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The Stormfather’s Mercy: Prologue

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

His lips were twisted upwards into a ghastly farce of a smile, and above it, his cloudbright eyes were screaming. The hand he’d placed on Tsaírin’s thigh felt heavy and damp with perspiration. For his sake, she returned the smile, but let it slip away as soon as she caught a glimpse of herself in one of the many mirrors lining the temple walls. Not unlike her husband, she was shock-white and shaking. Her own eyes were two shiny marbles of electric panic.

Furtively, she looked around, and saw much of the same among the others. Ezrol and Ytlara had completely abandoned any pretense of propriety. They knelt below the seats of the stone pews with their foreheads touching, murmuring to one another and clutching each other’s hands. Not far from them, the widower Athtýr sat rigidly staring beyond the colored glass that cast the room in cold, holy blue, his face stony and impenetrable.

Besides the five of them, the anteroom was empty. At dawn, they had all received the summons, and now, it was nearly dusk. Tsaírin herself had answered the bell before the sun rose, sleepslogged and not understanding. When she lifted the bar and let the door swing open, Sýrstra Lhazar herself was standing in the corridor, pale and hooded, her eyes bloodshot and weeping. She spoke in a hoarse whisper, hooking one spindly finger up to point.

“Xoncith of Gallowspire. Tsaírin, once of Slenstone. You are summoned to the Temple of Fjӧr.”

Thus having spoke, she disappeared down the corridor in a swirl of purple silk. A sickening waft of Lethflower smoke trailed behind her, and Tsaírin stood trembling in the threshold, breathing it in and listening to the echoing footsteps as her heart sank into her guts. You are summoned, was all she heard, in her mind, over and over, as she stared disbelievingly at the flames crackling in the sconce. You are summoned.

Trembling, terrified, she roused her husband from his dreams. He spared a moment to pen a note of explanation to Ilína, and together, they left her sleeping in the dark to obey. Neither spoke, as they descended the staircase and exited the castle. When they climbed into the carriage, Tsaírin realized that she was too numb to muster even a single prayer. The rain hammered above them, discordantly.

They were the first to arrive through the temple doors. The entire vestibule reeked of Lethflower smoke, and tendrils of it hung stubbornly about like evil red phantoms. The purple lightning inside the wall sconces capered wickedly. “Seat yourselves,” a veiled acolyte had instructed, once they entered the anteroom, and then departed, never to be seen again. Ezrol and Ytlara arrived shortly thereafter, Ezrol carefully guiding his dazed-looking wife to a pew. She was still wearing her dressing gown and slippers, and her pale hair was uncharacteristically dirty and uncombed. Last to arrive was Athtýr. For awhile, he stalked the aisles like a lion in a cage, but the hours wore upon even him and he finally seated himself like the rest of them had. The night before, they had all dined together, but the summons had made them strangers again. They did not even want to look at one another, now. Fjӧr’s statue regarded them all impassively.

What will it be? Tsaírin found herself wondering, not for the first time that day. What will the Stormfaith ask of us? Her hands squirmed in her lap, clutching and sweating. Outside, the thunder and lightning raged on as it had for weeks, and once again, the question she did not want to think about unfurled in her mind, unwanted.

Who will die? she asked herself, staring at the faces around her-the faces of her friends and kin. Her insides writhed in defiance, in fear. Which one of us will die?

Ytlara was weeping, now. She was going about it as quietly as she was able, but the sound was queerly amplified in the open anteroom. Her crying went on and on, and Tsaírin found herself wishing, savagely, that she would just shut up. She was opening her mouth to admonish her cousin into silence when she noticed the scarlet tendrils of Lethflower smoke creeping sinuously into the anteroom from under the sanctum door. Her mouth clamped shut again.

The door was opening.

Sýrstra Lhazar emerged alone, and glided to the altar. Her shoulders hunched like a vulture’s, she stared balefully out at all of them from the shadows of her hood. Her hands slid back and forth and up and down, restlessly along the altar’s edges. The red, poisonous smoke coiled lazily around her feet.

“A fortnight has passed, since the Great Storms have returned. When the moon waned into darkness, we entreated the gods for guidance. Our own Stormfather has spoken.”

Her voice was raspy and brittle, and each word burst out of her throat on a wheeze of tortured breath.

“She Who Walks Among the Ashes will be reborn. I have seen the sacred pillars of Lûnwath overflowing with the blood of murdered children. I have seen the temples burning. I have seen the reddening of the skies, and the poison rain that follows. I have seen famine. I have seen our doom, flying to us on the wings of crows.”

No, Tsaírin thought, as the understanding crashed upon her. Desperately, she sought her husband’s face. Her fear was reflected there, and she found no comfort.

“The Stormfather demands virgin blood to be brought to the Lightning Fields, and I have seen the faces of your daughters in the smoke. Mhorixya, of Ravenspire.”

Upon hearing her daughter’s name, Ytlara clutched her cheeks with her nails and let out a keening wail. Sobbing, she rocked back and forth. Ezrol slid his arms around her, but the gesture was empty and automatic. His face was bloodless.

“Ixlara, of Asarth.”

Athtýr did not say anything, and made no sound, but he looked upon the Priestess with murder in his eyes.

Thunder bellowed outside in the maelstrom, and for a moment, the entire temple was brightly-lit by the unforgiving incandescence of lightning. The rain pummeled and slammed relentlessly in time with a mother’s wails of anguish.

“Ilína, of Gallowspire,” the Priestess declared, inevitably. Tsaírin heard a rattling moan, somewhere far away, and realized that it was gurgling past her own lips.

“One, or all, will be chosen for the honor of sacrifice,” Lhazar rasped, and was gone.

Let it not be so, Tsaírin begged inwardly. She turned imploringly to the statue of Fjӧr. Not her. Have mercy. Let it not be my daughter.

As it ever was, the god did not answer. 

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