A creek loved to gossip more than any lake or river would dare. It washed the debris of its travels down the mountain and prattled muddied stories of sick children and dying gardens. Runihara curled his tail around the trunk of an ancient tree and pulled upon it. The color and vigor escaped the bark. The leaves dried into brown brittle bundles and fell to the ground around him. Without resistance the tree fell, cutting the creek in half. The water pushed against the dead log. Runihara licked his lips, the silence pleasing his ears but it didn’t last long. The gossip bubbled over the fallen tree and gurgled words of human vanity and curses of jaded gods.
“An angry god,” it chattered. “A fearsome god. How frightful. His bride is pitiful. How pitiable. Can he be appeased? With a life?” Thousands of tiny sprites voiced themselves. Runihara growled within his belly.
“Humans are conceited creatures. Devourers! Betrayers! They sacrifice each other for themselves.” The tiny echoing voices were never-ending bursts of thoughts. Water sprites had no self-control. They spoke only what they wanted. Runihara gave into their ramblings and folded his pointed ears down, scratching at his cheek with his hind paw. He continued upstream.
Several lumbering steps ahead, beyond the silky red-leaf trees and plump evergreen bushes, buried under waist-high grass, thorned vines and years of neglect, a dilapidated shrine of rock and bones awaited. At its base, Runihara knew what awaited him. The creek’s constant prattle held no lies. The ubiquitous silence was disrupted by long deep breaths and the tussle of dirt. Unwilling, Runihara forced himself past the tangled mess of new and old foliage, his fur catching on the sharp vines of Death Branch, the paralyzing toxin it secreted rolling off his body. Before the remnants of a once proud shrine meant to hold offerings and food, sat a person, giving worship.
Head down, long locks of auburn hair fell past tawny cheeks and collected on the dirt ground, illuminated by flecks of sun breaking past the heavy canopy. Dressed in robes the color of winter trees embroidered in golden thread, the human’s broad shoulders hung slightly. Each breath raised them gently, letting them fall into place once more.
The creek became hushed as it crossed behind the shrine, Death Branch falling like a picture frame around the human whose wiry fingers cleared leaves from the cracked shrine.
“It looks like a pudgy, angry cat,” he chuckled under his breath.
Runihara raised a brow and glanced at his reflection in the creek. A beastly feline body. Sharp claws and jagged teeth, a long tail, flickering yellow eyes, and scaled flesh the color of the darkest night. His smell was rot, the scent of the plagues he spread and the lives he stole, the vigor his touch consumed from the living. His presence was mourning, a forgotten hour, a metallic taste in the back of your throat. His purr was the vibration of a tiger’s roar and his voice was the bellow of an unnatural creature. Runihara was no pudgy, angry cat.
“How cute,” the human whispered. He brushed the last twig from the shrine and set a black stone bowl before it. He cradled the round head in his hands and took another deep, slow breath.
“Everything is alright. ”
Everything was far from alright. This boy was an offering to a god.
Gods demanded of humans things like piety, shrines to replenish and live within, and the occasional prayer. They required respect above all else. Being forgotten by mortals would mean death for a god, their power fading and their bodies turning to dust. Some gods loved offerings of fruit, meats, even small toys. Some desired grains, living creatures, and gardens. Every so often, a god would wander the lands and request offerings from the humans to survive. In exchange, the gods gave kindness and favor. They blessed those who remembered them with good health and strong lands, hearty harvests, and fertility. For a time, they lived in peace but humans became greedy. They desired all the good and none of the bad. Their desires twisted the words of the gods and left humans in fear. Sacrifice in the name of a god became commonplace among failing human villages.
Runihara stepped forward, his large paws snapping a branch beneath his weight. His scent carried on the wind, filling the hollow of the shrine. With wide, verdant eyes threatening to burst into tears, the boy jolted to his knees and bit on his quivering lip. His fingers dug into the lap of his clothes. His body shook, trembling lips locked together, he looked at Runihara, face pale with concern.
“Does this form terrify you,” the god challenged. It was obvious by the white knuckles that clenched his clothing, the shallow breaths taken. The boy’s posture was stiff.
The boy swallowed. “Y-you are-”
“I am,” Runihara roared. “What are you? Food? A toy? A… warrior- I doubt it. Why are you sitting on my shrine like dinner?”
His teeth clacked together as he found his words. The boy’s eyes couldn’t meet Runihara’s. “A bride.”
“A what?” The god gnashed his fangs together, digging a paw into the dirt. Runihara slammed his tail into the dirt, dust and small rocks flying about the draft he created. It was ridiculous, a male bride left at his feet.
Debris had cut the boy’s face, blood trickling down his cheek. He took a short breath and wiped his skin clear. “In the thirty summers since your last wander our village has birthed three times as many boys as girls. Our elders are dying off and our number of offspring have diminished. We cannot spare any women for you. Forgive us.” His head touched the floor, bowing deeply.
Runihara growled, grinding his teeth. “So they sent you, to fool me?” Sacrifices were ridiculous. What could a god do with a human life? If the god truly desired a mate, he would not have been disappointed. Soft features, an honest face and beautiful eyes, the boy’s looks were acceptable and for a fleeting moment, Runihara wondered what his skin felt like. What did a human’s flesh feel like against the palm of his hand? To touch something that wasn’t turning to Ash, he did not know this feeling.
“Please, Lord, understand,” he begged. “Several villages have sent word of a plague killing children in their sleep and three of our own have already passed in the night. Men are growing depraved and violent. Women are living in silent fear and brides are becoming younger. The villages of Imdar only wish to appease you, to pray you look on them with favor this wander.”
“And you are their hope? Sending me a child to appease me,” Runihara growled. Human stupidity was grating.
The boy shook his head. “And if I am unfit to be your bride,” the boy began. He untied his robe and slid it off his shoulders, holding his arms tightly against his chest. “Then I shall be your meal.”
Tears trickled from clamped eyes down the boy’s thin face, catching in the divot of his collarbone. Through his thin frame, Runihara could hear his heart’s thundering rhythm, the blood rushing deep in his veins, and the fumbling deep breaths he took. The god’s gaze wandered to the once empty shrine hollow then back to the boy’s colored skin with an inward sigh. It was all too much, his story was easy to read between the rounded shades of blue and violet that stained his flesh and it left the god with an unpleasant feeling in his chest.
“So be it,” he whispered. “Speak your name before I take your life.” Ruunihara leaned in, biting into the boy’s soft neck flesh.