Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
After collecting Phemonoe (who hadn’t warmed to the guardian goose at all in their short time together) and escorting her to her temple, I made my way across Nebesa to Malia’s sanctuary. No one greeted me on the ground level, and when I descended the stairs to the subterranean courtyard, lit by flickering torches, I found nothing but statues frozen in a variety of poses. Pleading, terrified, exultant–the whole range of human emotion, captured in various stages of completion. My gorgon’s petrified garden.
“In the back, dear.” Malia’s voice rebounded through the shadows, coming from the dark archway in the wall on the opposite end of the courtyard. Scattered pillars held up the roof, disrupting the flow of statues and holding the ensconced torches.
I ducked under a four-armed cyclops and dodged past a humanoid fox with twin tails. Their tan, stony surfaces shone in the torchlight, free of dust. A long snake with a diamondback pattern sprawled across my path, and I stepped over it with my freshly-muscled legs. Pulling the pounds back on was getting easier, thanks in part to my recently-renewed ambrosia consumption. I glared at the serpent, which was as thick as a log and twisted in a dozen different directions, neither its head nor tail visible. “I thought you were going to clean some of these out. There are definitely more than last time.”
“It’s not my fault I had to make more. Sadly, I had to fill the space again.” There wasn’t a trace of regret in her tone, and I would have been surprised if there were.
“You could at least organize them a little better.” A beast that was more manticore than centaur stood prominently displayed in the middle of the chamber. Whether it’d been passing enough to join its equine brethren, I didn’t know, but Seppo would have a conniption if he knew it was down here. He had a soft spot for centaurs, which was part of why they’d risen to such prominence among the celestial citizens. I asked Malia if she’d told our pantheon’s head about the petrified creature, and she laughed.
“Of course not, dear. Now, would you please stop gawking? I’ve nearly thawed her.”
Grumbling, I wended my way around the rest of the statues and dipped through the archway. Magic tickled the back of my neck as I entered, the obfuscating darkness parting to reveal Malia’s, er, “de-petrification” chamber.
Lazuli, still frozen from the waist up, sagged against her manacles. Thick chains linked the cuffs on her wrists to the ceiling, a ball and chain on each ankle. Angry red welts swelled on her thighs, too regular to be from the loss of feathers, because of course Malia had plucked them. No damning piles of ash or burnt smells betrayed the fate of Lazuli’s former plumage, but at least her belly was still covered in down. Several plumes were bent in odd angles, and I pushed away the inkling of how they’d gotten that way. It wasn’t from the thawing, though.
Bronze lamps ringed the harpy goddess, bathing her in warm light. Crackling grated against the air as the petrification receded slowly up her abdomen. Her ribs quivered, her lungs struggling to pull breath, but with her head still frozen no air could get in.
Malia peeled herself off the wall, snapping her own feathers into place with a flick of her wings. Face proud, she strutted around from behind the harpy and jabbed her ribs as she passed. “Glad you could make it.”
“I hope you remembered that we want her in one piece.” I glanced down at Lazuli’s legs, then back at Malia. She was certainly feeling better, and the cuts that had split her face were nearly gone. Based on the energy she was exuding, she was nearly back to normal.
“Her legs showed signs of numbness, so I applied some stimulation.”
“Hmm.” I frowned as the stone flaked off her chest, cracking like dried mud as it shed from her shoulders and neck. The chains clanked as Lazuli struggled, jerking against her restraints. When she started kicking, I took a step back, out of range. The leg restraints kept her from reaching too far, but the way the balls grated against the floor made me disinclined to test the theory that she didn’t have the strength to move them.
Malia wrapped a wing around me as she settled against my side. “How was Peklo?”
“Dark, humid, disturbing, the usual.” I muttered some other complaints, then explained the whole branching prophecy situation. Her snakes tickled my shoulder with their tongues as I talked, adding their annoyance to my own.
When I finished, Malia hummed. “And she’s unlikely to tell me anything, either.”
I nodded. “At first I suspected it was because the prophecy involved me somehow, or Hasda, and that’s why she didn’t want to tell me, but I’m starting to think it’s bigger than the Trials. Tamiyat would be an obvious topic, but if it involves the Sea Mother, why not tell us as much? We already know about her, so there being yet another vision wouldn’t be that strange.”
“Likely it encompasses the entire pantheon.” Malia’s eyes caught in the lamplight as she watched the petrification peel off Lazuli’s beak. The kite harpy gulped air as if she’d been underwater far too long, her body shuddering. Malia smiled. “Or perhaps something bigger than Tamiyat.”
“Like the…?” We didn’t even have a word for them yet, the Sybil, Spinster, and their two nameless sisters.
Malia nodded. “It’s a possibility.”
Lazuli lunged forward and snapped her beak. The crumbling stone still covered the upper half of her head like a falconer’s hood. “Foreign scum! Release me at once.”
“Looks like someone’s finally awake.” Malia’s fangs showed through her smile as she slid towards the kite. “Have a nice nap, little bird?”
Keeping one eye on Lazuli, I touched the edge of the astral plane, as Malia was likely doing as well. It was far easier to contact it here than in Peklo, although I didn’t actually need to breach it here. Just to keep an eye on it and watch for disturbances.
“Where is she?” Lazuli snapped. Her beak pointed straight at Malia.
“Right here,” Malia said.
Chunks of rock and dust crumbled to the floor as Lazuli shook her wings free. “Not you, bitch. The Paeden.”
Malia’s tail stopped an inch from Lazuli’s stomach. Gathering herself, she gave Lazuli a quizzical look. “‘The’ Paeden? You mean Marudak?”
“She’s obsessed with the Paedens’ Queen of the Sea, Nanshe,” I said in a hushed whisper.
“Of course not,” Lazuli snarled. “He can drink piss, for all I care. But that broad-mantled whore–” Her words devolved into a string of eldritch phrases we could barely understand, but the closest root words carried connotations of marine rock sludge, unbridled promiscuity, and feces.
The last of her cranial petrification fell away as she finished her tirade. Her dark eyes, rage roiling in her irises, locked on mine. Tilting her head, she said, “I remember you. You promised to bring her to me.” Her beak clicked. “Where is she?”
“Misplaced her.” I folded my arms and stared her down. “We have some questions regarding your former relationship with the primordial deity known as the Sea Mother.”
Eyes narrowed, she tucked her wings and hunched over. Clenching her fists, she strained against the chains, but stayed stuck. Another yank, and nothing but the rattle of steel on celestial steel. Grunting, she flared her wings and arched her back, face scrunched. A thin, purple thread floated from her back, its end drifting into the edge of the astral plane. When it brushed the film of the higher dimension, Lazuli’s eyes snapped open.
“There,” she said, chirping in triumph.
Malia and I waited, our fingers on the proverbial heartbeat of the astral realm.
No answering call came.
“Seems like your patron abandoned you.” Malia’s grin was feral. “But thanks for letting her know we’re on our way, herald.”
“How dare you!” Lazuli lunged forward. The chains ran out of length and yanked her back. Panting, Lazuli hung by her wrists and glared at Malia. “I am no herald of yours. I spurn you.” She spit.
Malia raised an eyebrow at me. “You have the more recent experience with children.”
I turned my eye roll at her into a stern face to Lazuli. Bending over, I put myself at her eye level. “Like I said, your ‘former’ relationship. We need to know how she made you her proxy, and how–”
Her piercing laugh, almost a raptor shriek, rent the air. “Unlearned simpleton,” she squealed. “You know nothing of the madness of the Ancient Mother. Locked, forever, next to her vastness, the tides of lunacy washing over the mind, unrelenting.” Another peal of laughter. “Make? There is no make. Does one make the sun? The wind? One might more easily make the rivers flow. Make.” She spat the last word and speared me with her dark eyes. “In that pit, things are. What was before matters not, in the after of the pit.” Her face hardened. “And I will slay the hibara that threw me in there.”