“This is my temple,” Pryor said to Raine after the long journey into the depths of the forgotten city. Wraithlike, Pryor’s skin cracked, ripped, tore apart with every subtle movement, though the man tried to hide this fact. Bandages wrapped most of his body, yellowing and stained at the edges. Though as it fell apart, Pryor held his body together through force of will alone. Not for the first time, Raine watched him stitch himself back together by simply touching the frayed skin.
Bathed in the sparse fires, Raine followed his “brother” down the passages, not feeling any better about his situation. The god had said little, told him to follow with faith and supplied nothing more.
Dozens of workers focused on constructing the temple in front of them. No one dared a glance upward. With no place for them to recuperate, dark circles had etched under their eyes from lack of sleep. Bloodshot eyes roamed over their materials, not quite seeing, but managing to work with precision.
Raine stopped as three men carried a huge stone between them. Their arms bulged with veins, though no strain swept across their faces. No words uttered, no groans.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Their eyes have been opened.”
“I don’t understand,” Raine said.
“You will,” Pryor replied with an enigmatic grin. His eyes burned in the light as he looked past and through Raine.
Raine returned a scowl.
Pryor turned his lips into a bitter smile, continuing to walk. He shot his left hand out. “This is where the worshippers will come.” His other hand swept to the other side and he pointed. “And this is where it will all begin.”
The construct in the midst of the ruined civilizations rose out of darkness, taking on its own misshapen ideals. One moment it pulled toward Raine, while the next it grew in size as if to house hundreds more people. A second later, a pile of rubble.
Pryor continued, “You’re new, I know, but others out there will bend you to their will, use your naivety to increase their bonds. I can’t let that happen.”
“So you’re going to use me then?”
Pryor laughed as he came to a stop. His lips split with the movement. Blood trickled down his chin. “Not if I can help it,” he said. “Instead, I’ll give you the choice, free of reprisal if it doesn’t suit me. It’s a lot more, I fear, than you’d get from the others.”
Raine studied the strange man, measured his response. “Tell me more.”
He slapped Raine on the back, a wet sound slipping out from his hand. “Follow me. This might be a bit of a shock.” They walked into the ever growing temple.
As they passed over the threshold, the door closed behind them. The building seemed more complete than it had on the outside. The entirety of the temple’s floor was made out of dirt. As they stepped forward, however, tiles formed from the dirt, giving them a path to follow. Their footsteps echoed against the solidifying walls. The black stone shimmered with a self-contained light.
There were dozens of rooms that split off from this chamber. As they passed each open doorway, Raine heard a commotion as if the room was being hastily constructed, a facade for Raine’s benefit and nothing more. Still, he spotted opulent rooms with more style than function. When Raine glanced back, he spotted little more than dirt and darkness, as if whims controlled the texture and composition of the space rather than anything built by Pryor’s brainless minions.
Brown banners of tattered cloth hung from the ceiling, an arcane design emblazoned on them. At the back, a pool emerged through a large hole, the end of the underground river. Just in front of it, a throne towered over the main floor. With a flourish of Pryor’s hand, two chairs emerged from the floor as they approached, turned at a sharp angle so they faced each other as well as the altar. He motioned for Raine to sit. Once Raine lowered himself into the chair, Pryor joined him. Raine was shocked to find it solid. He ran a finger along its simple and craftsman-like surface. Wood.
“I’m a god, Raine. One forced from the histories by the others.” A thin strand of orange hair fell between his eyes, which he tried to sweep away, but it shifted back into place. His smile fell. The skin tore a little further.
“Maybe they’ve forgotten me, but I doubt it. I still have my connections beyond this.” He motioned to the world outside the temple. “I’ve been slowly affecting the city with a variation of my old symbol as a kind of reminder that I’m still here, even if I’ve been tossed aside.”
“How many gods are there?”
“Seven. Including myself. Oki, Dawber, Kanya, Liam, Journey, and Theon.” His face twisted, but in a flash, the expression disappeared. Raine didn’t have time to read it.
The names struck him. The clinking of seven coins rang in his ears.
Raine opened his mouth, but held back the burning question about Dion. If Pryor knew about him, how could he have forgotten about someone like Dion? He wasn’t sure how much he trusted these gods, but any information he had that they didn’t — well, he’d consider that an asset. Instead, Raine asked, “What was your specialty?”
Pryor studied him as if he could see into Raine’s thoughts, ferreting out the neglected mention of Dion. Raine tensed but Pryor continued.
“You haven’t figured it out yet?” Disappointment laced the question. “I was the god of creativity. Although I only have a fraction of my ability —” he closed his eyes, and a piano started to play in one of the adjoining rooms. A smile seated on his face as a final melancholy note played. “I’d like to think I’m not out of practice.”
“Then why are you down here? Why don’t I know about you?”
Pryor’s face rearranged into a sad smile. One without the humor he had earlier. “Let’s just say I was a victim of a cruel practical joke.”