Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Malia gave me a sly smile as she slipped off my arm.
I scowled as her wings went with her, which left the rain to patter against my forehead. “No.”
“No what?” She tried her innocent voice, but I saw right through it.
I pointed at Thane and Azoria, who were well out of earshot. “I am not taking his Office back.”
“Why not?” Malia crossed her arms. “He’s in no fighting shape, and you can make better use of that power than he can. With the Sea Mother coming who knows when, you should take advantage of what time we have to acclimate yourself–”
“I said no.” Fool woman. This was hardly the place for such a transfer, even if both Seppo and Kydon were here to officiate it. Taking on that kind of mantle would send ripples through the countryside, not exactly the type of announcement I wanted to make with the Paedens on our doorstep.
“So you don’t like your surprise.”
“I would hardly call it surprising, given your track record.”
By this point, Seppo had noticed our little…disagreement, although he made no move to slow his advance. Thane and Azoria were absorbed in conversation, my former apprentice looking rather hale despite the bags under his eyes and bruises that hadn’t yet started fading.
“Thane has already rescinded the Office.” Malia’s eyes glimmered with steel as she met my confused look. “Whether or not you accept it, he’s no longer the God of Death.”
I raised my eyebrows at her. “And you’re prepared to take the Scythe when I don’t?”
“Don’t be such a stubborn ass,” she snapped. “You were carrying on about how we need to take our time and heal before exerting ourselves too much, and as soon as we do, you dig your heels in when it comes to sharing the load. I’d thought this was a forgone conclusion, since you stuck your neck out for Thane remaining Seated once he’d abdicated. And don’t even try pretending you haven’t already been ferrying souls to Peklo: I saw where you put the Apkalla.”
I frowned. “When did you go to Peklo?”
“When haven’t I?” Her eyes flashed. “The point is, times change, and with them the Offices. You don’t have to bear the full weight of the God of Death if you’re not ready.”
Malia looked far too pleased with herself.
“So, what? We Co-Seat that as well?” I shook my head. “The pantheon is already divided enough as it is about our first cooperative division.”
“Our Offices are already split along our personality lines.” I’m sure her smile was supposed to be thoughtful, but it just came across as hungry. “The coarse and the fine. You, the Bludgeon of War, squashing our enemies underfoot with no regard for the particulars. And I, the elegant counterweight to your broader measures.”
“You mean, I’m the tool, and you the mind that wields it.”
She swatted my arm. “Don’t be daft. Just because I’ve focused on subterfuge doesn’t mean you lack all sense of strategy.”
“Does Seppo–of course he knows.” I sighed.
“You’d be full-Seated again, this way.” Malia surged next to me, her face eager. “My Charax, returned to his former glory.”
I poked her nose. “Are you sure you’re willing to bind yourself so tightly to us? Assuming this even works, it won’t be you getting the best of both worlds, being Goddess of War and Death. You’ll have to abide by the divisions you’ve chosen. And it’ll make us an associated pair of deities.”
She laughed. “More than we already are?”
I couldn’t help my frown. She didn’t seem to be taking this as seriously as she should. By taking aspects of both Offices and recombining them, we would become linked in the mythology of Carthia. It wouldn’t be the same union as those Ibithian witches went through, actually transforming into a united entity, but it would inseparably link us. Like the opposite faces of a coin, which couldn’t be divorced without destroying the whole. With a free spirit like Malia, I wasn’t sure she could handle such a leash.
Smiling, she stretched up and kissed my chin. “You’re adorable.”
“I can see it in your eyes.” Purring, she settled against me as the tribesmen neared, a spear’s throw away. “You’re only thinking about how this will affect me, and not about yourself at all.”
I scowled. “Of course I am. I don’t mind being closer with you, and I’d have never woven my soul with yours if I did. But you’d raze Nebesa at the thought of having your wings clipped.”
“And I wouldn’t have brought it up if I weren’t okay with it.” Her wings were soft against my arm. “It’s not as restricting as you think. You might have to handle some of my broader plans, but I’ll gain greater precision.”
I hugged her close. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but the fact that you’re willing to reveal–and share–some of them is kind of terrifying.”
“That’s why you love me.” Her fangs peeked through as she smiled up at me.
Grunting, I kissed her forehead. “Among other reasons.”
“I can see we’re interrupting, so if you’d like we can come back another time.” Seppo thumped up in a huff, although his face spoke more to exhaustion than exasperation. Despite his exoskeleton, he was sweating profusely, cheeks puffing with each breath.
“Was the journey that eventful?” Malia twisted against me, pulling my arm close as she folded her wings against me.
“That blasted forest is riddled with hills. Up and down, up and down.” His encased hands clanged against the pistons above his thighs. “I am grateful this is the final ascent.”
Climbing up behind him, Thane and Azoria gasped out greetings as they reached level ground. The tribesmen pulled up short, wary of cresting the rise. On cue, the Carthians marched forward, raising their fists in salute. Kydon had been nice enough to drag Hasda away while Malia and I…conversed, and he led the lad ahead of the soldiers as he came to welcome our head. Seppo began unloading complaints about the trip as the warriors mingled.
“So he agreed?” Azoria dipped her head in my direction.
“‘He’ is here and fully aware, and yes, I did” I said.
“Praise be.” Thane sagged forward, leaning on the Scythe as he summoned it. “This thing is immensely heavier when it’s not your symbol anymore.”
Azoria helped him to stand. “You bore its weight well.”
“Long enough.” He smiled at her as he straightened. His face was pale and strained, giving away his charade of full recovery. After the transfer of Office, I’d send him back to Nebesa myself, if Azoria didn’t beat me to it.
Seppo and Kydon plodded over to join our informal circle.
“Are we ready to begin?” Folding his arm, Seppo swept his gaze from Thane to Malia to me as he settled into his place. “It’ll be good to have you back at full strength, old friend.”
“Casting stones in a pottery shop, Seppo.” I grunted. “Are you sure the pantheon is ready for this change, though? It’s a rather dramatic shift.”
He waved the comment away. “You two have volleyed the Office back and forth enough it only makes sense that, with both of you active again, you would share the responsibilities.”
Kydon nodded in agreement.
Malia nudged me, her face eager. “Enough stalling.”
Muttering, I let my arms hang loose and readied myself for the mantle of Death.
Kydon let his arms fall as well, his face going slack as his eyes rolled back. His voice deepened, like the soothing rumble of the ocean depths. The language he intoned was archaic, the predecessor of modern Carthian, and the specific words he uttered mattered less than the ancient vows he invoked.
Shepherds of souls, guiding them to and through the underworld. The fruit of fallen mortals gathered in our loving hands and scattered across the earth, to seed the harvest of the next generation. Whether sickness or happenstance ushered a Carthian into death, we would be there to claim and care for our own. The task was taxing, but this time, I wouldn’t bear the weight alone.
Separating from me, Malia smiled as Thane brought the Scythe forward. “And now for the real surprise.”
I rolled my eyes. “No inauguration involving you could go without one.”
She gave me the most self-satisfied smirk as she reached for the Scythe. Before her hands clutched the wood, however, the weapon trembled and then promptly shattered. Light burst from the scattered fragments of its shaft, wispy trails circling Malia’s wrists. A thicker beam sped from the blade towards me, curving sharply into the ground before it would have collided with me. A sharp, brassy sound, like a struck gong, reverberated through the air.
As the tone dissipated, the light receded, coalescing in our palms. The light in my hands resolved into the long, thin haft of a reaper’s hook, the razor-like sickle curving away from my feet. Malia clasped a pair of kama, hand sickles with their blades embedded at right angles at the heads of their handles. As the Office of Death had been split between us, so too its Symbol. Mine remained closest to its original form, perfect for culling large quantities of souls. Malia’s, however, seemed better suited to the singular collecting she planned to employ.
Her face was alight with triumph. “Hail to the Furies of War and Death.”
“May our enemies fear our names forever.” I couldn’t keep from grinning. Not that I wanted to, though. With the familiar weight of my Scythe–now Sickle–in hand, I had to admit: it felt good to be back.