Sky hears a knock at his office door. Standing before his desk, back to the door as he studies maps, half a sandwich in his hand, he shouts, “Come in!” He looks around and says, “Oh, hello Sergeant.” He turns to face Alma.
She says, “I just arrived from the Oracle’s temple. Thought I should give you my report right away.”
He nods and takes note of how drawn and tired she looks, and her clothes and hair damp as if she had been completely submerged in water. “Please sit, Alma. You look like you’ve been through an ordeal...is everything all right?”
She lowers herself onto his sofa, closes her eyes for a moment, then shakes her head and opens them. “Yes and no. We have eliminated one of the threats to the Oracle, but the other one still persists. Sergeant Gwydion is still at the temple, trying to buy us some time.” Her eyes focus on the sandwich in Sky’s hand.
“This second threat – does this have something to do with the water?” he asks.
She looks up at his face in surprise. “The water? Do you mean there is something wrong with the water here as well?”
Sky scowls at the expected bad news. “I’m afraid so. The water from numerous sources is carrying some sort of enervating effect. And...it has a smell of demons about it. Reports have been coming in from all over. As near as I can tell, it’s radiating outward from the Oracle’s grotto.”
Alma’s shoulders slump. “Of course, it makes sense. The spring that feeds the grotto also runs through most of the town. People rely on that spring for drinking water.”
Sky notices her gaze has returned to the sandwich. “Uh, would you like something to eat? I haven’t touched the other half of this.” Picks up a plate and offers it to her.
“Oh no, I couldn’t,” she says, staring at the food.
Sky laughs. “I picked it up on my way back...apparently a feijão de caril pita, according to the guy running the cart...actually quite good. Spicy, though. Go on, eat!”
Alma takes the plate and starts to eat as delicately as possible, but, hungry as a marabunta ant, she can’t stop herself from devouring the curried-bean-filled sandwich while Sky pours her some guava juice. “I would make you tea, but with the water contaminated, I don’t know if it would wake you up or make you sleepier.” He hands her a cup, and she drinks the thick, sweet liquid greedily. She looks at the empty cup in surprise, and Sky takes it and refills it. “All right, tell me what you know. Perhaps we can come up with a solution.”
Taking her refilled cup and sipping from it more cautiously, Alma says, “We followed Doria’s directions and found the entrance to the grotto. Apparently whoever did this to the Oracle followed Doria in, because the key to gain entrance is not all that easy to find. When we arrived there, the Oracle was being attacked by these... demons. Eels. Electric eels.”
Sky his hands out at about the width of his broad shoulders. “About this big around? Spikes all over their heads?”
Alma nods, looking at him a little strangely. “They kept following the Oracle around, discharging, hurting her. The Oracle was already quite weak but she managed to show us a shallower area, where we were able to take them out. She is pretty badly wounded, though. And getting weaker by the minute. The water...” Her voice drifts off and her chin sinks toward her chest, and her cup, supported on her thigh, starts to tip dangerously.
“Alma!” Sky says loudly, startling her awake. He gently takes the cup from her and sets it on the desk, then asks, “Did you fall into the water?”
“Fall? No. I left Sgt. Gwydion with the Oracle. Went back to investigate. There was something shining in the water and I dove in to get it. I gave the item to Gwydion for inspection. It seems to be a magical instrument of sorts.”
“You swam in the water?”
She nods. “As soon as I dove in, I felt it pulling away at my energy, draining me.”
Sky ponders. “That’s not something from the eels. Something else must have been done to the water. Could it have been this item?”
“I don’t think so...it’s a sort of weapon. And, Sky...whoever did this managed to shatter the Oracle’s shield around the Pearl. And I checked – no one would have been able to see the Pearl from the offering sites. They had to know where to find it and how to get it.” She focuses on him. “Oh...did you find it? The Pearl?”
He shakes his head in disgust. “Sadly, no. I was...interrupted, and I lost the trail. I’ll explain later.”
“Well, the Oracle did confirm that the Dukaines are behind all this. Other than that, all she kept saying was that the Pearl was tainted. Over and over again. The Pearl was tainted.” Alma rubs her eyes.
“I see,” says Sky, thinking hard. “The Pearl must be connected to the water, affecting it. Perhaps it was purifying it. And now it’s been corrupted, magically, and it’s doing the opposite.”
“I don’t know,” replies Alma, sleepily. “But I may know where I can find some answers. I just need some time to...” Her eyes close again, and she wavers before snapping them open. “...retrieve my strength,” she finishes.
“So where do you think you can find some answers?” Sky asks, realizing he won’t be able to talk to her much longer. Swimming in that corrupted water, right at the source, has really worn her out.
“Home,” she says. “Mother was once a First Ringer, before she met Father. She might know something about this Pearl. Or, at least, she might know where I could go for information.”
“I see. Is the Oracle in danger right now?”
“Not right now. Gwydion managed to create a filter of some sort that seems to keep the water around her untainted. She just needs to rest and heal. I will check on them later.”
“Of course, but we’ll need to move quickly,” Sky says. “And what about Doria? I need to speak with her, but I didn’t want to disturb her, or trespass on your home.”
Alma yawns. “I will check on her once I get back to my chambers. I expect she would be feeling much better...by now.” The goddess, instead of rising, slowly tilts to the side, until her head is resting on the arm of the sofa, her damp snow-white hair falling across her face.
Sky sighs, then goes to his upright locker. From the bottom shelf he retrieves a small cylindrical cushion and a Guardia-issue wool blanket, the same shade of blue as the Popula uniforms. He squats next to the sofa, and carefully raises her head, puts the cushion under it so her head is at a more comfortable angle.
“Hmmm?” Alma’s eyes barely open.
“It’s all right,” he says softly as he helps her move her legs to stretch out on the sofa. “You’re going to recover here. I’ll lock the door on the outside – you’ll be able to open it from in here. I’ll go and ask Mayumi to send Doria to me, and she and I can talk in the bar.”
“Maybe just a short nap...” she murmurs before falling deeply asleep.
He stands, picks up the blanket by the corners, and snaps it out, unfurling it and guiding it to slowly float down onto her supine form. For just a moment he watches her, a small smile on his face – in sleep, this goddess of Death looks almost like a child, so relaxed, so...vulnerable.
Then he quietly leaves the office, making sure to lock the door behind him.