Chosen sacrifice, p.1
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       Chosen Sacrifice, p.1

           Alycia Christine
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Chosen Sacrifice
Chosen Sacrifice

  Alycia Christine

  www.purplethornpress.com

  Contents

  Chosen Sacrifice

  Meet the Author

  Also by Alycia Christine

  Bonus Material

  Copyright

  In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the reproduction, storage in a retrieval system, or transmitting of this book, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than brief passages excerpted for review and critical purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at purplethornpress@gmail.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Chosen Sacrifice

  Dragons, lend me your speed,” the emperor’s winged herald whispered as she pumped her mechanical wings hard to avoid a craggy peak. The cold wind clawed at her simple brown robes, but Miya flew on heedless of the discomfort. She raced the waning daylight across the cloud-cloaked mountains and prayed that she would safely cross the Demon Realm’s northern border long before Mother Earth consumed Father Sun.

  Fear gripped her as she watched the fiery orb that was the dragons’ home descend toward the horizon. How could she hope to survive if her enemies found her in the open without the aid of Father Sun’s light? The human flapped her wings harder despite her increasing fatigue.

  As she flew over a second outcropping, a sudden crimson flash illuminated the clouds around her and searing pain engulfed Miya’s right shoulder. The winged human screamed and plummeted out of the gray sky as witch fire raced along her flesh and robes. High Priest Yoshiro’s stern face flashed before her tear-soaked vision as she fell.

  “Father!” the human screamed as moist billows gave way to unyielding stone.

  As the mountain rushed toward her, Miya rolled her uninjured shoulder and flipped her wings open in time to avoid crashing headlong into its rocky precipice. Her efforts, however, could not save her from landing in the twisted little pine blocking an otherwise direct glide to the ground. The resulting snap of branches around her small body was sickening.

  The dragons’ chosen warrior dropped out of the small tree and groaned. She felt both grateful and furious toward the heavy cloud bank, which had extinguished the devouring flames and yet concealed the perilous mountains just beneath it.

  “That was too close a dance with death,” she panted as she sat up from the gray dirt. Her shaking hands rubbed her slightly swollen belly. “Far too close…”

  The redheaded human gazed around the empty mountaintop, brushing strands of the scarlet symbol of the dragons’ favor away from her face. She shifted uneasily, knowing that her sacred hair offered no protection here.

  “The fiends must be camped on one of the neighboring summits,” the imperial messenger murmured while pulling the medical supplies out of her pack.

  A preliminary check of her limbs revealed many cuts and bruises yet no broken bones. Thanks in part to her nimble reactions, Miya’s worst injury by far was the burn on her right shoulder and arm. Only the wailing wind greeted her gaze when she searched the narrow mountain rim again for assailants, so she set to work treating her scorched skin with an herb-soaked cloth.

  She sneezed from the pungent mixture of frost powder, cape jasmine, and garlic, and then shifted her attention to some experimental wing stretches once the medicine had saturated her wounds. Her right arm and shoulder muscles burned with the slightest movement, but she still had flying capability. That was fortunate since she needed to finish binding her injuries and find a safer haven quickly or risk death by the claws of the emperor’s enemies. After all, the now splintered evergreen could not shield her from the elements nor from unfriendly eyes.

  Choking on the stench of her seared skin, Miya scrutinized the swirling waves of cloud broken by jutting peaks. Her slanted eyes searched wistfully toward the northwest for the comforting sight of Uki Mountain while her mind glimpsed the dragons’ holy training temple perched atop the sheer cliff. It would likely take her another three days’ flight through the heart of Oni’s territory to reach the mountain monastery. Could she really avoid the demonic red ogre or his vile cronies that long?

  A heavy thump disrupted her thoughts and she spun toward the noise already gripping her jo staff protectively. Another woman stood on the ridge. The dark-haired stranger was garbed in maroon and black robes that loosely mimicked a Miko’s traditional red and white attire—grand garb compared to Miya’s simple robes. The newcomer also held a staff similar to those used by the holy shrine maidens and carried a long katana sword at her waist. Despite the similarities, Miya knew this young woman was no Miko but a Kuro Miko—an evil shrine priestess who served the demons. Judging from the profane red tattoos glowing on her pale cheeks, this priestess held a high rank among her peers and was therefore extremely dangerous.

  The stranger’s staff suddenly erupted with witch fire, piercing the gathering gloom. Miya instinctively shrank away from the crimson blaze as the woman held the staff aloft.

  “Who are you, Dragons’ Chosen One? And why have you encroached upon these lands?” The woman’s booming voice matched the power of her scowl.

  Miya stood her ground, keeping her staff steady and her metallic wings half-open despite the discomfort both actions caused her. “I am Miya, a simple messenger of His Divine Majesty, Emperor Komei, and—”

  “Divine? A tanuki raccoon-dog is far more heavenly and well-endowed than that impotent half-wit!” The priestess sneered and roared with laughter at her own quip. “But I should not be so uncivil. Do tell me what message the imperious fool sends to the demons?”

  The priestess’s mockery caused Miya’s face to burn with a fury matching the staff’s crimson flames. She glowered at her opponent, keeping her stance stable in the way Yoshiro had instructed her.

  “My message is not meant for your masters, but for the emperor’s servants in the city of Zhouling,” she said, hoping that the half-truth would be believable enough to dissuade further inquiry. None but the emperor knew of Miya’s true mission and she wished circumstances to remain such.

  “You seem quite lost, little human; the line of flight between the cities of imperial Buhana and colorful Zhouling does not even graze our borders,” the Kuro Miko snarled, her gaze darkening ominously.

  “This I know,” Miya answered bitterly. “I stand as a victim of foul weather and even fouler timing. Had I been able to avoid the storm over Dazuki Heights I would never have encroached upon the demons’ domain. But, as it is, the winds have overruled my own desires.”

  The priestess frowned pensively, an act that revealed two tiny red horns poking through her hair just above her wide pale forehead. This woman was a hanyo half-demon!

  “Your words ring true to my ears, but that alone does not grant you immunity against proper punishment,” the demon half-breed growled. “As a fee for your impingement, I require a lock of scarlet hair plucked from your own head and presented to me within the gold box that you carry in your rucksack. In turn, I will grant you safe passage within the Demon Realms for three days so that you may complete your journey unchallenged. However, you must also promise never to return to these lands once you have passed beyond their borders.”

  The winged human stared at her aghast. The emperor’s golden flute case was a treasured heirloom passed between emperors and their favored sons since the First Dynasty. To give it over to this pagan was unthinkable! Even worse, any powerful demon possessing even a single strand of scarlet hair from a Dragon Warrior’s head could possibly taint the dragons’ blessing imbued within it and th
us curse the Dragon Warriors themselves. She could not betray the sole protectors of her people.

  Emperor Komei’s crinkled face swam into mental view and she remembered his last words. “You are our last hope…my last hope, Miya-sama. Go with the wind and may our dragon lords protect you and my greatest treasure from all evil.”

  If she bowed meekly to the hanyo’s wishes, she and the emperor’s seed might live to see the whole of her people perish. If she fought this evil, she and the child could both die and yet her people might still survive. Miya swallowed at her choices and studied the hanyo’s signature black katana. She knew that sword. The emperor only gave such swords to truly powerful Dragon Warriors, so this monster had destroyed one of her predecessors to possess it. Miya’s meager jo staff would be fighting that sword! She shuddered and then gathered a deep breath to calm herself.

  “Would you accept the flute case alone as payment for my crossing?”

  The hanyo growled, “I will not.”

  “If the flute case with my hair will grant me safe passage through this realm, then I will give it…” The gloating hanyo’s pointed teeth gleamed in the dim light, hardening Miya’s resolve. “However, such a gift will cost my people very dearly. I therefore offer this challenge to you. You may fight me with any one weapon of your choosing except the witch fire that could so easily singe off my precious hair. I will defend against you with any one weapon of my choosing.

  “If you disarm me, I swear upon my sacred honor that you may take what you wish without fear of retribution from the dragons, their warriors, or the emperor. But if I disarm you, you will gain not a single strand from my head nor will you possess the flute box. I will keep what is mine and take your choice weapon as evidence of your defeat and your pledge of safe passage through the Demon Realms to my destination. Do you agree to this challenge and its rules on pain of dragons’ blue fire and death?”

  The demon half-breed stared speculatively at Miya, her yellowish eyes resting once more upon Miya’s scarlet braid. Finally, greed seemed to subdue her caution. She propped her staff upright against a nearby ledge, its blazing fire giving light to the ridge even as the sun began to set.

  “I accept your challenge and adhere to its rules on pain of dragons’ fire. Firefang” —a wicked hiss filled the air as she drew the black-bladed katana out of its ornate scabbard— “is my weapon of choice.”

  Miya nodded grimly and tucked her metallic wings firmly against her back for added protection. “Very well…I choose my jo staff, Iresong, as my weapon. Any other weapon used during the duel will forfeit the win and the trickster’s life.”

  “Agreed!” The hanyo smirked and launched herself forward with superhuman speed.

  Miya’s sturdy jo met and turned the katana’s strong blow just in time. The uncanny sword’s momentum carried it flat-bladed down the length of the staff, giving Miya freedom to immediately strike the priestess’s face with the jo’s blunt end. The half-demon dodged the strike and circled her blade low. Miya parried the attack, but felt the blade’s tip slice her flesh nonetheless. The cut in her thigh was not deep, but its sting distracted her enough that her next movements were clumsy. The half-demon grew bolder at the sight of Miya’s blood and easily blocked her attacks.

  They fought until the sun’s rim barely lit the mountains and witch fire began to gild the surrounding summits. Miya’s shoulder ached and her left leg burned. She wanted this terrible trial to be over and yet her determination to protect herself and her child kept her moving.

  “Remember your hips, Miya-sama.” Yoshiro’s patient voice spoke on the edge of her memory even as her foe landed a shallow slash across her ribs. “Your hips, not your shoulders, give you your power. Focus every move from the balanced foundation of the hips.”

  Miya nodded resolutely at the reminder and refocused her efforts in the face of the Kuro Miko’s prodigious skill. In the end, the herald’s endurance eventually proved superior. Miya feinted away from a hard blow and twisted the sword from the hanyo’s hands. The fiend lunged after the sword as it clattered across the rocks, but was caught short by Miya’s staff strike to her neck and left shoulder. The herald then retrieved the sword and pointed it and her own staff toward the coughing half-human.

  “Do you yield?” the herald asked as she stepped between the hanyo and her fire staff to thwart any treacherous action.

  “Yes.” Miya’s opponent panted and looked with sudden fear at her vanquisher.

  The messenger simply nodded and pressed the point of the sword to the fiend’s throat. “I have defeated you in combat, therefore your life belongs to me according to Heaven’s laws. However, because you are an honored adversary I shall not kill you unless you wish not to bear in life the shame of defeat by my hand.”

  The priestess slowly shook her raven-haired head, her jade eyes locking on Miya’s brown ones. “You are a great warrior and a Chosen One of the dragons; there is no disgrace in failing to overthrow you.”

  Miya smiled gently and allowed her opponent to rise. The hanyo bowed deeply and Miya returned the gesture, wincing as her ribs burned. “Well met, hanyo. Now, I must depart. I cannot be long delayed and Oni’s crows will certainly see to it if they find me.”

  Miya’s opponent stared hard at her a moment before speaking. “You need not concern yourself about the crows tonight, Miya. They are under my orders not to harm you.”

  “And how could you wield such sway over Oni’s messengers? Are you one of his children?”

  “Curses, no.” The hanyo howled in laughter. “I am Oni!”

  “You?” Miya nearly dropped the sword in her shocked disbelief. One of the realm’s most vicious and powerful demons was actually a half-human woman?

  “You choose your opponents well.” The fiend grinned wickedly. “Or perhaps I should say foolishly.”

  Miya stared. “How is that possible? Do you change your appearance at will, then?”

  The hanyo nodded, still smirking. Then her body seemed to flicker out of focus and a scaly red ogress taller than two human men suddenly stood in her place.

  “Fortune smiles upon you this day, little messenger,” the ogress boomed between long fangs. “You met me on my Turning Day, when my magic is limited by my human form. You defeated me before the complete setting of the sun. Now my powers are strong again and yet you still hold my life in your dainty hands. Were that not so, I would tear you apart and eat your limbs. But, because of the mercy you have shown me even in your victory, I shall keep my promise and allow you safe passage through my domain. A life for a life; my debt to you is thus repaid.”

  Miya bowed, suddenly aware of how close to death she had actually stumbled. “Thank you, Oni.”

  The ogress grunted and then watched as the messenger gathered her belongings. Miya felt the unpleasant sensation of Oni’s eyes on her back as she wrapped her injured leg and torso and then hoisted her pack onto her bruised shoulders, shifting her wings to accommodate the load.

  “Will you not stay, Chosen Warrior?” Oni asked and Miya swore she heard pity and regret fill the monster’s voice. “You are the only woman ever to have the dragons’ blessing and to train in their combat arts, yet you find no true acceptance among your own people because you are female. Your people’s prejudices hinder you. Our beliefs are not so rigid here.”

  Miya turned to the demon on the mountain but saw instead the white sands of Uki Monastery’s practice yard caked upon her adopted brothers’ brown robes after their fights. Her robes were always the cleanest after each sparing session, not that the boys would ever admit it. Even now she could see the slight congratulatory smiles under their otherwise surly expressions. The vision faded to the imperial wing-granting ceremony and the emperor’s slight bow as he awarded her a place among his most trusted winged messengers. “I would gladly sacrifice easy acceptance for hard-earned respect, Oni.”

  She smiled wistfully and then nodded farewell to the bewildered red ogress before leaping off the cliff. She soared high and, using the
North Star as her guide, raced toward the silk-trading city of Zhouling. She would fly toward it until the last possible moment and then turn west. The journey would mean an additional half-day’s delay, but she must accept this rather than risk raising the suspicions of Oni’s spies by flying directly toward Uki Mountain.

  The winged herald raced north relentlessly for two days and two nights with the half-ogress’s vile flock as her constant companions. Only once did a bird try to peck her. She banked hard to avoid him and sliced her new katana straight through his body during his attack. The crow’s comrades left substantial distance between their quarry and themselves after the incident. They departed only when she crossed the series of dagger-like peaks marking the boundary between demon and human civilization.

  Finally relieved of enemy presence, Miya thought it safe to rest. She slept a full day in a sacred ugan grove south of Zhouling before she recovered enough strength to continue her perilous journey.

  With Father Sun high in Heaven’s courts, Miya once more vaulted onto the wind’s back and soon she beheld the distinct blue tile roofs perched atop Uki Mountain’s distinguishing fist-shaped outcropping. Miya felt hope and anxiety beat as one in her heart when she spied the grand temple she had once called home. She wondered if the emperor’s instinct to send his pregnant messenger here was true wisdom.

  “If Yoshiro turns me away as punishment for my unwed relations, we’ll have no other place of protection left.” She gulped down her fear and focused on each beat of her silvery wings as she neared the complex. When her sandaled feet finally touched upon the courtyard’s sacred sands, shouting scarlet-haired monks raced to meet her from every corner of the complex.

  “Where have you been?”

  “You are overdue! We have looked for you for three days!”

  “Are you well, honored Miya? You look so pale!”

  “Enough! Enough!” she panted, almost ready to faint with exhaustion. “Take me to the temple high priest immediately.”

  “At once, Miya-sama,” said one muscular man and quickly guided her to the old priest’s quarters.

  High Priest Yoshiro was a lean gray-haired man who was still fluid with both sword and jo staff despite his advanced years. Miya bowed low to her beloved teacher and adoptive father. He returned the gesture before ushering her inside and hugging her tightly. He guided her to a plush cushion before graciously pouring cups of aromatic tea and bidding her to relax.

  “Shame, little Miya!” he said after she had finally quenched her thirst. “What delayed you?”

  “My sincerest apologies for worrying you, Honored Father. A storm blew me off course and into the demons’ lands. I had to battle Oni to regain my freedom.”

  The elderly priest began to laugh at his adopted daughter’s joke, but his breath caught in his throat when she unstrapped the black katana from her pack and offered it humbly to him. “Your father’s, I believe.”

  Yoshiro’s wide eyes traced the familiar curves of the ancient weapon that had been stolen in his youth.

  “How did you survive?” he asked breathlessly, holding the sword like a lost lover.

  Miya smiled in triumph. “Oni is a hanyo! She was in her human form when I met her. I challenged her and was able to disarm her. Per our combat pact, I took her katana of authority as proof to her followers that I had defeated her. In exchange for my mercy in allowing her to live, Oni granted me safe passage through the Demon Realm.”

  “Fortune is indeed upon you!” Yoshiro reached across the low tea table to squeeze her hand. “The emperor will be greatly relieved to know you are now safe, as am I!”

  “Indeed…indeed he will,” she replied half-heartedly.

  He gazed intently at her burned arm and then peered wildly at the torn rucksack behind her. “Daughter, what is the matter?” he asked, suddenly panicked.

  “The flute box is gone, Father. I felt Oni steal it from the pack as I jumped off her cliff,” Miya replied. “A true pity for that box was to be the emperor’s son’s first treasure upon his birth. I had not the strength to fight her again to recover it. I am sure she would have gladly killed me rather than keep our bargain and come away empty-handed. At least, she did not manage to gain a piece of my hair.”

  “Then your mission has failed,” the priest said dejectedly.

  “In-part, Teacher, in-part.” Miya smiled sadly. “I lost the heirloom, but succeeded in my true mission nonetheless.”

  Yoshiro frowned. “What do you mean your true mission?”

  “My mission to come to this haven had little to do with delivering the flute case. I am sorry for our subterfuge, but the emperor swore me to secrecy about my true mission until I met with you in private. You see, the emperor’s most beloved treasure lies not in gold or jewels…”

  As she said this, Miya felt a sudden pain in her abdomen and gave a soft cry as her hand messaged her slightly swollen belly.

  Priest Yoshiro looked sharply at her. “Little Miya, are you well?”

  “Yes, Teacher, I am quite well now that we are finally safe.”

  He blinked in astonishment and then his face hardened. “You are with child! But…you are not married…”

  She rubbed her belly again and nodded solemnly. “Honored Father, for the sake of our people, I gave myself to Komei. His seed and last hope of an heir flourishes in my womb. This is my reason for returning to you. The child and I need asylum from the emperor’s enemies until he is old enough to succeed his father.”

  Yoshiro frowned. “My Empress?”

  Miya sighed and shook her head. “No, Father, I am simply a concubine and when my time to nurture the child within these hallowed walls is finished, I will be no more important than any other imperial servant.”

  “Miya…” Yoshiro watched her in consternation.

  Tears trickled down her scratched face. “With the birth of the emperor’s heir, hope blooms once again for our people. That is what matters most, no matter my lot. May the dragons smile upon me for my diligence to our emperor. I know few others do.” She lowered her gaze from his and watched her tears tap the bamboo floor. “I am so sorry. Please, please do not think less of me, Father.”

  She steeled herself for an elder’s rebuke of an unwed mother as Yoshiro walked around the low table.

  “No, honored Miya…” He smiled gently but sadly as he knelt, placed the katana on her lap, and drew her into a sheltering embrace. “What matters most is that you are finally home with those who truly love and respect you. You may be the dragons’ chosen vessel only in your youth, and the emperor’s chosen blossom simply for a season, but you will remain my chosen daughter for eternity.”

  Meet the Author

  Alycia Christine, also known as Alycia C. Cooke, grew up near the dusty cotton fields of Lubbock, Texas. She fell in love with fantasy and science fiction stories when her father first read Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and The George and Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit—Will Travel to her at age ten. Her love-affair with fiction deepened when Alycia took a creative writing course while attending Texas A&M University. After that class, she was hooked as a writer for life. Her subsequent B.S. degree in agricultural journalism not only helped to hone Alycia’s skills with a pen, but also with a camera. Today she uses her skills as a photographer to capture the beauty of the world around her and add additional perspective to her fiction and nonfiction writing. Find her at AlyciaChristine.com.

  Also by Alycia Christine

  Anthologies

  Musings

  Short Fiction

  “A Song for Naia”

  “Chosen Sacrifice”

  “Of Kelpie Lullabies”

  “Raven’s Fall”

  Find out more at AlyciaChristine.com.

 
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