JON KIRSCH - ORTHODOXY IMPLODED
Jon is a full-time writer who moonlights as a research and administrative assistant at Morningside College to help satisfy his addiction to academia. His previous works have been published by World of Myth Magazine, McFarland & Company, and Cambridge Scholars Publishing, among others. He is a co-founding member of the Siouxland Scribblers and New Paradigm Writers Society, two writers’ groups based in Iowa and South Carolina. When he is not bringing intrepid bands of writers together, he can be found chasing his appallingly mischievous dachshund up and down the steep slopes of Sioux City, Iowa.
Trees whistled like the wind's instruments of choice. Racing clouds obscured the pale orb of the moon. Neng's old bones felt not just the chill, but the coming storm as that inner, all-too-familiar ache throbbed stronger than ever. The village headman wore furs, a skullcap, and even a scarf, only his overcast-gray eyes and the flattened, primitive feature of a nose risking exposure to the elements. But tonight these elements, driven by Mother-Sky, and the frozen landscape encasing Father-Earth, seemed to almost conspire together, one restless, the other watchful, waiting to pounce.
He had been on his way to bless Olgnia's child. A newborn, even as winter's grip tightened on the land, was still a blessing. New life always was.
"I've been anticipating this meeting for some time now, old man," a voice rumbled.
Neng froze, rigid as the soon-to-be ice-coated trees. This trail wound through one of the many glens within the valley, yet for some reason the village elder felt as exposed as if he were standing naked on a mountaintop. The old man's less-than-perfect sight searched for the voice's source.
"Do you know who I am?" It was a rich voice, deep and resonant. As the figure stepped from the shadows, that voice matched its owner well. The dark silhouette wore not even a scrap of fur or wool, and his dark skin gleamed like ebony trying to swallow up the moonlight. His eyes glowed a soft yellow-orange that reminded Neng of a fire's first spark.
"What? No recognition? Shall I come closer?" The figure strode forward on the path, and Neng's eyes widened as he realized why the vivid coalescence of orange-yellow seemed so familiar.
"You…" At first he refused to believe it, but there was only one guess to venture. "You are A'huahua'Namra! Great Wurm, you bless me with your presence. To what do I owe this honor?" The village elder fell to his knees, ignoring the protests of his body as snow and cold slammed into him.
"Honor?" The figure stepped closer. The man towering above Neng was well built, perfectly sculpted muscle and sinew and bone.
"Indeed. And would you have me 'honor' you as you 'honor' me each year?"
Neng's thoughts were racing, jumbling, jostling, and still he could not believe that he was seeing one of Father-Earth's Children in human form. Tales spoke of such things in the distant past, but even the village priest had insisted they were mere metaphor…symbolic meaning, nothing more…
Neng trembled as he regained his feet. His neck craned upward and two gleaming fire-sparks enthralled him.
"Great One, how can this humble servant be an instrument of your divine will?"
"Don't you mean my Hunger?" the man, the creature, replied. The man reached out now, yanking Neng's scarf free, letting the next bite of the wind carry it away until it vanished, impaled among the branches. "It has been what, twenty-three days since you brought her to the Place of Sacrifice, has it not? I wonder, tell me, how long until you forget her name like all the others who have come before her?"
Neng licked his dry, cracked lips and shook his head.
"Great One, I will always remember and honor her sacrifice. Her name was Rima." A sudden twinge roiled his stomach, and the wizened elder squirmed, fear leaching into his next words.
"O Greatest Child of Father-Earth, my lord A'huahua'Namra, did the sacrifice not satisfy you?" He licked his lips again with an already-desiccated tongue. "If it please you, I will find another young maiden more suitable."
The dark-skinned man cocked his head like someone trying to hear a distant elegy. "Is that it? You think that I've suffered a little indigestion from the first snack, so your solution is to give me another?"
Now this man with the rugged face and burning eyes leaned in close, so close that Neng could have seen the individual hairs of stubble on the man's chin were those fiery eyes not so mesmerizing.
"What do you think Rima experienced in her final moments before I devoured her, old man?"
When the old man looked at him full of bewilderment, the Wurm-man's mouth twitched, and his next words came out with the lash of sheer command.
Neng groped for words.
"I s-suppose she was afraid, Great One."
"You suppose?" The man threw his head back, dark laughter leaping to the night sky. When the laughter subsided, the man's face reassembled, and his eyes blazed even brighter.
"I see. So, as leader of your people you give so little thought to those under your protection. Hmm. I can see it now, old man. After Rima's parents and sister had died from sickness, it must have been convenient for you, wasn't it? 'I know,' you thought to yourself, 'let's sacrifice the orphan girl. No one will miss her.'
Neng could only gape at him.
"Well, old man? Am I near the mark?"
Neng tried to open his mouth, but words wouldn't tumble out, only strangled near-attempts at sound.
A hand rested softly on the nape of the elder's neck.
"SSSHH. It's okay. No need to answer, old man. Your eyes have already told me what I wanted to know." Now the man's mouth whispered right in the village headman's ear. "You want me to honor you, old man? I'll honor you with a secret…no, call it a revelation." His tone dipped even lower now. "That young maiden you left as a sacrifice…I didn't devour her. In fact, Rima has shown me a side to humanity I never knew existed. She didn't run from me screaming like all the others. She spoke to me, and do you know what she said to me?"
"N-no Great One," Neng managed to croak. "W-w-what?"
"Rima asked me if I was lonely. She asked me if I wanted a companion. Quenching her own fears, she even offered to be my wife. Intrigued by her offer, I took human form." The man's dark features creased with intensity. "And in these last few days I've found in Rima a type of sacrifice so much more profound than the pathetic offerings your people have given me these past centuries. In fact, it's finally made me realize what you and your villagers have been doing all along. Not honoring me, not venerating me…no, no, no. You and your ilk have been heaping insults on me for generations!"
"But Great One, we worship you! We tell magnificent stories of--"
"SSSSHHH." The man put a fingertip to the old man's cracked lips. "You tell yourselves lies. You kill your own kind for the sake of self-serving rituals. But do you know what Rima does? She clings to me in bed on a frigid night, her body warming mine. She makes a meal for me, one laborious step at a time, eager to see the look on my face when I take that first bite to taste it. She honors me, old man. That is true veneration. What you do…well…that is something quite different…quite the opposite."
"Great One," Neng managed to whimper, "I don't understand. We only meant--"
"Of course you don't," the Great Wurm replied, "but meaning has very little to do with it." The man's eyes flared now even beyond blazing, the translucence of the moon no more than a smudge of pewter by comparison.
"You 'honor' me and 'worship' me at every turn, but it's a funny thing, isn’t it, how you and the holiest of holies are always the very last in line to make any sacrifices of yourselves." Now the man smiled, his teeth gleaming with the same forcefulness as his moon-touched skin. "Which is, as I'm sure you'll agree, quite the missed opportunity. So, consider yourself blessed, old man, because I am going to finally give you that honor you've always dreamed of, to make that ultimate sacrifice and prove your devotion."
Neng opened his mouth to scream as the Wurm-man transformed. The man's body crumpled in on itself before expanding…now spiraling, upward and upward in contours of scaled muscle that soon ended in glittering eyes, a gaping maw, and sword-sharp teeth. Coiled, the Great Wurm looked down on Neng, a speck on the snow. The Wurm's head, sleek yet massive, now gleamed with cool gray-green scales that made up the interlocking skin of a hundred shields.
"Please, Great A'huahua'Namra, have mercy on your humble servant! I will faithfully follow your will to the end of my--"
The Wurm's bulk flashed forward and downward with the force of a thousand hammers--and maybe one nasty avalanche. Either way, as dawn poked its rosy fingernail over the far horizon, one sated serpent undulated its way along freshly fallen snow, leaving behind the mystery of the elder's disappearance. And the most pious and respected Neng was never heard from again.