The sky was overcast; the bahia turned green to blue. He walked a well-worn path of pebbles up a piedmont. The valley stretched for miles with nothing but grass in every direction. The wind swept along the surface, bending the tips in glorious waves while their seeds caught the edge of the swell and took to the sky. In the center of it all, at the crest of a large hill, stood the stone manor.
It took him an hour to reach it. His feet ached on the path; they were not used to hard and loose surfaces. With every step, he doubted Arvor’s survival and thought of the folly of his venture. The alluring Manor’s romance drove him forward.
When he came to the top of the hill, an arcade wall ran along the path. Hiding beneath the arches, he stole from pillar to pillar. He hadn’t yet thought of how to sneak up to the place.
He was close enough to see the manor well now. The masonry chipped and crumbled; the stones stained black and silver from years of burning in the sun. Vast and numerous gardens surrounded the mansion, choking once beautiful sculptures in their overgrown weeds and vines. A calm breeze swept through the arches and whispered in his ear.
At the top of the Manor was a belvedere, between ornate chimneys and arches. Fox watched a man ambling between the crenellations.
He pressed himself under the arcade’s shadow. He waited a moment before stepping back into the sunlight. What he was always certain of happened. He felt the blade of a knife press against his back. The calm hushed voice of a sack-cloth clad man spoke behind him. Then the world became black, and he felt like he was floating in the air.
Fox came to. Painful flashes of red and orange, yellow and white burst in front of his eyes. He was in a stupor; his head pounded and his back ached. The colors left and nothing made sense. Darkness enveloped him; he didn’t know if his eyes were even open anymore.
He sensed a cramped room. The cold echo revealed they made it of stone, and the stale air put him underground. His eyes acclimated to the darkness; a thin sheen of blue light crept from some window far away behind many corridors and walls, like a heavy fog crawling over a wetland. The room was only a few feet wide with nothing but himself in it. A dark passageway on the far side led to an unknown corridor.
The stone was under him; he realized his face was against the floor of a dungeon and his wrists secured behind him. Someone removed his shirt and loafers while he lay senseless. A familiar pitter-patter was tapping the rock beneath him. His weight shifted and his fingertips felt the chilly dampness of blood. His back was bleeding; he recalled being whipped and beaten before he lost consciousness.
A whisper came from the shadows, out there beyond the passageway.
Then a deeply set voice responded.
Then a faraway door creaking open and slamming shut.
“Hullo?” Fox called out in English.
A considerable amount of time passed, though Fox was uncertain of any sort of length. A sackcloth-clad man came into the room at one point and placed a wooden chair. He said nothing, refused to look at Fox, and exited.
The sound of the door creaked open and again slammed shut.
Fox heard footsteps in the corridor. Every step echoed with confidence. The stone walls shuddered with demonic power.
Fox was breathless. His mind reeled with anticipation and nightmarish pictures. What was he to see on the other side of the sound?
The sound itself was more terrible than the instrument. It was a thing that echoed on and on, without clarity or physical attribute. A thing that creates imaginations in the mind; ones of terror and monster. The brush of a wall can be the breath of a devil; the snap of a twig can be the footstep of a beast. It was almost worse to wait on the outside breath of defeat than to face it with clarity and suffering. It was better to see what monster is under the bed than to lay all night wondering when it will come out to eat you.
It was deafening, a torment that collapsed into his soul. He closed his eyes and gave his heart away to defeat and tragedy. Nothing was in him now but to discover the face of the demon behind the name, the one that no man dared to mention on the damned island.
The steps grew louder and louder still—until he knew they were just behind the passageway. They shuffled back and forth in the dust, and he heard the deep-set voice again. Finally, in came his accuser.
Fox was frightened, albeit disappointed, when greeted by an elderly man. His face was crooked and his eyes lazy, the look of a smug and disingenuous adolescent. A silvery robe crowned his shoulders and fell to the stone floor. He looked at Fox with disdain and pursed his lips.
Fox lay motionless and quiet.
“Do you know who I am?” The man spoke first.
“You are Watano.”
The man smiled, curtly. He sat in the seat across the room.
“Voice of the Sky-god.” Fox pushed himself up from the floor. “I am Vulpunei—”
“No. That is the name the people gave you. You aren’t worthy of that name. No—I shall call you Criança instead.”
“What is this place?”
“Uada, Criança.” Watano smiled. “Home of the gods.”
“Where did it come from?”
“It was made long ago by those who perished. They lived in deceit like the fox, and because of it, Jikanei came and took them. They are unworthy.”
Watano’s attention wandered around the room, and for a moment the two men sat in silence.
“The Liberi don’t work in stone and mortar,” Fox mused.
“Many ships came. And with them, men like you. At first they came with gestures of kindness. But the future revealed their hearts.”
“It is now a place of worship. A place for the gods to lie down. A place for the Voice to rest his throat. It is now worthy. Only seen by those worthy and unworthy—those like me, and those like you.”
“Where is Arvor?” Fox said, unimpressed.
“The man that you brought here two weeks ago. My friend.”
“You have something confused. I don’t bring and brought. I only say and see.”
He could feel it in his pocket just at the tips of his fingers.
“Did Arvor become unworthy?” Fox was indignant, dripping in hatred.
“I find it exuberantly remarkable—if not flamboyantly amusing—that an Englassman could ever look at me with such disdain. The product and legacy of such a race that raped and destroyed my island. All of it chunnelled into a pitiful specimen sitting before me. And it has the gall to look at me in this manner. You—Criança—are the very definition of unworthy.” Watano stood and looked down on Fox. “Who is unworthy is he that Watanei no longer looks upon.”
“And you decide who Watanei sees?”
“I am the Voice of Watanei.”
He sat back down.
“How long have you been here?” Fox asked.
“Long enough to know what is at the end. Through me, the people know what tomorrow brings and despise it. Through me, we can laugh today.”
He was sawing the thick rope along his wrist.
“So you aren’t one of them?”
“How can a god be a man?”
“They are afraid of this place,” Fox retorted. “They live afraid to speak and think. They—”
“—They are trees without leaves,” Watano interrupted. “An ocean without waves.” He stood and walked about in circles like a stage actor. “Aquilei the Eagle was the symbol of hope and love.” The Voice stared up at the ceiling and closed his eyes, nobly. He drooped his head and shook it. “But those symbols grew to be too burdensome when things needed doing. So I broke the wings off the idea—and made it unworthy. The eagle is a predator. It is a reminder that all are lower.”
A rope was untethered.
“I know your thoughts, you know.” Watano smiled. “I can see it on your skin. You think what I do is hurting them. But it’s what they deserve. It’s what they need.” Something agitated Watano; he squirmed in his chair. “Aren’t you going to ask why you are here?”
Fox remained silent.
“You don’t even care about what you came for.”
He threw the Traveler’s watch at him.
“Don’t you care about what you desire!” He screamed.
He calmed himself and sat down elegantly. “I like to have conversation with those that are unworthy. There’s nothing satisfying about having cattle that don’t cry. You want to see that they care about their loss. The doe lays down when she is hit with an arrow, because she has nothing left to do but rest and sleep. But they—they should be better than that!
“It’s in the eyes,” he stood, with a vision in his heart, “you see that they lost a thing of hope—the deer, of course, they no longer care to survive. They sleep in their death having not a hope. But these ones—the Liberi—they have to be taught all over again it were ever possible to have hope. You have to bring them out of being the doe and into a god again.
“If not I—than who—who can ascend into the clouds and bring it to them, that they may hear it and do it? Who will go over the sea for them and bring it to them, that they may hear it and do it? But the Voice is very near you now, before your mouth and in your eyes, that you may do it.
“I bring them the truth of their unworthiness. They once were gods, but now are not. And when they see that—when they look upon me—who ascends and crosses over—that is when I see the satisfaction of their unworthiness.”
The second rope was free. His hands could move. The little pocket knife would never do in a fight, but it could pry a stone free.
“If you liken them to gods,” Fox asked, “why do you prevent them from thinking?”
“No, see—they already are gods. They just forgot when the Englassmen came to teach them otherwise. And in that, they became animals again.”
“So tell them. Let them think. Let them choose.”
“Faith is necessary. If questions are asked, the thinker becomes unworthy.”
“So you hold them afraid and ignorant all the while punishing them for not maturing?”
Watano clenched his jaw. “An animal cannot find its way to being a god. He must be brought there. And when he is there, he is free to ponder. One cannot stand on the shore and be swimming in the ocean at the same time.”
“What about the little ones you take—Why take them?”
“Economics. The wet season is inevitable. The storms will grow stronger, more frequent. And when that happens, our crops will drown. We will be in famine.” He stared at the ceiling. “The little ones serve no purpose. When the harvest runs out, we will need to feed on something. Why not on the ones that are only taking and never giving? The Voice decides who is to be sufficient.”
The room felt smaller, darker, and hopeless.
Fox felt the rain outside from the sweetness in the air.
“Surely, you aren’t implying you eat the children to survive?”
“The future is against us, Criança. And I am the one to see us defeat it—”
“Your children are your future?! How will you survive if you are destroying it?”
Watano was reverent.
The blade was digging deep around the edges of a stone, pulling the dirt and mortar.
“The crops are healthy now,” Fox said, hurriedly. “Why take the little girls?”
“Fruits and vegetables are not the only crops that matter. They feed the stomach. What will feed my carnal desire if not those who serve no other purpose? I feast on whomever I wish.”
“How in all of God’s creation did you convince your people—”
“—Convince?! I am a living god. Mine is not to convince or teach! I speak and see, they live and obey.” He relaxed his shoulders and leaned back.
“I see—” Watano smiled liked a curt teacher. “you are asking me of the politics of the matter. Are you taking lessons in your own deity? Well,” he sighed, “as long as we forbid writing—and punish the cattle for speaking of the gods—it’s simple. After all, an animal must be kept an animal until the day they become a god like us. When that happens, they will think and write—until that day—lead however you like.”
The blade broke. Fox’s heart sank; he thought Watano might hear. He scratched and dug his nails into the mortar. A stone budged to the left.
“So you took Arvor because he told me about you.” Fox mused.
“The ideas of rebellion are rooted in the unworthy. His purpose was rebellion. Don’t make me speak of him again.”
Fox was silent.
Watano leaned forward in his seat. “We must all die for the past. The future is against us. In our death, we honor our ancestors and in our fear we respect our outcome.”
“You think fearing the future—never changing, never evolving—is good?”
The stone was a loose tooth at the edge of freedom. Blood was sliding down his fingers from what was left of his mangled nails.
“The future is unworthy. It’s diseased. It is death. On the other side of the Marshlands, where only Jikanei lives. I have seen that death. I look upon it every morning.”
“Who is he?”
“Jikanei? He is the god of death. The one at the end.”
“Why doesn’t he live here then?”
Watano chuckled. “You almost made me think you were intelligent.”
“I’m starting to think you actually believe the lies you vomit on your people.”
“I am the Voice. I can only speak the truth. Whatever I say and do is god.”
“But you break your own laws.” The stone budged to the right. “You eat the animals. You speak idly of the gods. You abuse the children. You murder men and women. You—”
“My hand cannot be bent. Therefore, whatever I do is done by Watanei.”
He stood and walked forward.
Fox straightened and looked up at him.
Watano pulled a long blade from under his gown and struck Fox in the side. “And now this is done,” he whispered in his ear.
Fox’s hip poured out as Watano pulled the knife. He screamed in agony, bending over double.
Watano cleaned his blade, pulled his gown forward and sheathed it. “I thought you would be more interesting to converse. But you are just like the cattle. You aren’t anything but a child.”
He turned to leave but stopped at the entryway. “The men would have killed you for being at the feet of the monolith Cultus,” he said. “When they found you on the other side of the marshes, they feared you were Jikanei. When they found you dining at the feet of Cultus, it made them angry. But had it not been for their fear of the fox—” he trailed off. “I see now that their error almost convinced me otherwise of what I always knew to be. You’re not a god, you’re just like the rest.”
“And how do you know I’m not the Fox-god?” He replied weakly.
“Don’t amuse me now, you’re already beyond the Marshlands.”
Fox gasped for breath. “I wasn’t meant to die here—” Watano left the room. “I wasn’t even meant to live here.” He fell onto his back and cried out, holding his side.
The man with the deep-set voice came into the dungeon, clad in sackcloth. Fox turned on his stomach. In the darkness he ran his bloody hands along the ground searching for the loose brick. The man was at him and kicked him in the side. Fox screamed. His hands were shaking while they searched. They felt the loose tooth.
He gripped and pulled with every ounce left in him. It ripped from its stone gum. He leapt to his feet and came at the man with all his might.
The rock crashed against the skull and cracked in two. The man fell into the black and all was silent. Fox was gasping for breath, his head was dizzy, his eyes were red. He fell to one knee. A whisper of the steady gush of blood came from somewhere in the darkness.
He caught his breath and rose to his feet. He raced out of the passageway and ran into another jailor. He pushed him against the wall and the man fell easily at his feet. He didn’t slow down to look, but raced down the corridor for the door at the end. With every pace the darkness dissipated and more of the thin hallway came into view.
He threw his body into the door and it flung open. Another long corridor lay ahead, lit by lanterns along the ceiling. A number of doors led to unseen rooms. Banners, busts, and stone statues of long ago royalty covered in moss and vegetation lined the halls. He kept forward and could feel the air growing sweeter and lighter. The floor was damp and he felt the sense he was running upwards at an angle.
He turned another corner and continued toward the sound of rain outside. At the end of this hall, he met a flight of stairs leading to a wooden bulwark. He threw his body into it and almost fell back down the stairs from the impact. Again, he charged the bulwark until it gave. He could hear the rain pounding against the outside of the door. He backed down the steps and again he charged into the wall until it tore from its hinges.
The rain thundered and crashed through the broken wood. He grabbed hold and squeezed his body through the broken pieces. In seconds, he was on the soggy ground, gasping for air, the rain falling on him. He was free.