The flames roared higher in the gloom as a child's cry split the air.
The altar where the fire burned was made of stone that shone like glass. The flames crackled and sent showers of sparks skyward, while a wave of heat pulsed outward. Standing by the altar, wrapped in a black cloak and cowl, stood a woman. Her dark eyes mirrored the sheen of the altar, reflecting back the angry orange of the fire. Her face was smooth and young, but in a gust of wind that quieted the flames, a shadow passed across her cheeks. In the darkness, her skin weathered, creased, and then smoothed once more as the fire flooded her face with light.
She was waiting.
She held a bundle in her arms, and this mass of blankets squirmed as a tiny, red fist fought free. The crying of the child grew more insistent, and the woman smiled as the flames licked higher, toward the skeletal branches of the forest and the stars high above.
A twig snapped, and the woman spun around, scanning the trees that surrounded the altar.
Away from the light of the fire, the smoothness of her flesh transformed again into the cragged, weathered lines of an ancient. When she saw nothing in the trees, she returned to the altar, her eyes narrowed. She wasn't alone.
Another twig snapped, but this time she didn't turn. Instead, she unwrapped the child in her arms, her fingers fumbling with folds of cloth in her hurry. The blankets fell free from the babe at last, revealing the child. It was a newborn, a tiny girl. But not just any little girl. This little girl had the pure white hair and sky blue eyes of a demon. And that meant it had to die. The child ceased its crying as the woman lifted it above her head. The woman's eyes drifted closed as she spoke words in a strange, fluid tongue.
The cracking of twigs grew louder, but she continued the spell. They were few in number, and she wasn't without defenses. If she could complete the sacrifice before they arrived, she could escape back to the Citadel.
Her chanting increased in speed, the incantation flowing from her mouth like water as the sound of snapping foliage resolved into footsteps. They were closer than she had thought – and, judging from the sound, there was more than one. She increased her chanting speed as the child she held aloft whimpered. The woman's voice deepened, and the fire, as if in sympathy with the energies she called upon, roared up like a column. Smoke billowed from the altar, laced with embers and the sweet smell of burning wood.
On the other side of the altar, a figure dressed all in white hurtled through the trees.
It was a man, tall, willowy, with a thatch of white hair that shone red-gold where the light of the fire touched it. Saul was here, and the others wouldn't be far behind. He launched himself into the clearing, and she snarled, snatching the baby to her chest. Too soon. He'd come too soon.
She turned to run, but found her way barred by another figure in white. His hair was as white as his clothing, and his eyes seemed to glow fiercely blue as he reached out for the child.
“Get away from me, demon,” the woman said, staggering back a step. She heard steps approaching, and knew that Saul was nearly upon her, intending to help his companion.
The woman ran toward the first gap she saw, away from the altar, and into the forest. Her feet kicked up piles of dead leaves as she threw herself into the trees, only to find a third man waiting for her just past the eaves of the forest. She had run right into a trap — they were more sophisticated this time.
At the call, she whirled around, to see Saul had veered and was now heading right for her. She could handle one, maybe two. But three, and with one arm busied with a baby? She ground her teeth together, and began a spell. The man that had hidden in the woods as an ambush grabbed for the baby, but she reared backward, just out of reach, and spun around a tree trunk as she wove her curse. She only needed another moment or two.
But the crashing of reinforcements resounded through the forest. They knew. They had known she was coming, were prepared to stop her. In a matter of seconds, she found herself surrounded by all three of the pale, white-haired men. One of them darted forward, pale hair damp with sweat, reaching for the child. His fingers caught at her cloak, and at that moment, she spoke the final words.
She would rather kill Saul, but this one would do, she decided. She aimed her spell for his chest.
“No!” Saul shouted as the spell exploded from her fingertips, a jet of light. He shoved her to the side, and she hit the ground with a jarring thud. Her grip on the baby loosened as the flash of the spell dimmed, and the child dropped gently into a pile of leaves. She leaped to her feet, and saw that her spell had missed her mark. Instead, Saul himself was clutching his belly as her poison dart worked through his system. She let out a cry of triumph, and then turned to run.
They wanted the baby, they could have the baby. She had killed Saul. And that was worth the loss of a single sacrifice.
She darted past the flaring altar, and into the woods, where the darkness and moonlight lit her face into the visage of an old woman, a gleeful cackle in her throat.
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