“Aerydel, I’ve come to bargain!”
The demand rang out through the cave, overtaking the dripping stalactites and the occasional shifting of the bones under foot. Torchlight flickered across the rock walls, turning dark shadows black as Marcus stood on the edge of a massive pit with a sword he didn’t know how to use clutched in his dominant hand. It didn’t shake. It wasn’t shaking, damn it!
The silence continued, and Marcus worried that he’d gained false information, that the journals his parents left behind were lies, when a voice boomed out of the dark, shaking the walls of the cavern and his glasses off his nose. “WHO IS THE ONE APPROACHING ME, MORTAL?”
He swallowed. “I am Marcus, son of Lucas and Lily, who approached this eternal one 5 years ago to this day!”
The darkness writhed, shiny bits of bone catching the torch light just enough to reflect, but not enough reveal the creature below. He shivered despite the cave’s humid warmth. “SON OF LUCAS AND LILY, WHY DO YOU COME? YOUR CREATORS’ DEAL IS THEIR OWN, NOT ONE YOU CAN TAKE ON FOR THEM.”
“My parents are already dead,” Marcus tells the thing that was a god. “And my sister grows ill again. It is within your power to save her, so do it!”
“IMPERTIMENT MAN!!” It bellowed, the walls of the cave shaking. Stalactites broke off the ceiling and crashed to the floor, nearly killing Marcus in the process. His heart pounding out of his chest, Marcus could only watch in horror as Aerydel rose out of its pit. “THE WISH HAS BEEN GRANTED; THE BOON ALREADY WON! DID YOUR SIBLING ALREADY NOT LIVE LONG PAST WHEN SHE WAS TO DIE? DID YOUR CREATORS NOT SACRIFICE HALF OF THEIR LIFESPANS TO ME SO THAT SHE MAY LIVE LONGER?”
“And yet you lied!!” Marcus accused, pointing his sword at the writhing mass. “You said you’d only take half their lives, yet they died after only 5 years! You promised my sister a long time upon this earth, yet her illness has returned and her life is fading! How could you say this wish is granted!?”
“LITTLE FOOL…” Marcus’ blood ran cold at the condescending tone the entity took, rage still trembling in its voice. “MARCUS, SON OF FOOLS, IS THAT WHAT THEY TOLD YOU? THAT TWO HALF-LIFES WOULD SAVE ONE WHOLE? NO, SON OF FOOLS, THAT IS NOT POSSIBLE.”
“What!? But the journals…”
“WHEN YOUR CREATORS MADE THEIR WISH, THEY ONLY ASKED THAT YOUR SIBLING’S LIFE BE EXTENDED. THEY MADE NO MENTION OF A LONG TIME UPON THE EARTH.” It rose fully now, still encased in shadow. But it’s eyes… Marcus could see its eyes, glowing in the dark. Three eyes, colored red, yellow, and blue, swirling freely as if not secured in a skull. They didn’t blink. “SO, I GAVE THE CHILD THEIR REMAINING YEARS. A PITY, THAT YOUR CREATORS ONLY HAD 20 YEARS LEFT BETWEEN THEM.”
Marcus quickly did the math. “But that still gives her five more years!”
“DO YOU THINK IT EASY, TO KEEP ALIVE SOMETHING THAT IS DYING? TO ABAY AN ILLNESS EMBEDDED IN HER BONES? NO, MARCUS, SON OF FOOLS, THERE CAN ONLY BE A DELAY OF THE INEVITABLE. TO KEEP THAT CHILD ALIVE, SHE WOULD NEED THE HALF-LIVES OF MANY… OR THE FULL LIVES OF A FEW.”
Marcus’ legs fell out from under him, his sword falling from his grip and clanging against the rough ground. He shook. “But… she’s only a child.” Melody, his little sister that his parents had died for, the only thing he had in his life. He left for his fool’s journey nearly a fortnight ago, his last image of Melody her betrayed face as he told her he was going on a journey. He had to leave her with the doctor, hope that he kept her alive long enough for him to bargain, to demand what was right, only… he never had any leverage, did he?
“TO ME, YOU ARE ALL BUT CHILDREN,” the creature said, as if trying to comfort him. “GO NOW, MARCUS, SON OF LUCAS AND LILY. YOU HAVE A LONG LIFE AHEAD OF YOU; DO NOT WASTE IT ON THE DYING.” It shifted, about to dive back underground.
His head rose. “A long… life?”
The ground rumbled as the creature paused at his words. Its three eyes glowed down at him, bathing him in the conflicting hues.
Marcus swallowed. He could barely believe what he was about to suggest, but… if it was the only way… “How… many years would my sister get, if I gave you my entire life?”
Aerydel drew close for the first time, its hot breath covering his clothes. It smelled of rot and the tanning house where leather was made, clung to his clothes and long brown hair like fog on the moor. Torchlight reflected off gleaming white pillars—fangs, Marcus presumed. “YOU KNOW NOT WHAT YOU ASK, BOY.”
“I ask to give my entire life in exchange for hers.” He was twenty, or close enough; if was originally supposed to live until he was sixty, she would get… twenty years? Maybe more? Plenty long to have a good life. And if she hated him for abandoning her without a word… well, he would be dead soon. And she already hated their parents for dying, a deadbeat brother wouldn’t be difficult to include. Marcus continued, “If I’m to live a long life, as you say, I’d rather sacrifice it all so that she live to adulthood, than for her to die and I myself live.” He couldn’t do that to her, not to his baby sister. Marcus bowed with his head to the floor. “Aerydel, please accept the contract of Marcus Bowman, son of your previous contractors, and accept the entirely of his life in exchange for the continued life of his only sibling.”
You were never to tell a god your full name; it was one of the first things his father had taught him as a clergyman. Even if the god knew of your full name, it isn’t until you say it yourself that the god gains power over you. The only time you tell a god your full name is when you strike a contract with them… or when you die.
Aerydel smile, fangs stretching impossibly wide, large enough to swallow a church building. “VERY WELL, Marcus Bowman.” Marcus startled; the god’s voice had shifted into an exact mimicry of his own. The cave shook as it slid further from its pit, hovering until its head was directly over his own and Marcus had to crane his neck to look into its eyes. “I ACCEPT.”