Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Unfortunately, I could feel their aura rapidly receding as they fled. I hadn’t really expected the hydra’s fire breathing to end them that quickly, but I wouldn’t have complained if it left them incapacitated for a bit. The self-preservation of the black-haired one must have won out against the combativeness of the other, though. Any god whose first reaction to getting speared was to crawl up the shaft and claw at their attacker wouldn’t balk at a little fire spitting from a divine beast.
That fire breathing had me worried, though. The Ibithian hydra had been protecting her brood. If she was spraying fire indiscriminately, that meant she felt she no longer had anything to protect. From the looks of it, the mongoose had been getting the better of her as well, even with Hasda’s help.
If the brood was gone and the hydra was going down, then perhaps it was time to step in. With the Paedens fielding derketo, and Tamiyat’s forces most likely being comprised of sea-based creatures as well, we needed something with the aquatic force to match them. I wasn’t exactly keen to find out if Hasda’s djinn and my blessing were enough to fireproof him, either. So unless he could take out the mongoose before I did, I was calling the Trial.
It wasn’t hard to locate Hasda and the mongoose. Even without the vitriolic menace radiating from the beast and the chill that clouded Hasda’s presence, it was hard to miss the throat-straining yowls of the mongoose as it snarled at Hasda. The lad, for his part, held his own with his sword against the claws and the teeth. But he wasn’t subduing the beast, merely surviving.
In brown blurs, the mongoose dashed between Hasda and the hydra. Four heads had replaced the fallen first, but the shadow-oozing wounds showed its lost head failing to regenerate. That was probably a side effect of whatever venom laced the mongoose’s fangs. The serpent wasn’t yet furious enough to disregard Hasda, careful not to crush or incinerate him as it fought the bounding mongoose, but only just. Spurts of fire crept closer to Hasda, flickering off his purple aura, and the collapsing necks crashed down with narrowing margins.
That violet haze shrouding Hasda had my hackles up. It didn’t seem to be hurting him, but it certainly didn’t belong. I was positive it was the djinn’s doing. While Hasda moved with superhuman speed, kicking up arcs of water as he dashed back and forth, the djinn was exacting some kind of price in the exchange. I knew half as much as I should about djinns, but any spirits with finite power didn’t go lending them out for free. When it was just residing in his armor, whispering in his ear, I could trust Hasda and leave things be. But if it’d started escaping its confines, cooperating with Hasda or no, then it was time to act.
The djinn had the same idea. As I sloshed into the combat area, its eyes and mouth dimpled the haze behind Hasda’s back, an anxious look on its not-face. “Please, we’re so close.”
I stopped a few paces away, Sword in hand. “Close to what?”
“Ah.” It flicked its tongue over its misty lips as it followed my Sword point. “It is hard to describe…”
It hissed in frustration as Hasda had to dodge a swipe from the mongoose. “A union, if you will. Our spirits in sync, our limits exceeded.” Dark flames burned in the djinn’s eyes. “We can kill this beast.”
Considering Hasda had prioritized saving the Kydonian tiger over slaying it or driving it off, this was purely the djinn talking. And talks of bonds beyond its binding to Hasda’s armor was out of the question. I shook my head. “You’ve had your fun. I’ve let this go on long enough, but I have an obligation to my pantheon, and to my son.”
“Dad, please. We can take this.” Suddenly it was Hasda facing me. Dried blood knotted the scattered scores on his face. Nothing too serious, but a bit roughed up and paler than I liked. His eyes burned, both with intensity and with the same dark fire the djinn displayed.
But what disturbed me the most was the way the djinn ballooned from his back. Dark wings that looked leathery, despite their wispy composition, sprouted from its bony back. Thin arms snaked from its shoulders, talons like knitting needles dangling from its hands. The rams’ horns curling from its head didn’t diminish its demonic appearance any. Jagged fangs shed spittle as it snarled at the mongoose.
I glanced at the djinn, then back at Hasda. “You have one chance to explain why I shouldn’t rip that cursed chestplate off you right now.”
“We need it to finish the Trial.” He grunted as the mongoose passed through the djinn and slammed into his back. Although he twisted and struck at it, the brown-furred beast was off and badgering the hydra again before Hasda hit the water. Spluttering, he regained his feet and glared at the brown blur. The djinn didn’t manifest behind him.
“I hear one more royal pronoun out of you and I’ll kill the djinn.” I sighed. “Hasda, I want to hear from you. I don’t trust it, so I need you, not ‘we,’ to give me one good reason why I should.”
A torrent of fire bathed the trees to our left as the mongoose fled a hydra head. The light flickered unevenly on Hasda’s face, highlighting how unhealthy he looked shrouded beneath the djinn’s violet haze.
His shoulders sagged as he watched the stream of fire chase the divine beast. The cloud cleared from his face, the dark fire fading from his eyes. “That thing is a monster.” He had an edge to his voice, but this time, it was purely Hasda. His face tightened as the hydra’s fire cut off, snuffed by the mongoose grappling its snout. “It’s not killing to survive, and it’s not following orders. It thrilled knowing it had crushed another egg, and didn’t give a damn about how precious that young life was. You said yourself that I should do whatever it takes.” His eyes found my hollow sockets, and there was steel in his voice. “I’m going to kill it.”
“All right.” I stepped back and folded my arms, vanishing my Sword. “You have one hour. But we need that hydra. If you can’t handle the mongoose, I will.”
He jerked his head and splashed back to the fight. As the aura returned, the water firmed beneath his steps. Not enough to let him run across the surface, but enough that he wasn’t plunging to his knees in the clinging swamp. The djinn’s fire, mauve with a scarlet fringe, coated his sword anew as he dashed towards the brawling beasts.
The hydra thrummed in response, two more serpentine heads rising from the murky water to join the four already enjoined in battle. It was a hard fight to defend. With the hydra’s bulk, she struggled to lock down the small, agile predator, and her mass made matching the mongoose’s speed impossible. Hasda, even with the djinn’s help, couldn’t keep up with the divine beast, and he had the added complication of scaling and dodging the hydra’s neck while navigating the trees that hadn’t yet been incinerated.
The marsh kept the forest from burning down to smoldering stumps, but only as high as the waterline. Scattered fires burned in floating patches, boughs bared by fireballs that stripped them of their leaves. Pools of oil aflame floated across the swamp. Dark smoke mingled with the stench of the wetlands, making the air shimmer.
Springing from the shadows of the hydra’s thick neck, Hasda collided with the mongoose. He managed a glancing blow on its snout with his sword, and from the squeals it sounded like the beast’s nose was one of the few unprotected places on its body. It whipped its tail into Hasda, knocking him away and creating space between them as it sought another angle at the hydra. Clash and chase, clash and chase, went the rhythm of the battle as Hasda and the hydra endeavored to down the mongoose.
Something felt off about the hydra. As impressive as the heads were, serpentine skulls frilled with dark fronds, ivory eyes yellowed almost to amber, they didn’t seem…imposing enough. True, they were massive, capping necks thick enough to make bundled trees look like sticks. But they should have been bigger for how old the hydra was. At least one neck should have been of the blot out the sun variety, its head a moon brought to earth. And yet, it wasn’t here.
Not that the hydra would lose its regenerative abilities if that aged head were slain—it could regrow at least one to its full glory—but a head that big was hard to hide. Even with its divine powers, the hydra was still bound to the mortal plane. That was helpful for keeping random hydra heads or chimera tails from occupying the streets of Nebesa, but it didn’t explain how the hydra was hiding so much mass. If each head had a proportional amount of power, then it was likely keeping that head in reserve. But where, I couldn’t tell.
As the battle drew on, the djinn’s aura took on a pale, chalky-plum pallor. Every stumble that dunked Hasda in the marsh washed it a shade lighter, until all the purple had been nearly purged from the shroud. Nearly three-fourths through the allotted hour, and I could only sense that the djinn’s misty power still surrounded Hasda. The only visual remainder was the way it warped the light of the hydra’s fire.
He slipped, and the mongoose pounced, plunging them both into the swamp. Bubbles from both burbled up, blood making the froth a nasty brown. The water surged as they thrashed. The sun had only a little farther to creep before the hour expired, and I muttered a mild curse at Ulti for taking their time dancing across the heavens. I was on the verge of acting before the limit was up when a concussive blast detonated beneath the water.