The Final Sacrifice
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He said nothing. He did nothing. But watch. Fitting, Deathwatcher thought. Though he was not at all happy about it. Very much the opposite of happy.

The cave loomed over and ahead. Even more dim than it had always been. The only semblance of light emanated from a small flame in the middle. Deathwatcher stared at it. The flame danced on a small bowl filled with pitch, which sat on an altar of stone carved straight from the middle of the cave chamber. For winters unremembered deer, birds, squirrels, and prisoners had met their end on that stone. Staked down, coated in pitch, and set alight to the Sun’s eternal fiery gratitude. Deathwatcher twitched his agonized, blackened, flesh, but kept his stare on the flame all the same.

Deathwatcher sat on his throne of rock, saying nothing, doing nothing. In appearance he resembled any in the race that inhabited The Hill. A tall, skinny, stem topped with a body shaped like a spearhead, and two smaller spear-shaped arms, pinkish in color. At least that was the look of those who lived in these parts. He sat on his throne with the only limb he had left: an arm. His skinny stem ended in a blackened stump not far from his body. His other arm had been removed entirely. His body and remaining arm were blackened and crispy. Too little of him left, he thought, to contain the raging storm that desperately tried to escape, only letting itself known to the outside in a twitch of his body and a flick of his arm.

“Elder Deathwatcher?”

The voice he knew all too well. His second-in-command, and after today the new Elder of the Flaming Antlers. Blackbone hopped to the sitting Elder on his stone throne, giving a slight bow. The tips of his own arms blackened and crisp, never again would the warrior hold a mace or even an antler, but that didn’t matter. After what Blackbone had done, no other would Deathwatcher trust to lead the tribe. The Elder kept his gaze on the flame, and lightly raised his arm. I hear you. I am listening.

“The budlings should be far and safe by now. The last of the tribe are leaving the cave,” He glanced up, and then back to Deathwatcher. “The preparations are almost ready… and they are almost here.”

Deathwatcher gave as much a nod as he could. I hear you. Continue.

From behind the Elder came another looming figure. This one different, from the Sun Province in fact, as indicated by his teal flesh and single large body lined with thin spines. Even for a Sun inhabitant, he was towering, though not with the will to back it up.

“It’s… it’s all done.” The tall prisoner said.

“Thank you, Wagon,” Blackbone replied. “Now get on up there with the rest.”

The Prisoner once named Wagon gave Deathwatcher a slight bow, and began to make his way to the other end of the cave chamber. The dim light highlighted painful spots of crispy black on his flesh as he did.

“You want the stick again?” Blackbone said. “I said get up there… NOW! UP!

The Prisoner picked up his pace, tripping as he did. He righted himself and hurried up out of the chamber as Blackbone hopped towards him. “GET OUT! GO YOU MISERABLE RAY OF SUNSHINE!

Blackbone hopped back to the other end of the room, where the Elder sat. “Lazy, miserable, ray of sunshine he is. Slow too, in both the ways that count. What shall we do with him when we leave?”

Deathwatcher painfully pointed his arm to his Second-in-Command.

“You want me to make the decision?”

Deathwatcher gave another small nod. Yes. I could care less about him anyway.

“Hm, well, I'll see how useful he is on the run. Anyways, do you remember what you have to do?”

Deathwatcher gave a nod, deeper, more painful, as if to emphasize his yes.

“Well then…” Blackbone turned and looked around, partly to take in one last look, and partly to make sure the chamber was empty of any other soul. “…this is it.”

He took a seat across from Deathwatcher, on the altar of stone. “I have to say, I will miss you, until we’re reunited on the Great Tree. I hope my death will be as blazing and glorious as yours is about to be.”

Deathwatcher gave one last small nod. Goodbye.

Blackbone rose, grabbing the pitch-filled flaming bowl from the stone altar. Though hot, it barely stung his already burned and numb arms. He sat it on the throne, next to Deathwatcher’s remaining arm. With that he hopped away, to the end of the chamber. Then stopped, and turned.

“You were the greatest Elder I ever knew, I would follow you into that burning battlefield a hundred more times. We’ll sing songs of your sacrifice until the wind turns the mountains to dust. Farewell, Elder.”

Deathwatcher felt a small flicker of longing, sadness even, as he heard the words and watched his greatest soldier, his greatest friend, disappear up the tunnel and out of the chamber. And then, as it was before, nothing but anger and determination. Now he sat on his throne, all alone in the growing darkness.

Time grew on, Deathwatcher tried as he could to keep the occasional spasms of his arm under control. If he knocked the bowl down, the plan would be a failure, and he alone would die. He did the only thing he could do, watching. Watching and reflecting. Everything that had led him here.

The faintest of memories, those of the Mother Tree up above. The texture of the bark, the feeling of sustenance pumped from branch into stem, growing his body from budling to a standard of perfect physique. The pain of being cut from the tree, his first hops on the ground. That was all he remembered from those days, and it was the last time he would have the luxury to look back. Deathwatcher remembered his first time with a mace, how clumsy his first swing was, and the one after that, and the one after that. They had given up on him, he remembered, when he failed to notice a squawking bird come up behind him as he angrily attempted to slash a tree, and so they made him watch the cave. During the day of course, just to add further insult. And more when they gave him the name Cavewatcher. They gave him a spear, a more cowardly weapon than a mace, though not a bow. They didn’t consider him that cowardly. The days came and went, until the realization crept in. Cavewatcher was not good enough to be a member of the Flaming Antlers. He could go west, where the Hill inhabitants were more civilized (As civilized as any in the Hill would be). He could go south, into the Fire Province, the City of Ash even. He pondered these choices, yet he only went forward, into the forest. This was only time he could remember when he truly let go of his hate, and desperately looked and listened for an answer.

That answer was a buck. Trudging along through the trees, with not a care in the world as to what wasn’t in front of it. Anger? Jealousy? Duty? Whatever the reason, the animal was wounded with a stab to the leg, and after a chase, collapsed. Cavewatcher had lifted his spear to prove his worth, but lowered it. It was the weapon of the weak after all. Instead, he grabbed hold of the buck’s antler, pushing and pulling and whacking the base with his spearhead, all through the animal’s yells, until he could pry it free. Cavewatcher saw in the buck’s black eyes all the rejection, the insults of “weakling” and “thoughtless”. There was yelling, from who he couldn't really say, as he brought the buck’s own antler down again and again until it stopped moving, and then more. What he hadn’t noticed was those from the cave who had come to to the noise, and arrived in time to see its end. From that day forward, he was never made to watch the cave again. Though he could never shake his name for a long time.

There is not much to tell afterwards. Every day he swung antler and mace, on his own, until he perfected every movement of his body, a true warrior. It was during the last ten or so winters of King Snowflake that the Flaming Antlers and the Mountain’s Maces had their skirmishes, which of course grew into fighting. The old Elder fell in that fighting, and it was Cavewatcher who took charge of his tribe. Upon his successful return to the caves, he was declared Elder. Cavewatcher changed his name to Deathwatcher and made sure all others would refer to him properly. Sometimes it took “encouragement”, but Cavewatcher was no more.

Then the day came. The Branch of the Hill crowned himself the King of the Hill. Just the thought of the King now sent the storm inside Deathwatcher into a rage. Every tribe and mountain clan was called on to fight. Few gave any resistance, Deathwatcher and the Flaming Antlers least of all. As much as Hill tribes bicker and skirmish, there is one enemy that is hated more than all others, the King Under the Sun. And this King Flame had insulted them more than any sane one would dare. Deathwatcher and his warriors went west, arriving at the Hill Palace just in time to see their new King crowned. Cloudcatcher had arrived soon after them, and it was he they followed south into the bogs to clash with Thorn Strong’s forces. That was Deathwatcher’s first taste of true battle, and he felt more alive than he had ever been. Yet it was barely over before Cloudcatcher pulled his army north to retake the Hill Palace. On the way seeing for themselves the work done by the Sun-soldiers. At a slaughtered village they stopped to bury bodies. ‘A waste of time,’ he had commented then, it was war, and the way he saw it the Sun-soldiers were playing just as fair as they were. Days later, in the middle of a dark and stormy night, they arrived at the Hill Palace. While Deathwatcher could safely say the Battle of the Bogs was the pinnacle of his time as a warrior, the Battle of the Burning Tree cast him far past rock bottom.

It had started well enough, the chant began at the front, and moved throughout the force. There was little music among the Flaming Antlers, yet even Deathwatcher had heard ’I am the Hill’ more times than he cared. Out of the trees and into the camp of the Sun-warriors they burst. And for a moment, Deathwatcher felt the glory of battle a second time.

‘RAZE IT! RAZE IT ALL!’

Deathwatcher could live another hundred winters and never forget the sound of those words, and the image of what happened next. An entire mother tree, budlings and all, up in flames. He had stopped himself then. A mix of terror, awe, and beauty, and then rage. He spotted the owner of the voice, the one they called High Commander Sharpaxe. Consumed by pure anger, Deathwatcher sent his deer into a charge, the only thing that existed was vengeance for the screaming and dying around him. But Sharpaxe hadn’t noticed him. In all his fury, Deathwatcher never saw the burning mother tree above him. Not before a flaming branch came down from above. The last thing he remembered was his deer taking off flaming and screeching. It was two days before he came to his senses again, and three more before the pain was somewhat bearable. It was Blackbone who had reached his arms into the flame and pulled him out. Deathwatcher, the rest of the wounded, and a few Sun prisoners were taken back east. Even now he knows little of what transpired in the west after the battle. He knew that Cloudcatcher was last seen hopping away flaming and screaming. The Sun forces had travelled west, followed by some clicking forest monster. Just recently the King of the Hill had sent another force south to finish them. And I hope they’re all slaughtered, Deathwatcher thought, And the King of the Sun and the King of the Hill and all who serve them!. The Elder twitched in his throne.

By the time they had returned to the cave, Deathwatcher was painfully aware of what the fire had taken. Half of his stem was burned and had fallen off. His arm had to be removed, and at times he wished the other one had been too. Even his body and head were left burned and twisted, unable to speak or move outside of twitches, nods, and points. The Elder counted himself lucky that his Second in Command was wise enough to see that the same Deathwatcher still inhabited his husk of a body. His tribe sat him on his throne as if he was still their same great warrior. But I am not, he knew. No Flaming Antler, much less an Elder, should have to give his orders through small, painful, movements. He wondered if he could still laugh. He definitely would by the end of the day, on the outside or inside.

Then, a messenger, from the King of the Hill. Three demands, to each tribe, from the King himself:

”All tribal leaders must send a portion of their resources for the war effort.” Taxes, you mean. And you believe he will stop this collection when the war is done? Once he receives this power, he will not let it go.

”Weaponry and forces will now be standardized. Two-thirds of your fighting force must be trained in either spears or maces, and the last third in archery.” An organized force is well enough, but no Flaming Antler will go into true battle with a spear. And we will slice you down before taking up something as cowardly as a bow. Killing must be personal.

”All tribal leaders must rebrand themselves under the title of Noble. And swear their undying fealty to the King of the Hill. Any tribal traditions found to be in violation of the King’s law, including warring with other Hill Tribes, and the sacrificing of animals which could be used for better purposes are banned.” I might as well pledge myself to King Flame, and let him burn the rest of me.

With that, Deathwatcher ordered the messenger’s arm burned and had him sent back to the King, with his own demand. His tribe has been preparing to leave ever since. He will send a unit of his own warriors to uphold his demands, the Elder knew, he waited for them now. Behind him, in the dark corners of the cave, were two recesses filled with pots of pitch. All that was holding them back were a set of stones held up by sticks tied with strings. Their ends led to Deathwatcher’s stem, hidden by a small blanket draped over his lower body. The bowl of flaming pitch sat next to his twitching arm, both more than ready. He waited.

“Any in there?” A voice came at last. Deathwatcher sat as still as he could.

In hopped a Commander of the Hill, in his arm an iron mace. Trailing behind him were several lesser warriors, who began peering around the chamber.

“Elder Deathwatcher! I knew I could find you here! Or should I say, Noble Deathwatcher.”

Deathwatcher twitched in his throne, wanting more than anything to drive a mace into this stranger’s face. He wanted to pull away the sticks and let the pitch flow, but he needed them closer, all of them.

The Commander laughed, “You have appeared better, that I will say. I don’t believe you remember me, does the name Track happen to bring something up in there?”

Even if Deathwatcher cared enough to search his memories for that name, he would come up empty. Track sat on the altar across from the Elder. Where earlier Blackbone had been delivering a different message.

“We battled together,” Track said. “In the bogs countering Thorn Strong. You remember? What a mess. You know, I never did find out which hero of an archer shot him out of that tree.”

Hero and archer in the same sentence. This Commander knew Deathwatcher and his tribe well. The storm inside was growing.

“Of course enough of that was just the Thorn’s stupidity. Scaling a tree in the middle of a battle? Perhaps that’s why Sharpaxe burned the biggest tree around, to avoid the temptation of climbing it himself. I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t there to see that one. I heard it was quite the sight.”

Quite the sight, quite the sound, quite the pain. Pain you will feel. Deathwatcher wasn’t ready to knock the pitch just yet. How much more infuriating could this Commander be?

“Now, you sent quite the message back to the King. I will say. Burning some messenger’s hand? It wasn’t his own words he was telling you, the King merely assumed you understood the concept of a message. Let me explain…”

Deathwatcher was as furious as he had ever been, his body was near shaking. The storm inside had surpassed the one which blew over the Kingdom the night he burned.

"…You tell a messenger something… they take it to another… and deliver it. It is not their words, but that of who sent them. Get it? Good. Now there is something I want to get…" Track rose from the altar, hopping towards the Elder in his throne, “why is your tribe gone? Where did they go? Were they scared of me? Am I not nice? That hurts, Noble Deathwatcher, that hurts hard,” He paused, and leaned towards the Elder. “You are nothing but a burned lump of flesh. You and your tribe, they will get what is coming, sooner or later. Though sooner for you…”

Consumed by pure anger, the only thing in front of him was vengeance. With a single, agonizing movement, he yanked his stem, pulling the strings.

Track peered into him, as if looking at a pet. Deathwatcher pulled again, but the string was loose. Two Hill warriors came from either side, holding the end of a cut string. No… no… NO NO

“You cannot move, you cannot speak, and you are still the most predictable warrior in the Kingdom.”

Deathwatcher spasmed and twitched in his throne, slumping. The storm inside rivaled everything the Kingdom had ever experienced combined. That was it, wasn’t it? Anger, rage, that's all there was, and only what was in front. And now it cost him everything.

“Well, we both know you were never going to leave this cave. And seeing you now, I don't think any more should see you like this.”

The Elder slid off his throne, onto the cold stone floor. The thunder and wind inside began to clear, but the rain remained.

“Before I unceremoniously bring your fire-happy ceremonies to an end, I figure you’d appreciate one more offering to the Sun,” Track turned to one of his warriors. “Go get a pot.”

The Mighty Elder Deathwatcher twitched and struggled as he was picked up and carried to the altar. His spasming, crisp, body was set on the stone. Everything trapped inside at last erupted. The entire storm that had once been bottled up escaped, for the first time since the Battle of the Burning Tree he made a sound.

“…Ehee…”

Track took the pot from his warrior, and brought it to the altar, “Your last word will be remembered.” With that he emptied the contents of the pot onto the twitching Elder. Moments later, he returned, in his arms, a tiny bowl with the last embers of flame. There was only rain inside Deathwatcher now.

“I assume some ceremonial chant is supposed to accompany this moment… I wouldn’t know it.”

He dumped the flaming pitch. The Final Sacrifice lit up the chamber.

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