Dion turns quickly to the unexpected voice coming from the temporary portal entrance. His view of the visitor is briefly blocked as Alma steps forward, her posture showing what is almost relief at the sight of this newcomer.
“My Lord Nekh. What a relief it is to see you. My children are in danger and I require your help once more,” Alma says openly with hope in her voice.
“Children?” the vulture-headed Archon spits, tilting his head as he steps further into the room. “You mean abominations.”
Alma flinches at the words. “My Lord, please! You alone have kept them safe, swayed the Council in their favor and allowed their existence in stasis. Will you fail me now, my patron?” As the Bunnies collect further towards the rear of the room where Geryon and Dion stand, the older and braver of them keeping the younger ones well to the back, Alma pleads for their safety.
“Patron?” Nekh snarls. “The only patron you’ve ever had was that coward of a lover of yours, and even he fled in fear of your creations. No, you stupid child. You and your Bunnies were just useful for a while, casting fear into my fellow Archons while my plans unfolded in the Fourth Ring.”
Dion steps forward quickly, taking Alma’s arm, gaining her attention.
“The Dukaines,” Dion says. “Lord Nekh must be their Patron.”
Alma looks back at Nekh in shock, as Nekh’s vulturine shoulders shake with his sudden, derisive laughter. “Quite right, young Dei. I’m impressed that someone as vain and shallow as you figured that out. Personally, I always thought Math was an idiot for taking you in.”
“The Oracle’s Pearl...all the destruction and killing,” Alma says with growing fury. “It was done at your command.”
“I have to admit that joining the Guardia was a smart move, you little bitch,” Nekh hisses in response. “You fall out of sight for awhile, ensure Math’s protection because the GODS FORBID ANY OF HIS PRECIOUS GUARDIA DEI GET HURT!” the god pauses after wailing his last few words, to regain composure. “And then he sends you and your raggedy bunch of misfits and aberrations right into the heart of my operation. You’ve picked your loyalties, you damned skank, daughter of your conniving slut of a mother!” He grins as much as his beaked face will allow him to. “And now you’re going to pay the price.”
Nekh steps forward again, closing the gap by another step between him and the Bunnies as Geryon circles in front, protectively, his wings open in a feathered barrier.
“Why Three Rats?” Dion queries, his sword halfway out of its scabbard.
“You don’t get it, do you? You’re so used to the lavish life of the Upper Rings that neither of you sees the truth. The Fourth Ring is the key to this land,” Nekh monologues, seemingly ignoring Dion’s blade. “All the resources, servants, food, all of that, come from the Fourth Ring. Control it, and I control the Insula. Some of the others ignore my efforts there as they feel the lowest Ring is beneath them. The rest, I've bought into silence through their fear of your Bunnies.”
One more step and now Dion edges sideways to bar Nekh’s path to the Bunnies, gaining a vulture’s equivalent of a sneer.
“It no longer matters,” Nekh continues, looking at Dion with hatred. “Even with your meddling, I’ll secure Three Rats and finalize my hold. The Bunnies have outlived their purpose.” He raises a clawed hand. “Time to dispose of their threat.”
As he raises his hand, Alma shouts “No!” and attempts to bar him. One quick toss of his winged arm and the sheer power of the ancient god launches her across a table, spraying the contents on the floor. Before Dion can move, a massive shadow passes over him in the form of a gryphon as Geryon hurdles over his friend to strike the Archon with his front paws and the bulk of his lion-sized body. The unexpected impact hurls the Archon against the back wall as he emits a surprised squawk. Geryon lands before him with incredible grace for his size and immediately sets to launch again.
The gryphon springs but Nekh raises his feathered arm, trapping him mid-flight, paralyzing his movement.
“You fool!” the Archon shouts. “Attacking me? An Archon?! You'll pay with your life!”
A wave of his arm and the gryphon is tossed like a doll across the room, striking the side wall, where he slumps, unmoving. Dion, initially frozen by his friend’s attack, now steps in front of the cowering Bunnies, frozen themselves by the sight of their protectors being so easily defeated by this vulture-headed nightmare.
“What are you doing, Gwydion?” Nekh almost spits the name. “Proving yourself to your uncle as if he still had any faith in you? Or maybe you’re trying to conquer your way into that slut’s bed,” he adds, pointing at Alma, his voice heavy with loathing. “Trust me, kid, she’s been in the game for longer than you think. Seduced an Archon until he had to flee after she used him to create her precious Bunnies, and she’s even managed to get under the skin of your blasted Commander’s favorite tool. I bet it won’t be long until the infamous Inspector Sky is professing his undying love for her just to have her wrench his soul from him like one of those bugs that kills the male after mating. Assuming a thing like him has a soul. Get away from her, boy, and maybe you’ll get to live. Help me now, and you definitely will.”
“Nekh! Enough!” Dion shouts. “The Council has spoken! The Bunnies are to be turned over to them!”
“Council? You don’t get it, do you playboy? I am the Council!” Nekh growls and stands, still a little unsteady due to Geryon's attack.
Again raising his feather-clad arms, he screeches, “And the Council condemns them to death!”
As the Archon unleashes a spell of termination, Dion raises his auric shield, intercepting the spell. But the pure strength of the spell is something he has never before encountered. Even shielded, the spell burns through, weakened yet still potent enough to cause the god of magic excruciating pain. Behind him he hears the Bunnies cry out as the spell scatters and touches them briefly. Dion falls to his knees as the remainder of the spell finally breaks his shield and moves through him with renewed strength.
You're a fool, Dion, he thinks. You can't stop an Archon.
Dion’s eyes focus on his surroundings again, his ears picking up the commotion from Nekh's direction. Looking up, the god sees Alma again wrestling with Nekh. This time, magical spells clash as Alma burns mana trying to pierce the Archon's shield.
As Dion begins to rise to assist, his vision catches the youngest Bunny, curled on the floor next to him, crying from fear and pain. In her hands, she cradles a shiny object, greater in size than both of her palms. Beside her lies Geryon's satchel, its contents spilled on the floor, the more-fragile of the contents broken into fragments. Geryon’s flight across the room earlier must have caused the satchel to fall, and the youngest found the shiny object, which she now clutches.
The object, which consists of four short silvery tubes to fit over a user’s fingers, connected by a strip of brass, is well known to him. He held it in his hands in the Oracle’s grotto very recently...the Deus Percussorem...the God Striker. In a flood, the words of the Oracle come to him, along with the retelling of her prediction by his uncle: “In a Bunny's hand, death comes to an Archon.”
Now, he understands.
Taking the weapon from the littlest Bunny, Dion can feel the power coursing through it, running wildly and unleashed as it merges and feeds on his power to release its full potential. Now rising, he sees the room as if all events have slowed, the God Striker’s power heightening his awareness greater than anything he has ever achieved. Behind him, the cries of the Bunnies. To the side, his friend lying in a heap, unmoving, possibly dead. Turning ever so slowly, he sees Nekh wrestling with Alma, finally besting her in the struggle, tossing her away. The weapon now merges fully with Dion, overlaying his senses, giving him full comprehension as to why it is so dangerous, so protected from use.
The weapon is alive and carries a single purpose: to kill gods.
As Alma falls against the tables to a snarling comment from the Archon about taking care of her next, Dion stands. The weapon infuses the god, his face a picture of anger, hatred, revenge. His friend is dead, the Bunnies to be next, and then Alma. A predatory snarl issues from his lips.
“Nekh!” Dion cries, as if uttering one of the words of power.
The Archon spins at hearing his name. His initial dismissal of Math's nephew quickly changes as he sees the look of death in his face and his eyes go wide at the realization of the object in the god-of-magic's hand.
Curling the God Striker around his knuckles, Dion brings his fist back, flexing his knees and cocking his hips, readying a strike as Nekh attempts in vain to utter a quick spell of protection. Executing a powerful punch directly at Nekh, Dion twists his hips and extends his arm fully as he unleashes his will. From halfway across the room, the energy from the strike flashes forth from the mage-empowered weapon...
...and the room goes white.
Slamming into the wall behind him, Nekh screams with pain as the casting of the God Striker’s power shatters the Archon’s shield and bears down on his soul. In his mind, Dion feels Nekh’s essence recoiling, burning under his assault. The weapon cries for joy in his mind, feasting on the attack, singing madly at the chaos and destruction, begging to savor the destruction of the ancient god. It is overwhelming, almost too much to resist.
No, Dion says to it. I am Guardia.
The weapon wails within him, challenging his authority, demanding to be allowed to complete its mission.
No, again Dion rules, and slowly pulls back his will, forcing the weapon to obey, finally hearing a whisper in his mind, Yes Creator, emanating from the Striker – although Dion is too involved in events to even consider the words.
As his vision clears, he sees the Archon, slumped against the wall, gravely wounded, his breathing shallow and irregular. He looks as though he is dying, his mana draining away like blood. Gaining his composure once again, Dion lowers the God Striker, watching as Alma rises from the floor and approaches Nekh's crumpled form. She reaches out towards the Archon and Dion relaxes slightly, leaning on a workbench to regain his breath, confident that Alma will perform a healing on Nekh, before formally arresting him.
He is wrong.
The look on Alma's face is one of betrayal, pain, hatred. As Dion watches, Alma reaches out to Nekh and places her hand around his throat. Her hand glows an icy-blue, her eyes turning pitch black, her silvery-white hair billowing around her, the whole of her form wrapped in shadows and deafening whispers as she robs him of his soul. Nekh screams as his essence is pulled from him, his soul writhing and burning as it courses through Alma’s arm.
“Alma! No!” Dion cries.
Alma turns to fix her empty eyes on him, her face beautiful and terrifying in its transformation, mesmerizing and horrible. She tilts her head.
“He used me. This monster, this false protector, used me and my children and then tried to destroy them. For that, he must die so that he may never again touch them.” Her tone is all the more frightening for its serenity, contrasting sharply with Nekh’s hollow screams. She turns her gaze back to the Archon as the energy ripples and cracks, travelling up the goddess’ arm and down again. “You called me dangerous, you vermin. Now feel how true your words are!”
With a final cry, Alma takes away whatever is left of Nekh’s essence. The soul hovers above the Archon’s corpse, writhing and unstable, too bright to be looked at directly and yet seemingly absorbing all light around it. Alma opens her arms and throws her head back, speaking words of command that have the shapeless mass of pure energy moving toward her, hesitantly at first, almost as if fighting her, and then pouring into the goddess, unresisting, making her chest glow with overwhelming power. Alma seems to levitate. Her feet leave the ground for a moment as lightning rushes through her slender figure, flashing with a reddish light that slowly turns silver and blue. The goddess goes rigid…
It is a scream of pain, of pleasure, of sheer physical inability to sustain such a charge. The energy gathers in Alma’s chest and exits in one huge burst of light that destroys all shadows and blinds Dion. Slowly, he regains his vision.
All is silent now.
Exhausted from the effort, Alma lands and falls to her knees, by the corpse, while the hazy remnants of Nekh’s godpower hover in a quickly fading mist just above his body. “Never again, Nekh,” the goddess whispers. “Your days of poison are over.”
Shocked beyond all reaction, Dion feels his legs fail him, his body slowly slide down to floor and end up sitting on the floor, his back against the workbench he had been leaning on. His mind races as sounds and images of the past few days flash through his head.
The door bursts open to let Sky through, followed closely by the Commander. They freeze in their tracks, watching in absolute shock as the last of Nekh’s former power winks out of existence. Raising her head, Alma looks at them, her eyes blue again, normal again.
“It’s over,” she says in a voice little more than a whisper. “My children are safe now.”