The bleak warehouse stretches before Alma, its many stacks of crates towering over her as she walks towards the center of the building. She can feel the humming of the souls liberated from the corpses of those Dukaine thugs. As she walks, the spectral energy of their spirits finds its way to her, attracted by the unique resonance of the Death goddess. She opens her senses and lowers her walls, allowing the souls in, acting as a channel between them and the Wheel. Whatever energy is left behind adds to her own, recharging her mana.
Walking in twilight, Alma reaches a small open area, the scent of blood and the barely detectable stench of demon ichor beneath it making her nose twitch and letting her know she is in the right place.
“So, you’re the one they’ve sent?” a voice calls out from above. “One of the Dei?”
“Yes. I am Sergeant Alma of the Guardia Dei,” the goddess announces to air of the apparently empty warehouse. “Here, as you requested.”
A few moments go by before she hears a very faint sound of feet hitting the floor. Walking into the clearing from a makeshift alley among the crates, a figure stands in front of Alma. Her eyes used to darkness, her mind forming an image traced in light of the one who stands before her, a mere dozen steps away – the goddess soon learns the features of a young mortal, a woman in her early- to mid-twenties dressed in a dark, hooded catsuit and knee-high boots. Her body looks fit, shaped by exercise and a life of austerity. Her face obscured by the hood over her head, the young woman holds a crossbow at chest height, the bolt pointed directly at Alma.
“Delighted to meet you,” the mortal says, releasing the crossbow’s safety with a soft metallic click.
“Put that down, child,” Alma replies in mild annoyance. “I have no intention of attacking you.”
The crossbow remains where it is. A stinging scent of demon ichor wafts from it to reach Alma’s nose.
“Sorry if I don’t comply… Sergeant,” the woman retorts with a low snort. “But I’ve met my fair share of gods and they all say they don’t mean to hurt anyone. Even as they press their heel against your throat.”
“Yes, I have met some of those myself,” the goddess notes, nodding slowly and looking around her for a place to sit. “Have it your way, dear,” she adds with a small sigh as she sits down on a smaller box lying close by, to her right. “May I at least see the face of the one threatening my life?” Alma requests in a soft tone.
The woman shrugs. “I guess it won’t make any difference,” she muses, pulling back the hood.
Now Alma can see her long hair fallen over her shoulders and her pretty features, the beauty of youth shining in the gentle curves and fair skin of her face. A predatory glint shines in her eyes as she keeps her gaze affixed on the goddess.
A child, Alma considers. Little more than a child and already a cold-blooded killer. How cruel was Fate to you that this is what you have become?
“Much better,” she says aloud with a slight grin, her voice always soft, always serene. “And what is your name?”
“You know my name,” the young lady snaps. “Aliyah and Cala are bound to have told you that already.”
“That, they did,” the goddess concedes, her eyes locked on the woman’s, her gaze ignoring the crossbow threatening her existence. “But a proper introduction calls for both parties to state their names. Mine is Alma. And yours is…?”
“Saira,” the woman states.
“Saira…” Alma whispers. “In some languages, that means ‘traveller’. And you have travelled extensively already, haven’t you?”
“What do you care?” Saira snaps again, her finger parallel to the trigger guard but ready to shoot.
The goddess holds her silence for a long time, deciding on how to best approach Saira. The woman is neither stupid nor naïf, and sweet talk will do nothing to win her over. “Maybe I shouldn’t care. No one else seems to, after all. Even your friends have let go of you.”
“I’m pretty sure we didn’t come here to discuss my social life, Goddess,” Saira growls.
“No, we didn’t,” Alma replies, her voice leveled and firm as she rises from her seat. “You have something I need, Saira.”
“Yeah, I do,” the woman says, reaching into her quiver and holding out the Pearl in her left hand.
The strained, stuttered humming coming from the dull thing tells Alma of its suffering as the taint cast upon it steals the life of the ancient thing.
We don’t have much time left, the goddess concludes.
“I would very much appreciate it if you handed it to me now,” she requests of Saira.
“And why should I give it to you?” the woman inquires, her eyes narrowing.
“Because the Pearl does not belong to you,” Alma states in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. “It belongs to the Oracle.”
“Well, maybe I’ll hand it back to her as soon as I get rid of all the Dukaine scum,” Saira muses, her lip curling in a leer.
“It has been tainted by them, child, enchanted with a draining influence,” the goddess explains as patiently as she can afford to. “Even as we speak, there is a Dei spending all of his power trying to sustain the Oracle as the very water from her own spring robs her of her life. She doesn’t have the time it will take to bring the Dukaines to their knees.”
“Sorry, Goddess. My goal here is revenge,” Saira insists, adjusting her aim on the goddess. “I don’t really care about anything else.”
“Oh, you do care,” Alma calls her out. “You care about what happens to this neighborhood and its people. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here talking to me, or you would have shot me by now,” she adds, gesturing at the crossbow with an open hand. “You and I both know the demon ichor on the tip of that bolt could cause me a fair amount of damage were it to hit.”
“You making some cash on the side with that cheap mind reading of yours?” the mortal mocks.
Alma responds to this with a subtle shake of her head. “Hopefully just saving my own life. And yours.”
“My life?” Saira chuckles in mild amusement. “Haven’t you heard, Miss? I’m already dead.”
“I very much doubt that, child,” the goddess insists. “I would have known. I am a goddess of death, after all.”
“And why would a goddess of death be interested in saving my life?” Saira questions her.
“Because I was taught that all life is precious, even if fleeting,” Alma answers calmly as she starts walking slowly towards Saira. “It would pain me to have to take your life to retrieve the Pearl, but right now the Oracle’s life hangs in the balance, along with the health and safety of my children, my fellow officers and all the inhabitants of Three Rats.” She shakes her head slowly. “Your life, though precious, is not worth all of theirs.”
The woman’s grip on the crossbow falters for a sliver of an instant, but her aim remains fixed on Alma’s chest.
“You talk a good game, Goddess,” Saira says, her voice steady but with hints of nervousness. “But tell me, what happens when I give you the Pearl?”
Alma shrugs at this, taking one more step towards the deadly bolt pointed straight at her. “You go your way, I go mine. You did not steal it from the Oracle. In my eye, the criminals responsible for that are dead and done with. So, if you give me the Pearl, I will make sure to restore it to its glory and return it to its rightful owner so that we may have clean water to drink in Three Rats once more.”
“And how will you stop the Dukaines from taking it again after I give it back? They’ve done it once, it’ll be easy for them to do it again any time they want.”
“My fellow Dei and I will take care of that,” Alma assures her.
“How?” Saira cries in disbelief, gripping the crossbow more for comfort than for threat. “How will you keep your eyes on each corner, on every alley? There’s only three of you. There’s hundreds of them and still they multiply like rats in the sewer.”
“I will not lie to you, child,” Alma says. Her voice spreads through the warehouse, taking hold of Saira’s every last shred of attention, filling the woman’s world until all there is, is a bleak bubble around both females made ever smaller by Alma’s relentless approach. “The Dukaines are strong, vicious and relentless in their efforts to take over Three Rats. But we are not giving up just yet either. It will take time for us to get a hold of this neighborhood, to teach these people new skills and new pride in their roots. But we are gods, Saira. We can go without sleeping, we can go without eating. We do not grow old, we do not grow weak and we do not stop.”
“That’s a whole lot of promises to make to these people,” Saira notes as Alma halts just a few inches away from the poisoned tip of the deadly bolt.
“There is a saying where I come from,” the goddess states, her near-perfect composure never flinching, her eyes locked on Saira’s. “Do not owe to the rich and do not promise to the poor.”
“Wise words,” the woman whispers as if hypnotised.
“Yes,” Alma whispers back. “But I am willing to forgo wisdom and promise you this: we are here to stay and we are willing to try.”
She holds out her hand and Saira, much to her own amazement, lowers the crossbow and hands over the Pearl.
“Thank you, dear,” the goddess says with a smile, cradling the Pearl in her hands. “I will be seeing you around. At least one more time.”
Turning her back on Saira, Alma walks calmly and steadily toward the door.
“If you cross me, Goddess…” Saira calls out behind her.
The goddess stops in her steps and half turns back to the woman to reply, “I am sure you know where to find me.”
Again turning, she walks away, leaving Saira alone with her thoughts in the empty, eerie warehouse.