Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Waking up to a faceful of rain was not the way I wanted to rise from my after-celebration stupor.
Hasda and Thrax had recounted their skirmishes against the Stitcher’s undead, and how they planned to strike into Batavii before the Stitcher found a counter to the djinn. When Jade arrived late in the evening, after being relieved of hydra duty by Phemonoe, she and Hasda had spirited themselves away for some alone time before his Trial. Tarrha had gotten to Thrax shortly thereafter, since a group of minor gods had thronged him in Hasda’s absence and the love goddess found them an excellent smokescreen from Malia. I wasn’t sure she’d gotten away completely unseen, but Malia was rather engrossed with Phaeus at the time, debating the particulars of the alloy he’d smithed Hasda’s newest swords from. Others had paired off as Ulti crept off to dance across the night sky, Malia and I staying to talk with Seppo about officially integrating Frischii, Batavii, and the other territories in Curnerein.
Thoughts of such logistical problems fled as Resef stormed into the hall, dripping wet. Not angrily, but chased by dark thunderheads. If he was manifesting a tempest, then the contest for the Great Sea was not going in his favor.
Seppo jerked awake mid-snore. “Eh, what’s all this?”
“My apologies, Seppo.” Resef’s thick hair clung to his forehead as rivulets striped his face. “I held out as long as I could, but the time has come. We need your trireme.”
“Can’t handle your one domain?” Malia shielded herself beneath her wings, resting her head on her arms.
“The Paedens will never claim the Sea, so long as I remain.” His eyes clouded like the sky outside. “But I cannot rebuff them and defend our ships at the same time. Even with Synnefo’s return, they are gaining leagues. Their sea goddess fields more and more derketo against us, and if I whip the waters so that they drown, I capsize as many of our fleet.” He shook his head. “Their goddess is slippery. It’s hard to keep her at bay for long.”
“And none of your creatures have been of help?” Seppo was standing by this point, and half turned to start pacing, despite the rain.
Resef shook his head. “What derketo we had have defected to their Paeden brethren. Every battle sees the poccahm’s numbers dwindle, and the derketo have learned to avoid their screams. And the hithicahm cannot roam uncontested. I don’t know if it’s Paeden or something more ancient, but a divine chimera that’s part otter, part shark lurks in the depths and chases the heels of the hithicahm unseen. I cannot contain it while fighting the Paedens.”
The hithicahm was Resef’s divine beast, a powerful monster with a piscine horse for its upper body and fully fish behind. Its descendents, the poccahm, had traded the equestrian head for that of a seal, their hooves for webbed claws. Called sea wolves by our mortals, they had a hypersonic cry that could boil the ocean and shred the skin of anything caught in the jetstream. In the past, they’d been our foil to the derketo, but the Paeden’s aquatic beasts finally adapting to ours meant the battlefield was leveling.
Malia stirred, hunger creeping into her eyes. “A new divine beast?”
“While I would appreciate your help, I would not draw you from your champion’s Trial.” Resef wrung the base of his shirt, more a nervous habit than to dry it, as the rain showed no signs of lessening. The few straggling minor gods, roused by his storm, scurried out of the feasting hall after collecting their things. The Sea God paid them no mind as they left. “Seppo, I hate to sound ungrateful, but Synnefo has been of little use. He is oft lost in his own thoughts, and what tempests he raises against the Paedens feel…half the strength of those Zephyrus could manage. It is as if his heart isn’t in the defense.”
“He has always kept to himself.” Seppo stumped back and forth, displacing a few small puddles that had formed on the floor. “Very well. Recall what mortals you can and I will launch. Charax, you and Malia should collect your, er, fosterlings and head to Frischii. Kydon went ahead of you last night and awaits your arrival.”
“I’ll get Thrax.” Malia pushed herself off the table.
I caught her arm. “I’ll get Thrax. You collect Hasda.”
“I have spent more time with Thrax.” Malia gave me a cool look. “And I’d rather not disturb Hasda if he’s presently involved with Jade.”
“Then knock before you enter.” I met her scowl with a grin. “You’d have no qualms about walking in on Thrax. No picking fights right before we’re supposed to leave. Besides, don’t you have surprises to prepare? Kydon already has a head start on weeding them out.”
I wasn’t sure if she’d directed that at me or the Arbiter but, given the way her snakes writhed around each other as she left, it likely included us both. It was strange. Malia was rarely possessive of her champions. True, she didn’t like others meddling, but she never gave up the opportunity to create indebtedness or favorable advances. Tarrha must have done something to piss her off if she was passing on a banked favor. While I had no plans to pry, I did want to get to know Thrax a little better before we arrived. And leaving Malia to ambush Tarrha would be a poor way to lose Hasda’s bodyguard.
Tarrha’s temple, however, held no gods. Incense from supplicants and her host of suggestively-clad priests filled the halls, but the goddess had left sometime in the early morning. The priests were unsure if Thrax had accompanied her the night before, but she’d departed by herself. I thanked them and went in the direction they indicated.
A few streets later, I entered the agora. Less a marketplace and more an open-air parlor, the agora was ringed by steps that dualed as reclining seats. Four fountains formed a square in the plaza, water dancing with bubbles and nymphs. A bonfire roared in the center, salamanders, spirits, and phoenixes roosting in the logs. Minor gods mingled with leafy dryads and thick-furred satyrs. And yet, Tarrha was not among the scattered groups. But the soldiers I saw gave me an idea.
Dipping my head at the various greetings, I made my way to a side well that led to a nearby training grounds. Though not the facilities that Seppo’s elites used, it nevertheless had a considerable array of arenas and courses for the celestial troops. Wooden observatory towers rose into the sky, spaced irregularly around the training pits. It’d been a good few centuries since I’d last climbed one, but I could still feel the grain of the rungs on my palms.
Thrax was, of course, in the middle of one sparring pit, surrounded by bare-chested warriors. While they’d stripped down to leather skirts, Thrax wore what could charitably be called a loin cloth. Six on one, he had a stave to their swords, they with shields and he without. His scar-pocked skin glistened with sweat, but he smiled broadly, his breathing unlabored.
The crack of wood on wood filled the air. Thrax whirled the staff, repulsing the pair on his flank while pressing against the two in front. One chopped on his left as another thrust from his right, but he bent like a willow and dodged. Grabbing the downward stroke, he flipped the soldier over his shoulder and threw him into the one striking low. Dust flew as the soldiers picked themselves up and reformed their ring.
Thrax moved with a grace that belied his size. Fire-side stories loved that phrase, bards relishing the thrill of a massive warrior who could move with speed. It’s easy to forget what that actually means in practice. In that ring, Thrax carried himself like a lion. Poised, wary, coiled power. Sure footsteps. Quick, yet solid, strikes. He could handle himself and then some with ease.
He hadn’t quite attracted a crowd, but his performance had garnered quite a bit of attention. Several of the observatory towers were occupied, the nearest with Tarrha peering over the edge. She must have felt my gaze, because she gave me a sour frown, mouthed ‘he will be mine,’ and then vanished, teal portal flaring behind her.
I shook my head. That woman. Thrax’s position was awkward enough without her throwing contention into the mix. When a candidate had been claimed by a god, no other deity could bind them. Support them, yes, and shower them with gifts, but the preeminent patronage belonged to the god who’d named the champion as their own. Normally, this was because a candidate’s failure resulted in their untimely end, and if they survived a Trial they failed to pass, they would be released to the mortal realm to live out the rest of their days in peace.
However, Thrax inhabited that strange space of transition. In the off-chance that a retiring god had a champion hopeful, they would either be gifted to the new god or taken with the old as a priest. Malia was neither, welcoming back an old partner and merging her current Office with one she’d once held. Instead of relinquishing Thrax, she’d retained him. While he seemed happy with his demotion, I couldn’t trust such affability would remain, no matter what he thought of Hasda. Human hearts were fickle things.
Such thoughts swirled around my head as he finished his sparring and joined me outside the pits. His smile was broad and genuine, and I hated to lay such mistrust at his feet. But I would watch him, during this final Trial, and make sure he hid no guile. Malia’s about face was a recent development. Her hidden scheming tendencies tended to rub off on her followers.
For Hasda’s sake, I hoped Thrax was as honest as he seemed.