Ch4.32 Fatal Prophecy

“What was that?!” Saira asks, bewildered, stepping to the spot where the Bunnies disappeared, now featuring a gaping hole.

“I really don’t know,” Gwydion replies, putting the young Bunny down on the ground for a moment and staring down into the blackness. “This is most strange.”

“There was no hole here before,” Alma moans. “Gwydion, where are they?”

“I really don’t know,” the god repeats, rubbing his chin, his expression heavy and pensive. “Is that a pinkish glow at the bottom of the hole?”

“Hey!” a voice cries from inside the hole. “In case ya can’t see right, we’re down here!”

“Aye,” another voice rings. “If it’wouldnae be too much o’a hassle t’throw us a rope or somethin’, I’ll bet we could pop right out!”

Alma sighs in relief at the voices. “Cherry, Merri!” she calls. “Are all six of you down there? Is any of you hurt?”

“We are all fine, Alma!” Sage lets her know.

“But we don’t want to be here anymore!” Chime’s voice grumbles.

“The walls appear to be lined with teeth!” May says.

“They’re slimy too!” Kori complains.

“That doesn’t sound too good,” Saira whispers to the gods. “Maybe I should go down there and help them.”

She holds her foot over the edge of the hole. That’s when the ground starts shaking.
Losing her balance, Saira falls into the hole, only to have Alma grab her at the last minute and pull her out, just as huge teeth seem to appear out of nowhere, emerging from the inner lining of the gaping hole and meeting at the center, sharp and serrated, like a yellowish deadly lid. An immense worm shoots up into the air, arcs, and burrows into ground, mouth first, with the wailing Bunnies still held inside it.

Saira stands looking at Alma in a shock for a minute, but quickly rallies, while Gwydion looks around wildly, the ground still shaking beneath his feet.

“It has to emerge again!” Alma shouts above the din of the artificial earthquake. “Right?”

“I hope so!” Gwydion responds, barely audible over the racket. “But where?”

“Right there!” Saira announces, pointing to the end of the alley, where the ground is beginning to move and rise. “How do we stop it?”

“I don’t know!” Alma cries in desperation.

“I can’t destroy it without harming the Bunnies!” Gwydion states.

“Then how, you two?” Saira yells. “By the sake of your kind, you’re gods! Can’t you trap it?!”

Alma’s mind races between options. All she can think is of how she’d love to be back in her sanctum, the Bunnies all sleeping safely by the pool, Starfax watching them silently through the ivy in her cage.

“Starfax!” Alma suddenly cries.

“What?” Gwydion shouts.

But Alma is already at work. Kneeling on the ground, she places both hands, palms down, on the dirty surface and draws her will in an unusual direction. Breathing deeply, she stretches her senses and feels for old roots beneath the earth, anything she can use. And she finds them.

Sending small bursts of mana, she nurtures them, feeds them, helps them grow, forces them to stretch. The ground shakes even harder, knocking both Gwydion and Saira off their feet. At the mouth of the alley, the wormlike demigod leaps out of the ground…

… and is suddenly caught in an intricate, live web of magically-enhanced plants. Shooting out of the ground, they wrap themselves around the worm, binding it in their slow, inexorable choking hold. The creature struggles and squirms but the web that holds it is too strong and growing ever tighter.

The worm demigod opens its massive mouth and regurgitates the Bunnies, leaving them wheezing in the middle of the street while the creature itself disappears in its vegetable cocoon.

Alma rises slowly, feeling slightly dizzy at the draining effects of her spell and the success at something she has never tried before. Still, seeing the Bunnies free and, for the moment, safe, wipes out any feelings of physical fatigue.

“My turn to say, ‘impressive’,” Gwydion states by her.

“Thank you,” Alma replies, locating the youngest of the Bunnies, who had, wisely enough, chosen a large rusty metal barrel to hide in. “Now, let us leave this godforsaken alley.”

Saira joins them and they swiftly cover the distance to where the Bunnies are just getting back to their feet, unharmed except for some patches of slime on their clothes, faces and ears.

“Ew!” Cherry complains. “What is this sticky gunk on me?”

“Tha’ was the most disgustin’ experience Ah ever…” Rosemary gasps as she helps Chime to his feet.

“It’s in my hair!” Cherry whines. “Oh, ew, it’s in my hair! And it stinks!”

“Come on!” Mayumi insists, dragging at Cherry. “We must go!”

Intent on reaching the portal as quickly as possible, the party clears the alley and two others like it until, at the far end of yet another of those crisscrossing, similar-looking, bleak and abandoned alleys, they finally see it, the portal, majestic and decrepit, standing tall and proudly at the end of a large square.

“There, there’s the portal!” Saira announces happily, but her expression darkens at the sight of dozens of Dukaines trickling into the square, coming from all directions. “Now…to defeat the standard horde of thugs that so efficiently managed to beat us to it…”

“You are quite used to this, aren't you?” Gwydion inquires in a mildly affected tone.

Saira merely shrugs. “Heh. Some things always go down the same way.”


Ch4.31 Fatal Prophecy

“How many bolts left, Edison?” Sky asks.

“Uh...three.” The burly Guardia Popula sergeant fires, just to keep an enemy’s head down. “Two.”

Sky scans for movement as Machado reloads. He knows a few have slipped past them, one that flew through the air, another that he could sense below, tunneling through the ground. But they have bought Alma’s group a good fifteen minutes. He hopes they can reach the portal ahead of their pursuers.

He sees a rounded shape that wasn’t there earlier. He fires and is rewarded by a hiss that sounds familiar. A flesh wound only, but any mana spent on healing is mana a god won’t have when the real fight comes.

“That’s my last one,” says Sky. He sets down his crossbow and draws his sword. It is a short, wide tool, not quite the length of his arm, brutal in its simplicity, reinforced by magic so that it will stay sharper than steel and not break in the rigors of battle. “I’m going out to meet them. Use your last ammunition on ones that I don’t seem to notice, eh?”

Machado’s shoulders slump. “I won’t be able to fight much, with my leg like this.”

Sky squeezes the man’s huge shoulder. “After your last shot, just slip away, my friend. Hopefully–” He breaks off, listening. “Do you hear that?”

Machado listens. “Music?”

It is coming from behind the Dukaine attackers. From the direction of the Copper Pot. Sky grins. “Kyri.”

Dona Kyri?” Machado asks. “But...what will she do? Make them dance?”

Sky listens intently. The music is stirring, the strings ominous as the orchestra promises rather than threatens a divine retribution for anyone who would defy the tiny conductrix. He feels his divine powers growing stronger, realizes he is getting caught up in the goddess’ musical distortion of reality, her divine power supplementing his own. She must have heard all the fighting, realized what was going on. Surely she will not join the fight directly, not short, adorably plump Kyri. But then again, Sky wonders if there is some steel lurking beneath her sweetness.

And then he hears the wings, and he sees them, glowing in the darkness, swooping down from the night sky. Winged horses, ridden by women, armored, bearing spears. They are like silver ghosts, translucent, perhaps mere illusions, but a scream, then moans and shouts of panic rise from the remaining Dukaines. Mortals, perhaps even gods, break and flee, exposing themselves to Machado’s fire if the Sergeant had ammunition to spare. Sky laughs and shouts, “Valkyrie!” He feels the urge for battle rise in him, fill him, partly his own, partly an urge brought on by Kyri’s music, and he hears her voice, clear and beautiful and sees her figure striding into view.

She is small but magnificent, her armor mirror-bright, her spear twice as tall as she is, with a broad leaf-shaped blade. Sky can feel just a hint of the terror she is inspiring in her opponents, senses how, to them, she is a towering giant they dare not approach. Still laughing, he leaps over the wall and charges toward her, hearing the roar of the ocean in his ears.

Kyri’s armor flashes and Sky sees another figure, standing behind her, much larger, unarmed, looking a bit unsure about all this. Brew, the beer god, come to stand with Kyri. He rolls his shoulders and clenches his huge ham-fists.

And then the remaining Dukaines erupt from hiding. The nearest to Sky is fast, on him almost immediately. Tall and thin, covered in what appears to be thick but flexible leather armor, moving swifter than any mortal and bearing two slender swords, the divine slashes before Sky can raise his guard, but only succeeds in penetrating the outer layer of leather over Sky’s chest, revealing a layer of chainmail beneath.

Once, for a few decades after fleeing the Insula and arriving on Earth, he was a god to idyllic island-dwellers on Earth, and they named him Tuma-Sukai, reflecting the dual nature they sensed in him: Devil Wave, Calm Ocean. In his counterstroke, he draws on the first part of that name. The gangly god or demigod tries to dodge, but there is no avoiding the power of the tsunami. The roar of the ocean fills the air, filling his arm as the blade comes down, smashing through one blade’s ineffective parry, and down through the armor, flesh, bone, and down, down to ring against the suddenly wet street.

Sky’s opponent slumps, unmoving, in two parts, blood pumping, spreading across the street. Sky feels himself grinning and exultant, and a small part of himself is frightened, but that part stays silent. This is no time for morality, his body sings. This is a time to kill or be killed. And if you are killed, you cannot defend those you have vowed to protect.

As he is turning something hits him, the world flips, and he finds himself flat on his back, confused. He feels like he has been hit by a house. Glancing around, shaking his head to clear double vision, it looks as if he was. Or at least a wall, which shattered after he was flattened by it. Then with a hiss, a familiar scaled enemy is upon him, grabbing his throat, strangling him. Sky’s vision clears and he sees the black-and-white snakeskin pattern of Eater of Frogs above him. If he weren’t being throttled, Sky would laugh.

He can feel the snake god trying to fill him with poison through his grip, as he did in their last battle, but Sky’s divinity is roaring in his ears, and the power of the ocean is washing away any poison. He reaches up and places his palms on Eater of Frogs’ chest, then pushes. The snake god flies back, choking, lungs filled with water and hurled away by the unstoppable power of the ocean waves. Gasping and struggling, Eater of Frogs tries to rise, choking and vomiting out seawater onto the street. Sky finds his sword and strides over, glancing to see Kyri and Brew fighting two much larger gods, one of them with at least eight legs. As Brew pummels the larger of the two gods, Kyri spins, crouched low, her spear scything at least four of the spider god’s legs out from under it. But as the little valkyrie prepares to stab the foe, one of the spider’s flailing legs hits her side, sending Kyri flying toward a wall, like a doll thrown by a child.

“I suppose you must’ve had a good lawyer, Eater of Frogs,” Sky growls. “He won’t do you any good if you don’t stand down now.”

The snake god makes it to his feet. Sky can see the fear in his eyes. The Inspector had not been nearly as powerful in their last fight, and Sky still won. But apparently the fear of his masters wins out, and Eater of Frogs hisses, “I’ll fill you sssssssso full of poissssssson you’ll never recover, Tuma-Ssssssssukai!”

Then just as the snake god is about to spring at him, Sky feels a wave of magic pass over him, and tastes...beer? Really good beer! And suddenly he doesn’t feel angry anymore, oh no, he feels mellow, floaty, as if his legs have disappeared, the world swaying back and forth, spinning.

“Oh, great…” he murmurs. “Wha’ da hell?” He’s barely able to remain standing, but Eater of Frogs collapses completely, and vomits again, and settles down to sleep in the vomit. Sky looks over at Kyri and Brew, and sees the only figure standing is the beer god. Everything else has gone silent.

Then a bolt zips past Sky’s head. He spins to look behind him, and just keeps spinning, three times around, staggering. He barely manages not to fall down, exerting his will, trying to use mana to burn the drunkenness out of this system.

Machado is laughing. “I’m sorry...my finger slipped! Wha’ happened? I feel...strange!”

“Ahhhh…” Sky vaguely waves over in Brew’s direction. “THAT guy! He made us drunk.”

“Ooohhhhhh.” Machado complains, “Brewwww! I’m on dutyyyyy!” Machado slumps on the wall, head sinking. “...beer always makes me schleepy.”

Sky turns again and staggers over to Brew and Kyri. The beer god is helping Kyri up. She is clutching her side,where blood is seeping out from under her breastplate. “Oww. Ohhh ow. Fiddlesticks!” She hiccups daintily, then giggles.

“You all right?” Brew calls to Sky.

“Fine,” the Inspector answers, shaking his head. His divine power still running strong, the drunkenness is washing away swiftly. He looks at the fallen opponents. The one with the extra legs looks like what you’d get if a centaur married a hairy tarantula. Only the face, as well as the lower body, is that of a spider, while the upper torso is that of an astonishingly lovely woman. Wonderful, Sky thinks. Another one for Sky’s Big Book of Recurring Nightmare Characters. In any case, the beer wave has made her forget how to coordinate eight legs and, essentially, two bodies, and she is just twitching and moaning on the street, her naginata dropped nearby. Sky kicks it further away.

“That’s a neat trick, Brew.” He nods at the other opponent, a rather mundane-looking man with a split scalp. “What’s with him?”

“He was, like, some über kung fu guy. Glowin’ purple energy around his hands. I didn’t want him touching me, and then Kyri got hurt, so I kinda, well, did my thing.” He shrugs. “Sorry, can’t discriminate between friend and foe with it.”

“I think you saved our lives, you two,” Sky says, feeling more normal by the second. “I don’t think I could’ve taken all four of them.” He pulls out a pair of enchanted handcuffs and slaps them on the martial-artist god. “Kyri...are you going to be all right?”

“I...think so, dear...if the world would kindly stop spinning, I’ll even heal myself a little. Whoopsy!” She swoons and allows Sky to catch her, giggling. Brew rolls his eyes.

Smiling indulgently, Sky hands her over to Brew. She pouts, then looks up at Brew adoringly. “My hero!” She reaches up and after a few missed attempts, strokes his stubbled cheek.

Sky resists laughing. “I only have one set of handcuffs. Can you keep this one drunk?” he asks, indicating the spider goddess. Then he looks back at where Eater of Frogs is lying. Was lying. The snake god is gone. Sky sighs, realizing the recurring annoyance must have a resistance to poisons as well. “And Sergeant Machado is injured.”

Brew nods, helping Kyri to stand again. “Got it.” At the sound of a Watch whistle, he glances over his shoulder. “Ah, here they come. Reinforcements.”

“Good,” says Sky. “I have to go. Perhaps I can do for the others what you two just did for me and Edison: come running to the rescue. Thank you!” And he speeds off as fast as he can along the route Alma, Dion, and the Bunnies took to Little Falls.

As Sky runs onward he hears Kyri rambling to Brew, “Do you know something? I really do think I could have beat that spidey-girl if you hadn’t gotten me drunk just then!”

“Of course you coulda, Kyri,” replies Brew, indulgently.

“No, really, I’m quite sure! I’d have just… just… whoopsy!”

Sky laughs into the dangerous night.


Ch4.30 Fatal Prophecy

Silence falls among them, an eerie, ominous silence, smothering and frightening and made all the worse by the amplified murmur of each footstep. Alma can almost feel the tensing of Gwydion’s muscles as he instinctively tightens his grip on the young Bunny. Just ahead of them, Saira has started zigzagging from shadow to shadow, calling on the Bunnies to do the same, all the while muttering to herself, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this. I don’t like this.”

The alley seems to stretch at each step they take, the end of it always looking so very close but seemingly unreachable.

This feels unnatural, Alma thinks.

A hand suddenly grabs her right wrist and pulls her into the shadow of a rickety building, quickly moving to her lips, to stop her from making a sound. The familiar scent of Gwydion’s cologne is all that keeps her from taking that hand and breaking a couple of fingers.

“Shh…” the god urges her, uncovering her mouth. “Watch.”

A few seconds later, Alma’s eyes widen at the sight of Saira and six Bunnies running just past the spot where both gods are hiding.

“But they…they were running ahead of us,” Alma notes, her heart racing with anxiety.

“It’s a spell,” Gwydion explains. “An entrapment illusion.”

“Must be trying to wear us out,” the goddess infers. “Can you break it?”

Gwydion nods slowly. “If I can find the spellcaster, yes. This is a very specific, short-range illusion. The caster will need to be hiding close by, in order to maintain it.”

“Then whoever it is, we’ve just let them know that we are onto their trap,” Alma notes, her eyes already searching the darkness. “I couldn’t see any unfamiliar souls before and I still can’t see any now.”

“Our enemy must be using some kind of cloaking,” Gwydion suggests. “The fact that I could feel his spell tells me that he’s, at best, a mid-level mage. Let me try something.”

Reaching into a jacket pocket, the god produces a small vial of a glittery reddish powder and, opening it, tips some of its contents on the street.

“Reveal,” he whispers, and the powder begins to move and spread, scouting the area.

Alma watches in mild fascination as the powder particles start to gather around an inconspicuous shadow on a far wall, tracing its outline in red.

“Shadow binder,” she says, cringing at the sight of Saira and the Bunnies crossing her line of sight again.

“Must be my friend from the Singing Cockroach,” Gwydion surmises. “A lovely establishment, by the way,” he adds incisively.

Alma grins at being reminded of the way she once suggested that den of criminals as a good place to take up residence.

“Now, please cover your eyes,” Gwydion requests.

The goddess quickly complies, avoiding the flash of light that immediately fills the alley and that would most certainly have destroyed her nightvision had she hesitated. A piercing scream and she uncovers her eyes to find powder and shadow gone, and Saira and the Bunnies standing, immobile and confused, halfway into the now reasonably long alley, looking back at where the flash occurred, scanning the area in search of their Dei companions.

“Impressive…” Alma mutters.

“He should be out of action for quite awhile,” Gwydion states. “But we do need to keep moving.”

The gods step out of the shadows, the Bunnies run to them…

… and suddenly disappear.


Ch4.29 Fatal Prophecy

“This way, quickly,” Gwydion urges, leading the Bunnies down a narrow alley.

“Hey, where’re we goin’, exactly?” Cherry asks.

“Somewhere safe,” Alma states by way of answer. “Well, safer.”

“And where’s that?” Cherry insists.

If you want to live, then as far away from here as possible,” Gwydion intervenes.

Alma moves ahead of them, her heightened senses, attuned to souls as well as sound and sight, guiding the group through the complex web of crisscrossing alleys, pointing out any possible ambushes. They have managed to avoid two so far.

“There!” she whispers, pointing at a side alley. “There’s someone in that alley. I can see them moving towards us.”

“Well… We can go this way, then,” Gwydion suggests, turning quickly into an alley just opposite.

They all follow him without question, feet moving as swiftly and silently as biology and physics will allow.

“The little one!” Sage suddenly cries, driving them all to a halt. “Where is she?”

Their senses stretched even further in a panic, gods and Bunnies search the dark alleys for the absent young Bunny.

“There!” Kori announces, pointing to where Alma had spotted the Dukaine ambush. “In that alley.”

“She’s running straight into the jaws of the enemy,” Gwydion notes, running alongside Alma. She wishes the Bunnies wouldn’t run so fast that they are always four or five step ahead of both gods.

By the time Alma and Gwydion get to the alley, all six Bunnies are already lining in front of their ambushing enemy, thankfully no more than half a dozen mortal thugs, currently holding the crushing advantage of having the young unnamed Bunny, terrified and kicking wildly, in their keep. The gods make a point of walking between the Bunnies and their foes.

“Let her go!” Alma orders the thugs, echoed by several cries of “Yeah, let her go, you no good meanies!” and “You hurt her, we hurt you!” from her Bunnies.

The leader of the little Dukaine group, a burly fellow missing his left eye and ear, dressed in  a leather jacket embroidered with too many skull-and-bones motifs, snorts and adjusts his hold on his captive to evade her attempts to bite him.

“Now, why would we do that?” he grunts.

“Because the lady is asking nicely,” Gwydion growls menacingly, taking a step forward and unsheathing his short sword, again unleashing the magical spell encasing the blade in a searing, golden light.

The Dukaine thug snorts again and orders his men to stand ready to fight.

Alma draws her sword as well. “Fine, then.”

In the darkness of the alley, she doesn’t notice the crossbow bolt being fired. But, suddenly, there it is, sticking out of the man’s Adam’s apple, its metallic tip glistening in the whatever light is left as the night consumes the day. For a moment he stands there, unmoving. And then he falls, slowly and gurgling, first to his knees and then face forward on the ground, releasing the female Bunny, who runs straight to Alma and past her, into Sage’s arms.

“Don’t you just hate it when people say ‘no’ after you asked nicely?” a familiar voice rings somewhere behind and above the now very nervous-looking ambushers.

Drawing on her specialized senses and extremely honed, owl-like nightvision, Alma spots its source, little more than a slightly darker shadow of a female form among the shadows of a makeshift balcony. Guessing the smile on the woman’s face, Alma smiles as well.

“And why are you here?” she asks, seemingly forgetting all about her enemies, currently trying very hard to be forgotten.

“Consider it an investment,” Saira replies, her crossbow suddenly cocking again with a very loud click. “One of those ‘enemy of my enemy’ kind of things.”

“Who is the lady?” Gwydion inquires, unwilling to break eye contact with his foes.

“Saira,” Alma whispers to him. “The one who stole the Pearl from the Dukaines and returned it to our guardianship.”

“A friend, then,” Gwydion surmises.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions there,” Saira cuts him off. “I’m only here for the ‘All the Dukaines you can kill’ buffet. Speaking of which...”

Another bolt flies and one more Dukaine falls. Alma and Gwydion attack, swift, silent and efficient, years of martial training kicking in, and soon the rest of their unfortunate ambushers fall dead, except for one, who manages to flee down a side alley. Saira’s bolts take care of that.

“We need to move. We’re exposed here,” Gwydion states, looking around.

“Wait,” the goddess asks of him. Turning to the balcony, where Saira’s shadow still looms. she beckons, “Saira, we could use your help. We need to get to a portal as quickly as possible. You know all the paths...”

Saira doesn’t respond for a minute but her shadow disappears from the balcony, only to reappear closeby, at ground level. A few more steps, and the shadow becomes the actual body of the woman.

“What do you need me for?” she queries, now standing just two or three paces away from the gods. “You’re gods, can’t you just...fly there?”

“No,” Alma replies.

“Summon some winged beast?” Saira suggests.

“We had one but he’s currently busy elsewhere,” Gwydion retorts, eyebrow raised.

“Uhh… teleport, then?” Saira asks, gesturing vaguely with her hands. “Magic yourselves away?”

Alma shakes her head. “I can’t move so many at once.”

Saira sighs. “You know, you two leave a lot to be desired as gods go,” she says, conversationally. “No flying, no beasts, no fancy disappearing acts

“Well, we’re hardly gods of transportation, are we?” Gwydion cuts her off with mild impatience as he sheaths his blade.

“And you all wonder why people are going for that ‘One god for everything’ deal…” the woman mutters, stepping between the gods and moving back to where gods and Bunnies had come from. “Anyway, I guess you’re walking. Here, come this way.”

Gwydion approaches the youngest of the Bunnies, currently held safely in Sage’s protective arms and gently takes her hand. “You are coming with me, little flower.”

Slowly, with a little help from Alma and Sage, the young Bunny perches herself on Gwydion’s back, wrapping her slender arms and legs tightly around him. After some balance adjustments, the god finally finds a comfortable position for her and sets off to follow Saira, Alma moving at a fast pace by his side. Ahead of them, the other Bunnies run to join Saira, their powerful legs making it easy to keep up with the athletic woman.

“So… who’re you?” Cherry asks her.

“I’m Saira and I’ll be your group scout for today,” Saira announces in a cheerful tone. “Boy, you lot run fast!”

“We’re Bunnies,” Kori says proudly. “Built to run.”

“We can run faster if you want!” Chime offers eagerly.

“Chime, no!” Sage warns. “We stay together.”

“Say, that’s a lovely pointy trinket ye got there!” Merri comments, pointing at Saira’s crossbow. “Ah’m Merri, by the way.”

“Has anyone ever tol’ you that you got amazin’ legs?” Cherry flirts.

“Uuhh… sure!” Saira nods wildly. “I hear that all the time.” She turns mid-run to urge Alma and Gwydion on. “Hey, you two! This way!”

The gods follow at the rear, Gwydion holding a young and scared Bunny who keeps hugging his neck way too tightly and nuzzling fiercely into his shoulder, Alma fighting back a headache that has her groaning softly.

“Are you all right?” Gwydion asks her.

“I can’t keep soul-scanning much longer,” the goddess explains, her senses still stretched to improve her nightvision. “It is draining me.”

Gwydion exhales deeply. “Hopefully, your young friend will find us a shortcut.”


Ch4.28 Fatal Prophecy

Dark is falling as the group sets out. Sky and Machado are wearing Guardia heavy-duty jackets, thick leather reinforced with an underlayer of steel chain and strategically placed steel plates. Both are strong enough that it causes very little restriction, but Alma and Dion have eschewed the heavy jackets. In Alma’s case, she is wearing no additional protection at all, relying on her speed and grace, supplemented by her divine powers, while Dion has his own bespoke jacket, a bit lighter but, with its astonishingly expensive alchemical-metal reinforcement, it has the same ability to turn a blade as the standard-issue one – quite functional, flexible, and stylish as well.

Machado hefts his personal crossbow, a compound weapon with wheels and a cat’s-cradle of cable capable of punching a bolt through an armored jacket, the body wearing it, and out the back again, a low-tech weapon manufactured in a high-tech workshop. With its mixed zones of high and low tech, high and low magic, such compromises are not uncommon in the City of Heaven. “It’s too bad we don’t have any armor small enough for the Bunnies,” he mutters to Sky, scanning the street as they stride along. “But they’re hardly bigger than kids.”

“At least we were able to arm some of them,” Sky replies. He carries his own crossbow, a simpler affair, but its horn and wood are inlaid with silver runes like those on the truncheon he carries, magic to send a bolt farther, faster, and straighter. With ranged weapons ready, he and Machado are on point; behind them Dion and Alma walk protectively to either side of the group of Bunnies. Mayumi is carrying a light crossbow, still a bit too large for her, and she has a Guardia shortsword on her hip. Just behind her are Merri and Cherry, the former with a Guardia truncheon in her fist, the latter with a cricket bat, both claiming that after years of running a bar in their dream-lives, these are the sort of weapons they are used to. Sage carries a combat knife on his belt, something he took reluctantly only after Alma insisted and Mayumi showed him how to hold it. He has his hands full keeping the youngest, nameless Bunny with him, holding her hand firmly as they walk along. Finally, Kori and Chime are unarmed, being deemed too youthfully impulsive and untrained to be trusted with something deadly, as likely to hurt a friend as an enemy, or even themselves.

The Dei have made sure the Bunnies all have portal tickets and instructions on how to reach an alternate meeting point far from Three Rats, in case they get separated. Sky is most worried about the youngest, who is still basically an animal. Will she run away and hide at the first sign of trouble? Indeed, will all the Bunnies just scatter? None of them has been trained to fight, really, except Mayumi and, to a lesser extent, Kori. And as far as he knows, not one of them has ever seen serious combat. In fact, Merri and Cherry might have the closest thing to real experience with violence, with their allusions to having broken up some bar fights. Even Mayumi only served as a Guardia for less than two years in her dream world before she was brought back into this one, and she hasn’t mentioned having so much as a scuffle in that time. She looks confident, but he can sense her nervousness.

Still, perhaps they will make it to the portal at Little Falls without incident.

Such hopes are dashed as Sage shouts, “DOWN!” and dives for the street, pulling the unnamed bunny down with him. All the others follow suit without thought, and an arrow or crossbow bolt hisses through the air where they had been. Those ears, Sky thinks. Perhaps Sage recognized the sound of a crossbow safety being flicked off.

Sky scans the area in a moment. He sees the buildings, one of them a mere heap of rubble after having finally collapsed two weeks before. The river off to one side. Kyri’s Copper Pot café a block back. The experience of over a century of fighting in wars back on Earth gives him an instant picture of their tactical situation. As another arrow zips straight at him, he reflexively knocks it out of the air with his own crossbow, takes aim at the shooter – a mortal hiding behind a broken wall – and puts a bolt through the man’s throat. He rejects the closest, most obvious cover, knowing that their attackers expect them to go there and are just waiting to cut them down, and instead orders the group straight ahead at the wall over which the crossbowman is now slumping, twitching as his blood pumps freely.

Glancing at Machado while reloading, he and the Sergeant nod to each other. Machado aims to provide cover while Sky charges, crossbow held before him. The god feels his divine power awaken within, a cold, refreshing ocean pounding through his veins. Sky is in service of his Sphere: Breaker of Chains, Shadow of Liberty. He is fighting to keep the oppressed free, to break the corrupt power that threatens them. The paradox of being both Guardia and god of rebellion does not matter now. He is able to use his power to its fullest.

Time seems to slow. Another crossbowman rises and takes aim. Even though running full out, Sky plants a bolt in the man’s chest. But another rises beside him, and Sky has no time to reload. No matter – Machado’s bolt, fired with a steady aim, goes right through this one’s cheekbone, passing completely through the ambusher’s head. The target jerks and falls, spasming.

As he jumps over the wall, Sky sees the creature waiting in reserve, something like a scorpion made of green glass, its internal organs flexing as it scuttles to face him. A typical tactic when fighting gods: First hit them with mortals to waste their mana, then bring in the immortals and the magical creatures to finish them. Only Sky hasn’t even begun to use his mana, and in the service of his Sphere, he is actually gaining more.

In mid-jump, he tosses his crossbow at its face, causing it to flinch and raise its wicked pincers to block. Then he draws his short sword, shaped like a Guardia standard-issue blade, but made by a master smith. He lands next to the creature, coming down on it like the tsunami contained within his name, bringing down his left foot hard on one of its legs, cracking it like a lobster leg at a feast, and bringing the sword in an arc with all his strength, chopping hard at the thing’s stinger. He cuts almost all the way through the tail with one blow, rendering the stinger useless, and then, kneeling as the creature goes into paroxysms of panic, its feet clattering against the bricks of the street, he stabs down, piercing the shell and penetrating the thing’s semi-visible organs. Two-handed, he quickly yanks the sword back, splitting it to the base of its tail.

By the time Bunnies start swarming over the wall mere seconds later, to be followed by Alma, then Dion, and finally Machado firing another bolt behind him, the glassine scorpion is still twitching but rendered harmless. But as Machado clambers over the wall, a return shot from the enemy takes him in the thigh. The man curses in Portuguese and falls over the wall heavily.

Alma, after quickly checking to make sure all the Bunnies are here, calmly says, “Hold still, Edison.” Sky recalls his healing sessions with her, several times after his fight with Eater of Frogs as the god’s poison slowed down healing. Hopefully there was no poison here.

Sky retrieves his crossbow and reloads, glancing over everyone for injuries. He sees none, but notices that the Bunnies are shaken. Mayumi catches his gaze with hers, and he nods encouragement before taking a during position at the wall.

He hears Alma’s curt words to Machado, warning him of the pain. She grips the shaft of the crossbow bolt near the arrowhead, pulling the bolt through and out of his leg before he can get ready and tense up. She is already healing him before he can scream, soothing the pain away, stopping the blood loss.

“Will he be able to run?” Dion asks.

“That would take time we don’t have and mana we can’t spare,” Alma replies. “He’ll be able to limp.”

Dion is silent, but Sky knows what he is thinking. He’ll slow us down. But he is intent on listening to something else.

Growls and groans, some from inhuman throats. Feet, paws, and chitinous scrabbling as mortals, creatures, and probably a few gods move into new positions. He spots a head poking around a corner, takes a breath, and squeezes his trigger. There is a scream, a wailing that goes on a long time. The enemy forces stop moving.

As he reloads, he glances at the bodies of the dead crossbowmen. Their uniform, such as it is, is the typical mix of conformity and individuality of a street gang. Sky recognizes the colors and marks as those of Tonelero Jaguars, a gang whose territory is several blocks away.

“Edison, are the Jaguars allied with the Dukaines?”

Machado, his face and shiny scalp beaded with sweat, nods. “I heard they’d gone over a few days ago,” he gasps. “Probably sent in first to prove their loyalty.” To Alma, he says, “Obrigado, senhora. Como é forte e magnânima a vontade dos deuses–

“Hush,” Alma insists. “You sound more like a worshipper than a comrade-in-arms.” To Sky, she asks, “Then this is a Dukaine attack?”

“Not just a Dukaine attack.” Sky glances at the Bunnies, and at the edges of his vision chains writhe and connections become clearer. “That first shot was at the Bunnies, but they’re the least important targets if the Dukaines are trying to take down the Guardia. Someone who wants the Bunnies dead has sent a hit team. And in so doing, he is revealing himself.”

Dion looks thoughtful. “Someone on the Council who couldn’t afford to send the Sikari. Someone who already has connections with the Dukaines.”

Sky nods, but Alma finishes, her voice quietly furious. “Even leading the Dukaines.” She looks at Sky, then Dion. “How likely is it that the Commander would send us three here by chance, bringing together the Bunnies, the nephew of an Archon, and a god of rebellion, whom he must have known would do the opposite of carrying out his orders?”

“That bastard,” Sky agrees, smiling grimly in admiration. “This has all been an operation to take down corruption on the Council.”

“That’s all way above my pay grade, but it doesn’t change anything right now,” Machado points out, painfully taking position at the wall. “You all still need to get to Little Falls. We have the river on the left, a pile of rubble on the right. Too exposed for them to advance across it. This is a choke point – they have to come through here. Now go. I’ll slow them down.”

“Not alone,” Sky says, taking position beside him. “One crossbow can’t hold them off long. With two, we can pin down the slower forces. If they have any who can fly, or swim across the river, or whatever, we may not be able to stop them, but we can hold most of them here long enough. The rest of you, slip away and go swiftly.”

Alma holds his gaze, and looks as if she’s about to speak. But a younger voice says firmly, “Three crossbows would be better.” Mayumi starts to take position at the wall.

Alma and Sky say “No!” simultaneously. When Mayumi opens her mouth the protest, Alma sharply warns, “May!” The Bunny’s ears go back.

His voice low but commanding, implacable, Sky says to her, “You are staying with your family.” He holds her gaze for a moment, until he sees acceptance. To the rest, he says, “Now go, all of you. Quietly but quickly. We’ll catch up with you at Math’s estate.”

Just then, Machado looses a bolt at an enemy. “Here they come!”