“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.