Ch3.56 The Pearl

Nataniel emerges from his office, finished reports in hand, head aching over his multiple attempts to keep Syron’s ideas for the Bunnies’ shoes within the bounds of reason – no wheels, no high-pressure water boosters, no spring-loaded blades for defence – to discover nobody is in the main part of the station. Curious, he follows the sound of laughter and a guitar, along with a half-started, then dropped attempt at singing. Going through the door to the breezeway, then into what people have been calling the Bunnies’ bar, he discovers it is being used as a bar indeed.

Many of the Guardia Popula are crowded in here, and not only them. He spots the one they call Brew, a god of beer, and the delightfully round goddess Kyri. And of course all three of the Dei are here, along with a few people from the neighborhood. Señor Patel’s boy is just dropping off a case of beer, he sees, and he catches a glance between the boy and Inspector Tuma-Sukai. Ah, so that is who is buying the beer, he surmises, but moments later he sees Sgt Machado enter with a case of beer under each arm. A community effort! And as usual nobody tells Nataniel.

He sighs, then makes his way to Machado as the thickset man sets the beer on the bartop, to the cheerful thanks of the lovely Cherry and Rosamaria. He smiles at them – so slender and lively, astonishing really – and then his eye catches Constable Lamore’s. He sees the look on her face as they lock eyes, and it is almost as if he can read her mind: Just like all the rest. He wants to deny it, to tell her what he’s been wanting to say to her for months, but, Hah, what’s the use? With my prospects? Better she think nothing of me.

Dejected, he breaks his gaze away from her and says to Machado, “Here. The autopsy reports on those three corpses.”

“Obrigado, Nate.” The Popula Sergeant flips through then, just glancing at the cover sheets, wanting to get back to the party, but his dark brow furrows. “Porra, Nate...I can barely understand anything you write! It’s all mixed up with Spanish!”

Annoyed, Nataniel mutters in reply, “That’s because I am Spanish, imbécil! I keep telling you that!”

Machado’s ears turn out to be sharper than expected. “Imbécil? It’s pronounced imbecil, idiota! If you can’t manage Urbia, at least you can speak a real language, like Portuguese!”

“Well, I can start with idiota, since it sounds the same! And who said Portuguese is more real than Spanish! Hermano, we’re sons of the same mother! Remember Léon?”

Machado rolls his eyes. “No, I don’t...our little township here came to this land of gods over a century ago from Brasil and… um outro sitio qualquer que não me lembra agora!”

Nataniel is confused until Aliyah calls out the answer, “India, boss! Half this township came from good ol’ India! Whatever that is!” At the same time, he feels a warm breath on his ear, and the welcome voice of Cala whispering to him the meaning of the Portuguese words.

Machado shouts, “Right! I didn’t pay attention to those local history classes in school – I was too busy trying to find a way to feed my family.”

To Cala, he whispers, “Gracias, princesa,” and then to Machado he shouts, “Well, I did! I did, hermanito! And you can shove that mierda you call Urbia donde no brilla el sol! I’m staying with the classic languages! You should too!”

Machado looks shocked at this, and glances nervously at the Dei to see if they’ve heard, and possibly offended. “Hey, hey, now...it’s our lingua comum, it binds us all together…”

At his words, memories of officials enforcing Urbia on small wards  flood Nataniel’s mind: old people  punished and proud young men and women being imprisoned,  treated like members of some rebellious groups. The images in his head throw Nataniel off his anger.

“Well… si, pero…” He works his jaw, holding his silence for a moment, then says more calmly, “You know I was stationed here from elsewhere. Mi barrio is so very far away from this one, you probably never even heard of it. We don’t even use Urbia there unless the policia make us!”

Machado looks abashed. “Ah, mano...it’s been a tough couple of days. I get all rabugento, you know? Perdoa, vai…”

Cala leans forward on the bar, her arm pressing against Nataniel’s. “So...are you going to kiss and make up or do I need to get a pail of cold water?”

Aliyah laughs, hoisting a beer. “Oh yeah! Kiss, you guys! I wanna see that!”

Rosemary bursts in with, “Oh, lovely! Kisses all ‘round!”

Aliyah laughs. “Or wet t-shirt contest! Either way!”

Machado grimaces. “I’m not kissing anybody but my wife!”

Nataniel laughs. “Con cuatro niños pequeños? You’re doing more than just kissing, hermano!”

“Maybe you should try it, cabra da peste!” Machado suggests, slapping Nataniel’s back with as bit more strength than necessary. Leaning closer to the good doctor's ear he whispers. “Especially before your little princesa goes off kissing the other frogs in the pond, heh?”

Cherry suddenly pushes her way between them and shoves a cold beer at each of them. “All right, you two! This here is a party! We all just wanna have fun, and that’s what we’re gonna do! Got it? Startin’ now!” Looking up at them, small as she is, the determination on her face cows them both into obedience.

Por supuesto que sí, señorita,” Nataniel mutters sheepishly.

Sim, senhora. Desculpe senhora,” Machado mumbles, avoiding eye contact with the dark-skinned Bunny.

Leaning on the bar, Rosemary giggles. “Ah didnae catch all o’ that, but it sounded most contrite. Well, if ye willnae kiss each other, p’raps a kiss for each’ll do?” She quickly darts her head forward and gives them each a peck on the cheek, then glances at Cala and winks.

“Aawww! Now, ain’t that nice?” Cherry coos. “And now... Beer! Cheers!”


Ch3.55 The Pearl

Alma walks into Syro’s basement workshop with the Bunnies following close behind. While Sage looks around in fascination at the numerous gadgets and models that cover the workbenches and effectively crowd  the whole room, Rosemary cringes slightly and tries to hide herself behind the much more courageous Cherry and Mayumi. The three younger Bunnies spread out around the room, a look of slight incomprehension on their faces.

“Excuse me, Syro?” Alma calls out.

Syro, who is currently standing with his back turned to Alma, leans over a yet-unidentifiable metallic object, banging on it with a wrench to cries along the line of “Why won’t you work you stupid little...?!” His head shoots up as Alma’s words register with him. He turns to face the goddess, removing his goggles and smiling apologetically.

“Oh, it’s you again! Alma, right?” He pulls out a grubby cloth from some unseen recess and wipes his hands on it before extending a friendly hand to Alma.

“Yes,” Alma replies, gently shaking his hand.

“So, what brings you to my humble workshop? Please don’t touch that,” he says swiftly as one of the as-yet-nameless younger Bunnies, the female, stretches a hand to touch a delicate model of what seems to be an overcomplicated spoon. She flinches back nervously, knocking down the model, which crashes to the floor in a cacophonous mix of shattering glass and grinding gears. The sudden release of pressure on a spring causes the model to lash into spasmodic motion, tearing itself apart as it skitters across the floor, making the young Bunny leap into Alma's arms. As it winds down, a smell of burnt oil rising from it, the remaining gears emit a death rattle, punctuated by a sad little SPROING.

“Oh, I am so sorry, Syro,” Alma rushes to say, putting the rather panicky-looking Bunny gently down on the floor.

“It is of no consequence, I assure you,” Syro replies, motioning both goddess and Bunny to leave the wreck where it lies. Rubbing the back of his head, he looks around and adds, “I’m sure I have the sketches for that piece somewhere around here…”

“Please, little ones, do not touch anything,” Alma tells the Bunnies. Turning back to Syro, she says, “Again, I am sorry for the model, Syron. However, I bring you a small challenge that I hope you are not too busy to undertake.”

“Oh, not at all. I love challenges,” Syro replies absentmindedly, looking at the each of the Bunnies as if committing every single detail on them to memory. “Are these the Bunnies you mentioned?”

“Yes, Syro. These are the Bunnies. As you can see, they are somewhat different from what you are used to.”

“Oh, that is so very true!” Syro exclaims, walking to the door and sticking his head out. “Hey, Nataniel!” he calls out. “Come see the Bunnies!”

A short moment after, Nataniel comes walking into the workshop.

Buenos dias, Señorita Alma!” he greets as soon as he sees the goddess standing just beyond the door. “So, let us see these Bunnies you speak–” He suddenly goes silent, his jaw dropping in awe at the sight of the Bunnies, spread around the room inspecting all those wonderful new things.

“Good morning, Nataniel,” Alma greets him back, smiling softly at the physician’s look of fascination.

Silence fills the room as both mortals watch the Bunnies walking around, themselves awed into speechlessness, staring at everything and nothing, marvelling over Syro’s amazing sketches and models. Little things, simple things like a dead leaf or a bird’s feather, become objects of wonder when seen through the inventor’s eyes.

“So, what does this challenge entail?” Syro intervenes, breaking the silence.

“The Bunnies need shoes, Syro,” the goddess explains.

“Oh, I can see how it could be difficult to find shoes for those feet,” Syro notes as he begins to walk around the room, following the Bunnies to see the movements their feet make while walking and standing still. “It’s not so immediately noticeable, but they are rather longer and narrower than human feet. Do you mind if we use that examination chair of yours, Doc?” He asks, turning to Nataniel. “I’m going to need to take some measurements.”

The question seems to pull Nataniel away from his daydream.“Uh... Sure. Please.”

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Alma says, bowing her head slightly in appreciation. Turning to the Bunnies, she says. “Come, little ones.”

As the Bunnies walk by him on their way to his office, Nataniel takes the chance to pet each one on the head, touching their hair and brushing his hand against their ears, almost as if he were trying to make sure they’re real.

Que maravilla...” he whispers in wonder. “So perfect...”

“I often think the same thing,” Alma whispers to him with a smile as she walks by him, after the Bunnies.

Nataniel smiles in return and follows them, entering his office to see the Bunnies gathering around the examination chair, looking uneasy. Syro stands behind the chair, armed with one of his trademark “Now-This-Is-a-Proper-Scale” measuring tapes.

“So, who goes first?” the inventor asks.

“Merri can go first!” Cherry replies almost immediately, pushing Rosemary into the chair with a sudden movement and a naughty giggle.

“Cherry!” Rosemary complains, twisting uncomfortably in the chair.

“It is quite alright, Rosemary,” Alma assures her, walking over to the Bunny and placing a hand on her head to pet her. “Syro will just be taking a few measurements, nothing to be afraid of.”

Rosemary closes her eyes and enjoys the little moment of tenderness, settling down with a whispered word. “‘kay...”

“Sit back, please,” Syro requests of her. “Thank you.” Taking the opportunity to have a closer look of the Bunny, he spends some time looking at her, examining her arms and legs, her eyes and ears. “Amazing...” he mutters, palpating Rosemary’s furry ears. “How did you get over the cartilage undergrowth problem?” he asks, turning to Alma.

“Excuse me?” the goddess replies in confusion.

“And the whole problem with the fused metacarpals?” The inventor looks at the Bunny’s bare feet. “That always had me grasping at straws!”

“I really never did give that issue much thought, I confess,” Alma concedes.

Restless from all the attention being paid to her various body parts, Rosemary begins to squirm in the chair, eager to escape the impromptu examination. Alma’s gentle touch on her head settles her down for a moment, but soon the Bunny’s expression contracts into a grin and Rosemary bursts out laughing, kicking with her feet in uncontrolled laughter.

“Miss, please, I really need you to stay still for a moment,” Syro tells her as he places the measuring tape against the sole of her foot and tries to measure the total length of her right foot.

“I can’t!” Rosemary cries as her ticklish body convulses.

“Rosemary...” Alma admonishes her softly.

“It tickles!” the Bunny complains.

“Miss, please!”

“Here, Señorita,” Nataniel intervenes, crouching by Rosemary. “I will help. What is your name?” the good doctor asks with a smile.


“Nice to meet you, Rosamaria. My name is Nataniel.”

“Rou-sa-mah-ria...” Rosemary repeats, trying out the Nataniel’s strange way to pronounce her name. “Ooooh, I like that!” she exclaims with a contented giggle.

“I will just hold your foot steady, yes?” Nataniel explains, holding Rosemary’s leg by the ankle and placing the other hand lightly under her toes, so that the bunny can rest her foot in a better position for Syro to work on it. “So that Syro can take his measurements.”

“Go ahead!” Rosemary replies, regaining control over herself and relaxing her foot under Nataniel’s touch.

The physician offers the Bunny a reassuring smile while Syro works away, envisioning the perfect pair of shoes.


Ch3.54 The Pearl


At the Oracle’s voice, Sky pauses and looks around. The look on her face is clear: she wants to have a word with him alone. He looks back at his sergeants, and seeing their expressions of curiosity, he nods at them, signalling them to go ahead. “I’ll meet you at the station,” he says. “Though the water will run clean now, there is still much to do. Please take care of things until I return.”

He watches them leave, then reluctantly turns to face Nevieve. “Yes, my Lady?” Her eyes seem to pierce through him. He maintains a formal, impassive expression, but inside he has to fight down an urge to scream with terror.

She looks at the Pearl, back in its place, and the nagas swimming around her. “Again, I would like to thank you. For everything.”

“It is a pleasure for me to do my duty successfully. There is no need for thanks.” He feels marginally pleased that he keeps a tremor out of his voice.

“Ah, but there is. The Dukaines almost won, Sky. Against me…”

Sky stays silent at the suppressed fury that colors the latter words. Then choosing his words carefully, he says, “I asked someone today, what kind of power it would take to corrupt the Pearl. Tell me...we are up against someone of great power, are we not?”

She locks eyes with him and smiles. “You are rising to a very… interesting destiny, little demon.”

He looks back, some of his fear turning to annoyance with her mischevious smile. “So...you are friends with Lyria, I take it?”

“Lyria? Of course, the goddess of Life! Alma’s mother. The beautiful First Ring goddess who married Death. I remember that scandal…”

“She calls me ‘little demon’ as well. I have to admit, it makes me...uncomfortable.” He sounds less uncomfortable than angry.

She swims up to the edge of the pool and rests her arms there. “That you are being called something you are?” she asks, tilting her head. “Or something you fear to be?”

Sky’s face darkens with swirling tattoos that stain it. He looks away, fighting for control over his emotions, and after a moment, he wins. His face clears, and he looks back at her.

“So you do know.”

She rests her chin on her arms. “We are all our own demons, Sky. Just as we are our own gods. You are what you decide to be. You have proven yourself that very same truth throughout the years, have you not?”

“I...tell myself that. Yet I know that if my past were ever exposed, I would be reviled, stripped of my rank, imprisoned...and returned to Hell. I am ever on the edge of a precipice. Even those I care for...I cannot tell them.”

“How will they know where to look for you, then? Should you go amiss.”

That freezes him. “Is that a vision of my future? Am I to go amiss?”

She shrugs. “Not everything I say is a vision of the future, Sky.”

“But you don’t say it’s not.” He waits, but when she merely looks at him with that mysterious little smile on her face, he sighs and spreads his hands in surrender. “Very well, then. What does my future hold, Oracle? It is a question that I hesitate to ask. But I suppose that I am here, now, for a reason. And so I ask.”

She looks at him for some time, her eyes changing, their burning white fading ever so slightly for a moment. She knits her brow, then says as her eyes return to normal, “I see very little of your journey. The magic you use to hide your true form from others hides more than just your physical form; it also keeps your soul from my sight.” She pushes herself upright, hands on the edge of the pool. “If you want me to see your future,  you must drop your defenses. I must see you, Azzageddi.”

He looks very grim at this, almost flinches at the use of his true name, but after a moment he removes his hat, then slips off his jacket. As he begins to unbutton his brightly floral shirt, the Oracle laughs and playfully states, “If you are planning to take a swim with me I must warn you the water is always quite cool here.”

“My true form is somewhat larger than this one,” he says. “These clothes would not survive the transformation.” He slips his shoes off, then turns away to remove his trousers and remaining clothes. As he does so, his skin once again begins blooming ink-stains of writhing tattoos. They spell out the paired-opposite meanings of the name he has adopted, and tell a story in a script legible to few outside the prison called Hell, the story of Sky’s life, of tortures in Hell, the betrayal of his mission in the Caelestis Urbis, even his time on Earth, being worshipped on an island, and later fighting wars across the surface of that world.

Then his back begins to warp as his spine bends, as bones are pushed aside to make room for wings that claw their way out of his skin. He falls to one knee, gritting his teeth against the pain, his bones and sinew thickening, lengthening. He feels the weight on his head as heavy horns grow out of his skull, splitting his skin. His jaw lengthens, teeth shift and grow, claws scrape the stone floor. A tail lashes and smacks the floor with a loud slap.

The tattoos expand until his skin is a matte inky black, then new, crimson tattoos rise from beneath, telling a different tale: the story of Hell. How the devils ruled the Insula and, from it, many other worlds for untold eons, until the gods found a way to overthrow them and imprison them in Hell, and how the devils and their demonic armies would one day take back what was theirs and exact the most exquisite vengeance that they, in their timeless confinement of constant inventive torture, could imagine.

Sky rises, and though hunched over, he is more than twice as tall and far more massive than before. He turns to face the Oracle. Ramlike horns curve back from his brow, over a draconic face that strongly resembles that of the naga he helped hatch. The muscles of his shoulders and chest are greatly expanded to support and power the leathery wings that stretch across the chamber, nearly filling it, blocking most of the light, casting a deep shadow over the Oracle. Out of that shadow, his eyes shine with a blue-green phosphorescence that recalls monstrous fish from the deepest pelagic trenches.

The nagas splash in the water, Dion’s and Alma’s screeching protest and challenge, while Sky’s remains calm, gazing upon him, attentive. The Oracle moves back slightly, then seems to steel herself.

Forrrrrgivvvve me,” he rumbles. His abyssal voice causes the water to tremble, the stones to creak. “I am sorrrrrry to vvvvvviolate this holy sanctummmmmm with mmmy corrrrrruptionnnnnn.

The Oracle remains silent for a moment, then smiles and says, “It is no more than I asked for. Thank you, Azzageddi, for showing me this other side of your complex self. ”

I ammmmmm nnnnnno demmmmonnnn, you knnnnnnow,” he growls. The hallowed stone of the grotto moans in protest.

“No,” she says, her face still showing a pleasant, appeasing expression, “of course not. You are certainly not little, either.”

Demmmmonnnnnnzzzzzz arrrrrrrre slavvvvvves.” He does his best to quash the fury rising in him but, in this form, it is so much harder.

Her eyes glow white. “But you are also not exactly a devil… Do you know, little one, how it is you can pass so easily for a god?”

What do you mmmmmmeannnnnnn?” He punches the floor, causing the grotto to shake.

“Patience, child. Patience. Calm yourself.” She looks upon him longer. Sky lowers his head, filled with shame and self-disgust at what she must be seeing. He hates this form, hates what it does to him, how his brain is reshaped into something designed to murder and corrupt.

The white glow of her eyes flickers, and she blinks. “Your future is blurry, Sky. A thousand paths stretch before you. Your fate lies with the one you choose to take.”

He growls in frustration. “That is useless! It mmmmmeannnnns nnnnnothinnnng!” He scrapes his claws along the floor, scarring the stone.

Azzageddi!” she snaps, her voice like a master yanking at the chain of a dog. He freezes as he watches the nagas respond to the Oracle, towering over her in protection as if she has been their master for ages, the slender, snake-like one aligned with Alma’s spectral essence leaning to touch Nevieve’s cheek in affectionate reassurance. “Do not presume to speak against me in my own sanctum,” she says, petting the naga, her eyes still locked on Sky’s. “You have something rare and precious that many would kill to own. There is freedom in your destiny, a gift of free will. And those around you are as free as you make them, for your freedom has the power change their futures. Do not  disdain a gift like that.”

He relaxes, crouching. He stays silent, trying once again to bring his emotions under control. Slowly he feels the change back begin. It always takes longer, though it is less painful. His face shortens, the horns slowly retract. He forces himself to breathe calmly – that always seems to help. It takes nearly half an hour, during which the Oracle does not speak to him. She must sense his need for concentration.

Still crouching, nude, but once again looking human, his mahogany skin unstained by hellish tattoos, he whispers, “Then I have freedom? My destiny is not set in stone?” He pauses, then smiles, small and sadly. “Very well. I think...that is the kindest answer you could have given me, Oracle. Thank you.”

He straightens and begins to dress. The Oracle responds, “I am not here to be kind, child. But for your services, I will offer you advice. You cannot ask for truth and offer thin air in return. Love is selfless, Sky. Love is trusting, as well.”

As he buttons his shirt, he looks at her, feeling sorrow wash over him. “Yes...you are right. And the truth always comes out eventually. Though it may wreck everything.”


Ch3.53 The Pearl

Now in the grotto’s main chamber, Sky holds out the greyish-golden eggs, each no bigger than a hen’s egg, their shiny, almost metallic surfaces catching the faint, perpetual twilight of the grotto.

“These were given to me,” he says, speaking to the Oracle and to his sergeants, “by Lady Lyria, Sgt Alma’s mother. They contain nagas, guardians who will protect the Pearl. She said we must awaken them by giving something of our essence.”

Alma inspects the eggs closely, half-whispering to herself, “Mother hadn’t even mentioned nagas in a long time…” To her fellow Guardia, she explains, “Anyway, yes. In the wild, nagas will hatch their young in nests made of their own saliva mixed in with blood and driftwood. It provides something to imprint the hatchlings’ memories, so they won’t attack their parents. In this case, and since there are three of us, I would suggest we imprint them to us and to the Pearl.”

Dion looks at the eggs, examining them closely. “Are you sure we should be the ones waking them? Shouldn’t the Oracle–?”

“And if something happens and we need to go near the Pearl?” Alma cuts him off, somewhat sharply.

“Lady Lyria did not know there were three of us,” Sky intervenes before the tone of the conversation worsens. “But here we have three eggs. I think there was an element of destiny in this.” He turns to Nevieve, who sits in her pool, watching the Dei intently. “But Oracle, the choice is yours.”

“No, it is not,” she denies, shaking her head. “Fate provides. Alma is right in her thoughts.”

Dion nods his assent. “Essence, then…”

Sky offers him one of the eggs, and then another to Alma, keeping the third for himself. “Sergeant Alma, you seem to know about this better than the two of us. Would you go first?”

Alma nods, taking the lead. “The nature of essence is important,” she explains. “It should be something deeply aligned with you. Unique.”

Taking her egg, she raises it closer to her face and gently blows on it. But what Sky sees come out of her lips is more than just air. Blowing gently, a delicate strand of greenish-blue mist travels from Alma’s body to the egg, wrapping around it and permeating the shell, making it glow with silver and ice.

Soul… Sky thinks to himself. She’s a Death goddess after all. And that must be a piece of her very own soul...

In Alma’s hand, the egg begins to rattle and shake gently. Thin fracture lines open and spread through its shell. Carefully setting the egg down on the floor near the water, the goddess stands near it until the tiny naga hatches and wriggles out of it. Looking like little more than a snake made of light, it crawls up Alma’s body, climbing in a spiral until it reaches her arm and her extended, open hand. Looking up at the goddess, it curls in her palm, almost disappearing in it, so diaphanous and ethereal it appears to be. With what seems, to Sky’s eyes, to be an almost maternal smile, Alma kneels and sets the naga down in the water, watching as it slithers away just below the surface.

As Alma rises again, Sky urges Dion onward with a small gesture of his open hand. Looking down at his egg, the god of magic rubs his chin in deep thought for a short moment.

“There is nothing closer to me than the magic I wield,” he notes, looking up and glancing at the Oracle.

Stretching his arm and holding out the hand in which he holds the egg, Dion murmurs a short incantation. Slowly, the egg begins to hover above his hand as motes of flaxen light surround it. With a soft movement of the god’s hand beneath it, the egg rises in its shield of light, glowing with fire and gold, turning slowly under the magical influence. Suddenly, the shield bursts out and then rushes into the egg, making it shake until the shell cracks and opens. As the naga egg gently lands on the palm of Dion’s hand, a tiny golden head peeks out. Slithering out of the shell, the little hatchling leisurely stretches its long, slender body and tilts its head at the god. Then, without warning, the tiny creature slides its way to the very tip of Dion’s fingers and dives, elegantly and majestically into the water, where it joins its sibling.

Finally, Sky takes his turn. Feeling quite nervous as to what to provide of his essence, he thinks for a long time before he decides.

“I am of the ocean,” he breaks his silence after a long moment. “The tides flow through my veins. The salt of my blood is my essence.” Looking at Dion, he holds out his hand and requests, “Sergeant, your sword, please.”

As Dion draws his blade and begins to reverse it to hand it to the Inspector, Sky waves him off. “No, please hold it out, firmly.”

Momentarily confused, Dion holds the grip tightly and then understands as Sky swipes his left palm along the keen edge, blood spurting from the wound, spattering the floor. He then shifts the egg from his right to his left hand, allowing it to sit in a growing pool of blood.

The blood seeps into the shell, staining it pitch-black. In the blink of an eye, sinuous red lines begin to appear all over the eggshell, becoming longer and longer until they touch and cover the whole surface, blood and nothingness intertwined. All of a sudden, the shell bursts into ash and a red-and-black naga with a single spike on the back of its head is revealed. It immediately attacks its master, gnawing viciously at Sky’s thumb before freezing guiltily, looking up at him with an ashamed expression. Answering it with a wistful grin, the god lowers his hand into the water, and the naga unwraps itself and slithers to join its siblings, immediately engaging them in infantile dominance play. Sky watches the nagas writhe and wrestle as he washes his bloody palm and thumb in the water, calling upon his divine power to stop the bleeding, wishing once again that he were better at healing magic.

Still clearly in charge, Alma looks at the Oracle and announces, “It is your turn now, Nevieve. We don’t want them attacking you.”

The Oracle nods at the younger goddess, smiling as she replies, “It would bring a whole new meaning to the expression ‘sleeping with the enemy’, yes.”

With a sharp movement of her arm, Nevieve points at the Pearl, currently perched on its altar, and summons it to her presence. As the Oracle opens her hand, the Pearl hovers gently, but swiftly above the water, headed for Nevieve’s open palm. For a moment, Pearl and goddess connect and nothing happens. Then, without warning, a single tear rolls down Nevieve’s face and lands on the Pearl, sliding down its opaline surface and into the water. Its entrance causes a little bright ripple that spreads through the surface of the pool, taking its light in its wake, making the water shine bright and illuminate the whole grotto.

Bathed in the light, the nagas reach full adult size in moments, maturing and stretching out of the water. Before the gods, three huge, very different creatures float in the pool. One, imprinted on Alma, rises above the water looking almost incorporeal, so ghostly and translucent it is. Its body, seemingly drawn in lines of greenish-blue light, curves elegantly, devoid of spines or fins. On its head of snake-like features, clear, white eyes perch in shadowy sockets like ice-cold stars in a midnight sky.

Another, aligned with Dion’s magical aura, stretches regally to the right of the first, its ruby red eyes glinting with the reddish-golden hue of its delicately shaped scales. Its features graceful but imposing, the naga looks down upon them, the spines that decorate the back of its long, curved neck rising slightly in relaxed majesty. From its strong jaw, a soft, pearly beard projects, joining long, full eyebrows in making its face look almost draconic.

The third is the largest and most fierce in appearance. Its face like that of a dragon, but with sharp quills in place of whiskers, it looks even upon its master with a malevolent glare, challenging anyone to attempt to command it. Its scales are a glossy black with just a hint of red, and its fangs look capable of rending any enemy limb from limb. As Sky locks eyes with it, a hood flares from its upper neck, edged with short spines like claws, and it hisses loudly. But when Sky leans infinitesimally closer, his body radiating command, it lowers itself slightly and the hood goes down to half-mast, and its obsidian eyes flick away as if it is distracted by something elsewhere in the room. Dominance established, Sky relaxes.

A quick glance around him catches Dion and Alma’s expressions of surprise and suspicion at the almost demonic appearance of the naga hatched from the blood of his essence. Without realizing it, both Sergeants look at him with a single eyebrow raised, their faces  locked in an otherwise blank demeanor, so very similar in their reaction that Sky can but grin and shrug at their silent inquiry. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the Oracle’s milky white eyes watching all three gods, her gaze glowing faintly in the constant bleakness of the grotto as she smiles at what she sees.

And what is it you see, Oracle? Sky muses. How deep can you go into our future? And into our past...

A quiet moment goes by before Alma finally nods and breaks the freezing silence that fills the chamber.

“The deed is done,” she announces, her piercing eyes letting go of Sky’s. “The guardians are ready and set in place.”

Sky nods at this. “Then our time here is done. Oracle,” he says, turning to bow before Nevieve. “if the people who attacked you ever do so again, we will of course come swiftly to defend you. But perhaps that won’t be necessary, now.”

He smiles as pleasantly as he can and looks at Alma and Gwydion. “Let’s return to our Station. We have a great deal to do...a relief service to dismantle, for one thing…”

Even if their posture and countenance reveals almost no sign of the weariness they must feel at the moment, Alma glances significantly at Dion, who returns her meaningful look with one of his own.

“We could use some rest as well,” the goddess notes.

“Of course,” Sky agrees. “Well-deserved rest. As soon as we can.”

Dion nods in compliance and turns to the Oracle to bow gracefully and say,  “I am sure we will see each other again, Nevieve.”

“Until we meet again, Oracle,” Alma declares, nodding a bow.

As they turn and leave, the Oracle replies with a smile, “Until then, my brave Guardia Dei, and thank you once again.”

Falling a little behind, Sky bows again to the Oracle and turns to take his leave, but then freezes at the sound of his name.