Flash Fiction: The sacrifice

The ghost of a sparrow flitted through one wall and out the other.

The courtyard was silent and still, carpeted in verdant green, a single cherry tree in full bloom standing in the center, no other movement before that apparition save the graceful billow of the priestess’s robes in the breeze.

He started as another sparrow appeared, flitting right before his face. The hunter glanced in her direction, caught himself before he met her gaze, his lashes falling to hide his eyes.

Her one and only command ran through his mind, “You must walk three paces behind me, and never raise your eyes to mine.”

Not yet ventured forth and already slipping.

It was a fool’s errand and he knew it, knew that taking this job would more than likely get him killed, but there was no help for it. He owed the Maiden a favor and the Maiden didn’t deal in anything less than death.

His wife’s face drifted through his mind, serene and calm in repose, and he tightened his jaw. It was worth it. Even if it cost his life, it was worth it to ensure that she didn’t rise again to become one of the unholy revenants, fated to wander the earth plaguing the living until they were dispersed, never to reincarnate, never to know peace.

“We go. Do not forget my warning.” Her voice was low and calm, but there was an edge to it that let him know she hadn’t missed his near slip.

“Yes, my lady.” He loosened his axe in his belt, his hand closing upon the handle in a firm grip.

The cherry blossoms started to fall, spiraling, fluttering, drifting, mimicking life in their demise.

She glided forward, her bare feet barely making an impression upon the grass.

He kept his eyes lowered, focusing on the sweep of her robes after her, placing his feet exactly where she laid hers. Her steps grew slower and slower, her movements languid yet with an air of concentration and force, as if she were pushing through a barrier with every inch gained.

Twenty paces in, droplets of red glimmered in the grass.

Thirty paces in, her footprints started to be limned in red.

Forty and only halfway to the tree, she coughed up blood, a deep glossy black and not crimson.

“I will take your energy now. Brace yourself.” Her tone held no inflection to tell of fear or horror, her voice dispassionate as before.

He’d been told of what to expect, but nothing could have prepared him for the wrench in his solar plexus, the sharp tearing pain that felt like someone gutting him slowly, yanking out his intestines inch by painful inch, the slow drain of his blood and chi, the way it felt too much like dying.

She moved forward, and part of him was glad that she did not seem to find it easier.

Stupid of him, since he wouldn’t survive if she didn’t, and if this was taking such a toll on her already, his energy barely lessening the burden — it didn’t bode well for what had to come next.

He grimaced, focusing on each single step forward, the pain dizzying, thinking wryly to himself that he’d never been accused of too much intelligence. After all, see where he was now. Hardly the sort of place an intelligent man would find himself.

They moved forward, step by aching step.

The energy drain intensified until it felt as if the only thing keeping him upright was the tether of energy from him to her, the incredible agony the only reason he stayed conscious. He’d been gored by a boar, had his ankle broken by a steel jaw trap, fell into a bear trap and impaled upon a stake and none of it even began to compare to this slow shredding of his innards. The pain transcended the physical and if he weren’t a deeply pragmatic man, he could imagine it was his soul being slowly unraveled.

Moments, millennia, hours later, they finally reached the tree. Cherry blossoms drifted down around him, spinning lazily in the air, covering the grass with a layer of white and pink.

She sank down on the grass, nestling into the roots of the cherry tree, her face turning towards him.

“You know what you have to do.”

He hefted the weapon in his hand, careful not to raise his line of sight beyond the curve of her jaw. “Yes. When the last cherry blossom falls, so will my axe.”

She leaned her head back, exposing the slim white line of her throat. “Make it quick, hunter. Do not fail me in this.”

His grip tightened. “Yes, my lady.”

He shifted his stance, moving to stand at an angle, mentally calculating the trajectory and force of his swing to cut her throat without fully severing her head, without harming the tree.

“Watch the blossoms, hunter.”

He raised his eyes. There were only a few left on the branches, the rest in what looked like snowdrifts on the ground, a layer obscuring her hair and face. He shuddered, cursing another near slip, and lifted his gaze again. He wondered briefly about how not a single petal touched him, shrugged away curiosity, knowing that way was madness, and searched the branches above.

He saw nothing but sky against the branches for a moment and his heart hiccuped, thudded once against his ribcage in terror, his breath caught in his lungs until he saw a a spot of white against the deep blue.

There.

That lone blossom clinging to the highest branch.

He stared at it, willing it to fall, willing it to linger so he could stay his hand a moment longer, not daring to blink.

A breeze whirled around him, teasing.

His eyes stung with the need for moisture.

The flower shivered, once, and fell.

He gritted his teeth and swung, praying to all the dead gods that his aim be sure and his hand steady.