The Rites of Spring
Eris loved the spring. The budding leaves of the old trees always drew him to this place. He would -- like today -- unexpectedly find himself wandering through the bright sun-dappled stands of trees near the edge of the forest.
He bent over a scattering of crocus buds that had begun stretching upwards for the sunlight, reaching to brush his fingers against the petals...
And couldn't, of course. His hand passed through the first bud, and he drew back in haste. Even after so long, it still sometimes took him by surprise
-- being dead, and unable to touch the living. Eris backed away in haste, knowing he could do harm if he stayed close for too long. He feared something so fragile as the flower would wither and die before him. Only some of the older trees that had withstood the ravages of age and long winters could survive having him near. He could almost feel them, sometimes.
Ah, but there were other things he could touch. He saw the ephemeral ghosts of two dead deer that had gotten lost in some winter blizzard. They watched as he neared, confused and uncertain.
"Calm, my friends," he said, words that whispered on a wind only they could feel. They had started to back away, knowing they should fear humans. They stopped. Eris was not -- now -- a man.
First one then the other brushed their velvet noses against his hands almost the way he remembered the feel of live deer, so long ago. They stood there in the woods for a moment, but both he and the deer had places to go.
Eris waved a hand toward a golden lighted path the animals had not quite seen yet. It led to... somewhere else. "That's where you want to go."
Heads lifted as they spied the trail that led to distant green fields, barely visible in the distance. Noses wrinkled as they sniffed the air and in a moment they darted away, heading for a better place where they need never fear the winter or hunters again.
Eris wanted to go with them and follow the golden path to a place where he could touch the flowers once more. He started along the trail, a step and a second. It would be easy to give up the long war.
But he stopped and turned back. Maybe he would take the path later, after he finished his work -- as though he believed it would ever be done.
Eris turned, as he inevitably did each spring, toward the hillside and the cave. It wouldn't be long until Lota awoke, and better to be waiting and finish this year's work as quickly as possible. Perhaps he could come back afterwards and watch the flowers bloom.
A squirrel chattered as it kept pace with him, leaping from limb to limb, though it stopped at the edge of the trees. Eris found less trees again this year, and the new houses had encroached right up against the forest edge. A pond had stood there a decade ago, and the entire area had been wild forest half a century before that.
Oh yes, Eris remembered the way the woods had been that long ago. Each spring he had marked the changes since he had chosen to stay, a guard against that which lived in the cave. For a thousand years now he had slept through most of the year, conserving his little power, and waiting for the spring solstice and the battle to save the world.
He could feel Lota awakening, sooner than he liked, this time. He would have enjoyed wandering the woods a while longer. Ah, but he had his part in a very old passion play. He'd not missed a call to the stage yet. And what would he do here, anyway, except long to touch the flowers again?
Storm clouds had begun to gather on the horizon. That boded ill for the encounter, with the feel of Lota's darkness growing in the turbulent mass. The old enemy had more power this year.
The trail Eris followed skirted above the edge of the encroaching houses. He watched them for a moment, shaping his clothing and his looks to suit their current style. Not that they would see, but this had been his ritual for many years, bringing him closer to life as it now existed. These were the people he protected. He wanted to share something, however ephemeral, with them.
Dogs barked and people looked his way, thinking for a moment that they'd seen something. But, unlike the lesser creatures, humans didn't see what they didn't wish to.
The cat saw him, though -- a scrawny stray with short, gray stripped fur and huge jade-colored eyes. It looked up with a start as Eris drifted up toward the stone outcropping where it had been lying in the sun. He could see distress in those eyes, as the cat no doubt wondered how a human got up the treacherous path to his place of safety. Abandoned and forgotten -- Eris felt an unexpected empathy with the cat just then.
"Peace, little one," Eris said, and rested on the rock for a moment as well, his face lifted into to the sun much like the cat's had. He could almost feel it, as well as the breeze, a breath of the world come alive.
The cat hissed first and then mewed. She rubbed up against his legs -- and through them. The cat bristled three times its size, and for a moment Eris didn't know if he wanted to laugh or cry at the sight.
"Calm, calm," he said. "I am not your enemy. I'm just... not what you think I am."
"And what are you?" a voice whispered on the growing breeze. "What are you, my old enemy?"
"What I have always been," Eris said, looking up toward the cave in the crevice above him. "I am the one who will forever stand between you and the world."
"Forever is a long time."
"Yes, it is."
A laugh, dark and hollow, filled the air. Thunder rumbled in echo to it. Even the cat looked up, eyes narrowed as though she heard as well.
"Stay here in the sun, little one. Stay here. I've work to do." He reached out, almost to touch the cat -- and pulled back in time.
It wasn't far to the opening -- such a little crevice, really, for so much evil to dwell within. But Eris could already see vermin crawling out through the cracks in the ward. They had been touched by Lota's evil, and scurried away to do what they could to add to the misery of the world.
And because they were Lota's creatures -- and closer to death than life, now -- they could not only sense Eris, but touch him as well. He grabbed a rat that bit at his arm and sent it tumbling down the incline -- truly dead before it reached the bottom. He hated to do that to any creature, but once they had fallen to Lota, they would do no good for the world.
He could have brought followers of his own as well, but why put anything in the path of the evil that slithered within the cave? Why kill life in this battle he fought to save it?
"Ah, we are righteous this spring, aren't we?" Thunder rolled in the distant clouds again. "I prefer you in the years when you are less virtuous about our places in the world, my enemy."
"Perhaps next year," Eris said.
Lota had begun moving in the cavern, a rolling mass of shadows. The world had not seen Lota's like since the dawn of time. It had form, but not like that of the life around it. Globular, and fluid -- if it woke and found the gate to the world unguarded, it would destroy everything it touched. The world had changed since it came into existence. Lota and life could not exist together now.
If Eris had been alive, he could not have stood guard here. But he had died at this spot back before man came to this land. He had, in fact, killed himself to stand guard here forever, a gift from Gods long dead to the world.
But Eris remained, and he would not fail. He moved up on the ledge before the opening and peered within. Things moved, and he could see Lota, oozing up out of the hole, already far more awake than he had expected. He wondered why the creature still tried.
"For the same reason you return to your post," it said. Not really a voice, Eris knew. After so long, they'd learned to communicate. "Because, someday one of us will lose."
Eris knew it would not be him, because he loved the life around him. And he loved the spring.
He reached forward --
And felt something large crawl up his back and bit his neck. He reached back and felt molted fur, as something clawed and bit into his back. He cried out, as much in shock as pain. They could hurt him, those things that Lota created. Eris dared not move away from the opening and give Lota even a small chance of escape. He stood his ground, trying desperately to grab the creature that drew his power out with each small bite.
The storm broke over them, wind and rain and cold that came from both the real world and Lota. He braced against the onslaught, shocked by the power his enemy had brought. He had slept too long and too well this time, and not noticed.
Eris had not called the owl to help him, but the creature came, tearing away the creature before she fled from a swarm of skeletal bats. Another of Lota's creatures quickly bore him down. They must have escaped before he arrived -- a sign that Lota had awakened sooner than usual. Another joined it. His complacency at another confrontation gave way to unexpected panic. He dared not fail! That's all it took -- one failure in all this madness of the ages.
And then he would finally be free of this duty.
No. That had been Lota's thought, insinuating into his mind. He tore another creatures from his back. Badger it had been, once. But Lota must have nourished it in the bosom of his cave for a long time. The eyes glowed, and the fur had gone matted and missing. It bit at his hand, dagger teeth sinking deep.
The pain drove him to his knees. He'd never fallen before, but Gods it, hurts!
"The Gods are gone, fool. They abandoned you eons ago. And you fight on, as though you are still their right hand. Fool."
"I -- I never fought for the Gods. And that makes you the fool." His breath caught in pain as he tried to pull the creature off his arm, because it could... not kill him, but it could draw his power away, and make him weak before Lota. And Lota would destroy him.
And destroy the world.
Something smaller sank its teeth into his neck. He gasped and reached back, but the badger still had him, and another grabbed at his legs. He kicked that away, frantic to get back to his feet. Lota was coming out already!
"No!" He hurled the badger against the stone wall. It bit harder --
And then he heard another yowl.
The small gray cat leapt and grabbed at the badger's neck, tearing with teeth and claws. He had not called it, but like the owl, it showed its place in the world and came to his need. A fierce little cat! The badger finally released him to turn its attack on her, and they both slid down the rain slicked stone and out of his sight.
Eris reached back and grabbed off the creature gnawing at his neck. Rat -- he tossed it out and away, and did the same with second one at his feet. To his surprise, the owl swept back -- bats still after her -- and grabbed the second creature in mid air and carried it away again.
Eris turned back to the cave, unsteady, but on his feet.
"Not this time, Lota. Not like that."
Lota hissed -- the sound of rage and hate. The storm swept up in a maelstrom of power and malevolence -- but it didn't matter. The storm could not touch Eris. Lota could call the storm, but he did not own it. The rain brought life, not death. And even the winds only swept away the debris of other times.
Eris willed it so.
"No," Lota said. A low voice, the world shaking and thunder tearing at the sky. "No. You fell."
"I did. But I got up again." Eris stepped closer. He ached as he put a hand to the opening of the cave, and he whispered old words, ancient beyond the time of man. The magic, born as always of a new spring and new life, reinforced the seal that held the darkness and death within.
Lota battered against the magic. He had not done that in a long time, but the final rage did not last long. Eris felt Lota slip back away into the dark... to wait for another chance.
Eris stood in the gentle falling rain. He could almost feel it -- for a moment far closer to the world than he had been in ages past.
When he looked back he could see the houses, and people coming back out after the sudden squall. He heard laughter all the way up the mountain side. It helped to heal him. Oh, he had not saved the world for them alone, of course -- but he had been like them once. Their laughter made him feel alive again.
Eris went back down the hillside to the ground and the forest. And there the cat found him, limping a little, and looking uncertain. The little creature walked up and brushed against Eris's legs, purring loudly.
"Ah, my friend," Eris said and picked him up. The cat head-butted his chin and purred louder. "You did well, little one. You did very well. Thank you. And now... And now let me show you the way to another place. A better place. Warm rocks to lie on, butterflies that you can chase forever. And you'll never go hungry, my friend."
He waved his hand and the cat looked to the golden path. Eris put him down and nudged him that way, though the Gods knew that it had been nice to hold something again, and to feel the joy of another creature.
"Go, little one. You've won a better life."
The cat walked toward the path, her tail twitching at the site of distant birds. Her head came up to sniff the air, but even still, she stopped and looked back at Eris once more.
As the cat started down the path and Eris walked his own, back down the old trail, passing the tree where the owl nested. He could hear her there, and knew she had survived. Squirrels chattered at him, and a fox ran down the trail ahead of him, yipping and playing at catching flies.
It looked like a good spring. He stopped at the crocus again, and wished for a moment that he could be here to see the flower in full bloom. Or to be here in the fall and watch the leaves turn red and golden before they fell.
But he loved the spring. It would be enough to see it again next year. The battle had been more difficult this year, and he couldn't wait through a day or two this time before he slept again. He hadn't the strength.
Maybe next spring.
Eris settled by the oldest tree. He had rested here so often that he could feel the bark against his back. His hand hurt still, and so did his neck -- but that would pass. He leaned back and closed his eyes...
The cat crawled into his lap, curled up, and purred. Eris looked down and smiled, putting his hand on the warm, soft fur. He closed his eyes once more, and together they slept.
Waiting for the spring to come again...
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Published by permission of the author.