My sense of magic faded and then collapsed altogether. I stopped in my tracks as the path melted beneath my feet. I found myself standing on an inch thick layer of detritus—grey leaves withered and curled, bones secreted away at the bases of the trees. A fox lay stretched across the ground a few feet in front of me, its body flung outward as though it’d been in the middle of fleeing when it died. I did not feel afraid. I felt the forest and its eyes upon me, eyes old as the ages opening and blinking and awakening and fixing upon me. I felt honored to have come into their presence.
I lifted my eyes from the fox and found All Names standing on the bank of a wide black lake. I do not mean black in that night had fallen across a primordial forest. The water projected black. The water did not glint or shimmer when it moved. The air hung limp and dead around us, and yet the water moved—it shifted with the gentle wet slap that water makes as it laps against rocks on the shore.
The stag stood across the lake from me and directed their blank gaze away from me and behind me, toward the Hall of the Gods. The first thing I noticed: Ragadar did not stand attendant at their leg. I blinked as though to clear my eyes, thinking for a wild moment that perhaps this were some peculiar dream. Seeing All Names without the child shook my vision of reality. I wanted to speak but no words seemed adequate. The unadulterated presence of the stag proved almost too much for me to handle—my vision blurred, telescoped around the edges. This couldn’t be real.
The stag’s wide red eyes closed and they breathed outward, a low, humid breath that I felt across the lake. And then they opened their eyes and fixed them upon me. Names spun into my mind, hectic and confused, a babbling, maddening, endless stream of names that filled me and sent me spinning to the brink of insanity.
And my brain fell silent. I felt the tangle of names at the back of my brain and knew that if I reached for them, they would return. I focused my attention on the stag. One name pulled loose from the rest and tumbled into my consciousness.
It wasn’t enough. I wanted—
I met the stag’s eyes and I wept, then. Silent tears spilled down my cheeks. I stepped forward on legs that hardly seemed able or willing to support me. I walked to the edge of the lake and All Names’ reflection broke out across the black water, resplendent and white, dispelling the ancient curse I sensed lurking in the waters.
This is my curse, they said, each word striking like a gigantic bell inside my brain. This is where I sleep.
I blinked and across from me, instead of All Names, stood a massive bough staked through the bank of the lake. And atop it, the head of a giant stag had been pinned—its mouth hung slack, blood spilling from its severed head and trailing from its lips down its neck. The pink eyes stared toward the Hall of the Gods. I blinked again and All Names stood across from me. I shivered, the tremor shooting straight through me.
Nature is life, and I am the death of nature. Do you see? Even I must die.
Their great red eyes moved past me again.
Nature is sound and I am silence. And when I die, everything must die around me. When I cease to die, the world falls to chaos. Do you understand? You must be prepared.
I opened my mouth and then shut it. Repeated this a few more times. “No,” I said.
I unleash my curse upon you, the voice said, pouring into my brain with unprecedented force. I grunted and wanted to clap my hands over my ears. I am nature and I am the death of nature. I am sound and I am silence. And when I die, such a calamity I shall wreak across the heavens, that it shall unmake the world.
My breath came short in my chest. I clutched at my heart.
A curse upon you. A curse upon you who let me die. A curse upon you.
The voice came louder and louder until it roared through me. It threatened to pull me apart by the molecules. All Names stared at me and their stare was great and horrible. In their eyes all the mysteries of nature spun, and I felt myself spinning among them—
I broke. I fell to my knees and in the waters of the black lake I saw the reflection not of the brilliant stag, not of the pinpoint of white in the dark forest, but of the bough with the stag staked through. I saw the dead eyes staring, staring. The wood stained with blood and gristle. I saw the curse gathering in the waters. I felt it stretching fingers out toward me. I staggered backward and got myself turned away. Without making it fully back to my feet, I scrambled back through the woods in the direction I’d come.