Duplicitous the Dawn
by Oonah V. Joslin
“You sent and I came.” Brother Francesco was the closest thing they had to a doctor. He was devout, compassionate and experienced in the art of healing.
Sister Seraphina indicated the patient lying on a cot in a dark corner of the cell and shook her head. “I fear it is too late, Brother.” It was just after midnight. The young woman writhed and sweated. “I cannot staunch the bleeding. It will not congeal.”
“Then we must save the child,” said Brother Francesco.
“But the child is already here. And there may be another but I cannot tell.”
The monk approached. “Bring me a light.”
“She will have none near her.”
Francesco examined the woman’s abdomen. “I feel no other there.” He held the young mother’s face in his hands. “Who is the father of your child? I will see to it that he takes responsibility.”
She tried to reply. “Nos...” but her voice tailed to a whisper. Then with a sudden violence of spasms, the young woman screamed and gave up the ghost.
The monk pronounced the last rite. “She is at peace now with the angels,” he said.
“Let me see the child.” Brother Francesco looked from the boy to the mother over and again; the one so robust and rosy, the other drawn and anaemic. He was troubled.
“I do not believe any drop of blood remains within her,” said Sister Seraphina, and she brushed the matted hair back from that still, exhausted face.
“Take the child back now and bring me a light,” said Brother Francesco.
In the gruel-light the woman looked tiny: little more than a child herself, perhaps fifteen years of age. Her complexion was alabaster-white. Half-starved, she seemed as if she had not thrived for months. Her garments were inch-thick in mud, and her slender footwear worn to shreds.
There was no mark on her and little sign that she had just given birth but when the light was at last brought, there between her legs, lay a pale and half-formed twin, withered and anaemic as his brother was hale.
“Is she of the parish?”
“I have never seen her, Brother. She seems to have walked many miles.”
“And she said no word?”
“None but her last. I was on my way to ring the vesper bell. She was lying like a heap of rags on the doorstep. I put her here and rang the bell, and when I returned, she was delivered of the child. But look here, Brother.”
A silver cross the woman wore around her neck had burned a mark onto her flesh.
The monk looked alarmed, crossed himself vigorously several times and said, “I hope it may not be so and yet... Quickly he made a mark of the cross on the infant’s head with his thumb and then sighed audibly. “Well, Sister, since the boy has no father or mother, he must be kept here at the convent and taught the fear of God. One day he may take holy orders and perhaps all will be well.”
“But, Brother, the extra expense...”
“This shall be done.”
“If you think it necessary.”
“I do. I will be mentor to the boy. The Lord will provide.”
“I will clean this up, Brother.”
“No. Take the child. Go, quickly. We will see to all at first light.”
Sister Seraphina turned to leave with the bundle in her arms.
“And, Sister, there is no need to speak of what has passed here tonight.”
Francesco cleaned the cell himself. He wound the fragile corpses in a sheet of pure white linen but took and kept a lock of the mother’s hair, a phial of her blood commingled with holy water and the simple silver cross she wore about her neck.
In the chill air of the first November morning, Sister Seraphina and Brother Francesco were the only mourners when they laid the simple winding sheets in earth. After the interment Francesco stood in awe and dread at the font as he baptised the boy, “I name thee Sebastiano, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen.”
But the child made no din, and Brother Francesco felt content that his fears were ungrounded. Later he confided in his abbot, giving for safe-keeping by the church those items that he had taken from the dead. They were placed in a reliquary in the library vault along with an account of what had passed that night and instructions that they should be taken from that place only in great need.
Francesco was pleased: the boy was deferent, and he grew and flourished, tending the animals, learning his catechism and eager in every way to please. He took holy orders and became a teacher to the poorest in the parish. He was a great comfort to parents in the grief to which poverty is often prey. And as the young man grew stronger, his elderly mentor weakened.
“I am proud of you, Sebastiano,” said Francesco on his deathbed. “I ask only that you promise me always to do God’s will.”
Father Sebastiano made a mark of the cross on the old man’s brow. “Have no fears for me,” he replied. “My mission is very clear.”
When Francesco breathed his last, Sebastiano went down to the city. There were not enough children here.
* * *
“You must beware the duplicity of dusk.” Sebastiano looked around his wide-eyed charges. “Twilight is unsafe.” They were so young. “Darkness is best, and the blacker, the better.” And they were vulnerable.
His role, he knew, was vital. His eyes remained inscrutable beneath the wide cowl of his black hood.
“Take the story of Wilhelm the White,” he continued, “struck down by a final ray of light reflected off the cross of the Blessed Church of the Holy Trinity.’
The small audience shuddered with horror at his words.
“And that two centuries since, when things were simpler than they are today. Heed the warning of Peter the Pale, caught in a beam that broke suddenly from striated clouds. Occurrences such as these are common, natural things.
We inhabit extraordinary times, modern times. In the modern city even the secular is unsafe. Now, gleaming towers of glass and mirror stand everywhere around. They lift the very rays of the horizon aloft —” he stretched his pale hands towards the vaulted ceiling — “and scatter them abroad.” Here he flicked his fingers outward as if sprinkling water: “like a ricochet of—” his hesitation sought an aptly modern analogy — “photon fire.”
There were a few appreciative gasps. This was Sebastiano’s calling.
“The city can be treacherous at dusk.” Almost he intoned the words. In the still hush they echoed chill with truth. “Fear not the living or the dead, my children,” he exhorted.
They sat transfixed by the power of his voice, held to his drama, spellbound. “Fear, rather...” He closed his eyes and bowed his head and lifted his arms towards the ceiling of the vault like some cheap magician showing nothing up his sleeve: “the light.”
Sebastiano was no cheap trickster. He cast off his vampire cloak revealing priestly robes beneath. A silver cross adorned his unmarked neck. At exactly the planned moment, it mirrored a reflection of the day’s dying rays into the startled faces gathered round him. He listened, eyes shut, until their screams died into dust, then slaked the ground with a phial of Holy Water, laid a silver cross upon the dirt and uttered a benediction.
Tonight Father Sebastiano would trawl the streets of the city’s poorest districts in search of more fresh youths to gather to the fold. He was neither living nor undead. A double agent: master of his craft. There could only be one Vampire of God.
* * *
City Saved from Teenage Vampire Terror!
“Have you seen this, Abbot Alandro?”
The Abbot placed his glasses on his nose. “A priest?”
“No doubt about it, according to this report, Father Fabian.”
“And have you seen the name of that priest?”
The Abbot scanned the text. Somewhat blenched he put down the paper. “Sebastiano.”
“But he would be... It cannot be the same Sebastiano. No, it cannot!”
“There is no photograph. It seems he is camera-shy.” Fabian raised a brow.
The Abbot looked at the miniature he had kept of his childhood tutor. So intelligent he was, and so intense. Mesmerising. Fascinating. Frightening.
Abbot Alandro was lost in thought. His parents had taken him out of that school just before boys started disappearing, some of them had been his friends and afterwards there was no sign of the priest and only this one tiny portrait, drawn roughly by his own hand in a margin but kept all these years.
Sebastiano had simply disappeared. But he must surely be dead by now. That was six decades since. And why would he return?
“Abbot? Abbot? Permission to go to the city?”
The Abbot stirred and slowly nodded. He realised he also had a journey now to make, into the hills to the old monastery where certain artefacts lay in a reliquary of the vaulted library of his order: documents that were only known to exist by a very few, of whom he was one.
“If it is he, Fabian you will send a message, and I will come quickly. Do not make yourself known.”
* * *
Abbot Alandro and Father Fabian entered the church together just before dawn. They saw the form of an elderly priest kneeling at the altar rail, his hands clasped in fervent prayer.
“Father Sebastiano?” Abbot Alandro’s usually faltering voice echoed through the choir and reverberated in the apse. “How old are you?”
The figure got to his feet but gave no answer.
“Certainly more than one hundred years. Would it be more like two?”
Sebastiano could see no one, only hear a voice as the shadows of night began to be dispelled by dawn.
“I myself have passed my three score years and ten, and you look little different from when I was a boy. You remember me, perhaps; Alandro Danita Alastro.”
“I do not know you,” Sebastiano said, his voice sounded firm and assured as ever, but there was something of nervousness in his demeanour.
“Strange, for I would swear I know you.”
“I said I do not know you. Now go about your business if you have any.”
A newspaper was tossed. “You will not linger long here, I think, and I cannot allow you to go back to the monastery in the hills again, to lie low again in the place of your birth.”
“What do you want with me?”
“I know what it is you do, Sebastiano. I found your crypt.”
“I do God’s will.”
“It is God who demands that you prey on the blood of youth and, when you have had your fill of their blood, destroy them?”
“I save them from eternal damnation.”
“From the very damnation you bring to their souls. That is a very convenient dissonance of thought, Sebastiano.”
Alandro kept to the shadows while Fabian moved stealthily from pillar to pillar and in between the pews.
A sudden shaft of sunlight fell across the altar, and Sebastiano laughed. “Is that how you intended to dispense with the Vampire of God? You were never very bright, Alandro. Sunlight holds no terrors for me. If you know me at all, you know me better than that. I never skulked in darkness.”
“But neither do you seek the light, Sebastiano. Oh, I know you. And that cross you wear does not burn your flesh and nor does holy water scorch your skin. I have witnessed all of this.”
“Holy water is of no consequence to me. I do God’s will. God’s will!”
“I have here certain... relics relating to your birth, Sebastiano.”
“My birth? I was not born as other mortal men.”
“Indeed not. Your mother’s last word, Nos.. ‘Nosferato’, perhaps? And was it God’s will that your mother and twin brother be drained of life that you alone might live? You are an obscenity. A son of Satan.” He held the phial high.
Sebastiano, suddenly angry, rushed at the Abbot with his teeth bared.
“NOW!” cried the Abbot.
Fabian threw towards the priest the blood from the phial Alandro had brought. The still-liquid blood of his innocent mother and twin splattered his garments and began to burn through to his flesh.
Where it stained the floor, there appeared three bright beings too dazzling to behold; one bore the slender delicacy of a young woman, the other was frail: a wispy, gossamer figure half-formed, fine and fragile like liquid light. The last had the tonsure of a monk. It was he who spoke.
“I should not have let you live,” said the bright form of Brother Francesco, for it was he. “Now that the sacred symbols have been brought, at last it is time to correct that error.” He sped forward, reaching a dazzling hand towards Sebastiano’s throat.
Sebastiano crumpled at contact, his voice, at once distraught and contrite, pleaded and then uttered curses.
Alandro now stepped from the shadows and, holding out the crucifix that Francesco had taken from his mother the night Sebastiano was born, he offered it to the avenging monk. “This is your work to do, not mine,” he said.
Francesco took the cross and, in his hand, it became a gleaming pillar brighter than the dawn within that place of sanctity. Sebastiano’s mother and brother shone brighter than the angels in that moment, brighter than any mortal eye could withstand. The three surrounded Sebastiano, who shrivelled in their midst and was carried away.
All the apparitions melted into air, leaving a heavy scent of incense hanging amid the dark pillars, under the ribbed roof. Alandro and Fabian stood alone, lit by motes of dust and dawn.
“He has paid the price,” said Abbot Alandro.
“Taken down to hell where he belongs,” Fabian remarked.
“That is neither ours to know or judge. Perhaps he is reunited with his family.”
Fabian admired the old Abbot’s Christian spirit. “But what shall we tell the newspapers?”
“About what?” said the Abbot. “We were never here, and I think they will find that, as in the past, Father Sebastiano has simply... disappeared.”
Copyright © 2014 by Oonah V. Joslin