Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
After collecting Thrax’s few possessions, mostly spare clothes and his celestial steel hammer, we met up with Malia and Hasda in my maas. Hasda wore his corrupted armor, though he looked far healthier than he had in months. The ugly purple weld remained but the djinn—Saran, if I remembered correctly—had muffled his aura. Surprisingly, the scabbard by Hasda’s side was bare. With how many practice swords he’d gone through, I’d have thought he’d want real steel in his hands again, but he didn’t even have a hunting knife in his belt.
Wings folded, Malia wore her War Bow strapped to her back. She glided across the flagstones, scales catching the early morning sunlight. Those weren’t the only things glistening, however. Her eyes had that scheming look again, and suddenly she was carrying a long, leather-swaddled bundle, a wineskin bouncing against her hip.
I paused, halfway through my portal. Thrax hadn’t noticed the change and went through without hesitating.
“Have my dashing looks left you starstruck again?” Malia flashed me a coy smile.
I grunted and snapped my portal shut. “The beacons of your eyes warn of an impending plot.”
Throwing her head back, she trilled a laugh that ended in another fang-filled smile. “Are my gifts truly so terrifying?”
“For those receiving them? Sometimes.” I grinned at her frown. “Who is the fortunate recipient this time?”
“Your verboseness lies near to mocking.” Sliding up to me, she snuck a kiss before turning to face Hasda, who’d followed her over. She set the bundle down and unfastened the wineskin. “The time has come.”
“Is that…?” I sniffed the air. Yep, definitely ambrosia.
“Don’t scowl like that.” She swatted my arm. “It’s diluted, and necessary for the second surprise.”
“What is it?” Hasda asked as Malia handed him the skin.
“Just taste it.” Malia gave him a reassuring smile.
Shrugging, Hasda raised the skin and downed the contents. His eyes watered a little, but he drank the whole without a fuss. When he finished, he wiped his mouth and handed the pouch back. “That was…strange. But not horrible.”
Malia and I waited for something to change.
No surge of power, no convulsions, no raving or foaming at the mouth. His muscles gained perhaps a hair of definition, but they didn’t inflate to ridiculous proportions. His abdomen likewise remained at its proper size and in its proper place.
I released a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Not that I thought he would react poorly to ambrosia, but there was always the chance that he was allergic. Most mortals could handle diluted ambrosia, regardless of whether they’d visited Nebesa before. Usually they would be healed of defects, handicaps, and recent injuries. Sometimes, however, their mortal frame became confused instead of rejuvenated, going into overdrive as it grew in unintended ways. These were very rare cases and easily reversible with a god present, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Hasda wasn’t even breathing hard. His training had conditioned him well, and I suspected the djinn’s influence had only increased his affinity for all things divine. A healthy glow permeated his skin, not enough to erase all of the paleness from his time with Saran and also not enough to make him literally luminescent. But his color returned. I hadn’t realized how much he’d lost until he got it back.
“Everything feel okay?” I smiled at his confused look. “No headaches? Double vision? Thick tongue?”
“It wasn’t poison, was it?” His eyes looked at the wineskin in disbelief. “My spine tingled a little, but that’s it. I thought it tasted fine, though.”
“That was mixed ambrosia.” Malia retrieved her bundle from the ground and slid next to Hasda. Looking him up and down, she nodded, satisfied that he’d handled the draught well. “Without it, this would steal your life force and permanently maim you.”
He had a stiffer spine than mine, not flinching away from the bundle as Malia disclosed its contents. Inside lay a silvery-blue blade, longer and thinner than a standard falcata, but less curved and not as wide. The cutting edges—half of the back and all of the front—had been sharpened to a fine point, and had scored the leather in several points as Malia had carried it. Phaeus had outdone himself on the curved hilt, substituting a serpent for the normal equestrian decoration. Something about the way the dwarf had crafted the ornamentation suggested a lamia, although I couldn’t put my finger on why I thought that until I realized that Phaeus had worked powdered green stone into the eyes: jade.
It was a worthy sword, most of all because it had been forged of an alloy of celestial steel. Its presence explained Malia’s insistence on the ambrosia before giving this gift.
As Hasda picked up the sword and admired its length, Malia said, “I had Phaeus fashion this with an alloy of mortal and celestial steel. You will find it more resilient than the blades you’ve been using, despite its lightness. Be wary, though. Even with only a quarter celestial steel, it will still drain you, so watch how fatigued you become while fighting with it.”
“It’s beautiful.” His eyes glistened. “Thank you.”
“As for you,” she continued, turning to Thrax, “my gift is far less flashy, but far more dangerous.” Dropping the leather, she revealed an ivory, plum-sized fruit. “Eat this in your time of greatest need, and only then. It will give you the strength of gods for a space, but it will tax you in mortal years for it. Don’t worry about misplacing it or carrying it with you, because it will be at hand when you have need of it.”
The burly man cupped it in his hands, bowing deeply. “The great goddess is too generous by far. I am humbled and deeply honored.”
Malia snorted. “Pray you are not deeply dead after you partake of it.”
I gave her a sideways look. “Where did you get a mushush? We razed every grove when we overthrew Seppo’s mother.”
“Every grove you found.” Her eyes sparkled. “And no, even if I let you waste my garden over it, you wouldn’t be able to exterminate the whole of the breed. I have eggs in other nests.”
That made me choke on my protest. “You laid another egg?”
Hissing, she smacked my shoulder. “I did no such thing. A turn of phrase, you thick-headed idiot.”
I grinned. “Well, if you haven’t, I could always help you make anoth—”
“Shut.” Putting a finger on my lips, she massaged the bridge of her nose. “Should’ve gotten you out of that bed earlier. Phemonoe was warned to keep your mind safe from fracturing, not brain rot.”
“Which reminds me.” I gave Hasda’s chestplate a stern look. “Djinn, we need to talk.”
A pair of eyes coalesced on the metal, the welt angled between them. “If you wish to chastise, I do not need to manifest to receive it.”
I shook my head. “Actually, I wanted to say that I appreciate whatever you’ve been doing. Hasda looks better than he has in a long time.”
Hasda opened his mouth to say something, but stopped. I wasn’t sure what that look was for, but he had a concerned look on his face.
The djinn’s eyes narrowed. “Ah, mockery. Well, I would appreciate being left to face such ridicule without my partial visage present.”
“You’re an ungrateful ass.” Malia snapped. “Charax does not lightly level praise, and you would do well not to spit in his face when he does.”
I set a hand on her arm. “What do you mean, mockery?”
The djinn rolled his eyes. “From where does his haleness hail? Bound by better than bond, which way do the scales balance?”
“Hasda?” I looked at him in askance.
He shrugged and rubbed his neck. “He has been withdrawing into the armor a lot, recently. He’s sick, or starving. I’m not sure what’s wrong.”
“Devoid of life, obstructed by oath, serving despite my sentence.” The djinn sounded hollow despite how full of bitterness he was.
“You can be obtuse in there or out here.” I folded my arms. “This is Hasda’s final Trial, so if you’re going to help him, you need to be in prime condition. And if you can’t, or won’t, I’ll keep you here so that he can focus fully.”
“Stupid, insolent, ignorant simpleton.” Saran came all the way out now, head, arms, and torso floating in front of Hasda. Practically a skeleton, his cheeks had deeply sunk, leaving his eyes bulging, and his peeled lips bared his teeth in a wasted leer. “How long have you meddled in the Sea Mother’s affairs, and you fail yet to grasp the significance of events dancing on your very eyelids?”
“Then explain it to me.”
“It is not that I am bound to armor which makes me what I am.” He thrust an angry finger at the warted metal. “How could you have pulled me from the killing field, and not realized?” He sneered, shaking his head. “Tuzshu were more than warriors because of the djinn they bonded with. Without their warriors, the tuzshu were incomplete, a half-form, yet without the djinni the tuzshu could not be.” He barked a laugh. “And I am tuzshu, through and through.”