"I have sinned, Father." A moment of silence fell after that solemn statement. It was one that Father Richards had heard countless times before and would inevitably hear many times more.
"Tell me what you have done, my son," he said in a kind voice, peering through the darkness at the man who sat on the other side of the booth. It seemed to him that the booth was unusually dark today; he could not catch so much as a glimpse of the self-confessed sinner through the wooden grate that separated the two of them.
The silence stretched on for several moments, and Father Richards couldn't help but start to wonder if the man was going to anything else.
A moment later, however, a dark chuckle broke through the silence and the man began to speak. "I have done so many terrible things in my time, Father." There was a very chilling quality to the man's voice; it drew an involuntary shiver from Father Richards. "I have wronged many people, whether it be by stealing from them, lying to them, or physically abusing them. I can no longer remember just how many corpses I've left in my wake. Murder was not something that deterred me even slightly, and countless people fell before me like wheat to a scythe." That same chuckle sounded through the booth once again. "For much of my life, I took whatever I wanted from anyone, regardless of what I had to do to get it. I was a blazing inferno, consuming everything in my path." He fell silent then, as though he needed to collect his thoughts.
Father Richards remained silent as well. He wasn't sure exactly what he should or could say after such a confession. In his more than thirty years as a priest, he had heard many far-fetched confessions. Most of the people who said the kind of things he had just been told were merely troubled youths, attempting to stir up controversy with the church or the congregation.
Of course, he had occasionally been privy to true confessions of murder, but none of those had ever sounded quite like what he had just heard. The usual note of remorse was completely absent from this man's voice. It was as though he had been commenting on the weather, rather than confessing his apparently incredibly sinful past.
"However," the man said suddenly, his deep voice startling Father Richards out of his thoughts, "I recently changed my ways. I stopped doing as I had been and became more responsible. I haven't so much as verbally threatened a single person in over five years. I am no longer the ruthless creature I once was. Has that not earned me something, Father? Has my effort been in vain?" He fell silent once again, obviously waiting for some kind of response.
This time, it was Father Richards' turn to gather his thoughts. He pondered, for several moments, exactly what to say to the man. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind that what he had just been told was the truth; there was something in the man's voice that stated that he was not lying. What do you say to a man who has committed countless atrocities in the past, but has made the effort to correct his life and live in peace, rather than sin?
Sighing softly, he decided to keep it as simple as possible. "God will forgive all of his children. You may have once done evil things, but now you—" Father Richards was cut off there by the short bark of humourless laughter that suddenly issued from the man's throat.
"I'm afraid you have mistaken my visit for something other than what it is, Father," the man said. "I did not come here seeking forgiveness for my past deeds. I regret nothing that I have ever done, sinful or otherwise."
That statement confused Father Richards. His right eyebrow quirked upwards, and he leaned forward slightly, trying to see the man who occupied the other side of the booth. "Why have you come to a church then?" he inquired. "What do you seek, if not forgiveness?"
"This is God's house, is it not?"
The curt question caught the Father by surprise. He rocked back slightly, unsure of where the conversation was heading. "Yes," he replied, "I suppose it is."
"Well, if this is God's house, then that must make you God's butler." He fell silent again, and Father Richards opened his mouth to reply. Before he could utter a single word, however, the man spoke again. "I came to deliver a message of sorts to your God, one that you will relay to him."
Father Richards' eyes opened wide at that statement. The thought that he was perhaps dealing with a mentally disturbed individual began to creep into his mind, and that worried him a little. Having dealt with many difficult situations throughout his adult life, however, left him rather well-equipped to deal with almost any situation that could possibly arise.
"I'm afraid that you have overestimated my position, my son," he said. "I spread God's word here on Earth and council those who have need of it, but I certainly don't speak directly to God."
The Father's words were followed immediately by a very heavy sigh from the other man. "That is unfortunate. I suppose I shall just have to deliver the message myself then." Before Father Richards could say or do anything, the man had exited the booth and walked off. Heavy footsteps allowed the Father to deduce that the man was heading towards the pulpit. He quickly followed suit, curious and slightly apprehensive about what exactly was going to happen.
By the time Father Richards made it to the pulpit, the man was already there. Although it was quite late at night, there were quite a few people there praying, and nearly all of them were staring at the newcomer, confused by his actions.
He was standing rigidly before the pulpit, gazing up at the cross that hung behind it. From his current position, the Father had a clear view of the man's face, and he was shocked at how intently the man was staring at the crucifix; he wasn't even blinking.
After a moment, the man turned his gaze from the cross and began to pace back and forth. He clasped his hands behind his back and continued to pace for several moments. Finally, however, he came to a halt and once again turned his gaze to the cross. He stood there for a minute, his hands still clasped behind his back, and then he began to speak. "Greetings, God. I am sure that you are already fully aware of who I am. I have never worshipped you, nor even dedicated so much as a moment of my time in prayer to you. I am not what you could call a religious man." He paused there, as though to take a breath, his deep voice still echoing around the immense church.
"I have walked this Earth for a very long time, God, and the vast majority of my time has been spent doing things that you frown upon. I trust I don't have to tell you every little thing I've done; I'm sure you are well aware of my various doings. Besides, I'm not here to talk about what I have done, but rather what you have seen fit to do."
At that point, a note of anger crept into the man's previously light tone, and Father Richards couldn't help but wonder just what wrong God had supposedly committed. He contemplated stepping in and saying something, but decided instead to let the man continue with his speech. He had always firmly believed that getting your issues off your chest was the best way to deal with them. If this man felt he needed to talk to God to do that, then the Father felt he should be allowed to do so.
"I have seen how you work, God," the man said, "How you run your world. As its creator, you seem to have dominion over all that walk its surface, and I have had no qualms with that in the past. It is your world to run as you see fit, and you have every right to do with it as you wish." He paused there and began to pace again. This time when he stopped and faced the cross, however, his nostrils flared out slightly and a snarl seemed to rip out from his mouth.
"I, however, am not of this world. You have no control over me. My actions could not have possibly pleased you, and yet you did nothing to stop me. It was my long-held belief that you would come for me one day, and attempt to put an end to me once and for all. But you never did, and I continued to kill and hurt for centuries. But then, of course, I met her." Silence reigned once again as the man fell silent, appearing to be lost in thought.
By this point, Father Richards was completely convinced that the man was a raving lunatic. All that talk about living for centuries and being from a different world were benchmarks of craziness. And yet he was reluctant to interrupt the man, intensely curious as to what this was all leading up to. Since there didn't appear to be any danger to himself or any of the other church-goers, he decided to wait and see what would happen.
"She was the only being I've ever met who could stop me in my tracks. The first time I met her, there was no doubt in my mind that she would be mine. I gave up my old ways of life, just because she asked me to, and I was happy to do it. She was the most powerful person on the planet, because of the love I had for her; I would have done anything she asked me to. But we were content to live in peace, to not disturb anyone. And then you decided to take her from me."
Sudden pain shot through the man's voice, and everything became clear to the Father. It was quite obvious to him that this young man had recently lost a loved one, and it had pushed him over the edge. Pity and compassion swelled in his heart, and he began to approach the man.
Before Father Richards could take more than two steps, however, the man spoke again. "I can see your strategy now, God, and it is a good one. Well, perhaps good is the wrong word; maybe devious or evil would fit better. You knew that one day I would grow to care about someone and that someone would become the weakness through which you could strike at me. I wonder, though, did you think that I would be weakened by the blow you have dealt me? Did you assume I would fall into despair and meet my end? Surely you have realized after this long that to do so would not be in my nature. No, I much prefer vengeance, and I will have it against you." His voice grew progressively louder as he spoke, until he was almost roaring his anger to the skies.
"You have taken something, someone from me, and I can never have her back. Always before, even when I was committing acts that were an affront to your ways, your teachings, nothing I did was ever directed towards you personally. I had no quarrel with you; the people I hurt were the ones I disliked. But now you have forced my hand. She was mine, mine, and you stole her from me!" The pain and rage in his voice was so present it was almost tangible.
Father Richards almost felt as though he could reach out and touch the man's emotions, they were pouring from him so thickly.
"I said that I came here tonight to convey a message," the man said a moment later, his voice softer, tone much calmer, "But that was not entirely correct. It is not a message I carry, but rather a declaration. From the moment I walk out of this church, I will consider us to be enemies. We will be at war and no possession of yours will be safe from my wrath. If it takes me two weeks or ten thousand years, I will destroy everything you have ever touched or loved, and then I will come for you."
While the man gave voice to his declaration of war on God, Father Richards and the other church-goers looked on it shocked silence. The Father knew that the situation was rapidly escalating far beyond anything he had ever seen, and he suddenly feared for the safety of everyone in the church. He was too shocked, however, to actually do anything, and it appeared the man was not quite finished yet.
"I am not, however, without my own sense of honor. I have destroyed a great many of your creations during my life, God, and I realize this must have angered you. Therefore, I am giving you this one opportunity to stop all of this before it starts." As he said this, he suddenly fell to his knees, his gaze still locked on the cross. "It is nearing midnight; the bell will soon begin to toll." As he said this, the immense bell located in the attached clock tower rang out once like a gong. "You have until the bell stops ringing to strike me down without a fight. After it falls silent, if I am still alive, I will leave this church and the fight will begin." Again, the bell rang out and the man extended his arms out to the side, staring intently at the cross.
Although he knew it was utterly ridiculous, the thought of God striking this man down, Father Richards was still unable to interfere. He looked on with bated breath, as did the rest of the church patrons, as the bell sounded for a third time. The man's expression remained frozen, his eyes focused unblinkingly on the cross.
Four, five, six times, the gong rang out, the tension in the church growing exponentially with each beat. The man, however, did not even flinch as bell continued to toll. Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven times, it boomed its message for all to hear.
Tense silence dominated the church, as everyone waited for the bell to ring one last time. Father Richards' eyes had not once left the man's kneeling form, and not once had the man shifted even so much as an inch.
Once that final gong had faded away into the night, the man slowly rose to his feet. As everyone looked on silently, all wondering what would happen next, he bowed his head and appeared to be muttering under his breath.
After a moment, he let out a heavy sigh and once again looked to the cross. "So be it." With those final three words, he turned on his heel and began to walk down the aisle, heading towards the ornately carved doors that were the main entrance and exit to the church.
Father Richards watched him go, his mind filled with questions about what he had just witnessed. He was so consumed with his thoughts in fact, that it was only the terrified screams of some of the other people that alerted him to the sudden danger.
While he had been lost in thought, fire had suddenly sprung to life on the cross behind the pulpit. As the church-goers had looked on, it had blazed into life from both sides of the cross, and quickly begun to race outwards along the wall, burning in both directions.
As the fire began to consume the pulpit, the Father quickly sprang into action and ran back towards the confessional booth. There was a fire extinguisher located just beside it. He could hear the terrified screams of the church patrons, could smell the pungent odour of the smoke, and raced back towards the fire as soon as he freed the extinguisher from its glass case.
The fire was spreading at a far quicker rate than any he had ever seen or even heard about before. It appeared to be burning through the stone walls as though they were nothing more than wood. As the people scrambled to get out of the wooden pews, the Father pointed the extinguisher at the nearest flames and began to discharge it into the heart of the blaze.
Unfortunately, the extinguisher might as well have been a child's water gun for all the good it did him; the fire was just burning too hot and spreading far too quickly. The flames burned on in defiance of the Father's efforts, as the sweat rolled down his brow and his mind searched for something that could possibly help.
Renewed screams drew his attention then, and he tossed the useless extinguisher to the side as he turned to see what was causing these screams. His eyes widened in shock as he saw that many of the fleeing church-goers had reached the doors, only to find them sealed shut. The trapped people were beating on the doors, pleading, screaming for them to open, but it was to no avail.
Father Richard realized then that he had made a terrible mistake. So often in his life had he been confronted by situations that would be too much for a regular person to handle, and each time he had relied on his own faith and experience to guide him through it. He trusted God, and firmly believed that God would protect him as long as he held his faith. It was evident now, however, that the strange man had been speaking the truth. He did not follow God, and God had no power over him. He had vowed to destroy everything that God had ever touch or loved, and a church certainly fell within that category.
Turning his head slightly, Father Richards noted that the fire had circled around behind him, completely cutting off access to any of the other exits. Having already expected that, the Father turned back to the main doors, where the some of the others had given up trying to open them, and instead turned to face him. They all saw the resignation in his eyes, and as one, fell to their knees and began to pray.
He watched them for a moment, as the fire burned hotter and pieces of the ceiling began to rain down onto him from above. It already hurt to breathe; every breath drew in more smoke. The heat from the flames was searing his flesh and had ignited his long robes in several places. He fell to his knees then and began to pray silently. The others were more vocal, though their prayers were becoming more and more impeded as the thick smoke started to draw deep, racking coughs from their throats.
Even though he knew the prayers were nothing but a futile gesture, Father Richards wanted to go into the next life knowing that he had kept his faith to the end. He didn't even look up as the church walls finally gave in and the roof came crashing down.
Just outside, standing less than fifty yards from the rapidly deteriorating church, the man stood in silence, no expression on his face. He could hear the screams of the trapped people as they were crushed and burned to death; he could smell the distinctive odour of burnt flesh.
"You could have avoided this, God." His eyes never wavered from the brightly burning flames, as his deep voice rang out over the screams of the dying "It was within your power to stop this before it began. You chose instead to let me go ahead with my plan. Believe me when I say this is only the beginning."
With one final look up at the starry night sky, the man turned and disappeared into the darkness.