The second thing I notice is her dingy, threadbare clothing, just after being drawn in by the forlorn look in her eyes. She’s exactly who I’m looking for.
Granted an otherwise pitiful lifespan, the rules for gaining immortality through the Ritual of Otune are quite clear. I have corrupted my own soul beyond recognition chanting myself hoarse; doting on and slaughtering several young animals; selecting the worthless lives I will consume. One thing remains. The final sacrifice must come on a blue moon—tonight—and be made from one willing to die. I knew I would find her here in the muck and struggle of the Lower Fields, where a hopeful young woman lies awake at night praying for an exotic stranger to appear with a promise of salvation.
So, appear I did.
Across the crowded marketplace, I wait for my lamb to notice me. Children run amok, splattering my skirts with mud. I’m doing the wretched souls in this slum a favor, depriving them of their pointless futures. I pay them no mind; I’m here for her. The doe-eyed girl who will be their undoing.
With the stiffness of one trapped in an unremarkable life, she tucks a loaf of bread into her knapsack. Finally feeling the intensity of my stare, she lifts her head. We lock gazes, and I count to five before walking deliberately away.
I don’t get far before a hand grips my arm, and I turn to face my gullible dreamer.
“You’ve been watching me.” She releases me, tucks away a strand of mud-brown hair. “Who are you?” Up close, she’s even more average looking than I first assumed. She wears the workers’ boots of the indentured toilers of the Fields. It’s likely she took up her father’s post once he worked himself to death. That’s how life is here.
I swear, they won’t miss it.
“You are the one,” I say ominously, as I practiced.
“Who?” my lamb asks, her eyes shining with delicious hope. This will be even easier than I’d thought.
“The one to deliver us from this hellscape.” I cast my gaze around our surroundings, suppressing a sneer. Pollution from the Fields turned the air to rot generations ago. Most living in Threggas won’t even cross the western borough line for fear of irreversible respiratory damage. The Fielders are trapped here, with choking thick air and ashen skies, working off the sins of their fathers. My lamb has never known anything else, has probably never even seen the stars.
“What is your name?” I croak.
“I’m Sirene. I’ve been searching for you my entire life, Lira. You’re special.” I close my hand over hers and summon a spark to flash where our fingers touch. A trick far beneath a witch of my stature, but this precious creature won’t take much convincing. “This is why you were born. To save us.”
Her heart visibly swells. She knew it. All along, she knew she was meant for more than a Fielder’s life.
Poor, sweet thing.
“There isn’t much time,” I say. Somewhere behind the curtain of smog, the sun is near to setting.
Lira follows me to a derelict structure the size of a large tree trunk. The former homeowners are buried – with all the respect they deserve, really—just out back. She fidgets nervously as I drag timbers from the woodpile into the shack.
“What are you doing, Sirene?” Full of questions, this one is.
“Constructing the altar upon which we’ll attempt to communicate with the ancestors of Threggas,” I rasp, really trying to sell it. “And beg for release from these cursed blood contracts.” My little lamb doesn’t know she will be damning her people by offering her own life, not saving them.
“Let me help you.” She grabs a branch and immediately drops it, hissing as she inspects a fingertip.
I nearly salivate from the sight of the ruby droplet welling. The altar has tasted her blood, the blood of the Lower Fields. Their lives—their years—will soon be mine.
Lira swipes her hand against her pants, and we complete the altar. Already her posture is straighter, taller, taking up space in the small dwelling. “What do we—what do I do now?”
She’s right where I want her. “Well,” I say, shuffling closer. “There is one more thing.”
“Anything.” Lira pulls her shoulders back for probably the first time in her unexceptional life. “I’ll do anything.”
“Before we can contact the ancestors, you must be willing to die. To save everyone, you must be willing to lose everything.”
Lira’s gaze turns faraway. Thinking of the younger sister she left behind to pursue this adventure, or the mother who loved her too fiercely yet not quite enough. A ratty dog, at least. Resignation crosses her features. She nods.
It isn’t enough. “You must say it.” I slide my hand beneath the folds of my skirt, to the ceremonial blade strapped to my leg.
“I’m willing to die,” she says, and she means it. Sweet thing. “To save everyone, I’ll do whatever is needed.”
I grin and withdraw the blade. “Happy to hear it.”
Lira squeaks in surprise as I swing the knife toward her lovely, well-meaning heart. The blade strikes true, only to skip away harmlessly in a shower of sparks, as though a bubble of protecting magic surrounds her.
But that can’t be.
I gape down at the weapon in my hand as Lira paws at her unbroken chest.
“What was that?”
“All part of the test,” I offer weakly, spotting the incidental slice along my own finger. “To confirm you’re the one to…” The words catch in my throat.
I can feel my very essence draining away, the short blade pulsing as it collects my life. The ritual has begun, just not the way I planned.
Gods damn it all, the little twerp really is special.
About the author:
Chrissie Rohrman is a training supervisor who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband and five fur babies. She enjoys white wine and writing competitions, and is currently drafting the first installment of a fantasy trilogy.