Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I gritted my teeth as nasty energy blasted through me. The shockwave carried the stench of the swamp and the source of its power in its wake, giving me an unpleasant sensation of curdled sewage. With a strangled snarl, the mongoose shot out of the water. Hasda followed close behind, enveloped in an aura of plum-colored power. The djinn, whose name I could never remember, spread behind him like an unholy guardian angel.
They moved in sync, Hasda and the djinn, tearing after the mongoose with inhuman speed. Flames so dark the violet was nearly black danced along his sword. With an almost conscious eagerness, the tongues of fire burned off the blade and reached towards the divine beast. It was unnatural, that flame rising out instead of up.
The hydra wasn’t dormant, either. Long after the explosion had faded, the water continued to roil. With the way the muddy bottom bucked beneath my feet, it was safe to say that it wasn’t the hydra causing the chaos in the swamp water. At least, that’s what I thought until the ground heaved and flung me nearly out of the marsh.
Trees folded into each other like the needles on a pincushion being turned inside out. Roots shed lumpy mud as the earth rose, murky water spilling like drool. A row of spikes pushed through the swamp. At first, I thought they were trunks pared of bark and limbs, but then the ground kept rising and rising with them. The thick chord of the final hydra neck breached like a vein ripped from the earth. With a wet gurgle, the water rushed to fill the depression left by its departure, and the marsh settled into a much lower level.
The neck dwarfed everything. Thicker twice by far as Seppo’s ship, it ran the length of the marshlands and still went on. Chevrons of dirt slabs steepled, then collapsed, on both ends as the neck continued to ascend from the central bulge. The swamp must have softened the ground the neck had been buried under, because the lands outside the marsh cracked and groaned as the hydra forced her way out.
To his credit, Hasda gave the imposing entrance no more than a passing glance as he wrestled with the mongoose. He’d lost his sword somewhere along the way, but not before leaving a flaming gash in the creature’s side. While Hasda grappled the mongoose’s claws, the djinn harried its exposed wound, talons knifing at the opening. The creature twisted and writhed, but couldn’t break Hasda’s hold.
As the ancient neck continued to rise, the battered younger hydra heads reared back, fanning out around Hasda and the mongoose. The first struck, sinking her teeth through the djinn into the gash and snatching the divine beast away from Hasda. With the mongoose separated from Hasda, the unoccupied hydra mouths spit streams of fire and venom at the first. Poison and flame washed harmlessly over their fellow, but the mongoose fared far worse. The breach in its fur let the toxins melt through its side, the fire cauterizing the wounds almost as quickly as they formed, trapping the venom inside.
It wasn’t long before the struggling mongoose fell limp. The hydra bashed the mongoose against one tree, then another, splintering trunks and shearing branches, but still the hydra wasn’t satisfied. She shook the mongoose like a dog with a wet rat and dashed it against a mound of dirt raised by the rising neck. Snarling and hissing, the heads barraged it with a torrent of hydra fire intensified by a mother’s rage. Black smoke belched from the corpse as the flames charred the once-hard hide.
The death of the mongoose heralded the arrival of the hydra’s oldest head. Nicks and scars marred her angular head, lime-hued scales filling in the cracks in the darker, forest green ones. Two ember eyes, glowing like dying stars, stared down at Hasda as the massive head descended.
With the battle over, the djinn had receded into Hasda’s armor. Streaks of blood faded as the violet fire vanished. His face looked deathly pale, although I couldn’t tell if it was from blood loss or the sharp contrast between the shock of battle wearing off and the way his aura had shaded his features. Either way, Malia and I would be tearing the djinn a new one when we had Hasda safely back in Nebesa.
The forest groaned as the eminent head settled before Hasda. White fumes trailed from its snout, almost transparent in comparison with the crematory smoke billowing off the mongoose’s remains. Leaves whispered as the other hydra heads slithered beneath the canopy and disappeared into the swamp, leaving Hasda alone with the chief head.
Despite the disparity in size, Hasda smiled and rested his hand on the tip of the hydra’s nose. He could have fit inside one nostril with room to spare, never mind how long it would have taken him to sprint the length of her snout. And yet he stood with a quiet assuredness that filled the gap in presence.
She blinked and breathed out, her exhale tussling his hair and brushing away the grime. An avalanche of dirt spilled from the sides of her head into the swamp, muddying the water. Something passed between them, like a spark, but something greater, too. Not quite invisible, like the heat rising off a fire, but less obvious.
They stayed in that trance for a breath, not moving as they stared. It wasn’t a challenging gaze, but it was intense. Finally, the hydra blinked and opened her mouth. Her tongue pushed a handful of mucus-coated eggs, shells sky-blue and speckled, at Hasda’s feet. Most were larger than his head, but the last two were melon-sized. Saliva stretched as the hydra withdrew her mouth. With a sigh, she settled onto the ground a few feet back and watched.
Choosing his steps carefully, Hasda picked his way around the eggs. When he reached the smallest pair, he picked one up in each hand. They were almost too big for him to hold one-handed, but he managed it. He raised an eyebrow at the hydra.
She blinked. The air shimmered again and then settled.
He still looked uncertain, but he tilted his hands, knocking the eggs together. Normally, when struck together, the weaker eggshell would crack and the other would remain intact. No matter the egg, whatever the animal, the old chef’s trick held true. But there must have been some magic at work because a thin line raced across the middle of both eggs after the collision. Hasda started in surprise, and even the hydra looked taken aback.
A smile curled across her face as she gathered her remaining eggs into her mouth. Another shimmer distorted the air as Hasda bowed, eggs bobbing by his head. The hydra blew a gust of misty smoke over them and then withdrew, churning the ground as she burrowed her long neck back into the earth. Hasda righted from his bow and watched the hydra retire. When the last of her spines vanished into the crowd of the forest, Hasda walked over to me, an egg under each arm.
I pulled on the forest magic and, after quickly scanning for any hidden threats, teased open my portal. Orange light reflected off Hasda’s armor as he approached. His face was still pale, but he vibrated with an enthusiasm that belied his tired visage. He wasn’t stumbling yet, but he looked exhausted. I ushered him through the portal and took one last look at the Ibithian marshlands. The hydra had vanished, and I couldn’t sense the Serynis Sisters at all. That was a thread we’d have to sever later, or wait and see how it played out. But I had my boy to attend to, as well as some questions that needed answered.
When I entered my maas, he was standing by the fountain and staring at the eggs in his hands. A look of wonder shone in his eyes, contrasted by the pink stripes of fresh skin that stood out on his pallid face. His muscles had toned, and the fat density of his skin had shrunk, giving him the look of a marble statue come to life.
I scowled as I approached. “So.”
His faint smile faded when he looked up. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Not you, necessarily.” I flicked a finger at his armor. “Tell it to come out. We need to talk.”
“His Common Name for this age is Sosa.”
My frown deepened. “I don’t care. Get it out, now.”
Hasda’s brow quirked but he complied, tapping the buckles. Purple haze clouded the surface as the djinn’s face materialized above Hasda’s chest.
“Yes, Old One?” Its smile was sly, its eyes blinking in a lazy, serpentine way.
I bared my teeth. “The next words out of your mouth better be assurances of no ill will to Hasda, and that no pact with him will in any way bring him to harm, or so help me I’ll unbind you from that armor with my bare hands.”
“Mmm, such threats.” It still had an unmerited amount of self-confidence in its voice. “But can you carry them out?”
“Sosa…” Hasda said.
I held up a finger to him and drilled the djinn with a stare. “You want to know if I can uphold my word?” My smile was wolfish. “I was the Lord of Death in my pantheon. I carry the spirit of an Apkalla in my bones until it is taken from me by its own death god or laid to rest in Peklo. So I can damn well tear a pesky demon out of a little piece of armor.”
It didn’t look impressed, so I brought out the heavy weaponry.
“Remember that patch of dirt that had you pissing yourself?” Now I had its attention. “I’ll bury you deep in the ground myself, and then I’ll break your vessel.” I gestured at my exposed ribcage. “I’m a skeleton. A little dirt never bothered me.”
The djinn’s image faltered. “You don’t know what you threaten.”
“No?” I stepped forward, and Hasda stepped back. I towered over the thin face flickering on his armor. “I came out of retirement for him. I’ve faced beings far scarier than your deepest nightmare, stared down your ‘Sea Mother’ without flinching. And I know what’s in those mines.” That wasn’t exactly true—I had the Spinster’s confirmation of who was below, which I’d yet to verify for myself—but he didn’t know that. “Nothing under that ground could possibly scare me.”
It gave me a confused look. “Wait, you claim to have snared an Apkalla. How did you manage that?”