They stand in the first floor office that Alma shares with Gwydion. Like the rest of the rooms in the station, there is just enough space for two desks, the sofa – smelling of mildew ever since a certain water-logged guest used it as a bed a few weeks ago, just to the left of the only door to the room – and a couple of bookshelves and filing cabinets, mostly empty for the moment as the Dei’s time at the Station hasn’t produced enough paperwork to fill more than half a drawer. Stretching over most of the wall behind Alma’s desk, the one facing the door, a grubby window filters the light from outside and gives a pleasant, if murky, view from above of the street in front of the main doors to the Station.
The goddess stares out the window, her fingertips resting on a glass pane, her eyes scanning the streets as if waiting to spot a potential assassin amidst the crowd.
“You should sleep, Alma,” Sky says as he leans on her desk. She can see him through the corner of her eye, his defensively crossed arms and his concerned expression bringing her no solace. “There may be no time to stop and rest later.”
“You sometimes seem to forget I am a goddess, Sky,” Alma notes, her eyes on the street, her voice carefully empty of all passions. “I can go without sleeping. Haven’t slept properly since you submitted the report, anyway.”
“I haven’t forgotten. I’ve been doing the same thing,” the god concedes, suddenly very focused on examining his own shoes. He sighs and looks at her again. “So you just toss and turn instead, eh?”
Alma looks down, to her right, her hand stretching above a small fish bowl, a well-meaning welcoming gift from Aliyah, who had somehow overlooked the purpose of the bowl by failing to put an actual fish in it. The tiny hydrophobic nymph, who has taken up residence there along with her strange pet cactus, looks up at the goddess just as Alma draws a minute amount of her own mana to hold the nymph in midair and expose the tiny creature’s vibrant soul to Sky, a slithery, burning web of greenish energy that makes the Breaker of Chains gasp at its beauty.
“I hunt, Sky. As I was born to do.” She sets it down and releases the nymph with a small blessing that makes the cactus grow a colorful flower. The mute nymph claps her hands in joy as the goddess turns her attention back to the window. “I just hope he brings good news. I’m out of cards to play.”
Sky joins her at the window, one hand hovering, hesitating between resting on her shoulder or embracing the goddess. He opts for the former. “I’m sure Gwydion will do the best he can,” he says in his best soothing tone. “Besides, there’s always one card left to play.”
Both gods turn to the door, to find Gwydion there, standing a single footstep into the room. His eyes move quickly from Alma to Sky, and then back to the goddess, betraying some inner, untold wondering.
Wrong, Gwydion, Alma guesses. So very wrong.
“Speak of the devil,” she little more than whispers into the tense silence of the room.
“I am trusting that to be just an innocent expression,” Gwydion speaks softly by way of greeting, bringing a predatory grin to Alma’s lips.
“A reflex, really,” she replies. “Nothing more.”
The god smiles pleasantly with his mouth alone, the glint in those hazel eyes acquiring a cold, steely edge. “One can never tell how deeply lies the meaning of a lady’s words.”
“Gwydion, this is not the time,” Sky gently admonishes him, patience growing thin in his voice.
“My humblest apologies, Inspector Sukai,” Gwydion says in a level tone, head bowing slightly, a finger raised to his lips in silent plea.
Turning back to the door, he closes it, purposefully turning the knob to activate the latch. A few words that Alma can’t quite catch cause a magical golden wave to spread and ripple from the door to the walls and over the floor and ceiling. The nymph disappears from its bowl. Gwydion seals his spell against eavesdropping with a murmur of “keep them here forever more,” leaving the room glittering faintly with coppery-gold highlights. The god turns to face his fellow Dei once again.
“I have just now returned from my Uncle’s estate. A rather instructive journey, I must say,” he states, eyes fixed on Alma’s expression as if she was alone with him in the room. A cold flame animates them, in spite of his composed, expressionless face and tone.
“So it seems,” the goddess responds just as rigidly, guessing Gwydion’s state of mind.
“What’s going on, Gwydion?” Sky asks, confused, look in turn from god to goddess.
“It seems Sergeant Alma may have failed to mention some details regarding the reason why the Council so keenly wishes the Bunnies eliminated,” the god relays, staring at her as if she may vanish if he dares to blink.
Alma’s heart sinks behind her impassible façade.
The prophecy, she surmises. You have been told. But how much have you been told?
Through the corner of her eye, she sees Sky looking at her questioningly. Gwydion’s words burrow into her soul from across the room.
He’s going to think I betrayed him, her mind races. But there’s so much more to it than that. What I stand to lose...
“You couldn’t possibly understand,” she hears herself say.
“Then, please, do elucidate us,“ Gwydion goads her.
Sky watches in silence, jaw clenched in tension.
Alma nods, moving away from Sky and the window, her back turned to Gwydion as she slowly paces to his desk, on the far left corner of the office.
“There is a prophecy of the Oracle’s: ‘In the hands of a Bunny, death looms for an Archon’,” she tells them, turning now to face them, heart hardened against the inevitable. “Not many know of it. Nevieve delivered it to the Council just before she disappeared from the First Ring.”
Silence reigns for a short lifetime.
“A Bunny will kill an Archon,” Sky finally says, sinking onto the sofa.
“You knew of the prophecy and still you created the Bunnies,” Gwydion accuses stolidly as if speaking of something too old to stir emotion. “Why?”
Alma’s shakes her head, her voice as leveled as his through sheer willpower. “You are wrong. I didn’t know.” She leans against his desk, fearing that her legs will fail her. “And the Bunnies were accidents. Each and every one of them. When I created Cherry and Rosemary, held them in my arms, they were like nothing I had ever created, nothing I had ever seen. How can one create something completely novel, without a model to work by? But there they were, so small, so perfect…” A sad, bitter smile taints her lips. “And it was then that I learned about the prophecy. The signs were there, clear for us to see.”
“Us?” Sky repeats. “There is someone else involved?”
“No one that can help,” Alma immediately cuts him off. “I found a patron who managed to convince the Council to put the Bunnies in stasis–”
“And then proceeded to create five more,” Gwydion completes, words sharp as daggers.
Alma snorts derisively. “Lost for a hundred, lost for a thousand… I assure you that had I known how they were created, there would not be seven of them.”
“Must be some patron…” the god of magic mutters.
“Or so I thought,” Alma retorts bitterly. She shakes her head again, looking at the wall. “None of this matters now. The Bunnies were ordered dead.”
Sky says nothing, his head hanging low. For a moment he sits there, hands on his knees, his breathing quick and shallow, the black tattoos from before wriggling up his face. Then, out of nowhere, his hands rise, fists clenching, and fall with horror-striking violence onto the frame just beside each of his legs. The fabric of the sofa wripples like water and suddenly, unexpectedly, the whole thing bursts in splinters, shreds of cloth and clouds of foam, in an explosion that propels Sky back to a standing position. He turns slowly to look at the pitiful wreckage, his expression one of vague confusion as if expecting to see the intact sofa still there. For long seconds, the only sound in the room is the harsh, coarse wheezing of his breath.
“Well, that fixes the mold issue,” Gwydion mutters.
“It matters,” Sky growls, breathing deeper in his effort to regain control. “It all matters. They never stood a chance. It’s not a boring law that’s driving the Council’s resolve. It’s fear!” He turns to face Alma again, his face riddled with tattoos, his expression hovering between outright bewilderment and unspeakable pain. “Even after the Adamantine Vow, still you didn’t trust me enough to tell me?”
“And what do you know of trust?” she hisses, covering the length of the room between them in half a dozen steps. Her voice charged with icy anger, she nearly spits each word as if it were poison burning her lips. “What do you know of running around, looking over your shoulder, wondering if the next step you take is the one that dooms everyone you love? If the next so-called friend you make is the one come to destroy what you have all but sold your soul to protect?” She turns away from him again, trying to avoid his pain, the memory of which has stung her heart since the Vow was taken. Shrouding herself in her rage, the goddess forces the next words out of her mouth. “You would not be the first to betray me, Tuma-Sukai. Nor shall you be the last. They are my children, Sky, not just some mission I picked up on the way.” She glances at Gwydion to find him looking at her, his eyes filled with sudden, unspoken compassion, a softening of his expression the only hint of his emotions. The sight breaks her fury and she speaks mostly to him as she says pleadingly, “Failing them is not an option.”
Trapped in the momentum of his own anguish, now fueled by Alma’s uncaring accusations, Sky carries on the argument. “You think I would have betrayed Mayumi and Sage and all the rest once things got too hard? No!” he roars, fists clenching and unclenching. “If I had known about this prophecy, I would not have bothered trying to persuade the Council! The Bunnies would be safely spirited away already!” He turns away, his body shaking, anger turned to hopelessness. “You keep insisting that I don’t know how it is, Alma. But I do know. I know what it is to be betrayed, to have everything taken away, again and again. I understand how hard it is to trust. But I committed myself inexorably, with no reservation, to earn your trust. And yet… Our chances have just gone from dim to none.”
“Maybe not,” Gwydion offers, his level tones sounding strangely appeasing after all the yelling. “My uncle has indicated that our ruse to buy time has only forced a certain unnamed member of the Council to take action independently, and the Bunnies are in peril here. He has requested that both Sergeant Alma and the Bunnies be taken to his estate in the First Ring. They will be safe there until he can intervene in their favor.”
“If we take them there, we give up any hope of smuggling them off-world,” Sky counters, voice blank as he controls his breathing to erase the mind-numbing rage. “Besides, he’s an Archon. Why would he protect them at the risk of his own life?” He shakes his head. “This could just be a trap…”
“It’s no trap. Listen, please,” Gwydion pleads. “Do you want to sentence them to exile, along with Alma? Brand her a traitor? Your plan holds just as many risks. And what world are you sending them to?”
Sky snorts and turns to look at his sergeant. “You know I can’t tell you unless you’re going along–”
“I know,” Gwydion interrupts. “But are they going to be treated any better there? Or are the locals going to want to figure out what they are, possibly on a laboratory table?” His perfectly reasonable question receives only silence in response. “And even so, do you really think that will be the end of it? The Council will try to find them and Alma. They’ll be on the run from the Sikari for the rest of their lives and if you choose a magic-free world, then not even Alma will be able to protect them. We have a chance to avoid all that.”
Sky looks stricken, helpless even. After a long pause, he looks to Alma, and says, “I vowed to protect them. I put my life in your hands to do so. So...it is your decision.”
Alma’s eyes reflect his sorrow as she pleads. “Let us listen to Gwydion. If we can avoid having the Sikari sent after us…”
Sky merely nods at this.
“Thank you,” Gwydion bids, opening the door. “Shall we go, then?”
Sky leaves the office in silence, eyes fixed on the floor.
As she walks by Gwydion, Alma stops and grabs his wrist, holding it gently but firmly, making the god look down at her hand and then up, into her eyes. “Uncle or no uncle,” she threatens, “if this Archon betrays us, I will make sure this prophecy of death comes true for him.” A sad smile flashes on her lips. “But most of all, thank you.”
Gwydion bows silently in response. A wave of his hand and, but for the wreckage of the sofa, the office is returned to normal, nymph and all.