Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Thane splashed up behind me and rested a hand on my shoulder. His touch emanated both chill and divine power across my shoulders, a strange, death-tinged warmth blossoming between my shoulder blades. Although I knew he was trying to suppress it, I felt his fingers tremble against my back.
The portal sputtered and then brightened, the orange fringe solidifying in the air before us. I didn’t ask about where Thane was siphoning his magic from because I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know.
“Hey,” he said after a moment. “Did you see Azoria? Is she okay?”
“Yeah.” I nodded, straining against the threads to the portal. Stupid bastard was trying to jerk away and disintegrate. “I don’t know where she went, but she’s not coming back with us. Which doesn’t mean we’re abandoning her, just that—”
“I get it.” His fingers tightened on my robes. “Thanks.”
I nodded again and set my mind on the task at hand. But I couldn’t help processing the blurry images in my peripherals. A shallow pool covered the ground from Nanshe’s vortex and the storm clouds she’d drawn from the Great Sea, which had begun sprinkling in a prelude to the coming downpour. Bodies of twice-fallen derketo horrors littered the ground, their carcasses growing bloated. Apparitions disappeared in bursts of fog as the undead merfolk monstrosities disapparated them.
The commoners that had followed me to the temple had disappeared completely, however, once the fighting started, as well as Nanshe’s priests. Although I’d knocked Azoria unconscious, either she’d recovered and vanished or the waves had washed her away, because I couldn’t see or sense her anywhere. Just dozens of preternatural dots pricking my divine senses as the undead armies clashed. Even Nanshe’s aura had diminished, withdrawn as she raved in the shallows.
The whole situation was a mess. Once we were out, we’d regroup with Seppo and see what he wanted to do about the elder god, if anything. After all, she—
Thane wrenched me away from the nearly-complete portal, throwing himself in front of me as a dark shape swooped down on us. His scythe, held in a diagonal guard in front of him, cracked as the strange creature collided with it. The impact blasted him over me, nearly dislocating my shoulder. It didn’t look any more fun for Thane, who lost his hold on his weapon as he ragdolled across the surface of the water.
His winged assailant fared no better, sending up a plume of water as they crashed into the ground. They hit the ground so hard I could hear the crunch of bone as something snapped. Shaking off water, the figure stood up and flung a round, gourd-like object at Nanshe. “Got you a present, bitch.”
The merfolk queen didn’t react, chittering as she rocked back and forth on the ground.
I summoned my spear and pulled myself up with it. This newcomer was certainly a threat, but since she’d gone after Nanshe first, perhaps she wouldn’t be antagonistic to us yet. As she turned and I got a good look at the expression on her face, I quickly changed my assessment.
Perhaps “harpy” was the closest equivalent to what kind of creature she was. Large wings with mottled brown feathers extended off her back, the tips tinted black like she’d dipped them in an inkwell. Her face was human except for the sharp, pointed beak and the dark feathers that hugged her head in place of hair. Tan plumage hugged her neck, descending down her body all the way to her thighs. Her arms and lower legs were armored in golden scales, obsidian claws tipping her fingers and toes. The tail flicking behind her resembled a hawk’s, although it was slightly forked. So a kite, then.
Her eyes were the worst part, though. Black and beady, they were filled with murder, and considering that what she’d thrown at Nanshe was Galamma’s severed head, I didn’t really think she was in a friendly mood at the moment. She also bled power, an energy that felt borrowed rather than innate, its signature ancient. I couldn’t help breaking her stare, though, as I saw the feathers above her right knee swirl as the shattered bone pulled back beneath her skin and reknit itself as her loaned power healed her.
“Who are you?” Her voice was fierce, the enhanced words hitting me like a slap in the face.
“I could ask you the same thing.” I kept my grip on my spear firm but non-threatening.
“Lazuli.” The harpy sniffed. “I can smell that you’re foreign.” She paused. “And a god. So why the games?”
I shrugged, forcing a smile. “Without the games, what else is there to do?”
“Fair.” She gestured at Nanshe, who’d taken to rolling on her back and gurgling. “Did you do this to my kill?”
“The haircut was Thane’s idea.”
She blinked. “The...what?”
“The shorn tentacles?” I let my spear rest against my shoulder and mimed chopping at my non-existent hair. “The unintelligible babbling is a recent development, though, and I can’t claim any credit for that.”
“Oh, right.” She gave a fierce smile and twisted her leg as her knee popped, the last of the healing finished. “Tamiyat’s influence. Well, perhaps the Sea Mother will withhold her madness long enough for me to get some proper revenge on that whore.”
“Ah, the Sea Mother. I’ve heard so much about her.” I kept my eyes on Lazuli’s, pointedly ignoring the sudden chill that settled on my shoulder as Thane absorbed dozens of souls as he forcibly healed himself.
The harpy felt the cold as well, but merely shivered once. “All good things, I hope?”
“I’m afraid I had a biased source,” I said, flicking a hand at Nanshe.
“Perhaps you’d like to meet her?” Her eyes flashed. She pointed north, where the clouds were darkest and thickening fast. “She’ll be here soon.”
I squinted at the cloud formation, struggling to make out any details. Like a solid wall of foam, the clouds roiled together as they rolled over the Sea, surging up to collapse under the clouds behind them. Sheet lightning flashed, stripping clouds of their depth as they were illuminated from within. Slow and steady, an outline formed behind the storm of a snout large enough to swallow the tempest whole.
A pair of eyes, each larger than Nanshe’s temple, peaked through the stormfront. For a brief moment, our eyes connected, and I felt my sanity splinter.
Doomed. We were all doomed. That thing was far bigger, far more powerful, than the best we could muster. We would be crushed underfoot, and she wouldn’t even realize she’d squashed us. A being who thrived on primordial forces, who made the very fabric of reality her plaything, how could we hope to withstand her will? My heart pounded in my ears as my vision darkened. Not even death would bring solace from her, no escape in an eternal end. She would follow us wherever we went, no matter how far we ran, how hard we struggled. We were caught, every one, in her snare, and she would harvest us at her pleasure.
Yet she paled in comparison to the terror I’d felt of the Sibyl in my dreams. The absurdity of the juxtaposition ripped laughter from my frozen lips. I clutched my spear as my vision returned, clinging to the lifeline of corporeality as my sanity returned.
The harpy gave me a look that sent shivers down my spine. It was a curious look mixed with...hunger and intrigue, and not the good kinds. “You resist her influence. How?”
I coughed and put a hand to my racing heart. Stupid thing felt like it was going to rattle right out of my chest. “She’s not the scariest thing I’ve seen.”
“Oh?” Lazuli’ nostrils flared.
“After my wife?” I laughed. “The only person who’s come close was this crazy dream lady I’m not even sure was real.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Is that a jest?”
“It could be.”
“You know,” a smile flickered across her face, one I disliked even more than her hungry gaze, “the Sea Mother could use a powerful god like you.” She flexed her hands, making the air crackle with energy. “Just look at me. A minor god mocked by her pantheon, spat upon and sentenced to the most humiliating of labors. Now?” Grinning, she glanced over her shoulder at Nanshe. “I can master her with a word. And you could be so much more than you are, with Tamiyat’s blessing.”
“As tempting as your offer is, I think I’ll have to pass.” I shook my head. “My wife would kill me if I did.”
While Malia might, metaphorically, there’d be nothing figurative about dying from being subservient to the Sea Mother. Minor gods were minor because their powers were, well, minor. They couldn’t handle massive amounts of divine energy and they’d burn out—quite literally—if they were supercharged for too long. Although her wound had healed, Lazuli was still bleeding energy down her leg. She was young, overconfident, and in way over her head. She had no way of knowing she was slowly killing herself.
I shivered. And the total disregard Tamiyat—the Sea Mother or whatever else the elder bitch decided to call herself—had for the bearer of her Blessing chilled me. Not only did she disrespect the bond with her empowered, but she was strong enough to overcharge a goddess and not even blink at the exertion. Such callousness was not a trait I wanted in any head of my pantheon, and didn’t bode well for the kind of underling serving the Sea Mother. If we had to fight her elder pantheon, we were in for a bad time.