I won’t lie to you. I saved the best chapter for last. for the last week I’ve been teasing a chapter a day from my new book, Seasons of Truth: Summer,” and I count the words that follow among the best I’ve ever written.
Tonight at midnight (or perhaps a bit sooner, depending on where you live in the United States), Summer goes live pretty much everywhere. It’s been a long road from the first words I wrote on this book, but I’m happy to share it with the world.
Tomorrow I’ll write more about some of the challenges involved in bringing this book to life, but right now I want to read the next chapter as much as you do. If this is your first visit to my website, Welcome! You might want to stop in on the front page and check out some of the previous chapters (or even purchase the previous books in The Hunters Chronicle, Winter and Spring), but I feel this chapter stands up on its own very well.
But don’t take my word for it…
“I BEG OF YOU, SIR. DO NOT GO IN THERE. There is a foulness, an evil surrounding that man. Let him die in the darkness, as he so well deserves.”
The corpulent jailer stood fast in the archway, barring access to his small domain. Deep underground, the bowels of this urban stronghold so thoughtfully supplied by the Templars had been
turned into a dungeon, and he was its sniveling master.
“Always…there is light. Profess you…this is not…so? By my…office…and my…order…you will let…us pass. Attend your…other charge. We see him…soon enough.”
The fat man still refused to stand aside, and in a flicker of torchlight, the priest was on him. The dark-robed man’s eyes flashed as he seized the jailer by the shoulders, leaning in close to his ear.
The priest’s scarred lips whispered too low for Josiah to make out the words, but with each wheezing syllable, the jailor’s face drained of color. Josiah’s memory of his own earlier lesson was terrifying enough to turn his attention to the room around them.
There was indeed light around them, from flaming torches on the walls and a bright fire burning in a tiny hearth across the room, the blaze contained by an iron grating and fed by chunks of white wood and dark lumps of coal from a nearby bronze pail.
The heat from the fire dried the air, warming stone walls, heavy wooden doors, and the heavy iron traps securing them. But even though it added to the warmth of Josiah’s face and arms, it did nothing to melt the ice in his veins.
The priest’s whispering stopped, and the jailer stumbled. He pressed a ring of iron keys into the constable’s hands before he ran shivering back up the stairs.
But Josiah’s attention stayed on the hunched back of the inquisitor. After his encounter with the jailer he seemed smaller somehow. But whatever it was the priest was feeling passed in a few heartbeats, and his thin shoulders squared once more as he turned toward Josiah.
For a moment, Josiah considered running up the stairs as well. The smile on the priest’s scarred face had nothing to do with pleasure. The man’s eyes were entirely untouched by the movement of his lips, and whatever words were fighting their way from his ravaged lungs died in his throat as a muffled voice called to them from behind a solid door.
“Hey, you out there! If you sent that fat pig running, I say come in. I would meet any man who can inspire such action in so great a wasted space.”
The voice was weak, but confident. At a nod from the dark priest, the constable moved forward, fumbling with the cold keys until he found the proper one.
The trap came free, and as he opened it the door scraped to a halt on the uneven stone floor. The half-opened panel blocked the warm yellow light of the fire, and in the torches’ red glow the dirty flesh of the man sitting in the cell beyond appeared almost black. A gaping wound ran along his right arm, and the stitching on his tattered tunic spoke to better days long since passed.
The prisoner squinted at the torchlight, trying to make out Josiah and the priest. When the nature of his visitors finally registered, he laughed.
“Another priest. What luck, that I should be so attended twice in one week.”
“Have a care…criminal. I am not…Fortune. I am…Truth…and I am…Justice. You live for…my answers. You will speak…the truth. Only then…will you know…peace.”
The priest’s pronouncement did not faze the prisoner, but to be fair, all he could do from his position on the floor was shrug. Josiah saw weeping sores on his hands, and also through bloody holes in his pantaloons.
Perhaps he has no strength for anything else.
The priest flowed forward, and it looked to Josiah as if his robes swallowed up the red light. The prisoner’s eyes widened as the dark presence eclipsed his face, and all Josiah could make out of the man was the rattling of his chains.
The priest took hold of the door and pulled it toward him. One eye and the tip of his scar regarded Josiah from the narrow opening. In the torchlight, both appeared carved from the stone walls around them and painted with blood. The next words the priest spoke sent a charge along his skin, as if lightning had struck in the room.
“Remember what you were told.”
Then the heavy door slid closed on the cell already crowded with one prisoner, leaving Josiah alone with his thoughts. He had been told many things tonight, but foremost in his mind were his superior’s last instructions before the rest of the constables left the building.
“Carry out whatever orders he gives you as if they were my own, and God help you if you question the man or impede him in any way.”
But there was another voice in Josiah’s head, speaking words he only now recalled.
“After I enter, lock the door, and no matter what you hear do not open it again.”
Josiah’s hands came up, and part of him wondered why they were shaking. He watched them reset the iron trap on the door, and lock it with one of the keys. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them he was standing next to the hearth.
The torches were nearly burned out, as was the bed of coals. Josiah’s heart hammered in his chest, but he made no move to replenish the fire. He could just make out the door in the dying torchlight—the light from the hearth skulked around his feet as if afraid to go any further into the room.
Josiah understood that fear all too well. Shadows danced around the door in time to the low murmuring he strained to hear from the other side. Then there was a sharp cry, and nothing more.
The door swung all the way open, slamming into the wall. The dying torches flared to angry life at the touch of an unseen breeze, revealing a dead man in rags slumped on the floor. The chains still hung over his body, but his arms were now free and his face was fixed in a child-like smile.
Josiah’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. He couldn’t tear his eyes from the dead man’s expression, so unlike the scowl he wore in life. Then the fire in the hearth went out, and he turned to see the priest standing next to him, holding an empty cup and a ring of iron keys.
Darkness hovered in the lines of his cruel face, and the scents of sweet flowers and sour wine rose from him. Josiah tried to remain true to his promise, but the compulsion to speak was too strong.
“What…what happened? What did he tell you?”
“The truth. There was no…other way…to respond. You must not…you will not speak of this again. To anyone.”
The torches died completely, taking with them the sight of those cold, dead eyes. One last ember popped in the hearth, sending up a spark that revealed the edge of the priest’s scar before burning out and leaving him in darkness.
With the Voice.
“Go. Now. I have the…proof I need. You are…released.”
Josiah needed no further prompting to turn and stumble for the dim sanctuary of the stairway. He was halfway there when the heat on his skin disappeared, and his feet refused to move.
Josiah strained against unseen chains of ice binding him to the floor and walls. Hints of red teased the blackness around him, and slow footsteps crept toward him from behind.
“Do not leave…the city. We are not…finished…you and I. There is more…service…you will give. Answers…to extract.”
Josiah closed his eyes and offered up a prayer for strength, then he ran, bouncing against the cold walls and tripping over his feet as he scrambled up the stairs. He hit the ground hard, and the smell of garbage and urine and musty wood was everywhere.
He opened his eyes onto a dimly lit alley and scrambled back until he collapsed against a solid wall, staring out at the foggy streets he’d walked too many times to count.
The last bit of warmth inside him drained away, leaving him hugging the stone wall in a futile attempt to capture even a portion of the previous day’s heat.
He heard the city wake up around him, the people of the night giving way to those who worked the dawn with sounds of laughter and creaking cart wheels. The cold morning sun burned away the mists, banishing them back into the last shadows of night.
A shadow moved at the corner of his eye. A black doorway formed, from which came a thin, hard man. Josiah stared, a scream rising in his throat as he recognized the place his feet had brought him.
A cold smile pulled at an angry scar, and a low chuckle escaped the priest’s lips. Abandoning the wall, Josiah kept his eyes fixed on the man as he descended three low steps to the street. He stumbled away on torn palms and bruised boot soles until he felt the solid wood of a cart at his back and a soft, colorful avalanche of wildflowers took it away.
Josiah raised a bloody palm to wipe away petals from his eyes, pushing back against the cart and rising with the assistance of a sweet-smelling, delicate hand. When they were clear, he found himself looking into the face of the flower girl, now covered in angry red blisters.
Josiah ran, trusting no sense but survival. He had to escape before madness swallowed up what was left of his soul. Before he spent his life in a darkened room, drinking forever from an empty cup.
He ran as the city woke around him, leaving behind its true self and donning its beautiful disguise.
Until all he could hear was rasping laughter echoing off the warming stones, growing louder with each step he took.
Thanks for sticking it out with me this week. Without readers, a writer’s life is even lonelier than is portrayed in movies. But when we’re around people who like books, and like talking about them, everything just falls into place.
See you on the flip side.
Scott James Magner
Writer of Stuff, Doer of Things