Monday, December 31, 2012

The Winter Solstice Sacrifice

A lone young man strode down the corridor in solemn silence. He was dressed in white bodysuit with a crown of holy circling his brow. The suit was warm and padded to protect him from the cold outside and the beasts of the wild. He opened and closed his hands as he walked, trying to focus his mind and put aside his nerves.

Joshua was excited and terrified all at once. It was Christmas Eve and he was to be the community’s hunter this year. At seventeen years old it was quite an honor, and responsibility, to be chosen. If he succeeded he would bring the Lord’s blessing onto the tribe for the year. If he failed, he would have to provide himself as the sacrifice for the year.

He reached the end of the corridor and stood in front of the wall, waiting to be let through. After a moment the wall split in the middle and started to peel back. The little tiles that made up the structure rearranged themselves to create a portal for him to step through. He could see the rest of the community waiting in the room beyond. They were divided into two groups, one to each side so that he would have a clear path to travel down. Waiting at the end before the gate to the outerworld was Father Markus.

Joshua did not miss a beat and stepped forward. He continued down between silent crowd with his eyes set forward. He had to appear confident and self assured. It would not do for them to be able to see doubts and fears that filled his heart. Nor did he wish to look like a child that was too eager to be the hunter without understanding of what he was about to do. The weight of everyone’s expectations were heavy on his shoulders.

He stopped before Father Markus. The older man had long grey hair, but his eyes were alive with a piercing energy. It was the kind of gaze that made rock crumble. Below his left eye were seven light scars, one for each time he had been the Hunter. The hall waited in stony silence as Joshua was appraised. Whatever it was that Father Markus looked for in the hunters, he seemed to find it in Joshua and motioned for him to kneel.

“We are gathered on this holy night to make an offering to the Lord as an act of penance and a request of mercy,” Father Markus said as he started the sermon, “For long ago, man committed the greatest of sins. Men thought to be like God, to hold the power of life and death. They sought to change the earth to better suit them, ignoring the divine wisdom that had created the world. The Lord was angry and turned mens works against them. The life they sought to create was twisted and hateful towards them. Every living thing upon the earth that had been given to man was now dedicated to his destruction. Every beast that walks has the taste for the flesh of men. Every bird of the sky is poisonous to man’s tongue. The small things that creeped across the earth grew large and powerful to smash the cities of men under their feet.

“Man might have been doomed of not for the mercy of the Lord’s Son,” Father Markus continued, the crowd in the palm of his hand. Even though they heard it on every winter solstice, everyone was enthralled. “He beseeched the Lord to forgive man. In his wisdom the Lord agreed, but for this mercy He demanded that man make a sacrifice just as His son had.

“Now we make a sacrifice every year to the Lord on the night His son was born,” said Father Markus. His voice had become less grim, but no less solemn. “Tonight is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. We will send young Joshua out into the dark where he will spill blood in sacrifice to wash away all of our sins. For this pious act the sun shall rise come morning and usher in a new year of growth and renewal.”

When Father Markus made a gesture, Joshua kneeled and bowed his head. Father Markus led him and the others through the Lord’s Prayer and then him alone through the Hunter’s Rite. He anointed his head in oil and bid him to rise. Markus held out his hands. In one was a curved knife. In the other was a long metal cylinder.

Joshua took the cylinder with the stone tip first. He gave the thought command that activated the device. The cylinder stretched out until it was nearly as long as he was tall. It sprouted a long, tapered blade with a small prong on each side. Hefting its weight in his hand, he tested its feel. He then recited the ritual words that he had memorized since he was a child, “May my spear be guided by the grace of God. I leave here cloaked in the sins of all. I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death, comforted only by my spear and the Lord’s blessing. Before the sun rises I shall wash away the cloak of sin with blood so that the light of God Almighty shall rise in the morning and shine down on all to warm our hearts and the land.”

Father Markus raised the knife and pressed the hooked tip under Joshua’s left eye. He drew it across the young man’s face with a deft flick of his wrist, leaving a thin line of red that began to lightly ooze. Joshua for his part did not flinch from the cut. Father Markus handed Joshua the knife and told him, “You are now marked, Hunter. Return triumphant or do not return at all. Before the sun’s rays bath the land, you must use the knife of sacrifice.”

All were as silent as death as Father Markus stepped aside. The back wall parted and the chill of winter flooded the room. With nothing left to say, Joshua marched forward into the snowy night. The wall closed behind him and he was truly alone, left to wander as a dead man in search of life.

Wasting no time, Joshua trudged through the snow, heading for the forest. The snow was deep enough that he sank past his ankle, though the occasional drift put it to his knee. It was also wet and heavy. This would make for slow going, but also would make the trail of his intended prey clear. He was fortunate that the moon was nearly full. Its pale rays illuminated the land, giving it an ethereal glow.

His senses strained to catch any sign of life as he moved through forest of skeletal trees. Their frost rimed branches looked like ghoulish arms ready to grab him at any moment and they projected spectral shadows that haunted in the moonlight to haunt the ancient part of his mind that told him he should be somewhere safe and warm. The trees were dead and harmless, but not from winter cold. Living trees were to dangerous to build a settlement by. This was an old forest that had died off long ago. Still, beasts made their homes here.

Joshua paused to check the chronometer on the wrist of his suit. He was making good time. The ground was already starting to slope up towards the mountain. A halo of fog breath wafted around his head as checked his positioning and course before starting out again. He had only taken a single step when he thought he heard something.

He stopped dead still and strained to hear. His eyes looked around, straining in the half-light. Then he heard it again, the barest sound of wings flapping. He could think of only one thing that silent and would hunt on a dark winters night. He readied his spear in one hand with the shaft tucked under his arm for support. His other hand drew out his hunting knife.

The only warning was a high pitched attack screech from behind. Joshua flung himself forward into the snow. Glancing up he could see the dark form of a blood bat flying over him. The creature was darker than dark, like the night sky distilled of all its stars and the moon. It had a wingspan almost as long as he was tall. Its wings and hind feet were tipped with hooked claws that could slice through a man’s flesh with ease and dripped an anticoagulant venom so potent that even a single scratch could cause a man to exsanguinate. Two large ears like satellite dishes sat just above a maw of teeth made to crack bones so that the blood bat could suck out the marrow.

Joshua was back on his feet in an instant and put his back to one of the ancient trees. All around him he could hear the screeching of blood bats. They liked to attack in swarms of three to four usually. As he strained to sense where the next attack would come from he started to grow nauseous. The frequency the blood bats used for their echolocation had an unsettling effect on the human body.

The next attack came straight on. Gritting his teeth, Joshua ignored the bile rising towards his throat and thrust forward with his spear. He impaled the blood bat through the mouth and forced it to the ground. The beast flapped about in its death throes, spreading its blood on the snow.

The spear was still stuck in the first blood bat’s body when the next attack came. Joshua sidestepped the attack and hooked his knife upward to catch the bat’s wing. Bone and leathery flesh were cut clean through. The blood bat tumbled through the air until it crashed into a tree.

He drew the spear from the body of the blood bat and peered around, hoping to catch a shadow of movement. He saw a flicker in the darkness at his feet and realized that the blood bat was above him. Without thinking he thrust up and caught the attacker in the side with his spear. The bat continued down, however, and slashed at Joshua with its tearing claws.

The spear was of no use in close so Joshua dropped it. He used his free hand to grapple the blood bat and hold it away from him. He stabbed repeatedly  with the knife until he realized that the bat was no longer attacking. He let it drop to the snow then sagged against a tree. He panted from the exertion, his breath forming a haze in the air.

Once he had caught his breath, Joshua tended to his wounds. He took a small medical kit from his belt pouch and applied a salve to his cuts. It should stop the bleeding even with the bat’s venom hindering his body’s ability to form clots. It dulled the pain as well and would start the healing process. He cleaned his knife and spear on the snow then set off again.

The harsh environment of the last thousand years had bred a rugged and resilient people. The blood of survivors flowed in Joshua’s veins. He had been forged on the crucible of an unforgiving world until he was as tough as the world around him. Young and entering into his prime, he was ready for any to press forward with nothing held back.

He jogged across the frozen countryside until he had broken through the dead forest. He was entering the barren hills that led up the mountain. The terrain was open here and he would be more exposed. Any cover that could be found, a boulder here, a dead tree there, was to be taken with a small prayer of thanks to God. Joshua moved over the hills, climbing ever steeper slopes. His eyes scanned constantly for both his prey and any creature that would see him as prey.

He passed quickly through the hills and started up the mountainous slopes with only one small incident. A leach bush had been hidden under a snow drift that he had the misfortune of sinking into. The dormant plant animated when it sensed fresh blood. Thorny vines wrapped about his legs and pierced his skin. The hollow thorns started to feast on his lifeblood with a starved thirst. The blade of his spear was sharp to a micron, however, and severed the vampiric herb. Joshua made good his escape and started using the butt of his spear to check for deep snow drifts as he moved on up along the sharp cliff faces.

Pathways had been worn along the side of the cliff face by generations of men and beasts. They were treacherous, rimmed over by the freezing fogs that had swept through like life stealing spectres. Sure feet and good balance were all that kept Joshua from sliding off the edge of the mountain as he hiked higher and higher.

Joshua’s lungs burned as he breathed in the frigid mountain air. He had been traveling for hours now without break and it was nearing midnight. He was truly in the hunting grounds now. However, he only had a few hours left to find a ram to sacrifice. If he could not find a ram, his own life would be forfeit. He had known that going in, but it had not sunk in until he could feel the seconds ticking away. Joshua said a soft prayer and hardened his resolve.

A chill wind caused snow flurries to dance around him as he scampered over a few small boulders. The wind also carried the distant howls of viper wolves. It was eerie and unsettling, but they were far off and would not climb up into the mountains. After sliding along an ice sheet that nearly took him over the edge of a cliff, Joshua reflected that showed a great deal of wisdom on the viper wolves’ part. Why risk their lives on the icy rocks when they could wait at the bottom for some fool to trip and be delivered right to them?

As he neared the alpine zone, Joshua finally spotted the tracks he had hoped for. They were fresh and easy to follow. Gripping his spear tightly, Joshua followed the trail with all possible speed. He slid down icy embankments and leapt across crevasses. He was past the time of caution and fear could only serve to hold him back. Adrenaline banished his fatigue and the thrill of the chase carried him across the mountain like he had grown wings. Dawn was growing close and this would likely prove to be his only chance.

The hoof marks in the snow and scuffed ice and rock led him around a ledge with an overhang. He could tell that there was something waiting for him down in those beshadowed depths. Joshua crept forward with all the silence of death. Unfortunately the slope down under the overhang was covered with loose scree. No amount of caution and stealth would be adequate to stop pebbles from tumbling down the slope in a small avalanche. The noise seemed to echo like the roar of a thousand boulders bounding down a mountain.

Behind the rocky clatter came the sound of a great beast stirring. It snored from the shadows even as its eyes glowed in the slivers of moonlight that braved the dark depths of the mountain hollows. Mighty hooves raked the stone underfoot as the eyes settled on the intruder. Snorting out a frosty breath that was like blowing out the smoke of hellfire, the creature charged.

Joshua had his spear at the ready, but knew he could not stand against the creature on such unstable footing. He threw himself aside at the last possible moment and the creature lunged past him. He pivoted quickly and looked to see the ram bathed in the moonlight.

It was a massive creature that stood as tall as him. Two great horns rested on its head, curling  back and around. Small spines ran along the horns to ensure that anything hit by them would be shredded as well as crushed. It stood on six powerful legs ending in nimble hooves that could navigate any mountain as well as a man walked over a flat floor. Its white coat shimmered under the moonbeams. Joshua had never seen such a magnificent and terrible creature.

The ram scrapped at the ground with one of its forehooves and Joshua knew it was preparing to charge again. This would be a fight to the death. Joshua dashed downhill, sliding on ice and scree to put distance between himself and the ram. he shot an arm out to grab and outcropping of rock and change his direction. The ram followed close behind and smashed through the corpse of an ancient tree that had once dared to try and grow at the edge of the treeline.

Joshua ran as soon as his feet were on lichen and snow. With a bit of distance between him and the ram, Joshua spun and crouched with the spear ready. The ram came after him, turning with a nimbleness that would not have been expected from such a large creature. It crashed across the small plane towards Joshua. At the last moment he rolled to the side and stabbed up with his spear. The keen tip connected and ripped a red line across the flank of the mighty ram. First blood was his.

The ram rounded on him as it bellowed its pain. Joshua was forced to dodge away from stamping hooves and pulverizing horns. He thrust with his spear, but even its keen tip would not stab through the adamantine skull of the ram. He retreated and attacked, trying for distance. He could not go far, the ram was forcing him near the edge of the cliff. A few steps more and he would fall to his doom. The ram scrapped its forehoof on the ground and he could see that was exactly what was about to happen. It would smash into his chest and fling him off the edge of the world.

Joshua had paid attention when it had attacked before. The beast reared up on its hind legs before it charged forward, building up energy and aligning its spine. As it did so he  made a desperate lunge, stabbing up into its chest. The ram came down, its legs still kicking on instinct to launch it forward and drove the spear clean through it. Still, it struck against Joshua and together they both rolled toward the edge of the cliff, stopping not a hands breadth from going over.

Joshua stood up panting. He looked down at the graceful and powerful animal that kicked impotently in the air. He drew the ceremonial knife and slashed the rams throat as he said the ritual prayers, putting his foe, and salvation, out of its misery.

The light of dawn burst over the mountain and washed over the land. It illuminated the valley below. Joshua could feel the warmth and knew that summer would come and with it new blessings. He kneeled in prayer and thanked the Lord for providing him with a sacrifice and absolving the sins of him and his community. Joshua descended the mountain with his path illuminated by the light of the new year.

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