The scent of holy wood tugs at my nostrils, pulling me back to consciousness. No, not holy wood. It’s like holy wood, but—I don’t know. Cleaner somehow. Simpler. Still sweet, but not so mawkish.
I’m on my knees, I think, leaning up against the altar. I can feel the cool stone slab pressing into my cheek. Not to mention the rocks—the ones we built the pillars out of—jabbing my stomach.
I don’t feel any pain. I remember slicing my arm open. I remember the wyvern digging its claws into my shoulder and my back. But I don’t feel anything. I don’t hear anything either. All right, maybe I can sit up. Without the altar to support me, I mean. And maybe I can get my eyes open.
It’s daylight still—that’s the first thing I notice. In fact, it’s bright out. Almost too bright. But that brightness is soft, not harsh. I don’t have to blink the light away.
Fuck. Everyone’s gone. No, the burro is here. It’s . . . it’s alive, somehow. Not crumpled in a heap. It’s grazing in the grass a few yards from me.
But my brother, Shoch, Jonac, Gael, all those guards, the wyvern—they aren’t here. And the buildings are gone. No tower, no stables. Nothing. It’s just me and the altar and the burro. We’re alone in an empty field.
I’m dead. I must be dead.
There’s still blood on the altar. The burro’s blood and mine. And the symbol that I painted with that blood—it’s still there too. The eye in the shield. That blood and that symbol are the only evidence of the two sacrifices. I don’t see the dagger.
All right, all right. I’m dead. Me and the burro both.
Fuck. I never thought there’d be any kind of world to come. I know some of my people believe in one, but I assumed there’d just be . . . I don’t know. Sleep or nothingness. But if I am dead, and not just dreaming, I’ll have to face judgment for the things I’ve done. Including the two sacrifices.
Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. I should be jumping to my feet, scared out of my wits—I didn’t hear any footfall or anyone breathing behind me. But I don’t jump. I don’t even startle. I stay on my knees and manage to turn myself around, real slow.
It’s Shoch. He’s crouching down so that we’re at the same level. I hardly look at him—I just throw my arms around him and pull him to me.
“You too?” I pull him even tighter. “I didn’t want this for you, pet. I didn’t want you to—listen, I’m glad we’re in this together. But I wanted you to live. My brother would have looked after you.”
He wraps his arms around me, holding me just as tight. Tighter even. And that’s good. This is perfect. For a moment, everything’s perfect.
But . . . no. This isn’t right. I don’t care about being dead—that’s not the problem. Well, it is a problem, but I can accept it. But Shoch is different.
He still smells like holy wood—pressed up against him like this, I can’t help but notice that. But that smell was due to his demon half. Is the demon still with him?
It’s the good kind of holy wood, though. This new kind that’s not so cloying. And the way he’s holding me—there’s nothing awkward about it now. And there’s a strength to him, despite his scrawny frame. And he’s warm to the touch. His body was always warmer than mine, but it’s even warmer now. No, not warm. Hot. So hot it should be searing, but it isn’t.
I push away from him so I can look him in the face. It is Shoch—but it isn’t. His eyes aren’t red anymore. They’re blue. A startling blue . . . wait. How can that be? My mouth is probably hanging open, because I can’t figure this out.
All right. If we’re dead, maybe the demon in him is gone. Maybe he was blue-eyed before that joining he talked about. Except that his eyes are a blue that I’ve never seen before. A blue that’s bright and deep at the same time. No human has ever had blue eyes like that.
“Fuck.” I shake my head at him. “You’re not Shoch.”
He smiles. “No.”
There’s nothing wrong with his tongue now. Well, maybe there wouldn’t be. Not in the world to come. But—no. This isn’t my pet. That’s not how his voice would be.
“You’re—” Sages, how am I supposed to say this? “You’re the Blue-eyed Prince. You’re Veshnic.”
He doesn’t answer, except to put a hand on my cheek. His palm is burning hot, but it doesn’t burn at all.
I force myself to breathe in deep. “Shoch and my brother—please tell me they’re alive. Unless—fuck me. Are you Shoch?” Shit. I’m talking foul in front of a god. Is that blasphemy? “I mean, did you come down to us disguised as him?”
He grins at that and ruffles my hair, same as I’ve done to Shoch now and then. “No, pet. Shocha is part of me. As are you and your brother and the burro and every blade of grass in this field. You all abide in me—but I don’t abide in you.”
I try to make sense of that, but I can’t. My brain is too fogged up. “But if you’re not Shoch, why do you look like him?”
He winks at me. “I think there’s a better way to phrase that: why do you see me as Shocha?”
What the hell does that mean? “I don’t understand. You don’t look like this to everyone?”
Wait, of course he doesn’t. I already knew that. There are all different statues and pictures of Veshnic. Sometimes with light skin, sometimes with dark. Sometimes he looks like a fucking warrior, sometimes he looks soft and gentle. Sometimes he can almost pass for a woman. The only thing that ever stays the same are those sparkling blue eyes of his.
“Don’t worry, pet.” He ruffles my hair again. “It’s no bad thing to see the Divine in those you love.”
Pet. My mind latches onto that word. “Do you—do you want me to answer for the way I’ve treated Shoch?”
He stands up. I’m staring at his feet, not his face, but I can hear a smile in his voice as he replies. “Shocha chose to belong to you, Aric. And you chose to give yourself to me.”
All right. I can’t argue that. I sliced my arm open and offered myself as a blood sacrifice to this god.
Wait. I know the blood is still on the altar, but I hold up my arm anyway and look it over. The scar is there. A surprisingly light scar—well, that was a razor-sharp dagger—but it is there. And that’s my proof.
“Fine.” I let my arm fall. “Fine, I understand that. But what do you want me for? I’m dead now, aren’t I? Unless . . . is this a dream?”
“You’re not dead. And you’re not dreaming.”
What? I want to tell him that there aren’t any other options—but I keep my mouth shut.
He offers me a hand up. I stare at that hand, but I don’t take it. I prostrate myself in front of him instead. “I didn’t even believe in you. Or any god. Even when I cut my arm open. Look, I only half-thought you were real. If that.”
“Shhh.” Suddenly he’s crouching in front of me again, putting his hands under my arms and pulling me back up to my knees, so that we can see each other eye to eye again. “Whatever you believe or don’t believe, you gave yourself to me.”
I shake my head and look away. I can’t keep meeting that gaze. I don’t know why—it’s not frightening. There’s compassion in those blue eyes. And humor. But there’s an intensity there too. An intensity I can’t handle.
“Yes.” I manage to say that much. “I made that sacrifice. I’m—I’m your priest now. Or whatever you want me to be.”
He chuckles. He actually chuckles. “Don’t panic over that, pet. You might not find it such a bad bargain.”
All right, I smile a little at that. Hell, I even lean forward and rest my head against his shoulder. Why not? He still looks like Shoch. And he’s not smiting me. Not yet.
“If I’m really not dead, my Lord, I guess we’ll see.”