Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Lazuli didn’t take too kindly to the rejection. Her brow furrowed as her eyes bored into mine.
“How...flippant you are.” She took a step forward, then glanced down in disgust at the water sloshing underfoot. “Disgraceful, like your constant allusions to a wife who can only pale in comparison to the great Sea Mother.”
“Well, now, there you might be wrong.” I adjusted my grip on my staff and stepped sideways, edging towards where Thane kneeled. Although his head was bowed, his hair obscuring his eyes, I knew he wasn’t just sitting idle. Any moment now he’d have gathered enough energy to open his own portal, and then we’d be out of here.
Nanshe thrashed in the water, foaming at the mouth.
I frowned. Or maybe not. We couldn’t just leave her like that, to suffer whatever recreational torture a millenia-enslaved elder goddess had dreamed up during her internment. Or Lazuli, for that matter.
The harpy followed my gaze. “Surely...surely not her?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I mean, cross-pantheon pollination isn’t unheard of.” Lazuli grimaced. “But I would never have thought—”
“Oh, no. No love lost there.” I kept my feet beneath the surface of the water to keep from splashing and drawing attention to my movement. “Nanshe might be unpleasant, but she’s got nothing on my wife.”
“What a possessive phrase, ‘your wife.’” Lazuli scowled as she stumbled through the water. Her wings flared, casting a spray of excess energy into the air. “Does she have a name?”
“Names carry weight and power,” I said, continuing to back away. “And if you don’t already know who she is, well, I’d rather not give you a head start on learning her history and what she’s capable of.”
“So you expect to side against us.” She gained on me, but she hadn’t all-out attacked me yet, so that was something. But I didn’t think my spear would be able to do much damage. For all I knew, her quick regeneration might just heal with the spear still inside her, and then I’d really be in a spot.
“I’m not particularly keen on fighting anyone right now.”
Thane needed to hurry up because I really didn’t like the atmosphere. The air was heavy and growing thick with Tamiyat’s influence, weighing down on me like an ocean of sand. Undercurrents of power crackled through the humidity, lacing the air with the stench of spent lightning. Worst of all was the smell spilling off Lazuli, singed hair, burnt flesh, the decay of a day-old corpse. She probably couldn’t smell herself, but she should have at least sensed the havoc that excess power was wreaking on her body.
She snapped her beak, misreading my expression. “The only one worthy of pity is you, old coward. We’re not afraid of the established pantheons. The Sea Mother has prepared for you. If you will not bow, you will be crushed.”
“Consider this an invitation to come visit, when you’re settled into your new territory.” Not liking the slant of her footing, I shifted my grip and prepared for her to charge. “Thane.”
“Kinda busy.” His voice was soft and raspy, like he’d been trying to out-scream a snowstorm for several hours.
“I think you dropped something.” My eyes never left Lazuli’s. She had absolutely no warface, her next movements plainly signaled. A drop of her shoulders, a twist of her hips. If she were going to pounce, it was going to be soon. “Want me to pick it up for you.”
“Sure,” he gasped.
A thunderclap as Lazuli lunged forward. The water cratered behind her, geysers whipping the air as she shot forward. I barely managed to angle my spear in time, and even then the impact rattled my bones and nearly snapped my wrists. The shaft slammed into my chest, knocking the wind out of me, and Lazuli bounced to the side. Her landing was far from graceful, and the water did nothing to soften the blow. I was fairly sure she’d snapped her wing, with how it twisted out of the water.
“Time to go!” I vanished my spear and sprinted as best I could through the water. To my right, Thane slowly rose to his feet, thick mist spilling off him as he toyed with the strings of his portal, nearly freezing the water beneath him in the process. How many souls—didn’t matter, we needed to get out of here. I stumbled to a halt next to Nanshe and scooped her out of the water. Her severed tentacles had stopped oozing ichor but were uncomfortably slimy and seeped through my drenched robes, as if supplanting the water.
When I turned towards Thane’s minty green portal, Lazuli was venting twin helixes of fuschia-colored energy far into the sky. I didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t care to find out. Half hobbling, half jogging, I carried Nanshe a dozen or so yards to Thane and dashed through the portal. A moment later, Thane slipped in behind me and sealed the rent.
Inside the air was balmy and soothing, warmed by the fields of heated sand that filled Maas Myrna. I’d still never worked out why Thane preferred miles and miles of unending, gritty, irritating sand, but this was the Maas he’d chosen as his own and he’d never given it a second thought. The fruity aroma wafting across the wind was a new addition, but didn’t feel out of place with the backdrop of an eternally golden sky.
Sighing, Thane took the opportunity to collapse face-first in the sand. Whatever he said, I couldn’t make out since he left his mouth submerged beneath the coarse granules. But the sentiment carried.
Familiar power pulsed through my veins, refreshing and reviving me. It was hard to explain, that dull throbbing beneath the surface of consciousness, and how utterly hostile the magic of the Paeden lands had been. Yet the contrast was only clear once we returned to the pure, Carthian magic.
Nanshe didn’t like it, however, and started jerking in my arms, still unconscious. Or maybe it was the heat. Either way, she was reacting to something, and I only knew of one quickly accessible water source.
“Get up. I’m taking Nanshe to my place.”
He mumbled something else and made a pathetic sand angel.
“Stop whining.” My portal flared to life beside me reassuringly quick and wonderfully solid. “Get off your butt and let’s go. When she’s awake, you can help me recover the Oracles’ souls.”
Still mumbling unintelligibly, he pushed sand around as he waved his hand at me.
I sighed, one foot already through the portal. “You need to speak up, and be quick. It’s hard enough trying to keep ahold of her when she’s not spasming like this.”
Thane flopped onto his side. “You do it.”
“All right, you’re obviously depressed because of all the souls you extinguished—”
“This isn’t about that,” he said, propping his head up on his arm. “I suck at being the God of Death. Those Oracles would’ve never been harvested by Nanshe if you’d still been in office.”
Frowning, I set the unconscious queen on the flagstones of the maas and sealed the portal. She didn’t look like she’d be waking up anytime soon, and even if she did, she couldn’t escape from the maas, even in her best shape. Arms folded, I stared down at Thane. “What’s this all about?”
“What do you mean, ‘What’s this all about?’” He laughed and collapsed back onto the sand on his back. His robes rose and fell with his breathing. “You’ve always been the better God of Death. I only assumed the role because you’d trained me for so long, and you were so eager to get to your retirement.”
“I had centuries of experience on you before you took office, of course I performed my duties better than you.” He must have absorbed a ton of souls to be feeling this level of aftereffect. Stripping souls of their eternal existence certainly wasn’t an advisable course but, in emergencies, could be done as a power stim. The backlash of negative emotions meant it had remained a method of last resort for millenia. I’d done it once myself, a long time ago, but I didn’t remember the melancholy being this severe.
Another sharp laugh. “And the times you caught me sneaking off to play chef with Loutro?”
“We all had our diversions during our apprenticeships.” The warmth of the maas had worked its way through my muscles, and I rolled my shoulders to loosen the tension. “I built the fountain in Maas Pirene, avoiding lessons from my predecessor.”
“Those weren’t ‘diversions,’ Charax.” Smiling, he threw his arm across his eyes and chuckled. “I would’ve been content to stay a minor god, feasting and reveling to my heart’s content.”
I arched a brow at him. “You? Avoid the limelight? Please.”
He lifted his arm and peeked at me through his elbow. “Point taken. Maybe we could make the God of Wine a major office.”
“I’ll bring it up with Seppo when this whole affair gets settled, assuming you still wish to abdicate when you’re sober.” Cracking my neck, I shook my arms and reopened the portal. “But it’ll take time to find a suitable replacement for you.”
“Why do we need to find a replacement? You’re back.”
I glanced over my shoulder at him. He still hadn’t gotten up. Oh, come on. “You know very well it doesn’t work like that. Yes, I’m back, but Malia and I currently co-Seat our office. And I haven’t even reestablished worship yet, so I’m not even close to properly sharing an office, let alone being able to resume my old role.”
Thane huffed a laugh and flopped his arms out on the sand. “Just...think about it, okay? I don’t know how you put up with all this death for so long.”
I blinked. That’s what he thought? That I’d managed to master the weight of death over the centuries? As if.
But appearances did have their uses.
“All right, I’ll consider it.” I stamped over and pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go get our Oracles back, before they worm their way out of Nanshe’s chest, or something else less pleasant.”