It may be hard to believe at this point but the trilogy that become a quartet is finally done. As always the links to the rest are right here so you can start at the beginning and catch up with what this story is all about.
The Final Sacrifice
The memories came in a flash, a story her mother once told her. Jardan had always thought it was to scare her, to control her and guard her from an evil she couldn’t believe. That’s the way of old wives’ tales and tall tales isn’t. The hidden message to scare the children to do what the parent wants.
A little girl had run from her parents and gotten lost in the deep woods. The way her mother told it, it was the deep woods that she forbade Jardan enter. She had wiped the tears from her mother’s cheek in the last telling. A girl of six, too young to watch her mother whither away.
That had been the day her mother died, a victim to the wasting. Her life sucked from her bones, just like her father. Lady Shelton knocked on their door a few days later. The earth hadn’t even grown cold over her mother’s grave.
Thump, scrape. “I told her,” Lady Shelton said. “Told her I would take them all. Her debt would be paid from all she loved.”
“Emerald and gold, buried far below.” The last words of her mother, spoken on her deathbed. Jardan tugged at the ring, her mother’s ring, that had fused itself to her finger. It wouldn’t budge. In the story the girl had taken something from the dead she found buried in the earth. She screamed out of her thoughts when the end of Lady Shelton’s cane stabbed into her shoulder and pushed her to the ground.
Jardan’s palms and knees scraped across jagged rocks. The fabric of her britches held but there was nothing to protect her hands. The skin tore in several places. Even with the pain she had presence of mind to roll away from the next strike of the cane. The crook smacked the space that had been occupied by her head.
“Hold still little girl,” Lady Shelton said. “It’s your turn to carry the burden.” The cane connected to Jardan’s leg with a thump. Jardan rolled again, away from the woman’s reach.
Blood had oozed across her palms and over her fingers. But its lubrication still wasn’t enough to break the ring free of her flesh. Jardan pushed herself to her feet, as more of the sharp rocks on the floor bit into the flesh of her hands, and ran. She tripped over the edge of the cathedral’s raised section when she turned her head to see Lady Shelton. The old woman didn’t rush, didn’t run. Thump, scrape, her methodical progress followed Jardan through the cathedral.
“You have no where left to run,” she said. “Give yourself, like your mother and your father before you. It will hurt less when you accept your fate.”
She couldn’t explain it, nothing more than a moment of happenstance, but Jardan had looked at the skeletons near the pulpit. Her eyes had focused on their hands. The left hand on one of them had been perfectly preserved in the deep cavern, except for the third finger of the hand. It wasn’t there. Jardan risked everything as she studied the space around the hand. The bones were gone, like that finger had been removed while the others had been left intact.
The cane slammed into her ribs and knocked the wind from her lungs. Cold, sharp hands entwined her hair and pulled her to her feet. Wiry flesh, like steel cables held her up, balanced on her toes. She fought, fought so much harder than her mother had ever fought. She dug her nails into the flesh of the old woman’s arm and kicked at the woman’s legs. It wasn’t enough.
Lady Shelton lifted Jardan’s chin with the cane’s crook and forced the girl to look in her eyes. And the fight left her. Black orbs swam where eyes should be. They fed on the light and the life that had fueled her. They cut deep into the core of Jardan and she could not pull away.
As she felt her will ebb, she noticed a glimmer, something she never thought to see in the old woman’s eyes. A bit of her mother still lived, a portion broken off in the woman who fed on her. That last glimmer of hope, of life, renewed her strength. She broke her gaze away from Lady Shelton and twisted free of the woman’s grip.
Jardan fell back and away from the woman as she slid across the rough floor. Her hands scraped further by sharp obsidian stone, she grasped a stone fragment with a longer edge.
She didn’t look up, didn’t break her focus from this final task. Jardan held the tip of the stone against the skin at the base of her ring finger. She took a last gulp of air and then plunged the rough blade through the knuckle and severed the finger from her hand. She could hear nothing but the pounding of her blood in her ears as she scooped it up and rushed to the skeleton on the floor.
“I pay my mother’s debt,” she said. She placed the finger on the skeleton’s hand.
There was no flash of light, no sign of some significant magical affect. Nothing, except silence. She scanned the cathedral and found herself alone with the dead.
Her hands shook as she packed her injured hand with cloth. She still didn’t know how she would find her way out of the cavern but at least the curse, her mother’s legacy was over.
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