I know, this story is not going as regularly as I hoped. I found some plot issues I had to work out, and also some very consequential decisions had to be made. I won’t promise to work quicker from this chapter on, because I fear there might be more challenges ahead. But we are the kind of people who thrive on challenges and live for overcoming obstacles, right? Right?
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 Glonn, 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.
In the sixth chapter, Glonn happens upon Kimbal while visiting his mother, and Cerya becomes friends with a puddle of black goo.
In the seventh chapter, we remember times of better relations between Cerya and Kimbal, while in the present, he meets a butcher and explains to his children that a very important old friend is coming to visit.
In the eighth chapter, Glonn meets the Nuntia, and Profound Distress is caught by Duncan.
In the ninth chapter, Duncan takes Profound Distress to her brother, who tricks her into taking some sort of drug, and Kimbal is visited by an Angel in his house, who tells him to admit Profound Distress.
In the tenth chapter, we remember Glonn helping his sister out in a time of need, and we see Jakta Teneract educating her son.
In the eleventh chapter, we see past Kimbal trying to save Cerya from her brother, while Profound Distress spends a surprisingly harmonious evening with present Kimbal and his family.
In the twelfth chapter, Duncan and Jakta reminisce by a pond, Kimbal learns from Jamo that Cya was taken, and Glonn decides to have him killed for asking the wrong questions.
Today on Angelic Duties:
When Profound Distress awoke, she didn’t understand. Something was wrong, but she couldn’t figure it out through the fog of her hangover.
Her head felt so wrapped in cotton that she, at first, failed to understand that it actually was.
Everything hurt, and she felt sick, so it took her a while to realize that she was gagged, and bound, and trapped in some kind of box.
Then, the panic started. She was trapped in a box, and bound and gagged, and she didn’t understand why, so she wriggled and kicked and twisted and squirmed and tried to scream, but of course, it was no use. It just made her breathe harder, and because the gag obstructed her mouth, she almost suffocated in that lightless enclosed space.
That was when she started to cry. Not just tears of frustration and fear, or anger and pain, it was a complete meltdown of sheer animal terror, which, again, brought her to the edge of actually choking to death.
She had no idea how long it took before she regained the ability to think more or less in a straight line, and she realized that the box was moving, and that she could hear the rattling cough of an Engine from outside.
Profound Distress lay there, as she had to, her face and neck and collar wet from her own tears, and her gag soaked through with spittle and more tears, concentrating on listening as she had never before, because now, her sense of hearing was the only one connecting her to the world, and she would never have guessed how dreadful it felt to have no way of knowing what was happening to her, no way of speaking, of seeing, of standing up or even shifting into a more comfortable position.
At least, when she learned where she was, or where they were going, or who had taken her, there would be something to hold on to, something to think about, some kind of explanation for this.
For the first time, she asked herself how this could even be happening. She was a Cleric. She was protected by Angelic power. How could anyone just grab her and gag her and stuff her into a box?
Where was Lady Sorrow? Anyone who even laid a hand on a Cleric against her will should be ground to dust under the Angel’s heel. Which led her to a moment of a new cold horrible unimaginable fear: What if that was precisely what had happened? What if her captor had indeed been crushed like a bug, and now there was no one left who knew where she was, no one who could free her, or at least no one who cared enough to do it?
But no, that idea was ridiculous. She felt her box moving, and she heard the Engine. Someone had to be operating the machine. A driverless steam wagon would not continue upon its course, or at least not for long. It would soon veer from the road and run into something, or maybe it would stop on its own as soon as there wasn’t anyone to tell it to go on. She did not know for sure, because she had never operated one herself, but now that she thought about it, she felt confident that there was a lever somewhere you had to pull or push or manoeuver in some way or other to keep it going.
Besides, while she certainly would not have put it past Lady Sorrow to let a human being die alone and afraid, locked in a box, she felt that the Angel had plans for her. She was Chosen, and while this did not bode well for her future in general, it should preclude a lonely meaningless death no one would even notice.
So … her captor must still be around. So he had some way to protect himself from Lady Sorrow.
So – now that her mind gradually cleared from the residue of last night’s catastrophic relapse and her panic at being locked in here, it seemed obvious – he must have one of those Engines with the black goo with him, or maybe it was even powering the wagon. She had no idea if those were good for anything else besides hiding from Angelic eyes.
She vaguely remembered having been at Kimbal’s house last night, and making a mess of things, but not much after that. She had no idea how this could have happened. But she had plenty of time to think about her questions before the movement finally ceased with a jolt, the Engine fell silent, and – her box was opened.
Profound Distress was, strangely, not surprised, yet at the same time outraged when she recognized her captor.
“Duncan!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing?”
“In general, taking you to the Custodian. Right now, I will feed you and allow you some time to stretch your muscles and relieve yourself.”
“You … the Custodian? Feed me? Allow me time? Duncan, have you gone insane? Do you realize to whom you are –“
“We are Outside, Cerya”, he interrupted her matter-of-factly. “The Angels have no power here, and neither do Clerics or Houses, and while the Custodian rules this land at least in name, right here and now power is in a sword and a strong arm, and you’d do well to remember this.”
She looked at him for a long time, trying to reconcile the obedient dutiful Duncan she knew with this … other person. Trying to come to terms with the idea that she was now in his hands, utterly and without anything to stop him from doing whatever he might fancy.
They were standing on some kind of dusty plane, a horribly desolate place of red rocks and brown sand seeming to stretch out to the horizon in every direction, so it did not seem reasonable to doubt his claim that they were Outside the Concord right now. She could not even see a road anywhere, but then, the ground was even enough for the wagon to drive on anyway.
She noticed that the sun was strange, as was the sky. Within the Concord, the sky was either blue or grey with clouds, but here it was a washed-out red, like rusty water, and the sun was a seemingly huge orange ball shedding much more sweltering heat than light.
“Please don’t put me in that box again,” she finally said, meekly. “Please. I swear I won’t try anything. I won’t run, and I won’t fight, but please don’t lock me in there again.”
He nodded, and she wondered if she actually read some pity or maybe even sympathy in his bristly wrinkled face.
“I won’t need to,” he replied. “The charade was only for the Concord. Here, you can do nothing. You will try, though, and all I’d ask of you is not to make me hurt you in the process. I would not like that, but you know I’d do it.”
“I need a coach, Katra.”
“You do? That’s a nice coincidence, because I happen to be a coach driver. Still, I wonder what you might plan to do with it.”
He took a deep breath, cursed himself for being unable to lie to her, and answered: “I need to go to the Hermitage to tell them about Cerya.”
Katra put an index finger against her chin, tapped a few times, and nodded.
“Makes sense. They’ll be grateful, and if we save her, so will she. Besides, I somehow liked her. She was nice to the kids, and they’re still enchanted by that toy she brought. Let’s go, and we’ll be back before sundown.”
“Well…” On the one hand, he was pleasantly surprised that she agreed. On the other: “I don’t think you should come with me.”
“But you don’t even know how to drive a coach.”
“You could show me. Or I could hire one.”
“And spend all that money when we have our own? What’s the matter?”
“It might me dangerous, Katra, and I don’t want to –“
“Well thank you very much, but if you’re fine putting yourself in danger, you should be fine taking me, and I will not simply leave you to your own naiveté and high-mindedness, especially if it’s dangerous.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I was at House Teneract.”
“And they know. If they’re really behind all this, they’ll know what my next step will be, and they might send someone to stop me.”
“Which is why you need to go alone, without anyone to help you, should you be attacked?”
“Katra, we have children. Do you want to orphan them in one sweep?”
She stared at him with wide eyes.
“Kimbal, I do hope you’re not seriously expecting this to be a suicide mission because if it is, if you’re leaving knowing you’re throwing away your life for nothing and leaving us to cope without you, then … I just don’t hink you’re that kind of irresponsible jackass.”
She said it with such sincerity that he didn’t know whether to smile or cry.
“Couldn’t you ask som of your Gendarm comrades to accompany you?”
He considered it for a few seconds.
“They couldn’t just suddenly take a day off and leave their own families for a person they don’t even know. I couldn’t ask it of them. Besides, I don’t really expect to run into any trouble. I simply asked a few questions. There is a certain risk, but it’s not like – I just don’t want you to get hurt.“
“No, Kimbal. This is not how this works. I see what you’re doing, and why you need to do it, and I even think it might turn out for the best, but I won’t let you go alone. If it’s dangerous, I want to be with you, and if it’s not, what’s the harm?”
He looked around as if for help, and sighed.
“Who will look after the children once they come back from school?”
She smiled sourly. “I’m sure Jamo will be happy to have them over.”
“I’m not. He would certainly not want me to let you come.”
Katra nodded and crossed her arms before herself. “So, that’s settled, then.”
Profound Distress ran as fast as she could, although her legs already felt as if they were on fire, and her lungs just couldn’t take in enough air, and still Duncan did not even sound winded.
“Stop, Cerya. You know there is no escape. Just stop, and we can pretend this never happened.”
The very calm in his voice somehow heightened her fear, and she drew on her last reserves to eke out a little more speed from her aching legs. She had never run so fast in her life and-
Suddenly, she found herself rolling over the stony ground, partially protected from the pebbles and rocks by Duncan’s body and his arms wrapped around her, but it still hurt plenty, and she even heard him grunt in displeasure a few times. When they came to a stop, he was lying on top of her.
He was breathing a little harder than usual, which gave her a strange sort of satisfaction.
“I told you not to make me hurt you,” he said, “But I also told you I would, if necessary.”
His fist seemed surprisingly large as he lifted it and drove it against her head.
When Profound Distress awoke, she found herself lying in comfortable pillows in a magnificent domed hall with … broken painted-glass windows … and vines growing on its pillars … and chipped tiles, and birds nesting in the hole-riddled ceiling.
Where was she?
She was hearing voices. One of them was Duncan’s low rasp, the other a girl’s. She couldn’t be older than 14, probably around twelve.
Where was she?
Profound Distress tried to sit up. Aside from the pain in her head and a slight nausea, it worked.
Duncan was indeed talking to a young girl, but she almost did not notice that, because there was an object in this crumbly room which immediately compelled her attention:
In the center of the circular room stood a pillar of glass, glowing from within, encased in fittings of gleaming brass, and within that pillar, the nude figure of a man, flowing in some transparent liquid, his eyes and nose and mouth and ears covered by brass suction cups leading into hoses which combined into a thicker one which in turn vanished behind the brass fittings at the pillar’s top. From that, a large cable sprang and fed whatever was coming out of the man’s head into a point in the middle of the ceiling.
The girl standing opposite to Duncan was clothed in flowing white silk pooling around her feet almost as if she was standing in a puddle of whipped cream. With her arms hanging casually down beside her, she looked down upon him with amused interest in her flawless face framed by glossy black curls.
Belatedly, Profound Distress noticed the delicate gold chain strung around the girl’s neck, running down her back and across the chipped tiles on the ground to another loop around the glowing pillar’s foot. Embedded in the tiles was a metal circle around the pillar emitting a dull silver glow. The girl was standing within that circle, while Duncan knelt before her just outside it.
Despite his posture, he did not seem cowed by her. His face was turned up and he openly returned her inspection.
“You will find”, he said, “that we have …”
He fell silent when she lifted her right index finger to her lips.
“Your present is awake”, the girl stage-whispered.
She turned around toward Profound Distress, but then held her movement and turned back towards Duncan.
“Where’s my First Sword, by the way?”
“I killed her,” Duncan replied.
“Not at all. It was an act of cowardly murder.”
“Which is exactly what we plan to do to your Angels, so why shouldn’t I be impressed?”
“There was no danger involved, and no skill.”
“All the more laudable. I’ll miss her, but I’m in a good mood, so all shall be forgiven.”
She spread her arms towards him as if inviting a conciliatory embrace. Duncan did not move from his spot.
“Worth a try”, she murmured while again turning towards Profound Distress.
The slight chain slithered over the tiles with high-pitched tingling as if from many little bells as she moved up to Profound Distress’ lounger.
She must be the Custodian, she thought, and this body in the pillar of glass would be … the Empty King.
If this is how they treat their kings, she thought, I’d hate to see their disenfranchised commoners.
The girl considered Profound Distress with the same sort of curious smile she had shown Duncan, and finally nodded.
“I think you will do,” she said. “We shall be great friends, you and I. Will you take my hand?”
She reached out towards Profound Distress, who tried to rise and stretched out her arm almost on reflex.
“Don’t,” Duncan said.
As Profound Distress stopped, the girl lunged towards her, trying to reach her fingers, but the chain drew taut with a jingling sound and held her within the silvery circle.
It should have been very painful to lean into that chain holding her by the neck, but the girl’s face did not show any sign of discomfort, only joyful anticipation and hope. Those faded quickly, of course, and were replaced by the intrigued look from before.
“What’s wrong with her?” Profound Distess asked.
“Nothing”, the girl answered with an open, bright smile, as friendly as if nothing had happened. “I’m fine the way I am, just different from you.”
She turned to look at the Empty King in his glass pillar.
“I am the way He made me.”
The coach wound through the streets of Iustok and accelerated after having left the city. Kimbal had been in the country before, but it was still an exceptional experience, so he was quite absorbed in his own thoughts and in watching the forests and fields whisk by, only occasionally exchanging a few words with his wife, until suddenly, from the corner of his eyes, noticed her jerk, topple from her seat and dropping to the cobbled street in a clumsy heap of arms and legs, a red stain spreading from under her. The confused horses slowed down but did not stop outright.
Kimbal jumped to the ground while the coach was still moving, so he fell and hurt himself, but he did not feel it. He immediately got up again to kneel beside her and took her into her arms. She moved like a rag doll in his grip, completely limp and liveless.
His eyes filled with tears as he stared into her slack face, for a few heartbeats utterly unable to comprehend, unable to think about what was happening around him, unable to do anything but look at his wife, at the mother of his children, while it slowly and painfully dawned on him that she was gone, had vanished from his life in that one short moment, with the one small bolt he saw sticking from her chest.
“Katra…” he whispered, his voice shaking, his breath ragged.
He saw movement and looked up to see a masked man with a loaded crossbow in his arms step out of a bush.
“You…” he said, and could not even find anger in his heart as the man raised his weapon and aimed it at him. He would not even try to get up.
The crossbow twanged, Kimbal closed his eyes – and opened them again. He felt no pain. In fact, he did not feel anything of the projectile he had just heard and seen shot at him.
But he saw, a short distance before his face, a pale fist whose long talon-like fingers had closed around it before it could reach its aim.
Kimbal gasped and involuntary leaned back, looking into that terrible cold face with the eyes that were no eyes, while Lady Sorrow flexed her fingers, and the quarrel drizzled to ground, crushed to chips and splinters.
Distantly, he heard the horses neigh in fear and flee.
The man who had held the crossbow dropped it, fell onto his knees, then his elbows, and clasped his hands in desperate supplication.
“I’m sorry!” he wailed, “I did not know! Please forgive me, please spare me, I did not know, I did not want, I was I had I did -”
The Angel strode towards him, her movements jittery and uneven, reminding him of an insect, or a spider. When She was close enough, one of Her claws reached out and plucked the man’s head as one might pick a berry from a bush.
Incredulous, Kimbal looked at the headless torso, at the place where a wound should be. But there was no blood. There was no wound. The end of the murderers’ neck was smooth with healthy pink skin, as if he had been born thus. While the body slowly toppled, Lady Sorrow held up its head for Kimbal’s inspection.
“Is this man known to you?” the passionless drone of Her voice asked.
“N-no”, Kimbal replied.
He found himself sitting on the street now, not even remembering when he had lost his balance and sat down. He felt dizzy and sick and could not bring himself to turn his gaze back to the body lying in the dust before his feet, so his eyes remained locked on the inhuman stare of the Angel’s metal orbs.
Lady Sorrow held the head up to her own face and considered it for a while before dropping it and saying:
“We will follow Profound Distress to the Empty King’s palace.”
“Wh-what?” Kimbal stammered in between convulsive sobs.
“We will follow Profound Distress to the Empty King’s palace.”
He had heard now, and more or less understood, but still he could not think clearly enough to follow.
“But … You can’t leave the Concord, can you?” he finally asked.
“I cannot, as I am. But a Paladin can.”
Kimbal stared at the Angel. He had heard the word Paladin somewhere, but he did not remember where, or what it meant.
Lady Sorrow crouched down opposite him and touched his dead wife’s forehead with one of its claws. It whispered something impossible, and a whisp of light shone from Its eyes and mouth and even Its nose, and with a loud breath, Katra’s body jerked back to life.
“Katra!” Kimbal shouted, his eyes wide and unbelieving.
He threw himself at her, gathered her up in his arms and pressed her against him. He was still crying, but his tears were now tears of bliss relief, and his sobs were mixed with laughter.
For a few heartbeats, he actually felt grateful to the Angel, and forgot that he hated It, until he noticed how stiff Katra lay in his arms, and that she did not respond to his hug and his words at all.
Carefully, he put her down, looked into her eyes – and felt his heart sink.
Katra’s eyes were still the same blue as before, and her face was still the same, as was everything else, but there was none of her spirit left. There was no expression in her eyes and around her mouth, and she did not even seem to properly look at him.
“Rise, Kimbal Coment”, she said in an empty drone that made him slap a hand before his mouth to muffle a desperate scream.
Book group questions
- I personally like the first scene, Profound Distress in the box, but I think it might be a tad uninteresting to just watch her think through what the reader already knows. How about you?
- I’m not quite satisfied with the dialogue between Kimbal and Katra in the second scene, but I’m not sure how to improve it. Ideas?
- Overall: This was a lot of change and a lot of new stuff. How did you feel about that?
- What do you think about my design for the Empty King and the Custodian? And don’t even try those cowardly „Oh, but I don’t know what you’re planning to do with them so I have no opinion“ excuses. Of course you do!