Sing, O Muse, of sacrifice, of the love and life lost, of the fervent belief that consumes, of whispering doubts, of a trickling stream to erode your resolve, of the questions you ponder in the dark. Sing and through me, tell of the toll piety demands of one’s soul. Sing and through me, tell of the night one warrior gave up love in pursuit of a dream…
Strapped to an altar crafted by her lover’s anger, by hot wrath that melted and molded stone into a cradle of death, by sadness that birthed a simulacrum of oblation, Adina waited for the end. In the darkness, she could make out the blinkering fires of the camps that surrounded her, spiraling outward from this impromptu tabernacle. Where, for her, the journey of blood and of flesh and of suffering would come to an end, where she would step out of the world and join her God and her ancestors in the Dreamscape. The realm of ghosts, of death, of the Gods, of magic worked in the world.
Already she could feel her consciousness diffusing, seeping into the still burning sand, the worn rocks of the mountains and their distant frigid peaks, the dry air and the dust that clung to her. She couldn’t move, though no ties held her. No ropes or chains could bind her to that place of death as firmly as her belief that here lay her life’s calling. To die for Jacintha.
She remembered the dream well, two nights before, when her God, Jev, of War and Vengeance, in the form of fire and fury, demanded it of her.
Light. Bright light. Fierce enough to burn her retinas. So lustrous that even with eyes clamped shut, her vision filled with radiance possessing the force of a thousand suns.
OPEN YOUR EYES!
You are just dreaming. She thought, this isn’t real. This will pass. This will pass.
I SAID OPEN. YOUR. EYES!
Sharp pain lanced through her skull as her sight burned even brighter. Adina had not thought it possible. She clutched at her head with her hands, or tried to, only to realize she had no arms, nor hands, nor a corporeal form. She was shadow. She was ether. Nothingness floating through nothingness. An avatar of amorphous pain. She tried to speak and found, somehow, she could. “Where… what… am I?”
I WILL NOT ASK AGAIN.
Suddenly the limbs and the body she did not possess a moment before came ablaze with an agony that heretofore she would have thought unimaginable. Every wound, every laceration, every whip’s lash she had ever suffered enlivened at once, bleeding and suppurating anew with each heartbeat, pushing her further and further over the brink until she opened her mouth and screamed, only to once again be left with nothing but silence. No recourse, no refuge remained but for her to throw open her eyelids. Throw them open and be greeted by…
…darkness. She drifted through the black alone. She was nowhere, feeling nothing.
GOOD, MY CHILD, GOOD. THAT WAS BUT A TASTE.
Who are you? She asked again, in thought and not in truth. As her soul drifted alone through the cosmos, it seemed less meaningful a distinction.
I AM WAR INCARNATE. I AM DEATH AND FURY. I AM JEV.
My Lord, she gasped, the silent gasp of the formless. Fear almost overtook her as she asked her next question. The answer leaping to her mind before the asking.
What do you need of me, my Lord?
YOU, ADINA. YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN.
Jacintha’s face wracked with anguish, a pain that wrenched Adina deeply. She did not know why it was that she had been chosen, she, whose death of all the men and women who walked through the desert after the warrior priestess Rayeth would wound and diminish her the most, would be chosen as the final offering. The one last life whose passing would ensure their crossing over the mountains and into the lands of Dauphin. The fifth soul who would never see the land they had been promised, except for in the half-remembered dreams of the dead.
She only knew that Jev had asked it of her. Jev, her lord. Jev, the one that she and her love had pledged to cherish over all others, even themselves. And so there was no question. She would die, and die with a song in her heart. A song of loss and mourning and desperation… but also of victory. She nodded one final time to her love and closed her eyes. Let it be done. Let her song be sung.
Jacintha turned from the still form of her lover, now looking inward, away from her or from where any more pain might reach. She reached deep into the well within herself to prepare the ritual and found that she wasn’t thinking of the steps needed to complete it—though she did not need to, her powers were second nature to her—nor was she thinking of the hundreds of men and women she had led this far, nor how close they were to finally reaching the kingdom they were promised. She was thinking of Adina and her beguiling, crooked smile and her downy-haired thighs, and her heart and her soul and looking into her eyes and exchanging small touches in castle corridors in secret. She remembered the first time they realized they were in love.
They lay together on sheets jumbled in a mess on Jacintha’s bed. As the Jevran king’s oldest surviving bastard, though she would never have legitimate claim to his kingdom or his favor, she was still afforded the finest in creature comforts. Her own wing of rooms, her own staff, her own beautiful serving girl. It was the latter of which she was enjoying now, the latest in a long series of trysts begun in their adolescence. Jacintha’s head questing between Adina’s thighs. Throaty moans of pleasure erupted unbidden from both their lips, they shuddered and hummed together, one flesh, two hearts, two minds. She felt hands gently lift her up and their faces, and lips, met, hands exploring each other’s bodies as they twisted to and fro.
“Addy,” She murmured, in the glowing morn afterwards.
“Jace,” Was the whispered reply.
I love you.
I love the whole of you.
I always will.
Jacintha thought, and felt the sentiment echoed in the beautiful girl beside her.
I love you.
I love every piece of you.
I always will.
She stroked Adina’s hair, and Adina turned to Rayeth and smiled. There was no need to say it aloud. They both knew it to be true. They both knew it always would be. Nothing could separate them. Nothing…
Jacintha cleared her throat and turned to the assembled horde, a sea of eyes gleaming with hope, with fervor and adoration. This was larger than her, larger than her love, larger than the woman already drifting away, who had offered herself with only slight hesitation.
“The time is nigh!” She yelled, voice still hoarse from a night of silent sobs. Even diminished as it was, it traveled to every canyon, every crevasse and valley for miles, reverberating off the mountainous walls and back into the ears of her devoted. A triumphant, yet also doleful, call to arms.
“The time is nigh!” She repeated, ritual demanded it. “We who have come so far, and have farther still yet to go.” She directed her words to the heavens. She spoke to her dreams and watched them die.
“The time is nigh, oh Jev! And we who have come so far are grateful for the bounties you place in our path. But remember we must, and remember we do. They are not without a price!”
Oh Jev. Why? Why Addy? Why must you demand her of me?
“The price of our own hard work, our sweat and our tears, but this is not enough. We must also offer our blood, our lives.” With great effort, she forced herself to turn back to Adina, to meet her gaze. Without eye-contact, she could not anchor the forces that needed to be worked.
“Here is the life. Freely given. Given in praise so that Jev might continue to bless us, and bless the journey we undertake in his name.” Adina’s eyes were open now, calm and resolute. And they held Jacintha’s gaze unwaveringly, matched and overmatched her with their conviction.
“We thank you for your sacrifice,” Thank you, Addy. And damn you all the same. How can you be so calm? Jacintha knew she was being unfair to her lover, she had held her as she wept just the night before. As they both grieved what was lost.
“You go now to meet our God, and the others who have gone before you. May you all guard us well. We will join you we our task is done, many years from now, as old women and old men in their beds, secure in the homes won because of your sacrifice today and of those who died before.”
At the close of Rayeth’s speech, Adina clamped her eyes tight. She did not know how much longer she would possess herself, but she couldn’t bear to witness the sorrows in her Warrior’s eyes any longer. Her bastard Queen. She remembered the last words they shared in private.
“I know not what this end holds for me, My Love, where my soul will go, what we become after death, but I will protect you if I can.”
“Don’t. You don’t have to… we could still turn ba-“
“Turn back Give up? Return to your father tail tucked between your tail? And leave all these people who you have led so far and through so much? Our lives are not so important that theirs must be discarded, that their suffering be disregarded.”
“Our paths diverge here my love, for now, but not forever. Be strong. They will all look to you on the morrow. They must see you are still their Queen.”
You are still my Queen. I will serve you. Even in death.
I love you.
I love every piece of you.
I always will.
Blue flames shot from Jacintha’s hands into Adina’s body and the lamb lifted into the air. Hurt shot through her once more, searing every nerve, traveling to every recess and every shadow, leaving her nowhere to hide. Her shrieks an unholy cacophony of unending suffering, of unguarded misery. Of pain. PAIN. She could feel every atom of her flesh wending away. Witnessing the shrieks of her predecessors, the smell of their burning, melting flesh, did nothing to prepare her. This was beyond her imagining, and a moment that was less than a minute for her stretched out to an eternity as she melted into her suffering. Into everything and always, until there was nothing left. Until she too was nothing.
And then the suffering was gone, and she was gone with it. In their place, a pool of cool blue water, the altar jutting from the middle of it, an island of igneous rock. Jacintha left alone, shaking, at its center. The newborn lake’s waves lapping gently at the feet of her army. Growing in and around them, steadily getting more distant from shore was leafy greenery unnatural to the arid desert. Trees and grasses, rustling recumbent branches carrying plump, ripe fruits. Fields of amber grains poking up through the campsites. A flock of mild sheep yawning in the auburn light of the setting sun. Enough food there to be harvested that might feed a starving army for weeks to come. More than enough for the short march that remained across the mountains and into the glens below.
How good is the glory of God?