She is bathed in silence. That is all there is. Is there even a memory of sound?
Her eyes are open but sight seems to have abandoned her. There is an image there, for sure, but her mind refuses to take it in. Instead, only broken, ragged pieces of memories fade in and out, like the frail, irregular twinkle of starlight.
She remembers running, a shadowy, faceless figure by her side. And then Gwydion on his knees. She feels something hard against her legs, something wooden. She is on her knees as well. Muffled and weakened, touch seems to be the only sense still left in her. The hardness of the floor against her legs crawls up her body, slowly awakening other senses from their numbness. Other memories rush in, swift and torn.
Her Bunnies on the floor, screaming. She tries to cover her ears against the screams but her arms won’t obey. Nor will her legs. She cannot run to them, save them. Her body feels weak, battered as if it has been bounced around against the walls. And still the sensation of the hard, cold wooden floor travels up, spreading over, infiltrating her belly, twisting her insides. The screaming stops. Images flicker before her.
Again Gwydion. Why is he in her memories? Was he the shadow running alongside her? Is he… He is bathed in light. No, he is shining. His hand curled in a fist, moving quickly, thrusting forward. Murder in his eyes. What is that lying on the floor?
Nekh is an Archon. He can help. Alive! He is alive! He’ll help! If only she can talk to him, strike a deal.
Nekh is a traitor. Used her, her kin. He is a criminal. Needs to be punished, kept away from the Bunnies. She has to save them, stop the screaming. Keep them safe. Punish the traitor. Make him pay.
Such horrible screams. Shrieking and wailing and shouting – did someone call her name? – and just sheer… screaming. Is that a woman’s voice? Her own voice?
Beautiful, ice-cold light. Soul light. So powerful and alive, sizzling under her touch.
The light goes out. The world is silent. And Nekh is dead...
He can’t help
The feeling rising from her legs reaches her chest. Breathing becomes difficult. Had she been breathing before? It just seems so…real, now. Each rise and fall of her chest.
Sound returns. Muffled sounds reach her ears, words she can’t quite make out. Her lips move in return. Did she even speak? A shadow by her side. Something touches her arm, pulls her closer to the shadow.
“It’s Sky,” a voice says.
The cold reaches her neck and creeps up, digs into her mind like fingernails clutching at her thoughts.
Everything, everything that happened that day becomes clear again. Painfully clear. The cold rising endlessly from the tip of her toes to the top of her skull, the piercing, endless, all-consuming iciness digs into her every nerve. Numbness was a blessing. This is not cold.
It is pain. So strong it blocks her will, so powerful it takes her breath, so complete…
...it steals her screams
She feels herself clutching at Sky’s jacket, hopes he will keep her from drowning in the agony washing over her. He moves a little away and she shouts to him.
Please, don’t go
No…that wasn’t shouting. Was there even sound? The pain is like the Void. And he must not have heard her. His arms loosen their grip.
She breathes in deeply, painfully, preparing to drown. And then... she is held again, afloat again. She clutches at the new anchor. Desperately. The words come...
“You saved us, Mother. We’re all well. You saved us all.”
We are all well
Silence returns. The world goes black. The pain subsides. And Alma rests.
“Don’t you fight me on this one. It’s for their own good,” the Commander’s voice hisses.
Alma’s eyes open slowly, her eyelids seemingly glued together. Blurs of light and shadow filter through the narrow opening.
“What?” Sky asks, anger in his voice.
Sound wavers, fading in and out, much like her consciousness. Sky’s words register slowly, broken into short snippets.
“– discharged –”
“– like rogues?”
Alma’s eyes open a little further. The blurs become images of people gathered around her. Memory struggles to put names to them. Sky. The Commander. Math. All three just steps away, towering over her. They look so tall...
“Don’t be a fool, Sky!” The Commander sounds angry. Words rush out of his mouth. “It’s just a badge. They’re still Guardia.”
Off to the side, Gwydion stands with her youngest in his arms, stroking the little Bunny’s long, white hair. His eyes wander to Alma. She cringes from what she sees in them.
“It’s not just a badge!” she hears Sky shout.
Her head turns slowly to see the Inspector clenching and unclenching his fists, his jaw locked, black tattoos writhing up the tan skin of his neck and cheeks. He is breathing deeply, fighting for control. The air grows dense, the world holds its breath.
“I won’t betray them like that,” he finally says, each word spoken slowly, intently.
Who is that, in the corner?
Just behind Sky, Somrak stands, watching. No one seems to notice him. He is so easy to forget, just standing there, eyes scanning the room. He looks in her direction and his eyes lock with Alma’s for a fraction of a second. A millimetric smile curls his lips ever so subtly.
But there is also pity in his eyes.
“Fine, I'll do it myself, then.”
A shadow looms closer to Alma. The Commander crouches by her, his hand reaching for her shoulder, careful not to make sudden movements. Someone holds her tightly from behind.
He has been holding her all this time, hasn’t he? But now he is holding her tighter. The Commander’s hand moves closer. The meaning of his words hit her.
It is her badge he wants. And Sky wouldn’t take it.
Well, neither will he!
Exhausted, still in pain but firm in her resolve, she pulls away from Sage. The Bunny resists her at first, holding onto her with ease, so weak are her efforts. But then he releases her, watching her with care but making a big deal out of letting the goddess sit on her own. The Commander pulls back, waiting.
Looking deeply into his eyes, Alma raises a hand to her left shoulder and slowly, struggling, removes her own badge. Without the badge-pin to hold them together, the two sashes that make the front and back of her blouse, fall gently and lightly, sliding down to hang just over her corset, her pale breasts covered only by a protective, padded silk undergarment.
Her gaze never wavering, her every movement kept graceful and controlled at the cost of much pain, Alma places the badge in the palm of the Commander’s now open hand. He doesn’t speak and neither do his eyes. Instead, he holds the badge in his hand and makes a show of putting it away in his jacket pocket, tapping his pocket as if to promise he will keep it safe, as if to make sure she knows where it is. His hand reaches to her shoulder again, this time accompanied by its sibling. Alma stiffens.
Gently, carefully, the Commander picks up the sashes and ties them in an elaborate knot over Alma’s shoulder. He grins that ghastly grin of his that in other people would pass for a smile. His hands move to her arms, sliding down, barely grazing the skin until they find armbands and her Sergeant’s insignias. The Commander leans forward, whispering in her ear as he removes them.
“Whatever you do, keep your mouth shut. Remember, Alma, you are mine...”