“The way things used to be, we didn’t always get along. Most of us thought that each other’s followers were mental, but our temples stood at the heart of it all. You never desecrated a temple,” Pryor explained, gesturing around him. “We respected one another. Until Theon.”
Each word punctuated the air, setting lights blazing as if, in his passion, he’d lost control.
“He’s the reason I’m down here. He’s a backstabber. And when he betrayed me, he set everyone against me. We were already distrustful, but he just pushed it over the edge.”
Pryor’s eyes burned gold, the color in them melting, oozing, shifting with hatred. The stones turned translucent, revealing the continuous workers outside before snapping back to opaqueness.
He paused, looked at his hand, then said, “I’m sorry. I’ve been a terrible host. Would you like some food or drink?” A wave of his hand formed makeshift glasses and platters. Atop the silver dishes, a variety of strange fruits glistened, as if freshly washed and prepared. The drinks, a deep magenta, swirled of their own accord.
Raine shook his head. A sharp smell burned his nostrils, leaving him staring off, trying to figure its origins.
Distracted, Pryor said, “No, of course not.” His voice weary, as if his little tirade had drained him. The trays folded in on themselves, like an origami crane and then spilled to the floor.
Raine watched the conjured food disappear, wondered what it’d have done inside of him if Pryor had forgotten to keep it together. “What happened?”
Pryor looked at him. His eyes solidified again. “He used his charm to finger me in the desecration of one of the newer temples. I don’t know how he did it, but afterwards, he took over that same temple, pretending to do it out of consideration for their dear, young Kanya. After all, she’s so naïve.” He sneered.
His eyes flashed and holes punched into the walls. “No questions, no trials. I was cut off. Erased from history, threatened with binding for all eternity if I returned.”
“Why not kill you?”
Pryor stared at Raine then closed his eyes. He smirked. “We can’t die. Well, not permanently. You cut off our head and we show up later in the same body we’ve always had. I think that it only really affects Dawber — he was a twig when he became a god.” A smile crept across Pryor’s worn features. “And he returns to that every time he dies.
“But, for me, they did the next best thing. Oki sided with Theon. She always did,” he whispered. He took a deep breath, continued, “Using some magic that Theon had found, she tried to separate me from what made me a god. Instead, it flayed me alive. Somehow I survived, all but stripped of my power, forced to keep this skin suit together.”
The building shifted to ruins.
Raine jumped up, searching the fires beyond the half built foundations.
Pryor looked up and around. An intricate web of bloody lines stretched across his skin. Raine watched with a macabre fascination as Pryor focused once more and the seams dissipated. He said, “Sorry about that. It’s exhausting keeping this thing up. I’m the only source for it right now. When more followers come, I won’t be holding it up myself.”
“You’re going to sap them of their energy.”
“It’s not like I’m stealing it,” he reasoned. “They’ll give it willingly.” He peered at Raine, as if unable to understand why he had a problem.
“It seems wrong.”
“As time passes, you’ll understand.”
Raine turned to sit, but the chair shattered, dissolved into the stone.
A pulse passed through the shrine.
Pryor’s eyes focused, gold lighting afire once more. “Did you feel that?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Oki’s risen. There’s going to be a gathering.” He rose from his seat. It split into shards, melting like ice under a hot sun. “At her old temple. Everyone will be there.”
“I thought you were an outcast. Why would they allow you to know that?”
Pryor stretched, his face filling with color. “I’ve never known any of them to show restraint.” He moved toward the front of his citadel. His long steps echoed in the cavern. He didn’t stop to look back.
“Where are you going?” Raine followed after the wrapped god. Anger, distrust laced the words as he chased Pryor.
“To the meeting.”
“But—” Raine came up short, unsure of how far to push the outcast.
“Like I’d miss this.” He sent a smile back at Raine.
“What about me?”
“We can’t risk you going to the surface. There’s still the chance you could die at any moment. Wait a little longer. Then maybe we’d be able to bring you out.”
“You assume I’m going to stay with you.”
Pryor paused and turned back. A light flashed in his eyes, but he shrugged. “It’s your choice. I assumed you’d prefer life to an early death. Before you reach your potential.”
Pryor passed over the threshold of the ruins into the ancient air. Raine followed, but as he closed on the exit, walls rose, devoid of any light they’d shown only minutes before, blocking any chance of escape. The damp air of the caverns became concentrated with the rising walls. Raine turned, watching as buttresses, spires twisted into the air. Then the walls split off, curving over head, transitioning into an arched ceiling. He’d been caught in a grand fortress, a cathedral to the god.
Raine slammed his fist against the construct, finding it solid, unyielding. His knuckles screamed, split, sealed again. Raine froze, the pain still present but the wounds vanished. The rage failed him, leaving him aching. He rested his head against the cold stone. He waited, time extending before him.
The voice of a creaking chair rose from the darkness, “I told you not to trust them.”
Raine turned his head, but couldn’t see the owner of the voice. The stench of liquor burned his nostrils.
A spark caught in front of the god. The fire, intense at first glance, weak after the initial flare. The old man, a cane in hand, sat as if calling it from the ground. A bottle rested between his legs, fresh.
“I thought only Pryor could do that,” Raine commented.
“I don’t expect you to know any different.”
“Were you there for the whole thing?”
“Most of it. Pryor told the truth, even if he’s forgotten some of the details.” In the thinning light, Dion’s humorless smile consumed his features.
“Well, I can’t trust him. Like you said.”
He twisted the cane at its base. “He might be looking out for you.”
Raine looked at the clay brown walls around him and said, “I’d rather him not.” He moved closer to the flame, which bent toward him and grew much larger. His eyes drooped a little. He could just lay here. Sleep. It would be nice. He took another step. The fire leapt higher. Dion held up a hand for him to stop.
Raine retreated. It flickered then died again.
“This feeds on our energy,” Dion explained. “The closer you come, the stronger it will become. It will grow, sapping your life.” His eyes glowered. “Unless, you know how to control it.”
“Why don’t you make it larger?”
“Can you see me?”
“Then there’s no need,” he said, voice rustling. “Excess isn’t a good thing. Use what is needed, otherwise you’ll be drained, broken, lifeless. You saw what happened to Pryor.”
“Pryor said it was Oki’s doing.”
“With a fair bit of Theon’s influence, yes. But it’s half-truths and uncertain memories. I’m fairly certain that this construct is only exacerbating the problem.”
Raine nodded. Shadows wrapped them, leaving the building immense, larger than life. A rumble emanated from the deepest reaches of the palace as the construct settled.
Dion frowned. “This isn’t stable. Pryor puts too much of himself into it.”
“Is it dangerous if it fails?”
“For us, no. It should just disappear. He might hear us if he’s intent on listening. But I think he has other things on his mind right now.” Dion pushed himself up. He leaned over and gripped the bottle between his fingers. He pressed his cane against the wall and the stone rippled, a circular cut opening. The fallen city winked in the darkness beyond. “Shall we go then?”