The man gulped greedily from the skin, the alcohol warming him against the glacial cold. He cast an eye back to the warm glow of the village that permeated the snowy night air above it, before shaking himself. He and the others would have many more safe and comfortable nights, but only if the sun dawned tomorrow.
The going was slow. His furs, though warm and comforting against the raging snows, were cumbersome. Often times he heard his friends collapse into the snow, tripped either by their coats or exhaustion. Each time someone fell, it was a new struggle to get them back on their feet. Even as new ice was piled on top, the previous night’s snow had drifted into hummocks eight feet deep, with a treacherous crust.
With each passing mile, the darkness seemed to triple, and the calls for retreat got louder. Not from the man though. He knew what it was to tempt God. He knew that it was the cowardice of man that had brought this fierce winter, and that to fail now would be to deny the spring its renewal, to allow the winter to tighten its grip and, like the snakes that had long died out, crush the life out of the earth and crack its bones with torturous, slow inevitability. No. There would be no retreat.
Suddenly, as the snow cleared for the briefest of moments, he saw it; a smooth dome of a hill reaching gently but sinisterly into the sky above them. Thick, acrid smoke poured ceaselessly from its summit. Bright embers tumbled in belched clouds and he yelled to his friends. When he looked back, though, the snow had obscured it once more. An image came to his mind, beckoned no doubt by the sudden disappearance of the hill, of the morning;s frost being dispersed by a blast of sunlight. He glanced upwards at the dismal black skies, and shivered despite his thick coat. He trudged towards the spectral destination.
Going up the hill was the most difficult part of the journey. On one side of slope snow had drifted three men deep. On the other thick, rock hard ice that had lain there for months was interspersed with thin crusts that cut sharp as any knife. Throughout the whole hill ran crevasses that spelled doom for any man who fell through. A couple of them did, and when they reached the crown of the hill there were only six men left.
Atop the hill, the heat of the fire scourged the land around it of snow, rendering it a quagmire atop the permafrost. Flames leaped with demoniacal glee from the gaping maw of the fire pit. Around it was a stone circle, colossal and ancient. Despite the weathering of countless centuries, the runes and symbols were still all too clear. Glowing slightly, red against the black, the glyphs seemed to almost hum with antediluvian energies. Five pillars for six people.
Solemnly, each venerator took place by a pillar. One by one, they produced something from deep within their furs. They slit the necks of these things, and smeared the blood, tracing it across the symbols. The man cried silently and looked into the fire.
Suddenly, the man heard a roar, seeing the monoliths as they had been before, seeing the landscape melt and change. He saw a world before man, before life, in the youth of the world and the very galaxy it was a part of. Sky brightened, a thick green miasma replacing the bleak desolation he knew. Land flattened, the rolling hills shifting and flattening into a vast and glistening plain, strewn with the bodies of, for want of a better word, gods. These were not alabaster beauties, though, nor man’s idealised image of his form. No, these gods were huge and terrible, bulbous forms that oozed and quivered with latent, repugnant energy. A hundred glassy eyes each were pecked at by parasitic things, the crows of old. The place reeked of death.
Suddenly, one of the great old corpses was pierced by something from above. Thick and veiny, a proboscis curved powerfully down from an unknown origin far above. Miles away, other, huge tendrils grasped blindly down, each arcing to the same terrible and significant point in the sky. As the corpse before him was sucked dry, a greasy skin hanging deflated over an utterly alien and flexible skeleton, the man screamed a scream of understanding. He screamed for he knew that the pain, the sacrifice, the praise and the thanks, all went to that vague thing that hung above the earth, menacing and massive as an unassailable, dark mountain. He knew that whatever it was that fed now on the ancient corpses was god, not a god, but the Great God, the Holy God, the God to which so much had been given.
The villagers found a madman in the morning. His eyes rolled around furtively, as if entirely separate from the shell-shocked silence of his face, bone white from the cold. His friends were dead, fused and melted into the stones that they served, their sacrifices gone. The madman’s sacrifice somehow survived the night. Lying quietly and peacefully, his big blue eyes smiling at the world and happy to see it, was a baby boy of perhaps eight months.
The baby’s neck was intact, but the marks of the night remained. Thick symbols painted on the stones and the snow that had settled overnight caused grown men to tremble and look away. The symbols painted on the stones and the snow that had settled overnight caused grown men to tremble and look away. The symbols were blood, vibrant and bright and red as the sun that rose and melted the ice that morning, the morning of the most glorious summer solstice any of those present had seen.