Authors: Alexis Henderson
Shock turned to dread, and dread turned to horror as Immanuelle read the words, realizing their significance for the first time. The journal. The list. The drawings of the forest and their witches. Miriam’s words weren’t the ramblings of a madwoman. They were warnings of what was yet to come.
Four warnings. Four witches. Four plagues, and the first had come upon them.
“Immanuelle, what the—” Ezra stepped into her bedroom, dropped to a crouch at her side. His gaze went from her to the journal lying open in her lap. “What’s that?”
Immanuelle snapped the journal shut, tossed it back into her
hope chest, and closed it. She turned to offer Ezra some passing excuse, but the sound of church bells cut her short. Twelve tolls in quick succession, a pause, and then more bells ringing across Bethel as others took up the alarm call. And so, the first of the plagues began.
Love is an act of loyalty.
IMMANUELLE SAT ON
the mule cart alongside Martha, staring out across the dying plains as they rolled down the main road toward the Holy Grounds. The air was thick with the stench of gore, and the drone of blood-fat mosquitoes was so loud it almost drowned the sound of the cart’s wheels rattling.
In the ancient times—when the daughters of the Dark Mother had waged war against the Father’s flock—there had been battles on the plains. Immanuelle recalled the stories her teachers told at school, tales of wounded men and blood-soaked battlefields that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Immanuelle thought of those stories as they rode toward the cathedral, crossing through the dying farmsteads of the Glades and past miles of gore-blackened cornfields. In the weeks since the blood plague had struck, the tainted waters had seeped into the soil, infecting the earth and killing the crops.
The whole world had gone red and rotten.
Immanuelle’s throat ached. She hadn’t had a sip to drink since sunup. The Moore household rationed water now—everyone did—but still, there wasn’t enough to go around. Clean water could not
be found anywhere within Bethel’s borders, and rumor had it that the Church’s stores were all but depleted.
To Immanuelle’s surprise, Martha tugged at the reins, steering the mule toward the Outskirts, a sprawling shanty village that cowered in the shadow of the southern wood. Most Bethelans avoided the Outskirts, for fear of the sinners who dwelled there in shame and squalor.
“Blood flooding in the Holy Grounds,” said Martha, to explain why she’d decided to take the long way to the cathedral. “The roads there are impassable.”
The cart pulled past a series of shacks so bowed and decrepit they looked as if they were one good gust away from collapsing into a heap of sticks. As they drew toward the center of the village, Immanuelle spotted the small, dilapidated church where those in the Outskirts gathered to worship on the Sabbath when the rest of Bethel assembled at the cathedral. The building had a short, crooked steeple and a single stained-glass window that depicted a woman in a black veil, who Immanuelle assumed was a saint or angel, though she wore no diadem. It wasn’t until the cart drew nearer that she recognized the woman for who she was: the Dark Mother.
In the frescoes painted across the cathedral’s vaulted ceilings, the Goddess was always depicted as a wretch, all twisted limbs and clawed fingers, lips smeared with the blood of crusaders she’d devoured in battle. But in this portrait, the Dark Mother looked beautiful, even gentle. Her skin was a deep shade of ebony, almost as dark as Her veil, but Her eyes were moon pale and wide. She didn’t look like the damned Goddess of witches and hells. No, in this depiction, She appeared more mortal than monster . . . and somehow, that was worse.
The cart rattled on. A few shirtless boys ran barefoot through the muck of the streets. As Martha and Immanuelle approached,
they stopped their games and froze, owl-eyed and silent as the mule cart rumbled past.
Lurking in the distance was the shadow of the western Darkwood. The deeper they ventured into the village, the closer the Darkwood crept. While the forests of the Glades in the east were lush and thick, they were nothing in comparison to the wilds that bordered the Outskirts. Somehow, the woods of the west seemed more alive. The treetops crawled with life—fox squirrels as big as cats ran the branches of the trees, and crows roosted in the canopy of oaks and dogwoods, sunning their wings and cawing their evening songs. Overhead, a white-bellied hawk circled the sprawling woodland and a powerful wind stirred through the trees, carrying the scent of loam and slaughter.
Running the length of the wood were tributes and sacrifices—a bushel of corn tucked into a nook between tree roots, a sheepskin slung over the low bough of an oak, a basket of eggs atop a tree stump, wreaths of what appeared to be dried rosemary, dead chickens and rabbits strung by the legs and hanging from the branches of pine trees.
Immanuelle craned out of her seat to get a better view of the strange assortment. “What is that?”
Martha kept her eyes on the road. “They’re offerings.”
The wagon rumbled past what appeared to be a kind of altar—an intricate thatch-work of twigs and branches upon which a goat lay gutted. “Offerings to who?”
“The woods,” said Martha, and she seemed to spit the words. “In these parts, they worship them. The Prophet ought to cast them to the wilds for such a sin. If they love the woods so much, let them return to it.”
“Why doesn’t he?”
“It’s an act of mercy, I assume. But I don’t presume the ways of the Prophet and neither should you.” She cast Immanuelle a firm
glance before returning her gaze to the road. “Besides, those in the Outskirts have their station—as we do ours. Even the sinner has a place in this world. And even the heretic can exalt the Father in his or her own way.”
As they crossed into the heart of the shanty village, a young woman with mahogany skin emerged from the ruins of a crumbling cottage and wandered into the middle of the road. Her feet were bare and bruised, and there was a squalling infant bound to her chest with a sling. She threw her arms out as they approached, her parched lips parted, eyes wild. “Water for the baby, please. Spare us a drop to drink.”
Martha muttered a prayer and flicked the reins. The wheels of the cart broke through a puddle, splashing the woman with blood. She staggered back, clutching her child, and stumbled on the hem of her dress as she retreated.
Immanuelle turned to say something, but Martha caught her by the wrist. “Leave her to her sins.”
But Immanuelle couldn’t pull her eyes from the woman. She watched her, crouched and weeping on the side of the road, until she shrank to no more than a mote on the horizon, and then disappeared.
They journeyed on. As they turned south toward the Holy Grounds, the drone of flies and mosquitoes grew louder. The shanty village gave way to open plains and blood-flooded meadows that were drowned by the overflow of contaminated groundwater. In the distance, the sprawling estates that belonged to the apostles of the Church, cornfields and cattle ranges so large they stretched well past the western horizon. They were filled with the rotting, fly-swarmed corpses of cows, horses, and other animals that had died of thirst in the early days of the plague.
“Miriam used to ride these hills,” said Martha, her hands still
tight around the reins. She smiled faintly, and Immanuelle caught a glimpse of the woman she might have been before her daughter’s death. Someone kind, warm even. “Abram bought her a pony the summer of her thirteenth birthday. She rode it most every day, up and down these paths—going fast as the devils themselves—until one day she ran it too hard. That mare tripped over a stray stone in the road and snapped its leg at the knee. I watched it happen. She fell right there.” Martha pointed to a copse of dead apple trees along the shoulder of the road.
“What happened to the horse?” Immanuelle asked, and when she spoke her chapped lips split open. She tried to wet them, but her tongue was dry.
“Miriam put it down,” said Martha, in this flat dead tone, as if she was merely remarking on the weather. “Abram was going to do it, but she wouldn’t let him. She fired the rifle herself, shot that pony clean through the eye.”
Immanuelle processed this in silence, a chill carving down her spine. The cart shuddered down the road to the cathedral, the shadows pressing in as the sun set. It was just her and Martha that evening. Anna had stayed home to tend to the rest of the family.
“Go in peace,” she’d told them as they left, and Immanuelle could tell she was worried. Anyone with the sense the Father gave them was. The earth beneath their feet was bleeding, and despite their best prayers and efforts, they couldn’t make it stop. It was just as Miriam had prophesied in her journal.
If the Prophet and apostles knew the cause of the blood plague or a way to stop it, they had not shared their findings with the flock. They simply urged the people to pray and fast, in the hope of winning the Father’s favor. Until then, they were told to ration their resources—harvest fruits and vegetables for juicing, collect
rainwater and what little they could from dewfall every night and morning. But these meager efforts weren’t enough. Immanuelle had already lost six of her sheep to thirst or poisoning.
But despite these dire straits, there was some hope. Days after the blood plague, rainstorms swept through Bethel. And, owing to coordinated efforts by the farmers and Church, a fair amount of water was collected. In addition to that, the ice reserves in the catacombs of the Prophet’s Haven proved useful, as did its extensive wine cellars. There was even talk of importing fresh water from settlements beyond the Hallowed Gate. Still, despite these provisions, resources were dwindling rapidly, and with no rain for several days, the panic was beginning to mount again. Cattle and livestock were dying by the day, and more losses,
losses, were expected to follow if the blood plague didn’t end soon.
After a long, meandering ride, they approached the cathedral to find it full. It was a weekday, but the farmers had left their fields early and all of the apostles had assembled.
Immanuelle hopped out of the cart. The crowds shifted, the yard full of men and boys dressed in sweaty shirts and bloodstained slacks, their clothes reeking of the fields.
In the distance, Immanuelle saw the stream where she and Leah used to meet after church, reduced now to little more than a bleeding gash carved into the hills. The jutting river rocks were smeared with gore. The whole ravine looked like the scene of a slaughter, and Immanuelle caught the stench of rot from where she stood.
“This way.” Martha urged her on. Together, they ducked through the gathering crowds, dodging carts and carriages. In comparison to their Sabbath fellowships, this was a solemn affair. Everyone seemed to be speaking in low murmurs as if they feared they’d provoke the Father Himself if they talked any louder.
Martha and Immanuelle made their way up the steps and into
the cathedral. Indoors, the air was thick with the tang of blood and sweat. People crammed the pews and spilled into the adjacent aisles. Up front, standing in a row behind the altar, were the apostles and other high-ranking saints of the Church, but Ezra wasn’t among them. He was on the cathedral floor, walking from pew to pew with a bucket of milk and an iron ladle. He stooped in front of an old man and put the ladle to his lips. A few moments later, when a little girl wandered to his side, he lowered his bucket to the floor, dropped to one knee, and whispered something that made her laugh. After she drank her fill, he dried her mouth with his shirtsleeve, picked up his bucket, and walked on.
When he crossed into the center aisle, his eyes met Immanuelle’s. He faltered for a moment, as if embarrassed to be caught in the midst of his ministry. But then he recovered and started toward her, crossing through the crowds to her side.
He raised the ladle to her lips. “Here,” he said, his voice ragged. He sounded as if he could use a drink himself.
Immanuelle leaned forward, the cold rim of the ladle pressed against her bottom lip. She took a small swallow. Then another. The milk was warm and sweet. As she drank, it soothed her chapped lips and eased the burning in her throat. She drained the ladle dry, and Ezra was dipping it into the bucket again to offer her a second drink, when Martha called her name.
The woman’s hand closed around Immanuelle’s shoulder in a tight grip. Her eyes flickered from Immanuelle to Ezra, then back to Immanuelle again. “Come now, we ought to find a place to sit before we’re made to stand.”
“She’s welcome to sit with us,” said Ezra, and he nodded to a pew a few feet away, crowded with his friends and half siblings. His invitation seemed to pique their interest. As the rising heir, Ezra was a prize among Bethel’s young bachelors and was known to court girls when it suited him. But if their shocked expressions
were any indication, Immanuelle was quite certain his friends had never seen him entertain a girl who looked like her.
Martha seemed aware of this too, and Immanuelle could tell that she scorned the attention. “Immanuelle will remain where she belongs, with me.”
“Very well,” said Ezra, perhaps realizing that his will was no match for Martha’s. Gingerly, he took the ladle from Immanuelle’s hand and returned to his friends. In turn, she started after Martha, acutely aware of the gazes that followed her as she went.
Shortly after they were seated, the First Apostle, Isaac, stepped up to the altar. He was a tall man, pale and hawkish, with a dour mouth and a hard chin. Immanuelle imagined he might have been quite handsome in his day, and she knew he had the wives to prove it. His voice bore the rich timbre of a well-tuned organ, and it reverberated through the cathedral as he spoke. “We gather today to address a grave sickness. I’m here on behalf of the Prophet, who has—in the wake of this great evil—retired to his sanctuary, for a period of prayer and supplication.”