I moved through the night with as much silence and caution as I could manage. The woods of eastern Tennessee were silent around me, and the hiking trail was dark beneath the shadows of the trees. A half-moon lit the sky, and in places, my path as well, but for the most part I walked in darkness.
I could hear sounds from far ahead, and from time to time I caught a glimpse of firelight as well. My curiosity was piqued; who would build a fire so far out here in the woods, and on this of all nights? But I was not the only one who tended in this direction: two or three others had passed me already, moving easily through the woods beyond the path. So I continued on, drawn like a moth to the flames.
These nighttime walks had become a habit with me, else I might never have touched the Mystery. Alone and out of place, finished with my studies, dissatisfied with the company of my peers, I had taken to the woods that lay just outside of town. I would walk for hours, sometimes talking to myself, sometimes silent, as the tensions of the day eased within me. There, in the wilderness, I sought peace and serenity, sought something to sooth my troubled heart.
The noises became clearer as I neared their source, but they were still so soft as to vanish on the night breeze. I slowed my pace still further, moving with all the skill at my disposal, and approached behind the cover of a massive and ancient tree. Sliding my head into the light, I set my gaze upon them.
I had attended a fraternity party earlier in the evening, though I was not a member; it was an open party. In celebration of Hallowe'en, it had been a costume party: a roomful of humans masquerading as monsters, atmosphere provided by such technological miracles as a smoke machine, black lights, and glow-in-the-dark paint. The beer was dyed red with food coloring. I did not stay long.
Alone in my room, I had stripped myself of costume (I had gone as a ghost, white faced, with dark circles under my eyes, set off against the black cloth of my shroud) and spent an hour cleansing myself, to get the smell of smokes (stage, tobacco, marijuana) from my skin and hair. Finally, myself again, I had selected loose and comfortable clothing from my closet, laced up my boots, and gone out, thinking to celebrate the holiday alone with the moon.
But now, as the firelight pressed itself against my eyes, the Revelation came upon me: there was no need. I stood, I watched, unaware that I had moved away from the tree and now stood revealed by the flickering orange light. Miracles moved before me, dark and glittering; each one a naked singularity, though some few were human in appearance.
They danced in the light of three great bonfires, or stood aside in quiet conversation or simple communion. Two or three were drumming time for the dancers, an elegant and intricate rhythm, and as I watched the rhythm changed and the pattern of the dance changed with it. I saw eyes turned my way, but such was my awe that I never thought to flee: whatever was here, I could not escape it.
Then one of the dancers turned my way, eyes flashing orange with reflected firelight. Without missing a measure, she broke from the dance and another took her place. She approached me, black furred and graceful, humanoid and feline, woman and panther in one, a beast that walked like a human being. She smiled as she came, feral and wild, but I did not back away.
It's true, I thought. The stories, the legends, the fairy tales. True. It was my first coherent thought, for I was not in a rational frame of mind. I stared as she approached, transfixed by her nudity, by the strangeness of her anatomy. A wild excitement began to grow in me, an ecstasy born of terror and an almost religious awe. Almost imperceptibly, the clearing fell silent behind her.
"Would you come among us, then?" she asked me. Her voice was low and guttural. It seemed to reach into me, caressing my spine, and I shivered at its touch. "Would you join us, perhaps?"
I could not answer her; I did not trust myself to speak. The enormity of their existence – the possibilities it implied – that a miracle could speak so casually, that there was magic in the world: it filled me with wonder. It made me burn.
Slowly, the others gathered behind her, eyes calm as they studied me. Each was utterly unique, though I could recognize certain types among them: the auburn-haired vampire with her ice-colored skin, the tall, dark-haired warlock, the shade whose body was a dark and translucent reflection of the human form, the beasts and werebeasts and stranger things still. That things like this could exist in the world, and I have never known… I still could not speak, but my silence was answer enough.
"Come," she said, and reached forward to unbutton my shirt. I discarded my clothing quickly and easily; it lay in a pile behind me, like a snake's shed skin. "Throw it on the fire," she said quietly. "You won't need it any more." I shivered, for the night air was chill, but she took my hand and drew me towards the flames. Her touch was like the fire itself: it set my nerves to dancing, warmed me, lent me a tremendous sense of vitality. Impulsively, I laughed, and kicked my clothing to the edge of the flames.
We danced for hours as she led me through the steps. I pride myself on keeping in good physical shape, but her stamina was quite simply inhuman, and by the time we left the dance, I was staggering with exhaustion. She led me to where the food was arranged (one of the drummers gave me a grin as we passed) and we rested as we ate. Then she drew me to my feet again, and led me into the forest shadows, just beyond the reach of the firelight. There she pushed me down and mounted me, still moving to the rhythm of the drums. As she moved against me, I smelt the wood smoke that had worked its way into our skin and hair, perceptible even over the smell of our bodies and our passion.
I came back to myself by degrees, aware that she had moved off of me. I smelt the clean night air, and raised myself into a sitting position. There were leaves in my hair; I combed them out as best I could. Awareness of the other couples that surrounded us grew slowly in my mind, until I wondered how I could ever have been oblivious to them. Finally, then, as I came to my feet, I became aware of the warmth in my belly, a soft feeling of... Contentment? Belonging? I had no words for it, in the aftermath of our communion.
She was waiting for me by the fire. I approached her slowly, compelled by a sense – an intimate awareness – of her presence. The night seemed to deepen around us, the air alive and surging with the power of the creatures gathered here. A silence widened around me as I advanced, and from the corner of my eyes I saw these outsiders fall into attitudes of respectful attention. There was something ritualistic to the response; even the fires seemed to flicker in time to my steps.
I stopped when I reached her, glanced once at the thick-built masculinity of the drummer who stood at her left, once at the grey-skinned humanoid whose hair and eyes were flames and who stood to her right. Then I looked back to her, as seemed expected – even demanded – of me.
"Would you join us?" she asked softly, though her voice was audible to the entire company. I managed a nod. Then, after a moment's hesitation, I managed a question.
"What is the price?"
A ripple of quiet laughter swept the circle behind me, though the trinity who faced me did not seem to notice.
"To accept this power is to be touched by the Gods," she answered. "There is always danger in asking for their judgement. The price is different for each of us. Will you join us?"
I hesitated, wrestling with my doubts. I was afraid – she asked me to step onto a darkened trail, unable to see if it led over a cliff. Or if it would lead me home, for that matter. Yet there was no way to take this slowly; to hesitate would mean being left behind.
"Three times may I ask, and three times only," she said then. "This will be the last. Will you join us?"
I was silent for a long time, but the decision was already made. Somewhere deep within me, I already knew what I would do. This answer was a part of me, a part of who I was, and while the choice was entirely mine, on another level I had no choice at all. Eventually, I made my reply.
"The moon is set," said she, "and the dawn is almost upon us. You will become as we are, blessed above all other beings, touched by the divine. You will take a new name, and leave your old life behind you."
Gracefully, she extended one clawed hand. Magic danced in her palm like a shadowy fire, cool and dark and mysterious. To look at it was to be robbed of all my ideas of size and shape, substance and form. It was beyond the realm of description as it was beyond the constraints of physics, as all truly sacred things must be. "Take the fire from my hand," she said. "I give it to you freely."
I reached out, closed my hand around it, lifted it from her palm. It flickered and danced atop my hand for a moment. Then, slowly, it sank into my skin.
The sensation was beyond description, beyond anything I had ever experienced. Something like a mild electric shock ran up my arm, spreading through me along with a sense of warmth and power. The magic sank into meat and bone and blood, settled in heart and mind and deeper still. It ran riot through me, filled me to overflowing, and as it did so I was transfigured, reborn, utterly remade.
The others were already departing when the change-flame died away. I rose, shaking the dirt and leaves from my fur, the world screaming in my senses, and looked up to meet her gaze. She touched me once more, tracing the line of my skull beneath my fur: a valediction. Then she was gone, racing away though the woods as dawn began to gather in the east.
That first morning, I sought shelter in a cave, to rest and adjust myself to this sudden change. By evening, a hunger was upon me, and I left my newfound home to hunt. On my way, I greeted a small wood-sprite where he nested in the hollow of a tree, a tree that I had passed many times before in blind indifference. I thought again of the costume party of the night before, taking place on the one night of the year when the monsters gathered to be rid of their human costumes. Then I put the thought aside, for it was a piece of another life, and no longer part of mine.
This is an old piece of my writing - dating back to when I was, I don't know, eighteen or nineteen years old. I have firmly resisted the urge to edit or rewrite it; you're reading it exactly the way I wrote it back then.