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Prompt: "Your people have been living on an island for over a million years. There is a supersized volcano in the center, but that’s not a problem. Whenever it begins to erupt, your community sacrifices a virgin to the volcano gods which stops it immediately. Today, the volcano starts to smoke and the ground starts to tremble. Your town starts preparing for eruption. There is only one virgin left in town." ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The day she is meant to die is the day she meets the goddess. It is a tradition of sorts; occasionally, the mountain will rumble, and then it will smoke, and then a sacrifice must be given to calm its wrath. And on, and on, but now she is the last sacrifice and after her, the town will have no one left to give. She is frightened, but she will not show it. She inhales deeply, and only the slight tremor of her fingers belies her terror. Her mother is crying. “My baby,” she sobs, running tear-soaked fingers down her cheeks. But the sacrifice does not cry. She closes her eyes and stands tall. This is her duty, after all. She’d always known this day would come. She knows it like she knows that she will be the last, and that after her there will be no more sacrifices because there will be no more need. “It is time,” says the High Priestess as the ground trembles beneath her feet. There are tears on her face, too, and her wrinkles are like canyons in her grim, gray features. The sacrifice nods. She is as ready as she will ever be. The climb up the mountain is a long one. The sacrifice is barefoot and dressed only in a thin, pale slip and she nearly falls several times, but every time she steadies herself and continues. She is a soldier, headed for battle, her home behind her and her eyes ever-fixed on the rim of the mountain. The small group stops a few yards from the edge. The High Priestess reaches out and paints red clay in unwavering lines across the sacrifice’s forehead. The symbol of the volcano gods, etched into her skin, marking her as their prize. She had left her name behind at the base of the mountain but it is here she leaves her identity. The High Priestess sings a long, low prayer to the gods and the earth below their feet trembles. “Go, now,” she says, gesturing to the rim, and her eyes are sad. The sacrifice nods once, taking just a moment to steal herself before turning away, towards the top. She begins to walk again. The ground is warm beneath her bare feet and the rocks are jagged, but she pushes on against the pain. There is no turning back, not now. There is a moment, at the rim, where she looks down into the crater and she looks up at the sky and she wonders why this must be her lot in life. Why this is her fate, her duty; why she hadn’t given up long ago, found a lover and defiled herself from the sacrifice. But, she thinks, she never did find anyone worth that love, and besides, she’d always known that someone must perform this task. If that someone had to be her, than so be it. But no more. She thinks of her sisters, her cousins, and she thinks, no more. “O, Great Gods of the Burning Mountain,” she speaks, voice hoarse and rough and choked with ash. “I beg you to spare my home. In return, I give myself to you, pure and untouched.” The lava below bubbles and belches and gives no answer. The sacrifice squeezes her eyes tight. It is time. “I know it is not my right, but I have one additional request of you. After me, there are no more who are suited for the sacrifice. Those who are untouched are young, far too young, and they are not prepared as I am. So I ask only this; after I am gone, let me be the last. The people of my village have lived quietly by the ocean for centuries and we have only ever given you our respect. Ask what you will of us, be it temples or gold or a piece of our harvest, but please, please spare our children.” The sacrifice turns her eyes to the sky and knows that her piece has been said. She has nothing more to offer, no more reason to stall. And so, wishing that she had at least kissed her mother’s cheek one last time, she steps carefully forward over the rim. There is a hand at her wrist, holding her back, keeping her from falling. It is hot, unbearably so, and her skin blisters and burns at the contact. Unable to stop herself, she turns, eyes wide, and finds herself gazing into the face of a god. “Why, child?” asks the god. The voice is an ancient one, creaking like stones and crackling like flames, and on the god’s forehead is the symbol of the youngest goddess, Itum. “Why give yourself so willingly? Why beg this deed?” The sacrifice trembles. “Great Lady Itum,” she says, voice fragile and afraid. Around her, the world has warped and faded, turning to smoke and sparks and haze. Magic weaves itself through the air, terrible and beautiful, and the sacrifice knows that she now stands in another realm, an ancient one of gods and demons. “Please forgive me. I merely hoped to save my sisters.” Itum watches her, unblinking, eyes of molten rock wholly unreadable. “You are kind of heart,” she says, and lays a burning palm over the sacrifice’s chest. “You have never given yourself to another and yet you are so full of love.” The sacrifice knows, in this moment, that she is going to die, and it compels her to bravery. “My Lady Itum,” she says, and this time her voice does not tremble. “Please grant me my wish. Stop the endless killing of daughter after daughter who never had the chance to love.” “Is that what you really want?” asks the goddess, laughter in her tone. “Or do you wish for freedom? Do you pity your successors because you so strongly desire to be loved?” “It does not matter,” says the sacrifice. “I am the last. The village is empty, and I will soon die. It does not matter whether or not I desire love.” Itum leans in closer, breath singing the sacrifice’s skin. “You are noble,” she says. “And kind. Both are admirable qualities, and I do not wish to see them in vain.” “My lady?” “My brothers,” says Itum, and the magic in the air shifts around them, “would see you dead. It is they who lust for the sacrifice, who send the tremors to demand more and more. My brothers will not grant your request, for they know there are always more of your kind and they know they will always be given whatever is is they may ask. You are proof of this.” “And what is it that you want?” asks the sacrifice, and then curses her own tongue, but the goddess merely laughs. “I am not sure, myself,” admits Itum. “Perhaps, like you, I long for freedom, and for love.” “Then what will you do?” The air is quiet between them as the goddess thinks. The sacrifice is burning with the proximity of the lava, skin blistering and hair turning to smoke. She wishes to cry out in pain, wishes that this would finally end, but she bites down on her tongue and does not make a sound. “Perhaps,” says Itum at long last, “I will break the cycle and free us both.” The sacrifice opens her mouth, perhaps to ask a question, but she does not manage it because in the next moment, the goddess kisses her. It is not a soft kiss, like the touch of her mother’s lips beneath her ear, but a fiery one, passionate and hungry and burning. The sacrifice’s lips sting at the heat but she does not struggle, even when the goddess slips tongue between lips between teeth and tastes of her lungs. When the goddess releases her something has changed. The air around them is thinner, cooler, bits of blue sky breaking through the smoke. “There,” says the goddess, and smiles as she slides an ember-bright thumb over the sacrifice’s lips. “You are no longer undefiled.” The sacrifice stares at her, breathing heavy and words lost to the goddess’ tongue. “My lady?” she whispers, unable to manage any more than that. “You are free now,” says Itum, voice gentle and strong. “The last virgin is no more, and the village is empty. There will be no more sacrifices. The cycle is broken.” The sacrifice closes her eyes. A tear slips free from between ash-flecked lashes and the goddess wipes it away in a puff of steam. “Go, child,” she says, not unkindly. “Go home to your people. Tell them that the sacrifice is no more. Live in freedom and find yourself someone to love.” The young woman, no longer a sacrifice and no longer a girl, nods her head and does not say a word. Itum lets go of her wrists and steps back, and behind her the smoke clears a path to the top of the crater. Numb and in shock and overwhelmed by emotion, the nameless young woman begins to climb away. When she reaches the top, when she sees her village in miniature before the sparkling blue sea, she turns back to the goddess. “My lady,” she says, and her voice breaks. “Thank you.” Itum smiles and then she is gone. The young woman crumples at the mountaintop. She crawls the paces down from the rim, to where she may lean her back against a rock and cry unseen. And cry she does, tears streaming down her cheeks and aching sobs pulling daggers through her lungs. It is over, she thinks. At long last, it is over. There will be no more. She is the last one.