Ch5.53 Shards

There are no words for it.

It is a mixture of pain, fear, anger, despair, anguish, confusion, every single negative thought wrapped in breathtaking, unbearable suffering. And it is just getting worse.

What’s going on?! Nekh’s voice resounds in her head, as panicked as she is. What’s happening?!

Alma does not answer. Her eyes can barely see past the blurring mists of her agony. Somewhere, in the bowels of the station, something unspeakable has been done. Souls are screaming, burned, broken, ripped apart by some violent cataclysm. She can hear them, horribly maimed, their shrieks echoing into the night.

She runs into the station, feeling their pain grow stronger within her, yearning desperately to escape the ever-sharper cries that tear at her soul but knowing that she could never walk away. Not her. Not from them…

Gods, how can you bear this?! Nekh insists, his bond to her forcing him to share in her anguish. Shut’em up!

But Alma cannot stop them screaming anymore than she can stop running. She dashes down the stairs into the basement, nearly knocking down Gwydion, who is just making it down the last step. He looks at her almost as if he does not recognize her, so haunted and distorted her face looks.

Sky is already there, at the door to the cell holding area. He turns to look at them, stricken but stony, his eyes dull with silent anger and grief. Around them, the basement looks surprisingly untouched. But inside the cell block…

Sky moves aside to let his Sergeants in.

Gwydion’s voice sounds almost like a whisper against the wailing of tortured souls. “What happened here?”

The cells are barely touched, no more than a few bars twisted and broken on the one that used to hold the sorcerer. Inside them, the bodies of the two prisoners, each in their own cell, lie seated against the walls, their blood smeared on the white plaster, drawing an impact zone and then the drag marks of the dead carcasses where they had hit the walls and slid down to the floor. The old hag looks almost pristine, aside from the crushed back of her skull. The sorcerer is missing his hands and his nose, and his chest has been turned into a bloody pulp.

“A bomb, or a spell,” Sky says, half to himself, almost as if he cannot believe what he is seeing. “I don’t know how. The sorcerer was thoroughly searched. He was wearing enchanted shackles. He couldn’t possibly have cast a spell.”

No… No… It’s not possible… Alma whimpers in thought as she paces around the room, unable to stand still under the desperate attacks of two shattered souls.

Two?… No, three. Against the far wall, away from the sorcerer’s cell, a body in Guardia blue is splayed out. It takes the goddess some effort to recognize it as Corporal Stathos. Sergeant Machado is already kneeling by him.

And always, the soundless, wordless, shapeless voices scream, louder and louder, in pain, in despair, unyielding to any force, souls that have lost their essence, unable to find peace. She can barely hear anything else. But no one else can hear them, no one. Pained as they look, Gwydion and Sky cannot hear their awful cries. It is at her that they scream, at her that they pull, attracted to the death goddess’ essence.

“His soul–” she tries to tell them. “All their souls–”

Make them stop, Alma!! Nekh wails. Make them shut up!!

“Stop!” Alma screams, bending double in agony, covering her ears against all the terrible voices. “Stop screaming! I can’t!”

She senses more than sees Sky, who was kneeling by Stathos’ mangled corpse, rise to his feet at her screams. Although he is just a couple of steps away, a short eternity goes by before she feels his strong arms wrap around her, keep her on her feet. He holds her gently but tightly to his chest and she grips his shirt as if she could hide from the voices in his embrace. Sky’s caring touch is a meager shelter against the wailing of souls that can no longer see beyond their own agony.

“Nothing left… There’s nothing left!” she desperately tries to explain, looking up at his concerned expression. “Just screams… Pain… I can’t release them.”

Sky’s eyes widen with comprehension as she speaks. “I could feel…something,” he whispers almost to himself. “They’re screaming so loudly even I can sense it.”

From somewhere by the door, Sergeant Machado roars, “Lamore, get those damn looky-loos out of the hallway. You’re in charge of the station upstairs for now. I need to be down here.”

“Yes sir!” the Corporal replies.

Please, Alma, Nekh begs in a painful whimper. Make it stop…

A shadow moves in Alma’s peripheral vision. Gwydion has covered the distance between them and the sorcerer’s cell that he had been inspecting before Alma screamed for help. He looks at her through worried, terrified eyes, anguished to find something he can do.

“It hurts,” she whimpers pleadingly at him, weakly pushing herself away from Sky’s hold, hoping desperately to find as before, relief in Gwydion’s arms. “Can’t…make it stop.”

Gwydion reaches out a hand to her, glancing at Sky to release her. The tall god nods gently in agreement but speaks to her first.

“Alma…” he says.

Oh no… Nekh speaks weakly. What are they–? They’re trying to get in!

The muscles in Alma’s arms spasm uncontrollably as, suddenly, the desecrated remains of the broken souls bash, all at once, into her spectral shields. Destroyed, poisoned, shapeless as they are, they burn like acid sloshing against her skin, searing into her mind, melting into her soul.

“Alma!” Sky calls her as she fights for breath. “Can Stathos, can any of them tell us what happened? Can the sorcerer tell us anything?”

Alma’s voice sounds almost like a squeak. “No… They don’t exist anymore. All there’s left is pain.”

Someone else joins them. Corporal Lamore, looking like there is not a single drop of blood left in her, is now standing by them, holding a piece of paper in her trembling hand.

She hesitates, looking back at Sergeant Machado, who is doing his best to stay out of the way without actually leaving, but then says to Sky, “Inspector. I’m sorry but…you must read this.”

She holds out the note and Sky takes it in one hand, gently helping Alma into Gwydion’s arms, who holds her close to him, whispering soothing words in her ear as he looks questioningly at the inspector. Whatever is in the note, Sky seems staggered by it.

“I have to go,” he states, holding the note out so that only Gwydion can read it. The magic god’s hands instinctively cup Alma’s cheek, to blind her to the words. “Assist Alma in laying these souls to rest. If they can truly tell us nothing…there must be a way to take away their pain. If…if not, get her out of here and find a way to contact the Death Clan. Machado, with me.”

With that, Sky disappears out of the room and up the stairs, barking orders about teams and full armor, closely followed by Sergeant Machado, leaving Alma shaking, legs nearly giving out, in Gwydion’s arms. She hides her face against his neck, breathing in his scent, crying tearlessly, chokingly at the trickling fire that burns through her spirit.   

“It’s all right,” Gwydion whispers, trying his best to sound reassuring. “It’s all right… Breathe… I have you now.”

He glances at Cala, who quietly leaves the room, growling for people to clear the area. Gwydion makes a motion to follow and Alma clings to him desperately.

“Please, don’t leave,” she begs him.

Another wave of excruciating pain makes her scream again. Her legs fold under her, her hands clench Gwydion’s ribs, even Nekh recoils and hides deep in the recesses of her mind. Shapeless, she cannot stop the souls from flowing into her essence. They are getting closer to her core.

Gwydion helps her to a sitting position on the floor and kneels by her, never letting go. “Shhh…I won’t,” he reassures her, stroking the back of her head. “I won’t. But I do want to take you away from here.”

“No… No, they’ll follow me!” Alma tells him. “They are latched on.”

“There has to be something we can do, Alma,” Gwydion insists softly.

He finds a more comfortable position, sitting with his back against a pillar and cradling her, keeping her face looking at his and away from the spot where, not three steps away, Stathos’ dead body lies staring blindly at the ceiling.

“What is it that they are doing to you?” the god asks as he strokes stray locks of her hair, plastered against her face with sweat, away from her forehead and eyes.

His touch is soothing, calming, but not nearly enough to numb her pain.

“It just…hurts,” she says, breathing heavily with the effort of thinking beyond the tormenting haze. “So much… They need a core… To be released. Bomb blew it up. Now, they want mine. Ripping… Drilling… I can’t stop them.”

“Can’t you find them a new one?” Gwydion suggests. “Make one if need be?”

“No – I don’t know.” Alma shakes her head. “The pain… Weak. Can’t focus…”

The god of magic looks at her in silence for a moment, his eyes scouring her face, guided by wild thoughts, desperate plunges into memory and conjecture. His hand cups her face, carefully pulls her up as he leans down to her. Alma reaches for his shoulder with a pale, shaking hand.

His eyes already glow golden, his breath glimmers with countless motes of light as he says, “Focus on me.”

Alma nods weakly and their lips meet. Silence, relief. The kiss drowns the voices, banishes them beyond the borders of her soul again, strengthening her shields with Gwydion’s mana. All she feels is his presence, his touch, the strong, refreshing sensation of his life force warming her heart, saving her soul from being dismantled for parts. She accepts his gift with desperate gratitude, strains to make it last endlessly.

But the voices return, bickering, muttering. After the day’s events, Gwydion must be as depleted as she is, maybe even more. His power will not last much longer, Alma realizes. There must be something she can do. Her thoughts made sharper by the relief that Gwydion’s touch and mana provide, the goddess looks for a solution. New cores cannot be made by someone like her but if only she could find an alternative. Could she use Nekh as bait?

Suddenly, her senses spark. There! The hag’s soul is not completely without a core! But it is badly damaged… If Alma can repair it, then the other two will flock to the easier target, bind to that. And she will be able to release them.

She uses all the mana she can spare, all the precious mana she can afford to take from Gwydion to seize the fractured core and weave the rest of the hag’s soul around it, layering it in spectral patches glued together by Alma’s own mana. Soon, they mend the core. And immediately, like scavengers looking for the weakest, easiest prey they can find, the spectral dust and shards of Stathos’ and the sorcerer’s soul turn their attention to the restored core. They scream as they charge it and it screams in pain and desperation as they assimilate it, latching on, melting into it until only one soul, newly created, remains.

The screams are so terrible that even Gwydion shudders as they pierce through the spectral fabrics of reality. Still, the new soul is released.

They break from the kiss. The god throws his head back, fighting for breath.

“It’s over,” Alma wheezes. “They’re…gone.”

In the abysmal silence that follows, their heavy breaths seem to roar. Slowly, the gods recover, grateful for the temporary privacy they were granted. Alma lies peacefully against Gwydion, curled up in his embrace, her breathing now deep and rhythmic. He lowers his head to look at her, tired but relieved. His hand once again strokes her hair, caresses her ashen face.

He kisses her forehead. Then her lips. He rests his forehead against hers.

“I feel so weak,” Alma whispers. “Who would do something like that? And why Stathos?”

“Don’t worry about that now,” he replies. “Rest. I’ll hold you until you feel stronger.”

“Thank you for staying,” she says, too tired to make sense of her own words.

Gwydion smiles softly and kisses her forehead again. “Where else would I go?”

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Ch5.52 Shards

“Hey Mistah! You Stathos?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whaaaat, no tip fer me?”

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

Without further hesitation, Stathos strides out the door.

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

His victims. Oh his myriad victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Really, it’s all right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Dion is already running into the station.

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

Aire, he surmises. Just a draft.

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

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

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

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

Carefully, Cala opens the door.

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

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

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

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

Doria goes pale. “What…?”

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

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

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

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

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

Ch5.03 Shards

It is all falling apart. Violence is soaring in Three Rats. The invading Dukaines had been a huge problem, but now with Nekh gone, the enormous gang is in the process of doing what any organization made up of greedy, antisocial malcontents is certain to do when its iron-handed leader disappears: they are rapidly shattering into hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand shards all around the Fourth Ring, near the base of the mountain floating in a sea of Chaos that is the Insula Caelestis, the Heavenly Mountain on which dwell a myriad of gods, demigods, immortal creatures, and other divines, along with a far larger mass of mortal humans and many other species as well.

Usually impoverished and unstable at the best of times, the Fourth Ring is the recipient of all the trash tossed down from the rings above, both metaphorically and literally, and crime there thrives like rapidly proliferating weeds in a fertile soil of neglect. With a policy to contain it there and leave the people to suffer, the Guardia assigned to the Fourth Ring are themselves often little better than the criminals they supposedly work against but all too often work with, in a mutual dance of corruption and brutality. To be assigned to the Fourth Ring, a Guardia either has to be from there, as is the case with most of the mortal Guardia Popula at Three Rats Station, or have been sent there as a punishment. That is what landed the three divine Guardia Dei in Three Rats, months ago now, sent with various degrees of justice or injustice, depending on one’s viewpoint, on hardship duty to endure abject squalor far from the culture and comfort of the upper rings.

And now there is only one.

“Sir?”

The high-pitched voice from the doorway brings Tuma-Sukai back to reality. He lifts his head from his hands and sees Mayumi looking in. He notes the darkness still haunting her face. She has taken her creator Alma’s arrest hard – particularly the reason for that arrest. Still, as much as the sadness around her eyes pains him, it is a pleasure he allows himself to simply look upon her face, a friendly face, for just a moment before that face tells him whatever new misfortune this day, this hour even, will bring.

He sees her almost speak, then pause. She steps into the office and approaches his desk, studying his face. “When did you last sleep?” Her voice brims with concern, her forehead lined, her troubled mein framed by straight black hair, parted in the middle, surmounted by those almost absurd yet endearing black-furred ears that gave her and her siblings the name “Bunny.”

He sits back in his chair and thinks back. “Uh…well.” He had meant to lie and say, Oh, last night, of course, but then he realized that not only is Mayumi good at picking up on lies, having been trained to it by her Guardia dream-father, he also knows that she is handling scheduling and would know that he had gone out on two – no wait, three – calls last night: a robbery in progress, a murder scene, and another report of someone grabbing homeless kids off the street. With things as bad as they are, the line between Popula cases, involving mortals, and Dei cases, involving divines, has been erased entirely. They are understaffed, as two of the Dei are being held for questioning and trial in the First Ring, and more and more of the Popula are being taken out of action by the rising tide of violence. It was a wonder none of the Guardia has died yet.

“Sky… You haven’t slept since before it all happened, have you?” Mayumi’s voice carries a mix of reproach and dismay. She puts a hand on his, and even as a part of him tells him he should resist, he reflexively turns his hand to take hers and squeeze it reassuringly before releasing it.

“I’ll be all right,” he insists. “I can go a long time without rest. Now, what’s up?”

She looks as if she might argue, but instead says, “Sergeant Machado and the corporals are here to see you.”

“Oh, is it already time for that?” Sky turns in his chair and begins to rise to start making tea, but Mayumi smoothly intercepts him, getting between him and the tea set, putting a hand against his chest and gently pushing against him to keep him seated. She starts making tea and shakes her head at him, as if she doesn’t know what to do with him.

With a half smile, he says, “Thank you. Anyway, why are you telling me this and not Sage?” The youngest adult but the oldest male of the Bunnies, Sage is assigned to be a general secretary to the sergeants and to Inspector Tuma-Sukai, a job he normally does with aplomb. Mayumi is assigned to Records, but also serves as a messenger and does other jobs around the station as needed.

She tilts her head, looking at him, her obsidian hair falling over one large brown eye. “He is sleeping, or he should be, if Merri and Cherry will let him. As you should be. Sir.”

“I’ll catch some sleep as soon as I can. And thank you. For your concern.” His words elicit a smile from her.

A soft knock pushes the door wider, and Sergeant Machado enters, followed by Corporal Stathos and Corporal Lamore. Machado limps over to the sofa and lowers himself onto it with a wince, while Cala Lamore and Philippus Stathos take chairs. Stathos has a black eye, from breaking up a fight between gangs two days earlier, and Lamore, who has just been promoted to corporal, looks as if she is trying to hide her exhaustion. Sky has been pleased to see her fitting into her new rank quickly and smoothly despite the current crisis. Of course it has helped that her predecessor, now-Constable Aliyah Kaur, has been cheerfully helping her partner get up to speed, apparently happy to be back in a role with less responsibility.

As Mayumi serves steaming tea, Sky asks, “How is the leg, Sergeant?”

Machado rubs his thigh, where a crossbow bolt tore through during the big fight against the Dukaines, just before their gang fell apart. “Oh fine, fine. Far better than if Sergeant Alma had not healed it. And all this rushing about, eh, kind of loosens it up.” His grimace belies his words.

Sky shakes his head. “I wish I were better at the art of healing.” He pauses. “More importantly, I wish we had more time to rest and recover. Oh, thank you.”

He accepts a cup of steaming tea from the Bunny, and then observes how she smoothly serves the others in descending order of seniority, automatically, the most natural thing in the world to her. He notes her concerned look at the exhaustion etched in their faces, and as she slips away quietly he says, “We’re all worn out. And the more we push ourselves beyond our limits, the more mistakes we’ll make. We are at the point where rest is more important than numbers on the streets. I want you to order those under your command to take eight hours off in every twenty-four, and organize things so you still have the maximum number of people on duty within that constraint. We’ll set up some extra cots so constables can sleep here. And I want each of you taking the same amount of time off as well.”

Corporal Stathos speaks up hesitantly. “Inspector, forgive me, but we need more personnel, not fewer.”

Cala, however, shakes her head. “He’s right. We already have three out on injuries, and it’s just going to get worse. We need to be sharp out there. But sir,” she says as she fixes Sky’s eyes with her own, “Philippus is also right. We need more Guardia, somehow. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise it’s all going to fall apart,” Machado finishes darkly, his eyes downcast. He looks up at Sky. “Before, when we had the water crisis, you pulled some of the independent gangs together.”

Sky nods. “I will talk to the ones who came through for us before. The problem is, now it’s war. They’re already fighting for their survival against these Dukaine ‘shards’, both the remnants of the ones we fought quite recently, and the ones who are moving in from neighboring wards. So they’re not likely to give me much attention. But if I can bind them into some sort of order–”

He pauses at Cala’s grimace. “Yes, Corporal Lamore, I know. It’s unlikely to work.”

“Sorry sir. It’s just – Oh!” Cala breaks off as Mayumi reenters with a big bowl of freshly cut fruit, a cantaloup, a couple of apples, grapes, watermelon, which she begins handing around. “Thank you!” the corporal says with pleasure.

“Merri and Cherry are the ones to thank,” Mayumi says. “They know how hard you’ve been working.”

Sky asks her to stay, and explains the new schedule. “Please help these three prepare the schedule, and you have my full permission to harangue anyone who tries not to follow it.”

She looks at him skeptically, and he can nearly hear her thought: Including you? But she holds her tongue in front of the others. “Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.” She leaves the bowl and disappears once again.

As she munches on a thick slice of apple, Cala says, “Sir, as I was about to say, as horrible as it sounds, these rumors of child-snatchings could be the thing to weld the local anti-Dukaine gangs toge–”

Once again Corporal Lamore cuts herself off as Mayumi pokes her head in. “I’m sorry! There’s someone here to see the Inspector, and she says she’s from the Council…”

Sky feels shock, but then realizes what it must be connected to. Sergeant Alma. He nods at Mayumi, who opens the door wide while stepping aside.

A very tall woman, almost as tall as Sky, strides into the room. She is dressed simply in elegant business attire, a formal black jacket and close-fitting skirt, with a cream blouse patterned with tiny violets. Her skin is almost as deep brown as Sergeant Machado’s, her face long, her mouth both sensuous and severe, her hair flat against her skull, pulled back into a tight bun. Her bright, attentive eyes glance at each of the seated Guardia Popula, who all straighten unconsciously at her imperious air, and then she focuses on Sky.

“Inspector Tuma-Sukai,” she says in cultured Urbian with a trace of an accent that sounds almost local, but not quite the same as that of Three Rats. Her voice is deep and powerfully confident. “I am Ewá Nanã, Seeker of Justice, Guardian of Truth, Council’s Eye, requested to be Observer in the case concerning your Sergeants Alma and Gwydion. Since they are under your direct command, I have come to introduce myself before meeting them. We should speak in private.”

Chapter 4 “Fatal Prophecy” 27

Back in his office, alone, Sky sighs. What is wrong with me? My emotions are like stampeding horses. If I keep going this way, I’m going to lose control of my form. And people are depending on me. Ever since arriving here… The Commander was wrong to post me here.

He thinks back to how he was up until a few short weeks ago: distant, cold, stoic. Controlling his emotions at all times. Always acting, never letting the mask slip, like a good undercover agent, a good infiltrator. But then there had been incidents years ago, hadn’t there? That gang of slave-breeders summoning demons to create exotic hybrids. He had lost control entirely then. The official report was that they’d been killed by their bound demons.

It was almost true.

What was causing this loss of control? Was it being in command? Alma’s friendship? It had been decades since he had had a friend. The Commander, his master, really can’t count. And his partner under the commander – certainly one of the best people to have on one’s side in a fight, but “friend” was an uncomfortable term to apply to their ambiguous relationship.

But does Alma count? She had held back information that put them all in danger. Still, he had to admit that Gwydion had made a good point. Fleeing off-world should be a true last resort, and if Sky had known what Alma had just revealed, then she and the Bunnies would already be on the run. Perhaps it is for the best she kept her secret this long.

He opens the door and calls to Aliyah. “Corporal Kaur! Is Sergeant Machado in?”

Aliyah stands up from her desk, dark circles under her eyes. “Yessir! Shall I get him?”

“Yes, and Corporal Stathos?”

“Uh, it’s not his shift, sir. But I know where he is! He just got off and he said he was gonna do some shopping at Patel’s on the way home!”

Sky hesitates. “Could you run get him? This is important.”

Aliyah’s eyes widen. “Sure thing, sir! I’ll be right back! Oh, but the Ser–”

From upstairs on the first floor, Machado’s voice booms down, “I’ve already overheard, Corporal. On my way down.”

As Aliyah dashes out the door, Machado arrives at Sky’s office and nods. “Inspector.”

“Thank you, Sergeant. Please have a seat. If you don’t mind, I’ll wait until all the ranking Guardia Popula are present. Tea?”

A few minutes later, Aliyah arrives, with Corporal Stathos in tow. Stathos, looking worried, is carrying two cloth bags filled with vegetables. Sky welcomes them and apologizes to Stathos as he closes and locks the door and activates the privacy enchantment. He can feel the tension in the room rise as he slices open the tip of his middle finger – yet again, how many times in the past week or so? – and he wishes he had Dion’s command of magic. The spell Dion had used was so much more elegant, and less messy.

“Inspector,” intones Machado. “May I ask what you are doing?”

“Forgive me, Sergeant,” Sky replies as the fourth ideogram glows red. “This is a spell. It will prevent anyone outside from listening in via magical means. I have something sensitive to tell you three.” He turns to face them. “There is a threat to the Bunnies. A deadly threat. We need to move them. As such, Sergeants Alma and Gwydion and I will be escorting them to safety. I wanted to explain why we were leaving.”

Aliyah’s face flushes and she stands. “Who’s threatening them? Who wants to hurt ’em?” Her fists are clenched as if she is just looking for a face to punch.

Sky looks down. “It’s the Council of Archons.”

The room falls silent. Invoking the Council, which normally operates behind the scenes, cloaked by the polite fictions of the Senate – a squabbling mass of hundreds of elected gods – and the Comitia Tributa – the Council of Tribes, representatives of the mortal population and widely regarded as a powerless joke – provokes fear even in immortals, but among mortals the Council holds a near-mythical status. Faceless, unnamed gods far more powerful than those they might meet on the streets, far more ancient, with a thousand years or more of intrigue and backstabbing behind their climb to power, are barely imaginable by mortals. Members are selected by the Council, not elected by outsiders; answerable to no one, their pronouncements outweighing any made by the lesser branches of government. They are the true power of the City.

Stathos is the first to recover. “The Council…has ordered their deaths?” His voice is shaking. Sky remembers, from the Corporal’s file, that Stathos’ grandparents had once lived in the First Ring, serving a high-ranking god’s household for untold generations. Something had gone wrong, and that god had been stripped of everything by the Council. And Stathos’ family, once prosperous and respected, had ended up in Three Rats, deep in the Fourth Ring, with nothing.

“They can’t!” Aliyah shouts suddenly. “They…the Bunnies haven’t done anything wrong! Why would anybody want them dead?”

“It’s complicated,” Sky says calmly. “But suffice it to say, we are not going to obey the order. Therefore, we must leave. I thought you should know why.”

“I’m going with you!” Aliyah shouts, surprising Sky. As he is about to object, Machado, who has remained silent, speaks implacably. “No.”

Aliyah looks at him, her jaw clenched. “Sir…I respectfully request permission to accompany–”

“No, Corporal Kaur,” Machado states. He is still sitting in his chair, back straight, not looking at her, his round, shaven head sunken into his massive shoulders, looking as if he is thinking hard. “You may not accompany the Guardia Dei.”

“Sir, please!” When she sees that Machado is still refusing to look at her, she turns to Sky. “Inspector, please let me–”

Constable Kaur!” Machado rises from his chair now, eyes wide and blazing in his dark face. “Need I remind you that you are under my command?”

“Constable?” Aliyah asks in a tiny voice.

“That is correct, Constable. I will choose someone to replace you as corporal tomorrow.” Machado narrows his eyes at her. “Obviously you are exhausted from working double shifts recently. Go home, Constable. And if I see you anywhere near the Dei on their way out of Three Rats, you will be a civilian before you can blink!”

Aliyah’s chin trembles and her face turns red. Tears fill her eyes. Sky moves swiftly to deactivate the privacy spell, knowing that she wants only to flee, and as soon as he unlocks the door, she stalks from the room, glancing at him momentarily,  her face a warring mix of emotions. He looks at her apologetically, and nods thanks to her for her foolish but brave offer.

As soon as she is gone, Machado turns to Stathos. “Sorry, Corporal. You’re not going home yet. You’re in charge of the station for the next shift. I’ll send someone to run the groceries home to Luís and your girls.”

Stathos turns pale. “S-Sir?”

“Go on now,” Machado says softly. “I need to talk to the Inspector.” After the young man is gone and Sky has closed the door, Machado says, “I’m not sure what’s safe to say without that spell, but, uh, I understand you need an escort.”

“No, Sergeant,” Sky says. “This is not Guardia business.”

“Sure,” the burly mortal says, rubbing his dark-brown bald pate. “But we don’t want any trouble on the way out, do we? I’ll just go along. Purely in a private capacity.”

Sky can’t speak for a moment. “Edison…I’m touched. But I cannot ask you to do this. There could be trouble on the way.”

Machado looks at him with a sad smile. “You may not know this, but I’ve been teaching Kori capoeira. He has a real talent for it, that kid.”

Sky skeptically glances at the Sergeant’s burly body. He looks more like a small sumo wrestler than a capoeirista.

Apparently Machado gets such looks often enough to recognize the glance. “Yes,” he growls with narrowed eyes. “I do capoeira. I’ll be glad to give you a lesson some time.”

“Oh, of course, yes,” Sky murmurs, imaging getting kicked in the teeth by the man.

Machado continues, “And Sage and I, well, we’ve had some talks in the bar.” He shakes his head, smiling. “I don’t know how anyone could talk with him for five minutes and not feel like he’s got a new friend. Cherry and Rosemary, too. They’re good girls. All of ’em are good.” He frowns and reiterates, “I’m not going to let Aliyah torpedo her career, but I’m going with you. Besides, you Dei are so impractical. I need to make sure you’re properly kitted out. Armored jackets, crossbows. Let’s hit the armory, sir.”

Chapter 2 “Snakes” 4

As Dion enters the main doors leading to the Guardia Headquarters, he hears his name being called from the desk. Halting, he sees Corporal Philippus Stathos waving and beckoning him over. With measured, precise strides, the god closes on the desk.

“Good Morning, Corporal Stathos. How may I be of assistance to you?”

“Sir, a number of boxes arrived from your uncle’s estate for you. I had the courier move the boxes to the bar area in the other building.”

“Ah.  I had expected a delivery,” Dion responds. “Thank you for handling this for me. I shall attend to it immediately.”

As Dion turns to leave, he halts and again addresses the corporal. “Before I leave, Corporal, I wonder if I might trouble you with a question.”

“Of course, sir. What is it?”

“I ran across a small street gang this morning.  I had the opportunity to interact as they were concerning themselves at that point with a rival gang member.  One of the members is a kunoichi.  Fairly young, I would suspect.  Do you know anything of her?”

The corporal’s breathing accelerates upon hearing that a Guardia Dei ran into a street-gang fight. Thus, he is momentarily stunned at the rather benign question. “A kunoichi, sir? Yes, I believe there is a young lady martial artist who recently joined a gang south of the station. But I do not know much of her, sir.”

The god nods, as if considering the answer. “That is fine. I’ve had two encounters with her over the previous twelve hours and was just curious. It is really of no matter.”

“Very well, sir. If I do find out more, I’ll be happy to let you know.”

“Thank you again, Corporal. That is most kind. Now, I will attend to the delivery. Please let the Inspector know of my whereabouts when you see him.” And, taking his leave, Dion passes through the station towards the annex, leaving the corporal staring at his departure and asking a question to the air, “But what about that street-gang fight?”

Arriving in the bar area, Dion sees the not-insubstantial stack of boxes somewhat blocking off the bar. Standing next to the boxes are two Bunnies, Cherry and Rosemary, both with unhappy looks on their faces. On the other side of the room, he sees Shade with the three younger Bunnies. As he approaches the lady bunnies, out of reflex, Dion turns on the charm.

“Ladies, good morning!” He quickly scans their faces in an attempt to read the focus of their concern.

Cherry is first to turn to Dion. “Are these your boxes that are blocking our bar?”

Dion, halting his approach, considers the question. “Your bar? I wasn’t aware that we’ve established this as a working business.”

“Cherry and I have decided t’go into business. That is if that Inspector will agree,” Rosemary adds. “But we can’t get started on cleanin’ up the place with all these bloody boxes here.”

“Ah.  I see your dilemma… Well, I was hoping to establish living quarters at one of the neighborhood businesses. But sadly, I was misinformed as to their intentions. Thus, currently, I have no home to move these into.”

“Why don’t you build a room here, like our Mistress did?” Rosemary inquires. “She just took one of the rooms downstairs, and,” waggling her fingers in mock magic, “turned it into a home for us.”

“Hmm…a pocket universe…maybe. But I would still need a place for the door.”

“Why not here?” Cherry asks. “You wouldn’t have to move the boxes far, and we would love to have your help with the bar. If you’re nearby, that would help.”

Dion stands rubbing his chin as he thinks. “It would be close to work, and avoids that street-gang problem…Very well, ladies, here it is.” Now looking around, he muses, “But where do I create my door?”

“How about in the kitchen?” Cherry suggests, tossing a thumb at the room behind the bar.

“Well, let’s look.” Dion responds, and all three enter the kitchen.

Looking around, Rosemary remarks, “I think this place might be a bit small for you to move into.”

“Oh size, dear bunny, is not a concern,” Dion says as he walks to the pantry door. “This should do,” he notes to himself.

Placing his hands atop the doorway, Dion closes his eyes and slowly lets his fingers follow the framing of the door. As his hands lower to his belt height, each hand lightly touching the framing on both sides, he whispers a well-practiced spell, a spell used when a secret and secure place is needed for a rendezvous with the young lady of choice for that evening.

Both bunnies are startled with the pantry door shimmers and becomes translucent, overlaid by a void. Different from the void barriers hastily erected to trap the demon dogs, this void has light inside it, diffused at its perimeter. Stepping into the room, Dion enhances the spell. Working from his long-etched memory of his home, the light begins to coalesce, taking form in the shapes of walls, floors, and ceilings. Further refinement creates furniture and lighting. As Dion applies the final touches, the walls gain color, fine bedding adorns the bed, sized large enough for a guest or two.

Dion takes a deep breath. Opening his eyes and seeing his pocket universe complete, he makes a mental note to replenish his mana from the Department of Magic, a gift from his wizard friends for their time with the Professional Ladies of the Night Guild.

Returning to the two Bunnies, he takes each in hand and escorts them into his place of residence. Both look in awe over the fine wood furniture, rich sculptures, expensive silk bedding, the diffused lighting and the study area with the quality teak desk and bookshelves. Their view of wonder finally dissolves into squeals of happiness as they check out the room, the adjoining bathroom, and comfort of the bed, bouncing on it and laughing. Dion looks to each bunny and smiles.

“I see you appreciate my new home.”

Rosemary wrinkles her nose at the god and responds. “Heh, ours is prettier, but yours  is OK too!” and then giggles and continues bouncing on the bed.

Cherry is first to break from her frivolity, and she asks Dion. “But what do we do about a pantry?”

“Oh, the pantry is still there,” Dion responds. “I’ve merely overlaid its door with the doorway to my little home here. When you leave, I’ll close my door.  Then, all you will see is the pantry.  I, however, will have access to this home, and you too if accompanied by me,” he completes, considering the opportunities for liaisons between Gods and Bunnies. He sees Rosemary returning his look of interest with a similar one of her own, but as he’s considering how best to handle the possibilities, he sees young Sage poke his head in. The male Bunny looks at Dion as if evaluating him, then at Cherry and Rosemary, making a Come on gesture with his head.

Rosemary sticks her tongue out at him, but says to Dion, “Sorry, but we’ve got the younger ones to take care of. And we do need to get the bar cleaned up…”

“Of course. If you ladies will help me with the boxes, we’ll get them out of your way.”

Over the span of the next half-hour, with the assistance of the three Bunnies, the bar area is cleared and Dion’s belongings are safely put away in his pocket universe.

Sitting back in his desk chair, Dion sips a glass of water, magically purified through a process he developed during his academy training. Impurities in the water are magically separated and disposed of through a small, void-barrier membrane. The pure water is then recycled for use.

The magical purification gained him high marks from an instructor whose daughter was most active in gymnastics and swimming, but as a naiad had an aversion to less-than-clean water. She was most grateful to Dion for providing her a way to swim in only the purest of water, and later showed him that gratification through demonstration of her most limber skills. The reminiscence brings a smile to Dion’s face. Suddenly, his eyebrows knit and the smile fades. Reaching into his bookshelf, he retrieves a black folder, still intact from his conversation with the Commander.

“Hmm…” he muses. “As I feared, she’s a page-seven entry. I’m sure Miss page four, entry eight has gotten to her by now…Most unfortunate.”

Standing up, Dion replaces the folder onto the bookshelf, and steps out of his universe towards the bar to see what assistance he can provide to the Bunnies with their plans.

Chapter 1: “The First Day” 6s

Everyone is waiting in a room next to the open-plan office area where the constables and corporals have their desks. The assembly room can just accommodate the full complement of police at this station, and even then it’s a tight fit.

Wait, not everyone is here. He does a quick count – all the mortals, the Guardia Popula, are here, but with annoyance he sees that only one of his two Guardia Dei sergeants is present. He recognizes her for a goddess immediately – no mortal would dominate a room like that, radiating power and aloof grace. She stands slightly to the side as if avoiding being too close to the mortal officers. Or are they the ones trying to stay away from her? She is so shockingly beautiful that Sky must force himself to ignore it, giving her only a small nod of acknowledgment, which she returns with a subtle movement of her head, before turning his gaze elsewhere. She is not wearing the standard uniform, he notes, and this compounds his annoyance, since he has, for nearly the first time, actually worn the full, proper dress uniform. The part of him that constantly examines himself for signs of backsliding, giving in to his dark side, laughs at him. He has no reason to be annoyed at her, after all. Gods have their own dress codes. It was his choice to dress as he did, hers to wear those lovely blue robes.

He makes eye contact with the mortal sergeant and approaches him. Sky takes out the envelope the Commander had given him the day before and hands it over to the Sergeant. “My orders, Sergeant Machado,” he says, hoping he pronounced the name correctly.

Though the sergeant surely knew about the change of command well before Sky did, he follows protocol, taking out the orders and reading them, his very round, very dark face serious. Satisfied that nothing is out of order, he comes to full attention and snaps a precise salute. “Inspector Tuma-Sukai, as per orders from the Commander of the Guardia, I turn over command of this station to you, sir!”

Sky salutes in return, attempting to mirror the man but knowing that his long habit of ironically sloppy salutes probably shows. “Sergeant, I take command from you.” He brings his hand down, and the sergeant does as well a moment later. Then Sky holds his hand out. Machado looks down at it, his face registering mild surprise, then without betraying any other emotion, takes the god’s hand and shakes it firmly.

Sky smiles briefly. “I understand you will need to promote two constables to corporal, Sergeant.” He knows Machado was himself only promoted from corporal to sergeant a few days before–the Three Rats Station had been so small that it had only rated a corporal as a commanding officer until now. “Have you already made your choices?”

Machado nods, as if being allowed to choose his own corporals were perfectly natural, when in actuality it was the prerogative of the new commanding officer. He beckons over a tall, powerfully built young woman who is grinning nervously, her long wavy brown hair in a thick plait running down her back, and a young man with green eyes and pale skin turning paler as he is presented to his new lieutenant. Machado says, “May I introduce Constable Aliyah Kaur and Constable Phillipus Stathos? They have both served under me for years, and served very well. They will make fine leaders.”

Sky looks them over. He finds himself unable to resist the urge to smile at the big, bright grin on Kaur’s brown face, and his slight smile makes her smile even more. He tries to look reassuring to the nervous young man beside her. “Of course I am required to review their records before giving final approval, Sergeant, but I think we can take that as given at this point. I assume you have their corporal’s bars already?”

“Of course, sir,” Machado replies, taking two small boxes out of the pocket of his dress jacket. Kaur giggles from pure joy for a moment, then tries to cover it with a fake cough, and snaps back to attention. Machado shoots her a glare, then offers the boxes to Sky.

Sky waves that off and says, “Please, Sergeant. You should do the honor,” and is happy to see Machado finally smile.

The sergeant removes the single bar of a constable from each of Kaur’s shoulders first. He looks at the corporal’s bars, weighing them in his hand, and says to her, like a proud father, “These were mine, you know –”

The ceremony is interrupted as a god wearing the finest Guardia dress uniform Sky has ever seen suddenly opens the door and enters. He has sergeant’s stripes on his shoulder, and but for a livid bruise forming on his cheek, he is as handsome as the other Guardia Dei sergeant is beautiful. Sky locks eyes with him and, as the newcomer opens his mouth to offer some excuse, freezes him with a look of cold anger at the interruption.

Breaking off his gaze, Sky notices that the mortal cops in the room are staring at him in shock. He curses himself and tamps down his anger, knowing what his face looks like, the fierce black tattoos beginning to bloom on his skin. He brings himself back under control and signals for Machado to continue.

The human sergeant finishes the ceremony in unsmiling silence, then salutes the new corporals, as does Sky, who shakes their hands and offers his congratulations, afterwards standing aside so that the two immortal sergeants can do the same. He notices that they both avoid his gaze, the latecomer trying to hide his nervousness, the goddess not hiding her coldness towards him. It is only then that he realizes that, in trying to ignore her beauty, he ended up ignoring her entirely, allowing himself to get caught up in the pleasure of the promotion ceremony, when he ought to have addressed her immediately after taking command of the station.

He sighs. Protocol has never been his strong point. “Sergeant Alma, Sergeant Gwydion,” he says, prompting them to face him and come to attention, the goddess so perfectly and completely that it feels like a rebuke to him, the handsome god more slowly. He returns their salutes. “At ease. Welcome to Three Rats Station.” He looks at the entire assembly: three sergeants, two of the Guardia Dei, one Guardia Popula; two corporals and nine constables, all more or less human, though he wasn’t sure about the one with skin the color of dark red wine; and two more mortals standing at the end of the room, one apparently a doctor from his clothes, the other perhaps some kind of lab tech, both showing no interest whatsoever in the little show unfolding before them.

“Though some of you are veterans of Three Rats, I know we Guardia Dei are not the only ones who are new here. Welcome to all of you. We have a lot of work to do, getting this station set up and running smoothly. I look forward to getting to know each of you over the next few days, and I hope you will come to me if you have anything you think I need to know. Though of course…” he says, at a look from Sgt. Machado, “…you should go through the chain of command in normal circumstances. I’ll leave you now to Sgt. Machado, as I need to speak with my fellow Guardia Dei. Carry on.”

He glances at each of his immortal sergeants and heads back to his office, assuming they will follow.