Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
By mid-morning I had quite the list of tricks that Malia had employed. Pitfalls, goats with tranquilizers laced in their fur, enchanted bracers that looked suspiciously like Phaeus’ handiwork, and a thick tree with its trunk sawed halfway through and covered by an illusion. I’d set off the various traps and dispelled what magic I could, although I had the bracers strung up on my belt. If Phaeus had made them, he’d want them back. But every gift I’d discovered seemed too simple, too straightforward, to encompass all that Malia had done, and that unsettled me.
Perhaps the most crafty of her snares were the laced goats, which would have passed a surface inspection, but simple goats giving the tiger debilitating indigestion would’ve been too obvious. And that was the most subtle one. The others might as well have had Oracles posted next to them, heralding the divine intervention for how low-key thoes methods were. I knew most of them were false positives, to throw off just such an investigation as mine, but I hadn’t the foggiest what the real gift was. My lack of direction, coupled with the residual headache from the hangover, left me in a crabby and uncharitable mood.
So while I knew that the mining village was, at best, a homey collection of wooden shacks, I couldn’t help but view it as a pathetic way to scrape out an existence. Far away from any other settlements, the mountainside dwellings looked like bundles of fallen trees haphazardly tied together. The huts dotted the mountainside around where I guessed the mouth of the mine to be. Pale-skinned people, the Tingin miners and their families, milled about among the huts, treading paths to and from the forest and up and down the mountain. They weren’t particularly remarkable, physically speaking, but their faces bore a weathered, hardy look that reminded me of wind-blasted oaks.
To the east of the village, the mountains dipped to form a natural pass that led to wildlands beyond. We knew some kind of nomadic people occupied the wildlands to the east because they’d occasionally slipped over to mingle with the furthest frontier of the Carthian Empire, and they’d brought strange gods with them whose powers felt like oily, spice-laden cousins of our own. But that had been centuries ago, and the nomads had disappeared after they returned through the mountain pass.
Despite my intense scouring of the land, I saw no signs of the Kydonian tiger plaguing the Tingins. The forest showed no traces of the beast, neither scat nor tracks, and the village was far too calm for the feline to be reclining nearby. That left the mines, but I wouldn’t venture down those by myself.
Kydonian tigers, though rare, weren’t so scarce that we knew nothing of them. Full-grown, they held enough divine essence to match a demigod. That being said, they lacked the intelligence to rise to deity themselves and none had claimed them as a sacred beast. They weren’t social, except to mate, and they kept well enough away from humans unless they absolutely had to interact. While their hides kept them mostly safe from mortal weapons, humans were inerringly stupid creatures with a mean, destructive streak. Bygone mortal champions had gotten scooped up as celestial heroes after plotting the demise of a tiger foolish enough to remain in their territory too long.
But the tigers loved the outdoors. They hunted beneath the stars and slept in the trees. In the thick of winter they’d roll through snowdrifts, and when spring arrived they’d greet the rains with whipping tails and excited chatter. For one to remain so long underground was wholly unnatural, and if it weren’t so cruel I’d have wagered Malia had engineered the whole Trial.
Devious, she might be, but she wasn’t that much of a bitch. She had a method to her madness, and inflicting madness on as majestic a creature as a Kydonian tiger just wasn’t in her nature. But that meant the Trial had a host of unanswered questions surrounding it. Why was the Kydonian tiger here? How did it get into the mine? Was it lost inside the shafts, forced to ambush the miners for food? Or had it hidden itself away, relishing each meal? I couldn’t help but recall how little had been said about the “why” of this Trial’s scenario.
And I couldn’t get over the niggling in the back of my mind that I was still missing the obvious obfuscation. Malia never dealt in open deception. Ever. She had something up her sleeve for Hasda that I hadn’t found and, while I had Seppo’s word that if she pulled a fast one on me, Kydon wouldn’t prosecute it, I couldn’t just let it go at that. I knew there was something more to be found. I wasn’t just going to let it be, knowing something was out there.
I decided to try the villagers. While it was a long shot that Malia had exposed herself to them, it couldn’t hurt to ask if they’d seen another deity slinking about their forests, dropping gifts in her wake. Heck, she might have even bribed them into a couple of her plots. As I left the forest and approached the village, I felt something tickle at the corner of my nose. The cloying scent of pine needles, maybe. Whatever it was, it made me want to sneeze.
The way the villagers stilled when they saw me made me second-guess the whole cordial conversation route. If Malia had been through here, either they hadn’t seen her or she’d warned them off me. But then I paused and scratched at that stupid itch. No, of course she didn’t. Why would she have? She’d have to predict that I’d be here, pulling up all her carefully laid designs, and further presume that I’d reveal myself to the Tingins instead of staying out of sight.
Then I realized that a tall, skeletal figure in dark robes suddenly emerging from the forest might not be the best way to spring unexpected greetings on a group of mortals. I laughed and pushed my sleeves past my elbows, trying on my friendliest face. It felt false, even to me, but a smiling god was always better than a furious one.
The Tingins weren’t put at ease, however, and they watched me with wary eyes, mothers shielding their children and slowly, cautiously, pushing them back towards the hut. A trio of men, two middle-aged warriors flanking an aging chief, approached me, careful to carry their spears in a relaxed but ready manner.
“Greetings,” I called, still several dozen feet from the village. I stopped and spread my arms, trying to dispel any threatening appearances. “My wife is always wandering off, getting into trouble she shouldn’t be, and I thought she might have passed you by. Have you seen any other strangers in recent days?” Not exactly the full picture, but enough for their mortal minds to grasp. I wasn’t about to spend several hours explaining the finer details of my relationship with Malia.
The men stiffened at my words, and then huddled together and conversed in hushed whispers. While I couldn’t make out what they were saying, the sounds of their voices brushed against me like the beating of bat wings. The smell of pine needles surged, plugging my nostrils so quickly I couldn’t help but sneeze. The sound made the men jump, but they had some steel in them because they came closer.
“We...not see, Dark One,” the left warrior said in broken Carthian.
I frowned and resisted the urge to cross my arms. Surely, the frontier hadn’t spread so far or so thin that the language had deteriorated this much.
The second warrior mistook my scowl and started whispering furiously to the first. “Don’t antagonize the demon, you idiot! We’re cursed enough already. We don’t need the wrath of the forest heaped on our heads as well.”
“How’s your Carthian, Darrus?” the first snapped. “My vocabulary was already limited, and I haven’t had to speak it for years. I’m doing the best I can.”
“Well do better.” Darrus tried to be subtle with his pointing, using the index finger wrapped around the shaft of his spear to gesture in my direction. “He doesn’t look very happy.”
To be honest, my scowl had deepened as they’d started arguing. Not because of what they were saying, but because of the language they were speaking in. At first, it made my ears tickle, like mosquitoes trapped in my ear canals, but the feeling vanished when the gift of tongues smoothed my understanding. When I spoke my first words in their native tongue, it felt like I’d swallowed pure honey.
“You have not offended the forest spirits.” I had to be careful how I presented who I was, so they wouldn’t flee in a blind panic when Hasda arrived tomorrow. “In fact, they have heard your cries. A shaman—” not my word, but the best their language could do, “—will come with tomorrow’s morn to rid you of the mountain scourge.”
“What tidings this specter brings,” the elder said in a hushed voice. He spoke as if I weren’t there, or couldn’t understand him. “But good omens, or ill, to have a shade proclaim a coming shaman?”
“Alas, I was the only one available. We’ll make sure to send a prettier spirit next time.”
They stared blankly, not laughing at my joke.
“We appreciate your tidings, Dark One,” the first warrior said. “We will await the arrival of your shaman.”
I nodded and went back to the forest, leaving the trio to worry about what tomorrow would bring. I had my own concerns to deal with.
The villagers had spoken to me in the same language the nomads spoke. It wasn’t exactly the same as I remembered it, but with the half-millennium since my last encounter, I wasn’t surprised the language had evolved. Pale Carthians weren’t uncommon, but none had such startingly blue eyes as the Tingins. I suppose I should have expected something strange, what with Tingin not being a Carthian territory before my retirement and Jade being an atypical name for a deity, but I hadn’t expected the pantheon to have absorbed a wholly non-Carthian people and god.
My blessing would grant Hasda the gift of tongues, so communicating with the miners wouldn’t be a problem. What would be, however, was their apparent mistrust of the forest spirits. Even if they accepted him as a shaman, there was no telling what they’d do once the Trial was complete. Assuming Hasda got that far. But the one thing I was certain of was that Malia had one more trick in store, it didn’t involve the villagers, and I still hadn’t found it. Gritting my teeth, I stomped through the woods to give the land one more look before I went back to Nebesa.
Malia was not going to get one over on me on the very first Trial. That just wasn’t happening.