"Stained" by Mark F.
Originally published in October 2011 in a Halloween-themed print anthology
The young woman was all alone, well outside any village, out by an old mill alongside Devout Creek. She held one package-laden mule by the bridle as a second mule bolted across a drought-withered cornfield.
Isaiah Wildes had seen few animals alive in the past two days; the only creatures prospering of late were ravens and flies, both growing fat on rancid corpses of sheep, cows, and chickens. A lone woman was cause enough for suspicion. Add to that the mules.
Isaiah heeled Nan's flanks, and the horse lurched off after the runaway mule, her hooves crunching across the withered field as if it were planted to her fetlocks in quail bones. Where chest-high stalks of corn should be, only quavering ribbons of heat sprouted under the cruel August sun.
When Isaiah returned with the mule, the woman had a terrified look in her eyes. Isaiah wiped sweat from his brow, slowed Nan to a walk, and approached cautiously.
He had heard there was trouble over in New Coventry, so that's where he was headed. He wanted to get there before any innocents got hurt. Or, at least, before too many got hurt.
Isaiah Wildes took no pleasure in his job, not like some did, but he was very good at it. Some said he was the best. His father said he was born to the task. At any rate, Isaiah did have an undeniable gift, though he often wished he'd been blessed with a more mundane talent. But if he didn't do it, someone else would. Better it be done by him. Better it be done right.
Isaiah Wildes could not fly. He could not shape-shift into a raven. He could not make demons do his bidding. What he could do was identify those who were able to do such things. That was Isaiah Wildes' gift.
In many ways, that was also his curse. People were beginning to regard his profession as an archaic relic from an embarrassing past. Rumor had it that Governor Danvers had even convened a counsel to investigate abuses. Isaiah could not blame him. The charlatans, fear-mongers, and revenge-seekers threatened to outnumber honest practitioners like himself. As a result, more people were turning to science for answers. Only when a situation like the one in New Coventry arose did the citizens rediscover their need for people like Isaiah.
Isaiah cocked his head to one side as he fingered the knife at his belt. Yes, there was definitely something about this young woman, he sensed that clearly. But it wasn't the stain. So she needn't fear him, though she still faced danger from those who would point the finger for land or to save their own hides, or for plain spite. These were dangerous times for everyone, especially a lone woman.
Isaiah handed over the mule and nodded. "Here you are, Miss...?
She looked toward the ground. "Jacobs. Faith Jacobs."
Their hands touched as Faith took the mule's reins. Again, Isaiah sensed something, but it was nothing he'd experienced in his previous eighteen years. He couldn't explain it any more than he could explain the sound of a waterfall to a man born with no ears, or the refreshment of a spring shower to one that has known only drought.
Isaiah laughed aloud and shook his head. His adoptive father, the Reverend Wildes, hadoften spoken in general, poetic terms about love, but Isaiah suspected the good reverend hadnever really experienced it outside of poetry. Isaiah certainly hadn't. He was almost convinced it didn't exist. In his line of work, it might as well not.
Faith Jacobs smiled at Isaiah's laughter and reached out to pat Nan's nose before Isaiah could stop her. Isaiah's heart lurched. Nan was a temperamental old girl around strangers, snorting, baring her teeth, stomping the ground. But she stretched out her head to meet Faith's hand.
Faith rubbed Nan's graying nose. "She's beautiful. What's her name?"
"Nanna," Isaiah said. He wiped his brow with a dusty handkerchief to hide the heat rising from his heart and into his cheeks. "I found her as a boy." Isaiah bowed in his saddle. "And I amIsaiah Wildes. At your service."
Faith's smile faded at mention of his name, and her blue eyes grew as harsh as the cloudless sky overhead. Isaiah had grown accustomed to this reaction, but still, to see Faith's face grow cold at the mere sound of his name pained him. He hadn't seen an honest smile since the Reverend Wildes died six years back. And even his father’s smile had seemed tentative at times.
Isaiah ignored Faith's frown as best he could, but it was like trying to ignore the scorching sun beating down on them. "Might I escort you home?"
Faith shook her head. "No. Thank you. You've done enough."
"It's no trouble."
"My father and I live at the mill right over there," Faith said. "I'll be fine."
Isaiah watched Faith lead her mules toward the old mill. These were unfortunate times; Isaiah hoped nothing unfortunate happened to Faith Jacobs.
Isaiah reached New Coventry before he realized he was still thinking about Faith. He had grave business to attend to, and daydreaming like a smitten fool could get him and others killed.
With Faith's image no longer clouding his senses, he perceived the stench of burning flesh and fear, a smell that had been the faintest of bad tastes outside of town, but was pervasive and overpowering inside New Coventry. Smoke covered the town in a filthy haze, and the townsfolk gazed studiously at the ground as if it were more than mere dust.
"Isaiah, thank goodness you've arrived."
Isaiah nodded at his departed father's dearest friend, Thomas Alder, magistrate of New Coventry. Alder reached for Nan's bridle, but she snorted and bared her teeth, and he snatched his hand back.
Isaiah dismounted and led Nan after Alder, who walked through town apparently inured to the smell of death around him.
"I have a stew on the hearth," Alder said over his shoulder. "It's on the thin side, and there's no meat in it—hasn't been any good meat in months, nor any animals live-born. But you'd know that, eh? That's why you're here." Alder turned back with a nervous smile. "But dinner will have to wait. Chief Magistrate Ezekiel Cotton is here. And he wants to meet you immediately."
Isaiah stopped. Chief Magistrate Cotton. No wonder Alder was nervous. Isaiah’s stomach roiled, and it wasn't from the stink.
"Come, boy." Alder waved Isaiah on. "We don't want to be caught late. We're enforcing sentence on one of the convicted right now."
Isaiah rarely watched sentences being enforced and never when someone else had made the capture, but with Chief Magistrate Cotton present, Isaiah had to attend, even though he knew that the woman on the pyre was innocent.
Alder cast nervous glances between the woman and Cotton, who stood atop a granite slab on the far side of the crowd, the smoke and heat of the fire making him appear as a shimmeringphantom of vengeance.
To Isaiah's knowledge, none could sense the stain except himself, though he'd never asked anyone except Reverend Wildes, who had ordered Isaiah not to mention it again. But even without the gift, Alder still whispered doubts regarding the guilt of Sarah Goode, a young girl accused by her own husband. Her husband testified that Sarah had sent apparitions to kill him,but rumor said he couldn't perform on their wedding night, and Sarah had made the girlish mistake of laughing.
Unfortunately, Isaiah could do nothing about it, not with Cotton there. Vouching for another's innocence after conviction was a sure way to get the finger pointed at yourself.
Isaiah swallowed back acid and closed his eyes. But he could not close his ears to Sarah Goode's screams. The crowd screamed too, cheering the torturous death of someone they'd known all their lives. But she was a witch in their minds now—responsible for the drought, the sickness, the dead animals, the stillborn babies—not some poor girl who had giggled at her husband.
Isaiah silently cursed his gift and wished for the villagers' gift of blind ignorance.
After the fired had died, Chief Magistrate Cotton approached Isaiah. Older than Alder, he wore a lace-flounced jacket with a ruffed collar and a wig of powdered curls. Flanking him were four mercenary horsemen with matchlocks and sabers.
As Cotton neared, Isaiah gasped and took a step back. At the same time, Cotton paused and put a handkerchief to his nose, as though a stench more foul than New Coventry's had suddenly assaulted his senses. He cocked his head at Isaiah before composing himself and lowering the handkerchief.
Isaiah did not know what had possessed Cotton. The only thing Isaiah knew was thatChief Magistrate Cotton was stained!
"Mr. Wildes." Cotton bowed his head slightly. "This territory's finest young witch hunter,I hear. But that does not surprise me. It takes a certain perception into the witch's mind to be successful, don't you think?"
Isaiah mumbled general assent, still shocked by what he sensed in Cotton.
Cotton narrowed his eyes and cocked his head as if trying to come to some decision. "We must proceed with all caution here. These are delicate times, what with the governor and his investigation. There are even those who deny the existence of witches, and I will not stand forthat."
Isaiah nodded. He didn't know what else to do or say. He couldn't just accuse the chief magistrate of witchcraft. Not here. Not now. Not with Cotton backed by four heavily armed horsemen.
"I was present at your birth," Cotton said after taking another whiff of his kerchief. "Right alongside Reverend Wildes and Magistrate Alder. We watched as you arrived into this world in the morning, and we watched as your mother departed that same afternoon."
Cotton shook his head. "It is no wonder you have a talent for spotting witches, Wildes, considering your mother was one." He pointed a crooked finger at Isaiah. "I should have never let Reverend Wildes talk me into letting you live. This man is stained. Seize him!"
Metal scraped against metal as the horsemen drew their swords. A drop of sweat crawled down Isaiah’s back. Alder looked down and stepped away. Isaiah didn't blame him. Alder could do nothing to help him now. He would only share Isaiah's fate.
As the crowd grew silent, Nan stomped and snorted across the town square. Isaiahwhirled and shoved through the crowd as Nan galloped toward him from the far edge, the crowd retreating from her bulk and snapping teeth. Behind Isaiah, people screamed as the horsemen charged through the crowd.
Isaiah reached Nan, leapt into her saddle, and raced off between a tight row of buildings.He hugged Nan's neck as a volley of matchlock shots boomed. Wood exploded from the building beside him, showering him with sawdust and splinters.
At the main road, Nan's stride lengthened. Isaiah glanced back through a dust cloud kicked up by her hooves. With no rain in months, the cloud thickened, and the horsemen faded into phantoms. When they finally disappeared behind the cloud, Isaiah pulled Nan's head toward the old mill where Faith Jacobs lived. He had to warn her. He could not bear to have Faith come to the same end as Sarah Goode.
Isaiah circled the old mill, with its rotting timbers and caved in roof. Charcoal and dry rot and emptiness filled the air. It had obviously been abandoned years ago. Faith had lied.
Nan snorted. Isaiah sighed and patted her flank. When his hand came away wet with blood, he dismounted. Blood seeped from a musket ball hole in Nan's side. And still the ornery old nag had carried him to safety.
"Stupid horse!" Isaiah buried his head against Nanna's neck and fought back tears. "Good, loyal, stupid horse."
Nanna snorted again and collapsed, knocking the two of them tumbling down a hill, crashing through trees and underbrush.
Isaiah’s ankle snapped as Nan rolled over him. Agony robbed him of consciousness.
Isaiah opened his eyes to darkness and pain. He tried to stand, but his leg couldn't hold his weight. He fell back to the ground, his scream echoing around him before fading away like a ghost retreating through a catacomb.
He took a deep breath and bit his lip, the throbbing in his head matched only by the throbbing in his ankle, twisted and pinned beneath his calf and swelling to the size and color of a prize turnip.
Overhead, a full moon shone down the hole that had swallowed him. He pushed himself across the damp earth and scraping gravel, his britches soaking up the fetid water beneath him. He leaned back against the cold stone wall of the old well and took another breath. The cloying stench of moldering dirt, like freshly dug graves, assaulted his nostrils, gagging him.
He coughed out muddy phlegm and then whistled for Nan. There was no answer. He was truly alone now. Nanna was dead. His mother was dead. The Reverend Wildes was dead. And this hole would be his grave.
But at least he hadn't led the horsemen to Faith Jacobs.
And then Isaiah sensed the stain.
Someone—a witch—was out in the underground darkness, watching him.
He drew his knife as a dim light emerged in the distance and grew brighter and closer.The light advancing toward him down a rough-hewn tunnel burrowed out from the old well flickered off shadowed walls of dirt and stone.
Isaiah shielded his eyes from the blinding glow with one hand as the knife handle grew sweat-slickened in his other. His ankle throbbed. With his good leg, he pushed his back againstthe curving wall. The well's crumbling stone pressed into his spine.
A few moments later, a phantom outline appeared. Isaiah blinked dust from his eyes and tightened his grip on the knife. When the light dimmed so that he could see, a little girl stood before him with a dancing flame burning in her palm.
"Get back, witch!" Isaiah hissed as he waved his knife.
"You're hurt," the girl said. "I can help."
"Your innocent form does not fool me. Be gone."
The girl laughed. "You're silly. What's your name? Mine is Destiny. Destiny Jacobs."
"Jacobs?" Isaiah narrowed his eyes. "Do you know Faith Jacobs?"
The girl's smile seemed familiar. "Of course I know her. She's my sister."
Isaiah jerked back onto his broken ankle, and blackness flooded in once again.
Isaiah woke to warmth spreading through his ankle. He opened his eyes. The little girl, Destiny Jacobs, was rubbing his ankle with burning palms.
"Get back." Isaiah jumped to his feet, and the flames in the girl's palms sputtered. He raised his arms to push her away and found his hands tied.
"She helped you and you would strike her," a man's voice said. "And you call us evil."
Isaiah’s ankle was bearing his weight with little pain. Destiny looked up at him with a proud smile, but the two men who stepped out of the shadows had no smiles for Isaiah. And they both reeked of the stain.
"We should kill him now and take no chances," one of them said.
"No, Mathias," Destiny said. The flame grew again in her hand, chasing away the darkness and lighting her earnest face. "Mother said God would send us help, and he dropped from the sky, so he must've come from God."
"From God?" Mathias snorted. "This man is Isaiah Wildes. No man is more surely from the devil. I say we send him back to hell where he belongs."
Destiny looked up at the second man with pleading eyes. "Bartholomew?"
"We must take him to the counsel," Bartholomew said. "And if they decide it, then God or devil, Isaiah Wildes will meet his maker."
Isaiah followed Bartholomew while Mathias trailed behind with a hayfork. Destiny walked beside Isaiah, passing a flame from hand to hand while babbling endless childish nonsense.
The tunnel eventually opened into a cavern, where people filled buckets from a spring-fed pool circled by lanterns and torches. They watched Isaiah pass, dust-covered children clutching the legs of worn-looking women, men with expressions of hate like Mathias's, and others with no expression save weariness. The whole place reeked of the stain.
"Sit down," Bartholomew said when they reached the far wall of the cavern.
Mathias pushed Isaiah to the ground and chained him to an iron ring set in the stone. Then the two walked off, leaving Destiny standing in front of him, tossing the flame from hand to hand.
"Put that demon-fire out," Isaiah growled. And the fire in her hand vanished.
Destiny's shock turned to a pout. "Hey, how'd you do that?"
"I didn't do it," Isaiah said. "And if you can make fire, why not do something useful and make rain?"
Destiny's brow furrowed. She cocked her head to the side.
"Destiny," Mathias shouted. "Get home."
Destiny ran off into the shadows, leaving Isaiah alone. He'd rarely encountered more than one witch at a time before, and here he'd stumbled into a whole coven. He needed to escape, sohe could convince Governor Danvers that the hunts must continue, starting right here. Then he could reclaim the reputation that Ezekiel Cotton had stolen from him.
Isaiah woke to the bustle of activity surrounding the cavern's pool. A new day must have arrived, but without sunshine it was difficult to tell. In appearance, the place wasn't much different from other villages, aside from being underground and full almost entirely of witches.Shadowy forms came and went with buckets of water. . Women did laundry. Small boys tried to swim in the pool while their mothers shooed them away. Some of the braver boys—those not old enough to know to fear and hate him—tried to approach Isaiah, but their mothers called them back.
Mathias knelt in front of Isaiah, blocking his view. "So, the finest of witch hunters is a witch himself?"
"I'm no witch."
"You extinguished Destiny's flame," Mathias said. "That's witchcraft, so you must be a witch. You’re in league with the devil. So you must be hunted down and burned. Is my logic correct?"
Mathias shrugged off Isaiah's silence. "When my brother was young he showed talent for music. My parents were so proud they bought him a fine piano. I tried to play too, but though I could hear the beauty in my brother's playing, all I produced was hideous noise." Mathias laughed bitterly. "I hated him for having a gift that I could appreciate but never master. And so I burned his piano."
Mathias stood and looked down at Isaiah. "You're like that, Wildes. You sense the talent around you, and you hate those who possess what you can never have. I was a child when I burned my brother's piano, so I have some excuse. What's your excuse?"
Destiny came later that day with a plateful of gruel and an apologetic frown. "We have very little"
Isaiah's chains rattled as he took the plate. "Destiny, how did you...get the way you are?"
"You mean this?" Destiny smiled and produced a flame in her hand. She bounced it back and forth between her palms until it vanished in a puff of smoke. "It's the way I was born. How'd you get so you could blow it out?"
Isaiah shook his head. "I didn't do it."
"Yes, you did. You did it last night, and you did it again now."
"You did! You did! You did," Destiny chanted while clapping her hands. She flopped onto the ground in front of him. "Teach me how. Please. I'm a fast learner. Really, I am. I'm a faster learner than anyone, even the adults."
She looked around conspiratorially and whispered, "I'm a faster learner than anyone because they don't hardly know any tricks at all. Sure, some of them can do a few little things, but I can do my fire trick, and I healed your leg and—"
"What do you mean they can't do any tricks?" Isaiah interrupted. "I can sense it in them."
Destiny shrugged. "I dunno. They can do some little things, I guess, but it takes a long time, and isn't much anyway. Not like us. No one could put out my flame before. Show me how to do it. Please."
Isaiah frowned. He had wanted Destiny to stop both times. And what about the cloud of dust as he escaped New Coventry. Was that just a dry road, or something more?
"I'll tell you what," Isaiah said. "If you teach me your flame trick, I'll teach you to put it out."
A small, flickering flame emerged from Isaiah's palm. Excitement and disgust filled himat the same time.
Destiny extinguished his flame and frowned. "It's more than putting out the fire. It's like your flame goes out too. Like your talent is gone. Or hidden."
Isaiah nodded. He'd noticed something similar during their practice. When he extinguished Destiny's flame, he could no longer sense the stain in her.
He frowned and shook his head. Using the word stain to describe this bright little girl seemed wrong. And the sense of the stain—or to use Mathias' term, the talent—was not as offensive as it had been, though it still pervaded the cavern. It reminded him of how tea had tasted when he first tried it— bitter at first, but he eventually grew accustomed to it and even came to savor it.
Perhaps he had subconsciously used this talent when hunting witches, shielding their powers so he could capture them. And Destiny said they could only do little things anyway, and that it took a long time at even that, so perhaps their powers were too subtle to be of much use in preventing capture.
And if Cotton had the same talent that he had, then he would eventually sense all the people down here and—
"Mathias says you're bad," Destiny said. "But I think you're good."
"Maybe I'm both."
"How can you be both?"
Isaiah shrugged. "Your mother taught you to be good?"
"How does she know what's good?"
Destiny shrugged. "Maybe from her mother?"
"Maybe," Isaiah said. "The man who raised me—the one I thought of as a father—taught me that people like you were bad. He taught me that I was doing good."
"Did you believe him?"
"No one told me any differently," Isaiah said. "And maybe I wanted to believe. I was skilled at it."
"But you don't believe that anymore, do you?" Destiny asked. "You don't think I'm bad?"
Isaiah shook his head. Destiny took his uncertainty as an answer and smiled.
The next day Faith Jacobs came, and she was as distractingly beautiful as Isaiah remembered. He remembered her smile too, though she did not share it with him now.
"How did Destiny get her...talent, if you have none?"
"You don't believe she contracted with the devil?"
Isaiah shook his head. "I don't know what to believe."
"Our parents had the talent," Faith said. "After they were captured and.... Well, after that, I ran away with Destiny."
"You must hate me."
"I hate what you've done," Faith said. "I hate what you represent. I hate that my sistermust live in a hole. But I don't hate you."
So little to ask for—a mere lack of hate—but it made Isaiah feel better somehow. He'd always been shunned, nearly as much as any witch. People were afraid of him, afraid he would point the finger their way.
"I don't want Destiny to learn to hate either," Faith said. "Blind hate is the reason we're down here."
"Sorry won't allow Destiny to live in the sunshine. All this disease and death you blame us for. Why would we do that? Have you ever considered that it's just a drought, that no one is to blame except the weather?" She sighed and shook her head. "Destiny said you told her that a person could be both good and bad."
"That's the only hope I have now."
Faith studied the people in the cavern going about their tasks and their lives—the men and women working, the children playing, babies crying. "You realize that none of this was a choice, don't you? No one chose to be what he is, not even you. This is how they were born. This is how you were born."
Faith met Isaiah's eyes. "But we all have choices now. We can't blame our actions on the fate of our births."
Destiny ran up with Mathias and Bartholomew close behind. “Men are coming. Lots of them."
Bartholomew raised his arms to calm the growing chaos at news of Chief Magistrate Cotton and a small army marching their way. "Perhaps it is time we stopped running. Times are changing. Governor Danvers is convening hearings. Even Isaiah Wildes is changing. Chief Magistrate Cotton may change as well."
"Cotton will not change," Isaiah said. "Not with a mob at his back. Not with his identity at stake. His power depends on things staying the same. And he will not give up that power."
"Then we fight," Mathias shouted.
Bartholomew shook his head. "We are mostly women and children."
"Run away," Isaiah said. "Hide. Wait for the governor's decision."
"What if he decides the hunts should continue? Won't running prove our guilt to him?"
"Not if nobody knows you were here." Isaiah turned to Destiny. "Remember the new trick I taught you when you showed me how to make a flame: how to shield talent so it can't be sensed?"
"Could you shield everyone here at once?"
Destiny surveyed the crowd and turned back to Isaiah. "Can you sense us now?"
Isaiah smiled and shook his head. Destiny smiled back and whispered, "It's easy. I told you they mostly don't know many tricks anyway. Not like us." She winked at Isaiah. "And I'm working on that new trick you mentioned the other day."
"But they have eyes," Mathias said. "They will see us."
Isaiah created blazing flames in each palm. The people closest shielded their eyes. Destiny smiled, the proud teacher.
"Cotton is the only one amongst them who can sense the talent," Isaiah said. "If everyone is shielded but me, then his sight—and his army—will be focused on me while you escapeunseen."
Off in the distance, a dog whined. A moment later another answered with a whimpering howl. Cruel, relentless sunshine lanced down on Isaiah, burning his eyes even after he closed them. Beneath him, rough stone scratched at his bare back and buttocks. Sand and gravel scoured his skin.
Isaiah grunted as two men added another stone to the thick oak board strapped atop his chest. He sucked in a rasping breath. The rough-cut plank punctured his skin and the weight of the stones crushed his chest, forcing the air from his lungs.
Cotton looked down on him with a thin smile. "The record for surviving this test is two days."
"He was an old man," Isaiah wheezed. "Like you."
"Perhaps. But I am in control of how much weight gets added." Cotton motioned for yet another rock to be piled onto Isaiah's chest. "By morning, you will be just another dead, nameless witch—like your mother."
Isaiah tried to respond, but he could only grunt. His mouth tasted of blood and vomit.
"You can save your life and your reputation," Cotton said. "Help me track down those witches. We'll go to Governor Danvers with proof that there are covens of witches literally underfoot. And you will be at my side as we bring them to the light."
"You mean...I'll be...your bloodhound."
"You will live," Cotton said. "You will thrive even. Things will be as they were. You were good at what you did. You made your father proud."
"He was not," Isaiah spit out, "my father.".
"This is what you were born to be, Isaiah."
"No!" Isaiah sucked in a wheezing breath. "That's what…people like you…made me."
"Take a stone off," Cotton ordered. "Take two off."
He turned back to Isaiah. "You see, I am not unmerciful. I will be kinder to you than Reverend Wildes was. We are alike after all. We share the same talent. We share the same destiny."
"Do not force me to do this, Isaiah. Join me. After this is over, I'll be the next governor.You'll be my chief magistrate. Think about that.”
Cotton strode away before stopping and turning back. "We'll talk again tomorrow. If you're able."
Isaiah coughed out a bitter laugh. Bloody saliva rained back down on his face. Cotton was right: they were alike. A few days ago Isaiah had had the same idea about going to the governor with proof of the witches, convincing him that the hunts must continue. Perhaps their destinies were the same.
Destiny. He smiled weakly, thinking of Destiny Jacobs, her smile so much like her sister's. That small girl had led her people to safety. At least he thought they must be safe. For now anyway. If they'd been captured, then Cotton would have no reason to keep him alive. But they couldn't hide forever.
Someone leaned over Isaiah. He recognized Alder's voice, though his vision was blurring and he couldn't make out a face.
"I'm sorry," Alder said. "You of all people know there's nothing I can do. Please forgive me."
"My forgiveness...doesn't matter."
Alder groaned as if he were the one crushed beneath stones.
Isaiah sucked in air. "You knew my mother?"
"I was there when Cotton passed sentence," Alder admitted. "Reverend Wildes convinced him to stay execution until after your birth."
"What was her name?"
After a moment of silence, Alder said, "I don't remember."
Isaiah sensed Cotton coming the next morning. He could feel the stain in him, though it was weak and Destiny would laugh at Cotton as someone with little talent for learning tricks.
"You've thought about my offer?" Cotton said.
Isaiah nodded weakly and drew in a painful breath. "You offer the same fear and hatred and loneliness I've known all my life."
"But it is life. You can change your perspective on what that life means."
"You can give me only one thing."
"Name it," Cotton said with a thin smile.
Isaiah took in a labored breath. "More stones."
"Oh, you shall have them," Cotton shouted. He waved his men over. "You shall have them all. Your time is up."
Isaiah grunted as more rocks were piled onto his chest. His ribs splintered. "No, your time is up. Without me, you can't win."
"I will win," Cotton said, "when I release your stained soul to hell."
Isaiah heard the voice, but he did not know it. Then he heard thunder, or imagined he did. It might have been blood rushing through his ears.
The call came again. "Release him!"
"You heard Governor Danvers." This time Isaiah recognized Alder's voice. "The hunts are suspended. Set Isaiah free."
A drop of rain splashed onto Isaiah's face, and then another. Maybe Destiny had learned her new trick. Or maybe the time for rain had arrived. Either way, the drought had ended. And the hunts had ended. Isaiah smiled and released his final breath. He was already free.
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