Ch3.48 The Pearl

“Sky, I am going to need you to stand over there, please,” Lyria states, indicating the wall against which Alma’s bed rests with a small gesture of her open hand, her commanding tone disguised as a soft request.

The Inspector nods and crosses the room. Satisfied with Sky’s easy compliance, Lyria smiles pleasantly at him by way of thank you, and turns her full attention to her daughter.

“And now, little one,” she says. “It is your turn. I will be right behind you to contain you should you lose control.”

Only now realizing that her mother has no intention of restoring the Pearl herself, Alma shoots a panicky look at Lyria, a bolt of freezing-cold lightning rushing down her spine.

“Mother, this is the Siren’s Pearl, not some minor item,” the young goddess cries in a hushed voice. “Why don’t you do it?”

“Because this is your path, not mine,” Lyria replies softly.

“I don’t even know where to start,” Alma argues, her voice carrying an edge of fear.

“Look around, Alma,” she whispers in her ear before walking away. “You know what to do. You’ve known it all along.”

Alma breathes deep and tries to think of what to do next. With only her personal reserves of mana to use, she hopes she can control the spell for long enough to make it work. Provided she can find the right spell, that is. Glancing at Sky out of the corner of her eye, the goddess sees the anxiety and concern on the Inspector’s face. But he nods at her, encouraging her. Too much hangs in the balance for this to go wrong.

In silence, Alma watches Lyria walk the room, describing a wide circle with her steps. Behind her, each footstep begins to glow with a golden hue, a sign of the life goddess’ power. Once her path is completed and a circle is drawn in light in the middle of the room, Lyria invites her daughter to stand in the center of it while she takes position by the door. Alma steps into the circle and a wall of light instantly rises around her, only to dim immediately afterwards. Behind her, Lyria raises a hand to maintain her shield. Turning to face the statue in the far wall that adorns the fountain, the young goddess studies the serene face of the girl holding the glowing orb, her lifeless eyes staring back at Alma with the disconcerting constancy of carved stone.

Could it be? Alma wonders.

Almost as if taking directions from the statue, Alma cradles the Pearl in her cupped hands and raises it to chest height. Almost without a thought or command from her part, the Pearl begins to hover gently just above the goddess’ hands, its dull, greyish surface neither absorbing nor reflecting light. Alma closes her eyes and feels the faint, suffering hum of the ancient item, its very essence crying weakly for help, like an aging stream drying under the scorching sun. Opening her eyes again, the goddess looks at the world in front of her with eyes that see soul and spirit, the Pearl hovering before her offering little to see but a faint, fading glow. Beyond the dull sphere, a silhouette traced in brilliant blue and white greets her. Starfax.

Perching on the delicate hands of the statue, the phoenix tilts its head to one side, almost as if confused by Alma’s hesitant stance. Why are we waiting? she seems to say.

And then Alma realizes it. Starfax really is communicating with her. She has just now become open to it for the first time. It is not exactly telepathy but, somehow, the goddess can tell what the phoenix wishes to convey. And now she knows what is expected of her.

Raising her hands to eye level, Alma sends the Pearl rising slowly in the air just above her head. The Pearl hovers and turns gently, humming under the influence of the goddess’ mana as Alma infuses it with her own power, priming it for what is to follow. The goddess exhales deeply and closes her eyes…

… and Starfax takes flight.

Flying close to the ceiling, the phoenix describes two wide circles around Alma, banking through a larger space than the room itself contains. Distances become hallucinatory, as if the walls have disappeared, her tail leaving a silvery trail behind, showering countless tiny specks of light over Sky, like falling stars in a night sky. Gyring once, twice in the air, Starfax then dives into the pool. The water glows at her entrance, filling the room with its liquid brilliance as Starfax rises once again, her body now scintillating and translucent, her long tail dragging water behind her like a veil.

Her glittering wings raising her in the air, the phoenix flies around the Pearl, surrounding it, enveloping the diseased thing in a cleansing shield of pure water. As Starfax pirouettes around it, the Pearl begins to release its taint into the water, staining it a vile shade of greenish black as the purifying fluid draws the evil influence out. Spreading through the watery veil left in the bird’s trail, the taint travels towards Starfax, extending to her body, tainting her, claiming her, turning her black and green as she moves relentlessly around the Pearl.

Alma’s eyes shoot open, revealing the golden-red hue of her life-infused power. Maintaining her senses open, drawing her own mana into the Pearl to keep it open to Starfax’s influence, she feels more than sees the phoenix turn and, impossibly, enter the Pearl, her clear diamond beak penetrating through shield and Pearl, diving in bodily to reach the very core of the artifact, sending a surge of power down the goddess’ arms, making her shake with the effort of keeping the Pearl permeable to her influence.

And then, nothing happens.

For a long moment, the whole room seems to hold its breath, waiting. The Pearl hovers still in its darkened cocoon under Alma’s watchful gaze as the very air around her contracts in expectation. Suddenly, the Pearl explodes in light, shattering its blackened shield, pulverizing the spell into a fine mist that hangs for a moment and then fades away, leaving only the fully restored, glowing orb hovering gently in the air, spreading its opalescent light around the room, washing away concern and fear, humming with renewed strength a song of young rivers and cool springs.

Floating down gently, the Pearl once again comes to sit just above Alma’s cupped hands, descending as the goddess brings them back to chest height. Scanning and sensing as close as she may, the goddess finds all signs of her phoenix gone, the beautiful, peaceful glow of the sphere betraying only its ancient essence. Alma stands very still, waiting to see the bird return, fearing that she may never see her again.

“Starfax?” she whispers hesitantly. Starfax! she calls in concern.

Another silent moment goes by, filled only by the Pearl’s gentle song, as Alma waits in vain to for the phoenix to return.

Please, come back to me, Starfax, the goddess pleads one last time.

A single tear falls from her eye, landing on the pearlescent orb and rolling down its spherical surface to land on the exposed palms of Alma’s open hands. The goddess feels the drop hitting her soft skin, closely followed by another, and another and another until she can no longer feel individual drops, and water trickles through her fingers and down her hands, falling to the floor, seeping through the cracks of the stones that pave the floor. Suddenly, all around Alma’s feet, the stones begin to glow silvery and blue, whispering with a low melody that rises in waves to fill the room. A wall of water spirals up to surround Alma, brushing against her clothing, licking her skin, sending a cool breeze through her hair, as water turns into flesh, liquid into feathers, and Starfax rises in flight just above the goddess’ head.

Smiling to see her phoenix return, a drained Alma falls to her knees as she watches Starfax perch on the hands of the fountain statue once again, grooming its feathers as if nothing has happened. The bird stops for a moment and looks at her, tilting her head in a silent greeting.

And the world goes black.


Ch3.47 The Pearl

With his sleeve, Dion wipes the sweat dripping from his forehead as he leans over the second filter, rebuilding it for the third…no fourth time. His fatigue from lack of rest and the rate of mana depletion causes him to momentarily lose balance and step into the pool.
“Demons!” he cries, quickly jumping back and regaining balance. The damage is done as the taint drains him further and the spell collapses.
“Focus Dion, focus,” he admonishes himself as he leans back over and restarts the casting.
“Dion,” he hears Nevieve call out weakly. “The filter…”
“Yes, dear Oracle. I’m rebuilding it. The taint is growing stronger and is breaking my work at a far greater rate now,” Dion replies while maintaining his tenuous grip on the spell.
In another part of his mind, he considers the weakness of her voice, an indicator or her slipping strength. It seems only moments before, he had shared with her mana from the third orb. Yet, she is being depleted faster than the filtering spells are draining him, he acknowledges.
Focusing again, Dion completes the spell and is rewarded with a draining sound as the essence of the taint is separated and sent through the void barrier.  That should hold for now, he thinks to himself as he steps back from the filter.
The feeling of an oncoming headache has him absentmindedly reaching for the fourth mana orb. Now looking at it in his hand, he considers consuming it but then defers. Not yet, he thinks. I may need it later.
“No, Dion,” Nevieve’s voice feebly calls. “The filter…”
Looking over, the god realizes that the Oracle is pointing to another failing filter. Sighing, he lays the orb by his feet and crosses to the other side of the pool by her.
“Thank you, Nevieve,” Dion says while looking over the failing filter. “It’s easier to fix these before they fail completely like the other one.”
Bending over, the god is able to make a quick repair to the spell, strengthening it, and is satisfied as the sound resets to working order. Taking advantage of his close proximity to the Oracle, he reaches a hand out to her to gauge her level of distress, her beautiful face turning to him in response to his touch, her expression feverish and absent. As the glow of her white eyes dims and fades, he senses her slipping into delirium. She looks at him in confusion for a moment, as if unable to recognize the handsome god. Then, her white gaze flares suddenly and she rises from the water, arms stretched out to wrap around Dion, her need speaking louder than reason. Gripping and holding him tight, the full weight of her body pulling on his, she holds his face in her hands and presses her lips against his, in a desperate, draining kiss. Stunned and unbalanced, he cannot stop her deadly embrace as she drains his mana and pulls him into the tainted pool, taking him into darkness with her.
As his flailing ceases, silence falls around the pool with only the sounds of three working filters, and a now-failing fourth, filling the air.


Ch3.46 The Pearl

After what seemed to be a very long walk into the building and through the bar, punctuated by raised eyebrows and meaningful looks, along with choruses of, “What do you mean, you’re both going downstairs?” Sky and Alma reach the basement and stop before her bedroom door.

“Um, are you sure?” Sky hesitates as the goddess reaches for the doorknob.

Alma stops mid-movement to look at him with a placid expression. “If you wish to remain outside, it is your choice, but I see no harm in inviting you in.” Her eyes acquire a slightly malevolent glint. “Unless you fear this for some reason…”

Feeling his cheeks become warm at the insinuation in the beautiful goddess’ countenance, Sky quickly shakes his head and half stutters, “No, no no...I, uh… well, ahem, after you.”

“It is quite safe, I assure you,” Alma claims with a pleasant, disarming smile. “We will not be alone, after all.”

The goddess opens the door and enters, leaving the door open for him. Still, Sky hesitates and freezes at the doorway for a moment, his eyes fixed on the goddess standing in her sanctum, impassively waiting for him as one would wait for a friend in a bar.

A god’s sanctum sanctorum is his most sacred and private haven, he thinks to himself. And yet she is allowing me in as if it’s just another room. Any other would find a million reasons to keep me away...

The god takes a deep breath and then enters. Now allowed a full view of the room’s interior, his eyes linger on each detail, marveling at the images before him. The harmonious disposition of all items in the room, against the melodious background of the running water falling from the beautiful girl-like statue’s hands, immediately fills him with a sense of safety and balance. Serenity.

In the cage that covers the wall from which the fountain protrudes, greenery and flowers bring him the sweet scent and freshness of blooming life. Closing his eyes, he breathes in the air and it takes over his senses.

Peaceful and soft, like a summer night, Sky muses, a stray thought adding, Or a mother’s embrace...

“Alma! I…” He says and trails off, speechless. Opening his eyes again, he turns his gaze to the goddess, still quietly watching him. “You’re an artist.”

She looks down for a fraction of an instant, blushing ever so slightly as if unused to praise. “No,” she nearly whispers. “You will meet a real artist soon enough.”

Sky watches her walk over to the mirror hanging from a wall to his left, place a hand on the glass surface and whisper something unintelligible. The mirror begins to glow under her touch and she stands back as the light moves and spreads, filling the room. The god can’t help but hold up a hand and cover his eyes at the blinding light, and still it reaches between his fingers and hammers at his eyelids as if the laws of physics do not apply to it. When it is all over and he deems it safe to open his eyes again, he sees a third figure in the room, standing by Alma.

“Here I am, as promised, little soul,” the woman says, her voice ringing with a soft melody somewhat reminiscent of birdsong.

Her long blonde hair falls in a loose braid over her shoulder, framing a delicate, tanned face that speaks of peace and warmth, and making a pleasant counterpoint to deep-green eyes that seem to smile at the world. Standing by Alma, she looks like a warm late-spring day against a late winter’s night. And Sky remembers noticing such contrast before. Once… a long time ago.

“Inspector Tuma-Sukai, this is my mother, Lyria, Herald of Spring, Lady of Life,” Alma announces, her speech and posture one of austere formality. Turning to the goddess now identified as her mother, she adds, “Mother, this is my Commanding Officer, Inspector Tuma-Sukai, Breaker of Chains, Shadow of Freedom.”

They look nothing alike, Sky marvels. The same way she felt nothing like him...

Sky’s face betrays his shock and wonder at the differences between mother and daughter, but still he crosses the room quickly and gently takes Lyria’s hand, bowing over it in a formal greeting.

“Lady, it is good to see you once again,” he says, keeping his eyes looking down. “I am sorry we did not have a chance for proper introductions the last time.”

Lyria tilts her head at this, in slight confusion. “Did we meet before, little demon?”

At her words, Sky freezes, his whole body becoming tense, stiff as sheer cold fear shoots down his spine. He looks up and makes eye contact with the goddess, who takes his gaze in hers, smiling still as if inviting him to confess everything and find freedom in her forgiveness. Fighting the urge to tell her everything about himself, torn like a child hiding secrets from a loving mother, he holds silence for what seems like eternity before finally voicing a hesitant reply.

“I...was dispatched to assist your...um, to assist Senator Death in a matter, some years ago,” he explains. “I was introduced quite briefly to you, but there was no chance to speak.”

Lyria smiles, her intensely green eyes still capturing his soul, like a forest rising to engulf him. In a soft tone, she speaks to Alma but doesn’t look at her. “Why is your Commanding Officer stuttering at me, little one?” She giggles. “Did you tell him I share your father’s disposition?”

“You call people demons, they get nervous, Mother,” Alma admonishes her with a shrug.

Obviously amused, Lyria finally releases Sky of her gaze to look at Alma. “Over a joke?” she inquires.

Without bothering to answer, Alma looks at the god, her expression one of resigned annoyance at her mother’s idea of a joke. “‘Little demon’ is an affectionate term in my clan, Sky,” she explains simply.

Sky nods microscopically at Alma and glances at Lyria. He can see the amusement in her eyes, like that of a child who has just caught hold of a grown-up’s big secret.

She knows everything already, he concludes.

“Oh, I see,” he says aloud, smiling in response, still holding Lyria’s hand lightly but steadily. “Well, it is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Lyria. Might I say how pleased I am to be working with your daughter? She is a fine officer.”

Lyria nods in assent. “And the only daughter of my husband’s harem,” she notes. “I am sure you will understand how…” she gestures vaguely with her free hand, “hesitant, we are that she has chosen to join the Guardia instead of pursuing…other purposes in life.”

“I am right here, Mother,” Alma growls low.

Sky catches Alma’s ominous tone, but Lyria’s gaze again falling on him calls, irresistibly, for his answer. “I realize that many see our profession as that of mere civil servants, madame,” he states, trying to keep his deeper thoughts away from his voice. “But I myself can think of few callings more noble than the one your daughter has chosen to answer. All the more so because of her familial origins.”

Lyria nods again, apparently pleased at this. “Noblesse oblige…” she whispers.

Her smile changes from one of childish malevolence to a warm and welcoming curl of the lips. Suddenly, she looks innocent and ethereal, almost erasing all memory and suspicion of a  cunning, malicious streak.

“She is, however, still too used to the ways of our House,” the goddess  adds softly. “As you may see in her absence of an expectation of privacy.” Turning to Alma, she proffers a soft reprimand. “You really do need a screen for that door, child.”

Suddenly, Sky feels his hand captured in her grip. She hasn’t moved, nor has she changed the force with which she holds his hand in hers. Her soft hand wraps its fingers lightly around his still, and yet, he can’t release himself from her. Locking her eyes on his, she holds him hostage in her gaze as she projects her energy through her skin and sends her power rushing through the helpless god. Feeling her warmth invade him, her immense power surge through his body, destroying the lingering poison in his system, healing the remainder of his wounds, overwhelming his consciousness, Sky arches his back and rises, breathless, on the balls of his feet as he is used as a conduit for Lyria’s magic. Through his feet, her influence reaches the ground, spreading across the floor in a pool of light until it hits the door, crawling up the wall and seeping into the stone ceiling. In response, wisteria shoots stretch down through the cracks in the stones, their small, delicate flowers cascading down in a fragrant living curtain to form a privacy screen.

Her work done, Lyria releases the god’s hand and he staggers, his legs faltering under his weight, unable to sustain him. With surprising quickness and ease, Alma reaches out an arm and catches Sky as he staggers, supporting him.

“Are you pleased, Mother?” the young goddess asks bitterly.

Lyria’s smile remains unmoved. “Extremely. How about you, Inspector?” she queries, turning to Sky. “Face feeling better?”

Partially recovering from Lyria’s incursion through his person, Sky refocuses, only now realizing he’s being supported by Alma. Swiftly but gently, he straightens himself and nods to her in gratitude. “Yes...very much so,” he responds, touching his face and feeling it smooth and flawless again. “Thank you, madame.”

At these words, Lyria looks at Alma, her smile brightening. “See? All is well!” she exclaims. Then, as in an afterthought, she asks, “Now… do you have the Pearl?”

Alma nods a confirmation and reaches for a deep-blue velvet bag currently hanging from her belt. Releasing and then opening it, she produces the Pearl in her open hand.

“Here it is,” she announces, presenting the dull, greyish orb.

One look at the Pearl, and Lyria gasps, horrified at the damage done. “By all the demons in Hell!” she curses under her breath.“How could anyone do this to the Siren’s Pearl? Nevieve must be in excruciating pain!”

Sky shudders at the sight and feel of the magical item. Even though it is the first time he has seen it at close range, he can’t help but sense deep suffering, weakness and anguish in it. And beneath it all, a devilish stench. “Hell is correct,” he notes. “They summoned demons to torment her. These criminals are diabolists. When we apprehend them...they will have much to answer for.”

Lyria shakes her head slowly and looks at him, her expression becoming distant, as if her inner light has just blinked out. “Evil is not easy to catch, little demon. Born as they are from the same womb, the paths of Evil and Good run parallel. Walk one path and you are either one or the other. Walk both and you are none. There are no boundaries to those who walk in the middle.” Her eyes roam down to the agonizing Pearl. “No walls to restrain you, no walls to keep you safe, no walls at all...”

Her voice trails off and she goes silent for a long moment. Suddenly, she seems to snap back into consciousness, warmth and glow returned to her voice and presence. “I believe all is not lost,” she states. “We may still be able to restore the Pearl without Nevieve’s intervention.”

“That is good to hear,” Alma notes.

“It is a shot in the dark, little ones,” Lyria warns them.

“If there is anything that can be done...we must try,” Sky insists.

Lyria brightens up, her voice now cheerful as she says, “Very well, then. Let us shoot the darkness and hope it doesn’t shoot us back.”


Ch3.45 The Pearl

As Alma leaves the warehouse, a shadow detaches from the other shadows and walks into the light. It looks like a man-shaped nothingness, a walking darkness, until one arm reaches up and peels away something like a scarf from a brown face, and unwinds it from his body. The scarf, like a blacker-than-black bandage made of the lightest silk, floats in the air until it is fully unwrapped, and Inspector Tuma-Sukai crumples it into a ball that fits into one fist before he shoves it into a pocket. In the other hand, he carries an ugly, bulky gun with what appears to be a thick tank of some sort of gas or liquid underneath the wide-mouthed barrel, the whole thing coated in a matte-black finish.

“That went smoothly,” he says. “Though you had me very worried for a moment there, walking right up to her like that.”

Alma half-smiles. “Considering we now have the Pearl and I didn’t get shot, I am choosing to look at it as a victory.” She glances at the gun. “Do I dare ask what that ugly gadget is for?”

Sky looks at it. “Oh, this old thing. Uses compressed air to fire cloth bags filled with powdered lead. Works fine in low-tech environments. Probably wouldn’t do more than crack a rib, but it sure would’ve knocked her down. I’m glad it didn’t come to that. We might cross paths with her again.”

“I am sure we will,” Alma says, “at least for as long as our paths cross with the Dukaines’.” As they walk, she sighs. “She is little more than a child, Sky. I cannot imagine one of my own ending up like that.”

Frowning at the thought, while at the same time taking note of the warm feeling her casual, friendly use of his nickname creates in him, he says, “Yes...well, they have you, to protect and to guide them. Saira, on the other hand…”

“She had all the wrong people to rely on. But something in her tells me that she is not beyond help.”

“Cala and Aliyah...they did their best, but they were just kids.” Sky sighs as well. “I hope you’re right. I hope she can be brought back to the right side. She would be a valuable ally.”

Increasing her pace, Alma states firmly, “Time will tell. And speaking of time, we don’t have much. The Pearl feels weak and so did the Oracle when I last saw her. Despite his best efforts, Gwydion is exhausted. I cannot imagine the constant focus necessary to keep those spells running. I am afraid he will break very soon.”

“We need to hurry then. Should we go directly to the Oracle’s grotto?”

Alma shakes her head, “It would do little to help her right now. We need to remove the taint first.”

Sky looks uncertain. “I hope you know how to do that.”

Alma smiles sardonically. “Oh, yes. I make a habit out of restoring ancient and powerful magical artifacts all on my own.”

With an annoyed tone to his voice, Sky says, “You’re smiling, so I’m going to presume you know someone who does know how to help us.”

“I hope I do too,” Alma says, smiling more naturally now. “Inspector, I would like to introduce you to my mother. I hear meeting one’s family is the next good, logical step in any relationship.”

Sky guffaws, all traces of annoyance disappearing. “Why Sergeant Alma! What’s next, Sunday dinner at the family home?”

“Sunday?” Alma replies with an arched eyebrow. “Why wait that long? I was thinking we could just get it done today.”

“Just a little joke,” Sky says, thinking, A friend. We still don’t know each other well. We still mistake each other’s sense of humor sometimes. But she is my friend. But the almost overwhelming sense of joy that this thought brings is quickly doused by the memory of the lie that he told her, that Mayumi will soon reveal. He shakes off these irrelevant distracting thoughts and refocuses on the task at hand. “Of course, we need to take care of this right away. Do we need to use the portal system to reach her?”

“I don’t think so, no,” Alma replies. “My room is not that far away, after all.”

“Oh…” His attempt to be all business crumbles into dust as her words shake him. “Your sanctum…I see.” Entering another god’s sanctum is no small thing. He feels nervous, but also honored.

Alma pauses and looks up at him. “Blushing, Inspector? Hard to tell with your complexion, but I could swear your cheeks have a definite rosy cast. One would think you have never been in a girl’s room before.”