Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It didn’t take long to catch up to Malia. She had slowed and was now taking her time getting down the mountain, sashaying with serpentine splendor as she celebrated our victory. Her smug grin was still firmly in place, and for a moment I wondered if she’d even be able to talk through those taut facial muscles. I fell into step beside her and said, “All right, spill it.”
“What?” Her eyes flashed as she cast me a sideways glance.
Oh goodness. Her fangs were out, and she was positively overflowing with satisfaction. I didn’t think her mood could possibly get any better.
“This can’t be because the encounter went much easier than you thought it would,” I said, chuckling.
“Easy?” She quirked a brow and brushed up against me. “Charax, without looking at the sun, what time is it?”
“Er…” Now that she mentioned it, I hadn’t paid any attention to the time. When the fight had started, it had been early afternoon, but somehow dusk had settled and evening had come in full. Had it really taken that long?
Malia nodded to my unspoken question. “My old Charax came back today.” She smiled and tugged an arrow out of my torso. “You were so alive in that fight. So in your zone that nothing but the battle mattered. And you were so fluid, I even forgot what a rickety old bag of bones you are.”
“Hey.” I grunted as she yanked another arrow out. Not that it hurt, but she timed it perfectly, as if she’d been waiting for my protest to sync the pull to and make it seem like it did. In all honesty, she probably had. “That’s not everything. Come on.”
She gave a happy sigh and leaned against me. “I’m glad you liked your gift.”
“Surprise.” Her eyes twinkled as she smiled up at me. “I knew you’d like it. You haven’t had a good fight in a while.”
“I did.” My eyebrows twitched down. “But I’m lost as to how you claim to have orchestrated that.”
She laughed softly. “You didn’t think I’ve been going off into the forest beyond for the sights, did you?”
I frowned. “You only did that once.”
“Once while you were here.” That mischievous grin snapped back into place. “I’ve been coming here to antagonize the Paedens ever since we laid claim to the mines. How do you think Jade converted?”
“That was you?” I honestly couldn’t keep the shock from my voice. While Malia wasn’t...unpersonable, per se, she wouldn’t have been my first choice for an ambassador, even with my personal bias. How she managed to draw a deity away from another pantheon, even a minor one, was beyo—
Never mind. This was Malia. She’d get flies drinking vinegar and thinking it was grade A honey. I shook my head and laughed. “So, what, you’ve been pissing in their territory and now they’ve caught wind of your markings?”
She batted my shoulder. “Don’t be crude. A better analogy would be I stole the bear’s cave during the summer, and now it’s winter and he has nowhere to hibernate. Jade, the mineral not the goddess, has some ritual significance and the Paedens come once a century or so to mine it.” She grinned. “I simply claimed it while they were gone, and took the goddess with me.”
Wrinkles crinkled my face as I frowned. “And they never tried to take it back?”
“What do you think that is?” She waved behind us, in the direction of Oannes’ camp. “They’ve only just discovered Jade’s absence last year. And they do want her back, so they’re not going to outright attack her, even if she left their pantheon.”
Gears started turning. “So the Kydonian tiger…”
“Is probably their work, yes.” Malia scowled. “Something that would flush the miners out without pinning the deaths on them. From my scouting, I’ve seen several lion-aspected humanoids with hunting gear among the Paedens, so I’d wager their angle is they were planning to offer their protection and slay the tiger for Jade, to lure her back to their pantheon.”
We walked in silence for a bit, letting the statement hang in the air. Finally, I said, “So you don’t like her, because she’s easy to bully into subservience.”
Malia flicked her hand dismissively. “She can’t think for herself, or of herself as more than an object. She’s a weak, foolish goddess whose greatest aspiration is to spread her legs for the next pantheon that will keep her housed, fed, and safe from the Paedens. She’ll even tolerate abuse, so long as it’s not sending her back to them.” She frowned. “But, as you so aptly pointed out, she did manage to stand up to the Paedens on her own, so she’s not entirely spineless. Maybe in a couple centuries she’ll even develop a personality past selling her body. For now, she blunders about like an idiot, trying to be whatever ideal others expect of her instead of just being herself.”
I gave her a stern look. “So she fled an abusive pantheon, and your complaint is that she’s trying to fit in no matter what.”
“That’s what she presents, on the surface.” Malia narrowed her eyes at the surrounding trees. “But we only have her word for what happened, and I have my suspicions.”
She frowned at my unhappy expression. “You weren’t here for the Ghorin deception.”
“The elven druids?” I couldn’t fathom what they’d possibly done. If any fit Oannes’ “primitive savages” accusation, the Ghorins did. Grouped in loose coalitions and clans across a tiny island far to the north, the scantily-clad elves practiced shamanism and rough, wasteful nature magic. Lots of raw potential, but poor channeling. During my time, they’d had gods as primitive as they, and what deities they had could scarcely be described as a pantheon with how loose and fluid their identities were.
She smirked. “They’re not half-naked savages all the time now, just during rituals.” Her snakes rattled as she shook her head. “Their gods got uppity, so when we confronted them they played subservient, sent tribute and servants, acted cowed, etc. It was funny and sad how blind they thought we were to their ruse.”
She shrugged. “They tried assassinating us during the night with the servants they’d given us for Nebesa. We sent the heads back on platters with a note not to do that again. But the thing that annoyed me,” she said, scowling, “is how genuine they seemed in their submission. They were even more convincing than Jade’s...mental issues. So a traitor, even a willing expat like her, could always be a ruse. Especially from a pantheon that predates ours.”
I nodded. “True. So what angles do you think the Paedens will go for? Besides the tiger, obviously.”
We ducked through the cool, evening shade of the trees as the sun dipped behind the horizon. Ulti must have been in a bad mood, because the sunset was only a bare splash of orange tonight. From the dewy scent hanging in the air, it smelled like it was going to rain tonight or tomorrow morning.
Malia huddled up against me as the first hints of evening chill crept in. “If they choose blunt, they could simply refuse to acknowledge her departure and discredit any of Jade’s protests as brainwashing or bribery on our part. They could claim we kidnapped her and invaded their territory. The tiger is slightly more sophisticated but, failing that, they could just choose invasion.” She shrugged against me, her wing brushing my back. “They have an army, if you could call it that, already at our doorstep.”
“Without a god, and his Seer injured, I don’t think they’ll pose much threat.” I rubbed her shoulder reassuringly. “But I’ll scout their troops and capabilities later, if you want.”
She perked up, but then she surprised me by scowling and wrinkling her nose at the air. “Do you smell that?”
“Smell what?” I sniffed, but didn’t sense anything beyond the impending rain.
I shook my head. “No, I don’t.”
“Me either.” Her scowl deepened. “And I can’t sense the goatherds anywhere.”
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. “You don’t think…”
She jerked away, beating her wings as she rose into the air. “I’ll check the mountains. You get the village.”
I gave her a terse nod and scrambled back down the path, my joints barely creaking from the effort. Tomfool boy had probably taken the tranqed-up goats into the mines by himself to deal with the tiger. I thought he’d have at least one more day of rest in him before he ventured back into the mines, but with us being gone all day and him having been bedridden for the past few days, he had probably grown eager to get moving and headed off to resume his Trial.
But if the Paedens really were responsible for the current state of the Kydonian tiger, then whatever sorcery was at work would most likely interfere with the sedatives. Who knew what kind of reaction the drugs would have on the enchantments. So if Hasda had gone in, I needed to get him out before things went horribly sideways.
A horrifying roar rent the night, and I felt my heart shrink from the sudden cold foreboding it poured over me. That was a cry filled with pain, rage, and madness. And it came from the mines.
A dark shape swooped over me. Strong, slender arms slipped beneath my armpits and lifted me into the air. “I heard it too,” Malia said, her wings beating furiously. “Let’s hope we’re not too late.”