Every breath an age. Each slow beat of my massive, eight-chambered heart one year’s reckoning. I move. I shift. The earth above me trembles. The great branches of the World Tree shake then rest, quiescent until such time as my muscles and sinews grow tired of holding still, and I must move once more.
Gone are the days of battle. Thor sleeps, drunk with mead. Fenris is caged around with steel. Loki wanders, freed from the burning drip of poison, but the chaos he sows is no longer up to him. There are many others to do his job now. So many as clever and wily as he. Agents of change.
It is good to shake the patterns. To turn things upside down.
But there are none like me. None who grip and grab. None who spread slow dread and disquiet through sea, sky, and land. None who feed the frigid ice and scorching fire.
This is the age of chaos and disorder. Some say that Loki reigns, and that I shall crush the earth and plunge the worlds into darkness…
But truly? Most of the Gods are simply tired. Replaced by machines and human cruelty. Replaced by flight and innovation and the humming of magics so small the eye cannot see, and only few minds can truly comprehend.
Humans don’t need the Gods anymore. And yet? The Gods live on.
Old. So old. But none as old as me.
Most of the great ones sleep, or live in some strange stasis. Arthur rests beneath the hill. St. George is dust. The Son of Heaven has been replaced by pixels, glowing green. Aido-Hwedo raised and crushed vast worlds, only to be forgotten now, except for in small villages, or an altar here and there.
Such short memories, these humans have. Such bright lights they are, burning, flaring, then extinguished before I can even blink one of my twelve eyes.
“How is she?”
The machines beeped and hummed, lights blinking. Scent of antiseptic charred his nostrils, that hadn’t breathed fresh air in what felt like months, but was surely only hours.
Hospital time was strange.
“Stabilizing,” Doctor Hwang replied, dropping Serena’s hand onto her sheet covered stomach, “but not out of the woods, yet.”
“How long?” He couldn’t bear this anymore. Serena, his love, his life, was a giant among women, a towering, beautiful, force to behold. Brain like a diamond. Lips so sweet and soft…
And no one knew what disease had struck her down. Year after year, test after test, all resulting in nothing. No new knowledge, just a new drug to ease the pain.
Serena had liked Dr. Hwang. Another sharp-as-a-tack woman. Successful. Making her way in a world still ruled by rich, white men.
But Serena was lost now, sleeping in a world he couldn’t see.
“I’m sorry. Until we know what is attacking her immune system, the induced coma is our best bet at keeping her stabilized.”
He knew all of that, but the doctor still had to tell him every other day or so. But Doctor Hwang had said two weeks was the safe zone, and they were nearing the end.
They were running out of time.
What do I need?
Very little. It is enough to lay, buoyant, stretching out from sea to sea. It is enough to occasionally stretch the spiked bones of my spine, to rise up and displace the waters of the oceans and shake the leaves on the World Tree. It is enough to affect the realms of brightness and shadow, of earth and heaven, of the secret caves that time forgot, and the hallowed hills of dreams.
Time is all that matters.
And time, there is plenty of. Time is vast.
I shift and roll again, sending tremors up the tree. The reverberations roll down from every world held high on every branch.
What do those reverberations mean? Just another aeon, passing by. Though the Gods used to tell me that to human beings, the trembling of the branches of the Tree meant the rise and fall of the dwellings of humankind. Cities were laid waste, or built anew.
Sometimes, falling through the realms like starlight, I heard the echoes of great songs. The sawing of bows on discordant strings. The pounding of hands on stretched skin. The keening, wailing, tender, voices.
They sang to me, though they knew it not. They gasped out breath to the Wyrm of Time.
The world was a goddamn mess.
When he exited the hospital, heading back to work, the scurrying tension was everywhere. Honking horns. Shouting matches. A homeless woman sobbing on the sidewalk.
He paused, and threw five dollars on her blanket. She never even looked up, face cradled in her gnobbed hands.
Sometimes you gotta give the help you can.
It’s never enough. And without Serena at his side? It would never be.
The government was corrupt as always, but these days, there was the added attraction that it was crumbling and swaying in the midst of a great cleansing fire. At least, that’s what he told myself when he felt freshly out of hope.
That, like a phoenix, something beautiful would rise up from the ashes of human pain.
Work was foolishness, done only to keep him in bread, wine, and a bed, and to pay for better care for Serena.
Once upon a time, it had felt meaningful. That he was fighting the good fight, staving off the forces of darkness. Doing good in the world.
These days, he had to drag his attention to the files of yet another child trapped in systems hell bent on crushing them before they even reached puberty.
Social work, they called it. As though society was still a thing that could be saved.
Beneath the gray-green waters, she dreamed. She had been dragged down so fast, light dimming, air turning liquid, time slowing down. She struggled at first, fighting the great coils, scraping her hands on massive scales that rasped her fingers bloody.
Then something changed. The terror turned to calm inside her heart. The sense of being squeezed and dragged shifted to the feeling of embrace.
She had hopes once. And dreams. And a love so great sometimes she feared it would crack her sternum and lay bare her beating heart.
Welcome, daughter. The voice was slow. Lugubrious. Barely familiar, as though she had met the bearer long before.
Serena turned. She stretched. She felt the buoyant waters, cradling her. Inside her chest, she felt the bright spark of desire.
Who are you? Serena asked. But in her bones, she knew. It was the voice of dissatisfaction. The voice of unease. Ambition. Seeking. The voice that had told her that she needed to try harder. To pony up. To live, and love, and die…
Time devours all things.
Oh, they fight against it, creating their books, and paintings, and clever inventions, trying to outlast my twining grip.
They pump themselves full of pills. They run. They boast. They rip apart their trembling bodies, carving away illnesses, and inserting precious genes, or fats, or metals. They pray at night for the chance to live again.
Some of them feed. They feed on sweat and tears. They grow sleek as others turn into shambling husks, too weary to hope. And yet, I am the monster.
If only they knew. You cannot outwit time.
I shake the Tree, and poison the waters with my understanding. They fear me. They wish that I would die.
Old. So old, am I. My eight chambered heart is the only thing keeping them alive.
I am kind, you see. And gentle.
I will end all pain, and give the worlds a chance to be reborn.
“No. You have to try something else!” His voice shook, with anger or fear, he couldn’t say, but his body could barely contain the emotions pounding at his chest.
“We’ve run every test we can think of. Called in half a dozen specialists. I’m so sorry.”
Doctor Hwang looked small where she had once loomed large. Puny, where she had seemed strong.
And Serena? She slumbered on in her tent of tubes and wires, cheeks sunken, skin dry and cracking around her abused lips, where the tracheal tube emerged, a thick, translucent coil. A snake that should have choked her, but was keeping her alive.
He turned from Doctor Hwang, and slid into the hideous blue vigil chair next to Serena’s bed.
Careful to avoid the slender tubes on hand and arm, he touched a patch of cool skin. Her skin.
Her skin that had slid across his in happiness and lust. Her skin, once so luminous with laughter.
It felt like paper. Inert.
He leaned toward the hollow whorl of her ear.
“Where did you go, Serena?”
There was no answer. No movement. No sound but the hush of oxygen and the beeping of machines.
Damn time to hell, he thought. Damn time to hell.
What do you want from me? She asked the great dragon. It was magnificent. Serena was aware enough to see that now. Scales as large as her hands, in shades of pearly blues, purples, and greens. A dozen eyes nictated, winking and blinking in succession, set to some rhythm Serena did not comprehend.
I want nothing, it replied, just you, here. Now. No more.
That seemed strange to her, because, to float and swim and twine around such a venerable creature must hold great significance.
Perhaps it did not matter. Perhaps she could not know.
She did know that for the first time in many years, Serena felt no pain.
He had called her parents. Her brother was flying in from California. The parents would take the train down from Vermont.
Last goodbyes in a crumbling world. What did they mean?
He did not know, except that unfathomable pain gripped his chest and belly. He wanted to puke, to wail. To run.
But he stood, holding her hand. Breathing in antiseptic. Smelling the slight tang of piss.
Staring down at his beloved’s wasted face.
Dissatisfaction. Unease and dis-ease. Longing. Birth. The crawl into the grave. The rise and fall of all that you hold dear.
Fire and ice give birth to all the worlds. Opposite forces strike themselves together, crushing molecules until something has to give in or give up.
And so new things arise.
Order is only temporary. Fight me if you can.
Am I an evil thing?
Coiling and uncoiling, drifting, sleeping, waking. Calling sacrifices to myself, I feed. The sacrifices don’t mind, or not for long. Once the confused struggle passes, they often find they like it here.
But they never stay for long.
Being consumed changes a person.
Serena loved the dragon, if such a thing was possible. It comforted her. It made her feel as if she had purpose again.
The great, muscular coils drew her in closer, gripping her tightly enough that she could no longer say she was free.
The massive body bunched and released, tail thrashing. Her hands braced against the scaly muscles, Serena flew through the ocean depths, seeing things she’d never seen before.
How am I breathing under water? The thought flashed across her mind.
Weightless. Cared for. Free.
Carried as if on a juggernaut toward the twelve nictating eyes. Toward the massive head. The jaws that slowly opened. The murky cave of the mouth.
With a snap, the coils let loose. Serena slammed into the open darkness.
He had murmured what he hoped were proper words. Said prayers to Gods he didn’t think were real.
Hugged her parents. Shook her brother’s hand.
And stood, tears sluicing down his cheeks, as the nurse unplugged the great cord from the wall.
“The tubes?” he asked Doctor Hwang.
A grimace, then an understanding smile. “We’ll take those out once you’ve left the room. It’s better that way. Take your time to say goodbye.”
He wouldn’t though. He never would.
He kissed Serena’s cheek, then turned and punched a wall.
Sacrifice is necessary. It is no punishment. No cruelty.
It is simply the way things are.
Some sacrifices stay in my belly longer. A life more brightly lived. It matters not whether there is goodness. Oh, kindness is one way to live a luminous life. But so is cleverness. So is beauty. So are things created or destroyed.
It is vigor that I want. I don’t much care what kind.
For now? I am satisfied.
This sacrifice was good.
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