Ch3.25 The Pearl

Saira inspects the square from the rooftop of an abandoned building. There are many in this part of the city. Created as it was from the crashing of two different cultures, an event still sung of to this day like some sort of terrible outcome of the whims and quarrels of angry gods, Three Rats sits here like the runt of the litter, bred from the unwanted scraps of two different realities, bound by the will of no god and yet shaped by the reveries of many. Fractured and distorted, many buildings tilt in impossible ways, too dangerous to live in but still overpopulated by people too poor to find a house that won’t fall on their heads if a child happens to lean its weight on a wall.

The sight of it all makes her sigh. This had been her home for a long time, each stone and pebble of these streets etched into her memory, so familiar that sight is hardly needed in finding her way in and out of each street and alley. And even though she’s had to leave it for awhile, in pursuit of illicit wealth and then to search for the hearts of those who murdered her old street gang, the only family she’d known after becoming too old to stay at the orphanage, Three Rats still stands before her as immutable and derelict as ever before.

Three Rats…even the name defines this place. A den for the unwanted, a nest for creatures that many would gladly see exterminated but that no one dares touch. An old caretaker at the orphanage once told her that the name came from the very first thing the people found to eat after this part of the City was created and populated. Three rats, thin and famished, that were cooked in a pot with potatoes and overripe tomatoes to feed twenty people.

Three Rats Stew. That was the old name of this place. Time and a need for a meager amount of pride in one’s provenance, deemed the name no longer acceptable and soon Three Rats was born.

Saira looks at its main square now, her heart hovering somewhere between nostalgia and contempt. Home! If she has ever known one, that place is here.

And her home isn’t well. Beyond its constant decrepit condition, Three Rats screams in pain. Saira’s hawk eyes find the people restless, the water of the fountain in the middle of the square tinged an unhealthy grayish hue. The water lies still, the fountain god that should animate it apparently refusing – or unable – to do his work. And everywhere, the people are looking weak, sick, or just plain scared. Old people collapse in the middle of the street as if suddenly fallen asleep. Children drag their feet instead of running around picking the pockets of random strangers not much wealthier than they. Everywhere, Three Rats looks robbed of the bustling, frantic life of the chronically poor.

“What in the Urbis is going on here?” Saira asks the empty air around her. “Things were fine yesterday.”

Feeling the gentle hum of the pearl in her quiver, she reaches for the sickly, dull-looking thing, exposing it to the sun. Even here, no reflection or shine touches its surface.

“Yesterday, you were still where you belong,” Saira muses. “Could you have something to do with this?”

Looking down at the street, the woman looks at the small crowd of Popula leaving the station. If the rumors are true and there really are gods there now, if they really are intent on raising Three Rats Station from the pit of corruption and apathy it has crawled into, then here is a good time for them to prove themselves. Maybe they will know if and how this pearl can be restored to its proper place and form. Maybe they can keep it safe from the Dukaines.

Another sigh and Saira shakes her head slowly and puts the pearl away again. She really is getting too old to believe in gods.


Ch3.24 The Pearl

As Gwydion rises again to greet his fellow Sergeant, Alma notices his slight difficulty in gaining balance.

“Welcome back, Sergeant,” Gwydion formally offers.

Nodding to the god, she hands him the box of pastries. “I thought you might like something to eat.” Turning to the Oracle she adds. “And Oracle, I am pleased to see you recovered.”

Nevieve smiles back at Alma. “Yes, firefly. Although I am still imprisoned, this small sanctuary is fairly free from the poison. But, I am pleased to be able to thank personally my other rescuer, Alma of the clan of Death gods. And please, my rescuer, do call me Nevieve.”

Somewhat surprised at the depth of the Oracle’s awareness of her, Alma glances at Gwydion for an explanation.

“It appears, Nevieve has an interest in you, I, and the Inspector,” he whispers, worry and weariness slightly tinting his voice.

“All of you will play your parts,” Nevieve states conversationally, and with such assurance that Alma feels a chill from the words.

Noticing Gwydion offering the box of pastries to the Oracle, she takes advantage of the welcome opportunity to shift the subject. “I stopped at Kyri’s Copper Pot on the way back, and found your priestess, Doria, helping her distribute clean water to the local mortals. Kyri had just finished baking some pastries and offered a selection.” Looking at Gwydion and remembering his initial imbalance, she adds, “It seems you need some nourishment yourself.”

Gwydion smiles back at his fellow Guardia officer, responding, “Thank you for your consideration. But I may need to ask you for additional assistance.” Nodding to the Oracle, he adds. “If you would excuse us for a moment, Nevieve?”

Motioning to Alma to step away from the pool and walk with him, Gwydion begins once they clear earshot of the Oracle. “As I noted before, the maintenance of the filters is going to take mana. I fear my internal supply will be inadequate for the task.”

“I can return to the station and talk to the Inspector. I am sure he must keep reserves for this kind of situation,” Alma offers, but sees Gwydion shaking his head.

“I would like to suggest an alternative,” Gwydion states quietly in light baritone.

Reaching into his pocket, Gwydion retrieves the God Striker. “This needs to be returned to the Academy and delivered to...a friend. He can also help you acquire additional mana. The Academy wizards and I have a...well, an arrangement. They will be able to provide you more than sufficient mana for me to continue my vigil here.”

Mildly concerned at Gwydion’s elusiveness, Alma nods slowly, her eyes looking for answers in his. “Who is this ‘friend’ of yours, and how do I find him?"

After a slight pause, Gwydion says. “His name is Geryon. He’s a bit...different. And knowing him,” the god pauses again, looking at Alma as if appraising her beauty, “he’ll find you.”

The slight concern grows to an alarm now as Alma raises an eyebrow and inquires, “What do you mean, different?”

“He’s a gryphon.”


Ch3.23 The Pearl

The sound of water splashing nearby rouses Dion from his slumber. Coming into wakefulness, he opens his eyes only to be greeted by a second set of bright white eyes staring back at him. Shocked, he leaps back from his seated position, only to collide with the stalagmite behind him.
“Ouch!” Dion exclaims, his back connecting with the stone edifice.
The Oracle, sitting before him, having risen from her pool and perching on the edge, smiles back at the god, finding humor in his physical reaction.
“I apologize for startling you.” She combs her long, deep-blue and algae-green hair with her fingers. "I can assume that you are to thank for creating this little oasis of clean water for me?”
Dion, now at full attention, takes one deep breath to reestablish his demeanor in front of the youthfully beautiful Oracle. In his near baritone, he responds, “I am glad to see that my small efforts have aided in your recovery, my dear Oracle.”
The Oracle raises a wet hand in offering. “Please, Gwydion of the house of Math, God of Magic, Master of Enchantment, for the service you have provided to me, call me Nevieve.”
Dion, surprised at the depth of the Oracle’s knowledge of him rises and bows to the goddess, taking her hand in his and kissing it. “I am honored that you have such familiarity of me.”
Nevieve smiles at this. “Oh, I have been aware of you for some time, Gwydion,” she says, her eyes capturing Dion's in her mesmerizing gaze. “I have also been aware of your beautiful companion Alma, of the Death Clan, and of your Guardia commander, Tuma-Sukai.”

She goes silent, the hypnotic glow of her white eyes fading for a moment. Then, suddenly, Nevieve breaks into laughter, filling the chamber with her fresh, delightful voice. “My sister shows her unique sense of humor in bringing you here, though.” She takes a deep breath and resumes her calm countenance. “I am grateful to her for it.”
Reentering the pool, the Oracle swims near the point of Dion’s first filter. “I fear your magic is being tasked here, Gwydion. Your enchantment appears to be failing.”
Dion, alarmed, retraces his steps around the pool to his first filter. Reviewing the workings, he refocuses his initial spell, repairing the degradation.
“Yes, sadly the volume of water plus the taint are having a detrimental effect on my work. They will require vigilance to keep them functioning.” As Dion moves to the second filter, he probes the Oracle for clarity. “You said your sister had a hand in bringing me here. I am unfamiliar with familial relationships in your line.”
Nevieve smiles back at Dion. “I meant it only in general, Gwydion. Fate moves in her own circles. Powerful elements are at work attempting to rewrite what has been written and my sister balances by checking it with other powerful elements.”
“I appreciate the confidence, dear Oracle, but I hardly consider myself to be powerful.”
Nevieve only returns a smile to the Guardia Dei, the true meaning of her words lost in that one smile.
Completing his work, Dion retakes a seat by the stalagmite and engages the Oracle in a well-practiced manner. “Nevieve is such a beautiful name, dear Oracle. It is a shame that you have no suitor to whisper it in your ear, or remark on your flawless beauty.”
Finding humor in the attempt, Nevieve swims closer to Dion, taking position on the edge of the pool near him. “Do you believe my life is missing something, God of Magic?”
“Not at all, my lady. I merely point out that many may find your companionship to be of great value.”
Nevieve pauses, and then starts with measured yet almost melodic words. “Oh, dear, charming Gwydion, to this point in your life, you’ve measured the value of your days as companionship, no matter how fleeting, as if time spent alone would lack quality. There is more to existence than even that. You will come to understand in time.”
Dion chuckles softly. “Yes, I am sure that there is.”
“Well, my sister is having a hand in that too.”
The line, softly spoken, sends a chill down Dion’s spine.
Seemingly oblivious to the effect her words have on him, Nevieve continues. “But for now, my Guardia Dei, there are more pressing issues to attend to.”
“The theft of the Pearl.”
“I’m afraid that is but the first, Gwydion. The theft is to keep me imprisoned. The taint is an attempt to force me to unwrite the written. Both must be undone.”
“The Pearl will be returned to you, Oracle,” Dion states flatly. “We will fulfill our duty.”
Nevieve turns and looks Dion directly in the eyes as she states, “How pleasant that you are capable of such a concept as ‘we’. Yet the Pearl is but one issue, Gwydion. Fate has brought you to me for more than just that. This attempt to thwart destiny will fail, and you, God of Magic, will soon find yourself undertaking a purpose far greater than to right the wrong that was done to me. I have seen it happen, and it will come to pass.”
Before Dion can inquire further, he hears steps approaching. As both turn to look at the source of the sound, Alma enters the chamber carrying a box of pastries from Kyri’s Copper Pot.


Ch3.22 The Pearl

Alma wakes up to a blurry vision of an office. As her eyes begin to focus, she slowly takes in the small desk in the middle of the room, the mismatched chairs in front of it, the different teacups still placed on the desktop. The light streaming in through the window on the opposite wall bathes the scene and refreshes the goddess’ memory of past events, jolting her into full vigilance and action. Sitting and then standing, the little table with the gas burner and the locker coming into view as she looks for signs of Sky’s presence in his own office, Alma composes herself and makes her way to the door. As she grabs hold of the doorknob, a passing thought makes her stop, turn around and return to the sofa, where the pillow and blanket still lie. Picking it up and folding it carefully, the goddess leaves the blanket on an arm of the sofa, the pillow placed neatly on top of it.

Again, she moves to the door, opening it and walking into the chaos of Three Rats Station. Not having been planned to harbor so many people all at once, the full body of Guardia Popula having been called to serve regardless of shift assignments, the station looks even more unfit for its purpose than usual. Moving quickly, her next steps already carefully planned in her mind, she nearly runs into PC Longshot again. It is only for the sake of her quick reflexes and an unusual state of awareness from Wallace that they manage not to crash into each other again.

“Oh, Sergeant Alma!” Wallace greets, saluting immediately with a bright smile that in the goddess’ mind translates as See? I didn’t forget, this time. “Sure is busy around here, eh?”

“Three Rats faces a crisis, Probe Constable Longshot,” Alma replies, nodding slowly by way of greeting.

“Yeah… Everyone’s either too worried to rest or too drained to care. Officers keep running in and out. Just a while ago, Inspector Sukai left with Aliyah and that weird girl that’s always wet!”

“And have you found some way to help, Wallace?” the goddess inquires in a soft tone. “You were concerned about not being useful before.”

Wallace rubs the back of his red-curl-ridden head and shrugs before answering. “I try, you know? But I guess it’s not easy being useful when you’re as big a clutz as I am.”

“We will find you something to do, Wallace,” Alma assures him. “For now, though, I too need to rush.”

“Oh, sure! Sorry to keep you!” Wallace responds. “Until later, Sergeant!” he adds, saluting brightly once again.

Walking away from the young mortal, Alma walks out into the breezeway. Halfway through it, though, she stops and contemplates the prospect of a building full of Bunnies standing between her and her room. Too set on her purpose to be sidetracked by their idle concerns, Alma whispers a word of summoning. On the floor around her feet, a circle appears and grows, glowing white and blue with her magic, light crawling within it to draw a transportation sigil. As soon as it the symbol appears fully, the goddess fades away into the soft breeze that suddenly begins to blow. A similar circle glows into existence at her destination and Alma reappears in her room, the teleportation portal disappearing at her arrival. Making sure she stands alone in her sanctum, she takes the opportunity to breathe deeply. A pair of eyes the color of dawn follow her steps from within Starfax's cage as the goddess walks to the mirror and places a hand on its smooth, metallic surface.
“Mother,” she calls out. “I need you.”
“Then come,” a soft voice rings in response as a delicate hand stretches through and out of the mirror. “Let me guide you.”
With a sigh of relief, Alma takes the inviting hand and closes her eyes, allowing herself to be guided.
When Alma opens her eyes again, she finds herself standing in a large octagonal garden surrounded by arched passageways and white marble walls. All over the columns supporting the arches, climbing plants creep leisurely and stretch their leaves of green and gold towards the sunlight coming in from above, filtered through a stained-glass skylight crafted in white, reddish and yellow tones. Here and there colorful insects hum and buzz and fly among flowers of all shapes and colors, collecting nectar and spreading pollen.

Alma breathes deep, inhaling sweetness and peace, floral aromas and pleasant memories. The idle sounds of insect life blend in her ears with the soothing splash and flow of water coming from a simple, marble fountain gurgling in the middle of the room, to bring her the ever-playing song of this place. Everywhere around her, there is warmth and calm enveloped in a busy, pleasant and safe silence.

She is here, Alma knows, and she doesn’t have to search long before finding her, standing by a flower bush, her feet aligned with one of the many water channels radiating from the fountain in the middle of the room. This is where the warmth and peace of this room come from: her. Apparently oblivious to the young goddess, Alma’s mother leans over the flowers, caressing petals and leaves with soft, skilled hands. Her long blonde hair, fashioned in a loose braid decorated with red and pinkish wildflowers that falls over her right shoulder, carries the golden highlights of wheat fields lolling in the breeze of a summer day. The gold in her hair reflects on and accentuates her slightly tanned, sunkissed skin, laid over a pleasant and delicate face, locked in the perpetually peaceful expression of the soul that lies somewhere behind her intensely green eyes. Clad in the earthy tones befitting a Life Goddess, her beautifully sculpted body of generous proportions curves gracefully in well rounded breasts and hips, hidden under a long, fitted dress.

Lyria… Alma thinks as she watches her mother working and waits for her to finish. Even her name speaks of the warm, unspoken beauty of life.
“Hello, little soul,” her mother greets her with a gentle smile. “You choose a wonderful time to visit.”
Under Lyria’s touch the flower buds begin to tremble slightly.
“Come on, dears,” the goddess whispers. “Time to bloom.”
As Alma looks at them, the petals on the tiny white and blue buds begin to move and open, revealing the slender creatures hidden within. At the core of each flower, a colorful pixie stretches her arms lazily and basks in the soft daylight shining from above. With a smile and a wink at the young goddess, the pixies flap their dragonfly wings and take flight, and Alma can see that the petals on the flower buds are actually the long, rounded skirts of their delicate, translucent dresses. Moving in perfect synchrony, the pixies gather in a circle high above the two goddesses and begin to dance, their elegant feet stepping on hair as they hover much like a dancer would move gracefully on stage, going round and round, swaying and turning as they fly ever lower, ever closer to Alma’s fascinated gaze. A shower of glittery dust fills the air, falling gently over every living creature, making the air and the plants sparkle with a magical glint.

Like a child lost in a dream, Alma watches the scene with wide, hungry eyes, marveling at the exquisite little creatures as they hover and dance. She reaches out a hand and one of the pixies leaves the group to land on her finger and greet her with a wave of a tiny hand. Smiling softly, the goddess waves her other hand and the pixie flaps her wings in delight, covering Alma’s finger in a thin layer of pixie dust. Her white and blue dress dancing around her, the miniscule creature blows Alma a kiss before leaping into the air to join her sisters in the circle.

As their dance reaches its end, the pixies begin to return to their bush, each landing on her stem and curling around it, lying down to sleep again. Skirts once again become petals and pixies become buds and all that is left of the flower bush’s little secret is the lingering sparkle of pixie dust.
“I’ve been asked to help renew the plant collection at the Council gardens,” Lyria explains. “Aren’t they just gorgeous?” she asks with a touch of pride in her voice.
“They are, yes,” Alma replies as she looks at her sparkling, dust-covered dress and smiles. She looks at her mother. “Everything you create is.”
The older goddess nods slowly in agreement as she moves closer to Alma. “Yes... I can take pride in many a wonderful and beautiful creation.” She reaches a hand to her daughter and softly strokes her hair, pulling it over Alma’s left ear and leaving her earring at plain sight. Lyria’s left ear harbors a similar lily-shaped earring, though without the rod and the chain. “And in you more than any other.”
Alma gently places her hand over Lyria’s and dislodges it from her cheek. Smiling sadly, she says, “I am sorry I went so long without visiting.”
Lyria’s smile mirrors her daughter’s as she replies. “So am I.” The goddess releases Alma’s hand and walks towards the center of the room. “How are your creations? The Bunnies, as you call them?”
Walking slowly to meet her mother by the marble fountain, Alma responds, “They are so much more than I ever dreamed they would be...”
“Children usually are.” Lyria notes with a smile. Suddenly, her expression brightens, her eyes flashing in delight over a passing thought. “I remember the first time you saw a bunny. You were probably this tall.” She holds her hand at waist height. “Oh, how your eyes sparkled in fascination! I remember you played with that sweet little creature for hours and then, the next morning…” The goddess giggles in amusement. “We had perfect, cute little bunnies hopping all around the house, munching on everything green and edible!”
“I remember what Father did to them.” Alma shudders at the memory of being forced to collect the poor creatures’ souls amidst tears and screams, after her father had… undone her creations.
“He did what he did only to protect you. There is a reason why there are laws against creating new life without going through the proper channels, Alma,” Lyria retorts with a familiar, well-practiced and much-repeated speech. Turning to the younger goddess, she says, “You should go see your father. It has been a long time since you two last spoke.”
Alma shakes her head and, in doing so, her hair becomes loose, hiding her father’s mark on her ear. “There is no time, mother. I come to you with a serious and urgent issue.”
Lyria tilts her head, her expression becoming very serious all of a sudden. “What is wrong, little soul? Is this because of Nekh?”
“Nekh?” Alma’s eyes widen in fright at the name of her patron. “Has something happened to him?”
“I hope not,” Lyria replies. “He was looking a little under the weather the last time I saw him, that’s all.” She smiles softly and innocently. “I guess your father’s gift for political intrigue is beginning to rub off on me.”
Deciding to put this issue away for later analysis, Alma proceeds with her claim. “I come to you for help, mother. For a water goddess of the Fourth Ring. People call her ‘The Oracle’.”
“‘The Oracle’?” Lyria raises an eyebrow and turns to look intently at the water in the fountain.
“Yes. Very beautiful. Mermaid.”
Lyria’s head moves up and down in fast acknowledgment. “I know of her. Her name is Nevieve and she was once a First Ringer before she left without warning. Her predictions are famous for their accuracy.” She turns back to Alma. “Why does she need help?”
“Something of hers was stolen,” the young goddess explains. “A pearl.”
Lyria’s eyes widen as she hears these words, her lips mouthing unintelligible words before uttering, “No, not a pearl, the Pearl.”
“You know of it?” Alma asks.
With a subtle movement of her right hand, the older goddess brings all of the pixie dust in the room to hover right in front of her and take the shape of a glittering orb, just slightly larger in diameter than Alma’s hand. “The Siren’s Pearl is an ancient and powerful item, Alma,” Lyria says. “Almost as old as time itself.” The image of a cloaked figure handing Nevieve the pearl appears reflected on the surface of the shimmering orb. “It was given to Nevieve a long time ago for safe keeping.” Lyria’s head shakes in disbelief. “The thought that someone might steal it...”
“Someone did,” Alma states. “A gang of criminals who call themselves the Dukaines. They have been trying to take over the part of the City where I am stationed. From what I have been told, they took the Pearl hoping it would force Nevieve to do their bidding. All the water in the entire ward has become tainted, undrinkable. And, mother...” Her voice becomes strangled. “Nevieve seems to be in terrible pain.”
“I imagine she is,” Lyria agrees as the ghostly orb crumbles to pixie dust again. “Alma, Nevieve has guarded that Pearl for so long that their fates have become intertwined. If one is destroyed, the other will soon follow. And if she is in pain, then something must have happened to the Pearl as well, other than being stolen.”
“Can we not free Nevieve from the Pearl’s influence?” Alma asks.
“Only Nevieve knows the answer to that and I don’t think she is ready to relinquish the Pearl anyway.” Lyria sighs. “No, little soul. Do not waste your time with such theories. Find the Siren’s Pearl. Learn what has been done to it and how to restore it.” She turns to her daughter, her green eyes acquiring a steely edge that allows no room for disobedience. “If you wish to save Nevieve, then this is what you must do.”
Alma nods in assent. “We are doing all we can to find and retrieve it. I will know more when we do.”
“Call upon me when you have the Pearl,” Lyria says as she turns away to tend to her plants. “I will do what I can to help you.”
“Is there anything we can do for Nevieve in the meantime?”
“Rush, Alma,” Lyria replies. “All you can do is rush and find that Pearl.”


Ch3.21 The Pearl

“This is the place, sir,” says Aliyah. She walks to a drainpipe on the abandoned warehouse and kneels, spotting something in the shadows cast by the morning sun. She stands, holding up a thin cord, and turns to look at Sky with a smile. “And I guess this is where Jack said he woke up.”

“Good work, Corporal,” Sky says as he takes the cord. Looped on either end, slightly frayed in the middle... “A bowstring,” he murmurs. “Or rather, a crossbow string.”

Aliyah nods. “Uh-huh. Unless it’s for a bow for really short people. Those marks on Jack’s wrists – the perp must’ve used this to tie him up.”

Sky looks up the wall, spotting a fire-escape ladder and, near the top, a broken window. He nods at it. “Up to some climbing, Corporal?”

She follows his gaze, then swallows nervously. “Great. I guess whoever attacked Jack could be holing up in there. But maybe we should check the door first?”

“All right,” he replies. They walk around the building but find that the two human-scaled doors and the large delivery doors are all locked. As they are returning to the ladder, Sky notices a form watching them from an alleyway across the street. Whoever it is hesitates, then continues walking, stepping into the light. Some street tough, hair slicked straight back, no obvious weapons but moving as if he has concealed ones, tattoos on exposed skin that indicate which prisons he has resided in and for how long.

Aliyah calls out to the man, and he pauses with obvious reluctance. Sky listens as she asks the man who he is, where he’s coming from, where he’s going, whether he saw anything. The answers are evasive, almost certainly lies in many cases, but that is only to be expected from someone like him being questioned by someone like her. Sky begins to grow impatient – Atheist Jack’s attacker might have nothing at all to do with the Pearl, after all. He only decided to check it out amid the current emergency on a hunch, and he hopes he’s not wasting time.

Getting nothing useful from the hoodlum and having no reason to hold him, Aliyah lets the young man go. She returns to Sky with a sour look on her face. “Carpetbagger,” she mutters.

“You mean he’s not from Three Rats?” Sky asks.

“He tried to make me think he was,” she says, “but he didn’t have the accent right. Well...I guess we have to look inside this place, huh?” Aliyah looks doubtfully at the ladder.

Sky watches the hoodlum disappear into the shadows. “Hm... Oh yes, I suppose we must. Here, I’ll boost you up to the ladder.” He makes a stirrup of his hands. She sighs and steps into it, and then gasps as he lifts while she straightens her leg, bringing her up so swiftly that she feels like she’s flying. She grabs the bottom of the ladder and it swings down enough under her weight that Sky can reach it.

She laughs, “Whoo! Do it again! Oh, uh, sorry sir, just kidding.”

He smiles. “Go on, up you go. I’ll be right under you if you slip.”

As they climb, Aliyah’s long braid sways back and forth from the motion of climbing. She turns her head slightly to chat to him. Sky can tell she’s trying to keep her mind off how high she is. “Inspector? Doesn’t a guy like Atheist Jack make you...um, nervous?”

“You mean does he scare me? Yes, I suppose he does, a little. It’s quite disconcerting to have one’s powers suddenly stop working.” He doesn’t mention how being near Jack threatens to expose his most closely held secrets.

“He seems dangerous to gods like you.”

“He is. That’s why we need to keep an eye on him.”

“Oh...you mean to arrest him if he steps out of line?”

“Not really,” says Sky. “I’m worried about his safety. I think some gods might try to hurt him. He may be dangerous, but I don’t think that’s any fault of his. He deserves protection as much as anybody.”

“But...he preaches against the gods!”

“So do the monotheists. But mortals were granted freedom of belief centuries ago. And as far as we gods are concerned, belief in no gods isn’t much different from belief in one God. … Aliyah? Can I ask you something personal?”

She pauses, having reached the top. “Um, sure.” She looks down at him, a little surprised at his use of her first name while they are on a case.

“You’re a Sikh, right? But I’ve seen you pray to Kyri a couple of times, and to Doria just a little while ago.”

Aliyah grins. “Well...see, in my family’s sect we believe all you gods are manifestations of the One God. Most of you just don’t know it! There’s a bunch of commentary on it since our people arrived here centuries ago, but to tell the truth, I’m not all that religious. My dad, though, he could talk your ear off about it.”

“I would enjoy meeting him sometime. And Cala? Is she Muslim?”

“Yep. So she thinks you all are false gods. You know, I guess that is a little like Jack. But hey, that doesn’t mean she hates you! Heck, she told me she really likes you! And Sergeant Alma, too.”

Sky notices that she didn’t mention Gwydion. “Oh I don’t imagine she hates me. I respect her, and her beliefs. She’s been very helpful, and she’s an excellent constable.”

“Yeah, I still feel weird about being promoted over her. We’ve been friends since we were little, and she was always the one in charge.” She peers in through the window. “Sir? I can’t see a thing in there. The sun isn’t high enough to shine in through the skylight much.”

“Is there a walkway you can climb onto in there?” Sky asks. At Aliyah’s nod, he says, “Climb onto it and I’ll join you. I can make some light.”

After Aliyah carefully climbs in through the broken window, Sky follows, then concentrates and summons a ball of greenish-blue light that floats above his palm. It looks like an undulating bubble of seawater, glowing from within. He tosses it out over the interior of the warehouse, illuminating boxes stacked high, stairs...bodies. Aliyah gasps. Then they are both rushing down the interior stairs to the main floor.

The first corpse they encounter is a slender but muscular bald man, bled out through a wound to the heart. Sky gestures towards the ball of light and it comes closer. He notes a piercing wound to the man’s left foot as well, and boot marks in the pooled blood. Someone came back and retrieved an arrow from his body, Sky thinks. I’m betting a crossbow bolt.

“Do you recognize him?” Sky asks. Aliyah shakes her head no. Following the bloody bootprints, they move on to the next corpse, a nude woman with icy blue skin. Sky recognizes her quickly, despite the lack of flames. “She’s a Dukaine scion,” he says.

Aliyah kneels next to the woman’s head. There is surprisingly little blood, and Sky sees why: there is a crossbow bolt through the roof of her mouth into her brain. With the heart stopped almost immediately, there was no pump to force the blood out. Looking more closely at the entrance and exit wounds, he sees corrosive effects from the arrowhead’s touch, and he leans closer to sniff...demonblood ichor.

Aliyah touches the feathered end of the bolt, and she whispers, “Oh no...”

Sky is surprised that a corpse, even the corpse of a demigoddess, could affect an experienced Guardia like Aliyah so strongly, but then he realizes something else is troubling her. “What is it?”

“Oh, sir!” she says miserably. “I...” She stops speaking and looks up at him from where she is kneeling, her eyes filled with a mix of fear and pleading.

Sky looks her in the eye. “What is it, Aliyah? Tell me.”

“Sir...I think...I think I may know who did it. But...sir...please” she begs, her voice quavering, “I know I have no right to ask this, but please please please give me a chance to take care of this!”

Sky is shocked. He almost can’t believe she is serious, but from the way her hands shake, her eyes bright with unshed tears, he knows she is. “Corporal...if you think I’m going to let you go after a killer of three people, one of them a goddess, alone–”

“Not alone, sir! I’ll take Cala with me! And she...the killer...she would never hurt us.” She grabs his forearm with both her hands. “Please sir! Let me do this! If it’s anyone but me or Cala, we’ll never find her. Cala and me, we can do it, I promise.”

Sky looks at her for a long moment before speaking. “I suppose you can’t explain this to me, either.” Aliyah, looking ashamed, shakes her head no, but keeps her eyes locked on his nonetheless. Sky sighs, then decides to take a risk. “Very well. You have a day. Do not make me regret trusting you on this.”

“Oh thank you, sir!” Aliyah exclaims, and throws her arms around Sky, knocking him off-balance so that he sits down heavily. “Oh sorry! I’m sorry sir! That...was inappropriate, wasn’t it?”

“A bit, yes,” he replies drily, letting her help him back to his feet. Once they are standing again, and begin walking toward the third corpse, he says, “Corporal, listen to me. This...old friend or whatever she is – you did say ‘she,’ didn’t you?” Aliyah reluctantly nods. “Well she poisoned her bolt with demonblood ichor. That is extremely illegal, not only because it can kill a god, but because the only way to get it is by summoning demons, which, without a license, is a crime punishable by death.”

“Oh, sir, she wouldn’t even be able to summon a demon...she’s not, like, a wizard or anything.”

“She’s still running in some very dark circles, even to be able to buy such poison.” They look down at the final body, lying face down, a wound in the back of the neck. Sky does not have to point out that the killer shot down an unarmed, fleeing man. “What I’m saying, Aliyah, is that she may not be the friend you remember.”