Of Gods and Madness: The Faithful

Chapter Seventy-Eight

Marise ticked down the minutes, staring down the tram lane, waiting for the next car to come. She’d lost track of the beast, but she’d seen the man who’d restored power to the station in one of the trams as it sped past her. The building creaked and moaned. Shivering, she watched the waters. They splashed against the lanes, unwilling to calm. Beyond, rain hissed through the shattered windows. She rocked back and forth. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head as she dipped into her wounded hand, then she absently sketched the symbol on the concrete at her feet.

“You have the mark. Why are you hiding?” The sharp dressed man stood near her, slightly behind as if stationed to protect her from an impending threat. The whisper of his suit grazed her arm. Gooseflesh lifted along her arms.

“Not hiding. Waiting.”

“I’m disappointed.” There was no inflection in the words, just a hard landing as the notion ran through her. A flicker of fear pressed into her chest, a tight package she didn’t know what to do with. She swallowed, fingers growing still.

“There were two gods. They would’ve killed me.”

“Not while you’re under my protection.”

“You weren’t here.”

Silence followed. Then his hand grabbed hold of her neck. His fingers dug into her muscles, like talons dipping into her nerves. Heat spread through her spine, down to the small of her back then encompassed her completely, leaving her all at once on fire and chilled. She choked out a stifled shout, tried to struggle then his grip lessened. Her benefactor — once again she wondered why she didn’t know his name — leaned in, his breath hot on her skin. He growled, “I am always here.” He drummed his fingers against her neck. Finally they retreated, sliding along her flesh as if wiping away any trace they had touched her.

The cold came back in a rush, sucking the air from her lungs, leaving her disoriented. She rocked forward. Her fingers played in the growing pool of blood.

“Your ride is here.”

She stood on shaky legs, listening as the water grew restless, agitated and the tram shot into the station. The shuttle door opened, expectant, biding its time. A thousand thoughts shot through her, none of them particularly coherent. One bubbled to the surface, immediate and clear: she had to escape her benefactor. The immediate violence, the talk like he owned her — none of it promised any future for her. Much less one she’d like to spend in his employee.

She crossed the concourse, skirting past the mounds of soaking trash and overturned benches. She tried not to look at the bodies, though their stench had begun to soak into the area. As she climbed into the vehicle, thunder cracked right overhead.

Marise settled into the damp seat, looking through the rain streaked glass. The frigid cabin did little to comfort her. The tunnel was awash in darkness — all she could make out were the waves splashing against the channel. At the end of the tunnel, the rain violently lashed out. Debris from trees shot across the open mouth then was swept away.

Lightning flashed, giving her a momentary reprieve from the shadows. A scream needled at the base of her skull, scattering her thoughts, leaving her naked, raw.

I can’t—

She recoiled, pulling herself into a tight knot. She didn’t know the voice, but it was familiar, distorted. The light stretched, crawling after her.

Get—

Three successive strikes lit up the tunnel, making it a cavalcade, relenting for a moment before another followed.

—the light—

Panic set in, tightening her throat. She dug into her hand, ripping flesh free. The pain was fierce, definite but nothing compared to the war erupting in her skull. Fingers slick, she planted her hand against the frigid wall, turned her fingers, etching out the symbol from memory. The voice in her head continued to scream, curse.

The tram car bucked, cutting into another cover of darkness. Rain splattered against the windows, the frame of the vehicle, in unrelenting bursts. The thunder crackled, tipping the city off to the next vulgar blast of light. She caught sight of a figure in the cabin with her. It was . . . it was dressed in her benefactor’s clothes, but something was wrong. Tendrils of darkness danced around it, rolling over its body, pressing at its skin, reshaping it as if it wasn’t quite sure what it was anymore. Then the skin sloughed off, revealing a mass of darkness, white slit eyes and . . . it had no actual body to speak of as it shuddered and fought against itself.

The intruder whimpered, tried to speak, but the next tendril of lightning struck. She recoiled, drew herself up into the seat, as the creature lost any semblance of structure. It exploded into a burbling mass. The engine roared as the shuttle shot through the city.

The ruins of Sandhyanen engulfed themselves. Rain cut through the plumes of smoke, but couldn’t touch the flames. In the distance, the foreign tower had grown into a complex of shattered brownstone, metal, glass, and neons. The fragmented lights flickered, creating a slideshow on slick streets. She recognized her tattoo in the shattered neons, touched the chilled glass.

The mass seemed to try to reform, but another flurry of lightning pressed it down, forcing it into submission. She withdrew, glanced behind her, but stopped cold when she saw the lane behind her.

It had shifted vermilion.

Remember her purpose, she reached for the symbol. It vibrated in the dim glow. The tram hit a curve, banking to the left. Her head pinged off the window. A hand built out of webbed-together shadows tried to reach for her. She gritted her teeth, forcing her hand against the symbol.

Heat poured through her, stealing her thoughts.

The city opened, coming in harsh flashes, showing her the complex grid of veins she’d altered. Lightning exploded again, then the area was bathed in darkness.

She screamed as the engine’s whine overtook her. She caught a glimpse of the track, the darkened waters coating its edges. Looming, the tower jerked and shuddered, assimilating the surrounding buildings.

Something glinted out of the corner of her eye.

She had enough time to turn her head before slamming into another tram.

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Justin D. Herd

Justin D. Herd is a purveyor of the weird and strange. He occasionally squawks at friends and family, but does so only under the cover of night. Okay, that's not true. He squawks in full daylight. Drinking games have been built around his peculiarities, but the truth of it is this: he is a loving husband, with two wonderful dem--children. One growls at things he likes, including pretty women. The other has started to learn hand-eye coordination. Neither had made it to the tender age of three. From there, things will only get more interesting. He spends most of his writing time either at a coffee shop or sitting at one of his many desks around his house. Any other place makes it nearly impossible for him to write. He uses horror movies and rock music to help get the juices flowing. His favorite authors are Jeremy Robert Johnson, Alan Campbell, Terry Pratchett, Justin Cronin, and Patrick Rothfuss. He consumes most of his books through audiobooks, but still loves his personal library and getting lost in the printed word.