Ch6.99 Trust

“Okay y’all, cookies are ready!”

The plate is heavy in Cherry’s hands, but the cookies – chocolate chip, almond, and peanut butter – smell heavenly. Serving baked goods out to everyone lends Cherry some slight distraction from the worries that plague her mind.

There has been no news. Not since hours ago when Grandmamma Lyria left them in the care of the Twins, Uncle Imset and Uncle Lum. All they know is that their mother, Alma, along with Dion, is out on a mission to rescue Sky. And that their enemies can send squads of demons. And that those demons were supposed to kill or capture the Bunnies, and they would’ve done it, too, if Grandmamma hadn’t shown up. They would’ve killed us all, she thinks. They would’ve done worse than that…

She stops where she is and shuts her eyes tight. Stop it! You’re gonna break down and scare the younger ones! Just…stop thinking about it.

She takes a breath and opens her eyes and, to her dismay, Chime is looking right at her. It doesn’t look like anyone else saw her freeze up, but sweet little Chime, with those long dirty-blonde bangs hanging half over his eyes, is staring at her. It can be hard to tell what Chime is feeling when he’s not playing music. He wakes up when playing with Kori, too – his big brother is a hero to him, even though Kori wins pretty much every race, every wrestling match, every whatever. But a lot of the time, Chime is sort of dreaming, “seeing music everywhere” he told her once. She’d been reading a novel on the bed in her and Merri’s room, and he’d just come in and lay down next to her. She’d put an arm around him, not even really thinking about it, and asked him what was on his mind. When he told her, she’d asked, “Don’t you mean hearin’ music everywhere, sweetie?” He’d shaken his head on her shoulder. “Seeing.” Then he’d fallen asleep.

But Cherry knows him well enough to know that he’s pretty scared too, and the sight of her just freezing like that is not helping, no way. So she puts a fragile smile on her face and makes sure everyone gets cookies. All the Bunnies, except of course May who is away, take at least one – Kori takes three, though rejecting the peanut butter as “gross,” and Merri insists on calling them “biscuits,” which is just silly – and Geryon, who loves chocolate chip, and the Twins, instant uncles, just add Bunnies. Aliyah has gone back to the station next door for a little while, even though she’s not technically on duty. They just got hit by demons, after all. Must be some form for reporting that.

Just as Imset is taking his cookie, he and his brother both look past everyone else. Cherry feels the fur on the back of her neck stand on end, and she turns, almost sagging in relief to see it’s Lyria, next to the huge, foreboding figure of Melinor. Melinor might be kind of scary, but he’s scary to other people, not to the Bunnies. He might not think of them as family, but they are Alma’s, and that’s good enough for him. At least that’s how it seems.

But in Melinor’s arms is a shrouded form, a human form, wrapped tight in a white sheet that covers it completely. The world seems to contract, going dark at the edges of her vision, and sound becomes muffled. There’s a part of her mind that just observes this, surprised that she hasn’t dropped the plate with the remaining cookies, but somehow she automatically sets it down on the table beside her. She watches as Sage and Merri approach Melinor, looking at that white-shrouded shape, and they turn to look at her as they catch the scent and realize who it is. Cherry is too far away for the smell to hit her yet, but they turn and look at her, right at Cherry, and she knows, from that.

It’s not Sky, of course. He’s about the same size as Melinor, which would make carrying the body a lot more awkward. And it’s not Mama. If it were, Lyria and Mel would both be shattered, and Merri and Sage too. Dion is bigger, more muscular than that shape, and Somrak, well, they wouldn’t be singling out Cherry to look at with concern and sorrow, now would they?

So she knows. She shakes her head, trying to refuse it, but she knows. She takes a step forward, then another. Then she passes into the scent as it wafts outward. Even though the body has been cleaned up, the smell of death is there along with some foul poison, but there it is. Saira. That’s definitely Saira.

Scent triggers memory so easily, and bam, it hits Cherry hard: massaging Saira’s back, the muscles twitching after an attack. In the bath together, Saira looking at her, smiling, all comfortable and happy, saying “I like you, Fluffy Ears.”

Cherry starts to tremble, and as Merri wraps her arms around her, Cherry sags and moans into her embrace. She just lets Merri take over. That little part of her mind that’s observing all this says, Yeah, that’s heartbreak, all right.

The following few minutes are just a blur to her. Sage asking after Mama, and the others. “They are safe,” Lyria says immediately. “Alive. But little ones, I need you to listen and understand. They cannot return tonight.”

“What happened to Mom? And Dion and Sky? Uncle Som? Why’s Saira…?” Tulip’s voice trails off, shaken by tears. “What’s going on? Where’s our Mom?” Kori demands. Imset talking with Melinor in a strange language, their voices low but heavy. Merri’s loving voice whispering to her, telling her it’ll be all right.

But it won’t.

Yeah, but what are you gonna do, huh? There’s that voice again, Cherry’s own. Gonna just be a sack of potatoes in Merri’s arms? There’s Tulip cryin’. They’re scared. Pull it together!

Cherry grips Merri’s shoulder and literally pulls herself upright, standing up on her own two feet. She takes a long glance into Merri’s eyes, marveling at that deep, amazing green, then lets her go and turns to see to the kids. She still feels as if the floor has disappeared, as if she’s falling through the air, but she can’t ignore the younger ones. Tulip is already in Lyria’s arms, but Kori is standing, fists clenched, looking frightened and furious at once. She puts her arms around him, gently, and though he’s stiff and resistant at first, he can tell how much she’s hurting, and he lets go of his anger and holds her, affected as much by her pain as by his own need for comfort.

Past Kori’s shoulder, she sees Chime still sitting on the sofa, all alone. Cherry holds out and arm to him, and he comes, pale and scared, and just grabs onto both her and Kori, holding them tightly.

All she can offer for the moment is physical contact. The words just won’t come.

But Merri is telling them, “She’ll be home soon.” Then to Lyria, she asks, “Won’t she?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Lyria says after a moment. “She asked me to tell you she will be back by tomorrow and not to leave your side until then.”

“How bad is it?” Geryon asks. Cherry lifts her head from her embrace of the two younger boys and sees that he is near Melinor, who is laying Saira’s body on the bar with Merri’s help, the only place other than the floor or the sofa that is long enough to lay her out.

Lyria exhales deeply. “Not as bad as it could be but…” She looks back at the Bunnies, “Children, your mother and her friends went against a necromancer and a dangerous demon summoner to rescue Tuma-Sukai. They have defeated the criminals and found Sky but they have all been injured. Deeply.” She raises a hand at their alarmed expressions. “None of them is at risk and their bodies have been healed. But there are deeper wounds. And those will take a long time to heal. They will require your patience and understanding.”

“We’ll be strong for them,” Merri says. “But…can we not go see them? Or…” She trails off.

“They need peace, little ones. Time to regain some of their strength,” Lyria explains. She touches Merri’s head. “And you must know… Tuma-Sukai cannot return tomorrow. His wounds require the most care and he will need to stay confined to his healer’s home for a long while. Most likely without visitors.” Her voice is gentle but pained.

Cherry clenches her jaw shut, shuts her eyes tight, and holds onto Kori, grateful for his strong arms. She just knows if she were to start asking the questions she wants to ask, What do you mean, we can’t see him? He needs us! What the Hell is goin’ on?! she will end up screaming. So she just stays silent.

“Can they heal, Lady?” Geryon asks quietly.

Lyria nods. “I believe so. Though… I have no way of knowing how long that will take. Their bodies are healed. The rest…”

“And how much trouble are they in?” the gryphon insists. Trouble? Cherry thinks. Oh no…no no no, not again…

Lyria sighs. “That remains to be seen. But I will see to it that not too much comes to pass.”

Imset moves closer to Lyria, whispering to her in that other language. They exchange a swift but somewhat heated argument, then Lyria nods in defeat. Imset kneels by Cherry. “She is alive, all right? I can sense her soul. We’ll drop by and see her before we return home. Don’t worry about anything.” He smiles reassuringly.

Cherry lets go of Kori and puts her hands on Imset’s shoulders. They’ve just met these new uncles, one silent, one talkative. She looks him in his strange, shadowy face and feels an almost overwhelming gratitude at his acceptance of her, of all of Alma’s children “Thank you…” she whispers. “Tell her…tell her we all love her, and, and all of ‘em, and…”

Then words fail her, and she puts her arms around Imset’s neck and holds on tight. All of it, blows coming one after another – almost losing their mother, and Dion, and Sky, and now Saira’s death, which she just cannot bear to think about – combined with all of these Death Clan gods here, most of them showing so much kindness when they’re in the middle of their own crisis, and even Melinor taking this time to be here, this is really something, no matter how much he might seem not to care, all of this is just clashing in pain and healing that she can’t speak.

Imset holds her and strokes her hair. Merri soon comes and gently pulls her away, kissing Imset’s cheek and murmuring her thanks, telling the Twins to go with grace and to return soon. Imset replies quietly, then rises and, with a look at Luminus, both gods vanish.

As Cherry walks to the bar, she hears Melinor ask, “Do you require me to stay?”

“No, little one,” Lyria says. “All the enemies are defeated. I don’t expect any counterattacks tonight. Go. Tell your father I will be busy awhile.”

Cherry feels Melinor vanish. There’s no need for special senses for that. The god of violent death radiates an aura of dread that is hard to ignore sometimes. But though that aura is gone, dread remains, brought in other ways. Cherry touches the sheet where it covers Saira’s face, and carefully pulls it back.

So pale. So still. All life gone. That life that Mama nurtured and healed, that Cherry helped in her own way, lesser but more constant, fled forever. Cherry touches the cool cheek. Saira was so beautiful, so deadly. Frightening, really, but full of life at the same time.

And now there is nothing but a corpse.

“Oh baby,” Cherry whispers, running her finger along the soft, short hair of Saira’s eyebrow.

Behind her, Cherry hears Lyria whispering to the younger Bunnies, “It will be all right. I am here to take care of you.” The door of the bar opens, and footsteps approach. A gasp. Aliyah is on one side of Cherry, staring at Saira’s face, and Cala is on the other, silent and somber. Aliyah puts her hands to her face and sobs.

Cherry steps back. She knows a little of the history there. Aliyah and Cala were childhood friends with Saira, a friendship ruptured and only repaired recently and partially. Cala reaches a hand out to rub Aliyah’s back.

In stepping back, Cherry nearly steps on Sage, who holds her hand, looking at her, his beautiful dark features so empathetic. But at the sound of Tulip’s plaintive voice, they turn.

“Mom can come home!” Tulip insists. “We’ll let her sleep. We’ll just hug her and let her sleep. You can go get her.”

“You can hug her tomorrow, little Tulip,” Lyria insists. “She will need all of your hugs tomorrow. But she is probably already asleep and I cannot go disturb her now.”

“Let us hope she is asleep,” Sage says, stroking Tulip’s white hair. “We will welcome her home soon enough.”

Cherry asks, her voice low, “Grandmama, what about… Is Saira…her…soul? Is it okay?”

“She is at peace,” Lyria explains, her eyes on Cherry’s, compassionate. “Her soul has been released by Varah, the goddess you met earlier. It will return to the Wheel.”

“So she’ll be reborn.” Cherry nods to herself. “What…what now?” Cherry asks. “Do we…bury her?”

“Is that her custom? I am not sure about burial rites…” Lyria seems genuinely unsure what to do. “I could join her body with the Insula, of course. Return it to the great cycle of things so it can feed new life.”

The tall Guardia cop Aliyah, her face wet but recovered, approaches and puts her hands on Sage’s shoulders. She clears her throat. “Saira didn’t have religious feelings one way or the other. Just always said her body would be worm food soon enough. I guess…makin’ that comes true, in a nice way, that’d be somethin’ she could get behind.” Cala, coming to stand beside her friend and colleague, nods.

“Well, maybe we can consider a little patch of garden? A tree to remember her by?” Lyria suggests.

Cherry considers this. “Out back? There’s that tree in the corner, sickly little thing. Maybe she can give it some strength if she was under that.” She smiles, just a little. “I know it ain’t her no more but it’d be like havin’ her nearby.”

Lyria nods. “I will let you say your goodbyes tonight, and tomorrow morning, as early as possible, we will take care of that. All right? The little ones should get to bed for now.”

It takes some time, but soon everyone has gone away. Lyria and the others are in Alma’s sanctum, preparing for bed, all planning to sleep together in safety and warmth. Aliyah and Cala have both said quiet prayers over the body to their faraway god, and after a little while Cala returns to work while Aliyah, off-shift, returns to her family.

In the quiet of the bar, most of the lights extinguished, Cherry once more goes to Saira’s body. She smooths the hair back from the corpse’s forehead, and stares at that settled expression. Is that the slightest hint of a smile on Saira’s face? Did she finally achieve what she wanted?

“You never knew peace in your life, baby,” Cherry whispers to her. “Wish you coulda found it with us. I will never, ever forget you.” She leans over and presses her lips to the cool skin of Saira’s forehead.

Then straightening, she carefully rearranges the sheet to cover Saira’s face, and turns to descend the stairs, toward her family, and life, and love.

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Ch6.92 Trust

“Did you see that look she gave me? With that red eye?” Cherry glowers at Merri, squinting one eye and growling, “‘Don’t you raise your voice at me…’”

Despite all that has happened lately – learning that their mother Alma is in danger along with Sky and Gwydion, an attack by demons that the Bunnies fortunately weathered in Gwydion’s room under Geryon’s watchful eagle eye, and the sudden transformation of their bar into a botanical garden which she is still trying to decide whether or not she likes – Merri laughs at Cherry’s terrible but still recognizable imitation of the Fencer, their great-aunt. “Well you were interruptin’ her, darlin’.”

Cherry hugs herself and shivers. “Brrr. Scary!”

“Scarier than Melinor?” Kori asks, pushing a large leaf with big holes in it like a slice of living green Cheddar out of the way. “He’s cool…”

“Way scarier!” Cherry insists.

“Och, Melinor’s not scary at’all!” Merri agrees.

Geryon pads over to the sofa and hops up onto it, rustling his wings. He glances at Merri and sniffs. Well he doesn’t sniff, exactly. With that lovely yellow beak his nose-holes are too wee to really be useful for sniffing. But he looks like he sniffs, you know. “That is only because he did not threaten you, my dear,” he says loftily to cover up his wounded pride.

Merri ducks under a fern and, wishing for a pith helmet, plops down on the edge of the sofa. She drapes herself alongside Geryon, marveling as she always does at his soft fur and feathers, and nuzzles his neck. “Oh darlin’… I’ll admit, that would’ve left me a puddle o’ quiverin’ puddin’ on the floor, if he’d done it t’me. Ye handled it very well, love.”

“Well,” the gryphon murmurs, moving his head to rub against her cheek. “I was entrusted with your safety, after all. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. They are all dreadfully frightening, the lot of them. Gods of death…” He shudders. “I told Dion, time and again, it is a bad idea to get involved with that sort.”

Merri kisses him on his big, sharp, curved beak, and says gently, “Dear, that is our mother ye’re talkin’ about.”

Geryon casts his eyes down. “I uhm… I guess I can open an exception for her. But you will have to admit, she can be just as dreadful when she wants to be.”

“Oh yeah,” Cherry says, sitting down on the other side of him and stroking the top of his head. “Ain’t no doubt, she can do scary with the best of ‘em.”

There follows one of those odd moments who everyone falls silent at once for no particular reason, and the room becomes very still, and Merri looks about the room, their home, their bar, the building that dear Sky has rented to them on behalf of the Guardia, which owns the building. The wee ones, Kori and Chime and Tulip, are back to their old selves already, chasing each other around and exclaiming over discoveries. Sage is inspecting the changes to the place along with his human girlfriend Aliyah, dear sweet constable Aliyah, so brawny and tall, towering over the lovely male Bunny, the two of them marveling at the flowers and greenery, orchids and begonias and hibiscus and others Merri doesn’t even recognize, she’ll have to look them up, Mamma probably has a book that’ll say, and goodness, she wonders, are we going to have bees and hummingbirds in here, why that would be nice, perhaps, though the bees sound a bit scary. Merri starts to decide that she quite likes what Grandmamma, the stunningly beautiful Lyria, has done with the place, not only the plants but the nice, solid new furniture, tables and chairs all of dark heavy wood, and she wonders how much it was all damaged by the demons that invaded. Probably smashed to flinders, she thinks.

At the thought of demons, Merri’s mind flits back to that horrid night when they had to escape Three Rats, to get to the portal in the neighboring ward of Little Falls and face so many dreadful criminals who wanted nothing so much as to murder Bunnies, and those demigods and monsters and summoned hounds from Hell itself were sent against them, and even after they escaped to supposedly the safest building on the whole of the Insula they were ambushed by assassins and one of them lashed a nasty spiked chain at her and it wrapped around her leg and pulled her, pulled her away screaming from the arms of Cherry, her dearest, the other half of her heart…

Without a thought of doing so, Merri stiffens and grabs Cherry’s hand where it rests on top of Geryon’s head, making the gryphon twitch. He looks between the two of them, as Cherry looks over Geryon at Merri, her eyes wide. “What is it, baby?” Cherry asks, and it comforts Merri to see her darling’s face so concerned, but hurts her as well, knowing that Cherry is so easily worried and unsettled by all that’s been happening, perhaps more so than any other Bunny. Merri knows that Cherry is already on edge, what with all that’s happened, and who wouldn’t be, one could well ask, poor sweet Cherish, and Merri wants nothing more than to take her beloved in her arms and comfort her, which is a bit funny considering how just a moment ago it was Merri herself who was feeling so disturbed, but then there’s nothing like someone needing your help to steady you, is there?

Before Merri can actually say anything, Aliyah speaks up, having come up to them along with Sage. “Um, did they say someone else was comin’?” the cop asks.

Geryon breathes in deeply, the side of his chest pressing pleasantly against Merri, and releases his breath in a sigh of someone who has been put upon for a thousand years. “Yes… two more of them. I wonder what sneering haunt will greet us next…”

As if summoned by the words, two figures fade into sight, in the middle of the room where the foliage only hangs a little way from the ceiling in trailing vines of wisteria. One is draped in a dark-grey cloak that, from its outline, indicates that it covers a human-shaped male body, but that body as far as Merri can see is made entirely of shadows, darkness upon darkness, hooded and hovering just a finger’s length above the floor. The other looks just like his companion, except that his cloak is a bright sunny yellow with gold trim where the other’s cloak has silver embroidery, body made of light where his counterpart’s is made of darkness, shining and warm, not at all painful to look upon but much resembling how Merri has always imagined an angel would. They both turn this way and that, looking somewhat confused as to why they are here.

It is a heart-stopping moment for all, as there is no telling if these are friends or foes, only their grandmother’s assurance of the imminent arrival of guardians tipping the Bunnies, cop, and gryphon all slightly into the ‘maybe they’re friendly’ camp. Or at least Merri is tipped there, and she stands, because manners are manners and if these are demons of some sort – but really how could they be? they don’t look threatening at all, for all their strangeness and the feeling of power and ancient wisdom coming from them – well if they’re demons then the only way the younger Bunnies will escape is if there’s a distraction, so Merri stands and, looking at Cherry whose hand she still holds, nods and smiles to see Cherry, oh dear bright brilliant star that she is, nods as well despite her fears, and still holding hands they approach the two visitors.

Her voice only showing the slightest tremor of nervousness, Cherry calls out cheerfully, “Hey there! Welcome to the Burrow! Now with extra foliage. Heh. Y’all want somethin’ to drink, or eat?”

Not one to be outdone, and besides the two of them have always loved to put on a show of being a practiced pair, showmanship being such a part of the business that May so charmingly calls ‘the water trade,’ though Merri can’t quite remember if May ever explained why, Merri chirps, “I’m Rosemary, but everyone calls me Merri. This is Cherry. And…well, we can do the introductions as we go along, there bein’ so many of us. Please, sit down, ye’ve come such a long way after all.”

The figure fully made of shadows turns to focus on the Bunnies. This close and from her angle, for it seems like there’s hardly anyone who’s not taller than she, and what a bother that is sometimes, even Sage and Cherry and especially May are all taller not to mention all the humans and gods, Merri can see his face under his hood more clearly, yes, shadow on shadow and a glint of silver to one of the sides, to form a face none-too-solid but handsome, indeed it is, though doesn’t Cherry like to joke that to Merri every face is handsome or lovely, and oh yes it’s so isn’t it, and why shouldn’t it be for isn’t there beauty in everyone? Well maybe not everyone. Not that horrid Nekh who tried to have them killed and nearly killed Geryon and oh my the shadowy fellow is suddenly raising an arm and speaking of Geryon here he is again, jumping in front of Merri and Cherry, swollen up to full fighting size, a great eagle-headed-and-winged lion, feathers and fur puffed to make him even bigger, oh how glorious he is and he doesn’t even know it, does he? Poor dear Geryon, so brave in an emergency and so uncertain of himself in repose.

“Ladies, run!” he roars, and it’s best just to ignore the crack in his voice that makes him squeak at the very end because goodness knows bravery without fear is just foolishness, ain’t it?

Even though she feels no fear of the shadowy god, for god and even family she trusts he must be, Merri is about to scarper with Cherry because Geryon is their guardian, after all, and it would be embarrassing to him if they didn’t obey, men’s egos being so fragile, don’t you know, it’s just one of those things best not to mention most of the time.

Without pausing at the sight of a powerful and dangerous gryphon threatening him, the shadow-man removes his hood, revealing more clearly his wavering and never-quite-defined head, the darkness fading out in wisps to indicate hair, that silvery glint revealed to be, after all, a lovely earring very similar to Mother’s but a little different here and there, the primary impression of his unusual face being, from its smile, friendliness. And from that smile comes a voice, “Oh don’t run on our account. We were called to guard everyone here, after all.”

Well doesn’t Geryon look abashed at that. Merri puts her hand on his back to comfort him, and of course there’s Cherry doing it as well, for who couldn’t love him? “It ain’t no surprise we’re a little nervous,” Cherry says. “We just got attacked by a buncha demons. Dunno if Lyria told you that.”

Looking quizzically at Cherry, he says, in a voice not all all shadowy and dark and echoey like you might expect, but kind and convivial, “She did fail to mention it.”

And now the other one, the angelic fellow, all light where his companion is shadow, points, and Merri follows his glowing finger and sees he’s pointing at Tulip, who has a familiar ‘What did I do?’ look on her face. The dark one focuses on her intently, and says, “Yes, you’re right… Looks just like her.” It takes half a tick for Merri to clue in that he must be responding to a comment from the bright guy, something that even Bunny ears couldn’t catch. Shadows (as she is beginning to think of him seeing as he hasn’t offered up a name yet) looks around at all the Bunnies and chuckles a little. “Oh I see! You are Alma’s mini-clan, aren’t you?”

“Mini-clan?” Merri is astonished at the thought, but then smiles brightly and laughs. “Oh, I like that! We’re the Clan o’ the Bunny! We need our own plaid!”

Shadows laughs as well, delighted, and takes a step toward Merri, reaching out and touching her ears and running his fingers through her hair. His touch is surprisingly solid, cool, cooler than their mother’s touch but not cold or unpleasant at all. “This is brilliant! The transition of fur and hair, the ears… So absolutely perfect. And you are all different. Do you all have different personalities, as well? Different abilities, maybe?”

Merri resists the urge to take a step back. He’s so eager and innocent in his way that even though it’s quite off-putting to be talked about and handled that way, she can’t blame him. But best to put a stop to that kind of thing right off, and Cherry, after sharing a look with Sage, takes the lead, bless her. “Hon,” Cherry says, her drawl firm and friendly-but-you-better-respect as she would put it, “how about we just get to know each other the usual way? So, you know our names…”

His shadowy features roil in momentary confusion, but then he smiles. “Oh, how rude of me… That is Luminus and I am Imset. We’re your uncles!”

Luminus removes his hood as well. Except for being drawn in soft light, his features are identical to Imset’s, right down to the earring. He smiles and raises a hand in greeting.

Cherry’s grin blossoms, broad and free and so pretty with her full dark lips and bright teeth and her lovely light-brown skin. “Now that’s more like it! Wow, uncles! Family keeps gettin’ bigger!” Merri remembers how Cherry wept in her arms one night, over how their father, Arion, had still only visited a few of them, how most of their mother’s family hadn’t acknowledged them, so she knows how important Imset’s words are to her, even though Cherry normally doesn’t say so aloud.

Sage steps forward, releasing Aliyah’s hand. “I am Sage. These are Kori, Chime, and Tulip. And Aliyah and Geryon, our protectors and dear friends.” Aliyah puts her hands on his shoulders and gives him a squeeze.

“I must say,” Imset says, “I had never met a talking gryphon before now.”

Geryon is still settling his feathers down, trying to look as if he didn’t unnecessarily leap to their defense. “Yes, I’m a rare beastie. So you are lady Alma’s brothers?”

“Oh yes. The oldest ones she has,” Imset says. “Little Almy is our baby sister. I take it she’s not around, or we wouldn’t have been called.” He looks closer at Tulip. “You look just like she did when she was that tall.”

Luminus moves closer to Tulip, and leaning down he smiles and pets her head. Tulip looks up at him, dazed and fascinated, her jaw half-dropped, and Merri bursts out laughing at the sight of Tulip – Tulip! – rendered speechless.

“So what are y’all the gods of?” Cherry asks. “Some kinda death, right?”

Imset chuckles. “Something like it. We are the light and the darkness at the end of life.” He leans closer to Cherry. “Do you have a heightened sense of smell as well?”

Cherry leans closer to him, still grinning, her snub nose almost touching his longer, sharper one. “We got a normal sense of smell, but humans got a terrible one, so I guess you could call ours pretty sharp. We ain’t exactly bloodhounds, but we kick butt at wine tastin’.”

Imset looks down Cherry’s body, shaking his head in pleased amazement. “And those legs and feet… Amazing how she managed to make it all work… And I just cannot get over that witty tongue of yours! Father is insane for thinking Almy disgraced herself with you! So much better than Uncle Techu’s Anubi…”

At this revelation, Merri gasps dramatically. “Are ye sayin’…we’re related t’the Anubi-bai, er, bi?”

“WHEEE!” They all look over to see Luminus tossing Tulip in the air. Though the youngest Bunny is a slight-built wee thing, she is thirteen years old and tossing her about like a toddler takes a lot of strength, but fortunately she’s not being bounced off the ceiling yet. Merri notes that Sage is keeping a worried eye on those two.

Imset chuckles again at the silliness. “Oh yes. Our mother’s first husband created the Anubi. That was before he was put on trial by the Council and sent away. Mother joined Father’s harem after that. Well…it was not a harem yet, back then. Why do you think people find you so repulsive?” He says this casually, distractedly while stroking Cherry’s ear between two fingers, clearly not subscribing to general opinion. Still, it’s no pleasure to her yourself being described as repulsive.

Sage, seemingly satisfied that Tulip is having a blast, says, “We knew that our creation was a violation of the law. But according to our mother, we were not in any way designed. We simply came into being. We are as accidental, in a sense, as most mortals. Perhaps that is the difference?”

“Perhaps.” Imset looks as if he realizes he was becoming lost in the sensation of stroking the soft fur of Cherry’s ear, and smiles at her apologetically. “So…anything we can do to soothe your minds after that rendezvous with demons?”

“Well I think a nice cuppa tea is in order,” Merri says. “Also, we need t’explore our redecorated bar!”

“We’re just guessin’,” Cherry says, “but this must be Lyria’s way of cleanin’ up. Man, look at these tables! They’re so much nicer than before.”

“Yes, this has Lyria all over it,” Imset says. “Speaking of which… Where is she? She sent for us but she didn’t say much in her message.”

At this point, all three of the younger Bunnies are gathered around Luminus, who is conjuring up beautiful wavering multicolored lights, like an aurora, fascinating them. He hasn’t said a word yet but they don’t seem to mind. Merri watches with half a mind, until Sage’s serious voice brings her back to reality. “She and the Fencer and Melinor have gone to find Mother, and some other gods whom you may not know. It’s all rather worrying.”

Imset looks concerned. “Is my sister in danger? Who are these gods?”

“They are all Guardia Dei,” Sage explains. “One of them is a sergeant like Mother, named Gwydion. Oh, Somrak is a sergeant as well, but he’s not from this station. And then there is this station’s inspector, Sky, or rather Tuma-Sukai, as he is properly called. They seem to have gone up against the necromancer who bombed our station and killed some of our people awhile back.”

Merri feels her stomach clench and being reminded of the simply awful situation. “And Dion an’ Sky an’ Somrak, too, they’re all family to us an’ we’re worried sick.”

“Huh…” Imset’s insubstantial-looking hand strokes his jawline. “I remember hearing about that bomb. Hadn’t had one go off since Lum and I were youngsters. Gwydion… is he from the First Ring?”

“He is! Very posh an’aw,” Merri says. “But he’s begun to fit in well here. Place has grown on him!”

“Sommy’s a bundle of trouble, but we love him anyway,” Cherry adds. “Got a ponytail and a scar like this.” She draws a line across her face with her finger.

“Is this Gwydion the one who was caught seducing his way through the whole First Ring?” Imset asks, sending Merri and Cherry into a fit of giggling while Aliyah guffaws.

Geryon, on the other paw, sighs. “Yes. If you want his skin for losing a girlfriend, you will have to stand in line.”

“Oh no,” Imset laughs, “I find it all very amusing. Unless, of course, he is harboring bad intentions toward my little sister. Then I might have to harm him.”

Though it’s said in a friendly tone that seems to be Imset’s default, the statement puts a stop to the laughter. Merri and Cherry look at each other, and the latter says, “Well, uh, y’know…how about that drink? And weren’t you gettin’ tea, baby? Y’know,” Cherry says, back to addressing the twins, “she makes the best tea, even if it ain’t iced sweet tea.”

“But sometimes Cherry dear makes a pitcher o’ that iced abomination,” Merri responds, shaking her head with an amused sigh and heading for the kitchen.

“Hey, it’s good on a hot day!”

After she starts the fire and puts the kettle on, Merri leans against the doorframe and watches. Imset looks amused at the banter as Luminus sits by him and places a companionable hand on his shoulder. “So… you two are the oldest of the lot?” he says to Cherry.

“That’s right,” Cherry says. “Got no idea which of us appeared first, or if we both showed up at the same moment. We used to argue about it, but agreed it must’ve been simultaneous. Funny, we ain’t never asked Mom about that.”

Merri calls, “I was first an’ ye know it!” She laughs at Cherry’s dramatic eye-roll, and turns to the kettle, which is starting to hiss with the first signs of boiling.

“Oh, so you are twins! We are twins as well. Lum here was born just three days before me.”

Aliyah, who has been mostly silent around these older, more powerful and terribly strange but friendly gods, cries, “Ouch! That…is a long labor!”

“Oh, Mother wasn’t that put out by it. She had plenty to keep her entertained while she waited,” Imset explains.

Cherry laughs. “What, jugglers? Puppet shows? Poodles jumping through flaming hoops?”

Imset and Luminus look utterly confused, then look at each other and laugh, Luminus silently, Imset loudly enough for both. “Oh, she’s brilliant!” he says. “I don’t remember what she did, I hadn’t been born yet!

As Merri returns to the gathering, carrying a tray bearing the teapot filled with hot water, the tea steeping within, and a little cow-shaped pitcher of milk, a glass jar of sugar, and some biscuits on a plate, she sees that Luminus has decided to entertain them with another light show.

Ah, it must have been the young’ns who asked him because they are all sitting around the soft flare of a god, watching wide-eyed as little dots of light start crawling out from among the leaves of all the greenery that Grandmama left behind in the bar, crawling and rolling down the leaves like shimmering drops of dew in the morning light and falling and hovering, all different colors but so soft. Like fireflies in the summer. And it is like they’re growing now, just a little, and the bigger ones are blooming, all so slow, so quiet, stretching lazily in fine tendrils like slow, tiny, lazy explosions of silent fireworks, all over the bar, right in the air, where Kori and Chime can reach out and grab them and hold them in both hands, peeking into the little dark chamber created by their fingers and marveling at the way the ever-so-gentle lights are starting to change colors.

The sight of the rising, dancing lights evokes half-memories of the dream life she and Cherry shared while they slept together in magical stasis, sitting on the roof of their bar and watching a Year’s End festival display of pyrotechnics over a river. She used to know the names of the different kinds of explosions, peonies and chrysanthemums, rings and spiders and horsetails, marveling at the way the lit up the sky and reflected in the water, sipping champagne with Cherry. Oh what an exquisite time.

Ch6.90 Trust

The stench of them is getting closer. Demons, a group of them. Four at least. Lyria can feel them treading on the bare soil of the breezeway, corrupting it with their poisonous touch and with the slithering of their bodies, rotting seeds, killing roots. Defiling nature.

She curses under her breath. What kind of irresponsible fools would leave their home so vulnerable to an attack? And then again, this was never meant to be a home, was it? This was always just a prison, a quarantine unit. A grave to dangerous mistakes expected to die out in a few decades.

She shakes her head, throwing such thoughts back into the dark and grim abyss from whence they came. No time to entertain them now. A quiet thought, barely a conscious decision, and the floor by her foot sprouts a green stem, leaves, a large purple flower. A couple of tiny pixies stand in its eye and stretch their limbs, yawning lazily before taking to the air.

“Go,” Lyria tells them as she provides them with specific orders in a telepathic message. “Tell them to hurry.”

The little messengers nod and fly swiftly away, at full speed against the wall and past it. Her message will reach its intended targets very quickly, Lyria knows. It is all a matter of how long it will take them to come to her aid. She takes a couple of steps toward the kitchen, just to check that the gryphon has already sealed the portal into Gwydion’s room behind him. They should be safe in there, he and the Bunnies and that tall mortal girl.

Lyria takes a step back, turns to the door that leads into the breezeway. It would not do to give the enemy an indication of where her grandchildren are hiding. Her eyes flare with their vibrant, leafy green, her flaxen hair glimmers with the gold of ripe wheat in the summer sun. She glows with divinity just as the lights begin to dim around her, as the door is ripped off its hinges and crushed by a tentacled, saw-toothed mouth. A crawling shape enters and climbs the wall all the way to the ceiling, a mass of writhing arms, each of which is covered in blistering, festering wounds and gaping mouths from which issue a chorus of screams. Another demon, just a shapeless, writhing mass, slides over the floor, its stench so foul that Lyria has to activate a cleansing spell to keep herself from asphyxiating while she feels the floorboards rot under her feet.

The fourth is almost humanoid, tall, very tall, muscular, horned and winged. Tattered wings, stark black like the rest of its skin. No eyes, no mouth. Around him, darkness spreads, black chains hover with links as sharp as blades.

Lyria sighs for a moment at how simple and uncreative the fears of mortals can be. “Poor little demons. Born to suffer, to hate and slavery. You deserve the pity of the world.”

“Slaves deserve DEATH!” one of the demons roars in one of the lower tongues of Hell as all of them jump to attack with teeth, tentacles, talons and pseudopods. All of them as one, a rabid mass of Hellish nightmares pouncing on the life goddess.

She stands her ground, her powers unleashed to their full glory, their full horrifying magnificence. The air vibrates with the energy of Life, the room filling with the pulsating light of existence, with the rustling of leaves, the drumming of heartbeats, the whooshing sound of sap flowing in green stems. At a gesture of her hand, the boards and tables and chairs sprout thorn-laden vines that intercept and entangle the demons, tearing and constricting, deadly.

The demons roar, bound and stung. And she tilts her head in command. Venoms that harm even demons ooze from the tips of the thorns, into demon flesh.

“This is our world, little demon,” she whispers as the floorboards rise and twist into spiked mouths that bite and swallow two of the demons. “Long ago, we defeated you and locked you away in your Hell. Do you really think you can challenge us here?”

There are others, though, just arriving. She will need help soon enough. The demons wail and roar in pain as even the newcomers fall into her traps but pain is a constant to the lowly dwellers of Hell. They fight to move through the vines even as their flesh is ripped apart by them, chuckling when their corrosive blood eats through the plants, when their rotting miasma withers the verdant chains.

A demon breaks free before the rest and jumps at Lyria, dreadful maw open, teeth whirring around its jaws like a chainsaw, tentacles shooting to wrap around the goddess’ body.

“Diiiiieeeeeeee!” it bellows with poisonous breath, a sickly yellowish tongue whipping out, trying to grab hold of her neck.

Lyria raises an arm to catch the mucus-covered strip, which wraps around her limb instead of her neck, tightening its hold with bone-breaking strength. With a flash of divine power, her skin rises and thickens, her slender muscles bulge. Scales and spikes, tough and sharp, cover her arm, piercing through the surprised demon’s tongue, capturing it in place while the goddess’ free hand grows long, razor-edged claws that she uses to rip through the tentacles. Teeth manage to bite her, penetrating all the way down to her bones, but soon the demon is reduced to nothing but an angry mouth.

Other demons close in, tearing themselves out of the thorny vines, leaving assorted limbs behind inside her carnivorous plants’ mouths in sacrifice for their ultimate goal. Where are they?

Where are they?

A blur of movement to her right and a demon falls face first at Lyria’s feet, its armored skull bashed in from behind. A second demon is already being pulled back, flailing and wailing in confusion and fear. By her left, a blade pushes through the throat of the horned and winged shadow creature. The blade disappears and the demon staggers back, its wings, shredded and broken from the vines folding around its face in protection only to have the metal sword tip thrust through its chest with sudden force. An eerie light erupts in the blade, courses through the contorting, shrieking form of the mouthless creature as it seems to burn from the inside out. A bright flash and it crumbles in ashes, revealing the grimacing, disapproving features of Varah behind it.

“I was starting to wonder if you had heard my call,” Lyria says in casual welcome as she destroys the last portions of demon still clinging to her arm.

“I would have heard faster if you had mentioned demons,” Varah replies, a dagger flying off her left hand to pin the many-armed demon to the ceiling like a skewer through a kebab. It screeches in agony but almost immediately begins to pull at the blade, trying to free itself. “What is this? Where are the Dei?”

Left with no demons directly attacking her, Lyria once again stretches her powers through the ground and the walls, strengthening her vines, brewing new poisons in their stems, in their thorns. “They are apparently off on some hare-brained scheme–” she catches herself, just as a demon is bashed against the wall, making the building shake with ominous force. “Oh I should not say that. They have gone to rescue one of them.”

Varah frowns as she cuts a smaller demon in half. “Demons…Which one?”

“Tuma-Sukai,” Lyria replies darkly. “And obviously Hell has something to do with this.”

“The necromancer…” Varah nearly spits the word. “This has to be connected to it. I will kill your insubordinate child for not calling me!” She cuts a fiery demon’s head off in a clean blow so great is her rage.

“So you did not know then,” Lyria breathes, clenching her hand in a command that makes her vines tighten around two moribund creatures until their bodies collapse with a wet, sucking noise, crushed by the constricting stems. “And yet your Commander’s pet Somrak is with them…”

“I ordered that idiot specifically to stay away from this ward!” Varah bellows, stabbing a fallen demon through the eye, her sword glowing its spectral green as the poor creature’s soul is violently ripped from its dying body. “Your daughter keeps ruining all our good agents.” She pauses, her frown becoming a definitely not very flattering grimace. “He must have told them. Damn the fool… Too smart for his own good.”

A blood-curdling laugh from the ceiling catches their attention as the demon previously pinned there finishes gnawing a hole around Varah’s dagger and frees itself, dropping with its many arms stretched and bleeding over the goddesses. The vile thing disappears suddenly in midair, its shape a blur of moving color knocked off the path to Lyria’s head with a thundering blow. Lyria lowers her armored arm, injured from her previous attacker’s teeth but quickly healing, to see Melinor standing to the left of Varah, his hand almost casually gripping and crushing the demon’s core as if it were just a piece of rotten fruit before letting it fall on the floor. She breathes out in relief and gladness to see the tall, powerful god there.

“We need to find them,” Melinor says simply.

“Yes, little one,” Lyria says, scanning the area to make sure there are no more demons surprising them. “We must. That seems to be the last of them. Fortunately they were too preoccupied with us to attack the Popula.”

She ignores her divine senses for a moment and looks around the bar with the simpler, so sadly plain and incomplete senses of mortals. “Oh look at this mess! We can’t let the Bunnies return to this horror.” She sighs, shaking her head at the chaos. “Oh well… I was planning to do something like this anyway, as a gift.”

With a simple wave of her once again humanoid-looking hand, the vines begin to recede back to the ground, dragging away the demon corpses into the hotter, cleansing layers of the Insula’s core. With an echo of birdsong and a murmur of deer calls, the corrupted air is cleansed and filled with a flowery scent. The walls, floor, and furniture reform into a lovely, dark-wood paneled interior, matching and alive. Softly glowing petals of nocturnal flowers stretch from the walls, revealing colorful stamens that illuminate the room with a gentle light much more pleasant than any lamp or torch. Firefly-blossoms bloom in the ceiling. Foliage grows in the corners of the room, coated with softly insect-repelling substances.

“Huh…Pretty,” Varah harrumphs in that way of hers that makes such a positive word sound like honest criticism. She sheathes her sword, blade enchanted to be self-cleaning. “So, who can we shake for answers? Do the furry little hoppers know anything useful?”

Lyria dispenses her a displeased glance at the blunt description of the goddess’ grandchildren before answering. “No, but I know who does.” She moves toward the kitchen, to the pantry door through which she saw Bunnies and gryphon disappear and knocks on the doorframe. “Geryon, dear? It is safe now.”

The portal activates and Geryon hesitantly peeks out, looking at Lyria for reassurance. After a smile and a nod, he looks back into the portal, calling in “Yes, they’re gone,” before coming out himself.

The rambunctious curly redhead Rosemary is the first one of the Bunnies to leave the sanctum, carrying a metal stand for a censer as if it were a weapon, and soon sweet, loving Cherry follows her, armed with a little mother-of-pearl inlaid stool. They walk carefully through the kitchen and into the bar area, makeshift weapons raised as if expecting attackers to spring up from the floorboards. They stop suddenly, arms lowering and nearly dropping their cargo, eyes wide in awe. Mumbled whispers of “What the…” and “Oh my…” escape from their parted lips.

Their eyes drift toward Varah and Melinor and the mumbling stops. Their frames tense at the sight of the gods.

The human woman rushes out of the sanctum next, sword drawn and hissing at the girls, “Hey, I told you two to wait a second!”

As the other Bunnies emerge, some fearfully others rushing out, Lyria returns to the bar’s seating area, where Geryon is looking like a goose staring down a pair of foxes. “Dear, brave Geryon,” she says. “Thank you for protecting my family.”

Geryon tilts his head, in a raptorine show of suspicion. “You will forgive me, lady, if I don’t roll over and show my belly.”

“Finally, someone with a hint of intelligence in him,” Varah mutters with an amused snort.

Sigh. This is why giving mortals such leeway to think for themselves can be so dangerous… They just don’t understand divine urgency.

Lyria smiles slightly. “My apologies for before. But there were demons closing in and I truly needed to know. And Geryon, I need to know more. Where has my daughter gone?”

“I don’t know,” Geryon replies dryly, head swinging haughtily to the side. “They did not care to name addresses.”

“What did they care to name?” Varah growls.

Geryon hesitates, a bold move with such an imposing goddess as Varah. But whatever boldness is in him disappears as Melinor moves closer to him, radiating his aura of violence recently fueled by the fight, the left side of his face turned closer to the gryphon. “Speak.”

The single word, spoken in Melinor’s low-pitched and rough voice that would be so fetching if it weren’t being made to sound like a world of terrible threats, makes Geryon flinch back and cower. Still, the gryphon manages to keep his own voice from trembling too noticeably as he blurts out as quickly as his rigid beak will let him, “They are going after the necromancer. I told them they were insane, to go just the three of them and only a day after Dion was poisoned too. That alone was a close call. But they wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t listen too poor, wise Geryon telling them not to go after her. Nua. The necromancer’s name is Nua. I’m just here to protect the Bunnies because someone has to, right?”

Varah’s eyes widen and burn with rage, her one crimson eye looking like a beacon shining from the furnaces of Hell. “Nua…” she hisses. “If your friends are still alive, I will skin them for their folly!“

Lyria looks askance at the repeated threat against her child but she is not too far from admitting that Varah is justified in her anger. “I know my daughter. They would not have gone in without some form contingency plan. A message perhaps?”

She looks to Geryon for an answer, who in turn glances meaningfully at Fencer, the feathers on his head and neck rising subtly in nervousness. “The contingency plan involves the Sikari.”

The colors run out of Lyria’s face at the sound of that awful word, as bloodcurdling as “devil.” She looks at Varah in shock.

“They made it a law,” Varah mutters, exhaling deeply. “Remember, I was against the whole bloody plan from the beginning.”

“We are not following any cursed law that brings the Sikari in while Alma is still in there!” Lyria cries out.

She looks at the gryphon, her thoughts effortlessly flowing into his mind like a fresh stream flowing through the bed of an ancient, dried river. The other gods will be able to hear her, she knows, but it is only the Bunnies’ innocent dispositions that she cares to protect at this point. These demons that attacked us are proof that their plan was not fully well-informed. It may already have gone awry. Please, we need to go help them now. Before someone else notices what is going on and sends the Sikari whether we like it or not.

Geryon looks at her for a long silent moment and she can easily sense the speed of his thoughts, the moment of his decision. He sighs and nods, raising a taloned paw in which a small roll of paper materializes at a command word. “They trusted me with this. I did not read it but I assume it says all you need to know.”

Melinor takes the message, not brusquely or unkindly even if Geryon does flinch reflexively at the movements of the god, and reads its contents. “Little Falls. Neighboring ward.”

“When did they leave?” Varah asks.

“They left early this morning, I think, not long after dawn,” Sage volunteers. “Mother and Gwydion were in their office, and soon after, they were gone. Somrak’s scent was in the air.”

Varah grimaces. “We may be too late already.”

“We would sense it if she were dead,” Melinor notes, much to Lyria’s dismay. If there is one thing she would like to avoid is any talk of deceased parents around the children.

“Nua is the type that likes to play with her food,” Varah grumbles, apparently committed to making matters worse.

“What are y’all talkin’ about, dead?” Cherry nearly shrieks, eyes wide and lip trembling in fright.

Lyria strokes Cherry’s ears, a gesture she has noticed is somehow reassuring to Bunnies. “My dear, fear not. We will make sure no harm comes to your mother and her friends. But we must go now. Geryon will continue to be your guardian, and you must do as he says. All right?”

Cherry looks up at the goddess and nods, impulsively hugging Lyria in her anxiety. Lyria holds her for a short instant and strokes her hair, whispering soothing words before pulling away and putting her hands on Cherry’s cheeks to share a little meaningful look that wanders to all the other Bunnies and says, You must keep them all together and calm.

But more demons could already be on their way, for all she knows…

“We cannot just leave them here with no divine protection,” Lyria says to Varah. “I am half tempted to transport them all to my chambers…and go fetch Mayumi as well.”

That earns her a snort from Varah. “I would love to see my brother’s face when he walks in and finds them hopping around. Anyway, the one at the Academy is safer than all of these. And if we start moving these ones around, we will soon be answering uncomfortable questions before the Council.”

“I will stay behind and stand guard,” Melinor offers, standing as he often does at the side of such discussions only to intervene when things seem to start to derail.

The offer touches Lyria’s heart, knowing as she does that Melinor is often uncomfortable around children and would be even more so if he were to stay here, with people who require so much physical interaction and emotion, instead of doing whatever he can to save his beloved and only sister. “I will feel better with your strong arm beside us, little one. I think it is time these sweet creatures met more of their family.” Again she summons the messenger petal pixies, sending them on their way with a telepathic command and smiling softly at the fascinated look on her grandchildren’s faces at the sight of this simple magic. To all of them she announces, “Two gods will soon arrive. They will help keep all of you safe.”

“How will we recognize them?” Geryon asks.

“You will know,” Melinor states simply.

Geryon looks at the god, wings hanging a little low as if slumping in resignation. “Lovely…” he mutters before turning pleading eyes to Lyria, “Lady… I know they are all insane and in more trouble than I care to imagine but… Please be kind. Their choice was an impossible one.”

Lyria touches his cheek feathers affectionately. “Your loyalty is touching, dear child. First we will make sure they are safe and home and then…we will see what must be done.” She looks over the Bunnies one last time and smiles with a confidence she is far from feeling. She then moves closer to Melinor, saying, “Let us be on our way.”

Varah nods grimly, touching the young god’s shoulder. “Take us there.”

Ch6.87 Trust

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

He is almost there.

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

They dare not touch him.

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

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

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

His mother’s screams.

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

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

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

He has to…

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

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

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

He should have fought to know.

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

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

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

He’ll be their son again…

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

He has found them.

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

Ha?

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

As if he weren’t there…

“Mother?” he asks hesitantly, fearfully.

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

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

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

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

Both mad.

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

Not from her.

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

ON WHAT?

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

And falls down.

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

Alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHUT UP!” he roars.

Shut up…

神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎神兎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somrak asks, “Why did you kill her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be alone no more.

To be no more.

Ch6.86 Trust

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

If only it weren’t on the highest shelf!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But–” Tulip starts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch6.80 Trust

“He really walloped you a couple times,” Cherry says, half-sympathetic, half-amused as she stands behind Somrak’s chair, running her fingers through his just-rewashed hair with one hand to comb it into some semblance of order, and holding a wet towel wrapped around ice against his cheek and the side of his mouth with the other. “I could totally do you up in braids,” she adds as an aside. “Whaddya think? Like, a half-dozen thin ones startin’ from the front here? Or just one braided ponytail down the back?”

Somrak’s leather-clad shoulders shake in silent laughter. “Can I have ribbons with that?”

“Oh, ye better not let Tulip hear ye say that!” Merri admonishes him as she sets a pint of ale on the table before him. “She’ll turn ye into a special project – ye’ll end up with more ribbons than hair.” She looks around as she sits across from him. “Speakin’ of whom, where’d she go? Ah well…” She turns abruptly to fix Somrak with an inquisitorial gaze, setting elbows on the table, chin on her clasped fists, her fiery curls bouncing and bright green eyes sparkling. “Now then! What was all that about?”

“Oh boy,” Somrak mutters, taking up his beer and raising it to her. “Cheers.” He starts to drink it slowly but without stopping.

Merri rolls her eyes and tilts her head. “Now come on! Mum said ye should explain it us!” When he holds up a finger to indicate Still drinking! she groans and pretends to collapse onto the tabletop.

Cherry insistently squeezes his shoulder, her grip surprisingly strong. “Hey, come on… I don’t like all this secret stuff,” she pleads, sounding just this side of desperate.

Somrak raises the bottom of the glass higher and finishes quickly, then reaches up and takes her hand in his, turning his face to look up at her dark face framed in a halo of ebony curls, her beauty marred by her sincere worry. He sighs and sets down his beer.

“Come on, sit down.” He pats the seat of the chair next to him, and she pulls it out and takes a seat. “I’ll tell you no lies, but I can’t tell you much truth. I’m sorry. This is a case where even most cops can’t be told much.”

Merri leans forward and whispers, “Is it Sky? Has somethin’ happened to him? Only Sage said he was missin’ an’ Mum an’ Dion went out lookin’ for him an’ ever since they’ve been terribly worried an’ closed-mouth.” As she speaks, all pretense of joking disappears and she reaches to put her pale hand atop Cherry’s, which is still holding Somrak’s tightly.

Somrak puts his free hand on both of theirs and takes a breath. “As I told you before, my bosses don’t know I’m here. But there’s others who mustn’t learn I’m here as well. The people who murdered your Corporal Stathos. Sky is with them, and we’re going to bring him home.” As he speaks, he looks from one the the other, his face darkly serious.

Cherry’s eyes shine with forming tears. “Is he hurt?” she whispers.

Somrak shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. But you know he’s strong. And Alma will heal him.”

Cherry and Merri seem to study him, Merri’s nose and cheeks turning pink as she seems to be holding back tears as well. But she takes a deep, shaky breath and, her voice determinedly calm, asks, “Is there anything that we can do? Anything at all?”

“You can keep quiet about it. And you can keep all the Bunnies here, home,” he says, doing his best to project a confidence he doesn’t feel. “It’s very important for us to know you’re safe.”

“We’ll do that,” says Cherry. “But what about Dion? He was actin’ like a crazy guy out there. Yellin’ about lies?”

“Dion…” Somrak sighs. “Dion was poisoned, while trying to find Sky. And…I held back some information a little longer than I should have. That made him very angry, and I don’t blame him for punching me. But I am annoyed about losing that cigar.”

Cherry smacks his shoulder. “Don’t joke. Is Dion gonna be okay?”

A bright, loud voice, high-pitched and childish, pierces the tense, gloomy conversation. “He says he’s fine.” Tulip bounces over from the stairs that lead down to Alma’s sanctum, and plops herself onto Somrak’s lap. “Seems fine. Just taking a bath with Mom.”

“Oh, ye wee scamp!” Merri scolds her, smiling brightly and blinking away her tears. “Sneakin’ around. Tell us all how they are!”

Tulip shrugs. “I didn’t get to hear much before Mom caught me! She’s like, scary good at catching me now. But they were talking fine ‘bout souls and stuff. And they were hugging so I guess they’re fine. I asked if Dion is feeling better and he said he’s feeling great.” She puts her arms around Somrak’s neck. “Mom says to tell you they’ll come upstairs in a bit. So is that why you didn’t punch back? ‘Cause it was your fault Dion got hurt?”

“That’s part of it,” Somrak says, looking into her blue eyes, marveling again at how much she resembles Alma when she was much younger, when Somrak met her the first time. And he does his best to put out of his mind her blithe report of Alma and Dion bathing together and ‘hugging,’ which his idiotic brain tries to turn into something more. “But also…he’s my friend, even if he’s not so sure about that right now. I don’t want to hurt my friends.” Ah, but you’re so good at it, he cannot help but tell himself. Will you be coming back to this place carrying a body? Will it be their beloved Sky? Or Dion? Or worst of all, their mother? How will you live with that? Or will the four of you just disappear and never be heard from again?

“Speak o’ the divvil!” Merri says. “There they are.” Following her gaze, Somrak sees Alma and Dion coming up the stairs, holding hands. Dion is freshly washed and clothed, dressed casually in a simple silk shirt and close-fitting trousers, and Alma looks as if she has had a bath as well, having changed into another sari. She gives Somrak a wary smile, which he returns with as good a facsimile of his devil-may-care, scar-twisted smirk as he can manage, and smiles even more broadly at Dion.

For his part, Dion keeps his expression reserved toward Somrak for the moment, but his face softens as he looks at Cherry. Her black-furred ears are laid back, denting her afro, and Somrak can see that she’s looking at Dion with concern and sorrow.

Alma looks at the gathering and makes a stab at breaking the ice. “Well, this is certainly a happy reception…”

Merri stands. “Oh come in and sit down! Time to mend fences over somethin’ nice to drink.” She moves toward the bar to fetch beverages, while Cherry follows her more slowly. Meanwhile, Tulip slips off Somrak’s lap to dash to Dion for a hug, then she runs off toward the stairs leading to the upper floors. Somrak hears her greet Geryon.

Dion looks at Alma and signals her to sit, while he holds out a hand a hand to stop Cherry. He looks at her uncertainly. After a moment of the two of them looking at each other in silence, Cherry asks him, “What can I get you?”

He tentatively extends an arm and puts it around her shoulders, drawing her close. She seems surprised for a moment, and then with a little whimper she hugs him tightly around the waist. He wraps his other arm around her, bending his head to whisper something to her. Somrak hears, “…should have listened…” and “…sorry…”

Cherry clenches one of her hands into a fist and gives Dion a light, painless punch on the back. Her cheek pressed against his chest, she almost sobs, “You’re darned tootin’ you should’ve.” She leans back slightly and looks up at him, her eyes bright, her face worried, her voice tiny. “Are you ok?”

Dion nods. “I am now.” He looks at Geryon, who, just arriving, glances sideways at him, as if he can’t be bothered with all this emotion.

Cherry give Dion a big, bright smile and pats his chest, then looks at Alma and Geryon. “So what’s everybody drinkin’?”

“Considering my healer would probably disapprove of alcohol right now,” Gwydion says, “what do you have that is mild on an empty stomach?”

Cherry considers. “How about some nice warm milk? Or tea?”

“Tea sounds good. Thank you.” Dion moves to sit down.

“You got it, hon,” Cherry replies, then quickly takes the others’ orders before joining Merri at the bar.

Dion sits with Somrak and Alma, while Geryon steps up onto the nearby sofa, his eagle gaze on the three gods. Dion nods to Somrak. “I see you are almost fully healed.”

Alma, her voice half-amused, half-scolding, says, “I think he’s just dragging it out to keep Cherry and Rosemary treating him like a war hero.” She brushes her fingertips along his face, scents of spring filling the air, and the bruising on Somrak’s face disappears, along with the cut on his lip.

Somrak touches his cheek after Alma’s fleeting touch leaves it warm and whole. “That bruise was getting me a lot of attention. What am I going to do now?” Looking a little more serious, he leans forward, elbows on the table, and asks Dion, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I have been through something I don’t ever want to experience again.” Dion exhales. “I’ll live. But I don’t recommend trying it.”

Merri brings Somrak another ale, while Cherry brings a steaming cup of tea for Dion and of coffee for Alma. Cherry asks, “You guys gonna be okay with each other now, or we gotta set up round two?”

“Oh yes,” Geryon pipes up with his smooth, every-sarcastic voice. “Give us some time to advertise and sell tickets. We’ll make a fortune out of it.”

“Ooo yes!” Merri coos, taking away Somrak’s empty glass. “That was quite the display you two put on. Seems a shame not to let everyone see.”

“Come on, Mer,” Cherry says, “let’s let ‘em talk. We got Bunnies to round up anyway.”

“Indeed, we do,” Merri says, pausing and suddenly giving Alma a kiss on the cheek. The surprised goddess turns to look and sees the fear showing through past the Bunny’s usually cheerful demeanor, but the redhead follows Cherry before Alma can react.

Looking at Somrak, Alma asks, “Just what did you tell them?”

Somrak waits until the two have gone upstairs, calling out for Chime, Tulip, Kori, and Sage, the asks, “They can still hear overhear us, can’t they?”

“Very much so, yes,” Geryon replies. “Their ears are as sharp as my eyes. But…” He closes his eyes, muttering, and stretches his forepaws out before him, flexing them so the toes spread out and the claws extend. Around then the air seems almost to solidify, light bending distorted through a not-quite-perfectly transparent shell around them, and all sound from beyond it deadens. “Not anymore,” he finishes.

Alma nods at him. “Thank you, Geryon.”

“Yes,” says Dion, his voice dry, “thank you for assuming you should be included.”

Geryon fluffs the feathers on his head. “Oh, like you can afford not to include me at this point. I am, after all, your walking conscience.”

“That explains a lot,” Dion mutters.

Somrak listening to the exchange, weighing the ramifications. “It’s up to you two. But Geryon, if you’re included, some of what you learn could get you in trouble. We’re talking state secrets here.”

The gryphon rolls his eyes. “Please, unless I’m to be turned into anything in the class of sardine or below, I really couldn’t care less. And unless you forget, the first time we met, these two had just sent an Archon to the angels, so to speak.”

“And you’d just stood between that Archon and some Bunnies,” Somrak reminds him. He looks at Alma and Dion. “I’m all right with it if you are.”

The lovers look at each other, then Alma says to Somrak, “We have news.”

“Yes, about Sky and his captor.” Catching Geryon’s expression, Dion quickly explains, “The truth is, Sky was captured a few days ago by the necromancer we have been tracking. He is alive and still on the Insula. Well, in a pocket universe. He is being tortured but holding on with the help of a friend of Alma’s.” He glances at her as if checking that the word ‘friend,’ which Somrak notes he fractionally paused before using, is correct.

His eyes round, Geryon says, “Well, no wonder you have all been so strange, lately.”

Somrak leans forward. “How do you know all this, Dion?”

Alma replies instead. “Arion… Void Rider. Former Archon, god of…Reality, really. The father of my children. He can travel in the Dreamworld.”

“And he walked into my dream,” Dion says, “when I was fighting off the poison.”

Somrak drops his eyes, thinking it over. “If he’s still being tortured, that confirms the idea that this is being done to lure Alma into a rescue attempt.”

Dion nods. “Perhaps, yes. Sky sent us a message, saying it was a trap, yes. And that his captor’s name is Nua. To look for her in the records of the Necromancer War, about two hundred years ago.”

Somrak looks up at the mention of two centuries. Coincidence?

Alma pulls her Death Clan logbook from, apparently, nowhere, and opens it. “Let us see what we can find.” She looks at intently, clearly reading, but to Somrak’s surreptitious glance the pages look blank, except perhaps for the barest blur of lines of writing, indicative of a spell to protect the information from unapproved eyes. “Ah, here she is. I knew the name seemed familiar. Nua was a famous necromancer. She was actually credited with starting the war in the first place. Not the sharpest blade in the armory but vicious, relentless. She stole the original formula for the Soul Bombs and shared it with other necromancers, sowing great chaos. She used them to kill rival necromancers and in the tumult over…” She pauses a moment. “Over forty death gods perished.” She shudders and Dion places a hand on her arm. Somrak had not been in Three Rats when the Whisper assassinated one of its own arrested members to prevent him from revealing their secret to the Guardia, an event which killed Corporal Stathos and another prisoner, shredding their souls and nearly killing Alma as well, as those damaged, maddened souls attacked her.

But he had read the report with a horrified anger. Though he had long ago abandoned his own clan, he still carried with him the indelible mark of the attitudes they tried to inculcate in him: to regard the undead, and by extension necromancers, as abominations, cancers in the body of the universe that had to be purified with flame. He had, indeed, been raised to be a sort of warrior-priest, a god in the service of greater gods, a weapon to be wielded against such monstrosity. It does not escape his sense of irony that he has ended up doing exactly that in the Commander’s service, minus the hypocritical dogma and familial abuse that prompted him to leave home.

Somrak says, “She considers the Death Clan her enemy, then. But how has she survived two centuries only to surface now in Three Rats?”

Alma keeps reading. “Well, she didn’t. She was killed, two centuries ago. The investigators found her posed as if she were sleeping. A merciful kill, it seemed, quick and painless. Her soul was gone, doubtlessly claimed by Hell. My aunt was in charge of the investigation, along with two unnamed specialists in demons and Hell. One of them claimed a devil had been at the scene, summoned by Nua herself.” Somrak sits up straight, the blood draining from his face but at the same time thinking, Of course. “Only a piece of the contract was found. Half a name. ‘Azza–’.” Alma looks alarmed as she breaks off.

Somrak and Alma share a shocked look as they both understand. Then Somrak looks at Dion, then at Geryon. To the gryphon, he says, “You’d better be sure you’re in all the way, or walk away now.”

Grimly, Geryon says, “For some reason, I fear my mind has already reached the conclusion you are about to confirm. Allow me.” He turns to Dion and demands, “Are you insane? In what Hellish reality does this sound like a good idea?”

“I know,” Dion sighs. “It doesn’t. Probably because it isn’t. But whether or not I should turn my back on someone who has been nothing less than a friend, I still can’t afford to leave this Nua character running loose. You’ve seen what she did just to send a message.”

Somrak says darkly, “This isn’t just about Alma then. She’s getting back at Sky. And if we’re captured, she’ll use us to torture him further.”

Dion asks, “Can we be sure it was Sky who killed her before?”

Alma and Somrak nod together. Alma says, “When he took the Adamantine Vow to protect the Bunnies, Sky confessed to me that his real name was Azzageddi and made me promise I would keep it to myself. I didn’t make much of it, at the time. I had too many problems to focus on it and it’s not unheard of, anyway, gods using false names to stay free from certain contracts. But the name fits, doesn’t it?

“He was taking a real risk sharing that,” Somrak says, shaking his head. “If you’d ever studied demonology, you’d have been suspicious at the sound of it. He put himself completely into your hands.”

Her voice slow, Alma says, “The truth is, the Vow he took more or less ensures he cannot hurt me, no matter what is done to him. But you two…” She looks at Gwydion and Somrak.

“Sky will resist,” Somrak insists. “He’s being tortured by a necromancer who played at being amateur devil-summoner and got herself killed, and another sorcerer, Nekh’s lieutenant, who is still mortal for all his ability. Sky’s been through worse. Still…” He says to Dion, “It’s good that you know his true name. It’ll help if some binding needs to be broken.”

Dion nods as he absorbs this, then asks Alma, “You said you found out where he’s being held?”

“Lucky Pete gave us a location,” she replies. “We will have to find the entrance to the pocket ourselves, but it is our best bet so far.”

“This is of course provided they haven’t moved the entrance,” Somrak cautions, hating to be the killjoy. “But I think they want us to find them. Or at least they want Alma. Anybody else is a bonus. They just don’t want to make it too obvious that they’re letting us find them. If they made it too hard, they know we’d have to contact the Commander.”

Geryon asks the obvious question, “And just why exactly aren’t we contacting the Commander?”

Somrak hesitates only a moment. After all, the gryphon already knows the Sky is a devil, that his true name is Azzageddi – it’s pointless to hold anything back now. “Sky knows a lot of secrets. And being born one of the Enemy, if it ever got out that the Guardia has been employing him for decades, with the approval of the Council, they would send in the Sikari and just kill everyone involved, Sky included.”

“Lovely,” Geryon mutters. “So you are planning on invading the enemy’s lair with an army of…” He looks around the table, “three?”

“Three,” Somrak confirms. “No mortals coming along. No offense.”

Geryon laughs as if Somrak had just told the most delicious joke. “Oh, you certainly didn’t expect me to volunteer, did you?”

Somrak’s mouth twitches at the corner. “Well after the way you threw yourself at that Archon…”

“Oh, I learned my lesson there, I assure you,” Geryon says, pointing with one paw at Somrak’s chest as if he’d be poking it if the sofa were only a little closer. Then he pauses and asks, “So who should I notify, when you three disappear without a trace into the deepest, darkest pits of Hell?”

Dion sighs, “Geryon…”

The gryphon stands up on all fours, glaring at Gwydion. “Oh, shut up! This is insane, and you know it! Heroic deeds, blazing glory – who will pick up the pieces you are leaving behind to go save your friend?” He shifts his gaze to Alma. “Who will comfort and protect your Bunnies? Or tell your families what happened? Hmm?”

Alma and Gwydion find themselves unable to reply, or even to meet the fierce eagle gaze.

The magical dome around them is temporarily superfluous, as all within fall silent. After several pregnant seconds pass, Somrak gravely says, “I would not blame anyone in the slightest for staying here. My intention was to go in alone, anyway. But after all you did…” He nods at Dion’s arm, where the poison was injected by Saira’s informant. “I realized I couldn’t just ditch the two of you without giving you a chance. That’s when I accepted I’d have to tell you what Sky is. But Geryon is right. You have people here who need you.”

Alma’s voice is low but clear and firm. “How would I tell my children that I let their Uncle Sky die? Or tell my clan that I let Nua run loose? No, I cannot back away.”

“My family is either dead or here,” Gwydion says. “And part of that family is being tortured in some pocket universe, somewhere. I’m in.” He looks to Geryon. “All I ask of you, my friend, is that if something happens, you get the Bunnies into my room, erase the door, and open a new one somewhere else, somewhere safe. And then… I can’t ask for anything beyond that.”

Alma stands and walks to Geryon, crouching so that her eyes are on a level with his. She looks into his eyes, imploring. “If you get them to my mother, I’m sure she’ll care for them. Please, Geryon. Even if you don’t understand, pretend you do and keep my children safe. I beg you.”

Geryon pulls his head back, blinking, his beak slightly open, looking stunned. He shakes his head, ruffling his feathers. “Oh, quit the dramatics, my lady. Of course I will look after them.” He sounds quite affected by her plea, and by the responsibility thrust on him.

The goddess puts her arms around his neck and presses her cheek to his. “Thank you.”

Dion chuckles at his friend’s stammered inability to reply to that, and Somrak imagines he can almost see the gryphon blushing through his feathers. What Geryon said about family continues to spin in Somrak’s mind, for he has been thinking along the same lines of late. What family has he had, since he fled that of his birth? He fell in with a gang as bad or perhaps even worse than the Whisper, and then was rescued by the Commander, and given the chance to redeem himself. Since then, the off-blues, the unnamed ‘special missions’ department within the Guardia, has been his family, but it’s been a highly dysfunctional one. Only a few days ago, one whom he had trusted with his life had turned out to be an agent of Hell, a spy, and he had had to kill her. And for decades the colleague he was closest to, Sky, was also the person he was supposed to kill at any sign of unreliability.

Dion is right. This is family, here. It is Dion’s and Alma’s and Geryon’s and the Bunnies’. And it is Sky’s. But is it Somrak’s. Can it really be? Surely it’s too early to tell, whatever they might say. But Somrak knows one thing. He wants it. Badly.

Out loud, he says, to Alma and Dion, “The truth is, I wouldn’t have a chance without your help. Sky wouldn’t have a chance. But if I thought we still didn’t have a chance together, I wouldn’t bring you into it. We do have a shot at getting him out. But just in case, I’ll prepare a message for the Commander. If we don’t return after a full day, Geryon, or if you’re attacked here, simply burn the message. He’ll receive it.”

Geryon, a wizard familiar with such things, nods grimly.

“Oh, and you’ll be better off pretending you have no idea who or what this Azzageddi is, or that Tuma-Sukai is anything other than a big lovable lug,” Somrak adds. He nods to Dion and Alma. “That goes for the two of you as well.”

Dion says, “Arion said Sky is close to giving out, so we should move as quickly as possible.”

“Yes,” Alma agrees. “The more we delay, the more he’ll suffer. We should fetch our equipment.” She stands, as does Gwydion.

But Somrak holds up a hand. “Wait. Dion, you are still recovering from being poisoned. And you,” he continues, looking at Alma, “have barely slept in days, and you’re still suffering from a mana hangover after healing him. And somebody punched me in the mouth, I think. If we go in with anything less than our best condition, we are putting the mission at risk.”

Alma looks at Dion, who looks uncertainly back at her. “But…Sky…” she murmurs.

Geryon sighs and hops off the sofa to stand between them. “As much as it pains me to say it, Scarface does have a point. Both of you are too weak to be of any use at the moment. And if this necromancer is truly trying to lure you in, she will be in no hurry to kill Sky.”

The two look at one another again, and Gwydion finally sags his shoulders and admits, “I suppose you’re right.”

“Rest,” insists Somrak. “After you’ve had a good meal. But before that, let’s go over the information again I got day before yesterday. With what we know now, it might shed some more light on the other gang members. Geryon, could you drop the silence shield so we can order something to eat?”

Ch6.79 Trust

“He lied to us,” Gwydion protests, rubbing the soap over his left arm with the hint of violence and frustration that his angry words carry with them. “He’s lucky I am not fit enough to give him a proper beating.”

He has his back turned to Alma as he stands on the ledge that runs along the inner wall of her pool. The lukewarm water reaches as high as his biceps, the rest of his well-sculpted body, motive of many an adolescent dream and female sigh, immersed in what should be a pleasant, relaxing bath to rid him from the mud covering his body but is currently failing to be either of the former two. The magic god is still reeling from the news about Sky’s true nature and Somrak’s deception to make use of their skills and extract information from them. Well, at least the mud is mostly gone, after having for a few moments polluted the waters of Alma’s pool. Thankfully, the constant drainage and input of new water from the fountain have easily resolved that issue.

Alma, kneeling at the edge of the pool, her fingers massaging the more stubborn remains of the slimy mixture of dirt and water off his scalp as she washes his silky, black hair for the second time, exhales deeply, mentally cursing her head for still aching, Somrak for being a fool, Sky for having been taken, the necromancer for having taken Sky, the whole male gender for thinking with everything but their heads, and the world in general for constantly making her life difficult. She tries to bring Gwydion to calm down for about the tenth time since bringing him back to her room. He is still weak, after all, and she is worried about his condition.

“I know he lied and I am angry at him as well. But there will be a better time to settle this, when we can reduce him to minced meat. Besides…” She fills a small bowl with water and, covering his forehead with one hand, rinses his hair with the other. “He does have a point. It is not the type of secret one reveals in a light heart. Imagine holding onto a secret like that, a person’s life depending on your good judgment.”

Much to her relief, Gwydion stops abusing the soap against his own skin and lowers his arms, breathing deeply before replying in a soft mutter, “He still used us.”

He leans his head forward a little as her fingers run through the short hairs at the back of his neck and she rubs the base of his skull with her thumbs, slowly and expertly, coaxing a purring moan of pleasure from his lips. She takes the soap from his hand and uses it to lather his shoulders, his now mostly mud-free chest, grinning with satisfaction when he leans his head back against her knees, eyes closed and mouth smiling softly at the rhythmic, massaging movements of her hand over his skin, erasing the external traces of his ichor-induced illness.

“That’s it,” she whispers, her chin resting on the top of his head, the fingers of her left hand resting gently against his throat, hair falling freely to frame the limits of his face and graze the skin of his arms. “Relax now. Doesn’t that feel better than being angry? Though I cannot say if it feels better than frolicking in the mud with a fire god.”

Gwydion chuckles, his upper body jostling gently in the water. “Well, I can and I must say this feels a lot more pleasant.”

He tilts his head back a little further, his eyes looking into hers, and Alma can almost swear they look just a little paler now than they did before he was poisoned. He raises an arm to stroke a lock of her hair, his expression darkening with sadness for a moment. “It feels like something I don’t deserve.”

His voice is quiet but heavy with sorrow and regret. It brings back the sting of their argument, of the pain that opened the rift between them that has tormented the last three days of Alma’s life. She is tired of being sad, of being angry, of being bruised and disappointed. One of her closest friends has been kidnapped, which probably would not have happened had he not lied to her, while another of her friends has lied to her in an attempt to save him, and now the fear of losing both pains her. Still, she has been lied to before and betrayed before and feared for her life before. She could have numbed herself to emotion and fear and gone through this whole crisis fueled almost exclusively by anger.

But to be without Gwydion, her lover. More than her lover, her partner, her equal, the person into whom she has learned to trust her safety, her wellbeing, her happiness, her heart… To be without the piece of her that he has become, that is a pain she finds impossible to ignore. For all her anger, all her hurt, she cannot avoid caring for him, thinking of him, feeling his physical and emotional distance as a sharp, burning anguish. And to see him poisoned, feverish, fighting for his life and yet desperate, desperate to tell her how much she means to him. The words that broke through her pride and pain. How can she go another moment without him by her side?

She reaches for his hand and brings it to her cheek, tilting her head against his fingers, which cup her face and warm her skin with their touch. Her eyes lock on his, losing focus of his material body, gazing into the vibrant, bright network of light that is his soul, as naked before her gaze as his skin is. If using her soul-sight to scry the world for the souls of dead and living was a work of effort before, now it is looking at the material plane that she finds difficult and even strenuous at times. And with her headache still bothering her, though easier to tolerate since Somrak’s nerve-pressure healing (which she has tried and rather depressingly failed to duplicate) and quickly becoming less of a problem now that she is back in her peaceful sanctum, with its finely tuned energies and Starfax’s healing presence, strain is the last thing she needs. Her eyes see a mishmash of energy and matter, an entrancing, fascinating, confusing puzzle of superimposed images that she has been learning to interpret and make the best of.

And oh, how beautiful he looks, traced in snaking, coiling, racing paths of light, continuously contorting and expanding like an explosion of energy trapped in its material vessel, collapsing and erupting again and again, powerful, impatient, begging to be released. Each of the eight layers of his godly soul is a living picture of his essence.

She feels his fingertips stroking her cheek and slowly forces her eyes to see into the material plane again. His eyes gaze lovingly into hers, that gaze that always betrays his affection, that never fails to make her heart skip a beat. She smiles at him, stroking his raised arm, watching his lips curl happily at the sight of her smile.

She holds his arm gently, by the wrist, and pulls it away from her face to stroke the inner contours of his elbow. She can’t help but grimace at the sight of the blackened, spidery mark left around the point of entry of the demonic poison, well-defined but tortuous, almost like a sigil of some sort.

“It seems I didn’t manage to erase all traces of the poison,” she notes.

Gwydion turns his head to look at the mark but simply shrugs at its presence. “If that is my only scar, I will be luckier than most.”

Alma nods, her right hand reaching behind him to stroke his right ear and make sure no mud is left there. “That you will. Demon ichor is so dangerous to our kind, even more than to humans. And with the reaction you had to it, I was truly fearing for your life.”

“It was strange,” Gwydion looks absently into the distance, opening and closing his hand as if to test it. “And it hurt. As if acid was flowing through my veins and breaking through all my defenses. And…something in me…it was like something was waking up. Something big and angry and dangerous. And I was frightened to be so helpless against it. I was…I was burning up.” He looks at her. “But then I felt you inside me. Your healing. Washed over me, put out the flames. And it was like you could go anywhere and see everything – the poison opened all the doors. And then you put it to sleep, that thing inside me. Did you feel that? Did it hurt you?”

She smiles sadly at his musings, wondering if he is still suffering from some mild fever. “My power does not allow me to know any secrets of yours beyond the makings of your body and soul, dear. Your mind, your heart, your fears and desires are your own. And I can sense power in you, I see the impatience and unruliness of your soul. But I can’t yet tell if it has shifted.” She shakes her head. “You were so weak. You are still weak.”

“But I feel different, better now,” he insists. “I feel like I’ve grown – no, that’s not the word. I spread out…into myself. It’s like a part of me was empty and now I’m whole for the first time.” His voice is full of wonder. “Something is happening to me. I’m not certain what. But all these encounters with demons are awaking something new inside me.”

“A sphere, maybe?” Alma suggests, considering his words. “In my family’s records there are mentions of gods with such abilities. Could it be you just took longer finding your sphere? If it has something to do with demons, it would make sense for it to have lain dormant this long.”

“It could be, yes,” Gwydion agrees with a nod. “But I am not sure yet whether having a new sphere awaken now will be help or hindrance in our mission. Not that we have a choice but to forge ahead.”

Alma nods, looking down at the intricate, filigree web of light that lines the contours of each of the thousands of blades of grass that cover the floor of her room. “Yes, I know the feeling,” she breathes.

After all, isn’t she still learning to live with this new sphere of hers and worrying about what it might bring? His hand covers hers and she looks up to see him now facing her, looking at her in concern. She smiles, leaning down to kiss his forehead. Her hand repositions to hold his and the tips of her fingers brush against the metal clasp of his bracelet. She looks down at his arm to see it, realizing for the first time that she has not seen him without it since the very day she summoned it to existence, around his wrist. “You are still wearing this.”

“It never occurred to me to take it off,” he says. “It’s the dearest gift I have received in decades. It reminded me of you when the pain was at its worst. And that helped.”

He says it plainly, softly, almost shyly, without a hint of charm or flirtation. Gwydion without his masks, without his ruses. Just him, looking at her as if struggling for what to do or say next. She rests her forehead against his, cupping his face in her hands, breathing in his breath, the simple scent of him. How she loves to see this side of him, the insecure him, the vulnerable him, hidden to all but her. Like a shared secret. She kisses the tip of his nose, gazing into his eyes and smiling at him. He smiles in return but looks confused when she rises and walks away from him.

“What – Alma?” he calls after her.

“Just a moment,” she replies, moving toward the little table where she keeps her hairbrush and scent bottles. She has very much stopped wearing most of them since moving here with the Bunnies – with the exception of the one Gwydion gave her – but she does not have the heart to throw them away. On the table, there is also a black lacquer box finely decorated with a motif of phoenixes in flight, its smooth surface handpainted with the beautiful old letters of Low Ancient Urbian of the Fifteenth Dynasty and High Archaic Insul, spells of warding woven into a famous story about a girl with a magical box given to her by the gods. Alma’s jewelry box. She starts rummaging inside it. “I have it here somewhere…”

Like many magical storage items, the box is bigger on the inside than on the outside and Alma is soon cursing under her breath that she cannot find what she is looking for. It is much to her surprise that she feels cold arms wrapping around her from behind, slowly, almost hesitantly. And wet, as wet as her back is suddenly feeling. She stiffens only for a fraction of a second before relaxing and leaning back against Gwydion, smiling as his embrace tightens around her, feeling a familiar, blissful thump in her chest at this sorely missed caress. Her search forgotten for the moment, she puts an arm over one of his, her hand over his fingers.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers, nuzzling her hair.

“I’m just looking for something to show you,” she explains, tilting her head invitingly. “You should be enjoying your bath.”

“I felt lonely all of a sudden.” He kisses her neck, then her shoulder, slowly, lips lingering on her skin. She closes her eyes in pleasure. “You could keep me company since you’re already wet. There’s bound to be some mud on you.”

The comment makes her chuckle. “And whose fault is that?” She turns in his arms, draping hers around his neck. “You have no shame.”

His face darkens with sorrow at her words. “I do. And I am ashamed. Terribly ashamed.” He holds her tightly, fiercely as if she might change her mind and leave him at any moment. His body shakes against hers and his voice carries an edge of anguish and tears as he says into her ear, cheek pressed against hers, “I was such a fool, darling. I thought… I thought I could never keep you happy, that at some point I would make a mistake or stop being interesting and that you would find someone else who could be more what you wanted and make you happy. And when I saw him, the way you two connected, I thought that had already happened. I ended up pushing you away, convincing myself I was right.”

She holds him tightly in return, stroking his hair comfortingly. All she wants is to forget their fight, now, let go of that grief. Be happy again with him. “You should really stop thinking so poorly of yourself, my love.” She pulls away just enough to look into his eyes with a sad smile, her hands tapping his chest in light scolding. “And get it into your head that you are what I want. Even when you are not making me happy…”

He returns her smile, stroking her cheek, shaking his head. “I thought that if I went back to my old routine, I’d be safe from the pain. To think I almost…” He sighs – just a sharp, sudden exhalation – and rests his forehead against hers. “‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t sound like quite enough.”

“No…” Alma concedes. “But it’s a start.”

She pulls away and leans in to touch her lips to his. Softly at first, as if this were the very first, the original, fearful and timid kiss, the opening line to romance between two people. The kiss they had never had. And he is for a moment that tremulous lover, hesitant and unsure of himself. But his lips know hers and they have been yearning for her, she can tell, tasting, caressing, opening in invitation, hungry now, parched and lonely, in need of her comfort, burning and delighting in the coolness of her kiss.

“Alma…” he breathes into her parted lips, fingers rushing through her hair, cupping her head, pulling her closer.

Her reply is drowned in a whimper, smothered by the next kiss. And oh, it is a wonderful, breathtaking kiss. His mouth moves with tender intensity, restless and thrilling, brilliant and fervent, in perfect synchrony with her own. Passionate, devoted, sincere and unreserved, the whole of him surrendered in each kiss. She pulls him to her and herself against him, surrendering too and forgetting. Forgetting about arguments and departed children and kidnappings and demons and necromancers, about space, about time. She loses track of everything. Minutes or hours, anything short of forever is too little time to stay like this, holding him and held by him, sating their shared need. But forever is too long a time, even to a god.

They break away, struggling for breath. She feels lightheaded, her mind in a merry haze, her back complaining mildly of the pressure with which his clenched hands are pressing against her, slightly pinching her flesh. She ignores it, nuzzling his cheek, feeling the fast, thumping reverberations of his heartbeat slowly quietening against her body, her own chest returning to its infrequent, cadent rises and falls. Bliss.

She strokes his back, grimacing at how cold his now mostly dry skin feels to her touch. “Ugh… All right, you are freezing cold.” She pulls away from him and taps his chest in a light scolding. “Back into the water you go. I’ll join you in a moment.”

He holds on to her a bit longer, looking as if he will refuse to abide. But he obeys, kissing her cheek before walking away, toward the pool. Alma turns once more to her search into the jewelry box, stealing a lustful glance at his naked form as he climbs down the steps near the alcove that lead him into the water.

Finally, she finds what she was looking for. She holds her prize up in triumph, smiling to have found it. A bracelet made of intertwined strands of strong but flexible plants, bending like reeds on a riverbank but curling tendrils around each other in a chaotic weaving of a living, cured fabric, stained in deep browns and midnight blacks. And intricately braided into it, the elegant, flowing form of a bird in flight, the phoenix that is her Clan symbol trapped in the reeds and vines, the long feathers of its tail decorated in tiny sapphire-blue jewels. It looks just as beautiful as she remembered it.

“Here it is!” she exclaims, moving to the edge of the pool, where Gwydion is waiting for her. “My mother made this one for me decades ago.”

She hands him the bracelet and then starts undoing the buttons of her blouse, the clasp which holds it around her neck. Her muddy shoes have long been discarded and set aside for cleaning and her skirt is soon falling to the floor and being picked up and placed in a basket for later washing. Through the corner of her eye, she catches him enjoying the show of her undressing as he twirls the bracelet in his fingers, glancing at the piece of jewelry but sparing most of his attention to her progressively more exposed skin.

“It certainly held nicely through the years for something organic,” he notes.

“Well, if I did it correctly, yours will too,” Alma replies, now entering the water.

He puts an arm around her as soon as she is within reach, pulling her closer until they stand embraced again, her bare chest against his, her toes resting on the ledge between his feet. His eyes look into hers as his hands stroke her shoulders, travel down the shallow groove over her spine.

“The last time we were like this, we had quite an audience,” he says quietly, conversationally as her hands stroke his chest.

It takes her a moment to realize what he is talking about and she chuckles at the memory of her sunny day as an otter goddess. “Well, you weren’t naked then…”

That earns her a laugh, light and warm. Music to her ears. “I was very close to it!” He quiets, stroking her cheek. “And all I could think of was how badly I wanted to kiss you.”

Which he does. And though it is not half as desperate and consuming as the one from before, it is a comfortable, loving kiss, filled with quiet longing. It is a testament to his weakened state that having her pressed against him does not elicit more than mild arousal.

“I should have kissed you,” he whispers once it is over.

Alma smiles at the thought. “I wish you had. But then, everyone would have known about us. I thought this was supposed to be a secret.”

Gwydion shakes his head, one hand idly playing with a lock of her hair. “We made it a secret so we could end it at any time. When it wasn’t anything serious. But that has changed, hasn’t it?” He looks questioningly into her eyes and she nods her reply. He smiles. “It’s been serious for so long. I can’t bear the thought of losing you, I could barely go three days without you. I’m yours. I don’t care who knows.”

A soft kiss and Alma whispers to him, grinning, “No more secrets.”

His face lights up with a smile. “Good.”

She gasps as, with a quick movement of his hands on her hips, he suddenly pushes her off the ledge and spins her in his hold until she is facing away from him, her back pressed against his front, her feet no longer propped on the stone. She laughs at the antics, holding on to one of his arms.

“And what was that for?” she asks.

His wet hand brushes her hair away from her neck, making her shiver at the humid touch. She can hear the smile in his voice as he breathes in her ear, “Time for your bath.”

And then the soap is in his hand and he is lathering up her left arm, gently but thoroughly, the pressure of his upper arms against her shoulders keeping her afloat and held close against him. Once he is satisfied with the cleanliness of her arm, he nudges her to lower it into the water and bring it back out, before moving on to lathering her right arm.

“Will you tell me what happened to you, the day you went to meet your family?” He asks quietly as he strokes her forearm with the soap. “Your eyes, the weakness… I’ve been worried. Geryon could only tell me so much.”

She looks at the fountain on the wall before her, the stone sculpture of a girl from whose hands the water that feeds the pool springs in hushed, tranquil rivulets. Above the hands, a blue-ish orb hovers peacefully, shining with a soft, watery light that reflects against the pale creams and greenish-yellows of the sand and seaweed that decorate its interior. Every now and again, bright, iridescent bursts of color shine from its interior as a school of tiny fish swims within. In her green enclosure, Starfax quietly watches them from amongst the leaves.

“It’s… A bit of a complicated story,” she says, unsure of how to explain it all. “I – The reason no one dies or is born on that particular day is because all death gods and life gods must gather once a year for the Spinning Wheel ceremony. When a soul is harvested, it is not destroyed nor is it reincarnated right away. It lingers in the spectral plane, just slowly decomposing, in a sense. It starts losing its previous identity and reshaping itself into a new soul but that takes quite a long time. We would soon run out of people on the Insula if we merely waited for that to happen. So every year, the Wheel of Souls is spun, accelerating that process, cleansing and reorganizing all the souls collected during that year all at once.”

His hand travels over her belly, rubbing the sensitive skin with soap. She closes her eyes and falls silent for a moment, enjoying the cleansing caress before continuing with her tale. “The Wheel is spun around a divine, living axis. Ever since I can remember, our Spinner, as we call her, has been a Life goddess named Sharia. She is our only Spinner. She is rather old now, too weak to spin the Wheel at first try. The Clan had lately been fearing we’d lose her before finding a suitable replacement. But somehow she knew that I could spin the Wheel too. And that is what happened to me. That new sphere became active and I spun the Wheel. It led to some…” She gestures vaguely at her eyes. “…changes. I don’t really remember any of it clearly but by the end of the ceremony, I was knocked unconscious. Father wanted me to stay at his house and rest but I was worried about Mayumi and…I didn’t want to miss our date. So I asked Melinor to help me pick up Mayumi and he brought us both back here. I don’t remember anything after leaving Father’s estate but I think we arrived home well into the night.”

He does not say anything at that, though a slight stiffening of his body against hers suggests the awakening of a painful memory. She feels him returning the soap to a little dish she had left at the edge of the pool and then hold her closely, in silence. The water is warm against her skin, soothingly warm, and her muscles feel relaxed, comfortable. Even her headache feels like a distant thing. She tilts her head back and to the side, letting it rest against him, her eyes closed to enjoy the moment. Time goes by.

She feels herself surface from a shallow slumber at the feeling of her left arm being gently raised out of the water and held above it, her elbow flexed so her hand hovers before her eyes. He holds the bracelet her mother made for her against her wrist and she closes the clasp with ritualistic care, smiling at the image of their wrists held together side by side, the greens and browns and golds and red of his bracelet matching the brown and black, silver and blue of hers as perfectly as if they had been made at the same time and by the same hands to bind them together. His fingers intertwine with hers and he brings his arm down, dragging hers along to wrap around her waist. Her other hand covers his arm, gently stroking it underwater.

“I know it is a sensitive matter but…whatever happened with this death god and Sky and the love spell. Do you need help?”

He sounds hesitant, as if he cannot bring himself to ask what he truly wants to know. But the concern in his voice is evident.

“No,” Alma shakes her head. She turns to look straight at him, her body once again facing his. “Sky managed to detect and break the spell before it went too far.” She looks away. “I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if–”

She cannot say it. The thought of making love to Sky is too alien to her to even form in her head. It would be like sleeping with one of her brothers.

“Once this is done, we’ll put that bastard out of business,” Gwydion says, matter-of-factly.

She looks back at him, saddening at the memory of some of their previous conversations. “Listen, before – I was angry at the whole thing. I know why and how you use those spells. I never meant to accuse you–”

He touches a finger to her lips. “Shh. It was justified. Besides, it is a good reminder of the dangers of such things. I’m just glad you’re not hurt.” His finger moves to stroke her cheek as he looks into her eyes. “Now, how about these? You were complaining you couldn’t see properly before. What’s wrong?”

Alma breathes deeply before explaining. “These eyes… I can’t stop soul-scrying, for some reason. Thankfully, my soul-sight carries no aftereffects now but it’s difficult focusing on seeing the material body of things. Like, I can see your soul very easily but I have to concentrate to look into your eyes and actually see them. And I see souls everywhere, all the time. Suddenly, everything has a soul. It’s all very distracting.” She sighs in frustration. “They are beautiful things, souls, but it’s confusing, constantly seeing every little one of them superimposed with bodies and even through walls, not being able to focus on just the material plane. Just seeing the food on my plate was difficult at first. Had to learn to see again, in a sense. I’m still learning. It all feels very strange and…” She lowers her gaze, feeling shy and silly to admit it. “I feel a little freakish with these changes. But at least I’m getting better at interpreting what I see now.”

He holds her closer, softly nuzzling her cheek. “You still feel the same to me. Just even more beautiful, if that can be possible.”

She smiles and closes her eyes as he kisses the crease of each of her eyelids, snuggling against him in bliss. When she opens her eyes again, a minute movement of light, just a slightly different, yet familiar color of spectral essence moving among the vibrant lines of the hanging stems and flowers of her living door-screen, catches her attention. She grins, making an educated guess of who it might be.

“Speaking of what I see…What is it, Tulip?” she calls out toward the door.

A tiny Eeep! coming from that general direction lets her know that she was right. Soon, Tulip is emerging from behind the screen. “Uhm… Is Dion feeling better, Mom?”

“I think so,” Alma relies, making a show of looking at the god. “Is he?”

Gwydion chuckles, turning his head to look at the Bunny through the edges of his vision. “Dion is in paradise, little flower.”

That seems to satisfy Tulip, who smiles and relaxes visibly. She moves closer to them. “Uncle Som says he’s not coming down here to get punched again.”

That has them both laughing. Gods, it feels good to laugh…

“Well, Uncle Somrak can wait a while,” Alma tells her. “We will meet him upstairs.”