Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Our informal procession made its way through the city and deep into the northern end of the delta. The houses thinned, the road shifting from stone-paved to packed dirt as we edged out of the city proper. Palm trees swayed in the breeze, the air tinged salty from the Great Sea that abutted the fanning edge of the delta. A nice, calm, peaceful setting that gave the bleached white temple a threatening aura.
Massive pylons flanked the temple gate, the twin towers tapering off at well over double the height of the gate. The exterior had been heavily engraved, ribbons of seaweed twining around distorted derketo, and the carvings looked new, with none of the expected weathering of a centuries-old temple. This was, perhaps, the first sign of the Paedens wholly supplanting the previous pantheon, and felt strange considering the erasure they’d abstained from in the other cities. Then again, Nanshe was an underworld goddess, and who better to symbolize the passing of the old gods than a goddess of death?
What really drew my attention, however, was the dozen or so derketo milling about on the plaza outside. They flopped about on all threes, their tails bent like knees and their webbed hands slapping the ground awkwardly as they circled a chained figure in black robes. His captors had put a black hood over his head, but I could still tell from his build (or lack thereof) that it was Thane. The derketo hissed and nipped at his if they came too close, head tentacles shivering as their jaws snapped, but they didn’t touch him.
A crowd had begun to grow around them, even before my followers arrived. Apparently the whole city knew about the upcoming trial, and already a tenth of the populace had gathered. Most looked like acolytes of Nanhe, their fishing garb and faces powdered white with crushed chalk, giving them a skeletal appearance. The goddess herself was noticeably absent, but I had no doubt she’d show herself when the time came.
My little entourage didn’t go unnoticed, however. Although there were dozens of people gathered at the temple, my followers were half as big, drawing the attention of those that had already arrived. One particular acolyte gave me a strange look, her eyes tracking my slow progress towards the temple. She wasn’t the only one staring, but she looked puzzled, rather than excited or upset like the rest of those around her. I didn’t get time to ponder the mystery, though, because six of the derketo split off from the group surrounding the prisoner and angled towards us.
My followers shrank back as the parasitic merfolk formed a line and blocked our path, baring their fangs as they spluttered and hissed. Like a pack of primates, they hunched down on their knuckles and wagged their head tentacles as they postured and tried their best to assert dominance.
I merely laughed and patted the nearest one on the head. “Such savagery from such a sophisticated creature. Deflate yourselves and your egos.”
“Ssstupid mortal.” It recoiled from my touch and shook its head. Its rubbery skin glistened as if coated in sweat, although it felt like mucus where I’d touched it. “Our queen will have your hands for your insssolence.”
“Who, Nanshe? I’ve heard she’s new around these parts.” I gave it what I hoped passed for a charming smile. “Are you sure she’s the queen?”
That drew out his fangs. “Bassstard! I should strike you down where you stand.”
Well, I’d miscalculated. Malia’s earlier comments about the derketo made it seem like the Paedens had taken existing creatures and twisted them to their will, but if the derketo had been born and raised with their modified forms, then perhaps Nanshe really was their brood mother. But if they had any ancient blood in them, they’d fear the old ones, even if it was no more than a primal terror.
“And risk the wrath of the Sea Mother?” I chuckled as the derketo visibly flinched at the name. Ah, that one hit true. So they did have some shared ancestry with the amphibian monsters pictured in the hieroglyphs. “Yes, the True Queen heralds her return, and you’d best decide where your loyalties lie, and fast.” I hunched over to whisper. “I’d choose wisely, if I were you.”
The derketo before me snapped its fangs and hopped back a step. “How dare—”
“What is the meaning of this?” A cold voice called from the temple doorway.
The derketo around me froze, eyes widening in panic. Hanging their heads, they sulked back to the prisoner, save the one that was still glaring angrily at me.
“My queen,” it rasped, keeping its eyes on me.
“I gave you explicit instructions not to abandon your post. I wouldn’t have assigned so many of you if it wasn’t absolutely crucial you guard him, but again I’m let down.” Nanshe strode into the light, her heels clicking against the stone.
Pale blue arms folded in front of her, she wore an extremely displeased frown and would have been glaring daggers if she had eyesight. As it was, her clouded eyes still burned with fury, pointed yellow teeth pressed against her lower lip. Rich purple tentacles trailed down her neck, a shade darker than the scales that hugged her figure like armor. A hoop of thick webbing, spiderwebbed with fuschia veins, extended down from her waist, cloaking her legs.
And she was bipedal, at odds with the fish-tailed derketo she ruled. Granted, she shared their fangs and claws, not to mention the strange gills that slitted her neck, but her features were much closer to human than sea monster. She didn’t have a tail, that I could tell, but even on land she carried herself with a grace that spoke to her mastery of underwater movement. Even upset, she held herself with control and poise.
She paused at the top step of the plaza and stared down at the cowering creatures. “I could berate you, but I’d make more progress insulting these stairs for how little comprehension you’ve managed to retain in your pathetically empty skulls.” Her claws drummed a steady rhythm on her arm as she sneered. “I feel sick just thinking about how miserable cretons like you could’ve ever descended from me.”
“But, Your Grace,” the lead derketo said.
Nanshe unfolded her arms and snapped her fingers at it. “Not a word. I’ve half a mind to scuttle the lot of you and birth a new brood. You there.” She pointed at an acolyte to her left without breaking her death stare on the derketo. Belatedly I realized Nanshe had singled out the same woman who’d given me the funny look earlier.
From the look on her face, she was also surprised to be chosen. Her eyes flicked to mine briefly, but I couldn’t read the emotions before her eyes snapped back to Nanshe.
The aquatic queen waved towards the temple with a limp hand. “Go to the delta and ensure the cretons are properly watching the Sea. I’m sure I’ll know exactly when she arrives, but if I can’t trust them with keeping an eye on something physically in front of them…” She trailed off. After a moment, she jerked her head in the acolyte’s direction. “You’re still here? Are you as incompetent as these bottom feeders?”
The woman flinched. “No, my Queen.”
Nanshe sneered. “Then get moving. Now.”
Muttering generic honorifics, the acolyte ducked a quick bow and disappeared into the temple.
“Now then.” Head held high, Nanshe descended the stairs, staring down her nose at me. Either she possessed some kind of vision, or her senses were hypersharp, but the milky cataracts filming her eyes screamed that she was blind despite how well she navigated her surroundings. “You reek of alien stench, old man. Who are you, where did you come from, and why are you here?”
“Hail, Peacock of the Sea.” I couldn’t keep the grin off my face as I said it. Easy bait, especially considering how mortal I looked, but I wasn’t sure how deep her self-control ran.
Her nostrils flared and her lips tightened. “What a strange greeting. Are insults considered flattery in your barbaric land, or are you simply a senile old bastard?”
“Ah, I’m afraid I’m the latter. And it’s rather unfortunate that my sight has yet to fail me.”
“And why’s that?”
I shrugged and gripped my staff. “I’ll die having witnessed your hideous visage.”
“Pathetic.” She huffed but didn’t slow her stride down the stairs. “Even the dumbest animal could dodge your club. But you must have something about you to have attracted so many witless peons.” Sniffing, she swept her hand over my followers. “Are you really so poor, that you’d take whatever moldy crumbs this beggar hides in his pockets?”
“Better than the fish shit you deign to spare them,” I said. Even though I kept my voice steady, I could feel my knees start to tremble against the increasing pressure. The lower Nanshe got on the stairs, the worse it became.
She flashed her serrated teeth. “So you have some wits about you. How charming.”
The derketo parted as she reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped aside as she brushed past the chained prisoner, who’d remained remarkably silent this whole time. Even gagged, I’d have expected Thane to have some kind of reaction to the verbal sparring.
Nanshe paid him no mind as she stalked towards me. “Will your tongue remain so sharp, I wonder, after I’ve broken your kneecaps?”
“What a haughty minnow you are. You remind me of someone.”
“And who’s that?” She was a stone’s throw away now, and it hurt to breathe.
But I flashed my aged teeth at her and said, “My last conquest.”
For a moment I thought she’d slap me, or crush me beneath her aura, but after a drawn-out sigh she merely shook her head. “A pity. It seems the sparkle on your shell was merely the surf, and you’re as dull as you first appeared. Atargas, bind him.”
“And muzzle my message?” The edges of my vision fuzzed, but I still saw the look of hesitation that flitted across her face.
She held up a hand, and the derketo paused, or at least I hoped they did. “What could you possibly say to dissuade your coming fate?”
I pushed myself up on my staff, reaching my full, hunched height. “The Sea Mother has seen your insolence and found you wanting. She comes to exact her judgment upon you and your pantheon.”
Nanshe snorted. “That’s it? Anything else? Or will you continue to insult me by insinuating my ignorance?”
My jaw fell open, and not entirely from the weight of her aura. She knew? But how?
“I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you truly aren’t from around here. I can smell it.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Are you Carthians truly sapient creatures? Do you possess intelligence?”
“I…” It came out more like the moan of an idiot than I liked.
“I’d thought Lazuli had absconded to your Carthian gods, but either she didn’t or you were too stupid to understand why. Think.” Nanshe sounded truly angry that I didn’t understand what was going on. “Why would we go to all the effort of walling ourselves off and severing contact with the outside? Because we knew the Sea Mother was coming.”