Because the world shattered, water and shadow coalesced into Ehte, who became aware again for the first time since the world was formed. Fluid darkness, he opened his consciousness and saw ragged, broken chunks floating off into the cosmos. Entire civilizations were collapsing, screaming cacophonous choruses. Vague clouds of elements snaked away in vanishing tendrils, the very fabric of the world unraveling and drifting off into the void.
Ehte felt the tearing and the tension in his body as if it were himself being ripped apart, so tightly entwined had they been. His waking was a great cracking in his core, and for a time all he could do was remain motionless, watching as the world unraveled, feeling within himself exactly what he observed.
Time passed, and the sundering agony faded to an ache like ice about to fracture under a great weight. More of his essence detached from the world’s remnants, and the intimacy that had bound him to it lessened enough for his thoughts to come through the pain of being ripped apart.
Such a calamity could not be accidental, Ehte knew. No answers were apparent in the crumbling pieces of earth or the growing darkness. He reached out his consciousness for the rest of his tribe, his brothers and sisters who had all woven themselves into the world as he had, who would have awoken to the same tearing pangs. In old memories – returning faded and sluggish through the haze of a thousand-year sleep – he remembered their holy spot, the place they had decided to forge a new world millennia before.
Stretching out his tendrils of thought and awareness, Ehte could feel the presence of his tribe all gathered in the same spot. He closed his consciousness and fell through existence. Broken bits of land rushed past him, exposed veins of gold and diamonds. The whoosh of water breaking free from its confines. A crumbling castle. Screams. Then the great silence of the in-between they had traversed for years – nomads, kept only by each other and the light of the stars. He fell past the suns and landed at their holy place: a gray, cratered and bumpy stone floating alone.
Opening his consciousness again, Ehte became aware of all his tribe staring at him.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” his brother of fire and carnelian said.
They were in their most primal state, unbound from the world: amorphous, shifting elemental clouds with vague suggestions of shape – a hint of an eye, a slight curve of tail or arm. After all their consciousness had brushed against Ehte, greeting him, they shifted to either side of the stone, opening a path through them to the single, jutting spire of pumiced rock at the far end. At its smoothed top was their place of oration in the past. Now, a human sat there, cross-legged, and looked serenely down on the churning masses of primordial creatures beneath him.
“A mortal?” Ehte said. “Here?” Being observed by mortal eyes, along with his rage at seeing the human so casually nestled on their most sacred place, condensed Ehte’s form. A suggestion of his hundred wings formed from his darkness. He moved along the path, aware that many of his tribe were reaching out for him, both with their thoughts and ripples of their bodies, trying to stop him. But he disregarded their half-formed pleas and hesitant actions. He split part of his body and formed his scythe, so gargantuan it dragged it along the ground, the tip cleaving through the bumpy stones and shattering them into quickly vanishing shadow.
A smug smile rested on the mortal’s face as he watched.
Ehte drifted up the holy spire, drew back his scythe, and brought it down, the point unerringly headed for the top of the human’s skull.
The point stopped a millimeter from the human’s flesh and would not move. Ehte’s scythe, which had cut through the fabric of the cosmos to create darkness and shadow for the world, had never stopped.
“Ehte,” his twin sister of light called from the crowd. Her voice was clear enough to break through his haze of confusion and compounding rage. The emotions so strong, his form was condensing further, his thousand, starry eyes emerging. “He has come for The Word.”
Observing how the human watched him without fear, Ehte could see that his sister spoke the truth. The human’s eyes were filled with a double spiral of two of their primordial magics. One was the threaded, combined magic that he and his tribe had created and woven into the world at its creation. Each had woven a thread, and those threads had twisted together to form the bindings of the world. The human had found and broken the pillars they had placed to hold their creation together, and now that magic coursed through his body like an underground river carving out a cavern.
The second spiral was the magic of a vote. He had come to the tribe to ask something of them, and they had begun the process of deciding. That magic, impenetrable, held Ehte’s scythe at bay.
“I have taken it all,” the human said.
His scythe vanished into a puff of shadow and his distinct lines dissolved in smoky ripples. The human’s mouth twisted impossibly and the language of Ehte’s tribe – an ancient language of stars and emptiness – disgorged from his mouth. Perfectly clear, precise inflection, as if he were one of them, as if he had traveled the stars at their side. He spoke with an iron confidence, an unwavering cadence.
There had never been one to speak his tribe’s language in all their wanderings. Hearing it from the mouth of one outside his tribe, Ehte’s form darkened. He wanted to draw his scythe forth again, cut the words from the human’s throat, dissect him and find how the words could form. And not stop there – keep cutting until even the thought of speaking them was excised.
“I now possess all that you sacrificed to form the world from nothingness,” he said. “Yes, Ehte, I am the one who has torn your world apart. Torn it apart so that you would emerge and give me the one magic that only you possess. I want the word that you will all speak to grant immortality.”
Ehte descended the stone spire to separate himself from the interloper and address his tribe, but the human spoke, answering the questions he was about to ask.
“We will use this power to reshape the world; we will reorganize creation, and I will become its sole, immortal god. Your tribe will serve me and bring order to what was before chaos and unknowing. And I will rule forever, creating a new era of order and prosperity that has never been seen.”
Ehte could feel the human’s mind touching his own. But it was unlike the gentle melding when his tribe searched for one another, when they wished to communicate. The human’s mind in his own was like maggots devouring a piece of rotten meat, their slimy forms slipping through his memories. He recoiled from the human, who continued speaking.
“I have already stated my case, Ehte. Your tribe has already voted.”
The human’s maggots seeped stray fragments of memory into Ehte’s mind. Ehte could see the great war, the human ripping the ancient power from the pillars which rooted the world into a static state. A flash of the earth splitting apart, a city crumbling and falling into the sudden void, the small, cascading dots of humans and carts and horses mixed into the stones and mortar.
The human tearing the world down to its core, shredding it and seeking the ancient magic that had forged it, waking his tribe one by one, and as they came, demanding of them The Word – a magic so old and powerful that each of his tribe only possessed a single syllable.
The tribe stood equally on either side of the stone, as they had voted.
They left their minds open to him so he could see clearly what they knew. To deny the human The Word, he would age, wither, and die. But he had taken the magic from the pillars. Without that magic, his tribe, too, would fade back into the cosmos and cease to be. They had bound themselves too closely to the world they had made, given too much of themselves. Having lived migratory for so long, they had wanted a place that was so much a part of them that they had dissolved into it. Now, the human held that magic hostage. If he were to die, that magic would die with him. To give him The Word meant to allow him to live forever, holding so much of their essence within himself that they could never be free again.
“We have been waiting for you, Ehte,” the human said. “Your tribe cannot decide. Half of them would rather die than grant me what is my right; half of them acknowledge what is mine. They have all told me I must wait for you to cast the final vote. None of them seemed to know what you would choose.”
The tribe waited wordlessly, the only sound the slight crackle of their elements – his brother of fire’s soft sputter; the grate of stone on metal from his sister of granite and zircon; the softer whisper of wind and dust. He knew the old laws, knew what balanced on the vote, but Ehte could not think. The horror of seeing his tribe’s work undone, seeing it, still, in the distance, drifting apart; the agony that caused his waking, that still throbbed as a dull ache deep inside him; the rage of seeing all that was sacred to them imprisoned within the human’s frail, mortal frame; and the powerlessness of seeing his scythe stop turned Ehte’s mind into opaque ice.
There was something strange about this human – even with the power of the pillars, he should not be able to see into Ehte’s mind, should not possess his tribe’s language. And in thinking so, he could feel the maggots wriggling about, informing the human of all that he thought, allowing the human to see all he tried to parse and understand.
“I am more than a mere man,” the human said. “I was born to rule everything. I am greater than the others, and have vanquished all who have opposed me.”
Ehte backed away from the human, looking to the rest of his tribe. Could they all feel the human sapping their thoughts? And in thinking it, he was aware that the human saw into his mind and pilfered as he pleased.
“What is your vote, Ehte?” the human asked. “Do you give me what is mine? Or do you deny my right and watch everything fade to nothing?”
Ehte looked at his tribe, taking note of the familiar clusters and vague hints of solidity on each side of the platform. He knew how each of them would have voted, could feel their trepidations. The weight of their collective expectation was enough to press him flat, separate his water and shadow, and grind both out of existence.
He looked again at the human, sitting on the sacred stone and watching with his sharp, knowing eyes. It was a man who was accustomed to everything going to plan, who had never lost in his life and did not expect to. And that observation was in turn observed by the human.
Feeling the worming power in his mind, knowing he needed time, needed to think without the wriggling intrusion into his thoughts, Ehte said, “I will consult the Star of Knowledge.”
Before any could object, before the human could steal more of his thoughts, Ehte closed his consciousness and dropped through the sacred stone, falling again through the cosmos. As the distance between him and the human grew, the maggots in his mind wriggled violent death throes, shivered, contorted, and ceased.
He caught the orbit of the Star of Knowledge and opened his consciousness again. The light forced away his shadow, leaving him watery and without distinction as he drifted about the white-hot star that radiated the knowledge of the universe.
Deep from within its core emanated a low, primal hum that rippled out into the darkness. It helped him balance his thoughts, review all that his tribe had been through in their nomadic wanderings of the cosmos, and the decisions they had made to forge the world. The parts of themselves they had sacrificed and enshrined in the pillars of creation that had rooted the world into finiteness, how they had dissolved into their creation.
And now to choose between servitude or extinction – such a thought had never occurred to him. Ehte knew he would rather sink his scythe into the human’s skull and pull the magic out of him than ever play the game the human desired. But drifting about the star, calmed by its hum, he could not see another way forward – the human was protected from harm as long as the vote remained undecided.
“You have been here a long time,” one of his sisters said.
Ehte drifted around the star, and saw his sister of time resting nearby. Her face stretched off into the infinity of past and future. Years hung from her hair like feathers and beads.
“You must have known,” Ehte said. “You must have known that this day would come.”
“Of course,” his sister said.
“So you know the outcome.”
“I know the possibilities,” she said.
Ehte could not tell where exactly she was, where her voice came from.
Whether she spoke to him from the present moment or from some other time, he was never sure, as the world seemed so different to her that it was often impossible for them to understand one another.
Ehte turned away and gazed into the Star of Knowledge. They had passed the star long ago, and the music coming from its core had enraptured them. They suspected some magic – magic older than any his tribe possessed – lingered there. Whatever it was, it had to be ancient, for it must have existed long before any of them had wandered the cosmos. But for such knowledge there was always a great price, and he wondered if this was the time to fly into the center of the star and pay the price and see what knowledge lay within the cocoon of light and heat. Perhaps there was enough wisdom there to escape a dichotomic choice. He would willingly rip out his eyes or hang burning within the star’s core if it meant power enough to free his tribe from the human’s choice.
“I do not want us all to die, sister,” Ehte said.
“Then there is only one choice.”
“What will happen to us, sister? What will happen to us in servitude?”
“All that is certain, Ehte, is that no matter your decision, you will forever be seen as a traitor to our tribe.”
“A traitor?” The word burrowed into his core and was a dense enough darkness to threaten to overwhelm all of him; to pull him in and not allow even a wisp of his shadow, a drop of his water, to escape.
“No matter what you decide, you will realize everyone’s fears. Those who voted to serve wish you to vote the way they cannot. But they will be embittered that you have sentenced us all to death. And those who would rather fade back into the cosmos than live in chains still wish to live, but will despise living forever in servitude. That this choice has fallen to you means that for however long our tribe lives, you will be the one that betrayed us.”
“And you, sister? Will you label me a traitor?”
“I will continue to drift along the current of time, taking the forks as they come. We all will.”
Ehte looked again into the burning core of the star. He saw only the mortal races resisting this ascension without success. He saw the human, willing to sacrifice his entire race, every race, to obtain what he desired. He saw only a future of bondage, of taking what they had made and turning it into something none of them could have imagined or desired.
“Brother,” his sister said, “You who speak in water should understand well the power of time.”
Her voice was faraway, so far that Ehte suspected she spoke from some point in the distant future.
Her words intertwined with the star’s deep hum and cleared the dirty film muddling his thoughts. A clear image: waves crashing against a cliff. Water breaking and, scattered apart, sliding back into the sea. Over and over. For years. Decades. Millennia. Then, the entire cliff dropping to the sea, the base eroded away.
“You will have to be strong, Ehte. The years will be long, and you will be alone.”
“Thank you, sister,” he said, and closed his consciousness. He fell away from the Star of Knowledge, back through the cold expanse of nothing, past the suns, and landed again on the sacred stone. The human still sat on the spire, patient, waiting. As soon as he opened his consciousness, Ehte felt the maggots in his mind begin to crawl and burrow again.
The rest of his tribe had gone. The rock seemed desolate with only the human on it, floating through the darkness. In the distance, the world continued to crumble and drift apart.
“I have ravaged every enemy,” the human said. “The nations of the world died because they opposed me. I was born to rule this world. You, who created it, have a place in my new world. You think now to plot my demise, to lie in wait, hobbled but surviving, until a day arrives when you can kill the immortal god you’re about to create. But you will see, Ehte. You will gaze upon my glory from my feet and understand.”
Ehte knew that he could not hide his desires, so he made no attempt to. The maggots in his mind feasted on the images of his scythe slicing through the human, Ehte’s drive to find any way to take revenge.
“For now,” Ehte said, “I vote to grant you what you seek.” As soon as he spoke the words, his nebulous form condensed. He could feel his magic beginning to siphon out of him, confining him to one form, to the ground. His hundred wings spread out behind him, his thousand eyes were open and looking in all directions. His voice came smaller, from a constrained throat. “I will give you my part of The Word.”
He pulled his shadowy scythe from his body and exposed his forearm.
There, burned into his flesh, glowing with the ancient magic, was his syllable of The Word. He sliced through his flesh, carving it away, and the syllable rose up, sounding out its ancient intonation, and drifted to the human.
As his syllable drifted away, his wings atrophied, his eyes glazed into blind, milky pearls. Whole portions of his being withered, fell away as nothingness, leaving him only two tattered wings and cracked horns, two eyes, one tail.
With the first syllable spoken, Ehte could sense the others returning to give their portion of The Word. They drifted in, losing their amorphous forms, reducing down into finite beings. They cut their syllables from their flesh, and The Word began to form, resounding across the emptiness, each syllable catching in the human’s orbit and spinning around him, joining together and forging again the old magic.
As the word formed, Ehte felt chains being forged around his chest and wings, each link confining more of his strength until he could only lift his head from the ground. His brothers and sisters were barely recognizable, their mangled bodies wrapped in chains mirroring his own. Atop their spire, the new god stood surveying his new servants.
The maggots feasted on his despair, his anger. From them emanated the human’s booming decree of how to go and reshape the world. Against that noise, Ehte filled his mind with water so deep light could not penetrate its depths. In those shadows, cut off from his tribe and solitary for the first time, the words of the new god rolling like unending thunder, Ehte planned his defiance. The maggots plunged down, brushed against his formulating plans, and rose back to the surface. But they could not go deep enough to reach the darkest sliver of shadow within his being, where his scythe still rested.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Kellichner is writer and poet from Pennsylvania currently living in South Korea. His short fiction has been previously published at published in Black Denim Lit and Trigger Warnings: Short Fiction with Pictures. Poetry has appeared in Farrago’s Wainscot, the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, the Tishman Review, and the Tahoma Literary Review.