Ianira and Isolde must uncover their dark family history to combat a malevolent deity.
Isolde frantically slipped on a set of dark robes and fastened them with a hook around the neck. Attached to the hook was the Moonshiver family crest: a black circle depicting a silver crescent moon shining down on a predatory animal baring its fangs and howling at the moon. The creature was too small on the clasp to identify, but it faintly resembled a dire wolf. The rest of the robe had soft gray trim decorated with dark runes and a stripe of silver around the waistline, and they nearly reached the ground, hovering just above Isolde's gray slippers.
She'd lost all track of time when she was fooling around near the cliffs a few miles away from her house. She went there often to just be alone with her own thoughts and to peek up through a small crevasse in the rocky ceiling to spot a few golden rays of what the people living aboveground called the sun. Luckily she was used to running late everywhere and could probably make a very successful career for herself as a quick change artist.
Flipping back her braided, raven hair over her shoulder, she heaved the sigh of one resigned to her fate, and pulled her gauzy, gray veil over her head. Her braid had started coming undone hours ago from tumbling around near the cliffs, but she didn't much care, tucking the loose strands behind her ears and hoping no one would look too closely at the messy plait of hair down her back. The veil reached to her hips behind her, but it was more than a little see-through. Twirling around one more time before the mirror to make sure she was only borderline presentable, she decided her appearance would do, tugging the front of her veil down a quarter of an inch so it stopped slightly beyond the end of her nose. She always made sure to be just barely decent enough. It was one of the many, little ways she rebelled against her mother.
Just as she was about to grab her prayer beads, she heard a soft tap-tap on the door of her bedroom. She started to holler at the person on the other side of the door to hold on just a moment, but before the words could come out of her mouth, the door flung open. "Sis!" The intruder exclaimed. "We're about to -you aren't really going to go looking like that are you?" Isolde's older sister, Catriona, wrinkled her nose at Isolde's messy hair and bare face. "Don't you at least want a little blush or lip color? I can fix you up in no time!" She drew a brush and a cosmetic palette out of her purse and attempted to lift Isolde's veil. Isolde was going to have none of it and slapped away her sister's hands, used to Catriona's constant attempts to "fix" or "make up" her face or hair. "We don't have time." Isolde said, clasping her beads around her neck. The clasp was finicky, but years of having to put it on in the dark while she was running to make it on time to the temple had trained her nimble fingers well. She snatched her purse in one hand and rushed out the door, nearly tripping over her own feet in her hurry. Catriona followed her at a more dignified pace and closed the door to Isolde's room gently behind her.
Isolde sprinted down the empty corridors of the expansive manor, barely taking note of the family portraits hung on the walls as she raced to the drawing room in the front of the house where the rest of her family would no doubt be waiting. In the few times she wasn't in a hurry to get somewhere or do something else, she would walk the corridors, imagining in her head the stories she'd heard about her ancestors from her aunts and uncles. For some reason her mother kept her lips tightly shut when deceased members of the Moonshiver family arose in conversation. Isolde could only imagine reasons why, but she did not do so often. Her mother was a subject of little interest to her. Her mother, Belladonna Moonshiver, was the younger sister of the matriarch of the family and paid hardly any attention to Isolde. The only people she deemed worth her time were her sister, Asphodel, and eldest daughter, Ianira.
Isolde halted suddenly, brushed down her robes, and tucked strands of stray hair behind her ears. She straightened her veil and taking a deep breath, entered the drawing room. This room was one of the first anyone entering the manor would encounter and was designed to hold large numbers of occupants as it so often did in the evenings when guests of social, political, or religious importance were entertained at the Moonshiver estate. To accommodate such numbers comfortably, a plethora of furniture was arranged tastefully throughout the room.
Most of Isolde's siblings and family noticed her when she entered, but if her mother did, she gave no indication of it. As usual, Isolde slipped into an armchair in the back corner of the room and watched the low hum of soft conversation continue. Normally she would socialize with her uncles or older brothers and sisters, but today she was too tired from running a couple miles to get back home from the cliffs in time and decided to just watch her family. Her mother was between Asphodel and Ianira as usual, and the trio seemed to be in a light mood this afternoon, all three of them having genuinely pleasant facial expressions and chuckling every now and then at some remark or other. Belladonna flicked her dark brown hair over her shoulder, the silky tresses reaching just to her shoulder blades. She wasn't as slender as her older sister, but her figure was far curvier. Nevertheless, she had the same dignified stature, grace, and charm that her sister had. Isolde wasn't sure where her aunt got her pale blonde hair as most of the family had hair in various shades of brown and black, but with her porcelain skin, she was by far the fairest of the sisters with the most natural beauty. While Belladonna took care never to be seen without her face made up, her sister rarely applied any cosmetics to her face, a fact that Isolde admired greatly. Her personal philosophy was that most people looked better with nothing on their faces, but clearly the rest of the world did not agree with her. She wasn't sure if her aunt kept her face bare on purpose or if she simply didn't care. She normally assumed the latter as her aunt was more practically inclined than most of the other females in the house.
Ozul, the husband of the Moonshiver matriarch, hung back by the fireplace, leaning on the white wood mantle. He watched his wife, sister-in-law, and niece intently, his brow furrowed in a deep frown. He ran one hand through his thick, brown hair, which was in desperate need of a trim as well as the thick stubble on his chin. He was probably the most hulking beast Isolde had ever seen, and his abs were visible underneath almost all his form-fitting shirts. Girls and women alike ogled him whenever he went out in public, which wasn't often. Isolde had never been fond of the monosyllabic man, but lately he'd given her more reason than usual to dislike him. She'd seen him slinking around the manor several times within the past few weeks and had caught him suspiciously following his wife once. As if he could feel Isolde's watchful gaze on him, Ozul's eyes landed on Isolde, and she looked away quickly, her stomach squirming inside her in discomfort. She hoped she'd looked away in time, but she didn't dare risk even a quick peek to see if he was still looking at her or not. Instead, she turned her attention to her Aunt Kolfinna. Finn, as her sisters affectionately called her, was with her husband, and as usual, the two of them were in their own little world. Isolde would never admit it, but she was jealous of raven-haired Kolfinna. While she always swore she'd never court or marry anyone like her Aunt Kairos and several of her bachelor uncles, she secretly longed to have someone like her Uncle Wolfram for herself. She loved how intimately he knew his wife, and unlike most couples, they actually seemed to be content with each other. It was as if they had their own secret language or were dancing a dance that only they could hear the music to. She loved to watch the two of them when they were alone and had shamelessly spied on them in the past when they left the windows open. Somehow they could communicate without words, like they'd come straight out of one of Catriona's romance novels. If only she could run away with her own Wolfram...
"- are we waiting on?" Catriona's theatrically loud voice pulled Isolde out of her wishful thinking. Apparently her older sister had finally made it into the drawing room.
"Only Uncle Athanasius." Belladonna answered, tapping her foot softly. Athanasius was the second sibling of the older Moonshiver generation, and he was notorious for being late to everything, a fact which irked Belladonna greatly. Isolde didn't know how he was still as high ranking as he was (which was not all that high, actually) in the military, but anything that irritated her mother amused her. It was always a pleasure to see Belladonna get all worked up, and it was even more of a pleasure when her sister the matriarch put her in her place. It didn't happen often as Asphodel highly respected her younger sister, but every now and then the matriarch saw fit to remind her sister her place when she started to get out of hand. Isolde, honestly, was surprised at the amount and magnitude of things her mother was able to get away with. In the other important houses, the matriarchs carried out strict punishments for even the slightest misstep. She supposed it had to do with the fact that Belladonna and Asphodel were best friends, a strange relationship for a matriarch to have with her sister, or anyone for that matter. It might have something to do with-
"-sorry, everyone." Isolde's sharp ears picked up the gentle apology of her tardy uncle.
"Ath, the day you're on time will be the day that hell freezes over." Killian, another of Isolde's uncles, teased.
Athanasius grinned sheepishly and rubbed the back of his neck, glancing at Asphodel out of the corner of his eye. The tension in his shoulders relaxed once he saw the ghost of a smile cross his sister's lips. "Sorry..." He apologized again, averting his eyes to the ground.
Asphodel sighed softly. "Be on time tomorrow, or there will be consequences."
"Of course, sis- er, Matriarch." Athanasius bowed slightly and kept his gaze on her sister's shoes until she turned around to lead her family out the front door of the manor.
Isolde fell in line with her sisters, bringing up the rear of the procession as the youngest family member. Asphodel, of course, led the line out to the gravel drive where carriages pulled by pitch black horses with glowing amber eyes awaited to take them to the temple. Ozul was by her side, looking a bit uncomfortable, but Isolde shrugged it off. He always seemed uneasy anytime they left the manor, as well he should. While the Moonshivers were powerful and highly respected, they had no shortage of enemies among both common folk and the aristocracy, and murders bathed the cobblestoned city streets with blood daily. Like many of the other large cities nearby, Halona was a dangerous place to live.
Ever-burning torches sustained by magic lined the walls of the manor, lighting the dark outside. Before being forced into a suffocating carriage, Isolde looked up at the rocky ceiling high above, enjoying her last moments of fresh air for the next several hours. She'd never been aboveground before, but she dreamed of it constantly. What few things she'd been able to find out fascinated her. This blue thing the people above ground called the sky sounded simply magnificent, and she longed to bound through endless prairies and plains, roll down grassy hills, and bathe in the rays of a distant, warm orb called the sun.
She felt a tap on her shoulder and realized that her brothers were waiting on her to hop in the final carriage. The rest of her family must have gotten settled while she was daydreaming again. She stepped up on the outside ledge and scooted all the way down so she could look out the window. Her three brothers sat down beside and across from her, and one of them pulled the curtains down over the windows. Isolde pouted and stuck her tongue out at the two across from her. "You know the rules, sis. It's for you own safety."
"I'm going to die of claustrophobia in here." Isolde crossed her arms, sulking. "It's for my own safety that the curtains be removed from the windows."
Lycidas, the one who'd spoken and pulled down the curtains, rolled his eyes.
Even though all three of her brothers were older than her, they always rode in the last carriage with her as they were male. Isolde sometimes thought that the matriarchy was stupid (as she thought nearly everything was), but there was always someone who was quick to remind her, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that there was a reason the women were in charge. Females had a natural knack for the magic that fueled their city, and they lacked many of the primal instincts in males that had led their cities to destruction and utter ruin in the past. Males could still hold positions of honor and serve their city and kingdom in multiple ways, but the decision-making should be left to the monarchy and the priestesses who spoke directly to the high goddess Nerys.
Isolde blew puffs of air up at her veil in sheer boredom and watched the gauzy fabric swing back and forth. "You've no idea how annoying this thing is." She grumbled, wrinkling her nose at the fabric. When none of her brothers responded, she kept talking. "Seriously. It inhibits your vision and is literally the dumbest thing ever." A glance to her left informed her that her brother Arawn, who was sitting next to her, was biting back a grin. She smirked and elbowed him in the side playfully. Arawn flicked her hard on the ear with his middle finger, chuckling when she stuck her tongue out at him. "No fair! That actually really hurt..." She rubbed her throbbing ear, discarding her veil in the process.
Her third brother, Melchior, gave her a look. "Better not let Mother catch you with your veil off." He warned sternly. Isolde scoffed at her more serious brother. "I'm fine, Mel." She shrugged, brushing away his concern. "It's not like Mom can see through walls or anything."
"Or can she?" Arawn asked in a hushed, yet dramatic voice, wiggling his eyebrows at both his brothers.
Isolde grinned, but Melchior just shook his head and folded his hands. "You really shouldn't call Mother something so casual like that." He rebuked Isolde gently.
Isolde snorted. "Oh, she has the ears of a bat now?"
Arawn snickered. "I think bat ears would rather suit Mother. She has the right face shape for them."
"Both of you are being extremely disrespectful right now." Melchior reprimanded them. "Just because Mother isn't here doesn't mean you shouldn't behave and show her the respect she deserves." He sighed, rubbing his left temple. "Lycidas, back me up here."
Lycidas shifted in his seat. "I really shouldn't..."
"And why not?" Melchior inquired.
"Because." Arawn answered for his twin. "Men are all confounded fools." He said in a rather ridiculous voice, quoting a phrase he'd heard his mother use many times. "And their stomachs and dicks are where their brains are supposed to be." He added.
That was enough to make Lycidas, who had been trying to keep a straight face this entire time, crack. At first, his lips curled upwards. Then, he flashed his teeth in a wide grin, and finally he entered a coughing fit, trying to disguise his chuckles.
Melchior recoiled at Arawn's words. "Mother does not use such vulgar language!"
"I know. I embellished." Arawn replied, still shaking with laughter.
The look of disgust on Melchior's face deepened when Isolde finally burst out laughing. "Young ladies should not be laughing at such foul language. This is entirely inappropriate!"
Isolde scoffed at him and then proceeded to ignore him entirely. "Mom's voice goes up an octave whenever someone brings men up."
"Young lady, that is not an acceptable way to refer to your mother." Melchior scolded her, but the only one who bothered to acknowledge his reprimand was Arawn.
"I always knew you weren't actually our brother." The younger twin teased, tousling his brother's slicked back, chestnut brown hair. Melchior shrank back into his seat and smoothed his hair back down.
The remark really made no sense. Out of the four of them, Melchior was most like their mother with his respectful mannerisms and proper etiquette present at all times. Lycidas knew his place too, but Melchior seemed to be the only one of the brothers who somewhat enjoyed it, although Isolde knew Lycidas didn't mind being seen and not heard. Arawn's older twin had always been the shyest of the siblings. He only spoke freely around Arawn and Isolde, guarding his words even around his younger brother Melchior. If his speech seemed reserved around Melchior, it was just about nonexistent around his sisters. Isolde prided herself on being the exception. It had taken her a long time to get Lycidas to trust her, although with her lack of patience she'd given up several times, Arawn being the only one able to encourage her to try and try again until she succeeded.
Melchior 'tsked' and crossed his arms, deciding to ignore his idiot siblings for the remainder of the ride, which was perfectly fine with Isolde. The twins fell into silence, Lycidas staring into space as usual. Arawn was fidgeting in his seat and fiddling with his clothes; he never could sit still very well for long periods of time. Isolde was sure that temple prayers were more torture for him than they were for her. She had trouble focusing too, but Arawn had it the worst. She'd usually catch him tapping the tops of his feet on the floor while he was kneeling or twiddling his thumbs anxiously or playing with his tunic or the prayer beads strung around his neck and wrist. Once he was more restless than usual and accidentally broke his prayer bracelet, beads clattering to the floor and rolling all through the temple. Isolde remembered thinking that Mother was going to kill him later in private. When Arawn came out of their parents' bedroom, his furious expression said it all. Unfortunately, Arawn never learned from his mistakes and continued to mess around with his prayer beads at the temple even after Mother punished him harshly. Although, from Isolde's perspective, being a male was punishment enough in their matriarchal society. Still, she did envy them. Like all the females in her family, she was expected to become a priestess when she was old enough, and she had no interest whatsoever in becoming one and dedicating her life to serving the will of the high goddess Nerys. She'd much rather be a subservient male than a priestess like her mother and aunts were. Even her two oldest sisters were in the process of becoming one, and all the tests they'd had to complete looked anything but fun. But if fasting and spending hours praying in the temple listening for a voice wasn't fun, then the trials to come were just flat-out torture and -"ow!" Arawn exclaimed as the carriage drove over a loose rock on the cobblestoned street entering the city. He rubbed his lower back as best he could without elbowing Isolde in the cramped space. "Sorry, sis." He apologized when he accidentally brushed her arm with his elbow.
Isolde shrugged it off. "It's fine; there's not really much space in here anyway." Normally she would take any excuse to be mad at someone, but she never could very mad at Arawn - at least not for very long anyway. Sighing, she peeked out the window while her brothers were preoccupied with their own thoughts. Carts and stalls were all crammed together on either side of the street, and their owners displayed their wares and shouted out their prices. One particularly tall man in a pair of dusty overalls stood in front of his fruit stall yelling out the deal of the day: a dozen moonberries for five copper pieces. Isolde didn't mind the food that grew underground, but she much preferred the fruit from aboveground when her friend Nikolae could get them for her. Sadly, since he'd been away several months in another city, her tongue had been deprived of citrusy oranges and sweet blueberries.
"Hey, how much do you want to bet that Aunt Asphodel actually punishes Uncle Athanasius this time?" Apparently Arawn couldn't stand the silence any longer. Lycidas smiled softly, covering his mouth with one hand so that Melchior wouldn't see.
Asphodel put on a stern exterior, but unlike most matriarchs, she had a soft spot for her brothers. Isolde had never been able to find out why; whenever she'd brought it up she'd been dismissed, even by Aunt Kolfinna, the gentlest and kindest of the elder generation. Asphodel would punish her family members sometimes, but only if it was absolutely necessary. The matriarch seemed to like to find other ways to solve conflict or correct disrespect, although to Isolde it seemed that her peaceful strategies rarely worked. Uncle Athanasius would continue to be late no matter how many times she reprimanded or threatened him until she actually did something about it. If Grandma Moonshiver were still alive, Athanasius would probably be crippled permanently by all the lashings she would have given him for his tardiness, not to mention the way he thought he had an opinion. The more outspoken Killian would have been dead. Isolde didn't remember her grandmother very well, but she'd heard stories about the great Morrigan Moonshiver, one of the highest and most powerful priestesses of Nerys.
"I'll bet anything she won't." Isolde replied, smirking at all three of her brothers.
"You really have no say in what happens. Aunt Asphodel is the matriarch, and we shouldn't be putting her down behind her back. We could get executed for that." Melchior reminded her.
"Maybe if you lived in the Deathshadow family." Arawn teased. "I think the safest place for men to be right now is the Moonshiver Manor."
"Unless you're not of the elder generation." Melchior interjected. "You weren't safe that one time Aunt Asphodel had you beaten for putting spiders in a guest's bedroom, Arawn."
"Oy!" Arawn cried. "We follow Nerys devoutly, and she loves spiders."
"First of all, it's High Goddess Nerys; not even the highest priestesses are allowed to refer to her so informally. Secondly, you don't know what The High Goddess likes. You're not a priestess."
"One of her symbols is the spider, you prick." Arawn retorted, not liking the tone his younger brother was taking with him.
Melchior scoffed. "The spider was attributed to her by her followers, not-"
"-because she used spiders to do her bidding." Arawn interrupted.
"That doesn't mean she likes them. It just means they served a purpose."
"Why would she use something she didn't like?"
"You have to eat well to remain healthy whether or not you like the taste of vegetables."
"That's not even the same thing!"
"-would you both shut up about Nerys?" Isolde snapped.
Melchior fell silent and sank back into his seat. Arawn glared at her and crossed his arms. "Fine, sis. Are our sisters teasing you about your lack of aptitude for priesthood again?"
The remark struck a sensitive chord within Isolde. "Shut. Up." She growled through clenched teeth. "It's not like you're any better than I am. If anything, you're a whole lot worse."
Arawn snarled at her. "Just because I'm a male?"
"Not just that." Isolde fired back, seething.
"Someday I'm going to get out of this shithole." Arawn swore, leaning his head against the wall behind him and closing his eyes.
Melchior heaved an exasperated sigh at Arawn's language but didn't bother to correct him. Even he was scared of the wrath of his second brother.
The rest of the ride to the temple was silent as Isolde and Arawn both seethed, Melchior sat looking very uncomfortable, and Lycidas stared into space. When the vessel finally stopped moving, the door opened, and Isolde followed her brothers out of the carriage, not even bothering to look at the footman holding the door for her. She was used to the servants everywhere around them by now. She'd spent about eighty years of her life in their constant presence. The only way to get out from under their watchful eyes and be truly free was to sneak out of the manor without being seen.
As the coachmen drove the carriages away to wait until temple was over, Isolde flicked her veil back over her head, hoping her mother hadn't seen her without it covering her face. She brushed down her robes, centered her prayer beads, and re-tucked the loose strands of hair behind her ears, so her mother wouldn't scold her about her messy appearance. A quick peek to the left informed her that her mother was doing her routine lookover of all her siblings.
Belladonna nodded approvingly of her eldest sister, fixed the next sister's eyeliner with her thumb nail, brushed down the shoulders of Lycidas's jacket, sighed heavily at Arawn and fixed his lopsided tunic, and made corrections to the rest of Isolde's siblings. Wait, why am I doing this? I really don't care what Mother thinks of me. She mussed up her hair a little bit, rubbed the tops of her slippers on the dirty cobblestones, twisted her prayer beads, and tugged her veil down on one side to make it lopsided. There. That's better. When her mother reached her, she frowned and glared at her youngest daughter. "What are you thinking?" She hissed. Isolde flinched and took a step backwards to regain some of her personal space. The action was in vain as her mother only stepped closer to her. "You are a mess! I don't even know where to begin! Your hair looks like a scullery maid's, and you look like you haven't taken a bath in four days." Ouch, that one actually is true... Isolde thought wryly. Her mother yanked on her arm and pulled her back in line to enter the temple. "Embarrass me again, and you'll be wishing you were a lowly, stupid man." She threatened in her ear as she walked to the front of the line to join her sisters.
Isolde's face became ashen, and she pulled her veil down farther in front of her face. She didn't dare look back to see the smirk that would surely be on Melchior's face. If anyone here needs to learn their place, it's him, and I'm not going to give him the satisfaction of turning around to acknowledge that stupid look on his face. With a huff, she followed her sisters to the steps, dread settling in the pit of her stomach as she drew closer to the dark, looming temple.
The temple was easily the largest building on the street, towering over the nearby shops and houses. The double doors located just up the steps were at least eight feet high, and intricate designs were etched into the steel. Most of them depicted stories of Nerys and a few other gods and goddesses. Eight pillars were located on either side of and before the doors. Each pillar represented one of the powerful families in Halona that had pledged themselves in servitude to the High Goddess. The middle left pillar to the right of the door had the shield of the Moonshivers carved in the center, and howling and leaping dire wolves and silver, crescent moons filled the rest of the nine foot tall pillar. The pillar next to the Moonshivers' and closer to the doors bore silhouettes of people in long, dark cloaks in all sorts of positions: standing, crouching, running, attacking, and so on. There were also painted swords and shields that signified the long history of military service of the Deathshadow family. Their family crest was a shield depicting a shadowy figure that was part beast and part man wielding a sword shining silver and aiming at a crouched figure at the bottom of the shield. Isolde remembered hearing the story about how they got their name, but she couldn't recall it, which, to anyone who knew Isolde, wasn't a surprise. She had the worst attention span, second only to Arawn. Her mind was constantly wandering, usually towards the barren cliffs a few miles from her home or the hidden world aboveground. Sometimes she wondered if the people up there knew there was a vast civilization right underneath them. Well, if she thought about it, there were some people who knew. Traders, mostly, and sometimes the occasional lost traveler, though there were city guards that never let anyone from the surface world through the gates and any innocent wanderers were killed on sight. Traders rarely entered the city, and even then, it was through secret passages used mainly by smugglers and other criminals. That was how Nikolae got food and trinkets and tools from aboveground. He and his father made a living by illegally selling them to other people in Halona and nearby cities. Isolde often wished she could help them, but Nikolae was always insistent that she stay out of trouble, especially with the family name she bore. In the past, Nikolae had compared her life to being unequally yoked. She had far more responsibilities and far less freedom than most people in Halona since she was constantly under scrutiny by her family, the other powerful houses, and the common people. Isolde had noted that he left out Nerys in that list, which had seemed odd at first since the worst scrutiny she was under was that of the gods and goddesses, mainly the High Goddess Nerys. But gradually his disbelief in Nerys became transparent. For some reason he believed in almost all of the lesser deities, but he refused to acknowledge the existence and power of Nerys. Going to temple every week must be highly difficult for a person with as much passion as he.
Isolde's eyes drifted to the farthest pillar on her right. It was mostly painted with gold stars and silver clouds and white swirls of wind. This pillar was dedicated to the Starshine family, which, coincidentally, was her father's family, but she'd never met any of his relatives. The Starshines were falling into decline, and Isolde was at a loss to explain why another family hadn't overtaken their position already. They must still have some power left.
Suddenly, she felt a hard kick on her right leg. "Hey!" She hissed, whirling around to face her attacker.
"You were dragging your feet again, sis." Arawn explained, motioning for her to turn around and catch up with the rest of their family. Isolde sighed and trotted after her sisters and mother. She took the steps up two at a time and slowed down once she entered the grand doors, biting her bottom lip and breathing deeply to soothe her anxiety. She always felt like she was suffocating in the temple, or in any temple for that matter. An attendant stood just inside the door to take her cloak for her, and Isolde slipped it off and handed it to the younger girl, barely looking at her as she walked past. She parked her shoes against the wall next to Arawn and Catriona's and followed her sister through the hall that led to one of the main rooms. The short walk there was silent, as once you exited the antechamber of the temple you were not permitted to speak unless you were a priestess.
When they entered the room, there were already several people there kneeling on soft mats. Without a word, Isolde selected a roll and joined her older sisters and cousins near the front. Melchior, the twins, and her uncles sat in the back as the rules dictated. Belladonna, her aunts, and her two oldest sisters were nowhere in sight, so they must be praying and worshipping in other rooms. Her mother was probably leading the worship in the room reserved for the elite with Aunt Asphodel, and Aunt Kolfinna was probably doing the same in one of the back rooms for the more common people. Isolde's eldest sister and Belladonna's younger sister, Aunt Kairos, might be helping either Asphodel and Belladonna or Kolfinna or performing the ritual sacrifice. Isolde wasn't sure which was true.
She peered down the line of her siblings and cousins, counting them mentally in her head from left to right in age order: Velika, Catriona, Melantha, Badriyah... And then her cousins to her right: Eirlys, Ennata... She even counted her uncles, father, and brothers behind her before the priestess entered: Wolfram, Athanasius, Ozul, Lucien, Killian, Silvan, Eoghan, Lycidas, Arawn, Melchior...
The room was more than adequate in size, but Isolde still felt trapped. Unconsciously, she was clenching her teeth and digging her nails into the palms of her hands. Luckily she had a bad nail-biting habit, so she was unable to draw blood from her hands. She would never hear the end of it if she stained the temple floor. She sucked in a deep breath but was a bit stunned at how shaky the exhale was. Her stomach was sinking inside her, and her feet and calves were twitching a little, anxious to get up and move around. Maybe this is what Arawn feels like... She barely had the will power to think about something other than how heavy the air she was breathing felt.
She jumped and somehow managed not to shriek when she felt something warm and heavy on her right shoulder. Snapping her head around revealed that it was only her older cousin, Eirlys. Are you okay? Eirlys mouthed, the striking blue eyes she'd inherited from Ozul widening with concern. Isolde merely nodded in response, but it must not have been very convincing, because Eirlys gave her a small, sympathetic smile and patted her twice on the back. Isolde tried to smile back, but her heart wasn't in it, causing the smile to look more like a grimace as her bare feet tapped against the metal floor just like Arawn's did.
Luckily, her silent conversation with her cousin ended abruptly as everyone kneeling in the room stiffened their posture in anticipation of the coming priestess, whose jangling anklets and bracelets foretold her arrival. Isolde straightened her back and fought to keep her feet still. She would do anything to get rid of this looming fear, this claustrophobic anxiety that had suddenly decided to follow her today. The restless feeling in the pit of her stomach weighing her down only worsened when the priestess entered quietly and kneeled on her own mat facing the rows of silent worshippers. Isolde tried her best not to squirm on her mat, but she noticed the priestess sending an irritated look her way. Desperate not to draw any more attention to herself, she kept her head down, only looking up when she couldn't feel the priestess's eyes on her. The priestess seemed familiar for some reason... The woman had shoulder-length dark hair in natural waves and skin almost as ghostly pale as Isolde's eldest sister. She had murky, black eyes behind her veil and a petite figure and couldn't be taller than 5'1... Oh! That's Priestess Odile Deathshadow! Isolde fought down a shiver at the name. There weren't as many Deathshadow priestesses as there were Moonshiver priestesses, but the great house was still very powerful because their reach extended deep into the military and law enforcement.
Guess I better pray long and hard that this weirdly strong anxiety goes away, so I don't sign my own termination order. She heaved a silent sigh and wiggled her toes that she was sitting on to release the excess energy without being caught by Odile. The repetitive movement helped a little, but she was still desperate to get out and breathe lighter air.
Odile stretched her arms out in front of her, palms up, and softly chanted in an ancient language that Isolde recognized as Abyssian. She wasn't sure what some of the words Odile used meant, but she knew enough to get the general gist of it. Besides, in afternoon worship, the priestesses generally said the same thing over and over again. These sessions were more for spending time to meditate and pray to show obedience and gratitude to High Goddess Nerys for protecting them in the Great Wars and allowing them to prosper in their homes underneath the surface.
Isolde's toes continued to wiggle, and her sharp ears caught the faint sound of Arawn gently tapping his fingers on the hard floor. The sound only made her more restless and anxious. Frustrated, she closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on what she was supposed to be doing. High Goddess Nerys... She started, biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself focused. I don't mean to be so distracted. Forgive me, Goddess. She inhaled slowly and grasped the pendant around her neck with her left hand, doing anything to help her concentrate. The pendant hung around her neck and was attached to a leather strip that was tied behind her neck. It was a thunderbird flying with its wings outstretched, a symbol of Nerys. She wasn't sure what one of the legendary birds had to do with the High Goddess, but she turned the thought away, wanting only to slow down her mind. Underneath her, her feet wiggled faster than before as she imagined herself reaching out in the dark, searching for a life line to pull her safety. She bit her tongue hard and attempted to catch the butterfly of focus in her own mind. She gave chase, leaping and running, but still could not snatch it out of the air. The creature was too small and lithe, but she kept on, ignoring the aching in her chest, the burning in her legs, and the throbbing pain in her head. Her running slowed as her weary body started shaking, but somehow it felt like she was moving, though she was so paralyzed with pain that she couldn't move a muscle. How...
Something yanked her up to her feet by her arm. "C'mon!" Eirlys shouted, dragging Isolde behind her towards the antechamber they entered earlier. The ground trembled underneath her, and if it hadn't been for her cousin, she wouldn't have been able to get through the hallway on her weak, stiff legs. Sitting on them for so long must have caused them to cramp up. In the antechamber, she barely noticed Catriona trying to find her cloak and shoes and only because Eirlys grabbed her sister by the arm and shoved her out the door. Eirlys guided Isolde down the steps and let go of her once they were in the middle of the cobblestoned street. "Stay here." She ordered. Isolde nodded, but she was dazed and didn't really hear anything her cousin said to her and Catriona. Hell, she didn't even realize that Catriona was standing next to her. "I hope the temple doesn't collapse and ruin my new cloak." Catriona fretted. Isolde was still in shock. Normally, she would have called out her sister for being extremely petty and vain, but she didn't have the strength to do that. At the moment, she didn't have the strength to do much of anything. She could barely keep her balance, and there was nothing near her to hold onto. She felt a pair of arms hug her, and as slow as a sloth, her own arms embraced whoever this being was. Despite her throbbing headache, she watched the temple shake, unable to look away no matter how hard her brain screamed at her to shut her eyes. Everything looked darker and grayer. The torches' lights were dim, and a gray haze seemed to settle over everything. In the background, she heard shouts and crashes and noises from the distressed horses, but she couldn't process all the information, confusion blurring every stimulus.
A dark-haired soldier came running up to her, staring at her in concern. "Are you two okay?
He asked, waving his hand in front of Isolde's face. All she could do to communicate that she was fine to him was to blink a few times. "We're okay. I think she's just in shock." A distant female voice replied.
"Get her somewhere where she can lie down, and someone will take a look at her." The soldier said, watching Isolde with reflective, bright green eyes. Isolde stared right into his eyes, feeling like she was watching the blue-green waves of the ocean tossing and roiling and raging and boiling in his irises. Her head cleared, and she found that she could breathe normally now. A breeze swept her veil off her face, and the world was no longer all gray and dark. She became aware that she was leaning heavily on her sister and tried to support some of her own weight, which was challenging since the ground was still trembling underneath her feet. Everything slowed down, and it felt like she'd watched the waves crashing in the soldier's peculiar eyes for an eternity. But all at once those vibrant eyes turned to her sister, and Isolde's thoughts became muddled and blurry once again.
"Thank you." The female voice spoke again.
Then the strange eyes were gone, and Isolde collapsed onto her sister.
People poured out of the temple, panicking and looking frantically for their loved ones. Isolde barely had the presence of mind to hope that her brothers and cousin would make it out okay. People gathered around her, possibly her family, but she was too tired to do anything but lean on the person holding her and close her eyes...