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The Many Gifts of Malia--Part 130: "The Call"

by dragonfphoenix

Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.

The jackal crouched and circled Hasda’s men. Sniffing, she eyed each one in turn before finally settling on a man who sat a little straighter than the rest.

“He will do.” She sat on her haunches and sniffed some more. Frowning, she glanced at Hasda. “There’s another scent under the decay that I can’t place, but it makes my nose itch. I fear this may cause more harm than good. Would you wish me to still proceed?”

“How would it go wrong?” Arms folded, he scowled and tapped his foot. Not in anger, but frustration at his helplessness. He’d always hated being unable to relieve others’ pain.

Gunarra’s tails swished. “Spice laces the scent. Familiar, yet strange, in a distant way.”

Hasda looked to me.

I shook my head. “It’s your call.”

“Not him.” Hasda pointed to a different man, one who looked neither the worst nor the healthiest among the group. “Heal Moriun. He has a daughter waiting for him.”

The man coughed. “If the healing is uncertain, Jendh stands the best chance.”

“He’s right.” Gunarra lashed her tails. “If this goes poorly, whomever I heal will need all his strength.”

Hasda glared at the jackal. “Can you heal all of them?”

“If the healing takes, perhaps.” Gunarra half whined at him. “But for the test, it would be best to—”

Hasda shook his head. “You’re a demigod. Even I have a stronger aura than you. Given that, we may only get one try. So heal Moriun.”

“As you say.” With a sigh, Gunarra dropped her head and padded over to the other man. She sniffed his arm up and down, then tentatively licked a black spot on his elbow.

The effect was immediate, but not on the right person.

Yelping, Gunarra bolted away from him, hackles up. As she darted to the nearest bushes, patches of fur flaked from her limbs and body. Her stride also slowly brought her upright, until she was running on her hind legs, a forepaw over her mouth. She looked almost human by the time she vanished in the foliage.

Moriun, however, looked no better for wear. Milky froth bubbled around the spot Gunarra had licked, dissipating into a sticky gray paste. But the color stayed drained from his face, the energy gone from his body.

Despite that, he gave Hasda a reassuring smile. “Thank you for trying, at least.”

Frowning, Hasda knelt next to the man. “Let me see your arm.”

Confused, Moriun held out his arm.

Violet flame gloved Hasda’s hand as he passed it over the drying paste. The few remaining bubbles popped as the residue hardened, although it resembled an odd poultice once baked. When it had turned completely solid, Hasda extinguished his fire and sat on his haunches.

“Did that help?” he asked.

“I’m not sure.” Moriun twisted his elbow to get a better look. “It’s almost like—”

And then he puked all over Hasda’s chestplate.

Wiping his face with a trembling hand, he smiled weakly at Hasda. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” My boy patted him on the shoulder and rose. “I had a feeling something was missing. Let me know if you start feeling better, but don’t peel that off. It should flake away on its own.”

Kydon peeled back enough of the Veil to stick his head through, startling the men who were paying attention. “Well, isn’t that strange?”

I nodded. “This whole situation is. Now that the negotiations are finished, do you want me back under there with you?”

The half-troll shook his head. “I want to keep observing this Gunarra creature. Since she already knows about you, there’s no point in you hiding from her. I don’t want her sniffing me out.”

“She’s not divine, though.”

“And yet she is.” Kydon frowned. “I can’t explain it. Calling her a demigod fails to describe it, yet she’s not a god proper, either. That was almost an allergic reaction she had to diluted ambrosia.”

“Which wouldn’t make sense, if she were any kind of divine.” Now it was my turn to frown.

Kydon nodded. “So I’ll keep an eye on her from out of sight. You can be a little more hands-on with Hasda. I’ll warn you if you go too far.”

And with that, he pulled the Veil shut.

Hasda gave me an inscrutable look. It didn’t really fit him, yet he wore it well enough. Probably Malia’s tutelage.

“What’s that face for?” I walked over to him.

“Trying to find where Kydon tossed the new line.”

I grunted. “Not much further. Since I’m already exposed, I’m able to provide more explicit advice, and any implicit help my presence provides is acceptable. But I won’t be healing your men, unfortunately.”

He nodded. “That’s about what I expected.”

One of the men laying on the ground waved his hand to get Hasda’s attention. “I know this is a bad time, but I need to go scout the river.”

Hasda turned and knelt next to him. “Are you sure, Midhis?”

The man nodded. “Once I get my feet under me.”

“All right.” Hasda tried to smile, but a heavy sigh escaped all the same. “At least let me assist you that much.”

Once the man had been lifted off the ground, he gave Hasda a quick salute and set off south. His gait was a bit off from favoring his left leg, but he held his head high as he walked away.

Someone padded up behind us as we watched him go. “Lost another one?”

Hasda glanced back, and his words died on his lips.

Though her face was pale from sickness and simple skin tones, the woman standing next to Hasda’s men was clearly Gunarra. Canine ears poked out from a dirty brown bob, clawed hands that were more feline than human sported fur the same honey gold as her former paws, and her trio of tails swished behind her. She’d kept her fur as a dress, and the contours delineated heavily muscled arms, legs, and torso.

And she was short.

“There was more than poison in those wounds.” Her eyes glared an accusation that matched her tone.

“What’s on your collar?” Hasda pointed at the dark leather around her neck, which I’d missed at first because she’d pushed the thing all the way up her neck. She wore it inside out, covering a slight bulge in the middle.

“A memento from my mistress.” Frowning, she absently fingered one side. “But you should know that whatever infected your men interfered with my abilities. I’m stuck in this inferior form until the pollution passes through my system.”

I grunted. “So you’re unable to locate and avoid potential ambushes.”

Growling, she snapped her gaze to my face. “I may not, for a few days, but my jackals may. And they will serve you yet.”

Hasda blew out a breath. “Maybe we should enlist the rats’ help. Do you think Vartikh would accept the coilna’s tutelage as payment?”

I nodded. “Since they wouldn’t be your only ally, they don’t demand full reward.”

“I will not work with the rats,” Gunarra snarled. “Even if the bastards swear to render aid, they would be plotting to double cross you at the earliest opportunity. And they would slash my ankles without hesitation.”

“With you inhibited, Hasda should accept all the help he should get.” I folded my arms and stared her down.

Hasda held up a hand. “We’ll need to wait for her jackals to arrive regardless, right? I’ll go talk to the rats. Gunarra, why don’t you call them? If you can, of course.”

“Of course.” Biting off each word, she refused to break eye contact with me.

Hasda started to say more, then dropped his hand and shrugged. With a final glance at his men, he strode back to the concealed cave and slipped under the hanging leaves.

As soon as he disappeared inside, Gunarra tilted her head back and trilled a cry. Her throat worked as she shifted to shorter, almost cackling barks. When she finished, she snapped her eyes back to mine. “Three will be here within an hour’s time.”

“How long will it take for Hasda to reach the Stitcher?”

“Three or four days.” She sucked her teeth. “Sooner, if he would but leave the deadweight.”

I grunted. “Which he won’t do. I’m sure you know that by now.”

She sneered, but looked away before she did. “They are breaths away from turning against him. Not of their own choosing, but they hear the Stitcher’s call all the same. He will have to put them down, like rabid beasts, if he cannot bring himself to part with them.”

“What happened when you licked the wound?” Frowning, I unfolded my arms. “There shouldn’t have been any residual poison, and even if there was, it wouldn’t have forced you to change forms.”

Hunching down, she took a step back and gave me a veiled look. “For someone who cannot heal these wounds, you know more than you admit about them. Did you poison me? Was this a trick?”

I grunted a laugh. “No, we didn’t poison you. If anything, Hasda nearly poisoned his men, trying to help them.”

“Then why, Exalted One, do you not exert yourself?” Her eyes flashed. ”If you see the problem so clearly, why depend upon one lower than this tuzshu for help?”

“When you raise pups, do you run for them? Chew their food? Pump their lungs, so they can breathe?” I shook my head. “It is no test, where every obstacle is removed.”

Realization dawned in her eyes. “And that is why he also needs a guide through the forest.”

A flurry of movement erupted from the cave. Violet light flashed from within, and a moment later Hasda emerged, slashing through the curtain of leaves and scrambling out of the depths. Sheathing his sword, he sprinted over to us.

I frowned as he raced by to gather up his men. “What’s wrong?”

“We’re moving.” Breathing heavily, he pulled the first man to his feet. “Vartikh branded me a ‘friend of the jackals’ and made it clear that I’ve overstayed my welcome. He gave us until nightfall to be well on our way.” He sighed. “So much for the rats, eh?”

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There is nothing more radical or counter-cultural, at the moment, than laying down one’s cynicism in favour of tender vulnerability.
— John Green