Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Frowning, Inkashi shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think you do.” Malia slid forward, her gaze fierce. “Come now, it can’t be that hard to figure out. Anyone bearing a passing resemblance to myself you might’ve absconded with recently?”
“Oh. You mean our goddess.” Inkashi laughed. “She’s been taken to our camp for safekeeping.”
“Jade was abducted from Carthian territory.” Malia flashed her fangs. “Although she only holds a minor position in our pantheon, she is nevertheless one of ours. I’m sure you can understand, holding an Office similar to my own, why you’d want to return her, safe and unharmed, and the earliest possible moment.”
Inkashi scowled and folded her arms on the rim of her amphora. “As I told your two-legged pig friend, those mines are Paeden and have been for millennia. We don’t recognize your claim to them, or any persons in them, and the only reason we haven’t moved back into our own territory is because you’re contesting it. I told him I would wait for someone with real authority to make sure he understood that.”
“Waiting until Jade severed all ties and fully integrated into our pantheon is one hell of a way to proclaim you still care about this land,” I said.
Once again, the Paeden goddess looked shocked at my presence. “The mines have stone found nowhere else in Paedea. It’s essential for many rituals and aspects of worship. However, we only come for more once a century because of how slowly the rock regrows.”
Malia snorted in disgust. “You can drop the façade. We know why the mines really matter, and what’s beneath them.”
Inkashi’s eyebrows scrunched together. “What do you mean?”
Her porters shifted uneasily, glancing at each other and fluttering their wings. “My lady, perhaps we should go.”
“Oh, you don’t know?” Eyes sparkling, Malia slithered forward as the Apkalla stumbled back. “So you don’t know why Jade is so important, then, either.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Confusion riddled Inkashi’s face.
“We should go,” the rear Apkalla rumbled. Grunting, the pair swung the litter about.
“What’s gotten into you?” Inkashi demanded.
“We move as Marudak commands,” the lead Apkalla said.
“More like they don’t want you hearing about Marudak’s failures, or that the ancient Sea Mother is returning.” Malia’s snakes jiggled as she laughed. “Running scared because their little secret is out.”
“The Ancient Mother was annihilated countless ages ago.” Inkashi smacked one of the carrying rods. “Stop moving. We’re not leaving yet. What secrets?”
“You can’t kill an eldritch deity,” I said, folding my arms. “The best you can do is cut them into pieces and pray their tomb holds.”
“And Tamiyat’s did not.” Malia’s use of the primordial goddess’s proper name made them flinch. “She took her former jailor as proxy, and then we took that from her. Now she’s coming for Jade to serve as her new surrogate, and through her free her imprisoned mate.”
The two Apkalla recovered quickly and marched the litter down the path, ignoring Inkashi’s protests. Glaring daggers at them, she pushed herself out of her amphora. Red wine clung to her, congealing into a wavy dress that lost none of its liquidity. A beautiful quiver, the pattern in its worked leather matching that of the amphora, settled onto her back. Golden arrows fletched with white feathers rattled around the unstrung bow which rose from the quiver like a cattail. Although I didn’t see it form, when she turned, she revealed an ivory-handled dagger resting against her hip.
Her hair and body dripped with wine, despite her departure from her bath. Anger clouded her face, her fingers twitching above the dagger. “Are you gods yourselves, to defy me?”
Shoulders tense, the Apkalla set the litter down and slowly spun to face her. They spread their wings as they separated from the carriage. Their eyes began to glow as they approached her.
“We are the mouthpiece of Marudak,” they chanted in unison. An unnatural wind, contrary to the breeze blowing across the saddle, ruffled their feathers. “By the token of his power upon us do we make known his will to you. Submit, or be subdued for rebellion against the Most High.”
Inkashi slumped a little, but her hand strayed to the dagger hilt. “If it is so, then I will yield.”
“Oh, come now,” Malia spat. Slithering forward, she came abreast of Inkashi. “Hey, pretty boy, remember me?”
The two Apkalla pulled up, both pairs of eyes locking on her with unnerving synchrony.
“Mm, glad to see it.” She was practically purring now. I felt my skin itch at the impending confrontation. Malia liked her fun, and the Apkalla had done something to set her off. “How about you piss off and let the adults handle this, hmm?”
“You’re damned gorgeous, but he’s my god,” Inkashi said, sighing. “I can stand on my own behalf.”
Malia ignored her. Eyes hardening, she slid closer to the winged sages. “You’re not getting away that easily. You came onto my territory, stole one of my gods, and have the audacity to camp an army on my doorstep. I don’t give a shit if you’re not on Carthian soil right at this moment—you were, so the next words out of your mouths better be the most sincere apologies and a solemn vow to immediately return her.”
“What a yammering bitch, barking at every stud she scents.” Light coalesced in their hands, rods that slowly took on the shape of swords. “Yes, let the men handle the important tasks. I’m sure your neglected whelps need their linens changed.”
“Strong words, coming from the ‘man’ who sends women and eunuchs to fight his battles for him.” Malia grinned triumphant when the barb hit home.
Snarling, the Apkalla surged forward. They didn’t get far, however, coughing as they bounced off an invisible barrier.
Kydon huffed a laugh. “It would seem our men are more prepared than you give them credit for.” Grinning, he nodded at the line in the dirt where they’d been repelled. “That is the manifestation of the extent of our border, tangible through my authority. Your ambassador is welcome.” He flicked a hand at the pair and scowled. “You are not. Go fetch our goddess while we convene.”
“You are speaking directly to the god she is the ambassador for.” Their augmented voices dripped condescension like a waterfall only mists those who walk beneath its waters. “For your ignorance I pardon your offense this once, but you had best learn your station, and quickly, if you wish to remain as you are.”
“Your vessels are shit,” Malia said. Laughing, she shook her head and feigned hiding a smile. “Who was that first one you sent again? Oannes, was it? ‘Chief among the Apkallan Sages,’ ha. I’ve faced patronless mortals stronger than he.” Another smile ghosted across her lips as she tapped her chin. “If you’re trying to bewilder us into submission by an endless parade of self-embarrassment, I must say you’re doing an excellent job.”
Circles rippled through the air from where the sages struck the transparent barrier. Faces clouded with rage, they leaned as close to the barrier as they could. “I will salt the earth with your ashes.” Although the boundary had held against their first attack, the power Marudak fed into their voices made the air warble, and the ward with it.
Malia rolled her eyes. “I hope you know the names of these Apkalla, so you know what to inscribe on their tombstones.”
“And I hope the head of your pantheon knows what his women are doing.” They clasped their hands together, their light-swords vanishing with dull flashes. “Abducting a Paeden goddess is an act of war. So unless you wish to face me in person, I’d suggest—”
Whatever he’d been going to say was choked in the sages’ throats by Malia unveiling her glare. Nostrils flared, she blasted the Apkalla with a fraction of her power. Not that she was holding back for their sakes, but a flinching of her snake hair that only I noticed revealed the effects of her lingering injuries.
The pair collapsed, clutching their throats and gasping for breath. Behind them, the mortal standard bearers froze, open-mouthed, as the corona caught and glued them to their banner poles forever.
Malia towered over the sages, still fuming. “You dare speak to me about war? Over a trespass you committed?” She spat, and the ground sizzled where her saliva landed. “It is only by my mercy——my mercy, and mine alone—that your land is not a barren wasteland, dotted by the bleached skeletons of its former peoples. With how impotent and incompetent you are, I’d hoped that you could put your juvenile pride aside long enough to protect your own from a threat that has you pissing yourself at night, but I suppose that’s too much to expect from a bedwetter.”
The human-faced Apkalla bared his teeth, the falcon-headed snapping his beak. “Inkashi. Now.”
Eyes downcast, the woman flashed us an apologetic look as she reluctantly slid across the boundary.
Veiling her petrifying gaze, Malia glared at the Apkalla, who were still on their hands and knees. “You have until sundown to return what’s mine, unharmed. Or you had best make sure you’re on good terms with whatever being oversees the death of gods.” Whipping her tail, she spun and slithered down the mountain trail.
In somber silence we followed her. Knowing Malia, she already had two or three plans to extract Jade in place, if not in motion. With the head Paeden deity getting directly involved with the negotiations and losing the pissing match, an alliance had just gone from unlikely to impossible. There was still a chance we could recover Jade without full-scale war ensuing but, judging from the tension in Malia’s trembling shoulders, I doubted it. When we got back to camp I’d talk to her and try to calm her down. If she was going to rampage, at the very least she should keep from hurting herself in the process.