It was cold, and not just from nature’s winds collected in the dull, gray stones that comprised the walls. The presence of spirits was almost claustrophobic, like hungry children around their mother’s skirts.
What makes them so reluctant to let life end? To not go the places they were called, or where they’re needed?
The life tied to the gold and obsidian altar wasn’t an ancient one, but all of ten years. They burned her tongue and voice -box so she couldn’t scream; screaming broke their concentration, and that could be dangerous for them.
They didn’t drug her, so she’d feel the pain.
They told me the gods I served required blood in payment.
What is it about life that gods want so desperately to intervene, and need it so desperately for their wantoness? Why can’t they leave it be?
She looked at me as I rose from the high-backed chair to approach the altar, the chalices placed beneath the holes to catch her life. There were four gold ones on each side, the silver, mine, in the middle.
I wonder if it will grow colder when her soul is released?
I pulled my cowl over my head, the top draping down in front of my eyes so I wouldn’t see hers.
With every step, I had to renew my resolve. My hand grew numb, tightening reflexively around the handle the closer I got to her.
When this is over, you’ll be a full wizard priest. If her blood doesn’t reject you, next year at this time, you’ll drink from a gold chalice for your anniversary.
I chanced a brief glimpse; she was watching the blade now, prey looking at the slow unveiling of the serpent’s fangs, its attitude cavalier, infusing its victim with death.
Nothing personal, my dear.
Her tears began to fall, her throat laboring with silent screams and pleas for long-dead mercy.
You shouldn’t! You can’t! You mustn’t! over and over in a howling, silent litany.
The gods require your blood. My magic requires your blood. My life needs yours to end that it may continue. It is unjust, I agree, and out of balance.
I raised the knife above her sodden face.
She thrashed, raging with every ounce of her young strength; I admired her heart, her fight, and I punched her in the stomach to get her to stop.
She went rigid against the bonds, struggling for air.
It is unjust, and out of balance, but so be it.
Her soul joined the spectral throng, and in the frozen silence, I could hear the ping and patter of her spilling blood, making the chalices ring. The notes of the gold were sweet, but the silver a special, discordant note with a different rhythm, out of harmony with the rest.
You are yet different, boy. You are still not worthy yet.
Her spirit took its place beside the others, and accused me, even as her body thrashed against her bonds. The others moved aside to welcome her, though she stood apart.
The chief priest took the silver chalice, and gave it to me first, waiting.
I drank the virgin blood deep, quickly, lest I truly taste the essence of her soul, its ripped threads mere remnants to the realm of life.
If she could have turned it to poison, she would have.
I drained the chalice, and the others watched and waited.
The blood did not reject me, and I was feted by a royal feast and far too much drink; I wanted to enjoy it, but kept seeing her terrified, wet, wretched eyes moving from mine, to the blade.
The chief priest noted my distraction. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m not feeling well. I’m…I’m sorry.”
“That’s unfortunate. However, the ritual has been completed. It has been a long day for you, my son. I give you leave to retire for the night, if that is your wish.”
“It is, Elder. Good night.”
“I’ll make your apologies. Good night, young priest.”
I managed a wan smile, and left the banquet hall.
In the hours after midnight, there was just me, the candles, my thoughts, and the shadow of the girl standing in front of me, the details of her face lost in the ash gray shades vaguely shimmering in the light of the flame.
The pits of ivory that replaced her eyes drew me deep, ice amidst the fire.
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
I did nothing.
“You were needed.”
“You were told. Our parents were told.”
Our parents are dead. They hung themselves when I went back to tell them what you did.
“It couldn’t be helped.”
You don’t care about what you did to me?
“I cared very much. I needed your blood.”
To achieve this?
“Yes.” There was a pain in my chest.
This will not bring you peace. We will come to you. We will visit you.”
“Stop,” I whispered, covering my ears. “Please, stop.”
You didn’t stop the blade. You could have; they might have forgiven you. But I will not.
You took my blood, but not my life…
I couldn’t answer the door when they knocked.
My body lay on the bed, still, swollen, and racked with vermin.
I no longer felt the cold; I turned my newfound magic on myself, and spilled my own blood to counter what I’d done.
The ashen shades of my family came to me, and greeted me with warm, black, hollow smiles, their ivory eyes the same as hers, and yet, I felt something emanating from them.
I’ve reunited us. Do you forgive me now?
They embraced me, and my question was answered. I understood their need now.
The absence of the corporeal wasn’t the end of life.
The draining of blood did not imprison the soul.
It was a different kind of freedom, more profound than any magic.
We vanished as the door opened, and I heard them exclaiming I was dead.
I would’ve smiled, if I could, and I knew the wizards’ academy no more.