Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Shortly after Hasda’s decision, we embarked on our journey through the maas to his final Trial. A few dry, sandy maas and Tarrha’s, which was surprisingly aquatic, later and we entered the final maas before Frischii. Like the land beyond, the maas was smeared with forests, swamps, and humidity that thickened the air with oppressive heat. Thankfully, none of the gnats that would plague us on exit lived within the maas system, but the condensation that beaded our skin was certainly unwelcome.
Curnerein delivered on the midges and mosquitoes as soon as the portal opened. We came out to the south of Kirunadh, the northernmost village of Frischii. It was a village besieged, surrounded by a pike-filled moat and wooden walls that ended in the moat’s embankments. Staves had been into the ground near the edge of the outside ring, angled away from the moat, and several held decapitated, gray-skinned corpses impaled upon them. Despite the heat and bright sun, the archers in the watchtowers burned torches in easy reach.
What people we saw foraging outside the village wandered with eyes as dead as the land felt. No furtive movements, no cautious glances over their shoulders as they checked for an undead swarm. They’d passed beyond jaded to utterly numb.
In contrast, the soldiers drilling on the fields seemed lively, almost excited. Their movements snapped, practice swords and staves cracking against each other with enthusiasm. Sandaled feet bounced on the springy ground, tunics glued to sides by sweat and muggy air.
Distinct from both groups was the man who stood a few spans from the village gate. When he saw us, he stumped over with his staff, a scowl crinkling the sweat on his face. Bowing, he revealed a bald patch in his otherwise full, dark hair. “It is good that you have returned, Lord Hasda. And greetings, to his gods. Your arrival is a welcome and blessed event.”
“A blessing upon you, Master Salason, and a pox upon this accursed heat.” Malia fanned herself with a wing. “What news have you? Has the Weeping Queen shown herself?”
The man shook his head. “We have tried to contact the Sivariians, but they stay in their swamps. Rumors say Vythar has settled with the Elthiians after his brother Oophan’s death, but the Stitcher still holds Balphar’s Hall. The Sleepless still come but, ever since Hasda repelled them, they have kept no camp on our side of the Fyrisard.” He coughed. “Is this plague finally to be ended?”
“Very soon.” Malia gave him a reassuring smile. “Our heroes have rested and prepared, and before summer’s end Frischii shall be free of the soulless.”
“Not before the Trial begins,” Kydon rumbled.
We all jumped a little. No one had seen the half-troll arrive, and his portal hadn’t given him away. He must have figured out a way to cloak it. I’d ask him about it later.
“You aren’t going to commence it immediately?” I turned to face the grinning ogre.
“You would give me free rein over the finer details?” His toothy smile was almost a leer.
“Of course not,” Malia snapped. Her wings beat the air in agitation, both at the Arbiter and the weather. “What did you have in mind?”
“I must search the Trial grounds for any gifts you might have hidden.” Kydon scanned our surroundings, as if he could already see a handful of concealed stashes. “But, as I understand that the land across the river is held by the Stitcher, anything stockpiles you’ve laid beyond it shall be permitted.”
“Only beyond? What of those within?” Her eyes sparkled at his frown.
“If it is within the Frischiian banks, then no. The banks shall terminate at the point where Hasda’s knees are hidden by the waters of the Fyrisard.”
Malia nodded. “It is acceptable. What gods are barred from direct involvement?”
“Only you and Charax, who are limited to advising your champion during the Trials and withdrawing him if you fear for his life, as is tradition.” His eyes narrowed. “Although my gut says that your proxies should be disbarred as well. You know how your hands are tied by the rules of the Trial, and that other gods may meddle as they wish. Why, then, would you ask now?”
A ghost of a smile flitted across her lips. “No reason.”
“I heard about how you released Vetor in Tingid.” The ogre folded his arms. “So, as Peklo falls within your jurisdiction, I must add that the souls of fallen legends, though not divine, strictly speaking, constitute divine puppets, and therefore direct extensions of you. Please refrain from unleashing any upon this Trial.”
“As much as I’d like to contest that, fine.” She pursed her lips.”And the gifts on this side which you fail to discover?”
“I will find them.” Kydon bared his teeth and flexed his muscles, drawing his shoulders up. “Three days, and then the Trial will commence. You may finish your preparations while I search.”
“Hope you enjoy your surprise. I picked it especially just for you.” She gave him an innocent smile.
Scowling, the Arbiter said nothing as he stumped off.
The village elder clasped his hands and bowed slightly. “All is well?”
“As well as it may be, Master Salason. But this heat withers me.” She flurried her wings. “I will retire to my dwelling. It is still furnished, I hope?”
He nodded vigorously. “It is as you left it, great goddess, but I fear that we have no abode prepared for your fellow pantheoner. The village is small, as you have well seen from your time among us, and with the attacks—”
“That’s quite all right,” Malia said, cutting him off with a flick of her hand. “My mate requires no separate quarters.”
“I am relieved.” And he was. He stood a little straighter, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
“If you’ll excuse us, we’ll be taking a reprieve in our accommodations. We’ve a few days before we begin in earnest, and I must bring my husband abreast of the events at hand.” Curling a wing around me, she ushered us towards the village. Glancing over her shoulder, she dismissed Hasda and Salason in the same breath, the former to the troops and the latter to whatever business he had to be about. Thrax trotted in Hasda’s wake as the pair made their way to the field, and the elder disappeared amongst the foragers.
Despite the rustic aesthetic, Kirunadh had a drawbridge of sturdy oak, raised and lowered by braided ropes. The path outside the village was spongy although well-beaten, but inside the town the ground was harder packed, mud mingled with dust and hay. I wasn’t sure where they’d gotten the straw from, because it didn’t match the wild grass that grew in the area, but it served to keep the village from being a mud pit within the walls.
Our tabernacle looked no different from the wooden huts the mortals inhabited, save perhaps for its height and the twiggy wreath on the lintel that might have been a gorgon’s head. Two gray stones hung where eyes might be, thin sticks for fangs, and scattered feathers intertwined in the circle, though not clustered in wings.
Malia pushed the thin wooden door open and ushered me inside with a flourish. Heat blasted from within as the trapped air escaped outside. Within was a simple bed, rough table, and a wardrobe that was little more than boards nailed together.
“This is it? I’m surprised you haven’t plastered war plans floor to ceiling.” I ducked through the doorframe and straightened. While the door was too short, the ceiling was high enough that I could stand comfortably.
Chuckling, Malia slipped in behind me, her wings the only thing too tall for the frame. “Since the Stitcher is Hasda’s responsibility, there’s been nothing to do but repel and defend. Such a simple existence has required little planning.”
“Right.” I gave her a look, although she didn’t see it since she was rummaging in the wardrobe. “And what gifts did you leave for Hasda this time? And Kydon?”
She snorted a laugh as she brought out a map and spread it on the table. “Now there’s a surprise.”
I came up behind her and hugged her, careful of her wings. “Care to share?”
“He’s going to waste three days looking for something that’s not there.” She settled back into me with a contented hum. “And yes, I’m serious. No gifts, no surprises, no secret stashes.”
“Are you okay?” I put my hand to her forehead. “Are you ill? Residual effects from that plague god’s poison?”
She was so pleased with herself she was practically purring. “Kydon doesn’t know about my garden, so those are free game. Not to mention that others may move in our stead without violating the rules of the Trial.” Sighing, she leaned forward to absently tap the map. “But Hasda has grown independent, and he’ll be more satisfied finishing this Trial on his own, as much as he can. I won’t move unless absolutely necessary, so his glory isn’t soured. However…”
Her eyes flashed as she looked up at me. “I’m going to enjoy irritating the fire out of that stupid oaf when he comes up empty-handed. Not all gifts are corporeal. I wonder how long it will take him to realize?”
“You’re diabolical.” I kissed the top of her head.
She giggled. “‘Effortless’ and ‘thoughtless’ are no twins, though they can be companions.”
A horn sounded somewhere in the compound.
“The last player on the stage.” Her fangs peeked out as she smiled. “Come, let’s see the Sleepless. We can discuss the lay of the land later.”