10. Rules Ghouls

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Kadav was breaking all his own rules. Never meet the enemy on his own turf. Never let your desperation show. Never negotiate from a position of inferiority. And never, ever, partake of strong spirits before an important engagement. "Rules-ghouls. Who needs 'em?" he mumbled to himself as he wove his way down the dusty road toward the chapel.

The night was clear. The sky was heavily salted with stars, and the quarter moon rested on the tree line like a bleached shipwreck. The town had a feeling of desertion about it. Fires were prematurely banked, and not a single candle burned behind the shuttered windows. The darkened buildings were black cutouts against the dark backdrop of the forest, dark on dark. "Oathbreakers!" He shook his fist at them. But he reserved his worst curses for the priest.

The chapel loomed at the end of the road, its whitewashed spire like a ghostly finger pointing the way to a heaven that was always out of reach. The glow of a candle showed through the drawn curtains of the side wing where the priest had his chambers. Kadav pictured him hunched over his desk, the sacred scroll spread out like some inscrutable map that lacked both compass and legend.

He staggered up to the chapel and rapped angrily on the heavy door. He pressed his ear against it to listen. An inner door opened, and footsteps could be heard shuffling down the central aisle of the worship hall.

"Who is it?" The priest's rumbling voice carried through the wood.

"A sinner," Kadav rasped. "Come to ask for absolution."

"Can't wait until morning, I suppose?"

"It's rather urgent, actually. There's something I'm burning to get off my chest."

The latch slid back with a sharp report, and the door swung partway open, revealing the stout form of the priest holding up a candle. Flickering shadows spilled through the gap like fleeing spirits. "Hooff!" He cringed as the light fell upon Kadav's face. "It's you."

"Expecting some other sinner?" Kadav thrust his shoulder against the doorjamb. He was just trying to prop himself up, but it had the added benefit of blocking the door.

"A repentant one, perhaps."

"Oh, but I am repentant. I'm turning over a new loaf—a leaf, I mean—or life—however the saying goes. I came all this way just to make a confession. Don't you want to hear it?"

"And which of your many sins are you sorry for?"

"I've slandered the name of Rhojë's chosen mouthpiece. Why, just this evening I called him a pretentious-crow-footed-vulture-faced-prig who thunders from both ends." He giggled from the hilarity of it. "Only it was all true. So tell me, your revered impotence—I mean, your holy flatulence—is that a sin?"

The priest gave him a hard nudge that sent him staggering back a pace. The door shut with a resounding bang, followed by the snick of the latch. "This is a house of absolution. You should return to that house of dissolution you call home. A good night to you, mayor."

Kadav pounded his fists against the door. "What kind of holy man are you?" he railed. "Aren't you supposed to turn the other cheek? Isn't that written in your holy scroll somewhere?"

"I think I would know better than you what is written in the holy scroll. But if it eases your conscience any, I forgive you, my son. Now go in peace and sin no more. If you can."

"I want to talk to you, priest," Kadav protested. "I want to call a parley. No, a truce—a bargain. That's it, a bargain. I want to offer you a bargain."

"I don't strike bargains with devils."

"An agreement, then. Nothing permanent, of course. Just until we're rid of our mutual enemisis—nemeny—whatever. When it's over, nobody has to know. We'd know, of course—can't help that—but nobody else would. Know, I mean. No, I wouldn't tell a soul, believe you me."

The answer came in the form of footsteps moving in the opposite direction. Kadav slumped dejected to the ground. What had he expected? The holy man would cut off his right arm before lending a hand to his archrival.

Kadav shivered but not from the cold. The looming presence of the white steeple above him raised goose pimples on his skin. Rhojë almighty, he sorely needed another drink. But he and Bert had drained the last of the summer ale, and there was no telling when the ale merchant would return with another shipment. Even Ruford's firewater had run its course. The sacrament! he remembered. The priest kept the wine jugs in a storeroom in the back of the chapel. He should know. He procured them himself. A raid on the storeroom would not only slake his thirst, but it would deny the holy man the precious blood of the martyr. He had only managed a couple steps in that direction when the chapel door cracked open and something landed next to him with a soft thud. Before he could react, the door had already shut again.

"There's some bread," rumbled the priest. "Maybe it will sober you up a bit. If you're still around in an hour, we'll talk."

Kadav's fingersseized on the squishy object. Never accept a gift from an adversary, hereminded himself. He went to chuck it away, but a pang of hunger changed hismind. When was the last time he'd eaten? Beggars can't be choosers. Wait,that wasn't one of his rules—or was it? With a quick glance around to make sureno one was watching, he dusted off the bread and wolfed it down in a few bites."Choosers-losers."

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