“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 flèche, 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.
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.”