“Oh, Wendy, it’s beautiful!” Zorf gazed appreciatively at the image on Wendy’s computer screen and shivered with delight. “Thank you so much for manipping me, and for letting me watch while you did it. I can see that it’s really hard work! You sure know how to make a girl look hot, too.” The two friends exchanged a grin. “I really like how you have the fire coming up to just here”—she pointed—“so that the audience can imagine what’s going to be happening in the next few seconds, where the fire is going to get to and what it’s going to do to me when it does.”
Wendy leaned back in her chair and grinned. “My pleasure, Zorf. Bet you wish it were real, eh?”
“Mmmm, yes.” Zorf closed her eyes for a moment and smiled. “I would love to have you bind me to the stake and light my fire. A clean, slow fire, just with wood. Would you mind that?”
“Not at all, Zorf. I’d be honored,” Wendy said, her eyes lingering on the image of Zorf at the stake. “I’d build your fire bit by bit to make it nice and slow, just the way you’d like it. And I’d make sure you burned for a good long time, and that you got all the pleasure out of it that you could.”
“Oh, I’d love that,” Zorf said. “And do you know what else? If I were being burned alive, I’d want to have you in the fire with me.”
“I’d love to be there,” Wendy said. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll do a manip of both of us in the flames. How about that?” Zorf nodded enthusiastically. “Well, that’ll be for tomorrow. For now, we’ll just have to make do with what we have.” She smiled, stood up and stretched. “Ooooh, I’m all stiff from sitting for so long! What do you say we have some lunch and then go for a walk? It’s great outside.”
“Hey, I have an idea,” Zorf said. “How about we head into the woods and have a picnic?”
“Excellent! I’ll go make some sandwiches.”
As they reached the kitchen, a male voice droned from the radio. “Scientists are still concerned about the earth-bound trajectory of the asteroid detected last month. Astronomers at the state university said this morning that it could reach Earth within a year....”
Wendy sighed and reached for the switch. “I don’t understand why they keep harping about that asteroid. Either it’s going to hit us or it’s not. It’s not like we can do anything about it either way.”
“True,” Zorf said, “unless someone comes up with some amazing technology really quickly.”
“Let’s hope they do,” Wendy said. “Well, which do you like—white or whole wheat?”
* * *
The air outside was crisp with the faintest hint of autumn chill. Zorf and Wendy walked along the forest path carrying their backpacks, talking and laughing, until they came to a clearing with several picnic tables.
“Oh, great,” Wendy said. “This must be new. What do you say we have lunch here?”λλ
“Looks like the perfect spot,” Zorf said, taking off her backpack and beginning to unload her share of the sandwiches and drinks.
As she finished the last of her soda, Wendy asked, “So what do you want to do now? Are you up for more time in the woods, or should we start back?”
Zorf considered a moment, then said, “It’s so beautiful here. I think I’d like to explore these woods some more, if it’s all right with you.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Wendy said with a grin. “Let’s go!”
Leaving their trash in the picnic area’s trash can, their backpacks now considerably lighter, Wendy and Zorf headed deeper into the forest. The light seemed to grow softer overhead, and the air was filled with birdsong. Wendy showed Zorf the more interesting plants of her new home, and Zorf grinned in delight as squirrels and rabbits crossed their path again and again. Suddenly they heard hoofbeats, and froze.
Finally Wendy whispered, “Look, Zorf! Off to the left—see there? A deer!”
“A doe! Oh, Wendy, she’s gorgeous!” Zorf whispered back. “I wonder if she has babies.”
“I don’t see any,” Wendy said softly. “But you’re right. She’s beautiful.”
Slowly the deer raised her head, sniffing the air. When she caught the scent of the two humans nearby, she raised her short, white tail and ran off, her hoofbeats echoing among the trees.
Zorf did not realize she had been holding her breath until she let it out. “Was that incredible or what?” she asked.
“Fantastic,” Wendy said, keeping her voice low even though the deer had gone.
“And wow, look—there’s another path just there, where the deer was! What do you say we explore it?”
“I don’t want to get lost,” Wendy said cautiously.
“Oh, come on! Didn’t you say that this forest keeps on getting smaller because of all the building going on around here? It can’t be that big, or that bad. We can remember where we turned off the main path, can’t we? Or we can leave something to mark the spot....” Zorf looked down on the ground. “We can arrange these stones in a circle, like this, or even a few circles.” She bent down and picked up some stones, arranging them carefully. “Here, I put three circles right by this tree, where the path branches off. We’ll just keep an eye out on the way back.”
“All right,” Wendy said, but she did not sound very sure.
* * *
“I could have sworn it was here,” Zorf said, crouching and scanning the ground. She looked up at Wendy, the beginnings of despair in her eyes. “You saw me make the circles, you saw the tree! And we were on the path for an hour, and then we turned back for an hour and kept our eyes peeled. Why aren’t we finding it?”
“I don’t know,” Wendy said slowly, “but we’d better not panic. That’s the worst thing we could do. In any case, we have at least six hours left till sunset, and we’ll still have some daylight after that. Let’s just keep our heads and I’m sure we’ll find our way back in plenty of time. Did you bring a flashlight?”
“Yes,” Zorf said, rising and brushing the dirt off her jeans. “Just in case.” They moved forward, keeping their eyes on the ground.
Suddenly, Wendy stopped. “Wait! What’s that?” she whispered. Softly, cautiously, she began to move forward through the trees.
“Wendy, wait! I’m not sure we should go off the path again,” Zorf said. “We’re lost enough already.”
“No, there’s something there. I hear it! Don’t you hear something, Zorf? Listen!”
Zorf walked to where Wendy was standing, and both women strained their ears. Snatches of sound reached them carried on the wind, the beginnings or ends of words, perhaps spoken, perhaps sung, impossible to distinguish.
“What are they saying?” Zorf asked.
“I’m not sure,” Wendy said, “but whoever they are, maybe they can help us find our way back.”
“I think we should be careful,” Zorf said. “Maybe it’s something private and we shouldn’t intrude.”
“Most of the time I’d say you’re right,” Wendy said, “but we’re lost, aren’t we? We need help! And what could they be doing that’s so dangerous? If it’s a retreat or something like that, we’ll apologize for disturbing them, ask for directions, excuse ourselves and start for home.”
“If we can find the way,” Zorf said with a grin. “Oh, all right. This seems like a good day for adventure. Let’s go find them.”
They walked on, following the sound. The quality of the light overhead seemed to soften even further. Zorf was the first to notice.
“Wendy, is it me, or does the daylight look a bit strange to you? It looks like it should be overcast, but the sky is clear, and I can’t see the sun!”
Wendy looked up. “You’re right,” she said slowly. “I can’t figure out what’s going on, but—”
A single voice, chanting loudly, interrupted them. “Shhh!” Zorf whispered. “Stay back!”
They crept to the side of a tree and peered around.
In a clearing some yards in front of them stood a circle of about a dozen men and women, all wearing long robes, each a different color. In the center of the circle was a man who looked considerably older than the others. He was the one who was singing, his face quiet and serious above his white robe.
After a time the others joined him in the chant. As they sang, the man in the white robe approached each person in the circle, by turns taking his or her hands and looking deeply into his or her eyes. The mood of the group, which seemed solemn, even somber, seemed to grow even sadder as the chanting continued.
“It’s like he’s saying goodbye,” Wendy whispered.
The chant ended. In silence, the circle parted to form two lines, and the man in the white robe walked forward, the others following. Zorf and Wendy, impelled by more than simple curiosity, walked at a distance behind the group, occasionally exchanging questioning glances but not speaking.
Although they kept far enough behind the last of the robed figures not to be seen or heard, they made their best efforts to stay silent and invisible. Each one kept her questions to herself, knowing that the other knew no more than she did. As they walked, the light seemed to wane even more, even though according to their watches it was nowhere near time for sundown.
Slowly the path grew wider until it opened into a large clearing. The group, led by the man robed in white, walked past a small wooden hut and straight into the open space. Zorf and Wendy, sheltering behind a particularly large tree, dared a glance—and retired quickly, their hands over their mouths, a mixture of curiosity and horror in their eyes.
In the center of the clearing was a wooden platform raised several feet from the ground. At its center stood a tall wooden post, at the foot of which was a coiled chain. Stacked beside the platform were many bundles of wood. A woman wearing a green robe was lighting a brazier that stood several feet away, and the man in the white robe was walking slowly toward the platform with two others of his group on either side. When he reached the platform, he knelt and began to speak softly in a language neither Zorf nor Wendy knew, raising his hands and spreading them wide. After a few moments, he rose and mounted the platform together with his two companions. As they reached the tall post in the middle, the man in white turned to face the group and placed his back against it, while the two others picked up the chains and began to wind them about his body, securing him to the post behind him. Zorf and Wendy turned to each other, eyes wide.
“Oh, no,” Wendy whispered. “That poor man. They’re going to burn him alive!”
Zorf nodded. “It looks like he’s willing, though. What can we do?”
“How do we know he’s willing?” Wendy whispered back. “He could be drugged, brainwashed! We need to call the police right now.” As quietly as she could, she took off her pack, opened a small compartment and peered inside. “Damn! No reception.”
Zorf took out her cellphone and looked at the screen, shaking her head. “None here either.”
“Still, we have to stop them.”
“There are a lot more of them than there are of us, but you’re right. We have to try.” Resolutely, Zorf stepped into the clearing at Wendy’s side, though Wendy could feel her trembling. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say a word Wendy’s clear voice boomed to the edges of the clearing. “Stop! Why are you going to kill this man? What has he done?”
Except for the bound man on the platform, the members of the group turned as one to face the two intruders. Zorf and Wendy stood side by side, braced for their anger and threats. Instead, the green-robed woman who had been tending the brazier approached them quietly, her face drawn with sorrow.
“You could not possibly understand,” she said in an accent that neither Zorf nor Wendy had ever heard before. “Our leader is willing to burn in this way. We have not forced him. In fact, we begged him....” She took a shuddering breath. “Please go now,” she went on, tears beginning to stream down her cheeks. “Let us do what we must, and leave us to our grief.”
“I think we just might understand if someone told us what the hell is going on,” Zorf said, her voice hard. “If he’s your leader, why are you about to burn him at the stake? Let him go!”
Even as she said the words, Zorf realized how absurd they were. She knew that neither she nor Wendy was in any position to demand anything from this group. Still prepared to hear their threats and rebukes, she and Wendy stood in shock as the green-robed woman suddenly turned away from them and crumpled to her knees before the man on the platform, sobbing out something in her language. The man at the stake smiled at her, his face filled with love and understanding, and answered in a soft, comforting voice. On hearing his reply, the woman dried her tears with a trembling hand and rose unsteadily to her feet.
Wendy rounded on her, incredulous. “What was that all about? Are you all out of your minds? And you,” she shouted to the man at the stake, “what the hell is wrong with you? Are you stoned, or what? How can you stand there and let them do this to you?”
“I can see that you love your leader very much,” Zorf said, trying to reason with the green-robed woman. “You obviously don’t want him to die. Why don’t you let him go now, before you do something you’ll regret for the rest of your life?”
A tall man robed in blue, his auburn hair graying at the temples, approached the two women. “Please, ladies. We know you mean well and that your only concern is to save life. Whether you believe it or not, so is ours. We are sacrificing our high priest, by his own will and consent, to save many others, though it breaks our hearts to do it. It is for your sake, for your world. Now go, we implore you, and forget what you have seen here.”
“For our sake?!” Wendy exploded. “For our world? What is that supposed to mean—and how the frigging hell do you expect us to forget that you burned an innocent man alive? People like you should be locked up! And you dare to say this is for us? You’re a bunch of sick murderers!”
The man at the stake spoke to them for the first time. “Ladies, please calm yourselves. I will explain. Thelon, Alena, loosen my bindings for now. I will go down and speak with them, and then I will return here to make the offering. Do not worry; there is still plenty of time to complete the sacrifice.”
The man and woman who had been binding the high priest to the stake removed his chains, replacing them carefully on the platform. The green-robed woman tending the brazier relaxed visibly. Slowly, the man came down from the platform toward Zorf and Wendy.
“What are your names, ladies?” he asked them.
“I’m Wendy,” Wendy said icily.
“My name is Mary, but people call me Zorf.”
“My name is Miron,” he said, “and what you have heard and seen so far is true. I am the high priest here, and I am about to be the offering for your world.”
Wendy took a breath, but Zorf spoke first. Facing Miron, her expression hard, she said, “Go on. We’re listening.”
Unseen by any of them, she squeezed Wendy’s hand, hoping that she understood her thought. What you think of this and what I think of it are pretty much the same. But let’s keep things on an even keel for as long as we can. If we can just keep them talking long enough, maybe we can stop things from going any further....
“Your world is in danger,” Miron said. “Many miles from your planet is a small celestial body—small in the grand scheme of things, but large enough to cause disaster to your planet. I believe you call it an asteroid. This particular one is on a trajectory that will bring it into collision with your world within the year. Surely you have heard about this on your news programs.”
Wendy started. “Yes,” she said, caught off guard for a moment. “Yes, we’ve heard about it, and many of us are worried. But what does that have to do with—with what these people were about to do to you?” She flicked a cold glance at the group gathered nearby.
“Please do not refer to my companions as ‘these people,’ dear Wendy,” Miron said with a sad smile. “They are my students, my colleagues, my friends. Any one of them would be glad to go the fire in my place, as indeed every one of them asked to do. But as their leader, I bear the most responsibility, so I insisted that I be the offering.”
“But that’s crazy,” Zorf said. “Do you think that by being burned to death, you’ll save us from this asteroid?”
“Yes,” Miron said, “but not in the way that you’re thinking. We do not believe that some deity up in the heavens or on some snow-covered mountain, moved to compassion at the sight of my suffering in the flames, will stretch out his finger and nudge the asteroid a degree or so, allowing it to glide harmlessly through your solar system. Not at all. We are going to use the energy of my sacrifice to change its trajectory ourselves.”
“I don’t understand,” Wendy said.
“There is a tremendous amount of energy released in the sacrifice of a living being,” the high priest explained. “The ancients knew that. It is one of many reasons why human and animal sacrifice were so widespread for much of your past. But this is no time for a history lesson,” Miron said with a small smile. “We plan to harness the energy released by my burning and use it to change the asteroid’s trajectory, even if only by a tiny amount. At its current distance, even a finger’s breadth will do, but it will take a great deal of energy to accomplish.” He smiled at the astonished faces of the two women. “Normally we are against killing any living being, animal and especially human, for such a purpose. We regard it as the worst form of theft, and under ordinary circumstances we would have nothing to do with it. But in a situation like this, where an entire world is in mortal danger and the only thing that will remove that danger is the sacrifice of a single person—while we would never compel anyone to make such a sacrifice, we feel that one may volunteer. So I have chosen to offer myself, and my companions have sworn to assist me even though it grieves them terribly to do so.” Miron glanced for a moment at the green-robed woman. “I swear to you both, my mind is clear, I am under no compulsion, and I go to the fire of my own free will. No murder is being committed here.” He smiled at them. “Now, ladies, are you satisfied? Will you leave here quietly and let us do what we must?”
“I must ask you, High Priest Miron,” Zorf said softly, looking the white-robed man straight in the eye. “Are you and your companions from this planet?”
Wendy stepped forward. “Zorf! You can’t possibly believe—”
Miron opened his mouth, then closed it. “No, Mary, called Zorf,” he said, inclining his head toward her with new respect. “We are not.”
“Then why would you make such a sacrifice for us?”
“We love and respect all life on earth, particularly humankind,” Miron said. “You could say that we are voluntary guardians of a sort. We have made our home here, even though we are not from here originally.”
“Can you prove what you just said? About the asteroid, and how you intend to change its course?”
“Yes.” Miron took a deep breath and raised his hand slowly, touching first Zorf, then Wendy, in the center of their foreheads. “Look deeply. See the future, in potential....”
The giant rock hurtled through space, end over end, drawing closer, ever closer to the bluish point of light far in the distance. Suddenly, an unspeakably enormous explosion of white light and heat, followed by long years of relentless cold, darkness, hunger and misery. Worn out by the struggle to survive, thousands, millions of those who had not perished in the initial impact followed those who had, slowly and in great suffering....
Miron touched their foreheads again, and the vision faded. “It is this suffering that I would die to prevent,” he said softly. “A few minutes of pain in the fire—even a few hours, if it came to that—are nothing compared to the years of suffering that await so many on your world.”
Zorf nodded to Miron briefly, then turned to Wendy. “Did you see...?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Wendy whispered back.
Zorf took a deep breath and faced Miron once more. “All right. I believe you,” she said. “I believe that this catastrophe is coming and that you intended to use the energy of your sacrifice to save our world. But as you said, you are not from this planet. So it’s really not your responsibility. You shouldn’t be the one to die.”
As Miron looked at her, a question in his face, Wendy gasped in horrified comprehension. “No, Zorf—you can’t mean—”
“I do mean it, Wendy,” Zorf said softly. “I believe we were led here for a reason. You know how badly I’ve always wanted to be burned at the stake. I would never have looked for something like this, I would never have taken my own life, but here we are. If someone must burn to save our world—well, we all must die one day anyway, and to be burned alive as a willing sacrifice is the way I’ve always wanted to go.” She smiled briefly at Wendy. To Miron she said, “I was born here. I have no other world but this. Stay with your people, do the work that you must do, and let me be the sacrifice. Let me go to the fire.”
Miron looked at Zorf for a long moment, and it seemed that his eyes probed deeply into her very soul. Beside them, Wendy was shaking her head, holding out her hands to Zorf. Her eyes swam with tears. “No, Zorf, no,” she whispered. “You can’t do this....”
Zorf returned Miron’s gaze. “Are you satisfied that I am serious?” she asked him.
“Yes, Mary,” he said. “I know you are serious, and I thank you. But I do not think that I can accept your offer. Because of my long training, I am capable of releasing a tremendous amount of energy in the fire, consciously, even as I am suffering and dying. As a voluntary offering, your energy would be very great indeed, but it might not be enough, and I would prefer that you not die in vain. No, my dear, good Mary. I appreciate your offer and I bless you for it, but I think it is better that I burn.”
“You are the leader of this group, their high priest,” Zorf pointed out. “My burning will free you to add your own energy to theirs without the stress of suffering in the fire. It will also free them from the terrible grief they would feel at your death. Surely that should make a difference.”
Once more, Miron inclined his head to Zorf in respect. “As much as it pains me to say it under these circumstances, Mary, I like your way of thinking,” he said. “On my world, you would have made an excellent priestess. I would have enjoyed teaching you. I regret that I will not be able to in this life. Now I must go.” He turned resolutely toward the platform and began to walk toward it.
Zorf caught his arm. “No!” she said. “I told you: this is my world, my responsibility. This fire is mine.”
Miron looked at Zorf, smiling though his expression was grave. “What if I were to tell you that after our brief conversation, I have grown fond of you and I do not want you to be burned?”
“What if I were to tell you that I have wanted it all my life?” Zorf countered. “I want to go to the stake, Miron, as difficult as that may be for you to believe. There must be a reason that I have longed to be sacrificed by fire all these years! There must be a reason that I was led here now! I am the one who should burn, Miron. For you it is a duty, but for me it is the fulfillment of my dearest dream.”
Miron stood silently, profound sadness etched upon his face. “Are you very sure that you want to do this, Mary? The sacrifice must be completed by sundown, and time is running out. You will be dead before nightfall of this very day.”
“I am sure, Miron. I offer myself of my own free will.”
“The pain will be terrible, Mary, and it will not be over quickly,” Miron said in a last attempt to convince her. “In order for us to gather and use the greatest amount of energy that we can, the burning must be as slow as possible.”
To Miron’s astonishment, Zorf brightened. “All the better,” she said, grinning broadly. “That is exactly how I want it to be.”
Holding Zorf’s steady, open gaze, Miron slowly bowed his head in assent. Wendy grabbed Zorf’s shoulder, shaking her. “Zorf, no! You can’t do this! Miron, please—don’t let her—”
Gently Zorf took Wendy’s hand and pressed it between her own. “Wendy, please. You know how much I want this. We’ve spoken about it so many times—”
“That was fantasy! This is real!”
“You’re right, Wendy. This isn’t fantasy. It is real, and it’s for the best reason that there can be. You saw what I saw, and we’ve both heard about this asteroid for months. Now I have the chance to save this world, and to do it in the way I’ve always wanted. You wouldn’t take that away from me, would you? Not with our whole world at stake?”
“That’s a terrible pun, Zorf,” Wendy said with a tiny smile, tears spilling from her eyes.
“Then you’ll give me your blessing?”
Drying her tears, Wendy looked at Zorf in much the same way that Miron had. “I don’t want to take it away from you, Zorf, no. Not if it will save our world, and not if you want it so much. But how can I go back to my life knowing—remembering what you—?”
“Just remember what will happen if I don’t,” Zorf said quietly.
Wendy bowed her head. “All right, then, Zorf. If this is truly what you want, I won’t stand in your way.”
“It is truly what I want. Thank you, Wendy,” Zorf said, giving her friend a hug. Then she turned to the high priest. “Miron, what must I do now?”
“There are hot and cold running water in the hut. You may bathe there,” the high priest said. “If your friend is to witness your sacrifice, she should bathe, too. You will both find white robes there. Put them on and come out when you are ready. And remember, Mary,” Miron said, “that until the fire is lit, you may still change your mind. Even when you are fastened to the stake and the torch is descending toward the pyre, even then you may change your mind, and I will take your place. The only worthy offering is a willing one.”
“I am willing,” Zorf said. “I have made my offer, and I will keep my word.”
Miron nodded. Turning to Wendy, he asked her formally, “Is it your will to witness your friend Mary’s sacrifice?”
Zorf turned toward Wendy, her face entreating. Wendy blinked hard against the tears that threatened once more to break from her eyes. Controlling her voice with a supreme effort, she said, “Yes. I will witness it.”
“Then go into the hut with your friend and make ready. We will wait for you here.”
* * *
Zorf slowly sank into the bathtub, feeling the warm water receive her. Wendy was in another bathtub across the room, and they had pulled back the curtains around each tub just enough so that each could see the other’s face.
“Mmmmm.” Zorf closed her eyes, relishing the water. “Best bath I’ve ever had.”
Wendy looked at Zorf, unsure what to say.
“Honestly, Wendy, you could say something. Crack a smile! I’m not dead yet, you know.”
“No... no, you aren’t,” Wendy said, “but soon you’re going to burn.”
“Yes, Wendy, and I can’t wait! All those manips, all those times when we discussed how badly I want to be burned at the stake—that was real. I’m getting exactly what I’ve always wanted. Please, Wendy, be happy for me!”
“But you’re going to suffer.”
“Yes, I suppose I am. But I’m also going to have the greatest ecstasy I’ve ever known, and all for a good cause. I think it’s worth it. Don’t you?”
“I guess so,” Wendy said.
“Then be happy for me,” Zorf said.
A few moments passed in silence.
“I have a favor to ask you. A big one.”
“Name it,” Wendy said.
“Remember how I said that if I were really going to be burned I’d want you to be the one to bind me to the stake and light the fire?”
Despite herself, Wendy smiled. “I was afraid you were going to ask that.”
“Will you, Wendy? Please. I’d really like you to.”
“If it would make you happy, then, yes, Zorf, I will.”
“And you still remember how I’d like to be tied to the stake? You did it really beautifully in the manip.”
“Yes, Zorf,” Wendy said. “I’ll tie you just the way you want.”
“And you’ll tend the fire? You’ll make sure I burn slowly?”
“If they let me,” Wendy said.
Zorf brought her arms down into the water with a splash. “Yes!” she shouted. “That’s wonderful! Thank you, Wendy!”
They finished their baths, dried themselves and put on the white cotton robes that they found in the changing area. At least the fabric felt like cotton, but even to Wendy’s experienced touch it was slightly unfamiliar. She shrugged. “I guess they wouldn’t have any satin ones here,” she said to herself. “Too bad. I’d really prefer satin.”
All at once the robe began to glow. With a cry, Wendy shrugged out of it and jumped away. Within seconds the glow subsided, and when Wendy bent to pick up the robe, the familiar feel of satin met her touch.
“I don’t believe it,” she said aloud as she tied the robe around herself. “Zorf, come look at this!”
Dressed in her white cotton robe, Zorf came to Wendy’s side, her long red hair still wet from the bath. “Look!” Wendy said, holding out her arm. “It turned to satin!”
Zorf looked awed for a moment, then smiled. “I’m glad! You’ll be wearing your favorite fabric at my burning.”
“What about you, Zorf? What fabric would you prefer?”
“Oh, this is fine. I’m only going to be wearing it until I’m ready to be bound to the stake, anyway. But I would like my hair to dry. Not much sense in being burned with a wet head, is there?”
A warm wind blew through the little hut. Seconds later, Zorf put her fingers to her hair. “Wow, it really works! I wonder what will happen if I wish for the fire to be really, really slow.”
“You can try it,” Wendy said.
“Oh, don’t worry, Wendy. I will.” Zorf smiled. “How do I look? Oh, I do wish there were a mirror here.”
She had hardly finished speaking when one of the walls of the hut began to glow. When the glow subsided, a mirror with a simple wooden frame hung in place at exactly Zorf’s height. She walked over and looked into it. “Good enough for the purpose,” she said, “but I really should tie my hair back.” Going to her pack, she took out a comb and barrette and got to work.
Wendy followed her example, then straightened her robe around her. When she was done, Zorf said softly, “Are you ready, Wendy?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Wendy said, moving toward the door. Suddenly she stopped. “No, wait,” she said. Closing her eyes, she moved her lips, but no sound came out. Wondering what it was that Wendy had wished for but knowing better than to ask, Zorf waited for something in the little hut to glow, for some kind of change, but nothing happened. Finally Wendy opened her eyes. “Wendy, are you all right?” she asked.
“Oh, yes.” Wendy smiled, a secret little smile.
“Are you ready now?”
“Now I am,” Wendy said.
“Then let’s go. I don’t want to be late to my own sacrifice!”
Wendy chuckled. “Silly! They can’t start without you!”
* * *
Miron met them when they emerged into the clearing and faced Zorf right away.
“Is it still your will to be sacrificed by fire, Mary?” he asked in a formal, ritual tone. “Or have you changed your mind?”
“I have not changed my mind, Miron,” Zorf answered in the same tone. “I still wish to be sacrificed at the stake, and my friend Wendy has consented to lead me there.”
“So be it,” said Miron, nodding.
“Wendy has also consented to bind me to the stake and to kindle and tend the fire, if that is permitted,” Zorf added.
“It is permitted,” Miron said, nodding toward the brazier, which was already lit. “Are you ready, Mary?”
“I am ready,” Zorf said in a clear, soft voice that carried to the edges of the clearing.
“Then let the victim be led to the stake with all honor,” Miron said.
Wendy took Zorf’s offered hand and the two women began to walk toward the wooden platform. Zorf’s white robe shimmered in the light, and her red hair, tied securely above the collar of the robe, made a dramatic contrast to its brightness. At the base of the stairs, Zorf stopped and knelt. Bowing her head and closing her eyes tightly, she prayed silently, but with such fervor that everyone could feel the energy of her prayer. Tilting her head upward, but with her eyes still closed, Zorf continued to pray, and her body began to sway slightly. A single tear fell onto her cheek, and she wiped it away with the hem of her sleeve.
Her prayer completed, Zorf took a deep breath and rose. The other members of the group gathered at the base of the platform, watching in silence as Zorf mounted it and waited for Wendy, who was close behind her.
Taking Zorf’s hand once more, Wendy led her to the center of the platform. Then, with great gentleness, she positioned Zorf so that her back touched the stake.
Miron looked up at the women on the platform. “Let the victim be prepared for burning and bound to the stake,” he said.
Slowly, Zorf took off her white robe and handed it to Wendy. Walking to the edge of the platform, Wendy handed the robe to the green-robed woman, who put it aside.
Turning back to the stake, Wendy saw coils of rope, together with chains, at its base. That’s funny, she thought to herself. When they were tying Miron, there were only chains. I guess that this place lets people be bound any way they prefer. Well, maybe it will grant my wish, then. Slowly, carefully, she coiled the rope around Zorf’s ankles, and was started to hear Zorf gasp from above.
“Zorf, are you all right? Did I hurt you?”
“No,” Zorf said. “Just... it’s a little chilly, that’s all. It’ll pass. I’ll be fine.”
Wendy finished binding Zorf’s ankles to the stake, putting her index finger between the rope and Zorf’s skin in order to make sure that the bindings were not too tight. “Is this all right, Zorf?” she asked. “Are you comfortable?” The question seemed absurd under the circumstances, but it was important to Wendy that she avoid causing Zorf any unnecessary pain.
“Oh, yes, it’s fine.” Zorf’s answer was reassuring. “You’re doing very well, Wendy. This is exactly how I’ve always imagined my sacrifice would be. Thank you so much.”
Wendy rose, another coil of rope in her hands, and looped it several times around Zorf’s neck and the stake, taking extreme care as she worked. When she finished, Zorf, seeing Wendy’s look of concern, swiveled her head up and down and from side to side in order to show her that all was well. Then she raised her arms, crossing her wrists over her head and holding them against the stake while Wendy bound them in place. When Wendy was done, she wiggled experimentally and giggled a tiny bit. “Wow,” she said softly. “I’m really bound to the stake! I’m almost ready for the fire!”
Wendy could not help smiling. Zorf sounded so happy.
The chain was light and strong in Wendy’s hands. Bending slightly, she coiled it carefully around Zorf’s midsection and legs. When she finished, she rose and faced Miron.
He spoke again in the ritual tone. “Is the binding completed?”
“Yes, Miron,” Wendy answered with a tiny sigh. “The binding is completed.”
Zorf wiggled once more and nodded. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said.
“Mary, we wish to bid you farewell,” Miron said.
Zorf nodded. One by one, the members of the group mounted the platform and touched her shoulder or her bound hands. The green-robed woman looked into Zorf’s eyes with an expression of such love and gratitude that Zorf was a little embarrassed. Sensing this, the woman bowed her head and moved on quickly, and soon the ritual farewells were completed.
“Mary, you deserve to know what just happened,” Miron told her conversationally, as though she were one of his students. “By our brief contact, each one of us has just linked his or her energy to yours. This will make it easier for us to use the energy of your burning for the work that we must do.”
Zorf nodded. “I thought it must be something like that,” she said.
Miron looked at Zorf for a long moment. It was obvious to Wendy that the time for the sacrifice was at hand and that he did not want Zorf to burn. A shadow of sorrow crossed his face and he bowed his head for a moment.
Seeing his distress, Zorf said softly, “Miron, it’s all right....”
Regaining his composure, he looked up at her. “Mary, called Zorf,” he said, and this time the ritual tone could not keep his voice from cracking, “I ask you one last time: are you aware of what is about to happen to you? Now that you are bound to the stake with the fire about to be lit, are you still willing to be burned alive as a sacrifice?”
Zorf’s smile brightened the entire clearing. “Yes, Miron,” she said. “I know what is about to happen, and I am willing. More than that: I am happy.” She wanted to add: “Please burn me,” but she did not. Ritual seemed important here, and it was for Miron to give the commands, though it was plain that he did not enjoy doing so.
Once more Miron bowed his head, and his lips moved as though he were praying. Looking up at Zorf once more, he said, “Mary, called Zorf, may you be blessed for all time for the offering that you are about to make. May whatever deity you cherish look upon on you in love and mercy.” Then, looking directly into her eyes, departing for a moment from the ritual, Miron added, “I will pray for you, Mary, for as long as I live.”
“Thank you, Miron,” Zorf said, smiling. “I will pray for you, too.”
Now Miron spoke to Wendy. “Wendy, you have agreed to kindle the sacrificial fire. It is time.”
Wendy looked at her friend, who stood fastened to the stake, and whispered: “Zorf, there’s still time. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, Wendy,” Zorf whispered back. “Go down and light the fire. Please. I can’t wait to burn.”
Wendy descended from the platform and began to arrange the fuel around it. Since the burning must be slow, she started with a small amount, only a few bundles of wood on each side. When the fuel was arranged and there was nothing more to be done, she walked to the brazier and took one of the torches that had been prepared. Lighting it, she watched the flame take hold of its tip before she walked back to the platform. Holding the torch in her hand, she looked up at Zorf.
When Zorf saw the burning torch in Wendy’s hand, she closed her eyes and gasped. This is it, she thought. Finally, I’m going to burn! Opening her eyes once more, she smiled down at Wendy and nodded encouragingly. Her lips moved, mouthing the words Yes. Go ahead.
With a last look at Zorf, Wendy bent and touched the torch to the bundles of wood one at a time. The fire spread slowly, and for a moment Wendy shook her head, thinking how strange it seemed that this tiny fire would, in such a short time, grow to engulf her friend, causing her mortal agony and finally burning her to death.
Stepping back from the platform, Wendy watched the wood ignite. Zorf watched from above, and as the flames spread she raised her eyes to the sky and began to pray silently. Wendy looked at her friend in awe. She looks like a saint, she thought to herself. This is how some of the saints must have looked when they stood at the stake, waiting for the fire to reach them.
But Wendy knew that for all Zorf’s willingness and joy, she would not be able to stay calm for long. The fire grew steadily around her platform, sending sparks and wisps of smoke upward. Tongues of flame began to lick at its edges as the fuel began to crackle, and after a short time Zorf called down to Wendy with a smile, “Good job, Wendy. I’m not chilly anymore.”
Behind her, Wendy felt rather than saw the group form a semicircle facing Zorf and join hands. Miron stood in the middle, waiting for Zorf to feel first the touch of heat and then flame, waiting to use the energy of her burning to do the work that must be done.
Gauging the fire’s height and speed carefully, Wendy added more fuel.
As the heat around the stake intensified, Zorf gasped and began to squirm in her bonds. Above her head, her hands clasped each other, then seized the stake to which they were bound. “It’s hot,” Zorf panted, “so hot.... Excellent, Wendy.... Miron, I think you and your group can start to work now....”
As the air around Zorf grew steadily hotter, she closed her eyes tightly and moaned. From their long talks, Wendy knew what Zorf must be feeling, but she did not know whether Miron and his group were aware of it. Well, energy is energy, she thought, then started as Zorf screamed.
Glancing up at Zorf through the thin veil of smoke and flame, she saw that the fire had not yet reached her friend. Zorf was roasting, but not yet burning. She had leaned her head backward against the stake and closed her eyes. As her body moved rhythmically in the ropes and chains that bound her to the stake, she gasped and moaned. “Please, Wendy...” she begged, “more heat... more fire... but don’t burn me yet....”
Wendy hurried to obey, and as the new bundles ignited, adding their crackling and hissing to the ones already burning, she could hear Zorf’s cries grow louder. As the heat built up further, Zorf’s movements in her bonds grew faster and more intense. Suddenly her head arched backward against the stake and she screamed again, a loud, drawn-out cry that echoed through the forest. Again and again she shrieked, squirming and wriggling against the stake to which she was bound, and Wendy knew, if Miron and his group did not, that at this point Zorf’s wild movements were not yet attempts to avoid the fire, nor were her screams yet cries of pain.
“Wendy... more... please....” Zorf panted as her body roasted in the heat of the flames below.
Remembering that the burning must be slow, Wendy looked over her shoulder to Miron for confirmation. His face had a faraway expression; he was deep in the work of his group. Still, he had enough concentration to look at Zorf and then at Wendy, and he nodded. Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, Wendy added more fuel to the fire.
Zorf cried out in ecstasy as the sparks rose around her. “It is all I ever wanted,” she gasped to Wendy, “everything and more... oh!” Once more her body convulsed and she screamed. “Yes! Yes!” she gasped out as the flames crackled below her, steadily gaining strength. “Burn me! Please burn me now!”
Once again Wendy looked behind her. Miron shook his head. “Not yet,” he whispered.
The searing heat surrounded Zorf’s bound, naked flesh. Again and again she convulsed at the stake, and again and again, in her ecstasy, she begged for more fire. But Wendy knew that if she added any more fuel, Zorf would begin to burn, and it was not yet time for that. So she waited, watching as Zorf took full pleasure in the living heat that surrounded her, and was not at all surprised to feel the current beginning to move within her own body.
Still, she kept her mind on her work, watching the fire around Zorf, making sure that it did not come too close too quickly. When Zorf’s cries had subsided to steady moans, she gasped out, “Wendy... thank you... that was wonderful. Miron... please... is it time? May I burn now?”
Wendy looked back at Miron and his group. They seemed to glow with a fire of their own, and their linked hands seemed to be surrounded by spheres of light. She could feel heat emanating from them, and she realized that she was sweating inside her satin robe.
Miron looked toward Zorf once more and then seemed to look inward. When he returned his gaze to the woman at the stake, he answered, “Yes, Mary. It is time. You may burn.”
“Thank you...” Zorf gasped. “Wendy... please....”
Breathing hard from the exertion, Wendy added more fuel to the fire and raked it closer to the platform. As new tongues of fire flared around the stake, Zorf gasped with the increased heat, then screamed and tried to jerk away as her feet felt the first touch of flame.
“Oh, God, I’m on fire!” she shrieked, looking down at the bright flames licking at her feet and lower legs. “I’m burning! Oh, God—Wendy—oh, please—help me! Mercy, mercy!”
Wendy looked helplessly up at her friend. “Zorf,” she whispered, “oh, Zorf....”
“Please...” Zorf wept as the flames latched on to her skin. “Oh, God, have mercy! I’m on fire! Please....”
As the flames slowly gathered strength and climbed higher, Zorf’s sobs and shrieks of pain mixed with the crackling of the fire that was now consuming her. Behind Wendy, Miron and his group were chanting softly, and Wendy could feel the heat building from their linked energies. She felt as though she were standing between two fires, one in front of her and one behind, and though her own body was beginning to feel the heat, she made no move to avoid it. Zorf is going through much worse, she thought. I owe it to her to stand by her no matter how difficult it gets.
The flames now licked at Zorf’s knees and thighs as she howled and struggled in earnest. Her fists clenched above her head as she tried to pray, to call out for mercy to God, to Miron, to Wendy. But every attempt to speak came out as a high, wild shriek of agony as the flames licked at her naked skin.
“Ahhh! God!” As fingers of flame brushed Zorf’s hips, her body convulsed so strongly that the stake shuddered with the force of it. For a moment Zorf hung panting in her bonds, overpowered by the combination of agony and ecstasy, until the rapture faded and she felt the devouring flames once more. “Mercy,” she sobbed. “Have mercy! Please—I’m burning alive!”
As Zorf’s midsection began to burn, she flung back her head, trying to avoid the tongues of flame that now licked at her chest. As they rose slowly to cover her breasts like a robe of liquid light, she squirmed helplessly in her bonds, her high-pitched shrieks rending the air. Still Miron and his group stood absolutely still, redoubling their efforts as Zorf wept and screamed in the fire. Finally Miron opened his eyes and looked around him with an expression of great sorrow.
“Farewell, my people. I must leave you,” he said quietly as he pulled the hands of the two people on either side of him closer until they met and clasped. “It is as I feared. Mary’s energy is abundant but not enough. I must burn, too. Carry on the work when I am gone.” Slowly he began to walk toward the burning pyre.
Seeing him approach, Zorf screamed, “No!”
“It is the only way,” he said calmly. “One more must burn. Mary, have no fear. It is not your fault. You have done very well. Between the two of us, we will save your world.” He took a step forward.
“Wait!” Wendy drew herself up between Miron and the fire. “Stay here, Miron, stay with your people. Zorf is my friend. This is my world. I will go!”
Before Miron could say a word, Wendy clutched her satin robe about her and stepped onto the burning platform. Gasping at the first touch of heat, she cried out as she stumbled forward, toward the stake and Zorf.
Engulfed in flames as she was, Zorf sobbed with joy. “Wendy! Oh, Wendy, I knew you would come to me—” and she screamed as a tongue of fire licked at her shoulder.
Seizing the side of the burning stake, the hem of her satin robe beginning to melt, Wendy cried out, “Now, Miron! Both of us are burning—do it now—”
Even as the fire began to consume her, Wendy could feel the energy shift once again, more powerfully, as Miron and his group set to work. Then she could feel nothing but the devouring flames as she clutched the stake to which her friend was bound. “Zorf,” she gasped, “Zorf—I’m here—can you hear me?”
“Oh, Wendy—” Zorf sobbed. “Wendy—stay with me—”
The roaring fire engulfed the two women, consuming satin and flesh, voice and breath. As Wendy felt the heat of the flames, the fabric of her robe began to melt onto her skin. Gripping the stake, she convulsed and screamed, much as Zorf had before the fire had found her. Bright points of flame rose from her body as her ecstatic cries split the heavens. Beside her, Zorf gasped feebly, “Ah—now you know—”
Wendy’s robe was gone. Her body was entirely aflame, yet even as she burned and shrieked with the agony of her burning, it seemed to her that she could see beyond the boundaries of the world. And somewhere, millions of miles away from the flames that were devouring the two women, a finger of energy rose from the pyre to touch a giant rock hurtling through space—touch, and push, and shift it the tiniest bit.
“Zorf—” Wendy sobbed through the roar of the fire, “did you see? We did it!”
“Yes—I saw—” Zorf gasped out. Her eyes widened, and even as she seemed to gaze in awed joy at something only she could see, her head fell forward and she sighed, a long, drawn-out sigh. The flames found her red hair, turning it into a quick, glorious blaze. Beside her, Wendy slowly sank to the flaming pyre, her burning hands releasing their hold on the stake to which she had clung.
Miron knelt and bowed his head. “Let their memories live forever,” he said softly. “By their sacrifice, we have triumphed. It is done.”
* * *
A chill breeze ruffled Wendy’s hair. She sat up suddenly, gasping in shock. It was completely dark.
Memory returned in a flash of awareness. “Zorf!” she cried in alarm. “Zorf! Where are you?”
Scrabbling for Zorf’s pack, she grabbed the flashlight and turned it on. “Zorf, where are you? Say something, please!”
The beam of light rested on what looked like a pile of clothing. It stirred. “Mmmm?” Zorf turned over and blinked.
“Oh, Zorf, thank God you’re all right!” Wendy nearly sobbed. “We must have fallen asleep or something. You’ll never believe what I just dreamed.”
“Oh, I’ll believe it,” Zorf said with a tiny smile, “because I was there. If it was a dream, it was the most wonderful one I’ve ever had. But I don’t think it was a dream.” Holding out her hand for the flashlight, she shone its beam around the clearing and heard Wendy gasp in horror.
At the center of the clearing were the remains of a pyre. There was no smoke, not even an odor. It seemed that the fire had gone out long before. At the edge of the clearing were the ruins of an old wooden shack.
“Was that...?” Wendy asked.
“I think so,” Zorf said.
Wendy got up and began to move toward the firepit. “Wow,” she said. “It feels a bit strange here... like something’s pulling me.”
Zorf leaped to her feet. “No, Wendy!” she shouted. “Get away from there!”
Without a second thought, Wendy obeyed. “All right, I will. But why shouldn’t we get close?”
“I’ll explain in a minute. But first, please, let’s get out of here.”
When they found the path, they walked for a few moments in silence. Finally, Zorf spoke.
“It was no dream, Wendy. It was real, all of it. We both burned. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Wendy said, a bit hesitantly. “After all, it would be impossible for us to dream exactly the same dream in real time, wouldn’t it?”
“It was real. We were there. We really did it.”
“Then how did we survive? How did we get back here, alive and well, instead of....”
“Instead of being a pile of ashes in that firepit? I’m not sure, but I think that when Miron and his group shifted the asteroid, they also shifted time and space just enough to allow us to move back into a reality where we didn’t burn to death. I have no idea how they did it, but I think that’s what they did.”
“You could be right,” Wendy said. “I can’t think of any other explanation.”
“And if we got too close to the firepit, or to the ruins of the hut where we bathed... I’m not sure, Wendy, I could be wrong, but somehow that other reality might still be very near, and if we got too close we might somehow fall back into that time and place....”
“And end up staying in that firepit forever,” Wendy finished for her. “You’re right. We can’t be sure, but we’d better not risk it. That just felt too weird.”
They walked on in silence for some time. Finally, Zorf spoke. “Oh, look! There’s the picnic area where we had lunch! Can you believe that we were there just this afternoon?”
“It feels like a million years ago,” said Wendy.
“I sure wish we had something good to eat,” Zorf said. “I’m starved!”
“So am I,” Wendy said. “I could go for some fried chicken about now, I think.”
“Oh, yes,” Zorf said. “Fried chicken sounds wonderful. I’d love some, too. Maybe when we get back, we can....”
Suddenly Wendy started. “Hey! Did you just grab onto my pack, Zorf?”
“How could I,” Zorf asked, “when I’m over here?” She waved her hands to show that she had not touched anything.
With a quizzical expression on her face, Wendy took off her pack and unzipped it. The unmistakable aroma of fried chicken wafted from the opening. Reaching inside, she took out a paper bag and opened it.
“Wow. It still works,” she said softly. “Well? You think this is safe?”
“I’m sure it is,” Zorf said. “But I think it’s only for now. Once we leave the forest and go back to our regular lives, I think it won’t be happening anymore.”
Slowly they moved to a picnic table and sat down, munching their fried chicken.
“Can I ask you something?”
“When we were in that wooden hut, after we had our baths, you wished for something.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Can I ask what it was?”
“Sure,” Wendy said. “I was praying for you—that you would get the experience in the fire that you wanted, that our world would be saved, and that you would still survive.”
Zorf’s eyes widened. “Oh, Wendy...”
“Well, I figured that if we could get a satin robe, a blow-dry and a mirror, I had nothing to lose by trying for bigger things,” Wendy said lightly. “If you don’t mind my asking, when you knelt down to pray before you went to the stake, what did you ask for?”
“The same thing, for you. I had a feeling you might end up in the fire with me....”
The two women laughed and hugged.
“Know what I’m thinking?” said Wendy as they hoisted their packs back on.
“What?” Zorf asked.
“I can’t wait till we get on the computer tomorrow morning. This is going to make one hell of a manip!”