Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Phaeus and Malia left me to collect Hasda on my own. Other than Seppo, I wasn’t sure who was joining us this time, but Malia would likely have them well-versed in whatever dance she’d planned by the time we caught up. I found Hasda in the training grounds behind Phaeus’ forge, the lad in full armor wailing away at a wooden dummy. His practice sword had chipped along both edges from the force of his blows, and a pile of shattered ones lay by the rough picket fencing that ringed the dusty pit.
He wiped the sweat off his cheeks as I entered the ring. “Time to go?”
I nodded. “Where’s the djinn?”
“In here, like always.” He rapped the chestplate.
I couldn’t see any tell of the internal change Phaeus had told us about. The lavender scar of the repaired rend hadn’t gotten any wider, no spots or discoloration showed on the metal’s surface, and the curve and size of the plate had remained the same. Planting my feet, I jerked a nod at the scarred armor. “Bring him out.”
Sosa emerged like steam from a kettle. “Yes, m’lord?”
“Drop the sass, djinn.” I folded my arms and stared down the grinning purple cloud. “I want to know about these changes you’ve been making to Hasda’s armor and why.”
“Shhhh,” the djinn hissed. “Don’t spoil the surprise!”
“What surprise?” Hasda asked, confused.
I shook my head. “No surprises when he’s involved. I need to ensure you’re not weaseling around your oath.”
“As if I could,” Sosa snapped. The haze above his eye dimples darkened as he frowned. “But an inopportune explanation for the impatient deity, since you insist. Our battle against Nakula–the ‘mongoose,’ as you so gracefully named him–we achieved an elevated state. Do you remember?”
I narrowed my eyes. Where was it going with this?
“Parlor tricks.” He waved a misty hand. “We will soar, when the armor is transformed.”
“And how does eating his armor from the inside out enable you to link together better?” My scowl deepened. “Further, based on the nature of your bond, how can strengthening that not violate your word to protect Hasda?”
“It is a fine line to walk, and one made no easier by you second-guessing my every move.” Sosa floated behind Hasda, his tail trailing around his shoulder to its origin in the scar. “I cannot offer aid to the fullest of my abilities without drawing us closer together. Per my oath, I fuel myself as much as possible for the least extraction.” It laid an incorporeal hand on Hasda’s shoulder. “When this armor is converted, not only will it be stronger than the mere mortal metal it once was, but it will also resonate with my spirit, allowing me to better channel myself to Hasda. The more efficient our union, the less of his spirit I must siphon to properly serve him.”
Something felt off about the djinn’s explanation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. My gut warned me about an ulterior motive, a feeling I trusted. But other than the ‘resonance chamber’ being actually bad, or good with downsides or however the djinn was spinning it, I didn’t have anything I could pin the djinn with.
But I would still keep a close eye on him.
“Fine. But one sign of untowardness, and I’m taking you out of there.”
“Even mid-battle, when our bond is all that’s keeping him alive?” His face was smug.
I cracked my knuckles. “You’re right. Better now than later.”
The djinn hissed and hid behind Hasda. “No sense of humor.”
“Be nice, both of you.” The look Hasda gave the djinn was pure admonishment.
“It knows I’ll uphold my end of the bargain.” I flicked my hand at Sosa. “Begone. I need to have a word with my son, and your itching ears shall keep themselves away.”
“I’ll just hear about it later,” the djinn muttered as it puffed back into the armor.
When it was gone, I sighed and motioned for Hasda to follow. He fell into step as we left the arena, dropping his battered sword on the way out on the pile of broken ones.
“How many did you go through?” I asked.
Hasda gave an embarrassed laugh. “I stopped counting after the fifth one.”
“We’ll have to find you a proper sparring partner after this trip.” It was easier, this chatter about the small, inconsequential things, than the topic we needed to discuss. “I’m surprised you weren’t using blunted steel.”
“I was, before Phaeus left. But I didn’t think the wood would withstand the dull swords.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I’ve, uh, gotten a bit stronger.”
“A bit?” We shared a laugh. Smiling, I patted his shoulder. “You’ve certainly grown, and I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks.” He beamed.
The smoke from the forge drifted over the hill ahead of us. We were far enough away that the sounds of forgework didn’t reach us, but Phaeus burned enough charcoal that the sooty stench seemed steeped into the surrounding land. At least the distance and the day’s breeze softened the smell, this far out.
“So…” I let the word hang between us, sluggish to grab the transition.
“So.” Hasda was firmer in his word than I was, his steps sure. “We’re heading to Tingid?”
I nodded. “The Paedens have re-opened their dispute of our control there. You’ll be leading your first command once we arrive. This isn’t a Trial, so Malia and I will be supporting you as needed, although we might be engaged by the Paeden deities, so you’ll need some level of self-sufficiency.”
We stumped along, cresting the hill that hid the forge from us. The conversation sagged like dew-laden laundry. Hasda kept glancing at me as we went down the other side of the hill.
When we reached the bottom, he said, “Is there something else you wanted to talk about?”
Obviously. “What makes you say that?”
“The fact that we’re still walking?” He twirled a hand in the air. “The way you acted to Sosa, and the lack of an open portal even though we’re supposed to be hurrying to a battle over the borderlands.”
I grunted. More of me had rubbed off on him than I’d noticed. That head would serve him well in command, so long as he learned to read the signs and shift his strategy accordingly. Slowing my steps, I sighed and folded my arms. “There’s something you need to know about Tingid.”
“They have Jade?” His sharp eyes met mine.
“Yes.” I frowned. “But we don’t know if she’s still in the region or if they’ve taken her elsewhere. The Sea Mother is moving to liberate her imprisoned mate, so stopping her is our first priority.” Sighing, I put a hand on his armored shoulder. “I know you care about her, and we will save her, if we can, but there’s a possibility that we can’t. The worst case is we’re forced to destroy her.”
“Why?” His face pinched. Emotions surged under that look, but he kept them inside. The worry and fear still slipped out.
I really hated this. “Because the Sea Mother might transform her into her proxy. Right now, that eldritch goddess is stuck in a realm beyond ours. A proxy would give her a way to more directly influence our world. It might even be her only key to freeing her mate. So if Jade gets turned, we’ll have to put her down.”
“Must we?” The pain that cracked his voice was awful to hear.
I scowled at the forge. It hurt to look at his face. “Only as a last resort. But a lot will have to go wrong before we even face that decision.” Steeling myself, I glanced back at him, but only sideways. “Odds are, it won’t come to that. We’re hoping that the severity of the threat will force the Paedens to work with us, so we don’t have to fight each other as well as Tamiyat. With her active in the world again, however, it’s unlikely the Paedens will ever cede Tingid back to us.”
“Jade could defend it.” He sounded so confident.
“Against another minor god, perhaps. But against their whole pantheon?” I shook my head. “The Paedens had been merely pilgrimaging to Tingid before, and that inconsistently. With the forces they keep bringing, it’s likely they’ll build a settlement of some kind so they can sustain harassment of our borders. Depending on how determined they are and what resources they can bring, it’s likely to go well beyond Jade’s capabilities. But we have to get her back and turn the Sea Mother away before that can happen.”
“So let’s do it.” He gave me a firm smile and blinked at the wetness pooling in the corners of his eyes.
“Don’t get your hopes up.” Hard words, but they had to be said. “Primordial gods possess more power than anyone you’ve met, even Malia and I. If a fight breaks out between the gods and the Sea Mother, it will take all of us working together to even hope to compete with her strength. Your objectives will be leading your troops, deflecting any Paeden thrusts into Tingid and the surrounding forest, and keeping as many of your soldiers alive as you can. Do not, under any circumstances, engage foreign deities, especially Tamiyat. Understood?”
He jerked a nod. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” I pulled him into a hug before opening my portal. “Keep yourself safe, too.”
I plastered on a smile as we separated and went through the portal. It felt far too final a conversation for something that was, for Hasda, a simple training exercise. But the weight of the looming confrontation with both pantheons, the Paeden and the eldritch, made the air heavy. The only bright spot was that the Sea Mother was still confined to the astral plane, so perhaps driving her off wouldn’t be as difficult as if she’d had unbridled access to the mortal realm.