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.