As a pale, rosy dawn spread its arms wide across the Underworld’s violet night sky, Haben wondered, as he had every sleepless night since his arrival, why night and day were even significant in this place. A man, he knew, was required to count the days, to mark the seasons. It was how he might anticipate an event, how he might judge how long he had been in a place and when he ought to move on. But for Haben, there were no events to anticipate. And because he had already reached his final destination, there was no use judging how long he had been there and when he ought to be going. A man needed the warm light of day to tend to his duties and the dark shelter of night to shed his inhibitions and become who he truly was. Haben no longer needed these intervals because Haben was no longer a man.
“Time,” as Haben had once known it, was immeasurable when nothing ever changed, like floating along a vast ocean, looking out on the same horizon day after day. Motion was entirely imperceptible even if motion was occurring. It meant nothing. The years rolled onwards, like a tide he could scarcely detect. But at least he had his own company, his own cognizance. He delighted in the terror he felt each time a fragmented memory from Before resurfaced from the recesses of his ancient mind: bits and pieces of conversations, people’s faces, and distant places swam around in his head like a sluggish, primordial ooze. Nobody would ever hear his thoughts. The demons weren’t much for conversation. But that was all right. By now, he preferred the solitude. He preferred what he was accustomed to. The other demons probably did, too.
When he first arrived in the Underworld and was handed his eternal sentence, Haben had feared restlessness. He considered the eons of nothingness that awaited him and wondered what he would do to fill the endless hours. He didn’t realize that the thing he was about to become, the creature he was evolving into, had little regard for such concerns. The thing, the creature, wanted very little. When he was tortured, he wanted it to end. That was all. There was nothing else. He grew cold to the core and found himself unmoored from the world around him. The soul he carried in life began to decay inside his demonic new body.
And yet, he couldn’t shake the compulsion to emerge from the tunnels of the cave network at dawn each day to watch the sun come up. The ritual felt like a souvenir from the world he once knew, a world that had required him to rise when the sun did.
He peered over the cliff, not observing anything in particular because there was never anything new to observe. But he enjoyed this view of the Underworld’s landscape when it was bathed in early light. Even its darkest corners seemed a little warmer, though he knew better than to assume that they were.
The sun crested the hill along the western frontier, a mirror image of the morning sky in the world of the mortals. Its dusty violet, prismatic rays shone like a beacon across the surface of a tall, oblong tower of black-tinted glass at the easternmost edge of the horizon line: Dohv’s Palace, where the Keeper of Life, his master, controlled his empire and all who served him.
As tiny streaks of sunlight stroked the side of the cliff, Haben lifted up the sleeve of his ragged robe to feel their warmth on his icy skin. He was startled, as he always was even after so many hundreds of years, to catch a glimpse of the identical black tattoos snaking up the length of both his arms. He preferred to forget that they were there at all: diagonal lines, originating at his elbow crease, crisscrossing down the pallid flesh of his forearm toward his wrist, creating the appearance of a cage on his skin. He couldn’t help but think, as he always did, of their thinly veiled resemblance to shackles. Dohv marked each of his immortal servants this way as they entered the afterlife.
He remembered the first time he had observed his immortal body in the sunlight, how horrified he had been when he realized he could see straight through the flesh on his arms if he looked hard enough. He inhabited a new sort of encasement for his soul, different from the body he’d had in life: ashen, translucent skin housed organs, organs that circulated blood, blood that would never dry up so long as the universe endured. He was made this way for a reason, so he could still experience whatever physical pain Dohv deemed proportionate to his actions in life.
He had only seen his own reflection once, in the dark, glassy floor of Dohv’s palace as he stared at his feet, awaiting an audience with his master. He was struck by the face of the man staring back at him. His eyes, lively and green, that had suited his face so perfectly in life, bulged disproportionately above his protruding cheekbones. They were the only defining feature on a rawboned, pale face situated below his now hairless head. He was gaunt, sallow … decayed. He had not looked at himself even once since then.
He turned his eyes back to the world below him, cataloguing the patchwork of places he knew by heart: the Desert of Mourning, the Shore of Awakening, the River of Past Lives. He paused for a moment to watch a daisy chain of smoky, nebulous humanoid figures skim along the inky river’s surface, like a delicate cobweb of arms and legs lazily undulating in the breeze. There were so many of them in the river now, so many more than there had ever been before. Their spindly limbs crested the water’s surface more and more frequently now, as if the river had become crowded.
At that moment, the image before him blurred as though a veil had been pulled over his eyes. He drew in a sharp breath and doubled over with an agonized growl, huddling against the entrance to the cave, bracing himself for what was just seconds away. Here it comes… Here was his punishment from Dohv. Here was the hunger.
A demon did not need to eat or sleep … unless Dohv deemed it so. Every hundred sunrises or so (or, at least, that’s how it seemed to Haben—time being the way it was), he would languish until he accepted his fate, until the grotesque notion of feeding on human life no longer filled him with horror. Then, and only then, the mortals would send him a human sacrifice. He would eat his fill, destroying, bit by anguished bit, whatever was left of his mortal soul. This was the cruelty Dohv had devised all those years ago, the penalty he felt best suited Haben’s wickedness in life. The remorse and self-loathing rendered his heart crippled each and every time … if that was even what he’d call it if he still had something resembling a heart. He couldn’t be sure anymore.
The first brutal pang of starvation hit Haben like a tidal wave and forced him onto his side. He drew his legs to his chest and gnawed on the top of his knee to keep himself from screeching like a tortured animal. The horrible, hollow pinch of hunger spread from his middle to all corners of his body as his fingertips and even his eyelids quivered with weakness. He imagined that this was probably the breaking point of starvation for a living being, the moment a man would succumb to death. But for Haben there would be no release. There would be no death.
He would ask his victims to forgive him if he could bear to think of anything but tearing their earthly bodies to shreds in those moments. And even as he howled and cursed Dohv’s name for such a gruesome sentence, he had to admit he deserved every moment of it for the crimes he had once committed.
“Why do we believe in things nobody’s ever seen before?” Miko asked as he and Seicha trudged through the forest on the outskirts of Khronasa that raw spring morning.
Seicha was taken aback. She’d been escorting him to sacrificial ceremonies since they were children and he’d never prodded her with these kinds of questions before, the kinds of questions that signaled to her that her little brother wasn’t quite so little anymore. He was almost twelve summers now: She should have known this was coming.
“You know what I mean?” he continued. “Why do we talk about the spirits like they’re something people have seen, like they’re real?”
“Of course people have seen them,” she said, though she wasn’t so sure of it herself. “You wouldn’t remember, but when Father used to take us fishing, we’d try to catch the river spirits. They were like shiny, silver dragonflies. Just underneath the surface. And Father saw the Black Beast. You know that. We have the proof right here.”
Seicha ran her fingers along the smooth, pearly white surface of an animal’s fang hanging around her neck and held it out to Miko. It was both her most valuable weapon and most treasured heirloom, a trophy pulled from the beast her father killed nearly twenty years ago. She’d barely graduated to tottering upright on two legs at the time, but her father had retold the story of the kill so often that she swore she’d been right there with him. The fang was a perfect half-moon shape with a jagged tip, about the length of her own hand but not at all heavy as it hung on her chest. The light weight and unyielding sharpness of the fang made it an ideal sort of dagger. She often thrust it between her second and third fingers, brandishing it as though it were a talon that had sprouted from her fist.
“Fine. But I’ve never seen anything. I wasn’t even born yet,” Miko muttered. “The Federation probably scared them all away.”
Seicha nodded. It was likely. Since the occupation of their peaceful village seven years ago, she had to admit that she hadn’t seen a single otherworldly thing cross her path. A strange, quiet desolation had fallen across the land like a heavy fog. Either the spirits had been frightened into hiding, or she had simply stopped believing that anything magical would happen again.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” she replied.
Miko hopped over a molded, mossy stump and paused cautiously before asking his next question.
“What about the Haben?” he breathed, as though saying the creature’s name aloud would summon it. “Nobody’s ever seen him. Not even before the Federation came. If he doesn’t exist, then what’s coming to get Henshaw at the bottom of the pit tonight?”
“It doesn’t matter what’s coming to get Henshaw. He won’t be there in the morning and that’s all we’re meant to know.”
A frigid breeze whipped Seicha’s mane of black hair across her face and into her eyes. She tied it into a knot behind her neck and carried onwards. A brutal windstorm that had only just begun to fade away had ravaged the landscape for the past two days, but she was hardly affected by the cold this morning. She felt only the all-consuming chill coursing through her from the inside as they made their way toward the sacrificial pit at Khronasa’s city center.
“You don’t believe in the Haben anymore, do you?” Miko asked.
“Not like I did when I was younger,” she replied. “Before Emperor Caius and the Federation took control of Khronasa, the sacrifices were private. They would have never made us watch, you know? And only criminals were sacrificed—never, ever children. So it was easier to believe in the Haben because he could be anything you wanted him to be.”
“But now?” Miko leaped over a fallen tree limb as he trailed behind her.
“Now, it just seems like General Simeon is using the Haben to scare us. Think about it—it’s the only one of our old traditions they haven’t banned.”
“Unless he thinks the Haben’s real,” Miko scoffed.
“General Simeon doesn’t strike me as the type who believes in ghost stories,” Seicha remarked of their city’s ruthless, calculated leader, appointed by the Federation those seven years ago.
Twice each year, in eerily perfect intervals, a fearsome windstorm would rattle Khronasa for three days. The entire population would barricade inside their houses and shiver with apprehension. On the third day of the storm, one among them would be chosen for the sacrifice. That day was today. The victim selected by General Simeon was a boy of only about thirteen summers named Henshaw. When Seicha was young, the threat of sacrifice to the Haben rarely crossed her mind. She never thought she’d be at risk; it didn’t seem real. It wasn’t at all a part of her life, aside from a little rhyme the local children had been taught to remind them to stay out of trouble. Seicha still remembered every word:
His tongue’s black as coal from the souls that he’s swallowed;
When you walk home tonight, be sure you’re not followed
For if you’ve been guilty of treason or theft,
The Haben will feast on what life you have left.
He sends evil to Earth, such mischief he makes:
The famines, the floods, the wildfires, the quakes.
He acts out of fury, the hunger he feels;
So child, stay in line or you’ll be his next meal.
Despite the grim nature of the whole thing, Seicha wished she could believe the Haben was actually coming. She longed for proof of the gods she once believed in, of unseen forces in the universe guiding her along. But there was a more plausible explanation for the “magic” that would occur after the rains fell: Henshaw would be pulled from the pit and presented to a firing squad in the dead of night. It seemed logical, she figured, that the Emperor’s regime would use her people’s old superstitions against them.
She and Miko made their way through a labyrinth of fallen trees, coming to a clearing where the skeleton of a once-great temple lay in a heap. The sparkling, white marble edifice had once been a place of worship devoted to Dohv, Lord of the Underworld and Keeper of Life. Now, it was nothing but a pile of marble shards on the ground, back to the earth from whence it came.
Seicha heard rumors of Khronasans who hid scraps of its shattered columns under their beds at night, but nobody dared to worship at the foot of its crumbled remains. To be spotted worshipping the old pantheon was a sin worthy of execution, or worse, a lifetime of servitude at General Simeon’s mansion.
Every time Seicha passed the ruins, she swore she could still hear the thunderous boom that had echoed across the countryside the night it was demolished, the sound of hard marble colliding against hard marble, of the earth absorbing the little faith her people had left. She had seen the destruction from afar, on a secluded hilltop, with Miko, then just five summers old, nestled in her lap: Newly minted orphans, wordlessly watching the fire devour everything they’d ever known.
Miko snapped to a halt and held his breath. “Shhh,” he held out a hand to Seicha to keep her from taking another noisy step, interrupting her private thoughts. “Rabbits.”
He yanked a slender, hollowed-out tree branch from his worn leather belt and produced a pouch of razor sharp darts from his pocket, zeroing in on a rustling holly bush just beyond the edge of the temple. He shook the pouch and a walnut shell full of gummy red paste fell into his palm, his homemade poison, into which he dipped the point of his dart, getting ready.
“Don’t get dinner just yet,” Seicha hissed and put a hand to his wrist. “Unless, of course, you want to get robbed at the ceremony.”
“But he’s right there,” Miko grumbled.
“Show up with blood on your shirt and a rabbit in your pack and you’ll be blindsided before they even hit the gong. We can’t stand out. Don’t act like you don’t know that.”
Miko sighed and shoved his weapon back underneath his belt. Seicha frowned at the way the leather stitching on his deerskin tunic was fraying and how tightly the sleeves hugged Miko’s arms. She’d need to make him a new shirt soon. He was growing so fast.
The two of them continued to traipse through the woods toward the edge of a gray meadow where the rocky, muddy earth gave way to a gravel pathway leading to Khronasa’s central square. The desolate city of crude cinderblocks and rusty red rooftops loomed before them. Seicha tucked her fang inside the front of her dress, concealing it.
Seicha and Miko had lived far away on the hilltop beyond the forest since the occupation, but she could easily recall what Khronasa had been like before then. She remembered a cluster of small, solid log cabins grouped together in the meadow, with fenced pastures dividing each family’s plot of land. Her family’s horses and wheat crop had been situated right outside her bedroom window. There were no streets because there was no need for them: They did not have motor vehicles. The Federation did, so the Federation built the roads.
Seicha remembered a blacksmith’s cabin not far from her home and an array of seamstresses’ shacks and grain dispensaries. Now there were no goods or services that the Khronasans could trade among them. The Federation gave its loyal citizens just as much as they needed to survive. Seicha hadn’t seen a single business open its doors in Khronasa in seven years.
Seicha and Miko were among those who chose to hunt and gather instead of accepting the Federation’s assistance. Even if their food’s availability was unpredictable, Seicha knew it was the safer alternative. Yet General Simeon saw to it that even the rogue Khronasans on the outskirts of the city would still find themselves at his mercy. All the arable land was owned by and farmed by the Federation. The woods and the hilltop produced no crops. This was the reason that today, and only today, Seicha and Miko ventured into the city for the sacrificial ceremony: Each spectator would receive a sack of grain on their way to watch the boy march to his death. Seicha would have gladly subsisted on berries and scant scraps of rabbit for the rest of her days, but Miko was still a child. Miko needed to eat, and eat decently.
A family of hunter-gatherers who had also come from the forest met up with Seicha and Miko at the place the two pathways converged: a young husband and wife and their frail, barefoot daughter, stumbling painfully across the gravel. The family was of pure Khronasan blood, which had become rarer and rarer with each passing year. All three resembled her and Miko, with thick black hair and honey-gold skin. The little girl looked up at Seicha with a fierce, starving blankness, as if scouring Seicha for food with her dark, almond shaped eyes. They walked nearly in step with one another, but nobody said a word. It was another sacrifice. There was nothing to say about it.
The central square of Khronasa spread out before them as the pathway widened. A covered platform of polished marble, flanked by six huge pillars, stood in the middle of the plaza. The grandiose structure stood out awkwardly amidst the shoddy concrete buildings that lined the cobblestone and dirt roads. Seicha noted the ancient silver gong situated at the front of the plaza platform, engraved ages ago with images of her people’s demons and gods—a relic the Federation had stolen and reclaimed as their own. General Simeon would ring it once it was time to depart and abandon Henshaw in the pit. She had gazed upon it year after year and was disappointed to realize she couldn’t name a single one of the figures etched into the silver. Her parents had scarcely begun to teach her everything about the complex mysteries of their faith. Now they were gone, the teachings gone with them.
Just below the stairs to the platform was the pit, the same pit that Seicha’s forefathers had helped to dig when their village was established. Only now, the pit no longer belonged to her people. A few of the General’s servants made themselves busy splashing buckets of water down the steep sides of the hole in the ground, making sure the muddy walls were slick and impossible to climb. Seicha had never wanted to be close enough to peer down into it, but she was sure it was incredibly deep. Nobody ever climbed out.
She reached for Miko’s hand as they eased in with the throng of anxious villagers waiting in line for their grain. He squirmed and lightly slapped her hand away. She remembered at the last ceremony how he’d still grabbed for her hand at this moment, afraid to be separated. Now, he shoved his hands in his pockets and stared straight ahead.
As they fell in line, Seicha scanned the plaza for General Simeon. He usually didn’t enter until he was certain all eyes would be focused on him, but she always made sure, every time she came here, to spot him first. She liked to know where he was at all times, to assure herself that he wasn’t watching her. It was his face, his eyes, that spied on her from the darkness in each and every one of her nightmares since the night of the occupation. She preferred to at least pretend she had some control in her waking life.
She glanced around the plaza at the weary expressions on all sides of her as they shuffled closer to the front of the line. All of these people had stories like hers. Anyone who had been there the night of the Federation takeover had their own horrible memories playing over and over every time they closed their eyes. Every time she closed her eyes, Seicha saw the General.
At sunset on the night the city fell, her family’s hunting dogs started howling in a blind frenzy. They burst out the door, never to be seen again. They had heard the march of the army in the distance like an impending thunderstorm. Nobody else had.
Seicha recalled with alarming clarity the exact spot she’d stood in the wheat field, impatiently calling out to the dogs, when an explosion rocked the earth beneath her feet. Cabins nearby were engulfed in flames within seconds. Seicha’s father, Oskar, yanked her back into the house and told her to hide under her bed. She watched her neighbors streak past her window, fleeing in terror. It wasn’t long before the flames from a second blast devoured their cabin. She, her parents, and Miko, on his wobbly young legs, bolted from their home.
They raced for the hills, mounted on their two horses, but they did not get far. A line of Federation soldiers halted them, positioned like a barricade on all sides of the village, each one armed with a heavy semi-automatic weapon. Seicha had never seen a firearm before in her life. Nobody had. General Simeon stood at the center of the stoic militia, clad in black from head to toe, barking orders to his men in a strange language. Then, he changed his tongue. He addressed her family and neighbors directly:
“The first man to flee into the woods does so with a bullet in his back,” he had said. What was a bullet? Nobody knew…
A man who lived nearby ignored General Simeon’s threat and drove his horse through the fortress of soldiers, toward the hillside beyond. Then, the crowd of stunned Khronasans understood what a bullet was.
It was all a feverish blur after that. The Federation army pelted her people with gunfire. The Khronasans fought back with whatever weapons they had, still not fully understanding the evil they were up against. Seicha and Miko’s parents threw the children to the ground and lay atop them, shielding them from the storm of fire above.
She hadn’t seen it happen, but she’d heard it: One of General Simeon’s bullets hit her mother square in the neck. She hardly had a moment to process where the deafening crack had come from. Her father sprang to his feet as her mother’s body rolled off of her own.
Oskar’s closest weapon in that moment was the beast’s fang. He was wearing it around his own neck that night. As General Simeon kept his gun fixed on their helpless family, Oskar lunged toward him, brandishing the fang like a dagger. Seicha watched them struggle in terror. Oskar knocked the gun from Simeon’s hand and swung at him with the fang. But instead of landing a fatal blow, Oskar plunged the fang deep into General Simeon’s left cheek and twisted it—carving a gaping, bloody hole into the side of the wretched man’s face.
The soldier to General Simeon’s right fired at Oskar, defending his master. And then he was gone, in barely a breath, asleep forever beside his wife on a blanket of dried leaves and dead twigs. It was autumn and the ground was covered in fallen yellow leaves that night. Seicha remembered little about that moment, but she would always recall how deeply red her father’s blood appeared against the golden forest floor in the moonlight.
Seicha leaped to her feet as the General lifted his head and blood cascaded out of the hole in his face. It dribbled down his chin like a river of molten ruby against his chalky skin. He looked at her, he gazed right into her eyes. And he smiled. It was the wickedest thing she’d ever seen. He smiled at her, his butchered cheek gruesomely off-kilter, as if promising her that this was only the beginning.
Her stomach turned. She clamored for Miko as he whimpered, not understanding anything. She remembered how he shrieked when she tore him from their mother. General Simeon was still watching them as she scrambled to mount one of the abandoned horses nearby and then helped Miko up. They locked eyes. He was still smiling. What was going to happen? Would he chase her? Shoot her? What?
A sudden explosion from the other side of the meadow distracted Simeon for the briefest of seconds. The soldiers surrounding him ran toward the source of the blast, as though they hadn’t been expecting it.
Simeon turned to join them, but spun back around at the last second. He cradled his gouged cheek and stared her down.
Gritting his teeth through the heinous pain, he said to her, “I’ll give you a head start for being so pretty. Better run.”
And then he was gone. As she peered down at her parents’ bodies in despair, realizing that nobody would be giving them a proper burial, she spotted the beast’s fang hanging against her father’s lifeless chest. She dismounted and pulled it off of him. It was like taking a piece of him with her. She wouldn’t dare leave it.
She and Miko managed to steal away unscathed toward the hilltop as the fighting quieted and the night wore thin. They found an abandoned hut deep in the forest and made it their home. She’d been fortunate enough to have spent fourteen years learning the intricacies of the woods alongside her father. She knew they could survive, but quickly doubted whether survival was enough— Miko only spoke to ask Seicha where their mother was. He said nothing else that entire winter, the longest one of her life. She could keep his belly full, but she’d never mend his broken heart. She cried in silence only after he was fast asleep.
Though the passing years had dulled her despair, General Simeon’s blood-soaked, toothy grin still echoed across her memory every time she made an appearance for the sacrifice. Today was no different. She would be old and preparing for the grave and would still never forget that face.
She noticed they were nearing the front of the queue now and that Miko had moved in front of her. He was about to accept his burlap sack of grain from the dead-eyed, yellow-haired Federation woman who had just thrust a bag into the arms of the brittle old woman in front of him. Every person who showed their face at the ceremony, elderly and young children alike, earned the simple reward.
The silver gong rang out across the plaza: once, twice, three times. This was their signal that the ceremony would begin soon. Seicha kept her eyes fixed on the platform, waiting for General Simeon. She felt her fang against her skin as she breathed, confident that it was hidden from view.
“Thanks,” Miko grunted as the Federation woman shoved a sack of grain into his waiting hands.
“Thanks, what?” she snorted at him.
“Er … thanks, sister,” he corrected himself, annoyed. He rolled his eyes as Seicha passed him by to accept her bag. She pinched his forearm sternly.
Seicha took her own sack. “Thank you, sister,” she said.
She met Miko at their usual spot, far on the edge, a good distance from the pit. She always wondered about the people who pushed their way to the front of the crowd, the ones who desperately wanted an unobstructed view of the helpless victim. There were quite a lot of them. She had never understood it. It was as though they were watching something that wasn’t real, as if they knew something the rest of them didn’t… or could at least convince themselves that they did.
Boooooong. As the sound of the gong dissolved into the air, Seicha spied General Simeon and a team of sturdy, armed bodyguards striding through the village. General Simeon was a small man with short legs whose face was fixed into an eternal scowl, his left cheek upturned at the lip. All his skin had been pulled taut to cover the hole in the side of his face. The scar, a deep crater of atrophied flesh, consumed his entire cheek. Seicha couldn’t remember what he’d looked like before her father mangled him with the fang, but relished the image of a handsome young man who’d been turned into a monster—as foul as the one who would come to claim its sacrifice tonight.
The child, Henshaw, trailed behind General Simeon, trapped at four corners by the team of bodyguards. The boy was shackled head to toe and couldn’t have gone very far if he’d tried, with or without the guards. To have them present was just part of the show—a visual feast for the clamoring spectators at the edge of the pit, tittering with nervous excitement.
Seicha gazed at Henshaw as he shuffled down the gravel walkway, eyes pinned to the ground. She remembered seeing him once or twice before. Freckles dusted the apples of his two youthful cheeks. He was one of the healthier-looking children in their destitute city, but no longer. His face was drawn and grim today, caked with mud and tearstains. She wondered how he’d been chosen. She wondered that every year. There were always rumors, but never any answers.
Chilling silence rippled across the anxious crowd as General Simeon and his brutish pack of bodyguards led the small boy to the pit. All eyes were on Henshaw now.
Seicha squeezed her eyes shut for this next part. She hated it the most: when the silent victim would break to pieces and start to plead for mercy, to scream. They were always ignored and forcefully tossed into the muddy pit—an end without dignity. It would be the same for Henshaw. She couldn’t watch.
Just as Henshaw’s first whimpers pitifully echoed across the quiet, captivated crowd, a different sound forced Seicha to open her eyes. It was Miko, muttering furiously under his breath. Seicha heard his feet scuff against the gravel as he grunted.
A boy about Seicha’s age with matted brown hair and thick, meaty arms was trying to tug Miko’s sack of grain from his hands. Miko kicked and fought back, glaring daggers at the greedy boy. Seicha silently moved toward them to intervene. It was a strange sight, two boys fighting wordlessly in the middle of the solemn crowd. Miko spat in the boy’s face. The boy wasted no time, swinging hard at Miko and making contact with his left eye. Miko went down, clutching his face, but did not stop hugging the bag of grain to his chest. Undeterred, the boy proceeded to kick him in the face with all his strength as Seicha flew to Miko’s aid. He elbowed her back with little effort and snickered as Miko coughed and spat a wad of blood onto the filthy gravel.
People were taking notice now. Their worried whispers suffocated Seicha like smoke as General Simeon began his ritual blessing.
“On this day, we sacrifice our brother Henshaw to the Haben. Henshaw shall defend this city and her people from the evils of nature, the evils we cannot foresee…”
The whispers escalated to a gentle roar as the larger boy continued to kick Miko into oblivion. A reluctant sigh escaped Seicha’s lips as she tore the fang from under her collar and sprang between them, pointing it between the greedy boy’s eyes.
His gaze shifted nervously from Seicha’s menacing scowl to the razor sharp tip of the fang. He threw up his hands and retreated almost instantly, weaving through the crowd like a frightened deer in the forest. Miko clutched the bag of grain to his chest as though it were a shield as Seicha clasped his hand and pulled him to his feet. She hadn’t realized how many people were watching. She also hadn’t realized that General Simeon had stopped delivering his remarks. The entire area had fallen quiet. Her blood ran cold.
Heart racing, Seicha turned her back to the platform, swiftly threw the cord back over her head, and dropped the fang down the front of her dress. She wasn’t sure how long all eyes had been on them. She wasn’t sure Simeon had even seen them. She pivoted back around slowly, hoping to appear as casual as possible. Relief washed over her as General Simeon continued his speech.
“Because of Henshaw’s great sacrifice, this beautiful city shall remain safe from the wrath of the demon. And so, we thank you for your sacrifice, Henshaw.”
“Thank you for your sacrifice, Henshaw,” the entire audience repeated in monotonous unison, right on cue.
Seicha glanced at Miko as he wiped blood from his mouth with his sleeve, his red face ripe with bruises and shame. They exchanged a look as she gave his shoulder a squeeze.
Boooooong. The gong resounded across the city one last time. General Simeon had struck it, signifying the end of the ceremony. Seicha could hear Henshaw’s muffled cries at the bottom of the pit. They always left the plaza as soon as they could. There was no reason to stay and listen to the victim plead for his life to no avail. The front row dirt-eaters often lagged behind, determined to drain every drop of drama from the scene that they could. But most, like Seicha, would be gone within minutes.
“We’ll stop by the river to wash on our way home,” Seicha said to Miko, draping a protective arm around him. He wriggled out of her grasp.
“Fine. Then, we hunt,” he replied flatly.
Seicha glanced at the platform once more before heading in the other direction. She immediately wished that she hadn’t. Instead of exiting with his security detail, General Simeon was still standing beside the gong, looking out at the audience. It took her a moment to realize that he was staring directly at her. She could feel his harrowing gaze from halfway across the plaza. And although it was difficult to see from this distance, although she couldn’t be sure … she thought she saw him smiling at her. Seicha shuddered as the nightmare reared its ugly head. She snagged Miko’s wrist and practically dragged him from the city square. She didn’t look over her shoulder, but she knew, from the shiver she felt at her back, that General Simeon was still following her with his eyes. She swallowed hard and enmeshed herself with the dissipating crowd, trying desperately to become as lost as possible. She wouldn’t feel safe until the red rooftops of Khronasa were far, far from their view.
Woosh! One of Miko’s darts sliced through the air. He bounded over to a patch of brush and, seconds later, produced a rabbit. He’d only washed in the river for a few brief seconds. He wanted to forget the whole ordeal, and Seicha knew better than to force the issue. So she let him get to hunting.
He held the rabbit up by its ears proudly. It dangled in the air, eyes wide but paralyzed by his poisoned dart. “Enough for dinner?”
“Sure,” Seicha said and approached him with the fang drawn. She handed it over to Miko. “He’s a big one. Better cut him quick before the poison wears off.”
“Know what I would do to General Simeon, if someone threw me in the pit?” Miko said, more loudly than he should have, as he dislodged the dart from the rabbit’s flesh.
“Quiet, Miko, we’re not far enough from the city,.” Seicha’s stomach twisted as she glanced around. She was almost positive they hadn’t been followed. Almost.
He narrowed his eyes and gave a sly little grin. “I’ll be quiet. But don’t you want to know?”
“Seems you’ve been thinking about it a while.”
Miko slit the rabbit’s throat with the fang as he elaborated. “I’d be in the pit. And I’d make sure you were up in a tree somewhere nearby. With this,” he held up the blowgun. “Then, right as the General’s finishing his speech, you’d start raining poison darts down on him and all the guards.”
“I’d have to be a lot straighter of a shot to accomplish that.” Seicha scoffed with a smile.
“Nah, you could do it. People are supposed to be able to do things they never could before when they’re trying to save someone’s life. You know?”
“All right, then assuming I’m able to do it…?”
“Right, right, so within a minute everyone guarding the pit is either dead or almost dead—unconscious, you know? Depending on good your shot was. Including the General. And once people see him just lying on the ground like that, all weak and scared… they’ll remember that he can actually be killed. I think people forget that. You know? I think if people saw him go down, they’d rush right over to me and get me out of the pit and the whole town will finish off all the guards, a huge … masser, um … mass…” Miko stammered, trying to recall the word.
“Massacre?” Seicha offered.
“Massacre!” he shouted, a bit too excitedly.
“Your massacre might be a little bit difficult considering those guards would have guns.”
“But you know I’m right. If someone just reminded everyone else that General Simeon isn’t any better than the rest of us? Maybe then everything might start to go back to the way it was.”
“The Emperor still rules over Khronasa, you know that. He’d just send another General to replace Simeon.” To which she added, “And pretty soon there won’t be very many people left who remember the way it was. We wouldn’t know what to go back to.”
Seicha held out her hand and he placed the fang into her palm. She wiped the blood onto her coarse gray slacks before hanging the fang back around her neck where it belonged.
“You know, it’s funny,” Miko said as he crammed the rabbit’s carcass in his burlap knapsack. “If you’d never told me how it was before, I’d really never know because I was too young to remember. I’d think things were always like this, and then I’d never think things could be any different. Or better.”
“Mmm,” Seicha murmured in agreement as she plodded along the path beside him.
Her eyes landed upon an enormous steel structure in the foggy distance, stripped down by explosions and the elements over the years. It was her landmark in the forest, the thing that helped her orient herself, but she had no idea what it was. All that remained were four tall stalks of metal held together by scraps of wire. It swayed in the breeze, back and forth, day by day, just barely evading collapse. It had always looked that way, as far back as Seicha could remember her own name. There were plenty of old ruins in the woods, but whenever she paused to gaze at this particular mysterious architecture, she would find her flesh was prickling and she couldn’t tear her eyes away. It was as though some faraway force was trying to make sure she understood that this thing, whatever it was, meant something. But nobody, not even her father, knew anything about it.
“Like, what do you suppose that is?” Miko pointed to the twisted steel anomaly on the horizon, still tingling with the thrill of his own philosophical awakening.
“You know nobody knows,” she replied, swatting away a tenacious mosquito.
“That’s what I mean. Once, a long, long time ago … somebody probably knew what that was and what happened to it. But the story’s lost forever because nobody talked about it. Nobody talked about it on purpose. So the children of the children who were alive when it was destroyed never knew a thing. Once the last person to know the story died, so did the proof that it ever even happened.”
“People say it got destroyed in the War of the Thieves,” Seicha pointed out.
“But what do you even know about the War of the Thieves?”
“As much as anyone else. There were machines and four big bombs,” she offered, knowing it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy him.
“See? That’s what I’m saying,” Miko’s passionate young voice faltered in his throat. “We can’t let the Federation pretend like there was nothing before they came along. We’re not going to forget how it was before, or what they did. It won’t be the way you say it will.”
“I hope you’re right,” was all she could think to offer in reply.
Miko fell silent, absorbing her words, as Seicha unhooked a small fishing spear from her belt and nudged him toward the south end of the forest.
“Let’s see if we can catch a couple fish before the rain picks up,” she said, pointing to the gray clouds up above, heavy with the rain that would bring Henshaw’s demise.
If there was one solitary hint that the spirits she and her family once worshipped indeed existed, it was the rain. Without fail, each and every time the city made a sacrifice, storm clouds gathered and heavy showers would saturate the earth by nightfall. The rain fell like clockwork, even if the sun was shining all morning. The General’s soldiers could go ahead and snatch the innocent victim from the flooded pit at midnight. But something, someone knew there was a sacrifice waiting and sent the rain each and every time.
She was afraid to have faith in the spirit world, skeptical of anything other than her own survival for the past seven years. It was easier not to depend on anybody but herself. But someone’s hand was controlling nature, and Seicha was sure that it wasn’t General Simeon’s.