Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
My chest heaved as I ghosted through the walls of the mine, passing through the stone on the straightest path out. It was disorienting, did a number on my already achy frame, and gave me a splitting headache, but it was the fastest way to leave the mines. I didn’t bother with my Veil, so I startled quite a few miners as I walked through them. But I needed to hurry.
If the Spinster’s word was to be trusted, Tamiyat could move at any time, if she hadn’t already. We’d been counting on her maddening aura warning us of her approach since it seemed a passive effect she had on her environment, like her corruption of the astral plane. But if she had a measure of control over it, then she could cloak her arrival under the guise of her absent influence.
And we didn’t know how aware she was of our movements, or the Paedens’. Perhaps she knew about Jade’s capture and lay in wait for us to clash with the Paedens, to ensnare the lamia during the chaos. There was no telling how many agents the Sea Mother had beyond Lazuli, or whether she’d already infiltrated the Paedens.
I felt the dull throb of power thrumming through the stone around me. A moment’s panic spiked in my chest, but a tug at my bond dispelled it. Malia had returned and, impatient as always, started without me. She must have assumed her astral form for her power to be radiating so deeply inside the mountain. Steeling myself against the groaning protests of my ribs, I hurried on.
When I emerged outside the mountain, I had the most sickening feeling, and not just the nausea from traversing so much stone. The sky overhead was teeming with clouds which blotted out the stars and moonlight. While night had fallen, the luster of Malia’s astral form flashed across the lumpy undersides of the clouds, painting them in muted pinks, greens, and golds. It was hard to tell which was thicker, the humidity or Malia’s aura, but both blended to make the air suffocating and sticky.
But the rain.
I had a really, really bad feeling about the rain. It wasn’t a proper downpour yet, only a trickle here and there. But there was something out of place about it that I couldn’t put my finger on. Maybe it was just nerves and being unsettled from another unexpected visit from a Prime. Maybe the Spinster’s touch had sickened me and I needed a good soak in Maas Taeful. And maybe it was the fact that the last time I’d seen clouds like these had been right before…
Right before Lazuli had first appeared in Palmyra.
Halfway up the path, I jerked to a stop. My darting glances found no sign of the Sea Mother, my senses bare of maddening touch. Clouds were just clouds, and nothing strange about them revealed itself to my eyes. Was I being paranoid?
Even if it wasn’t Tamiyat’s rain, precipitation could throw a wrench in the rescue. Wet ground made footing unsure, thunder and the patter of rain again leaves made voices echo and obscured positions. Grips became slick in hands, bowstrings would need replacing, arrows fletched anew. The soldiers with Hasda were well-trained, but not even Carthians were immune to the effects of weather.
Still, there was nothing I could do to shelter Hasda and his crew from the storm without drawing attention to their presence, and if the Sea Mother came, she came. My back itched in the direction of the mines. Despite the Spinster’s promise to keep the ketri contained, I hated having an enemy at my rear. The faster we rescued Jade, the sooner we could go back and purge the creatures. All of us together might be enough to maneuver around the Prime, wishful thinking though it was. But it was the best chance we had of being proactive, instead of waiting for the Spinster to stab us in the back.
The more pressing issue, however, was the rescue at hand. Up the path, the clouds boiled as Malia surged through them, beyond the crest of the pass. Sparkling, her stellar wings scooped the colloids and scattered them around her. The dark void of her astral face, freckled with stars, glared down at the scurrying Paedens in disgust.
She’d already laid waste to the nearest edge of the forest, smoke and shattered stumps attesting to the now-absent trees. Spearmen in conical helmets and drab, tan uniforms scampered into hasty formations, failing to hide the fear on their faces. Scant units of archers filled the spotted clearings, taking aim at my gorgon, only to be consumed by a quick burst of her gaze. At first I wondered at the disorganization permeating the camp, but then I saw the agent administering chaos among them.
Well, that explains where that missing spirit from Peklo went.
Vetor, three-armed cyclops of a long-forgotten nation, rampaged among the Paedens. Before his death, he’d had a fourth arm, but he lost it wrestling Zephyrus. That had cost him the use of his two-armed shield and ultimately his contest against us, as I was able to take him with ease after his handicap. But even without his shield, he was still a goliath. Twice as big as the tallest Paeden, he towered with his head among the trees, which he uprooted and flailed against his enemies.
All this power as an undead corpse. He had been quite the foe to bring down in his prime but, even after his long stay in our underworld, he demanded the Paedens’ full attention. And with an angry astral gorgon bearing down on them, the Paedens were buckling.
And yet, the Apkalla were nowhere to be seen. Inkashi, too, was noticeably absent. From the feel of the land, Malia had already laid claim to the forest beyond, which ought to have been affront enough to draw Marudak’s avatars out. A rampaging, reanimated demigod who was decimating their soldiers should have forced their hand. Although I hadn’t seen him yet, Seppo would be joining the fray once he realized that Marudak was ignoring Malia. If that didn’t draw them into the battle, I didn’t know what would.
Trees screamed as Vetor snapped their trunks and flung them at the Paedens. Malia added the crackling of a forest fire to the uproar, marching inexorably forward. The Paedens scurried behind what cover survived, shouting for order as their defense gave more and more ground. I moved down the mountain, unseen, watching the chaos unfold as the Paedens were driven back. But still the Apkalla did not show.
When Seppo appeared over the ridge, the copper of his exoskeleton glowing like a spider web spun from a star, a sinking feeling stole into my gut. The warcry of the tribes, the answering wail of despair from the Paedens, presaged the unraveling of our preparations. Despite selling the feint, the Paedens weren’t falling for it.
Pulling my Veil tight, I picked my way through the crumbling woods. That nasty feeling of panic nipped at my heels as I hurried on. We had misevaluated something. Did the Paedens think that the Sea Mother could only open her mate’s crypt with Jade? Unlikely, but they could be so mistaken. Were they hoping Tamiyat would wipe us out? But then why surrender control of the mines to the elder goddess? Even if Jade were the only way in, anyone with half a tactical mind could see the stupidity in that. And that was assuming the Paedens didn’t know about the hive of lakrabua. If they did know, their idiocy must have conquered their intelligence a long time ago.
Tiny points plucked at my Veil as I moved, as if a swarm of children had taken up tugging on its hem. Our claim hadn’t yet taken hold, although it carried enough weight that I might be able to ambush a hostile deity before they noticed the shimmering distortion. Mortal vision, however, would stay blissfully unaware, as evidenced by the oblivious squadrons I waded through.
Thunder pealed as the sounds of battle faded behind me. Entangled with the tribal warriors, the Paedens had slowed in their retreat. But no reinforcements passed me as I made my way deeper into their camp. Dread spiked in my chest as rainfall struck the leaves above me. The growing storm seemed synonymous with the Sea Mother’s approach. With the Apkalla missing, I wanted to find Hasda as soon as possible.
The downpour picked up as I neared the center of the Paedens’ bivouac. Tents leaned in various states of disarray, the smaller ones collapsed from their owners’ hasty exits, while the larger ones yawned against their tentpoles. Shattered arrows, mangled shields, and prone bodies attested to the conflict that had visited the heart of the camp. From the dislodged Carthian armor mingled amongst the Paeden, Hasda’s unit hadn’t gone undetected.
But he wasn’t here, and neither were the Apkalla nor any troops of either side. It was unlikely they’d gone north, which left south, towards Paeden territory, and west, a polar retreat. Signs of skirmishing went in both directions. If the Carthians had found Jade, they wouldn’t need to guess which group had her.
I would have to figure out which way Hasda went on my own.