There was a time when young Oracles awaiting investiture were made to witness the slaughter of their families, to sear into their souls the futility of hope. This sacred tradition had, however, been abandoned by the Matrons over time, in favour of a meeker rite of passage into the House of Oracles. They reckoned the trials of initiation were lessons enough for the novices. Masha, on the other hand, thought the Matrons had grown soft. Truth be told, she considered it unfair since she herself had been made to watch her father burn alive.

But she did not have the time to brood over life’s injustices. Today was a big day, an auspicious day. Today was Initiation Day in the House of Oracles, her first as a Matron. Initiation Day was important. The route to divination was uncertain, vague, filled with mists. It was difficult to identify an Oracle from one who could perhaps read thoughts or change gender. Such people, with powers gifted to them by the Father of Viles, were considered cursed, and called Tainted. Over the centuries, many methods, less messy, less bloody, less fiery, had been tried and tested to separate genuine Oracles, the ones who could truly divine the future, from the Tainted. But they had all reached the same conclusion – there was no sieve better than pain.

And today, she would get to witness it. Soon, the initiates would be walked in silence to the Great Hall to be tested by the Sisters. If they passed, they lived. And she would be there with her scroll and quill to divine the fate of the world.

If she made it on time.

For Masha was late. Dressing as a Matron for the first time was like juggling a set of four knives with one hand. The golden-rimmed white robes had to be draped in all sorts of asymmetric angles, the gold sash around the waist had to be centrally aligned, the boots had to be iron-heeled, the lips painted, and the Chain of the Seven draped around her neck had to rest on her heart, facing the front. Not to forget, she’d completely forgotten to shave her head last night.

After dabbing the stray cuts on her pate with cotton puffs, she looked at her reflection in the bowl of water to see if any sign of hair survived on her scalp. An alabaster face webbed with a hundred scars looked back under a head that shone like a griffin’s egg. Perfect. She noticed a lizard on the wall, watching her with judgemental eyes. She stuck out her tongue at it, then darting out, ran down the corridor, a smile dragging at her scarred lips. Masha felt ridiculously happy. She still couldn’t believe she had made it through six years of being an Oracle. The drugs they forced Oracles to consume put them into a dream state for months at a time, and had unavoidable side effects like death. The very few who survived became Matrons. She was one of the fortunate ones.

Now she could have real food, not just rice and lentils laced with drugs. Her mouth watered at the thought of food in its many incarnations. Of crisp purple aubergines, of milky-fleshed nuts, of fish curries, of ladyfingers flavoured with tamarind and coriander. Hunger growled inside her like a prowling animal.

Masha finally made her way to the Hall and slipped unnoticed into the line of Matrons. Being just 13 summers old, and born with an exemplary lack of height, had its advantages. She could hear the chants of Sister Mercy. She looked around her as she stepped gingerly to the right, and then again, stepping over the bare feet of older, ruder Matrons, till she obtained a clear view of the Initiation. The Hall of Initiation reminded her of the opulent ballroom she had once seen as a child, before the Sisters had rescued her and purged her of her taint. Warm yellow light flowed from the glass globes suspended on golden chains around the Hall. Red matting streaked in perpendicular lines lay below rows of wooden long-chairs. To describe it one word would be to call it...stately. But today it smelled of sweat, fear, and shit.

A black-haired boy was hanging upside down, secured to a wooden rack with metal shackles, his limbs stretched sideways to achieve maximum extension. He was screaming in agony. There were four other wooden racks, now empty, spattered with blood. The ones who had failed. Ashes! I missed it!

Beside the boy stood the leader of the House of Oracles, clad in the black robes of a Sister. Dark circles cupped Sister Mercy’s eyes, giving her a look of profound sadness and pity. Women were not permitted to attain the honorific title of Acharya, given to the Masters of Knowledge who graduated from the Citadel of Meru. Thus, educated women resorted to having the less educated call them Sisters, even though there was nothing sisterly about these women.

“I hope you understand I do not enjoy this,” said Sister Mercy as she softly placed four glass bottles in a bag. She coiled the bag at the top and then slammed it viciously against the wall, once, twice, thrice. She then shook the bag, jingling the contents within – hundreds of broken glass shards. With one hand she turned the wooden rack on its axle so that the boy’s head faced her. Sister Mercy held the boy’s face and slowly, carefully, lowered the bag over his head and cinched the drawstring tight around his neck. The boy’s face was invisible; he was a bagged scarecrow, such as the peasants used in their fields.

Sister Mercy began to chant, the Matrons echoing the last few words in unison: “But pain...pain is the great reliever, the path away from perdition, the salvation of our souls.” As she uttered the words, Sister Mercy began to mould the bag around the boy’s face gently, as if it were a clay sculpture, with all the tenderness of a mother. “The salvation of our souls,” echoed the Matrons.

The screams of the boy were muffled in the bag but his agony was loud enough. His body thrashed under the straps like a fish out of water. Sister Mercy’s pale fingers massaged his neck through the cloth, moving up to the boy’s cheeks to his eyes, and finally to his temples. “Pain will bring out the cursed demon in you; the curse gifted by the Father of Viles, to do us harm, boy,” she said. “But we will purge you of Evil, and bring you to the side of Light.”

The bag grew redder and wetter with each movement of her hand. Stains formed where the boy’s nose and ears were. The boy’s wordless screams became so high-pitched that they hurt Masha’s head. Her gut cramped at the memory of her own initiation. Her tears may have dried, but she could drown in that pain anytime she chose.

Excerpted with permission from Sons of Darkness, Gourav Mohanty, Head of Zeus.