Three initiates, bare from the waist up, lay facedown on the marble floor. At the head of each stood a disciple wielding a flagellum bearing nine cords embedded with bits of sharpened bone.
"Renounce your own will for the salvation of your soul," the Grand Master intoned from his place in the outer circle of two dozen followers. Emblazoned in blood-red on the breasts of their brown hooded cassocks was the symbol of the Sacred Order of Via Dei: a T-shaped cross topped by a circle, within which a blazing sun shot two beams downward to form a pyramid superimposed against the cross.
Grand Master Jean Fournier continued his recitation from The Order of Sanctity, by which all members of Via Dei— the Disciples of the Way— were to conduct their lives.
"Strive everywhere with pure desire to serve the Holy Trinity of Via Dei, the Catholic Church, and Jesus Christ. Feel now the pain of the scourging received by our Lord."
The disciples whipped their flagella against the bare backs of the initiates, leaving red stripes.
"This I will do, so help me God," the initiates responded, their voices strained with pain as they fixed their gaze on the floor, not daring to look up into the eyes of the Grand Master.
"It is a dangerous thing to gaze too long upon the face of a woman," the Grand Master proclaimed. "Avoid the kiss or embrace of a woman lest you be contaminated by the sin of lust. Remain eternally before the face of God with a pure conscience and a sure life."
Again the disciples snapped their whips down hard. The red marks became welts.
"This I will do, so help me God," the initiates repeated as they fought to calm their shuddering bodies.
"Avoid idle words and laughter. There is much sin in any conversation that is not for the glory of the Lord."
The sharpened bone in the flagellum cords tore into flesh, spraying blood on the cassocks of the disciples.
"This I will do, so help me God," the initiates cried out.
"In order to fulfill your holy duties, so that you may gain the glory of the Lord’s mercy and escape the torments of hellfire, you must obey the Grand Master of our Sacred Order of Via Dei. Do you swear now, so to do?"
Another brutal lashing punctuated the initiates’ response: "I swear always to obey our Grand Master."
"The Sacred Order of Via Dei, the Catholic Church, and our blessed Lord are the trinity that guides our lives, symbolic of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You will protect the sanctity of Via Dei by what ever means necessary. There is only one path to salvation, and it is the mission of Via Dei to protect that path. Destroying an enemy of Via Dei is doing the work of the Lord. Do you accept our doctrine?"
Once more the whips flailed, and the initiates cried out, "I accept the doctrine."
"Rise now, Disciples of the Way. Clothe yourselves in the garment of the Sacred Order of Via Dei and greet one another in brotherhood."
The three men struggled to their feet. Despite the pain they were enduring, they appeared rapturous as their sponsors— the very men who had wielded the whips— presented them with the brown cassock of membership.
The circle of disciples broke up and the members began to mingle and congratulate their new brethren, each remembering the joyous day of his own initiation.
As a disciple in his early thirties was embracing one of the new members, he was interrupted by a gruff voice calling his name.
"Philippe Guischard . . ."
Turning, the disciple felt a knot of nervousness at seeing the Grand Master looking up at him. Philippe was a tall, muscular fellow, standing a good six inches above the compact and slightly hunched Jean Fournier, yet he felt inconsequential in the older man’s presence. His anxiety lessened, however, when he saw the Grand Master’s expression was serious but not severe.
"I have a mission for you, Philippe." Fournier grasped the younger man’s elbow and led him away from the others, to one of the marble columns that encircled the sanctuary.
"I will obey your instructions with joy in my heart," Philippe answered, his voice a monotone that hid a renewed sense of unease.
"You have shown great promise, Philippe. Because of that, and because of the importance of your family’s ties in Rome, we have asked you to serve as our envoy to the Holy See. But now I must ask you to put aside, for a time, that lofty office and undertake a mission of the utmost importance."
Fournier looked around to confirm they were alone, then continued in a hushed voice.
"You will return to Castile, there to deliver a letter. The letter will contain further instructions for you and for the person to whom you shall present it."
"And who is to receive this letter, Grand Master?"
"My former teacher?" Philippe said in surprise. "But he’s a heretic— you told me so when I arrived four years ago from Toledo. It is because of his heresy that you urged me not to return to his service."
"Four years is a long time. It is now the year of our Lord one thousand ninety-five, almost the second century of the second millennium. During your time with us, you have made great progress and shown great inner strength; I no longer fear your becoming contaminated with his heresy."
"Thank you, Grand Master," Philippe said with a slight bow of the head.
"Yes, Tobias Garlande stands with those who believe Trevia Dei refers to three paths to God," Fournier said, adding in a derisive tone, "as if Christian, Jew, and Infidel could ever walk the same path or share the Lord’s graces." He shuddered as though he were shaking off evil. "He doesn’t accept what we have received through divine revelation— that Trevia Dei is the Holy Trinity and that there is only one path to God and salvation—Via Dei."
"Our new chosen name, so that we may suppress the false doctrine of the Trevia Dei heretics," Philippe replied, and Fournier smiled in approval. "So, the letter is a chastisement?" Philippe asked.
"No," the Grand Master replied. "I believe this letter to be the means by which Brother Tobias can save his eternal soul."
Excerpted from Armor of God by Paul Block and Robert Vaughan.
Copyright 2008 by Paul Block and Robert Vaughan.
Published in January 2009 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.