She entered through iron doors that fell back against the cold stone wall with a crash. She uttered an anguished cry:
“Oh, help me sister: Is it the end? Have I lost everything?”
“Be calm, my sister,” replied an imperious woman who neophytes called The Sphinx, “for, although you have disturbed me with your haste, I will listen to you.”
She leaned back and, fingertips tentatively touching, examined the face of the trembling neophyte, the Sister Phantastica – The Supplicant.
The girl’s hair was almost raven black. A chain of jet hung about her neck.
“Oh, my sister,” she cried, “I despair because I cannot love…”
The woman known as The Sphinx placed a sheet of green blotting paper over a diagram drawn in red ink on blue-tinted tissue paper.
“I shall assume,” she said, “that you have consulted The Warlocks in their foul hovels, The White Witch in her palace and she who has a purple face, Our Lady of the Place of Death.”
“Yes, all these things I have done, as I was instructed when I joined this Order from which there is no retreat.”
“So, my daughter, tell me what happened,” commanded the imperious one.
“Oh, Great One, Oh Great Sphinx, I shall tell you my story,” sobbed The Supplicant.
And so she began:
“I visited the Warlocks in their hovels of bone. I studied with them until winter frost covered their hearts with frozen dew. They examined my soul and in return I gave them the silver coins bequeathed to me by my father. They melted the precious silver in a crucible, and, having examined the desires of my soul, they created for me a gleaming monster – a beautiful monster for me to play with. He was tall and angular with deep sunken eyes – pale metallic eyes that hinted of many hermetic secrets but told me nothing.
“I dwelt with this monster in my Ivory Tower for exactly a year. He showed me much that was of interest and much that was not. We watched the sun set over the rooftops. We observed the courtship of insects. We saw the mantis devour her mate.
“We traveled in the nine dimensions that can only be reached by the crystalline pillars and the shadowy shores of The Sea of Life, a sea of floating water-lilies.
We saw nothing.
The hermetic monster said I was his mantis and begged to be devoured. I chained him to a golden bed and after exquisite tortures I removed his heart using the ‘Keys of Darkness’ and many incantations.”
The imperious Sphinx shifted impatiently in her chair of carved onyx. She glared at her inkwell: in this glass womb nestled a gobbet of red.
“Following the instructions from The Goat-Superior, given to me when I joined this Order (from which there is no escape), I next visited the White Witch in her palace. The walls of the palace were carved from ice and inlaid with pearls. These pearls glittered in such a way as to interfere with the functioning of the mind. The floors were inlaid with white gold.
The White Witch sat on an ermine-covered throne. She wore a robe of swans-down fastened with a chain of mirrors. Beneath this robe the body of the Witch was supremely beautiful, oh my sister, so beautiful! She showed me her milk-white breasts with their startling areolas and her thighs white as moon-dust.”
“This story is far too long,” snapped the imperious one. “Be quick – we all know the legendary charms of the White Witch. We all know of her blonde-white hair…and her subtle, tempting ways with Supplicants such as you…”
Sister Phantastica sank to the floor and clutched her breast
“I must tell you of her gift,” she said huskily and with many hesitations. “I think it was a microscope.”
“A microscope. Now that may be unusual.”
“In the microscope I saw the violet mirrors of her eyes reflecting infinities of light. I returned to my Tower and, for exactly a year and a day, I searched for answers with this magical instrument.”
“What did you see? What did you find?”
“I saw a vast, metal plain inside my mind, far within myself. There were tall pillars without summit or base and I saw a great pit from which emerged a giant hand. Almost overcome by vertigo at the sight of this spectacle of supernal terror, I heard a voice, in the distance, shouting: “this is all, this is all…”
“Looking into myself with this instrument again I saw a vortex where a thousand virgins swirled in a maelstrom. I saw an angel ascending towards a noose. I saw The Abyss of the Birds. I saw The Unwanted Offerings… “
Oh Great Sphinx, oh my sister, have I sinned against the order?” beseeched the supplicant, still on her knees.
“What next? What of the purple-faced Lady of the Place of Death? Speak, I command you!”
The terrified Supplicant continued:
“As instructed I visited this dread phantom. After a night of terror, tormented by her servants (they who are neither living nor dead) I was taken, in heavy, iron chains to a tower. This is where the purple-faced lady keeps a great instrument for scanning the limits of space, the zone of death-in-life, where the universe falls away for ever into a pool of ebony mist. By this instrument Our Lady can see her works in their entirety.”
“My child, I was not born yesterday! All of this is known. Did you witness the deaths of ten million suns?”
“Were you shown that for every star that dies two are created?”
“Were you dazzled by the chaotic nebulae and the transcendental glare of The Universal Centre?”
Sister Phantastica moaned “Please, Great One, have pity…!”
“Flames a billion miles high?”
“Yes, I saw those flames…”
“The Web of Time?”
“But time has failed me – Oh Great Sphinx of Pain!”
“The fractured, evil face of Kronos laying his eggs?”
“It was terrible…”
“The distant Citadel of Doubt?”
“Yes! Oh, yes, I saw it all!”
The Supplicant moaned. She fell to the floor on her face and wept.
“Then you have both succeeded and failed in your quest. You have seen all, but you cannot love. This still torments you, my child, oh my sister – let this torment cease.”
“Please let my torment cease!”
The Supplicant was flotsam adrift in chaos.
She quivered violently as the end came but remained submissive and did not cry out.
The Warlocks in their hovels of bone dispute how the bullets entered her body but they are pedantic and over-fond of such diversions.
As the end came The White Witch squirmed on her ermine throne.
As The Supplicant died Our Lady of the Place of Death gathered her soul and clasped it in a fearful embrace – one last embrace.
The imperious Sphinx stared dispassionately at the blood as it welled from the three wounds disfiguring the breast of The Supplicant who had both succeeded and failed. She replaced the weapon in the drawer of her desk.
And the iron gates were closed – forever.
A. C Evans