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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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Vera started forward next, attempting to lunge free of her guards, but they dragged her back before she had the chance to do anything more than shout Immanuelle’s name to the wind.

In the distant dark, the forest stirred.

Immanuelle forced her gaze back to the Prophet. He stood in her wake, his mouth open, his face bathed red with the light of the bonfire. He looked at his son, bent before the flames, and then he looked at Immanuelle with so much anger she felt the blood curdle in her veins.

“You’re my wife before you are anything else.”

“I am my own,” said Immanuelle, fighting to keep her voice level. “My blood and bones belong to me, and me alone, and I would trade them, on my own authority, to atone for your son’s sins. I’ll take his place.”

The Prophet took a step toward her. “You have no right.”

This time, Immanuelle didn’t cower. “I have every right. My offering is pure. You can’t intercede.”

“But you have my seal. You took a vow,
to me
.”

“And now I take another,” said Immanuelle. “With the faithful of Bethel as my witnesses, I will go to the altar in Ezra’s stead.”

The Prophet tried to speak again, but his voice cracked. In his silence, Apostle Isaac limped forward. “Is it true that the girl has not been touched?”

Esther sprang to her feet, even as the wives around her grabbed
at her skirts and tried to hush her. “The girl does not lie. She’s pure.”

“If she is pure,” said the apostle, turning to face the Prophet, “then she is a worthy sacrifice.”

“No,” Ezra rasped. He tried to stand, but one of the guards struck him so hard his legs buckled beneath him, and he hit the ground on his hands and knees. “Don’t hurt her. Please. There has to be another way.”

“There is.” A voice echoed through the dark, and to Immanuelle’s shock, Martha stepped forward, moving between tables to the front of the feast. “I’ll go in her stead. Spare her.”

The apostle appraised the woman, eyes narrow, his upper lip curling with disgust. “You’re not pure of flesh.”

“No,” said Martha, wringing her hands. “But I’m pure of soul. I’ve said my prayers. I’ve lived in truth and honor. I’ve served the Father well, Named generations in accordance to His will. I can take her place. Please.”

“Martha,” said Immanuelle, and her grandmother met her eyes. She was weeping, great brutal sobs, and she seemed to crumple a little more with each breath she took. “It’s all right. I’m ready.”

Martha’s face went blank, and a few tears slipped down her cheeks, dangling from the point of her chin. She swayed, and she would have collapsed to the dirt if Anna hadn’t caught her by the arm to keep her on her feet.

Immanuelle forced her gaze back to the Prophet. This time her voice didn’t break. “My life for Ezra’s.”

For a moment, she thought the Prophet would deny her, seize her by the throat, drag her back to the Haven by her hair, or hang her up in the bowels of that wretched dungeon, where she would remain forevermore. But the Prophet simply lowered his head, hands clasped, fingers locked, as if he was praying. “Take her to the altar.”

For the second time that day, Immanuelle found herself ushered into the cathedral and down the long aisle, to the altar at its end. There, in full view of the flock, she stripped out of her bridal gown and loosed her braids. Undressed and unburdened, she climbed onto the altar.

The slip of her bridal gown felt thin and sheer as the wind blew through the doors. Not that modesty mattered much anymore, in light of what she was about to do.

The flock spilled into the cathedral. They didn’t bother filling the rows as they had during the trial. Instead, they pressed forward, crushing into the aisle and gathering at the foot of the altar, all of them eager to claim a good spot to witness the sacrifice. Among them, the Moores, weeping and tearing at their clothes. Vera trailed behind them, flanked by guards on either side, expression dead. And then, at the forefront of the crowd—bound and burned and shackled—was Ezra.

Immanuelle had seen broken men before. Men sentenced to die for their sins with nooses around their necks in the town square. She had seen men cradle their dead sons, men with the lash of the whip at their back. Sick or wounded men, men gone mad with rage. But none of them had looked as undone as Ezra did in that moment.

Emerging through the thick of the crowd, the Prophet took his place behind the altar. He moved one hand to the bare slope of Immanuelle’s belly and the other to her head, his thumb pressing hard against the seal he’d carved just hours before.

Blood skimmed along the bridge of Immanuelle’s nose, pooling in the dip of her upper lip.

She waited for the prayer with her eyes wide open, but it didn’t come. They meant to usher her into the afterlife unwelcomed and unannounced, without last rites or prayers for mercy . . . and perhaps that was for the best, given the grave sin she was about to
commit. There would be no place for her in the Father’s holy halls. No mercy for her in the heavens after what she was about to do.

Apostle Isaac shuffled forward, the gutting knife balanced between both of his hands. At the sight of the blade, fear washed over her. Her heart battered the backs of her ribs and she grasped the edge of the altar to keep herself from fleeing.

The Prophet wrapped a shaking hand around the hilt of the blade. For a moment, he studied it, as if testing its weight. Then his gaze shifted to Immanuelle. “You would really die for him? You would damn yourself?”

She nodded, knowing that the moment was upon her now. There was no turning back. “His sins are mine.”

“No.” Ezra struggled toward her, fighting his shackles and clawing the floor for purchase. “Immanuelle. Please, no.”

The Prophet put a hand to her brow, pressing hard enough to make her seal ache. He raised the gutting knife high above his head.

“Blood for blood.”

C
HAPTER
T
HIRTY
-
NINE

The maiden will bear a daughter, they will call her Immanuelle, and she will redeem the flock with wrath and plague.

—F
ROM
T
HE
W
RITINGS OF
M
IRIAM
M
OORE

IMMANUELLE CAUGHT THE
gutting knife—one hand wrapped around its hilt, the other around the bare blade—stopping its descent just a split moment before it carved into her chest. With all the strength she had left to summon, she ripped it from the Prophet’s hands.

The congregation roared with horror. The guards sprang into action, flooding the aisles, their fingers curled over the triggers of their rifles, which were all trained on Immanuelle. There were simultaneous shouts for them to fire and stand down, but Immanuelle paid them no mind. She raised the gutting knife and slit the sleeve of her dress clean open. Then—in a series of five vicious cuts—she carved the reversal sigil into the bare flesh of her forearm.

Time fractured before her eyes. The pain of the cuts began to build, becoming almost more than she could bear. A series of violent spasms racked her, forcing her to her knees, and as she struggled and writhed in the throes of her agony, the altar began to shudder along with her—stones shifting, its corners crumbling.

Immanuelle tilted her head up, looked toward the cathedral windows, but to her horror the darkness remained unbroken. She
searched the distant sky for signs of daybreak—a glimpse of sunshine, a ray of moonlight, the blue beginnings of early dawn—but the night was unchanged. The sigil hadn’t worked. She’d failed.

The cathedral gave a violent shudder. Rubble ricocheted down the steps and skittered into the aisles. The floorboards buckled and the windowpanes rattled in their casings. Overhead, the rafters shifted. Dust and debris rained down. The flock panicked. Screams rang through the cathedral and children shrieked for their mothers. A few men fled to the doors, but the rest cowered in their pews, doing what little they could to shield themselves and their families from the falling wreckage.

Immanuelle stared down at her bleeding arm, willing the power of the sigil to work, trying to call the plagues back to her. But to no avail. Bethel was lost.

The Prophet staggered backward, pale and slack-jawed, stumbling on his robes as he fled behind the altar. The walls began to shudder more violently, threatening to cave in, and a single word rang through Immanuelle’s mind:
Slaughter.

As if on cue, the windows of the cathedral shattered, the panes blasting inward in a storm of glittering stained-glass shards. A river of darkness rushed into the sanctuary.

And with the night came the legion.

The first of the beasts flew into the cathedral, swarming its eaves as the flock screamed and cowered below. Fanged bats roosted in the rafters; a wake of vultures circled viciously above. Storms of droning locusts spilled in through the broken windows and ravens rushed through a crack in the roof, cawing and shrieking as they poured into the sanctuary.

The congregation descended into screams and chaos. Some charged toward the doors; others took shelter in the shadows beneath the pews, desperate to escape the horde swarming overhead. A few of the Prophet’s guardsmen raised their weapons,
defending the flock with bullets and bolts. But their efforts were futile. The onslaught raged on.

The land-bound creatures followed the winged legion, rushing in through open doors and shattered windows. There were women helmed with the heads of hounds, spiders as large as lambs that scuttled beneath the pews. The legions of the dead—the blight-struck, the lost souls, the flame-mangled victims of purgings past—staggered down the aisles.

Upon their arrival, the true bedlam began. Mothers fled with their children; men rushed the broken windows and doors only to be barred by the teeming horde that circled the walls and forced the flock back to their pews with bared fangs and hooked claws.

Then the witches entered.

First came the Lovers, Mercy and Jael, walking hand in hand down the center aisle, the hellish throng parting to make way for them. Then Delilah, who scrabbled from a rift in the ground beneath them, emerging sludge slick and wild-eyed, the floorboards rotting beneath her feet as she stood.

The cathedral began to shake again, this time so violently Immanuelle feared the roof would collapse. She searched the shifting crowds, desperate to spot Vera or the Moores, but she couldn’t find them amidst the mayhem. The quaking continued. Grown men were thrown off their feet as pews toppled. The Crusader’s Sword fell from the wall behind the altar and shattered, mere inches from the spot where the Prophet cowered. Immanuelle tried to cling to the altar but couldn’t get a grip on the blood-slick stone, and she tumbled into the aisle below.

A boy stumbled over her. A woman crushed her hand underfoot. She was nearly trampled by an apostle fleeing a snarling wolf, when she felt a hand on her arm, dragging her backward to safety.

Ezra.

Immanuelle heard a deafening roar, and a rafter collapsed,
crashing to the floor where she’d lain just moments prior. It crushed the hapless apostle and the wolf stalking him instead. The force of the beam’s fall sent Immanuelle and Ezra sprawling back in a cloud of debris. Ezra sprung to his feet in an instant, dragging her up by the elbow and into the safety of the altar’s shadow.

The cathedral stopped shaking, and the legion went still. Ezra drew Immanuelle closer, and the two of them watched in horror as the front doors of the cathedral swung slowly open.

From the shadows of the ever-night, Lilith appeared.

She stood alone on the threshold. Fog seeped through the cracks in her skull and rolled from the black of her eye sockets. Her antlers arched overhead, a bleached-bone diadem. There were screams as she stepped into the cathedral. Grown men cowered on their knees, pleading with the Father as the witch queen passed them by. Barefoot and open-armed, Lilith walked down the center aisle, picking her way through the throng of beasts and ghouls to the altar, where Immanuelle and Ezra sat, frozen. The other witches moved to flank her: the Lovers on her left, Delilah on her right.

Ezra shifted forward to shield Immanuelle, but she caught him by the shoulder, stopping him. “I have to do this on my own,” she said.

He didn’t back down. “Immanuelle—”

“Trust me. You promised you would.”

Ezra worked his jaw, Immanuelle’s hand still on his shoulder. Then he nodded, and she released him.

Immanuelle pushed herself off the floor and stood on weak knees, facing the witches in full. For a moment they all surveyed one another in silence. Then Lilith extended a hand.

Immanuelle understood her meaning at once:
Join us, or die with them.

It was a simple offer, even a generous one. More kind than the fate her mother had met, certainly. Perhaps Immanuelle would be foolish not to take it. After all, the Prophet’s flock had been so quick to see her to her grave . . . Would it be so wrong to save herself and leave them to the same fate they would have damned her to?

Immanuelle’s gaze tracked across the pews, and she took in the faces of the people gathered there—Anna with Honor on her hip and Glory weeping, Abram and Martha, Vera standing resolute and unafraid, people from the Glades and the Holy Grounds and the Outskirts alike. Some of them were innocent, others complicit; still more were caught in the gray between right and wrong. Few were wholly blameless, and none were free of sin. But there wasn’t a single soul in that sanctuary she would condemn to the ruin that now lay before them.

Resigned to her fate, Immanuelle turned back to face the witches. “If this is the end, then I die with them.”

There was a shift in the air. The cathedral gave a little tremor and a cold breeze skimmed past the broken windows, stirring up clouds of dust. The darkness thickened, and the few torches that were still lit flickered weakly, doing little to disperse the night’s shadows.

Lilith didn’t lower her hand.

Instead, in a sweeping gesture, the witch turned to face the flock, surveying the masses with those dead black eyes, taking in the room. Her gaze passed over the Prophet cowering behind the altar, the wreckage and the rubble, the corpses that littered the cathedral aisles.

Then her gaze fell to the Moores. Her hand twisted into a grasping claw.

Anna loosed a little cry, clutching Honor with one hand and drawing Glory into her skirts. Martha threw an arm out to shield
them as the witch stepped closer, tears rolling down her cheeks though her expression was stoic. But it was Abram who started forward, limping out into the center aisle to place himself between the witch queen and his family. He stood there, silent and defenseless, leaning hard on his cane. Then, on Lilith’s command, a large, bone-faced hound prowled from the ranks of the legion.

It happened so fast, Immanuelle didn’t have the chance to scream.

One moment, Abram was standing alone in the center aisle; the next, he was pinned to the floor, the beast’s jaws closing around the back of his neck with an ugly, gut-twisting
snap
.

A great roaring filled Immanuelle’s ears. Darkness crept in from the edges of her vision, until she saw nothing but Abram’s lifeless body sprawled out on the floor. All at once, she was back in the cabin, surrounded by walls carved with plagues and promises. She could see the shadow of her mother, working the curses, carving her fate line by line.

Something stirred deep inside her. The sigil carved into her arm began to burn, bleeding so profusely the blood sloughed off her fingers and formed a puddle on the floor at her feet. A great tremor rattled the cathedral. Immanuelle raised her bloody hands and, with a ragged cry, summoned the power of the plagues.

Delilah was the first to fall.

A red tear leaked from the corner of the witch’s right eye, then her left. Blood pooled in the hollows of her ears, droplets dangling from her lobes like little jewels. Delilah sputtered, coughed, then began to choke, retching up mouthfuls of thick black gore with each convulsion. She broke to her knees, twitched twice, then collapsed motionless to the floor.

Blood.

Immanuelle turned on Mercy next. The witch jerked to a halt in the growing puddle of Delilah’s blood, swayed a little on her
feet, then dropped to her hands and knees, as if pushed by some invisible force. She tilted her head to stare up into the rafters, her back arching to a near spine-snapping angle. With a strangled cry, the witch hurled herself forward, and her brow cracked against the tiles with a sickening crunch that echoed through the cathedral. She raised her bleeding head, leaned back, and struck the floor again, and again, and again.

Blight.

Jael stepped forward next, and Immanuelle turned to face her. The witch stopped beside her lover, looking ready to strike. But before she had the chance, the power of the curse moved through Immanuelle again. With a pass of her hand, a tide of shadows washed across the cathedral floor, lashing around the witch’s ankles and clawing up her legs, her chest, her cheeks.

Jael managed a single scream before the writhing blackness devoured her.

Darkness.

Immanuelle stepped forward to pick up the gutting blade from where it lay a few feet from the altar’s stairs. She turned to Lilith last and raised the blood-slick blade, cleaving the air between them. “Enough.”

Lilith didn’t heed her. Undeterred, the witch queen stalked down the center aisle, picking her way past the corpses of her fallen coven. She stopped just short of Immanuelle, so close that the gutting blade’s tip nearly pierced into the soft of her belly.

But Lilith didn’t flinch.

Instead, she cupped Immanuelle’s cheek in her cold, pale hand and pressed even closer, the knife carving deep into her stomach as she tipped her forehead to Immanuelle’s. She shuddered violently. Issued a low groan of pain.

The girl peered into the black of Lilith’s eye sockets and felt
the forest’s thrall dragging her to senselessness. The sounds of slaughter died into the hiss of wind in the treetops. Shadows edged in from the corners of her vision and Immanuelle heard the woodland call deep within her, the sound like blood rush in her ears. The witch queen eased her thumb back and forth along Immanuelle’s pulse as if measuring the rhythm of her heartbeat, the gesture tender . . . even motherly. Immanuelle could almost imagine the kind of leader she might have been in a time, long ago, before the affliction of her vengeance and bloodlust turned her into the monster she had now become.

Lilith traced a finger along Immanuelle’s lips, then caught her by the neck.

A scream tangled in Immanuelle’s throat as Lilith ripped her off her feet. Choking, she clawed at the witch’s fingers, dangling above the ground as Lilith lifted her higher and higher.

In a panic, Immanuelle raised the gutting knife, slashing blindly. The blade connected first with bone, then flesh, piercing deep into Lilith’s shoulder.

The witch queen let out a shriek that shook the church. Fissures raced along the walls and the roof caved inward. Flock and legion alike fled for the doors as the cathedral collapsed around them. Through the mayhem, Immanuelle heard Ezra shout her name, and then his voice was lost to the tumult like everything else.

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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