The lodge was small. The air-dank and corroded with the old smell of dried skin and bleached bones. It was acrid place. Each inhale brought a tiny sting from unknown chemicals. The fire pit was smoldering, a grey blue field of smoke hung level and undisturbed, constantly swirling around like a pit of dreams. The arc of the lodge sucked up the smoke but not quickly enough to vent it all out. The aromas were…unique. The sights along the walls; grotesque. The lineup was taboo and filthy. Where nice quill work should be there was instead something dead, it's skeleton preserved and bleached white. It looked like a ferret but had a bigger skull and sharper teeth. It's claws extended longer than a man's finger and with black tips. One time it had been alive. Now it was a mere display in this lucid place. It's cousins were strung along beside it. Each of them just as creepy, with elongated heads or snouts. All of them were deformed in some way. An ugly array of mutated rodents. Still, they could probably rip out a persons throat easily enough.
Bido shifted in his seat. The arc of the lodge pushed on his back making him hunch over. It was hard to look up at the strange things on the wall. He scooted closer to the fire pit so he could sit up straight.
"They come from Okiksahe." The old woman spoke up. She smoked a small corn husk pipe. Each inhale lit up her dangerous eyes. "When I was about your age it was my hobby to go there and collect 'things'. These were the easiest to find. Most of them were already dead. The one way on the left," She lifted a bony finger. "Was barely alive when I found it. It's mouth was foaming and had red little eyes. I couldn't bring myself to end it's misery so I waited for it to die. A tree had fallen on him, smashed his guts onto the ground. Before he died he managed to crawl three feet without his lower body. They are tough creatures, but there are more dangerous things in Okiksahe. Know this well, Bido- You may die in there.
"Bido," She said his name slowly. She wasn't talking to him. She was tumbling his name in her head. Finally she closed her eyes. "Don't kill the Hmuga"
"The Kit Fox will abandon you for doing this. They believe that anybody who steps foot inside Okiksahe will have become tainted by it. Your hopes for a leadership position in the tribe will be gone. Take a moment to reconsider. It is still a voluntary task."
"Liah is my sister. I'll bring her back. Her husband too, if I can manage."
"Take your weapons. There are more creatures that hunt within that forest. Be back before dark, for that is when the evil things come out. I have seen shadows near the timber, odd things. They glow but in the opposite direction. They pull light in, not out. Your eyes get drawn to it, to the center, and pretty soon you start walking towards it. The darkness it emits become warm. Your entire soul is washed clean as you take your final step into the abyss. Beware. I was only saved by my mutt as he bit my leg. The thing fled when I was distracted. There are other things too. Some I've only heard of. More we have yet to discover. That place is evil, don't forget."
"I won't forget Unci. How are Byoden and Grey doing?"
"They are fine. At the moment Grey is preoccupied with his friends. Byoden is still recovering. I don't think they suspect anything. Byoden a little. That fool of a father gave him a stir."
"I've heard about that."
"You have?"Unci looked up.
"Ears are everywhere Unci. They feed the mouth." Bido smiled.
"Have you also heard that Keldan moves this way?"
"Keldan has no business in the Valley. What does he want?"
"They've been having troubles with their long boats. They seek out a medicine man. Apparently the waters are swallowing them up."
"Has he tried making sacrifices? Them barbarians jump at every chance to kill something…or somebody."
"They only have one ritual like that. Be good Bido. The Curved Horns aren't very polite and have short tempers with no sense of humor. At least, not the same as ours."
"Why should I care? I won't be handling those affairs anymore. After this I will be a simpler man. Maybe Takin will show me how to a traditionalist."
"You would give up your horses?"
"Hey, just because I can't ride them doesn't mean I have to give them away." Bido laughed. Unci crossed her arms and let out a deep breath. "But, I'll have to bring him back if I want to learn."
"Go visit Ya. He'll have something for you." Unci took a long dip of her pipe then blew the smoke upward, disturbing the fine blanket of swirling blue above them. "After that, prepare and wait for the morning sun. You'll find the Hmuga easily. She has traps and illusion to lead lost people to her. Just let the forest guide your way. Mark trees every so often so you may find your way back. East is the way out. Look to the sun for help."
"What If I don't find her?"
"What if you died yesterday? Today would not exist for you. But you didn't and it is here-so get your ass out of my home and get ready. Tonight you will cleanse yourself. I have arranged for an inipi. Only the firewatcher will be there. Go in alone. You must finish four rounds. When your fourth is over, come out with your eyes closed. Keep them closed for the whole night. The firewatcher has instructions to lead you home. Go straight to bed. This is important, Bido. Once you wake up, go straight to Okiksahe. Find Liah and Takin."
Bido licked his lips. The faint smell of dirt reached his flared nostrils. The stories of Okiksahe and Hmuga spiraled in his mind, like a chain linked by black vines-each childhood story took on a darker tone. All the tales ended happily, heroes came home, monsters were vanquished. Now the very woman who had told most of the stories was sitting here telling him the opposite. He would die. There was no hope. His glory would be shunned by his own warrior society. He would never ascend to a position of political power. Was it all superstition? Or was there a reason the Kit Fox turned away from those who went into Okiksahe. He had to find out what he was really risking by going into that place. There was a chance of death but that would be instant. Could there be other effects that would linger even if he managed to make it out alive.
"Are you having doubts?" Unci smiled.
"No," he tossed a twig into the dead fire pit. The coals momentarily came alive then died again. "I just want to know what I'm risking besides death. What if I do make it out? What happens next, Unci?"
"The Kit Fox rule; those who go away from home so young will be tainted by the smell of another. We always tell our children not to touch an infant animal. Once we do, our smell is attached to that baby. Its mother will think it's no good, and why? Because there are creatures that can take on the shapes of others. They sneak into young liters by killing one and replacing it. The mother can tell because of the smell. She would be able to smell the taint so she leaves this one to die. If it was hers or not is not important. Survival is.
"We have no way of doing so. Our senses are dull compared to our animal kindred. So we do what we must to protect ourselves. We won't know if it's you that comes out of Okiksahe. The inipi will cleanse you. Being inside the hot sweat lodge will bleed out all of your impurities. But that's not the only reason. Your mind will also become clear. When you wake up that next morning you will be born again. If something takes your place it won't have your memories. The thing will be a deaf mute. Be warned, this is just a precation. If it works then the only way we will know is if you are replaced.
"The Kit Fox do not trust this method because there is too much room for human error. You could accidentally open your eyes in the night or something little like that."
Unci waved her arms around, pushing away the phantom voices that contradicted her ideas.
"Does it work?"
"Yes." She stared at Bido. After a moment he looked away.
"I should be going now. I have to prepare." He started moving towards the door.
"Bido," her voice stopped him. "One more thing."
"Forget all those stories I've told you. They belonged to a younger and more hopeful woman."
Unci waved him away. When he was gone she started to cough. A speck of brown blood came up. She rubbed it together with her fingers. It was sticky.