Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Malia thumped the ground with her tail as she regarded the kite harpy. “Well,” she said, “if you have nothing left to offer, then we have no more need of you.”
“What I offer?” Lazuli jerked against her chains. “What I am owed, rather. I was promised the blind bitch, and I will have her.”
“You will watch your mouth, is what you will do.” I stepped between her and Malia, gently pushing my wife back as I did.
Malia gave me a slightly pouty frown but slid back. “She’s not going to be cooperative. Let me cut her loose or put her back.”
“Yes, release me!” Lazuli’s face lit up. “Set me free, and I will hunt down that squelchling and shred her limb from limb.”
“You really need a personality,” I said.
Her chains clanked as she pushed against their limits. “Of course I will personally end her. I wouldn’t leave that to a lesser.”
“That’s not…” I sighed.
Malia folded her arms and assessed Lazuli. “If we do, you’ll cooperate fully, answer any questions we ask, and remain within whatever confines we place on you?”
“So long as I am free to crush my fingers around that slimy shamhat’s throat.” Her fierce eyes met Malia’s calculating gaze. “But you must swear an oath to me, that you will uphold your end of the covenant. I will not fall for such lies again.”
“I could put you back, you know.” Malia drummed her fingers on her arm, but she hadn’t set any weight behind the words. “Seems to me like you stand to gain far more from this bargain.”
“You crave knowledge I alone possess.” She tittered a laugh. “A fair trade, I would wager.”
“Okay, let’s get one thing straight.” I rocked forward and let my aura slip a little. It felt nice to have some power behind me now, unlike the last time we faced off. “We don’t need whatever you have to offer. It would be convenient if we knew, but essential to our plans? Far from it. You, on the other hand”–I pointed a finger at her–“have a visceral need to exact your revenge. So we need something else to balance the scales.”
“I am patient.” Lazuli huffed and swung back on her chains. “It matters not, the when, to me. But I sense urgency behind your desire. You cannot convince me otherwise.”
Malia tapped her jaw. “I could always eat her.”
“You feeling up to that?” I shot her a look.
She smiled. “Always. That asshole who messed up my face was a far cry from filling.”
Lazuli scoffed. “Then how would you get what you want? My knowledge isn’t edible.”
“No, but you are.” Malia flared her wings and slithered up to the harpy, setting a hand on her feathers. As she did, she brushed the astral plane and teased it open behind her. “Ready?”
“On you.” I slipped my hands into the higher dimension as Malia dragged Lazuli out of her chains and into the transcendent realm.
We assumed our projections at the same time, Malia’s blossoming into her starry gorgon form and mine ratcheting together into a rickety skeleton. To my surprise, I had some mass as well, the most solid avatar I’d achieved on my own in ages. It felt good, the weight of my limbs, the set of my feet. Malia gave me a pleased smile and flared the auroras of her wings.
Lazuli screamed. Floating at the bend of Malia’s tail, the harpy thrashed on the analogue of ground. Space dust and the ashes of stars swirled around her as she keened, nearly shrieking herself hoarse the moment she arrived. The purple thread whipped around her chaotic wings, curving in crazy angles with no distant anchor to straighten it. Tamiyat really had severed their connection.
“Perhaps you’ll be more amenable to conversation now.” Malia poked the shrieking harpy. “Get up.”
Her eyes rolled, her screams reaching a fevered pitch.
Malia scowled. “Pull yourself together. Are you a goddess or what?”
“Malia.” I stepped forward and set my pulsing hand over the kite. Wrapping my fingers under her wings, I scooped her up and cupped my hands over her. She beat against my palms like a trapped moth, no reasoned intent behind her movements. The cries diminished, but only slightly. As I shifted to a more comfortable position, I realized that the abrasive texture of the astral plane around Nebesa had gotten worse, but not so severe that I noticed it when we transitioned. To Lazuli, however, without a projection of her own, it must have felt unbelievably caustic. “She’s in her divine form, sustaining her own existence here. Even Phemonoe had my support.”
“Fine.” Rolling her eyes, Malia slithered over and glared down at the hidden harpy. “Let me see her.”
I cracked my hand, and Lazuli nearly bounced it. Rebounding off my thumb, the harpy settled for whimpering and rolling around on my palm. Malia bent over and breathed on the kite, enveloping her in a thin, protective membrane. The shrieking swerved into a torrent of eldritch pleas.
Malia snatched her out of my hand and held her a finger width from her nose. “Stop sniveling. Die with some dignity, at least.”
Lazuli grew still, pinched between Malia’s fingers. “You’re not the Sea Mother.” That wasn’t exactly what she said, since she uttered Tamiyat’s eldritch name in a small voice, but the name meshed with the warped space and made its meaning plain. At the utterance of the Sea Mother’s ancient title, the purple thread quivered. The end still connected to Lazuli burrowed into the harpy, spreading like a black stain.
I grabbed the free end and clasped it in my fist. The cord frayed, the fibers twisting and seeking against the folds of my palm. On a hunch, I quested down the thread and felt channels directly to Lazuli’s spirit. But the connection rejected me, the purple line corkscrewing as it recoiled from me and wound on her back. The bundle settled just below the base of her wings, a dull light pulsing along its length.
Lazuli quivered a little when I pressed my senses down the thread, but she didn’t react when the cord coiled itself on her spine.
Malia gave me a questioning look.
I shook my head. “It’s as normal as a transcendent puppet string can be. Avatar channels, but no indication of how it was attached in the first place. But it’s not connected to Tamiyat at the moment, and I couldn’t sense a pathway to her.”
“Answer me this, kite.” Malia brought the full weight of her voice down on Lazuli as she leveled an even heavier stare. “If we let you kill the Paeden goddess, what then? What meaning will you give your life, with your driving force gone?”
“You expect me to ever fully kill her?” Lazuli barked a laugh and shook her head. “No, her existence will never end. I will bind her, as the Sea Mother once was, and torment her until she or I fade.”
“Charming.” Malia’s tail swished back and forth across the starfield. Frowning, she glanced up at me. “Can we use her?”
“That depends on her,” I rumbled. “Considering how quickly she tried to reconnect with Tamiyat, she’s likely to renege any feigned fealty to us the moment she’s in close proximity to the eldritch goddess.”
“My word is far more trustworthy than yours, Carthian scum,” Lazuli hissed.
“You have an unnatural dedication to destroying Nanshe,” Malia said, shaking the kite. “Even given your backstory, making vengeance the whole of your identity casts doubt on your words and intentions. With no variance in your articulated ideas, how are we to know you won’t just say whatever will get you free? Whether that be to return to the Sea Mother or wreak havoc upon the goddess you despise.”
“Have you felt the madness of my Mother? Truly felt it.” Lazuli’s voice was soft, but her eyes were hard. “Nothing survives her scouring of your soul. You find the one thing that will anchor you and you cling to it, or you drown. Sometimes, you drown regardless.”
“So that’s it.” Malia sounded thoroughly convinced. “You just went insane from the constant exposure to Tamiyat’s aura, boiled away to an ‘essense’ of kill, kill, kill, and when that wasn’t enough, you bound yourself to the very thing driving you mad.”
Lazuli cackled. “Ages upon ages will wear anyone down, even the strongest god. And I was never the strongest.” The protective yellow haze fluttered against her breath. “It was an end to madness.”
Lazuli twisted in Malia’s fingers, leveling her sharp gaze at me. “You find humor in this?”
“You’re a horrible actor.” I grinned at her scowl. “You might have convinced me, if I hadn’t seen you before. The power radiating off you, the glee in your eyes as you led the assault. You reveled in your submission to the Sea Mother. And when we unbound you, you went straight back to her, even knowing your connection had been severed.” I shook my head. “You can’t even hide behind your excuse that it was an ends to a means. The sheer exultation on your face from being awash with her power, that was your true emotions bared. I might have argued in your favor if you weren’t such a terrible liar.”
“I can still eat her,” Malia said.
Lazuli exploded in shouts and rage. “Fine! Disbelieve me, devour me, dump me in your shit–I don’t care. But I will drown that harlot’s gills with her own blood before I meet my end.”
I stared at the flailing harpy. Sighing, I shook my head at Malia. “Put her back.”
“Are you sure?” The arm of a galaxy crept up her forehead, in place of an eyebrow.
I nodded and tugged at our bond in a way that conveyed we would talk further, when Lazuli couldn’t hear us.
Rolling her starry eyes, Malia twisted the kite around. Constellations twinkled as she prepared her face to gaze. “Smile.”