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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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Immanuelle’s vision went blurry. She tried to stay conscious, clawing desperately for a last scrap of strength. With a snarl, she ripped the gutting blade from Lilith’s shoulder and raised it high above her head.

This time, her blow struck true.

The blade lodged hilt-deep in Lilith’s chest. The witch stumbled forward, crashed into a nearby pew, and sank to the floor. But to Immanuelle’s horror, no sooner had she hit the ground
than the witch was on her feet again. She braced herself on a nearby pew, caught the gutting blade by the hilt, ripped it from her chest, and hurled it down the center aisle.

For a moment, they stood deadlocked, there in the center aisle of the cathedral. Both of them bleeding and wounded, barely able to stay on their feet. And Immanuelle knew then that the end had come and only one of the two of them would walk out of that cathedral.

Lilith raised both hands.

The wood floors began to buckle and ripple; roots burst free of the cathedral’s foundation and slithered—serpentine—down the center aisles. Saplings pressed through the floorboards, growing to maturity in a matter of moments, their branches spreading through the rafters. The crawling roots wrapped themselves around Immanuelle’s ankles, coiling so tight she cried out in pain. She staggered forward, struggling to free herself, but she couldn’t move.

The sigil cut into her forearm screamed with pain, as if she were being branded. She shut her eyes against it, reached into the depths of herself, and unleashed all that she had to give.

The roots slithered from around her ankles, recoiling back toward the breaks in the floorboards they had emerged from. The trees that sprawled overhead bent double, racked by some phantom wind that swept through the cathedral like the beginnings of a summer storm.

Lilith staggered back, pinned to the altar, as a powerful wind stormed around her so violently the skin on her outstretched hand began to slough away from the muscle, and the muscle from the bone. The witch lashed out with a scream.

The force of Lilith’s power ripped Immanuelle off her feet. She careened through the air and crashed to a brutal landing on a heap of upturned roots and floorboards. Her ribs gave a sickening
crunch upon impact, and she gasped and struggled, clinging to the cusp of her consciousness.

The wind died to a low wheeze as Lilith pushed off the altar and started toward her, threading through the trees the way she did the night they first met. There was light in her eye sockets now—two glowing motes that moved like pupils and homed in on Immanuelle. Her rage was palpable—it turned the air cold and made the trees shudder. The witch’s every step seemed to shake the cathedral down to the crumbling stones of its foundation.

Immanuelle tried and failed to fall back; Lilith was far too quick. The witch leveled her with a single backhanded slap, and Immanuelle struck the floor again. The lights in Lilith’s eyes began to dance and multiply, scattering through the black of her sockets like embers from a windblown campfire. She delivered a cruel kick to Immanuelle’s ribs, and she screamed at the pain, clawing the floorboards for purchase.

There was a soft click, the sound of a bullet sliding into its chamber. Then Ezra’s voice. “Leave her alone.”

The witch turned from Immanuelle, faced Ezra in full. He stood in the gap between two pine trees, peering down the barrel of a gun, a finger curled over the trigger.

Lilith started toward him, one hand raised.

The ground beneath Ezra’s feet began to ripple, trees and roots sprouting through the gaps between broken floorboards, curling around his legs the way they had that day at the pond. He fired on Lilith, but with the roots dragging at his arms, none of the bullets met their mark.

Undeterred, the witch walked toward him. As she neared, one of the roots coiled around Ezra’s neck and ripped him backward so the top of his head nearly touched his spine. He tried to fire again, but a vine wrapped itself around the barrel of the gun and forced it to the floor.

Immanuelle struggled to stand up. The gutting blade was just a few feet away. If she could reach it, she could put the witch down and end this once and for all.

Ezra struggled to speak. “Immanuelle . . . run—”

A bone-faced wolf prowled from behind him, the same one that had taken down Abram, its mouth still slick with his blood. It stalked toward Ezra, jaws slack, ready to lunge, when Immanuelle threw out her hand.

The ground beneath the wolf gaped open, floorboards buckling loose, a landslide of debris tumbling down into a yawning sinkhole. The wolf whimpered, slipped, its claws scrabbling at the floorboards, and plummeted into the void.

Immanuelle pressed to her feet. Every breath sent a bolt of pain through her ribs, but she managed to speak anyway: “Let him go.”

At her command the vines slithered from Ezra, and he half crawled, half lunged away from the sinkhole’s edge, grabbing for his rifle. He raised it to his shoulder and fired on Lilith again, just as she turned back to Immanuelle. The bullet pierced straight through the crook of her collarbone. Lilith stopped . . . then staggered into a nearby tree. Her knees buckled.

“Immanuelle!”
Vera stood in the center of the aisle, the gutting knife in her hand. She staggered forward, limping on what looked like a broken leg, and threw it.

The knife careened through the air, flipping several times as it arced overhead. Immanuelle lashed out and snatched it by the hilt a split second before it hit the floor. Then, with a strangled cry, she turned on Lilith and lunged.

The blade lodged, hilt-deep, into the center of the witch’s skull. A great crack cleaved the bone, and then, with the softest whimper, the witch queen collapsed.

Spent, Immanuelle crumpled to the floor beside her, gasping
and bleeding, so weak she felt she would never rise again. With the last of her strength, she pressed a hand to the witch’s head, smearing the bone with her blood.

Lilith peered at her, chest heaving. Tendrils of shadow eddied from the cracks in her skull, hanging on the air like smoke. One of her antlers snapped and hit the floor. At last, with a shudder that racked the cathedral to the stones of its foundation, the witch went lifeless.

Slaughter.

C
HAPTER
F
ORTY

And on that day, when the dark has passed and the sun has risen again, the sins of the deceivers will be brought to light and the truth will emerge from the shadows.

—T
HE
L
AST
P
ROPHESY
OF
D
AVID
F
ORD

THERE WAS SUNLIGHT
on Immanuelle’s cheeks when she woke. She opened her eyes and sat up, dizzy and squinting, struggling to process the scene before her.

The cathedral was in ruins. Half the roof had caved in, and fallen beams and debris littered the floors. Trees grew from great gashes in the foundation, their branches stirring when the wind blew. Survivors wandered the wreckage of toppled pews and broken windows, searching for the wounded and trapped. Strewn through the rubble were the corpses of beasts, guardsmen, and the faithful. Among them was Lilith’s body, lying limp in the shadow of the altar.

“Easy.” Ezra was by Immanuelle’s side, bracing a hand against the small of her back as she attempted to stand. “You’re all right. You’re safe now.”

She shut her eyes against the sight of the carnage, feeling faint and sick. The memories of the battle flooded back to her: the legions pouring in through the shattered windows, beasts and demons prowling the aisles of the church, children screaming, women fleeing, Abram pinned to the floor . . .

Abram.
Abram.

“Where is he?” Immanuelle demanded, turning to Ezra. “I want to see Abram.”

“Immanuelle—”

“I have to see him. Now.”

The crowd parted before them, members of the flock shuffling aside to give her a clear view. There, lying motionless amidst the wreckage, was Abram. Glory sat tucked into his waist the way she had as a baby, Honor close beside her, weeping. Next to Honor sat Anna, sobbing into the folds of her skirts. Standing over the two of them, stone-faced and motionless, was Martha. When her gaze shifted to Immanuelle, she offered nothing but a slow shake of her head.

Immanuelle tried to stand. She might have fallen if Ezra hadn’t been there to catch her by the arm. She shook him off, dropped to her hands and knees, and crawled through the wreckage to the place where Abram’s body lay.

She didn’t want to touch him, for fear of unleashing the power of the curses again. So she simply sat there next to him, one hand clasped over her mouth to muffle her sobs.

“Only now do you see the price of sin. Only now do you understand.” Immanuelle raised her head to see the Prophet staggering from behind the ruined altar, where he’d hidden during the height of the massacre. He raised his voice, calling out to the crowd: “Do you see the evil this girl has brought upon us? She summoned this darkness, called the coven here. Even now, I see the shadow of the Mother in her eyes.”

At this, the survivors of the slaughter murmured among themselves. A few stumbled back toward the walls; others cowered behind broken pews and heaps of rubble. All of them seemed to fear whatever curses Immanuelle would conjure next.

“Look at what this girl has wrought,” continued the Prophet,
gesturing to the carnage about them. “Look at the ruin she’s brought upon us.”

“Why don’t you bite your lying tongue?” Ezra snapped, stepping forward. “Can’t you see she’s mourning?”

“That girl mourns nothing but her own demise. She’s a witch.”

“Maybe,” said Ezra, and he looked ready to rip the gutting blade from Lilith’s skull and turn it on his father. “But while you were cowering behind the altar, pleading for your miserable life, Immanuelle fought for Bethel. She mastered the plagues and the Mother’s darkness, which is more than any prophet or saint has been able to do. She saved us all.”

“She didn’t save us,” spat the Prophet. “She brought this evil here in the first place. She confessed as much to me days ago: These plagues were born of her flesh and blood. All of this is because of her.”

He was right. Immanuelle couldn’t deny it. Everything—the blood and the blight, the darkness and the slaughter, Leah’s death and Abram’s—all of it had come to pass because of her. Miriam had died to give her the power to fight back, but all she’d managed to do was hurt the very people she’d wanted to save.

Immanuelle peered down again at her grandfather, choking back a sob. She started to reach for him, then stopped herself, folding her hands into fists so tight her nails cut into her palms. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, not to the Prophet, or to the flock, but to Abram. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Ezra dropped to her side. “You saved us, Immanuelle. All of us are here because of you.”

“Not all of us,” she said, her gaze sweeping across the ruins of the cathedral. The Moores weren’t the only ones in mourning. There were more dead among the debris and rubble. A guardsman lay slumped over a broken pew, surrounded by the corpses of fallen beasts. The body of an old man she recognized as the
candle peddler lay pinned beneath a fallen rafter. A few feet from the peddler, one of the Prophet’s brides sat amidst the wreckage, softly singing a lullaby to the lifeless child cradled in her arms.

These were the casualties of a war that could never be won. Immanuelle knew this now. The violence would continue. A new man would claim the title of Prophet. The cathedral would be rebuilt, and the covens of the dead would one day rise again. The war between witch and Prophet, Church and coven, darkness and light, would wage on and on until the day there would be nothing and no one left to mourn.

Was that the fate the Father wanted? Was that what the Mother ordained? Did They send Their children willingly to the slaughter? Could this be Their will?

No.

Gazing around the cathedral—at the corpses crowding the aisles, at Glory sobbing on Abram’s chest, at all the suffering and the senselessness—Immanuelle was certain of one thing: There was no divinity in this violence. No justice. No sanctity. All that ruin and pain had been wrought not from the Mother’s darkness or the Father’s light, but from the sins of man.

They had brought this fate upon themselves. They were complicit in their own damnation.

They did this.

Not the Mother. Not the Father.

Them.

“You ought to burn for this,” said the Prophet, whispering now though it was so quiet in the church that everyone could hear him. “Take her to the pyre.”

At his command, what was left of the Prophet’s Guard broke forward, their rifles raised. But Immanuelle and Ezra were ready. As the Prophet’s men backed them toward the altar, Immanuelle sprang for Lilith’s corpse and ripped the gutting blade from her
skull. Ezra snatched one of the fallen guardsmen’s rifles and raised it—peering down the barrel with one eye shut, his finger curled over the trigger.

“Don’t make us do this,” said Immanuelle, raising the gutting blade. “There’s been enough bloodshed today.”

There was a chorus of jeers and shouts. A crowd of the survivors pressed into the center aisle. Immanuelle took a step closer to Ezra, the gutting blade raised and readied. She would hack her way to the cathedral doors if she had to. She hadn’t come this far just to die at the hands of a mob. But as the throng pressed closer, Immanuelle realized they weren’t shouting at her and Ezra.

No. Their eyes were on their Prophet.

Vera was the first to push past the Prophet’s Guard, limping between them and Immanuelle. She’d been wounded in the attack; her leg looked broken, there was a deep gash at her hairline, and the left side of her face was slick with blood. But despite the severity of her injuries, her stance was that of a soldier’s. “To get to her, you’ll have to strike me down first.”

More women followed, almost all of them from the Outskirts, placing themselves as shields between Immanuelle and the Prophet’s Guard. Glory joined them, elbowing to Immanuelle’s side with a fierce cry, and Anna followed after with Honor on her hip.

Martha stepped forward next, much to Immanuelle’s shock. “I stand with them.”

Esther staggered toward her son and, emboldened by their matriarch, a few of the Prophet’s brides followed suit. More joined the ranks. Men of the Outskirts. Leah’s mother and older sisters, then other women of the Church after them—little girls no older than Glory, matriarchs who could scarcely walk without the help of their canes. All of them moved forward in unison, flooding the aisle, forcing themselves between Immanuelle and the Prophet.

The Guard faltered, and a few lowered their rifles, unable to point their guns at their wives and mothers . . . their sisters and aunts. Slowly, more and more women, and a few men, stepped forward to join the throng.

A chant began. At first it was little more than a murmur, like the sound of distant thunder. But then the chorus spread through the crowd, rising to the rafters and blasting through the cathedral,
“Blood for blood. Blood for blood. Blood for blood.”

The Prophet cowered in the shadows of the altar, watching in horror as his flock raised their voices against him. They left their pews behind them and spilled into the aisle, surging to the front of the church.
“Blood for blood. Ash to ash. Dust to dust.”

Ezra raised his hand and they stopped dead, like hunting dogs trained to heel at the foot of their master. He turned to Immanuelle. “Give me the blade.”

No one moved.

No one uttered a single word. Not a curse. Not a prayer. Not a protest. The whole flock looked on in silence.

Immanuelle’s gaze shifted from him to the Prophet. From father to son. She didn’t move.

Ezra extended his hand again. “For your father,” he whispered. “For your mother. For Leah. For Abram. For us. Let it be over. Let it be done with.”

Immanuelle stared at the Prophet, cowering there on the ground, pleading for his life. Then she raised her gaze to Ezra. “Is this what you really want? Is this what you want to be?”

Ezra drew a little closer, stepping with care like he was afraid he’d spook her. “What I want is to make sure this never happens again. I want a world where sins are atoned for. A world where evil men suffer for their wrongdoing.”

“So did Lilith,” Immanuelle whispered. “So did my mother.”

Ezra winced a little at that, like her words cut him. “He deserves to die for what he’s done. He would have put a blade through your heart. He killed your father. He preyed on your mother and countless other girls. We can’t let him walk free. Blood begets blood.”

“The boy is right, Immanuelle.” Vera shouldered to the front of the crowd, limping badly. “Think of your father burning on the pyre. Think of the people in the Outskirts, resigned to a life of squalor and suffering because of the greed of this man, and all of the others that came before him. You have a chance to seek recompense for their suffering. So raise the knife and take it.”

Immanuelle’s hand tightened around the hilt. All at once, she knew what she had to do.

“The world you want can’t be bought with blood. You build it with the choices you make, with the things you do. Either we can keep purging, keep the pyres burning, keep hoping that our prayers will be enough to save us—or we can build something better. A world without slaughter.” Immanuelle held out the gutting blade to Ezra. “It’s your choice. I have no right to take it from you.”

Ezra studied the blade in her hand, reached for it, then stopped. “No. You have the only right. The choice is yours, and yours only.”

Immanuelle paused, lingering in the shadow of the altar. The Prophet scrabbled at her feet, pleading for mercy.

“Please.”
He wheezed and hacked like he had to fight for every breath.
“Please. Please.”

Immanuelle turned to study the faces in the crowd—Anna and Honor, Martha and Glory, Vera and Ezra, people from the Glades and the Holy Grounds and the Outskirts alike. What she did, she did for them, for all of Bethel, for the dream of making their home something better than it was, so that those who followed in their footsteps would never know the heat of a pyre, or the pain of its flames.

A world without killings or cruelty: That was the fate she wanted.

And it was the fate she would have.

Turning to face the pews in full, Immanuelle dropped the blade, and it struck the floor with a clatter that echoed through the cathedral. “Today, we choose mercy.”

The flock answered her as one.
“Now and forevermore.”

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
10.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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