Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Dropping all pretense of being friendly, the Sisters rose like ghouls and crept towards Hasda. They’d shed their youthful, vine-wrapped images as well, their bodies skeletal, skin barely clinging to their frames. Fang-filled mouths watered as they slinked towards our sleeping boy.
Malia and I threw off our Veils and pounced.
Instantly the whispering ceased. The witches also changed, their bodies immediately returning to their former vibrancy, and they twitched smiles at us.
“Pleased are we that you’ve returned,” one said.
“We feared for your safety, disappearing like that,” said another.
“Those who came before fell to a nasty fate,” a third said. “But we are—”
“Enough,” I snapped. “Get away from Hasda. Now.”
They flinched at my words but crouched towards, not away from, Hasda.
Malia held a dagger to the throat of the sorceress furthest away from me. None of the witches had heard her come, and the captured one kept herself surprisingly composed when she realized her position.
“We’ve seen your true faces,” she whispered in the witch’s ear, although the words carried to the rest. “This one’s ours, so back off.”
“We only wish to help,” they said collectively. Their response was in sync, and it was slightly chilling.
Malia snapped her eyes to me, and I dipped my head just a bit. If they were harmonizing that closely, then their collective bond was a threat, and we had to treat them as such. Tightening the grip on her knife, Malia bared her fangs at the witches. “Bullshit. What do you want from Hasda?”
They swallowed hard and glanced at each other. “We—”
Once again they were interrupted, but this time not by us. A terrifying crack shook the forest and the sky changed to a sickly green. Miasma filled the air, and the earth tilted. For a moment, I thought another vision had swallowed me, but Malia had drawn her Warbow and nocked an arrow as soon as she recovered from the undulating earth. But the sudden disappearance of the witches and Hasda both added a surreality to the situation that wasn’t easily dismissed.
From the shadows emerged a hooded, muscular man with a grin that matched the fish mouth swallowing his head. The cherry-pale lips covered his eyes and the bridge of his nose, the fish itself curling over his head like a skull cap, scarlet scales billowing in a cape behind him. Not a muscle on him didn’t bulge with veins, as if he’d spent his life hauling boulders. The golden holed coin that dangled from a crimson thread bobbed from one side of his chest to the other as he walked forward, barely bending the skin as it bounced. Though wingless, his scent reminded me of Oannes, the first Apkalla we’d defeated, and this man carried himself with an arrogance to match his predecessor.
“I’m not in the mood for illusions,” Malia snapped, sighting down the shaft. “State your business and get out.”
“What a fortunate occurrence this is.” The man’s smile broadened as he clasped his beefy hands together. “Two foreign gods stumbling through my forest. Marudak has blessed me indeed.”
“You’re not the first to erroneously claim these woods.” Malia strained at the bowstring, which she’d fully drawn. “Where’s your master? We need to tell him his dog slipped its leash again.”
“I should sing the praises of whomever delivered you in such a state to me.” He added teeth to his grin, yellowed pointed things that needed a dentist’s attention. Hands now spread, he looked absolutely enraptured. “Oannes left ample description of his desecrators, once he’d recovered enough to speak, and I’d feared to find you more fit than when he first encountered you. But, look!” He pointed to Malia. “A worm’s face, full of dirt she cannot shake. And her fellow’s frame so far fallen in disrepair that I’d have thought she disinterred his grave. What bliss!”
Yeah, not much of this Apkalla was going to survive this fight, either. I cracked my knuckles as I slid away from Malia. “And did he also tell you how badly we thrashed him, or was his ‘general state of disrepair’ self-explanatory?”
“We are not so full of pride as to not learn from our mistakes.” The Apkalla turned his sickly sweet smile on me. “This time, I did not come alone.”
Trees groaned and snapped as a divine beast slammed into the earth next to him. Leaves, scattered by its sudden arrival, dissolved in the swirling miasma. Although it resembled a mongoose, it had an extra set of front legs behind the first. Its long body was covered in umber fur that was hardened with some kind of excrement, which made the creature resemble a cucumber-shaped nettle. Its eyes, twin crimson orbs, glared at us with pure malice, and it bared stubby teeth as it snarled.
I summoned my Sword in my off hand as I stared it down. “Now isn’t that adorable?”
“You’ve been talking about getting Hasda another pet,” Malia said. Her shoulders trembled slightly, but she kept the Bow taut. “Think he’d like it?”
“I’m sure he would,” I said. What leaves hadn’t dissolved crunched underfoot as I made noise to draw and hold the mongoose’s attention. Yet as it swung its head towards me, I felt a tingle on the side of my neck that warned me I was missing something. I frowned, scanning between the sacred beast and the Apkalla.
“Mock if you must,” the Apkalla said, its blubbery lips bouncing as it articulated its words. “But Marudak will come to demand your respect.” He jerked to the side as Malia’s arrow took him in the shoulder. The feathers trembled from the end of the shaft, the arrowhead fully embedded above his armpit.
“Know your place.” Malia stared down her nose at the writhing Apkalla. “Honestly, you need to double Oannes’ level before even thinking about—”
I lunged as the mongoose struck. High-pitched squeals pierced the air as its claws knifed across my blade. Malia had another two arrows bouncing off its reinforced hide before it had completed its pounce. Its matted hair, however, doubled as armor, deflecting the bolts with ease.
And those extra forelegs were quite the nuisance. While one pair struggled to wrest my Sword away, the other swiped at my ribs, pocking the exposed bones. I’d endured worse than this weathering storms ages ago, but it still required extra effort on my part to keep my footing while the beast threw its full weight on me.
The Apkalla gripped the arrow and yanked, ripping a chunk out in the process. Growling, he snapped the shaft and flung it away. “Not for naught was I named second among the Apkalla. And you will fear our lord.”
Malia flicked an arrow his way before returning to her barrage at the mongoose’s head. “The adults are busy, child.”
It missed his eye, but only just. He clenched his fists and stomped over like a brute. “You are a woman. How dare you raise your hand against me!”
“Peace, Meduga.” A withered corpse shambled into view as Malia flipped off the Apkalla. “You’ve embarrassed yourself quite enough.”
Malia and I shared a glance. The mongoose, for its part, went right on snapping and drooling inches from my face. Ignoring the beast and us, the tanned, leathery cadaver made his way towards the Apkalla. Who the heck was this wrinkly old mess?
“But—” the Apkalla began.
The corpse shook his head. “She scarcely casts her eyes your way and treads you underfoot. You would do well to support the claims you make.”
“Forgive my ignorance, Steward Nergal, but which claims?” Meduga shifted uncomfortably as the corpse neared him.
Nergal set a hairy, withered hand on his uninjured shoulder. “Why, that we have learned from our first encounter.” He squeezed, and the Apkalla winced. “You are the second-most among Marudak’s Sages, it is true, and yet your better narrowly survived against these two. It was only their mercy that allowed him to return to us at all.”
I twisted and pinned the mongoose beneath me. “Your surprisingly honest praise is all well and good, but could you call your rat off?”
“That bow is truly marvelous.” Nergal uncurled the fingers of his free hand in Malia’s direction. “Commendable craftsmanship.”
“Care to see it in action?” Malia swung the Warbow towards him.
Still wriggling, the mongoose managed to get its teeth firmly on my ankle and nearly knocked me off balance. I pressed my sword down a little harder. “Hey.”
“That toxin in your face is extra-celestial, yes?” Whatever sparkle was in those jaundiced eyes, I instantly hated it.
“Piss off.” Malia’s grip on her bow tightened.
“I thought as much.” Nergal nodded and flexed his fingers. “Let’s see if it’s too high for me, eh?” And then he clenched his fingers into a fist so fast every joint popped.
Malia’s shot went wide. Clutching at her face, she vanished her Warbow and thrashed on the ground, shrieking. Dark smoke vented from the cracks in her face.