Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Lazuli let out another fierce cry that trailed into a warble and swooped towards me. As she stretched her taloned feet, trying to pluck me, I parried with my sword and ducked beneath her. Shrieking, she fluttered about and tumbled to the ground.
“Hello, puppet.” I grinned and brandished my sword. “Nice string you got there.”
And she did. Now that I’d been to the astral plane, I saw the dark, wispy tether that trailed from her back all the way into the clouds, following her like a hooked fish. Eyes fierce, she screeched at me and flared her wings.
“Where is she?”
Well, that certainly wasn’t the reaction I was expecting. I arched a brow at her. “Beg pardon?”
Lazuli flexed her hands, cracking the fresh scabs on her fingers, and stalked across the plaza. “You took my kill. Where?”
Oh, right. That whole mess.
Keeping my sword at guard, I circled to the left, angling for the temple. “It turns out she had something of mine. I just needed a bit of peace and quiet to retrieve it.”
“Then why isn’t she here now?” Lazuli’s nostrils flared. “She’s mine!”
“I can fetch her for you, if you’d like.”
The harpy paused and tilted her head. “Really?”
“Sure, sure.” I made calming motions, my empty palm out. “Just drop that leash of yours so I can take you to her.”
Her eyes slitted. “You said you’d bring her to me.”
“It’d be easier to bring you to her.” I sidestepped through puddles, careful not to take my eyes off Lazuli’s. A flicker of warmth like a lit match blossomed in my chest.
Claws extended from Lazuli’s fingers as she snorted. “Another one of your jests?”
“Not this time, no.” Now I was squishing wet derketo corpses underfoot. The temple to my back, I’d reached the ring where they’d held Thane. Not a short distance to sprint, if I wanted to reach the temple doorway, but I might make it in time. Not that I’d need to, though.
“Then bring her to me.” Lazuli clicked her beak and increased her pace.
I stumbled backwards, matching her pace. “That link of yours is going to be in the way whether I bring her back or take you to her.”
She laughed a warbling cry. “It wasn’t a hindrance before, nor is it now. My prey. Give.”
The wind around me screamed as Lazuli shot forward. Malia nearly scalped me, flying past so close. The pair collided with such force that the air sounded like it shattered a dozen times over. It happened so fast, I only knew the other blur was Malia because she towered over Lazuli’s petrified body, the harpy turned to stone beneath my gorgon’s livid gaze.
Malia snapped her wings once, twice, and then slithered off the stone figure. “Mine.” She spat on Lazuli for good measure before veiling her eyes and turning to me. Eyes sparkling, she smiled. “Well, wasn’t that an experience?”
I nodded. “Glad you got my message.”
“What, that the elder being who’d sublimated the astral plane to her will could also read our minds and I needed to fall back?”
“More or less,” I said. Frowning, I jerked my head at the frozen goddess. “And that she’s stuck there, so she needs proxies like her to do the heavier lifting.”
She gave me a self-satisfied smile. “Oh, good, so I was right about that, too.”
“Of course you were.” I gave her a look. “I couldn’t help but notice you’d put on a few astral pounds since I last saw your form.”
“Phrasing.” She swatted my arm as she snuggled up next to me. “I’d been meaning to tell you, but it hadn’t come up yet.”
“Mmhmm.” I kissed the top of her head. “And you just so happened to start bulking right before an elder goddess decided to unleash herself upon the land?”
Her snakes hissed in mock annoyance. “In order to throw my weight around against such fierce opposition, I need to have the weight in the first place.”
“Does Seppo know?”
“Of course, dear.” She sighed and hugged my arm closer. “He’s known from the start. He’ll be along momentarily, when I give the signal.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Signal for what?”
“You’ll see.” She grinned up at me through her snake hair and started glowing.
Astral energy flowed like oil, making her scales glossy. Although the otherworldly power enveloped her, she didn’t transition to her incorporeal form, instead staying quite solid against my side. Her wings spread around us, slightly possessive, as she glared up at the colossal eyes that had reappeared in the sky.
Storm clouds masked the orbs like a mourner’s veil, but they did nothing to hide the sheer animosity churning in their depths. YOUR WORLD WILL FALL. The Sea Mother’s voice pounded in our ears and rattled our jaws. YOU WILL COWER IN FEAR.
“This land is under the protection of the Carthian deities.” Malia squeezed my arm as she answered the primordial immortal. “Its spirits and gods are ours, and you will not have them.”
I HAVE ALREADY RECLAIMED THE SPIRITS THAT WILL BE USEFUL TO ME. Lightning flashed around the eyes, casting strange light that seemed to flatten the lenses. SHE, HOWEVER, IS NOT. YOU MAY DO WITH HER AS YOU WISH. I HAVE NO NEED OF FAILURES.
“That explains why the earth felt empty,” Malia muttered under her breath.
“Do you think Lazuli released the spirits as well?” I whispered.
“Doesn’t matter.” Malia shook her head. Straightening, she met the Sea Mother with her most withering glare. “We are the Carthians. Your age has passed. Aenea is ours.”
Seppo materialized next to her, his steel sledgehammer gripped in both hands. “You are hereby barred from our lands, and should we find you trespassing, we will scour you from the earth and bind you back in the depths you’ve crawled from.”
To my right, Thane and Azoria appeared as well, standing a little too close together. My eyebrows rose. Was that her hand on his shoulder?Thane, positioned between me and Azoria, gave me a guilty look before screwing up his face something fierce and glowering at the Sea Mother. “Our dead are our own, and you will not take them.”
Azoria had ditched her white priestess garb and face paint, opting for her divine robes. When Thane finished, however, she didn’t say anything pithy, but merely nodded her assent.
I shrugged. Might as well throw my own pittance in with the other showboaters. As I opened my mouth to speak, Malia put a finger to my lips.
“I’ve got this.” She kissed my chin. Flaring her wings, she stepped forward and blurred, toeing the line between physical and astral. Her lines shimmered as if distorted by heat, her skin pulsing in time with her swaying snakes. A sly smile crept across her face as she stared at the Sea Mother. “I will personally weed out whatever snakes you’ve sent among us. You will be cut off from the land, and when I’m finished, you will never be remembered again. Try resurrecting from that.”
A wind like a huff buffeted us. CHILDREN. But then the air sagged back to sea, the storm clouds thinned, and the eyes vanished. The cries of gulls greeted the first rays of sunshine, and muffled cheers from peeping plebeians rumbled through the city behind us. The Sea Mother was gone.
“That’s it?” Malia dropped her hands and shook her head, annoyed. “No comeback?”
“I’m sure she’ll be down to verbally spar when she considers us a real threat,” I said, taking her arm and tugging her into the impromptu huddle we were forming. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Thane and Azoria quickly release each other’s hands as they stepped into the circle. While I couldn’t keep the grin off my face, I did manage to avoid making direct eye contact with either of them. “What worries me is how fast Tamiyat abandoned her attempt to reclaim Aenea. I don’t buy that she already has all the spirits she wanted, since she was still doing her best to take the city from us.”
Malia folded her arms and flicked her tail at the petrified goddess. “We dealt with her proxy.”
“True, but I don’t think that explains everything.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. Tamiyat’s erratic behavior didn’t make sense, even factoring in elder eccentricities. There was a connection to be drawn, but my mind hadn’t made it yet.
“Let me know when you’ve worked it out.” Malia pursed her lips and glanced at Seppo. “You’ve been around longer than we have. What do you know about the Sea Mother?”
The pistons by his neck hissed as he shook his head. “Precious little, I’m afraid. She was my mother’s bedfellow in her younger years, but they had a falling out before I was born. I’ll have the Oracles consult the archives when we return.”
“Speaking of Oracles,” Thane interjected. “I’m afraid we have some bad news about our former Aenean diviners.”
“So you’ve confirmed their deaths?” Seppo said, sighing.
Thane nodded. “I’m afraid so. We were able to recover their souls from the Paedan goddess before she...ah, escaped.”
Seppo grunted. “I’ll let Charax explain himself later. But I’m sure you couldn’t have recovered the souls without his help, and he always has his reasons.”
Thane blushed but said nothing.
“Seppo, if I may—” Azoria began, but Seppo held up a hand.
“No. You’re biased in his favor, and he is blind to his mentor's faults.” Seppo gave me a bemused smile. “But I trust my gods of war. Now, get out of here and go back to whatever bedroom activities you were up to before.”
Azoria went bright scarlet, and I thought Thane wanted to conjure a hole in the plaza to swallow him up. Clamping her mouth shut, Azoria turned and drew an oval of brilliant aquamarine in the air. A moment later, her portal flared open and she let Thane through. Still blushing furiously, she stopped on the threshold and said, “I’ll, uh, be back later to administer—”
Seppo cut her off and shooed her away.
The portal snapped shut, leaving the three of us alone on the plaza.
Seppo’s exoskeleton hissed as he sagged. “I wasn’t too harsh on them, was I?”
Malia and I shared a look and laughed. Oh boy, this next feast was going to be a blast.