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.”


Ch6.70 Trust

Once you’ve fried every cockroach in your room, the stench gets to be a little…what did Sky like to call it? Malodorous, yeah, that’s it. Good word, the kind you can roll around in your mouth. Malodorous. The Singing Cockroach should consider using it in advertising.

The Singing Cockroach: Three Rats’ Most Malodorous Establishment!
You Won’t Believe the Miasmic Qualities of Our Communal Toilets!
Try Our Bedsheets! Free Fungal Infection with Every Lice Infestation!

Anyway, after Alma’s visit, sleep is out of the question, so once the bug-zapping is done – they pop when you raise their internal temperature high enough, you should really try it if you’re a fire god – it’s time to go for a walk. Visit Sky’s fake apartment. Not that it’s likely to turn up anything, but maybe there’ll be some clue that Alma and Dion missed in their state of shock after the collapse of Sky’s sanctum. And there could be somebody watching the place. Now wouldn’t that be a lucky catch? A Whisper gang soldier to interrogate – wouldn’t that put a smile on Alma’s face?

That of course requires a different approach from the usual. Chowringhee Road is even more insular than most of Three Rats. The road is only one twisting throughway among a mess of alleys, streets, lanes, trails, and accidental spaces between buildings that are paths only by default, that from above must look like a dropped bowl of noodles. And everyone in that compact neighborhood knows everyone else, and will take careful note of any newcomer. This could be useful for identifying Sky’s captors, except for the fact that Sky is the only cop who has gained any trust from the people in this particular stomping ground, and they will know that telling on the Whisper is a death sentence, a notably bad one as well.

So it’s time not to be noticed. The old on-duty uniform is made for that. Black with red trim, it can change color any time, useful for when you have a boss who wants the red trim to be blue trim so you’re obviously Guardia, as Alma did a couple weeks ago, but also useful for disguises, and for camouflage. The neck-scarf is useful as well. Pull it up over the lower half of your face, and it changes, becoming a translucent blur, casting a spell of ‘nothing to see here’ on the face of the user. People’s eyes just slide right off, and they wouldn’t remember the face with the help of the best hypnotist in the City of Gods.

Helpful to be able to see heat sources at night, as well, since there’s barely a functional streetlamp in the whole neighborhood, other than along its eponymous main road. Sky had said he’d worked hard to get the lamps repaired and to convince the locals not to break them. Times were changing. Will they continue if Sky’s gone?

So it’s in through the shadows, moving quiet, taking time to get there without attracting any notice. What would normally take twenty minutes takes almost an hour, but that’s what it takes to get close enough to see the apartment while not close enough to reveal yourself to anyone who might be watching.

And what do we have here but a light in said apartment? Someone else is nosing around. It’s a steady golden glow, not the wavering dim light of the gas lamp that the place is equipped with. Just one warm, glowing shape, expected size, two legs, no tail, someone with average human body temperature. Even the light source is giving off no heat. Unless the person in there is the light source. No, it’s not moving with him. Or her.

Who else is watching?

Keeping an eye on the window to make sure the light doesn’t go out, a careful search of the places a watcher could be hiding doesn’t take too long. Sensing heat sources doesn’t seem too remarkable when you’ve been able to do it all your life, but it sure is useful. And the warm bodies around here are asleep or engaged in their own pursuits. One or two call for a closer look, but after half an hour, it seems like the area is clean. Time to get closer.

The steps are easy. Sky never fixed them. Fates, if anything he made them worse. Squeaks and creaks to warn of an approach, and that broken one that looks nice and solid but tries to bite into your shoe if you’re not careful. But go up the right way and it’s mouse-quiet.

Makes it a good ambush point. Could wait until the target is away from here, in a dark alley, or even just follow him all the way home. But what if he gives me the slip? Better to take him down now, quick and quiet. And here, at the door, on this landing is good. Target’ll have made squeaks and creaks on the way up, most likely. Will expect to hear them if someone else comes up. That, and his eyes won’t have adjusted to the night. Might be the best moment to catch his guard down.

The light is moving, brightening under the door, lengthening in an arc across the landing. Press back against the wall next to the door, on the hinged side. Leathers changing color very slightly to blend into the shadows almost perfectly. Scarf saying “I’m not here.”

The light extinguishes. The knob turns and the door opens, blocking my normal vision, but I can see his heat through the thin door. Male shape, pausing, looking out into the night. The door closes behind him and just as my arm is closing around his throat I realize who it is.

But he doesn’t realize who I am. A lot of people might freeze, somebody gets them in a chokehold, but not Dion. No thought, just training, and fast, the hips shift, his right foot swinging in a little arc to get behind my left leg, getting those hips behind mine, chest against my side and his head lower, pulling me forward, him with the better balance now, left arm slamming against my chest.

It’s a thing of beauty and since I’m not exactly trying to stop him, he carries it off perfectly, but as I don’t want to get smashed against the door, I release and go down, laughing, falling to the old planks, meaning to do a neat little side-reverse roll and pop back up. Except he spins and snaps out a forward kick to my chest while I’m still falling. If this were a real fight I’d have blocked it – yeah, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – but with this being a simple misunderstanding, I’m not really on my game. It’s fast but he’s not really set, so not much pain through the leather but it sure does add energy to the roll, sending me back a body-length further than I’d intended. Instead of popping up, I crash against the cheap, rotten railing, hear it crack, and have time to think, Crap…

The railing slows things down though, and just as I’m going through and my body’s starting to react to an impending one-story fall – not too bad, if you can get your legs under you and there’s no broken glass or crocodiles waiting – the jacket jerks against my chest and everything stops. I’m hanging over the edge and Dion’s holding onto my jacket, looking down at me with a scowl that would freeze a penguin.

The pieces of railing that broke free clatter below. He could just let me go, and I’d be down there with them in about one second. Wouldn’t blame him. But I give him the patented Somrak grin, the one that charms the ladies and scares the little kids. Oh! The scarf!

“Nice move, Dion!” All cheerful, as I yank down the scarf with one hand and grab his forearm with the other.

“Somrak?” The frown turns to surprise, and he takes a long step back to leverage me up. Nice of him. Releases me, tugging at his cuffs to smooth his sleeves and turning his face away a little. “Well, that is one way to greet people…”

“I was coming by to do the same as you, look for clues. Saw the light and thought you might turn out to be a useful lead. Find anything here?”

Dion shakes his head, and gestures, annoyed, back at the apartment door. “I am afraid nothing we can use. I was merely puzzling over how they did it, breaking into a god’s sanctum.”

“Huh.” Scanning around to see if our tussle attracted any attention. “I know someone who knows how to do it. But I can’t contact her for this. We might want to be able to break through when the time comes to go in after Sky.”

Dion shakes his head. “We would need to find demon blood, ferrous sulfate, and infera aura, then. Plus half a dozen minor, more-easily found ingredients.”

“Demon blood could be available on-site, depending on the opposition. Dion…what the hell are you thinking?”

Yeah, that’s right. Hit him with the old ‘change the subject without warning’ approach. Dion turns back, nonplussed. “Personally, I’m thinking they need a better bonding agent to help focus the spell. But perhaps that’s…not what you mean?”

Sigh. Time to go where angels fear to tread. “I mean you and Alma. She told me you’d had a fight. But it was obvious something is wrong.”

Oh there we go. Face turning red, eyes all hooded and dangerous. Really great effect in the moonlight. “With all due respect, Somrak, I don’t think this is a matter for the two of us to discuss.”

“Fine, no discussion. I’ll talk, you listen.” Take a breath. “Look, I was stupid. But I get it now and she loves you so I’m asking again, what the hell are you thinking? She doesn’t need two idiots around.”

Glowering. Yes, that is definitely Dion’s glowering look. Too bad I don’t have a camera. “Because of your actions, I made a mistake.” Ice-cold voice. This could turn into a fight. Lovely. “You made it clear, Somrak, quite clear what your intentions were. The friendliness, the compliments, the little act at the market. Every time she denied it until I found out about your…slip up. So I judged her based on that.” Disgust, but for himself more than anyone else, from the way he looks down and away. “Frankly, I would have thought you would be taking a wonderful opportunity to show her how much better a match you can be to her.”

Shrug. “Yeah, I’m a little surprised at myself that I’m not. But here’s the thing. She needs someone to support her and I can’t. You know why? Because even if I’m honestly just being a good friend, in the back of her mind she’s going to be wondering exactly what you expected: that I’m just doing it to win her over. And that’ll taint everything. So it’s up to you, Prettyboy.”

And Dion turns away again, takes the first step down those stairs. Come on, man… “She hates me at the moment. With good reason.”

This is getting ridiculous. I should just say fine, and go after her myself. Maybe I would if I didn’t think I’d be dead in a day or two. Maybe not. One more try. “I am the least likely person to be giving good relationship advice, but you don’t want to be going into this thing with a gulf between the two of you. Dion… Look, I don’t know the details, and I don’t want to. But she needs you.”

He stops. Not looking back, he says, voice harsh, “She is not the only one in pain, Somrak. If it were that easy… I just…don’t want to argue with her again. Don’t want to have her walk away.”

“So you let it lie for now, and then we go in to get Sky, and maybe she doesn’t make it out?” Harsh. Well, he needs harsh. “Or you don’t make it out? You really want to risk having that extra guilt on top of everything else? Guilt for whoever survives?”

Three cheers for guilt. Yeah, I know, they only think they’re going in to rescue Sky. Not like I haven’t lied to a friend before, but I don’t really want to compound the lies like this. The more lies, the more likely the truth will come out.

Still, it got Dion to look back. The thought of losing Alma turns him as pale as she is. “That’s…certainly not what I meant.”

“World doesn’t care what you meant. Intentions don’t mean a thing without action.” Who am I talking to, him or myself? Arms crossed, leaning back against the wall, I try to drive it home, but gently. “I know you’re hurting. But somebody has to make the first move.”

Dion stays silent long enough that I start to feel a little sleepy, but then he nods in defeat. “Tomorrow.”

Good enough. Strange how much I like the guy. Pampered, ridiculously handsome, politically connected, infamous for all the dalliances he’s had with the most sought-after goddesses across the First Ring, and yet I like him. “I’ll be coming by. Got some info to share with the both of you. But…maybe now I can sleep.” I push away from the wall and poke at the railing, which makes a big length of it start to creak away slowly from the landing. Oops. I grab it to prevent the sound it would make on falling. “Hey, what’s up with you and her and the Singing Cockroach, anyway?”

He chuckles, though there’s no smile to accompany the humor. “Our first day here, she asked if I had a place to stay and suggested the Singing Cockroach. We had just met. I followed her suggestion and got into a fight. Turns out the owner is not fond of Guardia.” He gives me a look that seems grudgingly grateful. “I need to return to the station. It’s my shift.”

I give him a nod and let him go, listening for the creaks on the stairs. Not many – he’s a fast learner. I just stand in the dark for a few minutes. So many lies, piling deeper and deeper. Soon it won’t matter anymore, but… Well, when you’re dead, you don’t have to worry whether they forgive you.

Ch6.66 Trust

One of the best tools in the kit of an off-blue is a simple little spell that sends vermin scurrying away, allowing a restful sleep in some of the nastiest armpits of the Insula, and before beginning his second night of sleep at the Singing Cockroach, Somrak, in lightweight cotton trousers and a simple close-fitting sleeveless singlet, has just finished casting it to make the bedbugs think there is a big, juicy, blood-filled mammal in the next room, when he hears a knock on the door.

He picks up a long, straight black-enameled dagger and rises, gliding quietly across the room, then opens the door while standing in a good position to evade a strike and also to strike in return. He relaxes when he sees it is Alma, wearing a hooded cloak, her distinctive white hair concealed and her divine aura suppressed as much as she can manage. She would still be a very noticeable figure to the variegated assemblage of lowlifes downstairs, but perhaps she will not be recognized as Sergeant Alma of the Guardia Dei.

Somrak feels his mouth go dry. He hasn’t seen her since last evening, and did not expect her to come for a visit. He’d planned to go by the station tomorrow morning to compare notes, knowing she is to meet Saira tonight. To have Alma so close, so unexpectedly, is a tortuous pleasure, but knowing he’ll likely have to tell her lies to keep her in the dark about Sky, and about what he really plans to do, is simply torture. He stands back to let her in, and closes the door. He holds up a finger, then sets up a small white candle the length and thickness of his smallest finger on an ashtray and lights it from his fingertip. It burns with a yellow flame.

“If that flame turns green, someone is trying to eavesdrop magically,” he says. He sits on edge of the bed, near the wall, giving her enough space to sit as there is no chair in the dingy, cramped room. “Visited a friend today. Got some more background on our gang. Probable identification of two more members.”

Alma lowers the hood from her head and looks around the room, taking in the torn and filthy wallpaper, the slightly lopsided bed with its brand-new sheets that Somrak bought in a market earlier in the day, the window so dirty that it only lets in a little distorted light from the sickly streetlamp outside. Then she looks at Somrak, her expression a touch reproachful. “Good evening to you too, sir.”

Somrak grimaces. “Sorry… Welcome to the abode. The cockroaches really do sing, you know. It’s not much, but it comes highly recommended.” Those mother-of-pearl eyes on him seem to look past his flesh, straight to his heart.

Alma gives an almost-silent snort at this. “I’m sure Gwydion would disagree. He has a bit of a story with the place. How was your day?” She sits, carefully, on the bed, which creaks a warning.

“I quietly visited a colleague on the post-Dukaine task force. We have a better idea of who’s in the gang. Figured I’d drop by and fill you and Dion in tomorrow.” From the side table, which looks as if an angry glance could cause it to collapse, he picks up a bottle of whisky that has no stopper and a none-too-clean shotglass upside down on the neck. “Want some? It’s a crime to call it whisky, but I ordered it from downstairs just for appearances. Works pretty good as a pesticide though.”

Alma puts a hand up, palm forward, and shakes her head. “Thank you but no. I will be meeting our common friend once I leave here. Just thought I would stop by and check how you were doing before going there.” She looks down at her hands, now clasped in her lap. “Gwydion told me…about the devil’s blood.”

Somrak sighs internally. “Yeah, that. Well, we can’t know they’ll still have it around when we go in. Devils don’t exactly serve guard duty. Their services are very expensive in terms of souls and contracts. Likely, it’s back where it belongs. Still, we’ll take precautions.”

He stops himself before he crosses the line from ‘too talkative’ to ‘babbling’. At least he hopes he stopped himself in time. He’s usually better at lying than this. But then he’s usually not lying to Alma. He can’t tell her that she doesn’t need to worry about the devil. First, because the devil is her best friend, Sky, the guy they’re going to rescue. Second, because they are not going to rescue Sky. Somrak is planning to let Alma and Dion investigate, then take what they learn and go in by himself, because he knows that this is–

“A suicide mission,” Alma mutters. Took the words right out of my head, Somrak thinks. Louder, she says, “This is shaping up to be a suicide mission. I can hardly imagine that they would not make use of such an asset once we go in.” She takes a deep breath. “And that’s if we can find them in the first place.” She looks truly disheartened.

Somrak is quiet for a minute, then mustering all his false confidence, assures her, “It’ll be a tough one, that’s for sure. But working together, we stand a chance. Three gods, one to deal with the sorcerer, one to deal with the necro, and one more of a generalist, but with plenty of experience dealing with both. They’ve picked a fight with the wrong crowd.” He lays a hand on top of both of hers.

Alma raises an eyebrow, her voice soft, non-accusatory in tone if not in words. “What is wrong with you, Somrak? Your hand is cold and so is your voice. You say those things but they are just something to say. This is Sky.”

Somrak releases her hands. “Yeah. It’s Sky.” He lets some of his worry creep into his voice. “And I know if I think about that too much, I’m not going to be able to do what I need to do. I’m going to be distracted.” Like I am right now. More firmly, he continues, “So my head is in that space it always is during a mission. Where it should be. For him, and for us as well.” He sighs. “Speaking of distractions… I… Never mind – it’s none of my business.”

That active eyebrow of Alma’s rises again. “What exactly isn’t your business?”

He is uncomfortable, but it could be important. “When you and Dion and I were together in the office, you two could barely look at each other. I know I was blind to all that on my first visit here, but in retrospect it’s a big change from how you were around each other before.” He waves his hand dismissively. “If you want me to shut up, just say so.”

Alma sighs, her alabaster tresses shaking along with her head, as if she wants to deny it ever happened. “We had an argument. Words were spoken that take time to lose their sting. Especially in the absence of an apology.”

His tone grim, Somrak says, “Let me guess who needs to apologize.” And which rich little prettyboy could do with a smacking.

“It’s not an argument unless both parties participate.” Alma looks away, at the wall in front of her, staring absently at an orange-and-black cockroach as long as her palm. “He found out about the kiss. And then I was rather late returning from Father’s estate.” She gestures vaguely toward her eyes. “Anyway, misunderstandings.”

“Misunderstandings?” Somrak tries but does not entirely succeed in keeping the anger out of his voice. It might take two, but Dion is the one who misunderstood, I’m sure. Then he checks himself. He knows he is biased in this case. And she does not seem to want any further outbursts. “I’m sorry, Alma. I never should have–”

She cuts him off with a shake of her head. “No, it is becoming clear that this argument was coming, one way or another. You were merely a catalyst.”

They are both silent for a long moment. He wants to ask, Can it be salvaged? But he dreads either a positive or a negative answer. To learn that those two are sundered fully would give him an opening, he is ashamed to acknowledge. But Somrak has no future prospects, no future at all, he is sure. Hope would only make him waver in his resolve. And he truly wants them to be happy.

Finally, shaking his head in annoyance at his treacherous thoughts, Somrak forces that aside and asks the question he has been wanting to ask, but that other things have constantly preempted. Pointing with two fingers to his own eyes, he asks, “So what’s up with the eyes?”

She looks down with a faint smile. “Oh…I seem to have acquired a new sphere.”

Somrak blinks in surprise. “A new… A new sphere? I assume you’re not a goddess of finding lost things now, or you’d have figured out where Sky is already.”

Alma shakes her head at the lame attempt at humor, but her smile increases minimally. “Nothing so immediately useful. Apparently, I am a Spinner, providing balance between Life and Death, sending souls to the Wheel and reincarnation. But it could not have come at a worse time. If this sphere is to bring balance to my powers, then that is something which will only come after much training. For the moment, it is mainly a distraction, though it is not as draining as it was at first.” She exhales deeply and stands slowly. “I should go. It is time. I hope you have a restful night.”

He stands with her, wishing he could drop this wall, tell her everything. Keep her here no matter the cost. But he does not. There are more important things, he insists to himself. “Be careful. This gang could be planning an ambush.”

She offers him a small smile. “I’ll be all right. Good night, Somrak.”

Words. Words are the problem. There just aren’t any that won’t make things worse. As she begins to turn, he reaches out, touches her arm. He barely stops himself from grabbing it. She turns back toward him, her eyes asking a silent question. He softly puts his arms around her, and feels his body relax as she puts her hands on his back and holds him tightly. His hands on her, his body, radiates the warmth that it did not before, a comforting heat, soothing, not passionate but speaking of the love he has for her.

He does not know how long they hold each other, but as he begins to become conscious of the passage of time, he releases her, looking into her strange eyes, stroking her smooth cheek. She reaches up and touches his hand, that small, sad smile for him, for the things they share and cannot share. Then, silent, she turns, pulling up her hood again as she opens the door and departs.

Somrak watches her go, watches the door close. He sits heavily on the bed, forearms on his knees, emotions in turmoil, detachment lost, silently cursing over and over like a mantra meant to bring his thoughts back under control.

Ch6.64 Trust

There are ways to move more quickly around the Insula than via the public portal system. Ways more secret as well. But such speed and secrecy conversely calls attention to those who watch for it, those who set up such pathways in the first place. The Guardia’s unnamed, unacknowledged, unofficial agents, known in the rumormill and to themselves as the ‘off-blues’, have their hidden trails, but to resort to those methods, while secret from the masses of gods and mortals and other inhabitants of the Insula, would bring much-unwanted attention.

And Somrak has called too much attention down upon his head already. After unearthing a double agent within the ranks of the off-blues, a sweet-faced servant of Hell, he was told by the Fencer to stand down, take some time off, and most of all stay away from Three Rats. He thoroughly failed to follow those orders, first obeying an invitation to spend the holidays – well, a mere two hours of the holidays – with his former partner Sky, and Sky’s rapidly gathering circle of family, including a certain snowy-haired sergeant, goddess of death and life, niece of said Fencer and the very reason, he is sure, he was told to stay away.

Alma. Fencer was right – he never should have gone to see her. Just the thought of her is enough to make his heart race, bring warmth to his face, and – being a fire god – set alight random flammables in the general vicinity if he is not careful. It is also apparently enough to shut off his judgement entirely and make him blind as an albino cave cricket. Somrak has been here enough times over the years to know that pursuing her is a terrible idea. And that is even without seeing what was, to everyone but him, diamond-clear: that Alma is already in love with someone else.

And so he kissed her, and oh, she kissed him back, with passion, even, dare he believe it, love. There is something there, it is clear, but her choice is not Somrak. Of course it isn’t. She’d have been a fool to choose him over the charming, smooth, urbane Gwydion, who is, let us not forget, the temporarily embarrassed scion of a wealthy and powerful Archon – an Archon who is, in just one more little facet of the gem that cannot quite be ignored, the patron of the Guardia itself.

That is not fair, he admonishes himself as he steps from the final portal, transferring to Little Falls in the Fourth Ring, in walking distance of portal-less Three Rats. Alma is no gold-digger, no ambitious user. Dion is just…well, look at the guy. And then look at yourself. Moody, scar-faced thug, useful for the Commander’s dirty work and nothing else. Would you be there for her when she needs someone? Would you even know what to say? Be honest: would you make her smile more often than you make her weep?

And yet, she calls and Somrak comes running. Straight from being healed, after a battle he should not have fought, to which he fled following that kiss – that kiss. Oh, that kiss. As painful as the revelation that followed it might have been, he will treasure it all his life.

One god. Eighteen frost giants, each of whom, in terms of raw power, could potentially kill a relatively minor god like Somrak.


SpecOps by now has probably arrived to find the ward liberated, and eighteen very large corpses scattered around the main town – which will be need months of rebuilding to recover from its very messy rescue – and the surrounding evergreen forests. The kills were the result of hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, attacks using traps and unconventional weapons. At least two giants managed to kill each other, though good luck to the investigators in figuring out how they had been tricked into it.

Somrak grins. SpecOps will be grumbling about that little display for years. Would they ever believe that it had been just one off-blue, upset at being rejected by a goddess?

As the Commander had once said nearly a century ago, spattered with blood in the aftermath of a suicidal demon-summoning that had left dead the summoner and nine others, “The most dangerous people are the ones who just don’t care whether they live or die.” What Somrak had taken away from that was, perhaps, not what the Commander had intended.

Please. I need your help. The words had formed in fire before his eyes as he lay in bed, recovering from a simple healing. They were in Alma’s handwriting, appearing just as she was burning the name-card on which she’d written them. It was a way he’d long used for quick-and-easy contact, and he’d left a card with Alma.

Not wanting to be stopped by the Fencer or the Commander or anyone else, Somrak had not done the fastest thing, which would have been to return to headquarters and use the long-range portal projector, or take the backdoor labyrinth of pocket-universe tunnels. Instead, he rushed for the nearest public portal – and just convinced it that he was somebody else. And the same with the next, and the next, changing his identity each time. He’d learned that little trick straight from the Commander, and knows it will be unlikely they will be able to track him.

Though if they really want to punish him for ruining SpecOps’ good time, the Fencer will be able to guess his destination in one try, even without knowing about the message. But that cannot be helped.

And there his destination is before him, across the plaza: Three Rats Station. What is it Alma needs? Something bad has happened, something to make Alma desperate enough to scrawl a vague plea and burn the card without a deeper explanation.

Instead of cutting across the little plaza for the front door, he pauses, then heads around the side of the building. Better to make his presence less obvious, he thinks, than saying hello to all the Popula cops on duty. He worked here for a week not long ago, and anyplace he stays for that long, he’ll find multiple ways in and out of they exist.

The second-floor washroom window is, as usual, slightly open to allow for a good airing of unpleasant odors. And – good luck – no one is using it. Blessing his trim build, he is, after a little squeezing and contorting, inside, then down the hall and at Alma’s office door. He can see the main room of the station below, two cops at their desks. If one of them were to look up now, he would be seen. Worst thing to do is move sneaky – that’ll just attract attention. Silent, but moving like this is his own home, he opens the door without knocking and goes in.

And there is Alma, sitting on the floor, surrounded by boxes of books, clothes, little objects, pictures…a guitar? Somrak, wanting to dwell on the worried look on Alma’s face, finds himself staring at the guitar, the lustrous red-blonde body and geometric inlaid design around the sound hole. It is Sky’s. He glances at the rest. Sky’s, all of it, much of it damaged, broken. Why are these things here? Whatever the reason is, it cannot be good. He feels as if he is in freefall.

“Somrak.” Alma stands up. Her voice is thick with fear. He tears his eyes away from the guitar and other things and takes her in. She looks almost ready to collapse, her face blank with emotional fatigue. And her eyes…their beguiling blue has changed, become pearlescent. It shakes him, makes him wonder for a moment if it is really Alma standing before him. But everything else – her weary stance, her distressed expression, even the slightly below-standard temperature of her body – tells him it is her.

He almost asks her about her eyes, but from what he can see, that is not the reason she summoned him. So instead he asks the question he does not want an answer to, “What is it? What happened to Sky?”

“He has been taken, Somrak. By the necromancer.” She gestures, exhausted and helpless, at the detritus. “With demons. Destroyed his sanctum as well.” She sounds on the edge of breaking down.

There is a voice in his head that says, She needs you! Hold her! But he can feel himself going into what he thinks of as ‘analysis mode’. He straightens, only then noticing the slight slump he’d gone into at her words. His face sets, unreadable, as he thinks furiously.

Sky taken. The necromancer is working with the Whisper. Diabolists. Agents of Hell. If they learn what Sky is, they’ll know he’s valuable. They’ll trade him for power, for closure of contracts, extended lifespan. And all that Sky knows will fall into Hell’s hands.

His voice is crisp and professional. “How do we know it’s the necromancer?”

Alma looks at him strangely, as if she cannot believe he’s reacting so coolly. “A message on the wall. Taunting. Promising to kill him if I called anyone. Besides, the place reeks of its filthy magic.”

That’s it then. The Commander feared this from the beginning. And part of my job was to prevent Sky from falling into Hell’s hands. Now that he has, or is on the verge of it, I have to report it directly to the Commander. And I know what he’ll do. What the Council will compel him to do, to prevent the supreme scandal: that the Guardia has been employing a devil for forty years.

They’ll send in the Sikari. And the Sikari do not do rescue missions. They do sterilizations.

He closes his eyes, clenches his fists, forces his breathing to slow. It’s what I’m supposed to do. But… He opens his eyes and looks at Alma’s face. The loss of Sky, the confusion at Somrak’s reaction. She loves him. Loves him dearly. And not just her. He remembers the party, watching Sky in that cheap red coat and matching silly hat, laughing “Ho ho ho!” for some reason and handing out presents. Merri and Cherry teasing him, but you could see from the way they talked to him that they adored him. Tulip treating him like he was her favorite uncle, sitting on his lap as she showed him her drawings. Kori and Sage talking with Sky like they truly enjoyed it, like they valued his company. And Chime, who barely speaks unless he is singing, smiling up at Sky as the tall god showed him how to play the ‘ukulele he’d given the Bunny for a Year End present. And all the while, Mayumi, nearby, chatting with him here and there, sometimes with others, but always back to Sky, their shared looks speaking of a powerful attraction.

Even before, when Sky was asleep, Somrak had been struck by how everyone in the station mentioned Sky, missing him, hoping he’d be back soon. Who could have imagined that big, broody, silent Tuma-Sukai could blossom here, inspire such attachment? For so long, Sky had been closed off, with only flashes of tenderness toward the injured, the frightened, to speak of what was going on beneath the surface.

Closed off. Like me. And I never even realized how much I’ve grown to like the guy.

He remembers their first meeting, the Commander introducing them, telling him Sky’s real name, his true nature. Somrak had felt revulsion. It had been a given that there would be no warmth between them. Sky was an abomination, a very dangerous tool to be destroyed the moment it was no longer of use. And Somrak’s job was to destroy Sky, to put him down like a rabid pet if he ever showed signs of betrayal, or if he was ever in danger of being captured by Hell.

When the Commander told Somrak that he was sending Sky to Three Rats, that the partnership was being broken up at least for awhile, Somrak had been first shocked, then relieved, then, to his surprise, melancholic. He hadn’t wanted to examine the reasons behind that sadness, and had seized upon relief. Finally he would no longer have that burden.

But what had the burden been, really? Sky? At first, yes, but over time, Somrak realized that the burden was knowing he might have to kill Sky someday. That thought came back to him with every rare smile, with those times he and Sky had laughed together.

Once, after a particularly bad mission, when they had been too late and children had died, Sky had been very silent. He had been crouched, turned away, and when Somrak had knelt to talk to him and call him away, he had seen the tears coursing down Sky’s cheeks. He’d seen Sky angry many times before that, but weeping? A devil, weeping for dead children? Without thinking, Somrak had put his hand on Sky’s shoulder, and the devil had broken, crying freely, shuddering, and Somrak had felt the tears rise to his own eyes.

He feels it now. He blinks rapidly, but one drop escapes and he quickly wipes it away. Rousing himself from these memories, he sees Alma studying his face, her confusion softening to a look of compassion. She steps closer, raising a hand to touch his hair, tracing from over his left eye back to where his ponytail is tied back.

“You haven’t changed it,” she says, her hand coming to rest on the juncture of his neck and shoulder.

It takes him a moment to realize what she means. “Oh, that.” When he had been wounded and poisoned, her phoenix, Starfax, had helped him, and for some reason, whimsy perhaps, had changed a single thin lock of his ebony hair to silver, with just a hint of blue in the right light. “No, I…well, it’s a reminder.”

She moves her hand again, touching the scar that runs across his face, where it twists and touches his mouth, producing a permanent, slight smirk. “Like this?” she asks.

He had told her the scar was a memory of someone. “Yes,” he says after a moment.

So tempting. He wants so badly to take her into his arms, to give her comfort and accept it in turn. But would she welcome that? He hesitates, and the moment ends. Her hand falls away and she crosses her arms, compassion in her eyes but also, perhaps, disappointment.

Somrak clears his throat and says, “The Whisper. They have him, so we’ll need to move quickly.” Running his eyes over the items rescued from Sky’s sanctum, frustration threatening to overpower the false confidence with which his tries to mask his voice, he asks, “Has Dion been examining these things for resonance? Maybe that will give us some hint of where they’re holding him.”

Alma nods at the sofa. “Gwydion is resting.”

Somrak looks and almost laughs. Dion, an arm thrown across his eyes and a blanket nearly covering him, lies asleep on the sofa. He scolds himself, So focused on Alma and Sky that you missed an entire god in the room with you. You’re going to have to be sharper to pull off…what? Just what are you planning to do?

“If it weren’t for him keeping Sky’s sanctum standing for awhile longer, I wouldn’t have managed to get so many of his things out.” Alma sighs, looking at the flotsam of Sky’s life. “Much was lost.”

“We have one tenuous lead,” Somrak says. “Lucky Pete. If we can track him down, maybe we can get a location.”

Alma nods in agreement. “We don’t know when the next demon market will be, however. But our resident criminal community should know where to find him, if they can be bothered to speak to us. Maybe Saira can help.”

As she speaks, Somrak bends to pick up the photo album. The cover is nearly torn off, spine broken, and he has to be careful to keep photos from sliding out. One nearly escapes and he catches it. Color, unlike most of them. A teenaged boy with a round face, kneeling in snow, hugging a dog, both of them caught in a moment of perfect joy. “Let’s ask her.”

“That will mean finding her first.” The voice is Dion’s, out of focus as he rises to a sitting position. Somrak looks at him, sees Dion instinctively touch his hair, smooth it, instantly setting it to perfection. “Saira left the bar after the gift-giving party, I’m told.”

Alma’s eyes widen. “What? But – I wasn’t told Anything. I just thought she was sleeping with one of the Bunnies.” She trails off, clearly dismayed at Saira’s departure and, worse, that she’d failed to notice it for three days. Three days? Somrak thinks. Not quite that.

Dion looks at her steadily, his face unreadable, and his eyes flick momentarily to Somrak and back to her again. Alma glares at Dion defiantly, then looks away from him, frowning. After a moment, Dion says, “You have been…busy. The Bunnies only mention it in whispers.” He turns his gaze to Somrak, and by way of greeting, only says, “Somrak.”

“Dion. You feeling better?” What’s going on between them? Somrak wonders. Something is wrong.

“Considerably, thank you,” Dion answers. “I imagine you already know of our predicament.”

Somrak nods. “I doubt they’ll have left any obvious clues, but I was thinking there might be some clue among the recovered items.” He looks to Alma. “Do you have any way to contact Saira?”

“I imagine her friends Aliyah and Cala will know how,” Alma says. “I will ask.” She turns and, with an air of relief, leaves.

Somrak glances after her, then casts his eyes back to the pile. He feels the muscle in his jaw working, a bad habit, and forces himself to stop it. “Sky, you idiot.” It slips out softly, mournfully. Then louder, he says, “Right…I suppose a matchbook for a restaurant is too much to ask for…” He sets the photo album on Alma’s desk, and squats to pick up a thick leather-bound book.

Dion stands up. “What do you need me to do?”

“Well, that depends. We probably…oh yes, definitely have demon blood here.” He rises and hands the book to Dion, a black, tarry substance splashed across the unrecognizable language of the title. “Tingles, like mild acid. Do you think you could track it?”

“If the owner is on the Insula and not in some pocket universe, I believe so. Give me time to set things up.”

“Let me know if you need me to get any–” Somrak breaks off. “Oh, almost forgot I’m not supposed to be here. Um, I guess I have to stay in this office for now.”

Dion looks at him curiously. “And why are you not supposed to be here?”

Somrak shakes his head. “Cops, always with the questions. I’m supposed to be resting after an operation.” The truth is always easier to remember later. The trick is remembering how much of it you’ve told. He winks at Dion. “Off duty. Let’s just keep this moonlighting between us. Besides, sounds like Sky will pay for it if you bring in help, so I’d better keep a low profile.”

Dion’s eyes narrow further. “And how did you get in here without being seen? I would have woken if you’d used any significant magic.”

“Washroom window should be closed and locked, not left open like it always is.” Somrak grins, his scar pulling it out of true as always, and to change the topic he taps the album of pictures. “Thank the Fates you got this out.”

Looking puzzled, Dion asks, “Important?”

“Probably Sky’s most important possession. Just his people. Family.” Somrak’s voice is softer.

Dion seems to study Somrak for a moment longer, then looks down. “I see. I’m sorry to say my abilities bought us little time to remove Sky’s possessions from his sanctum. It was Alma who chose what to take. I barely know what is in that pile.”

Without looking at Dion, Somrak picks up the one guitar that wasn’t smashed, holding it like he’s seen Sky do only a handful of times in all their years together. He strums his fingers across it once, the sound filling the air. “You ever hear him play?”

“Once only,” Dion says, “at the gift-giving party.”

“He’s good, eh?” Somrak holds it up, horizontally, like a sword, and looks at the god of magic. “Dion, you saved this. You saved all these things, these…connections to his past. Alma couldn’t have done it without you, and you couldn’t have done it without her, so you saved it every bit as much as she did.” He locks eyes with Dion. “Thank you. I mean, I know Sky would thank you. But I do too.”

Dion looks as if he didn’t expect this, but he nods. “He is our friend.”

Somrak turns back to the pile, gently setting the guitar against the side of the desk. “He is,” he says, his voice dark. He picks up an elaborately carved idol, a frightening face, full of sharp teeth, like a cross between human, dragon, and wolf, with big clawed hands, crouched on its haunches, surrounded by skulls, sticky with blood.

“Here, more blood,” Somrak says. His mind is elsewhere, on family, and drifting back to Alma’s changed eyes. He hands the idol over, about to ask Dion about Alma, but catches the scent on his fingers, and realizes that he has just given Dion an idol of Sky in a very stylized version of Sky’s devil form, covered in Sky’s own blood. Sky’s blood when he is in devil form. The smell is distinctive, like how he imagines the Insula-surrounding ocean smells deep down at the point where it fades from water into the chaos of the Void. Too late to take it back.

Dion frowns at it, barely bothering to sniff. Somrak can feel his hair stand on end as the fabric of reality bends ever so slightly to the pull of magic. Yet Gwydion does not seem to be casting a spell of any kind. It must be his sphere, the same one that activated during their fight with the demon, some time ago. “This is not demon blood. This is worse.” He looks at Somrak, visibly grim.

Somrak keeps his voice calm despite the internal panic. “Oh?”

“They have a devil. I’m sure of it.” Dion states at the idol, looking as if he is barely stopping himself from smashing it to pieces.

Wonderful. Sky’s blood in his human-seeming form would not have been detectably different from a human’s, with hints of the divine. But it seems he changed forms during his capture. “That…confirms that it’s the one we’ve labelled ‘The Lieutenant’ heading up this group. Few sorcerers have the ability to summon devils. Or the temerity.”

Dion looks up at him. “We need help from higher powers. Demons, we can defeat. Devils…”

Somrak shakes his head. “Alma took a big risk calling me in. Contacting anyone else…it’s dangerous. We need to keep this to just the three of us. I’ve faced a devil before, alongside Sky. And I saw you against that demon. You can handle it, Dion.”

He wants to be open. He wants to say, If we call in the big guns, they’re going to call in the bigger guns, and we’re going to be left watching while the Whisper, and Sky, are wiped out. But if I tell you that, I have to tell you why. And that is Sky’s secret. And the Commander’s.

Dion frowns, but he says nothing.

There is a knock on the door, and Alma walks in. “I know how to contact Saira. It’s not far.”

Somrak’s mind is racing. Come on, it’s time to decide what to do. “Do you know how long she’s likely to take to reply?”

“I will give her until tomorrow,” Alma says, barely looking at Gwydion. “Nothing more we can do in the meantime than go over what we already know, anyway.”

Somrak gestures to the pile. “You did good, Alma. And you’re doing good. We will find him.”

She gives him a small smile. “I have to take care of my harvests. I’ll return after that.”

Somrak nods, knowing enough about the Death Clan to understand that souls cannot wait, and that keeping things normal for now is a good idea. “I…had better find someplace to stay. Someplace anonymous.”

Alma says drily, “May I suggest the Singing Cockroach? Gwydion knows where it is.”

This prompts a grimace from Dion. “Yes. I can take you there.”

Somrak is again struck by the chasm that seems to have grown between the two. Whatever has happened, he hopes it will be bridged soon. They deserve their life, together or apart. And the likelihood of survival is slim, so slim. The Whisper are smart, and careful, and any juicy flies that find their way into their web will be wrapped up and drained. But if, with Alma and Dion’s help, Somrak can find where Sky is being held, then he will leave them behind, get in…and create enough chaos that Sky can escape.

He is loved. He has family. And what good would it be to drag that family in, to the deaths of some or all of them? If there’s any chance to get Sky out, I’ll get him out. Doesn’t matter whether I’m with him. And if there’s no way out, at least he’ll have company at the end.

They will be angry at Somrak, but who isn’t these days? One more lie, one more disappointment – but they will live. He’ll make sure of that. “Sounds good,” he says aloud. He looks Dion up and down. “I don’t think you’re going to fit through that little window. We got another way out of here?”

With a gesture, Gwydion opens a golden portal and gestures for Somrak to step through. “After you.”

Somrak smiles. “Traveling in style.” He looks at Alma, sees the misery lurking in her eyes, the tremulous smile on her face. “We’ll find him,” he promises. And thinks of all the promises he has broken. He turns and steps through.

Ch6 mid-chapter 1: Somrak & Memory

“I was on my own time, you know.”

“You don’t have your own time unless we say so.” Fencer’s voice is harsh, but also tired. Tired of him, Somrak is sure. Tired of excuses.

He’s leaning against the doorframe leading from the entryway to the receiving room in the Commander’s simple, spartan home. He’s just arrived, summoned a few hours ago via terse magical message, fiery letters floating in his mind’s eye: My home. Now. He had been washing blood from his hands in a pool of melted snow.

The room is wobbling in and out of focus. How many chairs? Three. Four? No, it’s three, it just looks like four. And the sofa. He remembers Sky stretched out on that, asleep, as Somrak was teaching a little godling to cook in the kitchen. Long time ago.

“Now explain,” Fencer growls as she sits on the top guy’s chair like it’s hers. Not that it’s the Commander’s favorite chair. That’s in the real living room, deeper in the house. This room? This is for guests who aren’t exactly friends, so the Commander doesn’t have to share the rest of his home with them. It is also a room that can be instantly sealed off and filled with deadly forces that even Somrak isn’t privy to. Just in case those not-friends become unfriendly.

There is a piercing pain that makes him think his skull may actually be fractured. It’s getting harder to ignore. He ignores it. “Just doing my job, lady,” he says, casually, hoping he’s not slurring his words. “And everybody else’s, as usual.”

“This is no training exercise!” Achmal, his hulking shoulders flexing, towers over Somrak. He’s even taller than Sky and far bulkier, all muscle, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his size to intimidate. His voice echoes down the twisting tunnel of the ice cave they are in. “Tell us what’s going on, Somrak!”

“Somrak, please.” Xinappa is a gentle soul for an off-blue, her origin a tropical ward, and she looks uncomfortable with the cold. “Call for extraction. We want to get out from under this glacier.” Her partner, Erissa, nods, her body wrapped in a warm coat, hood hiding her auburn hair.

Somrak looks at dour Ogive, who is silent, looking back with those bored killer’s eyes, his big silver bow on his back. A god of archery, Ogive can shoot the wings off a mosquito at a hundred paces, and put an arrow through a god’s eye at a mile. Somrak has seen him do it.

And at their feet is the healer brought along on this mission, a life god by the name of Renrak. His head is severed. The blood on the ice is frozen.

Somrak takes a breath. Achmal’s blustering does not move him. But it’s time to tell the truth. He nods at Renrak’s corpse.

“We’re here because one of us, according to the guys at the top, is a traitor. And we’re not leaving until we figure out who.”

Fencer is silent for a moment, glowering at him with those mismatched eyes, one red, one glowing silver. Finally she says, her voice tense with warning, “There are not enough words in this language to describe how much you annoy me, Ponytail. What he sees in you, I do not know. Now quit the idiotic jokes and give me a straight answer!”

He can’t actually remember what joke he made, so he shrugs, refusing to be intimidated. Also refusing to let his knees buckle. The only reason he isn’t sitting is he’s certain he won’t be able to stand up again. “What’s to complain about?”

“Stop. One more step and you die.”

 His voice is exhausted, but it rings through the corridor and echoes deep into the labyrinth formed by meltwater beneath the glacier. A womanly figure, her coat lost, is silhouetted by the blue glow of a portal that floats in the air, mere steps out of her reach.

Erissa turns. As a fire god, Somrak can make out her facial features in their heat patterns, but the effect is nonetheless alienating, her youthful beauty missing.

“Let me go, Somrak.” She sounds frightened. She should be. “I only did what I had to do.”

“You tried to frame me for Renrak. And then for Xinappa. Your own partner, Erissa! She covered for you! She lied for you!” Fury chases the exhaustion from his voice and, from his hands to his forearms, flames roar to life. Steam rises from his clothes and skin, soaked as he is with melted ice. “Ogive and Achmal are buried under tons of ice, maybe dead too.”

“You should have stayed under there with them.” She shakes her head, taking a step backward toward the portal. “You would have been safer. Somrak, please – they’re coming for me. They know I failed. They’ll take me to Hell before I can be interrogated.”

He should just set her aflame. She can still be interrogated with charred flesh. But though he has nearly spent all his godly power, he decides on giving her one last chance to surrender. He raises his right hand, and a wall of fire whooshes into existence behind her, between her and the portal, close enough to singe her hair. She staggers away, falling to her hands and knees. Water begins to trickle fast down the walls near her.

“Was it just for power, Erissa? Dissatisfied demi wanting to be a full goddess? Well you got what you wanted. Are you happy about the cost?” As his divine sphere pulses within, he can feel the fire burning even in his broken bones now, banishing the chill of melting his way through tons of collapsed ice. But his thoughts are cold as the heart of this glacier. “I’ll protect you from your masters. You’re going to tell us everything you told them, and everything they ever asked. And who put you in contact with them.”

“I’m not surrendering,” Erissa insists. She rises and the corridor pulses with a sickly green glow. Somrak’s wall of fire turns green, and he senses that he no longer controls it. He tries to get it back, but these demonstrations of power, meant to cow the off-blue traitor into submission, have used up his last reserves of mana. He cannot wrest control of it from the nearing forces of Hell. Then it goes out, but Erissa’s eyes still glow with the same deadly light. “They’re here. I always liked you, Somrak. You should have stayed away. Maybe they’ll give me another chance, in exchange for your soul.”

A shape forms, green-highlighted black against the blue portal from which it emerges. He recognizes it immediately. She has a long, thin-bladed sword in one hand, and one of her eyes is glowing silver.

The Fencer speaks, her voice harsh and undeniable. “Stand down, Corporal. It’s over.”

Erissa screams in frustration, the corridor trembling with her rage. The green light pulses more strongly, and the ice groans. A section of the tunnel collapses on top of Fencer, and the rest seems it could give way at any moment.

His left arm shattered and useless, Somrak draws a long knife from a thigh-sheath and charges.

“Were you ordered there?” she sneers. “Was it wise or necessary to act alone?”

He raises his right arm, palm up. The other stays where it is, pressed against the doorframe. Alma healed it one day ago. Now it’s broken again, the damage barely ameliorated through his own meager healing magic, just enough to hold it together. Alma would not be happy. He’s much better at destroying things than repairing them. “Necessary? We were short-handed following that nightmare you cooked up under the ice. And the Special Operations boys, let’s face it, wouldn’t have got the job done so quickly or thoroughly. So yes, necessary. And wise. The proof of that is in the results.”

“The results? Oh, you mean the dead gang of frost giants? The ones we never intended to kill in the first place?” Her voice rises in volume. She gets up and stalks toward him, as she speaks, ending up almost nose to nose with him. “Damn it, Somrak! You do not get to decide what needs to be done! Certainly not just because you need to vent your anger over whatever piece of stupidity you did on your day off! You should not even have been operational yet!”

An annoying stray thought crosses his exhausted mind: Damn, she looks good. I mean, I don’t exactly want to get with that, but I totally see why the Commander does. He forces his mind away from irrelevancies back to the fact that one of the most dangerous goddesses in this universe is deeply unhappy with him right now. She has, after all, been known to end problems with great abruptness and finality.

“What can I say?” His mouth is working on autopilot, and he finds himself wondering what will come out of it. “Your niece is a far better healer than our darling Butcher. And what were you planning to do with a bunch of murderous religious-fanatic frost giants anyway?”

The cold again. Not that it matters to him. Being a fire god means never needing long underwear.

He can still feel Alma’s kiss on his lips, tingling, even after almost a day. And the shame of learning how blind he’d been – he can feel that, too. He hadn’t wanted to see it. Hadn’t wanted to see she was in love with Dion.

So a quick getaway, back upslope to Guardia Headquarters – not the off-blues HQ, not after what happened under the ice – and one quiet inquiry later, here he is. Good to have a friend in Special Operations. Well, ‘friend’ might be pushing it. Someone who owes him enough to tell him what’s the nastiest, meanest operation coming up.

And that is here: Yotn, ward of frost and crags. Mountains on the slope of the Celestial Mount, broken black stone covered in eye-blinding white snow, small villages scattered in the valleys. It is very picturesque from his vantage point atop a ridge, looking down on two valleys. Except for the smoke and the smashed houses, the bodies in the cobblestone streets, and the enormous figures striding through them.

Frost giants. Disagreeable types. Classification of just what is and is not a god is always a fuzzy thing, and some call frost giants gods, but never to their face. Like the denizens of Hell, they hate gods, whom they consider to be young upstarts. And once in awhile they get it into their heads that it’s time for a war.

It never lasts long. The giants aren’t exactly idiots, but they don’t value thoughtfulness. They hold simple, direct action in great esteem. Somrak can understand. Action is the best way to chase away unsettling thoughts.

The giants have devastated two villages already, and have destroyed the ward’s public portal. Good thing for the Commander’s hidden portal network. The only disadvantage is that the secret portal is located a long, icy climb above the valley where the giants are having their fun. Somrak takes time to stretch his limbs. Of course he didn’t bring any climbing equipment. What’s the fun in that?

He looks at the black fingerless gloves on his hands, a gift from his rival for Alma’s affections. For a moment he considers taking them off, tossing them away, but he’s not angry at Dion. He’s angry at himself.

It will be two days before the Special Operations mission begins to take down the gang of giants. Plenty of time for Somrak to deliver his anger to some people who really deserve to receive it. Special Ops can thank him later.

Not that they will.

No longer shouting but all the more dangerous for how calm she sounds, Fencer moves even closer. Somrak pushes aside the absurd temptation to kiss her, surely born of a death wish. “I know it was her who healed you,” she growls softly. “You reek of her power. Tell me, did she heal you so you could flirt with death again? Is that how you plan to capture her attention? By having her come and collect your soul when you get yourself killed?”

Two frost giant corpses collapsing at once makes an impressive momentary earthquake. Somrak actually feels his feet leave the ground from the impact. A damaged house tumbles the rest of the way down, and there is a hiss all about as snow slides off the angled rooftops of the buildings still standing

One of the giants has buried his axe in the other’s head; the other has thrust a spear through his companion’s eye and out through the back of the skull. They now lie on their sides, still clutching their skull-destroying weapons, looks of surprise on their faces. They had, after all, been aiming at a fiery shape that had looked a great deal like Somrak, flying through the air between them.

Easy to shape fire into anything, he thinks, satisfied with the results of his trick. Let’s see the Special Ops guys figure out how that happened. He grins and strides through the main street of the village.

A full third of the houses are damaged beyond repair, he observes. Some are completely destroyed. Human bodies, of all ages and genders, lie scattered in the street, the victims of giants who believe their ancestors, whom they worship instead of gods, have ordered this tragic little crusade. They may well be right – who knows what madness the long-dead ghosts of aeon-old giants may preach? But littered among the human corpses are now those of giants, sixteen in all, some with boiled-to-explosion brains, some with their icy hearts burnt to ash, some with slashed tendons and then, brought to earth by legs that would no longer support them, slashed throats.

One of his favorite blades has broken. Even enchanted, dwarf-forged steel can’t stand up forever to the hard work Somrak puts it through, particularly because Somrak prefers his short swords narrow and light. He grumbles and sheathes the half-blade, reminding himself to visit his favorite equipment-smith and get a new one made. There goes two months’ pay –

And that’s when one of the giant corpses reaches out like lightning and grabs Somrak’s left arm, squeezing hard. Somrak screams as he feels his radius and ulna twist and then snap like twigs. The giant sits up, lifting Somrak from the ground. The god stares back at one hate-filled, pale-blue eye. The giant’s other eye is gone, along with almost half of his head, burned away by a particularly energetic display of a fire god’s power

“Tough…bastard,” Somrak gasps through clenched teeth.

The giant says something in that ponderous language that always sounds like an avalanche to Somrak. “Speak…Urbia…you stinking barbarian!” Somrak shouts. He is just summoning up the power to cook the rest of the giant’s brain when it smashes him to the hard stone street, once, then again.

He doesn’t break eye contact. He wonders if she can see the concussion in his eyes. After a long tense moment he says, “Message received. So is there anything else?”

She pulls back, staring at his face. “Yes. None of the other off-blues is willing to work with you. Your team is no more, Somrak.”

He clenches his jaw, though the pain that sends slicing through his head almost knocks him off his feet. “I’m sure I can find something to do.”

She turns and goes to the sideboard. “I better not hear of you going anywhere near Three Rats, Ponytail. That place is bad enough for our people without a walking menace like you around.”

He closes his eyes. The room is going out of focus again. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ve always wanted to take up macrame. Very calming, I’m told. You might try it.”

He hears the thup sound of a cork being pulled from the neck of a bottle, followed by the tink of the bottle’s neck touching a glass. Liquid pouring. “My brother has spawned enough sons with a talent for hangman’s nooses. I can do without the pointless artistry.” A little water being spritzed into the glass. “By the way, I have spoken to your master. He is handing your leash over to me on a permanent basis.”

Somrak opens his eyes and looks pointedly at the bottle next to her hand. Whisky, nothing very rare or refined, just simple and delicious. “Are there two glasses, or am I just drinking straight from the bottle?”

She lifts her glass and sips the whisky. “You’re in no condition to drink. Sit.”

He looks at the chair she nods toward and sighs. Walking with the care of a practiced drunk, he moves to it and carefully sits. The moment he does, the enervation of his unrested body washes over him, just as he’d feared. Every ache, every sharp stabbing pain, every throbbing agony comes on in full force. He clenches his teeth against a groan.

“So what’s next?” he gasps.

“Next is a visit from a healer. Don’t worry, it’s not the Butcher. Then you focus on getting your head screwed on straight. And after that, I have a couple of ways for you to make yourself useful.” She takes a drink. “Did you give her the sword?”

At the abrupt change in topic, Alma’s smile as he handed her the gift from Fencer returns in his mind. And the feeling of holding her in the breezeway. Kissing her. “I did. She likes it. Relieved you didn’t ask for the old one back.”

Fencer snorts. “She had the nerve to steal that one from me. Anyone that brave or stupid deserves a reward. Tell me, how’s your fencing?”

He feels very detached from his body. He hears his voice saying, “You tell me. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” But he thinks the clever words may have come out as senseless babbling.

Being witty is such hard work.

“You’re badly injured. Let me heal you.” The beautiful white-haired Sergeant reaches a hand to touch Somrak.

He moves back slightly, still twitching from the lightning strike that hit him. In the wake of the assassination attempt of this Alma and her Archon-Dooming Bunnies, he is not in the best of shape, but his body is already healing in the way nearly any god is capable of, even one as oriented toward destruction as himself. And if she’s anything like the off-blues’ staff healer, known as the Butcher, Somrak is better off healing himself. “Save it, Sergeant. You’ll likely need the mana later.”

He knows who she is, of course. When the Commander split up the forty-year Somrak and Sky partnership – an off-blue teamup both tumultuous and highly successful, and one that had outlasted any other partnership in the existence of the off-blue program – Somrak naturally looked into the Dei officers that Sky would be working with. But he hadn’t looked very closely and now here she is, face to face, the notoriously difficult Sergeant Alma, Dei of a dozen stations.

And seeing her face before him, pale and delicate while at the same time flushed with Life energy from healing the red-haired Bunny, he is certain he has seen her before. He will have to plumb his memory. Later. Assuming he survives.

She frowns at him. “It is a more efficient use of mana to heal you now, rather than leave you as a burden on the rest of us. I daresay I can heal you with greater ease than you can heal yourself.

He smiles, that lopsided grin pulled into a smirk by his scar, so infuriating to many even when it is an honest smile. This goddess, only a few decades his junior but barely a rookie Guardia compared to his mortal lifetime of service, mother-henning him. He finds himself charmed but, being who he is, he has to express himself sardonically. He turns to the Commander and jokes, “I see what you meant about her.”

He looks back to see her narrow-eyed glare at the Commander, which just makes Somrak like her more. He can imagine all those dull rulesbound station commanders she’s served under, not knowing what to do with her. He’d love to show her the off-blue life. She might even like it.

Ch6.45 Trust

The bar is filled with music. Most of the people who can sing (and definitely all the ones who can’t) have joined in Kyri’s musical challenge and are happily singing holiday tunes of all sorts and origins, from the sweet and soft Hail the Lord of Heavens kind of tune that some more monotheistic wards tend to favor to a couple of songs that Breowan has brought into the ensemble, reminiscent of a cat being shaved with barbed wire.

Alma, on the other hand, is struggling to keep up with the rest of the partiers. Her family has never been one to sing much about things like the Year’s End (or any other thing, truth be told) and the quarter of a century she has spent outside the walls of her father’s estate has lead to so much moving around from ward to ward as Sergeants and Inspectors strove to make her some other station’s problem that she has somehow managed to bypass Year’s End celebrations in most of them. So she does not know the lyrics or melody to most of the songs being sung which has her mostly humming to the tunes and being content with watching the others having fun and laughing at her younger Bunnies’ attempts at learning the lyrics to all of these new songs in record time.

“Hey, Mom!” Tulip’s sudden, loud voice in her ear makes Alma jump in her chair. The young Bunny is still trying to master her inside voice but, apparently, not trying too hard. Still, Alma refrains from scolding her, not wanting to sour the party for anyone. She looks quizzically at Tulip, who is holding a sheet of paper, one of the many she has been handing around, and looking somewhere between confused and concerned. “Where’s Uncle Som? I wanna show him the drawing I made of Uncle Sky.”

“Well, he was just here a few minutes ago…” The question makes Alma look around the room. Where is Somrak? She had left him attacking the food trays and half expected that he would be sharing a drink with Sky by now. But Sky is happily talking and exchanging sweet caresses with Mayumi by the bar and Somrak is nowhere to be seen. An instinctive feeling in her chest has her looking toward the door that leads to the breezeway. “He may have gone out for a moment. Let me go check.”

“I’ll go!” Tulip volunteers immediately.

But Alma manages to grab her by the wrist before the Bunny dashes off. “Tulip, no,” she says quietly but firmly. “Let me, yes? Uncle Somrak might want to be alone.”

“Oh…” Tulip’s ears droop slightly in disappointment with a hint of worry. “Is he…all right?”

Alma struggles to answer the simple question without lying. Somrak is wounded in more ways than one, and their short conversation before had left her heart heavy with concern for the rogue fire god. But she does not want Tulip to worry. Considering how Bunny psyche tends to handle such situations, Somrak might find himself at the bottom of an overwhelming, long-eared pile of affection instead of enjoying the quiet solitude that she suspects he is craving right now. “He will be. Don’t worry about that. I will be right back.”

She rises from her chair and crosses the room toward the door, glancing behind her to make sure that Tulip won’t follow. She sees the Bunny looking at her uncertainly but nonetheless taking the chair that Alma was occupying before and joining again in Kyri’s musical merrymaking.

She steps outside. To the right of her, Somrak is leaning against the wall of the bar, weight on one leg, the other crossing at the ankle. A fine cigar is hanging loosely from his fingers, a long stream of aromatic smoke slithering slowly from his lips. The back of his head resting against the wall, he has his eyes raised to the strip of night sky framed by the tops of the station and the bar. The sun has set quickly since the fire god’s arrival at the party. The sound of the door closing behind her makes his eyes swivel in her direction. He lowers his head slowly, lazily turning it to look at Alma. The nightly shadows heighten his gaunt appearance, darkening the edges of his bruises, sinking his eyes deeper into their sockets. He looks surprised and uncomfortable at first, perhaps not expecting that his absence would be noted, but then his gaze softens and the smoke-filled breath he had been holding is gently released in a more relaxed acknowledgment of her presence.

Alma stands by the now closed door, looking at him, uncertain of what to do or say. She is torn between wanting him to exorcise whatever demons are haunting him tonight and leaving him alone with his thoughts. Who is she to impose her presence in his life? What does she know of him, who is she to him that she can possibly claim the right to intervene? Maybe she should just let Sky talk to his old partner and deal with things in whatever way has worked for them in so many decades.

And yet…yet she feels the calling to reach out to him, a palpable need to say something, whatever it is, to drive his pain away, if only for a moment. The way he held her when he arrived, when she said those silly little words “Welcome home”, not even knowing why she was saying them to someone like him… She felt his heart begin to pound against her chest then and she can almost feel the same strangled sensation now as he looks at her. If he rejects her help, sends her away without so much as an explanation, that will be his right. But it is her hope that he won’t.

His eyes are becoming worried now. She realizes how long it has been that they have both been silently gazing at each other. What to say? “Needed some fresh air?”

Fresh air? With that cigar puffing ash into his lungs? her conniving thoughts betray her. Good thing that gods are not prone to disease.

She admonishes herself for the thought immediately. It is a sad truth that even with Nekh gone from her mind, the echoes of his caustic presence still taint her thoughts. But Somrak seems to share in her mind’s humor.

He raises the cigar, a smirk dancing on his lips. “Yeah, but… This somehow found me instead.”

He turns the unburning end of it in her direction, in a silent offering, but Alma is not a big fan of such things, preferring water pipes herself if smoking is of the essence, and so she just waves her hand in a gentle no.

“Thank you. I favor other bad habits.”

She takes a couple of steps towards him and leans against the wall just by his left. The silence that falls between them is crammed with unspoken words but it somehow feels comfortable enough that she can relax in his company. She breathes deeply, her eyes closed, letting the vibrant agitation that has surrounded this whole day flow out of her, driven away by the cool night air. She turns her head upward, to look at the stars. Somewhere among them, godly horses gallop through the endless Void, looking down on the celebrating Insula. Will Arion be watching his children, even if he has failed to keep his promise to meet them?

For a moment, she is barely aware of Somrak still leaning against the wall by her side, of how he casually extinguishes his cigar by putting his index finger on its smoldering tip before slipping it back into the silver case that Sky gave him, and tucking the whole thing away in a jacket pocket.

He does not press for a conversation but Alma cannot help herself from saying what she has not dared confess to anyone yet. “Twenty-four years…” Her own voice sounds old and tired to her. “I have waited twenty-four years for this day. And I have spent most of it trying to convince myself that it is real. A part of me just wants to run away before it all comes tumbling down to rubble.”

She can see him studying her face through the corner of her eye. “You run away, and it’s guaranteed to turn to rubble.”

She nods, chuckling quietly, bitterly. “I know. I am still here, aren’t I?” She turns her head to face him. “It is just that some days, I get tired of fighting. And others…” she turns to glance at the door. “I remember what I’m fighting for. And on days like this…”

Words evade her. What can she say? That she is scared? That all of this feels too good to be true, to be hers? That for all her outward strength, she is still a terrified young girl with a couple of newborn babies in her arms and the world spinning under her feet?

And why tell him this? Why not Sky or Gwydion? Why even say it? Just admitting to it feels like such a betrayal to the family she has worked so hard on protecting, on bringing together. It shames her to feel this way. To be frightened of her own happiness when so many people would steal and kill for a single, remote shot at it.

A gentle touch to her hand makes her turn her eyes to him again. His fingers are wrapping around hers, squeezing them softly. His eyes close for a second, betraying the pain that his shattered arm causes him. When he opens them again, she sees it. His pain. Not the pain in his body but the one that torments his soul. For that moment that the eyelids take to rise fully, his defenses fail him and the turmoil in his mind flares like a comet’s tail.

And even though he remains silent, she cannot resist the urge to detach herself from the wall and stand closer, in front of him, her right hand still in his, but the left stroking the marks of newly-healed cuts on his face, the bruises that mar his handsome features. “What have they done to you, Somrak?” Her voice is very soft, almost a whisper. As if anything above that could scare him away. “There is so much pain, so much anguish in you.”

Somrak’s eyes are on her face, half shut at her touch. Her question makes him sigh, draw a shuddery breath. “I had to kill someone.” He looks down as if he cannot bear to look at her. “Someone I knew. Someone on my team.”

Alma tries to keep any accusation away from her voice as she asks, “Why?”

He shakes his head. “That…is classified. But.” He shrugs. “She betrayed us. Murdered her partner, who trusted her so much that she tried to give her a chance.” Another sigh. “Even so, I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been trying to kill your aunt.”

Alma tries to wrap her head around the concept of being desperate or foolish enough to attack the Fencer. By Guardia standards, that is the very definition of suicide by cop. “If she did that then you must know…the Fencer would have not let her live anyway.” She tries to bring some light into both their moods. “Did my aunt like the tiger?”

The flash of grief that crosses Somrak’s face immediately makes her regret that question. “Yeah. She loves the tiger. Named him Khun. Gets all gooey over him and then looks at me like she’s going to kill me if I ever tell anyone.”

Alma cannot help but chuckle. “Ah, yes…Welcome to life with Varah.” The joke makes him snort, which brings a smile to her face. She releases her right hand from his gentle grip to wrap both arms around him, closely though minding his wounds, and presses her forehead against his. “It will be all right. Maybe not perfect, maybe not good. But it will be all right. Yes?”

His forehead rests on hers fully, as if he is too tired to keep his head hanging straight. “I don’t expect perfection. I don’t expect good, either, except in moments. But yes,” his right hand reaches up to stroke her hair, cup the back of her head. They stand quietly, noses touching, sharing in each other’s breath. He feels pleasantly warm against her as the scent of his skin, of the tobacco he usually smokes, creeps into her senses, stroking nerves, ancient, primal parts of her brain. And for some reason, it makes her feel safe. Cared for. The fear of upcoming misery in her heart settles for a moment.

She understands all at once why Sky finds this kind of thing so sacred and intimate. “It’s over now,” she whispers to Somrak, almost unthinkingly. “You are home.”

His frame shakes with a half-choked breath. “I don’t know…how to be home, Alma.”

“You’re not the only one,” she concedes. “I’m…we’re all still learning. All I know is that there’s warmth and safety and always someone to make me believe that it can be all right. And I don’t have to run anymore.” It is almost painful but she forces herself to pull away just enough that she can look at him. “Do you not want that for yourself?”

He looks back at her, all the pain in the world seemingly pouring into those deep, black eyes. “I do. I just…”

She can almost see his thoughts engraved in his expression. His mind is torn by the concept of someone like him being permanently bound to a station. Stifling a sigh, she touches two fingers to his chin, to hold his head up before he can hang it down. Her eyes lock on his in what she hopes shows sincerity, not aggression. “You don’t have to stay here. Home is people, Somrak. Just…don’t let go of us. And you’ll always have us to come home to.”

He holds her gaze, questioning, doubting. She knows that look well. It is the look of someone who has learned to believe that he is not entitled to bliss and who is just now struggling to hope that maybe, this time, if only just this once…he could be wrong. His left hand rises toward her cheek. As his fingertips graze her skin, the smallest of flinches betrays his pain at raising his injured arm that high.

Alma takes his hand and brings it lower before moving her own to his left upper arm. For as much as she has been trying to let him regain his mental strength and decide himself when to be healed, she can no longer pretend to ignore how bad his injuries are.

“May I?” she asks softly.

He nods, looking almost frightened at the prospect of a healing. That makes her hesitate for a moment. Healing is as painful and uncomfortable as it is pleasurable. Anyone who has ever been injured knows that. The pain, the itching, the sting of exposed flesh, the pulling of scars. And then the absence of pain, the relief as the body becomes whole again. But all those sensations are drawn out, taking days, months, years to show and resolve themselves, allowing the body time to adapt and become almost numb to them. A magical healing is a brutal fast-forwarding of all those events, speeding them along, reducing days to minutes and giving the body no chance to be even fully aware of all that is going on.

A poorly-skilled healer can cause so much pain that healing quickly becomes a nightmare compared to a natural mend. There has to be balance between pain and pleasure, to numb discomfort with relief. And though good healers cannot eliminate pain altogether, they can leave such a blissful aftertaste to their actions that the memory of pain is completely erased, exhilaration left in its place. Alma knows that, after years of experience and care, her skill in healing has reached that plateau.

So why is he so worried? Has she not healed and left him elated before?

“I will take it gently,” she reassures him.

He nods again and straightens, resting his hands on her back. Again, she presses her forehead against his, her eyes flaring the reddish-gold glimmer of her life sphere, scents of spring and of cool nights invading the air as she calls upon her healing power. Her magic begins to pour into him, slowly, scouting out what is broken, torn and bruised, what is misplaced and healing in the wrong position. Her senses know him well by now, the memory of his previous healing still fresh in Alma’s mind. She reminds herself to leave his facial scar in place but everything else, all the marks of horrible aggression, of crushed bone and cut skin and bruised internal organs are flagged to disappear.

Her energy courses through him, renewing fractures to shift bone fragments into their proper positions, stretching tendons and nerves to pull them back into their natural grooves, rechanneling the blood vessels that had been grown to replace ones that had been destroyed. His hands grip her tightly, breath shuddering at the pain that she cannot avoid causing him. But pain is not all he feels. At each necessary aggression, she responds by urging his body to produce substances that induce pleasure. She uses the relief of tension on previously distended tendons and tissues no longer being compressed by bone fragments, the local cooling as inflammation is reduced and cancelled. She overwhelms his brain with signals from all over his body to distract it from the pain.

He raises his head to the sky, eyes transfixed, mouth gaping open as his breath catches in his lungs. Soon, it is done. His hands release her and he falls against the wall, leaning his weight against it, breathing heavily, shaking. He looks at her, eyes wide and searing, paralyzing her with their intensity. She wonders if her skills have failed her this time.

And suddenly, his hand is cupping her cheek, the other pressing the small of her back, pulling her toward him. His lips are pressed against hers. She stiffens, surprised at the sudden kiss, at the hunger with which he tries to compel her to join him. She takes his invitation. His need, the dark mood of their conversation, the lightheadedness of the deep healing…she kisses him back with the passion of her own fears. She cannot resist this rogue, this daredevil who toys with his own demise, whose mere existence taunts her very essence, who offers himself to her and begs her to take him with a kiss that threatens to consume her.

It is frightening and exhilarating and all she wants is more of it. She wants to hold on to him and heal the wounds in his soul. Show him that he is not alone in the dark. But something inside her is screaming in alarm, begging her to stop. The part of her that is always watching is begging her to pay attention, to see that this is not right. That Somrak is not acting like himself. Is he just kissing her because of the healing? Is she taking advantage of him?

She tries to pull away, managing just enough breath to call his name. “Somrak…”

“Shhh…” his lips cover hers again.

“Somrak…” she breathes amidst kisses.

Oh gods, he is not making this any easier on her. She has to pry herself from the exquisite warmth of his mouth. “You’re not…” she fights for breath, “thinking straight.”

His eyes are glazed, as if he has a fever. And considering how hot his body feels against hers, he just might. “Like I care.”

He kisses her with renewed passion. She can taste his anguish mixed in with the smoky aroma of his tongue as it strokes hers, sparking bolts of pleasure that course through her, shutting down her better sense. She feels the world twirl around her with dizzying speed. And then she feels the solidity of a wall pressed against her back, the fit frame of his body pressed to her front, pinning her in place. His hands are on her sides now, strong and hungry, pulling, always pulling her to him. Her own hands are on his back, relishing in the feel of his muscles, of how his body craves for her and offers itself to her touch. His heart pounds strong, leaping deerlike against her chest as if trying to invade it.

Memories of such desperate need awaken the darkness in her. She feels the shadows in her own soul creep forth, stretching to merge with his, luring him further into her hold, enveloping them both in their cloak. He is a daredevil and she is death incarnate. And she will devour him whole for toying with her and making her want him so badly. He cannot escape and neither can she.

A faint sound of wood knocking softly against wood rings in her ears with the intensity of a whole building crumbling to the ground. It is like ice cold water poured down her spine. The bar door. Must have been.

Her eyes shoot open, the blackness in them winking out of existence. What is she doing? This… No, this is not how things are done. This is not who she is.

She pulls away, what little she can pull away considering he has her trapped against the wall, and touches her fingers to his lips to stop his next kiss. “Wait. Please,” she nearly begs. She is lightheaded, fighting for breath. Her body feels weak under her weight.

He pauses and opens his eyes, looking at her as if he is just waking up from a fugue, just now realizing the world exists outside of the two of them. He looks shocked to see the wall behind her. He must not have realized before, how in his need, he reversed their positions to stop her from pulling away.

Trembling, he forces himself to loosen his hold on her, to pull himself away just enough to give her room to stand straight. His hands move to her shoulders and stay there, his craving for her touch not entirely sated. He looks at her in confusion.

She looks at him, her fingers gently grazing the skin on his chin and throat as they travel to rest on his collarbone. Though she is fighting the impulse to kiss him again, she feels their moment of passion already fading away. Her thoughts have settled back into their axis. What her inner self had been trying so desperately to tell her before becomes clear in her mind.

“You’re not thinking straight, dear,” she says. “And I don’t want to wrong you.”

“Wrong me?” He shakes his head as if to clear it, blinking in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well, for one, taking advantage of a patient,” she says with a meaningful look at his left arm. “And second…” She exhales deeply, knowing that she has to tell him about Gwydion. “There is someone else.”

He seems even more confused for a moment, looking at her, then shaking his head. Eventually, confusion fades, replaced by…guilt? regret? He meets her eyes again. “Dion?”

His voice is weak, almost fearful. “Yes,” she confirms with a nod. “We keep it secret and non-exclusive but…we have been together since our return from the First Ring.”

Probably the worst kept secret in all of Three Rats, considering how many people know about it by now, she cannot help but muse.

He drops his head so that his chin nearly touches his chest. A single almost-silent bark of laughter shakes him for an instant. “I…have been blind. I saw it and discounted it.” He shakes his head, muttering, “Amazing what desire can do.”

His words have her intrigued. It is not surprising that Somrak would have missed it. He had only spent a week in Three Rats and it is not like anyone would have said anything. So… “What did you see?”

“When Dion confronted me over Rio Novo,” Somrak explains. “We…well we had a very brief ‘who’s the bigger dog’ moment.”

“Oh gods,” Alma sighs, rolling her eyes at what might be coming next.

“I’m afraid your desk may have been slightly scorched,” Somrak says with a sly grin that still manages to be somewhat apologetic.

“Somrak!” she hisses, lightly smacking his shoulder.

He breathes a soft chuckle. “Dion repaired it. But I noticed he was very careful not to repair anything that had been there before. All the little marks and dings that made it your desk.”

Which would explain why she did not notice anything different with her desk other than it being extremely and unusually clean.

“I just thought he was an obsessive perfectionist at the time,” Somrak notes with a shrug. “You know…wizards.”

“He does that sometimes, when he thinks no one is paying attention,” Alma says, incapable of keeping her affection for Gwydion away from her voice. “These incredibly sweet things that you wouldn’t notice unless you know what to look for.”

The way Somrak’s expression softens and saddens, makes her cheeks flush with remorse at the her own words. It is never pleasant to hear from the lips of someone you want for yourself that he or she loves another. And though Alma is free to accept Somrak’s affections, though their kiss was not wrong or unwanted, she knows that she must let him down.

“I care for you, Somrak,” she says, looking into his eyes, hoping he will believe her. “But everything is so recent, so fragile. And even if keeping you would not be cheating Gwydion, it would hurt him. And I would not be able to stand that.”

She lowers her gaze to her hand, resting on his chest. “It has taken me over two decades to remember…how good it feels to allow someone so close to me. To give myself in return.” She touches his face and looks into his eyes again. “I don’t want to cheat you. I’m sorry.”

Emotions play over his face: denial, shame, humor, pain, anger, all momentarily surfacing and fading. In the end, what is left is a small smile over a mask of deep regret. “You don’t need to apologize. I blinded myself.”

His hands briefly squeeze her shoulders before he lets go of her. He holds up his fully healed left hand, flexes his fingers, looking at it, then at her. He seems about to say something but the words die before they exit his throat. After a couple of heartbeats, he says, “Alma…I have nothing but gratitude for you.”

“I don’t want to be the one who drives you away,” she breathes, surprising herself with how broken her voice sounds.

He touches her cheek, smiling sadly as his fingers stroke it. “I’m ready to return whenever you need me.” A pause as he raises two fingers before her but not so close that the flame that erupts from them can harm her face. In its wake, a small white card bearing a single, mystical glyph flashes into existence. “If you ever need me to come back, burn this. Write a message on it if you have one for me, but message or not, I will come running.”

She raises a hand. Her fingers wrap around his and the card. Her lips curl into a smile. Somehow, this small gift is so much more meaningful than the daggers or the shirt. For as much as those reminded her of the complicity of shared jokes, this little card is a promise and an assurance that he will not vanish from her life.

“How long do the rules say I should wait before I call?” she can’t help but jest.

He shakes his head, rolling his eyes slightly at the obvious joke. “Keep that for a rainy day, sweetheart,” he replies, prompting a chuckle from her. “Or for when you find that necromancer. I want to be there when that happens. In the meantime…take care of Sky. You’re good for him.”

A sudden impulse has her wrapping her arms around him tightly, her forehead pressed against his. “Take care of yourself. And remember to come home. Every once in awhile. Please?”

He nods, his eyes closed, arms holding her closely to him. “I promise.” His voice is rough with emotion. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he loosens his embrace, moving his hands to touch her upper arms and very lightly push her away. He straightens, takes a deep breath, and smiles. “There’s some presents for the Bunnies under the tree. Only Tulip got hers so far. And, uh…” He reaches into the ever-present satchel that he didn’t bother to put down since his arrival, to remove a small, engraved wooden charm hanging from a satin ribbon and hand it to Alma. “This is for Saira. I’m going to…”

A jerk of his hand indicates that he is leaving. Alma does not even bother trying to keep the sadness and guilt to see him leaving so soon and because of her, away from her face. Still, she nods and lets him go, saying, “I understand.”

“Hey…” He smiles encouragingly at her, reaching to stroke her hair. “No being sad for the New Sun. It’s bad luck.”

She smiles weakly back at him. “It’s the Year’s End for me. Tomorrow, all that is dead will be gone for good to give way to new life.” She sighs and shakes her head, keeping her fatalistic thoughts to herself. “Stay safe, Somrak. And tell your go-to healer to come see me for a few lessons in doing his job right.”

Somrak smirks at that. “Now that I would like to see.”

The smirk fades and he stands looking at her in silence. For just a fraction of an instant, she can see his pain again, loss stealing across his features. And then he is turning away and walking down the breezeway and turning the corner without even a look back at her.

Alma watches him go with a heavy heart, saddened and worried and remorseful. Finally, he disappears from sight and she sighs her acceptance of what must be. She could not have handled this any other way, even though she wishes she could. She walks to the door that leads into the bar, breathes deeply, puts on her mask of all is well, and returns to the party.

Ch6.44 Trust

The setting sun makes Somrak squint as he strides into view of Three Rats Station. He pauses. He can see the lights in the window of the bar, not quite hidden behind the station. He can hear laughter. The party is still going on, as expected. He hasn’t missed it.

He really thought he would, for awhile there. Trapped under tons of ice in a collapsed glacier tunnel, bones broken, he’d really thought he might not see another New Year at all.

He clenches his left fist, feeling the pain of the recently healed bones, humerus, radius, ulna, all shattered. The joints, too, elbow and wrist. The staff healer, called simply ‘Butch,’ short for ‘butcher,’ by the off-blue agents, is a quick-and-dirty repairman, using the magical equivalent of gaffer tape and baling wire to get agents back into the fight as soon as possible. When he has time, he takes it more slowly and carefully, but Somrak was in a hurry, and the mission had left Butch with his hands full. So the left arm and four ribs on that side are having their say now, complaining loudly. Somrak almost suppresses the pain, but recalls what happened last time he did that. Though it’s unlikely he’ll find his flesh melted away by demonic blood this time, it’s still better not to get in the habit of turning off the warnings that pain offers.

Pain is a familiar companion. He’s been in a great deal more, and it’s not something that frightens him. But that laughter, now, that is intimidating. When he was last here in Three Rats, in no more than a single week he had found himself pulled in and enveloped by something he can’t describe as anything less than a family. Alma, Dion, Saira, Cherry – and Sky as well, though as Guardia partners for decades, they already had that deep connection, even if they had never talked much – and even the others he spent less time with, like Tulip and Lamore and Kaur and Sage, they all had treated him with a genuine warmth and made him feel as if he would be welcomed just as warmly on his next visit.

And now here is that visit, and they’re celebrating with joy, and he comes to their door bearing darkness.

It had been a bad mission from the start. A mole had been feeding information to Hell. The extent to which all levels of government have been infiltrated is unknown, but the off-blues had at least figured out there was someone in their little organization who was a traitor. But just who it was needed to be determined.

And so the Fencer, Alma’s aunt, had called on him. A certain training exercise was being put together by the Commander. It would be Somrak’s job to figure out who the traitor was.

How did they know he wasn’t the traitor? Somrak’s former partner is a devil, after all, a traitor to Hell. But he didn’t ask that. Probably another agent had been told the same thing, and that agent would be watching Somrak.

Had the mission been a success? The leak had been stopped, that’s for sure. Stopped with great finality. But three agents were dead, all of them – the traitor included – people he would miss. He’s long operated on the belief that getting close to another person is a weakness, and this mission reinforced that idea unambiguously. But here he is, coming back to the place where, for a few days at least, he’d let his guard down. Entombed beneath the ice, he could not think of anywhere he’d rather be than this cheery, warm bar before him. Now only a few dozen steps away, the only thing keeping him from fleeing is his promise to Alma that he would come if he possibly could.

He pats his satchel to make sure it’s still there, takes a deep breath and takes a step forward.



Sky’s voice is the first one he hears directed towards him. Somrak had come in and found the bar populated more lightly than he’d expected, just Corporal Lamore and Doc Nate talking in a corner, sitting with their chairs pulled close together, knees nearly touching. No Saira. Maybe she avoided coming. Lamore had glanced up and given him a smile, but she seemed wrapped up in the conversation. Sergeant Machado was at the bar with a couple of constables – his look was decidedly less welcoming, but at least Somrak received a nod without a frown. He’d departed Three Rats with Machado not quite hating his guts, an improvement over their relations following the Rio Novo incident. Somrak nodded back.

But now Sky is coming down those narrow, steep stairs with a parade of Bunnies and gods and cops and a gryphon behind him. The look on Sky’s face is slight surprise mixed with pleasure, very honest pleasure. That’s something this place has done for Sky: his emotions are close to the surface. He does little or nothing to hide them anymore. Three Rats may have wrecked the guy for off-blue work. Somrak wonders how much longer it will be before he starts letting secrets slip out. He’ll have to have a talk with Sky, remind him of the dangers.

Despite the way the burly god blocks the stairway from anyone getting past him, the youngest Bunny, Tulip, manages to squeeze past him in her impatience. Sky laughs as the teen wriggles between his hip and the wall, pops free, and reaches a home-made portfolio leaning against the wall beside an evergreen tree. She grabs it and is throwing her arms around Somrak’s waist in moments, her exuberance making him grin in spite of his dark mood.

“You came! You came!”

“I did!” he agrees, hiding any external indication of the jolt of pain her embrace causes. As she looks up at him with a big smile, he cannot help but mentally erase the cute ears and see in her the face of a much-younger Alma, as he first encountered her over a century before. “And what’s this?”

“I have a present for you!” Tulip shouts. She unties the top of the portfolio, which is merely two large sheets of cardboard taped together at the bottom, with an old shoelace at the top to keep it closed, and a couple of loops of rope for handles. He helps her open it and sees within several sheets of paper of various sizes and qualities, apparently scavenged from wherever she could get them. He recognizes pictures of Kaur and Sage, of Lamore, of that Voice, Ewá Nanã, who brought in the tiger, shown in the drawing as standing surrounded by the children she cares for.

“Here it is!” Tulip announces. She pulls free a sheet, holding it close to her chest so he can’t see it. For a moment a shyness passes over her face, an uncertainty, almost as if she regrets doing this. Her eyes look up into Somrak’s and he can see it, that fear of exposing her act of creativity, her dream, to him, to be judged. He can see the fragile hope there. Will he like it? Will he hate it? Worst of all, will he pretend to like it while truly being indifferent?

Somrak hasn’t dealt much with children. Growing up, he lived primarily among immortals, and he was the only child-god that he knew. His mother, cold despite her fire-goddess passions, wanted him to be useful, choosing a career for him that he had no interest in. He did his best to grow up quickly, therefore, not having any friends at the same point of development, but instead of obeying orders, he left the Court of Flame, and fell in with a bad crowd, a very bad one indeed, as it turned out. Later, in the Guardia, there were missions that sometimes involved children, particularly slavery cases. And there was babysitting the Commander’s daughter, which was always good for a laugh. Sky had become his partner by then, and though the big god was usually so emotionally shut down, when it came to children he showed an unexpected tender side.

So now Somrak finds himself asking What would Sky do? as he is faced with this Bunny yearning for approval. He sinks into a squat, easily balancing on the balls of his feet, resting his forearms on his knees, maintaining eye contact with Tulip. Such amazing eyes the Bunnies all have. That’s another point in which Tulip differs from her mother. The eyes are the same arctic blue, and no more beautiful, but they are larger, creating a look of permanent wide-eyed wonder. He holds his hands out. “May I?”

She nods, and hands the sheet to him, turning it so it faces him right-side-up. He holds it and makes certain to truly see it, not just give it a cursory glance. And he finds he does not need to turn on the charm at all. No need to wear a false mask, something he’s become quite skilled at in the course of his work, but that he hates to do outside of it. The smile that grows is sincere. Tulip’s skills are still coming along, her line quality and ability to handle noses and hands not quite there yet, but the energy in the drawing indicates a swiftly growing confidence. Somrak is no real judge, but he wonders if this might turn into something more than a soon-discarded hobby for her.

He looks back into her eyes, which seem to have lost their fear almost entirely. He remembers that with her sensitive nose, she would probably be able to tell if he were lying anyway. And though she may not need the words to know how he feels, he says, “I love it. You’ve really captured me.”

“Really?! I drew about eight or nine pictures, and I tried posing you like you were fighting and stuff, but this was the only one I really liked. It’s just you sitting at the bar, but…”

“No. I love it. I look so…relaxed. Happy.” And he feels happy. The darkness is still there, no denying that, but he realizes he is very glad he came. The fire god studies the picture again, dwelling on the contented smirk he’s wearing. She really has him there. He chuckles at the self-satisfied look.

“Uncle Sky gave me a whole box full of art stuff! And paper! Really good paper! And some that’s just pretty good, for practicing!” Everything she says sounds like it is astonishing. Somrak wonders if he ever had half that much energy and enthusiasm. “It’s the first present I ever got!”

“Really? No one ever gave you a gift before?” He sounds skeptical.

Her ears dip slightly and she bites her lip while smiling. “My first Year’s End present!” she corrects herself.

“Lucky him, to be the first to give you one. Well let’s see what I have for you.” He opens the flap of his leather satchel and carefully prepares to put away the drawing in it.

Tulip gasps. “You got something for me?? Wait! You’ll wrinkle the picture!!”

Somrak laughs. “No, no, I would never do that. See? I’m putting it into this narrow pocket and…it’s just going right in.” Though the paper is not too wide for the opening, it is longer than the bag, but it enters smoothly and with no bending.


Tulip’s state of astonishment makes Somrak burst out laughing. He has to remind himself that though she has been alive for thirteen years, she only became an aware, thinking being a few weeks ago. It’s no wonder the world is such an amazing place to her. “It’s bigger on the inside. You know…magic. Well, I couldn’t find presents for everyone. But…Ah…here. This is for you.” He pulls out a small box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon made of twine he had found in his desk drawer.

Tulip’s large eyes become even wider. “For me?” She holds the box as if it is a precious treasure for a moment, then attacks the wrapping with all the care of a cat in heat, shredding the paper. In a moment she is holding a bracelet made of pinkish seed-pearls arranged in a complex pattern. She starts jumping up and down with excitement, almost dislodging a daisy that, apparently alive, is entwined in her hair and partly wrapped around one ear. “Oooh, it’s so pretty!! Thank you!!” She hugs him again, then dashes off to show off the bracelet to Cala, not noticing the tiny grunt of pain from Somrak.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Somrak looks away from the elated Bunny to see that Sky has moved closer. Sky’s words resonate with concern as he studies Somrak’s face.

“That bad?” Somrak asks.

“The Butcher had to put you back together again, didn’t he?” Sky carefully puts a hand on Somrak’s left shoulder. The big god is poor at healing magic, but he concentrates a moment, and a hint of ocean breeze wafts across Somrak’s senses. Sky blinks in surprise. “Oh, Somrak…”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine? You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Sky keeps his voice low. “And you haven’t slept in days, have you?”

“You’re one to talk. Anyway, if you think I should go…” Somrak turns slightly as if he’s about to leave.

Sky grips his shoulder more tightly to hold him there. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I have a present for you.”

Somrak rolls his eyes. “Since when do we get gifts for each other?”

“We’ve exchanged gifts,” Sky reminds him. “At least a half dozen times.”

“In almost forty years of being partners, yeah.” Somrak accepts what Sky hands him, weighing the wrapped box, a little longer than his hand and about as wide. He sniffs it and looks at Sky questioningly. “Enabling my bad habits?”

“Just open it,” Sky grumps, prompting a chuckle from Somrak.

He doesn’t rip the soft, handmade paper off it, instead removing it with care, thinking Tulip might like to recycle it into an art project. “Nice jacket, by the way,” he mentions to Sky, then whistles low as the silver case, embossed with a pattern inspired by tobacco leaves, comes into sight. Snapping it open, Somrak admires the five fat cigars within, and lifts one out to inhale the aroma with his eyes closed in pleasure. “Oh now… That’s an Angelino Gold.” He looks at Sky. “Wasn’t the whole crop destroyed by rampaging elementals last year?”

“These are from the year before,” Sky says. “Kept in a time-stasis container, so they’re fresh. I got lucky. Seller didn’t know what he had.”

Somrak slowly spins the cigar with his fingers. “Well, two can play at that game.” He reaches into the interdimensional space in the bag, gropes around, and pulls out a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

Sky takes it, looking touched. “You got me something, after what you went through?”

“Hah. No way. I got it before, thank goodness. I wrapped it after, but I couldn’t possibly have made it here in time if I’d had to go shopping.”

Sky tears the newsprint free to reveal a familiar label. “Caol Ila. Somrak…this is imported from off-Insula…from Earth.” Sky’s voice is stunned.

“You’re not the only one who got lucky,” Somrak says. “Couldn’t pass up the price. Got a bottle for myself, too.” He’s lying. He couldn’t have afforded a second bottle even if there had been one available. But he knows Sky loves those off-world whiskies. Well, just the ones from the world Sky had lived on for a century and a half.

Sky looks at him suspiciously, but he knows better than to press. He hefts the bottle. “Thank you. Join me in a drink later?”

“Whisky and cigars. Sounds perfect.”

Somrak feels a hand on his shoulder, and then a kiss on his cheek. Even before he looks, he knows it’s not Alma, not Saira. Too much pull on his shoulder as the short Bunny stretches to reach his cheek, and the curls tickle his neck. “Hey there, Ponytail,” chirps Cherry. “Merry Christmas.”

“Now there’s a nice present,” he replies. “Precious and portable.”

“Oh, you want more where that came from?” Cherry grins in challenge, then points. “See that bundle of green hangin’ over the bar? You stand under that, you gonna get kissed. It’s tradition.” Then without looking, she snatches the bottle from Sky. “Yoink! I’ll keep this behind the bar for you, sweetie, like the other bottles. Now give Cherry some sugar.” She puts her arms around Sky’s waist, the bottle tapping against his bottom, and looks up at him expectantly, a sprig of living honeysuckle curled around her left ear.

Sky bends down and wraps his arms around her, straightening and lifting her, and kissing her on both cheeks. Cherry giggles and gives him loud smacks back, “Mwah! Mwah!” before he sets her back down, and she goes dancing off into the party, vaguely toward the bar, waving back at both of them.

Somrak shakes his head and looks at Sky, who just shrugs. “Family?” Somrak asks.

Sky lowers his gaze introspectively, then with a look into Somrak’s eyes, answers simply, “Yes.”

There is a moment of silence, silence even though it is filled with the background noise of the party: Kyri’s laughter and Kaur’s big voice describing some encounter with an inebriated priest, Tulip giving another drawing away, to one of the constables that Somrak never got to know as they were never on the same shift in his week here. But for a few hours-long seconds, Sky and Somrak say nothing, until the latter finally asks, “What’s with the flowers?” He points at the side of his head, about where Cherry’s ears emerge from her afro.

“Oh, Geryon crafted them,” Sky explains. “No need for water or anything. They live off the life aura of the wearer. Symbolic. Uh, Tulip’s daisy is for innocence, Cherry’s honeysuckle is for generous affection…like that.”

Before Somrak can respond, Dion’s gently scolding voice breaks in. “Come to apologize for disappearing without a proper farewell, Sergeant?” He is holding a cocktail in each hand, which he gives to Somrak and Sky.

Somrak smirks. “Oh, you were having your beauty sleep or something. How’ve things been around these parts?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. No demons at all.” Dion shrugs with a smirk of his own. “Must be a coincidence.” He says to Sky, “Merri says she needs your help in the kitchen. Something about ‘pralines’?” As Sky raises his glass to Dion and Somrak and strides off to the kitchen while taking a sip, Gwydion produces a thin box wrapped in enchanted paper with shifting hues of blue, red and purple. “I don’t know how well these will fit you but I thought they might go with your preferred apparel.”

Again Somrak unwraps it carefully, planning to save the paper for Tulip. Inside the box is a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “Oh, now, those look stylish.”

“I aim to please. They are fireproof, by the way.” Dion’s smile fades. “You look like you’ve been in an awful fight? No more demons, I hope?”

Somrak’s eyes flick downward momentarily. “Not exactly. But…I’ll be fine.” He forces a smile. “Oh, I found something. Came across it in a shop soon after I left here.” From the satchel he hands Dion yet another newspaper-wrapped object, this one obviously a book, almost too large to comfortably heft with one hand.

On unwrapping, Dion blinks in surprise. “De Dimond’s On the Binding and Banishment of Eight Score and Three Demons and Seven Devils. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside the Academy of Magic.” He looks at Somrak with sincere gratitude. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to find time to go back and consult this book there. Now I don’t have to.”

Somrak nods. “The magical theory is way beyond my level. Figured you could use it better than me.”

Tulip dashes in and grabs Dion’s hand. “Come here! I wanna show you something!” She attempts to drag him away, something he can only resist with some effort. Even the smallest of the Bunnies is stronger than she looks.

“Tulip!” Dion gestures helplessly at Somrak, who waggles his fingers at the two of them as Tulip pulls Dion away toward the bar and that bundle of green that Cherry pointed out, to the apparent amusement of Cherry, who is coming around the bar and waving her hands at Tulip. The curious phrase “Hold your horses!” rises above the background noise to reach Somrak’s ears.

He sips his drink, which is up to Cherry’s usual high standards. And its strength makes him recall the near-complete lack of nourishment in the past day. That combined with being healed, which always leaves him light-headed, makes him head toward the tables bearing food.

It is a sumptuous spread, with cookies and cakes and pies and tarts and mochi and puddings, roasts and loafs and stews and pilafs, and other dishes he cannot immediately categorize. But then he remembers the other presents he has, and decides to add them to the ones under the heavily decorated tree. The ornaments are hand-made, for the most part, and clearly there was not much of a budget for buying materials, but a surfeit of creativity. As he sets his drink on the corner of the table and takes out the boxes of charmed bracelets that he bought from a temple for the Bunnies all in a rush – charms of luck and protection and health – he thinks, Next year, I can bring ornaments, and that thought gives him pause. Will there be a next year? These Bunnies have passed through so many rings of fire already. And Somrak himself, assuming he is still alive – will he still be welcomed?

He places the last of the boxes under the tree and turns to find Alma standing right behind him. Her face is level with his, their height being so nearly the same, and he cannot find a thing to say as he meets her penetrating gaze.

He hears his heart beat three times before she speaks. “Who should I complain to about your being returned to us in such poor condition?”

Somrak feels the familiar tugging on the scar across his face, signaling the return of his accustomed smirk. “I probably shouldn’t say. But she did give me something for you, with the warning I’d be a lot more damaged if I lost it.” He pulls a narrow case out of the satchel, much longer than the bag. It is made of wood covered with rough sharkskin, colored a dark grey, with two silver clasps on the side. A deep-crimson ribbon is tied crosshatched around its length, and instead of a bow it is fastened with a wax seal of the same hue, reminiscent of the Fencer’s red eye. He holds the case horizontally in both hands, presenting it to her.

Alma receives it with an air of curiosity, but instead of opening it she sets it aside, leaning it against the wall. Then, swiftly but gently, she wraps Somrak in an embrace. “Welcome home.” Her breath tickles his ear as she breathes the words.

A mere two words, simple and common, but they set off such a cascade of emotion within the fire god that he freezes for a moment, not trusting himself to return her embrace for fear – of what? That he might never release her? That he might burst into tears or laughter? It is the exhaustion, the injuries, the hunger, the drink, the trauma of the past few days. The dislocation of being there beneath the ice, clearly and consciously deciding to kill the traitor, the former teammate, and now, less than a day later, here, among warmth, friends, presents, sweets, ornaments, singing – yes, now Kyri is starting to lead people in singing – here. Home. What home has he ever known?

He surrenders to it, to her, his hands – powerful, calloused on the knuckles, metaphorically drenched in rivers of blood – finding her back, the right feeling her shoulder blades through her dress, the left, weaker, on the inward curve just above the waist. The tension drains away. He squeezes his eyes shut more tightly and whispers, “Home.”

He feels her nod against his shoulder. Her voice matches his whisper. “This is home. And we are all happy to see you back.” She holds him like that for a few seconds longer, as if sensing that he needs to compose himself, then moves a hand from his back to his cheek while pressing her lips to the other, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls away slightly to look him over. She smiles as if trying to lighten the moment, and holds up an admonishing finger. “And I will not let you leave without a proper healing. But it doesn’t have to be right away if you need to take a moment.”

He chuckles. “Yeah, maybe…a little later. Thank you. Um…” He fumbles with the satchel. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give these to you.” He pulls out a box about the size of large book and hands it to her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” she says, sounded pleased, pausing only a moment to pull the string free and tear the newspaper away, then opening the thin-cardboard box. Inside is a folded piece of cotton clothing, Guardia Dei indigo, but clearly wrapped loosely around something more solid. She sets the box on a nearby table and gives Somrak a curious glance, then lifts the bundle out and flips aside the cloth to reveal a pair of curved knives with hardwood grips and pommels carved into the shape of dragon’s heads. “Oh, Somrak…” She sets the cloth and one of the knives back in the box and draws the other one from its plain leather sheath. The blade, black with a crimson hue, is not metal, more ceramic, even organic, and serrated on the inner curve. “These are beautiful…”

“The blades are dragon’s teeth. Highly heat- and acid-resistant. Supposedly they’ll never need sharpening.” Somrak shrugs. “After what happened to your weapons when you fought the demon, I thought you needed something more durable.” He picks up the other one, drawing the blade and demonstrating a reversed grip. “Different fighting style than usual, though – block with the outer curve, cut with the inner.” He hands it to her, pommel first.

She takes it and holds both blades the way he demonstrated, so they protect her forearms. “Hmm, less reach this way, but I see what you mean. I’ll have to practice with Master Pak. I wonder what he’ll make of them.” She sheathes the blades and picks up the item of clothing, which turns out to be a standard Guardia Academy t-shirt, except that it is big enough for Sky to wear. On the front, covering much of the shirt aside from the Guardia seal on the right breast, is an outline of a tiger, posed as if stepping down from a rock, forepaws lower than the rear, tail curling over the shirt’s shoulder and onto the back behind the neck, looking off to one side. A few lines of glitter hint at eyes and mouth and stripes.

Alma starts to chuckle and then laughs fully, loud enough to make others at the noisy party look their way. “Oh, where was this when I attended the Academy? It would have been a success! But…why so big? Oh…a nightshirt?” Somrak nods. “Convenient.” She holds it up, turning it around to admire the other side, and gasps to see a phoenix portrayed on the back, wings spread and rising from flames. “Really?” She clutches it to her chest, grinning at him.

Somrak points at the shirt. “That took way more time than finding the knives. If you need extra shirts, I have three more where I messed up with the glue.”

Alma hugs him again. “Thank you. I will treasure it. And I’ll carry the blades with me at all times from now on. Ah… Your present is here.” She releases him, stepping back while looking past his shoulder at something. He hears a flap of large wings. “Someone wanted to give it to you personally.”

Somrak holds still, not quite sure for a moment what is going on, but not surprised at the impact of the phoenix landing on his shoulder. One wing bats at his face a little as Starfax folds it. Somrak turns his head to see the imperious gaze of the water phoenix, who is wearing a leather collar, or rather a thin leather strap wrapped several times around her neck, with an asymmetrically fusiform seed, tapered at each end and bulging in the middle, hanging from it like a pendant. “Oh, hello again,” Somrak says. Starfax looks pointedly at the god’s arm and starts to edge onto it, so Somrak raises it. The bird sidles along until she is perched on his forearm, making Somrak glad she chose to land on his right shoulder instead of his recently-injured left.

Alma reaches to loosen the leather strap enough so that she can remove it from Starfax’s neck and give it to Somrak. “For you. I thought it would go well with your fiery personality.” The seed, about the weight of a peach pit but a little longer and narrower, somehow seems to burn with an internal flame under its lustrous golden-brown exterior, a flame unseen and unfelt but nevertheless sensed – a potentiality, a dream of fire.

Somrak holds it in one palm, fascinated. “I’ve seen one of these before. In a collection. Some half-mad botanist Sky and I were investigating… Oh Alma, it’s so beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Her voice almost purrs with pleasure. “It is called a Dragon’s Heart. The originals are native to the Dragon Lands but I managed to turn a more common seed into pretty much the same plant. After more than a few failed attempts… Still have a lot left to learn about my Life sphere, I’m afraid.” She takes the necklace and motions at him to lean forward. She places it around his neck. “There. May it ward off danger and remind you that you’re never alone.” There is a sound of wind in leaves, and Somrak feels a sort of tremor from the seed as a minor divine blessing spreads into it.

Somrak puts his hand over it, gratefully. The darkness within his thoughts feels very close to the surface, but so does the warmth brought forth by Alma and all the others here. “I don’t know what to say. Just…thank you.”

Alma smiles. “That is more than enough.” She glances at the long case that Somrak brought, and finally picks it up again. “Let us see what my aunt has sent.” She touches the crimson seal and a silvery phoenix appears, flying across the surface of the ribbon, causing it to unspool as the wax liquefies, drips away, and disappears entirely before it hits the floor. Alma takes this in stride as if she’s seen it before, then flips the clasps to open the case. Inside, in inset depressions, is a sword and its sheath, side by side. The sheath is simple but masterfully worked black leather with silver trim. She removes the sword, holding it up by the grip.

The blade is narrow and thin, light for swift movement, needle-pointed for penetration. Like Alma’s usual weapon, this is not meant for slashing and chopping through armor and bone, but for subtle slipping past the heaviest defenses via an unnoticed weak spot, puncturing vital organs, then withdrawing for another fatal stab before the pain has even registered. It is a surgical instrument for bringing about a state of quietude. Narrow as it is, the spine of the blade, between the razor edges, is etched with a few words in an ancient script, and the handguard is a protective but not restrictive half-basket formed of steel leaves and two long-tailed birds chasing each other among the greenery.

Alma studies it in awe. “Oh dear… Thank you for bringing this to me.”

Somrak is equally fascinated by the weapon. “I’m just the delivery boy,” he says softly. “That is beautiful. I don’t recognize the script… Is that an enchantment?”

Alma shakes her head. “No. It’s an old language. A poem about life, death and oblivion, the true ending to all life. These are the last three words of it, ‘On the way’. As in ‘You died on the way’. A bit of a favorite with my clan.”

Somrak smiles. “Nice and grim. I like it.”

One of the Bunnies, the athletic teenager Kori, is suddenly beside Alma, grabbing her arm. “Mom! Kyri’s starting another singalong. Chime’s gonna play the harmonica you gave him! He wants you there…”

Alma looks at the boy affectionately. “Oh, I can’t possibly miss that.” To Somrak, she asks, “Will you join us?”

Somrak picks up his cocktail. “I think this is more my style than singing. And I was just about to grab something to eat. I’ll listen.”

Alma gives him a smile and lets herself be dragged away by Kori. The singing begins shortly thereafter, Chime’s harmonica and Sky’s ’ukulele providing a musical accompaniment, the song one of those about the closing of the year and the birth of a new one, letting go of fears and renewing hopes, about saying farewell to those we have lost and holding on to those still with us.

Somrak drinks to that. He drinks to the lost agents, even to the demigoddess – or demi-whatever she was – that he had worked alongside for twelve years without knowing she was an agent of Hell. The line about lost friends and family stabs him to the hilt, and he curses the urge to weep. He gulps the rest of the drink in three swallows, glances at the small presents for the Bunnies, then stalks swiftly to the side door and quietly takes his leave.