We will be there soon, the voice speaks directly into his mind.
Dion ducks instinctively as yet another low balcony blurs past his vision.
The ride so far has been…interesting. Feeling far more substantial than they look, the magnificent horses that have come to Alma’s aid carry both him and the extremely worried death goddess swiftly and smoothly. The hooves of these amazing beasts produce no sound as they hit the stone-paved streets, their powerful legs moving at the same speed as a regular race-horse but somehow taking them through the alleys much faster than any horse is supposed to run.
Not only that, they seem quite oblivious to the fact that they are not supposed to be able to run through walls without hitting them. With their billowing manes and ghostly bodies, the horses navigate through the ward, impossibly fast, covering the distance between the station and the warehouse in what feels like half an hour compressed into only a handful of minutes. They enter alleys to come out into streets that do not connect with those alleys at all, phasing through the wall of a building to emerge from the back door of a house three blocks ahead and two blocks to the right.
And all this without seemingly ever moving within the buildings themselves! Everything is a blur, every glimpse of a location a fleeting image of a landscape that is suddenly no longer there. It is unlike any method of teleportation or portal creation he has ever learned or read about. Incompatible with every single dimensional drift or rift-exploit he has ever heard of. Oh, he will have to study this more closely.
Dion’s mind wavers between thrilling excitement and discomfort at the unique method of transportation. Of course, there are spells that allow one to do all these things. Some easier but time consuming, others more difficult to master but far more efficient once perfected and even some locked away in old, dusty tomes that are said to render the portal system completely unnecessary. However, his senses tell him that no spells are being cast here. These horses are merely navigating their own channels instinctively, effortlessly and allowing the Dei to do the same.
Doubtlessly, there are gods who can travel at speed and move through space and even time with ease, but Dion has never been one of them or had the pleasure of meeting one. It is a unique, incredibly fascinating and smooth experience in travel. Unfortunately, it will also be a rather short one.
He risks a glance to his left. By his side, Alma rides the bigger, somehow slightly older-looking mare. Riding with ease, even in the absence of a saddle or reins, the goddess keeps her fair countenance locked in focused concern and seems unmoved by the wonder of such an incredible ride.
“How did you find Sage?” she asks out loud, probably, Dion suspects, just to do him the courtesy of being included in the conversation.
The child reached us in his dreams, the mare explains in a peaceful tone that washes tranquility into the god’s mind.
“His dreams?” Dion asks, feeling almost as if interrupting a conversation that has been going on without him. “Is that something Bunnies can do? Contact people via their dreams?”
Not willingly, the other mare explains with an edge to her thoughts that suggests youthful excitement and impatience. We watch over dreams. That is how we found him.
The innocent-sounding words ring deeply in Dion’s conscience. For as untamed as the unconscious mind can be – and truly, who can be blamed for where thoughts go when everything else is asleep? – he cannot help but feel a twinge of guilt and embarrassment at the thought of someone watching over some of his dreams. Can these horses even comprehend the dreams of other sentient beings? Do they keep minds from drifting so far from consciousness that they become lost? Or do they examine dreams for content and decide who should not wake up? Either way, the thought is somewhat disturbing.
Horses… Why horses? And no regular horses, for that matter. More what a horse’s dream of itself would look like. The kind of horse that any equine would worship if they could do so. Do horses even have their own gods?
“These horses are no common breed,” he comments to Alma. “Their auras feel like–”
Alma nods, completing the sentence without even bothering to look at him. “Gods. All of them. The Void Riders dwell beyond the Insula. They are responsible for creating much of the reality that is the Isle. They travel through chaos to find and herd broken pieces of reality that are then added to the Insula as it grows. And they can travel through them as if they were portals. Dreams are just different realities to them.”
“I see…” Dion whispers, filing the information for later research.
For now, however, the horses have stopped running.
We have arrived, the older mare announces, her head dropping and turning to the right, motioning the gods to dismount.
“Thank you,” Alma says, dismounting gracefully, stroking the mare’s neck as she steps forward.
Dion stares at them for a moment. Truly, the combination is a sight to see. The ghostly horse looks like the perfect mount for the solemn goddess who so often looks and moves like a specter herself. And how frightening it would be to meet them both at the mouth of some dark alley on a moonless night and gaze upon one’s last vision of the living world in the form of the pale, silvery-white-haired goddess dressed in the leather-corseted patrolling outfit that is her only compromise to armor, and her extraordinary, transcendental mount.
These idle thoughts are disrupted by the younger mare, who calls him back to reality with a curt neigh and a vibrant shake of her powerful neck. She throws her head back in impatience, urging him to dismount.
The god does so, sliding carefully off her rump and down her flank, gently patting her shoulder as he moves forward, instinctively treating the godly mare as if she were a common horse.
“Your help is deeply appreciated,” he says.
She replies by turning her head to bring her muzzle closer to his face and breathe a moist gust of hot hair against his cheek and ear.
The child was well when he was found, the older mare informs. However, he is now awake. We do not know what has happened since.
“That is the warehouse, over there, isn’t it?” Dion asks, gesturing toward the old, rundown building standing at the corner of the next block.
“Yes, that is the corner that Corporal Lamore mentioned,” Alma replies, looking at the looming shape of the warehouse.
Our time on the Insula runs short, the mare warns them. We must go.
Both gods turn to look at her and Alma nods before saying, “Please, do. We will take care of things from now on.”
Tread carefully, child, the mare says, taking a couple of steps back before turning around to leave. Close by, the younger mare does the same. And good luck.
They both take off and suddenly, it is as if they were never there. Without a sound or a hoof mark on the pavement, they have disappeared from sight in the blink of an eye.
“Fascinating friends you have,” Dion comments, speaking in a low tone that sounds like rumbling thunder against the silence left by the departure of the Riders.
“More than friends,” Alma corrects him, turning to look at the warehouse once more. “Family.”
“Family?” the god asks in confusion. The Void Riders do not quite seem to fit either sphere in Alma’s ancestry.
“It is a long story,” the goddess concedes with a sigh. “One I will have to tell, sooner or later. For now… Sage is in there.”
“We had best scout out the situation,” Dion states, walking alongside her down the street that leads to the warehouse.
In his mind, ancient words begin to band together, reshaping his mana into a scouting spell. In his hand, a glittering, golden light begins to glow, shapeless and insubstantial at first, but soon it starts twisting and bending and compressing into a long, slender body with short legs and reddish eyes, a delicate longilinuous head topped by short round ears. A long fluffy tail whips the air as the light-spawn creature climbs Dion’s arm to round his shoulders and look meaningfully at Alma, waiting patiently for her to notice it.
The light that emanates from it and draws its profile in sharp contrast against the world around must catch the goddess’ eye because she turns her head to look, first at Dion and then down at the ferrety creature perching on his shoulder. Her eyes are glowing with a faint aura, their deep blue crisscrossed by lines of greenish-white light that squiggle and rush to and fro between her pupils and the rims of her irises. She must have been trying to detect any souls inside the warehouse just now.
“It won’t be able to enter the warehouse itself due to the anti-scrying defenses, but it should be able to peek in some windows and look for guards outside,” Dion explains almost apologetically.
Alma merely nods, staring at Dion’s scouting spell for a moment before trying to touch the glowing animal with an extended finger. The spell curls and shies away from her, made as it is to evade capture. Dion touches her hand and nudges her fingers open, holding them and turning his own hand to show her how such a spell should be approached. When she holds her hand open before it, it leaps from the god’s shoulder into her palm, standing up on its hind legs and looking at her intently as if awaiting orders.
“We have thirty-seven souls inside. Thirty-two mortal and five divine,” she says, tilting her head to the right, only to be imitated by the ferrety shape. “And two more outside, a little further away.”
“One of these days, I would love to know how you do that,” Dion replies with honest wonder.
“Family trait,” Alma states almost absent-mindedly. “It comes with the scythe and the black robes. For now, I cannot tell friend from foe or adult from child. Please, help us with that.”
The scouting spell jerks its head up and down in a nod of understanding and quickly leaps from Alma’s hand, twisting and turning midair to land on the stone pavement, facing the warehouse. In quick bounds that make it look like a blur of bright light shooting through the street, it runs off toward the warehouse.
“Can you see if Sage is in there?” Dion asks.
Alma shakes her head slowly, sadly. “Unfortunately, no. There are too many souls to pick through and I am not powerful or skilled enough to make a clear image of what is going on inside. All I can tell is that thirty of them may be our missing children.”
“Well, let us see what we can learn from my spell,” Dion offers, activating the spell that allows him to see through the light-spawn creature’s eyes as it scurries through the street on its way to the warehouse.
A familiar, if somewhat blurred shape makes him order the spell to stop and take a sharp turn to the left. The two souls that Alma had detected can now clearly be seen through the scout’s eyes. One is the Popula Constable, Aliyah, dressed in a…blouse and a flowery skirt? And the other…
“Geryon…” Dion mutters, causing Alma to move closer in the hopes of catching his words.
Almost as if he can hear the god, the gryphon turns and peers down at the scout, straight into its bright red eyes, his raptorine beak looking disproportionately big for being so close. “Well, well, well…” the gryphon whispers with a mixture of mockery and sincere pleasure. “Look who is back to prowling the alleys. And using his powers for good, for a change.”
Transmitted into his brain through the scout’s ears, the jest feels to Dion like the warmest of welcomes from his companion of so many unwise adventures. His lips curl in a smile as he forgets for a moment the urgency of his mission.
“It is so good to see you, old friend,” he whispers.
“Old friend? Is it Geryon you see?” Alma asks.
“Yes,” Dion replies, smiling at her. “The scout has found him and Constable Kaur. Follow me.”
He leads her to the entrance of a building just across the street from the warehouse, where Geryon and the woman constable await them. Their expressions waver between relief and tremendous concern.
“Constable,” Dion greets the woman with a pleasant smile and a subtle nod.
“Geryon,” Alma greets the gryphon. She looks Aliyah up and down before adding, “Constable. What are you doing here in that attire and where is Mayumi?”
If Aliyah looked worried before, she looks positively panicky now. She quickly glances down at her skirt and then at the warehouse before half-stuttering “She’s… Ma’am, she’s–”
“I’m here,” Mayumi announces, suddenly appearing from somewhere behind Dion.
The Bunny’s voice sounds hoarse, breathless as if Mayumi has just taken a mad dash towards the building. She takes a couple of deep breaths in an effort to regain composure. Her eyes are locked on Alma’s face, as if she can’t believe the goddess is actually present.
“Finally, May!” Aliyah cries in relief and exasperation, grabbing the Bunny’s shoulders and shaking her, possibly a bit harder than intended. “Damn it, are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“There’s no time for that!” Mayumi retorts, releasing herself from Aliyah’s grip. She turns to Alma, the pupils in her large brown eyes dilated from fright. For a moment, she looks as if she wants nothing more than to throw her arms around Alma’s waist, but she straightens and drives the emotion from her expression. “Sergeants, Constable – Inspector Sky is in the warehouse with an ally, and they’re both in trouble!”
“An ally?” Dion asks while Alma glances back at the warehouse, eyes flaring, and murmurs something about three casualties.
“The woman who helped us when we escaped,” Mayumi explains. “Saira.”
“She’s here?” Aliyah whispers, glancing at the warehouse as well, her voice tinged with an edge of concern for the woman.
“Saira… He must have gotten her to help, after all,” Alma murmurs under her breath, her eyes regaining their usual appearance for a moment. She looks down at Mayumi, her lower lip trembling ever so slightly at the sight of the Bunny. “And you say Inspector Sky is in there with her?”
“They set off a magical trap.” Mayumi speaks quickly, sometimes failing to finish a sentence in her haste, her voice almost imperceptibly shaking. “Now they are being attacked by large beasts…like monkeys. And…there’s something else. Something horrible.” She shudders and grimaces, as if she is about to be sick, but she shakes it off, her eyes suddenly widening at a returning memory that had been driven from her mind by events. “There’s a door around the back, Alma. Ma’am. I saw it! It’s close to where Sage and the others are being held. I could go there and–”
“Do you know where this door is, Constable?” Alma interrupts her, shifting her gaze to Aliyah’s progressively more worried expression.
Aliyah fails to respond for a moment, distracted as she is, staring at Mayumi.
“Constable!” Alma insists in a sharp tone.
Aliyah’s head shoots up, her body straightening automatically as if struck by lightning. “Not by heart, Ma’am.” She hesitates before adding, “Maybe May could show us? I promise we’ll keep her out of trouble.”
Alma seems about to object but a sudden muted bellow of “No!” makes her look back at the warehouse and then at Dion. A subtle nod between them says it all. They are out of time.
Alma’s voice sounds dry, humorless and she does not bother to even glance at the Bunny as she says to the woman, “I don’t think you could do that even if you tied her to a lamp post. Very well, take her and take that door. Find the children and get them out. Hopefully our arrival will distract the kidnappers away from them.”
Mayumi’s fists clench and her ears lean back for a fraction of a second before she nods. She glances at Aliyah, who seems paralyzed for a moment before looking apologetically and submissively at Alma as if in need of her blessing.
“Look after her, please,” Alma speaks softly.
Aliyah brightens up and jerks her head in a quick nod of acquiescence. “Yes, sir!” She looks unsure for a moment. “Ma’am. Sir…”
“Geryon, could you go with them?” Dion asks his friend as the Bunny and Constable dash away. “Your strength may mean the difference…”
“I will help in any way I can,” Geryon assures him, turning to run towards the pair, wings tucked neatly against his body, his leonine legs packed with powerful muscles carrying him swiftly away.
The gods begin to walk at a quick pace towards the front door of the warehouse, using the short moment to prepare weapons and spells.
“This should be a dramatic homecoming scene…” Dion mutters as he starts noticing the light go out around him, the growing shadows already curling around the enraged death goddess walking by his side.
She looks at him with black, bottomless eyes, grinning in frighteningly joyous anticipation of a bloody fight, “Well, let us make sure we arrive with a bang, shall we?”