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The Book of Trials

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Chapter Two

I slept in my wooden chair that night, though it hardly counted as sleep. I’d sat for hours attempting rest, but with every creak of the floorboard or shift of the wind I was alert again. The only time I’d managed to doze off was when I lit the fireplace and curled up on the rug, my knife in its sheath by my side. It didn’t last long, though. I would wake with a start, putting an end to the nightmare I’d had. I was filled with questions and I found myself wide awake until the sun peeked over the horizon.

That morning, a Saturday, I inventoried my whole house and discovered that nothing was gone or even moved at all from when I had seen it last. Everything was completely unaffected except for the book, which still lay on the desk in my room. I wondered somewhere in the back of my mind if my desk was charred now. I didn’t want to have to sand it.

My chair creaked as I fell down into it, and I felt that awful paranoia itching at me again. What was the book? Why was it left here? What would I do with it?

Finally, I groaned and raked my fingers through the tangles in my hair. I would take it to town—no, if there was anyone who would know what this meant, it was Emrita Saravani.

Emrita was somewhat of a spinster. She lived alone near the edge of town in a tiny abode with no neighbors and a patch of trees directly in front of her doorstep. Most were led to believe she had a line of work, but no one had ever seen her associate herself with any given livelihood. She stayed inside a good amount of the day, only leaving to buy necessities from town, and probably slept during the night. My use of “probably” is because no one actually ever saw her after dusk, which only served to feed the nasty rumors from the group of old knitters next to Mr. Hebel’s shop. Most of them I chose not to believe, others were not so easy to ignore.

One of these rumors involved witchcraft.

The chair creaked again as I stood and double-checked that my knife was still at my hip, then I made my way to my bedroom.

There, like the rest of the house, was exactly as I had left it, minus the leather book that still sat on the desk. There were no signs of last night’s incident.

I crossed the floor slowly, my feet making small scuffs in the morning silence, and extended a frustratingly shaky hand toward the desk. The sweat on my palm made the knife I was holding hard to grip.

I poked the edge of the book with the knife.

Nothing happened.

The knife prodded tentatively against the edges of the binding, filling my head with more questions before the last ones could even be answered. Still no response in any form.

My face hardened. I knew last night wasn’t a fluke. Books didn’t just decide to explode. Little girls didn’t make a habit of whispering directly into people’s minds. At least not without magic, which was precisely why I was taking it to Emrita. The problem was getting it into my possession without killing myself.

I sheathed the dagger and took another step closer, then I thrust my hand out and swept the book to the floor in one fell swing. It landed with a heavy thunk, its cover open and the pages fluttering chaotically, then the paper settled and the book lay open on the floor, motionless.

I crouched down next to it and squinted at the pages with pursed lips.

There was no writing. No print. No handwriting. No ink whatsoever.

Then I did it again. I found myself touching the book without a single second of consideration. I flipped through the pages, fingering at the binding with my other hand all the while scowling profusely at the empty pages that met me. Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Why would it be empty?

My eyes caught on the very first page of the book as I closed it. I yanked it back open and stared at the letters, each in a carefully scripted writing that seemed to leap from the pages as I read it, lodging itself straight down my throat.

Ilyavei Phelde.

My name.

I threw the book down and leaped to my feet. It slammed shut on the scripted name and I saw the sharp EXSECRATUS scarred on the cover, mocking me with its foreign meaning, and for the second time since I had encountered the item, I fled from my own bedroom in sheer terror.

My head hurt from the many times I had hit myself. Stupid, all of it! Why couldn’t I just grab the stupid book and stuff it in a bag? That’s all I needed to do, and yet here I sat curled up in my chair again, too scared to face a book. A book.

For the millionth time, I ground my fists into my hair and strung curses through my teeth, then I stood and stomped down to my room again. I shoved through the door, my knapsack in hand, and snatched the book from the floor, thrusting it into the knapsack in a compartment separate from the rest of my things. I was sick and tired of being afraid of a godforsaken book.

I put the bag on the desk and quickly changed into a more presentable dress, then I buttoned my vest over my plain blue skirt and yanked a brush through my hair, each tight curl more tangled than the last until I was finally able to braid it into a fuzzy knot at the nape of my neck. I picked up the knapsack again and stole a glance at the small dresser mirror, noting still how bedraggled I looked, then started down the hallway to the door.

One of the only reasons I knew about Emrita Saravani other than from the knitting group was that I passed by her house every day on my way to work. I was pretty much the only person who lived farther out from town than she, so it was an inevitability that I would have to run by her house on the main road.

As I came upon the old cottage, much like mine but infinitely older, I noted absentmindedly that Emrita had actually done some housekeeping since the last time I’d passed by. Her yard, normally full of overgrown weeds and rotten leaves, was half swept and nearly under control; the doorframe that had been broken for years was crudely repaired using a patchwork of bent nails and a sappy substance I care not describe. The hole in the roof, visible from the ground, had been covered up using what looked like a pile of wood older than Emrita herself and quite just as frail.

I couldn’t help but cringe. At least she tried—just for that, I had to commend her—but unfortunately, her efforts only made the place look more haphazard.

I wove through the trees in front of her porch and planted three sturdy knocks on the door, then I waited. I adjusted the knapsack on my shoulder. Cleared my throat. Shifted from one foot to the other.

I knocked again.

Letting out an impatient breath, I unlatched my knapsack and peered in at the book. My mouth twitched at the sight of it. “Exsecratus,” I muttered. That would be my first question to Emrita. What the word even meant was beyond me.

Suddenly, with a loud crack, the door flew open and crashed against the wall on its hinges. I yelped and staggered back as a large woman barreled out at me, skidding to a heaving stop directly in front of my nose.

“Don’t you ever say that word again, you hear me?” her voice echoed through the trees and rustled the birds, a furious alto with the slur of age to it.

I gaped at her, my ears still ringing, and nodded vigorously. I took a wide step back.

She had a circular face with sharp cheekbones and a piercing stare. Her clothes were just what I would have expected of a shut-in—a pair of baggy pants and a long blouse without any vest or corset around her waist. The blouse dangled helplessly at her knees, almost like a nightgown, and she wore a hideous set of chunky gray slippers on her pale feet.

“I, um…” I tentatively took another step back. “I’m Miss Phelde from down the road a ways. I work at Mr. Hebel’s blacksmithing, but…” but he closed and now I’m unemployed. I’ve come to accuse you of being a witch, by the way!

Emrita pursed her lips and furrowed her brows in somewhat of a grimace. “What do you want?”

“I… wanted to know if you could help me with—”

“No.” She grabbed the door and was halfway through shutting it when I scrambled forward to stop her.

“Please, Miss Emrita, Ma’am, I think you’ll want to see this!” I didn’t give her time to respond before I slung the knapsack from my shoulder and opened it to show her the book without having to touch it.

It was immediate on her face. The instant pull of her lips into a sneer, the obvious disgust showing through her pale eyes. Her mouth twisted into a frown and she pulled me inside and slammed the door behind us as if she thought someone might overhear.

“Where did you get that?” she growled.

“It—it just showed up, Ma’am…”

“Showed up where?”

“In, er— On my dresser.”

She let out an exasperated grumble and grabbed me by the collar, then dragged me down the dark wooden foyer and into a room even darker than the last, where she spun me on the heels of my boots to face the only light, which emanated from a small flickery candle on a table in the far end of the room. The rest of the table was overshadowed by a single picture of a little girl with a cheeky smile and little brown overalls. A note sat next to the frame with the words Rest In Peace, Little Jereva written across it in neat black writing.

“Jereva, my sister, made the very same mistake you are.” The shadows bathed Emrita’s face like a veil and an eery coldness nipped at my ankles when she spoke. “Killed her before she was even done growing.”

I held my breath and looked up at her carefully. “Mistake…?”

Even in the darkness, I could see her chin tilt upward, her ghostly gray eyes meeting mine like a dare to look away. “Magic.”

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