The Screeching Reaper
It must be harvest time, because Opal Stone was currently being used as raptor bait.
“He’s going to go blind doing that all day,” said Brutus, the huntmaster for today’s harvest patrol.
“He’s a chronic raptor baiter,” said Silas, picking his teeth with a grimy fingernail.
“Opal, we’re joking about the link between pleasuring oneself habitually, which you undoubtedly do, and losing one’s sight. This is a human superstition with no grounding in scientific thought,” said Brutus. “But, by happy coincidence, you will be alive when you lose your eyes. Hawks tend to tear those out first.”
The sun seemed to pulse. It was not just unseasonably warm, it was unconscionably hot. Except for Opal, who was tied to a stake standing in a walking path between wheat fields, the rest of the hunting party was lying flat in the two bordering fields, covered and camouflaged by chaff. They were all gnomes, they were all a little too drunk on small beer, and they were all completely miserable.
“Yo,” said Opal, the sweat from his blond forelocks draining into his eyes, turning the whites veiny, and bright red, like a scrotum draped over a glow bulb. “Pour me some more beer guys. It’s like, so fucking hot standing here.”
Opal was there to keep raptors from attacking the god-wranglers--teams of gnomes who guided the Owl God around from field to field. The Owl God was a ten meter tall statue of a barn owl. You know the owl with the white, heart shaped face? And it wasn’t the entire owl, just its head.
The creamy smooth feathers of the Owl God’s face were pure pearl--polished, iridescent nacreous flakes, carved too finely for modern gnomic artificers to imitate even on a small scale, much less on something like this titanic statue.
Its eyes were obsidian, rolling around continuously at great speed, but utterly smooth and silent, so that you couldn’t easily tell that they were moving that fast. The Owl God’s head researcher had tried to touch the right eye and had been pulled in, his right arm ripped from his body, briefly turning that eye into a wet maelstrom of spinning crimson. That researcher had made a name for himself when, after being tourniquetted and given a fortifying snifter of elderberry wine, he had counted how many times his own mashed hand appeared within a minute to deduce they otherwise featureless eye’s rate of revolution.
The outline of the Owl God’s head was brown quartz--a common stone, unprized, and almost dingy. It did, however, smell like tobacco, and infusing stones with scent had become a uniquely gnomic obsession since Opal’s warren had been granted inquiry rights to the mad statue. For the last thirty years, every god statue on earth had gone off the rails mentally. They had gone from being the staid and majestic pillars of kingdoms, touchstones with features worn smooth by generations of supplicants, to gibbering, perpetually tantrumming juggernauts laying waste to the countryside.
Just totally ratfuck insane. And the Owl God was no different. And this thing loved to scream.
Every ten minutes precisely, the Owl God would screech from its open beak. These intense bursts of piercing sound had decimated the population of the capital city humans had built around the Owl God. Imagine a car alarm going off, but the alarm is loud enough to shatter a porcelain teacup, and the alarm goes on forever, and you and your parents and your parents’ parents etc. had all been baptized under the watchful headlights of that car.
The humans in the city had worshipped the Owl God for three centuries, which is a long ass time in human terms, and they couldn’t bear to bury it, or mummify it in cloth to deaden the sound. You were, of course, forbidden to obscure a god’s gaze. And to try and shut its mouth? Yikes. To physically interfere with the statue was an act of blasphemy that surely would be repaid a hundredfold, in this life or the next. And to cover your ears? To refuse to listen to your furious god? Well, that’s certainly going to jeopardize your soul. And when you die the Owl God will rip it out of your body and gobble it down whole.
But humans, and especially their babies, need a lot of sleep. And having an insane statue screeching unceasingly into every hour of the day and night in the city center was not great for tourism. Even the most penitent worshippers of the Owl God began to move away. It had been a full year of empty cobblestone streets before the king (Rudolphus? Romanovich?), his eyes almost as bloodshot as Opal’s was now, petitioned the gnomes for a solution.
Living on the outskirts of the kingdom in an underground warren, the gnomes only heard the owl as a dim beeping in the distance, and only when they were out and about on the side of their warren nearest the city, and never while they were at home.
To them, the Owl God’s screeches were like an alarm clock left on by an inconsiderate neighbor four doors down--they only heard it faintly when they walked out of their warren, and it reinforced their belief that humans were irresponsible at best and would never get their collective shit together as a species.
Nevertheless, they took pity on the human king. He wasn’t a bad leader, as humans went. He had lived until seventy-five, the age of gnome consent, and could be considered an adult. He had a bitchin’ gray beard almost the size of a full grown gnome, which gnomes go crazy for. He could read, which, while not uncommon among humans, was still not common enough. He kept small dogs, which was a relief to the gnome emissaries. Gnomes are terrified of dogs, they liken the ticking of the doomsday clock to the sound of a dog’s nails clicking on a marble floor. And for whatever reason human kings tend to love having these bigass dogs. When gnome emissaries record their meetings with kings, the first thing they write about is the dogs--what their names are, whether they’re well-behaved or not, whether they bite, and what toys could be fashioned to distract them. So the fact that this sweet, stooped king doted over his little dogs endeared him to the gnome community.
And, unlike most humans, what with him being a king and all, he could pay. And gnomes love making money.
So, working closely with the Owl God abbey to make sure no sacred laws were broken, the gnomes did what they do best--use their knowledge of the natural world to reach a compromise for profit. They ended up lowering a thick glass bell over the statue. Their solution never touched or obscured the Owl God, but it did mute its screeching and allow for displaced believers to trickle back to their hastily abandoned row homes.
But why stop there? Here are a few other things gnomes despise, in addition to big sloppy dogs:
1.Superstition getting in the way of progress.
2.Not being able to harness the energy of a natural or magical phenomenon.
3.Solving a problem merely to maintain a status quo instead of improving society.
4.Birds of prey in general.
To gnomes, merely muting the Owl God became to them a disgrace, a screaming nexus of distasteful traits. But the king was so pleased with the glass bell that he forbid any further research. So the gnomes did what gnomes did best when they wanted something from humans--they waited for their leaders to die.
When King Runnel’s only son, Rapscallion, came to power, the gnomes found him surprisingly easy to manipulate. He had been only four during the Owl God’s screeching crisis, and years without sleep at such a tender age had made him addled and easily confused. When the gnome retinue proposed experimenting with the Owl God, the young king, now eighteen years old and enamored with the pack of royal bloodhounds he was rolling around on the throne room floor with, was only too happy to oblige.
Clementine Stone, Opal’s sister, a full on genius and a top tier researcher of rogue god phenomena, swept her arm to her waist and bowed low, trying to keep her voice from trembling while those goddamn dogs huffed their fleshy faces under the young king’s chin.
“Your human highness,” said Clementine. “While we share a deep esteem for the universal power behind the Owl God, it’s an energy that we can’t just hide under a glass jar for eternity. It demands to be put to use, like the sun growing crops, the wind turning the millstone, or localized lava powered boilers bubbling in the buttocks of a stone golem stevedore, we believe that the Owl God’s voice contains an energy that could be used to benefit your people.”
“Oh sure,” nodded a bleary eyed King Rapscallion, using his red velveted right sleeve to dry the drool-drowned down sprouting from his lightly-poxed face. “It makes no sense that the Owl God can’t help its supplicants.”
“Wow,” said Clementine, astonished at how readily the king had agreed with her request. “How would you use the god to help us?” asked Rapscallion.
“Oh, well we don’t know precisely yet,” said Clementine. “We know that its eyes roll unceasingly and with tremendous force. It floats about a foot off the ground, which means we can easily relocate it despite its weight. We would really need to experiment in order to find the best ways that the god can contribute to society.”
“Experiment?” asked the King, walking over to drag back a dog who had run over to snuffle Clementine.
Humans were unfamiliar with the scientific process.
“Oh well experiments are little tests,” explained Clementine. “We think something might happen if we do something, so we try that something, then we write down the results. If the results are something we think is good, we keep making little adjustments until we get the best result we can get.”
“Oh like torture,” nodded the king. “You keep using different tools and methods until you get the answers you need.”
“Yes,” said Clementine. “Experimenting is like torturing the natural world until it says what you want it to say.”
“So you’re going to torture the Owl God?” asked the king.
“OK torture was a bad comparison,” said Clementine, sweating through the band of her silk, conical, lemon yellow gnome hat. “It’s more like playing with the god. Let’s say we tickle the god and make it laugh? How can we then use that laugh to meet a need?”
“Make it laugh, make it cry, it doesn’t matter to me,” said the king. “I never could stand the thing. Build a chapel around it to hide your experiments and do them at night so that the superstitious can’t see it, and I reserve the right to half of any income you manage to generate from it.”
Clementine left the throne room that day impressed, for the first time in her life, with a human-- king or otherwise.