The man called "holy one" squatted in the snow at the end of an alley. He wore nothing to protect him from the winter but thin breeches, and he seemed even to have cast off any bulk or fat that might have warmed him, but he was not cold. The chaotic web of red, furious scars interlacing his drawn skin crackled and steamed like hot coals in water.
The holy one no longer noticed the burning heat of his skin. The scars had long since done their damage to his body, and now he exposed them with pride. Few knew what they meant, but fewer could ignore the story they implied.
Slowly, he stood up as he heard shouting from the street.
A young man, bundled against the snow and the cold of night, skidded around the corner and into the alley, looking behind him. He was fleeing wildly, tripping on piles of refuse and rebounding against the walls of the alley. When he finally noticed the holy one barring his path, he stumbled to a stop.
Robed in vapor, the holy one drew himself up.
The young man panted two or three heavy gasps, but then drew himself up as well. A shadowy group of men swathed in earthen-colored robes came into the alley with greater control than their quarry. When they saw the holy one, they slowed, but came on relentlessly still.
"Are you it, then?" the young man said, looking from them to the holy one. "Are you the demon behind all of this?"
"Demon?" the holy one said softly.
"There is a devil in Boon," the young man said frantically, as though that answered the question.
The holy one licked his tooth with his tongue and the men surged forward. Their victim bellowed and struggled, and then was enveloped, unconscious, into the shadows of dark cloaks.
"Yes," the holy one agreed. "There is."
The villages that lay in a scattered orbit around Boon were nearly all deserted. For five years, the summer had brought with it no rain and the autumn no harvest. The famine had forced men to hunt on sacred, forbidden lands, leading to vicious, bloody raids by the aboriginals, and charred and empty houses. Boon itself relied on the traffic of fur traders, miners, and other merchants, and so could afford to pay passing caravans for food, but farmers who shared the town's wide valley were soon forced to retreat to the city or follow the roads somewhere else.
This year, the drought had ended, but the flooding rains and the heavy snows had come too late. There was hope for next year, but the people could muster few encouraging words in the deathly silence of the snow. They coagulated in the inns and hostels of Boon, drinking and muttering to themselves. Or they sat atop the heavy, timber wall and looked out on the white screen that seemed to have erased their homes.
In one of the villages, however, at the far end of the valley, there was light in one of the houses. It was a strange house, small and partly submerged in the hill behind it. It was surrounded by an iron fence and a ring of twisting and misshapen trees of a species unknown to anyone in that part of Tubaloth's Carcass.