Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I had to admit a certain level of admiration for the spectacle Oannes put on as he became the vessel of Marudak’s avatar. Lines of power arced around his body like coronas, the weight of the divine energy radiating from his body almost oppressive as it pushed against our godly auras. His eyes glowed with an unearthly light, and his tail floated as if freed from the pull of gravity. Embers drifted through the air, cast off by the gentle sweeps of his wings.
And Malia hadn’t been kidding when she had second-guessed her ability to take this Apkalla solo. Together, we could probably hold our own with room to spare, but I wasn’t sure that, even in my prime, I could have matched the amount of power Marudak had poured into his servant.
Fear that wasn’t mine tickled the back of my mind, worry at the raw power being unleashed. Through our bond, I could feel Malia’s instincts screaming for her to flee, and if it was bad enough that I could sense her reaction, she must really be scared. But she wore her unbothered mocking face like a war mask and even managed to give the Apkalla a contemptuous smile. But I had to admit, it was concerning just how strong Oannes had become, because if Marudak had given him what power he could safely spare, it meant we’d have our hands full in open conflict with the god himself.
Oannes seemed to sense my thoughts. Fixing his glowing eyes on mine, he smiled as he spread his claws. “Finally ready to lose your levity, eh?”
I grinned and spread my feet, finding a stable stance. “I suppose I should thank you.”
“Oh? For what?”
“For helping me grind the rust off my muscles.” I rolled my shoulders and readied my Spear. “I don’t think I’ll have a single knot left when I’ve finished imprinting the ground with your face.”
He leered. “We’ll see about that.”
As he dove, Malia launched a volley of flaming arrows that disintegrated as they collided with Oannes’ aura. Sparks flew, mixing with the embers of divine energy flaking off his wings. During that brief moment between his descent and collision with me, I felt my battle rage course through me like chills brought on by haunting music.
The fury of a berserker is often misunderstood. It is not a blind rage that consumes them and drives them like a wild beast to carve their way through a fray. No, the bloodrush is a blend of mindset and motion, a harmonious balance between emotional drive and intellectual execution. Like a river which flows ever onwards, no matter the stone or tree in its path, the berserker’s rage carries its warrior beyond any obstacle. The way such entranced fighters ignore bleeding wounds, loss of limbs, even mortal injuries as they’re born along the fight is often mistaken for thoughtless, animalistic furor, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how, in such a state, nothing but the battle matters. The mind is not gone, but wholly devoted to the singular task of annihilating one’s enemies.
Such a state I shrugged on, like a warding cloak, as Oannes extended his claws to rake across my face. The tips of his talons struck my cheeks, crackling the bones like crunched gravel. Before his claws had left my face, my regenerative powers began to restore the pocked bones, but I felt no pain. The gooey warmth of the healing was also absent. The chill of the wind—was it chilly? I’ve forgotten—failed to bother me as I settled into the comfortable shroud of my war mentality.
Grinning, I gripped my Spear and shrugged off his attack. Hardened arrows pierced his wards, most passing harmless through his feathers and smashing into me. My mind registered them as dull thuds in my ribcage that tried to dislodge my stance with their transferred momentum. Malia knew about my battle state, and had no qualms taking advantage of it.
I could see the confusion riddle the Apkalla’s face as more quarrels peppered my body. None seemed to have even grazed him, so he wasn’t yet ranting about being attacked by a woman, but he couldn’t understand how Malia gave such little regard for her partner’s life. His bewilderment vanished when I brandished my Spear and charged him.
Battling him was a truly pleasant experience. I dodged his strikes, ducked his sweeping wings, and stayed out of range of his tail as he cut, bobbed, and wove around my Spear thrusts and magic blasts. We circled each other, dancing around the pass as we dueled on. As I put my back to Malia, I felt my nerves alight with sensed danger. Without a second thought, I dropped to my stomach.
Harsh, breath-snatching heat washed over my back, rippling my robes. I heard Oannes gasp as the full force of Malia’s gaze slammed into him, and the earth trembled and cracked as he staggered against it. Malia shrieked, enraged at his resistance, and channeled more power into the blast. Even on my stomach, I still felt like I was being trampled by a herd of angry wildebeests. I couldn’t imagine facing down her full wrath.
When the intensity finally abated, I cautiously pushed to my feet.
Oh. Well then. I guess the Tingins didn’t want those trees anyways.
The whole mountainside behind Oannes, from the trough of the pass up to the peak, was a smoking blasted wasteland. Charred twigs, like scattered grave markers, were the only indicators that a forest had once blanketed the slope, and bone-dry gouges in the gray, stony surface bore witness to the streams and rivulets that had once wended down the mountain. A handful of bleached deer skulls peppered the rock face, their hollow sockets staring down in guilty accusation.
For a mortal, Oannes had weathered the gorgon gaze surprisingly well. With his god’s protection, he’d only lost all of his feathers, a good layer or two of skin, and both of his eyes. He looked like a scarecrow that had been torched, then the fire put out before it burned through the post supporting the effigy. Gone was the haughty, self-assured visage, replaced by an ugly wax caricature of agony. His wings, stripped of their plumage, flailed behind him like pimply flesh boomerangs. His fish tail had lost its sheen, resembling faded paint more than any living thing had any right to be. All in all, he’d had the worst, most unenviable makeover ever.
When he finally recovered enough to find his voice, he screamed in ear-splitting agony. His legs bowed like thin boards under too much weight, his lungs bellowing in delayed panic. Muscles trembling, he staggered down the path, stumbling blindly into me and bouncing off without much force. For all the power he must have spent shielding himself, he still radiated enough energy that, if he’d gathered his wits about him, he could have yet posed a real threat. As it was, his sanity seemed to have melted away along with his looks.
“You damned savages!” He lurched past Malia, hissing blindly in all directions as he blundered back towards his camp obscured in the forest below. “I will remember your faces for all eternity. When Marudak restores my sight, I will return and slay you, skin your faces, and wipe the shit off my ass with your—”
“Oh, piss off.” Malia sent an arrow thunking into the Apkalla’s shoulder. The force of the shot spun him around, knocking him off his feet. She had the most satisfied smile on her face as she watched him flounder about on the ground, trying to regain his footing, and I couldn’t help sharing her grin. So much for the terrifying envoy of the foreign god.
“You would do best...to kill me now,” he snarled, writhing around to get his willowy limbs under him. “At least Marudak would be merciful in his vengeance.”
“I don’t think Marudak will even notice your loss.” Malia lined up another shot, her tongue just poking through her lips, and released. The shaft wobbled as the arrow embedded itself between Oannes’ ribs. The Apkalla squealed and soiled the ground as he flinched away. Smiling, Malia reached for another arrow, but I held up a hand.
“Enough. Either kill him or let him go, but stop playing with your food.”
“Leave your fun behind in your temple?” She pouted but put the arrow back in the quiver. “At least let me sink one in his knee.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Fine.” She huffed. Slithering over to hover over the Apkalla, she hissed and spat on him. “Crawl back to your people on your belly, Worm, and tell Marudak he’s expected.”
Oannes rubbed at the spittle on his face with a rubber hand. “Stockpile tribute while you can. Marudak will demand harsh payment for this insult.”
She laughed. “I’ll take that seriously when Marudak sends a serious representative.” After another spit, this one laced with gorgon venom, she turned her back with a flick of her wings and slithered back towards the mining village. “Come, Charax. This blight is beneath us.”
I shook my head. Whatever had just happened, Malia couldn’t be more pleased with herself with how much she was preening. I hadn’t seen her this satisfied since...well, since she’d watched my helplessness at her traps collapsing around me and dragging me back into pantheon affairs. While another pantheon invading our territory was big enough on its own, there was something else afoot for Malia to be prancing on ahead like that. And not just from how thoroughly we’d embarrassed the emissary of a pantheon older and presumably more powerful than ours, oh no.
Another one of Malia’s schemes was hatching, and she couldn’t be happier with the clutch. Affixing my Spear to my back, I shuffled after her. Better to catch up with her, fast, and get the details while she was still in a good mood. She always divulged more than she intended when she was floating on endorphins.