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Elon dragged Naarah by her wrist, her knuckles turning white as she gripped her small disciples' wrist like a vice, long and sharp nails digging into the girl's skin with aggressive crescent moon shapes. She could already feel the bruises blossom beneath her dark skin like an angry, demented flower. Naarah’s free hand grasped a fist full of her dress and hiked up a portion of the cotton material in fear of tripping over herself.

“Elon! Please,” she begged, the strain on her lungs and vocal cords making themselves known as she croaked out her plea. “Slow down and tell me what's happening!” She hated how desperate her wavering voice was, hated how she could already feel the warm sting of tears welling up in her eyes as they clouded her vision. Naarah's body was screaming at her to stop. Her lungs burnt, not unlike the countless bonfires the two girls constructed and often danced around. She had always known Elon was different, ever since the two girls met in the same forest they were now running through, as if their life depended on it. Elon was like the older sister she always wished she had, and although Elon would vehemently deny the fact to anyone else, she felt the same way. Sure, Elon had always acted a little strange, bitter about something, no matter how insignificant. But she was always calm and methodical, a far cry from how rash and panicked she seemed now. Naarah could feel her anxiety grow as they ventured deeper into the Dark Forest, the normally inviting smell of wildlife and dewdrops now replaced by a sickeningly heavy and stagnant air. She felt sick.

Something was wrong.

Though her perpetually cold and emotionless face didn’t show it, Elon’s thoughts raced just as wild as those of the panicked girl she dragged through the forest. The ritual needed to be perfect tonight. Of course, the more sympathetic and anxious part of her brain protested against this idea, fretting that something had to go wrong. ‘What if she runs?’ ‘What happens if it fails?’ Her thoughts arguing with each other. ‘No. No, it’s fine. She’ll be happy I did this for her.’ She had to stop these feelings from impeding her duty. They’ve come too far to back out now.

Elon abruptly stopped in her tracks as soon as the fog gradually faded to reveal a small clearing ahead of them. She could hear an ‘oof’ sound from behind her as Naarah bumped off of Elon’s back. Elon wasted no time as she rummaged through the small satchel hanging across her chest, confirming the contents inside, before she spoke to Naarah for the first time that day.

“Stay.” she ordered. Voice firm, as if she were commanding a dog.

Unceremoniously placing the blade beside the unconscious form of Azule. She spun on her heels to face Naarah, the leaves and twigs under her shoes crunching as she did so, filling the silence with sickening cracks that sounded not unlike the sounds of bones breaking. “You have helped me so much since we met,” Elon began, her voice unnaturally smooth. “I want to give you something in return.”

Naarah could feel the lump of anxiety forming in her throat. “What is it?”

“I can make them like you.” Elon said, as she began leading Naarah toward the clearing ahead, once again grabbing the girl by the wrist. Elon quickly suppressed the pang of guilt she felt as she caught a glimpse of her bruised skin peeking out from her long and baggy sleeves.

The fog cleared around the girls as they stepped closer, and Naarah’s response to Elon died on her tongue as she lifted her gaze from her sore wrist to the sight before her.

“Azule…”

Azule. Her second best friend, her beloved dog that had always stuck by her side ever since she and her father found the poor pup by the river bank while fishing together, was now the subject for their first living sacrifice. The state he was in now reminded her of the same day she found him. His unconscious form sprawled out atop a large, flat rock that was smeared with a red substance in the shape of a pentagram. She hoped to God it wasn’t Azule’s blood. Naarah pulled her gaze away from the grim sight to drink in her surroundings. The forest felt different, almost sinister, from the way the bonfire cast heavy shadows on the ground. She could swear there was something lurking deep in the forest, watching them.

Naarah could feel bile rising in her throat. Her mind was screaming at her to leave, to run and tell the entire village, to tell her family about the horrors that were unfolding. But she can’t. She made a promise to her friend. She would do anything for her.

Elon shoved the handle in the young girl’s hands, manipulating and forcing her trembling fingers to clench around the hilt. “Do it.” Whispered Elon, her voice and demeanor like that of a spirit, with the way she silently slunk behind Naarah’s frozen form and placed her hands atop her slumped shoulders. Naarah could feel the icy gaze of her friend’s unnaturally blue eyes bore into the back of her head, silently urging her to move toward the altar. And she did. She could feel a malevolent force drawing her in, shadows on the ground twisting and dancing below her feet, as if taunting her.

Now at the foot of the altar, Naarah let out a choked sob as she examined her beloved dog. Ribs peeking out from his damaged and dirty coat, paw pads and nose cracked like broken pottery, and she could see clumps of fur and dried blood atop his head, no doubt from the force of a blunt object.

“If you do this last thing for me, it will be finished, and I will never ask anything of you again.”

Her hands were trembling now, the blade she held with an iron grip sparkling in the fire's light that was now roaring in her peripheral vision. She barely acknowledged the sound of Elon’s whispers coming from behind her, an icy chill running down her neck. She could feel blood roaring in her ears, her heart threatening to burst from her chest.

“I can’t do this!” she protested.

“You made a promise. Do it Naarah. Do it. Do it. Do it.”

Looking over Azule’s body one last time, her eyes squeezed shut. Elon’s mantra repeated endlessly in her head as she could feel her mind cloud with an unknown presence. White pinprick eyes and sharp, glimmering teeth dancing behind her vision as she felt her grip on the blade tighten as her arms lifted themselves above her head.

‘I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry…’

The forest fell silent as she plunged the blade deep into the skin of Azule, a visceral squelch ringing in her ears as she guided the blade down the abdomen of the now deceased pet. She could feel his still warm blood splatter on her cheek and hands. Forcing her eyes open, Naarah let the blood-soaked blade fall to the ground, as did she. Sobs wracked her small frame, not daring to glance up at the disemboweled body of Azule above her. Blood trickled down the side of the rock and stained her pink dress with a disgusting mix of dirt and blood.

She was dimly aware of Elon looming over her with a mix of emotions she’d never seen on the usually stoic face of her friend. Naarah couldn’t tell what had just happened. She felt too weak, too powerless. Naarah looked up at the girl with puffy and bloodshot eyes, tears spilling out and staining her cheeks as they mixed with the blood of Azule. Her vision grew dark as she attempted to stand, knees buckling under her, threatening to give out.

“I will do anything for you.”

And she collapsed into the arms of her now only friend, barely registering the feeling of the girl stroking her cheek with the sleeve of her dress, wiping her tears before carrying her closer to the fire, letting the proselyte rest in her arms.