It had been so long he was not sure he would still know the way. But like most things that become habit, the body remembers long after the mind has consigned them to distant memory.
Through the center of the valley was a stream that laughed it’s way over rocks and boulders worn smooth from years of such treatment. The hills that rose on either side, thanks to this stream, would stay lush and green long after the rest of the country had been baked to harsh aridity.
He paused to drink the cool water, enjoying the clean crisp taste.
He could hear them chanting, even from this great distance. The corner of his mouth curled up in an approximation of a smile. He stood, stretched and then began to run towards the voices. Increasing his speed he traveled up the lichen painted stone steps that wound up from the valley floor.
He felt the music long before he heard it, a deep thrumming in his core. The drums kept a steady rhythm that his heart heard and threatened to answer. At the edge of the clearing he sat and listened, hidden in the shadows, as the priest began to speak.
“Long ago a great king ruled these lands and to him were born fifty sons. They were strong and proud. Wise and cunning. They built an altar to Zeus and worshipped him faithfully.”
“Zeus, impressed by this king and his sons, attended a dinner party in his honor. But the god had neglected his people. They were angry. They wanted a sign of his blessing. Proof of his divinity.”
“A human child was sacrificed and baked into the pie that was served to the god. Upon tasting it the god immediately knew what it was. He became enraged. ‘Because you have behaved like an animal, so shall you become!’ Then Zeus spoke the curse that had those gathered at the party shaking in fear. Where once the mighty king stood, now sat a great shaggy beast. Wolf.
“Because the king had been a faithful follower, Zeus granted him a small reprieve. If the king abstained from eating human meat for nine years he would be returned to his human form. ”
“Then Zeus collected all the pies, but there was not enough left of the sacrificed boy to revive him. And so, the father of all the gods made a memorial to boy in the heavens. A constellation that the king would see whenever he hunted at night. Forever reminding him of his foolishness for attempting to trick a god.”
“As the cold light of the constellation filled the night sky, the once great king, raised his muzzle and howled mournfully.”
“We gather on this mountain, under the dark moon, the providence of Nyx, to offer our worship to Zeus. As is our custom, human entrails have been baked into this pie. Who so ever eats of it will follow in King Lycanos’ footsteps and become Wolf.”
This made him laugh. His tongue lolled out of his mouth exposing canines that were white and sharp. A rustling to his left revealed the dark form of his brother. His shiny black coat made him almost impossible to see. Almost, but not quite.
They rubbed playfully against the other in greeting. Their play became more serious as the younger brother, still trying to topple the elder, bared his teeth. A yelp from the black and a curl of tail ended the game. Hierarchy must be observed, even on this night.
His attention went back to the clearing and those gathered there. The priest had been bringing people up here every nine years for nearly forty years. He was old now and smelled of death. He did not like this smell. He much preferred the smell of blood that flowed strong and sure through the hearts of those that knelt in the dew covered grass around the ancient altar.
So entranced was he in life’s ebb and flow that he almost missed the words of the priest. He was calling to them. It was time. As one they entered the clearing. Their coats shinny, their muscles strong and sure. And again, as one, they shed their lupine form and stood on two legs. Some of his brothers were unused to doing so and swayed, unsteady in this form.
He walked forward and spoke. As the eldest it was his right and his duty. “That was a pretty story you have been told. Some of it is true, most isn’t. We have gathered on this mountain long before the idea of Zeus was invented by man in an effort to explain away the things that frighten him.”
“We are the terrors the hunt the night. And we have never been human.” There was screaming then. And blood. So much blood. After he and his brothers had gorged themselves they sang. Their voices lifting up to the moon who hid her face from view. She did not rule them.
The people that lived in the shadow of the mountain heard the singing and locked their doors. Their ancestors had long spoke of a ceremony that occurred on the mountain and the pile of ash that served as an altar. Modern science and technology eschewed such things as folklore. But the part of man that remembered when all that stood between them and the darkness was a roaring fire, could not, would not be forgotten.
He trotted over to the priest that knelt in the center of the carnage. It was likely he would not survive to lead these rites nine years from now when the cycle repeated itself. Truly, it would be a mercy to kill him. But the priest had served a purpose, and because he was fat and sated he gave him the gift he had longed for.
When next they gathered, there would be fifty-one.