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Author's note:  The following story is an entry for Helel's "Nativity in Black" Christmas Contest.

Princes of Hell

Dear Lord, last night I told my soon-to-be husband I was carrying the son of God. To be clear, I told him that I was pregnant. Gabriel told him that we were blessed with this holy gift. Joseph was not pleased with the news of his intended having lost her virtue somehow and to someone else. He and I have never lain together. At first, he did not believe I was with child at all, and said I was silly and knew nothing of such business. Then, when I told him of my bleeding cycle, he winced and looked up to the sky.

We stood in a field, the village lights a good mile away. We were not supposed to be alone together before our wedding day. He paced for a few minutes, throwing me glances that were at one moment icy and the next, filled with raging fire. I looked to the village lights again, wondering if I had made a mistake delivering the news so far from the safety of civilization. Finally, he said:

“Have you no respect for your betrothed? Have you no sense of respect for yourself that you would disgrace yourself this way?”

“Husband,” I said. “Look into my eyes and see my virtue. I come to you with my fears because I know your love for me knows no limit. I am still the woman you vowed to marry. I have never lain with a man and yet my body tells me it is fruitful.”

“Enough,” he said, and his eyes reflected the sorrow of true heartbreak. Then, as I turned to walk away from him, his eyes changed back to heat, or was it ice? It was both and neither. It was black hatred, born out of shattered pride and a heart betrayed. He looked possessed. He walked towards me like a walking corpse. There was no light behind his eyes as he grabbed my arm with enough force to leave a bruise for days.

I felt my throat close in anticipation of the end. I imagined him throttling me with his large fists until I stopped moving, my blood black in the starlight, and not a sound but the dull thud of fist to bone. I closed my eyes and made a prayer to our God. I prayed for a swift end and for Him to forgive me for whatever I did to deserve such punishment.

Then, a white light burned through my closed eyelids and I thought, Death is so bright. This is my life’s flame burning out in one violent flash. Then, the flash dimmed to a glow and I felt the dirt grow solid under my knees. Only then did I realize I had knelt. I could feel my chest rising and falling with breath and I could feel the blood circulating through my limbs. I was alive, but I opened my eyes to be sure of it.

The earth waited in blackness all around us. There were no stars and there was no moon, but standing between us was all the luminescence of the sky trapped inside the shape of a beautiful man. His wings stretched out like branches from a tree. They slowly folded and tucked against his back. Joseph was on his knees too, and he gaped at the creature.

“Joseph,” the voice sang, like a thousand perfect notes harmonizing into one. “Your rage is understandable, but hear this, you and your pure wife are blessed. Within her womb is the son of God. He has chosen Mary as the mother of his son because of her purity and goodness. Raise not a hand against her or you raise a hand against the Almighty.”

Joseph clapped his jaw closed and then open again and said, “Ughnn.” Then, the angel turned towards me.

“Mary, you are beloved. You are chosen. You must protect this child and keep it a secret until it is time to leave this place. Your journey will be long and trying, but the Lord does not choose incorrectly. Your husband will help you on this mission, to raise the son of God.”

“Ughnnn,” Joseph tried again.

“Who are you?” I managed.

“I am Gabriel, a soldier of Heaven. Give your trust to me and me alone. I am your guide and confidant and I will be with you when I can. Your son is meant to sit by his father in Heaven.”

“Please, Gabriel. How can this be? Won’t you tell me what to do?” I said.

“I’ll return when it’s necessary. For now, take care of yourselves and do not speak of this to anyone.“

And with that, he was gone.

Dear Lord, it has been one month since Gabriel came to us with the word of God. My stomach is becoming round, and Joseph has stood by me. Our families assured the town that we had been quietly wed some time ago. People still seem wary of us, but I can only imagine it is because of the divine being I carry inside of me. I can only smile secretly to myself. It is hard to contain my happiness when my love for this perfect being grows stronger every day.

Dear God, it has been three weeks since I wrote. Today a man stood in the garden and watched me through the window. I did not recognize him. He wore black, stiff robes that were surprisingly spotless amidst the dusty road behind our property. He smiled at me when he saw me looking back through the window. He rubbed a hand over his stomach as he grinned at me. He looked like a wolf that had learned to dress and move like a man. I called for my father and the man wandered away down the road whistling. I am afraid of him.

My Lord, my fear grows heavier as my belly grows larger. Everywhere I turn, I see people whispering and looking at me. Joseph says he notices no such thing. My mother introduced me to the midwife today. She had the fairest skin I have ever seen. Her eyes were light blue like the sky, so light they almost looked pigment-less. She told me I was about seven months pregnant. She rubbed my belly and laid her ear to it. She spoke to it in a whisper. She said,

“Little Prince, we await your arrival with endless anticipation. You will stand atop a mountain of black ice and fear no one or nothing.”

I think she was trying to be kind, but her words were unnerving. There are people in this town who behave so strangely towards me now. They act like they know my unborn son. It is too much. I asked the midwife to leave and she grinned and left. My son will lead many. I know that, but it is for him to decide where to take them. This town grows smaller and more suffocating with every day.

Dear Gabriel, please help. Please help me. I think I am going mad. Dearest Angel, today I looked down at my plate at supper and it was covered in blood. Red and clotted blood and a goat’s eye looked up at me. Everyone ate and ate and didn’t mind at all.

“I can’t eat this,” I said.

“But it’s your favorite,” they said.

Can you see two things at once? A monolith and a chasm.

I am and will always be under the veil of hypocrisy. Let the light shine through the pane at midnight and deliver the message, for he is now and always will be in the shade of valleys and mountains. Are you there, can you hear nalaoddddddddddhelpmehelphimhelphimhelphimmmm.

Dear God, again your Angel saved me. Gabriel came to us last night. He said that the King heard prophecies of our son and was sending his Wisemen to find us and eradicate the child. He told us to flee in the night and find shelter where we could and to follow the North Star to a Holy Place. King Herod, he said, was threatened by the impending birth of the Prince of Heaven and would stop at nothing to destroy him. We leave tonight.

Now we ride, I on our old mule, Anaiah, and Joseph walking ahead, cold and determined but suspicious, nonetheless. I felt blessed relief as soon as the village lights were behind us.

We are moving again. Joseph is enraged because the last village we went through had no rooms for us to rest in. They would not even take the few coins we had on us as payment. A few men from the town followed us to the outskirts, stumbling and mumbling and looking at me with blind lust. Joseph insisted that we keep traveling through the night to put distance between us and them. I am trying to keep myself awake, but more than that, I have a prickling fear that we are being followed. Every so often, I look behind us and, in the darkness, I see a pair of eyes. They glow white. Just now, I saw two pairs moving alongside us. Joseph only looks straight ahead. We’re stopping now.

We’ve settled for the night some miles from the last town. I’m not sure how far we’ve come. Joseph finally sleeps. He will not sleep near me. I think he knows the baby is coming soon. I know it too, and although we don’t speak of it, we are in dire need of finding a safe place for me to give birth. I’ve long given up on having a proper midwife to help. This is something I must do alone, even if it kills me, and I must do it soon.

It’s early morning. The sky is only slightly lighter than it was in the dead of night. Joseph still sleeps. I had a dream. A horrible dream. In it, I was raised up high, looking down on many spectators; not just men, but women and children. A whole city watched me suffer with no remorse or sympathy. My hands were searing with pain and my arms were stretched to the point that I thought my skin would tear. I felt the sun baking me, and sticky blood coated my naked body. I strained my neck to look down and saw my feet nailed together onto a wooden plank. I looked right and then left and saw that my hands had suffered the same fate. I looked back down into the crowd and tried to cry for help, but only blood ran from my cracked lips and stained the sand below.

A face hooded in a black robe stood out in the crowd. I stared at it, my eyes bulging, trying to make sense of it, and suddenly, I realized that the figure was me. A white, ghostly version of myself stood there smiling, laughing even, at my own pain and suffering. Gabriel stood next to my hooded doppelganger, and his handsome face held no warmth. He watched me rot and die up there as if it was what he had always wanted. I tried to scream out again and finally, mercifully, woke myself up.

I think we are in danger and I don’t know who to trust. I would give my life and my soul to keep my child safe.

Joseph and I are moving quickly now. My contractions started this morning when we stopped in a small town to buy some food. I fell to the ground in front of the inn and Joseph quickly hauled me out of there. No one wanted to help us, anyway. In fact, people wouldn’t even make eye contact with us. Some spit at our feet. On our way out, an older man who lived on the outskirts of town came to the edge of his crop field and stopped us.

“You had better go quickly and travel at night,” he told us. “A messenger came yesterday, direct from the King. The messenger posted a notice that any young couple pregnant with child or carrying a newborn should be detained until the King’s Wisemen deal with them. They said you were fugitives with evil alliances and that you were not to be helped,” the farmer said quickly, but with defiant, trustworthy eyes.

The eyes looked right at me and I knew he was trying to help. He gave us some bread and told us to head north towards Bethlehem.

We have been walking all through the day and now the night with no rest. My contractions have worsened, and every few miles we must stop so I can lay down. I counted seven sets of eyes following us. Sometimes, the spying creatures make sounds. One spits and curses violently in a language I can’t understand. Another slurps. Another moans lustily. Yet another laughs and taunts. One pleads for help in the voice of a child. Another plays a musical instrument that is faint and haunting. Another sounds like a dying animal being torn to pieces. Their voices make a cacophony of hellish music that is repellent and inviting. Joseph does not hear it or does not acknowledge it. He just plows ahead, eyes wide with desperation.

About a mile back, I heard a snarling, guttural sound to my right behind some shrubs. Anaiah whinnied and shied away from it. From out of the moving shrubbery, a wild dog pulled a carcass out into the open. He pulled and tore at the meat. I couldn’t tell what kind of animal it had been when it was alive. It was just bloody meat and bone shaking and leaking as the dog gorged on it. The dog’s muzzle was caked red with blood and white with frothy slobber. It looked at us as it ate. Its appetite was never-ending. The carcass was much bigger than the dog, but he ate, and he ate. His eyes bulged with dumb hunger.

Finally, Joseph pulled the rope of the mule and we quickly moved away. I looked back and saw the dog breathing heavily and watching us. It shook and twitched and then regurgitated the meat. Then it went back to eating it. We kept going and I watched until the dog’s glowing white eyes disappeared in the darkness. At this rate, I don’t think we will make it. Just know that we tried. By the name of God, we tried.

I am now standing on the edge of a farm in what we think is Bethlehem. Joseph is talking to the farmer who lives here. For now, I am stable, but I fear giving birth will kill either me or my son. It is a fate I am not ready to face yet. He is walking back. I pray there is some inch of safe space for us to lay our weary bodies. I can not go any further. My water burst a few moments ago and is pooling all around me. Anaiah is shaking, and I know why. There are things out there watching us, waiting for my son’s arrival. Whatever they are, they want my child.

Bless this family. Bless this farmer who gave us his barn to lay in. I know my time is near and I know there are many who want to harm my child, but this bit of kindness, this soft hay and these few wooden planks above our heads are more than I could have hoped for. Joseph is gathering clean cloth and hot water from the farmer’s family. They will not come down; I will do whatever it takes to protect my child. I will give my life. I will keep him out of the clutches of evil.

I must get out of here. Whoever finds this, know that my son, Jesus was born tonight in this humble barn. Joseph kept me awake every time I started to faint. The pain was unbearable, but I bore it. He came out with cries that sounded angelic to me. Nothing in my life will ever amount to the moment I first laid eyes on him. I don’t know who or what he is, but I know that he is in danger here. The Wisemen draw near.

I am leaving this place and Joseph, who I no longer know or love. He looked at the child blankly and refused to hold him. I am taking my baby into the night until we can find shelter and kind hearts that will take us in. The farmer and his family are dead. Their house is in flames. Their screams woke me after a brief rest. I know their kindness caused their death. I will not wake Joseph for I no longer know his heart.

If you are reading this, I hope you have an open mind. You may not believe my tale, but surely this world holds greater mysteries than mine. Let me start by saying that I am still traveling with Joseph and with a child, but this child is not mine.

Let me tell you about the night my son was born and how I ran.

I ran until my legs would carry me no further. My knees bent of their own inclination and I dropped down, still clutching my beloved son. The night pressed down on me. Jesus started to cry, and I tried to muffle the sound with the sleeve of my robe, but it did no good. His cries rang out like a thunder crack. I looked around and around until I was dizzy. I strained to see what I knew was out there.

The thundering of horse hooves drew nearer and then they were upon us. Three men on horseback arrived in a pack that surrounded us. Despite the dark, their robes glittered with jewels. Their eyes were ringed with dark paint and gauze-like cloth hid their noses and mouths. Their horses reared up as they stopped in a half arc around us. There was no doubt that they were Herod’s Wisemen. I have heard tales of desert riders who do the King’s bidding. They carry out the darkest of deeds.

“Lay the child down and you leave with your life,” the one in the center said. My son wailed and screeched at his voice.

“He’s an innocent child!” I screamed with all my strength. “Let him live!”

They drew their curved swords that were impossibly long. I put my head down and pressed my lips against the top of Jesus’ head. I breathed in his smell, knowing it would be the last time. Suddenly, he stopped crying. I heard a titter behind me. Then that strange music, that chorus from Hell rose up all around us. Jesus giggled. I heard a succession of four thumping sounds and then quiet.

Finally, I lifted my head and looked around. The four Wisemen sat atop their horses with arms hanging limply by their sides. They were headless. I looked down and saw their startled faces staring back at me from their detached heads on the ground.

I screamed and stood up and turned to run, but there, standing behind us, was a host of dark shapes rising from the ground. What looked like a sparse speckling of shrubs in the dark nothingness around us began to twist and grow before my eyes. All the while, the sound of a bell rang somewhere deep below us. It sounded broken, but enormous. Seven shapes rose up in a semi-circle around us on the opposite side of the dead Wisemen. The chiming bell stopped, and I held my breath, waiting for some dreadful fate to befall us. Jesus reached for them and smiled, his infant’s eyes somehow opening to look in their direction.

The figure in the center opened its eyes and only when I saw his yellow, foxlike eyes peering at me from a face did I realize that they were men. Seven men of different shapes and statures with black robes hanging about them like cascading black tar watched us.

One of them made a sound like gurgling laughter and I whipped my head towards it. The wet smacking of his giggling emanated from a hole as big as my head. It gaped and slobbered as a long tongue slipped in and out of the orifice. His body was wide and round and I could see no arms or legs, just stunted stumps where the appendages should have been. It looked hungry and sick. Its head leaned sideways so that its pea-sized eyes glared at me from the right side of its mouth. The eyes were obviously of little use to the creature. It was clear that its maw did the searching and devouring. The tongue reached and retreated, tasting what it could.

“Beelzebub, give some thought to your manners,” the figure in the center said in a distinguished voice that made my skin tingle.

“Pardon me, Queen Mother,” the slobbering thing said to me before guffawing again.

“Please forgive him, Mother Mary. He knows no other way to be,” the center figure said. “Do not be afraid. We are here to protect you and your precious cargo.”

“What do you want?” I said, crying as hard as I ever have. I had nothing left to give and was near the precipice of wishing for death. It was only my child’s wellbeing that kept me from giving up entirely.

“We want to offer you safety,” it said and took a step closer. It was tall and almost handsome like Gabriel. Its eyes told a different story.

“How can you possibly help me?” I said. “I won’t let you take him.”

“Would you rather he dies? This is your decision, blessed one. Let us take him and make him a prince, or let him grow up to be torn apart by your people.”

“He is a prince. He is the son of God!” I screamed. The seven laughed and moaned and slurped at that.

“Oh yes. You are very smart, Mother Mary. He is the son of our Lord below and he has a place by her side to rule and be worshipped by many. A legion of souls waits to burn at his feet. Haven’t you had the vision?”

“What vision?”

“The vision of his crucifixion. I know you were there. I was there too. All of that pain and suffering at the hands of mortal men,” he said soothingly.

I realized then that he was right. The dream wasn’t me, it was my baby, my Jesus. I had felt all the pain my son would suffer in this world.

“Luciferrrr,” another of the figures purred. “tell her of the other riders drawing near,” it begged. It was a voluptuous figure, shaped more like a woman than a man. It had a large, soft bosom and a round bottom. It was suddenly standing directly behind me while speaking in a sing-song whisper over my shoulder. Its long, phallic nose grazed my shoulder and sniffed the skin of my neck. I pulled away and bore my teeth in disgust, but its long, steely fingers gripped my waist and pulled me closer. “Tell her how many more are on their way,” it moaned.

“Asmodeus, give Mother Mary some room to breathe,” Lucifer said with the stern voice of a school teacher talking to children.

Asmodeus backed away from me with a pout and returned to his place in the arc.

“Riders?” I finally managed to ask him.

“Yes. Those three dead men were nothing. Herod has droves of riders moving towards you as we speak. He’ll never stop until he gets that child, and when he does…” Lucifer clucked his tongue three times in mock disapproval and reached out to stroke Jesus’ cheek.

Jesus, to my shock, reached out and held Lucifer’s finger joyfully. I pulled him away instantly, confused and repulsed.

“Let him take my hand! Here, young Lord!” a tiny, slender figure from the left said desperately as it stuck its shaking, fish-belly white hand towards my son’s mouth. “There, Lord! Take my finger. You may have of it as much as you like,” it squealed. The little figure had a curved back that made him look somewhat like a shepherd's crook. Its face was youthful, but strained and gaunt. Its skin had a sickly, greenish hue, and its oily, black hair was slicked back in a style like Lucifer’s, except for a few clumps of wild hair that refused to stay put. The thing constantly looked to Lucifer for approval.

Before I could pull Jesus away from it and closer to my breast, Lucifer gripped the back of the sickly figure’s neck.

“Leviathan,” Lucifer said. “The little Lord does not want to be pawed at. Control yourself.”

Leviathan looked at Lucifer with fear and its back bent further towards the ground. It scuttled back to its place, glancing at Lucifer and then at Jesus, then back and forth continuously.

“Why must we barter with this mortal? Give us the child or run until the cat finally pounces. Your world or ours, it doesn’t matter! We will take him!” a short, stocky figure with a red face covered in boils screamed.

Lucifer turned on the figure, and all around, its cloak flames roared. The cloak, once black as midnight, was engulphed in flames. Lucifer, glowing like a hearth fire, walked towards Satan until the squat figure moved back into the darkness. He stayed there, eyes glowing, muttering curses quietly, but he interfered no more. Its flaming aura extinguished, and then he turned back to me.

“What Satan and my other colleagues are forgetting is that our Lord, Lilith, welcomes you and the child into her bosom. You are as holy as he that clutches your breast. Belphegor? Mammon? Have you any other objections to giving the Holy Mother and her child the gift of choice in this matter?”

“None, Lucifer,” Mammon, a giant figure, towering over most of the others said. Its face was serene, but its fingers danced and flicked at its sides.

“Proceed,” said a figure approximately the shape and consistency of a puddle, with a voice like molasses.

“Thank you, friends,” Lucifer said cheerily. “Now, dear lady, the choice is yours. Let him be taken by the cruel, frightened men of this world, or give him to us to deliver to the Almighty Lilith who will love him and protect him as her own. Make no mistake, you will always be his mother, Mary, but Lilith can keep him safe forever. From this precipice, you must choose. Down into the tunnels of Hell or up to the tower in the sky? Choose now, or wait for more riders to come. When they arrive, we may take up a little game of tug-o-war with the child and that can be… messy.”

I wish I could tell you that there was some alternative decision, some respite from the horrors of this world and the underworld, but there was none. I weighed my choices and I chose. I gave Jesus to Lucifer and my baby reached for him happily. That is how I know I made the right choice.

They walked slowly away with my son cradled in Lucifer’s arms, and although my heart broke at that moment, I knew it was right. What does my heart matter when my son is descending to greatness?

I returned to the barn, and there was Joseph, holding a newborn child in his arms, looking at him lovingly. I didn’t understand at first and I feared that all had been a dream and that my baby was still in danger. I ran towards them shouting to them that we must flee, but as soon as I reached them, I saw that the baby was not Jesus. He was an imposter child.

“What’s wrong, Mary?” Joseph said, concerned at my near-hysterical state.

“The baby,” I started.

“Here, hold him. He wants his mother,” said Joseph.

I took the child in my arms and it looked up at me trustingly. I touched his head and stroked his cheek. Not my son, I thought. Thank Lilith it’s not my son.

Atop the child’s head, I could see a marking. Through the thin tuft of hair on his head, I saw the mark of the Seven. I knew it somehow, as soon as I saw it. The raised, pink etching in his skin showed an ornate star with three spokes running through it, two parallel and one protruding through the bottom. This poor child is doomed to suffer the fate that was meant for my son, but selfishly, I rest easy knowing my trueborn is safe in Hell where he belongs.

It was no easy decision. The demons that stood before me, and they were indeed demons, frightened me. However, the vision of my son’s torture and death had been so real, I knew that it was fated to happen. Lucifer’s eyes, although deadly, looked at Jesus with admiration, no - adoration. Lilith. Lilith will protect him, and if that means I cannot hold him and see him in this life, then so be it. I could not live with him, seeing him grow up with hopes and dreams, knowing they would all be dashed.

Dear boy, dear young Prince, I hope you will forgive your mother for giving you up, but truly I believe you are where you are meant to be — upon a throne, leader of many and holy. Darkness or light, all that matters is that you are safe, and maybe when this cruel world is done with me, I will join you there in the dark to worship with the others.

And now, Joseph, this child and I will ride on through Egypt, moving in the night. We will stay here until Herod is dead. What may come after that is up to fate.


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