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The Many Gifts of Malia--Part 125: "The Rats"

by dragonfphoenix

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

I saw no signs of the supposed jackals after that, although I paid closer attention to the underbrush as I passed. It didn’t take long to catch up to Hasda and his crew. Evening had bled into the sky by the time I found them, huddled around a particularly thick trunk, Kydon a stone’s throw away under his Veil. He grunted a greeting as I approached.

“Your boy says there’s an animal nearby.” Kydon twitched his chin towards Hasda, who stood facing the tree, unlike his men, who’d slumped around it with their backs to the bark.

“Jackals?” I asked, settling next to the arbiter.

He shook his head. “No jackals I’ve ever seen small enough to fit under those roots. Some kind of rodent, he thinks.”

“Any trouble while I was gone?”

Another shake. “No undead, human or otherwise. The men seem to be holding up well, but Hasda’s not pushing them.” The half-ogre sighed. “I’m no death god, but I wouldn’t wager they have much time left to them. They’re bleeding around those blackened scabs, and it’s only gotten worse as the day progressed.”

Hasda tilted his head, a funny look on his face. Crouching down, he turned his ear towards the exposed roots.

I scanned the squatting men nearest him. Sure enough, many were leaking fluids around the sores, the one closest to Hasda with ghostly skin. Perhaps the ambrosia had taken a greater toll than I’d first realized, or perhaps it hadn’t fully cleansed the poison, as it would have for those who could handle the substance. Whatever the case, Hasda’s men had gone from being able to weather a march to the heart of the forest, to potentially leaving Hasda to go it alone in, at most, two days’ time.

When I told Kydon as much, he nodded. “If you want your boy to succeed, it might be worth rejoining Malia and the mortals under her.” When I gave him a look, he scowled. “I’m saying this now so that, if you do, you have time enough to warn Malia of your approach and adjust your strategy accordingly. Should Hasda be pursued, it’d be on the men he’s joining, and only them, to see him safely to them. It’d be a shame for Malia in surprise to disqualify him.”

I frowned. That would be a problem, especially if Vythar had decided to spread his wings on their flank. But that was something we would handle if it became an issue.

“Dad, could you come here?” Hasda stood from his crouch and dusted his legs.

Throwing off the Veil, I went next to him. “What happened?”

“There’s a rat under this tree who says his king can help with the undead animals.” He crossed his arms and tapped a foot. “Unfortunately, they don’t have anything that can help with the poison. I was hoping they’d know a local herb that might stem the effects long enough to reach the Stitcher, but there isn’t any.”

“They can help with the birds?”

His brow scrunched. “The rat says they can help with the land bound creatures, but the birds will be more problematic. Their king doesn’t think there are as many turned birds as there are mice and squirrels, though.”

I grunted. “At least with the grounded ones covered, you’ll only have to worry about the overhead branches.”

“Maybe.” He frowned. “But there’s a catch. The rat king says he’s smelled you—not you, specifically, but the gods—and he wants to be made divine as payment.”

Scowling, I stared down at the dirt clumped around the roots, but the only hole I saw was void of rodents. For such a small creature, their king sure had ambition.

“Can you do that?” Hasda asked. “I’d have to petition you for the request, and even then I’m not sure the rules of the Trial would allow it.”

“Kydon could probably be convinced, if I set you a separate task in exchange for the boon.” I rubbed my neck. “But we can’t just make an animal a god. The best we could do would be raising it to the level of a divine beast, which has its own set of issues.”

Hasda frowned. “Such as?”

“There’s no guarantee that this rat king’s mind could handle such a transformation.” I mimicked his folded arms. “Given how lofty its goals are, would it risk its aspirations over forgetting them? Or even itself? There are often legends surrounding divine beasts that help anchor them, so they don’t lose themselves to time, insanity, or their own powers. Further, most divine beasts are naturally so. For us to force the process on it, there’s no telling that the outcome would be to its liking, or living. This rat king needs to weigh the consequences, and be sure of its desires.”

Hasda knelt to relay the risks. Squeaks and chitters rose in response, ending in a flurry of skittering after Hasda had finished. Rising, Hasda heaved a sigh.

“He says he will inform the king, and return with an answer by tomorrow afternoon.” He wiped at the sweat on his forehead. “I told him we had to press on, and he said he would find us.”

“Did you promise him his reward?”

Hasda shook his head. “I told the emissary that we would need to know his answer before seeking boons from the gods. There’s no point in beginning the process if he decides on something else.”

Stepping back, I surveyed his men. “This rat king will need to help on the promise of a later reward. Not only can your soldiers not afford to wait, but we don’t know the local area well enough to assign you a task here. Assuming Kydon will even accede to such a payment, you’d have to finish the Trial and then begin the task.”

The air rippled as the half troll came out from the Veil. “I agree that Hasda must press on. But the petition must be made to a god that’s neither you nor Malia.” Wrinkles creased his forehead and contorted his scarred face as he frowned. “Even if payment is made for the assistance, the boon coming from your patrons would be direct interference on their part.” He scratched his head. “Perhaps others in the pantheon could accommodate your request, but I cannot. Thus, you must not only secure this rat king’s help with the promise of divinity, but also the uncertainty that you may be unable to secure his reward at all.”

My palms itched. “Who could imbue partial divinity though? Malia is his best bet. I’m not even sure I could, and none of our other gods focused in husbandry. Vrixia comes the closest in that regard, but she cares more about the harvest than the tools used to carry it out. Resef as well.”

“Troublesome, indeed,” Kydon rumbled. “Hasda has several options, not many of which I see him being willing to take.”

Hasda straightened. “If I make a vow with him, I will uphold my word.”

“Which precludes misrepresenting your offer, abandoning the rats afterwards, or killing them,” Kydon said, nodding. “Thus, even if the rat is willing to risk himself, he must also accept that it is a flimsy chance it will come to fruition. That, or you must convince him of another offer, though what else a rat could want I have no idea.”

“I’ll see what Malia has to say. Maybe she’ll find something we missed.” I gave our bond a gentle tug. Slight annoyance, but security and calm as well, shivered across the connection.

“As before, so again. I’ll retrieve your boy if he fails.” The half-troll turned to Hasda and gave him a serious look. “But this assurance is for your life alone. I cannot guarantee that you will be saved in one piece, since I don’t want to remove you from the Trial before you’ve exhausted absolutely every possibility.”

Hasda dipped his head. “You have my thanks.”

“You’ll be in good hands while I’m gone.” I patted him on the shoulder. “Keep an eye out for jackals as well. It could be a good sign that scavengers are returning to the forest, since they often clear the way for life to return. But they’re not going to understand that your men don’t need purging as well.”

His eyebrows scrunched as he glanced at his men. “If they survive long enough for me to retrieve the Staff, you can heal them, right?”

“As soon as you hold the Staff in hand,” Kydon rumbled, “Charax is free to aid however he wishes.”

“Then I’ll just have to finish as soon as possible.” He laughed. “Maybe I’ll be done before you get back.”

“Don’t rush in recklessly. I’d rather you not be among the souls I carry to Peklo.” Giving his shoulder a final squeeze, I turned and tugged open a portal. I wasn’t sure whether it was a good sign that the land’s magic lent itself easily to opening a rend, but I was confident that the crimson tint to the outer edges wasn’t due to being off Carthian soil.

Kydon noticed as well. “Has it ever done that before?”

“Never.” I shook my head. “One more thing to talk with Malia about.”

With a heavy sigh, I stepped through to my maas and snapped the portal shut behind me.

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17 Reviews

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Reviews: 17

Tue Apr 02, 2024 6:43 pm
angelinamar wrote a review...

I recently read the passage where the protagonist details his journey through the forest and his encounter with Hasda and his crew. While the writing style was engaging, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed that the supposed jackals mentioned earlier never made an appearance. However, I was still intrigued by the dynamic between the characters and the potential danger they faced.

The description of the evening setting in and the looming threat of the unknown animal nearby set a tense atmosphere for the scene. It was interesting to see the contrast between Hasda and his men's huddled, tired state and Kydon's confident and observant demeanor. The mention of the men's deteriorating health added a sense of urgency and danger to their situation, and I found myself rooting for them to find a solution before it was too late.

I appreciated the inclusion of Hasda using his enhanced hearing to listen for the animal under the roots. It added a layer of depth to his character and hinted at his skill set as a ranger. However, I would have liked to see more interaction between the protagonist and Hasda, as they seemed to have a strained relationship that could have been further explored.

The revelation that Hasda's men could potentially leave their leader behind due to their worsening health condition was a gripping twist. It added a moral dilemma for the protagonist, and I was left curious about how he would handle the situation. I was also intrigued by Kydon's suggestion for the protagonist to rejoin Malia and her group, providing a potential solution to the problem.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this passage and found it to be a well-written and fast-paced scene. My only critique would be the lack of a confrontation with the jackals, which was initially mentioned and built up but ultimately never appeared. However, I am excited to see how this scene will play out in the larger context of the story.

The thing about plummeting downhill at fifty miles an hour on a snack platter - if you realize it's a bad idea when you're halfway down, it's too late.
— Rick Riordan, The Son of Neptune