The silence of the years pounds down
The silence of the years pounds down
Still I feebly call into the Void:
Can a god know so little of being a man?
The Brothers looked over the small folk’s lands
All they saw, they claimed their right by birth
But no god can share their throne for long
Pride rises from deep within his breast
Circling each other, they were as astral bodies:
In their eyes, burning suns
In their hands, crushing mountains
In their hearts, shallow silence
One seized the Moon as his hammer blow
The other claimed the hard anvil of the World
One fell, one rose, and came on the crushing blows
While all that laid between fell broken
You, Friend, have called them saviors
You, Friend, have called them gods
But tell me, what good fruit grows
From roots drowning in reddened waters?
- The Sons Incarnate, “Plea of the Witness,” first cantus
Witnessed and recorded by Sanct Eckard, the Living Testament
192 IY (Illuvian Year), Second Year of Our Broken World
“Locked lips,” the man had said. “Locked lips, and if I unlock them, that’s two dead men, see?” He had a gleam to his eyes—beer tears, like always. “Though you know how I’d love to gossip with an old friend.”
Erik ran through the forest, the trees and brush a dark blur. He didn’t see critters scattering beneath the decaying leaves, nor the birds fluttering away as he passed. He didn’t even look for lurchers hiding in the shadows, waiting for the next hapless passerby.
“A bird asked after you, wondered about our relationship, asked about my prospects. My prospects—we both know those are complete and utter fek, don’t we? And as for us, well, that’s a bit more complicated, isn’t it?”
Erik’s breathing came fast. As he stumbled over roots and underbrush, a hand went to his chest, to the ribbed flesh where it had been stitched after the hot knife had welded the ragged skin back together. It seemed to burn under his fingers, and he rubbed at dull echoes of pain.
“I explained the whole history to the bird, line by line. Fast friends we were, despite you having fek for family and lineage and being ‘fidel to boot. But I saw something in you, and I stuck around, didn’t I? Then we chased the same girls—girl, really, there was always just the one. We had our fights, but what boys don’t? That bird asked what I’d do for you, how far I was willing to go to get what I wanted. And do you know what I said?”
“What’d you say, Oslef?” Erik whispered to the woods.
“I said, ‘Anything for an old friend.’”
At first, it had been no more than a strange feeling, that something in his chest, no more painful than seeing an arrow in a stump. Even as his heart thumped hard near the metal tip, Erik felt numb, helpless to do anything but stare at the dagger in his ribs. His shirt darkened in a widening circle, like watching a drop of ink spread in water.
Then numbness gave way to the red wave, and it washed over, drowning him.
His foot caught, and Erik tumbled to the ground, memories ripped away. His knees and hands scraped against the twigs and dirt, and then he was pulling up his trousers and peering at his hands in the solid darkness, desperately looking for red lines breaking through the skin. But they were whole, he wasn’t bleeding, wasn’t bleeding out. He was fine, as fine as he could be.
He sat back against a tree trunk, breathing heavily, and closed his eyes for a moment. A different scene pressed in on him, stale air in his throat, stiff and cloying as a tomb. Pale light flickered from piston-fire lamps on stone walls. Before him, an old man’s eyes bulged, milky white tingeing pink, then cloudy red like sunset on storm clouds. Strands of thin, pale hair fell over the unnaturally smooth, onyx face. The throat, thin as a starved doe, trembled with horrible gasps, filling the dead air with them as a pair of hands tightened about it. Then the noises stopped. There was stillness, silence, a sigh of relief—his own sigh—as he loosened his hands from the body.
Erik opened his eyes and had to resist the sudden urge to slam his head back against the trunk. He rose and pressed on.
Where he went was almost beside the point. He couldn’t stay anywhere near, not with how things were now. Not with what he was. He had to get as far as he could from Zauhn. It wasn’t even that the guards—the Eyes of Zauhn—might come after him, or that he felt guilty from the blood on his hands. He didn’t know where he needed to go, not yet. And his father, who might know, who might save his son from what he’d become, wouldn’t tell him.
As his throat whistled through his clenching jaw, Erik tried to put thoughts of his father from his mind.
A bush rustled next to him, and he jerked away and scanned the woods, but the sparse moonlight showed nothing between the leaning trees. Still, his hand traveled to his belt-knife and stayed there. He peered into the darkness and, slowly, he found the source of the sound.
A shadow emerged from around a tree, and Erik flinched back, hand clenching hard. As the figure moved forward, the moon reluctantly revealed it. First a shoulder, barely more than bone and tendon. A foot followed, seemingly disconnected in the darkness, its long, purplish nails curling back and stabbing into the toes. Then the face; it hovered above the black body, the skin loose over the skull, with the jaw hanging slack around its few remaining teeth. And the eyes, lolling to the sides, irises bleached of color so even the thin light of the broken moon seemed to fill them.
Erik swallowed hard and shuffled back even as his grip relaxed. It was an old lurcher, probably two or more months past fresh. What flesh hadn’t rotted off its body had likely been picked by carrion creatures. The thing looked too feeble to prevent it. It would have been dangerous when it was first made, fast as a live man, and twice as furious. Now it was harmless. Erik even pitied it.
The lurcher shuffled forward, coming clear of the tree line. He could see it was once a woman from its skeletal hips. It was about all he could identify. It favored its back foot as it approached, and he could see why; it was little more than a pulpy club at this point.
It wasn’t the first lurcher Erik had seen. Far from it. He and the Count’s count’s son, Oslef—that betraying bastard Oslef—had followed many lines of tracks through the woods, hunting for the dragging feet that made them. The pair would follow them through rain and mud, deep into the forest, until they saw the creature before them, walking slowly towards the shore of the island, always towards the shore. They would draw their blades quietly from their sheaths and creep through the underbrush, then rush it. Erik laughed as the steel cut through the flimsy skin and brittle bones.
He didn’t want to laugh now.
It kept coming, quiet but for the dragging of its foot and the creak of its bones. It didn’t wheeze like he expected, didn’t breathe at all. One day I might stop breathing, then.
Did it know him? Could it tell they were the same, that he was one of them now? Its arm reached out, fingers splayed—to welcome? To harm? Or just to touch? Had it felt the loss of touch longer than the decay of its own body? Perhaps it was the worst of the two pains.
But why did he think of it as it? It had been a woman once, just as he’d once been a man. Why not she?
Her fingers grasped at the air before his face, pleading.
Erik grabbed them and crushed them in his hand. The bones became dust, too brittle even to cut. The lurcher made a guttural sound and fell forward, and Erik helped it, propelling its skull to the ground. It smashed into wet grass and mud with enough force that even the soft earth could not prevent the bone fracturing beneath his hand. Something oozed between his fingers.
One of its arms reached back, and he pulled it, breaking it at the shoulder. Its scream was muffled in the mud. But still its body pushed up, its legs still working. A stomp on each femur put an end to that.
Erik rose and stepped away from the corpse, breathing hard. The forest was quiet, not even lunegazers clacking their wings, silent as before a storm.
His stomach roiled, then he was heaving acid into the grass. There was blood and bile on his hands, and the mangled body still moved in the mud before him.
A painting of his future, clear as a forest spring.
He stumbled away, back into the dark woods, leaving the lurcher broken and tearlessly crying, Erik wishing he could curl up and sleep and never have to wake again.
Again, he wasn’t aware of what was around him. But had he looked, he might have seen, far back in the shadowy brush, a hundred glowing pinpricks, steady as stars. And if he’d looked closer, he might have seen they were shaped remarkably similar to feral, hunting eyes.