Elideira walked towards the cluster of tents where all of her fellow clerics were gathered, awaiting the ceremony that was about to take place. Night had fallen, and the Hunt would be underway soon. She breathed deeply of the evening air, noting the heavy scent of Moonflowers on the wind, flowers whose petals opened only in the evening. It was a good omen for the hunt.
The half elf reached the women, who were sitting in a circle around a carefully controlled bonfire. She nodded to the assembled priestesses and strode past them to the door of her own tent. She went inside and sat down at the edge of her simple cot. Her only source of light came from a single fat beeswax candle set in a dish-shaped iron candleholder. She knew without thinking about it too much that one of the other priestesses had lit it for her. It was a good gesture and much appreciated by the half elf.
Elideira carefully unlaced her shoes and put them on the floor beside her bed. She took off her socks, noting in passing that she had to mend a tiny hole that had formed on the heel of each. Next she unbuttoned her simple, thigh length robe and lifted it over her head. She reversed the robe as it had come off of her body inside out despite her best efforts to prevent it. The half elf neatly folded her clothes and put them on the surface of her cot.
Just because she was going to perform a rite unclad, it did not mean that she had to toss her clothes carelessly about her tent. There was no real need to be messy after all.
Soon she was sitting naked on her bed after having removed the bits of light blue cloth that served as her underwear. Unlike some of the other rangers she had known, she preferred to wear underwear. Elideira closed her eyes and whispered a short prayer to her goddess. Then she stood up and shuffled over to a cloth wrapped bundle that she had carefully laid across her pillow earlier in the day. She unwrapped the package and beheld the shiny silver sword that lay in the middle of it. It was a finely crafted weapon with a keen edge and a superb balance to it. This was a weapon that Elideira had never used anywhere other than in religious rituals, and tonight it would definitely be seeing some heavy usage. She picked it up with her right hand, her amulet inscribed with the symbol of Eilistraee bouncing against her bare chest as she straitened her posture.
Elideira absently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear with her left hand and walked through the flap of her tent to the priestesses waiting outside. Before she left she blew the candle out, plunging the tent into instant darkness. Her bare feet made no sound on the soft dirt that surrounded the camp as she strode towards the small campfire. Even though she wore no clothing she wasn't cold as this night was very warm, hot even, and more than a bit humid.
The solemnity of the ritual was interrupted by the amusement in Elideira's mind as she recalled a story that had been told to her by an old priestess. It had happened one year that, during the time a High Hunt was to have taken place, a small group of clerics found themselves trapped in a mountain pass near Icewind Dale. To make matters worse there had been an ice demon nearby, and the rite had to be performed that night. So, armed with many long lasting Cold Resistance spells, the priestesses of Eilistraee had to go after the demon as their goddess had instructed them to. Needless to say any cleric of Lady Silverhair always found an excuse to be in a warm climate during a High Hunt after hearing that tale.
Elideira didn't know if it was a true story or not, but it was amusing nevertheless.
As she reached the priestesses gathered around the fire she took a brief note of who was there. Selona was the first woman that she noticed. It was the second High Hunt for the young woman, and her excitement over what the night would bring was obvious. Next to her stood Tey'Lena, a dusky skinned C'rintri who hailed from the land of Dambrath. She had rejected the worship of Lovitar, and had fled her homeland when her family had found out that she had contacted the priesthood of Eilistraee. Now the drow half elf, (who had always insisted that she was C'rintri, and she was not to be called a drow half elf) was a dedicated cleric of the Dark Maiden, and one of the finest huntresses that Elideira had ever known. She was also one of the few mages in the clergy, and her magic came in quite handy to those who earned the woman's trust.
Elideira was one of those women that Tey'Lena trusted for it was the half elf who had helped to smuggle the C'rintri out of Dambrath. When Tey'Lena had found out that the blonde half elf was to lead the Hunt, she had told her friend that they would share a bottle of wine with her during the feast that would follow.
All of this assessment had happened rather quickly, and now that Elideira had finally arrived the Hunt could officially begin. She started off the ritual by kneeling down in the dirt by the fire and reverently laying her sword down in front of her. She bowed low to the ground and began to recite a prayer, her fellow clerics copying her moves and her words until the whole area rang with the sound of women chanting. Elideira praised Lady Silverhair, asking for luck during the hunt and promising that her priestesses would make the goddess proud.
When the praying and the bowing were done Elideira and the other clerics stood up in unison, making sure to take up their swords as they did so. "Faithful servants of Eilistraee, tonight we hunt for the glory of the goddess. Let the Hunt begin!" she shouted, raising her sword to the sky. The others did the same and shouted their encouragement. Then Elideira trotted away from the fire and past the confines of the camp. She ran across the grassy plain before the hills in the vicinity, her eyes scanning the area around her. Behind her she could hear the others, their breathing slow and steady.
Beneath the silvery light of the moon Elideira's alabaster skin glowed, her hair flowing out like a golden stream behind her. She looked like a wild creature of the forest, dangerous and lovely to behold. The half elf loved this ritual for it made her feel so alive. Her blood was pounding in her ears and she could sense the rhythmic movements of her muscles as she jogged beneath the starry sky. The lack of clothing didn't have her dwelling on her vulnerability. Rather it was an overwhelming sense of freedom that she experienced, and it was something that no priestess of Eilistraee could ever forget even if they had wanted to
Elideira and the other clerics plotted their course for the nearby hills for this is where the creature they were hunting was last seen. She knew, judging from all the witness's descriptions that had been given to her and the clues it left behind, that the monster had an appetite for animals. Large or small, domesticated or not it ate them in great quantities. However, it always left corpses behind which were missing the head and midsection every time. This distressed Elideira to no end for this being was upsetting the balance of nature. It could not be allowed to live in the area, and the bodies it left behind were too numerous even for the scavengers to eat.
It was fortunate indeed for the local authorities when they had found out that there was a group of clerics in the area who were quite used to dealing with strange and dangerous creatures. What had concerned the rulers in this land was the fact that the monster had recently begun to incorporate people into its carnivorous diet. Elideira had made careful note of the pattern of the kills, and early this morning she had slipped out of camp by herself to collect samples of the creature's spoors. The half elf saw that it was eating a lot of bone, though the reported condition of the corpses it produced indicated that it consumed soft tissue as well.
Half an hour later she found a fresh trail of what could be a large animal at the base of a low risen hill. In the spot that she inspected was the broken remains of a gooseberry bush. The plant was almost totally crushed, and so was the surrounding grass. It could have been a bear that caused the damage to the shrub, but the pattern of the destruction and the fact that berries still clung to the remaining branches signaled that it wasn't anything natural that had done that. Elideira knew this was true since a bear would have eaten the berries and left the plant that produced them relatively undamaged.
She signaled her find to her companions and informed them with hand gestures that the monster was in this area. One of the priestesses had been sent to climb the hill to the top for a better look, and when she came back down she told Elideira that there was an odd shaped figure a short distance away. She had also reported that the animal, or whatever the thing was, had long, stringy appendages that looked like claws or tentacles, and she was almost sure that it was feeding on something, for it had not paid attention to the woman who had been spying on it.
So far so good. The creature was distracted, and now was the time to strike. "Let's go my sisters," Elideira whispered to the assembled priestesses. "For the glory of the Dark Maiden we will defeat this creature. Now we will ascend the hill and bring the monster low. Onward my sisters, for the successful completion of the Hunt!"
In a single, rippling motion the clerics bounded up the side of the hill like a herd of gazelles. The grass was damp and incredibly soft to the bare feet of the women. The hill was not that tall and soon the priestesses were gathered at the top. The creature that had been spotted earlier was crouched in the middle of a clearing. It was chewing on something, and low growls constantly emanated from its throat. Elideira could see that there was no cover for the women, which meant that they would loose the element of surprise one they got close enough to their prey.
"We will circle the monster, and then we shall attack it from all sides," the half elf told the priestesses gathered around her. "Tey'Lena will attempt to get in front of our quarry, and when she gets its attention we will strike!"
"For the glory of Eilistraee!" the clerics cried softly.
The women broke up and moved slowly towards their quarry, crouching low to the ground so as not to alert the monster to their presence too early. Tey'Lena had sprinted ahead of the group, and except for her silver hair she blended in perfectly with the night.
In a few minutes the women had the creature surrounded, and it was a sight to behold. It was as tall as a full-grown troll with a body as massive as an oversized Umber hulk. The hide seemed to be a dark color, almost like clotted blood and it was pattered in a criss-cross manner like that of a snake's skin. The arms were long and thin with a skinny, razor sharp claw at the end of each appendage. The monster had four arms in total and a thick pair of legs, also clawed. A long, whip-like tail sprouted out from the hind end of the creature. The monster's head was wedged shaped and surmounted at the top with a large pair of curving, black horns. Elideira saw the thing rip a mouthful of flesh from the lump on the ground that was its most recent kill. The jawbone of the creature stretched out further than it ought to, showing off a mouthful of fangs. Yellow, baleful eyes were fixated on its meal, but something disturbed it for it snapped its muzzle shut and forgot about its dinner.
Tey'Lena appeared seemingly out of nowhere, waving her sword in front of the creature's face. She shouted her defiance at the monster and it moved rapidly to attack her. It was faster than anyone had anticipated for the Crintri woman was slashed across her bare chest by the thing's talons. "Forward my sisters! Bring this Hunt to a conclusion!" Elideira shouted at the top of her lungs.
Tey'Lena staggered back from the sudden eruption of the naked sword women in the clearing. She whispered a healing spell and decided that she was fit enough to join the hunt once again. All the clerics attacked the beast with their gleaming swords, and the creature, despite the fact that it was clearly outnumbered, hurt a fair number of women during the fight. Someone bounced a globe of light off of the hide of the fiend as a test, and as anticipated the light pinged harmlessly off of the creature's skin and disappeared into the night.
All the priestesses knew at that point that the monster had a high magic resistance. This wasn't surprising as any mage worth their salt would make sure that their creation was protected from harm.
More than one woman whispered a short prayer of thanks to Eilistraee that they were well armed with swords. After a flurry of blows the creature was severely weakened, dying even. Elideira climbed up on the monster's body, her blade held high above its head. The rest of the priestesses also held their blades in a striking position. "For the glory of the goddess do I end the Hunt!" the half elf shouted to the moon. Then she plunged her blade into the body of the creature while the rest of her companions did the same. The beast died, killed by the blows of seventeen nude swordswomen.
A ripple went through the clerics when the creature perished, and then they relaxed. Nearly everyone sported fresh injuries, though luckily none of the wounds was life threatening although without quick intervention for some they might have been. They cleaned their swords on the grass, all except for Elideira who had the responsibility of removing the head from the body of the monster. In a couple of days the clerics would take the trophy to the nearest village as proof that it was dead. For now they would all return to camp, and after a half an hour of prayer there would be feasting and dancing. The clerics would be lightly clothed for the party, and the head of the beast would be put on display throughout the night.
Elideira was thankful indeed that the Hunt was so successful. She was looking forward to the next time that a High Hunt was held.
Dreams and Sacrifices: Part 2
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