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.”