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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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C
HAPTER
T
WELVE

We are the consecrated, the Father’s chosen. And what belongs to Him is His, forevermore.

—T
HE
H
OLY
S
CRIPTURES

THE PROPHET’S HAVEN
was the oldest building in all of Bethel, built in the Dark Days before their faith had scriptures or a proper doctrine. It stood on a lone hill that overlooked a stretch of rolling cattle fields. It was a tall, looming structure, comprised of the main quarters—a collapsing stone cathedral where the first of the faith had once worshipped—and a series of expansions, some of them constructed as recently as a month prior.

The entire estate was ringed by a wrought iron wall that stood some nine feet tall. It was said that during the Holy War, the severed heads of the four witches and their allies had been mounted upon its spikes. According to those same legends, Lilith’s headless corpse had also been strung from the wall’s gate and, on the orders of David Ford, crowned with a deer skull diadem to make a mockery of her reign and slaughter. Walking toward the gate, Immanuelle could almost picture it: the severed heads of the sinners gawking down at her, their jaws nailed shut by the wall’s iron spires; beside them, the witch queen’s skull-crowned corpse strung from the archway, swaying with the wind. Immanuelle
shook her head to clear it of the ghastly image and continued on through the entryway.

She found Ezra waiting for her just behind the Haven’s entrance. He sat beneath the branches of a tall cottonwood, back pressed to its trunk and legs crossed at the ankles, reading a palm-size book.

There were a great many people wandering the yard—mainly servants and the farmhands who tended the Prophet’s sprawling ranges—but Ezra still raised his head at her approach, as if he knew her from the sound of her footsteps. He slipped his book into the back pocket of his trousers as he stood, nodding toward the doors of the Haven. “Right this way.”

IF THE PROPHET’S
Haven appeared grand on the outside, its interior was nothing short of immaculate. The entry hall was almost as big as the cathedral itself, with ceilings arching high overhead. Each of the hall’s windows was ten feet tall, and every casing was fitted with panes of stained glass so the sunlight shafting through them tinted the walls and floor with the colors of the rainbow. The air smelled of spices, a good, heady stink that brought to mind harvest feasts and meat roasting on bonfires in the wintertime.

Ezra led her down a series of long corridors, their footsteps echoing as they went. He distanced himself by a few paces whenever others passed them, but when they were alone, he took the time to point out little details about the house. Among these were the paintings that hung from the walls (mostly portraits of the first prophets who’d reigned in the days after the Holy War), and the corridors that led to places like the Haven’s kitchen or the confinement wards, where new brides were housed.

Immanuelle wondered, in passing, which hall led to the room where her mother had stabbed the Prophet, but she didn’t dare ask.

They rounded another corner, entering into a small, bright hallway. Here, a series of thin windows lined the walls, each less than a half a pace apart from the next. Opposite the windows was a row of doors, each with a name painted on the cross rails in golden ink:
Hannah
,
Charlotte
,
Sarah
,
Charity
,
Naomi
,
Esther
,
Judith
,
Bethany
,
Justice
,
Dinah
,
Ruth
,
Tilda
. These were the wives’ chambers. Immanuelle read each name in turn, looking for Leah’s.

“Ezra, is that you?” A voice seeped out from an open door down the corridor. It was thin and graced by a faint accent Immanuelle had never heard on the tongue of any Bethelan native.

Ezra stopped short, breathing a low curse. Then he composed himself and strode to the doorway. “Yes, Mother?”

Immanuelle slowed to a stop at his heels, gazed into the room just behind her. There, standing at its center, was Ezra’s mother, Esther Chambers. Immanuelle had only ever caught passing glimpses of her—from across the cathedral or on the other side of the churchyard—but those brief encounters were enough to distinguish her as one of the most beautiful women she had ever seen. Esther was tall like Ezra, if a little slight. Pale veins threaded along her neck and skimmed up to her temples. Her hair, which was the raven-black color of her son’s, was heaped atop her head and held by a single golden pin. As she neared, Immanuelle caught a whiff of jasmine on the air.

The woman surveyed her, and a thin smile crossed her lips and disappeared within the span of an instant. “Who is your friend, my son?” she asked, her gaze returning to Ezra.

“This is Miss Immanuelle Moore.” He sidestepped to give his mother a better view of her. “Miss Moore, may I present my mother, Esther Chambers.”

“Ah,” said the woman, and that smile crossed her mouth again, a subtle twin to Ezra’s. “Miriam’s daughter.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Immanuelle murmured, staring at her boots.
The woman who stood before her now was widely known to be the Prophet’s favorite wife.

“Please, call me Esther.” She slid her cold hand into Immanuelle’s. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Immanuelle managed a nod and a smile. She expected the woman to slip her hand away as Protocol would dictate, but she didn’t. She held on to Immanuelle’s fingers, her verdant green eyes skimming over her in cold appraisal. “And what brings you to the Haven?”

Ezra stepped in. “She’s here to see Leah.”

“I believe Leah’s in the west wing,” said Esther, speaking softly now. Up close, Immanuelle noticed something she’d missed before. At the edge of Esther’s mouth was a bruise made faint by what appeared to be an application of pale face powder. “She’s at the Prophet’s side. He’s been . . . rather troubled today. It would probably be best to call on her at a later date.”

Ezra went quiet for a beat too long as he searched his mother’s face. “I’ll have a word with him.”

“You will do no such thing,” said Esther with sudden sharpness, but she recovered herself before she spoke again, forcing that gentle smile. “Don’t forget you have a guest. It would be rude of you to abandon her. Please, be on your way and may the Father bless your steps.”

Ezra fell quiet after his mother retired to her parlor, closing and locking the door behind her. He walked away in silence, hands in his pockets, gaze on his boots, lost to a kind of brooding that Immanuelle didn’t know how to breach, though she felt she should.

She didn’t fully understand what had occurred with Esther in the hall—but she suspected it had something to do with the Prophet and the bruise at the corner of Esther’s mouth. The thought of Leah being with the Prophet in the midst of his dark mood turned
Immanuelle’s stomach. Prophets were merely men and men were fallible creatures, prone to the passions of the flesh, tempted to violence, even, when their anger spilled over.

After all, a prophet was nothing more than a vessel of the Father, and the Father was not always the benevolent god of light. He was also wrath and fire, brimstone and storm, and He often used His almighty power to smite the witch and the heathen alike. Immanuelle could only imagine how dangerous a man might become when filled with a holy wrath like that.

After a short walk through a series of dim, lamplit halls, they came upon a wide gallery. At its end was a pair of black double doors almost twice as tall as Immanuelle. This had to be part of the Haven’s original structure, she realized, where the first of the faith had worshipped.

Ezra slipped a key from his back pocket and fit it into the door’s lock. There was a soft click as the bolt slipped out of place. Both doors swung open and they entered the library within.

Immanuelle had never seen so many books in one place at one time, and she was sure she never would again. This was not some one-room study tucked into the back of a schoolhouse. It was a full cathedral, but in place of the pews, there were bookshelves, rows and rows of them, from the altar to the threshold where she stood. On the right wall was a spiral staircase that twisted up to what ought to have been the organ deck, but instead of an organ, there were just a few rusted pipes with crooked shelves wedged between them. The front half of the deck was caged off by a wrought iron gate, a twin to the one that fenced the Haven itself.

“This is it,” said Ezra with a wave of his hand. “The Prophet’s library.”

“It’s huge.”

“I suppose it is,” said Ezra, as though he hadn’t considered it that way before. And perhaps he hadn’t. After all, the grandeur of
the Haven was all he had ever known. He motioned for Immanuelle to follow him through the shelves to the stairway that twisted down from the organ deck. Gathering her skirts, Immanuelle climbed after him, and Ezra, ever the gentleman, offered her his hand.

“This is the restricted section,” he said as they ascended. “All texts relating to the dark craft are kept here. If you’re seeking information about the plagues, this is where you’ll find it.”

Immanuelle risked a glance down to the ground floor, far below. The drop was so far it was almost dizzying. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this high up.”

“One day I’ll have to take you up to the cathedral’s bell tower. That view is far better than this one.” Ezra scaled the last of the stairs, stopped in front of the gate, and unlocked it with a small rusty key he produced from his pocket. He held it open for her and ushered her through with a pass of his hand.

Immanuelle stepped past him onto the overhang. It was larger than she’d expected, but most of the floor space was taken up by a series of nine tall shelves that stretched from the stairs to the far wall. Almost all the books housed there were chained to the shelves they sat on.

Ezra immediately began to comb through the collection. Clouds of dust, as thick as smoke, bloomed in the air as he slid books off the shelves, their rusty chains rattling.

“Do you often come up here to read?” Immanuelle asked, trailing after him down the aisles.

“No,” said Ezra. “The last time I was up here, I was nine years old. I didn’t have my dagger then, so I scaled the gate to get in. Broke my elbow when I landed on the other side, but I still managed to flip through a few books before I was found.”

“Were they worth the pain?”

Ezra smiled ruefully and shook his head. “No, but the
expression on my father’s face when he realized I’d managed to successfully break into one of the most restricted places in all of Bethel certainly was.”

Immanuelle tried to hide her smile by turning to the bookcase nearest her. Many of the books shelved there were so old, Immanuelle feared they might collapse into a pile of dust if she touched them. Some were little more than a few sheets of crumbling paper strung together with bits of twine. Others were just journals like her mother’s, penned by prophets of the past.

It was these collections that Immanuelle and Ezra began to sort through, searching for references to the plagues. It was slow and at times painstaking work, but Immanuelle found she didn’t mind it. At first, it was rather exhilarating, to read the words of men who’d died so long ago. But her enthusiasm waned when she realized the immensity of the task that lay before her. There were hundreds of books in the overhang alone, and thousands more below. It would take years to sort through them all.

For hours they combed through the collection, with little to show for it, and Immanuelle was close to giving up on her search when she spotted a lone book on an empty shelf in the far corner of the organ deck. Cradling the tome in her arms, Immanuelle scraped a frosting of dust away with a pass of her fingers and flipped open the cover. The title page read:
The Unholy Four: A Compendium
and was dated the
Year of the Harrow
. There was no author cited.

What followed was a history of the witches and their crimes—from the dawn of the coven’s rebellion to their defeat at the hands of David Ford seven years later. At first, Immanuelle assumed the book was limited to the events of the Holy War, but as she flipped through its pages she realized it delved deep into the practice of witchcraft and the heathen power Lilith’s coven wielded against the Bethelan armies. Among these accounts one practice, specifically, caught Immanuelle’s eye—
the feeding of the Mother
.

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
12.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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