The Hierophant was everywhere. Every door she opened. Every place she ran. Even in this Void: a place she’d never meant to visit! A place she’d never known to exist until an incalculable time before. Dominia found it impossible to discern hallucination from thought from objective experience, and wondered if they differed in this place. Was this some dream? Her wife, fair Cassandra, seemed distant memory, dream, terror—sleep’s chimera from many days prior, when confronted by this much more pressing tahgmahr before her.
In a half-formed study suspended upon nothing, she had found her Father. That man who had stolen her right eye from its socket as she’d fled in search of the mystic who might restore life to her wife. Dear Cassandra, who so suffered at the hands of the world. At his hands.
Hearing the voice and seeing the shape of her Father proved more powerful than either sense alone, and her thoughts skittered between the stimuli: him; his wineglass; the magnificent strings of Berlioz piping into the vast space from an artifact record player at his elbow; a profusion of memories that scattered across her eye like so many mis-shuffled playing cards. Dominia focused on the oriental rug that slithered even once her body settled into its surroundings. The Hierophant uttered a sympathetic (and condescending) tut as she swayed with obvious vertigo.
“‘Be not afeard.’” He set his glass beside the gramophone while rising to his feet. “‘The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.’”
Caliban’s speech, drawn from the finest of Shakespeare’s plays, proved better anchor for consciousness than Valentinian’s advice of remembering the ground, tossing stones, or shuffling cards. Everything snapped into simple clarity. Lucid as the real world.
“The real world.” She almost laughed at the concept until she realized she was responding aloud to her own thoughts and managed to ask while edging across the threshold, “Are you real?”
He smiled, and filled a second glass of burgundy fluid from the keroid decanter. “As real as you; more real than my wine. Yet”—he approached to hand her the glass; his eyes crinkled as she accepted it—“unreal though it may be, it has quite the effect in this strange place.”
Now she saw him close, and he appeared younger than she’d ever known him to be. The tension of flesh against bones, a certain sleekness of body brought on by hyper-advanced age’s loss in muscle mass, had been reversed. All that had faded from his features after so prolonged—possibly eternal—a lifespan had returned with new glow, and fit the Hierophant with increased resemblance to Cicero. The clearest visible difference was the Pontifex lacked his son’s Mephistophelian goatee.
Cicero! The General had not thought on the Holy Family’s unhinged priest since taking his eye; an event which felt simultaneously moments and months before. No doubt he had no knowledge of this place; otherwise, she would have known about it, partial to bragging as he was. Cicero’s discovery of such a thing would only disturb their Father’s peace. El Sacerdote was a gnat, and particularly loathsome when something could be gained in the way of knowledge or power. Dominia, also, hungered for knowledge, but showed patience in learning and less cruelty in its use. In her own opinion, at least. Thus, it made some sense she was welcome in an imaginary study of her Father’s where even the Eternal Son was not invited, but not by much; after all, as she insisted, “You tried to kill me. Or let Cicero try, at any rate.”
“And you took his eye!” Said with a twinkle in both his dark ones. “My dear. You have waited quite a long time to teach your brother that lesson, haven’t you?”
“Call me ‘inspired.’” Her free hand lifted to her eye patch. “Lest we forget, this started with you pulling out my eye.”
“It actually started with poor Casandra’s death. Speaking of—why don’t you come out, darling?” The Hierophant looked at a bookshelf against the farthest implied wall. “We are alone. No one will hurt you here.”
Cold sweat prickled across Dominia’s palms well before that vile thief of Cassandra’s form stepped from where she—it—listened. Panic overwhelmed the General. She turned her eyes away, to the fireplace, in a look her Father followed. The creature twitched through her periphery in an effort at walking that seemed that of an alien recreating a description heard secondhand, perhaps through translation. Something within the body walked, but the body did not. As cramps of nausea clutched the General’s ribs, the martyr permitted her Father to take her free hand. She allowed him kiss and pat it in that doting manner he demonstrated when he felt like supplicating his children into something, rather than ordering or threatening them. She tolerated the sound of his voice as he said, “You should know better than to think I would let true harm come to you. That I do not want to return Cassandra to you.”
She almost laughed; but there again for a wink of the mind was the first appearance of the thing, outside the fire she’d shared with Lazarus and the formerly fictional Saint Valentinian. “I was told it wouldn’t be able to come into the light.”
“Not normal light, no. This light—my light—is much superior. All God’s creatures may enter it without harm: I am like the black sun, in that respect. Please”—he released her hand to gesture toward the armchair seated across from his—“won’t you sit down?”
With effort, Dominia set eye upon the vulgar recreation of Cassandra. Visible in her Father’s blue firelight and standing statue still, the likeness almost passed: but Cassandra’s hair was not the ink of this creature’s, nor were her eyes dun and half lidded. Lifeless. Still, as the Hierophant did not wait for her to fulfill his invitation before settling into his crimson armchair, she felt obliged. In that vacuous space, any sensation was as comforting as the doppelgänger was disconcerting. She lowered herself into the empty seat and winced when that copy jerked to her side, where it knelt at her arm in perversion of Cassandra’s occasional custom.
“She has a gift for you,” said the Hierophant. The General grit her teeth as it brandished a crown of lush sapphire flowers once held behind its back.
“Dominia,” the thing recited, trying the name and a smile. Both actions were ill-suited and ill-advised. The creature showed its beautiful teeth in a cold, mechanical way that did not alter its eyes or brows one whit. It held the crown in expectation, waiting; but when, after a time, it asked, “Don’t you love me,” Dominia slapped the so-called gift out of the pirated hands. The thing emitted a cry in hollow replica of her dead wife’s voice that only made the General down a mouthful of wine. While it scrambled to collect the ruined crown and crouch by the side of the Hierophant, her Father clucked like the old hen he was.
“You’re hurting the poor girl’s feelings!”
“What does it want from me?” She stared the uncanny thing down and it shrank against the Hierophant’s chair, mouth pressed to the upholstery. Its jaw warped under the pressure as though its bones were rubber while the Holy Father regarded Dominia with bland innocence.
“What does she want from you? Only that you should love her! If only Cassandra had so pure a motive in life.”
That stung her back into her wineglass. After the burning liquid sprang her taste buds into work and tightened her jaw, she said, “That thing’s not Cassandra.”
“She is. She is Cassandra, and more than Cassandra.”
“It’s a monster. Some kind of—formless, abstract thing.” What was the word Lazarus had used? “A tulpa.”
The Hierophant rolled his eyes. “I would not put much stock into what Valentinian tells you.” She did not correct him as he carried on: “The word you have just used is of Tibetan origin and means, quite simply, ‘thoughtform.’ Look around you! Everything here is a thoughtform. The wine you drink, your chair, each book upon my shelves, the fire that lights the room! Even our bodies here are sorts of thoughtforms, suspended upon our own unconscious understanding of ourselves.”
At his words, she studied the books. The titles remained legible despite how, on a second, harder glance, the individual letters forming these words made little sense. What registered to her mind as the spine of the Odyssey yielded, upon closer inspection, a word spelled “TÆ CΦDVUKΘP.” As her mind tangled in cognitive dissonance to marvel at such mechanics, the Hierophant carried on. “The origin of this Cassandra, within the cauldron of your memories, makes her no less real than the woman you once called your darling wife; if anything, this memory-borne bride could prove more real than your last, if you would let her.”
“Now you’re just lying. This thing isn’t Cassandra. Cassandra doesn’t move like that, doesn’t even look that way. It’s wrong.”
“She is wrong because you have not yet invested energy into making her right. She is like an infant, newborn. Why, she would not even know how to say the name of her adored Dominia, had I not spent this whole night teaching her.”
“Dominia,” repeated the thing in a sullen voice that made the General’s skin crawl.
“I wish you hadn’t. I wish you’d kept that thing in the darkness, where it belongs.”
“How cruel you are! How forgetful of all those years of love.” While the terrible thing wept Cassandra’s tears, the General pushed herself from her chair and paced around the bookshelves. On second pass, the nonsense titles were different in either lettering or meaning. “Forgetful of your love of Cassandra as you are forgetful of your love of me.”
“I never loved you. You stole me.”
“I saved you from certain death. I gave you a destiny.” His pale-blond eyebrows lifted as she spared him a withering glance. “And you did love me at times, against your better judgment. You love me even now, or you would not be here. Would you?”
Dominia did not speak. When she was a teenager and he had taught her how to draw, Berlioz had played in the background then, too. It was a natural cross-discipline for a fighter in martyr culture; thanks to Saint Valentinian, patron saint of death as well as artists, any form of visual art was by and large considered the domain of soldiers, executioners, and other individuals of violent inclination. These classes to foster a creative hobby in a girl whose only interest was fighting represented a rare few times where, yes, wrapped in the moment, she looked up and realized she’d been forgetting to hate him. It made her eye sting to remember. She covered it and the patch with one hand. “I wish I’d stayed with Valentinian and Lazarus.”
The Hierophant drained his glass and set it aside. “Confront the root of your dark feelings toward this poor, sweet child of a woman. Why do you hate her?”
“Is it because she is a Cassandra you may safely hate? Into whom you can pour all your resentments, all those old feelings of having been used and manipulated? When she came to you at the beach, it was, for you, a pure moment, but the purity was cheapened by her intent. Perhaps this dark-haired Cassandra pulled from your thoughts is that base intent of hers brought into shape. That is why you hate her so.”
“It’s a thing attracted by my energy, my emotions. It has nothing to do with Cassandra. Cassandra is dead.”
“And yet, she yet lives.”
“No, damn you! She’s dead!”
“Dominia.” The thing lifted reddened eyes from its tear-wet fingers. “Why, Dominia?”
“Oh, shut up.”
It resumed weeping. The Hierophant stroked its hair as though petting a cat. “Perhaps your resentment toward our poor Cassandra is meant for yourself. Perhaps you do not feel deserving of a second chance with her, after the way things happened.”
On furious instinct, she took a step toward him. The arctic heart of the fire flared against its tangerine edge, and her shadow fluttered like the wings of a gargantuan black moth. “What happened to Cassandra was your fault. Cicero’s fault. This Family drove her insane. She never forgot we’re just a bunch of cannibal monsters.”
Symphonie Fantastique, in its final ten minutes, took its sudden somber turn, and the Hierophant let his lips curl in his calmest smile. “Another truth turned Cassandra toward your unlocked gun, but I suppose it’s true she might have killed herself any old way. Surely it was convenience. Not some symbol.”
The gun at her hip, whether dream or no, seared her thigh through her trousers as her Father rose. His long shadow quite dwarfed hers. As she stood her ground before the towering man, she insisted, “Her final choice didn’t have to do with me. The gun was something she knew. It was handy.”
“It was also the gun of the woman who killed the father of Cassandra’s child. The gun of the woman who killed her the first time by martyring her, thus sealing the fate of her baby.”
Dominia began to storm away, but the Hierophant snatched her arm with such viselike grip she had to remind herself she could not be hurt in this place. As he drew her back to him, he continued, “The Cassandra you loved is different from the Cassandra you knew. The one you knew—the one you refused to see—never moved beyond her human life. This is why martyring adults is so dangerous. It only brings heartbreak. But, my girl: this Cassandra is new. She has become as a little child”—there he went with that fucking book—“and from the purity of her meek and humble heart grows the love for which you’ve pined. The kind of love you never had with the old Cassandra, despite what you told yourself.”
“You’re lying! Cassandra loved me. She came to me for her own reasons; but in the end, she loved me.”
“Then why did she kill herself that way?”
Over and over, five times in one second, Dominia walked into their room at the exact point in time Cassandra pulled the trigger. Over and over, her wife’s eyes met hers with shock to find the Governess had woken up early. Over and over, it was too late to do anything but watch.
“It took some planning, princess. It was not a split-second decision.”
Oh! The impossibly soft feeling of her wife’s lips as the Governess had comforted her the morning before, when she had been so unexpectedly devastated during the Walpurgisnacht Party. That powder-soft femininity and mint and warmth. Finally, Cassandra had calmed and dozed off on the sitting-room couch. Dominia had thought they could sleep in safety. She had not wished to move her wife. She had fallen asleep beside her, still in her clothes, gun not put away.
“I am sorry to say this, but she was deeply unhappy.”
The cold panic on waking from a tahgmahr—no, a real day terror, a replay of her escape from her Nogales cell—to find herself alone. Her racing heart. The memory looped: calling her wife’s name, clambering up, seeing the gun was gone and knowing her second of intuition had been justified, running through the halls, checking every room in their vast estate until reaching their bedroom, and there was the door, the door, so close, so close—but never close enough.
The Hierophant touched Dominia’s cheek, and she came back to herself to realize she wept. Her Father wiped away her tears and held her as, forgetting herself, she collapsed into sobs. As if the past month had never happened—as if the past lifetime was erased and she was a girl again—she allowed herself to be rocked against his chest, to cry there and say, “I just wish she would have talked to me.”
“There are some pains too deep to express. She did not hide it because her heart was stone. She hid it because, though she may have loved her late soldier, she also loved you, her living soldier, much as she could. And she knew the pain of her lasting grief would hurt you, in turn.”
The first true thing he’d said in some time inspired a sharp breath by which she steadied her nerves. This gaslighting was insane: he was a pendulum. She pushed away from him to clear her throat. “You’re right. She loved me more than you would know. Pain or no, she loved me.”
“So will you cling to the intangible memory of love? Or will you come to your senses and see it waits before you even now?”
Behind him, the standing thing had shambled forth a few steps. One hand kept its balance against the General’s empty seat. Still ill at the mere sight, she insisted of her Father, “That thing is a lie. A false creation proceeding from my hopes, my memories, my feelings. It’s a predator. Fake.”
“She can be real. And she is far less a lie than those Lazarus and his friend tell you.”
Though her ears burned with fury, and denial boiled on the tip of her tongue, Dominia still nursed doubt enough to withhold comment. Her Father insisted, “Those nonsense stories of resurrection, of the stream of consciousness you knew as ‘Cassandra’ finding bodily resurrection in this world—they are lies.”
“The only liar here is you.”
“My poor, sweet angel! So trusting of your friends you will not listen to your own Father’s words. I tell you, they lie. Lazarus will not help you.”
“There’s someone,” she began, stopping because he said, “They will lead you to Cairo, and you will be disappointed.”
Her stomach tightened. She stepped away, toward a fire that emitted no warmth. “How do you know about Cairo?”
“Do you think Lazarus and Valentinian are the only ones who have been through all this bad business before?” The Hierophant returned to his seat while smoothing the fabric of his suit. “‘I do not know everything, but I am aware of much,’ as a great devil once said; and I am aware Cassandra will not be resurrected in the way you hope. But I can give you Cassandra.”
“You can give me a lie.”
“A lie becomes the truth if told enough. Cassandra’s love for you was, in the first place, a lie that became the truth. Why would it be different were it to happen again, this way?”
Somehow, the question staggered her more than any he’d posited. The simpering doppelgänger gazed through tear-matted eyelashes, lower lip trembling, as the stalwart General nonetheless insisted, “She’s not real.”
At her Father’s smile, the General bore her teeth to realize she’d slipped by calling the thing “she.” As if it were a person! It even responded. Brightened around the eyes. Dominia shuddered and folded her arms, more eerily afloat than ever in her life. Every word she spoke seemed more futile than the last. Horribly, sooner or later, she would have to acknowledge this thing in a way not dismissive.
But then—praise God, or damn Him—they were interrupted by a knock. The General held her breath.