Today is the best day. In honor of this wonderful holiday, I thought it might be fun to share a piece of my writing. So, without my usual rambling, here is the opening chapter for Saints.
The cathedral was where it began. It would, incidentally, be where it ended, as well. Before the end of all things, though, there was only this: a Saint had come in the guise of the devil.
The priest heard the devil before he saw him, though he was acutely aware that he was being allowed this mercy. It was the still dark of dying night, of not yet morning, and the priest had come to the altar after a dream that left his bones trembling, left them cold. It was time, he realized, for the devil to come, to take the price he saw as retribution.
Whispered words fell across sinning lips, and the lit wicks of the candles at the altar withered away. There were so many unlit one, carefully arranged in rising levels. Ioth, in His Holiness, stood with an iron head bowed. A small turret of smoke twisted up toward the high, vaulted ceiling.
“Forgive me for my sins, Ioth,” the Saint said before the tip of a knife settled between the fourth and fifth rib on the priest’s left side. The priest exhaled slowly, felt the point of the knife wedge itself a little closer to danger.
“I wonder,” the priest said softly, “if praying for forgiveness before the sin makes any difference.”
“Forethought,” the Saint said. He had a deep, unyielding voice. It promised to echo in the cavernous room around them, though the priest had never heard the Saint raise his voice. His voice never betrayed the dark war that inevitably raged within, a war the priest had never seen, only sensed.
It was the kind of voice that hid in the shadows, and lurked just around corners. It was the kind of voice children woke screaming from nightmares about, the kind of voice that tiptoed down the priest’s spine now and unleashed a slow, blistering cold through his veins. His bones trembled with the added frost.
“Forethought,” the priest echoed now, “Rather than an appeal afterward?”
The knife turned just so, and the priest swallowed a sharp inhale, instead allowing only an easy breath. Warmth bled from between his ribs, but he would not bow so easily to a devil, would not show his fear. “Often,” the priest continued, “Ioth is kind in His forgiveness. Even now, He sees you as a wayward son. He will forgive you, if only you turn from this path.” The priest wondered if the Saint could hear the lie on his breath, if he could taste the way it slithered out through the cracks and sunk into the pristine, marble floor beneath them.
No one would forgive this man for his sins, not even Ioth, not with his blood-heavy hands.
There was a pause, a moment for breath, and then the knife slid away from his side. Blood welled in its wake. The priest took a quick step forward, turned, and faced the devil with hands open, a simple surrender. “It is not too late, my son,” the priest said quickly. Too quickly, it seemed, for the shape of the Saint’s crooked grin was wicked, serrated like the knife that twirled through his fingers before he fell back on his heels. The knife disappeared up one of his sleeves, and he crossed his arms over his chest. The priest let out a careful breath, shoulders inching down away from his ears. He could yet sway him, and would do everything in his power to do so, even if that meant pretending he was at ease, even if it meant lying.
“Your son?” the Saint asked. “I ask forgiveness from my god, priest, not you.”
“Ioth works through His servants,” the priest said. He forced his gaze to remain on the gaping holes in the skull mask the Saint wore as he silently prayed.
After his last visit from the Saint, the priest had sat at his desk, hands trembling, and allowed himself several long moments to breathe before he took up a pen and wrote out a list of the things he knew about the Saint in an effort to devise his identity.
Beneath the skull mask, which the priest was convinced the Saint had tirelessly cleaned the flesh and blood from himself, he was fair-skinned. There was always kohl smudged around his eyes, making the unnaturally steady gaze of his pale, grey eyes haunting. The kohl also made the freckles dashed across his skin less noticeable, though, and the priest had marked this as important. To hide them must mean they were a family trait.
He had a sheaf of dark hair that was always tousled from the wind, and had once been wearing a black cloth wrapped around his neck with the etchings of the lower half of the skull on it. These two things had told the priest that the Saint traveled a great distance to reach the cathedral, and that he had enough money to own a hellcat.
When the priest had sat back to observe his list, he’d found it lacking. There were many rich boys that this Saint could be, but none that he could think of that would threaten a holy man on hallowed ground. The cathedral was sacred. The city of Oberá worshipped here, cleansed their sins here, begged for mercy here, loved here. There were very few people who would dare stain these white walls with crimson. He’d vowed to discover the Saint’s identity before the next time—he was certain there would be a next time, and was determined to be prepared. It hadn’t occurred to the priest until now, as he held the unwavering grey eyes of the devil, that the Saint had never called himself that—a saint. Why did the priest think of him as one?
“Have you solved the riddle yet, priest?” the Saint asked.
The priest dropped his eyes, and bowed his head. He knew where this devil was from, knew what shadows he crawled out of, knew now why he was here. “He was not natural,” the priest said to the Saint’s black booted feet.
He could still hear the awful silence that had seeped into their bones and made them fearful of the boy they’d captured. It was that, the silence, that had made them release the boy back into the world. Doubt leeched up their throats like poison, and set them seeking the dark corners of their hearts. It wasn’t until the priest had thrown open the door to his cell, dragged him through the cathedral, and reeled away from him at the front door, his bare hand smoking as it burned, that the darkness left them. The boy, bruised and bleeding and still silent, had stared at him, unflinching. The priest began to back up as the boy’s mouth started to curve, a smile so full of shadows that the cathedral sighed around them.
Three months ago, one of the deacons brought the boy back to the cathedral, and they locked him in a cell. They stripped him of his dark clothes, whispering to Ioth as they uncovered pale skin littered with scars. They dunked his head beneath cool, blessed water, his grey hair fanning out like something living, and stumbled away from him when he opened his mouth, swallowing it down. They pressed iron to his skin, murmuring prayers when he closed his vacant grey eyes as though in relief.
Three days later, in the dead of night, they released him, their experiments incomplete. The sun was a feeble thing that morning when the Saint visited them for the first time.
“May Ioth have mercy on your dark soul,” the Saint said.
The priest lifted his gaze to the heavens, and prayed.
He died before the words left his soul.
He fell, his limbs tangling together, his blood spilling across the marble ground beneath him. His throat was carved into an ugly smile, his open eyes still searching for his god as the Saint wiped his knife on the priest’s white sleeve, sheathed the blade, and turned away. His footsteps made no noise, but a small, stubborn green bud sprouted in the pooling blood as he walked away.
In an hour, the bells of Widald Cathedral would ring in mourning, and the city would flood its halls, vultures drawn to tragedy. But it was not yet morning, and the Highlands of Oberá were still doused in a quiet, sleepy darkness. They did not see the Saint slip out through a side door in the cathedral, did not see the bone mask carefully stowed in a pocket of his jacket, did not see the moment the Saint disappeared, and Landon arrived.