A Foul Offering

A Foul Offering

The air was thick and warm as Rhask lay in the damp grass barely breathing. Dried blood, in thick mottled chunks, covered his abdomen and face. His shield lay strapped to his open palm, and a dagger lay loosely in his lifeless right hand. His eyes stared unblinking, past the old oak tree that rose from the ground near his head, the decaying corpse and half dozen worn and weathered nooses that hung from its boughs, the swarm of Ravens perched about them, the rich fog that shrouded them, and the slowly drifting clouds high in the morning sky. He gazed into the face of Brothellad hanging ghostly and frail against the brilliant might of her father, Tephes. Behind her, little bastard brother Sandum was running off again, as he often did, leaving her to face the blazing rage of their father alone. Rhask wanted to run to her. He wanted to grab that vile little brat and toss him out into the lack of night. He wanted to stand with her against the light of Tephes and snuff him out, to plunge the world into darkness, that it may see her beauty.  

“Yess, Goddesss.” He replied through a silent, open maw of sharp yellow teeth, “I am coming to you.” Above him, the conspiracy hopped to lower branches, cautions of the unmoving reptilian and yet, loudly squawking their claims to him. The largest of the ravens flew into the loop of the noose hanging just above Rhask’s face. She glared with a sideways distrust and, as the others gathered about her, she called for a scout. “I will be your champion,” His thoughts beseeched her. The scout descended upon Rhask, a small beast with feathers so black that even in the fog it shimmered blue. The carrion landed on his belt, and eyed him sideways and wary, before driving his beak into the motionless Reptilian’s abdomen. It grabbed firmly onto one of his scales and yanked sharply. It ripped from the soft skin beneath, like a fingernail torn to the quick. The scout eyed him sideways and tried again, pulling the scale up further. The warm air stung the exposed skin beneath. It eyed him again before finally digging its beak into the soft tissue under the scale, grabbing it firmly and ripping it free. A sharp pain shot through his system, warning him of the sudden vulnerability. Still, Rhask lay motionless in the grass. The raven matron descended onto his chest and stared into his vacant eye. It squawked loudly, the sound sharp in his ears, and as it raised its beak above his left eye the remaining ravens began to descend on him. 

In a single swift motion, Rhask snapped at the raven queen with his hungry jaws, grabbing her about the neck. His sharp teeth sunk deep into the bird and he felt the bones in her neck separate as he clenched his jaws tight. He closed his hand about the hilt of his dagger and drove it into the foul creature’s side, rendering it lifeless. In a flurry of beating wings and squawking screams the ravens exploded into the air and swarmed about him.

Natural 1: Swarm of Ravens Attack

With the matron still in his mouth, he rolled onto his stomach to avoid one of her diving conspirators, and miraculously, swatted the bird to the ground with the corpse of its queen. It tumbled brutally across the ground and remained with a badly broken wing. Rhask rose swiftly to his feet, spitting the dagger-skewered fowl callously to the ground and drawing his sword to bat another raven brutally out of the air. 

They swarmed and circled about him in all directions, intermittently blocking out the sun that penetrated the fog, so that it flashed in his eyes, making it hard to look up at his prey. A raven dove at him from his left and he heard its talons scrape across the steel of his shield as it slammed against him. Swinging wildly to keep them at bay, Rhask threw his back against the tree and moved about it until the sun was behind him. There was a scratch and searing pain as talons ripped across his shoulder. He swung out with his sword, shearing the bird’s wing off. With his shield, he batted away another as it dove for him and it struggled to remain airborne. 

They continued this way for nearly an hour, ravens tearing chunks from him as he cut them from the sky, until he collapsed to his knees before the two remaining Ravens, both flailing wildly and wounded about the ground. Rhask dug into his pouch for the healing potion and used it to soothe his wounds, but was careful to leave a drop or two in the vial for something special. 

Feeling a little renewed, he took in his surroundings again, for the first time in several hours. He had been nine days in the Druid’s Grove when he’d come upon a small, gully just before dawn. It stretched across his path for several miles in either direction, and he’d climbed down into the fog, losing sight of his moon Goddess. The ground was rich with greenery, The forest having taken back the dried river bed many hundreds of years ago, and though sparse and widely spaced, the trees grew strong and tall. He had stopped for water at the base of this tree and found the corpse as the first rays of the Bastard Tephes broke the dawn and the forest began to wake. It had been the morning call of the Ravens as he’d stared up at the rotting meat hanging there that had given him the idea to lay in wait for his breakfast. 

Now, even in the light of day, the gully hung thick with fog and shadow. About him, the sparse, lonely silhouettes of other great trees with boughs hung low and heavy, gave the entire area a haunting feel. He moved towards them, creaking in the fog and shadow, to find another gallows tree hanging heavy and downcast with the dead. Some feet away he found another. By the third body-filled tree, he was fascinated, brushing their legs with his hands as he walked, like a child feeling the tickle of tall grass in a golden field.  They swayed softly and slowly, The trees groaning their dismay under their weight, offering a song of dismay for the dead. Rhask closed his eyes and took in the sound, like the breathy whispers of a lover. “Thank you, Goddesss” He whispered, gazing up at the ghostly moon. He remained there, enraptured by the swaying dead for some time.  

Natural 1: Athletics check

Rhask climbed up into the tree to remove some of the nooses he found there. From the first branch hung a corpse decayed well beyond recognition. When Rhask put his weight on the branch it broke off with a loud crack. The three fell heavily to the ground, the corpse first, the large tree branch crushing it, and the reptilian landing hard on top of the two with a grunt of pain. Winded and wheezing, he climbed off the large branch to the cackling of the two remaining ravens as they hobbled and hopped away through the grass.  Rhask picked up the hemp noose and the head it held ripped loose from the body pinned beneath the tree branch and dropped to the ground with a dull bounce. 

He re-tied the length of cord with a slip knot at either end and a loop in the center. As he gathered up the first raven it pecked deep into his hand. Trying again, with some caution, he was able to leash a raven to either end of the rope. From the loop tied at the centre, he walked them back to the hanging tree and staked them to it with the dagger he’d retrieved from the Matron raven, preventing their escape but allowing them the freedom to move within the length of their cable tow.

Wincing and grunting with pain, he climbed back into the newly budding tree branches, finding among them, twenty-five feet of Silk rope and another twenty feet of hempen rope. These he bound together, secured about the trunk of the hanging tree. Holding the other end he walked in a circle around the tree, dragging a large branch through dirt and grass like a plow. When he had carved a large ring around the tree he shortened the rope by about 4 feet and repeated the process. Once the rings were complete Rhask went to each of the cardinal points where he dismembered a raven. The blood he saved in his wooden bowl, the organs he laid out on a small pyre built of sticks and grass, and the carcasses he stretched over branches to tan them. Moving to the smaller circle carved into the ground, he repeated this again at each of the four intercardinal points.

Sitting on the soft, moist ground beneath his tree, in the heavy, humid fog, Rhask enjoyed a meal of fresh fowl as he continued dismantling the remaining carcasses. “Don't worry, little ones,“ He maliciously assured his protesting captives, devouring their brethren before them. “I have something exceptional planned for the two of you.” He spent the next few hours unwinding a stretch of hemp rope into thin threads that he wound about a short stick.   

Rhask must have dosed off in the foggy heat, as he awoke to the squawking of his two captives. He sat slumped at the base of the hanging tree a half-wound spool of hemp thread in his lap. Through sleepy eyes, he watched them peck at their bindings and each other to escape. Rhask rose and stretched his back in the shadowed wake of Tephes’ descent over the horizon, his captives quickly quieting to his presence. He set to work with his final preparations, gathering up loose sticks and wood and piling them about the base of the tree.  

Being a solitary hunter from the Swamps of Black Fin, Rhask had no experience with Gods or worship. Until now his life had been dedicated to the pursuit of his own hedonistic desires. He had explored them with vigour and zeal until they no longer brought him the pleasure he remembered. His tastes had continued to grow darker in pursuit of that fulfillment, into a fascination for the way that his prey responded to pain. He particularly loved the overly emotional humans. He enjoyed listening to them beg for a mercy that would never come.  He’d hunted and hobbled a young human who had ventured into the swamp to set snares. Rhask had savoured the boy’s terrified whimpering as he‘d allowed the young meat to believe in the chance of escape, only to strip that hope away. He lay next to the boy in the cold mud of the Mire, watching tears stream from dilated eyes as he called out to some Goddess of the moon for salvation. 

“Goddesss of Brothellad, I beseech you” Rhask had mocked, using the boy’s own words, “Send me a sign and I will continue to disassemble this pathetic beast in your honour.” As he spoke, Rhask dug a claw deep into the boy’s chest and drew it down to the navel, tearing the skin open. As he did, the two of them watched a shooting star descend from the skies, crashing into Barasea with an explosion that could be seen for hundreds of miles. The terror in that boy’s eyes and that night as he was dismantled the screams that echoed through the Mire, had brought him more pleasure than any before him. 

Each piece he cut from the boy was held up for his and his moon Godesses' inspection and devoured before them. “Your thigh,” He raised a pound of bloody meat to the boy’s nose, “Iss ssoft and fatty, pathetic.” Then he raised it to the moon, blood trickling in tiny rivers down his forearms, “Ssee how weak and unworthy he iss.” Though he had done so in jest, in delightful mockery of the boy’s faith, the experience had changed him. His eyes felt sharper, his senses more alert. About him, colours seemed more saturated, sounds resonated with more depth, and the wind itself felt like the gentle fingers of a lover on his scale. He felt new. In the weeks and months after, he had nightly dedicated a feast to her. Now, in the dying moments of the day, beneath the fog of the druid’s forest, he would pledge himself to her. 

He lit the Northern pyre. “Goddesss, “ He called out, looking up to the large glowing face of Brothellad fixed in the sky, “For you, I would sstay the North wind.” He moved to and lit the Eastern pyre calling to her again, “My Goddesss, For you I would sstop the rising ssun.” He lit the Southern pyre with a cry of, “My Goddesss, For you, I would melt the Poless.” Lighting the Western pyre he declared, “My Goddesss, For you, I will bring eternal darknesss.” He then moved to the inner ring and the Ordinal pyres. He lit each declaring himself as her servant, her child, her Priest, and her concubine. Finally, he moved to the hanging tree and, lit the pyre at its base. 

In the light of the burning tree, he took up his shield and the bowl of raven blood. The light and warmth of the afternoon sun had thickened the blood into a paste which he dipped his fingers in. He rubbed the blood on his shield, covering the embossed emblems of the twin moons. When he was finished he wiped the remaining blood on his face, drawing a line over each eye from his forehead to his cheeks. Holding the shield up to the scorching flames that now engulfed the tree, he called out and her again “My Queen! My Goddesss. I am Rhask of the Black Fin Mire and I wish to be your champion!” He drove the shield into the ground before the tree and stepped back.

Picking up his captives, and the vial containing the last drops of healing potion, He knelt behind the shield. With the two ravens held firmly between his knees, he called out to Brothellad again, “My Godesss,” He hissed. Taking up his dagger he cut away the scab that had formed in place of a shorn wing, on the one wounded raven. “I bring you this gift,” The Broken wing of the other raven, he cut off at the shoulder, to mirror its captive cohort. Rhask dropped the last of the healing potion onto two wounds and pressed them together, holding the screeching birds up to the blazing tree. “For you, My Goddess, I will fill the world with atrocities!”

He waited, eyes closed, holding the noisy, struggling ravens out to her, for some sign of acceptance. He knelt there on the ground, barely shielded from the heat of the tree now fully engulfed in flames, looking up to the cold, unblinking face of Brothellad and felt … nothing. He waited longingly for another minute, The ravens in his hands kicking and pecking at him to escape the heat of the great bonfire before them. His arms tired from struggling to hold them still, but he endured a few more moments before the ravens broke free of his grip and fluttered awkwardly to the ground. 

He slumped dejectedly, listening to the two birds squawk and screech their pain and protest. He wondered if, perhaps, his offering was insufficient, or maybe his signal fire was not large enough. He looked at the two birds, as they flailed and flapped about trying to get away from the heat of the fire. The grass between his cardinal and ordinal pyres had ignited, following the carved circles about him, and the birds fluttered awkwardly, shoulder to shoulder toward one of the quickly closing gaps in the flames. Though his captives fled, Rhask felt renewed. Either his Goddess would accept him as her champion, or he would die by her fiery will.

He rose to his feet and gathered up the ravens. The two were securely conjoined at the shoulders, like siamese twins. Rhask was elated that his offering had been accepted.  His heart pounded in his ears, like the beating of great wings, but his chest felt no pressure and his body felt no rush. The beating continued, passing over him into the forest and he quickly realized that it was not his pounding heart, but the beating wings of some great flying beast.

“A trial then,“ He whispered to his Moon Goddess, dropping his fluttering, two-headed abomination with a smile. “I accept.” Newly inspired, he took up his shield, The hot steel seared the back of his knuckles and his forearm. The wooden brace across the back of his arm was hot to the touch but he endured, strapping it firmly to himself. With his sword drawn, he put himself between the blazing tree and the moon, searching the forest for a sign or silhouette of his fray.

Natural 20: Perception check

He quickly found it high in a nearby treetop, the hunched silhouette of a great bird. In the flickering light of his blazing bonfires, he could see a woman's gaunt and haunting face. 

“Thank you, for thiss bounty,” He hissed with anticipation, “I will reap it for you.” He felt a warmth flush through him, a strange concoction of giddy excitement and serene comfort he had not felt since Beni’s bed and breakfast. Bound and tenderized, marinated in terror, devoured conscious and horrified, such a delicacy she had been. Now again, his Goddess blessed him with a gift, a hunt for a hunter. He would rip this creature to shreds in her name and savour every moment of it. 

The air was hot and stale, and thick smoke rose into the cloudless night. A sound greeted it, starting quietly and building into a half-human birdsong that quickly quieted his raven amalgamation. The tune echoed through the hollow forest, winding through the trees to reach him. Rhask lowered his head with a smile. He understood that, to most, the gentle melody of music or song was a source of joy and comfort. It aligned them in a softening of their edges. He almost giggled at the weakness of it. “Still,” He thought, slumping his shoulders, as if unable to support their weight, “it was a useful tool.”

Rhask preferred the shrill sound of a terrified scream, the gentle irregularity of desperate whimpering, and the thundering dysrhythmia of a panicked and failing heart. It was a song that held such honesty and purity. As the winged monstrosity rose into the air, Rhask tightened his grip on his sword and prepared to perform that song for his Moon Goddess. 

The harpy landed in front of the seemingly enraptured Rhask. She tilted her head, looking into his emotionless yellow eyes and raised a simple wooden club over her head. As the weapon came down, Rhask sprung to life, lifting his shield to deflect the incoming club, As it glanced Rhask lunged, thrusting his sword into her side. She let out a shocked squawk and raked her claws across his chest as she tried to retreat. Rhask snapped at her with his teeth, grabbing her by the wing. He held her tight, to ground her, but she broke free with a strong pull. She flew into the air and circled him a few times, disappearing behind the pillar of smoke that rose from the bonfire tree.

Surrounded by a forty-foot wall of fire that was quickly closing in on him, Rhask prepared for the harpy to attack. He expected her to use the smoke as cover, to try and drive him into the ring of fire, and he watched the sky for signs of her  “There you are.” He whispered, marking her silhouette in the smoke-filled sky and tracking her orbit. He held himself ready to wing her and when her shadow did not emerge from behind the dark cloud he readied for her attack. 

Natural 20: Hungry Jaws

She came around the tree and he lunged, bringing his sword down on her elbow and carving through the bone, rendering the wing useless. She screeched in pain, her claws digging deep into his back, before landing awkwardly behind him. Emboldened by the pain and thirst for her blood, he dashed to her and snapped with his hungry jaws. She raised her weapon arm in defence and he closed his teeth around it, feeling the bones crack from his might. 

Natural 20: Harpy strength check

She yanked her arm loose with a scream and a swipe of her claws that scraped across the face of his shield. The ring of fire had now closed the arena to twenty feet about the blazing tree, and screeching in panic from her wounds and the heat of the flames that singed her feathers, she began to search desperately for an exit. Rhask smiled, licking her blood from his lips, and closed in on her. He thrust his sword into her throat, and her struggling stopped. He looked deep into her eyes to watch the life drain from them before kicking her off of his weapon, and backwards into the wall of fire. 

The Harpy disappeared into the flames and Rhask stumbled backward until the heat at his back was too much. He dropped to his knees, blood seeping from deep gashes in his chest and back as he threw his arms in the air. His breathing was heavy and laboured as the swiftly approaching flames devoured the air about him. Overhead, the moon was intermittently visible through the thick billowing smoke. He tried to call out to her but his throat was barren and he had not the breath to put behind it. He didn’t feel the weight of his arms falling to his sides as the thick black smoke stole the sky from him. Neither did he feel the flames scorch his skin as his body slumped prostrate and the darkness took him again.


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