The jaws clacked together as Gus rolled on the ground, hitting his left knee hard. The Hellmouth was roomier than appeared from outside, and corridors opened on either side of the gullet and its waving arms. Beneath the sound effects from the ride came a faint chanting from the right, so down that hall he crept.
The corridor was dark but not long. Gus ducked behind a door from which the deep rhythmic voices chanting in Latin came, punctuated by regular thuds. He recognized an ancient hymn of judgment and woe. “Pie Iesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Amen.”
He cracked open the door from which the chanting came and peeked within.
He looked in on a sanctuary where an odd ritual was in progress. The red-draped, candle-lit room was filled with layered clouds of incense. A crowd present knelt upon cushions. At the far end stood a dozen in white robes, more wearing backless red ones. On the far side, were also a few people in black tunics, and others acting as acolytes. All wore large pointed cowls which shadowed their faces.
The entire assembly faced a dais at the far end. There a beautiful, life-size painted figure of fine Italian porcelain stood, depicting the Blessed Virgin carrying a lit lantern and a melancholy expression stood surrounded by candles. Before it were stationed three thrones.
Two were empty. In the furthest chair sat a slender male in white with a red belt, head resting on hand, watching.
All attention centered on a large woman in red with a white sash. In time to the hymn, she vigorously beat the soles of the feet of another woman, also in red. The sufferer was seated upon a high stool, feet held before her by several others whose arms she grasped. Those in red also beat their backs in time to the music.
The fat woman took a last vicious swipe with a paddle at the other woman’s feet which made Gus wince. She waddled to the nearest throne and sat heavily.
One in white bearing a staff addressed the crowd. “Thus ends the Rite of Penitence. Aspirants depart! Prepare now for the Rite of Purification.”
The crowd stirred and stretched, chatting like any congregation. The group in black turned, filing out to the left. Gus thought he glimpsed long blonde hair, but wasn’t sure.
The initiates settled but did not have to wait long. After the others left, a different hymn started which Gus did not recognize, as a tall, slim woman, wearing a sheer, flowing white silk robe with a broad red sash, entered from the rear. Bowing first to the image, she slowly paced to the center throne and bowed deeply to the congregation, which returned the gesture.
“Hail, Mistress Cynthia, Servant Supreme! The Sorrowful Community of Penitence and Perfection greets thee!” the white clad member intoned.
The woman gracefully pulled back her cowl, revealing a small gold circlet upon her silver-headed hair. Even far away, Gus could clearly see her red eye patch.
She floated down the steps. There she stripped off her top and calmly tied a towel around her waist. Her naked breasts were high, firm, and proud, with small, pointed nipples. Gus gulped.
“‘No servant is greater than the master, no messengers greater than the one who sent them,’” she quoted. “‘Blessed are you if you act upon it.’” Her slightly-husky voice was final confirmation, if any were needed, she was none other than Cindi Salvage.
Several acolytes brought more towels, a silver pitcher, and finally with much pomp, a gleaming porcelain basin. The basin was reverenced with bows, ceremony, and more clouds of incense and finally placed before the seated woman.
“‘A new commandment I give you to love one another as I have loved you,’” she intoned.
“Where love is, there is God,” answered the crowd.
Cindi knelt before the woman, who asked shakily, “Lady, would you wash my feet?”
She solemnly replied, “If I do not wash your feet, you have no part with us.”
“Then wash not my feet only, but my hands and my head.”
“You, now purified by pain, do not need to wash, except for your feet, for you are clean all over.”
Cindi calmly poured water from the silver pitcher over the woman’s swollen red feet, caressed and kissed them. Her assistants gently dried them and applied a balm. When they finished, Cindi stood and removed the towel. She was joined by the man in white.
He removed the seated woman’s hood and helped her kneel. The basin was taken away.
Cindi proclaimed as she covered herself, “The Lord said, ‘If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, how much more ought you to wash the feet of one another.’”
“Hear this, all you peoples of the world,” the congregation replied.
“‘By this all will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.’”
“Where love is, there is God.”
She took a small vial, poured a clear fluid over the kneeling woman’s head, and placed her hands there briefly, praying in silence. She kissed her firmly on the lips.
“Arise, o purified and anointed one!” she declared in a loud, clear voice. The woman arose painfully, shakily supported by an acolyte. Cindi continued in a more intimate tone, “Welcome, dear sister, to the Family of Perfection!”
Spontaneous applause resounded around the room while Cindi embraced the woman. This was followed by the man in white and the other assistants.
The white-clad herald addressed the congregation. “Children of Light and Darkness, here ends the first part Mass of the Commandment, the Mass of Purification. Penitents depart! None save the elect may remain for the Wedding Banquet of the Elect.” A bell chimed.
The scarlet-garbed crowd, talking quietly among themselves like any after an inspiring service, exited somewhere to the left, followed by the servers. The remaining dozen in white gathered, forming a large circle in the center of the room. Cushions were scattered across the marble floor. Gus held his breath, unable to look away.
Waiting until the last of the others disappeared with the fat woman bringing up the rear, Cindi made an announcement. “Beloved brothers and sisters, hear me. Six-hundred and fifty years ago our Community was founded by the Seven Blessed Witnesses. In the long time since, the world has darkened, the Vision no longer gracing our presence.
“Yet We Who Wait have more reason to hope than ever. For the last words written by the hand of the Red Pope, Holy Tobias himself are returned to us as prophesied! Let us pray in confidence and celebrate in anticipation, for soon comes the culmination of the World!”
“Amen, Amen, Amen!” they joyously sang.
“Hear the words of Our Founder, holy Martin, first Servant Supreme,” she said. “‘For us who have been purified by the vision, all things are pure: nothing shall be forbidden. The law has no more hold on us... No lord nor priest may judge nor condemn us to whom the judgment of the world shall be given.’”
Behind her, the herald rotated the statue of Mary around to reveal another figure. Lady Death, hooded and skeletal, breasts hanging slack, stood there. Her ivory smile gleamed in the candlelight. She was complete with stained scythe and an hourglass suspended from her belt.
“Amen, Amen, Amen!” they chanted.
With a delighted smile, Cindi decreed, “Beloved, you may embrace each other, a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of Heaven, as our newly-reborn sister is initiated. So let it be!”
Two members took candlesticks and helped the new initiate, hobbling painfully, to exit somewhere to the left. Cindi straightened her cowl and followed. Meanwhile, people around the room began extinguishing candles as if on cue. Others began disrobing. The darkening scene became one straight out of a romantic diabolist’s absinthe fantasy as bodies touched and fondled.