It was never long between sacrifices these days, as if the blood on the steps of the ziggurats did not have time to dry before more unicorns were forced to ascend them. As the rifts grew more frequent, more and more of the sacrifices came from them, rather than the native unicorns that they kept for their milk.
Lily Sand was careful were she stepped as she ascended the steps of the Great Ziggurat, the first one which had been built and which stood solid and commanding at the south end of their lands. It was still Maddie Scratch’s preferred of them, she knew.
“Maddie?” she called, reaching the flat-topped pinnacle of the great structure. She followed it with a murmured call in the Old Tongue, the ancient Kitten language that was only spoken now upon the ziggurats. Some of the newcomers to the village did not even learn it these days; it was said that it had come from the world before, a connection to great civilisations that were now long-lost.
“Of course,” came the reply from behind her. Lily turned, tail twitching, to see the older kitten getting to two feet. She cradled a unicorn tear in her paws, the crystal shimmering through the blood that stained it. Maddie’s fur was matted with blood almost to her elbows, but she smiled, eyes sparkling. “There will be enough for a new tower, soon.”
The seven ivory towers that overlooked the unicorn pastures had become harder to build in turn. Something to do with the energy which they required to call the rifts, Maddie had said, but Lily had not fully understood it. She had dutifully recorded it in her time as their scholar, but in truth it had been Maddie’s knowledge, and not her own, which she had committed to the tomes in the library.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Lily said. “I bring you good news, as well. Our first reactor is almost build. Soon, we will no longer need to trade with the Dragons.”
"That is excellent!” said Maddie. She set the final unicorn tear upon the altar, as bloody as if it had been birthed, and set about washing her paws in the golden basin that sat upon its stone plinth beside it. “I’m glad to hear that the mining teams might get a break after this, as well.”
The concrete needed for the reactor had been the greatest challenge ever asked of their miners. Even with their mineral supply supplemented by trade with the nagas – regretfully parting with the beautiful ivory which almost all of them so loved to carve and shape – the miners had been working harder than ever. “Yes. There is talk of a festival to be held in their honour.”
“Would you go?” said Maddie, with a flick of her ears. She picked up a piece of silvery unicorn hide, tanned as fine as silk, and carefully used it to wrap up the unicorn tear.
Lily shook her head, raising one paw to nibble at her dew claw idly. “No, I do not think so. I am too close to completing my research into the unicorn genetic code. I have been working on it ever since they established the automatic telescopes.”
Though Maddie chuckled, Lily knew that it was fond. They had often sat on the lower steps of the ziggurat and talked about what it would be like to know for certain the secrets of the unicorns. Some things they knew, not least from Maddie’s work atop the ziggurats and the tears that she had been the first to find, but Lily was sure that there was more to be discovered. “You’ve searched a long time for that,” Maddie said.
“Truth be told, I think I’m more excited about that than the Moon Mission,” Lily admitted, and they both laughed as they caught each other’s eyes. There had been excitement for years about the town’s plans to launch a rocket to Redmoon, with the geologists pushing hard for the production of more steel and sinking of more oil wells, but Lily had spoken her thoughts before about searching the stars when there was so much that they did not know of Cath.
“And it’s a strange day when our chief scholar agrees with the farmers,” continued Maddie, a teasing tone in her voice and a glint in her eye.
Lily tried to give her a disapproving look, but could not help it. After the many years that she had spent fighting with Micha Berry over which of them should have the wood processed after trading with the Sharks, it was strange indeed to think that they could be in agreement with something over the rest of the village.
“You should go to the Festival though,” said Maddie. “After all the work that you have done these past decades. There is so much that we would not have known without you.”
“You speak flattery,” said Lily, whipping her tail through the air
Maddie just smiled, and Lily felt her cheeks growing warmer beneath her fur. “Perhaps.”
“Have you chosen the site for the new Tower yet?” Lily said abruptly. She saw the flicker of disappointment in Maddie’s face, the twitch of the whiskers, but the priest simply nodded and looked down to the bundle in front of her.
“Yes. There is a suitable place; the woodcutters have been working there, and so it is almost cleared already. I’ve already checked; we have plenty of ivory.”
The silence hung almost palpable in the air between them, then Lily took a step away from the altar again, careful to avoid the cloying blood and clumps of silvery hair that smeared the floor. The ziggurat might have been exquisitely carved, following the ancient drawings that Lily herself had found, but the death that clung to it still unsettled her. It would take a lot of grooming to settle her nerves this night, and even then the taste would cling to her tongue until she ate enough catnip to chase it away.
Maddie was comfortable here, somehow, treating the sacrifice of unicorns as a job. Only once had Lily tried to attend, but she had needed to leave before even the tenth was killed, their ribs cracked and hearts split open to see if one of them had a Unicorn Tear shining inside it. So few unicorns did, even now as they understood them more. That was one of the things that Lily hoped to better understand, but from her work at the Academy rather than from Maddie’s raw, bloody task. The temples of the town were more serene, in gold and marble, than the ziggurats. There was something ancient here, something primeval, and it made Lily uncomfortable to be around it.
“If there is a Festival,” said Maddie, “I will be sure to be there. Have I any chance of meeting you?”
Her ears twitched hopefully. She had tufts at the end of them that made them look more pointed, a rare trait in the village, and one rarer still on a short-haired kitten like herself. Lily doubted that a long-haired kitten could have coped among this much blood, let alone for so long.
“I will try,” Lily said finally. She did not expect it to earn so much of a smile as it did. “Until... the Festival, then.”
“Until the Festival.”
She turned to leave, down the steps with their blood drying in the summer sun, leaving Maddie with her glittering Unicorn Tear in its shroud of blood and hide, and breathed in deep the fresh air as she looked down over the still-growing city. There was still much more to find, she told herself, much more to learn. And they would get there.