WORMWOOD ~ BY D.H. NEVINS: CHAPTER 5
It was not difficult to follow Tiamat’s advice. I was terrified of the answers I might receive and, as a result, the best strategy I could fathom was to start with a comparatively simple question and work my way up from there.
“Are you happy to see me?” I ventured.
“Yes,” he blurted, looking startled by what I asked. But after a few seconds, a shadow crossed his face and he shook his head. “And no.”
That amendment didn’t matter as much as it should have, and despite the circumstances, I managed an unsteady smile. “Well, Tiamat, it looks like you were wrong,” I told him boldly. “You did say something that brought me comfort after all, even if you’re only slightly happy to see me. And there may be something else too,” I added, “another positive thing you can tell me.”
He looked at me expectantly, and waited. And though I tried to appear collected, there was something about his demeanor that made me think he could see right through my unruffled façade.
“Earlier today, when we first saw each other, there were some boulders…” I had to pause and hold the edge of the rock I sat on to still my shaking hands, “… falling boulders that were going to crush me. Did you push me out of the way?”
“Yes,” he admitted hesitantly. “But Kali, you must face the truth. Though I asked you to weigh your questions carefully, I did not anticipate your avoidance of real answers.” He looked at me and shook his head. “I am sorry, but even the mundane questions you selected can’t have the soothing responses you expect. So while it is true that I pushed you from that particular path, my exact role in that incident has not yet been addressed.”
“What role?” I asked, feigning ignorance. I was under a great deal of stress when I reached the lookout and I must have been imagining things; Tiamat couldn’t really have been doing anything… it wasn’t possible…
But he interrupted my musings with a harsh shock of reality, one that he appeared to lift straight from my twisted imaginings. “Do you not realize I was the one who caused the cliff to collapse in the first place?” He looked at me steadily, his gaze strengthening the impact of his message and turning my insides into ice.
I gripped the rough, unyielding stone of the ledge, whitening my knuckles and willing my world to stop shifting. Trying to keep my face blank, the implications of what he said whirled in a dizzying vortex of thought and panic. Somehow, impossibly, he caused that… almost crushing me… “W-why…” I whispered, “…Why did you try to kill me?” I asked, my perspective shifting painfully when I worked to recall the moment. “And then… you almost killed yourself to save me… I don’t understand…”
“No,” Tiamat said, his voice even. “I did not try to kill you. That was an accident that occurred when you startled me. And when I saw the danger you were in, I pushed you out of the way.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he added quietly, “I could not help myself.”
“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed, confusion and anger exploding out of me. “You couldn’t help almost crushing me, or you couldn’t help saving me? There’s a big difference, Tiamat!”
“I could help neither one,” he said quietly, his eyes steady on my face.
I blinked, surprised. What was he implying? “When you said you ‘couldn’t help’ saving me, it’s like you were insinuating that it went against your better judgment.”
“That is exactly what I meant. I should have let those rocks crush you, Kali, but I couldn’t stand it. And now I don’t know what I am going to do. Your presence here has complicated things a great deal.”
“I could say the same thing about you, couldn’t I? Except ‘complicate’ is too mild a word to describe your effects on my present life!” I threw back venomously. “Yet in my case, I tried to help you, and I never wished you were mashed by boulders…”
“I do not wish that, Kali!”
“…and speaking of boulders, how, exactly, did you cause them to fall? And then what the hell happened to them? When I looked afterward, there were only huge piles of sand and some rubble—but there shouldn’t be any friggin’ sand there,” I fumed as I reasoned, the fury keeping my mind from crumbling apart.
Tiamat watched me quietly, as though deciding on a course of action. Then, having reached some conclusion, he stooped beside an anvil-sized rock and placed his hand on it, palm down.
I could feel it the moment before it happened; gooseflesh crawled along my arms as the little hairs stood on end, prickling in the swiftly charging air. Then, abruptly, the ground lurched—like someone was blasting with dynamite a short distance away—while thick and forceful, the fwump of a shock wave immediately rushed outward, kicking at my eardrums. I grimly recalled hearing, earlier that very day, that exact disturbance while the entire forest became chaos all around me, and I shuddered. And though I knew I did not take my eyes off that rock, I could not see how it happened. One second, there was a rock under his hand, and in the next, it was a great heap of sand, its edges cascading softly under his touch.
“I do not need to touch it,” he explained. “But I thought this would be less alarming for you than if I were to crush the rock from a distance.”
I nodded, the only response I was currently capable of. My mouth had gone completely dry, as if I had taken a great bite of his newly created sand.
“Falling sand would be less dangerous than the boulders,” he explained, as though he were using this information to try to temper my reaction. “But preoccupied as I was with pushing you out of the way, I failed to reduce everything, and was struck by the rubble.
“And as to how I am able to do this, that is something I cannot tell you at this point. The power to do these things does not originate from me, so I am not at liberty to disclose this information to you. I do feel compelled, however, to make you understand what has taken place here.” His haunted eyes found my face, and seemed to plead for understanding. “Kali, if you were to remember back to when we first met, could you recall our initial conversation?”
“Yes,” I answered softly, looking down at my knees. “I have thought of that day often over the past ten years.” I looked up at him as it clicked. “You told me there was something you had to do; that you had no choice,” I said slowly, a horrified understanding creeping into my voice.
“And now we have come to it, haven’t we?” he said gravely. “You know what I was doing on the cliff today, Kali. I can see it in your eyes, though you are afraid to voice it. You even know how I feel about it, as that was the topic of our conversation ten years ago.”
Smooth, fast and graceful, he was suddenly standing in the water, though I saw no specific movement that brought him there. He approached me cautiously, like one would for a frightened animal, across the creek’s buffering pool. “Little has changed since that time. I remain in suffering over the task I carried out and the ones I still must do.”
But his tasks were horrific and destructive, and when I thought about this, somehow his feelings about them carried little weight when placed in the shadow of his actions.
“Tiamat,” I began quietly, watching the water eddying around my feet. “Are you evil?” I asked, glancing up at him. “Or would you say you’re good?”
“That is a very difficult question, that shifts, depending on one’s perspective,” he responded slowly, stopping mid-stream. He stared off into the trees, his forehead creased and his brow knitted, holding his splinted arm across his chest. “I would have to say that I am good,” he said, cautiously stepping toward me again. “But most people would almost certainly consider my actions to be evil.”
He was across the pool now, oblivious to his soaked clothes, holding his focus on me. Standing waist-deep in the water that lapped against my ledge of rock, his head was now equal to the height of mine, so we found ourselves eye-to-eye. He reached out slowly, pleading for calm with his eyes, but I recoiled, leaning far back away from him in alarm.
“Do not fear me, Kali,” he said soothingly. “I only turn rocks to sand,” he said with a little smile, “not people.” Carefully grasping my hands—giving me the tiniest quiver of shocks—he gently pried them off the stone ledge and examined them.
I was taken aback by what I saw, and realized I must have clawed aggressively at the rough surface I sat on while I tried to digest what he was telling me—as I worked so hard to remain rooted in reality. My fingers were scraped raw and oozing blood, my short nails deeply split and broken. Yet I had had no recollection of doing such a thing, and I simply stared at them numbly; like they were someone else’s hands and not mine at all. Certainly I would not do something so unhinged…
Reaching down, he scooped up a palmful of water and dribbled this over my stinging fingers. He continued this for a moment, while he restrained my wrists in his right hand, as though he was afraid I would injure myself further. A numbing buzz of energy rippled deeply into my skin and crawled unnervingly up my arms, but I fought the urge to pull away, and I watched him closely instead. The ungainly splint on his left arm knocked frequently against the rock, but he ignored this in his tending, doggedly reaching again for the soothing water.
“In spite of how people may feel about me, though, I must conclude that I am good,” he said definitively. He bent his head and reached into the pool once more, his dark hair falling forward to obscure his eyes. “Yet, if we had not had this conversation, Kali,” he said softly, “I would never have paused to consider the positive, like your question forced me to do just now. You see, even though I understand that my tasks are for the greater good, I have always despised myself. I am nothing but a servant whose requisite duty makes him a monster. And it is torturous for me when my only obligations in life involve causing the pain and suffering of others. Ironically, I truly am merciful by nature,” he said heavily. “Yet now I wonder... Though I have little choice about what I do, perhaps these scruples help to make me a better man,” he said thoughtfully as he dribbled more water across my bloody fingers. “And you have helped me to see that possibility.”
I watched as the blood mixed with the water and dripped gruesomely off my fingertips, splattering onto my rocky sanctuary. As usual, I found his responses cryptic, but something in particular niggled at my mind, not seeming to fit.
“How can destroying the forest be for the greater good, Tiamat?” I asked him searchingly, ripping my eyes away from the grisly red splotches.
He stopped reaching into the creek and smoothly turned to put both of his hands on my wrists, squeezing them firmly. “It wasn’t just the forest, Kali,” he said, watching me closely.
“What?!” I choked out, “How far, Tiamat? How much land? Tell me!”
“All of it. Everywhere.”
No, he can’t be saying that, I thought fiercely, as I felt the blood drain from my face. I can’t listen to this…
“I must tell you,” he paused, taking a deep breath, “that I am personally responsible for the catastrophic events, not only in this area, but spanning an area of approximately one million square miles. And I am only one of a hundred of my kind. Every one of my cohorts, each having a task similar to mine, began at precisely the same moment today, and we have all completed this stage now. Do you grasp what I am saying to you?”
“No,” I whispered, shaking my head and denying acceptance of his explanation. “This can’t be happening.” This was something that you saw in the movies for a thrill, and then you left the theatre, all safe and sound, to continue on with your life. This wasn’t the sort of thing that people actually experienced. “I can’t believe that there are more of you doing this… all over… what is it?... 100 million square miles!” Reason told me that this couldn’t be, and it fought against my scattered thoughts as they attempted to focus. “You’re saying this is happening all over the world?” I demanded, my voice rising in panic.
Releasing my wrists, he placed one hand on either side of my face, anchoring me with his gaze, his energy tingling through my flesh. “Not ‘happening,’ Kali… happened. It is finished. Every inch of land has been cleansed, and some ocean area as well.”
My mind recoiled and my vision blurred. I could hear Tiamat’s voice echoing through a haze of fuzz, could feel his hands on my face, but it was all coming disconnected, thoughts and senses unraveling and floating off in different directions; seeking solace elsewhere.
“Kali,” he said urgently, his distant voice sounding anxious. “Kali, look at me,” he said, giving me a mild shake. “This is the way it is,” he persisted. “Refusing to accept it will not make it disappear. Now focus. Keep your mind busy and ask me some more questions.”
I struggled to gather my shattered thoughts, to salvage whatever reason I could muster. Tiamat was right, I needed to think, to fight against the numbness that was freezing over my brain, threatening to shut everything down. I worked for what seemed like a long time, and finally seized upon a question that seemed integral, but didn’t require me to ponder the annihilation of everything I ever knew.
“You said that you were one of a hundred of your kind,” I forced out. “So, if you’re saying you’re not human, what exactly are you?” I asked, pulling various disturbing images into somewhat coherent thoughts. “Are you some kind of a devil? …Or an alien? Who else would want to destroy our planet?”
“To start with, I do not recall saying that I was not human,” Tiamat replied, appearing to relax a little. “In fact, my mother was a human woman, flesh and blood. My father, however, was not. And though I am of celestial decent, I am certainly not an alien.” He held my gaze with his alarmingly strange eyes, though they were kind now, and calming. He moved his hands from my face and placed one again on my wrists, but he held them gently, stroking my raw fingers with his other hand.
“You guessed closest when you asked if I was a demon,” he said softly, firming his grip as I tried to pull away from him. “We came, originally, from the same place. But my father never fell from grace, and neither have I.”
“Wait,” I said urgently, as a horrible feeling burst open inside me, reminding me… “My father!” I shrieked, tearing my hands away from his grasp. I was immediately on my feet, pacing and stamping like a confined horse, green and wild. “Tiamat, is he dead? Is everyone dead?” I asked him desperately.
“I do not know if your father lives, Kali.” Tiamat placed his right hand on the rock ledge and leapt effortlessly out of the water before continuing. “There will be some survivors, though the majority of the human race has fallen. I am sorry, but it is unlikely your father survived.”
I turned and ran, frantically needing to flee, desperate to find my dad, but also driven by an acute desire to get away from Tiamat’s horrifying revelations. I could take no more. The trees lining the path blurred, though whether it was from speed or tears, I could not have said. And as I ran, an eerie noise floated on the air, high and keening, seeming to pursue me in my flight—until, suddenly, I realized that the din was ripping from my own throat, and I choked it off abruptly, sounding like a murder victim that finally met her end. I exited the trees, raced through the campsite, and tore down the path that would lead me off the Peak.
Yet I did not get far. Rounding a bend, I smashed headlong into Tiamat. He grasped me in a close embrace and held me firmly, though I thrashed and struggled against him. I didn’t even pause to consider how he could possibly be on the path in front of me. “My dad,” I wailed, “Please, Tiamat! I have to know if he is alright! Let me go,” I begged him.
But he did not ease his hold. I fought uselessly until the last of my energy was spent, and only then did he venture to hold me at arm’s length, so he could look at me as we spoke.
“I cannot let you go, Kali.”
“But he’s my dad,” I cried piteously.
“You must think about this. Even if I did release you, there is nowhere to go, and no means for you to get anywhere. Do you not recall seeing the state of the forest from the look out? You will find no intact vehicles and you will find no roads. It is over.”
“It is not over! Not until I know if he is okay or not. Never until that time.” Again I tried to push past him, but he held fast. “You obviously don’t know what it means to love someone, Tiamat, or you would understand this!”
He looked suddenly stricken, and blanched noticeably before responding. “Perhaps I do not, then,” he said in a soft voice, his thoughts apparently elsewhere. “But regardless of this, I cannot let you run off.”
Each of his hands was wrapped firmly around my upper arms, and he looked over to stare critically at his splint, a crease forming between his brows in the silence. The moments stretched on before he brought his gaze back to my face. “I believe I can help you to discern his fate, if you would like me to, Kali,” he said, surprising me.
“Do you know where my dad lives? His house is—”
“In Pinecrest, yes.”
I opened my mouth to ask how he could know this, but he cut me off before I could begin. “Now is not the time to go into details of how I know. My question remains; would you like me to help you to discern his fate?”
“How, exactly?” I asked, unsure of what this may entail.
“I will need you to trust me in this,” he said as he raised his hand to my cheek. “As difficult as this may be for you at this moment, it is the only way.” My skin prickled and tingled as his fingers trailed leisurely along my cheekbone. “Will you trust me, Kali?”
Locking my eyes with his, I slowly nodded my assent, while his fingers gingerly traced their way up to my forehead. Almost immediately, my entire world was shot with a startling, electric blue, and then—for the second time that day—I felt a crushing dark wave engulf me, pressing me into the black, empty void.
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