The leather pack weighs heavy on his shoulder as he trudges over the rocky terrain. Occasionally he balances himself by grabbing hold of one of the many trees that have grown so closely together their roots must be suffocating each other.
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For a brief moment, he stops to wipe his brow and to listen to the sounds of the forest. He hears a squirrel scurrying along a tree branch to his right and a group of birds chirp in manic conversation somewhere in the distance. Otherwise, he hears nothing, which is in some ways a relief. He is not being followed and perhaps his presence has gone unnoticed.
The late afternoon heat has sapped some of his strength and he eagerly awaits the comfort that nightfall should bring even if it will hide the marks that he is pursuing. Along the ground is a trail made by the body that they drug and sporadically he discerns errant drops of blood. They had been careful but not quite enough.
He continues forward hoping to find his prey before midnight but he doubts he will be that lucky. Somewhere to his left he hears a small cracking sound and the sudden patter of fast moving feet. Fearful, he grabs at his hip and the only weapon he has time to brandish: A short, fat-bladed knife that has perhaps seen the grindstone one too many times. He waves it wildly before him, startling the rabbit into a sudden retreat.
He grins a big stupid grin, marvelling at his own shakiness, and everything untenses. He reaches down to resheath the knife, and as he does, the loop of wire slips over his neck, pulling tight. His breath is cut off in a strangled -gwak!- and he feels himself lifted bodily off the ground, his dirty bootheels kicking wildly back and forth. He claws at his neck in a panic, but cannot get at the wire, which has already begun to burrow into the tender flesh of his throat. He rises further and sees a foot, dirty and unshod, resting on the branch of a tree. His vision fading, his throat a roaring inferno, he rocks forward and grabs at the foot.
To his surprise, he manages to wrap one hand around the painted ankle. It is enough. He pulls it roughly toward him, and the man topples backward with a yell of surprise. The pressure on his neck is suddenly and miraculously gone, and he falls back to earth, landing painfully on his back.
He is up in a second, ripping the wire off of his neck and tossing it aside. He catches sight of a surprised face rising above the nearby foliage and leaps, a choked and ragged cry escaping his lips. His target, doubly surprised, falls backward and he is on the man like a wild thing, raining blow after blow into the painted face below him. After a time, his knuckles bruised and bloody, he subsides. The painted man lies beneath his legs, choking and sputtering on his own blood, his face a ruined, pulpy mess. He leans down next to the painted man's ear and says:
"Where is Sophia?"
"Ptlagin. Fuck you."
He snarls, a gutteral, uncouth sound, and jams a thumb into the painted man's eye. The man screams- a high, wavering shriek- and thrashes about, blood already oozing from the wounded eyesocket.
"I ask you again: Where is Sophia?"
The painted man spits blood at him. "End of the trail, Ylatcha. You no like to see her now, though, I think. Giklagkin, Myf Vesse!" The painted man laughs wildly, and he rams his thumb again into the eyesocket. With a jerk, the man subsides, and he gets to his feet, wiping his thumb on his pants. A moment later, he is gone down the trail
Ahead, the path ends before a circle of rocks, each painted with a single barbaric symbol which he cannot read. The centre of the circle is sandy, but the sand has been stained red by a large quantity of recently-spilled blood. He knows, from his previous studies, that their circle is a place of worship for the Forest God, one of their foolish and unfounded idols. He knows that he has nothing to fear by stepping into the circle- what harm can a god created by a bunch of savages do an educated man like him?- yet his heart quavers. He tells himself that it quavers in fear for Sophia.
He steps around the last of the trees, and is given a full view of the circle. It is this view that causes his eyes to widen, causes him to let loose that terrible, throat-tearing scream into the still jungle air. It is his wife, Sophia. She has been tied hand and foot to the bore of a rowan tree. Her eyes, hands, feet, and tongue have been removed. These have been carefully set on the branches above her head. From her mouth, from her empty eyesockets, and from the stumps where her hands and feet had been boil fat, leathery leaves. Her mouth bulges with them. At her wrists and ankles the leaves are still attached to branches, which have been hammered raggedly into her flesh. He screams and screams and screams, and when the shadow falls across the foliage behind his wife, he thinks to himself: The Forest God! The Forest God! The Forest G-"
The poisoned dart hits him high in the neck, and he falls bonelessly to the ground. The chief nods, pleased, and the painted men climb down from the trees, each taking a limb of the limp, muscular body. With a grunt of effort, they lift it, and carry it slowly out of the stone circle, their decorated faces showing a mixture of revulsion and reverence. In the trees, the chief's son watches the proceedings with wide eyes.
"Father," he says, in the language of his people. "Does the Forest God really exist?"
"My son, that is the question I asked my own father- then the chief of our people- when I witnessed my first sacrifice. I was even younger than you at the time, not a single ring in my ear. It was very frightening for me."
"What did he say to you, father?"
The chief tugs absentmindedly at an earring, his eyes glassy, his mind elsewhere. "When I asked him, he looked surprised- at first I feared he might strike me. Then he laughed and said to me: My son, I know not, but my father, and his father before him have performed such rituals, and always have we been rewarded by long life and much prosperity. With such blessings as these, why monkey with the ceremony now?"
The son appears to contemplate this. "I see..."
The chief turns to regard his son. "Do you believe he was wise in thinking so?"
"No," says the boy, "But I would not risk it either."
The chief throws back his head and laughs. It is a joyful, unabashed sound. He puts an arm around his son's shoulders. "Come," he says. "They will be preparing the body by now."
Without a word, they dissapear into the jungle.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.