Soft, sure steps approached from the direction of the sun; she could feel the warmth on her arm. A fox carcass cold in her hands, she held her breath, listening. The thunk of a sturdy walking staff. More steps, closer.
She ran her tongue along the sharp edges of her teeth.
Male. Not young, but healthy.
The God had left her ears intact. How else to hear the approach of supplicants and the questions they carried? How else to hear and give Voice to the God’s answer?
The God had taken her sight first. It was so gradual that she was not even aware that it was happening, not at first. Then she awoke one morning to discover that the crumbled pillars and young saplings were blurry. The blur softened over weeks, months, years. Colors smeared. And, finally, blackness.
Her sense of taste was next. The forest berries, the wild onions, the rabbits and birds caught in snares that she set by touch and memory. Gone.
Then smell. The trees, the rain, the rich soil. Gone.
She dreamt some nights of the blood orange pies the priestesses used to bake and eat on holy days. In her dream, the scent would wrap around her, a brilliant red–gold, the hot taste exploding across her tongue.
She tilted her head as the tap of the walking stick grew louder, closer.
Once, empresses and kings and nobles had climbed the mountain to petition the God, laden with rare pearls and feathers, sweet fruits and carved bones, and — of course — blood and breath. Once, the God had stood tall, golden-red wings unfurled, eyes like shimmering obsidian staring into eternity, sheltered by a temple of gold and cedar and silk.
But the empresses and kings and nobles were long dead. The temple had long ago fallen to greed and hatred, the God stabbed and broken by those who feared or envied his power. A stream now ran through what had once been the temple’s great hall, and a forest of oak and ash grew in place of the carved cedar columns. The tattered remnants of one wing now lay on the bank next to his desiccated right hand. A short distance away, his head with its bright black eyes sat on a stump of cedar and stared up at the sky.
He no longer had the devotion of thousands to sustain him; only the blood and the breath of peasants and farmers and hunters, those poor few who dared the dangerous climb through the mountains and the forest.
And her. The God had her, his Voice. The last priestess. She had heeded his warning and hidden herself away when the rabid mob had come and torn him down from his throne and slain the sacred sisters and stolen away his treasures.
She would not forget her vow, would not abandon her calling, would not abandon her God. He still needed her. As did those few who made the perilous journey.
The walking staff thunked against the ground beside her. She set aside the fox carcass and stood as a voice spoke, heavy with grief and anger.
“Lady, I have a question for the God.”
She rubbed her bloody hands against the many furs of her cloak. She wondered what his question would be. Love, like so many others? Wealth? Revenge?
But first she had a question of her own. “You know the price?”
“You pay it willingly?”
“Yes, Lady, I do.”
She held out her hand. “Then the God shall answer you. Come.”
His fingers slid across her palm. Rough and scarred. A farmer, perhaps, or a soldier.
She tugged him closer, settling her other hand on his chest. His heart thudded, steady and sure. Leather and wool clothing; not fine, but well-worn, and a strap for a sword across his back. A soldier, then, and one accustomed to fear.
She slid her hand up his chest, his throat, his cheek. She cupped his face, pulling his head down, down, down, until she felt his breath skim across her lips.
She opened her mouth, holding him tight as she pressed her lips to his. She inhaled, expecting him to struggle as so many did, panicking as they felt the air being forcefully pulled from their lungs.
But he did not. He exhaled, giving her his breath.
More and more. All of it.
His knees shook and he fell. She released him, feeling the sweat on his face as her hand scraped across his skin and through his hair.
She turned away, leaving him there. The harsh sound of his panting and gasping followed her across the grove, through the cold stream. She knelt in front of the God’s head, finding it by touch and memory. Bending forward, she pressed her mouth to his cold lips and exhaled.
The God inhaled. His lips and tongue warmed.
She leaned away. “The God has accepted your first offering. Come forward.”
His walking staff thunked against the ground again and he made a huff as he pushed himself to his feet. She did not turn her head as he sloshed through the stream and then lowered himself down beside her.
“I ask again: you give of yourself freely?”
He did not hesitate in his answer. “I do.”
She found his throat with her hand, fingers digging into his skin. She half-dragged him towards her, toppling him onto one knee even as she leaned sideways. She could not smell his skin, the leather and wool of his clothes. She could not taste the salt of his sweat. But she could feel his warmth, the tearing of his flesh beneath her teeth, the heat of his blood as it poured onto her tongue.
He grabbed at her, his hands closing painfully around her arms. He did not struggled, or push her away, or plead that he had changed his mind. He went still.
She drank and drank.
Her mouth was full. She pulled away, leaving him to tend his own wound, and bent towards the God. She pressed her lips to the ancient flesh. The God’s mouth opened to accept the gift.
She sat back, panting, exhilarated. She laughed.
“State your question. The God will hear your plea, and answer.”
He did not speak for long minutes. His breath was harsh. The words, when they finally came, sounded thick and rough.
“How do I kill the Fallen God?”
A cry caught in her throat, a howl of outrage and betrayal.
His voice was stronger now. “How do I kill the Red-Gold God, the Blood Wing, the Drinker of Breath and Life? How do I finally, once and forever, rid the land of his horror?”
She shook her head, stumbling back a step. Her hand touched the head of the God, slipping through the remnants of his hair. She clutched at the back of the divine skull as the man continued.
“No more maidens desperate for love. No more soldiers desperate for glory. No more farmers desperate for a harvest or hunters so desperate for a single stag to feed their family that they gladly surrender their blood, their breath, their health, their lives.”
She licked her lips, feeling the slickness on her tongue. She shook her head, slowly at first, then more quickly as his words tumbled and crawled over her.
“That is what happens. Did you know? To all of them. The Fallen God does not feed on them only once. He continues to drain them, like a parasite. Perhaps it was not always so, when he lived in a temple of gold and cedar and silk, and multitudes made their offerings willingly. But that is so now. They cannot see, they cannot taste, they cannot hear or speak. Their skin and bones turn to ash and they just … blow away ….”
Her fingers tangled in the God’s once beautiful hair. Red-gold, like his wings.
She did not know what color it was now.
“That is not — no — that is not — ”
“I have seen it!” His voice was a snarl now. “The father who begged for the health of his child, only to die himself within a moon. The boy who begged for wealth so that he might marry his love, only for him to die the very day of their wedding.” His voice caught. “The wife who pleaded for her husband to return safe from the war, only to turn to ash in his arms. I have seen the price demanded of your God, and I pay it willingly. Our pact is sealed, our oath witnessed. Now answer my question. How do I kill the Fallen God?”
The answer came to her. A whisper on the wind, spoken through ancient lips, shaped by an ancient tongue.
“I see across the vastness of the worlds. I hear the songs of planets and stars. I know the taste of fire forged in distant suns and the scent of rain falling in forgotten deserts. I spoke once with a Voice that was multitudes, but now is only one.”
She collapsed back against the stump of cedar tree, her knees shaking. A sob caught in her chest as she heard the scrape of the sword in its scabbard.
“No one to speak for the God,” the soldier said. “No one to steal breath, to take blood. No Voice — ”
“No!” She screamed, turned, ran. Panic sent her stumbling across the stream and then —
— silence. No birds singing from the trees, no distant yip of foxes.
She worked her throat. Was she still screaming?
Only a moment’s thought, the horrified realization that the God had taken the last of her in a desperate attempt to keep himself alive, and then the slide of the sword through her back and into her heart.
For more than a moon, the huntress climbed the mountains, deeper and higher into the wilderness. By the time she reached the grove, the first of the winter’s frost hung from the wide branches of oak and ash trees and coated the outer edges of the stream.
There was no one to hear her question, or give Voice to the God’s answer.
She found only a many-furred cloak impaled by a worn sword, a fine ash scattered through the frozen grass, and a skull with threads of red-gold hair, tipped onto its side, nibbled clean by foxes and birds.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. Her poetry, and her fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, and science fiction stories have been published in a wide variety of venues, a complete list of which can be found on EHS.]