Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Nanshe rocked back as if slapped. “What?”
Ducking his head, Galamma gave her a sheepish look. “The Sea Mother—”
“I heard you the first time, you blithering idiot,” she snapped. Her head tentacles slapped against her neck as she shook her head, a disgusted look smeared across her face. “You couldn’t have told me that first?”
“As the queen says.” The merfolk dropped his eyes to the ground.
“And you’ve mobilized the atargas?”
“Of course.” He looked up, encouraged by having done something right.
Nanshe drilled him with a blind stare. “Pray they’re not as useless as these…” She trailed off as she noticed what I’d just recently come to experience.
The closest derketo collapsed onto me, but not with any strength. Mouth foaming, it began to twitch and quiver, its limbs trembling uncontrollably. I pushed it off me as it began to spasm harder and watched in awe as the other three collapsed as well. Soon all the vampiric merfolk, even the guards surrounding Thane, were rolling on the ground, their breaths bubbly and labored.
Despite Nanshe’s suspicious glare, it wasn’t anything I’d done. None of the guards still by Thane had even come near me. But I took the opportunity to rally my followers nevertheless.
“See the hand of the Sea Mother at work even now!” I cried. Setting my staff down, I brushed myself off and then retrieved the wood to lever myself up. It was a slow process, punctuated by my popping joints. The peasants shuffled close as I settled myself.
Nanshe scowled. “Absurd. Tamiyat has yet to breach her confines, and even if she were free, she would manifest her influence in a far more...direct fashion. I don’t know how you managed this charade, and I don’t particularly care. You’ll pay for it nevertheless. Galamma.” She clicked her tongue at the Apkalla.
With a grunt, he unfolded himself from his bow and stomped down the stairs towards me.
“You have called me old, frail, and useless. Yet how could I have done anything to them, assaulted upon the ground as I was?” I laughed. “And yet you blame me for their shortcomings.”
“They’re not that inept,” she snapped, her brows pinching. “You must have done something to them. There’s no way this was Tamiyat’s doing.”
My grin grew feral as Galamma stepped over the unconscious, or dead, guards around Thane, who still stood mute under his hood. “Then you’re in for a rude surprise.”
The cultists, as Nanshe had called them, surged around me. My recovery and the sudden illness that had stricken the derketo emboldened them, and even though the heavy-set Apkalla bore down on them, they shouldered up and held their ground against him.In the back of my mind, my rational voice was screaming its head off because this was an insane bluff. Even if it worked, I had no way to capitalize on it. They were still just mortals, after all, commoners whose worship I still couldn’t use. But the fervor in their eyes seemed to trigger something in the bulky merfolk.
Galamma paused just out of arm’s reach, eyeing them uncertainly. “My queen, what should I do with the commoners?”
“If they’re in your way,” Nanshe said, kneading her brow, “kill them.”
Before he could do anything, a giant explosion shook the sky. Palm trees splintered and fell, splashing into the river. Gulls wheeled in the sky, filling the air with their cacophonous cries. Everyone stumbled as the ground trembled, dust puffing from the stones beneath our feet. A sandy cloud sighed from the mouth of the temple, making the air hazy. The stench of saline saturated the wind, like the sea had passed salty gas.
My staff clattered against the ground. I dropped it as soon as the surge hit me, but not from shock. Oh, no.This was much better than feeble old me getting his poor walking stick knocked out of his hands. No, this was power. Strength all around me, lines of energy swirling like a whirlpool.
And not just me, but Thane as well. His black robes whipped around him in a fury, the hood flying off in a gust of wind and carried off to who knew where. Despite how deathly pale he looked, he had the biggest grin on his face. His eyes met mine and he mouthed, ‘Show time’ before bursting the chains that bound him. With his usual flamboyance, he flung the shattered links at Nanshe’s feet.
The goddess’ face was flushed with rage. “You...bastard!”
“Won’t be taking any heads today, I’m afraid.” He flashed her a smile as he kicked off the anklet cuffs. “Now, I believe I asked you a question before you so rudely interrupted.”
“No.” Nanshe’s teeth elongated into rows of fangs, like some monster from the deep. Her eyes filmed over with a golden glow, and the pressure of her aura slammed into us so hard the commoners around us cried out, both mine and hers. Water pooled at her feet so fast that, in a blink, she was wading up to her shins in saltwater. More water trailed off her head, rivulets spilling off the tips of her head tentacles. As she stalked across the plaza, the claws on her fingertips extended into thin talons, almost like more precise, controlled versions of the spears protruding from her mouth.
Thane exuded nonchalance as he took his time removing the manacles from his wrists. “Pity. I would’ve enjoyed chatting a little longer.” With the last of his bindings removed, he tossed a manacle over his shoulder and then half-turned towards me. “Why, Charax! What a pleasant surprise. Fancy seeing you all the way out here.”
“I had to chase your sorry ass because you were out past curfew again. Gave me flashbacks to teenage Hasda, you did.” While Thane was being disrespectfully flippant about the goddess he’d royally pissed off, I had my eye on her and her underling. Galamma had shifted back from the sudden return of Thane’s godly powers, but as Nanshe approached Thane, the merfolk shuffled forward in her wake. I moved closer myself, scooping my staff up with my foot as I went. “Let’s go have a talk.”
“And miss all the fun?” He flicked his hand towards Nanshe, who’d gotten perilously close to him.
“Yes, you showboating idiot.” I shuffled forward a little faster as Nanshe raised her hand to strike. I was too far away to intervene before she struck, but I couldn’t help the impulse. “Now.”
He cracked a grin. “You didn’t say please.”
Nanshe speared him through the chest, her fist emerging bloody from his ribs. For a moment, nobody moved, and then Thane sighed.
“This wasn’t my favorite robe.” He glanced down at the hole her dripping fist had created and frowned. “But it was close.”
With a snarl, Nanshe yanked her fist out and kicked Thane in the back. “You mock me.”
“No, no,” he said, smoothing the frayed strands, “you insult yourself. I’m the damn God of Death, bitch. You’ll have to try harder than that if you want to kill me.”
I reached him and put a hand on his shoulder before Nanshe had recovered her poise enough for a proper response. I half-tugged, half-dragged him away from the goddess’ death stare and unintelligible growls. “All right, ease off and let’s get out of here.”
“Oh yeah?” He shrugged me off more forcefully than necessary and glared daggers at Nanshe. “You know what happened to our Oracles?”
“No.” I tightened my grip on my staff as Galamma moved to Thane’s left, trying to circle around us.
“Fishface killed them.” His grin was almost feral now.
I frowned. This was not a normal response from Thane. Yes, the deaths of our Oracles was disturbing, highly offensive, and beyond sufficient grounds for war with the Paedens, but there had to be more to this for their deaths to upset him so much.
“And they will stay mine,” Nanshe spat. Water poured from her hands, streamed down her chest. The air crackled as much from the salt as it did her power.
“You’ll be begging for the privilege of returning them when I’m through with you.” He shoved against my outstretched arm.
I pushed back. “Save it for the bedchamber, you two.” Snarling a curl of his robes, I pulled him close. “Think, idiot,” I whispered harshly. “I’d be at half strength on a good day, and today isn’t a good day. We need to get the hell out of here, now. We can come back for their souls later.”
“No buts.” I elbowed him to stifle whatever protest he’d been forming. “We’re leaving. I’ll open a portal.”
“And leave Azoria behind?”
I paused. “You got her up your sleeve somewhere?”
My eyes tracked Galamma. I didn’t like the way his muscles were tensing. “Well, I’m not particularly keen to figure out why a pissed-off goddess has stood there wetting herself the whole time we’ve been talking. Now move.”
Behind us, my orange portal fizzed, flickering as it struggled to materialize. Obviously, the barrier was down, but I’d regressed pretty far my few days under it without my powers. I could feel a tension between my shoulderblades as I pushed more power into the opening.
Just when I thought it had stabilized enough to risk a jump, I got knocked off my feet by a dark blur.