the bright footprint, the mouthless cry

“Come with me,” your lord says. So you go.

Not, of course, that you are in any way compelled to do so. You have still to learn all your reasons for remaining here in his service, maintaining faith when you know the futility of belief. Why for centuries you have kept extending trust that only he, out of the myriad-and-growing souls you have met, has proven deserving of.

(There is a word they have, for those that fail said trust. For freedmen become slavers, for the wronged that try to avenge themselves by multiplying the wrong onto others. Tone'kälv. Mender of chains. There is no greater curse than that, in their tongues.)

But this you know: he does not compel you. And because you are not compelled, you calmly brush the sheets of parchment you were perusing into a neat stack, tuck your tablet into an inner pocket of your robes, and rise to follow him out into the corridor.

You expect to be told, in short order, what it is he wants with you. You are not. Neither does he look back to check that you are still there as you turn onto a second corridor, then a third, passing doorway after doorway without even a glance.

With each, your curiosity grows. It is not like him to be secretive. Inscrutable, occasionally - what else should you expect? To effect his salvation he will surely need many layers of plans, and will not need to divulge them all to you. But deep in your stomach you know this is different, and by the time you step out through a cloister onto the streets worry has already infiltrated, tightening your lips against your teeth.

No curious gazes follow you as you navigate a winding path through the city’s dendritic byways and emerge by one of the small tertiary gates. The air is hot and oppressive this close to midsummer, and great pendulous flowerheads drip amber nectar and mucilage down the faces of the buildings. He strokes the row of setae that runs along the gate's central axis, and it obediently relaxes, allowing him to step out.

You hesitate, just at the threshold. Where are you taking us?, you think of asking - and you could probably get an answer if you refused to follow unless he gave it. But he stops, and looks back to you, and suddenly you are swamped in shame. Would you doubt yourself, under the same circumstances? And do you not trust him even more than your own heart?

So, head bowed, you step forward.

For the rest of the day, you journey. Small streams are crossed, vales traversed, copses navigated.

What do you want with me? you think of asking. Why have you called me to come here, into the wilds?

Is something wrong?

But each time you go to ask some instinct wakens and stoppers your voice, saying no, not yet, not yet. You will have but one chance to question; prove your trust yet another hour. And another, and another -

A dusty cloud of spores rises as he brushes past a dried-out fern frond. He is wearing a human form, this day - of course you had seen that, but it had not seemed of import until now. Two arms and two legs and two eyes, grey as a midsummer storm. The shape he wears to show the worst-abused that he is not some alien thing unable to sympathize with their suffering, but that he knows, intimately, their sorrow and desperation.

The road dwindles to a track, then a game-trail, then to nothing at all. The vegetation shrinks, thin spruce and grasses giving way to thin, twisted shrubs, then lichens, then bare rock and sand. The night has drawn in cold and moonless by the time he halts you in the lee of a great and solitary rock outcrop, split nearly in two by a deep crack. Still unspeaking, he kneels and begins to adjust the rocks on the ground. They gently knock against each other as each is placed.

A fire pit takes shape. You do not need a fire - you have nothing to cook, and whatever wild animals inhabit this land, they could not hope to threaten you. Still, somehow you feel that is not the question you need to ask either, and you obediently crouch by its side and open your hands, commanding tissues callus, lignify, and dehisce, dragging carbon from the air until a stack of fuel sits against the rim of stone. Brushing fragments of bark from your palms, you stand again; he takes what you have generated and begins to build.

Even stranger, he draws from his clothing a tinder-pouch, and lights it with flint, star-stone, and amadou. Such a method has not been employed among his host for decades at the least, for it is far more convenient simply to slide a thread of sorcery into whatever must be ignited and push a handful of would-be-radiated heat along it. But the spark nonetheless settles and the tinder catches, and satisfied, he seats himself between pit and rock, crossing his legs at the ankles. The crack rises black behind his shoulder, branching like the inverse of a tree.

You are none of you young, anymore - many generations, both human and Daevite, have been born and lived and borne descendants and died in the space between your early memories and now. Nonetheless, he looks it intensely, curled up in the leaping firelight.

The potential question still hangs in the now-smoky space between you. You consider what’s going on? - general, so sure to encompass whatever it is he intends with this odd pageantry, but possibly too much so - and ultimately settle on “Did you desire to speak with me?”

He answers the question with another. “Do you remember what you told me then?” he begins. “On the banks of the river?”

You remember. Though your memory must skip back centuries on centuries to recall it - there have been so many rivers, and so many tellings, since then - this one is burned in your mind like a brand.

It had been in the very earliest days, on the eve of his warband’s first incursion. You had been camped on one side of the river that wound its way through his homeland. An unusual quiet had fallen, but simmering on the air had been the knowledge that on the morrow you would cross, and a life of fleeing and skirmishes would finally unfurl its fronds and become an insurrection in full-bloom.

(Of course, it had been double-edged. For each person there had understood that if you were greeted by failure, then all this would end before it began.)

It had been through the smoke of a fire like this that he had spoken. The expression on his face had made you think that his words would be on that possible failure and the myriad permutations thereof. So you had been expecting to review your stratagems - if necessary, to wax verbose on the utter preparedness of everyone else. For any outcome.

“If we succeed,” he had said instead, “I never wish to become - that.” The steel in his voice had dragged you from your ruminations. “Do you understand? I will not allow it.”

I have no desire for death, his eyes had told you, but I would die, before I allowed that. And you had understood that he had been thinking of the auctioneer’s block, the pall of cyclical suffering that had stretched out over Daevon like volcanic ash - birth, service, death - and choked the breath from untold throats, generations on generations borne and buried before they ever knew what it was to breathe free. You had thought of your sister’s cynical smile, and the thief-girl at the pillar, the lines bleeding down her skin.

So you had told him, “That will never happen to you. Not only because you are right, but because - you are human enough to know when you might be wrong.”

And even now you answer "Yes, I remember," for in all this time you have never stopped believing. Else you would not still be here. Let you all be damned, let you dirty your hands on the battlefield and adorn your hearts with bitumen - still you shall follow, for through him your cause is just. This he has proven, time and time again.

A slight flash to one side catches your eye; pale globes are springing up from the ground around him, elongating and unfurling slender stalks and delicate caps. Without the moon’s illumination they reflect the firelight, their bulbs waxing and waning in time with its flickering. The light slices them in half: one side doused in saffron, the other a pallid blue and sunk in shadow. Death-caps - handsome but mortal.

At first you think he has not noticed, but at your response he looks up and his gaze falls upon them. They are dispelled unceremoniously with a flick of his hand - then, the hand is extended out to you.

“Take my wrist.”

Reaching over the fire pit, you do so gingerly. There is no practical reason for that - laughable really, that you could hurt him like this - but it is the sentiment you cannot help.

“There is something…” He is looking back at the fire, now. “Close your eyes. Please.”

You do. You have followed this far without explanation; a little farther is not unbearable. For a few moments you hear nothing but the whistling of the breeze as it eddies around the outcrop.

And the pulse beneath your fingertips.

At first, the sound is ordinary. Only a faint tapping against the pad of your thumb, every bit as human as the form he has chosen.

Then… a change, in the darkness around you. It seems to shift, take form, like threads plied together on a spindle. As though the sinuous form of some great serpent coils beyond your shoulders, just out of sight - nāga, you think unwillingly, though nowhere during the tales of your childhood had you felt such a heaviness.

Your eyes are still closed. There is nothing to see.

But something else is here. You are certain of it.

It is… like him, but wrong: warped somehow. Contorted. Yet not unrecognizable, and perhaps that is what sours the strangeness into dread. You have felt the shape of his power in totality, have tasted the breadth and depth of it; you have even taken it within you, before a fragment had broken from the whole and become yours in truth.

The flavour of it had been - the lush effervescence of pollen at height of spring, and salt like the carbonate fractals sunk into deep seabed, and rich as a mouthful of blood. This is something like that. But when you look for pollen you find only a wilted meadow under skies of endless grey - even the seabed crumbling, all of it crumbling, magma heaving up from below to drift into the waves - and the blood festering off into a bitterness.

In their absence is a ringing void. And looming out of that void is a thing impossibly vast, that waits, watching, from somewhere just behind you.

Your eyes snap open.

But it is only the moonless night that greets you, and the immutable shape of the outcrop.

“What - ”

(You scarcely need to ask to receive an answer, although in the space between when his mouth first begins to form the word and when it is spoken - you will have just enough time to wish that you did not.)

“Me,” he says, and something wrenches in your heart. “Or what I will be.” He says it, you think, as though speaking from somewhere far away.

It is easier, then, for you to float in disbelief a little longer, drifting slowly away from him and yourself, the fire and the sundered stone. In one corner of your mind the questions accumulate, their frenzied gyre accelerating - How did this happen? How long have you known this, and why tell me now? Have you told anyone else, anyone at all? - but his next words sever them like a blade to the carotid.

“You understand, then. What I must do.”

Across the thin stream of smoke, you meet his eyes. Despite their thunderhead colour, they are very clear. He looks almost as young, you think, as he did before that first incursion. Only this time, the weariness there carries the weight of centuries. Perhaps it has for more time than you want to guess at, and this is merely the first time he has allowed it to be shown.

(What of the campaign? winds absurdly through your mind, but what you really want to ask is - What about us?)

And it is not for lack of understanding that the word spills out: “No.” Your thoughts are aflutter now, a profusion of mayflies, scrambling for something, for anything - “There must be a way to - to detach it from you. To control it, at least.”

“There is.” And then he says it, the thing that makes it real:

“In a fortnight I will die in battle.”

The scholar in you wonders how this could possibly suffice to bring down the Archon - after all, you have just seen the expanse of its strength. And then you remember the death-caps, those sinuous threads - it has anchored itself to him so as give itself a connection into the world, just as the death-cap in the wild must attach itself to an oak root in order to survive. You cannot simply pluck the mushroom and expect to kill it, for the hyphae are still there, drawing from the tree. It must be dug out in its entirety, anchor and all.

More protests rise inside you, but they break on the cliffside stillness of his gaze before they take shape, and what you say instead is: “Then I will go with you.” Not only into the battle, but into death itself, or any other place he might consign himself. For - why else would he have told you this?

He puts up a hand. “For this… I must go alone. But there is another task that will be left.”

He speaks, then, of all the work left undone, of the creed of life and living that had been his to pass on (and always will be foremost his, you think despairingly, though you spread it throughout the world). But more pressingly - of the colossal things still writhing out there in the dark, that which you had felt for yourself writ large. Forever watching for a chink in the armour of reality, a foothold from which to devour and propagate. Forever waiting to worm through.

Because for all the dreams of those who had rallied to his banner, for all your visions of the amaranth dawn to come - this had been your truest charge. To defy any earthly ruler who would wield their teeth, yes, but to live in defiance of that atrophy most of all. If keeping them out of this fragile-shelled world is worth his death - surely it is worth everything else, as well.

So this would be your lot. To learn and subvert their designs, to guard your people against them - but no more. And as he speaks you can almost feel the duty and the burden of it seeping into you, until he is left only with a shell: this small mortal body with nothing but a handful of hopes to scatter in the wind like funeral ashes.

Finally, when it is done - he will stand up and leave, you think. Any time now.

But he remains seated against the stone, leaning back with eyes that look the way you feel. Empty, reflective, slanting towards the stars as if to search for answers.

A thin, wounded-animal whine wends its way out through the roof of your mouth. Because in all that instruction, all the unfinished tasks he had passed onto you like a mantle of pure gold was one ultimate, implicit charge.

You are going to have to live, to complete his work. He'll be dead, and you won't be, and somehow you'll have to endure it and you can't. If only you had been charged to empty the sea, to capture the sun it its orbit - anything seems possible in comparison to this.

By now, you had thought yourself familiar with pain. But you now realize that you never knew it truly - no blade, no injury, not thirst or frostbite or beating or hunger can ever draw close to this desolation. You are tempted to tear yourself open, wrench handfuls of your own guts into the dust; lunge into the fire and blister your hands to uselessness on its ashes. Just so your body will match, just so that you will have a physical, tangible wound that would explain all the pain, an indisputable reason you feel cut open and hollowed out like a hunter's fresh carcass.

You remain horribly, agonizingly whole. An edge of light creeps along the horizon; the sunrise already draws near. Finally, he withdraws his gaze from the stars and turns it back to you. He had said it himself that he must go alone, and so why, you wonder again, has he not left you, why still torment you with this last nearness -

No. No. This is already unendurable - he cannot mean to make you leave first. But his eyes are full enough with pity that you know; he does mean that, exactly that.

And if you refused he would only remind you, again, of those earliest days of his rebellion. You said also that you could not bear more battles, and yet you fought them. You could not bear to be reshaped like clay, and yet, look at what you have become.

So surely, he would say, you can bear this too.

But this is harder than everything he has yet had you do. This is the hardest thing you have ever done, to get to your feet and turn your back on the fire, and the stone, and your lord. To take that first step back out of the waste, and the second, and the third - every part of you screams no, no, this is wrong, you can't leave - how can you be elsewhere when he does die, alone, unwitnessed, and abandoned by you all? How are you not drinking in the last moments you will ever share? You must turn back, you must look -

But if you do that, you will shatter. And there will be no hope at all left for the world. And so you close your eyes, and hide your face in your hands, and step forward.