The Summer Sacrifice by Holly HintonAll rights reserved.
Jamie smelt fish. The tang of decomposing ocean caught her throat, as stars glinted in the night and waves danced in the light of a swollen moon. She flicked her eyes up, down and sideways, but the view didn’t alter. There was nothing before her but the Blanket of Stars and the deep Great Sea.
A rush of noise filled her head. Chatter drowned out the ocean’s whispers, and not the gentle, bubbling kind of chatter but the voluminous, cresting kind, the kind that crawls into your ear and then wriggles and chomps. Jamie felt her head spin, and the sea-view was hurled out of sight and was replaced with another view that revealed her location.
She was standing on a giant tongue of rock which jutted out from limestone cliffs and thrust into the ocean. And she wasn’t alone. Fifty of her schoolmates bustled about her, dizzy with excitement. The moonlit slab was alive with expectation as the juvenites waited to hear from the Great Goddess.
Most of the juvenites had dressed up for the midnight Taking and wore colourful gowns and doublets. A few had dressed with less regard and one or two were even wearing pyjamas. But some way across the Ledge, Jamie spotted a boy who was none too polished or laid back. He had spiky hair and the sweetest smile, and Jamie’s tummy flipped when he waved at her. She’d have waved back if she could.
So I’m back at Dancing Ledge, she thought. But whose body am I in?
Last month she had ended up in a boy who was a dead cert for a Taking. She’d been terrified what would happen to her soul if he died, though thankfully he hadn’t. She wouldn’t relax until she identified her host.
As if heeding her call, legs carried her forwards a hundred yards to the tip of the Ledge and eyes not her own peered into the Great Sea. Through the sea-foam slipping back and forth, Jamie spied mustard pyjamas, dark skin and candyfloss hair. Good friend Charlotte was her host! A conscientious student and Transparent as they came. The Great Goddess would never give her to the Ancient Spectre. She’d never be Taken to the Underworld.
As relief washed over Jamie, a light wind blew out to sea and a tingle crept up Charlotte’s spine and into her heart. Quite suddenly the whole world was beautiful and full of a love so strong you could only stand amazed and soak it up. The wings of the Great Goddess were upon them. Every juvenite thrilled at the bliss of Her embrace.
With the full moon now at its height, the crashing waves made shards of light that exploded into fragments of rainbow delight. The waves splashed and the stars flashed and the crowd cricked their necks to the sky and oohed and aahed.
Then came the Music.
It sank into Charlotte’s skin, the swell of the waves swelling the music, the pulse of the tide becoming the beat. The Music was different for each who heard it; Charlotte’s was lyrical and stringed. And though Jamie received a diluted version, she could hear the joy and heartbreak in it.
Euphoria flooded Dancing Ledge.
The juvenites closed their eyes and began to dance. Jamie enjoyed being rocked inside Charlotte, feeling fluid and free. The juvenites’ dance grew ever more wild, until the Ledge itself seemed to shift in sympathy.
A wave hit Charlotte in the face. She opened her eyes.
A blinding orb of light erupted from the sea in front of her. It shot out of the water as fast as lightning and sailed up to the sky, only to dive back from where it came. Then came another and another. Jamie found the arcing of the orbs, heavenward and back, indescribably beautiful yet unbearably sad.
Charlotte took a small step forward and raised her arms in wonder. Her toes now dangled over the rock-edge. Jamie willed her to step back from the brink: only the Great Sea lay before her and its tides were fierce. But it didn’t work that way. Charlotte did, however, turn her head.
Jamie hoped her eyes deceived her. Familiar figures were shuffling towards Charlotte, but these weren’t current school friends but friends of old; juvenites who’d been Taken last month or many months ago, juvenites Jamie had never expected to see again. They looked sad, hopeless—no, worse than that: empty. And as each reached the edge they threw themselves into the Great Sea. Its swirling tides pulled them under, and orbs of light shot out of the water.
The embrace of the Goddess left Charlotte. She stopped dancing.
Something dug into Charlotte’s back, turning her spine to jelly. That same something spun her round and pushed her towards land, through the dancing throng. Her school mates’ eyes remained closed. They were still consumed in ecstasy, ignorant of what was happening to her or their old friends.
Then the pressure on Charlotte’s spine lifted, bringing her to a jerking halt.
A lady with hip-skimming ebony hair and a dangerous-looking ruby mouth swept past, drowning Charlotte—and therefore Jamie—in a cloud of musk. Poured into a long silver gown, the lady strode across the Ledge, moonlight reflecting off her contours. She was a thing of breathtaking beauty. Could it be the Great Goddess Herself?
No, thought Jamie. She didn’t have wings. And something about her was decidedly ungoddesslike. In fact, there was more of the Serpent than the Eagle about her.
The lady approached the boy with spiky hair. He too had spotted the flying orbs of light and was staring out to sea. His sweet smile was gone. The lady whispered in the boy’s ear and lodged a scarlet talon in his back. The fear left his face and was replaced by an awful blank stare.
Billy! Jamie wanted to scream and shout and cry and kill something. Charlotte was re-stabbed and propelled towards the cliff. Both girls were preparing to hit rock when, inches from impact, the nail in Charlotte’s back stopped digging. A square of stone dropped back from the cliff-face, revealing a secret entrance. A figure emerged from within.
The man was tall and pale, and muscles rippled beneath his blue satin suit. Jamie had never seen a more beautiful creature. But he had the saddest eyes she’d ever seen.
Charlotte’s captor grabbed her shoulders and swung her round. He too was towering, and his perfectly twirled tar-black moustache gleamed in the moonlight. Jamie recognized him at once. It was the Island’s chief Doctor.
He stared into Charlotte’s eyes. Only he wasn’t looking at Charlotte. He was looking through Charlotte. At Jamie.
“Troublemakers need to be re-educated,” he said, his soft voice full of violence. Then his focus snapped back to Charlotte. “After you, Child of the Underworld.” He waved her through the door and into the cliff.
Sporadic fire-beetle lanterns lit the passageway’s earth walls, giving it a dull, green glow.
The man with the sad eyes came towards Charlotte with a syringe. The Doctor presented her arm for injection. The needle went in.
* * *
Seveny jolted upright in her bunk and clutched her arm. She looked round the dormitory to see if she’d woken anyone else. No one was moving and the girl above her continued to gurgle. She was glad of this, for though the mysterious pain in her arm was subsiding quickly, she was in no state for idle chat.
Seveny had a powerful heart. Sometimes she worried its beats might shatter a rib. Right now it was beating so hard she could actually hear it. She concentrated on the girl above’s gurgle, and the image that had seared her brain started to dissolve and her pulse began to settle. But it sped up again when she saw the empty bed opposite.
Charlotte wasn’t back. She’d been Called to Dancing Ledge and she wasn’t back.
Seveny eyed the cracked wooden door at the far end of the dorm. She’d been staring at it for the last hour or so, willing Charlotte’s return. As though wanting something hard enough would make it happen.
But as she watched, the door began to open. The full moon powered through the muslin of the dorm’s lone window and silhouetted a figure in the darkness. Seveny could just make out a small form, dressed in the Orphanage’s compulsory pyjamas.
“Charlotte?” she whispered, trying not to wake the sixteen other girls.
The mustard-clad figure tiptoed nearer.
Please be Charlotte.
The figure looked at her friend’s empty bunk, at the mattress’s springs poking cheerily through the threadbare sheet. Its eyes were large, round, and wet-looking. “Where’s Charlotte?” its small voice asked.
“At Dancing Ledge, Kai,” Seveny whispered. “She’ll be having the time of her life.”
Kai sniffed, and his eyes skitted to Seveny’s bed. He’d often sneak into the girls’ dorm, past Mr Gribbin the warden, to join his older sister in her bunk. He was only six, seven years younger than Charlotte and Seveny, but though his sister was tiny and they could share comfortably, Seveny had to reorganize her long limbs to make space.
Kai jumped in, wrapped Seveny’s arm round him, twisted a lock of her long golden hair round his hand, and sucked his thumb. Seveny felt pinned down and awkwardly folded, but she was glad of the company: with Kai in the way she couldn’t see his sister’s empty bed. And that gave her space to think.
Just before the pain had coursed through her, she’d seen a vision of Charlotte and Jamie at Dancing Ledge. Except, somehow, they were the same girl. Sort of… She could understand why she’d pictured Charlotte there: Charlotte was attending her Taking tonight. But she had no idea why she’d seen Jamie. Jamie had turned thirteen just a few days before Seveny. They’d attended the same Taking, seven months ago.
But dreams are dreams, she thought. And dreams are strange.
Except Seveny had not been asleep. She’d been staring at the door when the vision had stabbed her between the eyes.
Charlotte and Jamie had been one. Combined. And their mouths? Seveny shuddered. Had both been open. Screaming.
Jamie thrashed out and hit something warm and furry. It flew off the bed, thumped into a wall, and let out a miaow of indignation.
“Loopy!” She beckoned the black cat onto the bed and tweaked his long white whiskers. “You shouldn’t even be up here! But I think you may have saved my life.”
Jamie had thought she was a goner after what had happened, but though her claw-punctured arm was sore, her soul seemed intact and her brain alive.
She still wondered how it had all gone so wrong.
It was around seven months ago that her soul had started wandering. She figured it must be her soul because though she was asleep when it happened, when she woke up she wasn’t in her own skin. The first time her soul travelled, it hadn’t gone far: it had dropped into her dad’s tired body, lying awake in the room just next door. The next time it went further afield, ending up in the slow-moving, slower-brained night-watchman who guarded the school. Last month’s wander had been much more eventful. She’d landed in Dino Scarpel, a member of the notorious Tombland Gang, in the middle of a Taking. Dino was as spiteful, dishonest and rule-breaking as they came, and Jamie was sure her soul would be Taken with his, though Dancing Ledge had left them both unscathed. So finding herself in Charlotte had been a relief. Charlotte was a Transparent: a hard-working, rule-abiding, conscientious student.
But Charlotte had been Taken.
Jamie’s thoughts turned to tomorrow’s assembly. The Headmistress made a Taking sound like an occasion for joy: a gentle passing of souls to the Ancient Spectre, the Lord of the Underworld. A divine event ordained by the Great Goddess for the greater good.
Well, it hadn’t looked very divine to Jamie. It had looked like the Doctor was doing the Taking along with his two weird assistants, and they were snatching anyone unlucky enough to have woken up.
Jamie’s stomach lurched as she thought of the juvenites drowning in the Great Sea. The Doctor had done something to them. But what? she wondered. And what for? She hadn’t the faintest clue. But she knew the same fate awaited Billy and Charlotte.
This would hit Seveny hard: Charlotte had been like a sister to her. And something else worried Jamie, even more than her best friend’s grief. One of her closest friends still hadn’t been Called to Dancing Ledge. Ella’s thirteenth birthday was next month.
Jamie scrabbled under her bed. She retrieved her satchel, got out a small book titled PITY ME SCHOOL DIARY Year: 300 and flipped to the lunar calendar.
Tonight’s full moon: Sunday April 25th. A TAKING.
Next full moon: Sunday May 23rd. A TAKING.
The full moon after that: Monday June 21st. THE SUMMER SACRIFICE.
Jamie threw the satchel and diary back under the bed and disappeared beneath the sheets.
None of this is real, she told herself. I might think I have the ability to drop into other people’s bodies when I sleep, but I’m just dreaming.
But a red rash was snaking up her face. She was a terrible liar, and she knew it.