Stepping onto the docks, Cale pushed down the fear in his chest. He’d known all along this would happen, but no one had believed him. While the docks were still busy from the shipping day, it was nothing compared to what it had been a few days prior. Apparently the news had travelled overnight and many people had opted to stay home. He pressed forward, trying to straighten and look presentable.
He pulled in a breath as he crossed the warped docks to the pack of Officers huddled against some containers. He expected jeers as soon as he stepped into the group.
Instead, he found solemn faces.
“How bad is it?” Cale asked.
“They carted him off already, but—”
“Ritualistic behavior, just like before,” Adrian muttered. His face had grown sallow. He wouldn’t make eye contact with any of the Officers, much less Cale. “He was miss—” His voice caught, he dashed around the corner.
Another Officer stepped up. “Carved up, calling card, the whole bit. Looks like our Stalker’s come back and he’s hungry.”
Cale rubbed his face. “Do we have a time frame?”
“Between one and five this morning.”
“Nice window there.”
“Unfortunately. Maybe the Council will pick up the slack.”
“Don’t think so. We’ll probably get stuck with the bill on this one.”
Cale laughed, hollow. “I have a feeling you’re right.” He turned. “Guys notice anything out of the ordinary?”
“Other than one less kid?”
“Don’t,” Cale cautioned. “You can actually breathe out here. We’re not knotted around each other. If this is any indication, we’re going to be looking at another withdrawal. If we don’t catch this fucker, it could destroy this city.”
“What do you need us to do?”
Cale turned, looking at the four Officers, forcing down his shock at actually being listened to. It had been years since anyone had done more than spit in his direction. It took a moment for him to compose himself. “We’ve got to canvas the area. See if any of the merchants were working early, though you’ll have a hell of a time getting them to admit to breaking the law. Na Creidmhigh is on lockdown, not that we’d get any help from them, but that’s one less worry. Honestly, we’ve got to be on the docks double-time, making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“It’s gonna take more than just us.”
“For the moment, we’re it. I’ll check with Terach, but I can’t promise much.” He started to mention the girl from the other night, but realized the type of shit he’d be in if he ever admitted to disposing of a body.
“I’m going to go speak with the dock guard, see if he found anything. Go find what you can.” Cale turned, crossing the docks. His old reflexes kept him checking for other Officers, for any errant containers that would rather brain him than stop. But that was all but gone here. Instead, an uneasy quiet had settled over the docks. As he walked somberly across, he took inventory of what he knew. What all his countless hours of research had taught him and he quickly realized that he had nothing. He would flounder here as much as everyone else, but, if his brief exchange with the other Officers told him anything, he was going to be the “expert” on this round. After all, he was the only one that had been sure this would happen. He rounded the familiar corner to see Liam and came up short.
The booth stood empty.
Cale cursed, approaching the rickety construct. A thousand questions flittered through his mind with each step, narrowing as he drank in the details. The single candle had burned down to a stump, the chair sat there undisturbed, with Liam’s latest novel resting face-down on it, its pages ruined with the storm from last night.
That does it.
Liam had abandoned his post. On the night the Stalker returned.
It pointed in a direction Cale didn’t like, but he couldn’t deny the facts.
Liam had become a suspect.
Journey had shed the thick clothing of the Pertium Mountains long before her arrival at Sandhyanen. She followed long forgotten paths, ones that had been overgrown with vines and weeds but she was still able to make out. A mournful scowl spread across her face as she saw the old city. The sun crested the buildings that towered over the lower city, the billowy clouds reveling in shades of pink, orange and purple. She’d never grown attached to this place, but seeing it after so many decades left her with an uncommon feeling that something sacred had been desecrated.
The Okitsugu’s banks had overflowed. Most of the merchants this far out had taken refuge in the city, leaving their huts and small docks abandoned, useless. Some had already fallen in the wake of the strong winds.
The few scraps that clung to her skin offered no protection against the heat, but she sauntered forward toward the catwalks that led to the city. She passed through the checkpoints while the Officers simply stared at her bare arms, legs, midriff. A layer of dirt covered her, she smelled of the wilderness and she knew it, but didn’t care. There were few humans out and even fewer gods she cared to impress.
There was no use in seeking any of the others. They were all lost. They’d made their beds when they opted to cast out Pryor. Even after all these years, she could still feel him, that little bit of him that still identified as the Art God. Most of it had been forgotten, covered up with so many layers of hatred and bitterness, but she was still able to identify him amidst all the rubble.
Journey pressed through the city’s districts, looking for a pathway into his domain under the city. She recognized all the little hints of what he planned, the art that used his symbol, even the tattoos that peeked out from sleeves, from under shirts and along collarbones. The other gods would be in for a shock once they arrived.
This city wasn’t Oki’s anymore. Pryor had claimed it already, just nobody knew it.