunt with the effort, she manages to lower the melon safely into the water. The next one is easier, as Sky can use both hands.

As he helps her out of the water, her ears catch Cherry’s arrival through the portal, the Bunny complaining about the weight of the cooler full of beer and ice she is carrying. But Cherry is the strongest of them all, and isn’t really having trouble.

Suddenly a webbed hand grasps her ankle from beneath. A moment of childhood fear about the kappa, a carnivorous water spirit like a cross between a turtle and a duck, flashes through her, but surely the Oracle would not let such a creature live in her waters. Resisting the urge to kick, she looks back and sees a familiar face rising from the water.

“Boo!” Doria, half-naiad priestess of the Oracle, laughs and releases Mayumi’s leg.

“Priestess!” Mayumi is delighted to see her. Doria had been briefly a guest in Alma’s living quarters, back when all the Bunnies lived there together.

“Please, May – call me Doria. Hello, Inspector!” She smiles flirtatiously at Sky.

“A pleasure to see you again, Doria.” Sky’s voice is warm. “Is the Oracle joining us?”

“Of course she is.” A penetrating voice unfamiliar to Mayumi, bearing echoes of centuries that make the light fur on Mayumi’s forearms stand on end, emerges through the falls. A tall otherworldly figure follows it, her eyes white but not seeming the least bit blind, her skin showing fine iridescent scales at the curve of her jawline and on her temples, blue-green hair falling down past her shoulders and concealing her breasts. A diaphanous, scaly wrap skirt hanging loosely on her hips is her only clothing, aside from jewelry of gold and gems on her forearms and throat. “It seems we are late already.”

“The Oracle, late?” Doria asks with mock astonishment as she smoothly mounts the shore. “Impossible!”

“Oracle…” Sky’s voice is filled with respect. “Thank you for letting us hold our picnic here.”

“Oh, Tuma-Sukai,” she says with a laugh. “After what you did for me, and this ward? I owe you far more. And who is this?”

“This is Mayumi,” he replies.

Mayumi bows. “It is an honor to meet you,” she says humbly. She has heard that this is one of the most ancient goddesses still active on the Insula. Although she had heard that the Oracle took the form of a fish-tailed siren.

The Oracle must have caught Mayumi looking at her legs. Or perhaps Mayumi’s thoughts are easily snatched from the air by such a powerful goddess. In an amused voice, the Oracle says, “Taking on more form than one is not a rare ability for such as we.” It takes a moment for Mayumi to realize that the Oracle is speaking to her in the language of her childhood, with an easy fluency and a somewhat archaic dialect.

Sumimasen,” Mayumi says with a bow to apologize, though exactly for what she was not entirely sure. It’s just…how she was raised. When in doubt, apologize. Cherry makes fun of her for it, but Merri thinks it’s sweet. Mayumi herself sometimes finds it annoying, how easily she does it.

“Such a polite young woman,” a creaking, sardonic voice calls out. She turns and sees a face she has noticed on the streets of Three Rats more than once, but she has never done more than nod to this wizened, scraggle-bearded elder. She has noticed, however, that he resembles less a native son of Three Rats – as variegated as the residents of Three Rats are – and more a wise man straight from the ancient scrolls of her own ward.

He is approaching in the company of Alma, and shadowing them is a young woman who does not look happy to be there. She certainly looks like she could have grown up with Mayumi. Indeed, they are roughly the same age, though the woman is taller and lacks Mayumi’s non-human ears and tail. But the face is similar, and the woman is looking toward Mayumi with a similar curiosity.

Sky turns and says with a moderate bow, “Master Pak, welcome.”

Alma introduces the Oracle and Doria. Before she can introduce Mayumi, Pak interrupts her. “Ah, who does not know of Nevieve, the Oracle? It is a privilege to meet you.” He bows to her, but Mayumi cannot shake the feeling that his amused tone speaks of a shared joke between Pak and the Oracle, as if they have really known each other for quite some time.

She feels a cool hand on her shoulder. The Oracle says, “I might well say the same of you, Pak. But let me introduce my new-met acquaintance, Mayumi, who I believe will soon be a student at your old Academy.”

Mayumi’s eyes go wide. How does she know…? She dismisses the thought. Of course the Oracle knows. Mayumi bows and expresses her sense of honor at meeting a Guardia Academy instructor.

Pak smiles and then looks annoyed at Alma and Sky. “Why did you not tell me you had a recruit for the Academy? I could have trained her. Well, this is Kumiko. The Sergeant and the Inspector have already met her at my home. I believe she and Miss Mayumi speak the same tongue. Perhaps they would enjoy conversing in their native language.”

And with that the gods begin talking about the current state of affairs in Three Rats – though is Pak a god? It is hard to tell. Mayumi is tempted to stay nearby to listen in, but she can tell when the mortals are being dismissed. It is annoying but…Pak is right. She and Sky speak her language together sometimes, but he is rusty and inelegant, though his mistakes are often hilarious. It would be nice to talk with another native speaker.

She and Kumiko go off a little way, and Mayumi bows and introduces herself politely, to which Kumiko gives the correct response, her voice low. “Have you met any of the others?” Mayumi asks. When Kumiko shakes her head, Mayumi takes her toward the sheet of food. “How long have you been in Three Rats?”

“A few years,” Kumiko replies.

She seems uncomfortable, her words blunt, so Mayumi does not press for more information in that direction, instead opening the cooler. “Like something to drink? A beer?”

Kumiko looks at her quizzically. “You’re old enough to drink beer?” She has a rough way of speaking that makes Mayumi think she grew up in more difficult circumstances than herself. Her accent, too, is different from Mayumi’s. She adds ‘sa’ to the ends of sentences, something Mayumi has never heard before. A dialect of some kind.

“I’m not a child. Just shorter than most humans. Here.” She hands Kumiko a bottle after lifting the cap off with an opener, and opens one for herself. “Kanpai.

Kumiko raises her bottle in salute. “Kanpai.” As she takes a drink, Kori and Max, a human boy Mayumi knows from helping out at the orphanage, go running past them both, laughing, and leap into the water, making huge splashes. Ewá Nanã, smiling in the way she only smiles around the children under her protection, watches as she walks past Mayumi to go speak with the other gods nearer the falls. Merri and Cherry are prying Tulip away from Dion, who seems to want to join Alma, and getting her to join them in swimming. Sage and Aliyah are off to one side, kicking around Kori’s football and taunting each other.

Mayumi’s ears twitch back toward the waterfall. She turns her head a little to glance that way while sipping her beer. “Nothing better for a child who has grown too fast than a child who is yet to grow,” she hears Alma say. The goddess has left the little knot of immortals and is talking with Ewá Nanã, the two of them watching Kori and Max splashing around. “You look happier yourself,” Alma says to the tall lawyer-turned-foster-parent.

“I am,” Ewá replies. “But tired. I am glad we could place all the children with families just for a day or two of the New Year, and I’ve already heard that two will not be leaving those homes to return to us. Well, the family who had agreed to take in Max changed their minds… He has had a difficult time.”

“It cannot be easy at times, to be looking after so many children. But what you are doing is important.”

Ewá looks at Alma with a small smile. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. But at moments like this,” She looks back to see Max and Kori clambering out of the water and joining in on Aliyah and Sage’s game of ball, “it is the most satisfying.”

Alma squeezes Ewá’s hand. “I must return to the station now. We can’t leave it without a Dei presence for too long. But please enjoy yourself, and I will be back in a couple of hours.”

As Alma breaks away to walk toward the portal, the Bunny sees past Alma’s shoulder. Ewá is watching the goddess, knowing Alma can’t see her. Not aware she is being observed, Ewá gives a little sigh of longing and a rueful shake of her head. Oh… thinks Mayumi. Well. She manages to keep her giggle internal as she turns back to Kumiko. “Like to swim?” she asks.

Kumiko looks at Mayumi’s swimsuit. “Didn’t bring anything to wear.” She has on a loose blouse and a pair of shorts.

“We could go back to the station and get you something,” Mayumi suggests. “Merri has something that might–”

“No. I don’t want to swim.” Kumiko pauses for a moment and adds, “Pardon me,” though it does little to soften the abruptness.

“That’s all right.” Mayumi’s voice is a little smaller. But she feels a kinship with Kumiko that goes beyond language. The woman’s discomfort and resentment at having to be here reminds Mayumi of how she felt for weeks after waking in Three Rats – a feeling that has never entirely disappeared, though the love of those here have made it less painful. If that kinship will ever be more than a feeling… “Kumiko-san, this is the first time I’ve met anyone in this world who speaks my language as a native. Please…where do you come from?”

Kumiko looks at her as if evaluating, measuring. Mayumi wonders if she will measure up. But before Kumiko can decide how to answer, if at all, the gods from near the falls are returning. Gwydion says, “Excuse me, May,” as he reaches past her to fish two beers from the cooler, handing one to Sky and the other to Pak.

“Oh!” Mayumi grabs the bottle opener and hands it to him, then gets two more beers, giving one to Dion. The Sergeant tips it towards her in thanks as he, Sky, and Pak walk off, continuing to talk.

She offers the other to the Oracle – Nevieve? – who wraps her hand around Mayumi’s on the bottle. The Bunny feels a mild jolt, like a buzz passing through the goddess into her. She looks up to see the Oracle’s eyes glowing white.

Doria sees this and chuckles. “It’s normal to ask the Oracle a question, after giving her a gift.”

Mayumi cannot look away from Nevieve’s captivating eyes. They seem to fill her whole world, and she cannot think about what she wants to ask. So she simply asks without thought.

“Will I be with my family, after the Academy?”

As she hears her own words, she realizes that they spring from her fear that she will be assigned far away. But Three Rats needs Guardia, desperately, and the Guardia command usually honor requests to be stationed at hard-luck assignments like Three Rats, where nobody but a local would ask to be assigned.

Nevieve seems to enter a trance, her eyes glowing brighter. When she speaks, the words carry a deepening of that otherworldly, alien quality than before.

“You will be separated from them, but one will go with you. You will not return home until his child arrives.”

The light fades, and Nevieve blinks her white eyes as if she was unaware of her own prophecy.

Mayumi gapes at her. Then she remembers to breathe. “Ch-child?” It’s not possible. The Bunnies are all infertile, by order of the Council. And…separated? But someone…Sky? Am I going to have a child with him? It is not something she has seriously considered. They haven’t even made love, no more than kissing and cuddling and napping together on his sofa. Cherry and Merri couldn’t believe it when she told them, but going slowly has been a pleasure, infused with frustration though it has been. Agreeing to wait until after her graduation from the Academy – that has been harder. But there is a pleasure in delaying gratification as well. The lip-biting frustration, the restrained passion, has been, in its way, excruciatingly delicious.

She looks for him. There he is, Sky, laughing with Gwydion, practicing some kind of combat block while trying not to spill his beer, while Pak observes. He doesn’t seem to have overheard. Only the Oracle and Doria have heard…and Kumiko. The human woman is looking more uncomfortable than ever, her carefully neutral expression not quite successfully covering up a look of despair at being an unwilling eavesdropper.

The Oracle nods. “A child, yes. I am afraid I know no more than that. There were no details other than what I told you.”

It seems like a boilerplate answer that she has given thousands of times before. She must be used to seekers of prophecy who demand explanations. And so Mayumi holds her tongue, though she feels about to burst with questions, harsh, angry questions. Instead, she chokes out a thank you, then turns and ascends a slope to a ridge that leans almost over the water, little more than a body-length above it.

She sits, putting her forearms on her knees, resting her chin on her arms, staring out over the water where Merri and Cherry and Tulip are playing, but seeing nothing really, her thoughts in turmoil. Just as they escape one prophecy by fulfilling it – “In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon” – now here is another. Granted, it is much smaller. It will not get them executed. Or will it? A chill freezes her heart. A Bunny having a child without the permission of the Council…that could be enough to cause the Archons to vote for extermination. She groans and hangs her head, putting her forehead on her arms.

“Want to finish your beer?” The words are in Japanese. Mayumi lifts her head to see Kumiko, offering a half-finished bottle of beer with her left hand, holding her own in her right. Kumiko makes a subtle gesture, asking for permission to sit. Mayumi nods, and the woman sits beside her, putting a hand slightly behind her on the grass, legs stretched out straight.

They sit in silence for a time, taking the occasional sip. Then out of nowhere Kumiko says, “A Fourth Ring ward, far from here. About a quarter of the way around the Insula, maybe, to windward. My father refused to pay the gangsters.” She shakes her head and whispers, “Baka…” Fool. “They made an example of my family. Only reason I’m alive is I wasn’t home.”

Mayumi stays quiet, listening, watching. Kumiko isn’t looking at her. She takes another drink of beer, draining the bottle. For a moment she looks as if she’s going to throw the bottle, but she drops it next to her, on the grass.

“Then they did it again.” Kumiko’s voice is as neutral as she can make it, but the rage is there, like a roaring blaze hidden on the other side of a locked door. “Here, in Three Rats. Another gang. Killed my friends. Almost killed me.”

“Is that why you’re with Pak-sensei?”

Kumiko nods.

“I’m going away,” Mayumi says. “In a few days, I’m leaving.”

Kumiko looks at her, her eyebrows slightly raised to ask why Mayumi is mentioning this.

Mayumi shakes her head. “The people here…they care.”

“I don’t want anyone to care.”

Mayumi says nothing to this. She knows that Kumiko knows it is not entirely true. That she is here, sitting with her, gives the lie to it.

She finishes her beer. To Kumiko she asks, “Okawari?” Another? The woman looks a puzzled for a moment. Perhaps they don’t say that where she comes from. But she seems to understand after a second, and she shakes her head. Mayumi nods.

They remain next to each other, listening to the joking and the laughter and the playful screams, around and below their island of now-comfortable silence.

Ch5.52 Shards

“Hey Mistah! You Stathos?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whaaaat, no tip fer me?”

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

Without further hesitation, Stathos strides out the door.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

His victims. Oh his myriad victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Really, it’s all right.”

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Dion is already running into the station.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

Aire, he surmises. Just a draft.

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

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

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

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

Carefully, Cala opens the door.

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

Doria goes pale. “What…?”

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

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

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

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

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

Ch5.51 Shards

“Ewá Nanã, Seeker of Justice, Guardian of Truth, Voice of the Ketu and lately Eye of the Council, has come to seek guidance from the Oracle!” In announcing the visitor, Doria’s voice is not loud, but it carries throughout the tunnels of the grotto. The pale naiad priestess turns to Ewá with a bright smile, her hair and one-piece bathing outfit perpetually damp. “Don’t be nervous,” she says in a softer tone. “I’ll see you out when you’re done.” She turns and slips into the stream that runs toward the mouth of the Oracle’s underground temple, her broad shoulders and powerful back muscles flexing as she swims without effort through the water.

The advice is well-meant but only heightens Ewá’s tension. The stories she has heard about the Oracle paint her in so many different ways: transcendentally wise, mind-gaming schemer, maternal figure, empire toppler, majestic, over-proud, savior, traitor. Some of the factions within Ewá’s clan originated the very day the Oracle abandoned the Ketu, and though they appear united to outsiders, within they are riven into ever-shifting alliances and oppositions.

Thus it is that after parting with Sergeants Alma and Gwydion at the Little Falls portal, she took care of her immediate business. She had to wake up her soon-to-be landlady in order to rent a certain house, and then rouse a shopkeeper down from his upstairs apartment so that he would reopen his clothing store just for her. This all cost her extra money, but she was being well funded. Fortunately a flower shop and then a bakery – she had tasted Kyri’s pastries and was not surprised to learn that the Oracle enjoyed them – were both open, and she was able to acquire those without additional effort.

And now she is present, her tall form draped all in white satin, her hair held back by the white sash hugging her head just behind the ears, only her dark-brown feet, arms, and face revealed in striking contrast. Holding a wicker basket filled with pastries and flowers, she walks barefoot into the center of the chamber, the surrussation of the rustling folds of her clothes and the dripping of water echoing off the walls.

Then she hears movement in the water, like a large fish swimming languorously. In the echoes of the water drops, she hears her own name, “Ewá…”

Hiding her nervousness, she says forthrightly, “Honored Oracle, I come with offerings to seek your wisdom. And your blessing.”

“Come closer, Ewá.” There is still no one to be seen.

Trying not to think of all those stories of people who obeyed such entreaties from mermaids and ended up drowned, Ewá moves nearer to the pool. She sees faint sinuous shadows swimming deep within the pool, at first seeming like the tentacles of a single creature, then separating into three, one pale and glowing greenish-blue in the dark, its profile traced in faint lines of light; another of iridescent gold, its scales glinting and scattering the light from its ghostly sibling; and a third, larger, of light-devouring black, its head sporting sharp spikes. They rise from the depths. Six pairs of eyes spy Ewá. The largest opens its long, fang-filled maw and hisses at her, but the pale one nudges it, and the dark one falls silent with a sidelong glance at the other two.

Still, no Nevieve.

Then two cool hands are on her shoulders from behind. Ewá Nanã prevents herself from gasping only by pressing her lips tightly shut, but the sudden intake of breath through her nose betrays her. She stands still, however, not turning.

“What is your question, firefly?” the Oracle asks, her mouth near Ewá’s ear.

She closes her eyes to regain calmness. “It is not exactly a question. I have come to ask, Oracle, for your blessing.”

The Oracle walks around her. Of course she has legs, Ewá reminds herself, when she wishes. “My blessing? And what is it you wish me to bless?” The Oracle is wearing a rainbow-like sari as a shawl over a dress of simple design but of the metallic blue and searing white of tropical birds.

“Being who you are, I am sure you have already seen why I am here in Three Rats, Ancestress. I have been sent by the Ketu. Or by…some in the Ketu. They have their agenda, to bring this lost fragment of our family back to the fold.”

The Oracle hooks one finger under the handle of the basket Ewá carries and takes it, glancing into it and smiling. “Yes, divine presumption will never cease to amaze me. But you–” She turns and touches a fingertip gently to Ewá’s forehead, “–have another idea.”

On one level, the lawyer feels welcomed by all this physical nearness and outright contact, and on another, terrified. This is one of the most powerful deities remaining in the Insula, after so many, as they age past a thousand years or more, quietly disappear. So many of the truly ancient gods have gone off, who knows where? But the Oracle is one who has remained within the memory of all but the very few as ancient as she.

And Ewá Nanã was always a strange one, according to her mother, her aunts, and so many others of her enormous, extended family, mortal, immortal, and like herself, mixed. Mortals and demigods in her family would speak to the gods as dear friends, beloved parents. But Ewá had always had a reserve in her, a deep separation from others. It was not that she did not love them. But when she tried to express it, her voice faltered, her words shattered and stuck in her throat like glass.

That stutter, her shame, had made its return around the Bunnies, recently. She controls her breathing and makes certain to speak clearly. “I do. This ward needs help, yes. But I am not certain that our clan knows the best way to help it. The Ketu’s intentions are noble. Their understanding is not always perfect, however.” She pauses a moment, then decides to say what she is not certain she should say. “Especially since you chose to leave us.”

The Oracle smiles, her white eyes shining brighter in the dim light for an instant. Ewá marvels at her strange beauty: the way her skin is smoothly dark – though lighter than Ewá’s – and human, and at the same time made of tiny, beautiful scales, depending on how the light hits it at the moment. “Why stay and waste advice on those who wish only to be told that they are right?” She straightens slightly. “You are still to tell me that for which you want my blessing.”

“I wish to live here,” Ewá says. “To contribute to this community. To be part of it. To learn its nature. And I wish to help. And perhaps, after a time, I will find that those who sent me are wiser than I understood, and I will try to guide the gods and mortals of this ward into their arms. Perhaps not. Or perhaps there will be some third way. But I ask for your blessing on this endeavor. And if you have any advice, Ancestress, I will listen.”

“Then you will be the first of your kind in a long time.” The Oracle turns away and walks to the edge of the pool. “Do you know what happens to a drop of ink in the water?”

Riddles. Yes, Mother had warned her about the riddles. “It disperses. If there is enough water, it becomes as if it never was.” She can almost hear her mother: Ewá Nanã, you are always so literal!

The Oracle sets down the basket and allows her sari to slide off her shoulders into it. “And if there isn’t?”

“Then it changes the water in noticeable ways. It leaves its mark.” Ewá resists an urge to tell the Oracle to beware the serpents in the pool.

The Oracle steps into the water, she unbuttons her dress at the breast. “Ah, but look closer, Ewá. Whether you can still see it or not, the ink does not disappear. Whatever the outcome, ink and water cannot remain unchanged. Remember that.” She pulls off the dress as she descends hidden stairs in the water, sliding it over her head in perfect time so that she reveals nothing but her bare back as she enters the water and leaves the dress dry on the edge. “And do not expect to taint these waters until you bear their mark,” she says as she disappears into the water.

Ewá Nanã stands where she is for a long minute, unsure whether she has been given a blessing or a rebuke, then puts her hands together, bows her head, and whispers, “Thank you, Ancestress,” and withdraws.

As she is about to move out of the chamber and into the passage leading back to the entrance to the grotto, the Oracle’s voice echoes softly from every surface, “It has been some time since there has been a school in Three Rats.”

Startled by the sudden, almost casually added comment, Ewá stops and says, “Yes, Ancestress.”

“Next time you visit,” the directionless voice reverberates, “bring more of those pastéis. And call me by my name, menina.”

“Yes…Nevieve.”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 23

The coolness is the first sensation to hit. It transcends the skin and bypasses bone, moving straight to the mind, triggering memories of being submerged. The air feels as thick as water. And yet, it is lighter, breathable, insubstantial, like a faint ghost of the elemental liquid.

Then, there is the darkness.

No.

Not darkness, per se. There is light here. Things are visible here. There is just nothing to be seen. It is a dark light, maybe, a deep light that speaks of unfathomable abysses and hidden places. It goes well with the apparent absence of sound.

Floating in this strange atmosphere, Alma feels the cool touch of the ghostly water on her neck and scalp, as her hair flows around her in an intricate, almost weightless dance. There is nothing here, it seems, except for the quiet of one’s breathing and constant seeping of thoughts away from the mind and into the distance. The report, the Bunnies, Nekh, Sky, Gwydion, each flow far and away from her, into temporary oblivion. Lost to existence, to worry, to time, the goddess closes her eyes and lets the sweet abandonment wash over her.

It has been a long time… a voice invades her thoughts. Since you have last been at peace.

The young goddess opens her eyes to find the Oracle idly floating before her, her long, iridescent tail curving and swaying in its insubstantial medium.

Nevieve tilts her head at Alma. Has it not?

The goddess opens her mouth to reply but the apparent nothingness fills it, robbing her of her words and almost even of air. Alma panics for a moment as she feels her breath being sucked away by this strange sensation of void, her eyes widening in alarm, both her hands clutching her throat as it seems to lock shut, her mouth opening and closing like a fish suddenly caught out of water. Smiling the smile of one who is used to this, the Oracle moves closer, wrapping her tail around Alma’s legs and covering her mouth with a slender webbed hand. The strangely slippery touch to her lips soothes the goddess and Alma realizes that, although there seems to be no air, she currently feels no need for it either. As she relaxes and regains composure, the Oracle lets go of her.

Speak with thoughts, child. Nevieve instructs. I will hear yours as you hear mine. Now, tell me, how long has it been since you have last tasted peace?

Peace is a rare treat for those entrusted with heavy burdens, Alma replies, all the sadness in the world seemingly pouring into her deeply blue eyes.

True… The Oracle concedes, her hand now resting on Alma’s pale chest. And what a heavy burden you carry within your heavy heart.

A sudden image of her Bunnies lying senseless on the floor fills Alma’s mind. It is gone in a flash, so quickly that the goddess almost feels the whiplash of its disappearance.

The note… she thinks with difficulty. If she had been breathing, she would be wheezing. It was you, wasn’t it?

And why would I write you a note when I can just call you to me? Nevieve replies nonchalantly, swimming away from and around Alma.

The young goddess turns to look at the siren, now floating gently behind her, the bright gaze of those white eyes lost more in time than in space. A frail, distant, metallic, dull scent of blood and death fills Alma’s senses, for some reason, as if she could taste blood yet to be spilt, lives yet to end. The sensation sends a chill down her spine as her fear takes on a less urgent, more ominous quality.

I am lost, Nevieve, Alma pleads. My children will be paying for my mistakes with their lives and I… She shakes her head in doleful solemness. I have only one card left to play and it may have failed me already.

The thing about the cards of life, child, the Oracle states, is that the deck is undefined. We seldom know how many cards there are until all are on the table. She fixes the full force of her radiant gaze on Alma. And not all of them are yours to play.

Her patience growing thin, Alma hides her face in her hands, rubbing her eyes and cheeks in frustration. Her thoughts grow an edge of tension as she throws them at the Oracle. I don’t have the luxury of time to watch that game be played, Nevieve.

On the contrary, child, Nevieve retorts, drawing circles as she swims leisurely around the young goddess. You have time. What you don’t have is a place at the table, she adds, pausing to tap Alma’s nose with the tip of a scaly, slippery finger.

Alma turns away at this. There is one who can still play on my behalf.

Oh, there are many who can play on your behalf, the Oracle notes conversationally. Whether you trust them to or not. The question is: Are you relying on the right players and on the right cards, child?

The image of her Bunnies lying unconscious flashes again, this time followed by a familiar magical scent and a strange sense of feeble protection. Alma quickly shakes it away.

I can’t afford to lose, Oracle, she states.

Nevieve smiles at this and releases the young goddess. Then remember, firefly: the strongest trump card is the one that plays itself.

And then the Oracle is gone, time returns to its axis and Alma surfaces from the depths of her own pool, howling her frustration into the protective bosom of her sanctum. Her hair plastered against her cheeks, she looks up to find the youngest of her Bunnies staring at her in placid curiosity, her eyes empty of fear or comprehension. The sight of her brings a sad grin to Alma’s lips.

“You know, little one,” she says. “For once, I wish that gods weren’t so thoroughly… complicated.”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 1

They walk down a wide spiral staircase, their steps resounding off the marble flooring. Studded with glowing crystals, the yellowish stone-lined walls give a sense of progressive coolness, as if by climbing down the stairs one is moving away from the light of day and its warmth.

“This place is beautiful but so eerie, my lady,” Doria comments, looking around nervously while carrying an ornate brass basin decorated with a motif of shells and sea serpents.

“Some seem to believe the Council should not gather under the light of day,” Nevieve says, a smile dancing on her lips. “Our matters are to be kept our own, they say,” she adds, glancing at the brass jug of pure, clean water she’s carrying, a perfect match to the basin.

“You don’t agree,” Doria states, rather than asking.

“I don’t agree,” the Oracle echoes. “But, as they say, sound likes to travel down, not up.”

As they reach the bottom of the stairs a pair of unfriendly-looking guards in golden armor welcome them with a low bow and open a tall, narrow door for them. Beyond it, dusk and twilight await.

Doria falls behind while Nevieve gently makes her way across a narrow white marble ledge that gradually widens into a teardrop-shaped platform supported from below by a slender pillar. In the dimly lit room, the white stone of the platform appears to glow with a light of its own and Nevieve, in long, figure-hugging aqua-green, stands in the middle of it like a luminescent coral. Below her, and around the platform, a moat as deep as the volcanic crater of the mountain that is the Insula whispers and moans its old age. Around her, curved walls limit a wide, round room. Carved on the walls, balconies illuminated by soft lights open in two offset rows like honeycombs in a beehive. Each balcony harbors an Archon, Nevieve knows, their names known more than their faces seen in the dusky Council room. Right now, they grumble and whisper to each other in idle gossiping, waiting for their attention to be drawn by more pressing issues.

The Oracle lets them wait some more, raising her eyes to the hushed voices coming from above. Up there, high above ground and under the warm light of day, is the Senate, a round structure of benches built around a central arena, where bills are presented and issues brought forward for discussion by the dozens of senators that argue and haggle their way through each minor piece of law. Their hushed voices reach the Council room, muffled by distance. There is no ceiling here. Above Nevieve, a number of magical filters are all that separates this space from the arena high above, all that keeps what is said here within confined to these walls.

The voices from above sound slightly louder now, but only because every soul in the room has gone quiet. As Nevieve lowers her gaze to focus on the Archons all around her, sitting behind their balconies, she finds them in complete silence, awaiting keenly and curiously for her to reveal what it is that has made her summon this extraordinary Council meeting. Calling Doria to her side with a subtle hand gesture, the Oracle softly instructs her to lay the basin at her feet and then leave the room. The moment the great doors close behind Doria, Nevieve leans over the basin and fills it with water from the jug she still carries. Even without any spoken incantations, the water immediately starts to glow white with an icy-blue edge to it, its light spreading across the room in a shimmering, translucent curtain. Putting the jug down on the ground by her side, Nevieve breathes deep and raises her voice to speak.

“My fellow Archons, I come to you with a warning and a vision.”

From one of the balconies, hidden by the watery haze, a female voice replies, serene and pleasant, “Speak, then, Oracle. What have your eyes seen?”

“My eyes have seen a future not distant when the Council will be without one of its own,” Nevieve states, to a choir of half disappointed grumbles.

“This Council has seen Archons come and depart before, Nevieve,” the voice notes, hushing all others. “Why should we be troubled for it?”

“Death will come for an Archon in this Council,” Nevieve says, tilting her head. “Has this happened before, pray tell?”

The Oracle glances down at the basin and, suddenly, the light pouring from it vanishes. In its place, shadows appear, crawling out of the basin, spreading around the room like black ink in a glass of water.

“Death?” the voice of Archon Dergallin sounds, confused and surprised.

“The clan?” Archon Anura asks from her balcony.

“The god?” Archon Kadmyl ventures in his strong, deep voice.

“They cannot be trusted, the lot of them!” Archon Eriseth immediately cries, her voice rising in slithering accusation. “I have been saying so for eons, now!”

“Wait! Do you mean an Archon can be killed?” Archon Chanti queries in obvious shock.

“What kind of weapon would one need to eliminate an Archon?” Archon Enki inquires, the voice of his wisdom ringing pure and calm.

“In the hands of a bunny, the weapon will come,” Nevieve replies, soft and serene.

“What do you mean, a bunny?!” Archon Eriseth snaps.

“Did she…did she seriously say a bunny?” Archon Taleloc jests, his incredulous laughter booming like thunder in the great chamber. “You should check the water in which you bathe, lest it be tainted with alcohol, goddess! Bunnies killing gods?! That is ridiculous!”

At a wave of the Oracle’s hand, the shadows spreading across the room twist and gather, taking exotic shapes of tall rabbit-eared creatures with long legs and slender figures, that hop around in the air, perching at times on the balcony rails, tilting heads with expressionless faces at the Archons as if mocking their ignorance. Then, suddenly, they all jump and gather at the center of the room, just above Nevieve’s head, their strange bodies standing in a circle, back to back, glaring without eyes at the assembled Council members, like killers waiting for an order to attack.

“We are the great and the ancient! How can an Archon be killed?!” Archon Chanti insists.

“Unheard of!” Archon Dergallin cries.

“Impossible!” Archon Ikenga grunts from his seat.

“In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon,” Nevieve states, sure and true. “This much I have seen, this much will come to pass. Ignore me at your own risk.”

And without further explanation, the Oracle turns and makes her way out of the room. Behind her, the shadows of her “bunnies” dissolve slowly as the Archons argue and fear for their own fates.

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The glow in Nevieve’s white eyes flickers as her attention returns to the present. By the edge of the pool, in front of her, Doria patiently awaits with a plate of fresh fruit for her lady.

“Looking into the future, my lady?” the naiad asks as Nevieve approaches the pool’s edge.

“The past, my dear,” the Oracle replies, slowly shaking the memory of that long gone Council gathering from her head. “Remembering words said a long time ago, right before we came to dwell here.”

“We left much behind…” Doria nearly whispers, suddenly looking pensive and melancholic. “But why remember now?” she inquires.

Nevieve smiles and takes an apple from the plate. Around her, the nagas surface and look at the fruit with curious eyes. While Doria whispers an “I’ll feed you soon too,” the blue-green ethereal naga so closely bound to Sergeant Alma’s essence lowers its serpentine head and brushes a cheek against Nevieve’s, making the Oracle’s smile widen.

“Because it is now that Fate will prove me right,” she states, half-turning to pet the naga. “Is it not, little one?”

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 61

Most of the night has gone by, a night of painful revelations, of ill-spoken words and inconvenient rendez-vous… It has taken her a long, lonely walk through the ward to process the full meaning of May’s words, of her betrayal. And Sky’s… Alma shakes her head and looks down at the package in her hands, carrying the Copper Pot logo. It wasn’t Kyri’s fault she got sucked into the lie, after all…

Now, Alma faces the running waters of the Waterfall, looking at her own image reflected on each and every drop of water that passes her on its downward path. She breathes deep and repeats the sacred words.

“Voice of the waters whisper to me, show me a glimpse of things to be.”

The falling waters part to allow the goddess entrance to the Oracle’s grotto and she steps in, carrying her offerings. The silence that often reigns in this temple, broken only by the occasional drop falling into the deep pool where the Oracle lives, greets her in a friendly embrace, filling her with a welcome sense of peace. Walking among the great columns that support the grotto’s ceiling, sculpted over the years by the constant, never-ending dripping of the mineral-rich waters that seep through the grotto’s stony ceiling, she proceeds to the Oracle’s pool. She sees the tall altar meant for offerings along the way, wrapped in the perpetual twilight of the room, but ignores it as she walks to the edge of the pool. Somewhere in the darkness, a play of shadow and light confirms that the nagas are still keeping the Pearl constantly under their watch.

A short, low ledge protrudes into the pool, sitting just above the water, and it is here that Alma kneels and deposits the small cardboard box, carefully wrapped in waxed string, containing her offering. The goddess undoes the string and opens the box, setting down to wait for the lovely and alluring scent of Kyri’s delicious freshly-baked pastries to fill the air.

She doesn’t have to wait long before hearing the water rippling with the graceful movements of  Nevieve’s tail. The Oracle surfaces just beyond the very edge of the ledge, smiling at the marvelous aroma of Alma’s offering and coming to rest, elbows resting on the dry stone, with her upper torso out of the water.

“Hello, child,” she says, her clear, melodious voice reminding Alma of a stream singing its way through a peaceful garden during a spring day. “I was expecting you.”

“I have heard these are your favorite,” Alma replies, gesturing toward the box with a slight wave of her hand.

“Yes. Kyri’s pastries make for a rather strange offering.” Nevieve takes in the delicious scent of the freshly-baked pastries with a contented smile. “But a delightful one, I’ll confess.” She takes one in her hand and pushes the box toward Alma. “Please, do join me.”

“I thought only the Oracle was supposed to take the offerings.”

“Well, once I accept them, they are mine to give away, no?” Nevieve asks with a kind smile. “And your offering is welcome. Now, please, join me. I imagine it has been a while since you’ve last eaten.”

“A while, yes,” Alma concedes, choosing a delicately decorated, apple-sauce-filled pastry. “Thank you.”

“So, tell me, child,” Nevieve asks in a conversational tone. “What question do you bring before the Oracle?”

Alma remains in silence for a long time, making the simple consumption of the delicious pastry look like something of a century-old religious ritual.

“Why aren’t you dwelling in the First Ring?” she finally inquires. “You were once an Archon, after all.”

Nevieve looks at her for a moment before replying. “Is that really the question that brings you here?”

Alma resumes silence again, thinking of how unwise it would be to lie to the Oracle. “No.”

Nevieve slowly nods her head in agreement, picking another pastry from the box and consuming it slowly. “I didn’t think so either,” she notes after a moment. “Well, child, I did dwell in the Inner Ring for a long time. I had power and I had glory, and an enormous temple full of servants,” she explains, her voice denoting no nostalgia or loss at the memory.

“Then why did you leave? Is that not all a god could aspire to?”

“Oh, child, is that all you think that matters?” The Oracle looks at Alma with an expression full of pity and melancholy. “A title and a nicely-located temple? Servants and things?” She sighs at Alma’s confusion. “Tell me, Alma, when you wake up each morning, is that what fills your mind?”

Alma considers her words for an instant, images of the Bunnies and of the Station staff popping into her mind in response to the Oracle’s question. An image of the Three Rats neighborhood hovers at the edge of sight as she slowly shakes her head. “I guess not. It just happens to follow me to sleep each night.”

Nevieve looks deep into the goddess’ eyes, her colorless gaze appearing to Alma like bottomless pools into which all her thoughts soon rush to dive. The rhythmic motions of the Oracle’s long, scaly tail gently emerging from and diving into the water turn into a soft lullaby in Alma’s ears, merging with the mesmerizing effects of that alluring gaze as she stares, unresisting, into Nevieve’s eyes. As they cross through her mind, headed straight into those endless pits, some of Alma’s thoughts, secret and forbidden thoughts, awake her from the Oracle’s hypnotic gaze, making her look away in nervous urgency.

Nevieve smiles simply as the young goddess struggles to keep her thoughts to herself. “Well, it didn’t fill mine either,” the Oracle states, finally breaking the silence. “I woke up each day to nothing more than that. I could go for years without seeing a single worshipper. I was powerful and yet… I was completely out of touch with the source of my power, the people. I was precious but useless. Worshiped, but not loved. So, one day I just left. Doria was the only one that followed me – all others were too accustomed to the luxurious First Ring life to give it up.” She shrugs. “I don’t blame them. I don’t miss them, either. Here, I can be worthy of the prayers I receive. Here, I can shape the future and not just watch it unfold.”

“I see. My clan has worked and fought so hard and for so long for a place in the First Ring… Father has always tried with such ardor to become an Archon. I just…” Alma says with a sigh. “I find it very difficult to bend my mind around your words.”

“Well, child, maybe you have been pursuing someone else’s dream for so long that you’ve forgotten to find a dream for yourself.” Nevieve smiles kindly at the younger goddess. “Still, I refuse to believe that Lyria has brought a child into this world and forgotten to teach her how to dream.”

“You know my mother,” Alma states, not a hint of doubt in her voice.

Nevieve nods. “And your father, and your brothers, and every creature that has ever set foot on Urbis Caelestis.” She turns and gestures toward the pool. “Tell me, Alma, what is it that you want? What do you see in your future?”

Alma exhales deeply and hangs her head. “Nothing, Oracle. I see nothing in front of me and very little around me,” she confides. “All my life I have walked in the shadows and yet…” The goddess shakes her head. “I have never been so blind.”

“Ah, yes,” Nevieve nods slightly. “Finally I hear the question you have come to ask.” She lowers head until her lips hover just above the pool’s mirror-like watery surface and blows into the water, making it ripple for a moment. “Look into the waters of this pool. What do you see?”

“Nothing but ripples in the water, Oracle,” Alma replies obediently.

“Very good,” Nevieve notes. “The future is pretty much like these waters. You can’t see much in it other than ripples and swirls when the winds of change are blowing over it. But wait for them to settle down…” The Oracle indicates the clear, now absolutely calm water with a wave of her hand. “And suddenly, the veils lift and what lies beneath them becomes clear again.”

“Why won’t they settle down, then?”

“Why don’t you?” Nevieve touches Alma’s forehead with a wet finger in soft admonishment. “For a long time, you have moved and changed and left your original path for another, less-travelled one. So often and so suddenly  that I have not been able to see you, no matter where I look.” Her smile fades as she says, “You keep blowing on the water, child. Settle down to wait and let your fate come to you.”

“You’re not the first person to tell me that,” Alma concedes as her lips twist in a sad smile.

“Then why don’t you listen? And while you’re at it, tell your friends to listen too. You all have a rather interesting destiny to settle into. One where all you know will be seen under a new light.”

Nevieve’s words hit Alma like an ice-cold wave, sending chills down her spine. The wheels of her thoughts begin to turn into the dark corners of her mind, as her fears rise to the surface.

“What is it that you have seen, Nevieve?” she asks, her voice denoting her nervousness. “Oracle, please. Are we in danger?”

Nevieve shakes her head slowly, her tail flipping idly in the water. “You have asked your question, Alma. And you have been given an answer. You only get one of those for each time you come here. But I will tell you this: You and your friends are very interesting creatures. Unfortunately, in this world ‘interesting’ often means ‘short-lived’.” She pushes the now empty box of pastries away from her. “All the more so if one such creature insists on standing alone against Fate.”

“Can I trust them to stand by me, Nevieve?”

“Well, you really don’t have an option now, do you?” The Oracle smiles, raising herself slightly out of the water and stretching out a hand to hold Alma’s chin in a gentle grasp. “Trust your friends to stand by you, child,” she says as she brings her face closer to Alma’s, her eyes never leaving those of the young goddess. “Trust them to stand by you or trust yourself to fall without them,” she advises as she lets go and submerges again, disappearing into the deep, dark waters of the pool.

Alma awaits in silence, trying to catch a glimpse of the Oracle among the peaceful waters of the pool. Yet the silence remains unbroken, and the stillness of the water betrays nothing of Nevieve’s presence. The goddess sighs and gets up. She walks back towards the entrance of the grotto, leaving perpetual twilight behind her and taking more questions than answers on her way out.

This script is sponsored by Kyri’s Pastries. Kyri’s Pastries: If it’s not Kyri’s, it’s CRAP!

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 54

“Sky?”

At the Oracle’s voice, Sky pauses and looks around. The look on her face is clear: she wants to have a word with him alone. He looks back at his sergeants, and seeing their expressions of curiosity, he nods at them, signalling them to go ahead. “I’ll meet you at the station,” he says. “Though the water will run clean now, there is still much to do. Please take care of things until I return.”

He watches them leave, then reluctantly turns to face Nevieve. “Yes, my Lady?” Her eyes seem to pierce through him. He maintains a formal, impassive expression, but inside he has to fight down an urge to scream with terror.

She looks at the Pearl, back in its place, and the nagas swimming around her. “Again, I would like to thank you. For everything.”

“It is a pleasure for me to do my duty successfully. There is no need for thanks.” He feels marginally pleased that he keeps a tremor out of his voice.

“Ah, but there is. The Dukaines almost won, Sky. Against me…”

Sky stays silent at the suppressed fury that colors the latter words. Then choosing his words carefully, he says, “I asked someone today, what kind of power it would take to corrupt the Pearl. Tell me…we are up against someone of great power, are we not?”

She locks eyes with him and smiles. “You are rising to a very… interesting destiny, little demon.”

He looks back, some of his fear turning to annoyance with her mischevious smile. “So…you are friends with Lyria, I take it?”

“Lyria? Of course, the goddess of Life! Alma’s mother. The beautiful First Ring goddess who married Death. I remember that scandal…”

“She calls me ‘little demon’ as well. I have to admit, it makes me…uncomfortable.” He sounds less uncomfortable than angry.

She swims up to the edge of the pool and rests her arms there. “That you are being called something you are?” she asks, tilting her head. “Or something you fear to be?”

Sky’s face darkens with swirling tattoos that stain it. He looks away, fighting for control over his emotions, and after a moment, he wins. His face clears, and he looks back at her.

“So you do know.”

She rests her chin on her arms. “We are all our own demons, Sky. Just as we are our own gods. You are what you decide to be. You have proven yourself that very same truth throughout the years, have you not?”

“I…tell myself that. Yet I know that if my past were ever exposed, I would be reviled, stripped of my rank, imprisoned…and returned to Hell. I am ever on the edge of a precipice. Even those I care for…I cannot tell them.”

“How will they know where to look for you, then? Should you go amiss.”

That freezes him. “Is that a vision of my future? Am I to go amiss?”

She shrugs. “Not everything I say is a vision of the future, Sky.”

“But you don’t say it’s not.” He waits, but when she merely looks at him with that mysterious little smile on her face, he sighs and spreads his hands in surrender. “Very well, then. What does my future hold, Oracle? It is a question that I hesitate to ask. But I suppose that I am here, now, for a reason. And so I ask.”

She looks at him for some time, her eyes changing, their burning white fading ever so slightly for a moment. She knits her brow, then says as her eyes return to normal, “I see very little of your journey. The magic you use to hide your true form from others hides more than just your physical form; it also keeps your soul from my sight.” She pushes herself upright, hands on the edge of the pool. “If you want me to see your future,  you must drop your defenses. I must see you, Azzageddi.”

He looks very grim at this, almost flinches at the use of his true name, but after a moment he removes his hat, then slips off his jacket. As he begins to unbutton his brightly floral shirt, the Oracle laughs and playfully states, “If you are planning to take a swim with me I must warn you the water is always quite cool here.”

“My true form is somewhat larger than this one,” he says. “These clothes would not survive the transformation.” He slips his shoes off, then turns away to remove his trousers and remaining clothes. As he does so, his skin once again begins blooming ink-stains of writhing tattoos. They spell out the paired-opposite meanings of the name he has adopted, and tell a story in a script legible to few outside the prison called Hell, the story of Sky’s life, of tortures in Hell, the betrayal of his mission in the Caelestis Urbis, even his time on Earth, being worshipped on an island, and later fighting wars across the surface of that world.

Then his back begins to warp as his spine bends, as bones are pushed aside to make room for wings that claw their way out of his skin. He falls to one knee, gritting his teeth against the pain, his bones and sinew thickening, lengthening. He feels the weight on his head as heavy horns grow out of his skull, splitting his skin. His jaw lengthens, teeth shift and grow, claws scrape the stone floor. A tail lashes and smacks the floor with a loud slap.

The tattoos expand until his skin is a matte inky black, then new, crimson tattoos rise from beneath, telling a different tale: the story of Hell. How the devils ruled the Insula and, from it, many other worlds for untold eons, until the gods found a way to overthrow them and imprison them in Hell, and how the devils and their demonic armies would one day take back what was theirs and exact the most exquisite vengeance that they, in their timeless confinement of constant inventive torture, could imagine.

Sky rises, and though hunched over, he is more than twice as tall and far more massive than before. He turns to face the Oracle. Ramlike horns curve back from his brow, over a draconic face that strongly resembles that of the naga he helped hatch. The muscles of his shoulders and chest are greatly expanded to support and power the leathery wings that stretch across the chamber, nearly filling it, blocking most of the light, casting a deep shadow over the Oracle. Out of that shadow, his eyes shine with a blue-green phosphorescence that recalls monstrous fish from the deepest pelagic trenches.

The nagas splash in the water, Dion’s and Alma’s screeching protest and challenge, while Sky’s remains calm, gazing upon him, attentive. The Oracle moves back slightly, then seems to steel herself.

Forrrrrgivvvve me,” he rumbles. His abyssal voice causes the water to tremble, the stones to creak. “I am sorrrrrry to vvvvvviolate this holy sanctummmmmm with mmmy corrrrrruptionnnnnn.

The Oracle remains silent for a moment, then smiles and says, “It is no more than I asked for. Thank you, Azzageddi, for showing me this other side of your complex self. ”

I ammmmmm nnnnnno demmmmonnnn, you knnnnnnow,” he growls. The hallowed stone of the grotto moans in protest.

“No,” she says, her face still showing a pleasant, appeasing expression, “of course not. You are certainly not little, either.”

Demmmmonnnnnnzzzzzz arrrrrrrre slavvvvvves.” He does his best to quash the fury rising in him but, in this form, it is so much harder.

Her eyes glow white. “But you are also not exactly a devil… Do you know, little one, how it is you can pass so easily for a god?”

What do you mmmmmmeannnnnnn?” He punches the floor, causing the grotto to shake.

“Patience, child. Patience. Calm yourself.” She looks upon him longer. Sky lowers his head, filled with shame and self-disgust at what she must be seeing. He hates this form, hates what it does to him, how his brain is reshaped into something designed to murder and corrupt.

The white glow of her eyes flickers, and she blinks. “Your future is blurry, Sky. A thousand paths stretch before you. Your fate lies with the one you choose to take.”

He growls in frustration. “That is useless! It mmmmmeannnnns nnnnnothinnnng!” He scrapes his claws along the floor, scarring the stone.

Azzageddi!” she snaps, her voice like a master yanking at the chain of a dog. He freezes as he watches the nagas respond to the Oracle, towering over her in protection as if she has been their master for ages, the slender, snake-like one aligned with Alma’s spectral essence leaning to touch Nevieve’s cheek in affectionate reassurance. “Do not presume to speak against me in my own sanctum,” she says, petting the naga, her eyes still locked on Sky’s. “You have something rare and precious that many would kill to own. There is freedom in your destiny, a gift of free will. And those around you are as free as you make them, for your freedom has the power change their futures. Do not  disdain a gift like that.”

He relaxes, crouching. He stays silent, trying once again to bring his emotions under control. Slowly he feels the change back begin. It always takes longer, though it is less painful. His face shortens, the horns slowly retract. He forces himself to breathe calmly – that always seems to help. It takes nearly half an hour, during which the Oracle does not speak to him. She must sense his need for concentration.

Still crouching, nude, but once again looking human, his mahogany skin unstained by hellish tattoos, he whispers, “Then I have freedom? My destiny is not set in stone?” He pauses, then smiles, small and sadly. “Very well. I think…that is the kindest answer you could have given me, Oracle. Thank you.”

He straightens and begins to dress. The Oracle responds, “I am not here to be kind, child. But for your services, I will offer you advice. You cannot ask for truth and offer thin air in return. Love is selfless, Sky. Love is trusting, as well.”

As he buttons his shirt, he looks at her, feeling sorrow wash over him. “Yes…you are right. And the truth always comes out eventually. Though it may wreck everything.”