Shilpy wanted to run, hide, or slip back into her bed where it was safe. At this time of night, most sixteen-year-old girls would be watching television, doing their homework, tweeting, or sneaking out of their houses to date boys. They wouldn’t be kneeling naked in the middle of a sweat tent with a nude woman three times their age.
Curfew was an hour ago, and Shilpy’s sisters were in their dorm rooms fast asleep. Tonight, it was her turn to complete the Ritual of Seers, which would determine her fate one way or another. If she failed, she’d join the ranks of her sisters, and might one day escape to find an ordinary life. If she succeeded? Shilpy didn’t want to think about that.
She brushed damp strands of dark hair from her lips. The sweat from her naked body dripped from her caramel skin onto the bamboo mat where she kneeled. The taste of smoke burned her tongue and throat even as numbness crept under her skin, dulling her thinking. She blinked several times at the strangeness of the feeling, unsure if she liked it or not.
The older woman sharing the tent with her, the woman Shilpy was required to call Mother, kneeled with her back erect and head held high. She made no effort to hide her naked flesh. It made Shilpy feel even more exposed. Self-consciously, she hunched over, protecting her modesty from the woman opposite.
This mother’s name was Angela Wick. Until tonight, Shilpy had received very little attention from Mother Angela, despite being in her care for the last five years. There were times when she’d spot Mother Angela watching her from a distance, but she couldn’t remember the last time they’d spoken.
Mother reached for a small box resting on the left side of the tent. From the box, she removed a candle, and then lit a match. The flame illuminated her wrinkled face and dark eyes.
“The sensation,” Mother said, no doubt referring to the building numbness, “differs from one sister to the next. A side effect of the vegetation within the brazier. Many of your sisters find the effect pleasant. However, should you wish to vomit, please warn me.”
Pursing her lips in concentration, Mother Angela retrieved a small three-inch blade resting at the corner of the tatami. The smile on the older woman’s face bordered on demonic in the candlelight. Staring down the vicious knife, her eyes bore into Shilpy. She began cleaning the blade with a cloth.
Shilpy shifted uncomfortably. The silence building between them was only heightening her anxiety.
“How did my mother react to the elixir when she completed the ritual?” Shilpy asked. “Did she throw up?” She immediately regretted saying anything.
Mother Angela’s brows rose. “I wasn’t present when Aanya completed the Ritual of Seers.” She pursed her lips. “Best not to dwell on memories of her.”
Shilpy clenched her hands into fists. Best not to dwell? How could she forget her own flesh and blood? Mother Angela extinguished the heat of Shilpy’s anger with an icy glare, and the girl returned to protecting her nudity. Mother Angela nodded to herself and ran the blade along her finger. A bubble of blood swelled before falling onto the candle and staining the wax.
“Your mother was our finest seer, but I am your mother now. I’m the one who cared for, fed, and educated you and your sister. I’m the one who provided a roof over your head, a place to belong, and a hundred sisters to protect, support, and fight beside you.” Her eyes returned to Shilpy, who dropped her gaze to the mat between them. “The night is with us always.”
“My sisters protect, support, and fight, but they don’t love,” Shilpy said, again before she could stop herself.
“Love?” Mother Angela’s voice filled with scorn. “It is time to put childish things like love behind you, daughter. Yours is a higher calling.”
Shilpy didn’t want to answer to a higher calling, to be considered one of the blessed, revered above her sisters. She had no interest in serving Mother Angela’s family, Keres Ter Nyx, the Daughters of Nyx, to the end of her days. She’d always hated it here. Why couldn’t she leave with her real sister, Aaliyah?
“Shilpy, you understand. Don’t you?”
“Yes, Mother.” Shilpy continued looking at the mat.
Angela smiled and passed the knife to her. As she sliced the blade along her own skin, Shilpy bit her lip to avoid crying out. She positioned her hand over the candle, and her blood slid onto the wax, adding to the stain left by Angela.
“Now, close your eyes and we shall see if you, like your birth mother, are one of the blessed.”
Shilpy nodded, and did as she’d been told.
“Good, now tell me what you see,” Mother Angela whispered into her ear.
A familiar moment of disorientation followed. In truth, Shilpy didn’t need the smoke to encourage a vision. She’d always known she could see things others couldn’t.
But still, her curse was stimulated by the smoke. It wrapped itself around her mind like a wet cloth. The numbness on her skin was replaced with a sense of freedom, as if she were flying and could go anywhere or any when. She floated, not quite in control of where she was going, but not wishing to control it. Easier to surrender to the bliss.
The feeling of clay tiles under the balls of her feet brought her back from the void. The stale air tasted faintly of minerals, provoking her tastebuds. Howling wind and a strange cracking of rock on rock echoed around her.
“Tell me what you see,” Mother Angela repeated.
Other than her birth mother, no one else knew of her curse. A secret she’d carried all her life. Now, all thoughts of protecting this from Mother Angela had been washed away. She remembered her concern, but it seemed unimportant now. The vision had her, and she was its voice.
“There are buildings surrounding me. I can see cafés and restaurants inside them. On my right, steps lead down to an outdoor theatre. It has a large screen like a cinema. I think this is Melbourne CBD. I’m at Federation Square, and I’m alone.” She lifted her head upwards. “I see—”
She screamed, and a sudden coldness struck her core. Impossible. What she saw was impossible.
“Tell me,” Angela said, her tone both excited and concerned.
“The sky is gone. There is a rock ceiling miles above me. It’s everywhere. It stretches from one horizon to the next.” Her instinct to curl into a ball overrode any further thought, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the rock canopy above her.
Countless stalactites hung from the roof. Many were the size of mountains, with the largest dangling above the tallest buildings in the city. They reached down towards Melbourne like epic swords of Damocles. Between these were smaller formations of soda straws, thin clusters of mineral tubes and curtains of rock. Some of these tubes were so small they oscillated in the wind. Shilpy shivered. “It’s like someone took the whole world and put it inside a giant cave.”
“What else do you see?” Angela asked. She seemed to be struggling to remain calm. “Can you see the sun?”
“No. I told you. The whole city is inside a cave!”
“Then where is the light coming from?”
Shilpy frowned. She twirled around in a circle, but the cave ceiling stretched in every direction. The light illuminating the city and indeed the cave had a green tint to it.
“There is something above me. I can only see it if I look at it from the right angle. It shimmers like sun on water.” Shilpy reached up and brushed her fingers against the surface. “It’s like cloth, but transparent. It covers everything.”
The substance pulsed with an inner glow where her fingers had touched. The pulse became a ripple and then turned into a wave of light travelling along the translucent canopy, deeper into the centre of Melbourne.
A second pulse appeared, and this one darted over the tram tracks in the same direction. It paused, and seemed to beckon her to follow.
Unsure what to do, Shilpy stood in the middle of the paved square. The roof above her mocked gravity but seemed stable. Her initial horror subsided. Shilpy swallowed and allowed her eyes to return to the light. She took another step forward. The light darted from side to side excitedly. Another step. The light leaped forward. Wrapping her arms around her waist, she followed it down Swanston Street.
“A light is leading me somewhere,” she told Mother Angela. “The streets are empty. I can’t see any people. The trams and taxis are empty. The signs on the shopfronts and billboards are all blank.”
Walking through empty streets and past deserted buildings, which ordinarily would have bustled with people, gave her the jitters. She half expected to catch sight of someone, anyone. But her only companion was silence and the small light ahead. The light picked up speed, and Shilpy had to break into a jog to keep up. “I see something. People. I see three people standing in the middle of the road a block away. I don’t think they see me.”
“Describe them to me,” Angela said. Shilpy crept closer.
“They’re women—one is young and slender with pale skin and brown hair. She is very pretty. The second is maybe forty or fifty. Her hair is flecked with grey and her face is lined with wrinkles. The last is old. No, old doesn’t describe her. She’s ancient. Everything about her looks ready to wither away.”
“What are they doing?”
“They’re working on the cloth above me. They’re making it. Each has a task: the young woman spins the thread; the mature woman is using a needle to weave the thread into the cloth; the crone has scissors. She’s cutting the thread.” Shilpy squinted, watching the three labouring together. The pattern shimmered and danced with lights every time a new strand was woven into the material.
“The Moirai!” Angela cried. “You see the goddesses of fate themselves!”
Yes, this felt right. Shilpy frowned, trying to remember what her mother had taught her about the goddesses, the children of Nyx. Nyx was the goddess of night and mother of all other gods. The young woman was Clotho the Spinner, who decided the time of birth for each man and woman; the mature woman was Lachesis the Weaver, who determined every person’s fate and the events that would happen in their lives; and the ancient woman was Atropos the Severer, who chose the moment one must die.
Shilpy looked from one to the next. Then a flicker of light from the tapestry made her look up.
“Something is wrong with the tapestry. I see a strange bead. No, a glass ball, tangled inside the mist. It’s ruining the pattern of lights.” Shilpy watched the light dance across the cloth until it reached the bead. Then it pulsed out in all directions from that spot, like ripples on a pond.
“What is it?” Angela asked. But before Shilpy could answer, the three goddesses stopped working. Their gazes lifted until they concentrated on the bead.
“The Star of Fate,” Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos said in unison.
“It’s the Star of Fate,” Shilpy said.
“Impossible,” Angela said. “How can you even see this?”
The three goddesses spoke in harmony again. “They come! The three for whom we have waited have come. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, for they are near.”
“What’s happening?” Angela seized her by the arm. The moment Angela touched Shilpy, the three goddesses twisted on the spot and fixed her with a sharp stare. Even in its drugged haze, Shilpy’s blood went cold.
“One watches.” Lachesis the Weaver lifted her arm and pointed at Shilpy. “One sees what she should not.”
“They see me.” Shilpy half said, half moaned.
Atropos the Severer leaned up and with bony fingers picked a thread from the tapestry. “I have her.” She raised her scissors and placed the thread between the blades.
“No, please no,” Shilpy whimpered.
“Come back to me.” Angela’s voice sounded so far away. Shilpy willed herself to open her eyes, but the crone’s withered hand squeezed tighter around the thread. Shilpy couldn’t breathe.
A sharp pain across her cheek forced her eyes to snap open. Angela was holding her naked body down on the tatami. Hot steam and foul-tasting smoke flooded her lungs.
The look of concern on Angela’s face transformed to one of relief, and she laughed. “Oh, my blessed child. My true daughter of Nyx. You had me worried.”
“I’m going to die. She grabbed my thread. The crone, she, she . . .”
“Shhh,” Angela said soothingly, covering Shilpy’s forehead with kisses. “She cannot hurt you here. The gods blessed you. This changes everything.”
Shilpy pulled away. “You don’t understand,” she said, her voice rising to a shriek. “They are the goddesses of fate. They can do whatever they want. Keres Ter Nyx, me, you—we mean nothing to them.”
“Daughter.” Angela’s voice became hard. “You mustn’t talk like that. The night is with us always.”
“No, it’s not! We’re not blessed, we’re ants. Our whole family, everything we believe in is a lie. The tapestry is all they care about.”
Angela shook her head. “You mustn’t talk like that,” she repeated.
“They choose the path we walk. They’re horrible. The most evil things I’ve ever seen.”
Shilpy didn’t see the knife plunge into her soft flesh. It was too dark. But that darkness had saved her life. Angela had missed her stomach. Shilpy screamed and clutched her hip. Blood oozed between her fingers. Her eyes widened, and she looked up at the head of her order.
“I’m sorry, dear. Whether you’re blessed or not, I can’t afford to have the others lose faith. The night is with us always.”
Angela leaped on her, pushing her backwards. Shilpy’s shoulder brushed the brazier, and hot metal burned the skin from her shoulder. Again she screamed. Together they fell onto the tatami. Angela tried pinning her, but Shilpy managed to trap the older woman’s wrist, preventing her from plunging the knife through her chest. With her other hand she grabbed her guardian by the hair.
She pulled, and Angela cried out, but it wasn’t enough to shake her off. Shilpy changed tack and pushed the side of Angela’s face. The sudden change in direction sent Angela off balance, and she crashed face first into the brazier.
The flames licked the side of her head and devoured her long hair. The knife fell to the mat, and Angela rolled back and forth howling and clutching her face. Ignoring the pain in her hip, Shilpy rolled into a sitting position and beat at the flames with her hands. Her palms blistered, but she managed to put the fire out. Angela lay on her back, weeping and moaning.
Shilpy hooked her burned hands under Angela’s shoulders and dragged her out of the tent. A fresh jolt of pain from her hip left her gritting her teeth. Coughing and hacking, she swallowed the cold night air with grateful gulps. She hauled her adopted mother onto the freshly mowed grass in the back garden of the unit Angela called home. Moments later the tent lit up—ignited no doubt by the hot coals, which had spilled out of the brazier.
“Heretic . . . kill . . . you,” Angela murmured, but she didn’t get up. The side of her face, neck, and shoulder were blistering.
Light-headed, Shilpy snatched up her neatly folded clothes and staggered to the gate. She clasped the wounded hip to stem the bleeding. Her cell phone fell from a pocket, but she didn’t stop. Still naked, she staggered down the shared driveway. No one came out of the neighbouring units. No one saw her.
She started pulling on her pants before she reached the road but misjudged and fell forward. Fresh pain swept through her. For a fraction of a second she closed her eyes, and the vision returned.
The Moirai were watching her. The Weaver placed her hand on the Severer’s wrist. “Wait,” she said in a soft voice. She removed the thread from between the crone’s scissors and weaved it around the threads tangled about the bead. “We may make use of this one yet.”
“Very well. But soon after that.”
“Very well,” said all three, in unison. “Soon after that.”
Shilpy opened her eyes, and the women disappeared. Despite her injury, she ran. She wondered if she would ever stop.