2015/04/27

Ch4.43 Fatal Prophecy

Rushing from the Academy of Magic’s portal, through the hallways, Sky leaves the Commander and Somrak behind, forgets about them entirely. The message from the Oracle is imprinted on his brain – he knows every turn he must take, as if she is beside him, holding his hand and pulling him along. Something awful is about to happen. Something truly awful. Images of his friends, slaughtered in spite of all he has done, in spite of all promises and divinely binding vows, fill his mind.

He sees the door, hears shouting. Dion’s voice. Through the edges of the door glows a flickering light. And then a scream almost stops him. Her voice is so distorted that he almost cannot recognize it, but through the mixture of pain, horror, and triumph, he still recognizes Alma. The light flashes, blinding him momentarily even though the door is yet closed, but he lunges unseeing and manages to grasp the handle, pulling it open, and stumbles into the room, blinking. He barely notices the Commander right behind him.

Breathing hard, he tries to make sense of what he is seeing. In the center of the room, Alma, slumped on her knees, half-turned away from him, looking stunned, unaware of her surroundings. Before her is the crumpled corpse – somehow it is so clearly a corpse. An afterglow of powerful magic rises from Alma’s hands like smoke.

She begins to fall to one side, and he moves swiftly to her, kneeling and catching her. He feels every hair on his body stand on end as he touches her, like touching a live wire. He shivers and sees that the body before them has the head of a vulture. As she leans her head against his chest, she whispers, “Gwydion?”

“It’s Sky,” he murmurs. He glances around the room. Mayumi is standing, looking shocked, holding a knife, from the look of it a table-knife left in the room by some student. She keeps glancing from the corpse, to Alma, to Sky, as confused about what happened as Sky himself, despite having been in the room. Behind her he counts Sage, Rosemary, Kori, Chime, and Cherry.

Not far away, his back to a workbench, Dion sits on the floor looking equally stunned, though not as confused as Mayumi. More...dismayed. His jacket torn, hair disordered, he doesn’t seem to notice the youngest Bunny grasp his trouser to pull herself against him, until she puts her arms around his waist and clings tightly to him, her face against his belly. She is sobbing, and Dion looks down, uncertainly laying his hand on her head and stroking her hair and laid-back ears to comfort her.

Suddenly Dion looks up from the trembling young Bunny. He starts to rise, then hesitates, caught between calming the child and something else. Sky twists around to see, eliciting a whimper of protest from Alma, who grips his battered armored jacket harder. He sees a large creature – a gryphon? – lying broken, entangled in a tapestry, unmoving. Is it dead? Enemy or ally?

By the time he looks back, Dion has risen and is handing the girl to her immediate seniors, Chime and Kori. The Sergeant staggers past Sky, pausing for a moment to look down at him. No, he is looking at Alma, Sky realizes, Dion’s face a confusing mix of concern and...fear?

Astonished at all this, Sky feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns and sees it is Sage, looking down at him sadly. Preempting Sky’s question, the Bunny says, “She saved us. The Archon Nekh was going to kill us all. She saved us.” His voice is soft, as always, but reinforced with a steely determination.

Sky nods, beginning to understand what must have happened, then shifts as Sage kneels to take Alma. She at first holds onto Sky’s jacket, but then seems to sense that it is Sage, and she transfers her attention to the Bunny, holding him tightly as he whispers to her. As he rises, Sky hears Sage whisper, “You saved us, Mother. We’re all well. You saved us all.”

Sky cannot remember any of them calling her “mother” before.

Glancing around the room again, Sky sees Mayumi placing her knife on a table and just standing there, hands resting on the tabletop, facing away from everyone, deep in thought, her ears laid back. He summons his power, just a little, to waft a sea-wind whisper across the room. Mayumi?

She stiffens at the sound, her ears straightening to instant attention, the touch of the breeze and the smell of the ocean all tied together with the question, and she turns her head to meet his gaze. She looks so confused, so lost. Her eyes flicker to Alma and Sage, then down to the dead Archon, and Sky puts it all together, his blood running cold. This killing was outside the rules of the Guardia. Alma must have, in effect, killed a prisoner. It is the only explanation for all these reactions.

Mayumi’s eyes find his again, and he nods to show he understands. Her eyes begin to fill with tears and she turns away. He begins to take a step toward her, but just then Merri and Cherry rush past him toward Dion, who is still kneeling before the downed gryphon.

And then Somrak comes strolling in with a deity Sky recognizes, barely: Math, the Archon who acts as a particular patron to the Guardia. Dion’s uncle. The Archon’s face registers shock at the scene.

The Commander puts his hand on Sky’s shoulder and growls in his ear, “What a mess. She wasn’t supposed to kill him!”

2015/04/25

OGB SECOND ANNIVERSARY!!!

For our glorious second anniversary, two of the writers of OGB made a quick little Skype recording to share with you!

video

2015/04/20

Ch4.42 Fatal Prophecy

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…


…and screams.


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.”

2015/04/13

Ch4.41 Fatal Prophecy

Another huge, tooth-loosening boom hits the door, assaulting the ears of the defenders, making the door bow inward, a small gap opening between it and the frame this time. The seal which Sky painted in his own blood has not, however, broken, and the door holds firm.

“That won’t last much lon-gerrrr,” Somrak sings.

“I knowwww,” Sky replies with a falling singsong tone. He readies the Commander’s little crossbow. Somrak has the other. The Commander has pulled out something else from whatever pocket universe he carries, quite literally, in his pocket. For all the world, it looks to Sky like a weapon he had reason to carry himself for a time, in one of those bush rebellions he fought before his return to the Urbis: a single-shot 40mm grenade launcher. Good old reliable Thumper, he thinks. But no – it is clearly hand-crafted, like any magical weapon must be, and lacks the tall, ladder-style leaf sight for firing long-range arcing shots. He wonders what it does. Certainly not launch grenades. In a confined space like this, that would be suicidal.

“I make a dozen out there, from the sound,” the Commander says flatly.

A dozen Sikari, the Council’s elite killers of both the mortal and immortal. To the general public, even to most gods, their existence is mere rumor, a threat hanging over those who would defy the Council. And even those more in-the-know rarely have any idea of their real nature. The rumors are wild: gods chosen for their particularly deadly powers, drafted into service and conditioned to kill; mortals infused with the souls of murdered gods; specially bred creatures raised on demon flesh.

“Didn’t you see them in action once, Sky?” Somrak asks.

He nods grimly. “But they obscure themselves. Mists precede them. Shadows surround them. I never saw any of them clearly.” He looks at the Commander. “Surely you have seen them, sir.”

The Commander nods. “I’m sworn not to reveal their nature. But they are abominations.” He pauses. “Their eyes glow dimly. Aim right between them.”

Another enormous blow hits the door, buckling it further. The seal flashes red, then all magical vibrancy goes out of it. A grey mist begins to flow in through the gaps between door and frame.

Somrak says, apropos of nothing, “I thought Sergeant Alma was going to tear my head off when I wouldn't let her heal me.”

“She is a very...determined goddess,” Sky says.

“Nearly ruptured myself laughing when I saw that slender little thing filch your sword and go after that giantess.” Somrak smiles at the memory.

Sky smiles. “She is brave.”

The Commander’s gravelly voice tears through Sky’s moment of admiration. “I guess it’s true then.”

Sky cocks his head. “What is, sir?”

“And here I thought you were some kind of monk.” The Commander chuckles to himself. “I suppose it’s no business of mine who you fall for, but she is a subordinate officer. Still, I’m glad to know that you can fall for someone, even if it does complicate things.”

Sky listens to this in growing astonishment as the room fills with mist. His face feels hot. Gripping his crossbow so tightly the stock creaks from the pressure, he bursts out, “Whoever you have reporting to you has gotten things badly wrong! Who is it? Machado? Stathos?”

“Never you mind how I get my infor–”

“And you’re right – it is none of your poxy business! But just so you have all your files updated properly, Sergeant Alma is my friend. At least I assume that’s who you’re talking about, since you haven’t mentioned her by name. If your little spy thinks I’m in love with Constable Lamore then you should demand your money back!”

Somrak laughs. “As amusing as this is, I think it’s time to–”

He is cut off as the door slams open, half-falling as it hangs only on the bottom hinge. Tiny points of dim light glow in the thicker mist beyond, but not clearly enough to offer a certain target. Then a much larger, misshapen shadow looms in the doorway and squeezes through.

Sky gasps. As it enters the room he can see the shape more clearly. It is the giant goddess, hand-crossbow bolts still embedded in her flesh, the wound in her throat gaping, and many more wounds besides. Her left arm is missing. Her skin is deadly pale, drained of blood. From her open mouth, and from her opened throat, a low moan issues.

They have a necromancer on their team, powerful enough to animate the corpse of a god? Sky feels a disgusted awe. Necromancy had supposedly been nearly wiped out two centuries ago.

The Commander, his voice unimpressed, says, “Somrak.” The slender god raises his left hand and the walking corpse is enveloped in flames. The fire burns hot, and drives away some of the mist. The body begins to twitch and stagger randomly as the muscles and tendons contract from the heat. It hits the wall and stops there, convulsing. But its brightness, reflecting off the mist, and the smoke it generates together serve to obscure the Guardias’ vision even further, and the eyes of the Sikari are impossible to make out.

Movement. They are gathering themselves for the charge. Sky readies to fire. The doorway will channel them, keep them from coming in more than two at a time. The Guardia trio may barely have a chance, if the Sikari don’t have reinforcements coming.

Just do your job, he thinks, the voice in his head sounding like the Commander. Just do your job and don’t worry about what comes after.

Then he hears the whistle. Piercing and utterly familiar, the distinctively harsh musical tone of the Guardia, it fills Sky with a hope he had been refusing to feel.

Somrak laughs. “Those two highborn fools came through!”

“But will the Sikari fight?” the Commander growls.

A voice outside shouts, “Stand down! Our Commander is in that room!”

There is a moaning grumble from the Sikari that lasts over a minute. Finally, an empty voice that has never known hope nor love states, “We have completed our mission. The assassins are dead. We shall withdraw.”

A shambling, dragging sound as the Sikari reluctantly pull back. The mist dissipates. The burning corpse of the giantess suddenly goes out as Somrak makes a cutting gesture at it.

The doorway fills with a figure in full armor of articulated ceramic and metal plates, enameled in Guardia Dei indigo, heavily enchanted for only the most elite special-operations units. “Commander?”

“Good work, Captain Morkov.” The Commander rises to his feet and shoulders his fat-barrelled weapon.

Belli interruptus,” Somrak says. “I feel strangely empty. And disappointed.”

“I do not,” mutters Sky. He steps through the door and sees a squad of eight elites in full armor, supported by another dozen Guardia Dei kitted out for a riot in heavy reinforced jackets and helmets, at least those who have any need of such armor. He spots skin made of stone, or of thick saurian plates. These are some of the toughest Guardia in the City, ready not for patrolling or for taking in unruly drunken gods, but for taking down deities destructive and murderous, very swiftly and very hard.

Movement catches his eye. He looks down at a pool of blood on the broken marble tiles. In the blood swim serpentine shapes, one, two...three. One pale and ethereal, a ghostly green-blue; one reddish gold and regal; one black with a hint of red, spined and vicious in demeanor – the three nagas that guard the Oracle, the ones hatched from Lyria’s eggs and bound to Alma, Dion, and Sky, somehow here, and tiny as garter snakes, swimming in  choreographed pattern.

Sky watches, fascinated, and suddenly understanding. He has learned many codes for conveying secret messages over his decades of fighting and spying, and his mind retains them all. This is one used only once, a semaphore using long, fluttering flags. As he sees it, the nagas spiral together, forming a knot that falls in on itself, until they are gone, as if they had never been there.

Sky turns to the Commander, who has just finished shaking the hands of the two Dei he’d sent to fetch help. “I know where they are. The Bunnies, and Alma and Dion. And they are in danger!”

2015/04/06

Ch4.40 Fatal Prophecy

They stand in the laboratory of Gylden, the High Mage, Professor of Applied Metaphysics and Energy Shifting, and Geryon’s uncle. Located in an annex to the Academy of High Magic per se, a ten-story-high tower of winding stairs and other such mandatory architectural features commonly found in libraries under the section “Mad Wizard Lairs, Past and Present,” the laboratory is a common holding place for all kinds of high-level artifacts. Sent to his uncle’s aid by Archon Math, Geryon stoically stores the items Gylden hands him in satchels, taking care to evenly distribute the load that will soon burden his flanks on his way to the Council’s safe-storage house.


“And don’t forget to load the more sensitive items last,” the wizard reminds him for the hundredth time. “Some of those things are very fragile.”


“Yes, Uncle,” Geryon responds, taking advantage of the wizard’s distraction to roll his eyes at the endlessly repeated instructions. “I will do as you say.”


“That’d be a first,” Gylden snorts as he hands the gryphon one more item, the God Striker the lovely, if slightly deadly, Sergeant Alma had brought from the Oracle’s grotto, now apparently fully recharged. “I swear, boy, if you didn’t happen to be my sister’s son, I would not have kept you around for so long.”


Geryon sighs, his head bobbing slowly up and down. “I know, revered one. I am a disgrace to the family name.”


“You can be damn sure you are!” Gylden exclaims, gesturing wildly as he always does when he embarks on one of his self-righteous rants. “You just have to look in the mirror to see that! You and that libertine friend of yours, getting drunk and casting old spells. And destroying a priceless spellbook, no less–”


Geryon pretends to pay attention to the words he already knows by heart, so frequently have they been spoken through the years. “One would think you have never made a mistake in your life, Uncle.”


Gylden freezes mid-speech, belated but not the least bit abashed by his nephew’s comment. “Sure, I’ve made plenty,” he concedes. “I turned your mother into a newt, after all.”


“I have never known my mother to be a newt,” Geryon retorts.


The wizard looks at him as if half-surprised, then shrugs. “Well, she got better. Now, get on with packing, boy,” he adds, jerking his finger at a window. “Go get the Era One records on the essence of mana that your so-called genius friends have been studying so closely. It’s time they get returned to safe holding, before I die from chronic anxiety that they might ruin them.”


Geryon sighs and mutters, “Your wish is my command, Uncle,” and leaps out the window.


With a few mighty thrusts of his powerful wings, he gains altitude and makes his way to his own lab, in the main building. Landing silently and elegantly on the ground, he crosses the threshold to the winding corridors of the Academy, navigating them with barely a thought, his paws now so used to the secondary paths that usually keep him away from the more crowded, busier hallways where the students tend to gather. Minutes later, he is back at his laboratory, now blissfully silent as the three wizards with whom he tends to share the space have apparently left to attend a lecture on the Unstable Causality and Outcome in Shifting Conditions of Research and Development, leaving only a scribbled note in their place.


Also known as “Why your experiments are bound to work only once, and usually only after you screw up some major step in protocol.” Geryon snorts as he deciphers Alan’s complicated approach to cursive writing.


Knowing himself alone, the wizard-turned-gryphon sighs again and places his nearly full satchels on a low workbench before making his way to a secondary room he uses as a makeshift office. On his desk lie the sun-dried clay plaques his uncle so dearly wants returned to storage and that Geryon has been studying in the hopes of finding a way to reverse his condition as a winged beast. He touches them gently, sensing the inert power they are still infused with, even after millenia of having been engraved by the hands of the ancient. Even they have failed him in his query.


He walks to a far wall covered by a heavy velvet curtain. His uncle is not the easiest, or even the best of men, but it is because of him that Geryon can even dream of a life away from the menial servitude passed on in his family, from generation to generation, like some sort of sick gag-gift. The son of two temple-servants to some old, misshapen god of healing whose name Geryon was never quite able to pronounce, long devoid of his father, Geryon has come a long way since his days growing up in that ancient temple, surrounded by his countless little brothers and sisters and step-siblings and cousins and whoever his mother decided to take under her wing. There was always room in her heart for everyone, always time for every single one of her patients. Just not enough time in her day for her first born, to whom she would only pay heed whenever Geryon happened to get hurt doing something stupid and dangerous meant to attract her attention.


The days spent roaming aimlessly are long gone, mostly ended after uncle Gylden conceded to pull some strings and have Geryon enrolled at the Academy as a scholarship student. Then came Dion and his wonderful tastes in the finer things in life: women, drink, parties and hardcore magic. He made things easier. Whatever he didn’t want, Geryon could take for himself, which included many a damsel in need to be distressed. All was great and lavish for a while. And then one day…


Geryon looks at one of his paws, thankfully still armed with slightly opposable thumbs, as some cats have. One day, a chug too many on a bottle of Ambrosia, among the dusty old books of the archives of the Academy library, turned a stupid dare into a life-changing event. Always scrawny and awkward, Geryon had challenged Dion to cast an empowerment spell to make him strong as a lion and powerful as an eagle. Of course, there must have been a warning about the spell’s rather literal nature somewhere in the fine print, but it was hard enough even to read the title through Ambrosia-fogged eyes. Suddenly, Geryon was a gryphon and Dion took such a fright that he dropped the book and it crumbled into dust. Without the original words to the spell, reversing it was almost impossible. Dion had tried, Geryon had tried, Gylden had tried.


He moves the curtain aside to reveal a large mirror. The monstrosity of his reflexion no longer scares him, but he can’t help wondering, Is the man still lost within the monster? Or is the monster the true face of the man? With eagle-sharp eyes he examines each feather on his head, each hair on his body, each mote of light on the smooth surface of his beak. Again he sighs.


What does it matter? he thinks to himself as he allows the curtain to hide the mirror again. Man and monster, they are one and the same.


Just as he turns away, he catches the faint sound of moving feet and returns to the laboratory to find Dion and the Bunnies entering the room via a secondary door, with the lovely Sergeant Alma at the rear. All nine look pale, exhausted, breathing heavily as if strained by some monumental physical effort. Alma closes and locks the door behind her and Dion half wheezes to her, “We should be safe here.” He immediately starts pacing around the room, dashing toward the windows to scout the ground below.


“What in blazes?” Geryon swears at the sight, prompting gods and Bunnies to look in his direction.


“Whoa big-ass gryphon!” Cherry cries and takes a step back, eyes wide with the unexpected shock of seeing Geryon in his true size and glory.


“Shh! Ah think that’s Geryon!” Merri hisses to Cherry, grabbing her arm. “Goodness, he’s big and strong!”


The gryphon decides to ignore this for the time being and stalks up to Dion, who barely seems to notice him in the midst of inspecting the Academy’s grassy grounds. “You look awful! What happened?”


The god looks at him and then walks back to help Alma, who is currently busy with Cherry and Merri’s sister, a dark-haired, fair-skinned Bunny, in the process of barricading the door they have just used to enter the room.


“We met with a few...obstacles on our way here,” he explains briefly. “And transporting so many of us… Even though it wasn’t terribly far, it was not easy.” He fishes a globe of mana out of his pocket and begins to absorb it, replenishing his reserves.


“And why have you come here, exactly?” Geryon inquires, with a little side note of “Please don’t touch that” to the two younger male Bunnies.


“I am afraid we need to hide for a bit, until the Commander and the others can guarantee our safety,” Alma replies, the deep blue of her eyes flaring for a moment as they scour the room. To Dion she says, “I can’t detect any other presence here.”


Meanwhile, the dark-skinned male Bunny, obviously the oldest male, takes the one who looks like a really young, Bunny version of her creator-goddess, and gently guides her to a chair by the workbench where Geryon left his satchels, probably the least cluttered and safest place in the room. The black-haired female Bunny keeps peeking through the windows, much to her creator’s distress.


“Demons, what is going on?” Geryon demands of Dion. “I thought the Bunnies were to be taken to your uncle’s.”


“We were attacked while my uncle attended Council,” the god explains, stopping to look straight at his friend for the first time since he arrived. “There is a major Fourth Ring gang named ‘the Dukaines’ that is after the Bunnies, most likely under the command of an Archon. They definitely have connections, at least.”


“And the courage to attack the full force of the Guardia Dei at the Curia,” Alma adds.


“Not so much courage as food for powder,” a voice rings in a far corner. “But it seems this is one of those situations where the only way to get things done…”


A familiar vulture-headed shape steps into the light. “...is to do them yourself.”