The godmeat stank of hibiscus and saltwater. Its noxious divinity threaded through the kitchen, the air itself feeling suddenly buoyant in its wake. If Hark closed his eyes, he could almost imagine himself on the beach where Spear had killed the Sea Mother; pale green water lapping at his feet, miles of white sand stretching into the distance, while pink blossoms bobbed in the surf. He could almost see Spear standing on top of the godthing, her weapon shimmering with the blue blood of the dying Beast.
Hark took in the cut of godmeat before him, shining a bloody pink against his dark skin, clean and ready for a dry rub of spices. Seven dishes he’d had the honor of crafting, and it still quickened his heart to handle the raw flesh of one of the Great Beasts; no other chef in all the Wild World could say they’d done it, and none could do it so well as Hark.
All he’d had to do for this opportunity was condemn the Wild World itself to die. But what was the annihilation of a world against the pursuit of culinary perfection? The question echoed in the back of Hark’s mind, and like every time before, he ignored it.
Sprinkling a mélange of ochre, emerald, and golden spices onto his palm, Hark rubbed his hands together and sank them into the cut. On contact, desperate emotion shivered up his wrists; visions of waterfalls, lily pads, coastal storms, and ice floes rode on the dying whalesong of the godthing still inside the meat. Ever the professional, he paused; after the first few meals, he learned that the visions, no matter how strong, eventually subsided. When they did, he continued on with his work. The Hollowed would only wait so long for their next course.
Footsteps behind him dragged the shadowed taste of cloves, mint, and ash into the room. Hark rankled. “Put that out, Spear. Please. I’ve lived almost seventy years in perfect health. I am not going to die from your secondhand smoke.”
She grunted, challenging as ever, but Hark wouldn’t back down. She could smoke those wherever in the Wild World she pleased, but the kitchen was his kingdom and he’d be damned to let Kai’nese tobacco into it. After a moment, he heard her crush the butt in the sink, and felt her eyes on the back of his neck. “There’s a carafe of peach and raspberry tea in the icebox if you’re looking for something to fiddle with. This is going to take some time.”
She pulled out the carafe and poured a glass. “Hollowed don’t like to wait.” She slurped tea with the delicacy of a street urchin in finishing school; Hark bit the inside of his cheek. Four years they’d been working together, and there were still some days he wanted to throw her into the ocean.
“They’ll have to,” he replied, tasting sand and seaweed in the back of his throat. He patted the thoroughly spiced cut of godmeat with admiration. “She was one of the oldest, and she’ll take a long while to cook. To eat the Sea Mother raw would destroy them, their gullets breaking with storms, their blood boiling with salt.” He turned to smile at her, his sun-sharp grin unwavering in the face of her sternness. “They’ll let me take my time, or they’ll simply drown in the air.”
She shrugged, left her dirty glass on the counter, and walked out of the kitchen, weapons jangling against her hips.
Hark sighed, but didn’t let her immaturity distract him from the meal. Turning back to the godmeat, he placed it with care inside a circle of salt, lily petals, and steel shavings, and set a timer, one of those fussy new clockwork pieces from across the Spidered Sea.
As he reveled in the satisfactory ticking of the copper mechanism, a pressure grew behind his eyes. He didn’t have time for this; there were side dishes to prepare. But he closed his eyes all the same.
In the darkness of his mind, a light grew. As his vision adjusted to the brightness, Hark stood before the Hollowed, seated in their gnarled thrones of wood, bone, and glass.
They numbered nine, and when they’d first approached him, they’d been little more than the idea of ghosts, fragile clouds pinned to a harsh sky. Now, they were more than hale. Myriad Hells, they were practically robust. Skin had yet to solidify on all of them; rich flashes of crimson muscle and webbed veins ran through them, and Hark did his best not to stare. But the past four years of divine consumption had invested in them a very true sense of existence, and they were beyond eager to cement themselves back onto reality.
Where they came from exactly, Hark didn’t know, and he wasn’t stupid enough to ask. They’d introduced him to Spear, who he assumed was in it for the same reasons he was, and sent them off into the Wild World.
They’d sworn fortune in success, torture in failure, and so far, they hadn’t backed down from either end of that promise. All it took in exchange was four years of murdering ancient godbeasts who kept the laws of reality in place, and serving them up for sumptuous dinner.
It only gnawed at Hark’s conscience in the beginning; concerns fell away once he began to revel in the art of the meal. Pride always had a way of replacing fear throughout his life.
In the center sat their leader, jaw line red and exposed. The Golden King opened his crimson mouth, and his breath was a dry, foul wind in the psychic space.
“Where is our meal, chef? We hunger for the Sea Mother.” Every sound he made was a fat, black fly tickling Hark’s nose. He shivered, as he always did.
The other Hollowed murmured their agreement, and Hark couldn’t stop his eyes from wandering across their thin bodies, their red muscles, their empty eye sockets: Mother of Knives, Fisher Knight, Father Flame, Hunter of Screams, Sister Rapture, The Visionary, Heart’s Crown, and Cloudbreaker. Each claiming to be a god, each hungry to be filled up again with the divine potential they once possessed, and usher in a new age of the Wild World, each a nightmare to behold.
But he’d be damned if he was cowed by a gathering of impatient, hungry patrons, who wanted him to skip to the end simply because their bellies were rumbling. To Hark, it didn’t matter if he was making a soup of fresh tomato, basil, and cream, or a seared steak of the finest divine beast: He would serve when it was ready, and not a moment before.
He cleared his throat and folded his arms, staring into the empty eye sockets of the Golden King in what he hoped was a humble but imperious manner.
“Look here, my lord. It has been four years since you hired Spear and me to produce for you all the divine ingredients necessary for your actualization in the physical world. And have I, even once, even for but the breath of a moment, served any of you your meal before it was ready?” The Hollowed sat still as syrup, and Hark could feel very real sweat leaking into existence on his forehead. But he had to forge ahead; you couldn’t very well stop churning the butter halfway through, could you?
“Your demands do not respect me. Your ignorance of the work I do continues to grate on my professionalism, and your aggression only demeans me as I work well beyond the methods of my culinary career in preparing that which you have asked of me.” He took a deep breath as each of the Hollowed sat taller in their chair, their bones rattling with rage. “Please know that I have no intention of dishonoring any of you, your positions, or your needs, but you must remember that while I am mortal, the work I do is divine and needs the proper patience. Else you’re wasting my time, Spear’s time, and most importantly, your time.” He tried an old smirk on for size, one he used to give his line cooks when they would mouth off at him. “Or did you all think that you were immortal just yet?”
Their silence crawled over Hark. It would be insane for them to kill him, yes? Their contract was almost up, just one more after the Sea Mother, and—
Hark blinked, and found himself back in reality. A whisper in his ear, and a sensation like a wasp landing on the nape of his neck: Get it done and serve us.
Hark let out a shaky breath. His hands were gripping the marble counter with an intensity he reserved for cutting root vegetables. Then, a flat voice from the other room: “I told you they wouldn’t be happy.”
“Shut up, Spear.” He snatched up a rag and mopped his brow.
A sizzling to his left interrupted his terror. He looked up to see that the steel shavings, the salt, and the lily leaves had burnt away to a fine pink powder that pulsed like morning light on ocean stillness.
He sighed with relief, happy to throw himself back into his work. He lifted the cut of godmeat, scooped the bright powder into a glass vial, and went back to preparation. There were still hours to go before the Sea Mother was ready for consumption, but Hark didn’t mind. This was his calling, and he answered it gladly, even if the Hollowed did not respect it.
He hummed a song to himself as he worked and tried to forget that the world was one meal closer to ending.
• • • •
The Hollowed may have had the ability to act like spoiled children, but they truly knew how to appreciate a meal when it reached their table.
Spear and Hark stood at attention while each of the Hollowed took a fair portion of the Sea Mother’s fillet; even from where he stood, Hark’s mouth watered at the smell of the steak, his eyes drinking in the velvet line between rare and medium-rare, his nostrils screaming at the scent of woodsmoke, sea-salt, and hibiscus that lingered around the meal like swaddling robes. But the Sea Mother was not for him, and though it tantalized every aspect of his appetite, to taste of the godbeast would drive him mad.
As one, the Hollowed feasted, savoring every morsel of the ancient goddess that graced their palates, the taste of ages caramelizing in their mouth like apple butter, every bite releasing torrents of rainwater and storm winds into their stomachs, the long history of the Sea Mother playing out like an orchestra between their teeth. Coils of white lightning arced between the Hollowed as they ate, and in their eye sockets pulsed the night-blue light of hurricanes.
When the meal was finished, Hark watched the Golden King work his now full jaw back and forth, skin the color of midnight fully drawn over it, taut. Only his eyes remained empty, the sockets flashing the blue of the deep, as the power of the Sea Mother ran through him.
“Visionary,” he said, his voice booming like tidal waves crashing to the sand. “Tell me what you glimpse with the Sea Mother’s gaze.”
The Visionary’s nine eye sockets, arranged in a diamond across his copper face, all glowed with the hue of the ocean, and he sucked in a strangled breath of glee. “Ships, I see them! Numbering twelve, bedecked with cannons and steel, usurping the gift of wind do they travel on the Haljredan Strait, to make war upon their neighbors.”
The Golden King’s grin was infectious. “Father Flame. Speak to me of the sky.”
Father Flame’s fingers burned with the trembling spark of barely held lightning. His gums glowed like newborn embers on a fire, and lit his smile from behind. “The clouds are swollen with heat. Oh, how they wish to dance!”
One by one, the Golden King questioned his brethren. With every answer he received, he only laughed, until the echoes around Hark made him sick to his stomach. He and Spear had not moved an inch, and dared not turn from the exultation of the Hollowed.
The Golden King held up a fist as dense and sharp as coral. “Her power is ours. The Sea Mother lives on in us, and so does her strength.” Hark could feel the Golden King warping the air in the room, increasing the pressure around them all in his corrupt joy. “Cloudbreaker! Pummel ships with hurricane winds. Father Flame! Strike coastlines alight with your lightning. Mother of Knives, corrode fisherman’s steel with salt. Fisher Knight, encircle boats with sharks and squids.” One by one, the Golden King commanded his brethren, smiling, as across the Wild World, ships drowned, coasts were ravaged, cities were hammered by lightning, metal rusted away, and children were swept out to the deep.
The Golden King purred, satisfied, a lion among sheep. “Teach the Wild World that we are coming back.”
Hark heard a rattling sound. Turning his head just so, he glimpsed Spear. She stood at attention; her ankles pressed together, her arms behind her back. Her eyes bored ahead with a focus Hark envied. But when he looked closer, he could see that she shook, ever so slightly, her knives and daggers trembling with her. Hark saw the tightness in her jaw, the muscles in her neck bulging, her eyes only just wider than normal, and he realized: She was afraid.
Finally, he thought. Something I understand.
“Chef. Attend.” The Golden King’s voice was a hook in Hark’s lip, dragging him back to attention. “Do not for a moment think you may shirk focus, simply because our contract is almost at an end.”
Hark bowed slightly from the waist. “Of course, my lord.”
“Delivered unto us have you, eight Great Beasts of the Wild World. Through our veins flow their strength over its seas, its mountains, its creatures, its skies . . . ours to will, and to shape, and to crush.”
Hark couldn’t help but recount them, the Beasts he’d watched die, the dishes he’d made, had been happy to make. No other chef in all the Wild World had done what he had done. I melted the Sunsword into a soup. I sliced open the heart of the Iron Hound, and boiled it for a pudding. I cracked the ribs of the Mountain Worm and garnished them with flowers. I baked the head of the Firestag, and broke its antlers over my knee. I grilled the Sea Mother’s hide. Hark felt proud, and wondered for a brief moment what else sat within him just then, the ghost of an emotion that did not wish to speak its name, but whose shape he knew and feared. He stuffed it down inside, deep and away. Now was no time for introspection.
“Our contract is almost fulfilled, hunter. Our contract is almost up, chef. There is no doubt in your minds as to who we seek to eat for the very last, is there?” The Golden King’s voice curdled hearts as it did milk, and Hark struggled to swallow the bile in his throat.
“The Messenger, my lord. The Great Beast of Death.”
The Hollowed sat and nodded, smiling at each other like small children, eager to have dessert. “Once we have consumed death, then no longer will death have the chance to consume us. Not again. With our immortality secured, we shall release you both.” The Golden King’s eyes narrowed, as though finally finding prey. “Though how long you survive in this world we make, that will be a mystery.”
Thank the dead Beasts for Spear, who filled the silence with a question. “The Messenger, then. Where does it speak now?”
The Golden King gestured to his siblings.
Cloudbreaker’s halo caught the candlelight, and when she glanced towards the sky, her brow shone like a broken mirror. Her empty eye sockets glazed over with golden light, letting the power of the Sunsword hawk fill her. After a moment, she spoke. “South and south again, across Lament’s Rush and Once Mighty Drazbaadinmar, south, even further, pushing through the breast of Haddikstant and across the Iron Plains! The Messenger followed the scent of war horns and rattling sabers, drinking the carnage of clashing spears and skins. Now, the Beast resides in the heart of the Ruined Lights, supping on the souls of the haunted wood.”
Cloudbreaker’s beatific smile did nothing to offset the sharpness of her teeth. “You’ll find the Beast there, bloated on the blood and smoke of the Plains. I await your concoction, chef.” Cloudbreaker snapped her jaws playfully.
The Golden King raised a hand. “Bring us death’s head on a platter and you will both know riches and sweet reward, to be enjoyed in the beautiful moments before our return. Come back with anything less and you’ll both know damnation. Are we clear?”
Spear jerked her head up, a sneer slicing her face. “I know how threats work. We’ll get it done, and then you’ll leave us alone.” Spear grabbed Hark’s arm, and pulled him back with her, both of them tumbling out of the psychic space.
Hark broke his arm free of Spear’s grip. “They’ve killed people for less, Spear!”
Spear glowered at him, unblinking. She spat on the floor and got to her feet. “And I’ve killed people for less than that. They don’t scare me,” she said, as though she wasn’t just trembling before them. She started to walk toward the supply pantry, which doubled as her armory. “C’mon. Let’s do this, then.”
Hark grabbed a handkerchief from the counter and wiped away Spear’s spittle before getting to his feet and following.
Thanks to reality-bending Persuasion Workers, the pantry was almost fifty feet deep, and on each wall, their tools; Hark had the right wall for his utensils and Spear had the left for her weapons. Already, she was running her fingers across the steel that waited, tracing the edge of a sword, testing the heft of a flail. Hark stood at the other wall, his neuroses making his fingers itch. He always got antsy whenever Spear picked her weapons; it reminded him of the old days, when he’d smack wrists and crack knuckles, expecting perfection of the young charges in his restaurant as they learned to sharpen knives, learned which blade worked for which cut. That he didn’t know anything of her tools made him anxious.
After a few moments, Spear turned to face him, already done. She had her arms crossed, and an eyebrow raised; with the sheer amount of weapons she’d strapped to her body, she resembled nothing less than a steel porcupine.
“Are you really going to need all of those?” Hark asked, regretting it immediately. She glowered, and he was reminded of just how little he knew of her. Neither of them were very friendly people, and whatever polite inquiry he made into her past she tamped down like a stray spark, as though a friendly question could make her catch fire. Though if he were honest with himself, if she bothered to ask him anything, he’d probably do the same.
“I was thinking of bringing nothing, but then I remembered I’m hunting the Great Beast of Death, which has been around since the inception of the concept of the Wild World, so I reconsidered.”
Hark scowled, running a hand across his stubbly scalp; shaving his dreadlocks cut down on how much grey he saw each day. “Fine, be a bitch. What do I care? After you murder this thing, and I cook it into art, we’ll be rid of each other.”
At this point, she’d normally shove past him, go to the rune in the foyer, and be gone, leaving him to prepare the recipe and side dishes until she returned with the Beast in tow. Instead, she stood there, and would not look away from his eyes, ringed as they were with wrinkles and creases. “What are you looking at?” he said, his heart turning stony and cold at the attention of such a hard-bitten woman.
She scowled, picking her nose and then moving the same finger behind her ear. “I’m looking.”
Hark folded his arms and crouched his chin into his chest, embarrassed suddenly, and feeling oddly petulant. “For what? My coin purse, no doubt, you mongrel woman. I bet you’ll never be satisfied, even after you’ve murdered the last Great Beast and are awash in gold and steel!”
Spear snorted, and then in a sudden motion, took Hark around the shoulders and pulled him close, into a hug, tight; he could feel various weapons poking him in places he did not wish to be poked. “There it is! Oh, there it is, Hark. I see it now. Sometimes you hide it, but I know it’s always there.”
His heart leaping at the physical contact, he recoiled and shoved out of her embrace, almost knocking over a cart of bowls and utensils. “What in the Myriad Hells are you talking about? Are you drunk? Did you sneak into my wine cellar when I wasn’t looking? I bet you did!”
She laughed again, higher, and Hark sensed a mania he did not like. Spear’s eyes shone with a sinister light, and Hark began to fold in on himself as she advanced, her shadow falling across him. “I guess you could say I drank madness and developed a taste for it. It’s easy to go mad when you have nothing left to live for.” She sidled closer, leaning down until her hot breath danced by his ear. “I used to have a lot to live for. But the Hollowed saw to that; reached right through reality and burned it all down with everyone inside. So I’d rather just fucking work for them and die than try to pretend I have anything left to live for; let them crumble the world to cinders. My own world is already ash.”
“But you?” she hissed. “I know all about you; I’ve read up on you. You don’t want the world to end because you hate it. You don’t even care about the world. You’re just bored and beaten down. Bitter. Arrogant. Lonely. And the Hollowed gave you a challenge. Who cares if you help bring about the apocalypse? You’ll have done something no one else has done. You’ll be able to step on the necks of all those who told you that you’d fail.”
Spear took a step back, then. She smiled down at him, pity in her eyes. “That doesn’t make you mad, just petty. And that makes you worse than me, Hark. You’re far worse.”
And then she laughed. It pierced Hark’s heart as surely as an arrow. And she kept laughing. And her laughter followed her across the Wild World as she left the manor.
It lingered, wrapped itself around Hark like a noose, and pulled tight.
• • • •
Hark’s manor was in the seaport town of Awrant, just off the Spidered Sea, and with Spear’s laughter echoing after him, he found himself bursting out into the bright spring day and lurching toward the water.
He would do this as a boy, fresh bruises from his aunt and uncle shivering into existence on his stomach, his shoulders, the back of the legs, where no one would think to look. And now, as then, Hark’s feet stepped staccato, his whole body quaking with the aftermath of a beating, unseen, but his soul was already bruising over.
His manor nestled in a patch of gardens, tucked away from the main road, but only a short distance from his once greatest triumph. Now, as he came upon the ruined shell of his old restaurant, he could barely look at it. Even passing it brought noxious memories to the surface like cold apples in water, bobbing and demanding attention. And just like the taxes he didn’t pay, and like the codes he chose not to follow, and the workers whose plights he passed by, he chose not to see those memories. The restaurant died because not enough people loved it, he had reasoned to himself; it had not been his fault.
So he staggered past, ignoring the dark interior, the graffiti and the smell of garbage that stroked his cheek. Fuck the restaurant, he thought desperately. It didn’t want to live, so let it die. It wouldn’t matter, not as long as he did his work.
He walked down Main Street, composing himself in front of the men and women and children going about their day. His chef whites gleamed in the late afternoon sun, looking like raiment compared to the drab wear of the Awranti. His uncle was a naval scorpion, his aunt a jungle weaver, his parents unknown to him and better off that way. He would never wear anything to remind him of any of them again, and so he pushed himself forward with pride in standing out. Better to gleam like a bright blade than be smothered in the burlap crowd.
Children sang for alms on Viscounts Way, and he ignored them all. Let them work, if they were to earn a living. Through Dishra’s Gift, the wide, sweeping park green and lush, ignoring the families as they ran and played, doing his best to ignore the longing for what he could’ve built with Fenli, and never had the time for. If Hark looked closely, he could almost see Fenli waiting for him under the cherry trees, his poet’s face long and sad. Hark shook his head, then, sweat forming on his upper lip; Fenli wasn’t here. He had moved on, to take up a fisherman’s life with his husband in Albercari. Hark was alone.
Huffing, almost out of breath, his heart racing, he turned onto Sandrazi Road, and made his way through the fashion district, scenting for the cologne of the sea on the wind. Salt, wet wood, and gull feathers. He was close; he had to hurry, his ghosts were gaining on him.
And then, past the stalls of crafts, textiles, and coffee shops before the port, he turned and saw the ocean. Something in him finally gave way. Endless, blue and green, the sun a dazzling orange lance thrown across the horizon, Hark forgot his age and ran, ran for the water. Down past the docks, past the Endless Empire war galleys and the Julaywi song ships, he ran out and past them, into the sand, past the sand, into the surf, past the surf, and into the water proper.
He pushed out, farther, farther. The water rose from ankles to knee to waist to chest, to nose. Hark, harried by Spear’s laughter, the ghosts of his failures, the anger and arrogance of his youth, found himself up to his nose in the sea he had once loved and given up for the kitchen. The ocean did not let him live, and so he had been ordered to stop swimming. He felt it coming, a great peace that the sea always offered and which he had been aching for, for many years.
Except the sea salt sting in his nose offended him, and the endless blur of water in his eyes brought him back to the Sea Mother, that godbeast he had as surely helped kill as Spear, and too quickly, the water was too close and he was too deep, and it seemed at the thought that the entire sea lifted him up and away, and Hark’s gut churned, and he retched into the water, emptying himself, sobbing.
As he stood there in the water, floating in the sea that was the home of his youth, standing amidst his ruined lunch, gasping for air, he saw something slice through the sky. A flash of white against the bright blue, then gone. He blinked, rubbing at the saltwater ticking his eyes.
Again, a glimpse of white, then gone. Hark blinked, turned, tried to push himself on his toes, back toward land.
A third time, he saw it and then heard a string of curses in a high-pitched squeak. He followed the sound, the absurdity of it distracting him from his despair long enough to see a small girl on the shore, uttering every curse known across the Spider Coast and farther, holding in her delicate brown fingers, a broken kite. White sail-cloth bunched up in her hands, straddled by beams of thin wood, as she cursed at it for not working. Her mother stood behind her, laughing, but doing it quietly enough for the girl not to notice. All Hark could do was watch as, after a moment’s chuckle, the mother came forward, knelt by her daughter, and slowly pointed out where things had gone wrong, and how to make it better.
Hark’s heart ached, knowing that in a few short days, the Hollowed would be freed by his hand, and there would never be any chance to make it better.
It would be all his fault, just like everything in his life.
If he were not too stubborn to give up, he would have floated out to sea. But Hark was not one to give up, even his life. He had only given up on the world being good to him.
So he hurled himself out of the water, and walked dripping wet back to his manor, to consign the world to death.
• • • •
Salt. Pepper. A little butter. Sear both sides, and then let it cook in the oven for thirty minutes. Hark even prepared a small salad to be served with it, to keep his mind from the impending destruction of the world.
Spear never told him what the Messenger had looked like. A week and a half after she left to hunt, she reappeared, reached into her bag, and pulled out a dark, hot lump, fixing him with a cold fury in her eyes. “Go on, then,” she had whispered, “Show the cruel world how great you are. Make a filet of death.”
She walked with him through psychic space until they reached the Hollowed’s banquet table, where each of the nine soon-to-be-gods sat with slavering impatience. Hark made them wait as long as possible, though he couldn’t articulate why. He poured a blood-red wine, a Trevaldi 491, aged on butterfly smoke and white chocolate. He served his salad, laden with berries, arugula, goat cheese, almond slices, and a dusting of volcanic ash. Finally, he served out the portions of the Messenger’s heart, small on the wide plates, encircled with a sauce of dark chocolate, coffee, and orange bitters.
The Golden King raised a glass of wine. The other Hollowed followed suit. “To Hark and Spear,” the Golden King purred, a smile splitting his cracked lips. “Thanks to them, we’ll soon walk the world. And in doing so, break it for our revenge. To the end of the Wild World, and the start of a new one!”
The Hollowed cheered.
The Hollowed drank.
The Hollowed ate.
Hark stood with his feet together, his hands behind his back, and his eyes full of tears. Beside him, Spear did the same. He had to do something. He couldn’t let them out into the world. He couldn’t do anything, but he had to do something.
As one, they finished their plates, and Hark felt the edges of psychic space break open, unfurling like a languid rose. The Hollowed stood in the Wild World now, the Messenger acting as the final anchor to true reality. They stood in an antechamber just off the kitchen, and Hark yearned to go there, to hide from what he’d done. Already he could feel the tangle of power the Hollowed gave off, a massive surge of dominance over the laws of reality once held by the Great Beasts. He could taste war on the wind, feel the thrum of collapse in the soles of his feet, hear a hot sickness flooding through his blood.
But before he could do anything, the Golden King stepped forward, smiling, with a look of knowing in his empty eyes, those hollow sockets that had not filled for any of them, even in life anew.
“We thank you, chef. Your despondence, your dedication, and your own small cruelties made you the perfect vessel for our return. Like you, we were failed by the world we hoped to lead. Like you, we were cast out in the pursuit of our perfection. Like you, we hungered to fill the emptiness within us, and show those in the world we were not what they thought we were. And now, we have that chance to revenge upon them, to move in a way you have only wished to for so many years.”
Hark’s eyes went wide as the words sunk in.
They had not sought him for his talent.
They had chosen him because he was just like them: hollow.
The wall around his heart shattered then, with the roaring strength of a pounding tide. Hark fell to his aged knees and raised beseeching hands over his head.
“Wait! My lords! My ladies! My lieges, all, please hear me!” He could feel their searing gaze on him, but he dared not meet them. “To commemorate such a momentous occasion, I have . . . prepared something for you all; a small trifle, something special to cleanse your palates with before striding out into the Wild World. Please grant me a short time to prepare it and bring it to you all.”
“Rise.” Hark looked up.
Numbered nine and radiant all, the Hollowed watched him, smiling with a wicked edge.
The Golden King nodded. “There is the obeisance we’ve been waiting for. Go and bring us your treat, chef. You’ve earned some slight patience.”
Hark bowed and turned on his heel. He felt Spear right behind him.
“What in the Myriad Hells are you doing?” she whispered, both of them pushing into the kitchen. Hark’s heart pounded, though for the first time in four years, he was utterly calm.
Hark looked around his kitchen, his kingdom, and smiled. It had been so good to him; in a world that had hurt him, his kitchen was an oasis he’d retreated to so many times. He ran his hands along the black and white marble counter, picking at small nicks in the cutting boards. He gazed out through the bay window by the fireplace, and there in the distance, the sea he so loved. He found himself walking toward the pantry and opening it with reverence.
Spear watched him in silence. She stood motionless as his hands glided along his wall of tools and found an ivory knife handle, and, drawing it from its guard, a shining, white blade.
It was a knife to be used only in certain procedures. Butterflying the heart of a cosmic whale. Slicing off shavings of psychotropic dark-matter mushrooms from the underverse. Cracking the shell of a Dwarf Star Turtle to consume the radiation inside.
It was a precise tool meant for precise actions.
Hark handed the hilt to Spear.
She took it, her face slack, her eyes dead. “What am I doing with this?”
He pursed his lips, thinking, and then wiped the corners of his eyes, as the answer took hold of him, and sudden tears threatened to fall. “It is too late to stop them, Spear. They are free, and I freed them. Every part of me is screaming to curl up and die, to let them run rampant. But . . .” Here he paused, the memory of his failed restaurant, his failed career, his failed family, ruin after ruin flashing before him. Then, a young girl on the beach, and learning that you can always try again, if you work to fix what went wrong. “That wouldn’t be right.”
He smiled at Spear, a genuine thing, and found he quite liked it. “Should this fail, then let it fail. But I’ll not give up the world to die, even though I gave up on it long ago.”
Spear spun the ivory knife back and forth, testing its weight, hefting its handle. She didn’t offer an argument, just as Hark knew she wouldn’t. She looked up at him, her eyes as cold and clear as a forest spring. “Where, then?”
Hark took her hand in his own. He lifted the knife’s tip up to his right eye. All he could see through one eye was steel; through the other, Spear, steady as a stone and waiting. “Both, Spear. Please, make it quick.”
She said nothing. Only nodded.
The pain that shattered through him was unlike anything he had ever felt. It demanded his full attention, and Hark writhed on the ground, screaming with all his broken heart. And when he thought he couldn’t scream anymore, some new part of him discovered he could.
It was some time before he found consciousness, and when he did, it was a world of touch and taste and sound and patience. He found his feet, and a hand under his arm. Spear’s husky, harsh voice was right next to him. “I have them, Hark. What am I doing with them?”
His voice was a whisper. “In my hand, please. I have it from here.”
It was slower than he thought it would be, but the more than fifty years in his kitchen, his kingdom, had not left him. Sliding his hands along the counters, he inched his way to the cabinet of glasses. He found nine champagne flutes. There was an angry, thumping pain at the front of his skull, and there was wetness slipping down his face, and though it demanded all of his attention, Hark denied it.
He had work to do.
With Spear’s assistance, he went to his old chopping block, and holding each eye just so, sliced them thinly, arraying them in the bottom of the flutes. She helped him pour a thick port wine into each glass, only guessing that the liquid is mulberry and pomegranate in color. And with Spear’s guidance, adorned a serving tray with the flutes, and walked them toward the Hollowed.
They did not ask questions, because gods do not ask questions. They said nothing, only taking the flutes and toasting each other, the crystalline tinkling of glass on glass a strange music to Hark’s ears. If they saw his ruined eyes, they did not care. They simply drank, and swallowed.
It was only a few moments before they began to scream.
Spear will tell him later that the looks on their faces made it worthwhile, as matter began to boil into their hollow sockets, and eyes began to grow, eyes that looked so much like Hark’s own. She will tell him of the dumbfounded looks on their faces, the way that rage battled with confusion, of how doubt, ever elusive in the face of such power, began to creep in.
At that moment though, the Golden King screamed, “Chef! What is the meaning of this? What have you done to us?”
Hark’s voice was knife thin but cut through the newborn gods’ screaming all the same. “You were right, my lord. We are the same. I have felt hollow myself for some time, and I would do anything to fill myself up some purpose, even if it was destruction, pride, or power. I thought the world was evil, because it did not understand me or work to make me happy. But I was also stubborn, arrogant, and foolish, too, to think the world would come to my door and give itself to me. I did not learn from my mistakes, and so I lost it all. I blamed the world for that, too. But the world doesn’t deserve to die because of my small heart. And it doesn’t deserve to wither under your gaze either, simply because you once tried to fix it, and it rejected you. You all have a chance to make things right. If you may see things more clearly because of my eyes, see the joys or lessons or hopes I have witnessed, then I am happy to give them to you, and give this world a small chance at living on.”
Silence, and the weight of nine pairs of his own eyes looked down upon him from thrones of wood, bone, and glass.
“We will remember this transgression, chef,” the Golden King said, in a voice that could splinter mountains, and freeze stars.
Hark chuckled, and found he liked it. “I should hope you do. I hope you never forget this day, or this meal. I hope it lingers in your hearts for centuries to come.” Hark paused, lifted his chin, and stared up at the Hollowed with empty eyes. “We can do better. All of us.”
Spear will tell him later how they all looked down on him, scowling, furious, righteous, and powerful. And then, how after a moment, their faces softened, their new eyes creased with concern, and how they all looked to each other, seeing each other truly for the first time in millennia, and how like smoke on the wind, they faded from sight.
But all Hark heard in that moment was silence, and it wasn’t until Spear took his elbow, and whispered, “They’re gone, Hark,” that he collapsed to his knees, hyperventilating. His body wracked with sobs, and he didn’t fight it. The world still spun on, and so he hoped beyond hope that he got through to them.
And when Spear asked him where he’d like to go, he didn’t hesitate.
“To the sea, I think,” he said, knowing he would be seen in his chef whites, his face a ruin, and not caring. “I think I crave some time by the sea, for as long as it’s there.”
Spear took him by the elbow, and together, they made their way to the water, enjoying in silence every moment the world had not yet ended.
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