Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The next day, Hasda awoke groggy, sore, and in surprisingly good spirits. Looking not at all put out by yesterday’s disaster, he sat up and stretched and began strapping on his armor.
“Where’s Malia?” he asked as he wiggled on a greave.
I frowned. “She went up into the mountains to investigate the pass. Something felt off to her, she said, and she hasn’t been back since.”
“Oh. Well, that’s okay. You’re still here.” His smile faded as he patted his chest. “This scar is new.”
“It is.” I kept my voice even.
His eyebrows quirked down and he gave me a confused look. “I mean too new. It shouldn’t have healed that quickly.”
“You had...a healer.” I clenched my jaw and turned away.
“Hey. What happened?” He stood up, accidentally knocking the other greave on the floor. It clattered into the bracers and split chestplate. “Oh, wow. That looks a lot worse than I thought.”
“You looked a lot worse than that when you came out,” I said, half-growling.
“Who healed me?”
Hasda gave me a strange look. “Then why are you so unhappy? I thought you liked him, especially since he was your old apprentice.”
I sighed. “Normally, yes. But Malia called in, and then gave up, a favor to do so, which could jeopardize the legality of this Trial. While you didn’t die, you got yourself severely injured, and I don’t have any spare leathers to replace the ones Malia gave you.” I shook my head. “If there are any more, Malia has them, and she’s not here.”
“Well, they were helpful while they lasted, but I don’t think they’ll work anymore.”
“Oh?” I arched a brow.
He nodded. Sitting down, he folded his legs onto his sleeping mat and rested his hands on his knees. “Last time, he ate them, but this time he just attacked. He was really offended when I asked if he’d want to leave the mines, and he said he wasn’t going to stop feeding on the miners, because what else could he eat? But he doesn’t want to leave the mines.”
“That’s extremely atypical for Kydonian tigers,” I said.”
“I know. He’s definitely sick.” He curled and uncurled his fingers around the tops of his greaves, giving the metal a thoughtful look. “I didn’t see any patches of missing fur, but his coat doesn’t shine and the air swims with his hair. He’s losing far too much for a normal shed, and he breathes like his nose is stuffed with dirt.”
“Any other signs of weakness?”
Hasda nodded. “Sometimes his legs will shake, but he’s still ridiculously strong.”
“Well, you now officially have more experience with Kydonian tigers than I do.” I sighed. “Malia might know something of what’s plaguing it, but alas, if only she were here to consult.”
“I’m sure she’ll be back soon.” He smiled as he picked up a bracer to strap on. “She wouldn’t just vanish if it weren’t important.”
I grunted. “Yes, but important to whom? You give her far too much credit. I wouldn’t put it past her to prioritize handling some scheme gone awry over staying to advise you.”
“You sure that’s not just her coping mechanism? Like how yours is glowering at everything and threatening to burn everyone to ash with your incinerating gaze” Eyebrows arched, he blinked up at me in his awful attempt at feigned innocence.
That was a valid point, but at my age I was allowed to be cranky and not concede it. I grunted noncommittally and jerked my head towards the ruined chestplate. “You planning on wearing that into the mines?”
“Actually, I was thinking of going up the mountain pass after Malia.” He picked up the last bracer and fiddled with the straps.
I arched a brow at him. “Oh? She’s off investigating who knows what, but whatever it is has enough power to unsettle her, and your gut instinct is to join her?”
He shrugged. “I’m not exactly in the best shape. I know you healed me, or Thane did, but I don’t feel ready to face the tiger right now. Perhaps tomorrow, after I’ve rested a bit. Plus,” he said, pushing to his feet, “I have a couple ideas on how to get the tiger out of the mines. Come on. We can discuss them on the way up.” He smiled and strode out of the hut.
I frowned at his back, then down at the chestplate with the ugly gash. Although it hadn’t done Hasda much good, I still needed to get it repaired. Maybe it’d serve a purpose in the next Trial, but even in this one, I’d feel better with it on him. Sighing, I followed him out of the hut. Fixing the armor could wait.
As we made our way up the grassy path, Hasda detailed his various solutions to the tiger problem, which amounted to a grand total of two. The first one gave me chills from its Malia vibes—feeding goats bathed in sedatives to the tiger—and she’d be pleased to know her ready-mades would be put to use. But the second one was far more ambitious and genuinely impressed me with its ingenuity.
“You want to make the tiger a god?”
He nodded. “Maybe not a full god, but at least a sacred animal?” He held up a hand and ticked off on his fingers. “It’s already semi-divine, the villagers fear it if not revere it, and they could bring it livestock and other offerings in exchange for safe passage and guarding in the mines.”
I couldn’t keep the proud grin off my face, and hoped he wouldn’t take it as mocking with what I was about to say. “Not to dismiss your idea, but how would that satisfy the requirements of your Trial?”
“The reason I have to remove the tiger is it doesn’t belong, right?”
I narrowed my eyes, puzzling through his train of thought. “Yes?”
“Well, then, if the miners start worshipping it as a guardian spirit, then it’s not the marauding tiger anymore but their local mine spirit. And I wasn’t sent here to interfere with local customs.”
Honestly, I was impressed. And Seppo would absolutely adore the logic. If he could pull it off, it might far exceed the pantheon’s expectations for his first Trial, which would give him a huge boost going into the next one. But best to temper his objective against reality. “While I agree that would, metaphorically speaking, ‘remove’ the tiger, I think you should try the literal interpretation first.”
He nodded as we rounded a fallen boulder obstructing the path. “Of course. Getting the tiger dedicated worship sounds like a lot more work than trying to drag it out of the mines.”
“That it does.” I laughed. “One other thing to be mindful of, if you decide to go down the deity route, is you’ll need to tie the tiger to Jade somehow. Since she’s already the local goddess, you’ll create a power schism between them if you don’t associate the two.” I paused, and chose my wording carefully. “My advice would be to treat Jade as the Goddess of the Mines, and the tiger as the Guardian of the Miners. That way, their domains are tangential but non-overlapping.”
Hasda inclined his head. “Thank you for your advice.”
We made our way up the rest of the path in relative silence, enjoying the chittering of the mountain sparrows and chickadees. The trees thinned as we neared the top, although the woods remained populated enough to provide those annoying false paths that meandered into confusion and a loss of direction. Our path was well-worn enough and clearly marked, most likely by the goatherds who tended the few domesticated animals the village owned. The head of the path, which crested the edge of the mountain, had been cleared, opening up onto a wonderful view of the forest beyond the pass. Malia stood at the edge of the trail, back to us, her arms folded and her snakes irritated.
“Everything okay?” I called as we approached.
She flicked her wings in annoyance and kept her gaze on the woods below. “Are you really that dense, or are you just getting old?”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
She glanced back at me and rolled her eyes. “Can’t you feel that power?” She flicked her hand down the mountainside.
Hasda glanced between us, his face concerned. “Don’t be mad at him. He hasn’t gotten out much lately.”
Shaking her head, she barked a laugh and turned to face us. “I know. I’m just giving him a hard time because he’s such a crusty old salt, he wouldn’t be able to hear his bones grate if they weren’t vibrating through his whole body.” Though she kept her tone light, I could see the way her eyes pinched.
“What am I missing?” I said, voice serious.
She pursed her lips. “If you can’t feel it, use your battle experience and tell me what you see.”
It looked like a normal forest to me. Lots of deciduous trees, like maples, oaks, and birches, with smatterings of conifers sticking out like green burs. A light haze hung over the forest as the morning sunlight burned the mist away…
The morning mist should be long gone by now. It was late morning, the sun skirting the edge of its zenith. Whatever was clouding the air certainly wasn’t water, although it wasn’t gray enough to be proper smoke. Perhaps trappers had a campfire going, perhaps not. The itch on the back of my neck told me some kind of sorcery was at work. Since whoever was out there was on the nomads’ side of the mountains, that meant unknown magic, and maybe foreign gods. Not a good thing to have wandering around on your backside, especially since they’d vanished after the miners had settled and integrated into Carthian society.
Malia nodded as she saw my eyes light up. “Right. Alien god.”
The corners of my lips dipped in a frown. “How bad?”
“More powerful than Jade, though that’s not saying much.” She shook her head, fangs bared. “Stronger than me? I doubt it, but…”
When she didn’t continue, Hasda piped up. “But what?”
I grunted. “What she isn’t saying is, it would be a close fight.”
“Speaking of Jade, let’s go find her.” Malia slithered back down the mountain, a scowl on her face. “I have a few questions she needs to answer.”