Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The temple defenses showed no signs of calming anytime soon. White flecks of foam and salt dusted the air like snowfall, the saline scent clogging our nostrils and crushing our chests. The atmosphere was beyond oppressive, making it hard to breathe. Resef’s wards had found their full potential again, and it was unpleasant to experience second-hand.
I could only imagine how the ensnared intruder felt. Tossed about like a dog’s plaything, the creature flailed as the granulated waves raged in an angry vortex. With all the chaotic motion, it was hard to tell what the creature was, exactly, but it had arms, a humanoid torso, and thick tentacles in place of hair, all covered by a slimy, gray-green skin. It gurgled hisses as it fought to clear the cloying water, but the temple wards were loath to relinquish their catch.
After several minutes of unrelenting spiraling crushed beneath the water, the creature finally passed out and spun like driftwood through the dense saltwater. With each revolution, the water level receded an inch, the liquid vanishing down some hidden drain. As the last of the saline waves washed away, the creature settled onto the damp temple floor, caked in salt crystals.
Before we had a chance to ponder the frosted figure, Malia pounced and pinned the intruder beneath her. Wings flared, fangs bared, she snarled down as the creature awoke and thrashed beneath her. Clumps of salt flew everywhere, sticking to Maila’s face and arms, catching Seppo and me with smatterings that made it past her wings. The pair fought for control, but since Malia hadn’t been sent through a watery salt grinder for nearly an hour, she was far more rested and had the added advantage of reacting first.
Keeping myself between the creature and Seppo, I crept into the room, keeping my weight on my toes in case Malia needed me. The thing beneath her was strange, its lower body not quite a fish tail, almost as if it had shoved human legs inside a silky, scale-covered bag. In place of feet, however, it had fish fins, the delicate webbing shredded from its scouring. Thicker webbing, which reminded me of frog feet, stretched between the clawed fingers it swiped at Malia. Its face was gaunt, sharp cheekbones protruding almost like spikes from its face. Scuffed white film peeled off its eyes as it blinked, revealing inky eyes that were all pupils. Sharp fangs lined its mouth, the top canines so long they threatened to protrude even when its mouth was closed.
Its head tentacles were thicker than Malia’s snakes and hung about the same length. The creature didn’t seem to have conscious control over them, however, as they flopped about while the creature fought off Malia. It lunged to bite her arm, and I had my Sword between its teeth before it connected. I ratcheted the blade up its teeth, locking its jaw open as it hissed around the metal. The thing was slippery, the salt turning to mush as mucus oozed from its rubbery skin. I pushed against my Sword, trying to force its head back, but the stupid tentacles squished and squirmed and made pinning it impossible.
“Clear!” Malia snapped.
I slipped my Sword out of its mouth and ducked sideways as she jammed an arrow into its chest, close to its shoulder under the clavicle. She had to put her full weight behind that thrust and nearly snapped the shaft in the process, but she managed to pierce its skin nevertheless. It must have been a poisoned arrow, for the moment the head slipped beneath the surface the skin bleached white, drying up and shriveling as the poison radiated from the wound.
“Speak,” Malia hissed, pressing another arrowhead in the hollow of its jaw. “Or I will make your end excruciatingly painful.”
“Ssssssstupid godssss,” it sighed around the sharp point, its breathing labored. “You know not what you do.”
“I think we do,” I said, towering over the dying creature. “You invaded our temple, attacked our followers.”
“Not yoursssss,” it hissed, its eyes flashing. Malia pressed the arrow closer and it snarled, tried to jerk away. “Not yours.”
“Our pantheon.” Malia tightened her grip on the creature. “What did you do with the rest of the supplicants in this temple?”
It smiled at her, its fangs glistening. “Look at the worm, bait for the fish. But it thinks itself a bird, and blasphemes the holy Apkalla by wearing wings and scales.” It coughed a laugh. “They will roast your soul slowly in Damnation, and savor the aroma of your tortured screams.”
I set a hand on Malia’s shoulder. The mucus had started steaming, her anger bleeding into her Gaze as she evaporated it. Shaking her head, she bared her teeth at the dying creature. “The Apkalla are pathetically weak. I almost fell asleep the last time I fought one.” She half-turned towards me, keeping her eyes on the pinned creature. “What did he call himself? The firstborn? Preeminent something or other.”
I nodded. “Something along those lines. He wasn’t very memorable.”
“Fools.” The creature hissed. “You heap up your damnation with your irreverence.”
“And you chatter too much for someone about to die,” Malia spat. “As weak as you are, you couldn’t have breached this temple on your own. Are there more of you? Who is your patron god?”
Its grin was maniacal, its sanity seeming to bleed away as the white flaking of its skin spread across its chest and up its neck. “Wallow in ignorance while its bliss remains. Soon, you will know the yoke of Galamma. Maybe he could find room in his harem for a bitch like yo—”
Silent, Malia snapped his neck. Her wings shivered with fury as she shoved off the creature and stormed across the room, away from the corpse. Vanishing my Sword, I followed after her. “Malia…”
“I’m fine,” she snapped. Nostrils flaring, she pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers and huffed. “I know we could have extracted more information if I’d left him alive. Bastard got under my skin.”
“I understand.” I rubbed her shoulders, kneading the tension out of her muscles. “The only reason I didn’t was you did it first.”
A couple moments of physical contact later, and a soft cough came from the doorway. “If we could, perhaps…”
I hid a smile as Malia and I separated. Poor Seppo. “Apologies, S—”
His hand hissed steam as he waved the comment away. “I just had an idea, and I wanted to get it out before I forgot it. An artificial, psionic vampire to siphon the servant girl’s fevered dreams.”
Malia and I blinked at the head of our pantheon.
He scowled. “Don’t give me that look. You were practically hanging all over each other a moment before, you can humor me with my idea.”
“It’s not that,” I said, shaking my head.
Malia nodded. “We need further elaboration on such a...unique idea.”
Seppo grunted and swung out of the room. “Come to the girl’s room, then, and I’ll explain it. Psionic vampire contraption, don’t forget!”
“We won’t.” I shifted around Malia to collect the corpse of the creature.
“And bring the—oh.” Seppo paused in the doorway. When he saw me lift the body, he jerked a nod. “Right.” And with that, he pushed off down the hall.
“There’s an empty room next to the girl’s.” Malia tucked her wings as she ducked through the doorway after Seppo. “I’ll give the body a once-over while you decipher whatever whimsy has gripped Seppo this time.”
The corpse was a rubbery mess that oozed slime. Clumps of snotty salt squished between my fingers as I carried the body through the temple, and the stench of dead fish clung to me long after I’d deposited it in the room next door. Malia kept her nose turned away as she brushed past me as I came in.
Even Seppo gagged a bit when the smell spilled into the room. He pushed up from the bedside and fanned the air in front of his face.
“That bad, huh?”
“Can’t you smell it?”
I gave him an evil grin and tapped my nose. “Not if I don’t want to. Blunted my nose since I had to carry the blasted thing, haven’t reopened it yet.”
He scowled. “Well, could you do something about the smell?”
“I could.” I shrugged. “But the best solution would be a bath in the springs of Maas Taeful, and I don’t think you want me running all the way back just because of a little stink.”
Seppo frowned, clearly nonplussed.
I smiled, unable to help myself. Of course, I could probably magic away the smell, but with my nose plugged, I could also end up replacing it with something worse, like the stench of a rotting corpse. Given my not-so-distant state of disrepair, it was an all too likely outcome. And I didn’t think he’d take too kindly to me exacerbating the situation. To get his mind off the smell, I said, “So what about this new machine you’ve envisioned?”
“Which one?” His eyebrows scrunched as he struggled to recall.
“The psionic vampire?”
“Ah, yes!” His eyes flashed as his fingers whirred through the air, drawing schematics in the air that only he could see. “The fangs of that creature gave me the inspiration. See, if I construct a copper circlet and use it to affix two crystals—cerulean often has the highest psionic affinity—to bleed whatever negative mental energy and memories are still plaguing her. It’ll store the memories in another crystal reservoir, most likely quartz, since we don’t want the memories escaping. And with the detrimental aura leached away, she’ll hopefully be able to fully recuperate.”
That was the jist of what he said, anyways, or at least as close as I could ascertain. If he’d been spouting off about siege engines, I’d have understood him with ease, but for a god with less medical background than he probably should have before beginning such an undertaking, he was using terms that most likely made sense only to him, even if I’d had the knowledge to understand them.
He’d just launched into a detailed delineation of the theoretical underpinnings for his “copper mind fangs” when Malia shrieked in the next room over. Her aura bloomed, washing our room in warmth before quickly receding back the way it came. A moment later, a soft, deep wave of power swept across the temple, answering in kind. Seppo and I shared a look, then dashed from the room.