Ch4.21 Fatal Prophecy

The short trip back to her room is an anguished one. Moving quickly, her head still reeling from hearing of the rejection of Sky’s report, her heart set on seeking Nekh in search of answers, Alma crosses rooms and hallways without seeing them, the spaces now so familiar that her feet have no trouble negotiating their way through the bar and down the stairs, across the threshold, around the wisteria privacy screen…

“Oh, hello!” Sage greets her as the goddess enters her sanctum.

Standing on a chair propped against one of Alma’s bookshelves, one of his ears turned straight at the door, the Bunny leans closer to the leather-, cloth- and even wood-bound volumes, seemingly inspecting the titles engraved or carefully painted on them.

Alma breathes deep at the unexpected sight and takes a moment to conjure up a smile before asking, “Hello, little one. Are you looking for anything specific or just browsing?”

“In my dreams, I would spend many of my days cooking,” Sage explains, turning to look at the goddess, a short flash of worry over her paleness coming over his eyes. “But for some reason, I’m having trouble remembering the recipes.” Her turns to the books again. “I thought I had seen a cookbook here, but I just can’t find it. I thought, with what’s going on, cooking might help.”

Silently, Alma moves to the opposite bookshelf and quickly finds the old tome Sage is looking for. Crossing the room to stand by the Bunny, she hands him the book.

“Here you go, dear,” she says in a soft voice. “You can keep it, if you like.”

Sage remains silent for a moment, holding the book to his chest and looking at the goddess. Although he smiles, his eyes betray his concern. Try as she might, Alma’s spinning and rushing mind has her spreading her angst around her like an invisible wave washing off her body. Her demeanor speaks of serenity and comfort but the air around her might as well be packing thunder and lightning.

“Will everything be all right?” Sage nearly whispers.

Alma smiles at this, albeit solely with her lips. “Yes, little one.”

The Bunny nods slowly and jumps off his perch on the chair. “I hope so,” he murmurs. “Thank you. For the book,” he adds.

“You are most welcome,” the goddess replies. “I hope I can taste some of those wonderful dishes soon.”

“You surely will,” Sage answers with a smile.

He walks to the door but stops to look at Alma once more. “We can always talk, yes?” he queries, tentatively.

“Always,” the goddess says. “But not right now.”

The Bunny once again turns away and exits the room, leaving Alma with her raging thoughts. The former fear instilled by the Commander’s note to Sky that the report might not be more than a dog and pony show is now a very solid, very frightening reality. That the Bunnies were at risk was not new to Alma. Ever since they were born, her creations have been at risk.

New species created without permission are deemed aberrations, no matter who their creator.  But new species created by a member of the Death Clan have been especially so since the case of the Anubi, stupid and frail creatures, barely able to take commands or even care for their own lives enough to sustain themselves. The Bunnies were considered no different at the time of Cherry and Merri’s creation and right there and then very much considered monsters unworthy of being kept alive. And with the ghost of that prophecy...

Nekh changed that. Forever enthralled by Lyria’s charms, the vulture-headed god took Alma under his feathered arm in the hopes of future attentions from his platonic love, and interceded with the Council in her favor, claiming the Archons know what, to buy the Bunnies a chance at life. That they had to be kept in stasis bubbles was sold to Alma as a way of ensuring that development and growth occurred without external interference so that the Bunnies could prove themselves capable of intelligent, independent life in the future. The stasis bubbles were little more than eggs, after all, sustaining the young Bunnies as body and mind developed. Alma didn’t care. She would have taken pretty much any option available to keep her children safe.

Thoughts flying in all directions, Alma sits at the end of her bed, caught somewhere between breathtaking fear, mind-numbing hysteria and soul-crushing defeat.  This turning of tables has just changed everything. Now confronted with the very serious possibility of seeing the Bunnies taken from her, the young goddess wrestles each panicked thought, trying to decide her next steps.

“Nekh…” she finally whispers to herself in a prayer to no one. “Whatever he did last time, please let him do now. Let me still have that one card to play.”

Feeling all strength drain from her body as anguish is replaced with resignation to the need to act, Alma slowly rises to her feet and steps slowly across the room, toward the mirror sitting on the opposing wall.

And then she notices the music...


At first, the music is barely audible, just a small crystalline ping punctuating each step she takes. Then the sound diffuses and grows, echoing off the walls with a watery flare. Around Alma, the light from the orb dims and wavers, now stronger, now very faint, flowing in waves that bathe the room in a liquid, hypnotic twilight with a heartbeat of its own, as soft and rhythmic as water dripping into an underground pool.

It is a strange song, the one that water sings as it seeps, drips, falls, hits, flows and fills the world, washes over the world, with its cool, soothing presence. Standing in the middle of her room, Alma takes in the slow, limpid, echoing dripping that somehow seems to overpower the ever-present murmur of the running water of her pool. Although a watery peace spreads through her mind, she can feel the alien nature of this sudden tranquility. Spreading her senses around her, the goddess scans the room for the origin of the distortion.

A shadow in the pool catches her attention, little more than a sudden blur of greenish-blue just below the surface. As she moves closer, the pool becomes darker, seemingly bottomless as if, somewhere below, the floor has dropped away. And again that blurring flash of blue and green catches the corner of Alma’s eye.

Her senses capturing now more than just image and sound, fully extended to find the faintest thread of life and soul, the goddess kneels by the pool and waits. This time, the colorful blur seems to move slower, taking on a slender, longer shape. Vague suggestions of something iridescent remind her of fish scales catching sunlight before the colorful thing vanishes again. Her hands placed on the very edge of the pool for support, Alma leans closer still, awaiting for its next apparition.

Around her, the gentle dripping of water on stone fills the air as the seconds stretch into short eternities.

Ping… Ping… Ping...

The creature leaps...

...and drags Alma in.


Ch4.20 Fatal Prophecy

In bed, staring at the ceiling. Or Sky would be staring at the ceiling if there were any light at all in his little pocket-universe home, but he has extinguished everything. Except for the feel of the bed under him and the soft sound of slowly circulating water from the bath, he is nearly in a state of sensory deprivation.

Sometimes it works, when sleep will not come. But sometimes his brain simply will not stop working, spinning, chewing at problems uselessly. Everything that can be prepared for has been prepared for. Contingencies have been planned. Backups are in place. Now he tells himself to discard the things that he can do nothing about. Tells himself that again and again and again, for hours, as his brain spins like a starving rat running itself to death on a rusty wheel.

There is a knock. He sits up immediately. It was not audible, but something inside his head. There is a spell on the door to his office, and another on the door to his false apartment in Three Rats; they let him know, anywhere on the Insula, if someone is knocking on one of those doors, calling for him, trying the handle.

Silently thanking whoever the knocker is, he whispers “low light” and, as the room brightens a little, he grabs his trousers from the back of a chair.

Moments later he is stepping through the personal portal from his pocket apartment and into his office at Three Rats Station, still buttoning his shirt. Sunlight streams through his small window; he leads the graveyard shift at the moment, so he sleeps during the day. Supposedly. He runs his fingers through his shaggy black hair and unlocks the office door, opening it.

He finds a sudden startled reaction from two figures. Corporal Kaur takes a step away from Sage, her hand, which had been on his shoulder, suddenly flashing behind her, as if she is trying to hide the fact she has a right hand at all. Her attempt to adopt an innocent expression causes Sky to snort in laughter before he can stop himself, but he tries to turn it into a cough that is no more believable than Aliyah’s face. Sage meanwhile hops back slightly, not out of guilt at whatever innocent flirting or caressing or perhaps even kissing they had been engaged in – Aliyah and Sage’s mutual affection was the best-known secret in the station – but out of reaction to Aliyah’s flash of fear at being caught.

But Sage recovers immediately. “Inspector,” he says solemnly. “I thought perhaps you weren’t in.”

“Sorry about the delay,” Sky says. “Corporal, did you want to see me as well?”

“Uh, no sir!” Aliyah stands to attention, for no legitimate reason.

“Then...wait, this isn’t your shift, is it?” Sky asks.

“I’m in for Wally, sir! He fell down some stairs.”

Sky winces. “Anything broken this time?”

“Cracked skull, sir!” Aliyah replies. “Should be right as rain in a couple days.”

“Very well. As you were.” As Sky pointedly says that, Aliyah relaxes and slips away gratefully. Sky returns his attention to Sage, who, now that the moment of startlement is over, looks worried, his normally erect black ears low with worry, echoing the look on his dark face.

“Come in, Sage. What is it?” Sky closes the door behind him as the Bunny enters his office.

Sage hands him a wax-sealed envelope, the seal bearing the imprint of the Council. “It just arrived.”

Sky takes it, holding it, as if weighing it. So small and light, to carry such heavy news. If the Council has decided one way, Alma and her Bunnies are free, their lives their own to determine, at least as much as anyone’s lives are. The other way, and the Bunnies will be under a sentence of death, and Alma will be devastated.

Sky looks at Sage’s face to find the Bunny looking up at him, worry marring his handsome, almost pretty features. He knows, of course. Mayumi and Alma will have told him by now. Sage especially needs to know; after Mayumi he is the closest thing the Bunnies have to a leader among themselves.

Wishing he had a reason to send Sage away but finding none, Sky breaks the seal on the envelope, feeling the trigger of magic imbued within it, an instant alert to the sender that the seal has been broken by the intended recipient. Sky pulls out the papers within, trying to ignore the feeling of dread that has grown over the past six weeks, since he was first given this assignment, and that has finally reached its apex in this very moment.

He unfolds the paper and reads. He feels the blood drain from his face. He feels as if his heart has been replaced by a block of ice.

He hears a sound. It is the thick parchment of the official missive, his orders, crumpling in his fist.

He looks at Sage, who has been watching all this in growing misery. This beautiful creature, this gentle young man, radiating simple, straightforward love for everyone he meets. A quiet voice, rarely heard except when making just the right point, wisdom cutting through all confusion, softly healing those around him.

And I have been ordered to murder him. And all the others.

He closes his eyes in pain.

Pale Rosemary, always ready to laugh. Coy, seductive Cherry, keeping her full name a secret. Sullen Kori, turning up asleep in the most surprising places. Young Chime, his dirty-blond hair falling over one eye, finding music in everything. The little unnamed one, still asleep in her atavistic animal stage, always watching, listening, as if trying to understand what everyone else is going on about. Just a child.

And Mayumi. Whom he thinks about far too much, and yet he still doesn’t know what to think about her.

He feels arms around his waist, a body pressed against him. He opens his eyes and reflexively embraces Sage back. And who else would you expect to hug his officially designated executioner?

His cheek pressed against Sky’s lower chest, Sage whispers, “I know you’ll do everything you can.”

Sky nods, unable to speak for a moment. Then he releases the Bunny and says, “Bring Alma and Gwydion. And...get the others ready.”

Sage nods. He looks like he’s about to say something, but then turns and goes.


Gwydion enters first, and seeing Sky’s face, murmurs a quiet greeting and takes a seat to wait for Alma. Sky mechanically makes tea for him, and Dion is already drinking his by the time Alma arrives. Her face is composed but her eyes have the glassy look of one spending too much energy trying to outrun her own emotions.

After activating the privacy spell, Sky asks her, “Are they ready to go?”

"I expect so, yes," Alma replies.

“Go where?” Dion asks.

Sky says heavily, “We have a contingency plan in place. In case the Council...decided what it did indeed decide. Alma will slip away, taking the Bunnies to one of the many worlds connected to the Urbis Caelestis.” He goes to his locker and puts on his jacket, and takes his field cap off its hook on the wall.

“And you didn’t see fit to tell me?” Dion comments, his face rigidly passionless.

“I specifically decided not to tell you,” Sky replies as he puts his cap on. “You can claim truthfully that you have no idea where they are. And that you had nothing to do with planning or aiding the escape. This will allow you to stay free, even work to reverse the ruling and allow them to return.”

Alma murmurs, “You know that will never happen, Sky.”

Dion’s eyebrows furrow a fraction as he inquires, “Then what are you going to be doing, Inspector?”

“I will be...making sure Alma has enough time to get away.” He takes a shortsword out of his locker and straps it on.

Dion looks at him in consternation. “Are you...are you talking about taking up arms against the Guardia?”

“They probably won’t send Guardia,” Sky replies. “The Council has its own agents. The Sikari.”

“You will do no such thing, Tuma-Sukai!” Alma stands to face him, her tone allowing no room for argument. “The Sikari are killers. Gods and demigods and combat wizards, trained to hunt down and eliminate the enemies of the Council.”

“Sergeant Alma is quite correct, Inspector.  If the Council employs the Sikari, you will purchase little time,” says Dion.

“I am aware of their capability,” says Sky. “I was on an undercover mission once, infiltrating a diabolist cult. After I sent a message confirming that they were indeed summoning demons, I thought the Guardia would be sent in to make arrests. Instead, the Council sent a team of Sikari. They killed every member of that cult. As an example.”

“I am sure there are other ways,” Alma insists.

“Every minute we delay–” Sky begins, but Dion interrupts. “Please! You two are talking about being declared enemies of the Council. If you would allow me–”

“I’ve been ordered to kill innocent people,” Sky says bitterly. “I won’t do it!”

“Sky–” Alma starts.

“I won’t!” Sky cuts her off, black lines flowing up from under his skin to writhe across his face, tattoos of war and strife. “And I won’t allow anyone else to do it.”

“Please, stop that,” Alma requests.

“If I’m now the Council’s enemy, then that’s a choice they made,” Sky growls, too angry to listen to the goddess, seeming to grow taller as he speaks. “Sergeant Gwydion, I leave you in command of Three Rats Station–”

“I can't accept that. You are committing suicide.” Gwydion states.

Sky orders him, “You will uphold the values and hierarchy of the Guardia–”

“Enough!” Alma shouts, reducing both gods to silence. She asks Gwydion, “What were you trying to say?”

“Let me go to my uncle,” Dion says, his tone even. “He responded to my message with an indication that he has a plan. Before we consider more drastic actions, I would ask that you allow me to get further direction from him. I was looking to avoid a personal trip, but the situation now requires it.” Turning to Sky directly, Dion adds, “Now what do the orders say, exactly?”

Sky breathes deeply. The tattoos begin to fade from his skin. “They order me to bring the Bunnies to the Council’s dungeons, and then to, to carry out any further orders the Council has for me. The Commander has already informed me that this will mean executing them.”

“Then we have to delay,” Dion says. “Please respond with a statement telling them that the Bunnies all have colds – no...high fevers. Something mysterious that we fear could be a plague.  It’s just not safe to move them.”

Sky smirks. “Do you really think that will work?”

“If our choices are between that and feeding you to the proverbial pirañas so we can cross the river, then I think we have to try. It may work if the Commander still stands with us,” Alma says. She lays a hand on Sky's chest. “He will help sell this fiction. Sky, please. Let Gwydion try this.”

Sky nods reluctantly, then raises his right hand and places it on hers. Then he puts his left hand on Gwydion’s shoulder. “Thank you. Hurry back.”

Dion nods. “I will, Inspector.”

Sky doesn’t release the Sergeant’s shoulder for a moment. “This is not Guardia business, Gwydion. I cannot order you to do things that risk making you a declared enemy of the Council. In this, I’m not your commanding officer.”

Gwydion smiles slightly. “Understood...Tuma-Sukai.”


Ch4.19 Fatal Prophecy

With measured precision, his wings extend out, now providing resistance rather than lift and slowing his body to where the front paws, large and lion-shaped first touch, swiftly followed by the rear. The gallop, powerful yet graceful, is then reduced to a walk as he approaches the Annex door. A young female passerby plasters herself against the building in shock as she witnesses the great, flying beast perform the landing with immense grace.

“Sorry to frighten you, m’lady,” Geryon says politely, bowing his beaked head.  

The young woman’s eyes, wide with fear, stare intensely at the gryphon. Suddenly, she screams and runs in the opposite direction of Geryon’s arrival. Sighing, the morphed wizard’s leonine body slumps as he walks dejectedly towards the Annex’s doorway.  

Crossing the bar, Geryon keeps his eagle-visioned eyes alert for the two bartender Bunnies. Although their first meeting was more that he could have hoped for, his current form combined with their association with the Death Clan is sufficient for him to wish to avoid a second.  

Arriving at the kitchen, Geryon speaks the name of the one Dion lost and enters the pocket universe. Seeing no sign of the owner, Geryon strides over towards the desk, his steps muffled by his footpads. Looking atop it, he sees the folder Dion carried into the room before their departure. The folder has been moved and his sharp vision sees that notes have been written within.

“So, what’s all the secrecy, my friend?” Geryon says to himself as he carefully paws open the folder, reads the contents...and feels his heart sink.

Moments after Geryon closes the folder, Dion enters into the room. With their years together, Dion reads quickly the expression on the eagle-shaped face.

“You read the report,” Dion says flatly.

Geryon, eyes dazed with shock, turns to Dion. “Cherry. Merri. They can’t…” is all he can say.

“Inspector Sky is attempting to achieve just that. His arguments are quite persuasive. I’ve provided him some input to tune the report and he submitted it. Hopefully, that will sway the Council, along with a helpful response from my uncle.” Dion points to Geryon's satchel.

Geryon leans towards Dion, offering the envelope within, on which Dion can sense an enchanted seal. Taking the envelope, Dion runs one finger across the seal and feels the enchantment release. Removing the note, he begins to review it.

“I hope it is of use, my friend,” Geryon says as Dion is scanning the note. “I was unable to get to your uncle. I was intercepted by a functionary and put on hold until he returned with that note.”

Dion’s lips turn slightly downward as he finishes the note. “Sadly,” the god starts, “it is not as insightful as desired. My uncle wishes me well and then advises me to have patience as the Council’s will has yet to be finalized. Although he alludes to a plan, no mention of interceding on behalf of the Bunnies was mentioned.”

Setting the note on the desk, Dion adds, “I can only hope then that the Inspector’s arguments are sufficient...but for now, we wait.”


Ch4.18 Fatal Prophecy

“Hey! Speak of the devil-fish!” Aliyah laughs at her witticism as she and Cala stride into the bar behind their station. Cherry and Rosemary, still disagreeing about the name, are variously calling it the Celestial Bunny, the Urban Bunny, the Drunken Guardia, and many other names. Those customers, so far almost exclusively those working in the station next door, but little by little including nearby residents and those who pass through the area as the word spreads that it’s the safest bar in the ward, with the prettiest bartenders, tend to call it just “the Bunny Bar,” though when Cherry and Merri grow heated in their usually good-natured argument over the name, some of their patrons join in with ideas of their own, many of them bawdy jokes, such as Casa das Coelhinhas. And thus the pool of names grows and the argument shows no sign of ending.

Cala, entering just behind Aliyah, says drily, “Hello, Cal… We were just talking about you.”

The bar’s newest customer swivels on his barstool, a half-dozen of his shorter tentacles clinging firmly to the stool and one longer one slapping onto the bar to keep from tipping over. The other long tentacle is around Rosemary’s waist, the redheaded bunny laughing at something he’d just said, her freckled face pink.

Cal says, “Ugh… and Ah was havin’ a lovely day too, ‘till youse two showed up…”

Aliyah leans against the bar with a grin. “Aww, Cal...you know you love us!”

Cala crosses her arms and looks disapprovingly at the tentacle he has around Merri. “So what brings you here?”

Cal grunts and removes the tentacle after giving the Bunny a little squeeze, whispering to her, “Sorry, sweetcheeks but this one ain’t gone no sense of humor like you and me do.” He produces a soggy note from somewhere in the recesses of his mantle and extends it to Cala. “Ah came fer this note I got sent. What’s this ‘bout a bill, coppers? Ah give youse access, cooperate with youse and ye’re makin’ me pay?”

Cala takes the bill and checks it, then glares at him. “This all seems perfectly reasonable. We could have just arrested you, you know. In fact, we still could.”

Aliyah quietly orders a beer from Merri before she loudly adds, “Yeah, and Nate an’ Syro don’t exactly work for free, y’know! They’re experts!”

Cala leans closer to the cephalopod’s huge eyes. “And that doesn’t even take into account all the harm you’ve done! People are still recovering!”

Cal throws a few of his tentacles up in the air and flashes red. “Ah was gettin’ them closer to tha Great Cuttlefish!! Ain’t mah fault youse human people ain’t cut out tah receive divine messages!”

“Excuses!” Cala explodes. “Always excuses with you! All right, that’s it! I’m going to speak with the Sergeant… You know, Cal, we’ve kept this quiet until now, but–”

“Wait a second!” Aliyah interrupts, beer halfway to her mouth, one hand held up in a “stop!” gesture, obviously struck by a sudden thought. For a long moment she just stares at the wall of the bar, at the cheap posters of local singers and amateur sports teams. Then she looks at Cal. “You know, you really poisoned some people. But stickin’ you in jail ain’t gonna help nobody. I think...maybe I got a better idea.”

Before she can stop herself, Cala mutters, “Oh no…”

Cal crosses four of his tentacles and harrumphs. “Ah… Ah was wonderin’ when tha ‘special requests’ would start. Youse law enforcers are all alike, ya are. Spill it, copper. Whaddya want tah make this go away?”

Aliyah waves that off. “No no no no! Not a bribe! I’m talkin’ about showin’ some real community spirit here! Helpin’ everyone, no matter if they have legs or tentacles! Nate’s been taking’ about this for awhile now…”

Cala brightens. “You mean...the hospital?”

“Yeah! I mean think about it! A hospital with the Great Cuttlefish right there plastered over the doorway!” Aliyah holds her hands out, describing it through gestures along with her words.

Cal mutters as he considers it. “Hmm… A house o’ health in tha name o’ tha Great Cuttlefish… That…could work… Ah’m already in tha pharmaceuticals business, anyhow…”

Cala sharply cuts him off. “You will not be prescribing any drugs!”

Ignoring Cala, Cal looks at Aliyah sideways. “An’ supposin’ Ah’d be willin’ tah play along wi’that. Who’d be in charge o’ tha…ye know…tha gold bills o’health?”

Aliyah thinks about it. “Well Doc Nate’s gonna be in charge, but yeah, maybe he needs a secretary.”

Cala adds, “Not you, though, Cal – you are the spiritual benefactor. And a grifter of long standing. It’ll have to be someone that everyone can trust.”

Cal angrily retorts, “Are youse callin’ me dishonest? When have Ah been dishonest, tell me? Ah’m tellin’ ye, copper, ye’ll nevah meet a cuttlefish ye can’t trust! Them squids now…”

From back in the kitchen, a squeaky voice calls out, “Flames n’ butter!” Immediately following, Cherry squeaks in surprise and shouts, “Who the heck are you and what’re you doin’ in my kitchen? Go on, scat!” The sound of her rattling a pan sends the young cuttlefish scurrying into the main room, and Cherry spots the Guardia. “Oh hey guys! Thought I heard you two out here.”

Cal looks at the cops then shrugs. “Come on, ye gotta at least admire the lil’ bugger’s conviction…”

Aliyah waves hello and then returns to the earlier point. “Well, there was that time you tried to sell nonexistent stocks to those little old ladies…”

Cala interrupts her. “Let’s not even get started on counting all the lies Cal has told. The point is…” –here she pauses to look at Aliyah in admiration– “that’s a really good idea.”

Aliyah grins. “Aw, thanks! I do have one, once in awhile…”

“Must be the booze talkin’…” Cal mutters.


Ch4.17 Fatal Prophecy

As they come through, Sky slumps a little and Mayumi is scared for a moment that he might collapse. She wraps an arm around his waist to support him, but he is more than double her mass. She knows there’s no way she’ll keep him from falling if he is inclined to do so. But he catches himself almost immediately and takes a ragged breath.

“How...do you feel?” he asks, intensely, as if it’s the most important question in the world.

Bewildered and very unsettled, she just stares at him for a moment before recovering herself. “Fine! No problems! No lightheadedness or any of those other things. Can I get this blood off me now?”

He nods. She pulls a handkerchief out of her pocket and spits on it, and scrubs her forehead as they walk away from the portal, rubbing away the magical sigil Sky had drawn with his own blood.

Only then does she look around. It is an urban area, tall buildings of concrete and glass, the wide roads filled with self-propelled vehicles, no beasts drawing them. Despite the near-silence of their operation, her sharp ears can detect an electric whine when they accelerate. Inside the vehicles, through the glass, she can see individuals and families sitting together, paying no attention to the road, the cars apparently autonavigating somehow. Electric lights in red, amber, and blue flash unnecessarily, as the cars obey the directives of minds that are centrally located and, she knows from reading about places like this, probably not alive at all.

Thinking machines. She shudders again.

Sky gently directs her toward a café with outdoor tables. He walks heavily and, when they reach a table, sits down hard. He puts a hand to his forehead and pulls a sphere of glass from his jacket. She recognizes it: a mana sphere. He holds it, concentrates, and she sees the liquid inside drain away, Sky somehow absorbing it into himself. She sees his exhaustion fade somewhat.

She sits across from him. “Are you going to be all right?”

He nods. When the server, a stocky young woman with delicate, pale-green skin and short black hair, comes to take their order, Sky asks for coffee, a sandwich, and soup. Mayumi orders the same, except trading the sandwich for a salad, and makes certain there is no meat involved in any of her food. The waitress makes eyes contact with Mayumi and smiles invitingly as she promises a thoroughly vegetarian meal, and when taking away their menus she lets her fingers brush Mayumi’s. Mayumi smiles back, pleasant but neutral. Maybe in other circumstances, she thinks.

When the woman is gone, Mayumi says, “It’s time for you to tell me what’s going on.” She feels strange talking to him this way. He is, after all, the commanding officer of her station. Not to mention a god, lifetimes older than her. But she holds onto her earlier rage and lets it carry her through.

Sky nods again, then straightens in his seat. “You were partly right. I needed to know whether or not Bunnies would have any trouble traveling through, or even living in, high- or low-mana areas. But it’s not just some...experiment. It’s important.”

“How so?” she insists.

He looks reluctant. “Alma...is going to kill me for telling you any of this. She should be the one.”

“Don’t!” She slaps the table, then glances around, realizing she’s making a scene. Lowering her voice she hisses, “Don’t hide behind her.”

He looks at her, but then the server is back and setting their order before them. Sky murmurs thanks and Mayumi offers her another polite smile as the young woman uses her pretty green eyes to flirt with the Bunny again. After she moves off, Sky says quietly, “All right. You have to know, after all. And this is the best place to tell you. It’s almost dry of magic. Spells can barely function here. Even the portals have to operate on different, exotic principles. So we can’t be listened in on here, at least not by the people who might have been spying on us with magic in Three Rats. And they haven’t had to time to train technological listening devices on us. They don’t know we’re here yet.”

He allows this to sink in for a moment before continuing. “You – meaning the Bunnies – may need to be moved. On a moment’s notice. No hesitation, no questions asked. You may need to go into hiding.”

Mayumi cannot think of what to say for a moment, but she pushes her shock aside and ignores the no questions asked part. “We’re in danger then. What kind of danger? From whom?”

“There are people who think you...shouldn’t exist. They…” He struggles to say it, looking at her face. “They may order your...deaths. I have vowed to protect you. So has Alma, of course, and Gwydion as well.”

“Who? The Dukaines?” She is surprised at how steady her voice it.

He closes his eyes and takes a breath. Opening them, he whispers, “The Council of Archons.”

Mayumi feels cold, suddenly. The most powerful gods, politically and, in many cases, the most personally powerful as well, able to reshape Reality with ease. Who could defy them? Alma, Gwydion, and Sky? Three minor, young gods? And the price of defiance… “If they want us dead...we’re dead,” she whispers.

“No. There are ways. I am planning an escape route – off-world. They won’t follow you to another world. At least, I don’t think they will.”

“You would go with us?” She was still struggling to process all this.

If it comes to that, Alma would. I would...try to lead them off the trail. If possible, I would join you later. And Gwydion could stay behind, with no knowledge of where we went so that no one could force him to divulge, and try to work the political levers, get the decision reversed. Perhaps you could come back.”

Little chance of that. “Why?” she asks. “Why do they want us dead?”

“I hope the majority don’t. But you are magical creations. You are...illegal. Alma fought hard to keep you alive, putting you in that dream world. It nearly killed her, I think, to put you away like that. But it was the only way she was allowed to keep you alive. And now the Council is going to make its decision.”

Mayumi looks down at her untouched food and drink. “Who, Sky? Who is supposed to murder us?”

“Please don’t ask me that…” he whispers.

“Is it Alma? Is that how they’ll shatter her? Try to force her to break our necks one by one? Or drown us like kittens?”

“No...no. Even they are not that cruel.” His voice trembles. “It’s me. If they choose against you, they’ll order me to do it.”

She looks at him in silence. My executioner. I held his hand today, thrilled to his touch...thought of kissing him a hundred times. “What will happen...if you refuse?”

“We need to focus on–”

“What will they do to you?” she demands.

“... They will, well, if they catch me…they’ll force me to reveal where you are. So...I have to make sure they don’t catch me. I can’t keep them from prying that information out of my brain. Their magic is far greater than mine.”

“And if you just can’t escape?”

“If it comes to that,” he says, then stops. “I'll just have to make sure they don’t take me,” he mumbles, embarrassed.

He’ll kill himself, she realizes.

“You see why we have to wait to see your father,” he says. “Finding him now would involve him. We have to wait until this is over.” He leans forward and takes her hands. “Mayumi, listen. We’re doing all we can to make sure it doesn't get to that point.”

She looks at his hands on hers, then turns her hands to grip his tightly. “We have to prepare, to assume our deaths will be ordered,” she says. “Teach me the route. And Alma and Sage too.” A thought strikes her. “But if we get separated from Alma, how will we use the portals?”

Sky hands her a small booklet, “Three dozen prepaid tickets, each good for a single jump. It will get all the Bunnies where you need to go, even if you don’t have a god with you.”

She looks at it, surprised. “These tickets are not cheap. This must be six months’ pay for you!”

He nods. “More than that. The government keeps the price high to discourage mortals from travel. But I don’t have much of a social life. I’ve banked most of my pay for forty years. Just keep them close at all times. Give half the tickets to Sage.”

She tucks the booklet into her jacket. “How long do we have?”

His voice edged with false hope, he says, “The report has been submitted. With Alma and Gwydion’s help, it makes a persuasive case. No one whose mind isn’t already made up can reasonably decide against you. We should know any day now.”

She looks at her barely touched food. She has no appetite. Even so, she digs in, concentrating on eating quickly, efficiently. Her father taught her never, ever to waste food. Especially when you might need the energy. She eats it all without looking up, and then sees that Sky has followed her example and cleaned his plates.

“How do you feel?” he asks, looking into her eyes.

She lets that linger for some time, then impulsively reaches across the table and once again strokes his cheek, drawing him toward her. She leans across the table as well, not knowing just what she is about to do, but at the last moment he tilts his head down, so that their noses and foreheads gently press together instead of their lips. He cups her face in his big hands and holds her like that, nose to nose, his fingers in her hair. She can smell his breath, pleasant but for the meat in his sandwich, though that too is somehow right and even comforting.

She strokes her thumb across the slight roughness of stubble on his cheek and turns her head slightly so her cheek rests against his, nuzzling his face with hers, and then slowly, they separate slightly, and look into each other’s eyes.

“What was that?” she asks.

“The hongi. Sharing the breath of life,” he says. “Among the people who once worshipped me, it is done with friends, family.”

“Lovers, too?”

He hesitates, then nods.

She smiles, then draws back, straightening her jacket. Sky lets out a ragged breath and pays for the meal, thanking the waitress, who gives Mayumi a playful final glance that seems to say, No chance? Are you sure? Mayumi laughs and thanks her, and they head back toward the small portal station.

Mayumi slips her hand into Sky’s. “So...to answer your question.”


“I feel alive,” Mayumi says. “And I plan to stay that way.”