Alone with his thoughts, Pryor sat on the uncomfortable throne; his blood-tainted coat draped one of its arms. Candles lit the chamber, adding another layer to its opulence. Almost an afterthought, he stitched together his wounds. Most of his attention was focused on stanching his wounds rather than keeping himself together. Although his mind wandered, he kept a tight hold on the illusion.
Especially now that he had company.
In the distance, Kanya’s laughter spilled, giving the faintest touch of life. He didn’t know where Journey had disappeared to. His followers struck stone, molding it, fitting in the missing pieces. He watched them, thoughts on Marise’s tattoo. If she’d found his old one, could any of these slaves display that same power she had? The thought made his ill-fitting skin prickle.
“What good is an altar without worshippers?” Journey’s proud voice came from behind him.
“Where’d you go?”
“I had to do some research.” She walked around to the front of the altar. “It’s bad out there.”
Pryor didn’t look up, didn’t move. “It’s useless. What was I thinking?”
Leaning down in front of him, Journey said, “That those bastards would pay for what they did to you.”
“And what about you? You stood with them, shunned me.”
“But the difference is I knew the truth.”
“That is the difference.” Pryor couldn’t look at her in the eye.
“Stop it.” She leaned in, kissing him. Heat coursed through him, but he pushed her away.
“I don’t care about that.” She eyed his broken body.
A smile played at the corner of his lips. “That’s not what I mean. Thank you though.” He rose, striding toward the end of the hall. The seams of his skin, hidden from sight but all too real, groaned in protest, snapping as he moved. A small band of his glamoured workers shambled past him. Exhausted from all the tiny things he had to keep going, he relinquished a modicum of control and they collapsed.
The act was enough to draw Pryor’s focus further and the temple’s artifice fell away, revealing the truth of the incomplete structure. Huge swaths of the walls were missing, leaving only the foundations completed to any satisfaction. Gaps in the walls stared out into the cavern. The ceiling yawned above them.
Another weight lifted from him and he made a decision. He waved a hand and the dozen workers in the chamber crumbled.
“What’re you doing?” Journey called after.
“I’m putting an end to this,” Pryor said. “With the gods—”
“I never realized you were a coward.”
Pryor froze at this, turned.
“What does it matter if we can die? Haven’t you lived long enough?” Rage flickered, casting her in a different light. Her voice echoed out into the open cavern. “Look at yourself. You’re just a shade of the god I knew. You’re falling apart and all you’ve done is hide. What was your plan again? Oh yeah, to take down six gods, myself included, and supplant them. All without killing a single one of us. How were you going to do that again?”
“It made sense at the time,” he muttered.
“Now you can kill them, we just have to figure out how. And you’re going to call it quits, become a forgotten relic huddled in the darkness. For fuck’s sake, if there was ever a time for you to come out, it’s now. Let the people know you exist, that you’re a real god. Bring this temple to the surface and have the humans worship you. Us.
“You’re not alone in this. We can do this together, Oki be damned.”
Pryor stared at her, his thoughts spilling over themselves. “What about Kanya?”
“Honestly, I don’t know where she fits in.” The fire bled from her body, leaving her standing there defiantly without the conviction. “But you can’t stay down here. Not anymore.”
Pryor touched her face, then noticed the red smear across her cheek and withdrew. She reached for him, but he brushed past her. He stared at his bloody hand, at the rivulets of blood that travelled the length of his arm. He was so tired of trying to be who he had been before. Art was no longer a part of his life and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually thought about it beyond display the rough idea of what his temple could be. He let go of all that control, stopped being the puppet master, and, in a rush, the invisible sutures that kept his skin together snapped apart. He slipped off the glove of skin, then began to unravel the bandages, pulling thin sheets of flesh with it. Blood welled at the tips of his fingers. He continued to unwrap his arm as he stepped out into the cavern.
The dozens of battered workers slogged through their tasks. After a quick swipe of his hand they collapsed in a heap. Walking the perimeter, he drew out a rough crimson line around it.
His eyes flashed, calling to his discarded blood as he focused his power once more.
Each droplet shook, causing bits of loose spall to rise, revolving in the air. Along his crude trail, smoothed rocks splintered and lifted, causing a crack that blotted out all sound.
The sudden surge brought Journey to his side. “You worked them to the bone, then killed them.” No remorse, no questioning.
“They’re just sleeping. They’ll wake later, rising from the depths as prophets, evangelists. They’ll spread word of the diseased god.”
“So this’ll be your new mantle?” She eyed the exposed muscle, the bits of sloughed off skin that dotted the ground in trails. “Not exactly a family friendly image.”
“If I’m going to be a god, I have to leave my mark. Make the people believe I’m not just some false prophet.”
The temple lurched, ascending slowly.
“I think you’ll make enough of an impression without all the theatrics.”
“If there’s anything I learned from the other gods, a little bit of drama goes a long way.”
Pryor stiffened, suddenly self-conscious of his appearance. Kanya was the only god he’d truly never got over losing. Even with Journey, there had been hatred and betrayal, but he understood intellectually why she had done it — stuck so close to the gods, only to leave as soon as belief began to wane. Kanya was so naive and forgiving. He believed whole-heartedly that she had not been a part of the decision.
There was no way.
Amidst the boulders and sleeping men, Kanya raced toward the rising temple. Panic flooded him as she screamed again. The sound was drowned in the tremors breaking through the caves. Her eyes flashed. Time stretched as she darted forward.
Pryor flattened himself against the broken stone, extending his exposed arm. He waved, shouted, “Hurry up Kanya-girl!”
She made one last push, her steps coming quicker, preternatural. She launched herself up, grazing the tips of his bloody fingers.
Pryor leaned in the dirt clogging the open wounds, and gripped her wrist. Pain seared through him, but he held tight. A tight smile spread across his lips and he whispered, “I’ve got you, girl.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks as he lifted her. Blood tainted the sleeves of her dress. As he lifted her onto the ledge, she sobbed, throwing herself into him. “You left me.”
He hugged her back, then extracted himself. He brushed the tears away with his other, still bandaged hand and said, “Never again.”
Kanya moved to Journey with a smile, her features brightening. Pushing himself from the ground, he worked at the clumps of dirt.
Kanya let out a meek cry. Pryor looked up to discover blood blossoming from a wound in her throat. It spilled down the front of her yellow dress. Journey tucked the stained knife in her belt, then moved toward the girl. Kanya retreated, tears welling up as she gasped for breath. She stopped at the edge of the platform. Dirt fell off the edge of the ascending cliff, an impossible fall to survive. Her panicked eyes remained locked on Journey as the traveling god approached.
Pryor swept forward, but Journey brushed him aside, tossing him away with the ease of a child tossing away a toy they’d grown tired of. She shoved Kanya off the ledge.
All three gods’ eyes flashed at once.
The world around them thinned, the air hollowed into a road of defiance.
As Kanya descended, the bow in her hair lost its hold and coiled out into the stale air. Pryor recovered in time to see her plummeting, then he noticed the blue light escaping the wound.
The light intensified, curling around her frame.
Then, with one last breath, it exploded.
Pryor shielded his eyes. When he looked back, Kanya the child god had disappeared.
Ignoring his screaming limbs, Pryor lurched forward, turning on Journey. She withdrew, letting him stumble into the dirt. He looked up, flinched from her unrelenting gaze.
She leaned down, cupping his chin with her ragged fingers. “I needed to test a theory and she was an acceptable loss. And now we’ve got a leg up. We know how to kill the others.”
Pryor stared up into her ruthless gaze. How long had she been manipulating him? He thought back to all the grave errors he had made and the question still settled. Why had she chosen him in this conflict? They had a history, yes, but she’d abandoned him as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Had she spoken a single truth? He managed to keep his voice from cracking. “How?”
She tapped her cheek. “It’s in the eyes.”