Of Nadox and the Ozirmok
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14Ion gazed upon the ruined sage and spoke unto him. "Thou hast taught me temperance, and serenity, and to render grief unto even the undeserving. But what have I taught thee?"

15Mouthlessly, the sage replied: That I am a living being. No more and no less. And that is worth more than all the knowledge in this world or any other.

- The Rise of Kalmaktama, 3:14-15; The Solomonari Valkzaron

Interlude: Ad Momentum, Pace | In Memoria, Adytum

Afterwards—

Is it finally afterwards? You have known only one other, and that had been a long time ago. Too long. Not long enough.

Everything is dark and cool and still. Your other body envelops you both.

It sighs, steaming quietly. A dormant homeostasis. Drinking the dregs of what you’d left. It will die, if you do nothing.

Not enough time. Not to converse as—equals? Inasmuch as you could ever have been equals. Equals, face to face and hand in reuniting hand, rather than a person and the structure they inhabit. An absurd thought: person is a loose term for both of you, and your architecture contains every part of you. It makes no difference. You should return to the kiraak, return to yourself. It is no time at all, after three millennia.

You do not return. You force yourself to look at them.

They are—

(too thin, too weak, the bones showing through the skin, it seems a cruel irony that you have so much flesh to spare)

(troubled, they cannot meet your eyes though they had always been able to, every one of them at once)

(lost, loss-wracked, as you had been all the way back at the beginning)

They are two eyes and two arms and two legs. And at the ends of the arms, hands. Six-fingered, the fingers held loosely, as though recently clenched or not clenched very much at all. Hair the color of loam. Eyes the color of petrichor, of water-bearing clouds. They are still, recognizably, themself.

And it is awful.


So, the other afterwards.

After all the plans had been made and set into motion, all the cities toppled and their people turned to dust, all the tears shed and flowed into the ground—you walk out to a settlement on the banks of a river to the north, both like and too unlike the one you had once known. And you make yourself into a building.

A building! Does any child dream of being a building when they grow up? Such are the thoughts that spin through your mind as you offer yourself to the ground, render yourself into a receptacle for the living.

Of course they are null. Of course it is a fine and noble thing to be a building, for one such as you. A sacred thing. A kiraak is strong, safe. Meticulously crafted. You will be able to shelter many within you. And hadn’t you always dreamt of having enough arms to hold, to hold and to have as much as you had wanted, even when you could grow dozens, hundreds, more than space should allow?

The best fate, really, for a failed sage. Anticipation of nothing.

Your grief becomes you.


This is the truth:

After everything, you had been the one to agree. To agree to this. To agree so well that you had shut yourself up in here, stoppered all your orifices, sealed yourself bodily from sun and stars and their great wide endless-stretching sky.

(Beneath the sky had been sight. And you hadn’t wanted to see, had you? Never mind that Prague—Boihaem then, and before that a little place with no name, like any other nowhere patch of earth—had been a settlement and would only swell. Adding bodies, adding minds, a cloud of psychic chatter that would never, ever ebb. Never mind that you would have a thousand years to stew in it.)

So you came down here. So you are a building. So your grief becomes you, and you become your grief.


But what is grief without hope? They are twinned, entwined as huntress and harvester, like the moon-wolf that brings down the sun-elk every night in those stories they told you once. And so it is their plan that hangs like a tangle of karelā-vine at the back of your mind, through years of darkness and silence, of meditations and ontokinetic exercises so rote they begin to feel pointless.

The letter, when you receive it, is shockingly mundane. Just three sheets of parchment in her hand, hurried, smeared at some parts. You feel as though it should cut you. Really cut, as much as it is possible to cut a building.

It is then that you know hope’s true twin.

The first drop blooms in your chest, and it is nothing so noble as grief.


“Venerated teacher.” Kalākāran’s voice, a low murmur. “It is done.”

All your eyes flutter open. He had never been one of yours, like Shāng. Lovataar’s child, her little artist, wasp-tongued and beauty-mad, with a face that reminded you too much of a homeland under the babul blooms. You remember when she’d first brought him in, grinning beneath the grime.

He isn’t grinning now.

An offering. At the edge of your mind, more toll than votive: the intimation of a thought. Momentarily, you consider refusing out of nothing but weariness and aren’t you owed at least this? But you are owed—oh, absolutely nothing. And all of this is yours, would not be happening if not for you—if not for them, from your mind, a coward’s lie, you cannot pretend to know what they would want in this—

So you accept, even knowing what it is.

Beneath the glass, the children look asleep. Their bodies are—splotchy with red and white, like the skin has been eaten away, some limbs swollen, black with dead tissue up and down the flesh. There is little healthy skin left. Barely any at all, with bodies this size.

They are not asleep. They are dead.

Because you and all of you have willed it, and knowingly, for nothing so selfish as love.

"Why?" you ask, and mean: Why show me this. What is this to you when we both know very well that this has happened, that we have all of us done this, been doing this, will repeat this uncountable times in the coming days.

He looks up at—you, you suppose, though it would be the same if he looked in any direction. And if that face had not been so calculated, so perfectly mask-still—you might have thought it looked tired.

“Because, venerated teacher, despite what you may think of me—I take no joy in killing children.”

And yet, you could say, you bred your own to kill. And yet you are still with us. And yet if you had turned your offspring on me rather than those children, and if it worked—perhaps it would be the nobler course of action.

"Thank you," you tell him.

Kalākāran looks surprised, and you cannot explain. It is not because you take any joy in seeing but because you must, because it is your sin to bear: these children and the men and women from whom you’d drained blood, and laid out in the sun to die, and infected with parasites because you’d willed it, and countless dead and countless dying still.

Few of them had been soldiers, and none of them Daevite. But you had wept for those, too, hadn’t you? So why are your eyes dry?


Afterwards—

There are two ways this story could go. Neither are true.

In one you say their name, fall to their feet and clutch at the ends of their robes, blot those rags with salt for a chance at—something. Anything. Reassurance, absolution, confirmation that all of this had been right.

See how we have stained ourselves for you. See how we have stained your name. See how we have bled the world, to have you back.

And now… see how we will bleed it further, for our dream.

In the other you turn your eyes away.

Is this more honest? Truer to the cold that has bled into your nerves for the last two millennia? You have a name for it, now, truly you do; you need only look directly at them, and it will drop into your mind.

Dread.

There it is, out in the open. Hope’s twin, the vise-grip, nadir to its zenith. You see it in your eyes reflected in theirs. Both of those are untrue and this is why: you do not drop to your knees, weep not the tears for which you had once been renowned. Nor do you turn away. You are absolutely still, feet flash-frozen to the ground, as if already fusing back into the rest of your flesh.

A word, a word. You need a word, to break this dread silence. Some word, any word. Any will do. Or—

Or perhaps they will speak first, and break it for you.

Your name, on that voice. The same voice, rough as though rusted through, but the same. At the very instant that you say: “It’s you.”

Now they are looking at you, truly looking. You had feared what you would find in those eyes—perhaps the sight of yourself, most of all. Now, they are upon you.

They… smile.

A real smile. Warm, a little crooked. You think their lips look cracked. Suddenly you are seized by the urge to ask, to know everything that has happened to them in the place they’d named the Nevermeant. That prolapsed wreck of all you had once been. What was it like? What pains have you been dealt? What was I not strong enough, wise enough, quick enough to save you from?

But that would be—

“It is.” A sweep of the eyes, over floor and wall and ceiling. “Is this your work?”

“…Whoever else?”

“It’s very impressive.” Something like pride in their eyes, and you think how complete the reversal has come, since the days when you would recite your philosophies for them, palm leaves unfolding on the hard earth of some encampment.

You make some vague abortive gesture around you.

“It won’t last, without me. I’ll have to go back.”

“I understand. But Nadox…” They lift a hand, reaching out just slightly, haltingly. “It must have been difficult.”

Yes, you want to say, it was. Yes, it was three thousand years of subterranean dark, of waiting and incessant, unrelenting dread—yes, dread! Whether it would be enough, whether this was the right course, what state you would emerge in or whether you would emerge at all.

And yet it cannot be anything compared to what you faced.

Something compels you to reach out and take their hand. It’s warm. Blood underneath, living blood. Your teacher-pupil, your Lord of Life, with chipped and dirtied fingernails. Has this dirt been with them for longer, known them better than you have? Absurdities. You press the hand up close to your chest, and they spread the fingers over your heart.

“I’m still alive.” You smile. Strange, how easy it is to smile without stitching. How easy with a mouth. To form words without delving through layers of mind and muck. It will not last. “And, more importantly, so are you.”

“No,” they say. “Not more importantly. I am still myself, but—I would not have been anything, without you. And we would not be anything, there would be nothing left of Nälkä in this new world—if not for you.”

“If not for all of us,” you demur.

“Yes.” A twinkle in the eye. There is so little light here. “But also, if not for you.”

You close your eyes. You want to savor this warmth, before you broach what you must.

“And what of the rest?”

You meet their eyes, this time almost a challenge.

“Have I not been colder than you thought possible? Do not deny it. I know that I have. I’ve learned that I can suffer the wailing of a thousand innocents if it meant having you back. And…” Suddenly the hand against your chest feels swordpoint-sharp. “And wail they did.”

And nothing can erase that, not even your return.

“…Oh, Nadox.” Shadow flits across their face, like clouds before the sun. “Change can be… necessary. But we know what it is to regret even what is necessary. To mourn every life. And you would not be you if you forgot the faces of the dead.”

Perhaps it is so. You have held their face in your mind for the last three millennia.

But they are not dead, so you can draw them in now—quickly, quickly, before this body falls away—and hold their face in your hands. And breathe the same air as them. And fold them against yourself, like that first morning when you awoke and realized what it meant to be one with the grass underfoot and the microscopic life that floats in the air between you.

“I will—this body will have to go,” you manage, barely a whisper. “To rejoin the kiraak.”

“I know.” They nod against your shoulder. “And—danstḗr? When our victory is at hand, perhaps we can discuss… possibilities. In the world that is to come, such things should not constrain you. You should see the stars again.”

“This is what I am," you tell them, smiling. "And I have seen the stars."

“Oh?” They sound amused. “And how is that?”

“I see them before me now.”

The body falls away. You sink into the ground, become one with yourself again. You feel yourself seeping back through the interstices of the structure, revivifying, once more hollow and encompassing.

They lay a hand against your wall. And still, even like this, if you block out all sensory input except that hand, you can pretend as if it is like it was at the beginning, the two of you against the world. Mystics, mad and desperate, only would-be conquerors.

But that would be a lie. Has always been a lie. There is only the future, flowing out before you like the river into the rising sun, and you must turn your eyes to meet it.

The good thing about buildings is that they cannot weep.


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