Wicked Saints, the first book in Emily A. Duncan’s Something Dark and Holy series, won’t arrive till April 2, but we’re sharing an exclusive look at the first chapter right now.
In this icy Gothic tale, in a kingdom riven by endless war, a trio of endangered misfits must band together to assassinate a king. Early rave reviews have warned us: here there be villainous love interests, dark enchantments, perilous plot twists, and some seriously untrustworthy saints. We can’t wait to read the whole thing—but for now, let’s start the creepiest day of the year off right, with a dip into the opening chapter of Wicked Saints…
Death, magic, and winter. A bitter cycle that Marzenya spins with crimson threads around pale fingers. She is constant; she is unrelenting; she is eternal. She can grant any spell to those she has blessed, her reach is the fabric of magic itself.
–Codex of the Divine, 2:18
The calming echo of a holy chant filtered down from the sanctuary and into the cellars. It was late afternoon, just before Vespers, a time where psalms to the gods were given up in an effortless chorus.
Nadezhda Lapteva glared up at the mountain of potatoes threatening to avalanche down over the table. She twisted her knife hard against the one in her hand, narrowly missing skin as she curled the peel into a spiral.
“A cleric’s duty is important, Nadezhda,” she muttered, mimicking the dour tone of the monastery’s abbot. “You could change the tide of the war, Nadezhda. Now go wither in the cellars for the rest of your life, Nadezhda.”
The table was covered in potato peel spirals. She hadn’t anticipated losing her entire day to remedial labor, yet here she was.
“Did you hear that?” Konstantin acted like she hadn’t spoken. His paring knife hung limp in his fingers as he listened.
There was nothing but the service upstairs. If he was trying to distract her, it wasn’t going to work. “Is it our impending death by potato avalanche? I can’t hear it, but I’m certain it’s coming.”
She received a withering look in response. She waved her knife at him. “What could it possibly be? The Tranavians at our doorstep? They have seven thousand stairs to climb first. Perhaps it’s their High Prince and he’s finally decided to convert.”
She tried to be glib, but the idea of the High Prince anywhere near the monastery made her shiver. He was rumored to be an extremely powerful blood mage, one of the most terrifying in all of Tranavia, a land rife with heretics.
“Nadya,” Konstantin whispered, “I’m serious.”
Nadya stabbed her knife into yet another potato as she glanced at him. It was his fault they were down there. His pranks, conjured from a mixture of boredom and delirium after early morning prayers, had been innocent at first. Switching out the monastery’s incense with lemongrass, or snipping the sanctuary’s candle wicks. Minor offenses at best. Nothing to deserve death by potato.
Filling Father Alexei’s washing bowl with a red dye that looked like blood, though, that was what had done them in.
Blood wasn’t a thing to be made light of, not in these times.
Father Alexei’s rage didn’t end in the cellars. After they scaled Potato Mountain—if they scaled Potato Mountain—they still had hours’ worth of holy texts to copy in the scriptorium.
Nadya’s hands were already cramping just thinking about it.
“Nadya.” Her knife slipped off course as Konstantin nudged her elbow.
“Damn it, Kostya.”
My perfect streak of fifty- four intact spirals, ruined, she thought mournfully. She wiped her hands on her tunic and glared at him.
His dark eyes were focused on the closed door that led upstairs. There was nothing but the—
The potato slipped from her fingers, falling to the dusty floor. She hadn’t noticed when the service above had stopped. Kostya’s fingers dug into her sleeve but his touch felt distant.
This can’t be happening.
“Cannons,” she whispered, somehow making it more real by saying the word aloud. She shifted the grip on her knife, flipping it backward as if it were one of her thin-bladed voryens and not a half-dull kitchen blade.
Cannons were a sound every child of Kalyazin knew intimately. It was what they grew up with, their lullabies mixed with firing in the distance. War was their constant companion, and Kalyazi children knew to flee when they heard those cannons and tasted the iron tinge of magic in the air.
Cannons only meant one thing: blood magic. And blood magic meant Tranavians. For a century a holy war had raged between Kalyazin and Tranavia. Tranavians didn’t care that their blood magic profaned the gods. If they had their way, the gods’ touch would be eradicated from Kalyazin like it had been from Tranavia. But the war had never reached farther than the Kalyazin border. Until now. If Nadya could hear the cannons, that meant the war was slowly swallowing Kalyazin alive. Inch by bloody inch it was seeping into the heart of Nadya’s country and bringing death and destruction with it.
And there was only one reason why the Tranavians would attack a secluded monastery in the mountains.
The cellars shook and dirt rained down. Nadya looked at Kostya, whose gaze was flint-eyed but fearful. They were just acolytes with kitchen knives. What could they do if the soldiers came?
Nadya tugged at the prayer necklace around her neck; the smooth wooden beads felt cool against the pads of her fingers. There were alarms that would go off if the Tranavians breached the seven thousand stairs leading up to the monastery, but she had never heard them. Had hoped she never would.
Kostya grabbed her hand and shook his head slowly, his dark eyes solemn.
“Don’t do this, Nadya,” he said.
“If we are attacked, I will not hide,” she replied stubbornly.
“Even if it means a choice between saving this place and the entire kingdom?”
He grasped her arm again, and she let him drag her back into the cellars. His fear was justified. She had never been in real battle before, but she met his gaze defiantly. All she knew was this monastery, and if he thought she wasn’t going to fight for it, then he was mad. She would protect the only family she had; that was what she was trained for. He ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. He couldn’t stop her; they both knew it.
Nadya tugged out of Kostya’s grip. “What use am I if I run? What would be the point?”
He opened his mouth to protest but the cellar shook so hard Nadya wondered if they weren’t about to be buried alive. Dirt from the ceiling dusted her white-blond hair. In an instant, she was across the cellar and nearing the door up to the kitchens. If the bells were silent, that meant the enemy was still in the mountains. There was time—
Her hand touched the doorknob just as the bells began to toll. The sound felt familiar, as if it was nothing but another call to the sanctuary for prayer. Then she was jarred by the urgent screeching tone they took on, a cacophony of high- pitched bells. No time left. She yanked the door open, running the last few stairs up to the kitchens, Kostya at her heels. They crossed the garden—empty and dead from the bitter winter months—into the main complex.
Nadya had been told the protocol countless times. Move to the back of the chapel. Pray, because that was what she did best. The others would go to the gates to fight. She was to be protected. But it was all formality, the Tranavians would never make it this far into the country, all these plans were simply if the impossible happened.
Well, here is the impossible.
She shoved open the heavy doors that led behind the sanctuary, only managing to move them enough for Kostya and herself to slip through. The tolling of the bells pounded against her temples, painful with each heartbeat. They were made to pull everyone out of sleep at three in the morning for services. They did the job.
Someone slammed into her as she passed an adjoining hallway. Nadya whirled, kitchen blade poised.
“Saints, Nadya!” Anna Vadimovna pressed a hand to her heart. There was a venyiashk—a short sword—at her hip, and another, long, thin blade clutched in her hand.
“Can I have that?” Nadya reached for Anna’s dagger. Anna wordlessly handed it to her. It felt solid, not flimsy like the paring knife.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Anna said.
Kostya shot Nadya a pointed look. In the monastery’s hierarchy, Anna—as an ordained priestess—outranked Nadya. If Anna ordered her to go to the sanctuary, she would have no choice but to obey.
So I won’t give Anna the chance.
Nadya took off down the hall. “Have they breached the stairs?”
“They were close,” Anna called.
Close meant the very real likelihood that they would make it to the courtyard and find the Tranavians already there. Nadya pulled at her prayer necklace, her fingers catching across the ridged beads as she searched for the right one. Each wooden bead was carved with a symbol representing a god or goddess in the pantheon, twenty in all. She knew them by touch, knew exactly which bead to press to attune to a specific god.
Nadya once wished she could blend in with the other Kalyazi orphans at the monastery, but the truth was, for as long as she could remember, when she prayed the gods listened. Miracles happened, magic. It made her valuable. It made her dangerous.
She tugged her necklace until the bead she wanted was at the bottom. The sword symbol carved into it felt like a splinter against her thumb. She pressed it and sent up a prayer to Veceslav: the god of war and protection.
“Do you ever wonder what this would be like if you were fighting against people who also petitioned for my protection?” His voice was a warm summer breeze slipping up the back of her head.
Truly we are fortunate our enemies are heretics, she replied. Heretics who were winning the war.
Veceslav was always chatty, but right now Nadya needed help, not conversation.
I need some protection spells, please, she prayed.
Her thumb caught Marzenya’s bead, pressing against the symbol of an open-mouthed skull. And if Marzenya is around, I need her, too.
Magic flooded through her veins, a rush of power that came with chiming chords of holy speech—a language she only knew when the gods granted it. Nadya’s heart raced, less from fear than the intoxicating thrill of their power.
The wide courtyard was blessedly silent when she finally pushed through the front doors of the chapel. To the left ran a path leading to the men’s cells; to the right, another trailed off into the forests where an ancient graveyard that held the bodies of saints centuries gone was kept by the monastery. Snow from the night before piled on the ground and the air was frigid. It snowed most nights—and days—on the top of the Baikkle Mountains. Hopefully it would slow down the Tranavians.
Nadya scanned for Father Alexei, finding him at the top of the stairs. The priests and priestesses who trained for battle waited in the courtyard and her heart twisted at just how few of them there were. Her confidence faltered. Barely two dozen against a company of Tranavians. This was never supposed to happen. The monastery was in the middle of the holy mountains, it was difficult—almost impossible—to reach, especially for those unused to Kalyazin’s forbidding terrain.
Marzenya brushed against her thoughts. “What is it you require, my child?” spoke the goddess of magic and sacrifice—of death. Marzenya was Nadya’s patron in the pantheon, the one who had claimed her as an infant.
I want to give the heretics a welcoming taste of Kalyazi magic, she replied. Let them fear what the faithful can do.
She felt the press of Marzenya’s amusement, then a different rush of power. Magic granted by Marzenya felt nothing like magic granted by Veceslav. Where he was heat, she was ice and winter and cosmic fury.
Having their magic at the same time itched under Nadya’s skin, impatient and impulsive. She left Kostya and Anna, moving to Father Alexei’s side.
“Keep our people away from the stairs,” she said softly.
The abbot looked over at her, eyebrows drawn. Not because a seventeen-year-old girl was giving him orders—though if they survived he would scold her thoroughly for that—but because she wasn’t supposed to be there at all. She was supposed to be anywhere but there.
Nadya raised her eyebrows expectantly, willing him to accept her place here. She had to stay. She had to fight. She couldn’t hide in the cellars any longer, not while heretics tore apart her country, her home.
“Move back,” he called after a pause. “I want you all at the doors!” The courtyard was a cramped enclosure, not made for fighting. “What are you planning, Nadezhda?”
“Just some divine judgment,” she replied, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She was going to shake out of her own skin if she stopped moving and allowed herself to think on what was about to happen.
She heard his weary sigh as she moved to where the stairs met the courtyard. It was the only way for the enemy to make it to the monastery and even then sometimes the steps were so coated with ice they were impossible to climb. No such luck today.
How could the Tranavians know she was there? The only people who knew Nadya existed were in the monastery.
Well . . . there was the tsar. But he was far, far away in the capital. It was unlikely news of her had spread into Tranavia.
Her breath whispered out in a prayer of holy speech, symbols forming light at her lips and blowing out in a cloud of fog. She knelt, trailing her fingers over the top of the stairs. The slick stone froze, forming the stairs into a single block of ice.
Idly twirling the voryen in her hand, she stepped back. The spell was a ploy for time; if the Tranavians had a blood mage who could counteract her magic, it wouldn’t last.
No going back now.
Nadya could fight an average blood mage. But the possibility of a Tranavian lieutenant or general—a mage promoted because of sheer magical power alone—made her feel like running back into the sanctuary where she belonged.
Marzenya scoffed at her doubt.
I belong here, Nadya told herself.
Kostya stepped up beside her. He had abandoned his kitchen knife for a noven’ya—a staff with a long blade on one end. He leaned against it, watching the slope where the stairs dropped out of sight.
“Go,” he said. “It’s not too late.”
Nadya grinned at him. “It’s too late.”
As if agreeing with her, the bells cut off with a disconcertingly final ring. The air around the monastery was silent but for the steady sound of cannons, now pounding clearly at the base of the mountain.
If Rudnya fell, the monastery would be next. The city at the base of the mountains was well fortified, but they were in the heart of Kalyazin. No one had ever expected the war to push this far west. It was supposed to stay on the eastern border where Kalyazin and Tranavia met, just north of the border on Akola.
A crack trailed up the solid block of ice on the stairs like a spider web. It spread, forming a pattern of fractures before the whole thing shattered. Kostya pulled Nadya into the courtyard.
“We have the high ground,” she murmured.
She was holding a single voryen. Just one dagger.
We have the high ground.
There was a tremor in the silence and a sharp touch jabbed into the back of her skull.
“Blood magic,” Marzenya hissed.
Nadya’s heart lodged in her throat, doubt sliding cold tendrils down her spine. She felt her magic shivering, and without thinking, shoved Kostya aside just as something exploded near where he had once stood. A hard chunk of ice slammed into her back, pain ramming down to her toes. She was thrown onto Kostya and they both went crashing to the ground.
He was back on his feet before Nadya had even registered what happened. The courtyard became thick with magic and steel as soldiers swarmed up the stairs. She scrambled to her feet, keeping to Kostya’s side, his blade moving at a dizzying pace as he defended her against the Tranavian soldiers.
Children of a war-torn land were expected to know how to react when the enemy finally came calling. Kostya and Nadya had their strategy perfected. She was fast, he was strong, and they would do anything to protect each other. Unless she caused their downfall with her fraying nerves. Her limbs shook as more magic than she was used to swept through her body.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
Panicked prayers to the gods would only be met with more magic; Nadya had to decide for herself how it was used.
She ran her hand along the flat of her voryen. Pure, white light followed her touch and though she wasn’t entirely sure what it would do, she found out quickly enough when she sliced a Tranavian soldier. She only caught his arm, but like a poison, the light blackened his flesh at the point of contact. It spread up his arm to his face, choking his eyes with darkness before he toppled over, dead. She staggered back into Kostya. The urge to drop her voryen needled at her hand.
I killed him. I’ve never killed anyone.
Kostya’s hand dropped to brush against hers.
“Keep going,” Marzenya urged.
But there was so much magic swirling through the air and it was so powerful and Nadya was just one cleric. Fear consumed her for another long heartbeat until Marzenya jabbed the back of her head with a sharp, pointed pain.
Frost tipped her fingers and she ducked under a Tranavian’s blade, slamming her frostbitten hand against his chest. Like the last, blackened skin crept up his neck and onto his face before he fell, the light flickering out of his eyes.
Nadya’s chest constricted. She felt like throwing up and Marzenya’s bitter nudge of disgust at her weakness jolted her. There was no room here for misplaced sentiment. This was war. Death was inevitable. Necessary.
“Nadezhda!” Marzenya’s warning came too late. Flames engulfed her, licking underneath her skin, her blood boiling. Pain blackened her vision. She stumbled, and Kostya caught her, slipping them out of the fray right before she crashed to her knees in the shadows of the chapel doorway. She gritted her teeth, catching the inside of her lip; blood coated her mouth, metallic and sharp. She struggled to breathe. It was like being burned alive from the inside out. Just when she thought she could take no more, Veceslav’s presence swept in, enveloping Nadya like a heavy blanket. He soothed out the magic, pushing it away until she could breathe. She hadn’t called on him; he had simply known.
She didn’t have time to be shaken by the gods’ omnipresence. She struggled to her feet, her limbs trembling. The world spun dangerously but it didn’t matter. Whatever that had been, it had come from a powerful mage. She scanned the courtyard and when she found him, her once-boiling blood froze.
Oh, she had made a horrible mistake.
I should have hidden.
Thirty paces away, at the entrance to the courtyard, stood a Tranavian with a bloodied piece of paper crumpled in his fist. A vicious scar slashed over his left eye. It started at his temple and ended just at his nose. He watched the violence with a slight sneer. Nadya didn’t need to notice the red epaulets and gold braiding of his uniform to recognize him.
There were whispers of the Tranavian High Prince throughout the monastery. A boy made general a mere six months after venturing to the front when he was sixteen years old. One who had used the war to fuel his already terrible grasp of blood magic. A monster.
Every doubt Nadya had pressed away crashed back on top of her. This couldn’t be real, not the High Prince; not him.
He was young, only a few years older than her, with the palest eyes she had ever seen. As if sensing her, those pale eyes met Nadya’s and his lips twisted into a wry smile, his gaze straying to the magic swirling like light at her palms.
She let out a stream of curses.
I need . . . I need something powerful, she prayed frantically. He’s going to come for me. He’s looking right at me.
“You risk injuring the faithful,” Marzenya replied.
The world tilted. Black tunneled Nadya’s vision at the corners. The courtyard was a nightmare. Crimson splattered snow, the bodies of those Nadya had lived, worked, prayed with, fallen and broken across the stones. It was a slaughter and it was her fault. The Tranavians wouldn’t be there if not for her. If she died, would that make this massacre worth it?
The prince started across the courtyard toward Nadya, and her panic blanked out everything else. If he took her, what would her blood give him? What could he do with the magic she had? There were so many Tranavians, they had so much magic, and everyone she knew was going to die.
Kostya shoved her back into the shadows. Her magic slipped away as her back slammed against the door.
“Nadya,” Kostya whispered, looking frantically over his shoulder. The prince was out of sight but he had so little space to cross. There was no time left. It was over. Kostya tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “You have to go, Nadya, you have to run.”
She stared at him, horrified. Run? After everyone she loved had been cut down she was supposed to flee to safety? What would that make her, if she ran to save herself? The monastery was the only home Nadya had ever known.
“You have to go,” Kostya said. “If you fall to him the war will be lost. You have to live, Nadya.”
He kissed her forehead, lips warm, slipping something cold and metallic against her palm. “You have to live,” he repeated with a rasp. Then he turned away to call out to Anna. Nadya dropped what he’d given her into her pocket without looking at it.
Anna fought a few paces away, bodies piling around her feet. Her head whipped up when she heard her name. Kostya jerked his head in Nadya’s direction and understanding cleared Anna’s features.
Kostya turned back toward Nadya, an expression on his face she had never seen before. He opened his mouth to speak only to violently jerk forward, his knee buckling out from underneath him. A crossbow bolt stuck out the back of his leg.
A scream ripped out of Nadya’s throat. “Kostya!”
“Time to go, Nadya.” Anna grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the path leading to the graveyard.
I can’t leave Kostya. Kostya who, when they’d first met, had considered her unusual gift with a serious expression before wisecracking that she could never do a single bad thing in her life, else the gods would know immediately. Kostya, who disregarded her status with the divine and cajoled her into all manner of pranks and mischief. Kostya, the boy who rolled apples to her during prayer. Kostya, her friend, her family.
He waved a hand at them to go, pain vivid in his face. Nadya struggled against Anna, but the priestess was stronger. Not Kostya. She was losing everything, she couldn’t lose him, too.
I will not trade my safety for his life.
Her throat closed with tears. “I won’t leave him!”
“Nadya, you have to.”
She couldn’t break free. She could only stumble as Anna pulled her to a mausoleum, kicking the door open. The last thing she saw before Anna pulled her into the dark was Kostya, his body shuddering as another bolt thudded into him.
Wicked Saints is on sale April 2, and available for preorder now.