Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
With the other gods gone, Jade bounced in front of us and tried her best to be a welcoming host. “You might want to wear your Veils,” she said. “I won’t, of course, because the Tingins are me people and they know me, but they’re wary of outsiders and they can be a little skittish. I’ll introduce Hasda to them, so they should be okay with him, but with other gods—”
“We understand, Jade,” Malia said, putting a hand on Jade’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
Thane and Azoria sobered next to me so fast I thought someone had dumped buckets of ice water over them. All the lovey-dovey was gone, and they met Jade’s concerned look with serious, clear eyes.
“Do you have a mental map of the mines?” Azoria asked.
Jade blinked. “I...yes, I do. I can send it to you. Wait.” She frowned, her fingers flying to her temples. “I can’t. You’re not in my telepathic contact list. Of course, it’s not a very large list right now, I only know a bunch of demigods and some minor gods I met at the party, but they don’t need the map of the mines and I don’t want to bother them. So I—”
“I can add you.” Azoria gave her a firm smile.
“Oh, all right.” She fluttered her hands and shifted towards Thane. “Do you need the mental map, too?”
He shook his head, getting his bangs in his eyes. “I don’t, but they might.” He motioned at Malia and me.
Frowning, I folded my arms and squared him up. “All right, fess up.”
“What?” He pushed his hair out of his face and put on an innocent look as the goddesses huddled together to share telepathic contacts and Jade’s mind map.
“You know what.” I grunted and jerked my head at Azoria. “What was that all about?”
“Cover, obviously.” He gave me a smug smile. With my height advantage, I didn’t think the confidence was justified. As I frowned, his smile wilted a little. “Don’t be sour just because you didn’t figure it out sooner.”
“Cover for what?” I growled.
Malia came over and swatted me on the arm. “Don’t be cross. Azoria and I had a little chat earlier, and she’s here to help.” She nodded to Thane. “Run along now, and make sure you keep your Veil up.”
He nodded and stepped back, vanishing from the mortal realm. Although he was still present, only other gods could see him, since the Veil allowed anything divine to move unseen through the earth. Finished with the map acquisition, Azoria pulled on her own Veil and joined Thane as they headed towards the village.
“You should probably wear your Veils as well,” Jade said. She took Hasda’s hand and tugged him after the gods. “Come on! I’ll introduce you to the miners.”
Malia linked her arm with mine and dragged me after them. We walked in silence for a while, listening to the chattering of the birds in the trees. In the coolness of the morning, she was a warm weight next to me, radiating self-satisfaction.
“You really can’t help yourself, can you?” I muttered.
She smirked. “Surprised?”
“That would be an understatement.” I sighed. Shadows from the overhanging branches sliced the sunlight in alternating rays of warmth and coldness as we made our way through the woods. “Are they it? No more hidden schemes for this Trial?”
“I’m hurt.” She squeezed my elbow, her feathers rustling as she brushed up against me. “Of course there’s more. But I won’t use those unless I have to.”
I shook my head. “I’m not even going to ask what ‘those’ are. I’m just surprised you’re so blatantly flaunting the rules.”
“Excuse you.” She smacked my shoulder, and I rubbed it.
“That hurt, damn it.”
“You deserve it.” She scowled and wagged a finger at me. “And watch your language.”
“Why? Is there a lady around?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You’d better watch it, mister.”
“I am.” I dipped my head in the direction of the out-of-sight gods. “How can you possibly spin direct divine interference in your favor?”
“Simple.” She bared her fangs in a predatory smile. “They’re helping out of the kindness of their own hearts.”
“I don’t believe that for a second.”
Her snakes flicked their tongues as she shook her head. “You don’t have to, but it is what it is. Thane and Azoria will ensure Hasda succeeds at his Trial, of their own volition, and it will be entirely within the rules.”
Ducking beneath a low-hanging branch, I frowned. “And how do you figure that?”
“Because Azoria drafted the rules of this Trial with that loophole in them.” She tucked her wings close as she went under the same branch. “I made sure of it. Divine interference in Trials outside of the hero’s patrons is a long-standing tradition. All Azoria had to do was omit the negative, and now any kind of activity, not just opposition, is perfectly legal in the Trial.”
“And you bribing them to help wouldn’t make it, by proxy, your own assistance?” I raised an eyebrow at her. Surely she hadn’t overlooked such a basic safeguard for the spirit of the law.
She paused. “That’s why I haven’t promised them anything.”
“But you left the inference of aid a viable interpretation.” I shook my head. “Even an implied promise could be binding, and if Kydon smells even a hint of your proxy meddling, he’ll have a line of Trials for Hasda to complete lined up in no time.”
“That’s why we have my second failsafe.”
“And what’s that?”
“You.” Her eyes sparkled as she said it.
I stumbled over a tree root. Recovering my balance, I glared at her. “What do you mean, me?”
“You failed to discover this gift, didn’t you?”
“There’s no way I could have,” I spluttered. “It wasn’t here to discover. And I certainly can’t predict what the other gods are going to do.”
“Well, then you have to admit this counts as getting one over on you, right?” She batted her eyes at me, and I sorely wished I had her last letter to swat her with. But then the wheels started turning in the back of my mind, and I narrowed my eyes at her.
“Thane wasn’t as drunk as he made himself out to be.”
“Clever boy.” She smiled and pulled me along. We were nearly at the village. “I should thank you for being such a receptive listener. Without your help, I’d never have secured that line of defense.” She giggled. “And you were so cute, stomping around trying to figure out what you’d missed.”
“You’re an insufferable witch.” I couldn’t believe it, but I could. It was always a complicated web of interconnected motivations with Malia. If I could trust her on anything, it was having an ulterior motive for her ulteriors. Smoke and mirrors, sleight of hand, red herrings within a maze of diversions. Sometimes it felt like she was performing the ball and cups trick without the ball. She’d already been switching the cups before I’d even realized the trick had begun.
Pressure on my arm distracted me from my mental rant. Malia had come to a stop, her face slack. We’d reached the edge of the forest, and Hasda stood tall, a stern look on his face. Next to him, Jade hopped from one foot to the other, looking extremely uncomfortable. Thane and Azoria, still hidden under the Veils, stood on the other side of the lad, arms folded and looking unhappy. No one seemed to be saying anything, so I went first.
“While I appreciate your efforts on my behalf,” he said slowly, his eyes on Malia, “this is my Trial, and I must complete it myself.”
“He won’t accept our help,” Azoria said, her tone bland. She didn’t look happy about having her aid refused, and I could understand that. No god took rejection lightly.
“And you explained that it’s well within the rules?” Malia said.
“Yes,” she said.
Hasda nodded. “I understand. I appreciate your offer, but I have to do this for myself.”
I smiled, which only made Malia’s frown deepen.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked, lacing her voice with concern.
He jerked his head. “I am.”
“Well, if you insist.” She sighed and seemed to relent. Of course, she’d probably already started planning a workaround, but she’d save face in front of her champion.
Azoria nodded her goodbyes and headed into the forest. At the edge of the treeline, she paused and said, “Our agreement still holds? I can’t help that—”
“Yes, yes, you fulfilled your obligations,” Malia said, waving her away.
She nodded and vanished through a bright green portal that manifested for just a blink.
I frowned at Thane. “Why are you still here?”
“Gee, Pops, I wonder why? It’s not like there’s some serious game to bag in those mountain caves or anything.”
I rolled my eyes. “I should take that Scythe off you. Of all the gods who’ve held that office, you have to be the most flippant God of Death I’ve ever seen.”
He shrugged and rocked back on his heels, his thumbs hooked through his belt.
“Well, with that out of the way,” Malia said. Flinching, she jerked her Veil on, disappearing as the villagers approached the forest. I hadn’t been wearing my Veil, either, and didn’t react fast enough, but since I’d already been spotted by the trio of warriors I’d met the other day, I sighed and left myself visible. Hasda brought himself up proudly, brandishing his armor as he waited for Jade to make her introductions.
“Do you think they saw me?” Malia whispered.
I sighed. “I don’t know. What does it matter? They can’t see you now.”
She said nothing, just took on a brooding, sulky look.
Jade made her introductions, singing Hasda’s praises as a powerful shaman, chosen by the gods to rid them of the fearsome tiger. Hasda shook hands with the warriors, who accepted him cordially enough. They cast a few glances my way and nodded in acknowledgement, but they didn’t relax until I reluctantly pulled on my Veil. I hadn’t wanted to spook them, vanishing suddenly, but they seemed to have expected it and looked far more at ease once I was “gone.”
I sighed. It made no sense why they could so easily accept Hasda and not me, when we both supposedly came from the forest. But at least they’d taken him in, and as they walked into the village, Hasda between the trio and Jade, I couldn’t help feel a stab of pride at how well my boy had turned out. He looked and acted like a proper hero. Now to see if he could accomplish the feats of a hero, too. I grunted. He’d be fine. I had raised him, after all.