Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
That was a really bad idea.
For one thing, gods don’t just “die.” It takes decades, even if they’re slain in battle, dismembered, and the pieces scattered to the ends of the earth, for their consciousness to fade. Malia would be able to siphon a portion of Nergal’s power from him, but it wouldn’t kill him. But she was in no condition to be trying to consume foreign deities. Even at full strength, it’d take Malia several dedicated years to digest a god down to their husk.
It did serve as a sufficient distraction to break Meduga’s rhythm, though, and he was far more mortal. Deflecting his lunge downwards, I rode his arm with my Sword and took his head off cleanly. The fish-scale robe and succeeding geyser of energy, not so much. With the Apkalla no longer present, Marudak’s power sprayed everywhere, chasing the dark ichor that spurted from the headless stump. I kicked the body away, but blood still splattered me.
If I hadn’t been watching for it, I would’ve missed Meduga’s soul as it fled. A wispy thread, like a breath on a snowy day, fluttered around the suspended droplets of ichor. Recoiling from the blood, it twisted upwards, trying to mask its flight behind the concussive blasts of power. But without its God of Death to collect it, it had only its instincts to follow.
I snatched its tail with my bony fingers, grunting as another wave reverberated through my skeleton. The spirit writhed like a fish as it fought to escape. Snorting, I sank my fingers into its ether and sucked it into my marrow. No way was I going to let it run home and tattle that they’d lost yet another skirmish and one of their gods had been taken down. The mongoose was still loose, but we’d deal with that in time. As the spirit slid through my bones, it chilled them, the familiar pang of a harvested death. I hadn’t deposited a soul into Nebesa in centuries, so I’d have to carry the Apkalla within me until we could hunt Thane down and pass it off to him.
Malia was having a lovely time failing to digest her latest meal. Retching, she was doubled over, her elbows keeping her face out of the pool of bile. Another convulsion, and the slimy ball of leather that had been Nergal’s avatar plopped into the puke puddle. Malia jerked up, hugging her stomach, before she belched a dry heave that flung the black exhaust of Nergal’s spirit from her. Shivering, she scraped her tongue on her teeth and forced a look of disgust over the pain peeking out.
I switched back to my Spear and leaned my weight on it as I walked over. “Bit off more than you could chew?”
“Piss off.” Her wings curled around her as she continued to shiver.
I grunted and slid down next to her. “So, am I saying it, or are you?”
“If you think I’m going to sit this one out because of a couple of scratches, you’re sadly mistaken.” She continued to shake, the shudders nearly rattling my arm out of its socket. “I’m…”
“You’re not fine, and you know it.” I vanished my Spear and turned her to face me. “You can’t gaze, you barely managed to tether him, and you’d throw a fit and smash the first mirror you looked in if you could see yourself right now.”
She huffed and grumbled for a bit longer but eventually conceded the point. Scowling, she snapped her portal open and slithered through. It vanished in a puff, leaving me alone to chase down Hasda and the witches.
North. That was where they’d headed, and where the hydra would be. As I trudged through the forest, I sighed in appreciation. Not only was the flora beautiful, the golds and greens of the tree leaves pleasantly contrasted against the tans and browns of the bark, but it was an enjoyable walk without whatever enchantment had been inhibiting us before. The earth was soft and forgiving on my tired bones, and the air in the shadow of the canopy was cool.
But there was still no sign of Kydon. The longer he stayed absent, the worse I felt about this Trial. I was beginning to suspect he’d already called it as lost or failed, but he hadn’t had the decency to announce it yet. Even if he’d made up his mind, he should at least see the Trial to its conclusion, and the fact that he hadn’t meant we were in for a fiasco when the chips fell.
That did raise an interesting thread, though. While our Arbiter was strangely absent, the Paedens’ choice of divine beast was just as intriguing. Native to lands further east than Paedea, mongooses had a reputation as fierce guard animals, able to take on predators many times their size with their speed and shrewd intellect. This one had a hide thick enough to turn the weapons of gods, but what worried me the most was the breed’s reputation for an unwavering immunity to venoms.
Although the Ibithian hydra was draconic, it could spit a stream of toxins just as well as it could breathe fire. The latter might give the mongoose trouble, but if the hydra managed to pierce its coat with a bite, it would simply shrug the poisons off. And I had no idea how the creature’s own bite would be, whether it relied on sheer strength or had some kind of hydra’s bane of its own. The Ibithian hydra was an aged thing by now and, though by no accounts slow, still had a sluggishness to it simply because of its size that would disadvantage it against the more lithe mongoose. So I was hoping that Hasda would be able to handle both divine beasts, since it was unlikely he’d have to fight the hydra at all, but I had a sinking feeling that the witches wouldn’t be content to just watch from the sidelines.
The change from peaceful timberland to marshy battlefield was sudden, the arrival of the cacophony a wet slap. With the mastery of forest magic the Serynis Sisters had displayed so far, it shouldn’t have surprised me that they would create an auditory cocoon to isolate the sounds of them hunting their prey, but it did. All pretense of youthful sylvan sorceress shed, the hags circled Hasda. Their frustrated shrieks sailed across the swamp, competing with the snarls of the mongoose as it snipped and slashed at the submerged hydra. Roots and claws surged beneath the surface, vines rising to ensnare Hasda as scales flecked the spray, testament to the hydra’s combat with the waterlogged mammal.
Zephyrus’ gift must have already been putting in good work, as Hasda’s hair was soaked wet from where the witches must have tried to drown him. Sword out, Hasda stared them down as they circled him, but it was the purple glow from his arm and the mocking face of the djinn, floating just behind his shoulder, that kept the witches at bay. Hasda was poorly equipped to handle any kind of truly magical being, and while I wasn’t sure what about the djinn gave the enchantresses pause, I was grateful for it.
The roars of the hydra burbled from the murky waters, drawn-out wails of agony. Its ichor stained the water brown, mixing with the yellowed pond scum. Bloody froth foamed around the thrashing mongoose, held under by its death grip on a hydra head. From the surging water, the neck had to be ridiculously thick, something Hasda, Malia, and I holding hands could form a ring around. The swamp was unevenly deep as well, or there was some magic afoot, because I couldn’t see the frill on the hydra’s spine breaching the surface of the water despite Hasda being barely knee-deep in the marsh. But the mongoose wrestled with only one head, with no sign of the others.
This Trial had well and truly gone to shit. And with no Kydon here to consult, I had no way of telling which of the threats I was allowed to attack without voiding the results. While the hydra was the crux of the Trial, Hasda had yet to engage with it, as far as I knew, and he couldn’t recruit the beast if it were dead. He may not have even started the Trial, since the witches had hemmed him in, babbling about how they wanted to consume his flesh and devour his power.
But Hasda was close enough to the location of the Trial proper that Kydon could argue that—
That son of a bitch.
I let the cool rage of battle settle over me as I tightened my grip on my Sword. Kydon must have been spending too much time around Malia, if he thought he was going to manipulate the terms of the Trial to include the sorceresses as an obstacle to the Trial’s completion. They hadn’t even been a known variable when the Trial was set forth, and if they did count, that meant Kydon had been near enough to see me break their spell over Hasda, decide that was ‘interference,’ and leave, all without announcing his presence or the nullification of the event. I’d beat the eternal shit out of him when I next saw him.
But first, I had some cannibals to kill.