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Conqueror Sickness

Jarod K. Anderson lives in a white house between a forest and a graveyard. He writes and narrates The CryptoNaturalist podcast, a scripted, bi-weekly audio drama about unusual nature (@CryptoNature on Twitter / cryptonaturalist.com). You can find more of Jarod's writing in places like Asimov's, Escape Pod, and Apex Magazine.

Pound your chest and threaten the sun. See if it blinks. See if it even notices.
When expeditions from western countries visit our mountain, we do what we can to make them feel brave and singular. We teach our young to gasp at their armor, to touch biceps with reverence, to stare at their weapons and fair hair as if such things were beyond our comprehension. It's a simple transaction.
They trade goods and coin for our hospitality, so we treat them like half-crazed conquerors of holy terrors, not overgrown children too proud to listen to plain sense. It's what they want from us simple native folk of the village who survive and thrive and do our best not to condescend to the empty ones from wealthy lands where gods are unseen things, matters of books and stories, not wonders as real and vital as the sea. Of course, the sea is not a plaything and neither is The Serpent.
The group that arrived last night tinkled with tiny bells as they walked. Two dozen men in mirrored breastplates carrying ornate swords with no signs of use or wear. They were proud and sunburnt, stinking of sweat and tobacco. Their standard-bearer panted and swayed in the heat beneath a black banner crowded with embroidered silver flowers I didn't recognize. Their leader spoke in proclamations.
"We will have food and fresh water."
We made his proclamations a reality and let his servants pay us out of sight, preserving his fantasy.
The group is typical.
We show them the path through the jungle because it's not a secret. We describe the mountain and the ways that lead below because they're not a secret. We ask them not to go because we are not cruel. They go anyway.
If you are thinking we should do more to protect these fools, well, I sympathize with your viewpoint. Know that we have tried. I have tried.
I remember one night at Mirgu's inn that I shared a drink with a round, good-humored man with a gray, braided beard and a swollen, pink nose.
"What is it you hope to achieve here?" I asked. "Tell me what you expect to win."
He looked at me with that kind, patronizing expression I've come to know as well as my own daughter's face.
"That thing in the mountain," he said, "is no god."
"All right," I said. "I don't require you to believe as I do."
"It's a monster. A dragon. I will sail home with its skull as a trophy for my homeland and my Lord. You and your village will be safer for it."
"Ah. Well, what if I told you I have seen it, this thing you call a monster? What if I told you that it is no dragon? If I told you its least tooth is larger than your ship? That its body coils down to the heart of the world and its feathers shine like a cloudless noon even in the dark beneath the mountain? That right now, in its deep and ancient sleep, it can still see and hear you where you sit and understand your thoughts better than you yourself understand them? What then?"
The man chuckled and took another drink, rivulets of liquor sparkling in his beard.
"You make your priests proud, my articulate friend. But, even if it knows we're coming, it can't hope to survive. How could it prepare for us, hmm? We'll drag cannons through the forsaken jungle if we have to. Its death is a forgone conclusion, my little host."
I pressed on.
"There is no outcome here but retreat or death. Simply go and touch the mountainside as we do and you will see a vision of The Serpent, a vision you can mercifully understand and contain. We'll praise your sense and bravery. If you insist on seeing more, then at least prepare. Stay and train with our holy women to endure what you hope to see. Don't do this thing. Live to return with a tale to tell. You need no trophy beyond the knowledge you gain here. I'm certain the story alone will bring you renown."
It was not a hard speech to make. I had made it before. Many of us had made it before. And as much as we hated that any story had gone abroad to bring such men, we would have honored my advice.
The man smiled kindly and gave my shoulder a squeeze.
"You are generous to worry so, but your god is not my God and will have no such power over me."
I wanted to shake him, to scream at him, to tell him that this was no matter of faith or philosophy, this was walking into fire and thinking that pure belief would keep you from burning.
I did and said no such things. I thanked him for his company and went to bed. The next evening, I watched the last survivor of his party stagger back into the village with prismatic eyes and a slack jaw. Moments later he died of what we call the awe sickness and his body flickered out of existence like a flash of fish scales beneath the water. I have had many such conversations and witnessed many such aftermaths.
Perhaps you think we should hide what we know? Protect them with our silence?
If you believe that, then you don't know these visitors like I do. The wealthy believe they own everything to one degree or another. Including our knowledge, our lives, and our homes. When the water rises you build a boat or a dike. My people are sailors. We do not build fortifications against the water. We ride on top of it.
Don't think we haven't tried both options and learned from our mistakes. We can have their swords or their coin before they go to the mountain. We choose coin.
In the morning, I watch the black-banner party consult with our guides and disappear into the trees, their bells tinkling. They carry equipment I've never seen before, metal casks and short, stocky, handheld cannons. The sight makes me cold.
I do not fear for The Serpent, but I fear for the rest of us. I fear what those men and their new weapons represent.
If I tell a man he can't harm the sun, but he burns the world in his attempt, what comfort can I take in being correct? Men like these visitors see any prohibition as a threat to their liberty. It's a kind of sickness. They make freedom into a ravenous god. They feed it wealth and flesh and lives, but there is no talk of satiation. Their freedom is hunger for hunger's sake. Consumption, not nourishment, is the soul of their starving religions.
The standard-bearer sulks out of the jungle, crestfallen, black banner slung over his shoulder like a fishing pole. They've sent him back to stay with the ship and keep an eye on the sinister natives.
In a day or ten he will accept that his party is lost. I look after my people's safety and it will be a mercy to me if he feels honorbound to go beneath the mountain in search of his countrymen. Some do. If not, he will rant and rave and demand we march on our own sacred mountain in solidarity with the fools we tried to spare. He cannot sail home alone.
One of us, usually me, will then have to do the merciful thing and open his throat. We'll sail their tall ship out and give it to a strong current, then canoe back to shore. There will be no evidence of their time here. No patterns. They never arrived. There's nothing to avenge. No reason to send an army. No reason to annex our small village and declare us part of some empire. Just tall tales and unconfirmed rumors.
We are not cruel, but nor are we children.
I nod at the standard-bearer as he passes and he gives me a gap-toothed smile, bobbing his sweat-drenched head in greeting. He can't be more than fourteen.
If any of these men would stop to learn from us, we would teach them that The Serpent sleeps out of kindness. It is not inherently good. Inherently good things deserve little praise for following their natures. The Serpent hungers for meat. It aches to break mountains and drink oceans, but it sleeps. It is not tired nor content nor comfortable, but it sleeps. It sleeps because its wisdom declares that empathy is the only virtue that means anything, the only virtue worthy of praise.
So, I let myself feel the pain of the standard-bearer's smile. I feel it like watching my own children shiver with fever. I feel it like a rotten tooth pounding out agony with the beat of my heart. I feel it and my conscience begs to lay his looming death at the feet of the conqueror sickness, but I will own that blame for as long as I can bare it.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 23rd, 2018

Author Comments

This story is a real amalgamation of concepts that interest me. Chief among them are the inhumanity of colonialism and a general failure of empathy and imagination lurking behind the worst aspects of humanity. I also enjoy playing with tension between tangible, physical deities versus more faith-based systems of belief, divinity in the seen contrasted with the unseen. Plus... I mean... I thought of a luminous, feathered serpent-god living beneath a mountain and it became clear that I wasn't going to stop thinking about this image until I wrote a story about it.

- Jarod K Anderson
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