Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Everyone turned as Thane stumbled in. Covered in dirt, leaves, and reddish brown lumps that looked suspiciously like rotting meat, he staggered as if he hadn’t slept in days. His dark robes were filthy, the hem shredded from his trek. Black eyes ringed his face, contrasted by the bright red claw marks that left his arms swollen.
Azoria was at his side in a blink, lowering him onto the cloudy floor. Behind her, the Spartans watched with veiled worry as they pulled the doors shut. Thane collapsed, smiling, into her arms.
“What now?” Another sigh escaped Seppo. “Apologies, Thane, but you’re not even the worst of what’s happened recently.”
He weakly waved the comment away. “Found the staff. Couldn’t get it.”
“Which staff?” Tarrha asked, leaning forward.
I wrinkled my nose. That was definitely the stench of undead on him, and none of ours. But there wasn’t a hint of salt or the sea in the smell, either, so not Paeden. There was only one staff associated with necromancy that was powerful enough to give Thane problems, and that was the one carried by the Ghorin witchdoctor, or whatever they called their shaman these days.
I frowned. Malia had mentioned those islanders in the north had grown, but unless Thane had gone for a chilly swim, that meant the staff was on the mainland. So either they’d expanded, or someone had taken their staff from them. I didn’t have enough information to know which option was worse.
“Let him rest,” Seppo said. Frowning, he quickened his pace and kicked up a few tiny clouds. “Resef is handling the Paedens in Aenea as we speak.” His eyes flicked to mine. “Sorry, Charax. With Malia injured and you gone, he was the best one suited to handling this battle, since it’s within his territory.”
So they weren’t leaving Aenea alone. I shook my head. “Not an issue. What about Tingin?”
“So you heard about that.” Seppo was sighing a lot today. “Azoria?”
“They crossed the mountains two days ago and have taken the mines.” Her arms tightened around Thane. “Jade is missing.”
“Azoria has done well stablishing the temples of the Desert Prophet.” Vrixia separated from the line. “You may wish to collect their worship and strengthen yourself before heading north, but we’re not sure of the severity of the threat.”
What? Oh, right, that nomad persona I’d worn in Aenea. Reassuming it would be a boon in assisting Resef to drive the Paedens back out. But Jade was missing, presumably captured by the Paedens, and with the Sea Mother on the move, we couldn’t trust them to hold the mines against her. True, they’d bound her and her mate before, but that was a long time ago and their empire wasn’t what it once was.
“Charax should go to Tingin immediately,” Phemonoe said. Her voice was confident, but her face had gone ashen.
Synnefo regarded her with a pensive look. “Have you had another vision? Seppo wasn’t exactly clear on the illness that’s befallen you.”
Her face went paler, but she said nothing.
I stepped forward, angling myself between them. “Actually, I did.”
That earned me a few quizzical looks.
“Best way to break the news, I guess.” I met Seppo’s confused look. “I’ve had two separate…visitations is the best way to describe them. Strong enough to rival eldritch deities, although they claim to be a cut above that.”
“Beings greater than titans?” Seppo asked.
I nodded. With a bit of editing, I recounted my experience with the Sybil and the Spinster. The prophecy of the former I kept to myself, but her harassment of forest visions and the proclamation of her sister stayed in. No need to keep that to myself, especially since the Paedens had already attacked the first location and were assaulting the other two while we held court.
Azoria frowned. “And this Spinster, she made her claim before any of the Paeden attacks?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” I shook my head. “I don’t know that she’s a seer, but with the Paedens moving on Tingin and Aenea, and the god we dealt with in Ibithia, I’m forced to presume the Sea Mother is also heading to Tingin.”
Seppo’s hissing exoskeleton failed to hide his sigh. “At the least, we know to expect her this time.”
I nodded. “We’ll need to get Jade back, if the Paedens have her. Tamiyat will target her and try to turn her into a proxy, like she did with Lazuli.”
Seppo grunted. “Speaking of Lazuli, your wife wanted your help with her. Something about them needing to ‘have a chat.’”
Oh boy. Malia must’ve been really incensed about having to recover if she was dredging up her petrified prisoners. But maybe there was something to that. Lazuli had been Tamiyat’s proxy before, so if she could be reasoned with, maybe we could learn a way to preclude Jade ever being taken by the Sea Mother.
I dipped my head. “I’ll see to her on the way out.”
“Before you go,” Thane said. Coughing, he wriggled in Azoria’s arms to a sitting position and held out his arm. His Scythe materialized in his hand, the blade glinting in the false sunlight. “Here.”
Ice water sloshed inside my bones, which felt even worse since I’d resumed my mortal form. I scowled. “This isn’t the time for that.”
“It might very well be,” Tarrha said. Chin resting on the back of her hands, she gave me a coy smile.
Thane jerked a nod, then succumbed to another fit of coughing. The Scythe shivered in the air. “That Stitcher…I can’t beat him.”
“Is it really that bad?” I sighed. “I’m already Seated, so I’d have to resign the Office of War fully to Malia before I could become the God of Death again. And that would leave you without a station. Are you sure you wish to resign your responsibilities?”
“You can hold an Office and a half.” Seppo waved his hand dismissively. “The Offices are changing, and Loutro is willing to separate ‘feasting’ from ‘revelry’ to allow Thane to keep his Seat.”
I kept my arms folded. I wasn’t accepting that transfer just yet. “Does this take precedence over the Tingin situation? Or can it wait?”
“He’s not divine yet.” Another cough interrupted Thane. Wiping his face, he gave Azoria an apologetic smile before shooting me a hard look. “But he’s going to be a problem if we don’t deal with him. He doesn’t need souls to reanimate corpses.”
That could certainly cause issues. “Skeletons or flesh bearers, too?”
“Yes.” His eyes sparkled with frustration and irony. “I think his magic is completely separated from the spiritual realm. The army of souls I raised against him did nothing.”
What a nuisance this Stitcher was turning out to be. I scowled. “Are there no gods who could assume your role? No apprentices or minor gods you’ve had your eye on?”
He rested the butt of the Scythe on the clouds and gave me an apologetic shrug. “I haven’t been comfortable with my duties since you left. You think I was confident enough to train a successor?”
I grunted. “It’s still your responsibility, as uncomfortable as it may be. What if I’d stayed retired? Who would bear your burden then?”
“But you didn’t stay retired, you old fool.” The doors slammed open as Malia made her way in. Quivering priestesses flanked her, trying their best to catch her attention and coax her back to bed, but they shrank away whenever her hair snakes hissed at them. Although she snapped her wings and tried to be dramatic, the burns and bandages plastered across her face ruined the effect. Healing water ran down her face to fall off her chin.
“You should be resting,” I said.
“And you should stop being an old grump,” she spat back. Her eyes flashed, but with diminished vigor. While she looked better than before, she still had much to heal. She paused when she saw Phemonoe and tilted her head. “What happened to you, dear?”
“I’ve suffered an illness,” she said, chagrined.
Malia shook her head. “Not that. Something’s happened to you.”
“Not here,” I whispered, perhaps a bit too harsh. The gods behind me frowned, but I ignored them. Straightening, I shook my head at Thane. “I can’t accept that. Not yet, anyways. We need to secure Tingin and potentially rescue Jade before we start worrying about a backwater thorn.”
A thoughtful look settled on her face. “Hmm. We need the staff, yes?” She turned to Thane. “How long before this Stitcher becomes an unmanageable problem?”
He looked at Azoria, who shrugged. Shaking his head, he said, “I’m not sure. How many undead, immune to sorcery, is too many?”
“Perfect.” Whatever idea had spawned behind that smile, I didn’t like it. She grinned at Seppo. “I have two suggestions.”
With a sigh, he waved his hand. “Let’s hear them.”
“You could let Hasda retrieve the staff as his Third Trial.” Her fangs flashed in the fake afternoon sun. “As for now, you could send him to Tingin to lead the Carthian forces.”
“Malia…” I reached for her arm.
“Oh, come now.” She tossed her head and flinched at the pain of reopened wounds. Still, she kept her smile in place. “We’ve barely mustered any troops, those there couldn’t even charitably be called an army, and he’s familiar with the land. It’ll also give him leadership experience.”
I frowned. “He’s a good lad, but he’s not ready for that yet. He has at least one more Trial to complete. We don’t even know if this one’s been certified yet.” I glanced at Seppo. “Where is Kydon? He never came to Ibithia.”
Tufts bounced off his feet as he paced. “I sent him ahead to Tingin. With Malia sick and you gone, the legality of our borders fell to him.” Steam venting off his carapice, he slowed. Sagging, he came to a stop. “I will think on your suggestions, Malia. For now, you should probably go with Charax and prepare him for Tingin.”