“Hide here,” Alma orders the Bunnies, getting them all to take cover in a darkened building doorway, its shadows providing stealth and protection against anyone looking from the square.
Mayumi kneels, crossbow at the ready, in front of Kori and Chime, Sage behind them with the youngest in his arms, while Rosemary brandishes her Guardia truncheon and Cherry hefts her cricket bat. “We’ll keep the little ones safe,” Cherry says.
“Be careful,” Merri whispers to Alma, who looks at them, worry mixed with pride.
Just as she is about to speak, the Dukaines attack. Surrounding both gods, Bunnies and Saira from three sides, the complicated mixture of humans, beasts and demigods closes in, moving like a chaotic wave of conflicting wills. Gwydion makes a complex hand gesture that Alma can’t quite follow and, suddenly, the front line of the Dukaine attack gets delayed as a number of enemies seem to get their feet sucked in by the ground itself. Tugging desperately at their own legs, mortal after mortal find death at the tip of Saira’s bolts or Alma’s throwing knives, while Gwydion draws his sword and sweeps the space before him, his blade shining with golden light, hitting clothing and flesh, wounding and killing as if cutting through air. At a word of his, the short sword releases the blade of light and sends it flying, just as sharp and deadly, sweeping and reaping lives in the enemy line. Gwydion runs into the opening in the lines that he created and disappears into the crowd.
Intent on driving the attack as far away from the Bunnies as possible, Alma pushes into the enemy lines as well. Moving with graceful efficiency, parrying blows from maces, swords and even lances with her narrow-bladed sword and her left-hand dagger, the goddess moves through the enemy lines like a fish through water, the edges of the thin, impossibly sharp blades glowing an icy white as they cut through leather, through skin and through muscle, in their deadly dance. Blood stains her blue outfit a burgundy brown and drips down her blades, their grips now slippery with the red fluid. Deafened by the sounds of metal hitting metal and the screams of wounded opponents, she carries on, feeling the touch of exhaustion on her muscles but knowing that stopping is no option. With much effort, she manages to advance deeper into the enemy lines, leaving the ground behind her covered in dead or wounded bodies and blood, until suddenly, without warning, the enemies surrounding stop moving in on her.
A strong burst of wind knocks the goddess down, making her land on her belly, hands and elbows hitting the ground first in an attempt to blunt the impact. The enemy line actually moves back as if to watch her fall; the world goes silent around her. Alma turns as fast as she can to look behind her, afraid of what other blows may come, cursing under her breath to find sword and dagger sliding away from her. She feels the breeze from above, sees the shadow falling over her and she looks up at her opponent.
It all happens so fast…
Just above Alma, a demigoddess looking like a hybrid of human and wasp hovers mid-jump, for little more than a second, her two pairs of under-developed wings flapping furiously, her antennae flicking, her compound eyes fixed on the goddess. Her sharp, deadly sting looms from her striped abdomen, pointed tip glistening in the early moonlight, directed straight at Alma’s chest. In her hand, she bears a delicate-looking fan apparently made of insect wings, no doubt the source of all that wind. Alma tilts her head at the image, watching the sting move against her in slow motion, contemplating what it would be like for a death goddess to die. The sting grows bigger and bigger, closer and closer and finally…
… misses its target completely as the wasp demigoddess is tackled mid-landing by Saira. That alone is enough to break the spell. Alma immediately rises and fetches her blades, joining Saira just as she drives a demon-ichor-laced dagger into the demigoddess’ chest. Helping the woman back to her feet from her position straddling the now-dead divine, Alma thanks her with a nod, receiving a mildly annoyed shrug in response. Their enemies seem to awake as well and goddess and woman soon find themselves surrounded again, fighting back to back.
Not far away, Gwydion continues his solitary fight, using sword and vicious kicks, his left arm glowing gold and red, acting as a shield due to the defensive spell the god has cast upon himself. For a moment, his eyes search for his companions and find Alma’s looking back at him, locking on them for just a fraction of a reassuring second. The next Dukaine enforcer forces him to break away from the look and Alma sees Gwydion driving the hilt of his sword into the man’s face, surely shattering bone and sending his defeated enemy flying back an impossible length, most likely due to some other move of a transcendental martial art.
Sudden screams break through the mob, soon followed by Dukaines running in all directions, panic spreading through their ranks like fire through dry grass. Alma’s eyes widen in horror at the sight of the huge, hyena-like demon dogs. Released by some unseen master, they run through the mass of mortals and immortals, knocking down and killing everyone in their path, ripping throats with their sharp teeth, crushing bones with their powerful jaws, covering everything in their blood-stained drool. Doomed by their very numbers, the Dukaines become the prefered victim for the dogs as, wherever they look, the foul beasts find only Dukaines to attack. Shielded by the crazed, quickly vanishing throng, Alma, Saira and Gwydion watch in disgust as their foe’s beasts, around ten in total, complete their task for them, leaving the square empty of live Dukaines as all those who are able vanish from the sight of those beastly weapons.
“There!” Saira shouts all of a sudden. “One of them found the Bunnies!”
In a second, all three are running toward the Bunnies, who are coming closer and closer to panic at the sight of the demon dogs gathering to attack their marked targets as a pack, not even hesitating at the bolts shot by Mayumi’s crossbow or the cobblestones hurled at them by Kori and Chime. Just as Cherry and Merri ready their clubs with fear-edged cries of “Bring it on, beasties!” and “Don’t let ’em get to the little one, Sage!” the apparent pack leader tenses his hind limbs and leaps to strike. Slightly closer to them to begin with, or perhaps just faster to run to them, Gwydion projects a void barrier around the battle-ready Bunnies, into which the beast disappears, closely followed by half a dozen of his followers.
And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, seven new dogs join the three left after Gwydion’s move. Saira cocks her crossbow and hits one of them on the chest, straight through the heart. It is a testament to the beast’s power that it keeps running for a few seconds still before it finally collapses. Alma freezes on her tracks, looking at the demon dogs and wondering about their real numbers. She watches as Gwydion, now standing between the dogs and Bunnies, stopping them from attacking the dogs as much as stopping the dogs from attacking the Bunnies, raises a pillar of flame in front of him that makes the demons slow down, but not stop completely. A thrust of the god’s hands, and the demon dogs get showered in flames, shrieking and howling in pain, running around in a frenzy as they burn to a crisp, spreading the fire that consumes them all over the square, igniting whatever will burn. One of them turns abruptly in Saira’s direction, bumping into her, making her scream in agony as the intense heat makes her back and shoulder blister with burn wounds while the beast-turned-torch exhausts its existence and finally dies. One by one, its comrades eventually fall dead as well. Gwydion breathes deep in his exhaustion.
And ten new demon dogs appear.
“Oh, come on!!” Saira exclaims in desperation.
Memories flash before Alma: a comfortable room with a fireplace, a velvet-lined chaise lounge chair, a gentle arm around her, a hand holding a small colorful ball. The smooth, lingering aftertaste of Ambrosia on her lips. And his voice in her ear…
Anyone can a see rolling ball and wonder where it is going. Only the wise will wonder where it came from.
Her head shooting in all directions, Alma searches the square. Her senses again stretched to trace souls as much as sounds and sights, she scours the place for the one she knows must be not be far away.
“Come on, come on,” she mutters to herself. “Let me see you.”
And then she sees him. Draped in a rusty-black ragged cloak, a hooded figure, no doubt a sorcerer, watches the scene from the rooftop of the very building that protects Gwydion and the Bunnies from any rearguard attacks. In his hand, the figure holds the ragged, bright form of a lightning spell, ready to be aimed at the god of magic, currently distracted by the slowly approaching demon dogs.
“Saira!” Alma shouts.
Saira looks at the goddess to see her pointing at the sorcerer. In an instant, her crossbow is cocked and aimed.
“He’s too far off and above me!” the woman says. “I can’t get a shot!”
“Just shoot!” Alma commands, looking wildly at the ground around her.
Saira shoots, the arrow rises. And then, Alma finds the insect-wing fan of the wasp demigoddess and waves it, blowing winds against the bolt, propelling forward and up, keeping it straight, driving it deeply into the sorcerer’s chest. He falls onto his back with the shock at the same time as Gwydion, now thoroughly exhausted, raises his void barrier one last time to absorb the vicious yet particularly stupid demon dogs.
This time, the beasts stay vanished.
“Well, that was fun!” Saira jests. “Can we go again?”
Alma chuckles nervously. “I’d rather not, if you don’t mind.”
They cross the now silent, empty square back to where the Bunnies stand leaning over Gwydion, currently kneeling on the ground, breathing harshly from the effort. Alma kneels by him and reaches into one of his jacket pockets, where she had seen him store their reserve mana balls. Removing one, she places it in his hand, urging him to consume it in a whispered voice. The need to move quickly registers with him and he absorbs half of the mana contained in the orb, saving the rest for later, his breathing becoming deeper and slower as he recharges. Alma rises and leans to help him rise but the god manages to stand on his own.
Moving as swiftly as possible, the group starts crossing the square over to the portal but they don’t manage to move much further than half its length before whatever is left of the Dukaine troops, still enough to heavily outnumber them, rallies to stand in their path and block the way.
“Let us through,” Alma commands.
Her enemies reply simply by assuming a fighting stance and drawing out various weapons.
Gwydion sighs. “I believe that means ‘no’ in thug-speak.”
Alma nods. “Very well, then,” she mutters, glancing at Gwydion, on her right and then at Saira and the Bunnies, to her left. “Stand back, please.”
Alma waits for her group to move to a safe distance and then holds her hands out and pulls her will. Darkness falls swiftly around them, stealing all light as if it could be sucked away. Whispers spread across the square, whispers of terror, of fearful things to come that rise higher and higher, filling the world as the souls of the dead gangsters covering the cobbled square are unbound from their lifeless bodies and pulled at the goddess’ summoning to her presence. Stretched to the brink of disintegration by her violent call, they scream in agony as they are compressed together, making the Dukaine thugs flinch involuntarily at the wailings that spread through the air and rattle their bones. Her eyes turned into black pools, hair blown by the ghostly breeze, hands shaking with the effort, she crafts the souls into a ball of pure, bright energy that seems to wriggle and vibrate and howl under the agony of its creation. The breeze turns into wind, the wind into gales.
And suddenly, Alma claps her hands, destroying the sphere trapped between them, releasing all those souls at once, creating a shockwave that fans out, limited only by her protecting arms, blowing the Dukaine thugs away, spreading them all over the square. Behind the goddess, Gwydion, Saira and the Bunnies hit the ground reflexively, even as Alma shields them from harm. For a moment, the square becomes very silent, very still, light fading back in as the souls fade away, released to the Wheel of Life and Death.
Exhausted, drained, Alma slumps forward, unsure of how to command her legs to sustain her while her mind drowns in that strange feeling left when she uses all her mana to perform her divine task of collecting and releasing souls. The sensation of being completely drained of her magic only to be immediately infused with enough soul-derived mana to guarantee that she can still function is something she knows she will never quite be able to describe. The vague notion of someone wrapping an arm around her waist and propping her up, closely followed by many other pairs of arms, registers and she looks down at six of her Bunnies hugging her and then up at Gwydion, to find him gazing wearily at her, his expression carefully blank as if trying very hard not to think about the horror-striking scene he has just witnessed. As soon as he realizes she can stand on her own, he relaxes his grip and moves slightly away from her. Gently pushing the Bunnies away, Alma turns around and sees Saira standing by her youngest Bunny, a hand placed soothingly on the child’s shoulder.
"Why didn't you do that before?!” Saira exclaims. “You could totally have done that before!” She points to her charred clothes and burnt skin. “I’m in pain here!"
Alma shakes her head. “No, I couldn’t. Needed souls,” she wheezes slightly before inhaling and exhaling deeply to control her breathing. “Besides, that was not exactly a simple party trick.”
“Rather impressive, really,” Gwydion notes, his tone vaguely distant as he scans the square, from which the repelled Dukaines struggle to retreat stealthily. “And depleting, I imagine.”
“Yes,” the goddess concedes.
Gwydion reaches into his jacket pocket, producing the half-full mana orb. “Here, take this,” he offers before turning to the Bunnies and beckoning them to move quickly toward the portal. He turns back to Alma. “We don’t have much time to waste. I will take them through the portal. Replenish yourself and just worry about following.”
“Thank you for your assistance, Saira,” he adds with a small nod before guiding the Bunnies through the portal.
Alma watches them leave and then consumes the contents of the orb. Enjoying the relief that comes from it and dreading the hangover that will soon follow, she speaks to Saira who is now standing by her side.
“Thank you, dear. Take care and please, do stay out of trouble.”
Saira snorts and makes a big show of inspecting her crossbow for damage and reloading it before hooking it to her belt. “The Dukaines are out and hunting. There’s no way I’m gonna miss out on all those marks.”
Alma sighs in resignation, knowing the woman’s taste for vengeance. “Just... don’t take too many risks, please.”
Saira tilts her head and smiles, apparently finding the goddess’ plea amusing. “Why, you almost sound like you care.”
Alma smiles back at her and strokes her cheek while, at the goddess’ command, the seven tiny self-generating mana orbs on her earring release their mana to heal Saira’s wounds. The wave of relief washes over Saira and she closes her eyes as she exhales deeply.
“Someone should care,” Alma whispers. “Don’t you think?”
And with that, Alma turns away and steps through the portal.