Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Damn, Marudak was strong.
Malia didn’t have a strong grip, so it wasn’t surprising when he threw her off, but Seppo and I had our arms around him and he nearly wriggled free. The bastard was so big, derketo droplets had enough room to hatch their cursed spawn where they landed on his shoulders. Soon, handfuls of the tentacled humanoids swarmed up his neck and down his arms, throwing themselves at us while their brethren went after his eyes.
Bellowing, the minotaur shivered and flung the derketo from him. With a twist, he freed his arm from Seppo’s hold and smashed his fist into my face. The second blow grazed my ear, but the third hammered my shoulder. He kicked and stamped, putting his hips and knees into it as he sought to throw us off.
Behind us, Jade and Hasda struggled against the rising tide of derketo. Thankfully, the djinn’s purple fire was absent from his armor, so he was staying well out of Marudak’s sight. That left Hasda to fight the derketo on his own, but it was better than putting a target on his back. Once they reached the peak of the pass, Jade could open a portal and get them out. We just had to buy them enough time to battle their way through the squid warriors.
If only Marudak would comply. Lowing, the bull surged, his muscles trembling against our weight. With a shout, he threw all his weight against us as he pitched over, trying to gore or crush us. We crashed to the ground, quickly disentangling ourselves to keep from getting pinned. Marudak surged up, eyes blazing.
“No wonder you send your women to fight. You are pathetic excuses for men.” His muscles trembled as he flexed his hands. “Stand aside. I must collect an errant stray.”
“No.” Seppo’s pipes whined as he picked himself up. “She is ours. You will not have her.”
Marudak gave a long, bullish sigh. “It is like dealing with children. Perhaps I should subjugate you, to teach you discipline.”
“Let’s get you back to your paddock.” I summoned my Spear and checked his advance. “You’ll be less grumpy after you’ve had your nap.”
Scowling, he swiped at the derketo climbing his neck. “The insolent one with the mouth. I will enjoy removing your head from your shoulders.”
I raised my eyebrows and glanced between him and the Spearhead. “Seppo, do you think a Heavenly Bull spitroast will taste the same as a boar?”
“I’m sure Loutro could make the meat passably similar, if the taste is too different.”
Marudak wasn’t one for banter. I didn’t see when he moved, but I certainly felt when his full weight collided with my Spear and nearly snapped the shaft. He’d hit it sideways, so the head glanced off his side as he threw himself at me. As he slid past my guard, he slammed his thick skull into my forehead.
Stars floated across my vision, a few quite literal as they dislodged from my astral projection. My hook connected with his jaw, nearly breaking my fist in the process. An elbow found his softer snout, and we separated, panting.
“That all you got?” I flexed my hand, the pain making my smile wild.
He snorted and lowered his head, preparing to charge me.
A crackling arrow lanced through his shoulder, the starry head glittering with ichor as it protruded from his chest. Bellowing, he yanked the arrow the rest of the way through and snapped it.
“Eyes on the prize, dumbass.” Malia dipped beneath the clouds, another hissing bolt on her Warbow.
The glare he cast over his shoulder was pure ice. “Stupid whore—”
Now my other hand was on fire, but at least Marudak was missing a tooth. My Spear was gone as well, and my throbbing hands had found his throat. It was too thickly corded with muscle to wrap my fingers around, but not so thick that my nails couldn’t delve in.
“You watch your mouth,” I snarled.
Eyes bulging, Marudak slipped his arms between mine and broke my hold. He dropped his shoulder and caught Seppo, who’d tried a less-than-graceful flying tackle, and threw him to the ground. Three quick darts from Malia pierced the minotaur’s calf before he could stomp our pantheon head.
The ground shook as Marudak stomped his hoof. “Enough.”
Spreading his arms, he stretched himself to his full height and began to glow. The air around him shimmered from heat and power, the rain evaporating, even the derketo drops. Lightning forked the sky above him, the clouds spiraling down in a vortex that threatened to swallow him. He bellowed, and space cracked.
Where once had been a minotaur, now stood its astral equivalent. Dozens of arms sprouted from each shoulder, a half-dozen milky wings fanning behind him. Two more bovine tails joined the first, their lengths coiling and uncoiling in whip-like motions. While his head had grazed the clouds before, his waist now wore the storm like a belt. He had to get on his many hands and knees just to see us.
As some arms pushed the storm clouds aside, others grasped at us. Malia put a dozen arrows through the palms closest to her, wings whipping to put space between herself and the hands. Seppo grabbed the wrists coming for him and turned them to earth, pinning them there with celestial spikes. I speared the ones reaching for me, slapping away the ones that avoided piercing.
His aura was oppressive, rank like wet cow, tinting the musk of fresh rain with the stench of burnt derketo. Although his bulk slowed him down, I felt like he was building momentum for something bigger. His eyes blazed red, and his darting hands increased their tempo. Fingers found their way around Spear, arrows, and gears, clamping down on us despite how hard we fought. Marudak ignored any severed stumps, either battering us with them or regrowing the lost hands.
I was knocked off balance by a stray swipe at my hips. He’d put a ton of weight behind the blow, even though it was little more than a feint made real. Seppo crumpled beneath a barrage of twisting grabs at the pistons on his legs. Malia dove around the hewn-off hands and lumpy derketo Marudak lobbed at her. The tide was quickly shifting from buying time for Jade and Hasda to struggling to even hold our own against the Titan. Space bruised around us as we battled, dark stains and fractured space distorting the air.
The air shifted.
As Marudak rose into the sky, something reached down to meet him. Wispy tendrils, reddish-purple smears on the charcoal clouds, brushed against his horns and tickled his ears. When the fumes slipped inside his ears, his eyes rolled back. Lowing, he thrashed at the storm, staggering back as he swatted the air.
“NO!” The minotaur bellowed.
Now disengaged, we spread out in a rough triangle around him. None of us were in range of his swipes, but, at any sudden movement, we could be. Seppo and I shared a confused look as Malia, on Marudak’s flank, drew her Bow taut.
“Want me to put him down?” she asked. Marudak clutched his head, swaying back and forth wildly.
I shook my head. My hands throbbed against my Spear, every muscle in my body strung tight. Pieces I’d flung by the wayside because of the fight, my mind was desperately grasping for. What could launch a psychic attack of this magnitude? Why now? What enemy would have moved before our downfall, and which ally would have waited so long? What triggered the assault? Why did those threads look familiar?
One severed end drifted in the storm, shorter than the rest latched onto Marudak.
I dissolved my Spear and clamped my hands on Marudak’s face. “Drop your avatar!”
Tendrils snaked down his snout, stroking my wrists.
“Are you mad?” Malia shouted over the rising gale.
Seppo stomped up to pull me away.
I slapped the bull and leapt back, dropping my own projection in the process. “No astral plane!”
Malia’s eyes went wide, and she released hers as well.
Seppo hesitated only for a moment before following suit. “Did you form a death pact without telling me?”
Malia and I each grabbed a hand and yanked him away from the flailing minotaur.
“Tamiyat can escape the astral plane by hijacking projections,” Malia shouted. Now much smaller, we drew our weapons and battled our way towards the pass.
I speared a derketo and nodded. “She’s trying to make Marudak her proxy.”
“Then why are we running away from him, instead of killing him where he stands?” Seppo asked. Pistons whining, he pummeled his way through a thick clump of the tentacled humanoids.
“That would just free his spirit from his body, which would make Tamiyat’s job much easier.” Malia released a volley of arrows that left their victims smoking piles of wreckage. “Our best bet is that she doesn’t master him.”
A thunderclap like the sound of a mountain being split in twain shook the air. The ground heaved beneath us, and the rain ceased. Not by our hand did the derketo collapse around us in unison, their sudden deaths unearthly and chilling. Behind us, Marudak’s cries had ceased, and the minotaur was gone.