It’s taken longer, again, but it’s not all bad news. Due to some change of heart I experienced at the last minute, the next chapter is already about halfway done, so here’s to hoping you won’t have to wait very long for issue 7. Until then, enjoy.
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.
In the second chapter, we watched Profound Distress say her goodbyes to Blue Rose and drive off to Iustik, met a Gendarm called Kimbal with whom we first saved a lady in arguable distress and then watched how Lady Sorrow deals with people breaking Angelic Law.
In the third chapter, Profound Distress first has a rather unenjoyable encounter with Glonn Teneract, then with an Avatar of Lady Sorrow, and finally with a bottle.
In the fourth chapter, Cerya has a bad awakening with Glon, a bad reunion with Kimbal who guides her to her cottage and then leaves her – on bad terms.
In the fifth chapter, Kimbal leaves, and Profound Distress somehow makes do without him. Kimbal’s wife convinces him to invite Profound Distress for dinner to regain her good will, and she accepts.
Today on Angelic Duties:
The steam wagon made a noise like a dying animal in its last throes, it crawled ahead at the pace of a one-legged toad, it smelled as if someone had forgotten to check on the roast, and, frankly, Glon always felt it might explode any second now while riding in it, but steam wagons were all the rage among the Houses, as were all Outsider Technica, so he’d had one commissioned, and so he had to be seen in it, and so he had to ride in it, and so he wished very much for the time after the plan had come to fruition and there was not Outside any more for vapid fashion slaves to fawn over.
But until then, here he was, listening to the asthmatic wheezing of the steam engine, tempted to make conversation at such unlikely targets as Duncan and Yarnon, just to keep himself from thinking about the terrible pressure in the gleaming brass boiler, the deadly jagged shards it could turn into in the wrong circumstances, and the damage those would wreak upon his body, just like the one they had …
“So, Duncan, what do you think? Laghmutch can’t seem to shut up about the threat my dear sister poses to our happy little band fellowship. And I have to admit, she can be difficult, but I have a soft spot in my heart for her. Although, it might not be in my heart, and it might not be so soft after all, if you know what I mean.” He laughed.
Duncan, of course, did not.
“How about you, eh? Do you agree with him? Do you think I should find someone else to enjoy and just have her …”
Glon stopped talking when the old man turned to him with a stony expression on his weathered face.
“Sir,“ he said, “I serve you for one reason, the same I served your father, and his father. It is because I possess an extraordinary proficiency in a very narrow area of expertise. This expertise is, luckily for me and maybe all of us, very rare within the Concord.”
Glon frowned at Duncan, wondering where this untypically wordy answer might lead.
“I know how to hurt people,“ Duncan said gravely. “I know how to be a bully, and how to abuse my strength to cow those unable to match it. It is the one thing I do, and I do it well, and if you must have my council, sir, I counsel you to refrain from trying to use me in any other way, because there is no other way in which I am useful.”
Glon swallowed, and his gaze involuntarily darted towards Yarnon, who was staring out of a small brass-rimmed window as hard as he could, pretending not to notice what had just happened, doing his best to avoid any involvement in this, and it almost made Glon smile. At least, it gave him the strength to look into Duncan’s pale blue eyes, fake a halfway convincing chuckle and say:
“Why, Duncan, I could almost suspect you of having some little thing going for her yourself.” With another chuckle, he added: “Was I wrong after all? Did you like what you saw the other night?”
“I assure you”, Duncan replied quite evenly before turning away, “I did not.”
“Hm.” Glon snorted. For a few heartbeats, he thought about telling Duncan to go hurt her then if that was all he was good for, but something stopped him, and he decided to change the topic. “Well, alright then … Yarnon, since you’ve been gawking out that porthole the whole time like your life depended on it, you can surely tell me where we are?”
“Indeed, sir. We have almost reached the Repository Fastness, sir. It does not seem to be damaged in any way, sir, as far as I can tell. Just as it was described, sir.”
“Glad to hear it. Those things are a serious hassle to build, as far as I know.”
“They certainly are, sir.”
“Yes thank you, Yarnon, that’s quite enough for now. I can agree with myself whenever I want, and I will tell you when I need you to tune in, yes?”
“Of course, sir!”
“Damn you two, I never would have thought I might one day yearn for Laghmutch’s company, but there you are.”
Actually, he knew someone else whose company he might welcome, but she was not here and had left in quite a huff. On the other hand, she had always been quick to forgive, to put it euphemistically, so he was not too worried on that front. Besides, it was not like he would have trouble finding nubile young ladies to warm his bed if push came to shove. He was Pater Familiae, after all.
Maybe he could visit her. It would make sense. After all, he needed her to reopen the Border, to continue trade. He had to talk to her anyway, why wait? It might even be a nice gesture, make her more amenable in the future if he came to her to ask nicely, and once he was there, maybe …
The steam wagon stopped, and the driver knocked on the wall four times.
“Awww,” said Glon. “We were just getting along so well. A pity we have to interrupt our lively chat.”
He opened the door and jumped out, and – almost slipped. He could just about keep his balance by leaning on the door handle so heavily he slammed it shut right into Yarnon’s face.
The pathetic snake yelped and fell back. Glon just ignored him and looked down to his boots.
The cobblestones beneath him were covered with a thick layer of gray, greasy dust, or ashes, or … he refused to think about it and raised his eyes to look upon the building before –
There. What was the Gendarm doing here? Why was he standing around here instead of guarding the city, and now he was studying him more closely: Didn’t he know the guy?
Wasn’t that –
He felt a short but intense upwelling of resentment which he quickly crushed. Silly. This was just a Gendarm, and he was Pater Familiae of House Teneract.
“Hey!” he waved at the man, and smiled. “Hey, you! What a coincidence! Aren’t you that poor simple guy my sister used to waste her time with?”
There. See. He could be a grown-up and stand above his petty jealousy.
The Gendarm – Kambo? Kumba? Kimbub? – looked at Glon, incredulously, like he was honestly unsure if he had misunderstood.
“Are you – are you talking to me?” he asked. “What did you say?”
Glon walked towards him, carefully, so he did not slip again.
“We don’t really know each other”, he explained, while he heard Yarnon getting out of the wagon behind himself, and assumed Duncan had also gotten out, with a lot less moaning and muttering. “It’s just, Cerya used to talk about you. We had such great laughs about your antics, back when, you know? She used to call you her little fool, or some such, and she just mentioned she might try to make you hers again when we last met. I wonder, has she already made a move? I know she would so enjoy having a toy again, like she used to.”
The Gendarm, whatever his name, still watched him with that same look.
“I just – I can’t – Are you seriously …?”
“See, she told me …”
A heavy hand fell on Glon’s right shoulder, and a deep voice rumbled low beside his ear: “People died here, son. Good people. People working for you and this city. His comrades. If you really need to do this, why not do it another time, another place?”
Glon spun around to face Duncan.
“Take your hand off me!” he hissed. “That’s twice today you’ve treated me like some brat who doesn’t know what he’s doing, and I won’t stand for it. I know you’re a fucking old grouch who likes to spoil other people’s fun because he never had any, and I realize I won’t be the one to teach this old dog new tricks, but embarrass me like this ever again, and I swear to High Heaven I will forget everything you’ve done for my family, and I will have. Your. Head. Do you understand that – dog?”
Duncan studied him with a level gaze as if he was looking for something within him, and after a few heartbeats, without giving any indication of whether he had found it, he blinked once, nodded, and let his hand drop.
“Great,” said Glon, and added for good measure: “Good boy. Now as to this Gendarm …”
He turned around – but the man in the grey uniform had vanished.
“Pf!” Glon spat. “Coward.” And towards Duncan, without turning around: “You should have told me he was leaving. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”
“I will not.”
“You should have told me. What about your famous loyalty, hm?”
The old man did not answer.
“Fuck it,” Glon muttered. “Let’s forget about all this and go visit the Fastness, get this done, and get back to the House before She shows up again.”
A dry, humorless cackling sounded from the shadow behind an open door in the Fastness.
“Afraid of Heaven’s pages? Who is that bloodless weakling masquerading as my son?”
Glon sighed and, over his shoulder, spoke to Duncan: “See? No need to publicly humiliate me, the job is already taken.”
That seemed to almost elicit something resembling a smile from the old grouch’s stony features.
“Why don’t you come in here, quickly now, before the brownies and the hobgoblins get you.” She did that disgusting cackle again before she aped his former comment in a timid mewling voice: “Before Sheee shows up again! Oh the terrible Angels, I’m so afraid, I want my mommie, right now, boo-hoo!”
“I simply don’t trust these cursed Engines, mother, and you shouldn’t, either,“ he said while shambling over the slippery ashy cobblestones towards to Fastness’s door. “Weren’t you the one always telling me never to trust anyone, especially not a Tawney?”
The inside of the Fastness was sparse, as was to be expected from what was essentially a storage shed. Naked stone walls, crates, sacks and packages wrapped in linen, illuminated by lanterns, few and so smoky they hardly shed any light at all.
But Glon’s mother seemed right at home here. She had foregone the regalia of House membership and wrapped herself in a simple robe of rough cloth with a cowl shadowing her wrinkled features, her narrow pinched mouth and her vulture’s nose.
“It’s one thing to distrust a rival, dear, and another to flinch at shadows. If those pompous fowl knew what we’re up to and if they could intervene, we would all be part of that gunk you’re wading through by now. Laghmutch Tawney is smart and devious and a genuine threat. The Heavenly capons are bound by so many rules and Laws and their own sheer machine-like inhumanity that they are utterly predictable. They are like a falling rock. Potentially dangerous, unstoppable for practical purposes, but once you know its trajectory, it takes not half of a brain to evade their nominally formidable power.”
“They seemed fickle enough for me, at times. Just how predictable did you think it that Lady Sorrow accepted Cerya and had her sent to -”
Jakta Teneract hawked and spat a substantial glop of phlegm directly in front of his hand-crafted boots of soft brown Brasdeloch leather.
“Really, Glon,” she said, “Get a grip of this mortifying obsession with your sister.”
“I’m not -“
“Cerya here, Cerya there, Cerya this, Cerya that, so she’s a Cleric now, so what? She betrayed our family, she left us, she turned against House Teneract! She is no longer alive to me, and if you absolutely can’t refrain from fucking her while she’s too plastered to object, so be it, it’s none of my concern but stop talking about that filthy cunt as if she was anything to us!” The last sentence she almost shrieked. She took a breath and added, more composed: “I won’t have it.”
“I only meant to -”
“Drop it, Glon.”
“I am Pater Familiae, mother, and I will make the decisions now.”
“And I am your mother, Glon, and I will tell you when you’re being a brat. Your father always was too soft on you, the both of you, and look what it earned him, and us, and you. Just think about it. I always had such high hopes for you, I always told him to -”
“Let us just inspect the Fastness, and I will leave you to your high hopes, mother, shall we?”
She sneered at him and shook her head.
“Inspect whatever you feel like inspecting. You won’t find anything I haven’t told you about.”
Glon turned and cast a longing glance at Duncan Klaut, asking himself if the old man would even hesitate if he told him to strangle the old harpy here and now and have her stuffed to adorn the fireplace in his private suite in the House, and though he was quite sure that he would not, he held back. Harpy she may be, but Glon realized that that did not necessarily make her wrong, and that every Pater Familiae since the beginning of the Convent had had to rely on his mother’s experience after killing his father, and that those unable to curb their enthusiasm for slaughtering their family members usually met with a decidedly early and often enough rather humbling demise.
Maybe it would be sufficient to remind her that she did not need her legs in order to aggravate him with her advice.
Profound Distress climbed a few steps down the ladder before she realized it was far too dark down there to see without a lantern. Luckily, she remembered seeing one in one of the cupboards she had searched for food the night before, and this morning again, so she climbed back up to get it.
There was even still oil in the reservoir, so all she had to do was light the wick before she could make her second attempt.
Standing before the hole in the floor, she looked down into the darkness and took a deep breath.
That strange feeling was still there, and she did not like it. She’d had her fill of being attracted to things that were not good for her.
Her eyes flickered towards the bottle again, but she quickly turned them away.
Don’t go there, Cerya.
You must not. You are invited to dinner with Kimbal, and you want to show him that you are not what you used to be. You want to prove that you’re better now. You are. You have to be. You can do this. You will go there, clean and sober and merry, and it will be a fantastic evening, and his wife will turn out to be ugly and mean, and he only stays with her because of the chil…
Well, she could have her dreams at least, couldn’t she?
She took a deep breath and went down the ladder, slowly because she wasn’t practiced at climbing ladders one-handed. Also, with every rung she descended, the feeling of … some kind of presence grew more intense, and with it the uncomfortable allure she’d felt since opening the door, but she refused to be intimidated. She was a Cleric, after all, and apparently even a Chosen, for better or worse, and Lady Sorrow would protect her.
Just as She had protected Slight Depression.
The ground beneath the ladder was simple earth, though tightly packed, as were the walls, with just a few wooden beams to provide stability. The rectangular room she found herself in measured about 2 times 3 steps, so the only object in it would have stood out, even if it had not been possibly the most outlandish and strangely disgusting piece of machinery she had ever seen.
Profound Distress did not have much experience with Engines. She knew the steam wagons and had seen a few, though never ridden in one, and she knew the weird contraption her father had bought from House Tawney to somehow pump cold into a room to store vegetables and meat and keep the contents from spoiling. Strangely enough, the machine had felt very hot when she’d dared to touch it once.
But this thing was completely different.
Those Engines had moved, and spewed steam, and their brass and steel parts had gleamed, and they had obviously been constructed as objects of luxury, to impress and to please.
This one was to those as a spider was to a butterfly.
There was nothing shiny about it, no brass to be seen anywhere, no crystal knobs or jewel-studded levers. Just a dark block of iron, partially covered in some black viscous goo which had begun to ooze onto the earth, as if slowly but steadily trying to seize the whole cellar.
The Engine did not move, or hum, or give out little puffs of steam. It did not give any sign of functioning at all, not the slightest vibration, not the tiniest sound.
Was it dead?
Maybe that black stuff was not supposed to be outside. Maybe something had happened down here that destroyed the machine and … did something to her predecessor?
Looking at that syrupy black mass, she realized this was the source of her feeling of unhealthy attraction. It … called to her. It looked so silky smooth, its surface reflecting the light of her candle, refracting it into a rainbow of colors that seemed to speak of something hiding deep within that mass, something sweet and delightful that would …
Breathing heavily, Profound Distress took a step back and felt her back touch the earthen wall.
She needed to get out of here. She needed to concentrate. And most of all, she needed to avoid looking at and thinking about that black stuff.
But she also needed to find out what this was about. The Angel wanted her to. So she did her best to concentrate on what was before her, to understand it and get back up into daylight as quickly as possible.
Something must have gone wrong here, and it had probably resulted in Slight Depressions, vanishing. That much seemed obvious.
Certainly, this was no coincidence. There did not just happen to be a strange nefarious machine in a hidden underground room beneath the cottage of a cleric who had vanished under mysterious circumstances.
She considered the Engine, looking for anything that seemed broken or otherwise irregular, hoping to glean some understanding of what it might have done until it broke.
There. What was that? Some kind of button? And above, writing?
She took a step towards the machine, cautiously looking down where she put her feet, even though she was still at least a full step away from the closest tendril of the black goo. The idea of touching that stuff was just too revolting.
But was it?
She considered the silky gleaming surface again. Maybe it wasn’t that dangerous. It was part of the machine she was trying to inspect, right? She was flinching at shadows here. Whatever it was, it could not possibly do anything to her, and it might even help her understand the Engine it belonged to.
That made sense, didn’t it?
She took another step without quite being conscious of making a decision to do so.
Something told her that touching the black stuff would not harm her, but would help her comprehend. That was what she had come here for. That was what the Angel wanted. That was what she needed to do.
The black goo seemed very close now, seemed to fill her field of vision – why? Hat she approached it further? – and it looked absolutely mesmerizing. The play of the light in that fathomless black depths, the thick viscous texture, its sweet and at the same time crisp and refreshing smell, everything about it told her how it would feel really great to touch the black stuff, how it would be the best thing to ever happen to her because the black stuff knew her, it understood her, and it could heal her, it would make her whole.
Kneeling before the machine, she looked down into that infinite pool of sweet blackness that invited her to partake of it, to take it into her and become one with hit, that sung to her and knew her, had waited for her, just her, and loved her, and wanted her, to take her troubles and fears and doubts and give of its strength and knowledge.
She bent her elbows, opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue towards the enticing black syrupy liquid, welcoming its …
Lady Sorrow’s voice pierced the haze enveloping her mind like steel did skin.
“What … What … Where … ?”
She shook her head, and blinked, and looked around.
Why was she down on her hands knees before the strange machine, bending down towards that disgusting black puddle? When had that happened?
“Profound Distress. Where are you?”
“Wha … I … I am here!” she stammered, painstakingly getting back on her feet, stumbling backwards, panting, still confused, and dizzy.
“Come to me, Profound Distress. Come to me.”
“I … I’m on my way. Sorry. I mean … Yes, sure, I’m coming as fast as I can!”
She swayed a little, but she found the ladder.
Where was the lantern?
Right. There. It stood on the ground, where she had stood before –
No matter. It would burn itself out in time. She would not return towards that thing. Certainly not.
“Can you hear me, Profound Distress? Answer.”
The Angel’s voice was as detached and unyielding as always, despite the uncertainty in its words.
“I can hear you. I answered you! I’m coming, just wa… I mean, I’m coming!”
She scrambled up the ladder and crawled out of the hole, and slumped on the ground besides it, gasping for air, much more winded than was justified by that little climb, for the first time kind of relieved to see the avatar’s winged silhouette looming above her on the edge of the table.
“Profound Distress.” It spread its white feathery wings with a dry rustling sound, and stretched its legs until its bald head touched the ceiling. It tilted its head in a sudden birdlike motion, and blinked. Once. Twice. A third time. “You are here,” the Angel stated.
“I am,” she answered.
And thought ‘What was all that? She asked where I am, didn’t she? Why? It wasn’t even dark down there, and even if it had been, she’s an Angel! How can she not know where I am while I’m only a few steps away from her?’
“What is that thing down there?” she asked “What is that black stuff?”
“You have done well,” Lady Sorrow stated.
“Thank you. I’m certainly glad of that, but I don’t even know what I have done? Didn’t seem like I did anything.”
“You will visit House Teneract. And find the source of the disturbance there.”
“The source of the … the disturbance? You mean, there are more of those Engines? Under the House? And you want me to go there?”
“You will visit House Teneract,” the avatar repeated.
“This black stuff … or the machine … or both. They confuse your vision, or something, right?”
The Angel just looked at her, its head still tilted, its upper lip slightly raised, revealing a suggestion of very white, very pointy teeth.
“I’m not saying this to be irreverent,” Profound Distress hastened to say, unsure if she interpreted its facial expressions correctly, or if there even was anything to interpret, but unwilling to take risks, “I don’t mean to … You know, I just think it would help if I knew what this is about, so if you’d be willing to tell me something at least … Would you?”
“It is forbidden”, thae Avatar said. “It is Abomination. You will visit House Teneract. You will find the source of the disturbance there.”
“Of course. I will. I will obey, whatever you tell me to to, I’ll do it. So, what will I do then? Once I find it? I assume the ones in House Teneract will still be working? They have Engineers there. So what am I supposed to do? Do you want me to destroy the machines? But … How? Can you protect me if you can’t see me because of the machines? Will they listen to me when they know that you can’t? Do they know?”
There was such a lot to understand, and she was realizing the truth much faster than she was able to really understand all of its implications.
Profound Distress just stared at the avatar, slack-jawed.
Lady Sorrow might not be all-powerful. The Angels might have weaknesses. There were ways to hide from them. Places they could not reach. And she was supposed to go there for them, to do what they could not. It boggled the mind.
“I … I’m sorry, but … I really need some guidance now. Can’t you explain? A little, at least? Please. I need some …”
“You are safe, as long as I am with you”, Lady Sorrow said, and, of course, vanished.
Whoops, completely forgot the reading group questions. Funny thing. Well, here they are, better late than never, right?
- Did the steam wagon feel forced to you, because it was the first hint of such technology in this world?
- Damn, folks, I’m sorry, I only recently realised the uncomfortable similarity between Duncan Klaut and Duncan Mccleod. This is completely accidental and should in no way imply any similarities between the persons. I just liked the name. I don’t, anymore. Too late to change it, though.
- How did you like Profound Distress‘ reaction to the black goo?
- Do you think the Angel showed its teeth in anger?