Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
We stood in the eerie silence.
Frowning, Seppo turned in the direction of the explosion. “You two get Jade to safety. I’ll go see what happened.”
Malia jerked a nod and darted ahead.
I hesitated. “Are you sure you can handle…?”
“Let me be the head for once.” He gave me a pinched smile. “Besides, best to keep our best fighters in reserve, eh? If you don’t come back, what am I supposed to do? At least this way you’ll have advance warning and time to prepare.”
I scowled. He had a point, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.
Thunder rumbled above us. While the rain didn’t return, the clouds roiled, threatening it.
Seppo patted my shoulder. “I’ll be fine. Take care of your son.” And with that he sauntered off to discover the fate of the minotaur.
I muttered some choice words at his back before turning to catch up to Malia.
It didn’t take long to find Hasda and Jade, since the purple glow of the djinn’s fire illuminated the dull forest ahead of us. I wasn’t sure if that boded well or ill for Marudak’s fate that the djinn had deemed it safe to come out, or that there was a threat worse than the Paeden head nearby. If it wasn’t him, it couldn’t have been the Sea Mother, because the rain stayed blessedly away despite how dark the clouds remained.
After an annoying game of “is the light getting brighter this way or that,” we finally found them in a clearing. Jade hid behind Hasda, who held his flaming sword at guard. They looked relatively unharmed, although Jade was so pale it was a wonder she hadn’t passed out, and Hasda was covered in clumps of soupy squid guts that the djinn’s fire failed to consume.
Malia had her Warbow out faster than I could summon my Sword.
“What’s wrong?” she said, sliding forward.
Hasda threw his arm in front of Jade, then sighed and relaxed slightly when he realized it was Malia. “The tiger’s somewhere in the forest. It feels…angry.”
“Angry?” I moved opposite Malia, covering Hasda’s flank. “Why do you say that?”
“Its aura is radiating pure fury.” He shook his head, his eyes scanning the woods. “Even in the mines, it was never this upset. But it keeps circling us.”
“Have you tried portalling out?” Malia sighted down the shaft, squinting at something she sensed but I didn’t.
“Can’t. She’s watching.” Jade sounded terrified. “We need to get out of here.”
“We will. Soon.” Hasda shifted in time with my circling, his eyes boring into the trees as if to see through them. Tightening his grip on his sword, he gave me a quick glance. “Every time we move, the tiger gets closer.”
Malia sent her own glare at the foliage. “I’ll hunt it down. Get her to the boundary. You should be able to open a portal there.”
“No!” Hasda’s face was pinched. “Don’t hurt it. I don’t know what’s wrong, but something is setting it off. We should figure out what triggered it and help it, not kill it.”
“We have bigger things to worry about.” Flicking her tail, Malia frowned at him. “Your objective is to get Jade out, safely, as soon as possible. Your father and I will watch over you and keep any threats away. Any threats.”
“We won’t kill it if we don’t have to.” I shook my head at Malia’s scowl. Thunder rumbled overhead. “But we do need to get moving. Let’s go.”
Hasda didn’t look convinced, but he followed orders. Taking Jade’s hand, he tugged her along, his sword flickering oddly in his other hand. Malia shot me a frown before darting off into the woods. With the canopy in the way, she’d have a hard time finding us or the tiger from the air, but I trusted her tracking abilities.
Rain pattered against the leaves as we moved, the soft, comforting drumming of regular drops against the leaves. No swollen balls bearing derketo spawn, no raucous winds. The teeth seemed gone from the storm, replaced only by the looming threat of the Kydronian tiger. Hasda twitched almost as much as Jade as we went. Every twig snap, every rumble of thunder, had his head whipping around to the sound. When I asked about the tiger’s presence, he said it wasn’t constant, and that it was hopping around almost instantaneously.
As we neared the start of the trail, the heartwood of the trees stood bare. Piles of bark, stripped from the trunks, lay in piles that reeked of cat urine. Scattered fragments of derketo lay littered amongst upturned earth, further evidence of the tiger’s destructive claws.
Behind us, Malia drew her Bow all the way back. “Something’s coming.”
A dark orange blur shot out of the woods. Dodging Malia’s shot, it ducked past her before she could bring her knives out. The tiger was a slippery bastard, and not because of its wet fur. It twisted its shoulders nearly onto its hindquarters, its side bent sharply as it reversed direction out of my reach. Kicking up sod, it darted around me and collided with Hasda.
The purple fire went out with a whoosh as they tumbled to the ground. Snarling, they grappled with each other, rolling over and over. The tiger’s stripes lit a brilliant sky blue as it fought for dominance against my boy. Hasda, swordless from the tackle, had both hands buried in the tiger’s scruff, trying to wrest it to the ground. They yowled in each other’s faces as the tiger failed to break Hasda’s hold.
Finally, they deadlocked, a contest of wills as they stared each other down. Hasda’s feet were buried almost to his ankles in the soft ground, the tiger similarly entrenched. Hasda held the cat at arm’s length, baring his teeth at its low, throaty growl.
I drew my Sword and approached.
“Let me handle this,” Hasda gasped. The tiger shook its head, but Hasda held on.
Frowning, I stopped and vanished my Sword. “What’s wrong?”
“Later.” He strained as the tiger pushed against him again. Hissing, Hasda put his head against the tiger’s, their eyes nearly touching.
The tiger bared its fangs and roared. Tail flicking, it twisted its head away.
Hasda finally let go. “I’m not the threat.”
Slowly, they backed away from each other, never breaking eye contact.
Jade slipped around Hasda and approached the tiger, hugging its neck when she got close enough. Burying her face in its fur, she whispered something in its ear in that same lilting language she used with the djinn. The tiger growled, but it didn’t fight her, as it had Hasda. But, finally, it dropped its eyes and pulled away, padding off into the forest.
Malia scowled as she watched it go. “What was that all about?”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Hasda shook himself and let the spectral fire wash over his armor again. “This is new territory, and the tiger isn’t the alpha yet. Anything with power is a challenge to that.”
“Hasda smells like…” Jade paused. “Well, the whole land smells like her, because she’s trying to claim it. I told Vabir the real threat was elsewhere, so he’s hunting.”
“Vabir is the tiger?” Malia asked.
Hugging her arms, Jade nodded. “Can we hurry? She’s close now.” She rubbed her shoulders. “Really close.”
I glanced at the sky, but no derketo-laden rain tumbled through the leaves. “How much time do you think we have?”
“Not enough,” Malia snapped. Snakes hissing, she let her Warbow go slack, although she kept the arrow nocked “You take point?”
Grunting, I summoned my Spear and jogged past Hasda and Jade. “Keep her close,” I muttered. “And keep up.”
It wasn’t much of a march to make our way to the trail. With the Sea Mother’s supernatural deluge of squid men stopped, we met with no resistance during our trek save that of the elements. Evidence of the derketo dotted the forest floor, although the dilapidated state they were born into made it hard to tell whether they’d fallen in battle or simply from their bodies being unable to sustain them.
Human bodies mixed with the sea creatures when we reached the battlefield at the base of the mountain. Some Paeden, but mostly Carthian. The honor guard that the Tingid elder had selected were among the dead, felled in the thickest section of the fighting. While I gathered the souls of the tribesmen and Seppo’s soldiers, Malia collected the Tingins. My broad strokes against her thin swipes, coarse complimented by fine. The Paedens we left alone. Our claim was not yet sure upon this land, and even if it were, it would be the Paedens’ responsibility to reap their own. But it was still sad, the waste of life.
Among the living, Jade grew more anxious the longer we took to harvest the dead. Hasda did his best to comfort her, but I suspected it wasn’t the corpses around us that bothered her. She kept shooting nervous glances at the sky, which had darkened considerably, and looking with longing at the path up the mountain.
Still, collecting the dead didn’t take that much time, and we were halfway up the mountainside when the rain began in earnest. We hurried as fast as we could, Malia cursing the storm and the land for her inability to fly us up the mountain or open a portal. Jade’s eyes took on a distant look, and when she started muttering to herself about Tamiyat’s presence, she didn’t seem cognizant of her surroundings. Despite that, she marched along with us, and before long we saw the crest of the pass.