Of all the places to meet one’s destiny, the boy—who was less a boy, and even less a man— had never envisioned a wheat field. What a disappointing beginning, he thought as he clenched his blood-smeared palm over a shallow bowl. He had entertained the idea of doing this ritual in a temple, surrounded by columns of marble and gold-flecked statues, haloed in the glow of the setting sun; a glamorous rebirth. He recognized that it was an impractical daydream, that the isolated field was more convenient, that he was less likely to be discovered—and arrested for blasphemy—here.
Storm-clouds, dark with the promise of rain, gathered overhead, the wheat caressing his legs with the rising wind. His skin prickled with sweat despite the chill in the air, dark hair clinging to his nape. The bowl shook minutely in his non-bloodied hand as he chanted the words he’d memorized weeks ago. They rolled off his tongue in time with the thunder, and he prayed that the gods would manage to hear him anyway.
He couldn’t afford to fail.
What was there to go back to? Endless hours under the sun, plowing until his hands were raw. A dry, barren field that yielded nothing but cabbage and beets. Falling asleep hungry with rocks digging into his back and waking up just to do it all again and again.
He had nothing, was nothing, if he stayed. And he knew—he knew—that he was made for something more. Something great.
He finished the chant and waited, fists clenched tight enough to shatter the clay ritual bowl in his hands. Lightning cleaved the sky in two: a blinding, white-hot gash in the ever-darkening clouds. He squeezed his eyes shut and dropped into a crouch instinctively. Too close, he thought as he blinked the spots from his vision. It would be dangerous to stay out in a storm like this for too much longer, and yet if he sought shelter now, he might as well resign himself to a lifetime of disappointing anonymity.
The boy’s eyes snapped up at the smooth, melodic voice. A woman stood a few paces before him, tall and unexpectedly normal. Her skin was light and freckled, her brown hair loose in waves across her shoulders. She did not look much like a god. In fact, she rather looked like she had just been woken up, dressed as she was in a loose white cotton gown.
There was an aura of power around her, so thick he could feel it sliding over his skin. It wrapped around his very bones, squeezed the air from his lungs. No, she didn’t look like much, but she felt like a monsoon.
And gods, he wanted it.
“I know that look,” she said as she circled him. He didn’t dare take his eyes off her. “Desire. Ambition.” She stepped closer, close enough to touch him if she wanted. “You don’t even have to tell me what you want. I already know.”
I did it, he thought. I summoned a god. He hadn’t been sure it would work. Months of research—of carefully reconstructing the ritual from half-faded, long-forgotten texts—had yielded only a half-baked plan that relied almost entirely on luck and the grace of the gods. But the ritual worked. And now he would receive his reward.
“I can give you power, real power,” she said, teeth flashing white as lightning. “Beyond your stunted mortal dreams.”
“Like a god.” His eyes followed her, greedy. “Like you.”
She laughed. “A boy who knows what he wants. Consider it done.”
“And the cost?” he asked, eyes narrowed as he watched the woman circle him. For all his pride, his ambition, he was not so foolish to think a prize this tempting would not have a price. Everything worthwhile did.
She stopped just behind him.
“Does it matter?” Her breath was hot against his ear, her voice soft as velvet. He shuddered. “We both know what you will choose.”
She was right. There was nothing he would not do, nothing he would not sacrifice, if it would give him this. He nodded.
“Remove your shirt. You won’t be needing it.”
He shrugged the rough material off without a second thought, letting it drop to the ground. The woman eyed him appreciatively for a moment.
“If I didn’t already have plans for you,” she murmured, shaking her head. “But on to business.”
In the blink of an eye, the woman held a dagger out to him. He took it, turning it over in his hand. It was dark and sharp with an ornate gold hilt, perfectly balanced and lightweight. A blade fit for a god. A blade fit for him.
“Great change requires great sacrifice,” she said as she watched him with no small amount of amusement.
He stared at it for a moment and then back up at her, scowling.
“What is this? Some kind of trick?”
The woman raised a single, dark eyebrow. “You cannot be both mortal and immortal. You cannot be both man and god. You claim you desire power; this is what it costs you. But of course, if you’ve changed your mind—”
“No,” he said, quick to stop the woman before she could renege on what she’d promised. Besides, he reasoned, I have nothing to fear. Gods cannot die.
Slowly, her mouth twisted into a mockery of a smile, and she leaned in closer.
“Between the third and fourth ribs,” she purred, her hand ghosting over his bared torso. Power—true power—seared his flesh at her touch. It wriggled under his skin, almost unpleasant, but he dismissed his discomfort. Was it not further proof that his mortal form was lacking?
He wet his lips. There was nothing left between him and his desires except this one act of self-sacrifice.
“You’ll hardly even notice the pain.” Her hand was featherlight against his wrist, not pushing him, not committing the act for him, but encouraging all the same.
His eyes fluttered closed as the blade sliced through his skin with ease, his aim true. For a moment, all he felt was the warmth of his own blood. And then the agony came, a violent wrenching in his chest that threatened to tear him apart. He fell to his knees, aware only of the woman’s laughter from somewhere behind him. And then even that was drowned out.
The boy screamed and was remade.
Read more in the much anticipated sequel THE HUNTED QUEEN, coming 2020.