There you go. I’m quite proud of myself right now, because I actually managed to get a new chapter ready for you in less than two weeks, and that in spite of my rather extraordinary workload right now. God, I hope my boss never finds out about this blog. Anyway, that’s not your problem, so lean back (or not, you know) and enjoy the second chapter of the world’s best serialised novel!
Yes, I said it. Because no one else would. Prove me wrong.
Previously on Angelic Duties:
In the first chapter, we met Profound Distress, watched her attempt suicide, be sent away by Abbot Glistening tears, and saying goodbye to one of her former lovers.
Today on Angelic Duties:
“So nice to see you again.” Blue Rose gave her one of her radiant smiles that made her knees soft, and something else, too, but then made it crumble and die in an instant. “Why are you here?” she asked, coldly, one of her perfect eybrows raised over one of her perfect blue eyes that could shine so full of love and joy, when she wanted them to.
“I- I’m leaving,“ Profound Distress answered.
“I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Consider it done.”
“I don’t know when I will be returning.”
“We’ll find out soon enough, I guess. Or rather too soon, for me.”
Profound Distress felt an odd wave of pity for herself. She wasn’t that bad, was she? “You know, I’m really… I really don’t know why I’m surprised you two hate me so much, but I am, and it hurts, and I’d really rather we part at least not enemies. Is that too much to ask?”
Blue Rose snorted a laugh. “You two?” she asked. “YOU TWO?” she repeated, screaming. Then she took a deep breath and continued in normal volume: “Yes, it is. Now get out of my office. Bitch.”
Profound Distress looked at her feet again while she murmured: “All right then. Sorry, and thanks for-”
“Will you shut up and leave already?”
She turned around and softly closed the door behind herself. Whatever people thought the red robes changed, they certainly didn’t make you a better person, or a stronger one.
Profound Distress resolved to remember that, and to try to become one anyway. Heavens knew she could use it.
When she raised her hand to her face to scratch a slight itch near her eye, she was startled to find her cheek wet with tears.
She took one shuddering, stuttering, not quite sobbing breath and went on her way to her dormitory to collect her meager belongings.
At least it was done, right? At least she got a fresh new start, wherever she was going. That had to be worth something, didn’t it?`
“Where am I going, by the way?” she asked the coach driver, while he fastened her suitcase to the roof of the carriage.
“Iustok, Your Holiness”, he answered.
And her heart stopped.
Oh, you have got to be kidding me, she thought. Please, let this be a mistake. Let me have misheard him. You could do that for your Chosen, couldn’t you?
“Wh-where?” she asked.
“To Iustok, Your Holiness, to introduce you to the Teneract administration, and then on to the outpost. It’s about thirty miles north ot Iustok.”
“She hates me, too”, Profound Distress breathed, staring wide-eyed into nothingness.
“Excuse me, Your Holiness, I don’t understand?”
She climbed into the passenger’s compartment and pulled the door closed behind herself, wishing for at least an open window. She despised the reek of old leather and moldy wood in carriages. It made her nauseous, and all the shaking and rocking didn’t help much, either.
She didn’t really believe that Lady Sorrow had arranged for her to be sent to an outpost near Teneract just to mess with her. Although it would be an excellent way to achieve that goal, and would explain the other Cleric’s death very nicely.
It wasn’t as if Angels had ever shown much reluctance to kill their Clerics when it served the Concord. And sometimes even when it didn’t, at least not in any way discernible by mortals.
But Lady Sorrow had always been one of the more friendly – no, scratch that – one of the less dangerous Angels, she was not known for playing games, and historically, all her actions showed a certain regard for human lives that was quite exceptional within the group of the ten known Angels. Only Baster and Beriel had less documented victims than her, and not by much.
Anyway, Profound Distress was quite sure that Lady Sorrow had not killed her predecessor just to force her to work close to a city where she used to be more than just a persona non grata, where she was considered pariah, and treated almost like a diseased woman one was afraid might be catching.
Of course, that would end now, at least openly. She was a Cleric now, she was the voice of the Angels. If she told people to cut off their middle fingers and eat them, most would probably obey. Maybe after timidly asking if she had misspoken, but only once. If they knew what was good for them.
That didn’t mean that anyone would respect her in Iustok, or like her, or even not loathe her, but they would certainly try not to show it.
Sounded like loads of fun when you thought about it, didn’t it?
Oh hell. Maybe it would be fun. Maybe she could enjoy making them all grovel and bow to her, maybe exploit her power over them a little. Not too much. The Angels were much more tolerant of misuse of their name than most ordinary people thought, but their patience had limits, and it was not advisable to test them, because they were obscure, and shifting all the time.
It was a pity, since she would probably miss out on a lot of golden opportunities, but playing with Angels was for the suicidal and the terminally stupid. Profound Distress had vowed to try her best to be neither any more.
Kimbal sighed and tried to breath through his mouth without looking unnecessarily stupid. He didn’t want to know how it smelled to look like the guy who had just opened the door for him.
“I’m looking for … Cerya Teneract.”
The guy brayed a laugh that sputtered out in a fit of wet coughing and a spray of mucus. Kimbal stepped back, not even caring if the brute noticed it. This was just disgusting.
“Why?” the guy finally asked. “Fam’ly sent ya?”
Kimbal resisted the temptation to ask him how on earth he might have arrived at the conclusion that House Teneract was the kind of loving family that would send someone to look after their daughter when she didn’t show up for dinner.
“Is she here or not?” he asked instead, hoping that his newly-acquired grey Gendarm’s uniform might lend him some authority.
“Have a look for yaself,” the guy muttered, stepping back form Kimbal to enter.
Kimbal entered, and just followed the anti-melodic singing, the wild joyless laughter, the screaming that might be mindless elation or pain. It led him through a run-down entry hall that might have been grand once into a corridor where the expensive silken wallpaper peeled and hung down in shreds and where almost-burnt-out lamps sputtered and flickered, desperately reaching for the last dregs of oil in their rusty reservoirs.
Something within him clenched very tight and his breathing got heavy while he tried not to imagine what state he would find her in, tried not to think about what she had done, what she was doing right now, and with whom, tried not to despise this woman he loved, and tried to remember why he had fallen in love with her, the way she was when he was alone with her, and when she was not …
“High Heaven,” he breathed, when he entered the salon.
There were about a dozen people in there, lying in various states of dishevelment on threadbare armchairs or on the worn-out carpet that might have been worth a fortune before drink and food and who knows what other fluids had been spilled on it.
As if to illustrate the point, one of the revelers, a skinny guy in a brocade shirt but without pants stumbled to his feet, reeled a few steps towards the wall until he could brace his arms and relieved himself right there on the ground.
For a second, he was determined to just turn on his heels and leave, but then he saw Cerya, moonleaf-pipe fallen from her trembling fingers, staring into space with an expression of vague, fatuous satisfaction. When she noticed him, her eyes narrowed and for a second, a smile flitted across her face, before she remembered where she was, and who she was with.
Kimbal knew the game.
“Cerya!” he called.
She rolled her eyes.
One or two of the others spared a glance in his direction, but most of them were too lost in their own depravity to notice what was going on.
“I … was expecting you”, he said, helplessly, as always, furious, as always, trying not to show it, as always. “You were supposed to meet me, about two hours ago.”
“Oh shush!” She waved in his direction. “I forgot, so what? Why don’cha c’me over ‘ere’nd ‘ave fun wi’us?”
He breathed a ragged sigh.
“I’d like to take you home, Cerya. I think it’s time to leave.”
“Cerya, who is this clown?” one of the others asked her. “Daddy sent someone to put you to bed?”
She looked at him with an ostentatiously condescending smile.
“Leave me ‘lone, Kimbal, jus’ leave if all ya wanna do ‘s spoil our fun.”
Fun, he thought. Right.
He stepped forward and took one of her arms, not violently, just to establish some contact and show her that he was serious.
“Come on”, he coaxed. “Come with me, Cerya, please. This isn’t good for you. These people are not your friends.”
One of the revelers lying beside her, his hair full of vomit, probably his own, squinted up at Kimbal and shook his head, like he couldn’t believe how low some people would sink.
“Aw yeah?” she slurred. “Well a’least dey havin’ some fun with me, while all you can do is spoil errything!”
“Yeah, leave her alone, fuckin’ pig!” someone yelled. It was the guy who had called him a clown before.
“Cerya, please. It’s time now. You need to come home with me.”
“Don’ need anything!” she mumbled. “Jus’ leave me alone… wi’ my friends’ere. We don’ need no spoilsports like you.” She chuckled, and coughed, hawked and spat some phlegm on the carpet. For a moment, her eyes crossed and she started retching, but then she just closed her eyes and let her head sink to the floor.
Kimbal also closed his eyes for a few seconds and tried to calm his nerves, tried to remember the good he saw in her, and tried to find enough good in himself to do what he always did.
And then he opened his eyes and knelt down, lifted her up and carried her out of the house.
Like a lethargic slug, the crowd of cultists squeezed through the gate of the Repository Fastness, and the five Gendarms could do nothing but watch. None of them even knew if there really was a mechanism that could have closed the gate, much less how to work it. None of them remembered a time when such a mechanism would have been necessary to protect the outsider merchandise, because everybody knew that Outsider Trade was strictly regulated by Angelic Law.
The entrance was only wide enough to admit about four or five people walking abreast, so it took some time for the approximately forty cultists to enter the courtyard before the main door.
“Halt!” Punt called, again, but the cultists did not listen. They just continued walking towards the five Gendarms, chanting their queer hymn, holding the star-shaped iron symbol of their god before them.
“You cannot stop us!” one of them answered. “No one can stop he who does almighty Borathal’s will!”
The cult leader, discernible by his baggy white robes and stupid hat, stepped forth and spread out his arms.
“Let us pass!” he called out. “We have had enough of your oppression! Our children will no longer suffer poverty and privation while your kind lives in abundance and plenty!”
One of the other Gendarms suppressed a snort and muttered: “’Our kind’? Sure, right.”
“Like kings, we’re living”, another grunted.
“Fuck”, Kimbal breathed. “Fuck, I don’t believe this.” He raised his voice, calling: “Are you crazy? Turn around and go home, right now! You cannot enter the Fastness! And there’s not even food in there! You couldn’t even use the outsider stuff!”
They didn’t listen. They kept walking.
“You’re breaking Angelic Law, for fuck’s sake, what do you think you’re doing?”
“We are protected by the hand of Borathal. He will crush the demons you serve!”
The Gendarms pulled back a few steps, at a loss for how to deal with this. The cultists were too many to be stopped by force, and reason seemed to have lost any sway it might have held over them.
“You can’t seriously believe that!” Punt yelled. “When was the last time you’ve seen anyone being protected from the Angels by anything whatsoever?”
“No one has ever had the protection of Borathal!” answered the leader. “He is a kindly god, and he has watched this for a long time, but his patience is now at an end, and we are his chosen instrument to end this tyranny! Forward, children! Take what’s yours by right!”
The cultists approached, uncertain at first, but more and more confident as others followed the first few, pulled by their example, pushed by those behind.
The cultists’ eyes were locked on the Repository, and the Gendarms’ on them, except for Kimbal’s, who was looking out for what he was afraid would happen any moment.
And then something did happen to the world.
Kimbal blinked, and looked inquiringly at the cobblestones beneath his feet, and the wall behind him, wondering what exactly had changed, until he realized that their colors were slightly off.
That was when he realized. Kimbal turned his head up, to see that the sun had vanished in a silvery grey haze, and right then he started hearing the voice.
“Fuck”, he breathed again, and then added, louder: “We need to leave.”
The voice was very quiet, but it was definitely there. A slight high-pitched vibrato that lay beneath all the other sounds around them. He might not have noticed it, had he not heard it before.
“What are you talking about?” asked Punt. “We can’t let them enter the Repository!”
The cultists had now reached the line of the Gendarms, and started shoving them, without any real violence or intention to injure, just to get them out of the way. The Gendarms pushed back, except for Kimbal, who stepped back and out of the way.
“We need to get out of here, now!”
The voice got fractionally louder, and the grey before the sun darkened. Cultists and Gendarms alike paused when they, too, noticed the change in lighting, and the sound.
“See!” Punt called out. “She’s coming! This is your last chance! Go back to your houses, before she arrives!”
The cultists’ forward momentum ceased while they stared at the apparition in the sky, suddenly doubtful again.
“Too late”, Kimbal said. “She’s on her way. Punt, Hadge, Munger, Khamol, I’m serious. We need to leave right now!”
“You can leave,“ Hadge sneered. “I’m not abandoning my post while She is watching!”
“Go on, my children!” hollered the cult leader from behind the front ranks. “Borathal is speaking to me right now, and he tells you to have no fear, he will smite the demon and guard you from the illusion of power it wields!”
The voice was now clearly audible, the melody in its sing-song strange and disconcertingly alien.
“Listen to me!” Kimbal screamed, desperate now. He needed to run. He couldn’t hesitate much longer, but he didn’t want to leave his comrades. “She’s coming to Purify this courtyard, and she won’t care if you’re wearing a uniform or a cultist’s robe!”
“Borathal guards us!” one of the cultists yelled, and others took up his words, and soon they spread, as a chant, through the crowd.
Kimbal noticed that a few of the ones in the back were scurrying away, but most stayed, and resumed pushing against the Gendarms, who could not help but move back before their pressure.
“They are the ones breaking the Law!” Punt answered him. “We have nothing to fear.”
“Damn it, I…”
A flash of light momentarily blinded them, and something like sound but not quite sound left their ears ringing and their heads dizzy as Lady Sorrow Descended above them.
Kimbal glanced up, swaying on his feet, blinking his eyes, and looked upon the winged female figure above them, at the talons at the ends of her grotesquely elongated limbs, and at her dead metal eyes. Her narrow lips were moving, and the song from her wide not-quite-human mouth made something in his mind reel back.
“Leave!” he heard her say, somehow above the song, without interrupting it.
“You heard the Lady!” Punt yelled, but no one listened.
“Leave now”, she repeated.
Her voice was not loud, but penetrating, and sounded very close, and very urgent. Still, the crowd was too lost in their delusion to obey. Some of them even started throwing stuff at her, from clumps of dirt, to rocks, to strange trinkets that might be symbols of their god.
None of them even came close to the Angel above them, and some of the thrown things fell onto other cultists, yielding outraged screams.
That was when he abandoned his post and ran. It was not so much a conscious decision as sheer animal instinct. He could no more have stayed and borne that sight and his fear than he could have spread wings of his own and lifted upwards to meet her.
He pushed through the cultists, who did not offer much resistance, pleasantly surprised by his desertion.
Ignoring the angry shouts from his comrades, he dashed through the open gate and never looked back, as behind him Lady Sorrow sang the abstracta of her Angelic song, and he felt the heat on his back, as the Circle of Anathema sprang up and Purified the transgression.
He gradually came to a stop and leaned against some house’s wall, panting, and could not but turn and look, and even while he heard the screams of the cultists and of his dying comrades, he had to marvel at that voice, and that song, not comprehending how such words could ever be spoken, how such a song could even be possible.
He saw nothing, of course. Behind the gate to the Repository, there was nothing but the blazing light of the Circle, and above, there was still Lady Sorrow, hovering in the air, the same blazing light streaming from her mouth, and her eyes, and even her nostrils, as she sang the impossible, and even though he wanted to close his eyes, to block his ears, to turn and run, he could not but stay and behold the abomination that was swallowing fifty people, fifty living, breathing, dreaming, hoping men and women. He had no choice but to helplessly stare at the monster destroying his fellow citizens for doing what they thought was their duty to their families and to the Concord.
When the song ceased, and Kimbal heard the sound that was no sound again, and the Angel vanished, he felt all strength flow out of him. His knees buckled, and everything went dark.
Book group questions:
- Flashbacks are tempting for writers, but often boring for readers, because they tell you stuff that happened a long time ago. What did you think about this one?
- Did I overdo the gross stuff?
- In the flashback, did you sympathize with Kimbal, or did you feel like he was in the wrong?
- Did the last scene confuse you or could you understand what was going on?
- I’m asking because I’m not yet sure where to put it. This might be too early. Same for the flashback. You probably can’t judge this because you don’t know how the story continues, but if you do have an opinion, feel free to share.