Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Smoke billowed from the mouth of the mine like a mountainous case of indigestion. Villagers scurried around their huts, keeping the buildings between them and the mine as they fled into the surrounding forest. Anguished, pain-filled cries filled the air, most from the Tingins, but the loudest from Hasda and the tiger, who were entangled in each other’s limbs as they fought…
“Put me down!” I shouted, pushing against Malia’s grip. She dropped me immediately, and my knees cracked like falling timbers as I crashed into the ground. That would hurt later. But first, Hasda. I sprinted through the village, gathering my sluggish, reluctant power as I went. The air crackled with energy, short arcs of lightning battling the stench of smoke with the odor of ozone.
Above, Malia trailed frost as she too drew on her powers. She’d have aerial advantage against whatever Hasda and the tiger were fighting, but she wouldn’t be able to fire freely into them like she had with me. No gorgon’s gaze, either, unless she wanted to petrify all three of them.
And there were three. In between Hasda’s jabs and the tiger’s swipes whirled a vortex of inky black energy, flecked with vibrant, violet spots. The ethereal bastard was a djinn, one of the fabled creatures from the Paeden ends of the world, a creature of pure magic and malice. Against any mere mortal, it would have slain them and fled ages ago, but I could see orange sparks bursting off Hasda whenever the djinn struck him as my blessing shielded him. It wasn’t enough to fully ward the lad, but it gave him equal footing against a being that no physical weapons should work on. But the blessing let Hasda use his body as a semi-divine weapon, so he boxed and grappled the djinn and tried to stay out of the tiger’s way.
As for the Kydonian feline, he resembled a much used-and-abused mophead that had been left, drenched in dirty cleaning fluids, to rot for several months. Emaciated as much as a beast with any amount of divinity could be, his bites and scratches lacked spirit, but they served enough of a distraction that Hasda wasn’t completely overwhelmed by the djinn. The rumored yellow tinge to his coat was gone as well, replaced by clots of brown that gave him a recently recovered invalid look.
Embers swirled around me like snowflakes as I rushed over to the combatants. “Hasda!”
“Bussssy,” hissed the caustic voice of the djinn. Its sides undulated as it vibrated the air waves, in place of a mouth. “Don’t dissstract him.”
Even though I was a stone’s throw away from him, Hasda didn’t react to the sound of my voice. The tiger flinched as a bit of my power seeped into my cry, but otherwise stayed fixated on the battle as well.
“What did you do to them?” I said, drawing my Sword.
“You mean what did he do to me?” the djinn spat back, his voice filled with a scowl. “This blabberer ventured into realms he dare not tread untrained as he is. He spoke my Common Name and freed me from my bonds to the tiger.” His voice took on a wicked glee. “But he could not bind me himself. Alas, for one so young to die.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Charax, wait!” Malia cried as I raised my Sword. She slammed into the earth beside me and bent over, panting. “Look.” She pointed at the mountainside above the entrance to the mines.
Arms folded, face a stone mask, Kydon stood on the rocky face, watching the struggle impassively. When he saw my questioning glance, he shook his head. So the Trial wasn’t yet concluded, even though the tiger was out of the mines and freed from his hexing. Bastard.
Hasda blinked against the sweat streaming into his eyes and strained against the cackling djinn. Somehow he found handholds on the amorphous blob wriggling in his grasp, and as he twisted the djinn closer and closer to the ground, the spirit’s confident laughter turned uncertain, then panicked.
“No!” the djinn cried. “Bind me, you idiot! Do not put me to earth.”
Hasda held a contortion of darkness inches from the ground. Breathing hard, he clenched his teeth and pushed downwards. The djinn flailed like a strung fish and nearly tossed Hasda several times, but the lad kept his feet on the ground and stayed above the spirit. By now, the tiger had its claws fully in the djinn as well, adding its feeble strength to Hasda’s as they bore down on the djinn.
Malia stood like a taut bowstring, ready to snap forward at the smallest sign. What sign, I didn’t know, but I didn’t like how on edge she was, or how desperate the djinn was to be bound again instead of put to earth. Keeping my Sword pointed at the djinn, I edged closer to Malia and said, “What happens if that djinn makes contact with the ground?”
“How should I know?” she hissed, her eyes snapping to mine. She had her fangs bared, and her eyes looked on the verge of venting a proper gorgon glare. “They’re not in our pantheon, and we haven’t captured any in the time you’ve been gone. Ask the Paedens.”
“Djinn!” I turned on the spirit. “Why do you want to be bound again?”
“Save me!” it whined, writhing in Hasda’s iron grip. “He knows not what he does! He will unleash a demon far greater than I.”
“Explain.” I shifted forward. In my peripheral vision, I could sense Kydon leaning down as well, ready to declare his verdict should I intervene.
“This earth is old,” the djinn wheezed. “Ancient spirits slumber here, and they would feed on me to be free. Please.”
“And how do we bind you?”
“An object, and my True Name.” Its purple spots pulsed as it pushed against Hasda. The lad nearly had the djinn on the ground. “Speak it, quickly!”
I lunged, skewering the ground with my Sword. The angled blade obstructed Hasda’s takedown, keeping the djinn off the dirt. Kydon flinched, but stayed back. Good. So we could freely hinder Hasda’s Trials. It was just the help that was restricted.
Malia hissed in annoyance as she drew up next to me. I’d found a loophole she hadn’t, and that would irritate her to no end. Excellent.
“How do we know,” she said, scowling down at both of us, “that this isn’t some trick to release you?”
So entranced was Hasda that he strained against the Sword, not realizing there was something in his way. His weight nearly drove me to my knees keeping the Sword in hand. Strong, determined lad. Wait, gods damn it.
The djinn danced about like a crackling fire on my blade, pinned between the metal and Hasda. “I will gladly sacrifice my freedom for my survival.”
“Fine.” Malia drew an arrow, then held it horizontally by its shaft next to the djinn. “Tell us your True Name, and I will bind you.”
“I cannot,” the djinn said, its voice scowling. “The binder must discover it, then speak it. Else I cannot be bound.”
Malia shrugged. “If you say so.” She turned her back on the djinn and glanced at me. “Remove your Sword.”
“Wait!” the djinn shrieked. “You mustn’t, you mustn’t, you mustn’t. Do not feed the elder spirits. Please.”
“Beg all you want,” Malia said, frowning as she rounded on the djinn. “If you value your life so much, it would be an easy thing to divulge your True Name. But alas.” She sighed as if disappointed. “If you can’t, then we can’t bind you. But we won’t just set you loose, either. I’m afraid that only leaves one option.” She nodded to me and slithered back.
“Not even I know my True Name.” The djinn throbbed like crashing surf. “It is how the binders bind us. They discover, they speak, they shackle us. This, this babbler.” It pulsed towards Hasda. “He can discover my name. He can bind me. But you must disturb his dreams. Rouse him from his bewitching and set his mind on my Names again.”
Malia and I looked at each other and had one of those one-second eye conversations. Hasda was ensnared in whatever protective enchantments the Paeden sorcerers had created to keep the djinn safe from whoever freed the tiger from its possession. That meant whatever psychological labyrinth he was wandering through came directly from his Trial and was his responsibility to handle, as evidenced by Kydon’s refusal to permit our help with the djinn.
Malia dipped her head forward a fraction, moving as if to help him. Knowing her, she had some edge case lined up, like how we couldn’t advise someone incapable of comprehending our advice. I shook my head. That might work if we could sway the whole pantheon to side against Kydon, but he would rule a failed Trial, instead of an invalid one, if we broke the hex on Hasda. Her eyes tightened but she backed off.
The djinn read the tone of the looks and began to panic in earnest. It thrashed so hard it nearly knocked me off balance, sliding dangerously close to the ground down the flat of my blade. Malia hissed as the tiger sprang back, sinking its claws into the fighting djinn. I nearly twisted my ankle getting my weight back under my Sword, and as I did, I felt the wind rush over my back. Energy surged as a portal opened, spilling out the scent of...lilies?