“You can’t go back.”
“It’s sheer madness, Your Excellency. At least allow a retinue of your finest soldiers to join you.”
“No, my soldiers have seen enough. This is my burden, anyway. I will bear witness in their stead. And I will suffer in their stead.”
“But, Your Excellency—”
“Not another word. I leave at dawn.”
The man who once ruled the world hauls a solemn canoe across liquid sadness. There is an ache in his arms, but it is the sweet ache of action, of blood coursing through once-slumbering musculature. The salt on the breeze swarms his lungs and fills him with vigor, with the sting of memories long-faded.
The sand welcomes him not with banners blaring the colors of a hundred nations or a mosaic of blood from a warzone, but with frigid apathy. He doesn’t even realize he’s come ashore until the oars give a gasp of exhaustion and refuse to budge.
He almost, almost expects to see such things when he plants two feet in terra firma and greets the world that was once below him.
(A palace, bricks proud and lustrous, casting a dutiful gaze over the children of tomorrow. A pristine stream, stringing every facet of civilization together like a necklace draped across a beating heart. Ribbons in the air, pink and blue and golden, flowing out of mouths and noses and ears, twisting souls together to make more souls.)
Now there is a mountainous tree, inflicting darkness under its canopy, where there was once a Palace. An alga-choked murk where there was once a stream. The hum of raw, unadulterated silence, like bees tumbling against the man’s jaw, where there was once laughter.
The man sheds a tear.
There is longing treading the strings of his heart, tiptoeing down the hallways of his soul like a lost child. It’s what jolted him out of complacency and brought him here to begin with, what fuels his feet to push past the curtain of fear framing the brokenness before him.
With nothing but the clothes on his back, the man takes a walk.
(“Long live the Emperor,” the world had cheered, and every syllable had been seared into his psyche, had propelled an uncertain young ruler to triumph after triumph, had secured him a future dripping with milk and honey.
Not once had he paused to think.
Not even when a little girl warned him to leave the trees alone.)
There is no longer a world to cheer him on as he navigates shattered earth, vines groping their way out of fissures like lecherous hands up a skirt. There is only an air thick with silence and spores and a certain something that makes his heart rate surge in a curious mix of fear and excitement. A certain something that guides his feet to the heart of the brokenness, somewhere in the tree that was once a Palace.
He walks on, one foot in front of the other in rhythmic monotony, heedless to the ferns depositing their future across his ankles, to the tiny winged creatures that hover suspiciously around him, wary of his return. He came here with one goal in mind, and he won’t let the sight of so much wrongness deter him.
(The Palace bridge had welcomed him with uproarious applause, as per usual. Conquest after conquest, for every ocean of blood he had spilled across enemy soil, he had reinforced the love of his people.
So how could he refuse them, when they kept on loving and breeding and multiplying, and demanded more and more from him?
That was the first time he had sensed her presence. Crossing the bridge on a magnificent stallion, clad from head to toe in armor polished to such perfection that it glowed like the stars, he had experienced the chill of four words, burrowing through his helmet like a well-placed arrow:
“Leave the trees alone.”
In that heartbeat, his armor had never felt so rusted, his sword so dull, his mount more pathetic. And yet he was surrounded only by the love of his people.
Oh, how he wishes it had ended there.)
The Palace bridge is currently in shambles, fragmented into ruin yet held together haphazardly by tendrils of greenery that snake between the cracks and crevices, breathing a morsel of stability into a bygone structure. The man stumbles over rubble and slips on patches of moss, insufficient he is without a horse or armor to bear the brunt of his journey. This new world has stripped him bare, exposing his nakedness, his innate clumsiness that is to be human.
Was this inevitable? Did we… bring this upon ourselves?
The answers don’t matter. Not when they can’t banish the demons. Not when they can’t scrub him clean of sins.
A gaping mouth nestled in between two gargantuan roots has usurped the Palace gate. He allows it to swallow him, mind, body and spirit. Eeriness clamps down, along with an inky darkness so thick he begins to doubt his own existence. In the stillness, his thoughts begin to stir and foam at the top, threatening to erupt from his cranium and consume him from the inside out.
Until salvation arrives in the form of a pocket of light, waiting in the gloomy distance. He flits from one light source to the next, dutifully cleaving a path through nothingness. It emanates from the brick walls themselves; a type of mold, he figures, that exudes an otherworldly violet hue. Fear wraps its grimy tendrils around his bones, pulling him backwards, threatening to drag him out into the sunlight. His heart beats like moth wings, soft and diminutive, for fear that even the faintest disturbance will be his demise.
And yet he presses on. The darkness is nothing new.
(It had been dark when she had slipped into his presence, as gently as a leaf on the breeze.
The four words had jolted him awake. There had been a sense of being targeted, because his lover was still snoring beside him.
“Leave me be,” he had seethed through a curtain of cold sweat, the resoluteness of her presence ripping a response out of him.
“Then leave them be,” she’d shot back, right on cue, from the foot of his bed. Her voice was a raindrop, her eyes uncut gemstones piercing the black through to the man’s soul.
“I have wars to win,” he’d stated plainly, fear molting into anger. “The trees will die for my fortifications, for my siege weapons, for the fires that will melt rocks into tools. The land will bleed for its ore, for the iron that will transform men and women into soldiers, for the gold that will feed nations. The sky will choke on smoke and ash and the screams of the vanquished. You shan’t dissuade me from success.”
“What of the birds that nest in those trees?” she had asked, unperturbed by his intensity. “What of the Planet, who weeps when you take His children out of the ground? What of the Planet, who yearns for the warmth of His parent, whose rays will never enter the ashen skies you leave behind?”
“All shall burn,” the man had declared, and he had been lucid. “All shall burn except for my Empire.”
It had taken a few heartbeats for him to realize the gemstones were long-gone, replaced by a suffocating darkness.)
Light. Streaming in from a tinted pane of smashed glass, an ugly vine dripping from the sill like a viscous teardrop. The man runs calloused fingers over once-pristine marble, over a thing that had a lifetime ago been the architectural wonder of the world. Now it harbors coiling green limbs that slither into every nook and cranny, the natural and the artificial coexisting in silent harmony.
Not a whimper escapes his feet as he treads hallways and spiral staircases, because there is a thick carpet of moss where there should be actual carpets. The Planet seems almost… curious, in the way it explores every man-made surface, in the way it has ruined but never erased.
In the way flowers blossom from the eye sockets of a fallen soldier, vibrant petals adorning the bones like medallions. The man crouches down and he… remembers.
(The scorched battlefield had been heavily seasoned with bodies, though mostly from the opposing side. Naturally.
She had appeared again, for the last time, in the aftermath of his greatest victory, an all-consuming fire framing her meek silhouette.
His soldiers had continued their merrymaking, laughing and drinking and sorting out the spoils of war, heedless to the anguish of their ruler. The air had been thick with smoke, and the sky had been ashen, just as he’d promised. And she had stood there, eyes brimming with tears, wearing a look that pressed upon him: “Why didn’t you listen?”
“Nothing will stop me,” he had yelled in her direction, drawing a few worried glances. “Nothing.”
And then fear sank its claws into him. The glow of the fire brought out something in the girl. The veins clambering through her milk-pale skin seemed to pulse a green hue. Her locks had coiled into branches for a fleeting heartbeat. And a stream had flushed across her eyes, his panting face reflected in each watery pupil, so small, so pathetic.
He had expected fury, perhaps retaliation. Instead, she had appeared... sorrowful.
It is only much later, after she disappears, that he will realize she had been thinking of him.)
The man pauses a pace away from a set of massive double doors. Well, what was once double doors but is now a tangle of vines with slivers of regal wood peeking through.
His blood freezes before he can push them open. It started on the other side of these doors, and spread outwards like a shockwave, devouring the Palace first before claiming the city and everything beyond.
(The wings were only the beginning. They fluttered into the throne room, playful, carefree, majestic.
And then everything shattered like a dinner plate. The vines had come like piranhas, erupting from the floor, devouring the marble and spraying rubble into the air.
The creatures came next. Not just swarms of insects that herded stragglers to their demise, but once-dormant beasts clambering out of the dark belly of the earth, ancient monstrosities responding to the Planet’s cries for help.
Armor had split and swords had dulled that day, impotent in the face of a foe that doesn't flinch, that doesn't stagger, that doesn't stop.
The fear inflicted had been so incredible, so all-consuming that the man who was once Emperor could only watch as his lover was splattered across the pillars, a coating of paint to mark the sins of humanity. He had run, spiriting himself away from an unquenchable threat just like everyone else.
When he next looked back, a great tree had his Palace in its dark embrace, hunched over it like an owl over a mouse. He doesn’t know by what arcane powers led to it sprouting here.
He only knows that he's finally lost.)
The man pushes.
And sets his gaze upon destruction.
Only to find peace. The cracks are there, but the vines caress them into serenity, binding the fractured floor together like bandages. There is something strangely aesthetic about the two disparate elements, together, harmonious.
Your intention never had been to destroy, he realizes, but to reclaim.
It’s a moment from days gone, immortalized in a portrait, two radically different brushtrokes overlapping but never competing. The man expects some sliver of the Planet’s wrath to have remained, but even the air, unperturbed for a lifetime, is free from the iron tang of blood, from the echoes of screams.
(It’s always been beautiful.)
His throne awaits him across a sea of moss. Slumbering under a blanket of dew-speckled green for god knows how long, it too has been reclaimed.
The man runs apologetic fingers across the emerald clumps, savors the trapped morning chill tickling his naked skin. He takes his place, allowing the Planet to envelope his being, to soothe his battered, broken soul. To forgive him.
When he next opens his eyes, a smile tugs at his lips.
The girl is there, in a distant corner of his throne room, watching. Golden ribbons twist the two souls together, and in those peaceful heartbeats they seem to echo each other’s sentiments; that they have been fighting for the same thing, and it had cost too many lives, but it had all been, inexplicably, worth it.
When the silence persists in beautiful tranquility, and the four words don’t come, the man rests his eyes again.
His throne has never been more comfortable.