As soon as the angel has gone, I am seized by a terrible fear. I know that by entering this dark forbidden place, I have offended my masters.
I’m trapped, I realise, and look round at my new prison, so deep underground.
Perhaps the angel will never come back for me.
Or perhaps the Abomination will return to life, as the angel believes he may, and kill me, now that his master is no longer here.
There’s a sound from the bed on which the angel has laid the broken body of the Abomination. Tap tap tap. Like the sound a bird makes, knocking its beak on a stone.
I turn and stare.
There are lights on the bed, flashing. I’m not a fool. I know that whatever this is, it is not magic. But it may be a miracle. My masters speak of miracles, teaching us to look for and expect them in our daily lives.
The Abomination is not a miracle, however. It is unnatural. I have heard whispers of such things among the Sisters.
So why does the angel protect it from destruction? Is it out of mercy?
I cannot bring myself to look at the head.
Instead, I look around the room. I have spent so many years in my narrow cell that I’ve forgotten what it is to be in a new place.
There are strange carvings on the wall. Though not carvings of any kind that I have seen before. Wonderingly, I reach up, running my fingertips over the ridges and indentations. They feel smooth, like glass.
Does it matter that the angel has seen my face?
An angel is not a man. To show my face before him cannot be forbidden. It should not be forbidden.
But what if he is not an angel? What then?
I hear a noise outside the door. Is it the angel returning? Again I am afraid. It does not sound like him. It is a kind of shuffling, like someone hurt, dragging their feet through the dust. Or is it my masters? Have they found me? The thought fills me with terror.
Before he left, the angel told me that I should hide.
I try not to consider what it means that I must hide from my own masters. I shall only hide for a moment, I tell myself. Just to be safe. Just until I can see who it is. It may not be my masters, after all. Perhaps there are still people living down here, in the dark, in this dusty oblivion.
There’s a strange metallic object in one corner of the room. It is large, with five shelves on which there are many mysterious things. I squeeze behind it, and gently pull it close, until I am hidden. Hidden from the doorway, at least.
I hear the door open and somebody come in.
There’s a strange whirring, like the sound of wings. I remember the whirring of the flying object in the desert. This is similar, though softer, less menacing.
There is a clicking sound above my head. I cover my face with my scarf, except for my eyes, and peer upwards. A spherical object hangs in the air a short distance from my head, spinning constantly. What is it?
I feel a sick anxiety, and there is a drumming in my ears, like my blood is racing. The flying object steadies, one white light suddenly boring into me, a divine eye reaching out to see inside my soul.
‘Come out, Sister,’ a deep voice says.
My heart leaps with both joy and terror, for I recognise that voice.
It is my master, Abba Macarius.
My master has found me, and knows my sin. I left my cell and trekked across the desert into the Forbidden Region. Worse, I helped the angel bring the Abomination down into this dark honeycomb of rooms, instead of running back to warn my masters of their arrival.
Whatever my punishment is to be, I must not hide like a coward, but face it. It is the way of the Sisterhood .
The object spins again, then backs away, humming above me.
I step out from my hiding place.
‘Abba,’ I say in a trembling voice, not daring to meet his gaze, and fall to my master’s feet instead, pressing my lips to the rough cloth of his robe where it brushes his sandals. ‘Forgive me.’
‘Why are you here, Sister?’ the Abba asks. ‘This place is forbidden.’
‘The Angel brought me,’ I whisper, my head still bowed.
‘He is no angel, but an intruder.’ The Abba’s voice is stern, colder than I have ever known it. ‘He is a stranger and has defied our laws. He must die.’
‘I did not wish to go with him, Abba, but I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do.’
‘You too have defied the law.’
‘Forgive me, Abba.’ I am afraid, but steel myself for the inevitable punishment. ‘Must … Must I die too?”
‘Look at me, Sister.’
Warily, I obey, peering up through the dusty folds of my scarf.
All I see is the dark, cowled oval of his face drawn back into the hood of his cloak, no features, though I feel the glow of his eyes upon me. I used to find that anonymity comforting, my master’s spiritual retreat from the world so intense, no Sister could ever know an Abba’s true face. Now it chills me, and I’m unable to tell why.
‘Where is the stranger?’ he asks me.
‘I don’t know,’ I say truthfully.
I hesitate, about to add that the angel has gone to look for weapons. But something stops me. Some instinct I do not quite understand.
Instead, I nod towards the bed with its flashing lights and its abhorrent inhabitant, and say something deliberately designed to distract my master from the truth. ‘He left me here with that thing.’
Subterfuge? How is that even possible?
Abba Macarius turns slowly towards the Abomination. Then he moves away with a sweep of his cloak, leaving me on my knees, the whirring object still hovering above me.
He leans over the body of the Abomination, as if studying the flashing lights on the bed. ‘This came with the stranger?’
‘Yes, in a … a vessel, he said. A burning vessel that fell from the sky. Then something else came from above and tried to kill us. A metal bird with searing talons of fire. That is why we ran away, and hid under the ground.’ I look at his back, so stiff, so unyielding. ‘Was it wrong to hide down here, Abba? To try to save our lives?’
‘It is not permitted for any Sister to enter the Forbidden Region,’ he says, quoting from scripture.
‘But what is this place, master?’
He says nothing.
‘I know that I’ve sinned in trespassing here, and I accept my punishment, whatever that must be. But this place must have taken many lifetimes to build. It is larger even than the Great Caves of the Sisterhood, and though it may be forbidden to our kind, yet it could house hundreds of the common people. They could live down here, safe from sandstorms and the heat of the sun.’
Still he says nothing.
I get to my feet. ‘Why has such a place been forgotten and abandoned, Abba? Why is it “forbidden”?’
Over his shoulder, I see the door open. It’s the angel-stranger. The intruder. He’s holding something in his hand. Instinctively I know it is a weapon.
The angel sees me looking. He lays a finger across his lips.
I suck in a breath, ready to call out to the Abba. To warn him the stranger is here. The stranger who has defied our laws and must die.
But I don’t make a sound.
GO TO NEXT CHAPTER: Chapter Eleven