The Girl Who Sang
When Maia announced that she would be holding a concert to celebrate Vega's 17th birthday, there was much talk and chatter at the Palais du Louvre about what would really happen when Maia sang for the first time in over fifty years.
Maia was a distinguished and very important member of the Parisian ‘Society des Artistes Independents’ but she had not so much as uttered a note since her disappearance and return from the Underworld. Maia's voice was legendary, and although no living person had ever heard or seen a Halo, as it was forbidden by the ruling Emperor, the older people believed that Maia was some sort of savior. Maia had aged gracefully, miraculously so, to the point that there were mumbles that she had brought back the Fountain of Youth or some bewitched elixir that gave rise to such beauty and youth as she possessed but again this was all mere conjecture. Maia laughed at such tales and enchanted the children with stories of angels with silver wings and dragons with hordes of gold until their parents took them away, shaking their heads and reminding their wee ones that the modern world contained no magic, dragons or angels with such wings. Still, it seemed entirely unnatural that Maia should possess such beauty and her aura cast a spell over all who came in contact with her that suggested mysterious things were afoot.
So far, however, in living memory, there had been no mystery, no magic, no angel wings, so people were willing to humor Maia and she even served for a while as part time language tutor to three of the Barnes-Nobles girls, who swore they had seen a strange woman entering and leaving Maia's residence at the Palais after one late afternoon lesson. Maia had remained on good terms with the Barnes-Nobles, who were willing to forgive her oddities in exchange for her extraordinary skill with languages. Other than that Maia had few visitors and in fact even fewer friends as most people were secretly in awe and some degree of fear of her powers, whether they existed or not.
Maia's only and favorite visitor was her niece Vega, a girl whom many said bore a remarkable resemblance to Maia herself, with her soft blonde curls, hazel green eyes and olive skin. Maia and Vega shared many hours together, behind closed doors, until the neighbors began whispering that perhaps Maia was training her in the Halo and other esoteric acoustic arts. Though they strained their ears to breaking.capacity and the whispers grew ever louder, the rumors could be neither confirmed or denied.
Maia and Vega shared a love of music.
"Vega is welcome to a room here anytime," Maia announced to Vega's parents, the Fieldings, one sunny Sunday afternoon in the.village green, in a rather conspicuous spot where nearly everyone could overhear them.
"That way we can share sigils whenever we need," concluded Maia as if it had already been decided. No one had the faintest idea what sigils were so that sent the rumormongers away with even more to chew on. Maia just smiled quietly to herself.
Every year Maia had given concerts at the Palais du Louvre and every year people had gone away satisfied, although secretly wishing that Maia would do something out of the ordinary. To be sure, the talent was wide and varied and Maia attracted musicians from all corners of Middleworld. So knowing that Maia was about to sing created exceptional circumstances.
Everyone pitched in. Rumors of the up and coming concert travelled abroad and in the weeks beforehand strange tents began to be erected all over the village green surrounding the Palais du Lourvre. Even stranger characters inhabited them, and folk that had always suspected Maia of being in league with demons or worse grumbled that this all supported their point of view.
The worst of these was Ava Gripe, now well past her prime and edging on an equally unfathomable age as Maia but not so fair of face. She spoke with some authority because she had known Maia as a young girl and blamed her for the untimely demise of her own mother, Mrs Gripe, the old orphanage owner. Since there was nobody to contradict her, Ava was free to hold forth on all subjects, such as how Maia had inherited the Palais du Louvre, why she really would never sing, what demon company she kept in her bed and all sorts of other scandalous rumors that only a half-witted soul would ever deem worth considering. Ava looked after the orphanage when her mother died and there had only ever been one tenant, a young boy called Altair, who as it happened was on quite friendly terms with Maia and Vega.
"Maia can't be trusted," said Ava Gripe and she crashed her fist down on the table at Le Donq bar and restaurant which she was known to frequent. "if you let her loose there's no telling what she will do. The last time she used that unholy word she brought down a whole army upon us."
There was no way of telling how much of this was the truth as although there was a rumor of armies being mustered to the north, no one had ever seen one. For the most part Parisienne folk were peaceful. So they all just nodded, even the Bloomsburys who knew of Ava's frailties. Ava reached into her old purple purse and popped another diet pill which had the unfortunate effect of making her drool and slur her next sentence.
"It'zz young Vega I’zz worried for," said Ava with a crooked grin. "No telling what harm and mischief will be done there. Corrupting young girls it is. Corruption and vice, that's what this world has come to it has."
"There have been some strange goings on down at Cumae," said Bart Bloomsbury, forever a figure of morale standing in the community so everyone’s ears pricked up.
"Though what's that got to do with our dear Maia, I cannot guess," said old Bart.
"She was there!" said Ava, and spittle hit several members of the gathered crowd in the face. "She was the one that brought them here. From the Underworld."
There was a chorus of voices and simultaneous cries of denial and assent while a small scuffle broke out amongst two of the larger, somewhat drunker patrons who had merely shoved each other to get closer.
"The Underworld!" came the voices again and a visible shudder went through the room. A darkness like a cloud seemed to descend on them all and a sudden silence filled the room.
"Best we have none of that talk here Ava Gripe," said Bart Bloomsbury, depositing his half finished ale on the table and making for the door.
"I'd best be off while there's still light to see my way home by."
"And you shouldn't listen to all you hear," said Neville Barnes-Noble who had been lurking quietly in the background. "Maia has done us no harm in all these years, no matter her reputation, teaches my daughters well and has provided a real solid grounding for young Vega. Best you put your minds to something of more benefit to our young people than bringing up old tales which are woven with troubles. "
Big Ben had heard enough. "Closing time," he shouted over the din and began to usher people out.
"There's a lot of trouble wherever Maia is," grumbled Ava as she was escorted to the door by Neville and Ben. "Mark my words."
"You can say what you like about her, Ava," said Neville disliking Ava even more than usual at this very moment. "But it's all poison of your own making."
"Angels and demons," were Ava's final words as she stumbled out into the night.
Vega’s 17th birthday, summer on Thursday 17th in mid July, was a dance, costumed and themed ‘Angels and Demons’ perhaps just to spite Ava and Maia was invited. Maia wore a pair of the most wicked looking steel tipped wings you could even imagine. At that party a rumor was started, that Maia indeed would go against the Emperor’s wishes and create a vocal Halo. The Halo, an energy inducing, glass shattering, menagerie of otherworldly sounds, was an impossibility for most humans. This Halo, however, Vega herself said, was something that Maia was not only capable of, but might actually create a Shift. Shifts were doorways to other worlds, the Underworld or the Overworld, or other parts of Middleworld. The Shift could only be entered and passed through without harm if you knew the appropriate sigil, which was a magical sign or symbol the angels themselves were supposed to have given Maia. Or so Vega said.
The day drew nearer and the skies grew noticeably darker, even though it was mid summer. The Palais du Louvre looked nothing like the triangular residence Maia occupied. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of gaily colored tents and contraptions lined the streets and filled the village green and square. Special invited guests could stay at the Louvre, still others were allowed to visit Maia privately. Most were just satisfied with glimpses of her as she made her preparations. On the night before the concert a brightly lit carriage pulled by four fine white horses came across the Pont Royal driven by a man in a dark cloak with equally dark skin and eyes. Inquisitive Parisians who happened to sneak a peek through the slim burgundy carriage windows saw an older, elegant woman, about Maia’s age, with a long narrow face and longer silky black hair, dressed in dark blue robes with stars, playing a violin. The carriage was piled high with musical instruments and implements of every shape and size. Most were objects that people could not place with any degree of familiarity, guitars shaped like tuning forks, timpani made from crystal, a keyboard made of teeth than fitted exactly inside a giant skull. The carriage paused outside the Palais du Louvre and all activity seemed to stop. The crowd gathering held its breath. The rumbling thunder fell silent.
The man in the dark cloak climbed down from his driving seat and reached out a white gloved hand to the woman in the starry cloak who extended an elegant, slim, long fingered lapis lazuli encrusted glove which she placed in his hand and stepped out from the carriage. She paused and stared around at the tents and inquisitive eyes gazing at her and then so swiftly that it seemed like she had barely moved at all drew an angel Sigil in mid air in front of Maia's door, rubbed her nose, giggled and disappeared.
This was the famed Magick Alice, Maia's dear friend and adventurer through both the Underworld in darker times when her true love Altair was killed and the Overworld where they finally found the resurrected Altair. Those are tales for other times and places. Alice was known throughout Middleworld as a fine musician and an even better alchemist whose skills lay with fire and potions. Alice of course had abilities far beyond these but it was better that ordinary folk knew nothing of them. To them she was just another of Maia's mysterious celebrity friends who might entertain them with a trick or two the way a professional magician might pull a rabbit out of a hat for children at a birthday party. They knew her by reputation only and they had no idea of the true fire that lay ahead of them.
Maia came to the door and peeked out, waving to some of the children she regularly told stories to and at her back could be seen the dark blue starry cloak of Alice. How she suddenly appeared inside was anyone's guess and even more mysteriously, in the uproar, no sign of the dark cloaked figure or the horses and carriage were to be found anywhere.
"Go and play now," said Maia to the younger children who were bursting at the seams with questions and looked like they might spill over the doorway and bustle inside if given half a chance. "I have spells to weave and Sigils to cast," she said with a discernible wink that said to any in the know that anything was possible at the concert. The children could hardly wait. Then to their great disappointment the door of the Palais du Louvre was shut.
Maia and Alice were sitting having tea in the west wing of the Palais du Louvres at the edge of a beautiful garden with rhododendrons, roses and lilies adorning the rows like attendant courtiers. The dark clouds had disappeared and everything was peaceful.
"Just like old times," said Alice putting her feet up on the chair opposite.
"Yes," said Maia, "but I miss our adventures and I miss Altair even more."
"So you're going ahead with the concert in spite of the Emperor's warnings."
Maia chuckled. "Emperor Aeneus is weak. His consort Sybyl is indifferent to matters of state. I'm in no danger. It's what Altair would have wanted."
"You know what happened last time you used a Halo. We were in music school then. The vibration knocked the entire student population unconscious. Not to mention the damage you did to the facilities. It was no wonder no ordinary school would accept you after that."
"I've made up my mind and nothing will make me go back on it."
"You were always the most stubborn of us Maia. Good luck to you. May the Emperor have mercy on you if you get caught."
"I'm not aiming to stick around," said Maia with a grin as wide as a Cheshire cat's. "I'm going to enjoy the chaos and then disappear."
"I'll be waiting," said Alice.
It was Saturday morning, the 19th of July, the day Maia had chosen to celebrate Vega's birthday since everyone who was anyone was busy on her real birthday, and a concert of this proportion needed a real celebration day. The Mayor of Paris had declared it a Parisian holiday so no one needed to work but Maia had employed anyone who showed the slightest inclination towards hard work in preparation for the event. The sun was hot, the sky was blue and everything couldn't have been more perfect. Now the tents that had been pitched around the Palais du Louvre unfurled and it became apparent that these were not mere tarpaulin and poles but contained entertainment of every kind known to Middleworld. Some the kind that no one had ever seen. Bands performed whose music vibrated the very skies. The air fairly hummed with the strains of Mr Saxobeat by The Alexandra Stan Project which lit up the stage above the crowd first like fireworks and then left the skies twinkling with stars. Dancers with faerie lights cascaded across the stage looking for all the world like sheets of sparkling water. Marching bands mimicked thunder, drummers shook the earth, hummingbirds darted in time to choruses of angels while trumpets lit up street lamps, violins moulded glass sculptures and flutes enchanted scores of snakes and rats assembled in lines in front of their trainers. The spectacle was magnificent, the pageantry unparalleled. Then Alice appeared onstage alone. She rubbed her nose and shrieks of delight rose from the hundreds of children given special seating at the front for around Alice sprang a carousel of fire which rotated and grew into an oscillating, revolving ferris wheel of dancing, flickering flames. The flames shot upwards like rockets and hung in midair before forming a magnificent golden dragon. To the crowd's utter astonishment, hidden behind Alice and now rising to meet the dragon flew Maia, hoisted aloft by two exquisite angel wings. How she was supported and where the wings ended no one could say. The effect was at once magical and beyond belief. The Parisians strained their eyes to see through the trick but there was no form of harness or cables attached. Then, to more gasps and cries, Maia perched herself astride the dragon, opened her mouth and began to sing. The Halo.
To those gathered it sounded like a cry at first. Then it gradually grew into a scream. Maia’s scream became a single piercing note. People covered their ears. Children scrambled back to their parents in fright. The note diminished and was replaced by glowing fragments, like stardust, which emerged from Maia’s lips and formed a shape, a symbol, ‘The Sigil’. Then around her the air itself began to hum and Maia was surrounded by a disc of light, ‘The Halo’. It raced out across the captive audience like a wave and made them shiver. The people cautiously removed their fingers from their ears to find the air around them alive with brightness. The Halo expanded like a pair of fiery wings until the entire arena was filled with light. The spectators fell back hard onto their seats and chairs by the pressure and then fell flat on the ground as chairs collapsed and the air was forced out of their lungs, leaving them gasping for breath. The tent poles began to buckle and the tarpaulins flapped like they were caught in a hurricane. The flocks of hummingbirds quivered. The dome of the Palais du Louvre buckled from the unearthly sound. Then the dome parted as if sliced in two like melted butter. The spectators nearly jumped out of their skins. The head of a mighty creature thrust through the roof and gazed intently at the crowd, gathered beneath it like pinheads on a pincushion. Although it was terrifying, it had the sweet face of a child, until it breathed, as soft as a feather, and its breath laid every soul bare. No secret, no hidden thought or suspicion was safe in that instant Then it withdrew and disappeared. The roof closed as if it had never been touched. Maia descended to the stage. There were no sign of any wings. Or a dragon. Just Maia and Alice bowing to what slowly built into tumultuous applause. The audience was on its feet. The sound was deafening. Maia and Alice bowed low, again, for a second time. Then they vanished. In the blink of an eye. One moment they were there, then they were gone.
Ava Gripe was the first to break the shocked silence.
"I told you all she was nuts!" shouted Ava into the throng and stormed off, pushing swaying tent poles so the marquis collapsed and stomping on picnic hampers.
Bart Bloomsbury was inclined to agree although he said nothing. Maia was dear to his heart and the rumors from Cumae were not anything he wished to lend weight too. The mere mention of 'Diabolo' struck fear into every Parisian heart. He quietly began gathering some of his more astute family members and organized them into a mustering gang to herd some of the paler faced spectators back top their homes. Maia was just up to her old tricks, he thought, although why she had to be so public with her powers he couldn't be sure.
Neville Barnes-Noble had an altogether different view of the whole affair. Maia had shocked the community once, he knew, when she had returned from what she called 'The Underworld' with an entourage of varied repute, so if she was about to go on one of her adventures again, he certainly would not allow his family to be part of it. That included not tutoring his three precious daughters.
Vega and Altair, who had been sitting near the front keeping an eye on the children, acting on a special request from Maia, gazed expectantly at the space where Maia and Alice had stood just a few moments ago. Maia had told her to keep still, no matter what happened and then to come up on to the stage. In the ensuing pandemonium, Vega and Altair waited to see that the children were safely all back with their families before treading carefully up the steps. No one was saying the slightest interest in them. Vega looked exactly where Maia had told her to look and sure enough, right where stardust had fallen from Maia's mouth hovered a tiny, almost invisible symbol. Vega knelt down and held out her hand so that the stardust revolved on her palm.
Taking Altair's hand she whispered
"I wish we didn't have to be here," and lo and behold, it was as she spoke. With a rustle of angel wings Vega and Altair, like Maia and Alice before them, vanished in the blink of an eye.
Maia stood in the drawing room in the east wing of the Palais du Louvre in front of Vega and Altair with Alice. She had been toying with the idea of using The Word, written on the Angel Script clutched in her hand. She knew that Emperor Aeneus and his soldiers would surround the Palais du Louvre and if she didn’t surrender, destroy it. That would mean the secret she had kept hidden all these years would be revealed. The Halo had done its work just as it had done so many years ago. The Cave at Cumae would be open, triggered by the resonance in her voice.
She paced back and forth thinking quickly. The sound of marching feet would soon be in the courtyard. She could hear far off across the Pont Royal the screams of some of the slower Parisians. Maia took a grey cloak from a hook behind the cloakroom door and shook herself so that the magnificent wings fanning themselves behind her retracted and hid themselves from view as if they had never existed. Vega and Altair materialized in front of Maia and Alice and stared at her open mouthed. Alice reached inside her own dark blue starry cloak and strode with a long box to the mantelpiece which she placed carefully and then clicked a clasp which hissed open to reveal a long, thin sword.
“You’ll be needing this,” said Alice with a grin as she slid the sword and sheath carefully out of the box and handed them to Maia.
“Whisper,” said Maia quietly, strapping the scabbard around her waist. “I never thought I’d ever get to hold her again like this.”
Maia smiled at Vega and Altair and then quicker than their eyes could follow pulled the sword ‘Whisper’ out of the scabbard and brandished it like a seasoned veteran slicing the empty air with several cuts until it seemed the very atoms vibrated and sang.
Maia reached into her own cloak and pulled out a heavy brown leather diary.
“Your great-grandfather’s,” she said reverently to Vega and thrust it into her hand.
Maia opened it briefly and inserted the rough piece of parchment she was holding into the middle of the diary.
“You’ll be needing this too. The Angel Script. Keep it safe.”
She nodded to Alice.
“Take them to the Cave at Cumae. I’ll meet you there, when I have dealt with the Emperor. Once and for all. It’s been a long time coming.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” asked Alice. “The Emperor may be old and feeble but he has many allies that would see you dead if you lift but a solitary finger against him.”
“I know,” said Maia. “The best laid plans can often go awry. I’ll be careful, don’t you worry.”
“I do worry, Maia. We haven’’t been best friends all these years for nothing. You’ve a nose for danger and an eye for the impossible. I can’t afford to lose you again.”
“Just keep them safe, and mind your nose when it twitches,” laughed Maia.
“I keep my promises,” said Alice. She turned to Vega and Altair. “Are you two ready for an adventure?”
“Why are we leaving Maia?” said Vega. “Can’t she come with us?”
“I”ll stay and help,” offered Altair. “Just give me a sword.”
“She may not look it,” said Alice, “but Maia is more than a match for the Emperor’s men. It was a little risky showing off your wings like that Maia. I thought my dragon was enough of a spectacle. You’ve kept your identity secret all these years, just to blow it all off at a concert?”
“There’s reason behind my madness,” said Maia. “I needed enough of a kerfuffle to get the Emperor himself to come. If he thinks I’m leaving he won’t waste time getting to the bottom of the fabled treasure of my beloved Palais.”
“Is it still there?” said Alice.
“Yes,” said Maia. “Well hidden and protected. The spells would rip the peak of a large mountain if disturbed. I have a score to settle.”
Alice gazed long and hard at Maia. “You really are going through with this then. In spite of the Emperor’s famed immortality and his favor with Diabolo.”
“Yes,” said Maia. “The score is not quite even. I need to level the playing fields. Restore the honor of my father and grandfather. Then I’ll join you and finish the Angel Script. Vega might even want to help me.”
Vega nodded her head vigorously. Anything that helped Maia was bound to mysterious and very, very interesting.
“Even if you finish it, no one will ever be able to use it,” said Alice. “The Angel Script was only ever designed for use by angels Maia.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Maia. “Vega has shown a lot of promise. You will continue your studies won’t you?”
Again Vega nodded.
“Perhaps you could even teach Altair.”
Vega looked pleadingly at Altair but Altair was his usual stubborn self.
“I’ll leave it to Vega. I’m not really into all that fairy stuff.”
“Altair!” said Vega despairingly. “I’ve already told you, she’s not into fairies. She’s an angel.”
“Whatever,” said Altair. “It’s all just old folks tales to me. Sure, I’ll go along with you for the ride, but no funny stuff and definitely no school. Studying’s not for me.”
Maia laughed. “He might come around in time Vega. He’s certainly got a bite to him. Maybe I should keep him here with me to test him out against those soldiers. A few holes in him shouldn’t make a lot of difference to an empty head.”
Vega was horrified. “No, no, he’s coming with me. I’ll make sure he does a little. Studying that is. I don’t want him full of holes.”
“No more arguing then,” said Maia. “Now go!”
Alice stood still for a minute as if reconsidering. She looked back at Maia with a gleam in her eyes, thinking about the two of them up against the Emperor’s forces, like the old days against the demons in the Underworld then she shook her head, scratched her nose and pursed her lips. Mumbling under her breath she drew a sigil in mid air and the the room began to fill with a cold chill, as if mountain air had just blown in from some far away place. Alice grabbed the air as if she were pulling back two sides of a curtain and yanked with all her might.
“Through you go!” she said with a hint of urgency to her voice. She grabbed Vega by the arm and guided her to the slit which glimmered like a thin veil of stardust.
“Now you Altair.” Altair looked at Maia as if he was unsure, but she just shook her head and waved him on. Alice was last to go, he body disappearing while her head was stuck back in the room, hovering in mid air.
“You’re sure? I could be of some help.”
“Stick to the plan, Alice. I’ll be fine. We’ll meet as agreed. I’ve made up my mind and not even a mountain will shift it.”
Alice laughed. “I have a good mind to drop Mt Chaos on top of you, right now.” She withdrew her head and disappeared.
Maia began singing a soft lilt to herself
“Make me a channel of your peace.”
Alice’s head reappeared. “Good bye Maia. Don’t do anything rash, you hear.”
“Speak for yourself, Alice. You’ve been in more trouble than I ever have. Taking on an entire troop of demon slavers fro goodness sake. Whatever will you think of next. Good bye Alice. Take good care of yourself, and those two young ones.”
“Will do!” Alice’s head vanished. The slit curled up like a piece of cellophane in the sun and vanished. Not a moment too soon.
“She’s really not coming?” said Vega anxiously to Alice who was standing deep in thought outside the cave entrance. A foul wind blew and carrion birds picked off flesh and bones that lay rotting on the nearby rocks.
“She won’t be long. She needs to take care of something very precious. It belonged to your grandfather.”
“I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye,” said Vega. She looked to Altair for support. He merely shrugged his shoulders and sighed.
“We swapped a good battle for this?” He looked around at the fires dotting the hillside and the mists curling upwards through the chilly air. “I think Maia has the better path.”
“She’ll be alright,” said Alice. “Really, don;t worry. I’ve seen Maia get out of much tougher situations than this.”
“That was a long time ago,” protested Vega. “She was still young then. Now she’s,” her voice faded away.
“An old lady?” said Alice. “Like me?” Her eyes narrowed. “I’ve a good mind to turn you both into toads.”
Vega and Altair both croaked in unison.
Alice chuckled. “Ah, you two know me too well. I never was much of a frog lover. How about a couple of cockroaches? Two skunks perhaps? You could both get a kick out of stinking each other to death.”
Altair farted, just for good measure.
“Oh really, Altair! Disgusting,” said Vega with a grimace, holding her nose in mock offense.
“Unfortunately that may not be the worst smell we have to deal with this day,” said Alice glancing around at the carnage that lay as far as they could see. “Now you do have that Angel Script safe and sound right Vega?”
“Safe as a house,” said Vega patting her jacket. “i’ve put it in the inside zip pocket. I’ve never lost anything from there.” She touched the inside of her jacket just to make sure. “Now why ever did Maia give me this thing? It was always one of her greatest treasures. I can still barely read it let alone pronounce the strange markings on it.”
“My advice is just to keep it safe, as Maia said,” said Alice. “It may prove useful to us yet.”
“To the cave?” said Altair who had decided less talk and more action would be the best course from here on.
“To the cave,” said Alice. “I’ll go first, but I’m sure I’m going to regret this.”
She’d barely taken a step when her nose began to itch.
“Damn it,” she said. “When my nose itches this much there’s trouble afoot.”
Alice’s next step proved her right. Although only solid ground lay ahead she felt herself falling, tipping into an abyss, with Vega and Altair tumbling behind her, head over heels.
“I told you I was going to regret this,” said Alice.