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 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.
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 chatter held no lies. Ubiquitous silence disrupted by long deep breaths and the tussle of dirt. Unwilling, Runihara forced himself past the tangled mess of new and old foliage.
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 shook. Each breath gave a gentle rise and fall.
The creek became hushed as it crossed in front, Death Branch framing 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 scent was rot, the plagues he spread and the lives he stole, the vigor his touch consumed from the living. A presence was mourning, a forgotten hour, a metallic taste in the back of your throat. With a purr that 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 fine. ”
Nothing was fine. This boy was an offering to a Decent God.
Gods demanded of humans things like piety, shrines to replenish and live within, and the occasional prayer. They demanded respect above all else. Some 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. In exchange, the gods gave kindness and favor. They blessed those who remembered them with good health and strong lands, hearty harvests, and fertility, protection from the cycle. But humans were greedy creatures. 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 common place among failing human colonies.
Runihara stepped forward, his large paws snapping a branch beneath his weight. With wide, verdant eyes threatening to burst with tears, the boy jolted to his knees and bit on his quivering lip. His fingers dug into the lap of his clothes.
“Does this form terrify you,” the god challenged. He knew the answer. He could smell the fear from the boy, like a moldy cave.
The boy swallowed. “Y-you are-”
“I am,” Runihara roared. “What are you? Food? A toy? A… warrior?”
His teeth clacked together as he found his words. The boy’s eyes couldn’t meet Runihara’s.
“A what?” He clenched his jaw. Runihara nearly stumbled, fighting to maintain his composure, slamming his tail into the creek.
Water trickled down the boy’s face. 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 has diminished. We cannot spare any women for you.”
Runihara growled, grinding his teeth. “So they sent you. Is your beauty meant to fool me?”
“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? Is this an insult? A trick?”
The human shook his head. “And if I am unfit to be your bride,” the boy said. He untied his robe and slid it from his shoulders, holding his arms tightly. “Then I shall be your meal.”
Tears trickled from clamped eyes down the boy’s flawless skin, catching in the divot of his collar bone. Through his thin frame, Runihara could hear his heart’s thundering rhythm, the blood rushing deep in his veins, and the fumbling slow breaths he took. The god’s gaze wandered to the once empty shrine hollow then back to the boy with an inward sigh. It was all too much.
“So be it,” he whispered, leaning in and nipping at the soft neck flesh. “Speak your name before I take your life.”
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