Ch6.43 Trust

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

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

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

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

The power of Reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ch5.21 Shards

“Lady Lyria!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kori snorts. “More like a lot!”

Tulip blushes bright red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3 “The Pearl” 13

“Inspector, sir!”

“Yes, GPC Patel. Do you have the water sample?” Sky takes the proffered flask.

“Sir…the streets are very quiet, much more than usual. Those who are awake seem, uh, drained? Like they have no energy.” The young probationary constable looks rather exhausted himself.

“Did you get a good day’s sleep before work, Patel?” Sky asks.

“Ah, sir, I never do…I still haven’t gotten used to being on the night watch.” He smiles, embarrassed.

“No worries, Patel. You’ll adjust. Just…try not to drink the water.” Sky dismisses the probe and heads for the basement.

“Professor Syron?” he inquires from the doorway.

“Ah, Inspector, you have the water.” The forensics technician takes the flask and immediately starts pouring small amounts of it into different glass containers, the shapes and names of which mystify Sky.

“I am sorry to have you working so late, Syron,” Sky says.

Without looking up, the scientist says, “Hm? Late? Is it late? No matter. You have brought me an interesting problem. Thank you.” And with that he appears to forget the inspector’s existence. Sky hangs around watching him for a few minutes, then drifts back upstairs, to find Corporal Kaur looking for him.

“Corporal! You look exhausted.” Indeed, she looks drawn and pale.

“Sorry, sir,” she replies.

“Um, that’s not really something you need to apologize about, Kaur.”

“Sorry, sir. I, uh…” She yawns. “Oh, I’m sorry! It’s barely past midnight and I’m already yawning.”

“It’s that water, Corporal. Just try not to drink it.”

“How are we going to get by without drinking water, sir? Oh, can we boil it to get rid of this…taint?”

“Not sure yet. If you must drink, boil it first. Make tea with it…that’ll help wake you up.”

“Yes sir.”

Sky looks at the clock and thinks about Alma and Gwydion. They should’ve been back by now. “Corporal, do you know the way to the Oracle’s temple?”

She yawns again. “Sorry….sure, I know.”

“Very well…I may ask you to run over there and check the place out a little later.”

“Sure…sir. I’ll just rest at my desk until then…”

Sky watches her head nodding. “Corporal,” he says gently, “go have a lie-down. I think there are some rooms above the bar you could nap in.”

Aliyah suddenly sits straight up, blushing. “N-No sir! I’m awake! Totally awake!”

“Are you all right?”

“Absolutely fine, sir!”

Chapter 2 “Snakes” 23

Walking through the streets, the four cops in their armored jackets – two immortal Guardia Dei, two mortal Guardia Popula – prompt night-time conversations to cease and gathered knots of humans and other citizens to stare, and in some cases to break up and slip away. The two gods, Insp Tuma-Sukai and Sgt Gwydion, do not attempt to conceal their divine status now, allowing their natural auras of power to be felt, making them seem bigger, more powerful, more dangerous, drawing the attention of every mortal they pass.

Sky glances back at the two mortal constables trailing them. GC Lamore is even larger in her bulky jacket, but she moves easily in it, graceful and confident. In addition to the usual truncheon, she bears a simple, deadly short sword at her side, having qualified in its use years ago. Probationary Constable Patel carries only the truncheon, and moves awkwardly in his armored jacket, not used to the additional weight. Sky makes a mental note to regularly train with all the station’s cops, two or three a day, unscheduled and randomly, in the basic weapons of the Guardia: truncheon, short sword, staff, and crossbow. Unarmed as well, of course. It would be a good way to get to know them, and to keep them sharp. They would practice on their own, in order to be ready for him.

As they approach the bar Kyri told him about, Sky notices a hesitation from Gwydion. He stops. “What is it, Sergeant?”

“The Singing Cockroach, sir? I, uh…well, I was here last night, actually.”

“Oh really? Doesn’t seem like your kind of place. Kyri said it was a real dive. Very rough.”

“It is, sir. In fact…it seems a lot quieter tonight.” He sounds concerned.

Sky turns to GC Lamore. “Constable?”

She takes a step forward. “Sir. The Cockroach…well, sir, ‘dive’ doesn’t quite cover it. Before the expansion to the new station, Sergeant Machado…Corporal Machado then, of course…gave us standing orders never to enter alone, preferably in groups of four. Even the Zeffrettis just left it alone.”

Gwydion speaks up, “Does it seem…overly quiet to you?”

She looks around the area and at the exterior of the building, then nods. “Normally there’d be shady characters hanging around the outside, making deals and cadging drinks, buying and selling banned items. And the bar itself should be a lot more active. Definitely too quiet.”

Gwydion nods to Sky. “That’s how it was last night, sir. Something’s wrong.”

Sky looks grim. “We’ll check it out. Constables, stay out here. Prevent civilians from entering.” GC Lamore salutes; after a moment, GPC Patel does as well. “Sergeant, be ready.”

Sky walks up to the door and lays a hand on it, lightly. He looks up at the broken sign, then closes his eyes, muttering a small spell. Detecting no immediate danger, he grasps the handle and opens the heavy door, then steps into the bar.

He takes in the centrally placed bar, the heavy tables, automatically calculating positions, lines of movement, looking for doors and other exits. At the cash register, the bar owner stands nervously, watching the entering Dei cops with frightened eyes. A single barmaid is serving a god fitting the description of Eater of Frogs, who is seated at a table at the far end of the room. She is just setting down a full bottle of wine and taking away an empty one. She looks at the cops with fearful eyes that appeal for help, then she moves away.

Sky notes only one other figure in the room. She would stand out even if the room were crowded, however: not only is she gorgeously statuesque, her body is clothed only in smokeless blue flames that lick across her pale skin and red hair as if she had been doused in alcohol and set alight. She is not at all bothered by this, nor do her flames seem in danger of setting afire the chair she is sitting in or the table on which she leans one elbow. She smiles, chin on fist, at Sky and Gwydion, a challenging smile, cruel. Sky recognizes it as an attempt to intimidate. He gives her a dead stare, then focuses on the scaly god at the other end of the room.

His voice rings out. “Eater of Frogs. You’re under arrest for extortion and destruction of private property. Come along quietly.”

The snake god hunches over his mug of wine and laughs hissingly, looking at Sky with hooded eyes. “Inssspector Tuma-Sssssukai! What a pleassssure. Won’t you sssshare my wine? I’ve only jussst ssssstarted another bottle. Wouldn’t want it to go to wasssste.” He raises a glass in mock toast to Sky and Gwydion, then drinks, his lipless mouth scaled black above, white below.

Sky draws his truncheon and strolls into the middle of the room, stopping to stand in a wide stance, truncheon at his side. In a bored voice, he says, “Put down the wine and come along, snake. I won’t tell you again.” Sky can feel Gwydion’s presence behind him, the prickle of magic being prepared.

Eater of Frogs tilts his mug up, drinking deeply, a little wine spilling over the corner of his mouth and trickling down the side of his throat onto his shirtless, dead-white chest. He sets down the mug and looks at the cops with amusement, the shakes his head. “No, I don’t think sssso, Insssspector. Inssstead, I think you’ll be coming with me. My bossssesss want to talk with you. Ssssset boundariessss, dissscusss who getssss to control what, in the new order.”

Sky tilts his head to one side.

“Oh come now, Inssspector! Sssssurely you didn’t think we’d cheat you out of your cut! We don’t much like accommodating rivalssss, it’ssss true, but the Guardia are the biggessssst gang in the Cccccity. We’re reassssonable people. You’ll find working with the Dukaine Organization to be highly profitable.” The god begins to refill his mug.

Sky takes one step forward and swings his truncheon, shattering mug and bottle simultaneously, the bottle exploding into shards and soaking the snake god’s satin jacket. Eater of Frogs sits frozen for a moment, dripping, hand still holding the neck of the bottle in the midst of pouring.

“Well…” Eater of Frogs says with incongruous pleasure, setting down the broken bottleneck. “I ssssuppossse it’ssss Plan B then.” He stands, knocking his chair over. At the same time, the woman in blue flames stands and moves a little closer.

“Does Plan B involve you coming along like a nice snake?” Sky asks.

“No, Insssspector. Plan B involvessss my beating you and your pretty friend until you both beg for mercccccy, ssssso everybody in this ward knowssss that the Guardia can’t protect them from the Dukainessss.” The thuggish god chuckles. “Perssssssonally, I wanted that to be Plan A, but my ssssuperiorsss inssssisssted on offering negotiation firsssst.”

In that same bored voice, Sky says, “Don’t be stupid. As it is now, you’re only going to serve a brief period of incarceration in Purgatory.” He uses the common nickname of the prison for divine criminals. “If you attempt to assault two Guardia Dei, you’ll go away a long time.” His voice becomes inflected with a dangerous rumble. “Not to mention all the damage I will personally inflict on you.”

Sky turns and glares freezingly at the flaming woman as she moves closer. “And you…leave now. I have nothing to charge you with yet, except maybe public indecency.”

In glancing toward the inspector, something catches Gwydion’s attention. “Look out!” He shouts suddenly, shoving his commanding officer in one direction while making a quick but complex gesture with his other hand, a well-practiced generalized counterspell. His target is a shadow that, Sky sees now, is unnaturally extended, having slowly stretched across the floor toward Sky’s back while he was talking with Eater of Frogs.

The spell takes effect instantly, causing the magically stretched shadow to wink out of existence, and a dark shape to appear where the shadow had been. A figure cloaked in shifting shadows stumbles, unbalanced, and falls to one knee, almost dropping a smoky, glassine blade. Without hesitation, Tuma-Sukai kicks the new opponent in the ribs, brutally, lifting the shadowy god completely off the floor to fall groaning nearly two meters away, the obsidian knife spinning away under a table.

Then Sky feels a powerful impact himself, his heavy reinforced jacket only partially absorbing Eater of Frogs’ punch to his kidney. Staggering a few steps, Sky feels a liquid burning in his side that quickly spreads. Poison? he thinks. But he didn’t penetrate the jacket. The pain slows him, and the snake god is far faster than he anyway.

With breathtaking speed, Eater of Frogs presses his attack, slamming Sky with three more massive blows, fists wreathed in an aura of poison. Right shoulder, left cheek, and mouth blaze with pain, both from impact – he can feel his cheek and upper lip split and bleeding – and magically injected venom.

“Whoo!” shouts Eater of Frogs. “Come on, Tuma-Sssssukai! It’ssss no fun if you don’t fight back!”

As he shakes his head to clear it, Sky hears a scream. He turns his head to see Gwydion embraced by the flaming woman, blue flames spreading across him. Rather than burning, the flames leave frost behind, and seem to burrow into the sergeant’s flesh. She kisses him on the mouth as he writhes in agony.

Eater of Frogs laughs. “Cast a love spell on her, Ssssergeant, you get what you dessserve!”

Taking advantage of the snake god’s distraction, Sky swings his truncheon, delivering a strong left-handed blow to the belly. Without oppressed victims to protect, or someone to assist in rebellion, Sky cannot activate most of his divine powers, but he is just as strong as Eater of Frogs, perhaps stronger. Putting his full weight into it, he sends his opponent smashing through a table and into a wall.

Then, grabbing a fallen chair, he hurls it at the burning woman’s back with all his strength, half breaking it against her. She releases Gwydion and falls, arching her back in pain. As Gwydion staggers back and falls as well, the flames enveloping him die, and reaching a hand toward her as she struggles to rise, the sergeant gasps out a single word in a language of magic that Sky recognizes: “PAIN!” Her pain momentarily, magically multiplied many times, her mouth opens in a silent scream and she collapses in an insensate heap.

As he stands, Gydion barely, instinctively dodges a sudden slicing attack from the shadowy figure whose attempt to backstab Sky he had earlier disrupted. Gwydion blocks the next knife attack, forearm to forearm, and then counterattacks with a painful stomp on the instep and a wrenching arm lock, making the shadow-wreathed figure gasp in pain and preventing the knife from being used. But the shadowy god drops the knife and catches it left-handed, forcing Dion to release his hold to block the next attack.

Sky feels a scaly grip on the back of his neck, and he is thrown to the floor. He rolls and lands on his back, getting his arms up, holding out his truncheon to fend off the attack. But Eater of Frogs is too fast, pouncing on the inspector, slapping aside the truncheon and sending it across the room, straddling his chest and seizing him by the throat with one hand while drawing back the other to punch Sky’s face once, twice, three times. Each time, more divine poison fills Sky’s veins.

Glancing to see that Dion is still occupied, Eater of Frogs looks down again at Sky and grins, his mouth full of small hooked teeth, his tongue bifurcated. “I have to compliment you, Inssspector! Mosssst godssss can’t hold up againsssst my poissson ssstrike ssssso long.” He punches Sky again, across the cheek, tearing a flap of skin loose. “You ssssshould have taken the deal! After all, we’re grateful to you! When you took out our rivalssss lasssst month, you opened the ssssslave market for a big exssssspansssion!” The god laughs and hits Sky again.

As the words register, Sky realizes he’s dealing with a slaving organization. He starts to laugh along with the snake god. Eater of Frogs stops laughing and looks at him, puzzled.

Sky slams his fists in hammer blows into the snake god’s sides, feeling the sickening crunch of ribs cracking. As his opponent hisses in pain, Sky grabs the lapels of Eater of Frogs’ jacket and jerks him to the side and down, breaking the floorboards as he smashes the ophidean deity beneath him. Holding his opponent down, getting on top, Sky looks at the others in the room with his ruined face. Through a veil of blood, he sees that the flaming woman is back up and preparing to help her partner. Sky’s gore-matted hair hardly moves as a wind smelling of the ocean blows at gale force around him, as his eyes turn the color of a black hurricane cloudbank. Tattoos blossom and writhe across his face, the backs of his hands, all his exposed skin.

STOP!” he says in a voice that cannot be denied, any more than can a typhoon-driven flood. The two who are fighting Dion freeze in their tracks. “THIS WORM IS NOT YOUR MASTER ANY LONGER!” He gestures toward them, and the breaking of their chains of loyalty is almost audible. Suddenly, their reason for fighting at least temporarily gone, they waver.

SUBMIT!” Sky roars. The shadow god drops the knife and kneels. The shadows disappear, revealing a small male god, head shaved, the face of a child. Dion, not knowing how long this effect will last, grabs the shadow god and slams him across a table, locking his arm behind him and slapping on a pair of silver, magical handcuffs. Then he looks up for the flaming woman, only to see her running out the door, her will strong enough to resist Sky’s command.

Dion looks at Sky, but the badly wounded god is focusing on Eater of Frogs, who is laughing again.

“You’re voiccccce doessssn’t work on me, Inssspector!” The snake god tries another lightning-quick punch, but Sky blocks it, and then another. He is visibly healing, wounds knitting together. His reserves of mana seem to be bottomless as he gathers power and sends it throughout his body, repairing it, and burning away the traces of poison.

“And your poison doesn’t work on me, snake. Weak stuff, really.” He slams a fist into his opponent’s chest, shattering his ribs and tearing his heart, knowing the snake god will just heal it, but that it will greatly reduce his mana. The scaled god convulses in pain. “You shouldn’t have told me so much.” Sky hits Eater of Frogs again, crunching more bone. “But now you’ve started, you’re going to tell me more.” Another shattering punch. “Everything you know.” Crunch. “Probably not much…” Crunch. “But…” Crunch. “Everything…” Crunch.

Sky looks down. The snake god looks like he has been run over by a wagon. Sky reaches back and takes his pair of magic-encrusted handcuffs, rolls the ragdoll god over, and almost puts the cuffs on him before Gwydion holds out a hand.

Sky looks up, confused.

Gwydion says, breathing hard, “If you…cuff him…he won’t be able to…heal. He could even…die.”

Sky grunts assent, then stands slowly. “Right. Sure.” He steps away, still holding the cuffs. “I’ll give him a minute.” He looks at the sergeant. “You all right, Dion?”

“Yeah…uh, yes. Yes sir,” Dion responds, his breath coming more under control.

Sky laughs and puts a hand on Dion’s shoulder, then takes it away, leaving a large bloody print on Dion’s jacket. “Oh…sorry about that…”

Dion glances at it and sighs. “This jacket’s been through a lot,” he mutters. Louder, he asks, “What about the one that ran away?”

Sky shakes his head. “We’ll have our hands full, taking these two to Little Falls Station. They have the right sort of cages to hold them until they can be taken to Purgatory.”

“We just let her go?”

“We’ll get her later. Don’t worry.” Sky looks down at Eater of Frogs, who has started groaning in pain. His torso looks a bit more three-dimensional than it did. “Right, I think that’s enough.”

He bends down to handcuff his prisoner.