|Caos e Ordem, Mal e Bem,
Têm ventre e berço igual.
A um do outro não convém
Ser amigo nem rival,
Porque cada força que enfrenta
A que lhe serve de freio
Fere a face que a contempla
Do outro lado do espelho.
|Chaos and Order, Evil and Good
Have the same womb and crib
It’s not convenient to one to be the other’s
Friend or foe
Because each force that stands against
The one that serves as a break to it
Hurts the face that contemplates it
From the other side of the mirror
Around the Council room, voices rise and fall in bickering and furious whispering in response to Math’s latest statement. The Archon breathes deeply. He knew it would not be an easy Council session. Not that there ever are such things as easy sessions. He looks up and closes his eyes, remembering the day when Nevieve, then an active Archon, stood in the exact same place as he does now and delivered her prophecy. It must have taken her a very large dose of certainty in her vision to stand here and be mocked by her fellow Archons. It is certainly uncomfortable to stand here like someone on trial. And yet, who is laughing now?
Math’s eyes drift to a chronically empty balcony and snorts. Anarai, Archon of Fate, would laugh at this. If she ever attended a meeting of the Council, that is. She never comes to these things. She knows must be done, she replies when questioned about her absences, and the procedures bore her. She might have stood by Nevieve then. She would laugh at her fellow Archons now. They should know better than to deny her.
“My fellow Archons, please–” Math pleads.
“You’ve had a week, Math,” Archon Taleloc’s voice booms from his balcony, echoing in the chamber like thunder in a summer night. “A week since Nekh was taken from existence. And this is all you bring us by way of answer?”
“What is a week to gods, especially in such cases?” Archon Ikenga intervenes, grumpily.
“Such cases?” Archon Chanti notes, her voice always a little too high-pitched for the comfort of all creatures endowed with a sense of hearing. “Have there ever been such cases? An Archon has been killed. By…bunnies!”
“I thought it was Death’s daughter who had been found near the body,” Archon Enki states placidly. “Do we even know if her Bunnies had anything to do with the situation other than just being there?”
Math shakes his head. “Not yet,” he replies. “I have two gods, a gryphon, seven Bunnies and a dead body in an otherwise empty room. And none of them are talking…yet.”
“Does it matter?” Archon Eriseth hisses, poison dripping from her words. “It was all because of her creations! And what are you waiting for to get them to talk?” she demands, adding an accusation of incompetence to her question.
“Bodies and minds need to heal,” Math states in patient, but strained tones. “Healing takes time.”
“Time we don’t have, Math,” Taleloc admonishes him. “The news of Nekh’s demise has spread like mice in crop fields, feeding on speculation and leaving ruin in its wake. It is imperative that we put this issue to rest as quickly as possible in the great theater of public opinion.”
The rumor of whispered words rises again in general agreement with Taleloc’s statement, making the whole room sound like a rather upset beehive.
“Most of all, we have to make justice,” Eriseth’s voice cries from the shapeless murmuring, feeding it with her anger. “It’s annihilation for them all, I say! Quick and easy!”
“Calm your slithering tongue, Eriseth!” Math growls at the goddess. “Nekh was no force of Good and we all know that! Some of us even better than the others!” He looks intently around the now very silent room. “Was he not holding so many of the people in this room by the short end, after all?”
“Even so, Math, justice must be seen to be served,” Archon Dergallin intercedes, firm but fair. “The last thing we want is to create martyrs among the Death clan.” His tone becomes sharper. “Or even among your own. Nekh’s activities will have to be investigated as much as your Sergeants’.”
“As always, you are the voice of reason, Dergallin,” Math retorts. “And what do you suggest to that end?”
“A representative from the Court Dei will follow your people in their investigation,” Enki declares. “She will also interview the suspects. No special treatment must be seen to be granted.”
“A lawyer, then?” Math wonders.
“More like an independent investigator,” Enki offers. “We have picked her from among the Ketu gods. You know of their fabled eye for the truth.”
Math nods slowly in resentful agreement. “Yes… Who doesn’t? Albeit their unhealthy tendency to plot against us.”
Dergallin’s sigh carries, soft and heavy, across the room. “I will tell you, fellow Archon, that I am not so sure if they should be frowned upon for doing so. It seems to be a popular pastime, after all.”
“What about the Bunnies?” Archon Anura asks, her voice serene like a summer breeze. “Should we assume the prophecy is fulfilled? We don’t even know what part they played in this.”
“One way or another, they’re at the center of this,” Chanti states to a number of whispered echoes of her words from other Archons.
“Where are they now?” Enki enquires.
“At my estate,” Math replies. “All but Inspector Tuma-Sukai and the gryphon have been kept on house arrest at my estate to recover, only allowed to leave under escort. The Bunnies refuse to talk about the incident, but flock around their mother–”
“Mother?” Taleloc exclaims.
Math merely nods. “That is what they call her.”
“Stupid artificial creations, presuming to have ancestry like proper lifeforms!” Eriseth shrieks in bewilderment. “Mother… Their kind didn’t even exist until that reckless goddess brought them to life.”
“If she created their entire species, would that not merit even greater devotion from them?” Archon Kadmyl intervenes. “Besides, we are still to find exactly how they were created. Arion has left us with that mystery to solve.”
“Barely out of her infant robes and already creating the weapons of our destruction,” Enki says, his voice carrying more sadness than anger.
“It is of no consequence,” Ikenga grunts. “Nevieve has refused to answer our callings and confirm that the prophecy is fulfilled. It is up to us to determine if they are no longer a threat or if we should still consider their elimination.”
“Would it be wise to eliminate them now?” Anura inquires. “People might ask questions we do not wish to answer.”
“And look what happened to Nekh…” Taleloc notes.
Silence spreads across the room as the Archons consider the possibility of sharing in Nekh’s fate. Slowly, the murmurs rise again, bickering and disorganized, panicked and misshapen.
Eriseth finally molds them into words. “Well, at least keep them away from us. They have caused enough damage as it is.”
The murmurs rise and rise, agreeing with Eriseth, much to Math’s growing frustration. The whispering and hissing fill the room like the buzzing of millions of hysterical bees, overwhelming and smothering, solid and shapeless, drowning thought under the ghosts of words.
“ENOUGH!” Dergallin suddenly bellows, immediately reducing the room to utter silence.
“Order the Bunnies back to their burrow and proceed with your investigation, Math,” the Archon orders. “Be thorough and be careful. Remember, your nephew’s life and that of his friend rest in the balance of whatever you find.”
She is bathed in silence. That is all there is. Is there even a memory of sound?
Her eyes are open but sight seems to have abandoned her. There is an image there, for sure, but her mind refuses to take it in. Instead, only broken, ragged pieces of memories fade in and out, like the frail, irregular twinkle of starlight.
She remembers running, a shadowy, faceless figure by her side. And then Gwydion on his knees. She feels something hard against her legs, something wooden. She is on her knees as well. Muffled and weakened, touch seems to be the only sense still left in her. The hardness of the floor against her legs crawls up her body, slowly awakening other senses from their numbness. Other memories rush in, swift and torn.
Her Bunnies on the floor, screaming. She tries to cover her ears against the screams but her arms won’t obey. Nor will her legs. She cannot run to them, save them. Her body feels weak, battered as if it has been bounced around against the walls. And still the sensation of the hard, cold wooden floor travels up, spreading over, infiltrating her belly, twisting her insides. The screaming stops. Images flicker before her.
Again Gwydion. Why is he in her memories? Was he the shadow running alongside her? Is he… He is bathed in light. No, he is shining. His hand curled in a fist, moving quickly, thrusting forward. Murder in his eyes. What is that lying on the floor?
Nekh is an Archon. He can help. Alive! He is alive! He’ll help! If only she can talk to him, strike a deal.
Nekh is a traitor. Used her, her kin. He is a criminal. Needs to be punished, kept away from the Bunnies. She has to save them, stop the screaming. Keep them safe. Punish the traitor. Make him pay.
Such horrible screams. Shrieking and wailing and shouting – did someone call her name? – and just sheer… screaming. Is that a woman’s voice? Her own voice?
Beautiful, ice-cold light. Soul light. So powerful and alive, sizzling under her touch.
The light goes out. The world is silent. And Nekh is dead…
He can’t help
The feeling rising from her legs reaches her chest. Breathing becomes difficult. Had she been breathing before? It just seems so…real, now. Each rise and fall of her chest.
Sound returns. Muffled sounds reach her ears, words she can’t quite make out. Her lips move in return. Did she even speak? A shadow by her side. Something touches her arm, pulls her closer to the shadow.
“It’s Sky,” a voice says.
The cold reaches her neck and creeps up, digs into her mind like fingernails clutching at her thoughts.
Everything, everything that happened that day becomes clear again. Painfully clear. The cold rising endlessly from the tip of her toes to the top of her skull, the piercing, endless, all-consuming iciness digs into her every nerve. Numbness was a blessing. This is not cold.
It is pain. So strong it blocks her will, so powerful it takes her breath, so complete…
…it steals her screams
She feels herself clutching at Sky’s jacket, hopes he will keep her from drowning in the agony washing over her. He moves a little away and she shouts to him.
Please, don’t go
No…that wasn’t shouting. Was there even sound? The pain is like the Void. And he must not have heard her. His arms loosen their grip.
She breathes in deeply, painfully, preparing to drown. And then… she is held again, afloat again. She clutches at the new anchor. Desperately. The words come…
“You saved us, Mother. We’re all well. You saved us all.”
We are all well
Silence returns. The world goes black. The pain subsides. And Alma rests.
“Don’t you fight me on this one. It’s for their own good,” the Commander’s voice hisses.
Alma’s eyes open slowly, her eyelids seemingly glued together. Blurs of light and shadow filter through the narrow opening.
“What?” Sky asks, anger in his voice.
Sound wavers, fading in and out, much like her consciousness. Sky’s words register slowly, broken into short snippets.
“– discharged –”
“– like rogues?”
Alma’s eyes open a little further. The blurs become images of people gathered around her. Memory struggles to put names to them. Sky. The Commander. Math. All three just steps away, towering over her. They look so tall…
“Don’t be a fool, Sky!” The Commander sounds angry. Words rush out of his mouth. “It’s just a badge. They’re still Guardia.”
Off to the side, Gwydion stands with her youngest in his arms, stroking the little Bunny’s long, white hair. His eyes wander to Alma. She cringes from what she sees in them.
“It’s not just a badge!” she hears Sky shout.
Her head turns slowly to see the Inspector clenching and unclenching his fists, his jaw locked, black tattoos writhing up the tan skin of his neck and cheeks. He is breathing deeply, fighting for control. The air grows dense, the world holds its breath.
“I won’t betray them like that,” he finally says, each word spoken slowly, intently.
Who is that, in the corner?
Just behind Sky, Somrak stands, watching. No one seems to notice him. He is so easy to forget, just standing there, eyes scanning the room. He looks in her direction and his eyes lock with Alma’s for a fraction of a second. A millimetric smile curls his lips ever so subtly.
But there is also pity in his eyes.
“Fine, I’ll do it myself, then.”
A shadow looms closer to Alma. The Commander crouches by her, his hand reaching for her shoulder, careful not to make sudden movements. Someone holds her tightly from behind.
He has been holding her all this time, hasn’t he? But now he is holding her tighter. The Commander’s hand moves closer. The meaning of his words hit her.
It is her badge he wants. And Sky wouldn’t take it.
Well, neither will he!
Exhausted, still in pain but firm in her resolve, she pulls away from Sage. The Bunny resists her at first, holding onto her with ease, so weak are her efforts. But then he releases her, watching her with care but making a big deal out of letting the goddess sit on her own. The Commander pulls back, waiting.
Looking deeply into his eyes, Alma raises a hand to her left shoulder and slowly, struggling, removes her own badge. Without the badge-pin to hold them together, the two sashes that make the front and back of her blouse, fall gently and lightly, sliding down to hang just over her corset, her pale breasts covered only by a protective, padded silk undergarment.
Her gaze never wavering, her every movement kept graceful and controlled at the cost of much pain, Alma places the badge in the palm of the Commander’s now open hand. He doesn’t speak and neither do his eyes. Instead, he holds the badge in his hand and makes a show of putting it away in his jacket pocket, tapping his pocket as if to promise he will keep it safe, as if to make sure she knows where it is. His hand reaches to her shoulder again, this time accompanied by its sibling. Alma stiffens.
Gently, carefully, the Commander picks up the sashes and ties them in an elaborate knot over Alma’s shoulder. He grins that ghastly grin of his that in other people would pass for a smile. His hands move to her arms, sliding down, barely grazing the skin until they find armbands and her Sergeant’s insignias. The Commander leans forward, whispering in her ear as he removes them.
“Whatever you do, keep your mouth shut. Remember, Alma, you are mine...”
As the God Striker, drained, goes inactive, Dion begins to see the room more clearly than before. And he sees his best friend across the room – dead or merely unconscious, he has no idea. He begins to rise, but feels a weight on his thigh.
He realizes that, almost without thought, he has been comforting the youngest Bunny, the one from whom he acquired the God Striker. She is weeping, shivering, traumatized by all the violence around her. He can’t just dump her on the floor. Then Kori and Chime, the two just ahead of her in age, come to his assistance, while Sage moves toward Alma.
As Dion hands the young Bunny over to them, he sees her looking at him, her tear-filled eyes holding an emotional intensity he has not seen from her before. But he has no time to think of that.
He pushes himself upright and half-stumbles across the room. Passing Sky – registering his existence fully for the first time, and the Commander’s as well – he glances down and sees Alma shivering in the Inspector’s arms. What she did to the Archon, tearing his soul from him… Dion tries to tell himself that she couldn’t help it, that it was necessary, but he remembers shouting to stop her, how she killed the helpless, already defeated god. Is this what it means to be Guardia? He cannot reconcile the conflicting emotions as they battle for dominance in his thoughts.
He forces himself to focus on Geryon. Falling to his knees in front of his friend, his best friend. The only brother he ever had, if not in blood, then by spirit. Touching his friend’s torso lightly, he uses a little of his nearly exhausted mana to cast a probing spell into the gryphon before him…and feels life. Nearly collapsing with relief, he feels tears threatening to spill over as he burns more precious mana, exploring, boosting life and repairing.
A sudden bolt of mana surges into him, creating a shock in his system as it refills his reserves. He releases the spell and quickly turns to find the source.
Math stands above him.
“See to your friend,” the Archon instructs him softly, and then turns to join the Commander, Sky, and Alma by Nekh’s remains.
Dion, nodding, returns to the prone gryphon, leveraging the refreshed source of mana to pour healing energy into his friend. He feels two soft forms pressing against him on either side as Cherry and Merri kneel next to him, wiping tears from their eyes.
“Is he gonna be OK?” Cherry finally dares to ask.
“Ain’t there nowt we can do?” Merri whispers.
Eyes closed and concentrating, Dion responds in a soft, low voice. “He’s hurt, badly. But…but he’s tough.” He wonders if he’s trying to convince them, or himself.
As the god finishes his statement, he is rewarded with a sudden deep breath from his friend. Slowly moving his head, Geryon opens his eyes and looks up. “What…what happened?”
The girls laugh for the first time, hugging each other as Dion smiles towards his friend. “It’s over. He’s finished.”
Geryon’s eyes suddenly get wide. “Did I beat him?”
Now, it’s Dion’s time to chuckle. “You did your part, my friend. More so with the gift you were carrying.”
Before the two friends can say any more, Cherry and Merri are suddenly fussing over Geryon like mothers, carefully stroking his fur and feathers.
“Och, ye puir wee bairn,” Merri murmurs soothingly.
“What’d you think you were doin’?” Cherry chides. “Takin’ on a god! An Archon! You’re crazy, you big, awesome hero, you!” She kisses him, pressing her full lips to his beak.
“Our dear, brave defender,” Merri says, before suddenly sobbing and throwing her arms around his neck. “Oh, we thought ye were daid!”
“Ow! Ow!” the gryphon complains, though seeming quite pleased nonetheless. He relaxes slightly in their delightful care, closing his eyes momentarily, until Dion’s words finally connect. “The Percussorem?” he asks, getting a nod from his friend. “You killed him?” Geryon asks with concern, his mind fearing the repercussions.
“No. I used it, but stopped it before it finished him. But then…” Dion says softly and then nods his head in the direction of Alma.
Geryon looks over at the goddess, who is now in the arms of Sage, still sitting on the floor, while the Inspector talks quietly but intensely with the Commander and Math off to one side. “I suppose they can’t challenge a member of the Death Clan for taking a life,” the gryphon says hopefully.
“We will see,” Dion says now straightening up and rising. “But, for now, you rest here. I’ve cast a number of healing spells on you, but they’re going to take time to do their work fully.”
As he steps away, he hears Merri saying, “Aye, he is our champion!”
“Oh…I only did what I had to,” Geryon modestly responds, his voice muffled against Cherry’s ample bosom. “But, I think I’ll need some nursing for awhile until I mend,” he states with an implied invitation, gaining laughter and more hugs from the lady Bunnies.
The antics bring a smile to his face, and then Dion feels a hand slip into his. He looks down and sees the youngest Bunny at his side again, still looking very frightened, Chime and Kori standing behind her, the former looking annoyed with her, the latter looking apologetic. Dion shakes his head at them to tell them not to worry, and lifts her in his arms. She is as small as a child, easily lifted and held, but he knows her size is deceptive – the Bunnies are all on the small side, compared to humans. She is actually in her early teens, if he remembers correctly.
He rocks her in his arms and shushes her gently, using his considerable charm to captivate her full attention. Quoting an old half-remembered song, he says, “Now, little flower, no longer need you cry. You are safe.”
Her huge, blue eyes locked on his, the Bunny falls silent. But then she says in a hesitant stammer, “Not… F-flower.
Rushing from the Academy of Magic’s portal, through the hallways, Sky leaves the Commander and Somrak behind, forgets about them entirely. The message from the Oracle is imprinted on his brain – he knows every turn he must take, as if she is beside him, holding his hand and pulling him along. Something awful is about to happen. Something truly awful. Images of his friends, slaughtered in spite of all he has done, in spite of all promises and divinely binding vows, fill his mind.
He sees the door, hears shouting. Dion’s voice. Through the edges of the door glows a flickering light. And then a scream almost stops him. Her voice is so distorted that he almost cannot recognize it, but through the mixture of pain, horror, and triumph, he still recognizes Alma. The light flashes, blinding him momentarily even though the door is yet closed, but he lunges unseeing and manages to grasp the handle, pulling it open, and stumbles into the room, blinking. He barely notices the Commander right behind him.
Breathing hard, he tries to make sense of what he is seeing. In the center of the room, Alma, slumped on her knees, half-turned away from him, looking stunned, unaware of her surroundings. Before her is the crumpled corpse – somehow it is so clearly a corpse. An afterglow of powerful magic rises from Alma’s hands like smoke.
She begins to fall to one side, and he moves swiftly to her, kneeling and catching her. He feels every hair on his body stand on end as he touches her, like touching a live wire. He shivers and sees that the body before them has the head of a vulture. As she leans her head against his chest, she whispers, “Gwydion?”
“It’s Sky,” he murmurs. He glances around the room. Mayumi is standing, looking shocked, holding a knife, from the look of it a table-knife left in the room by some student. She keeps glancing from the corpse, to Alma, to Sky, as confused about what happened as Sky himself, despite having been in the room. Behind her he counts Sage, Rosemary, Kori, Chime, and Cherry.
Not far away, his back to a workbench, Dion sits on the floor looking equally stunned, though not as confused as Mayumi. More…dismayed. His jacket torn, hair disordered, he doesn’t seem to notice the youngest Bunny grasp his trouser to pull herself against him, until she puts her arms around his waist and clings tightly to him, her face against his belly. She is sobbing, and Dion looks down, uncertainly laying his hand on her head and stroking her hair and laid-back ears to comfort her.
Suddenly Dion looks up from the trembling young Bunny. He starts to rise, then hesitates, caught between calming the child and something else. Sky twists around to see, eliciting a whimper of protest from Alma, who grips his battered armored jacket harder. He sees a large creature – a gryphon? – lying broken, entangled in a tapestry, unmoving. Is it dead? Enemy or ally?
By the time he looks back, Dion has risen and is handing the girl to her immediate seniors, Chime and Kori. The Sergeant staggers past Sky, pausing for a moment to look down at him. No, he is looking at Alma, Sky realizes, Dion’s face a confusing mix of concern and…fear?
Astonished at all this, Sky feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns and sees it is Sage, looking down at him sadly. Preempting Sky’s question, the Bunny says, “She saved us. The Archon Nekh was going to kill us all. She saved us.” His voice is soft, as always, but reinforced with a steely determination.
Sky nods, beginning to understand what must have happened, then shifts as Sage kneels to take Alma. She at first holds onto Sky’s jacket, but then seems to sense that it is Sage, and she transfers her attention to the Bunny, holding him tightly as he whispers to her. As he rises, Sky hears Sage whisper, “You saved us, Mother. We’re all well. You saved us all.”
Sky cannot remember any of them calling her “mother” before.
Glancing around the room again, Sky sees Mayumi placing her knife on a table and just standing there, hands resting on the tabletop, facing away from everyone, deep in thought, her ears laid back. He summons his power, just a little, to waft a sea-wind whisper across the room. Mayumi?
She stiffens at the sound, her ears straightening to instant attention, the touch of the breeze and the smell of the ocean all tied together with the question, and she turns her head to meet his gaze. She looks so confused, so lost. Her eyes flicker to Alma and Sage, then down to the dead Archon, and Sky puts it all together, his blood running cold. This killing was outside the rules of the Guardia. Alma must have, in effect, killed a prisoner. It is the only explanation for all these reactions.
Mayumi’s eyes find his again, and he nods to show he understands. Her eyes begin to fill with tears and she turns away. He begins to take a step toward her, but just then Merri and Cherry rush past him toward Dion, who is still kneeling before the downed gryphon.
And then Somrak comes strolling in with a deity Sky recognizes, barely: Math, the Archon who acts as a particular patron to the Guardia. Dion’s uncle. The Archon’s face registers shock at the scene.
The Commander puts his hand on Sky’s shoulder and growls in his ear, “What a mess. She wasn’t supposed to kill him!”
Dion turns quickly to the unexpected voice coming from the temporary portal entrance. His view of the visitor is briefly blocked as Alma steps forward, her posture showing what is almost relief at the sight of this newcomer.
“My Lord Nekh. What a relief it is to see you. My children are in danger and I require your help once more,” Alma says openly with hope in her voice.
“Children?” the vulture-headed Archon spits, tilting his head as he steps further into the room. “You mean abominations.”
Alma flinches at the words. “My Lord, please! You alone have kept them safe, swayed the Council in their favor and allowed their existence in stasis. Will you fail me now, my patron?” As the Bunnies collect further towards the rear of the room where Geryon and Dion stand, the older and braver of them keeping the younger ones well to the back, Alma pleads for their safety.
“Patron?” Nekh snarls. “The only patron you’ve ever had was that coward of a lover of yours, and even he fled in fear of your creations. No, you stupid child. You and your Bunnies were just useful for a while, casting fear into my fellow Archons while my plans unfolded in the Fourth Ring.”
Dion steps forward quickly, taking Alma’s arm, gaining her attention.
“The Dukaines,” Dion says. “Lord Nekh must be their Patron.”
Alma looks back at Nekh in shock, as Nekh’s vulturine shoulders shake with his sudden, derisive laughter. “Quite right, young Dei. I’m impressed that someone as vain and shallow as you figured that out. Personally, I always thought Math was an idiot for taking you in.”
“The Oracle’s Pearl…all the destruction and killing,” Alma says with growing fury. “It was done at your command.”
“I have to admit that joining the Guardia was a smart move, you little bitch,” Nekh hisses in response. “You fall out of sight for awhile, ensure Math’s protection because the GODS FORBID ANY OF HIS PRECIOUS GUARDIA DEI GET HURT!” the god pauses after wailing his last few words, to regain composure. “And then he sends you and your raggedy bunch of misfits and aberrations right into the heart of my operation. You’ve picked your loyalties, you damned skank, daughter of your conniving slut of a mother!” He grins as much as his beaked face will allow him to. “And now you’re going to pay the price.”
Nekh steps forward again, closing the gap by another step between him and the Bunnies as Geryon circles in front, protectively, his wings open in a feathered barrier.
“Why Three Rats?” Dion queries, his sword halfway out of its scabbard.
“You don’t get it, do you? You’re so used to the lavish life of the Upper Rings that neither of you sees the truth. The Fourth Ring is the key to this land,” Nekh monologues, seemingly ignoring Dion’s blade. “All the resources, servants, food, all of that, come from the Fourth Ring. Control it, and I control the Insula. Some of the others ignore my efforts there as they feel the lowest Ring is beneath them. The rest, I’ve bought into silence through their fear of your Bunnies.”
One more step and now Dion edges sideways to bar Nekh’s path to the Bunnies, gaining a vulture’s equivalent of a sneer.
“It no longer matters,” Nekh continues, looking at Dion with hatred. “Even with your meddling, I’ll secure Three Rats and finalize my hold. The Bunnies have outlived their purpose.” He raises a clawed hand. “Time to dispose of their threat.”
As he raises his hand, Alma shouts “No!” and attempts to bar him. One quick toss of his winged arm and the sheer power of the ancient god launches her across a table, spraying the contents on the floor. Before Dion can move, a massive shadow passes over him in the form of a gryphon as Geryon hurdles over his friend to strike the Archon with his front paws and the bulk of his lion-sized body. The unexpected impact hurls the Archon against the back wall as he emits a surprised squawk. Geryon lands before him with incredible grace for his size and immediately sets to launch again.
The gryphon springs but Nekh raises his feathered arm, trapping him mid-flight, paralyzing his movement.
“You fool!” the Archon shouts. “Attacking me? An Archon?! You’ll pay with your life!”
A wave of his arm and the gryphon is tossed like a doll across the room, striking the side wall, where he slumps, unmoving. Dion, initially frozen by his friend’s attack, now steps in front of the cowering Bunnies, frozen themselves by the sight of their protectors being so easily defeated by this vulture-headed nightmare.
“What are you doing, Gwydion?” Nekh almost spits the name. “Proving yourself to your uncle as if he still had any faith in you? Or maybe you’re trying to conquer your way into that slut’s bed,” he adds, pointing at Alma, his voice heavy with loathing. “Trust me, kid, she’s been in the game for longer than you think. Seduced an Archon until he had to flee after she used him to create her precious Bunnies, and she’s even managed to get under the skin of your blasted Commander’s favorite tool. I bet it won’t be long until the infamous Inspector Sky is professing his undying love for her just to have her wrench his soul from him like one of those bugs that kills the male after mating. Assuming a thing like him has a soul. Get away from her, boy, and maybe you’ll get to live. Help me now, and you definitely will.”
“Nekh! Enough!” Dion shouts. “The Council has spoken! The Bunnies are to be turned over to them!”
“Council? You don’t get it, do you playboy? I am the Council!” Nekh growls and stands, still a little unsteady due to Geryon’s attack.
Again raising his feather-clad arms, he screeches, “And the Council condemns them to death!”
As the Archon unleashes a spell of termination, Dion raises his auric shield, intercepting the spell. But the pure strength of the spell is something he has never before encountered. Even shielded, the spell burns through, weakened yet still potent enough to cause the god of magic excruciating pain. Behind him he hears the Bunnies cry out as the spell scatters and touches them briefly. Dion falls to his knees as the remainder of the spell finally breaks his shield and moves through him with renewed strength.
You’re a fool, Dion, he thinks. You can’t stop an Archon.
Dion’s eyes focus on his surroundings again, his ears picking up the commotion from Nekh’s direction. Looking up, the god sees Alma again wrestling with Nekh. This time, magical spells clash as Alma burns mana trying to pierce the Archon’s shield.
As Dion begins to rise to assist, his vision catches the youngest Bunny, curled on the floor next to him, crying from fear and pain. In her hands, she cradles a shiny object, greater in size than both of her palms. Beside her lies Geryon’s satchel, its contents spilled on the floor, the more-fragile of the contents broken into fragments. Geryon’s flight across the room earlier must have caused the satchel to fall, and the youngest found the shiny object, which she now clutches.
The object, which consists of four short silvery tubes to fit over a user’s fingers, connected by a strip of brass, is well known to him. He held it in his hands in the Oracle’s grotto very recently…the Deus Percussorem…the God Striker. In a flood, the words of the Oracle come to him, along with the retelling of her prediction by his uncle: “In a Bunny’s hand, death comes to an Archon.”
Now, he understands.
Taking the weapon from the littlest Bunny, Dion can feel the power coursing through it, running wildly and unleashed as it merges and feeds on his power to release its full potential. Now rising, he sees the room as if all events have slowed, the God Striker’s power heightening his awareness greater than anything he has ever achieved. Behind him, the cries of the Bunnies. To the side, his friend lying in a heap, unmoving, possibly dead. Turning ever so slowly, he sees Nekh wrestling with Alma, finally besting her in the struggle, tossing her away. The weapon now merges fully with Dion, overlaying his senses, giving him full comprehension as to why it is so dangerous, so protected from use.
The weapon is alive and carries a single purpose: to kill gods.
As Alma falls against the tables to a snarling comment from the Archon about taking care of her next, Dion stands. The weapon infuses the god, his face a picture of anger, hatred, revenge. His friend is dead, the Bunnies to be next, and then Alma. A predatory snarl issues from his lips.
“Nekh!” Dion cries, as if uttering one of the words of power.
The Archon spins at hearing his name. His initial dismissal of Math’s nephew quickly changes as he sees the look of death in his face and his eyes go wide at the realization of the object in the god-of-magic’s hand.
Curling the God Striker around his knuckles, Dion brings his fist back, flexing his knees and cocking his hips, readying a strike as Nekh attempts in vain to utter a quick spell of protection. Executing a powerful punch directly at Nekh, Dion twists his hips and extends his arm fully as he unleashes his will. From halfway across the room, the energy from the strike flashes forth from the mage-empowered weapon…
…and the room goes white.
Slamming into the wall behind him, Nekh screams with pain as the casting of the God Striker’s power shatters the Archon’s shield and bears down on his soul. In his mind, Dion feels Nekh’s essence recoiling, burning under his assault. The weapon cries for joy in his mind, feasting on the attack, singing madly at the chaos and destruction, begging to savor the destruction of the ancient god. It is overwhelming, almost too much to resist.
No, Dion says to it. I am Guardia.
The weapon wails within him, challenging his authority, demanding to be allowed to complete its mission.
No, again Dion rules, and slowly pulls back his will, forcing the weapon to obey, finally hearing a whisper in his mind, Yes Creator, emanating from the Striker – although Dion is too involved in events to even consider the words.
As his vision clears, he sees the Archon, slumped against the wall, gravely wounded, his breathing shallow and irregular. He looks as though he is dying, his mana draining away like blood. Gaining his composure once again, Dion lowers the God Striker, watching as Alma rises from the floor and approaches Nekh’s crumpled form. She reaches out towards the Archon and Dion relaxes slightly, leaning on a workbench to regain his breath, confident that Alma will perform a healing on Nekh, before formally arresting him.
He is wrong.
The look on Alma’s face is one of betrayal, pain, hatred. As Dion watches, Alma reaches out to Nekh and places her hand around his throat. Her hand glows an icy-blue, her eyes turning pitch black, her silvery-white hair billowing around her, the whole of her form wrapped in shadows and deafening whispers as she robs him of his soul. Nekh screams as his essence is pulled from him, his soul writhing and burning as it courses through Alma’s arm.
“Alma! No!” Dion cries.
Alma turns to fix her empty eyes on him, her face beautiful and terrifying in its transformation, mesmerizing and horrible. She tilts her head.
“He used me. This monster, this false protector, used me and my children and then tried to destroy them. For that, he must die so that he may never again touch them.” Her tone is all the more frightening for its serenity, contrasting sharply with Nekh’s hollow screams. She turns her gaze back to the Archon as the energy ripples and cracks, travelling up the goddess’ arm and down again. “You called me dangerous, you vermin. Now feel how true your words are!”
With a final cry, Alma takes away whatever is left of Nekh’s essence. The soul hovers above the Archon’s corpse, writhing and unstable, too bright to be looked at directly and yet seemingly absorbing all light around it. Alma opens her arms and throws her head back, speaking words of command that have the shapeless mass of pure energy moving toward her, hesitantly at first, almost as if fighting her, and then pouring into the goddess, unresisting, making her chest glow with overwhelming power. Alma seems to levitate. Her feet leave the ground for a moment as lightning rushes through her slender figure, flashing with a reddish light that slowly turns silver and blue. The goddess goes rigid…
It is a scream of pain, of pleasure, of sheer physical inability to sustain such a charge. The energy gathers in Alma’s chest and exits in one huge burst of light that destroys all shadows and blinds Dion. Slowly, he regains his vision.
All is silent now.
Exhausted from the effort, Alma lands and falls to her knees, by the corpse, while the hazy remnants of Nekh’s godpower hover in a quickly fading mist just above his body. “Never again, Nekh,” the goddess whispers. “Your days of poison are over.”
Shocked beyond all reaction, Dion feels his legs fail him, his body slowly slide down to floor and end up sitting on the floor, his back against the workbench he had been leaning on. His mind races as sounds and images of the past few days flash through his head.
The door bursts open to let Sky through, followed closely by the Commander. They freeze in their tracks, watching in absolute shock as the last of Nekh’s former power winks out of existence. Raising her head, Alma looks at them, her eyes blue again, normal again.
“It’s over,” she says in a voice little more than a whisper. “My children are safe now.”
Another huge, tooth-loosening boom hits the door, assaulting the ears of the defenders, making the door bow inward, a small gap opening between it and the frame this time. The seal which Sky painted in his own blood has not, however, broken, and the door holds firm.
“That won’t last much lon-gerrrr,” Somrak sings.
“I knowwww,” Sky replies with a falling singsong tone. He readies the Commander’s little crossbow. Somrak has the other. The Commander has pulled out something else from whatever pocket universe he carries, quite literally, in his pocket. For all the world, it looks to Sky like a weapon he had reason to carry himself for a time, in one of those bush rebellions he fought before his return to the Urbis: a single-shot 40mm grenade launcher. Good old reliable Thumper, he thinks. But no – it is clearly hand-crafted, like any magical weapon must be, and lacks the tall, ladder-style leaf sight for firing long-range arcing shots. He wonders what it does. Certainly not launch grenades. In a confined space like this, that would be suicidal.
“I make a dozen out there, from the sound,” the Commander says flatly.
A dozen Sikari, the Council’s elite killers of both the mortal and immortal. To the general public, even to most gods, their existence is mere rumor, a threat hanging over those who would defy the Council. And even those more in-the-know rarely have any idea of their real nature. The rumors are wild: gods chosen for their particularly deadly powers, drafted into service and conditioned to kill; mortals infused with the souls of murdered gods; specially bred creatures raised on demon flesh.
“Didn’t you see them in action once, Sky?” Somrak asks.
He nods grimly. “But they obscure themselves. Mists precede them. Shadows surround them. I never saw any of them clearly.” He looks at the Commander. “Surely you have seen them, sir.”
The Commander nods. “I’m sworn not to reveal their nature. But they are abominations.” He pauses. “Their eyes glow dimly. Aim right between them.”
Another enormous blow hits the door, buckling it further. The seal flashes red, then all magical vibrancy goes out of it. A grey mist begins to flow in through the gaps between door and frame.
Somrak says, apropos of nothing, “I thought Sergeant Alma was going to tear my head off when I wouldn’t let her heal me.”
“She is a very…determined goddess,” Sky says.
“Nearly ruptured myself laughing when I saw that slender little thing filch your sword and go after that giantess.” Somrak smiles at the memory.
Sky smiles. “She is brave.”
The Commander’s gravelly voice tears through Sky’s moment of admiration. “I guess it’s true then.”
Sky cocks his head. “What is, sir?”
“And here I thought you were some kind of monk.” The Commander chuckles to himself. “I suppose it’s no business of mine who you fall for, but she is a subordinate officer. Still, I’m glad to know that you can fall for someone, even if it does complicate things.”
Sky listens to this in growing astonishment as the room fills with mist. His face feels hot. Gripping his crossbow so tightly the stock creaks from the pressure, he bursts out, “Whoever you have reporting to you has gotten things badly wrong! Who is it? Machado? Stathos?”
“Never you mind how I get my infor–”
“And you’re right – it is none of your poxy business! But just so you have all your files updated properly, Sergeant Alma is my friend. At least I assume that’s who you’re talking about, since you haven’t mentioned her by name. If your little spy thinks I’m in love with Constable Lamore then you should demand your money back!”
Somrak laughs. “As amusing as this is, I think it’s time to–”
He is cut off as the door slams open, half-falling as it hangs only on the bottom hinge. Tiny points of dim light glow in the thicker mist beyond, but not clearly enough to offer a certain target. Then a much larger, misshapen shadow looms in the doorway and squeezes through.
Sky gasps. As it enters the room he can see the shape more clearly. It is the giant goddess, hand-crossbow bolts still embedded in her flesh, the wound in her throat gaping, and many more wounds besides. Her left arm is missing. Her skin is deadly pale, drained of blood. From her open mouth, and from her opened throat, a low moan issues.
They have a necromancer on their team, powerful enough to animate the corpse of a god? Sky feels a disgusted awe. Necromancy had supposedly been nearly wiped out two centuries ago.
The Commander, his voice unimpressed, says, “Somrak.” The slender god raises his left hand and the walking corpse is enveloped in flames. The fire burns hot, and drives away some of the mist. The body begins to twitch and stagger randomly as the muscles and tendons contract from the heat. It hits the wall and stops there, convulsing. But its brightness, reflecting off the mist, and the smoke it generates together serve to obscure the Guardias’ vision even further, and the eyes of the Sikari are impossible to make out.
Movement. They are gathering themselves for the charge. Sky readies to fire. The doorway will channel them, keep them from coming in more than two at a time. The Guardia trio may barely have a chance, if the Sikari don’t have reinforcements coming.
Just do your job, he thinks, the voice in his head sounding like the Commander. Just do your job and don’t worry about what comes after.
Then he hears the whistle. Piercing and utterly familiar, the distinctively harsh musical tone of the Guardia, it fills Sky with a hope he had been refusing to feel.
Somrak laughs. “Those two highborn fools came through!”
“But will the Sikari fight?” the Commander growls.
A voice outside shouts, “Stand down! Our Commander is in that room!”
There is a moaning grumble from the Sikari that lasts over a minute. Finally, an empty voice that has never known hope nor love states, “We have completed our mission. The assassins are dead. We shall withdraw.”
A shambling, dragging sound as the Sikari reluctantly pull back. The mist dissipates. The burning corpse of the giantess suddenly goes out as Somrak makes a cutting gesture at it.
The doorway fills with a figure in full armor of articulated ceramic and metal plates, enameled in Guardia Dei indigo, heavily enchanted for only the most elite special-operations units. “Commander?”
“Good work, Captain Morkov.” The Commander rises to his feet and shoulders his fat-barrelled weapon.
“Belli interruptus,” Somrak says. “I feel strangely empty. And disappointed.”
“I do not,” mutters Sky. He steps through the door and sees a squad of eight elites in full armor, supported by another dozen Guardia Dei kitted out for a riot in heavy reinforced jackets and helmets, at least those who have any need of such armor. He spots skin made of stone, or of thick saurian plates. These are some of the toughest Guardia in the City, ready not for patrolling or for taking in unruly drunken gods, but for taking down deities destructive and murderous, very swiftly and very hard.
Movement catches his eye. He looks down at a pool of blood on the broken marble tiles. In the blood swim serpentine shapes, one, two…three. One pale and ethereal, a ghostly green-blue; one reddish gold and regal; one black with a hint of red, spined and vicious in demeanor – the three nagas that guard the Oracle, the ones hatched from Lyria’s eggs and bound to Alma, Dion, and Sky, somehow here, and tiny as garter snakes, swimming in choreographed pattern.
Sky watches, fascinated, and suddenly understanding. He has learned many codes for conveying secret messages over his decades of fighting and spying, and his mind retains them all. This is one used only once, a semaphore using long, fluttering flags. As he sees it, the nagas spiral together, forming a knot that falls in on itself, until they are gone, as if they had never been there.
Sky turns to the Commander, who has just finished shaking the hands of the two Dei he’d sent to fetch help. “I know where they are. The Bunnies, and Alma and Dion. And they are in danger!”