It is a wide and windless desert that has followed you since your youth.
In a way, you suppose you came to accept it—that it was your lot in life to be alone, and to love, and to be alone. Even when they stripped you of your voice and your manhood and your skin was mottled with the violet-yellow-green of their bruises, and even when the merciful would have fled for fear of the scars, you had never once thought to ask for requital.
You had understood that, then.
To love is to relinquish any right to recompense.
But what do you know of love? You have given away all of it that you ever had, watched it seep out of every pore like saltwater, and told yourself that this was good and noble. That somehow, someday, you would be vindicated: if only to see the naysayers’ faces light up with beaming comprehension, at long last.
During that long walk north through the steppes, when the winds whipped at your face so badly that your lips cracked and peeled and bled through the stitching, when you would have given anything for a drop of water—it was the single thought that forced one foot in front of the other. That this would all be worth it, one day. That they would be happy, even if they didn’t thank you.
There are some who say that you were the first of his followers, and perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is only the better story.
What matters is this:
When you crested that final hill and beheld the man you had seen in your dreams—you were suddenly unsure. Of what, you could not say exactly. He was too young, too wild, with a starved look about the eyes; and yes there was wisdom but entangled with an ancient fury that burned and burned to no end. You imagined that he could eat the world. You worried that he would lose himself in the doing.
Then, he called out.
A warning. When you spun around the soldiers were already bearing down on the hill; whether for him or for you, it didn’t matter. In the span of four or five footfalls they would be here. All this way for nothing. You faced them in disappointment, because at least he was real but it would never mean anything—
And watched the first soldier raise his spear, reverse it, and plunge it into his own torso.
Behind you was a hand upraised with too many fingers, fingers that were shaped more like claws, and behind the soldier was more of the same; all of them the same, one by one.
Some of the gore splattered on your face. Some of it flew away to stain the steppes like rust. Around all of it the wind whistled heedlessly, thin and cold.
When it was over, he said something to you. Something you couldn’t hear, because there in the tall grass you fell down to your knees and wept, for the first time since you had been marked. Great heaving sobs that wracked your shoulders with shudders and pulled the breath from your lungs. You wept for the senselessness of it all, for the pain that had teeth and the suffocating warmth of blood, because perhaps it truly was better for you and him and the world that they be killed, just as it was better for you to have lost everything so you could find him—but that didn’t mean that you shouldn’t weep for them, still.
After a while he knelt down beside you and laid a hand on your shoulder. You looked up, into his eyes, and had to look again.
Because there was no scorn there. Nor even pity. In those eyes, you saw it writ clear and deep as the stepwells of your homeland, where lotuses bloomed in the color of new capillaries: that while he could not do the same, he understood why you did. Which was its own sort of kindness.
And you knew that in coming here, you had chosen correctly.
Anyone who has loved a prophet could tell you this. You, for all your griefs, are no exception.
They say that you taught him as he taught you. But this is—not entirely true, in the sense that what each of you gave to the other was always complementary.
You tempered the extremes of his passions, and spoke to him of patience and forgiveness, of love and its paths. At night, when all the others had gone to sleep, he would pour out the worst of his fears and guilts and consternations—things he could not allow to poison his charisma in the light of day. And you would listen to them all.
To you, he gave the means and the way.
The latter came first, as such things are wont to, for ability without purpose is like a blossom without pollen. And so you witnessed more of his powers, and listened to him speak of the Demiurge and its Archons, so great and terrible in their undulating vastness. How the effluvia of the universe dripped into the only world you had ever known. And you began to see when a harder touch could be needed, where mere reason would not suffice to help. So that even after all those swathes of land had been liberated from Daevon’s grasp, you came around to the idea of empire, of conquest. Of salvation. His salvation.
With this came the means, and so the viscera trailed down your throat like ribbons as you ate of what was proffered, and took the thaumaturgy within yourself.
In theory, you might have reshaped your body into any number of forms. But certain things were too bound up with the mythology of who you were. And so the scars stayed, and you had no tongue, but you could grow as many eyes and arms as you wanted, in any configuration, which was always useful for deciphering texts. You contented yourself with that.
They called you many things. But you think that perhaps the most fitting was the Anticipation of Ion. For you were the one who would arrive before the vanguard to walk among villages, speaking to the widow that coughed on the streetside of surviving her illness all the stronger, or assuring the child with the crooked leg that he could have a leg of whatever form he liked, if he willed it.
It was a role you were glad to play; to show that conversion could come before conquest. That there were places where the people stood ready to embrace his philosophy, no matter the outward grisliness, for the slimmest sunrise-sliver of hope, or freedom, or the power to pull themselves from a short life of misery and starvation.
He was the Ozi̮rmok, after all, and mercy was a thing he could ill-afford. Your work made it better for him, too.
It was not always successful. Sometimes you were greeted by a shower of stones. (The irony was not lost on you.) You were capable of holding back, but the army following behind would have no such compunctions.
Sometimes individual Karcists struck out on their own. Sometimes your counsel would fall short, and he would order a settlement razed anyway.
The excuses felt hollow. No matter how beautiful the future he was to bring—in fact, because of that very fact—every loss was a shame.
You never stopped trying, but you did not think that made for much of an excuse, either.
As each of the other Klavigar took their places by his side, one by one—the inkling of jealousy that you’d expected never came. So you spoke of Sumerian love poetry with Lovataar and read treatises on battle tactics to Orok and let Saarn teach you to play knucklebones, because it was clear as day that their devotion to him manifested in such disparate ways.
From Lovataar, there remained a streak of that longing to possess, but it had dissolved like particulates into genuine fondness, warm and bright as a summer sun. From Orok, it was the unyielding loyalty of one who had never known anything deserving of it, like an arrow aimed true. From Saarn, it took the form of affection from a child who had never known any kindness that was constant; the protective coil of a serpent about its nest. Yet at the core of it all was the same sincerity, and that was what bound you together.
(And from you?
That was something you never quite managed to qualify.)
This was the last fear that he ever confessed to you:
“I fear that I may birth an Archon.”
He said it on the eve of your final campaign, peering over the edge of Kythera as it hovered above the Mediterranean coast. Behind him you had frozen, mid-step, and stared at him, not believing your ears.
Ion turned to face you. In the fading sunlight, he looked terribly tired. “Don’t tell me you haven’t sensed it, Nadox.”
At that time you had known him for long enough that the contours of his power were familiar to you, but it had swollen to heights far above your own; and you damned yourself, then, for having pinned any sense of wrongness on that distance.
"Of course, you have gazed deep into their abscesses. But this…”
You trailed off, speechless.
He waved a hand. “I thought to control it. Perhaps I will even succeed. But if I should overexert myself—” The look he gave you needed no words. “I trust that you will know what to do.”
On some level you had known it was coming, but that did nothing to lessen the blow.
“No,” you protested, voice ringing out in his mind. Nearly frantic. “Do not ask this of me. Tell the others. Call off the campaign, I beg of you. We still have time. But do not make me do this.”
He drew closer, met as many of your eyes as he could, and with undue tenderness, took your bandaged hands in his.
“Listen to me. The Mekhanites are desperate, and dangerous in their desperation. This campaign will tax me as none have before. But you were the first of my Klavigar. You know my weaknesses. And, should the time come, you will know where to strike.”
“What then?” you demanded, gesturing at the rest of the fortress with one of your free hands. “This—all of this—will fall apart without you. You know that.”
He shook his head. His smile was sorrow-tinged. “We only have a little ways more to go. I trust in the four of you to guide our people, and this world, into the Ikunaan to come.”
Briefly, Ion glanced down at your hands. “I will not force you to do anything. But I do not ask this as Ozi̮rmok—only as your friend, Nadox. Please.”
You had stared at him in horror, into those eyes as many-tiered and shadowed as stepwells, and saw that it pained him, too, to ask this of you. At least as much as it did you.
Perhaps he believed that it would pain you the least of all, you who had already given away the sum of your love, who learned the measure of sacrifice long ago. Perhaps he was only weary of the uncertainty. Perhaps none of it mattered, and you should simply nod your head and accept your duty, because you loved him and in the end love was no different from giving.
The next morning, you departed for the campaign in Anatolia. You told yourself that he would come to his senses, that he would call off the one in Greece as you urged him. That when you returned everything would be as it was.
But in your heart of hearts, you knew that he would never do it. That was not his way. Perhaps he would ask Lovataar, or Orok, or Saarn instead of you, but the battles would continue. And you had ached for them, imagining any one of them in your place—but it was not enough to bring you back.
Later, you would hear of that disastrous final battle, won by the Mekhanites. Of his disappearance, along with the death or vanishing of anyone who might have been willing to tell you what transpired.
You visited the battleground, once. It was grey and desolate, pieces of battered bronze still buried in the dust, and the remains of your halkosts long gone.
Had he truly become what he foretold, this place would be a crater.
So you thought, but it was not enough to fill the crater inside of you.
Now you are back to that windless desert, a thousand eyes and near as many arms, but not a soul to see or feel. You are as free as you have ever been—from ideals and adherents, from friends and family, from famine and mortality. From visions of a messiah that almost was.
But not from love. Not from a young man with fever-dream eyes who spoke with such conviction of skies in the pale flush of new capillaries, and the peace you’d once wished for the world. You will never be free from him, for all the millennia that you have lived and will yet to live, and perhaps that is the price that we all pay for love, in the end.
And so you walk on, trailing behind you the tatters of the only love that ever found its way back to you.