Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
By the time we finished our voyage, Hasda had a handle on his new underwater breathing. It still took him a bit transitioning between habitats, especially coming out of the water, but he wasn’t flailing like he was drowning or trying to retch his lungs out anymore. Malia had prowled the depths every practice session and had never been needed, neither to fight off derketo nor rescue Hasda. She’d been cranky about not being able to trace the derketo’s movements. While I shared her frustration, it made me more concerned because if they weren’t tracking us, what were they doing?
We still didn’t have any answers by the time we reached our destination. The sylvan shores of Ibithia peppered the horizon, the lumpy canopy looming with vague foreboding. Despite being unreachable by maas, Ibithia had presented no obstacles for our sea-bound arrival, and none of the gods aboard reported feeling any resistance as we neared the coast. Landfall and unloading also went without a hitch, leaving Malia and I to trail Hasda inland and ponder the strange situation.
Although Seppo and Thane had accompanied us across the Sea, neither stayed with us as we headed into the forest. Seppo stayed on the ship to supervise its return to Nebesa, and Thane took off west as soon as his feet hit the earth. Why, he didn’t say, and we didn’t have time to ask him. Hasda had wandered off almost immediately, losing himself among the trees. Malia and I hurried after him, barely able to keep him in sight as he wended his way around trunks and over the underbrush.
Before long, it grew dark. Unnaturally so. We’d arrived mid-morning and had been chasing Hasda barely an hour, and yet the forest had gone dusky dark. Cicadas droned around us, their rattling constant and disorienting. The air grew muggy, slathering us with the rich scent of loam. We heard no birds and saw no animals. Whatever path Hasda followed wasn’t clear to us, but he moved with certainty.
Malia flared her wings as we crossed a gully. “Do you feel that?”
“Feel what?” Dirt scrabbled down the incline behind us as we landed on the other side. I glanced down and watched the clods tumble onto the decomposing leaves below. Outside of Hasda’s erratic yet strangely controlled behavior, nothing felt off to me.
Malia narrowed her eyes at Hasda’s vanishing back and pushed a breath through her nose. “Forest magic.”
“What kind?” I followed as she slithered ahead.
Wings tucked, she quickened her pace, crushing twigs undertail as she gave up trying to be quiet. Slender branches whipped in her wake, several stinging my arms or catching me in the face as I kept up a little too well. I let my senses crawl over the aura of the forest, but felt nothing amiss. No telltale signs betrayed an awaiting ambush, none of my revived battle senses screaming of warnings gathered subconsciously. But the leaves and the trees became an ethereal blur, and I lost sight of Malia and Hasda.
Still water rippled as my footsteps disturbed the glassy surface. A hazy fog, like the blur of the distant edge of my vision, ringed me in. If I stretched out my arms, my fingertips would brush the edges of the enclosed space. Every nerve was alight, my instincts screaming that this was not an experience I was going to enjoy.
Directly in front of me, the haze clouded. From the murky gray formed the sketch of a figure in tattered robes. Cold gripped my core, and not just because ice frosted the mist and froze the pond. I knew—I knew—it was her. She didn’t need to open her mouth, didn’t need to replicate her image across the ring of fog as she was now doing, for me to realize who was responsible for this vision.
But why now? And in my waking hours? How?
“Chasing my words, like a dog chasing its tail.” She sounded disappointed. None of the featureless faces moved, the voice echoing around me from every one. “Blind to their meaning, bound to a future far from here.”
“Who are you?” I hated the tremble in my voice, but I couldn’t help it. “What do you want?”
“Sleeping like a babe because your eyes tell you it’s night.” Slowly, the wraiths tilted to the right and began to circle through the fog, never breaching the surface. “Confident in the comfortable familiarity of illusion, yet blind to it even now.”
“What does that mean?” Panic spiked through my chest. Belatedly, I realized that the frost now covered me. Whether this specter were real or imagined, I couldn’t move. “How are you doing this?”
“What wears a human face, yet is not human?” The voice was almost mocking in its unfaltering commitment to ignoring my cries. “What rivals the divine, yet is not deity? How can one covet what one cannot comprehend?” The banshees circled faster and faster, shaving off layers of distortion that lazily spiraled onto the frozen surface. “How can there be good faith or bad, if there was no faith to begin with?”
“Why are you doing this?”
The phantoms froze in place so suddenly, for a moment I thought the frost had affected them as well. Then they scattered, blown away like morning mist. Light flooded my eyes as the distorting haze vanished. Each phantasm fled in a different direction, racing away into the forest. Malia was nowhere to be seen, but Hasda was miles away in front of me, dogged in his determination to reach his destination. And hot on his heels was a pack of spirits wearing forest garb. The wraiths dove into the backs of the spirits, and the vision vanished.
Malia loomed over me, the canopy of her wings sheltering us. I was on my back on the ground, breathing heavily. Sweat drenched my forehead and made my robes cling to my back. A stone ground into my ribs just next to my spine as I shifted and struggled to orient myself. The darkness of the forest had lightened, but not by much.
“What happened?” Malia asked, face pinched with concern.
I scraped my elbows against pebbles in the dirt as I pushed myself upright. “Did I pass out?”
“And you were foaming at the mouth like a madman.” Her snakes hissed. “This darkness has some kind of anesthetic effect.” She sniffed. “You’ve become too human lately. I think we might need the more skeletal you for now.”
“So you’re saying you’re not the only one who’s put on a few pounds.” Grinning, I shuffled to my feet and jogged in the direction Hasda had gone in the vision.
Malia kept pace, tucking her wings as she stayed beside me. “You want to talk about it?”
“Hasda first, vision after.” I puffed as I shed the mass I’d been acquiring since my return. Unfortunately, losing the muscle meant re-aging myself, but it couldn’t be helped. At least with all the time I’d spent in Nebesa recently, stomping about in this rickety old thing was much more manageable.
We tore through the forest in silence. No matter how fast we went, we never seemed to gain ground on Hasda. I couldn’t have been out for more than a few minutes, and yet he’d put an insane amount of distance between us. Or...more than one enchantment was layered on this forest. I slid to a halt next to a shaggy barked tree and sagged onto it.
Malia’s eyes were wide, on the verge of blasting everything in sight. “Another one?”
I nodded. “Have we been going in circles?”
“One way to find out.” And with that, she snapped to the side and carved a line of blight at a diagonal from us. Closing her eyes, she sighed and brushed her hands together. “After you.”
With a grunt, I pushed off the tree and headed in the direction I thought Hasda had gone, leaving the blighted stripe behind me and to the left. We churned through several hundred more yards of forest and, after fifteen minutes of racing, came upon the head of Malia’s pestilential path.
I frowned as I stared at the curve that ended the strip, made ragged by half-charred, curling grasses. “Have humans grown strong enough to hinder the gods?”
“Not with any magic currently at their disposal.” Malia folded her arms and eyed the swath of shriveled earth like she wanted to raze it again. “A single deity would struggle against a pair of gods of our caliber, and a group of gods would stick out.”
“So if it’s not gods…” I didn’t like where this was going. Either it was something higher—and stronger—than us, or perhaps it was an abstraction on the verge of becoming an embodied Being. Abstractions were nasty bastards because they were vague, formless ideas held by less sophisticated groups. Not savages, because there was nothing barbaric about simplicity, but tribes that practiced animism of some kind. The worst were the ones who believed in a “unifying spirit” of their people, because it created a spiritual link that allowed them to toe the line between mortal and divine.
I hadn’t gotten a good look at the witches in my vision, but if these women turned out to be in that last group, they would be a total pain in the ass to wrangle. A coven of mortal witches? Simple enough to handle. But sorceresses who shared a transcendent bond that could catapult a member, or the collective as a singular being, into godhood? I’d rather wipe with sand.
“Let me try something,” Malia said, still frowning at the ground. Her skin shimmered as she transitioned into the astral plane. Ozone and berries scented the air as her snakes bled into their starry counterparts. A splash of the transcendent colored her face, and she screamed.