The starless night was brisk and dry. There was a smell of fresh pine, carried down the mountain in short, chilly gusts of wind. She found a perfect spot amongst the tall pines and cedars, a round clearing in the woods where a small log cabin used to stand. All that now remains from it were the unburnt pieces of timber decorated with rusty nails.
That modest dwelling of yore took a good portion of the millennia to decay. Her memory of that place stretches back to her early adolescence, when she used to wander the woods in search of exciting remnants of history that could paint clearer picture of the early people who lived in that cold mountain, of their lives and their inevitable demise. It could easy be that very racing track where Kai used to beat her every time. She was not much of a sprinter. She could not outrun her brother, but she was infinitely smarter, which she demonstrated regularly when they sought fox lairs. On a second thought, the clearing could quite possibly be the spot where Nera had seen and near-missed an adult brown bear uninterestingly passing through the grove when she was not more than sixteen.
That night the clearing was carefully chosen as a perfect spot for her annual All Hallows’ Eve rituals.
The rhythmic hooting of a lonely owl reminded her that she is not alone. She was the only human on the eastern slopes to dare enter the dense darkness of the mountain’s intestines for sure, yet there were other moving, breathing creatures. For a short while Nera was convinced that whatever she was doing there in the witching hour deeply bothered the woodland realm, and that the hooting owl was somehow hooting angrily and condescendingly at her.
Hoot. Hoot. Leave, you bothersome human. Hoot. Hoot. Leave our woods and go back to that stony dwelling of yours in that awful place you call home.
Jokes on you, owl, thought Nera victoriously, igniting another torch on the other side of the ruins, that stony dwelling is not my home.
With the second torch lit, the clearing started to obtain shape and definite size. It banished darkness a mere three feet away, fairly enough to make an unequivocal stance – I am here now, this is my piece of land. Hoot and howl all you want, I am not leaving until I finish my work.
She wasn’t afraid of the darkness – never has been – or the low, menacing hooting, or the distant howling, or even of the possibility of some unexpected woodland creature’s startling the living sense out of her. Her fears dwelled deeper, past the regular habitants of the mountain, so deep that not even the idea of having another human being by her side would be of any consolation.
The shoulder bag tucked under her arm was getting heavier. She dropped it on the ground with a loud relief and stretched her arm after a long haul through the forest. It contained neatly packed elements for her midnight ritual – several white and yellow candles and one unusually tall red one, several kinds of incense packed carefully in small glass vials, three hand-sized white crystals. They were glowing milky white even from the inside of her bag, shedding faint light on her path. It wasn’t a particularly dark night, one might have noticed. She easily found her way through the forest without the moonlight – though a torch did come in handy – and the crystals’ purpose was another.
In a short while, the altar was ready.
An old, rotting stump served swimmingly. Every last day of October, the Ancestral Altar was crafted with identical ritual artifacts she would drag to the belly of the mountain. This year’s choice of location made her wonder why on earth she hadn’t thought of it before. It was quite near her cabin in the woods, closer to the Main Road than any other improvised altar made in the past seven years, yet perfectly secluded. Whatever the reason her mind had had for keeping that clearing away from her, this time it failed. This year’s altar was as modest as any previous. Nera was not overly keen on grandiose, overelaborate pieces that would require an even more elaborate, time-consuming labor. Not to mention the heavy lifting it would compel. Besides, bringing food would only attract curious snouts and empty stomachs that roamed the dark. Such rituals involve an ostentatious feast to please the gods and offer the sacrificial harvest, as read all the sacred books in the temple, but Nera has learned long ago that earthly food has very little credentials when it comes to gods.
The entirety of the autumn harvest she brought to the altar that night was nothing more than two handfuls of mixed blueberries and blackberries, a modest handful of acorns that rattled against the stump, and a single apple. The food soon found its randomly designated place on the altar. A loaf of dark rye bread with sunflower seeds didn’t even look edible under the dancing shadows. She halved it with her hands and put it beside the bottle of mulled wine.
An imperative member of the Allhallowstide ritual is the will-o’-the-wisp. To commemorate the three-day observance of the festival, when people used to remember their dead, their saints and martyrs, a symbolically carved pumpkin was an inevitable part. Seeding it and putting a scary or comical face on the pumpkin was one of the people’s favorite past times of yore, she’d learned. Nera tried it once, a few years back. Her efforts were good, but she lacked conviction. It barely had a scaring effect. She had placed a small candle inside, and with flickering beams of weak light the lantern ignited over the walls of her cabin. Might have had a magical effect on her, but she had quickly put it out in fear of causing a massive fire.
The sporadic gusts of wind brought all sorts of dancing silhouettes upon her torches. She feared the spirits had already arrived. The ceremonial bonfire had to be lit.
Arranging the firewood vertically, placing them one against another until the shape of a crooked teepee was achieved, created a monstrous thing that almost reached a height past her own. The bonfire protective of this world was an imperative part of the ritual. Nera dusted the logs with a handful of fine, white powder from a leather satchel she always carried on her. As soon as it was lit, the fire started crackling at the base of the firebed, spreading upward towards the end of the thin logs, toward the sky. It didn’t take much for the timber to catch on fire. As it did, a sudden flare of warm air reached the other side of the clearing, spreading its glow toward the altar.
Right in front of it, only two steps away, the girl drew a circle with another fine powder she took out of a smaller satchel from her bag. Its color was earthy and moist, but under the screaming firelight it turned to jet black. She tried her best at making the line as concave as possible, knowing there couldn’t be a redo if she messed it up. Stepping slowly around her axis, with her fist tightly squeezing the powder, she loosened her fingers little by little to release it on the ground. In a matter of precarious seconds, a protective circle was made. Around it, she arranged three white crystals, placing them deeper into the moist soil. All three had a somewhat pointed side which she turned upward toward the sky for channeling. If someone was to connect them it would make a decent triangle with its sharpest angle pointed directly to the stump-altar.
Stepping inside of it, facing towards the altar, she began the one-year awaited sacred rite.
Nera sat on the ground and tucked her feet beneath, stepping carefully not to disturb the outline of the circle. An unexpected gust of draftiness came from underneath, as if she was sitting on top of a drafty window. Her bare feet immediately regretted taking off her boots.
Would the rites mind terribly if she put them back on? Why did she remove them in the first place? The earth is moist and chilly, and her ankle skin now filthy. How could she possibly take a bath upon her return to the cabin in the middle of the woods?
The time when spirits from the otherworld could freely roam the mortal realm was here. A brittle boundary between the two worlds was the only thing keeping this one safe. The souls of the dead, remembered and feared, were not invited to dwell in this world. That’s the deal when you die – they love you and still remember you, but wish not for your return from the netherworld.
Nera had never experienced a vile spirit breaking the barrier and entering the realm of the living. She spent years in the temple that taught her to respect the darkness and all that rises from it – from the darkness we came, and to the darkness we will all return – and always had a contingency plan at hand. Every year the same rite, the same sacred ritual she performed to pray to gods to keep the portal safely unpassed. Perhaps the fact that she had never indeed experienced the breaking of the barrier was due to her pious praying and humble offering?
On a second, more reasonable thought, she couldn’t possibly be an isolated case of holy praying on Allhallowstide, yet she remained the only one in the Northern Plains. Her ritual was meant to pay respect to the otherworld beings, appease their souls, and make sure they never wish to cross the forbidden border.
Nothing will come through. The gods will not allow it, she maintained, firmly standing behind the words that formed in her mind. I will not allow it.
In that thought, one small mantra, all her faith in everything she stood for was contained. She was the creature of the gods, created by them and for them, yet the people around her always seem to forget. At times it was extremely hard to remember why she was put on earth and why she was tested on every step of her way, but in moments like these, when Nera is all that stands between humanity and the evil that lurks from the other side, her mission once again becomes clear.
The validity of the ritual must remain unbroken.
“Tonight is the first of three nights,” she began quietly. Her voice was flat and admonishing, as if she were addressing an entire room of religious followers absorbing her every word like commandment. “It’s the end of the harvest. It is the last days of summer. The cold nights await in the days to come. The bounty of our labor, the abundance of the harvest, the success of the hunt – all lies before us. We thank the earth for all it has given us, and we thank the gods for giving us the earth. We look forward to winter, a time of sacred darkness.”
She opened her eyes. She didn’t do it right, suddenly it stung. The last line was misleading, as she couldn’t possibly imagine anyone praying to gods and thanking them for winter. No sane man ever enjoyed it, no matter how north he was born, no matter how cold his heart was. No sane woman ever wished to thank the gods for bringing a long period of misery upon them, a time when their children trembled in their beds and dreamt dreams of ice and frostbite.
This prayer must be terribly old, she thought.
“It’s the end of the harvest. The cold nights await in the days to come,” she repeated with more conviction in her voice. “I ask gods to protect this winter, as the one before. To protect this world. To protect us mortals of the things we cannot protect ourselves.”
She sat there in silence for quite some time, contemplating on the words of the prayer, repeating them silently in her head as to make sense out of it. The ritual was the same as the year before, and the year before that. The words were the same, she didn’t change anything. Why did it all sound so strange then?
The validity of the ritual just broke.
“This world belongs to the mortals,” she insisted, feigning conviction in her voice, shutting her eyes so hard it hurt her skull, “nothing will pass through. Nothing will pass through. Not tonight. Nothing will pass through.”
A growing shadow of panic began to shake her to her core. She had done everything as instructed, as she had been diligently doing it for years. True, her words might have seemed more believable in the past. At that moment, she simply couldn’t shake off the resounding phrase of thanking the gods for winter, knowing that no mortal being, human or animal, would ever be so ludicrous to think the gore coldness was a gift.
Could it be that her feeble faith created a hole in the passage between the two worlds?
Her heart skipped a beat. Her legs had gone numb. And we thank the gods for giving us the earth. The shoulder blades began to sore as she put her wrists on top of her knees to rest. She repeated the prayer again and again, until the words lost all meaning.I ask the gods to protect this winter. This world belongs to the mortals. She insisted on not finishing the ritual invocation quite yet, until she had made sure the words coming from her mouth were convincing. She needed to trick the keepers of the passage into thinking this world was protected by her spells and steadfast faith.Nothing will pass through.
A distant rustling of branches woke her from her tense thoughts.
A hare. A honey badger. Bush rats. Red foxes. Possums. A stray wolf. A hungry bear.
Please, let it be a bear.
Let it be something belonging to this world.
Let it be something afraid of the fire.
The list of possible sources of the noise was endless. She even thought of her brother coming for her, worried sick that she might have fallen into a predicament in that dark dense forest in the middle of the night. What a sweet relief it would be if she saw Kai’s face now emerging from behind the trees.
The rustling approached. She was sure it came from her left, but when the leaves whished again the direction of the noise changed.
She froze completely, stiffing her upper torso, as if she had indeed spotted a bear and, more importantly, the bear had spotted her. If she moved, if she breathed any louder it would make such a terrible noise that would cancel even the soft cracking of the bonfire. If she blinked it would hear.
Her eyes betrayed her. She could barely see, no matter how hard she strained them. The fire beamed from three meters behind her, but now the light source was failing her. Not enough light. Not enough faith that the passage to the underworld remained closed; that she was the only pair of eyes on the clearing.
Nera did the only thing she could. Prayed.
“I am the keeper of this world, I am the mender of its wounds, I am the healer of its ills, I am the protector of the past. I am the blood of the gods, I am their voice and will. Nothing will pass through.”
Another sound came crawling towards her.
“Gods, keep the boundary between our worlds safe,” Nera’s voice wailed, as if she was a drifter in the stormy sea, “let nothing cross. Please, let nothing cross.”
A rattlesnake. Some sort of nocturnal creature. An owl. The same owl that called upon her arrival that night. Perhaps it had more to say about her presence in the forest at such a late hour. The bonfire had disturbed the peace of the mountain, cracking noisily and emitting such unwanted light.And then, there was her ritual, her stupid repeating of words that gods only know whether they truly mean anything.
It’s nightfall, for gods’ sake. Go to sleep, you nasty, noisy witch, she could almost picture a white-feathered bird with a golden beak and watchful eyes preparing to surge towards her and gouge her eyes clean out of their sockets.
This is what you get when you play with fire and daemons.
Nera grew restless as she awaited. She didn’t know what she was waiting for. For the creature culpable of producing noises that disturbed her in her important prayers to step forward and ask forgiveness? Perhaps it was a small rabbit or a scared possum roaming through the dark, trying to find safety, while mistaking the bonfire for danger. That bonfire was about the safest place to be in the woods now, the safest place in the entire Northern Plains.
“Nothing will pass through,” she repeated, quivering. When the forest responded with resounding silence, Nera mustered strength in her voice and screamed at the top of her lungs. “Do you hear me? Nothing will pass through!”
The guilt for arousing the dead-quiet in the forest with her silly-billy invocations dropped onto her, as if a heavy rock was laid on her chest. It had to be done, she reminded herself, and it ought to be done properly.
Her loudness startled whatever was hiding across the faded line that the bonfire drew around the clearing. As far as it casts light she is safe, she knew. What lies beyond it is left on its own devices.
Something foul reeked from the dark, as if the darkness had gone stale and putrid. Sent to her in lazy gusts of wind, it felt heavy and old. Nera had once entered a place, a temple-like structure on her way to the north years before, that she was sure no air had penetrated the secured entryway nor a human had stepped foot in it for centuries. It smelled warm and stale, with a tint of acidity in air that violated the nostrils. It was an occurrence of great exhilaration for her and thrilled her to such impossible measurements that it would forever be much alike impossible to forget the smell of that place.
The stench that was now fleeting, carried away by sudden gusts of wind, reminded her of an ancient tomb being cracked open first time in more than a thousand years.
Did she ruin the rite with her weak faith and stupid reasoning against the millennia-old prayer? Did she let something slip through the crack while she was arguing the meaning and believability of words?
If only Kai was here. He would know what to say. He always did have the correct answer or solution to any of her upheavals of spirit.
Rustling away from the clearing into the unknown, the noise completely vanished. Its source vanished with it, leaving her with broken faith and trembling in fear.
What have I done?
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