Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It was easy to catch her before she faceplanted in the pool since I already had a grip on her shoulders, but the sudden weight nearly pitched us both in anyways.
She gasped as she came awake and turned on me. “Why did you pull me out?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “You passed out.”
“Oh.” She tapped her chin. Nodding, she spun back around. “That should do it. Send me back.”
“Are you sure—”
“Talk after,” she said, her back stiffening.
I sighed but resumed my former position and bled energy into her again. She jerked at my touch but said nothing. A moment later, and she’d gone all glowy-eyed and moany again. She twitched beneath my fingers and her heart rate sped up, but I steeled myself. Despite her years in Nebesa, she was still a mortal, as she’d so bluntly reminded me earlier. And this was her first foray into a realm that some gods struggled to traverse. It was probably frightening and disorienting for her, even with all the strange visions she’d seen as an Oracle. But she was resilient. She’d acclimate and orient herself and come back with something useful, if she could see anything.
Her heart stopped.
I gave her ten seconds before I reacted. With the way she’d collapsed, at first I thought she’d passed out again, but when I felt her heart stop I waited to see if her spirit drifted away from her body. Since it didn’t, but remained firmly moored in the astral plane, I tapped into her veins and carefully nudged her heart back into motion. The last time I’d had to do something like this was when I’d still been the God of Death, except it’d been this process in reverse.
Even with my help, it still took her a solid minute to return to consciousness after her heart beat again. Whatever protest had been building died when she saw my face. “Passed out again?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Nearly died.”
“Oh.” She nodded. “Not surprising, given how utterly inhospitable that plane is.” Shaking her head, she laughed softly. “You gods can stand to travel through that?”
“How bad was it?” I asked.
“Like bathing my eyes in boiling vinegar, a thousand needle pricks on my skin.” She rubbed her arms.
I scowled. Tamiyat’s influence extended this far? Distance in the astral plane warped in strange ways, but whatever relative to Nebesa was should have at least some manner of protection due to our pantheon’s presence. My frown deepened. “Did you see anything?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said, glancing back at the pool. Straightening, she clenched her fists. “But I did get an inclination of malevolence from Tingid. While I’d rather not try the astral plane again, I will see what lies east.”
I nodded. “Thank you for your efforts. It’s not usually such a wasteland above, but even so, the realm might not be able to support mortal life on its best days.”
She turned her back and held her hands over the scrying pool. “You don’t have to console me. Failure or not, I will execute my duties.”
“If you insist.” I patted her shoulder, this time without infusing her with power. “If you make any breakthroughs, let me know.”
Politely declining the steamed towels her attendants offered me on my way out, I strode through the fog of incense and made my way outside the temple. I paused, hand hanging in the air to draw my portal. If Tamiyat really had corrupted the astral plane around Nebesa, then perhaps she’d discovered our heavenly abode and was setting up to move against us. At the very least, I ought to take stock of the realm’s condition before returning to the Trial. With a tired sigh, I let myself fall backwards, shedding my skeleton for my starry projection.
Phemonoe hadn’t understated the hostility of the astral plane. Even in the body designed for such a space, I was still mildly uncomfortable. The gritty feeling wasn’t quite needles, but it still grated against my consciousness. Unlike the intensity I’d felt near Aenea, however, this causticness felt residual, like an inkblot dispersed in a cup of milk. No angry deities snatched at my ankles, nothing eldritch assaulted my mind, and not a hint remained of whatever had drawn Phemonoe’s concern about the Tingid mountains. As an afterthought, I checked the webbing that connected the maas, but couldn’t see anything that might be blocking our travels.
Frustrated, I tipped forward to rejoin Malia. They’d probably reached the hydra by now, if the witches hadn’t caused too much trouble, and Hasda would be smooth talking his way into its nest any…
What on earth?
Nowhere in Nebesa was a garden like this. Slender trees, barely past the stage of being saplings, ringed a lawn full of grass half shaded in shadow. Upon closer inspection, it seemed as if the shadows were part of the very leaves, matching the contours of the blades as they bent in the breeze. A silvery pond flashed as its surface shifted, concentric rings growing from an unseen pebble that’d shattered its waters. Seated on the opposite side of the pond was a woman so gaunt it was a wonder her bones didn’t split her skin. Or, no, that wasn’t right. I blinked, and she merely looked thin, her stringy hair as wispy as her dress. She smiled, and her clothes and hair filled in, the former golden and the latter the luster of plated copper.
I took a step forward—and gasped. My foot splashed into the pond, where before I hadn’t even been near the water. My legs were too full, my hands thick and young again. It’d been so long since I’d felt vitality like this coursing through my body that for a moment I didn’t even recognize the vigor of youth. And I had no idea why this was happening.
“You have questions,” the woman said, her voice soft.
I narrowed my eyes. “Have we met before?”
“No, but I believe you’ve met my sister.” Her smile was faint as her eyes searched mine. “It’s been ages since she last meddled in anything. Did she mark you?”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow.”
“I wonder what she sees in you.” She tilted her head, letting her hair veil half her face. “What makes you special?”
“Who are you, again?” I folded my arms and resisted the urge to squirm. The last thing I needed was to shift my weight and find myself slamming into a tree from the uncalibrated movement of this space.
“I didn’t say.” Her breath puffed against her hair. “Well, I can’t see it, but she was always the one with the eye for these things.” Brushing her hands on her dress, she slid to her feet. “Perhaps I—”
“Charax!” Behind me, Phemonoe burst through the trees, her face flushed with excitement. “I’ve finally had a vision.” She trailed off as she realized that she wasn’t on the steps of her temple.
“You shouldn’t peek behind every curtain,” the woman said, frowning. As she flicked her hand, the sky fractured like shattered glass, and a shard of reality spiked towards the Oracle.
“No!” I reached out to stop it, and something pulsed. The broken pane shifted and impacted the ground next to Phemonoe, who paled and swayed unsteadily on her feet. Fire lanced my shoulder, like I’d run into a pillar. I didn’t quite catch the woman’s reaction, but when I glanced at her she wore a wolfish smile that was at odds with her delicate features.
The smile softened as soon as she noticed my attention. “I must admit, that was absolutely marvelous. What pantheon are you from?”
“I didn’t say.” I couldn’t resist throwing her earlier words back at her.
Eyes sparkling, she folded her hands together. “Well, that was certainly something.” She sniffed. “No elder gods among you? But someone quite close to it, I’d wager.”
My hackles rose. “Just tell me what you want and get on with it. It’s bad enough having one rogue entity running around in the background.”
“Then let me part the curtains.” Her eyes flashed.
Phemonoe squealed as the ground swallowed her, leaving no trace that the Oracle had been there.
The woman held a finger up before I even got my mouth open. “She is unharmed. I’ve simply returned her to whatever you call your celestial home.” She raised an eyebrow. “Did you…elevate her?”
“She was having trouble with her scrying. We experimented.” I crossed my arms and stared at her. She still hadn’t given away what her angle was, but she was able to sense far more than any divine being should be able to. Sampling the power of our pantheon just by smell, realizing Phemonoe had been to the astral plane without even touching her—it was deeply unsettling. And I wasn’t even sure this wasn’t a dream. But if it was, that was a very realistic Oracle that had just waltzed into it. My dream, the divine slumberings of a god, which not even other deities could traipse across with ease. Despite my age and experience, I felt very much out of my depths.