As we climbed lower and lower down the grassy knoll, Ch- began to speak. “I understood you,” she said softly. “You wanted to investigate this village, and especially the deer. For signs of the White Clouds. Am I correct?”
I nodded hastily, my teeth clattering in my haste. She nodded curtly to herself in satisfaction. A sneaky smile flitted across her features, then vanished. She lowered her voice. “I trust you to tell you this: that I do not trust that seer, and I do not trust the others for trusting her. They are fool-hearted for doing so.” I startled at her divisive thoughts, and suddenly realized that she was seperating me from them for a reason. Her head dipped closer to me. “And I also know you could not tell them of this, even if you wanted to. So listen to me.”
I gaped, my legs slowing. Her hand gripped my shoulder and dragged me along. “Someone must have sacrificed that deer. It is no animal or beast who places things in such ways, or who does rituals of the kind. Do you follow? That means there is someone alive who did it- in the wake of the White Clouds, in the wake of our people’s disappearance. Look at it! It is not that old! A week at most. That is plenty of time for that seer to have found her way to where we met her.” At that Ch-‘s eyes drew narrow and her jaw set. She released my shoulder as we began to wade into the murky and filthy waters towards the body of the deer.
I fixed my eyes upon the deer. True, all the trappings of ritual lay about it. A hasty sacred cord, the throat slit the proper way. Yet how could one person have conducted it alone? A ritual such as this required three: a hunter, a butcher, and the prophet. I shook my head as we neared the animals’ hoofs. The beads in my head rattled and I touched Ch-‘s shoulder gently with the tips of my fingers. Her scales were warmed by the sun. Immediately, as if i had branded her with fire, she whipped around ready to defend herself. I held her gaze and shook my head purposefully. Then, slowly miming the speech she had taught me, I told her that we should not cross the sacred cord. Illness would befall us. Then, I lifted up the three fingers and pointed to the sacrifice. “Th-th-three,” I blurted.
“Three what?” she asked harshly.
“Th-three,” I insisted. But I did not know how to mime these words. I did not know how to force them out right now either, or how to convince Ch- that it could not have been the seer, and that the poor seer probably never came here because her robes were neither soaked in mud nor blood. And that meant that we were not alone. There was at least three out there- leaving sacrifices to spirits which were not eating. And what did that mean of our gods? Had they too been eated by the White Clouds?
I wrung my hands over my trident at that. Could it have eaten the gods as well? Were we truly that alone?
Ch- scowled. “I wish you could speak,” she snapped before wading away. Over her shoulder she said snarkily. “Gurgle or moan if you find something, you fish!”
The insult bounced off my careless scales and left me unmarked. Instead I wrung my hands and watched the floating and bloated body before me. What if… My mind scurried to conclusions and possibilities. What if the sacrifice was not done to our gods but to some other spirit? There was only one way to find out.
Wading around the corpse I stepped onto the jutt of earth it was perched upon. Someone had scraped up this earth so that the body would appear to float above the waters. Certainly not the work of one person. It would have taken a single person days to set up this alone!
Ch- would not have known this, but in these sorts of ceremonies the symbol of the deity to which the animal was sacrifice was inscribed upon a leaf. That leaf was then stuffed into the wound in order to summon the deity to their feast. That leaf, right now, was poking out of the deer still.
I bit my tongue. There was no crossing the sacred barrier. However, the leaf looked loose. With a sweep of my leg I sent a wave of water crashing over the body. The leaf trembled, wobbling in its spot. Again i swept my legs. On the third try the leaf came loose and swept away from me. I scrambled around the sacred circle and sloshed after it. It skirted away as if hoping not to be seen, but I caught it in the prongs of my trident as it rode the current away. Scooping it towards me, I could finally see it.
A deep green still, it was covered over its entirety in wax that protected it from the elements. Even the blood of the offering had not clung to it too tightly. Yet the symbol that was inscribed into it remained, burned magically so as to never be erased. It was one that was foreign to me.
Carefully, I scooped it up. Perhaps the seer would know, I thought. Perhaps Ch- would comfort me and scoffingly say it was one of the desert’s benevolent gods. Anything would be nice, I supposed. Because if it was not one of the gods of a tribe, then this cloud with an eye inscribed in its center could only mean one thing.
After that i did not go far. I could easily see Ch- angrily battling against the knee-deep waters and exhausting her fury against them. By the time she returned her legs dragged against the water’s hold and her shoulders slumped. “I did not find anything,” she called out. “But thanks for not looking.”
I held up the leaf I held carefully in both hands. “I looked. I found.”
Ch-‘s jaw dropped. She sloshed forward in a hiss of angry splashes and curses. I held the leaf aside as she floundered towards me, then offered it as she stood before me with water dripping down her face. Ruefully she wiped her face with a hand and snorted aside before looking at what I held.
“What is that?” she asked, but there was no anger to her voice. Only the cold tinge of fear could be heard.
I pointed to the deer. “Sacrifice.” I had had time to calm myself, to rehearse and choose my words. “In the deer,” and I pointed again urgently.