Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The journey down river wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Palm trees, rushes, and cattails lined the banks, hiding frogs and locusts in their shadows. Despite the cool breeze slipping off the river, the heat steadily increased as we traveled, the humidity trapping and magnifying the heat.
Of course we didn’t find just plants on the way down, either. Long, thin fishing canoes floated on the water, occupied more by Paedens than Aeneans or Carthians the further along we went. We passed a couple lesser cities, Mari and Tyana, and scattered clusters of huts near river bends where fish tended to spawn, but nothing major—like abandoned temples—to sidetrack us. The Paeden river toll station did nearly succeed in drawing Malia’s ire, but I nudged her on with promises of unbridled destruction after we’d confirmed the Paedens were the ones behind all the conspiracies and sabotages.
Even with our divine speed, it still took most of the day to near the barrier that demarcated where Carthian influence ended and Paeden domination began. Invisible, the obstruction served only to impede godly beings and abilities, the fishermen on the river and in the village traveling across the unseen border with ease. The block only seemed to affect scrying, as far as vision was concerned, because Malia and I had no difficulty discerning the mortals passing by us, oblivious to our presence, as they made their way from the nearby watering hole back into the village.
Malia squinted at the air, her nose wrinkling as she took stock of whatever ward or enchantment constituted the barrier. Gasping, she jerked back as a wing tip brushed the barrier. A scowl lined her face as she bent down and examined the point where earth and enchantment met.
Although she had sharper senses than I did, I could still feel the effects of the barrier. If I got too close, it felt like a giant hand pressing a blanket against me. The harder I pushed, the greater the resistance. Nothing shocked me like it had Malia, and when I pressed my hand into the barrier, it was as if I’d plunged my fist into the deepest fathoms of the sea, such was the cold, crushing pressure I found. I could only keep my hand inside for a moment before the pain forced me out.
I frowned after a failed attempt to scuff my toe beneath the bottom of the block. “Any ideas?”
“No.” Malia pressed her lips together as she scratched at the sand. Simple equations in old runes spiraled out around her. After the numbers stopped dancing, she scowled at the answer they gave. “It’s like the opposite of an Oracle’s vision, but manifested as a physical object on the heavenly plane.”
“Oracle-grade magic shouldn’t be too hard to circumvent.” I rolled my knuckles against the barrier, letting the cool seep into my joints. “Obviously it’s not that simple, since it’s given the pantheon several headaches.”
“And is still keeping us outside.” Malia stood up and crossed her arms, her tail thumping in annoyance. Her eyes flicked towards my hand, which was wrist-deep in the barrier again. “Stop that.”
“You’re making my teeth tingle just looking at it.” She shivered. “How can you stand the pain? I can barely touch it.”
“It’s not that bad.” And I wasn’t trying to show off or impress her, it really didn’t hurt that much. My hand had started going numb to the cold, and the pressure wasn’t any worse than pushing against a marble column, if I didn’t shove too fast or too deep.
“Are you serious?” Malia poked the barrier again and yanked her hand away as static sparked. Scowling, she shook her hand and glared at me. “You can’t honestly tell me you don’t feel the heart of a hundred thunderstorms raging across your arm. It doesn’t even remotely feel like Phaeus’ forge?”
I shrugged. “Feels more like the bottom of the ocean to me. Cold, wet, and an immense amount of pressure.”
Malia folded her arms and pouted. “That’s not fair. I could handle the cold much better than electricity.”
“It’s not like I told it how to feel.”
“I know.” She shook her head and shot the barrier another glare. Her eyes started shifting, and she unfolded her arms as she squared off against the barricade. “I have an idea.”
I put a hand on her shoulder and angled between her and the invisible boundary. “Oh no.”
“What?” She gave me an innocent look.
“No gorgon’s gaze. You’d probably need to go full astral to even scratch the surface, let alone break the barrier.”
She frowned. “You don’t know that.”
“No.” I took her hands in mine. “But I do know that, if it doesn’t break, the Paedens will know we’re here, and we’ll still be stuck outside the barrier. We don’t know where Thane, Azoria, or the Oracles are, and we have no idea which, if any, Paeden deities are waiting for us inside with the derketo. So we need to figure out a way through or around this ward without alerting them.”
She rolled her eyes. “Stop trying to be cute. It’s distracting.”
“That’s the point.” I grinned.
She laughed and lightly shoved my chest. “Stop it. I’m trying to problem solve and you’re not helping.”
“But I am. You’re not blasting away, heralding our presence to the world with wanton disregard for the peasants who’d succumb to your stunning beauty.”
She swatted my arm as she slithered around back to the wall. “Hush. I’m trying to think.” Bending over, she slapped at the sandy earth near the base of the barrier. The dirt passed through with barely a shimmer. Malia pursed her lips and shoved her fingers deeper into the earth. A moment later, she shot up, clutching her hand to her chest.
“Are you okay?”
Eyes closed, she held up a claw as she hissed a breath. “I’m fine. The ward does, in fact, extend into the ground. And it’s deep enough that, even if it doesn’t go all the way down, it would take far too long to dig under.”
I frowned. “So down isn’t an option. Do you want to try over?”
She flicked her wings in annoyance and paced in a circle. “No. I don’t want my wings freezing up on me because of the barricade’s interference. I can’t tell if it’s a dome, or if it extends all the way up, but either way it’d be an unpleasant fall.”
“The mortals don’t seem to have any problem with it,” I said. It was an obvious statement, but sometimes spelling out the simple facts laid the foundation for the solution.
“Of course they don’t, they’re not divine.” Malia eyed the villagers with irritation, as if they were responsible for the ward’s creation. “But it’s weird that the barrier responds differently to each of us. If it were coded to resist deities, it should reject us both equally. And it can’t be a domain issue, because we’re both war-aspected gods. Setting it to filter by power level seems absurd, because they know that we know about it, so there’d be nothing preventing us from sending our own worshippers through. Maybe even a minor god, like Jade, could pass through if they set that kind of ward.”
Sending mortal followers through was a potential solution, but it was fairly impractical for several reasons. Getting the worshippers organized and down the river would be a logistical nightmare, not to mention they’d be completely unprotected from the Paeden pantheon once they passed inside the barrier. Plus, this was our problem to deal with. If we couldn’t handle something this simple on our own, what good were we as gods?
But that did give me an idea.
“I can get through.”
Malia’s brow furrowed as she gave me a sideways glance. “Really? How?”
“Simple. I’ll just assume a mortal avatar and pass through.”
Now her eyebrows shot up. “That easy?”
“Well, for starters,” she held up her hand and ticked off on her fingers, “one, we never assume fully mortal forms. Two, you’d have to give up your divine powers with no guarantee that you could reclaim them once inside. We might as well send any old fool at that point.”
I gave her a smug look, and she scowled.
“Shush. And third—”
“You were doing numbers.” I grinned as her scowl deepened.
“And three,” she amended, “even if you can get through that way, how am I supposed to? We can’t both be powerless in there.”
“There’s no guarantee I won’t be able to recover my powers once I’m through,” I said, but Malia wasn’t reassured. “Look at it this way. If it works, at least we’ll know one way to get through.”
She just gave me a long stare that said she wasn’t convinced. Fine, time to drag out the catapults.
“Look. One of us needs to get in there.” I pointed at my chest. “I’ve had far more time to acclimate to living without my powers than you have, to the point where I still have things I’ve yet to recover. You, on the other hand,” I brushed her chin with a finger, “can barely contemplate a world that isn’t bowing in awe of your incontrovertible supremacy. How could they, if you can’t fell them with a look?”
She kissed my finger. “You’re a stubborn old ox.”
“I love you, too.”
Eyes closed, she breathed deeply and then sighed. “Fine. But if you think I’m waiting longer than a day before I stare this barrier down, consequences be damned, you’re sadly mistaken.”
I grinned. “I’ll be careful. But you need to give me at least a few days to reach Palmyra. It’s not like I can just walk down the river to reach the delta.”
“What happened to all that confidence about getting your powers back once you’re through?” Malia arched a brow at me.
“In case I don’t,” I said, laughing. “I have one contingency plan and suddenly you’re questioning?”
“Oh, piss off and go play hero.” She swatted my arm as we separated. “And don’t forget your disguise. Subtlety is hard enough for you with a face like yours.”
Now that was just uncalled for. But I smiled and we said our goodbyes, and then I pulled on worn robes more akin to a bedowin’s. Clutching a staff not unlike the one I’d left behind in my temple, but far less magical, I shed my divine essence as I slipped out from under the Veil. My joints grated like unoiled hinges, and I could feel the decades seeping back into my bones. The staff groaned as my weight settled onto it, bowing slightly as it pressed into the sand. I sagged, my shoulders like laden fruit baskets strung over my neck.
I hadn’t felt this aged since...well, before Hasda came. And it surprised me and honestly kind of scared me how far I’d fallen. I hadn’t really cared, and I’d let myself slip. I was tired and ready for a long, long rest. But all that was behind me now. And I’d use that experience to bring about my latest goal, carry my plots and Malia’s to a successful conclusion.
As I trudged past the barrier, I barely felt a tingle. The cold was gone, as was the immense pressure. Looked like the plan worked. I turned back to smile at Malia and discovered her gone. Not actually gone, but my now-mortal sight couldn’t perceive her. That was okay. Hopefully she’d be patient enough to let me make some progress before she started blasting away with her gorgon eyes.
Heh, as if.
I hopped forward, trying to scoot a little faster. No telling when she’d finally snap.