Beneath the lone tree in a field of green, Wilt lived an unmercifully long death. Once he had been a soldier, but now he was only pain. The knife wound in his right side had begun to fester almost immediately and now he cursed himself for discarding the only thing that could have ended his torment.
She had stabbed him. The bitch had stabbed him. And he had been a fool. Standing there, watching her with eyes of disbelief and disgust, he had pulled out the knife and thrown it at her, only to have it land in the long grass beyond. The wound had been too much, and the shock of it all had brought him to his knees. Last he had known, he’d lain on his side. But it was so long ago now that his senses could no longer be trusted.
Desperate to survive, he had tried to halt the bleeding by ripping strips from the sleeves of his shirt, but the blood had drowned the cloth and then resumed its slow and continuous seep. When he tried to replace the bandages, he had found that his arms no longer worked. A ghost writhed beneath his flesh, holding him immobile and searing every nerve. If not for the pain, he would doubt that his limbs still existed. He fantasized about the knife in the grass, wishing he could end his life, but his legs would not carry him.
Though rocky and snaked with roots, the earth beneath him became his only solace, for the earth was precisely what the wind and the sun and even his traitorous body were not; consistent. The dirt and rocks beneath him were his only constant. The rocks and the flow of blood.
Before his vision had failed, Wilt had tried to close his eyes, if only to spare himself the sight of his own death, but they would not close. At the time, he had thought that closing them would be his final act of defiance, that it would be the only act that could bring him peace, but when his eyes began to fail, he learned better. They were still open, immobile as they’d been, but the blur of vision had succumbed to the waves of pain. The clouds of sight wed the clouds of agony. Sometimes when the mind sees a cut, it is then that the body begins to feel. But the pain is far worse when that sight turns inward. For then, the mind truly sees the scars lurking beneath the surface.
Once sightless, the aches had begun to contract. As the feeling in his limbs withered to nothing, the pain flooded into his chest, through every organ and every vein. It continued to compact, continued to compress, until he was nothing more than hurt washing against the dark and tortured core that was all that remained of his mind.
He had started to dream. The Whore herself had come to him and she had blessed him. She had told him to wait, that soon his salvation would come. She had said that his soul must be cleansed before he could serve. Before he could become a god. But he had reasoned that these dreams must simply be the dreams of infection. For the Whore was ever indifferent, and a far crueler god had taken note of the deserter named Wilt.
A shadow fell over his senses as a sudden buzzing merged with his consciousness. It was a familiar sensation and his inability to identify it stung him. Laughter echoed deep within his shriveled core. Even the last vestige of his failing mind began to mock him. But of course it would. Every other piece of himself had betrayed him. Certainly, his thoughts could do no less. He tried to flee then, to force himself outside that core, and for a moment, he succeeded. He forced himself away, and down, down to his last respite, there onto the cold and solid ground. He found the earth that was his last comfort, and thrust himself against it. And that is when the soil vanished.
Both panic and a presence swept through him at the same time. The paralysis of his limbs vanished as thought and feeling rushed into every crevice and nerve. The presence, he realized in shock, was his own. He had been restored. The solidity of the earth returned. Sudden lumps and hollows against his back. Bark. He was against the tree. He was sitting. He had moved. How had he moved? But then he knew. There were hands on his shoulders. The buzzing that had so taunted him, it was a voice.
“Do you understand me?” A low rumble, deep and vibrant. “Your eyes flutter without sight, but that will change.”
And so it did. A sudden clarity of both thought and vision. Light flooded his eyes, indistinct, but slowly reforming the world he had lost. The pain receded. A sigh racked through him – the physical manifestation of such potent relief. His first clear thought was more correct than any other he’d had in his life. He knew that this sigh, this simple reaction, would be the apex of his life. There would be no sensation more intense, no feeling grander, and no greater pleasure. This realization was more disheartening than the pain could have ever been. He wanted to die.
His eyes focused. A smile hovered before him, wry and triumphant. The face was that of an old man, pale, but freckled and creased. The man’s gray hair was cropped close, the eyes a dark green. The old man crouched in the dirt.
“You finally came. Thank you. Thank you. Tha-” Wilt could not stop his tongue. He knew he should. He could not. “-nk you. Thank y-”
A hand struck his cheek, the sensation mellow and empty compared to the pain he had lived, but it halted his tongue. He thought to thank the man again then stopped himself. Instead, “I’m Wilt. You must help me, I was attacked by a woman! She stabbed me and left me to die. We must find her.”
The hand struck him again, the motion blurring his thoughts. The hand had been too quick, too ethereal, and his mind too weak to follow.
“Do you know who I am, Wilt?” The voice was angry. “Do you know why I have come?”
“No. Yes. You have come to save me.”
“Look now at your side. The blood still flows from a wound turned black and flesh long dead. The pain has ebbed, your mind returned. You have been bleeding for over four days. Lying here beneath this tree, upon blood-soaked earth, in a pool larger than what your body can carry. I have kept you alive. And I want you to know why, but first you must understand who I am. For when I leave you hanging from this tree, your soul trapped within you, I want you to know why you are being punished. Is your mind hale? Do you understand my words?”
Wilt was speechless. How could this man have kept him alive? That could not be true. This was another dream. It had to be. He was nothing now. His body had stopped working. His thoughts had withered away, leaving only crazed hallucinations. He shook his arms. They worked as did his vision. Of course, this must be a dream. His body did not function in his waking moments.
“This is another dream,” he finally managed. “The fevers have returned and I still lie beneath the tree.” He lifted an arm to his face and brushed it against his cheek. “Only in the dreams can I move my arms.”
For a moment, the smile upon the old man’s face stretched wider, a hint of insanity tinting the eyes. The old man leaned back, taking his hand from Wilt’s shoulder. Though weak, Wilt found he was able to support himself against the tree.
“Is it truly a dream?” the old man asked. “Are there none in this world who could hold you so close to death then pull you back? Is there no one with a sense of justice? No one with a sense of loyalty and pride who will punish his betrayers? Have you lost your faith? Did it ever truly exist? Certainly, you must recognize me for what I am. Is this a dream? If it is, it’s a dream of my creation. It is one where you will believe only what I dictate. You will feel what I choose. Whether this is a dream or not, it makes no difference, for soon you will have your fate, and it will be all that you know. This is your only reality. So, I ask you, does it matter? Does your disbelief serve any purpose? Does it protect you in any way?”
Wilt would not listen to this vision. It was only another hallucination. It was simply his mind, betraying him once more. “I can only move my arms in dreams,” Wilt repeated.
The man’s face stretched from impatience. A tiny sliver of white hovered between his lips before they separated to form a toothy smile.
“Is it the ability to move your arms that makes you doubt?” the man grated. “Then I will take it away.” Wilt’s arms dropped to his sides. “Is it the ability to see?” His vision stopped. “Is it the lack of pain?” The pain returned, a crippling and agonizing wave. He curled into the wound, arching forward against his knees “Tell me, which do you prefer, dear Wilt; the reality or the dream?”
He pulled air into his lungs, desperate to respond, but the pain was too great and his lungs overwhelmed by shock. He gasped, then finally, “Please. I believe you. Please.”
He found himself upright against the tree, the pain gone and his sight returned. If this was a dream, it was an awful one.
“You served well for a long time, Wilt. A good little servant, true to your god. Though false, you gave the oaths. You did your duty. I don’t think you ever really believed, not in me, but I never cared for that, for you did as you were told.”
Wilt didn’t understand. What was this old man talking about? Who had he served? Believed in what? ‘True to your god.’ the phrase echoed in his mind. No. No, the gods could not be real. This could not be him. This was indeed another dream, a cruel one, brought on by his worst fears. But what if it were real? Denying the wishes of this vision had only caused him pain. The apparition had spoken true. Did it matter if this was real or not? For either way, he was trapped within this dream’s control and only by submission could he avoid more pain. So why not let it be true? Why not immerse himself fully in this mirage? Wilt closed his eyes and breathed deep. Opening them, he lifted his gaze, and faced his god.
The god smiled. “Yes, I see you finally understand. I am surprised it has taken you so long. You must have seen my face so many times. Upon the seals of the Magistrate, on the statues above your barracks. I look far older now, but surely you must know your patron.”
It was true. He saw it now. The curve of the chin, the fullness of the cheeks, the shape of the eyes. The face was older and far less pristine than the faces of the statues, but the resemblance was clear. He sat before his god, the god of justice and law. This old man, this frail but powerful visage, this was his deity. This was Just.
Wilt had been a soldier. A soldier who had sworn himself to this god. He had fought in this god’s name. And he had deserted. The panic set in, stealing away Wilt’s newfound confidence. His mind writhed in denial.
“No, it can’t be true. The gods do not walk among us!” he screamed, hopeful that if he only said it with enough conviction it would become fact.
“Of course we do,” the god laughed. “What else would we do with our time?”
“The gods do not exist,” Wilt insisted. “They are not real.”
“Of course we are.” Just exaggerated a feigned sigh. “Come now, Wilt, must I teach you another lesson in reality?”
“No. Please!” he shrieked. The god had been serious. Wilt would spend an eternity hanging from this tree. The pain he had experienced over the last few days would become unending. A small cry escaped his throat. He must make the god see why he had left. He had to explain. He could not go back to the pain.
“I will trust what you say, but you must hear me,” Wilt begged. “You are the god of judgment. You must let me make my claim. Please, it is your duty.”
“My duty?” The god smiled. “This is one of my favorite things in life, the fear in the eyes when the convict realizes his sentence, the pleading and begging as he tries to twist and shape the truth, to re-forge the very world around him. How can one who abandoned his own duties tell me of mine? Do you truly think that my knowledge is incomplete? That I don’t already know all that you have done? But perhaps you are right. Perhaps I should hear you out. After all, how can I enjoy your suffering if you go without the knowledge that you have tried and failed?”
The god stood and paced away from the tree, his back turned to Wilt.
Wilt’s view unobstructed for the first time, he finally got a glimpse of his surroundings. He remained in the circle of trodden soil, surrounded by the field of grass. But the soil was changed, now covered in a shiny and vibrant red. The entire disk, a great pool of blood. His eyes trained to the wound in his side. Even now, blood dripped to the earth. His clothing, the roots of the tree, all of it was stained.
And Just, who walked slowly into the grass at the end of the pool, stood barefoot. Where the god stepped, the circle remained unbroken, no footprints or ripples. Leaving the pool, the god waded into the waist-high grass and began sifting through the stalks.
“Go on,” Just said. “I am listening. Speak.”
Wilt swallowed. “Well… if you are truly a god, then you must know why I deserted. You must know what is coming. Within a month there will be war along the eastern border.”
“And war excuses you – a soldier – from his duty?” The god snorted, his back barely visible above the grass. Just straightened, in his hand a knife. He threw it into the circle of blood, where it skid, cutting a path through the liquid. The dagger came to rest at Wilt’s feet. It was the same dagger the woman had stabbed him with. “Your salvation,” the god said, motioning to the blade. “Assuming, that is, that you manage to convince me.”
Wilt eyed the knife wistfully. Before, the god had disabled him with only a thought. Did he dare take the risk? Could he be fast enough to end his own life? Wilt forced his gaze away from the knife. Better to not tempt himself. He returned to watching Just, who had begun pulling long strands of grass from the soil.
“There was a battle,” Wilt continued. “I was on patrol when we caught up with a small Vandu raiding party trying to steal supplies from one of the villages. It seemed routine and ordinary. As always, they ran when we showed up. We followed, hoping to wound them badly enough to stop their thieving for a few weeks. But it was a trap. They were trying to lure in our scouts. They were trying to blind us. It was not only the Vandu, but a full regiment of Lockish soldiers, waiting for us. A thousand guardsmen waiting to kill a group of no more than fifteen. We turned as soon as we realized what had happened, but it was too late. They were on every side. I watched as everyone else was killed. I was knocked out and when I came to, I was the only one left. For some reason, they had spared me. I couldn’t go back to my post. I couldn’t live with the shame. So, I fled.”
“Stop,” the god laughed, deep, hearty, and mirthful. As Just finished pulling stalks, he drew the strands taut between his hands, then let go with his left. With the free hand, he began straightening and lining up the long reeds. “Again, you seem to think that I do not already know what happened. Can you explain why you doubt me so? Over and again, you repeat your mistakes. On top of it all, you are a terrible liar. Clearly you do not regret what you have done. You regret only the pain that I have given you.”
A strange thing happened then. Just’s voice grew higher in pitch, or perhaps another man stood watching from the reeds, out of Wilt’s sight, but there was a voice, similar to Just’s in an inexplicable way, but from a source that was not the god’s lips. “Is that so different from any other of his kind?” this new voice asked. “They learn from pain and punishment, rewards and simple treats. They’re beasts. Vermin. Wretches.” The words rolled into a cackle. “Or at least, that is what you have said, is it not?”
After a moment, the laughter stopped, and the old man paused. The god’s voice was tense, seemingly angry. “Silence,” the god hissed, his shoulders stiffening, his face pointing to some invisible figure behind him. “There is no ambiguity in this.”
The god righted himself and continued in a clear but furious voice. “No, Wilt. The story goes like this: You see the signs of war brewing. Indeed, scouts begin to go missing. A soldier returns to the barracks with a story very close to the lies you have just told, and of course, it is a story that I have told him to tell. You realize that soon your garrison must respond, but the stories are grim. The Vandu no longer run and hide at the first sign of trouble. Instead, they spring traps and kill without quarter, aided by their Lockish countrymen. And worse, there are rumors – my rumors – of an army gathering at Dekahn. So at first chance, you steal a horse and you flee west, knowing that you are unimportant. Just a middling swordsman who has lived his entire life on the border. You know you will not be recognized, and you know that you will not be missed, so you take your chance and flee.”
“Staying was a death sentence,” Wilt argued. “As you said, my skill was middling, indeed, the majority of my duties were custodial. I have fought, but I have never drawn blood. And when the rumors began, I knew that I would have to fight a real war, and I would die. So, I ran. Can you blame me? It seems clear to me that you care little for our lives. You speak of us only as servants. Do you really care that I left? That I broke my vows? If what you want is a pawn, then I will serve, but I will not throw away my life. You wish to know my crime? Only that I abandoned a god who had already abandoned me.”
Just said nothing. Instead, he began to twist the strands of grass together. Once tight, he lifted the ends and tied them together. Finally, he spoke: “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I have abandoned you, and perhaps if I had come to punish your desertion, I would be having second thoughts.” The god sighed. “I have corrected your story, but I have not told you your crime. You have broken your vows. You have abandoned your duties. You have left others to die in your stead. For this, you deserve to hang, but in this you are not unique. Many have done just as you have. Many have had worse excuses for why they left, and I did not pay them a visit. I have many servants. There are so many eager to swear themselves to my name – and others like yourself who do so out of convenience – but so few of my servants are hand chosen. A special, trusted few. Men and women important enough to me, that I would kill or die for them. You took a vow. You promised to never harm another of my servants. This is the vow I care about. This is the reason I have come.
“I told you that you do not regret your crimes. I claimed that you have no remorse, and still I hold to that belief, for when I threw your crime at your very feet, you did not recognize it. Instead, you begged and pleaded and made up stories to excuse the crime you think I care about. But think now, I did not cause your pain – I only extended it.”
Wilt eyed the knife. And finally he understood. The woman who had stabbed him – the woman he had tried to force himself upon – she had been an agent of his god. And now, that god walked toward him, in one hand a woven noose. Fear overwhelming his judgment, Wilt leapt for the blade. He need only drive the knife into his heart or brain and the pain would end.
His fingers were just in reach of the knife when a great wind threw him back against the tree. Ripples spread across the pool of blood, echoing with the shockwave. Wilt hung rigid, his feet hovering above the earth. He struggled to free himself, but an invisible force gripped his neck, holding him in place against the tree. The knife lay in the pool, waves of blood lapping against the hilt.
The god said nothing as he walked silently across the disk. This time his feet touched the blood, his skin soaking in the fluid. In one hand he carried the noose of grass, the other he held before him, gripped as if holding an esophagus. Wilt’s consciousness tried again to flee his skin. It knew better than to descend within himself. Instead, it pressed against his back, attempting to escape into the tree, just as it had tried to escape into the earth. He could feel his soul scrambling helplessly against the prison of his flesh.
“Don’t be so hasty,” Just laughed. “You will have many years to get to know this tree. Besides, it would be cruel to the tree to let you steal its presence.” The god, only steps from Wilt, dropped his hand. In unison, Wilt fell to the ground, the roots of the tree hard beneath him.
As the god knelt to retrieve the knife, Wilt attempted to gain his feet. Panicked and frenzied, his feet shuffled wildly, slipping in the blood. The god rose. In one hand, Just held the knife and the noose, with the other, he yanked the back of Wilt’s hair and forced the larger of the noose’s two loops under his chin and over his head. Just tightened the knot then used the smaller loop to lift Wilt from the ground. Wilt struggled to breathe, the rope of grass cutting into his windpipe. Once at eye level, the god lifted the knife above Wilt’s head and drove it into the tree about a foot above him. The knife the god had called Wilt’s salvation, would be his gallows.
Draping the smaller loop over the knife hilt, Just tightened it, leaving Wilt to hang two feet above the ground. His feet struggled for purchase, scraping the tree bark before he slipped, kinked his neck, and hung once more. Though there was pain, he seemed hale, his neck unbroken.
Just tore away the remaining tatters of Wilt’s tunic then placed his right hand on the cut in Wilt’s side. The wound burned as Just traced his hand from Wilt’s side to his chest. Strangely, the cut felt as though it were migrating, following the movement of Just’s fingertips.
The god spoke: “This time, I shall leave you your mind. You will keep your sight. You will wait as time loses all meaning. One day, someone will find you dangling from this noose. They will think to help you, believing perhaps that you can be saved. And then they will see my marks. The Mark of the Betrayer. The Mark of the Rapist.” The wound stopped, centered over his heart. Just pulled his hands away, then extending a single finger, he began to scrape Wilt’s skin from the wound outward. Wilt could feel the cut reforming beneath Just’s touch. After recent days, he had thought himself intimate with pain, but the sensation was incomparable. “They will see these marks upon your chest, and as they come close, they will see the pool of blood and the drops that still leak from my brands. They will know then, that this is a holy place, that this is the work of a god, and they will know better than to touch you. In time, this place will become an altar. Priests will come from the chapel in Trel and they will build a temple around you. The tree will live without the need for sun, for it will feed from you instead. After a time, its leaves will turn red to match the pool above its roots, and when the priests come, they will see that your eyes wander. They will notice how your gaze follows them from place to place, and they will realize that you are conscious. And then the questions will come. They will ask what you have done and why you are here. They will ask which god has done this and what I was like. You will answer, through a haze of suffering and confusion. And the best part of all is that they will ask, not in hopes of easing your pain, but because they are curious about me. They wish to know their god. They wish to please me, and they will want to learn from your mistakes. They will not care whether they can help you, but only how they can help themselves.”
The god’s finger continued to trail across Wilt’s chest. With the grass rope forcing his head upward, Wilt couldn’t see the image now forming on his skin, but he could feel the blood trickling from the brand. In the center was a solid circle of flesh, bordered by a ring-shaped wound. Stretching from the ring, eight arms of a star bent counterclockwise at each end, like eight scythes twisting from the patch of flesh above his heart. The Mark of Betrayal, sprawling across his chest.
Wilt tried to argue, but the god placed a free hand firmly over his mouth. Unable to speak, Wilt screamed instead. He lifted his legs and tried to lever them against the tree. Pressing his feet against the bark, he thrust all of his weight into his heels. The force swung him toward the god, who leaned back to avoid Wilt’s kicking legs, but the noose was too strong, the knots too secure, and all the force was transferred to his neck. The noose yanked him back, digging deeper into his flesh before driving his momentum back into the tree. His energy depleted, Wilt sagged into the noose, swinging lightly from the dagger.
“Quite a show,” the god laughed. “The priests will love it.” He moved his hand back to Wilt’s chest to begin the next mark. “They will listen to the answers you give them, but eventually they will stop caring. You will be a god’s sacrifice, given to man as a warning and testament to my will.”
The finger traced an elongated U around Wilt’s navel and up through the spines of the Betrayer’s Mark. Once past, Just lifted both hands to the ends of the U, then at the neck, split his fingers and dragged them all the way to Wilt’s face. He could see the hands trailing along his chin, and feel the god’s pointer fingers against the back of his jaw. Eight barbs would stretch from his shoulders to jawline, then curl and end just below his mouth. The marks at the rear would curl up and around the end of his jaw, just below his ears, forming a shape like the horns of a demon. He had seen the mark before. Many rapists were castrated then sentenced to military service. The pain seeped into him from the two brands, and as it heightened, his mind began to slip. The god still spoke.
“For the priests, it will not be your pain that matters, but the truth it represents. A quick warning: some of them will try to drink your blood. You should be prepared for that.” Just cackled, his voice tinged by madness.
But Wilt could hardly understand him, the pain was overwhelming.
“After all, to them you will become a god, and that is what your kind does with its gods.”
Wilt heard the god speak without understanding. Instead, his mind flashed to his dream of the Whore, who had promised that he would be a god, and he knew it must be fact. This was not his punishment, it would be his coronation; his rebirth into godhood.
Delirious, Wilt spoke aloud. “It’s just as she promised. My mind must be stripped clean before she can help me. Before she can make me into a god. She told the truth. It was not a dream.”
“Who?” the god demanded.
In a weak, distracted voice, Wilt answered. “The Whore. She promised.”
For a brief moment, Wilt lost consciousness. When he came to, he realized the god was still before him, his mouth open and twisted in rage. Just was shouting.
“When did she come?” Just shouted. “Where is she now?”
Wilt tried to answer, but found he was too weak. He could feel coils he had not known existed drop free from his soul. Again, he fell into darkness.
When he awoke, he lay on the ground, the god above him, in Just’s hand a simple woodsman’s knife. The noose had been cut from his throat. Looking at his chest, the Marks were still there, but the wounds were sealed, and his flesh whole. The pain had ceased.
“I will give you one final chance,” the god said. “Tell me why she has chosen you. Tell me where she is. I must find her!”
Wilt didn’t understand. “Who?” he asked.
“The Whore!” Just shrieked. The insanity had returned to the old man’s voice, and the words had become shrill. The dark green eyes stared depthlessly into his own. And there, hovering behind the god’s shoulder, was another face, that of a young man with a flat nose and pale, empty eyes. Those eyes bored into Wilt’s soul. Wilt cringed and the figure vanished.
“I don’t know where she is,” Wilt cried. “She came to me and told me that I must be cleansed before she could make me a god. She told me that she would save me.”
“Was this real or simply a fever dream?” the god asked.
Wilt felt his face droop as he covered his eyes with his arms. “I can no longer tell the difference,” he sobbed.
Wilt’s mind must have failed him, for he heard two voices then. With his arms covering his eyes, he could not see Just’s face, but he recognized both voices as belonging to the man. The first voice spoke low and calm. “Then you and I will find out together,” it said. “You will become my servant in truth.” From his pocket, the god removed a pen and a black leather book. “You will sign,” the god said. “It is the price for your life.”
The second voice, tinged with madness, cackled through Just’s demand.
As the laughter surged, so too did the pain in Wilt’s freshly carved brands. They coursed in time with the laughter as the god thrust the pen toward Wilt’s chest. Fearing it might be his only chance, he took the pen, and signed his name in black ink.