The Temple of the Sky’s high ceiling and plentiful white marble did not do enough to ease the day’s sultry heat. From her seat on the dais, Saint Justine looked over the crowd and thought it looked like a field of flowers in the wind, because of the colorful fans almost everyone was using to cool their faces. She wished she could use one too. But as the star of the day, aside from the gods of course, she had to maintain her dignity. At least her attendants had found garments that were as light as possible. The choir’s song ended on a high, sweet note. In the pause afterward, the rustling of all those fans was actually audible. Then the chief elder stepped forward and began his speech. It was, Justine noticed, a version of the same speech he’d given four years ago, the first time Justine had been old enough to start carrying out her duties. Now she was fourteen. It was the week before midsummer, and the ten-year-olds who belonged to this congregation would give their pledges and receive her blessing. The children were already lined up in front of the dais, sweating and deprived of fans for the sake of their dignity, too. Justine looked at them with deep sympathy. They were a dozen or so children of the kingdom’s nobles, dressed in white like herself, most of them twitching with the effort of standing still for so long. They all looked plump and healthy, unlike the children in some of the lesser temples she had been visiting for the past week, where poverty reigned with a heavier hand than the monarch. Justine kept her expression serene and made herself pay attention to the chief elder’s speech. It wouldn’t do to brood over the things she couldn’t change when she had duties to perform and people were watching her. She gave every child the most sincere blessing she could muster. Hopefully, the divine power would benefit those poor children in some way. One of the children in front of her now, she noticed, was much better at holding still than the rest. He was one of the two who had black hair, and he was staring at her with an intensity that she could feel, even at this distance. Suddenly her ability to perceive souls activated. She had suppressed it, because it was distressing in crowds. The tangled black marks of wrongs done were also not something she could do anything about, in most cases. She couldn’t tell what people had done unless they confessed, and walking up to people to demand that they confess was not, she had been told, her job. When she was older, she might be asked to hear accused criminals’ confessions, but no one wanted to have a child saint do that. Here and now, she saw that this boy’s soul was wound about with gray threads, unlike the mostly white souls of the other children. The gray meant suppressed impulses and desires. That was fine, in the view of the Temple, as long as a person didn’t act on them. A disturbing number of the adults in the crowd carried black smears of wrongs actually done, some of them deep and extensive enough to discolor most of their souls. Saint Justine moved her gaze away from the boy and the crowd, up towards the vaulted ceiling, and took a slow, careful breath. Dignity. Duty. She could not just stand up and demand to know what was wrong with this child. Nor could she stop the gradual unfolding of divine power within her own soul. Normally it waited for her to call on it. Her hands tightened on the arms of her chair as a sense of dark foreboding joined the warmth and golden light of the power. Her chief aide, Marna, bent forward to whisper in her ear. “What is it, your holiness?” “I don’t know,” Justine whispered back, struggling to keep her face calm. “Something’s wrong.” Marna made a quiet sound of concern and stepped back. Justine could tell she was moving to speak to one of the underpriests, or maybe the knights charged with guarding the Saint. The Chief Elder, focused on his task, hadn’t noticed anything yet. The crowd, however, couldn’t miss the golden light rising from her body. Justine could tell their attention was shifting to her. Still, the Chief Elder went on to finish his speech and turned toward the Saint. He was obviously surprised to see the divine light already present, but simply gestured for her to join him at the front of the dais. Justine stood, deliberately moving with the grace she’d practiced for years. Nothing bad was going to happen to her, which helped her stay calm. The impending doom involved someone else. She walked forward, smiling faintly, and her temples started to ache. Too much tension, perhaps. She stopped, dragging the prepared words of her own speech to the front of her mind, and the leading edge of the doom broke over the temple. There was nothing obviously frightening about the gray-souled boy running up the three broad steps to kneel at her feet and clutch the front of her gown. He wasn’t a threat to her. It was only the air itself shivering with tension, the swell of power, the ache inside her skull, the look on the child’s face gazing up at her. He seemed to be speaking, yet no sound came from his throat. “Child,” the Chief Elder said, frowning, “this is inappropriate.” Justine sank to her knees and caught the child’s trembling hands. “Are you saying ‘help me’?” The boy nodded frantically. His fingers were slender as twigs to her touch. His deep blue eyes seemed hollow with despair, a state she had seen in children before. Not in this high temple that catered to the wealthy, though. “Hesperos!” a man shouted. “Stop that this instant!” The handsome blonde man who stormed up was trailed by a lovely black-haired woman, obviously the child’s mother. Both of them had souls overwritten with black smears and trails of wrongness. “Hespy,” she said, her mask of concern belied by the steel in her tone, “come here to mama. It’s all right.” Both of them took hold of the boy’s shoulders. Before they could pull him away, Justine threw her arms around him and held tight. He panted and shivered like a lost baby bird. His body felt thin and bony, unlike the way he looked. “Let him be!” she gasped. “I’m sorry, Elder,” the boy’s father said, quietly. Regretfully. “It pains me to say it, but our boy can’t speak and isn’t right in the head. I really thought he’d behave himself, though, he’s been so good lately …” “Come, Hespy,” the mother said, tugging on the boy’s shoulder hard enough for Justine to feel it. “Don’t be clinging onto the Saint, it’s disrespectful and undignified.” The divine power welled up higher, failing to dispel Justine’s dizziness and the pain that seemed like it might dissolve her skull. “Let me keep him!” she cried. “It’ll be all right if we keep him!” “Your holiness,” Marna said, “please can you explain?” Her steady, reliable voice gave Justine something to cling to, but it wasn’t enough. Turmoil filled her mind. Images of things she’d never seen passed through her consciousness. The coils of darkness in the parents’ souls were too close, resisting the divine power. There was no repentance in them, not an ounce. Justine swallowed against nausea, her vision blurred, and the strength left her arms. The boy’s mother succeeded in pulling him away, and his father instantly snatched him up and began to back down the steps, scolding him. “Wait,” Marna said, holding Justine up but watching them go. “What just happened to that boy?” Justine wailed silently in her mind. None of what was in her head mattered except that she had to stop this. The doom was towering over the temple, and no one knew it but her. “Stop!” she yelled, staggering back to her feet. “Stop them!” The boy’s family had already carried him, squirming and fighting, a third of the way down the central aisle. Everyone stared from their places, fans forgotten. Supported and held back by Marna, Justine threw herself down the steps. “Don’t!” She saw the boy being held by his father and one of his uncles, and his father’s hand rising, then striking down across his son’s face. For a moment, no sound came to Justine’s ears. She could only hear her own pulse and breath, and time itself froze her in mid-step. CRACK Black lightning cut the world. The bodies surrounding the boy fell away, slashed open, their blood spilling across the white floor. The boy, his white clothes soaked in red, fell into his hands and knees in front of a widening gap, a flickering black void stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Everyone could see, then, the old bruises on his face and the skinny frame that had been hidden before. And, as well, the black lines randomly He tried to get up and tumbled onto his rear, facing away from the lightning toward Justine. Justine, who was straining to get away from Marna. “Hesperos!” she cried, her free hand stretching towards him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” The stunned boy looked at her, at the death surrounding him, and found the void. He paused. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew what would happen, and it did. Hesperos got his feet under him, pushed himself forward, slipped on the blood-wet floor, and plunged into the darkness. The lightning vanished. Justine collapsed, sobbing, a failure. The headache and the shock dragged her down into a faint.
Welcome to my first-ever webnovel! I came up with the idea and started writing on December 21, and I think reaching 20 chapters (31,500 words) before the 31st was a pretty good result. Not enough for the contest, but that's no reason to quit when I've already come so far. My goal is two chapters per week, and I'll think about shelling out good money for proper cover art once I actually get some subscribers. (Hint, hint.)
Being reincarnated into a tragic novel isn’t so bad when you’re just part of the background. Since Justine is a Saint with divine power now, and also has a college education, she can make this new world a better place. She’s sorry for Hesperos Kault, the main character doomed to self-destruction, but there isn’t much she can do for him. Only, he’s paying too much attention to her. Way too much. Is this story turning into a romance?! What’s a practical-minded Saint supposed to do now?