Big Red
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A long time ago, when the hell-gates had just closed and the moon was still low and the last of the crimson folk walked amongst men, there was a small village hidden in the mountains, much like in those other stories. Now a forest surrounded this hamlet, leaves thick as human hands and branches interlocking like so many pointed spears. It was rumored that the forest belonged to an ancient beast, remnants of the red ones who had yet to return, with the face of a bear and the claws of a hawk and the body of a woman, with teeth that were more than delighted to feast on innocent villagers. So it was good fortune that there was only one way in and out of the forest, and that an old sage who had been there for a rather long time guarded it. He had been there in his little log cabin even before the oldest villager was born, and the oldest villager heard that the sage had been there in his little log cabin even before the oldest villager in his time was born, and back and back and back. The consensus was that he had been there since time immemorial, keeping the Red Beast sated in its wooded prison with his worldly experience and accumulated skill. The symbols etched on the stones, the patches of rusted red on the grass, all played their arcane and eldritch part in keeping the village safe from the beast. And they said from time to time, if you cocked your head just right, you could hear the beast pacing about the forest, its breath red with the anticipation of escape.

But the old sage was not all-powerful, and every year at the height of the night and the low of the full moon, so he said, his charms would weaken and the beast would grow hungry. And the villagers did note that in that time of the year goats were found with their throats slashed and blood drained dry, or the soil cry salty tears of crimson, and they believed the old sage. The beast was getting out, and the only thing that would keep it in was the heart of a human child.

And every year, when the moon shone darkly and the night breathed with red, the villagers with heavy hearts would deliver the youngest new-born to the door of the little log cabin, rap once or twice on its scorched oaken door, and depart quietly before they saw the deed being done. It was cruel, and caused much unhappiness, but it worked, and the livestock was safe, and the ground no longer shed tears.

Now, one day there came to this village a lonely traveller, who had left his wealth, infamy and pursuers behind in an attempt to start his life anew. He knew not of the red folk or the beast or the mystic charms, nor of the ritual of the longest night. And when he heard of the story of the beast and its guardian he remarked, "Utter tales and folly! Why, to believe an old fool like him and the yarns he speaks of! Tonight, I will confront him with sword and make him reveal his deception!"

The villagers were mortified at this traveller’s defiance, but chose to let it pass. How could a mere air-headed youngster stand a chance against the complex charms and witchcraft of the old sage? He would be gone by midnight, proclaimed the artisan. If the beast hasn't got him yet! Chimed in the butcher, and everyone laughed at how such a young, rash mind would surely deserve such unfortunate consequences.

Despite all this, the traveller set out at night for the thick forest, gorged on good drink and good cheer. Past the rows of marked cairns, through the yawning stone arch, over the river that cried with sirens' voices, he arrived at the little log cabin with sharpened sword in hand.

Now what happened next, no one knows. But what everyone knows is that the traveller came back soon after, his hands and face stained bright red, and his eyes shot with madness. "I have killed him," cried he, "Slain the treacherous beast which plagued this land!"

And he spoke of the old sage, and how he had answered the door, and how the sage had smiled, a flash of red, a hawk's claw, he spoke even as the villagers strung him up, spoke of skins hanging from walls, little skins, little human skins, and a flash of red and how he had swung blindly again and again, spoke as the noose tightened around his neck, spoke of a bear's roar, a flash of red and the sage had lay dead before him. This was when he spoke no more, but the villagers paid his words no heed. Then he stopped twitching, and they cut him down the next day and buried him in a shallow ditch.

The next year, the ground did not bleed, the goats did not die, and the moon hung high in the midnight sky.

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