Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
My mind raced to unpack all the implications. They knew? How? If they already knew that one of their elder gods was returning, that would explain why they’d walled themselves off. But that didn’t make sense, because this had been going on for months, and they’d invaded the territory. Unless their conquering was some kind of trigger, but even then, why hadn’t the Sea Mother come back sooner? But my brain felt sluggish and fumbled the various thoughts around without making any useful connections.
Nanshe snorted in disgust. “What? Are you just some drooling idiot, stupefied once your message was delivered? What a disgrace.” She spun on her heel, her head tentacles flaring and she waltzed back across the plaza. She flicked her hand at the derketo. “Dispose of this flesh puppet however you see fit, but I want him out of my sight before I begin the trial.”
A pair of derketo bowed and slithered over to me, fangs bared. They tried to grab me under my arms to drag me away, but even hunched over as I was, I still stood taller than they did. I almost laughed when they hissed at me. The sunlight made their faces sparkle, showing flecks of sea green and aquamarine in their deep blue skin. It was hard to feel intimidated by such awkward creatures, especially when their shoulders barely reached my waist.
The one on my right reached for my staff and nearly toppled over in the process. With a light shoved from me, it sprawled onto the paving stones, its breath hissing through its teeth.
I frowned down at it. “How did you ever breach a foreign god’s temple?”
Nanshe froze on the third step and spun around. “What did you just say?”
“Hmm? Oh, I wasn’t talking to you.” I shrugged off the second derketo and shook my head. “I’m just struggling to reconcile previous visions with the weaklings before me.”
The pressure returned in force as Nanshe bared her teeth at me. “You dare insult my atargas?”
“I believe I was quoting you, actually.” I scratched my neck and acted unconcerned, but I hadn’t failed to notice the other derketo edging towards me. I still had no idea how I was going to get Thane out of here. Stalling would obviously only do so much, but even if my aged mind wasn’t dragging so much, I wasn’t sure I could’ve come up with a plan in time. Part of me had hoped to feel some kind of divine spark once the conflict began, what with all the worshipful followers around me, but I only felt hungry.
Stupid mortal frame. I hadn’t brought anything with or thought to ask my entourage for food. It wasn’t like I’d needed to worry about feeding myself in centuries or anything, and adrenaline and who knew what else had carried me along thus far. The morning hunger had been overshadowed by the prophetic vision of the night before and the sudden, unexpected greeting when I woke up, and then momentum had carried me all the way to this piscine queen’s doorstep. Funny how I ended up doing exactly what I berated Malia for earlier. But there was always the chance that she’d catch up just in time, like she had many times before….
Unfortunately, today was not one of those days.
The new set of derketo, a group of four this time, were a little smarter than the two flopping around on the ground. Instead of trying to leverage me well above where they could balance, they went for my legs, dragging me down by my ankles. As was to be expected of easily-won followers, my devotees made no move to assist me. Not abandonment, not quite, but the faces I could make out as my vision blurred had hopeful expressions on their faces, as if they expected Lazuli or the Sea Mother to swoop in any second and save me.
However, I ended up being unceremoniously dragged back down the path by my robes and ankles. My head smacked against the stones as the derketo awkwardly hopped along, struggling with my dead weight as they traversed terrain that was clearly outside their natural habitat. After the third bounce, I got a little hot under the collar. That hurt, gods damn it.
While I had to give them credit for managing to manhandle me, they’d made the mistake of leaving me with my staff. Old those I was, I was getting cranky, and I knew how to wield a good stick. I whacked the ones on my legs in the back of the head, but I had to twist on the ground to swipe at the derketo clinging to the shoulders of my robes. I caught one in the face as it lunged for me, denting the wooden head with its fangs and nearly dropping my staff in the process. The other one shredded my robes, not in retaliation, but to disentangle its claws from my clothes.
I felt like an upended turtle, flailing my staff as I rolled on my back. It was getting hard to breathe, and my spine cracked several times from my harsh movements. Despite the pain, the back of my mind was still wrestling with the thought of how these creatures could be so pathetic, and yet they’d still managed to attack and incapacitate someone in Resef’s temple.
Here I was, in a mortal body nearly at the end of its lifespan, smacking around multiple derketo with ease. Even ambushed, I still didn’t think I would have struggled to prevail against a few of these creatures, let alone a single one.
“Oh, for the love of…” Nanshe’s irritated voice floated over the sounds of our scuffle. “Bite the bastard already and get him out of here.”
Oh. Well, that makes sense.
Movement at my feet showed I hadn’t incapacitated the derketo like I’d hoped. And of course the one who bit my staff hadn’t suffered any serious injuries, so that one was coming for me as well. Fine. One last trick, then.
I threw my arms up into the air, my hands tight on the staff. “Hear the words of the Sea Mother! A curse upon whoever would do harm unto her Holy Prophet, or any of her people. They will—”
Shit. How would an ancient sea deity punish aquatic beings?
The derketo blinked at me as they rocked back, surprised and uncertain.
I swallowed and tightened my grip. “They will suffer eternal torment beneath a scorching sun, cast out forever from the solace of her depths.”
They glanced at each other, shrugged, and then advanced.
Well, it was worth a shot. I managed to scoot onto my butt before they got too close, my staff angled in front of me. Although I could probably fend them off for a bit, my old frame couldn’t endure a long, drawn-out scuffle. Even with how pitiful these derketo were compared to the one in the temple, they would eventually subdue me. Already I could feel my arms trembling from fatigue and hunger.
“My queen! My queen!”
A tall figure dashed from behind the temple, panting and dripping water everywhere. His body was as thick as a tree trunk, his limbs bound with so many muscles it was a wonder he could even move. The armored scales that covered his body gave him a draconic look, although his markings resembled a shark’s. Unlike the derketo, he had actual legs in addition to the hefty tail bouncing along the ground behind him.
Nanshe raised her eyebrows and gave him a bored look as he bent over and panted. “What is it now, Galamma?”
Hmm. I’d heard that name before, many moons ago. One of the Apkalla, maybe?
“My queen,” the stocky merfolk said, “so many bad tidings, and all at once!”
“Just spit it out.” She rolled her eyes at him.
“A mysterious figure from the desert approaches the city. The people believe him to be a Prophet of the Ancient Mother.” He pushed up off his knees, though his chest still heaved like bellows. Gills on his neck flared as he puffed. “I fear the Tamiyan cult has not been eradicated as fully as you wished, and will use this person to incite a rebellion against us.”
Wow, word must have traveled really fast. I thought I would have preceded any mention of my sudden arrival, what with how quickly I’d left for Palmyra, but if somehow news of my strange appearance had preceded me to the city, that would explain how I was discovered sleeping in a back alley this morning.
As interesting as their conversation was, the derketo didn’t stand idly by and let me eavesdrop. I had to beat and kick them off, which made listening in a chore. But despite Nanshe’s order for them to bite me, the stupid creatures couldn’t figure out how to sink their teeth through my thick robes.
“He’s already made his presence known.” Nanshe flicked a hand at us, and then frowned when she saw how badly the derketo were struggling. “If he weren’t such a frail old man and this throng of bedwetters had actually done something, I would have dealt with him by now. As it is, I may need you to exterminate more than just this ‘Prophet’ by the day’s end.”
“Uh, yes, my queen.” Galamma blinked. “But there is more bad news.”
“So you said.” She sighed and rolled her hand. “Out with it.”
“An astral projection that resembles our descriptions of the Carthian goddess, Malia, was spotted assaulting the barrier this morning.”
“Which we knew might happen, hence the barrier.”
The Apkalla clenched and unclenched his fists. “Yes, my queen. But the Seers fear—”
“The Seers have been a bunch of yellow-livered cowards ever since they learned of Tamiyat’s imminent return,” Nanshe spat. “Now, do you have any important news? Or have I wasted precious breaths dispelling your useless drivel?”
“Uh, no, my queen.” Galamma clasped his hands and bowed stiffly at the waist. “The Sea Mother has been spotted just outside the river delta.”