Authors: Alexis Henderson
The world is a vast and dangerous place, unfit for the Father’s flock.
THE MAIN ROAD
stretched into the impenetrable black. Immanuelle couldn’t see the Darkwood, but she could feel the familiar intoxication of her own unraveling as she delved deeper and deeper into the wilds. Overhead, the sky was dark—no star spatter or the sliver of a crescent moon to light the way ahead. Most of the lamps alongside the road were dark, and the few that were lit held tiny dying flames that flickered violently, threatening to snuff out with even the smallest breath of wind.
There were no traces of life on the road or in the forest that flanked it. No wagon tracks or footprints, no owls roosting in the trees. As Ezra had predicted, the Prophet’s Guard had stopped their chase the moment she passed through the Hallowed Gate. She was truly alone, on the dark, wild road. But despite the eerie quiet of the night and her own aching loneliness, she took comfort in the fact that with the onset of the darkness plague, the blight was likely over, since each new plague thus far had signaled the end of the old one. She prayed that meant that Glory and Honor would now be spared. Then she remembered that the final plague was
. She could only hope her journey could forestall it.
Immanuelle rode on. The night lapsed on long after its allotted hours were spent, and the black tide of the darkness was almost unfathomably thick. She tried her best to count the hours as they passed, but the unending black took on a kind of timelessness that made any attempt at tracking the time near impossible.
After what felt like a few hours, a drizzling rain began to fall, and it quickly gave way to sloughing sheets of sleet. With no shelter in sight, save for the sparse overhang of the forest’s treetops, Immanuelle had nothing but Ezra’s cloak to shield her from the torrents of the storm. By the time she came upon the ruins of a long-abandoned monastery, she was soaked to the bone, and the reins had chafed her palms raw and bloody. Knowing she was far too exhausted to continue, she decided to camp there.
The structure was a strange one, built on a berm that overlooked a shallow gulley. It was squat, narrow, and long, like a hallway or run of horse stalls. Stone columns supported a crumbling roof, which was built flat and low and covered in a sprawl of sweetgrass.
Pulling the cart to a stop alongside the ruins, Immanuelle hopped off the seat, untethered the horse, and led him into the structure and out of the sleet. She fed and watered him with provisions from the wagon, then retreated, soaked and shivering, into the far corner of the monastery, while the storm raged on.
When she felt rested enough to keep hold of the reins, Immanuelle roused herself, harnessed the horse to the cart, and set out into the dark again.
After a while, the wilderness pressed closer and the road diverged. One path, the larger of the two, was well cobbled and flanked by streetlamps on either side. It turned east, toward the deep woodland. The other was just a thin lane that looked much like the forest paths that snaked through the Bethelan woods.
Immanuelle went west, to Ishmel.
Brambles and branches tore at her clothes as she traveled down the narrow woodland corridor. The road was rutted with potholes and scattered with all manner of debris. Several times Immanuelle had to hop out of the cart and clear the way before they could pass through. In fact, she spent much of that leg of the journey on her feet, leading Ezra’s steed by the bridle. Often, she had to coax the animal through the narrow passages that carved through the wilderness, mumbling calming words and sometimes singing the same lullabies she did to Honor and Glory, just to keep the eerie silence at bay and prevent the poor beast from spooking.
As they journeyed on, the path became progressively steeper and then gave way to a series of winding and treacherous trails that carved around the foothills of the mountains. Immanuelle had never been in the mountains before, and she scorned the dark for depriving her of the chance to see them clearly. She wished, desperately, that Ezra was there with her. It would have been such an adventure, to explore a place like this with him at her side.
She wondered if he was still alive, or if the Prophet’s guards had executed him on the plains. Though Immanuelle was no longer in the habit of praying, she prayed for Ezra then. Begged the Father to save him or, if not that, give her the chance to return to Bethel so she could find a way to save him herself. He was too young and too good to die. Bethel needed him.
needed him. Because without Ezra, whom did she have left to turn to? Leah was dead and gone. Martha had betrayed her to the Prophet’s Guard, and Immanuelle knew that the rest of the Moores wouldn’t dare to oppose her. For the first time in her life, she was made to reckon with the idea that she might be truly, and totally, alone.
Immanuelle continued her trek up the treacherous mountain roads—head bowed to the roaring storm winds that swept in from
the west, gripping the reins so tightly her fingers locked stiff. As the horse edged its way around a particularly steep crag, there was a loud peal of thunder. The horse lurched forward with so much force he snatched Immanuelle off her feet. They careened around a tight curve in the path, Immanuelle’s boots skidding through the frozen muck of the road as she struggled to pull the horse to a stop. But as they raced toward another bend—this one around a cliff so high Immanuelle couldn’t see the bottom—the cart’s wheel struck a rut in the road. Its back wheels slipped off the cliff’s edge, dragging the horse back with it.
The steed gave a scream that echoed through the mountain pass, struggling to drag the wheels of the cart back over the drop-off and onto the road. Immanuelle pulled the bridle with all her might—blisters bursting open as she gripped the leather strappings. But despite her best efforts, the horse began to slip and both of them inched—closer and closer—to the cliff’s edge, dragged by the weight of the cart.
Crates of supplies slid off the back of the wagon. There was a long pause before Immanuelle heard the crash as they struck the bottom of the valley, far, far below. The steed skidded back, and Immanuelle sprang forward, releasing her grip on the bridle to unhitch him. Her hands shook, stiff with cold, as she fumbled with the buckles—freeing him from the tacking and traces. The steed inched toward the cliff—pulled by the weight of the wagon—until his back hooves teetered on the edge. A split second before the cart dragged them down, Immanuelle undid the last buckle. The cart lurched off the cliff and crashed to the valley below.
IMMANUELLE MADE THE
last of the journey on horseback, riding through the torrents of the storm. The rain came down in sloughing sheets that often gave way to sleet or stinging hail. By
the time she saw the lights of Ishmel floating in the distant dark, Immanuelle was so delirious with cold and weariness she wasn’t sure she could trust her own eyes. But as she traveled up the road, those distant lights grew bigger and brighter, and she could hear the sound of voices, catch the scent of chimney smoke on the cold night air.
She entered a village in the shadow of a mountain, far smaller than Amas. Here, the dark was not so complete as it was in Bethel. The sky was the bruised blue of deep dusk just before it turns into outright night, and the streetlamps burned bright enough to stave off the shadows. All the houses that lined the streets had shuttered windows and doors bolted closed. To her relief, she saw no sign of the Prophet’s Guard.
Immanuelle rode on, through the labyrinth of narrow, packed-dirt streets, until she reached what appeared to be the center of the village. There, she found an inn with large bay windows that glowed with firelight. Every time its doors swung open, a rush of murmurs and the chords of what Immanuelle knew to be a mourning hymn spilled into the streets. Squatting on its stairs was a beggar, broad-shouldered, with bright eyes and a long beard badly matted. He cradled a small drum that looked like a child’s castoff toy. As Immanuelle approached, he began to tap out a rhythm—too fast and sporadic to match the fiddle music that spilled from the tavern.
Immanuelle stooped to place a coin in the cup by his feet. “I’m trying to locate someone . . . could you help me?”
“That depends on who you’re looking for,” said the man, and his accent was one that Immanuelle had never heard before.
“A woman . . . by the name of Vera Ward.” She might have explained that Vera was a soothsayer, hailing from Bethel, but she didn’t know whether it was safe to mention such things in a place like this. Certainly, Ishmel seemed devoid of the overt piety that
distinguished Bethel—with its sprawling cathedral and the chapels that stood on its every street corner—but that didn’t make it entirely safe.
The man appraised her by the oily light of a nearby streetlamp; then he nodded, motioning for Immanuelle to follow him down a narrow road that snaked east. The beggar led her through a labyrinth of houses, then down a sloping street that wrapped around a tall hill, until they reached a small, pond-side homestead where a stone cottage stood.
Immanuelle tethered the horse to a fence post by the road and started forward. The cottage’s windows were warm with the glow of lit candles, and it was light enough for Immanuelle to distinguish the small symbol painted on the door: It was the shielding sigil, just like the one carved into the foundation stone of the Ward house ruins.
She knocked. Waited.
There was a soft disturbance, shadows moving behind curtained windows, the sound of bare feet on wood floors, the click of a latch slipping out of place.
The door swung open.
A woman stood in the threshold. She was fair-skinned for an Outskirter, with a dark mane of corkscrew curls and eyes that were the verdant green of seedlings. She appeared to be Anna’s age, maybe a little older, and she held a basket of laundry perched on the curve of her hip. But at the sight of Immanuelle, her arms went slack and the basket hit the porch with a dull
“Vera.” She said the name with a thick accent. “We have a visitor.”
A figure appeared behind the woman. She was taller, broad-shouldered, and dressed in a pair of dark men’s breeches. She wore her silvered dreadlocks pinned back out of her face. The buttons of her work shirt were loose, so that Immanuelle could see the leather
cord around her neck, strung with two holy daggers carved from birch. Her eyebrows were dark and thick—between them, the Mother’s mark.
THE TWO WOMEN
ushered Immanuelle inside, settled her in front of a roaring hearth before she had the chance to say more than two words to them. The woman who answered the door, who was called Sage, wrapped a thick quilt around her shoulders and prepared her a cup of tea with cream and several spoonfuls of honey. Vera went to tend to her horse and returned a few minutes later, sitting opposite Immanuelle in a large chair. She was an imposing woman—almost as tall as Lilith, dark-skinned and striking in a way that most people weren’t. In fact, she reminded Immanuelle of the depictions of the Dark Mother—with her ebony skin and fine-cut features. Her beauty made it hard to look away.