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!”