Home > Witch's Pyre

Witch's Pyre
Author: Josephine Angelini



CHAPTER


1


Lily Proctor was not asleep. She wasn’t unconscious or dreaming, nor had she accidentally slipped into another universe. She was here, she was alive, and for good or for bad, she was in charge. She had to keep telling herself that or she knew she’d fall apart completely. To stay calm, Lily quickly listed off the things she knew to be true.

The last thing she remembered was fighting the Hive somewhere in the center of the North American continent. In her version of the world, that meant somewhere out on the prairies of Kansas. But in this world, the center of the continent was an uncharted area, long abandoned to a little-known and nearly mythical subspecies of the Woven called the Hive.

Lily and her small band of braves had lost the battle; nearly all of those who had followed Lily west had lost their lives. The few that had survived had been anesthetized by the Hive, rather than killed, and brought to an enormous field that lay outside the gates of a city, all the way across the continent on the western coastline. Above the main gate was a large inscription, declaring that this place was Bower City. It was a city that Lily knew shouldn’t exist.

Lily also knew that Tristan, her Tristan, was dead. He had died fighting the Hive. She got stuck inside that thought, unable to go forward or backward. All she could do was stare at the city walls in front of her and repeat it in her head. Tristan is dead. And he’s dead because of me.

“Lily?”

Lily turned around at the sound of her name and tried to discern who had spoken to her. Standing in a vast field of flowers that surrounded Bower City for miles were Juliet, Caleb, Breakfast, Una, and the other Tristan. They were all she had left. Everyone else had either abandoned her or died on the Trail of Tears. Even Rowan had betrayed her and left her to starve in a cage. A cage that Tristan—Lily’s Tristan—had somehow broken. Tristan had saved her from Rowan. He’d saved her and now he was dead.

“Lily?” the other, and now only, Tristan repeated.

His clothes were in tatters, and his eyes were wet with tears and rimmed with red. He felt the loss of his other self deeply, but he didn’t feel it the same way that Lily did. He wasn’t responsible for it the way Lily was.

“What do you want to do?” Tristan asked as she stared at him blankly.

The place high up inside her chest, just below the U-shaped divot at the bottom of her throat, was rubbed raw with held-back sobs. She couldn’t give in to her grief, not now, so she floated above it, her sadness burrowing deeper and deeper inside like a swallowed splinter.

Lily looked down at the bees flitting around the flowers at her feet, trying to reattach herself to the moment. Her ears buzzed and she couldn’t tell if the sound came from outside her head or inside it. She stared at the bees, wondering whether they were natural or the Worker members of the Hive. Workers looked the same as regular bees, and there was something about that—their seemingly innocuous appearance—that made them more disturbing than if they were monstrous.

“They didn’t kill us,” Lily said, not answering Tristan’s question. “The Hive.”

“It’s been said the Warrior Sisters sometimes carry people off,” Caleb said, referring to the terrifying half-human, half-bee members of the Hive. Warrior Sisters were over seven feet tall, covered in a plated exoskeleton hard as armor, and they fought with barb-tipped whips that they coated with powerful venom milked from their own stingers. “Maybe this is where they take their captives,” Caleb finished in a hushed tone, as if simply mentioning the Warrior Sisters could conjure them.

“We must have been unconscious for days,” Una added, scanning the skies. “There’s no way they could have flown us from where we were to the West Coast in less time than that.”

Lily nodded vaguely at Una’s logic. Her mouth was dry and coated with the bitter residue of a drug-sleep. She focused her witch’s sense on traces of the chemical cocktail still left in her bloodstream from the Hive’s stings and decided that it could have kept them unconscious for days. It was an ingenious substance, and Lily’s wandering mind wondered whether something so elegant could have evolved naturally. She also wondered at the intelligence of a creature that could choose to kill some and kidnap others, and supply the proper venom to do either as it saw fit.

“Where are you going?” Juliet called out in a shrill voice. She raced to catch up with Lily and took her sister by the arm. Stopped short, Lily realized she had been staggering toward the city gate.

“In there, I guess,” Lily replied, shrugging. “It’s not like we have many options.”

Juliet looked over Lily’s shoulder at Caleb. “She’s in shock,” she told him.

“I think we all are,” Breakfast added quietly. “Let’s take a second and think this through before we go marching into some strange place.”

Lily felt Juliet lead her back to the group. Her hands stung at Juliet’s touch and she shied away. Lily’s palms were only half healed from gripping the burning ground. She licked her cracked lips and imagined she could still taste the smoke and dirt of the prairie as the wildfire blazed around her. She recalled digging her fingers into the ground to anchor herself against the witch wind and dragging herself forward as the fire line moved, one agonizing fistful of burning ground at time.

“Here,” Tristan said, reaching into the mechanic’s pack that was still strapped across his back. “I have salve. I think I do, anyway.”

Lily couldn’t look him in the eye. As he cupped her hands in his and dabbed at her red and broken skin she fought the urge to pull away from him. He’s not my Tristan, she reminded herself.

They all took a moment to tend to their injuries with Tristan’s salve, although everyone seemed to be on the mend already.

“Whatever the Hive injected into us must have had an antibiotic in it,” Tristan said. He paused to look at his own arms and hands, which were only slightly burned, his face twisting with puzzlement. “But even still. Considering we were fighting inside the fire, you’d think our injuries would be much worse.”

“I thought we were dead when Lily’s wildfire caught up with us,” Caleb added. “But it only killed the Hive. Not us. How’d that happen?”

“I did something to you,” Lily admitted. “Directed the energy. I don’t really know what I did.”

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