Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The clouds of images converged on my face and dispersed in a puff. Coughing, I waved away the dust. “Thanks for the excess drama.”
Her smile was unconvincing. “That charming wit of yours will incense the wrong person someday.”
“I guess I’ll try harder next time.” I pushed off the tree behind me without flying halfway across the clearing. Shaking my hands to steady myself as much to begin drawing energy for my portal, I said, “Are you done? Or can I leave without you hijacking my portal again?”
“I’m surprised you picked up on that. My touch was subtle, but…” She blinked. “You didn’t know that was me.”
“Now I do.” I grinned as I ripped the air in front of me open. Orange sparks spewed everywhere, zipping across the garden like fireflies launched from slings. The milky film still covered the rend, but much more thinly than before, and holes spotted the membrane this time. It dissolved at my touch, opening onto the Ibithian forest. As I stepped through, I felt a breeze brush my back. I turned, and found the Prime standing right behind me, her lips downturned in displeasure.
“You’re not even going to say goodbye?” She crossed her arms, her hands cupping her elbows. It was scary how nearly convincing her charade of being hurt was.
I laughed and grabbed the flickering edges of my portal. “Sorry, no time. I’m late for an appointment.”
“The insolence of youth.” She sniffed. “Well, perhaps you’ll be more mannered during our next visit.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” I tugged on my portal, but found it resisting my efforts. Frowning, I pulled harder. “I’ve had my fill of higher beings for a while. Wrestling just one is headache enough.”
She smiled, a wicked glint in her eyes, and reached through to poke my forehead. “At least pretend to be thinking with your heart, and not your dick.”
I bared my teeth and strained at closing the rent. “Shows what you know about love, you old spinster.”
She jerked back as if slapped. Her hand flew to her face, covering her mouth, which hung open in shock. A cocktail of emotions flooded her eyes, which oscillated through a handful of colors before settling on green. Everywhere else, the color drained from her, until she looked like a faded rag contorted into human form.
“Spit on my help if you will,” she snapped. “I’ll enjoy the spectacle of you floundering among things far beyond your comprehension.”
Snarling, she clenched her fist, and whatever tension had been keeping my portal open released. I nearly stumbled into the tree that stood where the rend had been. Pushing off its scraggly bark, I took stock of the forest around me and was surprised to sense Malia, Hasda, and the witches not too far off.
Although darkness had descended on the forest, I could see the vague outline of Malia’s wings through the trees. The heat of their dying fire, little more than embers, kept the chill of the night off them. Hasda lay on the ground next to the ashes, a little too close for my liking, and the witches lay in a wide circle around him. Malia stood erect, glaring down at all of them.
She nearly took my head off when I crept into camp. I caught her tail with my once-again bony hand and kissed it. “Stressed much?”
“This journey has been a disaster,” she hissed. Instead of snuggling up next to me, she turned and stared at the sleeping sorceresses. Her skin crackled, her face still not fully healed from the astral toxins Tamiyat had spewed. Malia ignored the fresh blood pooling on her flaky face. “These stupid ass Serynis bitches have been leading us in circles for days now. Of course, they claim no such deception, but I can hear their whispered telepathy.”
I rubbed her shoulder. “You haven’t slept, and your face still isn’t healing.”
“I know.” Her fangs clicked together as she snapped her jaw in frustration. “I’ll need to soak in Maas Taeful to leech this out. Speaking of, what was that all about?” She jerked her head back.
I shifted forward, tugging our Veils over us. Malia sagged, sighing as she settled against my chest. Grunting, I enveloped her in a hug. “Do you want the bad news, the really bad news, or the maybe good news first?”
“The last one.” She huffed a laugh. “So I can appropriately temper my pessimism.”
I grimaced. “Well, Phemonoe finally had a vision, but we were interrupted before she could tell me.”
“By whom?” Malia’s brow crinkled, and she winced at the fresh splits.
“That’s part of the really bad news.”
She lightly elbowed me. “Fine. Not so bad news, then.”
“If my source is to be trusted, Tamiyat is targeting Jade as her new proxy, and she’s on her way to Tingid now.”
“You’re starting to scare me.” Malia shivered and nestled closer, angling her wings under my arms. “All right, what’s the worst news?”
“Dream lady has a sister.”
Malia jerked, twisting back to look at me. “No.”
Reluctantly, I nodded. “I just met her.”
“Did she have any convoluted prophecies?” Malia’s brow pinched, a trickle of crimson ichor running down her nose.
I brushed the blood away with my thumb. “Prophecy doesn’t really seem like her style. She did, however, highlight three separate regions as places of interest before I left.”
Sighing, I retold Malia everything that had happened in the strange garden, as well as the various visions I’d experienced in the forest before I went to Phemonoe’s temple. She looked just as happy as I’d felt about the portals being contaminated and malfunctioning, but she didn’t say anything until I got to the part about my experiment with the Oracle and the astral plane.
“Did you check her aura before you left?”
I shook my head. “She didn’t exactly choose her exit strategy, and I was…preoccupied about this ambush that supposedly blindsided you.”
“You know me better than that.” Her face was frowning, but she wasn’t that offended. “I suppose I can drop in on her on my way to the springs.”
“Are you thinking that her visit to the astral plane had some kind of permanent effect on her?”
Snakes dancing, Malia bobbed her head. “Almost certainly, if we’ve both had the thought.” She frowned suddenly. “You should be more careful with our High Oracle.”
I shivered against the chill creeping in under our Veil. “Why? She wants to be treated with more respect than ‘looking too hard will make her shatter.’”
“Oracles are very hard to replace,” she said.
“Oh, and Hasda’s not?”
“Not anymore, no.”
I scowled and folded my arms. “That’s not what you said before.”
“That was before he completed his first Trial, dear.” She tossed her snakes, her eyes challenging. “He’s made himself a little more scarce than being simply another mortal.”
I went to raise an eyebrow, then realized I was all bone again and settled for a tilted head. “That’s it?”
She blinked, then punched my arm. “You suck.”
“Getting attached isn’t a bad thing,” I said, grinning.
“It’s not just that.” Pouting, she looked away. Her snakes wriggled, tongues darting in and out around her face. After a moment, she said, “I could say that his involvement with a minor deity also changes the dynamic, but that’s a flimsy excuse at best.” Her eyes flickered with an emotion I’d never seen in them before. Were those tears? “I still don’t trust Jade, but Hasda seems happy with her.” She gave me a fang-filled smile. “And yes, I’m crying. My face hurts, thank you for asking.”
I grunted. Well, that was progress, at least. Hasda wasn’t out the metaphorical woods, though. Malia had shown signs of attachment to previous champions that she’d discarded the moment they couldn’t fulfill their intended role. But Hasda was mine, too. Even if Malia bailed on him as her champion, I would still support him.
She nudged me with a wing and curled closer. “I hope you’re ready for some bad news with the good.”
“Oh?” I tucked my arms around her.
“Do you sense Kydon?”
Frowning, I cast my senses outward. Nothing registered past Hasda and the sorceresses, who were doing a passable job at feigning sleep. That was strange. As the Arbiter, Kydon should have been here by now to supervise the Trial. His failing to tag along during the voyage was standard for him, since he liked to show up unannounced to get the most “objective” viewing experience, but he’d usually arrive within a short window after the champion had been delivered to the location. Observing from the shadows just wasn’t his thing, and if he were going to disqualify Hasda, he’d make sure we were well aware. And nothing would impede him from adjudicating a Trial. So then where was he?
“I’ve no idea, either.” She sighed. “As much of an ass as he is, that man would move Nebesa itself to fulfill his duties. And it can’t be this blasted enchantment keeping him at bay, because he’d sniff out its underpinnings and dismantle it in a day if he thought it was obstructing his Office.” She shook her head. “He’s only gotten more obstinate about these things since you left.”
“While I was back, I didn’t see any sign of him, but I wasn’t looking. Maybe—”
We both froze as something cold slithered across us on the wind. Whispered words, just out of range of hearing. Malia nodded at my unasked question and squeezed my arm. As we separated, the words returned, running like ice water across our arms and licking our elbows. I shivered at the sensation.
Feed…feeeeeeed….feed on the flesh…
Disentangling her Veil from mine and wrapping it about herself, Malia went left as I went right. The words drifted up the register, toying with my ears, before dropping back down to nigh inaudible. And then the witches stirred.