THE GODS RETURN – snippet 2:



            "Anoch anoch iao!" Salmson said. He stabbed the rooster with his athame. The edge of the ivory knife wasn't keen enough to slice flesh, but its point could split a bird's chest. Blood followed as he withdrew the blade, splashing the stone and his arm to the elbow.

            For a moment there was nothing but the thick smell of violent death. Then the rooster's blood began to steam from the altar, swelling into a misty figure the height of the sky. It didn't exist in the same world as Salmson and the jungle, but it was nevertheless visible.

            The figure bent to grip the stone door slab. There was no single scale of sizes in what Salmson saw; though he closed his eyes in sudden terror, the figure remained. Lightning flashed within its dim outlines, but the portal remained shut.

             "Bring me a prisoner!" Salmson said. Two ratmen seized an old man by the arms and dragged him to the altar. The prisoners who'd been carrying packs merely shrank back, but several of the old men would've tottered off if pirates hadn't grabbed them. The child sobbed in misery; the old woman held him by the shoulders.

            The rats threw the prisoner onto the slab face-up, gabbling in wordless terror. He was still wearing a tunic; Salmson gripped it with his left hand and pulled hard, but the cloth didn't tear. One of the ratmen slid the tip of his sword under the collar and sliced the garment open without touching the skin beneath.

            "Anoch anoch iao!" Salmson said and stabbed. The prisoner's back arched. The priest tugged, but the ivory blade had stuck between ribs. He levered the athame back and forth till it came out with another spray of blood. The sacrifice continued to thrash convulsively, but his eyes had glazed before his heart ceased pumping.

            The cloud-formed figure grew denser as it wrestled with the portal. When Salmson looked at it–his eyes were open again, since it didn't matter–he thought the figure stood in a cascade of planes which should've intersected but didn't, or didn't in the waking universe.

            Still the portal remained closed. "Another!" the priest cried. "Bring me a sacrifice!"

            Pirates held the prisoners, but none of them came forward at Salmson's command. The ratmen who'd brought the first victim now flung his drained corpse off the slab and minced toward the remaining supply.

            Before the rats could make a choice, the old woman shoved the boy toward them. He turned shrieking to run back, but the rats caught him and threw him onto the slab. The rats' limbs were slender by human standards, but they had the strength of whalebone.

            "Anoch iao!" Salmson repeated. He stabbed again and the boy's blood gushed.

            The cloud figure solidified into a black-bearded giant whose legs spanned the cosmos. Lightning crackled from its hands as they wrenched at the portal. The stone came away with a crash and flew skyward.

            The figure of Franca dissolved, but titanic laughter boomed across the sky. The portal was open.

            "Sister take it!" Archas muttered. He was staring into the forest canopy with his sword lifted, as though expecting the giant to reappear. "Sister take it and take you, priestling!"

            "Cap'n?" said a pirate holding a stout-shafted javelin. The weapon had a ring in the butt where a line could be reeved to grapple with a merchant vessel, but the barbed head was equally able to disembowel human prey. "What's that that's coming out of the hole now, hey?"

            Salmson's eyes followed the pointing javelin. The square opening in the temple's face had been an empty blackness initially; now thin, violet smoke began to drift out of it. Archas took another step back. Salmson set down the bloody athame and raised the miniature of Fallin.

            The Worm crawled through the interstices of the worlds. Salmson gripped the talisman and faced it, too frightened even to think of running. We are the slaves of Franca. All power is in Franca.

            The portions of the Worm in the waking world were slate gray, pebbled, and colossal. A long tusk thrust from the circular mouth, then withdrew. The opened portal was ten feet square, but the Worm could never have passed through it in the natural course of things.

            Sometimes Salmson saw a world beyond as though the Worm were squirming through a frescoed wall. In that other place cold, sluggish waves swept a rocky strand. Where the body of the Worm should have been was instead a purple mist, but it solidified as the creature writhed into the jungle.

            Some of the pirates had fled. Archas held both swords out, and the man with the barbed spear cocked it over his shoulder to throw.

            A fat, scarred pirate with one ear fell to his knees and began incongruously to call on the Lady. How much mercy did you grant to the prayers of your victims, savage? Salmson thought, but the past no longer mattered.

            He held up the talisman. The skein of golden hair blazed brightly, though no sunlight penetrated here in the jungle's understory. "In the name of Fallin of the Waves!" Salmson cried. "Halt!"

            The Worm reared, its blunt snout penetrating the treetops. Branches crashed aside, showering mosses and spiky airplants like a green rain. The creature was thicker than a five-banked warship and longer than Salmson could judge. Perhaps it was longer than the waking world could hold….

            Slowly the Worm settled back, shifting between the solidity of cold lava and the swirls of violet mist that Salmson had seen rippling in the world beyond the plane of this one. The great body didn't seem to touch the temple from which Salmson had drawn it, but swathes of the jungle beyond shattered at the touch of the gray hide.

            A tree, its crown lost in the canopy two hundred feet above, toppled majestically; wood fibers cracked and popped for minutes. When the bole slammed down, the ground shuddered and knocked several pirates off their feet. The ratmen chittered and squeezed closer together; most of the prisoners lay flat and wept or prayed.

            The pirate with the barbed spear screamed, "Hellspawn!" and hurled his weapon into the Worm; he must've gone mad. The spearhead barely penetrated; the creature twitched, causing the thick shaft to wobble.

            Salmson pointed with the talisman. There must be a demonstration; as well to use the pirate for it as the surplus prisoners he'd brought for the purpose.

            "Kill," he said, though the God had revealed that he needn't speak aloud while holding the talisman.

            The pirate who'd thrown the spear stood where he was, babbling curses. The Worm's mouth opened like a whirlpool yawning. Inside was a ring of teeth and a gullet the mottled red/black colors of rotting horsemeat.

            Black vapor belched from the creature's gullet, enveloping the pirate. His scream stopped in mid note. His bright clothing crumbled like ancient rags; his body shriveled as it fell.

            The Worm quivered forward a few segments, furrowing the jungle like a warship being dragged onto the beach. Its maw engulfed the corpse with a cartload of soil and bedrock, then closed. The creature recoiled slowly to its previous position.

            In a moment of trembling anticipation, Salmson felt an awareness of the power he controlled–the power to destroy anything, everything, by directing the Worm. He recoiled: if he went any further down that path in his mind, he wouldn't return. There would be nothing as valuable to him as the thrill of universal destruction.

            He raised the talisman again. "In the name of Fallin," he said, "go back until you are summoned."

            The Worm began to dissolve into glowing mist: patches here and there, spreading like oil over a ridged gray seascape, iridescent but with foul undertones. The sizzle that accompanied the disappearance was too loud to speak over.

            At the end there was a violet speck in the air. It vanished with a clack like wood blocks striking. The forest was silent.

            Salmson still shivered. There was a fetid odor which he hadn't noticed while the Worm was present.

            He looked down the swath cleared by the monster's body, mashed vegetation from which a miasma rose. Birds hopped among the crushed branches, hunting for prey stunned by the catastrophe.

            All this power….

            "Here, Captain Archas," Salmson said in a clear voice. "Take the talisman. By the grace of Franca, God over all Gods, it is given to you to conquer the Kingdom of the Isles!"

            Archas reached left-handed for the offered statuette. Before he touched it, he paused and said, "And what then? When I've conquered the Isles, what of your folk in Palomir?"

            "We're all slaves of Franca, Captain," Salmson said. "When the whole world worships Franca, then He will decide our fate."

            Archas hesitated a moment longer, then snatched the talisman. "There's nothing more to it?" he demanded. "I just–use it as you did?"

            "The Worm is yours to command," Salmson said quietly. "But don't lose the talisman, or–"

            He shrugged and gestured with his head toward the gouge in the jungle.

            "–the whole world will look like this. Like the Worm's own world."

            And will it be any different for mankind when Franca is God of Gods? Salmson wondered. But there's no turning back….