Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Shrugging off my robes, I braced myself to transition into my astral form. It’d been far too long since I’d last assumed it, and even with the energy Malia was blasting into me it’d still be a struggle to maintain it. Going full birthday suit to transition into it wasn’t strictly necessary, but losing the physical barrier meant it’d be a lot easier on my rusty neurons.
Raising my sword in front of me, I gripped it in both hands and gave the elder goddess a mock salute. Then, slowly, I peeled back my dampening on our bond. Layer after layer curled away and evaporated as the energy pushed against the constraining shell, until it was almost entirely exposed. Heat surged through my veins, spiking my heart rate. With a sigh, I let my consciousness fall backwards into the pool of the astral plane.
Normally, the higher level of existence felt like an oily pool, dotted with starbursts like dandelion seeds. With Tamiyat rampaging, however, it was a cauldron of caustic sand, abrading my soul as soon as I made contact. As I expanded my astral form, the grit got in crevices I hadn’t thought about in ages and nested uncomfortably in the folds. Tamiyat’s madness filled the plane with sickening fumes, but the burning anchor in my chest kept the influence at bay.
My frame creaked uncomfortably as I rose into the sky. With how out of practice I was, I could barely form the hollow shell of my astral form. Powering it wasn’t an issue, even with how inefficient Malia’s energy sharing was. I hadn’t trod the astral plane for perhaps a century before I retired. I hadn’t needed to. So to come back to it so suddenly was even worse than returning to Nebesa, because there wasn’t any ambrosia to smooth the process. Thus, my starry figure ended up looking like a titan’s reed doll.
Two eyes appeared in front of me, blinking into existence so quickly I nearly screamed and tumbled backwards. They spanned my vision like clouds, the irises veined like rainbow nebulae. One pupil alone could have haloed my astral form with room to spare, its darkness a portal to a void that promised relief from coherency.
WHO ARE YOU?
The Sea Mother’s voice rolled like the ocean, its resonance surrounding me. It was a voice to make one feel tiny, and tiny I felt. My mind recoiled at the sound, which was disconnected from the strange tri-form entangling Malia in the distance. The eyes were attached to it, somehow, but I couldn’t see the link. It wasn’t in the astral plane, which made it that much more unnerving.
And yet, as imposing as Tamiyat was, I couldn’t help but hear the ghost of the dream stalker laughing in the back of my mind. Although the Sea Mother was primordial and dwarfed the might of our entire pantheon, she failed to touch that nerve of primitive terror I’d felt in that nightmare. My fear of Tamiyat was tangible, its source and reason clear. But that...thing.
The eyes narrowed. THE GODS HAVE GROWN IN MY ABSENCE. THEY WERE CHILDREN PISSING THEMSELVES IN MY PRESENCE BEFORE.
“Ah, so you were bound by mere children.” I couldn’t help my laugh. “Imagine how well mature deities will fare, then.”
The eyes were unamused. LIFT YOUR ARMS.
“Why?” Despite my obstinate question, I felt the impulse to raise my hands quiver in my fingers.
“No.” I went to fold my arms, but they resisted the command. Panic stabbed my mind for a moment, but I relaxed and tried again, slowly this time. Still no movement.
SEE? YOUR RESISTANCE IS IRRELEVANT. Assured confidence rolled across the eyes like a lazy breeze. YOUR CHILDISH PROJECTION, SO CERTAIN IN ITS POWER, IS AS AN EFFIGY I COULD TOPPLE WITH A FLICK.
Beyond the eyes, Malia raged against the dragon form, blasting it again and again with her gaze. The shimmering heat bounced off its scales without so much as clouding them. Furious, Malia raked her claws against its sides, trying unsuccessfully to find a chink in the folds.
AH. The eyes grew knowing. YOU WONDER AT HER STRUGGLE, HOW SHE DEFIES ME SO WHEN YOU CANNOT.
“Hmm? Oh, sorry, I was just admiring the view.” I bared my astral teeth. “It’s not every day I get to see her kicking an elder goddess’ ass.”
YOUR COURAGE IS ADMIRABLE. The voice was thoughtful, the eyes contemplative with a depth that threatened to suck me in and drown me in its abyss. I HAVE NEED OF GODS WITH SUCH TRAITS.
I tried to clench my fingers but couldn’t move them, so I had to settle for grinding my teeth. Not the most pleasant experience when your body is fully incorporeal.
“What part of my wife is currently beating you into submission makes you think I’d even entertain the thought of joining you?”
A long, drawn out sigh blew through me, chilling me to my core. The promise of annihilation drifted on those winds, made by a being with the power to follow through. DO NOT WEAR OUT THE JOKES SO EASILY, CHILD.
Her inhale pulled the teeth out of the chill and twisted at my mind trying to comprehend why eyes needed to breathe.
HER AUDITION GOES WELL. Explosions erupted in the distance, lightning colliding with Malia’s force. SHE COMPORTS HERSELF ADMIRABLY. IF SHE IS THE BEST YOUR PANTHEON HAS TO OFFER, THEN PERHAPS YOUR KIND HASN’T SQUANDERED ITS EXISTENCE.
“Funny you should mention existence.” I shivered as I inched my mental barriers down. The incense of the astral plane flooded my senses, cinnamon spiced with madness. I ignored it. “Because something about yours bothers me. If you’re so strong and utterly unopposable, why recruit gods? What do we have that you need?”
ENTERTAINMENT, CHILD. YOUR KIND AMUSES ME.
I shook my head as far as my restricted movement would let me. “Can’t be that. It’s too simple, too clean, an answer.”
The eyes narrowed. MIND WHAT YOU ACCUSE ME OF, SUCKLING.
“You called this a projection. These astral bodies of ours truly are nothing like yours.” I grinned. “You must be the real deal, a being stuck in an astral existence. No physical body, no way to influence the world the way you really want to. You need mediums to work through.”
AND YOU CONSIDER HER THE GODDESS OF STRATEGY. Pinpricks of light danced across the irises as the eyes appraised me. YOU UNDERESTIMATE YOURSELF.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened.” I shrugged. My feet felt rooted in place, but a bit of motion had returned to my arms. “Granted, on a much smaller scale, but gods have proxied through demigods before, so why couldn’t a higher being than us do the same?”
WHAT I COULD DO WITH A MIND LIKE YOURS.
“I’m good, thanks.”
Soft laughter rumbled across the expanse, mingling with the distant thunder of Malia’s conflict with the Sea Mother. AH, THE FALSE SECURITY ARROGANCE PROVIDES. HOW WILL YOU RESIST ME, WHEN I CAN SIFT YOUR MIND LIKE FLOUR?
“See, that’s not as scary, coming from you.” I leaned back, testing the limits of the invisible constraints. “Nice try, though.”
I CAN SENSE YOUR FEAR, CHILD. SUBMIT, AND I WILL RELEASE YOU FROM IT FOREVER.
I laughed so hard the stars danced out of my eyes and floated around me.
The eyes narrowed. EXPLAIN THE HUMOR IN THAT.
Still laughing, I scooped the stars back into my eyes. “Fear can be bad, but it can be good as well. It gives me strength, purpose, and motivation in battle. Fear is my weapon as well as my weakness.” I shook my head, a broad smile on my face. “Of course you would have me disarm myself as I bend my knee to you. No, I think you might’ve underestimated what you’re up against.”
A low hum resonated through the ether. As it echoed across the plane, the eyes faded. WE WILL SEE.
“Malia, now!” I shoved panic through our bond and collapsed my astral form. I had to trust she understood, because the last thing I needed was Tamiyat realizing what I meant and ensnaring Malia in the astral plane. The transition back to the mortal realm was an undramatic shift from an inky starfield to a cold drizzle as the Sea Mother’s storm wore itself out.
Shivering, I rose from the flagstones and picked up my drenched robes. The folds clung together, resisting my numb fingers as I tried to find an opening. Of course, once I did discover where to begin, they’d stick to my limbs and resist my every effort to pull them on. But it’d be better than nothing, if I could get them on, what with all this stupid rain.
A winged form plummeted through the clouds and arced towards me. My first thought was Malia, but our bond was deathly cold and she never shrieked like a bird of prey. Her wings weren’t banded, either. Ah, the kite goddess.