THE SACRIFICE by Lewis Smith
Bandar was seventeen when he was chosen as the annual sacrifice. He had always known there was a possibility he might be taken; but like most children in his village, he had lived his life presuming that the lot would fall to someone else. The Old Ones demanded that one young man and one girl, between sixteen and twenty years of age, be offered up each year in exchange for their protection and blessings during the coming year. What became of the victims, no one knew. They were left on top of the Ritual Stone every year at the vernal equinox, and the next morning they were gone. Some whispered that the Old Ones ate them; others said that they were transfigured to a magical kingdom where they would be servants, or concubines, to the Old Ones for the rest of their natural lives.
No one knew exactly who the Old Ones were, for that matter, or how long they had existed. They appeared once each year, during the shortest, coldest day of the winter, and then they were shrouded in robes of light that obscured their features and rendered them both terrifying and glorious in appearance. They would summon the villagers, and then hand out a golden goblet filled with sweet, amber colored fluid. Each villager drank deeply; even the smallest infants were forced to swallow a few sips. The goblet refilled itself after each person partook, no matter how many there were. What was in it was just as unknown as everything else about the Old Ones, but whatever it was, it kept the village free from disease and healed any and all injuries the villagers might have suffered. The year before Bandar had seen his friend Harlan fully restored after he had broken his back falling from a cliff he was climbing. Six months of paralysis vanished after he sipped the Old One’s nectar, and the next day he was on his feet, helping Bandar chase down wild nartho-hares for dinner.
But their magic elixir came with a price, and had done so for many generations. Each year two youths were taken, never to be seen again. According to the elders, the exchange had lasted for six centuries or longer. The words spoken at the choosing of the sacrifice had not changed in all that time:
“In the days of darkness, the Old Ones came to us. In that time, disease and death stalked our people, and not one man in a hundred lived to the age of fifty. The Old Ones promised us health and long life, and such they delivered. They offered their powerful elixir to spare us from disease, and heal all hurts and injuries, but in return they asked that each year, we give them two of our own. Reluctant we were at first to give them our children which we prize above all things, and refused. But then two brave youths, Elena and Ramon, both agreed to sacrifice themselves after a failed harvest left the whole village sick and weak. So they were taken, and vanished from the very ritual stone where the Old Ones had appeared to us, and the next day the Old Ones came, and promised us that the two had not given their lives in vain. They gave us the elixir, and the village was restored. So every year we cast lots among ourselves, and choose the two who shall depart from us, and with their lives purchase our health, happiness, and prosperity for the year to come.
Over time, Bandar’s village had grown to a thousand souls, and then the Old Ones had appeared and offered to take a third of that number to establish a second village in a nearby valley. That village had likewise grown, and now there were four villages that had all grown from the first, each one less than a thousand souls strong. Bandar’s people were not terribly fertile, although they were strong and healthy and often lived to the century mark. Most couples would only welcome two children into the world; maybe three on rare occasion. In recent years, it seemed fertility was on the rise; two women in Bandar’s village had given birth to four children, something unheard of in living memory. But still, the annual sacrifice was keenly felt among the youths.
Bandar had drawn his lot two days before – the drawing was always held a week before the equinox, so that the Chosen would have a chance to say their goodbyes and mentally prepare themselves. Rarely, one would try to run away and avoid his fate; they seldom succeeded. The villagers knew that one boy and one girl were required by the Old Ones, and after the lots were drawn, everyone kept an eye on the Chosen. But most did not even try; the villagers were a close-knit group, and the ethic of sacrifice was taught from childhood. Bandar had no intention of running away; he knew he would not succeed, and if he did, one of his friends would be compelled to take his place on the ritual stone.
“Bandar!” a voice said. “Wait up a minute!”
He turned and saw the other Chosen, Kita, coming up behind him. He had been both grieved and glad when the lot fell to her; grieved, because she was his chosen mate, but glad, because whatever befell the Chosen, they would face it together.
“Hail, my almost husband,” she said. The villagers could choose their prospective mates as young as fifteen, but it was forbidden for them to lie together until they were past the age when they could become Chosen. No one wanted children to be left without father or mother, and the thought of a pregnant woman vanishing into the clutches of the Old Ones was horrifying to this people who treasured each birth. Bandar had grown up with Kita, and even when they were children he knew that she was the one he would choose to be his wife.
“Would you like to go and swim together?” she said. “The water is warm enough now; I went with my sister yesterday.”
“I would like that very much,” he said with a smile, and they walked on hand in hand to the deep hole in the river, upstream from the village. They dove in and swam for an hour or more; the water was chilly, but they stayed warm by diving and splashing each other and racing across the river and back. When they were done, they climbed out and sprawled on the flat rock overlooking the deep bend, where the sun could warm them and dry their clothes.
“I am sorry that you were Chosen,” Bandar finally said. “I would rather have left with the thought that you would continue without me and find another whose children you could bear.”
“I am not sorry,” she said. “I would rather neither of us had drawn the lot, but when I saw that you were going to be Chosen, I wanted nothing more than for the girls’ lot to fall on my name. There is none other I would wed, and none other I would rather leave this world with.”
He kissed her deeply, and they embraced and caressed each other for a while. He wanted her so badly that it was a physical ache, but they had decided to honor the tradition and part the world as virgins. It was nowhere openly stated that the Chosen must be free of sexual congress, but it had become conventional wisdom that they must be virgin sacrifices. So before things could go too far, he pulled away from her and pulled his tunic and breeches back on. They made their way back to the village together, and then went to their respective homes.
Two days later, the entire village gathered at sunset at the base of the ritual stone. It was tall and jet black, glistening in a way that none of the natural stones of the valley did. It towered thirty feet high, and was twelve feet in diameter at the base. A crude spiral staircase was cut into the side, and strange runes were set deep in its surface. Bandar and Kita had donned the white robes of the Chosen, and with Ghoram, the village elder, they climbed to the flat platform at the top.
“Twelve generations ago, our Fathers, the Elders of this village, entered a covenant with the powerful Old Ones, sealing it with the life blood of Elena and Ramon,” he intoned. “The Old Ones promised us health and long life, and they delivered. . .”
As the familiar words of The Ritual echoed across the valley, Bandar took Kita’s hand. Night would fall soon, and by dawn they would be gone from this world forever. She looked at him, a nervous tear trailing down her cheek. He smiled for her, and whispered his love as The Ritual concluded and the villagers returned to their huts, to shut and lock all their doors and windows until the Old Ones had come and gone, taking the Chosen with them.
The light of day faded, and the stars came out overhead. They sat there, side by side, recalling memories of childhood, dreading the unspoken fate that awaited them. Shortly before midnight, a brilliant light flooded the Ritual Stone as the air cracked open like a door behind them, and a figure clad in light stepped out.
“Are you the Chosen?” the shining Old One asked them.
They scrambled to their feet and faced him. He wore a single, tight-fitting suit that covered his whole body, and his face was a shining mirror of silver lit from within.
“We are,” said Bandar. “I am Bandar, son of Baron, and this is Kita, daughter of Katrina.”
“You are known to us,” the Old One said. “Fear not; you are not marked for death. Follow me through the portal.”
The Chosen stepped into the light, following the old one, and the hole in the air snapped shut behind them with an audible click. Once they were on the other side, the shining figure reached up and removed the mirrored mask that he wore.
His hair was white, his face deeply seamed with wrinkles and lines, but Bandar recognized him instantly.
“Kando?” he said. “How can this be? You were only a few years older than me!”
His boyhood friend smiled, and Bandar knew it was he beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“A bit of a shock, isn’t it?” Kando said.
“But you look at least sixty years old!” Bandar exclaimed.
“Behold the price of knowledge!” his friend said sardonically. “Ironic, isn’t it, that you call us the Old Ones, yet those who remain in the village live to be ten times as old as we do, once we become Chosen.”
“I don’t understand,” Kita said. “I remember when you were Chosen – you were only seventeen! You are now, what, twenty?”
“Indeed,” said Kando. “I turned twenty last week. You see, my friends, we preserve the knowledge and technology of the ancient world. Three thousand years ago, our kind had reached beyond the circle of the world and ventured to explore the nearest planets. We were filled with inventiveness and a restless curiosity, but also with a self-destructive urge that compelled us to wage war on our own kind. In the end, we were so eager to destroy each other that we poisoned our world, and had to flee to space in order to survive.”
They were walking down a steel corridor, and when they rounded a corner, Kando held up his hand and a metal plate slid aside, revealing a window that looked down on a vast ball below. Most of it was a harsh brown color, surrounded by oceans that were a sickly yellowish-green. But near the center of one of the dead land masses, an island of beautiful, verdant green, split by a winding ribbon of blue, stood out.
“That is your home,” Kando said. “You see, space is not safe for the human body. The poison of the stars – it is called ‘radiation’ – prematurely ages us, and weakens us, and leaves us vulnerable to disease. For two thousand years, we tried to cleanse one small corner of the planet just enough to allow us to start life over. A thousand years ago we succeeded, and your village was born. But even then, the world was too harsh for healthy or long life, so we set about creating an elixir that would repair the damage wrought by the plutonium bombs that had poisoned the earth. It took us four hundred years to perfect it, and by then we were dying. Generations of living in space had rendered us feeble and infertile. Even as we granted you the secret to longevity and health, we were unable to give ourselves either. So we made a bargain; two of you for each year that we extended our protection and benefit. All of the original Old Ones are long gone; for nearly five hundred years, we have taken two youths from you each year and given them the gift of knowledge and all the technology of the ancient world. We give you the means to keep your people safe, healthy, and happy. There is an adage from the ancient world: ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ We keep you from developing all the things that led the old ones to destroy each other, and in your ignorance, the bliss of the world is preserved, and the planet is gradually healing. In the last two centuries, the amount of territory cleansed of poison has doubled, and we have been able to establish the additional villages.”
“Does this mean that -” Kandar began, but Kando cut him off with a smile.
“Yes, it does,” the Old one said. “You are now the Old Ones. Come receive our gift, and the curse that goes with it.”
And so the Chosen, now Old Ones themselves, followed their friend to the lab where the knowledge of a perished world would be implanted in their brains. And in the village below, the people mourned the two vanished youths, even as they thanked the Old Ones for another year of life and health.