It’s got to be here somewhere.
It’s what they all think, and what many of them speak aloud. Their weak boots filling with my waters, their feeble sight confounded by my mists, they trudge through the trackless stretches of my maze, jumping at cobwebs and the shadows of trees, bewilderment giving way to desperation and gray, empty hopelessness. And the mires swallow them up as they kneel. So it has been for seventy succulent years.
“It’s got to be here somewhere,” one now says, parting his way through thick, slippery vines. His eyes flick from shadow to shadow, from stump to imagined looming shape. His fear comes off him in a slow, oozing torrent that spreads across the surface of the water, but the map in his clutched hand and the hollow promise of gold in his jittery mind lend something like confidence to his voice. He is telling himself that he is confident, and he is just good enough at lying to himself to believe it.
“But where, Mr. Markelle?” says the other, behind him. They shoulder his burdens, piled high with leathers and tools, each a sure-fire life-saver, or so said the salespeople. They are cold, and they can feel hunger growing within them, and they have known since the beginning that this was a fool’s errand. Now, they follow their master just to see what happens, to reach the conclusion of this farce.
“The stories say that this swamp engulfed the Last Temple. We’re getting closer.” The man Markelle slaps a stinging insect away and lifts his sodden black boot with a slorp. “Theriax did a complete fly-over, and she said it can’t be more than a day’s walk no matter how you try to cross it. The map corroborates that. We’re getting closer.”
“A day’s walk, eh? How do you measure that?”
“I’ve been at this longer than you’ve been alive, Dagult.” It’s a lie. “I know how far I can walk in a day with a porter. With a whole team of porters, even.”
“I’m one of six people to make it through the swamps of Shalak-Thanor, and I came out without a scratch. You’re not being paid to second-guess your betters. Keep moving.” Markelle slashes through my vines and sloshes on, but inside, he feels himself diminish, smaller and smaller with every step. The swamps of Shalak-Thanor are far, far away from here. His porter shrugs and takes another six steps before my waters finally find their way in. Shame and anger burn low in Dagult’s gut; these were new shoes.
Markelle slashes down at a waiting cottonmouth with his machete, his frustrations suddenly breaking through the laquer of his arrogance. My serpent slides away into the murk, and I watch Markelle’s frustration coil around it harmlessly. Every living thing in my reaches turns to watch him as he passes. Inside the crucible that is Dagult, the thorny mass of their hunger reacts to the heat of their shame, twisting and growing inward. They crane their neck upwards, searching for anything hanging from my gnarled branches that may satisfy. And what should they happen to find but a warped old billberry tree, producing its last harvest? Their stride falters, and they reach up, and with thick fingers, they pluck a few fruits, just as Markelle stops dead in his tracks as well. Markelle has begun to notice. All eyes are on him—the myriad black birds in the trees, the insects without names, the bright, wet eyes of every amphibian, all my seeing things are fixed on him. Fear blossoms within him, a sudden cold rush, and like an artery has been punctured, all his confidence bleeds away in a single blink of his wide blue eyes. Then, as those eyes focus on a way forward and out, he sees what he has been looking for all this time.
“There it is. Dagult, there it is!” Honeyed relief floods Markelle’s abdomen, flushing out his fear in an instant. He wrenches his boots from the mud and charges towards the flooded clearing before him, the map fluttering to the water’s surface behind him. “We made it! Thank the stars, we made it!”
Dagult, my body and soul to direct since the moment they let me in, feels a cool rush of relief as their knee connects with Markelle’s back, and they pin him to the bottom and let him drown.
His colors spill forth from him now, jets of bronze agony, ghostly green fear, plumes of rose confusion muddled with deep blue anger, and below it all, like rain below clouds, scintillating black despair, like ink into my waters. Dagult sees these colors at last, sees what I have been seeing all along, and their tears of awe drip down their cheeks and intermingle with this masterpiece.
They hold him below my waters until the sun goes down, and all is still once more. Markelle’s colors seep into their skin, and they are nourished just as I am nourished. I allow them to let go of their mortal shape, to grow thick and thorny and wild as they were always meant to be. I am there to fill them with the belonging that they have always deserved.