Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Thane’s portal flared to life beside me, and a moment later he stumbled through. “You’re not gonna believe what just—” The ground pitched beneath him and sent him tumbling. Eyes wide, he stared up at me. “It’s happening here, too?”
I frowned so hard it felt like I split my face in several places. Earthquakes in one maas were bad enough. Earthquakes in several maas meant things had gone seriously wrong. Each dimension was physically separate, the only links transdimensional pathways that touched on a tangential plane. So whatever the source of the disturbance was, it was strong enough to shake the foundations of a reality we visited only in passing. I really didn’t like the implications of that.
“Oh, that’s not a happy face,” Thane said. Arms spread, he slowly regained his feet. “I haven’t seen you that upset since I accidentally tipped the wrong scale into the River Mim.”
“I’m thinking.” I scowled. “And I don’t particularly like what I’m thinking.”
“Obviously. Care to—”
Searing agony blazed in my chest. It exploded within me, like someone had heated a skewer in Phaeus’ forge and plunged it between my ribs. The pain was so sudden that I found myself on my knees, clutching my chest, before I’d even realized I was falling. As I gasped for breath, I realized it was my bond with Malia, but it’d never done anything like this. The closest thing had been when she’d drawn power from me in desperation during one battle we no longer talked about, but this was different. The bond’s anchor felt like a live coal, radiating all kinds of power.
Once my mind finally caught up with the influx of signals, I managed to put a damper on the bond, enough to think straight while conserving and storing the energy she was feeding me. Leave it to Malia to have advanced her abilities considerably and kept it hidden to the degree that it didn’t even leak subconsciously. But if she’d unveiled it now, that could only mean one thing: she’d met Tamiyat.
And if the earthquakes were any indication, the damned fool was fighting the Sea Mother on her own.
I pushed up off my knees and held a hand to stall any questions from Thane. “Malia.”
With the lull in the quaking, I pulled Nanshe to her feet and ushered her towards Thane. “What’s the safest coastal city in Paedaea?” I asked her.
“Uh...Sistons.” Her face was puzzled.
I had no idea where that was. I gave Thane a look as I handed her off to him. “Can you get her there from your maas?”
“If not directly, then close.” He frowned as he reopened his portal. “Let me guess. ‘Lovers die together,’ or some other pithy battle quote?”
“Something like that.” I rolled my shoulders as I let Malia’s gifted power cycle down my arms. “You mentioned Tamiyat’s broken heart.”
Nanshe looked uncomfortable in Thane’s grip. “Yes?”
“Can it be broken again?” My neck cracked. Ooh, that felt good.
“Not likely, while the second prisoner remains bound.” She gave a high-pitched laugh. “Heavens know how we managed to bind him.”
My eyebrows twitched down. “Who’s he?”
“We do not speak his name.” Even in her weakened state, cut off from her magic and trapped in an enemy pantheon’s celestial realm, she managed to look intimidating. It was impressive.
“Fine, fine.” I waved the comment away. “So he’s still bound?”
“You wouldn’t be alive to question me if he weren’t.”
I managed to crack every finger except my left pinky, which stubbornly refused. “So it’s safe to say Tamiyat will beeline to wherever he’s held to free him. Which is where?”
“I cannot say.” She turned away from us, nose up. “But...Jade can.” She sneered. “It’s obvious she has yet to tell you what she guards.”
Suddenly, the djinn’s terror at ancient spirits in the earth made a sickening amount of sense. I must have paled because Thane’s eyebrows shot up.
“Figure something out, old man?”
“Yeah.” I shook my arms, trying to loosen the climbing tension. “But not a word of this, to anyone, until I’ve verified a few things.”
He cocked a brow. “Even Seppo?”
“Especially Seppo.” I jabbed a finger at him. “He means well, but he’d run off and get himself killed trying to ‘do his duty’ to protect us. So you keep those flappy lips of yours sealed.”
“Like you’re not?”
“That’s different and you know it. I’m expendable, he’s not. Now wipe that smirk off your face.” I tried to maintain a hard stare, but it was hard with how jittery the energy rush was making me. “And get her to Paedaea.”
Thane laughed and gave me a mock salute. “Yes, sir.”
And with that he disappeared through his portal, marching Nanshe in beside him. The air hissed warm wind as the opening collapsed. I’d give him a bit of a head start, then retrace my steps through his sandy maas and hop back out in Palmyra. Hopefully Malia wouldn’t wreak too much havoc before—
The ground lurched beneath my feet. Dislodged bricks ridged the plaza, aged mortar crumbling off the exposed edges.
All right, new plan. Ignoring the pain as our bond flared anew, I ripped open my portal and flailed my way across the dunes. Thane must’ve shortcutted his journey somehow, because I saw no sign of him or Nanshe, not even a trail in the sand. That must have been a new addition, since he’d still had to trek across the maas before I retired. I’d work out the secret or pester him for it later, but for now, I was just grateful that the region I needed to open a rend within was only a short distance away.
As soon as my return portal opened, I got blasted with chill storm winds and stinging rain. The distant storm I’d left behind was on top of the city, smearing the lines of the city beneath murky storm clouds. Strange gray objects dotted the roads, things that for a moment looked like commoners until I made my way into the downpour and saw they were actually derketo, petrified into slate-hued statues.
Movement in the air currents drew my eyes upward. Although the clouds roiled from the storm, something large agitated them beyond the cloudy ceiling. Scratch that, somethings. Malia, fully aspected in her astral form, thrashed through the cloud cover, entwined around a being my eyes couldn’t comprehend. It was a marvel Malia held any kind of grip on the Sea Mother at all.
The vision of Tamiyat was awe-inspiring and terrifying. I felt small and inadequate just looking at her, a feeling compounded by the fact that I struggled to process what I was seeing. She looked like a monstrous sea serpent; a massive, lightning-winged dragon; and a tremblingly, frighteningly beautiful woman all at once.
Her serpent tail was thicker than an island and trailed back to the Great Sea, the column of snake body traveling up and through her draconic body to a viper’s head that could swallow the moon. The long fingers of her wings trailed through the clouds, raking lightning in their wake. And her otherworldly figure made my chest ache with its perfection.
“Terrifying” was childishly simplistic. Each beast was distinct, yet where they overlapped they didn’t conflict, flickering together in physically impossible ways. Long legs carried giant feet across the earth, her hips disparate from snake and drake yet somehow connected, and yet she clawed the earth with four scaly, draconic limbs, and yet further slithered through the air with an immeasurable girth of ophidian flesh.
And Malia was wrestling her with her bare hands.
If you’re quite done gawking, I could use some help. Malia’s voice seared across my mind. Our bond twisted painfully in my chest as the excess power leaked around my suppression.
“Ease up a bit, would you?” Gritting my teeth, I clutched my chest as I groped for my sword. It materialized a moment later, but once I held it, it felt like staring down a lion with a twig. A really, really big lion.
That is eased up. Her thoughts were choppy and agitated, spat out between mental breaths. Astral form, and watch your thoughts.
“I’m not sure I can manage that right now.” My knees buckled as she flooded me with a burst of power.
Move it and use it.
Thunder erupted as Tamiyat’s wings harvested lightning from the clouds. The elder goddess twirled, nearly throwing Malia several times, but my beautiful gorgon held on.
She also carved swaths of blasted earth as her gaze swept across the land.The gorgon’s glare didn’t seem to affect the Sea Mother, not even causing any blistering on her scales or skin. Malia’s starry face, however, was strained from resisting Tamiyat’s maddening influence. And from the way her eyes were starting to bug, she’d been venting far too much power through her eyes, probably continuously, knowing her.
Well, ain’t no time like the present.