Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Atop Inkashi, I watched until Jade and Hasda were out of sight. A few of the Carthians who recovered faster stumbled after them, their swords glued to their hands from sheer exhaustion. Those who still suffered from the lingering effects of Inkashi’s influence lay moaning on the ground.
The strange rain sizzled around us, their surfaces disrupted by bubbles and steam. Dark smoke clouded their cores as something agitated the interior. Ocher tentacles burst through the film, taloned hands clawing out after. The derketo that emerged were rawer than the ones we’d faced in Aenea. But while they were more primordial, they were less fashioned, too, some missing limbs or portions of their faces and tentacles. Perhaps Tamiyat’s influence wasn’t quite strong enough to birth them fully.
What spawn she could conceive, however, were threat enough. The first few to emerge fell on the fallen Carthians, devouring them.
I yanked Inkashi up, belatedly realizing I’d grabbed her injured arm. “Can you run?”
“If I need to,” she said through gritted teeth.
I released her arm. As I gave up trying to open a portal, I drew my Sword and slashed a half-formed derketo that lurched at us. While I could normally fashion a portal from even the most hostile magic, the power of this land was being pulled in several different directions, and it would’ve taken all my focus to open a rend. With the derketo invading, I had more pressing matters to attend to like kidnapping a foreign goddess.
Inkashi, for her part, didn’t resist. Maybe because her swords were now lost to her, buried under a swarm of burgeoning derketo, or maybe because she was taking the easy way out I offered, but at least I didn’t have to drag her. Before we fled the clearing, I snatched the rising souls of the fallen Carthians. Their bodies, I had to leave to the creatures.
Rain battered us as we raced after Hasda. Well, I ran. Inkashi half-skipped, half-limped along beside me. She kept pace, at least, but she struggled more to resist the hampering weight of the egg-droplets. As the downpour increased, I switched to my Spear. Popping the droplets before they hit the ground seemed to reduce the amount of derketo hatching, but I could only stop the ones directly in our path. Soon, a seething swarm had spawned behind us, their susurrous hissing chasing our heels.
“So, your tuzshu,” Inkashi gasped between breaths.
“You mean Hasda.” I stabbed a melon-sized raindrop before it splashed onto the ground.
“He’s really not a god-killer?”
“No.” I gave her a sideways look. “Is that what the djinn is turning him into? Some kind of divine assassin?”
“He will be.” Her face was hard. “Marudak destroyed them all, ages ago. He said they were extinct.”
I scowled. That windy ass blast. Hasda himself would never turn on us. If the djinn could puppet him, however, then that rat bastard could use ‘defending Hasda’ as a loophole to attack us. I wasn’t sure I could patch that gap at this point, but I would certainly be pinning the djinn down after we got out of this mess.
For now, we had to reach the pass so I could get us to Nebesa. Either Synnefo was engaged elsewhere or he’d lost the fight with Tamiyat, because the rain suddenly picked up, blinding sheets of regular-sized drops blanketing the barrage of derketo-bearing ones. While the increase slowed us considerably, the quality of the squid monsters likewise plummeted. Most barely formed functional creatures, devolving into splayed limbs and tangles of tentacles. The ones that did grow into combatants quickly fell to my Spear, but there were still dozens of them and only one of me.
The detritus of failed derketo did serve a purpose, though. They bogged the path and clung, even in lifelessness, to our ankles. With Inkashi’s injuries, she struggled to keep moving against the grasping body parts, finally sagging against me. Her added weight limited my range of motion, which made it harder to keep the gurgling derketo at bay. We stumbled into a depression beneath a tree, Inkashi falling against its trunk while I kept the squidfolk back with broad sweeps.
We hadn’t reached the fallen Paedens I’d seen on the way into their camp, and with the storm it was hard to judge how far we had left to go. Malia should have finished off the paltry force that had initially resisted, so either–
A sharp pain spiked in my chest as our bond flared. Power sloshed across, the excess of what she was burning through with abandon. So she was fighting Tamiyat, or perhaps Marudak. Regardless, she wouldn’t be coming this way anytime soon.
I snarled as I just barely repulsed another surge of misshapen derketo. While I wasn’t going to tire out anytime soon, I would eventually be overrun. There were too many of them, and I couldn’t kill them all fast enough, even after switching to my Scythe. Their souls melted like morning dew and provided no energy. We would get swarmed unless something changed.
A stray burst of Malia’s gaze knifed the distant edge of the tempest. Not helpful here, but it did give me an idea. If Malia could breach the mortal plane with her astral form, perhaps I could as well. I’d never tried before because when I would have needed to, I didn’t have my projection, and once I did there was no need. Only Malia had done so, as a vanity endeavor during a time of peace.
There was a slight lull in the intensity of the storm as the clouds spread to fill the gap. I threw myself backwards into the astral plane, growling as I pulled my projection on. The plane roiled with its own inclemency, the caustic space gelatinous and blurry. At the edge of my vision, the Sea Mother roared and pushed against the warbled, glassy plane. Shooting stars winged across the vastness, targeting a dark smear on the film that separated the mortal and astral realms. Far too many stars for me to consider cutting off the army at its source.
I scowled. The blot was obviously the shadow of Tamiyat’s storm, cast onto the astral plane. But the celestial realm should have separated the mortal and astral dimensions. Something must have gone terribly wrong for them to be so close.
Time flowed sluggishly around me. My thoughts blurred, not together, but from the speed at which they moved. Inkashi still lay helpless beneath the tree as my avatar waited for my move. I had perhaps two breaths, outside, before the derketo would collapse on us and crush us.
Malia’s shriek shattered my train of thought. Behind me, near the mountain pass, her astral form had thrust through the barrier and now hung by its wings, her head and arms locked in combat with a winged minotaur the size of a mountain. Angry stars bounced around her face as she blasted her opponent with another petrifying gaze, only the bull resisted its effects and strained against her.
Scrambling, I grabbed our bond with my astral hands and yanked hard.
With a startled yelp, she tumbled back into the astral plane. She whirled and nearly blasted me with her gaze, but stopped herself at the last moment. “What the hell, Charax?”
“No argue, listen.” I was down to one breath before I had to return, and now I couldn’t even use my solution. But I had to convey that to Malia, and get her help, before time ran out. “Astral projections in the mortal plane weaken the barrier between them. I’m stuck there”—I pointed at the blot—“because I can’t open a portal. Can’t use my astral form because of her.” A finger jab in Tamiyat’s direction.
“Just walk across the astral plane, you big idiot.” Malia’s fangs were out.
“Deformed derketo ambush, and I lost Hasda.” That wasn’t exactly what had happened, but I didn’t have the time to explain giving him a head start so he could escape with Jade while I made sure Inkashi didn’t inflict more crippling cramps on him. “Plus I’m kidnapping their war goddess.”
She pinched the glittering bridge of her nose and sighed. “I’ll find Hasda. Take her through the astral plane if she can handle it and dump her if she can’t. Hopefully Seppo can handle this ‘Bull of Heaven’ bastard.”
I grabbed her hand as she turned away. “No more astral form.”
“I won’t.” She gave me a backhanded wave and dove out of the plane.
With a gasp, I dropped my own projection and fell back into my earthly avatar. A derketo lurched a hand span from my face. I twirled my Scythe in an arc, splitting it in half and catching its fellows behind it. A few more sweeps cleared a small space around us, but not for long.
“Can you handle higher dimensions?” I snarled as I slashed at another wave of derketo.
“Can I what?” Back to the tree trunk, she stared up at me with the weirdest look. The rain had thoroughly drenched both of us by now, although her dress of wine took the wetness better than my robes.
“Astral plane.” I flung another handful of derketo away. The downpour was picking up again.
She pushed strands of wet hair out of her eyes. “I have no idea what that is.”
“Time to learn.” I vanished my Scythe and grabbed her, making sure to take her by her good arm this time, and dragged us both through the boundary.