Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Nanshe was still unconscious on the ground where I’d left her when we entered Maas Pirene. Her breathing was shallow and uneven, with no pattern to when she skipped a breath. At least her severed tentacles had healed to stubs and she wasn’t leaking power uncontrollably.
Thane stepped aside as I snagged her off the ground and carried her over to the fountain. What worried me more than her erratic breathing was how light she’d gotten in the scant few minutes I’d left her alone. Well, hopefully this worked, otherwise we’d have a potentially permanently incapacitated goddess on our hands.
As I dragged her to the edge of the burbling fountain, Thane saw fit to voice his concerns. “You sure about this?”
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I weren’t.” Without waiting for his reply, I shoved Nanshe’s head into the water and held her under.
For a long moment, nothing happened. Her breathing remained unsteady, her eyes closed, and her general state unconscious. But then she jerked, trying to pull away from me. I held firm, keeping in the water that I hoped was healing her. She wriggled in my grip, pulling herself up to her shoulders into the water.
When her breathing stabilized, I hauled her out and spun her around. “Morning, princess.”
“Unhand me at once.” She slapped at my hand but couldn’t dislodge it.
“Sure, sure,” I said, not easing up. “But we have some questions, and you’ll give us the answers.”
“And if I don’t?” She turned her nose up, her face haughty despite how haggard she looked.
I sighed. “At the very least, we’re retrieving the souls of our Oracles, whether or not you give them willingly. Beyond that, it’s your own doom you’re sealing if you refuse.”
She humphed and tried to pull away, but I held on.
“I’m serious.” I pinned her arms to her side and pressed her against the fountain’s edge. “I wouldn’t have dragged you here and healed you, in my fountain, if I were just going to throw you into the Sea Mother’s wrath. But if you want our help, we need to know what we’re up against.”
“You? Help us?” She sneered. “You lie.”
Thane’s scythe glinted as it slipped beneath her chin. I hadn’t even heard him move, but he had the blade pressed against the underside of her jaw and pushed her head to the side. “Now you listen,” he hissed, his voice cold. “I don’t particularly care for you, and I know the feeling is mutual. But if Charax says he’ll help, he means it.” He paused and shot me a look. All kinds of questions were sketched across his face.
I nodded. “Elder gods have a habit of annihilating those beneath them. It’s cruel, what they do. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Besides—” I couldn’t help grinning at her confused expression. “—once she’s done feeding on you, she’ll probably turn her eyes outwards. The primal gods could never help themselves from a good conquest.”
“There’s the catch. Selfish bastards, savage barba—” She coughed as Thane twisted the shaft of his scythe, crushing her windpipe.
“Best mind your tongue, highness,” he said. The muscles on his jaw worked as he squeezed his scythe.
“Oh, piss off.” She spat at him, landing a solid glob on his cheek. “You banter about helping us against something not even the best heroes of our legends could best. We only managed to bind her because she was heartbroken, her lover betrayed by his servants, leaving her bereft. And yet, in the same breath, you threaten my life. Consider me thoroughly convinced.”
I shrugged. “Well, I tried the nice way.”
As I yanked her forward, Thane vanished his scythe and slid out of my way. Tripping her across my ankle, I threw her into the ground and sank my elbow into her back, putting my full weight into it. She wheezed as she coughed for breath, scrabbling at the flagstones. While I held her down, Thane circled around and knelt in front of her.
Sighing, he closed his eyes and pressed two fingers to her forehead. Ice frosted their skin, spreading from the point of contact, and Nanshe screamed while Thane remained silent. I could feel his magic coursing through her body, trembling as it searched for the Carthian souls. Isolated from her own magic, the process must have been excruciating, but for Thane it was a more casual affair.
The search took no longer than a breath, but it felt like ages, and the frost cracked like the surface of a lake thawing in the spring. Nanshe shivered, her claws embedded in the cracks between the stones. Shaking off icy powder, Thane rose and exhaled. The smell of morning dew breezed through the air and then was gone. His eyes glowed for a moment as he blinked.
“Got them,” he whispered.
I shifted off Nanshe’s back, kneeling at her side. “You okay?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Might need a moment, though.”
“Take your time. I can take it from here.”
Pulling his robes close, he nodded again and stepped sideways through his portal as it manifested beside him. A flash, and he was gone into his sandy maas, leaving me alone with the whimpering merfolk queen.
I meant to sit by the fountain, but ended up flopping over and cracking my head on the ledge instead. Wincing, I rubbed my head and watched Nanshe shiver.
“You’re a wiwit,” she said through chattering teeth.
Whatever that was, it obviously wasn’t a compliment, and the nearest equivalent in Carthian was in the neighborhood of back alley horseshit. Obviously, I’d been a little rough with her, to put it mildly, but I’d played those verbal games before. Sometimes, force articulated a point far more eloquently than the greatest orator could manage.
“I may be a whatever you called me, but at least I’m an honest one.”
“Two-faced dog.” Quivering, she pried her nails from the stones and struggled to push herself up. Melted frost dripped off her chin, down her chest. “Hypocrite. How dare—”
“Save your breath, kid. I’m tired.”
“Yes, me,” I snapped. I leaned forward and pointed at the ground. “You see that dirt you just kissed? If I really wanted to, I could grind your face to powder and clean the stone with my piss. But I’m old, and tired, and cranky. And when I say I’m willing to even half exert my ass, I mean it. So you can stop your bitching and answer my questions, or I’ll dump your ass at the Paeden border and be done with it.”
Eyes veiled, she pressed her lips into a thin line as she struggled to sit up. When she finally managed it, she sat and sulked for a good five minutes. Head turned, arms crossed, fuming—the whole lot.
I just let her stew. Sure, she had every right to be upset about her face...and the tentacles too, I guess. But the souls were ours, and I didn’t feel a bit of remorse over that bit. She had no right to them, and she knew the risks, taking the dead of another pantheon. We’d come calling, and she had to answer.
As Nanshe sighed, little nubs of new tentacles peeked through the scabs on the stubs. Her body convulsed, healing energy spiraling up and down her body. Though her aura was faint, it was still strong enough to cleanse her wounds and patch her up. Fingers pinching her arms, she opened her clouded eyes and stared past me. “Why?”
I blinked. “Why what?”
“Why help me?” Her grip tightened, making her skin pale around her fingers. “This isn’t your fight, it’s not your pantheon, and certainly outside your authority. So why?”
“They treat the gods like shit. And they’re even worse to the mortals.” I shrugged. “It would have been cruel to leave you to her whims, even without you stealing our Oracles’ souls.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “You think us so incapable.”
“No, I think you, alone, injured after fighting three hostile gods, were incapable. It took our entire infant pantheon and a host of necessary sacrifices I regret to remove our elders, and that was without whatever maddening influence Tamiyat seems to have.” I fought off shivers at the thought. “I’ve only ever met one god who could rival a primordial. No offense, but you’ve got nothing on her.”
“None taken,” she said, her voice flat. Rubbing her elbows, she shifted uncomfortably. “So...what questions did you have?”
Wow. I didn’t expect to get through to her that easily. Which either meant she’d honestly broken down, or she was going to filter her answers through the craftiest lens she could fashion. It wouldn’t be anywhere near Malia’s level, of course, but I’d watch what she said nonetheless.
“For starters, what can you tell me about Tamiyat? Any particular weaknesses or vulnerabilities she has?”
As Nanshe opened her mouth to reply, the whole maas tilted sideways and the ground shook. Water from the fountain spilled down my back and sloshed over the merfolk, chilling us both. Nanshe yelped as the ground pitched her onto her side, probably bruising her elbow or a rib. I shot to my feet, summoning my sword and steadying myself on the shaky ground.
Earthquakes weren’t unheard of in Carthia, but they never happened in the maas. Until now, of course. And I had no idea why. It’d take an insane amount of power to even remotely affect the stability of the maas.