"All Gods are real now," they said. They didn't say they could escape.


10. Five

"Easy, he's harmless." Tiffany held her hands up, staring down the shotgun barrel at the redheaded guy wielding it. "I already checked him over, Joel."

The redhead, Joel, didn't move, tracking the gun over us both. "You brought a human in, Tiff! You know the others aren't gonna like that!"

"More like you, Peter, and Niklas aren't. I promise, he'll stay right by me. When have I ever let anything bad happen to us before?"

He glowered, lowering the shotgun. "One wrong move, and both him and you are out on your asses, Astraea. I'll make sure all the guards know."

"Whatever you say, Alexiares, whatever you say."

He snorted as she took my arm and lead me past him, across the plaza towards an old Dead End sign. "Sorry about Joel. He's always like that."

Jesus, what kind of place is this? "What the hell is his problem?"

"Nothing, it's just the deity he was turned into. Alexiares, one of the two mythical guardians of...someplace. Can't remember the exact myth. Him and a few others are on guard duty most of the time. You know, in case of less amicable deities or huma- well, you get the point."

Humans. Us. Where Karmatown and Last Stop put up walls to keep them out, they do the same to keep us out. "Are they...well, looking for us in particular?"

"Hm? Oh, no. Not all humans in particular, just...well, hunters."

But we're just as good for keeping away. "Are you...all like this?"

"Not all of us. Most are pretty meh on the subject. Come on, main part of Project Hoperise is this way."

She lead me around the sign, the glow of firelight heavy in the air, dancing on the few homes, shacks, tents, and general shelters surrounding a dead-end road. At the end, a huge fire had been built, dead animals and pre-Breakout cans of...things...suspended over or tucked in it, cooking away. Figures huddled in the light, either around the big fire or their own mini blazes, either staring at me with wide, fearful eyes, or clutching weapons too fancy looking to be anything but their own from before the Breakout. Some of them whispered to each other, staring at me, huddling away amongst disjointed snatches of conversation.

"...that...that's a human...freely walking here..."

"...survived an encounter with..."

"...Yanisin found him..."

" he a hunter? No, or Tiffany wouldn't..."

"...least there's only one of 'em, easier to deal with if-"

At least there's only one of me. There is now. The little twist in my heart gave a yank as El came to my mind. She was...gone. Forever. And it...well, hurt.

It didn't hurt when Pa never came back, even when we found his old sweater coated in blood and crow feathers. It didn't hurt when Mom got sick, got better, felt fighting fit, then lost to some creature-deity out of Connecticut. Friends, their families, even some of the townsfolk in Karmatown lookin' after us once Mom died...nothing. Eloise on the other hand...

"Don't worry, none of them are gonna hurt you. Most of the Outer Circle are in, come meet them. Oh, and there's no excuse for Sofia and Marc so I apologise in advance."

She tugged my hand, snapping me out of it as she lead me towards the big fire, a group of figures sitting or laying around it, coming into focus as we drew nearer. First was a young Black woman, I'd guess about thirty, tucked away in a grey hood tied like a hijaab draping over survival-shredded jeans and a funny-looking long top. A few loose hairs hung out of her hood and thick rivers tears rolled down her cheeks into a steel bucket held in her lap. She didn't seem to notice me, or if she did she didn't give a fuck. Hell, when El had her moments and cried like that, she didn't give a fuck about anything and anyone. She didn't seem to care though, as even though tears streamed past her button nose, she smiled and chatted away as if this wasn't the post-apocalypse.

Her companion didn't seem as perky, staring aimlessly into space. I'd put her maybe in her late teens, with lavender purple hair tumbling to her waist beneath a crown of metal roses welded onto her scalp. Her eyes were too hard to see in the firelight, but her skin was granite gray - freckle-spotted like granite on her bare shoulders - and she wore a sky-blue dress that plunged to her navel, the hemline floating around her bare feet. She didn't seem to be paying much attention to anything, just hugging her knees and staring at the fire, nodding her head every so often as the crying one chatted to her and occasionally patted her arm.

"She'll turn up fine, Sherise. Tenasi was fierce even before they fucked with 'er." A third one patted her on the shoulder as he lay back, propped up on his elbows and bathing in the golden firelight, his golden hair shining in waves to his shoulders. I'd put him at about her age, late teens, laying shirtless in just a loose...I wanna say a plain forest-green kilt, his porcelain skin almost glowing in the golden light. "Hell, weren't the feathery old hag a contributor to 'er pop culture form?"

"Doesn't mean she won't be at least wounded, Drew. Wounded, bleeding...perfect target for the blue fiend up in the ancient fort. And he despises her now." The gray-skinned woman, Sherise, replied, looking back over her shoulder at him lounging in the light.

"He's her brother, he can't hate her that much." The golden haired Drew yawned, stretching out, toasting his toes over the fire.

"Not anymore, Drew. Remember, they deliberately altered him to be the one Tenasi's deity hates most." Another spoke from the side of the fire, leaning over to avoid catching his antlers in the blaze. Big ones, more stag-like than moose-like, growing out from his forehead under a shaggy-looking mess of black hair curling to his shoulders. His face was turned away from me, so I couldn't see his features, but I could see his bare chest, leather and fur pants, and the pistol holster at his hip. Funny-looking tattoos had been carved into his reddish-brown skin, and a fringe of beading hung off the holster, white like bone. "He's no more her brother than I am."

"We're all brothers and sisters, Yasinin. All deities now." A fifth leaned up over some square thingy in his lap, blonde hair whipping around his knife-pointed ears in the breeze. His eyes glowed in the darkness, vivid green against his fawn skin, and the golden robes he wore had become ragged and frayed around the edges. Something sat in his hand, long and thin, and as he lounged, it darted across as if controlled with some psycho-whatsit power.

"Does that mean you're fucking your sister most nights, Marc?" The antler-bearing one, Yasinin - that was the one who grabbed me! - chuckled.

There was the sound of tearing paper, Golden Boy, Marc or whatever, scrunching up something then throwing it at Yasinin. "We're different in every way!"

"Except you're both pop culture deities. You really are fucking your sister, ha!" Yasinin laughed.

"Guess you were too when you had that encounter with your pop culture counterpart." The final figure chuckled, drifting out into the firelight, glowing from within.

There was nobody quite like her, her ankle-length hair was black but it sparkled as if dusted with gold, sweeping down straight and shiny and glittery around tiger lilies behind her ear. Her skin was a soft, tawny brown, dotted with moles, glowing from within as if she were lit like a lamp. She had a hand on her hip, full breasts bare under the curtains of her hair, slim fingers fiddling with the belt of what looked like a silk skirt. Her free hand rested on Marc's shoulder, fingers playing with a lock of his hair, as she looked down at him with a dead sexy grin.


"So, this is the mortal we rescued." Tiffany piped up, drawing me closer. "He's harmless, I swear."

Six pairs of eyes trained themselves onto me. "Tiff, you brought him here!?" The blonde one in the kilt, Drew, hissed.

"I'm not leaving anyone where he was. Ancient fort, hint hint."

"You mean...that one?" Sherise bit her lip, a slight tremble to her voice. "And he didn't..."

"Not as far as I could tell, no."

"Oh...human, didn't catch his attention?"

His attention? "I...guess not. Why?"

"Sherise, don't!" Yasinin reached over, laying a hand on her shoulder until she shrugged it off.

"No, Yasinin, I'm not leaving her! Human, please, will you help me?"

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