Naag Tea by Leigh Wright
Best experienced in the PDF zine
That patch of ground: flattened grass and damp soil; secrets. How many times have I walked over that very spot in my ignorance? Always so caught up in business, as if the people I employ aren’t perfectly capable of running things without me constantly looking over their shoulders. Still, it’s business that brings me here so often to the cluster of brick storehouses that hold all manner of goods for the people of Glacindal.
I’m proud of the domain I have built for myself in this city. My fine home fronts onto Newscathe Street, high walls surround the ample grounds, an ornate gate revealing an assortment of well-kept foliage which obscures the house from prying eyes. A private access road to the rear of the property leads to my storehouses and workshops, well-situated on old land, with easy access to the city’s arterial roads.
I like to keep an eye on my employees, that’s the truth. Trust is something I gave up on long ago. So, I walk my private road often, or take the one-horse carriage if the weather is bad. Of course, the carriage makes stealth impossible, but my employees by now have been instilled with enough paranoia that I might show up at any moment and enough experience of what happens if I find any of them lacking, that I am confident that they strive to do their jobs efficiently. Rewarding good work with good pay reinforces this – I am not a miser.
It’s late afternoon, the daylight beginning to dim as the wan sun lazes its way toward the horizon. I can hear the rhythmic clack and slap of weaving looms coming from two of the workshops and see a handful of wagons being loaded with goods for the long transit to Fruca. I realise that I have a shovel in hand, picked up from somewhere around here, and now I suddenly understand what I am doing. The other thing I need is close by – a child’s cart with a bed no longer than my arm. With dulled astonishment I remember acquiring it and positioning it beside one of the storehouses days ago; covering it with an expensive cloth so that everyone understood that it was there for a reason and not to be touched.
I admit to absent-mindedness readily enough. I often have business facts and figures running though my head and spend half my time doing things instinctively while I process information. This is something else. My eyes barely leave that patch of ground – there is something about it that calls to me, has been calling to me for some time, though at first, I could not consciously hear it.
I assess the patch, wondering how deep and how wide. I feel a stab of anxiety until I remember the cart. Surely it must encapsulate the required dimensions, otherwise why did I choose it? With likewise logic I determine that the depth of the shovel blade must also be what is required.
I am free from prying eyes as I carefully edge the patch with the shovel, then segment it into manageable chunks, placing them in order on the cart. At some point during my work, the screech of a dragon peals across the sky and the city holds its breath for a long moment. Even I take a pause, but not until the chunk I am lifting is safely in the cart. The sudden stillness is eerie, and a shiver crawls along my spine as I feel eyes upon me. A couple of the workers loading the wagons have spotted me, and I can see people emerging from the workshops to check if the world is about to end in fire or ice.
There is no other sign from the dragon, likely halfway to Caromklack by now. I drop the shovel and stalk pointedly toward a spot where all those present can see that it’s me. I need say nothing: hands on hips is enough to convey my displeasure, and everyone swiftly returns to work. Two overseers, one with the wagons and the other from the workshops, linger for a moment in case I require to speak with them. I might have mustered some anger to throw at them; they are half-expecting it, but awareness of the patch, not yet fully loaded onto the cart, gutters the emotion. I turn my back to the overseers and they get the hint. With more urgency now, but no less care, I finish loading the patch onto the cart. No eyes that I am aware of follow me as I grab the handle and pull my cargo back along the private road toward my abode.
Some time later… I have no idea quite how much time, but I must accept that it is days rather than hours, for though I wear the same clothes I am vaguely aware of my second, Ralfon, entering my study on more than one occasion to give a report or receive instruction that presumably I gave with reasonable competence. There is plenty of wood for the fire upon which I boil water in an iron kettle for my tea. The patch remains in the cart, but I have removed the wheels and handle and placed the bed on a table so that I may access it readily. The soil retains a damp smell that I breathe in appreciably as I gently lift a generous pinch of it into a conical sifter on a stand next to the cart bed. A dish below catches the refined soil, from whence I tip it into a strainer on my tea mug. In my haste I try to grab the kettle from the fire with a bare hand and instantly regret it. The pain flares and briefly ignites my mind: what am I doing here? Am I losing my sanity? I look around my study, windows heavily draped, a couple of guttering candles doing little to enhance the flickering light provide by the fire. I have no idea what time it is… what day it is. Have I really entrusted sly Ralfon to take care of business all this time? I only put trust in him at all because his greatest loyalty is toward whomever keeps him in coin and I have provided a constant stream of it.
I am about to flee my study when I catch a dank whiff of soil. Yes, this is a strange endeavour, but I must not believe for a single moment that it does not serve some grand purpose, whether I am fully aware of what that may be, or not. I am blessed by some exalted power, more mysterious than dragons or any other beast upon this world. This is not madness: this is clarity that no other has experienced. I grab a cloth from the table and take the kettle, pouring gently so as not to displace the soil from the strainer.
This is my eighth mug of tea of the day, or since I woke, at least. Four more to go until I allow sleep to lull me with more of those peculiar dreams. I must confess that a part of me is beginning to prefer my time with eyes closed; it soothes me. Whilst awake, I feel an agitation that as yet has no resolution. I eye the cart bed, now less than half-full. There lies the answer, if only I can find it.
I drift within the void between stars, encapsulated within a spinning mass of rock, iron and some more exotic elements. Most of the stars are suns: immense, life-giving furnaces! Many of those suns have worlds revolving around them, and though not all of those sustain life, some do! Such knowledge is bewildering to me and I can barely grasp the hints of implication. My entire world is but a speck in a landscape so vast that it cannot be comprehended. If I were fully myself, I believe that my mind would buckle beneath such revelation. But I am not; I am something more now, for better or worse. There is no turning back. This dream-vision is meant as a boon, a gift of awakening to a much wider understanding of existence. I can but submit in awe.
I travel at incredible speed and backwards through time. Finally, after eons in reverse, I approach my destination, or should I say: point of origin. I am witness to two planets un-colliding. With an almighty rush of reconstitution, I am whole again: vibrant, bustling, gargantuan, vital.
I wake shrieking maniacally, and by the horrified look on my wife’s face: she holding an empty jug and me soaked with water, it seems that I might have been doing so for some time. I try to convince her that some errant nightmare had gripped me, but she knows that I am not myself. I find that I care little for her attention and am already itching to put the kettle on, and rise to do so.
“Is he poisoning you?”
I stare at my wife’s worried, slowly wizening face, and with a sudden clarity, I understand. “What were you thinking?” I shake my head. “Before…” I glance at my tea-making equipment and the half-empty cart bed of soil. “Before all this… I would have had you tortured for betraying me. And Ralfon tortured in front of you, cut into little pieces, slowly. Even if I had the strength and compassion left not to kill you, you would have been ruined, out on the streets of this foul city. Left to beg and scrape an existence for what miserable short time you had left. And if you tried to leave the city, to run back to your family in Fruca… you’d never make it with no coin to pay for caravan or escort. You’d die out there in the savage lands.”
The anguish of my wife’s face brings me no pleasure. She begins to speak, but the sound of her voice becomes a background drone. I stare intensely at the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Almost thirty years, we have been married. I would be lucky indeed if my body gave me twenty more before giving up to decomposition. She is still talking, but as I reach out stubby fingers to probe her skin, she falls still. “Skin stretches thin, wrinkles and cracks. Even bone crumbles with time. We are of no consequence. Foolish woman, desperately clinging to warmth and flesh. Go about your business, but leave me be. Cause me no trouble, and Ralfon neither, or I will unleash such horror upon you both that your very Souls will wither and suffer for all eternity, though your flesh be long gone. Do you believe me?”
Perhaps there is something different in my eyes, some nefarious otherworldly gleam, for my wife’s visage contorts into something ghastly. Without another word, only a trembling nod, she leaves me in peace. I do not see her or her lover again. They flee the city, and I care not to find out where, or if they make it.
The passage of time is of no significance to me now, this flesh I wear merely a stepping stone to some other state of being. All the purpose I thought I had was dreary illusion, the accruing of wealth and power utterly meaningless. Real power, real purpose, is beyond mortal comprehension. If I am to be gifted but a glimpse of the reality behind the illusion of existence, it will be far more than I deserve. This ritual of consumption has empowered me toward penitence, and finally I have been rewarded. Before me on a small plate is the shard that I have been searching for, a tiny gleaming thing that somehow made its way into the soil on my premises, destined for me to find it.
No tea this time. I reach out a trembling finger and press it against the shard, which sticks and breaks the skin. My thin blood seems to enhance the lustre of the thing, and I stare at it in reverence, on the cusp of something almighty. I open my mouth and touch my finger to my tongue. The shard is welcome there and it welcomes me with a whispered voice in my head speaking the name of my god: Naag.
I am bodiless, floating above a verdant world teeming with life: some almost familiar, but others wholly alien to me. I focus in on an enormous monstrosity with a bulbous head atop a flat, long body, tentacular appendages and a multitude of legs. This was Naag, long ago, dominator. It crawls sluggishly across the world, regardless of climate, extending its mighty Will to encompass all. Once, there were others like it, but no more. Naag is victorious. But then, a darkness fills the sky, a neighbouring planet thrown out of balance by cosmic forces and set toward a devastating collision. Despite Naag’s mastery over its domain, there is nothing it can do to stop the destruction of its world. Instead, it concentrates its mighty Will upon survival, transcendence. By leaving its physical body behind and fusing its spirit and Will with the embers of a dead world, Naag not only survives, but becomes divine. The sun here is suddenly dead (by what force, Naag does not reveal to me) and the embers are free to sail through the deepness of space. Some of them eventually fall here, on my world, and I am blessed indeed to receive the attention of divinity.
I swallow the shard, and the voice of Naag remains, soothing me, instructing me, empowering me. There are other shards out there, waiting to be found, some of them much larger than the one I consumed. I will be drawn to them like a moth to flame; this fire cleansing and revelatory. It seems that my mortal achievements will be of use after all: I will produce a gruel for the ages, imbued with shards of Naag, and distribute it to the three cities. All shall know.