Walking the streets, Sky can feel the webs of a thousand connections, but there is only one chain he wants to follow: that linking Doria with this pearl. Her link to it is very strong, but following it among all the other chains of loyalty and ownership and need and want requires all his concentration. And every moment that passes makes it all the more difficult.
But that is not the only reason he decided not to accompany his sergeants to the Oracle’s temple. By her reputation, he knows that this Oracle will be able to see through his mask, and recognize him for what he truly is. Indeed, perhaps she already knows – there are several on the Council of Archons who are privy to his secret. More properly, the Commander’s secret. She may well have learned of it before she left the Council.
He feels a stab of guilt for deceiving his sergeants, but then his entire existence is deception, is it not? Masks upon masks. He feels more guilty for allowing them to go into danger without him. But he cannot allow himself to be unmasked before them. His true identity is a state secret. And if they knew what he really was, they would never follow him. He would become utterly useless to the Commander.
The Commander might even send him...back.
He shudders. No. No, that would never happen. Sky knows too much, too many secrets of the City and its leaders. Not that he knows so much, really, of the intrigue and conspiracies and secrets that make up so much of the governance of the Urbis Caelestis, but far too much to be allowed to fall into the talons of his former masters. No – retirement, in Sky’s case, would mean death. More than death: annihilation.
But better that than being sent home.
And cutting through even those terrifying thoughts, another stab of guilt. A white lie, surely the least of the lies that he lives with: lying to Alma for Mayumi. Such a little thing – but now he’s enmeshed Kyri in it, and Aliyah as well. How much will it metastasize? He had not expected Alma to become...what? A friend?
He pauses, closes his eyes, orders his thoughts. You can’t afford to have friends! Concentrate on the job at hand! Funny how the voice in his head sounds like the Commander. Paternal, strict, masterful. Both cold and caring. Enough! Focus!
He reaches out, extending his senses, and feels the chain of connection again. He follows.
The mystical chain splits, another strand. He feels pain quivering through this new chain, and judging from the direction, he guesses it leads to the Oracle, where she is struggling in her sanctum.
He is just returning to the original chain when, without any warning, it is gone. Not shattered, not broken by someone with the right magic and knowledge of Sky’s abilities, but just gone, in an instant.
He stands, confused. This has never happened before. He reaches out, preparing to sift through the thousands of other chains in the area in hopes of reacquiring the one he wants, but...there are no other chains. No – it is his ability to sense them. It’s gone.
His breathing quickens. What is this? He hears a voice, ringing out in the familiar cadences of a street preacher. He was concentrating too much to notice earlier.
“There, brethren! We see one of them right here among us! So-called ‘gods’!” The last word is pronounced with a sneer and a double-finger gesture that makes Sky think of crab pincers. “Look at how confused he is, confronted by someone he cannot control! That’s right, false god!” He stabs a finger at Sky. “I see you for what you are! Your masks cannot hide you!”
Sky looks around in shock. A half-dozen people are turning to look at him, standing in a semicircle before a man standing on a crate – a man wearing a hat made of... Wait, no, Sky thinks, is that an honest-to-goodness tinfoil hat?
Sky is about to object, start asking questions, when he feels himself starting to change. His eyes widen in shock, and he looks down at his right hand. Or rather, talon. His skin is darkening to a familiar but hated black-red, fingers lengthening, nails turning into claws, the red deepening more and more toward black toward the tips of the deadly-sharp digits.
His initial thought is to kill, immediately, remorselessly. He could bend down, wrench free a loose paving stone, and hurl it through the preacher’s skull. Problem solved. But no...there are rules. Not just laws, though that is not inconsequential. He is Guardia, after all. He reminds himself that he can’t just kill people. But there are also his own rules. Never kill without a damn good reason. Never kill without thinking it through. He had killed far too many times before he’d made that rule for himself.
Fighting to stay calm, he slips his transforming hand into his jacket and strides away swiftly, forcing himself not to run. He feels his teeth growing, his jaw deforming; he tucks his chin down below his collar.
“Yes, that’s right, alien! Slink away! You see brethren, thanks to this,” the preacher says, pointing at his hat, “I can resist their powers, and I will teach you as well! Just stick with me and you’ll be ruling your own lives in no time...”
As the voice falls behind him, Sky feels his magic returning, and his familiar control over his form returning as well. He wills his hand and his face to return to normal – or what has become normal to him over his many years of wearing this form – and sluggishly they obey. He sighs in relief, and swipes his sweat-slick forehead with the back of his hand.
What in Hell was that?! That street preacher – he has some kind of unique power. Sky doesn’t believe for a minute that the hat has anything to do with it. He has to wonder how long the preacher had had this power, for surely someone will kill him for it sooner or later. In fact...Sky realizes with annoyance that he will have to arrange to have the man protected.
Man? Or perhaps god? Now wouldn’t that be something? A god who doesn’t believe in gods, and whose power is the nullification of divine powers? Yes...this is something to learn more about, not end in a moment of bloodshed. Imagine the possible uses of such a power...
His sense of the chains of connection returning, Sky reaches out, but as expected, finding the chain he wants proves to be an impossible task. Thousands of chains shift and twine all around him, and the tiny difference of the chain linking Doria and this pearl simply cannot stand out among them all. Frustrated, he heads back to the station, taking a detour to avoid the street preacher.
As he nears the station, he passes the fountain where he healed Mayumi’s foot a week ago, and once again feels the guilt of having lied to Alma. He takes out the same handkerchief he used to clean Mayumi’s wound and again soaks it in the fountain’s water. As the water washes over his hand, he feels something...off. He withdraws his hand, holding the wet cloth, and squeezes it. The water runs down his wrist and forearm, under the cuff of his jacket, and he feels the water somehow draining him. He holds it up to his face and sniffs it. It smells no different...wait. He opens his senses to the utmost and takes in a deep whiff.
Yes...there it is. Very faint, but it is there. Too familiar to ever forget.
It is the smell of Hell.