Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
We didn’t head straight to the feast, of course. That would take a couple days to get set up, enough time for everyone to gather and Loutro to decide on the various dishes. Since the feast would serve not only as the commencement of the Second Trial but also a celebration of our reclamation of Aenea, he’d no doubt go all out on the food. While Seppo went about getting Nebesa ready for the revelry, I went back to my maas to mull over the various thoughts nibbling at the back of my mind.
The stones of the fountain were cool and a little wet as I sat down. Behind me, the fountain burbled and splashed, spray misting my back as the water rose and fell. With Malia cleaning up the mess in Aenea and Thane, Azoria, and the others doing who knew what, it felt a little empty. The stain from where I’d thrown Nanshe had faded, the flagstones back to their warm, golden hue.
I picked a pebble out of the fountainwork and rolled it between my fingers. Paeden magic had strong bonds to spirits and earth. Hasda’s djinn had pissed himself about being put to earth, and Palmyra had felt void of divine essence. While that was partially due to the inhospitable environment, Tamiyat recovering the souls of her deceased followers could very well have exacerbated the hostility. And Jade was somehow connected, if Nanshe’s words were to be trusted.
I frowned at the flagstones. What did Jade guard? Was there something in the mines? A minor Paeden goddess, charged with warding something bound in the earth, almost like...like Lazuli. Jailor of the Sea Mother. Or she was, until she let her out and threw her loyalties to the elder goddess, her prisoner.
The words of my vision haunted me. I hated the ambiguity of prophetic metaphor with a passion. If such metaphors had a physical manifestation, I would have thrashed the avatar in combat and dealt it an excruciatingly painful death. I had no clue who the “Adder” could be; the “Apparition” seemed bound to torment me with its endless possibilities; and as clear-cut as the admonition about the “Prisoner” seemed to be, delivered right before our encounter with the Sea Mother, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a little too obvious.
I hadn’t discussed the prophecy yet with Malia, but she tended to pick an interpretation she liked and then never deviate from that perceived meaning. While that shortcoming often blinded her, she was pretty good at cutting through the smoke and mirrors to get near the heart of the meaning. So perhaps justifiably blind, but if the prophecy really were about Hasda, I wanted to be as absolutely certain of the intended message as possible.
Sighing, I pushed off the fountain and paced around it. The murmuring water and cool air were comforting, but they provided none of the answers I sought. But perhaps Jade could shed some light on the situation, if I could find her. I hadn’t noticed her when I returned, but I also hadn’t been looking very hard.
I flicked my portal open, heading for Maas Bierg. Malia would be another few days cleaning up Aenea before she returned, so I’d gather what information I could and then talk with her, hopefully before the feast. While I could have waited until she got back to question Jade, I also wanted the goddess as open as possible, and Malia had a bad habit of being...intimidating, especially to those she held in low regard.
All manner of mythical beings swarmed the streets of Maas Bierg. News had spread of the conflict in Aenea, and how an elder goddess had arisen from the Great Sea and been driven off by Malia and me. I slapped at an itch on my neck, which had come and gone intermittently since I’d returned. Normally, those kinds of itches meant worshippers sacrificing, doling out their devotion, etc., but I hadn’t reestablished any of my temples, formally or informally. If it kept up for a week, I’d talk to Seppo about it and see if I was having some kind of strange readjustment to being a seated god again. Sort of like how old scars sometimes itched.
Even with my hood up, I couldn’t avoid the stares of the people I passed on the streets, so I pulled it off and flashed unsettling smiles. That at least kept them from pestering me with annoying inquiries, although it had the downside of making the odd centaur or chimera I stopped to question shy away. But eventually I got my questions answered, and no one had seen Jade anywhere. Hasda had vanished, too, which surprised me until my subconscious started drawing conclusions.
I had no idea what Hasda considered romantic. The forests of Maas Caorann were bare of Nebesan life, save for Loutro, who’d gone hunting for deer for the feast. He hadn’t seen Jade or Hasda, but he thought Phaeus might have an idea, so I jumped through my portal and ended up outside the steamy gates of Phaeus’ forge. After shouting myself hoarse for a couple minutes, the insolent dwarf finally appeared. At first he thought I’d come to collect Hasda’s armor, which he’d repaired (save the possessed chestplate), but when I asked about the lad’s whereabouts, he frowned. No, he hadn’t seen Hasda since the feast, but he had seen Jade talking with Tarrha a few days ago, so maybe she knew.
Grumbling my thanks, I collected Hasda’s armor and took a quick detour through my maas to deposit it safely before heading back to Maas Bierg to find Tarrha. And, of course, once I got to her temple, she was out, but her attendants said she’d gone to the springs in Maas Taeful so maybe I could find her there. As if I hadn’t already been running all over Nebesa. But I thanked them and went through yet another portal, coming out next to the log cabin the spring wardens used for administrative purposes.
It was a squat structure, built from pines felled from the surrounding forest. A lone chimney sighed smoke from the back, and the overhanging roof slats gave flimsy waves in the wind. Empty chairs sat on the porch, and the front door was closed. Before I had time to process how unusual such a vacancy was, Tarrha came barreling through the door, laughing as she shrugged her robes on.
“And we’ll have to do that…” she trailed off when she saw me. Wet hair, exposed shoulder streaked with water or sweat, and robes far too thin to be decent, she looked weird in a mortal body, as opposed to the water nymph form she’d worn at the feast. When she saw me, she flashed me a smile and ignored the nymph behind her. “Why, Charax, what a pleasant surprise! Come to relax, I take it.” Her eyes sparkled. “Would you like some company?”
“No, thank you.” I watched the leafy spirit slink around her and flee into the forest. “I’m looking for Jade. Hasda, too. Have you seen them?”
“Mmmm.” Her voice purred as she slid towards me. “Can’t say I’ve seen that boy of yours recently, but Jade passed through here a few hours ago.”
I folded my arms as she draped herself over the post at the top of the steps and fought off an eye roll. “I would appreciate it if you’d point me in her direction.”
“You really ought to do something about all that stress in your voice.” Whatever she intended that smile to convey, it very nearly made me laugh. A bit of a grin slipped out anyways, and she immediately started pouting. “Oh, poo. It’s always business with you. Fine.” She huffed and jerked her head. “They went to the sauna beyond the second hill.”
“They?” I raised an eyebrow, but she held a finger to her lips and gave me a mischievous smile.
“Gotta find my fun somewhere, now, mustn’t I?”
That deserved an eye roll, so I gave her one and swung around to hike to the sauna. The isolated, private, definitely only ever used to bask in steam sauna.
“Mind that you knock, you old badger!” Tarrha called after me.
I waved her comment away and stomped up the hill behind the cabin.
Beyond the hill was the field full of springs, steam blanketing the plains like milky fog. Minor gods and goddesses lounged in the water-filled depressions in various states of undress, the most unusual being a god wearing his social awkwardness on his sleeve with his full robes still on. But seeing them all so relaxed made me feel my centurites, both because I could use a good soak myself and because I recognized not a one of them. I hadn’t been gone that long, and it wasn’t like I paid the minor gods no mind at all, and yet still…
As I wended my way around the pools, I mentally swatted away those pesky fatherly feelings that were springing up about what I’d find in the sauna. Jade and Hasda had been spending more and more time together, and it raised my suspicions to return and not be able to find either of them. Tarrha’s comments, as well, were designed to foment such feelings. But of course they would, because stupid, horny fertility goddess. If Jade and Hasda had gone to the private sauna alone, who knows what kind of “advice” she’d given them.
With that lovely thought, I came upon the little shack that served as the sauna. Laughter and...very specific sounds floated out through the steam that rose from the spring beside the hut. I recognized both Hasda and Jade’s voices coming from within and prepared myself for a supremely awkward conversation.