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The Many Gifts of Malia--Part 123: "The Birds"

by dragonfphoenix


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

The Sleepless attacked.

They waited until a few hours before dawn, emerging from gullies and pockets in hillsides and curtains of roots. The handful of willowisps had drifted off in the interim, leaving Hasda and his men to crawl through the forest in the cool, pre-dawn light. Nothing seemed to trigger their absence, just as nothing seemed to spring the undead’s ambush.

Despite being outnumbered several times over, Hasda’s troop managed to dispatch the Sleepless. They’d been wary, and the scouts fulfilled their duty. Even so, it took serious effort from the mortals to keep themselves safe. By the time dawn had broken, the men had ringed themselves with the fallen undead, a miniature wall three bodies high. All were scratched and bruised, save Hasda, but none fell.

They moved on.

Deeper in, the mortals found their first sign of the missing animals.Face rigid, Hasda drew his bow and sighted a tree. Something rustled the leaves, a dark shape jumping from branch to branch. Hasda’s arrow went wide as the twisted creature shot off.

It was a bird.

What was left of one, anyways. While the foliage made it hard to see clearly, what did show revealed bent wings and partial plumage that should’ve left it unable to fly. Somehow it managed, and in a breath it had disappeared in the distance, heading towards the town the Stitcher held.

Sighing, Hasda slipped his bow back in the quiver and led his men onwards.

As morning slid away, the sun struggled towards its zenith. Shadows clung to the forest, blacker than late morning shade should have been. No corrupted wildlife showed itself for a few more hours yet, not until the mortals were stumbling from weariness and foregone sleep.

A stream burbled, shielded by thick underbrush. Its soft babbling felt unnatural, breaking the silence of the forest. And it hid the anticipation of violence.

When Hasda and his men passed beneath a particularly dense canopy, a flock of undead birds fell like an avalanche of acorns upon them. The monstrosities were mottled with missing feathers and twisted limbs like the scout before them, their cries sounding as if pushed through drowned waterskins. With glassy eyes and clouded skin they pecked and clawed. The barrage lasted only a few minutes before the birds had wasted their energy and lay panting in bloody piles around the men. Soon even this pantomime ceased, and the zombie fowls lay lifeless.

Though the attack had ended, the fight had not. The wounds inflicted by the birds puckered on the mortals, the gashes trickling blood and turning purple at the edges. Hasda was drenched in sweat but, unlike his men, remained standing. The rest of the mortals collapsed on the ground, some face planting into the rotting birds.

It was hard to watch. Although this was Hasda’s Trial, it felt as much mine, having to withhold my hand and just observe. He struggled against whatever toxin had laced the beaks and claws of the birds, digging something out of his pouch as his companions groaned on the ground. His hair clung to his skull, as wet as if he’d just washed. It was a testament to his growing strength as a demigod that he resisted the poison so well.

But that didn’t make it any easier staying beneath the Veil.

Stumbling with bag in hand, Hasda disappeared into the underbrush, practically diving into the hidden stream. After a moment, he crawled back out, shaking a half-full vial with a mixture of…ambrosia? And particle-filled creek water. A healthy glow had already returned to his face, so he must have eaten some of the ambrosia. But where did he get it from?

“Did you give that to him?” Kydon asked.

Hasda staggered over to the nearest of his men and collapsed to his knees. Pouring out a small handful of the mixture, he began smearing it over the man’s wounds. A few quick passes, and he moved on to the next.

I shook my head. “Malia and I have only ever given him diluted ambrosia. That looks pure to me. Or at least what he started with was.”

“I don’t think he’s thinned it enough,” Kydon rumbled. “It might heal the wounds, but those mortals will suffer for it later.”

“He knows that. We’ve explained the dangers of ambrosia to an unprepared mortal many times.” Sighing, I folded my arms and watched as he went from warrior to warrior, splashing and smearing his healing concoction on their wounds.

Watching.

It took mere minutes for the watered down ambrosia to take effect. The men, save one, sat up sporting thick scars of blackened tissue that didn’t bend with their movement. But the one who remained on the ground gripped Hasda’s forearm and gasped words too faint for us to hear.

When the man released his hold, his arm fell limply to the ground. Hasda looked sad as he rose and surveyed the rest of his suffering soldiers. Folding his arms, he said, “Dad, could you come here?”

With a frown I tossed off the Veil and strode over. Kydon followed, but lumbered over to the pile of wasted birds and picked through the carcases.

Hasda’s eyes remained on the fallen warrior. “Massan isn’t going to make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I patted his shoulder as I settled next to him. “But you need to know that those black scars from your, er, improvised salve mean those men aren’t long for this world, either. Even if you’d given them a tenth of the ambrosia you did, they weren’t prepared for it, and it’s going to burn through them in perhaps a month’s time.”

He let out a heavy sigh. “I was afraid of that. But they didn’t have much time.” Shaking his head, he gestured at the still prone Massan. “As fast as I went, he still didn’t make it.”

“You did the best you could.” Squeezing his shoulder, I smiled. “Thanks to you, they’ll see dozens of days they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

He nodded. “I have a request, and I’d appreciate your advice, as well.”

“Sure.”

“Can you carry Massan back to the river?” Hasda’s face pinched. “I told him you were a God of Death, but he wants to be sent to Frijorro when he passes. If his body is sent downriver, his spirit will follow, and Frijorro will receive both when the river brings them to her.”

I glanced at Kydon, who was still engrossed with the motionless undead. A trip back to the river wouldn’t keep me more than a day, but I still didn’t want to leave Hasda for too long. I’d spent too much time away from him the first two Trials, and I wanted to remain close for this final one.

He must have sensed my hesitation. “I would do it myself, but I don’t think…I don’t think I can. My men certainly can’t.” His face looked troubled. “There was something in that poison, something that tugs us towards the heart of the forest. At first, Saran shielded me from most of it, and I think the ambrosia severed the connection, but for them…” He shook his head. “Tyvas says it’s gone, and Dionin, but I’m afraid they’re just putting on a brave face. Massan still feels it, and he’s worried it won’t end in death. So am I.”

“What, that he’ll become Sleepless?” I frowned. We still didn’t know how the Stitcher operated. It was certainly possible that the Stitcher needed some way to tie the dead to him, which would explain why none who’d fallen driving off the Sleepless had themselves turned. But if it was the poison, then it could be resisted or defeated. If only we had the time to study it before the final confrontation.

“Yes.” Hasda’s hand twitched towards his sword. “When the poison first hit, before Saran blocked it, I could feel a direct connection to the Stitcher. His pull is really strong. And, I think he’s expecting us now. Thrax might not be enough of a distraction.”

“Then he’ll just have to be enough of a threat.” I gave him a reassuring smile. “You’ve done fantastic so far. You’ll succeed in the end, no matter if the Stitcher is prepared. Now, what did you need advice on?”

“Those.” He jerked his head towards the pile of rotten feathers. “How do we deal with them? If the Stitcher is using birds now, what’s to say he won’t send other animals? I’m sure you’ve noticed how empty the forest is as well.”

“I have.” I frowned. “How much ambrosia did Malia give you?”

His ears pinked a little. “Uh, well…I used all of it in the salve. All that was left of it, anyways.”

I arched a brow at him. “And where did you get it?”

“Jade gave it to me.” Now his ears were completely red.

Grunting, I patted his shoulder. “At least you had the sense to water it down. Well, even if you had more, I don’t think your trick would save your men twice. The next time they touch ambrosia, it might actually kill them.” I turned to Kydon. “Figured out their mechanism yet?”


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Mon Jun 24, 2024 2:25 pm
IcyFlame wrote a review...



Am I primarily here because the description said we're observing birds? Maybe. Yes. Either way, let's get reviewing.

I feel like I was more nervous for the attack by the Sleepless than was maybe warranted. The Stitcher has always felt like a super creepy character and I think because of the connection between the two I kind of viewed them as an equal threat. That maybe doesn't feel right anymore by the matter of fact way they attack and then are dealt with in the first paragraphs of this part?

The Stitcher's birds though, 100% creepy vibes. The way we see this through Charax's viewpoint too I think makes it more tense because we know he can't interfere, he's just got to watch everything unfold...stressful!

It's very in character that Hasda was trying to save his men, and makes me feel a little more comforted that he hasn't completely changed his personality. I did feel like he was a bit more resigned to their fates than he could have been but I guess he's mid trial, and they did sign up for this.

I'd completely forgotten about Jade, so this was a nice little reminder too.

Feels like we're building up to the big Stitcher confrontation too, so I better get to the next part quickly!

Icy




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Tue Jun 11, 2024 10:07 pm
Plume wrote a review...



Hey there! Plume here, with a review!

You nailed the eeriness in this part, in the beginning especially. The descriptions really allowed that anticipation to build up, and honestly, it's still building; I love how you have little releases, like when the Sleepless and birds attacked, but overall, everything is building up to the big battle with the Stitcher, which I'm very excited for. I think part of the anticipation to is that Charax is our narrator, so he's not the one actually in the action; it feels like he's watching a very tense sports game but with major consequences, and that vibe definitely came across in your writing. I thought the flow, too, was especially strong; the contrast of your shorter, one-sentence paragraphs with some longer ones kept me on my toes while reading.

That's also interesting about the Stitcher's birds; I hope we do get some insight into what exactly they are. I'm also hoping that Hasda's men don't become Sleepless themselves, though it looks like that might be the most likely course of action from here--- looking forward to see how they work themselves out of this scrape!

(I also loved the mention of Jade <3 it feels like a while since we've heard from her, so that was nice!)

Specifics

“Can you carry Massan back to the river?” Hasda’s face pinched. “I told him you were a God of Death, but he wants to be sent to Frijorro when he passes. If his body is sent downriver, his spirit will follow, and Frijorro will receive both when the river brings them to her.”


I'm glad we still see some of Hasda's trademark kindness showing through in this part; with the previous parts, I was getting worried that he was getting more and more hardened with just the combo of combat as well as the djinn's influence, but I think this moment was really sweet and sad and so in-character for him, so thank you for that. (Also the part at the end where he blushed at the mention of Jade was so in-character too; I loved it!)

Overall: great job! I can't wait to read the next one!





Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
— Martin Luther King Jr.