Ch4.06 Fatal Prophecy

Sky pauses in speaking and looks at his Dei sergeants, seated across from him. Gwydion is leaning slightly forward, the slight shift in body language revealing concern at what Sky has revealed about the Council’s interest in the Bunnies. With Gwydion, Sky thinks, one must pay attention to even the smallest cracks in his armor. I’m not the only one who wears a mask. Alma is looking at nothing, slightly down, at the edge of the desk maybe, her face as blank as she can make it, as if carved out of a pale, delicate stone.

Fighting the sick feeling in his stomach, Sky backs up and repeats the first part of the sentence. “And if the Council rules against Sergeant Alma and her progeny, the Bunnies…” He pauses again, hating to say it, but this time he pushes through after only a moment. “The Bunnies will be executed.”

Although Alma already knew what he was going to say, Sky catches her flinch at the cold words. He resists the urge – the renewed urge – to reach across the desk and touch her arm, to give her some comfort.

His glance flicks to Gwydion again. The god of magic is staring at him, face composed but eyes stunned. This is news to him, Sky thinks. Alma has always known something like this might happen, and she’s had time to process it from when I told her this morning. And I have known for weeks. But Dion, even though he is the only one of us not directly affected…

The god of magic grips the arm rest on his chair, fingers turning white. “This…” He begins to say. “This isn’t right. They can’t just...kill them!” He stops and glares at Sky, accusingly, but his voice regains a neutral tone. “Who? Will they send someone to do it?”

“They will,” Sky responds heavily, “if I refuse the order.” He locks eyes with Dion and speaks with absolute certainty. “And I will.”

This open statement of intent prompts Dion to raise an eyebrow and respond with a barely perceptible nod. Gwydion then glances at Alma, and his empathy for her pain breaks through for just a moment. Then he looks back at Sky. “Sir...you would be removed from your position.”

Sky nods. “Naturally. And then I would be unable to do much to defend them. But we must do all we can to make sure it doesn’t get that far.” Sky holds out a folder to Dion, and another to Alma. “Copies of the draft report. I’m not the most eloquent of gods. And I’m not of the upper Rings like you two are. You know how to talk to these people better than I.” He absentmindedly touches his badge, with its center stone of obsidian, indicative of his origin in the Fifth Ring, the very lowest, barely part of the City at all...although in reality, his origin is far lower. “Please read these over. Change and add to them as you see fit. Extend and strengthen the arguments. And Dion…”

Sky pauses, allowing his rare use of Gwydion’s nickname to sink in, waiting for the sergeant's eyes to rise and once again lock with his. “Sergeant Alma and I are of course pulling on every string we can. But being from the First Ring, and having an uncle on the Council...I hope you can draw on resources that we simply do not have.”

Dion withdraws his gaze inward, thinking, considering. He glances at Alma to find she is looking at him with a guarded expression, as of one hoping against disappointment. He says to both of them, but mostly to her, “I’ve come to know them. Especially Cherry and Rosemary. We...talk.” His voice shakes ever so slightly, and then returns with determination. “I will do whatever I can.”

Alma does not quite smile, but her expression softens as she looks at him. Words are unnecessary – her gratitude is clear. But she says quietly, sincerely, “Thank you.”

They hold each other’s gaze for seconds longer than Sky would have expected, long enough for him to realize that a bond is forming between them, one which perhaps even they do not yet recognize. He feels...jealous? No, that’s not it. Forgotten. Momentarily, at least. More a hollow feeling than a painful one. How strange, he thinks, before pushing it away.

“Very well, then,” he says aloud to both of them. “We have a few days before the report is due. If you have any duties you need reassigned in order to focus on this problem, you have only to inform me, and it will be done.” He stands, prompting them to rise, but as he begins to deactivate the privacy spell, he says, “Sergeant Alma, stay. I have something to ask of you.”

Dion glances at them both, then takes his leave, holding the folder thoughtfully. Sky and Alma remain standing. As the door closes, Sky says quietly, “I need to take one of the Bunnies with me on a day trip.”

Alma looks at him suspiciously. “And what does this trip entail?”

He glances significantly at the faded, inactive symbols on the upper walls, and replies, “Just moving around the City, using the portal system. I assure you, there will be no danger in it. We’ll stick to safer wards than Three Rats.” As he speaks, he picks up a notepad and writes, then hands it to her.

Backup plan, it says. Escape route.

Her eyes widen as she reads it, and Sky continues, “I would prefer to take Mayumi, if that’s all right. I trust her to handle herself and take orders, if we happen to run across some trouble. But if you need her, I could take Sage.”

She tears the paper from the pad and crumples it. “Do not run across any trouble,” she says darkly. She looks at him severely, then her expression softens. “Sky...do you think we have a chance?”

He nods but does not answer. “We will take every chance that presents itself. And then we’ll do more. Now go.” He holds out his hand for the balled-up piece of paper, and as she leaves, he holds it up to the low flame of his gaslamp.


Ch4.05 Fatal Prophecy

Alma returns to the now generally-agreed-upon bar with a raging storm of quarreling thoughts hammering the inside of her skull. A few weeks have gone by since the Commander sent her here with a promise that the Bunnies would be allowed to live free and the prospect of serving under an apparently naïf and unusual leader, side by side with one of the greatest playboy brats the First Ring has ever seen. And now…

Well, of the bad, the least. Gwydion may still be a heartless womanizer in need of meeting a lady with a couple of lessons to teach him, but his skills in magic prove him worthy of at least some of the air he breathes. The Oracle’s survival of the whole Pearl ordeal is proof enough of that. As for Sky…

What a strange, intricate creature Inspector Tuma-Sukai is. Over-eager in his affections, too willing to share and sacrifice, and yet obviously capable of deceit and betrayal. What he did with Mayumi, keeping the secret of her escapade from the Station, lying to protect her. What Mayumi did… It isn’t the fact that she left against orders that hurts most. It is the knowledge that she can no longer be trusted to be truthful and loyal that keeps stabbing Alma's heart, bringing new depth to a fresh wound each time she is reminded of it.

Keeping the Bunnies. That single offer has held her steady so far, the opportunity to have her children with her, sharing in her life. But they are barely her children. Stranded in stasis, they grew separately from her, developed their own personalities, collected a lifetime of memories. None of them of her. And now they are finally here, finally free to share her days, to get to know her, their mother, their creator. But are they really her children? Deprived of her presence for what was their perceived childhood and early adulthood, can they still be hers? Can she still be their mother, when she is barely more than a stranger to them?

Alma sighs in sheer sorrow. So much done to protect them, so many years of yearning and fearing that they’d be released... And now this ever-haunting possibility that they will be sentenced to utter annihilation gains new strength. Her most earnest desires and greatest fears pressed together and thrown at her, all in the period of a few weeks.
She finds herself standing by the door to the bar, one hand on the knob. She breathes deeply. Memories of all the preparations she has made over the years, all the plans, all the decisions, all the things she knew she must do if and when and where the Bunnies meet their fate flood her mind. For a moment, she tries to convince herself that Sky’s vow is enough to give her hope. The next breath brings in the notion that only a fool would pledge his soul for such a cause.

And then again, isn’t that what she is doing?

Another breath and she opens the door. Inside, Kori and Chime are playing a board game with the youngest of the Bunnies. Unnoticed by the Bunnies, Alma watches the scene for a moment. Still unaware of the world and themselves at the time they were first released, these three became the closest to her. Kori, with his light-brown hair framing fair but pleasant facial features, is now articulate enough to hold a conversation and entice his listener with his kind words, delivered under the steady gaze of those greenish-grey eyes. Chime, barely awakened, still oscillates at times, now fully conscious of himself, now apparently locked in his dreamworld again. Obsessed with music, he seems to fight the calling of reality, to actively ignore it, to be both annoyed and bored by it. Blond with long bangs that fall over his black eyes, his expression is often sullen and bitter when he is awake, a rare event in itself.

They seem to be trying to teach their youngest sibling how to play that board game. It is a relatively modern variation of a very old game, played with colorful tiles representing an item attributable to one of the seven elements: heat, moisture, breath, matter, spark, time, chaos. Combining them results in the creation of all there is and it is the most skilled player, the one who can place all of his tiles on the board in the most complex combinations, who wins the game. They call it Balance now. In the old days, they called it Creation. It wasn’t exactly a game back then.

Alma smiles at the sight of the youngest bunny. Seemingly fascinated by her brothers, she watches them intently as Kori, more than Chime, tries to teach her how to play the game. The latter has pretty much given up on the game altogether. A sign of his age. Fifteen-year-olds can only keep so much focus on things…

But the young bunny has her eyes locked on Kori. With her long white hair and white fur, her intensely blue eyes and pale skin, she is very much a Bunny version of Alma herself when she was 13. Her ears follow the sound of Kori’s voice intently, her eyes darting back and forth to follow the movements of his hands. She keeps sniffing and trying to eat the tiles. Alma’s smile widens.

In a rush of frustrated fury, Chime snatches a tile from the young girls’ hand, startling her. She doesn’t yelp or cry but jumps to her feet in full preparation of flight. Her eyes wide now, her legs slightly flexed and long feet already tense with anticipation, she looks from Chime to Kori without moving her head, her ears stiffly perked and twitching at every sound.

The goddess takes a step forward. Soon, all three Bunnies have their eyes fixed on her. She reaches them after a few steps and the little girl Bunny immediately takes station by Alma, her shoulder touching the goddess’ hip. Alma lays a soft hand on her head, idly stroking her hair, feeling tension dissipate throughout the Bunny’s body. She is still watching her brother intently, though, as if to decide if he would actually attack her or not.

“Maybe you should play a different game, for now,” Alma suggests, bringing the young Bunny to look up into her eyes. “Maybe one with some nice vegetable prizes.”

The young girl’s face lights up at the familiar word, like an animal foreseeing a treat in the near future. There is no smile on her lips, but it is there, in her eyes.

“Where are the others, little ones?” the goddess asks the male Bunnies.

“Downstairs,” Kori replies. “They wanted to talk Big Bunny things.”

Chime merely shrugs. “We are not Big Bunnies.”

With a little kiss and a soft caress to each of the three, Alma moves downstairs to her room, where the older Bunnies seem to be arguing.


“No! It’s not like that!” Mayumi insists.

“Oh, darlin’, it’s all right!” Merri says in soothing, ever-so-patronizing way. “We know what it’s like…”

“It’s tooootally natural,” Cherry volunteers from her comfortable seat on the edge of the bed, right by Sage's side. "Not like you’re redefinin’ relationships here…"

“But it’s not like that! Argh!” May cries, hands grabbing the sides of her head in frustration. “You two think you know everything!”

The door opens, bringing immediate silence to the room. Standing with her back to it, May slowly turns her head and then the rest of her body to look at the door. Her nose catches the whiff of perfume first, then her ears recognize the paused, almost imperceptible sound of breathing. Finally, she sees her. Alma...

Cherry and Merri run to her immediately, squeeing in delight as they hug the goddess. Alma smiles at them, stroking their hair with a fleeting, distant look in her eyes.

Finally she nods at Sage and asks, “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Oh! Ye’ve been with Inspector Sky!” Merri quickly deflects, making a big deal of sniffing Alma’s dress and darting a mischievous look and grin at May.

“Yes, I have,” Alma replies, apparently not the least bothered by that remark. “Is that a problem?”

Merri makes her best impression of a truly innocent person. “Goodness me, no! Good to know ye’re talkin’ again…” She sniffs again. “An’ huggin’!”

“Maybe even kissin’...not sure,” Cherry adds, sniffing intently as well.

Alma sighs and disentangles herself from the gossiping pair, heading to her workbench. Mayumi does her best to stand out of her way. She notices how Alma’s eyes seek her for a moment but no emotion comes from them. Though not openly angry or sad, the goddess has nevertheless been distant with her lately, detached even. Whenever her eyes have met her mother’s, Mayumi has seen nothing but indolent questioning. Alma is still trying to decide what to do with her.

“A rather disappointing feature of this world, little ones,” the goddess says as she takes a seat and produces a piece of paper from a pocket. “Is that one cannot go around kissing people indiscriminately–"

“I know, right?” Cherry interrupts her, sounding immensely bewildered.

“Wait, ye can’t?” Merri asks almost simultaneously to her twin, her ears drooping. “How disappointin’!”

Alma smiles as she picks a vial with some strange iridescent powder from a line of similar containers sitting on a shelf. “I’m afraid not. Especially if said people include your commanding officer.”

May’s ears dip at the thought that her actions may have sprouted yet another argument between Alma and Inspector Sky. “Did you...have a good talk?” she half-stutters.

Not turning her head, Alma looks at May through the corner or her eyes. “Yes, we did. Many an issue settled. And new issues arisen.”

Several breaths of air enter and leave her body before Mayumi finds the courage to ask, “How is he?”

“You would do well to ask and find out yourself,” Alma replies, her hands spreading the fine sparkly dust all over that mysterious piece of paper.

Mayumi finds herself looking at her own feet. “I haven’t really talked to him much lately.”

Alma remains silent at this, apparently oblivious of Mayumi’s words as she inspects the paper under a desk light. The silence grows longer and longer until all sounds seem to be engulfed by it and not even the water from the fountain or the breathing of her fellow Bunnies registers with Mayumi. Locked in that moment, the Bunny watches the goddess as one would look at a picture of times long gone: with longing, melancholy and a twinge of fear that memory is all that is left of what once was.

A short eternity goes by before Merri breaks the spell. “Right! That’s it! This has gone on long enough!”

“Yeah, ‘bout time we get this over with!” Cherry echoes her sister’s words. “This here place looks bleaker than a…a…a really really bleak…thing!”

“Oh, Cherry, dear, that was a terrible simile,” Merri notes. “Ye’re usually better at those!”

“Well, I’m sorry but I can’t think of anythin’ bleaker than this,” Cherry states, arms crossing over her chest. “I was gonna go for a graveyard on All Souls Night but I’ve been to some o’ those things and they can be a lotta fun if you’ve got the right kinda booze goin’ on!”

“Cherry…” Sage admonishes softly.

“Okay, fine!” Cherry snaps. “It’s darker than...uh...Sage, here! And that’s sayin’ somethin’! I keep bumping against him in the dark at night!” She grins at him.

“I know,” Sage mutters, frowning. “I have the marks of your big feet to prove it.” Cherry sticks her tongue out at him.

“HEY!” Merri yells. “I cannae believe I’m the one t’ bring us back on topic here! Enough wi’ the flirtin’ – the main issue is Alma an’ May!”

Cherry and Sage look abashed. “Sorry…” they say in unison.

“And why would we be the main issue, dear?” Alma asks in a quiet, serene voice, seemingly oblivious to what is going on.

Merri’s fists shoot to her hips in anger. “The two of ye’ve had a wall o’ ice between ye since that party,” she says leaning forward and stamping her foot. “It’s been long enough. More than long enough! Time fer a thaw!”

“I am sure I don’t understand what you are talking about, Rosemary,” Alma responds, one eyebrow raised in warning.

“Yeah, well, you’re not the only one, then,” Cherry says. “What the hay happened during that party that the two of you’ve been barely even lookin’ at each other since? I mean, May just looks like she’s offendin’ the world for bein’ here and you…” She points an accusing finger at Alma. “You’re hardly ever here anymore.”

“Even when ye are here!” Merri adds.

Alma finally lets go of the piece of paper to look at them. “I find it very difficult to be where I am being lied to. Constantly.” Her eyes narrow. “Or do you by any chance believe that I don’t know of your little love nest upstairs?”

“Oh that?” Merri stutters. “Heh…”

“Have you considered asking to move out?” Alma asks, her voice all the more threatening for its cold serenity. “Before you decided it would just be easier to sneak away each night?”

Both Bunnies look abashed as their self-righteousness gets turned against them.

“But, it’s more excitin’ that way,” Merri whimpers.

“Yeah…” Cherry adds weakly. “It’s been kinda fun doin’ it all sneaky like…”

There is no shame in their voices, Mayumi knows. Only a deep sadness at the sudden realization of the full meaning of their actions.

“Like it doesn’t matter what I will think or feel once I find out?” Alma asks, her voice taking on an edge of anger and grief as she looks at each of her four eldest children. “Do I look that cold and heartless to the lot of you that you can’t even consider what suddenly having four young adults and three children in my care does to me?” She gets up and starts pacing, her voice shaking on the edge of tears. “Twenty-four years… twenty-four years I have waited and kept you safe. For what? My children know nothing of me. Think nothing of me. They are grown and independent and I can’t stop time for them or make it go back. Or even keep them safe…”

As she speaks, Merri and Cherry’s ears droop more and more, and their eyes fill with tears. As she trails off, they start crying. It is Sage who takes a step forward and touches Alma’s trembling hand.

“You may not know our stories,” he says. “But we have felt your love in our dreams. We have known each other’s love all these years.” He squeezes her hand gently. “We will share.”

Sadness and relief dance in Alma’s eyes as she strokes his cheek. “Maybe later we can share.” She sighs again. “Everything dies, little ones. And like all things, anger dies too. I am not angry anymore. But I am indeed disappointed and hurt that your first instincts would be to lie to me.”

“It’s just…” Merri says, wiping tears. “Things weren’t always rosy in the dreamworld.”

Cherri hugs her lover. “Things happened, an’ they weren’t always good things an’ we had to learn...to keep secrets…”

“We’re sorry,” they cry together.

Alma sighs. “I have been trying, little ones, not to intrude into what was obviously your most personal history. I would love to hear it, but how could I ever demand such a thing from you? Love, trust, anything? How could I ever demand anything from you? Other than the truth when you speak to me…”

Sage looks at his sisters intently. “There will be truth from now on.”

Merri and Cherry immediately agree, moving closer to hug Alma, weepin and nodding their acceptance against her.

“Ye can always ask us anythin’...” Merri offers amidst sobs. “Askin’ ain’t the same as demandin’.”

Mayumi remains put, watching. Through her mind runs a sudden memory of words said before.

Just as we fear to hurt others, others may fear to hurt us. Silence can so easily be mistaken for lack of interest…

And then Alma looks up at her, nodding invitingly with a little sad smile on her lips, and all her walls come tumbling down, emotions trampling each other for attention as the dam breaks. Tears begin to fill Mayumi’s eyes as she moves to embrace her mother.

“I never meant to hurt you…” She says, pressing her face against Alma's chest. “I never...thought. I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

Holding her close to her, Alma whispers only, “That makes two of us, little one.”


Ch4.04 Fatal Prophecy

The single light source, magical in nature, illuminates the bound textbooks open on the desk before Dion. On the corner of the desk, a black folder sits, ink drying from the latest entry: a grateful merchant’s daughter, recipient of her lost earring.

Pausing from reading a passage, he reaches over to another book, opening it to a section little used. The volume fights him initially, the spine well worn to open to sections covering emotional magic (subsection, love enchantments), which forces him to prop the book open with another of the volumes on his desk in order to allow him to review his current topic of interest.
His deep concentration causes him to miss a disturbance outside his pocket universe, his home in the Guardia annex residing in the kitchen behind the bar. The flicker of the door portal overlaying the pantry breaks Dion’s attention in time to see the barrier open and an enormous and easily recognized individual pass through, leaving the door ajar.
“You are officially in a rut, my good friend. Still using her name as your pass-phrase.  Somewhat ironic don’t you think, to invite young pretties into your parlors of amore only to use the name of the one you never got to enter?” The intruder crosses the room on all four huge paws and casually climbs onto the roomy bed, draping his body across it as if claiming it for himself. Under the heavy weight of his leonine form, the wooden frame creaks ominously as if about to break. Folding his wings to his sides, he scans the room, his sharp eagle eyes discerning every detail.
“What a lovely place!” the intruder adds, and then focuses on the god seated at the desk. “So, when are you ever going to get over her?”
Dion takes a settling breath, exhaling slowly as his initial surprise is again replaced by his façade. “Hello, Geryon,” he says to the gryphon, ignoring the question. “I had a suspicion you might show up. Sending Sergeant Alma to the Academy was a risk, but my need was greater.” Standing from his chair and stretching mildly, Dion leans against the desk. “So, what brings you here?”

Geryon tosses his beaked head back, his front paw thrown over an eye in mock pain. “Oh, how pathetic I have become in this abhorant form and all the more so for trusting my dear friend to change me back. And then again,” he adds with a faint growl, glaring at Dion over his razorsharp beak, “who would have thought that my dearest of friends would abandon his promise once he grew bored of his lavish hunting grounds?”

Shaking his head in mild irritation, Dion responds, “If only that were the case, Geryon.  I would relish the opportunity to return to my uncle’s estate. Sadly, it seems he is a little upset with me at present.”

Jumping off the bed, moving with amazing lightness for his massive size, the gryphon prowls towards Dion as he continues his lament. “Oh, yes. My uncle is not pleased with you at the moment either, besting his magic with your ill-conceived spell. And how I long to be normal, able to once again console those lovely little throwaways of yours. Instead, I am left with this misshapen carcass, begging for the little comfort of having some poor lass pet the bird-kitty. All too literally your wing man.”

Circling to the other side of his desk, irked that Dion doesn’t laugh at his quip, Geryon continues. “But I interrupt your studies, my dear friend, which I am sure revolve around reversing this terrible injustice you have bestowed on me.” He recognizes the familiar binding of Dion's book. His eyes narrow. “Alas, I see it is just to bolster your love enchantments, to add to your little black folder the most lovely sergeant of the Death Clan whose visit eliminated any chance of meaningful work from the lads. All I heard after her exit was ‘Do you think she’ll come back? Will Dion come back soon with the ladies?’ I finally had to promise to go find you, and I knew exactly who to follow.”

Now focusing his eagle-sharp vision on the texts, Geryon momentarily pauses. His eyes widen as recognition dawns, his shocked realization evaporating his pompous demeanor. “Demons, Gwydion! Lee’s Magical Defense Techniques? Barstow’s Compendium of Offensive Enchantments? Tuk’s Tactical Strategy of Personal Battle?!  Are you going mercenary?”

Dion pauses for a moment, then responds quietly in his baritone voice. “I’ve run into a few difficulties since I departed the First Ring.”

Difficulties? It looks like you are preparing for war! There were rumors that one of your conquests was angry at you, but I have never seen you run, and especially not go all battle-ready. What happened?”

Again Dion pauses and considers. Finally he responds, “One of my...partners came across another.”

Geryon thinks for a moment, then jerks his aquiline head in a gesture Dion recognizes as a shrug. “That’s happened before. You have handled it.”

“This one was a daughter of an Archon, and she started asking around her circle of friends. Sadly, she discovered that I may not have been true to her...or many others. They ran to their fathers.”

Another pause, and Geryon screeches in laughter. “I knew it! I knew that someday, all your carousing around would get you in trouble!”

Dion very stiffly asks, “Do you know what a demon dog is?”

Geryon halts and suddenly looks seriously at Dion. “I am aware of them.”

“I had to battle two, released by an assassin, on my way here.”

Geryon looks around quickly, fear in his eyes. “Is it safe here?”

Dion chuckles in baritone. “We are safe. But since that incident, I’ve been in a bar fight with thugs, attacked by a flaming divine, and almost had my life sucked from me by the Oracle. I decided it prudent to get better with my magic.”

A knock on the doorframe makes Dion turn to see Sgt Machado standing at the door, staring in disbelief at Geryon.  

“What is the matter, Mister Pop? Never seen a gryphon before?” Geryon challenges.

The Guardia Popula breaks from his stare and stammers, “Uh...I...I am sorry...Sir? The Inspector would like to see you in his office.”

Dion bows slightly to the mortal. “Thank you, Sergeant. I shall be right there.”

Turning to the gryphon, Dion instructs. “Geryon, I would prefer you remain here until I return.”

“Sure...sure…” Geryon accepts, quickly phasing into his smaller, cuter, more slender form, resembling a small mountain cat, massing roughly as much as a man. “Your pet will just make himself at home here. Run along and see what your master wants.”

Dion, shaking his head, exits the pocket universe to the kitchen. Raising a hand towards the door, he chants a spell under his breath. A flickering at the door indicates a renewal of the protective shield, and once again, the kitchen has a pantry.


Ch4.03 Fatal Prophecy

Sky pauses in writing at the sound of a knock on his door. He looks up. “Come in!”

The door opens, the slight form of Sgt Alma silhouetted in the frame. Sky feels a mixture of surprise, apprehension, and a hope that he quickly tries to quash at the sight of her. They’ve been avoiding each other as much as possible for weeks.

As she enters and closes the door behind her, he sees her cold expression, and finds the hope very easily extinguished. “I woke up to this,” she says, setting a slip of paper on his desk and then crossing her arms, glaring at him balefully.

Sky picks up and reads the short message, brow furrowed in consternation. He turns it over, then holds it up to the light from his small window, before looking back at her, his eyes asking a silent question.

“Do you have anything to do with that?” she demands, more in accusation than inquiry. But he can see her shoulders already relaxing slightly, as she realizes from his confused expression what his answer will be.

“No, Sergeant, of course not.” He pauses, then continues. “You say you woke up to this. It was in your sanctum, then? Uh, please...sit.”

As she slowly takes a seat, she says, “It was on my bedside table. And before you ask, no, none of the Bunnies noticed anyone come in to leave it.”

“Sergeant...I know I’m not your favorite person. But why would you think that I would–” He stops, suddenly thinking hard. “Just a moment.” He stands and goes to his locker, taking out a small first-aid kit and removing a scalpel from it. At Alma’s apprehensive expression, he tries to smile reassuringly. Speaking normally, he says, “I’m glad you came. I was going to ask to see you a little later. I’ve almost finished the report to the Council, about the Bunnies, and I wanted you to read it, of course, before I send it in.”

As he speaks, he slices the tip of his left index finger, a small cut to let blood flow slowly, and goes around the room, reaching up to touch a complex ideogram near the ceiling in the center of each wall. The ideograms are painted in the same color as the walls themselves, but more recently, so although they are not obvious enough for her to have noticed them before, she can spot them easily now, especially as when he touches each one and breathes the word “Silence!” in the ancient Language of Blood, the symbols glow blue.

Following his example, she keeps her voice normal as she says, “Interesting coincidence then, that this note should reach me just as you finish this report!” She sees the report on the desk, facing away from her, sitting on its open folder with some other papers. Having been told she would be reading it, she reaches out and picks it up. A memo written on a half-sheet of paper adheres briefly to the report and then falls onto her lap; she picks it up and the signature of the Commander of the Guardia catches her eye. She is about to put it back in the folder unread, but she also sees the name “Sky,” and intrigued by the Commander’s use of such a familiar mode of address for her commanding officer, she cannot help but read a few words of it:

Sky, you need to be prepared to be ordered by the Council to execute the children of Sgt Alma.

Sky turns to face her after touching the fourth symbol, and sees her pale and rigid with fury. For just a moment  he thinks, Now what have I done? Then he recognizes the paper she is holding, and realizes what she must have read. Oh no. “Sergeant…”

“You knew.” Her voice is as cold as death itself.

“I was just about to tell you.” Funny how the truth can sound so weak when it comes at the exact wrong moment, he thinks.

“You knew. All this time, you knew.” She stands, her fine white hair stirring in a rising wind as shadows gather around her. “He left you a note to terminate them – to murder them – and you didn’t tell me immediately?”

“This note arrived yesterday,” he says, keeping his voice steady, knowing how cornered she feels, how she could at any moment turn her full powers of the Divine Sphere of Death upon him. “But I knew...I knew that one possibility was that I would be ordered to kill them. I did know that.”

“And why?” she nearly screams at him. “Why would you not tell me that? You who claimed to be a friend!” She steps closer to him, her fingers looking ready to slash into him, glowing with black energy.

“I was ordered not to!” he shouts back at her, standing firm.

“Oh, that justifies it all! I am so very sorry for my outburst!” She is nearly touching him now, glaring up at him, her face at a level with his chest. The wind is whipping papers all over the office now.

“You don’t...I can’t just…” Sky struggles. “When he orders me to do something, I have no choice! Don’t you understand? I had no choice!” He takes a deep breath. “I am bound to the Commander by the Adamantine Vow. I am unable to violate his orders.”

The wind lessens slightly, as a hint of doubt creeps into her expression. It seems to Sky as if she wants to believe him. But the venom in her voice persists. “Words. So many flying from your lips and what do they mean to me? Nothing! Don’t waste your words lying to me! If you are bound by that ancient oath, you should be incapable of telling me now.”

“The memo includes a coded message,” he says, calmly but urgently. “On the surface, he is telling me to be ready to receive the order to execute. But we have a code. Underneath the surface, he is telling me to be ready to defy that order, and protect the Bunnies.”

The wind lessens further. “Do you think I would put their lives in the hands of their assassin? How do you expect me to trust you?”

“I...don’t.” His shoulders slump in defeat. “But Alma...you must.” He only realizes he has used her name after it slips out. “They are in danger.”

“Danger?” she almost spits. “What do you know of danger? The Bunnies have been in danger since the day Cherry and Merri were created. The things I’ve done, the deals I’ve struck just to keep them alive, even if trapped in stasis… I have risked my life to keep them here! Constantly under the steady gaze of the Archons…we have paid such a heavy price…”

“I know that,” he says, sadly. “And the risks are far from over. A– … Sergeant…you will need help. If the Council votes for death, I will help you protect them.”

He sees her hesitate, then strengthen her resolve. “I cannot trust you,” she insists. The wind has died away, her hands are no longer limned in black light. “Trust is earned. Trust is paid for. You… All you did was betray whatever sliver of trust I may have granted you before.”

He nods hopelessly. “And there is no time for me to earn your trust, if that is even possible.”

“Then what more do we have to say to each other?” she asks, a sadness coloring her implacable voice, as if she wished it could be otherwise. She starts to step past him toward the door.

He holds out a hand, almost touching her arm but holding back. “Wait.” She stops as he stands, silent, his face working. Finally he says, “There is one way.” He locks eyes with her. “The Adamantine Vow.”

She looks at him unbelieving, unable to speak for a moment. “And what is it you would vow?” she asks, finally.

“To protect the Bunnies, to do what is necessary to keep them safe, even if it costs me everything.”

“But you are bound to the Commander! This could put you in conflict with your vow to him. The results…” She trails off.

“Would be the same as my breaking the vow. I would be cursed. I would lose all my powers, and be marked as an oathbreaker. Every god I meet would know me for what I am, and none would be punished for hurting me, not even for torturing or murdering me.”

“Then why would you do such a thing?”

He smiles wanly. “I cannot think of anything else. Besides, the Commander sent me here to protect them.” He frowns. “At least...I’m almost sure he did. He plays his cards close. But at this point, I no longer care. I’ve come to know them. Merri and Cherry, Sage and Mayumi, Kori and Chime. And the other one.” His smile widens slightly. “Even if I am wrong about the Commander, at least I’ll be removed from the board. I’ll be one less threat for you to worry about. The youngest...she will have a chance to learn her name. Besides, this is my nature. I champion the weak against the powerful. Once I’ve formed an attachment, I am committed. This Vow...it is merely a stronger version of a divine compulsion that I can no more resist than you can resist assisting a soul on its path.”

She studies his face as he speaks. “Very well, then. I...know of the Vow, but I’ve never enacted it. What must we do?”

“I will make the Vow to you, in the Language of Dragons. When I am finished, you will reply… ‘I accept your Vow, Azzageddi’.”

Confused, she asks, “‘Azzageddi’? That is not a word in the Language of Dragons.”

He swallows before he says, “That is my name.”

“... Your name? Even your name has been a lie?” She looks at him in a kind of disgusted wonder.

“My true name is known to few, Alma,” he says. “The Commander, the Oracle, a few on the Council.” Perhaps your mother. He keeps that thought to himself. “And now you.” Indicating the sigils on the upper walls of the room, he says, “If you speak it outside this enchantment of privacy, you will be putting me in danger. Grave danger.”

“I will do my best to forget it then,” she says drily. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Being protective of me now?” He wonders at his jocularity for a moment, then recognizes it for what it is: a kind of hysterical relief. She knows my true name. She will hold my Vow. I have put all my trust in her. There is no more point in worrying.

He takes her hands in his, bows his head. In the Language of Dragons, he says the words, that he will guard her children with his life, that he will not allow the Council or their proxies to harm them. As he speaks, he summons his power, sending it into their hands, creating a vortex of mana that, when she speaks her acceptance, slams into her like a gust from a hurricane, leaving her gasping in shock from the cold-ocean feel of it.

And there is something more, carried along with it: a strong sense of an aching, almost unrelieved loneliness, a sense of profound isolation, and a longing for its end.

She takes a half-step back, and weakened, he stumbles, almost falling against her. She releases one hand and wraps an arm around him to support him, while he grabs her shoulder to keep upright.

She guides him to the sofa. As she helps him sit, he says, “I forgot how much power that takes.” He chuckles. “Seems like one of us is always almost fainting in this office.”

“At least it’s you for a change,” Alma mutters. She tries to help him lie down, but he resists. “You need to rest,” she insists.

“We’re not done,” he says weakly. “Your mysterious note. It wasn’t me, so who?”

She shakes her head. “Very few would have the power to enter my sanctum, leave the note, and not be witnessed. Possibly my mother, but she would have little reason for this subtlety. Perhaps the Oracle...”

“Maybe,” he replies. “But whoever it is either doesn’t want you to know their identity, or assumes you know it...and is therefore incompetent. Unless...have you tried examining it magically? Perhaps there is something encoded within it, a fuller message, or the sender’s identity?”

“I’ll try. Now rest.” She relents trying to make him sit and looks at the mess her earlier fury caused. “Your report…”

“I’ll clean it up later,” he says. “Come back at lunch. I’ll be recovered by then. I want you and Gwydion both to read it over. If there is any chance to sway the Council and avoid...what we fear, well, I want to make sure it’s as persuasive as it can be. And he knows how those of the First Ring think far better than I.”

As she turns toward the door, he laughs and says, “Wait! If you open that door, you’ll overload the privacy spell and set my office walls on fire!” He starts to stand slowly, and Alma sighs in exasperation and grabs his elbow to help him up.

“Can’t I just deactivate the sigils for you?” she asks.

“It’s a rather paranoid variation on the spell,” he says, abashed. “The ideograms explode if someone else tries to deactivate them.” He stumblingly deactivates each sigil with a touch and a whispered word.

She shakes her head. “Layers upon layers. And what will be left when all your masks are peeled away?” She guides him back to the sofa and practically forces him to lie down. She stands and looks down at him, her face on the edge of smiling. “Rest now...Sky.”

She quickly turns to leave, and misses how he closes his eyes and smiles in joyful relief.