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16+ Language

The Many Gifts of Malia--Part 129: "The Alternative"

by dragonfphoenix


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

Hasda turned to the rat. “Is this true?”

Chittering, the rat stroked its whiskers and refused to meet his eyes.

From the entrance, the jackal barked a laugh. Though her body was outside, she’d slipped her head under the curtain of leaves, her paws hanging over the edge. “Barrthikh was a kind soul. It was you who bullied him into a territorial agreement, then ambushed him when winter fell. Lethargic, barely into his hibernation, having never crossed into the part of the forest that was ‘yours.’ Spin your tales, Vartikh. Your lies won’t bring my jackals back.”

“Do you deny it?” Arms crossed, Hasda drummed his fingers on his arm and glared at the rat king.

Vartikh scrubbed his whiskers harder. His furious chattering was only interrupted by his sneezing.

Scowling, Hasda shook his head. “You stand to gain far more from this than I. And we’ve sworn no oaths between us. Give me a reason not to leave.”

“What has he promised you?” The jackal’s golden eyes glistened with hunger.

“Leave, or hold your tongue, beast” I growled at the jackal. “I’m not satisfied you’re not Paeden, and if I find you have ties to the Sea Mother, I’ll have your hide.”

“Forgiveness, Exalted One.” Her tails flicked behind the screen of leaves. “It has been far too long since I’ve seen a tuzshu, and never have I witnessed one unfettered from his nirarin. My curiosity is more than mild.”

“You can take your curiosity as far as your legs will run.” I turned, revealing my Sword. “We don’t know you, and your appearance, right before Hasda has secured an alliance, has been conveniently disruptive.”

“My apologies, Graceous One. I am Gunarra, chief and sole among the Sukalla.” Even lying down, the jackal managed a bow. “Like Balphar, my pantheon has been dismantled, though mine was brought low long before the Balphanic pantheon took hold. I await the return of my mistress, and seek redress against the rats for the lives of my jackals. And you, my lord?”

I frowned. She hadn’t specified whom her mistress was, or named her fallen pantheon. And she hadn’t answered my subtle accusation that she was actively interfering with Hasda’s Trial. Given how sporadic the jackal appearances had been, it was hard to say with confidence that she’d done anything more than monitor from a distance, but it was also hard to deny her involvement.

Hasda twisted to see the jackal. “I need to reach the heart of the forest. The rat king has offered to protect my men and I from undead ambushes. If the Stitcher has hurt your mistress, I would be glad to help avenge her.”

“Nothing like that, although your courage is admirable.” Gunarra’s eyes glowed softly above her jackal smile. “And what, pray tell, does this two-faced vermin want in return for his services? Certainly more than what I would ask for.”

Hasda glanced at me.

“He seeks to raise his station.” I scowled at the jackal. “Can your dogs guard against flocks of birds? Swarms of mice? Any other groups of undead the Stitcher may throw his way?”

“That bastard has always been greedy.” She shook her head. “No, I cannot. But I can lead him away from such dangers. Why risk being mauled by survivors, if you spring their traps, when you can avoid the pitfalls entirely?”

“And what would you like in exchange?” Hasda asked.

Tongue lolling, Gunarra tilted her head. “Why do you seek the Stitcher?”

“To reclaim the Staff he’s corrupted, and to end the reign of the undead in Curnerein.” Hasda put no bravado in his voice, played no games of dominance with the canine.

The jackal grinned. “I would be glad to shepherd you through the hazards and reanimated animals for no more than your company, and the answers it might provide.”

“That’s too cheap.” I met Gunarra’s smile with a hard stare. “Surely you must know your kind’s reputation. I’d think you’d at least try to drive a harder bargain to convince us.”

“What? That we’re as faithless as that rat?” She practically spat the words. “I keep my oaths, as I have dutifully waited on my mistress these many centuries. You don’t see me adorning myself with the bones of my once-partners.”

I shifted my Sword to my right side, closer to the jackal. “Unlike you, the rats have been straightforward, and didn’t hide themselves from us. As ambitious as the rat king’s request is, he didn’t dance around it.”

“And yet he hasn’t denied the atrocity he’s committed,” she snarled.

The rat king squeaked. Now surrounded by the rodents who’d climbed down from the walls, he clutched his claw sword like a ward. At the jackal’s snarl, his rats pressed against him, trying to build a living wall between the predator and their leader.

Hasda sighed. “Can you heal my men? You must have seen them outside.”

“They smelled diseased.” Gunarra frowned at him. “Perhaps my tongue could dress their wounds—canid saliva has healing properties, after all—but if your god cannot, I fear my efforts would be just as ineffectual. If you wish, however, I will try.”

Nodding, Hasda turned back to the rat king. “Her offer seems far more appealing than yours. And you’ve been given several opportunities to defend yourself, and the best you have are excuses so flimsy, they’re not even good enough to keep the sun off. That doesn’t mean I trust you,” he said, glancing at the jackal. “But you raise a good point. I certainly can’t trust Vartikh.”

Chittering, the rat waved his paws, although he wouldn’t meet Hasda’s eyes.

“I’ve heard enough.” Anger fueled Hasda’s frown. “Yes, you endangered your rats to slay undead mice. But that benefited you, regardless of its impact on my task. It was convenient for you that it also strengthened your offer. Let’s go.”

Yelping in delight, Gunarra backed out of the cave and danced behind the leaves as she waited for us. Still scowling, Hasda scooted on his knees until he reached the ledge, and then pulled himself out. I wasn’t far behind.

Before I left, however, I turned to the rat. “If you value your life, you must choose between your status and your survival. Extricate yourself from that tangled mess and flee. I don’t think Gunarra will let you live, now that she knows your hideout.”

And with that, I crawled out of the cave.

Gunarra’s tails swished in lazy, happy arcs as she pranced next to Hasda. Face set, Hasda ignored her and strode to where his men had camped a few trees over while they waited for his return. Most of their faces had gone sallow, and fluids both clear and crimson leaked from the edges of their blackened scabs. When Gunarra neared them, she recoiled and sneezed twice.

“I fear they may be beyond all help, tuzshu.” She sat at Hasda’s side, eyeing the men.

I frowned. Only five men remained. Before we’d entered the hollow, there’d been at least six. “Hasda, your men.”

“I know.” His voice was hard, his face harder. Jaw working, he rounded on the jackal. “My father doubts you, as I’m sure you’ve gathered. I haven’t agreed to your offer yet because I wanted to question you away from Vartikh. You lost your head as soon as you scented him.”

Her ears flattened. When she spoke, her voice growled. “Indeed, I have gleaned your misplaced mistrust of me. How may I dispel your doubts?”

“What pantheon are you from?” I came around her left side, positioning her between Hasda and myself. “You’re centuries old, if you can speak of them so casually, and yet you’re demigod at best.”

“Hithian.”

“How have you managed to survive the Stitcher for so long?” I watched her reaction carefully. “The forest has practically nothing forage worthy, plus an uncomfortable dearth of wildlife.”

She shook her head. “Necrotic meat may not be suitable for humans, but it sustains us scavengers nonetheless.”

I frowned. “Why were you following Hasda?”

She clacked her teeth. “That bastard rat has been avoiding me for longer than the Stitcher has ruled Batavii. For too long I have hunted his hiding hole. When his emissary revealed himself to this tuzshu, I couldn’t pass up the chance.” Her tails flicked. “I know it must seem like I was stalking your boy—he is your tuzshu, yes?—but he was not the game I pursued. I didn’t even know that he was djinn bonded until the cave.” She tilted her head at Hasda. “Where is your djinn?”

Hasda shook his head. “You called yourself a Sukalla. I’ve heard a term that’s close to that. The ones we’ve fought, however, were animal aspected humans.”

“My antithesis, the Apkalla.” Her tails thumped the ground. “Seven male sages of extreme ability, doted upon by their patriarchal lord.” She gave a strained smile. “Since you’ve already encountered them, I’m sure you can extrapolate why the Paedens might not have looked too fondly on my kind.”

“Your kind.” I folded my arms. “You said you were the only one.”

“Alas, there would have been more, if Hithia had been given the chance to blossom.” Head down, she whined. “I was supposed to be merely the first, not also the last. And it has been far too long since I last saw my mistress.”

I sighed. “What happened to her? Was she slain? Did she abandon you?”

“She…went away, as it were. When the pantheon fell.”

One of Hasda’s men moaned, and tried to hide it by coughing into his hand. The hacking, however, stopped being fake very quickly.

Hasda frowned. “One last question.”

“Yes?” The jackal looked up at him expectantly.

“Will you see if your, er, saliva can heal my men?” He looked over her, watching his men suffer. “I know there’s no guarantee, but I would like you to try. Vartikh was willing to provide aid, however self-serving, with no commitment to an oath. Would you at least do that much?”

She gave him a flat look. “For the honor alone of serving a tuzshu again will I do this. If it further persuades you to allow me to accompany you, then so be it. But gladly will I render what feeble help I may.”

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