Sijile goes to her destiny, forsaking fear to return life to her world.
Sijile awoke on her twenty-first birthday. She was trembling to her very soul. No one had actually told her what she would find on the other side of the portal to the other realm. She only knew that men larger and more powerful than she had not only failed in her quest but died in the trying. How could she, one young woman do what so many heroes could not? Sijile descended the stairs from her room in the attic. She passed the floor where her masters slept and went all the way down to the multipurpose room on the ground floor. It had been her library, her dining hall, the place where her masters had thrown her to the mats in an attempt to teach her how to defeat someone of superior strength. There were two doorways out of the room. The one to the right led into the kitchen. The second doorway was more ornate and opened to a place beyond, she had never been through it. Her life had been in this house.
“Frightened?” Doran, the scholar who had taught her to read and write aksed as she stared at the locked doorway.
“The world is dying, and today I may die as well. If I die that is the end of everyone,” Sijile answered.
“The last daughter of our world always knows what her task requires. Everyone that has gone before you has succeeded. Why do you think you will fail?”
“So many men have tried and failed! What do I have that they did not?” Sijile asked.
Doran sighed, “Sometimes I believe that raising you as we have does not prepare you for what you must do, but it has always been done this way.”
“What more can you tell me?”
“Nothing, except that you must do what is necessary not because it is necessary, but because your heart has revealed to you the key,” Doran replied, “That is why I can tell you no more.”
Sijile frowned. She was tired of the circles her masters talked in. They spoke volumes and said nothing, “I am tired of riddles! Why won’t you just tell me what I must do?”
“I cannot! Only your heart can tell you…”
“Only my heart can tell me where the key is!” Sijile spat.
He nodded and retreated to the kitchen to stir the fire in the fireplace and begin making breakfast for the other masters. Today Sijile would eat only the stale bread from yesterday, and only drink water which had stood in the pitcher overnight. It was to remind her that everyone existed on the residues of the past. Her feast would come when she returned with the gift of life.
Sijile had been prepared for this for her entire life. She had known since birth that her world was dying. The light of life had been taken from it and only echoes of life remained. She was the last child born to the people. Her mother died to gift her with life. Sijile knew only training. The fathers of the tribe taught her to read, write and do so many other things not meant for the hands of a woman. They crafted armor for her delicate frame. It was polished steel with mystical protective runes inlaid in gold. They were runes of protection so obscure, not even the blacksmith who prepared it knew their meaning.
Twenty-one years, Sijile had trained to wear the armor. From puberty she had borne its weight, growing stronger each day. The weight of responsibility was heavier on her shoulders. She only knew that she must pass through the portal and retrieve life from a locked chest. She sparred with masters and by seventeen could best the best of them. The masters of combat were not her only teachers.
Sijile learned from masters of lore. The creator had gifted their world with the spark of life. It was a precious gift. For centuries their world thrived. Then men became wicked as they tend to do. The gift was taken and locked away in a chest. The world began to die. Crops failed, fewer and fewer children were born. Men tried and tried to defeat the gatekeeper within the other realm and return the gift of life. Failure was their reward. The last child trained and learned, becoming both wise and powerful. She stepped through the portal and confronted the gatekeeper. She returned with the gift of life but warned it would not last. From that day forward every few centuries, the gift would leave them and the last child, always a girl would be tasked with returning with it.
That was Sijile’s purpose and her goal. She grew in the shadow of her destiny and knew on the first day of her twenty-first year she must go. As the day had approached, Sijile had found the very old diary of the previous last born, and she read it voraciously. It ended with the runes and a partial translation, “The key is only found in sacrifice.” The journal was the only real clue she had to what was being asked of her.
Doran was just the first of the masters to awaken. Jessup made his way down the stairs next. He smiled at her but could not meet her eyes. She thought she saw tears. He had taught her the art of swordplay. He had also secretly told her it would not be enough. Sijile suspected he believed she would fail. He rarely looked her in the eye anymore.
Maku and Issu were her hand to hand instructors. They were something of a rarity in that they were natural-born brothers. They were both old enough to be Sijile’s grandfathers, but they were spry enough to challenge her in her youth. “Good morning, Last Born,” Maku greeted her.
“Come, it is time to eat your last meal,” Issu instructed. He led her to the low table and gestured to a pillow on which to sit. Sijile blinked at that. Pillows had only ever been a comfort the masters had deserved.
Sijile sat. Doran entered and placed her plate of bread in front of her and her glass of stale water next to it. Her masters sat at their places and just waited for her to eat. When it became apparent they weren’t going to eat, Sijile began choking down the dry and crusty bread. With her meal, a hard and tasteless lump in her stomach, Sijile pushed back from the table and stood.
“Time for your armor,” Jessup stated lifting the padded shirt from its place on a stand next to the metal armor.
Sijile dressed awkwardly in the padded under armor, thanks to each of her masters' desire to help her dress. She had been putting her own armor on for years. Doran lifted the breastplate from the stand and lowered it over her shoulders. Sijile just wanted to swat his hands away and do it herself, but something told her they needed to help her more than she needed their help. This was the last thing they could do to prepare her for what she must do. Jessup strapped her sword belt around her waist and handed her her sword to sheath.
Once she was dressed and had adjusted the straps for her comfort, Doran lifted the heavy key to the front door from the place where it hung from his neck. He handed it to her. The door wasn’t actually the door out of the house to the village. It was the doorway to the other realm. Sijile took the key and placed it in the lock. It slipped home and the clicks it made as it turned the tumblers were solid as the door. Sijile handed the key back to Doran and pulled open the door.
The other realm was a much darker world than the sunlit world streaming in through the windows. Sijile took a few tentative steps through the door. Doran closed it behind her. She heard the tumblers slip home as he locked it again. Sijile looked back at the doorway and was surprised to see a castle, like the one in Doran’s books. Sijile turned back to the path before her. The texts and the journal of the previous Last born told her to follow the path to a cave, a chest and the gatekeeper.
The walk was long but the path was clear. Sijile followed it as she was meant to. It turned around a corner and before her stood the hooded figure of the gatekeeper resting his hands on a fiery glowing sword. To his right was a chest wrapped in chains, the keyhole of the lock glowed with the same energy as the sword and the cave behind it all. In one look, Sijile decided the key must lie in the cave.
Sijile attempted to walk around the gatekeeper. Praying, despite everything that she knew, that he would just let her pass. “There is no passage that way for you!” The faceless gatekeeper stated in a voice just as terrifying as his countenance. He raised the hilt of his sword above his head with the point down, at just about Sijile’s chest level.
Sijile raised her sword and attempted to knock his away. The creature’s iron grip held it solid. She was quite confused. It lifted the sword, not in defense or attack but seemingly to thrust it downward. Sijile considered her attack and drove her sword through the hooded figure with the full force she was capable of. She simply passed through it as though it were smoke. On the other side of the creature she ran for the cave but the creature passed through her and reassembled in her path.
“I beg of you let me get the key!”
“There is no passage that way for you! There is only one way to gain what you seek!”
Sijile ran back to the chest and tried to break open the chains with her sword. Her momentum brought her to the ground as the blade passed through the chains, lock, and chest as though they were smoke. Sijile landed hard. She began to cry. She reached out to the chest with her hands and it was solid. She poked it with the point of her sword and it thudded into it with a wooden resonance. How could things be solid one moment and untouchable the next?
It occurred to Sijile that both the creature and the chest responded to violence with dematerialization. She tossed her sword aside. She recognized that the creature had made no attack despite Sijile’s aggressive approach. She began unstrapping the armor. She looked at her breastplate and recalled the partial translation in the journal, “The key is only found in sacrifice.” A spark of understanding lit within Sijile’s heart. Doran had locked the door behind her. He clearly was not expecting her to return. Jessup could not meet her eyes. No one would tell her what she must do to return the gift of life to her world, but they all knew.
Sijile removed the armor. She removed the padding until she wore only the tunic and pants she had worn to bed. The gatekeeper had returned to its place beside the chest. Its hands once again rested on the hilt of its sword. The point of the glowing sword rested on the ground next to the chest. Sijile stood and brushed herself off. With all of the dignity and love she had, she stepped up to the gatekeeper.
Without the gift of life, Sijile’s whole world would die, including Sijile. There was only one logical path. She already had the key. She was the key. “I am ready!”
Golden light swirled around the creature, coming in waves off of the blade. Sijile took that as a good sign. The creature raised the sword once again to thrust it downward. Sijile placed her heart beneath its point. The creature plunged the sword of light into her chest. Things went dark for Sijile, much faster than she thought death would take her. Soon she was encased in blackness, then reality exploded in flames of light around her. The cold dark space around her opened up and she stepped from the chest. How could she have known this was the necessary sacrifice.
“Now there is a passage that way for you!” The creature, unarmed pointed to the cave.
Sijile strode towards the cave dressed not in cotton pajamas but clothed in light and life to save her world. Some inner voice told her the cave would bring her back to her world, where life will have returned. A wave of realization flowed over her. She brought life to her world but another girl in generations to come would have to do this again. Sijile hesitated at the entrance to the cave, this whole situation seemed so futile. Then again she wasn't dead yet, perhaps there was something she could do…
She stepped into the cave and reality swirled around her. When it resolved into something she could comprehend again she was facing the closed and locked door she had passed such a short time ago. Her clothing of light settled into a diaphanous gown of ethereal gauze. She turned and saw her former masters standing in an arc around the door. Within moments the set looks of doom that had hung on their features for as long as she knew them lifted. Her inner glow reflected from their faces.
“Sijile, tell us nothing of what you did. It is enough that you succeeded.” Jessup cleared his throat, “We need to proceed to the center of the village for the ceremony of life giving.
Sijile nodded and followed them out the front door of the cottage. They marched along the road to the village picking up followers from the huts and houses along the way. In the center of the village there was a statue holding a large smokey crystal. The whole village was gathered around the statue.
She was drawn to the eyes of the statue. They were small emeralds. She stared into them and they began to glow. The smokey crystal turned clear and began to glow. The glow grew and spread out filling the air building to a blinding glow that spread like a blast wave from the statue.
Doran took a book from the waiting arms of an elderly man. He handed it to her. She opened it to find it full of blank pages. “You must record your words for the next last daughter of our world.”
Sijile nodded. She had a few words for its pages. But perhaps not for the next last daughter. Her goal was to end this futile cycle. She would record that journey. At worst it would leave clues for her successor to follow into the future.
“Now we go gather our celebratory feast!” Jessup declared to the crowd. The crowd cheered. Sijile didn’t know why they had to gather the feast, but most likely because so many crops had failed for so long that there were no surpluses to have for a feast. This feast to famine to feast cycle must end.