Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Malia waited for me at the head of the path up the mountain while I convinced Jade to return to Nebesa. The lamia wasn’t happy about it, but when I told her she could go herself, or I could drag her to the healers by her tail and didn’t give two figs about propriety, she decided to go on her own. I smiled as she scurried through her portal. She would turn out okay, if she ever calmed down enough to work with others.
With Jade gone, Malia and I made our way up the mountain pass. The haze from yesterday still hung over the forest when we reached the overlook, but today it was thinner, as if whoever was obscuring the smoke realized they needed to do a better job. Malia’s lip curled in disgust as she surveyed the leafy canopy below.
“Absolutely amateurish,” she said. Dipping her shoulder, she withdrew her Warbow and strung it. “Humans might ignore that smoke, but they’re doing nothing to mask their power.”
Her eyebrows climbed her forehead as she gave me a look. “You still can’t feel it?”
I scratched the back of my neck. “Honestly? No.”
“Can you sense anything? What about my aura?”
“Well…” I couldn’t feel much of anything in the way of divine power, radiating from her or the forest below. Although with Malia, she probably had hers tightly under wraps until she was ready to announce herself to the Paedens below. “It’s like a low, familiar, warm glow. I know it’s there, but it’s not very distinct.”
She snorted and nocked an arrow. As she drew the Bow, she said, “You’re such a rickety old man. Maybe you should talk to Seppo and see if he has any aura hearing aids you can borrow.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll see if he has any braces for all those bags under your eyes, too.”
Her nostrils flared. “I do not.”
“You do.” I laughed. “And I think you’re developing a wrinkle in your forehead.”
She relaxed the Bow and ran her fingers across her brow. Feeling nothing, she scowled and drew the Bow again. “Asshole.”
“There’s the Malia charm we all know and love.”
Grinning, I folded my arms and settled into a comfortable stance. “Are you going to announce us or what?”
“Well, I would have several days ago if you’d just stop yapping.” She sighted down the shaft. A blink, and she’d magicked the arrowhead into a bundle of cloth tied to the shaft by rough twine. As she readied her shot, the twine caught fire, the flame eating up the string on its way to the bound cloth. Releasing her breath in a controlled exhale, she steadied the Bow.
A twang, and the arrow went winging away over the woods. Just as it reached the height of its arc, the fire caught up to the raghead. Whatever powder was inside exploded, branching into a shower of faux meteorites that rained violet sparks upon the leafy canopy. At the same time, Malia unveiled her aura and split the air with a power-infused shriek which startled flocks of birds from the trees. The falling chunks of purple fireworks burst into clouds of lavender glitter, sparking as they mixed with the enchanted haze.
A lone, solemn horn sounded, matched by an answering pillar of energy erupting from the heart of the forest. The source of the power was definitely foreign, a warm, gritty energy that spoke to broad deserts and open skies. A dark form shot up to the top and hovered in the sky, hovering on long, avian wings as it scanned the mountains. Good that they weren’t leathery, draconian wings. A birdform would be much easier to handle than any airborne lizards, especially fire-breathers. The flying figure finally noticed Malia and banked its wings to descend in a rush to the path below.
As the Apkalla approached, we got a good look at its form which was unusual, to say the least. Its wings displayed two different colorings, slate gray with silver lining on the back, white with black speckles underneath. Although it had a human head, its hair resembled white down feathers, and its cheeks and eyes were sunken, giving it a hawkish appearance. Its arms and torso were also human, well-muscled, and it carried a pinecone the size of a melon in its right hand.
But its lower section was the strangest part. While its legs were the strong, thin, taloned legs of a raptor, they glittered with emerald fish scales which matched the thick, piscine tail that extended behind it. Paper-thin, jade-hued membranes fanned out from the tip of its fish tail, fluttering just above the ground as it walked up to us.
When it stood a stone’s throw away, it stopped and stared at us with its dark, beady eyes. As it raised the pinecone, the stem extended until it formed a spear, with the pinecone as the head. It rapped the dirt with the butt of its weapon and chirped once, snapping to attention. “Who calls upon Oannes, servant of Marudak and chief among the Apkalla?”
Malia flared her wings and flashed her fangs. “What arrogant mortal dares trespass upon my domain and then address me as an inferior? You will bow, worm, or die.”
“These lands are not yours, nor are they any god’s, for that matter.” The Apkalla curled his lips back, showing thick, uneven teeth. “I feel the claim of no deity upon them. And I can sense your ignorance, from your brash response, of who I am and whom I serve. Though mortal I may be, yet may my lord use me as his vessel, anointing me with his power to speak as his mouthpiece.”
Malia waved her hand dismissively. “I know it. Semi-divine avatars or however your kind classifies them.”
“Then you would know,” he said, his brow pinching, “that to insult me is to insult my lord.”
“Of course. He should feel honored to have merited an insult in the first place.” She flashed a smile. “Although it is a bit low to berate children. So I’ll cut you some slack and let you off with a warning. Now leave, and take your peasants with you.”
“You are an impertinent woman, with no authority over me.” Oannes scowled at her, then turned to me. “I would speak with you, as man to man, unless your culture is so far gone in barbarism that you let the womenfolk dictate on your behalf.”
Malia’s eyes flew open, and she started laughing. She knew what was coming. Still laughing, she bowed to me and slithered back. “He’s all yours.”
“A gift?” Oannes frowned. “I have no need of servants, although I appreciate the gesture.”
“There will be a gift,” I said, cracking my knuckles. “Though not as you expect. Now, before we continue, I just want to get something cleared up. Make sure we’re on the same page, so to speak.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow your logic.” The Apkalla shifted his hands across the shaft of his spear, crossing the weapon in front of him as he squared off against me. Smart lad.
“Are you saying that she is incompetent and an uncivilized barbarian?” I could feel the battle itch crawling beneath my skin, tingling across the backs of my hands. “That she’s incapable of speaking for herself, let alone another?”
“Ah, the Feminine Heresy.” He shook his head and managed to look disappointed. “I shouldn’t be surprised that the unenlightened live in such depravity, yet it never fails to astound me how far genalen peoples stray from the righteous laws carved into their hearts.”
I blinked. He still hadn’t grasped the severity of his situation. As I drew my Sword, I dropped my inhibitions and let him feel the weight of my power.
Coughing, he staggered back a step, catching his balance with his spear.
“There we go. Enlightenment.” I grinned at his scowl. “Let me spell things out in simple terms your puny little brain can understand.” I pointed my Sword towards Malia. “She is my Co-Seat, my partner in more than just my Office.”
The Apkalla gave me a blank look.
“What’s he’s tripping over himself to say,” Malia said, rolling her eyes, “is that you’ve just insulted, in cultural equivalences, his wife, and then had the gall to insult him as well.”
I nodded. “It’s a little more complicated than that, but it’ll do for an analogy.”
“Ah. So you will follow her orders like a beaten cur.” He drew himself up as he put on a brave face, although his white knuckles on his spear betrayed him.
My Sword warmed like a branding iron as I poured just a smidgin of power into it. The heat of the grip felt good in my hand, recalling a host of memories from my former days of carving through my enemies with ease. Fun times.
My reminiscing must have spilled onto my face, because the Apkalla leered at whatever grin had poked out. “That was not a compliment.”
My smile broadened. “How young are you, child?”
“Marudak is eternal, and shall forever be.”
“I didn’t ask about your master.” I shook my head. “Kids these days.”
“As Marudak, so are we.” Oannes scowled at us. “The mind of Marudak has held us in existence since time immemorial. The vapors of our lives upon this mortal plane are mere grains of sand in the endless desert of eternity.”
“A straighter answer there never was,” Malia said, rolling her eyes.
The Apkalla leveled his spear at her. “You would do well to remember your station and speak only when spoken to.”
I smashed my Sword into his weapon, shearing off the pinecone just below the base. He stumbled back and stared at his damaged weapon in shock. Cracking my neck, I took a step forward. “All right. I tried the reasonable route, but you don’t want to talk without debasing yourself. So I’m done talking. You’d better get your rotten fish-smelling ass out of my sight right now, or I’m going to send you back to Marudak in pieces. I’ll even wrap the urn in a nice, Carthian blue bow and sign my name in your blood. Now leave.”
Throwing his beheaded spear on the ground, Oannes spread his arms and wings and threw his head back. A piercing cry, like the call of a hunting eagle, rent the air. Not only was it an uncomfortable sound, but it was also far at odds with the throat from which it issued. No human vocal cords could produce such a sound, and it made the back of my neck tingle.
“Oh great Marudak, lend me your strength against the unbelievers!” His human voice darted around his eagle cry like a fox through a burning field. Mingled with these disparate sounds was an undertone of power, a low bass that thrummed against my shoulder blades. Oannes slowly lifted off the ground, his toes dragging as the power drew him up.
Malia and I backed away, bracing ourselves as Oannes filled with the essence of his divine master. We shared a look and readied our weapons, Malia nocking an arrow and I switching from my Sword to my Spear. Looks like we were going to get a firsthand demonstration of what an imbued demigod could do.