Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The last thing I expected to find when I caught up was the handful of remaining Carthians clutching their stomachs as they writhed on the ground. Hasda stood opposite Inkashi, his face sheened with sweat beneath his fiery facemask. But Inkashi’s appearance was the most surprising of all.
Dark purple bruises had bloomed across her face, her left eye and nose so puffy they protruded at nauseating angles. Her hair, slick with rain, was plastered to her neck, failing to hide the angry abrasions that ringed her throat. Although she held a short sword in each hand, she’d tucked her left elbow against her side, making her guard practically useless, and she seemed to be favoring her left leg. The rope around her waist led back to Jade, who was bound and gagged behind her.
For her part, Jade looked unharmed, although her eyes were wide with fear. She wore her human legs instead of her lamia tail, stumbling as the rope tying her to Inkashi tugged her this way and that. The terrified look she gave Inkashi made sense, but her horror didn’t diminish when she saw Hasda. If anything, it worsened.
Well this was going to be fun.
Inkashi hopped a step back when she noticed me. Keeping her eyes on Hasda, she angled to keep her weak-side sword at Hasda while aiming her better arm towards me. “Kind of hard to keep up appearances when the truth barrels over your lies,” she snapped.
“I’m afraid I need more explanation than that.” My hand itched to summon my Sword, but my gut said that would only exacerbate the situation. I stepped forward cautiously, my hands up. “What did you do to the men?”
“Afflicted them with minor lunacy. I thought you’d appreciate my not killing them, based on your reputation.” She gritted her teeth as she accidentally put too much weight on her wounded leg. “But that was a sham.”
“What do you mean?”
“You”–she whipped her head, glaring at me with her good eye–“are the ones releasing our ancient demons. The Sea Mother roams because you set her free. And now you seek to dig up the Forgotten One with her blood.” She jerked her hand at Jade.
I was getting a little tired of the never-ending train of surprises. “Who told you that?”
“So you don’t deny it.” Her face was pained.
I frowned. “I want to know who’s spreading these lies so I can wipe my ass with their hide. Of course we’re not setting any elder gods free, ours or anyone else’s. Tamiyat is a royal bitch. You think she’d let foreign gods walk free after desecrating her tomb?”
“She thinks we want to kill Jade to break the seal on the tomb in the mines,” Hasda wheezed. Whatever she’d done to him, he was in a lot of pain. But he wasn’t bleeding, just slowly sinking lower to the ground.
Inkashi’s face pinched. “It takes the blood of a god to weaken those seals. When we checked the Sea Mother’s prison, we found the lock broken by dark stains, and her jailor was gone.”
“And Nanshe didn’t tell you that Lazuli was the one who set Tamiyat free?” I slid towards Hasda.
Inkashi winced. “Please stop using that name. Invoking that power is dangerous.” She narrowed her eye. “And begs the question of why you’re so comfortable using it.”
“Because we do not fear to name what we do not fear.” There was still a good distance between me and the boy, but I was sure I could reach him before Inkashi could do anything, in her current state. “Hasda, did you do this to her?”
“It wasn’t me,” he gasped around a spasm of pain. “She was like that when I caught up.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t the mortals.”
Inkashi flinched. “I will speak no ill of my lord.”
My eyes snapped back to where I’d left the Apkalla. “They did this to you?”
Dropping her eyes, she shifted her weight with a little hop. “Lord Marudak does as he sees fit. For my disobedience and disrespect, judgment was administered through his instruments.”
What a total piece of shit.
Out loud, I said, “As a foreign god in distress on Carthian territory, you may claim sanctuary until your tribulation has passed.”
Breathing fast, she glanced around the forest with her good eye. “I…I have to go. I have to take her home. Do what I’m told.”
“Does he have eyes and ears within the forest?” By now I’d cut her off a direct line to Hasda, so I shifted to creeping towards her. Disarm, subdue, secure Jade. Maybe I could get her away from whatever influence Marudak held over her.
Inkashi laughed, a fluttery, panicked sound. “This is still Paeden land as well. He could come and claim her anytime he wished. But he values obedience.”
“I take it that means you’re not going to hand her over quietly, then.” I spread my hands, crouching low. “You know you’re in no condition to do this.”
“I’m not an invalid,” she snapped, raising her sword. “I can still fight.”
A stray ray of Malia’s gaze rent the clouds above us, disrupting the downpour momentarily. The clouds surged, closing the gap almost immediately. As the rain returned, we pulled our eyes from the sky and locked gazes.
Inkashi set her jaw. “Even if I believe you’re not trying to kill us with your tuzshu, I can’t just leave, like her,” she hissed, her voice low. “You think he’d let a major goddess run away? Look how well he’s handled losing some no-name minor goddess that half the pantheon didn’t even know about.”
“That ‘no-name’ is the prime proxy candidate for the Sea Mother.” I stopped, crouched an arm’s length away. “Marudak doesn’t care about her, he cares about what she could become. Tamiyat is stuck in the astral plane and, as far as we know, can’t free her mate without taking Jade as her avatar.” I sighed. “We don’t have to fight. Of all the threats a pantheon can face, elder gods are the worst. Tamiyat is a threat to both our people. We could work together to stop her.”
Her good eye clouded over. “He said you might say that.” She shook her head. “I was disciplined just for hearing that lie. Please, don’t make my homecoming worse than it already will be.”
Digging my toes into the ground, I tugged at the dormant magic. If she wasn’t going to cooperate, then I’d just have to do a little abducting of my own. Technically, with our claim on the land, Inkashi was a foreign god outside her territory, which meant she wasn’t subject to the same protections and potential for declarations of war that she was on Paeden territory. As our claim hadn’t solidified yet, the situation wasn’t as definite, but I could make it work.
If the magic would just cooperate. It wasn’t like Aenea, where the land was almost dry and what little power there was rejected my Carthian pull. There was plenty of power saturating the soil, but it was unwieldy. Almost as if…
As if someone else were making a claim, too.
My face must have twisted funny because Inkashi gave me a confused look. “What?”
“Can you open a portal?”
“No.” Her eye narrowed. “Only Marudak can.”
“Shit.” I scowled, my frown tweaked further by a tug at my bond. Malia had sensed the counterclaim, too. “How fast can he get here?”
“As soon as he wishes.” She brought her right sword up, the left one trembling as her injured arm twitched. “Why? What are you stalling for?”
“Whatever you’re doing to the mortals, can you stop it?” I stood up and dropped my hands as she tensed. “Just take a moment and touch the spirit of the earth. Does it feel Paeden to you?”
She didn’t relax her influence, because Hasda remained hunched over, but she did follow my suggestion. Sensing something amiss, she frowned as well as she could with her puffy lip. “What is that?”
A peal of thunder preceded a downpour of abnormally large raindrops. Spheres of smoky gray water bounced down through the canopy overhead, splashing wide, dark stains across the ground.
“I think,” I said, stepping back as steam hissed from the weird puddles, “that the Sea Mother has more influence over the physical world than we gave her credit for.”
“But she’s dead—”
My tackle cut off whatever she’d been going to say. The rope snapped taut, dragging Jade down with us, but that couldn’t have been helped. With a quick twist, I disarmed Inkashi and severed Jade’s lead. Inkashi’s swords must have been some Paeden variant of celestial steel, because they sliced through the thick rope with ease.
“Didn’t want to fight, huh?” Inkashi gasped, pinned beneath me.
“Ran out of time for negotiations.” I rotated to look back at Hasda. “You good?”
“Yeah.” He coughed and sagged, hands on his knees. “That’s what women feel like every full moon?”
“That was mild.” Inkashi struggled, but couldn’t free herself. “Next time, the lunacy will be more severe.”
I put more weight on her to keep her from moving. “Take Jade and get back to Malia. I’ll catch up.”
Staggering, he stumbled over and picked her up. With a big smile on his face, he cut her bonds. “It’s good to see you.”
“Get me out of here, please.” She tugged on his hand, pulling him away from us. Around them, the fallen Carthians began to stir, bemoaning the residual effects of Inkashi’s lunacy. Jade smiled at Hasda, but there was fear in her eyes. “She’s coming.”