Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Morning came, and with it two kinds of chill. The first was normal, that dewy crispness every new day brings. But the second was of loss. My companion, the friendship he brought, and the future priesthood he would leave behind. It didn’t bother me he had grown up and wanted to find his way in the world. Oh no, that was not the trouble.
It was that blasted woman and her meddling. I pulled my robes tight against me, feeling the weight of the unread scroll in my pocket. I gritted my teeth. She could take Hasda, but she would not have me. With Hasda gone and walking the path of mortality, I would be free to return to my retirement. Peace at last.
His sandals scuffed the steps as he emerged from the cellar just before the break of dawn. Arms folded, I watched him as he shrugged on his sack, his bow and a handful of arrows nestled in the quiver. He smiled, the morning light making his face a second sunrise. I tried not to frown at the thought. Sentimentality had never been my forte.
“So,” I said, breaking the stillness of the morn. “Where are we meeting her?”
His eyes lit up. “We?”
Whoops. I sighed, my shoulders sagging. “Yes, ‘we.’ I’d not leave you to navigate Nebesa on your own. Especially not,” I frowned deeply, “with Malia as your patron. But I am only dropping you off. We’ll say our goodbyes in the Halls, once you’ve met up with her, and then I’ll return home. Now where shall we go?”
The light in his eyes dimmed a bit, but he bolstered himself and flashed a smile. “Malia said you’d know the way.”
“Did she now?” I chuckled as I descended the stairs of the throne pedestal, my robes swishing off each one. I really would have to get the hem taken in. Maybe I could snatch a tailor in Nebesa…
“What’s so funny?”
I smiled and patted him on the shoulder as I pushed him, gently, towards the temple doors. “How did she expect you to come if I didn’t go with you?”
“She said you would, though.” His brow knit in confusion and he stumbled forward to match my stride.
“Indeed.” I laughed and shook my head. “She plays her games well, Hasda. You should always remember to look for snares, even in the most unlikely spots.”
“While I thank you for the advice, how does that—?”
“She would have left you here, if I did not take you.” I fixed his eyes with my own. My joints creaked, partly age, partly anger. “There was no plan for her to claim you without me, because she never plans to fail and she would always find another. You are mortal, and therefore expendable.”
“That’s not how she’s treated me thus far.” His face was a mask of confusion my words couldn’t get through. And of course they wouldn’t. He was an honest child, and had no reason to expect guile from a god. Why would he? The one who’d raised him had always had his best interest at heart.
“It isn’t, because it’s never been about you, Hasda.” We descended the temple steps, he with vigor and certainty, and I hobbling like a drunken sailor. The sun had yet to reach high enough to burn away the morning dew. “When we arrive, she will sing your praises and arm you with weapons and armor that are absolutely divine. Your clothes will feel like woven leaves, and your bow like a discarded stick. Once you’re sufficiently flattered and disoriented, she will flaunt her position over me and highlight all that I have lost. It’s been too long for me to say whether she’ll send you away or gloat in your presence, but I rather think she’ll keep you there as a reminder, to me, of whose champion you’re becoming.”
He frowned and went a little stiff in the shoulders. “That seems petty and out of her character. She’s been every bit a goddess thus far.”
“Ah, and there lies your fatal flaws.” I wagged a finger at him. We’d crossed the field and were nearly at the trees. Funny how quickly a familiar path passes beneath one’s feet. “You confuse divinity for nobility and character for charade.”
“None of the other gods talk about her like this.” He ducked beneath the branch at the entrance to the forest path, brushing his hand against the bark. He’d always loved that tree and refused to let me trim it even as he grew and had to stoop to pass it. And he was horrible at these word games.
“And what other gods have you met?” I asked, phasing through the branch. Though passing through physical objects was child’s play, opening the portal would take more effort and attention. Already I could feel the old magic tugging at my feet as I sought the strings to the portal latch. It was distracting, but not enough to let that little detail of his fraternizing with the pantheon slip by.
“Uh, I’ve only met Malia and the pale, skinny one that follows her around.” His ears went a little pink. “So I guess ‘god’ is more accurate.”
“Does this skinny one happen to have a name?”
He shrugged and glanced back over his shoulder. Eager to be off, that one was, because he was five strides ahead of me when he usually stayed by my side. His arrows rattled with each step. “He never said.”
I leaned against my walking staff, waving away his concern as he stopped. Grunting, I pushed myself up, my joints squealing in protest, and pondered when I’d grabbed the staff. I hadn’t left the temple with it.
I shook my head. Time was slipping again, far too often now. I needed to deposit Hasda safely with Malia, or at least as safe as he could be in her presence, before my mind gave completely. It might take another decade or two for my consciousness to give completely, but I didn’t want to risk an episode with him still present. Had he been my priest, perhaps he could have helped ease the passage, and certainly drawn it out past his own mortality, but such was my lot in life and his.
Gripping my staff, I strode down the path with as much confidence and poise as I could muster, gesturing him on as I passed him. He trotted up behind me and, blessedly, decided to hang back this time. My feet thumped against the dirt, kicking up leaves as I went. Hasda kept his footsteps light, his weight on his toes.
“What signs of office did he bear?” I asked.
Hasda gave me a bewildered look. “I’m sorry?”
“Did he carry any objects, artifacts, magical glowing signs that said ‘famine, disease, hunger,’ things like that?”
“Oh.” Hasda thought for a moment. “He wore a black toga and had a scythe at his waist. Is that what you meant?”
I stumbled as my feet froze up. In a heartbeat Hasda was kneeling before me, helping me get back up. Stupid forest magic.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I grumbled. “You just surprised me, is all. That sounds like my old apprentice.” I brushed the dirt off as Hasda stared at me.
“You had an apprentice?” He looked like I’d told him foxes grew on trees. “Like me?”
“No.” I shook my head and made my way down the path. The forest magic was building, and the portal was almost ready. “Not like you. He was divine before I met him. So if you have delusions about becoming a god yourself, kindly discard them.”
Maybe that was a little too harsh. He looked deflated, had that little kicked puppy face he made sometimes when his feelings were hurt but he didn’t want to tell me. I sighed and patted him on the shoulder. Static jumped from my bones to his skin, shocking us both. We jumped.
I shook my hand as he gathered his feet back under him. “Consider this my arming you with knowledge. I can’t teach you everything you need to know about dealing with gods, besides me, in a day, and perhaps I should have planned for that, but here we are.”
I raised my hands, creating a circle of orange magic that hung in the air. Vicious fire sparked around the ring, spitting more sparks than a spot welder. The circle grew ovaloid and expanded until it became a portal large enough for both of us to walk through. As I looked back at him, I found his face far less impressed than I’d hoped. I frowned. “See magic like this every day, do you?”
His face puckered, and I realized he was biting back a laugh.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that Malia’s is bigger.”
“Oh ho ho, funny guy now, are you?” I grunted and tugged on his arm. “Come on, your lady is waiting.”
And with that, we stepped through the portal.