The rickety door splintered and gave way to a thick, well seasoned boot. Its wearer, a white-robed priest, rushed into the underground darkness of the cellar, with another bearing a torch following suit, then another. The dull-orange glow of the flames ran up the ragged walls and the scent of freshly disturbed earth filled the air. Once the room was deemed safe, a bent shape inched inside. The elderly figure wore similar garments to the priests but with added ornaments lining the bone white robes. When the leader beheld the room, the others heard the air sucked in in anger.
Carved lines criss-crossed the walls. Spheres encircling each other, almost dancing, with fragments of words and phrases still, if barely, readable in the torchlight. Whoever had created these markings must have recently made an effort to get rid of their work in a hurry. The weight of multiple feet had pounded the center of the cellar rock hard, and the scribbles on the walls often repeated themselves, as if they were explaining the same concept over and over again. Clearly, someone had taught others here. The old man shuddered, unsure if it was the cold of the cellar or the slowly swelling tides of rage that shook him. Heresy. Right under his own nose.
A roughly-hewn, new tunnel was uncovered in the far corner of the room, hidden shoddily by some wooden panels, leading, by all probability, back to the surface. One of the younger priests stepped on something which crumpled beneath his boot. He knelt down, retrieved it and then turned to the old man.
“Father, what do you make of this?”
Wrinkled fingers ran across the coarse edge of a torn piece of paper. This town was inconsequentially tiny and the written word was a mystery to all but a handful of townsfolk. Ordering atorch closer, the old man squinted at the few stray lines on the page. Whoever had written this had to be the ringleader, which narrowed the list of suspects considerably...
A fragment of a word suddenly caught his attention, and his eyes widened in shock. Yet another priest rushed into the cellar, “We found footprints leading into the forest, father! How would you have us proceed?”
“Burn it. The cellar, the house, all of it. Put a torch to this... abomination.” The old man croaked and threw the piece of paper to the ground.
The priests filed out of the cellar, with one staying behind to help the old man.
”With respect, high priest, what happened here?” The young man asked.
“We have been betrayed.” The old man responded through gritted teeth. “The town, the Faith,” he glared at the crumpled piece of parchment, “me.”
The thatch roof of the hovel above the cellar blazed to life in a matter of seconds. In its glow, the high priest’s face was a waxen visage of dread.
“Find me who did this,” he croaked. “Hunt down this traitor.”
The muddy footprints did indeed lead into the neighbouring forest and the hunt was on. The townsfolk might have been a lesser farming community of an even lesser country but their men were a hardy lot and some of them capable trackers. Soon, with cries aplenty, the most tenacious of the town closed in on their prey. By the time the elderly high priest caught up, a whole mob had encircled the culprit in an eerie tense silence. Their quarry was on all fours, a hooded cloak hiding his shape. At the high priest’s arrival, the man looked up and the townsfolk suddenly grew restless.
“Father.” The figure addressed the high priest, whose face froze at the sight of him, shock and fury overwhelming his senses.
“Jeremiah...” He eventually croaked, his voice shaky with age and the effort of keeping up with the posse. “...Kneel. Kneel and be judged.”
Jeremiah spat on the ground, his chest still heaving heavily from the chase. He gritted his teeth, and forced himself upwards. A strange kind of hope glinted in the eyes of the priest as Jeremiah rose to his knees, but was snuffed out as he did not stop there, towering over his accuser. The old man’s face grew cold and hard.
“So be it.” He muttered under his breath, trying to straighten his bent back himself.
“Who was it?” Hissed Jeremiah, his deep voice rumbling in the night wind. “You can’t have found out on your own. Who decided to cower before you for mercy?”
“Jeremiah Thicker, you have desecrated the name of our Lord, His teachings and His Laws.” The priest went on, ignoring Jeremiah’s questions. The crowd took a step towards Jeremiah, whose eyes darted around with dark foreboding. The old man took a rasping breath, and continued.
“I name you betrayer.”
“Who have I betrayed? Your Lord? Then there was no one to betray!”
“Heresy!” The priest snarled at Jeremiah, broken from his routine. “He damns himself in front of us all!” The seething anger turned into hate in his eyes. He lifted a finger of accusation. “The Lord’s mercy was the only chance of sparing your pupils, and now-!”
“So they’re to die? Even the one who decided to lick your boot?” Jeremiah growled, disgust settling on his face as well. Any semblance of sympathy he had towards the priest seemed to have evaporated. “I hurt no one! All they did was listen to me!”
“That can’t be helped. What’s done is done.” The priest said quietly, before his voice fully returned. “The town needs to be cleansed. We have to rid it of your poison. It was your lies that cast their lives away, Jeremiah! And now your own words have condemned all of you to death...” The crowd took another step. The old man way trying to stare down Jeremiah, his jaw clenched. “...by fire.”
“Lies?” Whispered Jeremiah. The torches flickered. He returned the priest’s gaze.
“I looked to the stars and I saw truth. I gazed upon the cosmos,” he snorted, “and what an empty shell your Lord seems from the outside.” His voice was becoming louder and louder, anger hiding in every syllable. “Your words would set innocents ablaze. The truth you obey is decrepit, even more crippled than you, Father. It is old, and it is FALSE!” The last word struck against the crowd like a furious wave. Jeremiah turned around, his voice a roaring tempest now.
“You fools! Ignorant sheep, cowering before tales of an imaginary ghost! You don’t even know the shape of the world you live on!”
The crowd, first taken back by his outburst, closed in once again on Jeremiah, angrier than ever. The air felt thick and heavy. The priest, still in a state of shock, could hear his own voice screaming in rage, screaming of pain, damnation and flame. The ground shook under their feet. The mob descended upon Jeremiah, ready to tear at his clothes and his flesh.
They never reached him.
The villagers were pushed back by a force stronger than any wind they have ever felt before. Scattered around him, the townsfolk looked up at where Jeremiah stood.
A woman screamed, men shrieked in alarm, and the priest found himself shivering on the ground, trying to curl into a ball. In the place of Jeremiah was a creature, no, many creatures, or... fractions of creatures, splintered as if seen through a broken mirror, a dark mass twisting and expanding in a swarm of eyes, beaks and talons. It was impossible to tell where Jeremiah ended and the monstrous shapes began. The being came upon the townsfolk like a vision of paralysing nightmares flickering in front of their eyes, seen even through tightly shut lids, flaying their very minds.
Blindingly dark appendages spread towards the sky like wings, shiny eyes blinked and a long, malformed beak-like mouth screeched. The smell of fear and fresh urine filled the field.
And then, just like that, the apparition was gone. Jeremiah once again stood in its place.
He looked at the field of frightened faces, the terror in their eyes, and then, against the background noise of sobs and whimpers, he began to chuckle. He then began to laugh.
The old man looked up at him with contempt. Jeremiah grinned at the ones he once considered his kin.
“Do you still not understand? My Lord is not a kind one, but he speaks, and he speaks the truth. Hear this now: An age has come to an end, and a new one begins!”
He looked down upon the whimpering priest. The rumbling of the ground became something more akin to a quake.
“We’ve stumbled through the world blindly for long enough. I have found someone who answers my prayers. The time of silent Gods and holy wars are over. I hope for your sakes, our venerable father understands this.”
Jeremiah looked up at the sky, and to the villagers it was as if one of the millions of stars gleamed just a little brighter.
“It time to move on. Return to your homes. Find peace, and live small. Those who listened to me will flee, fearing the church. Your ignorance will burden them with exile from their own homes.”
One last time, he looked upon the villagers. “...But to anyone who wishes to follow my path, anyone who wants to bask in the stars, and find my teacher, I have but four words: Look to the skies!”
There was a flash of light and a thunderclap that tore the leaves off the nearby trees. The ground where Jeremiah had once stood was burned and charred, and there was no sign of him. The villagers got up, one by one, and, in silence, wandered back to their huts. Half a dozen people, mostly youths, were gone from the town. Assumed to be Jeremiah’s apprentices, they indeed didn’t wait for the priesthood to turn on them. In the face of this complete defeat, the high priest shook with rage and shut himself into the upper floors of the church. A candle burned by his window until dawn.
On the next day he made an unusually long sermon on the nature of sin and on the damning qualities of heresy. Most folks nodded on in a sleep deprived haze and accepted that what occurred last night was something dark and mysterious but, most importantly, now done with. They were simple folk, with the next season’s harvest a more pressing issue on their minds now that they were no longer threatened. The priesthood’s attempt to find any additional culprits could not produce a single accomplice. The burned hut was razed to the ground, and even uttering Jeremiah’s name became a lashable offence. Within a year, that mysterious night became nothing more than a tale to tell the children. Some, however, remembered. Hushed voices kept the words alive. Then, they began to spread. And when the time came, no lash of a cane or thrust of a sword could ever stop them again. And thus began the Age of Stars.