“Oath Breaker Priest to an Almost God” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

Teora swore just two oaths when she claimed her priest’s path: to translate true the gods’ tongue and to shun the Many-in-One.

She has failed the first; she can no longer hear the gods.

* * *

Sprinting through the driving rain, Teora stumbles over mud-slick stones and shifting earth, fighting for the beach. She arrives too late to stop the desperate souls running out their longboat, but in time enough to watch the water shatter it again and again on the shore.

Bent double against the wind, still, Teora tries to reach them. Though the footing goes treacherous, she struggles through the torrent, dodging the crashing swells. Even searching for survivors, she knows better than to hope. She’s lived this a night a dozen times before.

An endless gale batters her small island, devouring more and more of the coast each day. She prays each morning, but she prays to silence. Her sore-spent offerings rot on their abandoned altars or wash away in the unceasing rain.

And around the island, her people’s stores grow smaller with little hope of replenishing. Hungry and sodden, they sicken. Though Teora makes endless rounds with what herbs and spells remain, she loses another child every week. She cannot blame these people for trying to escape, striking for fish, for the mainland, for the end of the storm—

Every morning Teora prays to silence. And every day finds her here, walking the waterline, sorting shattered wood and pressing death rites to the sunken eyes of the people broken on her shore.

Beneath the heaviest fragment of the longboat, she finds a tiny body. They lie so quiet in the muddy sand, broken and small, knots of undecided selfhood unraveling around their tiny head. Mouthing ancient prayers, Teora gropes for a pulse, whispering, “Please, please.”

Her gods remain silent. The skin beneath her fingers stays damp and gray and still.

It is too much—another, yet another—and she has no words left for loss this big.

Teora took just two oaths, but her gods are silent.

Salt stinging in her eyes, she staggers on down the beach, tears her hands on splintered wood. These are her people. They trust her, they look to her. She has to help them, has to find them, has to bring them home.

Half-blind with wind and desperation, Teora nevertheless feels the moment the Many-in-One draws close to her side. As ever anymore, the creature lingers where she walks, a quiet companion to her endless vigil. Standing bare skinned in the storm-frothed shallows, they watch her work, flat eyes glittering in the near-dark, lips pressed tight behind heavy stitch work. It is an oddly human gesture for a creature so uncertain, their watery shape shifting hive-like around the unmoving monument of their sewn-shut mouth.

Every day, they come and walk beside her, even as she carries bodies to their families, and it is so much like companionship—so much like grief—she cannot swallow it and her losses, too. Cannot weigh it against the stone of her promises and understand why

Why the binding? Why the vow? Why should she not greet them when they steady her against the storm?

But Teora stands a priest on her grandmother’s path. She knows little enough of the Many-in-One, but she knows this story, now: silent gods and endless thunder, the world serpent thrashing awake in its ocean bed.

“I do not believe in the end of worlds.” Voice catching in the wind, she prays now to her own determination, her familiar gods past hearing. “I do not believe in the end of worlds.”

Teora took just two oaths, but she cannot translate unspeaking gods. So then, she thinks—one vow broken and her desperation boiling into salt-caked resolve—what does her last vow matter?

Digging through sand and wreckage, looking for anyone who may yet survive, Teora considers her options. She must make an offering, she knows, but what? Her gods she has always fed, but what to give the un-god who cannot eat, trapped with thread that cannot break?

She thinks of the Many-in-One’s steady presence, watching as she untangles debris from lost and precious fishing nets. She thinks of slow, humid evenings in a happier time, laughing with a dozen other women, unsnarling tangles from the line.

Hope a hard stone in her breast, Teora looks to the Many-in-One beside her, their eyes dark and sorry in her bobbing lantern light.

She thinks of summer, of hot blue skies and an end to this storm.

“I do not believe in the end of worlds,” she whispers.

Lifting up the only body she found tonight, Teora sheds her vows and stands.

* * *

Though the hour seems late, with the sun forever lost behind driving rain, time means little. Teora brings the child to what remains of their family, stays long enough to wash and comb the child’s hair, to speak what prayers she can to comfort them. But even here, among the grieving, her words fall on unlistening ears.

Bundled in an oil cloak, she returns to the bladed wind and shoulders across the island to the angler-maker’s workshop.

Inside, wooden tables line a short stone hall, scores of oil lanterns hanging from low beams to best light their work stations. Laden shelves crowd every otherwise unoccupied space, heavy with precious glass jars, stores of needles and wire, sea-shine and silk.

As she expects, Teora finds the lamps at the far end still burning despite the hour, banishing every shadow from her mother’s inked brown shoulders. Braids brushing the table, she peers at her project through the many magnifying crystals layered over her eyes, weaving feathers and hooks with a pair of needle-fine tweezers faster than Teora can follow.

“Figured out the ocean’s moaning, then?” she asks without looking up, long acquainted with the heavy tread of her younger daughter’s footsteps.

For a moment, in the face of another loss and her mother’s unshaking confidence, Teora cannot clear her throat enough to speak. It is one thing to walk the priest’s path. Certainly, it had not been difficult before the storm, to listen and speak and help where she could. But this. . . .

She swallows, heart caught and aching, and sinks into an unoccupied workbench.

“No,” she says finally. “But I know now who to ask.”

Her mother smiles. Though they have lost family of their own to the storm, though she has walked the beaches with Teora, sat vigil and closed eyes, her humor remains untouched, unassailable behind her faith.

“Me? I’m flattered. Try scolding it,” she says. “It never worked with you, but eh—perhaps.”

Somehow, Teora manages to smile back. For a moment, she is not a priest but a daughter, and she is comforted.

She does not believe in the end of worlds.

She asks, “You have tools for these things—how would you pick apart a clever knot?”

Slowly, her mother sits back. She unhooks her magnifying crystals and searches Teora’s eyes. After a moment, her face clears in quiet understanding. She doesn’t ask if Teora is sure; priests and sailors must always be sure.

Instead, she turns. She retrieves a little abalone box and takes from within two of the slender copper needles the angler-makers use for weaving holy lures.

“These and patience.”

She does not say good luck, but Teora hears it just the same.

* * *

Not far outside her own home, Teora feels familiar eyes fall on her again. High on the seagrass hill and unsteady in the muddy torrents, she keeps her head down, striding through. Can’t chase what you want to follow. No point searching through the downpour anyway.

At last, Teora reaches her home. She steps inside, leaving the door wide and inviting behind her. Carefully, looking at nothing but the fire pit in the center of her room, she calls, “Many-in-One, come in from the rain.”

For a long moment, nothing happens. Teora squeezes her eyes shut—hoping, hoping, heart thudding hard against the stone in her chest. And then, barely audible beneath the rain, she hears two footsteps, light and hesitant on her stone floor. The door ghosts shut. Unbreathing, her stomach churning, Teora turns.

As a child, before her vows, Teora felt a kinship with the Many-in-One. Confused by a body formed so differently from her sister’s, she longed for the freedom of a changing shape. As an adolescent, sure of her womanhood but losing herself in the unfamiliar landscape of shifting features, Teora haunted the shoreline, hoping for something she could not name. Even lately, through her aimless ocean vigil, she struggled through the un-god’s companionship with a kind of angry gratitude, resentful of her path and a compassion she could not graciously accept.

Now, the Many-in-One stands in her threshold, barefoot and barely clothed, sealskin a loose cloak over naked flesh. They look at her, black eyes an unblinking question, and Teora feels at sea.

She has wanted this. She has dreaded this. She feels once again a stranger in her own skin.

Teora swallows and steadies herself with easier tasks. Ignoring the Many-in-One for a moment, she turns her attention to lighting the lanterns that hang from her rafters, dropping a few words in each bowl to light her small home. Her resolve firmed with the shadows banished, Teora pads across the floor, back to the fire, and sits at its edge.

“I need your advice,” she says.

Laugh lines crinkle at the Many-in-One’s eyes. Humor bracketing their mangled mouth, they press a finger to their lips, eyebrows raised. A question.

Teora thinks of her vows. She thinks of the price. She thinks of her people, starving through unending storms.

She cannot regret her choice; it was the only one.

She says, “I am a priest on my grandmother’s path; I know your story. No blades can break your binding.” Opening her hands, she lets the firelight dance on her mother’s fine-worked copper. “You’ll notice I’m not trying to.”

A glimmer of dimple appears and vanishes as the stitches pull too taught. Moving slow, the Many-in-One crosses the room. Their eyes never leave her face, gauging even as they crouch and come to sit beside her.

Teora pats her lap. She sees that flicker of a smile again—laughing at her, perhaps—and then the Many-in-One lies down. Gently, they pillow their head in her lap, sealskin falling damp and soft against the curling hair of her legs. Even through the pelt, Teora feels their heat, the tension in their frame. Hesitant, she thinks. Perhaps they are also afraid.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

A hand finds her ankle and squeezes. The Many-in-One closes their eyes.

Teora does not believe in the end of the world; she believes in determination, in patience, in her own steady hands.

“I will go gentle,” she whispers, and begins.

* * *

Hours ache past. One by one, the many nine-fold knots unravel, tearing the skin of old scars however carefully she tugs them free.

“I have an ointment for pain,” she murmurs, well toward dawn, but the Many-in-One’s hand tightens on her ankle and she remains.

Daubing blood away with her fingers, Teora works on. She thinks of little but the next twist, the next hurt, and so when the final knot falls away, Teora moves to the following before realizing there isn’t one.

A swimmer to an unfamiliar shore, she returns to herself, the kinked and flesh-stained cord twining heavy around her fingers. Around her, the room feels over-warm and humid, stifling with pent-up storm heat, the scent of whale oil and wet seal. And in her lap, the Many-in-One grins up at her, a seal-toothed smile unseen for a hundred years.

Teora’s breath catches. Her stomach jumps. She looks at their face—open and unbound, rapidly shifting into beautiful, terrifying patterns—and prays she did the right thing, unraveling a gods’ trap.

As slowly as they came, the Many-in-One sits up. One hand curls around the back of Teora’s neck, pulling her close until their foreheads press together. An ancient gesture of gratitude, she knows, but one so long fallen into disuse, Teora can’t remember the appropriate response.

She swallows. She makes a guess. Mirroring the gesture, she burrows her fingers beneath warm pelt and anchors there. Shared breath tangling between them, she counts time by her heartbeat as they remain so, that wide mouth of teeth very close to her face, praying wordless—please, please—an oath breaker priest to an almost god.

“The ocean means to swallows us,” she whispers against their blood-streaked lips. “What do we do?”

Pulling away, the Many-in-One presses a stained kiss to the top of her head. They stand. Unbound from godly stitching, their shape shudders in the lamplight, flowing faster than she can track, changing even as she watches into something bigger, something vicious, something inhuman and beautiful and mad. Slow as shallows, they lift the pelt from their bare shoulders and lean close, tucking it around her.

Teora can’t breathe, can’t tear her gaze away from their eyes—no longer flat, but an entire night sky—questions and prayers a flood against her tongue. Words clot in her throat. Gulls fill up her lungs.

Reed-hollow, she whispers, “What do I do?”

The Many-in-One smiles.


* * *

The sun rises, insofar as it still does. Outside the heavy sand-bar glass of her one windowpane, the quality of the storm changes, living shadows writhing in the onslaught rather than complete, unsteady black. Sitting alone at the embers of her fire, Teora notices only a settling damp, her bare feet gritty with sand.

Her vows are broken. The storm rages on.

She stares at her hands, at the tangled handful of cording, and the seal pelt heavy on her legs.

The Many-in-One must not need it any longer, their true shape finally free.

Teora closes her eyes. Her stomach clenches, sick with dread and anticipation, with an ineffective anger and helpless pain. What will happen now? There will be a price to pay, she knows. All magic takes its toll. And she does not regret her choice, no, but Teora cannot help wondering what will happen to a gods’ mouth unstitching the mouth of an almost god? What will happen to her people, trapped within an unending storm?

She wonders what has already happened, the sea-stone idols of her gods all dead-eyed and silent on their shrines.

At the sound of her door inching open, barely moving despite the howling wind of the storm, Teora looks up. She finds her sister peering through the gap, hunter-eyed and crouching, her spear ready in her hand. Seeing her alone, Kura straightens. She slips inside.

“In case,” she says to the question in Teora’s eyes, propping her spear against the doorframe. “Only in case. Mother told me you took a certain guest. I thought they might be hungry after so long stitched shut.”

Teora swallows, scoured raw. She hears her sister walk across the room, but cannot bring herself to rise, to greet her properly, to offer food.

“They did not ask to eat,” she says instead. “Must not need to.”

“Did they answer you, though?”

Teora stares at the skin spread over her knees, the coil of thread a hot wire in the palm of her hand. Slowly, she lifts her arm—her burden weighs a shrine’s worth—and lets it fall onto the floor.

Behind her, her sister goes very still.

Teora,” she breathes. But though Teora broke her oaths, though she unraveled a gods’ trap and hailed the Many-in-One as a friend, Kura only loops her arms around her shoulders and holds fast.

She asks, “What did they tell you?”

“To swim.”

Kura pulls away, her face folded in concentration. After a moment, she crosses the room, somewhere behind her and out of sight. Teora hears her rifling through chest and drawers, but cannot bring herself to look. The stone of hope she has carried so long in her chest rattles loose and rises, its shattered halves choking her.

Her vows are broken. The storm rages on. All for a seal pelt and string.

Her people trusted her in vain.

She failed, she thinks. She failed.

But after a moment, Kura returns to her side. She picks up the gods’ thread as though it weighs nothing—perhaps to her it does—and threads it through a long bone needle of their grandmother’s.

Watching her, Teora feels a frisson through her blood, burning away the fear and crushing loss. Her vision narrows, seizing on the needle and thread. For a moment—a sudden, searing glimpse—she feels the path that future walks stretching beneath her feet.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh.”

And thinking of tangled fishing nets, water-breaks weighted with scales and seaweed, Teora looks at her bright-eyed sister and dares to hope again.

* * *

Rain lashing at her face, Teora fights her way down to the shore and into the seal’s skin. She carries her gods’ thread coiled in her mouth, her grandmother’s needle caught between her teeth. Though the waves claw trenches in the sand, she forces her way through these, too, cutting an unfamiliar body deep into the sea.

Below the storm, the water hardly gentles. Heavy and cold, it batters at her bones, shoving her off course, but Teora is used to moving in a body that feels strange to her—this is just one more. She presses her head down, dives deep and swims deeper, into the bitter gray.

At the ocean’s bed, she finds a floor chucked with coral and rocks and broken pottery. Longboat shards jut between the remnants of ancient, sea-swallowed shrines. Here and there, she recognizes the faces of her gods, their smiles worn to flat nothing by the constant tide. They do not watch her pass; there is nothing left inside.

Teora swims. And past the wreckages, past the residue of gods, she sees it—

In her bones, she knows, this is the place the world serpent slept. She can feel the memory of its scales against the sand, can taste the chalky scent of its shed skins and the copper of its long dreaming.

But its bed lays destroyed, abandoned—only a rip in the fabric of the world, water undulating through a sore and pulsing gap.

Teora has no words for this. Fear catches her, ancient and far larger than herself, larger than the whole of the universe pressing down. She knows what this means: when the gods go silent and the world serpent wakes, the endless storm and broken ships, the Many-in-One waiting in the shadows for their part in this.

Teora knows the stories—she walks as a priest in her grandmother’s path—but she will not believe in the end of worlds.

Teeth clenched, her heart hard, Teora drives herself deep. She presses her grandmother’s needle into the world. Weaving the tiny, nine-fold knots she learned unravelling a gods’ trap, she sews the ocean, binding wave to earth—

And she can see how it might be done. She can see the warp and weft of magic around her. She can see the torn places where the waves rise high. She can see it

But she cannot mend the gap with only a mouthful of thread. The ocean thunders free from her every stitch, rending further in the places where her needle passed. Far above her, the storm roars on. The break strains around her, screaming, wrenching, tattered ends fluttering in the wild current.

Teora dives, forcing her needle in, desperate to stop it worsening—

And the world breaks.

* * *

She surfaces, body aching and battered, to a vast and endless ocean sprawled out in all directions. Stars melt into the waves until everything is stars, everything is waves. Fathomless, the whole of possibility sprawls around her. Oddly, she is not afraid.

Teora sees something moving in the massiveness—an incomprehensible shape, beautiful and horrifying. She hears many voices speaking. She hears only one.

They whisper, “Swim.”

Teora fills her lungs with air, lowers her head to dive—

And the world breaks.

* * *

She surfaces, to a calmer shore beneath a bluer sky. The ocean sprawls glass-still for miles, not a ripple, not a current. Teora sees her sister and mother waiting for her on the beach, alongside many of the island. They laugh, holding each other, blind with tears and unsteady joy. Someone sings and the song carries, praising the end of the storm.

Around her, like soap bubbles, uncountable fish rise to break the crystalline surface. Bloated and rotting, they coat the dead water in a reeking blanket, scales flaking into slime and dust. Voice by voice, on the island, a hush falls.

Teora flounders toward the shore, struggling to keep her head above the fetid water. She tries to call to her family, but her voice barks and breaks, senseless.

As one, the fish around her turn. Though bulging with gas, their eyes a soupy morass, each fish peers at her, focused on the unfamiliar territory of her seal-furred face.

In many voices, in one voice, they whisper, “Swim.”

Teora fills her lungs, lowers her head—

And the world breaks.

* * *

She surfaces to a raging storm, the waves rushing faster, battering against the island. Houses tumble into the waves, one after another, debris-choked sea swallowing their homes. Teora screams in her shattered seal voice, bellowing desperate panic, howling prayers with no gods left to listen—

And hears through the storm her howl repeated.

Slick, dark heads break the waves, ungainly seals fighting through the current toward her. Teora calls and calls again. She calls until her voice breaks on salt and hope, until her family and her people bob around her, barking questions and comfort in unfamiliar voices made sensible again.

Cutting through the crashing waves, Teora herds everyone close. She buoys pups where she can, nudging those that struggle up for air. She forms an island of furry bodies among the crashing storm, even as their own familiar island sinks into the sea.

As she works, she can see a fat, bright behemoth cutting through the floating wreckage, vast and glittering, scaled pelt painted in sunrise and darkness. They shift and double, one creature moving in multitudes, swimming somewhere between the endless sky, the blue sky, the stormed sky. . . .

They glance back at her, black eyes glittering, beckoning, “Swim.”

The gods bound their mouth for a reason, but all the gods are dead.

Teora looks around at her people, a sea of sparks burning in a changing ocean. She doesn’t know where they are going—does not know where eventually they’ll end—but they are already cast among the stars.

She has made her choice, an oath breaker priest to an almost god.

Teora fills her lungs, lowers her head.

And gathering her home around her, together, they swim.

Crystal Lynn Hilbert lives in the forgotten backwaters of Western Pennsylvania and subsists mostly on old trade paperbacks and tea. A fan of things magical and mythical, her stories tend towards a peculiar blend of high magic and Eddic poetry. You can read her latest stories “Is the Dragon Whole” in Vitality magazine and “To Claim a Piece of Sky” on Kaleidotrope. A monster masquerading as her sleeps at http://cl-hilbert.tumblr.com/.

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