The dead gather beneath the dull red moon, watching, waiting.
Moonlight calls their restless bones to walk. Moonlight fills their empty ribs with strength. Moonlight shines into their eyeless sockets, burning through their silent dreams.
They wait, and watch, and hope for an ending.
The temple has lain abandoned in the forest for many years, but its altar is untouched by time, by wild growth.
This is the Temple of Ending.
The rituals were easy enough to find. The dagger, lifted from the belt of a priest, took some doing: Jaden loosened him with drinks and took it from his waist while they danced, and made himself scarce before the scorned cleric could call down a curse.
The waiting was worse. The moon’s strength is too great to darken it unless it is already in shadow. This night, this hour, is the best and only chance he will have.
And as for the sacrifice –
He took the child from the streets. No one will miss them: they have the gaunt and filthy look of an orphan, and were by themself in a strange land. Their words are strange to him. But they understand ropes around their wrists, knives behind their back, threats whose words they do not know.
“Your death will bring an end to moonlight,” he tells them, for the sake of his conscience. “Your blood will stop the dead from walking this earth. Your dying breath will call in a new era of darkness, and the nights will be safe again no matter the time of the month.”
It makes no difference what he tells them. Their eyes are wide and fearful, brimming with tears, and without any understanding.
He ties them to the altar, spills the wine of oblation, and strikes up the chant in the silent tongue of the dead. Hear me, Great Mother of Ending. Your son and servant brings you this offering, and may it please you well. Mother of Ending, mother of all, I thank you for your blessings; I beg a single boon…
The child struggles, pulling against the ropes. Tears run down into their hair. They scream, words he cannot understand, but the sound of them cuts deep into his heart.
This is worth it. It is. It must be.
He pulls the ritual dagger from its sheath.
Great Mother of Ending, your child the moon calls the dead from their rest when she shines. They cannot sleep in her light. She keeps them from ending. Bring them darkness, bring them rest: by the blood of this child’s ending I conjure you…
The blade barely gleams in the shadowed red moonlight. He raises it above the child’s heart, and nearly falters when he sees their eyes: fearful, despairing, but somehow still defiant. He can’t end them. He can’t.
He has to.
He thinks of his brother, torn apart by the dead when they both were young. He thinks of his grandmother, who after her illness was made to walk again in the moonlight. He thinks of the children who fear the forest at night when the moon is full.
Great Mother of Ending…
He brings down the blade.
The child gasps, twitching and shuddering, and finally lies still. Blood runs down their arms, black as star-void, and lands dripping on the barren ground.
Jaden drops the dagger, trying to banish their last wet choking breaths from his mind. It’s done. The Mother of Ending heard him. The darkness will come, and the dead will finally stay still.
He waits. He watches. The moon is a dying ember in the sky.
Then there is a sliver of light at its left edge, bright as silver, and Jaden cries aloud in despair.
He killed the child for nothing.
The dead sigh silently as the shadow passes. The moonlight is strong again, waking them, calling them.
This time, again, there was no ending.
They turn away from the growing moon, and wait for the shadow to come again.