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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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This declaration was met with a chorus of murmurs. In the past year alone, the Prophet had spent weeks locked in the Haven, engaged in fasting and meditation. But there were growing concerns that his abrupt sabbaticals were actually due to his failing health.

“Our lands have been tainted,” said the apostle, pacing at the foot of the altar. “A great evil moves through our waters. Our rivers run with it. I know that you fear for your families, crops, and land. You’re right to do so. This plague is not the work of nature, as we know it. It’s more than happenstance. Someone among us, maybe even someone sitting in the pews tonight, brought this curse upon us.”

Gasps echoed through the cathedral, and the whispers began, a great hissing like the sound of cicadas in the summertime.

Apostle Isaac raised his voice to a near yell. “The Prophet is certain that someone convened with the forces of the dark to wake this once-dormant evil.”

Immanuelle’s breath hitched. She thought of Delilah wading through the shallows of the pond, of the Lovers writhing in the dirt of the meadow, the glimpse of Lilith’s bare feet as she emerged from the shadows of the Darkwood. Was it possible those brief exchanges were the start of something far greater and more horrible than she’d realized at the time? Was it possible that
she
had some part in this?

“Tell me, how was this evil conjured?” A voice echoed from the back of the cathedral, thin and warbling. An old woman stepped forward, and Immanuelle instantly recognized her. It was Hagar, the first wife of the previous prophet, and one of the last still living. Leaning heavily on her cane, Hagar limped into the aisle and glared up at Isaac. “You say this sinner must have convened with forces in the Darkwood, but it must’ve been more than that. Many fools have walked the wood and borne witness to its horrors without spawning plagues like this one. We haven’t seen power like this since the days of David Ford. Why would such a grave evil awaken now, of all times?”

“The Prophet believes there was some sort of . . .
incentive
made,” said Apostle Isaac haltingly. “The Father is not the only one who receives blood offerings. If someone among us performed a ritual, made a blood sacrifice to the Mother, it may have been enough to awaken this evil.”

Immanuelle’s breath slackened a bit at that. She may have sinned when she entered the Darkwood, witnessed things she shouldn’t have, but she hadn’t stooped so low as to make an
offering to the Mother. The plague must have been the work of someone else.

Still, it seemed like Apostle Isaac spoke only to Immanuelle when he said, “If any among you has offered yourself to the Dark, I ask that you confess your sins now—that you might spare your soul from the fires of the pyre and the holy flames of purging.”

C
HAPTER
E
LEVEN

For it is in the fires of purging that the souls of men find f
aith.

—T
HE
H
OLY
S
CRIPTURES

T
HERE WAS FIRE
on every tongue when the meeting adjourned. Burning was the traditional punishment for witchcraft or heresy in Bethel, but it had been years since the last purging. Some spoke of it like a blessing, others a thrill, recalling the great pyres that had burned atop the hills in purgings of the past. While it seemed everyone was badly shaken by Apostle Isaac’s proclamation that a curse had been cast deliberately, Immanuelle couldn’t tell what frightened them more: the blood plague or the threat of the holy flames.

“Immanuelle.” She turned at the sound of her name to find that Leah had escaped the clutches of the Prophet’s other brides.

It was the first Immanuelle had seen of her friend since the night of her cutting. The seal between her brows was healing well, though the bruise-dark bags beneath her eyes had deepened, if only slightly.

“You look well.” Immanuelle allowed herself this small fib as they embraced. “Are the others kind to you?”

“They treat me as they will,” Leah said, then glanced over her shoulder. A few yards off, the Prophet’s other wives clustered
together, their mouths pressed into thin lines as they studied the crowd. She took Immanuelle by the elbow and guided her a few paces away, where listening ears wouldn’t hear them. “Most of them aren’t cruel, but they’re not kind either. Esther—Ezra’s mother—is the only one who’s truly good to me.”

“And what of your husband? Is he good to you?”

Leah blushed, but her eyes didn’t warm. “He summons me often.”

He beds her often.
Immanuelle cringed at the thought. “And . . . does that please you?”

Leah stared down at her hands, and Immanuelle saw that they were shaking, ever so slightly. She grasped her fingers in an attempt to still them, squeezing so hard they went bloodless. “It pleases me to do the Father’s will.”

“I’m not asking about the Father’s will. I’m asking about yours.” She angled a little closer to her friend, lowered her voice. “Does he please you? Are you happy?”

“What pleases me is being here with you.”

“Leah—”

“Don’t,” she said, a firm rebuke. “Please, Immanuelle. Can we just talk of something, anything, else? It’s been weeks since I last saw you. How have you fared?”

“Well enough,” said Immanuelle, reluctant to change the subject but knowing she didn’t have a choice. “The flock is doing well, considering, though I’ve lost a few lambs and one of my best breeding ewes to the plague—”

“But what of
you
, Immanuelle? How are you?”

“I . . . well. I bled.” Something locked into place when Immanuelle said those words.

She
bled
.

Somehow she’d almost forgotten. That night in the Darkwood, as Lilith stood over her and Delilah moved through the shadows
of the deep, her first blood began. Her flow was steady by the time she woke the following morning, on the floor of the kitchen, but she’d first begun bleeding that night in the pond with the witches.

Immanuelle’s hands began to shake. Her heartbeat quickened to a fast and brutal rhythm.

What if her monthly bleed was the blood sacrifice Apostle Isaac spoke of? What if she had spawned all this evil? Was it possible that she’d been some unknowing accomplice in Lilith’s plot? The very idea made her want to vomit, but she couldn’t deny the growing suspicion that whatever had occurred in the Darkwood that night was far greater than a chance encounter.

A horrible thought occurred to her then, the answer to a question she’d been asking herself ever since she first entered the forest. What if the journal was bait? All those weeks ago, when the witches first gave her the gift of her mother’s words, she’d assumed their motive had been some sort of kinship or affinity toward Miriam. But what if that wasn’t it? What if the real reason they gave her the journal was to ensure that she’d come back to bleed there? What if the journal was just a lure, a tie to the woods?

Immanuelle’s legs went weak with dread as the full truth dawned on her. That night in the Darkwood, she’d been baited and manipulated into making the blood sacrifice the witches needed to spawn the plague. She’d set something in motion. Opened a door that she didn’t know how to close, and now all of Bethel was suffering for her sin and naivete.

She
had done this.

Leah reached for her hand. “Immanuelle? What’s wrong?”

Immanuelle didn’t answer. Her thoughts were reeling so quickly it was impossible to form words. If she were a better person, she would have confessed to everything then and there. She would have gone to Apostle Isaac, told him what she knew about the
plague—how it started, where, and the fact that she suspected there were more to come. She would have turned in her mother’s journal. But Immanuelle knew that if she did that, there was a strong chance she’d be sent to the pyre on charges of witchcraft. To inform the Church was to damn herself—she was certain of it. And the thought of rendering Miriam’s journal to the Church was unbearable. It might have been used to bait her, but it was still a piece of her mother, and more than that, it was the locus of her knowledge about the witches and the woods they roamed. Perhaps it could still be of some use to her.

Something dawned on her then, a dangerous idea . . . What if there was another way? A way to stop the blood plague without involving the Church, without incriminating herself. What if she could end the plague the same way she started it: with her blood?

It wasn’t such a strange idea. It stood to reason that if a sacrifice unleashed all this evil upon Bethel, another sacrifice could draw it back. Perhaps if she returned to the forest, she could undo what was done. After all, it was her blood that spawned this plague; maybe her blood could end it too.

But if she entered the woods again—no,
when
she entered the woods again, she would need to be prepared. This was no time for instincts and deductions; she needed facts. She knew that breaking the plague couldn’t be as simple as going to the Darkwood and bleeding. There had to be something more, some ritual to how an offering was made. But there was no way for her to access that information on her own. Immanuelle was going to need an accomplice—someone with the keys to the Prophet’s library—and she knew exactly whom to turn to.

“I need to speak with Ezra,” said Immanuelle, craning to peer through the thinning crowds. “Do you know where he is?”

Leah frowned, clearly confused. “Why do you need to speak to him?”

“He owes me a favor,” she said, thinking back to their conversation in the pasture. Ezra had told her that the Prophet’s library was an extensive collection. If there was any information on the practices of witches and how they cast and broke their plagues, it would have to be there.

“Perhaps we should just go outside,” said Leah, in the gentle way you’d talk down a spooked horse. “Take some air. You look like you’re about to faint.”

Immanuelle spotted Ezra then, standing at the foot of the altar where Apostle Isaac had delivered his speech just a few minutes before. He was chatting with a group of friends, but to Immanuelle’s surprise it wasn’t a challenge to catch his eye. When she gestured toward a dark corridor on the eastern wing of the cathedral, he was quick to dismiss himself, shouldering through his friends with barely a parting word.

“Wait—” said Leah, almost frantic in her concern.

Immanuelle waved her off. “I’ll only be a moment.”

And with that, she started after Ezra, wading through the crowd until she reached the empty pew where he stood waiting.

“I thought your grandmother was going to slit my throat. Is she always that intimidating or . . . ?” He faltered, reading her expression. “What’s wrong? I didn’t get you into any trouble, did I?”

“Not at all. I just need a moment of your time, if you have it to spare.”

Ezra’s eyes narrowed but he nodded and led her to a small apse off the main cathedral. Here, there were two prayer benches standing side by side before a stone effigy of the Holy Father. On a low altar were dozens of candles, most of them lit and flickering. In a ceramic platter, incense burned and the fragrant smoke hung on the air like threads of spider silk.

Ezra and Immanuelle knelt on the bench, shoulder to shoulder, and lit candles, as was custom, one for each of them. Immanuelle
clasped her hands and bowed her head. “The last time we talked, you mentioned the Prophet’s library. You said there were all sorts of books there. Even books of knowledge, like the one you showed me in the market that day.”

He nodded. “If there’s a book you want, give me the title and I’ll fetch it for you.”

“That’s just it, I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. I’d have to be there, in the flesh, sort through the books myself in order to find what I want, what I need.”

“And what is that, exactly?”

“A way to stop the blood plague.”

Ezra blinked at her, and with no small measure of satisfaction, she realized she’d caught him off guard. His expression went from contemplative to troubled. “Shouldn’t you leave the business of breaking plagues to the Church?”

“Why should I when the men of the Church are clearly no more informed than I am?” Of course it wasn’t just that; she’d hidden the truth about her own role in the blood plague, and the way the witches had used her to spawn it. But she couldn’t trust Ezra with such things. He might be a rebel in his own way, skeptical of the very Church he served, but he was still the Prophet’s heir. “I want to help, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to.”

Ezra watched the candles in silence for a long time, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s forbidden for women to walk the halls of the library.”

“I know. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, but—”

“I’ve made you stomach my sin, so now you want me to shoulder yours?”

Immanuelle hadn’t wanted it to come to that, but she nodded. “I’d have something on you, and you’d have something on me. We’d be even. A secret for a secret.”

Ezra considered this for a moment. Then: “When do you need access?”

“Tomorrow afternoon, preferably, while our farmhand can tend to the flock.” When she’d have the time to slip away unnoticed.

He pushed to his feet. “Tomorrow, then. I’ll meet you by the gates of the Haven at noon.”

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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