Ch6.72 Trust

The cockroach is singing. Singing its little thirteen-chambered heart out, squeezing air out of its abdominal spiracles, creating a high-pitched symphony that sounds like several tiny, tiny balloons whistling as they deflate through tiny tiny holes. There is actually a harmony to it, as it tries to attract a mate. Or whatever it’s doing. Maybe it just likes to sing.

Somrak knows that if he brings the insect’s insides to a boil, the whistling will become louder, higher-pitched, sounding panicked and desperate before the roach explodes. This one is safe. First, because he stopped killing them, deciding they weren’t as annoying as he’d thought at first. Their orange-and-black color scheme is rather handsome once you get used to it, a bit like a gigantic, stretched-out ladybird beetle. Then there’s the irksome sense of pity he feels for them. Pity for vermin. But there it is. That distressed whistle, like a scream for help, did him in. Now he can’t bring himself to kill them.

Finally, there’s the fact that the cockroach is right overhead, clinging to the ceiling, and if he pops it, it’ll rain flaming insect guts down on him.

You win, bug. You win. He toasts it with the shotglass of rotgut whisky he’s been balancing on his chest. He almost forgets himself, bringing the glass to his lips before he shudders and puts it back atop the thin cotton shirt stretched tight over his pectoral muscles. He tasted the abomination the Singing Cockroach calls its whisky when he first arrived here. A tiny sip was enough. Somrak knows what good whisky tastes like. He’s had plenty of it over the decades, quite a bit given or recommended to him by Sky. This stuff tastes like cockroaches are a principal ingredient. He just likes having the glass on his chest, even if it is time for breakfast.

Thinking of Sky sets Somrak’s mind down a path he’s been trying to avoid. He wishes he had brought a book, a dream projector, something. Anything to keep him from thinking about what horrors Sky is going through right now. So he starts thinking of Alma. The goddess he cannot have, that he’s lying to, preparing to betray her trust as soon as he knows where to find Sky. The object of his most tender affections, who loves another – and Somrak can’t even bring himself to hate his rival, because Somrak knows he’s a screwup, an oath-breaker. After more than a century of service to the Commander, of being Mister Reliable, the sharpest tool in the box, Somrak has been falling apart. And he knows he’ll bring nothing but misery to Alma because that’s how it’s gone every time before.

Oh thank you, brain! Vast improvement!

Deciding that it’s a choice between drinking the whisky and going out to find something to read, Somrak chooses reading material. Surely this ward has something decent to read, somewhere. Poetry might be too much to ask for, but then, pockets of squalor and hardship like this often breed the best poets. It’s just that nobody outside these wards ever hears of their genius. Fates, he can even hear, through the open window, a plaintive voice outside a shop down the street. He only knows greetings and farewells and such in the local language, from his brief time working here, but the message is universal: the singer loves someone, but he can’t have her.

Yeah, sure. That’s just because it’s all you can think about. Probably find out he’s singing about his mother’s cooking.

Before he can sit up and don his jacket and enchanted anonymizing scarf, an arrow hisses through the window and ends the cockroach’s song with a thunk, an arthropodic squeak, and a barely audible quivering thrum, that stops just as half the cockroach falls into Somrak’s vile whisky with a plop.

The fire god stays lying in bed for a moment, looking up at the arrow – a crossbow bolt, actually, he notes – and observing the angle with which it meets the ceiling. It must have been fired from the street, not from a building across the street, and therefore whoever fired it can’t see him. Standing up could change that.

He notes the fletching. Ah. Familiar – a pattern in the stabilizing feathers that has been recovered from the bodies of many a Dukaine and former-Dukaine gangster. Distinctive and left behind as a calling card. “Saira was here. I’m not dead yet, bastards. But you are.” He sets the glass of whisky-with-cockroach-guts-garnish on the rickety side table and cautiously approaches the window, looking out.

Nothing at first, just the sounds of the same singer starting another desolate song down the street, but with his heat sight, Somrak picks up the glowing form of a woman in the shadows, raising a crossbow again. He signals to her that she’s been seen, and she lowers the weapon, holding it in her right hand while beckoning him down with her left.

Well, this sounds better than lying here, thinking. He withdraws from the window, slips his jacket on, quickly straps on two blades aside from the others already part of the jacket or sheathed in his boots, or hidden away in extradimensional pockets, and then shoving the scarf into a side pocket, he jumps out the window, turning in mid-jump to catch the windowsill for just a moment to slow his descent, then letting himself drop the rest of the way, landing silently, feet together, knees flexed, arms out to his sides for balance. Ta-da! He turns and crosses the street to Saira, a question on his face.

He hasn’t seen the mortal, god-killing assassin since the Year’s End party, and he barely saw her there. He knew that today, Dion and Saira were going to talk to one of Saira’s suppliers. She looks grim. “Follow me. We have a problem.” Even before she finishes speaking, she’s turned and moved deeper into the alley. Somrak follows, senses straining, not liking how this is going. But he seems a warm shape in the morning shadows, not just warm but feverish, slumped against a wall.

“I wasn’t expecting this to happen,” Saira says, “but my informant was feeling greedy today. She left your friend in pretty bad shape.”

Somrak kneels next to Dion. He can see a flare of heat on the god’s left arm. “She attacked him?”

“Poisoned him,” Saira confirms. “Demon ichor. Her best stuff too. Just a drop but…I’ve never seen anyone react like that to it and stay alive. He’s too heavy for me to drag him the rest of the way back to the station.”

“You don’t look too good, buddy,” Somrak says to Dion, laying his left hand on the god’s chest, the other alongside his face, drawing away some of the fever-heat. “Can you walk?”

Rousing but slurring his words, Dion murmurs, “Yes…I…”

“You’ll need to steady him,” Saira says. “His legs started giving out halfway.”

Dion tries push himself up from the alley floor, but it’s clear he hasn’t the strength to stand. Thinking hard, Somrak asks him, “Can you make a portal?”

“I’m afraid…I’ve been using my mana to…inactivate the poison.” Dion sounds like he’s barely able to breathe.

Somrak replies, “Figured. You keep doing that. I’m going to get you to the station. Just relax now, and hold onto me with your good arm.” He shifts position, turning so his back is to Dion, squatting down between Dion’s legs and hooking his arms under the god of magic’s knees.

This brings Dion to life. He struggles, spluttering, “What are–?! You are not carrying me on your back as if I were a drunken prisoner!”

Somrak sounds scornful. “Stop being a baby. You’re seriously ill and you need to devote all your resources to staying alive. And I need to get you to Alma as fast as possible. Now hold on.”

Dion stiffens, then gives up. Though clearly not happy with the situation, he tosses a limp left arm over Somrak’s shoulder, and brings his good right arm around to grip his bearer’s jacket.

“Here we go,” Somrak says. He leans forward, getting the weight over his hips, then stands in a fluid motion, grunting with the effort of carrying a muscular, broad-shouldered god who outweighs him by a good amount. He breathes out. “Damn, man, how many donuts do you eat a day?”

Saira is watching this with a smirk. “The guy you’re looking for got himself locked up in Ablani. Caught breaking into a store.”

“Breaking into a store?” Somrak shakes his head.

“This is so undignified,” Dion grumbles.

On the back of his neck, Somrak can feel the sweat from his passenger’s face falling like the first drops of a summer rainstorm. “Yeah yeah, suck it up, big guy. You think it’s bad for you? Saira, can you pace us? Just in case some idiot tries something? Gangs around here… Could slow us down.”

“I’ll keep a lookout,” she says, pointing up at the rooftops. Then she narrows her eyes at Somrak. “You will let me into this. I’d hate to catch you breaking a promise.”

“Hey, a promise is a promise. I never break promises!” Somrak lies. “Right, here we go. I’ll take the most direct route back.”

“Sure. This will be fun to watch.” Saira goes out of sight, but Somrak hears her climbing up a waterpipe.

He starts jogging. Somrak is a god, but he’s not superhuman in strength. Even so, his compact, rock-hard muscle lets him support Dion and he makes good time. Just one foot in front of the other. Stay in the path. Ignore the people staring, the shouts and whistles, the jokes. Just one step, and another, and another. Keep going, Somrak. Dion’s grip is slackening, especially his injured arm, which is just hanging. Dion’s right hand holds tight to Somrak’s jacket, but even that is growing weaker. Somrak leans further forward to keep the god on his back.

Wait, did I make a wrong turn? No, no still on the right street. Have to turn at the fountain. Right, not much further. Only…a Hell of a lot more blocks.

If anybody tries to approach them, Somrak doesn’t notice. Maybe they got warning shots from Saira’s crossbow. Maybe they weren’t warning shots. For all he knows, Saira is leaving a trail of bodies in Somrak and Dion’s wake. The thought makes the fire god laugh.

Unfortunately, the repetitive heavy trudging does not shut down Somrak’s incessant thinking after all. All he has to do is keep Dion balanced on his back, run as fast as he can, and not get lost. So he has time to think about how Dion risked his life to find Sky. How Dion might even die tonight, if Somrak isn’t fast enough. About how determined Alma is to find Sky too, how they are both at least as determined as Somrak is.

And what Saira said. Her demand to be let into this. Yes, you promised her. Sky is being held by the Whisper, and as far as Somrak can tell, the head of the Whisper is the Lieutenant, the one she calls the Left Hand of the Devil. The one who ordered the murder of her gang, her family. He promised her and at the time, he believed she should be in on it.

For a moment his thoughts return to the job at hand as Dion slips slightly to the left. Somrak hops, shifting midair, landing hard – Knees! Ow – to slide Dion back into position.

“Come on, man,” Somrak grumbles. “You gotta hold on!”

He realizes Dion heard him when the one-handed grip on his jacket tightens, and the god mumbles in his ear, “Somrak? Dammit, I’ll tell her already…”

Somrak laughs weakly. “Yeah, sure, tell her, you big dope. Just hold on, Dion.

Trudge trudge trudge… So if Somrak has the right to risk his life, how can he take away that right from these others? All right, fine, Saira is a mortal, set her aside for now. But Dion? Alma? They’re already putting their lives on the line. Dion’s dying on Somrak’s back right now. Alma was nearly killed by shattered souls left behind by the necromancer’s bomb not so long ago. One of her corporals and his whole family has been murdered.

Somrak grimaces and powers forward. Who the Hell am I to say they can’t try? And let’s face it, going in alone might be all brave and self-sacrificing, but is it going to get Sky out? Not a chance. Time to reevaluate the plan. Maybe breaking promises isn’t the way to go after all.

Thighs burning, shoulders in agony, lower back shooting daggers of pain right up his spine, Somrak lets his mind run wild with this debate as a way of just ignoring the torment and continuing ahead. So what, then, are you going to turn Tulip and the others into orphans? Hell, you might’ve already got Dion killed. Is he even still alive back there? And what about Saira? Going to take a mortal along? She’ll be dead before she ever gets near the Lieutenant.

A hand grabs his bicep, but he keeps going a half-dozen steps, dragging his assailant along, before he comes back to the real world. He staggers, but Saira, with considerable effort, steadies him.

“Bad idea,” she says. Somrak looks at her in confusion, on the verge of collapse, but follows her pointing finger to see he was about to charge straight into Three Rats Station, where everyone would have seen an unmasked Somrak carrying their Sergeant Gwydion on his back. Bad idea indeed. “Get to the breezeway. Our death goddess has a portal there. Leads straight to her room.”

Somrak doesn’t even nod, just turns and trudges heavily to the breezeway. Saira runs ahead, around the station to the side where there’s a bathroom window that’s usually open. Every pain Somrak has been ignoring comes back full force as he plods forward. He’s not sure Dion is even breathing, but he can feel the god’s fever still raging. He stops in the breezeway just as the door from the station opens and Alma rushes out, her eyes wide with near-panic.

“Oh Ancients…Gwydion.” Her voice is a whisper as she frantically caresses Dion’s face, giving no indication that she has even noticed Somrak’s existence. After a moment, though, she glances at Somrak. “Hold on, I’ll just check to see that no one is in there.” By “in there,” he realizes she must mean her sanctum. Yes, having the place half-filled with Bunnies might be a bit awkward. Alma, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and concentrates, making a small circular gesture with her hands. A sparkling curtain of light springs up from the dirt around her feet, rising in multicolored rays to obscure her from his sight, until she disappears.

“Well looks like this is where I say boa noite,” Saira says. Somrak slowly turns his head to look toward her voice. She is standing at the corner of the building, shoulder resting against the wall, apparently having exited it the way she entered. She juts her chin toward Somrak’s burden. “Think he’s gonna make it?”

Somrak tries to shrug but doesn’t have the strength. “It’s all up to Alma,” he says. “Thank you…for getting him to me.”

Saira smirks. “Just don’t you forget to call on me when it’s time to go.” She turns on the ball of one foot, and she’s gone into the night.

Just as Saira leaves, the dazzling light rises from the ground again, and an arm reaches through it, grabbing Somrak’s wrist and pulling him into it. “Come, this way,” Alma says. He treads through the curtain of light and finds himself in her sanctum, which to him will always be remembered as a place of healing. He himself had been poisoned by demonic ichor not so long ago, something different from this but virulent as well. He stands still, waiting for the portal to fully dissipate, and for Alma to order him to do whatever needs doing. His mind is in no condition to make decisions, especially when the healer knows for better than he what to do.

Alma rushes to pull away the blankets on her bed. “Lay him there.” She moves out of Somrak’s vision as he moves like an automaton to the bed, returning with the same basin she used when she healed Somrak, filling it with water from the fountain.

Somrak slowly turns, then bending his knees, he straightens his back, allowing Dion to slip off and fall onto the bed. Gwydion bounces once, then Somrak carefully releases the god’s legs and stands fully, slowly, noticing pulled muscles he’ll have to heal soon. As he tries to straighten his legs again, his fatigued muscles give out, and he falls to his knees, catching himself from complete collapse by putting his hands out. A blue flash catches his sight and he sees Starfax, Alma’s phoenix, landing on the headboard to look down at Dion.

“Is’e okay?” Somrak slurs.

Alma, leaning over the supine body on the bed, says, “He is weak but still breathing.” She glances at Somrak, then looks at him again, longer. She finds a cup on the bedside table, dips it into the basin to fill it with water, and hands it to Somrak. “Here. It’ll make you feel better. You can rest in the alcove afterwards.” She sits on the edge of the bed and begins to open Dion’s shirt.

Somrak drinks very slowly, feeling the water filling his belly, traces of Alma’s mana in it diffusing through his stomach wall and into his body. He groans in pleasure and laboriously stands. “Jus’ tell me if I can do somethin’.”

She is struggling to get Dion’s jacket off. “You can help me remove his shirt and shoes.” Getting the jacket off his swollen left arm is difficult, but she manages it, and begins to unbutton his shirt. “Oh no…”

Somrak looks over her shoulder. The skin on Dion’s chest is darkening in tendrils and lines, looking disturbingly similar to the tattoos that appear on Sky’s face when he becomes angry. Somrak imagines he can almost see them growing before his eyes. Alma’s fingers trace the lines, which seem to be crawling across Dion’s chest from his left shoulder. She becomes rushed, desperate at trying to undo the buttons of his shirt.

Hardly thinking, Somrak pulls a short back-curved blade from one of the pockets of his jacket. The sharp edge is on the inside of the curve, used for cutting ropes or cloth, and he deftly slices Dion’s shirt from the neck down the left sleeve, exposing the arm to Alma’s ministrations. Where it is not mottled by thick, pulsating black lines, the arm is an angry red. Somrak pulls the shirt from under Dion’s back and off the uninjured right arm, tossing it aside, and sheathes the knife.

The point of entry is obvious, at the crease of the elbow, and Alma soaks a cloth in the basin and applies it. She gestures vaguely to the wardrobe on her right. “Left drawer, there is a box with mana orbs.”

Somrak is moving toward the wardrobe before she finishes talking, focusing in on the left drawer, slow but sure. He opens it and brings the whole box to Alma, setting it on the bed next to Dion so she can use as many as she needs. He stays standing, not trusting that he can get up again if he sits.

She opens the box and takes one of the orbs from it, barely looking at it, eyes fixed on Dion. The mana inside, in liquid form, sloshes gently, thick and viscid, as she puts it under his right hand and puts her hand over his fingers, closing them over it. Her snowy hair seems to stand on end, then moves as with a breeze as the room fills with the scents of spring and whispers of birdsong. Alma’s right hand is on the wet cloth over Dion’s left arm and her energy begins to flow through it, spreading through the black markings like oil trickling through water, slow but steady. From her left hand, the mana in the orb starts infusing into Dion’s body, easily spreading through the non-contaminated areas to create a blockade against the poison, trapping it against Alma’s healing magic. Somrak can follow it, seeing the fever dropping as the mana moves, sensing the mana itself as most gods can. It feels like an eternity for Alma’s magic to do its job. Somrak stays on vigil the entire time. Unable to help, still feeling vague but frustrated, hoping for orders to do something, he mutters under his breath, “Come on, Prettyboy…”

It is clear to see that Alma is devoting all her concentration, every measure of mana to healing Gwydion. The lines retreat, become thinner, slowly, very slowly disappearing from his skin, leaving behind only a coppery-red glow where they once were. Finally, there’s no blackness left in Dion, except a small mark of it around the original wound. Alma slumps and nearly collapses onto Dion when her magic leaves him. Dion’s body jerks suddenly, his back arches, and he gasps, eyes open. His head tilts to the side, his mouth moving in shuddered, slurred movements. Then his eyes close again, but he seems more at rest.

“Done…” she breathes.

Somrak turns carefully and slowly sits on the edge of the bed. He lifts a mana orb from the box and holds it out to her. “He gonna be all right?”

Alma nods, not looking at him, stroking the sweat-plastered locks of hair away from Dion’s face. “I hope so. Oh my dear…what kind of a price is this for mere information?”

“Information!” Somrak coughs a brief laugh. “Right… Lucky Pete got picked up breaking into a store. He’s being held in, uh, Ablani. Ablani Prison.”

Gwydion groans, his voice nearly inaudible, “Sommm… leave me alone… I’ll tell her…tell her I’m sorry…”

“Gwydion!” Alma takes his hand and squeezes it, obviously relieved, her other hand still cupping his cheek. “Gods, I was afraid I had failed. Can you hear me? You are in my room, dear. Saira and Somrak brought you here. You were poisoned. I think I managed to get most of it out of you.”

“I know, I know, I know…been so stupid. Stuuuuuuupid!” Dion mumbles. “Just shut up, Geryon! She’s the most important thing in the world to me – I’ll tell her! Just need some sleep…” And then he seems to slip back fully into unconsciousness.

Alma smiles, relief spreading over her face and her entire body. Softly, affectionately she says, “Sleep now, my love. She can wait.” She turns her head toward the box of mana orbs and seems almost startled to see Somrak sitting next to her, an orb in his hand. He raises it a little in offering, and she takes it, placing it on Dion’s chest, allowing its contents to seep through the solid glass and into the god’s spirit.

Somrak slowly stands, smiling. “Don’t forget to take one of those for yourself. I’ll head to Ablani and talk to Pete.”

Alma stands. “I’m coming with you.” She still looks like she has been through a battle, but her voice is strong again.

Somrak glances at the bed. “Dion stable?”

“He’ll be well,” she says. “And he’ll sleep for hours. Starfax will watch over him.”

Somrak nods. Letting her come now. Are you going to let her come when it really counts? “All right, then. I’m ready to go when you are.”


Ch6.71 Trust

“Now how do you know this person you’re taking me to?”

The walk from Rio Novo had been a mostly silent one so far. A blessing and a blight, from Dion’s point of view. On the one hand, it allowed him silence and time to think over the information gathered in Somrak’s short briefing, that morning. Not a lot of information and nothing very uplifting, unfortunately, but every bit would help.

On the other hand, it gave him opportunity to recall his conversation with the fire god from last night, Somrak’s warning against the very real possibility of either Dion or Alma not returning alive from the rescue mission, Dion’s own promise to speak to the death goddess and make amends. He had nearly done so that same night, when he met her in the breezeway, returning from her meeting with Saira, Geryon walking by her side. When she touched his hand and looked at him with sorrowful eyes and quietly told him of this arrangement to meet one of Saira’s contacts in no more than half a dozen words. If only Constable Longshot had not suddenly erupted from the station with a couple of papers that Dion had forgotten to sign…

And then she had signalled him to go take care of his duty and he had followed Longshot back into the station, leaving Alma to return to her sanctum and most likely obsess a little more over her family’s records of the Necromancer Wars. She had not slept in days, he could tell, and neither had he with any level of rest. But even though he had known her to be awake, or at least strongly suspected so, his courage had drained and the god had been left gazing at the office ceiling for most of his shift, trying to imagine a world in which her lovely eyes would never rest their gaze on him again. Impossible torture.

And so it was that, after meeting with Saira and silently following her towards the neighboring ward of Little Falls, he was now trying to break the heavy quietness between them with what would hopefully be a productive line of questioning.

Not that Saira was ever one to make things easy. “You don’t really wanna know how I know her, trust me.”

“Very well,” Dion says dryly. “As long she can give us a lead.”

Saira looks a little uneasy at this. “Yeah…’bout that…” She pauses as if she is trying to avoid the issue but after a glance at his unamused expression, she seems to make up her mind. “Getting her to give anything tends to get a bit tricky around the edges. Her business isn’t a very safe one. And you better not let her make you for a cop or we’re both dead in the water.”

“I see,” Dion replies, remembering why it is that he has never found Saira particularly enticing. Namely her tendency to make little of his abilities at anything. “Don’t worry about my cover. I will make sure she does not realize who or what I am.”

Again, she shows her distrust of him, eyeing him up and down as if he has just blatantly lied to her face. “Yeah… don’t take this wrong but you’re not exactly my first choice when it comes to this sorta thing. Too bad Ponytail is too busy elsewhere.” She shrugs. “Oh well..”

Dion’s jaw clenches at the comparison with Somrak but he refuses to humor her disdain. “We have a job to do.”

Saira’s chuckle at his reaction only makes it worse. “It’s true, then. There is trouble in paradise…” She pats his shoulder. “Don’t worry, love, where we’re going, you’ll get a perfect chance to use that smooth talk of yours to score a real hot chick. Might help your mood, to taste some variety.”

Dion cannot help but stiffen at her patronizing touch, anger rising, mostly at himself, for allowing her games to disturb him. He breathes deeply, locking eyes with her in a warning glare.

She seems to understand his wordless message, her expression darkening just about as much as his. Her tone is serious and quiet when she tells him, “I’m not kidding. She doesn’t trust easily and I… well, let’s just say we’ve been on better terms than we are now. You charmin’ her into talking may be the only way to get anything out of her about this Pete fella.”

Dion nods slowly at her words. So this is why he is coming along on this meeting. Very well, if charm is needed, a charmer he will be. The shift in thought is not at all difficult. There is a touch of anger in charm, a touch of possession, of superiority, power. Control. The absolute belief that one is at one’s best, regardless of the environment, one’s company. It is confidence in skill, in step, in speech. A hunter’s trust in the accuracy of his shot, the sharpness of his eye. He has been shaped in a land of great and arrogant beasts, of ruthless elements, where only the mighty and the bold dare survive and prevail. And once one has learned to match the great hunters, the whole of the world becomes prey.

He relaxes into himself and allows that confidence to pour over his shoulders, over his steps, to overflow and roll away from him. He is keeping his divinity well-hidden, his godly aura to a minimum, but what this is takes no magic, no power other than that of the mind over itself. He smiles at Saira, a lion – no, something bigger, much greater and older than any lion – baring his gleaming-white teeth at a housecat.

“I will be on my best behavior,” he states quietly, watching not without a certain glee as her pupils dilate, her hand reflexively and unconsciously opens and touches her hip, a fingernail grazing the exposed skin just above her belt.

Easy. So easy… If only he were willing.

It takes her just a fraction too long to return to herself, to grin mischievously and pat his cheek probably a little more playfully than intended. “That’s a good boy.”

No…it’s not.

They arrive at their destination shortly after. An apothecary shop, from the look of it. Various dried plants, looking old and stale from the crumbliness of their leaves, the wan color of their molding stems, hang from pieces of waxed string tied to a pair of hooks on each side of the low door. He signals Saira to enter first with an arching motion of his hand and wrist that seems to amuse (but please) her. A pair of steps lead inside, from the higher level of the street into a lowered room, dark and heavy with dust. It is a good thing that, like Three Rats, this area is neither prone to great bouts of rain nor flooding or the store would be better off selling rafters and decorative fish. He has but a moment to take in the various shelves, crowded with ceramic and glass pots, some opaque, some transparent, all advertising the names of the exotic remedies they carry inside.

Well, supposedly carry. Even without drawing on his magical senses, Dion can already feel the distinctive prickling to his nose and skin of things that no common apothecary should trade in. For no remedy for gods or mortals should resonate with the foul, poisonous essence of Hell.

A curtain of bamboo beads strung together with cheap twine rustles as it is moved aside to allow passage for who he supposes must be the shop owner. “Hello! And whót cán Ah – oh…it is you.”

The last few words are clearly directed at Saira and accompanied by a disdainful grimace instead of the smile that had adorned the apothecary’s face just seconds ago. An attractive woman, in a very specific definition of the word. Skin just a shade or two of brown deeper than the usual dark olive of most of the Three Rats population, exposed over the arms, neck, legs and belly. Her clothing made of cheap, rough cotton colored in dull reds, blacks and yellows, probably hand-dyed with natural pigments, reveals more than conceals a well-curved feminine form, wide hips and a slightly bulging abdomen with contours that seem to flow perfectly with the asymmetric cut of the dress: a top made to barely hide full breasts linked to a short skirt that ends mid-thigh by a large golden ring. Arms covered in wide bangles, ankles encircled by chain after chain of thick golden metal. Hair tied in a thick ponytail, hanging in coal-black dreadlocks. Beautiful, all of it, even if a little exaggerated for his tastes.

But what truly throws Dion off the mark are the scars. Row upon row of scarification marks all over her arms, her belly, her neck. Some short and straight, some long and jagged, some little more than raised bumps, a good many of them discolored and contrasting sharply with her skin’s natural tone. All of them clearly intentional, arranged in patterns, in symbols and images. She walks with a confidence that speaks of pride in her appearance. Dion asks himself why she would treat her own body so violently, going as far as piercing some of her scars with metal studs and rings, and trimming the tips of her ears to make them jagged.

He makes certain to hold his expression blank and pleasant in the face of this strange character.

“Gee…thanks for the warm welcome,” Saira complains by his side. “Is that how you greet every patient in need of treatment?”

“Di kind of illness you ha’, no poxión cán treet,” the apothecary replies, her thick accent forcing her to speak with a slow, irregular cadence. “Dei ha’ not cóme ahp with anyting yet fér rottan solles.”

Dion takes this time to consider the woman’s appearance. He has seen it before somewhere – ah, yes… in an old book about great yet sadly crazed mages and alchemists. He remembers a reference to one named Nomichor, famed for his dalliances into the dark arts of alchemical transmutation and fusion of demon bodies into animals and plants in order to study their physical properties. And famous as well for his habit and deep belief in the value of exposing himself to a varied assortment of his creations’ secretions by cutting his own skin and rubbing whatever foul drool or excrement he was studying onto his exposed flesh in the hopes of learning its virtues or, most of the time, dangers. He had died after one such experiment but not before losing a couple of limbs and a few other body parts to what he called ‘science’.

This woman, however, must be one of his followers, perhaps a descendant of one of his disciples. It surely explains the Hellish scents coming from jars labelled with names as innocent as ‘dried heather’. She jerks her chin at Dion, glancing at him with carefully appraising eyes. “A nu toy? You ne’er strock me fér a ‘gud and neet’ kind éf girl.”

Saira snorts at this, smoothly taking a step away from him. “Naah, you can have’im if you like. I just brought’im along to give you some money to earn.” She shrugs nonchalantly. “Unless you’re too mad at me to take an offer like that.”

Something in their tone and interaction speaks to Dion of latent resentment laced with physical attraction. As if these two women had once shared a bed and lived to regret it. He puts the thought aside, entertaining as it may be. More important issues are on the table.

“I am a client, Doctor,” he says with a smile, offering his hand palm up that she may take it. “Hers, briefly, and hopefully yours as well.”

The woman looks at him sideways, not taking his hand yet. “And wót it is dat you ah’ looking to ’eal? You look too gud to need mah sérvices. And noh bád enaf to need hérs.”

“Hey!” Saira protests.

The apothecary gives her no more than a smile in return before once again turning her attention to Dion, this time resting the tips of her fingers on the tips of his. “She tells you mah name. Wót is yors?”

He raises his hand to bring her fingers within the reach of his lips, kissing her scarred, rough skin in a slow, galant greeting, smiling at her and maintaining his gaze locked on her murky black eyes as he does so, ignoring for the moment the bitter taste of cussi and sumkir (either of which would easily see her imprisoned for dealing in demonic substances) infused deeply into her skin. Saira had not, in fact, told him this woman’s name but he nonetheless allows her the illusion of being the smartest person in the room. The assumption matters little to him but seems to please her immensely. And he wants her to be pleased with him.

“My name?” he asks as if this were anything but important. “You can call me Merillion.”

She smirks, nearly purring her response. “Ef corse, Ah can. And wót is it you need, Merillión?”

Her hand strokes his as she removes her fingers from his hold. Dion casually drops his hand and chuckles at her suspicion of him, letting his derisive laughter rumble a little deeper in his throat. “I am merely in need of information, and then I will leave you. For now. Who knows if we cannot do business again in the future? I have certain ingredients I need for my studies, and one of my providers, Lucky Pete–” he says the name with just the tiniest hint of distaste expected of him “–has disappeared on me.”

The woman takes a step closer to him, her head held slightly back as if she means to sniff the truth out of him. “Mebbe dis próvider ef yors senses sóme-ting abót you? Sóme-ting bad…” Her full lips move nearer his face. “For ’is healt?”

Dion looks at her coyly, though he makes no motion to pull back. She is standing just a hand’s breadth away from him, her body leaning at the hip, back arching ever so slightly so that she may maintain eye contact. She means to invade his space and he has no intention but to invite her in. “I wouldn’t know what is going on in his mind,” he says, speaking against her lips. “But I suspect his missing our meeting has more to do with the disruption to a certain recent market than anything he might think about me. I will be very grateful for any help.”

Her hands smoothen the lapels on his shirt as she notes in soft, quiet tones that are as amused as the grin on her face. “You dress like préih, Merillión. But Ah sense darknéss in yor solle. Pain in yor hart. And powah’ beyond a mortól mahn.”

“You have sharp eyes, Doctor,” he whispers, leaning his head slightly closer, letting his gaze fall just a little lower on her face. “Beautiful, sharp eyes.”

“Oh, you wou’ be amézed at wót dei cán see,” she purrs, her cheek brushing against his lips as she turns and walks away from him. “You know you kéme in he-ar wi’ a dead wumón?”

“Is that what they’re sayin’?” Saira asks with a touch of amusement.

“All I know is that she that has introduced me to you, and for that alone she has earned my gratitude,” Dion retorts dismissively, removing the lid of a porcelain jar sitting on a little pedestal and grimacing at the acrid stench of something being kept in very old embalming fluid. “And her substantial fee.”

Do people really believe a basilisk’s claw will heal broken bones overnight? he wonders.

The woman snorts at his ill-fated curiosity. “Well, word on di streets is Saira die helpin’ di Guardia fight a deemón and dei ték ’er body fer buryin’. Now she is he-ar, alive though I cán see di marks on her. Wót do you méke of dat, Merillion?”

“I am not a traitor!” Saira bellows suddenly and it takes Dion every morsel of self-control in his body not to turn to look at her. “I was trying to keep a bunch o’ kids from being sold to kibble!”

The god makes a show of exhaling deeply, feigning slight irritation. Saira’s tone is alarmingly outraged and hurt and he fears the woman may be stressing herself into one of her convulsive fits but he cannot afford to break character. “People talk and talk.” He raises a hand, gesturing vaguely in further dismissal. “Clearly not everything about her is as rumors say. But this is not my concern.”

“Not onless you ah’ Guardia too,” the apothecary counters, turning her smiling, highly entertained gaze from Saira’s enraged expression to Dion’s vacant profile. She studies him intensely while lifting the lid of a glass counter that doubles as a display case and removing from it an inconspicuous bottle from a throng of similar-looking bottles apparently containing colorful powders and mysterious liquids.

Dion laughs lightly at the accusation, turning to face her more directly. “Oh, is that your concern? My dear Doctor, I am a practitioner. Such so-called forces of authority are more a hindrance to my research than a benefit to anyone’s protection.”

She opens the bottle. “And wót is yor research, practitioner?”

Dion watches as she removes a carved-bone needle from a small jar of such items and dips its tip into whatever is being held in the thumb-sized container. He can see Saira’s expression of unease at the sight of it through the corner of his eye.

Still, he must continue. “My research? I am interested in expansion of the powers of the mind.” He sniffs at the scent that is just now reaching his nostrils as the apothecary moves closer to him. Demon ichor. Purified but spiked with something he cannot quite identify. He curses internally. “Interesting choice, that. Not really what I’m in the market for.”

“No, you don’ look like a killeh, like Saira,” the woman says with a snort that makes her bangles jingle in a bone-jittering choir. “Bót mébbe you woul’ lák to put mah mind at peace? Shó me you ah’ troo and mortól. Share yor pain wi’ Karm. Dén I might discóss di lost and found wi’ you.” She holds the needle sharp-end-up for his inspection. “A prick éf dis brings pain to mortóls but if you ah’ a god…it will hurt méch moh.” She leans closer to whisper in his ear. “Ah ha’ left moh den one god at di Barón’s doorstep wi’ dis special brew.”

He can fill her plump lips curl into an evil grin against his earlobe and cheek. A sadist’s grin, looking to watch him squirm and cower, basking in whatever fear and pain she may anticipate. But two can play that game.

“I come here to offer you business and you want to poison me?” he whispers back, fingers wrapping around her hand and tightening around it in an iron grip.

She chuckles and pulls away, smiling at first but then looking quite put off when, with a beatific smile of his own, he tightens his grip further, holding her hand in place. Still, it takes her only a fraction of a moment to relax and find sensual pleasure in their little game of tug-of-war. “Éf you are troo, you ha’ noting to feér but a littel pain. We all ha’ a price. Péi mahne or leeve.”

“Karm, come on,” Saira pleads. “My arm hurt horrors when you did that to me. Went numb for three days after that.”

Demon ichor, specialty brew. Most likely something of the sort he has seen Saira use to hunt and kill divine members of the Dukaine organization. One of very few things that is safer to mortals than to gods. That could easily kill a god, even in small amounts, if directed straight into vital organs with a plentiful blood supply, poisoning the organism and destroying the superhuman healing properties that are a prerogative of all but the weakest divine bodies. Though the amount of it lacing Karm’s needle is exceedingly small, it is still potent in its purity and, at the very least, extremely painful to experience.

But this is for Sky, for the hope of finding out where he is being held so that they can extract him and end the reign of terror of this necromancer who wishes nothing but to bring them pain and death. Who wishes nothing but to hunt down those who Dion cares about and remove them from his world. This is his part to play in the making sure that the enemy does not succeed. His moment to sacrifice. He dares not think that this might be in vain, that Karm will know or say nothing in the end.

So he plays along, releasing Karm’s hand and unbuttoning the cuff of his shirt so that he can easily roll up his sleeve. If he can have a choice of injection places, he may as well keep that foul needle away from any major blood vessels. Once he is done, he presents her his left forearm, an expression of annoyance on his face that he hopes hides well his inner concerns.

He draws upon his training, as a wizard and a martial artist, to strengthen himself against the agony he can only imagine will follow. His will is iron. It must be to do the things he does. And he will resist the urge to scream, to cringe, to collapse, to give her any of the sadistic pleasure she hopes to extract from him with this little game of hers. He will. He will. No pain or poison can match the agony his heart is in already, anyway.

Or so he tells himself.

Karm smiles through a mouth full of teeth carefully filed to sharp points and wraps her fingers around his forearm, pricking him. “Nice bréce-let, bai di wé. Prétti.” She strokes the bracelet that Alma has made for him and that he has not taken off since that gift-giving day with her poisonous, scarred fingers and Dion locks his jaw, barely resisting breaking every single one of them for daring soil his love’s gift with her tarnishing touch. “Méde wi’ lóve, wasit?”

The pain hits like a hammer. Her words are lost to his ears. The tiny drop of poison enters his skin like burning lava, corrosive acid eating away at his flesh, melting through tissue, through vessel walls, a drop stretching into a flood as it enters his bloodstream and spreads, spreads slowly like thick oil clogging his veins, seeping into muscle, into bone, stealing the life-giving air from his blood cells, suffocating everything in its passage. The acid of his arm’s desperate attempt to function in the absence of oxygen hurts him as much as the poison itself. It is…astonishing. His fist clenches – he cannot help it. The muscles of his forearm bunch and strain. And then it is spreading throughout his body, almost leisurely, breaking down the practiced, honed defenses against toxins that years of training have loyally kept in place as if they were nothing but paper against a flame. A terrible, consuming flame. He feels his temperature rise, sweat breaking out on his face. Involuntary reactions that he cannot control. But he can still control his breathing, and he keeps it smooth, as smooth as possible. The urge to scream is almost impossible to suppress, but he does through sheer force of will.

His one concession to pain is to close his eyes. The agonizing sensation is spreading quickly and he must focus. Something, something to take his mind off the agony, off the terrible feeling that he is dying in excruciating pain, off the rumbling within him of a force he has only barely felt in years but which moves now with irritation, like something being poked into vigilance after a sleep of ages. Something big and angry and confused, disgusted at the poison that spreads through its lair and threatens to destroy it. He is afraid, has always been afraid of this strange presence that rarely surfaces but takes over his senses whenever it does. A primitive, brutal rage he has used more than once to his survival in the Dragon Lands but knows not how to reach or tame. He would easily level this shop, half of the ward with it, he knows. But he cannot. He cannot let it out. Not now. Not now. The pain cannot blind him to his purpose or he will destroy what is their only lead to Sky’s location.

And then it will be his fault and the lovely hands that have weaved the bracelet that encircles his wrist will never again touch him with kindness. With love. It hurts to think about them, to think about her knowing that he is yet to repair the chasm he has opened between him and his beloved but still it is to her that he runs, to his memory of her, to escape the pain. To her smile, her touch, to stolen kisses in quiet times, to that last night in their office, her sleeping form lying in his arms, breathing peacefully against him in that slow, ever so slow way of hers that even in vigilance and effort clashes so strongly against his rushing heart, his quick breath. To her cool touch, her sluggish pulse that never fails to calm him down and infuse him with peace even as her lips excite his lust with their kiss. He runs to her in thought, mind trying to remind his body of the running of her fingers through his hair, of the gentleness of her hold, of the cleansing sensation of her healing powers spreading through him in search of wounds, enticing his cells to release whatever substances she knows of to drown pain with pleasure. He can almost feel it now, so vivid the agony makes his desperate memory.

He holds on to it so that his knees will not buckle, his eyes not fill with tears. He can fill Karm watching him, at the edge of his senses, her stare one of strange glee, almost as if she is feeding off his pain. He does not care. His mind is filled with a single thought: survival. Survival with a purpose. To make things right, to rebuild his little piece of paradise. He has to live. For her. To be with her again. To let her heal his wounds with her presence if not with her magic.

He feels a hand on his back. “You’re sick, Karm.”

Saira’s voice. He opens his eyes, feeling his physical pain under a flimsy control, not trusting himself to speak.

Karm shrugs. “You did sé Ah coul’ ha’ him.” She moves closer to Dion and her hands rest on his arms as she leans to touch her lips to his jaw, tasting his sweat-ridden skin. “Oh you ah’ so tense. Ah lóve et.”

She glances at Saira, then speaks, her mouth ever so close to Dion’s. “Wi’ you grón fer mi?”

With great effort, Dion wills himself to smile. “I’m not much for groaning.”

His eyes spell murder, he knows. He cannot help it. Within him, lashing in pain and confusion, his raging core roars and growls. I will crush you, you petty, meaningless little creature. And I will love every second of it.

For now, however, he has more important things to do. “You asked for a heavy price, Doctor. I paid it. Now it’s your turn to give me what I want.”

Karm looks into his eyes, then pouts in a way she probably thinks is adorable but that looks nothing but ridiculous for her personality. “Fahn… Ah guess we plé sóm odér tahme.” She suddenly steps away from him, her voice now serious and impatient. “Pete did noh shó ahp becóse he get bostéd fer breaking into a stór. Noh lák Pete at awlle.”

Dion sighs to conceal a sudden sharp burst of pain to his chest that almost steals his breath. He shakes his head as he regains control. “Well that explains things. Which ward is he in? At least I’ll know where he is.”

“Dei send awlle prisonérs to Ablani from he-ar,” Karm replies, leaning against her small counter of poisons. “Whót ah’ you lookin’ fer, Merrilión? Mébbe dére ah’ alternatifs to Pete.”

“I doubt you deal in infera aura,” Dion notes, rolling down his sleeve and touching his bracelet for what little comfort that brings him.

Karm blanches slightly at the mention of the infernal mineral, much to the god’s petty pleasure. “Ah… noh, sorre.” She turns toward the bamboo-bead curtain and the door beyond, announcing the end of their appointment. “Ha’ a nice dé, Mellirión. Cohm bék anytime.”

“Hey, don’t I get to shop?” Saira asks, looking peeved but, Dion notes from her quick, worried glance at him, not terrible so.

“Not todé,” Karm replies, not looking at her. Instead, she grins at Dion. “Mah dé is méde.”

“Glad to have given you such pleasure,” he says to her. “May the remainder of your day be as pleasant.”

“Whót a gentle mahn,” she jests, disappearing behind the curtains. “Be carefool, Merillión. Whót you seek……óders coul’ see you as competitión.”

“Be seein’ you, Karm,” Saira calls to her.

“Saira,” the apothecary’s voice rings from a distance. “You sté alive, now.”

And so they leave the shop, quickly, silently. They manage to pass a couple of alleys before Dion ducks into the shade of a taller building, staggering slightly from the violent bouts of pain stabbing at his gut. He puts a hand to the wall, breathing heavily from the effort of staying conscious.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Saira whispers at his side. “She doesn’t do that often on a first meet. How’re you doin’?”

In her defense, she sounds truly concerned. But he cannot bring himself to care. His torso is ablaze with agony, the hand he is using for support is shaking beyond his control. His stomach clenches, his abdomen contracting in a heave, a series of heaves. His breakfast, what little of it he had had the humor to eat gushes into his throat, acid of another kind making his esophagus burn and polluting his mouth on its way to the cobblestone street. He shudders as a new wave of contractions seemingly tries to rip the inner lining of his now empty stomach. No…no…no… He cannot fall now. He has to endure, to make it back to Three Rats. His powers flare to life, trying to inactivate the poison, though he has no experience of such things, no real knowledge of how to deal with something as destructive as demon ichor. All he has is anger.

“She doesn’t… do that often?” he heaves. “If you… had warned me…” He takes a deep breath, struggling for control. “I could have prepared…”

Saira ignores his growling tones and puts her hands to his sides to support him. “Shh… Don’t talk. Breathe. Don’t hold it in. That was damn brave of you but let it flow now. It’s bad but you’ll get better faster if you don’t fight it.”

He turns and leans his back against the crumbling mortar covering the building’s brick wall. He rolls back his sleeve to look at his progressively numbing arm and see the skin turning black around the area the needle touched. Quickly turning black. And spreading.

Good thing she didn’t see that… he thinks.

“Can the others help?” Saira asks, obviously disturbed by his reaction to the poison.

“I don’t know,” Dion confesses. “Gods are very sensitive to demon ichor. And not very good at inactivating it.”

But I have to be, he thinks. I have to be. Whatever it takes, I have to get home. I have to…

He holds his breath against nausea. …to make it right. To see her again. To tell her…I’m sorry. I should have trusted her. I should have.

He forces himself to stand up straight again, and looks intently at Saira. “Whatever happens to me, you will take me back to the station.”

To tell her how much I need her, how much I love her. Hold her again.

And though it is not the best-phrased of his requests, Saira seems to catch the urgency in his voice. She nods. “Let’s get you home.”

Just one more time.

Ch6.68 Trust

Steel claws dig into Sky’s jaw to raise his unresisting head, bringing him partially out of a state that cannot be called sleep, more of a fitful unconsciousness. He opens one eye reluctantly. The other is already open, unable to close but blind, the lid partially torn away, the orb split by the whip formed from the spine of a tortured, mad death goddess.

His one good eye takes a moment to focus on Nua, grinning at him with that young pale face, in structure and complexion nothing like the Nua he had known, in expression unmistakable, instantly recognizable. “Good morning, Azzie! Ready for our next session? I have a treat in store for you. I spent all night preparing this, just for you.”

He summons as much dignity as he can. “So far…you have bored me with your amateur attempts. Why don’t you…summon up some experts from Hell?” The truth is, though he has with supreme effort resumed his human form, he can feel it slipping away from him like a watermelon seed squeezed between two juice-slicked fingertips. And with it, he feels his hope trying to go. He knows they want to reduce him to a bestial status, that for some reason they cannot bind him, despite knowing his true name, and by itself that is reason enough to resist. But he knows that rescue is highly unlikely, and if such an attempt is made…the thought of even one of those he loves being killed or tortured makes him want to find a way to kill himself right now – except of course that they would not know, and would come after him anyway, only to find a corpse. He simply hopes that they will never find this place, wherever it is.

They will miss him, mourn him. But they will live. They will comfort one another. They will find a way to take down the Whisper safely, too late to rescue him, surely, but then they’ll know his fate. They’ll be able to move on. That is what he holds onto, this narrative. As the bone-deep whiplashes leave fissures in his flesh and even his soul, threatening to drown all that he has gained since escaping Hell – friendships, love, family, duty, pride, loss – drown it in roaring and agony, he holds onto that, that those he loves will come through this safely.

And then the whip slashes across Sky’s chest, prompting a scream of pain that he cannot stop, but forces into something distantly related to laughter. Fresh blood gushes from the wound, spattering the floor to thicken the caked, dried layers at his feet.

Nua moves closer to him, her lower lip thrust out, pouting like a spoiled child. “Now, that wasn’t a nice thing to say. Not when I’ve brought some visitors here to see you.” She gestures to the door behind Sky. He hears wheels on the stone-flagged floor, and sees a gurney come into his limited field of vision. It looks as if it was rescued from a rubbish heap, the metal frame rusted, the wheels squeaking, one of them jittering like an old man’s trembling hands. The thin mattress atop the frame is stained with old blood, and strapped down on it is a man, struggling, barefoot, wearing torn, bloody trousers. The man’s wrists are locked down with shackles engraved with magical glyphs. Sky cannot see his face at first – his blind eye is on that side. But as the Whisper tough pushing it parks it in front of Sky, he sees a familiar face staring at him, hazel eyes pleading above a ball-gag.


Sky roars and strains against the chains, his skin darkening rapidly with tattoos. “NOOOOOO! LET HIM GO! LET THEM GO!”

“But they’ve come all this way! They were all so cute, too, barging in to save you.” Nua laughs at the two gods trying to break free of their bonds. She slides the vertebral form of the whip through her fingers. “Now, one thing I realized is, you’re right. I’ve been on the painful end of the whip for these past two centuries, but I’m still not good enough to torture someone who was born in Hell. But! It occurs to me that none of your precious little friends has ever known the pleasures of endless Hellish torture.” Her hand grazes Dion’s leg, who struggles harder, mumbling through the gag.

Barely resisting the urge to shift into his devil form, Sky begs, abject. “What do you want from me? This – this accomplishes nothing. Nua, why do this? Please, please don’t…”

“Dearest Azzageddi, you still haven’t realized, have you? All I want from you is,” Nua pauses for a breath, “your pain.” She raises the whip and strikes Dion across the torso, diagonally from left shoulder to right hip. Blood spatters Nua’s face and chest. He screams incoherently, arching his body as much as he can within the tight straps.

Sky lunges against the chains, his body transforming faster than ever before, the shackles grinding and cracking his wristbones as they adjust too slowly. His roar causes the stones in the walls to rattle, dust to fall from the ceiling. “I WILL DEVOUR YOU ALIVE! I WILL TEARRRRR YOU TO PIECES AS YOU BEG FOR MERRRRRRCY!

Nua strikes Dion again, across the thighs, opening up deep wounds there as well. “Oh, yes! Yes! Roar, Azzageddi! Your roars are music to my ears!” Transferring the whip handle to her left hand, she slips a long, slender knife, one made for the kitchen rather than fighting, free from her sleeve and plunges it into Dion’s shoulder, right into the joint, twisting it to make him scream, his eyes locked on Sky, seeing his friend, his commanding officer, become an enemy of the gods.

Sky’s roars become worse than incoherent, cursing in Malbolge, one of the languages of Hell, curses that could age or sicken a normal mortal.

Nua draws back the blade and makes a show of licking the blood from it. “Now now, if you are going to be rude, my little devil, I might have to hurt our guest a bit more. I might have to pour some demon ichor into his wounds.” She reaches into a pocket and removes a vial. “We both know what that does to gods, don’t we?”

Pleeeeease…” His abyssal voice rings strangely pitiful in begging. “Please, no. I will swear loyalty to you. Just let them go.

Nua gives him a smiles of pleasure, but waggles her finger in admonishment. “Ah ah ah! Slaves do not get to cut deals. You will serve me. But I will do whatever I wish.”

Sky raises his massive head and howls his frustration. Shoulders heaving as he sobs for air, he looks at the shivering god on the gurney, and says quietly, “Dion…Dion I am sorry. I’m sorry.

Sky knows there is nothing he can do. Begging will only give Nua pleasure and drive her to greater acts of horror. And his apologies mean nothing. This is all his fault.

Dion’s eyes widen, then close tightly as Nua unscrews the cap on the vial. He struggles harder, but the straps hold him almost motionless. Nua carefully pours about a third of the contents into the wound in Dion’s shoulder. The stench of concentrated, refined demon ichor fills the room. Sky groans, slumping in the chains as Gwydion struggles and seizes, the pain too great even to allow him to scream through the gag. His skin blackens around the wound, and then in blotches further from it, rotting him from the inside out. The enchanted shackles prevent him from using his magic to heal himself, though with that much poison, it wouldn’t make any real difference anyway.

Nua watches in rapt fascination. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this in action.” She holds the smoke-glass bottle up to check it. “Need to make sure I save some for the others.”

Gwydion gives one last, gag-muffled scream, all his muscles locking, and then he collapses. Dead.

Limp in the chains, Sky sobs. Dion was his friend. They had fought alongside each other, aided each other, gone from a shared, suspicious aversion between the no-Ring outsider and the pampered First-Ring elite to a shared respect for each other’s differing but overlapping senses of justice and honor. Sky had been unsure at first about the growing romance between Alma and Dion, but he had become happy for them both as it had flowered, and sad when they had fought so recently.

And now dead. So pointlessly, so traumatically. Sky wants to whisper prayers for Dion’s soul, but fears Nua might detect that. In her madness, perhaps she will allow the god’s soul to escape. If a soul can escape from this room.

Nua looks at the corpse as if just now realizing it’s dead. “Oops! I got a bit carried away with this one, didn’t I? I hardly made it last!” She smiles at Sky, almost normally, making the blood drops on her face all the more disturbing. “Don’t worry. I won’t be half as rash with the other ones.”

She goes to the door and yells into the hallway, “Bring in the next one! And take this filth out of here.”

A shaken gangster rushes in and wheels away the stretcher while another wheels in a gagged Saira, fighting like a trapped fox against the straps, desperately using every mote of energy she has, clearly not caring if she snaps a bone in her struggles.

Sky cannot stop himself from roaring again.


“Now wasn’t that fun? This one lasted much longer than the other one, didn’t she?”

Nua wipes a curved flensing knife on her blood-soaked skirt, and tosses a liver onto Saira’s mutilated, still corpse. The low-ranking gang-member who comes in to wheel her out just stares for a moment, shocked into immobility, but takes the push-handle, tacky with half-dried blood, and pulls the gurney from the room.

“Shall we proceed to dessert?” Nua asks with a grin. “You’ll like this one, for sure. You liked her enough to take her into your lair. How was she, darling? Was she as good as I was? Did she like it when you did that little thing with your thumb? Surely you haven’t stopped doing that.”

Sky has been silent a long time, forcing himself to watch the slow death of Saira, but hanging from the chains as if in a coma otherwise, trying to will himself to die. At Nua’s words, he closes his eyes and says softly, “If you kill her, you’ll have nothing to use against me. And you know I will kill you at the first opportunity. If you keep her alive, I will serve you.

Gently, Nua replies, “Oh Azzie… Always so limited. Of course I will have something against you. With her dead, who is to stop me from snatching her precious Bunnies and turning their slender bones into flutes and rattles for demon-spawn? Why, my servants are on their way now to fetch the little critters.”

He sags, defeated. “Please, Nua…please…

Nua moves closer to him and strokes his muzzle. “You should have thought about that when you killed me.”

He lunges for her, arms stretches as far as they can, trying to catch her arm in his wolflike teeth. He almost succeeds. If this had been near the beginning of his capture, he surely would have, but he has been slowed by the torture. His teeth snap together on empty air. Nua dances back with a scream that turns into nervous laughter when she finds she has not had her arm torn off. She covers up her burst of fear by pirouetting to the door and calling harshly, “Bring her in!”

A servant wheels in the white-haired goddess, dressed in Guardia Dei indigo, pale and slender, gagged and bound like the others. Her eyes are closed and, though she does not scream, her frame shakes slightly. Tears wet the corner of her eyes.

Nua strokes Alma’s face, making the goddess flinch. “She is such a pretty little thing, isn’t she? I wanted to ride her body and use her to get to the very heart of the Death Clan. Use her body to blow her family to bits.” She moves her face closer to Alma’s, her bloodied dagger grazing her victim’s neck. “Don’t we look like we would match?”

Sky whispers, as quietly as he can in his abyssal voice. “Alma…Alma, I cannot stop this. I am so sorry…” He feels utterly helpless, useless, nothing but a monster that has brought all he loves to a slow death. How took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies. Because of him, they will all suffer slow, brutal deaths, all but Mayumi. Safe at the Academy, she will survive, shattered and haunted by the merciless murders of her family.

Trailing her dagger along Alma’s body, tracing the shape of her form, a hungry look on her face, Nua says, “Yes, you can apologize. I’ll make sure she lasts long enough to hear everything you have to say.” She scratches Alma’s calf, drawing a thin line of crimson, and then moves it up under Alma’s skirt. Alma gasps in through her nose, shakes her head no, as Nua teases the razor-sharp blade along the goddess’ inner thighs. Sky clenches his taloned, pinioned hands.

The necromancer leans down to whisper loudly into Alma’s ear, “I had him first, Death Clan whore.” She stabs between the goddess’ legs.

Alma’s azure eyes snap open and her back arches in pain, a scream issuing from her throat and bubbling around the ball-gag. She closes her eyes and screams again as Nua twists the dagger, then pulls it back and stabs again.

Sky screams with her through his tight-clenched teeth. The goddess turns her head to look at Sky for the first time, her blue eyes imploring him, too terrified by the vicious thrusts that she is merely confused, not frightened by this devil in chains.

Breathing heavily, as if inflamed by lust, Nua pulls the gore-covered blade out from under Alma’s blood-soaked skirt, pointing the knife at the goddess’ belly. “She can heal, can’t she?” Her voice is crazed, on the verge of breaking into laughter. “I’ll just slice her open like a peach!”

She plunges the knife into Alma’s stomach. Goddess of life and death both, her powers kept inactive by the shackles, she struggles, mad with pain, her head turning, eyes returning, pleading and terrified to Sky. Looking to a devil to save her from a mortal. Her blue eyes…deep as the sea.

Blue, Sky realizes. They got her eyes right. Perfect. Except they haven’t seen her since before she became the Spinner. The didn’t know that her eyes have changed.

And that is when he knows: This is all a sham. These people are not Gwydion, Saira, and Alma. They are strangers, transformed by magic into perfect copies. That is why they are gagged, so they cannot scream out their confusion coherently and thereby reveal that they are not who they appear to be.

But the torture, the death, is all real. These are almost certainly mortal innocents, perhaps people without homes, taken off the street and suffering simply to destroy Sky’s resistance. The devil’s heart breaks again. His friends are safe, for now. But these people, who have nothing to do with him, are caught up in this and dying senselessly, with no idea why.

All this burns through his mind in a moment. He knows he cannot let Nua know that he has caught on. He keeps his eyes locked on the suffering woman’s, trying to help her focus on him, on anything other than the pain. He wonders what she sees, this terrifying monster that has been begging for her life. He silently promises her that if he somehow escapes, he will find out who she was and tell her family, if she has one, that she did not run away from them, did not abandon them. That it was not her fault that she disappeared from their lives. He can only hope she can detect the real sympathy he has for her, so that she knows she is not dying alone. He has nothing else to give.

It does not end quickly. Nua makes it last, but eventually she is bored by Sky’s lack of responsiveness. She blinds the woman with demon ichor, thrilling to the woman’s struggles, even though so much of her blood is already gone from her body. And then it is over and Nua orders her gone.

Nua looks down at her black dress, shiny and clinging to her body, heavy with blood, the floor foul and incarnadine. “Well, I guess that’s the end of this session. Wasn’t that entertaining?” She smiles like a child who has just received a big bag of candy. Sky lowers his head, silent.

Nua walks closer to him. “Are you mine yet, Azzie? Have you realized yet that your only choice is to serve me?”

He takes some time to become aware of her, to process what she said. He looks at her in fear and slowly nods.

Trying to bite her before was unwise. If he kills her, Margrave will still have him in chains.

So when Nua touches his face, grinning, he does not try anything. It takes great effort, but he feigns complete passivity. “Now, where is the Azzageddi that I remember? The one I gave a body to? Show him to me.”

His first human form. The frightened young man that, at Nua’s orders two centuries ago, he killed and ate in order to steal his shape. Sky reaches deep, searching for that form of one who had rejected her. He has not worn it in in all those years since he killed Nua, not since acquired his usual one, that of an island demigod, in personal combat. They are the only two shapes he has ever stolen. It is not an ability that he is proud of, and since the cost is the murder and cannibalization of a victim, he does not wish to steal any others. But that first one is still there, deep in his memory. He struggles to change, the unfamiliar form and the powerful need to be a devil fighting him. Being human is too painful, vulnerable.

But finally he succeeds. Bloody, thin, and pale, he hangs in the chains.

Nua strokes his face, her fingers leaving cold lines of blood across his cheek. “That’s more like it.” She leans in and runs her tongue over his lips before she kisses him.

He kisses her back, hesitantly. Tears begin to spill from his human eyes. As a devil, he cannot weep.

She breaks away, speaking softly, “Show me your tongue.” She holds up the same knife she used on Alma.

He allows his fear to show. “P-please…” His voice is higher, weaker than in his usual human-seeming form.

Her voice is velvet-smooth, “You were a bad boy, Azzie. Mother will have to teach you manners. Now…obey.”

He opens his mouth and puts out his tongue. It is not at all difficult to look at her, silently begging for mercy.

In one smooth movement, she pinches his tongue with two fingers and slices it off, tossing it away like unwanted meat. Blood gushes into his mouth, and his mouth closes, his lips grazing her fingers, tasting his own blood and that of three strangers.

Ch6.67 Trust

Darkness falls across the ward – all right, things are getting to be repetitive. It’s dark. It’s freaking dark. It’s always freaking dark. Clear? Clear. Good.

Truth be told, it isn’t always dark everywhere in Three Rats but when someone tends to lurk in the shadier areas and move preferentially in nighttime, darkness is sort of a given. Heck, darkness is a blessing. Last thing anyone trying to go unnoticed wants a big, great shining light following him or her or jyr around. Nothing a few cobblestones and crossbow bolts to the occasional street lamp won’t fix, though!

Anyway, the darkness does not bother Saira as she moves swiftly and soundlessly toward the meeting place she set up herself. She really has no desire to rush or even attend the meeting but the vague message in Alma’s handwriting, stuffed in the old crack in the wall of the abandoned school has her curious enough to meet the death goddess. She anticipates a huge part of the conversation to revolve around her sudden departure from Alma’s room and her care on the night of the gift-giving party, but she is prepared to counter that word for word. She is even half surprised it took any of the Dei in Three Rats this long to contact her. Well, not Dion. She would never expect Dion to contact her. Somehow her athletic, well-toned frame has failed to grab the attention of the magic god with a foolproof libido. Oh well, she doesn’t really like him, anyway.

Saira arrives at the place where an old circular plaza somehow got rammed by a huge stone building with tall spires and an insane amount of tiers of carved statues of people with too many arms, the wrong sort of legs and tongues too long for comfort, cutting three of the plaza’s exits and seriously narrowing the only remaining one. Flecks of paint keep falling off the once garish walls of the pyramid-like building, littering the ground below. Saira watches Alma from behind the massive sculpted head of a mean-looking snake with way too many teeth, wondering just how much the goddess realizes what she is doing to her expensive boots. Shouldn’t gods glide on air or something? Must be a bonus feature.

“This better not be a call for a scolding,” Saira calls out from her hiding place on the second tier of statues once the goddess gets close enough. “I have better things to do.”

She watches Alma look exactly to where she is hiding – wait…she was already looking in that direction, wasn’t she? She didn’t even turn her head looking for where the sound was coming from. Cringe.

“Why would I be scolding you?” Alma asks, looking toward Saira as if she could see through stone.

Thing is…she can, Saira reminds herself as she comes out of hiding and drops onto the floor, raising a small cloud of what must be really colorful dust. Mean night-vision, too.

“Come on, get on with it,” she coaxes the goddess. “Get it over with.”

“Get what over with?” Alma insists.

“Really?” Saira asks blankly. She waits for a full minute of silence but Alma just looks at her with a witless expression. Are those crickets chirping in the distance? Aaarrghh!!! “Come on! I can just hear it!”

She tilts her head to the right and makes a mock, too-high-pitched imitation of Alma’s voice. “‘Why would you leave without saying anything? Did we treat you wrong in any way?’” Tilting her head to the left, she adds in her own voice. “‘No, you didn’t.’” Head to the right. “‘Then why?’” To the left. “‘I needed to be on my own, out here where I belong.’”

Much to her surprise, Alma merely watches impassively as she goes on with the one-sided dialog, mimicking the goddess’ voice, words pouring out faster and faster. “‘You don’t belong in the streets. No one belongs in the streets. We wanted you to become a part of our family and you were enjoying it, weren’t you?’ ‘Uhh…Kinda.’ ‘Then why leave? All the Bunnies were distraught at finding you gone. Especially Cherry. You know how much Cherry likes you.’ ‘Well, it was your fault for bringing me to that station in the first place. I was perfectly happy dying from being stabbed in the gut by some demon, thank you very much!’”

She catches herself raising her voice to a near-shout on the last line and stops herself from going on with the scolding session. She feels scolded enough already, anyway.

Alma holds her silence for a little while longer as Saira regains her breath, watching the woman with a pair of eyes that keep glowing in a really eerie way – not the usual flare of her using her hocus-pocus-mambo-jambo scary death goddess thing but something different. Effortless, like the goddess doesn’t even realize she is doing it. Nothing Saira has ever seen her do unless strictly necessary and for as short a period as possible. Huh…weird. But kinda pretty too if you can get past the fact that, in the darkness of the alley, Alma’s head looks like it’s just hanging there and not really attached to anything else.

“You have…really put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?” the goddess asks slowly.

Well, that was anti-climatic. Oh, well…

Saira shrugs. No point in forcing the issue. “Heh, I had the time. This ward is getting to be a bit boring with you goody do-gooders going around putting criminals in jail. Messing with my livelihood. So, what took you three days to call me?”

Much to her surprise, Alma actually looks embarrassed at the question. “I have… been busy,” the goddess replies, looking away.

It takes Saira a moment to decypher the sudden shyness. And once realization dawns, her jaw drops in surprise. “Oh…holy…crap. You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you?”

Alma sighs, looking annoyed. “Contrary to popular believe, Saira, my life does not revolve around you.”

Oh, but she can’t fool Saira now! And she is not denying it either. Oh man, brilliant! Just brilliant! Saira bursts out in laughter. “Oh, this is hilarious! Everyone’s favorite mommy-cop managed to miss a whole person being gone for three days!”

Alma looks down at her laughter, glow-in-the-dark eyes dimming a bit in result. Saira wonders for a moment if she should feel bad for making the goddess feel self-conscious but she is currently too busy wishing she had enough light to see if she has managed to make Alma blush in shame to do the right thing. Oh, it’d just be perfect if Alma were blushing. Blushing over not noticing a mortal gone – gotta be something new to a death god.

“I am not proud of it, trust me,” Alma replies in a low voice before looking back up again. “Have you been feeling well, at least?”

Man, she really does look like she feels bad about it. Maybe Saira should go and give her a hug. Hmm…naah!

“Oh, I feel great,” Saira says, stretching as if she could encircle the world with her arms. “Wild and free again.” She grins. “And a lot more entertained now.”

“I’m glad I could brighten your day,” Alma retorts. “I do come with bad news, however.”

“Wait, wait, wait… You’re seriously not gonna scold me?” Saira asks, incredulously.

Alma shakes her head. “Alas, I think I’ve lost the moral high ground for that.”

Awww man! Three days of practicing for nothing!

“You just ruined a perfectly good speech,” Saira mutters. “So what’s up? What’s keepin’ you busy?”

“Sky has been kidnapped by the necromancer,” Alma replies deadpan, not even taking the time to beat around the bush a bit first.

Saira flashes back to an undead rat leaping teeth-first toward the death goddess not long ago. While Sky was asleep in his apartment. Yeah, he was asleep back then. So why’d he get taken instead? Did she skip a chapter or something? “I thought the necromancer wanted you.”

Alma nods, sighing almost inaudibly. “So did I. But instead they broke into Sky’s home and took him. There were demons involved.”

“Bad guys, huh? Always changing their minds,” Saira notes conversationally. “And let me guess, you want my help. You people are gonna ruin my street cred with your constant cries for help.”

“All I need is to know where I might find a salesman called Lucky Pete,” Alma says, clearly not in the mood for small talk about unimportant things like people’s careers in criminality. “Deals in infera aura. Have you heard of him?”

Saira shrugs. “Stuff like that isn’t usually what I’d go for. I’m guessing he doesn’t have a shop?”

“He has a stall at the demon market,” Alma explains. “We identified him as a possible lead when we went undercover. We think the necromancer buys her spell components from him.”

“And you’re thinking he might do house calls,” Saira half-whispers, thinking over the whole situation. She doesn’t particularly like the idea of exposing her sources to blueshirts, especially because a lot of her sources could tell a blueshirt from a civilian just by the way they walk into a room. But she has to admit that the thought of this necromancer being connected with that Whisper gang which, from what she’s heard, is yet another shard broken off the ex-Dukaines, with an unhealthy habit of employing demon summoners and diabolists (one of which might just be the very same guy she’s been hunting for years now), is enough to leave her a teensy bit…tense. She’s killed enough gods and demigods to fill a trophy room with stuffed heads (very ugly ones in some cases) but her last (and admittedly only) experience with demons has left her banged up enough to seriously consider doing that again in a hurry. At least not alone. She doesn’t have anything in her arsenal that can kill a demon. But she would love to add a certain diabolists’ head to her collection. Time to make a little investment. “All right, I gotta admit I like the big guy enough to help out. But for my next trick, I’ll need someone to come along with me. Not the kind of source I can just shoot into submission.”

Alma nods at this. “I will go with you. When–”

Saira cuts her off with a raised hand. “I’m sure you’d love to but uh…you’re kinda well-known around the block, if you get my meaning.” She looks the distinctively-transcendental goddess up and down to strengthen her point. “I need someone that can pass for mortal under close scrutiny. Maybe your boyfriend wouldn’t mind a walk with me?”

“I’ll let him know,” the goddess replies dryly, without a hint of humor at Saira’s use of the word boyfriend. “When?”

Huh…tough crowd tonight.

“Tomorrow morning,” Saira tells her. “At the Rio Novo bridge. Tell him to get ready to put on the charm. My source likes a little flirting going on and she’s all about the boys these days. Unless you’ve decided to finally put a leash on your little puppy.”

Again, that humorless tone. “Do as you must. He is his own dog.”

Sad. She doesn’t look annoyed or angry, she actually looks sad. Must be trouble in paradise. Saira wonders what must have happened there but Alma is already turning to leave, saying, “If you need anything else, Somrak is staying at the Singing Cockroach. First floor, third window from the left.”

“Any reason he isn’t at the station?” Saira asks. As in, is that why the fallout with Loverboy? she adds mentally.

He’d be stupid enough to do it, wouldn’t he? Of course he would be…

Alma stops in her tracks and turns back to face Saira again. “The necromancer threatened to kill Sky if I call for help,” she says with a meaningful look at the woman that is pretty much a whole conversation on its own.

“Oh, I see.” Well, so much for that theory. “Hey, what’s with the spooky eyes?

Alma sighs again and shakes her head. “Something that has been keeping me busy. Thank you, Saira. And please forgive my oversight. Anyway I can make it better?”

“Yeah, your cat followed me out,” Saira complains.

Alma’s chuckle at that feels strangely relieving. “And you want cat food?”

Cat food?! The heck!

“No, I want you to take her back!” Saira exclaims in annoyance. “I’ve been trying to get her to go back home for days.”

“It seems to me that she is home,” Alma notes before turning back and walking away, with a “Goodnight, little one.”

Saira watches her go in dismay, mumbling into the darkness. “But…but – Ah, crap…”

Stupid gods…

Ch6.46 Trust

“But it’s a dry heat.” They say that’s a damnfool thing to say – hot’s still hot, after all. But there is a difference. Three Rats isn’t always hot, but when it is, it sure isn’t dry. The humidity sucks the energy out of you, leaving you like a wet towel tossed into the street.

But this place, it’s hot like an oven. Heck, it’s hotter than Three Rats ever gets. So hot, Old Scratch his own self would sublet it as an annex for the really bad souls in Hell. But Cherry feels like she’s in Heaven. She’s sitting on a grass-covered rise looking over a gently rolling plain. The horizon is impossibly distant – compared to living on the side of a titanic mountain, everything here is just so flat. The sky overhead is almost oppressive in its immensity, so huge and blue and dotted with cute little sheep-clouds wandering across it, Cherry feels the urge to dig her fingers into the turf to keep herself from falling up into it. And the sun, right overhead where the sky becomes its deepest blue, doesn’t seem to be any kind of god in a fiery chariot, but just some far-away big ball of fire, baking her to the bones.

And she loves it. It feels fantastic. The arid heat, the breeze, the smell of the grass mingled with the perfume of the wildflowers: bluebonnets, winecups, greenthreads, red paintbrushes, Indian blankets. Even the cacti are blooming, big yellow and purple flowers on the prickly pears, hot pink on the beehive cacti, red on the scarlet hedgehogs. A few lonely mesquite trees dot the plain here and there, and overhead a pair of turkey buzzards, the tips of their big wings like spread fingers, drift lazily, circling, wondering if she’s maybe going to be dinner later on.

Didn’t she live in a dream for more than twenty years? Of course she knows one when she sees it. But to her, dreams can be just as real as the waking world. Dreams can be home. And this place feels like home. It pulls her with an irresistible strength. This dirt her fingers are digging into, that soil is part of her. Somehow, she doesn’t know how, but somehow she knows that this is where she was born.

The wind picks up a little and she puts her hand on her hat to keep it from blowing off. And she can hear them now. Yes, definitely horses. They’d been coming her way for a few minutes, at first just a mass that was hard to make out, so distant they were, but now she’s sure, they’re no cattle. She’d known anyway. How, she couldn’t say. Not like she’s ever really seen a herd of cattle or horses on the plains. She’s a city girl, a bar owner, not the cowgirl she’s dressed as right now. She stands and stretches, admiring the soft denim jeans she’s wearing, fitting her like a second skin and faded naturally from years of wear, the turquoise-and-silver belt, the hand-stitched cowboy boots, the cotton work shirt. She reaches up to remove the hat, a little tricky due to the slits that let her ears poke through the brim, but she slips it off and smiles at the simple but skilled straw construction and the beautiful red-green-blue pattern of the feather hatband. But those big far-sighted eyes of hers just can’t take so much sun, and she puts it back on, settling it over her thick curls, at the moment pulled back into a ponytail, or rather, in her case, a pony-puff that kind of matches the bunny-tail down below.

The sound of the mustangs’ hooves reaches her, and a distant whinny from them is answered by a loud neigh right behind her. She nearly jumps out of her skin, and does literally spring into the air, spinning in mid-jump like an armadillo that hears something sneaking up behind it, to land facing…what?

It takes her a long stare to figure out exactly what she’s looking at. This is no scruffy wild mustang that’s somehow tiptoed up behind her to go “Boo!” This is a huge, majestic stallion, blacker than black, like a hole cut in the universe, a doorway to another world, filled with stars, but the next moment he is solid, his black and white mane and tail blowing in the breeze. His head, raised to call out to the mustangs, lowers to sniff the ground, and then he swings his big head to the left and turns to walk away.

“That does it,” she murmurs to herself. “No more experimentin’ with cocktails before bed.” But she knows better than to deny dream logic. She jogs after the horse, saying “Hey, whoa! Hold up there, big fella!”

The horse stops and looks up at the sky. His mane billows across Cherry’s vision, and the sun is replaced by the moon, full and silvery, the sky a deep black broken only by ten thousand stars, most of them concentrated in a wide river swerving from horizon to horizon. He turns to look at her, once again appearing like a stallion-shaped opening in Reality, though his eyes regard her calmly, blinking once.

Cherry shakes her head at the sudden change, pulling her eyes from the fantastic sky to look at the transformed landscape, repainted in silver and black. “Well now ain’t that somethin’?” A crazy side-thought has her worrying about rattlers in the grass. Her left hand brushes something metal, like a tool on her belt. She looks down and sees she’s now wearing a sword, a rapier with a simple curved-bar guard, and beside it a long dagger with a matching guard. “Huh? Well that’ll do for a snake in a pinch, that’s for sure.” She looks at the weapons on her belt, then at the horse. “I can just imagine what a head-shrinker would make of all this. You got a name?”

The stallion lowers his great head, apparently back to being more on the solid side. Everything has a name, little Cherish. Even I.

Cherry feels the hat shift back on her head as her ears go down. “Whoa! I was just kiddin’.” She approaches closer. She looks at him for permission, and when she feels she has it, reaches out to touch his neck. “You…you ain’t just part of my imagination, are you? This is one a’ them deep dreams.”

It is a dream. And you are awake in it. In charge of all your thoughts.

Stroking his neck, then shoulder, feeling the sleek hair, the powerful muscles, she asks, “So who are you? You know my name. And nobody knows my real name ‘cept Merri.”

I have known your name for as long as you have had it. My name is Arion. I am a Void Rider from beyond the Insula. He looks up. Above, in the sky, the stars seem to dance, rippling as something invisible moves past them. Something that, from the distortions, seems distinctly horse-shaped.

“Ghost riders in the sky,” Cherry whispers, agape at the beauty. She looks back at him. “Arion… Alma told us about you. You’re…our, uh, our father.”

He turns his nose to her, breathing warm, moist, pleasant-smelling air against her face. I am. Your mother told me you were eager to meet me.

The Bunny puts her hands on his big cheek muscles. “Is it…really you then?”

It is. Inasmuch as newly created life forms have parents, you have them in your mother and I. It has been a long time, since I have last stood this close to you. Then, you fit in your mother’s arms with room to spare.

Long-pent feelings start to break free like a flash flood roaring down an arroyo. “You…did you…did you ever hold me?”

Of course. I have held all of you. At least once. Baby Bunnies…so fragile you were. As if a touch could break you. Or a whisper could blow you away.

He turns his head slightly, and Cherry’s eyes follow to see a strange scene taking place on the landscape, within a nimbus of wavering light. A couple, young and visibly nervous, look at the bundles they hold in their arms and smile. The man is tall and dark-tanned, with flowing black hair and a several locks of white. But Cherry’s eyes are on the white-haired woman, apparently younger than Cherry, in her early twenties perhaps, midway in appearance between the child that is Tulip and the mature cop Alma.

Cherry gasps. She hesitates, but can’t resist moving closer, wanting to see what they are holding. The woman looks incredulous but happy, doting on her cargo, holding it close to her chest. She lowers her arms, as if she can see the grown Bunny before her. Cherry sees a glimpse of light-brown skin, two long black-furred ears contrasted against the light-colored blanket, a nearly bald head with just a few swirls of black hair looking almost painted on. The eyes are closed and the plump-cheeked face is in repose, but the little mouth opens wide in a yawn.

And the man slips the other bundled infant into Alma’s arms – for surely it is Alma – and Cherry sees the pink face of another sleeping babe, reddish fuzz on her head, rust-furred ears quite short for a Bunny. Cherry feels tears spilling over her cheeks. She’s never even thought to see her dear Rosemary like this, at the moment of her creation, so tiny and perfect, from a time she doesn’t have the slightest memory of. She takes a step away and feels her back touch Arion, then turns and puts her arms around him. But she feels arms around her, big strong arms, safe arms, and realizes with a shock that she’s holding a human waist rather than the expected equine neck.

She looks up to see the same man that had been holding Merri moments before, looking not a bit older. His fingertips stroke her cheek, wiping away a tear, radiating old power, peace and wisdom despite his youthful appearance. I hope there can be joy behind your tears, little one.

She nods, and presses the side of her face against his chest, holding him tighter. “There is…it’s good to finally see you and hold you.” But then she takes a step back and slaps her hand against his chest, lightly. “But where the heck have you been all this time? If you can go into dreams, how come we didn’t have you with us all those years? We may’ve been livin’ in dreams, but they weren’t always nice ones!”

Arion looks at her with an expression that looks so ancient and far away that Cherry feels like there’s a canyon between them so deep and wide that no bridge could ever be built across it. I have always been closer than you knew, watching over you. As your mother watched over your bodies, I saw to it that your minds would have room to develop in stasis. Alas, there are rules that even I must follow in the Dreamlands. And not making myself known was one of them.

Cherry grabs her hat off her head and throws it on the ground, boiling over with anger. She turns away, mouth set hard to keep in words that she knows she’d regret letting loose, and crosses her arms. But when he puts those big hands on her shoulders, her body slumps a little. What’s the use of bein’ mad? she asks herself. Instead, she lets herself lean back against him, and then finds herself horizontal, lying on the grass and wildflowers, her head on his lap as he sits cross-legged. He’s stroking her curls gently, and she says, “I don’t understand any of that stuff. But…when it comes to gods, I figure I just gotta be okay with not understandin’.”

Cherry’s been lucky. Most of the gods she’s known are pretty down-to-earth, not setting themselves up as the natural masters of mortals. And even this god, so far above her that even many gods shake in their boots at the thought of him, doesn’t make her feel like a fool. If her confusion amuses Arion, as it would so many gods, stuck-up and mightier-than-thou as they tend to be, he shows no signs of it. It is all right for you to be angry at me, little Cherish. At your mother, at the Council, at Fate… I imagine that all of this feels utterly bewildering to you, not just as a mortal but as a child. And whether things could have been done differently or better, that is not for me to say. All I can do is focus on the present day and hope I will not make a bad job of it.

She closes her eyes and just tries to forget everything else, and just enjoy the simple pleasure of her daddy petting her hair. She does her best to push away regrets about time lost, and the suspicion that she’s not likely to see him again for a long time. And for a little while, it works. She feels she could almost fall asleep like this.

She murmurs, “So you visitin’ all the others too, tonight?”

No, Cherish. Tonight is your night.

“Aww…” She takes one of his big hands in her slender one, and squeezes affectionately. “Thank you.” She opens her eyes and cranes her head back a little. “You know I ain’t really got a good look at you in human form.” She sees, reversed, the long, handsome face, the flowing black hair with white locks, braided loosely and hanging over one shoulder. A stray thought crosses her mind and makes her giggle. Funny how Somrak’s got a white lock of hair now. Oh! Hope Arion didn’t hear that! She tries to quickly change the stream of her thoughts, just in case. “I don’t even know where to start with the questions. Do you have, like, hobbies? Probably not…”

Arion chuckles, light and easy, smiling down at her. The chasm between them might be wide, but just for the moment, they’re on the same side of it. I do. Watching over you is one of them. And that is why I am going to need you to wake up, now.

Cherry sits bolt upright and twists at the hip to look at him, her face consternated. “But…but why?”

Trust me, little one. There is something happening in the Waking World that you will not want to miss. I do not want you angry at me for keeping you from it.

“Uh oh. Is ice cream gonna be involved?” Now why the heck did I say that?

Arion laughs, short and whickering like a horse. No… He leans forward and cups her face in his hands, suddenly serious but tender. But tears might. He gives her a gentle kiss on the her forehead.

“No…wait!” But the sound of her voice makes her realize she’s no longer under the wide-open sky, but in her own room, sitting upright and twisted, trying to look behind her at a father who is, again, gone. Beside her, Merri stops her gentle snoring but just squirms a little for comfort and continues her usual stone-like sleep. Cherry looks down at Merri’s tousled red hair and disarrayed fleece pajamas, and smiles at how Merri refuses to believe she snores. But it’s the music Cherry falls asleep to. She wishes Merri could’ve been there with Arion, with her, together. Maybe next time.

And thinking of that…Cherry looks around. Where the hey did May get to? When Cherry had fallen asleep, May had been with them, joining them for a goodbye. Merri had been so upset about May leaving the day after tomorrow. Well, tomorrow now. And Cherry had to admit she’d gotten a little weepy too. She felt bad, knowing May probably wanted to be with Sky, but dang it, they needed May too. Sky could have her tomorrow night. Maybe that big lunkhead would finally take her to bed. Takin’ it slow…that’s just plain silly.

In the silence, Cherry’s ears twitch, catching the sound of Lexie’s meowing. Lexie don’t meow all by herself, Cherry thinks. And the furious whispers that follow confirm that someone’s being sneaky in the bar. Cherry slips out of bed to see what’s up.


Look at her, sneaking about like a common criminal trying to get out of jail. Wait, she is a common criminal trying to get out of jail! Fine, so…not a common criminal. More like a very specialized criminal. A very specialized criminal trying to get out of jail. Well, not jail, exactly. Technically not jail. The building adjacent to the jail. With a bar in it.

Ah, screw it! Saira doesn’t need a metaphor, anyway. What she needs is to get out of this damned nuthouse! Seriously, what’s wrong with these people, taking in killers from the street and bringing them into the family as if it were the most natural thing ever? Inviting them for parties and handing out family jewels with portraits and all? You’d think they’re on their way to including her in their wills and giving her the family name! Crazy folks…

The bar is quiet. Really quiet. The gift-giving party ended a few hours ago and everyone has either gone home, carrying insane amounts of food with them, or turned in and carefully left the cleaning up for tomorrow morning. The Bunnies are all burrowing in their rooms or in each other’s rooms or wherever it is they like to hide when they’re not in sight. Thankfully, none of them thought to spend tonight in Alma’s room. Sneaking past those furry ears is tougher than getting a banshee to screech in tune.

Not that sneaking past Alma herself is any easier but she’s not sleeping at her place tonight either. She might be out on her ghoulish rounds or she’ll be happily snuggling in the arms of Mister Hazel Eyes as a nice little cap to the special day. But probably out. It’s Dion’s shift, after all. Hopefully out. Hopefully not just about to enter the bar. Because Saira is about to leave.

It’s all just too much. They’re trying to adopt her! Her! For crying out loud! But…well, it was nice…wasn’t it? The sleeping in safety every night, the not having to worry about food or shelter. Being taken care of and made to feel like here is a place she can belong.

Stop it Saira, this is not you! she admonishes herself. You belong out there, not here on a leash!

Yes, she has to go before this pink-clouds-and-unicorns place causes irreversible damage to her finely honed mind. It was just a matter of time before she left, right? Everyone knew she was going to, no? Everyone knew. It’s who she is, a fleeting, deadly breeze blowing through the shadows, quick as a crossbow bolt, free and unstoppable. Free…

She sneaks past the staircase that leads upstairs, tiptoes past the kitchen entrance. Good, good. No sudden arrivals, no signs of anyone catching her mid-sneak. All’s good. Perfect so far.


The call sounds so loud, she nearly hits her head against the ceiling with fright. So that is what a heart attack feels like…

Saira looks down and frowns in irritation at a very calm, inquisitive Lexie. “You stupid cat!” she hisses. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?! Stop giving me away!”

The large, fat cat with long hair that makes her look like a giant ball of fuzz tilts her head and looks up at Saira with huge yellow-green eyes that are mostly black right now due to the pale, weak moonlight that filters in through the windows. A silvery ball shines amidst the fur on the cat’s neck, a bell that Sage found for her in some shop and proceeded to attach to a nice black leather collar. Lexie had hated the thing at first. Man, how she had raced across the bar, half-crazed with the jingle that she couldn’t shake off, no matter how hard she tried! Now, that had been funny!

But now the bloody cat is moving without ringing the bell! What kind of hellish critter learns to do that so quickly?!

Lexie purrs, loud as a chainsaw, and rubs her head against Saira’s legs. “Meow?”

Saira nudges the cat away with a foot. “Shhhhh!! Stop doing that! You’re gonna get me caught!” She takes a few more steps toward the door but much to her desperation, Lexie follows her, trotting gingerly and making the bell around her neck ring like some fat old man dressed in red has just landed on the roof. “Oh, for the love of – No! You stay here. With Sage and the others. Go try to bite the tail off Starfax!”

“Caught? Are you…are you sneakin’ out?” a voice chimes from the stairs leading up to the first floor.

Ah crap. Saira hangs her head as she recognizes it as Cherry’s voice. Here comes the drama.

This is exactly the kind of thing that she was trying to avoid. Cherry descends the stairs, looking at her with big, shiny eyes and laid-back ears. Saira hasn’t even answered the question and Cherry already looks like she’s about to cry.

“Nope!” the woman lies. “No. Was just… gonna get the last piece of cake, that’s all.”

It’s a lame lie. No one sneaks out of bed to steal cake and takes the time to get dressed in street clothes and boots in the process. They certainly don’t take a crossbow and quiver with them either, unless it’s really great cake. Cherry’s full lips tremble with a whimper.

“Oh hon… Why? Why are you leavin’?” she asks in a tiny voice, moving closer to Saira to take the woman’s hand and look up at her in heartbreaking pleading. “Don’t go.”

Saira looks at the Bunny in silence for a moment. It’s a full show of misery that Cherry is putting up to convince Saira to stay. The woman knows she is being bullied into staying. Because yes, it’s bullying when someone throws their emotions at you and makes you feel horrible about yourself as if your thoughts and feelings didn’t matter a damned thing when held against theirs. And that makes Saira fume.

Which is probably the exact opposite of what Cherry intended but screw that! So, people are gonna be sad to see her go but she’s not gonna be happy staying either. Her place is outside, living her merry little life. And she has the right to want that. Unless someone will throw her in a cell or bind her in shackles, she is free to leave. So…

“Let me go!” Saira whispers, shaking off Cherry’s hold on her hand, ignoring the Bunny’s hurt expression at that. No more cutesy, hugsy, we love you so much, how can you do this to us mind tactics! Enough is enough! “I don’t belong here. This…” She gestures vaguely at the bar. “Is not me. I belong out there, runnin’ free, not here with twenty moms constantly looking over shoulder at what I do and don’t do and making paper thingies and pretendin’ my whole life has been like this. This is not me. And I can’t take it anymore. This is just too much! Even the stupid cat won’t get off my back!”

She nudges Lexie away with her foot again for show and while the cat takes a quick step back in surprise, she’s back to sniffing and marking Saira’s boot with the underside of her chin a few seconds later.

Cherry looks at Saira in silence. The Bunny seems to be struggling to absorb the full meaning of the woman’s words. Of course, she can’t. She never will. Their lives have been too different, their circumstances just too far apart to allow for comprehension. Cherry will never appreciate solitude or the thrill of uncertainty and danger. And Saira can’t make her understand. It would be like trying to explain what purple tastes like.

At the end of all that silence, Cherry sighs and looks down in defeat. “Will you let me get you that last piece of cake? Just…just for a few minutes? I’ll make you some coffee to go with it.”

Oh man… Just let me go already!

“I can’t take too long or people will start gettin’ back from their shifts and then it’ll be tougher to just go,” Saira tries to explain. “Sunshine, why are you doin’ this?”

“Cause I just don’t want you disappearin’ forever!” Cherry snaps, thankfully keeping her voice at an impassioned whisper. “Come on…just sit with me for a few minutes? Please? We could…we could go up on the rooftop. You can make your getaway from there.”

Saira looks at her, trying to find a good excuse to just bolt. But she can’t find any. Better to admit defeat and then just jump off the roof if that’s what it takes. “Fine…”

Damned Bunnies and their cute faces and RAIOS PARTAM ESSA GENTE TODA!

Apparently forgetting the coffee and cake thing, Cherry just turns towards the stairs, moving quietly in her bare feet, peeking behind her to make sure that Saira is not just going to sneak out of the bar behind her back. Lexie follows them up the stairs, quiet as a mouse. They walk down the hall, past rooms full with six sleeping Bunnies (and one gryphon), then up another set of stairs, through a trap door, and onto the flat roof of the Burrow.

Cherry heads over to the chimney, by far the best place to sit, with something to lean back against, and sits, looking at Saira as if the woman might disappear if she glances away.

She waits until Saira sits before she unleashes her sermon. “Look…I get it. You’re feelin’ all hemmed in. But…hon, you ain’t got no home out there!”

Saira breathes deeply and shakes her head. Predictable. Sooo predictable. “You don’t get it. You think you do but you don’t. You’re tryin’ to convince a sewer rat to behave like a hamster. Not gonna happen. This ain’t about home.” She focuses her eyes, cold and hard, the same eyes that have stared down hitmen and watched as they took their last breath, on Cherry. “I’m a killer, Cherry. Always have been, can’t shake it off. I’ve killed more people than you’ve probably met since comin’ to Three Rats. Heck, probably more than you’ve ever met ever. It’s what I’m good at. Not this whole home business.”

“Yeah but…you only kill people that deserve it…” Cherry argues weakly and Saira can see it in her eyes, how she’s struggling to fit the image of Saira, her patient, with Saira, the assassin, and use the first to forgive the latter. “But…Alma and Sky and them, they can’t just let you keep doin’ that, can they?”

Saira almost tells her about her agreement with Sky, that he had promised never to go after her for killing former Dukaines provided she cooperated with him, but stops herself. No point in tainting Sky’s image for someone who thinks of him as an example of virtue. “I’ll figure it out. There’s other wards. The Dukaines were everywhere in the Fourth Ring. And there’s always people lookin’ to hire someone like me. I’ll be fine.”

“You’re gonna leave the ward??” Now Cherry looks even more miserable. She puts her head down against her knees, hugging her legs, then looks up, eyes shiny with pent-up liquid. “What about next time somethin’ goes wrong? What if you get hurt again? The thought of you bleedin’ somewhere and we don’t even know about it…” Tears spill over as her voice breaks.

Saira pats her back awkwardly. It’s probably not a very reassuring gesture but at least Cherry won’t be choking anytime soon. “Ya know, I did make it fine for the last twenty-odd years without Bunny babysitters… Give me some credit, will ya?” She chuckles nervously.

“Don’t laugh! Just…” Cherry swallows, then chokes out a little sniffly laugh herself as Lexie rubs her face against Saira’s arm and makes her jump slightly.

Saira absentmindedly pets the cat, who is currently, and very slowly, making her way onto the woman’s legs. “I’ll be fine, Cherry. And… I’ll keep an eye on you, guys. Every now and again.”

She says that more because it’s what Cherry wants to hear than because it’s an actual plan. Saira’s reputation and livelihood have been severely threatened with her long absence. The first few weeks will probably be spent just getting her life back on track. But hey, it’s whatever works right now.

“You know they ain’t gonna look for you too hard, if some bad guys turn up shot fulla arrows,” Cherry says, reaching over to scratch Lexie in that spot at the base of her tail that she likes to be scratched for precisely eight seconds before she stops liking it. “I…I don’t want you to go at all. But…okay, I get it. Sorta. Just…come back sometimes? Thought of never seein’ you again…that just kills me, sweetie. Promise me?”

Oh, come on! Now I gotta promise?!

“See why I was just gonna sneak out?” Saira mutters. But a look at Cherry’s serious and heartbroken face has her hanging her head in defeat. It’s whatever works… “Fine… I promise… But you’re owin’ me cake!”

Cherry throws her arms around Saira, holding her tight. “You can have all the cake you want!”

Saira gasps. Cherry’s hug is nothing short of a golem’s death-grip. “Air… Sun…shine… air….”

Cherry releases her immediately, eyes wide in alarm. “Sorry! Merri says I don’t know my own strength…” She smooths Saira’s hair with a sigh. All that need for touching is really getting on Saira’s nerves but she does her best not to flinch away. “I never had a patient before. Not for any length of time anyway. It’s hard to let go. When you came in here… Anyway, I don’t want you to go, not even a little bit. But you…” Her voice breaks and she looks away. “You, uh, you be careful! And you come back!”

A few heartbeats and the Bunny’s head shoots back to look at Saira. But the woman is no longer there. From a rooftop nearby, Saira watches as Cherry looks to her side, then around the rooftop, the ward. Finally, Cherry hangs her head and slowly gets up to return inside.

The image leaves a bitter taste in Saira’s mouth but it is as it has to be. Her life’s purpose is out here and everything else will have to wait until she can call her task complete.

She exhales deeply and leans down to scratch Lexie behind the ears, regretting immediately that she brought the cat with her but knowing that she would not have been able to leave so smoothly and silently if she had left Lexie complaining behind her. The cat looks at her, head tilted in that upsettingly intelligent quizzical expression of hers.


Saira jerks her head at Lexie. “Come on, you silly cat. Let’s go home.” She starts walking, cat at her heel. “And you better be good at huntin’ ‘cuz I ain’t feedin’ ya!”

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.

Ch6.32 Trust

Alma, Sky, Bunnies, Saira, Gwydion

The late-afternoon sun makes Sky pull his field cap down a little further to keep the light out of his eyes. Motes of dust glimmer in the light. Three Rats is on the morning side of the Insula, and whichever of the great Solar Clan deities who is driving the Sun Chariot today has already begun to go beyond the mountain. Night falls early and lasts long in this part of the Fourth Ring.

But still children play and merchants hawk their wares. Familiar faces greet him, and he pauses to speak to a few of the friendliest. Suspicion of his Guardia jacket – an everyday wool one, not the reinforced leather coat that had served him for years until its destruction in a recent battle – has faded somewhat. Many here may still see the Guardia as merely another gang, but they’ve proven to be the toughest gang, and the most reliable. When the Guardia say they will help, they follow through. When they say they will protect, they do, and ask for nothing in return. Months of holding to that code is beginning, finally, to have its effect.

No more bribes. No more extortion. No more rolling over for the mobs and being their cringing dogs. The Guardia here had been too few in number before, and underfunded at that, ignored by the top brass. Machado, as commanding officer, had done as well as he could, but some of his constables had not, and he had been unable to afford to lose any of them.

Things are different now.

Sky arrives at the front of the station, pausing to look at its façade. A fresh coat of paint would do nicely, tell everyone we’re doing fine, he thinks, and then laughs at himself. Even a week ago – no, two weeks ago, as he’d been asleep for a full week, recovering – such a detail would not have occurred to him. He’d been reeling with exhaustion, having burnt mana to put off sleep for a dangerously long time, happy to have Alma and Dion back to mop up the last of the shard gangs, the shattered remains of the Dukaine mega-gang that had fallen into a civil war upon the death of their leader, the Archon Nekh. Before that he had been for a time the only Dei in Three Rats Station, with little choice but to stay awake to support the Popula cops amid the chaos. And before that… So much had happened, so quickly. The theft of the Pearl. The attempts to murder the Bunnies. And now this necromancer business. He feels ashamed to have left in the middle of that, but there had really been no choice. Fatigue had made him more of a danger than a help.

Time to return to work. He opens the door and steps into the station. His station. Constables look up from what they are doing. A conversation between Patel and the Bunny Sage ceases, and the latter straightens, grinning broadly, and walks swiftly to stand between Sky and the others.

“Inspector, let me be the first to welcome you home,” Sage says, his soft voice filled with a touching joy. “You’re looking well.” Sky looks at the others, who are all smiling as well, murmuring “Good to see you, sir” and “Welcome back, sir.”

“Thank you,” he says to all of them with sincere pleasure. “It’s good to be back.” To Sage he asks, “Who is on command duty?” Ordinarily it would be Alma at this time of day, but the schedule could have been adjusted while he was out.

“Sergeant Alma, sir,” Sage says. They are friends, but like Mayumi, Sage, as a civilian secretary to the station, prefers to keep things formal while on duty, at least in front of the Popula. When Sky glances toward his own office door here on the ground floor, Sage indicates the upper floor with a movement of his chin. “In her office.”

Sky nods his thanks and proceeds to the stairs, noting a yellow rope tied across the door to the stairs leading down to the holding cells. Alma has been the commanding officer, not just for her shift but as a whole, in his absence, and according to Somrak she’s done a good job. Sky has no doubt in that report. But Somrak has also mentioned Alma’s stress, and though not exactly eager to resume the demanding role of leader, Sky does wish to relieve her of this burden as soon as possible.

The door opens before he can knock, and Alma’s smiling face welcomes him. Her delight at seeing him is apparent, but she doesn’t say a word, just grabbing his sleeve and pulling him inside, shoving the door closed, and then tightly clasping her arms around him, her face pressed against his chest. “Welcome back,” she whispers.

Sky puts his long arms around her slender body, kissing the top of her head. “I’m sorry I was gone so long. But I hear things went just perfectly.”

She laughs into his chest, and he laughs with her. She loosens her grip and looks up at him. “If that’s what you heard, someone’s been telling you fables.”

His smile fades. “I hope Somrak didn’t cause any serious problems. If there’s anything that needs taking responsibility for, I will do so.”

Alma pats his broad chest. “Don’t be silly. Everything has been handled and the reports are already sent.” She steps back and gestures toward her desk. “Kept the copies out for you to read later. She is all yours again, Inspector.” She puts her hands behind her back and smiles impishly, as if she is restraining herself from jumping with joy at being free of the burden.

Drily, Sky says, “Oh joy, paperwork.” He looks at Alma and takes her hands. “Thank you, Alma. You kept this place running through some very trying times, Somrak tells me.”

Her gaze falls as her smile vanishes. “I am afraid I didn’t do a very good job. No matter what Somrak may have said, I feel like I may not be a very good choice when it comes to leading a station.” With a tiny sound of anguish, she hugs him again. “I missed you, my friend.”

Sky envelops her in his powerful arms, wrapping her in a cocoon of affection. “I’m back. And Somrak and I have worked with a good many station commanders of a wide range of ability. The best leaders pretty much always have doubts about whether they’re a good choice for the job.”

Alma sighs happily in their embrace. “So…how much did Somrak tell you?”

“Let’s put it this way…I almost choked to death twice.” He feels his chuckling reverberating through her from his chest to his arms.

“Oh…that much, heh?” She giggles, then looks up at him. “Then I guess there isn’t much left to tell. He really tried to behave. Didn’t always succeed but he tried. And I’m glad you have him for a friend.”

Sky smiles sadly and he releases her. “We talked more as I was waking up than we had in the past couple years of working together. He seems…different.” He sniffs the air. “And…has someone been housing a dog in here? Or maybe…a lion?”

“Oh, that was just a tiger we rescued from the demon market. Somrak agreed to take the poor creature as a gift to my aunt. I wanted to keep him but…I have too many pets already.”

Sky can only stare, astonished for the twentieth time today. “Somrak forgot to mention the tiger. Such a minor detail compared to everything else.”

“Oh…” Alma considers. “I believe the tiger arrived here after Somrak was feeding you, if I have it all straight. So he wouldn’t have known about it yet.”

“I’m almost sorry you didn’t keep it… I wonder what other surprises are still to be found. I see there’s repair work going on downstairs.

Alma blinks before realization dawns. “Oh! Yes…The team repairing the cells has found a cellar. Maybe a sub-basement for storing goods that was sealed away for some reason. The think it may be quite large, but I told them to wait until tomorrow before going in.” She pokes his chest with a finger. “And by the way, you will be dealing with the contractors from now on.”

“Oh dear. Have they been rude?” He sounds like he might possibly become annoyed.

Alma laughs. “Worse. They have been dwarves…or dwarfs. Don’t ask them which one is right.”

Sky’s face lights up. “Oh! The Zwergen! Somrak and I had a fascinating stay in one of their cities once, during a mission. Yes, they can be…argumentative. It’s a cultural thing. Actually sort of hardwired into their language. You see…”

Alma interrupts, “Somrak mentioned it. Maybe you two can compare notes when he visits for the Year’s End celebrations and gift-giving.”

Sky feels surprised yet again. “Somrak is coming for New Year?”

“He promised he would do his best to be present. Although I know how it may not be possible. But if it is, we’ll see him again soon.”

Sky nods slowly. “I think he truly will do his best. Not that I would have believed it before our conversation this morning. But if he can’t…it’ll be because he really can’t.”

“Of course,” Alma says. “After all, the Year’s End will be in just a few days and he just left… But anyway, make sure to remember him during your gift shopping. Even if he can’t make it, we can always compensate later.”

“Gift shopping!” Sky feels almost light-headed. “Gifts… I haven’t bought New Year gifts for so long. Not since Somrak and I got the Commander gag gifts five…no six years ago. And no gifts for probably ten years before that.”

Alma bursts out laughing. “Oh the story of you two must be a rich one… Gift-giving is not really a tradition in my family. Each of us receives only one thing and it is always the same thing. For everyone. Our soul-collection log books. So, this will be new to me too. But the Bunnies want to do it and they will have anything they want for this first Year’s End together.”

Sky says seriously, “That’s right…their first New Year…oof. Pressure. And I’m terrible at choosing presents, too.”

“Well, maybe you can ask Gwydion for help. Which reminds me…He must be at the bar at this time. We should have a little meeting to make sure you’re caught up on everything. And I’m sure he will be happy to see you. Shall we go?”

Sky smiles as Alma takes his arm and he opens the door. “Of course. So who’s been using my office?”

“No one. It is as you left it. We all shared this office. I just told Somrak he could use my desk.” They begin to descend the stairs together.

“Oh you didn’t have to do that. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” Sky notices that the main room of the station is empty. Strange.

Alma shakes her head. “It just did not feel right. Move into your office? And for a week? No. We were fine where we were. Whenever my desk was occupied, I just used Gwydion’s. He doesn’t mind my using it.” She squeezes Sky’s arm, smiling. “He was…really supportive during your absence.”

Sky pauses before the door to the breezeway, looking at her. “I am very happy to hear that. You know, Somrak, me, perhaps Dion as well…this place changes people.” He grins at her. “Or maybe it’s just the company we’re keeping.”

Looking please and slightly embarrassed, she replies, “There are good people here. And besides…Bunnies.” She chuckles and opens the door. “They’ll change anyone. Oh, I have had my first lesson with the infamous Master Pak.”

Sky closes his eyes and groans. “Pak… You know those dreams where you find yourself back in the Academy and it’s exams time and you’re late and you can’t find a pencil? Or your pants? I feel like that every time I remember I’ll be training with him again.”

Alma laughs softly. “You see, it is things like that that made me very worried about my first session. But he was…nice. Encouraging. Offered me tea. Very different from my we-don’t-believe-in-dull-practice-weapons training with the Fencer. And just so you can have an idea…this sword is my old practice sword from my times with her.”

“Well, Pak can take different approaches with different students. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all teacher. And you never know, next time he might be smacking you with a stick. One time–”

Sky opens the door to the bar and freezes at the ragged roar of “SURPRISE!” followed by calls of “Welcome back” and “Yay!” Alma steps away just as a slight body springs at him, squeeing, and he automatically catches Tulip as her arms and legs wrap around him. She plants a big kiss on his cheek and then hugs him tight. “Mmmmmm! You’re here! Do you know what? There was a big rat? And Somrak burnt the table? And I didn’t see it but I heard all about it and oh Somrak had a tiger?”

Sky rides the tide of words. Holding her brings back memories in a sudden flood, of children held, of presents and a tree and family.

“Come on, give the guy a break!” Cherry takes his hand and pulls him into the crowd, looking back at him with a big smile. Still holding Tulip, Sky sees Sage grinning with his arm around Constable – no, once-again Corporal Aliyah Kaur’s waist, apparently seeing this as momentarily off-duty. Merri is pouring drinks under a red paper banner covered in hearts and stars that reads “WELCOME HOME!” and Kori and Chime are helping to serve them out to the Popula constables from the office.

Gwydion negotiates his way through the mob and takes Sky’s hand from Cherry and shakes it. Then, seeing the overwhelmed look on Sky’s face, he lets go Sky’s hand and gives him a warm one-armed man-hug. “Welcome back, my friend. You were missed.”

Stunned, Sky returns Dion’s embrace while still holding Tulip with his other arm, as she chatters to him about this and that, and then Tulip shifts her grip to Dion and kisses the sergeant on the cheek and snuggles against him.

“Welcome back, sir!” Aliyah has approached and, perhaps unable to resist all this affection, she hugs him as well. A beer appears in his hand, given to him by Kori, who grins and darts away, and another hand takes his free one. He looks down to see Mayumi, who had been out of sight before, waiting until the others had their chance perhaps.

Her mouth moves. He cannot hear her above the tumult, but he knows she is saying hello. Her eyes crinkle in sympathy. She reaches up to touch his cheek, to touch the moisture that is spilling over. Oh…they’ve made me cry, he thinks. Mayumi’s nose turns a little pink and her eyes become wet in reaction to his tears, but it passes after a moment. She pulls him away, over to the sofa, where Saira has been sitting through all this, perched on one end. Mayumi sits him down on the other.

Saira raises her glass to him, leaning forward across Mayumi to tap his drink with hers. “I think they just might like you.”

Sky can do nothing but nod, holding Mayumi’s hand, the beer as yet untouched in his other. Merri brings a slice of cake, sees the tears, exclaims, “Oh!” and takes his beer, setting it alongside the cake on a table, twisting her apron around two fingers to pat his face dry with it. “Ye great silly…” the Bunny says, her voice full of affection.

Across the room, Sky sees Alma on the periphery of all this watching him with a small smile. Dion brings her a slice of cake, and though he does not put an arm around her, the way they stand tells anyone who looks that they are a couple.

“Sky?” Mayumi is looking at him, a little worried.

He gives her a watery smile. “I’m all right.” His voice is thick. “I’m home.”