Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
When the Oracle was gone, Malia rolled on her back and trailed a finger down my chest. “I know you have questions.”
“Plenty. LIke how in the world that even happened.” I gave her a stern look before letting myself fall on the bed. While my body had healed, I still needed to recover my stamina, apparently. And my head was starting to spin from sitting up so long, never mind all of Malia’s fun surprises. Staring at the pale cloth above us, I said, “So we’re going to have a kid?”
Laughing, she slid off me and sidled up under my arm. “Who knows? I don’t even know if it’s fertilized.”
“But you still laid one.”
“Mmhmm.” She purred and snuggled closer. “Large, dimpled, light green with brown speckles.”
I hugged her close. “And how long ago was it?”
“Before Aenea.” Her tail flicked back and forth, messing up the sheets. “I would’ve told you sooner, but with the Sea Mother and Hasda’s Trials, I didn’t want you distracted during combat.”
“You mean worrying about you fighting after potentially giving birth to our child.”
She swatted my side. “Don’t be so dramatic.”
I grunted. “So, when will you know if it’s viable? And where did you hide it?”
“I’m telling you with the understanding that you’re not going to immediately get up and go see it,” she said. Her snakes hissed in agreement. “And I will personally keep an eye on you to make sure you don’t.”
“Fine by me.” Sighing, I rubbed her arm. “Just walking might be beyond me at the moment.”
“Let’s just say I might end up owing Phaeus a favor by the time this is over.” She gave me a pinched smile. “What with the destruction those hydras caused and now him incubating yet another divine egg in the depths of his forge. But at least he still owes me for that deposit of celestial steel I found near Frischii. Which, speaking of the region.”
“That’s where the Stitcher settled?”
She shook her head. “He’s in Batavii. The Frischians have cut ties and stuck to south of the Usull River, but I haven’t been able to determine what’s become of the Sivarians and Elthians. The Frischians are scared to resume trade while the undead roam free.”
“I take it you’ve been conscripting from them.”
“Of course.” She sighed, the tempo of her tail flicks increasing. “I’ve also sent what Carthians I can, but Seppo refuses to deploy his trireme. The portals around Batavii work for now, but they’re unstable. As best I can determine, the Stitcher displaced the spirits and whatever loose coalition of deities previously inhabited the region. But the Frischians have been tight-lipped about whom they used to worship.”
I kissed the top of her head as she scowled. “Have you talked to Azoria about assimilating them? Frischii isn’t quite next to our border, but we’ve traded with them enough that it wouldn’t be too hard to incorporate them.”
She huffed. “I’ve already laid the foundation for our pantheon to welcome them into the fold. It’s the Stitcher who’s being a pain in the ass. He’s gathered a few scattered spirits and started personifying the terrors of the forest.” Her snakes hissed as she shook her head. “I think he’s trying to build his own pantheon. At the very least, he’s established himself in the region’s psyche as a force to be feared, if not worshiped. And I can’t displace him.”
“Have you made any forays into Batavii yet?”
“No.” She huffed again. “I’ve let Hasda mingle with the Frischians, and he’s been a great help getting more of them to our side, but I haven’t let him cross the border yet. It’s been hard enough just keeping the Stitcher’s soulless on the other side of the river.”
My eyebrows rose. “He’s been pushing out of Batavii?”
“Has been for the past few months, now. I’ve made sure he doesn’t know any gods are around or opposing him, but his most recent incursions have felt…frantic. He sent more at once than he had before, almost enough to be called an expeditionary force.”
“What’s the deal with these undead?” I stroked her cheek. “Thane said the spirits he summoned couldn’t harm them. He’s not so incompetent that he couldn’t raise the dead properly, even with how he wanted to switch his Office.”
“I’m not so sure that the Stitcher has the Ghorins’ rod. These soulless he leads, they really have no spiritual connection.” Her eyes looked troubled. “It’s like they’ve been scoured of all life, reduced to the base elements that compose their corpses. Not even mindless things–it’s like they never had minds to begin with.”
“But they can be killed?” I paused. “Or, stopped, at least.”
Sighing, she stretched back and kissed my chin. “Physically, at least. The mortals have found success beheading them or cutting off their limbs, but that’s about it. The soulless have no respect for bodily harm, and they’re just intelligent enough to avoid traps. They’re relentless, though, and once they start moving it’s hard to stop them.”
She hummed thoughtfully. “Haven’t tried that yet. They’ve only attacked during the day thus far. I’ll put Hasda on it when I return.”
I rubbed her shoulder and grunted. Soulless with no spiritual signature were effectively flesh-covered skeletons. I’d want to test their durability, to see if their muscles atrophied or if the Stitcher was magically maintaining them, before planning too heavily. But they would likely still fall to fire, Malia’s gaze, and hopefully the djinn’s unnatural flame. While the djinn itself was supernatural, it was bounded by the mortal plane and had further devoted itself to augmenting Hasda. But things like floods, plagues, and hunger definitely wouldn’t slow them down.
However, the thought of something unstoppable brought back the memory of what felt like a fever dream. I told Malia about the chamber hidden in the depths of the mines and described the lakrabua to her, both their figure and the feeling of dread they induced. This segued into the return of the Spinster and my unexpected visit with the Stargazer during my healing coma.
Malia lay and listened, her tail thumping a steady beat. When I finished, she sighed and slapped the bed. “What is with these Primes and their obsession with you?”
“To be fair, I don’t think the Stargazer was on purpose.” I hugged her close. “And I’m not sure I could find the chamber again. It felt like the Spinster sealed the passageway behind me, and even if it’s still open, she’s likely moved the lakrabua somewhere else since I tried to destroy them.”
“You know that’s a loose thread I’m not going to leave unchecked.”
I pulled her closer. “Just don’t antagonize Jade if she isn’t helpful. If she’s the one who had to foot the power to break herself out of that prison, it’s highly unlikely she’ll have remembered anything useful after passing through the delirium of that crevice.”
“I’ll send Thane to check, if I can pull him away from Azoria long enough.” She laughed. “The way they’re acting, they’re liable to be the next bonded pair in the pantheon.”
Rubbing her shoulder, I grunted. “And that’s a bad thing?”
“For executing my machinations in a timely fashion, yes.” She sighed and cuddled closer. “Although, with you back, I suppose I don’t have to send him on errands anymore. He’s dreadfully slow about things sometimes.”
“Have they moved into each other’s temples yet?”
Malia snorted. “Thane doesn’t technically have a temple yet, he’s been too busy throwing parties with all the minor deities growing his ‘reputation,’ instead of building a new residence. And while Azoria does her best to be discreet about it, I know for a fact that Thane isn’t at half the feasts he throws and spends those nights with her. She always has this glow on her face the next day, Thane too.”
Ah, right. Because the God of Death’s temple was technically mine now, and the God of Revelry was a new Office without a sanctuary, that left Thane without a house in Nebesa. I hadn’t been back to Nebesa to convert the temple to conform to my new designation, but with how little time I spent in the celestial realm, I didn’t really need it. Thane wasn’t homeless without a temple, since he had his maas and Azoria’s bed, however his former abode was etched with too many gloomy reliefs to be easily transformed into a cheery party parlor.
But that could wait. For now, we had Hasda’s upcoming Trial to plan for, or rather, Malia needed to bring me up to speed on what she’d already prepared. While Hasda was in the region of the Trial, it sounded like the portals were still cooperative enough to bring him back in time for the announcement. That left me some time to recover a bit more before we actually had to depart, which meant Malia and I would finally get some uninterrupted quality time together.
I smiled as I hugged her close. Well, maybe just physical contact for now. But that was enough.