"You know, Cale, I really did miss this place," Theon said, inspecting the bodies. "Five years is a long time to spend in exile."
Cale sat on the periphery of the dais of an altar. Swaths of darkness coated the hallways, leaving him staring at bloody brownstone. Dozens had been murdered in here, though he couldn’t figure out why. But, more pertinent, Theon had confiscated his shotgun, then tossed it away as if it was a child’s toy as soon as they had entered the temple. He searched the shadows for it, trying to formulate a way to get back to it and give the Stalker his justice.
He’d recognized the girl from his brief interview: Marise Shield, but she barely resembled the flippant woman he’d dealt with. Instead, she was lost in her own body, ripping at her flesh, blood pooling around her. Clearly, the conflict had taken its toll on her mind. He tried to subdue his sympathy, but still his heart reached out to her. Rain dripped in through shattered windows, hitting the pool behind the throne.
Theon released the corpse he’d been inspecting. Its head pinged off the ground. Brushing the hair from his face, he stood. "But I guess I deserved it. I stayed around too long. I just enjoyed our game so much."
Cale’s head shot up at this. "Game?" The trepidation knotted itself, leaving him sick and craving vengeance all the more. "You were slaughtering children."
"More children were killed in this little war of ours." He indicated the temple around him. "Than anything I did by myself."
"Haven’t you figured it out? The gods have come to town and — let’s face it — none of us really liked one another. This war of ours has had some interesting side effects. Namely, all these natural disasters. Kanya’s death slaughtered all those kids. Who knew the little shit had all that power locked away inside her."
Cale’s eyes lit up at the recognition. He’d had no reason to believe, but now it seems Keir had been right in at least one respect. And his quarry was a fucking god. He might’ve been angered or depressed at the thought, but the concept left him apathetic to his chances. What he did have was a chance to at least inflict some damage to the Trickster.
"But, as it stands, I’m one of the last gods standing." His mouth stretched to its impossible length, reminding Cale of the woman with the Chelsea Grin. He turned his focus from Cale giving Cale the chance to spot the shotgun half swathed in shadow just beyond the pile of bodies. Theon continued, "Though there’s one god left I have to deal with."
"Who’s left?" Cale ventured, trying to keep him distracted.
"Journey. But I’ll find her soon enough. I know she’s here," Theon said with a slight growl to his voice.
"Why keep me around?"
Theon leaned in, his sickly sweet breath pouring over Cale’s face. "How could I pass up teaming up with my favorite Officer?" He laughed, this time unbridled and free.
It sent chills vaulting through Cale’s body.
The tower jerked violently, a great sigh rippling through the building as it expanded once more.
Cale barreled into Theon, throwing the Trickster to the ground. Rather than linger, Cale ran forward at top speed. Reaching the pile of bodies, he threw himself forward and scooped up the shotgun as he hit the ground. He spun like before and found Theon watching him with belated amusement.
"And that’s why I love you, Cale. You’re relentless in your optimism. Even in the face of a god, you still think a shotgun will take me out."
An explosion rocked the building, causing Cale to pull into himself.
The lights dimmed, becoming a slideshow of sparks and shattered neons. The heat of the stones faded, becoming a dull brown.
“My boy’s here," Theon taunted.
Cale turned his head, not quite recognizing what he was seeing. Arcs of darkness wafted off the man, the figure striking and uncompromising. Despite the lines travelling up and down his body, the etched man was almost normal. Cale recognized the man’s features as one of Na Creidmhigh’s thugs.
Then his skin unraveled.
Cale’s eyes widened, watching the controlled peel, wiping away anything human in the exchange. His skin itched to follow the example. His fingers tightened around the stock.
The mass expanded, tearing from the restraints of its human form, becoming a tangle of arms. The lights flickered, the temple reconfiguring once again.
One of the bodies lifted from the pile.
Carrick raised one disfigured arm, its muscle splitting apart like a blossoming flower.
At the back of the chamber, a low hum sparked. A wet pop hit the air, but Cale wasn’t sure what had happened. He saw Journey, or at least the god he expected to be her, eyes burning white hot, pinning the creature’s arm to the ground. She snarled, “Shoot him!”
Before Cale could move, Theon grabbed him, tried to restrain him. Cale struggled, pulling the shotgun up at an angle and squeezed the trigger. Blood flowered across his face and he was free. He scrambled from Theon’s grip, looking back to see a hunk of flesh where his arm had been. Theon’s eyes were aglow but his face was stretched in a silent scream. His features contorted into rage as he turned his murderous orange eyes on Cale. Cale heard a scream behind him and turned to see Journey laid out at the base of the monster.
Cale stood slack-jawed in the face of the beast. A tendril snaked up, prescient, vengeful. It wrapped around her face, pulling her up into the air. Journey’s screams were muffled as the petals of muscle withdrew from its multitude of arms.
Wet shots filled the air, exploding outward like a premature firework. They lodged all along Journey’s neck, chest, stomach. Smoke curled from the embers in her cheek as she thrashed against its grip. Cruel laughter escaped the creature, a half spoken word hitting the air, then the slugs erupted.
Blue light escaped the mauled corpse. A pulse followed it as the temple expanded, growled in delight.
Winds battered the structure. Metal groaned in protest, but more glass buckled under the strain and burst. A blanket of shadow fell over the coronation hall. Cale searched the darkness. A body slammed into him, pitching him to the ground. The heel of a boot jammed into his shoulder, then a sharp tug and a pop as it dislocated.
Another wave of pain swept through him as he squeezed the trigger again. The blast was muffled and the recoil kicked the firearm into his ribs. He let out a yelp. Hot wetness blossomed along his forehead and a body slumped onto him.
Light erupted from behind the altar, cutting around it, through it. The light roared like a caged beast, blinding him as he curled against the pain. It intensified, harsher, violent, becoming a constant, a reality.
He shifted, using his last reserves of strength to shove the weight from atop him. Driving his head into the ground, he hunched over. With several harsh breaths, he forced his feet under him. As he stood, he shakily tucked the shotgun against his body and peered up into the dissonance.
Nothing more than a silhouette, Marise approached the source, swaying like a sleep walking child.
Cale took a step back, not wanting to see what horror would emerge from behind the altar. He turned to run.
The etched man stared at him, all that chaos, the violent tentacles, the excess limbs, compressed into one neat package. His hard gaze trained on him, eyes alight.
“So many gods, so little time.” The man’s words spilled with little enthusiasm.
The light intensified, searing the temple as it grew by magnitudes. The roar filled in all the gaps, becoming a physical entity in and of itself. The foundation split, sheets of dirt, rock, debris lifting from the chasm. The corpses poured into the hole, lost to the darkness.
Then all sound, all light cut off.
A man stood in the center of the altar.
Raine raised his head, eyes flashing. He was completely naked, but the telltale scars from before his death still marked his body, a reminder of where he’d come from. The neons above began to flicker in staccato patterns.
“It’s so nice to see you. Things just haven’t been as . . . interesting since I killed you.”
Raine searched the features distorted by the deep lines. “Carrick?”
“In the flesh.”
Marise stepped between them, her face alight, looking for some confirmation. A smile escaped. “I’m glad you’re here.” Raine studied her, darkness affecting her skin like a birthmark. There was fresh blood everywhere, soaking her clothes, but he didn’t see any wounds. Her ragged fingernails were broken and coated with bits of flesh.
A wet hiss filled the air. Raine wrapped a hand around her shoulder, swept her aside. Carrick’s skin sloughed off, a remnant of the man he once knew, and his muscle split apart. Carrick’s body stretched, becoming a seething, roiling mass.
White bone gleamed in the flickers of neon. As Carrick’s lips split into a leathery smile, breaking apart like a snake’s, the rest of the body unfolded, revealed sinewy tendons.
Raine sneered, readied himself. His eyes flashed as the air stretched out. He called his powers to the forefront, ready to test his new abilities in this struggle to the death.
Marise moved in front of him, eyes gleaming. She scrawled a hasty symbol on the ground at her feet. The temple groaned as the walls shifted from brown to scarlet, burning, heat pouring from them. The entrance slammed shut, trapping them all inside. Cale shouted in protest. The images outside blurred, became chaotic, confused. Hail broke through the open panes. More windows shattered as the temple reformed, curling in on itself. Pavement, mortar, rebar ripped from the city, closing like fingers. Raine braced himself against the pitching structure as it lifted into the sky.
Lightning struck the metal frame, sending sparks showering down. The thunder pounded in Raine’s chest as he watched the display, lost any sense of balance.
Carrick retreated, leaving bloody streaks across the stone. It lashed out, filling the space as it fought against this shift, this lack of control. The tendrils split, revealing a field of vicious flowers. They shot wildly, spitting at anything and nothing.
They hit the walls, the frame, one caught Marise’s arm, but she didn’t flinch. Cale stumbled from the creature, discarding the shotgun as he curled up in an effort to escape the slugs. Raine grabbed Marise, tried to pull her away, but she shrugged him off.
The slugs exploded, tearing great gaping holes in the temple. Marise recoiled from the blast, her shoulder shattered. Bits of bone and flesh splattered the altar. The rain washed in, lightning coming in furious waves, biting at the stone, chipping away at the foundation.
Raine couldn’t see the city anymore, so lost to the smoke that everything below looked like nothing more than a black stain. The room flipped. He spun in the air, slammed into the stone.
A great roar escaped the beast.
Raine looked up. Marise stood locked in place, blood flying up to meet him. Her eyes glimmered, trained on Carrick.
Sandhyanen rushed towards them.
He shielded his face as the temple pitched into the harbor.