Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I flipped my Sword and impaled the mongoose, pinning it to the ground. Spear in hand, I rushed the walking corpse.
Unfazed, Nergal smiled, his teeth now black and rotting. “Thank you for mastering our mongoose. Perhaps you’d be interested in training my servant to be a better handler?”
“What did you do to her?” I pushed my spearpoint against his throat, restraining myself only with the thought that he might actually let up on Malia if he didn’t have a hand-width of steel embedded in his withered windpipe.
He smiled, titling his head. “Do you know who I am?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” My Spear creaked as I tightened my grip.
“I am the Agent of Death.” His grin only broadened as I pressed down on my Spear. “Pestilence, paucity, poison—if it kills, it belongs to me.”
With a twist, I ripped the spearhead across his neck and swung the butt around, angling for his temple. He twisted back with deceptive speed, flinging a handful of dust at me. The powder puffed as it collided with my frame, but otherwise did nothing.
Nergal shrugged when he saw me standing unharmed. “One could hope.”
“What? You thought I, a literal skeleton, would keel over from some toxic fumes?” I’d have laughed if Malia weren’t still twisting in agony on the ground. Shifting my stance, I leveled my Spear. “Release her. Now.”
“Meduga, if you’d be so kind.” He flicked his hand, and the Apkalla jerked forward.
A massive weight slammed into me from behind. Four sets of clawed paws dug into my back, teeth chomping on my exposed neck. I twisted, trying to throw the mongoose off, but it’d found a solid position and I couldn’t get any leverage.
Nergal kneeled down to look me in my empty eye sockets. “You know, I’d heard better things about you. Crawling on your belly in the dirt doesn’t fit your reputation.”
“I’m about two hairs away from making you eat shit.” My bones groaned as the stupid vermin tried to snap a rib.
A frown split his face as he saw something outside my field of view. “It would appear your consort is quite spirited.”
Through our bond, I could feel a hint of the pain piercing Malia’s face, but overwhelming that was a rage that dwarfed mine. Malia’s ego had taken a blow, both by being brought low and caught off guard, and the Paeden thought his not-even-demigod underling would be able to handle her in her weakened state. A fatal underestimation.
Malia roared as she surged from the ground. A dull thump, and something collided with the mongoose, which flattened me and would’ve knocked my breath out if I’d had any to lose. That something, a very disoriented Meduga, skipped across the ground, coming to a stop on Nergal’s shins. The Apkalla’s mouth gaped, his fish cape a tangled mess.
Sharp pain, like heartburn, bloomed in my chest at the same time Malia screeched through gritted teeth. I twisted out from under the mongoose’s tail and nearly gasped when I saw her. Every vein on her face was black, inky smoke pouring in waterfalls from her wounds and tear ducts. Her eyes were bloodshot, webbed with red and sickly purple lines. What worried me the most was the faint trace of darkness that slid down her throat, like a forgotten brushstroke. She looked half dead, and the unkempt feathers in her spread wings didn’t do her any favors.
Her Warbow still worked though. In spite of her shaking shoulders, which sagged heavily with every breath, she had an arrow firmly trained on Nergal’s face.
Nergal huffed a laugh. “I’d be impressed if you were truly threatening.”
“Yeah, well, we all have our days.” Energy sparked as she split the arrow in three, pouring just a little bit of power into the arrowheads. Although she projected strength, her ragged breathing betrayed her. “Let’s make this quick.”
“If you insist.” Nergal chuckled as he got to his feet and slid away from me in one smooth motion. Cracking his knuckles, he jerked his head at the mongoose. “Fulfill your mission.”
Malia swung and let loose her arrows as the beast dashed away. Arcs of light, like shooting stars, chased its tail, but not even the empowered bolts penetrated its armored hide. Snarling, she drew another arrow—and nearly collapsed as Nergal enflamed the toxins in her face.
I was on my feet, charging the rotting warlock. My fist connected with his jaw, sending shockwaves across his rubbery face. From all the joint-popping he’d done, I’d expected him to be a bit more solid, but it was like slapping marsh water. He turned my next two blows aside and barely dodged the fourth.
“Marudak’s blessing!” he shrieked as, Sword retrieved, I tried to bisect him along his waist. Dancing away, he contorted his hands through a complex maneuver, he finished with a flourish and snapped his fingers. Noxious poison poured from his palms, as if his very skin were disintegrating. His spin took him in Malia’s direction, and he cackled as he flung the banespowder at her.
Power bloomed on my left. Gasping, the Apkalla kicked the ground a few times before rocketing to his feet. He practically glowed with the energy Marudak had poured into him, much like Oannes had when he’d had his mini-ascension. I had just enough time to bring my Sword up before the fish-man slammed into me. Damn was he fast.
Malia’s cries became a mix of pain and anger as she clashed with Nergal. As much as I wanted to help her, it was all I could do to ward off Meduga’s assault. The Apkalla finally had some weight behind his blows, and with his god’s power he more than held his own against me. I settled into a rhythm, deflecting jabs, absorbing hooks and the odd kick, testing for openings when he faltered. If I’d had my physical eyes, Meduga’s scaly cloak would have been dazzling, but to my hollow eye sockets it simply glittered from the excess power leaking through the cracks.
As Meduga threw another hook, I ducked and caught his elbow with the hilt of my Sword. Pulling him into me, I let his momentum carry him over my knee, sending him sprawling. The Apkalla tucked and rolled, coming to his feet with practiced ease. I switched from my Sword to my Spear to keep him at range. Hands spread, he circled around me, leering.
My feet scrunched leaves as I spun with him. Shedding power through his cape meant that not only had Marudak fed him too much energy, but also that his cape was actually connected to him, a living extension and not just a fashion accessory. Meduga wasn’t bleeding power like Lazuli had, but he was extremely inefficient at channeling it and couldn’t use all of it. He’d run out eventually.
The Apkalla seemed to realize this as well because he slowed down and began lunging and making feints, trying to get around my Spear. I kept the spearhead pointed between us and blocked every attempt. When he wasn’t rocketing around the forest, he was much easier to manage.
“Coward!” he snarled. His hands vibrated as he flexed his fingers. “Stop running and fight.”
“Funny, your friend fled when I tried to battle him.” I flashed a grin. “Where’s his reprimand?”
Meduga’s nostrils flared. “He deals with the greater threat.”
“I’m impressed.” I didn’t have to fake the shock on my face. “You actually complimented a woman.”
“That is not—!” Furious, he launched himself at me without finishing his explanation.
Our thrusts and parries became a dance. The more he tried and failed to get around my Spear, the angrier and sloppier he grew. But it didn’t take long to realize that, as our fight went on, he wasn’t flagging. The sparkling effluence of excess energy still shimmered from his cloak, which was a nice, clear indicator that Marudak hadn’t stopped sharing his power with the Apkalla. Useful for him, annoying for me.
The growls of Malia’s fight with Nergal was background noise to my own. Although the Paeden’s words to her were obviously condescending, they never solidified into intelligible speech to me. What spoke volumes, however, was when the heartburn of my pond chilled to a sliver of ice that needled my chest. The change was so sudden, Meduga nearly landed a blow, but I stumbled back and turned to watch Malia fish.
She had her Warbow drawn again, the tail feathers of an arrow kissing her cheek. A thread of blood, glistening to spite the noxious fog falling from her cracked face, connected her face to the end of the bolt. When she released, the crimson cord chased after the arrow, spraying droplets as the thread unspooled from within her cheek.
The blood-enfused quarrel penetrated the hazy miasma that surrounded Nergal and sank into his leathery skin. Red blossomed from the point of impact, tracing his veins as the blood permeated his channels. When it seemed firmly anchored, Malia clipped the thread from her face and shifted. Her jaw unhinged as her face expanded, the damage translated from her corporeal to astral visage. She screamed against the fresh pain and yanked on the blood tether. As Nergal stumbled, she struck, swallowing him whole.