“You will worship me.”
Danit’s armor paused, a rarity; she raised her eyes from the sand immediately in front of her feet to the shape before her.
The godling was little more than a vaguely cylindrical cloud with snapping black eyes at approximately the height of her collarbones.
“Or what?” Danit said.
It wasn’t as if being more cursed would make much of a difference.
“You will worship me,” the godling repeated.
“If you like,” she said. “But I’ll have to do so at a walk.”
The armor moved; she moved with it.
Danit didn’t know whether the godling followed her until the sun set and she was allowed to stop. But when she finished gathering her bits of wood for the evening and sat, a misty shape bunched up on the ground across from her.
Determined little thing. Danit set aside one of the kindling-sized sticks; once the fire was crackling, she waved it in the godling’s direction, kissed it, and stuck it upright in the flames, where it would burn vertically. The mist convulsed, as if the godling shuddered. Danit closed her eyes to take advantage of not having to walk in the dark.
In the morning, the godling was a little more substantial—still blurry, but bipedal, with dark hair to match its eyes. Danit’s canteen and the pack around her waist were filled, as they were each morning. She flicked a few drops of water onto the sand in the direction of the godling as the low-angled sun hit her legs and they moved. Throughout the day’s light-enforced trudge, Danit dropped shreds of walking rations on the ground, shook wet fingers when she drank, in case she was still followed.
The godling again sat across her fire that evening, closed dark eyes when she dedicated another stick to them. Was she allowed to feel satisfaction anymore? Regardless, she did, and no new aches were added to her catalog in response to her gladness that her small gestures fed this pet godling she’d acquired.
“I can pray, if you like,” Danit said. “What’s your name?”
The godling’s black eyes seemed to take up a greater proportion of the blob that made up their face.
“I don’t know,” they said. “It’s been too long.”
Danit shivered. Was that to be her fate, too, to walk until she lost even her name? Already the war seemed vague, and she had whole afternoons of wondering why she’d been so afraid of the axe.
“What are you the god of, then?”
“I don’t remember.”
The godling disappeared along with their rasp of misery. Danit lay down and let the thing that passed for sleep pull her in until the sun rose again, she walked again.
Curious that two silent days were enough to make her feel lonely at the godling’s absence. Her walk’s silence was heavier than before.
Wind and time had erased her tracks, but this section of scrubland seemed familiar. At least twice so far she had turned around to walk back across the waste. If she survived long enough, would she know every rock and scraggly tree?
She lit her offering for the godling, despite the empty space on the other side of her fire.
When the sun rose, and Danit’s armor with it, he stood next to her. More solid, still small in stature but angular and beautiful. Frowning under heavy, arched eyebrows.
Maybe he would smite her and end this walking business.
Her armor moved. She couldn’t feel much from the neck down, not even the filth she must be covered in under the plate mail. But she knew that the gorget rested differently on her shoulders recently, as if it were too big. She knew that the unconsciousness she found at night wasn’t the rest of sleep, that the pain of sun and fatigue lanced through her head at the level of her right eye. She would walk herself to death, as ordered. Her armor might even continue to walk afterward. She would never know.
“You made offerings even when you couldn’t see me,” the god said. “Why?”
“Why not?” Danit said. “There isn’t much I’m allowed, but if that gesture helps, I can think of no reason not to make it.”
“Offerings made in faith have more power,” the god said. “My form has mass, now.”
“Good,” Danit said.
He didn’t speak again that day, though he drifted around her in circles, frowning as he watched her stare at his face and her body skirted a scrubby tree without her looking. Perhaps time moved differently for gods: he stayed silent while she made her small offerings to him, all the way through to the next night.
She was approaching the edge of the waste: bushes clumped around more-substantial trees at regular intervals. Soon the armor would turn, and she’d walk across the waste again. For the—fourth? fifth? time.
“What is the curse on you?” the god asked from across her fire.
“To walk,” Danit said. “The armor walks while sunlight hits it, and I walk within it.”
“It kills you.”
The god crept close, peered at her. He smelled like ozone. She could see lights inside the darkness of his eyes. Danit felt vaguely nauseated, staring into the eyes of a god.
The god tugged at the edge a plate, then snatched his hand back, hissing.
“This is a mighty curse,” he said. “Why do you bear it?”
“I fought on the wrong side of a war,” Danit said.
“This is the will of your conquerors? Did they treat all their defeated so?”
Danit shook her head.
“Not all. Just those of us in charge. We were, as I say, on the wrong side.”
The god sat back on his heels. With more distance between them, his eyes no longer made Danit feel sick.
“You speak an obscuring truth,” he said.
What were gods for, if not confession before death? Even if her death might take another month or three.
“I was a Field Marshall in the army of the Hassetic Empire. After twenty years enslaving the entire continent, a number of the population grew tired of us.”
The godling tilted his head.
“Well, you know, my sins are severe and many,” Danit said. “It’s not as if I enjoy speaking of them.”
“Then why commit them?”
The armor would let her sit by the fire, tend it, eventually lie down. It did not permit her to shrug.
“To hold the lives of the weak in my hands was a heady power,” she said, though it hurt her throat to do so. “To make those lives suffer and end on my whim was more alluring still.”
The godling stood; lightning flashed around his dark eyes.
“It has been two ages of civilization since I was last worshipped,” he spat. “And you are corrupt of heart.”
He disappeared with the sound of distant thunder.
Five days, he left her alone. Danit reached the edge of the waste Her armor turned for the trudge back across. Each time before, she had been alone. This was the first time that the turning rang hollow in her chest and she felt the weight of her armor shift around her.
She still lit offerings for the godling, still flicked water onto the ground. She sat by her evening fire while silence crowded her. She lay with her eyes open and watched the stars march across the sky as she marched across the waste, then stood inside her armor at dawn, head throbbing in time with her heart and eyes sandy, to walk alone.
On the fifth night, the silence was a horror that choked her, and Danit prayed.
When she had held lives in her hands and spent them like straw cast to the ground, she had felt herself equal to the gods, made her sacrifices with an empty heart. Now she prayed to a tiny god whose name she didn’t even know with a voice scratchy with disuse.
Danit didn’t mean to be sorry. She hadn’t thought she was sorry, just afraid of the axe, and the blood that fountained from the necks of the other officers, her Empress. She had strode the battlefields of a continent, victorious and powerful—she wasn’t supposed to be afraid to wink out and become nothing.
But she was. She had chosen this curse, to walk the waste in this armor, winding down like unattended clockwork, until she winked out after all, shriveled and filthy, instead of all at once in a river of blood. She cursed the godling for making her examine herself when she could’ve continued to walk without thought until she ended.
She sat by her fire and wept onto the ground for the godling who came to her unbidden, granted her the blessing of a chance to perform one generous act, and took himself away again.
“Forgive me,” she said to the stick burning vertically among the flames. “You deserve a better worshipper.”
“I accept your penance,” the godling said.
Danit stared at the feet just within her vision, finely shaped and clean of all the sand that surrounded them. She looked up, and the light of the fire bent away from his face, so that his eyes were shadow inside shadow, lit only by flickers of lightning.
“You are weak, Danit Ellinsdottir,” he said.
She was glad that he was now strong enough to pull her name out of her head.
The godling crouched, arms around his knees. Maybe Field Marshall Danit Ellinsdottir, conqueror of nations and holder of ten thousand lives, would’ve presumed to read the expression of a god. Danit of the waste kept her eyes on his left cheekbone, tried not to mind the tickle of her dripping nose and tears drying on her cheeks.
“What you do not see is that your weakness makes an opening in your curse,” the godling said.
Danit tried to remember a time when anyone had ever spoken to her with such tenderness. She failed. She looked into the godling’s lightning-lit eyes.
“I could touch your armor now and take it from you,” he said.
She could stop walking. Her body would be her own again. The body she hadn’t felt since the curse spelled her armor to move.
“Will I live?” she asked.
His eyes flickered.
“I do not know.”
Was it living that she did, walking the waste? Or simply drawing out the fate that had waited for her since the moment of the empire’s defeat?
“Is there redemption?”
Lightning crackled around the godling’s face, but the set of his mouth wasn’t unkind.
“I am no death god,” he said. “The human afterlife is unknown to me. But your worship has given me form and mass when I had none, so the blessing of this small god will go with you, whether you live or no.”
“Take it,” Danit said from the raw place deep inside her chest.
The godling touched her cuirass. The armor fell away from her, releasing all the sensation it had hidden: pain, itch, the scratch of weeping sores, and the scent of her own filth. A fatigue so profound that Danit fell sideways, unable to control her own withered, spent muscles.
The godling caught her, lowered her head onto his knees and smoothed the hair out of her face.
Even her eyelids felt too heavy to control. Darkness pulled, inexorable, and it wasn’t even illuminated like the flicker of the godling’s eyes.
“Your walk is over,” he said. “Be done. Whether you wake or end, for your faith I will stay with you.”
With the final drop of her stubbornness, Danit watched storms brew in her godling’s eyes. She prayed once again, a final “please” with no idea what she asked for, lying on the lap of a small god.
She closed her eyes.