I try to remember what the others did wrong. Mattias a ribcage in a heap of dead leaves; Nova spread like jam on the skeletal branches overhead.
Do I pray for forgiveness? Strength? Maybe I should ask for privacy, because if Eius listens to my thoughts now, She will know what little hope remains.
One of the final seven opponents—followers of Sytix, that decrepit earthen god—stomps forward. I hear the crunch-crunch of foliage as a war drum.
Not a war, I remind myself, casualties notwithstanding. A test. Whose disciples are worthy?
My opponent can’t stay stoic. When I catch him biting at blanched lips, I can no longer shove the thoughts of her down.
This man is too slight, young. Grandmother could’ve eaten him, but before she did, she would have noticed that tiny similarity between them: the chewing of the lips. This man’s were thin and pale; Grandmother’s were ocean-dried and wind-beaten, red and rough like coral, rough like her hands were when she hefted me onto the taffrail and steadied me there, and the spray dampened my cheeks like tears.
We’re too far inland and yet I can smell it: the brine, her musk, rum, salt pork. My feeling of displacement surges and I rock. This forest is dusty and dead, the trees too rotten for ship wood. What is the point?
A gale whips through the naked trees. A reminder from Eius: She is the point. The answer I found when caught in the deluge. I was my grandmother’s only conviction, but when I put my lips to hers and resuscitated her the first time—the successful time—she could only tell me of dark, darkdarkdark. Dark behind her eyelids and beyond the beating of her old heart. So I had to find something more.
I step forward, bringing myself in line with the man. I drown all thoughts of a previous life.
Then the directive scuttles into my mind like a bottom-feeding crustacean: Drink as much of the pail’s contents as you can. You have one minute.
A wooden pail materializes on the ground between us.
We lunge, jaws unhinging—
Then freeze. We’ve registered the stench. Briny-sour with a sharp bitterness. Deep oil.
My opponent’s Adam’s apple jerks in a hard, dry swallow. It’s death either way, but the punishment for losing a task is swift. Mattias, Nova, the hundreds before them—they went quickly. This death is slow.
Neurotoxin wrung from stonefish and cone snails, suffused in magic—deep oil is a concoction only a sea deity could produce. Strange that the task that will do me in—do Her in—is of Her own making.
The realization crashes into me: both of our lives are in my hands. Not him and mine, but mine and Hers. I am the last disciple and a god needs worship like a fish needs water—without me, She dies.
So She’ll save me.
The sudden belief is fathoms deep. I know that Eius will appear, drowned and drenched in light, ocean spilling from Her lips as She summons my soul back into my body. And if my grandmother taught me anything, it was how to throw back a spirit. This task is mine to win.
The man is moving in when I headbutt him. He topples backward, and I dive my head into the pail.
I drink. The venoms are spicy-warm, burning pleasantly like grandmother’s rum. It’s dark in here, darkdarkdark, and my eyes burn. I imagine rivers running from them, complicating the concoction, but I keep gulping, gulping, feeling like a hole torn open in the bottom of the deepest trench. I will drink the whole ocean down.
Something rips at my scalp and I come up sputtering. The man is dragging me backward. I whip around to face him, grabbing at his too-soft hands. He comes free too easily, his grip melting off of me like sodden paper.
He’s recoiling, I realize. Staring at my face. Do I look changed? I feel the same, but for the searing, for once external.
I scramble back to the pail. I submerge my head until the level’s too low. Then I stand, lifting the pail to my mouth. My lips catch on the splintering wood rim and sea oil seeps into their cracks. Flesh sizzles. My throat is wide as a funnel and my belly fills.
This is mine. This round belongs to Eius. How could this trial give a clearer answer? Whose disciples are worthy? Who, then, is the worthiest god?
The pail is empty. The administrating presence in my mind dissolves, and my opponent shrieks, shriveling into smoke. Thoughtlessly, I lick my jowls, eager for another taste.
Light floods the clearing. My chest swells as I prepare to greet Eius.
But rocks bite into my cheek. I’m crumpled in the dusty brown earth. That’s fine: I can still see through blurred eyes as She appears.
I want Her to swim to me, praise me, tell me what happened to those who drowned before me, tell me where I can meet my grandmother on the day I really do die. But She isn’t moving toward me.
I notice, then: three of Sytix’s disciples have splintered off. They kneel. Eius touches their heads like She once touched mine.
There’s a drum roll of snapping branches and collapsing trees, but Sytix doesn’t deign to come down and throw His fit in person.
Eius is saved. Three new followers. They watched what I did for Her. It moved them. It was something they could believe in.
But I’m still waiting for my resuscitation. Eius’s light swells and distorts. She no longer needs me but she still has the power. She could fix me, if she wanted. But she refrains. I wonder why as I nestle more deeply into the dirt. It’s cool on my mangled lips.
Perhaps She was listening to my thoughts. Perhaps She knows where I need to be.
In Her Wake is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine March Flash Fiction Challenge