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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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Sometimes, I think he loves me. Not selflessly, the way that you do, but with a kind of hunger. There is power in that love, but there is malice too. I often wonder what will become of me when that malice manifests.


a cold splash of water and a kick to the ribs. “Get up.”

Wincing, she cracked her eyes open and peered up at the guard who stood over her. He, like all of the other servants who had come to her cell to question and torment her, wore a mask over his mouth, as if he feared he would catch her evil by breathing. He held an oil lamp that shined so bright, Immanuelle had to squint to keep from being blinded by it.

Without a word, she forced herself off the cold stone floor and stood.

The guard kept her shackled as they walked through the Haven’s corridors. Immanuelle tried to memorize the path as she went—
left twice, right once, left three times, right four, pause at the iron door
—but it was futile. The dark made it impossible to discern one hall from the next.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked, hating the tremor in her voice.

The guard didn’t answer. They walked on.

With every step, Immanuelle’s thoughts drifted, and she was
forced to shift her focus from memorizing the path to simply staying on her feet. Her head swam and her legs felt soft beneath her. She began to shake, and she wasn’t sure if it was the fear or the hunger or both.

As they moved down the corridors, Immanuelle’s thoughts went to Ezra—his false confession, his sacrifice, all that he’d said and done in order to protect her. It was a fool’s gesture; he must have known that. She had been doomed the instant she left the Moore house. But still, despite everything, he had tried to save her, lying under holy oath to do it, trading his inheritance, his freedom, his life, for hers. It was a grave sacrifice, and one she was grateful for. Her only hope was that, if a little luck was still on her side, she’d have the chance to tell him that before the end.

After a long, silent walk through the Haven, the guard led her to an empty corridor. At its end stood a wooden door so large, it spanned the entirety of the wall. It swung open at their approach, and Esther emerged from it into the darkness of the hall. She was disheveled, her skirts wrinkled, her bodice sloppily laced. Her hair fell loose around her shoulders, and her eyes were red and swollen. As she brushed past them, she gave Immanuelle a look of so much loathing, a chill carved down her spine.

The guardsman yanked on Immanuelle’s shackles, hauling her forward, and Esther disappeared into the darkness of the corridor. With a sharp strike between her shoulder blades, the guard shoved her the rest of the way through the portal, and the door slammed shut behind her.

Immanuelle stalled by the threshold, too afraid to move. She examined the room before her. At the center of the far wall was a bed, its mattress big enough for five people. It was mounted on a massive wrought iron frame, strikingly similar to the craft and style of the Haven’s front gates. Above it hung a large, rusty broadsword that looked so old, Immanuelle wouldn’t have been
surprised to learn its original owner had been one of the Holy War’s crusaders. On either side of the blade were windows overlooking what Immanuelle assumed were the plains, though it was far too dark to see more than a few inches past the windowsill.

“It was good of you to come.”

Immanuelle jumped and turned to see a man sitting in the far corner of the room, hunched over a small writing desk. There was little light in the shadows beyond the reach of the oil lamp, and it took Immanuelle a moment to recognize him as her eyes adjusted.

The Prophet.

And these, she realized, must be his private quarters.

After a long silence, the Prophet raised his eyes from his paper to study her. By the light of the candle flickering on his desk, she could see the scar carving along the side of his neck. “Normally they cut the curls of the girls who enter contrition. The guards shear them like sheep to keep the lice at bay, but I asked them to leave you be.” He stared at her expectantly, as if waiting for her thanks.

Immanuelle didn’t offer it.

“Do you know why I’ve called you here?”

She thought of what Leah had told her, how the Prophet had used her, exploiting her innocence when she was just a child doing penance. Pushing her fear aside, she shook her head.

The Prophet dipped his quill to the inkwell and scribbled something at the bottom of his letter. “Guess.”

“I—I don’t know.”

He frowned. “I was told you were a girl of great imagination. I’m disappointed you have nothing to say.”

“I’m tired, sir.”

“Tired?” He arched an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

Immanuelle glanced out the window, to the black of the distant plains. She shook her head.

“It’s high noon,” he said. “The sun hasn’t risen since the night my guards tracked you down. Some believe it will never rise again.” He appraised her with a glance, head to toe, and she wondered how many girls had been hurt in this room. “It’s hard to believe, even with you standing here before me. A girl with the power to darken the sun, snuff out the stars . . . on a whim.”

“I didn’t summon the plagues.”

The Prophet’s eyes glinted. He leaned down to open one of his desk drawers and withdrew Miriam’s journal. “Then tell me, what business does an innocent girl have with a witch’s spell book?”

The book blurred and doubled before Immanuelle’s eyes, and the room began to spin. Her knees buckled, and she staggered backward a few feet before catching herself on the bedpost.

The Prophet shifted his gaze back to his letter. She noted that he was wearing his holy dagger, the very weapon she needed to cast the reversal sigil. If she could but reach out and take it . . . “Do they not feed you down there?”

Immanuelle startled to attention, cast her gaze away from the blade. “Only on the good days.”

He motioned to the small bowl of fruit that stood at the corner of his desk. “Eat.”

Immanuelle was too hungry to bother with suspicion. She stumbled over to the desk and snatched an apple from the bowl. She devoured it in seconds, then wiped her mouth clean on the back of her hand.

“They’re going to sentence you to die tomorrow,” the Prophet said casually. “Has Apostle Isaac told you that?”

Her gut twisted, and she tasted apple at the back of her throat. “No.”

“Then consider this your warning. Tomorrow morning, you will be sentenced to the pyre for holy treason. After his trial, Ezra will receive the same verdict.” He paused to finish his letter. He had a poor hand, and Immanuelle noticed he held his quill wrong, pinching it between his thumb and ring finger. His knuckles bent at odd angles, so that they looked almost broken. “Still, despite the best warnings of my apostles and the Church, I’m of a mind to be merciful. I want to save you.” He looked up at her then and clarified, “
of you.”

Immanuelle didn’t dare to hope. Not yet. There was a catch. There was
a catch. “Why would you do that?”

The Prophet didn’t answer her. Instead, he pushed away from his desk, the feet of his chair scraping across the floor with a screech. He coughed violently as he stood, and drops of blood flecked his shirt and spattered the floorboards at his feet.

Immanuelle knew enough to know this wasn’t the kind of cough that could be cured. His was not a passing bout of grippe or the chill that gets in your lungs when the seasons turn. No, that wheezing bark was nothing less than the gasps of a dying man.

When his fit finally passed, the Prophet wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and started toward her. He drew so close, she caught the scent of blood on his breath.

“I would do it because I care for you, Immanuelle. And I believe that, with time and atonement, we could be of use to each other.”

The consecrated blade was mere inches from her grasp. “In what way?”

The Prophet studied his hands. When he lowered his head, she could see the edge of his scar peering above his collar. “In a holy way, through the bond of marriage. If you’re cut with my seal, you’ll be exempt from whatever punishment they pin to you at the trial. You’ll be spared.”

It was an odd offer, given the Prophet’s state. Why would a dying man care to take her hand in matrimony? Immanuelle couldn’t imagine he would survive more than a few months, maybe a year, given Ezra’s rapid rise to power. Unless . . . he didn’t intend to let Ezra rise to power. A horrible idea occurred to her: What if the Prophet’s true plan was to extend his own reign by cutting Ezra’s life short? What if he intended to execute his own son?

The shock must have been evident on Immanuelle’s face, because the Prophet gave her a reassuring smile that might have been comforting, if it wasn’t for the sharpness in his eyes. “Oh, come now. There are worse things to be than a prophet’s bride. Here, in the Haven, you’d be safe to live a long life. You’d never know the pain of the pyre’s flames. My seal would absolve you completely, and you’d be free to begin again.”

An idea surfaced at the back of her mind, as clever as it was revolting. What if she humored the Prophet’s plot, agreed to follow him to the altar—let him cut his seal into her forehead and claim her as his own? That night, in the marriage bed, after she’d fulfilled her duty as a bride, when the Prophet was lying spent and prone, she would have the rare opportunity to take up his holy dagger, carve the reversal sigil into her arm, and summon the power of the plagues. If she did that it wouldn’t matter what the Prophet’s intentions were or what he planned to do to Ezra. All she had to do was act before he did.

“And what of Ezra? You said you’d offer him mercy?”

At the mention of his son, the Prophet’s eye twitched. “I did, and I’m a man of my word. After you’re cut, Ezra will be absolved of his crimes.”

That meant that the Prophet would only enact his plan after her cutting. It meant that she had time. “So you intend to free him, then?”

“Free him?” The Prophet scoffed, looking close to laughter. “I
can’t do that. As my heir and a former apostle, Ezra took creeds to the Church. Creeds that he subsequently broke when he turned his back on his faith in order to help you. That’s an act of holy treason.”

And holy treason carried the penalty of death by pyre purging. “How far does your mercy extend if I refuse your offer?”

The Prophet’s gaze went dark. “It doesn’t extend at all.”

Rage boiled in the pit of Immanuelle’s stomach. She clenched her fists. He was all but forcing her to the altar in shackles. Either she married him, or she and Ezra burned on the pyre. There was no other alternative.

“You have such a sharp gaze,” said the Prophet, smirking. “You do favor her when you look at me that way.”

“Favor who?”

“Your grandmother. Vera Ward. Do you know that after your arrest in Ishmel, she followed you on horseback all the way to the Hallowed Gate? She was so exhausted by the time she arrived that arresting her was an act of mercy.”

“Vera’s here?” Immanuelle whispered, horrified.

“In the flesh, as of a week ago.”

“What do you want with her?”

“She’s Bethelan,” said the Prophet. “The holy seal is carved between her brows. I have an obligation to guide her soul back to the Father’s light, which is no easy task given how long she’s dwelled in darkness. Besides, I pity her, truly I do. Imagine it, first the poor woman was made to watch her only son burn on the pyre. Now, seventeen years later, it seems her granddaughter—the last of her living blood kin—will share his fate. It’s a terrible tragedy.”

Immanuelle couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t speak. All this time she had been so busy chasing beasts and devils, believing that evil began and ended with them. She had been so foolish. True evil
didn’t lurk in the depths of the Darkwood. It was not in Lilith or her coven, or even in any of the curses they cast.

True evil, Immanuelle realized now, wore the skin of good men. It uttered prayers, not curses. It feigned mercy where there was only malice. It studied Scriptures only to spit out lies. Lilith had known this, and Miriam had known it too. So they’d cast their curses and summoned the plagues. They’d tried to fix things, in their own twisted way, to put an end to all the evil that began with the Prophet and all the prophets who had reigned before him.

“I’ll draw it back,” said Immanuelle, not knowing if it was even possible. “If you pardon me and Ezra, if you let us leave Bethel with my grandmother, I’ll find a way to end the plagues. I’ll leave all of you in peace.”

“I thought you said you didn’t control the plagues.”

“No, I said I didn’t summon them. There’s a difference.”

The Prophet studied her for a beat before turning back to his desk. He sat, scribbled his signature at the bottom of his letter, blew the ink dry, then slipped it into an envelope. He tipped his candle, spilling a spot of wax onto the letter’s flap, tugged his dagger from the shadows of his shirt, and pressed the hilt’s pommel into the puddle, forming the print of the holy seal. “I’m not interested in a hasty fix, Immanuelle. I’m not going to get on my hands and knees and beg you to draw the plagues back. That’s not how this works, and it’s not what the Father demands. If we are to find a way to end the plagues, we won’t do it by delving into the darkness.”

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
8.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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