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The Stormfather’s Mercy: Chapter I

Ilína’s happy dreams slid away and the unforgiving reality of wakefulness settled upon her.

Despair sunk its hooks into her mind as she studied the ceiling cracks with bleary eyes. It was time to get out of bed. She probably should have roused herself at least an hour ago, judging by the light…but she wasn’t going to. Not yet. If she was already going to be late, she might as well be properly late. Sýrstra Sâlienne could wait.

Defiantly, she rolled away from the murky gray light pushing through the curtains and dragged her blankets up over her head. To the Underplane with Sýrstra Sâlienne-and her parents, too. Being told how improper and unproductive it was to miss her etiquette lesson was a problem for later on instead of for now, but even so, she found herself frowning in the warm safety of her blanket nest.

Why do you hate your lessons so? her mother asked in memory, her voice infuriatingly gentle. In Ilína’s mind, she was looking at her as she always did. The familiar mixture of exasperation and dismay. Is it your tutor? Say the word, and we will seek another for you. She’d gone through dozens, so it wasn’t the tutor. I want to sleep, she tried to insist, in the past. I want to ride horses. I want to drink wine. Anything but the thrice-damned lessons.

But Mother never wanted to hear that.

The tutors came and went, from here within the city, and from far away, too. Healer priests rode in from the distant temples of Ahn, with their strange powders and their tomes full of drawings of medicinal plants. Healing required patience that she did not have, and so, they left. A Phyrasan fire mage came, during the storm season, to instruct her in the ways of the flame, but Ilína did not have the discipline, and the red-veiled woman returned to her home country. The Void Acolytes had a little more success with her, as the ambiguity of their dogma was intriguing to her. For a fortnight, they instructed her in the abstract, but when the time came to commit as a scholar, her interest waned. Finally, they left as well, to the thunderous disappointment of her parents. Oh, they were angry. The incident had earned her a day in the temple’s fasting chambers, when none of the other failures had been causation for punishment. I am terrible, was all she could think during her time in that cold stone room, chewing her nails, starving, and hating herself. I can’t do anything right.

The remembrance tried to settle upon her now, but she shook it off before it could upset her. 

Realizing that she had thought herself into wakefulness and that no more sleep was to be had, Ilína rose from her bed and padded out of her room. On her way to the parlor, she stopped at the mirror at the end of the hall. Her pale, lilac hair was hopelessly messy from the pillows, and she wore last night’s insomnia as two dark blemishes beneath her slate-colored eyes. She paused a moment, raking her fingers through the tangles and snarls, but almost immediately gave up, opting instead to pluck a shawl off of one of the hooks on the wall, wrap it over her bare, sickly-white arms and shoulders, and continue to the parlor as she was. No one was here but her. Her parents would have made their presence known by now, if they were home.

And why weren’t they home?

Her brow furrowed in contemplation of that, as she lowered herself onto the chair closest to the fruit bowl. They were always home this time of day. She reached for an apple, and finally noticed the parchment on the table. Right next to the fruit bowl, it had clearly been placed where she would find it immediately. The furrows on her forehead deepened as she unfurled it.

Three words screamed out from the paper. Gone to temple. And that was it. The tail of the ‘e’ in temple was slightly elongated and smeared, as if her father had scrawled the note and then rushed out, which was unusual for him, to say the least. He was the sort of man to check and recheck his penmanship before allowing others to read it, and expected the same standard of quality from everyone else. She knew this firsthand, from being the recipient of his writing lessons.

Ilína traced the letters with one hand, and chewed her apple contemplatively.

Gone to temple, indeed.

It had been about nine days since the Stormfaith announced their sequestering. Ilína frowned as she tried to remember. Nine days seemed correct. There was a lot of commotion about that, and about the temple doors sealing. No one was permitted in the temple sanctum until the priests and priestesses emerged to announce their visions. This happened every few years or so, and whenever it did, there was an equal amount of commotion when the Stormfaith came back out. There had been no such commotion as of recently. Just last evening, in fact, her family had discussed how lengthy this particular sequestering had been, and speculated upon when it would be over. “It will mean sacrifice,” Lord Ezrol had joked, drunkenly, to everyone’s horror. “The Stormfather will ask for a screaming newborn babe.”

“You shut your fucking mouth, Ezrol,” her mother had snapped. Ilína remembered feeling admiration towards her, seeing the way that she glared knifepoints at her cousin’s husband across the table, and how he quailed beneath her gaze. She found herself wishing that she could stare a man down as efficiently as her mother could.

“Only fools tempt the gods,” she’d warned, and the rest of the meal was eaten in awkward silence as everyone considered what she said.

There was no announcement about the Stormfaith coming out of seclusion, which meant that the temple was still sealed. And if the temple was still sealed, Gone to temple did not make sense. She was still contemplating this when the knocking started. It was loud and sudden enough to make her jump. Her apple flew from her hands and rolled across the carpet.

“It isn’t locked,” she called, annoyed, and the moment the words departed her lips, the door flew open. She rose angrily, ready to complain to her parents…but her parents were not standing in the threshold. Instead, there were two male Temple acolytes whom she had never seen before.

“Where are mother and father?” she asked, dumbfoundedly. Neither acolyte made reply. She could not see their faces under their red hoods.

“Ilína. Ilína!”

Her mother’s voice echoed from somewhere down the corridor beyond.

“Mother?”

“Remember that we love you, Ilína. Never forget that. We love you so very much.”

The acolytes swept into the room, and before she realized what was happening, they had flanked her and seized her by the arms.

“Excuse me…what are you doing? Mother? Father?”

She turned her head as they dragged her out into the corridor, and caught a glimpse of them, clutching each other and looking doggedly away from her, their tearstained faces fixated upon the empty walls.

“It is an honor, Ilína,” her father said thickly. “And we love you. Do not forget.”

A horrible shriek pierced the relative quiet from elsewhere. A young girl-Ixlara, it sounded like, daughter of the widow Athtýr, was screaming at the top of her lungs. You’ve killed him, Ilína heard, between her unintelligible, hysterical wails. The acolytes were dragging Ilína towards the staircase. When they turned the bend, she looked back the way they’d come. There were two more of the Stormfaith escorting Ixlara. The thirteen-year-old was fighting to break free with every bit of strength that she had. Ilína felt a hard knot of dread coil in her guts when she noticed the splatters of blood on the girl’s dressing gown.

I’m still dreaming, she decided, because that was easier. The pain she felt when her foot folded under her on her way down the staircase immediately disillusioned her of that possibility. And you can’t afford to decide to be dreaming right now, can you? She wanted to kick and scream the way that Ixlara was, gods knew that she was terrified enough to-but even through the steadily tightening vice of panic, there was a clear stream of thought that dictated logic. As they continued down and around the spiral steps, she fought to listen to it through Ixlara’s desperate cries.

The Stormfaith have made some kind of declaration, and the declaration was about us, she realized. We are being brought to the Temple.

Ezrol’s drunken speculation from last night’s dinner exploded unwanted into her mind.

It will mean sacrifice. The Stormfather will ask for a screaming newborn babe.

“Father!” Ixlara was screaming, over and over again. “Father! Father!”

Ilína could not ignore the possibility of what she’d remembered, but she could not do so while listening to someone else implode.

“Ixlara? Ixlara, stop that. It’s me, it’s your cousin.”

Blessedly, the screaming stopped, and the silence that followed was absolute. They were much farther along the staircase and out of eyeshot, but Ilína could eventually hear her sniffling from behind her.

“Ilína?” Ixlara called. “What is happening? Where are they taking us?”

“I don’t know, sweet one. Don’t scream like that. I’m right here.”

She winced as her arms were suddenly yanked behind her back. One of the acolytes was binding her wrists together with rope.

“This is not necessary,” she said, as she was shoved by her lower back so hard that she stumbled. “I will comply.”

She may as well have addressed the walls for all the response she received.

They were nearing the bottom. The torches lining the carved double doors to the Great Hall were lit with ceremonial blue fire, and slowly, those doors began to swing open. The knot in Ilína’s stomach hardened as Ixlara’s shrieking resumed-they must have been restraining her, now, as well.

“It’s going to be alright,” she lied. 

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Fantasy, Horror

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