Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Of course, because it was Malia, we couldn’t just have a direct confrontation. Malia wanted to wait in Hasda’s hut for Jade to come around and ask why he wasn’t going into the mines today. Unfortunately for clever Malia, Jade beat her to the punch and was already waiting in the hut when we got back.
The goddess was wearing a simple, sky blue dress and had coiled her dark hair on top of her head. She had her human legs on today, and in her hands she held a pot of steaming soup. “Oh! Hasda. You’re up and about. When I heard how badly you’d been injured, I thought you would be bedridden for weeks.” She gave him a shy smile. “I made you some soup that I hoped would help you recover. But it looks like you’re already all better. Heroes must have far stronger constitutions than I realized.”
“Indeed they do,” Malia said. Her eyes were hard and locked on Jade’s face with an intensity that made me pity the young goddess. “I went up the mountain pass today.”
“Oh, that’s...nice.” Jade dropped her gaze and shifted uncomfortably. “The view is very nice. Did you like it?”
“I did.” Malia’s voice had a razor’s edge to it. Jade flinched, and Malia smiled in an unpleasant, predatory way. “Care to chat about what I saw?”
“I’m sure the trees were very pretty.” She wouldn’t meet Malia’s eyes and kept shifting her weight from foot to foot. “Sometimes herons pass overhead, and they’re very lovely.”
Hasda leaned over to me. “Why doesn’t she just tell her about the foreign gods?” he whispered.
“Because it lacks tact and is less fun that way,” Malia said, her snakes twisting in Hasda’s direction. “Also, you need to work on your volume control, Hasda.”
“Why don’t you leave that pot here,” Malia said, her grin feral, “and we can go outside and have ourselves a private chat, away from prying ears?”
Jade paled and gulped. “All right.” As she bent over to set the dish down, she yelped and stumbled, her ankle giving out from under her.
Malia was on her in a flash. Wings flared like a hawk, she gripped the trembling goddess by the shoulders and snarled, baring her fangs. “How long?” she said, shaking the lamia. “How long have you known?”
“I’m sorry,” Jade whispered, shrinking and curling in on herself.
Malia snarled and shook the girl harder. “Answer me! How long?”
“Since the tiger came!”
“Who’s out there?” Malia’s eyes bored into the terrified goddess. The only reason Jade wasn’t cowering on the floor was Malia’s iron grip on her arms.
“A...an Apkalla,” Jade stammered, her eyes darting everywhere around the room but Malia’s face. She squirmed, trying to wriggle free, but Malia tightened her grip.
I frowned. “I know that name.”
Malia jerked her head. “Paeden pantheon, the seven sages who serve the gods.”
“Who serve Marudak, the chief god,” Jade corrected.
Malia hissed at her. “So you knew that servants of an enemy pantheon were traipsing around the edge of your territory, and you didn’t think to warn us?”
Jade winced as Malia tightened her grip. “I thought I could defend myself from them, now that I'm with a stronger pantheon.”
“Our pantheon might be stronger than yours. You are not stronger than yours.”
“But that's not my pantheon anymore.”
“Enough.” I pulled Malia off Jade, who collapsed in a sobbing puddle on Hasda’s mat. Countering Malia’s incensed glare with a scowl of my own, I stepped between them and pushed Malia towards the door. “What’s done is done.”
Huffing, Malia spun and stormed out of the hut.
Hasda gave me a questioning look.
“Stay here with her.” I jerked my head at Jade. “I’ll go talk to Malia.”
I found her in the southern forest, down from the village. Several trees stood stripped of their bark, another handful with jagged trunks from being forcefully felled. Malia stood in a ring of blasted vegetation, her tail coiled under herself and the tip beating clouds of dust into the air.
“Hey.” I came up behind her, staying just out of range of her wings.
She rustled her feathers and kept her back to me, her arms folded. “Idiot goddess.”
“Not everyone is perfect like you.” I ducked around her agitated wing and stood beside her.
In front of her lay a swath of death, destruction, and petrification. She must’ve vented some of her frustration by opening her gaze. While unfortunate, the forest would recover in a year or so, and maybe in a decade the blight would be gone.
Malia shook her head, her snakes hissing as they swayed. “She was a minor goddess in the Paeden pantheon and she’s not much better, or more powerful, here. I don’t know why she got it in her head that she’d be able to take one of Marudak’s servants by herself.”
“Perhaps she wanted to show them she really did mean to leave.” I folded my arms and settled in next to Malia, our shoulders touching. “Maybe standing up for herself was the only way they would take her departure seriously. And you have to give her credit for not folding and immediately returning to her old pantheon. Switching sides is hard.”
“Bah.” Malia bared her fangs. “She’s hiding things from us. More than just the presence of this Apkalla.”
“Like you never hide things?” I smiled at her.
She rolled her eyes. “You know I’m not always unusually cruel just for kicks and giggles. That ankle of hers? It gave out because she got herself injured fighting something way over her power grade.” She shook her head, her face smeared with disgust. “And she’ll suffer serious long-term injury if she doesn’t get it healed in Nebesa. Now that we know about the Apkalla, she’d be a fool not to seek healing.”
“She’ll want to stay, though, so long as the Trial hasn’t been concluded. It would dishonor her to abandon her people and leave a foreigner to fight her battles for her.” I held up a finger to Malia’s protest. “Plus, she’ll need to be here if Hasda has to do his second plan.”
I explained his idea to make the Kydonian tiger Jade’s divine counterpart or sacred beast, whichever ended up playing out. Malia listened with pursed lips, her fingers tapping on her arm. When I finished, she shook her arms and flicked her wings.
“Well, that’s a bit...drastic.”
I smiled. “It is. He is going to try drugging it and dragging it out first, which I thought you would enjoy.”
She gave me a flat smile. “I’ll have you know, he did think of that himself. The goats having tranquilizers soaked into their fur was entirely coincidental, if convenient.”
I laughed. “He really is a bright lad.”
Malia tilted her head and tapped her cheek. “My only concern with the tranquilizer plan is that I’m fairly confident the Paedens are the ones behind the tiger.”
I arched a brow. “You think they cursed it?”
“Maybe not cursed,” she said, frowning, “but they definitely did something to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they planted it in the mines to undermine Jade’s position, both as an attack and an attempt to get her back.”
“You think she’s that important to them?”
“No, I think they’re that petty.”
I nodded. “So we need to be careful what we mix with whatever enchantments they’ve put on it.”
“Exactly.” She sighed and relaxed against me. Overhead, the birds flitted back to the tree branches they’d fled during Malia’s rampage, chirruping as they flew about. The wind kicked up, rustling leaves and grass. I wrapped my arm around her as she nestled close. “Refresh my memory,” she mumbled. “Hasda’s trial exclusively involves dealing with the tiger, correct?”
“Yes.” I hugged her close. “Why?”
“Good. That means, even if the Paedens were involved in planting it, I’m free to go stomp some invaders and work some things out of my system.” She grinned up at me, her eyes sparkling.
I booped her nose. “You mean ‘we.’ I’m not going to let you run off and face an Apkalla by yourself, you know.”
“You need to keep an eye on Hasda when he drugs the tiger to make sure there aren’t any negative magical reactions.” She smiled. “Besides, I need crabby old Charax to go be cranky at Jade until she gets her foot looked at. She won’t listen to me, of course, not after this morning. But I think she’ll respect your advice.”
“Mmhmm.” I gave her a look. “And what are you planning on cooking up while I’m distracted?”
“Nothing,” she said, but her tone and laugh betrayed her. She ran a finger down my chest. “We have some time before I announce myself to the nomads. Any ideas?”
I chuckled. Oh yes. Lots of lovely ideas. And we’d take our time, too. No need to rush the Paedens’ destruction. Malia and I would be nice and relaxed by the time we went to confront the invaders. And when we were ready, gods have mercy on our enemies.