Ch6.87 Trust

Running. He has to keep running. He has to keep going. On and on. He is so close now, so close. He can feel it. He can sense their approach. And the sounds coming from afar? Their voices? Yes, yes! They must be! They have to be!

He is almost there.

Before him, the hordes of Hell shuffle out of the way, their terrifying, disgusting, evil faces blurring as he passes them with speed. They don’t attack him, oh no… They know better than that. They know better than attack the bane of demons, the god whose very purpose is to defeat them, destroy them, whose very essence embodies all that is contrary to them. The Enemy. Yes, he feels it clearly now. They fear him. They hate him. And they dare not touch him.

They dare not touch him.

“Dion wait!” Tulip’s voice rings from behind, high pitched as ever and sounding almost out of wind. “Please!”

“We can’t!” he shouts to her over his shoulder. “We’re almost there!”

They are almost there. Where his parents are. Where this low, pestering scum has taken his parents into torture and imprisonment. Away from him. He can still hear her screams.

His mother’s screams.

“Dion, they’re comin’ after us!” Cherry screams. “We can’t stop’em!”

“Just keep running!” Dion calls to her. “They won’t attack! They fear me!”

His mother’s screams as she was dragged to this…this nothingness. This emptiness of feelings other than pain and anguish. This place of hopelessness. For how many years? So many years. He has to save them! He has to!

He has to…

“Dion, stop!” Sky calls out. “We have to regroup and hold them back! We have to fight them off here!”

“My parents will help us when we get there!” Dion insists. “I know they will! We have to save them first! We have to!”

He has to. Whatever it takes, he has to save them. He has to find them. Free them. So much stolen. So much time lost. He left them here for so long. So long… He didn’t know. He didn’t remember. But he should have. He should have known. Even when the knowledge was denied to him.

He should have fought to know.

“Gwydion!” Alma’s voice is a cry of pain. Of suffering. “Gwydion, we’re going to lose them!”

“I know!” he agrees. “I know! We have to hurry! We have to keep going!”

He will fight now. He is strong enough to fight now. And he will save them. He will bring them back into the light. Into his life. He will show them the life he has life he has built with the people he has found. The person he has become. And he will hope for their love and beg for their forgiveness. And be their son again.

He’ll be their son again…

There! There they are! Bound in chains held by demons. Calling to him. Crying to him. His mother and father, their images blurred like the fuzzy memories he has of them. But he knows. He knows who they are. They are his. He has found them!

He has found them.

He roars a threat at the demons, launches himself at them. A beast unleashed, angry and vengeful. How dare they? How dare they! The demons drop the chains, don’t even try to fight him. He vanquishes them easily even as they try to run away from him. Ha!

Ha?

He stands before his parents, entranced. He thought their images would be clearer once he reached them but they are still a blur. And they are still calling endlessly, crying, screaming in horror and pain. As if they can’t see him. As if he weren’t there.

As if he weren’t there…

“Mother?” he asks hesitantly, fearfully.

“Dion!” she replies, her voice sounding choked and far away. “Dion! My baby! No! No! Run away, baby!”

“Mother, it’s all right,” Dion says. “I’m here to save you. I’m taking you home now.”

“Dion!” she shrieks in response. “Noooooo! No! Let go of my baby! Dioooooonn!”

A cold dread begins to crawl up his spine as the specter before him flails in a panic, its figure wavering before him, chains rattling with a clink of bone, not metal. Can it be? Can this really be his mother, reduced to insanity, to a single consuming thought throughout the years? To a single fear…for his safety. He reaches to reassure her with his touch, only to have his hand slapped away as if she were fending off an attacker. Beside her, Dion’s father stumbles and throws a weak punch at him, looking to defend his wife. Mad.

Both mad.

“Gwydion!” Alma again, this time screaming in sheer panic. A heart-wrenching sound of the purest despair. Something he has never heard from her.

Not from her.

But from his mother. A cry for a child. He rushes back to her, wondering why none of the others has caught up with him yet. Terror clutches at him. The demons that had fled from him now lurk again in the path that he followed here. They gather, hunched. And throw their heads in the air. Laughing. Voices gurgling with a wet, crunching sound. Eating. Feasting. On what?

ON WHAT?

He lunges at them, fighting them off, disbanding their group. Destroying the ones too slow to run. Punching. Kicking. Cutting them to shreds with blade and magic. He clears the area. And looks down.

And falls down.

To his knees. His eyes follow the trail of bodies back down the path. Merri. Sage. Mayumi. Cherry. Kori. Dead. Their bodies desecrated by claws and teeth. Bones shattered. Half eaten. Flesh bubbling where corrosive drool has touched it. Sky’s corpse – a devilish form that Dion had never seen before, revolting and horrible – lying in pieces, wings torn off and ripped to pieces. Arms cut at the wrists, legs mauled. Massive chest pierced, a gaping wound through which the tips of broken ribs protrude. Heart pulled from its vault and tossed aside like trash. No bite marks, no. A traitor’s flesh is too vile to eat, even for these demons.

Under one of his wings, Cherry’s right foot pokes through. Dion looks away from it. He can’t see her head or the bulge of her body under the membranous wing. The thought that a foot might all that is left of the Bunny… His eyes fill with tears. How?

How?

And not far away, the pale figure of Alma, lying down, her hair splayed in a filthy mess. He half crawls, half drags himself toward her, almost blinded by the water springing from his eyes. By despair. By regret. By grief.

In her arms, Tulip is curled. An arm missing. A calf ripped almost clean off the bone. A spike, black and vitreous like obsidian stone sticking out of her lower back, directed upwards. Dion rolls the still body over to see the tip of the lance poking through Tulip’s collarbone. His hand shakes as he carefully nudges her panic-stricken eyes closed.

Why was she even here? Why did they bring the Bunnies along? Why did he bring anyone along?

His sobs nearly make him topple while he slides an arm under Alma’s body, carefully pulling her to him. Her legs nearly detach from her torso as he does so. Her belly has been skewered by talons and spikes, her legs broken. One of her hands and forearm are missing completely. Her left ear, the one with the earring of her Clan mark, has been pulled off and tossed away. They have not tried to eat her. Maybe they didn’t have the time.

Not that it matters. She is dead. She is gone. He almost lost her before, almost gave her away. And now… Now he has lost her for good. He has lost all of them. His love. His friends. His family. Gone. He is alone again.

Alone.

“No,” he whimpers amidst the convulsions of his crying. “Please… no.”

Around him, the demons chuckle. The demons laugh. At him. At his loss. At his pain. “You left them all so handy, so easy to catch,” a demon mocks him. “You left them unguarded. They were so tasty.”

A roar of laughter rises from them. More demons approach and join in Hellish myrth.

“They called your name. I heard them call,” one says. “Did you hear it?”

“Oh yes, it made it sooo much better,” another adds. “And all for some half-mad souls.”

“Shut up,” Dion pleads, clutching Alma’s cooling corpse, begging in thought, praying in thought that she is not dead despite all odds. “Shut up!”

SHUT UP!” he roars.

Shut up…

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

The stone is rough beneath his palms, tiny fragments flaking off from the uneven surface. The stones, born in the great throbbing heart of the Insula, molten rock periodically breaking free to gush and ravage and cool into solidity, have been carefully shaped and fitted to build the holdfast of Clan Fire. He can still feel that spirit of fire within each stone, remembered with a longing to become liquid again, to rejoin the heart from which they were ejected, to go from a collective One to small, cold individuals.

“Too late,” her voice hisses in his ear. Her heat would blister his skin from its proximity, were he not of the Fire Clan. His long, glossy hair would burst into flame, the subcutaneous fat under his skin would liquify and bubble, his flesh would char. From the hate in her voice, he imagines his mother would enjoy that. “Too late, too weak. Traitor!”

He does not bother to turn. His eyes are fixed on the distant horizon, across a plane so large it could never exist on the Insula, world of verticality. The plain is covered with lava, plump, rounded pillow flows, ropy twists, spiky claws sharper than any steel scalpel and longing to cut. It is dry, ash and dust blowing around aimlessly in gusts and momentary twisters. And far away, the army approaches.

“Abominations!” the Queen of the Court of Flame, his mother, crackles. To say she paces is not entirely accurate – she burns her way across the stone, causing pops and sometimes louder explosions as bubbles of air trapped within expand and explode from her passing. “All your fault! If you had stayed! If you had been what I made you to be! What you were conceived to be!”

“I was born to be a priest of cleansing fire,” Somrak murmurs. “The bane of the undead.” He heard it a thousand times growing up. His head shaved, his life nothing beyond ritual. To be a god and to be a priest as well, one must be perfect in holiness, beyond any sanctification available to crude mortals. His food, his sleeping hours, his clothing, his every movement, even every breath was a rite of sacrament. He could not blink except at the prescribed moment for blinking, and only in the approved manner of blinking. A single moment of wondering whether he might be allowed to play like other children resulted in a week-long cleansing, with scourgings and beatings and irrigations.

“And you failed! You ran away! Ungrateful squib! You are no child of–”

She is cut off with a tiny sound of surprise. The is a roar of flame, a sound of cracking and a whoosh of liquid. A splash that spatters Somrak’s back with cold seawater. And blood. Her blood, aflame, though it quickly goes out.

Still he does not look away. He is starting to be able to make out individuals in the vanguard now, shambling footsoldiers who are caught on jagged edges of stone and cut apart as others push against them. Mindless meat, stumbling their way forward. And there is a vehicle, made of gold and silver and black shining obsidian, shining, flashing in the merciless light of the sun.

A large hand rests on his shoulder, squeezes it companionably. It is wet with his mother’s blood. One might ask how a creature of flame has blood, but then one might ask how a creature of flame can think, can curse and complain, can have children of flesh and blood. Such asking is pointless.

Somrak asks, “Why did you kill her?”

Sky’s voice is cool, rising and falling in the inexorable strength of the waves. “I never liked her. Now look.” Sky’s other arm points toward the army, which has somehow become much closer without Somrak noticing, though he’s never taken his eyes off them. There are more elite troops visible now, horrors to make Hell’s princes nod in impressed acknowledgement. Vampiric commandos, each capable of tearing apart a dozen mortals in a blood-starved fury. Incorporeal wraiths, impossible to touch, ready to suck the life from any who face them. Giants made of dozens of human corpses gripping a bamboo framework, sewn together with cord, and animated as a single creature. So many others, bodies flayed into shapes to suit their leader’s purpose and to strike horror into her enemies.

“Can you do it?” asks Sky. “Can you strike her down? Can you even reach her? You who failed to complete training? You who have broken your vows as a priest, your vows as a Tragas binder of souls, your vows as a servant of the Commander, your vows to your fellow agents. Your vow to Saira.” Sky draws his arm back and rests his hand on Somrak’s other shoulder. “Can one who has broken so many vows, large and small, not himself be broken when the time comes? This is what you were made to do. But you refused. And now you are going to be ground beneath the wheels of her chariot, unnoticed, alone.”

“You are with me, my brother,” Somrak says, though he doesn’t believe it. Who would stand with him?

“No.” Sky’s voice is final. “I am there.”

The chariot is closer now. Somrak can see its driver, a beautiful god, his eyes vacant and haunted with loss and guilt. Gwydion. The collar around his neck chains him into place, and he lashes his whip like an automaton, driving forward the huge beast pulling the chariot, a devil with powerful legs, straining to pull the massive vehicle.

It is Sky, his skin red-black, his wings limp and dragging. His head is down, the heavy curved horns weighing him down. The harness is made of spiked chains that dig deep into his flesh and bones, and the whip, made of blackened vertebrae, tears deep gashes in his back.

And behind Gwydion is a massive throne of the same gold and silver and obsidian as the rest of the chariot. It is large enough for a frost giant, and so the pale body that lounges on it looks childlike. Alma, her fine white hair floating around her head in the heat-currents, her lips crimson and cruel, her face that of his Alma but her expression that of another, someone alien to her body.

“Is her soul still in there?” the Sky behind him asks. “Or is it already being tortured beyond imagining in the depths of Hell? Will you burn her? Will you watch her milky skin blacken? Will you end her reign?”

Somrak feels Sky lean in close, and feels the rough brush of the god’s stubbly cheek against his. “You will falter. You will be torn apart, and overrun, and ground into a paste. You will not be even a thought in her mind. Not now, not ever. Give in. Betray all at the last. Join me. Join Dion. Join her.”

Sky kisses him on the cheek. “Or would you rather be alone, brother?”

And then there is no one there. The wind picks up. The sounds of the moaning army reach him. And the light changes. Somrak looks up. The sun is black in the sky, still shining, somehow giving light, but black as the obsidian that makes the hubs of the great metal wheels of Alma’s chariot.

Somrak looks back at the army. He steps up onto the battlement wall, looking down. They are right up to the castle now. He has only to step forward, and he will fall, fall, fall and never stop.

To plunge afire into their midst. To find oblivion. To know nothing, ever again. To regret nothing. To harm no one.

To be alone no more.

To be no more.

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Ch6.86 Trust

On the desk chair in Alma’s sanctum, among the greenery and the quiet burbling of the fountain, Sage rises to the ball of his left foot, left hand on the edge of the polished wooden bookshelf for support, right leg held slightly back and to the side for balance, stretching his right arm, tugging with his fingertips at the spine of a book that contains, he knows, a color plate of a pair of Second-Ring courtiers from four centuries ago. He saw it months ago and wanted to make a jacket based on the man’s, and he decided earlier today that now is the time.

If only it weren’t on the highest shelf!

He can hear Cherry’s voice saying, We ain’t short – they’re all just crazy tall! But the truth of the matter is, sometimes it would be nice to have a little more reach. Mayumi, tallest of the Bunnies, could reach it. If she were here. If she were not far upslope, attending the Academy.

The thought of her missing brings him back to having both feet on the chair. Every time he remembers that she is gone, that she will be gone for half a year, his heart sinks. He knows she is safe, but he still can barely believe that she chose to leave them so soon after the seven of them awakened into this strange life in Three Rats. He had known, as far back as he can remember, that the others existed. He had seen glimpses of them in dreams within the dream in which he had lived. But to be together had been bliss. And though of course he loves Cherry and Merri and the younger Bunnies just as much, it is May he has been closest to since their awakening.

How must she feel, alone, separated from her family, among strangers? He sighs, wishing he could talk to her, hold her. Bunnies are not meant to be away from the ones they love. He hopes she can find someone while she is there.

And that brings even greater weight to his mind. He knows, of course, that she has fallen in love with Sky, and that May and the god had promised to stay in close communication. But Sky has disappeared, and Mother has offered no clear explanation for his absence. But she is deeply anxious about it. And no one has had a chance to let May know yet. She will have heard no word from Sky. It is perhaps too soon since her departure for her to be worried, but within a few days, that won’t be the case.

Surely Sky will be back by then, the Bunny thinks. He stretches again, then suddenly realizes he could just pull a book off a lower shelf, place it on the seat of the chair, and stand on that. Something big and thick, heavy and steady–

The fur on the nape of his neck stands on end. Sage has tightly-curled black hair on his skull, but like the other Bunnies, the fur around his neck, which in his case covers just the back of his neck and runs in a dagger shape between his shoulderblades, is short and soft. This ruff rises as he feels the presence of a magical charge in the air, and he turns to see that a portal, blue-green in color, is opening in Alma’s mirror on the opposite side of the room. Expecting his mother to step from it, he is surprised to see a fuller shape topped by waves of corn-golden hair, instantly recognizable as belonging to Lyria, Goddess of Life.

“Grandmother!” Sage turns and hops off the chair. “How wonderful to see you!”

Lyria’s eyes widen in surprise and delight, and at her brilliant smile the plants which grow throughout the room, though already healthy, perk up, quivering with vitality, several of them bursting into flower. “Hello, little one! It is wonderful to see you as well.” Her voice sounds as if she is on stage in a musical, on the verge of launching into song. She raises both arms, which are festooned with bags, the handles gripped in her fists or looped over her forearms up to her elbows. “”Would you lend me a hand, my dear? Yes, thank you.” As Sage takes some of the bags from her, she looks around and asks, “You are all alone in here? Where are the others?”

“Oh, none of us really live in this room anymore – we have our own rooms upstairs now.” At Lyria’s concerned glance, Sage assures her, “It seemed time. But everyone should be in the bar now. Well, everyone but May. I just came down looking for a book. I wanted to make something nice to cheer us up.”

Lyria’s expression of concern only increases. “And why do you need cheering up, little one?”

Bearing as many of the bags as he can, Sage leads the way to the door, wending past a fern that seems to want to worship Lyria. “Something is going on… Mother doesn’t wish to worry us, but something has happened to Sky, and she and Gwydion have gone off to take care of it. And, well, so many other little things. And with May being at the Academy…it is like a part of us is missing.”

Lyria blinks in astonishment. “The Academy? Which one? Surely not the Academy of Magic! I would have known if Mayumi had any aptitude for wizardry.”

“Oh, the Guardia one,” he says as they ascend the stairs, his voice apologetic. “I thought you would know.”

Lyria’s voice is shocked. “My daughter let one of her children join the Guardia? But that is no place for wonderful creatures like you! Well, it was no place for your mother, either, but once that girl gets something into her head – how awfully reckless of Alma to send Mayumi to that horrible place!”

“Mayumi very much wanted to go.” Sage’s midnight-furred ears fall, angling downward to unconsciously indicate his sorrow. “I don’t believe Mother wanted her to go at all. But we all knew May had to do it.”

Pausing near the top of the stairs, Lyria reaches out a hand and strokes one of his ears, trying to nudge it back up to its usual cheerfully erect position. She smiles sadly at him. “Oh, little one… It hurts you to be separated from her, no? But soon she will return. Maybe she will find some sense and see what a bad decision it was. My grandchildren, in the Guardia… Ah! I barely understand how Alma can tolerate such a life.”

Sage cannot help but smile at his vivacious grandmother’s encouragement, but he rises to defend her daughter. “Mother does so much good for the people here–”

“Grandmamma!” Merri’s high-pitched cry interrupts him, and she bounds over to embrace Lyria. Cherry is right behind, and the two of them are soon divesting her and Sage of the bags. The younger Bunnies, Kori and Chime and Tulip, gather around her, Tulip chattering and Kori asking questions and Chime just holding Lyria’s hand and humming a tune as they walk with her over to the sofa. Geryon languidly removes himself from the old, worn sofa to give her room, as his winged, leonine body tends to take up the entire thing, while Aliyah, Sage’s human lover who towers over him and the other Bunnies, comes closer, shyly standing behind Sage and putting her hands on his shoulders.

“Where’d she come from?” Aliyah whispers, bending down, her breath tickling his ear.

He tilts his head back and smiles brightly at her. “Mother’s mirror.”

A look of incredulity is followed by a guffaw, and Aliyah shakes her head. “Gods…”

He leans back against her and feels her powerful arms cross over his chest and pull him closer.

“Oh, I am so happy to see you all!” As she sits on the sofa, younger Bunnies piling onto it with her, Merri and Cherry going to the bar and kitchen to bring food and drink, Lyria’s voice fills the room, lending a cheerful energy to the dark walls, the cleaned and repaired furniture. “I was heartbroken that I could not attend your little gift-giving party but the preparations for our yearly ceremony are rather complex and tiresome. So I thought I would make this a slightly belated gift-giving and check to see how your mother is doing with her new sphere. But Sage tells me my daughter is out?”

Over the sound of rattling ice in a shaker, Cherry says, “Yeah, they’re bein’ all ‘Everything’s fine, babies, don’t worry,’ but none of us is buyin’ it!”

Merri, shaking her mass of ginger curls as she brings in a big plate heaped with brownies fresh from the oven, adds, “And dear Geryon is in on the act. Keepin’ us all together an’ repeatin’ ‘Oh, nothin’s wrong! Why d’ye ask?’” She shoots him a glare.

The gryphon looks too innocent to be believed. “Poor dear Geryon, being mistreated for just wanting to be around his favorite people.”

Lyria looks at Geryon and then at the Bunnies, pausing for a moment to smile at the sight of Sage in Aliyah’s arms. “All right, I see there has been a lot going on. Why don’t you tell me what you do know and then we can ask dear Geryon for answers again?”

Geryon gives her a nervous look, then looks away, pretending not to be in the room, prompting Merri, after setting down the tray which is already missing half its burden due to the voracious and happily munching adolescents, zips over to Geryon and cuddles him, kissing him on the beak. “Och, I know ye’re only doin’ yer job, love.”

Cherry hands Lyria a cocktail in a rocks glass with thin slices of carrot as a garnish, arranged to look like bunny ears. “Well, lessee, there was a big misunderstandin’ about who’s got the hots for who, then Momma shows up with super-cool but kinda weird eyes, then Sky disappears, then Somrak shows up – they tried to keep that a secret, but,” she taps the side of her nose, “we just pretended we didn’t know – and everybody’s acting like things’re fine only they sure as heck ain’t, and Dion got sick and punched Somrak, and now they’re all gone!” Cherry’s voice starts amused and calm, but rises in pitch and volume as she goes along. By the end she is gesticulating, and as she finishes, she is breathing hard, her eyes wide. Quietly, she says, “I hadn’t realized how scared I was.”

Lyria looks confused and progressively more worried at Cherry’s diatribe. “Oh my… That does sound serious. Hmmm… Gods do not ‘get sick’. Do you know what Gwydion had?”

Merri, still holding Geryon, looks at him apologetically before saying, “Geryon knows. He had a long talk with ’em behind a magical wall of silence.”

Head feathers puffing up, the gryphon insists, “Geryon knows nothing. All Geryon knows is that this place makes people go insane.”

Lyria opens her mouth to say something, but suddenly looks distracted, then concerned, as if listening to a news report of some disaster than none of the rest of them can hear. Then she looks at Geryon, her eyes flaring green. “Tell me.”

His eagle eyes widen and glaze over. “Dion was poisoned. Demon ichor,” he mumbles.

The Bunnies fall silent, and Merri cries out in shock, “Grandmamma!” Aliyah’s grip on Sage tightens. She would know, as Sage does, that gods cannot compel a mortal like Geryon to reveal a secret in such a cavalier manner. There are rules. The mortal must be sworn into their service, or there must be a court order. Or there must be some emergency. Sage can tell that Aliyah is struggling with whether to protest.

Lyria closes her eyes, breathing deeply. Suddenly, she opens them again, no longer glowing, and asks Geryon, “What did they tell you to do if things went wrong?”

Geryon scrambles to his feet and raises his head indignantly, feathers fluffed out to the full. “Lady Lyria, I swore to–”

Her cocktail in one hand, the other resting on Tulip’s back, unmoving, Lyria interrupts, her voice level. “There are demons moving in this direction. Whatever they told you to do, do it. Now.”

Geryon looks shocked. The feathers flatten almost instantly. He swallows, the nods. “I am going to need you all to go into Dion’s room.”

Merri is looking up at him from where she is sitting on the floor. But after only a moment of hesitation, she stands, her voice deadly serious. “Right, you heard ‘im. No, Kori, not up the stairs – there ain’t nothin’ ye need t’get! Into Dion’s room now!”

“But–” Tulip starts.

“No buts!” Cherry orders, her voice even firmer than Merri’s, but with an edge of fear. “Go!

As this exchange occurs, Lyria is looking at Aliyah, who is frozen. “You had better join them, dear. There is nothing you can do here.”

Aliyah is still holding onto Sage. “But the other cops – I gotta tell ‘em.”

“I will see to them.” Lyria is calm. “Now go with the Bunnies.”

Sage slips from Aliyah’s arms and pulls at her hand. “Grandmother will warn them.” He looks to Lyria for confirmation, and at her nod, he hustles the Constable through the gold-glowing portal behind the pantry door into Gwydion’s sanctum.

Merri puts her hand on Sage’s back to make sure he goes in before her, and he sees her air of absolute command falter for a moment as she catches Lyria’s eye, the fear showing on her freckled face. He hears Lyria says to Geryon, her voice very calm, “Go and do not open that portal unless I call for you. We will speak of this later, and you will tell me everything.”

Geryon looks as if he is perfectly ready to tell her every secret he has ever known, but suddenly Merri gives Sage a shove, and he stumbles into the comfortable, tastefully decorated pocket universe that is Gwydion’s sanctum. Sage quickly counts all the frightened-looking Bunnies in the room, counting four, then himself, and then Merri as she enters. Only six! he thinks, panicking for a moment, before he remembers that Mayumi is in the First Ring. He quickly moves to take Aliyah’s hand again.

Then Geryon enters. He spins, touches the portal with his forepaw and a whispered spell, and it disappears. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, turns to look at his charges, and sits, curling his tail around his rear legs. With false nonchalance, he says, “Well…let’s see if Dion has a deck of cards somewhere in here.”

Ch6.63 Trust

Dion leaves his room, tired of his own company for the moment. He has not slept, even after the work shift that followed the busy night spent aboard Niruí’s lunar barge. His body would have welcomed the rest. And his mind, the part of it that is crushed under the weight of his misery, would have welcomed it too. But the voices in his head have been relentlessly awake all day and all night. They have haunted and beaten him with his own words, his mistakes, his hypocrisy and double standards. And with the memories of what he had with Alma and no longer has. With the worry he feels for knowing she is sick with a new sphere but knowing no more than that and being helpless to aid her. To care for her…

Curséd Somrak and his roguish charm, his sweet-talking and his lips that go around kissing other people’s lovers. He had no business trying to steal Alma away. Except that he could not have known that Alma was Dion’s because even Dion had not had the certainty of spirit and heart to tell her that their temporary affair of shared solace and unattached pleasure had quickly become everything but temporary or unattached to him and to make their relationship known to all. Maybe…maybe because even he had not expected the pain he feels right now, the guilt and helplessness at thinking that it was he who threw it all out of the window. Alma had not been stolen away; she had told Somrak about Dion and how much she cared for the magic god. She had spent that night in Dion’s arms when she had been free to pursue any and all desires. Like he is. Because that is the deal.

Fates, he is such an idiot!

He leaves the kitchen, glad that the Bunny bartenders are nowhere to be seen. He can still hear Cherry’s voice calling to him, telling him it’s all a misunderstanding – if only he’d listened, unlocked the door. What will he do now to fix things and stop his aching heart from shrinking into nothingness?

He walks swiftly toward the door and opens it, thinking himself safe from Bunny advice, so distracted that he nearly rams into Sage, who was just about to walk in. The Bunny jumps aside to avoid him, looking at Dion with sincere concern for a moment. But something in the god’s expression keeps Sage from asking the question imprinted in his eyes.

“Excuse me, Sage,” Dion bids, trying to move past the Bunny.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I wasn’t paying attention,” Sage replies, taking the blame for himself and smiling softly at Dion while doing it. His expression darkens with sudden concern. “And… I was actually hoping to find you. I don’t want to bother but…”

Dion exhales deeply, mentally preparing for a conversation he does not want to have about his romantic mistakes, especially with his lover’s son. “What is it?”

“Well, I was wondering if you know where Sky is or why he is so late to his shift,” Sage says. “No one has seen or heard of him since he left with Mother. She returned but,” the Bunny shrugs “he didn’t.”

The question surprises Dion. It comes as a relief at first but then the possible meanings of it register and leave the god hoping against the worst. “Well…I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Have you asked Alma yet?”

“I was going to but I found her fast asleep in the office and I didn’t want to wake her. Her brother did say to let her rest.” The Bunny looks worried at this, making Dion worry again about the goddess’ condition. “He said she was unfit for duty, apparently. Not that that stopped her from going out…” He shakes his head in resigned frustration. “I thought it would be best to ask you first since it might avoid having to wake her up. I guess I’ll just have to go and do so.”

Dion considers this. “I only know the general location of Sky’s apartment, and how much of a tangle that area is. I suppose she will have to be asked.”

He hesitates to make a decision, then curses himself for his cowardice. What is he going to do, hide forever and never speak to her again? “I will wake her.”

“I can do it if you want…” Sage offers in soft tones.

Dion looks into the Bunny’s eyes with sad gratitude, but shakes his head. “I will take care of it.”

“Thank you,” Sage nods with a small smile. He moves to let Dion through, adding as if in afterthought. “Oh…her brother also said she might be a little off-center. Her new sphere and all.”

He shrugs apologetically and turns to enter the bar. Dion watches him disappear behind the door and sighs quietly. Time to check on the good Inspector’s wanderings.

He enters the station, careful to check Sky’s office just in case the god has meanwhile decided to arrive, before climbing the stairs to the office he shares with Alma. He steels himself before entering. He does not want to inflict his presence on her. He would rather let the sharp wound of their argument scab over, avoid the pain, not only for himself but for her as well, even more. But finally he opens the door and steps through.

He enters quietly to find her asleep on the sofa, a blanket put over her and already half kicked off, folders and sheets of paper lying over her and littering the floor, letting him know what she was doing before she fell asleep. She sleeps profoundly, belly up, face turned to the sofa’s back, hair falling messily over her face. Her closed eyes move quickly under her eyelids, her brow furrowing fleetingly at some stranger turn of a dream only to relax again the next instant.

He looks at her, tenderness overtaking him before guilt and loss return. She looks so beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful for looking so vulnerable, so at the reach of his touch, his caress, the loving kisses with which he would normally gently rouse her from sleep’s embrace. His peace, his bliss, his comfort, his – his love, yes, the love he had vowed to himself never to give away again, lies in her on that sofa and there is nothing he wants more than to join her and have them back. But he has made that impossible. And he has no desire to wake her, but…this could be serious. The more he thinks of it, the more he worries.

He clears his throat. “Alma?”

She does not open her eyes, instead mumbling in her sleep, “Hmmm…I’ll be right there, Sage…” Turning to lie on her side, snuggling with a folder from which the paper files have already slipped onto the cushions, she adds, “Five more minutes…”

Adorable… So adorable. His hand reaches out to stroke her hair away from her face so he can kiss her cool, soft cheek – no. No, he mustn’t. Dion swallows and purses his lips at the bittersweet taste of his own longing. His hand retracts before even grazing her form.

“Alma – Alma, wake up,” he calls to her a little louder. “I need you to wake up.”

The goddess frowns and turns toward him, her lips parting in a yawn that she is too sleepy and slow to cover with her hand. Instead, she rubs sleep from one eye and stretches lazily, her slender body arching in the gentle curve that, any other day, would have Dion running a lustful hand over her side and stealing the first soft kiss of the morning. Her eyes open slowly, their strange, swirling, glowing colors capturing the god’s wonder and concern as they focus on him. What he would give to know what consequences this new look entails…

She is silent for a moment, gazing at him with a slightly puzzled and awed expression before sadness pours into her features. “What do you want?”

His heart sinks at the change. And knowing he is to blame for it only makes the pain stab deeper. “Perhaps it’s nothing. Do you know where Sky is?”

Alma looks over Dion’s shoulder, at the only window in their office. “At this hour? Probably going home to sleep? How should I know, I’ve been in here since I came in.” Her eyes narrow and she sighs in tired exasperation. “What’s this about, Gwydion? Why all the questions? If you are looking to continue yesterday’s argument…”

He raises a hand to stop that fight from even starting. “No…no. It just seems no one here has seen him since he left with you this morning.”

“I – I thought he’d be in by now,” Alma says, looking as if she is trying to process the information. “I left him at his apartment getting ready for his shift. Are you sure he didn’t just slip in and then out again?”

Dion feels himself blanch at the thought of Alma and Sky together in the Inspector’s apartment but pushes through the mental pictures forming behind his orbits. “I-I suppose that is possible, but it would be unlike him not to let the ranking Popula officer know that he was going out. And I checked his office myself. No sign of him at all.”

She shakes her head. “He was just fine… We went out to check a lead about a rogue death god in Little Falls. Found him in an abandoned house, asked him about my cousin– Sky tried to capture him but he was too powerful.”

“So he was not apprehended?” Dion asks.

Alma shakes her head. “No. Sky apparently has a history with him and rushed to attack. Bastard slipped right through us with a drunkenness and love spell. Cuffed us to each other and took the key. We went to Sky’s apartment for a key and…”

Her voice trails off. Her eyes turn to the floor as her hand rises slowly to cover her mouth and a terrible ominous, sinking feeling hits Dion. His blood runs cold through his heart as he kneels by the sofa and asks in as soft and steady a voice as he can muster, “What happened, Alma?”

“A love spell happened, Gwydion.” Her words cut through him as if he had cast the spell himself. The loathing in her voice is almost unbearable. She looks away from him, her expression locked in coldness. “But Sky caught it before it got too far.” Her features darken with anger and she shoots upright. “And why should you care other than to throw another accusation–?”

Her pale face blanches even further as soon as she stands and she nearly falls back down at some sudden wave of weakness before Dion stands and puts his arms around her to support her. He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t force touch like this or hold her so closely on such a limping excuse but he can’t help himself. Rape. The one he loves, whose body he has held and dreamt of exploring to its hiddenmost depths so many times, refraining from his desire to the greater good and safety of all, has just described something very close to rape. For love spells remove one’s control over choice and desire, and prey on attraction or affection to strengthen them, blurring and tainting the lines of reason and sentiment. To have someone take away from her what she would not give him, her lover, at the best of times for fear of the consequences… He hopes she is telling the truth about Sky breaking the spell in time to prevent the worst.

He holds her, ready to beg for her forgiveness, to tell her exactly how big an idiot he is and swear to her again that he has never cast a love spell outside of a defensive tactic to confuse an opponent. She is even allowing him to hold her, her hands on his chest, frozen in place as if waiting, waiting for him to just say the words that will make it all all right again. All he has to do is speak.

“Alma…” he starts.

But something happens. She stiffens in his arms and pushes away, not with strength or urgency but firmly enough to make him release his hold, lower his arms.

“I should go check Sky’s apartment,” she says quietly, not looking at him. “If this god followed us there…”

His gut contorts in a celtic knot at the rejection, the reminder that he is to blame for their shared pain and cannot so easily erase his mistakes, his betrayal to their relationship. He nods but says, “You should not go alone. Not with a rogue death god or a necromancer out there. I will accompany you.”

Alma looks as if she is about to protest but then nods acquiescence. “His apartment has a portal to a pocket universe so it might take some magic to get through.” She walks over to her desk and reaches for her sword. “I just hope I can find his building at night.”

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

It is a silent walk, the one that takes them through the streets of Three Rats and in the direction of the tangle of alleyways and clashing roads where Sky’s apartment is located. Dion spends most of it in silence, stealing only the occasional, reluctant and worried glance at Alma, wanting to ask a thousand questions but fearing her anger and, most of all, her rejection. She walks with her eyes fixed on the space directly in front of her, the lines of her jaw and brow moving through concern, anger, fear…sadness. He can tell she is not at the top of her physical well-being, her usually firm posture wavering every two or three steps, her steps sometimes sounding off cadence. Whatever energy fuels her movements is doing so through sheer anger or force of will. And that only worries him further. The prospect of a possible enemy to face.

He decides to use that to try and break the silence. “This death god…Does he have any vulnerabilities we can take advantage of?”

Alma remains quiet for a moment that seems to stretch into eternity. And then she sighs and shakes her head, looking down in helplessness. “I don’t know. Sky attacked him before I could find any.”

“So he is no one you know?” Dion asks.

Again, she shakes her head. “Sky called him Sam. Said something about having met him outside the Insula, about Sam having betrayed him and his friends. A confusing story but… if he is to blame for Sky’s absence, we will have a hard time with him. He is far older than I and though he does know my father, he definitely does not observe Clan rules.”

Lovely… “Could he be responsible for your cousin’s disappearance?”

Alma breathes deeply. “He says he isn’t.” She spares Dion a cynical, skeptical look before stopping and scanning the street they have just arrived in. “His apartment is over here somewhere.” She closes and rubs her eyes, shaking her head violently in sudden frustration. “Blasted sphere, I can’t even see properly! We’re looking for a building with a mural of jungle flowers and animals on the side. Can you see it?”

Dion hesitates in leaving her alone in the middle of the street but he vaguely remembers seeing something like what she is describing down the street we just passed. “Give me a minute.”

He rushes back down the street to check that he really did see a colorfully painted wall just around a corner to his left before calling her to follow him.

She rolls her eyes and trudges in his direction, muttering. “Sky, you are moving to the station…”

He refrains from chuckling as they walk toward the building and stop just before a flight of stairs.

“Up the stairs,” Alma says. “First floor.”

Dion heads up the stairs, grimacing when the board of the third step sags and opens in two as if it were fractured already and just held in a normal-like position by the pressure of the nails keeping each end of the broken board pinned in place. He unhooks his shoe and casts a simple restoring spell to fix the step before signalling Alma to follow him. He catches her looking down at the step as if she holds a grudge against it and wonders if she already knew the thing was broken and decided not to say anything. On reaching the door, he knocks and waits, tries the knob at the lack of an answer from within. The knob catches. The door is locked. He glances back at Alma to find her with her sword unsheathed, ready for the worst. She nods at him and he nods back before knocking again, already whispering the words of a small spell to unlock the door. Childishly easy. It leaves him wondering how a god, one of the Guardia Dei, no less, can have an apartment in such a rundown area of the ward, away from the station, at the mercy of local gangs, and still not invest in some proper security for his home.

He will have to speak to Sky about that once they find him. They walk into the darkness of a moonless night filtering through the few windows in the apartment. Dion summons a couple of luminaries to light their steps. He immediately notices the absence of furniture. Chairs, sofa, not even a table to sit at. Sky’s barren apartment makes a joke out of such military concepts as Spartan living! Where was he sleeping? Dion’s head turns toward a wall. A sense of power coming from it triggers his senses, a thinner patch of reality imbedded into the wall. He walks toward it to inspect it closer.

“Someone came in here,” Alma notes, her voice coming from a little way away. “Several someones. The dust has been disturbed all over the place and there are several sets of footprints on the floor.”

“Probably the one good thing about bad housekeeping,” Dion replies absently, looking at the smudges on the wall where he can sense the portal is. “There is a portal here.”

Smears of blood on the wall. They look random at first as if a bloodied hand or shoulder had just scraped against it but closer inspection reveals faint patterns. Sigils, most likely. An acrid tinge to the air makes him move closer and sniff at the blood marks. Demon blood. Infera aura. And a third component that he cannot quite pinpoint, probably the activation ingredient to power the spell. He grimaces.

“This doesn’t look good…” he breathes, straightening back.

Alma is suddenly by his side, standing close enough to him that her familiar, lovely scent wafts faintly into his nostrils, overwhelming his magical senses for a moment, making him forget for a moment where his train of thought was going. But he looks into her worried eyes and the darkness returns to his mind.

“The portal is to his sanctum. A pocket universe, like yours.” She looks at the blood marks on the wall and takes a whiff at them as well and grimaces. “This isn’t god’s blood. Or human’s.”

Dion nods. “Demons.”

He puts a hand on the wall, wondering if this crude spell has truly managed to override the locking spells incorporated into the standard portal to a pocket universe. There is a sense of corruption, of Hellish presence to the portal and almost immediately, he knows that the portal has been breached. He infuses his power into the portal, his hand glowing with the gold of his eyes as lines are drawn on the wall, highlighting the limits of Sky’s pocket universe door. The wall within the lines distorts and fades into a haze, ready to allow them inside.

Feeling his blood curdle at what such an easy break-in – along with the deafening silence coming from inside the newly revealed apartment – entails, Dion looks at Alma before entering the portal, senses and reflexes at the ready.

What lies beyond is a spectacle of horror to the senses. A room, cave-like and simply but lovingly adorned, lies in ruins. The floor is littered with fallen books, broken things. A low, irregular wooden table is shattered as if cut through with an axe. A sofa torn as if it has been made to explode from the inside out. Shelves tumbled, knicknacks fallen to pieces. Paintings and carvings and musical instruments either ripped from the wall and smashed against something solid or seemingly punched through. The walls, covered in a papery cloth material, are scored with claw marks. Blood is splattered everywhere and smeared in symbols on one of the walls. Dion recognizes the symbols from Alma’s books, the Death Clan’s own language that he has asked her to teach him and which has proven more difficult to learn than most wizardly languages recorded. He shudders at the thought that this may very well have been the work of that rogue death god from Little Falls and of what he could have done and chose not to do while Alma was still here.

The feeling of his foot hitting something makes him look down. A small wooden box, intricately carved with a spiral and rosette motif lies open, its contents spilled all over the floor. Cards. Name cards, white with just a few exotic-looking letters painted in black. Just like the one Tulip had been playing with in the bar. Somrak. He leans down and picks up one, grimacing at the claw marks that scar the apartment floor. Just under the painted letters, a scribbled message in Sky’s handwriting. Another card holds a different message as if they had all been pre-written to use when convenient. And all of them words of alarm… An emergency communication system of some sort.

Dion sighs and shakes his head, thinking he has been feeling like a fool all too often lately. He straightens to see Alma staring at the message painted on the wall. She stands as if frozen, eyes fixed on the bloody words. And then suddenly, furiously, she bellows a word in her family’s language that can only be a curse because it makes the light in here dim and almost wink out completely before returning back to normal. He freezes at it, his body paralyzed for just that short instant. And his mind wonders in uneasy awe at how the beautiful, entrancing words she had once or twice breathed sweetly in his ear at his own request can belong to the same language that, if bellowed in rage, can freeze his blood and kill the light so.

“What–” he swallows his unease and regains composure. “What does it say? It is the death god, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” Alma says, her voice dry, sepulchral. “I doubt he would be so poor with his writing. This was written by someone who knows just enough of our language for spellcasting.”

Dion grimaces. “The necromancer, then.”

“The necromancer,” Alma agrees with a nod. She points at the words as she reads them. “We. Game. Play. No. High. Aid. He. Dead. Wait. I. You.”

Dion considers this. “We’ll play a game. No help from above or he dies. I’m waiting for you. Is that it?”

Alma sighs. “Seems so.” She looks around. “We’ll have to go through all of this for clues as to where he might have been taken.”

“We might not have enough time to do that,” Dion notes. A subtle sagging, melting feeling to the wall on which the message is written makes him inspect it closer. And then another wall. And the floor. And the full space of this room they are in. Oh no… “This universe has been corrupted. It is collapsing, as if its owner has been gone for months rather than hours. Worse – it is being actively eaten away at.”

He tries to keep his voice steady but he cannot completely erase the horror from it. Whatever happened in here, Hellish corruption has spread and infected the place, corroding it like some flesh-eating bug tearing away at a still-living body.

“Is there anything we can do?” Alma asks sounding every bit as frightened as she looks. “We need time to investigate. And to get Sky’s things out of here.”

Dion rushes through his mental library of memorized spells, his knowledge of the books on demonology and Hellish theory that he has been reading lately. “I will try to slow the contagion. Perhaps I can stop it. Or at least buy us some time.”

Alma nods, expression hardening. “What do you need?”

“I will manage with my magic, but it will require concentration,” he replies. “Maybe it would be best to start taking his things out of this place. Just to be on the safe side. If you need me to examine anything or the like, just…attract my attention gently. I don’t want my magic to collapse this place instead of holding it up.”

“I will take a look around and then start getting things out into the other apartment, then,” Alma says. “In the meantime, pretend I’m not here.”

Dion nods, and goes to stand in the center of the room. He glances around him once more before activating his magic.

Sky, what have they done to you?

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

“Ugh…”

He struggles against the weight of his eyelids, sealed shut against whatever is going on outside. The throbbing headache currently marching from somewhere in the region of his hindbrain to storm through his frontal lobes isn’t making things easier either. On the one hand, the pain is a good sign. It means he is still alive. On the other hand, death would probably be a much more pleasant alternative to the thundering, metaphorical gallop of the whole cavalry section of the Guardia Dei (composed mainly by centaurs, minotaurs and other suchlike heavy-footed, foul-humored creatures) going on behind his eyeballs. If only death weren’t so permanent…

Which reminds him, wasn’t he with Alma just moments before – moments? How long has it been since he passed out? Anyway, she was with him before he…

He fell. No, he threw himself. Against her. He tackled her to get her through the portal. Out of Sky’s pocket-universe apartment. Because his efforts were in vain and the infection was spreading faster than he could even detect it and the whole thing was collapsing on them. He had shouted for her to leave but she had insisted on taking just one more item out and then she had returned to make sure he left as well and that was right when he had been flying out of the room and into the empty apartment, onto the wooden boards. Has he hit his head?

The pain on the inside of his skull makes it hard to tell. He seems to remember a sudden, strong exhalation by his ear, right before the world went black, the sound of a ribcage being robbed of air. He raises a hand, reaches to touch the back of his head. No blood, no lacerations, no tenderness. Must not have been him to hit the floor first. Which means…uh oh…

He opens his eyes slowly, fighting with every twitch of his facial muscles against the intense gravity currently pressing against his eyelids. He groans at the light. It is soft light, probably the just the first hint of daylight, which nevertheless tells him that he has been out cold for at least half an hour. Not good. Not good at all. A smell of dust close to his nostrils and the sight of an horizon full of floor boards confirms that he is, for the moment, lying on the floor. His head is slightly raised, though. Something has been wedged under it to serve as a pillow. And there is cloth covering him.

A hint of Dei-blue in the general direction of his forehead and he moves his head from its slightly bent position to look at Alma, sitting on the floor, back against a nearby wall, currently looking at him. He blinks, grimacing at the pain that causes and opens his mouth to speak.

“A–” he swallows. Or at least he tries to. His mouth is as dry as parchment paper. It doesn’t taste much better than that, either.

“You passed out from exhaustion,” Alma explains, her whispered, quiet voice sounding to his hurting mind like a fanfare at band practice. “I already gave you some mana. Do you need more?”

There is something at her feet. A metal bowl of some sort. There is smoke rising from it. Dion catches a whiff of it. Burnt paper? With a hint of incense. Strange.

She puts something down on the floor by her side and rises slowly. A book. Or maybe a photo album. The cover of it is torn and the spine looks broken. Some pages are loose. Dion turns his head to look at her as she comes to kneel by him. She leans down to press her lips against his forehead, a cool, soft touch like the grazing of the wings of a passing butterfly. Not a loving kiss, he notices with sadness. More a reluctant touch, fleeting and restrained. Lasting just enough for her mana to pour into him, placating the angry pounding of the thousand fists of his mana headache. He can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as her energy infuses him and his eyes, half shut as he falls into a shallow trance, glow with the blue-green light of hers, for just an instant, quickly retrieving their usual hazel appearance as her mana binds with his, acquiring Dion’s unique resonance and adding to his depleted reserves. It feels different, somehow, its taste changed, balanced now, neither the bitter sandal of death or the sweet nectar of life depending on which sphere she is calling upon.

He would love to taste it again but now she has straightened and is looking at him with cold concern. “It’s gone, isn’t it? The apartment?”

Dion nods, feeling reluctantly optimistic at the almost complete lack of a pungent feeling of nausea from the movement. “I’m sorry, it was just too far gone. I tried.”

“I know you did,” she replies, looking away at the wall where the portal used to be, shoulders slumping noticeably. She looks back to him. “Can you stand? We should return to the station and get you some more mana.”

Dion struggles to a sitting position and then stands up, shakily at first but she reaches out a hand to help steady him and he finds his balance as soon as the room stops spinning around him.

“Yes,” he says. “And then we need to figure out what on the Insula we are going to do about this.”

Ch6.56 Trust

This is weird. Like, really weird. Well, I mean, we’ve kind of gotten used to the weirdness by now but still…talk about a story!

First, we were all sleeping. Kind of. We weren’t really sleeping, were we? We were in stasis, whatever that is, because some big grumpy bullies said we are not really living creatures. Well, isn’t that stupid? I feel pretty living! Sure, we don’t look like everyone else and we don’t quite think like anyone else but I’m starting to think that no one looks and thinks like everyone else around here. Or anyone else, for that matter. Some people just like to think they can go around deciding who’s right and who isn’t. Guess that means that everyone’s always wrong unless they agree with the big silly god…archon…thingies way up in the Curia. Anyway…

We were sleeping. I don’t remember the sleeping part. There’s a lot of things I don’t remember. But Cherry and Merri and May and Big Brother Sage all talk about their dream lives. Like how they ran a bar or were in the Guardia or worked at an asylum for kids who lost their moms and dads. I don’t remember any dreams. I asked Kori and Chime once and they don’t remember any dreams either. Maybe because we were all too young to dream? Can you be too young to dream? Do babies dream or is it all just blank when they’re not eating or crying or doing whatever babies do when they’re not eating or crying?

To us it was like… well, being asleep, really. Close your eyes, mind goes black. Until the dreams start. Ours just didn’t. And when we woke up… we didn’t really wake up, either. There’s something else I don’t remember much… Waking up after Mom was told she could let us out of stasis. Do you know when you’re sleeping and something snaps you out of it and suddenly you’re really aware that you’re not sleeping anymore but you can’t quite move yet? And your eyes are still closed so you can’t see but you can hear stuff around you but you keep phasing in and out and in and out so it’s all kind of broken and you’re not sure which bits were real and which weren’t when you finally wake up for good? Well, that’s kind of what it was like. I remember voices sometimes, sometimes coldness or warmth or wetness (guess that’s when someone was giving me a bath). I remember being scared and confused. And sometimes being really safe and comfy, like someone was taking care of me. Mom’s voice…and her scent. Her touch. The other Bunnies too. Other people, like Sky and Dion and Allie and Callie and all. But it was all really fuzzy.

I remember running. Being scared. That’s one of the things I remember most. Being really scared. Lots of noise, people screaming. Dark places. Everything smelling of blood and dead things and scared people. I remember Dion carrying me somewhere. I wasn’t scared then. But then he let go and the screaming started again. Bunny screams so high-pitched and so loud that my ears hurt. Some spooky guy with a funny voice saying mean things about us and trying to hurt Mom and Dion and Geryon.

And then the bad guy was gone. That’s when I woke up. For good. And Dion was there, making sure I was all right. Being all nice and caring and all. He’s such a prince… Sigh…. Aaaaaanyway, things weren’t fuzzy anymore, though they were really, really confusing. Because Mom was on the floor and Sky was suddenly there, hugging her and everyone looked like something bad was about to happen.

And it did. They sent us away, back to our home, but they didn’t let Mom or Dion come back with us. The big bullies again, saying Mom had been bad and Dion had helped. Shows what they know! Mom isn’t bad. She’s…she’s Mom. Sometimes she gets mad but everyone gets mad. So she gets kinda scary when she’s mad, but that’s on account of her being a goddess. Gods are weird. She’s good to us. Reads us stories, teaches us stuff, plays with us sometimes. When she can. She’s been working a lot. But she always makes sure we’re all right. And we can sleep with her whenever we want, too, and go hang out in her room and stuff. She’s our Mom!

But they still made her stay, left us by ourselves. We were very sad. And scared. Mom…she had always been around, you know? One way or another. But suddenly, she wasn’t. We couldn’t go talk to her or see her. All the scents in her room were old. She was still alive but really far away and we didn’t know what to do or when she’d be back and everyone was on edge and fighting… We just… didn’t feel safe anymore. And Mom wasn’t there to tell us it would be all right. Sky tried. He took care of us. He’s nice. We uhm… I guess we could have been nicer. Not give him so much worry. Sneaking away and all. Stupid Chime and May…

But then… Mom came back! That was awesome! Out of the blue, everything got great and perfect and everyone was happy and we could finally be one big happy family. Well, I guess May wasn’t happy. Not for real. She’s leaving, now. Gonna become Guardia again, because that’s what she was in her dream. I think that’s silly. I dreamt I was a big furry sheep jumping over fences once. It was a really nice dream. But I can’t be a sheep! I’m a Bunny! And seriously, dealing with that wool, that must be real hot in the summer and it gets all frizzy and– Sigh… Sorry. I got a bit carried away there. I do that sometimes. Cherry says it’s because I’m still a kid. Yeah, sure Cherry, because you don’t go off on tangents every hour or so… Meanie grownups saying kids are silly just because we’re kids… Who gets to decide, anyway, if you’re all grown up or not? Is there, like, a fairy or something that pops us and waves her wand and says “You are now a grown up. Go and work and do boring stuff and…stuff”?

Where was I? I was going off again, wasn’t I? Sigh… Right, back to what’s going on now. May’s leaving. She says it’s just for a few months but that’s like…forever! Can’t really remember life without May. Then again, can’t really remember life without all my teeth. I hear babies don’t have teeth when they’re born and that little kids lose their too. Must make it hard to eat your veggies, not having any teeth…

We’re all sad she’s going. Even May. I keep asking why she’s going if that makes her so sad but no one gives me a straight answer. They just say I wouldn’t understand. Doesn’t sound like they do either, if you ask me. Not that anyone asks me anything. Mom is sad too but she says we should let May go because it’s what May needs to be happy. Except May isn’t happy, she’s scared. I can smell it on her. And she’s worried too. We’re all worried. Because Mom is sick.

Her big spooky brother brought her home last night and said we need to be real quiet and let her sleep so she’ll get better quick. Well, he didn’t say that to me but that’s what May said he said. Sky’s been taking care of Mom. And May, May’s been helping. But now it’s time for May to go and Mom woke up so Mom wants to walk May to the portal too so she can say goodbye to her, even though we can all tell Mom is still not feeling good.

Mom is a terrible patient, by the way.

“I’m fine, Mayumi,” she says. She is sitting at the edge of her bed and trying to get up but May keeps getting in her way. “I will accompany you to the portal in Little Falls.”

She still looks really tired. Her head is hanging a bit and her eyes aren’t open all the way and her voice is a bit mumbly but she doesn’t sound like she’s too weak to go with us to the portal. She’d probably be all right, I guess. But May is having none of it.

“Mother…I want you there,” May says, kneeling and holding both of Mom’s hands to stop her from getting up. “But I cannot ask you to trudge all the way to the Little Falls portal and then all the way back, when you are, um, doing something with a sphere.”

“It’s shapin’ up to be a real broiler of a day, too!” Merri pipes in, over May’s shoulder.

Merri is standing just behind May. Sky’s standing at the foot of the bed looking all worried and I’m… Well… I should be upstairs with Cherry and Sage and Kor and Chi but I sort of snuck in here when no one was watching and I’ve been hiding behind the hanging screen of pretty flowers that hides the door from the rest of the bedroom. It’s a great hiding spot against Bunny noses, you know. But I’m having trouble avoiding a sneeze.

“I promised your brother I would take care of you,” May insists, glancing at Sky. “Well, Sky promised, but I was there.”

They’re so cute, May and Sky. All trying to be all sneaky and dis-creet and “Oh, we’re too serious to be romantic around people because he’s sort of kind of my boss.” Silly May. Bosses can kiss too. I mean, bosses gotta have kids somehow, right?

Sky looks back at May and nods. That makes Mom frown a bit.

“Melinor worries too much,” Mom says. “I feel much better than yesterday.” She strokes May’s cheek and looks a bit sad. “I won’t be seeing you for the best part of six months. The least you could let me do is walk you to the portal.”

May’s ears droop down and she bites her lip, looking at Mom like someone’s making her pick between carrots and sprouts. “If you go with me, I am going to be terribly worried about you collapsing on your way back. I saw you last night, unconscious, and it was frightening.” She throws her arms around Mom’s waist all of a sudden, and hugs her real tight. “Please, I just want to know you’re well. Please stay and let Sky take care of you until you’ve fully adjusted to…this.”

I can’t really see her face now, because it’s buried in Mom’s dress. Mom holds her back and strokes her hair, smooths the black fur on her ears. Then she sighs. “Very well… Tulip?”

Eeeeep! She’s looking right at me now, through the screen and everything! Everyone looks super surprised to see me get out from behind the flowers and Merri is even giggling a bit about it but Mom is just looking like she knew all along and doesn’t mind.

“Yes, Mom?” I ask.

Her eyes look soooo pretty now. Well, they were pretty before and it kind of stinks that they’re a different color from mine now but the new ones?…super neat. Blues and greens moving about and mixing and twirling like someone dropped two colors of nail polish in a saucer and keeps mixing them with a toothpick. And they glow real soft too, like there’s a teeny tiny lamp inside Mom’s eyes. I wonder if it hurts, getting them like that.

“In the first drawer of my desk, there is a small package,” she says, smiling at me like everything’s fine. “Could you get it for me?”

Mom has kind of a workbench-desk thing to the left of the door… no, to the right of the door… Well, I’m facing the door and it’s to my right now, all right? It has three drawers in it and the bottom one is always locked. The second one is boring and the one at the top has all sort of stuff in it like scissors and tape and paperclips and all that. Cherry is always yelling at me for taking stuff out of it and not putting it back. But uhm…Wanna know a secret? Sometimes I do it just to watch Mom run around thinking she’s losing her mind a bit. Ihihihihih. Shhhh…

There’s a package in the drawer now, that I hadn’t seen there before. It’s wrapped in a pretty velvety dark-red paper stamped with some serious-looking symbol in gold ink. It looks like some sort of Year’s End present. “This one?” I ask Mom when I hand it over to her.

“Yes, thank you,” she says to me and I sit down and lean against her as she gives May the present. “Inside there is a wad of portal tickets. Always save one for emergencies but use the rest as you will. I will send or bring more later if you need them. Remember to visit your father as well, yes?”

May lets go of Mom to take the present in both hands. Her ears are drawn back and her chin is starting to shake a bit but she’s holding the package to her chest like it’s the best present she ever got. “Oh Mother… thank you.” She nods quickly. “I will. But I will visit here as well. I promise. When they allow me to, of course.” She rubs an eye to stop from crying. Aawww…poor May. “You know…”

May shakes her head and hugs Mom again. Mom holds her back with a sad little smile.

“I know,” Mom whispers, leaning down to kiss May’s head. “You will do wonderfully, I’m sure. You know all of this already. Just remember to stay focused and don’t let them walk over you. You are my daughter and you will show them just what you are made of.”

May nods, her face against Alma’s shoulder. It’s weird seeing May like that. She’s always so uptight. When she’s not all serious then she’s all mad. But she looks very tiny now. Scared. Just nestled in Mom’s arms like she was having a bad dream and is afraid to sleep alone now.

Behind May, Merri strokes our sister’s hair and looks a little smile at Mom. They look like they’re talking without words, which is actually pretty common between the two of them. After Mom, Merri is oldest in our little family. Maybe that’s why Mom and her seem to understand each other so well.

“I’ll make sure they have a well-armed guard there and back,” Sky chimes in softly.

Mom nods at him, then looks worried. “Isn’t Gwydion in yet? He could accompany them.”

Oh! I know the answer to this one! “He’s probably still out being m–”

But Merri cuts me off with a quick, “Och, he’s still out doin’ something or other. Must’ve gotten caught up in it.”

Weird…Why is Merri lying to Mom? Doesn’t Mom know the Dion is mad at her for kissing Uncle Som? Not that that’s a reason for being mad at anyone. Aren’t we supposed to kiss the people we like? Hmm… Maybe Dion wanted to kiss Som too? Or maybe… Dion wants Mom all to himself? No… He wouldn’t be that selfish. Would he?

Mom looks a bit suspicious. “Strange. We were supposed to…” She sighs.

“I am sure the Bunnies will be well with our best Popula accompanying them,” Sky says.

May lifts her head and rubs her nose with the back side of her wrist. “Maybe the other Bunnies should stay here too–”

“May!” Merri cries out, tapping her foot on the floor. Uh oh… It’s not a good idea, getting Mer mad. “Don’t you be silly, of course we’re comin’ along! This is our ward, an’ we’ll have Aliyah an’ Cala an’ more with us. We’ll be fine!”

Mom nods and sways a bit forward and back. Her eyes close a little like she’s trying to stay awake. “Most of the more troubling gangs have been dealt with. Sky will go with you to make sure.”

“But Sky has promised Melinor to watch over you,” May argues.

“We’ve been goin’ out with Popula protection for weeks now, and nothin’ bad’s happened since that berk Froggy Whatsisname got skewered!” Merri insists too. “This is no different.”

Sky doesn’t look like he’s very sure what to do. “I would feel better if…” He goes quiet because is looking at him and then at Mom in some special way. “But it’s true. The Popula have been doing an excellent job keeping the Bunnies safe.”

“There, it’s settled!” Merri chimes, putting her hands together in victory. “I’ll go gather Cherry and the others.”

She gives May a kiss on the cheek and dashes off upstairs. And suddenly, things go really quiet and awkward. Reeeeally awkward.

Mom puts an arm around me and leans a bit against me. It’s nice when she does that. I give her a hug and she gives me a kiss to the cheek.

“Maybe you should go get ready too, little one,” she whispers softly. “All right?”

I’d rather stay. But Mom is asking nicely. “All right, Mom.”

I give her another tight hug and then I leave. I think I’ll come back later, after we get back from the portal and go cuddle with Mom for a bit. Maybe she’ll feel better then. I knew that gods could get hurt – I mean, Mom and Sky and Dion get hurt all the time, fighting bad guys. Mostly small stuff, nothing like losing arms and having to grow new ones and all – but I didn’t know gods could get sick. It’s scary to think that they can. It’s scary to think that Mom could… Gulp. Die…

Upstairs, everyone is getting ready. Kor and Chi are all groomed and they even have shirts on today. They look bored out of their minds and Kor keeps pawing at his hair and muttering about how Cher used too much cream and how he looks like he got licked by a really big tongue now. I’m not saying he’s right about that but he could definitely be wronger. Chi’s been tying his hair in a ponytail lately. Says it makes him look cool. Yeah…right… like you can be cool in calf-length pants and suspenders.

Merri must have gone out and Big Brother Sage isn’t around either. Cherry is talking with Geryon, by the kitchen. She’s been looking really sad lately, Cher. I think it has to do with Saira going away and taking Lexie with her. And Mom being sick. And that fight with Dion yesterday didn’t help either. I…guess that was a bit my fault. But I didn’t do it on purpose! It’s just…tough to understand non-Bunny people sometimes and know what you can say and what you can’t. To us Bunnies, love is love. The more you give, the more you get. Friends love one another, and families love each other and some people pair up because they love each other too but you can always love more people, right? You don’t stop being able to love other people just because you already love someone. What kind of love is that?

I hope Dion isn’t too mad at me. I love Dion. I wish he wouldn’t be so uptight sometimes but I really, really love him. And I like how he loves Mom and all of us. Gosh, I hope he’s not that mad anymore.

Geryon is whispering something about Dion’s room. I arrived too late to know what exactly they’re going on about.

So I ask them. “What’s up?”

Cherry looks at me like she was sleeping and just woke up. “We ready to head out yet? We don’t want May bein’ late.”

Liar. She doesn’t sound anything like she wants May to be on time to leave.

“Yeah, we’re ready.” I pretend I can’t tell when she’s lying. “May’s just saying bye to Mom and all. What were you talking about?”

Geryon looks uncomfortable at the question and glances a question at Cher. Hmm… Mystery…

“Just makin’ sure Dion’ll have a friend to talk to when he gets back,” Cherry says quickly. Too quickly. “Now go get your hat, sweetie. You know how you burn when the sun’s strong.”

She tries to shoosh me upstairs but something’s fishy here. “I can stay and talk to Dion. Why’s he need a friend?”

“Because friends, my darling Tulip, are a good thing to have,” Ger replies, pushing me gently away with one of his furry paws. He’s in his smaller shape right now but I could still ride him like a pony if I wanted to. “Now, you go be a good Bunny and get your hat.”

Aw man, really? Geryon too? Why does everyone keep hiding stuff from me and being all sneaky like I’m too dumb to notice. Like I ‘wouldn’t understand’. Grr…I’m a kid but I’m not blind! I’m not deaf! I’m not stupid. I notice things. Why do people always assume I wouldn’t understand? They never try to explain in the first place!

“Fine…” I walk away, muttering and dragging my feet. “Don’t tell me… Always treating me like a kid…”

Two strong arms hug me from behind all of a sudden. “Oh sweetie, we’re so happy you are a kid,” Cher says against my ear. She sounds like she’s about to cry. “Won’t you let us have you as a kid for a little while longer? What with May g-goin’…”

She stops talking but hugs me tighter. Real tight. I think I’m going blue in the face. Help!

“Cher… I can’t…breathe…”

Oof! She lets go a bit. “Oops, sorry…” I can feel her hand petting my hair just as I see May coming up the stairs. “Oh, here comes May. Right…” Cher takes a deep, shuddery breath. “Let’s get this parade on the road. Where’s Sage?”

“He’s gettin’ Aliyah and Cala, darlin’,” Merri says from the door.

“Ah! My hat! Be right back!”

My hat! I almost forgot my hat! Can’t go out in the sun without it. I get my scalp all burnt up if I stay out in a strong sun too long. And it hurts! A lot! May says it’s because I’m so pale and my hair is all white, like Mom’s. But Mom never burns in the sun. She doesn’t tan either. Must be great being a goddess, sometimes… Big Brother Sage made me my hat. It’s really pretty and colorful, with flowers and leaves and a wide brim to keep my face in shade too. He even put a blue ribbon, the same color as Mom’s clothes. Dion says it matches my eyes.

By the time I get back downstairs with my hat already on, Sage is peeking in through the door that leads outside. “Our escort is ready. All set to go?”

Cher and May are standing by the bar counter, looking at each other like one of them is never coming back. Of course, that’s not true… Right?

Finally, they hug it out, and Cher breathes deep, takes May’s hand in hers and just real quietly says, “Ready…”

Ch6.43 Trust

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

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

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

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

The power of Reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.42 Trust

It is one of those warm, sunny days when working seems like a sin and staying inside is a veritable attempt to destroy one’s joie de vivre. The river and pools at the base of the waterfall at the Oracle’s grotto bring a pleasant freshness to the little patch of grass-green land bathed the afternoon sun.

The picnic has entered that lazy phase of all get-togethers when people settle into small groups or even alone to enjoy a swim in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall from which a swift, young river rushes toward Rio Novo, the patch of rock and pebble-filled bank crawling with little freshwater crabs that Sage and Aliyah are trying to teach Chime and Tulip how to catch, the tree-lined sloping hill where May, Kumiko, Ewá and Cherry are sitting, sunbathing and exchanging the occasional piece of conversation. At the top of the hill, on a ridge, by a flat rock that overlooks the pool, Pak and Nevieve are speaking with a nonchalance that hints at many years of shared experiences. And on the rock, Sky is preparing to dive into the water. A short, running jump is enough to see the god falling clear into the pool, with a couple of somersaults and a flawless entry that would look suspiciously like showing off if anyone but Dion were paying attention to Sky.

But the only other people in the pool are Kori and his apparently new best friend, Max, both of them too entertained in a little splash war to see Sky diving and surfacing, moving through the water with remarkable grace for his size, just the upper half of his head visible and looking at the two boys like a sea lion seeing a pair of fat, juicy fish. Dion senses the god’s magical influence blooming as a pair of waves rises gently to lift Kori and Max, gently moving them in a circle so that the boys orbit each other. Confused at first but quickly accepting and laughing of the harmless prank, the boys continue their splash fight from atop the magical waves, cajoling each other and making Dion chuckle at some of their more outrageous words of challenge.

“Now, look at ye, all alone in the corner,” Merri’s voice chimes by his right ear.

He turns away from the splash fest to look at her. “Ah, but now I’m not alone anymore,” he replies with a smile. “And I couldn’t possibly ask for better company.”

The Bunny, sporting a flattering green plaid-patterned swimsuit, with a low back and a single shoulder strap, that sets off her red hair and her shiny emerald eyes, giggles at the shameless flirtation. “I ken very well what kind of company ye’d prefer to be havin’.”

For all of Dion’s fame as a conquistador, he has never actually tried to lure any of the Bunnies to his bed. Not only would that be extremely bad for his short-term health and long-term survival, considering who their mother is, but, he must admit, the Bunnies did not feel quite like…people to him when he first met them. They were fascinating, obviously pleasant to look at but just animalistic enough that sleeping with them would equate, in his own mind, with bestiality, a venue of sex that Dion has never been interested in exploring. But as their personalities blossomed, so did Dion’s fascination and empathy. By the time the whole prophecy situation came to be, Dion was already convinced of their value as sentient beings and of the blind cruelty in destroying them. Since then, he has often surprised himself with how much he has come to care for them all and how attentively he finds himself keeping track of their different wants and likes. In just a few months, they have become more of a family to him than he has ever found with his Uncle Math.

Yet even if Dion were not to be involved with their lovely and loving mother, he simply does not see himself pursuing any of them. Cherry and Merri feel no inhibition in flirting with him but, for some reason, their flirting has never carried a promise of anything more, especially where the magic god is concerned. Perhaps they sensed from early on the attraction that Dion and Alma had at first dismissed? Mayumi has been distant, formal, and until recently has always looked at him with a coolness that invited little affection. Tulip…there’s an exception. Dion would not so much have to try to bring her into his bed but to keep her out of it. Her insistence on capturing his attention is annoying. Dion has always been an only child but he has seen the little sisters of some of his friends behave in that fashion with their older brothers. Of course, little sisters don’t usually try to slip into bed with their older brothers…

A sudden choked scream from Merri awakes Dion from his wonderings. He barely sees her stumble back and away from him before a wall of water hits him full force, making him gasp for breath. He closes his eyes and grips the bank’s grassy edge in a desperate, reflexive attempt to stay afloat and not be dragged by the receding wave. Around him, the world gasps and falls silent. It takes Dion almost a full minute to recover enough from his body’s panic at nearly drowning.

Silence gives way to laughter. Dion looks up to see Merri laughing, snorting like an asthmatic walrus at his drenched face, his usually carefully groomed hair plastered against his skull. She points a finger at a point behind him and he turns to see Kori and Max laughing so hard they have to hold onto a rock to stay afloat. Not far away from them, Sky is looking at Dion with an apologetic grin that is dangerously tilting toward a laugh.

The Inspector stands, suddenly only chest-deep in the water, and starts to call out, “Sor–”

But he interrupts himself with his own laughter at the disheveled look on Dion’s face and any apologies he might have been planning to make are drowned amidst the mockery. Dion narrows his eyes at him, a dangerous grin on his face. He is nowhere near used to being the court jester, especially at the expense of looking like he was just licked by a rabid cow.

You do realize what this means, Inspector… he thinks as his mind bends around a family of spells he has not cast in a while.

Summoning and manipulating the elements was never his main interest at the Academy of Magic but illusion, transformation and translocation, by far his favorites, can have a surprising number of applications. The last few months of breaking into gang hideouts and capturing lawless divines have proved so beyond any doubt. And Dion has always had a very pliable, creative mind when it comes to magic…

His eyes flash golden as he makes a slithering gesture with his arm. Not all magic needs words. The water’s surface ripples, bulging and bending into a slender, cylindrical shape that glides elegantly and silently in Sky’s direction. By the time the god of rebellion notices it, a large, serpentine head is already rising out of the water, towering over him, opening massive watery jaws in a silent hiss. Clear eyes like air bubbles flash as the beast strikes, quick as lightning, and swallows the god. The water-snake’s transparent body offers a warped view of Sky travelling down its faux intestine, bound under water. Satisfied with his revenge, Dion dismisses the snake with a wave of his hand and casually combs his hair with his fingers to give it some sort of style before turning back to Merri, who is now gasping and giggling for a completely different reason.

“Now, where were we?” he asks.

But Merri is suddenly not laughing anymore. “I don’t think ye want t’be lookin’ away so soon, dear!”

She points beyond Dion again, making him turn in that direction. Sky is rising from the water, his eyes closed, his shoulders hunched. He snorts a mist of water droplets and opens his eyes, which are glowing with an ominous blue-green light.

He straightens and stretches out his arms, making the water around him rise and fall in a perfect circle, in a foretelling exhibition of power.

He gives Dion a challenging smile, waggles his eyebrows, and announces, “It’s on…”

Behind the magic god, Merri squeaks and scrambles to her feet, rushing to go and enjoy the grass over by Cherry, where the chances of major aquatic phenomena are much lower and where Sage, Chime, Tulip and Aliyah have joined May and the others, all of them now very keen on watching the goings-on in the pool, while avoiding the water altogether. Kori and Max have already climbed out of the water and onto the safety of the rocks, where a gap between two boulders offers a comfortable splash-free place to watch the fight that is about to happen. Up on the slope, Pak has stopped talking to the Oracle and is now watching the two quarrelling gods with interest, evaluating the unconventional battle.

Dion is barely aware of all this, his eyes focused on Sky, his thoughts already revolving around defense and counterattack. “Why, Inspector,” he says with a grin, his body straightening in anticipation. “Let’s see what you have.”

Sky straightens and stretches out his arms, and swiftly assumes a combat stance, his right hand forward and open, his left hand back and closed into a fist. And as he does so, the water bursts away from him in a shockwave. Sky moves his hands in a swirling gesture, and the water that blasted away from him turns into a vortex that spins in place, faster and faster, until he thrusts both palms toward Dion, sending a waterspout twisting at the god of magic.

A heartbeat, two, and the waterspout has reached Dion. He raises his arms in reflex, summoning a protective wall of water to rise between him and the spout. But that does little to stop and nothing much to delay the whirling mass of water that hits the wall and defeats its inertia, making it twist and bulge dangerously toward the god. With a whispered command, he conjures the water to solidify, pursing his lips at how long the liquid swirling liquid resists his influence. Still, it obeys. Wall and waterspout solidify in a gelatinous watery sculpture on the surface of the pool, just a finger’s length from him. He looks at it curiously and pokes the squishy thing with a finger.

Hmm… Isn’t that interesting?

An unusual idea sparks in his mind. He taps the gelatin wall and it flies off toward Sky, plunging into the water on its way. Soon, the water around Sky is rippling and bulging, and the god is looking wildly around him, trying to figure out what Dion’s counterattack will shape up to be.

A jelly tentacle shoots out of the water. And then another and another. The three of them tower over Sky for half a second and then clash together, squeezing the god in a squishing hug. And then… he is gone. Sucked underwater, Sky disappears, consumed by Dion’s squid-shaped attack.

Silence.

Many of the observers lean forward slightly to try and divine Sky’s shape in the water. Dion chuckles at this. He cancels his spell to allow Sky his return to the surface and a long enough breath to admit defeat. But his victory is short. Suddenly, the water explodes in a massive wave. Something shoots out of it. Laughing like a maniac, Sky appears wrapped in the transparent tentacles of a squid made of water. Dion’s jaw drops for a moment. How can it be? He cancelled his spell!

No time to think. Dion finds his ankles yanked from under him, and he is pulled underwater, remembering at the last moment to take a deep breath and hold it in. His mind works at an incredible pace, trying to make heads or tails of his situation. Of course…Sky must have reproduced his jelly squid, using only water. Dion is fighting the god of rebellion in his own turf, after all. And he seriously needs to rethink his strategy. Pak must already be preparing a sermon on it to use in the next class.

The tentacles flail about, pulling him in all directions, shaking the breath from his lungs. Just as Dion starts going through his sadly very short ‘breathe underwater’ list of spells, he feels himself being pulled, upside down, toward the surface and above it.

Up there, Sky is in waiting, wrapped in the tentacled embrace of a squid even larger than Dion’s, something more like a kraken made purely of liquid. The creature flails around, turning this way and that, looking extremely confused at suddenly finding itself in such a small pool for its size. Caught in the beast’s watery body, schools of fish swim in erratic patterns, desperate to find a way out. And Sky is having the time of his life!

A sudden sound. Like an underwater hiccup. The creature jerks once…and explodes into a billion droplets. Hovering midair for just a fraction of a second, Dion sees Sky flip like a dolphin and dive smoothly into the deepest part of the pool. And then gravity remembers to pull again and Dion finds himself falling and hitting the water surface full force, shoulders first, with a huge, altogether ungraceful splash.

He surfaces almost immediately, rubbing the burning sensation off his shoulder and coughing out what feels like the water equivalent to his full lung capacity. “Well…” he manages not to wheeze, “that was unnecessary.”

Sky is emerging as well, looking honestly concerned at the possibility of Dion being hurt. “Oh, Dion, I’m sorry. Are you all–”

A water dolphin jumps out of the water and slaps Sky in the face with its tail, at Dion’s command. To Hell and its servants if he is going to lose this now! Oh, this picnic is turning out to be a lot more fun than predicted…

The dolphin dives back smoothly only to surface again, head above the water just for long enough to cackle that echolocating call that sounds so much like laughter to human ears. Then, it jumps again gracefully out of the water, shining in the sunlight and causing more than a few mouths to gape at its beauty, before diving again for good.

Dion smirks at his own artistry and focuses on Sky. The Dei Inspector is slumped against the rocky side of the bank, his face frozen for a moment in a stunned expression that makes Dion laugh quietly. He knows Sky is not hurt. The spell was crafted to be harmless. And the way Sky’s expression smoothly turns into a mischievous smile just a few breaths later leaves it clear that the god of rebellion is taking as much pleasure in this impromptu battle of wits as Dion.

His smile boding nothing good, Sky sinks into the pool again, until only the top half of his head is visible above water. Bubbles begin to blow from his mouth.

But nothing happens. The water doesn’t move, the pool gives no sign of disturbance. Dion tilts his head quizzically at Sky. What is he doing?

And that is when he feels a nip on his knee as if a very tiny, toothless mouth were trying to bite him. His hand moves automatically to his leg to scratch it but finds nothing unusual there. Then he feels it again, on his waist, tickling his skin. And another on his arm. And on his leg. And on his chest. And then he is being swarmed, as all the fish of the pool team up to assault him like a school of tickling piranhas, pinching his skin, harmlessly but hilariously until Dion cannot control his laughter. The water around him boils with fish jumping and slithering against each other to reach the god, flopping free of the water momentarily to rub against him. All that is exposed skin is prey to them. They are even trying to squirm into his swim trunks!

Laughing becomes painful. Breathing, nearly impossible. Dion bends himself double, hands clenching his abdomen, face hurting with the pull of laughter. He wheezes, trying to think. Here is a situation where his love spells definitely wouldn’t work. The fish love him too much already.

What eats river fish? What eats river fish?!

A sudden idea and Dion casts a desperate spell at a leaping fish. A golden light surrounds it, making it glow, changing its outline, its shape. And suddenly…the fish is an otter. A very, very confused otter. It lands in the water, in the middle of all the other fish. And the fish go crazy with panic!

Well, some of the fish. Not all of them are that fast on the uptake. So much for natural selection… Dion casts the same spell, again and again, until the tickling is almost gone and most of the fish are either transformed into otters or running away from their new natural predators. The transformed fish, though, are all but happy at their newfound ottery shape. They are actually swimming toward Sky, chattering at him, leaping at him like fish would do, rubbing against him and trying to clamber over him, their minds adapting to their new shape just enough to allow them control over paws instead of fins. It is almost as if they are asking for help (or maybe even complaining) about their new bodies.

Sky laughs, under the most adorable assault imaginable, being tickled to breathlessness by the otters. And now Dion can breathe. The influx of oxygen to his brain sparks a mischievous idea. Transformation is one of his favorites, after all.

He prepares to boost his spell, intent on transforming all the fish that managed to escape his magic before into otters and give Sky a massive dose of his own medicine. Dion raises a hand, summons his power…

A large shape sweeps just above him, throwing him in shadow. A blood-curdling shriek cuts through the air, bounces off the stone walls that line the sides of the pool, sending ice down spines, making people drop to the ground.

Dion plasters himself against the river bank, paralyzed. Caught in mid-cast, his spell shoots uncontrolled from his hand. He curses silently at that as he looks up at the winged, leonine body lazily lowering itself to land on a rock by the water.

“Geryon!” he scolds the gryphon. “What a way to scare everyone!”

“In my defense, it did make for quite the entrance,” Geryon replies nonchalantly, landing softly on the rocky outcrop by Dion’s left.

Around them, the gods and humans are already recovering from the fright but the Bunnies are taking longer, still lying on the ground, their ears plastered back in fear of a threat their bodies know much better than their minds.

Of course… Dion thinks. Rabbits are prey to eagles in nature. Some part of the Bunnies must maintain that instinctive fear.

“You idiot, look at what you did to the Bunnies!” Dion exclaims.

Geryon looks around in what looks like honest surprise. Putting a paw against his heart, he cries, “I would never hurt them! I merely wanted to announce my return from the First Ring in style!”

Dion opens his mouth to growl at him that there are hundreds of other ways to do that but another cry pierces the air.

“Mother!”

It is Merri’s voice. Fear mixed with shock. Dion’s head shoots in her direction to see her running towards where he had set up the portal to the station, May following right behind her. She gasps and stops by a white and blue shape that certainly wasn’t there before.

“Oh, Mother! Are ye…”

And then she starts to laugh, uncontrollably, falling back and clutching her belly against the effort. By her side, May is bending over, reaching out to touch whatever the white thing is.

“Are you all right?” she asks, sounding deeply concerned.

Dion is already running toward her. Merri’s mention of her mother was enough for him to shoot out of the water like a lightning bolt. All he could see from the pond was white against blue. Had Alma somehow been hurt and fallen? Is she all right?

He reaches May to find that the blue shadow on the ground is made of fabric. A dress, one of Alma’s. But instead of the goddess, all he finds is…an otter?

A pure-white otter with cream-colored fur on its belly and blue eyes like sapphires is standing on all fours and looking at him with a dumbfounded expression that would be hilarious if Dion weren’t feeling frozen with sudden fear.

“Alma?” he asks in a voice much smaller than his usual baritone.

The otter’s brows furrow in a way no otter should be able to. It starts screeching a complaint that tingles in Dion’s eardrums and makes May and Merri lower their ears back in agony.

“Eep! High-pitch! High-pitch!” Merri complains.

The otter stops and Dion kneels by it, very slowly, feeling a cold dread trickle down his spine. Geryon had made him lose control of his spell and it had shot toward… somewhere to Dion’s right. Had Alma had the terrible luck of exiting the portal just then? All the other fish-otters are the typical ottery brown and grey. Only this one is the same white color as Alma’s silken hair, with eyes that are so much like hers. And, truthfully, the pile of clothes that the creature is still trying to shake off is a dead giveaway.

This is Alma, turned into an otter. She stands on her haunches, head tilted, looking a question at him. He scoops her up in his arms, holding her closely, his heartbeat much slower than usual but pounding in his chest. She looks up at him. Is that fear he sees in her eyes? He has already turned Geryon into a gryphon and failed to turn him back. The thought of doing the same to Alma… His heart sinks.

No, no, don’t think about those things, he scolds himself. Be rational, Gwydion!

Gods are much more resistant to that type of magic than are humans. And besides, the spell is a fairly simple one, the type that only lasts a certain amount of time before normality reclaims its place. Surely none of this will be permanent. Right?

May must catch the fear in his attitude, for she places a hand on his arm and asks, “Is she going to be all right?”

“A moment, please,” he asks.

His eyes flash golden for a moment as he looks at the shape-shifted Alma with magical senses. Much to his relief, he can see the shadows of her true form within the otter body and feel the familiar, gradual weakening of a limited-time spell. He can’t help but smile in relief at that and pet her adorable little head before replying to May.

“She will be just fine,” he reassures her. “The spell doesn’t last very long. No need to cancel it at all. I’ll just let it run its course.”

That has Alma chattering angrily again.

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” he complains. “Yell at Geryon for distracting me and making me lose control of the spell.” He glares at Geryon, lying comfortably upon his rocky perch, head on his forepaws. The gryphon merely smirks at him. “Besides…” he starts stroking Alma’s back. “This new look suits you. Why not enjoy it for a while?”

She frowns at that and digs her nails into his chest. When the god grunts and loosens his hold on her, she starts struggling to free herself from his grip but all she manages to do is turn and hang vertically, head and left forepaw over Dion’s arm, right forelimb caught against his chest, her hind limbs and tail hanging limply in the most perfect illustration of adorable frustration and helplessness that nature has ever seen. She blows out a sigh and lets her head fall on his arm.

Dion chuckles and starts petting her head, tilting her so that May and Merri can pet her too. Then, followed closely by the two Bunnies, he moves closer to the edge of the pool. Sage, Aliyah, Tulip and Chime are already moving closer. Doria, who had left for a moment to attend to some mysterious duty in the grotto, is now back and already in the water, by Sky. The Inspector and his otter fanclub are all watching Dion and his precious cargo. From their rocky hideout, Kori and Max are watching as well.

Dion gently lowers Alma down to the ground. She turns her head left and right to look around the pool and the bank, then stands on her haunches, tilting her head back to look up at him and almost falling on her backside because of it.

He smiles at her encouragingly, speaking to her in a whisper “All is well. You are safe. Enjoy yourself a little.” He strokes the bridge of her nose with a finger. “You need it.”

At a little gesture from Sky, the other otters break away from the god and, swimming and breaching like a school of furry little whales, form a half-circle in the water around the little patch of grass where Alma is now standing. They look up at her eagerly, almost worshipfully, chattering at her in welcome.

She looks intently at the otter army and welcome reception, chattering…something back at them. Then, she drops to all fours and runs around in small circles, almost as if chasing her own tail but keeping her eyes on her furry worshippers. The otters chatter at her and start rolling in the water, over and over again. She stops, starts running in the opposite direction and they roll the other way. She stands and the otters turn belly up. She drops down and they roll belly down. The adorable, little furry spectacle makes everyone laugh and seems to entertain Alma immensely.

She rushes to the water and swims into the middle of her ottery fanclub, diving and rolling and twirling with them, swimming away while they follow her every movement and pirouette in the water, showing off their skills to the exotically furred, blue-eyed otter whose attention they desperately try to capture.

“And thus, a new cult is born,” Geryon announces sarcastically.

Sky’s laughter is loud and hearty at the sight of Alma floating belly up and grooming her cheeks with stubby otter forepaws. Another otter is already trying to groom her underside for her, scratching her and making her leg jerk reflexively. Apart from Ewá, May (who has since returned to her sitting spot on the grassy slope) and the kunoichi Kumiko, the not-so-water-friendly Geryon and the more solemn Pak and Nevieve, everyone is now in the water, laughing at Alma’s dalliances and looking eagerly at the otters as they swirl past them, reaching their hands out to stroke the sleek animals as they zip past. Alma herself guides the other otters towards Bunnies and humans, rubbing against her children, allowing them to hold her as if she were a furry baby and pet her without reserve. They all seem delighted with the experience, stroking her and kissing her and squeezing her in their arms amidst much cooing and banter. The temporary otter goddess looks extremely contented, closing her eyes in deep relaxation. The other otters are enjoying a similar treatment to Alma’s. Everyone seems to have picked one or two of the furry creatures to cuddle, except for Geryon, who seems satisfied in teasing a poor otter into chasing his puffy lion tail, hanging over the water, into exhaustion. Dion himself currently has one docked against him, its furry head placed on his forearm and enjoying some scratching behind the ears.

After quite a bit of struggling, Alma manages to release herself from Tulip’s loving death-grip and swim toward Sky. Three otters, that had been testing the god’s ability to scratch three bodies at once using only two hands, part to let her through, swimming away and into the squeezing arms of the youngest of the Bunnies. Alma lets Sky scoop her into his long arms and stroke her soft, sleek back, stretching to touch her wet nose to his chin. Dion can’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort at the tender look Sky gives her as he leans down to press his cheek against her head. She turns to press her nose against his cheek, then pulls back, chattering at him in what might almost pass for a conversational tone in an otter.

Sky looks as if he’s listening intently to everything she is saying, which causes some laughter from Sage and Cherry, who are following the scene closely.

Suddenly, his face lights up and he nods, rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh of course!”

He moves his arm, making her fall into the crook of it, holding her like a baby while he sloshes to the bank and strides up to the portal to the Three Rats Guardia Station. She lies still, looking up at him, unbothered by all the movement while Sky turns to make a small announcement.

“Alma reminds me of my duties.” He turns toward Dion. “Dion, sorry for that accident but it was a pleasure. Sometime soon we’ll have to have a rematch.” The god of magic chuckles and salutes at him, making Sky smile. “Everyone else, have a good time!”

Then, he shifts Alma to his hands and holds her in front of his face, rubbing the tip of his nose against hers. “And you…” He glances down at her clothes, which are still pooled on the ground, then looks at her again. “Don’t forget where these are when the spell wears off.” He grins and sets her down and waves a goodbye to everyone as he goes through the portal.

Alma stands up to watch him go, but soon she is scurrying over to where May, Kumiko and Ewá are still resisting the appeal of cool water teeming with friendly otters on a warm, sunny day. She climbs over Ewá’s long, shapely legs, poking the demigoddess with her furry head and rubbing her cheek against Ewá’s shoulder. Ewá laughs at the goddess-turned-otter’s shenanigans with a freedom and a contentment that Dion has never really seen in her. In fact, the former Eye of the Council seems to have gained as much in joy as she has gained in work after becoming a part-time Voice of Defense and full-time foster parent.

Alma is now evading Ewá’s attempts to pet her, teasing the demigoddess by running up to her and then running away, toward the pool, only to return again to Ewá’s side.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!” Ewá exclaims as she rises and walks over to the edge of the water, where Alma finally allows her to stroke that wet, ottery fur.

As soon as Ewá dives in, the white otter is running again, swift and sure, this time toward Mayumi and Kumiko. She stops just in front of the human girl and stands on her haunches, looking intently, first at Kumiko, then at May. Then, she goes down on all fours again and turns to face the pool before turning to face them again. She runs towards them and scrambles over their legs, much to May’s laughter and Kumiko’s befuddlement, before running away and into the water. A quick dive and she rushes out once more, back to the girls. This time, she runs around them in a circle and stops in front of them to chatter what sounds like a challenge.

Mayumi smiles and nods at her mother before looking at Kumiko. “Come on…”

The girl looks reluctant, but allows herself to be cajoled by May into walking to up the slope, which rises toward the diving rock on the top of the hill. They stand there, looking down at the water. May turns to Kumiko, Kumiko looks back at her. Though Dion cannot see her expression from here, he can tell she does not resist May when she takes her hand. They take a step back, then run and leap together into the water with a loud splash, making people laugh.

Dion chuckles and looks at the bank, where Otter Alma is just leaving the water after a quick dive. Her ear twitches and she turns to tilt her head at him, blue eyes flashing briefly. Is that a smile he sees on her fur-lined lips?

And suddenly, she is scurrying up the hill, to where Pak and Nevieve are still sitting. From this far away, Dion can see her stop and stand, her back turned to the magic god, her head tilted at the Oracle and the former Academy instructor. Nevieve laughs immediately and pets her head with two olive-colored fingers.

“Go on, now, firefly,” she says brightly, jerking her head at the pool. “Go play with your friends. I will join you in a moment.”

Alma turns and takes a couple of steps away but then stops and turns back, this time facing Pak. She seems to hesitate for a moment, then moves closer to him and, without warning, starts shaking herself like a dog just out of the rain. Water splashes in all directions, sprinkling the old master, who turns his head and raises his arms to protect himself.

“Gah! You unruly little – Is that a way to treat an old man?!” he scolds her.

Nevieve’s musical, watery laughter chimes loudly by his side. The Oracle looks like she is about to tumble from the convulsive effort of laughing. Dion’s jaw is hanging from its hinges. He cannot believe what he has just witnessed! Showering Pak like that…oh, Alma will be having many a date with the hardwood sword in the upcoming lessons at the master’s dojo. Not that the prank wasn’t well worth it. Dion is still quite cross with Pak regarding the whole Kumiko issue, which could have sent the magic god’s blooming relationship with Alma into an early grave.

But he never would have pulled such a blatant prank on him. He feels sorry for a moment, that Sky cannot be here to see it. He knows the Dei Inspector would have loved to watch the much-feared Pak get showered like that.

Alma is just turning to scurry away but the old instructor is faster, much faster than he looks. He scoops her off her feet and holds her tightly to him with a cry of “Oh, no you don’t! You are going to learn respect for your elders, you insolent child!”

Uh oh…

And then… he runs to the diving stone and jumps off the ridge, cannonballing into the water, still fully dressed, otter held firmly in his arms. Bunnies, humans, divines, gryphon, everyone gets splashed by the massive wave that rises in his wake.

Alma surfaces first, swimming swiftly and diving again, away from the spot where Pak emerges just a few seconds later. On the bank, Nevieve is walking calmly toward the water, still chuckling at Alma and Pak’s quarrels. A couple of otters are already swimming to greet her.

Alma, on her hand, is swimming at full speed toward Dion, diving and pirouetting as she does so, in sheer ottery glee. His former furry companion long gone to find cuddling elsewhere, the god stretches both arms to bring her closer into a light embrace. She places her forepaws on his chest, looking up at him.

“That was…I need to start being more careful when I tell you to have fun,” he whispers, smiling brightly at her.

She rubs her cheek against his chest and rolls onto her back, eyes closed, happily grooming her cheeks. He strokes her belly, glad for having the perfect excuse to be affectionate in public but hesitating in leaning closer to press his forehead against her head or kissing the bridge of her nose. He would love to do it, and even more if she weren’t in this furry form, but too many eyes are watching. He curses their secrecy pact for maybe the fiftieth time since it was struck.

Alma is lying still, looking at his face with a serene, happy expression in those round, shiny blue eyes. He strokes her between the ears, trying very hard to hold back the silly smile he knows is threatening to bloom on his lips.

And suddenly, she is rolling over his arm and diving underwater to disappear for almost a full minute. She returns holding something orange-green in her teeth. Is that a…crab? She has a pebble caught between her forepaws and is just rolling on her back to place the stone on her belly. Then she holds the crab and starts banging it viciously against the stone.

“Oh look! Snack time!” Doria points out, laughing.

The others laugh too, watching in delight as the pale otter breaks the crab’s shell against the pebble and starts biting into the poor creature’s whitish flesh.

“She is starting to act a bit too much like an otter, don’t you think?” Nevieve notes.

“Yes,” Dion agrees. “Need to stop her before she accuses me of ruining her diet. Alma! Come here.”

Alma’s head shoots to look at him and she turns belly down again, crab held between her teeth, to swim toward the magic god. She reaches him and he tries to take the crab from her mouth but before he can grab a hold of it, she is already clutching the shelled morsel between her forepaws and banging the already half-dismembered crab against Dion’s chest as if the god were a giant pebble.

“Ow, Ow, OW!” Dion complains, prompting another round of generalized laughter.

Alma stops banging, rolls belly up and reaches up, offering him the crab. “Uhm… Thank you. But I don’t feel like seafood,” he says, taking the crab away from her and discreetly throwing it toward Geryon, who snatches it from the air with a snap of his beak.

A familiar tingle in the god’s senses makes his brow rise. He looks intently at all the otters in the pool until he sees what he is looking for. One of them is already changing back. The spell has run its course and now all the otters will be fish again.

Except for one. Dion holds Alma closer to him, adjusting his grip so her belly is pressed against his, the underside of her chin on his chest.

“Time to come back to normal,” he tells her.

She looks at him and then closes her eyes. Behind her, all over the pool, the otters are turning back into fish. In Dion’s arms, otter Alma begins to glow, her shape warping, stretching, soft fur replaced with soft skin, sleek lines replaced with pleasant curves. Soon, her beautiful face is raising an eyebrow at the god in mock scolding, her humanoid body pressing tantalizingly against his to hide her nudity.

He grins at her and raises his hands slowly out of the water in a mocking show of decorum meant for their audience. “Like I said, don’t look at me. It was Geryon’s fault.”

She does not say anything but her half-shut eyes speak volumes. Those and her hands on his sides, hidden underwater, nails grazing slowly against his skin, making it shiver with delight. She is just teasing him, he knows, making use of this perfect little excuse to taunt him, a very small punishment for not cancelling the spell earlier.

She grins and, in his mind’s eye, he can see her draping her arms over his shoulders, leaning in to kiss him. He can almost taste her wet lips, hear the mumbling of the people watching them intently muffled by the sweet, exhilarating sensation of her body pressed against his. If she were to kiss him now…oh, that pact would go out the window and into a bottomless pit.

Is she taunting him into doing just that? Right here, in front of everyone?

His heart pounds, hammering against the inside of his chest. Surely, she must feel that. Her hands tighten their grip on him. His are diving slowly underwater. Her eyes are staring into his and he cannot tear himself away from them.

But then, Alma looks away and raises a hand out of the water, with a word of “Thank you.”

Dion looks up, to his right, to find Cherry and Merri there, each holding a piece of moss-green cloth. They must have left the water and fetched Alma’s bikini while Dion was distracted. They smile at him, wink and scamper away. Alma, on the other hand, tilts her head and pulls away from him, swimming closer to the bank and turning her back to the pool to put the bikini on.

Dion chuckles and shakes his head. Fortunately, most of the others are too busy watching what are now very confused fish jumping out of the water and trying to roll on their backs, to notice what is going on with the gods.

Ewá seems to be teaching the others a song of some sort. Dion can only make out about half of the words in the language that about half of the people in Three Rats tend to fall back to after every three or four words in Urbia.

Vem peixe qu’é peixe do rio.
Vem peixe qu’é peixe do mar.
Hoje canta sereia,
Hoje canta Iemanjá.

Already dressed, Alma sits by him. Her hand finds his underwater and he holds it, thrilling at that simple touch.

Sai barco. Sai pescador.
Vai na praia p’a pescar
Tua mãe, tua mãe é onda.
Tua mãe vai-lhe ajudar.

The fish leap higher and higher, the water boiling with them.

Pega ‘ssa pedra branca
Vai no terreiro dançar
Teu pé descalço na areia
Sua onda vai acalmar

And then Doria joins in, much to Ewá’s surprise.

Joga ‘ssa rede ao largo,
Não vai a lugar nenhum,
Que o peixe vem no cabelo
Que é da filha de Olokun.

This time, Nevieve’s voice rises in song, clear and perfect.

No mar tem onda grande,
Se é brava de não voltar,
O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

Ewá and Doria look at each other and smile before echoing in a final chorus,

O barco vira na espuma,
Dorme essa noite no mar.

An explosion of applause fills the pool. Dion catches Max, Ewá’s mortal ward looking at his foster parent with newfound admiration. It is unlikely he will be wanting to leave her care any time soon.

Convinced that they are, in fact, fish, the fish seem to relax and dive back into the depths. Chatter and banter return to the pool as the various groups of people resume conversations and start playing games. By Dion’s side, Alma has tilted her head back and is basking in the sunlight, her eyes closed at its warming rays.

Suddenly, a shape shoots out of the water, just past the god. A huge fish, bigger than any of the others and shining with a curious reddish glow, leaps up toward Geryon and slaps the gryphon’s face with its tail before diving back into the water.

“OW!” Geryon complains, shaking his head and turning it toward Dion. “Oh, as if that was necessary!”

“What?! It wasn’t me!” the god exclaims.

A sudden thought makes him look to his right. Alma is still catching the sun with her eyes closed, looking suspiciously innocent. She lets out a small sigh and smiles in satisfaction.

Dion chuckles. It seems that a happy death goddess is just as dangerous as an angry one.

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.