Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The air blurred around me. Tendrils of pale tan shimmered in the air, hanging like streamers in Jade’s wake as she slithered between me and the djinn. In her lamia form, her legs had been replaced by a sandy golden snake body which whipped up dirt and chunks of grass from her fury. Brown energy, brighter than the tans trailing her shoulders, burst from her eyes as she bore down on the djinn.
From the way the djinn flinched, that was obviously its name. It cowered beneath her, as best it could given its positional predicament, and mumbled something unintelligible.
Whatever language Jade berated it in, neither Malia nor I knew it. Hasda, spellbound as he was, paid it no attention either, but that wasn’t confirmation he didn’t understand it. The words were lilting, sonorous, cacophonous, as she moved through a range of emotions during her tirade. She gestured at Hasda several times, and the djinn recoiled and shied away as best he could.
Compared to Malia and me, Jade’s power was pitiful, but it seemed to cow the djinn. She had her full aura on display, although I could feel my age with how young and small her strength was. It was like watching an adolescent fumble through their first undirected adult errand. Simpler, inexperienced times, when mundane tasks seemed monumental.
When it came to Paeden things, Jade was in her element, handling the djinn with far more grace than the awkwardness she’d exuded as the feast. After she concluded her dressing down of the djinn, she fixed her eyes on Hasda and raised a hand towards him.
And Malia snapped. She shot forward so fast, she nearly knocked all three of us over as she collided with Jade. I only barely got out of the way in time and had the djinn hissing as a small section of its amorphous blob grazed the ground.
“What are you doing?” Malia hissed, towering over the lamia, her wings flared.
Jade wilted beneath her. “I...I was going to help.”
“Really? Then what was all that about?” Malia jerked her hand between Jade and the djinn.
Jade paled when she saw the spirit. “Don’t put him to earth! Raise him up, please.”
“Doing the best I can,” I said, straining to drag my Sword up against the weight of Hasda and the tiger.
“Why shouldn’t we?” Malia said, circling around Jade.
The lamia straightened and did her best to hold her ground. “Tingin is just as much the fringe of Paedaea as it is Carthia. Many old demons were buried at the edges of the empire. This place is one of them.”
“And how does that apply to this djinn?” Malia drilled Jade with a stare. “Or you, for that matter? Why do you care?”
Jade dropped her gaze, embarrassed. “The jade in the mines grows from the fragments of his shattered bones. In my old pantheon, I was guardian of his tomb.” She steeled herself and met Malia’s glare. “But he is an ancient and powerful evil, and he must not be revived. Feeding the djinn to him would give him a taste for resurrection, and could rouse him from his near-dead slumber.”
“He?” Malia tilted her head. “Who is he?”
“The demon buried here. We do not speak his name.”
“That’s all well and good,” I said, grunting as the tiger put more weight onto the djinn, “but can we deal with this thing first? Plenty of time to chat later.”
“May I?” Jade ducked her head submissively to Malia before approaching Hasda. “This hex, it binds by amplifying the strongest aspect of the person’s spirit. Hasda has great dedication, but the spell has snared him into single-minded pursuit.” She laid a glowing hand on his forehead, then drew her hand across his eyes. As she mumbled something in that lullabic language, Hasda shivered and jerked, his eyes twitching back and forth.
When she withdrew, tremors shook Hasda from his neck to his knees. He sneezed, and then his eyes focused. Jade caught his gaze like a viper mesmerizes a bird. More murmured words, half command, half plea, and Hasda nodded and picked up the caravan of words and marched them into the djinn.
It was an unearthly experience, made stranger by the fact that it was taking place wholly within the mortal realm. Undercurrents of energy slid between Hasda and the djinn, the lad leaning closer as more and more lines connected them. Slowly the djinn rose into the air, its plasmic insides swirling as it hovered. I eased up off the ground, sheathing my Sword. The tiger crouched to my right, watching the floating spirit with uneasy eyes. Malia and Jade watched from my left, having backed off as Hasda began his binding. Wings tense, Malia positioned herself between the lamia and Hasda, her Bow at the ready.
The air cracked as a thick, crimson line burst from Hasda chest, the ethereal energy passing harmlessly through his armor as it lanced the djinn. It made my stomach churn, both from its color, which resembled blood far too much for my liking, and from its aura, which made my throat feel bloated, as if stuffed with rotten scrambled eggs. When scarlet drops of energy bled from the line, I had to forcibly dig my feet into the ground to keep myself from rushing forward.
Whatever sorcery this binding was, it wasn’t Carthian, and it certainly wasn’t holy. But it didn’t seem to be hurting Hasda yet, and with how much space Jade was giving Hasda, it didn’t seem wise to interrupt the incantation. Carthians avoided meddling with spirits precisely because of the myriad of adverse affects spiritual magic could afflict on its wielder, not to mention how untrustworthy the spirits themselves were. Add to that the strongest spirits came from older pantheons that predated our advent, and we left them well enough alone.
Like a spring bursting through a rent in a cliff, another line of aberrant energy snapped between Hasda and the djinn. It throbbed with light that warped the air around it and made my stomach twist into knots. Another line joined it, and another, until a half-dozen beams of twisted energy connected Hasda and the djinn, who were barely a foot apart now. Hasda’s toes dragged on the ground as he was pulled upwards, almost into the djinn.
Shrieks like grating metal filled the air as the two finally touched. A bubble of wine-red light enveloped the pair, stitches of burgundy and maroon energy zigzagging across its surface. The shrieks became banshee whines, rising in pitch until it was almost unbearable. Then, with a rush of wind, everything went calm.
Hasda floated down, arms outstretched, and landed lightly on his feet. He looked dazed, both at his surroundings and at the strange etchings on his chestplate, which wound around and back on themselves like a branching river delta. The markings had a reddish-purple hue, like an infected wound, and were uneven, scoring the armor in some places and bubbling up in others like bad welds. A wave of nausea rolled over us all, and then it was gone.
Hasda smiled at Jade and gestured towards the tiger. “I brought you a present.” Then he pitched forward, out cold.
Malia darted forward, catching him before he face-planted into the ground. As her hands met the marred armor, she winced, but she quickly hid her grimace. “What’s wrong with him? And be quick,” she snapped at Jade.
The lamia shrank back, the air beneath her shimmering as she shifted to human legs. Eyes on the ground, she said, “He has bound the djinn to his breastplate. It will accompany him as long as the armor is in his possession.”
“While the binding did not harm him,” Jade continued, “it has left him drained. I fear his conflict with the Kydonian tiger has done him no favors, either. He needs to rest and then spend time finalizing his bond with the djinn.”
Malia pursed her lips but said nothing as she carried Hasda past her, heading to his hut.
Jade danced out of Malia’s way, keeping her gaze averted. When the gorgon was long gone, she finally looked up, first at me, then the tiger. “Did he really mean it?”
“Mean what?” I rolled my shoulders, testing my joints. Holding the djinn up hadn’t taken nearly as much out of me as I expected.
She rubbed her shoulder, looking away. “About the tiger.”
“Oh. Yeah.” I winced as my neck popped unexpectedly during a roll. “There’s more to it, but I’d better let him explain it to you. Since it was his idea, after all.”
“I see.” Her eyes took on a haunted look as she watched the tiger, which had laid down and was staring at us silently.
I frowned. “Something wrong?”
She shook her head and smiled. “It’s nothing. I just...no one’s ever given me a gift before.”
“Really?” That was unusual, even for a minor deity. “Your worshippers never brought you offerings?”
Blushing, she dropped her gaze again. “In Paedaea, worshippers are not required for divinity. And who would devote themselves to a backwater servant?”
Still blushing, she shuffled over to the tiger and approached it slowly. “With the djinn gone, it can begin healing. Perhaps it would like to bathe in the springs of Maas Taeful?”
The tiger blinked.
Jade took that as all the confirmation she needed. Clasping her hands together, she turned and forced a smile. “We will await Hasda, and his further words, in Nebesa. Tell him...I appreciate his gift.”
I grunted. “You can tell him yourself at the feast.”
She jerked a nod as her honey-brown portal opened around her and the tiger. The smell of lilies spilled out, fogging around us unseen. With a flash, the portal swallowed them, leaving me to return to the village on my own.
One thing troubled me as I made my way down the mountain. The look in Jade’s eyes when she talked about her new gift was a mix of emotions, like she wanted to laugh, cry, and curl up on herself, all at the same time. And while I didn’t know the specifics, I knew for a fact that the haunted half of that look came from her history with her former pantheon. Whatever memories hounded her, they were far from pleasant.
I grunted as Hasda’s hut came into view. Well, I’d ask Malia and see what she knew. No sense needlessly speculating in an area I was woefully ignorant.