Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Malia had really outdone herself this time. Lazuli going missing meant that Malia had unfrozen her, cut her leash, and then left her unsupervised long enough to lose her. But what had possessed her to risk losing her favorite toy? I said as much, and she snorted.
“We had no sign of the Sea Mother for months. I needed a sniffer.” She shrugged. “She worked, until the earth swallowed her.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And how did that happen?”
“How should I know?” She speared a piece of lamb and chewed it aggressively. “She wouldn’t be lost if I did, now, would she?”
“I can help you lose something else,” Tarrha said, playful eyes on Thrax.
Malia snapped her fingers at the love goddess. “You keep your wretched hands to yourself.”
Tarrha gave her a pained look. “You like my wretched hands.”
“I like them where they are: off my mortals.” She bared her fangs.
A coy smile crept across Tarrha’s face. “Guess I’ll have to assume a mortal veil, then. Dearest Thrax, do you prefer dark hair, or fair?”
His loud laugh blasted through whatever retort Malia had prepared. “My greatest respects to you, most divine goddess.” Genuine mirth bubbled in his eyes and rounded his cheeks. “What I say, I say in praise of your elegance and reputation. But you must forgive me, a simple mortal. I have my brother”—he thumped Hasda’s shoulder—“and I have spent enough time amongst snakes to know when I see a forked tongue. All due glory and honor to you, heavenly vixen. But I will not be snared within your den.”
He deftly ignored how he made her jaw drop by tucking an arm and giving me a seated bow. “Mighty warrior, much have I heard of you, and glad I am to be within your presence. Goddess Malia has oft spoken of your many accomplishments.”
I paused, my drink halfway to my lips. “Is that so?”
Malia diverted her eyes by glaring at Tarrha again
“So, how long have you been, er, under her wing?” I set my glass down. I’d prefer not to spray liquid everywhere being caught off guard by a stray phrase. Someone with the wit to immediately disarm Tarrha with backhanded compliments was bound to lay snares for unexpected laughter.
He gave me a smile as broad as his shoulders. “It has been many years since I was first greeted by a vision of her. She has blessed and prepared me for many perils, so that I may protect my people as we travel to new and wonderful lands.”
“And do you know why you're here now?”
“As the goddess wills, so I am here. I do not understand the whole of what has happened today”—he gestured at the gathered gods—“but I know my place, and it is to serve as Hasda's right hand as he seeks to save his own people, as he has already saved mine. For that, he is my brother.”
My face scrunched, and I had to purse my lips to keep from frowning. That wasn’t the talk of a champion, hopeful or former or otherwise. How, then, had Malia framed his role to him? And that final comment. Yet more history to catch up on.
“Oh? Hasda saved your people?” I wiped my mouth to cover my annoyance at missing Hasda’s heroic deed.
Thrax beamed. “It is as you say. He appeared in the midst of the Sleepless as a legend walking, wreathed in fire and sword aflame. At the sight of him the soulless fled, and he has driven them back every time since. They fear him.”
“You told me to try fire.” Malia gave me a sour look. “The undead gained a foothold in Frischii. Since I couldn't drive them out myself, I set Hasda on them. He handled them well.”
“Ah, so that’s what you meant by ‘training.’” I nodded to Thrax. “And you’ve been assisting Hasda in repelling the undead?”
“It is a simple thing, my aid to Hasda.” The man smiled broadly and thumped Hasda again. “While his fire keeps the Sleepless at bay, it does not consume them completely. He slays them, and I throw the bodies away so that they don’t hem him and overwhelm him. Even a god may be overcome with sufficient numbers.”
“He guards my flank as well,” Hasda said, grimacing a smile through Thrax’s heavy-handed appreciation. “And he’s been fantastic with the troops.”
“Ah, I am nowhere near the leader that you are.” Thrax took a deep drink before continuing. “Helming the host has never been a great strength of mine. Even before Hasda’s arrival, I served more as guide and vanguard for the caravans of Curnerein. It has been three years since I first entered Frischii, and the trade goes well.”
That didn’t sound like the talk of a champion, even one demoted to bodyguard. I gave Malia a look.
“I tried for years to get him to see the connection between trailblazing and captaining.” She shrugged. “Cultural inferiority complex from their association of stewardship with escorts.”
“So a glorified caravan mercenary?” I felt like I was missing something. While that would explain his lack of ambition and disgruntlement at being replaced as champion, it did nothing to shed light on why Malia had recruited him in the first place.
“He has a natural affinity for weapons.” Chin in hand, Malia tapped her lips. “Tell me, do you see the touch of any other god upon him?”
I frowned. “No?”
“So no blessings that you can sense.” She was setting up to reveal something, and enjoying herself in the process.
“Not unless they’ve been masked.”
“And I have yet to give him ambrosia.” Her fangs glistened in the afternoon sun. “When I found him, he was neck-deep in a sortie against kilt-clad kinsmen. Brow dry, laughing, and completely unfazed by the axe of pure celestial steel he wielded.”
“Let me see your hands.” Malia leaned back as I reached across to grip Thrax’s wrist. Neither palm was branded. Lined, calloused, and leathery, yes, but not a bit withered. His grip was firm, his forearm far from eroded. No sign whatsoever that he’d employed celestial steel.
He smiled as I let go. “The serpentine goddess reacted much the same when she first revealed herself to me.”
I tried not to frown too much as I sat back. “Where did you find celestial steel? What smith fashioned it for you?”
“It was a family heirloom.” He shook his head. “My father’s father did not know its origin, and only a vague rumor alluded to its heritage of faraway highlands.”
A hereditary resistance to celestial steel? Most mortals experienced extreme scarring on whichever limb employed the metal, and sudden madness in rarer cases. Even Hasda, with his exposure to Nebesa and direct, divine tutelage would still need ambrosia before he could wield a blade with an alloy diluting the metal to a sixteenth its full strength. No wonder Malia had picked him. A simple mortal swinging unadulterated celestial steel like a plaything—without succumbing to irrecoverable illness—was a remarkable thing indeed.
“You’ve felt nothing strange while using the axe?” I said. “No headaches, muscle convulsions, hallucinations?”
His white teeth filled his smile. “It is, if the mighty god will forgive my irreverence, like hearing an echo from years ago. These are much the same questions that the great goddess Malia asked of me.” He shook his head. “While the axe holds great familial significance, in battle it is as any other to me. That it resists the touch of thieves has been a boon, however, and has aided me in my service to the several trader trains that I have shepherded through the wilderness.”
“It would do that, yes.” I grunted. “So you and Hasda work well together?”
“Oh, yes, very well indeed.” It was a wonder his cheeks didn’t split from all the smiling he did. “He is a fantastic warrior and a good friend. But, if I must find fault, it is that his love of wrestling does not match mine.”
Hasda nodded. “I don’t think anyone does. This man would wrestle the clouds from the sky, if he could reach them, and no sickness could stand between him and a bout. The first time he challenged me, he was scratched up and shivering from wrangling a wild boar during a fall downpour.”
“I still won.” Thrax speared his meat and chewed it slowly.
“And you spent a week recovering because you couldn’t stop shaking afterwards.” Hasda gave him a look that was the spitting image of my own choice expression of reprimand.
It was strange, seeing how much Hasda had grown from the drooling toddler Malia had left on my doorstep. A competent commander with a dedicated, if detrimentally-driven, second, and a completing half keeping watch over their brood. And he approached the end of his Trials, poised to successfully conclude them. With Malia seemingly fully behind his ascent past demigodhood, it left me hopeful for his future.
Assuming, that is, we could beat the Sea Mother. And that was going to be a Trial unto itself.