Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Our search of the mines proved fruitless. Even before we arrived at the mouth of the tunnels, Hasda frowned and said the speckled aura had dissipated like morning dew. Malia and I still did due diligence, but an afternoon later, we came up empty-handed. Malia materialized in front of some startled miners and warned them to be on guard, and then we headed out into the cool evening air to see whether the Paedens had refused to release Jade.
Before heading to the pass, we checked Hasda’s armor one last time and then escorted him to his troops. The djinn kept himself out of sight and withheld whatever snarky remarks he thought of, although he did flourish a purple aura across the metal to wow the soldiers. We stayed behind our Veils, however, so Hasda could garner his own respect rather than riding residual fear and awe at his patron deities.
While we would be at the primary pass, Hasda would take his unit to the southern pass. That gap was more overgrown than the main one, since the Tingids didn’t maintain it, and its trail snaked up and down the mountains far more than ours. Malia wouldn’t call the deadline until nightfall, which would give Hasda enough time to make most of the descent, if not reach the edge of the Paedens’ camp.
I’d considered shadowing him but decided against it both to support Malia and for the same reason we didn’t reveal ourselves to his men. Hasda needed to stretch his wings without us hovering, and he’d be able to handle whatever danger came his way. With Malia drawing most of the divine attention, he’d face, at best, a semi-divine Apkalla. Marudak wouldn’t proxy through them to battle a band of mortals, not with war gods on his doorstep.
But only Malia would publicly announce herself. Kydon had scurried off to wherever he’d buried the sigiled obelisk, a stone spike no bigger than his palm and covered in runes. While it wasn’t necessary for the boundary to remain erect, it served as both catalyst and focal point for Kydon’s power. He’d said the alteration to the barrier would be perceptible to us, but not to outsiders.
Just before sundown, an emerald aurora had shimmered in the air, not far from where Inkashi had dismounted. Malia gave it a curt nod and fluttered her wings. On her right, I stood concealed beneath my Veil, the rocky mountainside kneading my back. Seppo waited well out of sight down the path, the tribesmen hidden by the dip in the ground and the blanket of trees.
Arms folded, Malia watched the trail down the backside of the mountains, tail twitching as she waited for signs of the Paedens. Sunset faded to twilight, and then dusk flirted with night. Ulti was scattering the first nocturnal gems in the velvet heavens by the time Malia spread her wings and prepared to herald her ire.
A figure stumbled from behind the trees. What little light remained revealed a young servant girl, no more than twelve or thirteen, clothed in thin, pale robes. Her long hair veiled her face and cascaded over her hands, which clutched something to her chest. As she slipped from the trees, hunched over, she cast furtive glances over her shoulder.
Malia hadn’t bothered to hide herself from the girl’s approach, but the growing darkness must have been a bit too much for the mortal. When she noticed Malia, she leaped and twisted to put whatever she held out of Malia’s sight. My gorgon smiled and shook her head.
“Too late for that, child.” She put a touch of power in her voice, lighting the clearing with her now-spread wings. “Have they sent you to bear the brunt of my wrath for their failure? Or is it a pitiful peace offering you bring?”
The girl shook her head and hid her bundle beneath her scant garment.
Malia frowned. “I know you for a Paeden. Pray tell, why are you here, if not to answer my demands?”
Face paling, the girl shrank back but refused to answer.
Sighing, Malia massaged her forehead. “At least be a semi-competent messenger and speak up.”
Something in her face tightened and, while the angle of her face didn’t change, I could’ve sworn she was looking down her nose at Malia.
She seemed to gather the same attitude I did. Slithering forward, she towered over the girl. “Did you lose your tongue during the climb up? Shall I help you fetch it?”
The girl held her free hand out, palm up, then flipped her hand back and forth, as if she were turning over pages. When Malia just stared blankly at her, she repeated the gesture and then mimed scooping things up.
“The gift of tongues requires the use of one,” Malia said, shaking her head. “If you’re quite finished, I’m about to rampage across yonder valley, and I could use a snack.”
I rolled my eyes as I dropped my Veil. “She’s clearly here for a reason. Don’t eat her before you find out why or what she brought.”
The girl’s face lit up when she saw me, illumined by the soft glow of Malia’s wings. Displaying a disregard that was either foolhardy or fearless, she strode out of Malia’s reach and offered me her hidden bundle. In her outstretched hand she held a trumpet shell, thin maroon bands marking the bulbous carapace. It looked harmless enough and exuded no threatening auras.
The ridges of the shell were cool pricks against my palm. A salty breeze floated over me, echoes of distant waves drifting in its wake. Beyond that, nothing spectacular happened.
Eyes alight, the girl cupped her hands to her ear. When I didn’t follow, she grabbed my elbow and forced my arm up. Malia gave me a look that was mild impatience couched in an exasperated smile. She’d had that same indulgent expression when I selected my first hero, a scrappy lad whose tenacity kept him from crossing the threshold into death, although his shadow darkened its doorstep many a time during his campaigns.
Reminiscing on the days gone by was cut short when the mouth of the shell touched my ear and started speaking.
“If you’re hearing this, Desert Prophet, then my servant found you before she was discovered.” Nanshe’s voice rang hollow in the shell, her volume skirmishing for dominance with the sound of surf in the background. “While this isn’t much, it is the best I can offer. But it carries such weight that I consider myself indebted to you no longer, and once you’ve heard this message I’m sure you will agree.”
Malia gave me a quizzical look.
I shook my head, careful not to dislodge the shell or shove the girl’s hand away by accident. She still held on, as if I didn’t understand how to listen to the shell.
“It is no hidden matter that Marudak has reclaimed the minor goddess from your halls,” the note went on. “I cannot return her to you. In her place, a word to serve as a tocsin for your survival. Although the atargas, we mastered, the lakrabua, we did not.”
I opened my mouth to question and felt a tug on my elbow. Smiling, the girl held a finger to her lips. I didn’t like the connection that comment raised, but there was more to the message.
“Faithful though this girl has been, she can serve me no more. Were she to return, she could expose my sedition, through no fault of her own, if her departure did not alert the others already. I’m entrusting her fate to you, a god who has shown himself…surprisingly honorable. Do unto her as you wish.”
With a crack, the shell split in my hand. As I stared at the bisected pieces, it further dissolved into a powder that drifted away on the cool night breeze. The girl must have expected this, because she dropped her hand when the shell burst and stared at me expectantly.
Malia finally broke her silence. “Well?”
I studied the piebald powder coating my palm. “A warning from the most unexpected source.”
“Well, aren’t you mysterious.” Folding her arms, she pouted at me. “I did refrain from eating her.”
I huffed a laugh and shook the last fragments from my hand. “It’s not a secret, but it is unusual.” Briefly I recounted the contents of the missive.
Malia eyed the girl thoughtfully. “Since I can’t eat her in peace with your puppy-dog eyes souring my dinner, I’ll send her to Nebesa. Phemonoe loves strays.”
I nodded. “Are you good to thunder and roar without me?”
Her portal flared to life beside us. She lifted a brow at me. “Going on an adventure?”
“I’m going to check the mines again.” I scowled down the mountain path. “Do you remember the tales with lakrabua? Perhaps as ‘ketri.’”
“Can’t say that I do.” Her wing brushed the girl’s back, nudging her towards the portal. The girl must’ve understood us, or at least that we bore her no ill will, because she made no protest as she followed Malia’s guidance. “You are surprisingly compliant, child.”
The girl smiled up at her as she went through the portal, her hands flurrying through a sequence of signs neither Malia nor I understood.
“They were bedtime boogeymen in the age after Seppo’s mother fell.” I sighed. “The descriptions were never clear or consistent, but the fact that Nanshe’s risking her head just to warn us about them…”
“Could be a bluff.” Malia slipped over to kiss my chin. “I won’t be long. Don’t have too much fun without me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” I kissed her forehead, and then she was off.