“He wasn’t supposed to win,” Master Renn hissed.
Siris could hear them talking in the other room of Renn’s hut. Siris sat quietly, holding a small bowl of soup in one hand. Fenweed, a very healthy soup. A warrior’s soup.
It tasted like dishwater.
“Well,” Master Shanna said, “we can’t exactly blame him, can we? For living, I mean?”
“He went to fight the God King,” Master Hobb said. “We sent him to fight the God King.”
And Siris had gone, just as his father and his grandfather had gone. Dozens had been sent over the centuries, always from the same family. A family sheltered, protected, and hidden by the people of the land.
The Sacrifice, it was called. It was how they fought back. The only way. They’d live beneath the oppressive thumb of the God King. They’d pay nearly all they had in tribute, would suffer the brutality of men like Weallix—who, up until his power grab, had been only a simple tax collector.
But they would make this one act of rebellion. One family, hidden. One warrior each generation, sent to show that the people of this land were not completely dominated.
The Sacrifice didn’t need to win. He wasn’t expected to win. He wasn’t supposed to beable to win.
Hell take me, Siris thought, looking down at his bowl. Even I didn’t expect to defeat him.Siris had gone in with the dream that maybe—if he were incredibly lucky—he’d get a single cut on the God King, make the tyrant bleed.
Instead, he’d slain one of the Deathless.
The other room fell silent, then the whispers continued, softly enough that he couldn’t hear.
I really did it, Siris thought. I’m alive. It was only now beginning to sink in. He looked down, then pointedly set the bowl aside. And that means I never have to drink this dreck again!
He stood up, smiling. He had dreamed of what might happen if he actually killed the God King. He hadn’t dared hope, but he had allowed himself those dreams. He’d imagined triumph, celebrations. He’d imagined exulting in his victory. Oddly, he didn’t feel exultant. Instead, he just felt free.
Being the Sacrifice had dominated everything he’d ever done. But that was done with.Finally. Finally he could figure out who he was—the person he could be when he didn’t have this terrible duty weighing him down. He hesitated, then fished a small woodbound book out of his pocket. His mother had given it to him and told him to record his thoughts each night as he traveled to the God King’s castle.
His mother and he were among the few in the town who could read. The Sacrifice had to be literate. Siris wasn’t certain why—it was merely tradition. He hadn’t considered it an arduous requirement; reading and writing had come easily to him.
The logbook was empty. Siris had never written in it, and felt foolish for ignoring his mother’s suggestion. He hadn’t been able to force himself to do it. He’d been marching to his death, determined to avenge his fathers who had fallen to the God King’s blade. Not by killing the creature, but by fighting him, by proving that—despite what he may think—the world was not completely his.
Siris’s mother had included a charcoal pencil with the book. Siris raised it and turned to the first page. There, in bold letters, he wrote one sentence.
I hate fenweed soup.
The door opened, and Siris turned to face the town’s elders. Master Renn stood at their forefront, a short, bald man with a round face and red ceremonial robes now faded with age. “Siris,” Master Renn said. “We were wondering . . . what it is you intend to do next.”
Siris thought for a moment. “I intend to visit my mother,” he said. “I’d assumed she’d be in the town, as it’s midday. I should have gone to her hut first.” She lived outside of the main cavern, in the open air.
“Yes, yes,” Master Renn said. “But after that . . . ?”
“I’ve given that a lot of thought, master,” Siris said, tucking away the book. “And . . . well, I’ve come to a decision.”
“I’m going swimming.”
Master Renn blinked in surprise, then turned to the other elders.
“After that,” Siris continued, “I’m going to eat an everberry pie. Do you realize I’ve never tasted everberry pie? I was always on too strict a diet to eat the pies during feasts. A warrior cannot afford such frivolity.” He rubbed his chin. “Everyone says everberry is the best type of pie.”
I hope I like it, he thought. I’d hate to have spent all of these years envying everyone else for nothing.
“Siris,” Master Renn said, stepping closer. His eyes flickered toward the corner of the small room, where Siris’s armor lay piled, bundled inside his cloak—which doubled as a pack. The Infinity Blade rested against the pile. “Did you really do it? You didn’t . . . just sneak in and steal his sword, did you?”
“What?” Siris said. “Of course not!”
The fight flashed in his mind. Sword against sword. The God King’s voice, commanding, dismissive—yet surprisingly honest. It had been an unexpectedly honorable dual, after the ancient ideal.
“And the others?” Master Renn asked. “The other six members of the Pantheon? You killed their king. Did you face the others?”
“I dueled some captives in the dungeon,” Siris said. “I think they might have been important, but they didn’t look like members of the Pantheon. I didn’t recognize them, at least.”
Master Renn glanced at the other elders. They began shuffling, uncomfortable.
“What?” Siris demanded.
“Siris,” Master Renn said, “you can’t stay here.”
“What? Why not!”
“They’ll come hunting you, son,” Master Renn said. “They’ll come hunting for that.” He looked toward the sword again.
“All Deathless covet the Infinity Blade,” Master Hanna said from behind Renn. “Everyone knows that.”
“They’ll be angry,” Master Hord said. “Angry at you, for what you’ve done.”
“We can’t let you remain in the town,” Master Renn said. “For the good of us all, you have to go, Siris.”
“You’re exiling me?” Siris said. “Hell take me . . . I saved you. I saved all of you!”
“We appreciate that,” Master Renn said.
Several of the others didn’t look like they agreed. Just a week before, these people had toasted his bravery. They’d sent him off with a feast and fanfare. They’d praised him and lauded him. They didn’t want me to win, he thought, looking into those hostile eyes. They’re afraid. They spoke of freedom, but they don’t know what to do with it.
“You should go quickly,” Renn said. “We’ve sent word to Lord Weallix, inviting him back.”
“Him?” Siris demanded. “You’d serve that rat?”
“Our best hope now,” Master Hord said, “is to look cowed, placated. Dominated. When the other gods come searching, they must not find a town in rebellion.”
“It is the best way, Siris,” Master Renn said.
“You’ve been slaves so long,” Siris spat, “you don’t know how to be anything else. You are fools! Children.” He was shouting, he realized. “After all of these centuries, time after time feasting and dreaming, now you throw it away! Now you throw me away!”
The elders shied back before his rage. They seemed frightened of him. Terrified.
Siris formed fists, but then found his rage evaporating. He couldn’t be angry at them. He could only pity them.
“Fine,” he snapped, moving to pick up his gear. “Fine, I’ll go.”
An hour later, Siris lifted up an old, worn axe. Its blade was chipped, the haft grayed and weathered with time. He hefted it, judging its weight, and tried to ignore the tempest of emotions inside of him. Betrayal. Frustration. Anger.
His training let him banish all of that for a moment, as he stared at the axe. In his mind, he saw the ways he could use it to win a fight.
Smash his foe at the knees, then bury the axe into his chest as he fell . . .
Hack at the neck, coming in furiously, using the long haft for additional reach . . .
Bash the axe against an opponent’s shield time and time again to throw him off balance, then step back and strike unexpectedly from the right . . .
He raised the axe . . .
. . . then swung it down at a log resting on the stump before him. He hit the log off-center, and the axe bounced away, as if the wood were stone. Siris growled and swung again, but this time only managed to hack a chip off the side.
“Damn,” he said, resting the axe on his shoulder. “Chopping wood is a lot harder than it looks.”
“Siris?” a shocked voice asked.
He looked up. A middle-aged woman stood on the pathway up to the forested hut, clutching a bucket of water. Her hair was starting to silver, and her clothing was of the simplest wool. His mother, Myan.
His mother would know what to do. Myan was solid, in the same way that an ancient tree stump was solid, or the balanced boulder outside of town was solid. He’d tried to push that over as a child. Though it seemed delicate, he hadn’t been able to shove it an inch.
“Mother,” he said, lowering the axe. She hadn’t been in the hut when he’d arrived a half hour ago. Fetching water. He should have known. That task he’d always done for her, as the jog to the river and back fit well with his training.
“Siris!” she said, putting down the bucket. She hurried to him, stepping with a limp from her fall ten years back. She took his arm tenderly. “You saw reason, then? You actually refused to go to the God King’s castle? Oh, lights in the heavens, boy! I never thought you’d come to your senses. Now we . . .”
She trailed off as she saw the object that Siris had set down beside the woodpile. The Infinity Blade. It almost seemed to glow in the sunlight.
“Hell take me,” Myan whispered, raising her hand to her mouth. “By the seven lords who rule in terror. You actually did it? You killed him?”
Siris swung the axe down again on the log. He hit it off-center again. It’s the grain, he thought. I’m trying to hit it across the grain, instead of with the grain.
Strange. He could kill a man seventeen ways with this axe. He could imagine each one in perfect order, could feel his body moving through those motions. Yet he couldn’t chop wood. He’d never had a chance to try.
“So you didn’t see reason,” Myan said.
“No,” Siris replied.
His mother had never wanted him to go. Oh, she hadn’t been overt about her displeasure. She hadn’t wanted to undermine what the rest of the town—the rest of the land itself—saw as his destiny and her privilege. Perhaps she’d sensed, in some way, that it had been his destiny. He’d never given serious thought to fleeing. That would have been like . . . like climbing the tallest mountain in the world, then turning back ten steps from the summit.
No, she hadn’t tried to undermine his training. But what mother would want her son to go off to certain death? She’d tried to talk him out of it the night before the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most forward of her attempts. By then, it had been too late. For both of them.
“We have to take you to town,” she exclaimed. “Talk to the elders. There will be celebrations! Parties! Dancing and . . . and . . . And what is that look on your face, my son?”
“I’ve been to town,” he said, pulling his arm from her grip. “There will be no celebrations, Mother. They sent me away.”
“Sent you away . . . Why would they . . .” She paused, studying him. “Those small-minded fools. They’re afraid, aren’t they?”
“I guess they have reason to be,” Siris said, putting the axe aside and sitting down on the stump. “They’re right. People will come looking for me.”
“That’s nonsense,” she said, crouching down beside him. “Son, I’m not sending you away again. I’m not going through that again.”
He looked up, but said nothing. Perhaps with the support of the town, he’d have stayed. But with just his mother . . . No. He wouldn’t endanger her.
Why had he even come to her, then? Because I wanted her to know, he thought. Because I needed to show her that I’m alive. Perhaps a greater kindness would have been to stay away.
“You’re not going to let me choose, are you?” she said.
He hesitated, then shook his head.
Her hand tightened on his arm. “Ever the warrior,” she whispered. “Well, at least let me feed you a good meal. Then perhaps we can talk further.”
He felt immeasurably better with a good meal in his stomach. His mother hadn’t had any everberries for a pie, unfortunately, but she’d fixed him some peach cobbler. He carefully noted in his logbook:
I like peach cobbler. Definitely like peach cobbler.
“How many times did I try to feed you that when you were growing up?” she asked him, sitting across the table and watching him as he spooned up the last bite.
“Dozens,” he said.
“And you refused every time.”
“I . . .” It was hard to explain. He’d known his duty, somehow. Even from childhood, he’d known. The town’s expectations had held him to high standards, but the truth was that he’d held himself to them as well.
“You always were an odd child,” she said. “So solemn. So dutiful. So focused. Sometimes I felt less like a mother to you, and more like a . . . an innkeeper. Even when you were young.”
It made him uncomfortable when she talked like that. “You never speak of Father. Was he the same?”
“I didn’t know him long,” she said, looking wistful. “Isn’t that odd to say? We met like it was a dream, married in under a month. Then he was gone, off to be the Sacrifice. He left me with you.”
She’d come here to Drem’s Maw in order to get away from her old life. She had cousins here, though she’d never really fit in. Neither had he, even though the townspeople had claimed to be proud of being the ones to raise the Sacrifice.
“He did have a sense of purpose,” she said, nodding. “The same as you.”
“I wish I had that still,” Siris replied. He looked down at his empty plate, then sighed and stood. “I had hoped that now . . . finally . . . I could go about being myself. Whoever that is.”
“Must you go, Siris?” she asked. “You could stay, hide here. We could make it work.”
“No,” he said. I won’t bring this down upon you.
“I can’t make you stay, I suppose.” She didn’t seem pleased about that. “But where will you go?”
“I don’t know,” he said, gathering the cloak, wrapped like a pack with his armor inside of it.
“Are you at least willing to listen to a little advice?”
“From you?” he said. “Always.”
“I wished to the lights of heaven that you hadn’t set your feet on this path. But you did, son.”
“I didn’t have a choice.”
“That’s foolishness,” she said. “You always have a choice.”
Foolishness or not, it was still how he felt.
“You set your feet on this path,” she continued. “So now you need to finish what you began.”
“I did finish it,” he complained. “I killed the God King! What more could they ask of me?”
“It’s no longer about what people are asking of you, son,” she said. She reached over, taking his hand. “I’m sorry,” she said more softly. “You don’t deserve this. It is true.”
He looked down.
“Don’t despair.” She rose, taking him by the arms. “You’ve done something wonderful, Siris. Something everyone thought impossible. You have fulfilled the dreams of your fathers, and avenged their deaths.” She pulled away and looked up at him. “Do you remember what we spoke of, on that night before you left?”
“I told you that if you are going to do something, son,” she said, “you need to do it with all of your heart. You have something you didn’t have before. Hope. You’ve defeated one of them. They can be beaten.”
She held his eyes, and he nodded slowly.
“Good,” she said, squeezing his arms. “I’ll pack you food for your trip.”
He watched her limp away. She’s right, he thought. I’ve done the impossible once. I’ll do it again.
This time, however, he wouldn’t be hunting someone to kill. This time his quest would be more personal. Somehow, he would find the one thing he’d always wanted without realizing it.
He’d find freedom.