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The Worm-Mothers were not the mothers of the children. They were not human, nor animal; they were something else. Gods that existed between the Earth and the Sky.
Their bodies were serpentine and soft and they moved among the clouds like fish made their way around kelp. Biding their time.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
All the birds in the sky were prey to the Worm-Mothers—they hungered and delighted in the birds they swallowed whole like grapes. Because the Worm-Mothers had no teeth to speak of, no eyes either. Their face was only a wide gummy mouth and a short black horn at the top of their egg-shaped heads. They used their mouth to lure the birds in with their low keening sounds. The same sound that made humans flock to them.
For the horn they had other uses.
Far below the clouds, the humans were gathered at the edge of a tall and steep cliff in order to observe and worship the divine creatures. They had brought the children with them. Twelve in total. All of them brought up in loving families who even more lovingly gave them away once the High Priestesses demanded it. The High Priestesses who stood tall—taller than everyone, but mostly the children—in the middle of the circle made up of their devotees. They formed the bridge that connected all that was Holy up in the Sky with the low and stained existence of everything on Earth. The worms of the earth wriggled in the dirt, vile and oblivious. Yet, the Worm-Mothers soared in the air with their kaleidoscopic, cilia-covered bodies that reflected the light as they made their way towards their worshippers. Towards the children.
Each of the children was chosen carefully by two factors. The first one was their age. The youngest one was six and the oldest sixteen. The sacrifice takes place every ten years and the age of each child should reflect one passing year. Children under the age of six were excluded simply because they could not chant in unison The Chant of Descent into the Dirt. Cacophony disrupted the holiness of the ceremony.
The second factor was that each child should encompass one of The Ten Great Values of the World Between the Earth and the Sky. These were the Values the first Worm-Mothers brought with them when they appeared in the World. Each had their own personality, made into a Value that they infused every single thing with, living or not.
The children stood at the edge of the cliff next to the three High Priestesses. The priestesses’ heavy linen robes and tall hats cast shadows that swallowed the children, the cliff and the worshippers alike. In many ways—the High Priestess thought with certain delight—they were similar to the long, heavy shadows the Worm-Mothers cast on the fields on clear days. On this particular day of the sacrifice it was overcast, which did not please the High Priestesses, but the Worm-Mothers seemed unbothered as they approached the flock of people. As the Worm-Mothers floated lower, the children sang The Chant of Descent into the Dirt. They stood one next to the other, their knobby knees shaking, and they all squeezed their eyes shut to not witness the arrival of the Worm-Mothers. Even the older ones averted their eyes from the Sky.
There were stories about what happened to the children at the ceremony and none of them were particularly pleasant. The only thing everyone knew for sure was that after the Descent was completed, there was nothing left of the children. Not even the bones.
The oldest child, a sixteen-year-old girl, turned to the line of the praying children to her left and whispered.
“You should all run,” she said. “I’ll distract them.”
Hers was the Value of Action and the High Priestesses were aware of that. There was always trouble with Action. But it was a necessary Value, for the world needed Action to evolve and increase. One priestess moved closer to the girl. Lucky for the ceremony, the boy next to her carried the Value of Stillness so he did nothing but open his eyes for mere moments before he shut them tight again as the shadows above their heads grew deeper.
When the chanting finally stopped, and the children built up the strength to look up, the Worm-Mothers’ thousand cilia touched the tips of the High Priestesses’ hats. There were so many of them overhead. Ever since the first ten appeared in the Sky, many, many years ago, new ones were emerging, and the birds were lessening. There were enough now to eclipse the sun, which seemed to be nothing more than a single round scale from the Worm-Mothers’ bodies when they were this close to the ground. The children clutched each other’s hands and threw furtive glances at their parents. The parents who still remained among the worshipers looked back at them teary-eyed and proud.
The children squeezed each other’s hands tighter.
“It’s time for us to move on,” said the child who carried the Value of Strength and took a step forward. The child who was blessed with the Value of Obedience followed their lead even though they were only seven-years old. Together they led the group of children down the cliff with Usefulness and Humility close by. The High Priestesses nodded, satisfied. Strength and Obedience had never disappointed them. In their own way they were proud of the children. They considered them their own, their Worm-Children, as they called them when they prayed alone, away from the common folks’ ears. Their sacrifice would bring another decade of prosperity in The World between the Earth and the Sky.
“Do you hear that?” the Value of Curiosity asked the Value of Happiness.
“Hear what?” The girl did not feel particularly happy at the moment. She was certain the Priestesses had chosen the wrong child. That somewhere there was another thirteen-year-old child absolutely thrilled to be eaten by the Worm-Mothers. But she was too scared to correct anyone.
The Value of Intellect halted for a mere moment, trying to understand.
“They are talking to us,” he said. His eyes shined with wisdom he didn’t have before. And he resumed walking.
The Value of Loveliness was lagging behind, overtaken by a wonder at the sight of the Worm-Mothers’ cilia, mouth, and now jointless arms as they stretched and stretched towards the children.
How pretty, he thought. How bright, how soft.
Together, the Worm-Children on Earth and the Worm-Mothers in the Sky left the High Priestesses and their worshippers behind. By the time they reached the Organic Bed the children had collectively stopped being afraid.
As they made their way into the wide pit full of dirt and leaves, each in their own way heard the Worm-Mothers speak. And even thought their language was not made out of words, the children felt its truth. They felt it like a cold breeze on a summer day.
The world between the Earth and the Sky is not the only thing that exists. The truth reverberated inside their bodies as they lay on the ground and covered themselves in leaves and dirt, and tried to become as still as trees, as still as stone, as still as worms. The way their parents had instructed them to become.
“But worms are not still”, the children had protested, which hurt their parents deeply.
“This is not a time to argue,” the parents had said. Their expressions were stern but loving. “Even worms can be still.”
When they’re dead, the children had thought, and this only confirmed their worst suspicions.
But now the children knew they were not going to die. So they did not move when the Worm-Mothers passed their cilia over their lying bodies poking tiny little holes on their skin. They did not look away when they blew on their faces a breath straight from the bottom of their long stomach. They did not writhe or squirm when their bodies started to itch and the flakes of their skin loosened from one another and fell on the dirt. In the place of skin, soft, kaleidoscopic scales shone bright underneath and the children wanted to run back to their parents, who were so patiently waiting with the rest of the crowd and show them their new bodies.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
But they were not their parents anymore. And they were not their children. Somewhere in the middle of their forehead grew a tiny bump. When they finally felt ready to move again, they discovered they could fly. As their bodies lifted from the Organic Bed they felt eyes and teeth and limbs staying behind. They were so much lighter that way. They joined the rest of the Worm-Mothers using the sound their fleshy mouths made.
The Worm-Mothers flew through the clouds leaving behind their old parents and their old bodies. The High Priestesses' reverent gaze followed them as they soared in the sky. But they too were unimportant now.
There, the Worm-Mothers thought in unison and soared to the crack in the Sky, glimmering like a silver hair strand against the firmament. The crack was a tiny thing, but something they had been expanding ever since they were born. An escape.
There was a barrier between this world and the next and tearing it down took most of their time.
There was another world beyond the one between the Earth and the Sky. Worlds even. And creatures not unlike themselves. Those creatures lived in the World between the Worlds and the Worm-Mothers were cut off from what was surely their siblings. The Worm-Mothers were biding their time, building an army ever since the first of them knew existence. They could see the World between the Worlds, but could not reach it.
Perhaps now it was finally time. Perhaps there were enough of them. They were made to break those barriers. The horn, the only hard thing in their bodies, confirmed their purpose.
The creatures had noticed the Worm-Mothers too. Even whispered to them what would happen if the barriers between them fell. If they let them flow in.
The Worm-Mothers attacked the crack with all their force and their siblings waited beyond the barrier.
Siblings with too many eyes, and too many limbs, but siblings nonetheless. Siblings that had no care for tasty birds they could swallow like grapes. For they had teeth.
There were tastier things in your world, the siblings whispered. Things you never thought of tasting.
You’ll see.
Eugenia Triantafyllou is a Greek author and artist with a flair for dark things. Her work has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and she is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find her stories in Tor.com, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Apex, and other venues. She currently lives in Athens with a boy and a dog. Find her on Twitter @foxesandroses or her website https://eugeniatriantafyllou.com.