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The Many Gifts of Malia--Part 122: "The Hollow"

by dragonfphoenix


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

As night crept along, so did Hasda. Eight men made up the complement surrounding him, handpicked by Thrax from amongst the villagers. Thrax himself had taken three dozen, leaving Kirunadh with a meager handful of warriors to protect the village in case the Stitcher decided to ignore both incursions and attack the village directly. Nika, riding her kavak, had shouldered her way into Thrax’s troop and refused to be turned. Under Malia’s watch, they’d split off hours ago and long since disappeared from sight.

Hasda’s men had made good time as well, reaching the riverbank with hours of moonlight left. A pair of dugout canoes had been hidden in the hollow of a nearby hill, and were quickly recovered and launched into the water. The current was gentle, which was good since they had to make multiple crossing to bring everyone across.

Kydon and I watched from beneath the Veil. Watched, and waited. Thankfully, the Serynis didn’t show themselves, or had vacated the area. The mortals crossed without incident.

On the other side of the river, it was much the same. No signs of any opposition. No snares, no Serynis, no Sleepless. A clear sky admitted light from a moon three-quarters full. Off in the distance loomed the Strixenvaas, its barricade invisible and as yet undetected. But a short march later, we were close enough to feel its opposition. The pair who’d been designated as scouts shivered and turned back when they reached it. Hasda called a halt, and the men took to ground, slipping under soft blankets as they waited for the barrier to come down.

In the shadows of the forest, tangerine-colored orbs drifted around the tree trunks. First three, then five, then a dozen, winking in uneven intervals. I frowned. They bobbed like fireflies, but they had neither the color nor the feel of the insects. With the barrier still up, it was hard to tell if these belonged to the Weeping Queen’s daughter. My gut said they did.

After a few minutes, the spheres dispersed, spreading out across the forest and disappearing one by one. The final one remained directly across from us long after its fellows had vanished, until it too drifted deeper into the woods and winked out.

Nothing else of note occurred while we waited, except an ear-ringing silence that didn’t belong to the night. No insects buzzed, no owls cried, and no bats winged their way through the darkness. The sleepless must have long since driven the animals away, and the absence of even the smallest signs of life weighed heavily on me. Thick woods already exuded hostility, but this one had shrugged on the coat of a crypt.

Waiting.

Standing alone with nothing but my thoughts and a forest inspiring morbidity was a poor way to pass the time. Kydon had assumed a meditative state, almost asleep where he stood, but he was a poor conversationalist at the best of times. The mortals had gone further than almost sleeping, many breathing evenly under their blankets, all but three. Those on watch pantomimed rest, but their eyes were alert.

Waiting.

Soft wind passed through the trees, tumbling over the grass around us. The mumble of the river we’d left behind stretched out longingly. Its reach emphasized the lack of wildlife accompanying its murmurs.

Waiting.

My bond flared to life.

Surging forward, I assumed my astral form and found myself face to face with the barrier. Even accounting for my different form, the feel of the barrier was different. It resisted more, but thinly. And all it took for it to fail was digging my fingers into it.

Tearing a hole was easier than ripping cloth. It came apart like an aged sail, twin splits screaming skyward and earthward as the barricade collapsed. I shredded several strips from the failing blanket and pocketed them. The severed pieces reminded me of my Veil, although the weave was different.If it could be mastered, it could potentially cloak the divine from others.

But that was a project for another time.

Shrugging off my projection, I shrank to find Kydon roused, and Hasda and his men already moving across the border. They sprinted the short distance to the forest and spread out, swords at the ready. Hasda’s armor glowed softly with the djinn’s violet fire thinly coating it.

Muted panting and trampled grass disturbed the eerie silence as the men made their way into the forest. Although I watched for Sleepless, I couldn’t sense or see any as Hasda led his squad through the Strixenvaas. Somewhere along the way, Hasda had picked up a stout stick, and was smacking trees with it at random. That made plenty of noise, enough to attract any roaming zombie death balls, but none of the Stitcher’s forces arrived.

He did attract something else, though. Drawn by his antics, or perhaps the purple flame, the orange balls of light drifted back. Only three this time, a pair for his men and the third for Hasda alone. It bobbed above his shoulder, as if observing, before floating off to the northeast. After colliding with several trunks, it settled on one tree, spinning around its bole.

When Hasda failed to follow, it zipped back, bouncing back and forth inches from his face. He tried ducking around it, and it matched his dip. After it thwarted his attempt to sidestep it as well, he shrugged and signaled to his men, who fanned out as he trailed the orb. As soon as its light illuminated the tree it had been orbiting, Hasda laughed and dashed forward. His grin grew bigger as he smacked the trunk, which sounded wet and hollow.

“Those yours or Malia’s?” Kydon said, eyeing the dancing lights.

I shook my head. “Neither. I think it’s the Weeping Queen’s youngest, although she doesn’t seem to have reached divinity. No aura then, and nothing that I can sense now, either.”

“A demigod with no power.” Frowning, he let out a long hum. “Can she speak?”

“If she can, she hasn’t—”

A lance of violet fire pierced the sky, followed by a wave of magic rank and nauseating. Its aftertaste was putrid, filled with twisted malice that would have been wrongness were it not for how intentional its aberration. Embers flaked from the lance as it collapsed and withdrew, pointing an accusing finger at Hasda’s glowing sword.

The balls of light bounced away as I shrugged off the Veil. “What was that?” My voice startled the men around Hasda, but he had eyes only for the glittering weapon.

“Malia said it was my birthday gift.” His eyes had an almost manic look to them, and his grin was unsettling. “Anything beyond the river is fair game, right?”

“Yes.” I frowned. That gleam in his eye was almost certainly from the djinn, although the spirit itself had receded into Hasda’s chestplate. “So your sword can throw fire now, eh?”

Hasda shook his head. “Saran said it needed to be fired to set the quenching. If I store power within the blade, it can release the energy in a controlled burst. Saran can also augment it with the djinn fire during combat, but only for short durations. It’s more draining than simply fighting as we are.”

As he talked, the coral-colored orbs drifted back, providing a soft ambience that contrasted with the harsher violet light of the sword.They exuded no aura, carried no scent, but they did have something, a soft sound tickling the edge of my hearing, almost like a giggle. They seemed friendly enough, unlike Hasda’s djinn.

“I hope you come out of this Trial as you are,” I said, trying to pull my frown out of its downward spiral. “And you might want to move your men away from here. Who knows what might have been attracted by that fire?”

A brief frown ghosted his lips before his smile, which didn’t quite reach his eyes, replaced it. “Wise as always. We’ll move at once, the quicker to seize the prize.”

My frown stayed painted on as he organized his men and set off again. Slipping back under the Veil, I found Kydon with a similar grimace.

“That djinn has soured him over the years,” the half-troll rumbled.

I grunted an agreement. So long as Hasda came through this Trial, alive and in one piece, I wouldn’t complain too much. But I would find a way to extricate him from that bond before he climbed among Nebesa’s walls as his own deity.

Perhaps we’d already passed that point.

Worse than that, I feared Hasda had grown too attached to the twisted spirit. He had grown, was grown enough to make his own decisions. It wasn’t just his ability to commune with the animals that had displayed his care for wild things. Even as a youngling, he’d watched over a rabbit’s nest he’d found that he thought I’d missed. The duckling he rescued from a muddy, water-filled hole it could climb out of. The tadpoles he cupped in adolescent handfuls from a dwindling puddle near a stream, but no outlet for the amphibian hopefuls.

So a spirit, confined to earth for an untold age, who viewed itself as an incomplete half, well. Even if we’d known a way to separate them at their first meeting, I don’t think we could have convinced Hasda to damn it to such loneliness again.

We still knew precious little about the history of these djinn. It was something I would have to rectify after Hasda succeeded in this Trial. And he would succeed. Phe’s portent could mean no else.


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Sun Jun 23, 2024 8:44 pm
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IcyFlame wrote a review...



Hi again! Icy back for another review. I thought I was nearly caught up with these parts but it turns out I’m way further behind than I thought I was. Hopefully this summer review event gives me the push I need!

I’m so excited we’ve finally got to Hasda’s trial in this part! It feels like we’ve been building up to it for a really long time (although that’s probably in part to my gaps in reading) so it feels like this has a lot to deliver against to meet my expectations. I’m guessing we’re going to be ramping up in intensity in the next few bits.

I’m expecting Hasda to fair pretty well in the trial, but the excitement over the weapon and the djinn have me worried in combination. It feels a bit like he might be losing himself and I can feel us being set up for something big that doesn’t hinge on the success of the trial but is something different. I think you’re building up the tension well and I’m stressed!

I loved the waiting, waiting , waiting to build up the tension too. Somehow, I forgot that this was the final trial and had it in my head that this was the second. I’m now appropriately excited for the next part.

Icy




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Tue Jun 04, 2024 10:10 pm
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Plume wrote a review...



Hey there! Plume here, with a review!

Oh, this part was great! We've finally officially arrived at the start of Hasda's trial and it doesn't seem too intense yet, though I have a feeling there's a lot more in store. I'm scared for what's to come next, particularly with Hasda. The way you described his new weapon and eagerness with it was actually kind of frightening, particularly after spending so much time with his character from Charax's perspective, the god who literally raised him. This djinn is seeming more trouble than it's worth. Hoping that Hasda gets free of its influence, though I'm not sure how likely that is. My reader's instinct is saying that since you've already basically established that Hasda will succeed at the trial, something else will happen and be a huge loss. Fingers crossed it's not Hasda's character, though from a writing standpoint that would be very compelling.

I also really liked the way you captured the tense moments before Charax tore the barrier. The way you structured the short paragraphs before the pivotal moment was really well done!

Specifics

Nika, riding her kavak, had shouldered her way into Thrax’s troop and refused to be turned.


I forgot about her schoolgirl crush on Thrax; I enjoyed this little tidbit since 1) it reminded me of that fact, and 2) it provides continued characterization of Nika so she's not just a one-off character, which strengthens your story a lot!

No snares, no Serynis, no Sleepless.


I really loved the alliteration in this line!

The sleepless must have long since driven the animals away, and the absence of even the smallest signs of life weighed heavily on me.


I think "sleepless" should be capitalized here, no? Even if you are referring to more general sleepless (which I don't think you are, but just in case) I would choose a different word just because you've already given that title to the official Sleepless.

They exuded no aura, carried no scent, but they did have something, a soft sound tickling the edge of my hearing, almost like a giggle.


I loved this description, and it makes me all the more eager to interact with the Weeping Queen's daughter; since there's been so much focus on her in these past few sections, I'm curious what more impact she'll have on Hasda's trial.

Even as a youngling, he’d watched over a rabbit’s nest he’d found that he thought I’d missed. The duckling he rescued from a muddy, water-filled hole it could climb out of. The tadpoles he cupped in adolescent handfuls from a dwindling puddle near a stream, but no outlet for the amphibian hopefuls.


Awwww. Makes me miss baby Hasda :(

Overall: nice job! I liked the insight we got into the djinn and Hasda's connection with it, even though it feels like it bodes to something more sinister. Until next time!




dragonfphoenix says...


A little sick still and responding to both here, this is the third and final Trial. Typos etc. Alliteration is my favorite lol. And yeah, there are a lot of moving parts that are gonna come to a head eventually ;)




You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
— Anne Lamott