Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Anyone watching me pour water over my head could tell I was angry. More liquid splashed onto my robes than on my skull, and despite how soaked I was I still felt that sticky sludge sensation on the back of my head. In my frustration, I’d dropped the pitcher into the river, chipping the rim and getting thick, clinging mud inside the vessel. Maybe that was why the filthy feeling was getting worse, not better. Joints popping, I knelt down to wash the mud out, my robes floating across the surface of the swift-flowing river.
Pinching my fingers, I worked my whole hand down in the pitcher and scraped at the intruding mud. It resisted my efforts, deforming into annoying troughs as my fingers raked the soggy clay. The air crackled around me as my irritation increased. Stupid sludge, stupid river, stupid—
A sharp crack startled me, and I dropped the pitcher into the river again. As it fell, upside-down, into the water, it made a hollow popping sound as air became trapped inside. Bubbles filtered up like mocking laughter as the vessel rocked down and embedded its lip in the dirt. Great, more mud to clean out.
Here I was, fighting with an uncooperative inanimate object, and I was so mad I was pulling an aura. I hadn’t been able to do that since before I’d abdicated my spot in Nebesa. Not “didn’t choose to,” couldn’t. My gradual decline into oblivion meant I’d been slowly shedding my divine powers, and now they were coming back. Not a little bit, a lot a bit. That blasted woman must have somehow slipped ambrosia into my drink despite my attentiveness. Or maybe, in my weakened state, I was less alert than I’d thought. But she must have done something to me, because just breathing the air of Nebesa shouldn’t have been enough to invigorate me like this.
I frowned. It couldn’t have been the blessing I’d given Hasda, either. That would just give him a portion of my former power, my spirit resting upon him, safeguarding him in battle and all that. That passing of the torch should have left me weaker, not stronger. And with my ward gone and no one to tend to but myself, my consciousness should have been on the fast path to peaceful delirium. I was tired, gods damn it, and I wanted to rest. But here I was, kneeling in the river with crockery that I couldn’t keep ahold of despite my newfound vitality.
My grumblings were interrupted by a sudden stillness to the forest that sent shivers down my spine. Even the river lost some of its enthusiasm, its foamy bubbling reduced to murmuring burbles. The sky became muted, the sunshine losing its edge, and the clouds rolled away, parted by unseen hands. Thunder rumbled, lightning crashed, and the oversized face of Malia appeared in the heavens.
This was not gorgon Malia, oh no, this was divine diva, astral projection Malia. Her face glowed with warm light that couldn’t settle on peach or salmon as its defining shade, and stars like drops of honey freckled her face. Instead of her snake hair, glittering nebulae flowed off her head, creating a miasma of stardust. Though her eyes were closed, she smiled directly at me.
And then she opened her eyes.
Legend describes the gorgon’s gaze as a paralyzing affair. While partially true, the legends seem to have forgotten that heroes had a reason for fighting gorgons in areas with low vegetation that were unrelated to keeping an open battlefield. Mortal gorgons tended to fry bushes, trees, and shrubs with their toxic vision, creating noxious fumes that were both poisonous and difficult to navigate for those without infrared vision. Add to that the fact that plant life made it easier for a gorgon to sneak an unobstructed peek at her adversaries, and warriors did their darndest to fight gorgons in mountains, out in deserts, or on plains where the grass and wild oats could be burned away to flush the gorgon out.
Malia, being the immortal variety, had a veritable death ray behind her eyeballs. Being divine myself, it wouldn’t affect me much, but I couldn’t say the same for my forest. As she scythed her eyes along the woods, she left a swath of blasted trees and petrified wildlife that hadn’t gotten out of the way fast enough. Smoke belched through the leafy canopy, and several brush fires burst alight as a side effect of her intense gaze. She cut a straight path of destruction and then stifled her gaze, smiling down at me.
“That’s what the desert is for, you blasted woman!” I shook my fist at her.
She winked and blew me a kiss, and then pulled the clouds shut behind her as she turned away. The sun brightened, the chatter of the birds returned, and the river surged, nearly knocking me off my feet. My pitcher washed away, bouncing out of reach off the stones in the river. Shaking off my robes, I threw them on the bank with a growl and plunged beneath the water. I hadn’t wanted to take a bath, but I wasn’t going all the way back to the temple for another jug.
Of course, I’d have to go back to Nebesa now and lodge a complaint with Seppo, the head of our pantheon. I was entitled to my retirement and the lands around my temple, and while Malia’s intrusion with Hasda had been forgivable, this certainly was not. That damage would take years to recover, and with my rediscovered sense of time, I would feel those years fully.
And that destruction was intentional. Despite what the legends said, gorgons could control their gaze. Just as one can, metaphorically, glare daggers doesn’t mean one spends one’s whole life doing so. The same for birds and flying, or cats and napping, or dogs eating their own shit, although I wasn’t too sure about that last one. But gorgons could turn their withering gaze on and off at will, and Malia had the best control of any gorgon I’d ever met. Whatever her deal was, I’d just ignore her, file my grievance with Seppo, and come back. That was it.
Though I was understandably annoyed and distracted, I made the mistake of tugging my robes on while I was still wet. They got stuck hitched halfway up my back, and my knuckles kept snagging at the elbows of my sleeves. With the excess cloth piled around my shoulders in a way that at least let me see out the head hole, I grumbled my way back to my temple and set about properly toweling down.
As I peeled my robes off, Malia’s last letter fell out of a pocket and bounced off the ground. Glaring at it, I yanked my wet robes the rest of the way off, balled them up, and threw them at my throne. Cloth fluttering, they unwound and blanketed the steps like a beggar’s red carpet. I sighed and picked up the scroll. Might as well read what she had to say, so I knew what to expect.
“My dear Charax,
“How the years have flown. It was only yesterday that I left little Hasda on your doorstep.”
You did far more than that.
“I can’t express how thrilled I am at how he’s turned out. You’ve always done such excellent work, but you’ve overdone yourself this time. You should be proud. Hasda will be a fine hero.”
I grunted. More like your pet dark lord, but that’s semantics.
She skipped a few lines in the letter, several blurry splotches where she’d erased what she’d been going to say. I squinted at the inkstains, but couldn’t make out the words. Second-guessing wasn’t in her nature.
“This may come as a shock to you—”
I sincerely doubt anything could, after today.
“—but I’ve already discussed this with Seppo, and he says it’s possible, if you’re willing. Tonight, at the feast, we’ll honor Hasda together as his co-patrons.”
What? How would that work? I’m not—
“I can hear your protests from here. ‘How? I’m not an invested deity anymore, I gave up my office, I’m a peaceful, priestless god,’ etc., etc.”
“So I’m willing to co-seat the office of the God of War.”
“I only need my War Bow. You’ve always been the more hands-on of us, and I’m sure you’ve missed your Spear and Sword. The Shield is probably somewhere in storage, I’m sure Thane remembers where I put it. But I would be honored if you’d join me in your former place, as my partner in war. All my love, your little Necro Snake.”
Well I’ll be. Of all the stunts she could’ve pulled, I would’ve wagered the whole of my heavenly wealth that Peklo would freeze over before Malia would share. And she wasn’t pulling any punches either, with that closing. I shook my head. Honestly, if I’d read this before I dropped off Hasda, I might’ve seriously considered her offer. No wonder she wanted me to read it so badly.
Apparently it was something I badly wanted to hear. I blinked and found myself sprinting down the blighted path Malia had left behind. The tendrils of the ancient forest magic pawed at my feet, weak from her scouring. Though I pulled at the portal, it resisted my efforts, forming lethargically in the air. Drawing harder on the bonds brought images of magical constipation to mind and I shook my head. Not the mental image I wanted. After sputtering for a good two minutes, the orange portal finally solidified and opened to admit me to Nebesa.
The plaza beyond was void of beings for all of two seconds. A cloud of purple smoke puffed, and Malia appeared, a broad grin on her face. “Why, Charax, how kind of you to join us.”
“Save it.” I folded my arms with a grunt. “I’m here to talk to Seppo.”