Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Choosing a direction would've been hard, were it not for the sudden flare of sour magic on my right. It reminded me of the djinn’s aura, but curdled. I rushed through the forest, summoning my Spear as I neared the nexus of energy.
When I finally found the source, I pulled up short. The two Apkalla swirled around a wraithy figure, their wings scattering the purple fire as they battered him with their downdrafts.The eagle-headed Apkalla, a pair of wings short of his falcon-headed companion, dueled with the figure. Each collision of their swords bent the metal and flung showers of sparks in the increasing rain. Quad wings flurrying, the falcon-headed sage raked his taloned feet and dodged swipes from his quarry’s sword.
If it weren’t for the telltale hue of the flame on his sword, I wouldn’t have recognized the enshrouded warrior as Hasda. He was completely consumed by the flame, his eyes white with fire, arcs of energy slashing in the wake of his strikes. His movements matched the pace set by the Apkalla, his speed increasing as the battle prolonged.
Although Carthians had fallen around them, there weren’t enough bodies to account for the remainder of the squad sent with Hasda. Inkashi was missing as well, and I didn’t see any sign of Jade. The scattered corpses of lightly-armored Paedens showed what had happened to the few soldiers who’d stayed behind with the Apkalla. As for the sages, they fought as themselves and not under Marudak’s control.
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than the four-winged Apkalla started to glow.
The aura dulled with the falcon impaled on my Spear. I didn’t register moving until I’d flung him off and thrust the eagle-headed one through, his weight trying to drag the Spear from my hand. Hasda had reflexively guarded, but his eyes shone with no recognition of me.
He smelled worse, now that I stood next to him. The mend in his armor had bubbled up like an infected scar and pulsed in time with his labored breathing. His sword, still angled between us, dripped liquid fire the same violet hue as the flame which engulfed every inch of him.
I vanished my Spear. “Hasda?”
The white fire coating his eyes flickered before winking out. “Dad?”
“What is this?” I gestured at the shroud.
“We…I…” He looked dazed. The fire shimmered and subsided to his shoulders, unobscuring his face. Frowning, he shook his head. “We weren’t supposed to use this yet. But there were gods…”
“These two?” I jerked my head towards the feathered corpses.
He shook his head. “There was another. She took Jade. I sent the soldiers after them.”
So that’s where the last of his troops went. I nodded. “Let’s go get her.”
Power surged through the four-winged Apkalla. The body thrashed on the ground, and then settled. With a whistling wheeze, it pushed itself off the ground.
“So…” it rasped. “You’re the soul thief.”
Golden light radiated from its body. Its wings jerked in unlife, shedding a few feathers as they tucked down on its back. Glazed eyes met my own, although there was an intelligence beneath the film.
I summoned my Sword as Hasda helmeted his head in the djinn’s fire.
“At least you finally sent the men.” The reanimated Apkalla coughed a laugh. “Although fielding a tuzshu against me…” It shook its head. “Where did you find it?”
Marudak had clearly assumed control of his sage, and the fact that he could puppet the Apkalla, even in death, boded ill for how well our battle would go. Mortal proxies, even semi-divine, often lost their connection–and therefore utility–to their deity when they died. But Marudak was operating through the corpse with no visible exertion, which meant we’d need to torch the thing through Marudak’s protective shielding if we wanted to stop it.
And we still hadn’t freed Jade.
“Can you follow their trail?” I said as I positioned myself between Hasda and the Apkalla.
“I think so.”
“Then go. I’ll take care of this.” I adjusted my grip on my Sword as I stared down the undead proxy.
“I did not give you permission to leave.” Marudak managed to convey boredom even through the fowl head. With a flick of his hand, he sent a burst of energy arcing towards Hasda.
I deflected it off the flat of my blade, but Pek, that did a number on my wrists. If that was how much power he could send through a corpse, he was going to be a nightmare in person. Grunting, I squared off and planted my feet. Strong or not, he wasn’t getting to Hasda.
The avatar flicked its wings in annoyance. “Must I exert myself for such a slug?”
“Maggots in the carcass already?” I flashed a grin at his avian scowl.
“Must you Carthians persist in your vexatious loquaciousness?” Pinions flared, the avatar flexed his hands as he approached.
“Behold! Thou shalt likewise curb thy verboseness..” I prepped for our collision, though I kept my aura concealed.
“Prattling simpleton.” Marudak dashed forward, his strike rattling my Sword nearly out of my hands. Wind rushed around the proxy as it spun, slamming its wings into me.
This close, our limbs tangled and I couldn’t get an angle with my Sword. I vanished my weapon and thrust the avatar away. As we separated, I switched to my Spear and brandished it to maintain our distance.
“You are as ignorant as a child,” Marudak spat. His fingers twitched as his clouded eyes tracked the point of my Spear. “Stealing the souls of my sages, trespassing on sacred ground, and reviving an order that should never have seen the light of day.”
“I haven’t harvested these two yet,” I said, gesturing at his proxy and the fallen Apkalla behind him. “But I’d be glad to take them off your hands.”
The avatar shrieked, a cry made pitiful by its stiffening syrinx. “Return what is mine, at once, and leave my land.”
“What, this place?” I looked around at the forest. “Seems to me you’re on Carthian territory, and your mortals are trying to kidnap one of mine.”
The carcass sniffed, its head twitching side to side. “This smell….What have you done to my realm?”
“You mean my realm.” I bared my teeth in a wide grin. “And I can smell the cooking flesh from here. Your avatar isn’t going to hold up much longer.”
Scowling, Marudak flexed his fingers, although the digits moved perceptibly slower than before. “What a nuisance you Carthians have become. Does your God of War know you antagonize a foe you cannot handle? There can be no diverting from direct conflict with me if you do not rescind your claim immediately. Your pantheon and your mortals’ lives will be forfeit.”
I barked a laugh, hefting my Spear. “You don’t get out much, do you?”
“I have no need.” The Apkalla’s left eye went dim as Marudak’s power burnt it, its wings sagging. “My servants, with the occasional reprimand, serve me faithfully. But you–” He narrowed his remaining eye. “You are the God of War. Or what’s left of him.”
“Perceptive.” I shifted to his left, anticipating his next move. With his body falling apart, if he was going to attack, he’d have to strike soon. His left side was deteriorating more quickly, so staying on his weak side would give me the best counters.
“So this is your declaration of war.” Extending his claws, he turned to shield his declining half. “What a mess an errant child can make.”
I surged forward, putting my Spear through his chest. His right leg buckled beneath the sudden weight, and his claws swiped nothing but air as I brought him to the ground. Crushing his ribs underfoot, I set my full weight on the shaft. It didn’t kill him, obviously, but it immobilized his proxy.
“First of all,” I said, twisting the weapon, “she is ours, not yours. You have no more claim over her than you do the dirt you’re eating. Second, land you abandoned does not qualify as ‘yours’ anymore, either. And third, you’re just an asshole.”
“I will remember your face.” The corpse glared at me before combusting. Divine fire, sizzling against the rain, consumed its feathers and blackened its limbs. Despite the trembles shaking its body as the power consumed, it managed a hateful look. “When I come, you will be among the first to die.”
“Threaten me again when you’re not falling to pieces.” I yanked my Spear out and let the last of the fire cremate the proxy.
Rays of sunlight burst from its ribcage, a particularly thick beam from where my Spear had impaled it. Golden light mingled with the shriek fleeing its mouth, spots of brilliance dancing across its charred limbs like leaves floating down a river. With a woosh, the blaze went out, and the light with it.
I blinked at the rain and the sudden stillness.
Marudak was coming here. I didn’t know if the Paedens had an equivalent to our portals, but a god as powerful as he could cover leagues in an instant, in all likelihood. I vanished my Spear and ran in the direction Hasda had gone. We needed to get Jade out, and fast. It was highly unlikely that the Sea Mother and Marudak would work together, but they didn’t need to coordinate to crush us between two fronts.
A peal of thunder shook the air above me. I sprinted faster. We had to get her, not soon, but now.