The Minotaur was never to return to Colosi again. After his flight from the empire, assisted by the sibyls of Hizen, he wandered aimlessly for a time in those barbarian lands so feared throughout the empire. He stayed clear of any towns and off any roads, remaining hidden in the wild lands, forested and mountainous, that the barbarians spoke of with awe and fear, for it was said they were inhabited with spirits and monsters. At last, tired of his wandering, and having no other place that he wished to go, he settled in a large cave. Its darkness, he felt, suited one who would pass his existence in obscurity forever more.
At first he would leave the cave daily to forage in the nearby wilds for what food he could find, mostly roots and berries, but as the seasons turned to autumn and then winter he rarely strayed outside his makeshift home. He ate less and less, growing so thin that his ribs showed through his coat, which had a ragged winter growth. He cared little, for it seemed to him inevitable that he would die here, and he saw no need to prolong this terrible misery. Instead, he feverishly plotted his revenge against Barthil Vulgih and those of his family who had conspired against him, imagining his triumphant return to Colosi to face his accusers on the sands of the pantheon.
Such dreaming was made all the worse for the fact that he knew such a thing could never happen. His life there was gone, replaced by this damp and miserable place. Still, it gave comfort to the long solitary days while hunger gnawed at his belly and mind. Soon enough, he imagined, he would be free of this realm, taken across that final river to the underworld where he would pass all eternity. That release was not to be granted him yet though.
In the months that he spent in his cave the Minotaur had not escaped the notice of local barbarians. Hunters were often seeking game in those forests and more than a few caught a glimpse of this strange beast, whose miraculous appearance they reported to their villages as proof of the place’s mystical powers. A few even trailed him back to his cave, a place that, unbeknownst to the Minotaur, was already considered a holy place of great power. As knowledge of presence spread among the barbarians they began to bring offerings to the mouth of the cave, especially if their hunt had been successful. It was felt, even among those who did not give much credence to these things, that good hunting would come to those who made whatever spirit inhabited the cave happy.
Little did they know that nothing could have mended the Minotaur’s heart at that time, so deep and absolute was his sorrow. He heard the coming and going of the hunters, their whispered invocations as they left their offering, but it never occurred to him to show himself to them. He did avail himself of their offerings, drinking the cups of wine and the hearts and tongues of the beasts they had killed. This only served to add to the power they ascribed him. By winter’s end even barbarians who did not hunt in the area began to make the journey to the cave to leave an offering to ensure that he was not angered.
As word of his imagined dominion spread, mystics and other sorts who claimed to have been touched by the barbarian gods began to journey to the cave to prostrate themselves there, chanting prayers and singing songs to his glory. None of these he understood, for the harsh barbarian tongue was unfamiliar to him. He ignored these penitents as best he could, slipping out of the cave under the cover of darkness to take the offerings and then retreating back within his claimed realm to feast. Few of those who came to make offerings had seen him, but the stories of his fearsome size from those who had were enough to engender awe.
Inevitably one of the penitents summoned the courage to confront the god of the cave. He was from a nearby village and said, by those who lived there, to have been touched by the gods, for he often had fits and fainting spells where he would rave madly in some tongue no one understood. The villagers called him Velthar the Sufferer and they feared him, unsure whether he was possessed by some demon come to torment them or a messenger of the greater path. He had no such doubts and when he heard of the creature in the cave that had brought such prosperity to those hunters who had made offerings this past winter, he went to there to chant and pray with the other penitents. Unlike those others, who came with offerings and paid their obeisance for a few days and then went on their way, he stayed on, praying and offering himself and his undying service to the being hidden within.
Weeks he stayed and still he received no sign that the creature was even aware of his existence. His faith was strong though and he remained, subsisting on what the forest offered, never once tempted by the many offerings left for the Minotaur. One night, as he lay awake, unable to sleep, just above the mouth of the cave, he saw through the branches of the trees above him a shadow pass over the moon blotting it from the sky. He watched, wondering if he were witnessing the end of all times, the sky growing dark, casting a shadow across all the lands in existence. Even as the darkness seemed absolute the shadow passed on and the moon gradually reappeared and he understood that it was a sign from the god within the cave intended for him alone.
Without hesitating he rose to his feet and entered the cave and was swallowed by the darkness within. He went slowly, crawling on his hands and knees, both to demonstrate his servility to the god and because he could not otherwise know where he was going. The floor of the cave was damp and cool, the smell of moss and earth heavy in his nostrils. At last he sensed the passage opening up into a deep cavern which seemed to him as though it had been untouched for untold ages. Here he felt the presence of the creature, could smell it in fact, a mixture of damp hair and the rotten breath of one who has been eating raw meat. He imagined that he could make out where the creature slumbered and he faced it crouched as he was, not daring to come any nearer. There he remained through the night.
The Minotaur had heard the man’s scuffling approach into the cavern, but he did not stir from where he lay, waiting to see what he would do. It had been, he knew, inevitable that one of the barbarians should at last gain the courage to confront him. His only hope lay in the fact that in the darkness of the cave the man would not realize his blind state and the advantage he held. When the barbarian did nothing, staying crouched where he was at the cavern’s opening, the Minotaur was not sure what to think. Was he blocking the way, preparing himself for the battle to come? The Minotaur could only assume this was the case, that here at last was a barbarian brave enough to confront the creature who was terrorizing the land and demanding such sacrifices as they were giving him. He had only known fear in his dealings with others, so it never occurred to him that the barbarians might be worshipping him.
Now that they had sent a champion to strike him down he both feared and welcomed it. Here was the ending that he had longed for through that long winter, and yet now that it had at last arrived he found he no longer wished to perish. The force of life had returned to his heart. As meager and pathetic as this existence was, living upon the sufferance of these savages, it was not something he was willing to surrender. So he decided to await for this protector of the barbarians to launch his attack. The darkness would be his ally and he would make this man come to him.
Morning came with neither of them having slept, the barbarian awaiting a sign from his chosen god, the Minotaur expecting an attack and a battle to the death. The Minotaur was the first to rise, the old wounds he had suffered in the pantheon and at the hands of the imperial guard, aching from too long spent on the cold and damp stone of the cave. He rose to his feet with the slightest of grunts and then moved silently deeper into the cavern where the stone formed a pool filled with water that came dripping from above. He drank his fill there and then went deeper yet into the darkness to relieve himself.
When he returned the barbarian was speaking. He had not, as near as the Minotaur could judge, moved from where he had lain the entire night. He had raised himself to his knees and was repeating the same group of phrases again and again, almost in a song. The Minotaur listened for some time, not moving, and then realized that the man was praying. Was he praying for strength, for his gods to aid him in the battle to come, or was he in fact praying to him? Was he a god to these savages? The thought almost made him laugh aloud given what he had been reduced to, but the longer he listened to the barbarian’s repeated chants, and the more time that passed without the man raising a weapon against him, the more he came to realize it was true.
He was unsure how exactly to handle this situation. How does one act a god when one is most assuredly not? The Minotaur had no idea and he feared what might happen should this man, and some of the others who slept beyond the cave, who he had assumed were guarding against him coming forth, determine he was not in any way holy and divine. The wrath of the pious scorned was legendary throughout history and he had no desire to be on the end of their swords. At the same time he could not hide from these men, nor did he have any wish to flee and start somewhere again when he had established a life for himself here, meager as it was.
Hardly knowing what he was doing, but realizing still that this very well would determine his path for the coming days and months, the Minotaur walked towards the penitent barbarian. The man ceased his chanting as the Minotaur came to stand over him. The Minotaur could sense the fear that was coursing through the man’s veins. He could almost see him cowering on the cavern floor. He stayed standing above him for a long time, as long as he dared, letting the tension blossom into terror. At last, when he felt the man might flee, he leaned down and touched his brow with his hand.
from The Oracle’s Mortification