I was trying to think of something to put up on here ahead of Christmas. I’ve had an idea for a Christmas horror(ish) story knocking around in my head for about four years now, and one year I’m going to actually think about it in enough time (for which read: in about June) and write the wretched thing. But alas, not this year.
So instead, I thought I’d do something else – partly inspired by this:
If you’ve read either of the Blood and Feathers books, which are my (technically) non-YA books, you might remember that I like to write to music, and to fit songs to specific characters or sections of the story – and this version of that song made something in my head go “click” in a good way.
I don’t have a Christmas story for you, but I thought… how about the first draft of what was originally intended to be the prologue to a third Blood & Feathers book?
A couple of disclaimers, caveats, provisos and so on:
- This will spoiler the hell (pun intended) out of the previous 2 books. So if you’re planning on reading them / reading them at the moment / care about that sort of thing… caveat lector.
- First draft. Firstest of the firstiest drafts. Because, actually, I think there’s something quite fun about you seeing just HOW many commas, dashes and semi-colons I throw at a piece of writing to make my sentences even longer and even more unwieldy before someone far more sensible than I am comes along and makes me take them out. By force if necessary.
- I’m not really in a position to talk about what’s happening with a third book. I get asked from time to time, and the honest, most straightforward answer I can give is always “If and when I can give you an answer, I will.” So… yeah. That.
- It never fails to worry me how much I enjoy writing this guy. I should probably get that looked at.
So, all that said: welcome to St Michael-in-the-Hollows…
The hamlet of St Michael in-the-Hollows lay on the border of three counties, in – as its name suggests – a hollow between three hills. In its time, battles were fought there, blood shed there and bodies burned or buried, depending on whether the victors were the defenders or the invaders. People had come and gone, whole lives – whole generations – no more than the blink of time’s eye. And through it all, through over a thousand years of history, the squat little church of St Michael Within stood at the heart of the village and the lives of everyone who called it home. Family after family after family walked down the church path, each one stepping over the cracked and moss-covered paving stone which was said to be the Devil’s headstone, marking the spot where the Archangel Michael flung his vanquished foe before raising a church in his own honour.
Jeremy Finch, the vicar of St Michael Within and its small parish, was not a superstitious man – and yet over the years he had increasingly found himself stepping over that same stone from sheer force of habit every time he approached the church door. Perhaps it was just as well – because that night, as his heel clipped the very edge of the Devil’s Stone, his foot slipped out from beneath him, turning his ankle and throwing him to the grass. And when he picked himself up, swearing in a most un-vicarlike way, he reached out to lay a hand on the offending stone and found it unbearably cold to the touch: so cold that his skin clung to it, and despite the burn of the ice, he could not pull his fingers free.
The Devil’s Stone outside his church was covered in ice.
And it was spreading.
White tendrils crept along the ground; icy fingers reaching for his feet at every step as he walked… and then ran through the churchyard like a man being pursued. There was someone with him in the churchyard – someone or something he couldn’t see. He could feel them – it – watching him from behind the trees, from between gravestones and tombs, and it made him afraid.
He fumbled the key to the door, dropped it… and as he stooped to pick it up, he could feel the cold tugging at the metal. The key weighed a hundred times what it should, but after what felt like an age he slipped it into the lock and turned it, flinging the heavy wooden door open and tumbling through it into the safety of his church.
“Hello,” said the man waiting inside – and Jeremy Finch instantly understood who it was leaning against the church’s little font, waiting for him.
The space was alive with light: candles, thousands of them, more candles than could possibly have come from the stores in the church. They flickered in sconces and guttered on the stone flags and gravemarkers of the floor. But for all the flames and all the light they gave out, the church was colder than he had ever known it – cold enough for him to see the ice crystals forming in the fog of his breath.
Jeremy Finch, the vicar of St Michael-in-the-Hollows, was forty-three years old and praying. Silently, fervently, desperately praying… because just as he knew who the tall man with the monstrous red eyes in front of him was, he knew what he was going to do.
“I said, ‘Hello’. The least you could do is reply. Anything else, frankly, is just bad manners.” Lucifer shook his head in mock despair – but his smile (which was far too wide for his face, and had far more teeth and was far too sharp to be friendly) gave him away. “Manners, Xaph. Haven’t I always said this? Manners matter.”
Xaph? thought the vicar. Who is Xaph?
He got his answer when another man, one with a badly-scarred face, peeled himself away from the wall behind one of the broad stone pillars. The scarred man, Xaph, circled him, watching… thinking…. waiting, all the while turning a length of thin-linked chain over and over in his hands.
“You see,” said the first man, poking a finger into the water of the font, “I’ve been waiting such a very, very long time. I’ve been… away. And while I’ve been able to keep an eye on things with the help of my friends…” he smiled again, at the scarred man – who nodded a head in acknowledgement before disappearing behind a door into the vestry – “it’s rather like watching the world on a screen. You’re never really in it.”
Ice licked up from the font, creeping up the walls and down to the floor. It wrapped around the candles and even the flames, turning them into tiny crystal lanterns.
“But now, I’ve come back. And I really am in it.”
Lucifer patted the end of the nearest pew, and all at once the wood cracked and weathered, shrivelled and decayed… until all that was left was a heap of rotten planks.
“I really did expect him to be here. I mean, is it too much to ask your brother to be there to meet you when you come home after so very long away? It’s disappointing – that’s what it is. A welcome home gift. A gesture. That’s all I wanted. A sign, you understand? Do you have brothers, Reverend?”
He whipped round and Jeremy felt red eyes boring into him; through him – and he felt ashamed. Those eyes were not kind. They searched him, and the parts of him they sought the hardest were the things he had to hide: the mistakes, the thousand thousand petty acts of bitterness and revenge that litter every human life – even the good ones. And that was what he became in that moment. That, when it came to it, is what Jeremy Finch distilled down to. Shame and guilt and fear and regret.
Because that’s what Lucifer wanted him to be.
“No,” said Jeremy, and the word died on his lips because he couldn’t open them. They had – quite simply – frozen together. His eyeballs crackled as he tried to blink, and the single tear that found its way down onto his cheek became a diamond tattooed onto his skin.
“Fortunate. They’re nothing but trouble.” The man rubbed his hands together theatrically and shivered. “Hasn’t it got cold in here? Having trouble with the heating, Jeremy? We could really do with warming things up a little, couldn’t we?”
The church filled with the sharp smell of petrol, and Jeremy was more afraid than he had ever been. His fear had swallowed him whole
“Oh, don’t worry. It’ll all be over soon,” Lucifer said. “Think of it as my doing you a favour – you get to be the medium and the message. An honour, you might say. You will be the first step I take. You.”
He stretched out his arms and smiled his awful smile as he dipped into a mocking bow, and Jeremy found he could not move.
“And they say I’m cruel. Believe me, compared to them,” Lucifer jabbed a finger at the stained glass window above the altar, lit from below and behind and all around by flames: the figure of the Archangel Michael, sword held high, “compared to them, I am mercy incarnate. You don’t believe me? See what they do to your world just to win. Oh, wait. You won’t be there, will you? Too bad, really. I do have some interesting things planned. And here, here is where it begins. This nothing place that Michael seems to care so much about – although heaven only knows why. This is where it starts.”
Smoke curled through the church and still Lucifer glared at Michael’s glass-painted face, apparently so distracted that it would have been easy to dismiss his next remark as something throwaway.
“I’ll ask Xaphan to pass on my regards to your family.” He turned away from the window and patted Jeremy on the shoulder, just once, leaning in to whisper in his ear. “You know, the funniest thing about being back in my own head and not having to skulk in theirs all the time is that they don’t seem to know whether they do these things because I tell them to, or because they want to. It adds a certain… frisson to proceedings, don’t you think? Keeps life interesting.”
His hand moved from Jeremy’s shoulder to the side of his face, patting his cheek almost affectionately.
“I should have warned you. This is going to hurt quite a lot. But what would be the fun if it didn’t?”
Above the altar, bubbles formed on the Archangel Michael’s glass face as the window began to melt.
Below the altar, far down in the deepest crypt of the church, a tiny green light blinked on. And stayed on.
On a hill a little way to the west of St Michael in-the-Hollows, an identical light began to blink; this one on a desk in a portakabin on an old airfield. Across the room, the two angels – who had been waiting for this exact light to start blinking – looked at one another.
And in the middle of a city, in the sick yellow light of a burning warehouse, the Archangel Michael’s head snapped up.
“It’s started. Fall back. Fall back. Now.”