By Joe Nazare

Harvested from the far villages, this year’s crop of entrants terribles stands waiting inside the ceremonial circle located deep within the weald. Their presence soon draws the Arbiter, who hobbles on cloven hooves before the row of naked humans. The verdant tree branches hanging overhead mime a communal laureling of the five gathered representatives, yet each entrant knows full well there can be but one victor here this Solstice Night.

First to demonstrate his blight is a tall, bronze-skinned male. He lifts his hands and gnaws through the silver filament twined around and around his bent fingers. Even after the binds are severed, the digits remain tightly spiraled; the rigid, sequent coils look like the cross-sections of some flesh-toned seashell. With his thumbs goat-horning outward, the entrant presents his ultra-arthritic mitts. “For you,” he chants to the sorely unimpressed Arbiter.

The adjacent entrant–a raven-locked teen–stands with his head tilted so far back, the Adam’s apple bulges like a blunt arrowhead from his throat. Still, it’s the horizontally-planed face that proves most noteworthy here. Two rounded chunks of granite press down onto the young man’s eyes, plugging the sockets. Sensing the Arbiter’s scrutiny, the entrant reaches up and plucks off the perpetual weights. He then tugs back his lids to display a pair of concave orbs that promptly leak gummy ocher tears. “For you,” the stone-blind figure calls out to his presumed audience.

The next exhibitor does not exactly stand before the Arbiter; instead she sits with her small-mounded chest thrust out and her legs twisted and tucked into a lotus position. Atop her lap the bare feet have plumped goutily from the impoverished circulation. The scrawniness of the legs themselves forms a stark contrast with the taut musculature of the upper body. Using arms grown powerful from the burden of conveyance, the woman proceeds to unknot her lower extremities. Limbs practically boneless with limpness plop to the ground, acting as if they have long since renounced their God-given ability to support and transport. Grimacing as she’s attacked by the sizzling stings of unnumbing, the entrant proclaims her obligatory “For you.”

Nodding approvingly, the halted Arbiter continues its inspection. The subsequent entrant stands with his legs splayed and his hands laced behind his back. Such posture provides unobstructed view of the gray bivalve shell clamped onto the man’s scrotum. Just above, what could have been a mighty shaft has been reduced to a shrunken nub, a stemless brown mushroom. Impotence seemingly permeates the entrant’s adult body, judging from the smooth-skinned chin, the flat, hairless chest, the bamboo-chute girth of the upper arms. “For you,” the near-eunuch cries out in a voice no deeper than his predecessor’s.

The Arbiter inwardly revels at the stiffening competition, but then reddens in fury when it reaches the final entrant. Could the humans have been so imprudent, so irreverent, as to submit a plain impostor? An unsuffering fraud? This elderly male appears to have been wilted by nothing more than natural aging. But as a feral growl scales the Arbiter’s throat, the entrant’s mouth yawns wide, unveiling a masochistic marvel. The man’s tongue, skewered with myriad spicules, has shriveled like a salted slug. Fishbelly-colored scar tissue shrouds his palette and inner cheeks. His severely-receded gums expose a set of sallow, peg-like teeth that wobble from the faintest breath. The Arbiter imagines the havoc such lingual impalement must have wreaked on the man’s diet, the malnutrition in turn exacerbating the man’s condition. A deliciously vicious circle…

The entrant does not voice the ritual phrase. Likely cannot, and in any event, need not. The Arbiter has seen enough, and makes an instant decision. Decreeing via an expert slash of its razored claw, the Arbiter awards the last entrant a quick death and an eternal fame. Then the runners-up are summarily dispatched–sent slouching back to their respective villages, where their appearance will chide backsliding populaces into more painstaking observance.

Whither such devotion leads, the Arbiter waits eagerly to find.