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The Many Gifts of Malia--Part 120: "The Eve"

by dragonfphoenix

Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.

The rest of the day passed swiftly beneath a haze of unease as Hasda’s warriors prepared to embark at daybreak. Thrax led most of the preparations, Nika trailed him like a lost puppy around the compound, and Malia tailed them both. Maybe Hasda would have been better served assisting Thrax, but I wasn’t going to let this last secure respite go to waste. Phemonoe had more or less assured his safety through this final Trial, but not even she had seen a certain fate beyond that.

So I dragged him away from tending the kavak under the pretense of a final bit of training.

His quarter-part celestial steel sword looked good in his hands, and the blade flowed smoothly as he went through the various stances and forms. I tested his balance and reflexes with a blunted sword that the village smith assured me wouldn’t crumple in my grip. Not like I’d be putting my full weight behind my strokes, but at least the metal didn’t buckle when I squeezed the grip.

Before we sparred in earnest, I also had him test his connection with the blade. Despite the ambrosia he’d consumed, he couldn’t do more than sense a faint tingling in the metal. When he’d risen closer to divine, he’d be able to imbue the blade with his power, so it was a further concern how mortal he still remained. But he was able to sheath the blade in djinn fire, which crackled like a burning log when it came in contact with the alloy.

Immaterial limits probed, we switched back to the physical. A few questing strikes, and we fell into a comfortable rhythm.

“You need to keep your wits about you once you’re across the river.” I grunted as he caught my overhead strike and turned the blade. A quick reverse sent him dancing back. “We haven’t been able to gather any information about the Stitcher, other than the Sleepless likely have some level of independence. So grabbing the Staff won’t keep the undead off your back.”

“That would explain why they’ve been able to deploy maneuvers while attacking the village.” He parried another strike and swept at my feet.

Right. He’d been here, fighting the undead, while I was recovering from my injuries. Dodging his sweep, I cracked down on his sword hard enough to nearly rattle it from his hands. “As soon as you reach the other riverbank tomorrow morning, the Trial begins and our hands become tied. If you’re overwhelmed, I can pull you out, but you’ll fail the Trial.”

He disengaged and circled left. “I’ll be okay, Dad. Thrax and Saran will be with me as well, and my men have proved themselves against the Sleepless this past year. I have every faith in their ability.”

“Even so, they’re still mortals. As are you.” I cut off his flank by pressing the attack. He caught a few of my strikes, but my sudden reverse slipped through and rapped his ribs.

Panting, he rested on his sword and smiled. “This isn’t goodbye. Unless you’re going somewhere after the Trial?”

I scowled. “I’m not.”

“Great. Because I’m going to need your help learning how to lead an army.” His smile broadened. “That’s a little bigger than village defenders.”

“It might not be goodbye, but it’s still an end.” I sighed, trying not to show how much I sagged rather than rested on my own sword. “It has been a while since I last raised a champion. No matter the century, it never gets easier. Especially since so many mistake their celebratory torch for a funeral pyre.”

Lifting his sword, he shifted to my right. “The only pyres in my future will be cleansing the earth of the undead.”

I grunted and swung my sword up as well. “I’ll hold you to that.”

We went through a few more forms, Hasda keeping pace quite nicely despite the length of our sparring session. Our rhythm flowed, metal kissing metal at a constant tempo. When he stumbled, however, I pulled my strike. It wasn’t like him to suddenly lose focus. He looked northward, frowning.

“Perhaps we’ve trained enough.” I’d have thought he wanted to watch the sunset, if not for the direction he gazed.

“I felt something strange.” His frown deepened. “It was faint, but it felt large, for how far away it was.”

My sword clanged against the ground as I dropped it out of habit. Only my celestial weapon vanished when I did that. I shot the steel a frown. “What kind of feeling?”

“Almost like the hydra, but…” He shook his head, sheathing his own blade. “It was tainted, somehow. And not quite as uniform. If that amphora I broke had a spirit, it would probably feel like this.”

I raised an eyebrow at his back. “The one when you were six?”

He grinned over his shoulder at me. “So it was your favorite.”

“It was the most convenient one. I had to get a new one from the village.” I scowled at his laugh. “That’s besides the point. How far away do you think this shattered spirit is?”

“Hard to say. Much farther than any of the patrols I’ve taken have traveled.” He stared off into the distance for a moment, then jumped as his stomach rumbled. “It’s almost time for dinner.”

“That it is.” I patted his shoulder as we started back to the village. “I’ll have your mother check the riverbank before nightfall. Until sunrise, we can do at least that much.” He was smiling at me strangely. “What?”

“That’s the first time you’ve called her that.”

I frowned. “It was?”

He nodded. “I was wondering if you ever would. Been waiting almost forty years to hear it.”

I stumbled but quickly caught myself. Ambrosia wouldn’t de-age him that quickly. “You’re barely thirty-five. Don’t be in such a rush to become old.” Sighing, I shook my head. “But yes, I suppose she is. With or without my knowledge, she’s had just as much a hand in raising you as I have.”

“What am I being accused of?” Wings flapping, Malia descended next to us and curled up on my arm. It was hard to read the look in her eyes because, on the surface, she had that playful gleam, but something underneath that sheen held unease.

I nudged her with my shoulder. “Sticking your nose wherever it finds purchase.”

She scowled. “I very clearly heard something different.”

“Then you know both the charge and the verdict.”

Her snakes hissed as she wrinkled her nose at me. “You’re no fun.”

Hasda cleared his throat. “I just wanted to say, on the eve of this final Trial, that I’m grateful for all you’ve done for me these years. You’ve been amazing, and I wouldn’t have grown into half the man I am today without you.”

He had his eyes on the horizon, marching in step next to us.

Malia squeezed my arm and slid closer. “Your father has never been good with expressions of heartfelt appreciation, but he’s very proud of you all the same.”

I shot her a look, then grunted. “We’re both proud of you. And no matter what happens during this Trial, we will always love you and watch over you.”

“Thanks.” He grinned, his hand drifting to the back of his head. That signature sheepish gesture sent memories flinging themselves against my recollection, snapshots of his years growing up in my abandoned temple, getting caught sneaking off (or back from) the woods at night, all those wonderful images of his best behaved years.

It was a nice moment promptly interrupted by ill fortune.

Malia’s fingers dug into my arm as her eyes snapped forward. “Did you sense that?”

“I was hoping I hadn’t.” Someone Veiled was sprinting towards the village, someone injured and in an urgent hurry.

Hasda and I sprinted for the gates, Malia taking to the skies. When we arrived, we found Kydon clawing out of his Veil, deep gouges on his bald head and blood coating the left side of his face and chest. Irritated lines crisscrossed his arms and torso, and something had taken several bites out of his shoulder.

“Ambush.” His nostrils flared as he sucked in breath. “In the river.”

“Vythar?” Malia asked.

The half troll shook his head. “A pair of minor goddesses. I didn’t recognize them.”

I scowled. Even caught off guard, Kydon should have been able to fend for himself better than this. Which meant an answer I likely didn’t want to hear. “Minor deities did that much to you?”

Kydon shrugged, then winced as he felt the chunks of missing flesh above his collarbone. “Proxies. Their empowerment was very inconsistent, but the taint was distinct.”

I frowned and fought the urge to cross my arms. “Not of the ancient, naval variety, please.”

He jerked a nod.

“And these goddesses wouldn’t happen to be merrow or sylvan, would they?”

He nodded again.

I sighed. Of course the Serynis had sided with the Sea Mother.

“Those two from Ibithia?” Malia let the question hang. “I’ll make some adjustments. Hasda, be a dear and tell Thrax to start readying the troops. We move tonight.”

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Sat Dec 30, 2023 4:56 pm
Plume wrote a review...

Hey there! Plume here, with a review!

Aw, this part was super sweet. I love Charax's father-son training moment with Hasda before the eve of the trial; I feel like we've been missing Hasda in the past few parts, so it was nice to get some moments with him before his big and final Trial.

The highlight of this for me was of course our central family of Charax, Hasda, and Malia. I really enjoyed Charax referring to Malia as Hasda's mother, and them just overall acknowledging how they've become a sort of family over time. For me, it just helped to reinforce the title of the novel in general; Hasda, in a way, was Malia's first and most important gift, and I think that's really beautiful. You've done a great job capturing their familial bonds and it's always such a joy to read when the three of them are together.

I'm also glad that we've found out what's happened with Kydon, even though he never even got to Vythar. Those Serynis sisters sure are a pain. Curious now though when Vythar will make an appearance, if at all. I'm also a bit unclear if the ambush was planned by Vythar's followers, or if it was against them as well.

Overall, I think you nailed the vibe in this one; it definitely seems like we're approaching something big, both with the Trial and the other dangers they have to overcome. It was a joy to get a sweet moment with Charax, Malia, and Hasda, and I'm looking forward to continuing this journey with them! Until next time!

My tongue must tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break...
— Katherine, The Taming of the Shrew