Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Inkashi didn’t kick nearly as much as I expected her to, and she handled the transition a lot better than Lazuli had. After the initial shock of being in the astral plane, she clutched my arm and huddled next to me as I led her through the vastness. She ignored Tamiyat, who was getting closer and growing more detailed, but she did see her. What she thought of the primordial, she didn’t say.
I found egress near the crest of the mountain pass and pulled Inkashi out after me. Although I’d thought she had handled herself well, when we exited she started shivering and gave the sky a harried glance.
“What was that place?” she whispered.
“The astral realm.” I gripped her shoulder to keep her from pitching over. She looked really unstable on her feet.
Shaking her head, she slid to the ground. “And Marudak goes through that every time he traverses a portal? Gods help us.”
“He likely doesn’t.” I tugged at the mountain magic, questing to see if I could open a portal now that I was in mostly uncontested territory. The ley of the land resisted like sticky syrup, but at least it wasn’t combative. I ripped open a rend with some effort. “You’ve never traveled through a portal before?”
“Marudak has his own,” she said, eyeing mine with distrust. “When the gods need to move, he opens the common way and carries us through. But we rarely leave the divine land, unless he grants us leave to perform our duties throughout Paedea.”
I scowled. If Marudak had private pathways that weren’t in the astral plane, he may have discovered, or built, a separate transcendent realm. More complications we didn’t need.
Inkashi waved a limp hand towards the sparking opening. “Is that where I go to die?”
“What? No.” I wiped my face, taking the scowl with the wet sheen that had built from the natural rain. “This is my maas. Inside is a fountain with healing waters, so feel free to clean yourself up. I’ll be back.”
She stayed seated on the ground. “It’s a prison.”
“It’s a temporary shelter to keep you safe.” I frowned down at her. “If you can’t walk, I can carry you in there. Or you can sit here and hope the derketo don’t find you. Either way, I’m leaving.”
Lips pursed, she looked at our surroundings, eyes boring into the trees. Finally, she said, “Carry me. But I can’t look like I’m going willingly.”
I tried to be as gentle as I could but, when she said she couldn’t look cooperative, she meant she was going to kick and thrash worse than a hooked fish. By the time I got her through the portal, I was pretty sure I’d added another half-dozen bruises to her limbs. As soon as the portal snapped shut, she went limp in my arms.
“Sorry,” she gasped around ragged breaths. “I didn’t know if Marudak’s birds were in the trees.”
I grunted and set her down next to the fountain. “Wash up. It should help you feel better.”
“It’s not poisoned?”
Rolling my eyes, I scooped up a handful and downed the water. “It hasn’t killed me yet.”
With a relieved sigh, Inkashi dunked her head in the fountain and let her face soak. Her hair, fanned out like a painter’s brush, stained the water wine red. She stayed under long enough that I started to question if she could still breath, but with a gasp she pulled out and collapsed against the bricks. Although her lips and eye were still puffy, they were less swollen than before, and her bruises had lightened considerably.
“I need to get one of these.” Eyes closed, she rested her head against the masonry and rapped the stone with her knuckles. “Where did you get it?”
“I found it here, a long time ago. It’s why I built my maas around it.” Shaking my arms, I prepped to reopen the portal. “Wait here. I’ll be back after this mess is cleaned up.”
She cracked her good eye open. “Is ‘she’ really back?”
I paused. “You saw her in the astral plane, right?”
“Yes, but…” Frowning, she waved a hand. “That could have been an illusion, or a dream, or a vision.”
I grunted. “How many illusions have you seen conjuring armies of eldritch monsters?”
“Fair.” She dropped her gaze, running a finger along the flagstones. “That…mortal of yours. You care about him?”
“Keep him away from Marudak.” Her face was hard. “If he finds out you’ve raised a new god-killer, he will tear the heavens apart trying to destroy him. Our lord is”—she rolled her hand, looking for the right word—“very strong. Titanic? You call your old ones titans, yes?”
I nodded. That made sense, based on the abilities other Paedens had attributed to him and how absolutely he ruled his pantheon. For him to hold complete control over the celestial pathways and beat gods into submission, he’d have to be. And it also tracked with the difficulty he’d given Malia.
“He was there when they bound our old ones.” She looked off into the distance, one hand gripping her shoulder. “I think he could bind them again by himself, if they broke free.”
Grunting, I tugged open a portal. “So can Malia.”
I stepped through and left her alone in my maas. She’d be fine, for a little while at least. We, on the other hand, would probably incur a few more bumps and bruises before the day ended. The Sea Mother was approaching fast, her derketo ever increasing, and we still hadn’t driven Marudak away.
When I came out on the mountainside, Seppo and the Heavenly Bull wrestled in the stormy heavens. Seppo had assumed his astral form, augmented by a celestially-enhanced exoskeleton whose pipes glittered and hissed with compressed galaxies. Even taller than the mountains, he was still shorter than Marudak, who might not have been using any projection at all.
The massive minotaur bristled with corded muscle. Bulky shoulders bashed the clouds aside, biceps as broad as seas bulged with the strain of wrangling Seppo. His legs, coated with tight-knit brindle brown fur, shook the ground with each hoofed step, the tallest trees barely tickling his ankles. Long ivory horns curved away from his head, gold caps gilding their points.
And his aura. I shivered, partly because of the rain, but mostly because Marudak radiated raw, unadulterated strength. No wonder he was able to rule his pantheon through sheer force. If he hadn’t transcended the realm of godhood, he was on the cusp. He was a dense nucleus of power, one which not even Seppo could turn. As I watched, several pistons on Seppo’s exoskeleton snapped, leaking gas and stars.
I sensed movement from the trees. Jade and Hasda appeared, this time with Hasda in the lead. Face pale, Jade ran behind him. Although Hasda’s armor glistened in the stormy semi-darkness, it was almost dull without the djinn’s ethereal fire coating it. Perhaps the djinn already knew how serious a threat Marudak was to them and had hidden himself, but whatever the reason, I was glad to see it withdrawn.
They weren’t out of the woods yet, though. While Seppo had repaired the damages to his frame and reengaged Marudak, it was only a matter of time before the Paeden god overwhelmed him. And Jade and Hasda had to pass through a wide, open patch of land to reach the mountain trail, since I couldn’t open a portal down in the contested territory. So I had to hope that Marudak remained distracted enough to get them across, up the mountain, and into Nebesa.
Malia was missing, so she’d likely missed them in her search or stumbled upon another threat. Given how chaotic the land had become, it wouldn’t have surprised me if one of Tamiyat’s cults, like she had in Aenea, had found its way here. Vetor was gone as well, although I had no idea if he was still chasing Paedens through the forest or if he’d been reclaimed.
An explosion in the woods.
That might have been Vetor’s demise. A spirit with that much power wouldn’t go out without a bang. Jade, however, thought it was the perfect distraction to dash out into the open, dragging Hasda behind her.
Unfortunately, Marudak was paying attention. As soon as they cleared the edge of the forest, he turned. Trees crumpled beneath his hooves. Not even Seppo’s straining slowed him.
I tugged on my bond as I raced down the trail. Much as I didn’t want to, I pulled on my astral form. Seppo was still in his, and Malia graced the heavens with hers as she darted above the forest. As soon as we all assumed our avatars, the deluge renewed in earnest, half-formed derketo sprouting underfoot.
We collided with Marudak in a flurry of limbs and wings, Malia hitting his lower back as I hit his shoulders. Seppo had him around the waist, and together we tried to leverage him to the ground away from Jade and Hasda.
Tried. He was one strong son of a bitch.
Huffing, Marudak glared at me and snorted in my face. “So, you finally sent the real gods out to play.”