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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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“Then how do you plan to stop this? You think cutting me or jailing your son will make any difference? Do you think Lilith and her witches will give a damn about that?”

“No, I don’t,” the Prophet said calmly. “That’s why, if the plagues continue, I’m prepared to raze the Darkwood until there’s nothing left but twigs and cinders. The pyres I light will make the
holy purges of David Ford look like hearth fires. One way or another, Bethel will prevail and the Father will have His atonement.”

Immanuelle’s hands tightened to fists. “If it’s atonement you want, if that’s what the Father truly demands, then why don’t you start with yourself?”

A peal of thunder cracked outside, and the dark seemed to thicken, pressing in against the windowpanes.

“What do I have to atone for?”

“I think you know.”

“I never claimed perfection, Immanuelle. We all make mistakes.”

Rage washed through her. Outside, the wind roared through the blackness. “I’m not talking about mistakes. I’m talking about crimes. You bedded Leah long before her cutting, taking her virtue while she paid penance here, under what should have been your protection. You sent my father to the pyre out of jealousy and spite. You’ve jailed your own son on charges you know are false. And the dungeons beneath our feet are filled with innocent girls you torture for the crime of having witch marks on their census files. There is nothing you wouldn’t do, no one you wouldn’t hurt, to keep power in your hands.”

The Prophet paled. The little color he had left in his lips and cheeks leeched away, until he stood before her as white and sallow as the witches of the Darkwood. “You’re right.”

She stiffened.
“What?”

“I said you’re right—about me, my sins, my vices, my shame, my lust, my lies. All of it.” He looked at her and cocked his head. “But do you want to know what keeps me up at night? It’s not the lies of the Church. It’s not my sins, or even my sickness. What keeps me up—tossing and turning and sweating in my sheets—is the knowledge of how fragile it all really is. Bones break and
people die. The pyres burn low, barely bright enough to keep the shadows at bay. Forces beyond our walls edge closer, every day . . . and the flock grows restless.”

He stared down at his hands, and Immanuelle was surprised to see them shaking. “And who do they turn to in their time of need? Who’s responsible for tending their hurts? Who lights the fires that lead them through the night? The Father won’t descend from the heavens to care for his children. The apostles return to their wives and beds. The flock fails to account for themselves and so the burden falls to me.
I
am their salvation, and I will do whatever it takes—sin, purge, even kill—in order to ensure their survival. Because that is what it means to be prophet. It’s not about the Sight. It’s not about kindness or justice or basking in the light of the Father. No, to be prophet is to be the one man willing to damn your soul for the good of the flock. Salvation
always
demands a sacrifice.”

Immanuelle stared at him—this man who’d used his lies to make himself a martyr. He thought he was the one who made the true sacrifice, but he couldn’t be more wrong.

It was not the Prophet who bore Bethel, bound to his back like a millstone. It was all of the innocent girls and women—like Miriam and Leah—who suffered and died at the hands of men who exploited them. They were Bethel’s sacrifice. They were the bones upon which the Church was built.

Their pain was the great shame of the Father’s faith, and all of Bethel shared in it. Men like the Prophet, who lurked and lusted after the innocent, who found joy in their pain, who brutalized and broke them down until they were nothing, exploiting those they were meant to protect. The Church, which not only excused and forgave the sins of its leaders but enabled them: with the Protocol and the market stocks, with muzzles and lashings and twisted Scriptures. It was the whole of them, the heart of Bethel
itself, that made certain every woman who lived behind its gate had only two choices: resignation, or ruin.

No more,
Immanuelle thought. No more punishments or Protocols. No more muzzles or contrition. No more pyres or gutting blades. No more girls beaten or broken silent. No more brides in white gowns lying like lambs on the altar for slaughter.

She would see an end to all of it. She would wed the Prophet, and while he slept in their shared bed, she would take up his dagger, carve the sigil into her arm, and end this once and for all.

“You can cut me if you wish. Chain me to the pyre, douse me with kerosene, and light a match. But it won’t be enough to save your life . . . or your wretched soul.”

The Prophet flinched, and Immanuelle watched in horror as he raised a hand to grasp the hilt of his holy dagger. When his gaze swept toward her, she staggered back, falling into the edge of the bed. But there was no place to run.

“I have made my intentions plain,” he said, and to Immanuelle’s relief he released his dagger and retired to his seat at the desk, limping and wheezing as he went. “I have been more than patient with you. But I will make myself clear one last time: Your life, and Ezra’s, relies on your decision at tomorrow’s trial. I suggest you return to your cell and consider my offer. In the morning, if it’s mercy you want, you’ll bite your tongue and choose well.”

C
HAPTER
T
HIRTY
-
SIX

I have engaged in lust and lechery. I have delighted in the spoils of the flesh. For these crimes, I will meet my reckoning on the pyres of the purging. I ask for the Father’s mercy. Nothing more.

—T
HE
F
INAL
C
ONFESSION
OF
D
ANIEL
W
ARD

THE MORNING OF
her sentencing, Immanuelle woke with Ezra’s name on the tip of her tongue. She had dreamed of him in the night, and as she rose, it was his face that haunted her.

Mere moments after she pushed to her feet and plucked the hay from her curls, one of the Prophet’s guardsmen appeared at the threshold of the cell.

“It’s time,” was all he said. He held a hard square of brown bread through the rungs of the cell door. Breakfast.

Immanuelle shook her head. The thought of taking anything more than a few swallows of water made her feel ill. She smoothed the creases from her skirt with shaking hands. “I’m ready.”

They took the short exit, down the corridor and up into the house proper, emerging just off the foyer. It was the route that Immanuelle knew best—and the one she would have taken had she ever had the opportunity to stage an escape. From there, they took a cart through the cold black of the plains, passing the smoking heaps of old funeral pyres, traveling fast beneath the starless sky.

The string of the cathedral lights appeared in the distance.
Immanuelle folded her arms over her chest, a great chill racking her, teeth chattering, her fingers numb with cold.

Today was the day she decided her fate: the Prophet, or the pyre.

Bethel’s congregation spilled into the cathedral, filling the pews. The crowd was twice as big as it had been the first session of her trial, and many men and women stood along the walls or sat in the aisles.

When all the pews and benches were filled, Immanuelle took her place atop the altar again, folded her hands in her lap, and lowered her head.

For Ezra,
she said to herself, turning his name over in her head.
For Honor. For Glory. For Miriam. For Vera. For Daniel. For Leah. For Bethel and all of the innocents in it.

The apostles gathered behind her, forming a line along the altar. They were dressed in their most formal attire, thick robes of black velvet, the hems pooling at their feet. As the last of the congregation found seats in the pews or places to stand along the walls, the Prophet entered. He too was dressed in his finest, a robe of rich vermilion so dark it looked almost black. His feet were bare, and as he strode down the aisle, his toes glimpsed from beneath the hem of his robe. “It’s time for the accused to testify. Today we will hear her final confession.”

Immanuelle’s hands shook in her lap. She grasped her knees, her mouth dry and sticky. Raising her head, she peered into the throng of the assembled. There were faces she knew—Esther, sitting in the front row, and the Moores, who filled the pew just behind her—and many others she didn’t. The cathedral was crowded with men and women, all of them gazing up at her with the same fear and revulsion with which she had once looked upon Lilith in the Darkwood.

The Prophet turned to face her. “Speak now, and let the truth be known.”

Immanuelle squared her shoulders, forcing herself to raise her gaze to the flock. She knew that she had done no wrong, that she had no real sins to confess or be forgiven for. But she also knew that her fate and Ezra’s hinged on her confession. What she said next would determine whether they lived to see another day. If a false confession of guilt was what it took to save them both, so be it.

“My name is Immanuelle Moore. I am the daughter of Miriam Moore and Daniel Ward.”

Her words were met with silence. Dead, thick, sickening silence.

“I stand before you as a killer, and a liar, and a sinner through and through. I have dishonored my family name. I have dishonored the Scriptures, the Prophet, and the Good Father.”

Immanuelle paused, meeting Martha’s gaze for the briefest moment.

“I have walked the path of sin,” Immanuelle continued. “I have spoken to the beasts of the Darkwood in their foul tongue. I have defied the Father’s Protocol and lived in reproach of his reign. I have read in secret. I have seduced men of the Good Faith with my wiles and turned their hearts. I have broken the holy conduct of meekness and modesty and spoken out of turn. I have practiced witchcraft in the shadows. I have befriended evil and shunned the good that’s come to me. For these sins, I ask your forgiveness that the Father might—in His mercy—purge my soul of darkness. This is my final confession.”

Again, there was silence, save for the rhythmic echo of the Prophet’s footsteps as he walked alongside the altar and raised a hand to Immanuelle’s head, his fingers tangling through her curls. “Thank you for your witness, child. It is well heard.”

The flock said nothing. They waited, openmouthed, hungry for a sentencing. For news of a proper pyre execution, a live purging as the law of the Scripture would demand.

But if it was blood they wanted, they would not get it that day. For their Prophet had other plans. Plans he had made plain to Immanuelle—plans that would see Bethel laid to ruin if it meant keeping power in the palm of his hand.

“The Father has spoken to me through the Sight.” The Prophet’s hand fell from Immanuelle’s head as he moved to stand before the altar. “I have seen his children walk the plains and the woods beyond them freely. I have seen the sun rise above the land and chase away the shadows. I have seen the Father’s holy eye upon us once more.”

To this, there were shouts of praise and glory.

The Prophet raised his voice above their cries. “But there’s a price for the bounty and blessings I’ve seen.”

Apostle Isaac pushed forward, his eyes bright with frenzy. “Whatever price, we will pay it!” He turned to face the congregation. “For the glory of the Father?”

The flock shouted in answer.
“For the glory of the Father!”

The Prophet raised his hands for silence. Sweat dampened his brow, and the muscles in his neck pulled taut, as if he was fighting to drag the words from his throat. “The Father has demanded that we raze the Darkwood and take dominion over it.”

Another cry rose from the flock. There was rapturous applause. A few of the people in the front pews fell to their knees, their hands raised to the heavens.

“To do this,” the Prophet pressed on, “to take dominion of what is ours to claim, we must overcome the darkness that resides in every one of us in different measures. We mustn’t be afraid to purge it, as David Ford did in the height of the Holy War, when he called the Father’s fire from the heavens.” He paused a moment for effect. “That is why on the dawn of the coming Sabbath, I will wed Immanuelle Moore and purge her of evil. I will
carve the holy seal into her brow. Then—and only then—will the curse be broken.”

Immanuelle felt the air shift. There wasn’t a single sound. Not the squall of a baby or the whine of a child. Not a breath, not a heartbeat.

“You would offer her mercy?” Apostle Isaac demanded, his face twisted with revulsion. “You would offer this witch a place at your side as a reward for her sins and crimes?”

“I would offer my own life in exchange for an end to these plagues. Whatever the Father demands of me, I will give it, if it means an end to our suffering.” The Prophet ran a hand over his head, as if buying the time he needed to collect himself. But when he spoke again, his voice blasted between the rafters. “We have purged, and we have burned, and we are all the worse for it. Sending the girl to the pyre will not end our suffering. She is bound to the Darkness of the Mother, in body and soul, so we must find a way to break that unholy tie. Now I have prayed, lain prostrate at the feet of the Father that He might give me an answer . . . show me a way to dispel this evil that has fallen upon Bethel through her, and He has given me an answer. There is but one way to purge ourselves of the evil this witch has cast: a sacred seal between bride and husband, husband and Holy Father. To atone for her sins, she must be bound to me. It’s the only way.”

The Prophet turned to face Immanuelle again, his chest inches from the altar’s edge. “Do you accept the terms of your sentencing?”

There was silence in the cathedral. The dark pressed in against the windows.

The end was close now.

Immanuelle bowed her head, arms wrapped around her stomach as if to hold her bones together. Raising her gaze to meet the Prophet’s, she sealed her fate. “I do.”

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
2.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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