Home > Wings (Black City #3)(8)

Wings (Black City #3)(8)
Author: Elizabeth Richards

He’s a grave-looking man dressed in ceremonial robes that match the color of his thick hair and iron-gray eyes. Everybody says my eyes are just like his. It’s the only thing we have in common, other than the matching burns on our arms. Grandfather was the one who plucked me out of the scalding water when I was a baby and saved my life.

He’s standing at the pulpit—an overly ornate structure made from oak and rosewood, depicting a scene from the ancient scriptures. Carved at the base of the pulpit are a nest of Darklings, their limbs twisted around each other so it’s impossible to tell where one Darkling ends and another begins—it’s just a contorted mass of na**d bodies, their clawed hands outstretched as they attempt to pull innocent girls into their pit of sin.

“It has been a trying time for our community these past six weeks,” Grandfather says, his deep voice traveling across the chapel. “Not since the Misery, eighteen years ago, have we experienced such violence and unrest. We have lost family, friends but not our faith.”

“So sayeth us all,” the congregation murmurs.

The Lupines have claimed four victims now. A kid called Tommy Stevens was the first to be taken, snatched out of his hospital bed in the middle of the night. A week later, they took a crippled woman, Mrs. Summer, then a fortnight after that, the Watchman and town drunk, Mr. Smyth. Mrs. Hope makes number four. What I don’t understand is why they’re doing it. The Lupines kill only humans who trespass on their territory, so what’s changed?

I peer across the aisle at Catherine. She’s sitting in the front row with the rest of the Langdon clan, a small frown on her lips. It’s no mistake they’re at the head of the congregation. The first four rows on the right-hand side of the aisle are reserved for the Guild—the wealthiest or most influential families in the town. Behind the Langdons are the O’Malleys, then the Kents, and finally the Cranfield family. It’s the Guild’s responsibility to uphold the word of His Mighty and protect our souls from impurity.

Catherine’s wearing an expensive blue crinoline dress from her parents’ clothing store, and her wavy brown hair has been gently teased up into a chignon, which her mother keeps fussing over. Catherine irritably swats her mother’s hand away as Mrs. Langdon attempts to fix another loose curl. I get the sense that Catherine’s recent metamorphosis from plain little Caterpillar into this beautiful butterfly was entirely her mother’s doing.

Patrick’s sitting beside her, his legs hidden by the voluminous layers of Catherine’s bell skirt, which is threatening to consume her whole family within its taffeta petticoats. He scowls, shifting position on the pew, clearly uncomfortable, which pleases me. Next to him is his father, Mr. Langdon, who is watching the service with rapt attention. He’s a handsome man with sandy-blond hair like Patrick’s, brown eyes and a neatly groomed beard.

Catherine senses me looking at her, and turns her head slightly in my direction, offering a sad smile. She gives me a look that says How are you? We’ve known each other for so long, we can communicate in silent shorthand. I frown and shake my head a little. Not so good. I can’t get the image of Mrs. Hope being dragged out of the window from my mind. She lightly touches her heart and raises a worried brow, referring to the chest cramps I had that night on the wall. I shrug a little. I have no idea what caused them, but they haven’t returned. Patrick coughs lightly, and Catherine turns her attention back to the service. He stares daggers at me, and I look away.

“However, we are not without blame for their deaths,” Grandfather continues. “After almost two decades of peace, we let our guard down, and now we are paying the price.”

I gaze at Mrs. Hope’s shrouded body floating in the pool. If only I’d gotten there sooner, I might’ve been able to save her.

“This being said, we must not look upon Mrs. Hope’s death as a tragedy, for she was suffering, and now walks in His Majesty’s eternal kingdom,” Grandfather continues, stepping down from the pulpit to the altar where a goblet and two bowls—one white, one red—awaits. “The Lupines may devour our bodies, but they cannot corrupt our souls, for we are pure of heart and spirit. It is this purity that protects us from the corruptions of evil. So I invite you all to come forward and drink from the sacred cup and be cleansed of your impurities.”

The congregation silently files out of their seats and forms an orderly queue down the aisle. I duck into the line behind Catherine. In front of her are Patrick and his friends Drew and Harriet O’Malley. The siblings look very alike, which is unfortunate for Harriet. Although their long slim nose and tapered chin looks noble on Drew, it gives Harriet a shrewlike quality. Harriet turns to look at me. Unlike the other women in the town, she’s wearing pants and a boy’s shirt and waistcoat. A knife is strapped to her belt.

“Way to go, freak,” she says to me in a loud whisper. “It takes a special kind of stupid to leave your post on the wall. Are you crazy or something?”

“Like mother, like son,” Patrick drawls.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I say, my temper flaring.

Patrick’s top lip curls up into an amused snarl.

“It’s nothing, Edmund,” Catherine says, shooting a warning look at her brother. “Just some nonsense Mother was telling us.”

“Which was?”

She bites her bottom lip. “That your mother used to hear voices in her head.”

“That’s not true,” I reply immediately, although I don’t know anything about my mother. Grandfather never speaks of her, or my dad, but that’s only to be expected.

As far as everyone knows, my father was a businessman from Gray Wolf, who wooed my naive teenage mother when she ran away, got her pregnant and then abandoned her to marry another girl. None of it was true, though, apart from the bit where my mom ran away to Gray Wolf, but she was already six weeks pregnant by that point. It was quite the scandal at the time. The townsfolk forgave us only after my mom tragically died and Grandfather was stuck having to raise a deformed, illegitimate grandchild.

“I know my mother’s lying,” Catherine says, gently placing a lace-gloved hand on my arm. “She still holds a grudge against your mother because she used to date my father when they were teenagers. It’s silly. Only my mother can be jealous of a dead girl.”

I look at Catherine’s mother, who is in the line ahead of us, gazing adoringly at her husband. I had no idea Mr. Langdon used to date my mother. There’s so much about her that I don’t know. I think back to what Mrs. Hope said last night—that my mom hanged herself—tied with the new rumor that she heard voices in her head, and a terrible, sick feeling starts churning in my stomach. What if these stories are true and my mother really was mad? These thoughts continue to trouble me as the line shuffles forward and Mrs. Langdon steps up to the altar. She dunks the goblet into the white bowl.

“May His Mighty wash away my sins,” Mrs. Langdon says, taking the drink. The look of bliss that enters her face is almost instantaneous. She smiles dreamily up at Grandfather as he dips his thumb into the red bowl, which is filled with spring water, and rubs it along her forehead—the “mark of purity” to ward off evil.

“You are cleansed, my daughter,” Grandfather says.

Mrs. Langdon moves aside, her movements slightly sluggish, allowing the next person in the line to step up to receive the cup.

“I feel so bad about Mrs. Hope I can’t sleep,” Catherine says quietly to me as the line moves past the pool. “It’s my fault she’s dead; if you hadn’t left your post to walk me home, maybe the Lupine wouldn’t have gotten over the wall.”

“It wasn’t your fault, okay?” I reply. “There were three other Watchmen on duty that night. We all missed it.”

“It’s odd how they found her, don’t you think?” she says. “Patrick said she’d been bound to the rock, like they wanted the body to be discovered.”

That was weird. In fact, everything about these attacks feels off.

Grandfather catches my eye, his mouth tightening into a disapproving line. He doesn’t like me talking to Catherine. He thinks the Langdons care too much for money, and in his eyes, money is sin, which is why I’m always dressed in these itching, woolen clothes; they’re the cheapest suits you can buy from the store. Personally, I think His Mighty blesses those he loves the most with wealth. Otherwise why else would the Langdons get so much—beauty, wealth and popularity—and I have so little? We’re the only family belonging to the Guild with barely a coin to our name, but as a preacher, Grandfather was automatically given a seat on the council when he first moved to Amber Hills as a young man. Power and influence is just as important to the Guild as wealth, and in a religious community like Amber Hills, a preacher has a lot of both.

“I love this part of the ceremony, don’t you?” Catherine whispers as the queue shuffles forward. “My spirits always feel lifted afterward. They really need that right now.”

I don’t say anything. Drew is the next person to take the goblet. He knocks back the drink, then moves aside, allowing Harriet and Patrick to step up to the altar and drink from the cup. I can’t believe I have to go to the dance with those jerks . . . that is, if Catherine still wants to go with me. The memory of my brief kiss with Catherine lingers on my lips. I’m disappointed she hasn’t brought it up, but we’ve all had a lot on our mind’s with Mrs. Hope’s murder.

“Are we still on for the dance tonight?” I ask.

She flashes me a disapproving look. “This isn’t the place to be discussing the dance.”

“Sorry.” I wait a few seconds, then add: “But are we?”

“Yes, of course we are,” she says in a harassed whisper as she moves up to the altar.

She accepts the goblet from my grandfather and drinks. I silently watch as she shuts her eyes as he gives her the mark of purity. A joyous smile spreads across her lips.

“You are cleansed, my daughter,” Grandfather says.

Her eyelids flicker open and she stares up at my grandfather with unbridled adoration. Everybody looks up to my grandfather, both figuratively and literally—he’s easily the tallest man in town. If only they knew the truth. Catherine joins the others. Now it’s my turn. I take the cup from my grandfather, a knowing look passing between us. Guilt crawls up my throat as I drink the bitter liquid.

“May His Mighty wash away my sins,” I say.

Grandfather dips his hand into the red bowl and rubs his thumb over my forehead.

“You are cleansed, my son,” he says.

I join the others beside the pool for the final offering to end the funeral. Usually we toss Carrow wreaths into the water, so I’m curious when Patrick heads into the back room with Drew. The congregation starts to murmur. Grandfather looks perplexed.

Mr. Langdon raises his hands and we quiet down. “The Guild has decided to forgo the usual offering, in place of something more . . . befitting.”

This sparks more excited whispers among the congregation.

“I wasn’t informed of this,” Grandfather says, drawing his gray brows together.

“Weren’t you?” Mr. Langdon says innocently.

Grandfather glances at one of the other Guild members, Mr. Cranfield—a gaunt man with bronze-colored hair like his son, Eric, and dressed in an expensive black suit. The man looks away sheepishly. This can’t be good.

Just then, the doors to the back room burst open and Patrick and Drew emerge, carrying a kicking, screaming girl. Even though her head is covered in a burlap sack, it’s clear from her size what she is—a Howler. The congregation lets out startled gasps, and several of the women grab their children and rush to the back of the chapel, away from the creature.

“What is this?” Grandfather demands.

Mr. Langdon doesn’t respond as he yanks off the Howler girl’s hood. My breath gets trapped in my throat as I stare at her. I’ve never seen a Howler in the flesh before, and she’s nothing like the monsters described by the Guild. The girl is dangerously beautiful, with eyes like mercury and a mane of snowy white hair. Her wrists have been bound with rope.

“Patrick found this beast in the woods, beside Mrs. Hope’s body,” Mr. Langdon says.

There are gasps and jeers from the crowd. We all know how Mrs. Hope was found—tied to a rock—but no one mentioned they’d found a Lupine at the scene!

“Let go of me!” the Howler screams. “Icarus is to blame, not me!”

Grandfather bristles, like he recognizes the name.

“Put her in the pool,” Mr. Langdon says calmly. “A life for a life.”

“No!” the girl cries out as Patrick and Drew drag the girl toward the water.

“This has gone on long enough!” Grandfather says. “This is a house of worship; I won’t allow this.” He tries to step in between Patrick and the pool, but Mr. Cranfield and Mr. Kent pull him back, their faces turning red under the strain of holding him.

Mr. Langdon raises his hand in prayer. “And His Mighty spoke to the Pilgrims and said, ‘Will thou cast out all the Impurity in the world, for only the Pure shall enter my Kingdom?’ and the Pilgrims cried, ‘We will!’”

“Cast it out! Cast it out!” the congregation chants as Patrick tears off the girl’s clothes and drags her into the pool beside Mrs. Hope’s body. The congregation pushes toward the water’s edge, nearly knocking me and Catherine into the water too. I grab her before she falls in. She buries her face against my chest as the Lupine girl is dunked under the water. Her mouth opens in a silent scream as she thrashes against Patrick, Harriet and Drew, trying desperately to resurface. Tendrils of white hair ripple around her na**d body, and for a brief moment she’s like a beautiful sea nymph, her luminous eyes gleaming up at us through the water.

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