My town had a homecoming parade for me. Not so much a parade as a fair. And not so much for me as for the whole town. Scheduled regularly. Every other week in the summer.
Nobody missed me coming home, except Jake, my best friend from high school. The town thought my muscles could be put to better use working here. My parents disowned me the moment I set foot out of our borders. Jake bucked the trend even though he was timid. That was one of the reasons he didn’t sign up for the military, the other being that he was a bit of a wuss and scared of guns. I personally like the little pop noises they made and watching cans fly off into the woods. He didn’t mind watching, but wouldn’t touch one for target practice.
“Ferris wheel or bumper calls?” he asked, chowing down on the last bite of cotton-candy.
“Bumper cars, obv,” I replied.
The fairgrounds were occupied only by a few tourists passing through. It garnered enough of a attention for the leaders of the town to approve it year after year though, with only minor additions and updates to keep it attractive. Just attractive enough, wouldn’t want too many people moving here, they said. This old town needed the people.
Jake and I smashed cars together, chased girls, and ended up drunk at the Yellow Cab. It was an ironic name considering we didn’t have any cabs, yellow or otherwise, but had a great big shell of one on its roof. It felt really good to be here with him, after the desert. This place was home in my bones. The town knew it, and I knew it.
“So Casandra, did you kill anyone?” he said.
“Ah, comon man. You know that’s the one question you’re not supposed to ask.” I pushed my beer back and forth between my hands.
“Oh yeah…did you see action then?” he followed up.
“Yes,” I groaned. I’d been friends with him forever, but Jake had a habit of asking inappropriate questions. Probably due to some social que class he missed.
Jake rolled the ice in his glass around and looked at it thoughtfully, before draining the muddy, cheap rum inside and ordering another. I didn’t know Jake really even drank, but we were well into our cups already.
“I’ve got a proposition for you,” he half-whispered to me. “Come down to the lake with me tonight. Just to take a look for old time’s sake. If you don’t like it, you can keep your bag packed and head out of town like I know you’re itching to do.”
“No,” he cut me off, “don’t protest. I know you’ve been keeping that bag packed because you’re a bit restless now. You’ve seen the world and now it’s beckoning you to the next best place or maybe the mountains to meet Buddha or some other god, I don’t know,” he grinned.
I looked him over. Jake held his tongue, which I know was hard for him. It was cute when he was trying. He knew it too, it was in that little curl of a smile on one side of his mouth.
“I’ll bite,” I said. “Do I need to bring anything with me?”
His eyes lingered over my knife on my belt a second too long before snapping back up.
“No, I think you’ll be fine,” he replied flatly.
We didn’t hustle our way out of the bar but our drinking stopped then.
The lake was quiet as we sat on the shoreline. Cicadas crooned their constant song throughout the forest surrounding the lake, and the scent of damp pine air filled my nose. If I could live here, at the edge of town instead of near the coal mines, this place might be bearable. The town knew I wouldn’t stick around, likely why they gave me the cold shoulder on return instead of the good old Kentucky welcome.
I was about to pop a beer when I saw a deer with its head bent down drinking water across the lake in the bright moonlight. Moss covered its titanic antlers, hanging down at the sides. The most prominent thing about it, was the sheen of gold coming off of it and the soft glow it cast around it.
“Fuc…” I was muffled as Jake held his hand over my mouth. The deer raised its head and I realized then how big this creature was. It towered close to half the height of a full grown pinetree. Glancing back and forth, it sauntered away into the forest.
“That’s an Exotic!” I whispered between Jake’s fingers. They hadn’t been seen in this area in an age. They were rarer than getting struck by lightning and rumored to be about as powerful.
“Let’s catch it,” Jake said.
“You’ve got to be crazy! That thing is the size of a house,” I said.
“The leaders would love it,” he said gleefully. I frowned and a cold sweat began to creep up my back. I felt a familiar relaxation come over me, my eyes narrowing, the changes that happen to a person while waiting for enemy forces to roll over a hill.
“What have you been doing with them?” I pried.
“I’ve been doing great things,” Jake replied. “Wonderful things! I heard you used to help them before you left to…you know.”
“They are nothing alike, Jake,” I snapped. “I’m leaving,” my slight buzz quickly fading into adrenaline.
“Just like you did before!” he called after me. “We can do this Casandra, we can be heroes!” he said as I left.
I ground an overcooked steak between my teeth while staring at rerun shows on TV at the local bar. Nothing better for a hangover like crappy meat. The bar was empty except for the bartender, who cleaned the same glass for the eighth time while staring at me. I took note of my unwelcome presence and left some crumpled bills on the counter as I left.
My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark road as I drove through the mountains to the edge of town. I rolled down my window to feel the warm air start to mix with the cooler forest and to smell that pine one last time. A glow lit the road ahead, and as I came around the corner, I saw a group of people fighting over a creature towering over them, ropes strapped around it in various places. The creatures horns swung back and forth, arcing over the people below.
“Casandra! I knew you’d show, help us bring it down!” Jake yelled with a smile. He tried to dig into the ground, the sounds of people being pulled through it all around. The creature screamed as the people tried to hold it still. I stopped my car, my chest tightening up as I stepped out. The ground rumbled beneath my feet as the monster crashed to the ground, finally worn out and pinned by the netting and ropes cast around it. Something pulled at me inside. My eyes welled up with tears, and I clenched my fists together and held my breath to keep from letting them go.
“The altar isn’t far, this will provide for us for…for who knows how long! We won’t have even have to run that carnival anymore for tourists!” Jake grinned. The other townsfolk were also pleased with themselves. I overheard how the dark god my little town worshipped would be sated with the blood of this Exotic for many moons to come. It’s not like they enjoyed killing the tourists. Although some made easier work of it than others.
“I didn’t think you wanted to be part of this,” I said to Jake. “I thought you’d have a better life than this.”
“Hey now,” Jake said, frowning, “Look at me, I’m still in my prime. I’ll always be in my prime because of our sacrifices. So will we all!” Jake waved his hand around to the people who were dragging the creature through the woods now. Its bleated cries made me shiver with rage. I was glad the lights were going away so Jake couldn’t see my eyes very well.
“It’s been a millennia since we’ve sacrificed an Exotic. I’m sure he’ll even see it in his heart to give you your grace back. You found it after all!” Jake beamed.
I waited a moment, nodded my head in agreement, and Jake clapped me on the back as we walked into the forest. The trail through the woods was short, so the creature didn’t suffer many injuries as it was pulled through the forest. They had the altar already lit up, blood dried from last month’s moon was visible on and around it, as it was lit by bonfire and torches. No electronics allowed, not that they would work out here in this altar to a forgotten god.
The beast cried as it was tethered to the altar. The priest who baptized me in blood performed the rituals I had seen since I was of age. His knife waved through the air as I gathered close with the other chanting people. I had never seen an Exotic sacrificed before, only people. A feeling crawled up inside of me that didn’t have a name. A soldier didn’t murder people, they fought them for land, or blood, or oil, or any number of stupid reasons but they fought them on the field of battle.
As the ceremony continued, I slipped around to the side where I could see the Exotic’s eyes. Great blue eyes followed me. Its cries stopped, and it seemed time did, too, for a moment. The knife came swiftly from my belt and snapped the nearest rope in a swipe heavy enough to down a man.
Before the priest could utter another syllable, the creature turned and bit him in half, the ropes loosening and snapping as his bones ground under gigantic teeth. The townsfolk rushed to keep it under control but the creature was faster. Gore splattered me as the antlers speared multiple men, flinging their insides out.
I backed away into the woods as they did their best. Perhaps in capturing it they had the element of surprise, because the creature laid them low in a bloody battle in which it emerged nearly unscathed, crushing fleeing folk as the last few tried to run. I saw part of Jake attached on an antler.
The creature moved around, sniffing the ground, looking over the corpses. I moved behind a tree and held my breath. Thousands of years of history were wiped out in a moment. I doubted these people would get back up and walk again, as the Exotic’s were rumored to be able to wipe out even our immortality.
A large head with a pale blue eye came around the tree. For a moment, we both stood still in time.
And then it was gone. Perhaps to the town to seek further revenge, but I didn’t care. This wasn’t my town anymore. This wasn’t my god. The altar was crushed beyond repair, and the only person who could repair it was hanging in multiple pieces on trees in the grove, along with my best friend.
I turned my back on my friend’s remains, and let my tears fall as I drove out of town.