Arial shrank into the shadows.
A second shriek echoed through the forest and bounced off the canyon walls. The sounds died away, leaving unnatural silence.She waited, straining her ears. Her hands shook as she parted foliage and peered into the lonely wood. Nothing—that she could see. She took a breath, crept into the eerie silence, and dashed through the undergrowth.
Branches slapped her face. She ignored them and plowed through the bushes toward a glade. She stopped, and as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she made out a flattened ring of grass.
She knelt and touched it. Tingles ran down her spine. Sirrushites. They’d danced here by the light of the twin moons.
She rubbed the chill bumps on her arms. Absurd. Sirrushites at the university were normal people. The gruesome rumors about bloody sacrifices were only fit for scary campfire stories.
At a whimper, she dragged her gaze past a discarded toddler-size tunic, tiny sandals, and rested her attention on the center of the circle. The hair on her neck rose.
So much blood.
She sprang up.
A muscular arm shot from behind and clamped around her arms and ribs. The sharp blade pressed against her throat cut off her scream.
“A spy.” The man who hissed into her ear reeked of blood.
Her pulse raced. “No—”
The blade bit.
Masked people filed in from the murky forest. Images of Sirrush the Dragon adorned their black, hooded robes. They stood elbow to elbow and formed a screen between Arial and the altar.
“I’ve caught a spy,” the man said. “What shall we do with her?”
“She’s violated the sacred ceremony,” a woman said. “Appease Sirrush. Sacrifice her.”
The scene began to spin, and Arial gasped, “No.”
In unison, the coven muttered a chant. “Praise Sirrush the Almighty. Praise Sirrush the Almighty.”
The man lowered the knife, twirled the blade around, and aimed it at her heart.
She twisted and squirmed.
“Cut her first,” someone yelled. “Make her scream.”
“Force her to do homage to Sirrush.”
Arial cried out. “One God, help me.”
“Blasphemy!” A woman leapt forward and slapped her. “Burn the blasphemer.”
“Yes,” many voices said. “Burn her. Burn her.”
“Let me go!” Arial drove her heel into her captor’s shin.
Frenzied hands grabbed her. Her knees buckled, but the man with the knife lifted her by the throat.
One God, help me.
A man thrust a torch close to Arial’s face. Another brandished a knife.
A gravel-voiced Sirrushite pushed through the throng.
“I said stop.” He knocked aside the man who held the knife. “We can’t do this. I recognize her. She’s betrothed to a prince. Jae Sethson. Kill her and Chief Sethson will have all of Aurumund’s army after us.”
“She’s seen the sacrifice,” a man growled.
“She’s seen nothing.” Gravel Voice grabbed Arial’s chin. “Have you, Princess?” He nodded toward the altar. “It’s a pig. Only a pig. Right, Princess?” His fingers pinched like pliers.
Insanity radiated through the hood’s eye holes. Little more than a whisper, her voice wavered, “Yes. A pig. Only a pig.”
“Give us your word you’ll say nothing, and we’ll let you go.”
They’ll really let me go? Her over-worked heart quickened. “I promise. I won’t say a thing.” Please, One God. Make them believe me.
The woman threw up her hands. “This is ludicrous. She’ll say anything to save her life.”
“She’s not lying,” Gravel Voice said. “To marry a nobleman and to be included in the Sethson Prophecy, she has to be a Believer. And Believers in the One God, cursed be His name, may not lie.”
The woman yelped and stopped her ears. “Don’t speak that foul Name again.” She edged toward Arial. “What happens to Sethson’s Prophecy if you are dead, Princess?”
The woman’s dagger flashed in her hand, and she lunged.
Gravel Voice grabbed the woman’s arm. “Don’t be a fool.”
The two stood nose to nose. Finally, she shook free, sheathed the weapon, and stomped away.
Arial gulped for air.
“Do the rest of us agree?” Gravel Voice asked.
The coven members muttered, but one by one, they nodded assent.
Gravel Voice turned his maniacal eyes on Arial. “We’ll be everywhere. Day and night. Keep your word, or we’ll come after you and your family as well. You’ll scream for death before we drain your blood and drink it before your eyes. Then as an offering to Sirrush, we’ll burn what’s left of you. Understand?”
Arial squeaked, “Yes. I understand.”
Her captor gave her a shove.
She turned and bolted.
***Arial’s sandals clacked as she hurried from the student store toward the dormitories, purchases in hand. Nearing the intersection with a small dirt path, she slowed her pace. The well-lighted walkway she followed meandered through the campus and ultimately led to her building. But she was late, and the dark trail that skirted the university above the ecological preserve led directly to women’s housing.
She stopped and consulted her watch. Her roommate was probably chewing her fingernails.
As the twin moons peeked over the adjacent mountains, her gaze searched the deserted path as far as she could see. The moonlight had begun to illuminate the area well enough to find her way. But still, it was a very lonely stretch. Then again, she’d save at least five minutes. She concentrated on the night sounds for a moment. Only insects and strains of music from the student lounge. Taking a breath, she curled her fingers around the communicator in her pocket and headed down the path.
The ever-present eastern breeze was heavy with the sweet fragrance of night-blooming flowers. Teamed with silvery moonlight from the twin moons, the breeze caused swaying foliage to fill the path with dancing shadows. Here and there mist rose from the preserve and crept up the slope. As it thickened, it muffled the night sounds.
A shriek came from her right, deep in the preserve.
Arial dashed behind a tree and peeked into the valley. No people. No fires. Hopefully, just an animal. She let out a breath then hurried back to the path and quickened her pace.
A bush moved.
Stifling a cry, she dropped her package and whipped out the communicator.
A sheep-sized feline stepped into a pool of light and stared at her with reflective eyes. It was young, lacking fangs. But nowadays, it might be dangerous. Rather than using their tusks and fangs to harvest roots and bark, some crazed animals in the province had begun eating the more docile creatures.
The cat turned and bounded down the path.
She wilted against a palm tree. Hand trembling, she shoved the communicator into her pocket and chided herself. What a coward she’d become. Nobody waited to grab her, for no one could know what path she’d chosen. And with tree branches and shadows for camouflage, no one could see her. She stooped and picked up her package.
Her communicator buzzed.
Must be her antsy roommate.
She grabbed the device and flipped open its cover. “I’m coming, Rahel.”
“I see you by that palm,” Gravel Voice said. “And you’re all alone.”
Arial’s blood turned icy cold. With her thumb resting on the communicator’s panic button, she scrutinized the area then eased back to the path and ran. Small rodents scampered for cover. Branches snagged her tunic. Vines snatched at her feet. Her heaving lungs pushed her heart into her throat. The path ended abruptly at her well-lit residence hall. She crumpled against a column at its entrance and gulped for breath. While she peered into the calm night behind her, fire built in her core. She refused to live this way any longer. Never would she let the Sirrushites terrorize her again.
She stomped up the steps, threw open the building’s massive door, and hurried down the center of the hallway, checking recessed doorways as she passed. In her room, she kicked her roommate’s tunic from her path, and advanced to the desks where she swept aside scattered newspapers then dumped the contents of her shopping bag. Her knees went weak as she noticed the headline of the Yizrah Qartah’s Mizpah: Fourth Ithran Bashan Child Missing.
She swallowed and whispered, “Dear One God, I can hardly bear my silence. But if I break my word and tell what I know, the Sirrushites promised to come after my family. Please. Somehow, someone must discredit their priests so their followers will rise up against them.” She crumpled the paper and tossed it in the wastebasket.
Her communicator buzzed.
It’s that awful man again. She squared her shoulders, took a breath, and flipped open the device. “What do you want?” . . . .--Quinn