As you might remember from the trailer about half a year ago, I have been working on an English novel about angels and steampunk and a cleric called Profound Distress, which already sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? And I maintain that it is, even though the steampunk element has turned out to be a little less prevalent than I first expected. Still, I think we can look forward to this new serialized novel. I know I do, and even though there will be no formal interactivity like in our last project, I encourage all you readers to tell me what you think about it and ask whatever you’d like to know.
So, please lean back and enjoy the first chapter of Angelic Duties. Or don’t. I guess you can enjoy it in any position you yourself might prefer, or you could even read it in spite of passionately hating each word of it if you’re into that. The main thing is: Please read my book. Okay? Okay. Meet Profound Distress:
Previously on Angelic Duties:
Today on Angelic Duties:
The deep orange rays of the dying sun painted dramatic shadows on the rocky façade of the cliff as seabirds stood in the air or circled, waiting for their prey to show.
The usually calming murmur of the waves breaking on the stone had taken on a subtly menacing edge while Profound Distress contemplated the drop before her. It was more than a hundred Wheels, and she knew that the water would be as sure to kill her as the rocks from this height.
There was no wind at all. Not even a slight breeze to stir the long straight red hair falling to the middle of her back. A virtually impossible weather condition for the edge of a cliff facing the ocean. That had to be a good sign, right?
Her metal-grey eyes roamed the seascape before her while she thought about her past. About the father who had taught her nothing but betrayal and violence and lies. About her love to Kimbal which she had betrayed. About running away from home and looking for solace in Horat’s arms, knowing that he only regarded her as petty amusement. When she had argued with him about that, he had thrown her out immediately, as she had suspected he would. She wouldn’t have done it, hadn’t she been more than a little bit drunk that night, and actually most of the time, then.
She thought about waking up in some dark, stinking alley, robbed of the little she had possessed, hung over and disgraced, having lost the one friend she’d had left, and that not even a real one.
She thought about the future this world had in store for a woman like her.
She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, balled her fists, and jumped, all the while hoping that the stories about having to be completely sincere were exaggerated.
Because Profound Distress did not want to die. In spite of the way life had treated her, she desperately, urgently, frantically, very, very badly did not want to die.
Because she still had hope. She had hope that had come with her calling, with her new name. Of course, she had not always been Profound Distress, but she hoped to go on being her for a while.
The relief she felt when she was softly caught in a warm, disembodied, vague embrace and her descent ceased, was a physical thing, a powerful blow overwhelming her and nearly making her faint from the surge of euphoria. Tears welled from her eyes, and a less romantic fluid started running down her nose while she held back and finally uttered a great, heart-wrenching sob. Thank you, she wanted to cry, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you, but she dared not.
The Angel certainly knew that she had not been completely sincere – Angels knew everything – but she did not have to rub it in, did she?
She was lifted up again, and gently put down at the spot she had jumped from.
“You’re a strange one,” the invisible Avatar of Lady Sorrow spoke, and Profound Distress stiffened immediately, her tears as forgotten as her euphoria. “I’ve been watching you.”
She was dumbfounded.
The Angels did not talk. They did not need to. They Descended, they Purified, they Ascended again. Divine Proclamations were delivered in writing. Angels did not talk.
Profound Distress had used the years of her apprenticeship to study the Angelic Lore meticulously, and she knew that there were several possible reasons for Lady Sorrow speaking to her, the least dreadful of which was that she had gone mad and simply imagined the Angel’s voice. Maybe she was floating between the rocks she saw below her right now, the last traces of her soul leaving her, dreaming up this other path the events might have taken, and this though actually felt quite reassuring, because the other possibilities were much worse.
So Profound Distress was more than alarmed to hear Lady Sorrow’s voice, and she dared not, could not, did not answer, until the Angel’s Presence had evaporated.
There she stood, a newly Beatified Cleric of the Hermitage II Lacrimosa, her dream fulfilled, having just been saved from certain death by an Angel, wondering if it would not be best to just jump again and have it all over with.
Abbot Glistening Tears might have been the physically oldest Clerics in the Convent, as well as temporally. He had been Beatified in the age of 94 years, and that had been more than a thousand years ago. Profound Distress shied away from considering what it must have meant to spend a millennium in this fragile body with its three remaining front teeth, its foggy eyes, its bony, knotty, aching joints and its failing ears.
The Angels stopped age in their servants, but they never restored them to youth, nor protected them from sickness or pain.
“I expect I don’t need to tell you that some of our more conservative brothers and sisters have expressed severe disappointment in your Beatification, Profound Distress,” he said.
She shook her head, smiling.
“I expect that I do need to tell you that I am one of them,” he continued.
She was slightly taken aback but tried not to show it.
“You’re a problem. You’re difficult. You’re… unrefined. I hear Head Librarian Solitudinous Compunction is still not quite over you.”
She shrugged. “I am, Your Reverence. He wasn’t as good as I hoped. Embarrassingly unimaginative for a man who reads so much.”
“I heard it almost came to blows between him and our Procurator Fiscal, Blue Rose.”
“She can become quite possessive…”
“Also, you’re probably Chosen, in one way or another. Any Cleric in possession of half his senses stays as far away from the Chosen as he can.”
She rekindled her smile, trying not to think of Lady Sorrow’s voice in her head and the frightening prospects that voice entailed, hoping that her charms would not fail to act even on someone as old as the Abbot. “But I’m smart, and kind of cute. You should be able to use that in some way.”
He nodded again.
“I’m sure we will. But until I’ve found out how, I’m relieved that circumstances have arranged in such a way that I have the opportunity to deploy you in an outpost very, very far away from II Lacrimosa and any of its servants.”
Profound Distress swallowed.
“Far be it from me to rejoice over the death of a Cleric, but what sense is there in pretending that it’s not a lovely convenience to me that the job of Warden of the Border has just become vacant.”
She swallowed again. Seeing herself spending the next 280 years or thereabouts in a small wooden cottage besides a road, waiting each day all day for one of the two carts and three messengers crossing per year.
Profound Distress was not good alone. In fact, she was horrible alone. She couldn’t stand being alone.
“Are you… I mean, thank you, Your Reverence, but… I mean, I have just been Beatified. Can you really… trust me on such a post?”
He smiled knowingly at her. “I don’t have to trust you,” he answered, “Lady Sorrow accepted you into her order of II Lacrimosa.”
“But… I’m sorry, Your Reverence, but, really… I mean” She was babbling, and she knew it, but she was afraid. Really afraid. “Don’t you think I would be more… gainfully employed somewhere else? I really don’t think I’m made for Border duty.”
“If I thought that, I would not have told you to do it, would I?” he asked, still smiling that cruel little smile. “Humility is a very pleasant trait in a person, Profound Distress. Enjoy your chance to acquire it.”
“But… I…” She did not continue. She could see in his face that her audience was over.
Profound Distress got out of her chair, noticed that it felt strangely heavy when she tried to move it. She turned around – and almost screamed.
Perched upon her backrest was a naked, obviously female Angel, her large white wings slightly spread behind her, head tilted, studying her with those pale silver empty eyes that were much more horrible in reality than in the paintings she had seen.
“Is- is that… Her?” she asked, unnecessarily.
“More or less,” answered the abbot.
Of course, it was only an Avatar. Profound Distress would have noticed a Magnum Descent directly behind her. If she had survived it.
Mercifully, Lady Sorrow seemed not inclined to talk to her this time. She just sat there, crouched, impossibly balanced on the backrest of that chair, completely silent, and colossally terrifying.
“Does she… do that often?” Profound Distress breathed, not yet daring to move for fear of startling the alien creature.
“Only with Chosen Clerics,” the abbot replied.
Unable to take her eyes off the Avatar, she felt like a metal clamp had closed around her chest. Had she thought she was afraid of being alone just then? Now she felt like she had never known real fear in her life until now.
“She’s freaking me out,” she whispered. “She’s horrible.”
Glistening Tears sighed. “One thing you need to remember when you leave the Hermitage: Being a Cleric is all about poise. Dignity. Composure. You need to show the world that you are in control. If we do that, the world thinks it is true. That’s what we are for. Messenger of the Light would have killed you on the spot for your reaction just there. And even Lady Sorrow would do it if you let yourself go like that in public. We need to show strength.”
“I do not think I would.”
Profound Distress’ gaze darted to the abbot’s face, and she noticed with tremendous satisfaction the widening of his eyes, although she had to admit that was the only outward sign of his shock.
The Avatar’s voice was dull, flat steel, as dead and as cold and as empty as her silver eyes.
“Now, this is worrisome,” the abbot said, just before the Avatar spread her wings wide and with two slow beats leaped onto his desk.
She did not even seem to notice how the air churned up by her powerful wings scattered his papers through the whole room, and how her naked taloned feet shuffled and crumpled and ripped up the remaining ones and left deep scratches in the desk’s surface.
She bowed down to him, again taking a pose that should not be possible, leaned so far forwards that she just had to fall. But did not.
Her face directly in front of his, her dead silver eyes stared into his foggy blue ones.
Profound Distress marveled. He did not even blink. He had the poise, she had to give it to him.
“Rise, Glistening Tears,” the Angel’s dead, empty voice said.
The abbot stood up so fast he almost toppled his chair.
“You will send a messenger to IX Perdido. You will do so now, and the messenger will leave right away. He will remain there until Terminus Descends for him, and then he will give my message to him. Terminus is to come and meet me.”
The abbot did not reply. Probably doesn’t know what to say, Profound Distress thought.
“You will give him this, to give to Terminus, so that he will listen.”
She held out one of her pale hands to him, long bony fingers curved like claws, palm up. The abbot looked at her for a few seconds, hesitating, then gritted his teeth and reached into her hand. He was good at hiding his feelings, but not perfect. Profound Distress noticed how quickly he pulled back his own hand, and how careful he was not to touch the Angel’s skin.
Lady Sorrow whirled around, scattering even more precious documents, and fixed her empty metal gaze upon Profound Distress.
“You’re a strange one,” she said, before launching herself upwards with a few beats of her great wings, and just vanishing through the ceiling without damaging it, leaving shocked silence and a messed-up office.
“Fuck,” Profound Distress breathed.
“I couldn’t agree more,” the abbot said.
While Profound Distress marched through the Abbey’s red brick corridors toward the library, her hands still shook, she felt cold and had to fight the desire to look over her shoulder every half-second to check, at the same time afraid of what she might see behind her.
There had been something very, very disturbing about the avatar, even apart from its creepy bird-human-hybrid body and the fact that it embodied the being in absolute, supreme, unchallengeable power over all of their lives.
She feared that the look of those cold, dead, silver eyes would haunt her for quite a while, even if she’d never see it again. Fat chance of that, as it seemed.
The avatar had reminded her of those other possibilities, and of whom she was serving now.
Messenger of the Light had allegedly become quite talkative before slaughtering the entire Hermitage of III Fulminata eight hundred years ago, as had Terminus before killing every single Cleric in IX Perdido in the year 6897, although it was unclear who might have done the original alleging. Maybe there had been time enough for Clerics to tell other people about it before the Angels had begun their Cleansing.
III Fulminata had recovered and was now back to its fearsome vigor. Messenger of the Light seemed to have returned to sanity, or satisfied with the results of Her Purification.
IX Perdido was still vacant, a ghost Hermitage and a dire warning to all that the wrath of Heaven did not even spare Its sworn servants.
She stopped before a small window, sighed and leaned on the sill. There was not much to see outside, only the orange brick wall of a tower, a small part of the court, and a tiny piece of sky, but it felt good to take a look at the world outside. Make sure it was still there. Try not to imagine it all full of screaming, burning people in a Circle of Anathema.
When she realized that she had not even asked where the Abbot was sending her, she sighed again and shook her head. She certainly would not go back now. There would be a way to find out, sooner or later. The guy driving her carriage would have to know anyway, right?
She heard a quiet rustling behind her and whirled around, half angry and half terrified, prepared for another visit by Lady Sorrow, but all she saw was some poor servant boy, maybe twelve years old, who dropped his load of laundry and fell on his butt, scrambling to get away from the Cleric who had suddenly decided to attack him, almost knocking his head against the wall behind him.
“I’m sorry, your Holiness!” he gasped, kneeling before her and pressing his forehead to the floor. “Please forgive me!”
She smiled, despite herself. “Oh knock it off, will you?” Profound Distress recognized the boy. Last week, he had tried to sneak into her chambers to watch her undress, the little pervert, and laughed at her while running away. Of course, the robe she had been about to take off then had been Acolyte blue. Now she wore red. “I’ve hardly been a Cleric for a day! Now get up and let me apologize for startling you.”
He slowly stood up and started gathering the laundry, his gaze all the while fixed on the ground before him.
“I’m sorry, your Holiness,” he mumbled again.
She shook her head as he bowed and scurried away. Fool. Acting like we routinely spanked them for even looking at us, she thought. As far as she knew, no servant in II Lacrimosa had been physically punished for at least as long as she had been here. But then again, it was not so long ago when she herself had been just an ordinary citizen in Iustok. Then, meeting an actual Cleric would probably have been almost as terrifying an experience as meeting Lady Sorrow had been just now.
Still, he had to have shed some of that awe in his years as a servant to the Clerics, no?
Whatever, she thought, and resumed her way to the library, to say goodbye to one of the two persons here who might care about her leaving.
“So, why are you telling me this, and why would you think I’d care?”
Solitudinous Compunction shoved the old tome into the shelf with enough force to not only make an audible sound when it hit the back wall, but to even rock the whole shelf. Of course, this was unacceptably reckless behavior, considering that he was handling ancient and priceless, usually unique, specimens of literature and lore, but Profound Distress did not think it the right time to tell him so.
In fact, she was taken aback by his reaction. He had never been anything but kind and gentle with her before he found out. She had expected him to be more the silently reproachful, secretly still in love type, than the angry You-hurt-me-I-hate-you kind of cheated lover.
“It’s just… I… Look,” she stammered. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Solitudinous.”
“Ah, really?” he answered. “Well that makes it all right then, doesn’t it? Cheating with that… other person, lying to me, making me look like the last buffoon, as long as you didn’t do it with the intention to hurt me, that’s just fine, right?”
“Uhm. No, of course not. I just- You know what I wanted to say!”
She groaned and examined her own feet very closely before finally answering, her eyes still fixed on her naked toes. No one wore shoes in the Hermitage.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lied to you, and I shouldn’t have laughed at you when you found out. Will you forgive me?”
For a moment, she wondered if she should offer… He hadn’t been that bad. But when she looked up, he was slowly shaking his head, a wry smile on his lips, and all thoughts in that direction vanished.
“Not yet. Maybe someday, but not today, and not tomorrow. Maybe when you’re back. But for now, your mere presence makes me angry, and quite frankly, I think you’re a liar and a slut by nature, so please leave now.”
She swallowed. That had been frank indeed, but she guessed she deserved it, and it was not the first time she had been called that and worse. She had really tried to leave it behind when signing up to the Hermitage, and then she had thought that she would certainly make it after becoming a full Cleric. She would see about that.
“Can I ask you a question before I go? It’s strictly business, and it’s important.”
He rolled his eyes. “Shoot.”
“What do you know about… You know, Her Avatars. What does it mean when one appears and talks to you?”
He peered at her through narrowed eyes – he had that knack of looking like he wore small reading glasses, even though he didn’t need them and never wore any.
“It usually means you’re in deep shit. Why?” He noticed her look. “Oh, you don’t mean to say – certainly you haven’t…”
He rolled his eyes again and groaned. “All the more reason you should get out of here right now. Get on your way and, preferably, don’t come back.”
Okay. That went well. One down, one to go.
Book group questions (In case you’re new here: There is no group you have to become a member of or anything. The questions are just for those of you who wish to participate but would like a little guidance for what to say. Feel free to answer them, all or in part, or ignore them, there’s no obligations here.):
- „Not even a slight breeze to stir the long straight red hair falling to the middle of her back.“ „Her metal-grey eyes roamed the seascape before her while she thought about her past. “ I personally dislike when writers do this. It feels like a cheap ploy to describe a person to a reader while not having the balls to just plain describe her. On the other hand, I have heard that some people care what fictional characters look like, and that they prefer it that way. Furthermore, a plain outside description would break the point of view in this scene, which these do a little, too, but less brutally. So, what do you think?
- Especially in Fantasy settings, where readers cannot just work with what they know about the world, because they don’t, it’s difficult to decide how much exposition I should include. I don’t want to bore you with pages of history and background, but I do want you to be able to follow the story. In my first draft, there was more exposition in the first scene, but my Tutor counseled me reduce that, so I did. How did you get along with this first chapter?
- She also wanted more background about Profound Distress and Solitudinous Compunction, which I find completely superfluous, so I didn’t include it. Did you miss bakckground in that scene?
- How did you feel about the Angel?