The ground was hard and uncompromising, truly an ungrateful bitch. Raine opened his eyes, felt the water creeping in.
A stream pressed at the base of his skull, cold, determined. Under the safety of an alcove, he stared at the rivulets that trailed down the cliff. Thunder rumbled above, crackling with expulsions of raw power. He pushed himself up, rubbing the dampness from his neck. Coarse fabric scraped, tugging his raw flesh.
He examined the plain clothes, then searched the surrounding area. He didn’t recognize it. He’d spent most of his life in Sandhyanen, but had been able to travel a little bit. This might as well have been another world. Fallen slate grey structures dotted the landscape, their shattered windows staring spitefully at him. Facing the storm, he rolled up his sleeves, brushed the dirt from the pants.
He compulsively tugged at his sleeves, resetting them, then made his way down the rocky landscape.
Bits of the grey stone jutted into the sky, hinting at something much older underneath the surface. Pools licked at his ankles, sending chills darting up his legs.
Stopping at the edge of a canyon, he peered down at what looked like a sprawling temple, broken into several distinct structures, altogether familiar. A waterfall cascaded from the cliff, disappearing into the drifts of fog that coalesced around the temple.
Raine worked down a ragged path, moving with care along boulders, searching for each foothold before descending. He gripped the stone even as his fingers slipped against rock.
With each step closer he came, a seeping cold flowed into him. As he approached, he noticed that the temple had set in the marshy ground, tipping at an angle. Lightning crackled overhead, highlighting the multitude of similar structures. He stepped up to the entrance. A mournful cry escaped its open maw as he entered the darkness.
Chills wracked his body. He released a lungful of air, watched it swirl in front of him. A stream slapped the stone. The sound deepened, widened as he moved. Underneath, a dull rumble permeated the shadows. He stepped forward, his foot scraping open air.
With a cut off shout, he struck the ground. He rolled onto his back, let out a rasping cough that echoed down the chamber.
Dry, hacking laughter slid through the darkness, mocking with vitriol. “Nice to see the new kid is a klutz. It’s refreshing.” The voice came out scathed, as if its vocal chords had been used as a leather strip. “People will be thrilled to see their gods are just as clumsy as them.”
Raine inched forward, stumbling as he did so.
The laughter vaulted, cruel and knowing. “Here, I’ll make it easier for you.”
The darkness lifted, becoming a lens rather than a blanket. They stood in the middle of a half dozen altars, cuts in the stone leaving a clear path for water to fill the overflowing basins. Raine saw a figure leaning against a pillar, legs splayed in front of it. The husk twitched, its head lolling to the side. The mouth stretched, tendons snapping as words escaped. “Pleasure to meet you.” Its desiccated body’s muscles withdrew, becoming nothing more than a flap of flesh atop bone. A sharp hiss leapt from its jaw, then a weak chuckle.
“What are you?” Raine whispered.
“One of your brothers. I know I’m not the best looking guy, but I make up for it with —” Its hand seized and he grunted. It forced out, “Bet you didn’t expect this.”
“I don’t know what this is.”
“My body is in the Chandi Desert. I’ve been dying like this for—” It grimaced. “It’s not pleasant.”
“I didn’t realize there were so many gods.”
“There are dozens of us, all spread throughout the world. Some are in less than desirable situations.” It bared its rotten teeth, the shriveled lips turning into a humorless smile. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s an exclusive club, just not as particular as you might have thought.”
“Why did this happen to us?”
The corpse rolled its head, peered up at him. “We made a choice.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you done anything that compromised what you believed in? That’s all it takes. There’s some genetics, some incantations, that sort of thing, but when it comes down to it, you did something bad. Now you’re here.” It tried to move its arm but it barely moved. “Simple. What was your poison?”
Raine thought of the mangled woman, all the bodies he’d left in his wake. He may not have chosen it the first time, but since then, he’d engaged in wholesale slaughter to make sure Jaiden and Turrell were held accountable.
“I killed people.”
“Plenty of us have.”
“Not me. I had done my damndest to keep anyone from dying when I had a job.” He shook his head. “I even paid their debts so no one would come after them afterward.”
“Looks like I’ve been proven right again. Welcome to the club of fucked up and damaged gods.” Its voice came out in a croak, dried and pitiful.
Raine rose, moving to one of the altars. Cupping his hands, he leaned forward.
The god didn’t scream, instead it came out as a whisper. Raine froze in place, his skin hovering mere inches above the pool.
“Don’t touch the water,” it breathed out. Its ribcage crumpled like a can under a boot heel. It screamed, its strained voice faltering to nothing but a sob. “It’s—just don’t.”
Raine stepped back, turned to the withering husk. He measured his thoughts, putting pieces in place that had eluded him for some time. “You’re not the only god I’ve met that is afraid of water. What gives?”
“It’s the conduit that brings us back.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“I’m not so sure anymore. It’s a painful experience. Add to the fact that you can become trapped wherever you died, it’s not the easiest decision to make.” The corpse seemed to be getting his strength back. The sob had fallen from his voice and he shifted a fraction of an inch to his right.
“So, I’m not dead?”
“As a doornail. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the end. As long as you have a free stream or pool of water. Bam. You’re back. You might not have any clothes, but at least you’re back in the land of the living.”
Raine thought about Marise’s affect on the water inside of Oki’s temple. Dread flooded him as he realized that he might not be able to make it back. “What if they are blocked?”
“No idea, but I’m guessing it’ll be an unpleasant return, to say the least.”
Raine looked at the husk. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Senwe. I’m—”
Its gleaming eyes caught his as they flashed. Its arm snapped, folded in on itself. Raine retreated, stumbling into the bowl. Lightning flashed, crackling through the air and leaving everything caught in a blinding light. He screamed as the water splashed on him, ice cold and harsh. He struck the ground, coated in the frigid liquid. Scrambling, he pushed himself up, clawing desperately at the water.
Instead of shedding, it spread in violent jerks, crawling across his skin. His chest constricted, his voice lost in that instant. His vision darkened, flattening once more. A dull cracking filled the chamber as the husk god’s body crumpled on itself. Its scream echoed, amplified as water flecked its body.
Raine tried to move, fighting against his numbed limbs. He tripped, striking his head against a stone. His heartbeat slowed with the creeping darkness.
A violent burning gripped his chest, his limbs screamed in protest as he burst from the inside.