Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Rain blanketed the mountains of Tingid.
We stepped through the portal and scurried into the safety of the trees, Malia whisking a treated cloak over Hasda’s shoulders before pulling the Veil over ours. As important as this confrontation was, in the end it’d been decided that only Seppo would accompany us into the region, but approaching separately from the west. With Kydon already here on the Carthians’ behalf, we couldn’t risk moving too much of our pantheon until things had devolved into war proper.
Of the Seated, Synnefo might join us later, and hopefully sooner, given the cheery weather we were experiencing. There was a pressure in my sinuses that wasn’t entirely from the air pressure, though, a portent of either the Sea Mother’s imminent arrival or the influence of the Paeden weather god. Thane would need less time to heal than Malia, but Seppo judged his presence more needed in Aenea than Tingid, so he would travel south with Azoria once he was back in fighting shape to help Resef and Vrixia. Tarrha, never one to dirty her hands in politics, was off fornicating with whatever lover or concubine she’d conscripted this time, and Ulti had likely galavanted off beyond the mountains with the clouds relieving them of their sunshine duty. We would only bring the other Unseated major and rising minor gods into the fray if things got really messy.
Against the full might of an eldritch goddess, though, we might not survive long enough to summon them. But Tamiyat, despite how powerful she was, had yet to reclaim that level of strength. And if the Paedens were open to diplomacy, we could perhaps avert such a crisis entirely. That had been the running hope, and even if we found the Paedens fully arrayed against us, it was a hope we still had to cling to.
Bleating goats caught my attention. When I glanced at Malia, her frown melted into a grin like the sun breaking through these accursed rainclouds.
“Maybe we can share the wealth a little,” she said, eyes glinting.
Brows lifted, I tilted my head at her. “How so?”
“We’ve used the beasts in jest enough. For once, they could be used in earnest.” Her wings twitched at the rain that slipped through the foliage.
The thought of a herd of goats, clattering with swords or pans as they charged through the night at the Paedens, brought a smile to my lips. “Perhaps they could.”
“The tiger is still here, right?” Hasda’s step squelched in a pile of leaves.
I nodded. “It remained in the region as the guardian of the miners.”
“I can’t sense it.”
Malia and I shared a look. Her smile reassuring, she slid to his left, positioning him between us. “I’m sure it’s fine. Divine beasts are strong and resilient things. It’s probably hiding deep in the mines.”
He shook his head. “I could still sense it then. But I can’t feel anything.”
I frowned. In addition to being able to communicate with any animal, Beast Whisperers could often sense the aura of divine beasts. This let them sense the creature’s mood, health, and any injuries, which was especially helpful with the less communicative divine beasts. The Kydonian tiger had allowed itself to be associated with Jade, sharing Tingid with her, and the fact that both the tiger and the goddess were missing was a bad sign.
“Can you make out anything else? Or is it just gone?” I asked.
The clanking of his armor was dull beneath his raincloack. “No, it’s just…” He trailed off, his gaze distant, as if he were staring through the hillside. “There is something faint, but it’s far off.”
“Like an afterimage?” Scowling, Malia flicked damp, cloying leaves off her tail.
“Nothing like that.” His lips pressed together in a thin line. “It reminds me of the mongoose a bit, but in a strange way. Like how grapes and songs can both be sour.”
“I would never call a song ‘sour,’” Malia said, examining the back of her hand. “But I understand. So another Paeden creature?”
“Maybe.” His brow furrowed as he stared at the distant mountain. “It’s far enough away that it’s hard to gauge anything about it.”
I patted his shoulder. “We’ll worry about that when the time comes. In the meantime, I believe you have some soldiers to meet.”
And he did. When we arrived just outside the village, making good time despite the rain, a handful of squads lounged around makeshift tents at the edge of the town. The miners hadn’t shunned them, necessarily, but they still kept their distance from the outsiders. Kidon stood among the townspeople, hidden beneath his Veil. Scowling profusely, his face looked lined even more than the last time I’d seen the wrinkly old half-troll (or whatever bloodline he actually came from). His bulk towered over the villagers, who walked through him unawares. When he noticed us, he unfolded his arms, like a beaver dam collapsing, and sauntered towards the soldiers’ camp.
They came to attention as the scout caught sight of Hasda and, to their credit, not one flinched as Kydon Unveiled himself in their midst. Carthian blues fluttered on cloaks, steeples of azure plumes adorning their helmets. Spears pierced as the handfuls of soldiers assumed positions, swords rattling in their scabbards. Kydon assumed a parade rest between them, waiting for us to approach.
“It is well that you have arrived, Gods of War.” His voice rumbled as he spoke. Although we hadn’t Unveiled, he could see us perfectly fine, and his words made the troops stand a little straighter. I didn’t like his sudden formality, but I kept my frown away. If Kydon had noticed the twitch in my face, he didn’t react. “I have assessed and maintained the borders of our lands, and am pleased to report that they remain intact for now. However, the lines of battle have been drawn. War has not yet been declared, given your absence, and my own attempts at diplomacy have thus far failed.”
Sighing, Malia and I slipped out of our Veil and glanced over the gathered soldiers before greeting Kydon with matching ceremony. The fact that he was openly admitting to parley with the Paedens, and that he hadn’t succeeded, meant the situation was dire. Being on the verge of war after communing with our divine ambassador was never a good omen. Malia and I, as the Gods of War, would meet with the Paedens after Hasda had been instated as captain of the troop.
It was unlikely our conference would lead to any other outcome but, while the Paedens were still in a talkative mood, we would gather what intel we could before both sides were up in arms. And, given how few warriors we had available in this fringe province, we would need every advantage we could get. Once we knew what deities we were up against, we’d be able to undermine or circumvent their protection to cull the enemy mortals and level the battlefield a bit.
“I trust you’ve a full report on who the Paedens brought?” Malia bent her wings in a canopy over herself and me, shielding us against the rain.
Kydon stood straight, statuesque in his disregard for the drizzle beading his skin. “A pair of Apkalla, a handful of minor deities, and a goddess.” He snorted. “Apparently we don’t ‘merit’ sending a strong enough male deity, despite the severity of the impending threat. But, I will say that the subtext of their words was worried. It sounds as if Marudak himself may soon join their camp.”
“And the other matter I asked after?” Her eyes had a devilish glint to them that I didn’t trust, a feeling exacerbated by her refusing to meet my eyes.
The ogre dipped his head. “Nearly ready. They should be here any moment, in fact.”
“Excellent.” Her snakes flicked their tongues as she nodded. “Ready the men for the ceremony then, and see if we can coincide the timings.”
“As you wish.” He barked a command, and a pair of soldiers separated from the rear and sprinted off into the village, heading towards the mountain pass. Grunting, Kydon folded his arms and turned back to us. “I’ll get the scouts’ reports before we begin the ceremony proper. As of last rotation, the Paedens were still in their camps, hiding from the rain.”
I gave Malia a sideways glance as she slipped her arm around mine. “What are we trying to synchronize, exactly?”
“Seppo is gathering a few scattered tribes from the surrounding lands to bolster our ranks.” Kydon gave me a questioning look. “Have you not discussed tactics yet?”
“Certain strategies depend on the numbers present and stations available to us.” Malia squeezed my arm, smiling at my deflected protest. “Hasda can handle the squads already in the village, but we’ll need to see the way the tribes are arrayed before we can know how best to use them.”
Kydon snorted. “Speaking of the clansmen.”
A low rumble preceded the arrival of Seppo and the tribes he’d collected. A pack of half-clad warriors, not quite large enough to call a horde, emerged from the western edge of the forest. Beards and hair long, dark, and full, they wore kilts of deerskin or wolf pelts. Each chest bore a branching rune, the ruddy mud smeared on by their fellows before their march. Although their torsos were unarmored, they had leather plates strapped to their arms and thighs, tawny kite shields on their forearms, and all but a handful of archers wore helmets of engraved bronze or steel.
Next to their evident leader, a tall man sporting braids and a rotund belly without an ounce of fat, marched Seppo. His exoskeleton clashed horribly with the aesthetic of the forest tribesmen, but he looked content to be among them. Flanking him were…Thane and Azoria?