Raine opened his eyes, a stranger in his own skin. His face felt too large while the rest of his body felt like it had shriveled. He looked over, saw the man with the nest of hair sitting there like a guard dog, though his eyelids had fallen to time and liquor.
Paper rustled in the wind. The opened window let the breeze slip in and out at its leisure, along with the sound of waves nearby. He listened closely, trying to decipher what felt so off about this place. Then he realized he couldn’t hear any of Sandhyanen’s sounds — not the trams, not the scuffle of shoes, not the shouting of the Market. Pale light filtered through the window, highlighting walls covered with row after row of disintegrating books. He climbed out of the bed, careful not to make a sound.
Crossing the room, he held his breath. When he reached the door, he nudged it open. A long drawn out creak filled the dead air. He shot a glance back, but the god had not stirred.
As he crept out into the night, he stepped to the edge of a makeshift dock. He had no idea where he was, but did recognize The Okitsugu River, which stretched for miles to each side, impassable and daunting. He could only make out the edge of Sandhyanen’s harbor. He stared at the cliff, deciphering a trail up the jutting rocks. Hemmed in on all sides, he turned his face skyward.
A breeze swept through the ravine, giving him a brief respite from the humidity. The serene water glimmered, as if whispering his name. Suddenly, he felt hot and sweaty and overwhelmed by everything he had done in the last few days. He just needed to splash water on his face. Maybe that would help him think. He knelt beside the soothing water and dipped his cupped hands in.
A bare woman appeared through the ripples, floating below the surface. Wild, her hair rolled as if made of waves. Ignorant of the thin film between them, her gaze locked on him as her arm extended out.
He leaned forward.
“No!” the old god’s voice shouted behind him.
Hands gripped Raine’s shoulders, throwing him backward. Raine hit the deck with a thud. When he scrambled back to the water, the woman had vanished.
The nest-haired god hunched over, hands on his knees, gasping for breath. After hesitating, he motioned for Raine to follow as he ambled back into the cabin.
Raine stood, intent on following, but found himself staring at the river, blinking to recall the image.
The dark water remained empty.
He entered the building.
Face etched with pain from his sudden movement, the god nursed his bottle. “Trying to escape on me, huh?” His voice rustled like dry leaves. He offered the booze. Raine took it, stealing a sip. He found little left.
“That’s okay.” The stranger drew another from behind him. “I’m fully stocked.” He let a grin touch his cracked lips.
“What was that?”
“Oki. Oh, I see you’ve heard of her.” A glimmer of amusement crossed his eyes. “She’s usually disinterested in the affairs of men. You’ve caught her eye, though.” He took a swig of the liquor. “Lucky you.”
“Wait a minute. You’re saying Keir’s gods are alive and well?”
“First of all, they’re not his gods. Remember that, since they’ll be headed here before long to rip you apart. Secondly, we don’t die. Well, we can, but it doesn’t stick. We inevitably come back. Sometimes in the wrong time, the wrong place. I’m sure we’ve lost more than a handful of us to being resurrected in their old temples, buried under the artifacts of time, unable to ever escape again.”
“Amongst other things.” He shook his head. “No, Raine, you’d be better served avoiding our lot altogether. Not that you have much choice now.”
“Look, I don’t even know your name and you’re already telling me what’s best.”
The man turned his head. “You haven’t introduced yourself, so why should I?”
“You know my name.”
“Prior knowledge is no excuse for rudeness.”
“Fine. Raine Morgan. Pleased to meet you. And you are?”
“Is there a last name?”
Raine rested against the wall. When it gave a little, he righted himself. He noticed that there was a distinct lack of pain in the movement. He looked down at his previously mangled hand and tested his fingers. No pain. He did an inventory of the aches and pains he’d courted over the last few days, found them all gone. “How—”
“You’ll notice you’re going to get some of our perks before you’re official. I’ve seen you take advantage of them a few times already.”
“The speed and all that?”
“Precisely. But that’s rookie stuff. We all develop a specialty, but that comes with time.”
Thunder crackled above, shaking the shack. Dion put a steadying hand on his bottle. He looked up, smiling. “Looks like you’ve got her riled up.”
“What does that mean?”
“The storms — it’s all Oki’s doing. She’s kind of everywhere. You know, water is her medium. An extension of herself, if you get my meaning.”
“You know all those pretty designs in all the buildings, the ones with the water passing through them.”
“Those are her way of looking in on us. That’s why this is her city. And then the other gods flocked to her. Although people have forgotten, the building code was designed by her. When she gave a damn.”
“Why is she so interested in me all of a sudden?”
“It’s been a long time since a ‘fresh one’ has come along.”
“I didn’t realize I was fresh.” Raine took a deep breath, trying to process it all. Keir was the only one actively worshipping these gods – and here Raine was becoming the next one. Shit, how the hell would he bring that up at their next meeting?
Dion laughed, a dry wood snapping. “That’s what they call an awakening god. You’re not one of us yet, but it’ll happen if you survive long enough.”
Something tripped in his brain. It was a long shot, but it would explain the strength — his ability to recover from all the shit that had been done to him. Even more, what had happened to him in Jaiden’s place. The thought made him burn with anger. He’d been so close. He realized that Dion was sitting there, watching his every move, every facial tick. He decided to play it cool, let his nerves settle, then formulate a plan. “So I’ve got a pantheon of gods with magic powers, all gunning for me. That’s comforting.”
“I’m not here to make you feel better, kid. Hell, I could’ve let you eat that bullet and they’d have nothing to worry about.” His eyes swam with the booze. “Look, what do people do every time something comes along to change things? They fight, they rebel. No one wants to deal with it. They want things to stay just the way they are. These gods, all of them, have been around for hundreds of years with no sense of their mortality. None of them even remember how they came to be, they just think they have been. Forever. And here you are, some pissant mortal that is about to become one of them. You’re like a fucking funeral showing up in the middle of the carnival.”
“How do you know so much?”
“Well, kid, I never forgot.” He looked tired, as if the constant barrage of questions whittled him down. He muttered, “Though I’m sure no one remembers me.”
“I’ve never heard of you.” Raine realized he’d said the wrong thing as the words left his mouth.
Dion chortled. “Just as well. The gods don’t need to be remembered. They just need to be.” He rose from his chair, crossed over to the wall of books. He pulled out an old thing, spine sewn together with rotting twine. He opened it and handed it to Raine.
“What’s this?” He thumbed it with care. Faded words covered the pages from top to bottom. The compressed writing bled through the page as if the thoughts couldn’t contain themselves to a single sheet.
“Proof.” Dion leaned down, scooping up a journal he’d set aside in his seat. He tossed it across the room. Raine caught it, almost losing both. He scanned it. Although the ink had changed, the handwriting hadn’t.
“You could say that I’m the Librarian. Though,” he raised his bottle as the bottle refilled itself, “I’ve picked up a few tricks over the years.”
Raine looked down, staring through a blizzard of thoughts. “What do you want from me?”
Dion only smiled. A bitter, resentful thing, but a smile nonetheless. Something danced behind his eyes. “I want you to survive.”
Lightning struck the water outside the shack, thunder ripping through the air, rattling the walls. Glasses clinked as the room shuddered.
Raine’s eyes flashed.
The world thinned, lost the resonance of reality. He turned, saw Dion moving toward him. Rather than the nest haired god, he watched as a beast, eyes sewn shut, long talons dripping with ink, jerked toward him. Phantom images trailed after him, words swirling in a clamor of sound.
He recoiled, but the creature gripped hold of him. Its talons sunk into his shoulders as the creature shook him. A high pitched whine filled his ears, thoughts turning to static. His vision faltered, flashed, distorted. He screamed, then an explosion of energy ripped from him, left him cold.
He collapsed to the wood floors, listened to the rumble of thunder trailing out from their location. A few moments later, the first drops of rain hit the water outside. Dion closed the window hurriedly, pulled the door shut.
Gone the amusement from his face, Dion turned to Raine. “Well, I’ve got good and bad news. You’re definitely becoming one of us.”