Snow flecks swirled to obey commands fierce fickle wind. The abundance of crystallized rain drops were thick enough to taint the atmosphere steely gray. Towering evergreens, ancient to these lands, slumped heavily as their thick coats of snow clung to every branch. However heavy the snow fall, it was barely worse than normal and only noticeable by those who cared.
The native peoples to the Rosea Empire were accustomed to frigid weather. During this time of year the temperature settled under the bosom of below zero. Some lodges took great pride in their ability to withstand such extremes, such as the Ice Troll Lodge. Compared to their cousin tribes, Ice Troll Lodge members needed far less clothing to protect themselves from freezing weather. The biting wind and nearly blinding snow proved to be a minor irritation as members from all of the lodges gathered in one of their most sacred place, the Howling Hag.
Group after group carried large leather bags full of food, bedrolls, and offerings to the Gods. Some carrying the elders who no longer possessed the strength to make the entire trip. One after another they made the week long hike along the treacherous mountain path. Unstable rocks slipped out from beneath well planted footsteps, winds thick with snow whipped and lashed, and unpredictable geysers spat at unaware lodge members. Anyone who lost their footing was met with a helping hand and a roaring laugh from their peers. A slap on the back or shoulder mended bruised egos and eased the tensions of their journey. Dirty jokes were told, marriages mulled over, whispered alliances danced under breaths, and mighty songs were sung loudly as though nothing exciting were to happen at the end of their journey let alone the life threatening trek they all embarked upon. As a collective, they treated this quest like another mundane day to as it was considered weakness to be fearful or trepidatious.
While the last day came to its end, the hundred strong group turned the final bend, the setting sun parted the clouds. The sky burned and set the clouds aflame. High on the mountain face, the awe-inspiring mouth of their sacred monster had also caught fire. The agaped jowls of a mad creature remained forever frozen as though cursed to scream for eternity. Hundreds of gleaming pointed teeth, protruding icicles, caught the flames. Glistening in the red, orange, and purple hues of sunset. Its mouth, lined row after row above and below. Some out-weighed warriors while others so thin they resembled the teeth of krill eating whales. All catching and reflecting the suns glorious display. Whatever the size, should one massive icicle drop, even the best warrior would have been impaled into a gory scarlet warning to others. The monstrous cave was an invitation to test ones fate.
Those who had never laid eyes upon the creature-like-cave stopped in awe. Some momentarily breathless, while others fell to their knees. They offered tears and prayers. While most others offered whispered praises, all were anxious to get inside to warm up and to begin the evenings events.
The inside of the mouth was larger than any hut, cabin, or stationary ship most lodge members had seen. The norther most point of the Rosea Empire was located on a cliff overlooking an eternally frozen sea speckled with the frostbitten corpses of ships. Their gods granted them the ability to sail through the frozen solid waters for centuries. Like the direction of the winds, a Gods blessing is fickle and unpredictable. Thusly, the once mighty fleet was stuck in place and has been the homes of Ice Troll lodge of generations. Much like a caged and beaten animal, these ships were never again set to roam free. The Rosea people were resourceful and took lodging in the ships. Ones social standing determined the ship one would call home which was no different in the Howling Hag.
Walls smooth to the touch from ages of lashing winds exposed the mountains swirling horizontal stone pattern. Drawings, carvings, and offerings decorated the cave sides. The
ceiling reached so high a dozen camp fires would not illuminate it.
Though its size and toothed entrance was enough to make this cave awe-inspiring, the horrific sounds which resonated inside is where “Howling Hag” got its name. Every so often when a gust of wind was strong enough, the cavern erupted with echoing roars. They believed the cave was a cursed creature frozen in time but not asleep. The howling was told to be screams of anger, woe, and insanity. These sounds served as a warning to those who did not heed the will of the Gods.
Once inside, the political ebb and flow of who will camp with whom began. Everyone making sure to have the best view of the ritual while not offending alliances. As arduous the task was, people began to unrolled their bed mats, made fires and organized their belongings. An electric buzz filled the room as preparations were made for the ceremony. By the time everyone had set up their camps the elders were ready.
Along the caves wall, flames licked the cavern wall and fierce heat emanated from the enormous erected fire. Well over 30 elders, witches, berserkers, warriors, and important figureheads seated themselves in a semi circle around the fire. All of them adorned with their best. Ettercap Lodge members, replaced the hair on their head with scale tattoos, berserkers donned the skins of poisonous snakes, lizards, dragons and other poisonous creatures. They often split their tongues and used herbal oils to change their eyes to resemble the venomous creatures they regularly subjected themselves to. No other lodge could withstand the amount of poisons Ettercap was accustomed. The Ice Troll berserkers, being extra careful not to cover their valued tough scarred skin, wore enough tanned leather to leave only genitals to the imagination. War paint accompanied the proud bare chested men and women of the Ice Troll Lodge. Subjecting themselves to extreme drought, cold, and regular ritual scaring resulted in their inhuman like ability to withstand cold. Their scars were their source of magic. Unlike their nearly nude cousins, those from Snow Tiger covered nearly every inch in the skin of their lodge. Every element of the Snow Tiger was used to transform a warrior into a guardian. They wore beautifully lush striped fur around shoulders, thick ivory claws fashioned into fist weapons, and teeth strung on sinew thread. Undoubtedly the most stunning of the lodges. Those of the Owlbear Lodge were much less organized in their dress. A mix of feathers and fur braided into hair locks. The spiked armor was not for show, but rather a weapon in itself. They were known for their superior wrestling techniques and prided themselves in taking down creatures much larger than themselves. The spiked armor caused more carnage with the added benefit of being intimidating. The Great Stag Lodge was not a stranger to carnage. Like their guardian, their berserkers were the battlefield chargers. They were the best at bullrushing their enemies. Regularly, on the front line screaming and smashing into opponents. Their elders, warriors, and berserkers wore great stag antlers adorned with charms, paint, and herbs. As intimidating as the Great Stag Lodge was, the Wolf Lodge incited the most fear. Once under a Wolf Berserker, an opponent would be torn apart either limb from limb or guts first. Like the master hunter, the foe did not need to be dead before the flesh tearing began. They fought best in packs of four to five. Unlike the Great Stag or the Snow Tiger lodge, they did not wear the skins of their guardian. Instead, they modified their bodies to resemble wolves. Sharpened teeth, they participated in facial bone cracking to make the face more wolf like. Even amongst the other berserks it was seen as barbaric.
Each lodge picked their best warriors, witches, and shamans to sit amongst the elders. Some wearing furs or feathers, antlers or claws, snake skins or simply their own skin. While the remaining hundred crowded at a far enough distance to respect the semi circle of important figureheads while getting the best view. The wisest and oldest witch stepped forward to begin the ceremony. A hushed lull spread throughout the group. It seemed the cursed creature stopped howling to pay respect to the elder.
A curled figure shuffled her way to the fire. Her body covered in ratted clothing accessorized with dried herbs, mummified rodents, twigs, teeth, feathers, and pouches. Her ash gray hair protruded from her hooded cloak so thick her deeply wrinkled and sunken face was barely distinguishable. All members recognized her at once. If awe had a sound, it would have be audible at that moment. Rumored to have wondered into the mountains to die as a young witch, she returned a decade later alive with the gift to commune with the gods and guardians. The price…her sight, sound, and voice. The shiny skin of old scar tissue had grown over where her eyes once were. The same scarring had replaced her ears and grown into her ear canal. Though her lips were not fused shut, her tongue and teeth had long been removed with no laceration, acid, or magical evidence of how they were taken from her. If the word “taken” was accurate, she never said.
Her knuckles were as gnarled as the knots on her staff. She reached into one of her pouches and threw handful of herbs into the fire. A black billowing smoke rose with golden flakes floating towards the ceiling. She motioned for the sacrifice. A large, broad shouldered man with a mane of chest hair and the locks of a lion stepped forth with no assistance. Fearlessly, he approached the witch. With only paint and herbs on his skin, he stood in front of her naked. A low rhythm of feet and staves pounded the cave floor accompanied by the humming harmony of the crowd. The old woman threw more powders into the fire. Each handful resulting in explosions, thunderous cracking, and spectacular colors. The group began to sing and pound harder as the fire burned brighter. The old woman bounced, as best she could with her tired frail body, in a circle around the man. To the energy of the song, she touched him with oils and spat salves on his skin. When the man fell to his knees, another elder came into the circle with a human skull filled with a black tar liquid. The blind deaf witch graciously took the skull from the elder and rose her hand to the crowd.
Soon the song became a low lull as they watched. The elder placed a hand on the young man’s back, while the old witch stood in front of him.
The elder spoke to the crowd as much as he was to the young man, “Only those willing to give their life are worthy. If there is even a drop of hesitation it will taint our sacrifice! Just like a drop of poison in the well will kill a village…” to that some of the Ettercap shifted to a cocky stance which said takes more than that, “… it will anger our Guardians and kill our
He moved a hand to the young man’s shoulder, “May any of you have something to say, be it love, confession, or rivalry, do it now. This will be the last time you speak to Guhreth.”
The young man surveyed the crowd. Those he loved wept with pride and some with sorrow. Approving nods from family, friends, and foes. There was no need to speak. He knew what they had to say. His heart swelled with pride and he was ready.
“Then it shall be!” The elder roared and the crowd followed suit. Cheering rose higher than the fire and melted into a rhythmic song once again. The elder took his place again
and the old woman resumed her ritual.
She offered a small dagger to Guhreth and turned her palm face up. He drug the sharp blade along her flesh. Once she bled, she squeezed her hand into the tar filled skull. The concoction began to boil and soon caught fire. She spat a great mouthful of spit into the fire which killed the flames. The chanting grew louder as she drank from the skull. What was left she offered Guhreth. He drank the oily tar passionately. The old woman danced again in front of him for a few seconds more. Suddenly, with a strength which surprised the young man, the old blind woman lifted his chin back to expose his throat. She smeared a line of her own blood, from her still bleeding hand, on his neck from ear to ear. It looked as though she was cutting it open with a blade. Seconds later, Guhreth began convulsing. Blood oozed from his lips, eyes, nose, ears, and even his pours. He soon was covered in blood sweat. His voice gargled as the line from the old woman’s blood opened his flesh like the dagger did to the witches hand. The blackest oil erupted from the magical throat wound. The liquid tar spurted fiercely as though it was his own blood. The oil reflected no light from the fire like oil normally would. Instead, it seemed to consume light. Spewing with rage the rich dull liquid slashed onto the old woman’s clothes and onto the floor. Guhreth, remained on his knees, slumped but did not fall. The crowd cheered with fright and awe.
All went quite as the tar gathered itself. Rising from the puddle it began to take detailed shape. First a snake, then a wolf and into each guardian with surprising accuracy. Lastly, it became a tall lanky figure. Nothing like the guardians it imitated before. It was skinny and tall with no defining details, no fingers, no ears, and sexless. It was as though one of the drawn figures on the wall took shape in front of them. The blazing fire behind it made it seem thinner than it was. It turned to face the crowd. With a silent unnatural step, it moved towards them and they collectively leaned away. It stepped again. Panic was about to hit the crowd if this light canceling oil creature kept getting closer. It was about to move again, but stopped as though it remembered why it was there. It turned to the old woman and strolled over with an unnerving gate.
She held its hands like an old friend she had not seen in years. She looked up with her empty scarred sockets, smiled, and nodded. She brought its hand to her mouth. Her parted lips were suddenly spread wide as the creature forced its hand into her. The crowd gasped but did not move. Soon the hand disappeared down her throat, then its elbow, and up to the shoulder. The old woman did not make a sound or movement of pain. She stood with her toothless mouth open. The oil creature shoved hard into her the old woman’s mouth. She reached out with her knotted fingers to assist it. Its body did not react as oil would. No slippage between fingers. She grabbed a hold of its body and pulled it into her. All the while it forced its body down her throat, it began to melt over her face and down her body. The creature slipped the rest of its black bulk into her mouth and any remaining oil followed.
The old woman fell to her knees. Nervous eyes shifted amongst the inexperienced figureheads. Perhaps they should help her. She curled into herself and began violently shaking. Her cloak covered her entire body. A piercing scream came from the lump in front of the fire. The shape under the cloth shifted and shook. Faces, hands, breasts, and many other body parts appeared to be pressing from within the fabric. Finally, a Berserker from the Owlbear lodge lost his composure. With frightened steps, he walked rapidly to the morphing cloth pile. Others readied their stance for battle.
He grabbed a handful and threw the cloak as aside. What was reviled was not a terrifying creature, not the oil figure, not some multi limbed monster, but instead, an incredibly tall naked woman. All sat in awe. Her hair long and full of waves was not the color of a human. It was as though someone spun silk from the sunset yet, it shimmered in shades of black oil as the light hit it. A constant change from sunlight to blackness. Though it moved weightless like silk in water. This effect was true for her eyebrows, long thick eyelashes, under arms, the hair on her mound. Shoulders slight with defined collar bones transitioned into long fit arms and slender fingers. Her skin, impossibly soft like snow in the distance. Once touched, it melted away. Resembling Goddesses of fertility, her hips and thighs were thick. Though her waist was small, her stomach had the pooch of healthy mother which accentuated her figure. Her large eyes, one blue one green but both holding their own universes, swept across her people.
She moved past the warrior whom uncovered her with grace unlike the old woman. Everything about her was contrast to the old woman. Her face was smooth and free of aging. No stray hairs grew from her chin. She stood immaculate and unabashed in front of the crowd. A blanket of motherly calm swept the cave.
Her voice rich with wisdom, clarity, compassion, lust, passion, and mystique boomed yet whispered as she spoke, “My children. It is time again for a legend to live amongst us.” Within the fire, there stood a heroic figure.
Motioning to the heavens she said, “The gods have come to me and spoken. A child with one eye green and one eye blue shall be born in each lodge nine months from tonight. But only two will make it to adulthood.” The flames illustrated her words as the heroic figure transformed into six infants.
Her multi-leveled voice rose the hair on everyone’s neck. For they knew none of them were going to be legend and their children might die. She said, “Do not mourn the souls of our children. They will rise to the heavens.” Four children faded and the remaining grew to adults.
She paused, “With the exception of one.” For a moment her lips curled into a frown.
Her smile returned, “One of our children will bring great glory to our people. Prosperity for generations and the ability to defeat our enemies. They will bring home unknown knowledge from faraway lands to aid us and unite us.” Images of battlefields won, embracing families, and other pleasant images emerge and melt into each other.
With a scowl she said, “The other will lead Death by the hand, like an eager child rushing a parent, to our lands. The soil will become sterile. Those who do not die from disease will die of starvation. Those left will be sold into slavery to survive.” The fire went from reds and oranges to sickly greens and grey ash. The cave darkened and people began chattering.
Women covered their mouths in shock. Men shuffled uncomfortably. A man in the crowd with golden blond hair spoke up, “What if we choose not to fornicate this night? Or if we kill all the blue and green eyed children to prevent the destruction you speak of?” The crowd nodded in agreement with the courageous man.
A wind blew and the cave howled. The fire behind her flared hot. Once again the cave was brightly lit. She locked her wild eyes on the man. The volume of her voice rattled the cave. Dust, rocks. and ice fell from the ceiling, “YOU DARE CHALLENGE THE PROPHECY GIVEN TO YOU DIRECTLY FROM THE GODS?!”
The man fell to knees. All color drained from his body. Her demeanor softened and her voice resumed its multi-toned melody, “The Gods would not put such a decision before us all if they did not feel we were ready. We must train them with books and battle early and equally. When they are ready, we are to send them away to learn the war techniques of other lands. They are to learn as much as they can. The greater their journey, the better prepared they will be to decide our fate. Songs will be sung for ages about them, tapestries woven with their images, and everyone will know their names.”
She walked to the slumped body of Guhreth. “The gods have a gift for you to show their confidence.”
Kneeling down to pick up the dagger, she held his hair and leaned his head back until the wound across his neck opened wide like a Venus Fly Trap. Without flinching, she raked the dagger from ear to ear along her own throat. Deep scarlet blood pour from her throat into Guhreth’s. Once the blood became black, she covered her wound and spoke under breath. Her neck was healed. Repeating the same motion on Guhreth’s neck, she showed the crowd his healed wound. His lodge began chanting quietly and it quickly spread. With godlike strength she lifted the body until his toes brushed against the floor. One arm under his kept them chest to chest. The other hand held his mouth to hers. She began to breath into him. The crowd got louder. Starting from the lips, black tendrils grew under Guhreth’s skin. The deep dark web grew with every breath. It filled his veins until his whole body was black.
While she continued to breath into him, she began to change. The unnatural weightlessness of her hair dropped into curls, the surreal sunset in her hair settled into a deep red mane, the shimmering oil which accompanied the sunset fell into a puddle around her, the softness of her skin began to look human, but her eyes remained the same. One blue, one green.
On her last breath, she lost her strength and dropped Guhreth. He fell into the same position he was in before she lifted him, slumped over on his knees. The onlookers waited silently. Anxious moments passed. His unnaturally black body jolted and startled everyone who watched. It jolted again. Soon he was writhing. Curled over with his hands around his midsection, he began to vomit. Greenish black sludge plopped from his mouth to the ground with each heave. Starting with his toes, the tendrils receded. By the fifth full body contraction, a pile of oily tar laid in front of him.
With intelligence, the pile seemed to let in a large breath and sighed. Then began to roll towards the fire. It entered the base of the flames and melt. Quietly simmering and hissing
until nothing was left of the sludge.
She took his hand and lifted him to his feet. They faced the crowd.
She addressed the onlookers, “Do you see the will of the Gods?! He has been given back to us.”
Her human voice was eerie in comparison, “And I have been given youth for the night.”
He held her hand in the air and said, “Do as they wish and we will be rewarded. My fearless sacrifice pleased them and I have been reborn as Gyhren. Now let us drink, eat and fuck for the Gods!”
They embraced again. The crowd cheered and wept for the naked couple.
For three days, those hundred who gathered at the Howling Hag to witness the avatar perform a miracle, partook in a three day celebration. It was a true Feast for the Senses. In the evenings, one’s cup was never dry of Jhuild, better known as firewine. Bellies were full with exquisite fruits and rich meats. Glistening skin rubbed against other willing bodies regardless of gender or social status. All infidelity and sins of indulgence were forgiven during the celebration. No one was to deny any advance. For doing so would dishonor themselves. The sounds of pleasure roared louder than the Hags Howls.
The mornings were dedicated to easing the headaches, nausea, and dehydration from the evenings festivities. By midday, gambling and good natured contests took place. Friendly competitions amongst berserkers were great entertainment. The loser performing whatever bet, sexual or humiliating, was made before hand. Stories were sung and created to be passed down the generations. By the time the sun fell behind the mountains, the drinking and partying began again.
On the morning of the fourth day, everyone began packing their belongings. They said their goodbyes to old friends and new lovers. The women all secretly hoping to bare the child from prophecy. Like the trek up, they marched group after group back to their homes.
Gyhren had accepted a place amongst the important figureheads. The old blind witch had not been seen since the first nights festivities. She would not be seen again for nine months when Sandraudiga and her siblings were born.