The Implacable Seer. The Knowing Hunger. Inescapable Regard. They of Multitudinous Gaze. Radiant Mercy. Red-Eyed Fury. Hieron .
Once upon a time, there was a god. A god of the empty reaches of space, so distant curiosity dared not linger there; they were the god that beckoned it to come closer. They had many names.
They were a small god … if a god could be small. Their domain surrounded those things most preferred to leave unexplored. They wrapped Themself around the guilty pleasures of life. They were the eyes on a furtive back in the dark. They slipped through the spaces between heartbeats where mortals might try to hide their most-secret wishes. (A foolish thing to do, keeping secrets there. They cure better in deep and tender places. They are much harder to cut out, those arils of unseen truths, but worth the work for they've grown sweet and thick and groan between the teeth before they snap open.)
To call Them curious instead of small would be too-insignificant an idea to contain Them. It might be closer to true, perhaps, to say They are young . They are young and They are alone .
But They know it is a terrible thing for a person to be known completely. Seen by a creature such as Themself, Inescapable Regard, and Their yawning hunger to see more, and more, and more still— most go mad. Even the space between the threads that make up atoms does not satisfy Them. But because it is so terrible for a human to be known and because every human is built of empty space, it is human nature to seek out the things in the void which might fill the void in them.
And sometimes those things that humans find, they worship.
The Seer cannot do for them what they seek. They cannot complete their empty spaces and leave them to walk away whole. But Their newfound congregation don’t need to know that. They can occupy those all who get too close and fill and feast on the fools who fall into Them, every inch.
They are a young god and They are hungry and the dark of the void is not safe for Them any longer.
Their temple takes root on an impossible expanse, barely more than bare red rock and dust careening through the black vastness of space. They grow strange and florid like the bottom of an ocean. Within Their walls They are an oasis of white vines and translucent leaves and trees like crystal spires that catch the light and keep it beneath the thick canopy and drink it into darkness.
Their temple is filled with darkness dense enough to breathe.
Their heat draws life like flies.
Humans are curious, confused things and it’s quaint that they give Them their blind, or their half-blind, as if their proximity to the lack of light is anything like the dark beneath the arched ribs of Their temple with its beating heart that has never once seen starlight. (Why They planted it so close to this star is something They have tried to forget but They protect it well from the searing light nonetheless.)
Hieron delights to walk among them, Their humans. To make Themself truly small. A facsimile of Their herd: a lithe limbed construct of spare joints, many-eyed, black-fanged, smiling.
There is no Name for Them but there are many names made for Them that ring sweetly in the shifting halls of Their lonely temple in the middle of the desert. Voices of visitors floating overtones of magenta and violet and silver across the dark.
Their temple is warm-- there is no reason for it not to be, it is Theirs, it feeds Them-- but They permit within Them fires, too. At a human’s request. So sweet of them, to ask for things, but they are always asking for things and this is nothing new-- except this one. This one in particular: a human with a brilliant blue eye who stumbled into Them from the desert by happenstance.
He never flinches away from Them when They push at his knowing. His name is Juno and They drink the truth of it from his lips. He talks to Them more than he asks anything of Them. His stories drop like glittering gems across the warm temple floor. On the rare occasion that he smiles They do not think of stars.
It has little to do with his teeth, Their consuming love of his smile. They have eaten teeth. Teeth are cheap and common. But They think They have never eaten anything the same shade of blue as his eye; have never seen anything that same shade of blue because, until lately, They had never tried the novelty of having such spectrum-limited eyes. (That They have six of them notwithstanding.) The only thing better than eating that blue is looking into it and studying the gradient of every peak and valley of his iris.
So They give Juno his fires because he asks for them. Sharp little things that crackle like comet tails in braziers of gold.
It suits Them, too. They enjoy the gold. Folding it in Their fingers and persuading it to take root, too, and growing it through the temple. Gold in the seams of Their skin. Gold shot through the veins of Their leaves. Gold netted in the warm floor of Their sanctuary.
But where there are humans and where there is gold, They come to learn, (this new word is plucked from the roiling surface of Juno’s furious mind as he thinks it) there are thieves .
No one has ever stolen from Them before; They never had to because, until lately, the Seer refused no one.
They were a giver of gifts. So multivariate and overwhelming They seldom had to be asked. Aeons before humans were a twinkle in the cosmic array They made gifts from Their own body, such as it was, carved and open. And They learned their first harsh truth: the bleeding radiation of all that made Them was not, not for one second, enough. They were not enough.
So They retreated as close to a star as They dared venture and built Their temple anew and They did not, as a rule, give anything to anyone for free.
No one has ever stolen from Them before because no one sets foot inside Their temple without coming into Their sight. The bones of the greedy feed the undergrowth of the forest floor after Hieron has picked them clean. For the lucky ones They even grow a mouth. Their patience for greed is no wider than an atom.
How interesting it is that this greedy human, then, passed below Their awareness.
Into Juno they speak, Bring me this one , and resolve Themself into corporeality though the smallness of a body is blistering. They want to see it. This new kind of human, this thief who has through some trickery come into their Temple without drawing a single one of Their eyes.
Juno obeys and Juno thinks where he knows Hieron is watching: He’s nothing special , and, thieves are cheap and common . He thinks this firmly as if it will distract Them from the malcontent lining the fragile underside of his tongue and the backs of his teeth. As if They won’t notice how he is upset that someone They didn’t intend could get so close to Them without-- not without attracting Their notice, but without attracting his .
As if he should watch The Seer .
Oh , how They love him.
In the sanctuary They coalesce. Looking at the thief with Their many and shifting eyes it is clear what has Juno out of sorts.
The thief is almost faceless beneath the skin he wears. A tall human even kneeling before the central dais of their sanctuary with eyes that scan for exits as if there is anywhere to go for him now that would lead outside of them. His hands are bound before him to a lead that Juno holds. Better to keep an eye on those hands.
He smells of unseen truths , so ripe They salivate, tongue heavy, despite the filtered senses of Their limited flesh. A refracting veil of lies coats the backs of his dark eyes. They see it glitter for just a moment before he looks away from where They appear.
He pales from that brief glance. He studies the ground, tries to pull his hands closer in to his body. To protect himself.
Of course, Juno’s rope won’t let him.
Some day They will hold Juno’s skull in Their hands and suck his tongue free from his jaw and throat and he will bleed and They will weep with the love They have for him.
“I don’t know you.” They speak through the whole of Their temple, trees and stone and dark and floor.
“You’re not a supplicant. Or a pilgrim. Or a priest,” the last is a little joke, just for Juno though he does not appreciate it in this moment. They have no others to tend to them in this frigid desert; he is Their Foundling. Their First. Their high priest. Their most-worthy.
“You’re a thief .” They say the word carefully. It tastes velvet and rich in the back of their mouth. “Look at Me, thief .”
The thief won’t raise his eyes so Juno helps him. Gets a rough handful of his black hair and pulls his head back until there is no more floor for the thief to stare at. When he tries the ceiling, well. No one but Hieron likes looking into the ceiling of their sanctuary with its pulsating, starless dark that seethes into an impossible distance, vaster than the emptiness between worlds.
The vertigo of it (or so he lets himself think; it’s the knowledge that continued looking will make him scream and he does not want to open his mouth ) forces his eyes down-- to Hieron.
“There you are,” They sigh, pleased for the moment though They’ve caught sight of a soft glow beneath his chin. They have been named Mercy, too. This unremarkable lying thing within Them will have his chance.
The thief breathes through his nose. A measured and intentional steadiness as he looks at Them and They Look back. Windows within him are shuttered and locked, row after row after row. They want to find every one and pry them open.
They cannot be endless, Hieron is sure of it, the only endless thing in Them is Them.
The small stress of holding his hands together and up, reluctant to rely on Juno’s rope for some strange and prideful reason, is making him tremble. But it isn’t really that . His eyes betray him. He simply refuses to squirm below Them.
“Tell me your name.”
He swallows with filtered delicacy.
He nearly chokes.
Something hard clicks against his teeth and he winces because he knows They have heard the sound.
Juno hears it, too, and thunder closes over his eye.
All Hieron can do is smile at them both. They know that teeth, like thieves , are cheap and common and they’ve had so many in Their lifetime They could fill Their stomach on teeth alone a dozen times over. Teeth are not important. This thief is concerned with what he has behind his teeth.
“What did you steal from me, thief ?” They are named Mercy, too.
He cannot look away from Them and he will not open his mouth.
They descend the steps of the dais. The liquid motion of Them unsettles the eye like trying to fixate on something distant in the fog. They are distant and They draw closer in that constant distance until Their robe brushes the thief’s bound hands like clinging spiders’ silk spun from searing plasma.
He recoils. As far as Juno will let him-- and that isn’t very far at all.
Hieron takes a hold of his jaw, long fingers and extra joints curving closer to bone beneath than should be possible through skin and sinew. They pull him forward by it. Find the seam where his teeth are clenched-- so tense, that jaw, it must hurt-- and then They squeeze .
Humans are soft and they give under pressure. This thief in Their hand is no exception, opening his mouth for Them with a pained moan when the roots of his backmost teeth begin to creak in their meaty settings.
The heart of Their temple-- Their favorite piece of it, anyway. A thumb-sized opalescent gem cut with razor-fine edges, a glimmer of light that would shine through anything but bone, which had clearly sliced its shape into the roof of his mouth -- slips off of his tongue, carried on a small stream of fresh blood and saliva.
The stone clatters to the floor at Their feet. The thief’s slack lips ooze blood and saliva down Their wrist to stain Their sleeve. Viscous fluid he’d been so reluctant to swallow.
They remembered, in some distant part of Themself, that blood in the stomach made humans sick.
“I shouldn’t be surprised.” They don’t let go of his face but They ease Their grip so he can think he’s in less danger of losing his precious teeth. “Give Me your name.”
He tried to shake his head, the funny little thing and discovered quickly that between Hieron’s and Juno’s hands he couldn’t. He licked his lips, only bloodying them with his wounded tongue, “No.”
He tells Them No .
They are too angry, suddenly, to appreciate the new sensation that is being defied.
Hieron bends without moving to retrieve the wicked little gemstone from the floor. They hold it up for him to see. Their skin drank the blood from it and its cutting edges only melted into Their fingertips. “ You’re going to eat this ,” They tell him, eyes shivering in their settings, multiplying within themselves. “And before you do I want your name so I can eat it . If you don’t give Me your name, you will not like how this goes,” a human tone of warning for a human sort of fury.
Denying Them is not long an option. Not with the seething dark pressing down from above with nowhere to go but the cold marble under his knees. That doesn’t stop him trying. “N-- I can’t. I don’t have one.”
It hangs in the air before his mouth and settles onto Hieron’s tongue. It tastes closer to the truth.
“You don’t?” Their stillness is unnatural. Unbreathing and statuesque. They know what it is to be a nameless thing in the dark.
It tastes closer to the truth but They know much of humans (They have learned and been taught by Their Juno many things about humans ) and They know by the thinness of the words, their glassy transparency, that the thief has not given them the whole truth.
Their lips curl back from rows of gleaming black teeth. They have been named Mercy but they were Fury first. In a seamless gesture They push the gem back onto his tongue and force his jaw closed around it. Seal Their hand over his mouth. “ Swallow it .”
His eyes refuse Them.
They expand Their hand to cover his nose, too.
He struggles . Yanks his hands and throws himself back so hard he almost unbalances Juno. But the floor will not allow him to get those strong legs up under him. It pulls at him and Juno moves to grip the back of the thief’s neck and Hieron’s hands are without mercy.
After that small drama there is a delicate silence. They can see the thief’s mind working as he holds his tongue still between his teeth with the heartstone balanced on its slick center. Silence in which he discovers that there is no way to extract himself from Them.
Then the need to breathe sets in in earnest.
He scrabbles at Hieron’s wrists trying to pull Them from his face. Tries to tear at Their robe -- it only stretches and gives around his fingers. He’s heedless in his suffocating panic of the way the membrane of Them burns.
Then his body betrays him. They can see it in his eyes, the conscious resistance the moment before reflex overcomes him and his tongue and throat try to swallow to see if that will earn him any air.
He screams between Their hands.
Thrashes and convulses, ribs trying to open their bellows and hitching short. His throat works. He gags again. The thinning sounds he makes have no syllables because can’t move his jaw but the melody of them is begging. Tears leak from his eyes and blood seeps between Hieron’s fingers.
“You can do it,” They assure him the third time he gags and pushes more blood and bile against the seal of Their hand. They speak the softness into his bones and still he resists Them.
His face is nearly purple. He needs to breathe but first Hieron needs him to swallow Their heart.
It’s a struggle. But the thief they’ve caught perseveres.
He swallows the heart of the temple.
With hungry eyes They mark its gleaming, painful progression down his esophagus.
Merciful to a fault They let him breathe through his nose again, too. Frantic and congested breaths that bring his sounds a little high and louder even as he swoons in Their hands. This, too, bleeds over the backs of Their impossible fingers. Droplets and misting that suggest he’s aspirating the blood from his mouth and throat.
But he’s breathing and conscious and They are nearly satisfied. The point of this isn’t to kill him.
Of course, breathing renews the fight in him as the swoon of oxygen-deprivation fades. He reaches his bound hands toward his throat, fingers grasping like claws. Juno draws him up short without Hieron having to think of it.
The heartstone is fainter than starlight. The noises the thief makes (gurgling, pleading moans muffled by their palm, please take it out ) stop sparking Their attention. They only have eyes for the slow progression of compulsive swallowing and violent resistance. The light buried in his skin gets caught time and again as his body tries to vomit up the thing hurting it so deeply. Scouring and slicing inside such fragile places never meant to be touched , let alone treated so roughly. There is still so much more blood to pulse from his mouth into Their hand.
But it never comes all the way back up into his mouth.
Eventually, even his deepest gag reflex wears itself out and lets the sharpness pass.
Eventually, the gemstone settles just below Their thief’s breastbone where They can see it glowing through him.
“I don’t want to look at it anymore.”
Juno’s surprised to hear Them.
It isn’t often They speak to him with a vocal apparatus. He has it on good authority that given the choice They never bother to form one; that space in Their throat is better used for housing other things (teeth, mouths, sacrifices). They don’t need to speak to make Their will known to him.
They haven’t taken Their eyes off the thief.
The thief, for his part, hasn’t stopped retching and weeping and making those horrible noises all over the temple floor since Hieron let go of him. It would be a mess but Hieron’s robe, a diaphanous orange membrane that snared whatever came too close into Them, drank the blood from it, leaving only a puddle of thick, clear fluid. Through the thief’s back, the temple’s heart glowed strong enough to outline the bones of his spine and ribs. It, at least, seemed satisfied with its new setting.
“It’s not like you to skip a meal.”
The two of Their eyes that were closest to him shifted into focus and narrowed. “Take it away from Me.” Their eyes are the soft pink of colorlessness, though; They aren’t dissatisfied with him.
“Want me to bring anything back?”
But They’re already gone. Or rather They have given up the effort to stoop to meet Their human at eye-level. Juno knows well that They’re never far — from him or anything else in the living dark of the temple.
It isn’t often that any kind of disposal falls to him. His god’s preference is to consume all of a thing, even the calcium in its bones, even its very name. That They would send a potential meal away spoke volumes. He hauls the thief up, disgusted and careful not to touch the length of rope closest to his unfortunate mouth that he’s so rudely soiled. The thief clutches at him for balance. Cold hands closing around his bicep, seeking human contact and with it the chance of comfort. Juno grabs him by the neck to right him-- the straightening draws from him a groan and the faintest shifting of the heartstone’s light inside him-- and makes him walk out the sanctuary’s unguarded doors.
The fires burning outside the sanctuary form perfect, unwavering pools of light on the ground. Pools where the crystalline plantlife shifts and waves; it cannot abide the heat but it wants to crawl into it anyway. Stepping free of the fire’s boundaries the temple’s dark is encompassing. The thief hesitates but Juno strides into it without hesitation, pulling him along hard enough to make him stumble; he knows the warrens of this place like the back of his hand. And even if he didn’t, he has a lantern with him, stuck in the thief's stomach.
Midway through the dense, vaulting trees that pulsed with grey unlight and soundless breeze, the thief stops catching noises of pain behind his teeth. All at once he breathes easier and seems shocked by it. After several dozen steps— he’s waking steadier now, too— he touches a tentative hand to the brightness beneath his shirt. By the look on his face he’s discovered and accepted that he no longer hurts.
Juno wonders to himself whether Hieron did it out of pity.
The forest parted for them at the temple’s boundary. Moonless night had fallen over the Martian desert and it’s stars were almost blinding. The heartstone in the thief’s belly shone in answer.
He stared as Juno unbound his hands. They had stopped shaking, at least. He was weary and wary. “Where am I supposed to go? I can’t go back .”
“Don’t know, don’t care. But you can’t stay here,” and like a private joke, “I hear the radiation’s a bitch.”
Juno turned on his heel and left the thief standing there, directionless, gaping at the dark trees.
The thief loses his trade.
It was one thing to be unable to secret himself away in the dark corners of the world; had it only been that he might have been able to find other work. To ply his trade in the bright light of day has always been a pleasant challenge. But the beacon in his belly actively defied him even in the light. Shone brighter the more layers or darker colors he wore. No armor could conceal it. It identified him to anyone who had eyes to see.
A thief without anonymity is not much of a thief.
Not two months passed before the thief reentered the temple of The Seer. Walked with intent to be known— as known as he knew himself, anyway. It was barely more than a mouthful of Knowing but adequate enough to announce his presence to Them.
They arise for him, pink-eyed and curious to see how Their heart has taken root. It gleams soft from the warm meat of him even though he has done his best to hide it. He is ashamed by it; how he stands shows it: stance cheated with a shoulder towards Them, a new habit of keeping the long bones of his forearms low in his gestures, as if they will conceal it. Fine tendrils of Their awareness that he will not notice slip around him from behind while They let him think Their eyes are the gelatinous blinking masses in Their face. To his credit he looks upon this fragment of Them without flinching.
The thief , because he’s desperate, tries to bargain. There is a star in his belly and he wants it gone. And every offer he makes Them is greedy as if no one told him this was not the day They would deign to observe humans’ offerings. They do not take demands. They do not feel the need to enlighten him. They tell him instead:
“You do not amuse Me, thief.”
“You could steal nothing I want, thief .”
“I don’t care why you stole from Me, thief .”
“It isn’t My fault you regret the consequences of what you’ve done, thief .”
“You have a knife. If you want it gone so badly why don’t you cut it out yourself, thief ?”
With each repetition the word for what he Is sours in Their mouths. The velvet wears thin the more they drag their claws over it. It is a weak word for a weak thing and They tire of saying it. But he does not notice Their tiring; he is too busy with his words.
The thief, who is not much of a thief anymore-- the thief who is desperate, but not that desperate-- is also a fool. It would have perhaps been most accurate to call him that from the start of this story. He is a fool and he lets himself snarl his anger at a young and hungry god without thinking twice.
“I’ve been wondering for weeks why your temple stands empty except for one man. Why there’s no security or accounts in its name. And I think I’ve figured it out,” the fool says, and laughs in their face, “you’re no god. You’re a misplaced wight with delusions of grandeur! What good are you? You won’t take your damned rock back because you can’t . You’re nothing!”
Hieron had never been cursed before.
They went grave-still and the fool was confused -- until the wall of cold reached him. Then he Knew. Their stillness was only the stillness of universe’s edge, the distant place from whence They came, a stillness so cold that light couldn’t move within it.
Their floor beneath Them shattered.
The fool found his feet frozen in place. He jerked and kicked free from his shoes and skittered backwards in animal panic. Turned to run and tripped— frost and new ice leeched up from the ground. It stripped the skin off his damp palms and ate it. It wasn’t enough to whet Their appetite.
The door of the sanctuary wouldn’t open to him. Its cold planks drank the blood from his palms. He turned, frantic, searching, his feet were so cold. They were numb and burning. The walls of the temple shifted and drew close. He had nowhere to go.
Hieron advanced on the fool in Their sanctum. Crawling around Their walls with eyes like fire. They gripped his jaw in Their gleaming claws, sinking silvery punctures in either side of his face.
“You will not leave My temple. You will run and you will hide and I will find where you have hidden yourself in My walls, dear thief . When I find you I will eat you alive. That is how I will take My heartstone back.”
Then he is alone. The forest and the dark breathe around him.
Except he is not alone because he Knows. He is in The Seer’s temple, in Them-- but that hardly has room to matter. The living ground beneath him is searing. The fool burns and shivers with violence that chips a tooth. He cannot stand or crawl for the cold, only writhe at the boiling reintroduction of warmth to his blue-tinged extremities until the dark of the temple melts the frost layered over his eyelashes and lips.
He lies on the warm (boiling) white soil and does not leave the unknowable cold of the sanctuary for a long time.
When his mind leaves the sanctuary and rejoins him he takes a bodily accounting. He’s lost nothing to frostbite but the topmost layer of his palms and he can feel and move all his toes— but the soles of his feet are blistered and bruised where he carried his weight across the temple floor, worst on the balls of his feet and his toes.
But he must stand. The tender mechanics of doing so without his hands for counterbalance against the velveteen trunks of strange trees cost him too much time.
Footsore, the fool wanders the temple, seeking its boundaries. He knows they exist. He’s studied them from outside the impossible geometry of the walls that swayed through the course of the day away from the relentless desert sun. The temple is no more hospitable from the desert. In the wake of panic he is hungry and, more worryingly, thirsty. But the only fluid he finds is the sap of a breathing tree. He approaches it to investigate and it breathes harder, heaving and splitting its bark to ooze deep red ichor from within its. The fool refuses to touch it. He hobbles his way through the dark, one arm wrapped around his middle, and tries not to lick his lips too much. His hand leaves a palm print of blood and lymph fluid on his shirt.
Even in pain, his steps are methodically chosen: for their stability and economy of movement and silence. He has accepted the inevitability of being seen but his pride insists that he pass unheard. He can still manage that, at least.
The heartstone has no weight to it but it presses hard against the tender walls inside of him. He can feel the lines of it that had gone down him so sharp; they are rounded within him. He thinks he should not be able to feel something so deep within him from within him.
The punishment meted out is clear: he is a thief who can no longer be a thief. He thinks, distantly, he should have found some way to make money from the stone in him instead of returning to this place.
He finds a perimeter of the temple in the dark or what must be a perimeter because the low humming trees draw dense together so far that he cannot wedge fingers between them. The light radiating from within him cannot breach the gap.
The light makes him night-blind. In the dark he can never see farther than the reach of his own hands, the ground immediately before his feet. The ground, what he can see of it, is drifted in fine and soft soil grown dense with glittering ferns. They avoid the radius of trees’ surface roots and so he thinks it must be safer to step through them. If nothing else they hide his footprints. The little plants stretched high toward the light inside him and wrapped gentle leaves around his fingertips and ankles and let him pass. They only wanted to keep him aware of their awareness.
He does not like thinking of the stone he ate and he cannot stop thinking of it.
He remembers the sharp cuts it sank into the roof of his mouth every time gravity or a twitch of the tongue took it farther back. Like it wanted to crawl inside of him. Slick and smooth all over except for its edges that scoured. A fishhook that refused to go anywhere but in and down .
The fool breathed a deep breath in through his mouth to feel the air safe around his teeth.
He had knelt before a god and been compelled to tell Them the truth and he told Them he had no name. A truth that was not true to anyone but himself.
A thought crept into him with a softness that he recoiled from. But the temple was darker than a rabbit warren and he had only his own thoughts for company. He returned to the soft thought. A confused possibility that drew him to an unsteady stop on his bare and aching feet.
Hieron is a god whose domain is truth with many names but no Name . This much is known. It slid sinuous up his spine, the idea that they had believed him , a gentle conviction that he could barely stand to breathe upon.
He could see clearly: to that end, with Their god’s eye view, They gave him a gift . They had taken a nameless thing and given him a way to identify himself even alone in the dark. In any dark. In the all-consuming dark of Their temple-- this place that is outside the skin of the world-- he is, more than anything else, sure that he still exists. A luxury of sanity They afford to very few.
They gave him a gift.
And just look at how he’s refused it. Ungrateful little thief who dared to curse Them—
The venom seeping into his skull jars him back to the present.
The thief, the fool , feels his heart skip a beat then double its pace. He has been standing here in the dark and now there are eyes on him. He feels them dragging over his clothes like hands, snagging thread and the fine hairs at the nape of his neck.
He had been so careful seeking out the edges of the temple to look for an escape. Methodical. Predicable.
The pale ground grows softer beneath his feet.
He breaks into a run, hands and feet panic-numb, vaulting over reaching roots and reeling beneath low limbs. He is graceful, fleeing within the confines of the temple, moving solely in reflex. He is the product of a lifetime of expertise cultivated with purposeful ruthlessness and pursuit of perfection.
He makes for lovely prey.
It was not intended as a gift, the stone at the mouth of his stomach. It’s a punishment .
He knows it. He must know it. Repeats it to himself with conviction that pushes up from under the bruised and fragile skin of his reasoning and the whole while the idea pushes back until his reasoning wears bloody: No, little thief, dear thief, sweetmeat. It was a gift .
Their temple is warm and the warmth of it draws life like flies to a corpse… Oh, but its fires . The fires draw moths .
Hieron suffers them to stay even though they are tasteless because they flit prettily around the flames. Dancing as close as they can and away at the last second. Or diving into the first lick of heat and bursting into glittering sparks.
They spin Themself hands and take up a bead of flame from the only brazier left standing. It rolls over Their fingertips, riding the sliver of boiling of air and atoms an infinitesimal distance above Their skin. The moths flicker away from the brazier to follow the dancing flame around Their knuckles. This small thing delights Them. They lead the moth around with a sweeping gesture. It chases the light, its world is in the light sparking on Their fingers, and it is daring in its pursuit, diving close and away before death can claim it.
They feel it, like a lover’s hand or a mouth pressing at the inside of Their ribs, when Juno sets foot in Their sanctuary.
In Their distraction, the flame whips around Their moth and it dies with a cartilaginous crack.
“ Juno .”
The walls breathe his name and warmth seeps into the sanctuary. They love him more every time he returns.
Juno drifts into and out of Them as he pleases; he is human and humans are growing things and like all growing things on this small red world they require starlight. Unlike everything in Them Juno requires starlight. There is star-warm dust clung to his boots and the hem of his coat. His skin smells of starshine: linen and ozone and salt. They wrap Themself around him, bending space to draw him close, and lick him from jaw to temple. He stumbles a little but drops the heavy burden he’s carrying across his shoulders to let Them get at him. They savor the rust and solar radiation clung to his skin.
From the expanse of Their arms he tells Them, “I was gonna give you a present, y’know, but now I’m not so sure you deserve it.”
He gives a significant look to the whole of Their sanctuary: The floor broken in great sheets of marble like ice floes. (When was the last time They laid eyes on the ocean?) The leaking dark dripping down Their ceiling and puddling in the fissures of the floor. They had overturned all but one of his braziers.
Hieron is not embarrassed to have destroyed it; They right it with a thought. Only the braziers remain unlit. Fire is not their domain though They love to hold it close in Them.
A cloud passes over Juno’s eye as he frowns at the sudden shift in his reality: Their sanctuary was never broken in the first place.
“That’s cheating,” he chides but he’s smiling.
The temple breathes a low-clicking purr. “I make the game.”
Mischievous delight tinges the air around Juno a soft violet and honey. He nudges the thing he’d dropped so unceremoniously onto Their unbroken floor with the toe of his boot. It rolls and then groans.
“I brought you a present,” he says again.
The thief is bound up from shoulders to ankles; heavy ties in rough-spun rope that made him easier to carry.
“You didn’t cast him out.”
“It didn’t stick the first time… and I thought you might be hungry.”
They scented the things Juno left unsaid like blood: the bone-deep relief of coming back to the temple interrupted by the thief sprinting headlong into him. The thief had had on him a knife.
There are sweet things inside Juno as in every human and They love to roll them about Their mouths, the soft weight of him on Their tongue, suckling at the jagged insides of Juno’s spine with measured control. The lobes of his liver are as varied and fascinating as the stories he tells Them between the small wounds They find that he’s left open. But They would never presume to open him Themself and if They did They would not do so callously.
The thief had on him a knife. A sliver of metal They had forgotten and because They had forgotten he had turned it on Juno. The knowledge sticks in their craw. A narrow swollen bleed beneath their gum line.
Juno insists, “I’ve done worse to myself cooking,” as They knit new sinew into the deepest of the defensive gouges in the backs of his arms with a narrow and focused fury.
They swallow down their anger. There is room in Them to pull it out later. For the present They press the line of Their maw along Juno’s back and chuckle at the phantom of his irritation. Shift Their many eyes around in their settings to stare down at the prey Juno has brought Them.
The thief is drifting, not conscious enough to appreciate the deepening red in Their gaze.
“I love it when you bring me presents.”
The altar grows from the marbled stone and gold of the dais as They require it. Such is the way of all things in Their temple.
The thief is laid bare on Their altar. They sit beside him ( such terrible smallness how do humans stand it ) studying the gooseflesh proximity to Them raises even when he is not aware of Them. Their robe is a bright film in the firelight. It creeps over his skin and seeks out the little wounds left by cutting branches and jutting stones and sinks into them and spreads them open. More than just a pretty lure, like every part of Them it can feed, too.
The reopening wounds, bright pains all, bring him fully awake. The blur of unconsciousness sharpening into rabbit-hearted confusion is gradual, almost charming.
He is fear-frozen so They help him: They pick up the thief's hand and turn it over to lick at the healing meat below his thumb and drag the deep, black scabs from it with the weight of Their tongue. The scabs peel and pry loose with a new layer of skin and make a wet noise like the tearing of cloth.
That gets the thief moving. He whimpering of pain crescendos into wordless shouting. He tries to jerk his hand back, fingers clawing at Their cheek when he can’t pull away-- but They were never that close to begin with. They hold his flexing hand at arm’s length and his freshly skinned palm drips blood onto the altar.
“No! You-- you, you can’t! You can’t ! You didn’t catch me, your, your priest did-- he did and you said you would-- you--” He reels from frightened hysteria to triumphant hysteria.
The silly thief thinks he can tell Them what is .
They pause with Their tongue wrapped over and around his bloody hand. Their eyes narrow in a wave across Their face. Into him They speak, “ I make the game, little thief .”
Their smile blooms and spreads beyond the boundaries of Their cheekbones. They show him Their teeth. Row upon row of obsidian shards that run the impossible depth of Them. They are pleased by the color draining from his face-- little cuts on his lip and eyebrow and jaw stand out in stark relief. They revisit the raw skin of his palm. It is soft and moist beneath Their rasping. They drag his hand over the hooked points of Their frontmost teeth, the barest kiss of them, to feel how the muscles give.
“Please, I don’t want to die like this.”
Irked at the interruption, “You don’t want to die at all.”
“Is there nothing I can do?”
Remarkable how he still finds a voice to reason with the unreasonable. The bitter and wheedling question makes Them hiss, lipskin curling away from Their teeth. They regard the fear-sweat glittering across his skin in the firelight and They are reminded of the moths. Perhaps They should have cooked him. But the fire would ruin the meat. There are many secrets tucked into the undersides of his ribs and the windows at the backs of his eyes; things of faint tenderness that taste best raw. They are discerning in Their taste, even when the packaging of Their meal proves aggravating and chatty.
They run a claw up the length of his belly — a hair-thin bleed that they will have to repeat many times, deeper with each slow pass, if they want it to be deep enough to truly lay him bare— and he presses his free hand over the heartstone the moment they draw close to it. It shines around his skeleton.
Hieron stares. They drop his bleeding hand and he holds it over Their heartstone, too. They sink Their claw into his abdomen by bare inches just below his anxious hands. He gasps at the penetration. He groans and sweats... but he does not move his hands.
“What is your name, thief?” They want it from him again with a renewed hunger that takes Them by surprise.
“Will you eat me anyway?”
“Yes .” They seethe the fact of his fate from every pore.
A sonorous groan, liquid in the back of his mouth between palate and tongue. It is fear or anticipation. His fingers clench at his own skin. Pulling at the deep wound around Their claw. Opening it to Them.
They will take nothing from him that matters.
The thief sees the truth of it and it frightens him past the frayed edge of his reason. They smile at him and pull Their finger from him to suck his viscera from Their claw.
He seizes his opportunity in a flicker of motion. Rolls from Their altar to get his feet beneath him. Bolts hare-quick into the blind darkness beyond the still fires despite Knowing that They left him unbound because there is no away for him to run to. What he Knows he cannot believe and so he runs.
They open a mouth into Their floor quick enough to snare his ankle.
He falls sprawling. Pulls himself up to drag himself away. He tries to. But there are no seams in the veined floor to grasp for purchase and the tacky friction of drying blood between his skin and stone only lets Them score Their teeth deeper into him.
They drag him back.
His shriek is tarnished silver under Their watchful temple dome.
Their teeth work up his leg. Row after back-bent row dragging and retracting and piercing and pulling.
He kicks at Them but the soft place where They might keep eyes to watch him from below is gone. They are only a mouth on him. Narrow in purpose and slavering.
“No! Please! My name— I’ll tell you! It’s Peter Nureyev,” it spills from his tongue on a stream of tears.
The silver in him polishes a little. The bitter coating it grows savory.
They pause burrowed along the length of his calf. Such strong muscle in him that twitches for release even as They tear into it. If They let him go now They’re certain he would make himself run on it. They could spend another hour chasing him, maybe, before he grew too weak.
They coalesce where They can speak to him without pulling Their tongue away from the ruin They’re making of him. “Is it ?”
“Yes,” he groans. He wraps his hands around his naked thigh like he can pull it free or the pressure of his fine fingers will stop him hurting. Tries to curl onto his side at the same time. To protect more vital parts of him than his leg. “It-- it is! I wish it weren’t!”
Viscous truth. It is only one truth but the size of it floods Their tongue with a new opening in him.
He is trying, Their confused little thief , to steady his breathing even now.The salt of his tears tinges the air and They are reminded once more of the sea.
They retract Their teeth from his calf.
It is a test.
The thief does nothing more than tremble on the floor of Their temple.
The face which talks down to him coalesces further into a hollow-backed body so They can push and pull at him until he is on his back with his head in Their facsimile lap. Fraught and reluctant he twitches and shakes and goes where They put him. Through Their hasty construction he has to look up at the roof of Them. He closes his eyes. Clenches his fingers in Their membranous veil for purchase. It has pooled slippery and bright around him, a manifestation of Their hunger, eager and rippling to fold him into Them. It has found so many new wounds to root into.
“You have other names, too.” They can taste them now. The amalgam of truths that is not bitter but confused and overrun with snares. There is much to overlook, the first thread lost in the weaving, it was no wonder he had lied. Even to Them. He is only human.
The fact remains that it is a terrible ordeal for humans to be Seen by Them. They know it. This might be their favorite part of it.
He turns his face into the thigh that They have made for him and does not try to pull away. There is no away from Them. They cradle him in Their hands and turn him; he will look up at Them or have no eyes at all and he obeys at the Knowing they impart in silent horror.
They stroke the tears across his cheeks.
“I did promise to eat you alive , didn’t I?” The game is theirs to devise. Their own words drift back to Them and the thief makes more sounds They can’t be bothered with. They shush him, petting the ruined vanity of his hair. “Yes I think I did.”
It takes a little effort to adjust Themself without losing Their grip. To unhinge further inside this mortal plane and work Their maw around both the thief’s legs. He lies limp staring up into Them.
The panic only comes back to him when They sink into his thighs and work Their jaws inch by inch around his hips— just a faint thread of it. Red and tight, the thief whimpers. Tries to pull at the Their stroking fingertips and claws. They don’t begrudge him this; Their progression is painstaking, split like this as They are.
“I know thief ,” the word is velvet on Their tongues again, no longer sour and sharp. Their happy anticipation of satisfaction vibrates the air, the whole of the temple. “I know, I’m impatient too.”
They swirl Their tongue around the length of him. Give in to the want to dig its tip into the bone-deep perforations ringing his hips. One at a time.
The thief writhes. Begs a litany. He is as ineffectual in his struggling as he had been in his fleeing.
Their heartstone gleams so bright within him it hurts Their eyes, the whole of Them, to look at it. But They cannot look away. He has brought a star into Them. They have never eaten a star before. It will burn on the way down. It will warm Them for the rest of Their existence.
But They must get to it first.
They pull his hands from his belly. Curl Their long fingers around his wrists to draw them out of the way— They don’t remember how many They are supposed to have and so fingers dress his forearms like a dancer’s bangles. They swallow hard around him in a sucking wave of rippling teeth until They can just wrap their lips around his middle. The heartstone is hot beneath his skin. They feel its light burning on their gums as They sink into him.
The thief is still conscious but afraid. Quaking enough to tear himself deeper than he has to on Their teeth.
“This will be the hard part,” They concede to his fear.
They constrict Their throat tight to hold him steady. Relentless pressure strong enough to seal the fresh wounds They grind into him with every swallow. Pressure that will make it very hard for him to breathe deeply. Pressure that is inevitable. At least long enough for him to reach Their stomach where he can bleed free and suffocate.
The heat is a distraction in Their throat. How much faster it might be to snap Their jaws shut now, make two bites of him instead of swallowing him whole. They want to cradle the heartstone in the center of Them where it belongs and has belonged every hour since the thief snuck into Them and tucked it away on his foolish tongue. It is Theirs and he will put it back.
His ribcage protests the compression. Bones groan under the weight of Their jaws and where Their teeth fit in the meat between ribs They draw out high, keening sounds. The involuntary whistling of air out of lungs that are desperate to expand.
“ Hush , I know,” They soothe even though it is so hard to keep two mouths, to have so few hands, to make Their voice small. “Not very long now.”
The ceiling of Them drips and rumbles. A scattering of saliva like spring rain across the sanctuary floor. A droplet lands on the thief’s cheekbone and he is so deep inside Them now they can just work Their tongue free of Their teeth to wipe it away.
He blinks sluggishly into the void above him, his breathing shallow. Defiant in his acquiescence he knows better than to look away and does it anyway. Turns into the thick red muscle and lets it smear him with remnants of his own blood. His lips— wounded and cracked with dehydration and hyperventilating and their small pain relieved even by this awful wetness — drag across it. Maybe there is a phantom urge in him to bite but his teeth are small and his jaw is weak. He can only lick at Them.
His arms have been limp in Their grasp since they sank Their outermost teeth into his collarbones but now They relinquish Their hold. The bruises of his struggle in Their hands cover his arms with livid impressions — but lying there on the floor of the temple his fingers don’t so much as twitch now. Hieron allows Themself to relax into Their own sight and expansion.
They stretch and pull in the last of him with Their tongue instead of Their teeth. His palms tickle the roof of Their mouth as They swallow him down.
The body of the temple is not warm. Its heat is oppressive . Humid. Thick.
It reminds him of home.
New Kinshasa used the undercity as its heat sink and in summer it smelled always of wet, fresh meat and flowers. The harmonic tendrils of a lullaby drifted through the dark, the melody of a radio playing in an empty bunker basement in a blackout. He was a child. He had been told to stay and he had been alone for three days and hungry in the dark.
I'm not alone now.
The dizzy thought may not be his but he cleaves to it as it circles tighter and tighter-- until a thin, cool stream trickles over him. Fresh air.
His body gasps for it. Wrenched from fragile memory the thief remembers: They promised to eat him alive. Their definition of eating must include this, too.
The thought of the stomach awaiting him doesn’t have time to inspire dread before the muscle contracting around him forces the sip of air from his lungs. His vision greys. He can feel the merciful injection of air into the throat that works around him but he can't make space in his lungs to breathe it.
The muscle releases. He gasps, fish-desperate. Pulls his arms down before him to make space for himself only to have them crushed back against his body when it begins again. He has no choice but to learn the unnatural rhythm of breathing with Them. There is little he can see in the light of Their heart that is not red. Red and slick to ease him through. Marked every few inches with dotted rings of grey.
Between breaths, between contractions, he touches tentative fingers to them and finds them hard beneath their slick membrane. There are teeth, here, too.
His head lolls back against the notched muscle pressing him inexorably downward in another wave of suffocation. His ribs creak. His palm drags over the god's deep teeth. They have tucked them away for him and when he can breathe again he is grateful. When he is able to breathe again he listens to his entire body throb with his pulse. His hurts, countless hurts, are distant in the pressure and heat and rhythm of Them.
Heat and rhythm like dancing. Like being buoyed by the ebb and flow of an unsuspecting crowd, plucking their possessions from them like fruit. Like convincing himself that it is enough to drift in the cold between stars unmoored and untethered by anything but his own hungry curiosity.
It could never have been enough for him but this consumption is overwhelming. The thief will be smothered in enough until there is nothing left of him but bones.
From without there is thunder. Peter's feet touch cold. He jerks away from it in the confines of the oppressive heat, claws for purchase in the-- blankets. Flailing and gasping he shoves himself from his bunk to the floor.
"Ransom! Family meeting! Get up or I'm gonna get Jet!" The knocking at his door, a police officer's knock loud enough to wake the dead, continues. Juno's been out there a while.
Foal-shaky Peter pushes himself to his feet. Presses the door release and for half a second Juno tries to knock on empty air.
"Finally." He started to walk away then did a double take. Peter was pale and leaning heavy on the doorframe, the silk camisole he slept in clung to his chest with sweat. Juno frowned. "You okay?"
Peter hesitated around the lie but pushed it out from between his teeth anyway, "A stomach bug, I think."
"If you say so. Get dressed; we gotta roll out the welcome wagon for the new sibling." And at the uncomprehending blankness on his face, Juno prompts, "The new crew member? They're a Plutonian expat? I've known 'em for years? We went back to Mars to pick them up 'cause Buddy needs a good social hack? Were you paying attention at all when we went over this?"
"Of course I was I'm just a little out of sorts," he says, and gives Juno a reassuring smile that is only uncomfortable. "I'll be right out."
It's less a family meeting and more a potluck. The galley countertops are lined with snacks, not all of which were Rita's choice. A jukebox plays a cheerful tune in the corner.
The new member of the Carte Blanche is talking to Jet. They are dressed for the occasion, he has to admit. Floor-length black-- not a dress but a short-sleeved robe cut from fabric that flows like ink in water. Belted over practical, armored leggings and boots. Their faded pink hair is pulled back from their face under a pair of rectangular goggles. Their tempered glass is utilitarian. The sort used for welding in reactor cores.
Their back is to Peter and he wants to keep it that way. He wants to lie back down because he made the mistake of putting on his favorite shoes instead of sensible work boots and the ankle he sprained on their last job is burning in its sleek brace, protesting the distribution of weight to the balls of his feet.
But he is a professional and so he files away the watery joints of his nightmare for future consideration. He smiles beatifically at Jet. Jet doesn't smile back but there's no line of consternation in the middle of his forehead, either, so Peter assumes (hopes with clawing desperation) he hasn't done anything to offend him since entering the room.
"Peter, this is Hieron," Jet says.
Hieron turns to him. They are lithe-limbed and red-eyed, fanged and smiling.
Peter's knees go weak and his ears ring. But because he told Juno he was fine, because he is a professional who doesn’t at all feel faint, because when he applies himself he can be charming, he says, "Hieron ? I think I've had dreams about you."
"You dreamt of me, did you? I haven't done that in a while."
"You haven't... done that ?"
They chuckle low in their chest. "I'm from Pluto, haven't you heard? We're all descended of mindeaters!"
Peter laughs along because it makes perfect sense. A joke to play on foreigners who have bought into the fallacy of Plutonian exoticism. He’s done the same, helping strangers to get lewd Brahmese tattoos, telling them the characters meant “love” or “hope”.
Hieron watches him without blinking and purrs, "And what is your name, thief ?"
His heart skips a beat and he's convinced everyone in the room hears it. "Peter," he gives them because it's mostly-true and his hands are still shaky with the feeling of skin being peeled from his palms.
“Peter,” they purr and give him a wink. “How lovely to meet you.”
For a moment he swears a third eye ripples beneath their skin.