Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I scowled at the djinn. “You’re still talking in circles. Hasda, does this make any sense to you?”
“No,” he began, but the djinn cut him off.
“Of course he doesn’t understand. He never thought to ask.” Saran sneered.
Sighing, I reached for the djinn. Hissing, he jerked back, half submerging himself in the armor. Keeping my fingers within snatching distance, I gave him a level stare. “Straight answers, or I will pull you from the armor and put you to earth. What are you babbling about?”
The djinn watched my fingers, like a serpent entranced. “You know nothing of the various kinds of spirits, as you proved by binding me to armor. I am of the tuzshu, who are incomplete without a mortal host. When warrior and spirit become one, their union culminates in a perfected being—a tuzshu.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’ve deteriorated so much.” I pulled my arm back and put it around Malia as she slid next to me.
“Because you have sworn me to starvation with your oaths.” A look of pure disgust filled its face. “Even the lowest nirarin would not have been so stupid.”
Malia stirred. “Nirarin?”
“The oath-holders.” The djinn’s laugh was mocking. “What? You thought the ancients let their god-killers run loose?”
“That doesn’t make sense.” I scowled at the djinn. “If the tuzshu djinn were bound by oaths before, why are you starving now? You swore an oath even from the first day we knew you.”
“Because,” the djinn hissed, “you have prevented me, at every step, from fulfilling the completion of the bond. I am a drifting half, forced to restrain myself to the point of extinction by the vows levied upon me. But even a faded existence is better than total annihilation.”
I frowned. There was always the possibility that the djinn was bluffing, or had outright fabricated everything, but then again, he could be telling the truth. I had never pressed the djinn about the exact nature of his bond with Hasda. If theirs was an assimilative bond, then it might have progressed to the point where the djinn would have to pull back to maintain the same level of symbiosis as before. But he hadn’t deteriorated so after the second time I’d confronted him.
Unless this was what two years had done to him since then.
I shook my head as my scowl returned. “What happens when the union completes?”
“We become full-fledged tuzshu, able to move as one.” The djinn sounded cautious, as if it wanted to reveal as little as possible.
“Can you fulfill the bond without Hasda losing himself?” I remembered the look in his eyes as he’d battled with djinn fire engulfed armor, and the lack of Hasda in that look. “Is it permanent?”
“Loss? The birth of a tuzshu is a glorious thing.” Saran did his best to sound reserved, but he couldn’t keep the excitement from his voice. “It is a metamorphosis of the soul. How to describe it to one who could never experience it? While we remain distinct, during battle we become as one. ‘Losing yourself.’” The djinn spat. “How crass. Battle frenzy is a poor metaphor for the harmony that is a tuzshu consumed in conflict. It is an unparalleled ecstasy, permeated wholly by each other, every sense alert, every thought heightened near divine. Nothing can match a tuzshu in battle except, perhaps, the gods themselves.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Malia said coolly. “Given that the purpose of the tuzshu was to overthrow and slay the gods.”
“And that is why they were constrained by the nirarin,” Saran snapped. “Our oaths kept us from moving against the pantheon that had bound us, as Charax, despite his ignorance, has managed to do. I can no more move against a single Carthian deity than I can complete the tuzshu bond with Hasda.”
Malia tugged at my robes and motioned me aside. Leaning close, she whispered, “I talked to Jade about the tuzshu. They followed the Sea Mother, not the Paedens. But, the Paedens were able to bring them down from within, and a faction served against the elder goddess.” She jerked her head towards the djinn. “We could use him. Especially if the Sea Mother is in Batavii.”
“And risk Hasda?” I shook my head. “I don’t trust that this is just a ‘transcendent state’ they can assume and drop at will.”
Malia folded her arms and flicked her wings. “Given Phe’s portents, I think it’s a risk worth taking.”
“Given exactly what she said, he’d as likely emerge maimed as unscathed.” I met her glare with my own. “This is the last Trial. I don’t want to jeopardize him or his chances of success by introducing any unknowns, particularly one as volatile as this.”
“Why don’t you let him decide?” Her eyes flashed.
I blinked. “What?”
Snakes slithering, she poked my shoulder. “He’s been with Saran for years now. Perhaps he knows more about this djinn and the nature of their bond than you do.” Smiling, she gave me one of those adoring looks meant to disarm. “You’re being protective, which is admirable and one of the things I love about you, but you can’t protect him forever.”
“That doesn’t mean I need to let him stick his hand in a hornet’s nest to see if he’s allergic.”
“Confronting a hostile god sits at the center of his final Trial.” She laughed. “What better way to protect him than to let him protect himself?” Her smile faded, her face serious. “The god-killers weren’t just a part of why the Paedens successfully overthrew Tamiyat, they were integral to it. We will have to confront her eventually, and we may need Hasda’s help. I have done my best to position us so that we can handle her when she arrives in full strength, but…” She shrugged. “We’ll need every weapon in our armory.”
I let out a long sigh. She had a point. Once Hasda became a champion, Malia and I could only shepherd him so much. Even less so if…once he became a minor god. And I had to admit that what power the two, working in tandem, had already displayed was impressive.
“All right.” I frowned. “But I don’t have to like it.”
She smiled as she took my arm and dragged me back over to Thrax and Hasda, who had moved next to the fountain, admiring the mushush Malia had gifted Thrax. The djinn floated behind them, watching me warily.
“Come here, lad.” I waved him over, trying to keep the sadness out of my voice. It still sounded heavy, even to me.
With a glance to Thrax, he walked up to us. “Yes?”
“That…djinn of yours. Do you trust it?”
He tilted his head. “Well, I know you mistrust him, but he’s proved himself reliable.”
“Then I’ll leave the decision up to you. Djinn.” I snapped my fingers at the spirit. “I’m relinquishing you of the binding preventing you from completing the bond, but it is Hasda’s decision to finish the process.”
The djinn’s eyes flickered, and he sank into the armor with a small smile. “You are too kind.”
Hasda looked troubled. “Should I?”
“It is your decision now.” I patted his shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.”
“Yes, but…” He frowned. “What would you suggest? I would appreciate your advice.”
That set a bonfire of pride in my heart. Absolutely beautiful child.
“Proceed with caution, and do not lose yourself in or to it. I don’t trust this spirit, and I would watch everything it says for a hidden third, or fourth, meaning.” Sighing, I folded my hands together, rubbing my palm with my thumb. “But, I must admit that the road ahead will be full of hardships and enemies pitched against you. You may have need of such power in your upcoming Trial, and almost certainly after that. If you can conclude your Trials without it, that would be best, but it may not be possible.”
He nodded. “And you? What do you think, Malia?”
“I would have joined with the djinn from the first.” She hugged my arm with a smile. “But your father is right. Sometimes caution is the best expedient. While I am the better hunter between us, he’s found two snares with his wariness that I did not.”
“Thrax?” His voice held no uncertainty as he asked.
The big man folded his arms and hummed. “I think, perhaps, your celestial parents have found themselves with a dragon hatchling, when they thought they had a lizard.”
“So you would advise against it?” Hasda glanced at his armor.
Thrax shook his head. “What better wisdom could you ask for than that of the heavens? They bid you be vigilant, but do not forbid that which they now leave open to you. So I would follow the path they have shown with eyes wide open.”
Rubbing his chin, Hasda nodded slowly. “Then I will wait, until I can wait no more. But I will have to discuss the process with Saran, so I know what to do before the heat of battle.”