Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Hasda’s commission would have been executed with more fanfare if there hadn’t been an answering flare of power from beyond the mountain. Still, he received greater honor than most mortals as Seppo took his arm and led him to the waiting Carthians.
“Troops, Hasda. Hasda, troops.” Seppo grunted out the introduction. “He’ll be commanding you in the coming battle. For now, continue guarding the village and make yourselves familiar with each other.”
“That wasn’t a declaration of war.” Kydon frowned at the mountain pass. “She’s announced herself the same way every time.”
“She?” Malia raised a questioning eyebrow at the ogre.
Scowling, he said, “Inkashi. That drunken bitch the Paedens sent as their divine emissary. Her lack of propriety as an ambassador of her pantheon is one of the primary reasons our parleys have fallen apart.”
“But she’s requesting another audience?” Seppo asked.
“More like declaring her imminent arrival.” A vein pulsed on Kydon’s neck. “Impertinent–”
“We get it.” Malia rolled her eyes. “You’ll want us in attendance this time?”
“Of course not,” Kydon growled. “She’ll be demanding an explanation for the power dilation and sticking her flushed nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“You’ll go.” Seppo stomped over, his exoskeleton hissing. “All three of you. It’ll be an excellent show of strength to display our newly reunited Gods of Death. Thane and Azoria will return to Nebesa until he is fit for duty in Aenea, and I’ll remain here to integrate the tribes into the Tingid defense. But I expect nothing but diplomacy.” He leveled his gaze at Malia. “To the best of your ability, do not antagonize them. As they haven’t declared war yet, let’s see that it stays that way.”
Malia flashed him a smile. “I would never.”
Seppo snorted and stumped off to the tribesmen. Murmuring goodbyes, Thane and Azoria withdrew through her portal. Another surge of power punctuated their departure.
Still glowering, Kydon turned and trudged through the village, heading for the mountain pass. “She’s probably already arrived at the head of the pass,” he called back as we scurried to catch up.
“You said she was pushy?” I felt an impulse to pull my Veil on as the Tingins followed us with their eyes. My movements felt stretched, my bones slightly more prominent than I remembered.
Kydon huffed. “She would be, if she were sober. As is, she’s just a staggering winesop.”
“So you’ve said.” Malia fluttered her wings. “Anyone else with her?”
“Two Apkalla.” Kydon didn’t sound impressed, although it was hard to tell if he cared nothing for her bodyguards or if he were still annoyed at the thought of the Paeden goddess. “A few other retainers that are borderline demigods, if they’re remotely divine.”
“That’s it?” Given how our last encounter with the Paedens went, it felt strange that they’d only include one more anointed Sage among the retinue sent to oppose us. Nergal, their plague god, had Meduga, although it had been more the god keeping an eye on the Apkalla than the pair working as a unit. This time, it sounded as if the Paedens had sent the god first which didn’t bode well, considering how low they regarded the errands they sent their Sages on.
“Outside of the company of mortals with her? Yeah.” As Kydon passed through the village streets, he drew almost no attention to himself. Whether that was from the eyes of the town being accustomed to his presence or drawn to the death gods trailing him, I wasn’t sure. Kydon, at least, didn’t seem to care. “No other divine beings have joined her, and she hasn’t communicated with the rest of her pantheon in any way that I can discern. No new Paeden foot soldiers have arrived, either, which, given how much she verbally lambasts me every time we meet, is surprising. The way she talks, war is all but certain.”
“And yet here we are, marching to another talk, bearing no arms.” Malia cast me an unreadable expression.
Self-satisfaction at her joke? Coy about some secret knowledge? Something else? Only she knew.
We reached the start of the trail and made our way up the mountain, Kydon continuing to grumble about Inkashi. I was beginning to suspect the friction during their previous meetings was more personal than diplomatic. While Kydon was good about being fair, if he didn’t get along with someone, it would bring that objectivity to a grinding halt. You’d have better success getting a wagon out of a rut during a torrential downpour. And, from the sounds of it, they had the affinity of like-minded lodestones. If she were anything like Kydon, our late arrival would likely leave a poor first impression.
However, when we reached the crest of the mountain pass, jagged gray stone sweeping up on either side, the goddess was nowhere to be seen. The flat area Malia and I had first observed the Paedens from gave us an excellent view of their new camp, which they’d made by clearing a decent portion of the forest below. Dozens of creamy tents with swirling fronds of red thread filled the space, smoke rising from scattered campfires. From this distance, it was hard to make out the individual soldiers, but the smears of crimson shifting among the tents showed signs of life. A few hundred troops then, at least, based on the size of their camp.
Another pulse of energy burst from the backside trail moments before a pair of scarlet banners poked through the foliage. Born by mortal men wearing nothing but linen skirts, the standards depicted a winged minotaur, burdened by his muscular form almost as much as the effort of subduing the writhing sea serpent beneath his hooves. Seven figures surrounded him, not all of them winged and some with extra sets as if compensating for those without. At the top, a winged sun smiled down on the minotaur and his companions. Golden tassels, matching the thread used in the embroidery of the scene, fluttered from the banner’s fringe.
Behind the standard bearers marched a pair of creatures who could only be Apkalla. The foremost, a winged man with the brown, black-beaked head of an eagle and matching plumage covering his chest, shouldered two poles that bore less weight than the rear carrier, a falcon-headed man with two pairs of wings and the scaly, taloned feet of a bird of prey. More peculiar than the porters, however, was the litter they carted between them: a bulbous amphora with a neck nearly as wide as the jug itself. Wine sloshed out as the Apkalla stumbled their way to flatter ground, staining the clay with dark spots.
Pale fingers, glistening with the red fermented juice, gripped the mouth of the pitcher as the goddess pulled herself out. Dark, wet hair preceded an angular face flushed from wine and etched with irritation. “What did you do this time, you fat bastard?” She froze, mouth agape, when she saw Malia and me. Her bare shoulders sank back below the lip of the amphora and her jaw worked at her words, which seemed stuck. Eyes glued to Malia, she finally said, “Gods, you’re beautiful.”
Malia blinked but quickly recovered. Spreading her wings, she gave a shallow bow. “Likewise. Kydon made no mention you had such exquisite features.”
Inkashi wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, don’t remind me of that oaf.” Eyes narrowed, she glared at the half-troll. “Why didn’t you send her first? Appearance is everything, and I know she can’t possibly smell like you do.”
“For the last time, that ‘Carthian stench’ is all in your head, you miserable old hag,” Kydon growled. “While not all our gods maintain their personal hygiene to satisfactory levels, I take great care of myself. The only thing that reeks is your attitude, which has yet to cease its best impersonation of horse feces.”
Inkashi sank down to her eyes. “Heavens send the winds shift. I’d rather be downwind of a swineherd.”
“I fear our diplomacy may have gotten off to a bad start.” Lurching forward, I stepped between them and gave a stiff bow. “Perhaps we could begin again?”
Startled, Inkashi shook her head and blinked a few times. “What a strange aura you have,” she said. Frowning, she glared at Kydon again. “What instability your pantheon has, bastardizing its gods. And you seriously expect us to consider you able to help?”
“It was a simple reassignment,” Malia hissed. “I’m sure the Paeden assemblage hasn’t remained static all these centuries either.”
“You two?” Wide-eyed, Inkashi stared incredulously at Malia. “How in the seven heavens did he land you?”
“I’ve asked myself that as well, over the centuries.” Malia folded her arms. “Are you the goddess of drunkenness and duplicity? You’ve come bearing compliments and insults, a duality I can appreciate.”
“Forgiveness, words aren’t always my strength.” The goddess really did look abashed. “It would never have crossed my mind that someone as stunning as you could have tied yourself down, much less with a buffoon like him…”
Malia simply raised an eyebrow.
“As to your question,” Inkashi said, stumbling along, “I am the Goddess of Wine and War, may the two never mix.”
“Then we share a partial affinity.” Beaming, Malia bathed her in a smile that was almost all charm, tainted by its intensity. “As it’s well within your jurisdiction, perhaps you could assist me with something. I’d hate to mingle again over a battlefield.”
“Do tell.” Subtlety also wasn’t her strong suit, apparently, as she failed to hide how she latched onto the out Malia had given her.
Grinning, she drilled her with the petrifying gaze of a cobra freezing a bird. “You have something of mine. I want it back.”