Shaylow chanted alongside his mother in the sacred tongue that was only uttered during the ceremony. At the age of fourteen, he was a newly minted man, fresh and aching to fulfill his christened role as Moon Feeder. Shaggy blonde curls fell into his eyes, mingling with the sweat beaded on his brow.
The crowd formed a backward crescent around the rim of the lake, the celestial sacrifice at the center of the bend. The elderly man, long ago chosen as a Star Harbinger, was not known to Shaylow. As he watched the old man writhe against the stake, he wished he knew his name, his past, anything to humanize him before they were soon to be so intimately acquainted.
The old man’s hands ached, swollen and rubbed raw from their bindings. He knew to stay as quiet as possible, but as his body sagged against the rope, gravity trying to pull him from his elevated prison, a whimper escaped his lips. Shaylow blanched at the sound. He wasn’t told it would be like this.
The swarm arrived slowly, flitting around his face and body before settling along the sweaty, sugared form. His mouth contorted in a grimace as the bugs gnawed into his honeyed skin. The crowd chanted louder as the man’s head fell back against the stake, his wide eyes drinking in the expanse of dark sky, pinpricks of light from millions of stars punching through the darkness like the many holes in his tattered clothes.
Shaylow watched the sweet nectar mix with blood as it melted and dripped down the man’s form. The insects came in waves, some landing and inserting proboscises, poking holes in the skin that welled with dots of blood, as numerous as the stars above. Others stuck to him, wriggled until they found the perfect place to burrow their head into sweetened supple flesh. The man moaned, bowed head lolling side to side, but a young guardian prodded his spear just under his ribs in a reminder of his sacred role. The man recoiled, struggling to soften his face back to the required somberness of the ceremony.
Shaylow recognized this eager guardian as Chulton. They’d grown up together. He’d always been a cruel boy, but strong, and it felt unsettlingly appropriate that he was now in charge of protecting the tribe. His role had no need for brains or heart, only muscle. Chulton’s smug smile sent a tingle down his spine like the cold tickle of ghostly fingertips. The man on the stake’s face crumpled in silent torment again.
“Does it have to be so painful? I can’t stand to look at his face.”
“You must look.” His mother grabbed his arm, her sharpened nails digging in and making him wince. “The pain is necessary, and we are to be the witnesses. The stars demand it.” She let go of his arm, her tone dampening with a tinge of tenderness. “I’m sorry that your first ceremony is tainted by this Harbinger’s inability to maintain his composure. There should be celestial ecstasy in his features, not pain.”
“Will it still work?”
He watched his mother slip her lips between her teeth, mouth becoming a harsh line, worry etching itself between her brows.
Resuming their chant, they watched Chulton and his fiery-haired older brother, muscles gleaming with silver sweat in the moonlight, prepare for the next stage of the ceremony. The man’s skin was an expanse of running sores, spotted in uncountable wounds to mirror the sky above. His face had relaxed in resignation, though a shade of fear was visible in the blue of his eyes. He knew what was coming.
They’d all been taught to embrace the violence of the ceremony as a rapture, escape, beauty, whatever word was necessary to minimize the suffering and cover it with comfort, but now that he was grown and it was real, in front of him, the metallic smell of blood mixed with honey coating each breath with a sticky mist, it was almost too much. Shaylow swallowed, but the hard lump in his throat remained. He tried to remember that it was a privilege to be the Star Harbinger. That the sacrifice was a gift to the heavens so they in turn would bless good harvests and fortune upon the town. These thoughts did little to sate the fear that crept up his throat and nestled itself under his tongue, urging him to scream. His mother’s hand on his back reminded him to breathe slow and deep.
The chanting of the crowd swelled in anticipation as the redheaded brothers brought forward the ceremonial table, the instruments still covered in a heavy sheet. Setting it directly in front of the Star Harbinger, they averted their eyes from the grotesque sight the swarm had quickly made of him. The old man’s infested wounds overflowing with their blooms of red and milky gold, the tiny perforations having spread across his body and bled into each other until his entire form was one massive, slick sore.
“Go ahead, son.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Shaylow looked down at his feet. “Maybe they made a mistake and I’m really supposed to be a farmer or healer, not a Moon Feeder.”
“The stars themselves named you as the next Moon Feeder when they aligned to honor your birth. It’s your destiny.” Her voice was low and soothing below the rising chant of the crowd, but then it quavered, nearly cracking with revealed depths she’d failed to hide away. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll starve. Please, try your best, Shay. Make me proud.”
He nodded. There was no argument or doubt that could assuage any of them. If the stars had deemed this his fate, he must fulfill it. The chanting rose into a frantic, guttural song as he approached the table, throwing off the cloth, laying bare the sharpened steel beneath.
Five instruments, each shaped after celestial bodies and with thin edges sharpened until their cut was so fine, it supposedly ascended pain itself, waited for him. Shaylow’s hand hovered over each one, eyes closed, feeling for the one that called to him from the heavens. To choose wrong would make it all for naught, a failure of a ceremony that would surely cost many lives. He tried not to think about it as he felt for that aura calling to him from the void of space. Sweat ran down his temples, the back of his neck, even dripped from his nose as he concentrated, but there was nothing. Back and forth he waved his hand, palm over the sacred weapons, and just as he was about to admit defeat and face the wrath of the crowd rather than choose wrong, he felt it. The tiniest vibration and warmth from the silver orb encased in rings like razors, modeled after Saturn.
The orb was heavy in his hands, carefully wielding it so the rings spared his flesh. They were only destined to penetrate the Harbinger. The old man tried to make eye contact, but Shaylow refused. The blade hovered over the heaving stomach of the elder. He could feel the gaze of the entire town burn into his back, watching, waiting.
With a sickening ease, the blade sliced through the layers of skin and yellow fat, laying bare the dark, pulsating viscera. The teen’s hands shook as they entered the cavity, tugging the organs free from their bodily prison. Groans and hyperventilating grunting, the music of agony he’d been told about during his training, came from above. Still, he refused to look beyond the task at hand. They each had their place, their own sacred duty.
When he struggled to fully free the tendrils of intestine, having to saw through the ropes slippery with blood, he heard a snicker behind him, just below the chanting, and knew it was Chulton. A hot blush bloomed across his face, but still he continued. The man’s sounds had diminished to a mild croak by the time Shaylow was able to gather all the slimy offerings in his arms and take them the short distance to the shore.
The moon shone iridescent among the dark ripples of the lake. Shaylow walked until the water came to his waist, and he was right beside the lustrous reflection. He closed his eyes as he fed the moon the offering, feeling the final warmth of the innards slip away into the cool water, praying they were accepted.
The chanting stopped. Shaylow walked in silence as his feet sunk in the silt with each step, the only sound the sloshing of ripples against his body and his own breathing too loud in his ears. Joining the crescent, all eyes were on the satiated lunar reflection then crept together to the heavens. He could feel Chulton’s eyes burn into him when nothing happened, but Shaylow kept his own on the stars. Please, accept the sacrifice. Don’t let that man have died in vain. Don’t let it be my fault.
Shaylow’s forehead crumpled upward in worried lines, tears edging his eyelashes, when his mother pointed at the sky, shouting, “I see one! Look! Look!”
A barrage of shooting stars streaked across the sky, starting slowly then growing in number until the whole sky was lit with their flaming tails. It lasted only seconds, then the sky stilled again, leaving behind the faint twinkling of the usual constellations. As soon as the last shooting star faded into the milky sky, the crowd burst into a cheer, some falling to their knees in joyful tears, thanking the stars for their mercy.
The crowd dispersed, a few men of the village slapping Shaylow’s back and offering their congratulations on his first ceremony. His mother beamed with pride, and even Chulton shot him a half-smile and a nod. As tradition dictated, Shaylow was last to leave, but he lingered longer than necessary.
Approaching the hollowed body of the elder, he swallowed hard as he looked at the slack jaw and half-closed eyes, a crescent of white peeking out from beneath their lids.
“Thank you, Harbinger. May your travels be safe,” he whispered, a shaky smile gracing his lips for a moment before he joined the slow walk back to town. The man seemed at peace.
It was celestial ecstasy, not agony that we witnessed. I only thought otherwise because I was nervous. He’s sailing with the stars now. We live because of his sacrifice. Shaylow repeated these thoughts over and over in his mind, forming a calming mantra in an attempt to change, suppress, perhaps even forget the memories. Otherwise, he’d run away into the brush and disappear instead of staying, waiting for his role to mature over the years until he too would become a sacrifice to beckon the stars.
Emma E. Murray writes horror and dark speculative fiction. Her stories can be found in anthologies like “What One Wouldn’t Do” and both Hundred Word Horror “The Deep” and “Beneath.” Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in magazines such as Vastarien, Pyre, and If There’s Anyone Left. Find out more at her website EmmaEMurray.com or follow her on Twitter @EMurrayAuthor