The gods are cruel.
From the ancient gods who fed on offered property and the flesh of beasts, to the new gods of media and internet who feed on attention and time, the gods always take. They take and take and take, and only occasionally do they give something back, just enough so that people will continue to give.
That’s why I had tried to avoid the gods my entire life. Why give up what you have when what you get back is almost guaranteed to be less? I’d avoided the temples of the ancient Norse gods that my family favoured, I’d done my best to stay away from the screens where the masses sat, enraptured, having the life sucked out of them in payment for their entertainment. All my life I’d avoided sacrifice. Until fate had decided otherwise and I’d been snatched off the street as a living sacrifice for some would-be cult.
I’d always imagined myself to be brave, in an honest, hard working sort of way. I’d chosen a more difficult path in life, so that had to reflect well on me, right? All pretensions of courage fled when the dark bag was pulled off my head and I saw the blood-stained warehouse I’d been brought to. The makeshift alter, the chanting acolytes dressed in dark robes that looked like they’d been bought in a costume supply store, the mood lighting set by dozens of flickering candles, some of them real, most electric, all of it would have almost been funny if they weren’t trying to kill me. If I couldn’t see the pile of corpses in the corner, the dozen other sacrifices huddled and sobbing in front of me, or the would-be god with glowing eyes standing with a bloodstained knife before the alter.
It would have been funny apart from the fact that I would die when they got through the other sacrifices being forced to kneel in front of me, all of us with our hands bound behind our backs. For a moment all I could think of was to run, but the moment I tried to rise a foot struck the back of my leg and forced me back to my knees. I looked at the man behind me, he was middle aged, wearing a button up shirt and khaki pants underneath the discount-bin quality robe. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in the office I worked in, apart from the crazed look in his eye and the knife in his hand.
“Wait your turn,” was all he said to me, before giving me another kick for good measure.
Panic nearly took me then; I could feel pleas for mercy bubbling up my throat and had to fight to keep them down. I knew they would buy me nothing, not to his ears at least. But maybe someone else would listen.
For the first time in my life, I offered a sacrifice. It had been decades since I’d been to a blót with my parents, but the words came back to me as I muttered them under my breath.
“Hail Odin, Allfather, God of Wisdom, poetry, and battle. You who reside in Valhalla and is the wisest of the nine realms. Hear my now in my hour of need-“
“So, the wayward son returns. What is it you need?”
The small voice that sounded like a whisper in my ear startled me so much that I almost tried to jump to my feet again. Even as a child when I’d attended the temples and blóts of my parent’s faith I’d never actually felt the presence of the gods.
“I need help,” I whispered. “I need to get out of here.”
“A tall order. And what do you offer in return?”
A rustle of feathers sounded, loud enough to drown out the chants of the robed figures around me, but apparently meant only for my ears. I looked up, and saw two ravens perched on a rafter, looking down at me. I licked my lips, tasting the sweat that fear was causing to run down my face. This was the most important part, I knew. What I offered had to be worth what I was asking for, in this case my life. Anything less could be an insult and leave me even worse off, if such a thing were possible.
“Anything,” I said finally. “Anything of mine that you desire is yours. Be it my service, or any of my possessions.”
A moment of silence passed as another bound figure was dragged up to the alter, leaving only a few left before me. And then another. Had I needed to be more specific? Or was just my life worth so little that it offended Odin and he had abandoned me? But no, I looked up and the ravens still sat there, watching.
“I accept,” the voice said finally. “You seek guidance and wisdom in a time of great peril, so let’s go with something a little traditional, shall we?”
Another flutter of wings, and the ravens were in the air, circling down towards me. They went unnoticed until one landed on my left shoulder.
“Is that a bird?” My minder finally exclaimed as he saw it. “What is that-“
He was cut off as the second one flew at his face, clawing and pecking at it, causing him to yell and flail. I turned to look before the voice spoke to me again.
“Hold still, your sacrifice has not yet been given, and there isn’t much time.”
I turned back to look at the raven on my shoulder. As my eyes met those of the raven its head jolted forward. Its beak was the last thing my left eye ever saw.
The pain was less than I expected, as if it was muted somehow. The sudden loss of sight from my left eye was somehow more jarring, the shock of it warring with fear and anger. A traditional sacrifice, of course I should have known. How the gods love their symbolism, their rituals.
“Now run, follow Hugin.”
I shakily rose to me feet, finding as I did that the knots binding my hands had come untied. I’d like to say that I fought, that I tried to rescue the other captives still bound and kneeling on the floor. I did consider it, for a moment, but one look towards the would-be god with his glowing eyes, pointing directly at me as his followers started moving in my direction was enough to put any thoughts of rescue from my mind.
I turned and ran, following behind the bird that still carried my eye in its beak.
The chase that followed was a blur, escaping the warehouse was easy enough, every door opened at my touch and the raven, Hugin, always paused to make sure I knew which way to go. The network of alleys that followed were a nightmare. I’m not sure how long I had been waiting with a bag over my head, but it was now a moonless night and the streets were a poorly lit labyrinth in the dark. More than once I reached a fork couldn’t see the raven, with only the sound of running footsteps behind me driving me to choose a path and take it.
“You must follow Hugin if you want to escape.”
“I can’t see your damned raven in the dark,” I shouted, immediately regretting it as I heard the words echo down the alleyways surrounding me.
A turn right, then left, then straight ahead, only sometimes seeing the raven to follow. Always with the pounding of footsteps behind me. Finally, the alley I was in turned sharply to the right and I stumbled to a halt, my chest heaving and a stitch forming in my side. The way was blocked by an open pit where a building had been demolished. I could barely see the bottom far below, where a jagged pile of rebar and concrete lay like a tree of thorns.
“Which way? Where do I go now?”
Hugin and the other Raven, Munin I supposed, in front of me and stared at me expectantly.
“You didn’t follow the raven.”
“I couldn’t see the raven!” I shouted back.
The footsteps were louder now., they had to be coming down the alley before the turn I had taken.
“Please,” I finally begged, “help me.”
“What do you offer me?” was the only reply, followed by a peal of laughter that only I could hear as my pursuers finally rounded the corner.
Because the gods are cruel. And they take, and take, and take, until there is nothing left for you to give. And they know they can get away with it because we are too fearful and jealous of them to hate them like I hated them now.
I knew I could still offer something, anything, as the crowd of robed figures advanced on me. Odin was still laughing in my mind, and I was sure he would offer me some sort of reprieve if I sacrificed to him again. But for how long? And at what cost?
I backed away from the crowd of robed figures that had slowed in front of me, as if they feared the two gore-covered ravens that still perched in front of me. I knew it couldn’t last.
As if they had heard my thought they started to chant again and advanced in unison towards me. It was all so ridiculous, I still found myself thinking. But the gods love their rituals. Their symbolism.
Finally, it occurred to me that I could at least deny them that. No more sacrifices, not to anyone. And I could give a final act of symbolic rebellion against that most ancient of gods whose laughter now rang so loudly that surely even the cultists must be able to hear him.
“I sacrifice myself.” I shouted. “Not to you, Odin, you creature of pettiness, you depraved, voyeuristic thing. I sacrifice myself to myself.”
And then I turned and leapt into the pit, towards the twisted bulk of metal and concrete that lay behind me.
The laughter continued as I fell. It continued as I felt the jagged metal pierce me in a dozen places. It was there as I felt my life drain away and my vision grew dark.
It was only when I felt something more take its place and my eyes opened once again that the laughter stopped.