Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I must have because I opened my eyes and found Malia gone. The side of the bed where she’d been was cold, the sheets a rumpled mess. Darkness had settled over my maas, along with a cool breeze that jostled the warmth of the day. I felt rested, but nowhere near getting up and running laps around the fountain.
Stars flickered through the canopy above the bed. There was something I was supposed to remember… The constellations danced, swimming into new configurations. A dragon here, a rune there, mythical beasts and baser animals. Slowly they slid into a grid, hard lines like the bars of a prison. That didn’t feel right… But it was related to something important.
My mind danced on the threshold of consciousness, and I couldn’t drag my thoughts straight. The stars snapped back to their appropriate positions as I struggled awake. Stars. What was with the stars? Darkness was significant, too. I had told myself to remember this.
The black star.
In the jumble of waking up for the first time since fighting Tamiyat, I had forgotten to mention it to Malia. No legends in our pantheon spoke of such a thing, not even the annals of the reign of Seppo’s mother. And I couldn’t recall any of our traders picking up any stories of such a strange celestial object. The only foreign tale involving stars the Carthians had encountered thus far was of a child who plucked one for her wolf to fetch. But the star itself was insignificant and amounted to nothing more than evidence of her divinity to her people.
Pale yellow flashed on my right as Seppo entered. Metal clanged and hissed, far more than normal for his exoskeleton. I rolled on my side and saw a bundle of rods in his arms. A moment later, Phaeus’ ashy red portal flared to life behind our pantheon head, depositing the snarky dwarf on the flagstones. Face smeared with the remains of embers, he scowled through his beard as he dumped his toolbelt and a bundle of leather strips on the ground.
“First thing that happens when you wake up is they set me to work.” Arranging his tools on the stones, Phaeus jabbed a stubby finger at Seppo. “No thanks for everything I’ve been doing to keep the army supplied, ho no, I have to build a new frame for the cripple.”
Seppo and I shared a look.
The dwarf stopped his rummaging and glanced up. “The invalid, you cranky old bastard. I built that exoskeleton of yours to outlive you.”
“I’m not a cripple,” I said, pushing myself up on my elbows. Thankfully, my head didn’t start swimming, but I could feel the remnants of a swirl at the base of my skull.
“You’re not.” Seppo grunted as he offloaded the rods one by one to Phaeus. “But you’ll need some assistance getting around while your legs finish healing. I know there’s no keeping either of you bedridden when you’re injured, especially with Hasda’s third Trial beginning soon.”
He sounded upset, but I could see the smile tugging at his lips. I shook my head. “Who’s the other one?”
He handed the last rod to Phaeus. “Malia didn’t tell you? She had another run-in with that Paeden plague god. While she didn’t suffer the same degradation as last time, I suspect he exacerbated her previous injuries.”
“Didn’t stop her from kicking his ass.” Phaeus chuckled as he connected the first tube to a gasket I hadn’t seen him produce. “And the Paeden coastline looks like she flung my slag at it. Probably why they’ve been so keen to claim ours.”
Seppo nodded. “Even with Synnefo’s help, Resef has been hard pressed to contest their naval deity. While we haven’t seen any of the Sea Mother’s derketo, there’ve been Paeden ones aplenty. I might have to set sail to protect our maritime supremacy, but that’s a massive risk so long as the elder goddess is free.”
“Speaking of Tamiyat, we need to talk about how we’re going to confine her.” I took a deep breath and laid back down. My head was relatively clear, but speaking even half-seated winded me. The night breeze ruffled the silk of the canopy. “I found her old prison, and the door is wrecked. Not only that, it’s surrounded by lakrabua, so I don’t think we could repair it, even if I could find it again.”
“Malia couldn’t find it, either.” Seppo set to clunking back and forth in his habitual pacing as we talked. “She razed a few lesser Paeden seaports over it.”
“Of course.” I sighed. “Defeating Tamiyat won’t be anywhere near as easy as your mother. Since the Paedens set the precedent for how their ancestors are handled, I don’t think we’ll be able to kill her. That means we’ll have to imprison her, which also raises the problem of where we’ll contain her.”
“If her old cell won’t work, what would you suggest?” Seppo said. His metal ankle braces clanked against the flagstones, ringing clashing with the bubbling fountain.
I rolled my head back and forth on the pillow. “I’m not sure. The biggest problem is how we’ll seal her. Even if we had a cage, the only lock we know of failed. Besides, I’d rather use a method that doesn’t involve isolating another deity from reality for the rest of eternity.”
“What was the crevice place like?” Phaeus asked. He gave Seppo a side-eyed look as he passed. “I’ve heard bits and pieces, down in my forge, but everybody seems content to let me work and leave me in the dark.”
“It was…strange.” I recounted the tunnel in the gap and the hive of the antechamber, leaving out the meeting with the Prime on the way out.
Phaeus set the rods and leather down to stroke his beard. “So it was a place apart, distinctly disconnected from the depths of the mines?”
I nodded. “I’m not even sure the connecting tunnel was within the mines, either. The fabric of the space felt different.”
“Hmmm.” The dwarf picked the rods back up and lashed them together. “That sounds awfully similar to how the maas work. Perhaps a different spatial foundation, since it’s either Paeden or something they commandeered to contain the Sea Mother, but I think I could construct a new maas to hold the titan. The walls would be able to withstand her, at least. But even my best-fitting vault will have gaps an eldritch god could exploit.”
“The bindings will be a problem,” Seppo agreed. “Did the door give you any insights into how they managed to detain a titan with the power of a god? A minor deity, no less.”
I gave another head roll. “The only thing I could think of was that they made Jade the weak point of the seal, then placed her inside the cell so no one outside could break in. I don’t think they expected her to force her way out.”
“If it’s just a matter of divinity, perhaps we could substitute a divine beast.” Phaeus set his contraption down, a brace with two long strips of leather on the upper and lower sections. Grabbing more rods, he set about making a second one. “Or maybe we could dope up demigods with ambrosia, then stasis lock the cell to keep them from leaking the excess energy.”
Seppo shook his head. “Divine beasts are too rare to spare, and they’re unpredictable.”
“I’d prefer not to lock anyone in with Tamiyat,” I said. “You’ve seen the effect it had on Jade. Even the strongest among us would buckle under Tamiyat’s influence, given enough time. But binding her will be a difficult enough problem to tackle.”
“And for that, we’ll need you back on your feet.” Phaeus finished assembling the second brace and hoisted the pair up to Seppo as he passed. “Time for the fitting.”
“Can you sit up?” Seppo set the braces on the bed.
I grunted and pushed myself upright. Getting my legs over the side of the bed took effort, but I managed it without seeing too many dancing stars. The braces were well made and only took a few adjustments to fit properly. However, I wobbled far more than I would’ve liked when I tried to stand up. I downed the cup of ambrosia Seppo offered me. While the elixir took the edge off, I still couldn’t stand without shaking.
“Try this.” Phaeus offered me a serpent-headed cane.
I waved it off and summoned my Spear. From a great distance I felt the answering tug, and the weapon was sluggish in materializing in my hand. But it seemed mostly unharmed from its time in the astral plane. That sparked a memory from my battle with the Sea Mother and, concerned, I summoned my Sword. The tip clattered to the flagstones, the haft and remaining blade resting in my palm. Some scattered chunks and flakes sprinkled down after the severed end.
Giving Phaeus a sheepish grin, I flipped the hilt towards him. “I think I might have some more work for you as well.”
“You’re all the same.” Grumbling, he snatched the broken blade from me and gathered up its disjointed remains. “I’ll see what I can do. But, at this rate, I’m going to exhaust my supply of celestial steel.”
“I’ll talk to Malia.”
Phaeus grunted. “You’ll need to talk to her quick, if you want your Sword back before the feast.”
Sighing, I settled back onto the bed. At least I could sit up without going dizzy. “The feast?”
Seppo nodded. “Hasda’s Third Trial. We’ll hold it once you’re feeling up to attending.”
I groaned and lay back. The pending Trial, the construction of the prison, the burgeoning conflict with the Paedens—so much needed doing. At least I could hit the ground running, metaphorically speaking.