Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
By the next day, I still hadn’t found any new snares or stashes, and I was hopping mad. I’d stayed up all night, making sure there weren’t any nocturnal shenanigans I’d missed during my search the day before, but I came up empty-handed. Now I was cold, damp with dew, and had exchanged the hangover headache for the divine equivalent of sleep deprivation mind pains. As the morning sunlight filtered through the forest, I finally admitted a frustrated defeat and went to wait for Hasda, Malia, and the other gods to arrive for the inauguration of the Trials.
A purple portal peeled off a section of the air just outside the forest, and a moment later everyone came through. Jade went first, stumbling over her feet and her words as she tried to welcome the other gods to her territory. Among the divine retinue accompanying Seppo were Kydon, Vrixia, Synnefo, Thane, and Azoria. While Seppo would throw the proverbial wine bottle to christen the Trial, Kydon would officiate its commencement. Vrixia, the harvest goddess, and Synnefo, apprentice to the storm god, had come to gawk, and my initial assessment that Azoria was here to ensure the legality of the proceedings shattered when I saw the eye babies she and Thane were making. Seppo had his back pointedly to the pair, and even I felt uncomfortable with their lack of decorum.
Hasda and Malia came last, the gorgon slithering behind the lad with a protective look that she veiled as soon as we made eye contact. Flashing me a smile, she nudged Hasda my way and kept a reassuring hand on the lad’s elbow. He looked dazed, stumbling around in his gleaming bronze armor, the bristles of his helmet’s blue plumage shivering in the morning wind. In addition to the breastplate and helmet, he wore strange limb guards, metal bracers and greaves with layers of leather wrapped around the outside. It looked like he’d speared pillows on his forearms and legs, and I couldn’t help frowning as Malia dragged him over to me.
“What is this?” I gestured at the unusual armor.
Malia quirked a brow. “Doesn’t remind you of anything?”
“He’s going to be fighting a Kydonian tiger,” I said, emphasizing the last two words. “Not raising guard dogs.”
“You really have no imagination sometimes, Charax.” Malia tutted and shook her head. Narrowing her eyes, she leaned in and whispered, “Nothing to say about...anything in particular?”
“No. Should I?” I whispered back. Straightening, I snapped, “Hasda, don’t wander off.”
“Sorry.” The lad was staring up at the trees, staggering about with his neck craned all the way back. “I heard Kydonian tigers sleep in the trees. Do you think it’s up there?”
“I’m going to consider that a request for advice, and no.” I ignored Malia’s questioning look and pushed her wing out of the way so I could see Hasda better. “It seems to stay in the mines all day. I haven’t seen a single sign of it since I arrived.”
His disappointment lasted until Seppo dragged him into some tale reminiscing the days of the infant Tingin frontier, when Carthians were just starting to encroach on nomadic tribe lands.
As we made our way through the woodlands, Jade in the lead chittering away, Malia turned more and more sour, until finally her pouting overflowed and she punched my arm. “You seriously don’t have anything to say? I know you were digging up my toys.”
I grunted. “Much as it pains me to admit this, I couldn’t find the important one.”
“You couldn’t?” Her brow furrowed. “I would’ve thought the goats would catch your attention.”
Goats had been the bane of younger Malia’s existence. They were stubborn creatures who refused her machinations for no other reason than they felt like it, and not a single goatly augury in her temple had turned out favorable. The worst atrocity was the time Malia, then the Goddess of Death, had taken her armies outside Carthian territory to squash the civilization of an infant city-state. The city’s general had proved just as wily as Malia, and had routed her soldiers with a night ambush in which he’d tied torches to the herd of goats and driven them ahead of his own army, making Malia’s troops mistake them for a much larger force. Malia was inexperienced and on her own, and she shook the halls of Nebesa with her fury when she discovered the ruse the next day. I had teased her relentlessly until she conscripted my help in quashing her enemies. Our relationship began shortly after that.
And here, I had mistaken the goats as a distraction from her real plans. I’d never guessed she would’ve done something just for the inside joke. I held my sides laughing. “I can’t believe it. That’s it?”
“You think I’d risk disqualifying Hasda’s first task?” She made the comment sound offhand, but there was an edge to her voice.
I gave her a look. “This is you we’re talking about. I can’t imagine you would set up all those gifts for me to discover, just as a welcome back present.”
“I take it back.” A smile crept across her face. “You do have some imagination in you after all.”
“Yes.” Her eyes sparkled. “I’ve missed you, you big idiot.”
I laughed. “There really isn’t anything past that? No big reveal waiting in the wings?”
She shook her wings and checked under her feathers. “No surprises here.”
“I can’t believe it.” I shook my head. “Never thought I’d live to see the day where Malia played her cards face up.”
“Just this once,” she said, but the way she said it made suspicion flare in my chest. I narrowed my eyes at her, but she simply smiled and kept moving.
We passed through the forest quickly. Despite our larger group size, we weren’t slowed by searching the underbrush and tree hollows for Malia’s deposits. When we reached the final rise before the mining village, we slowed and Seppo took the high ground, shushing Jade and sending her down with the rest of us. His exoskeleton hissed as he settled into a comfortable stance.
“Well, lad, I’ve enjoyed our talks,” he said, smiling down at Hasda, “and it gives me great pleasure to send you after your first Trial. May you find success in this endeavor, and your patrons able where you are not.” With that, he nodded to Kydon and retreated down the path to stand next to the other gods, keeping his eyes very firmly away from Azoria and Thane.
Kydon stood where Seppo had been just a moment ago and launched into a dry, long-winded explanation of the terms and conditions of the Trial, most of which we already knew. Tame, slay, or drive away the beast, in Hasda’s own power, aided by the knowledge provided by his patron gods. No outside celestial aide beyond that, though mortals could help, et cetera, et cetera, and so on and so forth. As he droned on, we all mentally checked out, except for Thane and Azoria, who’d been checked out since we got here. I left Malia to keep Hasda from drifting into the forest or off into sleep and sidled up next to Thane.
Honestly, for a fling he could have done far worse. Azoria was pretty, and she’d worn a white gown with blue accents that complimented her auburn hair, which rested on her shoulders in twin braids. Her pixie face belied her military prowess, and the ornate rapier at her side wasn’t just for show. Though she practically floated, she was so wispy, she had a shrewd mind and was generally astute. She’d never quite reached spinster status, but she certainly had been light on relationships up to this point, so I’d give her the benefit of the doubt about this one.
I tapped Thane on the shoulder. Careful to keep my voice down, I said, “Why are you even here, if you’re just going to spend all your time womanizing?”
“Fate’s timing is never convenient for those who plan outside of fate,” he said, a dreamy look on his face. “Besides, I’m the god of death. I would never pass up the chance to collect on a Kydonian tiger.”
“I see.” I frowned. “So why is she here? Outside of ogling you, of course.”
“She’ll see to the rules and make sure they’re followed, when she has the time.”
“Oh, she will?” I shook my head. “This isn’t your first century, for either of you. Grow up.”
“Says the cranky old man making out behind the fountain like a schoolboy.”
Azoria chittered a laugh. Several heads turned our direction and Kydon shot me a look without interrupting his speech. I glared at them all and turned back to Thane.
“Fine. Point taken. But you’re no schoolboy yourself, and this behavior is beneath both of you.”
“Mmm, but it’s so delicious.” His voice was sickly sweet, vomit-inducing syrup that made me want to take a bath.
I shook my head and tried to scrape the dirty feeling off my tongue with my teeth. Clearing my throat, I said, “Are you sure Saffi didn’t get involved?”
“If he did, I should thank him later,” Thane said, that stupid dreamy tone coating his voice.
Azoria blushed slightly and averted her eyes for the first time. “I...went to him. For advice, and assistance.”
I grunted. That actually made a lot more sense than these two randomly fawning over each other. Saffi had stolen away the office of matchmaker from Tarrha, the goddess of beauty and love, and he was worse than Malia with how many pots he stuck his fingers into. But it wasn’t uncommon for gods to seek his help softening themselves up to relationships, in general or for political reasons.
While Azoria hadn’t been in a ton of relationships, she’d also rarely put herself out there, so getting a little magic confidence boost probably helped grease the wheels. Thane was still coming into his youthful vitality, by comparison, and if he was aiming for the position of party god I wouldn’t be shocked to see him try to bed every willing goddess in Nebesa. But then I frowned as I realized that, despite his younger centuries, I couldn’t for the life of me remember Thane being in a relationship before my retirement. He’d had plenty of opportunity before, and I could only assume since, but I was ignorant as to his history in love.
“Well, I can’t blame you for that. But you,” I thumped Thane’s shoulder, “should know better. Lay off until the others have left, and then you can go find a bush somewhere and do your business.”
“...and with that, the specifics have been detailed, the foundations of the Trial laid, and the hero prepared to embark on his quest,” Kydon said, projecting his voice our direction. Serious as always, he scanned the gods, narrowing his eyes when he saw us, and bowed before descending the hill. Seppo rattled and hissed as he opened his golden portal, and he and the other spectators returned to Nebesa, leaving me and Hasda with Malia, Jade, Thane and Azoria.