Author's Note: This novella is complete, but I'll upload new scenes as I edit them.
Please review; I'll review back.
Content warning: mentions of rape, mentions of alcohol, graphic abuse, suicide
The first thing it remembered was hunger, the insufferable gnawing sensation deep inside, something it tried to satisfy by chewing on grasses and trees, but could not manage. It was a miserable few years - or was it decades, or centuries, or was it merely days? - before it sunk its head into the ocean for a drink and came up with a mouth full of fish, and finally discovered what would calm its aching belly.
The continents formed, mountains and valleys took shape before its eyes, and the being traveled the world in search of food. At first it only existed, it had no self-awareness or aspirations beyond filling its stomach, as new forms of life came into existence the being discovered in itself a new kind of hunger, a hunger in its head.
It watched the fish swim in the ocean, with their brilliant and colorful tails, and then it ate them. It flew among the birds in the sky, listened to their whistling and squawking, and it ate them, too. Many different kinds of creatures evoked this head-hunger - ants, which seemed too small to even be alive, but who could dig elaborate tunnels under the ground and always seemed to know how to work together. Lions, which fought and hunted but cared for their cubs. And the humans, with their complex and inconsistent social dynamics, the tools and artwork they crafted from wood and stone, and their vocalizations, so expressive and so complicated. It observed the creatures, and when it hungered it ate them, but eating did not satisfy its curiosity.
Eventually, though, the humans learned how to fight it when they saw it coming, and instead of running away, they attacked with claws that launched into the air and lodged into its flesh. And it hurt, more than any other creature had been able to hurt it before, because before that it had always been able to restrain anything that got close enough to scratch it.
This did not stop it from hunting humans. But it did learn not to linger in human settlements - instead, it learned to snatch up its victims and fly away to the mountains with them, where it could play with and eventually eat its prey in peace. Sometimes the creatures tried to communicate with it, which was how it started to slowly piece together the mystery of human language.
And eventually, the humans realized it could understand them.
It had gone into the settlement to hunt, snatched up the first victim who could not outrun it, and heard a high-pitched cry of, "No! Not my baby! Take me instead!" And it obliged - set the child on the ground, took the larger human in its place, and flew off. The next time it flew into the village, it was greeted not by flying claws and frenzied panic but cries of "Halt! We wish to speak to thee!" And with its scattered vocabulary and simple grammar, the creature and the humans worked out a deal - it would stop attacking their villages, and in return, they would provide it periodically with food that could not defend itself. It agreed to the terms, and from then on, ate only the humans which had been left for it.
It learned many things from these sacrifices - a more complete understanding of their language, the eccentricities of human culture, their religions and morals, and finally its own name. Aĉaĵego.
But the more it ate, the more it continued to hunger - a dull kind of hunger, but it ran deeper than its hunger for food or even knowledge, and maybe it wasn't really hunger at all. As it filled its stomach with human meat and its head with human knowledge, the emptier it became.
Brava Obeemulo was at his post bright and early on the morning after the new moon. The whole town was abuzz, anxious for the news of the sentence, and one advantage of his job of temple gatekeeper meant being among the first to know such things.
"Morning." The night-guard, Batalisto, was relaxed, sitting on the fence and eating berries. It was acceptable to be slightly less vigilant at this hour of the day, after most of the late-night troublemakers had gone home, but too early for the regular temple goers to show up.
Obeemulo joined him on the fence, noticing the sack of berries in the pile of unsorted tithes behind them - the priests would be around later to pick it up. He took a handful for himself. "You accept wild berries? Tithes are supposed to be a product of labor, not anything you can pick up on your way."
Batalisto shrugged. "Beggar woman left it. Couldn't really expect to get a 'product of labor' from her."
"Maybe those who don't labor shouldn't be allowed in. Prayers will do nothing for someone who won't make an effort."
Batalisto let out an amicable laugh-snort and popped another berry into his mouth. "Speaking of, Rakontisto was released last night. The judging-priests don't think he really did it. No evidence besides witness claims, and the only witness was that other beggar woman."
His heart beat faster at the news - that was what the whole town had been hoping to hear, but had seemed impossible. "He's released - but then, what will they do about the sacrifice?"
"They caught a thief last night. Stole from a foreign merchant. Solid evidence."
Obeemulo grinned. "Praise to the goddesses; Terdiino must have been watching over him. There's no way he did it." Rakontisto was a well-known and beloved storyteller in their town, and while Obeemulo did not know the man personally, he had been in his audience many times. The entertainer was personable and seemed morally upright. Furthermore, he was handsome and wealthy. He would have no reason to molest a young beggar. Everyone in town agreed, but no accused criminals could be released until the day of sacrifice, and if there were no other accused, he couldn't be released at all. That was how it worked: once every month, it was the town of Terurbo's turn to provide a sacrifice, which would be chosen from among recent criminals. The one whose crime was most heinous - or most provable, if there was doubt - would be tied up at the offering spot for the Aĉaĵego. The rest were released.
Batalisto finished his handful of berries and left Obeemulo to begin his shift. He heard the crows of the stray roosters and watched the monochromatic blue fade away as the sun rose, replaced by the soft colors of early morning. The town was awakening, too; merchants began setting up shop, women and children passed by on their way to the well, and fishermen passed in the opposite direction towards the sea. Inside the temple, high priests' morning prayers echoed from the Sanctum, and the voices of children could be heard from the orphanage. It was no surprise when he started hearing screaming and scuffling.
He didn't envy the prison guards – every once-in-a-while they had to deal with prisoners who thought they didn't deserve to be punished for breaking the law. Today's sacrifice – a teenage girl with long braided hair, he saw – was apparently one of them. Each guard had the thief by a different arm, but she was thrashing about with her torso and dragging her feet. They'd stuffed cloth into her mouth, but she managed to vocalize incomprehensibly.
He sometimes pitied sacrifices – everyone knew the system wasn't fair, that sometimes bad people got away with their crimes, that sometimes the falsely-accused were sacrificed simply because there was no one else in jail, that the consequences of a drunken mistake could be as dire as a premeditated act, and the fate of the prisoners all came down to the actions of other people - but couldn't quite bring himself to sympathize with someone who had chosen to sin and then refused to even accept a dignified death. He couldn't imagine having the gall it would take to steal from a foreign merchant - discouraging the traveler and his colleagues from returning to the village, and decreasing the supply of the already-rare goods they sold - and then protest punishment with a temper tantrum loud enough to wake the whole town. That was another problem with allowing some criminals to escape consequence – every criminal thought they deserved to, too.
He made eye contact with the sacrifice as they approached – she tried to cry out at him, but her message was garbled by the gag, and the guard on her right jerked her in a way that caused her to stumble and look down again. Obeemulo held the gate open for them, meeting the guard's exasperated expression with a sympathetic smirk.
Any townspeople that might have been about to cross their path stood back – some averted their eyes, some grimaced, others turned to gossip with their neighbors. Usually they tried to take the sacrifices out earlier than this, but when criminals waited to offend until just before the day of sacrifice, the usual formal procedures had to be put together last minute. It wasn't uncommon for people to abuse the system, delaying their devious deeds until they knew someone else had been caught doing something worse, and then delaying even further to minimize the time they'd have to spend in jail before the unselected criminals were released. Because of this, the city guards were extra vigilant on these days, the judging priests stayed at the temple prepared to gather for last-minute trials, the nuns prepared extra prison chambers, and Terido, the highest-ranking priest under the goddess Terdiino, did not make a definite sacrificial selection until just before it was time to give the Final Blessing. But it still took time to finalize everything, and sometimes that meant a scene couldn't be avoided.
It didn't hurt anything, though – as troublesome as it such sights could be, everyone understood it wasn't worth it to get involved. The system might have been unfair sometimes, but it was a part of life, and the will of Terdiino. Many would call it a necessary evil, but the memory of what happened the last time someone had managed to jailbreak the sacrifice was always horrible enough to deter any further criticism.