Authors: Alexis Henderson
I have confessed my sins and made peace with my fate. If the pyre awaits, then let the flames rise. I’m ready.
IMMANUELLE WOKE ON
the floor of her cell to the echo of approaching footsteps. Pushing herself off the bricks, she stumbled to her feet. The cell door ground open, and red torchlight spilled over the walls as Apostle Isaac stepped onto the threshold. “You’re to be tried today,” he said by way of greeting.
Immanuelle smoothed her skirt over her thighs. Her shackles rattled across the floor as she edged toward the apostle. Two members of the Prophet’s Guard stepped in to block her path, but if the apostle was threatened by her, he gave no indication. He raised a gnarled hand, motioning for the guards to stand down. “Let her through.”
So, they did. One of them grabbed her by the shackles. The other lowered his torch to the small of her back, so close Immanuelle feared her dress might catch alight and she’d burn to a crisp before she ever laid eyes on her pyre.
“Don’t get any ideas, witch.”
The guards took a path that Immanuelle didn’t know, toward the distant reaches of the Haven. As they walked, the brick walls gave way to corridors hewn through rough stone. Some of these
halls were no more than long caves of packed dirt, the ground so soft that cold mud oozed between her toes with every step.
After a while, they came to a door at the end of a corridor so narrow the guards’ shoulders brushed the walls as they passed through. Immanuelle struggled up a steep flight of stairs—little more than planks of wood embedded into a wall of packed dirt—to the iron door at its end.
The taller of the two guards stepped forward to open it, and Immanuelle was greeted by a cold blast of clean night air. She swallowed a deep breath, savoring the freshness after all the time she’d spent in the reeking catacombs beneath the Prophet’s Haven. Over the course of her detainment, there had been times when she thought she would never walk the plains again. Yet here she was. If this was her last chance now to do so, before the end came, it would be enough. One last night to hear wind in the trees, to feel grass bristle between her toes . . . to live.
But as Immanuelle peered into the endless dark, she realized the plains weren’t the same moonlit meadows from her memories.
Oblivion lay before her.
There was no light, save for that of the torches, and the distant darkness was too thick to see through. No moon hung overhead, no stars. Even the fires of the purging pyres appeared to have been swallowed by the black.
As her eyes adjusted to the shadows, she saw odd, nightmarish shapes in the darkness—the glimpse of a strange face, a little girl drowning in the deep, a man-shaped shade that flickered and shifted, beckoning her into the black with a hooked finger.
The guard gave Immanuelle’s shackles a cruel yank, dragging her forward, and the shapes in the black disappeared.
“What time is it?” she asked, and the night seemed to devour her words.
“It’s a little past noon,” said Apostle Isaac. “Tell me, what witch
taught you how to cast a curse as powerful as this one? Or did you simply whore yourself to the dark to attain this power?”
Immanuelle stumbled over a rut in the road, stubbing her toe on a rock. “I wrought no curses.” Not intentionally, anyway. The real witch-work had been her mother’s doing. She was merely the vessel.
The guard lowered his torch to her back again. “Bite your lying tongue, witch. Save your confessions for the trial.”
She didn’t make the mistake of speaking again.
They walked on. Time passed strangely in the black—as if the seconds slowed—but eventually, Immanuelle spotted lights in the distance. It took her a moment to register the size of the crowd. There were scores of people gathered at the foot of the cathedral, bearing torches and rousing the pyre flames, their faces lit by the glow.
The guards walked ahead of Immanuelle and Apostle Isaac, carving a path through the crowds for them to follow. As she moved through the throng, a chant began, the sound like a hymn without music:
Whore. Beast. Sinner. Bitch. Mother-spawn.”
Immanuelle entered the cathedral and squinted against the light. There were lamps and torches burning on every post, chasing off the shadows that leaked in through the doors and windows. The pews were packed with the throngs who’d gathered to watch the trial. There were the Prophet’s brides and village folk, and even a few people from the Outskirts.
Behind the altar stood the seven apostles, and, to Immanuelle’s horror, the Moores stood in their shadow, claiming the first row of pews. Anna stood, cloaked in black. She held a damp handkerchief to her eyes, refusing to look at Immanuelle as she passed. Next to Anna, Abram, his eyes bloodshot and flat. Martha stood beside him, dressed in the same dark cloak she’d worn the night
she visited Immanuelle in the catacombs. Both Honor and Glory were absent, likely still recovering from the blight.
“Move along,” the guard ordered.
Immanuelle staggered up the stone steps to the altar, her muddy feet slipping beneath her. Someone laughed when she fell and bruised her knees on the stairs. The guard shoved the torch closer, mere inches above her shoulder blades, and the flames seared the back of her neck. “Hurry up. You’re making a spectacle of yourself.”
Pushing to her feet, Immanuelle limped the rest of the way up to the altar, the apostles splitting apart to make room for her. There, she stood before the congregation, head lowered, hands clasped in front of her. She was reminded of how, just a few months prior, on a very different day, Leah had stood in the same spot, back when life still had a little joy.
The doors of the cathedral slammed shut, and it was all Immanuelle could do to choke back her tears. The congregation blurred and doubled before her eyes. They all stared up at her with the same dead gaze, the same scowls and sneers. She knew then that they would vote to send her to the purging pyre, no matter what she said. Their minds were already made up. The trial was just a formality. She’d fought so hard to save them all from Lilith’s plagues, and now they would watch her burn. Vera was right—there was nothing she could do to earn their favor. But she had to save them just the same. And to do that, she would have to prove her innocence. Because if they deemed her guilty and damned her to the purging pyre as punishment for her sins, she would never get the chance to cast the reversal sigil.
For Bethel’s survival, and her own, she would have to fight for her innocence.
The Prophet emerged from the back of the cathedral and staggered down the center aisle, pausing every few steps to brace
himself on the back of a pew and catch his breath. After a long, grueling walk to the altar, he turned to address his flock. “We are gathered here for the trial of Immanuelle Moore, who has been accused of witchcraft, murder, sorcery, thieving, whoring, and holy treason against the Good Father’s Church.”
The congregation jeered.
“Today, we will hear her confession. We will judge her not according to the passions of our hearts, but by the laws of our Father and Holy Scriptures. Only then may she find true forgiveness. Let the trial commence.”
If you have any honor, any semblance of kindness or decency, then spare her. Spare her, please.
THE FIRST WITNESS
to testify was Abram Moore. He staggered forward, leaning heavily on his cane, his face a picture of pain as he hobbled into the shadow of the altar.
Immanuelle didn’t expect him to meet her eyes, but he did. “I’m here to testify . . . on behalf of myself and . . . my wife Martha Moore. Immanuelle is my granddaughter . . . the child of Miriam Moore who died the . . . day Immanuelle was born. She had no living father so . . . I raised her . . . as my own. She bears . . . my name.”
“Did you raise her to be what she is?” Apostle Isaac asked, moving toward the altar. He was the apostle who had replaced Abram in the wake of Miriam’s disgrace, and Immanuelle could not help but wonder if he relished the opportunity to best his rival once again.
“I raised her to . . . fear the Father,” said Abram. “And . . . I believe she does.”
There was a collective gasp, but Abram pressed on. “She’s just . . . a child.”
Apostle Isaac moved to the edge of the altar. He stared down
at Abram with a look of such naked contempt, it made Immanuelle cringe.
But Abram didn’t waver.
“I would remind you of the words of our Holy Scriptures,” said the apostle, speaking slowly, as if he thought Abram simple. “Blood begets blood. That’s the price of sin.”
“I know the Father’s . . . Scriptures. And I know that . . . clemency is extended to those who are not of sound mind . . . or heart.”
“She is sound,” the apostle snapped. “We spoke at length.”
“The girl has . . . her mother’s sickness.”
“Her mother’s only sickness was witchery.”
This was met with applause. Men at the back of the crowd raised their fists to the rafters, yelling for blood and burning.
“Sin can be an affliction . . . real as any,” said Abram. He turned to appeal directly to the flock. “Sin has come upon us in the form . . . of these plagues, and yet . . . we don’t punish ourselves. We don’t lay . . . the whip . . . against our own backs.”
Apostle Isaac interrupted, “That’s because we aren’t to blame. We are victims of this evil. But that girl”—he pointed toward Immanuelle with a shaking finger—“is the source of it. She’s a witch. She conjured the curses that have ravaged these lands, and yet you would see her walk among us? You would set her free?”
“I would not free her . . . here,” said Abram. “I would release her . . . to the wilds. Banish her from Bethel. Let her . . . make a life for herself beyond the wall.”
Apostle Isaac opened his mouth to refute him, but the Prophet raised a hand for silence. He brushed past the apostle as if he was little more than a hanging curtain. “Thank you for your witness, brother Abram. We accept your truth with gratitude.”
As Abram shuffled back to his seat, the Prophet cast his gaze
back to the people, scanning the pews. “Are there others who wish to offer witness?”
A small, thin voice sounded at the back of the cathedral. “There are.”
It took Immanuelle a moment to recognize the girl limping toward her, chained and flanked by two of the Prophet’s guardsmen.
Contrition had not been kind to Judith. She looked like a corpse.
Her auburn curls, which had once been so long they hung to her waist, had been cut into a scum-matted crop as short as a boy’s. She was deathly thin, and dirty, dressed in a torn bodice and bloodstained skirts. Despite the cold, she wore no shoes or shawl about her shoulders. Both of her lips were badly split, and when she spoke they began to bleed. “I have a confession to make.”
The Prophet nodded. “Speak your truth, child.”
Judith stopped at the altar’s edge, her gaze pinned to the floor even as she turned to face the flock. She wrung her hands, shackles rattling, and peered up at the Prophet, as if waiting for some kind of cue. When she finally spoke, it was in a lifeless drone, as though she was reciting a catechism or Holy Scriptures. “Immanuelle Moore has defied Holy Protocol. She has cast her charms and worked her evils against the men and women of this Church.”
The Prophet appraised her, his expression blank. “And what evidence do you have to charge the accused with these crimes?”
“Her own words,” said Judith, her voice wavering. She struggled for a moment, as if trying to remember what she was told to say. “On a Sabbath, weeks ago, Immanuelle said that she liked to walk the woods with the devils, and to dance with the witches naked in the moon’s light.”
There was a chorus of gasps. People grasped their holy daggers and muttered prayers.
Judith looked to the Prophet again, and Immanuelle saw him
offer her the smallest nod. She turned her attention back to the congregation, spoke in a rush. “When Immanuelle said those words, Ezra Chambers laughed like he couldn’t stop. His whole body seized up, the way the sick do when they catch the fever she cast upon us. She seduced Ezra,” Judith said, raising her eyes to the Prophet. “She put a hex on your son, using the magic of the Dark Mother to do it. So you see, it wasn’t his fault. She forced him to sin.”
“I didn’t,” said Immanuelle, speaking for the first time since her trial began. “I would never hurt Ezra. I’ll put my hand on the Scripture and say it. I’ll swear it on my mother’s bones.”
“Your mother has no bones to swear on,” Apostle Isaac said, his voice low and lethal. “Your mother’s corpse burned on the pyre. Only the ashes of that witch remain.”
The flock spoke as one.
Once again, the Prophet raised his hand for silence. “Thank you for your confession.”
Judith parted her lips, as if she wanted to say more, but one glance from her husband was enough to quiet her. Head bowed, she returned to her guards, who seized her by the arms. She began to softly weep as they dragged her from the church.
The Prophet paused, his face grave in the flickering torchlight. At last, he spoke. “I would like to call upon my son, Ezra Chambers, to testify to the remarks of our last witness.”
Immanuelle’s heart froze in her chest.
“Bring my son to the altar.”
On his order, the cathedral doors groaned open and two guardsmen emerged from the darkness, Ezra between them. He looked like he’d been beaten. There was a crust of dried blood beneath his nose and bags beneath his eyes as dark as bruises. Through the thin fabric of his shirt, Immanuelle could see dirty bandages wrapped around his chest, badly in need of a changing.
Ezra limped down the aisle and braced both hands against the altar, his breathing ragged. His knuckles were just a few inches from Immanuelle’s fingertips, and she wanted nothing more than to take him by the hand. But she didn’t dare move.
This was an unexpected turn of events, one with the potential to completely upend her plan. If Ezra was pitted against her—if his innocence was used as evidence of her own guilt—then how could she clear her name without damning him?
The Prophet strode to the front of the altar and stared down at his son. “Is it true that you were in the company of the accused on the fifteenth Sabbath in the Year of the Reaping?”
Ezra shifted his weight. As he did so, his sleeve fell away, exposing the black band of a bruise around his forearm—a twin to the ones around Immanuelle’s wrists and ankles. The marks of chains and shackles. “Yes, I was there.”
“And is it true that Immanuelle spoke to her doings with the devils that day?”
Ezra’s hands trembled slightly. He clutched them into fists. “Many people spoke to many things that day.”
“But do you remember her words?”
“I do not.”
The Prophet slipped his hands into the folds of his robe. “Our accused has called you her friend. Is that true?”
Ezra hesitated. Immanuelle wouldn’t have blamed him if he denied her. Any smart man with the will to live would do so. He could still save himself. “That is true. Immanuelle is my friend, and a loyal one.”
At those words, Immanuelle choked back a sob, and Ezra must have heard it because he shifted his hand toward her by a half inch, his knuckles warm against her fingertips. He peered up at her for the first time.
It’s all right,
his eyes seemed to say, the same words he’d
whispered in her ear the night of Leah’s death.
You’re going to be all right.
The Prophet circled them. He was close, so close that if Immanuelle had only reached out her hand, she could have seized his holy dagger by the hilt. She was tempted to do it, steal the blade and carve the sigil into her arm then and there. But she knew that if she attempted it, the Prophet’s guardsmen would shoot her dead on the spot. No, better to wait. The slaughter wasn’t upon them yet. She still had time to spare.
The Prophet dropped to a crouch at his son’s side. “Tell me, what is your connection to the accused? What is the nature of your affinity?”
Ezra swallowed hard, shifting his gaze back to his father. He squared his shoulders, as if he was gathering the strength he needed to speak. “I’m guilty of all the charges leveled against me. But Immanuelle is innocent. Any sins or crimes she may have committed were at my instruction, and mine only.”
A great, dreadful moan rose from the congregation. Many people wept openly; others ripped their own garments. Children cowered in their mothers’ skirts, and some of the more pious men lowered themselves to their knees in prayer.
Their heir had betrayed them.
The Prophet drew himself up to the altar slowly, his robes trailing behind him. “So you’re saying that it was you who lured the evil from Immanuelle Moore? You who called it forth?” He turned to point an accusing finger at his son. “All of these plagues have come upon us because of you?”
Ezra nodded. His shoulders rolled beneath his shirt as he shifted his weight against the altar. “Yes. That’s true.”
“And you manipulated her power to seize the title of prophet, making you a heretic. A
It wasn’t a question, but Ezra answered anyway. “Yes.”
His confession elicited a roar of protest. Despair became shock, and shock became fury. The crowd jeered, surging forward, stomping their feet and shouting. The echoes of their cries blasted between the walls. This time, the Prophet let them scream.
“No,” said Immanuelle, but her voice was lost below the bedlam of the crowd. In that moment she didn’t think of her own innocence or guilt. She didn’t think of the reversal sigil or Bethel or summoning the power of the plagues. Her thoughts were only with Ezra, and the grave danger his false confession had put him in. “He’s lying. It isn’t true!”
Before she could utter another word of protest, members of the Prophet’s Guard broke forward to seize Ezra. Grabbing him by the arms, they dragged him back to the cathedral doors.
“Thank you for your confession,” said the Prophet. “This trial is adjourned.”