Steps punctuated the deaf morbidity of Saint Jerome’s Chapel. The man who produced them was covered by a drenched traveler’s cloak and his muddied boots had traveled a long road under heavy rain. At the other side of the nave, the gnarled figure of a priest glared at him under flickering candle light. His eyes were wide and stern, filled with repressed tension.
The traveler stopped a few paces before the priest. “Are you responsible for this temple?”, he whispered in a hoarse, tired voice.
The priest responded with utter silence. That seemed to remind the traveler of something and he immediately kneeled, crossing himself.
Without so much as moving a muscle, the priest said, in an imperious voice: “Who is this who visits the house of God and remains unknown to one of His own delegates?”
“They call me Hosea. A woman in Pontaigne told me I could find shelter here tonight”.
The priest reflected about the information in silence, with the expression of someone who is trying to remember something. Apparently, nothing came to mind, because he simply blinked a few times and regained focus.
“I am Reverend Morvan and I am the priest responsible for this church. If you wish to sleep here, answer me: do you carry the justice of Gabriel, charged with eternal duty?”
The question was enunciated in an extremely solemn tone.
“Justice is within. Through me it acts”, Hosea answered in the same tone.
At that moment, a subtle squeak of leather came from somewhere in the darkness at the corners of the chapel, beyond the reach of candle light. The eyes of both men immediately met, but they stayed where they were. Not even so much as a flinch on their part.
The priest retreated one step and pointed at the wooden door in the back.
“That way you shall find a novice to guide you to the kitchen. Just tell him I sent you”, said Reverend Morvan, before extending his arm to Hosea and spreading his hand over his head. “Few of your kind remain, who choose the cold road instead of the warm home. Go with God, child”.
The traveler then rose and walked to the wooden door without looking back. The eyes of the priest followed Hosea until his cloak disappeared beyond the passage and the door closed behind him.
Immediately, five men seemed to materialize from the shadows in the corners of the chapel. Four of them wore studded leather over skin coats and were armed. The fifth dressed in black robes, with a heavy cross made of gold on the chest. He irradiated the arrogant superiority of a bishop.
The man in the black robes approached the frail figure of the priest, while the warriors followed Hosea to the other side of the wooden door.
“You have done well, Morvan of Graveline”, said the bishop. “Everyone who has left brothers for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life”.
The face of the opulent cleric was scarred with a triumphant smirk, but Reverend Morvan was still staring at the door, with his back turned to him. The old priest seemed to be holding his breath, because he suddenly exhaled with a melancholic expression.
“The Holy Church received these children with immaculate hearts, shaped them into beasts and bathed them in the blood of our enemies. Our hands are clean and cold like snow, but our souls gleam scarlet. What is to come is not only inevitable, but equitable”.
“Oh, hard are your words, brother”, the bishop whispered as he caressed the jewel on his chest, “But what enemies?”. His expression now was full of astonishment. “This is the ninth century of our Lord Jesus Christ, the beginning of a new Era for the one true religion! Peace reigns over these lands and the only threat we know rests many weeks to the east. There is no more place for enraged dogs if the foxes are no more!”
His back was still turned to the bishop, but a silent fire raged in the eyes of Reverend Morvan. At each word, it grew wilder. The flames intensified until they became an inferno, and when the priest finally spoke, he was as dour and severe as a man who knows he has seen the sunrise for the last time:
“The Most Reverend will not find what he is looking for here. Our Lord in heaven has forfeit your life and the life of your men. The son of Lilith will carry His resolve”.
After eighty winters — seventy in the service of the Church — the venerable Reverend Morvan left the realm of the living. The blade was brusque and discourteous. It cleaved the flesh between his ribs, pierced his lungs and tore through his wobbling heart. The last sentence he heard was whispered at his ear, full of anger and content:
“Do not die the death of Judas then, but die knowing the fruits of sin will rot and fall, one by one. The hunting season has begun”.
The jagged warriors were corroded with guilt for drawing weapons in the house of God. Still, the silver in their pouches eased the pain of their corrupted souls. With swords in hands and a racing heart, they walked the dingy corridor in front of them. A few paces ahead, a yellowish light stretched lazily from an open door on the right. The tallest among the men entered the room to investigate and found an empty kitchen. The light in the room came from a lit oven. In front of it, a long wooden table stood flanked by benches. Utensils were spread everywhere and a wet traveler’s cloak had been carelessly cast on one of the benches.
“He is not here”, the tallest of them said. He had a thick beard, sprinkled with gray. “But he knows we are”, he continued and pointed the sword at the cloak.
The others exchanged glances and started a hectic debate.
“How could he know?”, one of them spurted. “Only the priest and the Most Reverend knew we were here, and neither one said anything!”
“The stories tell the children of Satan can see in the dark”.
“Why hasn’t he attacked us then?”
“God damn it, you idiots. I told you this would turn on us!”
The tall man bridled before their discussion and roared “Enough! If he already knows we are here, there is no point in being subtle. This heretic dies here today. Let us not give him time to escape. Follow me!”
Immediately, the four men plunged back into the darkness of the corridor. One of them lit the torch on the wall and brought it with him, taking the vanguard.
The corridor turned abruptly to the left, but there was also a narrow passage of stone steps leading up and forward. From this passage came a sudden gust of cold night wind and the flames of the torch convulsed. Without another word, the mercenaries went up the steps. The knots of their fingers were white from clutching the hilt of their weapons in frenzied anxiety.
The four warriors found an empty balcony under the rainy sky. A low iron fence surrounded it and, on each side, gargoyles puked rainwater. Raindrops hammered and lashed at their armor mercilessly as they walked to the edge of the balcony and looked down at the streets. Empty, of course. No human could make that jump and survive.
The men started marching back inside when a flood of lightning rendered the sky white. For a moment it was day, and under the blazing empyrean wrath, Hosea blocked the door back inside. Indomitable. Absolute.
Deafening thunder exploded in the air, right before the clamor of the traveler, grave and apocalyptic: “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”.
Hosea was no longer wearing his cloak. He showed an impressively muscular body, filled with battle scars. His head was completely shaved. The roots of a thick beard darkened his broad chin. Instead of the heavy blades of his hunters, he had only a long and thin dagger.
“Men!”, the leader of the mercenaries hollered. “He is armed! Shields!”
The mercenary who was closest immediately raised his shield. In response, with astonishing speed, Hosea pounced violently over the shield of his target. The knees of the mercenary quivered and failed him. While he fell on the ground with the huge heretic over him, two of his partners came running to his aid.
Hosea did not hesitate. He clasped the dagger firmly and launched his massive arm at the man entangled in his legs. One, two, three times. In the blink of an eye, one could no longer see a throat but an amorphous scarlet puddle. Hosea then tore the shield off the dead man’s hands and raised it to receive the incessant blows of the other two. One after the next. The noise and the shock caused by the blades against the wood, against the metal, was deafening. His arm was getting numb. Still, the dark traveler continued, as in a trance: “On Earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, Forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us”.
“Die! You rabid cur!”, one of the warriors shouted and immediately the iron border of Hosea’s shield came smashing at his face. Under the crushing impact, the bridge of his nose exploded in blood and the yelling of the mercenary became the gurgling sound of a pig being slaughtered.
The other man did not fail to perceive the opening. He used it to launch an ascending strike at his target but his sword was parried with supernatural skill. It was as if the small dagger of the traveler was the conductor of the dance and his clumsy blade could not help but follow.
In the meanwhile, the leader of the mercenaries kept his distance. He threw a sharp hatchet that came whistling to land heavily between Hosea’s ribs. The traveler felt the wet warmth of his blood against the icy rain run down his leg and clenched his teeth.
A sneer of fury ravaged the face of the dark traveler and the warrior closest to him hesitated before that sight. The blood gushed abundantly, but Hosea did not seem to be hurt by it, only angered. Like a cornered beast, he clenched his jaw, stretched his lips, abandoned his shield and with a short leap grabbed the warrior’s leg. His voice was no longer controlled and restrained. It became the howling of a lunatic: “Lead us not into temptation”.
“Stop that”, the shriek of the grappled man announced his despair. “Shut your mouth!”
After a moment of astonishment, the leader finally readied his weapon. It was a falchion: a curved and deadly Arab blade. “Let him go, infidel scum!”, the man said and marched in his direction.
Still crouching and holding the leg of his foe, Hosea planted his feet widespread on the ground. He suddenly rose to the full of his height and the mercenary lost his balance. Both men fell down clumsily. The mercenary was waving his weapon in despair, but the weapon was too big to be effective on a target so close.
The leader of those men used the opportunity. While the traveler struggled with his cohort, he raised his falchion and prepared to strike a deadly blow. In response, Hosea stuck his dagger in the crotch of his grappled target, flipped him violently and snuck under his body. When the falchion fell, it buried into the mercenary’s back and left a bigger gash than the one between his legs.
The traveler rolled to the side and got up on his feet with the speed of a panther. His weapon was still stuck on his enemy and blood flowed relentlessly from the wound the hatched had opened at his flank. The gargoyles regurgitated water even more vigorously, in an attempt to wash away the stains of that blood orgy.
For a moment, Hosea stopped to catch his breath. He squinted. The storm was not letting up and the rain fell heavy and punishing. The leader of the mercenaries and him, the only two survivors, glared at each other. They knew that was the end for one of them.
Hosea lowered his head, flexed his knees and whispered, in a tired voice, “But deliver us from evil”.
Suddenly, he felt an icy sting on his back.
A few meters behind him, the nemesis of Reverend Morvan had an unloaded crossbow in hands. “Amen!”, the bishop clamored, louder than the storm.
The dark traveler then fell to his knees. He felt the agonizing bolt against his back, his lungs burned like hot coal, but his face betrayed nothing. With a indecipherable hollow look cast at the sky, only God could tell if the drops on his face were tears or the rain.
The last thing Hosea witnessed was a conversation between the leader of those mercenaries and the sinister man in the black robe. Those words triggered events that would shape the very foundations of the civilized world. Many would pay fortunes or even give their lives for a fragment of those secrets. However, to Hosea, the words were torpid and meaningless. They no longer mattered.
And so departed the first child of Lilith.