Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The Elthiian girl, whose name turned out to be Nika, protested being carried until her stomach quaked and her arms shook. Then she sank down in Kydon’s arms and glowered at him for the rest of the trip. We split after crossing the bridge, the Arbiter to find a place to rest and feed Nika, and I to find her errant kavak.
Malia started tugging on our bond almost as soon as I was through the gate. It didn’t take long to find her and the strange scene she’d created.
Charred Sleepless lay scattered across the street, steam rising from their inert forms. Blemishes dotted the swathes of decay that Malia had inflicted on the village earth, the aftermath of her gaze sweeping back and forth over the deformed undead. Most of the huts seemed to have survived her rage, although a crack fissured the flaky dirt of the dwelling nearest her. Her wings shivered with rage, but not at the corpses.
Hasda opposed her, one arm wrapped around the neck of the kavak, his other hand stroking its long bill. The djinn fire was banked, and the angry welt of his mended chestplate was already buried beneath a thick layer of ash. He made soothing sounds to the stork as he met Malia’s glare.
Not quite between them, Thrax stood with one hand on Hasda’s shoulder and the other stretched out to Malia. His axe hung at his side, its head crusted with blood and bits of gore. While his stance was defensive, he dipped his head in deference to my wife.
“This yours?” Malia snarled out of the side of her mouth as I approached.
Frowning, I slowed to a walk. “We found a half-starved Elthiian girl. That’s hers.”
“This…creature nearly killed Hasda.”
“He was just excited.” Hasda tightened his grip, shielding the stork. “I told you, he said my chestplate smelled exactly like the ore in his dreams.”
Carefully, I slid next to Malia and put a hand on her arm as I parsed what Hasda had said. It’d been a while since I’d last heard of him exercising his ability as a Beast Whisperer, able to talk to any animal, but he’d probably done so quite a bit with his hydras while I was recovering. What we knew of the kavaks were that they scented mineral deposits beneath the earth, not refined and fashioned metals. Our information could easily have been incomplete, given how few peoples and pantheons produced them.
However, the kavaks were a mortal, if magical, breed. They weren’t divine beasts. They had no legends associating them with fate or foretelling. They certainly didn’t dream of distant lands and unknown alloys. But the way Hasda spoke of the bird’s dream gave it an air of prophecy, which got my hackles up.
“Hasda, why did the kavak dream about the metal in your chestplate?” I watched the bird shiver beneath his grip.
“He wasn’t sure.” Hasda kept stroking the long beak, his eyes never leaving Malia’s. “It felt important, though. Like its presence was necessary for Elthiia’s survival, and its absence would lead to its downfall.”
I gave Malia’s arm a light squeeze. “What else is bothering you about this bird?”
“Celestial steel coats its beak,” she spat. “Impurely, but the alloy is there. I heard the metal sing when it struck his armor.”
“And it’s not divine?” From what I could see, the metal sheathing its beak was mostly silver, veins of iron spiderwebbing the lighter metal. Maybe Malia could sense something that I couldn’t, but I hadn’t felt any godly aura from the kavak before. Now was no different, either.
She shook her head and watched it as if she expected it to explode in Hasda’s arms. “I don’t like that ash.”
I frowned at the dust. It felt like normal ash to me, as normal as fire-free, avian ash could, but symbols could be finicky in an infant realm or a pantheon in chaos. The fact that this was the second unusual use of ash should have tipped me off sooner. While the kavak had never been historically tied to a deity, nothing prevented them from evolving or being adopted by one.
Sacred animals were elevated by a god’s favor, but not so much that they transcended the mortal realm. The fact that the kavak were already imbued with magic would enhance any boons granted to them, but not to the degree that they became divine beasts—only the most outstanding creature would have the pull needed to rise above its kind to that level, for those who were not the only ones in existence. If the Weeping Queen had linked the storks to her iconography via the ash, then the flakes should at least give off some indication of her influence.
And yet, they did not. Perhaps the ash wasn’t even hers. Not all of what had tainted her swamp had been the cremated remains of her divine family, but she’d hoarded it all. Consumed it, while the kavak freely gave. The symbolism opposed each other, and not in a way that showed a direct contradiction, more an aversion to coupling. It was a tenuous connection at best, and without the Weeping Queen plainly manifesting her association with the storks, it wasn’t one I could make. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was there, and it was likely the same intuition that had Malia so ruffled.
When I mentioned the potential link to Malia, she folded her arms and narrowed her eyes at the kavak. “It should be hers, but it’s not. I don’t like it.”
The bird clicked its bill beneath Hasda’s hand.
“He doesn’t like you either.” Hasda struggled with the stork as it tried to wrestle out of his grip. “That was the polite translation.”
“He’ll like me a lot less when I pluck his scrawny hide and reclaim that celestial metal he has no right to.” Her voice was cool, with a brittle winter bite beneath it.
I nudged her. “Let’s let Hasda calm the bird without antagonizing it more. He can learn what it knows while we go see how Kydon is treating the Elthiian girl.” Pulling her away from the bird, I gave Hasda a look. “See if you can stable the bird somewhere while we’re gone.”
Still grumbling and glaring daggers, Malia let me drag her from the scene. Thrax looked awkwardly between us and Hasda, so I waved for him to follow. Falling in behind us, he set about scrubbing his axe clean while we walked. The Sleepless flesh was unusually sticky, clinging worse than tar to the metal.
Villagers shuffled through the streets as we passed, carting out the dead and undead. Unlike the Sivariians, the Frischiian numbness didn’t leave them unresponsive, and one was able to point the way to the hut where Kydon had taken the Elthiian girl. That section of the village had seen less action than the rest, and the hut itself was nearly untouched from the incursion, save a streak of ash on its front wall.
Skirting in front of Malia, I opened the door and stuck my head in. To my surprise, Kydon stood in the center of the room, towering over the girl, with the biggest grin on his face. Scowling, the girl glared at him like Malia’s pupil. Her clothes looked even dirtier inside, the gray almost overtaking the green, and she sat surrounded by a puddle of ash. An empty bowl lay beside her, the food residue disguised by more ash.
“What’s got you all excited?” I asked as I ducked through the doorway.
He uncrossed his arms and opened his hand, exposing a small, obsidian dagger. “She tried to stab me.”
“You?” I glanced between the pair. Even if she stood on the tips of her toes, I wasn’t sure her head would reach Kydon’s hips. His arms were thicker than her shoulders were broad. It was comical how much he dwarfed her, not to mention the divine disparity.
Malia tucked her wings as she slithered in, measuring the girl with a look. “Not a speck of power in her. Are you sure this tiny little thing managed to get all the way from Elthiia to here by herself?”
“She has tenacity.” If ever a rumble could purr, Kydon demonstrated it now. I’d never seen him so happy.
Malia gave him a surprised look. “I didn’t know you were looking for a champion.”
“Not quite.” The ogre grinned and held the dagger, hilt out, to the girl. “But I admire the strength of her spirit.”
Nika snatched it and slid the blade beneath her cloak. “You mock me.”
“Child, do you know what he is?” Malia gestured at our arbiter. “A half-troll, half-ogre—but full-blooded—Carthian deity. You’d have more success pushing over a tree. And you,” she said, circling to the right, “are an unblessed mortal of no seeming consequence, save for your avian companion.” Her eyes locked on the girl’s. “Tell me about him.”
“I think not. And I’m not a child.” Nika glared back at Malia.
Flicking her wings, Malia leaned down to be level with the girl. “You think too highly of yourself and your abilities. Confidence is admirable, child, but stupidity will get you killed.”
“Your skin is softer than his.” The black blade flashed, back in her hand again.
Malia chuckled. “I think you’ll find my hide harder to skin. But that was not a threat, young one.” She tipped her head towards the empty bowl. “We have sheltered and fed you, and will continue to do so as long as you need to recover. We will even provide you an escort, if needed, when you return to your home.”
“You would follow, and steal the secret of our Cika.” She scowled at Malia and kept her dagger out.
Malia frowned and righted herself. “Well, that was my honey. Would you like the vinegar?”
I put a hand on her arm. “Let’s…” I trailed off, glancing around the room. Someone was missing. “Where’s Thrax?”