Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Smooth scales slithered across my mouth. It was a comfortable sensation until tiny, clawed feet scampered across my face, poking my eyes and nose. A small, bundled weight bounced off my stomach, skittering away in a flurry of hisses. Claws raked my face in answer as the creature on my face darted after whatever was scampering across the flagstones. Groaning, I slowly opened my eyes.
The air smelled like my maas, although the creamy white pavilion I lay under was new. My bones moaned in protest as I rolled on my side, my ribs audibly creaking. Everything hurt to move, including my knees, which had thankfully returned along with my legs during my slumber.
Propped up on my elbow, I found the source of the disturbance to be two emerald-scaled lizards, no bigger than kittens. They had the most ridiculous proportions, with the coordinated grace of very young juveniles. Stumbling along on stubby legs, they had round bodies with stumpy tails and necks longer than their bodies and tails combined. Golden frills ridged their angular heads, and one snapped its tiny, triangular teeth at the other, which held a strip of worn leather in its mouth.
A silver portal snapped open in my peripheral vision, and Phemonoe stumbled through it. “Gods damn it, you little devil! Get back–Charax?”
“Hi.” I settled on my side, watching the empty-mouthed lizard pounce on its companion. They tussled, but the one who’d stolen the leather refused to surrender its prize. Lots of snarling and snapping ensued.
Phemonoe sighed and slipped over to scoop them up. “I’m glad you’re awake again. They’ve been almost as much trouble as Malia.”
No sooner had she spoken the name than the violet of Malia’s portal arced in the air, shearing the space by the fountain. It was hard to miss how upset she was, what with the flurry of sparks flying from her normally precise portal, the agitation twanging our bond, and the furious scowl on her blood-flecked face as she emerged through the rent. Before I got a chance to say anything, she collided with me and wrapped me in a tight squeeze. “You stupid dumbass.”
“Love you, too. Hurts to breathe,” I gasped.
Snakes writhing, she pushed herself up and glared at me. “You deserve it.” She snuck a quick swipe at her eyes before flashing me a fang-filled smile. “Did you miss the part where you fell out of the sky with half your body gone? And then didn’t wake up for two years?”
I blinked. “That long?”
“Yeah.” She jerked a nod, lines crinkling the corners of her eyes as she strained at the wetness. “Phe’s been keeping an eye on your mind, when she isn’t chasing the twins, to make sure you healed properly.”
“Where did they come from?” I glanced over at the lizards, who’d mostly settled down in the Oracle’s arms. One was laying primly, nestled in her elbow, but the other had dropped its leather scrap in favor of chewing on her sleeve.
“Hasda’s brood.” Her mouth quirked as she said it, a twist that conveyed an underlying meaning I didn’t quite catch. “But, more importantly, now that you’re awake, Phe can finally tell us about whatever was so important she had to wait until you came to.”
I put a finger on her lips and tilted in the Oracle’s direction. “What do you mean, Malia’s been trouble?”
After setting the hydras down, Phemonoe folded her hands in front of her and gave me a weary smile. “We now occupy all of Aenea and half the land from it to Sunai. Further, Carthian ships have been harassing the Paeden coastline from the Aenean ports all the way up the islands. And she’s been trying to get Seppo to launch his ship towards the Stitcher for at least a year now.”
I glanced back at Malia, who rolled her eyes.
“I don’t mope,” she growled around my finger.
Grunting, I strained up and kissed her jaw. “When have you ever?”
Her tail thumped against the bed. “So, about that prophecy of yours.”
Phemonoe dropped her gaze. “I…couldn’t reveal much before. But I explained that to Charax.”
“You did.” I struggled back up on my elbows as Malia shifted to lay across my lap. “I take it the danger is passed?”
“Some of it.” She rubbed her wrist. “Well, we’re out of the shallows now.”
“So what can you tell us?” Malia’s wings shivered.
Shaking her head, Phe folded her arms and pursed her lips. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. The branches that have been pruned involved your latest confrontation with the Sea Mother.” Her eyes took on a haunted look as she spoke. “I saw paths where the Sea Mother broke free and conquered all, where Jade was taken and forced into her proxy, where…where Hasda fell in combat, Charax.”
Malia and I stared at her blankly.
She laughed nervously, her breath shaking. “And those are the milder ones. The further into the depths we go, the worse the vision gets.”
“How bad?” Malia’s voice was hard.
Phemonoe shook her head. “I cannot say.” She held up a hand before Malia could protest. “This vision was not a normal divination. I could see myself talking with Charax before you went to Tingid, and one errant word would send the augury splintering into a dozen fume-filled pits. The paths would overlap, so even mentioning the danger to Hasda could lead to his maiming, or blindness, or death. Ends where he and Jade never met again, or her mind was so broken from the Sea Mother’s control that she’d lost herself and left him heartbroken.” Tears pooled in her eyes. “It is so hard to see what I can say without breaking things.”
“But you’re revealing this now,” Malia said, the edge in her tone dulled.
Letting her head fall back, Phemonoe blew a breath into the air. “I can see one road clearly now. Hasda will not die before becoming the next Carthian hero, so long as he concludes his Trials.”
Malia’s fangs clicked together. “So he must remain on the path of his Trials? What if he fails them? Or we send him against the Sea Mother as his Trial?”
Phemonoe laughed and shook her head. “The natural path of his Trials, and that alone. Sending him on a suicide mission will kill him, so don’t do that.”
“The Stitcher has an army of undead, correct?” I shifted my weight, grunting at the soreness in my wrists. “Recovering the Staff that the Stitcher stole was supposed to be his Third Trial. So he can just complete it with impunity?”
Frowning, Phemonoe searched our faces. “No. Just because he is safe from death doesn’t mean he's immune from all harm. But…I can say this. Whatever happens, the Stitcher will be his final Trial. He will either be worthy of being a hero, or incapable of filling the role.”
Malia hummed and stroked my leg. “I’ll make some adjustments, then.”
A pair of splashes sounded from the fountain, followed by frothing water and snarling and snapping. The hydras hissed at each other, heads protruding from the water like swamp monsters. While they tried to puff themselves up and look intimidating, they lacked the fangs to put any bite behind their nips. A lunge, and the pair disappeared beneath the water.
“Kas! Mar!” Phemonoe darted over and dragged them out of the fountain, doing her best to disentangle them. “Honestly, you two are the worst.”
“When did they hatch?” I asked as Malia curled closer.
“Mm, a month or so ago.” Her wing grazed my back as she settled. “The male, Kas, has already eaten three of Phaeus’ skewers and a quarter of an anvil. Mar is a princess by comparison.”
“And Hasda isn’t raising his own because?”
She gave me a sly side-eye. “He’s training with the troops I’ve mustered in Frischii. It was the only way I could get him and Jade apart.”
I grunted. “And they needed to be separated, why?”
“I’ll have you know I very nearly gave him ambrosia.” Her smile blended coyness with annoyance. “But I thought you’d want a say in that, given how outspoken you were about it last time.”
“He wasn’t ready for it then!”
“And now?” She gave me a slow, meaningful blink.
I paused. Giving him ambrosia would push him towards demigodhood, although he wouldn’t be able to cross the border fully until he’d finished his Trials. But, perhaps, with the boost from the heavenly food, he could wield celestial steel. The fact that Malia had waited to discuss this with me meant she was less likely to carelessly throw him away, but getting some divinity in him wouldn’t hurt.
“While you’re ruminating, here’s another straw to chew on.” She sighed and tucked her wings on her back, the feathers tickling my stomach. Her snakes hid her face from me. “I laid an egg.”
“Am I interrupting something?” Phemonoe held the dripping hydras in the air, one in each hand.
Malia smiled at her. “Not at all. Go send those to Jade and tell her to expect me. Charax and I have something we need to discuss in private.”
The Oracle gave us a look that said she thought that a thinly-veiled excuse, but she opened her silver portal and took the hydras with her, leaving us alone.