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.”