Ghosts of Seniiti

You can learn a lot from a mother, she thought. I wish I had that chance.

Alone in the endless green of the forest that encompassed her humble village, Alix found she had a lot of time to think. She also discovered that her thoughts didn’t always go where she wanted them to.

She crouched. Sitting on her heels she observed a fresh track in the soft mud. An elk, no more than an hour old. She smiled to herself and stood, her fingers drumming the wood of her oak longbow.

How long had it been? Sixteen years? Seventeen? She couldn’t remember. The stories were the only connection she had to her, the only thing that stood as proof of her existence. At night her mother would return, whispering inaudible words to her that only filled her with confusion. Why do I keep doing this to myself?

Alix was a young girl, the youngest of her tribe. She stood on the eve of her eighteenth Frost, right on the edge of true womanhood. She could almost taste the freedom that would soon be hers. The right to vote, to work, to marry, to truly live would soon be in her grasp. With the downtime before her ritual, she had chosen to pass the day by scavenging the woods that bordered her peaceful village. Too long had it been since she had felt the plunge of a blade, the twang of her bow.

She stopped again, mid-step. A rustling. Head completely still, her eyes darted from one mossy tree to the next. A squirrel suddenly jumped from one branch to another and disappeared into the foliage. A false alarm. She trod ahead.

It was that time of year when it was still warm in the stillness, but in the breeze one could feel Frost approaching. The leaves were changing hues, their green brilliance evolving into shades of purple, red, and yellow. Another bountiful Scorch had come and gone, and the harvest would begin soon. Alix silently hoped the tribe was prepared.

Her mother’s face returned to her mind. How long would she haunt her? It wasn’t sadness she felt, but distance, and with that, regret. Alix didn’t even care if her mother turned out to be a diseased harlot or some unspeakable monstrosity in her former life; her desire to have a relationship with her trumped any fear or doubt.

The signs of the elk’s passing were all around her. She was getting close. Alix stopped to catch her breath and prepare. She leaned her bow against the trunk of a mighty yew tree and paused to observe the slivers of blue sky that cut through the canopy. Daylight would soon be gone; she had to act now.

Alix was a fair-faced and light-skinned young lady, a girl that appeared very differently from the rest of her tribe. Perhaps her most distinct physical feature was her hair: after years of purposeful neglect, her white-blond curls had formed into tightly knit dreads that passed her mid-back. Adorned with beads, feathers, and tattered pieces of cloth, her fat locks hung loosely around her head, encompassing it in shadow. She gently gripped the two that fell beside her eyes and pulled them behind her head, taking every other knot with them, and loosely tied the two pieces together. With her hair no longer a distraction, she was ready.

She proceeded at a crouch. Though the light was dim under the thickness of the forest above, her eyes had long since adjusted to such conditions. With her bow in hand and an arrow at the ready, she moved forward, the only sound being the heartbeat in her ears.

Less than a minute passed by before she caught sight of it; the elk stood no more than seventy yards ahead, completely oblivious to its stalker. It twitched its ear and blinked stupidly. It looked in Alix’s direction, almost as if it knew what was coming but was powerless to stop it. She didn’t think before she released the bowstring and pierced the animal through the sternum, straight to the heart, a flawless shot. It was dead before it felt the arrow.

It took an hour for the girl to make the short journey back to the Seniiti Village, the animal draped over her shoulder. She had gotten lucky; in the dark, the animal looked fully grown, but it turned out to be only a calf, small enough to carry comfortably yet big enough to feed her and her father.

Her father. Alix felt a pang of guilt. She realized then she thought more of her deceased mother whom she barely knew than of the very man that helped conceive and raise her. It hadn’t been easy for Grund either. He wasn’t the affectionate type, and as a result, all the elders of the small commune had ended up becoming a family of sorts during Alix’s youth. It isn’t his fault, Alix realized. Not all men can be single fathers.

At the foot of Mount Kulgootar, the village was often covered by the dormant volcano’s veil. For half of each day the town was shadowed by the black rock that loomed, but the other half of the day was just enough for the crops to get a healthy amount of sunlight. In the heat of Scorch, the shade was openly welcomed.

Alix emerged from the dense woods that separated the tribe from the mountain’s base and swiftly approached the gates. The sun was setting now, staining the crops a golden brown and bathing the wooden homes in a warm light. Familiar faces surrounded the roads, minding their business, tilling the land, drawing the water, leading the horse-driven carts to their respective destinations, some of them acknowledging her with a wave or a smile, others not noticing. She made a beeline for her home and walked around back to meet her father.

Grund was a blacksmith, and if you couldn’t see it in his appearance, you could hear in his voice. It was almost impossible to catch him without his signature leather apron draped over his torso. His forearms were as large as tree trunks, and his bushy beard—where it wasn’t streaked with gray—was as black as the midnight sky. His bald head reflected light like a crystal lake, and his skin had seen years of outdoor labor and toil.

Grund was hammering a molten piece of metal, sparks flying with every strike. When he saw his daughter he smiled, quickly tapped the steel a few more times, and placed it in a wooden barrel full of water and other cooling weapons, which instantly emitted a loud sizzle and cloud of steam. “Alix!” he bellowed in joy as he threw his arms open in welcome. “I was getting worried!” He chuckled.

“Hey, Dad,” the girl responded, her face devoid of emotion. She shrugged the body off her back and onto her father’s workbench. Grund instantly began preparing it for cleaning.

“How was the hunt? You were gone at least, what, ten hours?”

“Long.” Alix leaned her bow against the wall of the house and unloaded her quiver. She sat with a sigh on a stool by the bench and leaned heavily upon it.

Grund began sharpening his cutting tools. He interrupted himself to scratch his beard. “Well, I’m glad you got something, even if it is on the small side,” he said with a mock disappointment.

Alix didn’t take the bait. “So. When do I have to leave?”

The burly blacksmith laid down his tools and exhaled toward the earth. His eyes lifted to meet his daughter’s. “Dawn,” he coldly replied. “The Ritual is no easy task. You’ve some preparing to do.”

Alix leaned back and untied her dreads, then began playing with one. “Did you have to do it?” Alix, of course, already knew the answer; she merely hoped her father would give her more than his typical vague responses.

“Many, many years ago.” Grund made an incision along the belly of the elk, releasing steam into the cooling air.

“What will he have me do?”

“Can’t say.” Grund grunted as he tore through a particularly tough piece of meat. “The oracle’s tasks vary from each individual to the next.”

“Hm.” Alix stared at the elk’s body as Grund tore into it, lost in a trance of thought.

“When you do as Oshtu asks, however, you’ll be rewarded with these.” For possibly the hundredth time Grund showed his daughter the glowing white tattoos that covered the surface of his hands in random swirls and geometric shapes. “And after you’re marked, you’ll gain the rights of any other adult citizen in our fair village.” Grund went back to work. “It’s not easy, but it is necessary.” He finished with a grin, “I have complete faith in you.”

Alix sighed. Her dad may have believed in her, but she had no idea what to expect.

Her father noticed her anxiety and distracted her. “Prepare a fire. We’ll be cooking in no time.”

A full moon rose in the east, a natural optical illusion making its pale face appear twice as large as it should. Its brightness was enough to cast multiple shadows of contrasting intensity across the tall grass in the fields. A cold wind blew from the north, where the towering Mount Kulgootar rose to meet with the midnight sky, its peaks lost in the darkness.

Alix warmed her hands by the fireplace and took a bite of the elk venison on the platter before her. Tender, yet juicy. She savored each taste; she didn’t know when she’d be able to eat real meat again.

Grund finished off his slab and leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh of contentedness. He patted his stomach and rose from his seat. “I’m heading to bed. I suggest you do the same.” He walked past his daughter, sitting on the floor, and rustled her hair. “I’ll wake you at dawn.”

“Goodnight, Dad.” Alix continued staring at the fire, curiously watching as orange tongues licked the red brick of the chimney. She took another bite of elk meat, its taste apparently snapping her out of her trance. She stood, doused the flames, and headed to bed.

Sleep didn’t come easy for the girl. She restlessly turned in her straw bed as her mind drifted off into subconsciousness. Dreams came to her instantly. As vivid as the world she lived in her vision unfolded.

Her mother stood in an open plain, the grass tall and dry from the sun. She faced the glowing star in the east, her face illuminating with its splendor. Her face was unfamiliar, foreign; Alix had never consciously seen it, after all. Her mother’s hair veiled most of her features, but what was visible was merely a blur, as if she wore a mask of skin.

Alix found herself in the same field, only a few dozen yards from her mother who stood like a statue, an abandoned scarecrow with no longer a purpose to serve. “Mother?”

Alix ventured a few cautious steps forward. A strong gust pushed from her right side, bending the reeds, making them a flowing ocean in the grip of the wind. Dust swirled at her feet and lifted towards her face; she grunted with annoyance and closed her eyes, lifting her arm to shield her face from the dirt. She had them closed no longer than a second, but when she opened them again, her mother stood directly in front of her now, their faces inches apart.

The young girl let out a small scream, half fear and half disbelief, and almost fell backwards to the earth. But as she bent, she froze in mid-air, balancing impossibly, something holding her up: it was her mother’s gaze. The blank orbs that were her eyes held her body in place. Alix let out a weak whimper.

“Do not…believe…their lies.” She said the phrase as three separate sentences. Her voice was spears of ice, each word piercing her daughter in the chest. Alix almost felt physical pain as she spoke. She never wanted to hear her voice again.

And then Alix fell. Her body hit the ground with a soft thud, and her mother reeled back, her spine arching to a painful angle. Alix looked up to meet her eyes—or what were left of them—and her mother returned her gaze. She glared deep inside her daughter, then, with several loud cracks, she cocked her head to the side, as if she were a dog that just heard her name called from afar, but then it kept twisting until her face was parallel with the ground, turned to an impossible angle. With another series of twitching snaps of bone, she twisted it the other direction to the same degree, and she left it there as she spoke again. “They lie. All of them. Flee. Run…for your life.”

On her last word, lighting struck on the horizon, a thunderous boom echoed in Alix’s ear, and she awoke in her bed with a heave.

Alix was panting heavily, nearly hyperventilating, her back and legs damp with sweat. Her eyes darted around the room, confirming that she was indeed awake. She leaned back onto her feather pillow and put her face in hands. What was that? She dreamed of Linada almost every night, but never before had a nightmare of her mother been so terrifying, so utterly paralyzing.

The girl tore her blankets off and swung her legs over the side of the bed. There was no more peaceful slumber for her that night. She glanced out the window. The night was as infinitely dark as she had left it, yet somehow she knew the sun would be peaking over the horizon in only a short while. She untangled the dreads that had loosely twisted together in her sleep and stood.

She dressed and ate quickly, gulping down bites of leftover elk and some fruit. She burst outside in her regular woodsman clothes: a pair of leather boots, gloves, and a brown belt strung loosely around her hips, carrying various trinkets and tools; her olive pants and top that clung loosely to her body, allowing freedom of movement and decent airflow; and finally, on her head, she wore a fox fur, its snout, eyes, and ears intact, the fiery-orange of its fur hanging down past her shoulders. Her face was exposed where the lower-jaw—long since removed—would have been, and the rest of the skull acted as an attractive form of protection, not to mention a personal good luck charm. She was given the fur when she was a baby, by her mother, no less; not once had Alix been careless enough to misplace or damage it.

As Alix glanced east, sure enough she saw it: swirls of lavender and pink were pushing into the graying sky, signaling the break of day. She wrapped around the house and met her father by his workbench, him busily sharpening an array of weapons. His daughter’s appearance surprised him.

“Alix!” he said. “I didn’t expect to see you up so early.”

The girl tightened her belt and adjusted her headpiece. “I couldn’t sleep.” She sat at the bench with a slight groan. Her face was pale and worn.

“More dreams, huh?” Grund set down his whetstone. “You want to talk about it?”

Alix gave her father a sheepish smile. “No,” she said dismissively. “It was just a dream.”

“Did you eat?”

Alix nodded.

“Of course you know no food is allowed to be carried on you when you start the Ritual; it must all be caught or found on the way—“

“I know,” she interrupted, not out of disrespect but impatience. She excused her rudeness with a laugh through the nose. “You’ve only told me a hundred times.”

Grund’s eyes squinted and facial hair rose as he smiled. “Good.”

No matter how prepared Alix was for the Ritual, no matter how many times she’d been told what would happen, how things would progress, she still wasn’t completely ready, mainly because of the fact that no one knew what the oracle would ask her to do before she was permitted to receive her marks. It was different for everyone, they claimed. But they had all done it, and she could too.

Alix reasoned that the hardest part would be getting to the summit of the dormant volcano. Never once had she touched even one rock of Kulgootar; it was forbidden to do so until you officially partook in the Ritual. Since her childhood she had been scrutinously taught exactly how to get to Oshtu’s chamber: she had committed to memory exactly how many rocks she would have to climb, the number of trees she would pass, and the minutes it would take her to reach the top, a remarkable feat considering she hadn’t even seen with her own eyes where her journey would take her. Alix often thought it odd that she had spent the better part of her conscious life meticulously studying how she would leave her childhood through only a day-long ritual that didn’t actually change anything about her. The entire thing was, indeed, just a ceremony; its significance was completely symbolic, even the tattoos being nothing more than a physical marking of her allegorical journey. But the girl knew better than to question the ways of her people; she would accept her task and carry it out as all her ancestors had.

Now, more than ever, however, Alix held her doubts, and it wasn’t just a nervousness that came simply because she stood minutes away from her task. No, this fear came from the haunting of her dreams, the visions that had filled her head the night before. What could it mean? Her head spun as she tried to make sense of it all. Was she more worried than she thought, her subconscious retaliating against the mission ahead of her? Or was it something more?

She didn’t have time to finish her thought. Grund placed a hatchet and a carving knife down in front of her, freshly sharpened, the sound of their metal clinking together snapping her back into reality. “That oughta tide you over till you return.” Grund gave his daughter a sad smile; he was worried too, she could tell. She thought nothing of it and gathered her weapons, securely fastening them on her belt. “Come.” Grund beckoned her away, heading toward the town gate, and then, the tree line. “Estkhon is waiting.”

The turnout was far greater than she’d expected.

Alix didn’t like attention. She preferred to remain hidden, operating from the distance, a casual observer, but today she didn’t have that luxury. On the edge of the Seniiti Village, half the town—several dozen people—had gathered to see Alix off, to wish her luck. They all knew, Alix being the youngest, that it would be quite awhile before another took their journey.

Estkhon, the tribe’s spiritual leader, stood between the massive crowd and the forest that separated Alix from her destination. Clothed in crimson robes lined with golden thread, the gray old man appeared much younger than he was, his skin robbed of its dullness. He pulled his hood over his bald head to shield himself from the cool winds that came with the sun’s arrival and leaned his weight upon his ivory staff. Alix was never much one for faith, to believe in the spiritual power the shaman claimed to hold, and thus she knew the pole held no real strength. It was an ornament at best, but a beautiful one at that; encrusted with a fat ruby at its tip, the staff must have been worth half of Seniiti.

The crowd parted with quiet murmurs as Alix and her father made their way from the town gate toward the bent man. They stopped just short of him. From inside the darkness of his deep cloak, Alix could see Estkhon’s beady eyes transfixed on her. She waited for him to speak.

The shaman straightened. “Alix, Birthed of Linada and Descendant of Grund, Son of Tidius, I welcome and congratulate you.” The old man’s words sounded as ancient as the dirt he stood on. The girl wondered if he would collapse from exhaustion just from speaking. “You, on the eve of you eighteenth Frost, stand before Kulgootar, ready to ascend its silent peaks to gather from Oshtu the Oracle your birthright. Your life has been one long preparation for this task, a journey that will grant you all the privileges that come with adulthood: the right to marry, to vote, to council, teach, and fight will all become yours should you finish the Ritual.”

Alix nodded. She wasn’t sure if she should say or do anything. Her father stood directly next to her. She didn’t dare take her eyes off the shaman to look to him for answers.

“Do you accept the task before you, and should you complete it, the rewards that come with it?” Estkhon asked.

Alix nodded. “I do.”

The shaman returned the nod. He then reached into the massive sleeve of his robe and pulled from it a small jar filled with a red ink. He signaled to Alix that she should remove her headpiece—which she did, handing it momentarily to her father—before he dipped his first two fingers into the container and smeared the contents on her face. The girl closed her eyes as the shaman painted small swirls and patterns on her face, decorating her head in the symbols of her people. When he finished, he nodded again, and she placed her lucky fur back over her head, centering the snout in the middle of her face.

“That’s a beautiful garment,” the shaman remarked, his voice taking a more personal tone. “Where did you acquire such a thing?”

“My mother gave it to me.”

Estkhon frowned for just a moment, but then he caught himself and gave a dismissing smile. “Go now. The Seniiti people are with you.”

Alix shrugged off the abrupt change of subject and turned to her father. “I’m proud of you, Alix. Good luck.”

The girl closed her eyes and hugged her father. “Bye, Dad,” was all she could manage to say. After a few moments, she released her grip and walked toward the thick woods. As she trod ahead, she heard cheers of good luck and congratulations from behind. She stood at the forest’s entrance and turned to give one final wave before disappearing into the brush.

Unbeknownst to Alix, as her body disappeared into the green, Estkhon gripped Grund by the arm and pulled him down so their faces met. He whispered slyly to the blacksmith, “Will she be able to take it?”

Grund politely backed up a step, not appreciating being grabbed. “She’ll be fine.”

The shaman looked away and began walking toward the crowd that was diminishing back into the town, their thoughts now caught up in the tasks of the day ahead. “You’d better hope so.”

Alix was making good progress; she didn’t have time to spare. Having been in the immense forest several hundred times before made the journey through it that much easier. She estimated she could get to the foot of Mount Kulgootar before the sun had risen even a quarter of the way into the sky, and then she could spend the remainder of the day climbing, hopefully reaching the summit before nightfall. Seven and a half hours. That’s how long she knew it would take. After years of training, she knew nearly down to the minute how long it would be before she stood before the oracle, before her life changed forever. All she hoped now is that she wouldn’t get lost.

Her quest through the forest proved as trivial as she had thought it would. She burst through the other side of the greenery in less than an hour. What awaited her was something she had expected, yet something she wasn’t truly prepared for: before her stood Kulgootar, its massive entirety visible from where she stood at the foot. Never before had she been this far from home alone, and never before had she ventured this close to the silent volcano. Something about the experience was empowering. She couldn’t help smiling to herself as she climbed the first rock of the mountain’s face.

It was past noon before Alix reached the halfway point. She knew exactly where she was. Next to her was a dead tree, leafless and rotting where it stood alone on a rock jutting out over the air. Its mighty roots, indicating decades of life, wrapped and twisted around each other, piercing the hard earth as they had searched for life-sustaining nutrients. Alix held a branch as she dared to lean out into open space, peering down to see nothing but a straight fall beneath her. The sight was exhilarating.

From her height, she could easily spot her hometown nearly five miles away. Its distinguishable cornfields and farmhouses stuck out clearly; she thought she could make out the village school on the south end. This excited her because her house was merely yards from it.

The day was beautiful. From above, the forest didn’t look as big as she had imagined it to appear. It surrounded almost the entire mountain, but its width was pretty thin. No wonder she got through it so quickly. Being directly above it, the trees looked like something unreal to her. Many of the leaves had already changed colors, their greens lost to the season. Shades of yellow, brown, purple, and red poked through the canopy, giving the woods an appearance mimicking that of a rainbow scrambled by some mysterious power.

Swelling clouds of white billowed across the blue sky, often covering the sun, causing Alix to pull her headpiece closer to her face as the temperature dropped instantly. Moving shadows traced the earth, traveling as rapidly as the wind. After Alix soaked in the sights, she left the tree and continued on. Halfway there.

Afternoon passed into evening. The clouds were growing pink and purple, and the sun turned to the color of Alix’s prized fox fur before she finally reached the summit of Mount Kulgootar. As she pulled herself up to the final ledge, she gasped with disbelief as her mind caught up with what her eyes were seeing: before her, many feet below, in the bowels of the volcano, lay a massive red pool of liquid magma, molten rock so hot that even at her distance the girl still had to shield her delicate face. The pool of lava bubbled and boiled in slow rolls, the hot globules bursting with fat pops.

Alix glanced around. She had made it. She was at the very peak of Mount Kulgootar. She took a moment to absorb her surroundings. Still below her, far away, she could see Seniiti resting peacefully against the golden blanket it rested on. The village was beginning to illuminate with evening fires. How she wished she could join them, to get some food and spend an evening watching her father work, her body warmed by the flames.

Her stomach growled. She needed something to eat, but it could wait for the journey back. At the moment, she was far too anxious to meet the oracle, to receive her mysterious task. Her head searched the area. Beyond the pool: the cave. Within the cave, Oshtu lies. She spotted it: an opening on the far side of the molten basin. Carefully she edged her way there, keeping as far from the volcano’s lip as possible.

The entrance to the cave was a dark as a starless midnight sky. Alix could instantly feel an icy wind hit her, as cold as the volcano was hot, covering her instantly in chills. She shivered, hugged herself, and cautiously walked inside.

Her eyes adjusted quickly. She found the further she walked the brighter it got. Along the rocky walls of the cave were dozens of translucent, glowing mushrooms, each one more unbelievable than the last. The girl felt as if she were in a foreign world, one of dreams and fantasy. She brushed her fingers along the illuminated fungi as she passed. They reacted as if they were underwater, swaying gently as she released them, as if caught in a deep sea current.

Several yards in, the cave opened up into a space the size of an average home’s living room. Growing along the edges of the floor and walls were hundreds of mushrooms of blues, pinks, and yellows, and in the middle, a charred skeleton sat cross-legged. At least, that’s what Alix had thought it was at first glance. After a couple seconds, it dawned on her: the skeleton was actually a man. Oshtu.

The moment the thought connected, as if on cue, the leathery creature rose with a chorus of creaks and groans. The girl could see he was human, or at least he had been at one point. He was thin, almost impossible so. His dark, leathery skin, the color of charred wood, was stretched over his bony frame, like a sheet of snakeskin over the rim of a drum. His body was hairless and naked, save a loin cloth that barely covered any excess of flesh that may have remained beneath it. When he opened his eyes, Alix could see they were blank white orbs, the pupils completely gone. She was instantly reminded of her mother from her dream the night before. She let the thought pass.

“You…bear…the mark.” Oshtu extended a bony finger as his ancient words escaped his crooked mouth. He pointed to Alix’s face; for half a moment she had forgotten she wore the marks of her people on her face. She nodded. “Alix, Birthed of Linada and Descendant of Grund…I welcome you.” He lowered his arm.

The girl didn’t question how the oracle knew her name. There was, after all, a lot she didn’t understand about him, like what she was doing before him now in the first place. She remained silent, hoping her task would be simple and quick.

“You seek…your birthright. Do you not?”

“I do.”

The old man’s lips curled. “What…are you willing to do…to gain such a right?” In between phrases, Oshtu gulped down breaths of air, as if speaking alone were enough to exhaust him.

Alix hesitated. “Whatever you ask of me.” The moment the words left her lips she wondered if that were true.

“Good.” The oracle turned around slowly and faced the wall behind him. Alix noticed a plethora of scars lining his misshapen back from neck to tailbone. She shuddered at the thought of what may have caused them. “You are not…the first.”

Alix nodded, though she realized he couldn’t see her. “I know of those who’ve traveled before me.”

Oshtu placed his hands behind his back and tried to straighten his spine. “And what…do you know…of their deeds?”

What was he getting at? “Nothing. Not one spoke of it to me. Everyone claimed each person’s task was unique, different from anyone else’s.”

The oracle’s voice took a sinister twist. He turned around suddenly, faster than Alix had thought he could. “You mean no one has prepared you for this?”

The girl backed up a step. She was frightened now, despite Oshtu’s small and frail appearance. He must have someone on his side if he can live for generations, she rationalized.

The oracle fell calm as instantly as he had grown furious. “This is most…disappointing.”

Alix was losing patience. “What would you have me do?” She said it as a command, not a question. The oracle caught this and he smiled discreetly.

“How old…do you think I am?”

The question caught her off guard. “I, uh…”

“Give me…an honest guess.”

Alix pondered it a minute, foolishly scratching the head of the fox she wore instead of her own. “I don’t know, maybe two hun—“

“One thousand.

At first she thought she misheard him. “Did you say a thousand?”

“That…is correct.”

Alix didn’t believe him, not even for a second. It was impossible.

“I sense…your doubt. Tell me, what do you think…your ancestors did…to acquire their adult rights?”

Alix sighed. She wanted to get to the point, to get this over with. “I’ve no idea, only what the elders of my village have told me.”

Oshtu laughed to himself, just once. “I’ve a story to tell you, my dear.

“A thousand years ago, my family and I came to this quaint mountain to escape the persecution of our hometown. Leaving everything behind, we settled here with nothing but the clothes on our backs. After years of scraping together an existence, I awoke in bed one night to the sound of an explosion. Looking toward Kulgootar, I saw magma bursting into the sky. I told my family to flee, and I traveled to the mountaintop, hoping to find a way to divert the possibility of an eruption destroying our home and crop. What I found there shocked me: an old spirit stood before the magma, controlling it with nothing but the movement of his arms. He was laughing maniacally. I asked him to stop, to halt the madness. And so he bartered with me.

“The man was a wretched spirit, a lost soul. He explained that the only thing that kept him from descending to the nether, to the place of sorrow, was the destruction he caused on man. For every person he killed, his life on Earth extended one year. And so he would roam, taking lives as he needed to sustain himself on earth.

“It was then he struck a deal: he would grant me eternal life if I took on his horrendous task. My family would be saved. And so I did. As the Seniiti village grew, I watched over it from up here, growing older as the town expanded. But in order to keep my end of the deal, I had to keep the sacrifices coming. And so I established…the Ritual.”

Alix was breathing heavily at this point, backing up against the cave wall, feeling in vain for an exit. She stared in horror at the wrinkled figure of the oracle, not quite processing what he was telling her.

“You see,” he continued, “in order to keep the majority alive, the minority must be sacrificed. For the greater good, you have come here to give me what no one else can: the life of an innocent—one innocent—to preserve the safety of your home.”

Alix tried to speak. She had to attempt multiple times before her voice finally worked. “How…? How could you do this? My father. The shaman. They…”

“Did…what they had…to do,” the oracle finished.

Tears welled in the girl’s eyes. She shook her head in shock. “Who?” she asked, eyes closed tight, bracing herself for the answer.

“Does it really…matter?”

“Who!” she cried.

The oracle paused. “Your mother.”

Alix collapsed to her knees, defeated. She whimpered in the dark, alone. Her world fell apart in an instant. She remembered her dream. It made sense now. Linada hadn’t died of illness as the village had claimed. Her father had needed someone, and he convinced himself that his own wife would be the one to take the fall. It was despicable. Completely evil.

“What if I refuse?” she finally dared to ask.

“If you refuse to sacrifice an innocent, then you give yourself up.” Oshtu sat back down in the middle of the cavern and crossed his legs. “Seniiti is filled with people just like you, just like us. They all made their choices. They live today because they made a smart decision: one…for many.”

Everyone she knew was a murderer. How did they keep it secret from her? Hadn’t she noticed people disappearing? No, the village was much too large to keep track of so few, and who’s to say those that were sacrificed were even Seniiti people? The last Ritual hadn’t happened in years besides. None of these facts, however, excused any wrongdoings in Alix’s mind.

“Feel free to ask questions, child. None have come up here and not carried out their deeds without demanding a few answers.”

Alix bit. “If you need to kill to keep the village safe, why didn’t you simply kill me as I walked in?”

Oshtu laughed aloud. “How naïve you are. If I had killed you, who would ever participate in the Ritual again? No, in order to guarantee a sacrifice, I must be honest enough to at least let you choose. Besides, if I killed every youngling that walked in here, where would Seniiti be now? It’d be filled with elders too old to carry on the village, and it would die all the same, in the most ironic fashion, no less.”

Alix pondered that for a second. It made sense, in a sick sort of way. “Surely others have turned you down.”

Oshtu nodded. “There have been a few. Some accepted their fate silently, too mournful to object, their lives so shattered they saw no other end. Others have tried to flee, but they never made it far. Only one has made it as far as the forest.”

Alix didn’t care to inquire further. Her mind was racing with options. It seemed they were quite limited: allow herself to be killed, or sacrifice another. What could she do? “This spirit you mentioned, where is he now?”

“The Lost One wanders the earth, free from the bonds of the eternal darkness that awaits him, so long as he fills his twisted quota. Should we stop our bidding here, he would see every one of us destroyed. You see, all the elements have found themselves in quite a codependent bond: the Lost One needs me to carry out his work so I may live, I exist to carry out the Lost One’s deeds so the village may live, and the village needs to follow my words so that the Lost One may live. Three links to the same chain.”

“Never breaking?”

“Never…breaking.”

Alix realized she had one option. The thought fluttered in her mind for just a minute, but she unconsciously dismissed it as absurd, casting it away. But she called it back, curious as to if it could work. Kill him, it whispered. Break the chain.

“Alix, Birthed of Linada, Descendant of Grund, what…is your choice?”

How many lives had been lost to the oracle’s sick errand? Was it truly a thousand, one for every year of his wretched life? Were that many lives worth the preservation of a village of murderers, of a lunatic hermit, of a deranged spirit that deserved nothing but hell?

And then she returned to her again. Over Oshtu’s shoulder she saw her. At first an aurora of blue light wisped through the air, almost undetectable in the stillness of the cave, but then it began to shape itself, to form a ghostly figure that stood in the dim light. Mother.

You are not one of them.

Alix stared ahead, dumbfounded and paralyzed with fear. Linada looked just as she had in her dreams. Her voice was just as petrifying, her eyes just as blank.

He is not your father. Those are not your people. This is not your life.

Knees to her chest as she sat huddled on the floor, Alix felt for her blade, the tiny carving knife Grund had given her.

There is something better for you.

Alix leapt. At a breakneck speed she left where she sat and flew through the air, her mouth open in an enraged shout, the small blade extended before her. Just before she struck, she saw Oshtu smile broadly, then—he vanished. The girl’s scream of fury became a cry of shock and fear as her target disappeared into thin air. She hit the ground with a roll and instantly stood, her head searching for the oracle. The cave was empty.

“Foolish girl,” mocked a voice that came from nowhere. “There’s no defeating the immortal.” She felt an impossibly strong wind suddenly rush all around her. With a shout she was lifted off her feet and carried outside. She landed roughly outside the mouth of the cave, right on the edge of the volcano. She gasped with fear. What have I gotten myself into?

As she lifted her head, she saw Oshtu standing—no, floating—before her. The Lost One had obviously given the madman more than just eternal life.

“You’ve just doomed yourself to misery,” he taunted. “Your death would have been peaceful, quick. Now, I’ll make you suffer.”

Alix could hold her own in a scuffle, and even warring wasn’t something she was afraid of. But a magical creature with superhuman powers she couldn’t predict? That scared her. It was now or never.

She braced herself on the hard stone of the mountain and stood, grunting with effort as she did; being thrown had dazed her more than she had thought. She faced Oshtu, who hovered along the lip of the volcano with a challenging look on his face. The magma behind him had risen substantially. It seemed to flow and crash with the oracle’s anger, daring the girl to attempt anything. Perfect.

Alix removed her headpiece. She gently placed the fur on the ground, rubbing its soft fur one last time, savoring its texture and warmth. The fox’s eyes stared straight ahead, as if it knew exactly what the girl had to do, better than she knew herself. She pulled from her belt her hatchet and placed that next to where she laid her carving knife. Oshtu watched with an amused look, perhaps restraining himself from ending it here and now out of a simple curiosity of what she had planned. Alix didn’t care; she just needed him there for one more second…

She dashed at him as her weapons touched the rock. Mother, help me. In a blaze of light, the girl vanished quicker than Oshtu had done previously. In the blink of an eye, she was gone, and then back, emerging several yards ahead of where she had stood before, her arms extended and shoulder out. And as the oracle’s jaw dropped in disbelief, an honest denial of what was happening, Alix caught him in the stomach, forcing her weight into his torso, pushing his levitating body—as well as her own—out, over the growing pool of lava, into the inferno that awaited them. As she flew, Alix heard a scream; it wasn’t hers. And darkness veiled her mind.

The woman’s eyes fluttered open. Somewhere, a bird chirped a morning song, oblivious to the destruction around it. She felt for her face, her hair, her clothes. Dazed, she dared to sit up. She squinted as the world came into focus. It was dawn, and the world was burning.

The volcano had erupted. Over the edge spilled the infinite pool of magma, churning as it crawled down Kulgootar, scorching the entire forest to ash as it had passed over the trees, and then reaching Seniiti, it had swallowed it up like a tidal wave. Alix had seen none of this, but looking now, she could tell what had happened. The world she left last night was gone. The planet had changed in an instant; she had set a corrupt village free of its evil. As she stared upon her home as it was consumed in smoke and flame, knowing inside her heart they were all dead, she wept, but these were not tears of sorrow. A sense of joy burst from within her; she had saved them.

Her first instinct was to find her headpiece. Looking at the spot where she had laid it, she felt a pang of sorrow; the spot had been all but consumed in the fiery wake. But then it hit her: the fox was on her head. She hadn’t even noticed. She felt for it, confirming it was all in one piece, before removing it to check it with her eyes. Sure enough, it was spotless. She smiled and placed it back on her head, pulling her yellow locks back as she did so.

What now? She scanned the horizon. She knew nothing outside her home’s borders. Where would she go? What was to become of her?

Head east.

She nodded to no one at all. She faced east and began to descend the broken rocks.

She didn’t wonder how she’d survived; she knew exactly why.

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