Nathaniel stood erect holding the Book of Questions, the blood-dipped, tome of his holy Order. For centuries, acolytes of the Quaerere had proved their mettle while standing before the Sphinx on this same plateau that jutted upward from the edge of The Gash separating this precipice from the opposing cliff.
As he read each Call in the barbarous tongues of his ancestors, he glanced down as he waited for each corresponding response. The dripping limbs of ancient, rotting trees that no longer stood but wound their way into the festering moss covering the rocks of the mountain gave way to the sight below him. The Gash seemed endless. The fog rose up from the depths beneath the mountain, seething with a dread that reached up and threatened to engulf him. Large boulders, covered in the blood of those who had failed, littered the descent he would face if he succeeded today. The stench of decay sifted through the air and assaulted his senses, watered his eyes, scratched at the exposed skin near his face, neck, and wrists.
Yet Nathaniel stood firm and read.
Methodically and carefully he read each question in the right order knowing that even pronouncing the infernal words incorrectly would end his life. The brisk chill of the mountain air whipped across his cheeks as he kept his face exposed before the creature, the cowl pulled back from his nondescript cloak to cover his shoulders. To cover his face and avoid the observation of his reaction to the answers would bring immediate death.
Everything was as precise as it was without definition. There could be no difference between one acolyte and any other acolyte when it came to the Rite of Catechize save in who lived and who died before the great beast.
On the precipice across from the querent stood the Sphinx.
The creature had inexplicably stopped responding after Nathaniel finished intoning the last question. The look on its hairless face was not one of anger or even confusion but of curiosity. There was a child-like quality to the face that stared at him now. The barbs cascading from its scalp glistened in the sparse sunlight that filtered through the foul mirk around the mountaintop.
The Sphinx ruffled its bulky wings. “Who are you?”
“I am an acolyte and humble servant of the Qua..,” Nathaniel began.
“Who are you?,” the Sphinx interrupted.
“I am Na..”
“Who are you,” the creature said with more deliberate force, each word punctuated with a breath that radiated against Nathaniel’s face.
He continued to hold the book in his hands without faltering in his confusion. The Sphinx never asked questions. It only ever answered them and judged the reaction to each answer. Any sign of failure to understand its response was met with judgment. The rust stained rocks all around were sufficient for each acolyte to know that failure was just as probable as success was possible.
The questioner and the questioned stood for a moment in silence, each exploring the other for meaning.
Image (“Earth Elemental”) © Doug Hoppes
Blurb (“The Question”) © Bishop Harber