Another tremor resounded from outside the thick walls of the sanctuary. Bits of mortar and ice rained down from the vaulted ceilings, high above. It sounded like a flashpowder barrel erupting, but may have just as easily been a wall collapsing, or an large object colliding through one of the many squat, ruinous buildings of Magadan.
Around her, were fellow zhret, sacrificers in her order. Those that burned. Offered. For the glory of Rod and his children. She was only a zhret, a zhritsa at that, a female sacrificer. She would never be a velhv. Never attain priesthood and be allowed to use the Rime. Only velhv and artificers, and only then males. So it was written over a millenia ago. Tradition created from tradition, told from mouth and stone. Generation to generation, age to age. The old ones, and high priests say that Rodnovery dates back to over ten thousand years ago, well before the Last Days, and the everwinter. The relics the diggers unearth don’t find much from before the Last Days, let alone pieces of history from the beginning.
It was warmer, they say. The sun offered heat, and not just light. Everything was taken for granted, and that is why we are punished, she heard Velhv Jelen chastising her in her head. This world is our path to penitence. Atone! Sacrifice! Perhaps, one night you will awaken and be kneeling at Perun’s hearth, and Mokosh will off you her breast, and you will be well fed, and warm, and finally alive.
Rosha opened her eyes, another rumble, louder than the last and closer, shook the ground. Screams could be heard through the walls. Screams of rage, sorrow, and fear. They were fighting in the city now. The invaders had finally broken through the walls. The zhret murmured prayers around her. Each one offering planks of wood, cloth, or vellum into a bowl of fire resting upon an alter in front of them. Each sacrifice had a prayer written upon it. A confession. An attonement. Perhaps a plea. Each offering that entered the flames the Smargl’s Torch burned white hot for a moment, then sank to join the pile of glowing embers at the bowls basin. Behind her, sobbing from those seeking refuge from the chaos outside the walls. They sat upon the benches, or against the walls huddled in small groups, clinging tightly to their fur-lined clothing for warmth. It was close to midnight and the Rime would not have started its nightly snowfall quite yet, but it was icy cold just the same. The everwinter never failed to offer the biting cold. The price of sin. The burden of our penitence. Pride does not go unpunished.
Behind the torch the gods and goddesses leered down upon them. Stoney faces, carved from rocks pulled from deep beneath the earth. Rod, the Beginning, the father of the gods sat behind them, faceless, with his arms spread wide, as a display of all He had created. Various stone and wood carvings were lined at his base, their likenesses of the rest of the pantheon.
Rhosha fixated on Mokosh, goddess of fate and protection, her goddess. She was carved of a dark wood from before the Last Days. Hard as stone, and polished to a shine, Her modest features were calming to the zhritsa. The face of the goddess was emotionless, but always seemed to change when Rosha prayed. Concern, understanding, scorn. Rosha had seen them all at one time or another. As she looked upon her deity, the world melted away. The clamor outside the temple dulled, the murmuring of the clergymen, softened and soon became little more than a hum. Slowly the room darkened, the Torch lost its intensity, everything shrunk from her view, everything that is, but Mokosh. The statuette seemed to stare directly back at Rosha, the goddess’s flinty eyes piercing through her. Dark and intense, they beckoned. A glow, starting in the core of the dark eyes, sparked to life. It shifted hues of blue. Cyan, cerulean, sky, and turquoise, settling on ice blue. The color of the eyes of those that used the Rime. Priests and artificers. Eyes aglow with the magic, fingertips black from night after night of working the Rime into the various creations. She was born those icy blue eyes, though they have never shone with the power of Rime. Accusations were common from others in her order. Angry men. Jealous woman. The thought of it made her angry. Anger reflected in Mokosh’s eyes, followed by determination. A voice, soft and sweet filled the air about her. The eyes blazed fiercely blue now, and the world around them went still darker.
She was surrounded by darkness. The air went still. She could hear nothing. See nothing. None of her senses responded. Panic took her heart, and her pulse quickened.
Lady of the Dawn, protect me now! Favored daughter of Rod, let me serve you in the light on this holiest of nights!
The blue eyes reappeared, and lit up the wooden statuette they were affixed to. Ripples spread from the statue, as if it rested upon a lake. Dark and inky they spread out across the dark expanse. Rosha felt instantly relieved as the ripples spread past were she kneeled.
Mokosh’s eyese flashed, and the world went white.
She was in a forest, a grove. Lush trees surrounded her, tall and handsome. Trees like she’d never seen, filled with large leaves of many shapes. They bore fruit and nuts and birds flitted amongst them. Birds and other things. Small winged beasts buzzed by her head, approaching bright colored flowers that carpeted the forest floor around her. She inhaled and swooned at the intoxicating smell, sweet and melodic in its beauty. Rosha recognized and knew the smells. Familiar, yet so very frozen. Like a long lost friend who’s face you can’t quite recall, whose name was on the tip of your tongue. A small rope-like creature came out of a fruiting bush next to her, slithering across the grassy floor, its tongue flicking in and out. She had never seen so many wonderful things. The sound of wind, and birds, and other creatures were broken by a booming whoosh above her. Far up in the sky, an odd looking bird made its way across the horizon, impossibly high. A line of white smoke followed it, like a tail. Buildings crept into her vision. Tall buildings, hundreds of feet in the sky, surrounded her. Lights, so many lights! Lights from all the windows. The sound of a voice made her turn about, and she was suddenly surrounded by people. Hundreds of people. Moving this way, and that way, around her. They wore clothes of every cut, and every color. They talked amongst themselves or talked to no one as they held a hand to their head. They laughed and sometimes yelled. There were men, and women, and children. Every color and from every land, it seemed, walking amongst each other. They were laughing, and eating, and drinking, and thriving. Thriving in a world full of life and light. Life. Life worth living. People were living, and not just surviving.
Her vision changed again, and she was gone. The beauty, the majesty of that place was gone. She was aware of her skin going cold again, without the warmth of the sun. She was back in the grove, but it was dark and cold. The trees surrounded her, as they had before, but they were different. Old and thick firs. Boreal firs. Each tree had a cross carved into it, the cross of the Old Believers. This wasn’t a grove, it was a tabernacle. She was not in Magadan, and felt panic creep back into her heart. Fresh snowfall was on the ground. The Rime had already began falling. It danced upon the sky silently as little soft flakes. Beautiful and terrible as always.
Stone benches made up several semi circles around an alter made of mud brick, and studded with a familiar metallic stone. Meteorite, pulled from deep inside the crater. It was thought they held more power than the Rime itself, but no one in the last three thousand years had been able to unlock that power.
Upon the alter sat a gleaming cross made of some golden metal, a relic from the Days Before. It glowed eerily, and she could her something carried to her by the soft wind. Mumbling? Chanting. She became suddenly aware of the source, and saw the man behind the alter, prostrated on the ground, deep in prayer. He wore a headdress of high status and stark white, winter fox robes. The cuffs of the sleeves and bottoms of the robes were stained deep red. His wrists were wrapped in bandages, as were his bare feet. They too appeared bloodstained.
When she looked up again, he was standing, facing her. His gaze was calm, and determined. His eyes icy blue, and brimming with Rime. The man clasped his hands before him, displaying his blackened fingertips, dead with frostbite from countless hours housing that dreadful power.
A faint smile appeared upon his lips. “We commemorate this most holy night with His coming! I have walked His path and sacrificed as the Son and the Father both sacrificed in the Days Before.” He displayed his palms to her, and offhandedly waved an arm off to his side towards a tree. Two dolls stepped out from behind it. White, faceless replicas of the man that created them. One had a large bundle wrapped in roughspun cloth in its arms. The shape was terrifyingly familiar, like a body, a young person’s body. The scent of blood wafted through the air as the wind swept past the tree.
“I now offer our spirits!” The zealot threw his arms into the arm and lifted his face to the night sky. “Tonight we shall finish what was started on the Last Day, three millennia ago. We sin by surviving and denying the rapture that was promised! With this final sacrifice, we will extinguish the flames. We will plunge the world into the dark as it was written. Hell creeps through the crater. We must stop it! This is His world, and our tomb. Some will rise, most will fall.” His gaze fell upon her again, and he smiled.
“Come, child of the false gods. Come and be judged. It ends this night.”
The bits of meteorite hummed behind him, and he closed his eyes tightly. Prayer was on his lips once again, fervent and furious. Then his eyes shot open, and they exploded with Rime. They bulged and the area surrounding them was black with icy death. Veins in his cheeks and neck were dark as well. His entire hands and darkened to a deep purple. Ice and death poured from him. Popping and crackling noises escaped the earth as the very ground instantly froze to a thick permafrost. One by one, the surrounding trees exploded, the cold overwhelming their cores and freezing every drop of moisture. His breath came heavy and labored, and the fog that came with every breath, turned to a puff of crystals, and then nothing as the remaining heat left his body.
He pointed a single hand out past her head. East, towards Magadan, towards the crater. It came soft at first, as single flurry. The Rime swept up from the floor and met the falling snowfall. It was midnight, the apex of an artificers power over the magic. Tonight was different. Something felt different. Unnatural. Intentional. She realized then, that the snows were spinning in a wide circle around the grove, centering on the man.
He pushed out with his arm, and the snow bent and turned direction, all at once, using the bandaged hand as a compass. The snow roared in her ears as it passed. Every second that passed increased the intensity and speed of the ferocious storm. It funneled round him, but not so much of a flutter disturbed his robes or hair. Needles scratched at her face as they were swept up into the blizzard, and she heard a large branch snap behind her, breaking free in the torrent.
White. All she could see was white. Peering out of the alabaster sheet were two searing discs of blue. Leering at her with as much warning as there was challenge.
Come, child of Rod. Atone.
About the author
I'm a chef by trade who has too much chaotic creativity penned up to dump solely onto plates every evening, thus I spend my mornings pouring off the excess into stories and the like.
Enjoy the madness.