There was a legend in the land. In the beginning it was spoken highly of- the noble sacrifice of a family in order to protect the innocent people in the world. A story told in hushed, respectful tones to children around the fireplace, so that they too would know and pass down the tale.
But, like many respected traditions that the elders passed down, the full weight was never able to make an impact on the children. Every generation the heavy legend seemed lighter and lighter, until it was regarded as no more than a children’s tale. A campfire story, told in loud, over-exaggerated voices to elicit reactions. If parents did tell the tale to their children, which became exceedingly rare, it was only as a cautionary tale, or a threat- like telling children to be good or Krampus would come for them on christmas instead of Santa.
The story went like this- in the beginning of time there was only one large continent. The people of the world spread across it in every part of the land, but even though they spread through such a large area all were united. There were no oceans or gorges to separate different people, and so they carried about trading and improving without hindrance. If one part of the land managed a technological or scientific advancement, it spread quickly and easily to all other parts. The people were industrious, and soon began to ignore the traditions and religions of old because of their overconfidence.
The gods were displeased by this, and one in particular- Drenia, Goddess of Loyalty (and, less known, of recompense)- proposed a plan that nearly the whole pantheon approved of. Create a beast- a monster that would remind the humans that they were not the only ones around and that they had traditions to uphold. A monster that could tear apart the land and separate the people, to lower their elevated pride.
And so the leviathan was created, and released to wreak havoc on the world. The first few weeks were the worst. Land rending, entire cities falling into newly created gorges, new rivers turning into raging torrents finally settling into vast, new stretches of ocean where the land used to be. The once-united continent was broken into the hundreds of islands that we know today, and the livelihood and economy of the people was thrown into turmoil.
They thought that, perhaps, after the separation was completed the gods would be sated, and the Leviathan would be recalled. People turned back to the traditions, to the praying, and offerings, and all other such practices as they always do in times of trouble, all in the hopes that it would placate the gods that they had so upset. But despite all that, despite the ravaging of the land and the return of the faith, the Leviathan remained. People lived in terror. The beast stayed mostly in the depths of the ocean, but all knew that at the slightest misstep it would emerge, water from its back flooding the land, and when it returned the unfortunate island would exist only in memory.
But there was one goddess, Kisaane, goddess of Innovation, who had opposed the plan from the beginning. Along with the god Fernnen, god of Art, who had initially approved of the plan, they created a plan to rid the human world of the beast.
However, this plan required a sacrifice. Not a sacrifice in the usual sense, an immediate relinquishing of one’s life. Something much more long term than that. Kisaane and Fernnen searched out a suitable vessel, a family who would be willing to bear the burden for all generations, until the end of time itself.
The heartbeats of the family were weaved into a cage into which the beast was placed, the living thrum ensnaring and enveloping until it could not move. Each time a member of the family had a child, its heartbeat was seamlessly included into the weave such that the cage was self-perpetuating. But the cage was not easy to maintain- although all the participants had to do was live, the strain on their hearts was much greater than that on a normal person. From the time their heartbeat was added to the cage, a person would die of a heart attack in no more than 30 years.
Kiara had grown up on that story, but not like most children in her generation.
She could feel it, in her heart. The constricting feeling, the strain. She hadn’t at first. When there were seven of them all helping- her mother, two uncles and aunt, two cousins, and then Kiara herself.
By logic there should have been hundreds of them by now, with how many generations had passed. But that had never been the case- the most there had ever been was 14. Part of it was because of the early death that ran in the family- the oldest having been 32 when the heart attack occurred. Part of it was that the job could only be passed through a woman of direct descent- a person marrying into the family wouldn’t have theirs added, a heartbeat could only be added when the heartbeats of a child and their mother were in sync, and the mother’s was already part of the living cage.
That alone cut possible numbers significantly, but it wasn’t the real problem.
Ever since the beginning, since the plan was created and the Leviathan sealed, Kiara’s family had made enemies of the gods. Natural disasters, freak accidents, the inexplicable subject of other human’s undeserved ire- the family suffered more casualties and losses than natural. The only reason any of them still existed was due to the few gods who sided with them, and were working to keep the Leviathan sealed.
Not that their family had any contact with the gods anymore- not since the cage had been created and the curse explained. As such, Kiara didn’t know the situation with the gods currently. She only knew what had been happening in the family.
One uncle murdered senselessly, before Kiara had even entered school.
Kiara’s mother had died in childbirth when Kiara was ten, taking the unborn child with her. She had gone to stay with her aunt- her father, in his grief, was deemed unfit to take care of her.
Her aunt’s family, including her two cousins, all caught in an earthquake. The son survived, only for his wounds to become so infected that he succumbed to illness weeks later. Kiara was in the earthquake as well, but had somehow come out largely unscathed. She was sent to live with her other uncle next.
After all of the trauma and tragedy, she would have liked to hope for something better.
But her uncle was already turning 31, and his heart gave out not even a year into her staying with him.
So then it was only Kiara, her heartbeat being the only thing keeping the Leviathan at bay. She could feel it, straining. Many things had happened since her uncle died as well- a robbery, a fire…
A string of misfortune, which had taken everything except for her health. It seemed that their families’ gods had lost power, and the only thing they could protect anymore was the final, fraying thread holding the Leviathan’s cage.
The straining was getting worse. Or, perhaps, her heart was just getting weaker. At this point she wasn’t sure which hurt more- her heart or her stomach.
She hadn’t eaten anything substantial in three days- only scraps that people passing by had deigned to hand her as they went about their day.
But dying, it wasn’t an option for her. It never had been. She was it, the last defense. The fact that her heart was still beating, laboriously and painfully as it was, meant that humans could keep living peacefully.
Hand outstretched, silently begging for something, for anything, from any person who passed. And yet they passed, turning their eyes from the pitiful sight as if that would erase the black spot of her existence from their pristine worlds.
They didn’t know what they were doing. Didn’t know what would happen if this heartbeat were to stop, and the last of the thinning net was torn asunder, releasing the beast with nothing more than the silence that would come in the absence of her heartbeat.
No one knew what she had done. What her family had done for generations. What they had been doing, all for the sake of all of these ungrateful people, who took their tragic, heroic story and turned it into a joke.
Kiara’s outstretched hands slackened as another person averted their eyes upon seeing her, quickening their steps and speeding away. She could feel it, the blackness creeping in to the edges of her vision. The coldness taking over the thrum of her heart.
No one cared about what happened to her, nor her family. No one feared the Leviathan.
So why, Kiara wondered, should she?
After all, by the time it was a problem, she would be dead.
With this last, solemn thought that brought her more peace than she had known in years, Kiara slumped to the ground, unconscious.