Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I beat Seppo around the corner and burst into the room next door to find Malia blinking in shock. The corpse had exploded beneath her, messy streamers of flesh trailing from the new hole in its chest. Bits of calamari and salt had peppered Malia’s face, brown flesh and white clumps drizzled with swampy green blood. Malia gave me a disgusted look as she wiped the gore off her face.
Seppo stumbled in after me, puffing from his exoskeleton and the sudden exertion. “Is everything okay?”
“Quite.” Malia frowned as she flicked the salted guts off her hands.
“What happened?” I asked as I picked my way around the goo-coated scales splattered on the floor.
Malia huffed. “I was dredging its mind for any useful information when the bastard exploded. Startled me, but nothing more.”
“Well I’m glad you’re okay.”
Seppo gasped as he slipped on a scale he hadn’t seen and flailed his arms as he tried to catch his balance. When the steam finally settled, he was on his hands and knees, coughing and wiping at some ooze that’d gotten on his face. Scowling, he picked himself up. “Wretched creature,” he said. “Did you find out anything about it?”
She nodded. “It’s a derketo, although the Paedens call them atargas. Conceptually, it’s a cross between a merfolk and a vampire, with a bit of elder abomination thrown in for good measure.” Her eyebrows arched as she frowned. “Not too smart on the Paedens’ part, meddling with the powers of the pantheon that preceded them.”
I scowled. That didn’t make much sense. Although most pantheons typically had predecessors that either fell out of favor or, as was the case with ours, were overthrown to give rise to the next generation, Paedaea was one of the few regions with a host of gods so old they were thought to be the native deities. If they’d had forerunners, those gods must have been ancient.
“Are you sure the Paedens had a former pantheon?” Seppo asked. “Not even my mother knew of—”
“The derketo didn’t even know it.” Malia waved her hand dismissively and turned to the mutilated corpse. “I found that in its genetics.” Her snakes hissed at the body as she scowled. “Which is what caused the explosion. I didn’t find much in its mind, just an instinctual direction for its nest, so when I went looking for structural weaknesses and things we could exploit in its design, it must have triggered a failsafe.”
“A nest, you say?” Seppo wiped the last of the scale goo on his pants. “It wouldn’t happen to be up north, in the heart of where our vision is darkest, would it?”
Malia nodded, her frown dour. “The very same.”
At our feet, the derketo corpse hissed and steamed as the broken body began to disintegrate.
I grunted and sidestepped away from the collapsing corpse. “Any idea how many derketo are in the nest?”
Malia shook her head, her snakes chittering in complaint as they bounced into each other. “A lot. Not exact numbers, because the derketo’s sense of scale was lacking in specifics, but enough that they could rightly be construed as an invading army.”
I nodded slowly. “Coupled with the one we found inside one of our temples…”
“I think it’s time we showed the people our presence.” Malia’s fangs glistened as her smile broadened.
“You coming with?” I asked Seppo as Malia exited the room.
He shook his head. “I’ll start work on the girl’s...headdress? Circlet?” Brow scrunched, he shrugged. “I’ll find a good name for it when it’s finished.”
“You sure you’re good to be alone? Want me to head back and get someone to watch your back?”
“No, no.” He waved the suggestion away. “I’d prefer to work on my own. Besides, if I can’t protect myself, what good am I as head of our pantheon?”
As I left the room, in the corner of my eye I saw him crouch down and rummage through the ribcage of the disintegrating body. Shivers danced along my spine. Whatever he thought useful enough to merit pulling out of that corpse, I didn’t want to know.
Malia had made her way all the way to the thoroughfare outside the temple by the time I left the temple. She’d dropped her Veil and was slithering through the parting crowd like a peacock on full display. Wings flared, fangs out, she looked on the verge of turning the already petrified commoners to stone. I jogged to catch up to her.
Jogged. Huh. Haven’t done that in a while.
“Hey. Don’t go wasting our own folks.” I settled into step beside her.
She kept her gaze firmly ahead. “I just found out there’s a nest of chimeral beings that resemble my kind enough to be affronting, and they’ve been feasting, unchecked, on people. In my territory.”
“Well, strictly speaking, Resef is responsible for—”
“I know the technicalities.” Her eyes flashed, and the townsfolk gasped and plastered themselves further against the nearby buildings and decorative walls. Whispers of the ‘war gods’ fluttered like moths among the cowering people. Malia ignored them. “But it’s Carthian territory, and they’re near enough to gorgon to constitute my problem, Resef’s domain or not. So I’m going to deal with them.”
“Mm, so you’re just going to barge in there, no reconnaissance, glare at them, and they’re all going to expose their bellies and declare eternal servitude to you, their new queen.”
“Don’t get testy with me.” She finally broke her angry stare at the ground, turning her furious eyes on me.
“All right, stop.” I put my hands on her shoulders and forced her to slow. She finally relented, giving me a sullen look. “You’re so rattled, I’d think they crushed your brood if I didn’t know better. So what is it? You lose a basket full of schemes down the river?”
She hissed and bared her fangs. “You’re insufferable.”
“And you’re about to waltz into a derketo den with zero preparation because they bear some physiological resemblance to you?” I couldn’t help how high my eyebrows rose. “Azoria and Thane are missing, the nest is in a blindzone, and you’re mad enough to be blindly reckless. This isn’t your first campaign. Relax, take a breath, and let’s go into this together. The smart way.”
She glared at me before jerking forward in a huff. “Fine.” She was silent as she slithered forward, arms folded in a sulky manner. I hurried after her, staying in the shadow of her wings. After a moment, she said, “I knew they’d make a move after what we did to their Apkalla, but I didn’t expect to be anticipated by a full three months.”
“I am.” She flashed me an angry look before going back to her ten-mile stare. “The Paedens have been growing too strong recently, powerful enough to threaten Carthian trade routes, both in the east and on the seas. This move on Aenea, they’re trying to undercut our holdings that border their territory.”
I frowned. “But that wouldn’t weaken us that much. The Aeneans aren’t a huge source of worship, since they’ve only been under Carthian control since I—”
“Since you retired, yes.” She shook her head. We rounded a corner, and the people milling about the road hastily made way, some hugging the stonework behind them, others prostrating themselves before us. “And I know the Aeneans themselves are only a fraction of the power we glean from here and most is from the actual blood Carthians, but even losing the claim to the land could destabilize potential countermeasures.”
“I still don’t see how that’s justification for how much you’ve slipped control.”
“Because I expected them to retaliate against the Tingins, not stay here and insult me by sending inferior relations.”
I stepped over a bowing plebeian. “The timeline on that doesn’t make sense. How could the Paedens be clawing at Carthian holdings to avenge the Apkalla? If they’ve been here for months, they couldn’t have predicted Oannes’ failure, and they’re haughty enough they certainly wouldn’t have predicted anything but success for themselves.”
Malia sighed. “They’re digging their heels in here, instead of pulling back like I anticipated. Apparently embarrassing and defacing their chief Sage wasn’t enough to draw their ire, so I’m at a loss for what would.”
A slight breeze wafted the aroma of the nearby trees, a smooth, calming scent that seemed to envelop us in its smooth, woody bark. I shivered and shrugged off the strange sensation. “So either they far undervalue their Apkalla, or there’s something else going on here. It’s not like you to tactically blunder this hard.”
“No, it isn’t.” She puffed out a breath in frustration. “I can’t think of a single reason why they’d just abandon the mines after sending an expeditionary force led by such a significant figure.”
The white flagstones beneath us shifted to golden sand as we reached the outskirts of Karnak. Here, outside the city walls, merchants sat beneath colorful carpets that had been draped over tent poles to form an outdoor market. The shopgoers outside had leached a bit of the desert’s irreverence, the Aeneans barely bowing at the waist if they noticed us, and the bronze-skinned Paedens ignoring us entirely. Malia narrowed her eyes at them but made no moves to reprimand them.
I rubbed her shoulder and steered her through the market. “Well, let’s go find the vision barrier and then scout the nest once we’re through. Maybe you’ll find some clues as to what’s going on, so you can weave a new web of schemes and stop being so cranky, and hopefully we’ll discover Thane and Azoria while we’re at it.”
Although she kept frowning, I could see a glint in her eyes as her mind started turning over new possibilities. That was a good sign. I needed the calculating Malia, not the ‘carve my name into the landscape with my eyes in a fit of rage’ one. At the very least she wouldn’t level the marketplace for being irreverent.
With a sigh that made her shoulders sag, Malia cast off the last of her rage and centered herself. “Okay. But when we find the derketo, I’m frying the lot of them, and if they have a queen I want her head on a pike.”
Well, maybe not all of her rage. I nodded, and we set off into the desert, headed for the border of our divine vision.