Most of my work is extremely mean, although occasionally I write gentle stories. I figured that I’d share this one here.
“…and the sacred magic was placed into the Vessel, the god who could die.”
-Ancient text of the Order
Kysein sat on the edge of the marble bench, feeling more alone than he ever would have thought possible. In his lap was the ceremonial robe, the fabric shimmering a subtle gold. He couldn’t bring himself to put it on, no matter how hard he tried. Despite the fact that he had been preparing himself for this moment, he found his courage slipping away.
I want to go home, Kysein thought, and his gaze moved from the robe to the walls surrounding him. This place was so different from his family’s farmhouse; the room was huge and richly decorated, with ivory statues and furniture carved from the rarest woods. Everything seemed to gleam and sparkle and shine, and Kysein was afraid to touch anything besides the bench. He didn’t belong here, amongst so much luxury. He was just the son of a peasant, a nobody. They should have chosen a powerful nobleman or a distinguished scholar or a legendary warrior instead.
Huddled on the bench, he wondered if it was too late to escape.
They would catch him, though. And who knew what happened to those who dared to defy their destiny? All of his predecessors had willingly accepted the role of the Vessel. Kysein had to do the same thing, as much as it terrified him. He pulled on the golden robe, his palms clammy, his mouth uncomfortably dry. When he glanced into one of the ornate mirrors, all that he saw was a frightened young man whose face had paled to the color of whey. Even when he forced himself to look calm, his eyes betrayed him. Nervousness lurked within their dark depths.
In the mirror’s reflection Merina appeared, a tall figure in white and jade robes, and Kysein spun around to face her.
“Are you almost ready?” The head priestess asked. She had been the one who had visited his family’s farm several months prior, the one who had announced that he was to become the Vessel. Kysein had listened as she told him that this was his duty, and although he had wanted to protest, he hadn’t been able to form the words. He had to do it; he had no other choice. If the magic was interrupted or broken, the consequences would be devastating.
“Yes, I’m ready,” he told Merina, and they both heard the quaver in his voice. The priestess took his hand, wrapped her slim fingers around his own, and led him from the room into the candlelit corridor. The gloominess hid most of the details, but Kysein could make out paintings along the walls, depictions of long-dead gods and supernatural creatures. He wished that he could have asked Merina what they were, but she was too intent on dragging him along, their sandals slapping against the tiled floor.
The priestess pushed open a pair of heavy doors and they stepped outside into the night. The garden that circled the temple was beautiful, and Ylla would have loved all of the flowers, the large bushes of bougainvillea and the bright peonies and the dew-speckled roses. His heart tightened as he thought about Ylla’s soft features, her smiling eyes. She had understood when he had told her that he was leaving.
“This is your destiny,” she had said sadly.
This is my destiny, Kysein reminded himself as they walked through the garden. Yellowish lights flickered ahead, and he saw that they were torches. The other priestesses were gathered around a pool, their faces hidden within hoods, and they didn’t move as Merina and Kysein approached. The head priestess released his hand and gestured toward the pool. He knew that this was the beginning of the ritual, and as his anxiety swelled, sweat ran down between his shoulder blades.
Kysein didn’t bother to take off his sandals or robe as he climbed into the pool. The water was surprisingly warm and fragrant, and he breathed in the aroma of jasmine as he sank down, deeper and deeper. His soaked robe became heavy, as though the fabric had transformed into lead. In unison the priestesses began to chant, their voices hushed.
He listened raptly, trying to recall what came next in the ritual. Before he could remember, the priestesses seized him, a flurry of hands grabbing onto his body. Kysein gasped and bucked as they tried to submerge his head.
“You need to do this,” Merina said, her fingernails biting into his skin. “You need to complete the ritual.”
“I-I know,” he croaked, trembling.
He closed his eyes as his head sank below the surface of the water. Something was happening; his skin tingled with an electric intensity, and as he opened his lips to cry out, water rushed into his mouth. Involuntarily he thrashed, fighting. He was strong, but there were eight priestesses holding him down with determination.
Ylla, he thought, and then he stopped writhing and allowed the change to occur.
He could sense them, the dead ones. Kysein was beginning to understand that as the sacred magic was passed from one Vessel to another, remnants of the previous hosts remained. They never said anything, although he knew that they were there, watching. In a way, he wished that they would talk; at least then he would have some company.
Not that Kysein wasn’t constantly surrounded by people. The pilgrims and the priestesses and the people from the nearby villages swarmed around him like noisy, irritating bees. Or sometimes they simply gawked up at him. Like now. Kysein reclined near the temple, waiting for the three tiny people to say something, anything. They all stared up at him with the same startled expression, and whenever he moved his hand or shifted his body, they flinched.
“You are a god to them,” Merina had said, and she was right, he was exactly that. The magic had transformed him, peeling away his humanity and replacing it with such breathtaking power. He towered over everyone and everything, literally and figuratively. When he had emerged from the magical pool he had been a giant, the ground quaking beneath his feet. And while that had been exciting at first, he began to miss being a person. He missed his farmhouse, his village, his sense of belonging.
Most of all, he missed her.
“Divine One?” One of the worshippers finally spoke up.
Kysein forced himself to pay attention to them, and for the hundredth time, he was astonished at how small they were. The two men and the woman could have all fit on his palm, and there would have been room for several more people. Kysein would never touch them, though. He understood how massive he had become, and he feared that he wouldn’t be able to control his own strength. Just one wrong move and a tragic accident could occur. So he watched and listened to these frail, tiny beings, always keeping his distance from them. With great resignation, Kysein realized that he was completely separated from everyone else.
“O Divine One, we beseech thee,” the worshipper said, and Kysein could only imagine what he wanted. Probably more land, or a beautiful wife, or a thousand other things. They were always concerned with what they wanted, what they needed, and he understood that he was just a dispenser of wishes and magic, nothing more. Bitterness filled him, and it was so strong that he could practically taste it.
I could destroy you all with a swipe of my hand, he thought, and for an instant, he considered it. Then he realized where his thoughts had wandered, and the poisonous, angry bitterness turned to horror.
What have I become?
The little worshippers must have seen the troubled look in his eyes because they backed away. Kysein didn’t try to stop them as they left. Let them go, let them all go, he thought. As he sat there, staring out at the horizon, he was overcome with regrets. The priestesses had told him that this was his destiny, and he hadn’t argued. But what if he had fought them? What if someone else had taken his place, become the Vessel instead? Kysein imagined what his life may have been like, and the bitterness returned, a tidal wave of it.
He was too absorbed in his thoughts to notice that the nearby grass had withered and turned an unhealthy yellow. Leaves began to drop from the trees, a few at first, and then suddenly the air was filled with them. They fluttered down onto his glowing skin, sizzled and turned to ash. Kysein didn’t see this happen, nor did he see the tendrils of darkness that expanded and crawled out into the world.
The flowers were all dying.
As Ylla knelt down by the flowerbed, she saw that all of the vibrant petals had shriveled and faded. Daisies crumbled to a fine dust on her fingertips, and she frowned, unsure what could have caused this. There hadn’t been a drought, and it was unlike any blight that she had ever seen.
The flowers weren’t the only things that had been affected. For as far as Ylla could see the fields had turned the same sickly shade of brown. And the sky was like something out of an apocalyptic text, the charcoal clouds stretching out endlessly overhead. She almost expected blood or frogs or some other sort of plague to rain down upon the land.
“Ylla?” A voice called out, and she stood, brushing the dirt and dead flowers from her dress. An older woman was standing by her house, and Ylla recognized the distinctive white and jade robes. This was one of the priestesses of the Vessel.
“Yes, that’s me.” Ylla wondered why the woman was here. The last time that one of the priestesses had visited the village, she had announced that Kysein was to give everything up that he cherished. Ylla tried not to think about him; the ache was there everyday, and this woman’s presence only exacerbated it. Like probing and picking at a fresh, sensitive scar.
“My name’s Trista,” the woman told her. “I’m from the Order.”
The wind had picked up, and Ylla noticed that it was unusually cold for summertime. Shivering, she asked, “How can I help you?”
“You know Kysein, don’t you? The one who was selected to become the Vessel?”
Ylla nodded. She didn’t just know him; he had been her best friend and the first man that she ever kissed. She often remembered the plushness of his lips against her own, the sweet warmth of his breath. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if he hadn’t been chosen.
“He’s…” Trista hesitated. “…unwell.”
“Is he hurt?” A thousand terrible scenarios filled Ylla’s mind: that he had been injured, that he was ill, that he was dying.
“Not physically,” the priestess replied. “He seems to have disappeared into himself. He refuses to talk to us, and now the magic is becoming corrupted. It’s affecting everything…the crops and the animals and even people.”
Ylla glanced at her wilted flowerbed. “So he’s doing this?”
“How can we stop it?” Ylla asked, lifting her eyes from the dead plants and looking at Trista. The priestess’ answer surprised her.
“We’re hoping that you can help.”
They rode in Trista’s carriage, and Ylla spent the time studying the grim landscape as it rushed by. It was as if the entire world had become diseased, the rot spreading and festering as she watched. She could hardly believe that Kysein was somehow responsible for it. If it had been anyone else, then she would have trusted what Trista had told her. But Kysein was such a gentle man, the sort of man who would help a robin with a broken wing. Surely the priestess had been lying.
Trista didn’t say much until the carriage reached its destination. Ylla had never been to the temple, although she had heard stories of its magnificence. She took a moment to appreciate the silver spires and the bright blue stained glass windows; then the priestess descended from the carriage and she followed.
They didn’t go inside of the temple as Ylla had been expecting. Instead, they headed through a garden that made Ylla’s flowerbeds appear healthy and thriving in comparison. Most of the leaves and petals were gone from the plants, leaving behind scrawny, crooked stems and trunks. An odor, bitter and rancid and pervasive, assaulted her nose and she lifted her hand to cover her nostrils.
Once more, her mind balked at the idea that Kysein had done this. But who else could have caused such devastation? Ylla had a limited knowledge of the Vessels; she knew that they were once people like her, that they gave up their humanity to become the bearers of unimaginable power. Could that have changed him? Perhaps whatever magical process the priestesses used had seared away Kysein’s soul. She shuddered as she considered that.
Ylla followed Trista through the twisted, blackened remains of the garden, past an empty pool. That pool was where the odor seemed to originate from; she winced in disgust as they walked by. She wasn’t a trained magic user, not like the priestesses, but even she could sense the powerful forces here, which were so strong that they were almost tangible.
A soft, golden glow cut through the gloom, and as they drew closer to the source, Trista said, “Remember, he’s not exactly the man that he used to be.”
The priestess’ warning sent an icy prickle over Ylla’s skin. The golden light intensified as they stepped out of the garden, and Ylla had to shield her eyes as she looked out over the distance. She spotted him immediately; it was impossible to miss a being who was so immense.
And Trista had been right. He had changed. She could see the parts of him that had been her friend, but it was like looking at an image that had been repainted, again and again, until the original had almost completely disappeared. When she had last seen him, his hair had been as black as ink. Now it was that same shimmering gold as his skin, the strands more like fine fragments of metal than human hair.
Even more startling was the otherworldly energy radiating from his body. The glow was coming from his flesh, and his eyes were like twin beacons of white light. Every time that he blinked the light was blotted out for a split second.
Kysein was crouched down, broad shoulders slumped, his posture one of misery. Although her heart ached for him, she didn’t dare to approach. His size was overwhelming, utterly intimidating. The dead trees surrounding him were little more than dandelions, and there was no doubt that he could have uprooted the tallest oaks with ease. So this was a Vessel. This was what he had been destined to become.
As if he sensed them, Kysein turned his head in their direction. His gaze fell on Trista first; then, when he saw Ylla, his fiery eyes widened. “What are you doing here, Ylla?”
Although the volume was earthshaking, it wasn’t the voice of a god. It was the voice of a man, and she heard so many things in it: surprise, relief, embarrassment. Most of all, she heard Kysein, and that somehow helped to soothe the fear running through her.
“Trista brought me here,” she told him, wondering if he could even hear her from that distance. His head was higher than the temple spires, and to someone so enormous, she probably sounded like a chittering insect.
But somehow Kysein heard her. Trying to smile and failing, he said, “I’ve missed you.”
She could only nod, her mind still trying to grasp what he had become. Cautiously Ylla approached the giant, and sensing her nervousness, he didn’t move until she was a few feet away. Bending down for a closer look, his radiant face plunged down from the heavens and stopped several stories above her.
Ylla gaped up at him, transfixed by his glowing eyes, his size. Realizing that she was being rude, she yanked her gaze away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare.”
“I’m used to it,” he replied. “Sometimes pilgrims come to the temple and they seem so amazed to see me. Amazed, and frightened. It makes me feel like I’m not a person anymore.”
“I’m not frightened,” Ylla said, and she hoped that he couldn’t see through her lie.
Again Kysein attempted to smile. Lowering his right hand, he stretched out his fingers, the glowing digits so big that she could make out the finer details of his nails and knuckles. Once or twice when she was younger, Ylla’s grandfather had let her use his magnifying glass, and she had peered at her fingertips and palm and wrist, fascinated by all of the little things that her eyes usually missed. And now it felt as though she was gazing through a vast magnifying glass as Kysein’s hand descended.
He didn’t touch her, and when she realized that he was offering his hand, she stretched up on her toes. Ylla’s own hand brushed his index finger; a small jolt rattled her body as the magic passed through her, and unprepared for it, she tumbled backwards. Or she would have tumbled backwards if Kysein hadn’t caught her, his long fingers wrapping around her abdomen, his palm supporting her back.
“Are you okay?” He asked, and Ylla squeaked out a weak “Yes.” She was struggling to deal with the sensations — the heat of his hand, the soft firmness of his flesh. And all of that magic, overpowering her senses and leaving her stunned. Vaguely Ylla was aware that he was lifting her up, the magic still coursing through her.
Kysein inspected the woman in his hand, his golden eyebrows bunched together in concern. As she became acclimatized to the effects of the magic, the mental fogginess drifted away and Ylla realized how far above the ground she was. The highest that she had ever climbed was to the top of an old tree, and this was so much higher than that. Shaking, Ylla wrapped her arms around Kysein’s thumb, clinging onto it with frantic determination. He noted her panic and cupped his other hand protectively around her.
“I’ve never held a person before,” Kysein said. “I was so afraid that I’d hurt the pilgrims or the priestesses if I picked them up. All that I could think about what that I’d injure them…or worse.”
His grip was far from painful, though. He held her as if she were a prized lily, and with care and curiosity, he touched her arms. Her legs. Her soft, gingery curls. Feeling bolder, Ylla explored him as well, amazed that these huge fingers belonged to her friend. She looked into his face, and maybe it was the magic that was connecting them, but she could feel his sadness and such deep loneliness. Becoming a Vessel, the host of life-sustaining magic, was supposed to be the ultimate honor. But that was all wrong, she realized. Humans were social creatures, and to rip them away from everyone else was a crueler fate than anything else Ylla could have imagined.
“I’m so sorry,” she managed to say.
Kysein was confused. “For what?”
“For not speaking up. For telling you to go.”
At last he smiled, and the inhumanness of his features vanished. “It’s not your fault, Ylla.”
The giant’s face was close enough that she was able to reach out and lay her hand on his cheek. More than anything she wanted to help him, but she wasn’t sure how. What was done was done; the magic was bound within him, inseparable until he eventually burned away like a candle. How ironic that the ancients had believed that gods required sacrifices; in reality, the gods were the sacrifices.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said, and her heart leapt up into her throat, “I can’t keep being their god.”
“Wait, don’t!” Ylla pleaded as Kysein lowered her down toward the ground. She tried to hold onto the titanic fingers but he gently pushed her away. The giant’s smile became wistful, his glowing eyes dimmed, and then he vanished. It wasn’t a gradual process; one second he was towering above her, and the next second he was gone.
“What have you done?” Trista shrieked, horrified. But Ylla said nothing. Her gaze was frozen on the spot where he had been; now only flattened, dead grass remained.