All the people of the village were gathered before the sacred column, awaiting the priest with fear and zealous awe. They stood in anxious silence, listening to the tattoo of the drums roll out from behind the pillar of smoke with steadily rising intensity. Men craned forward, eager to see the coming spectacle while children pressed their faces into their mothers’ sides, coughing from the smoke. A strange sound preceded a dampening of the flames, the absence of its gnawing heat leaving their skin cool with sweat. Kenso looked over Marco’s shoulder, terrified to see, but too terrified to pull his gaze away. Marco stood resolute, sweat dripping from his nose, a bulwark between his friend and the grim power of their god.
Through the black smoke, the priest strode forth and vaulted atop the ancient stone base of the sacred column. His entire body was painted in the red of the animal sacrifices, caked with the grey of solid smoke. He wore nothing but a red mask and a belt of reeds from which hung several pouches, all stitched with human sinew. Kenso watched the birds fly above the jungle behind the fire, for he did not quite have the strength of will to meet the priest’s gaze. Marco looked at the fire out of respect. One does not stare into the eyes behind the red mask lest he offend the mighty powers behind it. The priest reached into one of his pouches and threw a powder onto the bonfire which roared in intensifying force with a wave of heat. Kenso quivered, shifting his body to be further shielded by Marco.
Then the priest spoke. “Lo! The jungle has been thrown back! We have felled the trees for fuel and sacrificed the jungle’s wicked beasts. Who gave us the power to do battle with the ferns?”
At the sound of his booming voice, the people rejoiced with delirious frenzy, crying out as one, “The Red God!”
The priest began to dance and leap upon the stone, seemingly unaffected by the slick, red sheen that covered it. His arms waved wildly through the air, and he shrieked with glee. The people stood below him, shuddering with reverent fear.
“The mighty Red One grants us the two blessings with which we fight the Green. For what do we thank the Red God?”
“Blood and Fire!”
The priest threw more powder into the growing fire. The people in the front tried to shuffle backwards, but they were stopped by those behind them, rooted to the ground.
“FIRE!” The priest screamed. He sprang from the stone, his old age long forgotten, and he danced rabid circles around the sacred column. Kenso felt a shiver race down his spine, and more sweat dripped from his face than the fire warranted. The priest halted and caressed the column, a pillar of human skulls. This year, as with every other, it would grow taller. He called out, “BLOOD!”
Kenso felt Marco’s muscled body tense for a moment before he brushed off Kenso’s hand and stepped forward. Marco was the offering to the Red God. He strode toward the pillar with perfect posture, and, only then did he met the priest’s gaze. The mouth beneath the mask curved upward with a lurid smile.
~ ~ ~
“But I don’t want to die. I’m afraid,” Kenso said the day before.
“You’re always afraid. Of everything. Frightened when you catch a fish that’s too big. Scared that you’ll be whisked away and sacrificed when you scrape your knee.”
“I’m afraid of the priest.”
“That is the Red God within you, Kenso! Remember, fear is his weapon,” Marco said to his smaller friend.
“Couldn’t we just catch fish and grow corn and… even die without being afraid?”
“Don’t let someone else catch you saying that,” Marco snapped.
“I won’t but—”
“I know, but I also worry that you will be chosen to die tomorrow. I would be glad to be chosen to serve the Red God with my life’s blood. But if you were chosen… I fear that the Red God would be angry.”
“That priest is horrible.”
“That priest protects us from the Green. He protects us from killing each other. The Red God is order.”
“He’s not afraid, the priest.”
“Of course not. He is chosen by the Red God to serve in life. Since we can’t be priests, serving in death is what’s best for our people.”
For our people, Kenso thought, or the Red God? Or for the priest himself?
~ ~ ~
Kenso’s vacant eyes stared at the sacred column, the macabre ritual complete. The priest spoke many words of strength and conquest to the throng of people, but Kenso did not listen. He could think of nothing except for the black hole in his stomach until he noticed that all of the others were staring at him. He thought they looked afraid, so he turned around, but only the empty huts stood behind him. He forced himself to face the priest again.
His hands dripping with red varnish, the priest leaned over the edge of the column’s base, his arm outstretched with a clawed finger fixated on Kenso. With his other hand, he held a pool of the red paint.
Kenso took one step forward. Then another. The people cowered out of his path and filled the space behind him, compelling him forward. The priest shouted in a strange tongue, the words slithered up the spines of all who heard it. He stooped down to reach Kenso’s face, smearing the blood across it. His eyes then flicked over to the fire. Kenso stepped toward it, arms flung wide, and felt his bare chest blister in the heat.
“Will you serve the Red God? Will you herald his power?”
Kenso heard himself say, “Yes.”
~ ~ ~
Kenso followed the priest of the Red God past the fire as the drums took up their tattoo again, leaving the crowd behind. The priest walked with a straight back, always facing directly forward. Their path, lined with reddened rocks, curved left, winding its way up the hill the village rested beneath. Halfway up its height, the pair reached the end of the path at the only stone building in the village, a strange, black dome.
Not even the most foolish boys in the village ventured near the temple or its path, but they had all seen its guard from below. He stood before the doorway of the temple every day, in the torrential rains of the wet season and the choking droughts of the dry season. They whispered that he never slept, never ate, unless someone tried to enter the temple. Then he could satiate his hunger. The guard was a brutish figure, wearing a black loincloth and a red wooden helm that hid his face. His only weapon was a plain grey-shafted, obsidian-tipped spear. Kenso could not help but shrink against the opposite side of the doorway as he followed the priest into the temple.
Inside, he was startled to find two more of the guards, attired as their companion outside, sitting at a stone table with plates of venison. They nodded towards the priest and again towards Kenso. The priest gestured towards the pair.
“These are the deacons. They ensure that we are not bothered by the peasants or the beasts of the Green. They serve the Red God. They obey.”
At this, the two guards lifted their helms, revealing faces disfigured by ritual scarring, but Kenso was more startled by their eyes. They were a solid, shining black like the obsidian blade of the priest’s ritual dagger, and just as sharp, just as hard.
“Ah, yes. They will obey you too, even as you obey me. Were I to give the word, they would leap to their feet and kill each other. Such is the power of the Red God and his faithful.” The priest waited for a few moments before he shouted, “Do you understand me, boy?!”
Kenso jumped. “Yes… yes, master.”
“You will answer when I speak to you, but you shall not speak otherwise, unless it is to issue a task to the deacons that serves the Red God. Do you understand your purpose here?”
“I am to be your servant?”
“You have answered my question with a question,” the priest snapped. “The Red One grants us surety. You will be my acolyte.” The priest looked at Kenso’s body as a man might inspect a cut of fish at the market. “Come. You must bind yourself to the service of the Red God.”
The priest walked through one of the three doorways that led further into the temple. Kenso glanced back at the deacons who still stared at him before he slipped into the hallway with the priest. Like the room before, the hallway was well lit by torches. Darkness had no place in the house of the god of blood and fire, Kenso reasoned. Beyond the priest, the next room poured forth a bright red glow of light and heat.
The priest removed his mask and set it upon a display of skulls at the entrance of the massive chamber. The room held a ledge large enough for the priest and the apprentice to stand comfortably, and the rest of the room held a massive pit filled with a great fire. Another deacon stood on another ledge at the opposite end of the room, feeding twisted hunks of wood into the flames which sent smoke billowing out a covered hole in the roof.
Kenso glanced up at the priest’s face as the priest chanted a prayer. Despite the red stains on his skin and the scars on his chest, the priest’s face was quite plain, marked only by heavy wrinkles, but this revelation made Kenso uncomfortable. It would have been more fitting in his mind if the priest had borne the scars that the deacons did.
The priest delicately lifted an obsidian knife from a shelf, holding it by only the tip and the pommel with the points of each of his middle fingers. He offered it to Kenso.
“You must give your life to the Red God, but for you it shall be a living sacrifice. Marco paid with his death. You shall pay with service throughout your life. Cast your blood into the fire.”
Kenso reached out, afraid that he would incite the priest’s anger if he showed hesitation.
The priest spoke again, leaning forward with his mouth hanging slightly open. “Your blood.” His eyebrows rose expectantly.
Kenso’s trembling hand closed on the knife’s smooth handle. In the brief instant in which both he and the priest held the knife, they locked eyes. Kenso felt the priest’s own trembling through the knife, and he beheld a dreadful hunger in the priest’s eyes. He took one shuffling step towards the edge, leaning forward to peer into the flaming logs below. It would be a horrible fall to a horrid death. Kenso raised his left arm over the fire with the knife quivering over his left outstretched palm. There, he froze.
The priest suddenly let out a shriek like the flying beasts of the jungle. Of what emotion it was born, Kenso could not say. Raw power, twisted glee or thirst, likely. Startled into action, Kenso dragged the knife’s edge across his palm with a scream of his own. Time slowed. The priest watched each red drop fall with his eyes wide open, making him appear even more skeletal than when he had worn the mask. Kenso saw Marco’s face in the flames.
Who will protect me now if not my brother, Kenso wondered? Not this priest.
He turned and thrust the knife towards the priest, eager to be rid of it, but the priest stared at the wound on Kenso’s hand with open lust. His eyes met those of the deacon across the fire. He had watched. He was as guilty of the mutilation as the priest. Then Kenso wondered. The priest had said that they would obey him as well. In the room filled with the thick heat of the fire, Kenso felt chilled.
~ ~ ~
The pair were walking down the path to the village for the first time since Kenso had entered the temple. The priest wore his mask again, but now he also wore a skirt of red-dyed reeds. Kenso wore a red robe with long sleeves that he had found the day after his induction next to the reed mat where he slept. He wore no mask, but his scalp bore red marks from the priest’s shaving stone.
Once the pair entered the cleared space of the village, the priest strode down the center of the street, and Kenso followed behind. The people dropped to their knees, heads pressed into the dirt, as the priest passed them, humming a prayer. Upon reaching the sacred column, the priest interlocked his fingers behind him and leaned back to gaze up at the new head atop the column. Kenso shifted his feet and looked back towards the hut that his friend had lived in. He imagined Marco’s mother weeping upon the reed mat inside with nothing over which to mourn except the head on the pillar. The bodies of the sacrificed were not returned to the family, but Kenso had not seen it in the temple either. He knew better than to ask the priest. As he thought that, he glanced back to the priest whose dark eyes were fixated on Kenso’s.
“A worthy sacrifice. Look.”
Kenso looked up and then back at his sandals.
The priest smirked. “Come. We have much to do. The Red God demands.”
On their way back down the street, the people again kneeled to him. One man was hurrying from the opposite direction, a basketful of fish in his arms and his eyes marveling in the luck of his hefty catch. The priest did not change his course, continuing as though the fisherman was not there. By the time the fisherman noticed the kneeling of the people around him, he was nearly upon the priest. With a gasp, he abandoned his basket and dropped to his knees. The slimy fish spilled out from the basket when it hit the ground, and they flew into the priest’s legs.
The priest froze. The fisherman whimpered for mercy. The priest laughed a hollow sound and leapt in the air. Then he came down like a hurricane, his fists raining thunder upon the man’s back. Up and down he went again and again, but the fisherman moved only down. The man screamed and cried, but all of the onlookers were silent.
They must follow the laws, Kenso knew. The priest appeased the Red God, without whom the villagers would be defeated by the ever-creeping jungle. Without the Red God, there would be no lifeblood in their veins. To offend the priest was to insult the god, Kenso thought, but still… the priest’s display of brutality was unsettling. Kenso had seen him up close. He had seen the look in the priest’s eyes. Violence thrilled the priest of the Red God.
Finally, the priest slowed before standing up, his shoulders heaving with panting breaths, gazing down upon the ruined form of the fisherman.
“Take him away!”
The kneeling people sprang to their feet and hauled the man’s body off towards the river. The priest adjusted his reed skirt and continued on his way back to the temple.
Kenso wondered, what exactly did they fear? The god or the priest?
Kenso’s eyes met those of an old women struggling back to her feet. She collapsed back to the ground, pressing her forehead into the dirt at Kenso’s feet.
Or maybe anyone in the red, he thought. He felt guilty at how he felt about her reaction. Strong. Untouchable. Then the priest snapped at him, and he was afraid again.
When they arrived, the priest gestured to the deacons sitting at the table in the entry room who stood quickly and left soundlessly. Some of the torches need to be replaced, for the room had grown dim, mostly illuminated by the bloodred sky of the setting sun. Kenso had grown accustomed to the dry, smoky air of the temple’s halls, but now the sticky air of the jungle slithered in through the door, past the sweating deacon outside.
The priest sat on one of the blackened log stools and nodded towards the other. Then he began to eat the berries that the deacons had left on the table, shoveling them into his mouth with awful squelching noises. Their crimson juice splattered onto the table. Kenso sat so that he was leaning slightly away from the priest.
“Eat. I chose you to live, so your starving serves the Red One no purpose.” He watched Kenso tentatively eat a few berries. “I will tell you of our purpose. You must know how to act as an acolyte of the Red One. Forget your old, lowly ways. You walk with the spirit of Blood and Fire.”
“How should I do so, master?”
“The people fear us. You fear me still.”
“This is the power of the Red God?”
“Yes and no. When you were a man, no one feared you. I saw your eyes. Marco was bold, but you feared a change in the wind, the deep shade of a jungle pathway, the fires of the Red One. You may speak. We are conversing. You must ask questions to understand.”
“Why did you choose me to live? Why not choose Marco to serve in life?”
“I chose you because you know fear. Fear is most important. It is the greatest weapon of the Red God. When the peasants in the village fear me, they obey our god. When you fear me, you will obey me. You will listen so that you will learn. Marco could have been a deacon, but he did not understand fear enough to be an acolyte.”
“So… you want to frighten the people in the village? I think we would follow the Red God without fear. He protects us.”
“No. The people in the village are only useful because they have beating hearts. Yes, alone, they are meaningless. But, as long as they worship the Red God, they have purpose. Fear forces them to follow.”
Kenso thought about the priest’s speech at the sacrifice of Marco. “But the Red God ‘gives us the power to fight the Green.’ Would they not worship because he gives us life?”
“No. Fear. Fear is the way of the Red God… That is enough for today.” The priest resumed his consumption of the red berries.
Kenso watched him and pondered. The priest certainly had power, but why would the Red God oppress his own people? How much of the priest’s fearmongering was commanded by the Red One, though? Kenso had seen him. The priest desired to be feared. He desired to harm people.
That was the priest, not the god.
The priest stood and spoke before leaving the room, “Serve the Red God, and the people will fear you too.”
Kenso was afraid.
~ ~ ~
The next day, the priest summoned Kenso back to the chamber of the bonfire. The shelves were covered in jars of various powders and the priest’s red mask.
“We have more work for the Red God today.” The priest reached into one of the jars and tossed the powder into the fire which had been allowed to shrink and cool when not in use for a ritual. The powder sizzled in the flames, and black smoke poured thickly into the chamber, filling it as it was too heavy to rise through the vent quickly. Kenso choked until a wave of heat burst through the smoke, sending it into the sky. The flames roared higher as the priest cast more of a different powder into them.
“You will make another offering! Blood into the Fire!”
Kenso looked at and rubbed the bandage on his left hand.
“Not yours. You must leave behind your life in the village.”
One of the deacons was walking backwards into the chamber on their side, dragging something heavy behind him. The deacon turned upon passing the doorway, dragging a headless corpse with him. Kenso was glad for the Red God’s fire, for the smoke was too thick to carry the smell of the rot. The deacon threw the body at Kenso’s feet and left the room. A deacon, the same or another, Kenso could not tell, appeared on the ledge at the opposite side of the chamber.
The priest simply stood watching Kenso who forced himself to look at the body again. He saw the broad shoulders and the muscled chest, caked in dark, dried blood.
The body was Marco’s.
Kenso stood still for several minutes before he looked at the priest again. The priest smiled viciously and pointed his clawed finger at the body.
“Into the fire. Leave that filth behind you.”
When Kenso would not respond, the priest leapt forward and shrieked into his face, spittle covering the acolyte’s face. Still, Kenso would not touch the body.
“How dare you disobey me?! I am the priest of the Red One. My words are his commands.”
The priest struck the acolyte. Kenso’s face was a twisted visage of misery, as pitiful as the priest’s mask was dreadful.
“Do you not want to serve the Red God?”
“I can’t. I won’t,” he whispered. “Throw me in the fire yourself. I do not want to serve.”
The priest clawed Kenso’s chest. Again. The claws left deep red gashes across Kenso’s skin. Kenso stepped backwards and stumbled over the body. The priest grabbed his upper arms and heaved, but Kenso was afraid to die. His words were bolder than his fear.
The priest and the acolyte locked arms, struggling at the edge, over the blazing fire below. In the priest’s eyes, Kenso saw the rage of fire and the hunger for blood. Kenso knew that his own eyes must be showing his panic, his fear. To be a priest of the Red God was to be feared and obeyed. Kenso dreaded the consequences of refusing the Red God’s priest. Would he be tormented after death?
Then, he understood. He was afraid of always being afraid.
The two wrestled back and forth. Finally, a body fell screaming down into the flames. The new priest of the Red God stood over the edge, panting, inhaling the heat of the fire. Then, he walked over and took up the mask, affixing it to his face. He stood over Marco’s body for a moment and thanked him for his sacrifice before he shoved it into the fire as well. The deacon stood at attention across the flame.
Kenso walked back through the hallways and outside to gaze upon his village below. Now they would fear him. Now he was untouchable. Having become fear itself, Kenso was no longer afraid.