Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
We spent the better part of the night and most of the morning magically healing the girl. And by “we,” I mean Malia, with Seppo and I checking in on them periodically to make sure everything was okay. Though Thane’s absence would have been reassuring, normally, the fact that neither he nor Azoria had revealed themselves was more than disconcerting. At the very least we should have been shooing him off the girl while we tried to save her, to say nothing of the failure of propriety that was his not greeting the head of his pantheon.
And Azoria would’ve never fumbled such a responsibility. With the absence of our gods, the gloom suffocating the city, and the attack on an Oracle-less temple, I had a choir’s worth of alarm bells going off in my head. The whole thing reeked of conspiracy. With the Paedens making moves, first in the north, and now here, I’d have laid celestial steel on this being their fault. But until we had the servant girl stabilized and gathered more information, we had nothing to go on.
So Seppo and I spent the hours passing each other in the halls beneath the temple, like cordless pendulums as we swung back and forth, in and out of the bedchambers where Malia toiled. And it was a struggle for her. None of us specialized in healing, but with her shifting towards the more delicate side of war, field dressing gave her the closest approximation to proper medicine out of our trio. Seppo had devised no mending machines, and I...well, I was really good at crushing things. The servant girl needed a much lighter hand than mine.
We knew the healing had finished when the girl’s screams pierced the cool morning air. I beat Seppo to the door and burst into the room, Seppo hissing and puffing behind me.
Wings flared, Malia was doing her best to wrangle the deathly-pale girl back onto the bed. Eyes popping with panic, the servant girl thrashed in Malia’s arms, kicking the blanket into a tangled mess and nearly pitching onto the floor after it. Malia hissed in frustration and pinned the girl to the cot. The girl’s shrieks subsided as she burned through her breaths, ratcheting closer to hyperventilation and unconsciousness.
“Give me a hand?” Malia hissed through clenched teeth.
The girl kicked and twisted some more as Seppo and I held her down. Her bug-eyes were fixed on Malia, her pupils dilating until her eyes were nearly black. The rank odor of dark magic filled the room, making my nose itch and the back of my throat inflate. She gave one more hitched breath, coughed, and collapsed. Fingers twitching, she finally settled, though the panic attack left her looking even weaker.
Malia scowled as she stood up. “The stupid wretch started screaming as soon as she woke up. She's lost so much blood, it's a wonder she could even fight like she did.”
I sighed as I straightened. “Have you figured out what’s wrong with her?”
“No.” Malia bared her fangs as she backed away from the unconscious girl. “I haven’t made any headway on those bite marks beyond discovering they reek of rotten fish.”
Seppo echoed the statement as he leaned over to smell the girl’s neck. He’d barely taken a whiff when he jerked back, piston steam barely masking his gagging. Eyebrows lifted nearly off his face, he shook his head in disbelief. “That is rank.”
“Indeed.” Malia pursed her lips. “I can’t find any trace of sorcery, so I’d wager whatever was in the bite was purely natural. Most likely some kind of toxin to knock the prey unconscious for easier transportation.”
“Hence why we found her lying on the floor, sopping wet,” I said. “Well, half dead isn’t much of an improvement, but it’s something.”
Malia shot me a glare. “You watch your tongue, you old bag.”
I arched a brow. “Bad mood?”
“What do you think?” she snapped. “I’ve just spent hours trying to stabilize this idiot mortal, only to have her shit herself the moment she comes anywhere near awake and undo who knows how much progress I managed to cobble together. I’m not a healer, and I still don’t know who did this or why. Not to mention—”
“We get it,” I said, holding up a hand to forestall further ranting. “None of us like going in blind. And you can’t spin your webs when you’ve nothing to anchor them on.”
She huffed and folded her arms as she leaned against the wall. “Stupid, ungrateful girl. You’d think, from the way she acted, that she was afraid of me.”
“Why would she fear you?” Seppo asked. He leaned over the girl again and prodded around the bites on her neck and under the curve of her jaw.
“How should I know?” Malia was doing little to keep the exasperation from her voice. From all the effort she’d been putting into the girl’s healing, only to have it undone so quickly, must have been testing the limits of her patience. Eyes flashing, she shot me a look. “And don’t you dare insinuate anything unpleasant regarding my appearance. I hear one untoward word out of your mouth and I’m going to use what’s left of your hide for my next scroll.”
“That would make for a short diary, my dear.”
She rolled her eyes.
Seppo grunted and righted himself, his exoskeleton misting the girl’s arms and face as it vented steam. “Remarkable. For fang bites, those punctures are surprisingly ragged.”
My eyebrows scrunched as I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, see here.” Seppo shifted the girl’s head to expose her neck. The two punctures were inflamed, the edges of the wounds inflated and uneven, like volcano craters. Dried blood crusted the puffy skin, but the bites themselves—thumb-sized holes—had yet to scab over. Seppo’s eyes glinted with scientific fascination as he examined the wounds. “The skin surrounding both perforations is uneven, as if the fangs were serrated. If the teeth were intended to just inject venom, it makes no sense for them to have any irregularities on the surface. But these wounds are jagged, almost as if the fangs were barbed…”
“That rules out anything viperine, then,” Malia said. Her snakes rattled as she shook her head. “Vampiric, too. You’d want to release your prey after subduing it, and if your fangs are how you feed, the last thing you want is your prey fighting back and you losing your ability to catch and eat food.”
“Unless you needed to pierce thick skin,” I said. Disparate threads were slowly tying themselves together in the back of my mind, but they hadn’t quite connected yet.
Malia quirked a brow. “You think whatever this was needs to latch on to its victims?”
I nodded. “I can’t shake the feeling that, whatever our predator is, it’s well outside its normal environment. And not just with its prey.” I gestured towards the sleeping girl. “Obviously her skin isn’t thick enough to justify saw teeth. But where would?”
Seppo squatted on the bed next to the girl and drummed his fingers on his leg pistons. “Armored prey, like the tortoise-toads of the distant east.”
“Or scaled, like the dragons, or hydras, or...fish.” Malia’s eyes met mine. “So we’re dealing with something from the depths.”
“It would explain why they attacked our ocean god.” I shrugged. “And why they’d need to latch onto prey to feed.”
Malia’s face pinched in a frown. “But it’d need to be amphibious, unless the water in the temple was evidence of its magic, and not Resef’s wards. What do you think?”
I shook my head. “It’s been too long since I was last in one of his temples, and the magical manipulation was too old for me to pick up any scents.”
“It was Resef’s, all right,” Seppo said, nodding. “But I can’t guarantee there weren’t any alien augments to it. If our ambusher was aquatic, it could have hijacked his wards to support its attack.” His fingers plied the air as he began drawing on his own magic. Thin, silver tubes stretched between his fingertips, twisting together as he bent his hands. When he had a fist-sized spool of the strands, he stood up and bent over the girl. “I’ve been thinking on her injuries, and I might be able to devise something to suture these wounds. There are psychotropic crystals as well. Perhaps one of those could aid her.”
“You’d know more about that than we would,” Malia said.
“Jade might, too.” I ignored Malia’s pointed glare. “We’ll fetch her from Nebesa, see if she knows any—”
The earth shook as waterfalls thundered in the temple above us. Fierce, angry shrieks clashed with the drumming of the waterfalls, cries that warbled as the water fought to wash their source away. Malia and I were out the door and up the stairs in a heartbeat.
We stumbled and coughed as we reached the inner temple court. The scent of salt sat thick upon the air, choking in its intensity. Water so salinated it crackled surged across the floor, battering a lump of juniper green tentacles against the altar. The unearthly cries came from the waterlogged creature, which squawked every time it collided with the unforgiving stones. The air tingled with Resef’s magic as columns of water crashed from the ceiling as the wards sought to crush the intruder.
All we could do was watch as the temple safeguards beat against the creature. The magic kept the dense saltwater contained in the chamber, which rose against invisible barriers to obstruct every doorway. It seemed our ambusher had saved us the trouble of hunting him down, but we needed Resef’s wards to calm down before we could get a better look at it.