Chapter 2 "Snakes" 2

Something presses against her eyelids, dragging her slowly and irresistibly back to vigilance. Somewhere along the path between being asleep and waking up, Alma realizes what it is. Light. Bright, intrusive light, a morning sun’s worth of it, presses against her eyelids, knocking insistently and penetrating all the way through to her eyes and mind. After a moment’s uncertainty as to where she is and how she got there, Alma opens her eyes just a fraction and scans the part of the room she can see without needing to move her head.

There’s the bookshelf, and the cage to the left of it and the stone-lady fountain holding the shining orb. Ah yes... Alma remembers setting it to mimic day/night cycles so this must mean the sun is up outside. There is something she’s forgetting, she knows, but for now all of her thoughts merely include getting up, getting dressed and getting herself to work.

Rolling in bed to go from a belly-down position to one in which she can actually see the ceiling gives her the first hint of trouble coming her way, as her brain seems to roll in her skull as well. Trying to sit up produces even worse results. A stabbing pain to her left temple hits without mercy, forcing the goddess to immediately lay down again, clutching her head in absolute suffering. Alma holds her breath, every single one of her thoughts consumed by the pain. Lying very still, she curses the bright light once, twice and thrice before she finally remembers she has the power to control it. A whispered command word causes the light of the orb to dim and quickly settles that issue. The pain subsides slightly but still remains, allowing Alma only a sliver of control over her thoughts.

Mana headache, she manages to think. The familiar piercing, excruciating pain that starts around the temples and radiates to whatever part of the brain lies just behind the eyes, left behind after one has used too much mana all at once. And the only known remedy for it is to wait for it to go away.

Ah, well... no use in crying over something she knew would happen after tapping into her own reserves of power to change the room into something more pleasant to inhabit. Slowly, carefully, Alma tries to sit up again, wincing as each wave of crippling pain travels through her head. She opens her eyes to see Mayumi and Sage leading their three younger siblings out the door.

“Mayumi, where are you taking the little ones?” she asks in a weak, slightly harsh voice.

Mayumi whispers something inaudible to Sage, to which he responds with a slow nod. As he leaves the room with his younger siblings, Mayumi walks closer to Alma’s bed, her face a mask of sincere concern.

“You look very pale. Are you feeling well?” the Bunny asks.

“Yes – I mean, no. But that will soon be fixed. Where are all the others, dear?”

“They are already upstairs,” Mayumi replies. “We woke up before the light went bright but the darkness is no problem to our eyes. We have washed already and helped the young ones get dressed. Cherry and Rosemary went upstairs and found a basket of food there for us. They must be serving breakfast to the others right now.”

“I see...”

“We can take care of ourselves, for now. There is no need for you to worry. You look so very pale...” Mayumi sits on the edge of the bed and lays her hand on Alma’s arm.

“Do not worry about me, dear,” Alma reassures her, taking her hand. “I am paying the price of my own foolishness. I will soon feel better, I assure you.”

“Very well. Shikata ga nai,” Mayumi whispers, rising and turning to leave. “I will be upstairs, should you need me,” she informs.

“Thank you, Mayumi. I will be with you shortly.”

Alma watches as Mayumi leaves the room, waiting patiently for the door to close behind the Bunny.

“This should make for an interesting day...” the goddess mutters, rubbing her eyes and pulling the covers away from her slender body.

She slides her legs slowly out of the bed, allowing her head some time to adapt to every positional change while she sits on the edge of the bed and then stands up.

“Moderation, Alma,” the goddess whispers in a harsh tone. “Casting two of your strongest spells, draining yourself like that on your very first day in this rat trap... When did you become so reckless?” she admonishes herself as she walks over to the edge of the pool and removes her nightgown.

The goddess enters the pool without even bothering to check the water temperature. She knows it will be pleasantly lukewarm, just as she wishes it to be. Alma moves deeper and deeper into the pool, the water slowly enveloping her delicate torso and her elegant limbs, kissing and holding her soft, flawless skin in a soothing embrace as her nimble body sinks deeper into the water. Holding her breath, Alma allows herself to submerge completely, her long white hair dancing around her. As the cleansing touch of her bath water fills her whole world, muffling sounds and filtering light until only a quiet, shadowy refuge remains, she releases her mind and the pain therein into the depths of the pool, all the while wondering just how difficult it would be to grow gills and take on a life in the flowing element. Lack of breath eventually reminds her of how such a life is beyond her grasp and forces her to re-surface.

Alma emerges to a vision of a bird, just slightly shorter than Alma’s forearm, perching on the cupped hands of the fountain statue, partially blocking the view of the glowing orb that the statue holds, idly grooming its deep-blue wing feathers, its long, glittery tail falling gently around its body.

“Good morning, Starfax,” Alma greets.

At the sound of Alma’s voice, the bird stops grooming and focuses her gaze on the goddess. Two eyes the color of dawn lock on Alma’s pale face, piercing through her clear blue eyes and burrowing into her aching mind. Slowly stretching her graceful body, Starfax raises a slender head, crowned with long blue plumes. Opening her wings, the bird takes in the light of the orb hovering just behind her. The deep blue feathers start to sparkle and glow, spreading a soft bluish light throughout the room. The orb’s light reflects on Starfax’s clear, diamond-edged beak, making it glow and cast glittering specks of light around Alma.

Alma basks in the light, closing her eyes and welcoming it as it soothes and replenishes her. No more than a few seconds later, the light disappears, and Alma opens her eyes to find that Starfax is no longer perching on the statue. Whispering a “Thank you,” the goddess moves back to the edge of the pool, climbing the steps created by its tiered bottom until she is again standing out of the water. Her headache having subsided a great deal after Starfax’s intervention, now becoming little more than a constant but gentle pressure at the back of her mind, Alma moves to her left, where the wardrobe stands. As her bare feet gracefully carry her, a gentle, warm breeze begins to blow around the goddess’ naked body, drying her skin and hair before she even reaches the wooden closet. Looking inside, she quickly locates and puts on her patrolling attire. A Guardia Dei-blue translucent blouse, tailored to accentuate her slender torso and gentle curves, hangs from her left shoulder and stretches into two sashes over her shoulder, held together by her badge, creating the illusion of a sleeve, that falls and partially follows her arm, decorated by the armband that holds her sergeant’s stripes. A similar armband hugs her right, bare arm. Over the shirt, a corset of leather armor, embroidered with the image of a resting phoenix in silver thread, covers and protects her chest and abdomen. Dei-blue flowing trousers, designed for lightness and mobility, match the blouse and work with the high-heel boots to complete the overall look.

Alma walks over to the mirror, checking her image for any signs of less-than-perfect composure and sits to brush her hair. As she looks at her own reflection in the mirror, she begins to go over the past day’s events.

There is no doubt that this station is a poor excuse for a true Guardia outpost. The building isn’t much to see but, more importantly, it lacks the proper infrastructure of a station. A quick inspection has revealed holding cells that have probably not even been built to hold a prisoner. One of them is even missing the door and the other two have clearly been used by some of the constables as makeshift dorm rooms.

The constables and corporals themselves remain to be evaluated. And those two characters standing away from the others, looking at the gods as if they were just three more flies hovering in the middle of the room, need further inspection as well.

At least, those two women, Aliyah and Cala, look nice enough. They have certainly helped with clothes and food for the Bunnies.

The Bunnies... They are so much more than she expected. All this time, she has carried them around with her, sensing the life rushing through their developing bodies, catching some of their thoughts in her own mind. Their names... she’s known those four names for a while now. But all this time, she kept herself from peeking into the stasis bubbles, afraid of not being able to refrain from opening them and releasing her little ones into the world. How could she have known just how perfect they are? Even the younger ones, still so confused and struggling with the simplest of concepts, are amazing little creatures. And they deserve to be here, alive and free. Too much has been put at stake so that she can have them here with her.

Too bad this is a terrible place to raise them into adulthood. Ah, well... it could be worse.

Something at the edge of her sight captures her attention. Movement inside the cage and a small speck of blue, rushing out of sight between the green leaves of ivy filling most of the cage’s empty space. Here and there, flowers break through the green, releasing their sweet scent into the room. Sweet...

Sickly sweet... Gwydion. Such a strange character, that one. Obviously missing one or two lessons on the proper way to treat a lady but still... strangely charming, in a sense. Alma stops brushing her hair and looks at herself in the mirror. Many would fall for his looks, his status, his lines and that unsettling scent of his, but not her. She’s seen better, known better. His words are empty, she knows, just frail traps for frail minds. And yet... still waters. Deep waters. There is something more to that god, something buried deep beneath those hazel eyes. She shakes his image out off her mind. That will take time to figure out and she has other, more pressing matters to attend.

Like reporting for duty and patrol assignment with Inspector Tuma-sukai. Alma sighs. The inspector looks like a terrible accident waiting to happen when it comes to commanding a station. What kind of leader turns to his sergeants and says “I’ve never done this before”? If he had given them the keys to his office and taught them to forge his signature, he wouldn’t have made a worse mistake. And he mentioned a report on the Bunnies. Alma wonders who will get to read it and what it is for. She’s done a great deal to make sure they’re protected by higher forces but... are those failing? Is Nekh losing his influence and does this fool really hold the fate of her creations in his hands? Sure, they are accidental creations, but not any less loved for it.

She breathes deep and puts the brush down on the table and hides her face in her cupped hands, her aching head claiming her attention again. Too much, this is all too much for a single day.

Reaching forward, she places a hand on the mirror’s smooth surface.

“You told me I would find myself a home,” she says to the silvery surface reflecting her image. “And I am tired of searching...”

“Stop searching, little soul,” a soft, feminine voice fills the room in response. The image in the mirror becomes blurry as a pair of delicate, sun-kissed hands reaches out to stroke Alma’s hair, pulling it behind her left ear and gently holding her chin up. “Stop moving around. Give it time to find you.”

After a moment, the hands disappear back into the mirror, which resumes its previous appearance. Exhaling slowly, Alma turns away from it and rises from her seat, taking the time to apply a drop of a mild floral scent behind each ear first. Holding her head high, the goddess walks towards the door, releasing her hair so it covers her intricate earring.

“I’ll stay,” she whispers to herself as she opens the door and steps outside. “I’m out of places to go, anyway...”

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