Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The transition from sleep to wakefulness left me groggy and disoriented. For a moment, I thought I’d fallen into another vision, one filled with sandy-robed commoners thronging me with expectant eyes0. But as clarity returned, I realized that the people flocking me were indeed real, and I was very much the center of their attention. My first thought was that I’d been crying out in my sleep, but the looks on their faces were ones of wonder, awe, and excitement.
Their conversations died to murmurs as they saw that I’d woken up. Although the vast majority were Paedens, with some Aeneans sprinkled throughout, not a single one looked at me with disgust or contempt, a stark contrast to the previous night. If anything, they all seemed to have that gooey glow of worship slathered across their features. Thank the heavens the alley mouth kept them from crowding around me too closely. Instead of claustrophobia, I felt more like a quaint attraction, despite their undue adoration.
I blinked at them, trying to mentally gather myself. I was still shaken from the vision, had no idea if the dream landscape properly reflected its physical counterpart, and now had an expectant crowd to wrangle. If they thought I was the Prophet, well, I’d play my part, but I wished I’d had some time to collect myself and ponder the seer’s words. I had a sick feeling in my stomach the prophecy involved Hasda, but I had no clue what the “prisoner” could be referencing. Something about me? But what metaphorical prison was I stuck in?
But, of course, the peasants weren’t going to give me time to think.
“Is it true?” one of the men asked. “Are you really Him?”
I tried my best to smile as I scooted to a sitting position. The bricks of the building behind me scraped at my elbows and spine, their texture uneven and unforgiving. “Please bear with me. My body isn’t what it used to be.”
Much understanding mumbling on the part of the commoners. As I rose and made my way out of the alley, I was subjected to much the same kinds of questions as the boy in the fishing village had asked. Was I the Prophet? Where was the Sea Mother? Was she sending her army to save them? And so on and so forth. The prevailing theme centered around salvation from Marudak’s oppression, which sounded strange coming from predominantly Paeden mouths.
With how repetitious their questions were, I mostly tuned them out, murmuring the same vague assurances as we made our way into the city. The square buildings around us had cast off their gloomy auras from the night, their white walls banded in reds and blues and occasionally covered in hieroglyphs that depicted battles between jackals, lions, camels, and creatures from the Barca River. Most of the older pictograms depicted half-crocodile or -fish forms as their river monsters, but the newer murals had strangely shifted to cephalopodan: chimeras with short or long tentacles, strangely fluted heads, and aquatic curves that looked out of place against their piscine and reptilian counterparts. But these images were rare in an already scarce exterior decoration, so I filed it away as an oddity.
Despite the dominance of right angles in the city’s architecture, the buildings and streets twisted and turned. Palm trees sprouted like weeds among them, as if the trees had grown up around the buildings and not the other way around. Off in the distance, I could hear the burble of the river on my left, though the houses blocked it from view. Brown canvas tents fluttered like fallen banners, dirty cousins of the colorful tapestries that hung from the tall marble gates scattered throughout the city. Ox-pulled carts lumbered through the streets, their drivers flicking thin reeds on the beasts’ hindquarters.
The sun had been up only a few hours, and already the day was muggy and the heat unpleasant. By noon, the air would warp from the sweltering sunlight, and the light breeze would do little but tantalize us with the promise of cool. The itchy scent of hay mingled with the humidity as a cart passed close by. If the driver recognized the significance of the procession, he didn’t seem to care.
“—pass judgment on the trial today?”
I stumbled as the stray question pierced the fog of repetition. This whole time, the peasants hadn’t let up about my role in ousting Marudak and the invasive Paeden gods, but this was the first to mention anything about a trial. It caught my attention because of Hasda, but I was certain it had nothing to do with him.
“What was that?” I settled my hands on my staff and looked around, trying to find the questioner.
A man shouldered his way to the forefront, his face eager. “Lady Nanshe will try the foreign god today. She caught him spying in her holy temple, and will punish him accordingly.”
I kept my face impassive. “And which foreign god is that?”
“A black-haired youth who claims the same domain as her,” a middle-aged lady offered. She cracked a smile. “But how could he be a god of the underworld? He looks like he’d drown if you threw him in the water.”
Several people around her laughed.
Gods damn it. Well, at least I knew what happened to Thane now.
“So you’ve seen him?” I kept my tone as neutral as possible.
“Oh, yes,” the man said, trying to regain his spot as the center of attention. His eyes flashed as he pushed his way into the circle of space the throng had created around me as we stopped. “A pale-skinned Carthian lad with nasty, sunken eyes and a mean face. Probably consorts with the ancient devils, along with all his barbarian fellows.”
The people behind him nodded and muttered their agreement.
I chuckled, but not for the reasons they thought. “And, pray tell, how do you know he’s actually a god?”
The man blinked. “Well…”
“All foreigners have been exiled from the city, yes?”
“Not explicitly.” The man scratched the back of his neck. “But many have left, yes.”
“And the wrath of the Sea Mother will soon fall upon the Paeden invaders, yes?”
He jerked a nod. “It is as you say.”
“Then, how would Nanshe, whose pantheon shall soon crumble like a monument of sand in the desert, have captured the god of a people she’s cast from the city?” I smiled at his confusion. “My child, this ‘trial’ is merely for show, to reassure herself that she still holds power and to delude the people of the same. She’s found some poor, unfortunate soul who failed to escape the city in time and made him up to be some bedeviled monstrosity, that you’d all hunger for his blood and bend your knees at her temple.” I shook my head, frowning. “She would take an innocent man’s life to satisfy her own insecurity. But, come.” I patted the man on the shoulder. “Let us go to her temple and put an end to her insolence. May the Sea Mother be praised.”
Many echoed the adulation, and the crowd turned north as we headed towards Nanshe’s temple. I breathed a silent sigh of relief as we marched. That had been a sizable gamble that could have blown my cover entirely. I was banking on them believing me enough to trust my judgment, Thane not exuding any godly auras (if it really was him), and the Sea Mother being perceived as a just avenger. With the barrier blocking my powers, it wasn’t unlikely that Thane was without his under the barricade, but the old gods were notorious for being fickle, self-centered, and highly destructive. Maybe this Lazuli served as a mediator, one who wielded enough influence that she could turn the mad wrath of an ancient goddess away or, if not, at least the people believed she could.
But that left me with a new problem. If Nanshe really had captured Thane and was going to publicly execute or maim him, how was I going to stop her? I had no idea how powerful this underworld goddess was, what other Paeden deities were with her, and how incapacitated Thane was. I wasn’t going to be summoning any armies of stone golems or entering any invincible berserk states, even with the adoration of the followers around me. And they certainly weren’t going to be capable of taking on any goddesses, especially not on land she’d occupied long enough to call her own. That was a problem for when we arrived at the temple, however.
With our destination settled, the crowd settled back into the rhythmic conversation of going over their expectations for the fall of the Paedens. Some wanted the old gods back—the beings depicted in the hieroglyph murals—while others wondered whether the Sea Mother would approve of deities who weren’t her children, even if they remained subservient to her. Most seemed to blame the Paedens for the severe decrease in fishing catches, a decline that began, I gathered, shortly after the Paedens had conquered upper Aenea and had dropped steadily until now.
Ah, yes. Nothing like empty stomachs to turn worshippers against their gods.