Briss slung her scarf over her neck and stuffed it inside her coat. She buttoned up her coat and checked her reflection in the glass door that led to the hallway.
She had spent the entire afternoon wrestling with papers written about a duke and the turf wars he had held with his neighbor and who had gotten which piece of the territory when. She tried to get a complete picture of how the lands of the duke had evolved through the years.
Without accurate insight who owned which lands and which land owed whom loyalty it would be hard to reconstruct movements of large groups of people and trade routes that were denoted in other historical documents and retellings.
She glanced at the map she had scribbled notes on and had drawn lines in multiple colors to denote how the borders had presumably lain in which period, with little notes references which document had led to which border. Soon that borders she had marked on the map could be entered into the map program on her pc so she could have insight how these borders evolved through the ages with interactive maps and other regions she had already mapped out.
The door opened and another woman stood there. The woman had bright orange hair, pale skin, and green eyes. Her face was long and narrow and covered in pale freckles. She wore a fluffy parka with a fur-edged hood draped over her shoulders.
“Hey Briss, are you ready for the party?”
Briss grabbed her bag from the floor and slung it over her shoulder.
“Sure thing Heather. How cold is it outside?”
“About minus five I think. But the wind has died down so it’s kinda bearable.”
Heather patted her parka and grinned at Briss.
“I bought this bad boy yesterday at Zalando. It just arrived here this afternoon. I don’t think I’ll be cold tonight. Look at this, the pockets are lined with lambswool, it’s so soft.”
Heather opened up the coat pocket for Briss to admire, which she dutifully did.
“Nice coat. Did they have one a red color available? Navy blue isn’t really my color.”
“I’m not sure. Let me check.”
Heather rummaged in her bag and pulled her mobile from it.
“Hmm, they have one in a reddish color. Here, I’ll send the link via WhatsApp then you can look at it.”
Briss felt her mobile in her bag buzz. Modern technology was such a nice marvel. Talk, share, buy and have it the next day.
“Thanks, Shall we?” Briss said as she held the door open.
“You couldn’t keep me away from this party with a thousand horses. Nothing gets the blood working like a roaring fire, a chill on my back and a slightly drunk hunk to press myself against for warmth”
Heather stepped through the door and Briss followed her. Her friend was very open about her escapades. She herself was a little more reserved and not so open and outgoing. But they both enjoyed themselves together and had enough stories to share together. To each her own.
Briss closed the door behind her and locked it. She quickly followed heather who already had a little head start.
“Hey, wait up miss eager!” She yelled after Heather as she stuffed her keys in her bag.
They arrived at the clearing in the forest near the University where the big solstice celebration would be held. The forest consisted of pine trees mixed with deciduous trees. The deciduous trees stretched their empty branches against the darkening sky as wraith like fingers that were reaching for something.
The green pines stood among them in stark contrast, as if to show off that the cold didn’t bother them anyway, giving a little life to the winterly barren forest.
The sun was setting and set the forest ablaze in orange tones and stark contrasting long shadows. Behind them, the sky was turning dark already and in a few minutes, it would be totally dark.
The clearing itself was rather large, large enough to hold two hundred people and a large bonfire. In the ground, there was a large roughly ten foot flat stone embedded in the forest floor. On the embedded stone a large pile of wood was methodically stacked with small birch twigs interspersed for the bonfire which would be lit later on when the darkness had set in.
To one side long tables were set up with snacks and kegs for drinks and some people were gathered near them chatting among themselves and laughing.
A couple of them had crafted deer head masks with large antlers with fur capes they wore, others wore white rough tunic robes over their winter clothes and had a leafy headdress made of holly and conifer.
But most people who were there were wearing their normal winter clothes and had skipped on the dress up part of the party. Just like Briss and Heather their main contribution to the atmosphere was turning up and being part of the celebration.
“Hey John” Briss said to the man who was waiting at the end of the path to the clearing.
John was wearing a white tunic which was held together by a rope over his waist. Under it, he had a black wool coat and jeans with boots. In his hand, he held a large gnarly staff that looked like had picked up a branch out of the forest and snapped the twigs off it. Which was probably exactly what he had done.
His dark eyes looked from Briss and Heather and then his eyes returned to Briss.
“Halt ye commoners, what seek ye here on this hallowed ground in the darkest night?” John asked in a dark booming voice.
“We seek to have a good time, and maybe get lucky, are you available tonight?” Heather replied promptly with a wink.
John coughed and cast his eyes to the ground, and it was hard to see through his beard but it looked like he was blushing Briss thought.
“Well then, I will not stand in your way then,” John mumbled slightly embarrassed and moved out of their way and beckoned to the clearing. He coughed one more time to clear his throat and resumed in a more confident practiced tone.
“Drinks are to the left, food on the table next over to that. If something is empty just ask someone in the red coats to refill, they’re from the catering.”
John then pointed at a path that led away from the clearing at the opposite side of the food and drink tables.
“Toilets are a little walk down that path, as are emergency services in case something would happen that requires medical assistance.”
“Thanks for the pointers, when will the fire be lit?” Briss asked.
“In a few minutes, when the sun has gone and has given in to the longest night,” John replied in a mysterious tone, which didn’t impress the women much.
“Has Jacob Douglas arrived yet?” Briss asked whilst eying the people gathered around the tables already.
“No, I haven’t seen him yet. Did he say he would come?”
“Yes, but I got this email he got a new job as professor Balduins assistant, so maybe she has him tied up or something. I’m sure he’ll turn up later.”
“He’d better turn up soon otherwise he’ll miss the opening. We have something tribal planned that works best with a lot of people. The more the better.”
Briss wanted to reply to John to ask him what was exactly planned but she was interrupted by Heather who started to tug at her arm.
“Alright then. Enough talk. Let us get some drinks!” Heather exclaimed and headed over to drinks table.
“See you later John,” Briss said and followed Heather.
John nodded back and proceeded to greet the people who were approaching the clearing.
“Halt ye commoners, what seek ye here on this hallowed ground in the darkest night?” boomed behind Briss.
Briss walked over the clearing to the tables where the kegs with various sorts of beer were positioned and found Heather pouring a beer from one of them. She held a large glass at an angle under the keg and manipulated the tap expertly and had a perfect beer tapped in a short time.
“Hey Briss! You want a beer too?”
“Sure,” Briss replied as she looked over the clearing. Better some alcohol to loosen up and to numb the cold than none at all.
It was getting dark really fast now. As they had arrived the forest had seemed to glow with orange light, but during their exchange with John the last slivers of sunlight had vanished and darkness had set over the night sky and the first stars were peeking out of the darkening blanket that was spread above them.
The clearing was illuminated by a lot of bamboo garden torches that ran on oil and a wick. The orange flickering from the torches gave the clearing a festive look and seemed to battle the darkness that was encroaching through the trees. In the trees there were cables spanned with lights hanging from them but they were turned off.
The clearing was filling up with people now the darkness had set in and a murmur resounded between the trees of all the people talking and laughing together. Wisps of frozen breath escaped from the people and with the sun gone all warmth seemed to be leaking away rapidly.
Briss accepted the freshly drafted beer from Heather and nipped from it, it cold but not freezing cold which was nice and soon it would give her a nice warm glow in her stomach. She took a bigger sip and looked at the men gathered around, trying to guess which one would catch Heather’s fancy.
“So, got your target singled out yet?” Briss asked Heather
“Not yet,” Heather replied whilst critically eying the gathered crowd.
“But the night is still young, I’m sure to find someone to keep me warm tonight, and I always have John as a fallback plan. I’m pretty confident he’s had an eye on me for the last few weeks.”
A drum started to resound through the clearing and the murmur slowly died off and people started to turn to the source of the drums.
A procession of people dressed in deer head masks moved slowly through the crowd beating drums they held under their arms. Their feet stomped on the ground following every boom on the drums. The people made room around the pyre and the drummers moved to circle the pyre.
The crowd started to clap and stamp along with the rhythm of the drumbeat. When the first circle around the pyre was completed the tempo increased and tension started to build up in the crowd. Some people started to shout along with the clapping. When the second circle was completed the tempo increased even further and the drummers beat more powerfully on the drums and a frenzied atmosphere started to build. People were stomping, clapping and shouting along with the drumbeats and the noise of the horde of people filled the entire forest, sending deer and birds running away from the ruckus.
In the darkness only illuminated by the torches and the stars in the night sky with the excited shouting white faces poking from the mostly dark coats it looked like a scene from a horror movie.
When the third circle was completed the drummers spread themselves out evenly and started drumming heavy powerful blows to the drums. Suddenly a loud howl tore through the claps and shouts and the crowd turned as one to seek the source of that massive howl.
John came forward through the crowd holding his gnarled staff with two hands and howled towards the sky. His howl tore through the ruckus raised and was audible over the shouts other people made. Nobody saw he wore a tiny microphone and his voice was amplified over the speakers that were strung up among the trees. The crowd joined his howls until the entire crowd was howling as one with John filling the forest with primal sounds.
John walked up to the pyre and turned to face the crowd his staff still raised above his head.
He slowly lowered his staff and the drums started to beat slower but deeper and the crowd whipped itself into a gigantic frenzied howl that lasted for three minutes.
John placed one staff on the ground and held up one hand. The crowd slowly died down and the drums faded away. Eventually, the clearing was just filled with the sound of people catching their breath. All eyes were on John and full of excitement and passion.
“People of the forest, welcome to this holiest of nights,” John stated in a booming voice when the crowd had died down.
“Tonight is the darkest of nights. The longest night is here and the sun has died. If we don’t resurrect the sun tonight by warming the winter out of this night it will stay dark forever!”
Mock shock cries and gasps and a couple of giggles escaped the captured audience.
John picked up a piece of cloth from the pyre and started wrapping it around his staff.
“To conquer this darkness I will light this pyre. May the light warm your hearts and set your souls ablaze.”
John held the wrapped cloth staff near one of the bamboo torches and it caught flame. He then approached the pyre with his flaming staff and held it to the birch twigs at the bottom and fire slowly started to spread up through the logs illuminating it from the inside with a bright orange glow. As he walked around the pyre to light it from more spots the drums started beating again.
“Fire in the night, shine like the sun so bright, chase away this terrifying night!” John roared.
John threw his staff on the pyre and something shifted in the pyre sending flames and sparks shooting up in the sky. The crowd cheered and clapped as John stepped back and spread his arms.
“Let’s celebrate that we will see another sunrise people!” John exclaimed with a grin on his face when the crowd had calmed down again.
Music started to play from speakers and lights started flashing their colors among the trees and the crowd started to disperse now the main event was over with people excitedly chatting among each other.
The fire grew higher and brighter illuminating the entire clearing brightly and warming up the environment around it with its radiant heat. Some people started to dance to the music, others flocked to the drinks and food stands.
Briss and Heather had remained with a few other scattered people near the pyre taking in the blaze in front of them, allowing themselves to be warmed by the heat. Briss turned around to warm her backside and started looking over the crowd.
“Say Heather, have you happened to see Jacob here?”
Heather turned and scanned the crowd.
“No, did he say he would come?”
Briss nodded, “He said so this morning when we met at the Solstice event.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up eventually. It’s not like this party will end soon. The night is still young.”
Heather nudged Briss in the ribs and pointed to a large man with blonde hair who was waiting in line at the drinks table talking with someone behind him.
“I’m going in.” She said and moved towards her target.
“Good luck,” Briss shouted over the music after Heather.
Now she was on her own. She stood for a few moments further at the pyre which was popping and cracking nicely now the fire was fully ablaze. Sparks were shooting high up in the sky giving the impression as if the fire was leaking upwards before dying out against the night sky.
She eyed the buckets of water that stood there as a security measurement and wondered how much good they would do with a fire this big if one of the trees surrounding the clearing would catch fire.
She moved towards the food table and got herself a hot meat pie and started eating it leisurely whilst tapping her foot to the beat of the music. Mmmm, that was a good meat pie.
“Mind if I join you?” John asked.
Briss opened her eyes and lifted her head from her hands where it had been resting. She had sat down on one of the plastic lawn chairs that were scattered around the clearing. Briss had closed her eyes for a few moments to stop the world from being off balance. She probably had a few beers too much which was only had problems if she looked forward though.
“Sure, take a seat. I’m not sure if I’m that wonderful company though, I might have had a few drinks too much” she replied hesitantly.
John sat down and offered Briss a glass with a clear liquid
“I know, here have some water.”
Briss accepted the water and took a big swig from the glass. She was so thirsty but her stomach felt like it was about to explode as the water went down. She felt big sweat drops building upon her back.
“Excuse me for one minute. I need to do something very unladylike.”
Briss got up unsteadily and handed the half-empty water glass back to John who grinned knowingly. She then made her way to the tree line and entered the shadows there. She leaned a hand against the rough bark of a pine tree and threw up. A seemingly never-ending stream of liquid and meat pie bits seemed to flow from her innards covering the mossy forest floor underneath her. The moonlight that shone through the trees reflected pale on the liquid beneath her. I hate throwing up Briss thought to herself. She heaved a few times more until she was sure nothing more would be coming out. She stood straight and stepped aside out of the path her vomit was seeking along the forest floor, and leaned against the tree and took a few deep breaths.
After a few minutes, her stomach had relaxed a fair bit and she felt a lot better. The world had stopped swirling at least. She wiped her mouth with a tissue and crumpled the tissue in her hand. Back in the clearing she made a detour past the food table and deposited the tissue in a garbage bin and grabbed some toasted bread to munch on. It was important to get something back in her stomach after that otherwise she’d suffer horrible stomach cramps she knew out of experience.
She returned to John with half her toast already devoured and sat back down on her chair.
“Well, I’m back and still alive.”
“Feeling better?” John replied
“Yea, can I have that water back?”
John handed her the glass and she took a sip from the glass, the water tasted extremely sweet, flushed her mouth and spit it out on the ground beside her chair and grimaced at the taste still in her mouth. She let her tongue go past her teeth. They felt weird, soft and rugged instead of smooth.
“Thanks. Sorry for that.”
“It’s okay, I’ve seen worse. Are you okay now?”
“I’m fine. The world stopped being on a stormy sea, but I think I’ll pass on the alcohol for the rest of the night. I don’t fancy a repeat experience.”
“It’s a shame Jacob isn’t here, I wonder why he didn’t show up for the party.”
John looked around the people standing in groups around the fire that was still going strong. In the past few hours it had been resupplied with fresh logs to keep it burning high and people stood around it with drinks in hand chatting amicably. At one side people had put up chairs in a half circle facing the fire and were singing campfire songs.
“Something must have come between, or maybe he fell asleep in that cellar of his.”
“Well his loss then”
Briss sighed and stretched herself out in the chair and looked at the people around the fire.
Heather standing with the tall blonde guy she had targeted earlier and they were talking to a group of men that were probably his friends. She noticed he had his arm around her waist and she was pressed against him. It would seem likely that Heather would not be alone in her bed tonight.
Briss faced John and wanted to point out the newly minted couple as the world seemed to dim. She looked around and noticed that everybody had stopped talking and were looking around in bewilderment. Someone started screaming and pointed to something in the sky. Briss and everybody followed where her hand was pointing and saw that the full moon that had been bright white a moment ago had turned a dark purple.
A darkness seemed to settle in the sky and she noticed all the stars had vanished from the sky. The electric lights seemed to dim and failed to penetrate the darkness that had settled over the forest. The music that played from the speakers seemed muffled and dull as if it was playing through water.
The only source of light seemed to be the fire and people flocked to the fire to escape the darkness gathering around them. As they stood body pressed to body and glances were nervously cast at the forest. Briss realized that they couldn’t even see the forest anymore. A dark purple moon hung in the sky and didn’t seem to cast any light on them. The darkness seemed palpable and people edged away from the seemingly physical shadow barrier pushing Briss closer towards the fire.
The inner circle of people stepped on the stone surrounding the fire to make room for the others. Briss stood on the edge of the stone hemmed in by panicked party guests. Shouts and cries of bewilderment rose up from the people around her and a few curses from people who got too close to the fire.
“What’s going on?”
“What is this!”
“Is this a bad party trick?”
More exclamations of such sort rose from the crowd as the initial shock of the unexpected darkness wore off. Briss looked around and felt cold inside. This was so otherworldly. Did she have too much to drink? Or had someone spiked her drink? She had been careful to monitor her drink. Was it John? She hadn’t gotten the water herself. No, that was ridiculous, if her drink had been spiked nobody else would be flipping out.
Briss felt the fire burning in her backside and the hot stone radiated the heat uncomfortably up along her legs.
She felt something moving under feet and the fire collapsed in itself sending a shower of sparks towards the sky. Cries of shock flew up through the crowd and people turned away from the darkness to see what happened behind them. Briss used the movement to step off the stone and join the people standing on the forest floor.
“I felt the ground move!” Someone close to the fire exclaimed
“I didn’t feel a thing” Another person who stood near the shadow’s edge replied.
“An earthquake?” Another person tried to suggest
People were shouting through each other and eyes were great with panic with everything that happened.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!” a shrill shriek pierced through the babble. It was the same voice that had pointed out the purple moon, but now a mad panic was clearly hearable in the voice.
People stopped their shouting and looked at where the woman was pointing. The rock where a lot of people were standing on seemed to grow long thick hairs as fast-growing grass. A really thick fur seemed to grow out of barren rock and the rock to changed under their eyes, forming cracks and creaks as if something under it was moving it and breaking it up.
People started to back away from the strange phenomenon but there was no room to back up because nobody wished to enter the impenetrable darkness behind them. Insulted shouts were shot back and forth as people stepped on toes or shoved people around. A deep grumbling seemed to come from deep underground and everybody froze up from their shuffle and looked around warily.
“What the hell now?”
“Did you hear that too?”
People started babbling again among each other in frantic fashion. Briss bent down through her knees between the people surrounding her like sardines in a can and reached out to touch the strange hairs from the rock. It was surprisingly moveable even if it looked like it was made from a hard material. The fur had long hairs at least as long as her arm and seemed to cover the entire rock.
Suddenly the rock seemed to bunch together and something large raised up from the ground sending the large burning logs flying into the crowd. People screamed in panic and a horrific scream pierced the night. An unfortunate guest’s coat had caught flame as a log had crashed into him and the flames covered his entire upper torso. The person collapsed and the body kept burning where it had fallen. People looked shocked at the gruesome sight before it became clear that he wasn’t the only victim of the strange explosion.
The people who had stood on the rock had been propelled too by the explosion and had been sent flying into the darkness, which was now pierced by the flying clumps of the fire that had been scattered around illuminating a large part of the clearing.
One person was lying down with a profusely bleeding head wound looking up at the sky as if he was wondering if it would fall. Which under the circumstances wouldn’t be too strange.
Another person had broken an arm and sat down looking at her arm stupidly as if she didn’t understand why the angle of the arm was wrong.
A lot of people though seemed to have withstood the sudden flight with minor bruises and were getting up and helping others up.
Briss looked around and saw Heather sitting on the ground and rushed over to her friend.
“Heather! Are you alright!” Briss screamed practically into Heather's face.
Heather’s face slowly turned and looked at Briss uncomprehending. Briss slapped Heather in the face and focus returned to Heather's eyes and she looked around in sudden realization something bad had happened.
“Wha… What happened?”
“The rock exploded and everybody on it was sent flying. Are you alright? Unhurt?”
Heather started patting herself down and nodded to Briss.
“Seems so. Although I think my leg is sprained.”
Briss helped Heather up and she groaned as she lifted her up.
“Can you put pressure on your foot?”
“I think so.”
Heather winced but made a few steps on her injured leg but then her face seemed to lose all color and her eyes turned wide. Briss followed the way Heather was looking and her eyes came resting on a large figure that towered above the people looking at it paralyzed in fear. It was extremely large and covered completely in thick long fur and bits and pieces of moss, earth and roots seemed to be stuck in the fur. The figure was hominid in appearance if a bit hunched down in at the shoulders and it just stood there unmoving. The only thing moving was the fur as the thing breathed. The thing breathed Briss realized and felt a panicked scream welling up in her. It grew to into a big unmaintainable pressure behind her head and she let it out. A shrill bloodcurdling scream escaped her lips and seemed to shake everyone from their stupor and they started screaming and running away from the thing that had risen from the ground.
The thing turned and revealed a large unnaturally long nose and looked at the people screaming and running away from it and guffawed in a loud booming grating laugh. It sounded as if rocks were bashed together to produce the sound. It then snapped forward lightning fast and grabbed one of the persons running away and lifted the poor man up. It was the blonde man Heather had tried to seduce and he let out a yelp as he was grabbed. The big hulking thing lifted him up to his face and studied what he had just caught.
Briss heard Heather behind her scream but it barely registered as she was frozen in place with the display unfolding in front of her. The thing broke out in a gigantic grin revealing huge teeth as big as a forearm lining its mouth under the gigantic nose.
It squeezed Matthew and Briss heard something crack loudly and a loud scream welled up from Matthew. The thing guffawed again in malicious glee and then suddenly put the man in his mouth head first and bit down. Matthew’s screams abruptly cut off and the thing started chewing on the part of Matthew that was in his mouth.
Shocked and fearful screams welled up from the people who had moved as far away as possible from the thing. A couple of people had balled up and were crying and muttering to themselves in shock from the horror display in front of them.
The thing dropped the legs he still held in his hand and it fell down on the forest floor with a wet squishing sound. Matthews entrails spread out and landed on a burning log. A roasted meat scent started to spread over the clearing.
It looked at the cowering people and then ran forward fast and grabbed one of the cowering persons. It was the woman who had screamed at the moon and the fur growing. It stuffed her almost completely in his mouth and bit down. A loud crunch cracked through the clearing and blood sprayed over the people standing there. One foot that had stuck past of the teeth fell down from the things lips and fell down to the ground bouncing a couple of times from the things body. The woman had been wearing sneakers that had led lights under it and those led lights lit up as the foot hit the ground. A bloody stump stood straight up from it blood dripping down the bare skin.
A muffled pained scream could be heard from the mouth of the thing. The thing moved to the edge of the shadow, screams still coming from the mouth. It looked back at the people and opened its mouth again in a wide grin and moved its teeth a bit apart and a screaming panicked woman's face peered out over the teeth. The thing then shoved the woman around in its mouth and bit down. The screams stopped suddenly.
The thing bent over and picked up one of the largest burning logs lying around and threw it hard at the group of people. Multiple people were hit by the log and thrown back into the people behind them. Briss heard more than a few bones break when the log connected. Clothes caught fire and people screamed in panic. One person who had caught fire ran into some leafless bushes and tripped. He put his hands over his face and screamed his lungs out. The bush above him caught fire and that set to fire the pine trees surrounding it. In the confusion it had created the large thing stepped into the shadow and vanished.