Ch4.39 Fatal Prophecy

“The Sikari?” Alma whispers. “But who controls them? Are they here to save us or–”

“We have to assume they’re here to kill us,” the Commander states. “Officially to kill the assassins, but we’ll be taken out as well, and our deaths blamed on the Dukaines.”

Somrak stiffly sits with a hiss of pain. “Yes,” he says. “It’ll be all, ‘Boo hoo, the Bunnies and their friends died in the line of duty.’ Makes the Dukaines scarier, able to kill Guardia Dei right in the Curia. And their patron doesn’t have to pay the failed assassins.”

Alma is holding Merri now, healing her. It takes only a moment before the Bunnie’s torn and bruised leg is restored to wholeness, her milky skin marred only slightly with reddish marks that will soon fade. Merri seems to want to stay curled up in her creator’s lap, but Alma gives her to still-weeping Cherry, who holds her protectively.

As she does this, Sky feels a touch on his arm and, looking, sees Mayumi gazing up at him in concern. “How...how are you not dead after all that?” she asks. “Last time, you were hurt so badly…”

Sky smiles softly. “In protecting you and your siblings, I’m fulfilling my sphere. Divine power flows most freely when a god does that, and we actually gain mana nearly as fast as we use it. So...I’m much stronger and harder to hurt than usual.” He kneels and holds her shoulder. “I wish I had a backup weapon to lend you, but I dropped my knife.”

She looks determined. “They’ll get to the others over my dead body.” Her voice is grim.

He nods solemnly, knowing that it’s a very real possibility. He squeezes her shoulder and lets her return to see after the other Bunnies.

Alma approaches Somrak. “You’re badly injured. Let me heal you.”

Somrak looks up at her with heavy-lidded eyes. “Save it, Sergeant. You’ll likely need the mana later.”

“It is a more efficient use of mana to heal you now, rather than leave you as a burden on the rest of us,” she replies with a voice of winter. “I daresay I can heal you with greater ease than you can heal yourself.”

He curls his lip in a sardonic smile and glances at the Commander, saying, “I see what you meant about her.”

Alma narrows her eyes at the Commander and seems about to speak, when Sky asks, “Wait – where did those other two Guardia Dei disappear to?”

“Sent to fetch reinforcements,” the Commander says, sounding eager to change the subject away from what he may have told Somrak about Alma. “You missed a lot while you were being used as that big ones’ playtoy.”

Outside there is a sudden increase in the howling, accompanied by sounds of tearing, cutting and rage-filled screaming from that same goddess. Suddenly there is silence.

The Commander looks at Dion. “Can you get them out of here?” he whispers.

Dion looks doubtful. “All of us?”

The Commander shakes his head. “You, her, them,” he whispers, indicating Alma and the Bunnies. “We hold the Sikari here, let them think they have the Bunnies trapped. Go anywhere – don’t tell us where. Now!”

Gwydion nods. He begins to trace a circle on the wall, using his finger to paint glowing lines of gold, adorning the edge of the circle with symbols ancient and esoteric. Alma looks at Somrak again, who waves her off. “Thank you,” the slender god whispers. “But you truly should save it for them.” He nods at the Bunnies. “They may need it.”

Before she joins Dion, she approaches Sky, handing his sword to him hilt-first. He smiles slightly. “Seems like you got some good use out of it,” he says.

“The grip is too thick for my hand, the weight and balance all wrong for my fencing style,” she replies with a small smile of her own. “Still, it is a good weapon. One I think you will be needing.”

Sky nods and takes it, his hand closing on hers for a moment, his eyes looking into hers. Then there is a knock at the door. A voice like something from the grave intones, “Threat eliminated. You may come out.”

Sage whispers, his voice shaking, “Could they be on our side?”

Somrak makes eye contact with him and shakes his head no.

Suddenly the circle Gwydion was enchanting flashes gold and then becomes an opening into another place. Alma hustles the Bunnies through while Gwydion steps aside. He glances at Sky questioningly, but the Inspector juts his chin toward the portal to indicate that Dion should go with them. He does, and the portal snaps shut.

“Right,” says the Commander. “Now to survive.”


Ch4.38 Fatal Prophecy

“I don’t like their being kept here,” Sky mutters to the Commander as they stride through the curved corridor of the Curia, Somrak following behind.

“No choice,” the Commander replies. “Don’t worry. Math will not allow them to be executed.”

“I lack your confidence in him,” Sky growls. “He is an Archon. If he can get a few votes for some special project of his, he’ll sacrifice them without a thought. No Archon has reached the Council without being a treacherous, back-stabbing...” Sky falls silent for a few strides, then says, “I am going to stay with them.”

“With the Bunnies?” Sky nods at the Commander’s question. “Making up your own orders now?” the Commander sneers.

“I swore to protect them. I gave Sergeant Alma my vow.”

The Commander stops, turning to Sky in anger. “Your vow? What vow?”

Looking down at his superior, Sky coolly says, “The Adamantine Vow.”

The Commander’s face turns red. He looks as if he’s about to strike Sky. “What...in Hell were you thinking?” Somrak leans against the wall to watch the fireworks, a smirk on his face.

“She had just learned that I was assigned to be their executioner. In order to protect the Bunnies, I had to regain her trust. I vowed to protect them, even at the cost of my own life.” Sky’s voice is even and unyielding. “I will not leave them under some stranger’s care, as long as they are in danger.”

The Commander seems to be keeping himself from exploding through a supreme act of will. Breathing hard, he begins to bring himself back under control. As he does, Somrak stops leaning against the wall and comes closer. “Come on, Chief. This is Sky. You know how he gets when the Big Bad Bastards are going to stomp on some poor little mortals.” He looks at Sky and chuckles. “Vow, no vow – it’s all the same to him. He’ll throw everything over for his ‘innocents’.” The god’s voice somehow manages to sound both taunting and grudgingly affectionate at once.

The Commander continues to glare, eyes locked with Sky’s, for another long moment before turning and continuing down the corridor. “Insubordinate son of a bitch,” he mutters. “Fine. But I am keeping you on a short leash after this.”

Behind them, Somrak barks, “Woof! Woof!”

Around the curve of the corridor, they hear voices: Rosemary’s lilt, Cherry’s drawl, Alma and Dion, too far away to make out the words but their tones easily recognizable. Almost too low to catch, Mayumi asking a question. Sky lengthens his stride in anticipation, and moments later he sees them, the Bunnies all in matching, tailored dress of Guardia blue, Dion and Alma in uniform, two other Guardia Dei with them. He hears Alma and Dion say something low, and he begins to smile.

Then he sees movement beyond them. Gods in Guardia uniform, the Council Security variation, but fully armed and armored up for imminent battle. Even so, it’s their body language that sets off alarm bells for Sky, even more than the unusual kit. The swaggering stride, the aggressive posture – they are no deferential First Ring security. More like seasoned killers. Hit men. Assassins.

“Somrak,” Sky says.

“I see them,” the Dei officer acknowledges, stepping to one side, raising his left hand, palm out, a smile growing, twisted by the scar down the left side of his otherwise handsome face.

Sky notes that Alma and Gwydion appear to be unarmed, in compliance with the dictums of the Curia Consilium, that no one, not even Guardia, other than those on official security duty can walk about armed. He feels a flash of gratitude for the Commander designating him and Somrak as bodyguards.

DOWN!” Sky shouts, his voice filled with divine command, filling the corridor and flowing down it like a roaring flood. The Bunnies, as one, flatten against the floor before their minds can even process the sound. The two unknown Dei, unprepared, find themselves down on the floor as well. Alma and Dion also kneel, not quite as quickly, not entirely controlled but not resisting the order from their commanding officer either. And the assassins freeze, two of them cringing while two more fall to their knees. One remains standing, and Sky sees her snarl, flexing her rippling, overdeveloped muscles, popping the straps on her Guardia armor so that her reinforced jacket falls open.

Somrak whispers something under his breath and his hand glows bright yellow. The standing assassin suddenly looks down at herself, shocked to see her body engulfed in flames. Then she roars in pain, her cry making the corridor vibrate. Sky feels it in his teeth, his bones. The Bunnies press themselves even further against the floor, writhing in obvious pain from the intensity of the sound. Even Dion and Alma grimace as they rise and turn to meet the threat, Dion automatically starting to cast a defensive spell, Alma’s white hair fanning out as she about-faces into an unarmed combat stance.

Sky begins running, the world slowing as he charges. He feels his power filling him, so very easily. There is nothing holding him back, for his vow and his sphere of divine influence are in synch: the championing of the oppressed against the unjustly powerful.

He feels a crossbow bolt pass by him from behind, so close the fletching barely brushes his arm. He sees it slam into the burning assassin, whose strength has made her the obvious primary target. Her roar chokes into a scream as she staggers two steps, almost falling onto her back. Sky doesn’t look behind, knowing it is the Commander, who has more tricks up his sleeve than Sky will ever guess. Pull a crossbow out of thin air? Why not one for each hand? And make them the best ever crafted. As expected, another bolt flashes by, far faster than a crossbow can be reloaded, and it hits the the burning, wounded assassin, penetrating her other lung, and down she goes, falling back onto two of her companions.

Alma and Dion are just beginning to order the stunned Bunnies behind them when Sky reaches them. Not slowing, he leaps over Merri and Chime. The red-haired girl is holding her younger sibling under her, protecting him despite the tears streaming down her face.

Sky sails over them, his head nearly hitting the ceiling, and he lands well beyond, just in front of the assassins. Filled with the strength of the ocean, he lands hard, shattering the white marble floor, cratering it around his feet, and from him flows the force of a tsunami, directed at the contract killers. The ones who were merely cringing are knocked off their feet, while the three who were down from either Sky’s command or the Commander’s bolts are swept down the corridor by some invisible force, tumbling as if in a flash flood.

Sky recovers his balance and looks behind at Alma and Gwydion, and the two Dei he doesn’t recognize. He points back in the direction he just came from. “There’s a portal back that way!”

He has a moment of warning, as the divines’ eyes widen, and Mayumi calls out, “No!” He starts to turn but is still twisted and not set to receive the attack when the massive goddess, still smoking and sporting two bolts in her chest, slams into him as hard as anything he can remember in his life. He goes down, his head hitting the broken marble floor hard enough that he swears his skull rings like a temple bell. The only thought in his head is, Fast! She’s fast!

His hand flails and automatically grabs her throat, and he feels the salt water of the cold depths flow through his and to fill her throat and lungs. She slams her forearm into him hard again, twice, ignoring the water filling her respiratory system, desperately trying to finish him before he can finish her. With each strike his skull hits the floor again hard enough to break the stone into progressively smaller fragments. He finds it hard to think.

Slowly he realizes the assault has stopped and nobody is hitting him anymore. He also realizes he’s not holding anyone by the throat now. He blearily focuses and sees his attacker rearing back, attempting to roar once again, trying to pull out the crossbow bolts in each eye. Seawater chokes from her mouth.

Then a shape flashes across his unfocused vision. White hair, pale skin, dressed beautifully in blue and white. Alma. As Sky watches, still trying to take it all in, the goddess performs a full fl├Ęche, using her body like an arrow, dashing full out, launching herself at her target.

The sword in her hand pierces the throat of the giant goddess. Bubbling pink liquid spurts from the wound, and the huge goddess staggers drunkenly back, off the blade, air mixed with blood and salt water spraying out of the new hole in her windpipe. She pulls a bolt out of her left eye socket, the ruined orb coming with it like a large olive on a kebab skewer, then crashes against a wall and slumps down it.

Groggy, Sky tries to lever himself up, slips, and is caught by the arm. He looks up, feeling stupid, dazed, and sees Gwydion is helping him. He wonders briefly where Alma got a sword from. Hadn’t she been unarmed before? Then he hears a huge CRACK CRACK CRACK. Gwydion releases Sky and does a blindingly fast casting, raising a shield against which something bright explodes, dazzling Sky. Blinking and moving quickly to his feet, Sky makes out another assassin, one who was washed away earlier, a small man in storm-colored clothes, all blue-greys. The man’s eyes are sparks of electricity, and as Sky watches he flashes into a painfully loud arc of energy that slams against the opposite wall, shattering the marble there.

Where he was a moment ago, flames roar up. Behind Sky, Somrak curses. Then another CRACK and Somrak is flung down, smoking and twitching, arching his back as his muscles contract uncontrollably. Sky hears laughter, sees the assassin further down the hallway, near the Commander, who fires bolts from a small, precision-made crossbow in each hand, but too late – the bolt becomes ash in mid-flight as the god transforms again and arcs at the Bunnies. Once again Gwydion stops him with a shield, and the lightning arc bounces back among the three other assassins, the god appearing again, looking stunned.

Acting almost without thought, Sky summons another wave, less strong this time, but more real, not just an intangible force but as real as the water he had used to fill the lungs of his earlier opponent. Salt water materializes out of the air around him, and with a gesture of his long arms it crashes along the walls and hits the assassins. He carefully pushes the water so that there is not a drop under his feet, nor under the wounded Somrak or anyone else on his side. The assassins, on the other hand, are soaked, in a large puddle of water, looking merely annoyed at this latest attack.

The Commander fires a second bolt, and the little man in storm-colored clothes reacts without thinking, arcing away with a clap of thunder – and frying his three companions through the highly conductive salt water. The water seems to stun the lightning god as well, perhaps by diffusing him, and he appears in human form about midway between Sky and the other assassins. Sky gives him no chance to recover, leaping on him, coming down hard on him with both knees, breaking bones.

Then he tries to draw his short sword and discovers the scabbard empty. Oh, so that’s where Alma got a sword from! He almost laughs, but with no hesitation reaches into his boot and pulls out a dagger, slipping his fingers into the brass knuckles of its grip, and stabbing, again and again, into the chest, making certain to finish the downed lightning god.

A thought crosses his churning mind: How many have I killed this day? But he shakes it off and moves to the other assassins, intending to cut their throats before they can recover. He takes three steps and then trips, something seizing his leg and bringing him crashing down. He twists, his ankle pinned, and sees what is holding him: the blinded, barely breathing goddess he had thought dead. Her huge hand holds his ankle painfully, and she half-growls, half-laughs. Sky marvels that, even with one eye socket empty and the other still sporting a crossbow bolt through the ball, the edges of her eyes still crinkle in merry crow’s feet.

“Oh, come on!” Sky hears – was that Sage or Kori yelling in frustration? – just before he is sailing through the air to be slammed against the wall. Then he is slammed again, against the…floor? Then the wall...or ceiling maybe, then floor, yes, definitely the floor this time, then...some surface, and again, and again, and then he loses track altogether.

For a time, the world is just a blur of pain to Sky. Despite the divine power filling him, the repeated head trauma prevents him from thinking clearly enough to do anything with it other than heal himself. His body heals swiftly, but not swiftly enough. But he finds himself, finally, coming to himself on the floor, vision doubled, whiteness above him, and a huge shape of bright orange bobbing in and out of his sight. He moves slightly, focuses, and see the huge goddess staggering, afire again, burning fiercely, and Somrak standing against the wall, breathing hard.

Then a tripled scream. “MERRIIIIII!” Sky rolls and sees a chain, apparently made of smokey glass, taut and near his face. To the right are the Bunnies, Cherry looking panicked as she holds Merri’s arms, Chime holding Cherry around the waist, then suddenly Merri slips away, the redhead shrieking as she’s dragged along the broken stone floor, the smokey chain wrapped around one leg, a heartbreaking look of horror on Cherry’s face as Merri slips away from her.

Sky slaps his long arm out and grabs her thigh, arresting her movement. With his other hand, he grabs the chain. He can see it is digging into her flesh, bruising and tearing her skin. She twists and wraps herself around his arm, sobbing in terror. Still bleary, Sky follows the chain and sees a man at the other end. The chain seems to be coming right out of the god’s hand, and he raises the other hand and points it at Sky. As he does another chain shoots out and whips itself around the Guardia Dei’s arms.

Sky laughs.

Despite Merri sobbing on one arm, and the chain around both, Sky stands. Hunched forward slightly under his bonds, he grins horribly at the chaincaster. “Someone made a mistake sending you on this kill,” he croaks. Then, summoning the power of his sphere of rebellion, he shows why one of his titles is Breaker of Chains.

The chains of glass pop and shatter, starting wherever they touch Sky and proceeding swiftly back to the caster himself. The god screams as if somehow the shattering is happening inside him, as if his body were filled with these chains. As if, indeed, he were somehow made of chains. The god shudders and howls, and then falls and lies still.

The last links, unbroken, fall away from Merri’s injured leg, but she clings to Sky’s arm as strongly as ever. He wants to comfort her, calm her down, be tender with her, but at the moment she is an impediment to him, preventing him from fighting. Suddenly Cherry is there, holding her, pulling her off him, and Merri transfers her terrified clinging to her lover. Chime is there with Cherry, tears streaking his young face as well, and then Alma is gathering her progeny in her arms and pushing them back to the others.

The giant goddess, still burning like a torch but no longer roaring, staggers past Sky’s vision and almost into the two remaining assassins, who have yet to enter the fight. Sky can see why. They are nearly identical, wearing matte-black armor, segmented but simple, concealing every inch of skin. Sky wonders how they can see and hear under the all-enclosing armor. They shift, synchronized perfectly. Sky feels they may be the toughest opponents yet.

Alma is yelling at him. “Sky! The Commander says we have to move! There are more coming from the other direction! SKY!” He nods, but doesn’t move. He knows the armored pair will attack the moment he does.

Fortunately the giantess bowls right into the other assassins, knocking them off-balance. Sky spins to see Alma already at a door, ushering the last of the Bunnies inside. Somrak limps and Sky grabs him by the arm and thrusts him at Alma, who pushes him inside.

Sky moves to join them and hears a chilling howl from an almost-human throat, coming from the direction in which they would have fled. At least a dozen voices take up the howl, a sound flat, dead and soulless. Sky feels his skin crawl, his neck prickle.

Alma grab’s Sky by his torn and battered jacket and shoves him inside, pulling the door closed behind her. She looks at him, his expression of fear turning her even paler than usual. “What?” she asks. “What is that? You know, don’t you?”

“The Sikari,” he says. “They’re coming.”


Ch4.37 Fatal Prophecy

The Curia Concilium, probably the most famous and least-known building in all of the Insula. Perched on the very top of the volcanic mountain that gives this nexus of converging and contrasting realities its shape, the building in which the Great Council of Archons, the Senate and the Council of Tribes find their home hovers just above the crater, its bones resting on the massive levitating marble platform that lends it foundation and beauty. Staircases and long, winding roads stretch from it all the way down to the First Ring, like the tentacles of a gigantic octopus, too long and steep to climb on foot, at least for the most common of humans.

Fashioned like a massive coliseum surrounded by well-trimmed gardens, fountains and imposing portals, the building stands, glistening and white, its intricately carved circular walls depicting scenes of creation and destruction, of great wars against the most fearsome children of Hell, of heroes and traitors, gods and, if one takes the time to search, even men.

Within it, the fate of the Urbis is planned and played each day, like a board game of wits and influence, by the oldest, most powerful and eloquent of gods. Most of these, like Alma’s father, make up the Senate, a body of hundreds of gods, each looking to tilt the scales in his/her/its favor, creating new laws and tweaking old ones, much to the general confusion of even the best, most studious of lawyers. They convene in the lower rings of the Curia, just above the arena, where gods requesting audience may plead their case. Sheltered from the elements by beautiful, movable roofs, the senators do their business with a sort of chaotic order and protocol, to which many a deal struck behind the scenes lends a certain level of perceived efficiency.

The rest of the populace is not without its representation, of course. The Comitia Tributa, mostly known as the Council of Tribes, made of the thousands of elected representatives of the non-divine population in the Urbis, occupies the upper benches of the coliseum. Too far up to even see the arena below, the throng of squabbling mortals stands in five concentric rings sitting far above and away from the Senate, so vast and populated that those wishing to be heard have to raise their voices above the roaring crowd – an impossibility for a single mortal, necessitating factions and parties. In the sun, the rain, under freezing temperatures or lightning strikes, they shout and quarrel every single day about little things, meaningless things as limited as a mortal’s vision can be about the great scheme of all things.

And below, far, far below, in the very bowels of the Curia, the Council of Archons dwells. Names known only to a very privileged few, these figures of myth and wonder meet away from the sight of gods and mortals, below the arena, away from the light, in heavily guarded rooms only they can describe. To reach them, one must descend into the womb of the Curia, through winding staircases and hidden passages.

Just as Math is about to do. Standing at the top of one of the inconspicuous staircases that leads down to the entrance of the Council's pleading stand, he inspects his entourage, currently consisting of seven exquisitely dressed Bunnies, their creator Alma, Math’s nephew and two other Dei, all sporting the rich blue colors of Math’s Guardia. Their clothes styled to a perfect fit, the Bunnies shine in all their glory, their slender bodies hugged and framed in splendid, light fabric, skirts and blouses for the females, except for Cherry. She looks much more comfortable in the skin-tight leather trousers she found in a closet at Math’s, and when one of the servants, trained in magic, used a simple spell to make them fit perfectly, she insisted on wearing them. The males wear shirts and pants or shorts, Sage looking particularly charming in his vest embroidered with magnificent silver-thread cornucopia and leaves.

Alma allows herself to feel slightly more confident, even if mildly uncomfortable with having had to surrender her sword and dagger to comply with the law that forbids anyone not on official guard duty from carrying a weapon within the sacred walls of the Curia. The Bunnies look extraordinary in their outfits, as they themselves keep cooing, happy to model the garments at the smallest opportunity. The goddess herself is dressed to impress in a long, light dress embroidered in silver and white, so finely and subtly that a starry sky would pale in comparison. Her right shoulder bare, the top of her dress hanging from her left shoulder, front and back made of sashes pinned together by her badge, her slim waist  drawn by an intricate corset embroidered with a phoenix in flight, that slowly melts into a long, flaring skirt designed more for show than for practical means, Alma feels readier for a ball than a Council hearing. Gwydion himself, in his impeccable suit trimmed in gold thread and cut to accentuate each line and curve of his muscular form, could just as easily step out and attend a high-end party.

The two First Ring Guardia Dei escorting them look as prim and flawless as their post demands, their golden badges shined to blind the occasional victim with reflected light. One of them, however, finds his face slightly marred by a black eye and a busted lip.

“Very well,” Math determines, rubbing his hands together and composing the collar on his shirt. “Now, while I go and speak to the Council, you lot are going to be escorted by these gentlemen to one of our holding areas.” He indicates the two First Ring Dei. “And Gwydion, please try not to beat them up this time.”

They wait for the Archon to disappear down the staircase before turning away and setting off to walk the curving, winding corridors that so closely follow on the inside the rounded profile of the gaping mouth and outer heart the Curia. They walk some distance before Alma turns to Gwydion.

“Beat them up?” she inquires, eyebrow raised, her query catching the attention of the other two Dei.

“Our fellow Dei and I had a little misunderstanding, that’s all,” Gwydion offers as explanation, his eyes locked on the stretch of corridor in front of him.

“Yeah, I’ll bet you’d call what you did to Grigore’s sister a misunderstanding, too,” the yet seemingly unharmed Dei providing escort snorts.

“Shut up, Gavril,” the Dei identified as Grigore growls.

Alma glances at the jesting god, looking back at the god of magic as she speaks, “First Geryon saying you weren’t exactly welcome in the First Ring, then two Guardia Dei wanting your skin. What did you do that has so many people hating you?”

“Ah, he’s been deflowering damsels like he’s plucking weeds from a garden,” Gavril replies in Gwydion’s turn, clearly too pleased with his wits and the sound of his voice to let go of the conversation. “No daughter, sister or lover is safe if Dion there is around.”

Alma looks at Gavril and then at Grigore, her eyes showing her confusion. Gwydion’s whole image and behavior are plainly indicative of a long life of debauchery and single-night affairs. It can’t possibly be so recent as to be raising alarm in the First Ring court just now.

“I would assume this is consensual, though, even if immoral,” the goddess says, her eyes searching for Gwydion’s as she asks, “Have their parents, brothers and lovers found out about one of those liaisons?”

“Worse!” Gavril cries, a you're-not-going-to-believe-this expression on his face. “All the ladies found out about each other! They all want him dead now!”

Alma freezes in her tracks, soon falling behind from the group, that stops not very far ahead to look at the goddess, a question in every single pair of eyes gazing at her. Alma looks placidly at them for a moment, then smiles, then bursts out in laughter as the ridiculous character of the situation hits her like a rock. It is a pleasant, melodic laugh, fresh and lively, like water running in a young stream on a spring day. The group stares at her in utter shock.

“My... Ah think that’s the first time Ah’ve heard her laugh!” Rosemary exclaims in sheer incredulity. She laughs herself before walking toward the goddess. “Are ye feelin’ well, dear?”

Alma nods, unable to speak and the Bunny jumps at her, fiercely embracing the goddess.

“I’m feeling quite all right, little one, I assure you,” Alma says amidst laughter, resuming her march. “I just couldn’t help but laugh at the exquisite nonsense of it all.”

“You’re saying that ’cause it wasn’t your sister…” Grigore mutters as goddess and Bunny rejoin the group.

Alma stops laughing but smiles still, amused at the thought that someone like Gwydion, whose lines and game can so easily be detected from a distance, could fool so many ladies. She walks up to Grigore, her eyes smiling predatorially at him.

“If it was my sister, I would tell her she made her bed and very thoroughly laid herself in it, my dear,” she states, eyes locked on his. “She can take it as a lesson and move on. But you…” she adds, fingers caressing his golden badge, shaped like an eye, the white stone indicating his First Ring descent set like an iris. Her other hand touches her own, silver badge, shaped like a delicate lily, the blue stone of the Second Ring shining to one side, a phoenix in flight stretching her wings in the other. “Attacking a fellow Dei as if we weren’t all the same behind this badge… Shame on you.”

Grigore’s eyes flare with anger and the god seems about to say something, but he just snarls and looks away instead.

“Let us just keep moving, please,” Gwydion suggests, obviously ill-at-ease with the conversation. “There are enough people looking at us already.”

Alma looks around her to find that the god of magic is not exaggerating. Their attention probably caught by her laughter and the prospect of a fight among the Guardia, a number of people have stopped their mindless migrations to and fro, and simply stand in the middle of the corridor, some distance apart, watching intently. From the crowd, a little boy dressed in grey and black and looking no older than eight years of age detaches and runs in their direction.

“Alma! Sister!” he cries as he covers the distance to the goddess and leaps into her arms.

“Molochai!” Alma exclaims, holding him tightly and spinning him around, making the boy laugh with delight. “How lovely to see you, little brother!”

“It’s been so long since you’ve visited home!” Molochai complains as Alma puts him down. "I thought you had forgotten all about us!”

The goddess strokes her brother’s cheek, pulling a tiny strand of his golden hair behind his left ear, where his harem-earring in the shape of a violet shines, indicating his descent for all to see. “Never, little brother.” She looks around for other familiar faces. “Surely, you are not here alone?”

Molochai waves her off, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth. “Nah!” He points in the general direction he came from. “Melinor came with me.”

Alma looks back at the now not quite so attentive people standing at the end of the hall. There stands Melinor, one of her many older brothers, his heavily muscular body drawn in profile as he tries very hard not to be noticed by the goddess and her entourage. His tanned, handsome face framed by his wild raven-black hair, with the occasional auburn lock, constantly locked in a grimace of intense displeasure, struggles to look away from the goddess but glance watchfully at the little boy standing by her side at the same time. Finally, he has no choice but to turn and look directly at his little sister.

Alma is so used to the vision that she barely sees it as a deformity. The others flinch, though, stunned at how the handsome man occupying the right side of Melinor’s face so sharply contrasts against the misshapen monster taking the left. The tanned skin gives way to greyish, scarred flesh, cracked and carved by a deep gash that crosses his cheek to his lip, exposing muscle and bone beyond the dessicated, decaying skin that ripples and overhangs the edges of the perinneal wound. His left ear, jagged and almost completely destroyed as if bitten off by some wild beast, barely provides enough flesh to hold his harem mark, similar to Molochai’s. The god stares at Alma, his look of intense disapproval contradicted only by the warm glow in his rusty-ochre slanted eyes.

“He’s feeling a bit grumpy today,” Molochai comments with a shrug.

“I have never known him to be otherwise,” Alma replies, greeting Melinor with a nod and smiling with pleasure to see him look away again, the faintest of flustery-pinks tainting his sun-kissed right cheek.

“Ahem…” a voice rings in the immediate vicinity of Alma’s Bunnies.

The goddess meets their inquisitive looks and, in Cherry’s case, crossed arms and softly tapping foot.

“Yes, of course,” the Alma whispers apologetically. “Little ones, Gwydion, this is one of my brothers, Molochai.”

Sage immediately steps forward and offers his hand in greeting to the boy-god as he introduces himself and his ken. “Hi, I’m Sage and these are Cherry, Merri, May, Kori, Chime and our little sister.”

“Hi!” Molochai greets with a friendly wave of his hand and a broad smile on his lips.

Rosemary runs to hug him, holding him tightly to her, his head pressed firmly against her chest. “Oh, he’s so cute, the wee bairn!” she coos, relaxing her choke-hug just enough to look at him closely and say to Alma, “Doesn’t look anythin’ like ye, mind.”

Cherry steps closer and looks at him intently. “Hmm... Maybe a bit around the ears.”

“Well, he merely shares a father with me,” Alma explains, chuckling softly. “His mother, Macana, has always been very good to me.”

Molochai finally manages to release himself of Rosemary’s hold. “So, is this your discomfiting brood?” he asks, looking up at the goddess.

“Hey!” Cherry exclaims, poking Molochai with an accusing finger. “Who’re you callin’ discomfiting? We’re very comfortable-ing!”

“Please, Cherry,” Alma intervenes, placing a hand on her little brother’s shoulder. “Where did you hear them called that, Chai?”

“Melinor muttered it,” Molochai replies, unabashed, pointing back to where his older brother still stands. “Told me to come say hello and I told him to come with me but he just wouldn’t budge, the big, grumpy–”

“Mind your words, little brother,” Alma states sharply.

“I’m sorry,” the little boy apologises, head held down, looking deeply disheartened.

“Aaaawwwww!” Merri coos, hugging Molochai again. “Please dinnae yell at the wee one.”

“Do not let his appearance fool you, Rosemary,” Alma notes softly. “Molochai is older than you and Cherry, and even Mayumi put together.”

“I guess he’s gonna be a late bloomer, then,” Cherry mutters, prompting a warm, squealing laugh from the young child-god.

“You’re funny!” Molochai cries. Without warning, his laughter stops and he looks intently at Cherry, his boyish composure and the youthful glow in his grey eyes replaced now by a shadow of years seemingly unlived. Even his voice sounds deeper, aged as he says placidly, “I am glad you are already beyond my sphere of concern. It would be intensely unpleasant to get called to collect on you.”

He suddenly seems to remember something and his eyes shoot up at Alma. He hops in sudden excitement, looking and feeling like a boy again. “Oh! Father must be almost done in the Senate! I need to go now, Sister!”

Alma nods in agreement. “And so must we,” she embraces Molochai tightly, holding him above the floor, his little feet flailing with childish joy as she strokes his soft golden hair and kisses his temple.

“Give our brother and your mother a kiss for me, yes?” she whispers in his ear before putting him down again.  “And, if you must, give Father a kiss as well,” she adds as an afterthought.

“Will do!” Molochai promises, already waving goodbye at the group and running back to Melinor. “Bye!”

“What an odd character…” Gwydion whispers as he watches the god-child join his brother and leave.

“Did you see how he totally changed all of a sudden?” Cherry comments, shuddering. “Talkin’ like he was real old. Gave me the chills.”

“And what did he mean with collecting on us?” Mayumi inquires.

“Gods come in many shapes and sizes, little ones,” Alma explains, her voice gentle and reassuring. “Molochai, son of Macana, Goddess of Merciful, Blissful Death, is the God of Child Death. He will never grow old in appearance, and even in his mind the child rules most of the time.”

“And Melinor?” Gwydion queries.

“God of Violent Death,” the goddess replies. “He has his reasons for being as he is.”

“I’ll bet so,” the god of magic mutters, looking down the other end of the corridor. “Ah, there’s Inspector Sky and the – is that the Commander?” he asks in vague incredulity.

“It is,” Alma agrees, sharing his confusion at the sight of the rangy figure of their highest commanding officer. “I wonder why he’s here.”


Ch4.36 Fatal Prophecy

Appearing at the headquarters of the Guardia, still chafing under Somrak’s teasing, Sky ignores the slender Guardia Dei and heads directly for the Commander’s office. Chuckling, Somrak follows. After negotiating the corridors bustling with Guardia and support staff, Sky crosses the balcony and glances out at the moon-bathed City, his memory flashing back to the last time he was here, when this all began seven short weeks ago.

He pushes through the heavy doors and strides through the outer office, pausing at the desk of the Commander’s elegant secretary. She smiles and stands, coming around her desk, holding out her hands. Sky takes them both in his.

“Mrs. Finch,” Sky says to her with sincere affection. “How have you been?”

“Very well, Inspector.” Her wrinkles deepen as her smile grows. Sky finds himself almost lost in her lovely face, a map of well-earned lines that each speak to him of her mortality, noble and tragic. She regards every Guardia as her own child, newly met or old friends, ancient Dei far older than her or Popula teenagers still in the Academy. She reminds him strongly of someone else, from long ago, but her words pull him out of his revery. “I wish we could talk, but the Commander is waiting.”

“Of course.” Sky releases her hands and turns to enter the Commander’s office, leaving his shadow, Somrak, behind. It is only after he turns away from her that he realizes his armored jacket is covered with a wide splash of dried blood, and that his hands are speckled with blood as well. But Mrs. Finch never blinked.

“You’re late,” the Commander says flatly just as the doors close behind Sky. He is standing, looking out the window, ramrod straight, slim and rawboned.

“Apparently the agenda for this meeting was lost in the mail,” Sky growls back. “Can we skip the pleasantries? You are keeping me from people under my protection.”

The Commander looks around. About to say something, he sees a familiar glint in Sky’s eye, and appears to change his mind. “Report!” he demands.

“Sergeant Gwydion made a persuasive case for removing the Bunnies to his uncle’s estate. We set out but were ambushed by a hit squad of Dukaine thugs. Sergeant Machado was wounded. I stayed with him to hold off Dukaine pursuers. The rest pressed on to the portal. Apparently they ran into another hit team, but according to Sergeant Somrak, they all made it to the Archon’s estate. Now, I would like to join them, before your machinations get them killed.” Sky is almost shaking with anger, his face once again discolored with black markings. “Did you even consider that Alma’s creations might be people, kind, loving, individual people who deserve better than to be treated like disposable bait in a game to catch an Archon?”

The Commander holds Sky’s gaze. “You are getting emotional. Hot headed. Except for your little outbursts of rebelliousness, like stealing my cigars, you were always calm and focused.”

Sky glares back. “Just how you liked me. Calm. Emotionally dead. Like a machine. Your reliable tool.” He holds his hands out to indicate himself. “I guess this is what happens when you send me away to a place like Three Rats.”

The Commander studies him, his expression turning curious. “How are you feeling, Sky? Have you lost control? Have you transformed?”

Sky’s belligerence falters at the sudden change in tone. “I...transformed once. But I didn’t lose control. I did it at the Oracle’s request.”

The Commander nods. “Yes. I’m not surprised she figured it out. Are you willing to tell me what she saw?”

Shocked, Sky asks, “You’re giving me a choice?”

The Commander snorts. “I suppose I am. A personal prophecy is, well, personal.” He seems about to say more, then clears his throat and says instead, “But you are right to want to get back with your Sergeants and these Bunnies you seem so fond of. Despite what you think, I have no wish to see any of them come to harm. We’ll talk more of this later. Let’s go.”

You’re coming?”

The Commander grins. “I wouldn’t miss it.”