The young burro gazes up at me, eyes wide and trusting, even as Gael ties its reins to the ‘horns’ of the altar—two misshapen blocks of wood that I hope will stay in place. They’re smart animals, these burros. This one has probably only known decency, though, from the humans who care for him. It’s got no reason to think that we’ve collectively lost our minds.
I stare down at the dagger on the altar. Not Jonac’s—this one belongs to the guard in charge of butchering. It’s thinner, sharper and perfect for slaughtering. Or so the man says, anyway. I hope he’s right, because this needs to be fast. If the burro fights and bucks, we’re in for a world of trouble.
There’s a bowl of water on the altar. Water tinged with salt. I’ve already cleansed myself and the stones with the stuff, so now I sprinkle some onto the knife and then rub a bit onto the burro’s forehead. The animal’s long ears twitch in curiosity, but it doesn’t flinch.
There’s another bowl at the base of the altar, but that won’t come into play until the dagger has done its duty.
All right. No more stalling. I need to say something to consecrate both the altar and the offering to Veshnic. Málaf. Yes, I know the old tongue. And yes, I’ve read the ancient texts. That doesn’t mean I know what to say.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Shoch did me a favor by pushing me toward Veshnic. In the old stories, that god doesn’t worry much about the precise words or rituals. He just wants real devotion. Well, if he exists, and if he helps us banish this demon, I’ll offer him that.
Damn it, I still need to say something. “Ev Veshnicaya consegma fénac v’ovérshac.” There. Short and sweet.
I pick up the dagger. All right, all right. No stalling. My brother, Gael and the rest of the guards out here are keeping watch with their swords drawn. And Shoch is somewhere behind me, his hand on Jonac’s shoulder. They’re ready to speak the words of power.
I take hold of the dagger with one hand and the burro’s short, stubby mane with the other. There’s a flash of fear in the thing’s eyes as it finally catches on. But I’m already swiping the blade across its throat: once forward, once back, my strokes smooth and even.
I’m a fucking soldier, aren’t I? I know how to wield a knife. I even know roughly which arteries and veins I’m slicing through. And apart from that one flash of fear, the burro never saw this coming. Maybe Veshnic really is merciful.
Blood splatters me and the altar and—málaf! I forgot the bowl. Not the one with water for ablutions. No, I need the longer, deeper one to catch the blood.
“Gael! Stop the burro from falling over!”
He props up the dying animal while I grab the bowl from the foot of the altar. Somehow I manage to fill it up with blood—there. That should be enough. The rest can seep into the stones and back into the earth.
“All right. Let the animal go.”
Gael heaves the thing away from him. It crumples to the ground.
I dip my fingers in the blood and sprinkle more of it onto the altar. My nose starts twitching—there it is. The scent of holy wood, drifting from behind me. Shoch swore he could provide it. He wasn’t lying. That must be as good as incense.
I swallow, wondering if Shoch’s demon half is ready to come out and play. Please. Please, whatever god is listening—let this sacrificial blood and the scent of holy wood be enough to lure our enemy to us. And let Shoch cast it beyond the barrier.
Nothing happens. For a long minute we all just stand there. I think every last one of us is holding our breath.
Then—I don’t know how to describe it. The air ripples. And . . . and there’s smoke. Just a wisp at first. A dark, blood-red wisp.
All right, I want to breathe now. But it’s like my throat is closing up. Because that wisp—it’s floating toward the altar. No, not floating. Its movement is more deliberate than that. And the smoke is thicker. And it has a shape to it. Not only shape . . . it’s real. Or partly real, at least.
Wings! I can see its wings. A wyvern’s wings, with claws on the tips. And the way the sun is glinting . . . the light is catching its scales.
Damn it, Shoch, what are you waiting for? He must need it to come closer to the blood. To come more to life.
Wait. Wait, it’s dissipating. The smoke, I mean. It’s not like a wyvern anymore. It’s fading.
Fuck! This didn’t work. Shoch was right. It doesn’t care about the blood of a burro.
I stare down at the dagger. I dropped it on the altar when I rushed for the bowl, but it’s in reach. This demon wants human blood, does it? Fine.
I grab the dagger with my right hand. Then I rest my left arm on the altar, palm facing up. Words—I need words. But I can’t think in the old tongue now. The vernacular will have to suit.
“I consecrate myself as an offering to Veshnic!” Was that my voice? Yes. I don’t know how I got the words out, but yes.
My brother’s by the altar somehow. I catch sight of him out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know if he means to stop me or encourage me—but either way, it’s too late. I slice my arm open and mingle my blood with the burro’s.
That blood red smoke is back—no. It’s not smoke anymore. That’s a wyvern in the fucking flesh. It’s right above the altar. I feel the beat of its wings.
My brother is swinging his sword. The flash of it almost blinds me. And then this mournful, keening wail pierces the air. A wail that forms into words. Words I almost understand. They’re like the old tongue, but not quite.
The wings are still beating above me. Something rips through my shoulder—fuck me, it’s one of the wyvern’s claws. It wants my blood, all right.
I can’t fight back—this dagger is consecrated now. It can’t see battle. But my brother, Gael, the other guards . . . they can fight back. Are they fighting back? I have no idea. I’m slumped over the altar, I think, listening to those keening words, trying to stop my vision from blurring so much.
Wait, there’s something else I can do. I let the dagger slide out of my hand and put my finger in the smear of blood on top of the altar. My blood, the burro’s blood . . . I don’t know which is which anymore.
I paint with the blood. I paint the same symbol Shoch traced into my palm: the eye in the shield. There. That’s not part of the ritual, but there can’t be any doubt now. Me, the burro, the altar—we all belong to Veshnic.
There’s movement and shouts and that keening wail all around me. Claws rip into my back . . . and then there’s just darkness.