Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Watching the map the next day was a harrowing experience. Malia kept frowning at it, huffing, and drumming her fingers on her arms. Jade had stayed with us through the morning, pacing back and forth and running her mouth a mile a minute until Malia snapped at her. The goddess had blanched and immediately shifted into her lamia form, her legs vanishing in a twist of scales as she took on the lower body of a snake, and slithered off after muttering a legion of apologies.
I frowned at Malia but said nothing. While it made sense why Malia was frustrated—under less serious circumstances I’d have told Jade off hours ago—she could have, at least, held her tongue or dulled its edge. Jade was young and far less sure of herself than we were. From how antsy she’d been, this was probably her first major disaster as goddess of her people, and to have it elevated to immortality by being Hasda’s first Task probably didn’t help her nerves any. Add to that her general awkwardness and dubious status among the Carthian pantheon as a debatable outsider, and it was a recipe for emotional disaster.
Malia let out a frustrated sigh and glared at me. “What?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
Hasda’s yellow dot wended its way deep into the mines on the map before us. Still no sign of the tiger thus far.
“It’s not nothing,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You couldn’t be more transparent if you painted your visage across the heavens. Was it what I said to Jade?”
I grunted. “You could have handled that better.”
“Oh really?” She huffed. “And I suppose you’d have me swaddling her soiled ass, too?”
“At the very least,” I said, scowling at her, “you could have refrained from insulting her heritage. Lamia is a respectable race, and fully serpentine.”
“Please. Worms are better candidates for close relations than that.”
I arched a brow. “Would it kill you to think about how young and insecure she is?” I wagged my finger when she rolled her eyes. “You pissed yourself your first battle and nearly lost your entire troop because you were so terrified of making a mistake. You didn’t get this cocky until you put a solid three centuries of experience under your belt.”
“Like you’re one to talk,” she said. “They still have that old scabbard in a museum, you know.”
Blasted woman. I’d been so skittish my inaugural campaign as the God of War that I’d gone into battle without my Sword. “Malia.”
She uncrossed her arms, then recrossed them and went back to beating a rhythm with her fingertips. “Fine. I’ll consider giving her a suitably detached apology later. But I won’t be opening any doors for her advancement because of it.”
Whatever snarky remark she had lined up died on the tip of her tongue because the tiger’s red dot blazed to life on the map. It rounded the bend ahead of Hasda and approached him, stopping an inch away on the map, so probably several feet away in the mines. Enough that it would rest on the edge of Hasda’s vision, given his lamp, not close enough to attack him but close enough to engage. The markers hovered that way for a while, until suddenly the tiger darted forward.
For the longest time, the two dots were stacked so close together that it appeared as one single, orange circle on the map, bouncing chaotically into the walls of the tunnel. An eternity later, the dots finally separated, the tiger streaking off into the darkness and Hasda wobbling back towards the entrance. From the erratic path his marker traced along the mines, we knew this encounter must have gone much worse than the last.
I didn’t even try to keep Malia from racing to the entrance because I beat her there. If Kydon wanted to protest, let him. I’d take any of his lecturing under consideration and tell him to piss off because I wasn’t about to let Hasda die over arbitrary limitations. The boy could always complete another Trial, but not if he died. I took the fact that Thane hadn’t materialized next to us as a good sign. Hasda might be injured, but he wasn’t on death’s doorstep, at least.
When he appeared at the mouth of the mine, however, he looked bad enough to challenge that assessment. Blood covered him from his head to his waist, his chestplate peeled off from a wide, diagonal gash in the armor. It was hard to tell how deep the cut was on Hasda because of all the mud and dirt caked onto him. He listed as he staggered out of the mines, his head lolling to the side as he barely kept his feet.
The air crackled as Malia and I cast off our Veils, blinking into the mortal plane. Malia shrouded Hasda beneath her wings as she wrapped her arms around him, catching him before he fell. While she held him, I set about extricating him from his armor. His leathers were in tatters, thin strips the only remainders. His greaves and bracers had been deeply scored, and I found not a few scrapes from where the tiger’s claws had made it through the armor. At least they weren’t deep, and when I wiped the blood away his skin showed blotching from toxins or infections.
His chest was another matter. The tiger’s claws had sheared through the plate and cut deep into muscle and bone. Several ribs showed nasty, V-shaped gouges, but thankfully none of the slashes had gone all the way through. His breathing was labored, but it didn’t sound like he had any fluids in his lungs. I ripped the last of the armor off him and unstrapped his helmet, brushing my face with the bloody plumage as I tossed it behind me.
Malia set him gently on the ground and frowned down at him. “How mortal is he?” she asked without looking at me.
“Very.” I failed to keep the warble from my voice. “He’s not going to be in fighting condition for months, assuming no infections from the wounds.” I knelt beside him and dabbed at the cut with a damp cloth. He flinched and mumbled something incoherent, his eyes rolling sightlessly across the sky overhead. I frowned. At least he wasn’t delirious. That was never a good sign. “If we’re scrapping this Trial, I can accelerate his healing, although he’ll be a little sore for the next one.”
She shook her head. “It hasn’t even been a week yet.”
“No.” Her eyes were as hard as her voice. Her snakes mirrored her frustration, writhing and hissing at each other. “It’s too soon to abandon this Trial. I’ll call in some favors, get another deity to heal him.”
“If I heal him, we can invalidate this Trial and have a fresh start with the next.” I squared off against her gaze and folded my arms. “At least that way his first Trial goes down as null and void, instead of a failure.”
“What’s all the fuss about?”
We both jumped at the voice. Thane strolled around from behind Malia’s wing, peering down at the semi-conscious Hasda. “Ooh, that looks bad. Is it recent?”
“Yes.” I glowered at him and tightened my crossed arms. “He won’t be dying today. His injuries aren’t that bad, and I’d drag him back from near death if they were.”
“Oh, hush, I’m not here to collect his soul.”
I arched a brow. “Then why are you here?”
“A gift.” He manifested a silver flagon, shaped like a teardrop and fluted at the top, and brandished it over Hasda. “To aid him on his way.”
I jerked forward and grabbed his hand, stopping him before he could pour the unknown contents all over the lad. “Since when can you provide healing? You’re the God of Death, not the Apothecary.”
“And you,” he said, extricating himself from my grip, “are the God of Crabby Old Men, suspicious of aging carried on the breeze. I swear by the severity of my Office that I mean the boy no ill intent and act only in good faith to heal him.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Why?”
“What do you mean, ‘why?’” He scowled. “You’d look a gift horse in the mouth?”
“Why are you bringing the gift horse in the first place?” I shifted my gaze to Malia. I hadn’t felt her send any telepathic messages, but then, you never knew with her. “Is this your doing?”
Folding her arms, she pursed her lips and looked away.
“Malia!” I growled in frustration. “Proxy help is still help. You protest throwing in the towel already yet immediately follow up by risking the validity of this Trial.”
“Consider this my gift, freely given, with no caveats, conditions, or hidden clauses.” He clapped his hands together, crushing the flagon between them. Dark liquid, odorless and opaque, dripped in a long, viscous drop from Thane’s fingers onto Hasda’s wound. The liquid steamed and hissed as it seeped into his bones. Sounds like snapping twigs popped across his chest, and his skin rippled in violent waves as it reknit itself together. Hasda yelped, arched his back, and then collapsed into unconsciousness, breathing heavily.
Thane dusted his hands over Hasda. Smiling, he flourished his hand and presented me with the ring from the fluted end of the flagon, all that remained of the vessel. “A token of my sincerity.” After depositing it in my hand, he snapped his portal open and backed through it, bowing as he went.
I scowled at Malia. On the ground, Hasda snored softly between us.
“Don’t give me that look,” she said, turning away. “I gave up a good debt for that.”
I frowned. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
“What else do you want?” Her back to me, she flared her wings as she slithered away from us. “Hasda’s healed, within the bounds of his Trial. I gave up my claim to Thane’s debt and didn’t protest being arguably put into his. You should be applauding me.”
“For being so flippant?”
She glared back at me over her shoulder. “Mortals are replaceable, Charax. I know it breaks your heart whenever you lose one, but you always seem to forget the fact that, in the end, they always die.”
I rocked back as if slapped. In her defense, this wasn’t a new argument for us, but it had been a long time since we’d last had it. While she was right, she was still an ass. “I thought the whole point of these Trials was to put him on the path of immortality.”
“The whole point,” she said, rolling her eyes, “was to qualify him for a dangerous position in which he would imperil his life daily while leading my armies on endless slaughter. What part of that told you he would live forever?” She shook her head in disgust. “Carry him back to his hut, would you? He needs his rest, and I need to check out the mountain pass. Something’s giving me a bad feeling.” And with that, she fluttered her wings and hurried off up the mountain path.
I sighed and cradled Hasda in my arms as I carried him back to his abode. Malia was right. He was questing to prove himself a hero capable of leading a goddess’ host. That wouldn’t guarantee him a shot at immortality...but it could raise him to demigod status, and demigods could make the transition, given the right circumstances. Worshippers, sacrifices, temples consecrated in their name, on the rare occasion made deity fiat for significant feats. And they could handle ambrosia which, while not the Fruit of Eternal Life, went a long way to extending natural life and granting an affinity for the divine.
As I tucked Hasda into his sleeping mat, I felt my determination rising. Champion or no, I would find a way to use these Trials to push him closer to godhood. I wouldn’t always be able to intervene and protect him, and if he could weather mortal perils on his own, all the better. But the best thing would be for him not to have death hanging over his head, metaphorically speaking. While I couldn’t keep Thane from collecting, I could put Hasda out of reach by getting him Ascended. All I had to do was figure out how.